Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Are you a fair-minded Wikipedia Editor?

Last night to a talk by Oleg Goridevsky which was a fascinating overview of the intelligence struggle between Britian and Russia. I don't think I should blog the details, but he is not very optimistic about the plans and intentions of the Putin leadership, shall we say.

One of the Dawkins Defenders took exception to my recording Julian Baggini's criticisms of Dawkins in Baggini's Wikipedia article so she retaliated by cutting the Wikipedia article on me and then demoting it from the main encyclopedia into the limbo of userspace. If anyone fair-minded who edits WikiPedia wants to restore it please do, propriety says that I should not get directly involved in this but it is interesting and somewhat depressing that they should wish to react to "blasphemy" of their "saint" by "excommunication".

The Times gives its comment pages to Noreena Hertz appealing for protectionism and AC Grayling appealing for Euthanasia. Interesting how they go hand in hand. Appealing to the "liberal" consensus they are both immensely damaging policies.
  • As Paul Collier brilliantly demonstrates in The Bottom Billion globalisation has been an immense force for lifting people out of poverty on the largest scale the world has ever seen. Sadly the Bottom Billion have not benefited but this is because their states fail or well-identified reasons. His latest book, which I haven't yet read, offers more insights into what might be done.
  • Despite all the talk of safeguards the chilling precedent of abortion in the UK strongly suggests that over time these safeguards will be swept aside and we will have euthanasia on demand for economic and "social" reasons. But Grayling is a fully signed up member of the Culture of Death so it's not surprising really.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Glial Cells, RI and interviews

More and more about Glial Cells. There are some interesting articles in Neuron on free access, such as this one giving an overview: The Mystery and Magic of Glia: A Perspective on Their Roles in Health and Disease. It begins: "Twenty years ago, George Somjen began his excellent review on the history of glia by noting how much of today’s research is still directed toward answering questions first asked a century ago (Somjen, 1988). Indeed my students, so sure of the rapid pace of science today, are surprised when I tell them that they are still investigating exactly the same questions that my graduate student contemporaries investigated 25 years ago.

Though there has been a great deal of progress, most fundamental questions about brain development, function, and disease are still relatively poorly understood. How do synapses form, stabilize, and achieve their specificity? How do we learn and remember? How are neurons and glia generated? How does myelination happen? Why don’t severed CNS axons regenerate and why do synapses degenerate in Alzheimer’s disease?

I'm looking again at the Neuron simulations I did for Appendix B for the Royal Institution Lecture/Discussion. We have also agreed a draft agenda, allowing plenty of time for comments/questions from the floor, and sent it to Stewart Sutherland.

Enjoyable interview this evening with Randy Walker on his program "Consider This..." on WSGE in Dallas, N Carolina. There is also an interview with John Polkinghorne on PopSci.com the Popular Science website.

Interesting review of AC Grayling's screed in the New Humanist here.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Molecules, Materialism, and effects of Religion on Health

Mothers Day celebrations yesterday but I also made the air molecules simulator work. It is indeed striking that changing the velocity of one molecule by 1 part in 10^16 makes a total difference to the positions of the air molecules in this box after about 5ns. I have also tried making a uniform absolute/proportional change to the velocities with similar results. I plan to do the demo live at the Ri with the random numbers chosen for positions and velocities before the eyes of the audience, so as to be clear that there is "nothing up my sleeve".

I also think I have a reasonably solid argument about why the existence of the Mass in B Minor is a problem for materialism, which I will try to go through. There is still good availability if you want to come along.

Quite an interesting paper (though I only have the abstract at present) about a meta-analysis of 91 studies investigating the association between religiosity/spirituality and mortality. According to this paper the effect is clearer on women (p 0.004) than men (p 0.085) and it is the activity of going to church etc.. that seems to correlate with better health, rather than mere belief - though there are clearly confounding factors. The effect in diseased populations seems to be much less (p = 0.19 - not very significant). If I had time it would be interesting to study the paper in more detail - sadly not possible at present.

Nice interview tonight with Ann Butenas and her colleague Kathleen Andersen on KCTE-AM Kansas City MO. I hope it does some good - certainly they seem very engaging hosts and it was fun talking with them. No idea what their audience is.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Picasso, preparation and Theme and Variations

To the excellent Picasso exhibition at the National - with an introductory talk by Christopher Riopelle the Curator of post 1800 paintings. He emphasises the extent to which Picasso was in a dialogue with past masters - wrestling with them and challenging them. Particularly fascinating to me as a musician are the "theme and variations" paintings shown, where he engages with
  • Delacrioix's Women of Algiers which inspired a series of 15 paintings and numerous drawings in 1954.

  • Velasquez's Las Meninas - a painting which Picasso hadn't seen since his exile from Spain - but of which he felt a somewhat proprietorial interest since under the Republican government he had been honorary director of the Prado

  • Manet's Dejeuner sur L'Herbe, in a cycle of 27 paintings, 140 drawings, 3 linogravures and cardboard marquettes for sculpture carried out between 1949 and 1962.

Publishers say that QoT has now been accepted as "core stock" for Waterstones, which is great. I need to work hard this weekend on my Ri talk. All of these QoT talks are, I suppose, theme and variations as well.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

A fine concert, and Grayling bottles out

Last night with dear friend and brilliant artist Susannah Fiennes to the Wigmore Hall to hear Sergey and Lusine Khachatryan. He is now 24 and quite a prodigy. The concert began with Bach's D Minor Partitia - played very well indeed though not quite with the interior genius of Ruth Palmer. Then the Brahms 1st Violin Sonata, a wonderful work played very well - though to my suprise he had music. It was lovely to see the rapport between brother and sister and he has a great way with colouring and shedding light on phrases in unexpected ways. Again, not perhaps quite getting to the deepest heart of the music.

After the interval they did the Kreutzer Sonata which is one of may favourite pieces and the pianist really came into her own. The same remarkable shades and colours, but a much fiercer and deeper engagement. I particularly love the final Presto (which according to Wikipedia was originally written for Op 30 No 1!!) Sadly we had to dash and I think missed the encore.

Grayling's response to my invitation to the RI has been posted by the editor on the New Humanist. Hilarious indeed. Either Grayling has laughably failed to understand the issues, or the people involved in the book and the launch are fools and dupes. So that's AC vs two Nobel Laureates, the Presidents of the RS and the BA, three FRSs happy to be on the launch Panel etc.. So touching that he still has such faithful followers.

How revealing that, when offered a chance to defend and debate his views at the Royal Institution, chaired by a world-class philosopher, he bottles out.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Stewart Sutherland to chair Ri event - and Mark 9

Heard yesterday that the distinguished philosopher Stewart Sutherland FBA is happy to chair the lecture and discussion at the Ri. In the light of this invited Juilan Baggini and AC Grayling to attend. Hilarious response from Grayling which, if he has no objection, I'll blog at a later date. Not yet heard from Julian. BTW the discussion we had went out on Premier Radio on Sat and the audio is here.

Also yesterday got v nice email from a Prof in Korea, saying QoT "will surely be appreciated by many in the world, including many Koreans of general interest, and of course religious as well as scientific communities." and offering to translate it into Korean. I hope our publishers go for this. There was an encouraging burst of sales on amazon.com and .co.uk on Monday.

We were studying Mark 9:34-50 at Life Group which I had to lead. Points that were new to me:
  1. In Aramaic the word for child and servant is the same (talya). Hence when Jesus brings a child and then speaks of being like a servant there is a very direct connection - sometimes it would be unclear whether he was speaking of child or servant.
  2. Salt was required for OT sacrifices to be valid, which adds another dimension to the "salt of the earth" sayings.
  3. The description of Genhenna as a place "where their worm does not die nor their fire go out" refers to the very end of Isaiah (66:24) which is about God coming to gather the nations/gentiles of every language and bring them into a deep and permanent relationship with Him. But salvation is not compulsory (note that, the first time, Jesus speaks of people going to Gehenna, not being thrown into) people are free to reject God's salvation if they insist on doing so.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

A daring documentary? and preparing for the Ri

Back from Harvard - a very productive session but sadly I didn't have time to get to Stuart Kaufmann's talk. In addition to the secular work, did 3 radio interviews in total - the last one with a brit, Jean, who used to live in Baker Street but now hosts a radio show in the US. Popular Science wants to review QoT and have signed copies for a give-away on their website. I only had 5 with me and one of my collabroators wanted one, so sent them 4. Then another collaborator, a Harvard Prof, asked for one - will have to bring more next time.

Flight arrived in good time and I slept well, so I ran with my running club 7.3 miles Sat am - a lot slower than normal! One of the people I ran with has put me in touch with a friend who makes science films - she thinks it would be very interesting and nowadays quite daring to make a documentary that was contra Dawkins since he has become so Establishment. Let's see if her friend has the same views.

We've had visits to the QoT website from 54 countries since it went live, every continent except Antarctica. And 43 of the 50 states in the Union. This blog has been on analytics since June 08 and has had visits from 80 countries.

Steven Carr posts about QoT, suggesting that in one of John Polkinghorne's earlier books (Serious Talk) "Each rationalisation is consistent with itself, but they are hopelessly inconsistent with each other." The general riff seems to be: "we know that Christianity is false. Yet these pesky Christians keep coming up with rational answers to all our objections. But deluded people can sometimes come up with answers to objections to their views as well. So these Christians must simply be deluded." I've asked Steven to come up with an example from QoT where we provide responses that are "hopelessly inconsistent with each other". Should be interesting....

I got the brochure "What's on at the Ri" and whereas on the website our Talking Point is described as a Lecture, in the brochure it says: "Can faith and science coexist in a modern society? In this event we'll debate this issue and explore how differences between these opposing sides can be resolved." This is pretty unsatisfactory wording in many ways, but it strongly suggests we should get a suitable Chairman. There was someone excellent who wanted to do it but she sadly could not because of a conflicting event. Ideally it should be someone who was at the RS discussion, but finding the right person at short notice will not be easy.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Harvard and Radio Shows

In Harvard today. Made some great progress with our secualr collaboration. Also did two radio shows, the Louie Free show and the "Talk of Conneticut" with Phil Mikan. The latter was extended to 1hr rather than the 30 min slot advised. Louie Free apparently has 100,000 listeners and Mikan rather more.

It's a slightly odd experience having a long talk about such deep issues to someone you have never met, but which is being listened to by over 100,000 people. I hope I did OK but it's very hard to tell! Will be interesting to see if anything shows up on Google Analytics.

A fascinating Veritas Forum at MIT is on at present - I was invited to the first session but couldn't make it, and apparently it was packed to overflowing.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

RS discussion up, RI event planning

Well the videos of the discussion at the Royal Society are up on questionsoftruth.org and I have been working on the transcripts.

For most of last week QoT was #1 or #2 in Religion on Amazon.co.uk and #2 in Science and Religion (behind The God Delusion) though now it's slipped down a bit. Got the first customer review on Amazon.com (5*) which is nice. Frustrating that the bookshops still don't seem to have stock in the UK. By contrast a store in Singapore has 15 copies!

Working on arrangements for the Royal Institution event on April 1st. I'll talk a bit about Appendix B on the brain. We have 90 minutes so 20 mins from each of us leaves 45 for Q&A. We have a distinguished chairman lined up subject to confirmation - watch this space (we hope).

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Hilarious review by AC Grayling

Hilarious review of Questions of Truth by AC Grayling in New Humanist. I know he lacks much of a scientific background but I had half-expected that he would come up with something vaguely coherent. Instead he completely fails to engage with any of our arguments - just calling them names ("special pleading, Jesuitry and speciousness... disgusting") though to be fair he does call the free process defence "novel" ("disgusting, though it is novel").

I might quote him as "as Beale-Polkinghorne exquisitely show, they can ... provide a religion-consistent answer to every question and every objection"

He clearly can't engage with dual aspect monism: he says we're mind/brain dualsists though he does report that we deny this. It is also odd to suggest that the book is "apparently self-published" when Westminster John Knox press has over sixteen hundred books in print and a publishing heritage dating to 1838. (the University of London goes back to 1858 although Birkbeck College goes back to 1823).

He trains his (f)ire at the end on "the scandal that the Royal Society is allowing its premises to be used for the launch of this book" presuming that Polkinghorne asked to use the venue (actually I did), that they granted permission reluctantly (not at all) and that the disclaimer "at (obviously not by) the R.S." was inserted at the RS's request (no). What he fails to inform his readers is that not only is the book endorsed by two Nobel Laureates and two other very distinguished scientists but that the launch discussions in the US and here were chaired by the Presidents of the AAAS and the British Academy respectively. Doesn't it even occur for one moment to Grayling that they might be a bit smarter and better informed about science and philosophy than he is?

Neuroscience and Emma Darwin

Fascinating papers in this week's Science:

  • Chapman & al in "In Bad Taste: Evidence for the Oral Origins of Moral Disgust" give evidence that our moral disgust may have evolved from our reactions of physical disgust. This is further indication of the extraordinary harmony, unity, subtleness and power of God's use of the evolutionary principle in His creation. The more we begin to understand all these things, the more interconnected they all seem to be.
  • Kuchibhotla & al in "Synchronous Hyperactivity and Intercellular Calcium Waves in Astrocytes in Alzheimer Mice" give further evidence of my long-held hypothesis about the importance of glial cells. I rather wish I had recorded this idea when I first had it (at a Royal Society conversazione about 10 years ago as I recall) because it was somewhat revolutionary then although becoming established science now. Glial Cells didn't even make the index in Did My Neurons Make Me Do It.

However Farah & Nancy Murphy have a letter about "Neuroscience and the Soul" which perpetuates obsolete myths about the brain being a machine. Denis Noble and I are discussing a response, ideally with Polkinghorne and Hava.

We should get the Royal Society Discussion videos on the website tomorrow. Emma Darwin has an interesting blog post about it, elaborating her subtle question at the event - (though in her original post she awarded a Nobel Prize to Martin Nowak - premature although perhaps prescient and anyway it was Denis Noble who I was quoting at that point).

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Ruth Palmer Concert on Sunday

On Sunday evening I went to another amazing concert given by Ruth Palmer, at King's place. She was accompanied by Alexei Grynyuk - who had been very ill and broken his back but was now back on outstanding form (He won first prize at the Dyagilev Competition in Moscow, the Vladimir Horowitz Competition in Kiev and the Shanghai Piano Competition in China.)

In the first half they played the Dvorak - Romance in Fmi Op.11, the Janacek Sonata and Bartok - Romanian Dances, all with verve, feeling and virtuosity.

In the second half they played a set of 4 pieces by Ruth's father Geoff Palmer called Chansons which were written in 1989, 1999, 2009 and 1979: very successful works in a progression os styles as one would expect over 30 years. The 1979 piece is forming the basis of a Violin Concerto that Geoff is writing for Ruth. It is fair to say that Chansons stood comparison with the other illustrious pieces beforehand.

They then produced an astounding interpretetion of the 3rd Brahms Sonata Op 108 - never have I heard it done so well either live or on a record. In particular they found an anguished emotional heart in the first movement that was quite breathtaking in its vision and execution, and brought all four movements into a deeply coherent emotional and musical development. You could imagine Joachim (and Brahms) Frei aber einsam striding away, with sorrow but determination and inspiration. Truly wonderful.

Launch at the Royal Society

Well last night it happened. Denis Noble sadly was ill so Denis Alexander very kindly stepped in so that we had a biologist on the panel. There were about 130 people in the end because a number of people who registered didn't make it, but it was a really excellent discussion. It was filmed and should be webcast in due course.

As planned, Onora opened for 3 mins, then John and I had 5 mins each, then the 2 other panellists lobbed in a question/comment for us to respond to and then it went to the floor.

Amongst the many comments:
  • Richard Swinburne was the first in, raising an ingeneous but I think mistaken argument against the idea that resurrection consists of God re-embodying our "active information" in a resurrection body: namely that God could in principle re-embody the same active informaton in 100 other bodies and that therefore His preserving your identity deepends on His not doing something to someone else. But of course there are many (un-loving) things that God could in principle do that would destroy your personal identity. And I suspect that arguments about hypothetical un-loving actions by a Loving Ultimate Creator are based on a meaningless premise.
  • Brian Josephson pointed out that science is becoming more holistic - far from being one step away from eliminating religion it may be just two steps away from supporting it.
  • Emma Darwin pointed out that the percieved conflicts between Science and Religion are matters of different narratives, and as a novelist she is very conscious of the logic of narratives (her novels usually tell 2-3 stories at once) and the need to be prepared not to know. She quoted her distinguished grandfather's grandfather to the effect that "the enemy to science is skepticism". Though I responded that science itself doesn't have narratives - they tend to be imposed metaphors.
  • Rupert Beale asked a very interesting question: as a doctor he may be confronted with a patient who he suspects is having a heart attack, but the immediate question is whether to give him an asprin. Is Christian belief like believing the heart attack or believing that you should give an asprin. I recused myself but I don't think we responded very well.
  • Richard Layard made a plea that social science should be included in this dialogue, and compared the potential causality of people to that of elementary particles. I'm still not really sure whether he meant that they might both be deterministic or indeterministic.

Denis Alexander concluded by pointing out the dangers of building metaphysical narratives onto science: until 20 years ago everyone assumed Darwinism meant Progress - now it has gone 180 degrees.

Onora O'Neill concluded by saying that it had been a really interesting discussion. She was particularly pleased with the care with which people were listening to each other. She had been dipping into Questions of Truth - as readers are encouraged to do - and probably the most interesting thought was the incompleteness of certain avenues of enquiry. She thought we were on very firm ground when we argue for the incompleteness of empirical enquiry. Certainly Normative Enquiry will be different, as will Analytical and Interpretive enquiry, yet they all inter-relate in subtle ways.

Further interesting discussion at the reception, I was particularly glad to meet Richard Swinburne, Brian Josephson, John Cottingham (whose wonderful book The Spiritual Dimension I cite heavily in QoT), Lord Layard and David Bartholemew (whose book God Chance and Purpose was strongly recommended by Ken Miller) and to see old friends like Peter Williams, Derek Burke and John Lucas. Then to dinner with Onora, Eric, Denis and Rupert - further fascinating discussion.

Today did 2 radio interviews, one in the US (by phone) and a long programme for Premier in dialogue with Julian Baggini whom I met for the first time - nice guy. It should go out on Saturday Week.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism

On TalkingPhilosophy they are discussing the Plantinga/Dennet debate, and I offered a simple shorthand version of Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism. This turned out to be too simple - I made a silly mistake which emerged in the debate - so here it is slightly revised:

Let S+ and S- be the classes of beliefs that give evolutionary advantage/disadvantage (resp.) to humans that hold them, and TS+/TS- be the sub-classes of such beliefs that are true. Let CTS- be the capacity to form and hold TS- beliefs. Then I think EAAN goes roughly:
(1) TS- is significantly non-empty
(2) the Capacity to form Reliably True beliefs => CTS-
(3) Naturalistic Evolution => (if X and Y are Mutually Exclusive Evolvable Capabilities and the Human Survival Value(X) > HSV(Y) then Human Prevalence(X)>>HP(Y))
(4) CRT and CTS+ are MEEC
(5) HS(CTS+) > HS(CRT)
(6) hence NE=>(HP(CTS+) >> HP(CRT))
(7) hence NE => (p(Human h has CRT) << p(h has CTS+))