December 12, 2007

Why the Classics ii

Physicist Martin Perl theorized that there had to be a lepton heavier than a Muon. Though his colleagues, Kenneth Ford tells us in his delightful book The Quantum World, doubted he'd find it--he was "guided only by curiosity and hope, not theory," Perl persisted, and ultimately identified the Tau particle. A worthy pursuit:

Addressing the question of the usefulness of the discoveries like that of the tau lepton, Perl said, "The use of the discovery of basic particles is indirect. We have found that everything of a complicated nature is made from three basic families of particles. Eventually, this will lead to an improved understanding of energy and time. From that we hope will come new ideas that lead to applications like a source of cheap energy which is truly safe."

I thought first of Martin Perl when I read, in this column on Hanukkah by Christopher Hitchens, the following passage:

And, of course and as ever, one stands aghast at the pathetic scale of the supposed "miracle." As a consequence of the successful Maccabean revolt against Hellenism, so it is said, a puddle of olive oil that should have lasted only for one day managed to burn for eight days. Wow! Certain proof, not just of an Almighty, but of an Almighty with a special fondness for fundamentalists. Epicurus and Democritus had brilliantly discovered that the world was made up of atoms, but who cares about a mere fact like that when there is miraculous oil to be goggled at by credulous peasants?

One can be repulsed by Hitchens' insensitivity to religious belief (I wonder whether his rhetorical approach is ultimately counterproductive to his aims: he seems sometimes to strive to insult more than persuade), but that should not deter us from noting his argument. The atom, as Epicurus defined it, was the indivisible, smallest constituent of matter. A sword is not just a sword, it is made of iron, and the tiniest bit of iron is an invisibly small particle of iron. There had to be such a particle, Epicurus reasoned, and it had to have certain properties to distinguish it from other properties. The process is the same as Perl's theorizing of the tau particle, and suggests that were it not for humanity's propensity to go down so many blind alleys, we'd be much closer to understanding what the universe is (something we still don't know...)

Posted by Ideofact at 02:23 AM | Comments (0)

A Contemptible Lie

I have no love for Michael Vick -- I would much prefer the company of the dogs he chose to torture. That said, I see no reason to similarly torture Mr. Vick in retribution, although that is what I suspect will be done to him over the next 23 months. Whatever else one can say about his sentence, the idea that time spent in our federal prison system will improve Vick's character is laughable, or that the government, by imprisoning him, intends to improve his character -- yet that is the laughable fiction the government is peddling:

U.S. Attorney Chuck Rosenberg said the case had "exposed a seamy side of our society," and he trusts that Vick "learned important lessons and that his admission of guilt will speed his rehabilitation."

Precisely how will incarceration with criminals far more dangerous than Vick speed his rehabilitation?

Posted by Ideofact at 02:17 AM | Comments (0)

December 10, 2007

Absence of Evidence

Against my better judgment, I left a comment over on Contentions noting my discomfort with Biblical archaeology. "Biblical Archaeology, which begins by looking for physical evidence consistent with narratives that may have been first written down long after the events they describe, uses an inherently flawed procedure. Researchers put a premium on finding what supports the narrative they seek to prove, and similarly tend to ignore anything the contradicts it," I wrote. However, absence of evidence never seems to persuade the faithful to revise their opinions of the holy texts.

I have a tremendous fondness for Plutarch -- I read most of the Lives in 10th and 11th grade and thought then that they were more accurate than inaccurate (if they were good enough for Shakespeare...). But there are two reasons, my excellent Latin teacher warned me, to be cautious about taking Plutarch with anything less than a softball-sized grain of salt. First, he wrote of many events as distant from his own lifetime as the Renaissance is from our own. And second, he wrote his lives with the didactic purpose of providing moral instruction rather than merely to relate what had happened.

It appears that Plutarch might have been wildly wrong, if we credit this this report:

The Greek myth that ancient Spartans threw their stunted and sickly newborns off a cliff was not corroborated by archaeological digs in the area, researchers said Monday.

After more than five years of analysis of human remains culled from the pit, also called an apothetes, researchers found only the remains of adolescents and adults between the ages of 18 and 35, Athens Faculty of Medicine Anthropologist Theodoros Pitsios said.

"There were still bones in the area, but none from newborns, according to the samples we took from the bottom of the pit" of the foothills of Mount Taygete near present-day Sparta.

"It is probably a myth, the ancient sources of this so-called practice were rare, late and imprecise," he added.

Meant to attest to the militaristic character of the ancient Spartan people, moralistic historian Plutarch in particular spread the legend during first century AD.

Plutarch is not diminished by this revelation (any more than Shakespeare's Julius Caesar or HBO's Rome should be judged solely on the basis of their historical accuracy); we can even concede that he might well have been working from inaccurate source matter, and chose to include it because it seemed to him to have the ring of truth, or, less charitably, to be too good to check. But what of the Bible?

Zahi Hawass, a fairly cautious scholar and a first rate archaeologist, told the New York Times that the Exodus story--well--"Really, it’s a myth.". That's his considered opinion as an archaeologist:

“If they get upset, I don’t care,” Dr. Hawass said. “This is my career as an archaeologist. I should tell them the truth. If the people are upset, that is not my problem.”

Biblical archaeologists would like us to revise our opinions of the Bible based on their findings. Will they in turn revise the Bible on the basis of the absence of evidence for its historical accuracy?

Posted by Ideofact at 11:28 PM | Comments (4)

December 05, 2007

Why the Classics?

In responding to Christopher Hitchens' joyous dismantling of Hannukah, Sam Munson mischaracterizes Hitchens' attachment to classical culture. Hitchens writes, for example,

As a consequence of the successful Maccabean revolt against Hellenism, so it is said, a puddle of olive oil that should have lasted only for one day managed to burn for eight days. Wow! Certain proof, not just of an Almighty, but of an Almighty with a special fondness for fundamentalists. Epicurus and Democritus had brilliantly discovered that the world was made up of atoms, but who cares about a mere fact like that when there is miraculous oil to be goggled at by credulous peasants?

Hitchens is not interested in promoting classical myths, but rather the like-minded Greek and Romans who rejected belief in their own ridiculous gods in favor of natural explanations for natural phenomenon (we don't know quite enough about Epicurus to conclude he was an atheist, methinks, but from his devotee Lucretius we can surmise that was probably the case).

Munson, however, writes as if Hitchens wished us all to offer libations to Olympian Zeus:

It’s all very well for Hitchens to call Hanukkah a celebration of tribal Jewish backwardness. But were the practices of the Greeks any less backward? No to circumcision but yes to exposing imperfect infants? No to the special relationship with God but yes to the Oracles of Delphi and Dodona?

A little thought experiment: can you think of a more theologically “complex” story than the binding of Isaac by his father Abraham, after Abraham was commanded to sacrifice him? Ah, the binding of Isaac, you say! The signal example of Judaism’s “cruelty”! But hang on. Those Aeschylean and Euripidean “complexities of life” so beloved of Rabbi Lerner and cited with such approval by Hitchens—does anyone really need to be reminded of how blood-drenched they were? How Orestes suffers in their toils? How Medea’s children die? Isaac, you’ll remember, lives.

I'll take Munson's bait, at least provisionally, and in reverse order. Medea's murder of her children is hardly condoned. Despite being cruelly treated then abandoned by Jason, Medea is condemned for killing her children. There are no extenuating circumstances to justify her crime. As for Orestes, honor and tradition demand that he avenge his father Agamemnon, who was murdered by his mother, Clytemnestra. Yes, he suffers horribly--both before avenging his father's murderer and after killing his mother. Who wouldn't in those circumstances? One could add Oedipus, the man who in ignorance commits a great evil. Or Antigone, who opposes state tyranny to satisfy the demands of a transcendent moral order (Hegel supposedly relied on Antigone for the structure of his Phenomenology of the Spirit, but don't hold that against Antigone).

Now, what happens in Abraham and Isaac? A man hears the call of a tribal god, demanding that he go to a certain place to sacrifice his only son. He obeys, takes the boy to the place, is about to strike the blow, but his hand is stayed by the tribal deity, who says, more or less, "Heh heh. Just wanted to see if you'd go through with it."

The Greek gods are unjust, vain, fallible, cruel, capricious--as is the god of Old Testament (Job seems a case in point). The Greeks recognized the failings of their gods (and they and the Romans doubted the veracity of any number of the stories told about them). Judaism demanded fealty and worship and belief without question.

Hitchens has no interest in defending pagan religions or myths (nor do I, for that matter), but I tend to think they hold up rather well against the myths that supplanted them.

Posted by Ideofact at 01:00 AM | Comments (0)