Monday, April 24, 2006

The problem of evil

John Blanchard, in his apologetic book, "Does God believe in Atheists?" argues that the problem of evil is the key intellectual problem that faces Christians in defending their beliefs. In short, the heart of the problem lies in the tension that exists between three propositions:
1) God is good
2) God is omnipotent
3) Evil exists

John Blanchard provides a Christian response to this problem in his book. Readers may be interested to know that William Dembski, more famous for his involvement in the Intelligent Design movement, has also turned his philosophical/theological brain to this issue. Here is a link to his paper "Christian Theodicy in Light of Genesis and Modern Science" - it is a 130KB PDF file.
The Earth as a place for soul-making also leaves much to be desired. The metaphor here is that of a school that attempts to train us to become great souls. But rigors of a curriculum are one thing; Lisbon earthquakes
and Asian tsunamis, not to mention Auschwitz and the Killing Fields, are another. Do we really need a curriculum that grinds so many of its students to powder? If the Earth is indeed a place for soul-making, how many great souls does it in fact produce? Is it not a tiny, tiny minority? How many flunk out Hick’s school of soul-making? How many do not merely flunk out but end up in the gutter, addicted to sensuality, money, fame, or power? How many cannot be said to have enrolled in any school whatsoever, whose days are consumed in struggling to survive (think of
bare-footed children scouring garbage dumps to eke out an existence)?

Solar power - infeasibility study

The two key resources for the next century, in my opinion, will be information and power. There's not much I can do about information - there is a limit to the rate at which I can produce it or organise it, and Google are doing a much better job! But I would love to be more independent in terms of power.

We are in a valley, sheltered by trees, so wind energy isn't likely to do much for us here - I think the neighbours might not be keen on a 20 metre high windmill. So, since we are having building work done, I spent some time looking at options for solar energy. This falls into two basic categories: solar PV (photovoltaic) (producing electricity using photoelectric plates) and solar water heating. Both have come a long way in the last 20 years or so - but both are still very expensive. Prices seem to be set so that the cost of installation will only be recovered over the expected life of the equipment. To buy a solar PV system which produces up to a kilowatt peak output costs several thousand pounds - and will produce savings of £100 to £300 per year. Water heating systems are cheaper - you can get one from about £1600 - but not as useful anyway, since they only provide hot water - they can't be used to heat the house, so you still need a boiler for central heating.

Basically, the price is such that microgeneration of solar energy is still an ideological luxury for most people. SolarCentury have a vision for every roof in the country being a mini power station. This would generate enough electricity to supply the whole country. It would also provide revenue for the solar PV manufacturers of tens of billions of pounds. The bottom line is: if solar PV were so good, solar PV manufacturers wouldn't bother with selling systems. They'd be buying land to put their systems on and just selling the power.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Tolkein: Can pantheism save the world?

"Could we not still send messages to [Tom Bombadil] and obtain his help?" asked Erestor. "It seems that he has a power even over the Ring."

"No, I should not put it so," said Gandalf. "Say rather that the Ring has no power over him. He is his own master. But he cannot alter the Ring itself, nor break its power over others. And now he is withdrawn into a little land, within bounds that he has set, though none can see them, waiting perhaps for a change of days, and he will not step beyond them."

"But within those bounds nothing seems to dismay him," said Erestor. "Would he not take the Ring and keep it there, for ever harmless?"

"No," said Gandalf, "not willingly. He might do so, if all the free folk of the world begged him, but he would not understand the need. And if he were given the Ring, he would soon forget it, or most likely throw it away. Such things have no hold on his mind. He would be a most unsafe guardian; and that alone is answer enough."

"But in any case," said Glorfindel, "to send the Ring to him would only postpone the day of evil. He is far away. We could not now take it back to him, unguessed, unmarked by any spy. And even if we could, soon or late the Lord of the Rings would learn of its hiding place and would bend all his power towards it. Could that power be defied by Bombadil alone? I think not. I think that in the end, if all else is conquered, Bombadil will fall, Last as he was First; and then Night will come."

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Introducing da Vinci

As we approach the release of "The Da Vinci Code", I wanted to post Schaeffer's analysis of Leonardo's philosophy.
He brings a new factor into the flow of history, and comes closer to being a modern man than any before him. His dates are important (1452-1519), because they overlapped with the beginning of the Reformation. Leonardo da Vinci is also very much a part of a significant shift in philosophic thinking. ... By the time of da Vinci, Neoplatonism was a dominant force in Florence. It became a dominant force for the simple reason that they needed to find some way to put something in the "upper story." They introduced Neoplatonism in an attempt to reinstate ideas and ideals - that is, universals:

Grace - Universals
Nature - Particulars

A universal is that which would give meaning and unity to all the particulars. The particulars are all the individual things - each individual thing is a particular.

... Where do you find a unity when you set diversity free? Once the particulars are set free, how do you hold them together? Leonardo grappled with this problem. He was a Neoplatonist painter and, many people have said ... the first modern mathematician. He saw hat if you begin with an autonomous rationality, what you come to is mathematics (that which can be measured), and mathematics only deals with particulars, not universals. Therefore you never get beyond mechanics. As a man who realised the need for a unity, he understood that this would not do. So he tried to paint the soul. The soul in this context is not the Christian soul; the soul is the universal - the soul, for example, of the sea or of the tree.

Soul - Unity
Mathematics - Particulars - Mechanics

One of the reasons Leonardo never painted very much was simply that he tried to draw in order to be able to paint the universal. He never succeeded.

A modern writer, Giovanni Gentile, one of the greatest Italian philosophers until his death some years ago, said that Leonardo died in despondency because he would not abandon the hope of a rational unity between the particulars and the universal. To have escaped this despondency, Leonardo would have had to have been a different man. He would have had to let go his hope of unity above and below the line. Leonardo, not being a modern man, never gave up the hope of a unified field of knowledge. He would not, in other words, give up the hope of educated man, who, in the past, has been marked by this insistence on a unified field of knowledge.

Francis Schaeffer: Escape from Reason, Chapter One

Monday, April 17, 2006

Poems for daughters

For Lianne, aged One

As far as is possible, stay as you are,
with the eye clear and open
and washed clean of fear,
with the skin untracked
by the sad workings of the heart,
lips unskilled in spite.
As far as possible, stay as you are,
the morning's first light
cause enough for joy,
each passing face
judged only by the colour of its smile.
As far as possible, stay as you are.
Gaze out at the world
with its mystery and noise,
but refuse all offers to join.
Be backwards in evil,
advanced in love.
As far as possible, stay as you are,
with the upturned face
and the open palm,
with the stumble of faith
and the shout of hope.
For of such is the Kingdom.

- Steve Turner
... and with a gap of fifteen years ...
The Original of the Species

Baby slow down
The end is not as fun as the start
Please stay a child somewhere in your heart

I'll give you everything you want
Except the thing that you want
You are the first one of your kind

- Bono/U2

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

More about "Evolve Bots"

(as it is imaginatively titled at the moment - good job I'm not in copywriting!).
It now shows colour gradients for different values of the genes, and mutation doesn't cause it to crash.

Here are some of the things that I hope to do with the program as I continue to work on it.
1) Demonstrate with no selection that bots breed. Done!
2) Then demonstrate natural selection for breedspan. Done! - run several times to compare outcomes.
3) Compare different grid sizes - 10,20,40,80 - compare outcomes/convergence. What is the effect, if any, of different population size on natural selection?
4) Impact of mutation on outcomes/convergence. The proportion of events that have mutations can be controlled, as can the maximum change that a mutation can introduce. Is there an optimum mutation rate that allows development but doesn't wreck existing functionality?
5) Impact of wandering - allow bots to swap places. Does this improve "evolution"?
6) Impact of virility/latency. Currently, a fit individual could spawn several surrounding children every cycle. How about having a limited number of offspring per cycle - or even one offspring per several cycles.
7) Limited evolutionary resources - increasing fitness in one area decreases fitness in other areas.
8) Impact of environment - select for distance from given gene to sum of x and y - and then other more complex interactions.

Wizards ...

... along the lines of the heroes and villains of earlier posts. I was wondering if anybody had any profound insights into the prevalence of wizards of a particular sort in fiction. We have similar characters in Gandalf and Dumbledore, for example. But you can add to this Merlin and Cadellin ("The Weirdstone of Brisengamen"). In addition to the long beards, there seems to be a shared theme in the fact that they are keen to help the "normal" people, but despite their unusual powers, they need the "universal hero" to fulfil their good purposes.

Is it too easy to imagine that this is a simplified representation of God?

Friday, April 07, 2006

Artificial modelling of natural selection

I have been writing a program in Visual Basic (and learning VB as I go along, I hasten to add) which demonstrates natural selection.
The squares are "bots" - digital life, if you will. They have "genes" which encode their sex, the age they reach before they die, the age at which they mature, and the age at which they stop being able to breed. Pink is immature female; red is mature female; maroon is senile female: aqua, blue and navy are the corresponding colours for males. A bot is "born" when an empty space (white) has both a mature female and a mature male in adjacent squares. The genes of a child are copied randomly from its parents. A bot "dies" when its age reaches the maximum age value.

The program is far from perfect yet - I'm pretty sure that it isn't protected against somebody trying to crash it. It's nowhere near Avida (although it's a lot more usable!!). Also, I'd like to develop this further to do some more research, and explore more complex selection processes. But it's a start. And I've been impressed with how much you can do with VB.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Old Testament Ethnic Cleansing

One of the challenges to Christianity concerns the description in the Old Testament of the complete wiping out of several nations - including women and children. I thought it would make sense to comment on these accounts briefly.

Firstly, in broad terms I agree that you can't read the accounts of "ethnic cleansing" in the Old Testament without finding it shocking. However ...

... those people whom God ordered the Israelites to slaughter in Joshua - did they have the chance to defend themselves? Yes - and it seems unlikely that the population of a city would be less able to defend itself than a nation that had spent 40 years wandering in a desert. Did they have the chance to agree terms with the Israelites? Yes, in many cases. Would they have spared the Israelites had they managed to beat them in combat? Probably not - check out the military behaviour of some of the other nations of the era - no Geneva Convention then. Did God explain why he asked the Israelites to act against the people? Yes. Did God explain why they should be totally destroyed? Yes.

Does anything in these accounts suggest that what happened at that time could be more generally applied to any other historical context? A resounding NO!

Given that God (if he exists) ushers tens of thousands of people out of this life every day, do you think that "normal, everyday" God is less culpable than "special revelation" God? Presumably not.

Given that (according to the Bible) God gives life as and when he chooses, do you not think that it is within his remit also to take it as and when he chooses?

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

An interesting question ...

... now I come to think of it. The Dover School Board that had sought to introduce consideration of some of the weaknesses of evolutionary theory had been elected out of office in November 2005, prior to the judgement (which appeared in December). Given that the new board were elected on a platform of opposition to the new policy on evolution, and that the policy came up for discussion at their first meeting on December 5th, how come the policy wasn't rescinded at that stage?

Monday, April 03, 2006

Busy times

The drier on the washer/drier has stopped working. The baking tin in the breadmaker keeps popping up and stopping the bread from being mixed. The element in one of the ovens broke. The main computer packed in. The boiler stopped working, meaning we have no hot water or heating. All in the space of a couple of weeks. Do you think you could email us some hot water?

In addition, a friend came and stayed with us on his way to Ghana, and another family intends to stay this coming weekend. In addition, the builders on whom we have been waiting for over a year rang last Thursday and said they were ready to start work on our extension - and turned up with equipment on Friday. In addition, I've taken three meetings at our church in 8 days.

The oven is now fixed (I hope!) - I replaced the element with one I got from somebody on eBay. A boiler engineer has been to look at the boiler, and has ordered some more parts (though it looks as though we'll be without water for most of the week - I really hope we'll have it fixed before this other family turns up!!). Most of the computer functionality has been backed onto two other computers.

Some months are easy: some months are harder.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

What would a real man do?

Amanda pointed me to this post, by Joel, which I enjoyed, and now intend to share with other men of my acquaintance, at least for their discussion. Whilst I approve pretty much of all of what Joel wrote, I am slightly worried about epistemological considerations - he writes, for example, that "God made your skin washable for a reason" - but he doesn't seem to apply this to women.

In the meantime, if anybody is interested in one of the definitive Christian texts on gender, and didn't already know, the entire text of "Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood" by John Piper and Wayne Grudem can be downloaded as a PDF file here (482 pages, 1.4 MB).