Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Brief review of "God's Undertaker" - John Lennox


In an ideal world, people would read books that they disagreed with. The books would be so persuasive that people would change their minds, and the population would move quickly to an intellectual synthesis which worked.

In the real world, people simply don't read. Those people who do read, read books which they agree with, and then chuck them at friends who either also agree (which at least makes them feel a little better about the world in general), or other friends who don't agree, and who don't bother reading the books, or who if they do remain unconvinced.

However, there is value in reading a book which reflects your own position, as I discovered when I read Lennox's book. Of course, I was already convinced that anything other than atheism wouldn't lead to the end of science as we know it. I was also convinced that miracles and so on weren't a problem to science, but that naturalism had serious problems in various areas. Lennox in this book rounds up much of what has happened roughly since the death of Carl Sagan, with the many contributions to the naturalism/theism debate being given weighting in his text roughly in accordance with their significance. The conclusions that he comes to, and defends, correspond pretty much with where I had ended up - so part of the value of reading a book that I agree with by an intellectual heavyweight was being encouraged that the conclusions I had come to were intellectually defensible.

If you are undecided, or if you are convinced by The God Delusion (why?? It has been taken apart!! Not one brick of his argument has been left on top of another!) then this is probably as good a single-volume case for theism in science as you are likely to get. But, of course, you won't read it.

40,000 visits

A visitor from Mountainview in California became the 40,000th viewer of this blog (it's probably fair to say that in excess of 32,000 of those visits may have been me...). I don't know how they found it, or what they were looking for. However, thank you for stopping by, along with everybody else who has read any of my ramblings from the last 5 1/2 years.

The death of tactical voting

I strongly agree with the Liberal party that the current electoral system has served the interests of the Labour and Conservative parties to a much greater extent than it has benefited the electorate. This has reached the stage now where, since both Labour and Conservative are pitching themselves as close to the midstream of the voters as they dare without alienating their sources of funding, it actually doesn't make a great deal of difference whether Labour or Conservative are elected. From that point of view, the Liberal party do represent something different - a party which, as far as I can tell, is grounded in ideology (even if from time to time their ideology doesn't sit comfortably with me) rather than trying to simply stand as close to the centre of the mainstream as they can.

As Labour and Conservative have become more similar, their campaigning has become (in my opinion) more slight, negative and irrelevant. Lacking anything of substance to offer themselves, for much of the time they simply point to caricatures of their main opponent. "We are the mainstream," say the Conservatives, "we support the values that you, the voter, support. If you re-elect Labour, you will elect a socialist monster which has the values of the unions - big government, high spending, state control." Well, true - but that's all there already, and the likelihood of the Conservatives politically being able to do anything substantial to change that is pretty small. "We are the mainstream," say Labour, "we support the values that you, the voter, support. If you elect Conservative, you will elect a capitalist monster that is indifferent to the individual, that will cut spending and serve the interests of the rich." Well, true - but that's all there already, and the likelihood of Labour actually managing to do anything substantial to change that is also pretty small.

It has been a shock to both of these parties that the Liberal party should have started to appear to be a viable alternative. It took the presentation of the three parties next to each other in the TV debates (most significantly the first one), to make it obvious that the Liberal party had a different approach to the other two parties. This has been the case for years - the Liberal party has tended to have a larger number of members ideologically committed to it than the other two, who operate a lot more on the basis of tribal/cultural identity. But only in the last few years has the Liberal party seriously looked able effectively to wield the influence that it will hopefully be able to following May 6.

So the electorate are being encouraged by the Liberals to vote for their hopes and beliefs, rather than against the party they don't want. And a much larger number of people are prepared to give that perspective a fair hearing - the clash between red and blue seems clearly sterile and more about party interests than care for the electorate. There is also the issue that the larger the percentage of the popular vote that the Lib Dems are able to collect, the greater should be their ability to influence the parliamentary agenda as part of a coalition - over matters such as electoral and ethical reform, which have the power to properly engage the public with politics again.

One of the oddities about what has happened, though, is that locally, the Liberals are encouraging similar sorts of behaviour that they are challenging nationally. "Don't vote for Labour," their material says, "it's a wasted vote in Surrey. Vote for the party that has a chance of beating the Conservatives." If you are a Labour supporter here, you should vote for the Liberal party as this gives you the best chance of getting rid of the Conservative MP. Don't vote for who you want, vote against who you don't want....

Friday, April 23, 2010

Happy Shakespeare Day

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone, besmear'd with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword, nor war's quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
'Gainst death, and all oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
You live in this, and dwell in lovers' eyes.

Sonnet 55

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The "old politics" of a hung parliament

David Cameron has decided to attack the Liberal Democrats, currently resurgent in opinion polls (see here for various relevant posts) on the basis that a vote for them would bring back the old politics of a hung parliament.

The first thing that's worth pointing out is that if the electorate decide that the Liberal Democrats have a serious chance of forming a government, it is quite possible that they will do so outright. Part of the reason that people have historically been reluctant to vote for this party is because, in a "blue/red" world, it can be regarded as a wasted vote. The last few elections have seen this gradually changing - the LibDems look a lot more viable as a mainstream political party starting from a baseline of 60 seats than they did in 1992, with 22 seats.

In any case, I have to say that the idea of a hung parliament doesn't exactly fill me with dread. The "non-hung" parliaments we have seen since - well, let's say 1979 - have resulted in conservative political ideology eroding societal structures, and then labour political ideology increasing the size of government (and corresponding tax bills) like topsy. Assuming it is possible to form a government, a term of politics based on something approaching consensus, and with at least a large minority committed to probity in public life, sounds like a very nice idea, thankyou. I suspect that in the event of a hung parliament, Gordon Brown would thank his lucky stars and be prepared to sacrifice a great deal of the Labour agenda to have a crack at remaining Prime Minister. And after the election campaign has highlighted the flimsiness of the Conservative party, I suspect that when push comes to shove, Cameron would also think that a hung parliament would be a much better outcome than what he really fears, which is the Liberal Democrats becoming a genuine third party, the political equals of Labour and the Conservatives.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The ash cloud

The volcanic ash cloud has generated a lot of hot air and serious economic fallout, but few facts of substance. Given what we have heard in the media, I am not convinced that the decision to close airspace completely was based on scientific analysis, but rather a manifestation of "nanny state" and the fear of being sued.

We have been reminded repeatedly of the occasions in the last 30 years where aircraft have been affected by volcanic ash. Very serious incidents they were too - Boeing 747s with all engines shut down or damaged. It is certainly the case that aircraft should avoid significant ash clouds. But is it really necessary to shut all the airspace, at all levels, over whole countries, when any ash in the atmosphere is pretty diffuse? At what level of concentration does the ash represent a threat to aircraft engines? Bear in mind that following Mount St Helens, within two weeks the dust from the explosion had circled the earth. So there were measurable concentrations of ash in the atmosphere then. That didn't shut down the world's air traffic.

There are all sorts of threats and risks to aircraft. Aeroplanes can "fall out of the sky"* as a result of flying in cumulonimbus clouds - here's a reminder of the damage that can be caused by weather which wasn't as well avoided as it could have been. CB clouds show up on weather radar, if it is used properly - and pilots work their way around them. Volcanic ash doesn't show up on radar - but dangerous concentrations can be tracked, and the systems have existed for years whereby airspace can be closed dynamically by air traffic control. Similarly, cosmic background radiation and solar magnetic storms - even the Millenium Bug! - have an impact on aviation, but don't result in the wholesale shutdown of airspace.

I'm not saying the decision to close airspace was wrong. However, we have had little information of substance - safe concentrations of ash, what the concentrations actually are at the moment at different levels, anything more sensible than a hand-to-mouth closure of large swathes of airspace. The volcanic ash is being presented to the world not as something for which a proper risk assessment has been carried out, but as an unknown, out-of-control bogeyman. The media have lapped this up - queues at airports and train stations, disruption, cancelled holidays, phlegmatic travellers all make good airtime. But at some stage, someone is going to have to open the airspace again. And given the way it has been presented up to now, the response of an unnecessarily large group of people will be to say - "Hmm, I don't know. It doesn't look any sunnier now than it did when the airspace was closed. How can they tell it's safe ...?"
*Just to be clear, that is journalistic hyperbole. Aeroplanes fall out of the sky if they blow up or their wings drop off. People don't survive such events to write about them. So if you read about an aeroplane falling out of the sky, you should understand that somebody isn't really describing what happened. In the case of the BA 747 which "fell out of the sky" following its encounter with volcanic ash 28 years ago, it actually descended (albeit in terrifying circumstances, in darkness and turbulence) as it would on a descent to an airport from above 35000 feet to 12000 feet, I believe, before the crew managed to restart one of the engines.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Francis Collins and ID

Francis Collins is the director of the Human Genome Project - the project to provide a complete listing of the human DNA sequence, and identify and map the estimated 20,000-25,000 genes on human chromosomes. He is also a Christian, and has written a book called "The Language of God".

He describes himself as a theistic evolutionist. He argues (contra creationism, ID) that there need be no evidence of divine intervention in the universe after its creation. However (contra naturalism) there are aspects of the nature of the universe and humanity which are best explained by the existence of God (moral law, for example), and he considers a divine origin to be the best explanation for the existence of the universe as a whole.

He identifies ID as being distinct from creationism - although he points out that the roots of ID are tangled with creationism (yes, he mentions the notorious Wedge document). However, he argues against ID as being a more sophisticated "God of the Gaps" - the gaps being things like irreducible complexity and sudden appearance of species. He believes that, in the same way that early modern scientists regarded God as overseeing the regularity of nature in areas like mechanics, astronomy and chemistry, it is reasonable to believe that God has overseen the biological aspects of nature to bring about his purposes - that whilst science is very good at answering "how" questions, it has little to say about "why".

For myself, I think that although regularity can account for much of what we see in scientific terms, I would suggest that whilst the Genesis accounts don't set out to be a scientific explanation of what happened, they do speak of a series of divine creative events in the history of the universe. If pinned up against a wall and forced to say what I thought, I would argue that, although these are very vague and nebulous thoughts:
- day 1 represents the initial creative act - the "Big Bang";
- day 2 represents the transition from energy to matter;
- day 3 represents the move from "physics" to "chemistry", and "carbon chemistry";
- day 4 represents the configuration of the solar system;
- day 5 represents biogenesis;
- day 6 part 1 represents another subsequent creative act within the biotic sphere;
- day 6 part 2 represents a creative act which resulted in humans having their distinct "heaven/earth" nature.

In other words, I guess I am still plumping for ID, although the detail of the creative activity may be invisible in a very complex environment, so at this level of resolution, there's not much to choose between ID (the belief that intelligent agency is required to explain observed phenomena), creationism (the belief that there must have been a series of creative acts because the Bible says so) and theistic evolution (the belief that God oversaw natural processes to bring about his purposes).