Friday, September 30, 2005

Shopping is the new religion ...

... as testified to by the fact that it is pretty much the activity of choice for so many people - the principle holiday activity for a high proportion of people - its therapeutic/redemptive powers are talked about only barely in jest.

If shopping is the new religion, then few environments more self-consciously cast shopping in this light than the Bluewater shopping centre, near Dartford in Kent.

Vaulted ceiling

The shopping centre is on two levels. Whilst the vaults of the ceiling may not tower to Gothic heights, they are certainly reminiscent of traditional churches and cathedrals. Posted by Picasa

Kingdom Come

Large, stone-effect lettering features in several places - the words taken from secular rather than religious texts. But could the theological significance of the words that meet you as you enter from the car park be entirely accidental? Posted by Picasa

Side chapel - baptistry, perhaps

As with many large churches and cathedrals, there are rooms off to the side of the main sanctuary. In addition to the shops, there are smaller halls, alleyways and exits to the car parks. This is one of the more dramatic ones - it leads to the multi-screen cinema and one of the eating areas. Posted by Picasa

In the side chapel

Inside the "Water Circus", there are statues - definitely secular, though the actual theme is a bit obscure. Posted by Picasa

Statues of tradespeople

The freemasons - the semi-secret men's society - possibly came to have its significance in society as a consequence of the involvement of the masons with the church in working on cathedrals and so on. All sorts of trades are commemorated in statues close to the ceiling in the southern section of the mall. Posted by Picasa

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Kitzmiller versus Dover

If you are interested in creationism/ID/evolution, you may well be aware of the court case that is happening in Pennsylvania at the moment. A school board is seeking to have a statement read out to high school biology students asserting that evolution is only a theory, and that there are alternatives. This is not a position supported by the ID community, but the challenge comes from plaintiffs supported by the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), who are arguing that it violates the separation of the state and religion.

On her blogsite, Denyse O'Leary suggests that the mainstream media will not have enough background knowledge to provide informed commentary to the case - although I noticed a helpful introductory article in the Guardian earlier in the week (warning! the Guardian website made my Netscape browser fall over lots of times - even in IE Display mode). She recommends instead NCSE for commentary from a darwinian perspective, and the Evolution News blog for a pro-ID perspective.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Deer in the garden

We back on to old woodland. It is greenbelt land - which means that in theory it is protected. However, it is owned by building developers, and I'm sure it's only a matter of time before they start pushing that notable lover of the green and pleasant home counties, John Prescott, to convert it into a multi-storey car park.

Aaaaaanyway, in the meantime, deer live in the woods. It was quite startling the first time we discovered that one of them had made her way into the garden. This was a mature doe - and it is completely unexpected in what is effectively suburbia (albeit on the fringes) to discover a wild mammal of that size in your garden. Foxes, yes - in fact I suspect that some foxes have their holes under the pile of garden waste at the top of the garden. But not deer.

They have appeared on a more regular basis. In the spring one showed up, which was quite nice, but she ate all the heads off our tulips before they came out. We don't have many beautiful flowers in our garden (sorry, previous inhabitants!), so it was a little disappointing to have our "spring show" wiped out, even by so elegant a mammal. A doe and another deer we assumed was her offspring showed up a few weeks ago. They are partial to the windfall apples, and we assumed they were eating blackberries from the brambles, but in actual fact they don't seem to have touched them.

The baby deer appeared on its own yesterday - very fearless - and came to within 15 feet of the house, looking for things to munch. A couple of photos are below.

Under the apple tree

Deer seem to eat most things in the garden, including windfall cooking apples. Posted by Picasa

Baby deer on the patio

This photo was taken from inside the house - rather than editing it out, I have left the reflection on the patio windows in the right of the picture! Posted by Picasa

Saturday, September 24, 2005


Proponents of ID are often accused of facile argument along the lines of: "How did such and such happen? Easy! ID! Poof!" The actual process set out by ID proponents is a process whereby the presence of a phenomenon can be provisionally (because new explanatory mechanisms may become apparent) but reliably (because of the improbability of something arising through alternative mechanisms of chance or regularity) categorised as having been designed. In other words, an inference of design is the opposite of a "Poof!" argument.

On the other hand, evolution by and large works using "Poof!" arguments. Take this quotation selected from the first website I navigated to having Googled "Evolution feathers."
Many characteristics that typify birds were present in the theropods before birds evolved, including hollow bones, a wishbone, a backward-pointing pelvis, and a three-toed foot. In the course of theropod evolution, the forelimbs and hands became progressively longer. In some theropods, the bones of the wrist took on a shape that allowed the joint to flex sideways. This would have allowed these animals to whip their long hands forward in a swift snatching motion, perhaps to catch prey.

Notice the use of "Poof!" arguments here - "the forelimbs and hands became progressively longer" - "the bones of the wrist took on a shape that allowed the joint to flex sideways." Are these scientific arguments? No, they are just guesses about large-scale physiological changes. What changes to genes, or new genes, would this have required in evolutionary terms? What would have been the selective advantage of small modifications? At what point was the differentiation been sufficient to constitute a speciation event from progeny in which the gradual modification had not occurred? Who knows? It's just - "Poof!"

Evolutionists argue that creationists and ID'ists use "Poof!" arguments in the field of philosophy and theology as well. "Who designed the designer?" "If God is good, why is there evil in the world?" - the creationist/theist/ID response, they assert is little more than "Poof!"

And yet it struck me that, whereas the presence of evil is explainable in a theistic framework (read about "Theodicy" - here is a link to get started with), it actually constitutes a significant problem to people who have an atheistic framework.

Take the holocaust, or the Killing Fields of Cambodia - or any of the many other human atrocities of the last century. How could God allow that to happen? This is a serious question, and certainly there isn't an easy answer. But Christians throughout the ages have struggled with these questions and come up with responses that are intellectually coherent.

But imagine now that there is no God. We are just as Dawkins or any of the other darwinian fundamentalists are - just the product of time and change - gene machines. What difference does it make if one gene machine decides to destroy millions of others? In objective terms, none at all. In fact, darwinism rationalises behaviour like this all the time - see here for example. People will talk about the evolutionary advantage of society, co-operation and philanthropy - but the bottom line is that these are completely arbitrary - they are made up to explain observations, with little scientific basis. In other words, they are "Poof!" arguments.

Creationists and ID'ists have little to fear from charges of "Poof!" argumentation. But darwinists need to seriously think about getting their own house in order.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Who believes what?

Opponents of Intelligent Design are keen to portray ID as a version of creationism - "creationism in a cheap tuxedo", "stealth creationism", or most simply "Intelligent Design Creationism". This labelling has been resisted by both the ID community and the creationist community - fundamentally because it wasn't true. What defines one is not what defines the other. However, opponents of ID know that the label "creationist" is, like "fundamentalist", "liberal" or "fascist", simply one that is designed to invoke stereotypes, thus closing down debate. Even those who understand the difference between creationism and ID (Type I Darwinist Critics) are happy with the rhetorical value of this device.

However, a paper has been written by Marcus Ross in the Journal of Geoscience Education(available here - warning, this is a large file) which clarifies the differences not only between ID and creationism but also between various different beliefs in the origin of the universe. It identifies some of the problems of categorisation that were present in previous attempts to categorise belief. It proposes a "nested hierarchy of design" - a cladistic approach of categorising people according to their beliefs in various statements relating to the nature of the universe. This is a very helpful paper: it makes clear that the nature of an individual's religious beliefs is not directly connected with the quality of their science (which reinforces the fact that for ID opponents to try and get the ID community to "name the designer" is not a valid form of argument); it also ought to provide a basis to help dialogue and reduce tensions between educators, students, the public and journalists.

Of course, this is exactly not what ID opponents want. They are quite happy with ambiguity and lack of clarity. As with Darwinism itself, clarity simply exposes the weakness of their arguments.

However, science being what it is, it ought to now be necessary for ID opponents to first refute Ross's paper before arguing that ID and creationism are the same thing. If they don't, they now will not only face the charge of being unfamiliar with the arguments of the ID community and creationists, but also of being ignorant of published literature.

Hmm. Can't see it happening, somehow.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Enrichment by Leigh Nash

This is IMPORTANT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I discover I have a link on - "Other blogs I peruse occasionally" - well, since I am a stranger, I am as always honoured to be mentioned! Probably more than I deserve - as I approach the anniversary of this blog, I find I'm hardly inspiring even myself.

But what is far more significant than my ego is that she has a link to Leigh Nash's webspace - and reports that Leigh will have a solo album next year. There are demos at Leigh's place.

For those people who don't know who Leigh is, see my post here. And then get hold of Divine Discontent, Sixpence None the Richer, This Beautiful Mess and The Fatherless and the Widow.

Now, what's happened to Matt Slocum?

Chapter 11 and state aid

There is an old adage in the aviation industry: if you want to make a million pounds, start with ten million, and run an airline. The aviation industry has lost quite staggering amounts of money since 2001, as a consequence of the threat of terrorism, SARS, high fuel prices and sundry other problems.

Actually, this isn't entirely true. It would be more precise to say that the aviation industry in North America has lost loads of money. Across the world as a whole, the industry has not fared too badly. But what this hides is the variety of financial performance.

In North America, the biggest four players in aviation - American, United, Northwest and Delta - are all in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, having probably lost more money between them than the rest of the industry has made. This means that they can continue to operate but being protected from their creditors. Which means in turn (in effect) that they can ignore their liabilities. In the meantime, airlines like Southwest are bucking the trend by making money and expanding.

In Europe, the days are finally passing when state airlines can be bailed out by their government. The major casualty in this regard so far is Sabena - the Belgian national airline - which made a profit in one year out of over 50. Swiss continues to try and repackage itself out of financial danger; other notably vulnerable airlines are Alitalia, Olympic (which has also never made a profit, I believe) - I understand that the status of payments made to these two airlines are currently being investigated for their legality - and Cyprus Airways. To get some idea of how bad the industry in Europe has been, Air France was given a "one-time" payment at one stage, I believe, that amounted to £5 for every person in the European Union.

However, in difficult times, although across Europe as a whole airlines are roughly breaking even, what is really happening is that there are a stack of airlines that are making significant losses whilst other airlines (British Airways, Ryanair, Easyjet) make healthy profits.

So the playing field is far from level. North American airlines are allowed to continue operating, preventing competition in key market places (one such being flights between the US and Heathrow, for example), whilst actually failing to make money but being protected from the consequences of this. European state airlines (though less so now) have inefficient practices but are still able to use their privileged position to stifle competition. It is hardly surprising that the success stories in the industry have carved out new markets for themselves, given the stranglehold that the legacy operators had over the existing ones. Of course it is important to have mechanisms to protect jobs - union agreements, bankruptcy laws and so on - but these laws weren't ever meant to prevent efficient companies competing with companies that were unable to be competitive.

Caught in the middle are independent airlines - unable to get fair access to the markets that they know they can make money on. The list of airlines that have failed in the last four decades is long. For the most part, it wasn't due to any particular flaw in their business model, except for the fact that they assumed that there might be a level playing field.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Cheap cigarettes

I never understood why people would want to buy friends and relations cheap, duty-free cigarettes. "I don't smoke, but Auntie Flo does, so I could get 200 B+H for her. It's only fifteen quid."

They must really dislike them.

"I know you have tendencies to self harm. I bought you a cheap gun; why don't you go and kill yourself?"

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Emerging Church

A friend has lent me the book "emergingchurch.intro" by Michael Moynagh. I haven't got far with it yet, but there are already comments that I want to make about it!

Firstly, doubtless traditional churches do need to learn things. They need to make sure that it is only the message of the gospel that people object to: they are not put off by - for example - not being able to understand what we are saying; feeling self-conscious about singing in public; and so on.

However, Moynagh faces the issue of postmodernism at best with ambivalence, when from a Christian point of view, postmodernism needs to be rejected. Moynagh seems to argue that since we live in a postmodern society, we need a gospel that is postmodern-friendly - that accepts the fact that truth is relative and personal, and so on. But postmodernism isn't even able to properly support itself! - is the statement "all truth is relative" objectively or subjectively true? It clashes with what the Bible says about God and truth - that God is really there, and that his revelation is absolutely true - in a sense more true than anything in our own experience. The elevation of subjective truth over what the Bible asserts is objectively revealed truth is incompatible with what the Bible says - in Bible terms, it is effectively idolatry - the subject creates and worships a god in and of their own imagination.

Also, the concern expressed for churches to "fit in" culturally (by having coffee-shop churches etc.) misses the point that the gospel is by definition culturally unacceptable. In 1 Corinthians, Paul acknowledges that the gospel - and specifically how it is presented - is regarded as foolishness to Greeks, and offensive to Jews. But that didn't mean that his style of presentation changed. In fact, in a sense, the whole message of the gospel runs counter to the culture. The salvation that God offers in the gospel isn't "credible", it is outrageous; to imply that the gospel is somehow "cool" is to offer something that is not the gospel.

Finally, the whole idea of people finding a church that suits them - of churches offering a variety of styles of worship, for example, for people to pick one that they are happy with - misses what the New Testament teaches about the nature of church. Churches are environments in which there are no divisions - male/female, Jew/Greek, slave/free, presumably young/old. All are redeemed on the same basis; all are given gifts for the edification of the whole body; all uphold one another. If people go to a "church" that only has people that are like them in it, they are not going to a New Testament church.

This book may not be a formal statement of the theology of Emerging Church. I don't know enough about it yet to know. I promise to keep learning. But if it is, there is cause for concern!

Monday, September 12, 2005

The Ashes

So England take the Ashes from Australia, for the first time in 18 years. In the first four test matches, England lost one, drew one, and won two. They needed least a draw from the last match, which they achieved this afternoon, to win the series 2-1 overall.

Regardless of the result, the three middle matches were amazing. In all three, the result was in the balance right to the end of the match, resulting in sustained drama being played out over several days. (For the sake of any people who don't have their roots in the British empire, I ought to explain that a cricket test match runs for up to five days. I won't try and explain the rules - either seriously or humorously.) Most informed commentators - including the iconic but now-retiring Richie Benaud - regard this test series as one of the classics - and who would I be to disagree?

What's more, the spirit in which the cricket has been played has also been outstanding. There has been plenty of defiance, and obviously if the tension didn't get to the players from time to time, you'd have to wonder if they hadn't been taking it seriously enough. (For what it's worth, I am inclined to agree with Ponting and the Aussies that the British team were abusing the spirit of the game to some extent with their use of substitutes). However, the relationships between the teams have been evidently good; the players have commented articulately and sensibly about the play in the newspapers; and both sides have been excellent ambassadors not only for cricket, but for sport and sportsmanship.

Compare this to the fiasco of English football at the moment. The private lives of some of the players and managers have too much prominence, and the expectation of some of the players seems to be that their importance means that they can ignore fundamentals like working in a team. We have an outstanding bunch of footballers - who have lost to Denmark, barely beaten Wales and lost to Northern Ireland.

I'm not terribly engaged by sport - I think that this is the first post in about 170 that makes reference to it at all. But if overpaid prima donnas start to become less noteworthy in the public gaze than people who value the ethos of sport for its own sake, then perhaps I will write more.

Website building

The number of posts has dropped off somewhat over the last couple of weeks, as I have been working on the Carey Family Conference website. It isn't finished yet, but it is substantially more finished than it has been up to now.

The requirements for the website were:
  • to have a forum

  • to have a photo gallery

  • to have user registration

  • to be able to display news and information

  • There were other "would likes", as well:
  • the ability to host and download files

  • some games

  • blog hosting

  • a list of links to websites

  • There are things called CMS's - I think it is short for "Content management systems" that provide some of this functionality - many of which are free or open-source. So I spent some time exploring these. The one that is running now, MKPortal, is the first one that a) met these requirements b) I managed to install and c) was comprehensible when I tried to do anything with it - and so it is my recommendation.

    Of the others:
  • mambo came close (it actually installed!) but the interface was so non-intuitive and the documentation so poor that I couldn't use it.

  • Two ASP.NET CMS's - DotNetNuke and Community Server looked really promising but I couldn't get the database access to work. I suspect that might have been a problem with the ISP I am using (ASP User incorrect access) but really without control of the server, these were just too much like hard work.

  • Several other PHP systems were pretty good, but just didn't do the job for one reason or another. I looked also at XOOPS and a couple of others. Here's a website that has information about lots of open source PHP CMS's - but it didn't have MKPortal.
  • Wednesday, September 07, 2005

    "Coming up roses ... or so they tell me."

    A (metaphorical) prize to anybody who spots the reference. Here's one of the verses:
    Make it plastic, make it pay,
    Use it up and throw away,
    Buy another just the same,
    More or less.
    It goes back a surprisingly long way - to the mid 80's. It was some years later - in about 1992 - that we bought our washer/dryer. It has done pretty well - we have had it repaired several times. The dryer went wrong again at the start of the summer, and as the prospect of rainy days increases, we thought we ought to get it sorted out.

    The friendly local engineer who has come out to fix it for the last few years said that he hoped he might be able to get a new motor from a wholesale parts dealer - who is going out of business - though if the dealer goes out of business, he said, then the engineer would probably find himself stacking shelves in a supermarket. How come his business was so vulnerable?

    Well, when we bought our washing machine, they were substantially more expensive. It was the cheapest washer/dryer we could find, and we paid (I think) about £370 for it - today, a cheap washer/dryer costs around £300; a cheap washing machine costs around £200. So they have come down in price. They aren't built to last, any more - a new one would have an expected life of around two to three years. Electronics are cheap, so they tend to be largely full of black boxes rather than real electrics, and motors are riveted into place, and so expensive to replace. Metal cases are thin, and sharp edges are left exposed. Net result: a repair to a washing machine now costs almost as much as a replacement washing machine - which of course is exactly what the manufacturers want. Washing machines have moved from being a consumer durable to a "small appliance" along the lines of a toaster or a kettle. In addition to which, insurance policies pick up the tab in lots of repair cases - so the amount of business available to the traditional "repair man" - and supporting traders - is diminished by that as well. The engineer said that he wouldn't even bother going to repair a new Indesit in most cases - once the cost of a callout and a replacement black box were counted, the owner might just as well buy a new machine.

    People wonder why modern consumer electrical goods don't last as long as the old ones - after all, you'd intuitively think this was progress, wouldn't you? But in fact, from the manufacturers' point of view the opposite is the case. Things have to work indispensably well for two days longer than the warranty lasts, and then fall apart and be beyond the cost of economic repair.
    Out of sight is out of mind,
    for disposable mankind,
    what a waste.

    Tuesday, September 06, 2005

    Development of language

    David Berlinski (author of amongst other things A Tour of the Calculus) is, I understand, no particular friend of Christianity. However, being unconvinced about the sufficiency of darwinism as an explanatory mechanism for what we see, he has chosen to align himself with proponents of Intelligent Design, and he is a senior fellow with the Discovery Institute. In this article, considering a paper by Chomsky, Hauser and Fitch published in Science, he is starting to add another thread to the argument.

    Chomsky and his collaborators have been looking at the development of language, and have noted the difference between humans and all other animals. Even the most intelligent chimpanzees – which, as have been noted, share in excess of 96% of human DNA – only learn relatively few words with a great deal of effort. Humans have a built-in ability to develop language such that a young adult human may have a vocabulary of 60,000 words and more significantly a grammar that allows the expression of an infinite range of concepts.

    Three components are required in animals, according to Chomsky, for language to appear. The first two arise in many animals – they are a sensory motor system and a conceptual intentional system. The third is a recursive system, which allows an organism to move from imitating sounds to constructing a grammar that allows the generation of an infinite range of sentences and ideas. Whilst Chomsky et al are happy to come to the conclusion that, although this is apparently uniquely present in the human species, they argue in effect that it was just a lucky evolutionary fluke. Berlinski argues that the appearance of this recursive facility is effectively "irreducibly complex".

    From a Christian perspective, this is an interesting analysis. The Bible talks about humans being made "in the image of God", and various people have spent considerable time trying to understand what that might mean. Communication and relationship have certainly been considered to be part of this image. The fact that the Christian God is "three in one" - that within a single God, there are three persons in relationship – has been suggested by Christian philosophers such as Francis Schaeffer to be what underlies the fact that humans also live in relationship and are able to communicate. If the Christian God did not have different persons, then communication as it is known uniquely amongst human beings would not be possible. It is interesting to see again that key Christian concepts – in this case, the unique status of humans amongst animals – are being brushed on in scientific circles.

    It also links with the comments I made in an earlier post, relating to the difference between data, information, knowledge, wisdom and truth. I referred to the fact that each level, with the exception of truth, represents an organisation of the lower level. Computers are only able to take us so far in the organisation of data – which is what I said would prevent Google from ever becoming "god-like". This idea of a recursive mind being uniquely human would allow us to make a bridge between the "particular" information that is all we (and for that matter animals) are capable of observing in the world, and "universal" truth, which is what we sense underlies the nature of the universe and the particulars that we see(including our pursuit of such things as scientific laws), and which Christians would understand is revealed by God.

    Let the science do the talking

    It is always important to distinguish between science and opinion. ID – or to be more accurate, inferring intelligent design – is a scientific process. It uses analytical mechanisms that are open to consideration – and refutation – by other scientists. It is provisional, reproducible and falsifiable – it is open to the possibility that an inference of design may be overturned if new evidence comes to light.

    Evolutionists are keen to get ID proponents to say who they believe the intelligent designer is – because they think that if the ID proponents admit that they believe in God, this will somehow invalidate their arguments, by removing them from the realm of science and placing them in the realm of religion or philosophy. However, the process of concluding that design is present is independent of who or what the purported designer is. We know that Stonehenge was designed, even though we don't know who the designers were or what it was built for. The presuppositions of the proponents of ID certainly lie in the realm of opinion. But this does not affect the validity, or otherwise, of their scientific conclusions.

    In many posts on this blog, I have ended up supporting an Intelligent Design argument. This I would understand to be a conclusion that is scientifically supportable and refutable – even though comparatively little effort has been expended by the opponents of ID to produce arguments in the mainstream of scientific debate that would refute it. Far more ink (real and digital) has been spilt trying to establish that ID is in fact part of creationism.

    As an evangelical Christian, my own presupposition is that there is an infinite-personal God, who brought the universe into being and who continues to oversee it. From time to time (relating to the Privileged Planet and the development of language, for example - see the next post!), I have related the scientific conclusions of ID to my own worldview. Unlike inferences of design, I would not regard this as science, but opinion. This sort of analysis is, in the sense that it is built upon my own presuppositions (however reasonable and coherent I believe them to be!), "speculative" and not part of science.

    Methodological naturalism – which I understand to be something along the lines of conducting science on the basis that there is no such thing as an external agent – and philosophical naturalism – the prior assumption that there is no external agent – are confused by many people in the evolutionist camp with science, or being necessary for the discipline of science. On a day-to-day basis for most of science, this isn't a problem. Designer or not, the universe behaves according to laws. It is possible to determine G, or the outcome of a reaction between two molecules, or what a hybrid of two species will look like independently of whether you believe that gravity, electromagnetism and DNA require intelligent agency.

    However, the belief that there is nothing "outside the system" is not science – it is an opinion. In historical terms, it is probably even a minority opinion – most of the founders of modern science operated believing in "uniformity of natural causes within an open system" rather than a "closed system", and believed that not only God but also human reason are agencies that "transcend the system". To put it another way, pursuing science on the assumption that there is nothing "outside the system" doesn't prove that there is nothing outside the system.

    Believers in a "closed system" – who pursue science based on methodological naturalism – need to understand that their own presuppositions are neither more nor less relevant than those scientists who believe in an "open system". A scientist who believes there is no God would be infuriated if he was told that his research was invalid because of his religious beliefs. It's hardly surprising that scientists who believe that there is a God find it profoundly frustrating when their beliefs are used to undermine the validity of their research. And (please note, Science, Scientific American, New Scientist, Nature, newspapers) it's pretty poor science journalism that can't see that science isn't bound by a particular philosophical perspective.