lørdag 23. mai 2009

Science and faith - The Movie

Is is possible to improve this?

Not at all. Not for a nanosecond. Or a millenium.

Long live Bertrand Russell! And James of Hannam.

Death to The Church!

torsdag 21. mai 2009

Hollywood hypes Hypatia

The neoplatonic philosopher Hypatia is a fascinating figure from late antiquity.

Not the least as she has been used so often and intensely to symbolise and propagate the myth about the Church's "Warfare with Science", another of those Icons of Modernity painted in the 18th and 19th Century.

Fortunately a new film may provide ample opportuinity to set the story more straight. At least it is a good sign that it so quickly has been denounced for the nonsense it is.
As an atheist, I'm clearly no fan of fundamentalism - even the 1500 year old variety (though modern manifestations tend to be the ones to watch out for). And as an amateur historian of science I'm more than happy with the idea of a film that gets across the idea that, yes, there was a tradition of scientific thinking before Newton and Galileo. But Amenabar has taken the (actually, fascinating) story of what was going on in Alexandria in Hypatia's time and turned it into a cartoon, distorting history in the process.
However, as Christianity is the in-thing to slam these days (and has been for a century or two), all is allowed in the name of love and science.
From the press release timed to co-incide with the film's screening at Cannes this week:

Played by Oscar-winning British actress Weisz, Hypatia is persecuted in the film for her science that challenges the Christians' faith, as much as for her status as an influential woman.

From bloody clashes to public stonings and massacres, the city descends into inter-religious strife, and the victorious Christians turn their back on the rich scientific legacy of antiquity, defended by Hypatia.

So we are being served up the idea that Hypatia was persecuted and, I'll assume, killed because "her science ... challenges the Christians' faith". And why have a movie with one historical myth in it when you can have two:

"Agora" opens with the destruction of the second library of Alexandria by the Christians and Jews -- after the first, famous library which was destroyed by Julius Caesar.

At least he's done his homework enough to realise that the decline of the Great Library was a long, slow deterioration and not a single catastrophic event. But he still clings to Gibbon's myth that a Christian mob was somehow responsible. And rather niftily invents a "second library of Alexandria" so he can do so.
With an imagination like that, who need sources?

Make sure you read more of the excellent review here. And heed the moral:
Unfortunately for those who cling to the "conflict thesis", the history of science actually has very few genuine martyrs at the hands of religious bigots. The fact that a mystic and kook like Giordano Bruno gets dressed up as a free-thinking scientist shows how thin on the ground such martyrs are, though usually those who like to invoke these martyrs can fall back on citing "scientists burned by the Medieval Inquistion", despite the fact this never actually happened. Most people know nothing about the Middle Ages, so this kind of vague hand-waving is usually pretty safe.

Unlike Giordano Bruno, Hypatia was a genuine scientist and, as a woman, was certainly remarkable for her time. But she was no martyr for science and science had zero to do with her murder. Exactly how much of the genuine, purely political background to her death Amenabar puts in his movie remains to be seen. It's hoped that, unlike Sagan and many others, the whole political background to the murder won't simply be ignored and her killing won't be painted as an act of ignorant rage against her science and scholarship. But what is clear from his interviews and the film's pre-publicity is that he has chosen to frame the story in Gibbonian terms straight from the "conflict thesis" textbook - the destruction of the "Great Library", Hypatia victimised for her learning and her death as a grim harbinger of the beginning of the "Dark Ages".

And, as usual, bigots and anti-theistic zealots will ignore the evidence, the sources and rational analysis and believe Hollywood's appeal to their prejudices. It makes you wonder who the real enemies of reason actually are.
If nothing else it also proves how dangerous it can get when blind faith gets in the way of facts. Which rarely is seen clearer than in the blind faith in the Warfare between Religion and Science.