Saturday, 29 August 2009

Galileo's Telescope at 400

This past week, Galileo's demonstration of the telescope celebrated its 400th anniversary. However, as noted in National Geographic's Galileo's Telescope at 400: Facts, Myths and More, it might not necessarily be a cause for total, unreserved adulation:
A math professor at the University of Padua, Galileo based his optical instrument on spyglasses developed the previous year by Dutch spectacle makers.

The Venetian Senate was about to purchase one of the popular gadgets when Galileo stepped in with his own version.

Made of wood and leather, Galileo's telescope had eight-times magnification, a convex main lens, and a concave eyepiece that—unlike other telescopes of the period—presented the image the right way up.

Venice's interest in the telescope was commercial rather than scientific, according to science historian Alan Chapman of the University of Oxford in the U.K.

The maritime city's wealth and power was based on overseas trade, and at the time its vessels were being attacked by the Turks, Chapman said.

To demonstrate the enemy-spotting potential of his telescope, "Galileo [took] a number of senators up to one of the bell towers in Venice where you can see ships out in the lagoon," he said.

Nevertheless, what Galileo found when gazed into space with his copyright-infringing tactical weapon changed the course of human knowledge.

National Geographic's coverage of the event includes the Galileo's Telescope at 400: From Spyglasses to Hubble gallery, A History of Telescopes and Cosmic Vision, discussing the lineage of telescopes up to the modern day. Motifs of Galileo and his telescope also turned up in the spactacular video for Japanese singer Misia's new single Ginga (meaning "Galaxy"), which became the official theme song for the Japanese International Year of Astronomy Committee.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Palestine, Egypt and India in the 1920's

The motherload of travel across the waning remnants of the British Empire in the Middle East. This 1920's travelogue begins in what would become Israel and Jerusalem, shunts down to Egypt and the Giza Plateau, then over to India. Absolutely stunning!

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Ozymandias (1818)

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelly

In Egypt's sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert knows:
"I am great OZYMANDIAS," saith the stone,
"The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
"The wonders of my hand." The City's gone,
Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.
We wonder, and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro' the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragments huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

Ozymandias by Horace Smith.

Both versions of Ozymadias were written in a friendly competition between Shelly and Smith, and were published a month apart in the same journal. Both were ostensibly inspired by the impending arrival of the "Younger Memnon" statue of Rameses II to the British Museum.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

The Terrible Turkish Executioner (1904)

Another very short piece of trick photography by Georges Méliès is making a farce of something, though we're not quite sure what. In The Terrible Turkish Executioner, we see the gory violence that the European Victorian consciousness imposed on the Middle East... That distant and mysterious land where brutality and sensuality walked hand-in-hand across timeless sands. Heathen prayers cried out from towering minarets while ancient Djinn magics coiled and writhed beneath.

Here the Turks displayed that capacity for which they were most famous: the viciousness of their punitive justice. Yet all is not quite what it seems. The most terrible of the Turkish executioners does is worst, and with one stroke beheads four captives. The newly disembodied heads refuse to stay at peace and eventually call their decapitated bodies into full on revolt against the executioner, with ironic results.

Perhaps Méliès felt, like so many, that the Middle East was a backwards land and satirized it with his depiction of failed violence. Perhaps he felt that it was his fellow Frenchmen's views that were almost comic in their hyperbole, so he subverted them with this comedy. We cannot know, but we can enjoy this two-minute short for the slapstick tumbling and cinema magic that it is.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

L'Art Arabe (1877)

L'Art Arabe D'après les Monuments du Kaire Depuis le VIIe Siècle Jusqu'à la Fin du XVIIIe was published in 1877 by French art historian Emile Prisse d'Avennes. Spending more than 20 years hunting down the artists who accompanied Napoleon Bonaparte's Egyptian campaign, Prisse d'Avennes printed their work in three volumes as the definitive reference to Islamic-Arabic style for the Orientalists of his day. Click on the cover below to wonder at these amazing engravings.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Modern Antiquities (1806)

Modern Antiquities (1806) by English charicaturist Thomas Rowlandson satirizes the new European obsession with Egypt in the wake of the Napoleonic invasion. In this case, the "romance" of Egypt is a little different than one might ordinarily expect. Let's hope they don't get caught in that sarcophagus...

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

The Monster (1903)

With roots digging deep through the continuity of French culture and history, the allure of Orientalism would not escape the notice of Georges Méliès. His own peculiar take on the subject is steeped in his conjuror's flourishes, however. In 1903's The Monster, an ancient Egyptian magician working in the moonlight shadow of the Sphynx wakes a skeleton from it's slumber. Like a typical Mélièsian perversion against nature, the undead entity flails its limbs about in a turn of the century dance, showing off its extendible bodyparts.

The subject matter doesn't drift far from Méliès' customary obsessions. Here, the star-studded dress of the alchemist is replaced by the fine linen of the Egyptian high priest. In a sense it highlights the European-crafted concept of the "Oriental," an artifice created by Europeans who saw in the Middle East their own shadow reflection. Or, as the case may be, more ghoulish things dancing in a delight of trick photography.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Descriptions de L'Egypte (1809)

The Descriptions de L'Egypte is a monumental task requiring a monumental effort to bring into the modern era. Thankfully, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and L'institute D'Egypte were up to the task and provided an excellently arranged and presented online version of this text. Click on the cover below to peruse the collection.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

The Allure of Orientalism

The Middle East has always held a strange, alien fascination for the West. In fact, it has been a monumental journey in the West's global, multicultural awareness for us to even be able to write about us in terms of being "the West"... "The East", be it Near, Middle or Far, came first, defined by its geographical relationship to Europe. Even then, "the West" initially described the colonies in their geographic relationship to Europe, which has only come to mean all of the Euro-American world by the United States of America's eclipsing Europe as the dominant cultural, economic, military and colonial power. That may be the topic for another post, however.

Both the oldest and the last extant Athenian dramas deal with the relationship of Europe to the Orient: Aeschylus' The Persians and Euripides' The Bacchae. The former articulates the military competition between these two poles that persists to this very day, framed by Aeschylus as the Persians' woe over the defeat of King Xerxes. The latter exploits our unending, commingling feelings of fascination and dread at perceived Middle Eastern mystery, sensuality and heathen blasphemy... A strange, exotic mix that is as appeal ling now in Western Neo-Paganism's worship of Isis as it was in the Ancient Roman's Mystery Religions of the same.

Europe's troubled relationship with the Middle East continued through the Romans' conquests of Saharan Africa, Islam's conquests of Spain and Crusaders' conquests of Jerusalem. The modern age of Orientalism, however, may be properly said to have begun with Napoleon's conquest of Egypt in 1798. Along with the troops that were meant to secure the Little General's place as the heir to Alexander the Great, there came a legion of artists, scientists and poets who charted the Land of the Pharaohs for an increasingly literate and information-hungry public. The 22 volumes of Descriptions de L'Egypte brought the intangibles back to them, while French soldiers carted off hundreds of artifacts, obelisks and tablets that even to this day litter the Louvre, the Sorbonne, and the streets of Paris.

Some 50 years later, Sir Richard Francis Burton would do his own part by donning a disguise and putting his life in considerable danger to violate the sacred mysteries of the Hajj. From his adventures came imagination-capturing tomes like A Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Medinah and Meccah, The Book of One Thousand Nights and A Night and the Kama Sutra. Shortly before Burton, the English Romantics were entranced by Ozymandias, Kubla Kahn and the hazy smoke of opium. After him, the Orient consumed European houses inside and out, from Orientalist interior design to Indo-Saracenic and Moorish Revival architecture like Prince Edward's Royal Pavillion at Brighton.

Orientalism would receive another boost in the heady days of the Roaring Twenties. A 1919 rape fantasy novel by Edith Maude Hull became Rudolph Valentino's most famous role in the 1921 film The Sheik. The 1926 sequel The Son of the Shiek would also become Valentino's last, posthumous picture. Doulgas Fairbanks tried his hand at a more wholesome foray into the Middle East with the 1924 fantasy Thief of Baghdad. One year after the release of The Shiek, Howard Carter would make history with the discovery of the last great, undiscovered and unpillaged pharaonic tomb, belonging to the boy-king Tutankhamun. This front page headline news in turn inspired Universal Studios to round out their burgeoning selection of monsters with 1932's The Mummy.

The late Edward Said wrote, in his epochal critique Orientalism:
By the middle of the nineteenth century Orientalism was as vast a treasure-house of learning as one could imagine. There are two excellent indices of this new, triumphant eclecticism. One is the encyclopedic description of Orientalism roughly from 1764 to 1850 given by Raymond Schwab in his La Renaissance orientale. Quite aside from the scientific discoveries of things Oriental made by learned professionals during this period in Europe, there was the virtual epidemic of Orientalia affecting every major poet, essayist, and philosopher of the period. Schwab's notion is that "Oriental" identifies an amateur or professional enthusiasm for everything Asiatic, which was wonderfully synonymous with the exotic, the mysterious, the profound, the seminal...

Said continues on the subject of this enthusiasm:
In the depths of this Oriental stage stands a prodigious cultural repertoire whose individual items evoke a fabulously rich world: the Sphinx, Cleopatra, Eden, Troy, Sodom and Gomorrah, Astarte, Isis and Osiris, Sheba, Babylon, the Genii, the Magi, Nineveh, Prester John, Mahomet, and dozens more; settings, in some cases names only, half-imagined, half-known; monsters, devils, heroes; terrors, pleasures, desires. The European imagination was nourished extensively from this repertoire...

This fascination is what Said, quoting V.G. Kiernan, calls "Europe's collective day-dream of the Orient."

For Said, a Palestinian, that collective daydream was the means by which the West has perpetually victimized the Middle East. The Orient is exoticized, turned inexorably into The Other. We hope that he could forgive our study of Orientalism, which is fascinating in itself and admittedly nostalgic as an aesthetic. To be clear, Orientalism does not, and never did even in its original form, have much to do with the actual lives and people and history of the Middle East. But this is true of any of our nostalgias, be it for the 19th century, the 1930's, 50's, 60's, or 80's. "Retro" is two-steps removed: once removed by its distance from the movement it is nostalgic about, and again by the removal of that movement from the reality of its subject. The study of actual Middle Eastern history and the harsher reality of Victorian and Edwardian encounters with "the Oriental" in hegemonic imperialism will be studies for another time. For the present, it is the romantic myth of that encounter developed by Westerners that is our subject.

We are a weblog that is indulgently Romantic and, without guilt or self-reproach, consciously so. Romanticism may on one hand be naive, idealistic, or in its darkest misuses even racist and imperialist, but it can also be a conscious choice about how one wishes to approach the world. It depends, perhaps, on whether the breed of Romanticism is a means to shrink away from the world or a provocation to explore it. If the latter, then the study of Orientalism and its images - like the study of any movement, author and image of the Victorian Era - can be joined with appreciation of the genuine culture and accomplishments of that region that still seems even to modern Western eyes to be incomprehensibly mysterious and ancient.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

The Courtier's Reply-Reply and Other Atheist Logical Fallacies

I promise that essays of this type will not become a frequent occurrence on this weblog. For the most part, we only interject small doses of religion where it has to do with science and scientific romanticism. I can't imagine that anyone would be interested in my sermons save for on a blog specifically devoted to them.

With a enough provocation, I am willing to take a Sunday to come out of the proverbial closet and shout critiques into the wild aether. In this case, I sat down to watch Richard Dawkins' series Enemies of Reason, which he introduces with the following gem:
There are two ways of looking at the world – through faith and superstition or through the rigours of logic, observation and evidence – in other words, through reason.

At which point I turned it off since Dawkins once more revealed himself to be a mere writer of polemic op-ed pieces rather than a serious contributor to philosophical thought.

The great shock of this comment is not simply in its astonishingly naive view of the world. For some perspective, there are 16 different personality types each in the Myers-Briggs and the DISC systems. In the Keirsey Tempraments system, there are four tempraments with eight roles, and there are six personality types in the Holland Code with most people centering on two apiece. There are nine Enneatypes. In Multiple Intelligence models, there are seven distinct learning intelligence types. Just in Christianity alone, there are over two billion adherents scattered amongst 38,000 denominations and sects. 83% of the world's population is not from the Western cultural heritage. There are over 6.7 billion people in the world overall. Yet, he says, there are only two ways of looking at the world and you have to pick one or the other. It's less of a critique of religion than it is an insult to wonderful, creative, awful, inventive, brilliant humanity.

The greater and deeper shock is what this naiveté says of the person making it and the movement he has come to represent. I should note here that I do not speak of all atheists, the proper, small-a type for whom religion and spirituality are pragmatic non-issues and go about living their lives as civil and constructive members of a multicultural society. I am speaking of verbose, capital-A evangelistic Atheism, for which questions of religion and spirituality are of the utmost importance and for whom different people believing different things than them is a societal problem. If one needs evidence that there is a distinction and that non-belief in deities is not the sole necessary and sufficient characteristic of Atheism, one needs only to invoke the spectre of atheists who have done unpleasant things, at which point it descends into the "no true atheist" fallacy.

But I digress. The shock regarding Dawkins' comment is that a man so intelligent on matters for which he has a degree should show himself to be so profoundly ignorant of matters in which he does not. The shock is that a man who advocates so vehemently for logic should introduce a series entitled Enemies of Reason with a logical fallacy.

G.K. Chesterton addressed this profound - he called it "casual" - ignorance on the part of experts outside their area of expertise. Back in 1910, he observed:
Now against the specialist, against the man who studies only art or electricity, or the violin, or the thumbscrew or what not, there is only one really important argument, and that, for some reason or other, is never offered. People say that specialists are inhuman; but that is unjust. People say an expert is not a man; but that is unkind and untrue. The real difficulty about the specialist or expert is much more singular and fascinating. The trouble with the expert is never that he is not a man; it is always that wherever he is not an expert he is too much of an ordinary man. Wherever he is not exceptionally learned he is quite casually ignorant. This is the great fallacy in the case of what is called the impartiality of men of science. If scientific men had no idea beyond their scientific work it might be all very well — that is to say, all very well for everybody except them. But the truth is that, beyond their scientific ideas, they have not the absence of ideas but the presence of the most vulgar and sentimental ideas that happen to be common to their social clique. If a biologist had no views on art and morals it might be all very well. The truth is that the biologist has all the wrong views of art and morals that happen to be going about in the smart set of his time.

Such vulgar sentimentality expresses itself here in the false dilemma, which is a logical fallacy setting up a question in which two propositions are in opposition which may not be in opposition or for which there may be more than two propositions. Dawkins says that one has to choose between his rational, logical, atheistic way or the irrational, illogical, superstitious way. Never mind that there is every possible theological combination in the negotiation between physics and metaphysics, nor that there are vast swaths of human experience for which neither category really applies, nor that people in their psychological and cultural diversity are far more nuanced and complicated than this ultimatum allows.

He, of course, has a ready defense supplied to him by P.Z. Myers, another biologist. The accusation of crafting a false dilemma is dismissed with the accusation of a "Courtier's Reply". The Courtier's Reply-Reply is little more than a dodge attempting to change the subject when one has been exposed as having an inadequate understanding of the debate's particulars.

In Myers' own words:
I have considered the impudent accusations of Mr Dawkins with exasperation at his lack of serious scholarship. He has apparently not read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor's boots, nor does he give a moment's consideration to Bellini's masterwork, On the Luminescence of the Emperor's Feathered Hat. We have entire schools dedicated to writing learned treatises on the beauty of the Emperor's raiment, and every major newspaper runs a section dedicated to imperial fashion; Dawkins cavalierly dismisses them all. He even laughs at the highly popular and most persuasive arguments of his fellow countryman, Lord D. T. Mawkscribbler, who famously pointed out that the Emperor would not wear common cotton, nor uncomfortable polyester, but must, I say must, wear undergarments of the finest silk.

Dawkins arrogantly ignores all these deep philosophical ponderings to crudely accuse the Emperor of nudity.

Personally, I suspect that perhaps the Emperor might not be fully clothed — how else to explain the apparent sloth of the staff at the palace laundry — but, well, everyone else does seem to go on about his clothes, and this Dawkins fellow is such a rude upstart who lacks the wit of my elegant circumlocutions, that, while unable to deal with the substance of his accusations, I should at least chide him for his very bad form.

Until Dawkins has trained in the shops of Paris and Milan, until he has learned to tell the difference between a ruffled flounce and a puffy pantaloon, we should all pretend he has not spoken out against the Emperor's taste. His training in biology may give him the ability to recognize dangling genitalia when he sees it, but it has not taught him the proper appreciation of Imaginary Fabrics.

The summary of this parable is that religious people will attempt to distract from the fundamental question of whether or not theism is true by making sophistic theological arguments. In defense of Dawkins' logical fallacy one could reply that the diversity of thought on the integration of faith and reason is irrelevant because the object of faith has not been proven true by reason (thereby making faith by definition dialectic with reason). So long as gods and spirits have not been empirically proven, believing in them is automatically irrational and superstitious. Any further analysis of exactly how irrational and superstitious someone is descends into pointlessness.

Allow me to explain exactly where the Courtier's Reply-Reply fails.

First, it claims to be keeping the debate "on track" and focused on the core issue of empirical evidence for the existence of deities. However, the Courtier's Reply-Reply is frequently invoked to dodge the fact that the issue of proof - for and against - is a vigorous and ongoing theological discussion with numerous different perspectives. There is active debate over what categories of proof are relevant (not all proof is empirical), what would constitute a proof, and the strength of propositions in those categories. There is also vigrous debate over exactly what "faith" is and exactly what kind of discipline theology is. Not only do too many Atheists demonstrate themselves to be uninformed about these debates, but also about debates from epistemology and philosophy of science. That is, not only debates within religious circles about the nature of knowledge and proof, but even debates within science (including the error of conflating logic with reason with empiricism).

Nevertheless, the Atheist in question is certainly entitled to make the argument from personal incredulity: "I have not seen evidence for a deity that is sufficient according to my own criteria of evidence, and therefore no one else has." It is certainly reasonable not to accept the existence of something for which one has not been given convincing proof (and it seems to be that "and therefore no one else has" clause that separates atheists from Atheists). It is also possible to set the criteria of sufficient proof so strictly or inappropriately for the context that it becomes impossible for anyone to provide any proof by definition. For example, that only empirical proof is valid and you would have to show empirical proof demonstrating otherwise. Theologians are then entitled to reply that such a self-assured argument is narrow and has little mileage. If I truly do believe that I have seen what you have not seen, then we are only dancing around the mulberry bush of the obvious: you are an atheist and I am not.

That poor mileage may explain the second point on which the Courtier's Reply-Reply fails, which is that Atheists frequently debate the content of religious beliefs, exactly where being theologically and socio-historically informed would be relevant and beneficial. Not only that, but one would think that it should be a basic requirement.

To give a socio-historical example from my own experience, a frequent argument from Atheists is that liberal-moderate theists are complicit with the problems caused by radical-conservative theists because our "superstitious" thinking abstractly encourages their own. To draw it down from the vaporous abstract, I am a pacifist who arrived at that ethos through reflection on my Christian faith. According to Atheists employing this argument, I am responsible for all theists, be they Christians or Muslims or Mormons or Zoroastrians or Hindus or Wiccans, who do use violence. Because I believe things, regardless of what, I am somehow empowering the Christian Fundamentalists condemning me to Hell or Muslim terrorists who want to kill me. I'm unsure as to whether I'm also responsible for the atheists who have committed genocide on religious grounds, since they are not "true" atheists apparently. However, I have also never had a debate over theistic violence with an Atheist who was a pacifist themselves, so it's all somewhat absurd.

This particular association fallacy is so insipid because it demonstrates such an earnest desire to be angry at all theists on principle and without reason. It is a fallacy that could be easily resolved by having any familiarity whatsoever with denominational, interdenominational and inter-religious politics (Which religions are violent and irrational? "Uh... All of them!"). Yet to say so is to invite the Courtier's Reply-Reply that doctrinal distinctions between theists are irrelevant because the issue is over the existence of deities in general.

Of course, they are not. They are absolutely and immediately relevant. The above example was only peripherally about the existence of a god and practically about whether theism is a coherent enough category that any one theist or school of theistic thought could be made responsible for all the others. It's a sociological issue. When Dawkins claims that there are only two ways of looking at the world, he is not making an argument about whether or not a god exists. He is making a specific theological, socio-historical claim that no philosophy of science or religion can exist which integrates the two. This claim is demonstrably false and they are both problems of accurate representation, which is the prerequisite of effective and logical argumentation.

The same is true of any argument against the existence of God based on the content of a religion, such as the definition of a god, the ethical character of a god, why a good god would allow evil, why and if a deity would withhold incontrovertible evidence of its existence, the logical possibility of a deity - should one exist - incarnating as a human being, the nature of sin and salvation, what worshipping a deity means, proper interpretation of sacred writ, and so on (and on and on). Basically, any argument in which the Atheist assumes for the sake of argument that a god exists in order to catch the believer in a contradiction.

In doing so, the Atheist has become a theologian, attempting to work out the end-point of a theological proposition through logical argumentation. When the Atheist - say, a biologist stepping outside the realm of biology - engages in a theological discussion, then whether or not they are a good and informed theologian becomes a relevant issue. So while Myers may protest that "I don't know what's going on in the world of theology. And I don't give a damn." and proceeds to speak as a theologian on theological topics, he is merely admitting and excusing that he is a poorly-informed one.

The Courtier's Reply-Reply becomes little more than a cheat at this point, the very sort of red herring that they accuse theists of making. After attempting a theological argument, the goalposts shift when theological ignorance has been exposed. Doing so only demonstrates that one is not interested in a serious debate. It then bolsters the other logical fallacies in the Atheist rhetorical arsenal, like false dilemmas, straw men, appeals to ridicule, reductio ad Hitlerum and even the too-common ad hominem:

- "You close-minded bigot Christians believe that your bearded man in the sky says X!"
- Well I'm a Christian and I don't believe that.
- "Yes you do! You have to! The Bible says it!"
- I don't and you evidently don't understand what the Bible says or what we think about God. I believe G, N and J, but not X, and if you knew anything about my religion you would know that.
- "Bah! It doesn't matter anyways! All religions are the same! That's just the Courtier's Reply! Courtier's Reply!"

Beyond the fact that the self-proclaimed defenders of logic and reason find it necessary to rely on logical fallacies, there is a wonderful and tedious irony about the Courtier's Reply-Reply. Long before Myers gave it a name, the tactic has been employed by Christian Fundamentalists to excuse their deplorable lack of knowledge about, well, anything. They know, so they say, that Muslims, Wiccans and evolution are wrong, so of what possible benefit is learning about them? Why not persist in saying that Muslims worship a moon goddess, that Wiccans worship the Devil and that the only sufficient evidence for evolution would be a dog changing into a cat right before their eyes? The foundational premises are perceived to be wrong, therefore there is no need to be accurate in the particulars of other people's views.

Let me repeat that, because that is the crux of the Courtier's Reply-Reply: the foundational premises are perceived to be wrong, therefore there is no need to be accurate in the particulars of other people's views.

Amongst those who have suffered for how Christian Fundamentalists feel no pressing need to be accurate are atheists themselves. One of the key pieces of Atheist social justice arguments is that atheism continues to be demonized and misrepresented by the ignorant who insist on speaking against them without knowing anything about them. The pot calls the kettle black and once more we see evidence that a person, even with a PhD, does not automatically become logical and rational in all things simply because they are not a theist.