Friday, February 27, 2009

The days of ignoramuses drawing to a close?

The debate on talkingphilosophy continues to be lively. 80 responses to Julian's article to date. It will be interesting to meet him on Tuesday. One of the interlocutors, who teaches philosophy at Southern Methodist University (!!) admits that he she (sorry) does not seriously consider the possibility that Christianity is true, comparing it to "roundsquareism".

Julian also draws attention to an interesting account of a quasi-debate between Plantinga and Dennett. I really think that the days of ignoramuses who think they can “argue” against Christianity without making any effort to understand it, resorting to tired old tropes about “Spaghetti Monsters” etc.. are drawing to a close. See eg the commentary in The Selfish Gene Delusion

It's hard to believe that the launch is only on Monday. A friend (with 38 credited movies on IMDB) will be videoing it so we should have some decent footage. So far about 1,600 books have been sold - with very little publicity - so we'll see what happens. Polkinghorne is supposed to be on the Today Programme on Monday around 08:30 - though that won't be confirmed until Sunday.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Talking Philosophy & the Selfish Gene Delusion

Some interesting discussions on the Talking Philosophy blog following the FT Review of Questions of Truth. Bagginni and I will be debating on Premier Radio on Tues (3pm) which should be interesting. Launch coming closer and closer, over 150 people registered.

Very sad news of Ivan Cameron's death. But if, as pretty well everyone expects, David Cameron becomes the next PM, his "beautiful boy" will have been one of his most important teachers, and thus have played an important role in shaping the government of the country. Few people will have achieved that much, even if they live to 70.

My little article The Selfish Gene Delusion is published by (and featured on) The Trinity Forum. No comments yet.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Not the God of the Gaps

Quite a favourable review in the FT by Julian Baggini. He says renowned physicist and Anglican priest John Polkinghorne, who accepts evolution in full, has no problems reconciling his faith with his science....Despite the complexity of some of the scientific issues discussed, Questions of Truth is a commendably clear read. The authors' general strategy is not to deny what science says about the universe and humanity's place in it, but to show that none of this contradicts their Christian beliefs...It is a pity that the people people most likely to buy this book are those simply seeking intellectual reassurance that their faith is not irrational. Those who would most benefit from reading it are in fact fundamentalists who think that evolutionary science must be wrong, and overconfident atheists who believe that the religious are manifestly irrational.

However he misunderstands the point about anthropic fine tuning, writing that we often use God...to plug the spaces left by science's incompleteness...such a God of the gaps is a precarious deity to believe inWhatever the laws of nature turn out to be, or appear to be at any level of science, they will always take the form of a set L of laws and a set B of initial conditions and there will be two meta-scientific questions:
  1. Why is it the case that the Universe operates in accordance with this (L, B) - as opposed to any (L, B)? Note that this is a completely different question from "what is evidence that (L,B) are correct?" - simplistically it is the difference between "how do you know that you have solved this crossword puzzle correctly" and "why was this crossword puzzle the one you had to solve"?
  2. Why should there be a set of laws that work at all? It is certainly possible to imagine a universe which had no physical laws, or none discoverable by us.
Although science will from time to time reformulate L and B in terms of a 'better' pair (L' and B' say) that will only reformulate Question 1 but can never abolish it. And Question 2 can never go away.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

In top 10 for Science and Religion - and 2 Nobel Laureates

The Amazon.co.uk Bestsellers in Science and Religion contain a number that are not really about this at all. But here are the top 10
  1. (1) The God Delusion
  2. Good Omens (comic novel by Pratchett)
  3. (2) God's Undertaker
  4. Soundscape
  5. (3?)Galileo's Daughter
  6. (4) Descartes' Bones
  7. (5 ??) The Mayan Calendar
  8. (6) The Dawkins Letters
  9. (7) Questions of Truth
  10. (8) The Green Bible

Breaking the Spell is #13. QoT is the only one that has not been released yet.

Meanwhile we have acceptances for our RS launch from: 2 Nobel Laureates, 34 other FRSs, 25 FBAs and 74 others: total 135 and rising fast (it was 122 two days ago).

Very interesting articles on Faith and Health in Time - I've emailed the author.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Over 120 Acceptances for RS Launch

Good session in Harvard on Monday. Some of my collaborators got very interested in the ideas in QoT about God limiting His omnipotence. A visitor to PED liked the sound of it so much she bought one. Flew back overnight then to a seminar in Oxford followed by dinner at New College - which I had never previously visited. Over dinner met Suma Chakrabarti the v impressive Permanent Secretary at the Department of Justice.

This morning interviewed by Alvin Augustus Jones for a 10-min live slot. It was great to be introduced as a "best-selling author" and I guess technically justifiable since we are currently #76 in Science and Religion in the US and #10 in the UK (also #13 in Nature and Existence of God).

While I was in the US my colleague sent reminders to the FRSs who had been invited to the Launch at the RS and not replied. A frustrating number said they hadn't seen the invitation. However a fair number have now accepted and 48 have sent warm wishes for the meeting significantly beyond the conventional. By contrast one objected that he didn't think the RS should appear to be promoting a religious book at all; individuals can believe whatever they want, but the RS should not be involved; science and religion aren't intertwined, but quite separate; and that there are so many important problems in the world (some of them caused by religion) that it just does not seem a useful way to spend time. He ccd this objection to Martin so I thought it sensible to drop him an email giving him the relevant statistics.

We have now got over 120 acceptances for the RS Launch including 32 FRSs and 21 FBAs - very encouraging.

Monday, February 16, 2009

AAAS Launch at Last


The AAAS launch at last! Room pretty full. Jim McCarthy very helpful. He said that there are matters of science that we don't convey as effectively as we might. There are opportunities for dialog with religious leaders that we have not explored enough in the past. He has been involved in such dialogues through the AAAS, the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard and through the Union of Concerned Scientists. "More effort needs to be expended in initiatives for engaging with the community of faith and exchanging ideas."

He welcomed his "two distinguished visitors from across the pond" and described the book as "a very very interesting set of ideas that lie at the interface between Science and Theology"

John and I made short opening statements. John essentially gave a very abbreviated version of his lecture on Thurs. I started with the opening of the book "What does it mean when we say that the sky is blue? Is it even true? Why?" explained a bit about the origins, structure and purpose of the book. They we had about 70 minutes of interactive discussion. Most of this was very constructive, although there was a long rambling position statement from one "press" attendee about "our first task is to survive. Words (which are material objects, sounds, nerve impulses etc..) form ethics which are no more than a control system for others, based on words."

At the end Martin Rees came to say hi.

Sadly we had to rush off to pack up the spare books and send them back because I had to fly to Harvard that evening.
Many thanks to all those involved in making the launch a success, and especially to Stacy Allen and her team of volunteers who helped us man the stand, and sold the books.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Great chat with Ken Miller


Ken Miller dropped into our stand as arranged for a chat. He's a great guy. He'd never met John so it was good to catalyse this. He had looked through our book, liked it, and was very sorry not to be able to be with us on the panel.


We discussed Steve Gould and his NOMA view - which we don't agree with but was clearly well-meant and a step in the right direction. Ken knew Steve quite well, initially they became friends over baseball when Ken was a young Assistant Prof at Harvard and had no idea who Steve Gould was. Gould consulted him about accepting an invitation from the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and since then Gould became markedly less hostile to people of faith.

First radio interview

First Radio interview to promote Questions of Truth - Conversations with Peter Solomon on WIP-AM Philadelphia PA. It was a 15-minute 7am slot - 6am in Chicago. Nice guy, asked about what led us to write the book, examples of 1-2 questions, do we need a PhD to understand it, and what is the main message to take away. I suspect my answers were too long - we'll see.

John is doing some more when he gets back to the UK - we'll see where these lead. Launch workshop this afternoon and our last day here, so interesting times.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

AAAS Day 2 - Fascinating Meetings


Today is a Family Science Day so there are lots of kids at the exhibition. The visitors on our stand are generally of very high quality. John went to the session on building the AAAS Science, Ethics and Religion coalition so I was on duty. Holmes Rolston came on the stand and bought a book, which was great. Also Susan Hackwood the Executive Director of the Califorina Council on Science and Technology. And Sue Lynn Lau, a Doctor from Australia who had won the Dance Your PhD contest - sadly she was flying back today so couldn't be at the launch discussion tomorrow.

Ken Miller
would have been happy to join us on the Panel tomorrow - he has won the AAAS Award for Public Communication of Science and Technology - but alas a Symposium that he is scheduled to be involved in clashes. Also sadly Susan Keifer - who is giving the Plenary Lecture today and is on the Steering Committee of the STEWARDship Workshop - is leaving tomorrrow morning so is unable to join us. However we have been told that we can have no more than 3 people on the "top table" so at least it saves a fight with the hard pressed AAAS staff.

We went to the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowships reception - this is a great scheme now in its 35th year which places science PhDs in the offices of Congress members and Government officials. It should be extended to the UK.

Friday, February 13, 2009

AAAS - Day 1 - John's lecture was a triumph


John's lecture last night was a triumph. It was in a fairly substantial hall at the University of Chicago and there was standing room only - people sitting on the floors and the stairs. We sold all but two of the copies we brought.

I put out a press release to the press here, after it being approved by John. The Press Centre say they will distribute it to all the journalists. A short summary of what John said, from the release, is as follows: Science and Religion are friends. Both explore questions of truth in different ways. Religion has much to learn from science. For example, evolution shows us a Creator who gives freedom to his creation, and the inevitable costs involved. But Religion also offers explanations for deep questions that go beyond science: such as the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics, and anthropic fine tuning.

Petty good traffic onto our stand, books were selling quite well. I went up to the fascinating session chaired by Jim McCarty with Martin Ress and József Pálinkás who is President of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. This was about international cooperation in science. One of the key points was that we have a crisis of complexity in humanity and people don't understand the issues properly, which resonates with my secular work.

Pálinkás was also arguing strongly for increased funding of basic research during the downturn to preserve the excellence of science departments and scientists. Martin quoted his predecessor George Porter: "there are two kinds of research: applied research and non-yet applied research". Had brief chats with Jim and Martin later.

Sadly Martin's reception clashed with the reception for the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion which John and I really had to go to. There I met a number of people including Holmes Ralston - who sadly is leaving Chicago on Sun am and therefore can't be on our Panel. Interesting discussion with a geologist at the U of Arizona who is also interested in exobiology about the extent to which the Drake equation needs to consider the probability that a civilization will self-destruct. Clearly it should, though for understandable reasons he is resistant. If the expected lifetime of a civilization that has developed nuclear weapons is c 100 years - which seems if anything to be an over-estimate, then there is a real danger that the probabilty of two such civilisations existing at the same time in the galaxy would be close to zero.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Harvard, Glial Cells, to Chicago

Great session in Harvard now about to leave for Chicago. People were running in shorts along the Charles, which still had ice in it. Had dinner witgh Elder Daughter which was great - Son in Law joined us afterwards. Both working v hard but enjoying it.

I'm pleased to see a Q&A in Nature about the role of Glial cells. I have suspect for a very long time that they are much more important than conventional wisdom suggested. They don't even make the index in Did My Neurons Make Me Do It.

Daily Mail
article now may come out on Sat. Apparently they wanted more of a bashing piece ... not our style.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Darwin in the Times, Telegraph and Mail

Excellent article by Cormac Murphy-O'Connor in The Times explaining how Darwin and Christianity are not at all incompatible. There is a similar letter in The Telegraph (search for Darwin). Both quote Darwin in a late letter to an atheist friend: “It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist and an evolutionist.”

The letter, which is signed by Sir Martin Evans the Nobel Laureate and many other eminent scientists (including Denis Alexander, Francis Collins, Susan Greenfield, Nancy Rothwell and Robert Winston) says:"We respectfully encourage those who reject evolution to weigh the now overwhelming evidence, hugely strengthened by recent advances in genetics, which testifies to the theory’s validity.

At the same time, we respectfully ask those contemporary Darwinians who seem intent on using Darwin’s theory as a vehicle for promoting an anti-theistic agenda to desist from doing so, as they are, albeit unintentionally, turning people away from the theory. In this year of all years, we should be celebrating Darwin’s great biological achievements and not fighting over his legacy as some kind of anti-theologian." Quite.

The Daily Mail has asked for a piece based on Questions of Truth to appear on Thursday (Darwin's birthday). At the moment the draft is entitled "There is no ‘war’ between science and religion" and concludes "let’s bury this delusion about “warfare” between science and religion." Let's see what comes out.

I'm also delighted to see that the book is listed in Science - albeit only under "books received". It will be interesting to see if they review it, but I hope they will. After all, we understand that Nature is reviewing it, and the President of the AAAS is chairing our launch.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Snow, Noble, May, Play and Launches

Very intensive week. The freak snow on Monday was amazing: pretty well no-one got into work, but working from home was fine and our gardens, initially a uniform white, became a hub of activity as first one small boy and his family arrived, then many others, and by the end of the day there must have been more than twenty large snowmen. One of my collaborators was flying over from Harvard and it was touch and go whether his plane would be cancelled. We worked together quite hard and very productively for the rest of the week.

On Weds evening I went to the Boyle Lecture where John Polkinghorne was the Respondent. Prof Keith Ward explained clearly why science does not at all imply materialism, and that the doctrine of Creation is about the whole creation's dependence on God rather than any literal claims about seven days which historically have always been seen by theologians as symbolic. He ended his talk (departing somewhat from the printed text) by saying that: "Creationism should not be taught in science classes - but neither should materialism."

On Thursday we had dinner with Denis Noble which was as always fascinating. In addition to his outstanding scientific achievements he is also a Troubador and his recent concert in Oxford had been a sell-out. We discussed, amongst many other things, the evolutionary aspects of religion, comparing the Jains to the Cathars who (according to Denis) had a somewhat similar approach, with their leaders going out in twos without possessions and staying with favoured adherents. The great Troubador Arnaut Daniel was highly admired by Dante and in Purgatorio he appears and is given a stanza in Occitan. Dante called Daniel "il miglior fabbro"and Denis was interested to know that TS Eliot used this phrase in the dedication of The Waste Land to Ezra Pound. We also had an inetresting discussion on some of the points that he'd like to raise at the launch at the RS. Walking around Oxford on Friday was rather slippery, but we had a tremendously productive working session with Bob May.

Friday evening we all went to see Daughter in a play at school organised by the girls. They were doing California Suite and London Suite by Neil Simon. This has the great advantage of being a lot of playlets so there are many leading roles. Daughter had an especailly demanding one playing the 50+ gay ex-husband of an Oscar-winning actress who comes to ask her for money, ostensibly to help his lover who is terminally ill with cancer: but eventually she reaslises that it is her ex-husband who is terminally ill. D. was again paired with Emma Hall and the provided a poingnant and arresting performance of bittersweet depth. I hazarded to Peter Hall that Neil Simon was in some respects the US equivalent of Ayckbourn, though Ayckbourn is 11 years younger and has written 72 plays vs 33.

It's hard to believe that the US Launch of Questions of Truth is in 8 days time. Despite, as yet, having no publicity it has been bouncing into (and out of) the specialised "bestseller" lists in amazon.com and .co.uk. Let's see what happens when the launches.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Woman in Mind, Cultural Evolution and Health from Religion

Unexpectedly free yesterday evening we went to see our friend Janie Dee in Woman in Mind which is in preview at the Vaudeville.

It's a stunning play: and one which should probably be compulsory viewing for all husbands. Enormously demanding emotionally and really a tragi-comedy: Janie's character Susan is on the whole time and 3 of the characters (her idealised husband, daughter and brother - the counterparts of her real husband, sister-in-law and son) exist only in her mind, although as her mind disintegrates they increasingly take on an existence of their own. It's tempting to describe them as super-symmetric counterparts.

All but one of the cast did it in Scarborough last year, so they know the play very well and are really adapting it for the theatre (moving from "in the round" to "proscenium" etc..) It uses silence and pauses very very well, creating a sense of the hopeless atmosphere of lost love in her "real" marriage. In the interval I said to C that this was "like Pinter, only better".

Backstage, we met Ayckbourn (who was delighted when I relayed my remark, and also enjoyed "Nobel, Nobel") and then Janie took us to Rules because she wanted to discuss the play and our reactions to it (as audience - specifically not being "in the business" at all) as well as catch up on life. However we couldn't stay long as my sister had rung up during the play wanting to come and stay the night, so we dashed back in a taxi and it was great to see her as well.

Stunning pair of papers in Science where they trace the human settlement of the Austronesian/Pacific islands by (respectively) the evolution of language and of gut bacteria (H. Pilori) coming to essentially identical conclusions (they all originated in Taiwan).

Also an interesing feature on the work of Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler. I should ask James next time we are in contact whether they have thought about religion and church attendance as confounding factors in the "network spread" of health and happiness.

In that context the appalling story of the nurse suspended for asking a patient if she would like to be prayed for is especially outrageous. They "justify" this blatant piece of religious victimisation on the grounds that the nursing code of conduct says: "you must not use your professional status to promote causes that are not related to health". But there is enormous evidence that prayer and church attendance are