December 2009

As 2009 is nearly over, here’s a selection of what I think are my best posts this year:

See you in 2010.

At this time of year, my thoughts are inevitably drawn towards the time when He will return. Here’s a video which I hope will explain what I mean, which you should all take a moment to view. If you have any questions, this leaflet should help to answer them, or you could see my previous posting on the subject.

A very Merry Christmas to all my readers!

Edited to add: if you enjoyed that, you’ll probably enjoy the rest: we were listening to them while putting the tree up.

Tabloid Watch: You can’t upset a 14yo girl with leukaemia any more – it’s political correctness gone mad!

The other shoe drops in the "Christian teacher sacked for offering to pray" story (mentioned previously): the parents of the 14 year old with leukaemia have spoken to the press about the teacher's actions. Tabloid Watch links to a bunch of places where it's been reported.
(tags: christianity religion education)

Accept Defeat: The Neuroscience of Screwing Up | Magazine

"The fact is, we carefully edit our reality, searching for evidence that confirms what we already believe. Although we pretend we’re empiricists — our views dictated by nothing but the facts — we’re actually blinkered, especially when it comes to information that contradicts our theories. The problem with science, then, isn’t that most experiments fail — it’s that most failures are ignored."
(tags: science psychology neuroscience brain failure research kuhn)

Overtime by Charles Stross and Carl Wiens

The Laundry at Christmas, hurrah.
(tags: fiction horror laundry comedy charles-stross sf scifi sci-fi)

Whence Comes God’s Nature?

"God, so we're told, is eternal and unchanging. He is pure reason, pure mind, pure spirit – no physical needs to fulfill, no past history, none of the contingent events that make humana nature what it is. So how is it that he has, just like us, a complex nature with specific likes and dislikes? He did not undergo the process by which human beings acquire their preferences, so where does he get them from? Why does he prefer things one way and not another?"
(tags: theology religion christianity atheism)

Dark power: Grand designs for interstellar travel – space – 25 November 2009 – New Scientist

Bussard Ramjets collecting dark matter, and tiny black holes emitting Hawking radiation: two possible starship drive technologies.
(tags: science space flight physics interstellar)

Church recruiting drive targets two-year-olds

The Graun reports that the Church of England is trying to re-connect with children and teenagers, via youth clubs and providing material for the daily act of collective worship (still legally required in state schools, but often quietly ignored). While I think church schools should not get government funding, on the whole, school assembly Anglicanism is a vaccination against more serious sorts of Christianity, so I'm not as worried as the Graun or the commenters.
(tags: education religion children c-of-e church-of-england anglicanism christianity)

Heresy Corner: Equality before the law

"If Harriet Harman's odious Equality Bill reaches the statute book in anything like its current form (in other words, if the House of Lords doesn't manage to delay it before a general election intervenes) then there may well be social and legal chaos in this country. There will also be a lot more work for lawyers. A lot." – Heresiarch reckons the Equality Bill is a bad thing.
(tags: law politics equality)

Killing In The Climb –

Why have them vying for the Christmas number one when you can combine them?
(tags: music video rathergood funny mashup)

DAVID SIMON – Vice Magazine

"David Simon is responsible for one of the greatest feats of storytelling of the past century, and that’s the entire five-season run of the television series The Wire." – Vice Magazine interview him.
(tags: vicemagazine the-wire tv-programmes tv television wire crime drugs politics journalism)

Sumerians Look On In Confusion As God Creates World | The Onion – America’s Finest News Source

Members of the earth's earliest known civilization, the Sumerians, looked on in shock and confusion some 6,000 years ago as God, the Lord Almighty, created Heaven and Earth.
(tags: religion funny onion history creationism)

IEEE Spectrum: Math Quiz: Why Do Men Predominate?

"among top math performers, the gender gap doesn’t exist in some ethnic groups and in some countries. The researchers conclude that culture is the main reason more men excel at the highest math levels in most countries."
(tags: maths mathematics gender feminism equality)

The C Programming Language: 4.10 by Brian W Kernighan & Dennis M Ritchie & HP Lovecraft

"C functions may be used recursively; that is, a function may call itself either directly or indirectly. Uninquiring souls may take this as just another peculiarity of those C folk, of whose ways their neighbours speak little to outsiders but much among themselves.

Keener news-followers, however, wondered at the events of the winter of 1927-28, the abnormally large number of calls placed upon the stack, the swiftness with which that list was sorted, the disturbing lack of heap allocation throughout the proceedings, and the secrecy surrounding the affair."
(tags: funny humour parody C programming lovecraft horror)

The BBC reports that Olive Jones, a school teacher who’s also a Christian, was suspended for offering to pray for a sick pupil. This case looks similar to that of Caroline Petrie, a nurse who was also suspended (though later reinstated) after she offered to pray for a patient.

The Daily Mail has a longer interview with Mrs Jones than the BBC. I take articles in the Heil with a pinch of salt, but I assume they wouldn’t directly misquote her, as they’re on her side. Some salient points from their story: Jones is a supply teacher who visits the homes of kids who are too ill to come to school. After a previous incident, she’d been warned before that it wasn’t appropriate to pray with her pupils. The parent who complained had previously complained after Jones gave a testimony (evangelical jargon, usually referring to a story about how someone became a Christian, told for the purpose of evangelism, though in this case it was about how God saved her from being crushed by a tractor) in front of the parent, but the complaint hadn’t reached the right people, so when she did so again in front of the parent and child and also offered to pray, the parent complained to the school. Mrs Jones is now suspended pending an investigation. It’s not clear whether the decision to investigate happened after the press got involved: it looks like Jones is a contractor who can be fired without notice, not a full time employee of the school.

Inevitably, the Heil‘s commenters, and those at Cranmer’s blog, blame Muslims, political correctness, New Labour etc. etc. I suspect that if the story had been about a Muslim or Pagan doing what Mrs Jones did, the Mail‘s take on it would have been rather different (though I hope that the school’s response would not have been).

Jones’s actions as described by the Heil seemed to me to be deserving of disciplinary action from her employers. The same would apply if a Muslim or a Pagan had done the same, or if a strident neo-sceptical toxic rationalist neo-atheist had told the kid there’s no God and no miracles. Teachers aren’t paid to give unprompted religious “testimonies”, and shouldn’t assume that they’re welcome (especially in someone’s home). If the parent or the kid had asked about Jones’s religious beliefs, it’d be different, but there’s no evidence that this happened. It’s beholden on the school to ensure they comply with employment law, and firing for the first offence seems too harsh, but if someone’s on an at-will contract and has been warned once before, I can perfectly understand the decision to fire them.

I don’t think this is a free speech issue: Jones is free to pray on her own time (which will surely be as effective as praying with the family), and indeed, she was free to do what the Heil said she did and accept the consequences.

Tom Harris, MP and Ian Dale have further thoughts on the matter.

Edited to add: Tabloid Watch has the story from the parents who complained. Their daughter is 14 and has leukaemia, and they’d endured Jones’s evangelism for a while before complaining.

A couple of the blogs I read recently had discussions on the resurrection of Jesus: Common Sense Atheism and Parchment and Pen.

The wrong kind of God

In the comment thread over at Comment Sense Atheism, I wondered about the role of natural theology (that is, stuff like the Kalam Cosmological Argument) in preparing the ground for belief in the resurrection. When William Lane Craig debated against Bart Ehrman, Craig said “That Jesus rose naturally from the dead is fantastically improbable. But I see no reason whatsoever to think that it is improbable that God raised Jesus from the dead.” According to Ayer (that is, the commenter over at Common Sense Atheism, not the logical positivist), “Natural theology shows the existence of the monotheistic God; the resurrection, in its religio-historical context, shows that that monotheistic God is the one described by Jesus and the disciples, whose redemptive purpose is laid out in the Bible.”

There’s an unwarranted assumption here. Suppose we grant, for the sake of argument, that the Kalam argument is valid. This gets us as far as deism. To get to Christianity, we need the resurrection, as Ayer says. But if God didn’t do it, the resurrection is fantastically improbable, which I think means the New Testament evidence alone shouldn’t convince us unless we assume that God is the sort of god who might raise Jesus from the dead. But why should we assume that? Remember, we need that assumption to bolster the NT evidence sufficiently for us to believe it, but the only available “evidence” that God is that sort of god is the resurrection itself, the very thing we’re seeking to prove. I’ve not seen an argument from Craig (or any other apologist) which avoids this apparent circularity.

Simple explanations

So we’re stuck with being deists, which is a bit boring: as far as I know, they don’t have any choons. Perhaps we might instead argue that the New Testament evidence is sufficient on its own: it shows Jesus rose, and hence (if we’re feeling charitable about it) that there’s a god of the right sort, Christianity is true, greatest hits of Charles Wesley here we come.

This was what the Parchment and Pen posting was about. C Michael Patton argues that alternative explanations are less simple than just accepting that Jesus rose from the dead. There was a thread on the local newsgroup, cam.misc, where another Christian made the same argument.

I remembered that Heinlein once said the simplest explanation is always “The lady down the street is a witch; she did it.” What’s wrong with that explanation? It hides complexity behind language, as Alex Selby explains. I ended up saying that the Christian account is “simpler” in some sense, but not in a sense that lends it credibility. In this sense, the “simplest” explanation for what you see in Derren Brown’s stage shows is that mind reading really works and he’s a master at it: all that other stuff he does to achieve the effects is extremely convoluted in comparison. Alex doesn’t think we should describe that sense as simple. I can see his point, and perhaps I should have said that the Christian account feels simpler, rather than that it is.

At this point, a popular apologetic move is to accuse your opponent of assuming naturalism, materialism, scientism and other bad -isms (remember: if you have no other arguments, you can always play Spot The Worldview). I’m not sure whether that’s a valid move. I think you’d need an argument that using this informational Occam’s Razor won’t do the job in the case of non-material stuff, which again, I haven’t seen anyone attempt.

Peter F Hamilton’s Greg Mandel books are the only cyberpunk stories I know of set in and around Peterborough. As my memories of the place are of being dragged around the big shopping centres there as a kid, it’s hardly a name to conjure with: it’s like setting your story in Milton Keynes, or something (though Charles Stross did that successfully). After global warming, Peterborough has a Mediterranean climate (a little far-fetched, perhaps, but I can’t quite remember how much we knew about global warming in 1993, when the first book was published). At the edge of the flooded Fens, it’s thriving port, filled with refugees from the floods, smugglers and whatnot.

The trilogy follows Greg Mandel, a former officer in the English Army who fought in the Jihad Wars. Mandel was given psychic powers as part of an experimental unit, the Mindstar Brigade. He can sense strong emotions, and gets flashes of intuition. Now a civilian, he makes a living as a private detective. As the trilogy begins, England has just revolted against the People’s Socialist Party, who took power in the chaos after the Warming. When the PSP largely disbanded the army, Mandel spent some time as an urban guerilla on the council estates of Peterborough, fighting with the PSP’s supporters. As we first meet him, he’s on his way to assassinate a former member of the hated People’s Constables, who used to beat people well with their magic wellness sticks. He’s soon tangled up in solving problems for Event Horizon, an emerging English mega-corporation. Event Horizon aren’t a stereotypical evil corporation: they’re the good guys, a sort of mega family firm. Julia Evans, the boss, is another recurring character in the books, though, reassuringly, she’s not Mandel’s love interest.

Reading the books after The Magicians, I found Hamilton’s style tight and easy to read rather than sparkling or poetic. Sometimes we get a cyberpunk version of Hello magazine: he’s got an irritating habit of carefully describing what people are wearing when he introduces them and detailing the makes and models of cars, weapons and so on; and almost everyone is beautiful. That said, the plot rattles along satisfyingly, with some gripping set-pieces. Of course, there are big corporations who duel via their hired mercenaries, spies and hackers, but these standard cyperpunk elements are combined with mysteries for Mandel to solve, mixing the SF stuff with detective fiction.

Hamilton went on to write several door-stops in the Night’s Dawn trilogy (the dead come back… in space, with Al Capone as the principal villain: strangely not as bad as it sounds, although the ending was a let down) and the Commonwealth Saga (which contains the neat idea of running railway lines through stable wormholes). I like the Greg Mandel books for their comparative brevity, pace, and their English take on cyberpunk.

Substance dualism

QualiaSoup has a new video up, a short argument against substance dualism (the idea that consciousness arises from separate kind of mental substance outside the physical world).
(tags: consciousness philosophy dualism qualia)

Theodicy III: Primo Levi versus Francis Collins

Jerry Coyne has been reading Francis Collins's "The Language of God" as well as Levi's works on Auschwitz. Not surprisingly, he doesn't find Collins's theodicy very convincing.
(tags: theology religion jerry-coyne francis-collins)

Rowan Williams’ choice | Andrew Brown | Comment is free |

Andrew Brown kicks some righteous ass: "Under Williams, the church that marries two women who love each other is to be thrown out of the Anglican Communion. The church that would jail them both for life, and would revile and persecute their defenders, stays snugly in his bosom. Not even the Archbishop's remarkable gift for obfuscation can conceal these facts forever."
(tags: homosexuality politics uganda uk religion christianity anglicanism rowan-williams)

Discovery Institute: The Mask Falls Away

The IDers at the DI go bonkers about the Climategate emails: "A cabal of leading scientists, politicians, and media concubines have conspired to lie about global warming. The reasons are obvious: power and money. … I’m not sure that the scientific community can or will respond to this debacle in a courageous or ethical way. The ID-Darwinism debate clearly demonstrates that venality and shameless self-interest, as well as a toxic leftist-atheist ideology, runs very deep in the scientific community." I'm adding "toxic" to my standard "neo-sceptical strident fundamentalist neo-atheist" spiel.
(tags: lolxians climate global-warming intelligent-design discovery-institute)

Lev Grossman’s The Magicians is Harry Potter meets Narnia meets Brideshead Revisited meets Douglas Coupland.

The protagonist, Quentin Coldwater, starts off as a maladjusted geek who’s in love with his best friend’s girlfriend. He escapes into the Fillory books, which describe the adventures of a family of English schoolchildren in a magical land filled with talking animals. After his interviewer for a place at Princeton drops dead, he’s invited to join Brakebills, an elite magical college.

Brakebills is Hogwarts, but with more grit. Without the magic, Hogwarts is an English boarding school. The nearest mundane equivalent to Brakebills is a small Oxbridge college. Undergrads drink and screw, as undergrads do; everyone knows everyone’s business; new arrivals end up reeling from the shock of being given work which taxes them and of being surrounded by people as intelligent as them, if not more so. It turns out that magic isn’t about learning the secrets of the universe, or waving a wand and uttering some cod Latin and having everything just work: it’s more like learning Basque while juggling. So far, so very familar.

The Brakebills section is enjoyable: Quentin grows up a bit, acquires some comrades, chooses to face a trial, and overcomes it. But on graduating, he and his friends are lost. Not just in the come down after the party, or the come down after an intense intellectual effort (recall Philip Swallow in Changing Places, who saw the run up to his final exams as the high point of his intellectual career), but because as magicians they’ve become the idle rich, people who can have anything they want, if only they knew what that was. Only Quentin’s much more sensible girlfriend, Alice, seems to be able to cope with the existential problems of being a wizard. The rest of them need a story to be in, and don’t have one.

Many people in that situation end up finding a religion and writing their lives as fan-fiction. The magicians go one better, and find their way into a story by finding their way into NarniaFillory. Will this finally give their lives some meaning? I won’t spoil the ending by telling you.

Grossman’s borrowings from other works are done knowingly: the Brakebills students are as media-savvy as any teenagers, so of course they make jokes about Quidditch; the Fillory section reads like someone’s report of a dungeon crawl (albeit a particularly well-written one), so the magicians arm themselves with spells they name Magic Missile and Fireball after their D&D counterparts. But Grossman’s not merely mugging for the camera, writing a modern Bored of the Rings. He wants to jar us by combining a modern novel with a children’s fantasy setting, and he succeeds. Watching the magicians stumble through Fillory is like hearing someone swear in a cathedral.

Grossman can write, and supplies us with wit as well as grit. I read the book in one sitting, after which the sound of birds outside the window reminded me that sleep might be a good idea. Abigail Nussbaum (whose review you should read, although be warned it gives away more of the plot than I have) wishes that Grossman had the courage of his convictions. I like the relentlessly grim SF novel as much as anyone, but I find it hard to fault Grossman for giving his protagonist a second chance. I enjoyed it in any case. Recommended.

The Punchtape Letters

"My Dear Malware,

Thank you for your latest news. I agree that your bombarding of on-line programming sites with questions about “cascading style sheets” (whatever they may be) and “rounded corners” (as if anyone cared) will irritate and annoy a certain number (possibly even a large number) of programmers, but it seems a lot of effort to go to."
(tags: funny programming computers c.s.-lewis parody screwtape c++)

Creating God in one’s own image

Research in the psychology of religion shows that people tend to think God thinks what they think: "People may use religious agents as a moral compass, forming impressions and making decisions based on what they presume God as the ultimate moral authority would believe or want. The central feature of a compass, however, is that it points north no matter what direction a person is facing. This research suggests that, unlike an actual compass, inferences about God's beliefs may instead point people further in whatever direction they are already facing."
(tags: religion psychology science politics god morality)

Atheism: Proving The Negative: Encyclopedia Entry: Atheism

Matt McCormick's draft of an encyclopedia entry on various arguments for and against atheism.
(tags: atheism religion matt-mccormick theodicy design kalam)

In the Pipeline: Things I Won’t Work With

Derek Lowe, a medicinal chemist, has a section of his blog on the subject of really nasty chemicals. Light hearted yet terrifying.
(tags: science funny humour smell chemistry dangerous explosives)

Troy Jollimore on Karen Armstrong’s ‘The Case for God’ – Book Review

"Armstrong may perhaps make a plausible claim in asserting that faith, as understood by mainstream religious traditions before the advent of modernity, involved more than “mere” belief in the modern sense; but if the problem with religious life is that it encourages false, absurd, unjustified beliefs, showing that it does other things as well is not sufficient."
(tags: religion philosophy atheism karen-armstrong apophatic christianity)