February 2007

I’ve just updated LJ New Comments, fixing a bug pointed out by legolas and adding some code to make it try harder to draw a box around the currently selected comment (turns out I’d had the latter sitting around in my CVS repository without letting the public benefit).

While we’re on the subject of Greasemonkey, InYOFaceBook is an amusing hack to show full size profile images when you mouse over a small one, even for people who’ve been boring enough to hide their full profile. Hurrah for Stalkerbook!

I’ve been listening to more of those CICCU talks.

Tues 13th Loving God, Broken World: Has God Lost Control?

Bloody theodicy, as some on my friends list might say. Simon Scott approaches the issue of suffering sensitively, as one who has experienced it himself (an illness 7 years ago, he says: I think I remember praying for him at church. I don’t know what was wrong with him, but his description of makes it sound awful).

His points are familiar to anyone who’s looked into Christian responses to the Problem of Evil. God created a good world, but human disobedience made it go wrong. God is absolved of blame for this, even natural disasters are somehow our fault (perhaps, like Mr Deity, God was worried it’d be too easy to believe in him otherwise). Perhaps intentionally, given Scott’s audience, it’s not clear whether he’s advocating creationism. It’s possible to read the Genesis story as applying to Everyman and Everywoman, but hard to see how that interpretation has the cosmological implications that Scott outlines: once the entire world was good, now it is fallen, even in the impersonal, non-human parts. I was a theistic evolutionist once, and it involved a lot of hand-waving.

So, the world has gone bad. But, says Scott, God will fix this (unfortunately, not for everyone, as some people will go to Hell). We might call that pie in the sky when you die and wish for a better world now, but we shouldn’t. After all, if God were to judge sin now, where would he stop? The implication is, as usual, that everyone is guilty, and we’d better be careful when we wish for divine intervention, as we may get it.

This argument fails because it assumes that God’s way of making the world better would be to obliterate everything that displeases him. I can think of more subtle ways of doing it than that. It’s odd that God apparently can’t.

Scott acknowledges that his explanation is incomplete, but implies it’s best not worry why that is, just ensure that you aren’t excluded from the perfect world which will be re-created at the end of time. He tells a parable of a cyclist hit by a bus (this is Cambridge, after all), and a passerby who gives a precise explanation of his body’s pain response rather than helping him to a hospital. There’s certainly a pragmatism to this, which echoes the Buddhist story of Malunkyaputta and the man shot by an arrow: it’s pointless to tell someone who is suffering about eternal verities rather than how to end their suffering. That said, there’s no suggestion in Malunkyaputta’s story that the world is watched by someone who could intervene, but chooses not to. In the meantime, Christians had better not pass by on the other side, but God is at liberty to do so.

Wed 14th Jesus Asked, “Who do you say I am?” (Mark 8v29)
The Profit Motive in Religion

After a good start in which he advises Christians to read The God Delusion and atheists to read Alister McGrath, Phillip Jensen plays religion’s trump card. You’re all going to die, he says, and what are you going to do then?

We’ve all woken at 4 am and realised we shall one day die (unless that’s just me and Larkin). Religion deals in the certainties we want when uncertainty is too terrible. Speaking of creationism, I often see Christians who pounce on any scientific uncertainty, eager to pull God out of the gap. This is a different degree of seriousness. We needn’t face where we came from, but we must all face where we’re going.

I’d call it a trick, except I don’t doubt the sincerity of Jensen’s pleas not to let worldly distractions keep us from eternal life. Still, again, how can they? Who would turn down such a thing, if they woke after their own death to find it on offer? The trick belongs to religions themselves, not consciously to their adherents. It is that we’re told we must act before death, and each religion claims that their way is the way to get there, other ways being uncertain at worst and a broad road to hell at worst. Even if we wanted to take up Pascal’s wager, where shall we place our stake? Again, it’s odd that Jensen’s God hasn’t thought of universalism, but rather, insists on the eternal torture or final obliteration of everyone who bet wrong.

This year’s CICCU convert-a-thon is called Cross Examined. Stalkerbook tells me it’s happening this week. The talks are available online (as Windows Media files, alas, CICCU having made a pact with the Beast). They are given by Simon Scott, who used to preach at my old church (and who marnanel will no doubt remember for his habit of starting sermons with quotations from pop songs), and by Phillip Jensen, perhaps best known for his views on the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Never being one to pass up an opportunity like this, I listened to some of talks they’ve given so far. Here are some brief notes on what they said:

Wed 07th Faith and Reason: Does God Want Me to Lose My Mind?

Scott gives a lunchtime talk on whether Christianity is reasonable.

He talks of reasonable assumptions, but leaps from assuming that a chair will hold you or that CICCU won’t poison you to the reasonableness of believing in supernatural stuff, bypassing considerations of the magnitude of Christianity’s claims.

Many atheists do not assert that God definitely does not exist. Quotes Dawkins but either hasn’t read or hasn’t understood the point of The God Delusion, namely that it’s about the balance of evidence.

Like many evangelicals, he asserts that there is sufficient evidence and that people don’t believe because they don’t want to, assuming bad faith on the part of anyone who has the temerity to disagree with him.

He defines the coming of Jesus as an events which is unique, so that we should not expect to see God again today. That’s fair enough as far as it goes, but doesn’t address why God isn’t more obvious even if Jesus isn’t still around. Alongside his admission that you can’t see God today, he does say that there are intelligent people on both sides of the God debate, which seems to leave him open to the Argument from Reasonable Non-belief.

Thurs 08th Christianity: Intolerant, Arrogant . . . True?

Scott talks a lot of sense about the sort of cartoon relativism which only liberal arts academics seriously believe. It’s not clear why he thinks this is an argument in favour of Christianity. I think it’s the same sort of false dichotomy that Jensen also perpetrates (see below). Christianity or moral chaos! Choose now! Banzai!

Gently brings up the delicate subject of hell (evangelicals had more gumption in the good old days). Doesn’t quite address why the God who we can trust not want to hurt us is also the danger we face. I’ve written about Hell before: go read that.

Mon 12th Jesus Asked, “Are you so dull?” (Mark 7v18) The Source of Immorality and Corruption Exposed

Jensen does the Total Depravity Roadshow: I’m not OK, you’re not OK either.

False dichotomies all over the place: either accept that people are naturally good, or become a Christian. Accept moral chaos, or become a Christian.

Dawkins is, according to Jensen’s quote, naive about human nature, but Pinker (another atheist) isn’t. This is significant, somehow (unless all atheists agree, they’re wrong?)

When we disagree with the Bible, we disagree with God, apparently.

Roy Hattersley’s Grauniad article is his best point, but even this never actually addresses whether Christianity is true. Is it right to encourage people to believe it merely because it might make them better? Does it, in fact, make them better, I wonder? It probably gives them a certain kind of structure which is sadly lacking in many people today, it seems, but I bet if they became Humanists, Muslims or Buddhists, or merely had managed to get some sort of education from their parents or their school, they’d be nicer too.


Lots of contemporary relevance (Harry Potter is taking it a bit too far, I think). Reasonable explanation of what evangelicals think. It’ll be interesting to see where Jensen goes with it, but neither of them are very good at saying why one should believe something. Perhaps the approved technique in evangelism these days is just to lay out your stall and hope it clicks with where someone is at the moment.

More soon, no doubt 🙂

I recently finished Andrew Hodges’s Alan Turing: the Enigma. The book is a definitive account of Turing’s life and work. In some places I found the level of detail overwhelming, but in others I admired the way Hodges uses his obviously extensive research to evoke the places and people in Turing’s life. The book is well worth reading for the perspective it gives on Turing, something which is absent from other, purely technical, accounts of his work.

Hodges portrays Turing as a man ahead of time, conceiving of the Turing machine as a thought experiment before the invention of the general purpose electronic computer, and inventing the Turing test when computing was in its infancy. Turing’s naivete was reflected in his refusal to accept what other people said could be done, but also in a lack of interest in the politics of his post-war work on computers and of his own homosexuality. A proto-geek, Turing was prickly, odd, and seemed to expect that the facts alone, when shown to people, would lead them to the same conclusions as he found.

Turing’s suicide is placed in the context of a move from regarding homosexuality as criminal to regarding it as a medical problem, and an increasing suspicion of homosexuals in classified government work. Hodges seems to conclude that Turing felt he had nowhere else to go.

You can’t help but wonder what else Turing might have accomplished had he not committed suicide. Greg Egan’s short, Oracle, is an entertaining what-if story, which also features a character very obviously based on C.S. Lewis. What if Turing had received help from a friend? It’s a pity that in reality there was no-one to lead him out of his cage.

The Bible has much more to say on divorce and remarriage than it does on homosexuality. Ignoring the vexed question about what exactly the Bible does say about homosexuality (and the assumption implicit in the idea of “what the Bible says“, namely that the Bible is a unitary document which is to be read in the way evangelicals do), the New Testament statements on divorce are clearly and directly against both divorce and marrying a divorcee. Jesus describes the latter as adultery in all of the synoptic gospels. St Paul explicitly states that divorcees must not remarry.

There are a couple of exceptions to the rule: sexual malpractice of some kind (the Greek word which the New International Version translates as “marital unfaithfulness” here, and “sexual immorality” elsewhere, usually rendered “fornication” in the King James Version) and the case where a Christian has an unbelieving spouse and that spouse deserts the believer.

Nevertheless, my impression is that evangelical churches are more willing to re-marry divorcees (whether or not they would be subject to the exceptions mentioned above) than, say, Catholics are, while at the same time being steadfastly against gay marriage. I’ve been asking an evangelical about this on uk.religion.christian, after he made a statement which seemed to confirm my impression. He’s said some good things about repentance and forgiveness in regard to divorce, but hasn’t yet addressed the point that the second marriage itself is described as sinful by the Bible, so it’s hard to see how one can repent of a sin while one is doing it.

I think these churches are doing the right thing in letting compassion overrule “what the Bible says”, of course, but once you’ve done that, why not do it for the gays too? The reason why they don’t do that is, I cynically suspect, because they know what their members want: there are a lot more straight divorcees than there are gay people wanting to get married. As St Jack of Lewis pointed out, it’s very easy to condemn a sin to which you feel no particular temptation.

The Magistrate is in a lyrical mood today, publishing the full text of the sentencing in a tragic case (not one of his own), from which I learned the meaning of the word “condign”. The comments on that entry reflect my own contradictory reactions to the case. The judge’s words sound majestic, but the offender will probably be out in 3.5 years.

After that, we need a little light relief. The Magistrate goes on to quote his favourite sonnets, on philandering and post-coital guilt. Harry of Chase Me Ladies has his own amusing take on the latter sonnet, but Harry’s commenters come up trumps, with Wendy Cope’s adaption of it. I also liked her Wasteland limericks, though not quite as much as the ladysisyphus‘s previously-posted Harry Potter version.

January was busy. terriem and jacquic‘s long awaited musical day was at my house on Twelfth Night. jacquic did a great job as a piano accompanist, and we also had clarinet, harps (2), and violin. We started off with Christmas carols, went on to various traditional songs from scribb1e‘s book of Hearty Songs for Public Schoolboys (book may not actually have advertised title). Then it was time for musicals, starting with Once More With Feeling (Walk through the Fire went particularly well, I think). We sang some Andrew Lloyd Webber and some older musical stuff, before moving on to pop songs. There was also lots of eating and chatting. I had a great day: thanks to Terrie and Jacqui for suggesting it, and to Jacqui for her excellent sight-reading.

unoriginal1729 had a cocktail party the next weekend. For once, I wasn’t driving, so I was able to sample a few of other people’s creations. Given enough of the rum cocktail (which dab13 claims was called rumbaba, something which the dictionary says is a cake), cowe, dab13 and I were transformed into pirates, which involved saying “Arrr!” and me trying to lead them through Heart of Oak and Spanish Ladies without much success (neither of them had read Hearty Songs for Public Schoolboys). The rum cocktail was a bit pink, leading kadia to label us “metro-pirates”.

If alcoholic cocktails have dubious names like a Slow Comfortable Screw and a Screaming Orgasm, non-alcoholic ones must, we said, have names which are more innocent. lauralaitaine suggested a Flash of Ankle or a Stolen Kiss. My own suggestion of a Quick Fumble Behind the Bikesheds wasn’t quite in the right spirit, apparently.

The next weekend, chaos_natsci had another party. There was plenty of entertainment, what with limbo dancing, table football and watching cowe and sammagain throw women into acrobatic rock’n’roll moves.

A few quiet weekends since then have provided a much needed opportunity to relax. Today I’ve terrified scribb1e by shaving off a week’s growth of facial hair leaving myself with a goatee (people on Facebook can see the picture). Beards are good, but goatees are bad. Who knew? I’ll be clean shaven tomorrow so girls in Clive’s lesson don’t run away.