Idea Byre

"Religion in Human Evolution" is the late Robert Bellah's magisterial, sweeping account of human intellectual and religious history. I've made frequent reference to it in my essays, especially the broad framework of epochs. A quick summary here may be useful to my readers, and also anyone simply interested in the book -- which I thoroughly recommend.

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The difficulties of human life constitute, as the philosopher Mark Johnston puts it, "structural deficiencies," that include death, pain, and frustration. These cannot be waved away by politics or technological advance, and intellectually they demand a response; some way that we can live comfortably despite them.

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Consciousness is a philosophically "hard problem." Ordinary scientific progress -- in psychology or neuroscience, say -- do not seem capable of addressing it, even in principle. As the philosophers Thomas Nagel and David Chalmers argue, normal science cannot grapple with "what it is like" to be something; subjective experience stands quite apart from science's (reductive) explanations. This may make consciousness more of a philosophy problem than a scientific problem.

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Professional fields can be divided into two groups on the basis of how easily skill is assessed. That difference cascades into many other aspects of the professions and governs much about work life within them. It will determine how important other factors are, like pedigree, fame, and luck.

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The fighters launch from their carrier! They jink and turn -- shooting bogeys down as they go. Finally, they approach the enemy capitol ships. They fly close, fire torpedoes -- and escape, leaving behind billowing fire. Wait. Is this World War II or a space opera confection?

In this article, we'll consider how the size of ships affects how they can fight -- and come to some surprising conclusions.

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Imagine you're given the task of evaluating the abilities of the individuals in a group -- perhaps in sharp-shooting -- and award ratings like A or F. You might plan a series of challenges of increasing difficulty. What should you do if these turn out to be much harder than you planned -- so that while you expected a mean success rate of 60%, it was actually 20%? An obvious solution is to multiply all scores by 3 to bring up the average. But it turns out that this (and any other linear correction) penalizes the weaker performers. Better alternatives exst.

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In my previous article on the geometry of empires, I considered two essential strategies for organizing the defense of a territory. In one, troops were positioned along the border, ready to intercept enemies but spread thin. In the other, a single, centrally-located force was powerful but slow to respond. These are extreme approaches, though, lying at the ends of a spectrum filled with intermediate strategies.

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The pre-modern state aims to defend its borders against enemies. The size of its territory, though, has profound implications for how it can do this; which may in turn influence how that state develops--whether, in particular, it seeks aggressive expansion.

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While working on one of my space wargames, I became interested in historical ships, especially their classification and relative characteristics. (Were most classes small while only a few were large? Or was there some other distribution?) Trauling the Web I assembled some data.

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The systems of coinage used in the middle ages were more complex and more interesting than what's presented in most fantasy role-playing systems: if gold, silver and copper "pieces" with nice metric conversions seemed too neat to you, you were right; read on.

Metals

Silver English penny, 1...

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