Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Translation service

I have added the ability to use FreeTranslation to translate the pages on this blogsite - the control for this is on the right. I tried AltaVista's BabelFish but it generated errors. The Google translate feature would be more closely tied in with Blogger, but I couldn't see a tidy way of putting a box on the page that would centralise translation functions without having to write lots of code. However, when I have more time and if FreeTranslation doesn't work out, I may code in the Google version. We'll see.

STOP PRESS: Also, I have fixed the problem that was causing the right hand border to disappear to the bottom of the screen on some installations of IE.

Share and enjoy!

Monday, June 27, 2005

Childhood leukaemia

A child we have known since she was born has leukaemia. This is pretty awful. In terms of prognosis, it's probably as good as its possible to get, if one has to have it. But there's all sorts of things that it implies - like the medium- and long-term effects of both disease and treatment, the shock and strain on the family, the missing out of education, the fact that she will feel a lot worse before she gets better.

If you want to have a weep about such things, I'm sure there are no shortage of accounts of the impact of cancer that you could read. I'd recommend "C: Because Cowards get cancer too" by John Diamond. More obliquely, I'd recommend "Through a glass darkly" by Jostein Gaarder - who I really need to do a full post on alone, to talk about the fantastic books he has written.

For now, one further comment. Chemotherapy is fairly horrifying - the drugs that the parents are giving the girl are so toxic, they are only allowed to handle them with gloves - and yet the girl has to swallow them. Imagine what impact this has on a parent.

But on the other hand, how amazing it is that something that is so poisonous could save somebody's life. And how amazing it is that somebody once had the monstrous, glorious idea that this treatment might work ....

Sunday, June 26, 2005

A couple more ways of arguing against ID

A point made by a non-materialist can be dismissed by "Argument from Previous Refutation" - that point has already been dealt with. The fact that the argument against the point was incorrect, or ill-founded, is irrelevant - it is enough simply to point back to where the argument was made.

There is the "Argument Against Religion in Science" - as exemplified by the objection to "Privileged Planet" being shown at the Smithsonian. "Arguing that there must be an intelligent agency is a faith position." This shows ignorance of the fact that arguing that there isn't an intelligent agency is also a faith position - Carl Sagan's films were just as "religious" as "Privileged Planet", and yet there was no objection to showing them. It also shows ignorance that the basis for arguing for ID is actually analysis of evidence, not pre-supposition, whereas rejection (under any circumstances) of external agency is actually a pre-suppositional position, not a scientific one.

And there is the "Ignoring responses method of argumentation" - put forward arguments, ignore responses to them, and present the argument as won.

Cost vs quality - the capitalist conundrum

Finding the balance between cost and quality is key to a successful retail operation. It is possible to compose a mental map of how different UK supermarkets stack up on this basis. Waitrose would come out at the high-quality end, with Marks and Spencer. Sainsbury's would be beneath that, then Tesco's, and Morrisons and Asda would be the low-cost supermarkets. All appeal to different markets - and this is reflected in their advertising.

All else being equal, low-cost certainly appeals. However, in a poster campaign, Asda are advertising the UK's cheapest lemonade - 17p for 2 litres. (I think that's about $0.30 or 30 Eurocents for a half gallon/2 litres). Now personally, I would expect to pay more than that for the cost of packaging tap water [Coca-cola obviously expected people to pay substantially more, but let's not go there!], ignoring the cost of ingredients. So just what can the quality of the lemonade be like?! Personally, I have to say, I'd rather not go there either. In my book, prices can get so low that they are actually a deterrent.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

What is a hero?

Would you like to have a go at answering that question? Interpret it as you wish. I am interested in people's thoughts, to help me in preparing a couple of seminars. It is quite difficult to come up with a definition that covers all aspects of heroism.

My thought for a snappy definition would be something along the lines of: "A hero is somebody who does what is right regardless of the consequences." There is also the aspect of being a role model that isn't covered there.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

"Who designed the designer?"

At ID The Future, Jay Richards has written an essay in response to this question, which - as my comments on objections to his book Privileged Planet sought to - moves on into more metaphysical territory. I think he is saying that even agreeing to disagree on metaphysical claims isn't necessarily the end point of such discussion: we may end up at a point where we can see that one answer to metaphysical questions may be demonstrably more correct than others.

Some liberal Christians would argue against this approach. They argue, in effect, that God must only be known by faith; if anything gives me confidence in the existence of God, it actually undermines my faith. Denyse O'Leary gives an example of this in "By Design or By Chance?" - but I've lent my copy out, so I can't quote it verbatim. This is based on a mistaking of biblical faith for existential faith. Francis Schaeffer talks about this in "'Faith' vs Faith", which is an appendix to his book, Escape from Reason. The two words are the same, but they mean almost the exact opposite. Christian faith is reasonable, not irrational; it is faith in an object, not faith as an arbitrary feeling; it is open to verification. Schaeffer might have had confidence that it would be the case, but his theology looks more reasonable in the light of developments in science since his death.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Arguments against creationism and ID

What follows was posted on a shortlived blogsite, called "The Burning Panda". Actually, the blogsite lives again - evidently somebody at Panda's Thumb was so piqued that somebody might have a laugh in public at their expense that they rose to the bait and have made it into a mouthpiece. It should probably be called "The Castrated Panda" now, but there you go.

The author (pseudonymously known on Telic Thoughts as Commander) says of the blogsite:
We pulled the site after we got what we wanted. Basically to show that anti-teleologist's can dish it out but can’t take it themselves. It seems that someone from the panda's thumb already snagged the blogger.com user id as well.

Indeed. Anyway, with Commander's permission, here is what was written. It was too clever and too funny to disappear. For further information, please go to Telic Thoughts. Of course, I can't imagine why anybody at PT should be upset, given there is so little correspondence between these arguments and reality!

After surveying the literature over the past few months, I've compiled the best arguments against Intelligent Design and in favor of neo-darwinism.

1) The Monty Python Proof
1. Michael Behe is an intelligent design theorist who was seen at a church.
2. But only creationists go to church.
3. Michael Behe's a creationist! Burn him!
4. Therefore evolution is true.

2) The Argument from Really, Really, Really Big Bones
1. Some scientists found a bone.
2. It was a really big bone.
3. Manatees are really big but manatees don't have this bone.
4. The bone must have belonged to an older form of manatee that has now evolved.
5. Therefore evolution is true.

3) The Argument from Icky Things
1. There are moles on some people.
2. No designer would ever design moles.
3. Therefore evolution is true.

4) The Argument from Age of the Earth
1. Earth is 4.5 billion years old.
2. Therefore evolution is true.

5) The Either/Or Argument
1. If evolution is true then creationism is false.
2. Creationism is false because evolution is true.
3. Therefore evolution is true.

6) The Argument from Scientists
1. Scientists are perfect and never ever lie.
2. Scientists believe that evolution can explain everything.
3. Therefore evolution is true.

7) The Argument from Truth as Determined by Peer Review
1. There has never been anything published in peer-reviewed journals by ID theorists (Meyer, Dembski, Behe, Schaeffer, Thaxton, etc).
2. If it's never been published then ID is false.
3. Therefore evolution is true.

8) The Argument from Falsifiability
1. I.D. isn't real science because it isn't falsifiable.
2. Evolution is true and has falsified design.
3. Therefore evolution is true.

9) The Scotsman Fallacy of Antony Flew:
1. No scientist believes there is an Intelligent Designer.
2. Well, some do.
3. No REAL scientist believes in an intelligent designer.
4. Therefore evolution is true.

10) The Argument from a Hissing Feminist
1. Intelligent Design presupposes a patriarchal womanizer!
2. Well, as a feminist I can't tolerate that!
4. Feminist response- "Hiiiiiiiiissssssssssssssssssss!"
5. Therefore evolution is true.

11) The Argument from Computer Programs
1. A programmer wrote a program that he installed on a computer.
2. The code took written words and randomly placed them together, under certain programmed rules, to form complete sentences.
3. See? Random processes CAN create information.
4. Therefore evolution is true.

12) The Choo Choo Train Proof
1. A long time ago trains were fueled by wood.
2. Then they evolved and were fueled by steam.
3. Now trains are powered by electricity.
4. So trains have evolved by completely random processes!
5. Therefore evolution is true.

13) The "It's Our Only Hope" Proof
1. If intelligent design is true then everything will return to a theocracy.
2. Seriously, there will be witch hunts.
3. Children will be raised to believe in purpose! (oh dear…)
4. We can never let that happen! Help me evolution you're my only hope.
5. Therefore evolution is true.

14) The Evolutionary Modal Ontological Argument
1. There is a possible world where evolution can explain everything necessarily.
2. So evolution is necessary then.
3. Therefore evolution is true.

15) The Argument from Eyes
1. If dolphins have eyes and birds have eyes then evolution is true.
2. Dolphins have eyes and birds have eyes.
3. Therefore evolution is true.

16) The Argument of Ignorance
1. Intelligent Design theorists are ignorant.
2. I mean come on, how could anyone seriously believe that?
3. No really, how?
4. Therefore evolution is true.

17) The Argument Against Fancy Words
1. Intelligent Design theorists use really big words.
2. If they are using big words, then they are just trying to sound smart.
3. But if they are trying to sound smart, they really aren't smart.
4. Therefore evolution is true.

18) The Argument From The Crusades
1. Christians fought in the crusades and committed horrible atrocities.
2. Christians are creationists.
3. Intelligent Design is Creationism in a cheap tuxedo.
4. So Intelligent Design theorists are responsible for the horrible atrocities of the crusades.
5. Therefore evolution is true.

19) The Argument of Mistaken Vocational Identity
1. An Intelligent Design theorist called a biochemist a chemist once.
2. How can the ID theorist be so retarded?
3. Therefore evolution is true.

20) The Argument from Mystery
1. Intelligent Design takes the mystery from science.
2. Therefore evolution is true.

21) The "That’s Just The Way It Is" Argument
1. I wish there was purpose to life but there isn't.
2. I'm really sorry.
3. Therefore evolution is true.

22) The Argument from Children's Imagination
1. Only children believe in Santa Claus.
2. Belief in God is kind of like belief in Santa Claus.
3. Therefore evolution is true.

23) The Argument from Lunacy
1. A guy on a lot of drugs once claimed to feel God.
2. But he was on drugs.
3. Therefore evolution is true.

24) The Argument from David Silverman
1. David Silverman debated Norman Geisler once.
2. David Silverman can talk louder, faster, and over Geisler.
3. Geisler could barely get a word in!
4. Boy, if Silverman can talk faster than Geisler, then he must have won the debate.
5. Therefore evolution is true.

25) The Gold Star Argument
1. An atheist quit going to sunday school because he didn't get the gold star one week.
2. He's been an atheist ever since.
3. Therefore evolution is true.

26) The Argument from Shared Molecular Structures
1. Amoebas have proteins.
2. Humans have proteins.
3. Therefore evolution is true.

27) The Flat Earth Association Argument
1. There were some creationists who used to believe the earth is flat a long, long time ago.
2. But the earth is a sphere.
3. Therefore evolution is true.

28) The Appeal to Richard Dawkins
1. Richard Dawkins is an evolutionist.
2. Richard Dawkins is also smart.
3. Therefore evolution is true.

Large scale quantum effects

I think this is potentially as interesting a field of research as cold fusion and high temperature superconductivity.

We have a significant number - let's say 4 - of functionally identical black hair combs in our house. However, the number that can be found at any one time varies - from zero to four. I don't think it has ever exceeded four - but oddly enough, I think we have only ever bought 3. My hypothesis is that there is a large scale quantum effect that allows these combs to oscillate in and out of existence. Perhaps when they aren't visible in this universe, they have oscillated into existence in an alternate universe. I don't know.

I think Douglas Adams was grasping towards this concept in the realm of pens, in HHGG. He argued that pens were actually sentient lifeforms that disappeared to a realm entirely populated by pens from time to time, thus explaining why pens gradually pop out of normal existence. We compensate for that in our house by buying boxes of pens every so often, and leaving them scattered around the house. However, the phenomenon that Adams describes is definitely real, or we would be knee deep in pens by now otherwise.

The added detail of pens being intelligent lifeforms isn't necessary - it is only necessary for quantum fluctuations of the sort that are normally only seen at subatomic level to occur at the level of small items of office equipment. Of course, physics has always pretty much excluded this possibility for now, arguing that such quantum effects are partly linked to limits of observability and such things. The quantum theory would need to be extended to allow for larger scale interactions. However, if people can come up with a good research proposal, I will personally chip in £5 towards the research.

(Terms and conditions apply)

Monday, June 20, 2005

U2 and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

I didn't get to see U2 at Twickenham, but the body of their gig was played live on Radio 2 on Saturday evening (you won't find it on the internet through official channels, for licensing reasons). It included Bono's "Jesus, Jew, Mohammed is true" addition to "Sunday, Bloody Sunday" (what a versatile political song that is!), which is basically a plea for the different religions who look back to Abraham as their spiritual/actual father to stop fighting one another.

It ties in with the Rabbi Jonathan Sacks book The Dignity of Difference, which is again a plea for tolerance in an age in which religions have polarised social communities. I need to finish the book (alas! it is borrowed! I'm still working on it, Rob, honest!). What interests me is whether it is possible for genuine tolerance to exist in a world in which people believe in the absolute (rather than relative) truth of their faith. It's easy for me to tolerate other people's beliefs if I think that what I believe is only true for me. Likewise, other people can tolerate my beliefs if I don't argue that my beliefs ought to affect them. This is the post-modern "tolerant" world in which we live in - which actually turns out not to be tolerant at all, because if I believe that something is absolutely true, I turn myself into an outcast. Oddly enough, the statement that "all beliefs are relative" is actually an absolute statement - only absolute statements that endorse the post-modern worldview are allowed - and nobody stops to consider the irony.

What would be helpful would be to search history for examples of eras/settings in which a more genuine tolerance - not the post-modern sort - existed. For example, was it Queen Elizabeth I who, although making Anglicanism the state religion, officially tolerated Roman Catholicism, and allowed it to co-exist without trying to suppress it? And whilst we have now arrived at a pluralistic, post-modern consensus in our understanding of the nature of religious truth, the acceptance of other faiths in the UK (at least officially - I am well aware of the fact that there has been a great deal of unofficial tension directed towards faith communities) was not informed by a relative idea of truth, but one which was proclaimed belief in an absolute truth, whilst allowing people the freedom to reject that truth if they chose to. It hasn't happened in any terribly satisfactory way - the different faith communities have ended up basically separate. Is there any more hopeful example of official tolerance working? Or are we condemned to relative beliefs only from now onward?

The Sunday Papers is ....

Various supposedly "family" Sunday papers have a reputation for offering titillating content to their readers. An example: on the cover of the review section of one of the papers yesterday, there was a topless woman - supposedly tied in with an article about women's liberation, which included a pretty graphic account of a sexual encounter. Inside, there was a story (with photo) of a man who had accompanied the naked ramblers (now with added female) for a mile of their journey.

In the magazine, there was a long, well-illustrated article about the Pirelli calender from its inception to the present day.

So what was the newspaper? The Sunday Sport? The News of the World? Nope. The Sunday Times.

Friday, June 17, 2005

The UK rebate

The European Union is a body which now consists of 25 nation members. To be a part of it, a nation makes a financial contribution, which equates to around 1% of its GDP, calculated according to a formula, to the central organisation of the EU, which then distributes this money according to its budget.

In the dim and distant past, Margaret Thatcher negotiated that a proportion of the UK contribution would be refunded. Over the last few weeks, increasing levels of resentment have been expressed about this by every nation in the EU except the UK - because the rebate is effectively funded by all of these nations. The UK is no longer the poor nation of Europe - so why should the UK be entitled to £3 billion of this contribution back?

A short blog post can't do justice to the complexity of the issues, but let's try and point a few things out.

Firstly, 40% of the budget of the EU funds what is known as the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). This is a system of subsidies for farmers, that also suffers from widespread corruption (even in the UK), and distorts the "common market" and world trade in general. For example, there are farmers in West Africa who are unable to sell their milk at market, because European milk is being dumped on the market place at prices lower than the farmers can afford to charge, subsidised by the CAP. This system is unfair on a world scale. France and other Mediterranean countries in particular are keen to hold onto this, because these are subsidies that support their large agricultural communities. The UK and other countries less dependent upon agriculture are keen to see reform - particularly when they are aware of the impact that it is having on the developing world.

It is possible to work out the net contribution made by the different countries in the EU - that is, once you have allowed for the UK's rebate and the subsidies that are paid back to countries by the CAP. On this basis, in net terms, even with the rebate, the UK is the second largest contributor to the EU; only Germany gives more. If it weren't for the UK's rebate, it would have given tens of billions of pounds more to the EU than France in the last decade.

Secondly, the more federal parts of the EU (particularly France and Germany) continue to want to make it into more and more of a bureaucratic monster, consuming ever vaster amounts of money, and achieving ever less ("bureaucracy-poo" - the unproductive waste that is produced by a large bureaucracy when it is fed money - the larger the bureaucracy, the greater the proportion of poo relative to useful output). But there are a significant number of nations in the EU that are starting to realise that the more federal, "old Europe" nations are actually the ones that are in recession. The more "market-oriented" economies are the ones that are seeing economic growth and progress. These "market-oriented" countries can see that by increasing funding to the EU, and continuing to transfer money from economically successful areas to economically failing areas, they are firstly inhibiting their own economic progress and secondly they are discouraging the unreformed areas from doing anything to make things better. So the solution isn't more money for the EU, it's reform.

This is a battle that has been fought, and continues to be fought, in the area of civil aviation. There are still private companies that are suffering because state airlines, subsidised with European money, don't have to compete. And aviation is a relatively reformed area!

In the area of funding, the EU still operates on a veto system - in other words, any one of the 25 countries can block an agreement. The UK is saying that it won't give up its rebate unless the budget is reformed. France and some other countries are saying that they won't reform the budget. So we have deadlock.

So what do you think? Should the budget be reformed? Or should the UK just give up this £3 billion bargaining chip?

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Privileged Planet interchange 1

The accusation keeps arising that the hypothesis of Privileged Planet (PP) is unfalsifiable. Critics say: “The writers are saying that because life is unusual in the universe, it is indicative of design. But if life was common, they would say that was indicative of design as well.”

This suggests that they haven't understood the argument – and more generally, haven't grasped the overarching arguments about design. It would be nice to think that it would be possible to explain the discussion properly, and have a sensible debate on the real issues. However, this is unlikely to happen. The most vocal opponents of Intelligent Design (ID), including Panda's Thumb and NCSE, have the ear of influential bodies (AAAS, the Smithsonian, Scientific American, Nature), and consequently are just as successful if they sound as though they have discredited ID – so why bother to argue properly? Incidentally, the effect of these once-worthy institutions paying too much attention to philosophy and not enough to science will ultimately be to lose their own reputations for quality of science – they need to beware. But for now, even those scientists who have read enough about ID, and know enough about the limitations of darwinism to understand that there are issues that need to be addressed, know that there are very influential bodies that take a dim view of doubt in such areas, and so keep quiet.

But I am not paid to be a scientist; I don't have a tenure board to worry about; I am just an interested layperson, who is now convinced that an atheistic worldview can't provide reasonable scientific answers to some of the big questions. I am not even bothered if people think I'm stupid. So let me try and explain what I understand of this, and why I believe the objections to PP are not well founded.

There are effectively three possible explanations for the presence of a phenomenon:
Chance - it might be improbable, but it just happens to be there;
Regularity - it is present as the outcome of natural processes;
Design – its presence is due to the deliberate action of an agent.

Consider a stalactite, or a crystal. It may look designed. However, investigation reveals that it is present through the working of natural laws. If the same natural laws operate in the same circumstances, the same phenomenon will be observed. This is an example of REGULARITY.

Now consider the sequence of heads and tails you get when you toss a coin a hundred times in a row. The sequence you get is very improbable – you are exceedingly unlikely to toss the coin again, and get the same sequence. So the sequence that you got is an example of CHANCE.

Now consider Stonehenge (as somebody suggested on a bulletin board a while ago, as an alternative to Michael Behe's favourite, Mount Rushmore). We find there several very heavy rocks that don't come from the immediate vicinity of where they are now. They are broadly arranged in a circle; some are on top of one another. This suggests that they have been placed in that arrangement on Salisbury Plain deliberately. Large rocks don't of their own accord arrange themselves in this way, neither would they be like that if they were (say) moraine that had been deposited on Salisbury Plain by glaciers. So this isn't an example of regularity. They are also evidently not there by chance – you might find a cola can lying on the ground almost anywhere in the world, I guess: but you are unlikely to find one several tonne rock out of place, let alone an arrangement of them. So Stonehenge is an example of DESIGN.

Apply this to the natural world. Darwinism, particularly neo-darwinism, is a worldview of metaphysical naturalism. In short, this means that the idea of any supernatural agent has to be ruled out. So, in terms of phenomena that we observe in nature, the options are reduced to regularity and chance. Design has to be excluded. This is why the Intelligent Design (ID) movement experiences such opposition from darwinist groups – the quality of their scientific endeavour is irrelevant; the real problem is that they are threatening to overturn the darwinists' philosophical worldview. Darwinists argue strongly that allowing for the possibility of design in nature is unscientific, and indeed may cause the end of science as we know it. The truth is that whilst you can't be committed to metaphysical naturalism and believe in the presence of design in nature, metaphysical naturalism isn't actually a necessary part of the foundation of science. Newton, Kepler, Copernicus, Galileo, Faraday, Maxwell and so on all made significant contributions to science starting from a theistic, rather than naturalistic, worldview. For the most part, scientists are able to pursue their work in all sorts of disciplines regardless of their metaphysical worldview.

The reason for this is because, although there are three possible explanations for phenomena given above, most science is carried out only in relation to one – regularity. Scientists are trying to establish the rules and parameters that determine the behaviour of the universe, from the Big Bang to the smallest quark. This is even the case within biology – the biochemical reactions that drive cells and multicellular organisms are understood, at least in principle, as are the process of inheritance, physiological and developmental processes and so on.

However, the nature of certain phenomena can't easily be established. Some examples are obvious, and relate directly to the debate between ID proponents and opponents: the appearance of life; the development of complex life; where the information that constitutes the genetic code could arise; where the universe came from. There are others, which may become more significant areas for discussion as time goes on. For example, it has been assumed for some decades that evolutionary mechanisms could explain everything about animals. A couple of threads on ARN have talked about whether darwinian (i.e. chance/regularity) mechanisms can account for things like migration patterns and symbiotic relationships between animals.

Remember, if you have excluded the possibility of design, you are only left with chance and regularity to explain phenomena. So in answer to the question: “How did complex life arise?” darwinism works with a combination of the two – chance in the form of random mutations (RM), regularity in the form of natural selection (NS) between organisms that have mutations that give them an advantage over other organisms.

RMNS can certainly be shown to lead to “micro-evolution”. Within bounds, organisms do develop over generations – in fact, we can drive this ourselves, by artificially breeding for certain traits. However, what is disputed is whether this process is sufficiently powerful to be a mechanism to allow the most minimal life to evolve into (say) a human – and indeed, whether the process would have allowed the most minimal life to appear in the first place. A section of the scientific community has begun to dissent from the darwinian orthodoxy: they say that RMNS is not sufficiently powerful to allow complex life to appear, and that design is also required. In biology, the arguments have various forms:

> That some parts of animals are “irreducibly complex” - they consist of various components, any of which being missing would prevent the part having any useful functionality. So there is no selection advantage until all of the components are present – but the components can only appear one small step at a time. See Darwin's Black Box by Michael Behe.

> That the amount of information encoded in the organism's DNA is too great for it to have arisen by RMNS – random processes do not produce high levels of information. Monkeys typing would not produce Hamlet's Soliloquy within the expected lifetime of the universe. No matter how you dress up the random process, you won't generate new information (which has to appear before natural selection can work) at anything like the rate required for life to evolve in the history of the universe.

> That even if an organism receives beneficial mutations, the number of generations required to fix them within a population would require too large a timescale than evolution has available to it. This is known as Haldane's Dilemma.

Various aspects of these arguments have been challenged by the darwinist community. However, they argue that because the odd chapter here and there has been shown not to be completely sound, then the arguments have been completely discredited. In fact, the overall thrust of the arguments hasn't been addressed.

In passing, it is worth considering the theological implications of these analyses of the causes of phenomena. The biblical picture of God is that he is God of order – of regularity – in other words, the universe “works” because God made it like that. This understanding of the nature of God underpinned the explosion of modern science that followed the Reformation in northwest Europe – the new theology gave natural scientists the conviction that the universe was amenable to investigation, and there was a perception that studying the universe was “thinking God's thoughts after him.”

In terms of chance, the Bible also talks about God being sovereign, and the fact that humans can't know or understand all his purposes. So what science would attribute to chance is still, in theological terms, part of God's domain.

Some people who would describe themselves as Christians are content to accommodate what they understand to be science by restricting God's involvement in the world to these spheres of regularity and chance - despite the fact that, since regularity appears to be part of the universe, and we can't know what God's purposes are in chance, this effectively means that their idea of a universe supposedly with God in it is no different from a naturalistic universe. However, belief in a “design-less” universe falls outside the bounds of orthodox Christian belief. In theological terms again, firstly God is represented as the agent through whom the universe comes into being, and through whom life is brought about. Secondly, the Christian faith claims that humans can have a relationship with this God, who is a real, personal entity, although not constrained by the universe. Thirdly, God has not remained entirely separate from the universe throughout its history. The Bible itself claims to be God's word – an intervention of God in history, through the lives of the writers. And it records further interventions – in the form of miracles and prophecy. Ultimately, the Bible cannot be taken seriously if the possibility is excluded that there might be a real God who is capable of intervening in the universe. Of course, people may choose to reject the idea that the Bible contains reliable information – but if so, whatever they describe as their Christian faith is not historic Christianity, which itself is founded upon events that happened in real space and time.

It needs to be emphasised that, whilst these theological comments are consistent with ID, they are not part of ID. For somebody to be prepared to consider the possibility of ID, they have to be prepared to consider the possibility that there is an agent who has intervened to bring about phenomena that can't be explained by chance or regularity. Christian theology does work on that basis – however, in scientific terms, it is possible that the external agent is not the God of Christianity. It is because the agent isn't specified that ID parts company with creationism, which seeks to use science to endorse a particular interpretation of revelation. ID is not creationism – back-door or otherwise – because the very thing that is the foundation of creationism is ignored in ID.

... to be continued ...

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

NCSE review of "Privileged Planet"

I was going to write a review of this review myself, but Dave Heddle has done a much better job than I could hope to do.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Privileged Planet and Panda's Thumb

There has been much reaction to “Privileged Planet”. Amongst the most outspoken critics have been those at Panda’s Thumb – obvious, really, since PT exists “to discuss evolutionary theory, critique the claims of the antievolution movement, defend the integrity of both science and science education,” and the book isn’t about evolution, Darwin or even God. (For any Americans reading this who weren’t sure, you should read that in a sarcastic voice.) However, since they obviously felt they had the argument all sewn up, I wanted to challenge some of their assertions.

Do the authors of “Privileged Planet” fail to present quantifiable measures for habitability and measurability?
Yes – the measures aren’t quantifiable. However, does that mean they aren’t significant, or scientific? No. Let me give an example.

The Earth’s atmosphere is transparent in the “visible” part of the electromagnetic spectrum. This is a very narrow part of the EM spectrum, and it is only “visible” because that’s where our eyes happen to be sensitive. But the fact that our eyes are sensitive to light in this band doesn’t do justice to the significance of this narrow band of frequencies. Photons of this energy are “just right” in terms of molecular reactions – they are of a high enough frequency to lead to chemical reactions (in our retinas; in plants) but not so high that they will break up complex molecules (unlike ultraviolet). They are also at a frequency at which it is possible to recognise that there is a difference between different stars. These are key frequencies for observing the universe – though there is no guarantee that an atmosphere would be transparent at these frequencies – and they are key frequencies for habitability – for the presence of intelligent, complex species.

If we wanted to, we could quantify this sort of issue. We could ask how many of the planets that we know about have an atmosphere that is transparent to light with these frequencies. We could ask what combinations of gases allow for such a visible atmosphere. We could ask what range of surface temperatures of the stellar primary could allow for such an atmosphere to be present at the triple point of water. We could go on, and ask what proportion of planets have moons that are large enough to stabilise the angle of the planetary axis. How many planetary bodies allow total eclipses of the stellar primary? What proportion of interstellar space has sufficient density of elements to form planet systems ... but without such a great density as to obscure the rest of the galaxy and the universe.

But the thing is, even as we word this sort of question, we know that the reason that the theory isn’t quantifiable is not because the issues are vague and hand-waving, but because the earth is – to all intents and purposes – unique. The probability of finding another planet like earth, upon which life might appear, is incredibly small. And that is before you address the issue of how life itself might appear.

Do they rely on a single data point?
No. Although we only have one “earth-like” planet to look at, we can learn plenty about the rest of the universe by looking elsewhere, and also by deducing what other parts of the universe are like on the basis of our understanding of physics. So we know that the band of habitability within the solar system is small – and that the likelihood of complex life arising outside the galactic habitable zone within a spiral galaxy is small – and that gas giants close to the stellar primary (as interstellar observations have often revealed them) will destabilise planets further out, whereas further out gas giants (like Jupiter and Saturn) will protect against asteroid impact – and that non-spiral galaxies are much less likely to have stable planetary systems – and that the fine tuning of physical constants is such that they produce a physically and chemically complex universe – in addition to the traditional facts that a G2 type star is heavier than 90% of stars, but is large enough to have a significant circumstellar habitable zone, but not so large that it will exhaust its fuel in too short a time for evolution to occur, nor so large as to bombard its planetary system with too much high energy radiation. There may be only one Earth for us to look at, but we can see what the rest of the universe is like – and by looking at the rest of the universe, we can see how atypical the Earth is.

In essence, the process is the same as that followed by the SETI programme when looking for life elsewhere in the universe. It makes an assessment of how likely life is to be present in orbit around different stars. This is only based on our knowledge of one star system, and one form of life. Are their assumptions about where intelligent life might be found unreasonable? Well, I haven’t heard objections from the science community to this pursuit. In fact, Carl Sagan’s “Contact” was all about the programme. But of course, whereas SETI would (in effect) support the principle of mediocrity, PP opposes it. Whereas the SETI programme has been optimistic about the possibility of there being life elsewhere – because, according to the principle of mediocrity, there can’t be anything special about Earth (Sagan apparently thought there might be 100,000 intelligent forms of life just in this galaxy) – PP is pretty negative.

Is PP simply an extension of the Weak Anthropic Principle?
PvM suggests that Richards and Gonzalez’ belief in humans’ ability to observe is simply a product of what we happen to be able to observe – in other words, we don’t know that we have a “globally optimal” position to observe the universe.

However, this fails to deal with the fact that as far as physics is concerned, the belief of science is that things are – in large measure – pretty well tied up now. The principle forces that shape the universe – the electroweak force, the strong nuclear force, gravity – and the fundamental particles that constitute the mass-energy of the universe, and the fundamental physical constants, are well mapped. There may be surprises – there almost certainly will be, in fact – but science has a pretty good understanding of how most of the 15 thousand million lightyear radius of space in which we find ourselves behaves. And the environments in which any of the rest of the explanations are likely to be hiding (dark matter, for example) are not likely to be environments in which complex, intelligent life might evolve.

PvM hypothesises a Planet X on which relativity hasn’t been discovered, and argues that we may continue to be in the dark (figuratively) concerning some other “obvious” scientific idea. That may be the case. However, as far as physics is concerned, the laws that we already know describe the behaviour of the universe to many decimal places (perhaps darwinian biologists find it hard to believe that such a level of confidence is possible concerning scientific processes!). So given our confidence in our understanding of the universe, whilst technically the argument appears to be irrefutable, in practice it looks less solid.

Can the Privileged Planet hypothesis be falsified?
PvM argues no. He says:
The following statement by the authors
Finally, we don’t argue that Earth is unique. Discovering another planet around another star in the Galaxy would be quite compatible with our hypothesis, so long as that planet is genuinely Earth-like. Finding a fundamentally different planet with (native) complex life on it, in contrast, would contradict our argument that the conditions for life and scientific discovery correlate in the universe.

makes even less sense. Why would finding a ‘non earth like planet’ with complex life contradict their claim of correlation. Since such a planet would show another datapoint in favor of a correlation between life and scientific discovery.

He seems to have misunderstood what Gonzalez and Richards are getting at. The hypothesis is something like: “There is a correlation between habitability and measurability, which indicates intelligent design.” So the falsification they offer is intelligent, complex life being found on a planet that is not earth-like – that is, although suited for habitation (evidently, if life is found there), not suited for observing the universe.

However, I think the hypothesis is strong enough to go further. As a stronger falsification, let me offer: is it possible to conceive of an environment that might exist anywhere in the universe that would have the same levels of habitability (suitable for a complex biosphere, including intelligent, complex life) and observability (that in the space of let’s say 4000 years, an intelligent organism might go from having no knowledge of technology to having a full understanding of the structure of the universe). In other words, don’t even try and beat it – don’t worry about looking for a better environment. Just try and find an environment that is as good.

Finally ...
And that’s where my strongest theological objection to the Privileged Planet can be found. By insisting that the earth is privileged based on some mathematical arguments, the authors miss the obvious, the earth is privileged because that’s where we are living. To suggest that a Creator would create a universe with countless planets and consider only one to be privileged requires a knowledge and understanding of said Creator, beyond our realm of knowledge. In fact, it shows a certain level of hubris.

Now this is the real crunch, and it comes to the real heart of the opposition to the book from people whose science in theory oughtn’t to be connected. Because, if it is the case that Earth is privileged, as the authors suggest, then we are no longer in the realms of Intelligent Design in the abstract sense. We don’t just “happen to be here”, with some intelligent agent out there of provenance unknown throwing teasing bits and pieces in our direction. All of a sudden, if the hypothesis is true, we – the people who are able to observe the universe, on this privileged planet – represent the focus of the universe. All of a sudden, there is a link between science and theology – our ability to know about the universe, and our significance as an organism.

Although this may come as a surprise to PvM, theologically it is not unreasonable to suggest precisely what he suggests. Are the authors being anthropocentric? Not from a Christian point of view – not if Christianity is true. From this perspective, humans were created by an infinite-personal God to be stewards of the universe. The claim of the Bible is that we can learn about God from the created universe – theologically, this is known as “general revelation” - so in Christian terms, we shouldn’t be surprised if that turns out to be the case.

Of course, this is so far removed from the principles of mediocrity and darwinism as to completely blow them out of the water, if it is true. If you have never thought it before, it is profoundly shocking to think that a God might have created a whole universe with human beings at the focus of it. But that’s where the evidence leads – to pick up an ID buzzphrase. Maybe the real surprise then, given this challenge to the naturalism that darwinism is built on, is that PP hasn’t incurred even stronger opposition.

DALI - the next instalment

Continuing the (unoriginal!) DALI language specification (see below for more details).

Temporally Global Variables

var temporal real a,b;

The temporally-global variable is one of DALI's most powerful features, since it allows the tedious processing to be performed at the end of the program, where a little extra delay is not critical. For example, consider the following program fragment:
var temporal real s;
for a=1 to 10000000 do s=s+1/a

The program makes use of the temporally-global variable s to print the result before calculating it, thus allowing the tedious calculation to be done after printing the result, whilst the user is busy reading the output, drinking coffee etc.

[NB the original count was from 1 to 1000 - and yes, you would have had time to do those things - especially if you were running the program close to the EAGLE Delta]


The HW command has no parameters, and returns no values. It simply prints the message, "Hello World" to the standard output. It is provided in order to improve the language's performance in the unofficial conciseness benchmark that most programming language books seem to use.

NB: Execution of this command requires 80 GB of hard disk space, a 128 MB graphics card, two DVD-RW drives and a broadband connection.

[NB the original referred to a lecturer at Cambridge University who would display a message "Wake Up" {or more usually "WAKE UP", computers being what they were}, and 512k of available memory on the heap. You'd be lucky if you could get a computer to crash with that little memory these days - those were the days]

Sunday, June 05, 2005

How the evolutionists refused to be taken in.

The dwarfs had a very odd look. They weren't strolling about or enjoying themselves (although the cords with which they had been tied seemed to have vanished) nor were they lying down and having a rest. They were sitting very close together in a little circle facing one another. They never looked round or took any notice of the humans till Lucy and Tirian were almost near enough to touch them. The the dwarfs all cocked their heads as if they couldn't see anyone but were listening hard and trying to guess by the sound what was happening.

"Look out!" said one of them in a surly voice. "Mind where you’re going. Don’t walk into our faces!"

"All right!" said Eustace indignantly. "We're not blind. We've got eyes in our heads."

"They must be darn good ones if you can see in here," said the same dwarf whose name was Diggle. …

"Are you blind?" said Tirian.

"Ain't we all blind in the dark!" said Diggle.

"But it isn't dark, you poor stupid dwarfs," said Lucy. "Can't you see? Look up! Look round! Can't you see the sky and the trees and the flowers? Can't you see me?"

"How in the name of all Humbug can I see what ain't there? And how can I see you any more than you can see me in this pitch darkness?"

"But I can see you," said Lucy. "I'll prove I can see you. You've got a pipe in your mouth."

"Anyone that knows the smell of baccy could tell that," said Diggle. … "Who are you anyway?"

"Earth-man," said Tirian, "she is the Queen Lucy, sent hither by Aslan out of the deep past."

"Well if that doesn't beat everything!" exclaimed Diggle. "How can you go on talking all that rot? Your wonderful lion didn't come and help you, did he? Thought not. And now – even now – when you've been beaten and shoved into this black hole, just the same as the rest of us, you're still at your old game. Starting a new lie! Trying to make us believe we're none of us shut up, and it ain't dark, and heaven knows what. … Well, at any rate there's no humbug here. We haven't let anyone take us in. The dwarfs are for the dwarfs."

"You see," said Aslan. "They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out."

From "The Last Battle", C.S.Lewis

Saturday, June 04, 2005

More about DALI

Assignment operators

The traditional := ('becomes') is retained, but several new assignment operators are available in addition:

m= (might be equal to) - allows non-definite arithmetic; that is, arithmetic using numbers whose values are uncertain. For example:
x := 2;
x m= 3;

is the DALI equivalent of the phrase "a is 2 ... but then again, it might be 3". Instead of forcing the user to decide on which value x should take, both values are specified. The DALI language will chose whichever it feels is the more appropriate at run-time.

~= (is not equal to) - this must not be confused with the logical operator NOT. An example of the use of ~= is:
ps ~= 4;
writeln (ps);
ps := ps + 1;
writeln (ps);

The first writeln may print any value except for the integer 4. The second will print any value except for the integer 5.

Logical Operators

AND, OR, NOT, EXOR (exclusive or) are implemented as usual. Added operators are EXNOT and EXAND.

Program flow

Many users of Pascal have expressed the desire for a more powerful form of the GOTO statement. However, the designers of DALI carried out careful studies into programming habits, and discovered that almost all GOTOs were put in retrospectively, from some further part of the program. Therefore, DALI implements the vastly more useful COMEFROM statement.

For example:
label test;
if (a=1) then ...
{rest of program}
comefrom test;

The implementation of the COMEFROM statement requires that the language be either compiled or pre-interpreted, so that the necessary comefrom stack can be built.

while ... do - This has now been extended to include statements of the form:
while (condition) don't
{program block}

The additional UNLESS clause allows extra conditions to be added as an afterthought. For example...

while (a > -100) do
    b := 1/a;
    a := a - 1
unless (a=0);

Expression Evaluation

The new function eval(words) allows user-entered words to be arithmetically evaluated. Evaluation is quite slow, especially when type "mindboggling" is used. An extremely fast expression evaluation function is also provided; the guess() function totally ignores its arguments, and guesses the answer. An extended implementation is planned for future development, which may include the inspiredguess() function. This should return a value of the right type.

More another time ...

Friday, June 03, 2005

The Bright says in his heart, "There is no God"

Atheists/naturalists are rebranding themselves with the supposedly more comfortable term, "brights". I kid you not; they are obviously really worried about their image problem.

I would have come up with an alternative moniker - "the Arrogants", perhaps? - but there's one in the Bible already, so I don't need to.

Douglas Adams and the weak anthropic principle

Can we lay this one to bed, please?
It’s rather like a puddle waking up one morning— I know they don’t normally do this, but allow me, I’m a science fiction writer— A puddle wakes up one morning and thinks: “This is a very interesting world I find myself in. It fits me very neatly. In fact it fits me so neatly… I mean really precise isn’t it?… It must have been made to have me in it.” And the sun rises, and it’s continuing to narrate this story about how this hole must have been made to have him in it. And as the sun rises, and gradually the puddle is shrinking and shrinking and shrinking— and by the time the puddle ceases to exist, it’s still thinking— it’s still trapped in this idea that— that the hole was there for it. And if we think that the world is here for us we will continue to destroy it in the way that we have been destroying it, because we think that we can do no harm.
Quoted in The Salmon of Doubt, Douglas Adams (I think)

This is a really nice metaphor - Douglas Adams was a fine communicator, and had an excellent imagination. But it says more about his philosophical presuppositions than it does about science - Adams had a prior commitment to a "closed system". Remember in considering this quote that although Adams loved technology, and hung out with scientists, he was not a scientist himself.

It is a particularly poor metaphor in the light of "Privileged Planet" - which is what it has often been quoted relating to. I hope that if Douglas Adams read the book (which was published after his death), he would not have used this metaphor in relation to it. In the case of "Privileged Planet", if you want to work with this metaphor, we have to imagine a puddle waking up one morning, and looking around to see that it is the only puddle on the sidewalk. Furthermore, there has been no rain, and the entire rest of the sidewalk is flat to less than the depth of a drop of water.

The more important point that Adams was making here was about the danger of us destroying ourselves whilst thinking that we are special. I would echo that. I am particularly concerned by people who think that it is their god-given right to drive SUV's, and use electric clothes dryers in Arizona.

But this metaphor isn't an argument against "The Privileged Planet". It was never meant to be. Go quote somebody else's work out of context.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

What is truth?

I have discussed below the headline at the top of this blog. The pursuit of truth is, in my opinion, ultimately the pursuit of God, and is therefore the proper activity of human beings. God is there, and has made himself known, and as God's creatures, it is for us to seek our creator so that we can know him.

But the very idea of truth is being eroded by the structures of society. The political parties seek to present information in such a way as to maximise the benefit to themselves. People used to lose public office for public sin - these days, they lose office for visibly distorting the truth ("A good day to bury bad news") - but that doesn't stop this from being the modus operandi of the political parties. The new "candid" versions of Tony Blair and Michael Howard we saw in the election campaign were like this not apparently because they particularly cared for truth, but because the image of caring for truth was one that was more likely to get them elected.

I am also disillusioned by the fact that large sections of the press aren't making a balanced case. This is one of the reasons I like blogs so much - it isn't that I believe that the opinions presented in blogsites are more than subjective - but at least they are genuine opinions, that have circumvented the controls of the institutions that are so keen to ensure that it is their version of the truth that is heard.

The battle for truth is present as much in science, particularly at the moment in the debate between naturalism, creationism and intelligent design. This has been rumbling for some time - a college in the UK with good results was criticised because of a commitment to creationism - this link was simply the first one I found on the subject. In the last few weeks, Richard Dawkins has been keen to present naturalistic science as endangered by ID and creationism. Paul Nelson, on ID - The Future, talks about the sudden, unforeseen cancellation of a seminar. An evolutionist attempts to buy off the Smithsonian which has agreed to show the film of The Privileged Planet. The editor of the journal that published Dr Meyer's review paper on the Cambrian Explosion met with what amounted to a vendetta from his peer-group, along with a whole series of completely unfounded charges about his professional competence.

From a theological point of view, it is possible to argue that there is more going on than the routine spinning of one's own opinion. The book of Romans talks about people "suppressing" what they know to be true. In If there's a God, why are there atheists?, R.C.Sproul instead interprets the word as "repressing" (in the psychological sense) the truth. People don't want the truth to be heard, and will resort to dirty tricks to prevent it from getting out. ID isn't even theism - let alone Christianity - and yet the very fact that it diverges from straightforward naturalism means that it is going too far for the many people - it is allowing just too much the possibility that there might be a God - it is threatening to remove one of the pegs upon which they hang their atheistic hat.

It always takes guts to stand for something you believe to be true, when it is a minority opinion. People ought to ask themselves: Why is the ID community doing it? What is the point in making yourself a target for vilification? Why should somebody risk professional isolation and ridicule? Loss of tenure? Would people do this simply because they were stupid? Of course not - the easy thing is simply to let things alone - to keep your head down. People will only do this if they genuinely believe something to be true. Galileo risked the wrath of the Inquisition because of his commitment to what he had come to see through his studies. The popular conception is that the ID community is the "inquisition" of today - played up by Richard Dawkins in his article in the Times. In practice, the ID community today stands not with the Inquisition, but where Galileo stood, vulnerable individuals facing an all-powerful, media-controlling and manipulating elite. What is needed is a fair discussion - a scientific evaluation of the truth in this debate, stripped of ad hominem arguments and manipulative tricks. The truth is more important than winning the debate.

Poem for June

This poem was inspired a few years ago by fraught attempts to talk like grown-ups when surrounded by toddlers. It isn't bitter - those days pass all too quickly.

A serious conversation

Having a serious conversation
when there are children around
is like
         Get down from there, please.
a chain of
         Get down.
         One, two,

         Thank you
nearly disconnected
         It's all right, you're not hurt.
Starting different sentences
that may not be connected.
Islands of coherence
in seconds of silence which
         What are they up to now?
         Hang on ....

         .... they're OK
and coming back to
earlier sentences
         What are you up to?

         Answer me, please!

         Well, give it back then. It's not yours.
earlier sentences
that you may have already said.
A distracting
noise, a comforting hug,
negotiating a two minute
delay to the start of a jigsaw.
         I'm talking - wait!
and so much left unexpressed
or forgotten
         Can you put your shoes on again, please?
that having a
         Where did you put your coat?
serious conversation
is like
         Say goodbye.
         Say goodbye.

         Don't you want to come again?