About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Monday, December 31, 2012

My top 10 posts of 2012 from Talking Philosophy - a personal selection

This list is not based on number of views or on feedback, but simply on my own personal likings and current whim. So there is no confusion, this is merely my top 10 of my own posts. It would be interesting to prepare a personal top 10 of all posts at Talking Philosophy in 2012.

Furthermore, I'm going to go light on posts about free will and determinism. I wrote a lot of them, and I (can't help but) think that the quality was quite high. However, I'll err on the side of variety and include (at number 1.) only my opening remarks in that particular lengthy debate.

My personal top 10 are, in order of appearance:

1. Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris on free will

2. Modern art and its alleged evils

3. What is a sexual image?

4. Is nice nihilism enough?

5. The Selfish Gene in The Guardian

6. Sam Harris on the Innocence of Muslims affair

7. Why can’t men shut up about abortion?

8. Freedom of religion and the contraceptive mandate (Missouri court case)

9. How can you say that if you’re an error theorist?!

10. Gaukroger, religion, and the rise of science

My ten most popular posts of all time

These are not necessarily my favourites - some are, but some rather cursory posts also make the list. Still, it's interesting to see what posts have struck a chord or incited a reaction over the years, and they do tend to have good threads attached.

Here we go, without further ado, as a New Year special, my ten most popular posts of all time:

1. Shallow, smug, arrogant; pot, kettle, black

2. Avengers movie

3. What you can't say about Islam - the backlash against Elizabeth Moon

4. More rubbish about "shrill" atheists - this time in The Daily Mail

5. Why this was never an atheist blog

6. Interpreting Deuteronomy - with sophisticated theology

7. Some Saturday supervillainy: Zeus vs the Hulk

8. Sunday superstuff - Marvel's first gay wedding: Northstar and Kyle

9. Islam and "Islamophobia" - a little manifesto

10. "The next step is to prohibit religious expression" - really?

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Sunday supervillainy - Amazing Spider-Man #700

I don't get creeped out easily, but even I am creeped out by this. Amazing Spider-Man #700 ends with a scene where Dr. Octopus is apparently about to rape Mary Jane Watson. Dr. Octopus has taken possession of Spider-Man's/Peter Parker's body and has access to all his memories. As readers, we know that Peter and Mary Jane still love each other, despite having broken up some time back (there was that whole "deal with the devil Mephisto" story, etc., etc.), and despite all the bad shit they've been through together.

Now, despite (on top of those other "despites") how oddly "Peter" has been acting, Mary Jane seems to be up for getting back to together with him. And Dr. Octopus seems like he wants to take advantage of the situation.

Ugh! Just no. I really hope that this is a fake-out and that Mary Jane is going to be revealed as too smart for what has been set up here and/or that Doc Ock, usually a relatively sympathetic villain, is going to be revealed as not that evil. Even if it does prove to be a fake-out, I'm going to be shaking my head at this development.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Some scattered highlights of 2012

As the year comes to an end, what were some highlights? Well, they would include my trip to the US early in the year, mainly to speak at a CFI convention in Orlando, Florida (but the trip also involved meeting some wonderful people, and visiting some great places for the first time, not least Yale University, The Kennedy Space Centre, and the superb CFI headquarters in Amherst, NY).

I'll also give shout-outs to the Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne, the national science fiction convention (also in Melbourne), and the splendid evening put on by the Hunter Writers' Centre for the annual Newcastle Poetry Prize.

As to the latter, I've been appointed at least until the HWC's next AGM in May 2013 as chair of its board of directors - a role that I'll perform to the best of my ability, seeing if I can do something positive for a small but effective community organisation. Please check out the HWC's website, and if you are in (or have connections with) the Hunter region maybe think about how you can be supportive in 2013.

Online highlights included a couple of interviews: this science-fiction-oriented one with journalist and horror writer Jason Nahrung; and this much more philosophical one for RationalHub. I was involved in some interesting online debates: the biggest one, over the issue of free will, ranged across this blog, Talking Philosophy, and other forums, including the ABC Religion and Ethics Portal, where I ended up writing this long piece. It's almost a manifesto.

It's been a delight to be involved heavily with Talking Philosophy - I'm sure the place will go from strength to strength next year (there's at least one pleasing announcement to emanate from there fairly soon). I also commenced in 2012 as a regular writer for Free Inquiry, which is another partnership that I'm very happy about.

I'm still editor-in-chief of The Journal of Evolution and Technology - most of JET's activity over the past two years has been devoted to the online publication of a bumper issue on the subject of minds and machines. I'm pleased to say that this is now almost complete. It's been the equivalent of co-editing (with Linda Glenn) a large book. Meanwhile, the fifth anniversary of my tenure in that position at JET is about to come around. Time really does seem to fly!

Dominating my own publications for the year was my latest book, Freedom of Religion and the Secular State (released in January from Wiley-Blackwell), though I also had a long peer-reviewed article published by Ethics and Information Technology, and there were numerous other publications, some of which I've mentioned in earlier paras.

And so we move into 2013. I've been working hard through recent months, and I've been professionally involved with other people who've been working hard. You'll gradually see announcements rolling out, starting soon. Very soon.

George Dvorsky on gene patents

George Dvorksy has an interesting article at io9 on the subject of gene patents, discussing the current litigation over the issue. This includes a quote that he got from me on the subject of contrived patents in general and on the so-called tragedy of the anti-commons (though I don't use that expression - the point is that, theoretically, intellectual property rights can be become too fragmented among different right-holders to operate in the public interest).

The article is worth reading, not only because it discusses my (rather wishy-washy) views sympathetically but also because it gives an up-to-date and accurate account of a tricky, often misunderstood, subject. Dvorsky has his own bias, but he's fair in presenting arguments from both sides of the debate without simply dismissing any of them or demonising people with whom he has disagreements.

There's also a vigorous discussion thread there, which looks like it may contain some worthwhile nuggets.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Kuhn and his controversies

Over at The New Atlantis - a journal whose overall values often run in a direction opposite to mine - you can find an article on Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in honour of that much-cited book's 50th anniversary of publication.

This piece, "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions at Fifty", by Matthew C. Rees, appears, to me at least, to be an accurate account of Kuhn's views, including of the areas where they were vague. The points of vagueness and incompleteness led to much debate: at one point, Kuhn famously denied being a Kuhnian, with the epistemic relativism that that was thought to involve.

Rees also appears, to me at least, to be careful and fair in his assessment of the book's merit and importance, including its relationship to the respective ideas of Michael Polanyi and Karl Popper.

I'm sure there are contentious points of interpretation and judgment, but this piece is much better than most of what I read about Kuhn and the associated controversies. You could do a lot worse than giving it a read if you've wanted something that lays out the nature of these controversies clearly and fairly compendiously.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Book of the year - Eric Anderson, The Monogamy Gap

My book of the year is Eric Anderson’s The Monogamy Gap: Men, Love, and the Reality of Cheating (OUP, 2012). According to Anderson, moral and cultural expectations of strict monogamy are psychologically unrealistic, pervasively and deeply harmful, and (ironically enough) destructive of good relationships. He argues that the phenomenon of widespread “cheating” is the corollary of a system that is incompatible with human psychology and appears ridiculous when viewed from outside its assumptions. Far more research is needed, as the author acknowledges, but meanwhile he presents a lucid and persuasive, if incomplete, case against the ideology of strict monogamy.
Speaking of strict, my strictly philosophy book of the year will be announced in a forthcoming issue of The Philosophers' Magazine. If you don't subscribe, you should do so.
As for fiction, I read some great material by Alison Goodman, Margo Lanagan, and many others. I'm one of the judges of the Norma K. Hemming Award, so I'm expecting to read a lot of high quality fantasy, science fiction, and horror over the next few months. Doubtless I'll be blogging about some of it.

My most popular posts of the year

My most popular post of 2012 by a long way was this rather brief review of The Avengers - written before the movie had been released in the US, at a time of great excitement about the movie (which went on to make over $1.5 billion dollars worldwide on its first release).

Second most popular was my post on why this has never been "an atheist blog" - it is a blog by a person who happens to be an atheist, and it is even a blog that defends and advocates atheism. However, there have always been other dimensions to our discussions. I'm quite proud of this post, if only because it acts as something of a portal to other posts that I've written over the years that I'm quite proud of.

Even though my next book (co-authored with Udo Schuklenk) is 50 GREAT MYTHS ABOUT ATHEISM, this blog will always have those other dimensions for as long as it survives. Furthermore, the following extract from the post remains true:
I am happy to rally under the banner of atheism for the purposes of networking and organisation. However, I am most strongly a secularist and a liberal - a liberal in the sense in which John Stuart Mill was a liberal, the classic sense that is primarily about individual liberty, freedom of speech, and diversity of ideas. My outspoken public advocacy of atheism should really be seen as outspoken advocacy of the idea that the claims of religion ought to be subjected to sceptical scrutiny, and that religion should not be accorded any kind of authority. And that advocacy is, as it were, in addition to what I was doing anyway - such as advocating what I see as a Millian liberal approach to issues in bioethics.
I should say that none of this would necessarily change even if I decided tomorrow that the balance of philosophical arguments favours the existence of God. Actual religions would still be fair game for sceptical scrutiny, especially insofar as they claim the authority to tell us how to live our lives, and what we should and should not be permitted to do by the authority of the state.

A close third was this post about the "shrill atheist" meme - it seems that this just won't go away. Quote: "Meanwhile, forthright Christians who want to argue publicly for the truth of their views manage to be at least as 'shrill' as Dawkins. For example, I'm currently reading Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, which I don't think I've previously read in its entirety and have not opened for decades. As usual with Lewis, his style varies between blunt, emotive, self-righteous, and downright snide (I'll bracket off how naive the actual arguments are). His approach gets a free pass in our culture, but if an atheist wrote in exactly the same way he or she would be roundly condemned."

Nussbaum's excessive tolerance

I reviewed Martha Nussbaum's new book on religious intolerance (in fact, she's mainly talking about intolerance of Islam) in the latest issue of The Philosophers' Magazine. Well, they've also published it online, so you can check it out over here.

Extract: "The state is not well placed to make judgements about otherworldly matters, such as the truth or falsity of any particular religion. That also limits its ability to discover the 'right' canons of conduct for us all to follow – perhaps in the interest of our spiritual salvation – and gives it a good reason to permit much diversity in our behaviour. Thus, the state ought to adopt a degree of epistemic modesty about religious issues, and many moral ones. However, there is no reason for individual citizens to do likewise. We are well within our rights to conclude, from within our respective understandings of the world and conceptions of the good, that a particular religion has its dark side, or that a moral norm favoured by some religion is preposterous and harmful."

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

More love and cholera

I hadn't caught up with this yesterday, but the government review I mentioned has led to Love in the Time of Cholera staying on the VCE English Literature reading list - so at least good sense prevailed, even if this review was totally unnecessary.

Oh, and over here you'll find a pretty good point-by-point response to the original article crudely attacking the book (and mindlessly infantilising young readers).

H/T Margo Lanagan.

That "pornographic" novel, Love in the Time of Cholera

In other annoying news, a senior teacher in Victoria manages to get a government review of the decision to list Love in the Time of Cholera as a text for study in an English Literature course at VCE level. For people outside Australia, the VCE is awarded at the end of the final year of high school, immediately before university or college, so we are basically talking about 16 to 18 year olds. English Literature is not a compulsory subject of study, but is regarded as a somewhat specialist (and advanced, or difficult) subject. Most students choose the rather different subject simply called "English".

I would have thought that this is exactly the age when we want to give young adults a mediated experience of formally difficult, and perhaps emotionally or thematically challenging, novels. Indeed, I don't see why bright teenagers could not come to grips with such a text at an even earlier age - thinking back to myself and my friends when we were in our teens, we might have found Gabriel Garcia Marquez heavy going, but we were at an age where we were quite ready for the thematic concepts (and to learn about complex literary narratives and some of the ways they can work).

I am constantly surprised by attempts to infantilise bright young people. Yes, they are relatively inexperienced with both the world and the ocean of world literature. Their judgments may sometimes appear a bit simplistic and naive to older people, mainly as a result of that relative inexperience. But how on earth are they supposed to gain experience and develop more sophistication if they are constantly treated like infants?

This is apart from the extreme crudeness with which this "senior teacher" evidently approaches the task of literary interpretation. It does sound as if this guy might not be well equipped, intellectually and emotionally, for the task. His own critical statements sound simplistic and naive, so, yes, I'm not sure how he is well placed to help teenagers develop literary sophistication as they read and ponder, analyse and debate a book like Love in the Time of Cholera. But people teaching literature at VCE level damn well ought to be capable of teaching challenging texts; mine (in the equivalent system in NSW) did a pretty good job, back in the day; and I'm sure most literature teachers have what it takes.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Why is this even news?

An American Olympic athlete has been outed for having a job on the side as an escort, and suddenly the mainstream media are all over it with what can only be described as a mix of smug moralism and hand-rubbing prurience. It escapes me why prying into someone's private life in this way is considered to be in the public interest, or "newsworthy", why it is thought that the person concerned necessarily has anything to be ashamed of, or why she is now supposed to go through a period of publicly acting contrite and humbled. Perhaps she really does feel that way, but we see this happen so often in such cases that it looks awfully like a constructed PR narrative... at best. And at worst something like the outcome of a high-tech Stalinist show trial.

If she were a politician trying to make people's lives miserable by imposing an oppressive morality on them by an exercise of state power, perhaps it would be worthwhile exposing her hypocrisy. Likewise, perhaps, if she were a crusading moralist with no formal political power but with political influence. But nothing like that is involved.

I hesitate even to comment on this sort of thing, but I doubt that I'm adding to her woes by carping about it on a low-traffic site such as this. I won't mention her name and add yet another hit to the huge number that could be obtained from a Google search. But this kind of public shaming ritual leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Sunday supervillainy - Gail Simone to be "new" writer of Batgirl!

I can't make head or tail of this. Gail Simone was apparently sacked as the writer for DC's New 52 book, Batgirl. But now the announcement is that the next writer for Batgirl will be ... Gail Simone.

It seems from here as if the uproar among angry fans caused DC to change its collective, corporate mind, but for all I know the whole damn thing was just a horrible mistake. One way or another, it's weird. At any rate, apparently all is well for the moment with the career of one of the few high-profile female writers in the comics industry. I hope it stays like that.

Gaukroger's The Collapse of Mechanism and the Rise of Sensibility

I've been reading Stephen Gaukroger, The Collapse of Mechanism and the Rise of Sensibility: Science and the Shaping of Modernity, 1680-1760 (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). This is the second volume of a series by Gaukroger in which he examines the origins and history of modern science from a philosophical perspective. So far we have only the two volumes, but I'd guess that there will be at least another two. This volume follows on from the first, The Emergence of a Scientific Culture, which I was discussing the other day.

I'm glad to be reading these books. I started them to see what they have to say about the interaction between early science and Christian theology. That is a recurring theme, but it does not dominate the discussion by any means, and much of the fascination is simply in getting a consolidated and detailed account of how science developed, hypothesis by hypothesis, contributor by contributor, step by step, in the early centuries, and how it interacted with much else, such as the broader literary and intellectual culture of Europe.

I still don't see any real evidence that science was somehow nurtured by Christian theology. About the most that could be said is that, back in, say, 1600, orthodox theology might have looked like a very formidable barrier for science to overcome. After all, there had been considerable resistance to natural philosophy within Christian thought, and, as Gaukroger says, "Christianity ... had traditionally laid claim to universal competence in all matters of understanding the world and our place in it, most notably in its Augustinean version" (p. 54), but as he immediately adds (same page) this claim was decisively weakened during the seventeenth century. Despite the terrible execution of Giordano Bruno in 1600, for a mix of sins in the eyes of the Church, and the persecution of Galileo not long after, Christianity did not do that much to block the rise of science in the second half of the century.

Given Christianity's longstanding claims to universal epistemic competence, it is no wonder that it came into conflict with Aristotelian natural philosophy and later with early modern science, personified by Galileo. These stood to draw their own conclusions and to challenge theology's authority.

Thus, Gaukroger is doubtless correct when he makes much of the issue of the relationship between the epistemic authority of Christianity and that of natural philosophy (or science). He says, I think justly, that the issue of the relationship between "the kind of understanding of the world that natural philosophy provides, and that provided by Christian revelation and natural theology" was a pressing one in Christian Europe from the beginning of the thirteenth century, when Aristotelian texts and doctrines were introduced into the intellectual culture (p. 11).

Given the intellectual hegemony of Christianity, it can be argued that the ability of science to consolidate itself depended on its relationship with Christian thought. On this hinged the ability of science to establish itself in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries "as a permanent and integral feature of Western intellectual life" (p. 11).

During this period, as Gaukroger tells us (pp. 12-13), it was widely understood as a requirement for natural philosophy that its theories be compatible with shared assumptions in Europe about morality, our place in the world, and religious thinking in general. Or, in other words, science might have been greeted with a destructive hostility if it had rocked the boat too much. In the upshot it did not do so - to some extent, it avoided heresy by carefully defining its field of inquiry as the natural world (while drawing a sharp boundary with the supernatural world), and to some extent it produced theories that ultimately appealed to the actions of God, as we find in the work of Newton.

All this, however, is not so much Christianity nurturing science as simply not proving to be such a formidable barrier as first appeared. To some extent, it was a matter of science accommodating itself to Christianity. To some extent, it may even be certain theologians welcoming the findings of science as a resource for theology. But to some extent it may simply be that Christianity had lost much of its intellectual hegemony for totally different reasons - partly, perhaps, because of the disastrous Thirty Years War, and the turning away by many thinkers from insistence on a comprehensive orthodoxy. And partly because of extensive contact with other cultures in the New World and the Far East, which also tended to undermine absolutism and certainty.

Despite Gaukroger's extensive scholarship, there's still a story to research and tell here - a story about how Christianity increasingly lost its intellectual authority through the seventeenth century and beyond, and why it was, perhaps, increasingly less in a position to hinder the rise of science.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Currently reading: Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan

I am currently reading Sea Hearts (published in the UK and US as The Brides of Rollrock Island) by much-awarded novelist Margo Lanagan.

As I've previously mentioned, Margo will be a writer-in-residence for the Hunter Writers' Centre just a few weeks away now, and we're all looking forward to having her stay here in Newcastle, where she was born and grew up. If any Newcastle-based people are reading this, do please pass on the news.

My verdict on the book? I loved it. It's a fantasy novel, but not in the sense of high fantasy like J.R.R. Tolkien, or in the style of Conan/Elric/whatever sword and sorcery, or, indeed, like any other stereotypical form of the genre that you might think of. (Note, though, that I have nothing against heroic fantasy, and I've written some myself. It's just that Sea Hearts is not at all an example.)

Margo Lanagan has provided a rather grim tale of cruelty, alienation, and protracted revenge, stretching over the long life of its central character. Much like witnesses in a courtroom, narrators from different generations recount their involvement in the magical, tragic course of events. Only we, the readers, get to piece together our various understandings of the full story and why it happened as it did. Although the effects produced are not exactly horrific, what unfolds is terrifying in a quieter way. In fact, Sea Hearts displays one of the hallmarks of horror fiction in its many forms: the intrusion of something apparently demonic into our ordinary, human world, with dreadful results for everyday, flawed, complicated people.

As a twist, however, those characters who appear, from others' perspectives, alien and malevolent are themselves unhappy, deeply alienated beings. They are victims of their own circumstances and limitations, and of others' ignorance, selfishness, or emotional hardness.

For some reason, Margo Lanagan is mainly promoted as a writer for Young Adults... and I'm fine with bright teenagers reading and enjoying her work, including this book (though I suspect that many inexperienced readers, whatever their ages, will find aspects of it difficult). Be that as it may, I think Sea Hearts should also be read by adults. It is absorbing, intriguing, and thought provoking - how far do the relationships depicted, especially those between the sexes, mirror, in a distorted way, those in our own non-magical world? It's a book worth lingering over, savouring, and discussing.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Gaukroger on physico-theology

Late in his book The Emergence of a Scientific Culture, which I was discussing yesterday, Stephen Gaukroger discusses the (largely British) phenomenon of physico-theology: the attempts by some theologians, scientists (as we'd now call them), and philosophers to reconcile theology with what was emerging from science - or even to use scientific findings to support or revitalise theology.

He writes interestingly of thinkers such as Ralph Cudworth, who embraced some version of the atomist view of the natural world that had become popular within science, while attempting at the same time to modify it and to include it in their metaphysical systems (pp. 493-94).

Gaukroger writes at some length about others who attempted to reconcile scientific theories of the formation of the Earth with the Genesis account of creation and the biblical chronology of history (pp. 494-504).

He puts an impressive enough case that in the 1680s and 1690s, especially in the UK, there was a widespread view that natural philosophy could be used as a source of evidence for God (p. 505).

But none of this adds up to much of a case that the successful consolidation of science in the 17th and 18th centuries had much to with Christianity. On the face of it, I'd have thought that the successful consolidation of science at this point in history owed more simply to its unprecedented theoretical successes, the causes of which were contingent and complicated - perhaps having to do with some of the personalities involved, perhaps having to do with the non-religious aspects of European culture, perhaps having to do with breakthroughs in mathematics and scientific instrumentation. And perhaps with other things. I don't see much of a case for giving credit to religion.

Maybe Gaukroger's next (i.e. 2010) volume in his ongoing work on the philosophical/sociological history of science will have more on that, though... I'll get to it soon.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Currently reading - Stephen Gaukroger on the rise of science

I'm currently reading Stephen Gaukroger's huge and detailed book on the rise of modern science, The Emergence of a Scientific Culture: Science and the Shaping of Modernity 1210-1685 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006). As its title implies, this covers European intellectual history from the rise of neo-Aristotelian natural philosophy in the thirteenth century through to developments involving Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke, and others in the late seventeenth century (the century we most associate with the Scientific Revolution in Europe).

I started on this because I'd been told that it would demonstrate how Christianity assisted the rise of science in Europe, or something along those lines. I must say that I am nearly finished it, and it has demonstrated no such thing so far. The rise of a recognisably modern form of science seems to be the result of many historically contingent factors, as far as I can make out, not least the individual geniuses of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and others who were involved in the ferment of ideas in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Obviously, all these men appeared in cultures that gave them the intellectual and other resources for their work, and they all (even Thomas Hobbes) professed some kind of religious belief, but when you trace through the detail of what motivated them, how they influenced each other, and so on, not much of that has to do with Christianity. What most comes across is their fascination with experiments, thought experiments, and each other's ideas, and in many cases their joy-cum-obsession with the new tools that had become available to them in the form of scientific instruments, precision crafted experimental apparatus, and increasingly powerful kinds of mathematics.

Gaukroger sees his central question as being why a large-scale, successfully legitimating consolidation of science took place in the seventeenth century (and thereafter) - when science tends to be fragmented and stop-start, with long periods of stagnation, whenever it has appeared in a promising form in other times, places, and cultures (pp. 20-22). He answers that the natural philosophy of the Scientific Revolution was attractive to many thinkers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries precisely because it appeared to have promise for the renewal of natural theology (p. 23).

That may be so, although nothing said so far gives it a lot of support. Still, it is notorious that such thinkers as Paley did attempt to employ science to support theological positions. That, however, is very different from saying that there was something about Christianity that made it inherently pro-science in the first place.

Indeed, Gaukroger does not seem to maintain any such thesis. He notes that there was a considerable tradition within ancient and medieval Christianity of opposition to natural philosophy (and hence anything resembling science), seeing it as distracting or even idolatrous (57-59, 151).

Nothing in the book seems to give late medieval scholasticism much credit for the rise of science (it appears that whatever science it produced in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was not fruitful, and stagnated much like in other cultures that showed promising beginnings in scientific thought, such as China and medieval Islam). Indeed, even Aristotle's form of natural philosophy was initially resisted by the thirteenth-century Church, although the synthesis produced by Aquinas was later given the Church's endorsement.

Renaissance natural theology was largely an attempt to reconcile Aristotelianism with theology, which may well have been intellectually fruitful in some ways, but the Church was harsh to anyone who drew conclusions that strayed beyond orthodoxy. If anything, Christianity seems to have acted more as a hindrance than otherwise to free inquiry into the natural world (though, of course, even resistance can sometimes be inspiring).

I think this book will disappoint anyone who goes to it looking for support for the thesis that Christianity nourished the Scientific Revolution in any sense much stronger than the fact that the "revolution" took place in Christian countries. Nor do I really see any evidence for the more plausible claim that, for historically contingent reasons, Christianity (however that should be unpacked) welcomed and assisted the Scientific Revolution once it got going. If Gaukroger has produced the evidence for that thesis (one that I'm not necessarily opposed to) it looks like it might be in his next book, which was published in 2010. It looks as if I need to read that, too.

Be all that as it may, The Emergence of a Scientific Culture is an extraordinarily scholarly and exhaustive account of what was going on during a crucial period in intellectual history. I'm glad I had my attention drawn to it.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

As the year winds down...

The year is winding down at my end - as I've finally started handing out Christmas presents, I'm believing, at last, that it must be nearly Christmas and that 2012 has almost zipped by.

Every year I talk about how quickly the year seems to go, but this one has been quite extraordinary in that way. Everything since early June has been a blur. I don't usually talk about very personal things here, and I won't on this occasion either (happy snaps of birthdays, etc., are not very personal, in the sense that I mean, I suppose mostly because they don't invade privacy). Suffice to say that, as I've alluded to from time to time, family health matters have often seemed all-consuming over the past six months or so. This has also been a time when I've been immersed in working on two full-scale books, and on other projects, including taking on a leadership role with the Hunter Writers Centre. The latter has had its own issues, which have received a bit of press here in Newcastle.

Still, it's been a productive year, as I was saying yesterday. I expect to have some more announcements in the coming days and weeks. For readers in Newcastle, do click on the link to the writers centre, above, as it will take you to the announcement that there will be residencies for Marion Halligan and Margo Lanagan in January/February. I hope to get out the news about that and to generate the buzz it deserves, so would local people reading this please pass it on.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Books, books, books

As the year comes to an end, Udo Schuklenk and I are putting final (hopefully) touches on our new book, 50 Great Myths About Atheism, to be published by Wiley-Blackwell. If all goes well, this will be released in September 2013.

At the same time, I am getting close to finishing the manuscript for Humanity Enhanced (under contract to MIT Press). I'm slightly late with this, thanks to some unforeseen personal and other problems in the second half of 2012, although I still expect to do better than many authors when faced with contractual deadlines. Again if all goes well, I'll be delivering the manuscript in January - but I can't even think about a publication date just yet.

There are a couple of other books that may be in the pipeline (again, if all goes well!). I can't, just yet, talk specifically about these. Hopefully, there will be good news in a month or two.

It's been a productive year here, though, as I may talk about in a later blog post, a hard one in many ways. I can't believe there are only two weeks left.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Sunday Supervillainy - the X-Men stories that we lost

Though there was a large hiatus in my reading (creating a gap that I've since pretty much filled by researching back issues), I've been following the X-Men narrative since I was very young, in fact almost from the beginning. I was a little kid when I read a second-hand copy of  the original X-Men #4, which caught my imagination (and I soon caught up with most of the other issues that had already been published). Admittedly with gaps, I've followed the ongoing narrative ever since.

So I was around reading the last months of Chris Claremont's original X-Men run, and I'd been following Claremont's work through most of his run, which I enjoyed at the time.

Some events in the later part of this period don't make much sense because they were never followed up after Claremont left. Crucial plot threads were left hanging or, much the same thing, cut brutally short.

Thus, we never did see the story arcs that Claremont had in mind, and was foreshadowing, toward the end of his run, particularly a fragmented war of mutant against mutant that would have involved the Shadow King somehow controlling the Hellfire Club. It was revealed that Magneto had already fought some kind of epic battle against the Shadow King and had had to do something he considered shameful to prevail, or least survive the encounter... but we've never learned what happened.

At the end of Uncanny X-Men #275, Magneto executes the "foul creature" Zaladane, abandons Rogue, with whom he's developed the beginnings of a romantic relationship, and resolves that he'll no longer try to be a "kinder, gentler" version of himself - but he'll be taking on the Shadow King and the Hellfire Club, among other major threats to mutantkind, including perhaps the UN itself.

None of this happened in the way foreshadowed. Instead, Magneto was (apparently) killed off at the very end of Claremont's run, only a few months later. When he returned (as major villains always manage to do), he did, indeed, eventually have run-ins with the UN, but he was much more like his old villainous self, rather than the wild card or anti-hero that he'd become by the end of the much-celebrated Savage Land story.

I wish those Claremont stories had happened. The narrative was building to something that could have been exciting, and the creators involved were at the peak of their powers. Well, here is an account of what it was all about that gives us an idea of what was intended... and what X-Men fans twenty years ago missed out on, thanks to the rift between Chris Claremont and Bob Harras/Jim Lee.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Connecticut school massacre - the news is still crazy (and horrible)

The news continues to be a rollercoaster of craziness and nastiness. The most prominent news this morning, all over the Western world, relates to a gun massacre at a school in the US. I don't intend to comment on it in any substantial way at this stage - better, I think, to allow some more facts to come out, and to get at least a bit of emotional distance.

All I can say, for what it's worth, is that I feel for all the grieving families, and for everyone connected with Sandy Hook Elementary School, and for all in Newtown, Connecticut, and beyond who have been caught up by this. It defies belief that such things can happen in a modern, civilized country such as the United States.

I'll leave it for others to discuss the cultural causes of such events and what can be done to stop them from happening. If I were a politician, I'd have to come up with some glib view. However, I'm neither a politician nor an expert on the subject. So I'll leave it, again at least for now, simply by expressing my sorrow and horror at this appalling, senseless event.

Friday, December 14, 2012

It's been quite a week in the news...

...here in Australia.

I've avoided commenting on various news stories that have caught my eye, notably the death (apparently by suicide) of a British nurse who'd been "pranked" by a couple of young Australian DJs. While aspects of this pressed my emotional buttons, at the end of the day we can't legally blame the DJs for the nurse's death. Even claims that their actions were morally somehow equivalent to murder or manslaughter are over the top. That's not to deny that their prank was taken too far - the way they pressed it, rather than ending it quickly when it became apparent that they were dealing with someone whose low level of English language skills made her especially vulnerable, was immature and cruel. There was gloating afterwards on at least one Twitter feed, since deleted, and this adds to the impression of a cruel or callous mentality.

Then again, I don't understand why the British media, which evidently displayed even more cruelty, seem to be getting off without blame.

More generally, when will we all grow up and take the attitude that it's simply not funny when powerful people use that power to humiliate ordinary, seemingly good, powerless people? Surely we can work on cultural change, so that actions like of those of these DJs are no longer considered acceptable. They were handed great power, in the form of their platforms at a popular radio station, and placed in a culture that encouraged them in every way to abuse it.

Despite some of my own intemperate tweets, one of which I subsequently deleted as it went much too far, I think, on reflection, that the blame goes a long way beyond these rather young (and in this instance, evidently immature) people. It's better for us to introspect about what we really want as a society, when the powerful confront the powerless, than to conduct a witch hunt against these two individuals, who appear to be emotionally shattered by the experience.

Then there was the sensational Federal Court judgment that found the civil law claim against Peter Slipper for alleged sexual harassment to be an abuse of the process of the court. This does not mean that Slipper is entirely exonerated - he may be guilty of some borderline sexual harassment of a staffer - but in this case there are issues of proportion, ulterior motives, and even political conspiracy. The ramifications of the case will continue for some time.

Some days earlier we saw lobbying to ban teaching Love in the Time of Cholera, by celebrated author Gabriel García Márquez, as a literary text in Victorian schools, and this seems to have met with some success. Last I heard, it's under review.

Crazy times!

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Sunday Supervillainy (2) - Emma Frost

For Emma Frost fans, Brian Bendis linked to this pic by Aly Fell on his Twitter feed just now. What the heck?!

Sunday Supervillainy - reboot of Fantastic Four

The word is that there's going to be a reboot of the not-very-successful Fantastic Four movie franchise. I'd love to see the Fantastic Four done a bit better than we've seen to date, perhaps even with the sort of goofy science-fictional dignitas that you can find in the original Stan Lee/Jack Kirby run of the book, back in the early sixties when it really was "The world's greatest comic magazine!"

At this stage, I have no idea of what is going to be involved in the movie, and I guess we won't know for a long time, as the scheduled release date is 2015. Since it's a reboot, I guess it has to include a version of the origin story, in which the FF members gain their powers when accidentally bombarded in space by mutagenic cosmic rays (yeah, yeah, goofy). Maybe it would be a mistake to try again with Dr. Doom this early in a rebooted movie franchise. I'd love to see Black Bolt, Medusa, and the other Inhumans introduced, but that might get too complicated for an initial movie with an origin story to tell.

Looking forward to some more clarity on this as the time approaches.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Marketing copy

More on this soon, but Udo Schuklenk and I have now received the marketing copy for our new book, 50 Great Myths About Atheism (to be published by Wiley-Blackwell). There is still a considerable lead time before publication, but we can see the basis here for a strong campaign to market the book. Needless to say, we're excited about the book itself, which addresses many of the myths, misconceptions, half-truths, etc., about atheists and atheism - as well as presenting a brief history of atheist thought and our views as to why, at this point in history, atheism is the most reasonable view on the God question.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

A sceptical review of Kurzweil's new book in The New Yorker

I haven't yet read Ray Kurzweil's new book, How to Create a Mind, and therefore can't comment on this piece by Gary Marcus - except to say that it's provocative, and it makes me more, rather than less, interested in reading the book. Marcus is sceptical about the structure of the brain posited by Kurzweil, and quite scathing about some of the latter's arguments. This may be deserved, but there will probably be much buzz, pro and con, about Kurzweil over the next few months.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Contents of Dreaming of Djinn announced

Ticonderoga Publications has just announced the contents of its forthcoming anthology, Dreaming of Djinn, edited by Liz Grzyb. Contents are as follows:

  • Marilag Angway "Shadow Dancer"
  • Cherith Baldry "The Green Rose"
  • Alan Baxter "On A Crooked Leg Lightly"
  • Jenny Blackford "The Quiet Realm of the Dark Queen"
  • Jetse de Vries "Djinni Djinni Dream Dream"
  • Thoraiya Dyer "The Saint George Hotel"
  • Joshua Gage "The Dancer of Smoke"
  • Richard Harland "The Tale of the Arrow Girl"
  • Faith Mudge "The Oblivion Box"
  • Havva Murat "Harmony Thicket and the Persian Shoes"
  • Charlotte Nash "Parvaz"
  • Anthony Panegyres "Oleander: An Ottoman Tale"
  • Dan Rabarts "Silver, Sharp as Silk"
  • Angela Rega "The Belly Dancing Crimes of Ms Sahara Desserts"
  • Jenny Schwartz "The Pearl Flower Harvest"
  • Barb Siples "The Sultan's Debt"
  • Pia Van Ravestein "Street Dancer"
  • DC White "A Dash of Djinn and Tonic"

Monday, December 03, 2012

Hello, Newcastle!

I'm back in town after a week in Melbourne - a week in which I caught up with numerous friends, including (in the order in which we saw them) Alison and Tony, Alison and Ron, Marj, James (whom I met for the first time), DJ, Corinne, Kirstyn and JasonJaneen and Jack, Peter and Clare, and Paul and Meredith. Love you guys!

First thing tomorrow - at the crack of dawn, more or less - I have a meeting with my local state member of parliament. Stuff does keep happening...

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Sunday Supervillainy - look what happened to Professor X!

Yes, the Red Skull stole his brain, as revealed in Uncanny Avengers #1 and #2. Horrors!

Nice seeing some interaction between Rogue and the Scarlet Witch, including Rogue's memories of when she first joined the X-Men... with Professor X defending her despite her villainous past.

US Supreme Court to decide gene patents case

The Myriad gene patents case will be heard by the US Supreme Court. That is good news, I think. The whole area of gene patents is murky as a matter of law and legal principle.

My report on the original case can be found here. However, that judgment was overturned on appeal. In my view, the original judgment had a great deal of merit. In any event, the issue is overdue for consideration by a national court at the highest level. I hope we get a clear, principled decision out of this, however the court views it.

Randi the other night - now this is a bit better...

DJ Grothe sent me this shot.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Same-sex marriage issue could go to US Supreme Court

Will the US Supreme Court be willing to take on a case that would potentially overturn a Californian ruling in favour of same-sex marriage? If not, provision for same-sex marriage stands as law in California. If so, this will be a very important and legally complex case, in addition to its obvious social importance.

(My views on same-sex marriage can be found in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, among other places. For a relatively brief discussion of how I see marriage, go here.)