Thursday, 27 February 2014

Faculty tour

And, moving down the corridor from the Department of Experimental Theology, we now come to the Department of Experimental Philosophy.
While some of the intrinsic “loopholes” in Bell’s Theorem have been sealed up, one odd suggestion remains on the table: what if a quantum-induced absence of free will (i.e., hidden variables) is conspiring to affect how researchers calibrate their detectors and collect data, somehow steering them toward a conclusion biased against classical physics?

...So in order to clear the air of any possible predestination by entangled interlopers, Kaiser and MIT postdoc Andrew Friedman, along with Jason Gallicchio of the University of Chicago, propose to look into the distant, early Universe for sufficiently unprejudiced parties: ancient quasars that have never, ever been in contact...

...By using the light from objects that came into existence just shortly after the Big Bang to calibrate their detectors, the team hopes to remove any possibility of entanglement… and determine what’s really in charge of the Universe.
Just in case you were wondering, the "Big Bang" they're talking about was the event that supposedly brought our universe into being, not the sound of people's heads exploding as they try to understand what these guys are doing...

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Weird Al has left the building

A recently breaking story out of Ukraine's fast-moving news environment has been causing a bit of confusion. After the ex-president was ejected from office, and from his luxury estate, this tweet was sent to clarify the situation:



Saturday, 22 February 2014

Cakes that ought to sell like hot cakes

A brief pause to stop and celebrate one of the good things in life. Newport Pagnell's high street hasn't been in the most robust health over the last few years; familiar names closing down, an excess of charity shops (there's nothing wrong with charity shops in themselves, but they're an indicator species of a degraded retail ecosystem) and all that's before the Tesco supermarket that's colonising the old Aston Martin site has opened and sucked its portion of trade out of the high street.

There is at least one superb shop that thoroughly deserves to buck the trend, though. PicNic's, at 63 High Street is an establishment of which I'm not entirely sure we're worthy. A fine selection of delicious home-made cakes, superb sausage rolls (with mustard seeds in the sausage meat) an extensive range of sandwiches and soups and the occasional, generally successful, culinary experiment (rye bread pizza with sun-dried tomatoes was a bit out there, but it worked) and all very reasonably priced.

For the record, no money, food or other consideration has changed hands in connection with this blog post - this is not an infomercial. I just think it's a cracking local business and, speaking as a man who likes his food, I wish it well.

Friday, 21 February 2014

You need hands

Christ has no body now but yours
No hands, no feet on earth but yours
Yours are the eyes through which He looks
compassion on this world 
These lines are (wrongly) attributed to St Teresa of Avila, the Spanish saint with the racy dream life. Despite being dead for over four centuries, Teresa was still making headlines earlier this year, after being asked by Spain's right-wing interior minister to help out with the country's economic crisis. Which was a bit off the wall, although not much more peculiar than the post-crisis political orthodoxy that faith in the invisible hand, aided by self-flagellating austerity, is the only true path to economic salvation.

The anecdote about General Franco keeping the old girl's mummified hand by his bed was seriously batshit, though. Inspired by the macabre image of the bloodstained ghoul alone in his bedroom with his morbid fetish object, the poet X J Kennedy reanimated the "no hands on earth" trope, imagining that the saint's hand might have been of some use, had it come back to life to throttle the bastard, Hammer Horror-style. Here are the closing lines of his Meditation in the Bedroom of General Francisco Franco. Enjoy:
What if, one dark night while he slept,
That hand had stolen from its crypt,
Shedding brown flakes, and slowly crept
Over his well-oiled closely clipped

Mustaches, over lips that hissed,
Down past each pouch of facial suet
To fasten on his throat and twist?
Teresa, you had your chance. You blew it.
Bonus fun fact. The The mendicant order inspired by St Teresa, the Discalced Carmelite Order, is known by the initials "OCD."Although the initials really stand for Ordo Carmelitarum Discalceatorum, they're appropriately suggestive of obsessive hand-washing, an activity that more or less sums up the relationship between Church and Caudillo.
Hands up everybody who wants ice cream!

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Feed the hungry and kill the infidel, says God

Two pieces of faith news:

'Forty-three Christian leaders, including 27 Anglican bishops, have signed a letter urging David Cameron to ensure people get enough to eat'. Their hearts seem to be in the right place and so, up to a point, are their heads - as this piece in Ekklesia shows, the churches seem to be engaging with some actual facts and figures while, in a notable piece of role reversal, it's the Prime Minister who's sanctimoniously delivering vague, preachy boilerplate about his 'moral mission' and 'helping people to 'stand on their own two feet.'

Elsewhere, the hearts and heads of some believers aren't in such a good place:
Leading British-Asian politicians, academics, human rights campaigners and Islamic scholars are calling for a mentally ill Scottish pensioner sentenced to death for blasphemy in Pakistan to be released from prison on humanitarian grounds.
The people who are trying to relieve the plight of Britain's food bank generation and the ones trying to get a vulnerable old man killed are all ostensibly believers in one God (although I'd personally describe the non-fanatical ones as functional deists).* But if we do accept the self-descriptions of both liberal believers and fanatics as followers of God, who are trying to do God's will, then the general concept of  God seems so elastic and contradictory as to be almost meaningless. It turns out there's a word that covers this specific type of objection to religion - "ignosticism":
Ignosticism is the view that any religious term or theological concept presented must be accompanied by a coherent definition. Without a clear definition such terms cannot be meaningfully discussed. Such terms or concepts must also be falsifiable. Lacking this an ignostic takes the theological noncognitivist position that the existence or nature of the terms presented (and all matters of debate) is meaningless. For example, the term "God" does not refer to anything reasonably defined nor is there any conceivable method to test against the existence of god. Therefore the term "God" has no literal significance and need not be debated or discussed.
I'm not sure that I'm a strict ignostic - I don't think it impossible, in principle, that somebody might come up with a meaningful, coherent, possibly even testable, definition of God that could be rationally debated. But I reckon that I'm close to being a functional ignostic, given that there seem to be almost as many idiosyncratic definitions of the word "God" as there are believers. As the philosopher of religion, Theodore Drange put it:
Since the word "God" has many different meanings, it is possible for the sentence "God exists" to express many different propositions. What we need to do is to focus on each proposition separately. … For each different sense of the term "God," there will be theists, atheists, and agnostics relative to that concept of God.
In other words, the debate about the existence or non-existence of a deity could go on for ever, without ever reaching a conclusion, because there's no commonly-accepted definition of the entity whose existence is being debated. So I'm a functional ignostic, in the sense that I don't see any particular reason to believe in a deity and don't have the time or patience to debate every possible variation on the proposition that "God exists" in an endless game of theological whack-a-mole. I'm just happy that the more reasonable people on the believer side of the fence seem to be spending more time engaging with real facts and social problems than in trying to convince people like me of the existence of an entity without any fixed, coherent definition.

*I don't, by the way, subscribe to the idea that Christians are necessarily more liberal, or followers of Islam are necessarily more fanatical. Clearly there are wide variations of attitudes and behaviour within both religions. At this historical moment, Islam has more actually existing fanatics and intolerant theocracies, but there have been times when the balance of fanaticism and tolerance was reversed (the crusades, the Inquisition, the expulsion of religious minorities, forced conversion, the Thirty Years' War, yada, yada).

Via this guy (about whom I'm rather conflicted - on the one hand, he's formidably intelligent, curious and open-minded enough to question his own beliefs, but on the other hand he says 'I still consider Ayn Rand to be the strongest influence on my philosophical views' *shudder*).

Monday, 17 February 2014

Access pimps

Tuition fees, you'll remember, were introduced by the Blair administration in order to increase access to higher education in England. Every single Liberal Democrat MP signed a pledge not to put them up, a promise that Nick Clegg broke once he'd hopped into bed with the Tories, clearing the way for students in England to be saddled with a crippling burden of debt.

Well, there's now some convincing evidence of access being widened. Specifically, enabling rich, dirty old men to access nubile students who wish to be relieved of the financial burden of student debt. In return for sexual favours, a "sugar daddy" can relieve that burden, via a convenient web site called
Students at Cambridge are fourth most likely in the country to turn to “sugar daddies” to fund their university degrees.

According to, a dating website with one million subscribers, 166 students claiming to study at the University of Cambridge have signed up for support from wealthy men.

In 2013 Cambridge was responsible for the most new sign-ups in the country making first in a national league table listing the fastest growing “sugar baby” schools.

A sugar daddy is a “rich and usually older man who buys presents for or gives money to a young person, especially a woman, usually in order to spend time with them or have a sexual relationship with them”, according to Cambridge Dictionaries Online.
The Cambridge Student

Is everyone in the three main political parties now cool with idea of young women selling themselves for the sake of a debt-free education?  It's a question I'll be asking when their people come knocking at election time.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Occupy Legoland

Sometimes it feels as though things were better when I was kid. Mostly, this is just a nostalgic illusion, aided and abetted by the fact that, like most half-centenarians, I had more energy, fewer responsibilities, fewer shattered illusions and better health back then. But some things really were better when I was a kid, Lego being one of those things.

With old school Lego you got a limited suite of relatively inexpensive, generic bricks and, with enough bricks and enough imagination, you could create a blocky facsimile of any object you could possibly imagine. Today, the Lego company survives and thrives by marketing relatively expensive kits, each of which requires different, specific types of bricks, designed to be non-interchangeable, each kit being designed to makes only one model of one thing. This goes against the whole philosophy of interchangeability, universality and unfettered imagination that made Lego 1.0 such a brilliant toy.

I know that there are sound commercial reasons for the change. The brilliant simplicity of the original concept makes it easy for someone else to make similar bricks more cheaply, so the only way to go was probably to move up the value chain into marketing well-engineered, non-interchangeable kits that traded on quality and brand recognition (of Lego itself and of the franchises, like Star Wars and Harry Potter that spawn so many Lego tie-in kits). But Lego 2.0 is worse for parents (more expensive) and kids (it's not as universal, although kids can start to break the one-kit-makes-one-thing rule if they're lucky enough to have a reasonable supply of generic bricks, plus enough kits to experiment with inventive hybrids made of parts scavenged from various kits). The interests of consumers and producers are clearly not as seamlessly aligned as some fans of the Invisible Hand would have you believe.

But now I'm starting to feel better about Lego 2.0, via the people responsible for the spin-off Lego movie, on the grounds that somebody associated with Lego is now annoying the right people. Specifically, Fox News, who seem to be having a "Won't somebody please think of the children?!" moment, now they've noticed that the Lego movie villain is a power-crazed corporate tycoon. What does the Fox say? That the Lego movie is *obviously* corrupting tender little minds with a subversive, anti-business, socialist, freedom-hatin' message.

One of the Fox commentators even pops up to cite that American Christmas favourite It's A Wonderful Life as evidence that the Lego Movie is just the latest example of a long line of red propaganda coming out of Hollywood, with the corporate villain of the Lego movie being the modern iteration of It's A Wonderful Life's heartless tycoon, Mr Potter, for whom the opinionista seems to have rather a soft spot.

Needless to say, this is complete baloney. For a start, villains have to have some sort of power to be scary. Scarily powerful people might be crime lords, monarchs, wicked viziers, generals, evil wizards, galactic emperors, corrupt politicians, tyrants, terrorists and, yes, occasionally even businessmen.

As far as anyone knows, Shakespeare wasn't a revolutionary republican, even though he wrote plays featuring  usurpers (Henry IV, both parts, Macbeth, Hamlet), weak kings (Richard II), foolish and even mad ones (King Lear) and plain bad ones (Richard III). He was interested in power and in telling interesting stories about people and conflict. Stories about bad kings don't make him an anti-monarchist any more than a film featuring a bad boss, told by successful Hollywood film-makers, featuring products from a successful commercial enterprise, (Lego), is anti-business.

The Fox people seem to have noticed the weakness of their argument when they add the supplementary accusation of hypocrisy on the part of the film-makers and Lego for being in the money-making business, yet daring to portray a fictional plastic plutocrat in less than flattering terms. Which is kinda adorable, coming from the Fox network which is responsible for beaming the commie agitprop of It's a Wonderful Life into American homes every Christmas and introducing the world to that libellous misrepresentation of America's selflessly philanthropic boss class, Mr. Burns from The Simpsons.

It occurs to me that a political philosophy that's feeble enough to be threatened by a children's film about Lego people might have one or two problems.

On the other hand, creating conspiracy theories out of almost nothing is quite a creative, fun activity - a bit like Lego 1.0 for paranoids. So, I figured, why should the guys at Fox have all the fun? And on the basis of having watched one trailer for the Lego movie, I've discovered another shameless example of dirty Hollywood liberal propaganda being used to brainwash innocent kids. Specifically the scene where our moulded heroes are introduced to part of Lego World named "Cloud Cuckoo Land", by a character called Princess Unikitty:
Princess Unikitty: Here in Cloud Cuckoo Land there are no rules. There's no government, no babysitters, no bedtime, no frowny faces, no bushy moustaches and no negativity of any kind.
Wyldstyle: You just said the word 'no', like, a thousand times.
Princess Unikitty: And there's also no consistency. 
This is quite clearly a partisan political satire on  the simple-minded, ill-thought through libertarianism of the Tea Party, which has absolutely no business popping up in a wholesome family film. They ought to be ashamed, won't somebody please think of the children, etc...

Lego. Deconstructing the ideological hegemony of neoliberalism, one brick at a time (at least if you believe what they say on Fox News).


Monday, 10 February 2014

How dare you!

“How dare you like what I don’t like!” is not, and will never be, a viable philosophy...
The same goes for its corollary, "how dare you not like what I like!" Ignore all demands based on these two positions and people might just have enough time left over to consider the substantive things that are really worth arguing about.

The last time I reblogged something from this source, a certain amount of mockery was involved. This time, no mockery, just due credit for a very good point, well made.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

It's getting better all the time

In Lake Wobegon 'all the children are above average'. That's a really old joke, so old that there's even an effect (or syndrome) named after it. Can somebody please explain the joke to the Secretary of State for Education?
Chair: One is: if "good" requires pupil performance to exceed the national average, and if all schools must be good, how is this mathematically possible?
Michael Gove: By getting better all the time.
Chair: So it is possible, is it?
Michael Gove: It is possible to get better all the time.
Chair: Were you better at literacy than numeracy, Secretary of State?
Michael Gove: I cannot remember.
If this is what a private education does for you, I'd think twice before telling everybody that state schools in England should be more like private schools.

via Michael Rosen

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

The smoking gun of Biblical literalism

I've already blogged about that wonderful eccentric, the very hungry, Very Reverend, Dr William Buckland. To recap:
he claimed to have eaten his way through the animal kingdom... The most distasteful items were mole and bluebottle; panther, crocodile and mouse were among the other dishes noted by guests. The raconteur Augustus Hare claimed that "Talk of strange relics led to mention of the heart of a French King preserved at Nuneham in a silver casket. Dr. Buckland, whilst looking at it, exclaimed, 'I have eaten many strange things, but have never eaten the heart of a king before', and, before anyone could hinder him, he had gobbled it up, and the precious relic was lost for ever." The heart in question is said to have been that of Louis XIV. 
There's a lot more to Buckland than celebrity bush tucker chef, though. Buckland was a pioneering geologist and palaeontologist, who wrote the first full account of a fossil dinosaur, Megalosaurus, and his career history included spells both as president of the Geological Society and Dean of Westminster.

It's pretty clear from his biography that Dr. Buckland was a learned and knowledgeable man in two now distinct fields, the natural sciences and theology.  As such, he's a great place to start, if you want to stress test a revisionist version of history currently popular with mainstream Christian apologists.

To recap, the standard version of history goes like this. Once upon a time, people had a strong, literal belief in the historicity of the Bible. Then, along came science and the analytical study of Biblical texts, which contradicted some testable Bible passages (creation in seven days, Noah's flood and so on). The discovery that the Bible was factually incorrect at several important points reduced the authority of the church and levels of belief among the laity.

The revisionist version of history asserts that mainstream Christians have always understood that implausible Bible stories that contradict modern scientific knowledge, like Noah's flood, were metaphors, or allegories, or whatever. Biblical literalism, they claim, is a modern aberration which exists only in the minds of a few crazy creationists and literal-minded unbelievers who don't understand the subtle, complex nature of Actually Existing Christian belief.

I have no problem understanding that mainstream Christians today think of Noah's flood as some kid of metaphor or allegorical story, rather than a true account of a world-wide deluge, featuring a lifeboat big enough to accommodate two representatives of every species of land-dwelling animal from aardvark to zebra.

What I would question is the claim that your average Christian never believed in this stuff. Are non-believers really being ignorant in supposing that ordinary Christians ever literally believed in, say, Noah's Ark? Are the Biblical truth claims that have already been disproved irrelevant, because they were never really truth claims in the first place?

The Very Reverend Dr William Buckland can help us to clear up these questions. As a theologian and a natural scientist, Buckland was initially keen to reconcile geological evidence with the biblical accounts of creation and, specifically, Noah's Flood, which he believed to have been a real, historical event:
...the grand fact of a universal deluge at no very remote period is proved on grounds so decisive and incontrovertible, that, had we never heard of such an event from Scripture, or any other authority, Geology of itself must have called in the assistance of some such catastrophe, to explain the phenomena of diluvian action which are universally presented to us, and which are unintelligible without recourse to a deluge exerting its ravages at a time not more ancient than that announced in the Book of Genesis.
Later on in his career, he adjusted his views in the light of what he'd observed and recognised that a lot of the evidence formerly cited as proof of the Noachian flood, must, in fact, have been the result of more gradual processes:
Some have attempted to ascribe the formation of all the stratified rocks to the effects of the Mosaic Deluge; an opinion which is irreconcilable with the enormous thickness and almost infinite subdivisions of these strata, and with the numerous and regular successions which they contain of the remains of animals and vegetables, differing more and more widely from existing species, as the strata in which we find them are placed at greater depths. The fact that a large proportion of these remains belong to extinct genera, and almost all of them to extinct species, that lived and multiplied and died on or near the spots where they are now found, shows that the strata in which they occur were deposited slowly and gradually, during long periods of time, and at widely distant intervals.
These were the documented views of an intelligent, educated man of his time, a Fellow of the Royal Society who was an acknowledged expert in the emerging fields of geology and paleontology. He was also a mainstream Christian of his day and, presumably, a theologically knowledgeable one (he did, after all, end up as Dean of Westminster). It seems quite clear that he started off believing in the literal truth of Noah's flood and it's by no means clear that he ever abandoned this belief (he may have come to the view that he hadn't seen any direct evidence for it, and that such evidence would be difficult to find, but that's not the same as concluding that it never happened).

It's also clear that he was engaging with the work of other, earlier, scholars who had believed in the Biblical story of a world-wide deluge and sometimes found what they thought was evidence for that event. Looking back from Buckland's time, it's not hard to find the recorded opinions of people whose documented opinions suggest that they thought of the Bible flood story as a historical event.

Going right back to the early days of Christianity, Tertullian (c. 160-c. 225) pondered the meaning of the various natural catastrophes which had afflicted humanity and included the Biblical flood (and, interestingly, the sinking of Atlantis) among a list of historical floods: 
Pray, tell me how many calamities befell the world and particular cities before Tiberius reigned—before the coming, that is, of Christ? We read of the islands of Hiera, and Anaphe, and Delos, and Rhodes, and Cos, with many thousands of human beings, having been swallowed up. Plato informs us that a region larger than Asia or Africa was seized by the Atlantic Ocean. An earthquake, too, drank up the Corinthian sea; and the force of the waves cut off a part of Lucania, whence it obtained the name of Sicily. These things surely could not have taken place without the inhabitants suffering by them. But where—I do not say were Christians, those despisers of your gods—but where were your gods themselves in those days, when the flood poured its destroying waters over all the world, or, as Plato thought, merely the level portion of it? For that they are of later date than that calamity, the very cities in which they were born and died, nay, which they founded, bear ample testimony; for the cities could have no existence at this day unless as belonging to postdiluvian times.
Later church figures seem to have shared Tertullian's opinion and cited what they considered to be supporting evidence:
Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin all believed that Noah’s Flood was a global flood. They interpreted fossil seashells found in rocks as compelling proof—how else could the bones of marine creatures have ended up entombed in rocks high in the mountains?
Leonardo da Vinci was famously sceptical of contemporary claims that fossil shells in mountain rocks were relics of Noah's flood, but the fact that he spent time refuting literalist arguments underlines the fact that Biblical literalism was a current strand of thought during the Renaissance.

Nicholas Steno (1638-1686), the "father of stratigraphy", anticipated Buckland's realisation that the Biblical flood couldn't account for all the fossil-bearing strata he was seeing but, like Buckland, didn't question the historicity of the Bible deluge, speculating that some of most recent layers of strata might have been laid down in the Genesis flood:
Steno himself saw no difficulty in attributing the formation of most rocks to the flood mentioned in the Bible. However, he noticed that, of the two major rock types in the Apennine Mountains near Florence, the lower layers had no fossils, while the upper ones were rich in fossils. He suggested that the upper layers had formed in the Flood, after the creation of life, while the lower ones had formed before life had existed. This was the first use of geology to try to distinguishdifferent time periods in the Earth's history -- an approach that would develop spectacularly in the work of later scientists.
Thomas Burnet (c. 1635–1715) was exercised by the problem of where all the water that had once submerged the earth had gone, and developed the entertaining theory of a hollow earth* to account for it. Clearly, he didn't propose this mechanism to explain an event that he didn't actually believe in:
[Thomas] Burnet's best known work is his Telluris Theoria Sacra, or Sacred Theory of the Earth... It was a speculative cosmogony, in which Burnet suggested a hollow earth with most of the water inside until Noah's Flood, at which time mountains and oceans appeared. He calculated the amount of water on Earth's surface, stating there was not enough to account for the Flood. Burnet was to some extent influenced by Descartes who had written on the creation of the earth in Principia philosophiae (1644), and was criticised on those grounds by Roger North. The heterodox views of Isaac La Peyrère included the idea that the Flood was not universal; Burnet's theory was at least in part intended to answer him on that point.
The mention of Descartes, North and La Peyrère underlines the fact that the literal truth of the universal deluge was the subject of lively intellectual debate in the Seventeenth Century, just as it seems to have been throughout Christian history.

In short, the claim that mainstream Christians never literally believed in Bible stories like Noah's flood looks like a re-writing of history. There may have been sceptics, like Leonardo da Vinci, but there were plenty of other educated, theologically sophisticated people around, who clearly believed in Noah's flood and spent time and intellectual effort citing the physical evidence this event had left behind and arguing about how it might have happened.

Why would anybody try to re-write history? The charitable answer is that nobody's trying to re-write the past, it's just an honest mistake arising out of ignorance. But I suspect that the originators of this meme knew what they were doing and were consciously trying to buttress the credibility and authority of their belief system. Bury your mistakes and change the past radically enough and it just might look as if you were right all along, as religion always is, at least in the fables it tells about itself:
Science and philosophy set out to climb the mountain of knowledge. After a long and arduous ascent, they reach the summit, only to discover that religion is already sitting at the top, asking, 'what took you so long?'
The evidence on the mountainside stubbornly suggests otherwise.

*The cistern of God that flusheth away the sins of the world?