Friday, January 31, 2014
Book Review: The Climate War: True Believers, Power Brokers, and the Fight to Save the Earth by Eric Pooley (Hyperion 2010)
This is a well-written journalistic account of the history and dynamics of climate politics, particularly in
America. All the players and
factions are represented in a fairly non-biased approach. This book shows the
pragmatic power of a moderate, less radical environmentalism that can work with
less biased business interests and get results. It is a riveting tale, as Bill
Clinton said. It is a big book but makes a compelling narrative. Climate politics
is all about negotiation, concession, and consensus and the author narrates the
tale like you are right there watching things unfurl. It mainly portrays the
years 2007-2010 but refers much back to earlier times for background.
The three biggest players in this tale are probably Al Gore, Fred Krupp –president of Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), and Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers. There are many others including President Obama. The motivations and influence of the more fringe elements are sometimes involved as well – the Climate deniers and skeptics as well as the more radical environmental groups and activists.
The book begins with the Bali Roadmap in 2007 where eleven thousand people from 190 countries convened to discuss climate. The conference was intended to lead to an agreement in 2009 (in
that would be a successor to the ailing and mostly failed Kyoto Protocol where
countries, excluding the U.S.,
committed to emissions reductions. George W. Bush was still president and Al
Gore had just won a Nobel Prize – though he was by no means satisfied with his
influence on commitments to emissions reductions. Hurricane Katrina was still
fairly fresh in people’s minds and the IPCC and climate scientist James Hansen
were saying that the climate situation was more pressing than previously
thought – but not all climate scientists agreed. The main obstacles to
emissions reduction commitments were/are political but psychological as well.
Such reductions would be good for society in the long run but there would be
hardships in the short-term. By nature politicians don’t think beyond the next
election and many people have a hard time thinking beyond the next paycheck. The
Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act ended in a stalemate and did not pass.
The idea of cap-and-trade came about from academic economists in the 1960’s. In the 1980’s the policy people at Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) adopted the idea and by the 1990’s they helped pass through a version of it to reduce sulfur dioxide (SO2) from coal-burning power plants. It was fairly successful, with costs less than predicted. One help was the availability of low-sulfur coal from western
Reductions in SO2 led to reduced problems with acid rain in Canada and the
northeast forests. Cap and trade is a market-based approach to reducing
pollution and has some advantages over a carbon tax. The key part of cap and
trade is the cap on pollution, or on CO2 emissions in the newer proposals such
as in the Lieberman-Warner bill. Any cap, whether through a tax or a carbon
market, establishes that industries will have to pay to pollute or emit
greenhouse gases. The difficult part is how to allocate allowances to the
various polluting/emitting entities without incurring undue costs to those who
buy their products. Cap-and-trade for CO2 emissions would aid investment in
clean energy. Climate activists and others argue that this would balance the
playing field so that clean energy tech could compete. Business interests and
fossil fuel related companies argue that it would be a financial loss and
electricity prices would skyrocket as clean energy technologies are barely
economically feasible at best. But cap and trade also has some complexities –
mostly related to allocation of allowances – that leaves many policy people
suspicious. Implementation of cap and trade in Europe
showed that allowances could be allocated unfairly and certain companies profit
at the expense of others. In future U.S. proposals there would be much
negotiation and analysis about how to allocate allowances. A fair amount of
this book details these negotiations. In many ways the climate conflict is one
of short-term gain against long-term pain. As time progresses and that long-term
pain gets closer, that pain will be far more expensive to relieve than it would
if we made a stronger effort now.
One formidable force in the climate debate is the “unofficial” Green Group, which consists of a number of American environmental organizations. These groups include the Sierra Club on the “left,” Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in the middle and EDF on the “right.” It was EDF that championed the caps at
Carl Pope, the leader of the Sierra Club, considered the Lieberman-Warner bill
too weak, but as time would show, such bills were too strong for Congress – so
the environmental left’s inability to compromise could be problematic. Al Gore
had just written his book – The Assault
on Reason – which considered the powerful effects of advertising and media
persuasion on American politics. Gore and left-leaning environmentalists were
often at odds – he being more centrist and more willing to compromise. Gore had
started the Alliance
for Climate Protection as a well-funded advertising arm meant to influence
public opinion. He envisioned a large global populist movement for climate
action. He wanted to balance against pro-fossil fuel advertising but in the
coming years he would have to contend with an upswing in far-right climate change
denial advertising. Gore sought to consolidate the message of climate activists
of all types.
Meanwhile on the other end, the more extreme end, of the media-hype spectrum are the climate skeptics – many, believe it or not, with ties to the tobacco companies and with contrarians who argued against the dangers of cigarette smoking. They also refuted the notion that CFCs contributed to the hole in the Ozone layer – which is fairly well-established. The Heartland Institute, Americans for Prosperity, Americans for Tax Reform, the Frontiers of Freedom Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), and other anti-tax groups are the key purveyors of climate skepticism in the media. These groups were depicted more recently in a news documentary called – Climate Denial – which is definitely worth a watch. Basically, this is the sad and rather disgusting face of media hype. Many of these groups hype their numbers, make outrages claims like climate change being an orchestrated hoax, skew the science any way they can, and rely on junk science as much as possible. Even so, they are a powerful force and there is likely to be significant amounts of “dark money” headed their way from those who stand to benefit if their views are accepted by more of the mainstream. They once enjoyed open contributions from the likes of Exxon-Mobil but the science got too strong and Exxon-Mobil pulled away. The mainstream media may well be an accomplice in that they tend to like to show two sides of a story – which inadvertently strengthens the weaker side in this case. The author notes three stages of “climate denial” that have been predominant as the science has become more solid: 1) it’s not happening, 2) it’s happening and it’s unstoppable, since we’re not the cause, and 3) it’s happening and we’re the cause but it won’t be so bad. In any case, their policy is the same – that nothing should be done. They are mostly ideologues that paint climate activists of any sort as part of an eco-socialist conspiracy. They might be right-wing paranoid extremists who excel at media hype and junk science. People like Siegfried Frederick Singer, Myron Ebell (leader of CEI), and Steve Milloy are characterized. Ebell, often portraying himself as a scientist, was a political science major. One of the main functions of these climate deniers was/is to sow uncertainty. They are helped by the likes of senator James Inhofe, Rush Limbaug, and the biased but media-savy gang at Fox News.
Fred Krupp, executive director of EDF, is a firm believer in market-based solutions to environmental problems. EDF scientists pioneered the field of environmental economics. Indeed EDF was founded by scientists. Quantifying pollution per industry and allowances allotted based on that, is a key part of these economics. As an example- it might be cheaper for some industry to pay others to reduce deforestation to keep carbon sinks intact (in an equivalent manner) than to reduce their own emissions. Hardcore environmentalists tend to abhor the market-based approach of EDF – some even calling them a “corporate front group,” yet they have gotten more policy established than any other group. They got DDT banned, got lead out of gasoline, helped get McDonalds to drop its styrofoam packaging, not to mention the SO2 cap-and-trade deal that reduced pollution and acid rain. But like the NRDC and Sierra Club’s legal defense arm, Earthjustice – EDF was adept at suing, often citing the 70’s Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act and working with or influencing the EPA and public policy. Legal victories based on oppositional tactics helped solidify the environmental movement. However, as time went on those brought diminishing returns and groups like EDF favored a more pragmatic and less oppositional approach. EDF was instrumental in persuading
California’s energy giant, PG & E, to
halt building more power plants and instead focus on efficiency, networking,
and renewable energy. It was a success and a model for the benefits of
industry-supported energy conservation. EDF’s economic environmentalism was
interested in building coalitions – with business, with organizations, with
politicians, and with demographic groups. A market-based approach is one that
unleashes creativity. The ideology that says capitalism and the profit motive
are evil would not accept a green-based profit motive. One might see it as
eco-capitalist but the emphasis is on what could work for that specific
situation rather than adherence to any ideological model. Krupp went bipartisan
and dissuaded such unspoken ideological demands from the group. The phasing out
of CFCs also involved a cap-and-trade approach where the cap was decreased
through time and emissions were traded. It was said to be quite effective. EDF’s
Michael Oppenheimer collaborated with Boyden Gray and the G.W. Bush administration
in order to pass the market-based SO2 scrubber legislation. They took a lot of
flack from other environmental orgs for both working with/for Republicans and for
favoring a market-based solution over a command-and-control format.
“If you took a step back, having different factions within the movement was a good thing: EDF and NRDC and others could push for results inside the dysfunctional system, and Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth and others could stand outside and argue for more and better. They complemented one another. But up close it didn’t feel that way.”
EDF was apt to take a weaker deal that they could strengthen later – as occurred in the Montreal Protocol on ozone depletion and in the acid rain situation. Other groups were not likely to agree to weaker rules or compromise. Anti-corporatism could also be problematic for relations among groups.
A quick history lesson regarding Al Gore’s failed 1993 BTU tax is given. This early try at an energy tax was defeated on the basis of economics and spurned more anti-tax and industry groups to lobby against it. EDF was also against it – preferring cap-and-trade. It should be noted that in some places both are in effect. Various early climate bills are discussed as well including the McCain-Lieberman bill – the second version of which was killed in the Senate in 2005. Lieberman (an orthodox Jew) sees his climate advocacy as a duty of stewardship. Al Gore believes climate protection is a moral duty. Gore encouraged the Sierra Club to focus on climate. Gore’s 2006 documentary – An Inconvenient Truth – introduced more people to the climate issue and its science. For the next few years he went around the country doing slide shows and a big advertisement campaign in order to promote the seriousness of the climate issue in the hopes that climate action would be mandated by a vast majority of people. 2008 saw Gore’s ad campaign and a counter-ad campaign by the climate skeptics through Myron Ebell’s CEI group.
implemented cap-and-trade in 2005 but problems with accurate assessments of
emissions and subsequent rewarding of allowances made it inequitable and the
carbon market price even crashed at one point. However, by the end of 2008 the
Europeans were beginning to hit their emissions reduction targets. Ebell used
the early European problems as proof that it would not work.
Part of Fred Krupp’s job at EDF was to meet with CEOs and make the case for climate action. He landed several CEOs who agreed that it was a problem. Among them were Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers and GE CEO Jeff Immelt. Several CEOs and EDF and others formed an unofficial informal climate group. CEOs from Alcoa, BP, and DuPont would also be involved. Several companies in the group were involved in renewable energy projects including wind turbines and carbon sequestration design. Duke Energy was the third largest CO2 emitter in
America due to
their twenty coal-fired power plants. Later they would also become the 4th
largest producer of renewable energy in the Western hemisphere. Rogers kept a desire to
fix the climate along with his desire to make money for his company and
shareholders. Activists protested his latest proposed coal-fired power plant.
He also proposed early Carbon Capture coal-fired plants. Rogers worked with Krupp on climate issues
even though EDF and Duke had been on the opposite side of legal battles. Rogers previous company
Cinergy merged with Duke. Both received SO2 allowances but delayed action on
installing SO2 scrubbers. They waited and finally complied years later after
using the initial allowance money as a capital influx. Duke made out a bit on
their delay tactics but eventually came into compliance. The rather
confidential group of CEOs and entities became known as the Climate Change
Initiative (CCI). Rogers
was also a member and leader of the Edison Electric Institute (EEI). Other
energy CEOs like those of Peabody Coal and Massey Energy’s rather extremist Al
Blankenship considered Rogers
to be a traitor to the environmental communists. Many of Roger’s colleagues at
the new Duke Energy did not generally share his views about climate change so
his role was difficult. Among environmentalists there was the informal
confederation of groups known as the Green Group. The left wing of the group –
Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, and Greenpeace, had no interest in a
corporate-involved group but Francis Beinecke, president of Natural Resources
Defense Council (NRDC) was invited. Think tank leaders were also invited. It
seems that part of the CCI group purpose was to hash out the details of initial
allowances and cap targets through time. In January 2007 the CCI group
re-launched more publicly as USCAP – the U.S Climate Action Partnership. They
released a Call to Action which ruffled some feathers. EEI was furious at Rogers,
the chairman of EEI, for being involved. Rogers’
main point was that legislation to regulate carbon emissions is inevitable –
either “we” help shape it or let someone else – like the EPA – shape it. Later,
some USCAP CEOs met with senator Barbara Boxer and her Environment and Public
Works Committee. Republican senator John Warner was part of that committee. He
would later be a co-creator of the Lieberman-Warner bill to adopt cap-and
trade. Steve Milloy, a climate change denier of junkscience.com would also
refer to the traitors within the business community. Climate change denier
senator James Inhofe would call them “climate profiteers.” Though most coal
industry executives saw cap-and-trade or a carbon tax as an industry killer, a
few saw the potential of a rebound after carbon capture and storage projects
came on line. One of these companies was USCAP member Caterpillar who lost
contracts due to the position of the CEO in USCAP.
In December 2007, a radical environmental group called Rising Tide North America launched a fake USCAP website with much higher reductions mandates. In 2008 they protested the building of Duke Energy’s new Cliffside coal-power plant, depicting
as a greedy energy CEO even though he was one of the few that actually endorsed
a carbon cap. Site blockades, trespassing, and vandalism are also methods that
are used. Such “direct action” as it is called, is designed to inspire others
through the tale of it – perhaps a kind of passionate and creative propaganda.
One might also see it as a fanaticism of the cause. Earth First is a similarly
radical group that uses such techniques. It is unclear and debatable actually
how useful they are to the cause of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Much of the body of the book deals with the development of the Lieberman-Warner bill in late 2007 and early 2008. New pro-coal groups posed as business groups and re-oriented from an anti-climate change stance to one of knowing the best way to deal with it. Climate activists called them professional delayers. Indeed, delay is a tactic of coal interests who see their eventual extinction (without CCS). One group, Americans for Balanced Energy Choices (ABEC) launched a high dollar advertising campaign so again much of the climate war has been waged by the ad media. Clean coal propaganda adorned the Democratic National Convention. The idea of clean coal – now considered to be an oxymoron – was a frequent phrase in the 2008 election. The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE) was another group that waged an ad war against the Lieberman-Warner bill. Lieberman and Warner both realized that their bill was unlikely to pass. The idea was to work a carbon cap bill of some kind into the political landscape. This had been done before with McCain-Lieberman but this new one had more detail and longer debate among more potentially affected factions. In that sense, it was a refinement of the process. The polluter pays philosophy was countered by the argument that the taxpayers were demanding the cheaper energy. Those to the “left” considered the large sellable allowances granted to the utilities in the plan as a “windfall” while the utilities insisted the cash influx was needed to get to compliance and keep rates down. Climate became a “wedge issue” on the right as well as on the left with those in the middle being the only ones willing to negotiate. Many groups, left and right, climate activists and climate skeptics, formed specific opinions about the bill – some on the right touting discredited studies and some on the left saying it did not go far enough. Meanwhile EDF attempted to calculate the cost of implementing ghg emissions reductions. The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) made a similar study, also endorsed by the US Chamber of Commerce, that was grim – and apparently short-sighted and discredited. The EDF study was wider and more thorough but both were given even weight in news stories. Along with how to allocate allowances, another problem for cap-and-trade is where to set the carbon price and how to reduce it through time. Krupp and EDF preferred to keep it low and only bring it down when renewables began to make headway. The environmental left tended to despise the idea of carbon offsets but some form of cost containment would be needed. Some groups favored a safety valve approach where if carbon would reach a ceiling price, there would be new permits issued. EDF did not favor that approach at all. They sought instead the ability to offset the inability to reduce emissions by buying reductions – even outside the
system. Some thought that idea invited corruption.
Much of the next sections go into politics: negotiation, concession, being true to constituents, the influence of special interests, media campaigning, etc. Meanwhile Hansen had upped alarmism in noting NASA data that ten of the planet’s hottest years on record were between 1997 and 2008. Gore met with Obama before the election but Hansen declined to join him, not wanting to be associated with either party. Hansen began a bit of activism – advocating for a moratorium on new coal-power plants.
even slipped in to hear him speak in Charlotte.
wanted to slip in one last pre-planned coal-power plant without carbon capture
and storage. He wanted to do this with offsetting in mind – increasing
renewables and shutting down more polluting inefficient capacity (which would
have to be done soon from aging anyway.) Rogers
thought that Hansen was convincing about the threat but weak on solutions. He
saw even the modest near-term emissions targets as unrealistic without major
expense. CCS technology is still largely untested and unperfected large-scale.
In fact, several estimates suggest CCS to be do-able for only about 10-20% of
coal burnt due to expense, logistics, reservoir availability and capacity, etc.
Another issue is what the price coal would have to be for CCS to be
economically viable even with initial support. Early CCS needs to be
incentivized and generous carbon allowances and offsets to utilities could do
that. Rogers and Hansen met for dinner in New York in the summer of 2008 and discussed
climate change – Hansen’s recent dial-back from 450 to 350, the feasibility of
CCS, carbon offsetting possibilities, and nuclear energy, which Hansen
advocated to the horror of many environmentalists. Both agreed that a carbon
cap was needed. Rogers
did not like Obama’s idea of 100% auctions on carbon offset allowances as he
thought it would over-penalize electricity rate-payers in Midwestern states
where much of the electricity comes from coal. Obama proved eventually to be
flexible on that. Rogers
also met with Obama on the campaign trail and then again with Obama and a group
of energy and climate experts for a 3hr brainstorming session. Obama realized
that the climate issue would have to be embraced by the masses before solutions
would come to be accepted. He clothed the issue as an investment in jobs. Later
these would be called “green-collar “jobs. Krupp met with Van Jones, a former
activist turned pragmatist who had a flair for bringing the issue to the
working class in a positive way. Green jobs became the battle cry.
Sierra Club leader Carl Pope advised against cap-and-trade. He also preferred to wait until after the election. He stated that two thirds of the climate change solution could get done without a price on carbon. The then high price of gasoline was also an issue with some echoing Newt Gingrich’s – Drill Baby Drill.
Lieberman-Warner legislation had died. Obama aides had sought to pair cap-and-trade with the stimulus bill. Hansen was convinced cap-and-trade would not work and favored stiff carbon caps as part of a fee and dividend system. Gore favored 2009 action on cap-and-trade as part of an energy bill rather than splitting the bills up. Certain emissions targets were agreed to by members of the Green Group in a document called Transition to Green. Targets by 2020 were to be 25 to 40% lower than 1990. Obama instead called for 2020 levels to be at 1990 levels with more reduction afterward.
felt that utilities required 40% of allowances for free instead of the 100%
auction the Green Group wanted. National Wildlife Federation pulled out of
USCAP. Rising Tides North America had invaded a USCAP meeting and wrapped tape
around stuff saying – Global Warming Crime Scene. Their main point was to paint
EDF as traitors to the cause.
In 2009 there was development of the Waxman-Markey climate bill. Much negotiation ensued with formulas for allowances and offsets put forth. Big Oil was not negotiating much and Waxman and Markey sought to give them less allowances – figuring higher gasoline prices would be easier to deal with than higher electricity prices. The Senate passed a resolution that any climate bill must achieve its goals without increasing gasoline or energy prices. Projected costs for Waxman-Markey varied according to who made the study. The EPA projected lower costs. Climate skeptics said it would be very costly. GOP “wingnuts” like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck painted it as an evil conspiracy by the left to control the prosperous as slaves. Negotiations about allowances and targets came to be portrayed as buying votes. Most of these were among utilities represented by the Edison Electric Institute (EEI). Bjorn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, advocated inaction on climate, saying it would be best to leave it to future generations that would have better technology – to the delight of the delay and deny crowd – but seemingly against common sense. Hansen called Waxman-Markey a “counterfeit climate bill.” He wanted a moratorium and immediate beginning of a phase-out of coal. Gore favored an eventual adoption of both cap-and-trade and a carbon tax. Such was the case in places like
a country that has had success with renewable energy and efficiency. Although
some coal groups agreed to many concessions in Waxman-Markey there was the
problem of a cap being in effect before (large-scale) implementation of CCS was
ready – so others did not endorse it. Some Republicans like John Boehner liked
the bill being around because they thought it would be seen as another failed
BTU tax and make the party stronger. Krupp and Gore liked to emphasize the cap
of cap-and-trade while naysayers depicted the trade part as some sort of
“Madoff or Ponzi scheme.” Others pointed out the current and future costs that climate
change would exact as an important “true cost” factor. Limbaugh and Beck called
it a wealth redistribution scheme. Others pointed out that the Great Energy
Transition (to renewable energy) would inevitably need to be funded and cap-and-trade
and/or a carbon tax were a means to this end. Steve Milloy referred to it as
the beginning of Green Big Brother in his book – Green Hell. McCain called the
bill a farce because it bought off energy, steel, and agriculture. With quite a
bit of wrangling Waxman-Markey passed the house. But it would die in the
Senate. Some say Obama did not advocate enough, that he was more committed to
the Health Care act. The Tea Party was rising to power and held cap-and-trade as
an ideal example of government control through taxation. The propaganda and ad
wars continued, and continues today. Apparently, Glenn Beck accused Van Jones
of being a Communist and part of a conspiracy due to his radical past
experimenting with Communism, Anarchy, and Libertarianism. He was defamed
enough to resign as a member of Obama’s staff. Beck was boycotted somewhat at
the time for calling Obama racist against white people. The distant hope was
that the bill would pass the Senate before the 2009 U.N. climate conference in Copenhagen – now attended
by 27,000 people, but that was not to be. Soon thereafter, so-called
“climategate” happened where climate skeptics claim to have found evidence that
climate scientists had “cooked data.” Apparently, there had been some errors
and omissions but nothing that changed any conclusions but typically those with
a bias will use any info to try and validate their view, which is the real goal
of most opinion zealots. Basically, climategate was insignificant difference
changed into fluffed up B.S. Of course, in a media war – the truth can get
Senator James Inhofe, came to
Copenhagen to announce that climate change
was a hoax. A reporter asked him: “If there’s a hoax, then who’s putting on
this hoax and what’s the motive?” He mentioned something about the U.N., the U.S., and the Hollywood
elite. A German reporter just scoffed, “You’re ridiculous.” Nothing much got resolved at Copenhagen,
much like Bali. The U.S.,
China, India, and
other developing countries are still running without officially planned
emissions reductions. China
did agree to a reduction of “carbon intensity” or emissions per unit of GDP.
Some said/say that U.S.
emissions reductions are irrelevant if China (now the world leader in
carbon emissions) did not commit to reductions. Others stressed that if the U.S. would
commit it would force these other countries to follow suit faster that they
otherwise would. Obama was adamant and insisted on confronting the Chinese on
this issue – to the point of bursting into Copenhagen meetings uninvited. He did get
some Chinese concessions – with future verification to be worked out later.
On Feb. 26, 2010, Lindsay Graham announced in the Washington Post that “Cap and trade is dead.” Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman tried a plan B approach but not much came out of it and so a
U.S. carbon cap remains elusive. Since
the publication of this book, cap-and trade apparently has been adopted at the
state level in California
with success touted by EDF. Obama and the EPA are pushing for executive order
requirement for power plants to reduce carbon. Hansen and Bill McKibben
continue to insist on the need to scale back to 350 PPM of CO2 in the atmosphere.
CCS has yet to catch on but there are several projects running and in varying
stages of running. Germany, Spain, Denmark, and a few other countries
have made the committed dash for renewable energy with variable success.
Natural gas availability as a power-plant replacement for coal as well as
decreased demand and a few warm winters has allowed the U.S. to reduce
carbon emissions rather unexpectedly to mid-1990’s levels. Meanwhile
atmospheric global CO2 has increased beyond the 400 ppm threshold.
Basically, anyone who is into climate policy should read this book as it really gives the breadth of the ideas, hopes, and fears of those factions and their individual representatives that will be impacted by climate legislation.
Monday, January 13, 2014
Book Review: Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe by Robert Lanza M.D. with Bob Berman (BenBella Books 2009 Kindle edition)
This is a very good book. Lanza and Berman offer a compelling way of integrating physics and biology. The necessary inseparability of nature and consciousness is emphasized. The basic view of biocentrism is that the universe arose from life rather than life evolving from the universe. Lanza is a distinguished scientist and makes a good case for this view. The idea reminds me of the philosophical view of panpsychism – the notion that all matter, indeed the entire universe, is imbued with consciousness. Lanza has an impressive scientific record with stem-cell research, genetics, and regenerative medicine. He has worked with the likes of Jonas Salk, neurobiologist Stephen Kuffler, and B.F. Skinner. His stem cell regeneration work has successfully treated many cases of blindness.
He begins by pointing out the dead ends reached in quantum theory and relativity. Physicists have been trying to harmonize these theories into a grand unified theory (GUT) or a theory of everything (TOE) for quite some time with no success. They are yet incompatible under current models. Now they say that 96% of the universe is composed of dark matter and dark energy and no one knows what they are! The observation that the universe is “exquisitely fine-tuned to support life” is a key to the view of biocentrism. Quantum theory, he says, makes no logical sense, even though the mathematics are rather impeccable. The paradoxes of space and time are yet unexplainable. To say that the universe is a “quantum fluctuation” is not really satisfactory. The view of biocentrism is based on science, not New Age thought or any form of “intelligent design” as some might construe. I can see such an idea being co-opted and it seems that the headlines of certain internet posts have used it to back up their personal opinions along these lines – be forewarned. Lanza even points out that various preposterous claims have used quantum theory as support.
The authors examine the uncanny suitability of the universe to support life. The power of the Big Bang, the strength of the strong nuclear force, and the “just-rightness” of the gravitational force are just three of more than two hundred conditions uniquely suited to life. We are amazing at figuring out how the parts work but the whole wholly eludes us.
This, they say, is because we have ignored the hidden variable – consciousness. The view of biocentrism “revolves around the way a subjective experience, which we call consciousness, relates to a physical process.” Here they quote Emerson: “Perhaps these subject-lenses have a creative power; perhaps there are no objects.” The question is: Did the laws of the world produce the observer or did the observer produce the laws of the world? Biocentrism argues for the latter.
Quantum theory tells us that the subatomic particles that make up matter exist in unmanifest probability-states that only manifest in the presence of an observer. In other words the universe does not exist without an observer. The tree that falls in the forest makes no sound if no one hears it. There is no “independent external universe outside of biological existence.”
For obvious reasons of manipulation and mobility we have divided the universe into self and non-self, the boundary between them being our own skin. This is our sense of self. Descriptions of mystical experiences often describe a state where the boundary between self and non-self disappears. The mechanisms of our sensory apparatus also suggest that the world “out there” is really within. The universe and all objects within it may have come into being with consciousness but consciousness may exist outside of time. Neorological studies suggest that our ability to control may be illusory as well. He gives a quote from Einstein here: “We can will ourselves to act, but we cannot will ourselves to will.” Experiments suggest that our cognitive decisions may be made before we are aware of making them. What we think of as conscious acts may have subconscious precursors. This retrospective perspective may give us a “sense” of free will. Whether there really is free will is debatable.
At the atomic level and below there is non-locality, entanglement, and observer-dependent reality. One might call this quantum uncertainty. Particle entanglement defies Einstein’s speed of light limitation. Regardless of spatial separation entangled particles act in cahoots. They share a wave function. When one does “this” the other does the complementary “that.” According to these entanglement experiments, action at any distance appears to be instantaneous. Such experiments suggest that time and/or space are illusions. Indeed it seems likely that nothing really exists until it is measured. The wave-particle duality (called quantum weirdness) arising from the famed double-slit experiment has led many physicists to conclude that: “Science has essentially conceded that quantum physics is incomprehensible outside of complex mathematics.” The author goes through the conclusions of quantum theory – the
interpretation and its main competitor – the Many Worlds Interpretation (MWI)
which relies on so-called parallel universes. Einstein seemed to favor hidden
variable(s) as of yet undiscovered but as Lanza points out – if one presumes
consciousness as a necessary component then much falls into place.
One chapter goes into detail on the double-slit experiment, its permutations, and its implications. The actual and the probable become indistinguishable during these experiments. What go through the slit are probability waves. The Complementarity Principle explains that one can measure just one of a pair of characteristics but never both at the same time. Knowing one aspect of the pair necessarily means unknowing the other aspect. These experiments show that the observed is inseparable from the observer. A metaphor might be the aphorism – a watched pot doesn’t boil – or “an atom cannot change its energy state as long as it is being continuously observed.” Basically these quantum experiments show that subject-object duality is illusory, that subject and object are necessarily inseparable. In other words – consciousness is inseparable from reality.
The so-called Goldilocks Principle – the notion that the universe is “just right” for life has been used by advocates of Intelligent Design theories – usually to support biblical nonsense but there is no need to assume such.
notion of Natural Selection in support of a randomly evolving biologically
inbued universe is advocated by the majority of scientists but is also rather
unsatisfactory in the holistic sense. Lanza gives the three possible explanations
for this Goldilocks Principle: 1) God did it – which even if true explains
nothing; 2) the Anthropic Principle in its several forms (which he says support
Biocentrism); and 3) Biocentrism pure and simple. The mathematical constants in
physics are quite coincidentally life-friendly. Any tweaking = no life. He goes
into detail about the “carbon resonance” – an odd quirk – or a great
unlikelihood of three Helium atoms colliding at the same instant during nuclear
fusion. The resonant state property of carbon allows it to be produced by other
elements. The strong nuclear force and the gravitational force are tweaked
perfectly for its creation. Such exact tweaking led to the idea of the
Anthropic Principle. Brandon Carter explained it like this: What we can expect
to observe “must be restricted by the conditions necessary for our presence as
observers.” Lanza says it this way:
“Because we’re here, the universe has to be the way it is and therefore isn’t unlikely at all. Case closed.”
Such is dubbed the Weak Anthropic Principle (WAP). The strong version – that the universe was “designed” to generate observers - was best exemplified by physicist John Wheeler and most supports biocentrism. It is called the Participatory Anthropic Principle (PAP): “observers are required to bring the universe into existence.” Without life the universe exists only in an indeterminate state, an undetermined probability state. This means that a pre-life universe only exists retroactively, after consciousness became aware of it. Lanza says that since time is an illusion – this retroactive existence technically isn’t correct either. Biocentrism is in accord with Wheeler’s participatory universe.
In considering the illusory nature of time supported by quantum theory he begins with Zeno’s arrow paradox. Zeno noted that an arrow on a trajectory could only be at one location at any instant so what is perceived as motion is really a series of separate events. We tie these separate events together and see it as motion so that time is really a feature of our minds. Physicists and philosophers throughout time have argued that time is a mental construct, particularly the future and past. Some say we live in an eternal now.
“Scientifically, time appears to be indispensible in just one area – thermodynamics, whose second law has no meaning at all without the passage of time. Thermodynamics’ second law describes entropy (the process of going from greater to lesser structure). Without time, entropy cannot happen or even make sense.”
He says that this is the conventional view of entropy. It is said to be non-reversible. But he says that other physicists see entropy merely as motion – that does not require a direction in time. Motion and position cannot be measured together with accuracy. “Sharpness in one parameter induces blurriness in the other.” From the biocentric perspective:
“…time is the inner form of the animal sense that animates events – the still frames - of the spatial world.”
He notes that the idea of movement through space is an oxymoron since space can be defined as position. Position belongs to the outer world and momentum (the animal sense that adds the still frames) belongs to the inner world. This, he says, is the basis of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Both Heisenberg and Zeno were right according to biocentrism.
Time is what is measured by a clock. Space is measured by a measuring rod. Man measures. Space and time are dependent on being measured by man, by the measurer, by consciousness. We only appear to live on the edge of time. He goes through the principles of relativity and time dilation to point out that time can vary when an object approaches the speed of light. We tend and try to view time from a physiocentric perspective, but it is a biocentric process.
“In sum, from a biocentric point of view, time does not exist in the universe independent of life, and really doesn’t truly exist within the context of life either.”
Lanza points out that space and time are not things – they are “modes of interpretation and understanding.” Space is what we see between objects, objects to which we give boundaries by naming them. Distance (space) has no reality for entangled particles. Einstein’s relativity showed that space is tentative, that it changes based on conditions such as gravity and speed. He gives a list of ways that a false view of space is presented: 1) empty space is not empty, 2) distances between objects change according to conditions, 3) quantum theory suggests that objects any distance apart are not really separated, 4) we see separations between objects because we were trained to do so through language and convention. Object and background, the contrast between them, has baffled philosophers for millennia. Scientists have failed to find any properties of space but we now know that matter contracts along its axis of motion at high speeds. This notion later became the basis for the Lorentz transformation, or contraction, which was used by Einstein in his relativity theory. Even so, Lanza says Lorentz’s Compensatory Theory better accords with biocentrism than Einstein’s Relativity because Einstein made the assumption that space and time were real qualities of a physical world, rather than qualities of consciousness. Lanza notes that science and quantum theory are more and more seeing the boundary between objects and space as being fuzzier and fuzzier. Quantum entanglement suggests that space is an illusion. Even the Big Bang suggests all parts of the universe were once unified into a point, a singularity. Perhaps it still is that way – the universe is a point with no dimensions. The phenomenon of aberration at speeds approaching the speed of light suggests that while light, or energy, is fundamental to reality, space is not – because it changes according to the conditions of the observer.
Paradox and the limitation of language adorn the logical dead ends, the mysteries of life. Biocentrism, Lanza notes, has its logical limitations as well. He sees it as a starting point rather than an ending point.
I should note that Lanza adorns this book with stories about his childhood, his mentally ill sister, his abusive professional gambler father, his meetings and work with great scientists, and other important as well as traumatic events of his life. Contemplating a friend’s tragic death – he only suggests that biocentrism offers some comfort in the likelihood that consciousness (in some form) can continue after death since it was consciousness that created our illusory universe in the first place.
Lanza gives seven principles of biocentrism. I will list them here:
1) What we perceive as reality is a process that involves our consciousness. An “external” reality, if it existed, would – by definition – have to exist in space. But this is meaningless, because space and time are not absolute realities but rather tools of the animal mind.
2) Our external and internal perceptions are inextricably intertwined. They are different sides of the same coin and cannot be divorced from one another.
3) The behavior of subatomic particles – indeed all particles and objects – are inextricably linked to the presence of an observer. Without the presence of a conscious observer, they at best exist in an undetermined state of probability waves.
4) Without consciousness, “matter” dwells in an undetermined state of probability. Any universe that could have preceded consciousness only existed in a probability state.
5) The structure of the universe is explainable only through biocentrism. The universe is fine-tuned for life, which makes perfect sense as life creates the universe, not the other way around. The “universe” is simply the complete spatio-temporal logic of the self.
6) Time does not have a real existence outside of animal-sense perception. It is the process by which we perceive changes in the universe.
7) Space, like time, is not an object or a thing. Space is another form of our animal understanding and does not have an independent reality. We carry space and time around with us like turtles with shells. Thus, there is no absolute self-existing matrix in which physical events occur independent of life.
Interestingly, Lanza notes that his work with stem cell regeneration of retinal cells has led him to suspect that nerve cells, rather than atoms, are the fundamental units of reality. He calls neurons the neural correlate of the mind. They form the basis of the observer – us. Lanza also notes one of his own brief mystical experiences along the lines of those described by the American transcendentalists, Emerson and Thoreau, whom are quoted throughout the book.
One chapter compares classical science, various religions, and biocentrism in terms of the answers they give to the mysteries of the universe. “… science seeks to discover the properties and processes within the cosmos.” According to biocentrism, neither nature nor mind is unreal – in fact they may be one and the same. My own way of expressing this is: “the nature of mind is the mind of nature.” He notes that no position is taken regarding God in the theory of biocentrism. The authors compare biocentrism to solipsism – the notion that a single consciousness pervades everything. They do not take a position on this either. Certainly there are hints of oneness of mind and of diversity of mind as well. Biocentrism shares some features with science and some with Eastern religions. I am kind of surprised that the authors make no mention of other scientific or quasi-scientific theories of the nature of the universe such as that of David Bohm’s Holographic Universe idea. That seems to accord fairly well with biocentrism – Bohm’s implicate and explicate orders being equated with the undetermined probability state and the conventional/relative (illusory) universe respectively. This accords with the Eastern idea of the two truths – ultimate reality and conventional/relative reality.
Another chapter is devoted to the influence of Sci-fi and the psychedelic revolution on ideas of the universe and vice versa. They suggest that the sci-fi scenarios prevalent in the media support our suspicions of a universe that is not what it seems – one based on consciousness itself, ie. biocentrism.
Even if biocentrism is correct there is still the greater mystery of consciousness itself. What is subjective experience? While experience may arise from a physical basis – the brain and sensory apparatus – there is certainly much we do not know. Lanza worked with famed behaviorist B.F. Skinner on experiments involving animal cognition. He acknowledges that neuroscience has yet to solve the problem of consciousness and perhaps never will. Even Skinner, he notes, toward the end of his life, was coming to a similar conclusion. He says that even though very much continues to be learned about the structure and functional aspects in neuroscience – the parts, little to nothing is known about the whole, consciousness itself. Just like in physics, there are interesting theories, but also like physics, there is also much disagreement among neurobiologists. The nature of subjective experience hints at a dichotomy between the physical world and our biological awareness – one that may be irreconcilable – or reconcilable only in some sort of mystical state. Thus objective-based knowledge may have to give way to subjective-based knowledge, ie. gnosis or wisdom – experiential rather than conceptual. This accords with the Eastern ideas of non-dualism and non-conceptuality. It also suggests the limits of science in approaching holistic knowledge. We are learning much about the parts of the brain and nervous system and how they relate to conscious experience but we are no closer to solving the mystery of consciousness in any holistic way. The authors suggest the words of Emerson: “ the mind is One and that nature is its correlative.”
Oddly, as Schrodinger’s cat scenario exemplifies, quantum theory suggests that the past is created in the present. The history of the universe from the Big Bang to now that cosmologists have concocted, can only “be” if we are conscious of it. This is born out by entanglement experiments which show that a present observation actually determines a situation an entangled twin took in the past. An article about the views of physicist John Wheeler was titled “Does the Universe Exist if We’re Not Looking?” He noted that he was sure the universe was filled with “huge clouds of uncertainty” and that it is “a vast arena containing realms where the past is not yet the past.”
The chapter on death and eternity is stated to be speculative. The biocentric view suggests and allows for consciousness beyond death but does not prove it, as certain recent internet posts seem to suggest. Philosophers, physicists, and sci-fi writers have also suggested the same from the Epicurean Lucretius to Einstein and Ray Bradbury. Thermodynamics says that energy is never lost. If consciousness is the universe how could it end? What is non-consciousness? How could we know it? The notion of being “outside of time” suggests a conscious state of timelessness. Certain Buddhist texts speak of “timeless awareness.” Such ideas may allay the fear of death at least conceptually but if we still identify with our bodies – probably not. At least they provide a conceptual basis for disengaging from identifying with our bodies.
The authors suggest that in the future, as quantum experiments become more sophisticated their implications will become apparent in the macroscopic world in some ways as they are in the microscopic world. Physics cannot ignore consciousness, they say, and will have to incorporate it more and more in order to go deeper into understanding the nature of the universe. Experiments examining artificial intelligence and those examining free will, they say, may also yield future insights supportive of biocentrism. One problem the authors note is that physicists and biologists of the different branches of each are often not knowledgeable of the other disciplines and that the future usefulness of such science favors a more multidisciplinary approach.
Two very good appendices are added. One is an explanation of the Lorentz Transformation and the second is a comparison of Einstein’s Relativity in light of biocentrism.
This is a great book and I think it will have an impact on philosophy, physics, and biology. It may be the closest we can get to a unified theory of sorts. I think it is a rather intuitively sensible way of looking at things without relying on the dogma of religion nor the unsatisfying randomness of dry physical science.
Tuesday, January 7, 2014
Book Review: Hypatia of
by Maria Dzielska – translated by F. Lyra Alexandria
(Harvard University Press 1995)
This is a good scholarly work seeking the unembellished story of the great female Platonic philosopher, her eminent school, and her unfortunate demise among fanatical Christians. This account accords quite well with the very good 2009 movie Agora, about Hypatia of Alexandria. Hypatia was praised by her students and friends as a person of great moral qualities, intelligence, and self-control (sophrosyne).The author sifts through and compares all the various sources about Hypatia, their faults and merits. She also sort of debunks (but only partially) literary legends of Hypatia stemming from 19th century enlightenment accounts of her.
The author seeks to downplay the simplistic notions of Hypatia as an innocent victim of fanaticism – she was murdered and torn apart by fanatical Christians – likely a hired gang of them – in the year 415 CE. She only partially succeeds but does provide a much more thorough and detailed account of her life and the political forces that led to her murder. Hypatia’s death as symbolic of the triumph of Christianity and the subsequent weakening of the
Roman Empire is examined. Although she
does provide evidence that there were continuing pagan and Neoplatonic
philosophical traditions after Hypatia – one can hardly deny that her death and
the preceding events in the once cosmopolitan city of Alexandria were a turning point that
strengthened intolerance and fanaticism. It would be a few more centuries until
the Arab conquest of Alexandria.
The classical romanticists and enlightenment poets may well have deified her as
a beacon of the last vestiges of a golden age of antiquity. Hypatia’s story has
also been interpreted in modern ways in totally erroneous forms: as a convert
to Christianity (which never happened); or more plausibly as an inspiration to
feminists – although women in general were not treated a whole lot better
before Christianity replaced paganism.
Hypatia was a Platonic philosopher and a scientist who gave public and private lectures in
Alexandria at her
residence – mainly to aristocrats, some traveling from Syria, Constantinople,
and other parts of the empire. One of the sources: Damascius’s Life of Isodore – strongly condemns the
Alexandrian Christians. Indeed Damascius (born 450) was a part of the
continuing (but certainly not flourishing) Neoplatonic tradition. His account
can be seen as one not tainted by a Church perspective as most of the others
During Hypatia’s life
was populated with a slight majority of Christians, mostly orthodox, but
Nestorians (Syrian) as well. Actually it would be a bit later in 431 at the
Council of Ephesus that Nestorius would be branded a heretic and the Church
split along those lines. The patriarch Cyril (likely the instigator of
Hypatia’s death) would be the one who most strongly condemned Nestorius. Alexandria also had a
large population of Jews and pagans.
geometry and Ptolemy’s astronomy as well as the philosophy of Plato, Aristotle,
Plotinus, and Pythagoras. Her students were very loyal to her and followed some
precepts of secrecy and moral discipline required among late-antiquity
Platonists. Her father was Theon, also a great teacher of science, astronomy,
and philosophy as well as being a theurgist (magician). Although the author
tries to paint Hypatia as more interested in science and less interested in
theurgy than her father – it could also be that the climate for theurgy was not
good during her time, especially after bishop Theophilus issued edicts against
pagan temples in the 390’s, although she notes that there is no evidence that
Theophilus and Hypatia had any ill will toward one another. Hypatia was her
father’s closest and best collaborator. Indeed it does seem likely that Hypatia
was more interested in Hellenistic philosophy than Hellenistic religious cults.
Theon was known to practice both Hermeticism and Orphism and it seems likely
Hypatia was schooled in those disciplines as well. Theon prepared books for
publication and further commentary such as Ptolemy’s Amalgest – a classic astronomy text. Indeed Hypatia’s work may have
been instrumental in those works and others that she prepared although no works
attributed directly to her are known to have survived. Several of Theon’s books
and commentaries survived. Late Platonism was regarded as a sort of religious
mystery tradition according to several authors, where adherence to moral
principles, moderation, abstinence of lust and greed, and generosity were
encouraged and practiced. It was a lifestyle rather than simply an education.
Such was the circle about Hypatia and a few centuries earlier the circle about
the Syrian Platonist Iamblichus. Another goal was to orient the mind to a state
of revelation, or contemplation, termed theoria.
Hypatia’s students included pagans, Christians, and Jews. Synesius of Cyrene who later became a bishop preserved much about the student circle. She was beloved of her students and it appears from his letters to her that the students and their teacher cultivated mindful relationships. The letters of Synesius are also a major source of our information about Hypatia. The letters written by Synesius to other students of Hypatia such as Olympius and Herculianus also reveal much about her circle of students around 400 CE. He often referred to her as “blessed lady.” Different researchers give different ages for Hypatia’s death – some say she was as young as 45 but the author makes a good case that she was about 60 years of age. It is likely that she began teaching in the 380’s at a fairly young age. The Christian monk Philamon was also a willing student of Hypatia, though originally he may have sought to discredit her. It is fairly certain that Hypatia wielded a highly respected social position in
Damascius compares 5th century Alexandria
to 5th century BC Athens
where politicians would consult philosophers on matters of state. Orestes, the
new prefect of Alexander and governor of Egypt was a friend and student of
Hypatia as well. His quarrel with Cyril would spill into all facets of the city
as the secular state and the new religion battled for political power. The Ecclesiastical History of Socrates
Scholasticus is the most substantial
source about Hypatia according to the author.
Damascius tells the famed story of a regular student that fell in love with Hypatia and unable to abstain, confessed his love for her. She was said to show him her bloodied sanitary napkin and state. “This is what you really love, my young man, but you do not love beauty for its own sake.” Hypatia was reputed to have remained a virgin her whole life. She also practiced moderation and restraint and was valued for her self-control – the moral virtue of sophrosyne. Such was a requirement to achieve the desired philosophical state of apatheia – complete liberation from emotions and affections. Her ascetic leanings are exemplified by her wearing of the philosophic tribon, the simple garment of philosophers.
Hypatia was also renowned for her mathematical and astronomical achievements. She and Theon taught how to build astrolabes for the study of astronomy. She taught
geometry and Pythagorean mathematics as well as the mathematics of the
Alexandrian algebraist Diphantus. For Hypatia and her school though, mathematics
and astronomy as well as “sacred geometry” were inseparable from philosophy as
all were ways to approach the divine in nature. The initiates and their teacher
referred to themselves as hetairoi,
or companions – they being a microcosm of the macrocosm of divine nature. The author speculates whether Hypatia’s
tradition stemmed from that of Iamblichus or Plotinus and Porphyry. Since
Iamblichus was a theurgist and theurgic terms are not used in any writings
about Hypatia it is assumed it was the latter tradition. Even so, such theurgic
works as the Chaldean Oracles were studied as mentioned by Synesius. The author
depicts both Hypatia and Synesius as cultural Hellenists rather than religious
ones. While that may be true for Synesius, I suspect Hypatia was just more
careful about it since her beloved father Theon who she lived with till his
death was such an avid Hermeticist and theurgist. Indeed, before Hypatia was
Antoninus, the son of Sosipatra, who was a Neoplatonic theurgist who worked his
theurgy and religious paganism discretely while teaching philosophy to packed
audiences. He was also associated with the cult of Serapis but died before the
destruction of the temples in Canopus and Alexandria under the
orders of Theophilus. He and his mother Sosipatra were also associated with
asceticism, restraint, and high moral character according to Neoplatonic
Theophilus became bishop of
Alexandria in 385. He quickly began a
campaign against paganism. In 391-392 he moved in on the cult of Serapis at the
Serapeum in the city center and prohibited cult practices causing an outrage
among the pagans. There were riots. Many barricaded themselves in the temple
which gave Theophilus pretext to call military and civil authorities for help.
Since Christianity was gaining in the empire and was predominant in the
military this was permitted and many of the pagan temples and statues were
appropriated and destroyed. Many of the Hellenes and Neoplatonists sided with
the pagans. After this there were outbreaks of violence. Priests of Thoth
(Hermes) and Amon (Zeus) were also routed in the prohibition of paganism in Alexandria. Hypatia and
her school were not attacked or persecuted by Theophilus at this time. This
would occur later when Cyril became bishop of Alexandria. The author states that she was
not interested in exoteric paganism and deity worship but it could well be that
she did not want to be associated with the most scorned elements of Hellenism
by the ecclesiasts. Since she also taught Christians and Jews – it is also
possible that she was above the petty violence. During the destruction of the
Serapheum it is thought that more books from the famed Alexandrian library were
burned – since they were a testament to the Hellenic pagan culture. The
invading Arabs would complete the task in 645 CE as the Koran became the only
book worth having.
Theophilus died in the fall of 412. Then his nephew Cyril would come to power as bishop. Though Church historians canonized him a saint and praised him for his theological and dogmatic knowledge, the people in his place and time generally did not. Sources of the time described him as power-hungry. Even his election to the bishopric caused unrest as many factions favored Timothy, with the backing of the military. After a few skirmishes Cyril was installed as bishop. Episcopal authority was strengthened under Cyril and soon began to spread to municipal affairs. He sought orthodoxy, first expelling the Novatian Christians from the city, closed their churches, and confiscated their religious objects. Next he went after the Jews. Jews had lived peacefully in
for many centuries. The prefect Orestes had just come to Alexandria to help sow order. As he announced
an ordinance against pantomimic performances the Jews rebelled saying there
were agents of Cyril among the crowd come to cause trouble. Orestes considered
their complaints. There were riots. People were killed. Hierax, the agent of
Cyril, was arrested and tortured by the prefect. Possibly, he resented Cyril’s
growing power to replace the authority of the empire with the authority of the
Church. After a Jewish attack on Christians Cyril retaliated heavily through
the use of empowered Christian mobs to confiscate the property of Jews and
expel many of them from the city. This also served to weaken opposition against
him. Orestes was enraged and reported these events to the emperor as did Cyril.
These accounts come mainly from the writings of Socrates Scholasticus. He
reports that more moderate Christians encouraged Cyril to come to terms with
Orestes. Even though Orestes was a Christian he would not submit to Cyril’s
authority. He was also a Hellene and was said too to be taken by the teachings
of Hypatia. Cyril employed Nitrian monks from the nearby desert as
foot-soldiers (as had Theophilus) and pursued other methods. These monks had
the audacity to insult Orestes and the monk Ammonius attacked Orestes, injuring
him badly with a large stone. For this he was tortured which resulted in his
death. Reports were dispatched to the emperor. Cyril proclaimed Ammonius a
martyr. Orestes was supported by many of the nobles of the city (including his
friend Hypatia) and therein lies a clue to their downfall. The aristocracy did
not have the support of the lower classes of Alexandria and the Christian doctrines of
poverty and belief-based spirituality was more accessible to poor folk. Indeed,
Synesius’s letters indicate a kind of contempt for the lower classes, their
philosophical ignorance, and more questionable moral character. Socrates noted
that Hypatia was seeking the reconciliation of the prefect and the bishop. He
also suggests that the remaining Jewish community supported Orestes against the
incursions of the bishop. The city officials, most of them moderate Christians,
also opposed Cyril. Hypatia may have been especially feared since her influence
extended beyond Alexandria to her distinguished
students from Syria,
Constantinople, and Libya.
Though she was well-liked among the aristocracy she was not among the masses,
perhaps even the lower class pagans, as she was not known to have joined their
cause against Theophilus’s incursions against their temples a few decades
earlier. Thus, rumors began to circulate about Hypatia being a witch and using her
magic to enchant the Christian Orestes against the schemes of Cyril and his
version of Church authority over civil matters. This slander had an affect on
the masses. One later source, that of John of Nikiu, is very explicit about her
being a satanic witch casting spells over city officials – nonsense for sure
but effective in her time in a battle for influence among the masses. He sought
to portray her gruesome death as just punishment and her tormentors as heroes.
A certain clergyman known as Peter the Reader led the charges and the mob against Hypatia. As Hypatia was in the habit of traveling about the city in a chariot, the mob pulled her out of it, ripped her clothes off, stabbed her to death with pottery shards, ripped her apart, and finally brought her body parts to be burned at a pyre. Most accounts are more or less in agreement here. Afterwards the city officials contacted officials of the empire to complain about Cyril but some in the empire wanted to keep quiet about the affair since they favored Cyril’s policies of prohibition of paganism. The author considers that the whole affair of slandering, lynching, and murdering Hypatia was a well-planned plot by Cyril and the evidence is quite good that it was. Cyril was never punished, only slightly reprimanded by having his large group of young church helpers of the homeless and poor – but in reality his army to enforce his policies – slightly reduced in number. This lasted for a year or two then Cyril was allowed more freedom for his dogma enforcers. The fact that her murder went unavenged and unpunished was said to bring a mark of shame on the city, the third largest city of the whole
In a concluding chapter the author notes that Hypatia’s death did not mark the end of the Neoplatonic tradition in
Alexandria or in other parts of the empire.
She states that the Neoplatonic tradition in Alexandria achieved its height in the 5th
and sixth centuries with theurgical and pagan practices intact. Even so, I
suspect they were less accepted by the ecclesiastical authorities and the
general populace and less eclectic than Hypatia’s famed school had been. I can
hardly believe that doctrines in any way related to outlawed cults (such as
those of Isis and Serapis) and other similar ones could thrive unchecked. In
essence I disagree with the author that Hypatia’s persecution and death was not
symbolic of the end of Hellenism. It was certainly the end of the free
expression of Hellenism, both philosophy and especially cults.
The author also gives a small section on other learned women of late antiquity. Most or all were Neoplatonists. Porphyry’s wife Marcella is one. The Roman Gemina was a student of Plotinus. Iamblichus had a student – the female philosopher Alete.
“The best-known, most original, and most influential woman philosopher was Sosipatra. She lived in the first half of the fourth century, teaching philosophy in Pergamon.”
Sosipatra was said to be initiated in Chaldean practices. Later, there were famous Christian Neoplatonist philosophers that included women such as Aedesia.
The legend of St. Catherine of
Alexandria has some interesting parallels to
the life of Hypatia. Indeed, this could possibly have been the Church’s later attempts
to canonize the admirable qualities of Hypatia, but this is mere speculation. I
find it interesting as well that the Templars many centuries later were said to
have especially venerated this St. Catherine. There was an inscription found in
Asia Minor dedicated to a St. Hypatia
Catherine. The author suggests that this might have been a middle name since
Hypatia was a common name but it seems more likely to me that her legend was
being appropriated long after her death – a not uncommon phenomenon in popular
Overall, a very good book that considers all the sources about Hypatia. Though I don’t completely agree with all of the author’s conclusions, she does present quite plausible cases for them. When the movie Agora came out in the
in 2009 there was some backlash and protest among Christians since the story
could hardly not paint the fanatical Christian mobs associated with Cyril as
anything but gruesome.