Wednesday, December 31, 2008

From seven to one

According to Christopher Booker, the seven basic plots can, in fact, be reduced to different aspects of one story:
Each begins by showing us a hero or heroine in some way incomplete, who then encounters the dark power. Through most of the story the dark power remains dominant, casting a shadow in which all remains unresolved. But the essence of the action is that it shows us the light and dark forces in the story gradually constellating to produce a final, decisive confrontation. As a result, in any story which reaches complete resolution (and of course for reasons we will explore there are many which do not), the ending shows us how the dark power can be overthrown, with the light ending triumphant. The only question is whether the central figure is identified with the light, in which case he or she ends up liberated and whole; or whether they have fallen irrevocably into the grip of darkness, inwhich case they are destroyed. But, whatever the fate of the central figure, the real underlying purpose of the process has been to show us how, in the end, light overcomes the darkness. Such is the archetypal pattern around which our human urge to imagine stories is ultimately centred.
A couple of thoughts. First, how "light" and "darkness" are defined isn't necessarily linked to a particular morality. A friend recently wrote an essay relating to a couple of short stories, in whih the heroines found themselves "liberated" through what would be conventionally immoral behaviour. But even so, the dynamic is one of movement from darkness and confusion into light in a properly resolved narrative. (I've yet to see what he does with unresolved ones: still only at page 250 of 700 or so!) However, there is a sense of morality of some sort; Macbeth, Humbert, Bonnie and Clyde are clearly recognisable as people who have transgressed, no matter how sympathetic the reader is to them at different stages.

Next, and this is one that really interests me, is how closely this reflects a Christian perception of the world. Booker is, as far as I know, not a Christian, and refers to the evolutionary origins of such archetypes. Later in the book, he intends to develop his theory about the origin. However, it is striking that the very language he uses to describe these archetypes should have been borrowed so directly from the gospels.

As I've mentioned before, my theory is that we are designed to respond to certain forms of narrative because the designer has a particular narrative to tell that it is important to understand. This narrative is an historical one, and relates to a battle between light and darkness - and the key question is whether a person aligns themselves with light or with darkness. Interesting that such a weighty work should come to a conclusion about narrative which should be so linked.

More generally, this book is amazing, and I really don't want it to end. It is presenting a kind of "Grand Unified Theory" not only of literature but of all narrative, and making a reading list for me for the rest of my life! Peer Gynt,, The Snow Queen and Dorian Gray are all there now ... yeah, I know, should have read them already. I've had a lot on ....

Favourite albums

"This Beautiful Mess", Sixpence None The Richer
Their later albums, "Divine Discontent" and the self-titled one, were more polished, but the expressiveness of the lyrics on this one, together with Tess Wiley's harmony on Leigh Nash's lead vocal, make this my favourite, at least this week.

"Achtung Baby", U2
Chuck away the first three tracks (Zoo Station, Even Better, One) and listen to the bitterest songs the Fab Four ever strung together.

"Rainy Day Assembly", Tess Wiley
Again, Tess's other albums are good, but the strength of the writing and singing in this one make it my favourite.

"Going for the One", Yes
Particularly for "Turn of the Century", though all the songs are incredibly well crafted musically, in my opinion.

"Little Creatures", Talking Heads
The most commercially successful of their albums, and certainly one of the most accessible. "Stop Making Sense", from their concert film, is up there as well.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Ooh, this is exciting!

As we look at how each of the basic plots has developed what may be called its 'dark' and 'sentimental' versions, we see how a particular element of disintegration has crept into modern storytelling which distinguishes it from anything seen in history before. But this in turn merely reveals one of the most remarkable features of how stories take shape in human imagination; because we also see how those archetypal rules which have governed storytelling since the dawn of history have in no way changed. In fact these 'aberrant' stories not only obey the same rules; they even in themselves provide all the clues to understanding what has gone amiss, and why they cannot come to fully satisfactory endings. They thus show us just how and why in the collective psyche of our culture this element of disintegration should have arisen.
The next page (slow - I've been busy)...

Really looking forward to this book ...

The further my investigation proceeded, the more clearly two things emerged. The first was that there are indeed a small number of plots which are so fundamental to the way we tell stories that it is virtually impossible for any storyteller ever entirely to break away from them.

The second was that, the more familiar we become with the nature of these shaping forms and forces lying beneath the surface of stories, pushing them into patterns and directions which are beyond the storyteller's conscious control, the more we find that we are entering a realm to which recognition of the plots themselves proves only to have been the gateway. We are in fact uncovering nothing less than a kind of hidden, universal language: a nucleus of situations and figures which are the very stuff from which stories are made. And once we become acquainted with this symbolic language, and begin to catch something of its extraordinary significance, there is literally no story in the world which cannot then be seen in a new light: because we have come to the heart of what stories are about and why we tell them.

"The Seven Basic Plots", Christopher Booker p.6

Not my idea ...

In a recent post. I restated my idea that the universal hero was not somebody that we are all supposed to identify ourselves with, but is in fact a representation of somebody that we are all looking for. This is a specific case of a general idea that we are all designed to respond to narrative, because there is a great narrative that as humans we are hardwired somehow to look for aand respond to.

I was reminded today that this thesis is not in fact mine - a good thing, as I certainly don't have the knowledge to defend it. It apparently comes from an English professor from the University of Oxford, so it has fairly respetable academic standing.

The professor is C.S.Lewis. If any reader knows which (if any) of his books includes a statement of this thory, I'd love to hear from you, so that I can see what he actually does say!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The problem of miracles ...

... is one that is entirely a consequence of presuppositions.

Let's define a miracle first of all as an event which lies outside the bounds of normal cause and effect. This isn't something which is just a little improbable - somebody with cancer going into remission, for example, or somebody winning the lottery. It is something which is so improbable as to be considered impossible by any sensible person - for example, the sun standing still, or somebody who has been dead for three days coming back to life, or feeding 5000 and more people from a child's packed lunch. I think it was Arthur C. Clarke who pointed out that had the sun genuinely stopped moving in the sky, everybody on the planet would have slid across the surface for a thousand miles or so. In scientific terms, then, these miracles are preposterous.

Traditionally, alternative explanations are found, and the most hard-boiled miracles - the ones where it really becomes impossible to explain the narrative in terms of anything else - end up being discounted as myth. Why is that? Because such events lie outside our concept of how cause and effect work - we don't see how that can have been brought about. What has happened is that we have asserted, in effect, that all events must be confined to material cause and effect. Miracles don't happen, basically, because miracles don't happen.

Incidentally, a kind of reverse process happens for some aspects of myth. I remember in secondary school, some aspects of the account of Jason's travels in the Argo sound scientifically preposterous. But set against the background of the explosion of Santorini, all of a sudden some of the events become somewhat more explicable. That's another post, though ....

If you don't believe in God, or you believe in a God who is constrained to act in accordance with the laws of the universe, or you believe in a God who is detached from the universe, then it's inevitable that you will end up having to find an alternative explanation for miracles. But from a Christian point of view, there is no such problem. In Christian epistemological terms, the universe is God's universe. He created it; he has the ability to define the nature of reality. If he chooses to make the sun stand still over Gibeon - to suspend the laws of nature for some period of time, in one locality - then he can do that. The fact that there is no scientific way of explaining how it happened and no evidence for it is neither here nor there. That doesn't mean it didn't take place - simply that our scientific framework gives us no ability to determine how it took place.

Of course, this itself will rankle with people brought up on anything close to a materialistic worldview. "If we can't explain it, and there is no evidence for it, then how can we know it happened?" The thing is that materialism doesn't provide a worldview for explaining everything we see anyway. Aside from the fact that we can't really escape definitively from the solipsistic perspective that everything is in fact a dream, we then have to wrestle with the fact that materialism doesn't actually provide anything like a proper explanation of why there should be anything rather than nothing. In other words, rejecting accounts of miracles because they aren't consistent with a materialistic explanation of an event begs the issue that materialism fails to provide an adequate explanation of phenomena which are observed, and which we are unable to reject.

This is, I think, the heart of one of Berlinski's arguments against "atheism and its scientific pretentions" in "The Devil's Delusion".

Friday, December 19, 2008

A post from Madrid

I'm sitting in the breakfast room of the Auditorium hotel, near Barajas airport, which has the most impressive breakfast buffet I have ever seen - and, for that matter, is probably the biggest breakfast room I have ever seen, including the vast clinical ones at Disney. And the muzak is particularly classy.

I am writing this thanks to the free internet access the hotel provides, and my G1 phone, which isn't as good as a proper computer, but is cheaper and also allows me to make more phonecalls per month than I can conceive of being to able to use, right now. I do have a notebook with me, but wireless networking on our XP computers seems to have gone batty, and its ethernet socket has never worked properly. Shame, or I could Skype right out of my bedroom.

The breakfast ought to make up for the general frustration of being here, but to be honest I don't feel like eating much. I had about three of my five a day, in the form of fresh fruit, and a couple of coffees and a croissant. But I'm still clanked from my "easy" journey here yesterday, which was 80 minutes late, and then followed by a wait outside the terminal for 50 minutes for a shuttle bus to the hotel. It being holiday season, a selection of these buses has been cancelled, and they rather neatly coincide with the buses I would want to take. So I also have to go to work half an hour earlier than I need to, to ensure I get there in time. Oh well, not like there's much else worth doing.

The reason for this post is really to point out that I do intend to write from here, but due to the limited writing and viewing facilities, there may be more in the way of spelling and formatting errors that normal. Sorry about that.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Party at the End of Civilization - Introduction

The intention is that this will be a series of posts related to this theme. "Orgy" might have been better in the title, but the problem is that these days, this would suggest that I am only talking about sex, which I'm not. "Party" isn't really a strong enough word - the sense that I am trying to get across is of a culture that is unconsciously set on destroying itself through all sorts of excess - "entertaining itself to death" - in the widest sense of "entertaining", and with a real sense that the disintegration is already happening.

I started trying to write a poem, to try and capture some of how I felt, but I was conscious that it looked pretty derivative, and in any case, I discovered yesterday that the soundtrack to the party had already been written, and it's the album "Zooropa", by U2. The title track dismantles the excesses of commercialism; "Babyface" talks about pornography, which has only become a more universal part of the culture since the early 90's; "Daddy's gonna pay for your crashed car" is a sardonic commentary on irresponsibility; and "The Wanderer" even speaks about the compromised state of Christianity within the culture. The "ZooTV: Live from Sydney" DVD still looks bitingly relevant to where our civilization has got to - except perhaps that "reality" TV has taken the place of soap operas.

For more formal commentary, there are a couple of excellent books which analyse the disintegrating culture. One is "Amusing ourselves to Death", by Neil Postman (1987). Another, written from a Christian perspective, is "Fit Bodies, Fat Minds", by Os Guinness (1994). Neither is in print, so it's necessary to fish around a bit for copies of them. Both are very well written - not dry, but possibly even playful. I thought "The Closing of the American Mind" would do something similar, but in my opinion, Allan Bloom just sounded like a grumpy old git in it. (I should have loved it, then - hah! Got there first!)

But what I want to try and do in these posts is bring some of the themes they talked about up to date.... well, we'll see how it goes.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


... about the lack of commenting. I "upgraded" the template - a simple operation, which of course guarantees that the whole thing goes completely wrong, and needs to be stitched painstakingly back together. Isn't technology wonderful?

If you are a facebook friend, and wish to comment, you could do so on my wall or on the "Notes" section of my profile. In the meantime, perhaps when I get a few spare hours (next April) I'll reinstate the comments. Or more likely, the old template.

A hundred million bottles washed up on the shore

... but it didn't help much, because all the people sending their SOSs to the world were still on their own.

This is something I've been struggling with, in the last few weeks. A lot of it has to do with my job. I work shifts, so I don't have many weekends off. This limits my contact with my church family, the community outside my family with whom I am most comfortable. I get more time off than average, but a lot of it (five sevenths!) is during the week. Particularly in term time, I end up spending most of the day on my own, with only my own mind for company, except morning and evening when domesticity requires frenetic activity and coaxing children into getting done what needs to be done. By the time adult conversation becomes a realistic possibility, we're generally thinking of bed ourselves, ready for the next day's onslaught!

At work, I'm rarely with the same people two days running, so don't form close working relationships. Largely, the job is goal-oriented, rather than person-oriented. Non-work related conversation generally doesn't go much beyond the three or so questions I have been asking for the last 16 years - "Do you live nearby? How long have you been doing this? What did you do before this?" Unsurprisingly, it's hard to maintain much interest in these questions having asked and answered them literally thousands of times. My employer is quite multi-cultural - which is great, from the point of view of the colour of the company, but it makes forming connections even harder. And for the most part, I seem to have very little shared ground in terms of values, experiences and ideas. Which, being simply translated, means I don't read the Daily Mail or Hello magazine or watch reality TV or things like X-Factor. Occasionally, you do get into a good chat with somebody - but then you don't see them for the next six months .... And people live over a wide area, so socialising outside work isn't easy.

Sometimes I have to stay away from home, in a hotel. The hotels are nice enough, if you were staying in them with people you cared about and doing interesting stuff. But to be honest, when you are forced to stay there, probably with nobody who you particularly know, they are sensory deprivation chambers - most particularly in the respect of human company - voices, thoughts, presence. I understand that quite a bit of immoral behaviour takes place in hotels - not that I've seen it, though I'm aware of gossip, of what's on the Pay TV channels, and how "discretion is assured" on your bills. It doesn't come as a great surprise - a hotel from work is a pretty lonely place. I wrote a poem about it once ...

So the thought of doing this for another 20-25 years is currently filling me with - well, I don't know - a kind of resigned dread.

From time to time, you meet somebody and there is a genuine engagement with their mind - something happens that is beyond the everyday, something that feels like real knowledge, real communion, real intercourse. I think that, although a lot of people today never bother with this - probably don't even know it exists - scratching unawarely at the itch instead by substituting a cheap version of sex, it is something that thoughtful non-Christians are better at than many Christians - perhaps we are generally too scared of the intensity of emotions that it can create, and how closely linked they are to the depth of feeling that is part of a marriage relationship. Yes, a marriage relationship should be off-limits to everyone else, from a Christian point of view; yes, there should be no areas that a husband and wife can't talk about together: but it's almost inevitable that there will be some areas in which even the most deeply absorbed husband and wife will not necessarily find the same interest, and as long as the boundaries of that relationship are protected, I can't see that it is harmful for those things to be shared with somebody else. To take an obvious example, except where a husband and wife are working together, this is likely to be an area in which they simply keep their own space.

But in a sense, that idea of a close communion of minds is extreme. You can't say if that's going to happen - it just does, from time to time, and it changes your perspective on life, opening up completely new ways of seeing things and knowing things. More realistically, you hope that at some stage, somebody will at least say, "Yeah, that's how I feel about it - that book, that idea, that picture - too. There is somebody else out there like me."

So that's partly why I blog - to get some of the stuff out of my mind, in the hope that someone, somewhere will read it and be engaged by it. This is my message in a bottle - and usually, the real message isn't what you read in the post.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

It runs deep

The Bible, that is ...

There's the story of the Samaritan woman, in John 4. In this, various things happen - Jesus demonstrates, counter to the prevailing orthodoxy, that the message about the arrival of the Messiah is for women, sinners and cultural outsiders. He shows supernatural knowledge of the woman's circumstances. And just for good measure, he throws in a powerful image of how desirable and fulfilling following him ought to be, in contrast perhaps to the unsatisfying experience the woman had had in her life to that point, plus the stuff about worshipping in spirit and truth.

But there's more to it than that.

The woman is a Samaritan - one of the people who had once been part of the nation of Israel, but were now separate from it. What did they believe? Apparently, it is still possible to find some people who believe the same things - there are several hundreds, still living in the same sort of area. Basically, they have as their scriptures the Pentateuch - the first five books of the Bible - with some modification from the orthodox Jewish/Christian versions (for example, the tenth commandment relates to Mount Gerizim, the Samaritan holy place).

One of the big issues that Jesus faced in his ministry was the weight of Messianic expectation upon him in Israel. The Son of David was viewed as being a warrior king from God, who would kick out the Roman invaders and restore the royal line in Jerusalem (think Prince Caspian). There were times when the people around Jesus threatened to make him king by force, because it was so obvious that he was "the one". And at times, the people were more concerned about whether Jesus could supply them with bread than what he had to say.

But in Samaria, it would have been different. That the Messiah should have been the Son of David would not have been so obvious to the Samaritans, because their scriptures only ran to the end of Deuteronomy. Likewise, they would know little for themselves about the Messiah's role of suffering for others (Isaiah 53, Psalm 22), or as the Son of God (Psalm 2, for example). What were their Messianic expectations? Likely not many, really - but one that they would have had would have been that there would come a prophet like Moses:
The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him. For this is what you asked of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said, "Let us not hear the voice of the LORD our God nor see this great fire anymore, or we will die."
The LORD said to me: "What they say is good. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers; I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him. (Deuteronomy 18:15-18)
They would also have known that no such prophet had yet arisen:
Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face ... no-one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of Israel. (Deuteronomy 34:10-12)
Now, how much more significance does this give to the seemingly casual remark from the woman to Jesus:
Sir, I can see that you are a prophet. (John 4:19)
her puzzlement at what he says, which leads her to add:
I know that Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.
and the way in which she then reacts about him to the people she knows:
Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?
John's gospel was written for a readership from a Greek culture - hence the persistent conversion of "Messiah" to "Christ" in the text - and such people would probably have not been that interested in the finer points of a minor religious group. And yet, when we add into the mix what we can deduce about that group, even from evidence that is available today, we find that the text is more authentic than we could possibly have expected. The account is effective as it stands, but it is startling when you begin to unpack more of the detail.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Poem for Sunday

Natural things
And spiritual, - who separates those two
In art, in morals, or the social drift,
Tears up the bond of nature and brings death,
Paints futile pictures, writes unreal verse,
Leads vulgar days, deals ignorantly with men,
Is wrong, in short, at all points....

Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, "Aurora Leigh"

Referred to in "Reel Spirituality", Robert K. Johnston, which in turn is included in Google Books.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

From "Out of the Silent Planet"

"A pleasure is full grown only when it is remembered. You are speaking as if the pleasure were one thing and the memory another. It is all one thing.... What you call remembering is the last part of the pleasure.... When you and I met, the meeting was over very shortly, it was nothing. Now it is growing something as we remember it. But still we know very little about it. What it will be when I remember it as I lie down to die, what it makes in me all my days till then - that is the real meeting. The other is only the beginning of it. You say you have poets in your world. Do they not teach you this?" C.S.Lewis

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Nouns that became verbs


Not a new trend, particularly - how about "hoovering"? Though the rate has probably increased in the last few years, given the dynamicisation of the English language.

Er, how about verbing? As in, to make a noun into a verb ....

Anybody else got any favourites/bugbears?

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Quoted in "Standard Operating Procedure"

Happy are those who died without ever having had to ask themselves: "If they tear out my fingernails, will I talk?" But even happier are others, barely out of their childhood, who have not had to ask themselves that other question: "If my friends, fellow soldiers, and leaders tear out an enemy's fingernails in my presence, what will I do?"

Jean-Paul Sartre
... though it would be interesting to know upon what basis Sartre would deem such an action morally unacceptable.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

From "Standard Operating Procedures", Gourevitch/Morris

How do you deal with an atrocity?

They keep happening in this golden era of ours, as we slip the chains of our superstitious religious beliefs that we might be held to account one day for our actions - ethnic cleansing, mass murder, systematic brutality. How should we react to them?

It is wrong to demonise the protagonists - to behave as though they were somehow much worse than any of us. Nobody ever gets up in the morning and says, "You know what? I feel like violating the human rights of large numbers of other people today." And it's also wrong to rationalise the actions in some way - to behave as though there could be some justification for the systematic extermination of a race, or the torture of prisoners. There isn't - and any human being reflecting with any sort of detachment on such events for more than a few minutes has to come to that conclusion.

The approach taken in this book is helpful. It is a calm, dispassionate analysis of what happened in the prison at Abu Ghraib, where Iraqi prisoners were abused by US military personnel, based on accounts from eyewitnesses - the people involved in the actions. It ties in with the award-winning film of the same name. The book does respond "editorially" to the events, but the response is disconnected from the reporting, and the authors work hard to establish what went on not for the sake of startling headlines, but from the perspective of the people involved - to understand how these events could have happened; what could have led these people to behave in this way.

One of the conclusions that can be drawn on the basis of the book is that given the situation that prevailed at Abu Ghraib, the events that so sensationally appeared in newspapers were perhaps not as awful as they appeared. Please note that this is not a justification - but as a matter of record, some of the pictures don't tell the whole story of what was happening. Further, the people involved - often reservists, undertrained, under pressure, uninformed, in a foul living environment themselves - could almost be considered victims themselves. The real problems lie further back - with the decision made at the highest level in the US government that the Geneva Convention could be set aside in some circumstances; with the use of different government agencies, diluting avenues of accountability and responsibility ; and frankly, with the naive way in which the US embarked upon this war in Iraq.

Here is an extract:
... the designation security detainee, or security internee (the terms were used interchangeably), is nowhere explicitly defined in law. And yet, it was from the Geneva Conventions that the occupation authorities in Iraq derived the justification for holding prisoners in this category. The fourth convention, which extends Geneva's regime of rights and protections to civilians n wartime, includes a few lines in Article Five that create an exception for anyone "detailed as a spy or saboteur, or as a person under definite suspicion of activity hostile to the security of the Occupying Power." Such captives are still to be treated with humanity, and they are covered by nearly all of Geneva's usual provisions. But, the convention says, in the name of "absolute military security" or "imperative military necessity," they may be held incommunicado and indefinitely, so long as their cases are reviewed by the occupier from time to time - "if possible every six months."

That is all the fourth convention has to say about the matter. It is as general and open to interpretation as the third convention's rules on POWs are particular and rigorously prescriptive. The International Committee of the Red Cross, in its longstanding commentary on Geneva, describes the critical loophole created by Article Five of the fourth convention as uncharacteristically "involved," "open to question," and "regrettable." "What is most to be feared," the ICRC says, "is that widespread application of the Article may eventually lead to the existence of a category of civilian internees who do not receive the normal treatment laid down by the Convention but are detained under conditions which are almost impossible to check. It must be emphasized most strongly, therefore, that Article Five can only be applied in individual cases of an exceptional nature, when the existence of specific charges makes it almost certain that penal proceedings will follow. This Article should never be applied as a result of mere suspicion." (Standard Operating Procedures, p.33)
This is not a pleasant read, but it is a book that ought to be read - it ought to be mandatory reading for people at high levels in government and the military, to help them to understand the way in which policy decisions they make have a direct and perhaps unexpected impact on actions that are taken at ground level. The people at those high levels can't absolve themselves of responsibility for Abu Ghraib simply because they weren't carrying out the actions. And it ought to be read by citizens, to help them to understand why the protections of things like the Geneva Convention were put in place, and what it would mean to them if they weren't there.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

What is a church minister like?

The person boring Mr Bean? (See 1.32 onwards)

Or this guy? Mark Driscoll talking about why he hates religion. "The religious people are the ones who murder Jesus!"

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

"The Night Following", by Morag Joss

This book can be found on Amazon, and the proper context for this review is there. To anybody who has come here from facebook (or similar) and wants to know more about the book (i.e. the characters, plot outline and so on), that site will probably fill you in.

Although I haven't read other of Joss's books, she is established as an author, and on the basis of this book, it is evident that she is very much in command of her craft.

The book is written in an assured manner, with excellent control over voice, tone, character and plot. It is not the sort of book I would have expected to appeal to me, and yet I found it compelling and read it within a couple of days.

The plot is outlined on the Amazon website. Other people have commented on the redemptive nature of the narrative. There is certainly a theme of redemption there, as the doctor's wife seeks to restore to Arthur some of what she has taken from him. But redemption doesn't normally look much like this - it generally comes with a bit more hope. Both the two main characters are in very dark places - literally, being unable to face daylight. Arthur is disintegrating for the loss of his wife Ruth, the doctor's wife (unnamed) losing her identity effectively due to a lack of love or even interest in her. And there is another big theme - the systematic and undeserved betrayal and incomprehension of women by men. The women are largely committed and engaged (if naive about the men): the men are uncomprehending, abusive, misguided and largely incompetent. Even within the relationship between Arthur and Ruth, his late wife, which is portrayed more positively than any other in the book, it is shown that Ruth is the one with emotional intelligence and depth, whilst Arthur is devoted to her but largely uncomprehending of the depths of her life, being more captivated as so many men are by such things as constellations and bird-watching.
This is the evil in everything that happens under the sun: The same destiny overtakes all. The hearts of men, moreover, are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live, and afterward they join the dead.
An interesting article I read recently reflected on the fact that most literature takes place "under the sun", as Ecclesiastes would put it - as though there is nothing more than purely material causes and effects - there is nothing higher - no God; increasingly no fate; no real significance. Stuff just happens. That's a reflection of where we are generally as a culture. This book shows where that perspective takes us. Random events happen - the woman discovers her husband's affair; Ruth is killed in a road accident - with no real significance - it's just how life is. It is a very bitter perspective, and few people are prepared to accept this - even whilst denying the possibility of a higher power, many people would rather close their minds to the full implications of this, or embrace a vague and un-thought-out pantheism, believing vaguely in some sort of faint guidance of fate, and some perception of their own significance. Joss's book is more honest in that regard - there is only me, nobody else, and I have to make my own sense of my life, give myself some significance.

And yet, for all that the wife of the doctor pursues a redemptive aim, she is still lost at the end. The characters who seem best able to cope with this random life under the sun are those who seem to have least comprehension - the doctor, the blind grandmother. Those who face the world as it is seem to consistently end up wrecked. Only Ruth, perhaps, carves out for herself a purposeful, meaningful place - and then she is killed by an arrow of outrageous fortune.

This is a very good book - it is definitely literature, not simply a story. I would recommend it for reading groups, and anybody keen to read and reflect on what they read.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

"The Hero with a Thousand Faces"

It's the title of a seminal book by Joseph Campbell, which I'm hoping to read shortly. I mentioned it previously, having heard of the book in the context of some reading about Harry Potter.

As I said in that post, Campbell apparently suggests that the reason for the universality of this archetype is that "every one of us shares the same ordeal." Note that this isn't based on my reading of his book - I hope to say more of substance at some stage. However, my thesis, which I am certainly not in a position to defend at the moment, would be the opposite of that - none of us actually shares an ordeal like this in any sort of significant respect. And yet, we all recognise these heroic narratives. Why is that? Why do they have a universal cultural significance?

According to the reviews on Amazon,
one unique aspect of it at the time it was published was its approach to Christianity. For Campbell, Christ's life had to be seen as a myth. Before him, most Western scholars wouldn't have dare to say such a thing. Others had written on that, but in a skeptical manner. Campbell's view is that the Virgin Birth, miracles, Resurrection, etc have meaning only because they ARE myths.
This represents a particular historic/philosophical approach to Christianity, which I believe has largely been considered unsuccessful. You simply can't reduce the historical figure of Jesus, and the events surrounding his life, to the level of myth. The canonic gospel-writers evidently took some trouble to establish the events they record as real events that happened at a particular time and place, with real people. As far as I know, no attempt to show the gospels, or for that matter the rest of the historical accounts in the Bible, are unsound has proved successful.

The Jesus narrative, I would argue, makes clear that Jesus is a universal hero, according to the archetype Campbell establishes. And yet where all the other heroes that he considers are myths or stories, Jesus is grounded in history. This makes him a unique figure in literary terms, as well as historical terms. The reason we are responsive to other heroes - in all different cultures - is to prepare us for this one specific, trans-cultural figure who is the hero that all humans should be looking for. The significance of a hero isn't that they have experiences that are representative of ours, but is that they have experiences that are in place of ours - instead of us.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Six Impossible Things


I keep reading remarkable and relevant essays at the bethinking website, and wanting to pass them on. Here is a lengthy analysis of Lewis Wolpert's atheism, as expressed in books and interviews. Note that the article doesn't say that atheism is wrong, or that theism is right, or unrefutable - just that his argumentation is seriously unsound - and that (for example) William Lane Craig's defence of theism is much more substantive.

From the conclusion:
Atheists, agnostics and theists alike should avoid Lewis Wolpert's narrow-minded approach to the question of God's existence, an approach that amounts to saying, 'My mind is made up, don't confuse me with the evidence.' We all have our own personal default position on the subject of God's existence, but we owe it to each other and to ourselves (and perhaps we even owe it to God) to take the alternatives seriously enough to decry blind faith.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Christian worldview and the English novel

I recently wrote a long post on sex - which see below, if you are interested. This was an attempt to apply a Christian worldview to an area where it tends not to give its deliberate, reflective scrutiny.

On the bethinking website, "Chronicles of Heaven Unshackled", the lightly edited version of a doctoral thesis is being posted. Only the introduction is available so far; more is to be posted, though. In many novels, authors confine themselves to purely materialistic cause and effect - with any "divine" input being at a pretty deistic level. This is not inherent in the nature of the novel - it is quite possible to write a novel using a different set of assumptions about the nature of reality. Of course, there is no guarantee that a story written with a Christian worldview would be of good quality, any more than there would be that one written with a materialistic worldview would be. But C.S.Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien, in choosing to write from a perspective that is theologically more complex than the average novel, provide us with particularly satisfying stories, that break out of the narrative "flatlands" into a more solid world. This thesis explores some of the implications of the theological worldview of Tolkien and Lewis in their work.

This is an interesting area for consideration. What, for example, is the theological framework of (say) an epic poem like Beowulf? Are there other examples of writers whose novels reflect a worldview in which the supernatural is active? Are some particular genres more amenable to such approach than others?

I would argue that the "His Dark Materials" trilogy, by Philip Pullman, is another example of a non-flatland novel - which is one of the reasons that the stories are so powerful. Pullman has stated that his books are about "killing God" - and yet, in order for him to be able to do away with the Judeo-Christian God, he needs to provide a transcendental being to take its place. Pullman's dust has many of the properties that Christians would associate with their God - transcendence, a preference for moral virtues, an idea of destiny, an ability (albeit limited) to communicate with conscious beings, and being essential to the sustaining of life. The only way in which Pullman can use his novels to write about getting rid of God is by providing an alternative.

Flew comments on "The God Delusion"

... and incidentally, refutes the suggestion that he was used by others in the production of "There is a God", on the Bethinking website.

In case you didn't know, Antony Flew is
a renowned philosopher who was arguably the best-known atheist in the English-speaking world until his announcement in 2004 that he now accepts the existence of God. The son of a Methodist minister, Flew often attended the weekly meetings of C. S. Lewis's Socratic Club as an undergraduate at Oxford, but was not convinced by Lewis's argument from morality that a God exists. In 1950, Flew set the agenda for modern atheism with his renowned essay "Theology and Falsification," which became the most widely reprinted philosophical publication of the last half century.

Monday, November 10, 2008


Today we have a weakness in our educational process in failing to understand the natural associations between the disciplines. We tend to study all our disciplines in unrelated parallel lines. This tends to be true in both Christian and secular education. This is one of the reasons why evangelical Christians have been taken by surprise at the tremendous shift that has come in our generation. We have studied our exegesis as exegesis ....; we study something about art as art; we study music as music, without understanding that these are things of man, and the things of man are never unrelated parallel lines. "Escape from Reason" ch 1.

Friday, October 31, 2008

From "The God Who Is There"

This is what Francis Schaeffer says you should believe when you become a Christian ...
1. Do you believe that God exists and that he is a personal God, and that Jesus Christ is God - remembering that we are not talking of the word or idea god, but of the infinite-personal God who is there?

2. Do you acknowledge that you are guilty in the presence of this God - remembering that we are not talking about guilt-feelings, but true moral guilt?

3. Do you believe that Jesus Christ died in space and time, in history, on the cross, and that when he died his substitutional work of bearing God's punishment against sin was fully accomplished and complete?

4. On the basis of God's promises in his written communication to us, the Bible, do you (or have you) cast yourself on this Christ as your personal Savioud - not trusting in anything you yourself have ever done or ever will do?

This is what believing on the Lord Jesus means. If a man has believed in this way, he has God's promise that he is a Christian.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Interesting interview with Dawkins

Melanie Phillips is a thoughtful analyst, who features regularly on Radio 4 and many other places, and wrote one of the most damning indictments I've seen of British education, "All Must Have Prizes". She writes for the Daily Mail as well, and I wish she'd stop as I have so many other issues with the content of that august publication.

She reports in The Spectator on the latest debate between John Lennox and Richard Dawkins.
In the first debate ... Dawkins was badly caught off-balance by Lennox’s argument precisely because, possibly for the first time, he was being challenged on his own chosen scientific ground.

This week’s debate, however, was different because from the off Dawkins moved it onto safer territory– and at the very beginning made a most startling admission. He said:

A serious case could be made for a deistic God.

This was surely remarkable. Here was the arch-apostle of atheism, whose whole case is based on the assertion that believing in a creator of the universe is no different from believing in fairies at the bottom of the garden, saying that a serious case can be made for the idea that the universe was brought into being by some kind of purposeful force.
H/T Miss Mellifluous

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

School photos

What IS it about school photos? Since the advent of digital photography, the quality of school photos has plummeted! It used to be the case that in a few seconds, the photographer would arrange you, and produce a decent pose. Now, you are plonked in front of the camera; no notice is taken of whether you have sorted out your hair, or if your clothes are straight; and as like as not the photo will be taken before you have had time to sort out your smile.

Outcome? Generally, school photos are more and more rubbish, and we are increasingly reluctant to shell out the pounds to buy even one copy, let alone copies for the sundry relatives who we might previously have bought them for.

Actually, I think I know what the issue is. The people taking the photos today are fundamentally technicians, rather than photographers. They have no interest in their subject. And they know how much parents want the formal photos, so they think they can get away with anything.

The silly thing is that with the abundance of cheap and effective camera equipment, it is incredibly easy to get hold of photos of people - a hundred million people probably have an average of a hundred photos each of them on Facebook! What is really needed to set school photos apart from this glut of imagery is somebody who actually does have an eye for a person, who can capture a character in a few seconds. It's easier now to look at the image and decide if it's any good straight away, and throw away a poor shot. SO WHY DON'T THEY??

Monday, September 29, 2008

Christians and sex

A couple of quick warnings. Firstly, please note that this post is about sexual matters. I hope that the content proves useful, particularly to Christian parents who need to talk clearly with their children about sex, but I would encourage mature Christians to read and think about this, and make sure that they understand it themselves, prior to simply pointing anybody else to it.

Also, this is a long article (over 2000 words). I suggest you print it out to read rather than trying to wade through it on screen. If it is of any use to you, I can send it to you as a PDF file - add a comment, and I can pick up your email address from there.

Christians are reluctant to talk about sex. I can suggest various possible reasons for this. One is embarrassment - there are too many "naughty words" that we feel should be omitted from polite discourse. One is a dualistic hangover that many of us still feel, namely that the physical is dirty and bad, and it's only the spiritual that can be good. One is the fact that it stirs up strong feelings and we are perhaps a little worried about them.

The effect of this is that Christians often offer nothing of substance to discussion about sex. This isn't a good thing. We are generally bad enough at understanding the impact of worldviews in any case, even when we are able to make the case for the Christian worldview. But when it comes to sex, the worldview of the surrounding culture is left to dominate, with Christians rarely seeming to say anything more constructive than "Do not taste, do not touch" - as though sex is simply a matter of rules that we have to adhere to. So this post is an attempt to redress this balance somewhat.

What happens when we start from a basically materialistic, darwinian worldview - the one that dominates intellectual discourse today? We deduce that we are fundamentally biological (and thus chemical, and thus physical) entities, and everything we see is of necessity derived from this. In this context, reproduction is - well, not the highest good, because "good" implies a value system which is ultimately absent when physics is all there is - but certainly the fundamental necessity in biological terms.

This would explain why our sex drive is so powerful. However, at this point, the explanatory power of materialism ceases to be helpful. As in so many other areas, materialism and darwinism aren't so much scientific theories as means of accounting for any observation - a worldview which is used to interpret phenomena.

At one end of the spectrum, if physics is all that there is, ultimately, then it really isn't possible to say much more in consideration of sex than "this is what happens". Objects with mass attract one another. Space is curved. De Sade felt that it was legitimate for the stronger person to dominate the weaker. Certain people abuse children and have a desire to rape. If physics is ultimately all that there is, then all of these are ultimately just observations about the universe, and disapproving of sexual "deviancy" is a bit like disapproving of gravity. Even when such people harm others, do we have any real basis for saying that this shouldn't happen?

Few people accept this, of course, although it is hard to see how to find fault with it intellectually. From a materialistic point of view, morality is usually defined in terms of sociological acceptability, with sociology being some kind of emergent property at the level of the species. Note that individual morality can't really provide much guidance - because if somebody else has a different morality, then how do we choose between mine and theirs? But sociologically, perhaps, "morality is a herd instinct". If this is the case, then sanctions can be applied by the "herd" to constrain the behaviour of individuals within appropriate boundaries. And this is pretty much where we are at. Although society generally accepts and enforces certain limits, it means that there are no absolute standards of morality, in sexual terms. A hundred years ago, it was considered morally correct that sex ought to be confined to heterosexual marriage (however widespread deviation from this actually was). Now things are different. It is assumed that people in the west will be sexually active before forming a permanent or semi-permanent relationship; that it is better for people to live together before they marry; that sexual fidelity is no more than an arbitrary choice. The change in the sociological landscape itself justifies the changes in behaviour.

Bear in mind that the dominance of the materialistic worldview is a relatively recent (last 30 years or so) phenomenon. During this time, the fact that we have a biologically strong sex drive has led to the general acceptance that fulfilment of that drive is pretty much a biological necessity. So over the course of that time, we have seen (for example) increasing acceptance of pornography and prostitution, and the increasing acceptance of homosexuality within mainstream culture.

But even accepting the consensus of the materialistic culture up to this point, it now breaks down. The analysis that a male within the culture might make (if - and it is often a big if! - he were able to string together the ideas sufficiently coherently to express them!) would be to say that the biological sex drive finds its release in the orgasm. This justifies the acceptance of pornography and prostitution, and sex before and outside marriage in general. These things don't hurt anybody, it is argued, therefore there is no reason for them to be considered immoral.

However, many women would increasingly reject this analysis. Female dissatisfaction with the limitations of sex - even within the boundaries of a materialistic worldview - can be found throughout the culture - in popular shows like Sex and the City, in the feminist rejection of patriarchal models of sexuality, and on an everyday level with the fact that following the liberation(!) of the sexual revolution, men walk away from sexual relationships far more easily than they used to, with far less guilt, leaving women to deal with the consequences - emotional, psychological and physical. Perhaps the biological foundation for this is that women are designed to nurture children, and seek a stable relationship with a male who can provide for them whilst they are caring for the child. But the point is that the materialistic metanarrative has not managed to establish a coherent justification for a new pattern of sexual behaviour, and over the last 15 years it has arguably ended up looking less likely to do so. Whereas the consensus about "right" and "wrong" prior to the sexual revolution provided a framework for a society which had largely functioned in a stable manner for thousands of years, I would suggest that the widespread acceptance of a materialistic and sociological consensus about sexual relationships has largely led to the breakdown of social structures, and has also had a negative impact on individuals' sense of identity.

Another challenge to the materialistic approach to sex comes from the fact that such a large proportion of sexual activity (using the term in its widest sense) is not and has never been related to procreation. And given that the explosion in all sorts of sexual activity following the rise of materialism and the sexual revolution has not led to a population explosion, it can't be seriously suggested that sex, and the sociologically permitted changes in sex that we have seen, are fundamentally about strengthening the relationship between partners for the purpose of rearing children. Therefore, it seems reasonable to cast doubt on the original premise - namely, that sex is about the biological drive to reproduce.

So although people accept the materialistic idea that sex is the biological imperative, we find that we have moved away from any shared concept of how this ought to be expressed, and the phenomena we observe doesn't really seem to be consistent with the idea anyway. So the evidence suggests that the worldview may not be correct.

What is the Christian alternative? Firstly, sex has to be moved away from being the central item in the discussion. Christianity argues that although humans are animals (and therefore have a biological nature), there is more to them than this - there is a fundamental difference between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom, which Christianity talks about as being the image of God. Whereas sex might be considered the biological driving force throughout the natural world, it isn't for humans.

Even this assertion starts to show Christianity as being different from some highly pervasive materialistic ideas. It allows the possibility, for example, that aesthetic sense isn't solely on some level about sexual arousal. It suggests that creativity isn't fundamentally about attracting a mate. It permits the possibility of a desire for knowledge which isn't just about passing genes onto the next generation. These are helpful steps forward, as explanations of these phenomena which reduce them to outworkings of our sex drive were never really convincing.

I would suggest that relationships are a fundamental part of our identity as humans, and this is different from animals - it is part of the image of God. Incidentally, this assertion also means that the worldview which I am talking about is distinctively Christian (in which relationships exist within the divine nature, as a consequence of the Trinity) rather than any other monotheistic worldview. Inherent in the idea of relationships is the idea of love. There are different Bible words which are translated as love, but the focus should be on what they have in common, rather than their differences. Love, in Christian terms, is about giving myself for the other person. This is most completely expressed in the love that Christ had for his people, which resulted in him laying down his life for them ("Greater love has no man than this ..."). But we can see that this is the key component of love in all sorts of relationships - a parent's sacrifice of their own time and money for the sake of their children; a child's love for its parents expressed in the acceptance of the parents' authority over their life; the love for a friend which sacrifices time and care for them. Of course, the nature of love is that sacrifices don't feel like anything of the sort - but from the perspective of the observer, it can be seen that a person is giving up something of their own for the sake of another.

The example of Christ and the church is an important one, as the Bible talks about this being the prototypical marriage relationship. Christ gave up heaven, privilege and ultimately his very life for the sake of his people. Within the institution of marriage is the idea that husbands should give themselves up for the sake of their wives ("Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church..."), and that wives should be as devoted to the husbands who give themselves up for them as the church should be to its Head. Whereas love can be expressed in many ways to many different people, there can only really be one person to whom you give yourself up in this complete way - only one person to whom you can really say, "All I am and all I have is yours." Having done that for one person, you are no longer yours to give away.

Sex is the physical expression of this complete abandoning of yourself to another person. "All I am and all I have is yours ... and that includes my body, which is yours for your delight." The husband and wife give themselves to one another in a physical way, and again, this complete giving of themselves is something that is only really meaningful in the context of a relationship with one person. It follows as a physical act from a commitment that has already been made.

Of course, this is thoroughly consistent with the content of the wedding service with which we are still so culturally familiar. But it is a major departure from the ideas of sex which we get from the culture around us. The ideas which have become common currency in the last 30 years and which simply didn't exist before - like sexual compatibility and trial marriages - simply have no place in the Christian worldview. It's not a question of a reactionary attempt to turn the clock back. It's the fact that the Christian worldview is so fundamentally different from the materialistic one that hardly any of what has been derived from materialism can be meaningfully accommodated if you start from the Christian worldview.

Christians don't talk about this too much, and in many cases they haven't thought out what their worldview says about it. There are many sections of Christianity which simply work out some way of accommodating the materialistic approach - after all, this is usually easier than being "in the world but not of the world". Sections of the church work out how to accommodate homosexuality at all levels, nobody asks questions about people's lifestyles, Bible teachers avoid speaking about, or relativise, the sections of the Bible that address matters of sexual morality. Perhaps most disturbingly, Christian parents lack confidence in offering guidance to their children. The consequence of this is that even people who consider themselves Christians rarely demonstrate anything distinctive in terms of their sexual morality.

As Christians, we need to have a clear idea of the impact that the Christian worldview has, in this area as much as all others. We also need to understand the change in worldview which has been expressed in cultural changes, and be prepared to point out to the people around us the consequences of their worldview. If Christianity is true (which we believe it is), it should be true no matter how deeply you scratch it. If the alternative worldviews are false (which we believe they are), then at some level there must be a contradiction between expected and observed phenomena. This can be seen in the breakdown of society which has taken place following the adoption of the materialistic worldview, and the fact that materialism simply fails to give a good account for so many of the things that we see.

I hope that this article helps Christians to be more confident in giving a reason for the hope that is in them ....

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Berlusconi killed Alitalia

... by making a promise that he couldn't keep, to keep the airline going, apparently unconditionally.

So the "intransigent" unions basically sat there thinking to themselves, "We can hold out as long as we like, because Berlusconi won't let it fail."

They were wrong. Berlusconi has no choice. Had he acknowledged that in his election campaign, the unions might have been more realistic about what of Alitalia could survive, and accepted a workable deal.

Friday, September 05, 2008

I said ...

... that this was the book I would most like my friends to read.

And this is why. It's nothing to do with "I told you so". It's everything to do with - "Can you see this?"

Incidentally, still no substantive response to "A Meaningful World" from an anti-teleological perspective.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Peppered moth evolution

It just occurred to me ....

Probably a stupid question, but I'm sure somebody will set me straight if necessary. Did anybody ever establish whether there was in fact a genetic basis for industrial melanism in peppered moths?

Could it be possible, for example, that the expression of melanism was due to the presence of higher levels of carbon and pollutants in the diet of the moths? This might be earlier in the lifecycle of the moths, or even possibly in the lifecycle of ancestor moths.

One of the implications of this is that it would undermine the case made for natural selection. Rather than a random distribution of light and dark moths, with differential predation at work subsequently changing the distribution and leading to a shift in the population (the natural selection paradigm), such developmental changes would result in a non-random distribution of light and dark moths in different environments, regardless of predation.

Was this possibility excluded at the time? Has it been since?

Monday, August 04, 2008

Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008)

Already part of a line which includes Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky - acute observers of the human condition.
The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

I failed ...

... to get round to writing anything of substance on the "Atheists for Jesus" article by Richard Dawkins. However, here's a link to someone who has written something.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Requiem for a dream

From a rather apocalyptic article in "The Telegraph" magazine.
The world burns 85 million barrels of oil a day, and the US alone consumes a quarter of that amount - of which more than a half goes to road transport: the US has the least fuel-efficient cars on the roads, the lowest energy taxes, and the longest daily commutes of any industrialised nation.

It is an arrangement that James Howard Kunstler ... describes as "the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. America took all of its post-war wealth and invested it in a living arrangement that has no future." ...

He believes that on the current projections of oil supply America will see the beginnings of a "major collapse" of suburbia within the next 10 years, which no amount of "wishful thinking" about alternative energy supplies will be able to arrest:

"We are not going to run Wal-Mart, the Interstate Highway system and Walt Disney World on any combination of solar, wind, nuclear, biofuels, ethanol or used french-fry potato oil. The bottom line is that we will use all these things but we will be very disappointed in what they will actually do for us. The problem is too big. The design of our living arrangement is simply inconsistent with the energy realities of the future. But Americans are just not able to process this. If you look hard enough at America, what you discover is a shockingly infantile belief system, with two fundamental ideas that are deleterious to our future. There's a widespread belief in America that it's possible to get something for nothing, and that mentality has been very destructive to our society. The other idea that has become normative is that when you wish upon a star your dream comes true. These two things have become the basis of the new American ideology."

From "Requiem for a Dream", Mick Brown/Alec Soth, Telegraph Magazine 5 July 2008

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

The failures of materialism

Materialists may be keen to suggest that alternatives to materialism have various weaknesses, which cause them to fail as they engage with science. For example, creationists still get the flat earth and the earth-centred universe thrown at them (although this has done nothing to refute the Bible - only certain peoples' interpretations of it).

One of the odd things about this is that materialistic philosophy has a pretty disastrous record when it comes to predictions about the universe which flow from this worldview. I thought I'd just recap a few here:

Life at its lowest level is simple.

The origin of life is easily explainable from physical processes.

Life is common in the universe.

The universe is eternal.

Vestigial organs have no function and are left over from evolution.

Junk DNA has no function and is left over from evolution.

The earth is an unremarkable planet orbiting an unremarkable star in an unremarkable galaxy.

There are other "gaps" in the materialistic explanation of the universe, which may or may not be filled at some stage in the future, such as:

An explanation of consciousness and mind;

An explanation of the many unique facets of human behaviour;

An explanation of whether the fine tuning of the universe has any significance.

Any more to add to the list?

Saturday, June 28, 2008

From between the elections

After the first election we were shocked as a nation, it was all so calm, so peaceful. The parliament was won by the opposition, as well as the presidential vote. We foolishly believed that we were getting a new government. And many of us concluded that there was no way that the government and the president in particular, could manoeuvre out of this. He had lost, it was clear, it had to be accepted!

Oh no it did not! We have seen what can only be described as diabolical cleverness and demonic wickedness in the past months. Long delays in announcements, frustrating the work of the electoral commission, miring the issue in court proceedings ..... and then the violence. Slowly but steadily, well planned and orchestrated, the violence has grown. Intimidation has always been one of the political tools of this regime; in this election, it is the only tool. There is one sentence, indeed one word on the manifesto of this election campaign. It is the word “fear”. In past elections votes could be bought, bought with food, bought with promises, bought with land. Now the food has run out, promises are seen to be hollow, land is taken and misused. Now, votes must be coerced, and coerced through violence.

And what is happening? In the rural areas, whole villages are being intimidated, chiefs are being threatened with reprisals by the army should a village support the opposition, people are fleeing homes and living and sleeping in the bush for fear of beatings, rape, pillaging, and the burning of their homes by gangs of youths armed and mandated by the government. Youths are being given ruling party T shirts and formed into mobs, transported to areas other than their home areas and given the go ahead to beat and assault at whim. Rumours are that criminals have been released from prison on the proviso that they fulfil certain duties for the powers that be. Even in the cities violence has come. Commuter omnibuses, minicabs used for public transport are being stopped and the drivers beaten. Passengers have to get out and chant ruling party slogans or they are beaten. People are asked to repeat the party slogan and if they do not know it, they are beaten. A young man witnessed youths stopping a minibus, pulling out the driver and beating him on the street, without reprisal, without police interference. Reports come to our ears daily of acts of torture and oppression and violence, people are rounded up in areas and made to attend party rallies. Abductions happen regularly, murders occur and are unreported. The list could go on and on. And in the midst the government maintains the posture of pretended indignant integrity, hypocritically acting as though their hands are clean and the opposition had better stop the violence.

Friday, June 27, 2008

The Man's Too Strong - Dire Straits

I'm just an aging drummer boy
And in the wars I used to play
And I've called the tune
To many a torture session
Now they say I am a war criminal
And I'm fading away
Father please hear my confession

I have legalised robbery
Called it belief
I have run with the money
I have hid like a thief
I have re-written history
With my armies of my crooks
Invented memories
I did burn all the books
And I can still hear his laughter
And I can still hear his song
The man's too big
The man's too strong

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Logic, Dawkins and "A Meaningful World"

When I reviewed "The God Delusion", I pointed out that in actual fact you don't need to read the whole book. In one chapter, Dawkins argues (in quick precis) that God is so improbable that his existence can be discounted. The entire rest of the book - that people who believe in God are deluded - is effectively founded upon this argument.

The problem is that if the premise is wrong, then everything that is built upon it is unsound as well. That is a simple matter of logic. And it turns out that the premise is wrong. This is demonstrated in "The Devil's Delusion", by Berlinski, "The Dawkins Letters", by David Robertson, "Darwin's Angel", "The Dawkins Delusion", and probably in other books and articles as well. The idea that "God is very improbable" firstly is flawed in itself - Dawkins' argument doesn't demonstrate this at all. And secondly, even if God is improbable, that has no bearing on whether or not he exists. Life, Dawkins also argues, is improbable - but it still exists. As opponents of ID are keen to point out in their misrepresentation of the idea of specified complexity, a particular sequence of cards dealt from a pack is improbable - but it still happens.

There may be other ways of demonstrating that the idea of God is a delusion, but Dawkins has not done so. Therefore the rest of what he says has no logical force.

What a waste of paper.

The only interaction I have found with "A Meaningful World" by Witt and Wiker consists of one paragraph being labelled "absurd" by Panda's Thumb (there's a link in an earlier post - I can't bring myself to add unnecessary links to their site). Here is the paragraph.
Strange though it may seem to neo-Darwinists, Darwin’s assumption that the terms species and variety are merely given for convenience’s sake is part of a larger materialist and reductionist program that undercuts the natural foundation of counting and distorts the natural origin of mathematics. To put it more bluntly, in assuming that “species” are not real, Darwinism and the larger reductionist program burn away the original ties that bound the meaning of mathematics to the world and instead leave it stranded on a solipsistic island of the human imagination.
Now, if you read any paragraph out of context, particularly if the context is a complex argument, you will a) think that the paragraph doesn't make much sense and b) fail to see how on earth the writer could possibly come to that conclusion. It can hardly surprise one to be told that this is what the context is actually for. (Doh!)

So I am not bothered by the fact that this paragraph looks absurd, quoted like that. We need a new verb. "Quote mining" is when you pick a quote and use it to support your argument, against the wishes of the author or speaker. This is a specialised version of quote mining - picking a quote and misusing it to discredit the author or speaker.

I think firstly that in the context of the chapter (which is about the interaction of scientific ideas with philosophy) the worst you can say about the paragraph is that it is polemic, but in actual fact is probably fair. And secondly, unlike the foundation of Dawkins' book which was that God probably isn't there, I think that the issue addressed here is secondary to the thesis of the book. The thesis is that the universe is full of meaning and significance. You don't discredit a book by looking at how it deals with secondary issues; you discredit it by dismantling its main argument.

So the challenge still stands. How about a serious attempt to address the issues that "A Meaningful World" contains from an ateleological perspective?

Monday, June 23, 2008

Responses to Berlinski

I wondered where were the responses from the atheist community to Berlinski's book "The Devil's Delusion". I can offer a few. Firstly, on Pharyngula, P.Z.Myers said he didn't want to read an extract of the book that was in Harper's magazine. The fact it was by Berlinski told him all he wanted to know.

Well, you know what? That's what I think when I hear something is by Richard Dawkins or P.Z.Myers. But because the debate is important to me, and it upsets me to admit the answer "no" when somebody says, "Have you read ...?" about something I am discussing, I generally swallow my nausea, and go ahead and read it anyway. That's how intellectual debate works, folks. And perhaps that's why "The God Delusion" has several book-length refutations whereas "A Meaningful World" and "The Devil's Delusion" are uncontested.

Then there's this post. Again, it's not a review of "The Devil's Delusion"; it's a review of the extract in a magazine. Geez, what's the matter with these ateleologists?! "Afraid you might taste something?" Do you not think the damage you could do with a really substantive rebuttal might outweigh the benefit the authors get by way of royalties? Or are you just lacking in confidence that you could do a rebuttal?

Aaaanyway, here's Hrynyshyn on the extract he did bother to read.
This is a writer for whom science's weaknesses are exemplified by its failure to "say anything of interest about the human soul." What a strange thing to say. Seeing as there is no scientific evidence for the soul, why should science have anything to say about it, interesting or otherwise?

In other words, I disagree with just about everything he has to say about the subject. What do you expect when you read of the "four most powerful and profound scientific theories" since the 17th century, but come across no mention of evolution by natural selection? What you do expect when you are told science is but an ideology? That "science has nothing of value to say on the great and aching questions of life, death, love, and meaning...?"

Evolutionary biology, neurophysiology, biochemistry — all of no value.
In actual fact, had the writer bothered to actually read Berlinski, rather than the digest version, he would have found out how Berlinski made his case. Still, when the gallery of ateleologists is happy with you wrestling with a straw man, why try harder?

I found (all on my own!) some more interaction with Berlinski, on the British Humanist Association Science Group blog. You can find it here. This is even worse - it is a selection of comments on the flyleaf notes! Why bother with the text? Just say that you don't agree with the conclusions! What a wonderful feat of free-thinking critical thought that was!

Interaction with Wiker and Witt

Opponents of teleology don't believe I have done justice to the critical commentary on Berlinski ("The Devil's Delusion") or Wiker/Witt ("A Meaningful World").

I'll come back to Berlinski another time. Here is some interaction with AMW on Panda's Thumb. Let me get to the substance of the interaction. I'll embolden the bits that are actually response to the text, rather than the culture war that exists between the forces of light and the forces of darkness (whichever side you are on).
... Most of the book is taken up with blaming “Darwinism” for a “loss of meaning” in all areas of life, particularly literature, but also chemistry, mathematics, etc. All in all it conforms remarkably well to the longer-term goals of the Wedge Strategy, which was all about defeating “Darwinism” and then moving on to convert all other fields of academia to the fundamentalist view of the world.

Not too surprising, really, but then I came across this remarkable passage. Witt and Wiker are discussing Darwin’s views on the term “species” and in what sense “species” are, or are not, “real” (an aside: someone call Wilkins to see if they even got Darwin’s view on species right). Their conclusion about the implication of Darwin’s views is somewhat surprising, especially since it comes near the end of the book and appears to be the heart of the argument tying evolution to all of the aforementioned evils. Read it carefully:

Quoted extract and citation

You heard that right – Darwin spent a lifetime studying organisms in captivity and in the wild, and came to the view that “species” are not absolute, unchanging categories – and in doing so, he undermined counting and mathematics.

There is not much more for me to say here because every time I read this passage, I just splutter at the absurdity of what is on the page, and my brain, in an effort to protect its overloaded logic circuits, automatically assumes that Douglas Adams returned from the dead to ghost-write this part of the book in an highly successful effort to make ID look even sillier than it already looks.

Thus, this is the silliest thing I have read this week.
And that's it. Did you notice it? Interaction consisting of a splutter at the absurdity of one paragraph (with no attempt to refute it), and an assertion that the book is all about blaming darwinism for a loss of meaning (with no attempt to demonstrate this from the text). Not much more for me to say? Well, you certainly couldn't say much less!

I have to say that I did come across this page when I was searching for anti-ID interaction with the book, but I wouldn't have wanted to provoke Panda's Thumb by making greater claims for it than it merited. "The God Delusion" is full of half-baked argument - and yet it sold millions and was dignified with about six book-length responses - each of which dismantled it in different ways. "A Meaningful World", which isn't actually about how darwinism takes away meaning, but is about how meaning is present in the universe regardless of the insistence of ateleologists to the contrary, results in a splutter and a wave of a hand.

Seriously, guys. How about, if you are serious in your ateleology, you make a proper attempt to dismantle "A Meaningful World"?

Thursday, June 19, 2008


If you see the poor oppressed in a district, and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised at such things; for one official is eyed by a higher one, and over them both are others higher still. The increase from the land is taken by all [the officials]; the king himself profits from the fields. (Ecclesiastes 5:8)
The less money you have, the harder it is to get any, and the less influence you have. This happens on an individual scale, and it happens on the levels of countries. What's the modern equivalent of the king? Perhaps the shareholders of the big corporations.

Note that the fact we shouldn't be surprised doesn't mean that we should be indifferent.

What I find more disturbing is when such things happen and people (including Christians, who ought to know better) don't even see them.

Interesting tie-in with a thought-provoking book set in a post-apocalyptic world that I'm wading through at the moment, called "The Gone-Away World" - about which more when I finish it.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Oblique joke

From here, but in general circulation.
A helicopter was flying around above Seattle yesterday when an electrical malfunction disabled all of the aircraft's electronic navigation and communications equipment. Due to the clouds and haze, the pilot could not determine the helicopter's position and course to steer to the airport.

The pilot saw a tall building, flew toward it, circled, drew a handwritten sign, and held it in the helicopter's window. The pilot's sign said ''WHERE AM I?'' in large letters.

People in the tall building quickly responded to the aircraft, drew a large sign, and held it in a building window. Their sign said ''YOU ARE IN A HELICOPTER.''

The pilot smiled, waved, looked at his map, determined the course to steer to SEATAC airport, and landed safely.

After they were on the ground, the co-pilot asked the pilot how the ''YOU ARE IN A HELICOPTER'' sign helped determine their position.

The pilot responded ''I knew that had to be the MICROSOFT building because, similar to their help-lines, they gave me a technically correct but completely useless answer.''
The reason for quoting this relates to the evolution/creation/ID debate. Biologically, we are naked apes. Our genetic material is startlingly similar to that of chimpanzees. This message has been drummed into us for at least the last forty years or more. And animals themselves are no more than devices which have developed to ensure the survival of genes.

This may be a very accurate description of what we are. But it is almost completely useless. It tells us little even about love, birth, death and families, and nothing of any use about music, art, cornflakes, the Eiffel Tower, nuclear weapons, Sartre, town planning, Doctor Who, Nectar points or philosophy. And if the light it casts on such matters is so dim, then its value as part of a metanarrative must be considered limited.

The response to Berlinski, Witt and Wiker ...

... from the anti-ID community, is interesting.

Basically, there isn't one.

These are two of the most telling books written from a pro-ID perspective. "The Devil's Delusion" by David Berlinski - with the pointed reference to Dawkins in the title, and which dismantles the arguments of Pinker, Gould, Dawkins and many others - seems to have escaped the attention of Panda's Thumb, and a search on Google garners very little in the way of critical reviews. The same goes for "A Meaningful World" by Jonathan Witt and Benjamin Wiker - no comment from Panda's Thumb.

Why is that, then? Are these the books that opponents of ID would just rather pretend didn't exist? ITWSBT

Monday, June 16, 2008

"The Devil's Delusion" - a review

There were certain lecturers at university – Hans Kornberg springs to mind – whose lectures nobody would miss. It wasn't because they were necessarily the crucially important courses. It was because there was something about the style of the lecturer – his or her humour, perhaps, or delivery – which captivated the undergraduate audience and held it until the end of the course.

Reading this book by Berlinski reminded me of some of those lecturers. Various things about it were captivating. The layers of meaning that can be found in so many of the sentences; the deft way in which opposing opinions are dismantled; the shocking mild political incorrectnesses; the carefully-measured putdowns; the rhetorical interaction with opponents and readers.

Berlinski is writing a book in defence of belief in a god. Nothing unusual about that – Dawkins' book “The God Delusion”, and similar ones, have sparked a whole publishing industry in response, many of which I've already reviewed on Amazon. What is most unusual about this book is that Berlinski is not a religious believer – and yet he is quite adamant that belief in God is not unreasonable. Furthermore, he is substantially better informed – biblically, philosophically, scientifically – than Dawkins, Hitchens or Harris.

He makes his case persuasively. For example, in response to the insistence that “miracles don't happen” by anti-theists, he points out that whilst we can understand the chemical process by which the eye “sees” something, we don't have a clue about what perception really is, and just because it is part of our everyday experience doesn't mean that it is inappropriate to describe it as a miracle. In response to the dogmatic insistence that we are no more than animals, he points out the fact that if that is what we are in biological terms, then it simply demonstrates that biology is telling us nothing useful about what it means to be human at all. He demonstrates that the theories that supposedly prove that God isn't necessary rarely do what they set out to, and say more about the presuppositions of the proponent than about the nature of the universe.

As I read the book, I found myself increasingly puzzled as to why, given his dissatisfaction with arguments against the existence of God, he should not believe in God himself. The dedication – to his father, who was lost in Auschwitz – perhaps provides one clue, and another big clue is provided in the last chapter - “The Cardinal and his Cathedral.” Here he writes movingly of his life in science, and his hope – perhaps a little forlorn now – that despite its failures, science will one day provide a coherent means of understanding the world.

Two quibbles. The first is that the book could really have done with footnotes or endnotes for the many references. The second is that the odd provocative piece of political incorrectness could have been avoided – not because it does any harm in itself, but because it provides his opponents with a red herring card to play against him (to mix metaphors). But the bottom line is that this is an excellent, highly quotable book, which I intend to pass on to many other thoughtful people.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Writer's block

There's things I want to write - but I feel little motivation to actually write them at the moment. Sorry - I can imagine everybody's disappointment!

( ;-) )

Monday, June 02, 2008

"Atheists for Jesus"?

As seems to be the pattern with Dawkins, a mixture of half-truths, half-lies and ignorance. And an "argument that needs to be built up gradually" which takes about a page of A4 - well, how sophisticated that must be!

Time permitting, I'll comment in more detail at a later stage.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Altruism and friendship

The existence of altruism is often thought to be a problem to darwinian explanations of how life came about. "What is the evolutionary advantage in sacrificing your own interests for the sake of other people?" says the unthinking anti-darwinist. "Well that's easy," says the slightly more thinking darwinist. "We share lots of our genes with other people, so our genes are just helping other copies of themselves. And in any case, we behave in a certain way because it is non-zero-sum - the benefit I accrue if somebody helps me is greater than the cost of helping another person because that is how I would like to be treated myself."

It is interesting to realise that this is what the Bible says. In Ecclesiastes 4, it says:
Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work: [more productive] If one falls down, his friend can help him up. [benefit of altruism] But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up! Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? [survival strategy] Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken. [defensive mechanism]
However, it's worth thinking about this in context. The perspective from which this has been written is "under the sun" - that is, in a context of philosophical naturalism. Imagine there's no heaven, no God - well, if that's the case, then this is my analysis of the world. In that context, this sort of analysis of relationships is the only option that we have. Basically, all our relationships are ultimately self-serving.

But the writer is making this point in a kind of ironic way - he also does this with the problem of oppression, toil and advancement in the same chapter. That's not how we view life. We don't have friends simply because they can pick us up when we fall over - although that may be one of the things that they do. We don't have relationships just to help us survive. That's simply not what humans are like. Yes, you can do an analysis of friendship "under the sun" - but it is profoundly unsatisfying because it simply fails to adequately account for our experience.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

"Maths" problem

Dunno where this came from, but it's quite fun.
Three men go into a hotel looking for a room for the night. The receptionist tells them that the rate is £30. They pay £10 each, and are given the key.

A while later, the receptionist realises he should have only charged them £25. So he gives the bellboy £5 to refund to the men.

The bellboy can't work out how to divide the £5 between the three men. So he refunds them £1 each and keeps £2.

So the men each paid £9 for the room - total £27 - and the bellboy kept £2 - taking the total to £29.

What happened to the other £1?
Try and work it out before reading the comment.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Why "The Golden Compass" fails to kill God (and misses the target altogether)

Philip Pullman has reportedly said that the "His Dark Materials" trilogy were about killing God. The Magisterium in the film of "The Golden Compass" is noticeably a more overtly religious organisation than is apparent in the first of Philip Pullman's books, "Northern Lights". But whilst the film makes it more clear that it is directed against the control of religious organisations, anything more than casual reflection simply highlights the fact that Pullman has missed his target.

"All truth but its own"
The Magisterium wishes to repress the truth about the nature of the universe and the authority. In our world, there is no single entity that is in a position to assert its own ideas across the whole world. There are countries where religions are trying to do this. But the countries which have been by far the most successful at "thought control" have been those built upon a humanistic worldview.

Furthermore, in the postmodern Western world of today, with its marketplace of ideas, a strong case can be made that it is secular humanism that is the most intolerant of alternatives. In the US, all religious discourse within public institutions is opposed not on the basis of its truth or otherwise, but supposedly on the basis of the constitutional requirement to separate church and state. That wasn't the intention of the First Amendment - it wasn't supposed to eliminate the possibility of such discourse: it was simply to protect the rights of minority religions, by granting none an established position. That is a laudable aim. Now the opposite is happening. Minority worldviews are being excluded from the public arena because the established position is humanism. Yes, I know that the majority of people in the US are Christians - but the fact is that the constitution is being used to shout "We don't do God" far more loudly than the spin doctors in the UK.

Again, at the moment, there is no worldview that has the ability to overrule. But from where have come the calls to bar dissenting undergraduates from university? From where have come the assertions that you must be a fool to have beliefs that contradict the mainstream? From where have come the calls to prevent people with particular worldviews teaching children?

And, like the Magisterium, most times we are told that humanism thinks this "for the good of the children" - and those people who are so ignorant that they must be told what to think. "In a nice way," of course ....

"Connecting them all is dust"
The Magisterium and the Authority are regarded as contingent parts of Pullman's multiverse. Dust is regarded as the absolute which links all consciousness.

Now I'm not sure about this - even having read all the books, it's not entirely clear. But I think I'm right in saying that dust somehow knows the truth - it is linked with the alethiometer. Dust is the agency through which prophesies about Lyra are made. Dust is the context in which the human virtues - loyalty, friendship, compassion - make sense. The Authority is weak, and the Magisterium is solely concerned with its own survival.

So most of what Christians identify as being expressions of divine nature are viewed by Pullman as being the product of dust, rather than the product of his Authority. There is still such things as absolute truth, virtues - but their source isn't in what has hitherto been called God - it is in some transcendent, all-knowing, omni-present, virtue-filled entity.

Well, that sounds to me remarkably like ... God. Perhaps the real problem is that the thing that Pullman thought of as God in the first place wasn't actually God at all.

And that turns out to be the case. If you read this interview in "Third Way", you will discover about how Pullman learnt about what he calls "God" -
My grandfather was a clergyman and so every Sunday I went to Sunday school and church. I was confirmed, I was a member of the choir, all that sort of stuff.

We still had the Authorised Version of the Bible, and the Book of Common Prayer and Hymns Ancient and Modern – all those old forms of worship that had given comfort and joy to generations were still there for me to enjoy. Nowadays it’s all been swept away, and if ever I go into a church and look at the dreadful, barren language that disfigures the forms of service they have now, I am very thankful that I grew up at a time when it was possible for me to go to Matins and sing the Psalms in the old versions.
That ineffectual, traditional religious upbringing has little in common with the life-transforming agency which changed the life of heroes like Martin Luther, or Martin Luther King.

When you read Pullman's books, or see the film, it isn't the Authority in which divinity can be seen. It is dust. Pullman can't get away without the transcendent, absolute other - he knows it is there. It's just he doesn't realise that this is actually the God he is looking for.