Mar 212011

by T. S. Eliot

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years–
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling.
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate–but there is no competition–
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

Continue reading »

Mar 192011

Over a year ago I wrote a post on Thorium Reactors, noting the “miniscule” amount of radioactive waste produced by such reactors. A recent article by Robert Hargraves and Ralph Moir, Liquid Fuel Nuclear Reactors, in the Physics and Society forum of the American Physical Society, contains an excellent discussion of the safety advantages of this technology. Since I had been thinking about the situation at Fukushima-Daiichi, I was especially struck by their description of the early testing of liquid reactors: “the in­trinsic reac­tivity control was so effective that shutdown was accomplished simply by turning off the steam tur­bine generator.”

Liquid flouride thorium reactors (LFTRs) operate at atmospheric pressures, providing immunity against the risks of explosion in pressurized designs (and enabling simpler construction and a smaller foot­print). But the increased margin of safety for LFTRs is primar­ily due to the underlying physics:

A molten salt reactor cannot melt down because the normal operating state of the core is already molten. The salts are solid at room temperature, so if a reactor vessel, pump, or pipe ruptured they would spill out and solidify. If the temperature rises, stability is intrinsic due to salt expansion. In an emergency an actively cooled solid plug of salt in a drain pipe melts and the fuel flows to a critically safe dump tank. The Oak Ridge MSRE researchers turned the reactor off this way on weekends.

Hargraves and Moir also explore the cost advantages of LFTRs and the difficulties that LFTRs would pose to prolifera­tion and weaponization.

Continue reading »

Jan 292011

We are accustomed to thinking of river drainages, like trees, as having a directional structure — branching as one moves upstream, but converging into larger streams as one moves down­stream. Deltas, like the root systems of trees, are boundary cases.

There is a remarkable exception to this structure, however, that occurs at Two Ocean Pass in northern Wyoming. Two Ocean Creek drains the plateau north­west of the Pass and rushes down the mountain straight into a ridge line that forms part of the conti­nental divide. There the creek splits into two parts: one of which becomes Atlantic Creek and flows north into the Yellowstone, and thence into the Mississippi; while the other be­comes Pacific Creek, flowing southwest into the Snake, and thence into the Pacific. Here is a map:

View Two Ocean Pass in a larger map

Cutthroat trout used this route to migrate from the Snake River into Yellowstone Lake which is in the Mississippi drainage. Parting of the Waters describes the hike back to Two Ocean Creek, and has some nice photographs and maps.


Jan 232011

A previous post on Sherry Turkle discussed her views on the ‘subjective’ aspect of our relation to technology. Her most recent writing expresses misgivings about the health of this relationship. This is noticeable in Programmed for Love, an interview from the Chronicle Review, in which Turkle describes how internet usage and social networks can mask the need to cultivate real human relation­ships and real human com­mun­ity. “Be­cause we grew up with the Net,” she says, “we assume that the Net is grown up.”

The occasion for the Chronicle interview is Sherry Turkle’s new book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, which remarks that “we talk about ‘spending’ hours on e-mail, but we too are being spent.” I also enjoyed the observation by Turkle’s daughter, that instead of a robot caretaker the professor “would rather have the com­plete works of Jane Austen played continu­ously.”  Me too.


Nov 222010

I first read George Steiner in my twenties, and he made a lasting impression. He was a remarkable critic; his writing was transparent and his learning prodigious. Recently, after many years, I reread In Bluebeard’s Castle: Some Notes Towards the Redefi­ni­tion of Culture, and can report that it still has the elo­quence and power that I remem­bered. One of my favorite Steiner books, his controversial novella The Voyage to San Cristobal of A.H., forms the backdrop for the best discus­sion of Steiner that I know: “Interrogation at the Borders: George Steiner and the Trope of Translation” by Ronald Sharp, for­mer Dean at Vassar. Other works by Steiner that I recom­mend are After Babel: Aspects of Language and Trans­la­tion and Real Presences.

So, why didn’t the music say no?


Nov 172010

In a letter to William James on November 25, 1902, Peirce spoke of “the completely developed system, which all hangs together and cannot receive any proper presen­tation in fragments,” and he went on to describe synechism as: “the keystone of the arch.”[1] Now synechism, according to Peirce, is just “that tendency of philosophical thought which insists upon the idea of continuity.”[2] Hence, in order to make sense of Peirce’s synechism, and its role in his “completely developed system”, it is essential first to understand what Peirce meant by the idea of continuity.

Peirce was far from reticent on the topic:

If I were to attempt to describe to you in full all the scientific beauty and truth that I find in the principle of continuity, I might say in the simple language of Matilda the Engaged, “the tomb would close over me e’er the entrancing topic were exhausted” . . .[3]

Yet, even though much of Peirce’s writing was devoted to this idea, there is not much in the secondary literature on his technical definitions of continuity.[4] In this paper we will show how these definitions changed as Peirce’s thinking on con­ti­nu­ity evolved. This should be valuable not only to scholars expressly concerned with Peirce’s work in the foundations of mathematics, but also to those mainly interested in other aspects of his thought.

Continue reading »

  1. Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss, eds. The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, vols I-VI, Belknap Press, Harvard, 1931-1935, and Arthur W. Burks, ed. vols. VII, VIII, Belknap Press, Harvard, 1938,  8.255-257. The Collected Papers will be referenced by the conventional volume and paragraph number. []
  2. 6.169 []
  3. 1.171 []
  4. Some important works are Murray G. Murphey, The Development of Peirce’s Philosophy, Harvard U. Press, 1961, and George A. Benedict, The Concept of Continuity in Charles Peirce’s Synechism, Ph.D. Dissertation, SUNY Buffalo, 1973. We have found Murphey’s book invaluable, although we disagree with him on important points. We also look forward to the appearance of Carolyn Eisele’s edition of Peirce’s mathematical writing. []
Jul 302010

Photograph by Steven Pinker

I very much enjoyed Rebecca Goldstein’s  36 Argu­ments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction. It is a novel of ideas — one that explores the intersec­tion between in­tel­lec­tual and spiritual life. The protagonist, Cass Seltzer, is an academic, a psychologist of religion whose sur­prise best-seller, Varieties of Religious Illusion, has led to his acclaim as “America’s favorite atheist.” More­over, Cass has just been offered a job by Harvard — the pinnacle of aca­demic success. In contrast to this professional tra­jec­tory, however, Cass’s private life reveals a preoccu­pation with issues of mean­ing and trans­cen­dence. We notice in Cass those “obstinate question­ings of sense and out­ward things” that are characteristic of the religious percipient. So if this is athe­ism, we wonder, how does it really differ from theism?

Goldstein describes her point of departure for the novel as follows:

Dinner party hostesses used to be warned to steer the conversation away from politics and religion. I used to wonder why, but I don’t anymore. There are some differences that reveal rifts so deep that dialogue breaks down. Among these are the current debates that have been raging between God-believers and the so-called new atheists. It often seems that people on one side can’t begin to grasp what the world is like, what it feels like, for those on the other side. When the person with whom one is conversing appears utterly opaque, then mistrust and contempt are easily aroused: How can he be saying that when the opposite seems so obvious to me? Is he stupid, dishonest, maybe just a touch evil? These are not the sort of suspicions that the gracious hostess wants intruding at her candle-lit dinner table.

But for me, as a novelist, it’s differences like these, indicating entirely different orien­tations toward the world, which are the most tantalizing to explore. Arguments alone can’t capture all that is at stake for people when they argue about issues of reason and faith. In the end, I place my faith in fiction, in its power to make vividly present how dif­fer­ent the world feels to each of us and how these differences are sometimes what is really being expressed in the great debates of our day on the existence of God.


The 36 chapters of Goldstein’s novel have titles that refer to Cass Seltzer’s interior life: The Argument from the Improbable Self, The Argument from Lucinda, The Argu­ment from Dappled Things, The Argument from the Irrepressible Past, The Argument from Reversal of Fortune, The Argu­ment from Intimations of Immortality, The Argu­ment from Soul-Gazing, The Argu­ment from the Existence of the Poem, The Argu­ment from the Eternity of Irony, etc. Her appendix provides 36 parallel philosophical arguments for the existence of God (and discusses their weaknesses). One historical argument that seems to be missing — although perhaps it is subsumed by others — is C. S. Peirce’s neglected argument. The number 36 is significant, being the number of the Lamed Vav, the just men who assume the weight of the world and its sorrows. According to Talmudic tradition, without these just men God would lose pa­tience with humanity and the world itself would come to an end.

Something I have always liked in Goldstein’s writing is her deft satire of academic pretensions and foibles. The culminating debate between Cass Seltzer — who keeps forgetting about it — and the Nobel-prize winning theist Felix Fidley, for instance, is sponsored by the Harvard “Agnostic Chaplaincy”; and the portraits of Cass’s erstwhile academic mentor, Jonas Elijah Klapper, “Extreme Distinguished Professor of Faith, Literature and Values”, and the beautiful Lucinda, “goddess of game theory”, skewer recognizable academic types. Nonetheless, there is a rare seriousness to Goldstein’s project, a recognition that meaning is not just constructed but encountered. This is particularly noticeable in her description of Azarya, the young Hassidic mathematical prodigy who must choose between his love for mathematics and his role in a religious community. It is also true of the relationship between Cass and Roz. To be human, Goldstein says, “is to inhabit our contradictions.”

Rebecca Goldstein earned her Ph.D in philosophy from Princeton University, and has taught philosophy at various schools on the east coast. Her first novel was The Mind-Body Problem, which I liked very much, and she has also written Properties of Light: A Novel of Love, Betrayal, and Quantum Physics and several other novels. Two (non-fiction) philosophical works that I admire are Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew who gave us Modernity, and Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel. She was chosen a MacArthur Fellow in 1996.


Jun 182010

The world premiere of Nathan’s Tenebrae, for harp and string quartet, will be March 31, 2011, at Lincoln Center. It is sponsored by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and will be performed by Bridget Kibby and the Jupiter String Quartet. Tickets go on sale August 2 here.


Jun 142010

This post is about a remarkable man who I have been fortunate to have as my friend. Philip Barlow is a Mormon and a scholar of American religion; he earned his B.A. in History from Weber State College in 1975, his M.T.S. from Harvard in 1980, and his Th.D. from Harvard Divinity School in 1988. He taught Religion at Hanover College — a Presbyterian School — until 2007, when he was appointed the Leonard J. Arring­ton Professor of Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University.

Last summer I reread Phil’s book, Mormons and the Bible: The Place of the Latter-day Saints in American Religion, pub­lished in 1991, by Oxford University Press. This is a book that deserves the many accolades it has received; it is an honest and thoughtful dis­cussion of scriptural inter­pretation and religious belief in Mormonism. One reason that this dis­cussion is important for non-Mormons is that it con­cerns the early stages — more accessible than in main­stream Christianity or Judaism — in the development of a religious tradition. The recent appearance of Mormonism, and its extensive docu­men­ta­tion, comprise a valuable resource for understanding how religions in general evolve. Especially interesting to me is the unique relation of Mormon scriptural exe­gesis to secular philosophy and changing standards in textual criticism.[1]

In reviewing Jan Shipps’ Sojourner in the Promised Land: Forty Years among the Mor­mons, Phil summarizes the current state of Mormon studies, observing that:

From the vantage of American and western culture, Mormonism’s half-familiar, half-exotic nature and history render it a magnetic case study on issues besetting contemporary scholars. The movement is sufficiently alien for comparative interpretation to be neces­sary, sufficiently familiar for comparative interpretation to be possible, and suffi­ciently complex to challenge the most able historical minds. Indeed, if we sustain Shipps’s con­tention that, like Christianity or Islam, Mormonism constitutes a new religious tradition, it becomes a rarely accessible laboratory. The Saints are record-setting record keepers, lush almost without precedent, given their short history, in primary materials. Moreover, the movement is present and growing in the nation as a whole and especially in the American West, where The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is among the three largest “denominations” in two-thirds of all U.S. counties west of a vertical line running from Canada, through Denver, to Mexico. Beyond this, Sydney Ahlstrom’s argument that scru­tiny of Joseph Smith and his heirs “yields innumerable clues to the religious and social consciousness of the American people” requires augmentation in light of the dramatic internationalization of the church, which is affecting its nature and entwines diffusely with the spread of American influence abroad. Africa will soon harbor more Latter-day Saints than Europe; South and Central America will presently have more than the United States. Mormon history is uncommonly colorful, difficult, controversial, impacting, and unfolding. It no longer seems strange that scholars of all stripes, in trying to come to terms with America’s distinctive religious legacy, find Mormon faith and culture tough to ignore. [2]

In less formal remarks in 2009, Studying Mormanism in the Academy, Phil provides a justification for including religious studies in a liberal arts education. He characterizes the underlying point of the liberal arts by a series of questions:

What does it mean to be human? How have diverse societies gone about it across time? How shall we? What is the nature of the physical and biological universe in which we are making our way?

He claims that the study of religion is an obvious component of the project to address these questions,

One would think it self-evident that the study of religion fits easily within this project. Religion, it might be argued, is the most obvious of laboratories for our consideration, where individuals and organizations pursue what it means to be human in distilled, compressed, and intentional ways.  Religion is either the most powerfully motivating and directional force on the planet, or it shares that honor with money and other forms of power.  . . . .

In a more disciplinary sense, Religious Studies may be construed as going beyond com­parison and contrast to concern with a different sort of inquiry.  The focus is on matters of religion and identity and culture, and on how religion “works.”  In particular, the inquiry asks after the relationship between belief and behavior, and between a religious com­munity and the surrounding culture.  . . . .

Religious Studies in the context of the liberal arts may ask such questions as:  How does a new religion get “birthed” and, once here, how does it find traction in the world, establishing its new vision of the world and its new values and ritual and community?  How do successful religious traditions survive their infancy and transcend the culture in which their formation occurred, so as to become world religions?  Once established, religions either change or die; how does a religion navigate profound change without losing its identity?  What portions of a tradition’s literature become sanctified as scripture, and why and how?

Phil seems to understand both his scholarship and his faith as being informed by the spirit of science and reason. In an early essay he explains that this is an assumption, and says: “I think it is a mistake to attempt to elevate religion by disparaging reason. I believe my mind to be more a friend than a foe to my spirit, and that God gave me my intellect in the same sense that He gave me my soul.”[3] In my opinion, Phil’s scholar­ship shows a level of integrity and transparency that one could only wish were common­place among scientists.

Phil is the co-author, with Edwin Scott Gaustad, of the New Historical Atlas of Reli­gion in America, named by the American Association of Publishers the Best Single-volume Reference Book in the Humanities in 2001. He is also the co-editor, with Mark Silk, of Religion and Public Life in the Midwest: America’s Common Deno­minator?, published in 2004, and he has books in progress with Jan Shipps (Columbia University Press) and with Terryl Givens (Oxford University Press).

  1. Massimo Introvigne suggests an apparent ‘inversion’ in Mormonism, whereby liberal theological thought is more closely identified with modernism and con­servative thought with postmodernism. See “The Book of Mormon Wars: A Non-Mormon Perspective“, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 5, no. 2 (1966), 1-25. I do not know what Phil thinks of this — although similar intriguing ideas are suggested by his own work. One of the advantages of studying a culture which is “strange yet familiar”, it seems to me, is that it enables us to discover the contingency of intellectual connections that we otherwise just assume. []
  2. Philip Barlow, “Jan Shipps and the Mainstreaming of Mormon Studies”, Church His­tory: Studies in Christianity and Culture 73, no. 2, (June, 2004) 424-425. Jan Shipps’ own story is worth reading and is partially related on-line in “An ‘Inside-Outsider’ in Zion”, Dialogue: A Journal in Mormon Thought, 15, no. 1 (Spring, 1982), 138-161. []
  3. Philip Barlow,  A Thoughtful Faith: Essays on Belief by Mormon Scholars (Cen­ter­ville, UT: Canon Press, 1986), 238-239. []
Apr 202010

The name “positivism” comes from the writing of Auguste Comte, the 19th century philosopher of science and founder of sociology.  In his Course of Positive Philosophy, published from 1830 through 1842, Comte de­scribed human history as progressing through three distinct stages which he called the theological, the meta­physical, and the positive – the final stage corresponding to the ordering of society by modern science. Comte’s positive philosophy was quite influential in the nineteenth century. According to Michel Bourdeau:

It is difficult today to appreciate the interest Comte’s thought enjoyed a century ago, for it has received almost no notice during the last five decades. Before the First World War, Comte’s movement was active nearly everywhere in the world. The best known case is that of Latin America: Brazil, which owes the motto on its flag ‘Ordem e Progresso’ (Order and Progress) to Comte and Mexico are two prominent examples. The positivists, i.e., the followers of Comte, were equally active in England, the United States and India. And in the case of Turkey, its modern secular character can be traced to Comte’s influence on the Young Turks.[1]

Like Marxism, Comtean positivism heralded a new age — an age in which the super­stition and religion of the past would be replaced by a society organized entirely upon scientific principles. Comte’s philosophy was less a philosophy of science than a social and poli­tical movement with a program for human progress. Un­sur­prisingly, it gra­du­ally turned itself into a sort of religion — with public wor­ship ser­vices, a liturgy derived from Ca­tholicism, and a calendar of posi­tivist saints.[2] The Comtean move­ment survived the century but was eventually extin­guished by the First World War.

Continue reading »

  1. Michel Bourdeau, “Auguste Comte”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2010). []
  2. Bourdeau notes that Comte’s founding of the Religion of Humanity, in 1849, accomplished “a tour de force by uniting both believers and non-believers against him.”  The theoretical justification for this direction was the “complete positivism” of the System of Positive Polity in 1851-1854, in which Comte argued that the claims of science should become subservient to “the continuous domination of the heart.” []
Apr 172010

benjamin_peirce_1857Benjamin Peirce, the father of Charles Sanders Peirce, taught mathe­matics and astronomy at Harvard from 1831 until his death in 1880. He was probably the leading American mathe­ma­ti­cian of his time. He is best known in the annals of mathe­ma­tics for his pioneering Linear Asso­ci­a­tive Alge­bra in 1870, and for his proof, as a young man, that there is no odd perfect num­ber with fewer than four distinct prime factors. [1] Benjamin pub­lished over a dozen other mathe­matical works, in­clu­ding his well-known System of Ana­lytical Mechanics in 1855. He helped to cre­ate a modern science curri­culum at Harvard, and was an important force behind the profes­sion­al­iza­tion of mathe­matics and sci­ence educa­tion in America. [2]

Benjamin’s personality made a powerful impression on those who encountered him. Lawrence Lowell, president of Harvard from 1909 to 1933, described him as follows:

Looking back over the space of fifty years since I entered Harvard College, Benjamin Peirce still impresses me as having the most massive intellect with which I have ever come into close contact, and as being the most profoundly inspiring teacher that I ever had. His personal appearance, his powerful frame, and his majestic head seemed in harmony with his brain. [3]

Continue reading »

Mar 252010

Lawrence Lessig earned an MA in philosophy from Cambridge, and a law degree from Yale. He is a founder of Creative Commons. Formerly a professor of law at Stanford, he is currently the director of the Safra Foun­dation Center for Ethics at Harvard. Here is his TEDTalk on Openness. There is an ad before the talk begins, but in this instance you might just think of it as part of the message.

Feb 082010

‘Theodore Dalrymple’ is the pen-name of Dr. Anthony Daniels, retired British doctor, contributing editor for the City Journal, author, and eloquent conservative obser­ver of contem­po­rary culture. Recently, Daniels was invited to give the annual John Kenneth Galbraith Lecture at Memorial University in Newfoundland. The Galbraith Revival is a reflection on that experience.

Other articles to try include: They dance, I take the dog for a walk, What is Poverty?, What the New Atheists Don’t See, False Apology Syndrome, and All Sex, All the Time. There is a directory of Dalrymple’s City Journal work here.


Feb 052010

by Johann Sebastian Bach

The Cantata “Actus Tragicus”, BWV 106, is one of Bach’s greatest cantatas. Here is Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (Part II), from a wonderful performance on period instruments by Joshua Rifkin and The Bach Ensemble.


Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit.
In ihm leben, weben und sind wir,
so lange er will.
In ihm sterben wir zu rechter Zeit,
wenn er will.

Ach Herr, lehre uns bedenken,
daß wir sterben müssen,
auf daß wir klug werden.

Bestelle dein Haus,
denn du wirst sterben
und nicht lebendig bleiben.

Es ist der alte Bund,
Mensch, du mußt sterben.
Ja, komm, Herr Jesu.

God’s time is the very best time.
In him we live, move, and have our being,
as long as he wills.
In him we die at the appointed time,
when he wills.

Ah Lord, teach us to remember
that we must die.
that we might gain wisdom.

Set thy house in order,
for thou shalt die
and not remain alive.

It is the ancient law:
man, thou must die.
Yea, come, Lord Jesus.

Recorded in 1985, Joshua Rifkin and The Bach Ensemble, with Ann Monoyios, Steven Rickards, Edmund Brownless, Jan Opalach. Decca

Jan 242010

turkle2Sherry Turkle is the Abby Rockefeller Mauze Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, and is the director of the MIT Initiative on Tech­nology and Self. She earned her doctorate in sociology and per­son­ality psychology from Harvard University, and is a licensed clinical psycho­logist. She writes about the “subjective side” of the relationship between people and technology.

I first read The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit nearly twenty years ago and have often assigned it to students. Turkle describes how children use com­puters as evocative objects — “things to think with” — which assist them in understanding their own capa­ci­ties and limi­tations. Thus, the sense of self that emerges in children who have grown up with computers can differ from that in children who have grown up with, say, animals and pets — the experience of the former suggesting the spe­ci­fic difference and genus feeling machine, rather than the traditional Aristotelian rational animal. This kind of revision in our understanding of who we are, it seems to me, marks a profound cultural transition — and it is important that we con­sider the pos­si­bility that our technology can induce deep changes.

I found equally provocative Turkle’s next book, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. It is a perceptive look at how the roles that we assume on-line affect us in real life. Dr. Turkle is also the author of Psychoanalytic Politics: Jacques Lacan and Freud’s French Revolution, and MIT Press has recently published four sets of essays edited by Turkle:

Evocative Objects: Things We Think With
Falling for Science: Objects in Mind
The Inner History of Devices
Simulation and Its Discontents.

Every year Edge poses its annual question. For 2010 it is this: How has the internet changed the way you think? In her response, Turkle talks about our need to protect a zone of private action and reflection. “To me,” she says, “opening up a conversation about rethinking the Net, privacy, and civil society is not backward-looking nostalgia or Luddite in the least. It seems like part of a healthy process of democracy defining its sacred spaces.”