The muddle we have managed to get ourselves into by our failure to recognise this does not only have intellectual consequences, it is also potentially (and, indeed, actually) dangerous.
The essays and reviews which are collected here are an attempt to examine some of those intellectual consequences and to point to some of the dangers.
Those who wish to explore further the point of view which I have briefly outlined here may do so either by reading the introduction, , or the longish essay about the religious origins of modern secularism which I have called . Alternatively they may browse through the or read any one of the essays, reviews and extracts which are indexed on the left-hand side of this page.
It might well be thought that the section of the index which is headed ‘false allegations’ and which lists a number of articles dealing with a contemporary witch-hunt, stands outside the view of cultural history I have advanced in other sections. In fact, however, this is not the case.
The most fervent modern advocates of reason and of science have often suggested or implied that we are no longer generally susceptible to dangerous delusions such as gripped the minds of learned men in the great European witch-hunt of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This is, I believe, but another example of the dangers of rationalism. For if we accept and allow ourselves to be guided by a view of cultural history which denies the very possibility of a witch-hunt taking place in our midst, we have created the ideal conditions for one to take place in front of our eyes without our even noticing what is happening.
My own investigation into police ‘trawling operations’, which occupied me for a number of years, was not, in one sense at least, a diversion from the theory of cultural history which is worked out in other parts of this website. It was an attempt to apply that theory in practice.
On a general note I should point out that, although most of the pieces which are collected here have been published previously, a significant number, including some of the more substantial essays, appear for the first time. In a number of cases, book reviews and articles appear here in a fuller version than when they were first published, as I have taken the opportunity to restore passages which were excised for reasons of space.
Some of these reviews and articles first appeared in the Guardian, the Observer, the Times Literary Supplement or the New Statesman. Other reviews were originally published in The Tablet. Since The Tablet is a Catholic periodical, some readers may conclude, as the authors of a biography of Darwin which I reviewed critically there once did, that I am a Catholic. The correct conclusion would be that The Tablet is a broad-minded publication which does not concern itself unduly with its contributors’ religious faith – or, in my case, the absence of it.
This will be an electronic, paperless process. After an essay is assigned, you have one week to email me a topic proposal, which is a one-paragraph summary of your argument. Rough Drafts will be submitted for peer review at T-Square: . Final Drafts will be submitted to Turnitin: . I will explain how to use these resources during the first five weeks of the class.
The pluralism of Anaxagoras and Empedocles maintained the Eleaticstrictures on metaphysically acceptable basic entities (things thatare and must be just what they are) by adopting an irreduciblepluralism of stuffs meeting these standards that could pass on theirqualities to items constructed from them. Ancient atomism respondedmore radically: what is real is an infinite number of solid,uncuttable (atomon) units of matter. All atoms are made ofthe same stuff (solid matter, in itself otherwise indeterminate),differing from one another (according to Aristotle in Metaphysics985b4-20=DK67A6) only in shape, position, arrangement. (Later sourcessay that atoms differ in weight; this is certainly true forpost-Aristotelian atomism, but less likely for Presocratic atomism.)In addition, the Presocratic atomists, Leucippus and Democritus(Democritus was born in about 460 BCE in Abdera in Northern Greece,shortly after Socrates was born in Athens), enthusiastically endorsedthe reality of the empty (or void). The void is what separates atoms and allows for the differences notedabove (except weight, which could not be accounted for by void, sincevoid in an atom would make it divisible and, hence, not an atom)(Sedley 1982; see also Sedley 2008).
Writers like Hawking, Mlodinow, and Smolin, however, use the contingent nature of our universe and its laws to argue for a very different conclusion from that of Aquinas — namely, that some contingent universe (whether or not it turned out to be our own) have come into being, without the existence of any necessary being. Here again probability is essential to the argument: While any universe with a particular set of laws may be very improbable, with enough universes out there it becomes highly probable. This is the same principle behind the fact that, when I toss a coin, even though there is some probability that I will get heads and some probability that I will get tails, it is certain that I will get . Similarly, modern theorists imply, the multiverse has necessary being even though any given universe does not.