Sunday, August 31, 2014

WWI Review and Prince of Prussia Interview

Nicky G with Prince of Prussia. Click to view video
Last night there was a World War One Review at the local Church. This was primarily members of the congregation singing WW1 songs and reading poems. In two cases they were what might be described as recitations or mini-lectures: one on WW1 musicians and one on Edith Cavell. One of the war veterans present (WW2 of course not WW1) also gave a poem of his own composition.

It was all surprisingly effective and moving, and had a delightful atmosphere.

But the finale was a screening of this YouTube Video from the HTB Leadership Conference this year, when Nicky Gumbel interviewed a direct descendent of Kaiser Willhelm II who is now a Lutheran Pastor - he is also of course a descendant of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. He asked for forgiveness on behalf of his great-great-grandfather, who, he said, was a believer and didn't want the war but he can't have had a deep personal relationship with Jesus because if he had he would have stood up to the generals a politicians.  Deeply moving - do watch!

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Isaac Newton Institute, Winter, Sen and Polkinghorne

Isaac Newton Institute
Back from a fascinating few days in Cambridge as a Visiting Fellow at the Isaac Newton Institute.

I vividly remember the first time I met Michael Atiyah. He was Master of Trinity and I was dining on High Table and I asked him what was his biggest strategic problem. He looked at me with a twinkle.  "Money." he said. "We have far too much money. We don't know what to do with it."  Well one of the great things they did with it was to set up the Isaac Newton Institute and I was delighted to be invited to be a Visiting Fellow as part of their programme on systemic risk.

The first day I dined on Trinity High Table at the invitation of the present Master because I have to give the Speech at the Annual Gathering for those of us who Matriculated (ie started at Trinity) in 1972, 1973 and 1974. There are of course many, many people in this cohort far more distinguished than I (5 FRSs, 10 FBAs, the Archbishop of Canterbury at least two Ks and one Peer) but I wanted to get an idea of what Greg expected. Dinner was especially delightful because Amartya Sen was sitting on my right and Emma Rothschild was opposite me. It was great to catch up with them: Amartya in super form and later this year he will be giving a course in Harvard Medical School - last academic year he was lecturing on the Philosophy of Mathematics (some notes from a co-lecturer are here)!  I also met Sir David Baulcombe who says he's looking at hybrids and why some are so much more successful than their parents.

Lots of very good people at the workshop including my old friend Robert MacKay and it stimulated a lot of interesting thinking. One of the US visitors wants to write a paper with me. I was also delighted to meet a young lady* attending the sessions who was about to go up to Trinity to read Maths - clearly someone to watch!

I also managed to have tea with John Polkinghorne and it was great to catch up with him and listen to some of his wisdom. We discussed how we would revise Questions of Truth for a second edition. The technical appendices could be updated helpfully - inflation is looking more plausible and John rather likes the idea at least in it's non-chaotic/eternal form.

* Khyla Kadeena-Miller

Monday, August 25, 2014

Lake District Gathering and thoughts from a wedding

Back from delightful family gathering in the Lake District, organised by my in-laws. They had all their descendants except a daughter in New Zealand, and hence all our descendants (between the two photos they are all there).

The first full day was a bit wet - and a walk up Skiddaw had to be abandoned when it started to hail about 2/3rds of the way up.

However on the second day I was determined to help M (middle grand-daughter, 4) go up Cat Bells on her own feet. We walked in a big party from the hotel and sure enough up she went including climbing two quite awkward bits for a 4-year-old.  E (youngest grand-daughter, 2) also came up but was in a back pack for much of the time.

M on Cat Bells with Elder Daughter and sister E
The hotel was part of the excellent HF Holidays very much organised for large groups doing walking - indeed the main point of HF is that you can turn up as a singleton and join in a large group.  But they were very indulgent to our gathering of the clan, and we were invited to join in their evening entertainments of a quiz night and barn dancing. With about 24 people we fielded 3 teams from the quiz night one of which won because sensibly we dispersed the Oxbridge degrees (15 between 6 people) and the winning team had three Oxbridge, one non-Oxbridge and one schoolboy: the last two supplied the key extra edge especially on popular culture and sport!

As contributions to the entertainment Younger Grandson played the piano and C, I, Son, Daughter-in-law and Younger Grandson sang The Silver Swan - which C and I had sung when we were undergraduates before we began going out!

We had to leave sharply for the wedding of an old family friend which had the extra frisson that her father was too unwell to make a speech so I had to do so instead. Driving from the Lakes to Ealing was a trek and we arrived with minutes to spare.

The speech was short and light hearted, but I did conclude with what I hoped would be two useful thoughts:
Sarah and Eion, you are embarking on a huge adventure. Your journey together will have many ups and downs. Nobody’s perfect and of course no couple is perfect. Show me a couple with a perfect marriage, and I will show you a couple you don’t know as well as you think you do.

We all have to decide whether you believe that ultimately, at the base of everything, there is nothing but matter/energy – a big bang or whatever, or whether behind and beyond the big bang there is love. If it’s matter then maybe, ultimately, nothing matters. But suppose the songs and the readings we heard today are true. Ask yourself the question: is it, could it be love - ultimately at the base of everything? Because if it’s love, then what we are celebrating today really matters.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Paul and his Jewish Context

Saint Paul Writing His Epistles by Valentin de Boulogne
Courtesy Wikipedia.
I'm still reading with great profit Tom Wright's Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Ch 15 is called "To know the place for the first time: Paul and his Jewish Context" and like the rest is full of gems.
  • Paul was simply not concerned very much with 'religion' a such, whether for or against... What mattered, rather, was the belief that Jesus of Nazareth was Israel's Messiah.  More precisely and importantly, that the crucified and rised Jesus of Nazareth was Israel's Messiah and the world's true Lord....The otherwise unthinkable notion of a crucified Messiah was forced on Paul and the other early Jesus-followers by Jesus' resurrection, which compelled them to take seriously the messianic claim which otherwise the crucifixion would have falsified.
  • His main message... was... that pagans should trun from idols to worship the true and living God. Anything he might have to say to his Jewish contemporaries who did not believe in Jesus he would say by way of reflex from that primary vocation... when Paul spoke to pagans, as he did most of the time, he spoke, not about justification, but about the One God and his son, Jesus.
  • For Paul it was dazzlingly clear. Either Jesus was Israel's Messiah or he was not... if Jesus really was Israels Messiah, then no first-century Jew could have supposed for a minute that following him was an option that one might take up or not.
  • What has happened, in short, is this. We have looked back through post-Enlightenment and post-Holocaust spectacles at teachers like Chrystostom... or indeed Luther... We have then looked at Paul in the light of them. Then we have tried to decide whether Paul was, or was not, guilty of the sins which the modern west has come to associate with 'the church' and its elbowing of'the Jews' out of the picture. This is not a recipe for doing history.
  • For Paul what mattered was not that he, Paul, had had a particular kind of 'experience' but that Israel's Messiah had been crucified and been raised.
  • For Paul, when a Jew believes in 'the one who raised from the dead Jesus our lord' (Romans 4.24) this constitutes an act of 'resurrection', whereas when a Gentile believes Paul sees that event as an act of 'new creation'.
  • Reducing Paul's compositional options to the limits of hypothetical reader-incompetence is an example of that left-brain rationalism, allied to a hermeneutic of suspicion, from which biblical studies has suffered for far too long.
  • Paul believes that it is a central part of Christian faith not only to be a reader of scripture, but one who is changed by that reading.
  • references to God's righteousness and human righteousness, far from cancelling one another out, belong firmly together. God is the righteous judge, the faithful covenant-maker: his people will be declared 'righteous', covenant members, at the last, and this is anticipated in the present.
Tom concludes so wonderfully I must quote it almost in full:
A Jew like no other. Yes, perhaps. An anomalous Jew: from one point of view, yes. A renegade Jew? Not if you believe that Jesus was Israel's Messiah. An Israelite indeed - though with enough rhetorical guile to harangue the Galatians one minute, tease the Corinthians the next, and set before the Romans a text like no other, a document only comprehensible as coming from the very heart of the Jewish world and yet opening up vistas never before imagined there or anywhere else.  Paul insisted that his primary self-identity was not, in fact, simply being Jewish. His primary self-identity was that he was a Messiah-man. He was en Christo, and conversely the Messiah lived in him, so that Paul and all other Messiah-people had 'the Messiah's mind'. These extraordinary claims, only comprehensible from within the Jewish world, nevertheless split that world open at the seams. They are those of a man who has burned his boats.
Wonderful!  Do buy and read the book.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Contingency in Evolution

Fig 1 from Harms and Thornton
a, Evolution of hormone specificity in vertebrate GRs6. Icons indicate
taxa (tetrapods, teleosts, elasmobranchs); circles show sensitivity to cortisol
(purple) or 11-deoxycorticosterone (orange). Transparent box represents
evolution of new function. b, Seven historical substitutions recapitulate the
shift in specificity. Two permissive mutations (P), which have no effect on
specificity when introduced alone, allow AncGR1 to tolerate five function-
switching mutations (F)6. Spheres are coloured by primary ligand (orange,
11-deoxycorticosterone; purple, cortisol), or no activation (grey). Thick bars
connect functional proteins; thin bars lead to non-functional proteins. Arrows
represent evolutionary paths that pass only through functional intermediates.
c, Historical (P) or alternative permissive (P′) mutations rescue AncGR1+F
and are tolerated in the ancestral background. Non-permissive pathways pass
through non-functional intermediates (A and B, grey spheres) or fail to rescue
F (C). Inset: screening conditions in yeast that identify AncGR1+F variants
that confer growth in 1μM cortisol, compared with vehicle-only control.
Fascinating paper in Nature called "Historical contingency and its biophysical basis in glucocorticoid receptor evolution" by Michael Harms and Joseph Thornton explores how chance events shape the history of evolution.  They focus on the glucocorticoid receptor (GR) which is an extremely important mechanism regulating gene transcription.

By looking at genes in ancestral organisms they demonstrate that two permissive mutations were necessary to allow the ancestral GR1 gene to tolerate five function-switching mutations.  These permissive mutations cannot directly have been the result of selection pressure becasue they had no function on their own.

Then (and this seems to me to be the really clever bit) they show that alternative mutations which could have permitted such tolerance are extremely rare in the set of genotypes that are accessible to the ancestral GRs. They do this both by screening and by elucidating the complex physical requirements that such mutations would have to satisfy - three simultaneously.

They therefore conclude that the evolution of this vital and largely ubiquitous mechanism is extremely unlikely.

Of course it's impossible to say how many other ways such a mechanism might have evolved overall, and also how many parallel attempts would have been being made. Since the GR is so important, these accidental improvements might have mattered a great deal and even a tiny chance of a successful series of mutations would have been enough. It would be great to see one of Martin Nowak's team give some calculations.  But it is a sober reminder that, however much convergent evolution there may be, life is full of contingencies and what we think of as inevitable just isn't.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Caution on self-organising machines

Fig 2 from Felton et al Self-assembling origami robot
 Two rather stunning papers in the same issue of Science raise some perennial, but significant, concerns. Felton et al describe their self-assembling origami robot. Although in many ways this raises no new issues of principle, it clearly makes the mass-production of self-assembling robots one step nearer.

Who or what will control these or will they be allowed to swarm - with completely unpredictable consequences?

Fig 2 from Merola et al. Principles of TrueNorth Architecture
Meanwhile Merola et al describe their "million spiking-neuron integrated circuit with a scalable communication network and interface" which describes a digital architecture that mimics a reasonably large scale neural network with reasonable power consumption properties - power consumption has become a major limiting factor on the power of computers.

Neural architectures also lend themselves to being programmed as self-organising networks where no-one really knows what is happening.

So the question naturally arises: what is to prevent autonomous computer/robot systems from doing serious harm to humanity?  Asimov suggested that the Three Laws of Robotics should be embedded in all robots, but there is no sign of this happening. I understand that Nick Bostrom has written a book about this: Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies (OUP, 2014). Without being alarmist, there are serious ethical issues here that need to be thought through before these bugs become to widespread.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Richard III at Trafalgar Studios + good family news

To Trafalgar Studios to see Richard III with two dear American friends. Martin Freeman was ill so Philip Cumbus, who normally plays Richmond, stepped up to the title role with tremendous effect.

The production is set in roughly the time of the "Winter of Discontent" in 1979 though imagining that there had been some kind of Civil War. Maggie Steed was excellent as Queen Margaret and Gina McKee was fine as Queen Elizabeth. Joshua Lacey (who normally plays Buckingham) was fine as Richmond.

The programme notes are a bit Guaridan-ish, giving in my view a bit too much credence to the Spycatcher story. My father was at a reception at No 10 the day before Harold Wilson resigned - Wilson was a former (Vice-)President of the Royal Statistical Society - and used to joke that he had persuaded Wilson to resign. I met Wilson once and he told me a scurrilous story about why Jim Callaghan had appointed his son-in-law as Ambassador to Washington - which I'd better not repeat on this blog. Suffice it to say that it wasn't nepotism but it was because he was his son-in-law.

Golden day today with all our descendants here. Daughter has won the Peter Peckard Prize. And to my utter astonishment I've been invited by the Master to be the speaker at our Trinity Annual Gathering!!

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Listen, Trust and Look

Jesus walks on water, by Ivan Aivazovsky
I was asked to preach today and the texts were 1 Kings 19:9-18 (Elijah and the earthquake, wind and fire) and Matthew 14:22-33 (Jesus walking on water).

Lord open our hearts and minds to your love. Bless anything I say that is true, and correct my errors in the minds of these kind hearers, through your Holy Spirit. Amen.

Justin Welby was visiting William Hague at the Foreign Office.  As they left the building, William saw a chauffeur waiting and asked “Is that your car?” “No” said Justin, “I walked.”  “Oh, did you walk over the bridge?” “Well yes, on this occasion” Justin replied. “Sometimes of course I walk on the water but I thought it would be showing off.”

I remember when Tony Blair was first elected and The Economist remarked that the main disagreement between his supporters was about what kind of water he walked on best.  Walking on water has become a cliché – but to the disciples it was a complete unknown.

When we read the Bible we almost always look at small pieces of it. This is fine as far as it goes. But we need to remember that the Bible tells and often re-tells the story of God’s interaction with his people which is, as Tom Wright points out, his big rescue plan for creation. He calls Abraham and tells him that through you all the nations of the earth shall be blessed. He calls and teaches his people Israel for the same purpose. He sends his Messiah “to be a light to enlighten the nations, and to be the glory of his people Israel.”  And the Glory of the Lord, the shekenah isn’t some abstract concept. The shekenah, God’s glory, fills the Temple when Solomon dedicates it – it is the visible sign of God’s actual presence in the temple.  It’s clearly closely related to the Holy Spirit. When the disciples are filled with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost there are tongues of fire and a rushing, mighty wind. In Hebrew and Greek the words for spirit and wind are the same (ruach and pneuma) – though there is another Greek word anEmos meaning wind which is used here in the Gospels to avoid misunderstanding.

The lectionary we use at this service is the common lectionary in use throughout the world between the Anglicans, Roman Catholics and (most) Methodists. When I worship in the South Cathedral in Beijing I know that they are reading the same passages as we are in London. Wise people with thought and prayer bring together passages from the Old and New Testaments that shed light on each other, and this is one way we are helped to hear the Bible as a whole.

So we start with Elijah. He has triumphed over the prophets of Baal. Their loud prayers and incantations had no effect – Elijah’s brought down fire from heaven and they are routed. But still King Ahab is set in his sinful ways and seeks Elijah’s life. He flees and seems to be on the point of giving up. He’s one of the greatest prophets and miracle workers in the OT and God has to ask him twice: “What are you doing here Elijah?” and the answer is, essentially, “I’ve run away.”  So God gives a tremendous demonstration of His power: Mighty wind, earthquake, fire - but the Lord was not in these – he was in the “still small voice” or “a sound of sheer silence” as the NRSV has it.  The Lord re-commissions Elijah, to appoint kings and a prophet, and tells him that there are many more disciples than he supposes – seven thousand in fact.

Now let’s come to Jesus. He has just fed about seven thousand people (5,000 men besides women and children) by miraculously extending the supply of food. Elijah did something similar when he stayed with the widow of Zarephath during a famine in Israel.  Some say he is Elijah returned to earth. What is going on? There are many times in Jesus’ ministry when he seems to be concerned to make crystal clear that he is not the kind of Messiah that people were expecting – a conquering warlord who will drive the Romans into the sea through a combination of supernatural power and armed might.  There was just one Roman Legion in Galilee (VIth Ironclad) and one in Judea (Xth Sea strait) and the nominal strength of a legion was about 5,000. Legions were divided into 10 cohorts each of which was commanded by a senior centurion. People might get the wrong idea if they hear that a charismatic new leader has assembled about 5,000 men, who he is directing through a dozen of his closest followers. So Jesus very visibly sends the “cohort commanders” away, in a boat so everyone can see them go and the crowds can’t follow.  Then he personally dismisses the crowds, and goes up into the mountain to pray by himself. John in the parallel passage (John 6.15-21) actually tells us “perceiving then that they were about to come and seize him to make him King”

In the night he comes to them, in a rough sea, with a strong wind against them, walking on the water. Now Israel was emphatically not a maritime nation. The sea symbolises chaos, destruction. “The waves of the sea are mighty and rage horribly” says the Psalmist adding, tellingly, “but yet The Lord, who dwelleth on high is mightier.” The only Old Testament prophet rash enough to go on the sea was Jonah, and that was in disobedience to God and went badly (though we are meant to think about Jonah here and Jesus will mention him directly in Chapter 16. He’s the most successful preacher in the Bible and he preaches to the heathens, not to Israel. And Jesus addresses Peter as Simon son of Jonah when he makes the famous profession of faith). Not even Elijah walked on water. The disciples see him and are terrified.  They think “it’s a ghost” and they cry out with fear. Are they worried that it could be Jesus’ ghost – that something awful has happened and that he is dead, I wonder? Even though many of them are fishermen and have sailed these waters hundreds of times they have never seen anything like this. They are hundreds of yards from the land. Jesus says “Cheer up, it is I, do not fear!” The Greek in all three accounts (Mark 6.45-52 and John 6.16-21) is “ego eimi” “I am. ” And then Peter does something rash and strange. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”  And at one word, Peter gets out of the boat and walks on the water to Jesus.

How did he do it? How did Jesus do it? Of course we don’t know. I suspect the sea under Jesus’ feet and Peter’s became a Shear-Thickening Fluid, where the surface tension was increased so that it will support the weight of a human for a short while provided they were moving – you sink if you stop as Peter seems to have done.  Students can do this to a swimming pool with cornstarch (you can find videos on the web) and it’s safe to assume that God is a lot more resourceful than 20th century students.  The point is that Jesus is showing here that he has God’s power within him. The disciples call him “son of God” at this point (there is no “the” in the Greek) but they don’t yet realise what this really means – we haven’t had the confession of Peter or the Transfiguration yet. Looking back we, and they, can see it as an acknowledgement of Jesus’ unique divine status as the Second Person of the Trinity. At the time they spoke wiser than they knew.

So what can we draw from this for our lives?  I’d like to suggest three: Listen, Trust and Look.
  • First, we must listen. We don’t hear God’s word as clearly and directly as Elijah and Peter did. But God does lead us and speak to us. Sometimes this is with powerful signs and wonders, though Jesus in Chapter 16 speaks against expecting these. Sometimes it is a still small voice. Sometimes it is through reading the Bible, or in prayer, or even in a sermon. And sometimes it is a really unexpected situation. It’s pretty safe to say that we will not be called to walk on water. But we may well be called to do things that seem almost equally impossible and in some cases dangerous. Prayer and attentive bible reading, and making the time and the space for god-centered stillness, are key to this. Preparing this sermon has certainly made me realise I need to spend a lot more time in silent attentive prayer.
  • When we are called by God, we need to trust. God will not ask us to do things without equipping us with the power to do what he wants us to do. This is sometimes not quite what we think we are being asked to do. Often we don’t understand what God really wants and he seems to be calling us to do X when in fact he wants us to travel towards X and then turn somewhere else.
  • Thirdly, we must look to Jesus. While Peter is looking at Jesus and walking towards him, he is safe. As soon as he focuses on the wind and is afraid he begins to sink, but he cries out “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him, and he says to him oligopiste – person of little-faith.  Little faith!  Peter has just stepped out of a boat onto the sea in a raging storm to walk on the water to Jesus.  We don’t understand faith, but if that’s what happens with a little faith, just imagine what we could do if we had faith as big as, say, a single mustard seed.
Listen, Trust and Look to Jesus.  Easy to say, and not so easy to do! But this is the life of discipleship. And however rough the waves, however strong the wind, we can cry out “Lord, save me”  And he will – sometimes in this life and always in the life to come.

It was an especial privilege to have in the congregation a remarkable 99-year-old woman whose earliest memory is of Zepplin raids in the First World War.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Imperial War Museum

Travoys Arriving with Wounded at a Dressing-Station
in Smol, Macedonia, September 1916. Stanley Spencer
To the Imperial War Museum on Thurs for a friend's retirement party. He gave a moving speech pointing out that for most of 1914 the question of war was not remotely on the minds of the UK. There was extensive discussion of Irish Home Rule and the Suffragettes and the crisis in the Balkans didn't really figure, even until July.

He urged us all to see the exhibition afterwards and the WWI paintings are (naturally) quite depressing. Partly this is a question of the subject but also in general the artists aren't that great. However this very striking painting by Stanley Spencer is an exception.

The museum as a whole is fascinating. The building was originally constructed in 1815 to be the site of the Bethlem Royal Hospital which dates back to 1247 and was the first hospital in England for the insane. The massive atrium has large flying exhibits including a Harrier, a Spitfire, a V1 and a V2.  It is of course too simplistic to say that war is always insane, but there is (almost) always an insanity in war.  Showing Nuclear Bombs is a salutary reminder of how much death can be placed in a little package.  Yet it is worth remembering that the Influenza epidemic of 1919 killed more people than WWI.
Casing for Little Boy

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Sommer 14 - A dance of death

To the Finborough Theatre last night to see Sommer 14 - A Dance of Death, a new play by Rolf Hochhuth. This production is the world premiere of the English version and we saw the second performance (Press Night is tonight).
Hochhuth's presents the build up to World War I and some incidents during the war with Death, brilliantly played by newcomer Dean Bray (center), as an outraged chorus, demanding to know how this mass slaughter, of which he deeply disapproves, has come about. This is a highly effective conceit. The resulting scenes with 30 characters provide fascinating sketches and offer a powerful, though highly ideological, narrative. The performance lasts about 2 hours and is heavily cut from the full text which has even more characters (including Tsar Nicholas II) and would run for 4 hours.

The cast are all very good indeed. Dean Bray is very much the star, apparently just out of drama school, and Edmund Dehn's seasoned professionalism and craft as Emperor Franz Joseph and Admiral von Tirpitz were very fine. Other performances of note were from Kirby Hughes (as Alice Keppel and Margot Stimson) and Sarah-Jayne Butler as a Lusitania Victim.

Hochhuth evidently has an animus against Churchill - understandable for a German born in 1931 - and previously lost a libel action when he suggested that Churchill had Sikorski murdered. Here he suggests that Churchill deliberately engineered the sinking of the Lusitania to drag the US into the war. It's certainly true that the Lusitania was carrying muntions in her holds, and that the Germans explicitly warned in the US Newspapers that they would treat her as a military target. Clearly Churchill would have welcomed any action by the Germans that would drag the US into the war, but this doesn't absolve the Germans of responsibility. And of course it was almost 2 years after the sinking that the US did enter.

Some of the vingnettes are so (melo)dramatic that at first you think Hochhuth must have made them up, but on reflection you realise the reverse. Thus we begin with the shooting of the Editor of Le Figaro by the wife of the Minister of Finance, and later we have the suicide of Clara Haber because her husband Fritz Haber won't give up his work on poison gas as a German weapon (very well played by Andrea Hart and Nick Danan, who also gave a fine performance as Churchill) and the death from a heart attack of the Russian Ambassador to Serbia whilst visiting the German Ambassador there.  On the other hand Hochhuth's (absurd) thesis that the war was engineered by the munitions makers is given dramatic force by a dialogue between a US industrialist and munitions maker and his daughter who is going on the Lusitania to volunteer as a nurse. But the character, Henry Stimson, was in fact a US politician and not an industrialist at all.

But this is not a documentary, it is a very powerful and polemical play. I don't agree with the polemics, but it is a very fine production. Go and see it if you can.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Midgley concludes: On still being here

The final post on Are you an Illusion? a brilliant book which I urge everybody to read!

In her final chapter Midgley begins: "we have been asking how...a number of highly educated and sophisticated scholars - people dedicated to the life of the mind - are now claiming that their own minds, and other people's minds too, do not exist.
  As we have seen, this mechanistic materialism has become an orthodoxy today, professed... in the half-casual way in which people used formerly to recite the Christian creeds, without any notion of making it the basis of their lives... they seldom actually try to live by it. In fact, it would be quite impossible for any human to live their life on that basis... So why is this happening?"

I can only give you some of the gems from this chapter, but here they are:
  • Unkind critics have suggested that this happens because the belief in question is only supposed to apply to other people... there is much in this...Crick... doesn't say"I have just realised that I am an illusion."  It is you, not himself, that he at once consigns to the bin.
  • But something rather deeper than this has surely been at work... the idea that scientific doctrine is not meant to apply to he vulgar, common-sense world that we ordinary humans live in...[but] to describe a separate, more refined, possibly Platonic world that only scientists can perceive.
  • This ambition to transcend humanity is rather touching and ...certainly not new, but it is nevertheless... doomed.
  • There is no flatter mathematics and physics by representing them as remote ideals that other subjects should imitate. They are splendid arts in their own right, as well as being useful to other sciences. But ... [all the sciences] do different work. And they all contribute to a whole that grows from the soil of common sense, to which they are therefore still ultimately answerable.
  • [Lewis] Worpert writes as if all other organised human thinking - all the arts and crafts, history, poetry, geography... - did not exist. These disciplined ways of thinking are, however, what has enabled the human race to deal with the fearful range of problems that has confronted it ... problems quite unlike the highly abstract ones that are railed off for physics and certainly no less important.
Her final paragraphs are so good they are worth quoting at length: is out of this immense striving of thought that the modern sciences and other academic disciplines have grown. They are subcultures that have emerged within this vast general effort to understand the world. Each of them deals with its own range of problems, and each often needs to develop specialised ways of thinking... But in developing these technical method... they use [the basic understanding of life that forms part of the human inheritance] as the foundation for everything else they build.
...we might see these newer, more specialised ways of thinking, acting and talking as being like forms of vegetation that grow on the surface of life and are liable to change. The soil and the rocks below us do not alter... The new skills are left-brain business.  If we are to fit them into the rest of life we need to use our entire brains....

The idea that reports of brain movements could ever replace this direct understanding is surely a fantasy. It seems to be a prime case of left-hemisphere bias error, tunnel vision that grows from an over-concentration on a particular range of details.
Wise and wonderful words.  Do buy and read the book!

Sunday, August 03, 2014

More from Midgely - and Sally Farmiloe RIP

Back from a wonderful time in Cornwall, with the UK grandchildren. Then very busy and largely unbloggable. But I finished Are You an Illusion a while ago but there are 3 chapters of gems left to blog.

Her Chapter 10 is "How divided selves live" and begins: "We have seen that the claim to eliminate free will has many things wrong with it. But one striking thing is has in common with attempts to eliminate the self is...that neither...seems...seriously meant...If, for instance, they lose an important document, they do not refuse to think where they left it, on the grounds that their mental effort can never affect the world. Nor do they complain when it is assumed that the winners of Nobel prizes ought to deserve them...Materialists...take it for granted that conscious decisions and conscious efforts ceaselessly determine our actions. Responsibility cannot possibly be an illusion. "
  • The gap between our inner and outer world is indeed a real one...When two kinds of perceptions seem to clash like this...we have to find some way of deciding which should prevail. And that is why we frame our worldviews, sketch maps that are necessarily imaginative compromises between inner and outer perception. such map, taken as final. Not only is the relation between its two parts obscure, but there is clearly something odd about its neglect of the obvious middle term: Life.
  • She notes how the competition between magic and science in the Renaissance led to strong prejudice against certain forms of explanation. Galileo refused to consider Kepler's explanation of the tides because he regarded attraction as a superstitious concept. She quotes highly intemperate language from Bacon about how "we should conquer and subdue [Nature], shake her to her foundations."  She suggests that this attitude  led to a dismissal of ideas like Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis with Maynard Smith calling it "an evil religion"
  • She also notes that whereas Renaissance scientists were opposing Nature to God, "Galileo's troubles with the Church never disturbed his Theism; they were essentially political ... References to God in scientific writings of the time are not ...just a matter of form... they were ... to discredit the old dependence on Nature as an outdated superstition."
  • These inner conflicts are...a crucial aspect of our lives. They always make it hard to consider the self as, indeed, a single whole. Yet this wholeness.... is essential to all our thinking, including our ordinary personal lives.
In Chapter 11, "Hemispheres and Holism" she explores this more deeply, drawing on Iain McGilchrist's wonderful The Master and His Emissary.
  • We know well that we are divided beings...Attempts at "integration, more or less effective" are our normal business. They are what happens all the time inside the "self" of which people now offer to deprive us, and it is hard to see how our lives could go on for a minute without attention to these activities.
  • Scientistically minded people dismissed Freud and Marx...Jung...[is] scarcely on the syllabus at all while Nietzsche has been safely cordoned off somewhere in the humanities. The core of the not that we don't study the appropriate sages but that we have been deliberately deterred...from directly attending to ourselves and to those around us at all.  The bizzare anti-self campaign which is the main subject of this book is surely intended, amongst other things, to put us off taking notice of everybody's inner life: to persuade us that this is a trivial, contemptible subject by the simple device of pretending it isn't there.
In Chapter 12: The Supernatural Aspects of Physics she begins with Ray Monk's review of Lee Smolin's book Time Reborn:
  • That the passing of time is an illusion is now the orthodoxy amongst theoretical physicists... they have been bewitched by the beauty and success of the mathematical models they use into mistaking these models for reality. [says Monk] Smolin [she says] is exceptional in that he flatly refuses to accept this attitude... because he thinks (surely rightly) that this arises from philosophical assumptions rather than from scientific argument...In short, time needs to be classed as an illusion only if we decide to define reality as shaped by the current ideas of physicists, rather than... by what is an unremovable part of the world that we all have to deal with... And since today's physics is always on the move and full of unresolved conflicts, the idea of making our concept of reality depend on it is not seductive.
  • What [Physicists] are really saying is not "we now know that time does not exist" which, being a sentence in the present tense, would probably be contradictory - but simply "time is not relevant to our calculations" {of course she means time in a philosophical sense as opposed to a t coordinate}. In short, time is no business of physicists. But then plenty of other things, from frogs to parliaments, are not their business either, and that does not stop them being real.
  • [She compares the idea that time is unreal because our intuition of it doesn't agree with physicist's models with the situation on heat] Scientifically speaking, heat is, it seems, just the kinetic energy of motion of atoms. But when people say they feel hot ... this aspect does not need to be mentioned because it is not relevant. Ordinary uses of the term are well understood without bringing accusations of illusion.
  • We are being told we are mere peasants, helpless "folk-psychologists", and we may well hear this dictum as a simple insult: "you are nothing."
  • The entities in which physics deals - quarks, electrons, black holes and so forth - are no more real than any individual's own joys and sorrows... or indeed than the road he is just going to cross. They are just exceptionally abstract entities, forming parts of theories that are exceptionally general...There is no rivalry... between these different kinds of item for the status of reality...These abstractions... make it possible to theorise about the world on an impressively vast scale. But the theories that are formed in this way are still part of human thought. They gain their importance from their relation to the rest of life. They are not a window into a quite different spiritual world...
  • As late as the start of the 20th century, people like Bertrand Russell... saw [the] choice between idealistic and materialistic reduction as still an open option. But then there occurred one of those strange cultural earthquakes... making what is familiar suddenly appear unthinkable. Idealism went right out of fashion.
  • Dualism...and...the reductions that stem from it are all answers to a single question..:what stuff is everything made of? ... but it seems to me that we should do much better by ceasing to ask that particular question. Searching for an underlying stuff is a useful plan when we are talking about physical objects but it is not at all obviously appropriate when we are talking about things of different kinds, like cheese and thought.
  • Might it not be more realistic if, instead of positing two separate stuffs, we used... the image of exploring a vast landscape... that can approached from various angles but can't be laid open from a single point?
  • So one way or another, the policy of splitting everything into mind and matter turned out badly. Once that division was made...people were bound to try to deal with it by dropping one of the two terms. And that device was bound to make things worse...TH Huxley suggested his steam-whistle solution...[that] we are "conscious automata."  Huxley himself does not seem to have attached any special importance to this idea... The Materialists of his day, however, eagerly seized this suggestion... Thus with the same devout docility that they attributed to medieval schoolmen, scientists agreed to preserve their materialist creed by signing up for a tale that, as anyone can see, does not actually make sense at all.
  • When we talk of any living thing (including a human) as a machine we are using  a metaphor... no-one has made them, they are here because they have grown... even John Searle, who is usually a beacon of sanity... wrote..
    '"Could a machine think?" The answer is obviously, yes. We are precisely such machines.'
    But the whole argument is hollow. We are not such machines... We are animals.
  • Just as behaviourists concluded ... that human life could be fully understood by simply observing the physical details of behaviour, so today's reductivists have decided it can henceforward all be safely left to neurological experiments... [but] both these schemes are just promissory materialism; visionary drafts on an imaginary future that have no kind of prospect of being redeemed.
    Instead enquiries about this vast subject will have to go on... through an endless series of enterprises... [that] need to be lit up constantly by the fire of serious attention to actual life. There is no short cut.
I'll blog the conclusion separatly.

Sad to learn of the death of our friend Sally Farmiloe. May she rest in peace and RISE IN GLORY!