Without God

By Steven Weinberg

In his celebrated 1837 Phi Beta Kappa Oration at Harvard, titled “The American Scholar,” Ralph Waldo Emerson predicted that a day would come when America would end what he called “our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands.” His prediction came true in the twentieth century, and in no area of learning more so than in science. This surely would have pleased Emerson. When he listed his heroes he would generally include Copernicus and Galileo and Newton along with Socrates and Jesus and Swedenborg. But I think that Emerson would have had mixed feelings about one consequence of the advance of science here and abroad—that it has led to a widespread weakening of religious belief.

Emerson was hardly orthodox—according to Herman Melville, he felt “that had he lived in those days when the world was made, he might have offered some valuable suggestions”—but he was for a while a Unitarian minister, and he usually found it possible to speak favorably of the Almighty. Emerson grieved over what he saw in his own time as a weakening of belief, as opposed to mere piety and churchgoing, in America and even more so in England, though I can’t say that he attributed it to the advance of science.

The idea of a conflict between science and religion has a long pedigree. According to Edward Gibbon, it was the view of the Byzantine church that “the study of nature was the surest symptom of an unbelieving mind.” Perhaps the best-known portrayal of this conflict is a book published in 1896 by Cornell’s first president, Andrew Dickson White, with the titleA History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom.

Read the rest here.

Right Again: The passions of John Stuart Mill

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It is a hard thing, being right about everything all the time. Nobody likes a know-it-all, and we wait for the moment when the know-it-all is wrong to insist that he never really knew anything in the first place. The know-it-all, far from living in smug superiority, has the burden of being right the next time, too. Certainly no one has ever been so right about so many things so much of the time as John Stuart Mill, the nineteenth-century English philosopher, politician, and know-it-all nonpareil who is the subject of a fine new biography by the British journalist Richard Reeves, “John Stuart Mill: Victorian Firebrand” . The book’s subtitle, meant to be excitingly commercial, is ill chosen; a firebrand should flame and then die out, while Mill burned for half a century with a steady heat so well regulated that it continues to warm his causes today—“Victorian Low-Simmering Hot Plate” might be closer to it.

Read the rest here.

The Forbidden World

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In 1600, Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori, now a nice plaza lined with cafés, was one of the city’s execution grounds, and on Ash Wednesday of that year Giordano Bruno, a philosopher and former priest accused of heresy by the Inquisition, was taken there and burned. The event was carefully timed. Ash Wednesday is the primary day of Christian penance. As for the year, Pope Clement VIII chose it because 1600 was a jubilee for the Church—a festivity that would be enhanced by the execution of an important heretic. Bruno rode to the Campo on a mule, the traditional means of transport for people going to their death. (It was also a practical means. After years in the Inquisition’s prisons, many of the condemned could not walk.) Once he arrived and mounted the pyre, a crucifix was held up to his face. According to a witness, he turned away angrily. He could not speak; he had been gagged with a leather bridle. (Or, some say, an iron spike had been driven through his tongue.) He was tied to the stake, and the pyre was lit. When it had burned out, his remains were dumped into the Tiber. As Ingrid Rowland writes in “Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic”, the Church thereby made Bruno a martyr. But “a martyr to what?” she asks. That is the question that her book, the first full-scale biography of Bruno in English, tries, with difficulty, to answer. […]

[Bruno’s] vision of an infinite cosmos … was heresy from end to end. If there were countless worlds besides ours, this sidelined the Christian story. Creation, expulsion, salvation: such things might have happened, but somewhere off in a corner, while other things were happening on other planets. Also eliminated was God’s difference from humanity. If, as Bruno saw it, God was present in every atom of the universe, then transubstantiation became a silly idea. (God was already in the wine.) Ditto incarnation. Bruno later said that he started having doubts about Jesus at the age of eighteen; in his mature philosophy, the Messiah has no place. Nor does original sin, or pretty much any sin. God “makes his sun rise over good and bad,” Bruno wrote. Even devils were going to be pardoned. To lead a virtuous life, you had only to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. As the reader may have noticed by now, much of this constitutes liberal Christian thought in our time. (What Bruno discarded was the Church’s literalism—exactly what many of today’s believers have done.) Likewise, Bruno’s cosmology anticipated modern physics and astronomy. But it did not accord with the views of the sixteenth-century Church.

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Daydream achiever

A wandering mind can do important work, scientists are learning – and may even be essential

[…]

Although there are many anecdotal stories of breakthroughs resulting from daydreams – Einstein, for instance, was notorious for his wandering mind – daydreaming itself is usually cast in a negative light. Children in school are encouraged to stop daydreaming and “focus,” and wandering minds are often cited as a leading cause of traffic accidents. In a culture obsessed with efficiency, daydreaming is derided as a lazy habit or a lack of discipline, the kind of thinking we rely on when we don’t really want to think. It’s a sign of procrastination, not productivity, something to be put away with your flip-flops and hammock as summer draws to a close.

In recent years, however, scientists have begun to see the act of daydreaming very differently. They’ve demonstrated that daydreaming is a fundamental feature of the human mind – so fundamental, in fact, that it’s often referred to as our “default” mode of thought. Many scientists argue that daydreaming is a crucial tool for creativity, a thought process that allows the brain to make new associations and connections. Instead of focusing on our immediate surroundings – such as the message of a church sermon – the daydreaming mind is free to engage in abstract thought and imaginative ramblings. As a result, we’re able to imagine things that don’t actually exist, like sticky yellow bookmarks.

Read the article here.

Scientists prove it really is a thin line between love and hate

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The same brain circuitry is involved in both extreme emotions – but hate retains a semblance of rationality

By Steve Connor, Science Editor

Scientists studying the physical nature of hate have found that some of the nervous circuits in the brain responsible for it are the same as those that are used during the feeling of romantic love – although love and hate appear to be polar opposites.

Read the rest here.

Grand Theft Auto, Twitter and Beowulf all demonstrate that stories will never die

Storytelling is under assault in schools, universities and from the internet, but the power of narrative shows no sign of waning, says Sam Leith

“Tell me a story.” It’s a plea that echoes through the ages: not only the ages of human civilisation, but the ages of man. As a child, tucked up and ready for bed.

As an adult, settling deep into a popcorn-scented cinema seat as the house lights go down. In old age, becalmed, combing your memories. Telling stories is as old a game as language itself.

Read the rest here.

The Secrets of Storytelling.

Chinese ‘classical poem’ was brothel ad

Science journal mistakenly uses flyer for Macau brothel to illustrate report on China

By Clifford Coonan in Beijing

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A respected research institute wanted Chinese classical texts to adorn its journal, something beautiful and elegant, to illustrate a special report on China. Instead, it got a racy flyer extolling the lusty details of stripping housewives in a brothel.

Read the rest here.

Evil paradises: Neoliberalism’s degenerate utopias around the world

By Reed Eurchuk

From time immemorial, the “city as utopia” has been a recurring theme in religion, politics, and literature. From the “city on the hill” of classical Christian belief, to Balzac’s Paris, to the socialist city of the Paris Commune, there have been many versions of the utopian city.

Given this long history, how does the city as utopia manifest itself today? According to co-editors Mike Davis and Daniel Bertrand Monk, in their new book Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism: Evil Paradises, today’s “new luxury cities” are nothing less than a utopian frenzy that “enflame desires” for infinite consumption, total social exclusion, and physical security, and architectural monumentality. The book provides a guided tour of the globe’s urban luxury palaces: the gated communities where elite groups live in a privatized heaven amid the public squalor that lies just beyond their gates.

Read Mike Davis’ Fear and Money in Dubai here.