Wednesday, August 24, 2005

We have got over the Phillip Pullman bandwagon now but this short summary of His Dark Materials (supplied by a friend) is still quite funny. Highly condensed books are often amusing. Here's my own take on Trollope's Small House in Allington: "Girl is told to grow up, but doesn't".

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

One of the oddest things about academia in the West is that supporting barbarous tyrannies can be socially acceptable as long as they are communist barbarous tyrannies. On the other hand, supporting a fascist tyranny or even a fascist anything, quite rightly, gets you hounded out of the college door. I don't have much time for fascists myself but was reminded of the inequality of odium because I have recently been reading a book by the late Christopher Hill. Hill was not just your plain vanilla Marxist but an out and out supporter of Stalin who denied the purges ever happened. I actually saw him on a BBC show saying this (which was acutely embarrassing to my girlfriend of the time because she had previously admired him). Anyway, Hill's reward for the equivalent of holocaust denial was to be elected the Head of Balliol College, Oxford.

The argument has always been that Hill was a great historian so we should forgive his political peccadilloes. No doubt he was also nice to animals and didn't molest his students. But reading his The Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution has shown me that he wasn't much good as a historian at all. Rather he was an expert Marxist propaganda writer who twisted facts and selected his sources to make a case that is in all probability complete fantasy. While we all have our agendas, Hill had already written the minutes before even looking at the evidence. I suppose one of the advantages of doing a PhD is that it means you become an expert in a very small field and thus can see where anyone else who steps in it has gone wrong. Hill wrote Intellectual Origins in the 1960s so could be forgiven for getting it wrong then. However, he stuck to his guns in the 1997 new edition which is less forgivable. I can also see where he has deliberately left things out that damage his thesis - a crime beyond forgiveness in a historian. Ironically he accuses other historians who oppose his thesis of doing just that themselves.

It is not (quite) true to say that we should discount Hill's history simply because of his odious political stance. But it is not unreasonable to take special satisfaction in dismantling his work because of it. At least I am spared having to wade through anything by EP Thompson or Eric Hobsbawn confident that it too is probably complete tosh.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Monday, August 22, 2005

I have been reading Richard Swinburne's The Existence of God (Oxford, 2004) and have found it challenging, interesting but not entirely satisfying. Swinburne is a philosopher rather than a theologian and thus is trained within a tradition of Hume and Kant rather than Aquinas and Barth. This shows itself with his being very little interested in what God is like and far more concerned about arguing to Him. Theologians generally go the other way, granting a certain religious tradition and seeing where it leads them. Admittedly, Swinburne says more about what God is like and his actions in the world in other books so I cannot criticise him for staying focused in this one. Except that whether or not God exists has a huge amount to do with which God we mean. Discussion at Bede's dedicated yahoo group on omniscience has shown us this, if nothing else.

The arguments to God have been looked upon as a dead loss by most philosophers for some time now as they have realised that they do not work as proofs. Trouble is, philosophers have found they can't be sure of anything else either and so the question has shifted to what I have a justification for believing. Even this, as the problem of induction shows, is no easy question. Simon Blackburn, a typical enlightenment thinker, gives the impression in his Cambridge lectures on the theory of knowledge that the only thing he is sure about is that God doesn't exist. Meanwhile, Alvin Plantinga seems to be happy to assert that God's existence is a fact so basic that it doesn't even need to be justified.

What about Swinburne? He tries to built a probabilistic argument to God. He builds up his case by asking if the various arguments to God (cosmological, design, experience etc) add up to a probable case after taking into account the counter arguments (evil and hiddeness). He concludes that they do, just about and that our religious experience is the essential tipping point. I'd prefer to put it the other way around by asking if the design and other arguments mean we are justified in interpreting our religious experience as 'real'. Of course, I think they do but then they cease to be arguments to God and become arguments from religious experience. On specifics, I think Swinburne places too much emphasis on simple solutions always being the best ones. This is partly in reply to Dawkins' attack on Swinburne in this review that claims God is actually very complicated. Also, I fear Swinburne's defence of a dualistic soul is leaving hostages to fortune. That said, the point of the book is that taken together the arguments have a great force. This is undoubtedly try which is why atheologists have always tried to refute the arguments one by one. But if each is simply evidential, they can have a cumulative effect as each piece of evidence slots into place. Just how big that effect is depends more on the individual than the implicit strength of the arguments.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

The question of whether God’s omniscience can defeat freewill is a very old canard indeed. Boethius brings it up in his Consolation of Philosophy written during the early sixth century. As it happens, Boethius got the answer right when he pointed out that God’s foreknowledge was not causal. Let me flesh this out a bit before moving to a possible limitation to omniscience that might help explain the problem of evil.

Imagine you and I are sitting together having a drink. At time t you make a free choice to ask for a gin and tonic (we assume you have freewill). Before t I cannot know what your choice will be (even if I have a pretty good idea that you like a G&T and don’t much like whisky). However, after t I do know precisely what your choice has been. No one would deny that my knowledge after t could have an effect on your choice at t so freewill is preserved even thought I now occupy a vantage point from which I can know for certain what your choice was.

So far, so uncontroversial. Now, a little after t, I retire to the men’s room. But unknown to me, the toilet cubicle is actually an experimental Chronojohn which whisks me back in time to before t. Thus, I leave the men’s room and see you and I already sitting at the table and behold, you order a gin and tonic. Once again, it seems uncontroversial that my knowledge, now before t, of what you will order is not going to effect your freedom to order what you like. We can agree that mere knowledge cannot remove freewill unless it also leads to some sort of action. Many science fiction authors have suggested that there are laws of time that prevent paradox and so just as I watch myself leave the table to go to the men’s room, I am sucked back through a temporal wormhole to the moment when I should have left the loo in the first place.

Now God, when he sees the universe, sees all of time at once. And he knows that you will choose a G&T because he can watch you do it (of course he also knows you better than me and might have a very good idea what you’ll order but it is not certain except that he has actually seen you do it). God’s act of seeing you choose can no more invalidate your freewill than my act of seeing you choose. Omniscience in this sense cannot effect freewill. Almost all philosophers and theologians would, I understand, agree here.

Let me now take things one step further and suggest an important limit to omniscience. God, I think, cannot know for sure what we would have done if things were different. Why not? Because if he can predict our actions in a counterfactual situation that would imply a deterministic formula and defeat freewill. Yes, God does have a pretty good idea of what we would have done, but he can’t be certain.

Let’s return to our previous example, forgetting all the time travel stuff. You have, if you recall, just ordered a G&T. The waitress then turns to me and I order a G&T too. Now, God knew I would do this because he could watch me do it from his frame of reference. But suppose you had ordered a whisky. That order might influence my own order because the social option of having the same thing is eliminated (I really don’t want a whisky before dinner). Perhaps then I’d order a beer or a glass of wine. God knows my preferences so would have a good idea what I’d order in this case, but He cannot be certain because that would preclude free choice. Now this, I also suggest, has serious implications for the problem of moral evil because God does not have the kind of perfect information about all probabilities that we often assume he must do. And, if quantum mechanics is truly random, then God might also have less than perfect knowledge about a great deal of the possibilities in the natural world too. He can only know precisely what a universe with a random element will be like by letting it happen. This has implications for the problem of natural suffering. But that it for another time.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

There is an excellent op-ed in today's Guardian by...

There is an excellent op-ed in today's Guardian by the Anglican priest, Giles Fraser.  Fraser is a high church liberal, political leftie  and also a professional philosopher.  When he gets stuff wrong it is usually because he has mixed up his leftiness with his orthodoxy.  He is often not helped by Guardian sub-editors putting silly headlines on his articles.  Fraser is a short and powerful looking man with little hair and lots of brain.  He delivered an excellent sermon one Christmas when he described the birth of one of his children (a messy business as I know from recent experience) to hammer home the humanity of Jesus.  It is unlikely His birth was any quieter and sanitised than any other, especially given it happened in a stable and not a hospital.

Fraser's point in today's article is that Islam is already 'reformed' in the historical sense.  When people say Islam needs a 'Reformation', what they really mean is that Islam needs an 'Enlightenment' to render it quiet and harmless (and probably useless).  While we are right to worry about Islamic fanatics (and wrong to pretend that they are somehow not really Islamic), I am not sure Christians are wise to be calling for the neutering of Islam as a whole.  In many ways, it might be out best ally against the even more dangerous threat of extremist secularisation.  As for which of the two religions is the theologically correct, I am pretty confident that we can win that one using argument rather than violence.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.    

Sunday, August 14, 2005

After Theowiki merged with Wikipedia, Peter Kirby's latest project is ErrancyWiki. He recently copped some abuse on the Secular Web for attacking 1001 Errors of the Bible which is a rambling effort from someone who has way too much time and way too little expertise. Anyway, Peter was right on the money to nail 1001 Errors so I am not sure what his new site is supposed to achieve. I'm not an inerrantist and the whole subject bores me. I would have thought that Peter feels the same way. He usually tries to interact with scholarship and you will find very few scholars who bother with this sort of thing either. Errancy is a game played by fundamentalist atheists and very conservative Christians which shouldn't be of any interest to the rest of us.

The whole Wiki project is deeply suspect anyway. The idea that anyone can declare themselves an expert and then amend the work of a real expert is just plain crazy. My own experience there was mercifully brief as I quickly realised the site was in the hands of people determined to push their agenda, and to hell with scholarship. I thought it might be helpful to edit the article on the Great Library of Alexandria. Trouble was a German atheist was trying to put in lots of entries making Christianity look as bad as possible and kept amending my article. It has now been amended again (by the same guy) to make it seem that Christians were responsible for the destruction of the library when I have all but proved that this cannot be the case. The atheist is now 'Chief Research Officer' of Wikipedia and can happily go on peddling his anti-Christian propaganda however he likes.

Of course, Wikipedia has set itself up as an authority and you get pointed to it increasingly often. My advice: don't believe a word you read there.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

I have been buried in libraries for half the week and riveted by the cricket for the remainder, so must apologise for the continuing infrequency of these entries. Here's some controversy to make up for it.

I have a good friend who is very intelligent and an atheist. He has moved through many beliefs in his time and has now decided that he has no choice but to buy into the whole naturalistic caboodle. He takes no great pleasure from this but feels he has been compelled into his position by the evidence presented to him. He is a fully consistent atheist and materialist who also denies freewill and thinks that the 'self' is an illusionary epiphenomenum of brain states. No matter that I find all this deeply implausible, that is where he stands. However, he is not particularly pleased by this and agrees that it is a pretty grim philosophy for life. He has no desire to convert people to his views (beyond the entertainment value of a good argument) and generally thinks religion is a good thing. He does not make the mistake of confusing certain elements of religious belief or practice with which he has problems with the whole thing.

My point is this. I can see why someone might be an atheist (although I'd disagree with them) but I cannot for the life of me see why any knowledgeable and mature adult should want to be an atheist or want other people to be.

The first reason for wanting reject God is that it might give a sense of liberation. I'd expect this from adolescents chaffing at the bit and wanting to go out and have sex with anything that moves. However, I would also expect them to grow out of it once they have finished growing up and realised that there is more to life than sex, drugs and libertarianism. As an adult, perhaps, having a lot of money and wanting to make more of it might also make someone want God out the picture. We often hear from individuals who think they have been 'damaged' by a religious upbringing and have hence rejected religion. Ironically, science (as we learn from Steven Pinker and others) would say that these people are sad cases due to their genes and that their upbringing was irrelevant. The fact that most people who have had religious upbringings are perfectly well adjusted and often religious themselves rather kills the 'damage' argument as well.

A second reason for wanting to be an atheist is a confused idea of history. If you have bought into the various anti-clerical myths you might see religion as a bad thing and hence reject it. The trouble is that the way people cling so tenuously to these myths when their errors are pointed out suggests these are just providing ballast for an already existing idea.

Thirdly, there is politics. In the US in particular, the defence of secularism has become a battle against Bush by proxy. I do not want to get mixed up in a foreign dispute but I do fail to see why disagreeing with Republican policies or even the religious right should encourage anyone to reject religion altogether. That said, American activist atheism is a minority sport more deserving of pity than contempt. It is also built on the huge misconception that church/state separation is bad for church. In fact, as the UK's state religion shows, it is the best thing ever to happen to US Christians. They should be guarding it assiduously.

Fourth, I suppose, is the feeling that religion just gets in the way of sex and shopping, the two major concerns of our society. But most of these people do not want to be atheists, they just don't want to think too hard about hard questions. When they do, many find themselves drawn to Alpha Courses and realising they do want more from life than endless distractions.

So, why would anyone want to be an atheist? Why does anyone want to spread atheism? Is it all just teenage foolishness, historical ignorance and lefties with a bee in their bonnet? Frankly, I have no idea and would welcome suggestions.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

A reader has kindly sent me this link to a site put together by a computer programmer on information in the genome. I was struck that some of his thoughts have run along similar lines to mine on the genetic language and random mutation. However, I received some very interesting feedback to the Yahoo group from a Christian molecular biologist which might shed some light on how mutation works in practice. In short, we have many copies of each gene of which we are only using one leaving the others free to mutate without causing trouble. I'm not user I understand how these mutated genes get switched on or why it would be good if they did, but the picture does seem to be more complicated than I, or the page I linked to above, imagined.

I have just finished Ian Barbours's book When Science Meets Religion (SPCK, 2000) and I thought it was rather good. Barbour splits all science/religion interaction into the categories of Conflict, Independence, Dialogue and Intergration which sounds a bit artificial but works reasonably well. Each chapter of the book (on evolution, the big bang, quantum mechanics, neuroscience etc) is split into the four categories and the many different viewpoints of thinkers assigned to each one. Sometimes I disagree with Barbour's categorisation - he puts Michael Behe in the 'conflict' category with YECs rather than 'integration' where he belongs. This is because, like me, Barbour, thinks Behe is ultimately wrong and wants 'integration' to include ideas he agrees with.

The major strength of this book is the number of potted explanations of philosophers and theologians that Barbour summarises under each heading. Huge amounts of material have been condensed into a two hundred page book including process theology, creationism, dualism, the anthropic principle and loads of others that don't even have names. True, this is all in the manner of a brief introduction, but the notes double as a short bibliography allowing anyone to push off much further if they desire. In all, I strongly recommend this as a first book on science and religion. Also, if you think you have covered quite a lot of this ground through popular works and the internet, read Barbour to find that there is a great deal more territory out there than you probably imagined.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

I have spent the last few weeks doing some serious leg work among the old libraries of Cambridge looking for sixteenth century scientific books. Actually, I have sat at desks and the librarians have kindly done a great deal of leg work for me. They have all been incredibly kind and helpful which makes research a great deal more fun than just slogging away on your own. Add to that being able to work in some of the world's most beautiful buildings (like the Wren Library) in Cambridge in the summer and it has been a very pleasant time.

Of course, part of the fun is being able to handle and look really closely at the rare books. Students doodled five hundred years ago and some of these are quite funny in their way. Likewise, they sometimes had very bad handwriting which is considerably less funny when you are trying to read it. Finally, the pang of recognition when you come across the signature of someone you have already studied closely is spooky. You never really get closer to people than when you handle the books they read and wrote in.

Some books transcend time and place. No matter that I had already read it in English, it was a real thrill when I was handed the first edition of Copernicus's De revolutionibus (1543) and read the first few lines. This copy was in pristine condition and had not moved from the Perne Library in Peterhouse since the 1590s, before Copernicus had even become controversial or well known. I know a good deal about Andrew Perne, its original owner, and seen his copy of Copernicus included in the list of his books made when he died (valued at a few shillings). To handle the actual book completed the circle. In fact, I had no reason to ask for it, but the librarian knew perfectly how much I would enjoy seeing it and handed it to me anyway.

On the subject of important texts, the Codex Sinaiticus, the world's earliest complete Bible, is to go on the web. I have often seen it in its cabinet in the British Library, pressing my nose against the glass to decipher the first line of John at which it is usually open (not easy to read by any means!). Glad that it is going to be more widely available.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Another exciting new project is Chris Price's Genre, Historicity, Date and Authorship of Acts. Chris is basically arguing that Acts is pretty much what it says it is and counters the various arguments that have been presented to suggest it is actually something else. For instance, a scholar called Professor Pervo has tried to sell the idea that Acts is an ancient Greek novel. This seems rather odd at first sight especially given that Acts is clearly the sequel to Luke's Gospel and that is certainly not a novel. If one is, the other would have to be as well. Chris marshals the evidence to demolish Pervo's idea but I would like to also see some analysis of the language used in novels and historical writing to see which is closer to the literary style of Acts.

Chapter two is the core of the work as it shows that Acts gets almost everything right as far as its history goes. It is also independent of Paul's letters but substantially agrees with them. Sure, Luke can make mistakes but he has a much better record than, say, the Venerable Bede and no one denies that he was a historian. As for Acts' date, it is certainly late first century and it was written by a companion of Paul. Sceptics make themselves look very silly with some of their efforts to escape the later conclusion. Again, Chris gives us heaps of evidence all of which is consistent with the standard conclusions. Finally, in chapter five, Chris looks at Steve Mason's novel suggestion that Acts is dependent on Josephus (a theory that was briefly Richard Carrier's clever idea of the month before he moved on the imaginary Homeric parallels in Mark).

All in all, Chris has produced the most comprehensive defence of the common-sense view of Acts since the relevant section in Donald Guthrie's NT Introduction. So next time a sceptic starts wittering away about how Acts is a second century fiction, you know where to come!

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.