Friday, July 24, 2009

Stark on Ancient Science

Last year I recorded a new lengthy interview for the Polyschizmatic Reprobates Hour on Rodney Stark's disastrously awful treatment of ancient science. Dan the Demented cut the show into three parts, the third on other topics, but the first two on Stark. Those two episodes are now up and available, on the PRH website and as podcasts. You can listen to them here: [Season 3 Episode 3] [Season 3 Episode 4]. Together this is essentially a two-part lambaste of Rodney Stark's embarrassing forray into ancient history, where I pillory his claim that Christianity made science possible, by educating the listener on the actual historical facts of Greco-Roman science (and technology). We quote his books For the Glory of God and The Victory of Reason and dissect their absurd falsehoods point-by-point. Each show runs 45 minutes.

The nature of an off-the-cuff interview lends itself to occasional slips of wording, so I must correct two of those: (1) obviously I meant to say a catheter goes into the bladder, not the kidney (they had a separate instrument that could enter the kidney to extract kidney stones); and (2) it was Ptolemy's lunar orbit that was (in combined motions) nearly elliptical, not his planetary orbits (the latter were still non-circular, describing curlycues, and were still eccentric, with velocities varying in reference to a focal point anticipating Kepler's Second Law--they would only have been nearly elliptical if anyone translated his system to a heliocenter).

A more concise and thoroughly vetted and referenced version of this show's argument will appear in a forthcoming book being edited by John Loftus.

21 comments:

Jim who is slightly balding said...

Well, better late than never, I suppose!

I look forward to listening to it!

Hylomorphic said...

I'm finishing up the second episode now. It's a lot of fun listening to a conversation so lively and informative.

Gilgamesh said...

As always, extremely thorough and kicks but. It reminds me of a statement by Otto Neugebauer, that the historian has two major tasks: making old sources available and debunking previous theories.

I also didn't know about Hipparchus discovering a nova. Has this been verified by astronomers?

And finally, thanks for going into the downfall of Rome. I didn't know that the mechanisms for its fall were as well understood as you presented.

WAR_ON_ERROR said...

Any word on when part three will be out?

I pointed David Marshall in the direction of the Rodney Stark conversation, but he didn't listen to much of it apparently.

Ben

Richard Carrier said...

Gilgamesh said... I also didn't know about Hipparchus discovering a nova. Has this been verified by astronomers?

There isn't really any way to do that. All we know is that once he noticed a new star had appeared (we don't know the exact date), he realized a more thorough and precise mapping of the stars would be needed, and so he began the task.

And finally, thanks for going into the downfall of Rome. I didn't know that the mechanisms for its fall were as well understood as you presented.

Indeed, we know a lot, that unfortunately never filters down into the public, which is still awash with long-debunked myths (from "barbarians did it" to "lead poisoning").

There is also some confusion as to what is meant--the last emperor was killed in the 5th century, "officially" ending the Western Roman Empire, so sometimes the "Fall of Rome" refers to that century, or the preceding centuries of disintegration, which was indeed "caused" by barbarians (and civil war, both more or less), but only because the social system had all but collapsed and thus could no longer hold them at bay (so their incursions were more a symptom of decline than actual cause).

But really, things got screwed in the 3rd century. Everything after that was just one attempt after another to hold it together, never with any lasting success, and often making things worse.

Haukur said...

The overview of the development of classical science is quite informative and you're obviously in your element talking about it. You're also in your element refuting Stark non-sense.

The causes of the fall of Rome is a murkier topic. I'd tend to think that fascism and feudalism are rather different things though Diocletian's regime may have had elements of each.

WAR_ON_ERROR said...

"Stark non-sense"

hehe, indeed.

Ben

Ehteshaam Gulam said...

Keep up the great work Dr.Carrier!

Richard Carrier said...

Haukur said... The causes of the fall of Rome is a murkier topic. I'd tend to think that fascism and feudalism are rather different things though Diocletian's regime may have had elements of each.

I suppose that's really just semantics (i.e. it depends on how you are defining terms). Fascism comes from fasces, the rods and axes carried by Roman (yes, Roman) lictors ahead of Roman magistrates, symbolizing the magistrate's authority to beat or kill anyone at will.

Under the Republic people had rights and thus this "fascistic" authority was kept in check, and not only by laws, but also checks-and-balances within the government (the popular Tribunes could veto the acts of elite magistrates).

Under the Empire these checks were gradually stripped away under the guise of protecting them, yet still the rights of citizens were occasionally protected by good Emperors and conscientious magistrates (just not by bad Emperors and magistrates), whereas Diocletian essentially did away with that, instituting the death penalty for everything (even free trade) and seeking to use the "fascistic" power of the state to control every aspect of society (an approach hugely ramped up by subsequent Christian emperors).

In modern terms, fascism is a model of government in which everyone and everything serves the aims of the state, and the state has absolute power to ensure that remains so (hence to beat or kill at will). Diocletian's and Constantine's governments more than amply fit that description.

It was Constantine's fascism that actually created what would become feudalism (which is basically fascism fragmented into isolated fiefdoms). Constantine bound all free peasants to the land and their landlords, creating in Roman law what we now call serfs. When the central government collapsed, independent landlords then dominated their respective serfs and waged war or forged alliances amongst each other to take over or work with fellow landlords, even retaining some of the official hierarchical titles Roman Emperors had created (ducus, duke; comes, count; landlord, "Lord"; even "knight" as small landowning horseman is a Roman office, the equestrian, from as far back as the Republic, in fact is pre-Roman, deriving as far back as Classical Athens).

Loren said...

Any opinion on the "catabolic collapse" theory? That the Roman Empire got economically top-heavy as a result of revenues from conquest running out and with it having a lot of border to defend.

The collapse of the western Roman Empire left the remainder of it with much more defensible borders, and it survived a thousand years more.

That aside, I like the presentation that you did -- it's a nice counter to the Christianity-the-super-scientific-religion apologetics that I often see.

Rodney Stark on the influence of Hellenic paganism seems especially odd, since many philosophers did not treat the Olympians as very relevant.

Haukur said...

Well, fascism has social mobility, feudalism doesn't. Fascism is, as you've alluded to, heavily centralized while feudalism is heavily decentralized. Fascism is compatible with an advanced economy, feudalism isn't really.

But the word 'fascism' is also just very tied to a particular set of 20th century things. The lede of the Wikipedia article says things like, "Fascism opposes class conflict, blames capitalist liberal democracies for its creation and communists for exploiting the concept." This doesn't really apply to Diocletian and Constantine, it's a very different context. But, yes, it does depend on how you define the term. Maybe 'totalitarian' would be another option.

While I think "Why did the Roman Empire fall?" is an interesting question I don't think it's a mystery like it is sometimes presented. Every empire ever has fallen. "Why did the Roman Empire last as long as it did?", is just as valid a question.

Peter said...

Richard Carrier,

Great podcast! Stark is quite popular amoung Christians...

You mentioned in the podcast that Eusebius wrote something against investigating the nature, similar to what Augustine wrote about curiosity being a disease. Do you have more details about the Eusebius' writing (quote)? Thanks.

Dave Empey said...

Fascinating stuff!

Did I correctly understand you to say that Ptolemy could predict the locations of solar eclipses? If so, would that imply that he knew the correct relative sizes and distances of the Sun, the Moon, and the Earth?

Gilgamesh said...

Richard,

I did a check on that nova, and it is confirmed in Chinese records for 134 BCE. See Ho Peng-Yoke "Ancient and Medieval Observations of Comets and Novae in Chinese Soures", item #40.

I had to wonder why secondary sources gave an exact year, and that is why.

Richard Carrier said...

Loren said... Any opinion on the "catabolic collapse" theory? That the Roman Empire got economically top-heavy as a result of revenues from conquest running out and with it having a lot of border to defend.

Yes. I answered that in another thread (Are We Doomed?).

Loren said... The collapse of the western Roman Empire left the remainder of it with much more defensible borders, and it survived a thousand years more.

Sort of. The Byzantine empire almost consistently shrank and declined, just much more slowly (a few bright moments of upturn didn't last long, e.g. Justinian's reconquest). I don't know enough particulars to say exactly why.

Richard Carrier said...

Haukur said... Well, fascism has social mobility, feudalism doesn't.

That's not technically true. Class promotion is possible in feudalism, just limited and difficult (you can be appointed Knight, then Lord, and on up, or even battle out your own fiefdom, though the process did generally require family connections; meanwhile, peasants could gain freedom by escaping to towns and apprenticing to craftsmen, where an entirely different political economy was operating). And fascism doesn't automatically have social mobility. It doesn't intrinsically oppose it, but in principle some fascistic systems could.

What most distinguishes fascism from feudalism is the fragmentary nature of the latter (as you said, "fascism is...heavily centralized while feudalism is heavily decentralized"--i.e. there is no one "state" whose interests are paramount, but numerous isolated and often changing individuals whose interests are paramount). I would count feudalism as a special case of fascism, as their modus operandi is essentially the same ("the law is whatever the established authorities want" and "serve the interests of the established authorities, or be beaten or killed").

Haukur said... Fascism is compatible with an advanced economy, feudalism isn't really.

I'm not sure that's true. It sounds like an untested speculation, not something that is true by definition. After all, the urban economies under feudalism actually gave birth to modern capitalism, and Chinese and Japanese feudalism appears to have been economically more advanced than European feudalism. I can also imagine contrafactual feudal systems with economies as advanced as our own.

Haukur said... But the word 'fascism' is also just very tied to a particular set of 20th century things. The lede of the Wikipedia article says things like, "Fascism opposes class conflict, blames capitalist liberal democracies for its creation and communists for exploiting the concept." This doesn't really apply to Diocletian and Constantine, it's a very different context. But, yes, it does depend on how you define the term. Maybe 'totalitarian' would be another option.

Yes, Wikipedia is describing 20th century fascism. It is occasionally victim to Eurocentrism and Modernist biases like that. But totalitarianism isn't fit because that entails total control of every aspect of life by the authorities. I prefer to simply use the non-Eurocentrist terminology: fascism, by its very name, was invented by Romans, not the 20th century political parties. The 20th century variety is just a kind of fascism (I would call it modern fascism).

As to the description you quote, the Roman Empire also opposed class conflict, also targeted those who attempted to exploit it (as revealed in the history of Roman slave revolts), and did have the latent notion that democracy caused it (in a popular theory of the time, democracy leads to tyranny which leads to revolution of the social order, therefore democracy had to be "controlled," ergo the "solution" that was worked out by the emperors over many centuries). And full blown (Diocletianic) fascism was born directly in response to the failure of capitalism: the collapse of the fiduciary economy, resulting in (what was perceived as) profiteering and price gouging, which Diocletian "responded" to by systematically killing merchants who overcharged.

So the similarities are there.

Richard Carrier said...

Haukur said... Every empire ever has fallen. "Why did the Roman Empire last as long as it did?", is just as valid a question.

That depends on what you mean by "fall." Technically the Chinese Empire has never fallen. It still describes the same borders it had acquired by the 5th century B.C. and the government and social system was essentially continuous and unbroken by any dark age. It was only with the cultural revolution that any radical change was effected, and even that might not be characterized as the fall of an empire rather than just a change in its ideology and governance. Likewise, the Egyptian empire showed no signs of ever "falling" until it was outright conquered (which is no fault of its own), and then was eventually sunk by the failure of the empire that had conquered it.

Hence there is a difference between an empire "falling" by being conquered (which is how most empires have ended), and "falling" as a result of internal failure (like the Roman Empire, but really, historically, not the most common fate of empires), or "falling" in the oblique sense of experiencing a regime change (as with China, Iraq, etc.), which can be for the worse (arguably, China; definitely, Iran; most African nations), or even for the better (Canada, India, the U.K., the United States, the Confederacy, etc.).

So I don't think we should over-simplify what's inevitable or expected.

Richard Carrier said...

Peter said... You mentioned in the podcast that Eusebius wrote something against investigating [...] nature, similar to what Augustine wrote about curiosity being a disease. Do you have more details about the Eusebius' writing (quote)? Thanks.

Yes. All the evidence will be published in a chapter of my forthcoming book The Scientist in the Early Roman Empire. But in general, take a look through Eusebius, Preparation for the Gospel chapters 14 and 15.

Richard Carrier said...

Dave Empey said... Did I correctly understand you to say that Ptolemy could predict the locations of solar eclipses? If so, would that imply that he knew the correct relative sizes and distances of the Sun, the Moon, and the Earth?

The answer is "yes" and "not quite."

He could tell you when the moon and sun will be in position to produce an eclipse. Then if you gave him a latitude and longitude (which he invented), he could tell you whether a solar eclipse would be visible there and in what degree (I think they measured in fifths of obscuration). The Almagest specifically describes how to do this. He could thus (if he were so inclined) approximate an eclipse track on a map.

But this did not require knowing the true relative distance of the sun. Because the sun is so distant, it's parallax makes next to no difference in the placement of the moon's shadow. In fact, Ptolemy points exactly that fact out as a reason why ascertaining the distance of the sun is so difficult--had it been closer, its parallax would allow eclipse observations to determine its position, but alas it's too far. But the benefit of that was you didn't need to know it's distance to calculate where eclipses would fall.

Nevertheless, Ptolemy calculated the distance to the moon with sufficient accuracy. His measure was right in the middle of the actual ranges the moon crosses in its eccentrically elliptical orbit, and thus basically correct. But he put the sun at something like a twentieth it's actual distance. However, he was aware his estimate was inaccurate owing to the limitations of his instruments. He knew solar parallax was so small the sun's distance had to be in the millions of miles. He estimated something like 4 or 6 million; actual is 91 million (notably, though, some other astronomers gave about that range among the possible distances of the sun).

As to sizes, there are an infinite number of combinations of sizes and distances for sun and moon that would have the same shadow (complicated by the fact that the moon's distance wasn't constant, which Ptolemy knew; likewise the sun). All Ptolemy knew was the size of the shadow. So he just incorporated that into his math as a constant. He did attempt to derive from that some estimates of the sizes and distances of the two bodies, but as noted, there are so many valid solutions, it shouldn't surprise us that his was off (even he knew this was a problem).

Gilgamesh said... I did a check on that nova, and it is confirmed in Chinese records for 134 BCE...

Thanks for that source. For those who want the full cite: Ho Peng Yoke, "Ancient and Medieval Observations of Comets and Novae in Chinese Sources," Vistas in Astronomy 5 (1962): pp. 127-225.

Haukur said...

I disagree that the conventional usage of the word 'fascism' is Eurocentric and I disagree with this "by its very name" argument but arguing over terminology is usually fruitless and boring so I won't pursue this any further.

On the nuanced ways in which an empire can come to an end: Those are good points, I hadn't thought of it in quite this way.

Richard Carrier said...

Haukur said... I disagree that the conventional usage of the word 'fascism' is Eurocentric and I disagree with this "by its very name" argument but arguing over terminology is usually fruitless and boring so I won't pursue this any further.

I agree.

Indeed, we can use words to mean whatever we want as long as we define them. While debating what is "conventional" runs into the problem that conventions change across different social groups and contexts.

It's only useful to discuss convention when you want to improve communication to a particular group (who will assume a word has the conventional meaning known to them, unless you tell them otherwise, and even then you should have a good reason for using a word unconventionally).

P.S. Nevertheless, just so no one misunderstands, "by its very name" I mean its root and etymology (the noun from which it was derived as an -ism): fasces. And I didn't mean any conventional use of the word "fascism" was Eurocentric, but that limiting discussion to European conventions is Eurocentric.

In my view (which may not be yours), if the Wiki editors were to consider how European fascism parallels social organizations and ideologies in other times and cultures, their discussion would be less Eurocentric (e.g. normally one would distinguish between Fascism, a la the related European movements of the early 20th century, and fascism, a la the general underlying concept that we use quite frequently and broadly, and not in the sense of identifying formal political platforms or specific historical movements).