Sunday, April 29, 2012

QoT Citations and a sloppy paper in Science

Yesterday to Cambridge for a meeting in Trinity, then tea with John Polkinghorne and supper with all my UK descendants.  It was very good to see John, who I haven't seen for a while.   We'd just heard from our publishers that Questions of Truth had passed a very round number in sales, and we'd both be up for doing a 2nd edition next year. I was pleased to see that there are no fewer than 15 references to it in Miracles.  In addition to Miracles and the Luke Barnes paper I find there is:
As well of course as some of my work and Sam Harris' absurd The Moral Landscape.  I actually looked up in Heffers what that fraud Harris says about Polkinghorne, and in fact he doesn't quote QoT but merely cites it, quoting instead from a paragraph John wrote about the resurrection and then trying to dismiss the whole of John's work as a Slokal-type hoax, albeit a sincere one. Of course Harris is too ignorant and innumerate to be able to actually mount any arguments against John's views.

There is an extraordinary paper in Science entitled "Analytic Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief" which shows changes in what the subjects (mostly Canadian) say about their religious beliefs.  They do admit that "these findings do not speak directly to conversations about the inherent rationality, value, or truth of religious beliefs" But they fail to notice or even acknowledge that changing wat people say about their beliefs is not at all the same thing as changing their beliefs or that it "promotes disbelief".

Many people will modify how they express their religious views in response to their cultural situation: for example in work situations where there may be a risk of lawsuits for religious discrimination, or from a desire not to offend or to fit in. I see no evidence at all that levels of belief were changed in these studies, merely levels of expression of belief.

Sloppy! And in no other area would such nonsense be accepted. Would Science publish a study which showed that X made people more courageous or truthful on the basis of questionnaires about "how courageous/truthful are you?"

I've emailed the authors asking about this, and also asking for the data to see whether the effect is:
  1. To increase the reported levels of disbelief amongst people in the sample who were not strong believers.
  2. To decrease the reported levels of belief amongst people in the sample who were strong believers
  3. To move waverers from one point to another.
No reply yet..

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Gems from Luke Barnes

Luke Barnes' paper on Anthropic Fine-Tuning is terrific. here are a few gems:
  • 'A selection bias alone cannot explain anything. ...how are quasars so luminous?.. the answer is not: because otherwise we wouldn't see them. Noting that if we observe any object in the very distant universe then it must be very bright does not explain why we observe any distant objects at all.'
  • 'The Cheap-Binoculars Fallacy: "Don't waste money buying expensive binoculars. Simply stand closer to the object you wish to view"'
  • 'The Flippant Funambulist Fallacy: "Tightrope-walking is easy!...just look at all the places you could stand and not fall to your death!"'
  • 'The Sequential Juggler Fallacy: "Juggling is easy! ...you can throw and catch a ball. So just juggle all five, one at a time"'
  •  'A cane toad solution...one that doesn't consider whether the end result is worse than the problem itself.'
  • 'Note carefully the difference between covariance and symmetry....Covariance is a mathematical fact about our formalism. Symmetries can be con firmed or falsified by experiment... Physics is perfectly capable of studying frame-dependent quantities... and frame-dependent laws'
  • Stenger claims that Dyson "provided a derivation of Maxwell's equations from the Lorentz force law... That is, Maxwell's equations follow from the definition of the electric and magnetic fields". ...[but]... Dyson assumes... the conditions for the classical system to be quantizable, [which] are highly non-trivial. ...[and] only proves two of Maxwell's equations, assuming ...the other two ... also a non-trivial assumption.'
  • 'Suppose that Stenger were correct regarding symmetries, that any objective description of the universe must incorporate them. One of the features of the universe as we currently understand it is that it is not perfectly symmetric. Indeed, intelligent life requires a measure of asymmetry. For example, the perfect homogeneity and isotropy of the Robertson-Walker spacetime precludes the possibility of any form of complexity, including life'
  • 'Stenger's proposed solution .. to one of the deepest problems in physics -  the origin of the second law of thermodynamics and the arrow of time -  is suspiciously missing from the scientific literature. Stenger is not reporting the consensus of the scientific community; neither is he using rough approximations to summarise a ...calculation that has passed peer review... Stenger has not only failed to solve the entropy problem; he has failed to comprehend it. He has presented the problem itself as its solution. Homogeneous, isotropic expansion cannot solve the entropy problem -  it is the entropy problem'
  • 'although inflationary models may alleviate the fine tuning in the choice of initial conditions, the models themselves create new fine tuning issues with regard to the properties of the scalar field...To pretend that the mere mention of inflation makes a life-permitting universe ... inevitable is naive in the extreme.'
  • 'Stenger's reply [to the Cosmological Constant problem] ... amounts to reasoning that the calculation must be wrong since otherwise the cosmological constant would have to be fine-tuned. One could not hope for a more perfect example of begging the question.'
  • 'Those who defend the multiverse solution to the cosmological constant problem are quite clear that they do so because they have judged other solutions to have failed'
I don't have time to list them all but I would strongly urge anyone interested in this question to read Barnes' paper. I'll discuss it with Martin Rees on Sat later, and have also given it to John Polkinghorne.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Stenger scientifically skewered

Owl with Cheap Binoculars - see below
John Polkinghorne has told me that the massive 2-volume book Miracles by Craig Keener cites Questions of Truth extensively.  This prompts me to run a Google Scholar and I find 10 other citations. But the most interesting is a paper on arxiv by Luke A. Barnes called "The Fine-Tuning of the Universe for Intelligent Life" which gives an up-to date review of fine tuning and decisively skewers the drivel written by the 3rd rate popular atheist "scientist" Victor Stenger.

Here for example is part of the demolition of Stenger's ludicrous "Monkey God":
Of these eight criteria [proposed by Stenger], three are incorrect, two are irrelevant, and one is insufficient. Plenty more are missing. Most importantly, all manner of cherry-picked assumptions are lurking out of sight, and the whole exercise exemplifies the cheap-binoculars fallacy....
The most serious problem with MonkeyGod is the probability distribution function (PDF)...Stenger not only makes no attempt to justify his use of a logarithmic prior ...[which] spuriously inflates the value of f(life) by over-representing very small values of a parameter. This point alone renders MonkeyGod's calculations meaningless. Secondly, the range of x is centred (logarithmically) on the its value in our universe. A better example of the cheap binoculars fallacy could not be invented... It's the same mistake as trying to find out which party will win the next US federal election by taking a survey at the Republican National Convention.
The paper is well worth reading in full, I'll try to update this post later with some extracts (actually I've made the next post on this it's so good)

PS he defines the The Cheap-Binoculars Fallacy as  "Don't waste money buying expensive binoculars.  Simply  stand  closer  to  the  object  you  wish  to  view".

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Back from BJ and HK


Bank from another amazing trip to China, including this time a few days in HK as well as Beijing. 
Most of this visit is sadly un-bloggable but we did get to catch up with our friend Prof Fang Di'an.  We saw some of the amazing exhibition of Ming Dynasty paintings as well as some modern sculpture.  We were invited to the opening of the new exhibition by a great living Chinese artist but had to decline since we had another lunch engagement.

HK was also amazing - the first time I'd been (although my grandmother was born there) and it is hard not to be impressed by the dynamism.  Sadly the cloud was very low so there were few pictures, but to have a meeting on the 88th floor of a building during a thunderstorm is quite an experience!

Sunday, April 08, 2012

The joy and triumph of the resurrection

On Saturday we went to a friend's Boat Race party by the river, with a great view of the stretch between Hammersmith and Barnes Bridges. Normally the race is pretty well decided by that point, but of course it was not so simple. It looked to me as if Cambridge would win because they were virtually level pegging and they were about to get the advantage of the Surrey bend. However of course the ghastly and misguided demonstrator then caused problems.  And the Oxford Cox then foolishly and aggressively steered too close to Cambridge and paid the price.  In fact the rules of racing are clear that "A crew shall abide by its own accidents except where damage is caused by interference from an outside agency during the race."  So even if Oxford were not at fault (and I think they were) they had to continue unless Cambridge were clearly at fault (which they obviously weren't).

Easter day we had a lovely sermon from our vicar about Mary Magdalene visiting the tomb.  As he points out, no-one in the Judeao-Christian world would have made up a witness story where the witness was a woman, since the evidence of a woman was not admissible in court. Though the NIV gives anabeinw as "returning" rather than "ascending" - the literal meaning is "going up" but it clearly means ascending in this context (c/f John 3:13 where the NIV gives "gone into") - the NIV is really a dreadful translation sometimes.

May the joy and triumph of the resurrection burst anew in the life of every reader!

The LORD is RISEN!
He is RISEN INDEED!
Alleliuya!

PS Questions of Truth is currently #77 in "nature and Existence of God" in Amazon.co.uk and #79 in the US. I'd of course be happier if it were higher, but it's not too bad given that it was published over 3 years ago.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Good Friday and the Waterseller of Seville


To Cambridge yesterday for work, and to see Son and grandkids. Was able to look in to the Maundy Thursday service at St Edward King and Martyr and get most of a sermon by Fraser Watts. He spoke movingly and wisely about the way in which "the boundaries dissolve" in the Eucharist, boundaries of time, space and personality, in the mystery of Communion.
It occurs to me that there is a (perhaps rather weak but illuminating) analogy with a Fourier transform. Although we tend to think of things as being in definite places in principle the Fourier transform of a field is just as "real" a description of the field as its normal depiction. And for some purposes the Fourier transform will give a much deeper insight into what is going on.

Today we had the Walk of Witness from St Paul's to the Kings Mall shopping centre, followed by a mediation in the Church with music provided by Rachel and Sam Chaplin and the talks from Luke Bretherton. He made use of some striking paintings, the most notable use (for me) being the Waterseller of Seville.  He notes that there is no money shown as changing hands, and suggests that the Waterseller is actually giving away the water (doubtful I think historically, but an interesting idea). Luke B contrasted three strands of thought about Good Friday: Sacrifice, Grace and Communion.

The truth of course is that there are an infinite number of approximations to what happens/happened on the cross and in the resurrection. Many are valid and profound: none is exhaustive or complete.  Rather like the limit of an infinite series: the REALITY that transcends Reality.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Mathematics and Sailing

Back from a highly productive week in Cambridge, Mass. The collaboration with Robert MacKay is going very well. We now how a good proof of the "Beale MacKay Theorem" and Robert is working on a brilliant generalisation for the case when one of our assumptions doesn't apply. I'm presenting the theorem at a seminar later this week in London.

Went sailing for the first time this year which was delightful. The weather was warmer than forecast, and the winds a bit lighter. There is something so extraordinary about the harmony of wind, water and boat - the fact that ideally the boat moves fastest when you are perfectly still, that the wind and waves are always subtly changing.  We need to tune the boat and get a couple of minor spares. There is something very "incarnate" about sailing - one can model the air flows mathematically but in fact it all depends on bodies, boats and the actuality of things.