Wednesday, December 21, 2005

A Vote for Gulf Coast Relief is a Vote for Arctic Drilling?

I probably should not be surprised by this, but I am. There is an important vote / fillibuster / lobby / pantomime expected in thhe US Senate soon, on a bill that seems to

i. allocate billions of dollars to defence spending
ii. part of this includes relief and rebuilding for the Gulf Coast
iii. there's something about fuel subsidies for the cold weather, to sweeten the pill of
iv. cutting billions of dollars from Medicare and Medicaid

and there's

v. an Alaska Senator seems to have got Arctic Drilling onto the same bill.

The story I read is here. I may have confused some of the seemingly crazy array of issues that have been rolled together into one story, though it sounds like the US Government has done this for me.

I gather that US history is rife with crazy bills where different politicians insist that they'll support a bill for one thing, provided that their constituency gets another. But seriously, a vote for winter fuel aid and rebuilding the Gulf Coast is a vote for Arctic Drilling and cutting Medicaid? Is this really the will of an educated, enfranchized and free people? Sounds more like an arcane medieval theocracy to me.

In other news, I've laid hardwood floors throughout our ground floor, built a baker's wrack, been sealing the house, making pieces of banister rail, coat hooks, finishing wood furnitred, and learning to use all kinds of tools that I'd never even heard of. Just in case you were thinking that all I ever do is moan about conservatives who couldn't even conserve a jar of marmalade, I wanted you to know that in fact, I devote very little time to politics and a lot more to home improvement! I will hopefully post pictures of some of these projects on the internet, many readers may find this more interesting than my sporadic political rants.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Truthfulness and Weapons of Mass Destruction

Amongst the to and fro about the war in Iraq, I read this morning about Dick Cheney's condemnation of those who would complain that the governments of the USA and the UK were deceptive in the way they led us into war. Many excerpts from the Vice President's speech can be found here. By now, the Republican leadership is on the defensive, in a predictably offesive fashion. It's worth noting that everything I read in the transcript of the Vice President's speech is arguably true - but whenever a politician follows a statement with a phrase like "those are the facts", the people should probably be extremely sceptical.

What has happened (Dom's personal expert analysis, don't confuse this with "facts", folks) is that the past two years have seen a shambles in Iraq, more and more reports of deception and twisting of public opinion in the run up to the war, the scandal of Abu Graib, the Katrina disaster, clearer and clearer signs of China's rise (this will be about China's 6th rise - the main thing China can teach the US is the virtue of staying power), as the US spends its way into the honourable club of once-great empires, and the slow but perceptible fading of September 11th 2001 into the perspective of history.

Back in 2001 and 2002, the Republican leadership successfully whipped public opinion into war frenzy, with the traditional goads of indignation and fear - get the people angry and frightened, and war becomes the only patriotic decision. I clearly remember the run up to the Iraq war. As war became more inevitable, the question wasn't "will it happen", but "will you stand with the majority?" At the time, Maryl and I didn't. We, and thousands of other people in America, joined hundreds of protests, stating as firmly as we could that we were being misled, that we were being foolish, that in spite of September 11th 2001, going to war in Iraq was not just wrong, it was stupid. Even from close friends and family, we faced shocked questions like "Surely you're supporting the troops?" To which we always said "Yes, we are. Are you supporting them by sending them off to the wrong war for a made up reason?" Oh, how marginalized we were. Had we been Democrat Senators, our political acumen would doubtless have warned us off such foolish idealism in the face of public opinion.

Now, some of the Democrat Senators are finally coming out and saying "we were wrong to go to war, and the administration was wrong to lead us into war". Thanks for speaking out, guys. Now that Bush's approval rating is about one third of the Amrican people (and lord knows what on a worldwide scale), those brave Democrats are coming out and saying that the whole thing was wrong.

So the Republican leadership was decisive but evil and stupid. The Democrats were either wrong, or if they were right, they were too spineless to say so, and now they're trying to capitalize on the fact that public opinion was swayed. And, I've said it before and I'll say it again ... the do-gooder peacniks, the liberal academics, the soft-hearted fools who took the time to read histories of the middle east and the history of previous "wars on terror" ... well, they were right all along.

No WMD, 2000 US soldiers and uncounted Iraqi civilians dead, no sign of the Al Qaeda leaders, the moral high-ground of Western Democracy in tatters, habeus corpus suspended (so long as the administration promises not to torture people).

What are the finest aspects of Western Civilization? What are we going to do to preserve and enhance them? Who will lead us?

Friday, November 11, 2005

Three Years in Guantanamo for the Crime of International Satire

As ever, when I haven't written a weblog article for months, it's not because there isn't much going on, but because there's so much going on at home and in the world that I really should be making more time to write. Hopefully there will be some catch-up postings soon. However, my immediate reason for scribbling a quick article today is because my cousin Andrew (who is from Trinidad and has lived in Barbados, the UK, and is now in Canada) drew our family's attention to the following article:,0,1261
> 397.story?coll=ny-worldnews-headlines

The article asserts that two writers from Afghanistan were incarcerated in the infamous Guantanamo Bay prison for three years, because they were handed over to the US military with the accusation that they had publicly encouraged the assassination of President Bill Clinton. If you read the article you'll find that Pat Robertson's incitement to crime against Venezuela were much more serious, but he's American, Christian, white and rich, so of course he got off with a round of mild public rebuke.

Just a couple of days later, the UK Parliament voted down the Blair Government's plans to increase to 90 days the time for which police can hold terrorists without charging them with any crime. Even though this would still have been a mere snip compared with the astonishing "3 years and counting indefinitely" which the United States has chosen over the ancient writ of Habeus Corpus, that is no standard for any self-respecting country that claims to hold freedom dear. I am delighted that our representatives in parliament are standing up for the ancient rights that made our culture worth defending in the first place (and that the MPs for Halifax and Newcastle were among the Labour "rebels" involved in this defence).

Anyway, my main reason for putting this brief posting together was so that my family could hopefully add some of their insights as comments. Some of the discussions over e-mail (from the USA, Canada, the West Indies and the UK) have been very thought provoking, and I hope that some of them will appear here in due course!

Monday, August 08, 2005

Newtonian Gravitation is just a Theory, too

The past couple of days have been pretty busy, not only for myself personally, but also for every other scientific pundit who has been working overtime contributing their own views on whether evolution in the United States is an established fact or a dangerous distraction from the serious business of promoting Christianity. What with everything else going in, I have not had time to gather many of the promised quotes demonstrating Darwin's own sympathies with the idea of nature as the tireless designer of the species of the earth, so instead I'll post a couple of thoughts about what others have written more recently.

One of the most interesting is the stance of the school board from Dover, Pennsylvania. No, not Kansas, but our very own PA, the home of Benjamin Franklin (discoverer of electiricity in the lightning bolt), and of the writing of the American Declaration of Independence. In a similar spirit of seeking discovery and questioning misplaced authority, the schoolboard of Dover has apparently ordered that a "disclaimer" should be added to the teaching of Evolution. You can find a sympathetic discussion of the disclaimer in this article, which is honest enough both to reproduce the entire text and to admit that this is only a first step towards the proper goal of teaching history from the book of Genesis.

The beginning of the decalaration to be read to students in Dover reads as follows:

Because Darwin’s Theory is a theory, it is still being tested as new evidence is discovered. The Theory is not a fact. Gaps in the Theory exist for which there is no evidence. A theory is defined as a well-tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations.

Rather than expressing outrage, I think most scientists could heartily endorse the spirit of scepticism expressed by the Dover declaration. After all, people (especially the media) are all too willing to encourage the public to swallow "science" without sensible questioning, and without distinguishing theory from fact. For example, "thing tend to fall downwards" is a fact. "All objects in the universe exert gravitational influence on all other according to their mass and to the inverse square of the distance in between them" is a theory, and only an approximate theory at that. Perhaps the Dover educators will extend their scrutiny of the curriculum to add the necessary disclaimers before the theory of Gravitation is taught to students. In fact, as soon as the school board gets down to business properly, they will discover a host of assumptions and incompletenessed in many other scientific theories that have been parading as truths for far too long, and I trust that the board will be willing to continue down the path of intellectual emancipation that it has so nobly begun.

Fortunately, our high school students are deemed too unsophisticated to be inculcated into the deeper mysteries of Quantum Theory and the Theory of Relativity, otherwise the list of cautions would probably take longer to read than teaching the theory itself. But these should at least be mentioned, otherwise students may be taught about the electric motor and the electromagnetic spectrum without realising that Faraday's and Maxwell's theories were, again, just theories, and relativity and the quantum theory have plenty to say in improving both of these. But there may be ample opportunity to teach the Copernican Theory of the solar system, and in this case the arguments for the Geo-centric Ptolemaic Theory and the Flat Earth Theory should be presented, at least to enable students to make up their own mind. Of course, the idea that humans are heterosexual and monogamous may be just a theory, but I wonder if it's even that general - the Bible certainly presents alternatives, and our children should probably be exposed to these and left to choose their own path. The modern value given for pi is deduced from the mathematical theory of complex analysis, and students should be told about the Biblical value of 3 as well.

Imagine the intellectual honesty that could result from a society where children are actively encouraged to question the things taught as scientific fact in less enlightened places. I should keep an eye on developments in Dover, if they encourage so much open-mindedness, I might be tempted to move there for the sake of my children's education.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Intelligent Design is a version of Evolution

In the past couple of days, George Bush has caused a news stir by advocating the teaching of a theory described in its modern guise as as "Intelligent Design". In essence, protagonists of Intelligent Design claim that natural selection alone cannot explain the compexity of biological species, therefore the living world has to be the work of an intelligent Creator. The idea is not new, of course - called variously "the teleological argument", "Paley's Watch", many great scientists, theologians, philosophers and certainly poets have believed in a great Creator and Designer of the Universe. The ridiculous thing about the current fracas isn't that some form of Intelligent Design might be a tempting point of view for a scientist to hold: it is that this view is being put forth as an alternative to the theory of Evolution.

Intelligent Design is not a competitor with Evolution. It presupposes Evolution, while advancing an explanation of how Evolution may have taken place. The scientific concensus upon Evolution itself is virtually complete: the geological record, the fossil record, the link with cosmology, biological observations, all bear witness to the fact that human beings and every other species evolved gradually from the first tiny single-cell creatures.

Religious conservatives did fight a bitter rearguard action against Evolution itself when the theory was young. When the Origin of Species was first published, the wife of the Bishop of Worcester expressed horror in the famous quote: "Descended from the Apes? My dear, let us hope that it is not true, but if it is, let us pray that it does not become widely known." But in spite of her plea, the theory of Evolution - if not that we are descended from current apes, that we and the apes share common ancestry - is accepted beyond reasonable doubt, and has become widely known. In scientific terms, Evolution is "true" - as true as the fact that electrons orbit nuclei. The remaining questions are about how and why Evolution happened, and who is responsible, and it is here that present day religious conservatives are trying to assert their agenda, while at the same time trying to obscure the fact that all parties agree on the fact that Evolution itself happened.

In other contexts, people find it very easy to distinguish between the "what" and the "how, who and why" of a scientitifc or historical question. Suppose that when General Relativity corrected Newtonian Gravitation, people claiming to be scientists tried to use this fact claim that "we should stop teaching that things fall down, things falling down is just a theory". Imagine that someone was claiming that they had "a new theory about who killed JFK", and then asserted that their theory was a viable alternative to the theory that John J. Kennedy was assassinated in the first place. After all, the idea that he was assassinated is just a theory, right?

The proper comparison is not "Evolution vs. Intelligent Design". It is "Intelligent Design vs. Natural Selection", Natural Selection being Darwin's own answer to how Evolution took place. I will try and do some small justice to this debate in a subsequent article. I hope that it is what Darwin would have wanted - at least, I will try to discuss the great naturalist's teaching. This may come as a surprise to people from both camps. The sad thing here, of course, is the presumption that people are of one camp or another - based on your political views, you have probably already been informed by the media about whether you are a supporter of Evolution or of Intelligent Design. But if folks from either side were to take down Darwin's dusty Victorian hardback and read a few bages, they might find a few surprises.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Gun Control and Software Control - Will the Law Converge?

The US Senate has recently approved a bill called the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act. A copy of the act itself can be found here, with a summary from the BBC here. In a nutshell, the bill prohibits legal action that holds a gun manufacturer or distributor liable for the damages caused by a weapon they produced or sold.

Immediately, one is very tempted to compare this legislation with the recent decision made by the Supreme Court, which ruled on behalf of the media industry's claim that Grokster, a maker of peer-to-peer software (AKA "fileswapping technology") should be held liable in cases where its software is used to exchange copyrighted content. Summaries of the decision and the ensuing fallout can be found here and here.

So, software makers are liable if someone uses their software to exchange a copy of a recent pop-song. After all, this is damaging the economy. On the other hand, gun makers aren't liable if their weapons fire bullets that kill people. After all, it's the criminals who are at fault, not the gunmakers.

The cynic in me is bound to note that the apparent legal contradiction is swiftly resolved if you just rule in favour of the currently most powerful corporate lobby. It's also noticeable that action is being demanded of software makers because lawmakers suspect that it may be possible to detect and block copyrighted content. Trust me, lawmakers, some of us are spending late nights working on this, but to be honest, it may simply not be possible unless users cooperate with us fully. This is current research, it's not something we can just do. I would be happy if the gunmakers were held to the same standards - until they can make bullets that only harm bad guys and legal game animals, but which don't harm good guys and won't fire off-season unless in self-defence, then they shouldn't be allowed to sell guns, right?

However, taking a longer view, the gun lobby might well be doing the software industry a favour here. The ruling in the Grokster case was notably quiet on whether peer-to-peer technology should be allowed to prosper or be stamped out. Instead, the judges focussed on the intent of the software manufacturer, noting that much of Grokster's marketing and development had been directed towards the music-swapping market, without doing much if anything to discourage illegal use. For example (I quote):

Justice David Souter wrote: "We hold that one who distributes a device with the object of promoting its use to infringe copyright... is liable for the resulting acts of infringement by third parties."

So this would be like promoting a gun with the advertisement "Sick and tired of those protected species on your land? Hell, just shoot them!" Even if this was in the minds of a gun distributor, they would be scrupulously careful not to say any such thin, even after the current legislation.

Gun manufacturers may still be held liable in some instances, including the following:
(ii) an action brought against a seller for negligent entrustment or negligence per se;

(iii) an action in which a manufacturer or seller of a qualified product knowingly and willfully violated a State or Federal statute applicable to the sale or marketing of the product, and the violation was a proximate cause of the harm for which relief is sought;

It looks like both of these are potentially relevant to the software issue as well. Don't negligently put tools in the hands of the wrong people, and don't violate the law in the sale or marketing of products. It will take some years for these principles to play out in the software industry - we can probably do better than gunmakers in making sure our software will do some things and not others, but we are probably in a different situation in checking the backgrounds of people signing up to use our services. The abstraction of technology gives you a trade-off here, I think.

On a separate note, I'd like to quote recent research (OK, I do get an awful lot of my news from the BBC website) that demonstrates that people who do a lot of music downloading also spend about four and a half times as much on legal music than the average. Draw your own conclusions.

In the long term, it looks as though things are going to be good for the "good" software makers, i.e. those who don't just make good software, but those who make good software and are good people. If we do a good job of discouraging people from doing harm, it would be hard to claim legally that firing bullets is protected by the constitution but that firing off songs is destroying people's lives.

Friday, July 15, 2005

London Bombings and the US Media

Last week there were a total of 4 bomb explosions in London, and just over 50 people have been killed. I'm relieved to say that none of my friends were hurt. It's a terrible tragedy, and everyone (that is, every member of the civilized world) is pretty appalled. A couple of days ago, my father in Newcastle hosted a service that brought together the local leaders of 13 different faith communities, praying for peace and for the families of those killed, injured, and still missing.

By all accounts (in the news and from talking to people personally), the reaction amongst Londoners has been one of pulling together, getting on with life, insisting on business as usual even in the face of appalling tragedies. After all, there are an awful lot of ways to die, and London is no stranger to tough times and being a target.

By contrast, the news coverage in the United States has been extremely discouraging, alarmist, and rather pathetic. Headlines like "London Terror" do not help at all. There has been terrorism, and subsequently people are pretty apprehensive, but they're not terrified, and are not succumbing to the terrorist's agenda. Talk about "London Bombings", even "London Terrorism", but "London Terror" is a slap in the face of the brave civilians who got out of their tube trains in an orderly fashion and helped one another through the dark tunnels to safety.

In the days immediately following the bombings, 20,000 people were evacuated as a precaution in central Birmingham, as the police detonated another suspected bomb. The American news described this as "jittery nerves." A wise precaution, I would say. In the meantime, the main organization that did suffer from jittery nerves was the US military. American servicemen and women were banned from entering London for several days, though after millions of unarmed civilians had set the example of going about business as usual, the high command finally accepted that it was probably safe for their kickass personnel to follow. I should state very clearly that I don't doubt the bravery of American soldiery here, I dare say that they were dying to go into the City to enjoy themselves and help everyone to stick up for the good life. But I hold their commanders to be deeply mistaken and frankly chicken on this issue.

Even more alarmist has been the American news coverage on the home fromt, asking "Could this happen here?" in a million different predictable ways, almost always concluding that "yes it could, you are personally in terrible danger". By the time you've finished watching the news, you should be evacuating to the country, cancelling travel plans, buying armfulls of duck tape, and shitting your pants. That is, if you're a patriotic American, unlike those happy-go-lucky idiots in the rest of the world who haven't yet realised that 9/11 changed everything.

In conclusion: there are at least 2 ways to fight a "War on Terror". On the one hand, you can conduct business as usual, don't let the terrorists change your life, but be vigilant, and be prepared to evacuate your workplace as a necessary precaution in the face of a particular threat. On the other hand, you could give in to a media frenzy of panic, sign away your civil liberties including the right to trial, and allow any sucessful terrorist attack anywhere in the world threaten your confidence in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Let's stay vigilant, dignified, and (for goodness sake) cheerful, whatever happens. Then the terrorists cannot win.

If we allow ourselves to be terrified, then they have won already.

Come on, America - you've witnessed the way the people of New York have coped and, in the end, triumphed. Follow their example: the world knows that you are made of sterner stuff than your pampering TV stations would have you believe. Demonstrate it.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Don't hand religion to the right ...

I thought I would draw attention to an article in the Guardian which is worth a read.

The article is here:,9115,1440680,00.html

It's written by Dr Giles Fraser, the vicar of Putney and Dr William Whyte, Fellow in History at St John's College, Oxford. They point out that while the religious right and the secular right have been acting ever more in concert and becoming ever more authoritarian, the secular left has continued even more to mock and castigate religion, citing the religious right as its reason for so doing.

I've certainly experienced a lot of this in the great secular left establishments we call 'universities', where you can get into a lot of trouble for mentioning the old 'God' word or even for suggesting that spirituality may not have been explained once and for all by BF Skinner and his observations of supersticious pigeons. This all makes it increasingly easy for the religious right to caricature the liberals as Godless cultural relativists who are nonetheless extremely authoritarian in their own politically correct orthodoxy.

The religious left was once a very powerful group, especially in England, responsible in part for many great deeds including the abolition of slavery, the Welfare State, the National Health Service and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. And no, I'm not saying that they were the only group involved, and I'm not forgetting for a moment the great role that Bertrand Russell, a great humanist, played in CND. That's the point - there used to be much greater alliances between many groups who made common cause in favour of world peace, social justice, combatting disease and poverty. And we need to get our act together again, for we have greater challenges before us than ever before.

The secular left needs to realise that, if religion really doesn't matter, then get on with doing the things that do matter and if this means joining forces with religious people who share your values, well, what's so bad about that? What's your problem? Don't tell me that you can't work with anyone who believes in God, that's just plain religious discrimination.

And the religious left needs to roll its sleeves up, and stop apologizing to the secularists for being spiritual and stop apologizing to the religious right for being progressive. The power-hungry, war-hungry, socially, economically and environmentally irresponsible right wing of our society needs to be challenged firmly, for its moral values are tolerant of exploitation, repressive of freedom, and deeply flawed.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

There's more to Life than Zeros and Ones

I recently heard from Göran on the Inclusive Church forum that the AND in (for example) "men AND women" is a kind of quantum disjunction. And what the blazes would one of those be? I quote:

I've always understood this AND to be a Hebrew "al kol", that is a manner of including both extremes (if be) and everything in between.

Well, that's what a "quantum disjunction" is. It's a way of modelling the phrase "A and/or B and everything in between them." If there is such a connective in Hebrew, this is very interesting, and if anyone can comment to confirm or deny this, that would be great ...

You get a similar usage in English with continuous quantities, e.g., if someone says "5 or 10 miles" they don't mean that 6 or 9 miles is not allowed, it's all part of the range between 5 and 10. This is deeply relevant to whether you can force things into a Boolean 0 vs 1 (us vs them, good vs evil) classification, or whether the universe has naturally in-between values that just can't be carved up into 0 and 1.

One obviously successful example of techonology breaking this 0 and 1 mould is the development of the search engine, from a computer program that divides a document collection into matching and non-matching collections, to a more flexible ranking program. This was forced by the amount of content (e.g., on the Web) becoming too rich to give a user all the keyword-matching documents and saying "these are what you want", because it would still take forever to wade through them. So for most decent search engines nowadays, you don't have relevant or non-relevant documents, you have varying
degrees of relevance.

The reason this discussion came about is the fact that the Anglican Church may be in the process of splitting up, honest, and though I'll certainly grant you that there are more relevant things you could read, believe it or not, an article about logical operators and the values they can take is not completely irrelevant. There are many in the Church who believe firmly that the world is divided into believers and unbelievers, people who are forgiven in God's eyes and people who aren't. God knows exactly who belongs to which category, and will judge accordingly. You see similar approaches to all sorts of things, a recent and obvious example being George Bush's version of "you're either with us or you're with the terrorists". Some choice! Other triumphs of over-simplistic classification include dividing the land area of the world into mutually exclusive "nation states" or "religions". When this mental straitjacket comes up against the patchwork of history, disasters result - the past century is full of simplistic attempts to draw boundaries on maps, and sooner or later the pot boils over.

Many of us in the Church believe that this is the wrong way to think about Jesus and what he wanted to bring into the world.

Binary classification is only one form of logic, and while it is useful for some things, it is way too simplistic for much of real life. The founder of binary logic in its modern form was George Boole, who based his argument on the fact that zero and one are the only solutions of the quadratic equation x2=x. You might argue that this is hardly a very good reason for dividing humanity into 'saved' and 'damned'. I would tend to agree.

Nonetheless, Boole's reasoning was very good, for many purposes. It enabled him to develop modern set theory, and a robust algebraic version of logic so that 100 years later, it became possible to program his system into machines, and the modern computer was invented. Those of us who program computers still talk about Boolean values every time we have a variable that is restricted to taking the values 0 and 1. It's good for many binary algorithms, though as seen above, you need more values nowadays just to make a decent search engine, because the range of information out there is too rich just to be partitioned into 1 for relevant and 0 for non-relevant.

To come in a full if brief circle, this more flexible "relevance ranking logic" relies on precisely the kind of "A or B or things in between" concept that Göran alludes to with the al kol conjunction. And it turns out that such a logic is not only a way of building a search engine, it is one of the key differences between classical physics and quantum mechanics. There is a lot about this in my book, Geometry and Meaning, the important chapter being this one.

So, for a combination of scientific, linguistic and theological reasons, I think that we should really explore the richer ways there are of approaching the questions "What is logic?" and "How should people and things be classified?" And if you look at our natural language, it's clear that we already do this in the vernacular. And search engines are pretty good at this, even if they're just computer programs. Humans, unfortunately, may have some catching up to do.

Monday, February 28, 2005

The Revisionist Question

I would like to thank everyone who's shown such support over the past few days, and especially those who've shared their thoughts and feelings, posted comments, written their own articles, here, at the Inclusive Church forum, and in many other places where people are coming together.

I went to Calvary Episcopal Church yesterday morning, and was very grateful to be welcomed by a cheerful group of folk who are taking things in their stride with quiet courage and great good humour. Everybody was interested in finding out about my work, interests, reasons for moving to Pittsburgh (and of course, my accent!), and in describing the neighbourhoods where they work, what motivates them, and reasons why they like the community at Calvary.

Local terminology: the Episcopalians who think we should evolve with the rest of civilisation are referred to as "Revisionists". Like "Christian" and "Protestant", this originated as a term of abuse from other communities, and now arouses some mirth and popularity amonst those so named. Broadly speaking, "Revisionist" is something of a compliment to people who believe, for example, that whether or not you find evidence for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq should affect your a priori assumption of whether such weapons are there or not.

There is also a very good bookshop at Calvary - lots of works from the Church Fathers to the present day, much that goes before, and many broader topics covered. So all in all, I was lucky - I found a beacon of light when I badly needed one, went looking for companions and found some. Not all have fared so well over recent days - there are a few of us talking on a forum at the Inclusive Church network and many are feeling very much alone, on both sides of the geographical divide-and-conquer split that our Primates are trying to impose upon us. Please do pray for guidance for us, and please please please, if you're unhappy about the category in which you've beeen lumped then come out and say so. I don't know if there should be a more formal way of doing this, whether a petition or a day of prayer needs to be organized, but somehow we need to make the message ring loud and clear that we are still in communion with one another and we mean to remain so.

In terms of how we should make our voices heard - I do have one strong suggestion, that I raised in my posting the other day (The Anglican Schism), and though I was clearly ranting in anger on that day, there is some sense in the proposal which I will expand more clearly here.

One of the problems, as I see it, is that the cartoon conversation too often goes:
Conservative: Leviticus 18:22 says being gay is bad.
Liberal: Well, it's not necessarily that simple.
Conservative: Yes it is. I just believe the Bible and it's perfectly clear.
Liberal: Well, as I said it's really not that ... I mean, you should really consider ... oh dear oh dear, this is awful ...

I want to take this conversation one simple step further by asking what else should be considered in this debate.

The Revisionist Question

The Bible says that some things are bad. These include
1. Trimming your beard. (Lev. 19:27)
2. Two men sleeping together. (Lev. 18:22)
3. Failing to care for those in need. (Matt. 26:40)
4. Killing other people. (Ex. 20:13)

Most Christians agree that nobody should be thrown out of the church for trimming their beard. Most Christians also believe that it's vital to care for those in need. Yet both of these are commandments in scripture. On what basis are these commandments distinguished?

For a Revisionist, this is an easy question. They are distinguished by basic moral differences. You can draw inspiration for such moral distinctions from many philosopihical and religious works - many of which are really formalisations of experience and common sense. If you suddenly see one guy about to kill someone and another guy about to trim his beard, you don't need any books to tell you which one you should try to prevent.

If your only basis is scripture, then you deplore the idea of picking and choosing between parts of scripture, and you deplore the idea of anyone saying that some parts of scripture are more important than others. After all, such a person is just basing their judgement of importance upon intuition, reason, the morality of the times, and all of those human things that are fallible compared to the Word of God. So how do you proceed?

In practice, I know that many people who call themselves fundamentalists have no problem with beard-trimming. To find a regime that really claimed that beard-trimming is a crime because scripture says it's a crime, you have to look to someone like the Taleban. And I've met many good fundamentalists who are nothing like the Taleban. So what's the answer? If the only allowable input is from scripture, and you have to follow the whole of scripture, how do you tell the moral difference between killing someone and trimming your beard?

Friday, February 25, 2005

The Anglican Schism

The Anglican Church, some 450 years after the Elizabethan Settlement, looks like it's finally splitting because in the chapter before it condemns trimming ones beard, the book of Leviticus also says that "You must not lie with a man as with a woman". I'm not sure whether this clear commandment is a ban on lesbians as well - it would seem strange for God to mean that only one form of homosexuality is a sin, and nowadays we do tend to believe that things said about "men" in ancient books should really apply to people as a whole. But then, we are not to interpret the Bible in a modern context just to suit our liberal whims. Clearly God did not mean to outlaw lesbian relationships at the same time or he would have said so.

True to form on this tragic day, the "News" section of the Church of England's official website carried the momentous headline "Church Commissioners in discussions to sell residential properties". It's very moving, especially if you grew up in a Church of England residential property.

Of course, the Church is not splitting and nobody's being asked to leave. Not yet anyway. It's all very much more subtle and complex than that, and the press simplifying things just shows that they really don't understand the terribly poised niceties of the situation. What's happened is that the American and Canadian branches of the Anglican Church (the American branch, like the Scottish, is called Episcopalian to avoid any lack-of-independence stigma) have been asked to voluntarily withdraw from the Anglican Consultative Council, one of the four Anglican "instruments of unity" (the other three being the organ, the piano, and the guitar). They are allowed to voluntarily rejoin sometime around the next Lambeth Conference in 2008 if everybody agrees that we're all suitably wretched sinners and repents. This may not sound very newsworthy to the rest of the world, but let me assure you that George Bush invading your country is comparatively mild compared to the wrath the Anglican Church must be feeling to not invite you to a committee meeting.

For those who don't normally follow my sense of the cynical (not that I'm likely to have acquired any readers who don't know me personally), I'm a lot angrier than I normally am, and you only have to look at the spineless peace of crap that the Anglican Church has released to see why. (For the majority who have better things to do than to go looking for this, it's here.)

There is some kindly and gracious stuff that reminds us of the pastoral Jesus at his Victorian Christmas Carol best, such as the following:

"Section 6. The victimisation or diminishment of human beings whose affections happen to be ordered towards people of the same sex is anathema to us. We assure homosexual people that they are children of God, loved and valued by him, and deserving of the best we can give of pastoral care and friendship (vii)."

Skip the crucial sections listing the committees and working parties the Archbishop of Canterbury is going to convene to get us out of this crisis, the dates they are going to report back, the process of election and confirmation of the Church hierarchy, etc. etc., and you find the following:

"Section 18. In the meantime, we ask our fellow primates to use their best influence to persuade their brothers and sisters to exercise a moratorium on public Rites of Blessing for Same-sex unions and on the consecration of any bishop living in a sexual relationship outside Christian marriage."

We get the picture loud and clear. The Church will withold God's blessing from you, and then give you all the bedside manner pastoral care you could possibly need to get over this slap in the face. And by the way, treating any human being with diminishment is anathema.

There are times in the past when I've been quite proud of the compromise capability of the Anglican ideal. Thanks largely to the Elizabethan Settlement, for centuries during which countries such as France, Germany, Switzerland, Holland, Belgium, Scotland, and Ireland suffered large-scale religious conflicts, England remained a country in which differences of religion were not a justification for killing someone. But in the modern world we have backed ourselves into a corner in which compromise isn't saving lives, it's forsaking your belief in a fully loving God. What happens is that the fundamentalist wing of the Church screams loudly about what it will and won't put up with, and the rest of the Church has to put up or shut up in case the fundamentalists walk out.

The solution proposed is that the Americans and Canadians have to go to their room and think about it for three years, after which they had better come downstairs and say that they're very sorry. The Church has become one of those frightening family reunions where there is some gun-toting lunatic of an Uncle who keeps making sexist, racist and violently threatening remarks about anyone who doesn't agree with his entire agenda. Then one of the children who doesn't realise the subtlety and complexity of the situation commits the abhorrent sin - he contradicts the gun-toting Uncle and suggests that he be a bit more reasonable and get with the picture. All hell breaks loose, and of course it's the child's fault. "Little Timmy, don't you realise that you have really upset gun-toting Uncle Nutcase and if you don't let him yell at your friends and throw them out of the house then the family may not be able to stick together. I know, Timmy, it's very sad that your friends can't come here any more without being threatened and abused, but let's not worry about that right now, please please please say you're sorry to Uncle Nutcase or Grandma will be terribly terribly upset." You grit your teeth and play along with the farce, because you too bow to the subtleties of the situation, but for the sake of your kid's sanity and protection you'll find just about any excuse to go to your partner's family instead next time Christmas rolls around.

A very biased cartoon, of course, but then I am quite fed up with reading about the poor Nigerians as the injured party, the backward Third Worlders who can't be expected to understand basic human dignity. Why doesn't the Church stands up for the Nigerian homosexuals? And don't go and tell me that there aren't any because it's not culturally acceptable in Nigeria. If it's culturally unacceptable then you can bet your life that Nigerian homosexuals exist and are just the kind of marginalised people who Jesus came for.

Just is case you were in any doubt as to who is in the majority here, you can turn to the following:

"Section 12. We as a body continue to address the situations which have arisen in North America with the utmost seriousness. Whilst there remains a very real question about whether the North American churches are willing to accept the same teaching on matters of sexual morality as is generally accepted elsewhere in the Communion, the underlying reality of our communion in God the Holy Trinity is obscured, and the effectiveness of our common mission severely hindered."

The rest of the Church clearly accepts a unified collection of teachings on sexual morality, which presumably includes the outlawing of homosexuality. If you're an Anglican from anywhere else in the world, you accept that homosexuality is a sin and you're very upset by your wayward North American cousins.

This is utter rubbish, and is a typically lame Anglican trick to silence the progressives because you can't silence the fundamentalists but you must have unity somehow. In the next few months we will hear about many North American churches who want to split from their diocese and demand to be overseen by a Bishop from somewhere else. These conservative churches will have no compunction at all about splitting from their local Anglican communities because they're just "doing the right thing". On the other hand, the liberal Anglicans in the Church of England and elsewhere will meekly stand by and accept the category in which Section 12 places them, because they don't want to upset church unity or cause pain for their poor Bishops or dear Dr Rowan Williams who is doing the best he can in very difficult circumstances. This is all part of the fundamentalist plan - keep the American conservatives loud (not difficult), keep the English liberals quiet (again, not difficult because they're so terribly nice and will just go on saving souls with cups of tea for all eternity), and the prediction that gun-toting Uncle Nutcase was in the right and Little Timmy was out of line will come beautifully true.

Dr Williams, you have failed us. Yet again, the Church has marginalised the mainstream by pandering to the extremists, to the extent that mainstream people with true Christian values are now firmly outside of a shrinking church. No wonder that of your remaining flock, the intolerant group is in the majority. They've been allowed to dictate the "beliefs" of the church for years, not by being persuasive, not by appealing to Christian values, not even by presenting a proper analysis of the Bible as a whole, but just by being loud and threatening. Every public discussion on this topic I've read has the same pattern. About 1 out of 4 people says "I'm glad, it's about time the Church stood up for God's incontrovertible Law as expressed by the Bible, gays are wrong and will be punished", and about 3 out of 4 people write in to say "Are these people meant to be loving? I'm glad I'm not a Christian, they sound like a horrible lot."

This situation is not delicate. It is not complex. The only delicate complexity is the handwringing and headshaking that the Anglican councils are going through in their desperate attempt to fudge the simplicity of the issues and pretend that we're all on the same side really.

Let me put it very simply. My own point of view, of course. There are those in the Church who believe that civilization has moved, and moved largely in the right direction. They condemn slavery. They abhor genocide. They don't believe that polygamy is a good thing. They don't believe that's it's a sin to eat shellfish or to strike a match on the sabbath. They don't believe that women and everything they touch should be treated as unclean for 7 days during their period. And they are honest enough to accept that these beliefs are in some conflict with a literal interpretation of the Bible, that many parts of the Bible are in contradiction with one another, and that a Law governing nomadic tribes attacking Canaan from the East in the 2nd millenium BC has to evolve.

On the other hand, there are those in the Church who claim that they haven't budged and inch from what the Bible commands. They still condemn slavery, abhor genocide, don't condone polygamy, eat shellfish, strike matches on the sabbath, don't believe that menstruation is unclean, etc. etc. And by the way, they hate gays. And they hate the idea of Christians neglecting the verse in Leviticus that says that being gay is wrong. In fact, they hate the idea of Christians suggesting that any part of the Bible may not apply to the present day. Except for the vast majority of the Bible that they have not read, choose to ignore, or claim is "only ceremonial". Of course, it's not for mankind to choose which parts of the Bible to follow: however, this group does claim a monopoly on choosing which parts of the Old Testament count as "ceremonial".

You cannot live strictly according to Biblical law without breaking the law of every civilised country. You cannot today insist that if a woman's husband dies, she passes by right to his brother. The nearest recent attempt to live strictly and only by scripture was the Taleban regime in Afghanistan - remember that many Muslims treat the pre-Koranic scriptures with as much if not more respect than Christian fundamentalists treat their "Old Testament". Suppression of women, public executions, closure of schools that teach anything beyond scripture, destruction of priceless cultural monuments (a.k.a. graven images). These are not only sanctioned, but demanded by the Bible.

I propose the following action, quite seriously. The document released by the Church today requests of the Americans and Canadians "that both churches respond through their relevant constitutional bodies to the questions specifically addressed to them in the Windsor Report as they consider their place within the Anglican Communion." During the same period, I want the self-proclaimed Biblical party to respond through their constituational bodies to the questions I'm specifically addressing to them. How is it that "following the Bible" means following the one verse about homosexuality and ignoring the vast swaths about polygamy? Or about any number of other issues? And don't come back and say "it's the Bible, you can't pick and choose" unless you really mean that you're going to stop picking and choosing, in which case the rest of the world will have to send in UN peacekeepers to prevent mass rape and even genocide. I demand an explanation, not a repeat of the self-righteous denial.

One silver lining - I am at least in the part of the world that's being outlawed for its outreach. I might even go to Church on Sunday.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Science and Global Warming

Global warming has been in the news again in recent days, and once again highlights the disconnect between science and decision making in the Western world. Doubtless this disconnection is not localized to the Western world, but since the West claims a proud tradition of behaving with enlightened objectivity rather than superstitious dogma, we have a particular duty to examine this tradition and see how measures of proof and demonstration are used by our leaders and ourselves to make decisions.

The new evidence for global warming was presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, according to this BBC report. The researchers collected some 7 million oceanic temperature and salinity readings, and concluded not only that temperatures have risen (a debate that is largely over except for people who are sure that the Bible is the only trustworthy source of data for 21st century ocean temperatures), but that among the hypotheses used to account for the changes, two simulations that predicted the warming effects of increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere hit the nail on the head.

My first compliant about the way this research has been reported is that I have been unable to find a copy of the AAAS paper itself. None of the news reports have contained a link to the article, though they contain copious quotes from the authors and other interested parties. This is typical of the science is presented to the public nowadays. Far from the picture of the Renaissance or enlightenment scholar eager to read about and verify each new scientific breakthrough, science is fed to us with a distance and authority reminiscent of medieval theology. Experts can explain everything about the Universe, but you won't understand and you might as well not try, so here, my dear, is the edited version. An example (which I picked because it is typical of fiarly good scientific journalism, not because it is the worst of the bunch) is this article from the San Francisco Chronicle. (An alternative published a few months ago is this study which was prepared for the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, and certainly does not patronise the reader.)

Other major trends include the increasing reliance of new science upon empiricist rather than rationalist data. Many sceptics would point their finger and say "aha - you can prove anything with computer modelling", but I'm not so worried about this. Philosophically, this is exactly like doing millions of calculations with a pen a paper, and it's a lot easier for an independent reviewer to check someone's algorithm written down in a programming language than it is to check pages and pages of human calculations. Putting the computer in the loop doesn't take the human intellect out, it just speeds things up. It's not the computers that make this sort of research inaccessible. It's the 7 million records of ocean temperature and salinity. That sort of experiment can simply not be reproduced without enormous resources, and of course, even if data was different six months later you could argue that that's because it is - well - just six months later.

This is very very different from the rationalist approach to science that produced such enormous strides through the gravitational and mechanical laws of Isaac Newton, the electromagnetic equations of James Clarke Maxwell, and the special and general theories of relativity of Albert Einstein. Einstein's special theory is a wonderful example - it relies on only two empirical observations or postulates, the first that the velocity of light is constant, and the second that you always get the same results whatever coordinate system you use. Now that's proper science for you ... at least, if one goes in for nostalgia.

Generally I don't. I believe that we're entering a new and exciting epoch of science, and indeed, it is upon us. From climatology to evidence-based medicine to corpus linguistics, empirical methods are shedding new light not only upon their own subject matter, but upon the way our minds work. Descartes' famous "I think, therefore I am" is increasingly understood as only part of the story. Baby humans are apparently not born with the knowledge that if a ball is taken behind a screen and emerges a different colour then there is something funny going on - the register of surprise at this experiment is something that gradually develops. The laws of physics may be true, but they are also learned. Rationalist science may rely on pure intelligence: empiricist science at some level relies also on the tangled web of know-how that is often colloquially called "common sense."

This leads to my main point, deep anger, and deeper fear for the world. Science is changing. Is the interpretation of science keeping pace? Not at all. If anything it is going backwards, and this is bad bad news for us all. Far from responding to scientific results with scientific policies, our leaders are increasingly hiding behind bad science and bad ethics to do whatever they think will please their electors and flatter their images in history. And here's the problem. Whereas rationalist results often rely almost entirely on deduction, empiricist results rely crucially on induction - the acceptance that the future is likely to follow the same trends as the past. But there is always grounds for reasonable doubt with induction - life has its generalisations and its exceptions, and politics has become expert at emphasising one or the other and obscuring the science behind the rhetoric.

Take a simple example - many conservative politicians talk of marijuana as a "gateway drug", citing the fact that (for example) most heroin addicts have previously tried marijuana. And alcohol. And kissing. In deductive logic, the assumption that "A implies B and so B implies A" is known to be a fallacy. In inductive reasoning, people get away with it all the time. This is used, sometimes quite deliberately, to stifle debate into questions like "how come opiates such as morphene are allowed in medicine when they are known to be deadly, and marijuana is completely outlawed." (My reason for citing this example is not to make a case for medical marijuana in this instance, but to point out how unscientific are the decisions made on our behalf and the rhetoric used to uphold them.)

The deadliest example is the contrast between the politics of profit and the poilitics of fear. If a man carrying a gun and wearing a turban poisons your water once, it's a dastardly act of terrorism, but don't worry, our leaders are on to him already and are going to attack his country before he attacks ours. If, on the other hand, a man wearing a suit and tie explains to a man wearing a wig and gown that a man wearing a blue overall was just doing his job, and the EPA had issued a license, was monitoring all the activities, and they were all within "safe" levels, then everything is perfectly legal. Kicking up a fuss in this instance is deeply frowned upon - frivolous lawsuits cost jobs, so don't rock the boat.

An astonishingly bad example was the attitude of the UK government to the growing threat of BSE or "Mad Cow Disease" in the early and mid 1990's. In many reports and parliamentary sessions, the mantra was quoted again and again that there was no proven link between feeding dead sick sheep to cows and any human suffering. A typical political example of demanding
a deductive proof, because there was money riding on the issue in the short term. Of course, there was orders of magnitude more money riding on the issue in the medium to long term, but that would demand that our leaders were prepared to reason empirically, arguing that if something sounds stupid and negligent, it probably is. Feeding sick sheep to vegetarian cows and then eating the cows was always a gross violation of common sense, and a large proportion of the British public ("those emotional unscientific bleeding-heart liberals at it again ...") were outspokenly aware of this.

Most recently, the contrast between fear-politics and profit-politics is heartbreakingly obvious, but it needs to be said again and again. Out-of-date reports, a photograph of an Iraqi with a briefcase in Nigeria, and the fact that Iraqi officials and Islamists had potentially been within 20 miles of Prague at the same time, was enough for any reasonable person to be beyond doubt - Saddam Hussain had weapons of mass destruction and was ready to push the button any minute now. And Blair and Bush could simply not afford to risk their people's safety any longer.

Faced, on the other hand, with 7 million observations of ocean temperature and salinity, we have the following call to arms.
"Our position has been the same for a long time," said Bill Holbrook, spokesman for the White House Council on Environmental Quality. "The science of global climate change is uncertain."

I suspect that this phrase may become famous. It's true, of course. Empirical science is uncertain. To know that a virus causes sickness, you do not predict with certainty which members of the population will fall sick and which will stay healthy. You see enough sickness and you take action.

According to the cartoon we were taught in school, the middle-ages ended when Science broke free from the Church and spoke with its own voice. The challenge today is far greater, because the earth is at stake. Science must break free of the web of ego, profit ignorance and speak with its own voice, so clearly that people are compelled to believe and change their ways. Science will triumph, or we are doomed to great suffering and possibly extinction. And no, I cannot prove this.