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Friday, February 25, 2011

The Loftrino

The Loftrino: New Meme Isolated

Fort Wayne, Indiana: Scientists here have isolated a new fundamental memetic particle with a remarkable set of properties. Called the loftrino, after atheist writer John Loftus, the particle has a large negative probative mass, (it can prove some 46 times the opposite of whatever it claims), seems to always be in motion, was produced in an imaginary epoch called the Enlightenment, and can never be destroyed by outside action, no matter how long or fiercely you bombard it with facts. The loftrino has been observed traveling through two thousand years of Christian history, without being swayed by the gravitational pull of facts, the informed opinion of historians, or even the evident sequence of events.

The particle was isolated last week when, in a demonstration, John Loftus posted a graph of the purported baneful influence of Christianity on science. This graph shows seven distinct eras in the history of science: (1) Egyptian, (2) Greek, (3) Roman, (4) "Christian Dark Ages," (5) Renaissance, (6) Age of "Enlightenment," and (7) Modern Science. The graph shows scientific knowledge and understanding increasing in each of these eras, except for the "Christian Dark Ages," when it drops off like a rock about 420 AD, then flatlines until 1300 AD. After the "Enlightenment," it picks up at an accelerated rate.

If that isn't clear enough, in large black letters the words "The Hole Left by the Christian Dark Ages" fill an empty space in the graph, like a dragon on the edge of an old map.

The graph did not originate with Loftus. It appears to have been produced by an anti-Christian blogger named Jim Walker, at nobeliefs.com. (If someone knows of an earlier use of this graphic, please let me know!) Here's a sample of the history prose on offer in Walker's accompanying essay:


"The Christian Dark Ages represents a time in the history of Europe where scientific advancement not only halted but went backwards. The hole left by the Dark Ages bears the imprint of scientific ignorance that lasted longer than the Roman Empire. Imagine where scientific advancement would stand today if not for the scars left by Christianity.


"During the Renaissance, and especially the Age of Enlightenment, people began to wake up. Many freethinkers and scientists rejected orthodox religion and replaced it with unitarianism, deism, or non-theistic philosophy. During the 1800s and after, scientists no longer had to fear religious persecution in any form. As never before in the history of mankind, scientists began to reject theocracy entirely. And what happened as a result of the freedom from religious influence? Science literally exploded with new ideas and discoveries!"

Scientists are allowed an element of whimsy in named elementary particles (quark, charm quark, gluon). Also, perhaps because of all the scientific explosions going on there, the meme was not originally isolated on Walker's blog. (Though it was devastatingly debunked, to the extent that a loftrino can be debunked, by Mike Flynn here. Flynn appears to operate with the unfair advantage of having studied history.) But rather than calling it the "Walker," the new particle was named after the site at which it was first isolated and described, John Loftus' Debunking Christianity site.

The peculiar character of the loftrino has to do with its imperviousness to contrary evidence. Carl Sagan has also made similiar claims about how Christianity ruined ancient science. But Sagan was an astronomer, and no one expects him to know much about the history of Christianity. Loftus, by contrast, used to be an evangelist, and certainly knows a lot of facts about Christianity.

Furthermore, Loftus edited a book just last year that gives the lie to some of the claims on which this view of history are based, in a chapter written by Walker's favorite historian, Richard Carrier. If one can edit a book that debunks one's pet theory, yet still hold fast to that theory, loftrinos are likely to be on the loose.

Let's look more closely at the development of science during the historical periods covered by this graph:

# 2 + #3 Was Greek science on the steady upswing until about the time of Christ, as the Walker / Loftus graph shows? Did Roman science continue to progress for the next 400 years?

Here's Richard Carrier, in The Christian Delusion:

"Pagans did set the stage for the end of ancient science -- just not for any of the reasons Christians now claim. By failing to develop a stable and effective constitutional government, the Roman Empire was doomed to collapse under the weight of constant civil war and disastrous economic policy; and in the third century BCE that's exactly what it did. Pagan society responded to this collapse by retreating from the scientific values of its past and fleeing to increasingly mystical and fantastical ways of viewing the world and its wonders." (my emphasis)

Indeed, none of the 16 leading ancient scientists Carrier named on pages 401-2 worked within a century of the legalization of Christianity. (One list of the 100 most important scientists names seven before about 200 BC, but only Galen after that date.)

So according to Loftus' own book, not to mention historical reality, the second and third periods of the graph should show a declining, not a rising, slope.

In addition, Carrier credits theism in part for the rise of ancient science:

"Most intellectual polytheists believed in a Creator who had intelligently ordered the cosmos, that this order could be discovered by the human mind, and that such discovery honored God. Scientists like Galen and Ptolemy were thus motivated to pursue scientific inquiry by their religious piety, exactly as (Rodney) Stark claims Christians were, and for exactly the same reasons." (407)

Carrier describes Christianity as one of the "mystical and fantastic" worldviews into which Roman society fled while (supposedly) abandoning science. Yet he also admits that one key element in Christianity, faith in a good and rational Creator God, was in fact intimately associated with the rise of science BOTH in ancient Greece AND in modern Europe. The loftrino passes through these facts, not swerving one micron to right or left.

#4 What about the "Christian Dark Ages?" Historians recognize that science was not, in fact, abandoned by ancient Christians. In the 6th Century, for example, John Philoponus (who does not appear on Carrier's list) applied the idea of impetus to the planets, "the first attempt at a unified theory of dynamics." Listen to my interview of Oxford historian of science Dr. Alan Chapman for a more judicious and genteel view of this relationship.

Why did Christians fail to revive the full-scale era of scientific inquiry that occurred in Greece some 800 years before Christianity was legalized, but that had badly faded in the interum? Put that way, the question seems rather weak, like asking why matches don't spontaneously combust after they've been dropped in a creek and then covered in a mudslide.

Even so, for anyone with some acquaintance with history, or should I say some vulnerability to it, ought to know the answer: invasions. "Christendom" was on the defensive from 400 AD for most of the next millennia. Goths, Visigoths, Huns, Arabs, Vikings, Moors, Turks, wave after wave came crashing against European civilization. Whenever the tide slowed for a few years, civilizations popped up like crocuses in the spring. These civilizations and new institutions -- Irish monasteries, universities, Charlemagne, Alfred the Great -- had four things in common: Christian origins, unbounded curiosity, a fundamental sense of human equality that allowed social mobility, and a creativity that met and far surpassed even that of those few ancient Greeks who dabbled in science.

(5) The Renaissance. Walker shows science beginning a steep climb again from 1300. He actually credits the rise of science to a backlash against priestcraft failed to stem the tide of bubonic plague, or "Black Death." Actually the science of the Middle Ages was developed in the 13th and early 14th Century by people like Roger Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, Pierre de Maricourt, William of Occam, and Jean Buridan, mostly friars and priests. (Bacon was especially concerned for missions.) This was all DECADES before the bubonic plague even arrived in Crimea, in 1346! Those little rats, and the fleas that rode them, would have had to travel backwards in time to help inspire Medieval science! Perhaps that science was more advanced than we thought!

(6) The Enlightenment. Like many skeptics, Walker (and Loftus through him) credits the Enlightenment for increasing the pace of scientific discovery. He therefore sets the next slope increase at 1700 -- AFTER Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Boyle, Hooke, Newton, the Royal Academy, and all the great bible-thumper scientists who founded most of the modern scientific disciplines.

The Enlightenment was a movement in mostly bad philosophy and bad history. It's leaders, like Hobbes and Voltaire, were often also bad at science. Many skeptics fervently wish Enlightenment figures had inspired the birth of science; but until we find their time machines, we will have to reject that theory, too.

Other ancient civilizations developed the beginnings of what might be called science: Sumer, India, China, even MesoAmerica. Why did those civilizations get no further? Was Christianity somehow to blame for their failure, too?

But the thesis, "The Christian Dark Ages killed science" will, like most "New Atheist" claims, travel to the edge of the known universe, without being moved one micron up or down, left or right, by any of these facts, or those Flynn mentions.

Other skeptics may dispute credit with Loftus for discovery of the loftrino. Richard Dawkins, for example, has ardently held to the belief that Christian theology recommends "blind faith" from 1976 to the present, a long career even for a loftrino. (They cannot be influenced by outside realities, but their half-life is one lunar year, after which they degrade into back issues of the Huffington Post.)

If another claimant is produced, though, and is able to make a strong historical claim, and come up with a pithy alternative name for the loftrino, speak now, or forever hold your whirled peas!

24 comments:

Nick said...

Keep in mind also that most people did not have the leisure time we have today and Christians were making advancements in agriculture and medicine that were more beneficial to them than, say, finding out how many moons Jupiter has. Nothing wrong with that, but if you ask me if I want a cure for the common cold or to know the mass of Pluto, I'll take the cure any day. These advances were going on, but so were the founding of several universities and such for higher learning, including the study of pagan knowledge.

Loftus is immune to it however and just uncritically accepts it because it attacks Christianity.

David B Marshall said...

Nick: True enough. Rodney Stark is quite brusque on this subject -- you might enjoy my interview of him on the christthetao.com web site.

I felt a little guilty about pinning this on John, since I'm not sure he's sincere with a lot of his posts -- he's just trying to stir up discussion. Seems like kind of a strange gig to me -- type out three skeptical thoughts before dinner every day, throw up whatever you can find -- he must run out of ideas after a while.

Bjørn Are said...

David: Great post on an important topic, though a bit hard to read.

I think you should change background color or letterings - or you are perhaps trying to hide from John? ;-)

Bjørn Are said...

Another note...

"the Roman Empire was doomed to collapse under the weight of constant civil war and disastrous economic policy; and in the third century BCE that's exactly what it did."

I think you mean CE, not BCE?

Best
Bjorn-Are

David B Marshall said...

Bjorn: I'm quoting Carrier correctly, from page 413. Probably he's thinking of the collapse of the Republic in the 1st Century BC, which perhaps he sees as the fulfillment of trends started earlier. It does seem a bit early, but it's true he can't point to much science after that date.

I looked at your web site. Is that Norwegian? Cool.

John W. Loftus said...

John Philoponus was a minor voice, David. And yes, there are other factors involved.

For your readers I responded here.

BTW: Here's a blurb to be seen at the bottom on the official Christian Delusion website:

From Dr. Kenneth J. Howell, author of "God's Two Books: Copernican Cosmology and Biblical Interpretation in Early Modern Science":

"I liked Richard Carrier’s chapter on science. I see within it hope for an advancement of knowledge. When dealing with the ancients, Carrier is superb."

Nick said...

It'd been nice to see some documentation. I hope the source of that information was not "Agora."

Also, what reading has been done on the Inquisition and the Crusades?

David B Marshall said...

Several of the people Carrier included were "minor voices." But some of Philoponus' IDEAS were major, even if not widely picked up on.

As I acknowledge in my Amazon review, Carrier is fairly effective in arguing that, contra Stark, Greek science was pretty close to the real thing. The part of his argument in that chapter based on his own research is fairly good (though I've come across more experienced historians since then who disagree with his fundamental arguments). Some of it supports the general Christian position much better than he seems to recognize. But when he gets off into the tulies in marginal anti-Christian comments that go beyond his own research, his argument breaks down, as the review explains.

Bjørn Are said...

David: I took the clue from the use of "The Roman Empire", as there was no empire at that time BCE;-)

And yes, my blog is in Norwegian - I have also published several books on similiar topics as yours (and recommended yours, of course).

My far too infrequent Enlish blog is at http://b-a-d-blog.blogspot.com/

Crude said...

Hey man. Just popping in to say, good stuff. I also really enjoyed your earlier posts with thoughts about Christianity and eastern religions - I now and then get interested in what exactly is meant by 'The Tao' and how it may relate to theism generally, so this blog's becoming a more regular site for me.

David B Marshall said...

Bjorn: Thanks! Are your books in Norwegian, too?

I envy Norwegians their (unanimous, it seems) fluency in English -- I wish I were that good at Chinese or Japanese. When I first went to Hong Kong in 1984, one of my roomates, a young Norwegian, gave me his (English) Bible, since I'd forgotten mine. I still have that Bible -- it played an interesting role in my life.

David B Marshall said...

Crude: Good to hear it! A couple months ago I finished the first draft of the chapter in my dissertation evaluating Yuan Zhiming's argument that Lao Zi's Dao is a synonym for God. He's been widely criticized for that, but I think there's a lot to be said for his claim. Maybe I'll try to get something published on that subject.

David B Marshall said...

Curiously, John's "response" to my blog actually responds to nothing in it. Zero. Nada. He doesn't show that science was actually making great progress after 200 BC. He doesn't disprove the claim that invasions were mainly responsible for ending Roman civilization. He doesn't show that bubonic plague really could have inspired Medieval science. He doesn't prove that the Enlightenment actually occurs early enough to credit it for the rise of modern science.

In fact, all he offers in response is a blurb by some Catholic historian for Richard Carrier, asking whether the Catholic historian or I is more trustworthy -- apparently not noticing that my argument above APPEALS to Richard Carrier.

And the loftrino moves on.

Rob R said...

Good article DAvid.

here's an amateur speculation of mine. I was wondering if the so called dark ages though might also be characterized as the end of the real dark ages. How much civilizing of the northern and middle parts of Europe did Rome actually achieve? Seems to me that you have to figure that Europe was populated by the uncivilized and the dark ages was the transition period where these uncivilized peoples became more civilized (with much rough terrain in between), thanks to Christianity, amongst other things I'm sure.

Granted, "civilized" even here is a relative term considering that the early modern period and on brought on it's own barbarisms, cruelties and wars.

Rob R said...

FYI, an excellent book that deals with a lot of this is "Atheist Delusions", though I think it should''ve been titled "modernist delusions".

Bjørn Are said...

David: Yes, my books are in Norwegian only (the latest title is(translated) "When the Earth became flat - the myths that never die", see the cover at http://www.lutherforlag.no/BookDetails.aspx?bokid=537).

I have a rather long article in English on "Beyond the Protestant Work Ethic" at http://www.telenor.com/telektronikk/volumes/pdf/2.2004/Page_005-025.pdf though.

Do you remember the name of the Norwegian who gave you that Bible?

David B Marshall said...

Rob: It's a good question. I know the French invented the wine barrel long before Gaul was conquered by the Roman Empire: whether that's a sign of civilization or not, I'll leave to the gourmands to decide.

Stark argues that even in the "Dark Ages," just after the Western Empire fell, life was better for the average person than under Roman domination. Living standards improved, food was more available, and practical technology began to improve. I don't know if he's right or not. But it does seem that Europe avoided some of the stupid blunders it would later fall into, during those years -- Jews appear to have lived with their Christian neighbors in peace, usually, and people were protected, not prosecuted, from accusations of witchcraft.

I think there was a genuine fall-off for several centuries, due to invasions, but that it was ultimately dialectically productive for European civilization -- like the seed that dies and is buried.

David B Marshall said...

Bjorn: It looks like some of the themes of your blog include music, G. K. Chesterton, and the origin of modern science. Of the three, I'd say Chesterton is the topic that most interests me, though finding it hard to "get around." You might possibly find my "How the Brothers Grimm Overthrew the Evil Empire" article interesting, in Books & Culture. Chesterton plays a role.


I don't remember the name of my Norwegian friend in Hong Kong. I see the name Oyvind Akselsen on the inside cover, but that doesn't sound quite right -- maybe he used a nickname.

Bjørn Are said...

Indeed, David, GKC is one of my great passions, has been so since I first read him more than thirty years ago.

An incredible guy with a credible faith.

I think I have as complete a collection as it is possible to get if you don't spend a fortune on rare manuscripts or are his biographer (like my friend Geir Hasnes).

Your Grimm essay was fun and furious philosophy, to paraphrase a fav author of mine;-)

Nick said...

There's another post up at DC about the "dark ages."

Because Loftus just can't bear being wrong....

David B Marshall said...

Nick: So true. Carrier is, of course, conflicted: he knows historically that Christianity did not end science in the ancient world, but he wants so much to be able to say that it did. That's why I cited him as my main witness: no one can accuse Richard Carrier of being biased in favor of Christianity!

But I hope some readers will listen to my interview of Dr. Chapman. Chapman is so much more mature, knowledgeable, wise, genial, and enjoyable to listen to. Chapman has also kindly agreed to contribute a chapter on the origins of modern science to my upcoming anthology, Faith Seeking Understanding.

Paul said...

Moron... * sigh* I do believe i've lost some brain cells after perusing your site.

Savior said...

I don't know, nor do I care about Loftus. You are right that the graph is not 100% correct, but neither is your defence of the effect of Christianity on science. Here are some points, I TL;DR'd the second half of the post.

First, you bring the belief in a single Creator as a catalyst for the ancient Greeks' scientific prowess. This is simply false. The ancient Greeks did not believe in a good, rational Creator. It was Aristotle who came up with the idea -- and even then not a creator, but Mover, something that upkeeps the laws of the universe. You may be tempted to say lo! at this point, as Aristotle was also the founder of the so-called scientific thought, but I think it is completely accidental that it was him who came to this conclusion -- everybody at that time had their own theory about almost everything. :)

So belief in a Creator could not be the catalysator. Rather it was the _freedom_ and respect thinkers had in that era that allowed them to come up with all kinds of theories about physics and metaphysics, humanity and nature. This is definitely something that was missing in the middle ages, and mostly because of the Church. Without freedom there is no creativity. That some advancements were made in agriculture and military science was only because the Church did not care about the "lowly" disciplines of engineering. The other field where advances were made is religious thought, but that goes without saying.

Second, you argued that because Christianity was constantly under attack, Europe did not have the resources? inclination? to further science, much like the last centuries of the Roman Empire. While there is truth in this argument, it is strange that you just mentioned the Arabs in the same sentence as the other invaders. It is actually due to their work that the renessaince could actually happened. If you want to see a place where science thrived in Middle Ages Europe, look no further than pre-reconquista Spain, with its universities, where Christians, Muslims and Jews studied together.

Third, you try to argue in the post that Christianity did not have a negative effect on science. However, you name it as a principal factor that enabled the era of Charlemagne (and a few others) to produce scientific progress. (This is beside the point, but did they, actually?) This argument is flawed on two accounts. First, Christianity was the Zeitgeist of that age; of course everybody was Christian -- but you don't know to which extent, could be only in name, and therefore you cannot prove that they acted the way because they were Christians. Take the Irish monasteries, for example: they documented the myths and the history of the pagan Irish people, but it was the exception, not the norm: I am Hungarian and our own pagan belief system was all but lost when we converted. Second, if you want to prove the (I believe nonexistant) net positive effect of Christianity on science, you cannot just bring the few positive examples and imply that it is generally true; you have to have a look at the whole era. And that look will not nearly be as satisfactory -- hence the graph.

Nick said...

Or you could, you know, speak to someone who's studied the subject thoroughly, like I did on my show.

http://www.blogtalkradio.com/grok558/2013/06/08/lighting-up-dark-ages-science

Yes. Aristotle believed in a god, but that does not mean a creator. He believed the universe was eternal and cyclical and he had already entered the golden age. Why expect things to get better? There was not a scientific advancement after Aristotle. There was once the church came along.

As for the Arabs, there has not been much advancement in the Arab community due to an understanding of the Koran and that God is the efficient cause of everything. They did have their own golden age where they helped translate the works of Aristotle but alas, it ended.

Finally, if you want to show Christianity had a negative effect on science then, it will need to be shown. It hasn't been.