John wrote a lot of book reviews. I based my own book reviews on what he did on his own site. This is one of his earliest, written in 1998. The influence was really all one way [from John to me], but you can see that we had lots of interests in common. For example, this bit of his review:
The Carter-Leslie Doomsday Argument makes most sense if you make some factual assumptions. First, you should assume that the number of people who will have ever lived will be finite. (This is reasonable but not inevitable: there are cosmological theories which make an infinity of future human beings a possibility, or even a necessity.) Second, you should assume that human population tends to increase geometrically over time, so that a historical graph of world population produces a Malthusian slope. Third, you should assume that the world is totally or substantially deterministic, so that events in the past have reasonably reliable implications for what happens in the future.
John was interested in science, but being a philosophically inclined lawyer, I mostly observed him to reason with words and concepts. One of the things I appreciate most about my education is that I learned to think visually, mathematically, and verbally. This was a happy accident, since I was the physics nerd who liked speech and debate.
Thus, when I see that Leslie assumed that human population increases geometrically, I think: no it doesn't, most animal populations, humans included, increase logistically. And then I plot it. Exponential curves look a hell of a lot like exponentials at the beginning, especially when you take into account random noise, but in the long run they look a lot different.
The End of the World:
The Science and Ethics of Human Extinction
by John Leslie
310 pages, $28:00 (Hardcover)
This book explains the Carter-Leslie Doomsday Argument, which purports to offer sound mathematical reasons for supposing that the human race will become extinct in a century or two. The Argument evolved dialectically:
[Thesis] In the beginning of modern science was the Copernican Principle, which counsels that observers should be skeptical of claims that they are observing from a privileged position. Thus, though the sun and stars may appear to revolve around the Earth, think twice before you decide you are at the center of the universe.
[Antithesis] By the last quarter of the twentieth century, many scientists had nevertheless concluded that we were in fact living in a privileged world. Our universe is governed by a small set of physical constants, whose values appear to be arbitrary. Almost all values for those numbers would produce universes of nothing but black holes or radiation. Only one set of numbers (within very narrow limits) produces stars and chemistry and biology, and that is the set we have. Similarly, there was thought to be some reason for supposing that the appearance of intelligent life on Earth was the outcome of a series of vanishingly improbable accidents. Yet, here we are, worrying about it. Brandon Carter, the Cambridge mathematician, coined the term "the Anthropic Principle" to describe the qualification of the Copernican Principle that the unlikely nature of our world seemed to require. The Principle states that an observer (such as the human race collectively) should not be surprised to be living in an improbable situation, if that is the sort of situation in which the observer was most likely to have existed.
[Synthesis] The problem with improbable situations is that they are also likely to be ephemeral. Let us leave aside the question of whether the physical constants can change over time in such a way as to make life impossible (it is not completely certain that they cannot). More prosaically, it is possible to look on the evolution of the biosphere and of the human race within it as a series of one potentially lethal disaster after another, each survived by pure chance. The Anthropic Principle may explain why we observe such an unlikely world, but it offers no promise that this unlikely situation will continue. There are several versions of the Doomsday Argument, but they all seem to be reassertions of the Copernican Principle. In this context, that means that our unlikely world should turn into the more probable sort of world that has no people in it. Something they also all have in common, when they are given mathematical expression, is that they hint at Doom Soon.
John did a lot of yeoman's work exposing the shoddy work that lay under claims that Pius XII somehow didn't do enough to prevent the Holocaust. This is a lie with legs, but John did as much as anyone to point out how deeply silly it is, even in the text of it's most ardent supporters' works.
John also pointed out here something I hadn't previously known about Catholic theology.
Even the crowd's self-condemnation in the passion narrative of Matthew 27:25, "His blood be on us, and on our children," is in fact an ironic request to be washed in the blood of the Lamb (cf John 11:49-53). The point is not obscure; Christian congregations become the crowd during Holy Week.
John was a fan of liturgy, another hobby that we shared. He attended a Latin mass in New Jersey, and would later be a fan of Benedict XVI, like myself. I was very jealous of his Latin mass church, for Christmas they celebrated masses arranged by Mozart. Some things really are better in the city.
Papal Election Campaign Goes Negative
Daniel Jonah Goldhagen is best known as the author of Hitler's Willing Executioners, a book that purported to prove the existence of a species of "eliminationist antisemitism" unique to Germany. While Hitler's Willing Executioners is not without interest, most historians whose comments I have seen say that Goldhagen arbitrarily turned his sources on their heads. He cannot be accused of doing that in his long review-essay that appeared in The New Republic of January 21, 2002, entitled "What Would Jesus Have Done?" What seems to have happened is that someone dumped a boxful of anti-papalist polemics on his desk. For the most part, Catholic liberals who hope to reverse the policies of the pontificate of John Paul II during the next papacy write this literature. Whether through malice or stupidity, Goldhagen bought their arguments in their entirety. The result is a parody of bad historiography. Having read this essay, I would not trust Daniel Goldhagen to interpret a bus schedule.
The polemics in question deal in large part with what Pius XII did and failed to do to help the Jews of Europe, particularly of Italy, during the Nazi persecutions of the Second World War. It cannot be repeated too often that the question is wildly anachronistic. Neither the West nor the Nazi government thought at the time that Pius XII was silent on the subject. Similarly, the Church in Italy was profusely thanked after the war for the help given by Catholic institutions, largely at the instance of Pius XII, in hiding and supporting Jews persecuted by the Nazis. Goldhagen so prefers his thesis to fact that he says the survivors who offered these testimonials were deceived, or currying favor. Instead, he cites as the last word on the subject Under His Very Windows: The Vatican and the Holocaust in Italy. Written by Susan Zuccotti, the book seeks to debunk accounts of assistance to the Jews by noting that the underground did not keep documentation. Regarding the title of Zuccotti's book, it is the measure of Goldhagen that he is quite capable of condemning Pius XII for not making a public statement denouncing the deportation of Jews from Rome, without mentioning that Vatican officials did in fact get the collections stopped.
John wasn't a scientist, but rather a bright and well-read lawyer with an interest in science and science fiction. I think this made him a better analyst of trends and fads in science than those on the inside. John wrote extensively on natural philosophy, and the first links to his essays on that subject start to appear in this post. I've heard it said that most scientists eventually turn to philosophy in their old age, and what I would call natural philosophy was a matter of acute interest to my fellow physicists when I was in college. I always appreciated John's point of view on the implications of science.
There Is No Time Like the Present
I was persuaded of the reality of man-made global warming back in the mid-1970s, at much the same time and for much the same reasons that the idea first recommended itself to Al Gore. The notion of the artificial "greenhouse effect" is one of those intuitive, important-if-true ideas that appeal to science buffs. The hypothesis was not new, but in those days the first data were showing up to suggest a secular warming trend. I even remember realizing, or at least hearing, that the most noticeable effect would not be a general rise in surface temperatures, but changes in the mechanical behavior of the atmosphere. Weather patterns would be different. In some regions, global warming could even cause local cooling.
The most alarming prospects that global warming suggested to my liberal-arts-major mind turned out to be phantoms. For instance, there had been some early speculation that a runaway greenhouse effect might occur on Earth, as it had on Venus. The image of an oceanless Earth with a novel atmosphere seemed to chime with Revelation 21:1, 2 (as well as with Arthur C. Clarke's Against the Fall of Night, one of the first books I ever read). I have later learned, though, that Earth is just not close enough to the sun for that to happen. If Earth had a predominantly carbon dioxide atmosphere, as Venus does, the surface temperature would be around 130 degrees Fahrenheit, rather than its current 55 degrees or so. Earth would be a nasty place, but the oceans would not evaporate. (Incidentally, if all the ice on the surface of the Earth melted, the oceans would rise just 220 feet. The film Waterworld was not jut a flop; it was a badly researched flop.)
I would describe John as a cautious fan of George W. Bush. While this surely will mark him as suspect in many eyes, since W was widely despised, the reasons for John's assessment are unique. For instance, he felt that we would have had a war with Iraq eventually because of a de facto state of war due to the no-fly zones we had been enforcing combined with Saddam Hussein's intransigence. Thus, which pretext it ended up being was simply a detail, because some crisis or another would eventually force the issue no matter who was in office. And John rather disliked Reagan, the patron saint of modern Republicans, so it wasn't simply a matter of John rooting for the home team. John appreciated W for things that are forgotten, while the real reasons people should hate W, like his responsibility for the housing bubble of 2007-08, have been flushed down the memory hole.
The Sins of the Father
The Enron corporation was a platitude with creative accounting. A broker in energy and data band, it swelled to awesome dimensions by leverage and the multiplication of legal fictions; it went "poof" when prices tumbled. In one form or another, this kind of thing happens so often that it isn't interesting. The particular variation this time involved lax accounting rules, paper mache' partnerships and off-balance-sheet liabilities, but these twists add nothing to the cautionary-tale predictability of the affair. Nonetheless, members of the chattering classes of the United States have been seen rebuking themselves in public for having failed to discern the cosmic significance of this very boring story when it first appeared last year.
The mere size of Enron is part of the explanation for this morbid fascination. Another factor is the falling-elevator feeling the story gives to those people whose retirement plans rest on 401k accounts. (Sure the Enron employees who had only Enron stock in their accounts did not diversify, but they were objects of envy just 18 months ago.) Still, the real reason for the interest is that Democrats in general and liberals in particular fervently desire an equivalent to the Whitewater Scandal, the one running gag of the Clinton Administration suitable for a general audience. That murky business deal, involving no great amount of money, became the license for investigation after investigation, in Congress and in the press, year in and year out. If you were a sufficiently partisan Republican, it was wonderful. Sufficiently partisan Democrats today, in Congress and the media, believe that there must be comparable embarrassments among the numerous connections to Enron that so many members of the Bush Administration have. In fact, they insist on it.
Things are different today. When increasingly desperate Enron executives called the high officials of George W. Bush's Administration, their pleas for a bailout were rejected.
Despite their political connections, Enron didn't get a bailout from W. Of course, the later bailout of AIG and other financial institutions was arguably his fault, but who remembers that?
It was 9-11 that initially brought me to John's site. As I've said, John was one of the most reasonable people I ever knew, and his home in New Jersey was right across the Hudson from the WTC. John was a voice of sanity in those times.
Heroes & Nitwits
The firemen's memorial for the World Trade Center has kicked up a fuss. The statuary group was supposed to depict three firemen raising an American flag over the disaster site soon after the catastrophe of 911. The incident actually happened: a now-famous photograph recorded it. The problem was that the sculptors decided to improve on history by making the firemen ethnically diverse: black, white and Hispanic, respectively. The actual firemen were all white. The monument has caused quite a bit of embarrassment, not least to the firemen in the New York City Fire Department who belong to minority groups. They had not asked for any such thing.
As a fireman's son, I can't say that I am outraged, but I am a little exasperated. I see too much of this kind of thing. Not far from me (I live in downtown Jersey City, just across the Hudson River from lower Manhattan) there is a half-body statue one George P. McCulloh, the businessman who organized the building of the Morris Canal in 1822. This canal connected the Hudson with the Delaware River until 1924. The statue stands on what had been the canal's eastern end, which now is just a malodorous inlet in the riverbank. It's reasonable to a put up a little statue to commemorate local history like this. The bizarre thing is that someone decided the monument needed a racial-minority element, so George P. McCulloh has a tiny, bronze family of fleeing slaves in his lap. The idea is that the Morris Canal was an important link in the Underground Railroad before the Civil War. If it was, maybe the fact should have gotten its own statue.
One of the reasons I wanted to look back over John's writings 12 years later, is I'm curious how well his predictions turned out. One of John's intellectual interests was what he called macrohistory or metahistory, the study of models of history. In the twentieth century, the most famous writers on this subject were Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee, and in the nineteenth [and maybe the twentieth too] the most famous was Karl Marx.
A writer with this interest could hardly complain about such an endeavour, so here we are. To read the rest of John's original post, click the link below.
I'm reading an interesting but tendentious book by James Reston, Jr.: Warriors of God: Richard the Lionheart and Saladin in the Third Crusade. The author has embraced the Palestinian position in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. His description of the downfall of the Crusader states in the Levant in the 12th and 13th centuries is couched more or less as an allegory of what is going to happen to Israel, which is still younger than the Kingdom of Jerusalem was when Saladin overcame it.
This implicit prophecy came to mind when a friend brought to my attention an article by Daniel Pipes that appeared in the Wall Street Journal on January 18, entitled "Arabs Still Want to Destroy Israel." Quoting the rhetoric of a Palestinian sheikh, the Pipes notes that militant Islam in general has never considered Israel to be anything other than a temporary phenomenon. He argues that concessions made by Israel in the 1990s were regarded by the jihadists as signs of a loss of nerve. Rather, he argues, the 1990s were a time "when Israel should have pushed its advantage, to get, once and for all, recognition of its right to exist."
Various objections are possible to this thesis, but consider this one. As David Pryce-Jones observes in his book, The Closed Circle, all Arab states have a legitimacy problem, as do all Islamic states to a greater or lesser degree. In his view, the only basis for government that can really be entirely satisfactory from an Islamic perspective is the Caliphate, the rule over the whole of the community of the faithful by the Follower of the Prophet. The Caliphate ended when the Ottoman Empire did after the end of the First World War, and the Middle East has yet to find a new basis for legitimate government.
At least on this first post, I feel like John nailed it. While the Arab Spring was initially hailed as a great force for democracy in the Middle East, by which most Westerners mean "becoming more like us", it has actually been an opportunity for the most reactionary elements of Libya, Egypt, and now Syria to seize power.
The increasing importance in Islamic societies of purely reactionary movements like Wahhabism does suggest that Israel is not facing a living culture, one capable of the innovation and resilience that Islamic societies displayed in Saladin's day. Rather, post-Ottoman Islamic culture is increasingly fossilized. It can reassert what it became in the past, but it cannot become something new.
Fossils have a certain strength, but they also tend to be brittle. The problem for Israel may not be gaining recognition of its right to exist from its neighbors, but avoiding the debris when they shatter.
On May 30, 2012, my friend John J. Reilly passed from this vale of tears after a sudden illness. John and I never met in person, but we exchanged emails and forum posts for nearly ten years, so I feel that I knew him in a way. John was one of the 3 contemporary writers who have influenced me the most, along with Steve Sailer and Jerry Pournelle. Much of what you see here is due to John.
John was one of the most reasonable people I have ever known. He had a remarkable tendency to see things in the best possible light, but in a way that was firmly grounded in truth. I suspect this was due to an unshakable belief in providence. He managed to collect an usual grouping of regular forum posters at his site. I have never met such a disparate group in my life, and perhaps never will again. After John suddenly stopped posting on his site in April 2012, the group continued apace for a bit, but gradually we came the realization that it was John, and his remarkable character, that had brought us together. Without him, the forum regulars didn't have any reason to go on, and we slowly drifted away.
The last thing that I posted on John's forum was that I had run a backup of everything on John's website using wget [a shout-out to my friend Sacha for helping me get that running right]. I knew it was only a matter of time before whatever hosting service John used would close his account, and everything he had written would waft into the ether.
Of course, this isn't completely true. The Internet Wayback Machine keeps everything in a fancy database so that you can access any version of John's site at any date, but that isn't a well-known service. There are other, similar internet archiving sites, but I decided to simply host a mirror here, as a tribute to John.
I have kept everything John wrote as it was. I have removed his site trackers and Amazon widgets, since he is no longer here to use them. I have updated any characters that don't display well in modern browsers. My intent is to publish John's blog, The Long View, on a schedule delayed approximately 12 years. His book reviews and essays will appear on the same schedule. I have uploaded all his writings published prior to January 21, 2002 already. I have enjoyed browsing through his writings again, and I hope others have the same experience. Those who are impatient can simply download the whole .zip file.
I have added a link to the top bar of my site, and I intend to post here, as well as on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ when I upload each installment of John's work.
Here is a copy of John's copyright notice, from his webpage.
John J. Reilly retains all rights in the material set out on the pages defined by the URL sequences:
The individual articles on these pages appear with their publishing histories and copyright notices. The copyright notices refer to the time of their appearance on these pages.
Readers are invited to download this material for their own use.
Persons wishing to repost it on the Internet may do so if they include my copyright notice.
Persons wishing to republish it in any other medium must seek my permission.