Thursday, June 28, 2007

Brown Premiership - Day One

MaryAnn spot-on with her valedictory column for The Times. But there are good things about Brown as PM - doctors all over the land have been celebrating at the resignation of Hewitt. According to The Telegraph: Brown was not prepared to sit back and let Miss Hewitt wreck his chances of staying in No 10. Earlier this month, he was reported to have told colleagues: "I have to sit here while she loses me the next election." With those 12 words, the fate of Patricia Hewitt was sealed.

Boris Johnson suggests that: Gordon croaks, "Let the work of change begin", like some mad professor hunched over a necromantic experiment. What he means is "let the blizzard of legislation continue", with all the dire consequences that implies for the size of the state and the burden of tax. There will be no change: only an intensification of the rhythm that has criminalised 3,000 courses of human conduct over the past 10 years, a process in which Gordon Brown has been the principal player.

Well we'll see what happens

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Brown, Mount Doom, Genes and Judgement

Pleased and rather surprised to see that The Times takes much the same view that I did on Quentin Davies's defection. I thought this was tribal politics at its worst and one of these "clever" moves, like "reducing" Income Tax by abolishing the 10% band and thus clobbering the lower paid. People will see over the coming months whether Brown has developed an ability to delegate and to trust people outside his immediate circle. If so, it will be one of the most remarkable transformations since Thomas a Becket. If not ....

Intruiging report in Science that Mount Ruapehu, the setting for Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings, has yielded masses of data about volcanic mudslides (called lahars) which can be major killers. Also in that Science is the report on how "DNA Study Forces Rethink of What It Means to Be a Gene". genes, it turns out, are neither compact nor uniquely important. According to a painstaking new analysis of 1% of the human genome, genes can be sprawling, with far-flung protein-coding and regulatory regions that overlap with other genes. eg protein-coding DNA makes up barely 2% of the overall genome, yet 80% of the bases studied showed signs of being expressed.

Reading John 3:16-21 last night (16-18 was chosen by E.D. as text for her wedding). Many many interesting points.
  • RSV has this as a comment from the Evangelist, with a note "some interpreters hold that the quotation continues through v 21". New Jerome follows this line, NIV background dodges it.
  • The Greek is literally "for thus God loved the world, so as to give his only-begotten/one-and-only (monogenee) son"
  • In v 17 the Greek is "not .. hina krineei ton kosmon but hina swtheei ho kosmos di autou" which makes the contrast and apposition starker.
  • The word translated condemn is krineo which means to judge. The word judgement is krisis. v19 is lieterally "And this is the krisis - that the light has come into the world and men loved darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil." The point the evangelist is making is that our crisis is our reaction to God's light. It is not that God is judging us the way a human judges, condemning us because we didn't believe is Jesus - our reaction to Jesus is our judgement - we are already judged by our reaction to Him.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Wedding delight

Amazing couple of days culminating in Elder Daughter's wedding - Kings Chapel and then Reception in Trinity under the Wren Library. About 250 guests. She looked amazing, in dress made by her grandmother and with hair and makeup done by a local lady who turned out to be excellent. The music was outstanding: Daughter-in-law sung an unaccompanied solo by Jonathan Dove to welcome the bride and, although I knew she was good and had been a Choral Scholar at Trinity, I had no idea she was that good! Rachel Baldock - who I think is the outstanding oboist of her generation - with her harpist Laurette Pope provided the incidental music, and the brilliant young organist James Sherlock played the organ, with an arrangement of the opening Symphony from Purcell's Ode to St Cecilia as a start and a Bach Fugue to finish.

E.D. had devised the liturgy - carefully legal according to the CofE website, and given the celebrant - the leading evangelical vicar Mark Ashton - a subject for his Sermon "What is Love" As he wryly remarked, he didn't think he had been given a set title for a wedding sermon before. The "giving of the bride" happened later than usual, and I contributed the helpful innovation that, when the celebrant says "Who gives this woman to be married to this man" C. and I respond "We do" - although C didn't want to stand with me while doing this. But the point is made.

Despite being on Midsummer Day it was threatening to rain the entire time, so we revised the photo plans so as to get all the main photos done before the reception. As a result many guests had arrived at the reception before we did, and we weren't able to say hello to them all. Son and D-in-L had organised an 8-part choir to sing incidental music, and Son also acted as an outstanding MC. Finally, they went away in a punt, despite the light rain. Before the choir seranaded them with a beautiful and serious piece by Barber they sung - Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Kids for Kids, Plantinga and a priori deductions

Thurs to the UK Charity Awards where our friend Patricia Parker's wonderful charity Kids for Kids had been Nominated for International Development Charity of the Year. Our table included a descendant of the Mahdi and the delightful President of Hands Up for Darfur. In the end K4K came 2nd= with the award going to Africa Now. I had met the CEO and her colleague and they were very nice - even before they knew they had won. Had to dash back cos of work and Wedding at the weekend.

Been thinking about Plantinga's reformulation of the Ontological Argument. Does it violate the meta-principle that "nothing substantive is validly deduced a priori. I know that's what we were all taught, but I wonder .. After all it might be a general rule to which there are exceptions rather than an "axiom". There were biological observations about pecking orders in chickens that turned out to be theorems of Graph Theory, and Fermat's Last Theorem or the Four Colour Theorem look suspiciously substantive. A lot of physics that was based on empirical observation - like the separate laws of Electricity and Magnetism, and the Conservation Laws turn out to be, at one level, to be simply consequences of the mathematical formalism.

In any case Plantinga doesn't think that the Existence of God can be proven - as I understand it his Ontological Argument simply shows:
A. That it's possible to formulate the OA in such a way as not to be caught by Kant's objection that Existence is not a Predicate.
B. That given the substantive premise "It's logically possible, in a sense that S5 applies, that God (as defined) exists" the substantive conclusion follows.

Reading Not Even Wrong - v interesting. But no time to blog it for now.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Lord of the Rings, Norman Kretzmann, Anthony Kenny

Glad to see that the Lord of the Rings musical has been substantially improved - and that Laura Michelle Kelly is in it. Must go and see it.

Getting further with Anthony Kenny's What I Believe which is very good. He tells of his friend Norman Kretzmann - a former Lutheran who lost his faith at University and for most of his life was an Atheist, but who recovered a philosophical faith in God towards the end of his life. Lots of other good stuff, but today is v busy so no time to blog it alas.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Ludicrous over-claiming on Penal Substitution

I am increasingly concerned by the "civil war" that seems to have broken out in Evangelicaldom about "Penal Substitution" - and the ludicrous over-claiming by some of the people involved. For example, from this review. He starts by quoting with approval from the book: "The doctrine of penal substitution states that God gave himself in the person of his Son to suffer instead of us the death, punishment and curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty for sin" Well so far, so good. Let's call this (PSA). It's hard to argue that this isn't true, although it is obviously not the whole truth about the crucifixion, and certainly not the whole of the Gospel. But he then goes on "There simply can be no Christian gospel apart from the truth that Jesus Christ has endured and suffered in himself, on the cross, the wrath of God due to sinners, thereby propitiating or satisfying said wrath on behalf of those for whom he died." Let's call this (NCGA(PGW)). This is so obviously a non-sequitur that words almost fail me. The PSA says nothing about God's "wrath". So we are being asked to swallow, without any evidence or argument at all:
  1. That PSA is not only true, but such an essential truth that "There can be no Christian Gospel without PSA" (ie NCGA(PSA))
  2. That PSA => PGW
  3. That NCGA(PSA) => NCGA(PGW)
In case the point isn't obvious to all readers: it is an incontrovertible fact that Jesus spoke Aramaic (JSA) - there can be no doubt about this at all. However it would be absurd to suggest that NCGA(JSA) - people could be quite ignorant of the fact that JSA and still effectively preach the Gospel, and a fortiori could have faith in Jesus and be saved. Of course there are a few mentions of God's wrath in the Gospels, and it must be true that God's wrath is aroused by sin - wrath not understood in the human sense but in the sense of righteous anger against grievous injustice etc.. However it is difficult enough to talk intelligibly about sin without then hopelessly confusing people with talk about "wrath". The very definition:
1. Forceful, often vindictive anger. See Synonyms at anger.
2. (a) Punishment or vengeance as a manifestation of anger.
(b) Divine retribution for sin.
Is confusing. Why not stick to using the term in Greek (orghV) so at least it won't be misunderstood?

First Communion, Abortion, Rebecca Leigh, BBC

Another golden day yesterday going to Cambridge for Grandson's First Communion. The large Church was packed for the special service (it is also pretty full for the 5 other normal services on a Sunday). Party afterwards at Son's house. The trains were disrupted due to engineering works so one of our son's school-friends - a brilliant doctor - drove us back to London. He thinks that the climate of opinion is shifting considerably against abortion - which in my view will be seen as the Slavery of our era: socially accepted now, but people will look back and ask "How could they?" On the way up the "replacement bus" service had been delayed 30 mins so we grabbed an 8-person taxi, asked who wanted to share, and met Rebecca Leigh - budding theatrical director who recently graduated in History. Will watch her career with interest.

The BBC has commissioned a report which highlights some of their biases. Too much right on groupthink. Will it make a difference - I hope so.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Junk DNA - and Caracatures of the Cross

Further support for my long-held hypothesis* that "junk DNA" is not junk at all, major papers published in Nature and a summary in Science showing just how misleading the DNA = Genes -> Proteins -> Determines life is.

Read long and typically wise essay by Tom Wright dealing with the serious misconceptions about the Cross by Jeffrey John, and offering wise guidance to the authors of "Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution" which unfortunately attacks, by name, a leading evangelical from a slightly different tradition and claims, wrongly according to Tom - who has spoken to him about it since - that he denies the doctrine of penal substitution. They also apparently manage to ignore what Matthew and Luke say and record on the subject. I hope that these authors will listen to Tom with humility and good grace. However they have in fact published a response on their website. The key point seems to be what exactly is meant by "Penal Substitution" - the idea that Jesus took the punishment for us or the very specific formulation that tries to identify the Crucifixion as God punishing Jesus to save us from His Wrath.

Now clearly the truth that this forumlation seeks to affirm, that Christ was crucified for us (pro nobis - on our behalf) and took the sins, the punishment, the suffering etc.. for us on the Cross, is absolutely right. However to dwell on the Wrath of God as though it were in some sense almost equal to His love seems to me profoundly mistaken. The foreword to this book mentions God's wrath 24 times and His love 14 times, and says "I rejoice to measure your love for me by the magnitude of the wrath I deserved " (!!). The Gospels however only mention God's wrath 4 times and God's love 24 times. To make this formulation of the doctrine into some kind of Shibboleth is deeply unfortunate.

But the tone of their response troubles me almost more than the substance. It is written like a piece by 3 people with new-ish PhDs trying to score debating points off a theological opponent. Which of course it is - but two of these hope to become priests in the Church of England and one is Principal-Elect of a Theological College! I hope they re-write it to bring in such concepts as Humility, Pastoral Sensitivity, and a genuine attempt to build common ground and work together with fellow-christians. As Tom Wright says "We live in difficult times and it would be good to find evidence of people on all sides of all questions taking the attitude of the Beroeans in Acts 17, who 'searched the scriptures daily to see if these things were so', instead of 'knowing' in advance what scripture is going to say, ought to say, could not possibly say, or must really have said (if only the authors hadn't made it so obscure!)."

* The only time I recall "publishing" this was here, which was in March 2005. Of course it wasn't novel even then.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

India, Central Office, Bible as Library, NHS

Monday to dinner celebrating 60 years of Indian/Pakistani independence, as guests of Indian friends. Sat next to Sarah Butterfield, v talented artist, married to David Willetts and sister of my Trinity contemporary Jeremy Butterfield. V good and well-received speech from David Cameron about the importance of building the special relationship with India, and about social empowerment.

Tues also had in part a political theme, going to the farewell party for "Central Office" in Smith Square (the first time I have been in the building!) met Ian Duncan Smith, Norman Lamont (v briefly) and Gyles Brandreth - but had to leave before Dave C arrived to give his speech because I was giving the talk at the "Life Group" about the Bible. This was meant to be based on notes from a short book, but because it was v warm we all ate outside and instead I gave the talk I would have liked to have given without the notes. Began with the metaphor of the Bible as a well-designed special purpose library, like the Wellcome Library. Talk seemed to go down well and the discussion afterwards was very interesting.

Last night took elder daughter out to dinner at the excellent restaurant on top of
the London Hilton. Food outstanding, waiters over-attentive, great to have some time on our own together before her wedding.

Patricia Hewitt, in her probable swansong as Health Secretary, speaks out against an independent Board for the NHS. Done wrong, this could be a complete disaster. We'll soon see.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Dumbing down Science - and "Science" as a stick

Depressing, but all too realistic, report on the dumbing down of the National Curriculum in State Schools published by Civitas and reported in the Telegraph. Great poets are replaced by PC moderns, and the "21st Century Science" GCSE seems to be a disaster, although the OCR Board is a good one and the idea were apparently supported by some leading institutions. You can tell they have hit a raw nerve when the DfES replies that the report is "insulting to the hard work of pupils and teachers". And the endorsements on the 21stC Science Website seem lukewarm ("All staff are working hard to make it a success.") This is likely to accentuate the already depressing trend whereby the Independent Schools largely underpin the science base.

This is all part of the very worrying erosion of science in the UK: even the world-class science departments are increasingly propped up by foreign students - the numbers of students taking A-level sciences keeps falling, although the picture is a bit mixed. From the outside "Science" is portrayed as a massive edifice of modernity and certainty, but from the inside it is under threat, not least by the deplorable rhetoric of people who pretend that Science = "selfish genes" and that belief in God is a "delusion" and give the false impression that Science is an enemy of much of the best in humanity.

I was sent a copy of Dick Taverne's "Voltaire Lecture" - a fairly typical example of a non-scientist using "science" as a stick with which to beat religion. Interestingly, the only living real scientist he quotes was Simon Conway-Morris - whose Boyle Lecture he quotes "Frankly I found most of it incomprehensible" to conclude that he is "somebody, perhaps because he cannot discard the beliefs on which he was brought up, who divides his mental processes into two categories, logical and spiritual"

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Hen party, Demographics of Atheism, Colin Howson

A golden day - Daughter's Hen Party culminating a week with the grandchildren staying. Annoyingly I had to be on Safety Boat duty on Sun so was away morning and pm - took taxi back not to miss too much.

The Demographics of Atheism article lead me to the Quick Table: GSS 1972-2004 Cumulative Datafile at Berkeley. Interestingly, although overall there is a correlation between "no religion" and highest degree earned (in the US), by 2004 this has disappeared. In 1977 people with graduate degrees were nearly 3x as likely to have "no religion" as people who didn't graduate from High School, by 2004 this ratio was just 15%.

Fascinating article is beginning to take shape on how the debate about God and Science has moved on since Colin Howson and I wrote in Prospect 9 years ago. Much to think about!

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Shaun Bailey, Public Sector IT, Atheism

Meeting last night with Shaun Bailey - he continues to be immensely impressive: straight talking, dynamic, a breath of fresh air. The Public Accounts Committee has produced another report lambasting incompetent management of public sector IT: curiously The Times doesn't carry the story.

Libby Purves characteristically sound in The Times complaining about the tendency, far worse under Blair, of public bodies to focus on frills and fail on the basics.

Interesting comment from the debate about the Atheism article in Wikipedia: "It is also important to understand that the atheist world does not revolve around Richard Dawkins, whose bold attempt to bring atheism into focus risks sacrificing or alienating a large body of atheists for the cause" Indeed, and not only Atheists.

Monday, June 04, 2007

"Skeletonics", Social misperceptions, Meekness, Three rings, opinion polls

Hectic week with work, home (kitchen renovation) and wedding plans. Also some rather sharp exchanges on Wikipedia with a Harvard Graduate biology student have morphed into something that could become a useful collaboration: she suggested an article on Social misperceptions and oversimplifications of genetics and if we can get her input and lots of others it could become very useful. At present the draft I have started needs a lot of improvement. In many ways the philosophical implications of epigenetics are more interesting, though they are of course related. As Denis Noble says "we have fitted ourselves out with a mangificent set of blinkers" about genetics. I suspect that the genome is like the skeleton - vitally important of course but it would be absurd to suggest that we "are" our skeletons or that the sketeon is the only important aspect of biology, and that all the rest is environmental factors. But if you defined "skeletonics" suitably you could readily "reduce" biology to skeletons + environment.

Daughter & I finally sailed our boat yesterday - v nice day though not quite enough wind. Got confused in the first race: we now have 2 starts - but second race was our best ever and had we got the batten tensions right in our new sail we'd have gone faster still. Next time...

Two striking sermons: on Sunday a rather mangificent one by a former management consultant becoming a Pastor, who expounded "blessed are the meek" by pointing out that the 2 people called meek in the Bible are Moses and Jesus, that Aristotle considered "meek"ness to be a key virtue, the mean between excessive anger and not being willing to be angry about anything, and that Jesus here echos Psalm 37 - which the preacher then used to expound the concept. On Sat another preacher compared the Trinity to himself, his brother and his nephew (even the waitress seemed to be caught up in our love and welcoming!) but used a striking saying from his colleague: "There are three rings in marriage, the engagement ring, the wedding ring, and the suffering".

Much noise in the UK press about opinion polls, and Cameron's lead declining. But the Weighted Moving Average (which I calculate) is 37:32:19 - this is down from March when it was 39:31:18 and back to Jan. We still more or less have one party with no leader and one with no policies, and until this changes the polls will drift. Impossible to be categorical about what is "not going to happen" in 1-2 years. The real question is how many people will agree with the Labour Cabinet Minsiter about Gordon Brown, once they see him in action as PM. And for that, policies may be largely irrelevant.