Sunday, January 22, 2012

Atheists and meaningful lives

Interesting article in Think by someone called Tim Miles which puts forward and discusses "the argument from absurdity"
  1. If God does not exist then the World and human life are meaningless and absurd
  2. the World and human life are not meaningless and absurd.
  3. Therefore God exists
This is clearly a formally valid argument and so atheists have to deny either (1) or (2).  Interesting to read in conjunction with this review in the FT of three books:
  • Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion by Alain de Botton
  • The Importance of Religion: Meaning and Action in our Strange World, by Gavin Flood
  • The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions, by Alex Rosenberg
The reviewer (Steven Cave who seems to be an atheist himself) accepts the (ridiculous) idea that science has disproved religion but seems to recognise that the idiotic reductionism espoused by Alex Rosenberg leaves a lot to be desired.  Only someone who had no real understanding of physics or mathematics could come up with a statement like "the physical facts fix all the facts" and it seems that Rosenberg is a philosopher of economics and biology and evidently lacks a hard-science background. He (or the reviewer) even seems to imagine that the world is made of "electrons and protons".  The poor man did his undergrad in the 1960s and seems to be stuck in the 1920s as far as physics is concerned. How such ignorant stuff gets published in really depressing.  Rosenberg seems to cheerfully admit to nihilism, but it's "nice nihilism" (presumably because he is tenured faculty and hasn't yet faced any real crises).  And  if nihilism starts to get you down, Rosenberg suggests you simply “take two of whatever neuropharmacology prescribes”.

Cave accepts that Rosenberg is absurdly OTT (he is of course espousing the extreme Left Brain fallacy) but thinks that Flood goes to far in claiming internal coherence for religions in the face of eg the problem of evil.  Again this fails to grasp the fundamental point that any deep understanding of reality has to be paradoxical: and of course modern physics which Rosenberg & al claim to espouse is deeply paradoxical, with no agreed solution to almost all the fundamental problems (eg interpretation of QM, reconciliation of GR and QM, nature of dark matter/energy).

Cave is very sympathetic to de Botton who realises that religions provide much necessary food for the soul, and that de Botton "desperately misses its comforts and consolations."  Cave describes the book as "a timely and perceptive appreciation of how much wisdom is embodied in religious traditions and how we godless moderns might learn from it."

Of course atheists don't have meaningless lives because everyone is made in God's image and is of such infinite value that the Son of God was willing to die in agony for them.  But I think it is very hard indeed for atheists to find a real meaning for their lives within their sadly misguided atheistic worldview. Indeed the deep human need for meaning tends to result in many atheists being over-committed to disastrous political ideologies because they desperately need something to Believe In. And by a rather poignant irony, atheists generally have very small numbers of children and so the very people who consider (supposedly) Evolution to be the supreme principle of life are condemned to evolutionary oblivion.

Monday, January 09, 2012


Sainte Chapelle windows!
Back from a lovely weekend in Paris.

On Saturday we arrived on Eurostar, started with the astonishing Sainte Chapelle, then the Fra Angelico exhibition and finally a concert at the Opera Comique. This began with the Haydn Trumpet concerto, with the highly talented young soloist Alexandre Baty. Then the Radio France Philharmonic gave a fine performance of Mozart's Prague Symphony. After the interval - a rarity:  Il Maestro di Capella by Cimarosa.  This is a comic scena with a Baritone and Orchestra, where the singer in the conductor and the Orchestra increasingly recalcitrant, twice throwing their music all over the stage and once walking off until the conductor pays them.  Great fun!

Sunday we had a guided tour of the Opera which was most enjoyable and informative: really bringing out the "theatre" of the front of house which was, from an economic point of view, the main purpose of the building. Indeed the guide made the point that until the 20th century the lights were up in the auditorium the whole time and there was much talking and (in the boxes, all of which had private curtained-off areas) other activities that must have put the performers off no end.  Ironic that the Opera was built for Napoleon III but he never attended since he was deposed before it was completed.  Finally Vespers at the Sacre Coeur and then home.

Paris is of course a city of Art in a way that London isn't quite - although we have more wonderful music and tremendous collections. This is I think partly because London has always had dual centres, of commerce (the City proper) and politics/monarchy, and personal aggrandisement by the rulers was not at all in fashion since at latest Charles II. It seems oddly fitting that Napoleon III was (in that order) the first elected President and the last Monarch of France.

The way the unknown masters of the Sainte Chapelle and Fra Angelico and his colleagues communicated the bible and other "sacred" stories in visual terms is a never-ending source of fascination. In Fra Angelico's paintings some of the colours have sadly faded, but the transcendent beauty speaks through the centuries.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Masterly Meistersinger

Took God-daughter to the wonderful production of Meistersinger at Covent Garden, where our friends Simon and Toby were Walter and David. This is the classic production which we saw before the house closed for rebuilding and where the end of the 2nd act was used for the final closing gala concert.

Although it's quite long (5pm-10:40 including intervals) it really doesn't seem long. The melodies and action flow beautifully, thanks to superb singing and acting by all the cast (bar two) and very sensitive conducting. It is, after all, an extended meditation on art, music, love and human nature - subjects very dear to Wagner's heart and about which many people (including me of course!) care passionately.  The staging is also a visual feast, with the substantial forces and scale of the house used to summon up early an renaissance Nuremberg.

Simon and Toby were terrific - Simon somewhat reducing the force of his tremendous Heldentenor  to reflect Walter's character as a somewhat bemused outsider and Toby being a very credible naughty apprentice despite being of course much much older!  Wolfgang Koch as Hans Sachs is definitely one to watch, and of course Sir John Tomlinson adds immense depth and musicianship to any production, here as a very wise Pogner.  Emma Bell was a suitably radiant Eva.

Bar two did I say - well Peter Coleman-Wright was sadly indisposed with a bad cold and at the last moment they found a very good singer (whose name at present I can't find but I'll rectify this ASAP) who sang from the sidelines whilst Peter C-W acted the part. It was a remarkable tribute to the acting (but not singing) of PCW and the singing (but not acting) of Mr X that the audience in a sense barely noticed this, and both PCW and Mr X got enthusiastic applause at the curtain call.

Afterwards we popped backstage to see Simon who very kindly showed us the stage (God-daughter had never been) and then had a bite to eat with Toby joining us at the end for a drink since he had been meeting up with other friends.

I remember the final Gala before the house closing for rebuilding which was also Haitink's last appearance as Music Director. Someone (I think it was Geriant Evans) said that they had had a whip-round with the cast: they wanted to buy him a plane so that he could become the Flying Dutchman but they couldn't afford this so decided to make him the "putt putt Dutchman" and then John Tomlinson (I think) drove on the stage on a motor-scooter!  Haitink was dumbfounded - "I know who will like this ... contraption ... my wife"

It turns out that Toby was singing David on that occasion, and indeed it was Haitink's (4th) wife who had suggested this present. However it wasn't to Haitink's taste at all - quite understandably - and they had to substitute a painting.

What is the role of illusion in art, and human behaviour? How much of our lives are based, to a greater or lesser extent, on illusion?  When is illusion a good thing?  What is the distinction between illusion and metaphor?  What are the functions of rules in art and society and when and how should they be broken and acknowledged? What is our debt to tradition, and our duty to it?  And, unavoidably since the 1940s for this piece, to what extent can a work of art be tainted by its subsequent history and how can the taint be washed away?  All of these profound issues are raised, an illuminated, by this great and joyous production of this great and joyous work.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Honours for Science, non-linear beliefs, and Noises Off

Happy New Year to all readers!

Went yesterday to see our friend Janie in the wonderful Noises Off at the Old Vic. It's a gloriously funny play and production and the laughter was side-splitting.  Our Daughter hadn't seen it before which was an extra treat. Festive glass of Champagne backstage with Janie and then off home for a quiet evening - we'd had a delighful dinner party here the previous evening and just felt like relaxing.

Very pleased that two business friends received richly deserved knighthoods. Also delighted about the knighthoods for Venki Ramakrishnan, Simon Donaldson, Andre Greim and Konstantin Novoselov.  It is really a scandal that the first two were overlooked by Brown - and I suspect that David Willetts had a hand in this. Brian Cox is urging the PM to set a goal of the UK being the best place in the world to do science which seems a great idea.

It will be very interesting to see what the New Year brings. My suspicion is that the UK economy will not do as badly as people fear, but we shall see.  It's also interesting that the PM and the Queen are very audibly "doing God". Let's hope that becomes a major trend as well.

I've been reflecting on a point that came up in discussion with Martin Rees on Christmas Eve.  We're working on the (vector) equation:
y = X.v + L.f
where f is some non-linear function of y, such as H(y-z)
Now if L and X are non-trivial then there will be values of v for which y (and f) have many possible solutions.  Even in 1-dimension if X, L and z are 1 then for values of v between 0 and 1 f can have either value. The situation in higher dimensions is of course much more interesting.

But the point I want to make is that systems of fundamental beliefs have similar characteristics. How we evaluate evidence depends on what we believe and vice versa. So for example if people are disposed not to believe in God then they may be able to evaluate much or possibly all the evidence in ways that are satisfactory to them, and vice versa.