22 December 2010

2010 in books

So, as we’re coming to the end of the year, here is a list of the book I’ve read, organised by approximate category. Some may overlap, so I’ve tried to fit them where they seem most appropriate. You can see some book reviews for the ones I’ve read later on in the year. I don’t write reviews for anything where the time gap between reading the book and writing the review is more than 3 weeks.

Science
1. The Strangest Man – Graham Farmelo
2. Six Easy Pieces – Richard Feynman
3. Six Not So Easy Pieces – Richard Feynman
4. The Grand Design – Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow
5. The Drunkard’s Walk – Leonard Mlodinow
6. The Character of Physical Law – Richard Feynman
7. Alex’s Adventures in Numberland – Alex Bellos
8. The Trouble With Physics – Lee Smolin
9. The Constants of Nature – John Barrow
10. Symmetry – Marcus du Sautoy
11. The Num8r My5teries – Marcus du Sautoy


Christianity
1. God on Mute – Pete Greig
2. Knowing God – J.I. Packer
3. Mere Theology – Alister McGrath
4. The Christian Vision of God – Alister McGrath
5. The Cost of Discipleship – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
6. The Future of Atheism – Daniel Dennett, Alister McGrath et al
7. There is a God – Antony Flew
8. Velvet Elvis – Rob Bell
9. Simply Christian – Tom Wright
10. Punk Monk – Andy Freeman & Pete Greig
11. Belief –an anthology of writings compiled by Francis Collins
12. What’s So Amazing About Grace – Philip Yancey
13. The Pursuit of God – A.W. Tozer


Fiction
1. Northern Lights – Philip Pullman
2. The Subtle Knife – Philip Pullman
3. The Amber Spyglass – Philip Pullman
4. The Trial – Franz Kafka
5. Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
6. Dracula – Bram Stoker
7. The Mayor of Casterbridge – Thomas Hardy
8. The Great Divorce – C.S. Lewis
9. So You Don’t Want to go to Church Anymore – Wayne Jacobsen & Dave Coleman
10. The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
11. Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
12. Wessex Tales – Thomas Hardy
13. The Unbearable lightness of being – Milan Kundera

Books started but not yet finished
The Resurrection of the Son of God – Tom Wright
Love in the Time of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

16 December 2010

The nature and origin of morality - Part 3: Can we rule God out?

Now that we have established that christians do not have a monopoly on morality, can we rule God out of morality? In other words, are all appeals to God as the source of morality necessarily invalid? If the answer to that is yes, then there has to be an alternative source for morality, and I will aim to have a brief look at some of the alternative models proposed.

One of the answers that very quickly gets banded about is evolution. The premise goes something like this: patterns of behaviour, which we now interpret as being moral, developed in early society and helped the group to survive. In evolutionary terms, survival is everything. This pattern of behaviour is thus reinforced and an air of virtue surrounds this behaviour.

This is very well reasoned, and may indeed be the methodology by how morality developed. However, it is not without flaws. The first one is that there is no evidence for it. As pointed out in the introduction, the field of evolutionary psychology is based on supposition and peripheral experimentation. We have no way of determining the psychological make-up of our ancestors as it doesn't leave any physical trace for us to examine. All we have to go on are ourselves and ancient writings, where thoughts are recorded. But for anything before the rise of language, we are at impasse where the only honest response can be to say “we don't know,” no matter how uncomfortable that may be.

One point that I have often heard from atheists is that morality pre-dates religion. Now I have already expressed my dissatisfaction with the term religion on part 1 of this series. I don't actually disagree with the point. What I disagree with is the logical fallacy that this is any way invalidates religion, in particular christianity. I have frequently read that christianity was 'invented' around 2,000 years ago and clearly the earth and human civilisation is an awful lot older than that. But this premise completely misses out what christianity is: fulfilled Judaism. The core of the Old Testament is forward-looking, telling of the nature of humanity and the need for salvation, with a host of characters full of just about every combination of vice and virtue you could think of. In Jesus, we have the focal point unto which the entire Old Testament looked, and to whom we now look back upon from a New Testament perspective. So, to simplify the situation somewhat, christianity spotted the Messiah when he came, whereas modern Jews are still waiting. I know that's a very rough view, and I hope you haven't been offended by it. To do the subject full justice would require the writing of several books, which I don't have the time for here. So to say that morality pre-dates christianity (as the latter stands in its current form) is a bit of a tautology; it tells us nothing more interesting than saying my father is older than I am.

So the question really moves to whether morality pre-dates Judaism. Now I will be looking at some aspects of this in more detail in part 4, so I apologise in advance if you are reading this and feel there are some gaping holes; I hope to fill them in later. The best contemporary history we have available to us at present would point to Abraham being the father of Judaism and christianity (as well as Islam, though I haven't time here to explain why I believe Islam to be skewing of truth rather than a continuation of it). So did Abraham invent Judaism? There is no indication that he invented anything. He was chosen by God to have a relationship with God.

Here, we come to the crux of reductionism. By its very nature, it denies existence in the Platonic sense. So the fact that mankind may have developed morals and come, via a process of trial and error, to a relatively common consensus on what is or is not moral, has nothing to say on whether there is such a thing as an objective morality. Here, if not already, I betray myself as not being particularly relativist. I will come back to this point in the next part.

So my point is this: the fact that morality predates religion does not invalidate religion. People were using the laws of physics long before anyone wrote down their equations. If morality were the endpoint of religion, and here I have in mind christianity in particular, then it would be redundant. However, since the heart of the gospel lies some way off to the left, then a morality is a background against which the christian story of human history is played out.

So this shows why one of the reasons given for ‘ruling God out’ is not, in my opinion, logically sound. But I don’t want to leave it there, simply as negating a negative point. I would like to try and be a little more positive in my assertions.

Now here I am a little short of resources as I had hoped to include some quotations from two very good apologists on this subject: C.S. Lewis and Francis Collins, from their respective books, Mere Christianity and The Language of God. Unfortunately, I’ve lent these both out and so don’t have them to hand to flick through. If I remember correctly (and I am aware my memory may fail me slightly) one of the key points that Francis Collins uses, which he borrowed from Lewis, is the Moral Law is evidence for the existence of God. Evidence it may be, but it certainly isn’t proof (for a longer discussion on my views on the difference between evidence and proof, please see this). The argument is a sort of moral teleology. I would highly recommend you read these two books (both of which are quite short) to understand it better than I can summarise in a short space here.

But since the Moral Law as an arrow pointing towards God is not clear-cut proof, the question in the title still remains unanswered. To my mind, the matter comes down to one of consistency. I.e. can a comprehensive system of morals be formed without reference to God? In the previous part of this series, I discussed the possibility of an individual being moral without recourse to God. However, this is quite a different question to that of a common morality upon which all can agree. I'd like to draw an analogy, which will lead onto the next part. It is that of a national constitution. Now here in Britain, the constitution is unwritten; it is a matter more of collective understanding and a knowledge of history and tradition. In the US, it was codified. Now in Britain, if a political development is unconstitutional then it can be seen to be so simply through common sense. But in the US, the written nature has caused no ends of trouble, to the extent that people (who are appointed by the president) have the job of interpreting the written constitution. This has shown that when you have something codified, that it is open to misinterpretation and wilful misunderstanding to suit a political motivation.

Why I introduce this is to point out the dangers of a written law. When you take something that is fundamentally ethereal and reliant on common sense, it is a mistake to try and pin it down. In order for something to be well understood, it need not be well-defined. I know some people won't agree with me there, but is a truth I have discovered from experience of trying to define various things and getting caught up in all sorts of logical knots, when a better way of thinking about things is to 'get the gist.' Of course, this doesn't work for everything and is certainly not an approach I would advocate for anything falling within the scope of naturalism. But we can see it in tax law, where you get loopholes open to tax avoidance, in the controversy over interpretations of the offside rule in football.

So we can now finally tackle the second main objection to having a morality derived from God. That is, that a christian understanding of morality only comes about from an unthinking, cycloptic interpretation of the Bible. Now I could spend a very long time picking apart various straw men that I have heard over the years about how christianity suppresses the individual, or discourages independent thinking, though that's a separate piece in and of itself. For now, it is not unreasonable to dismiss this view as ill-informed and uninformative.

There is good reason for the books of the Bible being written in the various styles as they are. There is a long history of hermeneutics within christianity, far longer than ideas of biblical literalism. There is great mixture of history, apologetics, wisdom, poetry, prophecy, etc. One thing it is not, is a step by step guide of systematic theology. If christianity were a set of moral rules and prohibitions to be obeyed, then a systematic theology may have been the best way forward.

So what is my conclusion? I think it is perfectly possible to develop a consistent morality yourself, without reference to God. However, morality with reference to God is also consistent. So to rule that morality is necessarily atheistic is premature. The pitfalls come when you try and codify morality. The Bible is a great guide to morality, though admittedly mainly through negation. For a christian, to live a moral life is not the end goal. The end goal is to enter a restored relationship with God. It is then from this restored relationship that a love-filled and love-fuelled life follow, and the desire to please God leads to the living of a moral life. Now my atheist friends probably won't agree with me on that, but so be it.

We cannot accurately trace at what stage in human evolution the notion of morality first cropped up, we can only look at the way we are now. The argument that morality starts with God, as something inbuilt into humanity, certainly helps our understanding of why so many aspects of morality would appear to be common throughout humanity. The case is not watertight, but as yet I have not seen either evidence or a line of reasoning that necessitates the ruling God out of discussions on morality. At best, there can be doubts cast on this, for the usual reason of the never-answered (at least satisfactorily and conclusively) question of the existence of God. Though as I have said before, as foundational as this question is, it's not a helpful starting point; no more than trying to deflect any attempts at mathematics before you have adequately defined what a number is.

13 December 2010

Book Review: Wessex Tales by Thomas Hardy

This collection of short stories is by no means Hardy's best work, but it is nonetheless a worthwhile read. I won't review each an every story here, but I will bring your attention to what I believe are the two best. They are The Three Strangers and The Distracted Preacher, which bookend the collection of tales.

The Three Strangers is an oddly comic tale, quite uncharacteristic from some of Hardy's more fatalistic tragedies. It is a well-constructed tale, although the 'twist' is rather obvious. But that does not diminish from my enjoyment of the story.

The Distracted Preacher is far and away the best story of the lot. It is very much in the mould of Hardy's more famous novels, where love is thwarted by circumstances and by social and moral standards that must be seen to be maintained. The setting is reminiscent of Daphne du Maurier's Jamaica Inn, though it has to be noted that Hardy's tale was written several decades earlier, raising the interesting question as to whether or not Jamaica Inn was influenced by The Distracted Preacher.

The rest of the stories are OK, but to me, they didn't really stand out and I was left with a feeling of just plain indifference towards them. They weren't especially bad, but they weren't especially good either; certainly not compared to the two highlighted tales here or to Hardy's more famous novels.

In conclusion, I would recommend this, though not as a book to read cover to cover. Rather, it is better to take each story individually and not start one as soon as you have finished another.

8 December 2010

Book Review: The Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer

This book came to me as a recommended follow to up to J.I. Packer's Knowing God. The first thing you will notice about this book is that it is extremely short. However, don't let that deceive you; it is very rich and almost paragraph gives food for thought.

Reading the biographical details of Tozer's life could lead you towards thinking he had abandoned sound theology for wishful mysticism. There are some traces in the book that caused me to raise my eyebrow where Tozer seemed to advocate an experientialist approach to theology, rather than sola scriptura. However, he states at the start that all experience has to be founded on sound theology. In this respect, it is very much a case for those looking for “solid food” that Paul refers to in 1 Corinthians 3. As such, I would not recommend this to a new christian or to someone who is investigating christianity, as there is much foundational knowledge which is assumed throughout. Were someone to start with Tozer, it would be very easy to get the wrong end of the stick.

But with that cautionary word out of the way, I have to say that this was a joy to read. Clearly written from a passionate heart, Tozer shows us a glimpse of what it means to move from merely knowing about God, to knowing God himself. One of my habits that gets me funny looks from fellow commuters on the train is my habit of underlining quotes in various books. Usually, this is quite rarefied, but in this instance it was more practical to keep my pen in my hand as I was reading than to keep putting it away and bring it back out again.

There is one genuine flaw in it, I believe. In a few instances dotted throughout the book, Tozer seems to adopt a slightly anti-intellectual and anti-science viewpoint, indicating that they are incompatible with christian belief. However, as a christian with a scientific background, I cannot agree with this worldview. A true understanding the power of science can only obtained when you understand its limitations. In my opinion, since God is outside of nature, no naturalistic outlook can ever lead to a complete understanding of God; science is the exploration of creation, working out how God put the cosmos together and how it works. So it is not a case that science is anti-christian, but rather that scientific methodology is (to borrow an analogy from N.T. Wright) like shooting arrows at the sun: it can take aim at God, but it will never hit.

This is a serious book for serious people. It is certainly one that I will be coming back to in the future, and would recommend for anyone wanting a guide in helping them get closer to God.

7 December 2010

The nature and origin of morality - Part 2: Can christians claim a monopoly on morality?

In amongst frequent 'discussions' between christians and atheists are two claims. From the christians, there is the claim that morality can only be derived from God. From the atheists there is the ruling out of God as a possible reason. The latter of these two will be the subject of part 3, so in this part we will look solely at the first claim.

It isn't hard to see how a claim of exclusive ownership could be seen to be antagonistic or arrogant, particularly when morality is widely seen to be such a desirable virtue. By implication, those who are not christians lack morality. Moreover, I have heard accusations made by christians that any morality shown by non-christians is fake. In my view, such accusations are foundless, ungracious and unhelpful.

Let us assume for a while that the proposition is true and see where that would lead. If christianity does have a monopoly on morality, where does that leave everyone else? Are they incapable of moral behaviour? Well, a quick look around at society suggest not. In fact, with a proposition of this nature, it can be disproved by a simple counter-example.

Here, I am personally presented with a problem as it would require me to have an intimate knowledge of an individual and perfect judgement on my part, neither of which I posses. So in the absence of evidence, we must instead resort to reason; being careful to discern between that which is reasonable and that which is truth, since not everything that is reasonable is necessarily true. So for my counter-example, I shall take the idea of financial giving to charity. While people may have a variety of reasons for giving to charity, I find it hard to think of a set of circumstances whereby every individual giving is entirely non-moral. Even if it is done for some selfish reason, for example, gaining a tax break, then there are other ways of obtaining an equivalent tax break without benefiting others (e.g. paying into a personal pension). So is this sufficient? It's by no means a water-tight argument, but I don't think it would take too much work by a better person than I to tidy it up a bit.

But we can't leave it there. What we need to do for a more complete view is see why this view was adopted in the first place. What are its origins and what does that mean for the remainder of moral theology?

The first thing to say about this is that moral behaviour is not really at the heart of the gospel. If it were, then for a person to live morally would be all that is required. Anyone who preaches this is has got the wrong end of the stick. One of the main reasons people choose to reject christianity (and they get very tetchy when you point this out to them) is that it has some very uncomfortable home truths to acknowledge, which people don't want to believe because if they did, it would require action on their part to change some aspects of their worldview. If christians preach a gospel purely of a loving God, then it is incomplete. If we preach condemnation, then it is incomplete. If we preach a gospel of unfettered blessing, then it is incomplete.

You can scan the scripture as much as you like, but you will struggle to find much that defines moral behaviour in a positive way. Usually, it is defined by what it is not. In that respect, the Bible says far more about what is immoral rather than what is moral. I think there is good reason for that. Moral behaviour is the human norm. It is something which is inbuilt in us, and which we are designed to do. Think of it a little like civil law. Civil law does not tell people how to live; it tells us what the exceptions are which are not acceptable in society. I will expand on this in a later part, but for now what I want to say is this: that which is immoral is a tiny part of human behaviour. We are free to live how we want, but we cannot absolute freedom for that would allow us to infringe on the freedom of others. So morality is best defined by negation, while all else is moral.

You may think I have just contradicted myself. In an earlier part, I stated that it is human nature to sin while above I have said that moral behaviour is the norm. I don't consider these to be contradictory, and I will now state why. By stating that it is human nature to sin does not mean that we are compelled to sin all the time. Depending on our own personal foibles and weaknesses, we will each have a tendency to fall into one sin or another from time to time or, more probably, on a regular basis. But that doesn't mean that we aren't moral most of the time. The best analogy I can think of is the colouration of a cheetah. It is mostly a sort of yellow-ish colour, yet it has spots. To have one without the other would make it appear very unusual and you would be right to question whether it was really a cheetah at all. So it is with the background of human morality blemished by our nature to sin.

If you consider morality as 'doing the best for other people' then you are essentially a humanist. Now I am quite reluctant to describe myself as a humanist because it has atheist overtones. In other words, if you look at the British Humanist Association (BHA), you will find a lot of speakers and writers there speaking and writing not about humanism, but on atheism, or at least anti-theism. The core of humanism is about valuing the human and ensuring that ensuring that no one is unfairly prejudiced against. In this respect, the heart of humanism can be summed up like this:

“Love your neighbour as yourself.”

However, I doubt if the BHA will ever publish that as their raison d'etre, without including some note of irony or sarcasm.

So what is the conclusion? I believe that moral behaviour is the human norm. As such, christians cannot claim any sort of special status in moral discussions, and certainly any claims to hold the moral high ground is an arrogant stance which will more than likely be the precursor of a terrible pratfall. Of course, I acknowledge that is merely my own view which may well be wrong, and would welcome alternative views or suggested further reading.

6 December 2010

Book Review: The Num8er My5teries by Marcus du Sautoy

It's a bit hard to review this book without having in mind Alex's Adventures in Numberland, published in the same year. Both books cover similar ground, although the approaches differ greatly. Whereas Alex Bellos travelled and spoke to various people who had a particular passion for certain aspects of mathematics or numbers, du Sautoy's book has the distinct feeling to it that he just sat down and wrote most of it straight out of what was in his own head. The ending of the book somewhat confirms this, as he states the book came out of his giving the Royal Institution Christmas lectures in 2006, and a few other projects he had previously worked on.

The book is broken down very simply into just 5 chapters, each with a basic premise to be looked at. But here, du Sautoy's passion for mathematics breaks through and he veers wildly off course and looks down a few sidestreets along the way. So if you pick a point about three-quarters of the way through each chapter, whatever is being discussed may not seem to have an immediate connection to what the chapter started out talking about. But this is not a criticism; merely a point of observation. It may not be to some people's liking, though I think it adds to the charm of the book.

Consistent with the philosophy of most mathematicians, du Sautoy believes that the joy in maths is to be found in doing it for oneself, not merely in the exposition of another. To this end, there are consistent puzzles inserted throughout the book for the reader to follow up on. So the fact that it doesn't take long to read cover to cover (I did it in 4 days) belies the depth of material that the pages didn't have room for and are followed up online. The book does get gradually more and more technical, which may put off some readers. Towards the end, I had to pull out a pen and some paper to follow a few of the steps.

Overall, it's written in a really down-to-earth manner with du Sautoy's enthusiasm evident on almost every single page, especially those page numbers which are prime numbers which he conveniently instructed the printers to make bold! I would recommend this for anyone interested in mathematics, though I disagree with the age ranged suggested (1-101, even if he did mean it in binary!). I think it should fairly accessible to an average 10 year old or a smart 8 year old, but with plenty to interest adult readers as well.

30 November 2010

Book review: Dracula by Bram Stoker

It seemed about time that to read this gothic classic. It didn't seem right to read it during the summer, given it's dark nature, so I waited for cold, dark and rainy November before reading it.

Like so many classics, I could have given you a reasonable appraisal of the plot before I'd even read it. However, vampire folklore has become so convoluted in recent years with the pop culture of Buffy, Twilight and True Blood that it could be hard to discern the wheat from the chaff. However, I hoped to come to this with as open a mind as possible. The book is divided into two very distinct parts. The opening third of the book is set in Transylvania, and gives the account of Jonathan Harker’s time as a guest in Castle Dracula. This section reads almost like a short story, with the rest of the book being tagged on the end to make it into a novel.

The style of writing is that of a composition of letters, journals, telegrams and memoranda from various characters, although Stoker has spent little effort in distinguishing the individual voices from their writings. i.e. all the characters write with the same mannerisms. This makes the book feel like an early literary equivalent of “found footage” films such as The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, and I think that they do owe some debt to Stoker for this style.

This first third is an absolute masterpiece and the zenith of gothic fiction. The remainder, where the action moves to England, is still good, but doesn’t quite live up to the blistering opening. There are a number of new characters suddenly introduced into the plot, though the author only expands on a few of these, with 2 characters in particular, having a very similar role in the book, though with little to distinguish between them. The flow of the book is very good for the most part, though Stoker’s keen interest in hypnotism led him to use it as a plot device in some places, which left me feeling a bit cheated, considering how contrived it felt.

But that shouldn’t detract from a classic book. While it has been copied and derived from since, none have come close to Stoker’s original. I would highly recommend this to anyone considering reading it.

29 November 2010

Reading List

I know I'm always banging on about it, so I thought I might as compile what's on my reading list. This is no particular order. If you have any suggestions for other things I may like, please feel free to suggest them. Just note that with the length of this list (where I've probably missed off a fair few), I may not get around to reading it any new suggestions any time soon.

Science
Boffinology: The Real Stories Behind Our Greatest Scientific Discoveries
Cycles of Time – Roger Penrose
13 Things That Don’t Make Sense – Michael Brooks
Bad Science – Ben Goldacre
The Age of Wonder – Richard Holmes
Gaia – James Lovelock
The Shape of Inner Space – Shing-Tung Yau
The Origin of Species – Charles Darwin
Three Roads to Quantum Gravity – Lee Smolin
Shadows of the Mind – Roger Penrose
From Physicist to Priest - John Polkinghorne
The Logic of Scientific Discovery – Karl Popper
The Numerati – Stephen Baker
Particle Metaphysics – Brigitte Falkenburg
Drawing the Map of Life – Victor McElheny
Life’s Solution - Simon Conway Morris
The Greatest Show on Earth – Richard Dawkins
The Principles of Quantum Mechanics – Paul Dirac

Christianity
Letters and Papers from Prison – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language – David Crystal
No Perfect People Allowed – John Burke
The Didache: A Window on the Earliest Christians - Thomas O'Loughlin
The Problem of Pain – C.S. Lewis
Creation – Alister McGrath
Wired for God: The Biology of Spiritual Experience – Charles Foster
Blind Spots in the Bible – Adrian Plass
The Crucified God – Jurgen Moltmann
On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision – William Lane Craig
Reasonable Faith – William Lane Craig
Surprised by Hope – Tom Wright
Life Together – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth – Alister McGrath
God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science – James Hannam
Virtue Reborn – Tom Wright
The Reason for God – Timothy Keller
The Ragamuffin Gospel – Brennan Manning
Personal Religion, Public Faith? – Dallas Willard
The Year of Living Biblically – A.J. Jacobs
A Place for Truth – Peter Singer
Crisis and Recovery – Rowan Williams
Christian Theology: An Introduction – Alister McGrath
Practical Theology in Action – Paul Ballard
Jesus and Nonviolence – Walter Wink
Dogmatics in Outline – Karl Barth
The Challenge of Jesus – Tom Wright
The Puzzle of Ethics – Peter Vardy
SCM Study Guide to Christian Ethics – Neil Messer
The Pietist Theologians – Carter Lindberg
The Reformation Theologians – Carter Lindberg
The First Christian Theologians – G.R. Evans
The Medieval Theologians – G.R. Evans
The Modern Theologians – David Ford
A Grief Observed – C.S. Lewis
Godless Morality – Richard Holloway
Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God – Jonathan Edwards
Man, the Dwelling Place of God – A.W. Tozer
The Knowledge of the Holy – A.W. Tozer
Surprised by Joy – C.S. Lewis
Miracles – C.S. Lewis
The Four Loves – C.S. Lewis
Incarnation – Alister McGrath
Redemption – Alister McGrath
Resurrection – Alister McGrath
Jesus and the Victory of God – Tom Wright
Early Christian Thinkers – Paul Foster
Constructing Jesus – Dale Allison
The Varieties of Christian Experience – William James
Post-charismatic – Robin McAlpine
The God Who is There – Francis Schaeffer
Confessions – Augustine
Hannah’s Child – Stanley Hauerwas
Biblical Games – Steven Brams
Finding Darwin’s God – Kenneth Miller
God is Great, God is Good – Chad Meister
Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? – James Dunn
Did St. Paul Get Jesus Right? – David Wenham
The God I Don’t Understand – Christopher Wright
Reason, Faith and Revolution – Terry Eagleton
Jesus for President – Shane Claiborne
Cafe Theology – Michael Lloyd
Just Do Something – Kevin DeYoung
A Scientific Theology – Alister McGrath
Faith Like Potatoes – Val Waldeck
My Utmost for His Highest – Oswald Chambers
Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists – Dan Barker
Biblical Nonsense – Jason Long
The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? – F.F. Bruce

Fiction
Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
Rabbit, Run – John Updike
The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz
Slaughterhouse 5 – Kurt Vonnegut
The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver
The Outsider – Albert Camus
The Shadow of the Galilean – Gerd Theissen
Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway
The Quantum Thief - Hannu Rajaniemi
Kokoro – Natsume Soseki
Moon Tiger – Penelope Lively
The Metamorphosis – Franz Kafka
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet – David Mitchell
The Complete Jeeves Omnibus – P.G. Wodehouse
The Tale of Genji - Murasaki Shikibu
Grace Williams Says It Loud – Emma Henderson
We Need to Talk About Kevin – Lionel Shriver
American Psycho – Bret Easton Ellis
The Forsyte Saga – John Galsworthy

Other
Plato and a Platypus - Thomas Cathcart
The Borgias and their Enemies – Christopher Hibbert
Confessions of a GP – Benjamin Daniels
Captive State – George Monbiot
The Spirit Level – Richard Wilkinson
The Moneyless Man: A Year of Freeconomic Living – Mark Boyle
A Brief History of the Crusades – Geoffrey Hindley
Talking to the Enemy – Scott Atran
Churchill’s Empire – Richard Toye
The Defence of the Realm – Christopher Andrew
The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember – Nicholas Carr
Cityboy - Geraint Anderson
Aristotle and an Aardvark – Thomas Cathcart
The Bomb – Howard Zinn
Ethics – Piers Benn
A History of the World in 100 Objects – Neil MacGregor
MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service 1909-1949 – Keith Jeffery
New Larousse Gastronomique - Hamlyn
The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici – Christopher Hibbert
No Logo – Naomi Klein

26 November 2010

The nature and origin of morality - Part 1: Christians, hypocrisy and human nature.

As discussed in the introduction to this mini series, this part is a bit of a ground-clearing exercise to help overcome some objections that we may otherwise struggle with later on. So my intention is to state the cases here and thereafter refer back to them, thus speeding along later progress at the expense of a little turgidity now. As always, these are only my own views and I acknowledge that I may be mistaken in some aspects of my writing, and I welcome debate on any points I raise or points which any reader may think I have unreasonably omitted.

May I also add as aside that where I have linked to various other websites, this is only to give you a door to investigate some other matters. Some of them contain views that I disagree with, so please do not infer that by linking to them is in any way to associate my opinions with those contained in these websites.

What right have I, as a christian, to speak of morality? Do I speak for God? Most certainly not; I can speak for no other than myself. Do I speak for all christians? No; that is too broad a body of people and views for any one person to speak on their behalf. I speak only for myself, but cannot ignore the weight on my shoulders from these other two and how my relation to them may be viewed by an outside observer.

It would not be denied by any knowledgeable and honest person that there have been some terrible atrocities committed in the name of christianity. The ones that quickly jump to mind are the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and the sectarian violence in Northern Island. There is a second category of dreadfulness whereby immense hypocrisy in moral matters has been shown by those who have claimed to be christians. Here, we think of the corruption of the Borgias during the late 15th and early 16th centuries and of the sexual abuse of children by catholic priests. So how are these acts to be reconciled with the notion of christian love for God and for other people?

After the start of writing of this piece, there was an interesting debate published in the online edition of the Observer, which is well-worth reading. The question posed is whether or not religion is a force for good in the world. It has five participants in it, though I could only claim to have heard of two of them (the Labour MP, Jon Cruddas and the philosopher, AC Grayling). The standfirst of the article states that is in response to a challenge that Christopher Hitchens made to Tony Blair to enter into a debate. I have not yet read this challenge, but am familiar with some of the views of Hitchens. I have not read in full either of his infamous books (God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything and a curious revisionist attack on Mother Theresa) though I have read plenty of extracts, interviews, reviews and other items associated with his writings. I would state now, as an aside, that I do not refuse to read his writings, but merely that they are very low on my priority list, having plenty more edifying things to preoccupy me with. However, it is not Hitchens' views I want to concentrate on here; it is those of AC Grayling. Now Grayling is a far more measured and reasonable debater than Hitchens; Grayling's use of rhetoric is far more limited, though their views are broadly similar.

The idea that religion is fundamentally bad is not without basis, it's just that I believe that basis is in error. Given the specific examples I gave above, it would be easy to think religion is a force for evil in the world, but that view is somewhat simplistic. I will now expand on that. In much of what I have read in christian/atheist debates (though not all) there a few apparent fundamental flaws in the understanding of the critics of religion. Firstly, there is the idea that religion can be discussed as though it were one thing. The wide varieties of religious beliefs, cultures and practices throughout history show such diversity that to discuss 'religion' as a single thing is overly simplistic and begins on completely the wrong foot. No meaningful conclusions can be met as these discussions are based on a fallacy. It is a little like trying to come to firm conclusions on 'sport' when there are so many different sports, and the number of aspects shared by all are so few and tenuous that there is very little substance to work with. So when 'sport' is discussed, those speaking and listening may have a few fixed examples in mind (e.g. Football, cricket and rugby). And the same happens with discussions on 'religion' where those discussing the matters will often have three Abrahaimic faiths in mind. Any more focussing tends to be split between critics of Islam and critics of Christianity; in this respect Judaism seems to be spared. Sometimes aspects one or all three of these are taken as indicative of being true of 'religion' as a whole, which given what we have said above results in a lot of straw man arguments. Another of the large errors in discussions of these matters is the failure to distinguish between the institutional churches and the nature of the particular faith being discussed. To give an example, I often read articles where the author has conflated catholicism and/or anglicanism with christianity, when in fact it is far better to consider the faith as separate from the institution which advocates it.

In the examples stated near the start of this piece, most of the atrocities that have occurred have been undertaken as corporate action of the institutional churches. Of course, the discrete detail has been committed by individuals, but usually at the behest of a larger, man-made organisation. Here, we have our key point: the institutional churches are man-made constructs, not God-made. Now the catholic church has often focussed on one verse as the justification for its existence, namely when Jesus stated to Peter:
“You are Peter [which means Rock], and on this rock I will build my church.”
Now Peter was certainly one of the major figures in the early church, however the dogma of apostolic succession is not biblically-based and was a political invention which has become far more of a hinderence than a help to progressive thought. I could give many other examples of false teaching on the part of the catholic church, but I do not have the time for this and will detract from the main point which is this: the catholic church is not a mouthpiece for christianity; it is a misdirected anachronism that is a theological equivalent of a vampire, undead and preying on the vulnerability of others, failing to recognise the importance of the Reformation which was the death knell of catholicism as a part of the christian communion.

With that said, what did we get as a replacement? Another institutional church: the anglican church. The example of anglican church lends weight to the idea that history repeats itself. The catholic church had become intent on power, control and political influence. These are not the hallmarks of the vision that was laid out by Jesus and expanded upon by Peter and Paul in the first century A.D. Yet these are also the hallmarks that anglicanism has grown into over the years. We only need to look at the last few weeks' press to see what the public face of the anglican church is. One thing it certainly is not, is as a proclaimer of the gospel of redemption through the resurrection.

When I refer to the 'church' in general without adding any adjective before it, my meaning is this: the collection of all of those who believe that Jesus died and was resurrected as a substitute for us in order to mend the separation between mankind and God, and who aim to live according to the two great commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul & strength” and “Love your neighbour as yourself.” That does not mean that a local church should be without structure. Indeed, quite a lot of attention is paid by Paul in his letters on how the local churches should conduct themselves along with guidelines on how to operate, which were mostly common-sense.

A church is a collection of believers, complete with all their flaws and foibles. Having such a rag-tag bunch of diverse people pulled together in a common cause requires a level of organisation. One of the main reasons for this, and something Paul writes quite a lot about, is the risk of false teaching. If the church were a total free for all, then anything could be taught regardless of its truth. Instead, we should be lovers of truth (Greek: alethiophiles!) and that requires some guidelines.

So then, what we come down to is this question: What is a christian? To me, a christian is a work in progress. Nobody is perfect and we are all on a learning curve, working our way towards an understanding of God.

The question of hypocrisy arises when there is a perception of the christian as the person who thinks they hold the moral high ground, or who claims to have a firm grasp on the highest truth or to understand the mind of God perfectly. I have met very few christians who genuinely believe that this is something they have attained, but I have met many more who can give that impression by the things they say in public, while keeping their humility private.

I hope that in whatever I write, I am clear in stating that I do not claim to have all the answers and that it is my belief that anyone who claims to do so is badly mistaken and heading down the wrong path.

An old acquaintance at university (I shan't say 'friend,' we couldn't stand each other!) had a keyring which said “Christians aren't perfect. They just you to be.” While he, an atheist, kept this keyring as a statement of irony, pointing out the hypocrisy of many christians and institutional churches, I think it's not too far off the mark.

Once we recognise that christians aren't perfect and are in fact a long way from it, it becomes easier to understand why it is that christians can do terrible things to fellow human beings. It is our human nature playing itself out. But we cannot ignore the fact that corporate injustices are fundamentally different from individual hypocrisy. The latter is more than the sum of its parts. So why is this? To be honest, I don't know and cannot say for certain; but it seems to me to lie in the idea of “power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I cannot find anywhere in the New Testament advocacy for the church to be a political organisation. So as soon as political power is given to an institutional church, it is a seed of corruption. Those fallible individuals who given power are then not often subject to enough scrutiny, as they would be under a democracy. As has been seen in some churches in history, the idea of infallibility merely causes trouble. It is essentially a matter of corporate pride, where people convince themselves that what they are doing is right and are beyond question. But as we know, “pride comes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.”

In short, it is a problem of sin. Now there can be misunderstandings around the word 'sin' or 'sinner' which are often used by christians and are badly communicated to non-christians which leads to these misunderstandings, particularly in relation to causality. What comes first is the term 'sinner' meaning someone who is in a state separation from God. Here, I find Rob Bell's way of phrasing things quite helpful. When confronted with those who think that the early chapters of Genesis are accurate historical accounts, with all the terribly unhelpful connotations, divisions and disagreements that that causes, it is better to understand the Fall, not necessarily as something that happened, but rather something that happens. This is summarised by Paul when he says in Romans
“for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”
So we born as 'sinners' and as a consequence of what we are, we fulfil that nature by doing acts ('sins') which reflect our nature. So when christians refer to people as 'sinners' it is actually an axiomatic definition, albeit etic, rather than a judgement on the person's character, and no offence is meant, nor should any be inferred from it.

It is not a case that we are born pure and by wrongful acts we are made into sinners. We are born as sinners and our actions reflect our true nature. But the sinful nature and the nature of God are diametrically opposed. Now there is much written about what happens to a person when they exercise their free will and decide to become a christian, which I don't have time to cover here. The most concise summary of it comes from Romans 12, when Paul says we are
“transformed by the renewal of your minds.”
Being concise, it is open to misinterpretation, and this doesn't mean christians are brainwashed or have their personalities erased. Rather, it is renovation work on our very nature. This is where a better communicator than I is needed, for it requires a little talk on spiritual matters, which is certainly something that is non-intuitive. These two natures are in competition with one another, and because a christian is not the finished article, nomatter what level of maturity they have, their remains something of the sinful nature within them, which exhibits itself from time to time. This is when we see christians sin and fall down. Because of the nature of this battle which is going on unseen, when the sinful does break through, it can be like a volcano which has been plugged for some time, resulting in far more wanton destruction than we see in non-christians who trickle, to stretch the analogy a little.

What can we say in conclusion of this part then? It is indeed true that christians have, do and will continue to commit acts which are classed by a broad school of thought as immoral. The institutional churches are not a good reflection of the true vision of the church; they are corrupt entities, where the sinful nature of mankind has been allowed to take over, despite the veneer of christianity.

So then, is there such a thing as a 'true christianity' or are we at risk of the 'No true Scotsman' fallacy? Well, given my (probably inadequate) definition above, I think there is. But it isn't helpful to think of a christian as a person who lives by a fixed set of rules. Anyone who thinks of christianity as merely a list of 'dos' don'ts' has got the wrong end of the stick. There is a core truth, but christianity is about freedom and relationship. So in my view, there is such a thing as 'true christianity', but our understanding of it is incomplete, and some aspects can be more easily understood by their negation than by positive definition. Where humans err, the examples of these violations of morality is highly noticeable. Since we are in pursuit of righteousness, but recognising that we are a long way short of it, it is possible to have a look at the nature and origins of morality with a clear conscience. Acts of hypocrisy are where we have strayed off the path and are not the rule we live by. Only if christianity were inherently immoral would it render our task impossible, but the evidence which suggests this is not conclusive and when understood in its proper context, merely points to the fallibility of human nature.

25 November 2010

Book Review: Knowing God by J.I. Packer

I had a few people mention this as a highly influential book on many well-known christians whose own writings I have read and liked. So I thought it would be worthwhile getting this book and having a read. I have to note that this is an extremely rich book, full of some much deeper theology than I was expecting of it. It is extremely well-research and referenced, clearly the product of a knowledgeable and passionate mind.

The one main criticism I would have was of an opportunity missed in the 2005 updated edition; specifically that of the language used. The style of writing is not as accessible as it might otherwise have been. Some of the phraseology is archaic and not straightforward to the lay reader. This is further used by the Bible quotations which are mostly from very old translations, not in the modern vernacular. For this reason, a modern reader who isn't familiar with this way of putting things (which I think would still have seemed a little antiquated when it was first published in the 1970s) could be easily put off.

Putting that small criticism aside and focussing on the substance of the book, it is clear to see why it is so highly esteemed. The huge range of references means that the vast majority of what the author has proposed is backed up with evidence. The real difference in this book that sets it apart is the unflinching look at ALL aspects of God's nature. Too often, the idea of God showing jealousy, judgement and wrath is dodged, ignored or glossed over by many a christian writer.

In terms of the scope of the book, the author has been very thorough. He has not left out any significant areas of God's character. I think this is a book I will come back to again and again. I haven't yet used the study questions at the back, but have had a flick through them, and they appear to provide good food for thought. It's not a short book and if you follow up all the references it will take several weeks to work your way through, but it will be well worth it.

23 November 2010

The nature and origin of morality - Part 0: Introductory comments

I have to start this with a warning: this is merely an exploration of my incomplete thinking, not a thoroughly researched exegesis. So I will ask now that if you are reading this and can suggest further reading that I might undertake, please suggest them in the comments, and I shall add it to my reading list. That said, my reading list is very very long at the moment and I may not get a chance to read them very soon. In relation to Part 5, I have already got my sights set on Talking to the Enemy.

Morality is a subject on which I often interject with a few thoughts during a conversation or argument. One of the places these arguments frequently take place is my old haunt of Cif Belief between christians and atheists. It is worth noting that the number of atheists on this discussion forum far outweigh the number of christians. That said, the number of reasonable participants who want to take part in a constructive and thoughtful way are about equal on both sides. There is also our resident Buddhist, who is very well educated and acts as a good voice of reason in the face of some very vitriolic trolling. It is because of my disillusionment in people's ability to listen that I have tended to post on this site less than I used to.

The particular impetus for this train of thought, however came from a different thread on Cif. A philosophy student (who has most probably done research on the matter than I) made a comment that morality developed as an evolutionary mechanism to ensure the survival of the species.

Below is a copy of the typed conversation. Any annotations I have made will be in square brackets [ ].

JayReilly
Interesting debate actually.
"The evolution of moral behaviour distinguishes humanity from the animal kingdom (though I agree, it's not the only distinction)." [this quote was from another user, called Peter, who is referred to later]
This is very unlikely to be true. As discussed the other day, much of "moral" behaviour itself probably has evolutionary causes stemming from biological harm, like incest. The example you give is a good one, the "filthiness" of pigs. I wonder if this "morality" itself doesnt stem from biology, namely that eating raw pork does you harm whereas raw beef doesnt. I wouldn't be in the least surprised if this is where the disdain for pigs originally came from.

Is it not a truism that "morality" will face largely the same evolutionary pressures as biology? A morality which encouraged constant internal group fighting, murder, incest and rape would be at a major disadvantage to those groups whose morality encouraged harmonious living.

Talk of morality separated from biology and evolution strikes me as a typically absurd consequence of the Cartesian mindset. [This last sentence is the bit I disagreed with and prompted me to post the following reply.]

Sipech
I have to disagree with you here, Jay. Using the same logic, it would be like saying you can't talk about what's on television without talking about electromagnetism.

Though you could not be watching tv without someone having built a tv with a good knowledge of the models we use to understand electromagnetism, you can nonetheless discuss Question Time, Newsnight, X Factor or Eastenders.

Evolutionary theory is a fantastic way in which we understand biology, but it stretches the credulity of the sciences when you start to apply those principles to areas beyond which the evidence points, in this case morality.

JayReilly
Not really, no. Peter [the same Peter as above] has claimed a dividing line between animals and humans based on our morality. Thats what i disagreed with. Firstly, we are animals. Secondly, we face evolutionary processes just as animals do. Thirdly, much of our morality is a direct consequence of evolution and biology.

The analogy falls down because electromagnetism, the medium, has no effect or link to the content whatsoever. This isnt true of morality with regard to evolution; these are strongly interlinked, there's a causal relationship here.

Sipech
I understand your point (I think), JayReilly. My disagreement is on this statement:
“Thirdly, much of our morality is a direct consequence of evolutiion and biology.”
Where is the evidence to support this idea?

Morality is not something tangible. You can't pick it up and count it, there is no empirical method of measurement, it doesn't fossilise and it leaves no physical trace of itself. Consequently, it falls outside of the scope of the natural sciences. So your statement:
“This isnt true of morality with regard to evolution; these are strongly interlinked, there's a causal relationship here.”
is unevidenced speculation.


As I was typing quite fast, I didn't have time to lay down all my thoughts on the matter, so this little series is an attempt at doing that. When I began to write it, I thought of going straight for the heart of the matter, but kept coming across some stumbling blocks where I felt I needed to clarify things, and where I also wanted to explore one particular issue that I have often struggled with, and after a recent conversation at a church housegroup, reminded me of the issue. So the plan (at the moment) is to proceed as follows:

Part 1: Christians, hypocrisy and human nature.
- I felt this needed to be added at the start as a discussion to clear away a few common objections that would otherwise hinder any progress.

Part 2: Can christians claim a monopoly on morality?
- One argument I often hear from christians is that morality can only derived from God, thus implicitly stating that christians have a monopoly on morality. Here we discuss that proposition.

Part 3: Can we rule God out?
- A common counter-argument to that used in part 2 is that appealing to God is an invalid argument that cannot be used and that alternative means have to be used. So this part will discuss whether or not that dismissal is premature.

Part 4: Moral law preceding statutory law.
- This will attempt to look at the links between moral law and the development of statutory laws, and how the former precedes the latter.

Part 5: The christian difference.
- Here we'll look at some thorny issues where christians tend to differ from the rest of society, and I hope to examine the more fundamental reasons for these differences, including a discussion on moral relativism.

Part 6: Genesis 22 and the problem of Abraham.
- If murder is immoral, then why was Abraham willing to kill his own son? What ramifications does it have for how we understand religiously motivated fundamentalists and their link to acts of terrorism.

It seems unwise of me to begin by trying to define morality. Though it is a concept which is easily understood, trying to pin it down in a few words is distinctly difficult task and one which would most likely come back and bite me later on. To coin a phrase, it is like trying nail jelly to a wall. It is elusive but nonetheless real.

Due to my own limited knowledge of attitudes to morality outside of proponents of the abrahaimic faiths and of atheism, I shall not be undertaking an holistic viewpoint and admit mea culpa from the outset on my own ignorance.

It is probably worth stating at this point that I do not consider morality and ethics to be the same thing, or even siblings. My own view is that morality is the teacher of ethics. That is, ethics is the practice and real world 'living out' of the values that are derived from the more fundamental subject of morality. I know this is a view that is accepted by all, but as with anything I write, you are welcome to disagree and to point me towards an alternative view.

If you've been bothered to read this far, I hope you find this enjoyable and thought-provoking. I would like to add 'informative' to that list, though that is probably a little too optimistic to be reasonably hoped for.

Book Review: The Christian Vision of God by Alister McGrath

I picked this book almost at random from a bookshop. While it was clear that it was the last in a series of books, no other parts of that series was on sale at the time. So I review this on a stand alone basis.

It's a very unusual book in terms of its presentation. The author has used various classic pieces of art to illustrate the subject of each chapter, which results in a high ratio of pictures to text. The pages are almost square as well, giving an unfamiliar feeling to the book. It is also very short and can be read through in less than two hours. That said, the book's brevity does not mean that it is lacking in substance. It's best to think of it as a concise summary of theological thought. Each chapter could be expanded into a book by itself, but rather than dissect the nature of God here, we are presented with only the conclusions.

I've read it a few times now and it's one to regularly dip into, hence the title of this review. I will be looking to read through the rest of the series in due course; even though this was the final book it's a little gem that has left me wanting to read more in the same series. It's a highly accessible book and one that I would highly recommend to someone who is either a christian wanting a nice reminder of the basic tenets of belief in a new, refreshing way or for someone who is interested in finding out what christians believe, in clear way, free from archaic and circular definitions and arguments.

18 November 2010

Book review: Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

This was one of those ‘classics’ that I had just never got round to reading before. The notion of the story is one that has seeped into the public consciousness over the last 50 years, to the extent that many who haven’t read the book could give you a quick appraisal of the story. But in such instances, it is easy for Chinese whispers to miss key elements of a story. So I felt it was important to read it for myself.

The style of the book is quite straightforward which makes it very easy to read and I got through the book in a single weekend. There is nothing in the way it written that instantly makes it stand out as brilliant; the characters, though not flat, aren't exactly full of depth. There are not many great quotes or aphorisms. The real power of the story is the idea of the narrative, which is what the author has spent the most time giving flesh to.

It is a stark warning against right wing totalitarianism, where free thought is forbidden. Yet it is not a 1984 clone. There is less of a fantastical tone about it, the curtailments of freedoms were very creeping, hence being all the more believable and frightening for it. There is one flaw in it, however. Whilst it is essentially an advertisement for books and for free thought, the only books mentioned are those that are generally considered great. It might have been rather different if the remnants of the intelligentsia had been trying to memorise Mills & Boon, Jeffrey Archer or Stephanie Meyer. That minor oversight could be applied to the book itself, as it undoubtedly a classic. The author states that the story almost wrote itself, and that is evident in the book, as it has the feel of a story that had to be told, rather than anything contrived.

A must read for all who value free thought.

15 November 2010

On love and marriage

Eeeek, I think! What on earth are you writing about this for? Well, it seemed appropriate to at least write down my thoughts on the matter rather than let them linger as a half-formed haze.

So why now? Well, I recently had a birthday (just over a month ago) and one of the things I think about is what other people have done or achieved by the time they were my age. The sad truth is, a lot of people have achieved a lot and I've done pretty much nothing.

As well as that, an increasing number of friends I have known through the years have been getting married or engaged, and their relative age to me seems to be getting lower and lower. This is coupled with pressure from friends and some family members to get married. To the best of my knowledge no one in my family (in my generation or my parents' generation) who has been married had their first wedding as old as I am. Of course, there have been some second marriages where they were older than I, and some have never married.

I have often said in my defence, when challenged on the issue, that marriage isn't for everyone and that I just happen to be one of those people for whom it isn't meant to be. I would like to expand on that a bit, so it appears less glib than it currently does.

I will aim to gradually move on from the simplest reasons for me staying as I am to the more deeply thought through.

I disagree with the Jane Austen school of thought regarding marriage; although it would be wrong of me to dismiss it as antiquated, given that my own view is more in line with the apostle Paul. He said that it is good for a man to stay unmarried, as he was. There is good reason for this. Marriage, and relationships in general, take up a lot of time. Now I'm a working chap and after I've done my work, my commute and my home duties (e.g. cooking, cleaning, ironing, etc.) I maybe get 1-2 hours genuine free time per evening. To me, these are the most valuable hours of the day. To some people, giving this up isn't a problem. I, however, am a misanthrope and find dealing with other people stressful and tiring. This is why you will generally not find me in a bar of an evening. So to relinquish the only genuine rest time I have by spending it with another person or people would leave me entirely drained and hence I would be a very poor boyfriend/husband.

The next issue we come to is that of free will and sanity. Deciding to marry or to enter into any kind of relationship is not a matter that one person can choose alone; it has to be a mutual decision between two people of sound mind and judgement. Again, my misanthropy rears its ugly head again, as to embark upon such an endeavour inevitably means relying on someone else. If there is anything in this world that comes close to a cast iron guarantee, it is that relying on someone else will eventually lead to them letting you down.

In addition to this, though, I'd have to ask myself what sort of person would ever want to choose me? If I'm the best that they can do, then they must be pretty desperate. That is not to say such people don't exist; indeed, I have met a few. Whilst each had their own unusual idiosyncrasies, I could never escape the uneasy feeling that either their eyesight was failing, or else I ought to tread carefully for fear of falling on a loose marble or two that was rolling on the floor.

This brings me to my next point, that of love. In order to enter into a relationship, there must be love there already. While indeed it grows over time, I am personally opposed to the notion of going out with someone for whom I did not already have at least a strong affection. But love is more than that; it is wanting what is best for another person. It is a self-sacrificial giving to another, wanting to do the best for them.

This seems to be a concept that has bypassed our society for some time, and there is a very bad case of mistaken identity when love is used as a word to describe desire. In this context, it is a selfish thing, always seeking its own end (or end away) and is characterised by a Machiavellian mindset of manipulation, control and conquest.

This particular viewpoint of mine is diametrically opposed to the notion of ownership that has crept into our vocabulary. People ask, “Have you got a boy/girlfriend?” as if they are asking, “Have you got a blender?”

I remember a talk I went to at university given by Rabbi Lionel Blue, who was living in the same building as me at the time, on the language used in the Old Testament in relation to marriage, and how it evolved. Not having studied Hebrew myself (remind me to do it sometime!) I chose to trust what he has to say on the matter. In fact, to begin with, the term 'take a wife' was used in precisely the same manner as one might take a kitchen utensil, with no consideration given to the wishes of the wife. Going further, there was no indication that anything resembling a modern marriage ceremony took place. It was a case of a man staying with the first woman he had sex with. One can barely stand to think of the abuses that could quite possibly have occurred at this stage in the development of society.

The revolution came when a man, wanting to divorce his wife, had to give her a certificate of divorce. Now, while this is still horribly one-sided and misogynistic, it does, for the first time, allow the woman a higher status than a pot.

We still live in an unequal world. There are those who want men and women to have indistinguishable roles in society, and there are also more than enough machismo men around, intent on putting women down at every turn. However, the truth remains that we are biologically different, though neither one is superior to another. In my opinion, society should reflect this; by recognising and celebrating our differences. The feminist movement was necessary in correcting inequalities in society, but some elements of the movement, and even the term itself, takes things a little too far the other way. So I would consider myself an egalitarian.

At this point, it seems right to return to an issue raised earlier: free will. I cannot force anyone to marry me, or even force them down the first step down that road. But more that, is the fact that even putting forward the proposition is a form of imposition. i.e. If I suggest something to someone that they had not previously thought of, then I am influencing their thoughts by forcing them to at least contemplate the idea. Now, in some cases this can be very good, particularly when it regards someone's well-being.

But who am I to claim that forming any kind of relationship with me would be beneficial to the other party? If you really love someone, you want what is the best for them. I know that I am not the best for anyone, so the most loving thing I can do is let someone go. I think is reflected in my choice of romantic films. For the most part, I can't stand them and would far prefer a horror, fantasy or tragic melodrama. However, there are a few romantic films that I love. They are Casablanca, Once, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Truly, Madly Deeply. With the exception of Eternal Sunshine, they involve one of the protagonists ultimately having to give up the one they love, wishing the best possible future for them, in spite of whatever consequences they face themselves.

The final point I want to make is about the nature of long term. If you've followed me so far (which would rare) and agreed with me (even rarer) then you may be thinking, “Well, if you're not going to marry, that's fine enough, but why not have some fun and least date?” Now it is often said that men are scared of commitment. The only kind of committal I'm scared of is the One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest variety. In fact, I tend to scare women about the issue of commitment, by being rather forthright. I see no point in dating if you cannot foresee the possibility of marriage at the end of it. It's not a purposeless exercise. So for me to even ask someone out is, in my mind, only to be undertaken if you have the aim of marrying them. That is not something to be done lightly or done under any kind of whim, as marriage is a serious matter. On that basis, I have never actually asked anyone out. Any relationships I have had (and let's be honest, more people have set foot on the moon than have had to endure going out with me!) have always come about from the natural evolution of an existing friendship, even if one or two them have been slightly accelerated on the part of one or other of the participants. This reluctance has to led to the frustration of one or two I've known who have waited for me to ask them. And they kept waiting and waiting and waiting before eventually getting bored and heading off with someone else. What amuses me is when I get told this by her slightly tipsy chief bridesmaid at her wedding reception several years later.

This then leads to a secondary quandary. What sort of friendship must you have in order for it to develop further? Given what I said in the preceding paragraph, it wouldn't be right to embark upon a relationship with a total stranger. So I don't do any form of 'blind dates.' But at the other end of the spectrum, I wouldn't want to go out with my best friend. No matter what your intentions at the start of a relationship, you have to consider the possibility of breakdown. I've seen it happen dozens of times in close friends and I've done it myself. If you go out with a really close friend and it doesn't work out, more often than not, that friendship is ruined as well as the relationship. And the repercussions afterwards are long and deep. That is one particular situation I would be more than happy to avoid forever.

So, you see, there's a very small window of opportunity whereby you can minimise embarrassment and heartbreak. There's also the small matter, and this is particular to christians, of regarding women as sisters. Now I'm the sort of person who does think of the other young women in the church as additional sisters. And for.....erm....obvious reasons, you don't date your sister! So then, what can I say in conclusion?

While there may have been periods in the past when relationship and marriage may have been something I desired, the only reason I ever did so was for selfish reasons. For that, I should not be allowed to have either of those things. I can be content as I am and with what I have.

12 November 2010

Irony watch: David Cameron

This week, the prime minister, David Cameron, was in China on a trade mission. During this trade mission, he helped Rolls Royce win a £750m contract in China.

Among the most important deals signed so far is Rolls-Royce's $1.2bn contract, which is to supply a Chinese airline with Trent 700 engines for 16 Airbus A330 aircraft, along with long-term servicing.


Hang on a minute! I've heard something about Rolls Royce engines recently. Oh yes, this would be the same company which makes the engines that are failing on the A380 Quantas planes and caused the £1.2bn off the company market capitalisation!

So the British buy dodgy goods from the Chinese, do we? Seems like the boot is on the other foot now.

11 November 2010

Special Relativity in (just under) 500 words

When I was young, in the back of a car going down the motorway, I was convinced that cars coming the other way sped up as we passed each other. This because when two objects pass each other, at 70mph, from the point of view of one vehicle (it doesn't matter which, due to the symmetry of the situation) the other vehicle seems to be travelling at 140mph.

In an apparently unrelated matter, around the end of the 19th and start of the 20th century, strong evidence was found that the speed of light (in a vacuum) was constant and, importantly, appears the same to all observers.

So if I stand by the side of the motorway and measure the speed of a photon coming towards me, I will find it to be moving at 186,000 miles per second (mps). If I then jump in my car and drive very fast, say 1mps, and then measure the light coming the other way, it doesn't appear to be moving at 186,001mps. Rather, it appears to move at 186,000mps.

Given that speed is equal to distance over time, and the speed is of light is constant, then if we change distance, time must also change to balance the equation. Likewise, if we change our time perspective, then distance must change.

The point lies in the term 'relative.' There becomes no special point of view. The notion of simultaneity breaks down, and two people in different frames of reference (that is, moving at a constant speed relative to one another) can measure the same phenomenon, come up with different measurements, and both be correct.

Note that for these discussions we have to ignore acceleration and gravity, since to include those will require general relativity. Here we will only deal with special relativity.

Imagine a rowing crew running REALLY fast towards a shed. The problem is, the boat they are carrying is longer than the shed. Thankfully, the shed has doors at either end of it. The trick is try and get the whole boat into the shed and have both doors shut at the same time. Because, from the point of view of the shed keeper, the boat is moving really fast, its length is inversely related to its speed and so it appears to contract (known as Lorentz-Fitzgerald contraction); just enough for its new 'apparent' length to be shorter than that of the shed. This allows the shed keeper to shut the first door before he has to open the second door and let them out (remember that they cannot stop, as that would be an acceleration). So both doors are momentarily shut simultaneously.

But the crew do not feel this contraction, and the shed equally seems to be moving towards them at very high speed and hence, contracting. So from the point of the view of the crew, the second door is opened before the first one is shut. This paradox shows the breakdown of simultaneity.

9 November 2010

The joys of personality tests

I just helped a friend do some research for her psychology degree. Part of this involved a personality test. I always find these things really fascinating. Without wanting bore you with the whole thing, I thought I'd treat you to a few of the highlights. Some I agree with, some I think have missed the mark - though that it is probably due to me misinterpreting some of the more ambiguous questions. Enjoy!

Your score on Extraversion is low, indicating you are introverted, reserved, and quiet. You enjoy solitude and solitary activities. Your socializing tends to be restricted to a few close friends.

Your level of friendliness is low.

Your level of assertiveness is low.

Your level of excitement-seeking is average.

Your level of Agreeableness is average, indicating some concern with others' Needs, but, generally, unwillingness to sacrifice yourself for others.

Your level of tender-mindedness is high.

Your level of modesty is average.

Your level of altruism is average.

Your level of morality is average.

Your level of trust is low.

Your score on Conscientiousness is average. This means you are reasonably reliable, organized, and self-controlled.

Your level of orderliness is average.

Your score on Neuroticism is average, indicating that your level of emotional reactivity is typical of the general population. Stressful and frustrating situations are somewhat upsetting to you, but you are generally able to get over these feelings and cope with these situations.

Your level of anger is low.

Your level of depression is high.

Your level or self-consciousness is high.

Your level of immoderation is low.

Your score on Openness to Experience is average, indicating you enjoy tradition but are willing to try new things. Your thinking is neither simple nor complex. To others you appear to be a well-educated person but not an intellectual.

Your level of imagination is average.

Your level of emotionality is low.

Your level of intellect is high. :-)

Your level of liberalism is average.

8 November 2010

Book review: The Trial by Franz Kafka

This was my first exposure to Kafka, having heard much hype about how great a writer he was. The term Kafkaesque is often banded about, with connotations of bleakness, absurdity and circular arguments used as bureaucratic defence mechanism.

Without giving too much away, the story begins with the main protagonist waking up to find he is under arrest. He doesn’t know what he is accused of and those that are charged with informing him that he has been arrested are at bottom feeders is an enormously complicated food chain, who themselves have no idea what it is he is accused of and cannot tell him.

The unfolding of the story is the protagonist’s tale of how he is fighting his way through layers of meaningless bureaucracy in order to defend himself. Eventually, the idea of finding out what the accusation was is lost and replaced with a desperate attempt to prove himself innocent of ANY wrongdoing by giving an account of his life and presenting this through an advocate and other ‘insiders’ who may be able to help his cause. There is a constant glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel, but no matter what progress is made, that light seems as far away as ever.

With regards to the particular translation, the editors did have some failings. In particular, they made the cardinal sin of not starting a new paragraph when a new character spoke. This had the effect of making most of the paragraphs unnecessarily long, some paragraphs were 3 pages long! This made keeping track of the story a little more difficult than needed. But this may be because of my habit of usually pausing for thought half way down a page or at the next convenient juncture in the story, and in this instance I was forced to take in rather a lot before finding a suitable place for reflection.

So now that I have a slightly better idea of what Kafkaesque really means, I can see the parallels that are drawn with Orwell, and indeed a comparison to 1984 is almost inevitable. The difference has to be that Kafka’s world is not quite so far removed from our own as Orwell’s was. Already, we have control orders in place in this country where the defendants cannot see the evidence that is being used to accuse them, they have no recourse to the law and they live in a sort of semi house arrest. For that, Kafka could be said to be something of a prophet.

Considering that, it most certainly is a masterpiece and worth reading, but not if you’re looking for a light, cheery read.

5 November 2010

Book review: The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow

The inside cover of the book states that it is

“A succinct, startling and lavishly illustrated guide to discoveries that are altering our understanding and threatening some of our most cherished belief systems, The Grand Design is a book that will inform – and provoke – like no other.”

Well, it is most certainly succinct, well illustrated and thought provoking. Indeed, the book is perhaps a little too succinct. It is certainly very short, and it doesn’t take long to read. The writing style is very clear, though some of the humour does have the feeling of having been inserted periodically as an afterthought, to maintain some levity in the book.

The book is a mixture of bold statements about the current state of theoretical research and an overview of historical developments in physics over the last hundred years (with some going further back than that). One of the weak points of the book is that it lacks references. This makes it very difficult to distinguish what is widely-accepted, evidenced scientific theory and what is optimistic speculation. At one point in the book, the authors state: “M-theory is the only candidate for a complete theory of the universe.” I would certainly take issue with that, given that it is certainly not a universally accepted opinion. Any reader wanting to gain an alternative opinion on some of the bold assertions made about M-theory would do well to read Lee Smolin’s The Trouble With Physics.

Probably the most interesting claim in the book comes at the start, with the declaration that “Philosophy is dead.” This claim is never convincingly argued, and in fact the authors go on to employ certain philosophical ideas in pursuit of their goals. The entire argument of the book hinges on the acceptance of “model-dependent realism.” After a little research, it seems that this is an original term although the authors do a good job of defining it. Here, however, rhetoric has been used as a substitute for reason. There is plenty for room on this debate and so it seems that if philosophy ever had been dead, which I see no evidence of it ever having been, then this book jolts some life back into it.

There is one enormous “If” hanging over the book, which is not dealt with in sufficient detail. That is the question of experimental verifiability. M-theory is spoken of as the underlying principle behind the various string theories. Yet even these have not been confirmed by experiment. At one point, the authors state that their claims can be verified by experiment but they do nothing other than state it as though it were plain fact. No justification is given, nor experiments suggested.

It certainly well worth reading, but if anyone who has not studied the issues discussed were to read it in isolation, then they would likely end up with a highly skewed view of physics. This is a good book, worth reading, but it could have been so much better.

4 November 2010

Am I a complete loser?

Recently, this blog was visited by someone who posted on the introductory page the following comment:
“You are a complete loser.”
Unfortunately, they did not leave a name, pseudonym or any form of contact details. The only information I could glean from the blog statistics was that their IP address was based in the USA and that they linked to the blog from the Guardian website. Without any further information, I have no way of directly contacting them to inform them of this follow-up. If the person has returned to read this, welcome back!

I cannot form any firm conclusion as to their motives for posting the comments, but there may be a few possible reasons, and I shall allow myself to indulge in a little speculation here. It seems likely to me that they had taken exception to a comment I may have made on the website, and most probably a recent one at that. So what comments had I made? Well, if they were from the USA, then it may well have been in relation to an article suggesting witty slogans to put on signs for The Rally to Restore Sanity. There are other possibilities, such as comments I made on the frequency of boys' names, a response to a disparaging remark made by a Marie Claire blogger or the best foods to eat when you are ill. Of course, it may also not be any of these. It may be someone with a general dislike for me and my values. This may be backed up by the fact that the assertion was made against the first post on this blog, where I outlined some of my values. However, without further information from the visitor, it is impossible to tell if this was due to one of them or a combination of them.

Whichever it was, the visitor did not give any reasons or evidence to back up what they said, which indicates that, rather than being a concise summary as a result of reasoned line of thinking, that this was more probably a remark made in a unthinking moment of spite. Nevertheless, I always try to think the best of people, and I shall carry on investigating the claim.

The crux of the proposition clearly lies in the last two words: “complete loser.” Note that this is distinct from just a “loser.”

According to my dictionary (Collins paperback, 1995) a loser is defined as:

1. Noun. A person or thing that loses.
2. Noun (informal) A person or thing that seems destined to fail.

In order to meet the criteria of being a complete loser, I must of course meet the definition of a loser first.

As the anonymous commenter did not put forward any evidence in support of their assertion, I cannot be certain as to which of these definitions they were thinking of. So in order to be thorough I have to consider both possibilities.

So let's see about the existence assertion of definition 1. If this is true, then it must be established that I have, on at least one occasion, lost something. Well, even though the commenter lacked any evidence to back this up, reason tells us that it is quite likely that I have lost something. Indeed, it is true. To cite one example, I have lost a game of chess. In fact, I've lost a fair few, but let's not dwell on that now! So without much further ado, we can safely say I have met the first criterion.

Now that that has been established, let's examine the evidence for definition 2. Do I seem destined to fail? This is not quite so easy to work out. For this, the commenter would need to have an understanding of my aims. This is unlikely to come from any comments on the Guardian website, so it seems far more likely to have come from their reading of my own introduction. My aim was stated that I would explore the aspects that constitute my worldview. I acknowledged that I may be wrong and am perfectly willing, when presented with compelling evidence and having weighed up alternative possibilities, to change those views. It seems strange that I could fail to explore my own views, given that that is what I have done in some of these early posts. It is like saying that I am looking in a mirror and failing to see an image of my own reflection.

So in light of that, and with no evidence presented to the contrary, it seems that I do not meet the second definition of being a loser. Because of that, under the second criterion, I cannot be a “complete loser.” However, there is still room for me to meet it under the first definition. So let's have a look at that.

Now we ought to consider the meaning of the word “complete.” My dictionary has 7 different definitions, although not all of them are applicable here. The most fitting meaning here is “absolute, thorough, not lacking anything.”

So in order to be a complete loser, all aspects of my being must meet definition 1 of being “a person that loses.” In other words, I must fail in every exercise I undertake, or else I am not a complete loser.

This is quite a strong statement if true, but being so strong it would be unquestionably refuted if a single counter-example could be found. As a fairly self-critical bloke, I think I know myself fairly well and am well-positioned to be able to find such counter-examples. For starters, there is the one achievement that I value above all others: my degree. I set out from the start with the intention of obtaining a first class masters in mathematics. I achieved this by a fairly comfortable margin four and a half years ago. I never wanted anything as much as I wanted that, I set out to get it and I was successful.

There are plenty of other examples I could post, though this is unnecessary for the purpose of the discussion and risks and element of narcissism. So I shall it there, with the conclusion that I am not, as the anonymous commenter stated, “a complete loser.”

2 November 2010

Book review: The Drunkard's Walk by Leonard Mlodinow

I was first introduced to the writing of Leonard Mlodinow when I read Euclid’s Window as an undergraduate in mathematics. It was (and still is) one of the most delightful books on maths I have ever read. So it was with great anticipation that I looked forward to the Drunkard’s Walk.

The subtitle, How Randomness Rules Our Lives, is probably a more apt description for the book, as the question of the Drunkard's Walk is not really discussed. If you are unaware of it, it relates to the probability that a drunk person, staggering around randomly will eventually return to where they started from. Given enough time, this probability tends towards 100% if they travel in two dimensions, but not if they travel in three dimensions. So if you're looking for an explanation of why, this is not the book for you.

Rather, this is about probability and statistics. The mathematics in it is not particularly technical, although there are some concepts in it that seem to go against common sense. In fact, common sense is a running theme throughout the book; but only insofar as how unreliable common sense can be (here I am distinguishing between “common” sense and “good” sense). The book takes us on a wide and varied journey through history, sports, finance, gambling and medicine, amongst other things, looking at the way in which chance events are commonly understood, how they should be understood and getting to grips with the consequences of what happens when there is a gap between the two.

It is written in a highly engaging way, with enough humanity in it to keep the lay reader interested and just enough technical detail for the more mathematically minded to stay the course. There are, however, a few small points to pick up on. Mlodinow himself is a physicist, not a statistician . This results in a couple of explanations appearing a little muddled. For example, his explanation of why the probability of two independent events both occurring should be multiplied together may not be clear to someone without any maths knowledge beyond GCSE level.

The slightly bigger issue is in his philosophical interpretation of randomness. There is very little discussion over different interpretations of randomness and of what probabilistic measures mean. The conclusion that Mlodinow seems to reach is that it applies to unpredictability. However, in various places throughout the book, he seems to get this confused with purposelessness, which leads to a few unjustified conclusions on specific matters.

That said, this is a minor distraction in an otherwise excellent book.

22 October 2010

An evening with Stephen Hawking

I heard some time ago that Prof Hawking was in the process of writing a new book, and had kept an eye on when it would be released. Shortly before I pre-ordered it, a friend pointed out that he would be presenting a public lecture at the Royal Albert Hall. This public lecture included a copy of the book, so I was quite happy to wait for a month and a half after publication for it.

Just prior to the release, the book was afforded a huge dose of publicity, by the interpretation of some in the media relating to theological claims in the book. Since the extracts were being published in the Times, and this is hidden behind a Murdoch-dictated paywall, I had to rely on scant quotes from it as cited by the BBC, Guardian and Independent.

The headlines were saying that Hawking had declared that God didn’t exist, although the quotes belied this position, as they instead seemed to indicate merely that God was not necessary for the creation of the universe. Over the course of a few days, the book picked up loads of free advertising with atheists and theists taking shots at one another. A lot of words were used (most of which have been heard before ad nauseam) yet very little was actually said. Another thing that was picked up, and was potentially the more interesting claim, was that “philosophy is dead.” More on this later.

Even though the above 3 named news outlets tend to be the most objective and fair minded, they still managed to quite sensationalist in the matter. So I decided it would be better to hear what he had to say himself, and to read the full text of what he had written. I have not yet read the book, so I can only comment on his lecture.

It was nice to see a venue as large as the Royal Albert Hall full of people wanting a public lecture on science, although the sight of the ticket touts outside was something I hadn’t expected. I am used to them for gigs, but not for lectures. Once I’d taken my seat, I was soon asked to take a photo of a group of rather excitable postgrads who were in the box behind me. Before long, we were ready to start, with Prof Jim Al-Khalili giving a very well-spoken introduction.

It was interesting, and really quite telling, that his opening gambit was to address the issue that had been the cause of the heightened publicity surrounding the publication of the new book. He stated that Prof Hawking was not here to discuss the existence or non existence of God, and he also refuted the claims that Hawking said God did not exist. He then put forth what Hawking’s view was. He said that “God” was the name we give to the reason we are here. And in Hawking’s opinion that reason is physics.

So really, there did not appear to have been a significant change from the pantheistic view Hawking had earlier propounded in A Brief History of Time. Although I thought this quite clear, it did strike me as odd the Prof Al-Khalili felt this needed saying at the start. Why couldn’t Prof Hawking address this during the lecture? It did seem another instance of words being put in Hawking’s mouth, although at least these ones did seem to chime with the evidence.

After just a few minutes, Prof Hawking was brought onto the stage. It took a couple of minutes for his assistant to hook up the microphone to his computer but eventually we were treated to a “Can you hear me” in that familiar, mechanised American voice. The Albert Hall is not the ideal venue for that kind of voice to be projected, and in many places throughout the evening it was quite difficult to make out what the professor was saying. On other occasions, there were prolonged pauses while the professor was inputting his speech into his computer. At times, this made a few people uncomfortable, but it was not a significant distraction.

To help his talk, there was a large screen up behind him which showed graphics of various degrees of helpfulness.

The first half an hour of the talk was spent covering a lot of Stephen’s earlier life. The screen showed various locations important to his life, although the accuracy of the map certainly left something to be desired. Oxford appeared to be just north of Cheltenham , London was magically moved on top of Reading and Cambridge was now parked on top of Peterborough!

He revealed that as a boy he was very interested in train sets, and was keen to understand how they worked. His philosophy was that understanding led to a feeling of control. I felt it was an interesting point to note, as it may help to understand his thinking about his own motor neurone disease, although he didn’t mention it explicitly in this context. Later on, he said that if we understand the universe, then we are the lords of it.

As a child, he spent some time living on the island of Majorca with his mother and sisters, whom he considered cleverer than he was. Though he didn't learn to read until late on, he did learn and the key text he was given as an example of good English was the King James translation of the Bible. There was a problem with this, however. An analysis of the first word of each sentence in the first couple of books revealed that “And” was most commonly used. If the pie chart that went up on the screen was to be believed, then it accounts for the start of around a third of all of these sentences.

From there he moved on to his time as an undergraduate at Oxford. In those days, those who worked for their degrees were looked down upon. There weren’t exams every year, only the finals counted. Even for those, you were expected to pass on the basis of your brilliance alone. It was only when he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease that he realised the value of work and how much he wanted to do in the time he had left alive, given that he was only expected to live for a few more years.

Since he did very little work, he was on the border between a first and second class degree, and had to go through a viva process. During this he was asked what he intended to do with his degree. His answer was that he intended to go into research, with the condition that if he got a 2:1 he would stay in Oxford, and if he got a first he would go to Cambridge. After a short pause, he said, “I got a first!”

At this point, he gave away something that I feel showed why he is a physicist and not a mathematician. He said that though he could follow equations, he never got a feel for gravity. My own experience of mathematicians and physicists is that mathematicians get an instinctive feel for equations and then see what the final result looks like in a physical manner, whereas the physicists tend to think through the mechanics of what happens in the observable universe and then try and work out what the equations are that fit this model.

Throughout the talk, Hawking made references to those people he came across and worked with. This was quite a long and distinguished list. However, of them all, two names stood out for me as being spoken of with particular affection. This may be influenced by my own filter of how I regard them, but those two people were Dennis Sciama, Hawking's PhD supervisor, and Roger Penrose, a mathematical physicist with whom Hawking did a lot of work on black holes.

Getting slightly more technical on some of the work he did, he began to talk about Wheeler Feynman Electrodynamics. I confess, this is not something I recall ever having come across before. He summarised like this. [“The light that is emitted from a lightbulb is dependent upon all the energy in the universe.”] I paraphrase as I didn't write down the precise wording. It was related to the idea that the inertia of an object is due to all of the other mass in the universe. Now while this may seem quite an odd concept, if you imagine a universe with only 3 massive objects in it, then the situation becomes fairly clear and the idea of light simply uses the mass-energy equivalence of general relativity. At least I think so! I may have gotten hold of the wrong end of the stick.

The talk moved on to some hand-wavy arguments (not literally, of course) about black holes. In particular how they are formed. This was something I never really studied at university; my particular focus was on finding solutions of the Einstein equation. So I was quite happy to learn a little about the theory of how black holes can be formed. The focus was on a star collapsing and whether or not that star needed to be perfectly spherical in order to form a black hole. There had been a theory proposed that indicated that unless there was a perfect sphere, the star would “bounce” back and not entirely collapse in on itself. This certainly seemed a problem, given that no star ever observed has been a perfect sphere.

However, Penrose later showed that minor deviations from perfection could still lead to the total gravitational collapse of a star and result in a singularity. From here, the natural progression was to talk about cosmic censorship, the notion that “nature abhors a naked singularity.” Whenever I have come across this before, it always struck me as a bit axiomatic. Other than the fact that it makes some equations possible to solve, there is no evidential basis for it. Hawking confirmed that my suspicions were correct. I still think the idea is probably true, given that it agrees with working theories and sounds quite reasonable, though the fact that it has not been confirmed by experiment leaves it open to revision.

The professor then had a brief discussion on black hole entropy, although I’m not sure he defined it particularly well for a lay audience. He put up on screen the only equation of the evening, being the formula for black hole entropy that he developed with Jacob Bekenstein, along with the idea of information loss. The analogy he used was taking an encylopaedia and challenging someone to find some information in it, only before you give him the books, you burn them and presenting only the ashes. The idea is that information which goes into a black hole is not lost; it is just very hard to read. That said, I think the analogy is more flawed than the theory.

Some of what followed was a brief recap of A Brief History of Time, covering ideas of inflation theory and imaginary time. Both of these are neat ideas that help to sort out some mathematical problems, although their actual validity is something I’ve yet to be convinced about. But this wasn’t the forum for those particular discussions.

Finally, Hawking moved onto the outline and purpose for his new book, The Grand Design. In short, its scope is to look at the “big questions.” As noble and worthwhile a task as this is, it did seem to me from looking on Amazon that a book of less than 250 pages would be able to cover this in sufficient detail to make a good case. But the book is yet to come. I shall read it shortly (am currently half way through Kafka’s The Trial) and write a review thereafter.

Then we got round to a point I mentioned earlier: the statement that “Philosophy is dead.” This was stated as a matter of fact. The reason given was that philosophy had not kept up with physics and that now the sciences are the leaders in thought. If this is true, I wondered if this event was the funeral and if The Grand Design was the death certificate. The trouble with the idea is that it doesn’t seem to have been noticed until the last couple of months. I have a distinct feeling that the fate of this statement may befall the same as Friedrich Nietzsche’s declaration that “God is dead,” which proved to be unfounded and untrue. There is also the view that this is a deliberate hyperbole, which is not meant to be taken seriously. A possible indicator of this was the laugh that the statement evoked from the audience. Nonetheless, I am sure I shall have more to say on the matter after reading the book, where I hope this point is expanded on and not left as a pithy aphorism.

Professor Hawking then embarked on what I thought was a quite remarkable little exercise, where he presented a highly deterministic view of the universe. Now I was of the opinion that quantum mechanics, and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in particular, had signalled the end of determinism in physics. Maybe the old clockwork is back, eh?

Then he came back slightly to his views on theology. Following on from determinism, he gave his opinion on the nature of the laws of nature (sorry for using the same word with two different meanings in the same sentence – limitations of my English & all that). For an elongated, entertaining and informative book on this topic, I cannot highly recommend enough The Character of Physical Law by Richard Feynman. Hawking didn’t have enough time to go into depth on this subject, though he did say that “A law is a law, with no exceptions or miracles. Gods and demons cannot intervene.” So here we have, though somewhat indirectly, Hawking’s definition of a miracle: something that contradicts the laws of nature. While I know some people who would agree with this, I know more who think that the definition is that a miracle is something extremely unlikely to happen, right on the borders of possibility.

However, Hawking did hint at one of the most important questions on the physics/philosophy border: where do our physical laws come from? His answer: M-theory. Now we get to the crux of the argument. I’m well aware of the issues faced when trying to explain anything beyond basic quantum mechanics to a lay audience, particularly in a short space of time (no pun intended). There was a diagram put up on the screen showing how M-theory is related to the 5 major string theories, although he never explained what they were or what differentiated them. His analogy was to use a patchwork map of the world, where the patch is correct in some areas, but cannot be used for the entire surface of the globe. However, where two patches overlap, they are in agreement. I’d like to see the workings behind how this analogy stretches to the overlaps between different string theories. The problem with it, is that doesn’t tell you if you actually have all the pieces.

From my present understanding of M-theory, the term “theory” is a bit strong and not really warranted. It is an hypothesis of a theory that may exist, but no formulation of it yet exists. I know a lot of work is being done on it, though it is yet to make a convincing case for itself. At times, the fervour of belief in M-theory is more befitting a cult than that of a community of scientists. For an excellent critique on this, please read The Trouble With Physics by Lee Smolin.

One hypothesis in particular that has had a noticeable rise in popularity over the last 10 years or so is that of the multiverse. Hawking gave a little explanation of this which was very good. The idea goes like this: Our universe is just one of many. And by ‘many’ we means googolplexes of the things. The idea (in the M-theory framework) is that the laws of physics we see in our universe are the way they ‘just because they are.’ The fine-tuning elements of the constants of nature has long been a puzzle for a physicists and a boon for proponents of a teleological argument for the existence of God. If the multiverse hypothesis is true, however, then it wipes away that line of the teleological argument for good. Every different universe has a different set of laws of physics. However there are supposed to be more fundamental laws of M-Theory that govern what particular laws arise in each given universe. The problem with this, though, is that we have no idea what these more fundamental laws might look like. Hawking didn’t admit this is his talk. He only got so far as uttering the phrase “if confirmed by observation...” which is just about the biggest IF hanging over all theoretical attempts at finding a Theory of Everything. I hope his book is a little more sober.

The evening finished with 3 selected questions.

Q1: Is a black hole a sphere?
A1: Yes, if it’s non-rotating, but it will be squashed slightly if it is rotating. [Bit of a bland question, I thought. Should be obvious]

Q2: Do we see the same galaxies over and over again but at different ages.
A2: It might be possible for light to come right around the universe, but it’s not old enough for light to have travelled that far. So while it is theoretically possible, it is presently impractical.

Q3: Will we ever know and understand all of physics
A3: I hope not

Overall, it was a greatly enjoyable, informative and thought-provoking evening. I look forward to reading the book.