Saturday, August 29, 2009

Denis Noble on our Advisory Board!

Denis Noble has agreed to join our Advisory Board which is wonderful! He has been in Japan at the World Congress of the International Union of Physiological Sciences at its World Congress in Kyoto in July/August.

This began with exciting public discussion of William Harvey and of Japanese texts of ancient oriental medicine with the Crown Prince (he was at Merton College, where Harvey was once Warden -- his wife, the Crown Princess Masako, was also a student at Oxford, at Balliol, where Denis was responsible for her), who opened the Congress, continued with launching the Japanese translation of The Music of Life, and ended with performing Troubadour music at a World Heritage Shinto shrine.

Have and I are working on the proposal - she is in Israel and I am in London which has its advantages and dis-advantages.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Cornwall - and Freewill


Back from a few days in Cornwall. Never cease to be amazed by the beauty of the place.

Hava and I are putting together our final proposal about Neural, Computational and Evolutionary Aspects of Freewill. We've been putting together an Advisory Board for this and so far we have:
Others have been invited but understandably haven't responded yet. It is amazing and humbling to have these extraordinary people associated with our project.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

A few remarkable books

A few remarkable books:
  • First Light by Geoffrey Wellum. An account of being a Spitfire pilot in the Battle of Britain. This is still seling very well, although I had never heard of it.
  • The Outsider by Albert Camus - which to my shame I had never read. This edition has a commendation by John Betjeman and an introduction by Cyril Conolly.
  • Of Whales and Men by RM Robertson, a semi-fictionalised account based on his travels as a Medical Officer on a Norwegian whaling expedition 1950-51. In those days whaling was a major part of Norwegian industry - and whales also supplied critical ingredients to Margarine. Neverthless he has the IWC observer say:
"of all human pursuits which illustrate the utter futility of human life and civilisation, that in which we are engaged is the most absurd. We are on a journey of many thousands of miles, at the end of which it is our intention to disrupt the peace and happiness of a harmless species which knows nothing of man's existence, and will know nothing until harpoons start exploding in their innocent guts. And why are we engaged in committing this crime worse than genocide? Becasue civilised man is such a damned fool that he can't use the land except as a battlefield where he squabbles about his little ideas"
Strong stuff indeed!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Neuroscience and Dark Energy - all more complex than we thought?

V interesting paper in Science called Synaptic Integration in Tuft Dendrites of Layer 5 Pyramidal Neurons: A New Unifying Principle which elucidates some of the complexities of these neurons. As always, things are much more complex then first supposed, and it appears that "The thin distal tuft and basal dendrites of pyramidal neurons, which receive the overwhelming majority of synaptic inputs, appear to constitute a class of dendrite in which NMDA spikes are the predominant regenerative events summing synaptic inputs in semi-independent compartments. The output of each subunit in this class of dendrite is passed on to the major sites of integration at the axon and apical calcium initiation zones, which can all interact via actively propagated signals, enabling the interactions between top-down and bottom-up information."

There is also a bit of a stir about the PNAS paper Expanding wave solutions of the Einstein equations that induce an anomalous acceleration into the Standard Model of Cosmology which calls into question the existence of Dark Energy - see also this arxiv paper. As Martin Rees says this may well be wrong - it is at a very early stage and depends on the idea that the earth is at a fairly special position in the universe which is very much against cosmological dogma. But it raises the intriguing possibility that there could be two observationally equivalent theories, one of which posited dark energy and one that the earth was in a fairly special place.

Got formal acknowledgement of the Science submission. The note "is now undergoing an initial screening to determine whether it will be sent for in-depth review." They will notify the corresponding author (Bob May) of our decision as soon as possible.

Also making progress with Hava Siegelmann on our proposal for the Templeton Foundation.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Notes submitted to Science and Evolutionary Psychology

Bob May has submitted Beale, Rand, Arinaminpathy and May to Science as a brevia as discussed. No guarantee of course that it will be accepted, though if Bob thinks it is right there is a good chance. It is in any case a huge honour to have co-authored a paper with Bob.

And I have sent my note 'Examining the “Successful Societies Scale” Article' to Evolutionary Psychology. This points out some of the glaring holes in Greg Paul's arguments. It is not that his paper is valueless, but it certainly does not demonstrate the claims he makes and should be retracted in its present form. David Bartholomew FBA (former President of the Royal Statistical Society) has very kindly reviewed the note and fully agrees with its contents.

QoT popped up to #9 in Science and Religion for Amazon.co.uk though now down to #11. No obvious reason for the blip. Daniel Hannam's excellent God's Philosophers is at #2.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Bernard d'Ascoli and Miranda Hart

This can safely be sub-titled: "from the sublime to the ridiculous".

Bernard d'Ascoli gave a wonderful concert for the Chopin Society this afternoon.

He began with Liszt's Les jeux d'eau a la Villa d'Este brilliantly conjoring the limpid liquid jets; this was followed by La legierezza which was remarkably evocative of his friend Chopin. Then Schumann: a compelling and relentlessly logical Arabesque with some quite unusual empahases, and the first 10 pieces from Bunte Blatter which come from 1830-40 and which I did not know. Finally Mendelsson's tribute to Beethoven (and surely Bach) the Variations Serieuses: a compelling rendition of a piece that was also new to me.

After the interval, from the first moments of Ballade No 1 it was clear that we were in the presence of a supreme master. I doubt if there is anyone who has reflected more deeply or intelligently on these pieces or who knows them more intimately. Wow! And Chopin was only 23 when he wrote it. Ballade No 4 was performed with equal mastery: the lilting opening being a true ballad, becoming majestic and showing the deep emotion and richness. He brings out all the complexity within the overall emotional and artistic truth.

In the delicious Berecuse in D we had wonderful textures reminiscent of Les jeux d'eau although it was written many years earlier. And the Polonaise in A Flat was triumphal, though with a masterly restraint. The audience, and this was the Chopin society so real conniseurs, went wild with enthusiasm, and we were treated to two wonderful encores: the last Prelude, played with amazing virtuosity with the final 3 notes in the bass "C'est Fi - ni" and a delicious rendering of the Waltz in C Sharp Minor which brought tears to some eyes.

I was able to say hi briefly to Bernard but had to dash to the BBC where Miranda was recording the 5th episode of her utterly brilliant show Miranda. This is a tour de force of comic writing and acting and I will be amazed if it is not a major hit when it airs on BBC2 in the Autumn. Miranda has Patricia Hodge as her pushy mum, Tom Ellis as her dishy MBF, Sally Phillips as her schoolfriend and rival and Sarah Hadland as the highly efficient manager of her shop.

It's also lovely the way she has asides to the audience and quite a Shakespearian concept of the suspension of disbelief.

I shouldn't say too much to give the plot away, and there a so many delicious gags and conceits, but the final scene where Miranda has to be a waitress in a restaurant whilst simultaneously a "successful" guest at a drink party there is just an astounding denoument - beautifully plotted, wonderfully acted, of course completely absurd but just wonderful. I can see this becoming a comedy classic for a long time.

PS I'm delighted to see that The Sunday Times picks Miranda as one of the 10 best things coming up on TV in the Autumn - the only Comedy so picked.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Ula - and more God's Philosophers

Our friend Sally Burgess was making her directorial début at the Riverside Studios for the Tete-a-tete Opera Festival, directing the first act of Ula an opera by Mark Glentworth with words by Carolyn Hérail. We'd really like to see the rest - I'll post when I know where we can - though I thought the words/story was rather better than the music: occasionally (when invoking the water or the sunshine) the music was very compelling but the story was certainly gripping.

Running injury has not been getting better as fast as expected at all - which has really be slowing down work and no running. But I am really enjoying God's Philosophers which is outstanding. Got to the Galileo parts.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Tuesday Top Ten and God's Philosophers

The Tuesday Top Ten I did for The Book Depository has been published - I'd love to know whether it encourages people to buy the books mentioned.

I've been sent for review a copy of God's Philosophers by James Hannam. This is currently #4 in the amazon.co.uk Science and Religion lists (QoT is languishing at #48) and really interesting, demolishing the myths about the Middle Ages being a period of no progress.

He begins with the striking point that Newton's famous remark about "standing on the shoulders of giants" goes back to Bernard of Chartres and points out that the Middle Ages laid the cornerstone of modern science, which is that reason is a valid tool for discovering the truth about our world: Thomas Aquinas being the most important single player. He brings to our attention remarkable figures from the Middle Ages like Gerbert of Aurillac, as well as helping us see more familiar figures like Leonardo and Abelard in a new light. Although Leonardo was a genius he had no influence of European science because due to a character flaw he refused to share his insights. Abelard was also atrociously pugnacious, and admitted to raping Héloise when she tried to resist him.

I'll do a proper "review" when I have read the book, but it is certainly fascinating and well worth reading.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Sen, Appleyard, Tutu and a statistical travesty

Lots happening - family to stay etc, so little time to blog.

Fascinating review in the Economist of Amartya Sen's new book which I must get.

Also interesting review by Bryan Appleyard in the Sunday Times about The Evolution of God by Robert Wright. Appleyard says:
Take, for example, the new, militant atheism of Richard Dawkins and friends. This is, in essence, a replay of the disputes about the existence of God in the late 19th century that followed in the wake of Darwin. The disputes didn’t amount to much then and they don’t amount to much now. Put it like this: it is blindingly obvious that claims about a spiritual reality can neither be proved nor disproved by material means. End of argument.
Spent some time working on Gregory Paul's statistical travesty The Chronic Dependence of Popular Religiosity upon Dysfunctional Psychosociological Conditions which (astonishingly) was published in Evolutionary Psychology. It should be retracted and I hope to convince the editor of this, even though he is a strong Dawkinsite. It would be OK, perhaps, if it were called "The Correlation between Popular Religiosity and certain Dysfunctional Psychosociological Conditions with the claims toned down suitably.

Also been reading Desmond Tutu's excellent God Has A Dream. He recounts the story of a simple Russian priest who is confronted by a militant atheist rattling off his arguments, concluding "Therefore I do not believe in God". The little priest, not put off at all, replied quietly "Oh, it doesn't matter. God believes in you." He also has the following gem:
Jesus would most probably have been seen in the red light district of the city. Can you imagine if they saw me there walking into a brothel to visit with what are often called the women of easy virtue. Who would say, "We're quite sure the archbishop is there for a pastoral reason"?

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

ThinkRIP and The Courage To Believe

I have a piece called "Freewill, Free Process and Love" coming out in Think the "popular" journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy. With the Editor's agreement I have started a separate blog called thinkRIP.blogspot.com which is going to become the official blog of Think so that people can comment on any article that comes out.

There are a couple of open access articles from old issues of Think which I have posted slots for, so if anyone wants to debate them they are available.

I've finished the next draft of the foreword for The Courage to Believe. The book is really impressive and I am still somewhat amazed and really honoured that I was asked to write the foreword. The author Dr. Roy J. Enquist received the Holy Land Ecumenical Foundation Award in 2005 in recognition of his leadership by word and deed as he “honored the church in Jerusalem.” He also received the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia Distinguished Alumnus/a Award in 2006. His published books include Namibia: Land of Tears, Land of Promise (Selinsgrove; Susquehanna University Press 1990) and his co-translation with Franklin Sherman of The Socialist Decision by Paul Tillich (New York: Harper and Row 1977). I really admire his writing and look forward to meeting him.

There was some (I thought) rather good material in the first draft of the foreword that the publisher didn't think had the right tone. I agonise over opening sentences and I do rather like the old opening paragraphs. See what you think...

The world is waking up from a long nightmare. Perhaps it began in 1793 with the brutal crushing by the French Revolutionary government of the revolt of the Vendee against the government’s attack on the church, and the subsequent attempts to de-Christianise French society. Somehow, in Europe, atheism, even in a highly repressive form appeared “progressive”, a project of the enlightenment. Much against Darwin’s will, his profound scientific insights into evolution were co-opted in support of this cause, even though he wrote that “It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist and an evolutionist”. As Roy Enquist puts it in this wonderful book:
materialists such as Friedrich Nietzsche found that the evolutionary struggle for survival could easily be pressed to serve as a “scientific basis” for an explicitly anti-Christian ethic of power. Karl Marx and his followers showed how history could be seen in terms of a scientific materialism that would usher in a godless utopia of justice for some, but certainly not for the shopkeepers and clergy. In the twentieth century, the planet became a world-wide, extravagant laboratory preoccupied with testing the consequences of these philosophers’ beliefs. The laboratory, as we now know, turned out to be an abattoir.
...

Monday, August 03, 2009

Cornwall, Euthanasia and "disproving God"

Delightful few days in Cornwall. Elder Daughter and husband flew in from the US, we picked them up from Heathrow, drove down to pick up Daughter from a Christian camp, and arrived at our family house in Cornwall where Son and Grandsons were already staying with my mother. The following day Daughter-in-Law and Granddaughter arrived so we were all together. Despite weather forecasts the weather was good - so bliss and no blogging.

Excellent article by Dominic Lawson in the Sunday Times on Euthanasia - one of the best I have ever seen.

A dinosaur illustrator and independent scholar called Gregory Paul has sent me and John ("For John Polkinghorn"(sic)) his "paper literally disproving the existence of a good God (in part by falsifying the free will and best of all possible worlds hypotheses combined with common decency)". It claims to be "A statistical look at the holocaust of the children" though neither statistics nor rigorous argument seems to be his forte. He throws around a lot of very dubious statistics (including that "There have been 200 generations since Christ" - I have asked him whether he has any numbers to back up some of his other statistical assertions and it will be interesting to see whether he replies) but his key "point" is that lots of humans die before they become adults and that:

(1) "It is patently impossible to correctly assert that [God] gives humans free will when a large or major portion of humans never becomes old enough to make mature decisions"

This seems to me about as logical as saying:

(2) It is patently impossible to correctly assert that [God] gives humans the ability to have sex when a large or major portion of humans never becomes old enough to have children.

At the very minimum he needs to establish:

(3) God gives people free will if and only if x% of humans become old enough to make mature decisions" where x is above some threshold (say 50%).

Furthermore he needs to show that (3) is true in respect of all reasonable formulations of Christian doctrine "patently impossible to" presumably means more than "I don't see how you can". I am not aware of a single mainstream Christian theologian who would hold (3) or for whom (3) is logically entailed by their views. It is certainly not entailed by the sort of positions John and I hold - as indicated for example in Questions of Truth.

Amazingly this was published is a peer-reviewed philosophy journal. Ah well.

PS he also has a paper published in Evolutionary Psychology which devises a "Successful Societies Scale" based on a hand-picked selection of 25 indicators, a "Popular Reliogiosity Versus Secularism Scale" and - hey presto, shows that there is a weak positive correlation between Success and Secularism. Anyone with an ounce of statistical nous would be able to see that this is bogus - there are at least 100 possible indicators that he could have chosen for his "successful societies scale" so with about 2.4*10^23 possible combinations of indicators you should be able to get any correlation you want. Yet it gets waved through presumably because the editors liked the conclusion and didn't give it to a statistician to peer-review.

As a matter of interest I correlated his PRVS Scale with the internationally accepted UN Human Development Index and there is no correlation at all (R2 = 0.0005! - data available on request).