Sunday, December 30, 2012

Gems from Midgley

Utterly joyful family celebration last night as we had all our (8) descendants and their 2 spouses round the dinner table, for the first time ever.  Families are extraordinary.

I finally finished The Solitary Self which is just amazing. Here are a few gems, but do read it:
  • This story [Dawkins & co] combines... social atomism...and physicalist reduction...Blurring them together produces a highly confused ideology...readers are too cowed by the general aura of physical science...to complain about what is obviously poor thinking.(pp3-6)
  • the kind of enthusiasm that leads neo-Darwinists to inflate natural selection into a metaphysical principle pervading the universe was foreign to [Darwin] and ought not to be sold under his name (p9)
  • [Brian Godwin] is one of a number of biologists ... who are now pointing out that biologists need to go back to [a] more holistic level of understanding becasue it was actually very useful...This would not mean dropping the advances that come from studying genes, any more than the shift from a geocentric to a wider, Copernican view of the universe involved losing the knowledge previously gained about the earth on its own...Nobody now complains that the more holistic, Copernican approach is unscientific.(p23-24)
  • The discovery of mirror neurons...has allowed members of the scientifically-minded public at last to acept as fact something that has certainly been a central element in their experience throughout their lives (p30).
  • The reason why the world is so full of death is simply that it is full of life. (p48)
  • We don't have to choose between units [of selection] because selection can work at all levels...it becomes meaningless to pick out a single unit...and to dramatise it as an agent controlling the rest. (p51 - this very much chimes of course with my Complexity Principle article.)
  • The central peculiarity of humans is not their improved powers of calculation. It is their wider perspective, their more comprehensive viewpoint (p58).
  • Our intellectual and emotional faculties are not, then, distinct commodities...competing to control us. They are independent aspects of a single constitution. (p68. She quotes with approval Nicholas Humphrey noting that, for apes, "the intelligence required to survive socially is of quite a different order from that required to cope with the material world")
  • Fifty years ago learned persons constantly assured parents that their babies had no real mental life...no reason has ever been given why the previous confident negative belief was ever held (p84)
  • [Darwin] knew very well that distinct kinds of explanations do not compete beacause explanations answer particular questions...They are more like different pairs of spectacles used for different purposes than rival claimants contending for soverignty. (p90-91),
  • Scientism - the ambition to take over the whole of human knowledge for physics and chemistry - has indeed been flourishing...although Atkins claims that physical science can answer all questions, he makes no suggestion about how it would actually deal with the huge mass of already recognised questions...that it would face if it tried...although this vast claim shoots vaguely in the direction of the humanities its only serious target is theology, that is religion. And religion is deposited within the scope of the physical sciences simply by ruling that it belongs there.  This strangely casual assumption that questions arising out of people's spiritual difficulties are perfectly simple is another point on which neo-Darwinists contrast sharply with their supposed founder. (p92-93)

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Paul Nurse on Today, and Ian Hutchinson on Scientism

Very good edition of the Today Programme guest edited by Paul Nurse (whole thing is here).  Highlights included
  • His taking John Humphrys to his lab to get a sense of some things that go on there and how they might best be reported, as an opportunity to explore how the media covers science.
  • An interview with the CEO of a company backed by the Royal Society Innovation Fund.
  • An interview by Paul of the Chancellor, George Osborne where he was very pro-science.
  • Thought for the Day given, at Paul's specific invitation, by John Polkinghorne.
This provoked an emailed query to John about evidence for God, so after I had sent my preliminary response I called John to wish him happy Christmas and New Year and he's on good form.

I'm reading Ian Hutchinson's Monopolizing Knowledge with pleasure and profit. His basic thesis is that Scientism (which he defines as "the belief that all valid knowledge is science") is false, unwarranted by science, and positively harmful to science and humanity.  I am of course very sympathetic to this view. But it is very difficult indeed to state some of the points correctly and clearly. For example:
  1. It might be better to say that Scientism is "the belief that the only valid knowledge comes from science". As Ian points out very interestingly, until quite recently "science" meant something close to "all valid knowledge" and was not restricted to the kinds of things that scientists did professionally (I think "scientist" was, like "agnostic" coined by Huxley).
  2. It's really difficult to pin down exactly what "science" is. Ian goes for Reproducibility and Clarity. But are we talking about reproducible experiments or observations or predictions?  In much of Physics and Chemistry and Biology you can do experiments, but you can't exactly do experiments on stars or galaxies.  Of course some of astronomy lends itself to precise testable predictions, but by no means all, and we don't disallow things like the Sloan Digital Sky Survey from being science. In Palaeontology you can't really to experiments (on the main topics in question, of course you can do experiments on the samples) since you are trying to understand the past.

    As for reproducibility, although this is true in principle, in practice most of published science is not reproduced at all, and frighteningly often there are problems when people try to reproduce results. Nature have chosen Elizabeth Iorns as one of their 10 people of the year because she has tried to address this, and they claim that "Scientists at Amgen and Bayer reported that they were unable to reproduce the vast majority of 'landmark' papers describing promising approaches to treat disease."

    And in Palaeontology a new species is typically described and announced based on a single find without any further corroboration - indeed of the 13 species of the genus Homo some are even now based on a single find.
PS Questions of Truth is now (on Amazon.co.uk)  38,538 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas!

A real gem this morning on the radio, with Richard Chartres preaching in "A Right Royal Christmas" from the Tower of London, really on fire! Then to Church for Morning worship and a said Communion afterwards, followed by a joyful family Christmas Lunch. The Queen was in excellent form, as usual extremely forthright about Christianity. And Rowan Williams preached an excellent final Christmas sermon as ABoC.

Mary Midgley's excellent The Solitary Self  continues to provide great wisdom and insight. She contrasts Darwin's deep understanding of, and interest in, our moral sense
"Philosophers of the derivative school of morals formerly assumed that the foundation of morals lay in a form of selfishness... [but] the moral sense is fundamentally identical with the social instincts, and in the case of the lower animals it would be absurd to speak of these instincts as having been developed from selfishness." (The Descent of Man)
with the idiocies of Dawkins, "We are born selfish" (TSG p3) who in this respect is not at all a Darwinian. She remarks that it took the discovery of mirror neurons for some people to take seriously the basic and obvious facts of human empathy. Indeed we can now say categorically that, since we are born with mirror neurons, we are born with empathy and not "selfish".

In fact it is quite astonishing that the ridiculous con of talking about "the selfish gene" has lasted so long. As Denis Noble, Martin Nowak and many others have pointed out, genes, and indeed biology as a whole, is primarily a story of cooperation. Genes do nothing on their own, and can only act in cooperation.  All multicellular organisms depend entirely on cooperation for their existence.  And all social animals equally depend on cooperation.  Certainly there are some instances where you can say that there is some element of competition in evolution - differential survival rates are sometimes driven by competition, although at other times they are driven by cooperation. But for at least 99% of the time living creatures are not engaged in a "selfish struggle" but are living cooperatively.

However as Midgley points out, the real ideological underpinning of this nonsense is the irresponsible individualism of the 80s-2008 that reached its apotheosis in the excesses of Enron, Lehmann Brothers etc..  It is no accident that Jeff Skilling the crook who ran Enron had The Selfish Gene as his favourite book.

As we move well into the 2010s let us hope and pray, that greater scientific and spiritual wisdom drives out the obsolete dross.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Merry Christmas Eve!

Midnight approaches and Christmas comes once more!
It will be fascinating to see what happens in 2013.

Intellectually Dawkins & co are sunk - holed below the waterline scientifically and philosophically. Nowak, Tarnita and Wilson was perhaps the turning point from a scientific PoV at one level, but the deeper understandings of protienomics, epigenetics and cultural evolution have also in fact demolished the foolish myth of the "selfish gene" - and indeed as far back as "Guns, Germs and Steel" it has been quite clear to anyone who cared to look that, whatever drives human evolution, it is not purely the genetics of reductive neo-Darwinism.  I'm finally reading Mary Midgley's brilliant The Solitary Self and it's also a devastating philosophical critique of the idiotic ideological over-simplifications than Dawkins & co pedal.

Nevertheless they have an iron grip on the media and it will be a while before news of their utter intellectual bankruptcy gets into popular consciousness. The light shined in the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not.

Rowan Williams going to Cambridge where he can continue to provide intellectual heavy artillery of the highest calibre, while Justin Welby takes on ABoC is also a very hopeful development. There is no atheist leader or spokesperson in the UK or the US who can hold a candle to these two.

We really need to re-connect/connect with the 25-30M or so people who say they are "Christian" on the census but who don't seem to be involved in any church (the total census Christians is about 33M). Once we have 15M in the churches rather than the present 3-4M then we can make much more progress on the secular world. Meanwhile the National Secular Society has a membership of about 5,000.

May the light of Christ shine more brightly, and more deeply, in all our hearts this Christmas.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Adam, Eve and Tom Wright

Elder Daughter raised a very interesting point about the fall narrative in Genesis 3. The NRSV (and the NIV) have "So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate."  Does ", who was with her," mean that Adam was present while Eve was being tempted by the Serpent? If so it puts a rather different complexion on events?

First I guess we need to discuss why this even might matter. Doesn't pretty much everyone agree that Adam and Eve were not historical figures?  Well yes - though clearly there must have been some humans who were the first who were morally conscious and that's what the terms Adam and Eve denote. But this part of the Bible is giving us an understanding of the fundamental relationships between God and Humanity and so it's well worth trying to understand what it is saying.

The first point is that ", who was with her," is going much too far. The text is " she gave it to her husband with her and he did eat" (וַתִּתֵּ֧ן גַּם־לְאִישָׁ֛הּ עִמָּ֖הּ וַיֹּאכַֽל׃) so the commas and the who was are an interpretation but not the only one.  The word used ( עִמָּ֖ה ) seems to be the ordinary word for "with her" and although it often occurs in the context of lying with her (Gen 30:16, 39:10, Deut 22:23,25,28,29, 1 Sam 1:24, 11:4, 12:24) it often doesn't (Ex 18:6, Judges 13:9, Ruth 1:7,22, 1 Kings 3:17, 17:20, Esther 2:13, Proverbs 10:22). In the context it seems unlikely (in Middle Eastern culture you wouldn't expect the husband to allow a stranger to address his wife and her to answer without at least some comment) but it seems a possible interpretation, though not in my view very probable.

Amazingly this morning we saw Tom Wright in church (who was visiting relatives) so we were able to ask him. He says that Hebrew is very relational and multi-valent, right-to-left right-brain thinking, and the whole idea of trying to pin down a single interpretation when the text allows many viewpoints, like a great work of art, is misconceived. So maybe we're meant to think  Adam was with her when the serpent was talking, maybe only that he was with her when he ate the fruit. Fascinating. And how wonderful that he was there just when needed - I've never seen him in our church before!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Wonderful Brahms Clarinet Trio CD

Kathron gave me the CD Fibonacci Sequence has made of the Brahms Clarinet Trio (A minor Op 114), and it is simply stunning! I've listened to it six times already and it is a truly outstanding performance. Of course its a wonderful composition, but the players (Kathron, Julian Farrell and Benjamin Hughes) play it with exquisite sensitivity in a beautiful ensemble. It's on the DeuxElles label butI can't find it in the catalogue. - however you can buy it here.

The other items on the CD are:
  • Knozertstuck in D Minor Op 114 for Clarinet, Basset Horn and Piano by Mendelssohn (with Nicholas Bucknell on a delicious Basset Horn)
  • Adagio by Heinrich Baermann, a clarinet virtuoso of the 19th Century.  He found it difficult to get his compositions published, and indeed Wagner agreed to publish this adagio (from Baermann's 3rd Clarinet Quintet) under his name to ensure it actually got published.
  • Trio Pathetique by Glinka
  • Suite d'apres Corrette by Milhaud.
All of these are fine pieces and beautifully played, but of course not in the same league as the sublime Brahms.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

O come let us adore him - terrific new work by Sam Chaplin

Back from a few days in Cambridge Mass where amongst other things I gave a short talk at the MIT MediaLab and met some of the people, and had dinner with Martin Nowak and my old friend Malcolm Sparrow.  It was also lovely to run by the Charles - the weather was amazing for the time of year.

Things back in the UK have been very busy, but I just returned from a superb carol service at our church. Rachel and Sam Chaplin led the choir and orchestra. We've known Rachel, an enormously talented musician, for years since she was at school with Elder Daughter. The church was packed with about 1,000 people and there was a repeat of the service at 7pm with another 1,000.

The singing, atmosphere and talk were terrific. But the outstanding part was the opening number, an arrangement by Sam Chaplin of "O come let us adore him" for percussion, choir, soloist and congregation which was simple, brilliant and truly inspired. This should be done in 100 churches and 10 cathedrals next Christmas. Wonderful!

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Fascinating Ned Phelps conference

Fascinating conference organised by Ned Phelps on Rethinking the State: After Keynesianism and Corporatism.  Many fascinating papers and discussions. It was held in the Casa Italiana at Columbia - which has very special Italian associations since the greatest opera librettist of all time was the first Professor of Italian Literature at Columbia.

For me the highlights included:
  • George Marios Angeletos showing how one might model, in a fairly simple way, the impact of animal spirits. I think there are some fascinating wider implications of this work in terms of modelling the impacts of certain aspects of culture on economics.
  • Philippe Aghion giving a very interesting discussion of what he would aim for in a "Smart State" supporting innovation and investment in R&D but not indiscriminate "Keynesian" state spending.
  • Larry Summers fascinating tour d'horizon as a lunch speaker. One point which I think is bloggable is that he learned at an early age the importance of being realistic about significant figures, so he is rightly highly suspicious of excessive sophistication and precision in economics. By all means have a detailed model but you also need a credible and simple explanation of what, approximately, is happening.
  • Juan Vicente Sola and then Mark Roe discussing the origins of Corporatism in Catholic Social Teaching.
  • Xiang Bing offering a Chinese perspective.
Xian Bing and I presented Ned and Viviana with a bottle of champagne at the end on behalf of the participants.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

The Verbose Stoic takes apart Coyne and Grayling's foolishness about Questions of Truth

I've just come across some interesting and thoughtful comments on Questions of Truth by a freelance philosopher called "The Verbose Stoic".

He was stung by Jerry Coyne's posts on the subject to buy QoT and compare what Coyne said with what was in the book.  They are quite long but well worth reading.
  •  Firstly he takes Coyne to task, rightly, for pretty well failing to provide any arguments at all. For example Coyne quotes something from QoT and then says "How many things can you find wrong with that quote?" to which the Verbose Stoic very reasonably replies "I don’t know. How many things can you find wrong with that quote, Dr. Coyne? You’re the one saying it’s stupid, so shouldn’t you be the one pointing out what’s wrong with it? Because I don’t see what’s wrong with it."

    There is a lot more and it's well worth the read if you are interested.
  • In this post he then elegantly takes apart Grayling's "review" - pointing out that whereas we can expect philosophical illiteracy from Coyne, Grayling at least ought to know better.
There are probably some other interesting things on the web about QoT - I've been too busy to look.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Beijing and Yundi Concert

Back from 8th trip to Beijing.

Much was un-bloggable but an account of the seminar I gave at Peking University is on the web. However the artistic highlight of the trip was undoubtedly our friend Yundi's wonderful concert on Saturday night, which we attended with the British Ambassador Sebastian Wood and his charming wife.

Yundi began with two of the Chopin pieces (Nocturnes No 1 and 2) with which he shot to fame. As always these were played with such extraordinary delicacy and feeling: I cannot forget his performances in Paris where you could imagine it was Chopin himself back in his old Parisian haunts, though alas Chopin never went to China and was impossible to forget that we were in Beijing. However these nocturnes were delicious appetizers – the main courses were three of Beethoven's most famous sonatas: the Appassionata, the Pathetique and the Moonlight.

These were astonishing performances. In each case you got the wonderful sense that everything had been thought through with a tremendous grasp of the large-scale structures, even though the playing had a sense of immediacy that kept you on the edge of your seat. Like many pianists I have grappled with the last two for years and occasionally dabbled in the Appassionata, so I know them reasonably well. Nevertheless in so many places Yundi gave new insights, fascinating details of approach, phrasing, tempo or timbre that made you think - “yes!” A really 4-Dimensional performance of power, sensitivity, grace and the deepest musicality. I could almost feel Beethoven's spirit beaming and saying to his colleague Chopin – ja ja, sehr gut!

Sebastian, who is himself a pianist with a very musical family, was also deeply impressed. Amusingly he was plucked from the audience just as we had sat down before the second half of the concert and interviewed for Chinese TV about his reactions. Apparently they had no idea when they picked him that he was the British Ambassador – they simply wanted a Westerner and he was at the end of the row.

The applause were tremendous and for encores Yundi gave arrangements of two Chinese tunes – the second was especially virtuosic and really brought the house down.

The previous evening we had attended a concert in celebration of the World Music series at the NCPA where many different Chinese musicians gave performances on traditional and modern instruments, and one dance (whispering water) in which the long-haired female dancer rotated anticlockwise continually throughout the dance like a turning waterwheel. Every time I learn a little more of Chinese culture I am deeply impressed and would love to learn more, for example about the instruments that were played. Yundi's was the final performance – Chopin of course.

He'll be touring Europe in March and April, including a concert in the Royal Festival Hall on April 18th and in Liverpool on the 19th so do do come if you can. It will be amazing! There is also his new CD with these 3 Sonatas.