Friday, 28 June 2013

The department of experimental theology

OK, so the "fine-tuned universe" is the closest thing to a plausible argument for the existence of God that I know of. I've already looked at what a modern metaphysico-theologo-cosmolonigologist makes of this one (and he's more original, if not more convincing, than you'd expect).

But what does a proper physicist think? It's worth listen to Sean Carroll's excellent talk on the subject. Like Keith Ward, there's no doubt where he's coming from (Ward's book is called Why there is Almost Certainly a God, Carroll's talk is entitled God is not a Good Theory), but for my money Carroll is a lot more lucid and convincing. His talk lasts nearly an hour, but if you've got an hour to spare, this is a fascinating way to spend it:


Build it and they will come

Screw it up and they will stay away:
Numerous studies have shown that immigration is neither a panacea to solve economic or demographic problems, nor the cause of economic decline, mass unemployment or public deficits. The alleged positive and negative effects of immigration tend to get wildly exaggerated in public debates. My argument is rather that immigration is a bellwether phenomenon that reflects the more general state of society and the economy. Thriving economies attracted migrants, stagnant economies deter migrants. Rising nations attract migrants, declining nations try to keep them out. Anti-immigration politics reflect a culture of fear and an overall lack of confidence and political courage. Rather than a cause for celebration, declining immigration therefore signals a more general state of crisis.
 Screw it up worse and they will leave:
The recent economic crisis has resulted in Ireland’s unemployment rate going from 4.4% in 2006 to over 14% today. During the same time period, emigration amongst Irish people has increased three-fold.
Immigration isn't the problem. It's the economy, stupid.

And when I say 'stupid', I'm looking to you, Daily Mail and at certain people who ought to know better.

Oooh, no missus...

... don't titter, it's National Innuendo Day here in the UK.

The Americans seem to be having their own, unofficial, version.


Monday, 24 June 2013

Political activists, demonstrators and drug dealers

The alleged police attempts to smear Stephen Lawrence's family highlight a dangerously insidious idea.

Did you notice the underlying assumption that any form of political activism or engagement is, by definition, suspicious? According to the undercover cop, his superiors were looking for 'any intelligence that could have smeared the campaign. Along the lines of: the family were political activists, someone in the family was involved in demonstrations, drug dealers, anything.'

To the authoritarian mind, political activism, or being engaged enough to demonstrate about anything are evidence of anti-social behaviour on a par with drug dealing.

It would be bad enough if it was just cops, but how many times have you heard politicians using the phrase "politically motivated" to dismiss anything they happen to disagree with? The irony meter is broken - have these people, who walk, talk, eat and sleep politics, ever seen an election campaign, a Queen's speech, a House of Commons Debate, or a party political broadcast that wasn't "politically motivated?"

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Un homme serieux

You're heading a political party in opposition. Government policy seems to be choking off any chance of an economic recovery. So you announce that you, the opposition, need to prove your credibility by sticking to the government's failing Plan A.

I'm looking forward to the next general election, when I get to exercise my democratic right to choose between two parties, both promising to carry on doing more or less the same thing, without any meaningful discussion about whether or not the thing is actually working, or is ever likely to work.

Why confuse voters with clear choices and coherent arguments, when you can just send "signals" by dropping words like "credible" or "tough" into the official party sound bite of the day?

Wouldn't it be great if political parties aimed for incredible once in a while? Or even just a little bit different?

Thursday, 20 June 2013

He's at a loss

Apparently, Nick Clegg, David Cameron's political spouse and the titular "head" of the Deputy Conservatives (© Philip Challinor) is 'at a loss' to imagine what marital abuse looks like:
What a difficult question ... I find it so difficult to imagine…so you see a couple … I mean, I don’t know what happened. I’m like you, I don’t know what happened.

When you see a couple having an argument … most people, you know, just assume that the couple will resolve it themselves. If of course something descends into outright violence then that’s something different.

I just don’t know, there was this one photograph, I don’t whether that was just a fleeting thing…or…I’m at a loss to be able to put myself in to that position without knowing exactly… 
 I can only imagine that this astonishing lack of insight stems from some sort of Fifty Shades of Grey scenario, where Nick's master has forbidden him from keeping a mirror in the punishment dungeon.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Asking or telling?

Prime Minister David Cameron will press its overseas tax havens to sign up to an international transparency treaty in London on Saturday, hoping to bolster British credibility ahead of next week's G8 summit. 
 Kudos to the BBC's Evan Davis for asking the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, the obvious question this morning. Does the government really have to ask British Overseas Territories, ever so nicely, to share their information, if they wouldn't mind awfully? Couldn't the government just tell them to do it? They are British Overseas Territories, after all. Danny Alexander replied that he wasn't enough of a constitutional expert to be able to answer that one.

Fair enough, neither am I. But it is a very interesting and relevant question. And there does seem to be a dramatic precedent that gives a tantalising clue.

Consider a British Overseas Territory that wasn't a notorious tax haven. Remember the Chagos Archipelago? You know the place, where the Brits decided to evict the entire native population, with no right of return, back in the 1970s in order to let the United States to build a military base? The archipelago that the British government turned into a marine reserve the size of France in 2010, ostensibly because we're a nation of deep green nature lovers, but probably just in order to make sure the displaced people, who lived by fishing and farming coconuts, wouldn't have a snowball's chance in hell of ever going home?

It's probably a bit more complicated than that, but this suggests to me that when puts its mind to it, the British Government can do pretty much what it damn well likes with its overseas territories.

Worth looking into - after all, as someone recently pointed out, how many divisions has the Cayman Islands got?

Friday, 14 June 2013

Doctor Pangloss conquers the Multiverse

On holiday, I read Why there is Almost Certainly a God (subtitled Doubting Dawkins) by the theologian and philosopher Keith Ward. I'd originally meant to get around to reading Unapologetic, Francis Spufford's defence of religion. It's on my reading list because Spufford's an intelligent guy and a fine writer.

The reason I haven't exactly fallen over myself in my rush to read Unapologetic, and ended up reading Ward instead, is that Spufford explicitly says he's going to duck the central question of whether there's any good reason for supposing that his religious beliefs are literally true ('The point is that from outside, belief looks like a series of ideas about the nature of the universe for which a truth-claim is being made, a set of propositions that you sign up to; and when actual believers don't talk about their belief in this way, it looks like slipperiness, like a maddening evasion of the issue').

As far as I can see, 'a series of ideas about the nature of the universe for which a truth-claim is being made' defines religion far more precisely than Spufford's alternative definitions  ('a structure of feeling' or 'a way of dealing with the territory of guilt and hope and sorrow and joy'). If religion was nothing to do with truth-claims and everything to do with feeling and experience, then all human beings would be religious (with a few possible exceptions, such as people with extreme personality disorders or crippling psychological deficits).

It's accepting specific claims about the existence and importance of a supernatural realm (generally involving at least one deity) that makes a person a believer rather than a non-believer. Feelings of human solidarity, transcendence, guilt, awe,forgiveness and so on, can't be the defining characteristics of one particular religion, or of religion in general because they can be experienced by people of all faiths and none.*

Ward is  less intellectually dazzling than Spufford, but at least he plods directly towards the matter at issue, rather than dancing sure-footedly around it. He may not very be very convincing, but he does get directly stuck in to some of the the most interesting battles in the turf war between believers and non-believers.

The  proximate cause of Ward's book was the classic gang war scenario of one gang rolling up on another gang's territory and showing ostentatious disrespect. Basically, Dawkins and his posse come on all 'philosophy of religion - is that even a thing?' and Ward's, like, 'screw you, man, theology and philosophy are, like, totally a thing - bitch!'

Then Ward pulls out the blade of finely -honed philosophical thought to cut Dawkins up, good and proper. Or tries to. For a trained philosopher, Ward blunders into a lot of logical fallacies - arguments from authority, begging the question, selective scepticism (if science can't definitively explain something like consciousness, we should be sceptical of science, but we should always reman open to the possibility that God exists and not let little details like lack of evidence get in the way) and arguments that undermine themselves.**

None of this is particularly new or special - in fact, the it's weakness of many similar supernatural explanations and apologetics that sustains my unbelief far more reliably than the polemics of engaged atheists. What is quite special about Ward's book is his interestingly bizarre and unorthodox form of cosmological theology.

Most theologians who touch on cosmology have a far more predictable reaction, being as comfortable with the subject as natural theologists once were with biology. All but hard-core creationists have now pretty much given up biology as a lost cause. There are a few possibly God-shaped holes in biological knowledge (like the proplem of consciousness which Ward highlights, or the lack a widely-agreeed account of how and where the first simple living cells were created from non-living chemistry), but there's a pretty complete, widely-accepted and successful theory that gets along quite well without reference to the world being assembled in seven days, talking snakes and so on. The theological consensus now seems to be that the Biblical creation story is a metaphor, and nobody ever really thought it was the literal truth (I'm sceptical about this revisionism - it's about as convincing the politician who gets filmed promising to peddle influence on behalf of a journalist posing as a lobbyist and then desperately insists that he or she was suspicious from the start and was just 'playing along' with the sting in a way that just happened to look corrupt to the untrained eye).

Cosmology, however, looks like a more God-friendly branch of science. Everything in our Universe suddenly appeared in the Big Bang, a sudden, single act of creation. Scientists either refuse to speculate about what happened before this, given the lack of evidence, or have a multitude of far-out and contradictory theories about what might have happened before the Big Bang (if you can even talk about 'before' with reference to an event which seems to have brought time as we know it into existence).

There's a long tradition of philosophical speculation about a First Cause (if cause and effect work in the world, philosophers argued, then something must have started the process without being itself caused, or the chain of cause and effect would just stretch back infinitely). Theologians have identified the First Cause with God. Therefore, just beyond the Big Bang is a good place for God, the First Cause who brought everything else into being without Himself needing to have been created, because He is the First Cause, right?

For theists, it gets better than that - to some people it almost looks as if the Universe was designed for beings like ourselves:
The fine-tuned Universe is the proposition that the conditions that allow life in the Universe can only occur when certain universal fundamental physical constants lie within a very narrow range, so that if any of several fundamental constants were only slightly different, the Universe would be unlikely to be conducive to the establishment and development of matter, astronomical structures, elemental diversity, or life as it is presently understood. 
 And where there seems to be design, the theists argue, there must be a designer. There may be a scientific consensus that dispenses with the need for a designer in the case of biological evolution, but there's no overwhelming consensus on why the Universe is the way it is, when there are so many other slightly alternative ways it could have been that wouldn't support life. Maybe Biblical creation myth was a divinely-inspired metaphor for such a creation from nothing, using concepts and language accessible to Bronze Age pastoralists.

I'd tend to agree that, even if this isn't evidence for God, it's the closest thing I've come across to evidence that there is something going on that requires a special explanation, in much the same way as biological complexity does. Not all physicists and cosmologists agree that the fine-turning is quite as fine as others have claimed and some point out that it's not quite that remarkable that, at a certain time in the development of the Universe, certain minuscule parts of our Universe are suitable for life, considering that most places in the Universe, at most times, are, have been and will be completely hostile to life as we know it and, anyway, what does 'improbable' and 'probable' even mean in the case of an event that only happened once?

But then again, how do we know that it only happened once? Maybe, if the Big Bang was the result of a natual process that happened once, it might have happened many times, in which case all sorts of universes, life-friendly and otherwise might have popped into existence any number of other times and ours is just one random Universe among many, one which happens to contain a tiny, life-friendly, speck that most of them don't.

It's usually when the idea of a Multiverse comes up that theolgians get less comfortable and start tut-tutting, saying that cosmologists have gone too far and are indulging in silly speculation. This isn't surprising - if you're committed to the idea of an intelligent creator, a cosmology that incudes one, unique, special act of creation that eventually lead to people like us (and would not have done, had the underlying constants been slightly different), sounds far more attractive than a Multiverse where the special circumstances that lead to humans  exist in a tiny subset of a vast array of randomly variable universes that make up the Multiverse.

Keith Ward is at least fresh and surprising among theologians in embracing the idea of a Multiverse. He has quite a bold vision of how God fits into such a Multiverse. Given the unimaginable scale of our own Universe, my mind's suitably boggled at the idea that one sentient being created it all and can comprehend and control it all whilst micromanaging His creation to the smallest detail ('Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father.' - Matthew 10:29). But that's nothing compared to Ward's God, who has an even more challenging workload, not only managing one entire Universe down to sparrow level, but contemplating every possible alternative universe and bringing into being the ones He finds good, then being active and present in all of them.

This interesting notion all seems to be part of a attempt to explain the "problem of evil."  Why does evil happen? Because, according to Ward God isn't omnipotent. Or rather, Ward claims that God is omnipotent, except that omnipotent does't mean what you thought it meant (i.e. able to do absolutely anything, not limited in any way, that sort of thing).

It's quite interesting to follow Ward's thought process. He considers the idea that there might be lots of other universes, maybe an enormously large or even infinite number. In the latter case, everything that's physically possible might actually happen in some universe, including the really bad stuff:
Tegmark has argued further that, in an infinite array of universes, everything will happen an infinite number of times. Not only will I kill and eat my mother in some universe, I will do it over and over again. That thought is unbearable enough to make God a moral necessity.
According to Ward, God sits in the space where universes are created, thinking about all the different types of universe that could exist. Being supremely good, he doesn't allow evil universes teeming with cannibalistic, matriciadal philosopher-theologians to come into being at all, but only creates universes like our own, which He finds good.

But if He's all-powerful and supremely good and only allows good universes to come into being, why is there pain, suffering, injustice and all the rest in our universe? Because, says Ward, God's omnipotence is a limited sort of omnipotence, bound by the what the physical laws of nature allow (which might sort of make sense, although it makes it tricky to claim that the same supreme being also intervenes in our world and suspends physical laws at will every time He feels minded to perform a miracle):
 This is a universe of distinctive sorts of good, which could only exist in an evolutionary, emergent, law-based universe....perhaps beings such as ourselves could only exist in a universe with laws like the ones we have...

This may not be the best of all possible worlds.But it may be the only universe that we carbon-based life-forms can actualize. God may well desire such life-forms. In that case some evils must exist in our world.
Ward might protest that 'This may not be the best of all possible worlds', but that's more or less where his argument is going.

Think about it. God could, create any sort of universe. Being good, He doesn't create universes that would contain unbearable evil. He thinks it good to create a world containing beings like ourselves and, being good, He makes that universe as good as He can. But there are physical constraints on how to constuct a universe containing beings like us, which mean that our universe, although as good as He can make it, is sub-optimal and contains evil.

In other words, God did the best He could with the available materials. We don't live in the best of all worlds, but we do live in the best of all possible worlds, at least the best of the ones that are possible for beings like ourselves.

Philosophers might want to think twice before asserting that we live in a world created for our benefit by a benevolent deity who couldn't possibly have done things any better, because, as Pooh Bear discovered, 'you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.' People like Voltaire, for example:
Master Pangloss taught the metaphysico-theologo-cosmolonigology. He could prove to admiration that there is no effect without a cause; and, that in this best of all possible worlds, the Baron's castle was the most magnificent of all castles, and My Lady the best of all possible baronesses.

"It is demonstrable," said he, "that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for as all things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end. Observe, for instance, the nose is formed for spectacles, therefore we wear spectacles. The legs are visibly designed for stockings, accordingly we wear stockings. Stones were made to be hewn and to construct castles, therefore My Lord has a magnificent castle; for the greatest baron in the province ought to be the best lodged. Swine were intended to be eaten, therefore we eat pork all the year round: and they, who assert that everything is right, do not express themselves correctly; they should say that everything is best."
Candide, Chapter 1

Got that? Lisbon earthquake and such notwithstanding, this is the best of all the possible worlds that a benevolent creator could have created for us, given the materials He had to work with. As subsequent history has confirmed:

This might not look like the best of all possible worlds, but at least it's better than the one where Keith Ward eats his mum.***

So there you have it. Where in the Multiverse would we be, without philosopher-theologians (or should that be 'metaphysico-theologo-cosmolonigologists') to explain it all to the rest of us?

 *Some believers either think, or pretend, for rhetorical purposes, that all unbelievers are dessicated calculating machines, incapable of such feelings. If they're daft enough to believe it, or dishonest enough to assert it without really believing it, that's their problem - I'm not going to waste my time knocking down such a feeble straw man.

**For example, he cites the authority of pre-Darwinian philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Anselm, Aquinas, Descartes, Leibnitz, Spinoza, Locke, Berkeley, Kant and Hegel to argue against a materialist explanation for biological complexity that didn't appear until Darwin, rather than actually addressing the theory he claims to refute.

And there's a lovely bit where he takes Dawkins and followers to task for selectively quoting some of the more violent and barbaric passages from the Old Testament without acknowledging that 'Later prophetic reflection leads to a greatly modified view of what God really requires .. What the Bible offers is a history of the development of the idea of God in ancient Hebrew religion' which shows 'how religious ideas developed over thousands of years.' OK, the Bible is more than just the nasty bits, but isn't this idea of gradual development, refinement and modification of ideas just  the sort of thing you'd expect from the sort of culturally specific traditions created by changeable, fallible humans, rather than the unchanging, timeless wisdom that you'd expect from a genuine divine revelation?

***Original image courtesy of Fungus Guy, published under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Fail again. Fail better.

All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
Samuel Beckett Westward Ho

You've got to hand it to the political right - when opportunity knocks, they're always at home. Far from being embarrassed by assisting his country's descent into an economic a death spiral, Antonis Samaras has gleefully pulled the plug on Greece's public service broadcasting, "sending a signal" by cutting off a signal.

It's not a big thing, compared with  27% unemployment, malnourished schoolchildren collapsing at their desks, neo-Nazis seig heil-ing in the shadow of the Acropolis, epidemics of suicide and murder and the wholesale destruction of public health services, but it's a dramatic signal; the screens going blank, the sort of thing that usually heralds war or a military coup.

It's the sort of thing that makes you wonder whether Naomi Klein's idea of a shock doctrine might actually be a thing after all. First, fail spectacularly, then explain The One True Doctrine that leads to salvation to the reeling populace 'For he that hath, to him shall be given: and he that hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he hath.' Wash, rinse, repeat.

Failure and crisis have given you a perfect excuse for pulling the plug (which is you wanted to do all along, the idea of a public good being an ideological abomination). Pulling the plug simultaneously unsettles and demoralises your opponents and 'starts a conversation' among like-minded elites around the world. Britain's neutered public service broadcaster, the BBC, for example, reported the plug-pulling as straight news on its morning radio news show Today and by the afternoon was hosting a debate about whether, in a time of austerity, we can still afford public service broadcasting. 
Expect approving opinion pieces from the Daily Telegraph's pet ideologues any time now. But if you want someone to kick off a more fruitful conversation about what's really going on with the the global mess we're in, you're better off listening to this guy:

Don't have nightmares...

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Delightful people, very artistic...

Speaking of bizarre creatures from a bygone age, here's Joan Christabel "Jill" Knight, (Baroness Knight of Collingtree) presenting case against marriage equality in the recent House of Lords debate:
We’ve been told by many speakers in this debate that the bill is all about equality. People must be treated equally, and Parliament must ensure it. The first statement is reasonable, the second is not. Certainly, we are all equal before the law.

But a far higher authority than even anyone here has already decided that people are not equal. Some are stronger, cleverer, lazier, plainer, better looking, than others. Some people can see - others are blind. If anyone brings a bill to this house to change that, I’ll be the first in the lobby to vote for it. No bill can change that.

This bill ignores a fact well understood for centuries. Marriage is not just about love. Of course homosexuals are delightful people, very artistic, and they are very loving people too. No one doubts that for one single moment, but marriage is not about just love. It is about a man and a woman, themselves created to produce children, producing children.

A man can no more bear a child, than a woman can produce sperm, and no law on earth can change that. This is not a homophobic view. It may be sad, it may be unequal, but it’s true. 

This little gem's already been widely shared, but it bears reproducing, as an illustration of how views common in one generation sound like a quaintly comical form of barking insanity a few years later.

Jill, now Baroness, Knight introduced the infamous Clause 28 which became Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988.

And if the fact that this nonsense is validated by 'a far higher authority than even anyone here' isn't an excellent reason for keeping religion out of politics, than I'm the Archangel Gabriel...

The palpability of the real

 Until this week, I more or less agreed with this:
To my eye, no matter how lifelike it may become, CG still has an eerie, weightless, plastic quality...

The ships, like the Millennium Falcon, had heft, and the light and shadow cast upon them looked right, because they were real. As longtime Industrial Light and Magic technician Paul Huston has said, all those "mechanical systems, plumbing, landing gear, laser blasters, vents, injectors, ducts, fuel tanks" were made of plastic. Some were "scratch-built and some were scavenged from plastic model kits."

The palpability of the real. I lament and mourn the scale model.
This week, I found myself channel-hopping and caught a bit of the BBC mini-series Ice Age Giants, featuring a selection ice age megafauna recreated in CGI. OK, it was on telly, not the big screen, and I wasn't watching in HD, but there were moments where the computer graphics almost captured 'The palpability of the real.'

Up to now, I'd found that even the most sophisticated, seamless and well-executed digital effects had a certain almost indefinably unreal quality. There was something missing, a lack of the real presence that those old-time models had, for all their jerkiness and matte lines.

That was last week. But there were a few sequences in Ice Age Giants that looked as real as any nature programme filmed using real animals. There were some other sequences which, though impressive, retained that elusive mass-less airbrushed quality of earlier CGI, but it looked to me as if the effects wizards are on the cusp of being able to reliably take pixels and conjure up that elusive illusion of solidity.

Ray Harryhausen and his most talented peers are rightly remembered for their pre-digital craft and artisty, but we do tend to remember the best and forget the rest. The creatures in Ice Age Giants were created by the team who do the digital effects for Dr Who - and you've only got to cast your mind back to some of the model effects from the pre-digital Dr Who to realise that a lot of the work people get nostalgic about was distinctly sub-Harryhausen.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Phase transition

I'm just back from a totally undemanding holiday in Turkey - mostly spent just kicking back with a cold beer, packing the Offspring off to kids' club and enjoying more warm sunshine in two weeks than the UK got in the whole of last year. A bit of pool and sea swimming, a stack of books and not following the news at all. We saw a few locals at the resort watching TV coverage of people waving things and shouting, but didn't realise that, away from the Turquoise Coast's tourist bubble, things were really kicking off.

My pile of paperbacks included China MiƩville's Perdido Street Station (which I started years ago, but abandoned due to some pressing interruption that I've long since forgotten). I rather liked these lines from a character in MiƩville's fantasy world of Bas-Lag:
'See, potential energy's all about placing something in a situation where it's teetering, where it's about to change its state. Just like when you put enough strain on a group of people, they'll suddenly explode. They'll go from grumpy and quiescent to violent and creative in one moment.'
Meanwhile, back in the real world:
 My friend, who was completely uninterested in politics until six days ago, had never been in conflict with the police before. Now, like hundreds of thousands of others in Turkey, she has become a warrior with goggles around her neck, an oxygen mask on her face and an anti-acid solution bottle in her hand. As we have all learned, this the essential kit to fight the effects of tear gas. As for TOMA, that is the vehicle-mounted water cannon. To paralyse it, you either have to put a wet towel in its exhaust pipe or burn something under its engine or you and a dozen others can push it over. This kind of battle-info is circulating all over Turkey at the moment. It is like a civil war between the police and the people. Yet nobody expected this when, six days ago, a group of protesters organised a sit-in at Istanbul's Gezi Park to protect trees that were to be cut down for the government's urban redevelopment project.
It's probably a bit more complicated than that (according to some sources, 'Erdogan remains really, really popular [with] at least with 50%+ of the population'), but it's refreshing to see people refusing to roll over in the face of arbitrary authority.

Back home, there's no sign of the grumpy and quiescent Brits getting violently creative* on Cameron's ass, despite the fact that his floundering administration can only dream of anything like a 50% approval rating and is having wet dreams about hosing down groups of uppity plebs with water cannon (never mind a puny TOMA that can apparently be defeated with a wet towel and a bit of attitude, any British protesters would find themselves on the wrong end of the fearsome Ziegler Wasserwerfer 9000 - with a name like that, you know the authorities mean business).

* as opposed to getting violently stupid.