29 July 2011

On procrastination

I sometimes wonder what it is that makes us procrastinate. I am terrible at this. I often find myself completing 80-90% of whatever I’m doing, when I suddenly “remember” that there’s something else I need to do that I haven’t started yet. So it often ends up that I have a lot of things mostly done but nothing complete. I’m not very good at sticking at one thing.

The same is true of blog posts. I have about half a dozen that I have been writing for some time, taking a look at, putting away again and not feeling ready to put them online because I’m not happy about them for one reason or another.

I have also been lacking time lately, as I’ve been busy with work, often only getting half an hour or so spare in the evenings, as well as the fact that I was away for the entire weekend. Although that was quite nice. I was trying to teach my 7 year old niece about the idea of a “characteristic” by describing something that:

• Has four legs
• Has fur
• Has a tail
• Has teeth & claws
• Says “meow”

It was only at this last clue that a broad grin slipped across her face. I then asked her what characteristics uncles have (as well as me, she has quite a few other uncles). Here response was that they:

• Are grown-up
• Are male
• Have a special talent.

Naturally, at this point, I asked her what special talents I had. “You’re good at maths and tickles,” she said. That made me smile.

I have a relatively free weekend coming up, so I hope to be able to finish some of these half-creations. There has been much to think about recently, probably a lot of which I shan’t put online. I was sorry to hear of the departure of the departure of John Stott. Though I have not read any of books for many years, I always found them honest, heartfelt and challenging. I did not agree with 100% of what he taught, though I have a great respect for him. There have, however, been losses of those much closer to me and much younger, that it would be inappropriate for me to comment on further in public. I have also been trying to find the time to do some thorough reading on the potential discovery of the Higgs boson both at CERN and Fermilab, though I have not had the chance to read more than the first paragraph of any article, nor have I surveyed what evidence has been published so far. I am also trying to find time to read Steve Jones’ report on science reporting in the BBC. Again, I have only read a brief summary of his findings.

I will share one thought I had recently. I’ve been going through the gospels of Matthew and Mark lately, and noted that both of them contain mention of Jesus talking about “taking up a cross.” (Matt 16:21-28, Mark 8:31-38) Most Christians, I think, read this in the context of a complete picture of the gospels, post-crucifixion. I think there are some redaction critics who suppose this was added by the gospel writers at a later date, knowing the method of Jesus’ execution. Now, while I’m no expert at anything much, and especially redaction criticism, I’m not sure what the evidence is to suppose this was a later insertion. So, assuming it was a truthful testimony, was Jesus making some kind of prediction as to his own method of execution? Was it a common phrase in use in Roman-occupied Judea/Israel/Palestine at the time? What would those around him have thought he meant by it? What, crucially, did Jesus himself think he meant by it?

I’ve heard some very platitudinous answers to this, though I am not convinced by them. I shall continue to search and to think.

27 July 2011

Book Review: Lost Christianities by Bart Ehrman

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect with this book. I had heard various things about Ehrman, though had not read anything of his before. Since he is a former student of Bruce Metzger, I expected extremely careful and thorough scholarship. At the same time, I had heard that his own beliefs had covered a gamut of viewpoints over the years from Christian to atheist to agnostic, and that his writings were deeply critical and challenging to modern day Christians. So, unsure of precisely what to expect, I opened his book with an open mind.

I have to start with a comment on Ehrman’s writing style and communication abilities: they are superb. He makes his case very cogently and acknowledges where there are doubts and possible objections to his propositions. Thoroughly honest in his approach, his model of writing is one that could well be followed by many others. Few theologians I have read have written with such clarity.

So what are these propositions? Well, he invents a new term for an old group known to any historian of church history. The early church leaders are now rebranded as “proto-orthodox.” That is, a group of people in the 2nd-4th centuries whose beliefs became what we now recognise as Christian orthodoxy. To summarise, imagine a young tree sapling. The traditional view of church history has been that “heretical” views and non-orthodox texts and opinions grew out of early Christianity as a kind of ‘branch’ that either was cut-off or died anyway, leaving the main trunk intact. The revisionist viewpoint espoused by Ehrman was that there were lots of saplings growing in parallel, and that in the battle for survival, most of the saplings were killed and the victors, being the ones who wrote the history, distorted the true picture of what happened. Ehrman’s hypothesis, crudely outlined above, owes a great deal to Walter Bauer, who is given due recognition and acknowledgement in the text.

This certainly should raise a few eyebrows amongst historically-minded Christians. For the first third of the book, which I thought were the most interesting, he looks at a few early non-canonical writings at the stories they contain as well as the stories behind their discovery and their authorship. Throughout this discourse, there is this thread of “proto-orthodox” though it seems entirely superfluous to the discussion, and no attempt is made to justify it. The central third of the book looks at the different bodies of beliefs, looking at the Ebionites, the Marcionites and there is a broad overview of the broad spectrum of belief which fell under the umbrella term of Gnosticism.

It is only in the last third of the book that Ehrman attempts to justify his proposition of the “proto-orthodox.” Crucial to this discussion is the authorship of the books of the New Testament. Here is where some of his arguments seem to lack coherency. For example, he states (quite correctly) that we have no surviving “original” documents but then goes on to argue that the “proto-orthodox” have altered the originals to suit their own doctrines. But if you do not know what the originals said, how can this be justified?

Likewise, I am well aware that there are controversies over the identity of the authors of the New Testament, but Ehrman does not really explore these. On a number of occasions, he states that the books of 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus and 2 Peter were probably forgeries, though no evidence to support this proposition is ever given. Instead we have reference to “most scholars” though these are not named or referenced. So, whilst being eager to get to grips with this more revisionist viewpoint, I was left frustrated that it was not well supported.

In conclusion, I do not find Ehrman’s revisionist definition of early Christians as “proto-orthodox” to be convincing. It is well-argued, but the evidence presented just doesn’t seem to provide sufficient weight to back up his proposition. The conclusion of the book is also slightly odd. Ehrman recognises that there are some elements of heretical groups that are making a comeback in one guise or another, and he seems to suggest that a plurality of belief and the resurrection of some gonostic or Marcionite thinking is necessarily a good thing. But to me, applying Occam’s Razor, the simplest and most logical explanation behind the demise of the heretical elements looked at here were because they were late inventions that grew out a pre-existing orthodoxy that was already in place from the time of Acts. These later ideas lacked that most important ingredient: truth. While having different opinions is perfectly welcome, I do not agree with Ehrman that this in itself is a good thing if it introduces untruth. I have great respect for his writing and his research, and would recommend this book to anyone interested in this history of early Christianity and the heretical beliefs that grew out of it. However, I would recommend it as part of a wider study, which I shall be doing myself. I have, as you may see, recently completed The New Testament And The People of God by N.T. Wright and on my table, waiting to be read this summer/autumn are Alister McGrath’s Heresy: A History of defending the truth and W.H.C. Frend’s The Early Church.

26 July 2011

Book Review: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

Before reading this book, I had been under the impression that it was a children’s book. However, such impressions were quickly dispelled. What we have, instead, is a book that has been expertly written from the first person perspective of an autistic teenager. It was quite different from anything I have read before, and it is clear to see why it has won such acclaim.

The writing style fits perfectly the subject matter, and the reader is made to see the world through the eyes of this young boy, Christopher Boone. So what we have is a very honest and believable account of a boy who struggles to understand the foibles and deceits of others.

The book is instigated by the death of a neighbour’s dog, stabbed with a garden fork. Christopher decides to find out who did it, which involves talking to various neighbours and attempting to understand motives. Because the book is written from his point of view, we are made to see things in fairly stark contrasts, which I think is Haddon’s way of demonstrating what a peculiar and sometimes deceitful world we live in.

In spite of the page count, the book only took me 2 days’ worth of commuting to finish, as it is in fairly large print with wide margins, and is punctuated with quite a few diagrams and pictures. This makes it readily accessible to a wide audience and is eminently enjoyable, as well as heart-wrenching in places. Haddon’s use of an autistic viewpoint is his way of using an argument of reductio ad absurdum to point an accusing finger at everyday dishonesty, especially that of parents.

19 July 2011

Praying, not shouting

I was really struck by something someone in my housegroup said last week, and I just thought I’d share some of those thoughts. The conversation had drifted onto prayer, and this person was paraphrasing Bill Johnson where the line of thought went something like this:
It is wrong to start your intercessory prayers, “God, if it’s your will….,” because we should be seeking God and trying to find work out what his will for us is. Then, once established, whatever we pray will be in God’s will anyway.
Now, I have a few reservations about such a line of thinking, but in the spirit of unity, I will lay those aside for now to carry on my main train of thought. This person went on to say that if we are given authority in our prayers, then we have no need to shout when we pray, because the Holy Spirit is the one with power, not our vocal chords.

It got me thinking about the cult of celebrity Christians and televangelists, etc. where you do see people putting on a performance. There was a very good show on faith healing hoaxes that Derren Brown did recently, which I would highly recommend you watch if you get the chance (though I do not know how to get hold of it on dvd, on-demand player, etc. – I’m no techno whizz, in spite of my bespectacled appearance). One aspect of the programme was to look at the theatrical over-exuberance of many so-called “faith healers” which I have always been highly sceptical about. The person in my housegroup managed to put into words what had previously been a half-formed thought in the back of my mind for some time.

I will not condemn anyone for shouting in their prayers, as that seems to me judgemental and potentially divisive and unnecessarily antagonistic. What I would like to do is to question why they do it, given that it seems completely illogical. It reminded me of 1 Kings 19, when Elijah was told to go and stand on a mountain. “And behold, JWH passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke the rocks before JWH. [But] JWH was not in the wind. After the wind, came an earthquake, [but] JWH was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake was a fire, [but] JWH was not in the fire. After the fire came a voice, a small whisper. “

Likewise, in Matthew 6, prior to Jesus giving the template for ‘The Lord’s Prayer,’ he said: “Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to pray standing in the synagogues, and in the corners of the open streets, so that they may be seen by others. But you, when you pray, enter into your room, shut your door and pray to your Father in secret.“

There is also a motif that Jesus used about the words that someone speaks being the fruit of what is in their heart. So if Bill Johnson is right (and I’m not saying that he is), then to pray “if it is your will” demonstrates an uncertainty in one’s heart. And if you are to pray in line with the God’s will, then that means you already have God’s will in your heart. The trouble I have with this is the question, “what if I’m wrong?” What if I have misunderstood? Should I go about boldly declaring what God’s will is, if my own fallibility has gotten in the way? It is for this reason that I embrace doubt and try to be careful with what I say. I don’t always get it right. I, like every other Christian and other human being, makes mistakes.

I don’t usually go the prayer meetings at my church. That tends to be because they are scheduled for the busiest time of the month for me, workwise, so I am not physically able to get out of the office and do the ~1.5 hour commute to get there on time. On the few occasions I have made it (where I am usually only of two people to turn up in a suit) it has always struck me that about 20% of the people do 80% of the “out-loud” praying. These people tend to be the more outgoing and charismatic sort of personalities, which is the polar opposite of me. I find talking to people an intensely stressful experience, as I like to construct what I have to say before starting to talk. Usually, by the time I have put together a train of thought in a coherent manner, any conversation to which it may pertain will have moved on. This is largely why I prefer typing. I can do it at my own pace, am less likely to say something stupid (though that probability is >0%) and can make extensive use of the backspace key.

I know that’s not the most structured thing I’ve ever written. I was just putting some thoughts down. I hope they have some semblance of congruity.

18 July 2011

Book Review: You Are Here by Christopher Potter

I was first made aware of this book some time ago by an article in the Guardian which interviewed him. I cannot find the link for the particular article in question, nor can I recall the details of it. What I do recall, however, is that it piqued my interest and sounded like the kind of casual science reading that is right up my street. So I bought it, and then it sat on my shelf for a couple of months, unread, while I got on with other reading (just hit the tag “book reviews” to see all the others I have done lately).

The opening chapter was a bit mixed, where he talks a little bit about his own history, plus a fairly random smattering of other things, with no real structure to it. It turns out that Potter had a very similar background to me, being as he did his undergraduate studies in maths, before going on to pursue other things for a career, while maintaining an interest in science. There did seem to be a metaphysic which he laid on top of what he regarded science to be which I have only ever come across in those who are entirely untrained in science and yet talk it about confidently as the answer to everything. However, the rest of the book showed that if were ignorant about science, that that was entirely hidden.

He does a whistle-stop tour of the major philosophical developments of science over the last 2,500 years or so, along with a brave and noble attempt to summarise quantum mechanics and general relativity for the lay reader; a task which he does with some aplomb and not a little dexterity.

From here, there was a slightly peculiar list of seemingly random things which were listed in order of size. Potter’s aim was to look at bigger and bigger scales, effectively zooming out from our world to look at the wider universe. From here, Potter takes on a parallel journey, though instead of going from the smallest size to the largest size, he wants to take us from the earliest time right through to the present day, taking in an overview of the developments in cosmology and high energy physics.

Overall, the book is very much at the lightweight end of science writing, but nonetheless thoroughly enjoyable. It is spoilt a little by technical errors, though these are relatively minor (for example, he states that “Humans are often carnivorous” when he should have said omnivorous). The other drawback that is has, which is specific for his advocacy of the scientific method, is that he does not include references. All we have is a bibliography of further reading, where there is no linking between the books referenced and the relevant passages. The reader is left to work this out by the titles, I think. However, that would not stop me from recommending as a great book, especially a “starter” for someone not overly familiar with ‘pop science.’

13 July 2011

Book Review: The New Testament Documents – are they reliable? by F.F. Bruce

It has to be noted that it is quite a short book (123 pages excluding preface, bibliography, etc.) though it does pretty much what it says on the tin by looking at some of the evidence in support of the reliability of the New Testament. Regardless of whether you agree with Bruce’s analysis, it has been a hugely influential book in modern christian thought.

In Bruce’s analysis, he does skim on some of the detail which I admit frustrated me a little. For example, in the first chapter, he looks at the date of the authorship of the books of the New Testament. I felt that this was a little too brief and that there could be plenty of arguments posed for dates slightly later than Bruce supposes.

After looking at the dates, he begins to look at the contents of the gospels, the importance of Paul’s writings, the historical detail in Luke’s writing (in particular, the book of Acts), before going on to look at other evidence outside of the New Testament such as archaeological evidence and other non-christian written sources.

The book serves as a great introduction to the subject of biblical criticism as a defence for its authenticity, though it is by no means a comprehensive survey. The non-canonical writings of the early church and of the gnostics are given extremely little space. But it is nothing more than an introduction. For the open-minded sceptic, who is willing to engage with the evidence and is looking for a comprehensive review, this is not the most convincing case. There are some gems to be found, though most of them lie towards the front of the book.

In the version I have, there is a great preface written by N.T. Wright, in which he sums up quite well the best use for this book: “The [person] who reads Bruce today will want to supplement him by reading judiciously in more recent writers. But he remains an excellent foundation.”

12 July 2011

Did you know that there was an 19-digit number that has never been spoken by any human ever?

Well, it’s true. I want to show you why it is true. Before I do that though, I have to explain why I am writing this. During my time studying maths at university, I was never particularly impressed by most “existence theorems.” On the whole, I don’t find it particularly exciting or helpful to set about proving the existence of something without any prospect of actually calculating it (Examples of these include the Ham Sandwich Theorem and the Hairy Ball Theorem). The exception to this is the pigeonhole principle, which I first came across on an open day at Leicester University. The day sticks in my mind because it was pouring down with rain and one of the first guys we spoke to said that he didn’t expect many of the applicants present to go on there, on the basis of the poor weather. His idea was the first impressions were lasting and that bad weather left an overall bad impression, in spite of whatever efforts made by the university staff on the day, the applications would likely think of Leicester as a rainy place, compared to another university they may have visited on a sunny day.

I did not end up going to Leicester University.

But in their open day they did introduce me to the pigeonhole principle, by which one may prove all sorts of odd things. One of these, for example, is that there are at least two people in Newcastle with the exact same number of hairs on their head.

You can look up more details of the pigeonhole principle here, as I would rather assume it is known and then use it rather than recapitulate the whole thing.

A while ago I came across a number called Graham’s number, which was a peculiar for the fact that it was immensely large, no one has calculated it, but we do not that it ends in a 7 (when written in base 10, at least), which is the kind of quirky thing that really piques my interest. [I ought here to note that the episode of QI on which I first saw this was repeated on Monday night, after I wrote most of this, but before I put it online]

So I got thinking what is the potentially the smallest number that no person has ever written down, spoken aloud or actually even thought about. I wanted to ensure that I would be right so where I have had to make estimations, I have erred on the side of caution, leading me to suspect that though I am convinced I am right, I have over-shot the mark in at least one respect.

The first trouble was to estimate how many people have ever lived. Here, we are instantly presented with a problem of trying to define the demarcation of the first homo sapiens as opposed to an earlier ancestor and to then consider at what point in human evolution numeracy developed. As I had no idea I resorted to Wikipedia, who gave a statistic cited from an American study that estimated there had been between 100,000,000,000 and 115,000,000,000 people who have ever lived. So naturally, I added on a bit (just to be on the safe side) and assumed for the purpose of my calculation 120,000,000,000.

Next, I had to estimate how long they live for. Again, without any detailed research to hand, I made a guess by using the current average age of around 80 years. I suspect that over the course of human history, it has not been less than this, so my estimate is suitably conservative (if that phrase is not an oxymoron).

Of this, there are likely to be times (such as childhood and old age) when the ability to count to large numbers will not be present. So I took off 10 years, which I think is not unreasonable.

Next, how much of that time is spent asleep. I have heard that people spend a third of their lives asleep, and that the average person gets 8 hours sleep a night. Personally, I don’t know where these people get the time from. I get 6 hours a night, so I estimated that each person was only awake for 52.5 years.

Of course, most people do not spend every waking moment thinking about numbers. As a mathematician by training and an accountant by profession, I probably do it more than most, although even then I would estimate that I don’t spend more than 5% of my waking time thinking about numbers. There are far more everyday concerns that take up much of my thinking time. Again, erring on the side of caution, I plumped for 10%.

This means that on my grossly optimistic assumptions, the average human can spend 165,672,864 seconds in their lifetime thinking about numbers. Given our earlier estimate of the number of people, this gives the total thinking time to date as somewhere in the region of 19,880,743,680,000,000,000 seconds.

Now, even though it can be very quick to count to 10, the numbers we are interested are not likely to be small. So how long does it take to say them? Of course, this will depend on language, so I admit my figure is a plucked out of thin air. I would opt for 2 seconds. I think when you get the scale of the hundreds of thousands, that’s not unreasonable. Order of magnitude higher than that will probably take considerably longer, so 2 is a fair estimate to use for a conservative guess.

So what’s the answer then? I believe that there is a number which is less than 9,940,371,840,000,000,000 which no person in human history has ever spoken, written or thought about.

I am sure that this is far too high an estimate, as we have considered numbers like a googol and googolplex which are many orders of magnitude larger and I haven’t taken into account repetition. Goodness knows how many times the number 100 has been considered by humans over the years!

I know for certain that the number in question cannot be 4,724,557,109,087,242 because I just thought about it. In fact, any number I think about is, by definition, the wrong answer, because as soon as I think of it, it can no longer remain “un-thought-of.” I’d love to think that I “discovered” a number by being the first one to think about it. Of course, by continuity, we know that it must have existed, but I have no way of verifying if I was the first one to think of it.

It strikes me a little bit of quantum mechanics where a system will collapse into its eigenstates as soon as it is observed. Truly fascinating and enjoyable.

That’s why I love science!

11 July 2011

Book Review: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

I picked up this book on the basis of some very positive reviews I had heard; though, as usual with fiction, I only skim-read the reviews the hope of avoiding any plot spoilers. In this case, though, it seems I need not have taken such trouble since, in his attempt to be avant-guard, David Mitchell seems to have discarded the concept of having a plot.

What we have instead are a series of short stories. Each (except for one) are “mirrored” in two parts. That is to say, the short story which begins the book (and is frustratingly ended mid-sentence) is concluded at the very end. The 2nd story is also the penultimate one, and so on. If we were to represent each story by a single letter, the book is structured as follows: ABCDEFEDCBA.

I was not incredibly impressed to begin with. The first two stories had very little coherence to them and were almost entirely uninteresting to read. Mitchell takes a stab every few pages at pretending to be incredibly clever by throwing in foreign phrases, seemingly in the hope that the reader will consider him a master wordsmith for doing so. However, they are ill-placed and do not cover up the cracks in some markedly poor writing.

What is there is often derivative. The opening story is a rip-off from Horatio Hornblower, the story entitled An Orison of Somni-451 has distinctive overtones of Philip K Dick (in particular Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep) and the story at the centre, Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After, subjects the reader to the same kind of phonetic linguistic torture that Will Self inflicted upon readers of his truly terrible, The Book of Dave.

After the diabolical central story, the second half of the book doesn’t seem quite as a bad in comparison. I actually quite liked the second part of The Terrible Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, even though it is conceivable that a plagiarism case could be made against it by Ken Kasey for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

Mitchell has attempted to write these stories as variations on a single theme: “the will to power” (taken from the back cover). In doing so, he is attempting to be incredibly ambitious and the task requires an extraordinary quality of writing. Unfortunately, such quality is not found in Mitchell’s writing and Icarus-like, he has fallen to earth with a great thud.

In spite of this, the book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won many fans. A limited number were given away for free at the recent World Book Night as an example of great, modern British writing. So I am perplexed as to how such a bad book could come to be so highly praised. Of course, it is eminently possible that I have missed something incredibly subtle that I was too dim to see, or it could be a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes.

8 July 2011

The News of the World: some thoughts on the cause of its fall & the consequences

I am writing this this offline on the evening of the 7th of July. I know the news has been moving very fast this week, so I apologise if this is already out of date by the time I get round to publishing it online.

Much has been said and written in the last few days about the News of the World hacking scandal. By the time I left my office this evening, it had been announced that this Sunday’s paper would be the last and that the proceeds of the final sales would go to some unnamed “good causes.” For the avoidance of libel, I acknowledge that the allegations made against the News of the World are as yet unproven, and any references to these actions ought to be read in that light.

So why did the paper close. It seems to me that the watershed moment in the hacking affair was the revelation that the phone of Milly Dowler had been hacked. Before this, the dominant theme of the story had been the phones of politicians and celebrities; the usual tabloid fodder. Though the alleged actions were illegal, there was nothing that sparked a widescale moral outrage at them; we are used to those in positions of power using underhanded and dubious means to achieve their goals. But the hacking of the phone of a murder victim seemed to flick a switch that had hitherto been unnamed. The escalation of the revelations from there only compounded the problem.

At this point, there began a pressure campaign on those who advertised in the NOTW to withdraw their funding. I cannot say for certain how much this pressure was applied by those who do not read [sic] the NOTW, though the impression I got from my limited viewpoint was that the non-readers were in the majority. Had it merely been a boycott from buying the paper, I am not convinced the paper would have folded with such rapidity, since any boycott would have been from those who never bought it in the first place, which is pointless. As the majority of a paper’s profits are made from its advertisers, removing this source of funding was always going to hurt the paper. When it became clear that the paper would not be a viable source of profit, it was decided to terminate the paper’s operation. It would be nice to think it was an act of conscience, but I don’t think this is the case. The business of the paper is the business of Rupert Murdoch: making money. The evidence seen so far seems to point to the idea that all actions taken were motivated by the love of money; even if sometimes this exhibited itself indirectly.

A further course of action which was possible, and which I advocated, was to pressurise the vendors of the paper into not selling it. Unless the vendors had a contract with the paper (or its parent company) then I cannot see that it would be impossible for a vendor to choose not to sell it.

What I find interesting to reflect on is that in spite of this being hailed as a victory for public opinion, it was corporations that ultimately swayed the matter to the extent that the paper folded. I don’t think that it would have done so if the advertisers hadn’t pulled out. So is it the case that the advertisers were the real champions of ethics? Well, I did find a list of those advertisers and it makes for interesting reading. It is not exactly made up of companies who are well-known for being champions of corporate social responsibility and one could certainly write several books containing the accounts of the misdemeanours by the likes of Tesco and Asda, amongst others.

So I would propose that the closing of the paper, while initiated by a mob mentality motivated by moral outrage, was ultimately decided by those corporations who feared for their own profits being damaged by the public boycotting of their own products and services in protest, had they not withdrawn their advertising funds.

Call me a cynic, but the whole thing seems to be about money and greed, rather than a fundamental sense of right or wrong.

At the time of writing, there was an unsubstantiated rumour going round that there was to be a planned merger of The Sun and the NOTW anyway, and that today’s announcement was merely an accelerant to that process. Part of this rumour included the proposition that the websites thesunonsunday.com and thesunonsunday.co.uk had been registered as domain names on the 5th of July this year. If someone who is more knowledgeable on how to check such propositions than I could confirm or deny this, that would be much appreciated.

So now that the announcement of cessation of publication has been made, what will be the likely outcome? Well, in the short-term it looks like we will have one fewer right-wing newspaper on the shelf on a Sunday. It’s not a huge step of progress, but it is a mild improvement. Ideally, I’d rather see more left-leaning papers as the closest we have to these are The Independent and The Guardian, and these are not exactly bastions of liberal freethought at all times.

Given the close links between the NOTW and The Sun, I think it likely that there will be a limited number of transfers going on, though I think it reasonable to assume there will be some job losses. While the problems at the paper may have been fairly widespread, I strongly doubt that everyone who worked at the paper was party to the hacking. So inevitably there will be some innocent people who are going to lose their livelihoods as a result; and what prospects do they have? Though the NOTW was never the most respectable of papers, I would not like to cast aspersions on everyone who worked there. If I try and put myself in the shoes of a budding young journalist, and the NOTW was the only national paper to offer me a job I would be tempted to take it. But given the seriousness of the allegations, will the fact that time spent at the NOTW will be on someone’s CV consign them to history as far their journalistic career goes. I have spoken to a number of people who formerly worked at Arthur Andersen, and who were not able to get a job in accountancy after Enron, in spite of the fact that they may have been very good at their jobs and acted at all times with the utmost integrity.

What of the prime minister and his involvement? I would like to think he’d resign as a sense of duty and seeking to do what is best for the country; though I have never been given any reason to suppose that he has anything but his own interests and those of his friends and business associates at heart. It is now 10pm and I just saw on a preview of Newsnight that Andy Coulson is expected to be arrested tomorrow (the 8th). This may damage the prime minister a lot, though unfortunately the British public are a fickle lot with short memories. I suspect the Lib Dems lack the spine to pull out of the coalition and will seek to hang on to the bitter end of the 5 year term. By this time, the NOTW will be a distant memory, as will the 2012 Olympics and many other national embarrassments, though it is yet to be seen whether or not Ed Milliband will, by then, have actually done anything productive.

5 July 2011

On creationism/ID

I would like to thank Lewis S for his well-considered post in reply to an earlier post I made. Lewis had clearly thought through the issues discussed and the challenges he raises deserve an equally considered response, I feel. They also touch on a number of subjects which I think concern a lot of Christians and critics of Christianity. Having started to write a reply, it quickly began to get lengthy, in spite on what I considered to be little more than a surface-level review of the topics at hand. So I have decided to split my response across several posts, in which I admit here that I am likely to stray off topic. I do not pretend that these replies will answer every query satisfactorily for all, though my hope is that is conveys a reasonable portrayal of my views on the matters concerned.

After the initial response (which was the quickest to write), I will look to cover:

The Bible as a tool of social control
The genocial god
Biblical accuracy

While Lewis indicated that the last point was the key one, I have left this ‘til last as it is taking the longest to write and reference. So then, on with the first response:

Creationism/ID

For the record, I do not subscribe to young earth creationism or to the Intelligent Design (ID) hypothesis. I think there is a quite profound difference between the belief that God created the world and the belief in a particular method of how He/It did it. As you will be able to read elsewhere, I recently read through Darwin’s The Origin of Species, and found that apart from the introduction which was not written by Darwin, there is nothing overtly atheistic about it. It seems to me that the idea of “special creation” has been bound up in many people’s minds with the core of the Abrahamic religions, and that by undermining the former, that the latter is then consequently undermined too. I do not agree with this view, as I consider it to demonstrate a poor grasp of theology (which I think is true in a lot, though not necessarily all, creationists) and a stretching of the good science into conclusions where the evidence does not reach.

I have no issue with creationists or ID proponents believing what they do, and am perfectly happy to worship in church alongside them. While I believe them to be mistaken, it is no reason to break up personal relationships or to adopt any kind of haughty attitude. To me, the core of Christianity is the person, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, along with the subsequent soteriology that that entails. Anything else is a distraction and I would not want anything petty to break apart such relationships.

One of the labels that is often applied to YEC/ID proponents is “anti-science” which I personally think is a bit harsh, particularly on the ID supporters. To quote Richard Feynman,


“Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.”
Those who dissent from scientific consensus tend to fall into one of two categories: genius or crackpot. It is by questioning what we commonly accept that a lot of progress may be made. But there may also be a lot of wayward pot-shots that happen along the way. In my experience, there are often a few gems hidden within the criticisms of YEC/IDers that deserve serious consideration, but given how far their main hypothesis lies from mainstream science, they are disregarded wholesale.

Where I see the failings of YECers is that while they may well accept scientific methodologies, their conclusions are biased, based on a pre-existing paradigm. IDers are merely pursuing a route of falsification which Darwin mentions several times in Origin. So the fact that they keep coming up with possible examples of potentially irreducibly complex structures which do turn out to be explainable by means of natural selection, I think, adds to the body of evidence supporting Darwin. All too often in debates around creationism and evolution, I think those on the side of evolution don’t put up the best possible argument but instead refer to rhetoric and name-calling, unwilling to engage with those who disagree with them. At times, it seems as though it is a default position to adopt simply because of their distaste with any possible alternatives. To me, scientific integrity means it should be questioned and challenged; if it can be falsified, then it is important that serious attempts should be made to pursue such lines of enquiry.

I find it interesting to compare the approaches taken by creationists such as
Ken Ham to that of Fred Hoyle’s view of the Big Bang theory. Ham objects to evolution, not because of any particular flaws in the theory but because he disagrees with a particular conclusion that may be reached from it; namely the undermining of his worldview of the creator god. Hoyle objected to Big Bang theory because he felt it accorded too well with the Judaeo-Christian view of the world having a beginning, which may then imply a creator (c.f. Thomas Aquinas and the “first-mover” idea). Both of these men start out by objecting to a possible corollary and then went in search of the evidence to undermine the theory. As far as I know, Hoyle never adopted the big bang model of the origin of the universe, in spite of its near universal acceptance in modern science (an interesting recent exception being the severe modification proposed by Roger Penrose’s conformal cyclic cosmology hypothesis). While I do not agree with Ken Ham, I think he sometimes given a rougher time than he deserves, as some of his critiques are not without basis.

To my view, the problem with Christians who reject evolution is shared with some atheists who reject Christianity. It is the problem of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I fully acknowledge there are problems with Christianity, and I will touch on one or two of these later on. At the same time I acknowledge that there are problems with evolution. If there weren’t, there would be no need for research; we would know everything. But the fact that both have their difficulties does not mean that I will reject them outright. Indeed, I am happy to embrace both as working hypotheses.

To return to what I think Lewis S was getting at, even though he didn’t phrase it quite as such is this: how do I reconcile the creation account in Genesis with evolution? To me, the key is about trying to understand Genesis in the context in which it was written and what would have been observed by the writer(s) and readers. Without an extensive knowledge and study of biology, as Darwin, Russell and their contemporaries had, it would be highly surprising indeed if the author(s) of Genesis would have come up with a description that mirrored our current understanding of the development of life. They were merely expressing themselves in the best way they possibly could. There is some indication, though I would not like to stress the point too much, that the civilisation which produced the book of Genesis had a grasp of what structures in nature were more complicated. This is given by the “order of creation” in the genesis account which, with a few exceptions, broadly mirrors the current scientific consensus.
Andrew Parker has recently written a book entitled The Genesis Enigma which goes a lot further than I would consider reasonable along this route, though I shall say no more about it here.

It was also long before Darwin that Christian scholars and apologists warned against taking the start of Genesis in what we would not call a literalist manner. Augustine of Hippo wrote a piece called De Genesi ad litteram in which he advocated such a view. And this was written in the late 3rd/early 4th century!

I have to say that I am not a biologist, so can boast no evolutionary training beyond the average. Instead, my master’s degree was in mathematics, with a very heavy dose of physics (in the last couple of years, subjects covered included quantum mechanics, general relativity, twistor theory, string theory, fluid dynamics and electrodynamics). For that reason, the particular areas of creationism that I felt most able to look at were their physics explanation for a young earth. The two dominant ideas here were the slowing down of the
speed of light (which, if true, could help explain the red-shifting of galaxies and get past the rather awkward fact of any object being more than 10,000 light years away) and the decreasing strength of the earth’s magnetic field (where an extrapolation is taken and an argument is made than with a much stronger magnetic field, life could not exist on earth). The former argument was dependent on a single paper that has since been debunked, as the author cherry-picked his data and made an arbitrary cut-off date at which light stopped slowing down. This happened to coincide with the most accurate measurements of the speed of light. The author also supposed that all measurements (including those where the only available light was a candle!) were entirely accurate. The latter theory may have seemed more promising, were it not for the mathematical uncertainties that creep in when using any form of extrapolation model. Here, I think of the GCSE experiment in Hooke’s law using a spring where the students discover that you can’t extrapolate your results, as it misses a change in the molecular structure that changes the deformation from elastic to plastic. Also, the discovery of geomagnetic reversal was the final nail in that particular coffin.

This was roughly the route by which I largely came to reject creationism. One line I have heard a few times from creationists who cannot fathom that someone can both be a Christian AND be persuaded by the evidence for evolution is “well, if you don’t believe the first chapters of the Bible, how can you say you believe it?” I consider this argument to be both fatuous and vacuous. It fails to recognise the Bible as a compendium of books, not a single book by a single author. It also draws on some strange form of logic whereby rejection or acceptance of one part (in a literalist manner) compels you to reject or accept the whole. It is rather like saying you disagree with an editorial piece in a newspaper, and thereby being forced to reject the entire contents of the said paper.

So what shall I say in conclusion, then? The fact that I am persuaded by the evidence for evolution in no way diminishes my Christian faith. It would be truly astonishing if the authors of the book of Genesis had given an account that was technically accurate, as it would have required a breadth of study and technology that was far beyond what was available at the time.

4 July 2011

Book Review: A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis

I read this as a follow-up to Lewis' earlier work, The Problem of Pain for an alternative look at theodicy. My understanding of the history of these two books was that Problem was writing prior to Lewis' wife dying and that Grief was written afterwards, after Lewis was unable to find comfort in his own words. I am also of the understanding that Grief was initially published under a pseudonym and Lewis only revealed himself as the author after a number of friends had recommended the book to him.

My own reasons for reading this now, as hinted at in my look at Problem, was that a close relative of mine died recently. This was a few weeks ago now, and we have had the funeral, ready to move on with our own lives now. A Grief Observed is a book that is often recommended as one to read during such a period of loss.

It has to be said that the book is extremely short (only 59 pages, fact). It is probably appropriate to state what the book is not, as much as what it is. It is not a detailed product of careful study or a complete thesis on the subject of dealing with grief. Lewis was merely trying to gather his thoughts into some semblance that would make sense. His extraordinary erudition and lucidity are what make it a great book. I found myself at many times reading in print thoughts that had been half-articulated in my own mind.

At such an extreme time of emotional stress, Lewis does what is only natural, and that is to question all that he believes in. Rather than throw all his beliefs out, he not only asks the questions but searches his soul for the answers. What results is one of the most honest of writings, where Lewis shows us a glimpse of his true soul. It is a level of honesty and openness that very few people ever dare to write publically, and one that I could only aspire to.

In spite of its brevity, it is an immensely rich book and incredibly thought-provoking. It is not a huge time-investment to read it, and the payoff is worth it. I would have no hesitation is recommending to anyone, whether in a time of grief or not.

1 July 2011

Book Review: The New Testament and People of God by N.T. Wright

As regular readers of this blog will know (and I know there are more than the 2 “followers” displayed – I can see some statistics!), I have already read and reviewed volume 3 of N.T. (Tom) Wright’s magnum opus, Christian Origins and The Question of God. That was mainly due to my not realising at the time that it was part of a series, something I probably ought to have known, having met Wright a couple of times while he was the Bishop of Durham, though at the time we were discussing So it only seemed right to go back to the beginning and do the whole series. My hope is to be able to go through volume 2 (Jesus and the Victory of God) before he publishes volume 4 (Paul and the Faithfulness of God), currently due out at some unspecified date in 2012.

The book was something of a revelation (if you’ll pardon the pun) as it is the longest introduction I have ever read. Wright spends about the first third of the book (which is 500 pages long – and they ain’t exactly small pages in large print) discussing his methodology and setting out his stall in meticulous detail. I know this may not be of particular interest to readers who want to get the Wright’s summary of Judaic and early Christian history, but it is well worth it, I think, as it demonstrates the level of care needed to approach this topic.

Having set himself up, Wright then proceeds to give a summary history of Judaic thought roughly from the time of Judas Maccabeus through the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. He acknowledges that this is a summary rather than a detailed analysis and does provide plenty of references for the interested reader to follow-up on. At times, it is a bit dry and it took me a while to go through; I would readily admit to not being having taken it all in.

From here, Wright gives what is, in my opinion, the most fascinating chapter: an overview of Christianity from roughly A.D. 30 to A.D. 125. Wright acknowledges the difficulty in trying to study the history of the church given the scarcity over the contemporary sources, and their reliability (e.g. not trusting what Eusebius had to say without at least a pinch of salt).

In both his sections on Judaism and early Christianity, he looks at what they did (praxis), believed and hoped for. The reader should always be aware that this is an introduction, so Wright brushes on topics he intends to look at in much more detail later on. It serves as a useful appetiser and I can’t wait to get going on Jesus and Victory of God.

There were points in it where I was not convinced by Wright’s arguments, though these tended to be on comparatively minor areas. Overall, it is a work of immense integrity and scholarship. It will of interest to anyone who is interested in how historical and theological research is carried out by the best scholars in their field, to those who want to find out about the history and beliefs of the early Christians and the world in which they lived and will be of immense value to all who read it.