Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Ali Miraj the BBC and the Conservatives

The BBC's attempt to spoil Cameron's very serious and sensible speech on School Discipline by playing up the ludicrous Ali Miraj - who no-one had ever heard of before his outburst - is deplorable. In a feeble attempt to give him some credibility the BBC Word at Ten describe him as a "councillor" - actually he is a "former councillor". Pushy, jumped up, wants a seat in the house of Lords and then acts as an anti-Cameron rentaquote. School discipline is a serious matter, one rather slimy man trying to wangle a peerage is not headline news.

Black Mass and Dawkins

Quiet few days sorting out flats, getting back into running etc.. while daughter is away. Was hoping to go to a Prom at the weekend but Brass Weekend - no thanks. There are some excellent ones coming up including a Prom with Cathy which we must go to - also has Peter Rose - Cathy and Peter sang together at my father's Memorial Concert in 1986.

An FRS friend has looked at the early draft of the Prospect article: one of his interesting comments is that "Dawkins and his merry crew have run out of things to say". As Roger Scruton points out in Prospect, there are really no new arguments for Atheism since the "Enlightenment" (Evolution is not an argument for Atheism, it merely makes Atheism cease to be totally incredible, as Dawkins admits).

John Gray's Black Mass is very good. He demonstrates clearly how Stalinism, Maoism and Naziism are the natural consequences of deluded "Enlightenment" thinking which tried to defeat Christian philosophy by propagating their deluded myths whereby "Progress" is blocked by "Dark forces" of Ignorance and Superstition, so that the utopia they envisage can only be ushered in by remaking society, ultimately by the use of violence. He traces the genesis of all these movements to the Jacobins "they were not mistaken in believing that it marked a turning point in history. The era of political mass murder had arrived." He also points out that, although it is now fashionable to decry the excesses of Stalin and Mao as due to the despotic traditions of Russia and China, actually these were attempts to impose "Enlightenment" thinking and that "it is a telling fact that Soviet communism was most popular in the West when terror was at its height. After visiting ... in 1934 - when around 5M people had perished in the Ukranian famine - ... Harold Laski declare 'Never in history has man attained the same level of perfection as in the Soviet regime'" Similar sentiments were expressed by the Webbs in 1935.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Cornwall and Physics of Christianity

Back from a fabulous few days in Cornwall. Daughter and I travelled down on Thurs and chartered a yacht for 2 days. We were going to sail from Padstow to the Scillies but the wind was against us all day so we were motor-sailing and eventually decide to go to Penzance instead. This of course meant rounding Land’s End, excellent views of Longships, the Minnack Theatre and St Michael’s Mount. Slept rather well on the boat, both at night and during the day lying on the leaward side of the cockpit with a pillow: looking up under my hat to see Daughter helming very confidently. On Sat C and grandsons were coming down by train to join us, but the floods had caused such disruption to rail travel that they stayed in London and came down on Monday am. We sailed back to St Ives, and met up with my mother at Tate St Ives. Daughter thought very poorly of the Art, though I was quite taken by the Sister Cody.

It was Sea Sunday in Church so Eternal Father (what a superb hymn, excellent theology, poetry and music) and met the Coxwain of the Lifeboat. Then on Monday C called to say she had caught the earlier train which goes direct to Newquay – much nearer that Bodmin to pick up.

Tuesday brought sunny weather so we and boys built a sandcastle on the beach – delightful reflection that my grandfather helped me build sandcastles on the same beach and increased determination that, if possible, we will keep the house in the family so that they can do the same with their grandchildren. In the afternoon we took elder grandson (M) for a sailing lesson but although the wind was lovely and it was quite sunny, it was too strong for him and a bit too cold. Daughter had a water-ski session which she loved.

Weds Daughter left for a Christian Camp, which she loves. Thurs an old friend visited who used to stay with us, and we were able to show her husband and son some of the delightful sights. Also learned about the Hobie 405 which might be a great boat for the house. Friday, a final run along the coves and then on the train home.

The Physics of Christianity is a frustrating book. In some ways it is an anti-particle to The God Delusion – which is at least a good thing from the POV of my article. If TGD had been called “Reasons not to Believe” and had been written from the standpoint of “this is what I think and why” it would have been a much better (and more dangerous) book. Similarly if The Physics of Christianity had been “of course all of this is speculative, but if we take currently understood physics seriously then the fundamental tenets of Christianity, far from being impossible, are quite feasible, it would have been quite a good book. But his insistence that physics shows that Christianity is the only possible truth he is greatly over-claiming.

He un-critically accepts the “many worlds” interpretation of QM and the idea that the universe is deterministic because the Hamiltonian is (quite how you reconcile this with Many Worlds he doesn’t say). He claims that Feynman and Weinberg “solved the problem of quantum gravity” in the 1960s without realising that they had done so(!). He imagines that you could, in principle (“with nanotechnology and quantum computers”) “map the entire contents of the human brain, including the locations and state and connections of every neuron, into the memory of a computer [and] map the entire human body and a suitable human environment… and let the computer simulate a human being”. He seems to be as charmingly ignorant of biology as Dawkins is of physics. Firs of all we have no idea how to simulate biological processes accurately. Secondly it is clear rhat biological processes are analogue hypercomplex systems, so even if the underlying laws were perfectly known, for any ε there will be a number of parts of the system where the errors due to an uncertainty of ε will grow exponentially, so that the simulation will rapidly go awry. As John Polkinghorne has remarked, even a simulation of the position of an air molecule will have a serious error within less than a microsecond if we neglect the force of gravity due to an electron the other side of the universe.

He moves from silly to dangerously silly when he confidently predicts that “real-world human history is destined to end sometime this century, either with a bang or with a download” - missing, due to a cloth ear and/or ignorance, the poetic allusion. This feeds the nonsensical view, sadly not uncommon in the US, that there is no need to worry about the Environment because history will end in the next 50 years or so.

This is not to say that the book is worthless – there are some interesting ideas in it. Written in a less arrogant tone it would be immeasurably better. Though I do worry about a book that identifies God with the Omega Point and doesn’t even mention Tehillard de Chardin. I’m sure he overstates the case against Islam and science (pp113-116) but there is undoubtedly disquieting material there: the one Islamic scientist to win a Nobel Prize was from a sect that was declared heretical in his native Pakistan, where people have been murdered for belonging to it.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Aphorisms from half-forgotten authors, Atheists on Wikipedia

3rd draft of my article with Colin Howson sent to him - it's the first completed version though there is lots more to do. I hope we'll get there by draft 8 or 9. Also sent a copy to Simon in case he has a chance to look at it, though Draft 5 (or 4.9) would be better.

  • Kenneth Grahame once wrote that 'there is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats'. With that I would agree, yet for a fleeting period in the world's history I think aeroplanes ran boats very close for sheer enjoyment (Nevil Shute: Slide Rule (his autobiography) pp 9-10)
  • We are all inclined to think that others can only have our virtues if they also have our vices (Somerset Maugham: his preface to Theatre p viii)
  • Never argue with a man with a megaphone (retired headmaster acting as guard on the Bodmin and Wentworth railway, when confronted with unruly girls)
Interestingly Dan Dennett is is not persuaded that the world would be a better place without religion, because he cannot yet characterise anything that could replace it in the hearts of most human beings. Though naturally the Atheists on Wikipedia want to suppress this fact. They really don't like truth, do they?

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Anniversary, Life Group, Strings, Science and Thurber

Much happening and this post is a few days behind "real time". The 16th was our 30th Anniversary but with Daughter back from Duke of Edinburgh award that evening we celebrated quietly in. Tues was the final Life Group before the holidays - BBQ with much fun and laughter. W were joined by a lawyer (Trinity educated, then went to the US and came back here as an expat) who is on ordination training - it is a continuing and fascinating aspect of the CofE how many really high powered people want to be ordained into the Anglican priesthood.

Weds and Thurs two meetings with very different FTSE 100 Chairmen and I think we have discerned the shape of the next big work project. Also had the quarterly P&L which was, shall we say, satisfactory.

Finished Not Even Wrong which is a fascinating cri de coeur. Certainly the resemblance between M-theory and an esoteric gnostic theology is striking, and his account of how fashion and career presures can shape scientific enterprise is sobering. Of course it may be that M-theory or string theory does produce some of the desired results, but even so it would have been wrong to put all the eggs in one basket. Woit's blog is here - rather technical but pretty interesting.

This causes me further reflections on what "Science" is. To outsiders it seems like "an assured body of results" but to insiders it is more like "a fascinating set of questions" and much of the art of reserach is to ask questions which are hard enough to be interesting and easy enough to answer. But both the history and the philosophy of science shows that even well-supported and widely-accepted scientific theories can tund out later to be based on fundamental misunderstandings about what was really going on. Science produces veridical maps and not Ultimate Reality. Reflecting further on String Theory and Inflation - the genesis of both of these ideas is to try to find explanations for some "untidy" facts about the universe - the number of apparently arbitrary parameters in the Standard Model and the remarkable flatness of the Universe respectively - but they tend to generate far more implausible things in exchange: 12 dimensions and 10^500 universes for example.

As an antidote to all this I have been reading Thurber Country - a 1953 collection of pieces from the immortal James Thurber. Gems include a discussion of the true meaning of The Cocktail Party in which someone delivers the withering put-down "you should either have read a great deal more, or a great deal less, than you have" and a practical joker called Birdey Doggett who "was at Grand Central Station with one roller-skate, which he managed to attach to the shoe of a man sleeping on a bench. When the fellow woke and stood up, he described a brief, desperat semi-circle, clutched a woman shopper about the knees, dragged her and her bundles to the cold floor , and was attacked by her muzzled Scotty. Doggett, as always, was the first to lend a hand, helping the woman to her feet and then turning to the man. 'Where the hell's your other skate?' he damaned sharply. 'That's what's caused all this trouble.' He took his skate off the victim's foot and disappeared into the crowd that he began to gather. 'What's the matter over there?' a small man asked apprehensively. Doggett shrugged, 'Oh, they founda woman with a ticking package,' he said. The other man turned and left the station, missing the train he had told his wife he would take. Doggett's pranks usually have the effect of involving people on their edges, one or two have whom have been divorced as a result "

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Iraq, Polls, Wedding Anniversary

Sunday Times asks whether America has lost the will to win in Iraq. This may be so, but interestingly the rate of coalition casualties is currently the lowest since August 06, and if the present reduction continues will be below the average since the invasion. On this measure, at least, the Surge seems to be working.

There is also a Brown Bounce in the opinion polls. WMA 35:37:18 so it seems to be straight switch from C to Lab - possibly driven by Brown sounding tough and Prime-Ministerial on security issues. It’ll be very interesting to see what happens when his interventionist tendencies and management style are put to the test.

Have been celebrating 30th Wedding Anniversary - quite low key cos of the wedding so no big party, but dinner at Claridges last night, then took Son, DinL and Grandchildren out to lunch today. Monday (the day) we'll have supper at home.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Children, Education and The Surge

Melanie McDonaghon in The Times draws attention to the lack of babies in the UK and Europe. Quite right, but in addition there's an important religious dimension to this. On average atheists have far fewer children than theists. It is increasingly clear that the mindset of "traditional" secular liberalism (anti-marriage, pro-abortion, pro-euthanasia) is something of a collective death-wish.

A leading Islamic writer on science has kindly agreed to act as a "reviewer" of our draft article. I've sent a first shot at the first 1.5 sections to Colin - hope it's of some use.

Is the "Surge" working in Iraq? It's far too early to be sure, and so much politics is vested interest. But the coalition casualties levels are the lowest for the last 4 months.

The admirable Martin Stevens makes some telling points about curriculum reform. One of the best pieces of news recently was of Winchester withdrawing from the absurd league tables and piloting Cambridge's Pre-U rather than the increasingly dumbed down A-Levels. I hope Eton and St Paul's follow suit.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

St Benedict's Day at Alton Abbey

Took most of today off to go to St Benedict's Day at Alton Abbey. A very joyful and uplifting occasion. The chapel was much lighter than the photo appears. Fr Abbot preached about his favourite chapter of the Rule - Chapter 72 of the Good Zeal of Monks (this Chapter sounds even better in Latin, where Benedict urges us to foster this good zeal with ferventissimo love) and how it is in family and community that our rough edges can be ground off, like grinding pebbles to become beautiful polished stones. Saw my old friend and collaborator Bp Geoffrey Rowell who was on the whole pleased with Synod and upbeat about his Diocese (Europe) which is growing rapidly. He was in Moscow for Easter and at the Cathedral for the Easter Vigil - which was attended by Putin and the Mayor of Moscow. The influence of the Patriach is now apparently very considerable - some think him the 3rd most powerful man in Russia.

The brothers are in good heart - but it would be great if a novice stuck. Walked round the grounds as I always do if possible, then bicycled back to the station and into the office just before PA goes.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Social Justice, Rights, and a Tolerant Christian State

The Iain Duncan Smith Commission on Social Justice report seems excellent - needs to be read in detail. Interestingly the recommended comments on the BBC website are overwhelmingly in favour of recognising and rewarding marriage in the tax system. Labour clearly doesn't quite know what to say - are they still anti-marriage or what??

When Cameron proposed a "British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities" Labour and their hangers-on rubbished the whole idea. "crazy and wrong-headed", "pointless" etc.. Strangely, now .... ???

Despite journalists repeatedly saying that we are a "secular state" it's worth remembering that we are not. Constitutionally we are a tolerant Christian state, and this appears, according to the census, to be an accurate reflection of the population. We should be recovering this status - whose decay has been the root cause of so many of our deepest problems - not abandoning it.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Howson, RS, Pain and Itch

Another hectic week. Monday party with David Cameron - he was at the next table but I foolishly didn't introduce myself to him and after his (good) speech he was (wisely) off to his family. Tues the Life Group, which was something of a celebration of Ash's ordination and E.D.'s wedding - joy, fellowship and prayer.

Thurs lunch with Colin Howson to discuss our joint article - the first time we had met. A very good guy, it will be a lot of fun doing this. It turns out that the great John Lucas is a mutual friend. Then to the RS for their Soiree which was as usual fascinating and enjoyable, seeing old friends and meeting new people as well as seeing some intriguing science. A team at Imperial College are working on biobricks - a kind of lego for biological engineering. They came second in an international contest organised by MIT (iGem) beating Princeton into 3rd place, but being beaten by - Slovenia.

Yesterday went with some US friends to The Pain and the Itch at the Royal Court, A very clever play - a bit too "clever clever" perhaps at the end, but amusing and somewhat disturbing. We do worry about the child actress - she is meant to be 4 - being exposed to all this foul language though.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Weddings, John & Not even Wrong

Family friend's wedding in Farm Street RC Church was an utter delight, though tempered by the fact that I had been asked, at 6 days notice, to give the initial speech, analogous to the one I gave at my Elder Daughter's wedding the previous week. Was v v busy at work until Fri afternoon so could only compose the speech on Fri evening, but with some additional material from E.D. on Sat am it went quite well. We've known the Bride and her family for over 25 years and the Groom seems very charming as well - as one would expect. Son, Daughter and Grandchildren also invited and they stayed the night - tremendous fun but a bit exhausting all told.

In the end of John, where Jesus asks Peter whether he loves him and Peter affirms it 3 times, the Greek is agapais - philw, agapais - philw, phileis - philw. I asked E.D. who says there are various theories, none accepted. Tom Wright says (in John for Everyone) that it is probably not important. Still I wonder, John does not use words carelessly.

Am enjoying Not Even Wrong not least because much of it is a primer reminding me of the state of physics in the late 70s when I studied it. Indeed Goldstone was one of my supervisors. Haven't got to the string bits yet. But I find it ironic that people like Dawkins suggest that Theology is absurdly counter-intuitive whilst being happy (in principle) to accept the utterly weird world of quantum physics. Does it not occur to them that the deepest truths about the Universe might be just a teeny weeny bit non-obvious. Also enjoying Evolution in Four Dimensions which makes it clear how evolutionary ideas have changed over time in scientific basis, but the willingness of a few brash people to use the current version (whatever that happens to be) as a stick with which to beat religion continues. A perceptive article by John Gray in the FT points out the futility of trying to eliminate religion - indeed there is something in the view that Marxism and Nazism were invented as non-religious pseudo-religions which contrived, of course, to have all the worst aspects of religion and few of the benefits.