Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Beyond Belief 2006

There was some great great discussion at Beyond Belief 2006 Conference; fifteen hours of video can be found here. I'm a little way into it. Steven Weinberg, Lawrence Krauss, Sam Harris, Michael Shermer were all great, a good interplay of ideas and approaches.

Just finished listening to Neil deGrasse Tyson — what a character. An astrophysicist and an entertaining and compelling speaker. One area really struck me. He briefly recounted the events of 9/11/2001 and pointed out a comment made by President Bush soon thereafter in which he said in a lame attempt to distinguish "we" from "they" — they who flew those into buildings — that "our God is the God who named the stars." An astoundingly idiotic statement regardless of the facts, but infinitely more stupid given the facts as Neil then pointed out. That of all the stars which do have names, two thirds of them have Arabic names! And he shows slide after slide of lists of Arabic named stars.

How does it happen, Neil asks, that the sky is filled with stars with Arabic names. It happens because of a particularly fertile period of Islamic culture from beginning around 800 A.D. and continuing to around 1100 A.D. in which Baghdad was the intellectual center of the world, open to all peoples, Jews, Christians, Muslims, and all ideas. A free and open exchange of information was permitted, contributing greatly to the corpus of mathematical and scientific knowledge the time. The legacy is still with us, not just in star names - we use arabic numerals, and the words algebra, algorithm, and logarithm are of Arab origin, for example. Their contributions gave them naming rights. All this is traceable to this specific 300 year period in the middle east.

Then, disaster. In the 12th century, this clown, Imam Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111 A.D.), a scholar of sorts decrees that mathematics is the work of the devil. He codifies an Islamic philosophy which completely rejects a rational worldview — that causal events are not the product of material conjunctions, but rather the immediate presence and will of God. He denounces the philosophy and methods of the great intellectual thinkers of Ancient Greece — Aristotle, Plato, Socrates — an intellectual tradition upon which many Islamic philosophers previously drew.

Revelation replaced investigation. Game over. Islamic culture has never recovered since. And 9/11 is just one sad legacy of this turnabout. Neil concludes his comments on Islam with the observation that something like one Muslim scientist, or maybe two, has ever won the Nobel Prize, as opposed to about one quarter of them being Jews. Doing the maths, with the about a billion Muslims on earth and only about 15 million Jews, statistically, almost all Nobel Prizes should be going to Muslims! Instead, we've got only one or two. All because of al-Ghazali. Fascinating.

Science is interesting, and if you don't agree, you can fuck off. — New Scientist Magazine

Reality provides us with facts so romantic that imagination itself could add nothing to them. — Jules Verne


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