Thursday, December 26, 2019

Quote of the Day

"It is through the peasantry that we shall really be able to destroy Christianity, because there is in them a true religion rooted in nature and blood. One is either a Christian or a German. You can't be both."

Adolf Hitler, 1933

The Nazi Master Plan: The Persecution of Christian Churches by Carl E. Schcrake

Thursday, June 20, 2019

The issue of abortion

Abortion has been in the news of late because New York state passed a bill allowing abortion at any time during a pregnancy, and Virginia tried to pass a similar one that some claimed even allowed it immediately after birth if the fetus was critical or terminal. Of course, at that point, it would no longer be called a fetus and it would no longer be called abortion.

It seems to me that both sides are not addressing the right issue here, as vain as that is to say. A lot of people say the question is whether the fetus (or zygote or blastocyst in the earlier stages) is alive. But this is a simple question with a simple answer: of course it's alive. It meets all the scientific conditions for life. For that matter, individual sperm cells are alive, although they are haploids rather than diploids. Nor is the question whether the fetus is human life. Every cell in a human being's body is human life, it's a living cell that forms a part of a human being.

What people are really asking is when does a human life begin? That is, when does a unique individual human being begin to exist? Most pro-choice folk say that it's sometime during the pregnancy (some say at birth or even later), pro-life folk say that it's at conception, when the haploid sperm cell unites with the haploid ovum and a living thing that is not identical to either the sperm or ovum -- nor for that matter is it genetically identical to the father or mother -- begins to exist. Of course, many people say we can't know for sure and embrace the pro-choice side (because it unreasonably restricts what the woman can do with her own body) or the pro-life side (because if it might be a human life, we have a moral obligation to protect it). For that matter, many people say we can't know and remain agnostic on the larger question.

The problem with asking when a human life begins is that is still a simple question with a simple answer: a human life begins at conception. That's not a matter of opinion or value judgment, it's a scientific, medical fact. And I think this is why pro-lifers want to end the discussion here, because they are on solid ground while the pro-choicers are not.

But, as you can probably tell, I don't think that is where the discussion should end, because I don't think that's what the real question is. The real question is a two-sided coin. The first side is when does human value begin, and the second side is when do human rights begin? Perhaps we could say the question is not when a human life begins, but when a human being begins. Of course, pro-lifers will say that human value and rights begin when the individual human life begins, and that's a defensible claim. For value to begin at some other point seems arbitrary: there should be a clear indication, a clear event, which can be identified as when a creature has intrinsic value and the right to life. However, there is an objection that can be made here that can't be made (or made as plausibly) when we're just asking when does a human life begin. The objection, or problem, is that it is strongly counter-intuitive to say that an undifferentiated group of cells is a human being in the full sense that it has human rights and human value. This is what (I think) pro-choicers are objecting to: we have a cluster of cells that are dividing and nothing else, and we're being told that it has just as much right to live as the woman in whose body it is dwelling.

One potential response to this is that the fetus is no longer an undifferentiated group of cells by the time the woman discovers she is pregnant. Organs have been formed, and some are even functioning. The fetus's heart begins to beat at about three weeks gestation. However, it's difficult to say that a beating heart is what bestows human value and rights.

By human value I do not mean utilitarian value, what something is capable of accomplishing. In fact, the concept of human value is one of the very few aspects of Christianity I appreciated when I first became a Christian: a severely mentally retarded person, who spends his life in a hospital bed, never contributes anything to society, is a burden on all those around him -- that person has just as much value, rights, is just as important and as absolutely irreplaceable as the most influential thinker, statesman, or artist who ever lived.

At any rate, as I say, while the fetus is definitely a human life, it is at least counter-intuitive to say that -- at least in the very early stages -- it is a human being equipped with human rights and human value. This doesn't constitute a reason to think it is not, it just means the pro-life side has to produce arguments to counter this counter-intuition. I'm sure they think they already have, and I'm not disputing that. I just want to clear the air on exactly what (I think) the issues really are.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

It's been a while

It's June and this is my first post since January. It's weird because I have a backlog of posts that are 95% done, and I'd like to get them up and running. For now I'll just tell you a story: last Wednesday night I started having some severe abdominal pain. By 3 or 4 in the morning I'd finally had enough and went to the ER where they promptly did an ultrasound and an MR scan and then took out my gall bladder. It was my first time having surgery and I lost a freaking organ. Anyway, I'm doing OK, trying to take it easy, so I'll start finishing those posts for y'all.

Here's a joke I made up in the ER: Why was the liver so nice to the testicle? Because he wanted to make the ball gladder.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

More recent acquisitions

A close relative of mine died recently and I inherited her books. About half of them have made it onto my bookshelves, the other half I either haven't gone through yet or are in boxes in my garage. The following list is just the ones on the shelves, as well as books I got for Christmas.

Also, if you've left a comment over the last several months and it never got posted, I apologize. I've just posted all the outstanding comments and replied to a few.

SF short story collections
Brian W. Aldiss and Harry Harrison, eds., Nebula Award Stories 2.
Isaac Asimov, Martin Harry Greenberg, and Charles G. Waugh, eds., Flying Saucers.
Lloyd Biggle, Jr., ed., Nebula Award Stories 7.
Ben Bova, ed., The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, volume 2B.
Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles.
---, The Illustrated Man.
Avram Davidson, ed., The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction, 12th series.
Richard Matheson, I Am Legend.
Judith Merril, ed., The Year's Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy, 3rd annual volume.
Robert P. Mills, ed., The Worlds of Science Fiction.
Hans Stefan Santesson, ed., The Fantastic Universe Omnibus.
Robert Silverberg, ed., New Dimensions III.

SF novels
Isaac Asimov, I, Robot.
Henry N. Beard and Douglas C. Kenney, Bored of the Rings.
David Brin, The Postman.
Orson Scott Card, Ender's Shadow.
Philip José Farmer, Night of Light.
Alan Dean Foster, Phylogenesis.
Neil Gaiman, American Gods.
---, Anansi Boys.
Tom Godwin, Space Prison (alternate title: The Survivors).
James P. Hogan, Inherit the Stars.
Fred Hoyle, The Black Cloud.
Ursula K. LeGuin, The Lathe of Heaven.
Andre Norton, Key Out of Time.
Tim Powers, Expiration Date.
---, The Stress of Her Regard.
John Ringo, Citadel.
Robert J. Sawyer, Calculating God.
Charles Sheffield, Aftermath.
Allen Steele, Spindrift.
Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age.
---, Snow Crash.
Jules Verne, The Works of Jules Verne (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea; Journey to the Center of the Earth; Around the World in 80 Days).

Beyond This Horizon.
Citizen of the Galaxy.
Double Star.
Have Spacesuit -- Will Travel.
Orphans of the Sky.
Podkayne of Mars.
The Rolling Stones.
Space Cadet.
Starman Jones.
6 × H (novellas and short stories -- previously titled The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag).
...and there's lots more in the garage.

The Ringworld Engineers.
N-Space (short stories, excerpts, and essays).
Playgrounds of the Mind (same).
With Jerry Pournelle, Oath of Fealty.

Books that are actual literature and so I got for my wife
(Some of these are old, so I put the year these particular copies were published in parentheses)
Jane Austen, Emma.
---, Pride and Prejudice.
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote of La Mancha.
Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby (1884).
---, Pickwick Papers (old, but no date on the title page).
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles.
George Eliot, Silas Mariner.
Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera.
Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory.
Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms.
Irving Howe, ed., The Portable Kipling.
F.J. Hudleston, Warriors in Undress (1926).
Washington Irving, The Crayon Papers (old, but no date on the title page).
James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Rudyard Kipling, Kim.
Richmond Lattimore, trans., The Iliad of Homer.
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird.
Primo Levi, Moments of Reprieve.
Grant Overton, ed. in chief, The World's One Hundred Best Short Stories, volume 1: Adventure (1927).
---, volume 2: Romance.
---, volume 3: Mystery.
---, volume 4: Love.
---, volume 5: Drama.
---, volume 6: Courage.
---, volume 7: Women.
---, volume 8: Men.
---, volume 9: Ghosts.
---, volume 10: Humor.
Guy Pocock, The Little Room (1926).
Sir Walter Scott, Lay of the Last Minstrel (1898).
---, Ivanhoe.
Shakespeare's Hamlet: The Second Quarto, 1604: Reproduction of the Huntington Library Copy.
John Steinbeck, The Winter of Our Discontent.
---, The Moon is Down.
---, Travels with Charley: In Search of America.
---, America and Americans.
William Makepeace Thackeray, The Virginians (1884).
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass.
The Complete Illustrated Works of Oscar Wilde.

John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle.
Frederick Copleston, Contemporary Philosophy: Studies of Logical Positivism and Existentialism.
Fred Dretske, Explaining Behavior: Reasons in a World of Causes.

Monday, December 24, 2018

The Plantinga/Dennett Debate with captions

This is the actual "debate" between Alvin Plantinga and Daniel Dennett. I put "debate" in quotes because there's not as much back-and-forth as a standard debate. It's just  Plantinga's presentation, Dennett's response, and Plantinga's counter-response. You can listen to it elsewhere online, but since the audio is so bad I went through it and added captions. Because I just care that much. (Also because I play it for my students and they couldn't follow it.) If anyone can figure out what Plantinga says at 9:52 let me know.

These three presentations later comprised the first three (of six) chapters in Science and Religion: Are They Compatible? (OUP) although Dennett changed several aspects of his presentation. Notably, in the book he doesn't include his "little joke" that he closes with (starting at 1:19:27). I guess it didn't play well with the audience and/or publisher. Dennett's interruption of Plantinga didn't make it into the book either (1:28:35 and following). The final three chapters of the book are Dennett's response to Plantinga's last presentation, Plantinga's response to that, and then Dennett's final response.

So this is my present to you. Merry Christmas. What'd you get me?

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Oh man

I'm so sorry I haven't been posting. For whatever reason I haven't had the motivation. It's not that I'm not writing, I'm in the final (I hope) throes of finishing my second book. I have had some personal tragedies in 2018 but I don't think that's why I haven't been keeping up the blog. I'll have something special for a Christmas present in the coming few days. In the meantime I'll just say that I've been watching The Man in the High Castle, based on Philip K. Dick's novel (although it's really just using the novel as a jumping off point), and I have really enjoyed it thus far. The acting is just incredible, better than anything I've ever seen. The story is essentially an alternate history where the Nazis and Japanese won World War 2 and occupy most of the former United States. In the latest (third) season, they have one of the main characters realize that there are multiple universes with versions of the same people, and he says something to the effect of "It's like a Fredric Brown story." I loved this because, as I've pointed out before, Fredric Brown is probably my favorite science-fiction author. I even know the novel they're referring to: What Mad Universe. It was a tiny validation of the greatness of this underappreciated author.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Recent acquisitions

Isaac Asimov and Groff Conklin, eds., Fifty Short Science Fiction Tales
Tom Boardman, Jr., ed., An ABC of Science Fiction
Ray Bradbury, The Golden Apples of the Sun
Orson Scott Card, Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus
Terry Carr, ed., The Best Science Fiction of the Year #5
Michael Crichton, Timeline
David G. Hartwell, ed., The World Treasury of Science Fiction
Zenna Henderson, Holding Wonder
Robert P. Mills, ed., The Worlds of Science Fiction
Tim Powers, The Anubis Gates
Charles Sheffield, Between the Strokes of Night
Dan Simmons, Carrion Comfort
Allen Steele, Spindrift
Neal Stephenson, Reamde

Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcy, How Now Shall We Live?
The Koran (Penguin edition), translated by N.J. Dawood

Comments by Jim S.:
Asimov/Conklin, Boardman, Bradbury, Carr, Hartwell, Henderson, and Mills are all short story collections. Card's Pastwatch is a repurchase; it was one of the books that was lost in shipping when we moved back to the States several years ago. The Anubis Gates is also a repurchase but that's because I gave my first copy to a friend to introduce them to the wonders of Tim Powers -- and then they didn't even like it. And for someone who studies Islamic philosophy, I've only ever used online versions of the Qur'an: I'm glad to finally have a hard copy (well, paperback actually) on my shelf. Technically, in Islamic theology, translations of the Qur'an are not the Qur'an, only the original Arabic is the Qur'an. This is why a lot of Islamic grade schools spend almost their whole time teaching children to recite the Arabic Qur'an from memory, regardless of whether they understand Arabic. Obviously this contrasts with Judaism and Christianity's approaches to the Bible.

All of these books were bought at a small local bookstore run by the municipal library, and most of them were 50¢ or $1.00. The nonfiction books were $2.00 each, and the Sheffield, incredibly, was 25¢, I think because the cover is slightly torn. Unfortunately, they don't have any philosophy that I could find.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Why Hume's Argument against Miracles Fails

David Hume famously argued against miracles, or more strictly against the rationality of believing in miracles, two and a half centuries ago. And while it was subject to objections immediately -- most notably that it is question-begging -- it is still influential, though, ironically, less in philosophy than in other fields. He presents it in section 10 of his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (click the link and scroll down to page 55). My impression is that his argument is very widely rejected among philosophers -- even the Hume scholar Antony Flew, in his atheist days, argued that, as written, Hume's argument was unsuccessful -- but there are some who defend it. John Earman wrote Hume's Abject Failure: The Argument against Miracles, but then Robert Fogelin wrote A Defense of Hume on Miracles. I'm afraid I haven't read either book. Yet.

Roughly, the argument is as follows: the more frequently something occurs the more probable it is that it will occur again, and the less frequently it occurs the less probable it is that it will occur again. A miracle would be the rarest of all events, totally unique, and would go contrary to our universal experience. Therefore it would be maximally improbable: virtually any explanation would be more probable than that a miracle took place. The usual example of an alleged miracle that enters into the discussion is Jesus' resurrection. According to Hume, regardless of the evidence, it would be more rational to accept any theory, even a conspiracy theory, than to accept the resurrection. So the idea that everyone just went to the wrong tomb, or that Jesus' survived the crucifixion, or that Jesus had an evil twin (these are all real alternative explanations that have been given) are more rational than that a miracle took place.

It seems to me that Hume's argument makes three assumptions that are not justified: that the universe is mechanistic, static, and closed. The mechanistic part essentially means that there is no event in the universe that is not completely determined by the physical events preceding it. The problem with this is that we have reason for thinking this is not the case. On one side we have the apparent randomness of quantum events. I say "apparent" because it's not necessary to believe that these events really are random. Bohmian mechanics explains just as much data as the Copenhagen interpretation, but Bohmian mechanics is strictly deterministic. Nevertheless, it seems to be more ad hoc than explanations which grant that some quantum events are not inevitably produced by preceding events. So many scientists would deny that the universe is mechanistic in the way that Hume's argument requires. On the other side we have the possibility of free agents with free will whose actions are not completely determined by the physical events preceding them. Naturally, free will is an enormous and enormously controversial subject, but at least we can say that most people intuitively believe in it, the arguments against it are indecisive, and the arguments for it, also indecisive, are, nevertheless, reasonably strong. Of course neither of these issues (quantum indeterminacy and free will) speak directly to the possibility of miracles, but they do speak directly to Hume's argument against miracles, since his argument only makes sense within a mechanistic framework.

Hume's second assumption is that the universe is static. This is not the same thing as being mechanistic: a system could be mechanistic without being static, but a static system would automatically be mechanistic. Here the idea is that even if the universe is mechanistic, it is not necessarily static in the way Hume's argument requires. New things may occur, first time events may take place, even though everything is mechanistic and determined. Take a system in which a drop from a river flowing through a forest is deposited in a large basin at a higher altitude every minute or so. This system is completely mechanistic. Accounting for evaporation, say that after 10,000 years, the amount of the water is so immense that the basin splits and disintegrates, dumping the huge mass of water on the forest and river below, obliterating the whole area and completely changing the environment. Ex hypothesi that had never happened before. Using Hume's criteria, we should assess the probability that it would happen as maximally improbable. But clearly it's not. In fact, we could probably predict that something like that would happen. Again, this doesn't speak directly to the possibility of miracles but to Hume's argument against them. If the universe isn't static then there is no reason to accept his probability account.

The third assumption is the big one: that the universe is closed. This is basically a challenge to the idea that the more something happens within a system the more probable it is that it will happen again. But if the universe is open, then there may be forces that exist independently of the universe which can produce effects within it. In fact, these could potentially even be mechanistic, static supernatural causes, but due to their transcending the universe do not happen predictably within our space-time frame.

Of course, the meaning of "miracle" is "sign": it's a sign of a transcendent agent acting in order to bring about an effect within the universe. An unprecedented supernatural event that just seemed random would not bespeak of an agent who intended to bring it about for a reason, but miracles do precisely that. With Jesus' resurrection, it's pretty obvious. To paraphrase Wolfhart Pannenberg, the significance of the resurrection is not that some guy came back to life, it's that this particular guy did -- a guy who acted and spoke as if he had the authority that only God can have, and was arrested for blasphemy and put to death for sedition. For that guy to rise from the dead amounts to his divine vindication. Of course, this is not a logical absolute, it's a common sense assessment. If there were a mechanistic, static, yet transcendent cause that brought it about, it would be an enormous coincidence that a guy who was executed for making radical claims about God and the resurrection of the dead would effectively have his execution reversed; that by sheer coincidence a resurrection from the dead just happened to that one guy who said death could not hold him. That would be incredibly improbable. But of course no one is making that claim.

Friday, May 4, 2018

The Summer of Dune

Several years ago I finally got around to reading Dune and absolutely loved it. I went on to its sequel, Dune Messiah, then realized I wanted to read all of Frank Herbert's books in one go, so I put it off until I bought all of them and had the time. I'm usually reading a novel and a short story collection at any given time, so I decided to make all the novels I read this summer Herbert's Dune novels. I'll re-read the first two, and then continue on to Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune, and Chapterhouse: Dune. Herbert's son has cowritten several sequels, prequels, and interquels to his father's legacy, and I might check those out, although the reviews don't treat them as anywhere near as good.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Monday, March 26, 2018

More books

Dallas Willard, who passed away in 2013, is still publishing books five years later. Just released last month is Life Without Lack: Living in the Fullness of Psalm 23, based on a series of talks he gave and edited by Larry Burtoft and Willard's daughter Rebecca Willard Heatley. Due to be released in June is The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge, one of the philosophical books he was writing at the time of his death, and which was completed by three of his students. I noted here that these students were working on it, but that my hope was that someone would write another book he was writing, The Rage against Identity: Philosophical Roots of Deconstructionism. I'm also sad to note that the page on Willard's website that asked for prayers for his ongoing projects, including Disappearance and Rage, has now been removed. It made no sense to keep it, but it still makes me sad.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Accommodating evil

I didn't comment on this at first, but I was pretty disgusted at the way the media fawned over North Korea's cheerleaders and Kim Yo Jong at the beginning of the Olympics. I think I understand their motive: they're trying to paint North Korea as not that bad in order to minimize American public support for a war with them, and doing one's part to avoid war is not in itself a bad thing. (If I'm imputing an incorrect motive to them, I apologize.) Having said that, if you end up accommodating evil in order to avoid war, you stand a good chance of being on the "greater evil" side of things, and I think that's exactly what's happened here. I hadn't put my thoughts together on this, but then I read this tweet from a couple of weeks ago:

Yeah, that's pretty much it. People who have lived in agony for decades will have the last of their hope stolen away by Westerners pretending like their suffering isn't worth getting in a tizzy over. The media is effectively running defense for a regime that is as evil as Nazi Germany -- I don't think that's an exaggeration at all. Not long after reading that tweet, I found an article that expresses my concerns in more detail here.

And since we're on the subject of Nazis, one of the claims made of them and Hitler is that they were Christian. There's a lot of back-and-forth over this, but here's two articles (here and here), that are interesting although one-sided, arguing that the Nazis were vehemently opposed to Christianity. He brings to bear a lot of quotes from Hitler and the most prominent Nazis expressing their disdain for, and desire to destroy, Christianity. This makes sense given their hatred of Judaism, since Christianity can easily be seen as a form of Judaism. I would have liked to see quotes from similarly important Nazis expressing the opposite view and weighed them against each other, but I also would have ascribed less weight to them, since quotes from such people expressing a positive view of Christianity could more easily be explained as political pandering than quotes expressing a negative view of Christianity could be.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Quote of the Day

The story of witch-hunting has two settings: a dark, medieval world ignorant of science and under the sway of religion and superstition, and a later enlightened period when reason banished superstition and men were freed from the fear of witches. We might loosely call these periods the "Dark Ages" and the "Enlightenment" respectively.

The idea of the Dark Ages, with its flat earth and excommunicated comets, however, is mythical and reinforces the modern mind's conviction of its own tolerance and rationality. The belief that the church uncritically accepted bizarre and sensational tales about witches is equally ill-founded. The story of witch-hunting, however, relies on these stereotypes of the Dark Ages and the Enlightenment. Thus, for Lecky, witchcraft was due to a "general credulity" that declined only when "prevailing modes of religious thought" gave way to reason. However, it is not in general possible to draw the sharp distinctions between "modes of religious thought" and early science, which Lecky blithely assumes. Indeed, early modern science, far from universally rejecting witchcraft, sometimes assisted in its investigation. In England, midwives and physicians medically examined suspects for "witch marks" -- the physical signs said to be associated with witchcraft. In the Lancashire witch trials of 1633, Sir William Harvey, who had discovered the circulation of blood in 1628, led a team of doctors and midwives to provide such expert medical evidence.

Historians have long recognized that there is something wrong with the thesis that witchcraft ended with the Renaissance and Enlightenment. As long ago as 1969 Hugh Trevor-Roper asked why, if this view is correct, the witch craze grew in particular in the two centuries that followed the Renaissance recovery of Greek ideas of reason rather than in the Dark Ages of the medieval period.

Lecky's confidence that science would bring enlightenment and progress is viewed more critically now than it was in the nineteenth century. The violence and persecution of the modern world is on a scale that far outweighs the cruelties visited on women accused of witchcraft. The Enlightenment faith in reason no longer seems plausible. Instead, witchcraft is seen as a sign of the way people understood the world they lived in. This puts it in a more complex and concrete context of social, economic and political history: the status of women and the routes to power open to them, the conflicts and tensions of village life and the specific anxieties of poor people over the health of animals or the growth of crops. Within this setting, witchcraft is a rational, though superstitious, response to illness and catastrophe.

Like our other stories, that of witch-hunting has its conventions and props. Probably the best known is the broomstick, used by witches to fly by night to their "sabbaths." This prop is almost universal in modern portrayals and together with a pointed hat is essential garb for the well-dressed witch.

The ancient belief that witches can fly was dismissed by canon law as a folktale. Indeed, papal rulings, canon law and Inquisitorial Directories tended to reject the exotic manifestations of witchcraft as pagan superstition until Heinrich Krämer and Jakob Sprenger published their Malleus Maleficarum in about 1486. This book repeatedly appears in the story of witch-hunting on account of its bizarre and sensational content, which fits well with the stereotype of medieval religion.

Heinrich Krämer and Jacob Sprenger, Dominican Inquisitors, believed that they had a special mission to prosecute witches. However, the local priests and the German church authorities did not agree with them and opposed their activities. They appealed directly to the new pope, Innocent VIII, who supported them by issuing a bull, Summis Desiderantes, against witchcraft in 1484. He also commissioned Krämer and Sprenger to write a guide for witch prosecutors. And so the Malleus Maleficarum was born.

The orthodox story regards Krämer and Sprenger's notorious book as typical of the bigotry and cruelty of the medieval church throughout Europe. Carl Sagan describes it as a "technical manual for torturers" and implies that it was widely used by the Inquisition in "God's work" of torture and burning. Even distinguished historians refer to it as "the guide and beaconstar of the . . . Inquisition," "a handbook used at witch trials" that "codified the belief in witches for the sixteenth century, a century which witnessed their burning in every part of Europe."

This reputation as the standard manual of the church is wholly undeserved. The Malleus Maleficarum was in fact treated with suspicion by the Inquisition and was not extensively used in witch trials. From Venice to Germany and the Netherlands, studies have shown little or no reliance on it: "Its influence and authority have been vastly exaggerated by most scholars." Moreover, its language made it "accessible only to scholars and not to many lawyers or even to the average judge."

Torture and justice
The second prop in the story of witch-hunting is the torture chamber. The popular picture of the Inquisition, from Monty Python's famous "Spanish Inquisition" sketch to films like The Name of the Rose, is of the fanatical and routine use of torture to force victims to confess: "The most horrendous tortures were routinely applied to every defendant, young or old, after the instruments of torture were first blessed by the priest."

It is undoubtedly true that torture was widely used in many judicial proceedings from the fifteenth century onward, and many sickening accounts of the horrors endured by astonishingly courageous women and men survive. But when Carl Sagan writes that torture routinely proved the validity of witchcraft accusations, he is drawing on the widespread and uncritical acceptance of the story that the church, especially the Inquisition, mercilessly and indiscriminately used torture in witchcraft trials.

Recent historical scholarship has recognized that the Inquisition compared favorably with contemporary standards of secular justice. "In contrast to the secular courts, the Inquisition was a model of moderation and due process. The Holy Office was sceptical about the validity of confession obtained by torture, and did not employ torture as a matter of course." In Protestant countries, torture was used in witchcraft trials in both Scotland and Northern Europe, although the worst excesses occurred when political intrigue was suspected. However, there "seems not to have been one single occasion where torture of a woman for suspected witchcraft was licensed" in England, despite the fact that women were commonly whipped to obtain evidence in criminal cases and torture was used for milder felonies, including burglary and assault.

The background for the use of torture in witchcraft trials was its use in criminal proceedings generally. Some historians have argued that the use of torture grew as formal tribunals displaced trial by ordeal or combat. As courts increasingly used new standards of proof, obtaining and sifting evidence became more important. Whereas the survival, or otherwise, of a suspect subjected to trial by ordeal itself demonstrated either guilt or innocence, the newer courts required other means of testing the truth. In this context, torture became a means of rational investigation, replacing the "trial by swimming" that a suspect might face in summary village justice. Inquisitorial skepticism about the results of torture was often associated with the better organization of church proceedings and the better standard of education of its officers. For example, the moderation of the Venetian Inquisition resulted from its local strength, close accountability to Rome and the high standards of training and discipline. The lay courts often lacked these qualities and treated their suspects more severely. "Given . . . a strong Inquisition which followed the guidelines laid down for it by the Church, witchcraft prosecution was unlikely to result in mass hysteria and persecution."

Philip J. Sampson
Six Modern Myths about Christianity and Western Civilization