Monday, February 27, 2017

Quote of the Day

Thor is called, in Scandinavia, The Defender of the World, and amulet miniatures of his hammer have for centuries been worn to afford protection. At Stockholm, the museum holds one of amber from a late paleolithic date; and from the early metal ages fifty or more tiny T-shaped hammers of silver and gold have been collected. In fact, even to the present -- or, at least, to the first years of the present century -- Manx fishermen have been accustomed to wear the T-shaped bone from the tongue of a sheep to protect them from the sea; and in German slaughterhouses workers have been seen with the same bone suspended from their necks.

An unforeseen, somewhat startling overtone is added by this observation to the T-motif that has already been discussed in connection with the Celtic Christian Tunc-page (which is of a date when the Celtic and Viking spheres of influence were in many ways interlaced); and, of course, then vice versa: the apparently merely grotesque fishing episode acquires a new range of possible significance when the T of the Celtic page is identified with Thor's hammer as well as with Christ's cross. We might, in fact, even ask whether in Manx and German folklore the T-shaped bone of the sheep -- the sacrificial lamb -- may not have been consciously identified with the world-redeeming cross of the man-god Christ, as well as with the world-defending hammer of the native, far more ancient, even possibly paleolithic, man-god Thor.

Joseph Campbell
Occidental Mythology: The Masks of God, vol. 3

Jim's comments: And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you make a conspiracy theory. 1) Find some random and unrelated factoids. 2) Divorce them from the theories in which you encountered them. 3) Construct a theory about how these factoids really are related, ignoring all the evidence that puts them in the theories you just divorced them from. 4) Portray your contrived theory as the norm, and suggest all deviations from it are what's really contrived -- an excellent example of a pre-emptive tu quoque.

The first paragraph ends with a footnote referencing two works: A.C. Haddon, Magic and Fetishism (1906), pp. 39-40, which you can read here; and B. Phillpotts, "German Heathenism," in The Cambridge Medieval History, volume 2 (1913), pp. 481-82, which you can read here. Phillpotts just references Haddon's work. Haddon reports that another person, Mr. E. Lovett, points to the sheep tongue bones worn "by Whitby, and probably by other Yorkshire fisherman" as good luck charms to protect them from drowning. Basically, some people in a small village wore them and Haddon thinks it probable that the practice extends beyond that village, although no reason for this extension is given. There is also no reference given for E. Lovett, although perhaps there's a bibliography which I can't access. Lovett further suggests that this t-shaped bone might be meant to represent Thor's hammer. Might. Later, Haddon says another person, Professor Boyd Dawkins, told him that Manx fisherman (from the Isle of Man) wore something similar. Haddon then informed yet another person, Herr E. Friedel, of this practice, and Friedel said some Berlin slaughter yard workers also wore something similar. There seems to be a parenthetical reference here. Friedel then discovered that representations of Thor's hammer were worn in the early Iron Age in Denmark, and suggests that they devolved from a fetish to a lucky charm. How this connection from an early Iron Age practice in a different country led to the use of sheep tongue bones in England millennia later is unexplained. Also unexplained is how these amulets could be said to represent Thor's hammer, since there is a significant gap between the early Iron Age (around 1000 BC) and the first references to Thor. Moreover, a t-shape is a pretty simple form, after all. It's just two perpendicular lines. And what about all the fishermen from other areas who use different good luck charms? What about all the non-fishermen's charms? I'd like more evidence than some people speculating about a possible connection referencing each other.

Perhaps I'm being overly critical. Perhaps there is a connection. But Joseph Campbell shifts the whole thing from first gear into sixth. He finds some title of Thor (Defender of the World) that sounds vaguely like some titles of God in the Judeo-Christian traditions. He then adds further that a t-shape is pretty similar to a cross, which is obviously a major symbol of Christianity. And to tie it all off with a bow, he suggests the use of a bone from a sheep sounds like the Christian idea of Jesus as a sacrificial lamb. Dude. Do I really have to explain how ridiculously contrived this is? You could find connections between anything with this kind of reasoning. Maybe using rabbits feet as lucky charms devolved from an earlier practice of lamb's feet, which was symbolic of Jesus. I mean, you can say anything about anything.

That's Campbell's methodology. Find a myth wholly unrelated to Christianity, check. Find some element of that myth that can be implied to be similar to an element of Christianity when both are divorced from their larger contexts, check. Repeat ad nauseum.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017


I put this together last August and then never posted it for some reason. The news articles are six months old.

-- A list of the solar system's most livable places. Earth not included.

-- The myth of the ethical vegan. I have a lot of respect for vegetarians and vegans who do what they do because they are opposed to eating meat on ethical grounds, but the article points out that merely refraining from eating meat oneself actually causes more animal death in the long run.

-- Moon Express has been approved for a private landing on the Moon in . . . 2017.

-- Some people are horrified by Rudyard Kipling's imperialism and defense of the "white man's burden" (which I just spoke about in class today). This author defends him quite well.

-- They found a 400-year old Greenland shark, which makes it the oldest vertebrate. Descartes was 20 years old when it was born.

-- A couple of articles, here and here, on six scientists who lived in isolation on Hawaii for one year to simulate a Mars mission. When did they stop using Devon Island?

-- NASA re-established contact with the STEREO-B spacecraft, nearly two years after losing it. Remember, this is six months old.

-- A possible lifesite at Proxima Centauri.

-- Most influential living philosophers. I'm skeptical. Plantinga doesn't make the list?

Update: I forgot and buried the lede! NASA has discovered a star with seven -- count 'em, seven -- earth-sized planets in orbit. There's plenty of articles about it at And this is not a six month old news story.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Visiting Venus

This is very interesting. NASA has developed electronics to withstand the conditions on Venus. Venus is closer than Mars, but because the atmosphere is so dense and the temperature so high -- it's about 90 earth atmospheres (like being 3,000 feet underwater) and hotter than Mercury -- it's a tad difficult to send anything to land there. The article points out that Venera 13 lasted 127 minutes on the surface, and that's the record. But if there are new forms of electronics that can survive there, the possibilities open up. Once, I was googling to find out the highest mountain on Venus (Maxwell Montes, 11 km high or 6.8 miles elevation) to see if we have the technology to survive there. The temperature there would only be 716 degrees Fahrenheit and the density would only be 44 earth atmospheres. I note that the Exosuit is good to about 30 atmospheres (equivalent to about 1,000 feet underwater). However, if we had a motive, I'm confident the technology would be forthcoming. Of course if your Venus suit failed ... that ... that would suck. At any rate, if we have electronics we can put off sending people down there right away. We can have a manned habitat in orbit that sends down probes, even probes that can return. Or we can even go further and have never-landing aircraft in Venus's atmosphere. In fact, that would probably be the closest to earth conditions anywhere in the solar system. If you had the aircraft at the elevation that's one atmosphere, you'd just need a breathing mask to wander out on the lanai. Geoffrey Landis, NASA scientist and science-fiction author, has written about this possibility.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Quote of the Day is easy to think the State has a lot of different objects -- military, political, economic, and what not. But in a way things are much simpler than that. The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life. A husband and wife chatting over a fire, a couple of friends having a game of darts in a pub, a man reading a book in his own room or digging in his own garden -- that is what the State is there for. And unless they are helping to increase and prolong and protect such moments, all the laws, parliaments, armies, courts, police, economics, etc., are simply a waste of time.

C.S. Lewis
Beyond Personality in
Mere Christianity

Monday, February 6, 2017

The EM drive and abductive reasoning

I've mentioned the EM drive before and how it seems to violate Newton's third law. I hope it works because it would be a boon for space exploration. A recent Popular Mechanics article discusses it and summarizes its apparent incongruity with contemporary physics: "It's much more likely that the researchers are overlooking something than that much of our physics is wrong." Yes indeedy. That's called abductive reasoning or inference to the best explanation. The classic example is when astronomer's noticed that Uranus's orbit was not following the path Newton's laws dictated. The two explanations were that a) Newton's laws were wrong, or b) there's a gravity well somewhere out there pulling Uranus out of orbit. They calculated where the gravity well would be, pointed their telescopes there, and bingo! -- that's how Neptune was discovered.

Of course abduction is not absolute like deduction or even as strong as induction. Take three possible arrangements of three elements: X; Y; and XàY.


The first premise states the law XàY: if X is the case, then Y is the case. The second premise affirms that X is the case. Therefore Y is the case; in fact Y must be the case. All hail deduction! This is a pretty standard conditional syllogism, modus ponens in particular.


The first premise is that X is the case. The second is that Y is the case. We can take this to mean that whenever X is the case Y is also the case -- that is, whenever X is observed, Y is observed following it. So the conclusion is the law  XàY. Of course, this could fail to be the case: induction is not deductively valid. If it were, we would call it deduction. As stated, this may commit the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this). Perhaps X and Y occur together for something other than a strict causal relation flowing from X to Y. But the above formulation is just meant as an illustration.


The first premise states the law, if X is the case then Y is the case. The second premise affirms that Y is the case. From this we abductively infer that X is the case. This pretty clearly commits the deductive fallacy of affirming the consequent -- or would commit it if it were being presented as a deduction. It would also commit the inductive fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc -- if it were induction. The idea here is that we have a store of possible explanations for Y. We know the law, if X then Y. Therefore, one possible explanation of Y is X. Again, this is not deductively valid, but so what? We have several potential explanations for Y, X is available and is in fact the best explanation, so we abductively infer X.

Science constantly uses abductive reasoning; in fact, scientists were doing so for centuries before C.S. Peirce, a.k.a. the patron saint of philosophers of science, explained and validated it (this is one reason why you can't really study the philosophy of science without also studying the history of science). But it works enough of the time to justify its use. You can observe abductive reasoning in action by watching or reading any of the incarnations of Sherlock Holmes, despite the constant claims that he is using the science of deduction.

So, back to the EM drive. As with Uranus's orbit, the two possible explanations are that Newton's laws are wrong or we're missing something. The latter is much more likely, so absent further information, the best explanation is that Newton's third law is not being violated but that we are just not observing its application for some reason.

And this could be wrong. The example of Uranus's orbit is usually discussed alongside a similar problem with Mercury's. Newton's laws dictated that Mercury's orbit should follow a certain path and it wasn't. Easy! There's another gravity well between Mercury and the Sun that's pulling it out of its orbit. Except there wasn't. It turned out that the explanation here is that Newton's laws were wrong (or I would say, contra Thomas Kuhn, that Newton's laws needed to be supplemented for certain domains of measurement). We needed Einstein's theories of relativity to make sense of Mercury's orbit. Something like that could be the case with the EM drive, but again, it's probably not the best explanation. Yet.