Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Moral and Intellectual Clarity

V interesting review by Onora O'Neill in the FT of Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists
By Susan Neiman. Onora says that "this is a story of the left’s unease with moral ideals, and the right’s revived insistence on them" points out that "Although progressives may think that the right is pushing the wrong values, they now offer no sustaining or convincing alternative. Some embrace a tepid relativism, in which the worst that can be said about dreadful action – unless it violates someone’s rights – is that it is 'inappropriate'"

I have argued elsewhere that the existence of (any) objective moral truths is an argument for the existence of God. My interlocutor Colin Howson is unusual amongst atheist philosophers in believing in objective morality. There is some hope of our joint Prospect article being published in the next couple of months, and it would be great to see Colin again and discuss these things with him.

I'm pleased to see that Tracy Chevalier's new book on the fossil-hunter Mary Anning is coming out on Aug 24. There will be an event at the Royal Society on 5th Oct (alas I can't make it as I am hosting a work dinner) but I expect to see Tracy well before then.

Meanwhile Janet Soskice in the Guardian did a brave piece about finding God in the shower - which attracted the usual dersive comments from a bunch of Dawkinsites. I've got involved a bit in the debate - an uphill struggle!

Sunday, June 28, 2009

National Secular Society has fewer than 10,000 paid up full members

Interesting article on the BBC Website about doctors re-affirming their rights to talk about faith. But it gives only 27 words to Cancer specialist Dr Bernadette Birtwhistle, who clearly knows what she is talking about, and 96 words to Terry Sanderson who clearly does not. Despite massive plugging in the Media the National Secular Society seems to be a tiny organisation, which is very reluctant to disclose its membership numbers.

In 2007 the President claimed to have "around 7,000" members, and their "Annual Report" doesn't disclose membership numbers. However looking at their financial statements filed at Companies House their income from "Subscriptions and Donations" in 2008 was £160k (up from £125k in 2007). Assuming that 80% of this is Subscriptions then these will be about £130k. We observe that the subscription rates are £29 for single adults,£17 for Concessions and £30 for two adults at the same address. Thus the average rate is about £20 per person and there are about 6,500 paying members. There are life memberships available but the income from these was £2.7k (up from £1.1k in 2007) which equates to about 6 life members joining in 2008. Thus we are talking about a paid-up membership of probably a bit under 7,000, and almost certainly not over 10,000. This BTW is a membership costing only £20 pa with no other commitments.

PS Quite nice though journalistic article about the survival value of faith here.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Arcadia and the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics

Saw the excellent production of Arcadia last night: a play which bizzairely I had neither seen nor read. Was delighted to find that Bob May had done an essay "From Newton to Chaos" for the programme. It concludes: "Ultimately, the mathematics of chaos offers new and deep insights into the structure of the world around us, and at the same time raises old questions about why abstract mathematics should be so unreasonably effective in describing this world".

All the cast were very good, with Ed Stoppard and Samantha Bond shining particularly, and Lucy Griffiths a charmingly glamorous Chole. Turns out she was at Roedean with Rebecca Hall and was in the Childrens Chorus of one of Peter Hall's Glynedbourne productions. The themes of chaotic mathematics, love, madness, the uncertainty of historical research, the contingency of genius are really interesting and beautifully handled.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Election of Sheriffs

Went yesterday to the Guildhall for the Election of Sheriffs, which is by all Liverymen of the City of London. Normally this is a formality, with two candidates recommended by the Corporation, one Aldermanic Sheriff and one non-Aldermanic Sheriff who would then be elected Lord Mayor the following year. However this year there is a contested election for the crucial non-Aldermanic post.

The Common Hall where these elections are held was packed to overflowing, indeed arriving only 5 minutes early I went to the Old Library which was one of the two overflow areas, linked by video. The masters of each of the 108 Livery Companies process in as well as the Mayor and Corporation, and then there is the solemn warning that anyone who is not a Liveryman must leave "on pain of imprisonment". The business side was 5-minute addresses from each candidate.

Paul Wooton (the unopposed Aldermanic candidate) made a delightful and witty address: he was involved in several Livery Companies (including mine, the Information Technologists) so he was "Jack of all trades, and past-Master of one" and his wife Liz and daughter were as well.

Peter Cook (the official candidate) had worked in industry (for Blue Circle and then running an MBO) and in Africa, England and the Middle East - 30 years in manufacturing. When they sold their MBO he got stuck into the Livery, and spoke of how he wanted to work "in a quiet and unobtrusive manner" and how he has been active in improving the links between the Livery and the Corporation.

Tim Oliver said how his family had been in the Livery (mostly Ironmongers) for 500 years. He had built up a successful Lloyds underwriting business. He implied that he had been slated to be the official candidate a couple of years ago, but "had to step back" becasue his company had just made a £600M acquisition and his wife had been critically ill - but had now recovered. He felt that just as 15 yeasr ago Lloyds (the insurance market, not the bank) had been in a parlous state but had now recovered, so the City could recover from its battering. He gave the stong impression that he felt it was his turn now [Michael Oliver who may be his brother was Lord Mayor 2000-01].

He duly lost the vote but as anticipated his election agent demanded a poll, so we will have to vote again on July 78th - who knows what will happen.

Fascinating, but I have been unable to find anyone who can explain what is really going on here - and if I did I might well not be able to blog it.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Science, Curiosity and Ruth Palmer

Delighted to read Martin Rees's article in The Times about the RS's project "The Fruits of Curiosity". One of my earliest projects was working with the RS and the WCIT on a City Science and Technology Dialogue and I think the RS is a major force for good in the world.

The latest issue of Science contains quite a bit of interest. This paper which suggests that the parts of the brain used for vision might have been coopted to do arithmetic (on the grounds that vision seems to involve complicated vector processing) is intruiging, though one does worry about the very small number of participants (14). As always though the linkages are highly probabilistic (A correlation of 56.9 ± 2.4% is a not atypical result) and I fear that these points get lost as they percolate to the wider world.

Ruth Palmer will be giving an amazing concert in Oxford on 1 July with the Academy of St Martins in the Fields. Bach Brandenberg 3 and Violin Concerto No 1 (which she will be directing from the Violin - her conducting debut!) and two premieres of pieces by John Tavener - one a world premiere and one a UK premiere. Tickets are almost sold out.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The "Evil God Challenge"

Stephen Law is fine for me to blog about his forthcoming paper, which is here. He suggests that for every theodicy which explains how a world created by a good God could have so much evil there is a similar agrument that would explain how a world created by an evil god could have so much good.

It is an interesting and thought-provoking paper. Of course I think there are a lot of problems with his arguments! It seems to me that the most fundamental ones can be seen if we consider the following statement:

A(LUC): Belief in a Loving Ultimate Creator is a worldview that is deeply satisfying for its hundreds of millions of adherents, provides richly articulated explanations of many fundamental aspects of their experience, and helps them lead happier, more satisfying and evolutionary successful lives.

Now first of all, whether or not you think that A(LUC) ought to be true in a rational world, it seems clear to me that it is true in this world and encapsulates many of the reasons why people believe in God. It also offers some explanation of why militant atheism is ultimately futile: any worldview of which A is true is likely to prosper. Of course A does not say anything directly about whether or in what sense this worldview is true. But I think it is plausible to argue that if there were a LUC then it is likely that the universe would be such that A(LUC) were true.

However for the present purposes what is notable about A is that every aspect of it is false if made into A(EUC): “Belief in an Evil Ultimate Creator is...”. Not only does the EUC idea have zero adherents, it isn’t a worldview, is in no sense “richly articulated”, offers only parodies of explanations of some aspects of our existence, and it is pretty clear that if anyone really believed it their lives would be miserable, unsatisfying and highly unlikely to encourage the successful raising of children. (Much the same applies to the silly Flying Spaghetti Monster)

Of course I'm not arguing that all ideas with zero adherents must be false or that something must be true because it has so many adherents or such a lot of literature. But I think this does rather squarely meet your challenge, and certainly shows the falsehood of the “symmetry thesis”.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

JR Lucas 80th Birthday

Delightful party at Sherbourne Castle to celebrate the 80th birthdays of John and Moirar Lucas. John was at school with my late father and it was great to have two others who had been at school with him. One of them said he was 3rd on the roll, with my father being 2nd and John being 4th.

There were delightful speeches from John's brother and Moirar's brother, as well as from the birthday couple. We heard the story of how John was turned down for National Service becasue he gave his address as "The College, Durham" (his father was the Dean at the time) and then giving truthful but minimal answers to the questions from the recruiting sergant (is your father a teacher? No etc..) There was also the story of how a secret meant in Cambridge that you should not tell more than 10 people altogether, and in Oxford not more than one at a time.

I also met again Richard Bronk whose book The Romantic Economist has now come out, and sounds decidedly interesting.

I've also been considering a paper from Steven Law, "The Evil God Challenge". I'm not sure how much I can blog about this. But belief in a Loving Ultimate Creator is a deeply satisfying worldview that provides richly articulated explanations of many fundamental aspects of our experience, and helps us lead happier, more satisfying and evolutionary successful lives. There is no equivalent for an "Evil God".

Friday, June 19, 2009

Oil, Greenhouse Gasses and God

On Weds to the Royal Academy of Engineering International Lecture, given by Abdallah S Jum'ah the former CEO of Saudi Aramco. He makes the excellent point that, despite the growth of alternative energy sources, the world is going to be using lots of petroleum for the next several decades. He accepts the need to make this all much greener, but much of the discussion in the Q&A was about how this can be achieved. I suggested that the limiting factor on oil use is not the ability to find oil or get it out of the ground (he points out that recovery rates are increasing and average only 33%) but the imperative to remove at least 110% of the resulting greenhouse gas emissions. Interesting discussions with some key players afterwards ... we shall see.

We also discussed the role of religious leaders in developing a positive consensus: I mentioned the AAAS/NAE dialogue and a couple of attendees (one Muslim) spoke of the very positive role that the Bp of Liverpool Bp Jim Jones was playing in this respect.

Yesterday went to see John Polkinghorne and Prof. Michael Rowan-Robinson debating "the Origin of the Universe" at Imperial College - organised by the Astrophysics Dept. They basically agree about the science (both somewhat sceptical about Inflation and very sceptical about String Theory as physics) bur R-R thinks there is nothing useful to be said beyond science on this topic. He also repeats the "no evidence" trope - I do find it remarkable that otherwise intelligent people cannot distiguish in this respect between "no evidence" and "insufficient evidence for me". In discussion with one of the audience afterwards (French origin I'm pretty sure) who backed this up by "you can't do an experiment to establish the existence of God" - well no more can you do an experiment to establish the existence of Napoleon.

PS QoT is bumping along around #30 in S&R now in amazon.com and .co.uk. But I'm pleased to see that at least one person has put it on their top 10 summer reading list.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Daniel - how God relates to political power

I have to lead a Bible Study on Daniel 2 on Tues. I’ve never thought much about Daniel (Newton was famously obsessed with it and it has a bit of a “graveyard for good minds” reputation). The first question that arises is: what kind of book is Daniel? The New Jerome Commentary is very helpful. Parts are clearly Apocalyptic, the others are Haggadic, which comes from the mishnaic Hebrew word haggāgā literally “a setting forth”, “a narrative” but often used in the sense of a story having little or no basis in history but told for the purpose of inculcating a moral lesson. It seems that the book was complied around 166 during the time of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (who was Cleopatra’s brother) and whose profanation of the Temple in 167 led to the Maccabean revolt. So these stories are brought together to inspire God’s people to resist tyranny and the attempts by secular rulers to destroy their religion.

Daniel means “my judge is God” or “God had judged”. This is how a person behaves who decides according to God’s standards.

It is, as usual, clear from the text that “historical accuracy” is not what the book is about. Ch 1 has Nebuchadnezzar as king and laying siege of Jerusalem in the 3rd year of Josiah (606 – though in fact N was only Crown Prince until 605 and his siege of Jerusalem was in 597) – after which he carries off the vessels of the Temple and Daniel and his companions. They are trained for 3 years, after which they enter his service. But in Ch 2 we are in the 1st year of N’s reign and Daniel becomes his chief counsellor. Just as the two creation stories of Genesis with their differences in detailed chronology make it plain as a pikestaff that the details are not to be taken literally, so this obvious “contradiction” on dates says loud and clear: don’t get hung up on historical details here, we are setting forth timeless truths about how God related to political power.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Faith, Hope, Love and Godot

Thurs evening saw a big prayer meeting at Hammersmith Town Hall organised by many local churches. About 500 people attended, despite the tube strike, and we followed an agenda based on the Lord's Prayer. 9 people from our Life Group attended and most of us met up for a drink and a bite afterwards. The most moving parts were praying in small groups with people from other churches - it was a little bit frustrating that just as we were making progress the stage would call us together for the next item. And I very much hope that the next one is not on a major catholic feast (Corpus Christi) which must have cut down attendance a lot.

Yesterday went to Waiting for Godot with Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. This play is an extraordinary mixture of the absurd, the profound and the pretentious: I think quite deliberately so. Shot through with religious references - beginning with the two thieves (by the "tree") and laden with the themes of faith, hope and love - but defying categorisation. McKellen and Stewart very convincing as the "old couple" - and indeed they first worked together on Beckett in 1977 - though I'm not quite so sure about Simon Callow as Pozzo. Callow is a very fine actor but does Pozzo really have to be so shouty?

The bios in the programme of the four 11-year-old "Boy"s are also a little study in faith, hope and love. Tom Barker has appeared in 3 West End Muscials, Richard Linell just one, but lots of TV, George Sear "is delighted to be not only making his West End debut but having the opportunity of working with two of his all-time heros" and Sam Walton "hopes that with hard work, a bubbly personality, a big smile and lucky socks, he will be able to pursue a career in the performing arts."

PS Just seen a nice post from the leaders of Biologos picking up on our metaphor of creation as a grand improvision ... a grand fugue.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Social Evolution at many levels, now and then

Daughter and I attended a discussion on Making IT work for the Citizen: Rights and Responsibilities orgainsed by my Livery Company at the House of Commons. It was the first time D. had been to the House, and it was quite interesting being seated round the horse-shoe table of Committee Room 16 where Select Committees meet, and just next to Room 15 where Gordon Brown's survival meeting had been held the previous evening.

The speakers were Nick Palmer MP and Shami Chakrabati and the discussion was chaired by the Earl of Erroll - and elected hereditary peer with a background in IT.

Nick is a Labour MP with a PhD in Maths who had over 30 years of experience in IT, and had introduced a 10-minute Rule Bill to propose ID Cards in 1999. This was to get the issue debated, he got an old friend to oppose it for the debate, the government was sniffy and the LibDem spokesman in favour. How times change. He made some quite sensible points, emphasising the principles that personal data is your data and you should be able to choose to share information to facilitate things. He also suggested that the Audit Trail of accesses - which itself is personal information and could be very sensitive - could be reset by the subject. He feels it would be helpful to de-politicise the debate over IT systems by having proper prior discussion in non-polical fora, such as this. But in the end his conclusion about ID cards was "if they were properly done they would be mildy useful".

Shami was characteristically incisive and constructive. She agreed that it was a pity that the discussion of IT was so politicised, and she remarked on the tendency of a disconnect between the approaches of Lawyers and IT Experts, with a dearth of IT expertise in the Human Rights community. She points out how privacy underpins many other basic rights (like secret ballot) and retention of personal information by goverment has to be necessary, proportionate and legal. She instanced the appalling behaviour of this government on the retention of DNA data - which took the ECHR to rebuke and even now the Home Office is dragging its feet.

My contribution was to note that:
  1. There is a very limited amount of expertise available to government in implementing IT systems. Their major programmes tend to go badly wrong. Every time you initiate another major programme you dilute this expertise. Therefore there should be a presumption against any major IT initiative since it will make the other more likely to fail, and a presumption that the eventual system will be much more expensive and error-prone than its proponents suggest.
  2. Fortunately we are moving to an age of austerity in which governments simply won't be able to afford to spend billions on "mildly useful" programmes and this will focus on better defined initiatives that have clear justifications.
  3. The ethical aspects of IT systems are difficult becasue the issues are so new and we haven't had enough time to develop a good set of concepts.
Sadly Shami had to go so half way through we were unable to say hi to her, and she missed Daughter's contribution which was to say the governments should not seek to micro-manage people's lives. But Merlyn Erroll was kind enought to complement her for it afterwards.

Danny Finkelstein has noticed that Obama mentions God and Jesus more than Bush. Well as the authors say "God is Back". Also it is increasingly clear to people that Dawkins and the Militant Atheists are discredited. Not only is the ranting style putting people off, they are just wrong about the science - as is clear from books like "Questions of Truth" with solid science (endorsed by 2 Nobel Laureates).

There are also two very interesting papers about social evolution (in a broad sense):
  • Did Warfare Among Ancestral Hunter-Gatherers Affect the Evolution of Human Social Behaviours?
  • Late Pleistocene Demography and the Appearance of Modern human Behaviour.
Also a little news item in Science reports that the water flea Daphnia pulex has been shown to have about 39,000 genes, beating the pea aphid Acyrthosiphon pisum at 35,000. Another reminder that simplistic gene-counting has very little to do with real biological complexity.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Leadership Flaws

I've refrained from commenting here on the political situation for some time - taking the view that with QoT out it was inappropriate. My daughter is a budding historian and I have been pointing out for a while that we are living in quite extraordinary times. It has seemed to me for a while that there is a real likelihood (say 40%) that Labour will be pused into 3rd place and largely disappear as a force in UK politics, esp. if Gordon Brown continues as leader.

I see a short piece in the Harvard Business Review called Ten Fatal Flaws that Derail Leaders which begins: "Poor leadership in good times can be hidden...in bad times it is a receipe for disaster" and suggests, from analysis of 360 degree feedback, that the most common leadership shortcomings are that the worst leaders:
  • Lack energy and enthusiasm
  • Accept their own mediocre performance
  • Lack clear vision and direction
  • Have poor judgement
  • Don't collaborate
  • Don't walk the talk
  • Resist new ideas
  • Don't learn from mistakes
  • Lack interpersonal skills
  • Fail to develop others

Sunday, June 07, 2009

A birthday on the Normandy Beaches

Yesterday we celebrated the 85th birthday of our friend Alan Haines who 'celebrated' his 20th on the Normandy Beaches, as Coxwain of a Landing Craft (PersonnelMechanised) which carried 36 troops and a light tank. He had with him the White Ensign that his craft flew that day. He is in good spirits and pretty good health, as is his amazing wife Dorrit. He told us of how he met the King and Queen shortly before, and she had wished him "good luck". (Clarification, we were not celebrating his 85th on the beaches, but in the local pub!)

On D-Day they landed about 156,000 troops (62k Brits) and there were were roughly 196k people on the Operation Neptune ships ( 113k British). But most of those would not have been on the beaches - there were 4126 Landing craft so about 16k crew I would guess. Anyway roughly 200k people on the beaches (about 70k Brits), so it would have been the birthday of about 500 of them (about 175 Brits). I guess most of them would have been a bit older than Alan. The life expectancy of US Males born in 1935 is 61 (I can't find UK data) so it is reaonable to assume that the life expectancy of people who were on the Normandy Beaches is about the same (the survived until 20-35, but they were combatants in the war. The standard deviation seems to be about 16. This would suggest that about 2-5% had survived until this age, or about 3-9 Brits and about 10-25 in total. A select group indeed.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Trust and Altruism

Interesting articles in the Harvard Business Review on the theme of Rebuilding Trust. This title is reminiscent of the Restoring Trust project led by Richard Sykes in 2004, though the focus and context are very different).

Roderick Kramer in "Rethinking Trust" draws on some findings from social psychology and neuroscience to suggest that "people are still trusting too much". He is, of course, quite interesting on the cues that people use to "irrationally" increase trust, and many of the pitfalls - including people's tendency to over-estimate the extent to which they can detect devious behaviour.

But any decision to trust will have the possibilty of error in both directions. The costs of trusting when you should not trust are obvious and painful - but the costs of not trusting when you should trust are arguably much more serious. Our whole ability to live in families and communities is based on trust, and even from a purely economic PoV a very small increase in the perceived probability of people cheating is enormously destructive.

To pick just one small example, let's think about and Investor A who uses a financial intermediary (like a bank) B to help them invest in an opportunity with company C. If all parties trust each other then C needs to pay a rate of return on the investment of (roughly) rA+rB where these are the rates required by A and B for their services. But if A thinks there is a probability p1 that B will cheat him and B thinks there is a probabity p2 that C will cheat him, then the rate C has to pay will go up by (roughly) p1 + p2. If p1 and p2 are significant this will substantially reduce the number of economically viable opportunites for investment.

One of EM Foster's characters (I think it is Helen Schelgel in Howards End) talks about the experience of being let down as "paying the rent" of being human. True is so many ways.

And I also come back to Onora O'Niell's wisdom of focusing on the philosophy of trust, long before it became so topical.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Pettiness of Wikipedia, but good news ITRW

The Dawkins Defenders on Wikipedia are taking petty revenge on my modest contributions to pricking the Dawkins bubble by working to get the article on Nicholas Beale deleted. An Articles for Deletion debate is raging and the arguments used are bordering on the hilarious. It is a typical atheist tactic to "demand conclusive proof" for things that you don't want to accept. So suddenly Debretts People of Today and the Faraday Institute are said not to be reliable sources, and just because they and the President of the British Academy call me a Social Philosopher doesn't mean that I am one. I expect they may succeed in their student politics way - I've given up participating becasue it is said to be "Conflict of Interest" to respond to these kind of personal attacks.

PS: if a Nobel Prizewinner writing in a Notable book describes someone as "with an outstanding reputation" and "well-known for his staunch defense of Christianity" (QoT p xi) it seems quite absurd to say they are not "notable" in the Wikipedian sense.

One independent voice of sanity in the debate says " I feel the article discussion has been a victim of wikipedia legalism ... I really don't see the reasoning behind this extremely hostile attempt to delete outside of personal POV." It really shows Wikipedia in a very bad light.

However ITRW there are a number of positive developments:
  • John Polkinghorne will be debating with Prof Michael Rowan-Robinson at Imperial College on 18 June 2009, 6-8pm about "The Origin of the Universe". It looks as if there will be a book signing afterwards. Anyone can attend but they need to register with Imperial.
  • Prof Simon Conway-Morris FRS has agreed to chair our Questions of Truth session at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas on the afternoon of Sat 24th Oct.
  • A nice review of QoT in The Living Church says "The language evokes the shimmering beauty of a stained glass window...it is a book that will repay rereading and rereading" - quoting especially from the Appendix on Evolution. It was May 3rd but I have only just been sent a copy.
And we're #6 in S&R on Amazon.co.uk - though sadly only #27 on Amazon.com.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Nice feedback from Hay

Another regret of Hay was not overlapping with Emma Darwin - we had hoped to meet for lunch on Weds but I had to work in the morning and didn't get to Hay until 8pm. Caught up by email and was delighted to hear that her talk went well despite the media kerfuffle over her cousin who was interviewing her. A friend of hers reported that there were massive queues for our event - confirmed by this twitter post from MG Harris.

Reading The Brothers Karamazov which is every bit as amazing as Rowan Williams suggests. Wow.

We're #32 in S&R on Amazon.com and #22 on .co.uk - a bit disappointing but still hanging in there.