Books

25th May
2010
written by simplelight

Even in 1753 people thought there was too much ink being spent on too many worthless thoughts:

Title:     Adventurer 115
Author: Samuel Johnson
Adventurer No. 115. Tuesday, December 11, 1753.

Scribimus indocti doctique.
HOR. Lib. ii. Ep. i. 17.

All dare to write, who can or cannot read.
They who have attentively considered the history of mankind, know that every age has its peculiar character. At one time, no desire is felt but for military honours; every summer affords battles and sieges, and the world is filled with ravage, bloodshed, and devastation: this sanguinary fury at length subsides, and nations are divided into factions, by controversies about points that will never be decided. Men then grow weary of debate and altercation, and apply themselves to the arts of profit; trading companies are formed, manufactures improved, and navigation extended; and nothing is any longer thought on, but the increase and preservation of property, the artifices of getting money, and the pleasures of spending it.

The present age, if we consider chiefly the state of our own country, may be styled, with great propriety, _The Age of Authors_[1]; for, perhaps, there never was a time in which men of all degrees of ability, of every kind of education, of every profession and employment, were posting with ardour so general to the press. The province of writing was formerly left to those, who by study, or appearance of study, were supposed to have gained knowledge unattainable by the busy part of mankind; but in these enlightened days, every man is qualified to instruct every other man: and he that beats the anvil, or guides the plough, not content with supplying corporal necessities, amuses himself in the hours of leisure with providing intellectual pleasures for his countrymen.

It may be observed, that of this, as of other evils, complaints have been made by every generation: but though it may, perhaps, be true, that at all times more have been willing than have been able to write, yet there is no reason for believing, that the dogmatical legions of the present race were ever equalled in number by any former period: for so widely is spread the itch of literary praise, that almost every man is an author, either in act or in purpose: has either bestowed his favours on the publick, or withholds them, that they may be more seasonably offered, or made more worthy of acceptance.

In former times, the pen, like the sword, was considered as consigned by nature to the hands of men; the ladies contented themselves with private virtues and domestick excellence; and a female writer, like a female warrior, was considered as a kind of eccentrick being, that deviated, however illustriously, from her due sphere of motion, and was, therefore, rather to be gazed at with wonder, than countenanced by imitation. But as in the times past are said to have been a nation of Amazons, who drew the bow and wielded the battle-axe, formed encampments and wasted nations, the revolution of years has now produced a generation of Amazons of the pen, who with the spirit of their predecessors have set masculine tyranny at defiance, asserted their claim to the regions of science, and seem resolved to contest the usurpations of virility.

Some indeed there are, of both sexes, who are authors only in desire, but have not yet attained the power of executing their intentions; whose performances have not arrived at bulk sufficient to form a volume, or who have not the confidence, however impatient of nameless obscurity, to solicit openly the assistance of the printer. Among these are the innumerable correspondents of publick papers, who are always offering assistance which no man will receive, and suggesting hints that are never taken; and who complain loudly of the perverseness and arrogance of authors, lament their insensibility of their own interest, and fill the coffee-houses with dark stories of performances by eminent hands, which have been offered and rejected.

To what cause this universal eagerness of writing can be properly ascribed, I have not yet been able to discover. It is said, that every art is propagated in proportion to the rewards conferred upon it; a position from which a stranger would naturally infer, that literature was now blessed with patronage far transcending the candour or munificence of the Augustan age, that the road to greatness was open to none but authors, and that by writing alone riches and honour were to be obtained.

But since it is true, that writers, like other competitors, are very little disposed to favour one another, it is not to be expected, that at a time when every man writes, any man will patronize; and, accordingly, there is not one that I can recollect at present, who professes the least regard for the votaries of science, invites the addresses of learned men, or seems to hope for reputation from any pen but his own.

The cause, therefore, of this epidemical conspiracy for the destruction of paper, must remain a secret: nor can I discover, whether we owe it to the influences of the constellations, or the intemperature of seasons: whether the long continuance of the wind at any single point, or intoxicating vapours exhaled from the earth, have turned our nobles and our peasants, our soldiers and traders, our men and women, all into wits, philosophers, and writers.

It is, indeed, of more importance to search out the cure than the cause of this intellectual malady; and he would deserve well of this country, who, instead of amusing himself with conjectural speculations, should find means of persuading the peer to inspect his steward’s accounts, or repair the rural mansion of his ancestors; who could replace the tradesman behind his counter, and send back the farmer to the mattock and the flail.

General irregularities are known in time to remedy themselves. By the constitution of ancient Egypt, the priesthood was continually increasing, till at length there was no people beside themselves; the establishment was then dissolved, and the number of priests was reduced and limited. Thus among us, writers will, perhaps, be multiplied, till no readers will be found, and then the ambition of writing must necessarily cease.

But as it will be long before the cure is thus gradually effected, and the evil should be stopped, if it be possible, before it rises to so great a height, I could wish that both sexes would fix their thoughts upon some salutary considerations, which might repress their ardour for that reputation, which not one of many thousands is fated to obtain.

Let it be deeply impressed, and frequently recollected, that he who has not obtained the proper qualifications of an author, can have no excuse for the arrogance of writing, but the power of imparting to mankind something necessary to be known. A man uneducated or unlettered may sometimes start a useful thought, or make a lucky discovery, or obtain by chance some secret of nature, or some intelligence of facts, of which the most enlightened mind may be ignorant, and which it is better to reveal, though by a rude and unskilful communication, than to lose for ever by suppressing it.

But few will be justified by this plea; for of the innumerable books and pamphlets that have overflowed the nation, scarce one has made any addition to real knowledge, or contained more than a transposition of common sentiments, and a repetition of common phrases.

It will be naturally inquired, when the man who feels an inclination to write, may venture to suppose himself properly qualified; and, since every man is inclined to think well of his own intellect, by what test he may try his abilities, without hazarding the contempt or resentment of the publick.

The first qualification of a writer is a perfect knowledge of the subject which he undertakes to treat; since we cannot teach what we do not know, nor can properly undertake to instruct others while we are ourselves in want of instruction. The next requisite is, that he be master of the language in which he delivers his sentiments: if he treats of science and demonstration, that he has attained a style clear, pure, nervous, and expressive; if his topicks be probable and persuasory, that he be able to recommend them by the superaddition of elegance and imagery, to display the colours of varied diction, and pour forth the musick of modulated periods.

If it be again inquired, upon what principles any man shall conclude that he wants those powers, it may be readily answered, that no end is attained but by the proper means; he only can rationally presume that he understands a subject, who has read and compared the writers that have hitherto discussed it, familiarized their arguments to himself by long meditation, consulted the foundations of different systems, and separated truth from errour by a rigorous examination.

In like manner, he only has a right to suppose that he can express his thoughts, whatever they are, with perspicuity or elegance, who has carefully perused the best authors, accurately noted their diversities of style, diligently selected the best modes of diction, and familiarized them by long habits of attentive practice.

No man is a rhetorician or philosopher by chance. He who knows that he undertakes to write on questions which he has never studied, may without hesitation determine, that he is about to waste his own time and that of his reader, and expose himself to the derision of those whom he aspires to instruct: he that without forming his style by the study of the best models hastens to obtrude his compositions on the publick, may be certain, that whatever hope or flattery may suggest, he shall shock the learned ear with barbarisms, and contribute, wherever his work shall be received, to the depravation of taste and the corruption of language.

23rd November
2008
written by simplelight

What has been wanting on the right at the start of this century is a true “conservative disposition” — the disposition to enjoy what is rather than pining for what might be (to paraphrase Himmelfarb), to enjoy the givens and the goods of life without subjecting them to social or political validation.

Rationalism in Politics, despite being clouded by the “fumes of tradition”, is a breath of fresh air.

His [the Rationalist's] mental attitude is at once sceptical and optimistic: sceptical, because there is no opinion, no habit, no belief, nothing so firmly rooted or so widely held that he hesitates to question it and to judge it by what he calls his ‘reason’; optimistic, because the Rationalist never doubts the power of his ‘reason (when properly applied) to determine the worth of a thing, the truth of an opinion or the propriety of an action. Moreover, he is fortified by a belief in a reason’ common to all mankind, a common power of rational consideration, which is the ground and inspiration of argument: set up on his door is the precept of Parmenides–judge by rational argument. But besides this, which gives the Rationalist a touch of intellectual equalitarianism, he is something also of an individualist, finding it difficult to believe that anyone who can think honestly and clearly will think differently from himself.

29th September
2008
written by simplelight

No one seems to talk about the Iraq war any more. I suppose positions harden over time and discussion becomes increasingly futile. I’ve always thought, though, that most debate in the aftermath draws a comparison between the Iraq of today and the Iraq of 2002. Maybe because it’s difficult to imagine an alternative course of history. 

I read a book this weekend called ‘A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier’ . I highly recommend it although it is a harrowing read and I felt drained by the end. It’s the story of a 12-year old boy who gets swept up in the brutal bush war in Sierra Leone in the 1990′s.

In one sense, it’s about the debate we never have: the cost of inaction and the other path that history could take.

16th July
2007
written by simplelight

First Things has a great article on the intersection of science and faith. Definitely a great read.

If you’re interested in the topic, I highly recommend the book: “The Anthropic Cosmological Principle“.

12th June
2007
written by simplelight

It is rare to read a book that has the potential to change one’s entire worldview. This weekend I read Genetic Entropy & the Mystery of the Genome. The author is John Sanford, a professor of genetics at Cornell University, inventor of the gene gun, and holder of 25 patents. His essential thesis is that a blind evolutionary process could not have produced humans from single cell organisms. He gives a multitude of cogent arguments why this is so.

Moreover, he makes a very compelling case that, in fact, mutation and natural selection are actually degrading the genome to such an extent that humans will eventually go extinct. The simple reason is that each generation introduces at least 100 mutations which are both deleterious (degrade the genome) and near-neutral (unlikely to be removed by natural selection). The cost of natural selection would have to be extraordinarily high to remove such a large number of mutations from the gene pool. In addition, the rare beneficial mutations are also near-neutral and consequently impossible to select for.

A lot of this resonates with my experience with genetic algorithms where the vast majority of the population has to be wiped out at each generation to prevent non-useful mutations from multiplying.

What I find fascinating, though, is that everyone I have spoken to about this book immediately dismisses it because it “sounds like Creationism”. Perhaps secularism really has risen to the level of a religion: steeped in dogma and unwilling to confront facts.

18th November
2006
written by simplelight

I have long held the theory that every conversation, if pursued long enough, naturally and necessarily ends with a discussion about the existence of God and our purpose on earth. A few years ago a long lunch conversation reached this point, and an engineer concluded with the statement: “My God is a set of equations.” To which I replied, “What do those equations describe?”

These days it is fashionable among the intelligentsia to declare with newly-discovered transcendence that religion is a good enough thing (if done in moderation) and science is self-evidently worthwhile but we should never, ever confuse the two. The intersection of science and faith, rationalism and mystery, is best left to the final pages of an epilogue in a serious book on science, or to footnotes in a book on faith.

And yet equations are merely an abstraction of the physical world and the Christian faith claims to worship a Jesus who walked in history and a God who created the physical. Why then, have the last few decades produced an intellectual movement so devoted to a separation of faith and science?

In 1931 Godel published a paper which challenged the basic assumptions underlying mathematics and became a milestone in the history of logic and mathematics. I believe that the world is still coming to terms with the philosophical implications of Godel’s Theorem of Incompleteness. Others have better summarized his theorem but it proscribes the limits of axiomatic logic and shows that provability is a weaker notion than truth; in short, there is Truth that we can’t logically prove.

Nagel and Newman, in their classic book on the subject, Godel’s Proof, conclude with the comment:

Godel’s proof should not be construed as an invitation to despair or as an excuse for mystery-mongering.

That might be. But it does, I believe, suggest that if God is a set of equations, those equations lie in a realm of mathematics about which we haven’t even begun to dream.

21st October
2006
written by simplelight

I stumbled across a post by James over at Rattazzimedia. While I disagree that perfect unity on all issues is possible this side of eternity, the idea of unity in the church is near and dear to me which is why I have long lamented the demise of the Apostle’s Creed as a succint statement that we can all agree on. I am halfway through a profound book by Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline which is essentially an extended rumination on the meaning of the Apostle’s Creed by one of the great theologians of the 20th century.

5th September
2006
written by simplelight

A scientist, Rupert Sheldrake, is claiming that he has proof of telephone telepathy. Maybe I’ve read too many fantasy books lately but the idea of telepathy has always resonated with me.

6th March
2006
written by simplelight

Have almost finished reading The Guns of August. It’s an account of the first month of World War I and ranks as one of the finest works of historical nonfiction. The book opens with the following paragraph:

So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration. In scarlet and blue and green and purple, three by three the sovereigns rode through the palace gates, with plumed helmets, gold braid, crimson sashes, and jeweled orders flashing in the gun. After them came five heirs apparent, forty more imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens – four dowager and three regnant – and a scattering of special ambassadors from uncrowned countries. Together they represented seventy nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and, of its kind, the last. The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.

It’s astonishing to read of the parallels between 1914 and today. The course of history is influenced by frail human intellect as much as ever.