Showing posts with label Richard Dawkins. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Richard Dawkins. Show all posts

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Celebrated Gerin elixir

In my blog post of 6 October 2012, entitled Pierrot wanted a wife [display], I spoke of the local Gerin family, one of whom, Hippolyte Gerin [1884-1957], was the owner of my property at Gamone during the first half of the 20th century. I never knew exactly how Hippolyte earned his living on these beautiful but harsh Alpine slopes. Amazingly, the British scientist Richard Dawkins has provided a quite plausible answer. It would appear that members of that ancient family produced a celebrated elixir: a transparent narcotic substance that became known as Gerin Oil, which was beautifully bottled and marketed under the name Geriniol.


Click here to see Dawkins’s scholarly presentation of this strange affair.

PS Readers will have understood, I hope, that the terms "Gerin Oil" and "Geriniol" are simply anagrams of the word "religion". I guess that Dawkins invented this fine irony. I should explain, for those who are interested, that my Photoshopped bottle originally held a mythical liquid known (among believers) as "holy water". On the other hand, the Gerin people here at Gamone were perfectly real.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Bon appétit !

This Dawkins fellow has an amazing talent for finding the right arguments, the right words and the right ideas. I would designate him, in a nutshell, as a scientific poet, a poetic scientist, a great poet who also happens to be a creative scientist, whose various books on genetic themes are masterpieces of adventurous thinking.


I agree entirely with the gastronomical slant in the title of his autobiography. Dawkins is a master chef who proposes us countless delicious dishes that are all variations on a single theme. Their basic ingredient is indeed the wonder of science.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Disgrace to the human species

This video, dating from 2009, is one of the finest, shortest and most precise statements made by Richard Dawkins on the subject of creationist madness, seen simply as a refusal to listen to anything that contradicts their so-called "scripture".


It's often interesting to see a photo of an individual—such as Kurt Wise—who has made statements that sound like insanity.

Creationist Kurt Wise

I'm not suggesting that there's any kind of correlation between an individual's physical appearance and his crazy thinking. It's simply a matter of giving oneself an opportunity of trying to imagine the communication experience of hearing such a person say such things. Here's how Dawkins once spoke of Wise:
Kurt Wise doesn’t need the challenge; he volunteers that, even if all the evidence in the universe flatly contradicted Scripture, and even if he had reached the point of admitting this to himself, he would still take his stand on Scripture and deny the evidence. This leaves me, as a scientist, speechless... We have it on the authority of a man who may well be creationism’s most highly qualified and most intelligent scientist that no evidence, no matter how overwhelming, no matter how all-embracing, no matter how devastatingly convincing, can ever make any difference.
The final assertion of Dawkins in the video—about creationist stubbornness being "a disgrace to the human species"—is blunt but invigorating... and terribly credible.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Amazing science

There's a new atheist kid on the YouTube block: Jaclyn Glenn.


Here's her profile:
Jaclyn Glenn was born March 25, 1988, and lives in Florida, US. She is currently going to medical school and uploads regularly. It is believed that she was married in 2010, but her current relationship status is unknown. Her success on youtube is with the channel "JaclynGlenn", where she discusses topics such as religion, atheism, animal rights, politics, masturbation, and many other issues in a serious yet comical fashion. She has recently admitted to being an atheist and skeptic, but does not have an abrasive personality like many other atheist vloggers on the site.
In that final sentence, the term "vloggers" designates video bloggers: that's to say, individuals who submit regular blog posts in video form. Jaclyn Glenn's video creations can be found here. Countless Americans will be shocked by her following moving version of a sacred anthem:


Needless to say, Richard Dawkins was an instant fan of Jaclyn.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Baby beasts at Gamone

About a month ago, I caught sight of a small animal cantering down the road from my house, in the style of a rabbit. I only had a rear view of the moving animal, from a distance of some 50 metres, and it disappeared quickly, so I wasn't able to examine it. I concluded that it was probably a stray cat. Still, the cantering (or maybe galloping) movement seemed to be rather weird for a cat. And I have never seen rabbits or hares at Gamone. I came across a few small black turds on the road near my house, and they too didn't seem to have come from a cat. Besides, there are no scraps left lying around the house to attract cats. So, the identity of the small animal remained a mystery.

This morning, just after the annual passage of the fellow in a tractor who cuts the weeds alongside the narrow road up to Gamone, I think I finally solved the mystery. Unfortunately, I didn't have time to take photos, but here's a Web image of the kind of beasts (same size and colors) that I saw quite clearly, at close range, half an hour ago.


In the vicinity of my mailbox, Fitzroy and I suddenly found ourselves alongside three baby wild boors (called marcassins in French) which promptly cantered off down the road, with my dog on their heels. They disappeared into the grass alongside the creek, and Fitzroy didn't seem to be capable of picking up their scent. A few seconds later, one of them reappeared on the road, and he squealed in terror when he found that Fitzroy was chasing him. But the marcassin disappeared instantly, and all ended well. I have the impression that Fitzroy was just as surprised as me to come upon such small beasts at Gamone.

I left a message with a friend in Châtelus, Daniel Berger, who's a hunter and an expert in the behavior of wild boors, asking him for advice on how I should handle this affair. Wild boors, as their name indicates, are wild beasts, and I don't know whether it's a good idea to have a litter of marcassins just alongside the house. I can imagine some of my readers saying: "Oh, they're so cute. William should catch them and keep them as pets, as friends for Fitzroy." Yes, a great idea... but totally impossible!

Seriously, I don't deny that I would indeed be pushed by an obscure physical desire to cuddle such splendid little beasts (like I cuddle Fitzroy) and to experience the power and determination they would no doubt exert in trying to break free. I would be fascinated, above all, by their marvelous little snouts, used both as a marvelous sensory device (enabling them to carry on dozing in the undergrowth while dogs abound all around them) and as a tool for digging up hard soil and rocks in their search for tasty food. Of the same order as basic human sexuality, the attraction that emanates from domestic and wild animals is a wonderful and mysterious force that surely takes me back mysteriously to my evolutionary origins as an African ape (an expression employed regularly by Richard Dawkins). I often feel that the silly adjective "cute" might in fact be based upon this profound archaic association (resuscitated thanks to a handful of surviving genes) between our ancestors and us. I'm reminded of these links, every morning at about 7 o'clock, when Fitzroy wanders upstairs into my bedroom, moves his front paws stealthily up onto the bed, reaches around until he finds one of my hands (I'm usually still half-asleep), and then starts to lick it conscientiously, cleaning me up (symbolically, at least) for the approaching day.

POST SCRIPTUM: The property of my neighbors Jackie and Fafa, a couple of hundred metres further up the road, is bordered all around by woods. So, it's logical that they receive more visits from wild animals than I do. Jackie tells me that he has often seen a couple of marcassins hanging around their house.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

An eye for an eye

As a child in South Grafton, I was expected to admire a gushy poem penned by a young American Catholic fellow named Joyce Kilmer, killed in 1918 by a sniper's bullet on the Western Front in France.


I would imagine that countless English-speaking people of my generation can recite most of this poem by heart:
Trees
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is pressed
Against the earth's sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
The US musician Oscar Rasbach [1888-1975] wrote music for Kilmer's celebrated poem, and our local radio station 2GF in Grafton used to play constantly the version sung by the Austrian-Jewish tenor Richard Tauber [1891-1948]... whose Teutonic accent irritated me almost as much as the syrupy sentiments of the song.


The only aspect of Kilmer's poem with which I agreed was that it had been written by a sentimental fool. I was accustomed to wandering around on my father's bush property, which provided me with ample visions of trees. Not one of them, however, gave me the impression that it might be pressing its hungry mouth against the "sweet flowing breast" of the dry ground. If I observed lots of "leafy arms", they did in fact seem to be lifted most often in a plea for rain, but I never imagined for an instant that God might be playing a role in this meteorological affair. True enough, certain trees wore nests in their "hair", and the birds who had built them were generally either raucous crows, screeching parrots or savage magpies. There may have been robins in the bush, but I don't remember them. And the idea that snow might ever lay upon the "bosom" of one of our eucalyptus trees was frankly unthinkable. (I was 21 years old when I came in contact with snow for the first time in my life, in France.)

The final line of Kilmer's poem annoyed me most of all, with its silly idea that God might "make" trees. We all knew that Australian gum trees proliferated everywhere with no need for any kind of divine intervention. Indeed, the only domain in which my father would have surely appreciated a helping hand from God was ring-barking, designed to clear land so that our cattle would have sufficient grass to eat.


I realize retrospectively today that one of the advantages of growing up in rural Australia was that I soon developed a healthy respect for the power of Nature, which was often brutal, with no apparent concern for the welfare of us humans. The harsh Australian environment is not the sort of place in which a clear-thinking dweller would invent the quaint notion of a benevolent Creator. I've always considered that the Christian divinity is basically a humanistic Mediterranean concept: the intellectual reflection of a setting distinguished by harmony, where Nature is regulated by pleasant seasons. No authentic Australian (such as our Aborigines, above all) would have ever been inclined to invent the gentleman who delivered the Sermon on the Mount.

Once, as a boy, I asked my father why he never went to church (as had become my habit). I have never forgotten his marvelous reply: "Billy, you probably won't understand what I have to say. My cathedral is my bush paddock." In fact, not only did I end up understanding my father's metaphor, but I finally got around to adopting a similar attitude. At the age of 14, I came upon a little book on pantheism, in my grandparents' library, and I was so impressed by this primitive philosophy (which sees the natural world—in a similar spirit to that of our Aborigines—as a vast assembly of autonomous divinities) that I dared to reveal my enthusiasm explicitly to Dean Warr of Christ Church Cathedral... who was not exactly impressed by my revelation. Fortunately, my emerging fascination for mathematics and physics soon dissuaded me from delving more deeply into the archaic metaphysics of pantheism. Meanwhile, my encounter with the mildly sacrilegious book Life of Jesus by Ernest Renan took the wind out of my slack and flapping Christian sails forever.

These days, the terms "creationism" and "intelligent design" designate the variety of religious faith that exploits the splendors of the natural world as proof that a Supreme Designer must have been at work in the beginning. There again, it's difficult for an Australian to be a creationist, because almost everything in the Antipodes seems to have been designed differently (if at all) from what you find in the Mediterranean world. If God thought that jumping was a good mode of locomotion for our kangaroos, why didn't he design jumping creatures for the Northern Hemisphere? If he thought that waddling in an upright position would enable Antarctic penguins to move around easily on ice, why didn't he use the same principle for Arctic creatures? Either the Supreme Designer worked in an experimental fashion, and often got things wrong, or else there was a team of several senior designers who didn't necessarily adopt the same principles.

Adepts of creationism and intelligent design apparently find it difficult to believe that an organ as complex as the human eye could have emerged from Darwinian evolution. They raise doubts concerning the feasibility and evolutionary benefits of the intermediary stage that is often designated as "half an eye". In his Climbing Mount Improbable, Richard Dawkins devoted an entire 54-page chapter to the fascinating subject of the evolution of various kinds of eyes, which have emerged independently from scratch at least 40 times in the history of the animal world. In The Greatest Show on Earth, Dawkins returned to the question of eyes, and insisted upon the fact that our human eye provides a case study in "unintelligent design". In a recent issue of the UK's Daily Mail, there's an extraordinary collection of fine photos [access] of eyes of all kinds.

Let me conclude this rambling post by a lovely photo of a pair of astonishing eyes: those of a baby Madagascan lemur born recently in a French zoo.


Blogs are written by fools like me,
But only an adult lemur couple can make a baby lemur.
My words don't have the same poetic impact as those of Joyce Kilmer. What's more, they're not entirely true from a clinical viewpoint, since they neglect the theme of what we used to call "test-tube babies".

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Toys for almost everybody

This simple graphic struck me as funny... but my sense of humor might well be atypical, if not frankly perverted:


I don't have a Facebook account, and I certainly don't want one, since I have no desire to get engulfed in so-called "social media" of that superficial kind. Consequently, I don't know the identity of the bright folk who gave us this graphic, retweeted by Richard Dawkins.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Pinnacle of worldly fame

It's all very well to be an Oxford professor, a successful author of books, and to have been awarded a pile of honorary doctorates. That doesn't necessarily make you a famous person.


To become a genuine celebrity, the English biologist Richard Dawkins still needed a greatly-sought-after extra feather in his hat. Happily, we've learned today that the flame of true fame has finally touched Dawkins. Within a few days, he will be able to think of himself, at last, as an international megastar. Next Sunday, on US television, Richard Dawkins will be appearing in an episode of The Simpsons, in the role of himself, using his own voice.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Several things that make sense

Over the last hour, a guy named Richard Dawkins has been using Twitter to create a brilliantly succinct treatise on Christian theology.


Here are the basic points of his theological wisdom, which all make sense... even though they are necessarily so esoteric at times that common mortals might not grasp their profound sense immediately:
• Joseph Ratzinger became infallible in a puff of smoke 19/4/2005. About to become fallible again 28/2/2013. Makes sense.
A wafer, if blessed by a priest (who must have a penis and intact testicles) literally becomes the body of Christ. Makes sense.

God is simultaneously himself and his son (and a ghost). Makes sense.

God couldn't think of a better way to forgive the sin of Adam (who never existed) than to have his son (aka himself) executed. Makes sense.

Adam didn't exist, but his sin was so huge that the Creator of the Expanding Universe needed a blood sacrifice to pay for it. Makes sense.

The SUBSTANCE of the wine truly becomes the blood of a 1st century Jew. Only the ACCIDENTALS are fermented grape juice. Makes sense.

Jesus's 12 apostles all had penises. Therefore if you don't have a penis you can't be a priest. Makes sense.

Isaiah prophesied "young woman" would bear a messiah. Mistranslated into Greek as virgin. So Jesus had to have a virgin mother. Makes sense.
"Let your women keep silence in the churches; for it is not permitted unto them to speak" Makes sense.

And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home; for it is a shame for women to speak in the church." Makes sense.
Creator of the Universe went to great trouble to create the foreskin. Then insisted that you cut it off. Makes sense.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Old family portrait

In my blog post of 22 October 2011 entitled What science is saying [display], I spoke of a fabulous book for young and old alike: The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins. And I borrowed a couple of Dave McKean's wonderful depictions of our prehistoric ancestors. Now, those illustrations were largely figments of the artist's imagination. Today, we are offered a considerably more authoritative portrait of an immensely archaic granddaddy:

Illustration by Carl Buell

This fellow is the outcome of a lengthy study of primeval mammalian genealogy some 66 million years ago. The creature in the portrait was about the size of a rat, and it weighed about a quarter of a kilogram. Like the dormice that I mentioned in my blog post of 31 December 2012 entitled Walnut war [display], it had a bushy tail. Its scientific name is Protungulatum donnae, but I'll refer to him here as Adam.

It's important to understand that the scientists at Stony Brook University (Long Island, New York) who've just presented a picture of Adam to his living descendants did not dig him up out of the ground, as if he were a run-of-the-mill monarch in search of a horse. Nobody has ever set eyes upon an actual fossil of this "first ungulate" (hoofed beast). Instead, Adam was created virtually on the basis of a whole set of fossil specimens and evolutionary facts.

Visual data in my blog post of the day before yesterday entitled Wolf territory [display] indicates the presence of a furry hoof attached to the extremity of the bone that Fitzroy was gnawing. I wondered for a moment or two whether my dog might have unearthed a specimen of a modern descendant of Adam, but I soon realized that Fitzroy's beast was much larger than a rat. So, I was obliged to rule out the likelihood that my dog had got involved in paleontology.

Adam is looked upon as humanity's most recent common ancestor with other mammals. The scientists say he ate insects. His long furry dormouse-like tail makes me wonder if he didn't appreciate walnuts, too. One thing about Adam's appetite for fruit is certain. As revealed in a celebrated book of archaic wisdom, he acquired a taste for apples. And that's where everything got totally screwed up for the rest of eternity.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Magicians reveal what the world's all about

For several years, I've been fascinated by the popular books of three physicists: Brian Greene, David Deutsch and Lawrence Krauss.


Funnily enough, although the three of them are writing about the same general subject—our state-of-the-art understanding of the nature of the universe—they rarely, if ever, get around to handling the same questions in comparable, if not similar, fashions. Moreover, in their latest books, they hardly even refer to one another's work.


It's easy to understand superficially why Greene, Deutsch and Krauss don't seem to have a lot to say to one another. Greene has been reputed for a long time as an adept of string theory, and there's no reason to imagine that the other two physicists are particularly keen on this theory. Earlier this year, Krauss became widely known through his presentation of an esoteric explanation of how the ultimate "free lunch"—obtaining something from nothingness—is a perfectly plausible phenomenon at a cosmic level.

As for the 59-year-old Oxfordian David Deutsch, he comes through to me as the most philosophical member of the trio. Indeed, he offers us a multiverse view of existence that is totally amazing. As in his first book, The Fabric of Reality, Deutsch pursues in The Beginning of Infinity his quest for a Theory of Everything inspired by the work of a somewhat heteroclite foursome: Karl Popper (epistemology), Hugh Everett (multiverse theory), Alan Turing (computation) and Richard Dawkins (evolution). Indeed, between the Popperian explanations of knowledge, the connotations of quantum theory leading to the existence of multiple universes, the vast theories of classical computing put forward by Turing (which are no doubt sufficient to handle, not only the DNA computer responsible for replication and life, but also the phenomena of neuronal computing) and finally the processes of Darwinian evolution and genetics so brilliantly presented by Dawkins, most observers would agree that we've no doubt covered many of the basic essentials of a scientific outlook on reality. Deutsch himself refers to these four grand dimensions of his global philosophical approach as strands (a word I like, which evokes weaving a fabric).

A few weeks ago, I was excited to learn that Deutsch has been working on a kind of fifth strand, of a subterranean nature, which he calls constructor theory. If you've got 47 minutes of free time, I urge you to click here to listen to Deutsch himself presenting this work. Basically, it's a matter of trying to understand why certain things are possible (even though they may have never actually happened yet) whereas countless other potential events are impossible because certain laws of physics have "blacklisted" them forever. In other words, he has enhanced astronomically the sense of the concept of possibility, to the point of claiming that anything and everything is strictly possible... provided only that we know of no law of physics that forbids such a happening, and therefore renders it impossible. Deutsch draw our attention to the strict binarity of the situation. Between the impossible (ruled out by physics) and the possible, there is no third way out. On the one hand, nothing—not even the most extravagant events—should be branded as theoretically impossible unless we are already aware of a law of physics that forbids such things. On the other hand, everything else should be thought of as theoretically possible.

In his eagerness to point out the counterintuitive nature of this thinking, Deutsch hit upon an amusing easy-to-grasp example, which goes straight to the heart of my Antipodes blog. Most of us agree that people on the other side of the planet Earth are in an upside-down position with respect to us, and vice versa.


That old Epinal image is funny but quite silly, of course, because nobody really believes that Antipodeans get around on their hands, with their Hobbit-like feet stretching towards the heavens. But are we truly ready to admit that the heads of Antipodeans point constantly in the opposite direction to our own heads? If technology were to offer me a magical real-time closeup view of Antipodeans, in strict conformity with our mutual orientations, in the same way that binoculars enable me to observe distant objects through my bedroom window, would I not be somewhat surprised to receive upskirt images of Antipodean ladies whose heads appear to be receding upwards into the sky? My surprise (which would be inevitable, I think) would seem to confirm that, to a certain extent, I've never really believed wholeheartedly that the heads of Antipodeans point in the opposite direction to mine. And David Deutsch considers that this mild form of surprise, or doubt, reflects my persistent quest for a third way out, between the possible and the impossible. My scientific culture persuades me that there is no law of physics that would forbid Antipodeans from getting around in an upside-down position with respect to me. So, I conclude that it's perfectly possible for this to be the case. At the same time, I consider that modern laws of celestial mechanics have quashed forever all remnants of flat-Earth theories, meaning that it's unthinkable that the heads of Antipodeans might point in the same direction as mine. And yet I don't seem to have gone one tiny step further and admitted explicitly, in a tangible concrete sense, that people down on the opposite side of the planet are truly presenting me constantly (if only the Earth were transparent) with an upskirt vision of their environment.

What David Deutsch seems to be saying (in a roundabout fashion) is that we would do well to consider, in an equally tangible and concrete sense, that we exist within a multiverse where the quantum effects admitted by today's laws of physics must be thought of, not only as possible happenings, but as garden-variety aspects of the fabric of everyday reality. And I'm not sure that many of us are prepared, at present, to assimilate profoundly that weird mode of looking at existence. Between archaic fairy tales (often supported by so-called commonsense) and hard state-of-the-art science, we persist in hoping, if not believing, that there must surely be some kind of convenient "third way out".

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Nonsense cartoon

Apparently Mitt Romney believes the kind of frightening nonsense expressed in the following cartoon:


It's scary to think that such a believer could become the US president, with control over a vast nuclear arsenal. Sure, we were more or less broken in to such a situation through George W Bush, but I'm convinced that Mitt the Nitwit would be far worse. It's really weird that the citizens of a great nation such as the USA would be prepared to call upon a Mormon moron to lead them.

Meanwhile, Richard Dawkins has just tweeted an interesting observation:
Mormonism is no nuttier than ancient religions, but they have the excuse of being ancient, not 19th-century fabrications.
I often wonder whether there's any hope for the USA. For that matter, I often wonder whether there's any hope for the so-called civilized world. I believe there is, but in a distant future. For the moment, we're moving through a dark age, which is likely to last for a long time.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Cory who?

The situation is unfair. Why is it that such-and-such a totally-unknown moronic compatriot from Down Under makes world headlines every so often? Meanwhile, we others have to work hard and constantly to air our narrow set of weird beliefs, our absurdities and our ignorance.


A couple of years ago, the Internet world discovered an amazing Aussie senator, Steve Fielding, who greatly impressed a visiting biologist, Richard Dawkins. Enjoy this video masterpiece:


After Steve Fielding and Cory Bernardi (who has novel ideas on the likely sexual tastes of gays and other mammals), I wonder who's the next idiot to acquire front-page notoriety. Personally, I would be more than happy to get interviewed by Australian TV on the interesting question of the sex life of Jesus and his wife. I have no facts whatsoever on this subject, of course, but I have a lot of fabulous and entertaining ideas, which I would love to share with the world at large. And I would make a point of getting drunk before the TV people arrived here to interview me and my dog.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Retweeted by Dawkins

This morning, I was pleased to learn that Richard Dawkins had retweeted (to his almost half-a-million followers) my latest message.


Consequently, if ever Mitt Romney were to become the US president (Heaven forbid!), my chances of obtaining a Green Card have just been annihilated. Happily however, after my death, the Mormons will surely baptize me, and I'll be able to toil in God's Own Country for the rest of Eternity.

Maybe there are non-Mormon readers who won't understand what the hell I was talking about. After all, outside the USA in general, and Utah in particular, not everybody has heard of the angel Moroni who led the prophet Joseph Smith to a hillside where he was able to dig up gold plates containing the words of the Book of Mormon.


It's a delightfully amazing tale. What a pity that you have to be a credulous idiot to believe a single word of it.

There's an anecdote that has amused me ever since I heard it for the first time a couple of decades ago. The Holy City of Jerusalem has always been the home of adepts of every imaginable variety of monotheism. Indeed, if the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten and Nefertiti were to reappear in the Middle East today, the Israeli authorities would surely authorize them to set up some kind of temple in Jerusalem where they could worship their sun god.


The only notable exception to this spirit of tolerance in recent times concerned the Mormons, who had purchased land on Mount Scopus. After bitter discussions that dragged on for ages, the Israeli authorities only allowed the Mormons to erect their outpost of the Brigham Young University after they had signed a declaration confirming that they would refrain from all missionary activities in Jerusalem. These days, though, Bibi Netanyahu and Mitt Romney are old buddies.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Good books

Britain's New Scientist weekly has just put out a selection of 25 popular science books that "have changed the world" [here].


I would have been a little worried if this list of books had included many works that I did not know. On the contrary, I was thrilled to discover that I had read 15 of their suggested titles, while most of the remaining titles rang a bell (in the sense that I had heard of them, and had a good idea of their themes). The only one of the 25 books that was a total newcomer to me was The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks (1985). Here are those that I've read:

•  A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking (1988)

•  Brighter Than a Thousand Suns by Robert Jungk (1956)

•  Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter (1979)

•  Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond (1997)

•  On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (1859)

•  The Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski (1973)

•  The First Three Minutes by Steven Weinberg (1977)

•  The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker (1994)

•  The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins (1976)

•  Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962)

•  The Double Helix by James Watson (1968)

•  The Emperor's New Mind by Roger Penrose (1989)

•  The Mysterious Universe by James Jeans (1930)

•  The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris (1967)

•  What is Life? By Erwin Schrödinger (1944)

At the top of this list, the "big three" for me would be Dawkins, Watson and Pinker. I would have included a title by David Deutsch... but it's a fact that he remains a bit too recent to have changed the world yet. Maybe "will change the world". The same could be said of Lawrence Krauss.

Monday, August 20, 2012

A little knowledge

The original statement by Alexander Pope [1688-1744] spoke of learning: A little learning is a dangerous thing. Since then, we've usually heard people telling us that it's a little knowledge that can be considered dangerous. This warning is trivially true in cases where you can choose (at least theoretically, if not in practice) between the two extremes: a little knowledge, or a lot of knowledge. A child might have just discovered that striking a match produces a pretty flame. And that knowledge is indeed dangerous as long as the child is unaware that such a flame can give rise to a catastrophe. When humanity first discovered fire (probably after a lightning strike), maybe a doomsayer in the tribe warned: "My brothers and sisters, this discovery is surely a malediction. We must forget about it forever."


The primeval case of "a little knowledge" was, of course, the legend of a tree in Eden—no doubt a fig tree, but presented in translation as an apple tree—whose fruit were forbidden.


It is ridiculous, however, to condemn systematically "a little knowledge" as a dangerous possession. In domains in which we know next to nothing, the concept of "a little knowledge" can often be thought of as speculation, and this is the basis of scientific discovery and research. We content ourselves with speculative theories on reality up until such time as they are shown to be false, when we replace them by alternative theories. That, after all, was the spirit of the quest for the Higgs boson.

Satyendra Nath Bose, after whom the particle was named,
and Peter Higgs, who imagined a very peculiar boson

For decades, physicists had so little knowledge concerning this particle that they weren't even sure it existed!

In my personal family-history research, I've run into a kind of "Higgs boson". I'm referring to the first male in England (presumably a colonist from Normandy) whose descendants would be the future Skeffington family (which would give rise to folk named Skevington, Skivington, Skyvington, etc). My knowledge of this individual is almost non-existent. But he surely existed, at some time and in some place, probably Leicestershire. So, I find myself making speculations about his identity. Inevitably, I run into fellow-researchers who say: "You have no firm proofs for what you're suggesting." That's to say, these rigid observers (accustomed to requesting an individual's birth certificate before accepting his existence) are trying to persuade me that I don't have the right to speculate. Their criticism is not only counterproductive; it's unscientific. So, I ignore it.

Finally, there's a ubiquitous domain in which we have very little knowledge, to say the least. I'm referring to religion, and the belief in God. Here again, I don't consider that there's any "danger" in talking about God, even though we possess so little direct knowledge concerning His alleged existence. But the same rules of the game must be applied in the case of those who say that God does not exist. In that respect, the best example of all concerns the marvelous subject of miracles. In The Magic of Reality, Richard Dawkins devotes his entire final chapter to this question. In particular, in a section entitled A good way to think about miracles, he presents the clever method proposed by the Scottish philosopher David Hume [1711-1776].


Hume said:
No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle unless that testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish.
Consider, for example, the case of 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous who, on 11 February 1858 in Lourdes (south-west France), experienced the first of a series of alleged visions of the Virgin Mary.


Applying Hume's criterion, we reason as follows:

— Clearly, the appearance of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes was a miracle.

— We are told by her adulators that it would have been unthinkable for Bernadette Soubirous to have invented a false story about her encounters with a vision of the Virgin Mary. Let us nevertheless imagine, for a moment, the totally shocking hypothesis that the saintly child might have lied.

— Now, which of the two above-mentioned extraordinary happenings would be the more astounding: the Virgin Mary's presence at Lourdes, or Bernadette's hypothetical lies?

— Clearly, there is nothing particularly "miraculous" in the idea that a simple-minded peasant girl might resort to inventing false stories. Consequently, Hume's criterion suggests that we should not accept the miracle of Lourdes.

Notice, in particular, that our use of Hume's criterion to cast doubt upon the veracity of the miracle of Lourdes does not call upon us to actually prove that Bernadette was a liar. It suffices to notice that the hypothesis of Bernadette's lying, no matter how unlikely such an idea might appear to those who knew the girl well, was less extraordinary than the utterly miraculous idea of the Virgin Mary making a personal appearance at Lourdes. So, if an adulator of the Virgin Mary and Bernadette Soubirous were to complain that we've rejected the idea of a miracle without even attempting to prove that the peasant girl had indeed invented her stories, that would simply mean that the detractor has not understood, yet alone accepted, Hume's reasoning. In the context of the life and death of Jesus, too, alleged miracles can be debunked by means of Hume's metaphorical "razor" without the necessity of our having to prove anything whatsoever.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

My dog is an esthete

There's no doubt that Fitzroy is a superior dog... quite apart from the trivial observation that he seems to have accepted me as his master.

Click to enlarge, then hit ESCAPE to return to the blog

His tail may be a bundle of prickly burrs, but Fitzroy's heart is soft and sweet, and his mind is as pure as icy water in the torrents of Risoul in the Hautes-Alpes département, up where he was born on 10 July 2010. He is lovable and constantly (urgently) in need of caresses. And furthermore, he has taste. Artistic taste. In a nutshell, Fitzroy is an esthete. Indeed, a connoisseur.

Fitzroy's specialty is driftwood. Now, this might sound funny in the case of a dog (and his master) who are settled in the mountains, hundreds of kilometers away from the seashore. But bits of wood don't need an ocean to drift. Just ask Fitzroy. He would tell you that beautiful bits of wood can drift on mountain streams, on ice and snow, maybe even (who knows?) in the air. In any case, telling us mountain-dwellers that we don't have driftwood would be like telling our new president François Hollande that he doesn't have Nicolas Sarkozy. Like, it's everywhere, ubiquitous. But Fitzroy selects only the finest specimens.


My dog would surely refer to such items as nocturnal objects, reflecting the fact that he collects them in the early hours of the morning, just before the sun rises. Like fairies gathering dewdrops. Every object collected by Fitzroy has a story, which only my dog could tell. Each story elucidates the context in which that object acquired its form, its colors, its character, or—as Fitzroy might say (I try to avoid putting words into his mouth)—its soul.

In the case of my dear departed Sophia, I always apprehended the day when she would suddenly shun food, for I knew that this repulsion would announce her end... as it did. Concerning Fitzroy, I would certainly be gravely worried about his state of health (both bodily and mental) if ever he dragged home an ugly item, devoid of magic charm, such as a hunk of plywood or plastic.

Seriously, the idea that my canine companion Fitzroy seems to express esthetic judgment is, to my mind, quite fabulous. It would be interesting to see how distinguished evolutionary biologists such as Richard Dawkins and P Z Myers might evaluate and possibly explain my claim. In a nutshell (forgive me my constant usage of this metaphor, due to my preoccupations as a walnut farmer):

What might have been the evolutionary advantage
of being a driftwood esthete?

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Dawkins on Mormon madness

We can count on Richard Dawkins to find the right words to fire at Mitt Romney.


Meanwhile, two other prominent atheists, Sam Harris and P Z Myers, have started firing stupidly at one another in the context of Harris's troubling comparison [here] of two evils: collateral damage in warfare and the torture of terrorists. You can follow this sad mutual flaming on the respective blogs of Harris and Myers.

Without wishing to take sides, I do have the impression that the brilliant biology professor Myers, over the last year, has been losing his grip on everyday reality and becoming cantankerous.

BREAKING NEWS: Dawkins has just stepped quietly and briefly into the Harris/Myers quarrel [here], no doubt in the hope of calming down the situation.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Is the Bible good English literature?

I'm surprised — amused, not irritated—to find Richard Dawkins arguing in favor of the idea that the King James Bible is "a great work of literature", deserving a place in the libraries of UK state schools.


We get a better grasp of Dawkins's motivations (likes and dislikes) through his comments concerning the famous words of Ecclesiastes 1:2 evoking the absurd emptiness and fleeting futility of our human existence: "Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, all is vanity." Countless members of my generation in the English-speaking world have been struck by those Biblical words—now replaced, in modern translations, by more down-to-earth terms—but it's not at all certain that we've all understood what the speaker was really saying. In any case, this sentence cannot be looked upon as a sample of fine expression, neither in modern English nor even in old-fashioned words.

First, the all-important word "vanity" means little more these days than excessive and foolish pride in oneself. Admittedly, the expression "in vain" starts to hint at what the unidentifiable speaker (named Qoheleth in Ecclesiastes and, incidentally, not at all a "preacher" in the modern sense of this word) was saying: namely, that our existence is vaporous, a brief gust of wind. Indeed, the Hebrew term הֲבֵל (havel) signifies "a breath". It is not by mere coincidence that this same word appears in Genesis as the name of the first human being to die: Abel, slain by his brother Cain.


The expression "vanity of vanities" is not ordinary English, but we end up understanding what the Bible seems to be saying. In Hebrew, havel havelim (literally "breath of breaths") is a superlative form that might be translated literally as "ultimate vaporousness". In other words, in the context of all that might be thought of as vaporous, Qoheleth evokes a supreme instance, like the terminal value in calculus of a function, expressed as the sum of a series of increasingly-infinitesimal elements, when the number of summations approaches infinity.

In the line of the King James Bible that Dawkins appreciates, the presence of the archaic form "saith" of the verb "to say" is hardly a sign of great English. It's rather obsolete English. Consequently, I can't help wondering whether Dawkins might not be making a donnish attempt to pull our legs when he evokes the alleged literary greatness of the King James Bible.


The explanation, I believe, is more subtle. In the '50s, for the youth named Richard Dawkins, as for me, the "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity" declaration was a kind of absurdist slogan, on a par with other attractive existentialist nonsense such as Sartre's "Hell is other people". It conveyed the charming image of frocked but befuddled archbishops (we were Anglicans) who paraded like peacocks, and tried vainly to adjust their faith to science. We liked this kind of language, because we sensed that it was dynamite, and we soon set about investigating its supposed profundity and ramifications.

In the case of Richard Dawkins, the former Anglican lad, a latter-day Qoheleth, metamorphosed into a poet of science, hit upon a fantastic new way of saying that "all is vanity", that we were struck by the fleeting breath of awareness:
The Universe could so easily have remained lifeless and simple -- just physics and chemistry, just the scattered dust of the cosmic explosion that gave birth to time and space. The fact that it did not -- the fact that life evolved out of nearly nothing, some 10 billion years after the universe evolved literally out of nothing -- is a fact so staggering that I would be mad to attempt words to do it justice. And even this is not the end of the matter. Not only did evolution happen: it eventually led to beings capable of comprehending the process, and even of comprehending the process by which they comprehend it.
                                       — The Ancestor's Tale  2005  p 613
Yes, Richard, we must honor the King James Bible. It's an indirect way of honoring your fabulous intellectual path and quest.

Now, were you really serious about promoting the presence of antiquated religious documents in UK school libraries? Or were you joking? And what about Shakespeare?

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Welcome to Science


There's real poetry in the real world
Science is the poetry of reality
Richard Dawkins