2007

I’m back from the Cambridge Folk Festival. It was the first one I’d been to. I enjoyed it.

 went on Friday. I’d booked the day off work with the thought that I might go, but didn’t in the end. A combination of being busy at work and staying up late to read various books had left me a bit broken, so I just had a quiet day at home.

By Saturday I judged that my beard had grown out sufficiently to blend in with the other festival-goers. We got there just in time for Bellowhead‘s set. They’re a big band doing folk stuff with a lot of other influences, from jazz to disco. They were technically good (according to 

, who can apparently tell whether violinists have been classically trained by looking at them) and made the crowd laugh with their disco sea shanty.

We popped into the Club tent to hear Lisa Knapp. She can sing, but the mixing was painfully bad, so we went and found some chilli from the food stalls instead.

We finished that just in time to meet up with

 and squeeze back into the edge of the main tent for a view of Kate Rusby from a distance (Graham has some great pictures taken with his paparazzi-grade long lens). Turns out she’s from the Wright ancestral seat of Barnsley, so she scored points for that alone. She chatted amiably with the audience and sang beautifully.

After Kate Rusby was done, we made a dash for the front in anticipation of Joan Baez’s set. That meant we had great view of Fanfare Ciocarlia, a Romanian brass band who tore into their gypsy tunes with verve (you could tell it was going to be interesting when the stage hands laid out towels for the band members to wipe themselves with). The audience responded with whooping, clapping and as much dancing as we could manage in the confined space. In the middle of their set, Baez appeared from the wings and danced a bit with the slightly bemused Romanians, who didn’t know who she was.

Finally, it was time for Baez to come on. Amazing music, whether accompanied by her excellent band, playing her guitar alone, or acappella. She’s a trooper who, she implied in her comments, sees as much need for her activism now as in the 1960s. She attacked President Bush in Dylan’s With God on our Side and Elvis Costello’s The Scarlet Tide. She also put in some of her best known stuff, according to

, who loved Diamonds and Rust. She finished with Imagine, which I usually can’t stand (it’s a bit of a dirge, and it’s a “wouldn’t it be nice if everyone was nice” sort of song). This time, there was a lump in my throat as she got the crowd to sing along. Nothing could top that, so then we went home.

The Rev Steve Midgley, who I remember from my days at The Square Church, has been featured on the Dawkins site. The sermon he gave on Professor Dawkins’s views is about a year old now, but I suppose that a posting on the Dawkins blog might generate some more interest in it. You can find MP3s of it on his church’s site (the church is the Cambridge “plant” from St Andrew the Great which I think nlj21 attends).

Rev Midgley comes across as a thoughtful and careful preacher, eager to ensure he has presented Dawkins’s views fairly.

Midgley speaks about Professor Alister McGrath’s responses to Dawkins. I’ve not read McGrath’s books, but I’ve heard his discussion with Dawkins at the Oxford Literary Festival, and also seen him and Dawkins talking at length in out-takes from Root of All Evil?, Dawkins’s Channel 4 opinion piece from last year. I didn’t find McGrath particularly impressive in either case, mostly because of his irksome habit of telling Dawkins he’d made an interesting point and then answering something other than Dawkins’s question (now I think of it, in Yes, Prime Minister, I think that’s one of Jim Hacker’s tips to Sir Humphrey for dealing with the press). For someone who’s been associated with the infamously evangelical Wycliffe Hall theological college, McGrath seems oddly evasive on some fundamental, if unpalatable, bits of evangelical doctrine, like the Virgin Birth, penal substitutionary atonement, and the sovereignty of God even in natural disasters. I’d be interested to hear what any of you who’ve read McGrath’s books thought of them.

Midgley quotes Terry Eagleton’s LRB article to illustrate that reviewers have criticised Dawkins’s lack of theological knowledge. I think I’d be more receptive to those sort of arguments if someone could point to a rebuttal of Dawkins based on that theology. Eagleton’s attempt founders on its own contradictory assertions about what God is, as Sean Carrol points out. I doubt Midgely is willing to sign up for Eagleton’s theology, which sounds suspiciously liberal to this ex-evangelical. It’s illuminating to ask how Midgley would demonstrate that his theology was more correct than Eagleton’s, though, of which more later.

Midgley talks about Dawkins’s Ultimate 747 argument. He makes the valid point that ordinary Christians generally aren’t concerned with the Argument from Design. Similarly, he says that forcing us to chose between evolution and God is a false choice, since God may use evolution. I think this mistakes what Dawkins’s argument is. If the universe does not require a designer (as Midgley seems to concede), life itself and the universe are not evidence for the existence of God. If there are no other good arguments for God’s existence (the one from Design isn’t the only one Dawkins talks about, although it’s the centerpiece of the book), it’s reasonable to suppose that God’s not there (or he doesn’t want to be found).

Midgley goes on to point out that scientific theories change, quoting McGrath again, and asserts that Dawkins has a faith as much as a Christian does. Dawkins’s own response to McGrath points out the inconsistency here: Dawkins, along with any good scientist, is willing to admit the scientific theories are provisional. Midgley, to get his old job at St Andrew the Great and to speak to CICCU, presumably assented to some extremely specific doctrines (never mind the Nicene Creed, if you want to test for “soundness”, try the CICCU Doctrinal Basis). These doctrines aren’t subject to testing, peer review or later revision. How are we supposed to know that Midgley is right and Eagleton’s Marxist Christianity is wrong? I think we’d just have to have faith 🙂

Finally, I wish he could pronounce Dawkins’s name correctly. That sort of mistake lays you open to parody.

In their latest spasm of incompetence in the on-going Strikethrough 2007 drama, LiveJournal’s admins have clarified that they were just kidding about that all that free speech and community stuff for long enough to get the last batch of permanent accounts sold.

Countdown to Harry Potter spoilers being posted in that thread: in 10… 9… 8…

ETA: Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies. Youtube and Google win again. I think I slightly prefer Harry Potter and the Brokeback Goblet, myself. Both spoiler free.

I look up potential interviewees on Facebook (as well as Google, obviously). Unlike the proctors at Oxfrod, I don’t care whether you’ve been photographed covered in flour or shaving cream, as long as you look like someone who’s smart, and gets things done.

livredor recently posted an entry in which she talks about online privacy, linking to Charlie Stross’s essay on the subject. I think Stross has this article on teenagers and online privacy in mind when he talks of a generation growing up with the idea that you have no privacy online and it doesn’t matter anyway. livredor is coming to the conclusion (which I share, see my replies in the comments) that she “should just make everything open and take care never to post anything that I could be ashamed or embarrassed about”.

As the comments on her posting point out, the problem is working out what you could be embarrassed about. The problems mentioned in the Times article are partly the result of a generation gap between people who aren’t surprised that some of their peers have put their lives online, warts and all, and the staid elders who are shocked to learn stuff that proctors, employers and parents didn’t previously find out about. I suspect that absence of evidence of shaving cream was never really evidence of absence, but it’s going to take a while for the elders to work that out. It seems sensible for the younger people to be a little circumspect in the meantime, so it’s not surprising that many existing Facebook users are tightening up their privacy options. Relying on privacy settings is another risk, because you’re trusting your e-friends and the site you’re using, but at least you’re keeping your embarrassing university antics out of sight of indexers and archivers, and you’re not assuming that the elders cannot join the site you’re using.

livredor also mentioned the possible problems which might be caused by people migrating away from email to the messaging systems offered by sites like Facebook. Gervase Markham has some thoughts on the subject. Conventional email is a lot less slick than, say, Facebook’s internal messages, and faces a greater spam problem, in part because email is distributed but Facebook has centralised control. These proprietary systems have their downsides too, of course: balkanisation, and a single point of failure when Facebook gets shut down by a law suit.

I think there’s some mileage in building an email system which is a bit more like Facebook’s walled garden. When I say spam in its current form is a solved problem, what I mean is that you can solve it by only accepting messages from well-behaved parts of the Internet. What I mean by well-behaved is stuff like not being in space given to cable modems and the like (Spamhaus PBL, checks on the presence of reverse DNS and that the hostname does not contain some variant of the IP address), not being a known baddie (Spamhaus SBL and XBL or your own email providers local list of scumbags), and not sending bulk email except by prior arrangement (DCC with whitelisting for mailing lists).

Alas, not all badly-behaved emailers are spammers, some of them are just managed by incompetents. Sometimes these incompetents work for large companies who aren’t going to change, so you have to start making holes in your garden wall to keep your users happy. However, an inbound email gateway for a hugely popular site like Facebook could enforce these restrictions by fiat without losing anything, since their users are using the internal system to send each other messages anyway, so anything else is a bonus (you could also make a nice interface for whitelisting legitimate bulk senders by requiring them to produce a Facebook application, say). If Facebook does take over the world, it needn’t mean the death of email. It might just bring the incompetents into line, we can but hope.

Rt Rev Graham Dow, Bishop of Carlisle, has let us know that the real reason for the floods in the north. It’s the gays.

“We are in serious moral trouble because every type of lifestyle is now regarded as legitimate,” he said.

“In the Bible, institutional power is referred to as ‘the beast’, which sets itself up to control people and their morals. Our government has been playing the role of God in saying that people are free to act as they want,” he said, adding that the introduction of recent pro-gay laws highlighted its determination to undermine marriage.

“The sexual orientation regulations [which give greater rights to gays] are part of a general scene of permissiveness. We are in a situation where we are liable for God’s judgment, which is intended to call us to repentance.”

The non-sequitur in that second paragraph is breathtaking, isn’t it? The reference is to Revelation, chapter 13. Revelation has been favoured by loons since it was written (I particularly like this version, myself). The beast is usually thought to be the power of ancient Rome, possibly Emperor Nero himself, whose burnings of Christians and insistence on worship of deified emperors are clearly just like a secular democracy which is trying to give its citizens equality under the law.

Dow is quoted alongside a couple of other evangelical Bishops saying less insane stuff about global warming, with the vague hint that God is telling us off for being nasty to the planet. They’re probably wishing they had chosen to speak out at a time when their episcopal colleague wasn’t hell-bent on emptying churches throughout the north. Good luck to Dow in his quest, anyhow.

Hassan Butt appears to be one of those people you don’t hear about often enough: a Muslim speaking out publicly against terrorism and calling on Muslims in the UK to reform. His article in The Observer is worth a read, as is the one giving Tony Blair’s thoughts on British Islam. Both links come from those Drink Soaked Trots, who I commend to you for sensible commentary if, like me, you’re a bit of a leftie.

The original drink-soaked trot, Christopher Hitchens, points out in Slate that God also hates women, or at least, those who are slags.

No blog is complete without a posting on the season finale of Doctor Who. Here’s mine. Contains spoilers.

<lj-cut>I was, in the end, disappointed. It’s clear that Russell T. Davies so wants the geeks to like him, what with all the references to pre-RTD Who and other SF stuff (“the project was our last, best hope”, the funeral pyre, and so on). But what we got was a bit incoherent, long on emoting and short on plot. Geeks like plot, and, as Babylon 5 showed, we can put up with some terrible acting and special effects as long as we get it. RTD worked himself into a frenzy of flashes and bangs from which he had no way out other than using the TARDIS as a big reset switch yet again.

I liked the final scene between the Doctor and Martha because they involved the audience in a way most of what went before had not. RTD can do character interaction.

The best episodes of this series were those which combined this development of the characters with a plot which made consistent (and a little less frenetic) use of the SF elements (Human Nature and the Family of Blood) and one which took a single SF premise and worked through it well (Blink).

I’ve just finished off a series of replies to Matt in our discussion on religion, naturalism, physics, morality and consciousness which I mentioned in my previous post. You can view them on his blog, or you can find them below. I’ve also added to the discussion on Aquinas and divine simplicity which is happening here.

Especially in the latter discussion, I’m aware that my lack of philosophical sophistication may let me down at some points, so I’d be interested to hear what other people think of my arguments.

<lj-cut> On the status of the laws of physics, and Lewis’s argument: I don’t know whether the laws of physics exist in the sort of platonic sense that I’ve been assuming when talking about necessary existence in your previous posting, but my point there is that if we’re allowing stuff to exist immaterialy and necessarily, so as to cause the universe, it needn’t be anything like a God of the sort that most theists believe in. My friend Gareth recently produced a great summary of reasons to think that there is a deep link between mathematics and reality (along with some reasons why that might be wrong).

Lewis’s argument seems to have some holes (although the bit at the bottom of that page about how Lewis was destroyed by Anscombe appears to be an overstatement, according to Wikipedia). To those objections, I’d add that Lewis assumes that if you do think there’s a relationship between the human mind and some sort of platonic mathematical world (in which logical reasoning is grounded), you can’t be a naturalist. Perhaps this is a terminological problem, but I bet people like Roger Penrose don’t think of themselves as supernaturalists. Naturalists who disagree with that sort of platonism might want to throw Penrose out of the naturalist club, I suppose, but all that means is that there’s at least a third position which Lewis has not considered (I’m not arguing in favour of Penrose’s position, merely point out it exists and is not completely crazy).

I’ll try to answer Aaron on your other post.

On the relation of philosophical arguments to the universe: the possibility that new physics will sink HMS Kalam illustrates the problem I’m talking about. It seems very odd to reason about what the universe must or must not do while skating over things like what the universe is made of, what shape it is, or why time appears to have a particular direction[1]. I don’t give a lot of weight to such arguments (I’m slightly guilty about having entered into an argument on such non-physical terms in previous comments). Maybe it’s just subject chauvinism on my part. [Though I should say I’m not actually a physicist, I just play one on the Internet. I have enough background from my degree to go and read popularised accounts of the sort of stuff that Carroll talks about, or I can ask one of the physicists round here. I certainly wouldn’t be up to contributing to the sort of discussion Carroll gets in his comments, because I can’t do the maths].

In my digging around on the subject, I came across a similar debate to our own. It seems that one can quibble over whether the universe as a whole is contingent or necessary. Again, these are non-physical categories, so I’m not sure how you’d tell who was right.

[1] Carroll seems to have some fairly funky ideas about the direction of the arrow of time in our far past. I’ve no idea what sort of first cause arguments could survive those turning out to be true.

On Swinburne: I don’t really recognise his picture of science. If we discover that some disparate areas of science are linked behind the scenes, that doesn’t invalidate the notions we had before, it just gives them some backing in terms of something more fundamental. Classical thermodynamics and optics still have their place as part of science in cases where you don’t need to care what atoms and photons are doing. By understanding it in terms of some more fundamental objects you’re going to get a handle on where the limits of applicability of your older ideas are, but that has not rendered the older ideas useless within those limits.

I’m also not sure what his point is when he separates physics from sensory impressions. Whatever mysterious stuff is going on in our minds, the sensory inputs to those minds register temperature and pressure and so on (and never mind that those concepts aren’t fundamental, because they’re perfectly appropriate for the level of explanation we need for human sensory organs).

Among physicists, there’s a feeling that mathematical laws are the most fundamental objects, and that it should be possible to derive all the rest of science from these. However, E. Brian Davies points out in his book that things like continental drift or evolution are less speculative than mathematical physics (in the sense that it’s likely there’ll be new equations before too long, but it’s unlikely anyone will disprove continental drift), and that the hope that humans will be able to form and comprehend a seamless bridge from fundamental physics to chemistry to biology might yet be forlorn, as our mental powers are limited (in which case it’s not clear how we’d know whether it was even possible in principle to build this bridge). Even if Davies turns out to be right, I don’t think this means that biology and chemistry are not sciences. Similarly, a science of consciousness need not be unified with physics to be a science. If the limits of our knowledge mean such a science is more like weather forecasting than rocket science (where they’re still happily using Newton’s laws, pace Swinburne), has that doomed naturalism?

I’d still be interested in your thoughts on how an immaterial consciousness interacts with the world, and why brains seem so linked to consciousness, by the way.

Morality: I’m not an expert here, but there are clearly some shared morals among most humans (Marc Hauser’s research is relevant, I think). Most of us cannot fail to recognise (if not practice) morality because it’s been wired into us, either by our shared biology or shared culture or probably some combination of the two. But I said that I didn’t think this indicated anything about the non-human world. If we met intelligent aliens, it’s possible they would not share our morals, yet from their point of view, they’d be following a standard shared by their species. (I’m not sure atheism is incompatible with moral realism, though, it’s just I’m not very convinced of moral realism myself).

I was interested in the Argument from reformers: if the moral consensus has changed over time (even among people who claimed to be getting their morality from some external source, like the Bible or the church, and so, ultimately, from God), how do you know what the objective morality actually is? This seems to me to be the same sort of problem which dogs ideas of Biblical inerrancy.

Most people don’t seem to ask “why should we be moral?” because they find they have moral ideas and at least some notion that they should follow them, even if they don’t actually do so all the time. My essay is intended as my own fallback position if I can’t think of any other reason not to become a cold-blooded sociopath (as it happens, my main reason, like most people’s, is that I don’t want to). As I’ve written elsewhere, I’m certainly not arguing that anything goes or that some cultures are not better than others. I think accepting that morality is not a universal absolute puts the responsibility more on us to build the sort of world we want to live in.

Why do you think we should be moral, by the way?

Conclusion: I’m not sure I’m the model of a modern atheist, since my own naturalism is methodological rather than metaphysical, if I’m understanding certain Wikipedia pages correctly. It’s pragmatism based on believing things for which I think there’s good evidence.

Is religion irrational? It’s semantics, I suppose: it’s possible to be rational and wrong, and religious people may have what they consider to be evidence. As Christians like to point out, evidence from personal relationships is not scientific, yet we do not reject it in everyday life (my problem with Christianity is that it has a special meaning of the word relationship of which I’d not previously been aware, and that this meaning leads to problems with reasonable non-belief). I didn’t start the “religion is irrational” business on Yellow’s blog, I’d rather argue the more persuasive point that religion is incorrect.

I’ve read all of the gospels lots of times, as you might have realised, although I could stand to refresh my memory, I suppose 🙂

So, I have found some more Christians to argue with on the Internet. Mattghg and I are talking about naturalism and what it can and cannot do. Mattghg is a Christian who argues that naturalism cannot explain some things. I’m a tentative naturalist who isn’t sure that he’s right. Another commenter mentioned Alvin Plantinga’s response to Dawkins, so we’re also talking about whether God would be complex.

I’m pleased that I’ve managed to refer to Penny Arcade in support of my position, a tactic I’d like to christen argumentum ad Fruit Fucker (link from a series of strips which contains zombies, since they’re apparently in fashion today).

Matt’s written a lengthy response to my original comment, which I hope to have time to address over the next couple of days.

robhu recently set the atheist hit squad on a luckless university chaplain who had the gall to criticise the Great Dawkins. Yellow, the chaplain, argues that the current atheist backlash is President Bush’s fault, but that Bush’s sort of religion is unrepresentative of Christianity as a whole.

robhu‘s argument that religion is irrational has provoked a series of interesting posts from Yellow. The first one starts off talking about Sam Harris before the topic begins to turn to rationality.

The second gets into some philosophy, with Yellow pointing out that Hume’s arguments on causality and induction lead to the conclusion that science itself is not strictly rational. To my shame, I wasn’t that familiar with Hume before this, mainly being aware of his stuff on miracles (and that he could out-consume Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, of course), so it’s been interesting to do some reading up on the web pages of various philosophy departments (Stanford’s is particularly good). I’ve left a comment on Yellow’s blog, remarking that there’s something slightly odd about invoking the arch-empiricist Hume in an attempt to argue for Christianity. ETA: added link to my comment.

Finally, there’s a third post on cosmological arguments for the existence of God. The absence of physical content in these arguments gets on my goat, so I responded there, too.