Friday, December 30, 2005

Christmas message

See Matthew 1:1-6.

We went to separate performances of three separate Christmas productions for each of our three children. In all of them there were tinsel halo-brights (as our youngest called them for a while). There were angels – mostly but not always girls in long flowing robes – not so much the sort of angels that would terrify you – as they terrified Mary, Zechariah and the shepherds – but the sort of angels that would make you say, “aaaaahhh!” There were reluctant innkeepers. There were multi-ethnic wise men or kings from the east; there were shepherds, there were a variety of animals, and there was a doll in a crib with straw in it.

Such is the pattern of the preparation for Christmas. The effect of all this is that people think that Christmas is just for the children – or at best for parents. It's lovely to see children dressed up in sparkly clothes, and stumblingly reciting versions of the words that we half-remember from when we went to school – but really, it has nothing to do with real life – nothing to do with me – and it's a bit of a nuisance and I could really do with getting back to sort out the Christmas cards, make sure the oven's come on and open some more presents.

But the reality is that the Christmas stories are very grown up. There's the obvious fact that Mary finds herself pregnant when she is not married – we tend not to explain to our children what “virgin” means, even when in the school play we get a seven-year old girl to say, “how can this be, since I am a virgin?” Mary and Joseph are probably very young – Joseph is a carpenter, but he evidently doesn't have much in the way of resources yet – they can't afford to sacrifice a lamb when Jesus is born, only the minimum offering of two small birds. How many people and families do we know today who face financial difficulty as they start out? We live in an affluent area – a lot of people only get married when they have a house already, and only start a family when they have paid loads of money into investments so the children can afford to go to private schools. If we heard about people in Mary and Joseph's situation, we would probably roll our eyes, and think to ourselves, “Vicky Pollard types! Why can't they be more responsible?” They are just the sort of family that would have Daily Mail readers asking “What is this country coming to?” And childbirth – well, again, we tend to go straight from the innkeeper offering some space in the stable to Mary and Joseph standing by the crib with straw in – but childbirth is anything but a nice experience – it's not the sort of thing that you really want children to know the details of until they have to.

There's the fact that Palestine finds itself under the rule of an indifferent occupying power, the Romans, and Mary and Joseph travelling to Bethlehem is just one small example of this power's complete indifference to the welfare of its subjects. In how many countries today are there people living under the authority of oppressive regimes? How often do we hear about how military or security forces have behaved in indifference to the welfare of civilian populations around them? In how many countries are there insurgencies that, in their desire to get back at occupying powers or the legal government, aren't bothered if there are civilians who suffer at the same time? Iraq – Afghanistan – Somalia – Eritrea – Columbia – Indonesia. Northern Ireland – the Basque country – Northern Nigeria – Saudi Arabia. Mary and Joseph's political situation finds echoes in that faced by people around the world today.

And then there's King Herod – who is happy to use his power to ethnically cleanse a town if he thinks that it will do anything to wipe out a pretender to the throne. Troops are sent into Bethlehem to kill any boys under two years old – an act of apparently random and callous violence. But Mary and Joseph slip away to Egypt – and become asylum seekers or refugees. I don't suppose they were able to escape with much, I don't suppose they were able to find out much about their family whilst they were there, I don't suppose that they felt that they could really return to Bethlehem when they came back, and I don't suppose the lot of foreigners in Egypt was particularly pleasant when they were there – but they were safe from the tyrant who was seeking to kill them. Again, aren't refugees and immigrants part of our experience today? There are people everywhere who know that it would be difficult for them to return to their home country because of the hostility of the regime. We have other people who have come to this country with the encouragement of this country in search of a better and more secure life. But the same is the case all over the world – this is a world in which people are moving around in search of a more secure future – or escaping from vicious regimes – or in some cases just exploring – many people cut off from parts of their family, from their heritage, unsure what the future will hold in the long term.

So the world in which Mary and Joseph lived wasn't a world full of tinsel halobrights, sweet angels and farm animals that looked like children. It was a violent, politically complicated world, in which people had to do what they could to make the best of their situation. Jesus – Immanuel – God with us – doesn't step into the world in a particularly nice, safe era with cuddly sheep and a round of applause from the audience. God comes into the world in a hint of scandal, to a family that will seek political asylum from a nation that is subject to an indifferent empire and under the rule of a vicious, paranoid tyrant.

And when we look at those first few verses in Matthew, we find something surprising. We find from Jesus' family tree that this isn't the exception, but the rule. Four times, women are included in the genealogy – and in each case, there is a story of scandal.

Tamar – I won't go into detail, but this is a scandalous story – Genesis 38 – the bit we skip over when we are telling children the story of Joseph – which is pretty scandalous in its own right, but won't lead to quite the level of embarrassing questions that the story of Tamar will. And yet, there she is – an ancestor of Jesus – God brings about his purposes through a family scandal.

Then there's Rahab – the mother of Boaz, who is the father of Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of King David. Who is Rahab? Well, she's a prostitute – she lives in Jericho – but she realises that God is coming in judgement against the city, and she trusts that God is able to save and protect her. And through her faith in God, she becomes a part of the people of God, and she is given an inheritance with them in the land – and in fact becomes part of God's plan to send Jesus into the world. If you want to read her story, see Joshua chapter 2 and the end of Joshua chapter 6.

Then there's Ruth – the wife of Boaz. She's a Midianite – the Midianites were God's enemies – they were people that the Israelites weren't supposed to deal with. But we know already how Naomi and her husband and sons leave Israel to escape the famine that is God's judgement on the Israelites – and how Naomi returns, bitter with God, with just her Midianite daughter-in-law some years later – and yet how God restores their inheritance through Boaz the redeemer. If you want to read more, read the book of Ruth.

And then we have mention of the wife of Uriah. Uriah was the general of King David's army that he arranged to get rid of to cover up the fact that he was having an affair with Bathsheba, his wife.

These awkwards details of the Christmas story, then – the bits that somehow don't get mentioned in the school nativity plays – we find that they are echoes of what has already happened in the line of Christ. We have refugees, illegitimate children, foreigners where they aren't supposed to be, kings misusing their power and so on. They are all there in the first few verses of Matthew's gospel – they aren't inconvenient details in the story to be quickly skipped over, they are an integral part of how God is at work amongst human beings.

So what? What difference does it make?

Firstly, does Christianity have anything to do with real life? Is it just sweet stories for the kids? Is it just myths that we can keep them happy with, like Father Christmas, whilst we get on with the hard work of sorting out everything that happens over Christmas?

No, it's not. Christmas is about God becoming involved in humanity. God getting his hands dirty. How much does God care about us? Does he care for us only enough to do things that frankly a child could do? No. The Christmas story tells us that God cares so much about humanity that Jesus was born to Mary – with Mary and Joseph putting up with the raised eyebrows and pursed lips of disapproving onlookers, because they both knew how God was at work. Jesus was born to a race oppressed by a foreign power. Jesus spent time as a stateless person. Jesus – God, in human form, knew from the start what it was to not fit in – to be unwelcome in the world.

And of course, as he was God in human form, this unwelcomeness grew, and led ultimately to the world putting to death their creator. Jesus faced all the hostility that the world could throw at him – and yet he lived and died in obedience to his Father's will. God brought about his purposes in the teeth of the rebellion of humanity – facing both the indifference of the world and its deliberate hostility, God came into the world to pay the price for its sin, to redeem it and bring it back to him. And that's what we celebrate at Christmas – not the “real meaning” of Christmas as some sentimental experience – but God loving us so much that all the opposition of the world, from the time of Adam to the time of Jesus, wouldn't deflect him from his purpose of redeeming people.

And the Christmas story brings us up to date, as well. Because I'm not an innocent child, that people will say, “Aaaaah!” over. I don't have a halobright over my head, and neither do you. My life is a mess. Things have gone wrong in it. The Christmas story tells us that God is involved in the lives of real people, with real problems in personal, economic, and political spheres. And that is what the angels sang about.

Habitability redux

Of course, we cannot prove that the equivalent of our planet's animal life is rare elsewhere in the Universe. Proof is a rarity in science. Our arguments are post hoc in the sense that we have examined Earth history and then tried to arrive at generalizations from what we have seen here. We are clearly bound by what has been called the Weak Anthropic Principle – that we, as observers in the solar system, have a strong bias in identifying habitats or factors leading to our own existence. To put it another way, it is very difficult to do statistics with an N of 1. But in our defense, we have staked out a position rarely articulated but increasingly accepted by many astrobiologists. We have formulated a null hypothesis, as it were ... that life ... is out there, or that even simple worm-like animals are commonly out there. Perhaps in spite of all the unnumbered stars, we are the only animals, or at least we number among a select few. What has been called the Principle of Mediocrity – the idea that Earth is but one of a myriad or like worlds harboring advanced life – deserves a counterpoint. Hence our book.
This could have been part of the introduction to “Privileged Planet.” In fact, it's not – it's from the preface to the first edition of “Rare Earth” by Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee. They put forward the idea that the environment in which earth appears is uniquely adapted to the presence of complex life. (Or at least, that's what I understand – I haven't got into the book yet.)

Gonzalez and Richards, in “Privileged Planet,” do the same, but note additionally that the factors that make the earth well-adapted to life (habitability) also make the earth well-adapted as an observation platform for the rest of the universe. Since there is no apparent obvious scientific reason for this to be the case, they conclude that this is a significant property of the universe.

Many of the observations that are made in PP echo those in RE, and conversely, Ward and Brownlee mention the influence of Gonzalez on their thoughts. And yet, whereas a great deal of fuss has been made by parts of the scientific community about PP (though admittedly not at the level of published papers or books), I am not aware of any such reaction against what Ward and Brownlee wrote, despite its fairly direct rebuttal of the Principle of Mediocrity.


Powers of ten

People get shaky when they use powers of ten. I wanted to post a quick reminder about some details about how to do maths with them – which will hopefully also have the benefit of helping me to clarify some of my thoughts on the argument about specification.

10 is ten to the power of 1. 100 is ten to the power of 2. This can be written more concisely as 102. 1000 is 103. And so on. 10150 is 1 followed by 150 zeroes.

This works the other way, as well. 0.1 – one tenth – is 10-1. 0.01 is 10-2. 10-150 is zero, followed by a decimal point, followed by 149 zeroes, followed by 1.

If you want to multiply two powers of 10 together, you can add the superscripted value. Thus, 100x100 – 102x102 is 104, or 10000. This works regardless of the sign of the superscript. 1080x10-25 is 1055.

William Dembski says that the universal probability bound is 10-150. What he means by this is that a specified event that is less probable than this value will not happen by chance. Unspecified improbable events happen by chance all the times – for example, if I toss a coin 500 times, I will obtain a sequence of 500 heads and tails which has an improbability of arising of about 10-150. This is an unspecified event. But supposing I write down a sequence of 500 heads and tails, starting as follows:
- and then toss a coin 500 times and get precisely this sequence of heads and tails – this is now a specified event.

This value of 10-150 is based on the number of measurable time steps (Planck Intervals – if I remember right, this is the time it takes a photon to travel the width of an atomic nucleus) that will occur in the universe, multiplied by the total number of fundamental particles in the universe. In effect, what Dembski is saying is that if the probability of a specified event is such that if everything in the whole universe was doing nothing for the entire history of the universe other than trying to match this specified event, and it was still less than likely that the event would happen at random, then it is a specified event that is less probable than the universal probability bound – and in this case, that this specified event should have happened by chance is less likely than that it should not have happened by chance.

Go back to those coins. Imagine a sequence of 500 heads. The UPB says that, if I toss a coin 500 times in a row, and it comes up heads every time, then it is reasonable to rule out “chance” as an explanation. In this case, it is unlikely that we would persist for 500 tosses anyway; most likely we would give up after less than 20 and assume the coin was loaded or something sneaky was happening.

However, suppose that we have very fast computers that are producing genuinely random numbers. These could generate sequences of simulated heads and tails much faster than humans. If such a computer could do a million simulated “coin tosses” per second, then it would expect to generate a sequence of 20 heads once per second, since the probability of such a sequence arising by chance is roughly one in a million (10-6).

But the UPB says that no matter how many people you have tossing coins, no matter how many simulated coin tosses you have on computers, no matter how fast they are, you will never see a sequence of 500 heads by chance. If you do, it is more likely that there is something happening in the computer which has caused it to generate this specific sequence.

The same applies to monkeys writing Shakespeare. The perception has always been: “Well, if enough monkeys type quickly enough, then surely it's only a matter of time before Hamlet's soliloquy appears.” Okay, then, let's consider a brief excerpt.

I make that 141 characters, from a range of 27 (A-Z plus space, to give the monkeys as much of a break as possible). How many possible sets of 141 characters are there? The answer is 27141. That's around 10200. So the probability of this sequence of letters being typed at random is the reciprocal of this – that is, 10-200. No matter how many monkeys you have, how fast they type, or even how many times you get incredibly fast computers to generate 141 character strings at random, you will not see this specified phrase generated at random, because it lies beyond the universal probability bound, of 10-150.

Now, the subtle thing here is the relationship between 10-150 and 10-200. People look at these two numbers and forget what those superscripts mean. It doesn't sound that far from one to the other – people have in mind the 50 difference between the superscripts, and subconsciously think that with all that improbability, something that is only something like 50 times less probable is really neither here nor there – they aren't all that far apart.

But suppose a specified event has a probability of 10-151. That means it is ten times less improbable than something with a probability of 10-150. That means that you need 10 universes all doing nothing but trying out random events to get to the improbability boundary of the event.

Take Macbeth's words above. The probability of this string being generated at random is such that you need 1050 universes, all doing nothing but generating random strings throughout their history, for this string to be likely to appear.

So what's the point of this? Well, I suppose what I'm getting at is that specified information is special. You don't need much of it to leave any random process that could be conceived of in the universe floundering. And yet, there's a lot of it about.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Mind your language!

It is fun to watch how language develops in children, and the way that they make language work for them according to their own rules, prior to finding out what the actual rules are.

One of our favourite phrases from our eldest child was the whole phrase "look after" being used as a verb - as in: "Who's lookaftering us this evening? Jo lookaftered them after school."

Our youngest child today came up with a similar odd use of "left over" - "How much of the cream had you leftovered?" - i.e. "to leftover" is a verb, meaning to leave some over.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Faith and materialism

The Constructive Curmudgeon posted a link to this article, which makes the point that philosophical materialism is - as much as anytheism - a faith position. I am linking it here because I know this topic has engaged people who have read my blog.

Intelligent Design - is it Creationism?

New Scientist says so. The American Association for the Advancement of Science says so. My former Cambridge colleagues say so. Most of the mainstream media say so. A federal judge in the U.S. has just said so. In fact, there are times when it feels as though there are only a few people who don't say so. But is it so? Am I really just being awkward? Or is it genuinely possible for so many people to be wrong and me - and what seems like a handful of others - to be right?

Firstly, what are the definitions? Are Creationism and ID formally the same? draws in information from various sources, and has the following definition of creationism:
Belief in the literal interpretation of the account of the creation of the universe and of all living things related in the Bible.
Intelligent Design doesn't have a separate definition, but the first line of the encyclopaedia entry for it is:
Theory that some complex biological structures and other aspects of nature show evidence of having been designed by an intelligence.
This would seem to encapsulate the essence of it.

So is there a formal connection between these definitions? No. Intelligent Design has empirical observation as their basis ("show evidence"); creationism has as its basis the "literal interpretation of the account of the creation".

Fair enough. But what about functional identity? One was once supposed only to eat oysters when there was an "R" in the month - in other words, not from May to August. The reason for this was that oysters spawn in the (Northern!) summer. So there is a functional connection between things formally defined in completely separate ways - there not being an "R" in the month, and it being spawning season for oysters. Are ID and creationism the same sort of thing - formally separately defined, but functionally the same?

That could be established by determining whether, despite the different definitions, it was the same people who aligned themselves with ID and creationism. But this turns out not to be the case. Creationists don't believe that ID proponents are adequately grounded in the Scriptures. ID proponents, for their turn, refuse to accept that it is possible to do science research starting with Scripture as a fixed reference point. So there is no functional equivalence, either.

In fact, a much better categorisation of the range of beliefs regarding origins can be found in this paper by Marcus Ross that I have linked to before.

But why is there such a determination to label Intelligent Design as creationism, when a few moments' consideration make it clear that this is not the case.

There are two groups of people who do this - again, this isn't new. There's the people who do understand the nature of Intelligent Design, and wilfully misrepresent it as creationism. Nobody who has fairly read "Darwin's Black Box" by Michael Behe could reasonably argue that it has much in common with the output of creationist organisations such as the Institute for Creation Research. Similarly "The Design Inference" by William Dembski. Similarly "Privileged Planet" by Gonzalez and Richards. But by labelling such books as "creationist", it is possible for their opponents to shut down debate - not on the basis of the content of the books (which as far as I know continue to be unchallenged in terms of the content of their science and maths), but because "everybody knows" that creationists are religiously motivated and "everybody knows" that there is no connection between religion and science - and therefore these books can't be scientific.

The majority of people who class ID as creationism simply do so because they have been told by somebody else that ID is creationism. They don't actually know anything about it first-hand - they haven't evaluated it for themselves. But (perhaps) they read New Scientist (whose "Intelligent Design Special" was a fine example of poor reporting), and if New Scientist says it is so, then it must be so.

So where do we go from here? The Kitzmiller vs Dover judgement is, in a sense, irrelevant (although humiliating). A person who, one assumes from the tone of writing in his judgement, was already pretty committed to a naturalistic worldview, takes the opportunity to slate the Intelligent Design movement and prevent ID from being proposed as an alternative to evolution in school. However, the questions that led to ID are still there - how come the universe is fine-tuned, and how come there seems to be a link between the presence of intelligent life and the ability to observe the univere? how come there is so much specified information in the universe? how come so much in biology looks designed with no apparent mechanism that could bring it about? Judge Jones didn't answer those questions. He just said that ID was wrong, and evolution was the truth. Perhaps he assumed that the answers were "out there" and just hadn't made it into court. Well, he was wrong. There are no answers to those questions. That's why I continue to have an Intelligent Design worldview.

Is ignoring the problems raised from a materialistic worldview going to enhance science? Or will it encourage people to think that science is more concerned about orthodoxy and toeing the line? We wait to see.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Christmas Present Idea

The British National Formulary is the reference book that provides up-to-date guidance on prescribing, dispensing and administering medicines in the UK. Here is a link to the 50th edition.

It was something of a surprise when I saw that Amazon suggested people buying it might also be interested in the British National Formulary for Children. I mean, are any children really likely to want to read such a specialist publication?

How not to get into a relationship (of the wrong sort)

(PARENTAL ADVISORY again - though, given that on their own testimony, up to 90% of 16 year olds are sexually active anyway, it's children from about year 8 upwards who need to know this!)

So, following the post below, what would I suggest? As an evangelical Christian, I have my opinions on how relationships are supposed to work, and I think that if people lived according to this pattern - sexual relationships are for marriage - they would be happier. But I also realise that most people don't share those beliefs. So if people aren't prepared to accept the Christian pattern, then what in practical terms can they do to avoid the worst of the messed-up relationship experiences that seem to be so common?

Unless you really are looking for casual sex (which in itself will probably help to mess up any future relationships that you have) don't start a sexual relationship with somebody unless you really know them. These days, it is a lot less painful to get into such a relationship than it is to get out of it. Sex isn't fundamentally a "casual" act - it changes you psychologically, emotionally and physically. This is even assuming that you know how to avoid unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

It is a lie for somebody to say: "if you loved me, you would do this." If that person loved you, they wouldn't be pushing you to do something you didn't think was right.

Don't get into a relationship thinking that you will "change" the things you don't like about somebody. It is more common for relationships to break up with such things unchanged than it is for changes to happen.

Living together isn't a "trial marriage". The one thing that living together can't model is the one thing that is different about marriage - that it is supposed to be permanent. A marriage is more likely to break up if a couple lived together before they got married.

Finally, don't lie to yourself that your "heart" is more powerful than your "mind". You are in control of your actions.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

A substitute for carol singing

So far this year, we have had two lots of carol-singer substitutes call.

I don't know whether the idea of "carol-singers" is widely understood beyond England. Basically, as I understand it, people used to travel from house to house during evenings in the run up to Christmas. They would sing a carol (all of one - perhaps six or seven verses) then perhaps some verses from "We wish you a merry Christmas" - and for their time, they would be rewarded with something warming - perhaps (in the words of "We wish you a merry Christmas") some "Figgy Pudding".

The first lot of "carol singers" we have had are the Rotary Club. They have a kind of truck thing which has a mock up of Father Christmas's sleigh on the back. In addition to this, they have a PA system, through which they play recordings of a choir singing Christmas carols. The "outriders" (the Rotarians hunt in packs) go and knock on doors to collect the money, and point out to any children who may be resident that Father Christmas is afoot (in return for a donation to Rotary funds from the parents). The children are then supposed to look in wide-eyed wonder at the sight of the traditional Father Christmas accompanied by the sound of angelic trebles singing "I saw three ships come sailing in" or some other such carol that is now only sung on Christmas Carol CD's.

I have suggested to them in the past that I would be more willing to give them money if they actually sang themselves. To which their response was "Oh, no, you don't want to hear me singing." What I should have said was, "Yes, but that's not quite the point with carol singing." But I lost my nerve, and just coughed up my pound. There's a limit to what you can do to restore traditional Christmas values on your own.

The second lot of "carol singers" called last night. At about 9pm, we had a knock on the door - most people don't even bother opening the door at that time of night, I suspect. As soon as the door had started to open, I was regaled to five people (the oldest can't have been more than 17) singing "We wish you a merry Christmas" - just the chorus, somewhat out of tune - and then they lapsed into embarrassed, smiley silence, a small plastic tub with coins in held self-consciously in front of them. "Well done," I said, "are you collecting for charity, or just yourselves?" "For ourselves," said the oldest one, "and" - perhaps feeling that this sounded rather un-Christmassy, pointing at a young lad who must have been under 10 - "for the little one, so he can buy a present for his parents." "Yeah, right," I thought - and coughed up my pound. "Nice work if you can get it," I said to Liz after they had gone. "A pound for twelve seconds singing." "Would you have paid them two pounds if it had been six seconds?" she asked.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Street music

This post from the Witts reminded me of an experience we had. We were shopping when we only had one child (who was therefore less than 20 months old), but that one child was not happy - in fact, she had been making a loud fuss steadily for several minutes. In the street, a group of musicians were playing some fairly funky/folky/skiffly/Irish music - it wasn't easy to categorise. Anyway, our child was fascinated, and stopped making a fuss. So I stood there with her, listening to the music, whilst Liz finished the shopping. And then went and bought a cassette from them.

Some time after we got onto the Internet, it struck me that they were probably on it somewhere - and I found them after a short search. They had also progressed technologically, and I was able to buy copies of their CD's - which were just as much fun as the cassette had been.

The band was The Huckleberries. The cassette was "Live in the Garden". The CD's were "Reelgrass" and "Jigweed". And I see they have a new one now, called "Incahoots".

Monday, December 12, 2005

Seven things

From Tom

Seven things to do before I die (as the seconds tick away – tick, tock, tick tock [Bill Bailey])

1. Visit Patagonia
2. Write a novel
3. Play in an orchestra again
4. Plant a church
5. Become bilingual
6. See U2 in concert
7. Influence people

Seven things I cannot do

1. Sleep with somebody I’m not married to.
2. Play any sport at international level.
3. Play golf at any level.
4. Harm my children.
5. Say anything good about “The Family at One End Street” - the most tedious book I have ever read in my life.
6. Live my life again.
7. Put the toothpaste back in the tube.

Seven things that I like in my spouse/significant other/parents (apply in that order – unofficial expansion, for the sake of democracy and to get some revealing answers out of people who don’t have spouses)

1. She’s still here.
2.She will keep going when I run out of steam.
3.She likes me rubbing her back.
4.She understands me – and doesn’t give up in disgust.
5.Most of the time, she puts up with the fact that I don’t have the same awareness of when the house is untidy as she does.
6.She values what I value.
7.She looks lovely.

Seven things I say most often

1. Are you ready yet? (to the children)
2. Speed checked (– and similar – sorry, it’s a work thing)
3. My name’s Paul Fernandez and I’m your captain (work again)
4. Whereabouts do you live?
5. What did you do before you (do what you are doing now)?
6. What do you need me to do?
7. I just want to ....

Seven books (or series) I love (Bible not included)

1. Harry Potter by J.K.Rowling. Actually doesn’t really deserve first spot – good stories, but I think that most other entries on this list have changed my life, and I don’t think Harry has.
2. Lake Wobegon Days (plus spin-offs) by Garrison Keillor
3. Sophie’s World (... and if you can throw in the rest of the Jostein Gaarder collection, especially “Through a Glass Darkly” [even though I’m not sure I could bring myself to read it again – it is just too intense] that would be cool)
4. Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome
5. Francis Schaeffer Trilogy (The God who is There, He is There and He is not Silent, Escape from Reason)
6. The Dorling Kindersley series “Animal” “Earth” “Weather” “Universe” etc.
7. Darwin’s Black Box by Michael Behe

Seven movies I watch over and over again (or would watch over and over if I had the time)

1. Annie Hall
2. The Lord of the Rings
3. The Matrix
4. Minority Report
5. The Emperor’s New Groove
6. Lilo and Stitch
7. Dead Poets’ Society

Seven people I want to join in, too

This is tricky – most bloggers I know have already been hit by others – well, Tom, to be precise. So I’ll have to e-point various people who don’t have blogs to this post. If you want to set up a blogsite, then one way of doing it is to register at – they will host a blogsite for you free.


PS - I know it's cheating, but two/four more people - Rob/Vanessa and Jonathan/Amanda (except they've probably done it already)

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

"Come and see the violence inherent in the system"

The story so far.

Professor Paul Mirecki, at Kansas University, announced that he was going to run a course, entitled Special Topics in Religion: Intelligent Design, Creationism and other Religious Mythologies.

He backed this up with an email to a list server in which he wrote:
The fundies want it all taught in a science class, but this will be a nice slap in their big fat face by teaching it as a religious studies class under the category ‘mythology,’

Doing my part (to upset) the religious right, Evil Dr. P.
(He used stronger language).

It seems to have become apparent that this was inappropriate behaviour for a university professor, and he wrote an apology and withdrew the course - recorded here on Telic Thoughts.

And then he got beaten up.

Having been the victim of the sort of violence that Mirecki experienced - perhaps not quite as serious (I only had one assailant), though apparently Mirecki will live, I know what an unpleasant experience this is. It left me close to a nervous breakdown and had a major impact on my behaviour (I am of a sensitive disposition). There is never justification for this sort of behaviour. Period. It is loutish, unpleasant, and completely inappropriate in a civilised society. If the people doing it were doing it "in defence of Christianity", they did more to damage the cause of Christianity than could be imagined - look at this gathering of responses. He'd already apologised, for goodness' sake!

However, when I was beaten up, it wasn't because I had insulted anybody. It was just casual violence from a tanked-up local when I was a convenient student "target". If Mirecki had slagged off a local football team, it would hardly have been surprising had a couple of the fans caused him trouble. And yet, Christians are regarded as "fair game" today. They can be insulted, the things they hold holy can be derided, or mocked in art, they can be referred to as stupid, ignorant, evil child abusers simply because of their beliefs, and they are expected to put up with it. When they are seen to react (and I would point out again that this violent response was not a response from people who were acting in accordance with Christ's teaching), people say, "Aha! Now we see the fundamentalists' true colours coming out! Come and see the violence inherent in the system!" Anybody who made this sort of remark about Muslims would probably have a Fatwa issued against them; when a play that was regarded as "anti-Sikh" was put on in Birmingham, it caused riots. Just about anything that might be considered part of our Christian heritage is being "concealed" with more politically correct labels to make sure that nobody from any other faith could be offended. But one minor act of violence - unacceptable as it was - and all "Christian fundamentalists" are immediately classed as opponents of freedom of speech and tolerance. Hey, hang on! I didn't do this!

But this shouldn't come as a surprise. Jesus said, "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and say all manner of evil things about you." Opposition to Christian ideas isn't something new - because people are opposed to the Christian God. In "Rattle and Hum", Bono said in response to money-grabbing tele-evangelists, "The God I believe in isn't short of cash, mister." And neither does the God I believe in lack the ability to deal with people who wish to "break his chains".

Monday, December 05, 2005

"Where is the ID research?"

Intelligent Design (ID) is fundamentally a worldview, rather than something that is scientifically provable or disprovable in its own right. For that matter, so is philosophical naturalism (PN). So research can be interpreted in the light of ID - or PN - but because it is a metanarrative, in a sense it lies outside the realm of "provability". It is therefore no more valid to raise the question, "Where is the research that proves ID?" than to ask "Where is the research that proves PN?"

To somebody who has an ID worldview, evidence of the irreducibly complex nature of biochemical systems supports their opinions. For people who have a PN perspective, they KNOW that there must be a naturalistic explanation, so evidence that doesn't support their worldview must be flawed. What happens is that, as more evidence comes in, people have to decide whether the worldview that they have continues to provide an adequate explanation of the evidence. Eventually, if they don't believe their worldview is tenable any longer, they may change it. However, people have a great deal invested in their worldviews - it is not easy psychologically to change - and (for example in the case of phlogiston, the earth-centred cosmology, Newtonian vs Relativistic physics) may take something pretty convincing. One of the interesting phenomena about ID is that most of the people who subscribe to it don't seem to have arrived there from an originally creationist perspective, but because they have become convinced that evolutionary explanations aren't adequate.

I could work through a stack of papers, reinterpreting the research and writing new conclusions specifically on the basis of an ID worldview, or a naturalistic worldview, or a Young Earth Creationist worldview, or whatever. Not many papers have been written with conclusions that have a specifically ID perspective. The reasons for this are several. Firstly, ID faces opposition from the scientific mainstream, and so people who don't believe in PN may tend to shy away from research in areas where their beliefs will bring them into conflict with the rest of the department - particularly biology. A higher proportion of physicists aren't PN than biologists, and I think this is because biology as a discipline is so strongly committed to PN. The fact that many biologists don't have such a strong mathematical and statistical grounding as physicists may also have a bearing! Secondly, there is no reason why a scientist should court controversy and rejection by explicitly stating that he doesn't subscribe to PN in a paper if there's nothing in his research that is built on it - and except in evolutionary biology and cosmology, this is probably normally the case. I imagine that the hundreds of scientists who dissent from darwinism have papers to their names, but ID opponents would doubtless say that their research "doesn't support ID", because the conclusions of their papers don't make reference to ID.