Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Music City Unsigned - Leigh Nash

In case you aren't sure whether or not you might like "Blue on Blue", Leigh Nash's album, here's a link to a 25 minute acoustic selection and interview, with at least four of the songs from the album (I've not had time to listen to it through).

In case you thought my initial review was somewhat negative, I guess it's worth giving it some context. My comments were that I didn't think it was great - in other words, not as great as Sixpence, which was about as great as U2 (in other words, in my terms, pretty much as great as you can get). It is merely as good as, say, Dido - in other words, just very, very good. And it's grown on me since.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Sixpence None The Richer - Angel Tread

... featuring a very young Tess, Matt and Leigh. This was on "This Beautiful Mess", one of my favourite albums.

Specialist secondary schools - what's the point?

There aren't many "bog-standard" comprehensives left now - mostly they have become "Business and Enterprise colleges", "Sports specialist schools", "Science and Technology specialist schools". I don't know what sort of resources this requires in setting up - but I have to say, from a parent's perspective, I think that these resources are wasted.

Firstly, this is presented as an aspect of consumer choice - and the current government is addicted to the idea that choice is one of the best things that can be offered. However, many - perhaps most - parents don't really have a choice of secondary school at all, despite the flashy labels. People living in the road near us this year weren't offered their first or second choice of secondary school, instead being offered one which is about 9 miles away, and which would take a 45 minute commute. That's 90 minutes of the student's day doing nothing except travelling. How useful is that?! This was because of various local authority political issues, apparently. On appeal, I think all managed to get more appropriate schools. But for these people, getting ANY local school was a more immediate concern than what the particular specialism of that school is.

Secondly, where parents do have a choice, how many of them would specifically look for (say) a "Language Specialist School", rather than the one which either seemed to offer the best overall teaching, or the best perceived pastoral support for their children? I would guess less than 5%. I would much rather my children were at a school that sought to teach a broad, balanced curriculum well than one which focussed on one particular issue. If for no other reason, this is because children below the age of 16 in many cases only have a vague idea of what sort of specialism they are likely to require when they finish school.

The school that my oldest child has gone to is a Business and Enterprise college. The prospectus talks about the fact that all subjects are taught in the school with a business and enterprise focus, and I have little doubt that they get some money back from businesses by tying up with them. To be honest, however, this was a positive discouragement to me. I was much more interested in the fact that (unlike one option) they were small enough that individual achievement of students was visible and (unlike the other option) their results suggested that children were going to be taught well enough that they would be able to achieve what they were capable of, and not held back. The business/enterprise focus seems to me like the cart driving the horse. Business and enterprise are not the highest goal of society, and education shouldn't therefore be received through a business and enterprise filter. Maths, English, Modern Languages, Science, History, Geography, R.E., Citizenship - all of these can be learnt for their own sake, and if people choose to apply what they have known to the world of business and enterprise, that is for them to decide.

So what's the point? Is this just a way of getting businesses to chip extra money into the education system? Or is it just another really trendy political idea that will fade away in the fullness of time, like so many others? Unfortunately, I hope so.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Some more of Oolon Colluphid's greatest mistakes

I want to continue my look at “Why there almost certainly is no God” from “The God Delusion” (TGD) by Richard Dawkins by considering his reaction to Intelligent Design (ID).

He identifies some creationist groups as arguing alongside proponents of Intelligent Design. I have no doubt that there are some creationists who are seeking a “cheap tuxedo” in which they can dress up their opinions, in the hope that they will have more credibility. The arguments that he presents from the Watchtower booklet, “Life – how did it get here?” are examples of this. However, the fact that he is able to show the limitations of their argument doesn't mean that he has substantially dented ID – because what they are saying never really reflected ID in any case. It was no more than creationism in a cheap tuxedo – but that doesn't mean that all of ID is no more than creationism in a cheap tuxedo.

However, the fact that his argument is likely to fail to engage with real ID becomes apparent pretty quickly. The argument that Dawkins offers from p.148-151 is pretty much the same as it that offered in “The Blind Watchmaker” - 51% of an eye is more useful than 50% of an eye; a rudimentary wing feature may in some circumstances be better than nothing. In actual fact, Michael Behe addresses this whole approach in ten pages of chapter 2 of “Darwin's Black Box”. The whole debate between creationists and darwinists misses the point, Behe points out. At the biochemical level, we are not interested in a percentage of an eye. We can't think of biological systems evolving as a coherent whole. They typically represent the carefully regulated expression of dozens of proteins. Irreducible complexity is about the relationship between these proteins, and the suggestion that there is no selective advantage for the appearance of individual components of such a biochemical system, which would serve no function until the system was largely present.

Dawkins, in TGD, argues that proponents of ID are suggesting that eyes and wings are examples of irreducibly complex systems. But this is simply not the case. Creationists, incorrectly understanding what IC is about, might do that. But Behe wasn't interested in macroscropic biological structures, and whether they could come about in small steps, but the biochemical systems that provide the basis for them. Dawkins directs much of his attention in this section, then, to addressing a misinterpretation of the whole Irreducible Complexity argument. In fact, with only one page of the section of the chapter headed “Irreducible Complexity” to go, Dawkins adds:
The fact that so many people have been dead wrong over these obvious cases should serve to warn us of other examples that are less obvious, such as the cellular and biochemical cases now being toutet by those creationists who shelter under the politically expedient euphemism of “intelligent design theorists”(p.150).
So under the heading of Irreducible Complexity, no attempt has been made at all to respond to Behe's argument about Irreducible Complexity – simply the assertion that since there are flaws in the arguments that Behe has already rejected, it is likely that there are flaws in his as well.

To give credit where it is due, Dawkins then adds:
Maybe there is something out there in nature that really does preclude, by its genuinely irreducible complexity, the smooth gradient of Mount Improbable. The creationists are right that, if genuinely irreducible complexity could be properly demonstrated, it would wreck Darwin's theory. Darwin himself said as much. (p.151)
Of course, if something can be shown to be evolutionarily impossible, Dawkins currently believes that this will also knock design theory on its head, so he's not too fazed by this possibility. Whether he would be more concerned when he sees the weakness of his “Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit” remains to be seen.

Next - Dawkins does engage with Behe - kind of ....

Where Oolon Colluphid went wrong

One of the "flagship" chapters of "The God Delusion" (TGD), by Richard Dawkins, is entitled "Why there almost certainly is no God". I read this today, and unsurprisingly agreed with very little of it. I think that Professor Dawkins has fallen far short of making his case. So here's the first of a couple of posts specifically about this chapter.

The heart of Dawkins argument is in effect that God is very improbable. The greater the improbability of any occurrence, the more improbable a putative designer must be - and if such a designer is improbable, then he/she/it probably doesn't exist -
However statistically improbable the entity you seek to explain by invoking a designer, the designer himself [sic] has got to be at least as improbable. (TGD, paperback edition, p.138)
Dawkins describes this "counter-argument" - which he describes as "the statistical demonstration that God almost certainly doesn't exist" (p.137) - as "the Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit," after Fred Hoyle's likening of the appearance of life to being a whirlwind in a junkyard spinning up an airliner.

Actually, I don't think it's a statistical demonstration of anything, other than the fact that Dawkins can't string together either any coherent mathematics or any coherent philosophy. What I find really mindblowing is that Dawkins thinks that here he has found the great decisive argument that will basically wrap it up for God in one fell swoop. Honestly, if it were that good, does he not think that some of the really great atheist minds of the past might have got there before him?

It is worth noting that one of the benefits of this argument is that it seems to make Dawkins completely irrefutable. Is life likely to appear? If so, it is a matter of ease for darwinian processes. Is life unlikely to appear? Then as God is even more unlikely to be present than life, it must be down to a non-theistic process. Again, if it were really that easy to make a case against God, does he not think that somebody might have got there before? And since they haven't, can't he harbour a few grammes of uncertainty about the soundness of his argument?

Dawkins reduces the design argument to "these things are improbable". That may be a fair representation of the design argument as it is presented in the Watchtower tracts he uses to illustrate his point, but it is hardly reflective of "Darwin's Black Box" or "The Privileged Planet" - I'll come to this in more detail later. But as is pointed out - as indeed Dawkins himself points out - the improbability of life or the universe on its own doesn't constitute an argument for anything. If you can't infer that life is designed solely on the grounds of its improbability (which you can't - and indeed, for that matter, proponents of ID don't - due to anthropic effects), then neither can you infer that belief that there isn't a God is reasonable on the grounds of such a God's improbability. God either exists, or he doesn't. The improbability of the proposition has little bearing on its truth. Conan Doyle places the phrase "Once you have eliminated the impossible, then whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth," in the mouth of Sherlock Holmes. The same applies here - the fact that something is improbable has little bearing on its truth.

Secondly, I think Dawkins is confusing the ideas of improbability and specified complexity. Opponents of ID may express frustration and disagreement with the way Dembski uses such terms in his arguments - but Dawkins makes no attempt to define them at all, or even express any awareness of what the differences between them might be. A random sequence of letters picked from a Scrabble bag is improbable, but it is not complex. The sequence of letters "whatdoyougetwhenyoumultiplysixbynine" is just as improbable as any other sequence of letters with the same length, but it signifies more than a random sequence. That is why Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect recognise it as significant in "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy". Life isn't just improbable, it is complex. Likewise, surely it isn't simply the improbability of a hypothetical God that is the issue, it is the complexity of such a God. If you are framing a philosophical argument, such issues need to be carefully defined.

However, this doesn't deal with Dawkins' argument - it just highlights the fact that he doesn't apparently really understand what he is talking about, or is deliberately simplifying things for the sake of his readers. This latter seems unlikely, given how he resents how religions patronise their followers in this way.

Another approach that doesn't deal with Dawkins' argument is to raise the question of how improbable something is. Dembski placed a bound on this - he suggested that there was a limit to the amount of specified complexity that life could have. It is worth noticing that Dawkins was prepared to attach numbers as well. On the issue of abiogenesis, he suggests that there may be a billion billion planets in the universe, and life may arise on a billion of them. One might suggest that if there are a billion billion planets in the universe and abiogenesis only arises on one (ours), or evolution only apparently produces complex life on one (ours), then Dawkins would consider himself corrected. It would be interesting to compare Dawkins' figures here with the figures he put forward in "The Blind Watchmaker", during the height of the Sagan era - unfortunately, I don't have a copy to hand. However, the empirical assessment of these numbers will have to wait, for now. Dembski was far more generous than Dawkins - offering not one in a billion billion (1018) chances but one in 10150 chances as the statistically significant boundary.

Most significantly, though, there is the issue of whether the fact that a supposed God was more complex than anything in the universe would actually be an argument against such a God's existence. I have pointed out before that everything in the universe is contingent - right back to the Big Bang - even if we aren't in a position to determine all those contingencies (and no, I'm not proposing to put God in those gaps in our knowledge, Dawkins and Bonhoeffer will be pleased to know). But there is no reason to think that a hypothetical cause of the universe - which, unlike the staggering quantum fluctuation which some suggest bootstrapped the universe into existence, would be external to the universe, not bound by space-time or energetic constraints - need also be contingent. The fact that the complexity that we observe in the universe is contingent does not mean that the complexity of a cause for the universe would also have to be contingent. This is why Dawkins' argument doesn't stand up.


If I had to choose one or the other, I would say I was a Calvinist. I certainly wouldn't go beyond Calvinism - after all, since we have no knowledge now of what God's sovereign purposes are in particular cases, they can't really determine our actions. But I do believe that God has somehow chosen certain people to be saved.

Yes, I know that causes problems. However, the theological cost of Arminianism is too great. David Heddle has a post on the issue here.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

A biblical theology of giving

Stewardship Services is an organisation that has been established to assist Christian believers and the church as a whole in the matter of giving and financial administration. On their website, they say:
We see Stewardship as more than a service. It is a value - a lifestyle choice that recognises God's ownership of all that we have.

Our approach is twofold:

• Facilitating effective giving - serving over 20,000 donors, we distribute more than £30 million of giving into God's world every year.
• Promoting biblical principles and practice - of joyful giving, planned stewardship, and generosity.
As a church treasurer, I found the attitude of Stewardship Services considerably more servant-like than CAF - who, after all, are less specifically a Christian organisation.

Derek Bigg, the author of "In Pursuit of the Truth", was invited by them to contribute an article for their website, "Christian Stewardship: A Biblical Perspective". The article explores some of the ideas covered in the last chapter of his book relating to our use of money.
As we now consider what the way of grace means for us today, we must first of all accept that the New Testament contains no direct teaching on regular, long-term giving. We only have the apostle Paul’s instructions in his letters to Corinth regarding a special collection. As with so many practical issues, we must look for the basic principles underlying the specific teaching given in the 1st century. We then have to apply them to our own 21st century situation. In 2 Corinthians 8-9 we find five principles of major significance. Here they are:
• Adopt the right attitude.
• Let your heart be the arbiter.
• Give in proportion to blessing received.
• Aim for Christian equality.
• Follow the example of Christ.

Behe disowned

Actually, not.

Disowned: internet definitions - Any connection is denied. To refuse to acknowledge or accept as one's own; repudiate.

This is what the Lehigh Department of Biological Sciences has said, in response to Michael Behe's work.
The faculty in the Department of Biological Sciences is committed to the highest standards of scientific integrity and academic function. This commitment carries with it unwavering support for academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas. It also demands the utmost respect for the scientific method, integrity in the conduct of research, and recognition that the validity of any scientific model comes only as a result of rational hypothesis testing, sound experimentation, and findings that can be replicated by others.

The department faculty, then, are unequivocal in their support of evolutionary theory, which has its roots in the seminal work of Charles Darwin and has been supported by findings accumulated over 140 years. The sole dissenter from this position, Prof. Michael Behe, is a well-known proponent of "intelligent design." While we respect Prof. Behe's right to express his views, they are his alone and are in no way endorsed by the department. It is our collective position that intelligent design has no basis in science, has not been tested experimentally, and should not be regarded as scientific.
Has Behe been "disowned"? No. His position on Intelligent Design has been disowned. So Dawkins (who worded it that way first), NCSE (which picked up his review) and all the bloggers that have followed them are all really going beyond what Lehigh have said.

And thus falls into place another misleading darwinist myth ....

News from Cutabaria

You might like to know how my Nationstates country is getting on. Then again, you might not, but I'm going to tell you, anyway.
UN Category: Liberal Democratic Socialists
Civil Rights: Good
Economy: Fair
Political Freedoms: Superb

The Most Serene Republic of Cutabaria is a huge, environmentally stunning nation, renowned for its burgeoning starfish population. Its compassionate, intelligent population of 423 million love a good election, and the government gives them plenty of them. Universities tend to be full of students debating the merits of various civil and political rights, while businesses are tightly regulated and the wealthy viewed with suspicion.

It is difficult to tell where the omnipresent, corrupt, socially-minded government stops and the rest of society begins, but it is mainly concerned with Education, although Social Welfare and Law & Order are secondary priorities. The average income tax rate is 46%, but much higher for the wealthy. The private sector is almost wholly made up of enterprising fourteen-year-old boys selling lemonade on the sidewalk, although the government is looking at stamping this out.

Voting has become a nightmare since everyone keeps selecting "None of the above", police officers are seen patrolling the streets armed with satellite-guided truncheons, referenda can be called for any law at the request of at least one third of the voting population, and citizens are remarkably well involved in the political process. Crime is totally unknown, thanks to a well-funded police force and progressive social policies in education and welfare. Cutabaria's national animal is the starfish, which is also the nation's favorite main course, and its currency is the chocolate bar.
I have also tracked down a copy of Max Barry's book, "Jennifer Government", which is what Nationstates is all about - and if I get an hour or so, I'll write a review of it. For now, I'll just say it's like Ben Elton without the diatribes. That's good, by the way.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Darwin or Design?

(H/T Telic Thoughts)

People interested in the issues surrounding Intelligent Design may be interested in an audio-book that has been put together by Jason Rennie, called "Darwin or Design?" It consists of a series of 25 interviews with a range of people who are connected with the arguments - both pro and anti-ID. The first interview is with the scary P.Z.Myers - who in real life is not quite as scary as his Pharyngula persona might suggest. Nick Matzke, who according to William Dembski has put together the most coherent explanation for how an apparently irreducibly complex system might evolve, is also interviewed. There are interviews with Michael Behe ("The Edge of Evolution"), Guillermo Gonzalez ("The Privileged Planet"), Mike Gene ("The Design Matrix"), Del Ratzsch, Elliot Sober, Denyse O'Leary and others.

A couple of thoughts on this. The internet offers the opportunity for far wider discussion and interchange than was offered by traditional media and publishing, and also a much more direct access between writers and their readers. This is an excellent example of this. The Darwin or Design website includes a discussion forum - the making available of the book is only a first step.

And on issues like this, in particular, if the argument could move away from two sides being suspicious of each other and bashing one another, and towards a real dialogue, we could perhaps see a return to the sort of engagement with ideas that was typical of the golden age in Athens, for example.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Interesting propositions

A society without insulting and boorish behaviour is one without freedom. A society without freedom is not civilised.

I have reservations about the second statement and disagree with the first, but I think they are interesting points for debate.

Regarding the second statement. The problem here, as I see it, is one of definitions. "Society" I can run with, at least for now. But what is "freedom"? What is "civilised"? I would suggest that such terms are socially conditioned, not universal - and I would suggest that this can be demonstrated historically.

To consider the sentence in today's cultural terms, people's normal understanding of "freedom" normally means "individual freedom" - the freedom for me to do as I wish, at least as long as it doesn't harm anybody else. Trivially, if somebody considers "individual freedom" the highest good for a society, then the sentence is tautological - and with respect to the commenter, I suspect he/she may be in this category of people. As for me, I do regard individual freedom as a desirable characteristic for a society - but this is coupled with the fact that I believe people should largely be prepared to use their individual freedom for the sake of others.

The next issue is, given the first sentence, whether being "insulting and boorish" is actually harming anybody. I would suggest that it is causing harm - it is psychologically intimidating, and provoking others to dislike. Should freedom include the freedom to be insulting and boorish? Actually, I would say yes - because my idea of freedom (perhaps like my commenter) acknowledges the fact that it includes the potential for harming other people.

This is actually kind of obvious. If I am permitted to drive a car at normal speeds, then I actually have the freedom (technically) to run somebody over and kill them. This is a "freedom to harm somebody" that we all take for granted. Of course, it would be socially unacceptable (and in fact, a criminal act) - but our society grants us the freedom to do it - it doesn't constrain us in such a way that we are unable to do it.

Does that mean that being insulting and boorish is characteristic of a free society? Well, hopefully not. Not in the "conventional" free society in today's terms - because being insulting and boorish is harming others. And not in my "free" society either - because the freedom of the individual is used primarily to serve other members of the society, rather than get what the individual wants. (I trust that theologically aware readers may recognise the sort of behaviour that is required of Christians in this model of a free society.)

So how would I rewrite this first sentence? I would have said, "A society in which insulting and boorish behaviour is forbidden is one without freedom." However, I don't think that such behaviour is a sign of a healthy society - and were my commenter not being an apologist for Richard Dawkins, I think he would concede this as well.

There are many people who don't have much time for the idea that an omnipotent god could allow evil. However, this discussion relates closely to how Christians traditionally justify the presence of evil behaviour. Should people be created genuinely free, and consequently able to do things that are wrong? Or should their freedom be circumscribed, to prevent this? Many people might suggest that the fact that people are capable of doing things that are considered evil means that there can't be an omnipotent god.

Oddly, the data can be interpreted in exactly the opposite way. If a god creates us genuinely free, then we have to be free to do evil, not just good. Conversely, I would argue that the whole concepts of "right" and "wrong" become fundamentally meaningless without the concept of an external absolute. Of course, people don't behave that way, and will argue that morality is an evolutionarily advantageous trait. I certainly don't disagree that both the theist and the atheist are moral beings. I'm just not convinced that (as with many aspects of how atheism works) the case for morality as it is found in humans is coherent within an atheist framework.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

There is an argument ...

... against the existence of God which runs like this. Life is incredibly complex, subtle and improbable. Therefore anything that designed it must be vastly more complex, subtle and improbable. But where could such a thing come from? Therefore there is no designer. Therefore God doesn't exist. Almost certainly.

However, it is a silly argument. Suppose life were so complex, subtle and improbable that it couldn't possibly have appeared by chance. That would mean it was definitely the product of a designer, and that designer would definitely be exceedingly complex, subtle and improbable - maybe infinitely so.

But where could such a designer come from? The very fact that life of this sort required a God would be the proof that such a God did not exist.

The flaw in the argument, of course, is that the necessity for such a designer to "come from" anywhere has not been established. Well, that about wraps it up for Dawkins. Perhaps he will go on to prove that black is white ....

Friday, July 13, 2007

"The God Delusion" - my reaction (3)

It wasn't surprising that Dawkins' writing in "The God Delusion" upset religious people. However, Dawkins was apparently taken by surprise by the fact that a variety of atheists - who he would probably have counted on to fall in line behind him - weren't impressed with his book. In the preface to the paperback edition, Dawkins is apparently seeking to respond to their reasons for challenging him.

"You always attack the worst of religion and ignore the best." By "the best", Dawkins means exponents of "subtle, nuanced" religion like Tillich and Bonhoeffer. I don't know whether that was the sort of person the critics had in mind - or even if that is a fair summary of the point being made by reviewers, not having the offending reviews to hand.

It matters little. As far as Dawkins is concerned,
the kind of understated, decent, revisionist religion is numerically negligible. To the vast majority of believers around the world, religion all to closely resembles what you hear from the likes of (Pat) Robertson, (Jerry) Falwell or (Ted) Haggard, Osama bin Laden or the Ayatollah Khomeini. These are not straw men, they are all too influential, and everybody in the modern world has to deal with them. (The God Delusion, paperback edition, p.15)
Well, they certainly aren't straw men in the sense that they are real people. And people like Tillich and Bonhoeffer may be few and far between. But a reality check (as the McGraths often say in The Dawkins Delusion?). Are most "religious people" that you know threatening to overthrow civilisation? Certainly the ones I know aren't - and I'm one of those dangerous evangelical Christians. It's not the case for Christianity in the US either, as far as I know - yes, there are squeaky wheels, and doubtless they have more influence than Dawkins might like, but they are far from being a majority. Yes, mainstream Christians may have political opinions in the US that we consider wacky - but their Christianity is only one of their defining characteristics. Political conservatism is just as significant.

What Dawkins says in this paragraph is simply wrong. There may be few people like Tillich and Bonhoeffer - but there are also few people like the "crude rabble-rousing chancers" that he nominates, and the majority of people live their lives with little reference to their views. Arguing that literally hundreds of millions of religious people who just quietly get on with their life believe that religion is what is presented by extremists is either paranoid, badly informed or deliberately misrepresentative.

(Or evil, but I'd rather not consider that.)

Thursday, July 12, 2007

"The God Delusion" - my reaction (2)

I want to look at the preface to the paperback edition of Dawkins' new book, and particularly at Dawkins' reactions to atheists who he feels haven't approved of it in clear enough terms. One of the reactions that Dawkins comments on is:
I'm an atheist, but I wish to dissociate myself from your shrill, strident, intemperate, intolerant, ranting language. (The God Delusion, paperback edition, p.16)
I find Dawkins' response to this intriguing. His defence is basically that we take in our stride other shrill, intemperate language - "when listening to political commentators for example, or theatre, art or book critics." He adds that religious faith seems to be "uniquely privileged: above and beyond criticism".

As evidence he firstly offers a series of restaurant reviews, which I agree are strongly worded. However, surely Dawkins can see that there is a substantial difference between journalism and writing this sort of non-fiction. Surely he can see that there is a stylistic difference necessary between commentary on a historically particular event (a meal, a play, a book) and serious treatise on something universal (whether or not there is a God). Again, bear in mind that Dawkins is here complaining not about theists' reactions to his book (whose opinions, I would suggest, he has already discounted), but those of atheists who are protesting that he has gone too far. If this is his genuinely thought-out position on this matter, he can hardly grumble about intemperate reviews from anybody - he must also expect to take them in his stride.

Then he offers the 1915 anti-German opinions of MP Horatio Bottomley (!). But he acknowledges that those words - written in the context of one of the most dreadful wars of the modern era! - were likely "ridiculous and ineffective as rhetoric even in its own time". I certainly wouldn't take such views in my stride, and apparently he hasn't either. So why does he use them in defence of his own writing?

Then he says "a politician may attack an opponent scathingly across the floor of the House and earn plaudits for his robust pugnacity." But there are limits there as well. Use of "unparliamentary language" - which extends even to describing another parliamentarian as a liar, or drunk, even when they may in fact be so - may lead to suspension from the house. So again, given that there are limits in the political arena, how can this provide a defence for his shrill, intemperate language?

What this last point leads to is that, even if shrill, intemperate language is acceptable in this form of literature, doesn't a civil society demand politeness? It isn't a question of religion being accorded a more privileged position than anything else - it is simply that as a matter of common courtesy: you treat opponents in all matters as you would wish to be treated yourself. Dawkins hopes to demonstrate that atheism offers a new dawn for civilisation - and yet even one of the approving reviews quoted in this edition of his book describes Dawkins as cajoling and bullying (Sunday Times, Perth). Is that how the new dawn is to be brought in? It is hardly surprising that religious groups act in a defensive manner, when this sort of intimidating language is brought to bear on them.

He also adds that the opening sentence of chapter 2 - a charge sheet of the crimes of the God of the Old Testament - "is the one passage that is guaranteed to get a good-natured laugh, which is why my wife and I invariably use it as the warm-up act to break the ice with a new audience." What kind of justification is that? Could a racist or sexist comedian or social commentator use the same argument to justify their use of an offensive joke to "warm up" a new audience by getting a cheap laugh? I have little doubt that Dawkins would say no. So how can he use it to justify his own behaviour?

Perhaps Dawkins might possibly go on to argue, "Well, they started it" - indeed, later, he quotes with some apparent resentment from the Psalms - "The fool says in his heart, there is no God." However, again we have the fact that The God Delusion is a different form of literature - it claims to be a treatise containing a definitive case in support of a particular argument, whereas it claims that religious texts are pretty much self-invalidating. So why behave like one? And again, if Dawkins' aim is a new dawn of civilised society, what better way of demonstrating that than rising above the sort of behaviour he expresses such dislike for from religions?

What is apparent from this section alone is that, far from being the case that religion is uniquely privileged, Dawkins feel he has a unique privilege to behave boorishly. The accusations against him stand, and his defence, at least in this preface, is self-justifying and shallow. It is hardly surprising, since he has implied in the past that ultimately it is only his understanding of the world that could possibly be right - "I really don't think I'm arrogant, but I do get impatient with people who don't share with me the same humility in front of the facts." Of course, this will matter little to those people who choose to align themselves with him - people like P.Z.Myers, who he also quotes in this preface, who have suggested breaking out the jackboots to overcome the religious forces of darkness.

"Oh, brave new world ..."

"The God Delusion" - my reaction (1)

I withheld from buying Richard Dawkins' latest book for a long time. There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, I knew what he was going to say – at least in outline – it is ground he has rehearsed in other books and his television series. (Of course, his views need not be taken seriously, as he has not seen fit to publish them in any peer-reviewed publications.) Secondly, given his support of organisations dedicated to spreading the message of humanism, I was reluctant to contribute to his royalty income.

There were a couple of down-sides to this. The first was that I waived my opportunity to say anything original and timely about the book here – thus foregoing the sort of site traffic that I have only attracted with about three posts in the past. The second was that, in some people's opinions, I did not have the right to have any opinion about the book. I don't think Dawkins himself would agree with this – I'll come to that in a future post.

The appearance of the paperback edition allowed me to buy the book with less money going to atheistic “good causes”. Professor Dawkins also did me the favour of writing a preface to the paperback edition, and I therefore have something I can write about which will not have been looked at by most of the reviewers.

Most of this preface was written in response to the “I'm an atheist BUT ...” community – those people who he might have considered he was doing a favour to by writing his book, but who in many cases felt that he had said too much too strongly. He continues to be indifferent to the sensitivities of religious believers who might read his book, or have to face the arguments that he presents. He describes such people as “faith-heads” in the first paragraph, and suggests the etymologically stupid use of the word “relusional” as a contraction of “religiously delusional” - doubtless it's only a matter of time before that is tiresome common currency, much as “IDiot” and “Flying Spaghetti Monster” are. However, he apparently has hardly any more time for these “vicarious second-order believers”, whose zeal is “pumped up by ingratiating broad-mindedness”.

In coming posts, I intend to look briefly at the arguments from these second-order believers – not religious people, remember, but atheists and agnostics, who simply don't share Dawkins' hatred for religion, and Dawkins' response to them.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Frustration with French

My poor children are trying to learn French the National Curriculum way. This approach seems to rely fundamentally on the principle: "Don't mention grammar!" It's little wonder that English people are so bad at languages, because we aren't ever taught how they work.

So they learn lots of phrases and bits and pieces. You can say, "J'aime le sport. C'est génial!" from a pretty early stage. But nobody tells you that "j'aime" is part of the verb "aimer", which if you want to, you can do an awful lot more with. And even more frustratingly, nobody ever seems to say anymore: "être, avoir, faire, aller - these are four irregular verbs which will take a little while to learn, but once you have got to grips with them, you will actually be able to communicate a huge range of ideas." This represents about four lessons' worth of learning - but would do more to make people confident in basic French than three whole years of learning phrases about liking Coca Cola and going to the park to do sport tomorrow.

Of course, if you are immersed in French culture, then you learn fast - by trial and error - starting from a relatively small vocabulary. That's how children learn language at home. Think of the mistakes that we make as children - "brung" instead of "brought", "buyed" instead of "bought", "goed away" instead of "went away". The reason that those mistakes are made are because we are trying to apply rules we have intuitively picked up too simply to the language - not because we have no awareness of them. As we grow, our stock of rules grows, and we become more adept at using language.

But children learning a second language simply aren't in an environment where they have the ability to try out different rules they have intuitively worked out. So they just end up with the stock of a few hundred basic phrases, all individually learnt, all with no connection to each other. It's SOOOO much harder to learn that way, and it's hardly surprising that the whole lot has been dumped by the time the child is 17.

My recommendation for the government? It doesn't make any difference how young you start teaching a foreign language, if you aren't teaching it in a way that corresponds with how people's minds work. Literacy levels in primary schools have risen since the National Literacy Strategy was initiated - to the extent that many children go to secondary school with loads of English Language concepts that they simply don't need through GCSE. Unsurprisingly, children tend to "go backwards" educationally in year 7, which I think still hasn't been adapted to deal with the ground that is covered in Key Stage 1 and 2. If you want people to learn foreign languages, find better ways of teaching them. By all means teach vocabulary and phrases to primary children. But if you want secondary children to really learn languages, then for goodness' sake teach them how the languages work!

Monday, July 02, 2007

"Edge of Evolution" - theology of mechanism

A commenter writes:
ID is what is not testable, because no mechanism or characteristic outcome is proposed (aside from "it looks complex sometimes, other times it's simple, whatever the designer decides").
Interestingly, Behe goes into more detail in his book on this issue. As I've said already, Behe accepts both common descent and natural selection. What he takes issue with is whether random mutation, as a key part of darwinism, is up to the job of explaining the complexity of life.

What's the alternative? He points out that if there is a "designer" who is able to fine tune the cosmos in such a way as to make it fit for habitation, there's no inherent reason that it shouldn't be possible for this designer also to arrange events - either at the time the universe appears or at a later stage - to bring about other goals that he wishes.

This line of argument reminded me of Schaeffer's argument that propositional revelation is not nonsense. I'm not sure it actually leads any further than deism - but then, I would suggest that Romans 1 argues that this is pretty much as far as general revelation would take you anyway, which is fair enough. Behe argues that further discussion about the nature of the designer is a matter for philosophy and theology - again, I'm pretty happy with that.

"So," the opponent of ID then answers, "ID is unfalsifiable. Behe is saying that the events that make up the evolutionary history of life could be interpreted as 'natural' - the inevitable outcome of the starting circumstances. If it is natural, how does that differ from a naturalistic explanation? Surely all you are doing is invoking some external agency, which is an unnecessary philosophical/theological step."

To which my answer would be: Riiiiiiiiiight. So I toss a coin and it comes up heads, That's luck. I do it again. Heads - luck again. I do it a hundred times, all heads. Luck. I shuffle a pack of cards and deal them - all the spades in order, then all the hearts in order, then all the diamonds in order, then all the clubs in order. Luck. I press keys at random on a computer, and come up with the complete works of Shakespeare. Luck.

What Behe is saying is, yes, you could possibly contrive a series of circumstances in which events happen in such a way that we end up where we are today. But to describe this as the outcome of "random" mutations, and the design of the universe as being "lucky" would be disingenuous. If things are that specific - tailored that carefully to produce life - then darwinism is certainly not the right picture, because this is not a "random" outcome - it is highly non-random, just as the circumstances that led to the moon being the size it is must have been highly specific, and the fine tuning of fundamental constants is also highly non-random. As has been pointed out before, once a sufficiently low level of probability is reached (Ford and Arthur turning into penguins?), we basically say, "Impossible." I don't believe that it is reasonable to say that something is so improbable that it is (to all accounts and purposes) impossible, but then shrug and say, "Well, it happened. We're here, aren't we?"

Let's put it another way. Suppose the world in which we find ourselves does turn out to be an incredibly low-probability outcome. In these circumstances, what would falsify the darwinian view of the world? If you can say that, no matter how improbable the outcome, it was just random mutations getting lucky, then under what circumstances can you say that darwinism isn't true? If there are none, then darwinism is every bit as unfalsifiable as it is claimed ID is by its opponents.

Behe also looks at the multiverse idea - does this have more explanatory power? He argues not - and specifically, if you have an infinite number of universes, he argues, then you have explained nothing at all, since in an infinite number of those infinite number, the entire universe will in fact be a trick of our consciousness, rather than something that really exists.

I have my reservations about Behe's thoughts here - that everything might be regarded as a "natural" outcome. My hunch - though I don't have the science to back it - is that if Christianity is true, there has been "supernatural" input at various stages - perhaps corresponding with the six biblical days of creation. However, this is theology, not science ....

"Edge of Evolution" - a cure for malaria?

One of the interesting aspects that can be drawn from Behe's book is that, if life requires intelligent design, it should be possible to devise a cure for malaria. Conversely, if a cure for malaria can be found along the lines that Behe suggests (not any old cure), this would be evidence in support of an ID perspective.

How so?

Behe argues that for most new anti-malarial drugs, a single specific mutation in the malaria parasite genome is sufficient to convey resistance to the drug in the organism. Because of the number of parasite cells reproducing in a human, it is fairly likely that this resistance would naturally arise quite quickly - and indeed, it has been shown, he argues, that most new anti-malarials have limited long-term value.

By far the most successful anti-malarial drug is chloroquine. He argues that the reason for this is that for a parasite to be resistant to this drug, it requires two mutations. A single mutation in any given parasite is improbable - but with large numbers of parasites per person, it is likely that resistance will not take long to arise. For an organism to undergo two mutations, both of which are required to provide resistance, is much less probable - and the number of occasions around the world where chloroquine resistance has developed in a parasite is very few. I think Behe says that the mutations don't have to be simultaneous, but they do have to both be present - and this is not likely to happen - I apologise if I am misrepresenting his argument.

So, Behe argues, the way to beat malaria is to provide a drug that the parasite would only be able to have resistance to with four mutations in the genome. The probability of any parasite having all four mutations would be exceedingly small.

Given the state of the art in devising anti-malarials, it strikes me that this would in any case be a sensible long-term aim for drug development. However, Behe argues, whereas darwinism holds no hope - random mutations will achieve anything in the end, darwinism argues (despite the obvious fact that chloroquine requiring two mutations has been measurably more successful than other drugs requiring one) - his presentation, which argues that such developments are outside "the edge of evolution" is more optimistic - it suggests that malaria could be defeated.