Saturday, June 28, 2014

More from Midgley on Animals, superstition and freewill

Midgley at the RSA in May. Note the "illusion" behind her.
I should complete some of the gems from Mary Midgley's wonderful Are you an Illusion.
  • She quotes Darwin's famous "the... impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe...as the result of blind chance...I feel compelled to look to a First Cause...and I deserve to be called a Theist" and then remarks: he added, of course, that perhaps we should not trust our human intellects when they draw "such grand conclusions." But then Dawkins's claim to know there is no such cause is just as grand...extreme negative proposals need just as much support as positive ones.
  • Darwin's reasoning does not require that we go back to a literal reading of ...Genesis...[but] that we recognise intelligence - design - of some kind as a basic constituent of the universe...It excludes...the picture of a mindless, meaningless, disconnected system, or rather absence of a system. This non-system, of course, is a picture that many ...people...now think of as a safe...fall-back position, a handy armchair left for them by the Enlightenment. In truth that picture makes no sense.
  • Descartes and his contemporaries entirely ignored this business of social signals [between animals] even though in practice their whole lives depended on the social signals they constantly exchanged with their horses and indeed...with other humans.
  • A number of authoritative scientists...testified [in 2012] that they do now think that actually animals may well be conscious...but why has it taken scientists three hundred years to get rid of an error that a little attention to their own domestic animals could quickly have cured?...the explanation ...[lies] in a background myth.
  • All kinds of animals need to be able to read the mood of others around them...Darwin...wrote an excellent book about it...The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals...his official followers dismissed the book...and said as little as possible about it during his dentenary celebrations.
  • It is striking to notice how myths - imaginative visions - can stop people from seeing plainly visible facts...it was the myth - not the facts - that was deemed to be scientific...Talk about planetary damage was dismissed as fanciful...frilly, feminine...even though it came from well-qualified scientists.
  • Our belief in our detachment from other animals, and from the earth that has produced them, is ...one more example of what may well be called scientistic superstition: an opinion maintained by convention contrary to well-known evidence in order to suit an imaginative habit. As far as animals are concerned, this notion differs from some others in that, at least in certain situations, it does seem to be seriously believed. [she mentions Meat-eating and animal experimentation].  But there are other parts of these strange pseudo-scientific conventions that quite plainly are nor seriously believed since they do not produce appropriate behaviour. The most striking of these is the denial of free will.
  • People give various reasons for dismissing free will as unscientific. Mostly, however, these flow from a very common but superstitious and highly anthropomorphic view of causality as compulsion.
  • Free will ...is not just a name from a general exemption from causality. Essentially it concerns effort, which is a perfectly real causal factor...It means that our efforts can in principle be effective; that thoughts have their real place among other kinds of causes in the world.
  • If somebody could be convinced that their free will really was an illusion...they would then become a helpless full-time fatalist. They would probably try to stop thinking and would be unable to act. But this dismal destiny would ...result from their own bad choices, formed by their own thinking.
  • It has always struck me as extraordinary that in [Libet-type] experiments, nobody seems to have taken the trouble to ask the subjects what they had been thinking about before they made their movements....the act emerged, as all conscious acts do, from a substantial context of motivation.
  • "What's it for?"...is a question that constantly arises about all sorts of man-made objects, and it was one Aristotle's best discoveries that it is also a useful question to ask about natural objects....And since Greek thought did not use the idea of a divine creator, he was never tempted to suggest that these functions expressed the purposes of an outside planner.
  • By [asking "what's it for?" systematically [Aristotelian teleology] begins to understand ...various functions as parts of larger wholes, systems within which the relations between the various parts continually makes better sense of them. That's what Darwin was doing when he devised his evolutionary system based on natural selection. The trouble was that he stopped there...and his paralysis has been transmitted in spades to his followers.
  • I should perhaps say a word here about ...the idea that reasonings themselves are not independent becasue they in turn arise from physical causes. This, of course, calls first for a simple tu quoque reply; these physical causes may in their turn have had mental causes and so on forever. But, more seriously...thoughts need to spring from further thoughts that are relevant. If you want an explanation for a particular piece of reasoning, the only place to look for it is in other relevant reasonings. Blaming the neurons for it instead will get you nowhere. {though I [NB] remark that not all thoughts are reasonings. It's not unreasonable to suggest that some thoughts (lust, anger, depression) might at least in part be caused by "physical" changes such as hormone levels}.
That gets us to the end of Chapter 9 and there are 3 great chapters to go. Buy the book!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Joy at Daughter's graduation

Daughter with Amartya at Trinity
A joyful day as Daughter graduated at Cambridge. This is I think our 6th Trinity graduation because in addition to mine both Son and Elder Daughter had a BA and PhD graduation. Elder Daughter had an MPhil graduation as well so it may be our 7th.

The ceremony is delightful and people are so pleased and happy. Of course for most people it's their first time but it is still wonderful even if you've done it before!

At the lunch afterwards I was able to catch up with one of my former teachers, and a contemporary who is now one of the world's leading philosophers of science.  We also have two friends whose son is an exact contemporary of our daughter and they were there as well for his graduation. It was also very good to chat more to the current Master (Sir) Greg Winter who I don't know as well as his predecessors.

Another great joy was to see Amartya Sen who was visiting briefly, and to be able to introduce him to Daughter - he knew Elder Daughter quite well, indeed when I met him he was already a friend of her's.  As you can see from the picture, Daughter was rather pleased to have met him!

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Paul among the Philosophers

Raphael Paul in Athens (1515) courtesy Wikipedia
Ch 14 of Paul and the Faithfulness of God is called The Foolishness of God: Paul among the Philosophers. Tom Wright begins with "Somewhere among the historical novels waiting to be written is a fresh account of the fictitious but potentially illuminating meeting between Paul and Seneca."  Even by tom's high standards this is a particularly interesting chapter, and I offer a few gems:
  • The philosophers...divided their investigations into three: physics, ethics and logic. 'Theology'...was subsumed under 'physics'; it was part of 'what there was'.
  • If we are to give Paul free rein to address the philosophers...he would want to challenge the basic tripartite scheme itself...to take the idea of 'god' out of the category 'physics'...seeing such placing as itself a failure to realise who the One God actually was.
  • Instead of humans acquiring knowledge of a variety of things within the whole cosmos, gods included, there is 'One God' who takes the initiative. God's 'knowing' creates the context for human 'knowing'; and the result is not a 'knowledge' such as one might have of a detached object...  The result...is love, agape. [1 Cor 8.1-3 and Gal 4.8f]
  • Paul's overall point [is].. the problem of true knowledge is not merely that appearances deceive or that people make wrong inferences, but rather that human rebellion against the one god has resulted in a distortion and a darkening of the knowledge that humans have, or still ought to have....Paul believed that when his powerful gospel was proclaimed it opened people's eyes top the reality not only of the one god and his Messiah but also to the realities of the rest of the world, including those areas where they would have obligations and duties.
  • He might have recognised in Aristotle's argument for a 'prime mover' an analogy at least to his own view...but he would certainly have rejected the dry, impersonal vision of this creator.
  • Paul believed that the world had been renewed in the Messiah; and that those who were themselves 'in the Messiah' had also been renewed as image-bearing human beings.[Rom 12.2 Phil 3.18-21]
  •  Paul does indeed teach what we may call a virtue ethic...but at the head of his list of virtues he regularly places agape...[and] adds three other virtues which, like agape itself, were more or less unknown in the world of paganism: patience, chastity and humility.
  • The philosophers suppose one may come to true knowledge by avoiding suffering; Paul, by embracing it.
  • Paul, like the mature Mozart, was quite capable of writing several different musical lnes to be sung at the same time, and we must not be put off by the spiritual heirs to the Austrian Emperor who complained that there were 'too many notes'.
  • They mocked in Athens, and they mock still. Take away the resurrection, and the picture falls apart.
  • Any self-respecting Greek or Roman with even a smattering of the noble philosophical traditions would be horrified at the idea that the ultimate revelation of the one true God might be the ugly judicial lynching of a young Jew.
He also  brilliantly critiques a Danish writer called Engberg-Pedersen who claims that Paul was some kind of Stoic, based on a "philosophical exegesis" which only uses ideas that "are a real option for us" (who "us" might been E-P doesn't say, but he seems to mean contemporary secular liberals).

Tom conlcudes his Chapter with a summary of Part IV: Paul in History:
Paul began as a Jew, went out from there into the world of non-Jewish ideas, religions and political systems. he firmly believed he was called to be Apostle to the Gentiles; and with that historical starting-point in mind we have gone back through those systems, practices and ideas, looking for the ways in which the Paul we have come to know in Parts II and III would have engaged, and did in fact engage, with those aspects of non-Jewish culture.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Tom Wright on Paul: Chapters 11-13

Fireworks from the Trinity May Ball
a bit like Tom's gems (click for the video)
I've almost finished Paul and the Faithfulness of God but am well behind on the gem collection. Here goes:
  • Much western scholarship has exemplified a characteristically protestant tendency to allow eschatology to trump ecclesiology, and so to prefer the 'mystery' of 1 Cor 15 (the future resurrection) to that of Ephesians 3 (the polychrome people of God).
  • When Paul speaks contemotuously of 'so-called "gods" whether in heaven or on earth' the latter phrase, 'on earth' cam only in his day refer to the Caesars.
  • Just as...in...the Psalms a reference to smoke coming out of God's nostrils does not intend a flat literal meaning; that when Jesus says he is a door he does not mean that he is made of wood; and that when Genesis says the world was made in six days it is not referring to six periods of 24 hours, so we have learned (or we should have done), as a matter of genre, that 'apocalyptic' language in Paul's world was regularly employed as a coded way of speaking about the rise and fall of great world powers...when Daniel wrote about four monsters...he was not writing the script for a fantasy horror movie....he was talking about actual empires, and the actual overthrow of the last and most terrible of them.
  • "When people say 'peace and security!' then swift ruin will arrive at their doorstep" [1 Thess 5.3]... But who is it that proclaims 'peace and security'?  A wealth of evidence, including coins, points in one rather obvious direction: this was a standard boast of the Roman Empire.
  • [Romans 13.1-7] is a classic piece of Jewish writing about how to live wisely under alien rule. It does not imply that the present system of government is perfect, and more than Jesus' response to Pilate in John 19.11 implies that Caesar and his minions were doing the right thing in sending him to his death.
  • As with questions of justification, so with questions of Paul and politics, we need 21st C answers to 1st C questions, not 19th C answers to 16th C questions.
  • [in Jesus] myth, history and prophetic symbolism rushed together with explosive force.
  • Once you let a metaphor out of its hutch, of course, it can meet other metaphors and do what metaphors do best, at least in Paul: get together in new formations and generate further offspring.
  • 'Celebrate' in Paul's world didn't just mean 'feel happy' or 'open a bottle of champagne when you pass the exam.' Celebration meant festivals...and... above all, sacrifice...in the temple of whatever god was playing host to the festivities.
  • For Paul, this shared meal was (a) anchored firmly in the Exodus-story, the Passover-narrative which had found strange new fulfillment in Jesus, (b) understood as the intimate sharing of life and presence between the lord and his people and (c) designed to express the unity, solidarity and holiness of the community. This is a classic piece of Pauline rethinking and reworking of religio.
  • whereas in some circles today 'speaking in tongues' is regarded as something which marks Christians off against other religions, perhaps even something which marks specially mature Christians from other members of the church, for Paul it was something which was paralleled and well known in very different settings.
  • the 'religious' things [Paul] and his communities did...constituted a...binding together of the community both in itself and within the life of this single divinity. This was not, of course, a subtle attempt to put the One God in their debt, as anxious theologians have sometimes imagined. Part of what Paul believed about this One God was that, in Jesus, he had put the whole world in his debt, completely and for ever. This is why one of Paul's central motifs is gratitude.  It is also why he seems to have turned the whole notion of debt on its head: the debt of love is the only form he permits. (Rom 13.8).
  • religio ...stands in relation to 'theology' somewhat as the steering wheel of the car in relation to the map.
This at least catches up to the start of Chapter 14: Paul Among the Philosophers which is the chapter I'm reading now. More later.

(the picture is because Daughter has just shown me the video of the fireworks at the Trinity May Ball she attended. Amazing.)

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Eating with Premiers

 It's been a week for eating with Premiers.

On Tues evening we had the honour of co-sponsoring the Banquet for Premier Li Keqiang at the Natural History Museum. I met him and his wife Prof Cheng Hong and was able to present him with a copy of my article in Harvard Business Review China about strategic leadership, based on a talk I gave at Peking University. He and his wife and daughter are all alumni of PKU. He gave a very encouraging speech about the deepening relationships between China and the UK.

Then today I was at a lunch where the guest of honour was our own Premier David Cameron (George Osborne was the senior UK politician at the Banquet for Premier Li - Cameron had had lunch with him at No 10 that day) who gave an excellent speech about the relationship between the UK and the Middle East. He emphasized that long term engagement was required and that this was an important priority of his government. He said that Islam was a religion of peace and that it was being perverted and given a bad name by extremists. And he stressed the importance of a just Two State solution for Israel and Palestine.

Clearly there are some strains of Islam which are much more peaceful than others, but I do question whether countries which have the death penalty for apostasy can be considered really "peaceful".  What does it say about a religion's intellectual self-confidence if threats of death or violence are necessary to prevent believers from falling away?

A well informed non-governmental source also told me that the situation in Iraq was pretty hopeless while Malaki remained PM, and that ISIS had received a lot of the help that was intended for the "moderate" Syrian rebels. Pretty depressing.

But in the words of Abba Eban, men and women generally act wisely ... when all other alternative courses of action have been exhausted. In the long run only a religion of love can survive.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Justin and Francis: “What were you arguing about on the way?”

Enormously encouraged by the second meeting of Justin Welby and Pope Francis.

Justin's address to Pope Francis and Pope Francis' address to Justin are both online. I was greatly encouraged by this from Pope Francis:



The Lord’s question – “What were you arguing about on the way?” (Mk 9:33) – might also apply to us. When Jesus put this question to his disciples they were silent; they were ashamed, for they had been arguing about who was the greatest among them. We too feel ashamed when we ponder the distance between the Lord’s call and our meagre response. Beneath his merciful gaze, we cannot claim that our division is anything less than a scandal and an obstacle to our proclaiming the Gospel of salvation to the world… Our progress towards full communion will not be the fruit of human actions alone, but a free gift of God. The Holy Spirit gives us the strength not to grow disheartened and he invites us to trust fully in the power of his works.

It is clear that the goal is  " full communion" - and it is possible that at least inter-communion could be achieved by Francis and Justin just deciding to do it. We can share the Eucharist without having to make the priesthoods interchangeable - just as we have full mutual recognition of baptisms already.

PS Archbishop Cranmer carries this remarkable photograph of Justin blessing Pope Francis!
 
So much for "absolutely null and utterly void".

Monday, June 16, 2014

Trinity and the Love of God

No-one could have anticipated the Trinity, but in many ways it has a compelling inner logic as a natural corollary of God is Love.  Because if Love is an essential feature of God's nature then it can't be something God has just started doing a few million, or billion, years ago. So God must in some sense contain at least two Persons, so that each can love the other. And because God's love in perfect the unity in love can be perfect, thus avoiding the contradiction that you can't have two Ultimate Creators (because in a conflict of wills who would win).

All of this could in theory have been anticipated but of course it wasn't and the crucified and resurrected Messiah who wasn't just God's servant but also God himself was a great shock to everyone.  This is course is in part because no other religion (AFAIK) sees Love as the most fundamental attribute of God.  However an almost equally great shock came to the early Christians when the realised that the Holy Spirit was also a Person in complete loving unity with the Father and the Son. The Spirit is often seen as in some sense the personification of the wisdom of God but the Spirit is also the personification of the Love of God. When the Spirit dwells in our hearts then God's love dwells in our hearts also.  Rather as the force between two particles becomes a particle itself, so we can perhaps say (we are speaking of things  "through a glass, darkly") that the perfect love of God becomes a Person.

And of course it doesn't stop there, because in Christ and the Spirit God is beginning his work of New Creation and we are called to be in loving union with God. Which means that the love of God and his Spirit draws us in to the wonderful dance of Love.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

More from Paul and the Faithfulness of God

St Paul Vatican Statue (thanks Wikimedia)
Continuing to profit greatly from Tom Wright's excellent Paul and the Faithfulness of God, though I'm only on page 1360. Let me share a few more gems:
  • "God is making his appeal through us" [2 Cor 5.20]...cannot mean only 'through what we say out loud'. It means, 'through our suffering and perplexing apostolic life'.
  • Properly speaking, 'justification' is not 'how someone becomes a Christian' but 'how someone who becomes a Christian...can be sure they will receive the verdict "righteous" on the last day'... The faith because of which the One God declares those in the Messiah to be 'in the right' is itself the work of the spirit through the proclamation of the gospel.
  • If the spirit of the living God dwells within his people, constituting them as the renewed tabernacle .. then the work of this transforming spirit can and must be spoke of in terms, ultimately, of thewsis, 'divinization'.
  • ..initial justification is so important...not just because of the need for 'assurance'...[but] because of the need to be clear that all such believers belong to Abraham's single family.
  • Mark introduces John the Baptist with two verses...both...speaking, not of the arrival of a 'Messiah'...but of the arrival of YHWH himself...Mark, Matthew and Luke have just as 'high' a christology as John.
  • For Paul, the Messiah has come, and has been crucified and raised from the dead; and with that a previously unimagined door has opened...Theologically this is like an eighteenth-century artist walking into a room full of Picassos.
  • Why [didn't God] act all at once, to produce the long-awaited perfection? Paul's answer was deeply humanizing: the one God did it this way in order to enable the humans who would share in the running of his new creation to develop the character they would need for that ultimate task.
  • Paul's whole written work...could be seen as an extended application of Romans 12.1-2. Here is the true God who is worthy of worship with our whole selves, body and all. Learn to think straight, as members of the Age to Come which has already been launched. Discover in this way, in thought and practice, what a genuine and God-pleasing human life looks like. And in particular, work out what God's will is. That working out, dokimazein, lies at the heart of Paul's vision of Christian freedom: it is not only about freedom from the deadly constraints of sin and death, but also freedom for the multiple and varied styles of service to which one may be called.
  • To those who comment, 'But you're a bishop, so presumably you take a "Christian" view, I reply: Yes; but the 'Christian' view I take, in my tradition at least, is to let the text be the text, rather than make it say what we want...It if turns out that Paul says things I do not want to hear, I shall live with it. If it turns out that I say things which Paul doesn't want to hear, perhaps he will one day put me straight.
I must get on now (I'm only up to p 1156 in this gem collection). Let us also pray for the visit of Archbishop Justin to Pope Francis. Many wonderful things could develop from it.


Wednesday, June 11, 2014

City Livery Club encouraging charity and fellowship

Tom waiting to receive his award
To a Banquet on Mon at the Guildhall to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the City Livery Club.  It was great to join fellow-members of the Livery Movement from all the other companies, meeting some old friends and making new acquaintances.

Fiona Woolf, the excellent Lord Mayor, is a long term member and gave a really moving speech about how the City Livery Club had been so supportive as she became more involved in the City politics. And the President, Paul Radcliffe, gave an excellent speech remarking on the contrast between 100 years ago when the Lord Mayor imprisoned a suffagette in the cellars and the situation now where we have wine in the cellars and a superb female Lord Mayor. He also spoke out against the injustice of unpaid intern-ships.

To celebrate the 100th anniversary the City Livery Club inaugurated the "Root and Branch Award" for the Liveryman who had made the greatest contribution to the community. This was won by a fellow-Liveryman of my Livery Company - the WCIT - called Tom Illube who has done a great deal for education including leading the creation of the Hammersmith Academy. This was presented by Princess Anne who also graciously accepted Honorary Membership of the City Livery Club.

These kind of events really encourage charity and fellowship and are another great example of soft power being used for good.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Spirit, Pentecost and the real existence of relationships

Glory in the heavens (well 36,000ft after SFO)
It’s an odd feeling spending most of the day of Pentecost in the heavens. I’ve been to Palo Alto and then Boston, and have to fly during the day.

As always when you read the Bible new things strike you. This time I noticed that Acts 2 begins, literally: “And in the together-fulfillment (sumplērousthai) of the day of Pentecost” which conveys so much more than “When the day or Pentecost was come” and that Jesus in John 15 says explicitly that he will send the spirit “who proceeds from the Father.”

What I want to try to write about is the real existence of love and relationships. We tend to think of things and individuals as primary and the relationships between them as secondary but the reality is more subtle and complex. It turns out that (almost) everything we think of as a thing can also be thought of as a number of component “things” in relationship with each other. For example if people are “nothing but” their bodies then our bodies are “nothing but” the cells and fluids, which are in turn “nothing but” their molecules, atoms and electrons etc…

But a moment’s reflection shows that this is nonsense. In order to begin to understand any “thing” we need to see it in relation to many other “things” in a number of different systems. If we focus on one level/aspect of this for a particular purpose we need to recognise that this focus is an approximation to a much more subtle and multi-layered reality. Indeed for most purposes it is largely irrelevant what the components of a system are made of – all that matters is how they interact with others in the system. The nature of their interactions is as real as the components themselves.

The reality of relationships reaches its apotheosis in the Trinity. The relationship between the Father and the Son is so real that it is the Holy Spirit which is a con-substantial and co-eternal part of the perfect unity of God. The Bible speaks of the Spirit of the Messiah (Christ) and the Spirit of God and the Love of God being poured into our hearts pretty well interchangeably. The fact is that, to the extent that God’s loving Spirit dwells in us we are caught up into the reality of the loving relationship that is at the heart of God. In Hebrew and Greek ruach and pneuma mean wind, spirit and breath.
The wind is not the air, it is the movement of the air.
And so of course is heat: the tongues of fire
Are whipped up by the wind that’s the dynamic love of God
To spread his love and strengthen and inspire. 
 We’re about to come to land but I’ll conclude with the great poem by George Herbert that was used as an anthem at Elder Grandson’s Confirmation on Tuesday. They didn’t give the title and cut a couple of verses. I think to a significant extent Herbert’s prayer is being answered, as the Gospel spreads throughout the world. So praying for all those Christians who witness to their faith inspired by the Spirit of Love and Truth, and for unity – Lord, bless especially the relationship between Archbishop Justin and Pope Francis – here is: Whitsunday
   Listen sweet Dove unto my song,
     And spread thy golden wings in me;
     Hatching my tender heart so long,
Till it get wing, and flie away with thee.

     Where is that fire which once descended
     On thy Apostles? thou didst then
     Keep open house, richly attended,
Feasting all comers by twelve chosen men.

     Such glorious gifts thou didst bestow,
     That th’ earth did like a heav’n appeare;
     The starres were coming down to know
If they might mend their wages, and serve here.

     The sunne, which once did shine alone,
     Hung down his head, and wisht for night,
     When he beheld twelve sunnes for one
Going about the world, and giving light.

     But since those pipes of gold, which brought
     That cordiall water to our ground,
     Were cut and martyr’d by the fault
Of those, who did themselves through their side wound,

     Thou shutt’st the doore, and keep’st within;
     Scarce a good joy creeps through the chink:
     And if the braves of conqu’ring sinne
Did not excite thee, we should wholly sink.

     Lord, though we change, thou art the same;
     The same sweet God of love and light:
     Restore this day, for thy great name,
Unto his ancient and miraculous right.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Fascinating tea with JCP

With John at the QoT launch 2009
Last night to Cambridge mainly for Grandson's Confirmation but also to see John Polkinghorne. He's back home after a spell in hospital and although his mind remains super-smart he is by no means as mobile as he once was.

We discussed many things including Denis Noble's special issue of Journal of Physiology, Mary Midgley's wonderful Are you an illusion? and had some preliminary thoughts on a second edition of Questions of Truth. We don't think much needs to change in the body of the book (other than correcting the strange typo) - though we haven't looked in detail at the questions and responses. But there have been significant advances in Cosmology, Neuroscience and Evolution so it would be nice to bring the Appendices up to date.  We discussed my MaxHELP hypothesis. We both think it is probably going to be falsified but which would be very interesting if true and leads to a large number of testable-in-principle predictions, even if they are currently beyond the scope of even the most powerful computational models.

Has atheism reached a high-water mark? It is hard to say. The cultural influence of people like Dawkins is clearly dwindling and places like the Veritas Forum are identifying the next generations of first rate Christian academics, whereas there are very few first rate scientists prepared to speak out for atheism.  What is completely clear is that the atheist tide has not swept all before it.

There was an interesting discussion of levels of explanation as being a bit like a concertina. Sometimes you play it with one end up, sometimes the other, and often with the two ends at much the same level. But if you want to understand what is happening you have to recognise that the parts only make sense, for most purposes, in the context of the concertina as a whole. To some extent the ideas that Denis is encouraging represent a fleshing out of what Polkinghorne talked about as "active information" and he has always recognised that there was a lot of fascinating science to be done to turn what he described as 'pre-Socratic hand-waving' into a more detailed understanding.

It was wonderful to spend time with him again - a truly great man and a great inspiration.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

The integration of evolutionary biology with physiological science

From Sun & Zhu 2014. This shows a Goldfish (L) a Common
Carp (Mid) and a hybrid with a Carp nucleus in a goldfish egg.
Although the hybrid looks like a Carp it has about the same no
of vertebrae as a Goldfish (28-30) not a Carp (32-36)
Denis Noble emails me to say that the special issue of The Journal of Physiology about the integration of evolutionary biology with physiological science is now online.

This develops the ideas presented at IUPS Congress in Birmingham in July 2013 and "a rising tide of recently published articles in major scientific journals, including Nature Reviews Genetics (Müller, 2007), Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA (Mattick, 2012), Nature (Ball, 2013), Biological Journal of the Linnean Society (Bateson, 2014) and Science (Rosenberg & Queitsch, 2014). It was also prompted by important books that have appeared recently (Margulis & Sagan, 2003; Jablonka & Lamb, 2014; Noble, 2006; Beurton et al. 2008; Pigliucci & Müller, 2010; Bateson & Gluckman, 2011; Gissis & Jablonka, 2011; Shapiro, 2011). Those books also propose either significant extensions of existing evolutionary theory or the replacement of the Modern Synthesis by a new synthesis."

Denis and his highly distinguished  co-authors (Eva Jablonka, Michael J. Joyner, Gerd B. Müller and Stig W. Omholt) summarise the questions addressed in the papers in this special issue as including:
  • What are the major new developments in evolutionary biology and how do they challenge the Modern Synthesis?
  • Which of these developments have implications for how the physiological sciences should further their understanding of health and disease?
  • If the Modern Synthesis is to be extended or replaced by a new explanatory structure, what is the role of physiology in the development of this structure? 
This is all enormously exciting and I urge anyone interested to read it. I'll try to blog further but I'm enormously busy at the moment

Denis has also updated his Answers Page which contains some more detailed explanation and responses to critics.

PS: One of the many interesting and crucial points is that "DNA does not have the privileged place in the chain of causality many attribute to it." The ways in which DNA, RNA and physiology interact are far more complex and multifaceted than the simplistic "lumbering robots" myth of Dawkins.  From a systems PoV one of the consequences is that evolution can work much faster and more efficiently than the Modern Synthesis would allow. The other consequence is that (as per Noble's famous principle of biological relativity) the notion that "lower" levels are "more fundamental" than higher levels of explanation completely disappears. This is quite a subtle point and I really must develop it in a subsequent blog post. But the basic idea is that mechanism, form, function and purpose are all key explanatory levels in a complex evolutionary system with multiple levels of feedback.  Indeed in some cases the mechanism is (largely, to first order) irrelevant in that you get more or less the same outcomes (statistically) regardless of the precise mechanisms.