Skip to content

Book review: On Faith and Science, by Edward J. Larson and Michael Ruse

See 570 other reviews

The relation between religion and science has a long history and it has gone through various phases, some amicable, some not. At present, thanks partly to a loosely knit group of writers who have been called the new atheists—Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet. A.C. Grayling and others—relations are bad. But there are some non-believers who want to find common ground with religion, and Ruse has long been one of these; not that you would know it from this book, for both he and his co-author Larson are reticent about their own religious views.* No doubt this is due to a wish to appear even-handed, but I think it leads to a certain softening of focus throughout.

Both authors are distinguished academics. Larson is a historian; Ruse is primarily a philosopher of science who also has an interest in history, particularly that of the theory of evolution (see links to my reviews of books under his name in the list of authors). They write alternate chapters, although there is some flexibility, with some chapters containing contributions from both, and it isn't always easy to be sure who is writing at a given moment.

There are chapters looking at cosmology; physics; brain, mind, and soul; geology; evolution in general; and human evolution. The approach in these is historical; they look at how knowledge has evolved over time and how this has interacted with religion—mainly Christianity, but there is some reference to Judaism and Islam and a little to Hinduism and Buddhism. For each topic we get an outline of some of the religious issues that growth in our knowledge has given rise to. It is all done well enough, but there will be few surprises for anyone who is reasonably familiar with the subjects covered.

The last three chapters (7, 8 and 9) are a little different, in that they cover matters that are topical (and controversial) today: sex and gender, eugenics, and living on earth (which looks at global warming and other threats to our survival). In their closing paragraph the authors use the common ground they think exists between two very different people, Pope Francis and E.O. Wilson, to draw a moral for the relationship that ought to obtain between science and religion as it relates to our survival.

I'm sympathetic to the authors' wish to avoid facile condemnation of religion in the name of science, but I enjoyed reading this book less than I expected to. The tone is quite colloquial, almost to a fault, yet at the same time bland and a little flat. And at times the authors' evident desire to avoid giving offence becomes somewhat irritating. For example, they quote from Fritjhof Capra's 1975 book The Tao of Physics and remark that 'he remained an outlier among modern physicists', which seems a considerable under-statement; I wanted to know what they thought of it themselves. They are also fairly non-commital in their references to Richard Dawkins's book The God Delusion, about which Ruse has been scathingly critical elsewhere.

The book concludes with an eclectic annotated bibliography which is quite useful, although I was sorry to see no mention of Taner Edis's books, especially his The Ghost in the Universe, which to my mind is one of the best books on theism by a sceptic who nevertheless takes religion seriously. He has also written well on science and Islam, something touched on only briefly in the present book.

*Ruse has recently publicly identified himself as an atheist, although he prefers the term 'sceptic'. See Why I Think the New Atheists are a Bloody Disaster.

29-07-2018
%T On Faith and Science
%A Larson, Edward J.
%A Ruse, Michael
%I Yale University Press
%C New Haven and London
%D 2017
%G ISBN 978-0-300-216717-3
%P 298pp
%K religion
%O hardcover

Book review: An Introduction to Western Medical Acupuncture (Adrian White, Mike Cummings, Jacqueline Filshie)

See 570 other reviews

This is a book about the modern medical version of acupuncture, often called Western medical acupuncture (WMA) which is widely practised by health professionals today. It is the second edition of the work (the first appeared in 2008) and is described as a companion to Medical Acupuncture: A Western Scientific Approach (Elsevier, Edinburgh, 2016), now also in its second edition. The authors are all among the foremost proponents of WMA in Britain and so are well placed to produce a book of this kind.

Its primary intended audience is health professionals who have recently completed a training programme in modern acupuncture and want to consolidate and extend their knowledge of the subject. But it will also interest more experienced practitioners, because it includes a large amount of up-to-date research evidence for acupuncture that is otherwise not easy to find gathered together in an accessible form.

The book has 19 chapters. Chapter 1 is an introduction and provides a description of WMA and how it differs from traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). The remaining chapters are divided into five sections: 1. Principles; 2. Effects Mechanisms Techniques; 3. The Evidence Base; 4. Practical Aspects; 5. Treatment Manual. There are also five detachable cards illustrating classical acupuncture points, myofascial trigger points, and pain referral zones. As this summary will indicate, there is a progressive shift in focus throughout the book, from evidence for acupuncture as a science-based treatment to the practical aspects, but this is not a rigid separation and even the more research-oriented sections bring out the practical implications of what they describe.

I shall now look at the individual sections in more detail.

Section 1 has three chapters (Chapters 2–4). The first is a preliminary overview of what WMA is and how it is thought to work. Acupuncture is mainly although not wholly a treatment for pain, and Chapter 3 looks at the modern understanding of pain mechanisms in the nervous system and how these relate to acupuncture. Chapter 4 describes some basic acupuncture techniques, to be elaborated later.

Acupuncture modernists always have to decide where they stand on the question of classical acupuncture points. Some, of whom I am one, prefer to avoid that terminology almost completely, but here the authors do use it, although with reservations. 'This book uses classical acupuncture point names as a convenient convention, though each point's effects are not as specific as traditionally believed, and nerves may be stimulated effectively almost anywhere in the body.'

What I found particularly welcome both in this section and throughout the book is the absence of dogmatism. The authors state their views but they recognise the existence of different approaches to treatment within the broad scope of modern medical acupuncture: 'nothing in acupuncture should be standardized—except safety.'

Section 2 is concerned with the mechanisms of acupuncture—how it works. A lot of new research on the question has become available since the first edition in 2008. The physiological mechanisms are discussed under a number of headings: local effects, segmental (spinal) effects, and general (central) effects. There is too much information here to summarise in a review, but this is an important section because it provides much of the support for the authors' treatment recommendation in later chapters.

This section includes a description of myofascial trigger points (MTrPs), which figure prominently in WMA. This is particularly useful for doctors, who are unlikely to have encountered the subject in their ordinary clinical training. It is treated here both theoretically and practically, including an account of how to diagnose and treat MTrPs.

The concluding chapter in this section is on traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). There is a succinct account of the ancient ideas and the authors consider how relevant, if at all, TCM concepts are to modern practice. 'A rational approach based on knowledge obtained scientifically can explain many of the concepts of TCM.'

The authors provide a fair summary of TCM but I question whether it is still necessary to include it in a book on WMA. I think we are rapidly approaching, or have already passed, the point where the subject can be regarded as of purely historical interest, in which case it could be omitted or at least relegated to an appendix.

Physiology is important in modern acupuncture but we also need clinical evidence of efficacy, and this is the subject of Section 3. Critics sometimes claim that acupuncture is 'just a placebo' because many trials find little or no difference between 'real' and 'sham' acupuncture. But this begs many questions, especially the problem of what constitutes a 'sham' acupuncture treatment. The authors show convincingly why it is so difficult to devise an adequate placebo treatment in acupuncture. Nor is this the only practical difficulty that attends clinical trials in this field. For example, 'blinding' of patients can be difficult (blinding of the practitioner is all but impossible). In spite of these difficulties there is good evidence of efficacy in at least some disorders.

Safety is a literally vital consideration in acupuncture and Section 3 concludes with a chapter reviewing the evidence on this question. The authors find that acupuncture is generally safe if done by adequately trained practitioners and is usually safer than most other treatments that are available. Aggravation of symptoms may occur but is seldom severe and is certainly not required for effective treatment, as is sometimes claimed, so the risk should be reduced as much as possible.

Questions of safety again figure prominently in Section 4. The first three chapters in this section (14, 15, 16) 'are essential reading for clinical practice'. They cover preparing for treatment, effective needling techniques, and safe needling. All the safety issues mentioned here are incontrovertible, but (as noted earlier) there is room for discussion about some of the techniques described.

For example, the authors advise the use of guide tubes for beginners because they make needle insertion easier. This is true, but many experienced acupuncturists dislike guide tubes and don't use them, and I'm not sure that it is necessary to impose them on beginners. I think that most newcomers to acupuncture quickly learn to insert the needles without them, at least the standard (30mm) needles; the longer (50mm) needles are probably best used with guide tubes, at any rate to start with.

On the question of how long the needles should be left in situ ('retention'), there is a widespread idea that this should be 20 minutes, and the authors think that this may be because it takes this length of time for beta-endorphin levels to reach a maximum in the central nervous system. However, they think that 10 minutes is often long enough for a clinical response. I should say that much briefer insertion is usually effective in most cases, and the authors do acknowledge the use of this technique by some practitioners. Needle retention is probably one of the most widely debated subjects in acupuncture.

The concluding chapter in Section 4 deals fairly briefly with other techniques often bracketed together with acupuncture, such as moxibustion, auricular acupuncture, and the use of lasers. The authors find little advantage in embarking on most of these.

Section 5 is a 'Treatment Manual' describing various possible approaches to try in different disorders. To avoid any misunderstanding, the authors emphasise that this section only makes sense if you have read everything that precedes it; they are not providing 'recipes' or rules to be followed without thought. 'You have discovered the principles of acupuncture in the previous chapters; here you find some guidelines to point you in the right direction.'

The book is very well produced, with abundant diagrams, and is written in an approachable style that makes it easy to read. Each chapter begins with headlines summarising its contents to indicate what the student should learn by reading it, and concludes with a useful review of its main message.

Some acupuncture enthusiasts want to emhasise what they perceive as its differences from mainstream medicine. The alternative view is that acupuncture should be reinterpreted in the light of modern knowledge and integrated with mainstream methods of treatment, and that is the present authors' opinion. 'It is time to reconsider acupuncture and its strange phenomena in ways that are credible to Western science.'

22-07-2018
%A An Introduction to Western Medical Acupuncture (second edition)
%A White, Adrian
%A Cummings, Mike
%A Filshie, Jacqueline
%I Elsevier
%C Edinburgh
%D 2018
%G ISBN 978-0-7020-7318-2
%P viii + 234pp
%K acupuncture
%O illustrated; pull-out reference cards

Book review: Beyond Weird, by Philip Ball

Philip Ball is a science writer who was for many years an editor for physical sciences at the journal Nature. The subtitle indicates what his book is about. It is aimed at readers of books on popular science who have, Ball believes, been given a misleading impression of quantum physics, starting with the notion that it is 'weird', which Ball thinks is a cop-out. It's non-intuitive but not weird. The idea that it is


comes from our (understandably) contorted attempts to find pictures for visualizing it or stories to tell about it. Quantum physics defies intuition, but we do it an injustice by calling that circumstance 'weird'.



Quantum mechanics has the reputation of being probably the most obscure and difficult branches of science, but Ball insists that it isn't 'hard' in the way that car maintenance or learning Chinese are hard (his examples). That isn't to say that a slight readjustment of our intuitions will make everything suddenly explicable. 'Indeed, it is possible that we might never be able to say what quantum theory "means".' Continue reading

Book review: Man and the Natural World, by Keith Thomas

See 570 other reviews

It is becoming almost a chiché today to say that we are living through the sixth great extinction, in which an ever-increasing number of species are being driven to extinction by human activity. The writer and broadcaster David Attenborough has acquired the status of conscience of the nation by making television documentaries that bring home to a wide audience the effects of our way of life on the natural world. The latest example is his demonstration of pollution of the oceans by a deluge of plastic that is proving lethal to many of their inhabitants. The widespread media attention that all this gets today may make us think it is a modern phenomenon, but Thomas shows that its roots go back to the early modern period, when profound changes in outlook occurred.

In Tudor and Stuart England there was a long-established opinion that the world had been created for the sake of humans, and other species existed to provide for our needs and pleasures. Attitudes to animals largely depended on how well they fulfilled their appointed role. They might be useful for work, as in the case of dogs and horses, or they could provide food, as did pigs and poultry; some, such as oxen, could perform both roles. As for wild animals, some could be eaten, but others, such as rats, mice, and foxes, could not and in fact were merely a nuisance; these were 'vermin' and needed to be destroyed.

The story Thomas tells is how and why this view changed in the period under review, until it became almost the direct opposite of what it had been at the outset. There were many reasons for this, but an important one was the movement of the population from from rural to urban. In the early years of the period most people would have seen a wide range of different animals continually in their daily lives, but by the end of it such encounters would be much less frequent, although still more widespread than is the case today. This caused people to think of animals in a different way.

Much of the discussion is concerned with cruelty, which was widespread at the beginning of the period and was often horrific. Some of this was incidental cruelty; horses and oxen were frequently beaten unmercifully to make them work, but this was due to indifference to animal suffering rather than malice. Some, however was based on a desire to inflict pain as an amusement; and many men indulged in pastimes or 'sports' such as cock-fighting or the baiting of bears and other animals. Thomas doesn't spare us ample descriptions of all this. But even in the early part of the period there were exceptional people who saw things differently, and as time went by their number increased, until their way of thinking and feeling became the norm. Cruel sports, with the notable exception of fox-hunting, were progressively outlawed. This was a profound change.

By the later seventeenth century the anthropocentric tradition itself was being eroded. The explicit acceptance of the view that the world does not exist for man alone can be fairly regarded as one of the great revolutions in modern Western thought, although it is one to which historians have scarcely done justice.


One manifestation of this new sensibility was the development of vegetarianism. At first this was a very small movement, largely inspired by classical texts, and most converts to the cause, such as the young James Boswell, soon slipped back; but it grew progressively throughout the eighteenth century. Even those who continued to eat meat became increasingly squeamish about its implications; slaughterhouses were kept out of sight and attempts were made to kill animals more humanely. It was now felt necessary to justify meat-eating on ethical grounds and some rather dubious arguments were advanced for this purpose. As a lapsed vegetarian myself I found this rather uncomfortable reading.

The book focuses mainly on how people thought about animals, but it also looks on changing attitudes to trees and flowers. And there is a discussion of landscape which I found particularly interesting.

At the beginning of the period wild country, and especially mountains, were thought to be useless and were seen as places to avoid if possible; people who lived there were looked down on as barbarous. But the later seventeenth century saw a growth in nature mysticism and the beginning of mountain climbing as recreation. Thomas thinks that this was largely a reaction against the domestication of much of the land by gardeners and agriculturalists.

Once the new sensibility to wild landscape began it spread rapidly, taking on a quasi-religious tone._'Nature was not only beautiful; it was morally healing.'

By the end of the eighteenth century…the old preference for cultivated and man-dominated landscape had been decisively challenged. Encouraged by the ease of travel and by immunity from direct involvement in the agricultural process, the educated classes had come to attach an unprecedented importance to the contemplation of landscape and the appreciation of rural scenery.


This attitude in turn led to a desire to preserve the wild landscape in its pristine form.

What was notable about this new taste was was that the scenery which was most particularly admired was no longer the fertile, productive landscape, but the wild and romantic one. Henceforth there would be a growing concern to preserve uncultivated nature as an indispensable spiritual resource.


This concern is still very much alive today, and is being debated in the context of the National Parks; how far should they be 'left to nature'?. It is one aspect of the wider problem of how to reconcile modern civilisation with nature, which the people in the early modern period were already beginning to be troubled about.

On the one hand they saw an incalculable increase in the comfort and increasing well-being of human beings; on the other they perceived a ruthless exploitation of other forms of animal life. There was thus a growing conflict between the new sensibilities and the material foundations of human society. A mixture of compromise and concealment has so far prevented this conflict from having been fully resolved. But the issue cannot be completely evaded and can be relied upon to recur. It is one of the contradictions on which modern civilization may be said to rest. About its ultimate consequences we can only speculate.


01-07-2018
%T Man and the Natural World
%S Changing _Attitudes in England 1500–1800
%A Thomas, Keith
%I Allen Lane
%C London
%D 1983
%G ISBN 07139 1227 8
%P 426pp
%K history
New Reviews | Titles | Authors | Subjects

Book review: Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

See 570 other reviews

There is an abundance of ideas in this novel but the central concept is an evolutionary one: a population of spiders acquires a technological civilisation capable of space exploration. There is no question of aliens here; the spiders belong to a species named Portia labiata, which exists on Earth today.

The world on which the spiders live has been created by terraforming carried out by humans from Earth, and is one of a number of similar projects undertaken in the remote past by the 'Old Empire'. But civil war led to the destruction of that civilisation, and Dr Avrana Kern, the scientist in charge of the spiders' world, had been left on her own for millennia. (Individuals can live for centuries in a form of artificial hibernation, although by this time she has largely uploaded herself into a computer to ensure the survival of her monitoring capacity.)

The spiders' spectacular evolutionary advance came about by accident. Kern's plan had been to place monkeys on the planet and infect them with a virus that would accelerate their evolution dramatically. But things went wrong and the monkeys were destroyed en route to the planet; the virus instead infected the spiders and produced its evolutionary acceleration in them, although Kern doesn't know this.

Meanwhile a new civilisation has developed on Earth in the ruins of the old. It is not as technologically advanced as the Old Empire and is parasitic on what is left of its technology, including its space stations. The Earth has not recovered from the devastating war that ended the Old Empire and in fact is about to become uninhabitable, so the plan is to send out spaceships carrying thousands of emigrants in the desperate hope that at least one will find a terraformed planet and so ensure the survival of humans. One of these spaceships, the Gilgamesh, has found Kern's world and wants to settle there, but it encounters fierce resistance from Kern. If they are not allowed to land and settle it will probably be the end of humanity.

Most of the book is composed of alternating chapters, in which we see events through the eyes of individual spiders or, in the human world, through those of Holsten Mason, a historian or 'Classicist' whose responsibility it is to interpret communications and records written in the language of the Old Empire. Mason is in hibernation for much of the time but is woken up periodically when his services are required.

This is an ambitious book but I should say it largely succeeds in what it sets out to do. The characters, both human and arachnid, are three-dimensional and convincing; you do care what happens to them—even arachnophobes will probably find themselves emotionally involved. But what really distinguishes this book is the detailed account of how the spiders develop a technology based on the physical and mental resources available to them, using remarkable but not impossible inventiveness and adaptability.

In this respect the choice of Portia labiata was a good one. The real Portia is an astonishingly intelligent creature that hunts other spiders often bigger than itself and makes flexible plans, requiring foresight, for its attacks. This foresight continues to characterise the species throughout its evolution in the novel.

Some science fiction has elements of allegory, and I think that is true here. Spider and human society are alike in some ways but quite different in others; among the spiders females are completely dominant and the fatal human propensity to civil strife is lacking. To my surprise, by the end I found myself reminded of the episode in Gulliver's Travels in which Gulliver arrives in the land of the Houyhnhms. We could see the spiders in the role of the virtuous Houyhnhms and the humans on the Gilgamesh as the appalling Yahoos. But the contrast is not as stark as it is in Gulliver and, at the end, the humans are redeemed.

%T Children of Time
%A Tchaikovsky, Adrian
%I Pan Books
%C London
%D 2016
%G ISBN 978-1-4472-7331-8
%P 600pp
%K fiction
%O kindle version downloaded from www.amazon.co.uk, 2018

Book review: The Ends of Life: Roads to Fulfilment in Early Modern England, by Keith Thomas

See 570 other reviews

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.' So wrote L.P. Hartley in his novel The Go-Between, and that would be a good epigraph for Keith Thomas's scholarly but very readable study, in which he examines what the men and women of early modern England sought to make of themselves, what goals they pursued, and what were the objectives which, they believed, gave their lives meaning. Thomas uses the same metaphor as Hartley to describe his purpose in writing.

By asking how people made their choices and justified their actions, both to themselves and to others, I hope to advance the project on which I have been intermittently engaged for most of my scholarly life, namely that of constructing a retrospective ethnography of early modern England, approaching the past in the way an anthropologist might approach some exotic society.


We are often told that human nature doesn't change. But this is at best a half-truth; as Thomas shows, in earlier times people thought very differently from how we do today, so much so that we have to make a considerable imaginative effort to understand them.

The material is arranged under a number of headings: military prowess, work and vocation, wealth and possessions, honour and reputation, friendship and sociability, fame and the afterlife. In all these spheres of interest, beliefs and attitudes changed quite remarkably in the period under consideration, leading to an increasingly modern outlook after emergence from an essentially mediaeval way of thinking at the beginning of the period. Notable in this process was the development of individualism.

A striking example of this comes from changing attitudes to dress. At the beginning of the period dress codes were rigidly enforced according to social status; dressing above one's status was an offence, and so was dressing below it. But by the middle of the seventeenth century shifts in fashion, at least in high society, came and went at a bewildering speed.

A mid-seventeenth-century witness tells us that, in 1645 and 1646, the fashionable gallant was wearing 'a narrow brimmed hat, a long waist…breeches to his knees and boot-hosetops and jingling spurs'. In 1648 and 1649 a broad-brimmed hat, long breeches,'boots with the tops trailing on the ground, little spurs that must not jingle in the least. In 1652 and this present year 1653 we think it ridiculous to wear boots, but [only] shoes and stockings.'


The early modern period saw a great vogue for friendship, particularly among men. This was celebrated and idealised in literature, and relationships apparently reached an extraordinary intensity. Friends expressed passionate love for each other; they could kiss, wear the same clothes, and sleep in the same bed. To the modern reader all this irresistibly suggests homo-eroticism, but the intense affection of friendship was not seen in this light. Homosexuality, in contrast, was strongly condemned as 'filthy' and sodomy was a capital offence. 'Spiritual' friendship like this was always between men of similar age and class; friendship between older and younger men, or between superiors and subordinates, was disapproved of. This is because homosexuality was largely equated with pederasty.

For the most part Thomas is content to allow his witnesses to speak for themselves, but he does occasionally insert nice comments of his own. In his section on heaven and hell he tells us that one of the principal joys of the blessed was viewing the tortures of the damned below. Conversely, those suffering in hell were 'able to witness the simultaneous bliss of their friends and relations in heaven, rather like economy class passengers, huddled in the back of the aeroplane, catching an occasional glimpse behind the curtain of business-class travellers cosseted with hot towels and champagne'.

In this book Thomas's method of writing is similar to that of his earlier study, Religion and the Decline of Magic. In both he makes abundant use of mostly quite short contemporary quotations. In both books, too, he largely confines himself to England, with only a few glances to other parts of the British Isles or mainland Europe. He uses 'early modern England' to refer approximately to the period between 1530 and 1780; that is, from the Reformation to the American War of Independence, although he strays outside this time-frame on occasion.

While Thomas's writing is very readable, the huge number of quotations means that one has to take the book slowly, otherwise it can become indigestible. It is probably best approached by dipping into it and reading one section at a time rather than trying to take in too much at once; this is easy to do because each section is more or less self-contained and occupies a similar time-frame so the order in which they are read is not critical.

Although Thomas doesn't dwell on it, his book has implications for how we should think about ourselves. People in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were in a sense imprisoned in their psychological framework, as of course are we. It is tempting, if almost certainly futile, to try to imagine how a future Keith Thomas, writing two hundred years hence, would describe us in his book. But of one thing at least we can be certain: as Thomas puts it, rather sombrely, in his concluding section, the end is always inexorable oblivion. So carpe diem.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Christian religion, in its various forms, continued to enjoy ascendancy in England. Its message remained the traditional one, namely that it was to the next world, not this one, that human beings should look for their fulfilment. In practice, most of the population took a more secular view: they cherished life for its own sake, not merely as a preliminary to some future state. Highly aware of the satisfaction they could find in their work and their possessions, the affection of their friends and families, and the respect of their peers, they increasingly sought fulfilment in their daily existence. Here, all around them, were the ends of life.


%T The Ends of Life
%S Roads to Fulfilment in Early Modern England
%A Thomas, Keith
%I Oxford University Press
%C Oxford
%D 2009
%G ISBN 978-0-19-924723-3
%P xi+393pp
%K history
%O plate illustrations

Making Caps Lock work as Escape in the console on OpenBSD

I installed OpenBSD on a refurbished Dell Optiflex 3020 a couple of days ago, replacing the Windows 7 it arrived with. From something I'd read on the web I thought there would be some configuring needed to get the installation to work with EFI, but in fact it went smoothly out of the box.

A couple of minor things to say about the console.

1. I wanted Caps Lock to give me Escape in the console. The OpenBSD FAQ tells you how to do this with wsconsctl but I got a message saying that Caps_Lock was not a keysym. I found a fix for this at reddit (thanks, Kernigh).

2. Still on the console, I get messages about the mouse, saying _"wsmouse0 detached" . This seems to be a known bug but I don't have a satisfactory fix. I can stop the messages appearing by installing the mouse on the console but then it doesn't work in X. It's annoying but not serious since I normally start X immediatejy after logging in.

Probably the easiest solution is simply to unplug the mouse when you're in the console.

Book review: Religion and the Decline of Magic, by Keith Thomas

See 570 other reviews

Keith Thomas tells us that this book began as an attempt to make sense of why some now outmoded belief systems, which he terms collectively magical, were current in sixteenth and seventeenth century England. As he wrote he found that there was a close relationship between these beliefs and the religious ideas of the period; sometimes the two seemed to be closely connected, at others they were in conflict. He therefore enlarged the scope of his study to include an examination of these interactions. Inevitably the result was a very long book, even though he deliberately confined the discussion to England, with only brief glances at Wales; he made no attempt to include Scotland or Ireland, let alone continental Europe.

This is probably the most comprehensive and widely cited study of these subjects to have appeared in the last half-century. Although it is a scholarly work, it scores highly for readability.

The historical period spanned by the book includes the Reformation and this marks a boundary in how religious people viewed magical beliefs. In the pre-Reformation period the medieval Church 'acted as a repository of supernatural power which could be dispensed to the faithful to help them in their daily problems.' The priests, set aside from the rest of the population by their celibacy and consecration, and acting as mediators between man and God, were naturally seen as possessing special powers. Religious objects and rituals, especially the sacraments, came to assume magical properties in the eyes of the people. The result was inevitably a blurring of the line separating religion from superstition.

After the Reformation the Protestants tried to separate religion from its unwanted associates. Their success was only partial, but Thomas finds that the Reformation helped to introduce a new concept of what religion actually is.

Today we think of religion as a belief, rather than a practice, as definable in terms of creeds rather than in modes of behaviour. But such a description would have fitted popular Catholicism of the Middle Ages little better than it fits other primitive religions.


This seems to me a most illuminating comment.

A central feature of post-Reformation theology was its rejection of chance. Everything that happened, without exception, did so because it was permitted by God. Hence we get the idea of Providence—the notion that God will provide for the virtuous in this life.

Every Christian thus had the consolation of knowing that life was not a lottery, but reflected the working out of God's purposes. If things went wrong he did not have to blame his luck but could be assured that God's hand was at work; the events of this world were not random but ordered. … The correct reaction of a believer stricken by ill-fortune was therefore to search himself in order to discover the moral defect which had provoked God's wrath, or to eliminate the complacency which had led the Almighty to try him.


(Although Thomas does not make the point, this way of thinking is basic to the Old Testament, adherence to which was a prominent post-Reformation characteristic.)

We tend to think of our predecessors as having been strongly religious, yet complete ignorance of religious doctrine was surprisingly common both before and after the Reformation. This persisted as late as the early nineteenth century, when a new vicar at a Dorset church found only two male communicants. 'When the cup was given to the first he touched his forelock and said, "Here's your good health, sir." The second, better informed, said, "Here's the good health of our Lord Jesus Christ." At Chippenham a poor man took the chalice from the vicar and wished him a Happy New Year.

There is also a surprising number of reports of frank irreligion and scepticism about all aspects of Christianity, among both aristocrats and the lower orders. This is particularly remarkable in view of the harsh penalties, including burning at the stake, that awaited deniers, so there must have been many doubters who preferred to keep quiet about their views. We hear a lot about the decline of religious faith in modern times, but this may be an illusion.

We do not know enough about the religious beliefs and practices of our remote ancestors to be certain of the extend to which religious faith and practice have actually declined.


It may seem surprising that Thomas has three chapters on astrology, but this reflects the fact that this belief system achieved an astonishing level of prestige and intellectual credence in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Most Tudor monarchs, including Henry VIII, patronised astrologers, and Cardinal Wolsey was himself a practitioner. In fact, what needs explanation is how and why astrology eventually was discredited; Thomas discusses this in some detail.

Other sections look at ancient prophecies, witchcraft, ghosts and fairies, lucky and unlucky days, and omens. All the subjects are illustrated with an abundance of quotations, which are referenced in footnotes to the pages rather than in end notes, which makes them easier to consult.

Witchcraft, like astrology, is treated at length. Like most modern academics, Thomas finds little evidence to support the idea that the accused witches were Devil-worshippers or members of a pagan fertility cult. Most supposed witches were impoverished unhappy women who often disliked their neighbours and wished them ill, and may have pronounced curses on them. A number of sceptical contemporaries recognised that the curses had no objective validity but nevertheless thought that the accused deserved to be executed because they wished to commit murder even though the means they chose were ineffective. The poet John Donne was one of those who held this view.

Thomas concludes his study by saying, 'What is certain about the various beliefs discussed in this book is that today they have either disappeared or at least greatly decayed in prestige.' But he also says that 'If magic is to be defined as the employment of ineffective techniques that allay anxiety when effective ones are not available, then we must recognise that no society will ever be free of it.' Almost half a century has passed since this was written, and events have proved it prophetic. Magical healing, in the form of many kinds of alternative medicine, has increased enormously in popularity, and astrology is by no means extinct. Religion, on the other hand is declining. Perhaps there is now a place for a book called 'Magic and the Decline of Religion'.


08-05-2018
%T Religion and the Decline of Magic
%S Studies in popular beliefs in sixteenth and seventeenth century England
%A Thomas, Keith
%I Weidenfeld and Nicolson
%C London
%D 1971
%G ISBN 297 00220 1
%P xviii+pp
%K history, religion

Breast screening error: disaster or blessing in disguise?

The NHS computer error that has resulted in some 450,000 women aged around 70 not having received an appointment for a final breast screen is obviously, and understandably, deeply worrying for the women concerned. Predictably, the media have headlined the estimate that up to 270 of them may have developed cancers that are more advanced and difficult to treat than they would have been if diagnosed earlier. But this depends on a number of assumptions. Leaving aside the fact that this is the upper limit of an estimated 135-270 range (compare the "up to" speeds quoted by ISPs - how many customers achieve them?), the situation, as usual, is more complicated than the headlines imply.

New Scientlst has a good discussion of the question (Why breast screening error stories are getting death stats wrong). This article makes the important point that, for some women, the failure to notify them may have done them a favour. The current NHS estimate is that, for every 200 women in the 50-70 age range screened, one will be spared an early death but three will have unnecessary treatment for cancers that would not have been a problem in their lifetime.


... it means that up to 800 women may have been saved from harm by not sending them their final screening appointment letter, as they avoided possible reduction in their life expectancy through unnecessary treatment.


The New Scientist article makes the important point that the women who received unnecessary treatment would never know this and would presumably be forever grateful, believing that their lives had been saved by the 'harrowing treatment process'. So this is an 'invisible' harm that is difficult to quantify.

Book review: The Mind Is Flat, by Nick Chater

See my 570 other reviews

Sigmund Freud did not invent the notion of the unconscious—in one form or another it goes back to antiquity—but he undoubtedly popularised it. Thanks largely to him, many people today think of their minds in terms of the iceberg metaphor, which implies that much of what goes on in our minds is mostly or completely unknown to us. The idea of the unconscious is deeply infused in art, literature, and many other aspects of our life; in fact, it is so widespread that it is practically impossible to escape.

But why has it remained so popular? Probably because it corresponds with how we think of ourselves intuitively. (At least, this is true for Westerners; whether the idea is so deeply ingrained in other cultures I'm not sure.) And yet some psychologists and philosophers have rejected the notion of an unconscious mind. This where Chater stands, although, as he tells us, he came to this view only after a long struggle.

I have now, somewhat reluctantly, come to the conclusion that almost everything we think we know about our own mind is a hoax, played on us by our own brains.


He has reached this position on the basis of what science has told us about visual perception and brain function. He demonstrates this by means of visual illusions and by asking us to perform mental exercises in which we try to manipulate an imaginary wire cube or describe how a tiger's stripes flow over its body without looking at a picture of a tiger. The aim is to show how inaccurate, incomplete and ad hoc is our apprehension of our surroundings, whether we are perceiving them in reality or imagination.

Experiments have shown that our visual mechanism can focus on only one item at a time. The impression we have that we can take in a whole visual scene at once, at a glance, is an illusion constructed by our brains. And the same is true of our thoughts; we can think only one thought at a time. So there is no internal landscape in which unconscious thoughts can roam at will, and therefore there can be no unconscious thoughts. (This doesn't mean that there are no unconscious processes—quite the contrary.)

This account of how our minds work is counter-intuitive, which is presumably why it is not better known generally. Psychoanalysis gives us a different picture which is more in accord with 'folk psychology' and therefore seemingly more plausible. But it emerged from a mistaken approach to psychology on Freud's part. Although he claimed to be a scientist, his method was essentially literary. He based his ideas on case histories—stories which he narrated with considerable literary skill, almost as if he were writing fiction, which in fact he was. But this is not science.

This is how we experience characters in fiction. Chater illustrates this by treating Tolstoy's Anna Karenina as if she were a real person, bringing out what we know or might infer about her. The areas of knowledge and ignorance that exist in her case are similar to those that exist in our knowledge of real people and indeed ourselves. When we infer hidden motives, fears and desires in such cases we are making up stories of greater or lesser plausibility, no more. The principle of depth psychology is that, given the right techniques, we can infer what is going on 'inside', but we are creating verbal fictions, not practising science.

In this book I will argue for precisely the opposite viewpoint: that the charting of our hidden depths is not merely technically difficult but fundamentally misconceived; the very idea that our minds contain 'hidden depths' is utterly wrong. Our reflections on Anna Karenina's fatal act should point us, instead, to a radically different moral; that the interpretation of the motives of real people is no different from the interpretation of fictional characters.


This is not a long book but it packs a huge amount of insights into its pages (though I'd like to have had more discussion of dreams). If Chater is right, most of us will need to revise a lot of our basic assumptions about ourselves.

It is tempting to imagine that thoughts can be divided in two as the waterline splits an iceberg; the visible conscious tip and the submerged bulk of the unconscious, vast, hidden and dangerous. Freud and later psychoanalysts saw the unconscious as the hidden force behind the frail and self-deluded conscious mind.


Much the same could be said of Jungian psychology, which has attracted a much greater array of interpreters than has Gormenghast. It isn't difficult to devote a lifetime to exploring the endless ramifications of Jung's work. But if Chater is right this would be a delusive enterprise.

But is he right? If he is, many of us, including me, will have to make a pretty far-reaching re-evaluation of our ideas, and from what he writes that didn't come easily even to him. So this is clearly an important book that merits plenty of rereading.

See also Strangers to Ourselves, by Timothy D. Wilson

26-04-2018
%T The Mind Is Flat
%S The Illusion of Mental Depth and the Improvised Mind
%A Chater, Nick
%I Penguin
%C London
%P vii+223pp
%K psychology
%O kindle version downloaded from www.amazon.co.uk, 2018

Book review: Casting Off, by Elizabeth Jane Howard

See 570 other reviews

At the end of the third volume of the Cazalet Chronicles, Confusion, a lot of threads were left dangling. Here they are all tidied up pretty completely, against the background of life in post-war Britain, which still has plenty of hardships to be endured more or less stoically. Rationing of food, clothing, and fuel is still there or is even increasing under the Labour government, and there are the famous London smogs, one of which Howard describes vividly.

One difference between this volume and its predecessors is that we see events more through the eyes of the male characters than was the case previously. Rupert, the youngest brother, has returned from France after a long unexplained absence and is trying to rebuild his relationship with his young wife Zoe. Edward, the middle brother, is continuing his affair with Diana and it looks increasingly likely that he will have to decide what to do about his marriage to Villy. Hugh, the eldest of the three, is still broken-hearted after the death of his wife Sybil.

It is however Archie, the friend of practically all the members of the family, who comes to the fore in this book. Up to now his role has been that of wise counsellor, picking up the pieces when relationships break up and offering discreet support to everyone while avoiding getting too personally involved, But here he does become centrally involved in the story.

This is not to say that the female members of the cast, who are mostly in their early twenties, are neglected. In the previous volume there was a lot of information about Louise's increasingly unhappy marriage, but that story is no longer centre stage, which I found to be something of a relief; I felt the autobiographical element was rather too obtrusive. Instead the focus is mainly on Clary, who does a lot of growing up by the end of the book.

At the close we have happy endings, in varying degrees, for pretty well all the characters. This would seem to mark the end of the series, but in fact Howard did write a sequel—All Change—which was published in 2013; it was her final novel.

%T Casting Off
%S Volume 4 of the Cazalet Chronicles
%A Elizabeth Jane Howard
%I Macmillan
%C London =
%D 1995
%G ISBN 0 333 60757 0
%P 483pp
%K fiction
%O harback 4to
New Reviews | Titles | Authors | Subjects

Book review: The Stories of English, by David Crystal

See my 570 other reviews


There have been many histories of English but nearly all of them focus on what Crystal terms Standard English. His book, he claims, is different. Its title is "The Stories of English" and not "The Story of English", because it sets Standard English in the context of the numerous other varieties of the language that have existed and still exist today. All of these, Crystal believes, are equally valid and deserving of respect.

The book covers the whole history of English, starting with Old English and continuing up to the twenty-first century. At all stages on the way we meet a great number of variations, which are illustrated with often lengthy quotations (this is a long book).

Crystal identifies three main stages in the development of the language. The first is marked by something approaching anarchy, with wide variations in spelling, vocabulary and grammar due to regional differences and other causes. The introduction of printing by Caxton in the fifteenth century imposed a degree of uniformity, but it was by no means complete and there was still no standard form of English.

With no standard to act as a control, Middle English illustrates an age when all dialects were equal, in the sense that the written language permitted the use of a wide range of variant forms, each of which was acceptable. There was no hint of a prescriptive attitude… One person may not have liked the way other people spoke or wrote—that is a characteristic for the human race—but there was no suggestion that they were somehow 'incorrect' as a result of doing so.


Standard English, which was largely southern English, began to develop at the end of the Middle Ages although this was a gradual unplanned process that took some 300 years to complete.

It is important to reiterate: only the basis of Standard English existed by 1500. Comparing the kind of language which was being written and spoken in those days to the kind of language we associate with Standard English now, we see a wide range of differences. The clear-cut distinction between 'correct' and 'incorrect' did not exist in late Middle English—that was an eighteenth-century development.


The trend towards control and formality became stronger in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when schoolchildren were firmly taught what was correct English and what was not. The abandonment of such ideas, which Crystal welcomes unreservedly, is well under way today although the process is not yet complete.

Crystal is dismissive of people who seek to resist change in the language. They often object to violations of rules such as not splitting infinitives and avoiding ending sentences with prepositions. Crystal insists that such shibboleths should be ignored; they derive from pronouncements by self-styled 'authorities' and lack any objective justification.

Punctuation pundits are not spared either, especially those who agonise over the apostrophe. The rules about this date from the introduction of printing and are simply conventions that cause unnecessary difficulty to many students and are not based on rational choice. Crystal doesn't have much time for the notorious arguments about 'its' and 'it's'. (I hadn't realised, incidentally, that the use of the apostrophe as a mark of possession was an eighteenth-century innovation; previously it had only indicated omission of a letter.)

For Crystal, as long as there is no loss of clarity, that's all that matters. So, for example, 'between you and I' is perfectly acceptable because there is no risk of misunderstanding what is meant. Like most linguists, Crystal does not accept the idea that languages 'deteriorate' with time; see, for example, Guy Deutscher, The Unfolding of Language.

So are we to conclude that anything goes? Well, not quite.

Of course, it also has to be firmly stated that certain standards have to be maintained in linguistic schooling. It is important for students to be able to write and speak clearly, to avoid ambiguity, to be precise, to develop a consistent style, to spell properly, to suit their language to the needs of the situation, and to bear in mind the needs of their listeners and readers. Everyone needs help to shape their own personal style and to develop their ability to appreciate style in others, and the role of teachers and of good linguistic models (the 'best authors') is crucial. The more people read widely, acquire some analytical terminology, adopt a critical perspective and try their hands (and mouths) at different genres, the more they will end up linguistically well-rounded individuals.


In this revealing passage Crystal concedes quite explicitly that there is such a thing as good writing, and this admission doesn't sit entirely easily with his rejection of 'correctness'. I'd say that it's one thing to flout the rules selectively and deliberately and quite another to ignore them completely because either you have never heard of them or you hold all rules in contempt. There is a potential tension in writing between old and new, formality and informality, and how you resolve this tension depends partly on personal preference and also on the audience you have in mind. Getting the tone right is crucial but often difficult. This is something that is hardly touched on here, but I find I'm constantly aware of it myself when I'm writing.

Crystal suggests that our linguistic prejudices largely reflect our age. If you were brought up to adhere to certain standards in writing you will probably object when these are ignored. Up to a point I agree, so I keep my own linguistic preferences (prejudices?) under review to test their validity. But I don't want to jettison them wholesale. I know there is no good reason not to split infinitives or place prepositions at the ends of sentences and I already feel free to do both at will. But nothing will persuade me to use 'bacteria', 'data' or 'graffiti' as singulars or to write 'between you and I'. To do so would feel like the literary equivalent of deliberately playing a wrong note or dragging my nail down a blackboard. And I shall continue to distinguish between 'infer' and 'imply', 'disinterested' and 'uninterested', and 'lay' and 'lie'.

It's a losing battle, of course. Changes are on their way in all these matters and in ten or so years' time the usages I now reject will probably be the accepted norm, but they aren't there yet, at least for me. I don't intend to adopt them myself, but I'll try to be less censorious when others do so.

It isn't only the written language that Crystal takes a critical look at; he does the same for spoken English too. As usual, taking the historical view brings plenty of surprises. For example, the increasing use of the glottal stop in many parts of the country goes a lot further back than you might think. Nor is it uniquely a lower-class phenomenon; there is evidence for its use by the actress Ellen Terry and even Bertrand Russell.

Whether one fully agrees with Crystal or not, there is no doubt that he has written a fascinating book It contains unexpected information on all kinds of subjects. One that particularly surprised me was the rapid evolution of a local dialect on Pitcairn Island, where the Bounty mutineers established a colony. To illustrate this he quotes, verbatim, the transcription of an islander's oral description of how to cook a local dish.

Reading this book has given me a useful term to describe something I'd often noticed while reading but didn't know how to describe: eye-dialect. When authors want to represent the speech of a rustic or uneducated character they may write something like "That's wot I sed". In fact, this isn't dialect; it's how a speaker of Standard English would pronounce these words, but the comic spelling is used to show the status of the speaker. This is an example of eye-dialect.

There are also some nice examples of myth-busting. For example, it is often claimed that rural Americans, especially the Appalachian mountain dwellers, preserved a lot of Elizabethan English in their dialects. In fact, there are relatively few such usages and, as would be expected, all the dialects have changed a good deal over the two centuries since the settlements.

This is a book that anyone with a serious interest in writing will enjoy reading and learn a lot from. But I don't think we need to throw out all our books on style, even if we should perhaps read them with a more critical eye. I shall certainly hold on to my copy of F.L. Lucas's Style.


Book %T The Stories of English
%A Crystal, David
%I Penguin Books
%C London
%D 2004, 2005
%G ISBN 978-0-141-90070-4
%K language
%O kindle version downloaded from www.amazon.co.uk, 2018 review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.