Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Being a post which is mostly just me agreeing with Jenny

Quoth Jenny:

Some of the quotes by scientists recently saying that they won't believe in a created universe - even if all the evidence says this must be so - simply because that would be faith not science, seems to me to be unscientific - or at least unstatistical.
Now if they had said, all evidence so far shows no natural cause for the universe and either left it at that or said that they were waiting on advances in science to examine the cause further - then I'd think they were thinking a little more scientifically (though a null hypothesis of "the universe was not created naturally" with an alternate of " the universe was created naturally" seems more thorough).

I'm also always a little skeptical of those who need to use science to underwrite their faith that God exists and created the universe. I'm not saying you can't, but if you read a bit of history of science, you can see that scientists have gotten things wrong over and over again.
In science, dropping what you believe in favour of something else when new data shows you have something wrong is good practice.
However, if you use science to prove your faith and then your pet scientific theory falls over...where does it leave you?
As a scientist, I take all science with a grain of salt...sometimes a ruddy great rock of salt...I know our understanding changes, sometimes very fast, so I'm not that concerned when people say, "God doesn't exist and I can prove it with science".

Thats the thing about faith, I don't have to know how, I just have to have faith that God created the universe. (please note; not talking about blind faith in its entirity, just in an area I really don't think is that central to my beliefs).

Science is for examining the reproducible elements of the universe. It has been so good at explaining the observable features of the universe by considering only those elements that it is easy to assume that only those elements exist. Maybe that’s true. But the existence of irreproducible, miraculous elements can't be disproved by science: ‘it’s not a miracle’ is an assumption you have to make before you can study a phenomenon by scientific methods.
Saying that everything can be explained by science is not a scientific statement: it is a statement of faith. I think that everything within what we call ‘the universe’ will end up being explicable by science, but that is just a leap of faith on my part.

With every step we have taken over the last few centuries, we have found the universe bigger than we thought, and our position in it more unremarkable. I think that it is highly unlikely that something as improbable as life just happened to start here, and I think it equally unlikely that what we call ‘the universe’ should be all that there is. Everything in a well-designed film can be explained without going outside the film for an explanation, but in the end everything in the film is dependent on something outside the film for its existence. I think that on another level of explanation, our ‘universe’ can be explained as an artifact, created by an omnibenevolent entity with complete knowledge of ‘the universe’ that is much more like a person than it is like any inanimate thing. This is another leap of faith on my part.

I must plead guilty of using science to support my faith that God exists. The most obvious explanation for the universe being here is that it just is: it is all there is, and it has always been here, always changing, but never going anywhere, just cycling. This is the most logical position to take in the absence of other evidence. It was the position of the great ancient philosophers, of the ancient religions of the East, of Lyell, who did more than anyone else to create the modern science of geology, and of almost all atheists up until the middle of last century. Unfortunately, it has been almost impossible to claim that ‘the universe’ is all that there is since we found out that it running down: that it started in a less disordered state and is tending inexorably towards a more and more disordered state. Before the Second Law of Thermodynamics, it was a real leap of faith to believe that God created the universe: since then it has been easier. We tend to forget how difficult science has already made things for atheists, because we have all grown up with the idea of the universe suddenly springing into existence something like fifteen billion years ago as a scientific theory. Not so very long ago the idea that the universe had a beginning was (rightly, on the basis of the available evidence) condemned as unscientific.

Some things never change

Burge: I want to save my country from the Tories. They don'r represent the people. The man they have made Prime Minister has never represented the people; and you know it. [X] is the bitterest old Tory left alive. What has he to offer to the people?

Franklyn (cutting in before Burge can proceed- as he evidently intends- to answer his own question): I will tell you. He has ascertainable beliefs and principles to offer. The people know where they are with [X]. They know what he thinks right and what he thinks wrong. With your followers they never know where they are. With you they never know where they are.

George Bernard Shaw, 'Back to Methusaleh', 1921

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Not in My Name

A few days back a collection of important scientific type people issued a statement condemning the so-called theory of 'Intelligent Design'. As their letter appeared in El Pais de Murdoch, it was followed by a postscript saying that they headed societies representing 70,000 scientific type people, including, er, me. Was issuing this statement really a scientific thing for them to do?

Let's say that we keep probing the origins of life, and every possible mechanism for kicking the process off requires some fantastically entropically unfavourable combination of highly complicated molecules that we can easily produce in a test tube, but can't envision surviving long enough to reach the required concentrations in any plausible environment on the primitive earth. Do we:

(a) Keep on asserting that this highly thermodynamically-disfavoured process must have happened, nevertheless, in some highly implausible and forever unobservable environment?

(b) Apply Ockham's Razor and say that if we can make life in a test tube, then, maybe, life as we know it was made in a test tube?

Maybe it was Trurl and Klapaucius after all.
This is not what the Intelligent Design people really mean by Intelligent Design, but it is perfectly consistent with what they say they mean, so we shouldn't just jump up and down and say that Inteligent Design is pseudo-scientific rubbish. It is many orders of magnitude more scientific than homeopathy, which my blinkered, insane-with-greed univeristy prostitutes its good name to support.

Everything we have discovered over the last 500 years has taken us further and further from the idea that the Earth is the centre of the Universe. We are nowhere special; why should life have happened to start here? There might be all sorts of chemistries that are not at all like the life we know that started out in environments not at all like the ones we know: you just need to get life started somewhere, sometime, and sooner or later it will come up with iPods and weird new organisms based on different chemistry than itself.
This version of Intelligent Design is a perfectly valid scientific theory. We can think of things we could do to test it. For instance, we could search for the aliens' fossilised iPods.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Springtime in Al-Jamila

A little while ago I read ‘From Beirut to Jerusalem’, by Thomas Friedman, a record of his ten years as a correspondent in Lebanon and Israel written c. 1988. It is much longer than that list of logical fallacies, so I can’t very well expect you to go out and read it, but it would be worthwhile. In the last chapter he outlines two possible ‘peace plans’, the first of which is almost identical to the Peres-Rabin-Barak ‘peace process’ of 1993-2001, and the second of which is almost identical to Sharon’s ‘unilateral disengagement’ of 2004-? So he is quite a prescient chap.

He recounts a scene where this Shi’ite militiaman walks into a bar and methodically smashes all the bottles, and he says that he and his fellow barfolk all sat there, completely unable to comprehend this fellow, finding it hard to believe that he still existed in their civilised 20th century. But I don’t find it hard to understand him at all. I find it harder to understand people who can’t understand him. Yet this lack of understanding seems to be very common. The real ‘clash of civilisations’ is between moral relativists, for whom religion is merely something personal that ought to be kept out of politics, and moral absolutists, for whom politics is merely one more arena in which to attempt to implement their religion. By religion I mean the same thing as I mean by ideology- what someone believes about the universe and their place in it; Communism was/is a religion.

One thing that bugs me about many otherwise fine books of science fiction set in the near future- e.g., ‘Titan’ by Stephen Baxter, ‘Teranesia’ by Greg Egan, ‘Earth’ by David Brin- is their appallingly goofy treatment of religion. In the worlds of these novels, the secular protagonists are opposed only by a sort of structureless ‘irrationalist gumbo’, in which postmodern guff and New Age kookiness is mixed in with conventional religion. The authors do not have much understanding or sympathy for that side of human nature and cannot bring it into their worlds convincingly. Better just to ignore it completely, like Asimov. Palmer Joss, the tattooed evangelist of Carl Sagan’s ‘Contact’, is streets ahead...

Which brings me in a saltatory fashion to this fragment, begun some years ago- you can probably locate my old residence in Devil Bunny City, aka Al-Jamila, from it with some degree of precision. It is just a feeble effort to do ‘Greg Egan with Religion’ and I don’t supppose I shall ever finish it, so I cast it out upon the cyber-waters: do with it what you will. Here is the flag of Al-Jamila, by the way:

Never Again

What can we do to prevent another SIEV-X tragedy? The most obvious thing is not to accept anyone for residency, no matter how good their claim is, if they arrive by boat... and to increase the humanitarian migrant intake to such a level that the term 'queuejumper' is not as meaningless as 'unicorn rustler'.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Half a Truth is Better than None

Androo has posted a link to a fine collection of
logical fallacies, which everyone ought to look at.

Mike Carlton, apparently in the Devil Bunny City Morning Herald, quoted in the El Pais de Murdoch:

John Howard was right to say they hate us for what we are, and correct also to call this an attack on Indonesian democracy. But if we are to get anywhere in this war on terrorism it is useful to ask why they hate us so, The Iraq disaster would have something to do with it, you might think. Indonesia opposed the invasion on the grounds that it would inflame smouldering Islamic extremism, a subject about which it knows it great deal. Clearly, the Indonesians were right.

Dubya’s Iraqi folly, though, is but the latest eruption in centuries of foreign oppression in Islamic lands, dating back to 1099 when the crusaders sacked Jerusalem and slaughtered Muslims sheltering in the al-Aqsa mosque with such ferocity that, as one contemporary account had it, “men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins”. Toss in Napoleon Bonaparte’s plundering of Egypt and Syria, 100 years of French and British colonial suzerainty in the Middle East including the RAF’s bombing of Iraqi tribesmen in 1920, plus the Israeli descent upon Palestine, and you beign to fill in the picture.

None of which is to condone the barbarism of [the terrorists], but it does go a way to explaining this. When we understand this, we might be able to do something about it.

Now, I will have a go:

Mike Carlton was right to say that if we are to get anywhere in this war in terrorism it would be useful to ask why they hate us so. The moral vacuum at the heart of the post-Christian West would have something to do with it, you might think. The friends and neighbours of the first lot of Bali bombers back in East Java said that Western tourists had no business bringing their decadent lifestyle to a Muslim country. Clearly, they were right.

This latest bombing, however, is but the latest eruption in centuries of Muslim attacks on infidels and their lands, dating back to 1453 when the janissaries sacked Constantinople and slaughtered Christians sheltering in the Haga Sophia cathedral with such ferocity that that, as one contemporary account had it, they “slew everyone that they met in the streets, men, women, and children without discrimination. The blood ran in rivers down the steep streets from the heights of Petra toward the Golden Horn.” Toss in the depradations of the Barbary Pirates against European shipping, 500 years of Turkish colonial suzerainty in the Balkans and Anatolia including Enver Pasha’s genocide of Armenians and the sack of Smyrna in 1920, plus the expulsion of the Middle East’s millenia-old Jewish communities from their homes in the 1950’s, and you begin to fill in the picture.

None of which is to condone the barbarism of [Slobodan Milosevic], but it does go a way to explaining why Serbia wanted to kick the shit out of the Kosovars. When Muslim excuses for terrorism are given as short shrift as his excuses were, we might be able to do something about it.

Friday, October 07, 2005

You don't, do you, Baldric?

It has not been an easy week to be a dissenter from the prevailing orthodoxy that George W. Bush is a blithering idiot. One would presume that from the moment he first threw his hat into the ring that he would begin thinking about who he would nominate to the Supreme Court. In six or so years, one could reasonably expect that he could come up with a list of experienced jurists of demonstrated experience, right-leaning enough to make his constituency happy, yet of proven even-handedness and integrity great enough to make to his opponents look petty for cavilling at them. So given all this time to think, he nominates his own lawyer? Is this a cunning plan? One would suspect, no...

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Answer: Their lips are moving.

Quoth Dave: “I think my main complaint about Iraq has always been the weakness of the justifications...”

Remember the sort of people we are talking about:

Marco Parigi: “Standards of truth? Legal probity? We're talking about politicians here. Truth and lies are indistinguishable in politic talk.”

Fred Hoyle: “When the Home Secretary talked, it was his aim to make those to whom he was talking react according to some pre-arranged plan. It was irrelevant to him how he succeeded in this, so long as he succeeded. ... For the most part, like other administrators, he found that arguments containing some deep-rooted emotional appeal, but couched in seemingly logical terms, were usually successful. For strict logic he had no use whatsoever.”

We need pay not attention to what they say: they will pick whichever reasons they think will play best with the electorate and the unrepresentative swill at the United Nations. We should only worry about what they do. What will be the likely consequences of what they propose? Do we think it is worth it? The stated motive is irrelevant, and the real motive is irrelevant: only the consequences are important.

To recap:

Afghanistan: Harboured a nutter who had killed ~4000 people outside Afghanistan, in the United States, Kenya, and Tanzania.
Iraq: Was run by a nutter who had killed ~400,000 people outside Iraq, almost all of them in Iran, including a 9/11’s worth of civilians in a single day’s bombing raid on Teheran.

Afghanistan: Had noble goals to bring about an Islamic paradise on earth, attracting many young idealists such as David Hicks.
Iraq: Had no noble goals to speak of, attracting a few old unreconstructed Stalinists such as George Galloway.

Afghanistan: A diplomatic approach was attempted for about, maybe, 48 hours.
Iraq: A diplomatic approach was attempted for about twelve years.