Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Ken Miller on Today Programme - and Terry Eagleton

Sadly I couldn't get to Ken Miller's lecture in Cambridge last night - but I'm having dinner with him on Fri. He was on the Today Programme this morning, interviewed by John Humpfrys.

"JH: That is partly because of the arrogance of many people who say there cannot be a God.
KM: There I think you have leaped at the heart of the matter.
One of the people for example in your country for example, with whom I have made common cause is...
JH: let me guess - Richard Dawkins
KM: Good guess! Excellent! Well Done!
But unlike Richard I'm a person of faith, I'm a Roman Catholic, and if you actually open Richard's best-selling book The God Delusion and look up my name in the index you will find me he actually gives me 2 pages and they're very complementary, because of the work that I, and people like me, have done in the United States in countering Intelligent Design.

But I also think he's quite confused as to why any person who is a competent scientist can also be religious, and I think that's an honest difference of opinion. The issue of God is an issue on which reasonable people may differ, but I certainly think that it's an over-statement of our our scientific knowledge and understanding to argue that science in general, or evolutionary biology in particular, proves in any way that there is no God, and that's an issue on which I would certainly take an opposite position to my friend Richard."

I've been given an advance copy of Reason, Faith and Revolution by Terry Eagleton. Some excellent stuff which I will blog later.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Cornwall, Korea and Collaborations

Sister stayed overnight Sat and we played through the last 2 movements of the Kreuzer Sonata. On Sun the rain cleared up and we went to her church in Newquay. This has a new and enthusiastic Director of Music who has exciting plans. A young organ scholar (I think Malay or Singapore Chinese) called Chris To played the voluntary - will be interesting to see how his career develops. Sermon began by asking how would you feel if a dear friend you knew had died turned up on your doorstep 10 days later.

The Korean Professor who wants to translate Questions of Truth is now being encouraged by our publishers to find a Korean publisher which is great. It would also be excellent to have a translation of QoT into Mandarin - which our brilliant former RA could easily do. QoT is consistently in the top 10 on Science and Religion in and in the top 10 best-sellers in Church House Bookshop, but it is very frustrating how hard it is to get bookshops to stock it. Heffers has 14 copies and Hatchards had 7 but now only 17 Waterstones have any stock at all and they probably have only one each.

Interesting email from one of the FRSs who didn't manage to get to the RS launch but has now read QoT. He has some very relevant expertise and it would be great to collaborate with him to explore some of the questions around free will.

Elder Daughter recommends Jesus and the Eyewitnesses - I should get it.

Mother shows me a copy of The Past Revisited by Lady Galway who was the mother of Mrs Denman the former co-owner (with my grandparents) of the house in Cornwall. Lady G was the daughter of Sir Rowland Blennerhassett and Countess Charlotte Leyden, eventually married Sir Henry Galway an intrepid diplomat who became Governor of Southern Australia. Much obscure history and reminiscence here, I hope to read it on some other visit.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Conrwall, Evolution & EMD

View of Fox Cove
Visiting my mother in Cornwall. Was hoping to run along the cliffs but a tremendous gale and rain blew up overnight, so the sea is very beautiful but running infeasible.

Approached on Weds by Stephen Law who was running a conference at his Center for Enquiry today on Science and Religion. Mary Warnock was to have been one of the speakers but she had dropped out - could John Polkinghorne replace her? Sadly this was not possible and I said that I would be happy to cover but alas I will be in Cornwall – and am anyway hardly a “draw”. Stephen kindly replied that he would have been very happy to have had me - perhaps some other time. I have offered to do a piece for him for Think which he says he would like.

Spoke to my friend who runs the CCST and who hopes to organise Questions of Truth sessions in Nov in Berkeley and CalTech. She sent me the amucus curae brief they have submitted on an appalling case where The Association of Christian Schools International Inc. is suing the U of California to force them to recognise classes taught from two textbooks: Biology For Christian Schools and Biology: God’s Living Creation as preparation for the University. I find this all pretty distressing. Good Christian children are being deprived of places at excellent universities because their well-meaning parents and teachers are mis-educating them. Apparently these books teach from the outset, the textbook instructs the student that everything in the Bible is literally true and that, therefore, any scientific observations or conclusions that conflict with the Bible are necessarily false “no matter how many scientific facts may appear to back them.”

This is all so tragically topsy-turvy. “the scientist needs the Bible . . . because it records vital facts about the history and future of the physical universe that he would not” (and could not) “otherwise know.” Well of course all humans, including scientists, need the Bible, but this is nothing to do with "scientific facts" but to do with the spiritual facts. Bishop Wilberforce was quite right: "We have no sympathy with those who object to any facts or alleged facts in nature, or to any inference logically deduced from them, because they believe them to contradict what it appears to them is taught by Revelation. We think that all such objections savour of a timidity which is really inconsistent with a firm and well-intrusted faith"

Re-reading the wonderful EM Delafield's A Provincial Lady Goes Further. My mother recalls a saying of Sandy Ainsworth-Taylor who helped nurse my great-grandmother: "I really do not see the difference between putting things back where they don't belong, and putting them back where they do belong. It takes just the same amount of effort"

Monday, April 20, 2009

International Links

Went with Daughter to get our little boat ready to sail. It was very cold and windy on the south coast so having got her rigged and ready from winter we then drove to Datchet and sailed there. There is something immensely satisfying about sailing, and not just that we are away from computers! It seems to me that the sailing boat is in many ways the most remarkable human invention - certainly amongst means of transport: a beautiful fusion of the elements that transformed human history and made it possible to link all the inhabited earth.

Went to the local Catholic church in the evening, great sermon from a young Jesuit philospher who is over from Uganda studying, about the corporate and individual dimensions of faith. We spoke afterwards, he is studying philosophy of science amongst other things over here and he says he'll buy QoT. There is also a nice little blog entry about QoT by a medic in Belo Horizonte. QoT has been visited from 86 countries and Brazil is #7 in the league table, with Belo Horizonte the #1 city.

I'm uploading the Ri videos to YouTube though I haven't been able to edit in my slides yet.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

A Little Night Music

Last night to A Little Night Music, an excellent production which really lifts the spirits. We'd bumped into one of the actors when it was on at the Chocolate Factory - had been meaning to see it and were delighted when it transferred to the West End. It turned out that he was Gabriel Vick, playing the male lead, Henrik Egermann - very well indeed.

Maureen Lipmann was very good as the matricarch Madame Armfeldt (I remember meeting her and Jack years ago when Janie Dee was doing a one-woman show, I think it was Divas at the Donmar, and they asked me to send their regards to Janie afterwards becasue they had to go back home - I think it was a year before Jack died). Other especially fine performances from Kaisa Hammarlund (the one Scandiavian in the cast) as Petra and Grace Link (11, but her 3rd profesional role) as the child Fredrika (meant to be 14).

I have refrained from commenting here on the Damian McBride and Damian Green stories, though clearly they are related. Green should never have been arrested - the whole thing was an appalling scandal and it is great that he has been cleared and that Quick has resigned. As for McBride and Draper, no sensible administration would have had them 100 miles from the centre of power. The culture of an organisation depends enormously on the person at the top.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Progress with Hay, Ri and sensible atheists want conversation not shouting

Short break with family and then lots of secular work. Pleased to see that QoT is displayed as part of Cambridge 800 in Heffers. We've also been asked to have our talk at Hay part of the Cambridge 800 series and gladly agreed (though it's too late to be listed as such in the Hay programme, and not yet up on the Cambridge 800 website).

Videos from the Ri discussion are back though in my talk you can't see the slides so it will need some editing before going up if it is to be really interesting.

Sensible article by Julian Baggini ("Atheists must turn down the volume and have a real conversation") trying to call time on the excesses of "New Atheism", following on from Madeliene Bunting's similar piece. Silly one in Digital Journal by someone called Bart - the mindset of these people (claiming that their opponents brain has "turned into rice pudding" etc..) is depressingly silly.

Philip Ball in Prospect remarks on Grayling's silly cry of scandal at the launch discussion at the Royal Society, which Dawkins has foolishly endorsed. I gather from Bob May that it is possible for people to be struck off the register of the RS (Banks did it frequently) and to resign: perhaps if Dawkins really wants to endorse a silly public attack on the RS he should do the honorable thing and resign his fellowship.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Is Materialism incompatible with Science?

My talk at the Royal Institution "Minds, Brains, Souls and the Mass in B Minor" should be available on YouTube soon. Essentially the message is:
  1. Materialism/physicalism is philosophically highly questionable. In particular if entities like The Mass in B Minor exist and have the properties that we normally suppose then they cannot be material/physical objects or sets of material/physical objects.
  2. Neurodeterminism is simply false, scientifically. Either the whole universe is completely deterministic or, if there is real indeterminacy at the quantum level (as almost all scientists suppose) then there is real indeterminacy at the level of neurons firing.
This is essentially based on Appendix B of Questions of Truth.

However I think that the argument in (1) can be developed further.

Firstly, strict materialists are in the absurd position of denying the existence of the mathematical objects on which real science depends. Natural Numbers could conceivably "be" physical objects or sets thereof, but numbers like pi and e - on which science completely depends - have no physical representations.

Even if you allow that mathematical object exist, it seems that materialists have to deny the existence of entities (like the Mass in B Minor) which have no unique definitive material representation and can remain unchanged when a representation of them is duplicated or destroyed. But examples of such entities would include all scientific theories as well as, for example, genes.

So a strict materialist is committed to the idea that mathematics doesn't exist and even a generous materialist is committed to the idea that scientific theories (like Evolution, General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics) don't exist.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Ian Sample's Guardian Article

Ian Sample has posted an article about QoT and his interview with John Polkinghorne on the Guardian Science website. I've updated to address a couple of the issues he raised, and have posted something on the comments section (133 already and it's been up less than 20 hours). But to respond in a bit more detail:
  1. Ian felt disappointed that John didn't give a clearer explanation of why he believes in God. I've posted something based on John's response in QoT here.
  2. Ian thinks we believe in "something called God" which seems to be like a "superhero". We don't think God is a "thing" but a transcendent Loving Ultimate Creator.
  3. Ian finds the idea that humans cannot have an unveiled encounter with God "patronising". But God has infinite energy. Finite humans cannot have an unveiled encounter with infinte energy - that's basic physics. How is it patronising? There is also the point that love entails respecting someone's freedom. Superficially God "could" force us to believe in Him but a creator who forced people to believe would not be a Loving Creator.
  4. Fundamental physics consists almost entirely of believing in and working with entities that you cannot see but infer in order to gain a deeper understanding of the world. Ian wonders "why conjor up a superbeing" but this completely begs the question.
  5. I can understand that Ian might think that John has insufficient evidence for his beliefs. But how can he describe it as "no evidence"? This is one of the very puzzling atheist tropes. Obviously people who are intellectually dishonest will say this, but some people who are plainly trying to be honest say it as well. Why?
  6. Ian also repeats the trope about "I wonder if religious belief can be considered a neuropathology, albeit a sometimes benign one?" An earlier New Atheist commentator on a Guardian piece by Madeline Bunting developed this trope into religious belief should be declared a mental illness so that religious people are denied the right to vote. Assume for a moment that some people's brains may be more disposed to embracing religious belief than others: on what basis can this be said to be a pathology rather than a beneficial adaptation? All the evidence shows that religious people (which in the studies almost always means Christians and Jews) are healthier and more successful from an evolutionary point of view.

Will be interesting to see what feedback we get on this.

PS: Delighted to see this. Though plain Mr Beale - Dr Beale is my son.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Robot science and objective morality

I've been reading and thinking about the remarkable pair of articles in Science:

I think on the whole that the first one is a bit over-hyped, and that this is not really different in principle from robotic telescopes - though clearly it is a nice piece of work but the name ADAM is seriously hubristic. Another possible reading of the work is "this kind of bioscience and enzyme hunting is in fact pretty boring and not really worthy of human intelligence"
Further material from the earlier e-correspondent debating some atheist(s). The atheist is using the typical tactic of “raising the bar” for the rigour of the evidence to impossibly high levels and then saying “you have no evidence” when what they (should) mean is “you have evidence, but not enough to convince me” (“they have Moses and the prophets”).

It is always logically possible that any observation which is explained by “hypothesis” X could just be a “brute fact”. The apple might just happen to fall to the ground and it could be pure coincidence that the same explanation accounts for the orbit of the moon and the planets. Nevertheless these observations are quite strong evidence for Newton’s hypothesis about gravity.

They are discussion Objective Morality and the atheist says "there is no scientific evidence" for it. Precisely. The morality issue is whether a moral statement (eg “Torturing babies for fun is wrong” – which I’ll call “TBFW”) can be said to be objectively true, and mean something different from statements like:
a. In my opinion TBFW
b. In our society Torturing babies for fun is considered wrong (TBFCW)
c. In most societies TBFCW
d. Evolution favours the emergence of a social norm that TBFW

Science cannot determine this question. It can offer evidence about b, c and d but the question of whether TBFW is a philosophical, not a scientific one. However there are grave problems with the view that TBFW is simply a matter of opinion or social convention. And IF you take the view that there are such things as objective moral statements, then “materialism” and “naturalism” both fall to the ground.

Some atheists are also startlingly naive about human evolution. This occurs on linguistic and social levels as well as genetic and epigenetic (see Evolution in Four Dimensions and/or Evolutionary Dynamics). Human ideas and decisions drive human evolution to a very large extent – one need only mention “sexual selection”, a factor of which Darwin was very aware but which was generally overlooked by mostly male theorists since his time.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

The New Atheists - and qq on Fine-tuning

Finishing The New Atheists by Tina Beattie - excellent. Amongst the many good points she makes are:

  • The "male colonialist" attitude of Dawkins & co.
  • The failure to understand religion and faith in their wider context, seeing it as a series of propositions.
  • The extent to which they represent the fag-end of a discredited model of "enlightenment" and "progress". ("from the perspective of the new atheists, suffering is not a mystery, only a problem waiting to be solved")
  • The way in which they ally themselves with surging irrational prejudice untamed by religious wisdom (citing Gray's "warning that visions of utopian transformation tend to mutate into dytopian nightmares")
  • The creativity of God is not that of a "designer" so much as a creative genius. Curiously she does not cite Dorothl L Sayers' brilliant The Mind of the Maker.

I've got very behind with the Q&A on - so let me post something here that arrived today, when a correspondent asks for thoughts on:

  1. The fine-tuning principle is egotism/We adapted to the universe, not the other way around.
  2. 1/4 of constant value combinations result in stars and that life would be possible in some of these universes with different biochemistries; thus making the likelihood of intelligent life existing by chance more likely.
  3. Multiverses as the only explanation for quantum computing.

to which I reply

  1. Clearly we are adapted to the Universe. But a Universe whose ambient temperature was (say) 10,000K could not support any kind of life.
  2. Stars on their own do not support life. There are many many other requirements. Pretty well every serious scientist who has studied the matter agrees about the very fine range of fine-tuning.
  3. Not at all. Quantum Computing comes from the Superposition Principle and this has nothing to do with multiverses. The Many Worlds interpretation of Q.M. is completely different from the multiverses studied by cosmologists which have to do with hypothetical universes where the constants of nature are different. Even in the “Many Worlds” the constants of nature are the same.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Materialism, TE Lawrence, and the cowardice of Dawkins

First sail of the season on Saturday - delightful weather and I wish we could have stayed longer. In the evening friends came over and we watched the 2nd part of Lawrence of Arabia. Our friend Alan Haines said that his father had met TE Lawrence briefly when serving in WWI.

I've been musing on the refutation of materialism in my Ri Talk. Although the example of an informational entity used, the Mass in B Minor is a good one, I think the argument would work with other entities like genes. Indeed you can make a case that materialism is incompatible with science because in order to do real science you need to believe in the existence of non-material entities. This partly explains why biologists tend to me more anti-religious than other scientists, because until recently they didn't really have theories in the mathematical sense, it was more a collection of facts like Natural History.

No reply from Dawkins about his idiotic endorsement of Grayling's ludicrous attack on Questions of Truth and the leadership of the Royal Society. The intellectual cowardice of these people is remarkable. Yet another illustration of John Barrow's famous remark: "the reason you have trouble with these ideas, Richard, is that you're not a real scientist". A responsible FRS would think before attacking the RS, and would trouble to read a book before endorsing a silly attack by someone with no scientfic background or understanding.

Quite a nice review in Physics World - the first published review by a scientist. Hopefully not the last!

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Royal Institution Talking Point

Talking Point last night at the Ri went very well. John was on masterful form, talking without notes or demo. I had prepared slides and two computational experiments/demos, one on "toy" air molecules bouncing in a box and one looking at the stimulation of CA1 Hippocampal Neurons.

The first part of the talk is the argument from music for the existence of informational objects. One of the propositions in the argument is: “If S1 and S2 are scores of a musical work W it is possible to destroy S2 without destroying S1 or changing W.” To liven this up I wanted a spectacular way to destroy a "score". We had originally thought of dissolving it in acid but copier paper is only very slowly degraded by Nitric Acid and adding Sulphuric makes no difference. Finally I had the happy thought of folding the paper into a funnel and pouring liquid oxygen into it, then lighting the paper so that it burned spectacularly. There was just enough liquid nitrogen left over from something a couple of days ago to make liquid oxygen - and this was suitable Ri because liquid oxygen was first demonstrated in public by Dewar at the Ri in 1884.

The rehearsal for the talk went perfectly and took 18m29s. Going live however the burning demo worked but less spectacularly (though still OK, see picture), and an attempt to make the molecules demo more comprehensible meant that although the computations went fine the display was mucked up. I asked the audience whether they wanted it re-run and they said no, they were happy to accept the results, but I re-ran it at the end and it was filmed so it should splice in OK.

Q&A chaired by Lord Sutherland were good, although there is so much more that can be said. It was all filmed and should be on the web in a few days.

It was pretty amazing lecturing where Faraday, Maxwell and a host of great scientists had lectured. There were 175 in the audience, we got pretty effusive applause and apparently there was a rush to buy the books afterwards: about 30 were sold which I'm told is high for this kind of event (esp since many of the audience were couples). One attendee who has been to many many such events said it was one of the most compelling such presentations she had ever seen.

The Ri organiser emailed this morning saying: "The event was a real success and all the feedback that we have received has been really positive. We have had several people saying that this was an excellent talk and that the discussion at the end was fantastic."

We might do something similar at Hay on Wye.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Getting ready for Ri talk...

Getting ready for Ri talk. Should be about 120 people.

Quickly looking at the web re QoT I found an interesting post by John Searle based on his book, Freedom and Neurobiology. I think the talk material, based in Appendix B, would interest him.

Very good rebuttal re Assisted suicide in The Times today.

Another atheist blogger is outraged to find that, in a NAS funded site at berkeley on "How Science Words" it explains that Science & faith are not in conflict. Quite right, when will these kiddies listen.

Someone has awarded A.C Grayling the ‘Golden Grayling’ award for the most intellectually inept attack on religion for his rant on QoT. Meanwhile Dawkins has endorsed Graylings review as "justly scathing". I have emailed him to enquire:
  1. Have you read the book?
  2. Do you really endorse his (highly misleading) denunciation of the RS for allowing the launch discussion?
Given Dawkins' real level of commitment to rational discussion I am not holding my breath for a reply, but who knows.