13 June 2021

Mary Somerville, Scottish polymath

Mary Somerville, born Mary Fairfax in 1780, was a Scottish scientist, known particularly for her books on astronomy and other physical sciences. Somerville College in Oxford is named after her. However, when I was at Somerville there was little sign of her in the college. I came across no portraits of her, and none of the undergraduates I knew seemed aware of who the college was named after.

In spite of the limited availability of education for girls at the time, Somerville seems to have seized her opportunities whenever they arose. For example, when she heard a teacher advising another (male) student to read Euclid’s Elements, she decided that she should do so too, as it would help her understand a textbook on navigational theory.

Her inheritance from the death of her first husband gave Somerville the freedom to pursue intellectual interests. She started to make a name for herself in 1811 when she was awarded a medal for solving a mathematical problem.

In 1827 Somerville was hired to translate Laplace’s Mécanique Céleste. She produced an expanded version of the first two volumes which was published as The Mechanism of the Heavens. This book made her famous, and remained a textbook for undergraduates until the 1880s. Somerville’s second book, On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences, sold over 10,000 copies and consolidated her reputation in physical science.

When Mary Somerville died in 1872, she was described in an obituary as the ‘queen of science’.

17 April 2021

A shortage of domestic servants in 1909

Extract from pamphlet Canada wants domestic servants, issued by Canada’s Minister of the Interior in 1909:
The domestic servant problem is to-day one of the most serious questions which the Canadian ladies have to deal with, and it would be beneficial alike to the employer and employee if a large number of female domestics should decide at once to emigrate to the Dominion.

[In the four years 1904-1907] the number of domestics arriving in Canada from the British Isles has been [over fifteen thousand] but this number would not have a noticeable effect in decreasing the demand even if all had remained in service, while as a matter of fact a very large percentage enter the matrimonial state shortly after their arrival and in turn become themselves mistresses requiring help in their household duties.
Extract from section ‘Letters from satisfied domestics’:
Dear Sir:
   Just a line or two to let you know how I am getting on since I came out to Virden in the spring. I like Canada very much, and can’t write too highly about the people in the district, they are all so kind to us strangers. There are fifteen of the girls who came out on the “Corinthian” round about Virden, and all liking it well. Virden is a fine clean little town and one man or woman is considered as good as another.
   It is about the way I was treated lately when I was ill that I wish to tell you particularly. I was in a situation and took typhoid fever and I don’t know who was the kindest to me. I was sent to the hospital at Brandon by the St. Andrew’s Society of Virden, who got a semi-private ward for me and when I was better they paid off the hospital and doctors’ expenses and the Government paid the rest, so I was not out one cent. It was almost good to be ill to see people so kind, for although the doctor would not allow visitors, the Brandon ladies sent in the most lovely flowers to me and nearly every day some one was telephoning and enquiring for me. I am all right again and able for work.
   There are far more people wanting help than there are girls for. I would like so much for my two sisters to come in the spring. Three of the Edinburgh girls who came out with me are in Brandon. I got my baggage all right and we had a nice trip out. I have been long in writing to tell you how I am getting on, but time passes so quickly. Believe me,
   Yours truly,
   Annie Cameron

28 February 2021

Lawrence of Arabia

Extract from Advice to Clever Children, about the modern obsession with qualifications.
T.E. Lawrence (1888-1935)
In the University of Oxford there used to be more understanding than there is now of the fact that there were a lot of ways in which a person of very high ability could get disconnected from his education, but that this ability might still be too good to waste. T.E. Lawrence, as he approached his final examinations in history, regarded himself as unprepared for them; and it may be doubted whether he would have got a First if a tutor, sympathetic to his evident ability, had not drawn to his attention the possibility of offering a thesis on a subject of special interest to him to supplement the usual papers, and been instrumental in arranging finance for an expedition necessary for the proposed thesis.

There was always a certain tradition that colleges could, and sometimes did, if they knew a person had very high ability, disregard his examination results and make it possible for him to continue his academic career. When I was an undergraduate there was a story about a certain Professor who had got a Fourth, but had still gone on with his academic career and arrived at his present eminence.

Even while I was at college a case occurred of a girl who got a Third, but the dons liked her and thought she was suited to doing research, so she duly got a research scholarship. Of course, with the advance of socialism and the increased dependence of the colleges (or, strictly speaking, the university) on state finance, the tendency is for nothing to matter except exam results, regardless of how they have been brought about.

10 January 2021

‘Man should become God’

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, a key idea is that man should become God, and that the universe will become deified with him.

Here are some quotations from Vladimir Lossky’s The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church* which illustrate this idea.
Man, according to St. Basil, is a creature who has received a commandment to become God.

Man was created last, according to the Greek Fathers, in order that he might be introduced into the universe like a king into his palace.

God became man in order that man might become god, to use the words of Ireneus and Athanasius, echoed by the Fathers and theologians of every age.

* Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, James Clarke 1957, reprinted 1968. Quotations are taken, respectively, from pages 124, 111 and 134.

08 December 2020

Bishop Berkeley: is there an external world?

George Berkeley (1685-1753)
George Berkeley, born in 1685 at Dysart Castle in County Kilkenny, and Bishop of Cloyne from 1734 to 1753, wrote a philosophical analysis of materialism which has been the subject of controversy since its publication.

Berkeley attacked the belief in material objects that underlay the prevailing scientific model of the world. He argued that there was no basis for a belief in physical objects or an external world, and that we should think of all objects as being mental.
It is indeed an opinion strangely prevailing amongst men, that houses, mountains, rivers, and in a word all sensible objects, have an existence, natural or real, distinct from their being perceived by the understanding. But with how great an assurance and acquiescence soever this principle may be entertained in the world; yet whoever shall find in his heart to call it in question may, if I mistake not, perceive it to involve a manifest contradiction. For what are the forementioned objects but the things we perceive by sense? And what do we perceive besides our own ideas or sensations; and is it not plainly repugnant that any one of these or any combination of them should exist unperceived? *
Modern philosophers have tended to marginalise Berkeley because his views appear to be radically at odds with the conventional scientific worldview. Bertrand Russell, for example, took Berkeley’s arguments seriously but felt justified in dismissing them.
In one sense it must be admitted that we can never prove the existence of things other than ourselves and our experiences. No logical absurdity results from the hypothesis that the world consists of myself and my thoughts and feelings and sensations, and that everything else is mere fancy. [...] There is no logical impossibility in the supposition that the whole of life is a dream, in which we ourselves create all the objects that come before us. But although this is not logically impossible, there is no reason whatever to suppose that it is true; and it is, in fact, a less simple hypothesis, viewed as a means of accounting for the facts of our own life, than the common-sense hypothesis that there really are objects independent of us, whose action on us causes our sensations.

The way in which simplicity comes in from supposing that there really are physical objects is easily seen. If the cat appears at one moment in one part of the room, and at another in another part, it is natural to suppose that it has moved from the one to the other, passing over a series of intermediate positions. But if it is merely a set of sense-data, it cannot have ever been in any place where I did not see it; thus we shall have to suppose that it did not exist at all while I was not looking, but suddenly sprang into being in a new place. **
In these extracts from his book The Problems of Philosophy, Russell mentions some of the apparent problems of Berkeley’s thesis. It seems natural to one to suppose that, during the time between seeing the cat the first time and seeing it the second time, something exists which one can label as ‘the cat’, even if no one is having sensory experiences involving this inferred cat. However, the fact that positing such an independent entity may seem natural, or convenient, does not constitute philosophical proof.

* George Berkeley, A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, in A.J. Ayer & R. Winch (Eds.), British Empirical Philosophers, Routledge and Kegan Paul 1952, p.179.
** Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy, Williams & Norgate 1912, pp.30-36.

22 September 2020

guest post: Christine Fulcher on schools

Below is a post by my colleague Christine Fulcher, giving some of her views on education.
The headmaster of my primary school made great play of the fact that he was in loco parentis. He told us that this was how his legal position vis-à-vis the pupils of the school was described, and that this was Latin for ‘in place of the parent’. In other words, he was acting as a substitute parent during the hours we were attending that school. Well, if parents were responsible people, they would not be willing to let other people act in loco parentis in this way.

The fact that education is compulsory is an indictment of parents who want an easy life for themselves with their children out of their hair, rather than what is best for their children. If so-called education were not compulsory and supposedly ‘free’ at point of delivery (but not really free, being paid for out of taxation) then people might be more cautious about bringing children into the world.

As for the so-called ‘right’ of children to be educated: those who create ‘rights’ have their own agendas, which are not necessarily in the interests of those to whom they are giving these ‘rights’. The fact that it is generally in the interests of people to be able to read, write and do basic arithmetic is expanded into the idea of compulsory education, then forced upon children, who have no choice.

If education were not compulsory, a certain number of people might grow up unable to read, write or do basic arithmetic. But this is a lesser evil than that created by making ‘education’ compulsory. Much of modern education does not consist of ‘stuffing children’s minds with facts’, but of stuffing their minds with propaganda. This is not a modern phenomenon. Those who wish to spread any sort of propaganda, religious or atheist, have always been interested in using compulsory education of the young as a means of doing this.

Christine Fulcher

15 August 2020

Metachoric experiences

metachoric experience = experience in which the whole of a subject’s visual field is replaced by a hallucinatory one

Our research on lucid dreams, false awakenings and out-of-the-body experiences highlighted the capacity of the brain to generate experiences which provide a convincing replica of normal perceptual experience.

In lucid dreams, the subject appears to be relatively ‘normal’ in terms of cognitive faculties, as evidenced by the fact that he has awareness of his actual state, i.e. that he is asleep and that the experiences he is having are hallucinatory. In false awakenings, the subject appears to ‘see’ a convincing replica of his normal bedroom environment. He may then see monsters or other figures of various kinds, apparently superimposed on this otherwise faithful replica, although in fact the whole of the visual field is of course hallucinatory. In out-of-the-body experiences (OBEs) the subject is typically awake but appears to be seeing his environment from the wrong perspective — often as if from a point of view above his head. Again, the brain appears to be generating a highly convincing replica of the normal environment, visually speaking.

In the case of OBEs, there is also the observation that the hallucinatory state can apparently be entered with little or no awareness that a discontinuity has taken place from (a) actually seeing the environment to (b) hallucinating the same environment, albeit from a different perspective.

These experiences suggested a departure from the previous idea of a hallucination as an isolated area of the visual field which was generated erroneously by the brain, and then somehow superimposed on the rest of the visual field which was generated from actual input in the normal way.

Certain features of our research on apparitional cases — cases where an apparitional figure or object is seen against the background of the normal environment — led us to the possibility that many apparitional experiences, and possibly all of them, were analogous to lucid dreams and OBEs in being totally hallucinatory. That is to say, rather than the experience consisting of normal perception plus a finite hallucinatory element (the two elements being integrated in some way), the perceptual environment is entirely replaced by a hallucinatory one, at least as long as the apparitional figure is being perceived.

In our 1975 book Apparitions we proposed the term metachoric to designate such experiences in which the normal perceptual environment is entirely replaced by a hallucinatory one.

Celia Green
Charles McCreery

Read more

29 July 2020

Tribalism and ethics

The essential feature of ethics — that is to say, respect for the right of the individual to have what he wants and to decide for himself what is of importance to him, so long as it is not interfering with the rights of others to pursue what they consider important for them — arose in association with capitalism. It was an ethic that could only arise when individuals had at least the potentiality of paying for what they wanted within the structure of the society they lived in.

This ethic has been nominally taken over by the modern trend towards tribalism. We will retain the great advances in knowledge and control of our environment which were made when collective control was somewhat weakened, but we will not consider it moral for individuals to pursue whatever goals they consider conducive to whatever sort of wellbeing they choose for themselves, unless we happen to agree with them. (‘We’ is a vague collective entity consisting of social agreement about what is right and proper.)

We aim to remove freedom, so far as we can, but we sweeten the pill by confirming our belief in the ‘individual’. Indeed, we respect the ‘individual’ more than ever before and complain that the previous state of society had too little of this respect. But when the nature of this ‘respect’ is formulated, it does not come out to anything so simple and absolute as respect for other people’s power to decide; it comes out as a concern for their well-being, based on some sort of ‘balanced’ assessment of their total wants and needs. By implication this is an assessment that we will make, not them, and ‘balance’ provides a lot of scope for overriding a person’s strongest inclinations if our respect for them is ‘balanced’ by our respect for something else that they should be inclined to want instead.

Extract from the forthcoming book by Celia Green, The Corpse and the Kingdom, due to be published in 2021.

12 June 2020

Herbert Spencer and the welfare state

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903)
The philosopher Herbert Spencer, commenting in 1851 on the possible effects of welfare, a century before the inception of the modern welfare state:
We do not consider it true kindness in a mother to gratify her child with sweetmeats that are certain to make it ill. We should think it a very foolish sort of benevolence which led a surgeon to let his patient’s disease progress to a fatal issue, rather than inflict pain by an operation. Similarly, we must call those spurious philanthropists, who, to prevent present misery, would entail greater misery upon future generations. All defenders of a poor-law must, however, be classed amongst such. That rigorous necessity which, when allowed to act on them, becomes so sharp a spur to the lazy, and so strong a bridle to the random, these paupers’ friends would repeal, because of the wailings it here and there produces.
Spencer’s comments could be interpreted as implying that welfare may have negative effects on a society’s gene pool:
Blind to the fact, that under the natural order of things society is constantly excreting its unhealthy, imbecile, slow, vacillating, faithless members, these unthinking, though well-meaning, men advocate an interference which not only stops the purifying process, but even increases the vitiation — absolutely encourages the multiplication of the reckless and incompetent by offering them an unfailing provision, and discourages the multiplication of the competent and provident by heightening the prospective difficulty of maintaining a family.
Spencer did not, however, condemn charitable actions in general:
To that charity which may be described as helping men to help themselves, [the foregoing argument] makes no objection — countenances it rather. And in helping men to help themselves, there remains abundant scope for the exercise of a people’s sympathies. Accidents will still supply victims on whom generosity may be legitimately expended. Men thrown upon their backs by unforeseen events, men who have failed for want of knowledge inaccessible to them, men ruined by the dishonesty of others, and men in whom hope long delayed has made the heart sick, may, with advantage to all parties, be assisted.
The above extracts are taken from: Herbert Spencer, Social Statics, chapter 25, available at Online Library of Liberty.

11 May 2020

Zoroastrianism: End of the world

Zoroastrianism, which takes its name from the prophet Zoroaster (or Zarathustra), is one of the world’s oldest surviving religions, and was the state religion of the Persian empire for over a thousand years. Its origins may go back to the 2nd millennium BC, though it was not originally called Zoroastrianism. The name Zarathustra may mean ‘driver of camels’.
The roots of Zoroastrianism are thought to have emerged from a common prehistoric Indo-Iranian religious system dating back to the early 2nd millennium BC. The prophet Zoroaster himself is thought by many modern historians to have been a reformer of the polytheistic Iranian religion who lived in the 10th century BC. [Wikipedia]
The central deity of Zoroastrianism is Ahura Mazda (‘Lord of Wisdom’). Ahura Mazda is in continuous conflict with his negative counterpart Angra Mainyu (‘Destructive Spirit’).

Although Zoroastrians do not consider Angra Mainyu* to be equivalent in strength to Ahura Mazda, the religion is sometimes regarded as dualistic because of this conflict between good and evil. A more obviously dualistic religion is Manichaeism, which for a time replaced Zoroastrianism as the dominant religion in Persia, and which adopted the figures of Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu but posited them to be of roughly equal power. (A better word for what is meant may be ditheism rather than dualism.)

Zoroastrian belief includes the concept of an end of the world, or eschatology, although ‘end’ should be understood to mean radical transformation rather than complete cessation.
At the end, there will be a great battle between the forces of good and those of evil in which the good will triumph. On earth, the Saviour will bring about a resurrection of the dead. This is followed by a last judgment through ordeal. The forces of good will cause the metal in the mountains to melt, and to flow across the earth like a river. All mankind — both the living and the resurrected dead — will be required to wade through that river, but for the righteous it will seem to be a river of warm milk, while the wicked will be burned.

There will be a final act of worship involving the preparation of parahaoma, a sacred liquid used in Zoroastrian rituals. The righteous will partake of the parahaoma, which will confer immortality upon them. Thereafter, humankind will become divine entities, living without food, without hunger or thirst, and without possibility of bodily injury.

All humanity will speak a single language and belong to a single nation without borders. All will share a single purpose and goal, joining with the divine for a perpetual exaltation of God’s glory. [Wikipedia text, edited]

*  Angra Mainyu is also known as ‘Ahriman’.
**  Thumbnail is of a painting by Anuki Natsvlishvili, ‘Ahura Mazda & Ahriman’, viewable at saatchiart.com. It shows Ahura Mazda, on the left, in battle with Ahriman, on the right.