Monday, May 28, 2007

Richard Dawkins and Robert Winston on Today Programme.

Interim uncorrected transcript of discussion between Richard Dawkins and Robert Winston on Today Programme (audio here)

Winston: I think the problem that I have with The God Delusion is largely in its title, first of all. It seems to me to be deeply disappointing that Richard, who I admire immensely as writer, can insult so many people by calling something a delusion which I think is very patronising. And I think that it actually brings science into disrepute, because science is not, in fact, certain. You don’t know whether you are going to be struck by lightning in the next 2 mins or not, and that is I think a real issue for all of us, and at a time when we are trying to engage more with the public, when the RS is putting so much of its resources into engagement, I think Richard is setting the time back several years by being so provocatively strong in this argument. It’s not about atheism, I don’t have any objection to that, but I object to the tone in which he argues.
JH: RD, are you too fond of certainty? Absolute certainty?
RD: Certainly not, and I fully agree with Robert that science is not about certainty. Science thrives on uncertainty, that’s what science is working on, and we are all working on eliminating, or moving progressively towards eliminating, uncertainty. Just because we’re uncertain about something doesn’t mean however that we cannot make a probability estimate of it, which is what I have done on the existence of God, I think it’s very very improbable, although it can’t be disproved, but I want to come to Robert’s point about insult and offence and things. Don’t you think Robert that there is double standard here. If we were having an argument about some scientific matter we could argue quite vigorously, and you wouldn’t feel insulted, you wouldn’t feel offended, but there’s something about religion that feels entitled to take offence if you just say something that would be comparatively mild in another context. I can’t help feeling that offence is something that people take when they’ve run out of arguments.
RW: No Richard I don’t think I really agree with that you know. I think we do argue vehemently about all sorts of things, and we certainly do as scientists, and we do take offence about scientific arguments. For example, let’s take the issue of genetics, which is something you have studied for many years. It is extraordinary for example how much I have been vilified recently by people who are Darwinians for suggesting that the gene is not the only possible unit of inheritance. And we now know that this is certainly true, for example with epigenetic phenomena, but it is extraordinary that the Darwinists are not prepared to accept that epigenetic effects, that is things that are not directly through the DNA, may have effected and do effect evolution.
RD: But that’s precisely my point. You’re having vigorous arguments and you even use the word vilified, but you don’t worry about that, you argue back, you come back and put your arguments back, your arguments for epigenetics, and you do so vigorously. But when it’s religion, I’m not saying you, but many people, don’t put their arguments. They simply say “O I’m offended by that”. You can’t do that, you’ve got to come back and give your arguments.
RW: I think there’s an element of truth in that, I accept that, I’m certainly willing to concede that, but I don’t think it really helps to suggest to a large number of highly intelligent people, who have a clear view of their own spirituality and other people’s spirituality, to call them deluded. That seems to me to be dangerous. I think it presents science – Richard you’re not an arrogant man - but I think it presents science in a rather arrogant fashion and I think that’s un-helpful to science which at the moment is heavily under threat.
JN: It’s interesting RW, you talk about spirituality. You practice your religion in the Jewish faith, but would you say your spirituality produces a certainty about your beliefs or not?
RW: God no. Richard will tell you that I practice but I’m not sure that I believe. He’ll assert that, and he’ll assert that with some truth.
JN: well isn’t it true RD that many people who would argue for some kind of spiritual context in their life, and indeed some kind of religious faith broadly speaking, do so with an absolute understanding that it’s always going to come and go, it’s something that they will always argue to themselves, rather like a scientist who finds an experiment which can’t produce and absolute proof.
RD: Yes I think there’s a lot in that, and I actually am rather sceptical about whether Robert believes in God at all
JN: Depends on what you mean by God, but let’s not go there!
RW: well no that’s the whole point.
JN: No Robert let Richard finish.
RD: I’d like hear what Robert says. I actually think that you, Robert, are an observant Jew who loves Jewish culture and observing Jewish rites, and rituals and festivals, but I don’t actually think you believe in God.
JN: Robert, answer.
RW: I would argue, I think, that each of us has a different view of what belief in God means, and that actually it’s so personal that really it’s almost worthless to try and dissect it. But you see, there is a big issue here though Richard, and it’s an issue that you’ve argued extensively in the media and to some extent in what you have written, which is the notion that religion is more harmful than good, and I don’t share that view. I actually don’t believe that that’s true, I think it has been a cohesive and advantageous force in human development.

Sailing, Patents and Team Innovation

Wonderful day's sailing on Sat when daughter and I went to Sail Laser at the Portland National Sailing Academy (where the 2012 Olympics Sailing will be) for a day's private tuition on a Dart 16X which is quite like our boat. I wish we had had a week - we have so much to learn but learned a lot. Cheerful nice instructor (Steph) who sails Hobies and lives in Barnstable. There was also the fun of watching the Dart 18 Nationals fleet going out and coming back. I had reserved a Toyota Prius with Hertz but when I got there they had none, and I had to settle for a Nissan XTrail, quite the reverse of what I wanted - though tried to drive it very economically down with cruise control. Coming back it started to rain and in fact it had been a poor day elsewhere.

We had planned to sail on Sunday and then get to Elder Daughter for dress fittings. However the weather was miserable so we decided not to sail - foolishly decided to have lunch here and then to believe the Sat Nav which sent us through Central London and made us very late. Thus coming back decided not to believe the Sat Nav and managed to go the wrong way along the North Circular, then get stuck in horrendous jams, and arrived at Church just after the service finished. Immensely frustrating but at least we had some fellowship with some of the delightful members of the congregation.

V interesting paper in Science (The Increasing Dominance of Teams in Production of Knowledge Stefan Wuchty, Benjamin F. Jones, Brian Uzzi) about the increasing prevelance of teamwork and the fact that team papers and patents get more citations/references. I thought this might in addition give some data about numbers of references to patents, and it does in the supplementary material but annoyingly only in graphical form and in blocks. It is certainly not a poisson distribution though. In 75-79 10% of patents had no citations, 72% had 1-9, 18% had 10-999, but 0.06% had 100+. By 91-95 these figures were 30%, 61%, 8.5% and 0.01%. A model which has a p(zero citations) and then a poisson gets the first 3 numbers right (obviously) with a poission mean of 6.5 (falling to 5.7) but the higher bands "should" be 0.0E0!! If on the other hand we assume that there is a p(High) and two Poissons then p(High) has to be 18% and the mean would be about 15. There is an NBER report co-authored by Bronwen Hall which is refed in the Scicence paper, maybe this will have more information.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Why do (some) atheists have problems with (some) facts?

One of the most striking, remarkable and educative things for me about working on Wikipedia has been the number of times (many dozens) when I have added some carefully references facts to an article only to have a small group of atheists remove them. I have never seen this the other way round. The most recent example is a section in Epigenetics about scientists who suggest that Epigenetic Inheritance has philosophical implications. One atheist editor asked me why I think this happens.

No time for a long response, but I think it may be because Christians, at least in the Anglican tradition, see science as "reading the Book of Nature" so any new scientific discoveries are regarded a bit like new communications from a dear friend, but do not disturb our fundamental wordview at all, because our basic beliefs are not based on what science currently teaches but on God. Whereas many Atheists regard Science - in the sense of what science currently understands about the universe - as absolutely fundamental to their worldview. It is therefore very disturbing to suggest that things are not quite as they are taught at Harvard. But perhaps comments from my atheist (or other) colleagues will elucidate this further?

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Benefits of Marriage

Fascinating report in The Economist on the state of American Marriage, demonstrating clearly the economic and social benefits. Interestingly people who live together before marriage are far more likely to split up, even if they have children "Two-thirds of American children born to co-habiting parents who later marry will see their parents split up by the time they are ten. Those born within wedlock face only half that risk." Almost certainly the influence of faith plays a significant role, although that is not mentioned in the (determinedly secular) Economist.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Faith Schools

Ah, the Secular Establishment having another go at faith - a bit like the "Muslims will be offended if we mention Christmas" trope. Well
  1. these schools generally provide a much better education because they have a Christian* ethos and therefore some moral standards, in contrast to the moral collapse elsewhere.
  2. they were set up by the churches and are not owned by the Government.
  3. The faith schools are some of the best in the State sector
  4. people have a fundamental human right to their religion
  5. Christians pay a much higher % of taxes than the % of Christian schools in the state sector (and Jews even more so).
  6. Faith is good for you - if you choose to reject it alas you do loose out.

* Yes I know there are a few Jewish schools and a handful of Muslim ones. But over 95% are Christian.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Cornwall, NHS, Frank Field, Philosophy of Governance

Back on Sun from Cornwall celebrating my Sister’s 50th birthday party. Travelled down with my brother which was a great opportunity to catch up, and spend time together a deux both spectacular – some amazing splashes of foam when waves would crash into the cliffs of the coves, and then even more amazing when a wave would be reflected back and then collide with an incoming wave – sending a clash of spray 20 feet or more into the air. Caught some pictures on my new phone camera but of course you can never quite capture the moment.

Two consultants in the NHS were there, both felt that the situation had never been worse. One of them just can’t wait to retire in a few years. The Modernising Medical Careers fiasco a prime example of un-necessary meddling with a system that wasn’t broken. The mania for re-organisation every 2 years guarantees disaster – almost any system can be made to work given 5 years but almost nothing will work properly if it is tinkered with every 2 years Yet Jo Revell in the Observer says things are fine and even claims to have spoken to “a senior doctor” who believes this. Presumably (s)he is so senior that they don’t actually have any contact with what goes on in the front line.

I’d love to write something on The Philosophy of Governance – (ideally in collaboration with Charles). Things are incredibly busy at the moment so hare to know when I’d have time this year. And I’m also wondering if John and I could turn the work we have done in responding to questions over the years into a book (Responses in Science and Religion) – we already have about 135 pages of material but it would need editing a lot.

Frank Field on excellent form in the Telegraph, arguing that only communities can police themselves.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Janie Dee: QWERTYIOP, and Epigenetics

Work extremely busy, but managed to get a couple of hours off at lunchtime to play some songs with the wonderful Janie Dee: Gershwin, Sondheim, Cole Porter, Berlin. I'm hoping to learn her hilarious song Copytype that Ayckbourn wrote (I thought it was for her but apparently there was an earlier exponent) about a copy-typist at the "BBD- C" complaining about QWERTYUIOP ("ours is not to reason why question but quietly disagree") The music is by John Pattison and deliciously tricky.

Been putting in some effort on Epigenetics in WikiPedia - it's a fundamental refutation of the "Selfish Gene" nonsense. Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life looks very interesting, but will I have time to read it?

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Ruth's Wigmore, Prayer and Plantinga on Evil

Monday eve was Ruth Palmer's concert in the Wigmore. We had encouraged many of our friends and business contacts to come along and we were all treated to an amazing evening. First off, Beethoven's 7th Sonata in C Minor: a searing performance really bringing out the emotional depths of the piece. I last heard it performed in public by Sophie Mutter (of whom I am a great fan) but I have to say that Ruth plays it even better. Her young and award-winning Ukranian accompanyist Alexei Grynyuk also played brilliantly and they make a fabulous duo. (The Telegraph critic wants more "sweetness" and "a creamier tone" - for heaven's sake he simply doesn't get it. Beethoven is not a"creamy" composer, certainly not while writing turbulent music in C Minor!!)

They followed this with the Janácek Sonata, a remarkable work I didn't know, their genius for 20th C Eastern European music (they did the Shostakovich Sonata together on Ruth's CD) really coming to the fore. Massive applause. After the interval Ruth gave a masterly account of Bartók's incredibly difficult solo violin Sonata, which was commissioned by Menhuin who later described it as the most important work for a solo violin since Bach. It includes a 4-part Fugue forsooth! Ruth's astonishing technique coped with all the difficulties and her deep musicality drew you into the emotional depths of the music. Finally 3 of the Brahms Hungarian Dances (arr Joachim) when at the end you thought Ruth would dance on top of the piano. Again the depth and "easterness" of the Brahms didn't please the Torygraph reviewer - who seems to want milk and sugar with his "Classical" music. Ah well. We hosted a delightful reception afterwards which many of Ruth's family and supporters attended.

Great Life Group last night, discussion mainly about prayer, and comparing our various approaches. The way in which the deep insights of the Catholic and Orthodox tradition are being appropriated at St Paul's is fabulous, as is the loving fellowship and pastoral support. Have also been reading Plantinga's work on the problem of Evil which is superb.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Dawkins and Winston

Dawkins in The Times tries to defend himself against the many serious atheist reviewers who have crticisied The God Delusion. Ah, this is why most serious commentators found the book a disappointing rant: it was meant to be a humorous broadside like a scathing restaurant review. Well reducing one of the most subtle ideas in philosophy to "the language of the playground" and suggesting that the majority of religious believers are extreme evangelicals, extreme Shiites or Wahhabis shows that we are certainly not dealing with "intelligent and rational discourse". Not for nothing did Nature depict Dawkins as a sandwich-board man. There is also a fascinating longer interview with him by Ruth Gledhill, and an excellent lecture by Robert Winston called The Science Delusion.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Sailing, Kids-for_Kids, Interfaith and Blair

Went sailing on Sun (alone, daughter on DofE Award training) and then visited Elder Daughter who was having a fitting for her wedding dress (made by my mother-in-law) and looked utterly wonderful. Mon we were meant to be sailing but when we got to the reservior the wind had got too high and so we couldn't - which at least meant I got to Cambridge earlier to see the grandchildren and help take them to the funfair.

Yesterday our friend who runs Kids-for-Kids rang in great excitement, they have been nominated for a UK Charity Award (one of 3 in the International Develpment Category). Although this is so close to the wedding, the situation in Darfur is so serious we decided we must support her so we'll be going and trying to drum up business support/awareness.

Interesting reports that Tony Blair is going to work on interfaith dialogue. And depressing news that a major conference on this is Malaysia has been cancelled.

Friday, May 04, 2007

"No good arguments" for materialism - reponse

A commentator says "I'd like to hear more from you on why you can so easily reject each one [of the arguments for materialism I cited]" Well, in brief:
  • "Materialism is the metaphysics of modern science and science has been spectacularly successful. Science needs nothing but physical entities and properties for its explanations and so if we are to accept that the mind or its properties are nonphysical, we had better have very good reasons, but we don’t (the arguments for dualism are bad)." Modern science was in fact developed almost entirely by Christians and Jews who believe in a loving faithful Creator. Although methodologically you don't invoke God in a scientific explanation that is part of the limitation on what constitutes a "scientfic" question.
  • The argument from correlation: Mental states of specific types are correlated with physical states of specific types. One simple explanation for these correlations is that the mental state types just are the physical state types. If we deny this then we must explain why the correlations exist. Well the idea that mental state types "are" the physical state types is probably incoherent and far from simple! It is also ridiculous to suggest that a theory T that purports to explain observations O must be true unless you can come up with an alternative theory.
  • The argument from interaction: Mind and body causally interact. If the mind is nonphysical it takes up no space it, it isn’t in contact with any physical body…what does it mean to say that such a thing causally interacts with physical bodies? That has no meaning. So if there is mind-body interaction, the mind is physical. this is transparent nonsense. If you take the axiom "anything that interacts with something physical is physical" then of course the mind must be physical, but that is simply begging the question, and there is no conceivable experimental evidence that could show that this axiom was true.
  • The argument from the implausibility of causal overdetermination/ epiphenomenalism: There is reason to believe that the physical world is "causally closed", i.e. that every physical event has a wholly physical cause/explanation. But if there is mental-to-physical causation, and the mind is nonphysical, then there is rampant causal overdetermination. Rampant overdetermination is implausible, so the mind is physical. A dualist could deny that there is any mental-to-physical causation (this view is known as epiphenomenalism), but this seems to be obviously false. This is again assuming what you are trying to prove.

Classical BRIT Awards

Wonderful evening last night when we went to the Albert Hall for the Classical BRIT Awards because our friend Ruth was up for one. Although if the judges had ears she should definitely have won, with a searing Shostakovich recording that was widely considered the best such released in 2006, she did it on an independent record label with no PR support and she was up against the heavily promoted (and very good) Nicola Bennedetti. Her category was the first to be announced and she WON!! There was a stunned silence from much of the hall (Ruth who?) broken only by very loud whoops of joy from a few congnosceni (incl yours truly). If this doesn't help build her wider reputation then the world is even madder than I think.

Other winners included Paul McCartney, Simon Rattle and Vernon Handley who announced that his farewell concert would be in 2021 but looked rather frail on two sticks. He did however conduct a fine performance of (most of) the 3rd Movement of the Elgar Cello Concerto with Natalie Klien. Other performances at the awards were from Sting singing Dowland, All Angels who were very good, Alfie Moe who was superb and a typically dazzling display by Lang Lang of Liszt and Tchaik - brilliant and profoundly "wrong" he strikes me as a post-modernist performer: in some ways reminiscent of Liszt who also, I think, had a cavalier disregard of what the (dead) composer might have intended.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Honeymoon story - Dart 16X, Spin and error

A reliable source told me of a friend who says she woke up on her honeymoon and screamed because there was a man in her bed - having temporarily forgotten that she now had a husband!

Work v busy, hoping to sail at least one day at the weekend. Laser have upgraded the Dart 16 to a Dart16X and we can get a new set of sails etc.. which would more or less upgrade our 16 to a 16X.

Excellent article by John Major about "A decade of spin and error".

I can't comment about John Browne here though I wish I could. Much to be said.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Cannabis, Autism, Intelligence and Wikipedia/Debretts

Scientists appear to have found out more about how Cannabis alters the brain. It has long seemed to me that, even if it is mainly harmless to the majority of people (apart that is from the damaging effects of smoking), it is very damaging to a significant minority. Interestingly a major paper on the genetics of Autism has been published in Science. I wonder whether there is any relationship at all?

Fascinating discussion recently with someone with considerable experience of secret intelligence. (S)he reckons that Al Quaida is essentially fighting a religious war within Islam, and unlike terrorist movements like the Provisional IRA political negotiation is impossible. The contrast was made with the Cold War, although there were terroists involved as well and considerable suprise in the west when it was found that the Red Army Faction etc... were indeed part-funded by the Russians.

Discovered last night that, without informing me, a WikiPedia editor with whom I have disagreed nominated the article about me for deletion (without telling me or the creator of the article) and it was deleted without proper debate. I've asked for it to be re-instated and I think it will be, though there will then be an AfD debate. Rather embrassing to have to agrue one's own notability - the advantage of Debretts is that they select!