Thursday, 31 December 2009

A decade closes; a decade opens

The new millenium opened when my son Matthew set off a firework that soared into the sky at a New Year's Eve party, almost exactly ten years ago. We stood out in the road and listened to the roar and crackle of fireworks exploding all over the neighbourhood.

The first decade of the new millenium ended sitting quietly on the sofa next to my wife; the kids off at different social engagements of their own.

It has been a rollercoaster of a decade; the first two years struggling to complete an external PhD on time (eventually successfully submitted in Jan 2002). The highlight was passing the Viva exam, then flying back from Edinburgh to Heathrow on a brilliantly sunny July day, landing at Heathrow, and being given a magnificent view of Concorde, just landed as we taxied in from the runway. It seemed almost as if this magnificent view was the cherry on the icing - the sense of triumph was palpable, and highlighted by the view of the beautiful aircraft.

Since then, a rollercoaster as all life is. The part of the company I worked for was sold off to an American rival, who tried (unsucessfully thanks to our Union) to make us all redundant. Eventually fed up with working for a hire-and-fire American company that didn't care in the least for the employees, I moved to an exciting new job in an Oxford University spin-out. Less security, but much more satisfaction.

My daughter has changed from a little girl of 9 to a young university student of 19, reading reading at Reading (English Lit) after a perfect set of A-level results. My son is just starting A-levels.

2009 has been also a year of increasing anxiety over the recession, job security, and the future of the planet - the worries about peak oil and global warming being real, despite there being many who deny this and would prefer to bury their heads in the sand.

It has also been a decade where I have come more and more to realise just how dark life can be for many people - how so many are the victims of blind prejudice, and judgmental attitudes. A time in which I have learnt that by listening to such people, one gains so much in realising the privileges of one's own life.

It is a time, too, when I have come to realise that the more you know, the more you realise you don't know; that increased knowledge should lead to increased humility; and also the perfection of silent comtemplation, when the things that are really important are allowed to crystallise in the mind.

So there should be no reason to complain. If life was on a permanent high, it would become boring; it is better for it to be a thrilling ride, to be embraced with joy, excitement, and determination. So with that thought, here's to the new decade.

This hasn't been a particularly coherent set of thoughts, composed in the early hours of the morning on new year's (sorry decade's) day, but it will have to serve. The number of blog posts I made in 2009 dropped to six from eighteen in the previous year. Perhaps a good resolution will be to make more of them in the new year. Oh yes, and to lose some weight ... :-)

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Prejudiced against prejudice

Any deep philosophy tends to get rooted in paradox – the paradox itself providing the motivation to explore further, like the irritating bit of sand in the oyster shell that won’t go away and gives rise to a beautiful pearl. Here’s a good example from Socrates, after being attacked by a politician late in life:

“I am wiser than this man; it is likely that neither of us knows anything worthwhile, but he thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas when I do not know, neither do I think I know; so I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know”

A more pithy version along the same sort of lines also from Socrates is: “The one thing I know is that I know nothing.”

Socrates taught by active dialogue with pupils and not by written word. I imagine that if Socrates had a blog, his entries would be short and terse (unlike this one), and the comments session would extend to a much greater degree. If I were in discussion with Socrates, I’d be tempted to ask “How do you know that? Or do you just think you know?” I’d like to think Socrates would have approved, latching on to the paradox in what he had said. On the other hand, he might have said “Did it really take you all that time to work that out? You have a lot to learn!”

Similarly the study of Zen Koans is rooted in paradox – to stimulate further thought and understanding. Christian liturgy is also full of paradoxical ideas ( e.g. in communion, the broken bread being the broken body of Christ that joins the partakers into one body from many parts – a brokenness/wholeness paradox).

My own personal paradox is contained in the title of this post.

As I get older, I have come to realise that the one thing I detest most in life is any kind of prejudice, be it racial, religious, about sexual orientation, or just about anything that says “I’m different to you in this respect therefore I’m superior”.


“I’m better than you because I’m Christian/Jewish/Muslim/Hindu/Buddist/Atheist/Agnostic and you’re not”.

“I’m better than you because I have white skin/black skin/brown skin/yellow skin and you don’t”

“I’m better than you because I’m right-handed and you’re not” ( the Latin word for left-handed is “sinister”, for a reason – left-handed people weren’t trusted because you couldn’t tell which hand they’d use to stab you).

“I’m better than you because I’m straight and you’re not”. (in this last case, it seems largely to be straight people that exhibit sexual-orientation prejudice).

All of the above prejudiced statements are ones I cannot tolerate, in fact they infuriate me. The reason is simple. To categorize another person’s merit on the basis of one attribute (be it race, creed, colour, handedness, sexual orientation) is to reduce that person to one dimension. But people are multi-dimensional – can’t be classified for their worth on the grounds of one attribute. And besides that; I am only too aware of the absolute misery caused by, for example, racial or homophobic prejudice.

So I’m inclined to think that because I have no such prejudices, that I’m better than those who have prejudices like the above. They’re not worth talking to. ( Often the attempt to reason with someone who knows they are right is a very frustrating process because they won’t listen to you, or even worse distort what you say to suit their own agenda). I often meet such people on internet discussion forums. After trying hard to reason, my approach is eventually to set up email rules to delete their posts before they hit my inbox. They’re a waste of time, and likely to send me into a rant. Sometimes it has to be said they amuse me. One fundamentalist on a Christians In Science discussion group once chided me with the statement ”Stop worshipping the false atheist God Darwin”. As if I would worship Darwin any more than Einstein, Newton, Shakespeare, Mozart etc. When it comes to Gene Rodenberry, the creator of the Star Trek universe, however … that’s a different matter! But the truth is the statement amused me because of its sheer stupidity, not to mention the prejudice of the writer – I accept “Evilution” so I must be a Bad Guy!

Oops. Paradox. I’m doing the same as they are! I’m prejudiced against prejudice. ”I’m better than you because you’re prejudiced against X and I’m not”.

We’re all flawed, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have something to offer. T.S. Eliot was a Jew-hater, and yet I admire his poetry. Another poet I greatly admire is Philip Larkin, but he was a sexist pig. Even the guy on the internet forum provided some light-hearted amusement. I wear his insult like a badge of honour!

Am I a hypocrite or just confused? It would be good to have a talk with Socrates to try and resolve this further.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

The Sims and Evidence

Computer Simulation Games and Scientific Evidence

In this post, I shall carry on my discussion of the nature of miracles and the demand for scientific evidence, using as a model the computer game The Sims.

In order to do science we have to make observations in order to gather evidence, formulate theories based on the observations we have made, and then make predictions from those theories.  We postulate experiments that will confirm the correctness of our theories if the outcome is in line with our prediction, or will falsify the theory if the outcome differs from the prediction.

That's what science is.  Anything that doesn't follow this pattern (evidence, prediction, validation or falsification), but allows literally anything to be explained away isn't scientific.  An example is given in an A-level Psychology textbook about philosopher Karl Popper's criticism of Freudian psychoanalysis as being unscientific:

Science is supposed to deal in observable evidence, but psychoanalysis
deals in metaphysical (non-observable) concepts like Ego and Id which
cannot be shown to exist.

According to the philosopher Karl
Popper (1934), a theory is only scientific if it makes predictions or
hypotheses which can be tested by observation or experiment, and which
can be disproved if incorrect.  Popper believed that psychoanalysis
does not present clear hypotheses for testing, but, because its theory
is so complex, it can always come up with an answer for everything. 
For example, psychoanalysis may predict that children who experience
harsh potty training will grow up to be anally retentive.  But if they
don't, that is not taken as evidence that the prediction is wrong, it
is explained away as due to reaction formation.  For Popper, this is

"Psychology in Focus"  Ed. Mike Harlambos and David Rice. 

By the same token "Intelligent Design" isn't scientific.  Invoking an intelligent designer to explain what we have not yet explained by science is likewise an answer for everything.  Similarly, invoking a miracle to explain some bizarre observation isn't science.

But the question I want to pose to the reader is this:  is scientific observation the only way of knowing things?  If you happen to espouse a purely science-based materialist world-view, then your answer will be "Yes", and any form of miracle is ruled out a priori.

So let's consider a slightly different version of the disappearing door scenario I considered in an earlier post about the Sims computer game.  As I'm writing this, The Sims 3 is just about to come out.  However, I doubt that Artificial Intelligence will have yet advanced far enough for the characters to have reasoned intelligent conversations (in current versions of the game, the characters babble to each other in "Simlish" - an invented language that sounds plausibly like real conversation, but carries no meaning).  However, perhaps in The Sims 10, such conversations will be possible between the characters.  

[Aside:  there is much heated debate within the Artificial Intelligence community as to whether it is possible for a computer program to experience the phenomenon of consciousness.  Adherents to the "Strong AI" postulate such as Douglas Hofstadter, or Ray Kurzweil believe this will be true; whereas mathematical physicist Roger Penrose believes it will take more than a mere algorithm to achieve consciousness.  He believes that there is some unexamined area of physics beyond what is computable that will account for it].

So in this imagined future Sims program, I shall assume that if not consciousness, then at least reasoned abstract discussion can take place between characters.  Once again, the Game Player has the ability to freeze the simulation, and alter the surroundings of a character in the simulation in a discontinuous way.  

So one of the characters goes into a room that has only one door through which to exit, and the Player freezes the simulation and deletes the door, restarting it again.  The character is trapped, and has witnessed a manifestly supernatural event - a door in the wall instantaneously disappearing.  It doesn't fit in with any of his observations of the natural world.  As time wears on, the character becomes "hungry", and when this happens a thought bubble appears on the screen above the character's head saying "food".  

At this point the Game Player feels sorry for the character, and again freezes the simulation and puts a plateful of food in the room, leaving the character still trapped.

  [ Current versions of the game don't allow this; one could put a fridge in the room, but not a plate of food - in this imagined later version, this is not a restriction]

So the character eats the food and has their hunger satisfied.  Then the Game Player freezes the simulation once again and removes the empty plate.  This happens again and again - every time the character experiences hunger, a plate is "miraculously" supplied, mysteriously disappearing again when the character has eaten the food.  Eventually the Game Player decides to free the character from the trap, by reinserting the door in the room.

No other character in the simulation has witnessed the goings on in this house.  The character then visits a different house in the neighbourhood and explains what has happened to another Sim character, who happens to be a scientific materialist and atheist. ( The Sims 2 allows one to "design" a character with the trait "freethinker" - rather ironic that the Player designs an atheist!)  The conversation between the Prisoner P and the freethinker F might go like this.

P: There's definitely some external power out there that is looking after me.
F: Oh, really, how come?
P: Well the strangest thing happened.  I went into the smallest room in the house a couple of days ago, and the door disappeared before my very eyes!  I was trapped.
F: Pull the other one!
P: No, it really happened.  I was terrified and I thought I was going to die of starvation.  Then every time I felt hungry, a plate of food mysteriously appeared in the room.  I ate as much as I needed, and then it would vanish until the next time I felt hungry.  After a while I got to realise that Something was out there - and when I asked for food I got it.  In the end I thought - "I wish I could get out of here", and the door reappeared!
F: Now, you know science says such things can't happen.  Doors disappearing and reappearing, plates of food appearing at your command.  That only happens in fairy tales!
P: No, you don't get it; suppose there is a Higher Power out there that chooses to reveal Himself to us by this way.
F:  OK so make it happen now; make a plate of food appear in front of my eyes.  Then I'll believe you.
(Long pause while P concentrates and nothing happens).

F: Sorry, I can't accept what you're saying until you provide me with hard verifiable evidence.  You're deluded; go and see a shrink.  I expect you dreamed it?

P: Dreamed?  What's that?
F: It's a feature that is due to be released in The Sims 11.
P: What on earth are you talking about?
F: Err... I don't know ...  the words just came out of my mouth.  You're nuts.  You must be driving me nuts.  I'm off to bed.

(Game Player rolls on the floor with evil laughter)

In the above, there are actually three levels of reality interacting.  There is the bottom level "Sims universe", which of course has no concept of what "The Sims" or "The Sims 11" is, since that is the name given to it in the next level of reality, where the mischievous and omnipotent Game Player exists.  Then or course there is my level of reality, where I wrote the story where the character from level 2 put incomprehensible level 2 concepts into the mouth of a disbelieving level 1 character.

I suggest that none of these "inter-level" interactions, or interventions, are subject to scientific analysis in the level being effected.  Scientific study involves the collection of evidence that is repeatable in a laboratory.

But as the illustration shows, interventions from a different "controlling" level aren't repeatable - they don't necessarily conform to a pattern; but equally it shows that scientific experimentation isn't necessarily the only way of gaining knowledge.

Christ in the Universe - a poem for Christian Trekkies

Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, had a vision of a galaxy teeming with intriguing alien life forms that it was the Enterprise's five-year mission to seek out. In successive Star Trek franchises the spiritual beliefs of these alien species were often investigated.

It seems Roddenberry was preceded in this idea by Alice Meynell (1847-1922), an English Catholic mystical poet, who wrote the following marvellous poem in 1917.

Christ in the Universe

With this ambiguous earth 
His dealings have been told us. These abide: 
The signal to a maid, the human birth, 
The lesson, and the young Man crucified.

But not a star of all 
The innumerable host of stars has heard 
How He administered this terrestrial ball. 
Our race have kept their Lord’s entrusted Word.

Of His earth-visiting feet 
None knows the secret, cherished, perilous, 
The terrible, shamefast, frightened, whispered, sweet, 
Heart-shattering secret of His way with us.

No planet knows that this 
Our wayside planet, carrying land and wave, 
Love and life multiplied, and pain and bliss, 
Bears, as chief treasure, one forsaken grave.

Nor, in our little day, 
May His devices with the heavens be guessed, 
His pilgrimage to thread the Milky Way, 
Or His bestowals there be manifest.

But, in the eternities, 
Doubtless we shall compare together, hear 
A million alien Gospels, in what guise 
He trod the Pleiades, the Lyre, the Bear.

O be prepared, my soul! 
To read the inconceivable, to scan 
The million forms of God those stars unroll 
When, in our turn, we show to them a Man.

What more can I add but that I hope to meet Alice Meynell in Sto-Vo-Kor!

(BTW if you follow the above link, I disagree with the encyclopedia's assessment of Sto-Vo-Kor as mythology).

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Simulation games, miracles, and why Dawkins is wrong

I recently listened to a debate between the foremost "New atheist" spokesman Richard Dawkins, and Oxford Mathematics professor John Lennox, who is an evangelical Christian. Dawkins led off in his typical manner, attempting at the outset to ridicule Lennox for believing in miracles. Doubtless this will give Dawkins acolytes much to cheer about; though it is difficult to see how it is constructive dialog offered by a human being interested in rational discussion.

He started by saying that he was accustomed to debating with "sophisticated theologians", (presumably ones who don't believe in miracles) but in Lennox, he had found a scientist who believed that Jesus turned water into wine. He outlined what this entailed - that somehow Jesus had interacted with the water molecules and added proteins, carbohydrates, tannin and alcohol to it. This, and other beliefs (such as walking on water, dying for our sins etc), he stated were "profoundly unscientific".

Actually I agree. Of course turning water into wine doesn't come under the realm of science. That's why it's called a miracle. If your world-view is the same as that of Dawkins, that the material universe, which can be studied through scientific method, is all there is, then of course you are going to reject the water-into-wine account. In his book "The God Delusion" he insists that the existence or non-existence of God is a question whose answer can be determined scientifically. He then presents a plausible (under those assumptions) argument for the almost-certain non-existence of God, which he calls "The Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit". This is a reference to a quotation by astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle, who reportedly said: "(the) probability of life originating on Earth is no greater than the chance that a hurricane, sweeping through a scrapyard, would have the luck to assemble a Boeing 747".

Dawkins points out that we are extremely complex organisms, and our existence would therefore seem to be extremely improbable. However, if one invokes a Designer to explain our existence, then, according to Dawkins, the Designer must necessarily be far more complex than we are, and hence even more difficult to explain; the Designer's existence would seem to be far more improbable than our own.

Here is where we differ. I would agree with the above argument if the Designer (aka God) is made of the same stuff as we are. It's an excellent argument against some of the Intelligent Design community who claim to detect "design" but allow that the Designer could be, for example, a sufficiently advanced alien intelligence from somewhere else in the material universe. That is because the alien intelligence would be made of the same stuff as us - atoms and molecules, held together by forces mediated by the exchange of photons; they would have to be much smarter and hence more complex than us, and hence their existence is even more improbable than our own. Note that even this doesn't prove we aren't designed by aliens. All it shows is that this explanation is one that replaces something that is difficult to explain (our existence) with something that is even more difficult to explain: the existence of aliens who are more complex than we are.

But what if the Designer/Creator - call it what you will - is not of the same "stuff" - not part of the Universe in which we live? What would the relationship be then, and is Dawkins's argument still valid? I think not. I'll illustrate this by considering a computer simulation game.

The Sims is one of the most popular computer games ever. My two children were addicted to it for a while. The game simulates a community of virtual human beings ("Sims") who live in houses, eat food, interact with each other, get jobs, have children, get born, die and so forth. The "universe" they live in has similar physical properties to our own. For example objects are solid and can be picked up but not walked through. Chip pans catch fire if left unattended on the stove. The game has some spectacular fire graphics, and leaves behind impressively disgusting simulated charred messes after the fire has been put out. If the subjects don't eat food, they die of starvation. If the subjects don't go to the bathroom often enough, they wet themselves (why oh why did they have to put this tacky feature in?)

However, they are not made of the same "stuff" as us. Although their universe appears constructed of solid objects - they are simply projected images on a computer screen. Each "sim" is not a human being with DNA, cells, organs etc, but a changing packet of information stored on a silicon chip, whose changes are not governed by the laws of physics, but by the execution of a computer program, and the switching on or off of hundreds of millions of transistors (a Pentium D has 230 million of them) literally billions of times a second.

The dissimilarity between the two universes (our universe, and the simulated Sims universe) becomes even more apparent with the ability one has to save a game on the computer. At this point, the entire game state is saved as information to the hard disk. The memory storage locations that were the matrix in which the characters existed are then used for something else, such as browsing the web. The program can be exited and restarted at any time. A restart of a game after 24 hours does not result in 24 hours elapsed time for the characters in the simulation; they carry on from exactly the time index in their world as when it was saved. The characters do not "notice" that 24 hours has in reality elapsed, because our reality isn't their reality.

Even more fascinating is the propensity for "miracles" to occur through the intervention of the human player (who is unknown to the simulated characters). I found my daughter and a friend exploiting this in a fiendish way one day. They decided to have an evil character who wanted to build a cemetery, and needed a supply of corpses to bury. It's not easy for a Sim to kill another Sim; however it is easy enough to influence the game so a Sim dies quickly, by using the "design" feature. With this feature, one can freeze the simulation at the current time index, and change the environment. This is usually done in order to build a house for Sim characters to live in, or to buy furniture for the house and arrange it.

The killing of a Sim is easily achieved by using this feature. You build a house in which there is one room with three walls with no window and one with a door. You wait for the victim to go into this room, and then you freeze the simulation, enter the design mode, and simply delete the door, leaving the victim trapped in a room with no exit. You then restart the simulation (from the same time index as where you left off), and wait for the character to die of starvation. It's expedient at this point to put the simulation on "fast forward" so you don't have to wait too long. According to Wikipedia, a similar method of killing a Sim is by getting them into a swimming pool and then deleting the steps - so that they drown when they get tired, as apparently the Sims lack the ability to climb out of a pool without the aid of steps.

Now consider what this looks like from the point of view of a character in the game. It clearly looks like a miracle; a supernatural event. At one instant there is a door and at the next it has instantaneously vanished (there being no memory of the timeless moment in the Sims universe when the player went into design mode).

Such an event would be beyond scientific method to explain. A scientist in the Sims universe could make observations of the properties that universe (solidity of objects - not being able to walk through walls, the physics of motion etc). But something like the sudden disappearance of a door would be beyond scientific explanation. It could never be predicted when such an event would happen; the door-disappearance could not be reproduced in a laboratory because it doesn't happen as a result of the laws of the Sim universe. It is a result of the capricious whim of the game player, who is not a part of the simulation, but the controller of it.

It is not difficult to imagine a mechanism for miraculous healings in the Sims universe, and furthermore, it doesn't require the player to be a skilled surgeon! Suppose the game had the ability for the virtual people to get cancer. Even given that the "Design mode" of the game didn't allow you to delete the cancer cells in the virtual person, you could still find a way. All you'd have to do would be to save the game to hard disk, then figure out the format of the information in the files, get to the bit that defined the cancer condition, and edit it out, outside of the game. Maybe it would take you a long time to discover how to do this - you'd have to get technical details from the programmers of the game, or get a friendly computer nerd to figure out the file format for you. Suppose it took you a year, and perhaps several program crashes where you corrupted the file (and kept a backup!) But eventually you'd get there, restart the simulation from where you stopped it, and from the point of view of the character, their cancer would have disappeared instantaneously, and it would be beyond the ability of the science of the Sims universe to explain.

So the moral of the story is: science can only explain the reality of the universe we live in - it can say nothing about higher realities that might exist. I'm not suggesting that our universe is a simulation on "God's Big Computer" (though this idea has been suggested: see A computer scientist's view of Life the Universe and Everything where top AI scientist Juergen Schmidhuber proposes just such a scenario).

However, the Sims and the intervention of external forces from a different reality serves as a counter example that, I believe, completely floors Dawkins's famous argument for why God Almost Certainly Does Not Exist. All Dawkins has shown is that God Almost Certainly Does Not Exist In Our Reality. The non-existence of other realities is an unprovable assumption that reflects Dawkins's world-view.

Geek warning: the next paragraph is quite technical and can be skipped if desired. I'm a computer scientist and couldn't resist the attempt to expound Schmidhuber's remarkable paper a little.

Furthermore, Schmidhuber's paper also completely demolishes Dawkins's assertion that the Designer/Creator must necessarily be more complex than we are. All Schmidhuber's "God" (which has been dubbed "The Great Programmer") requires is quite a simple, but vast, computer that runs, in parallel, simulations of all possible universes of the same complexity as ours. For those who don't want to read the paper in the link I gave, here's roughly how it works. To simulate a universe requires a computer program of a certain length. The program for "The Sims" fits easily onto the hard drive of a computer. And the computer itself is certainly a lot smaller than the universe we live in. Now imagine a computer that simulates our universe. This Great Computer itself is vastly bigger than our universe, but is itself small in its own Mega Universe. The program that simulates our universe fits onto the memory storage of the Great Computer easily. It has a finite length. Schmidhuber argues that the program to simulate our universe is actually relatively short compared to other universes, because our universe obeys regular laws. A chaotic universe with no easy laws to obey would require a much longer program. Now a program which is limited in size is just like a number with a colossal number of digits, and each digit is an instruction in the program. So it is possible to imagine all possible programs up to that size - just a simple exercise in counting. Now suppose this Great Computer runs in parallel, ALL these programs, just as your computer runs several programs at once (like web-browsing at the same time as playing music). Now most of these programs will probably crash immediately, but some will simulate universes, and one of those will be our universe, from the Big Bang onwards. Now, the intelligence needed to set up such a set of computer programs is very little - it's as simple as counting (though counting up to a huge number, to be sure!!) Hence, argues, Schmidhuber, the "Great Programmer" does not have to be complex or intelligent - he just has to have an enormous computer, and immense amounts of time to run all the programs. The things that go on inside His Computer are more complex than He is. This is in direct contradiction to Dawkins's assertion that the Designer (or Creator) must be more complex than us. One might object that as the Great Programmer's Computer is so busy running the myriads of other programs as long as the one that simulates our universe, that it would be very slow. But it does not matter - even if one time instant of "our" universe is executed once every trillion years in the Programmer's universe, because the perception of time in our universe is that it is uninterrupted, just as when you freeze a computer simulation in The Sims for a long time and then restart it.

End of Geek-friendly section.

It is interesting to speculate what might happen in future computer games like the Sims. The Sims currently has quite a bit of Artificial Intelligence built into it, but the level of cognitive ability of the characters is pretty limited (they have basic emotions, personality traits etc, but they don't have the ability to conduct reasoned discussions with each other). I wonder if in the future AI will have advanced far enough for reasoned discussions to take place, and if so, whether the characters in the game will get into a debate as to whether there is an external intelligence to their world that is intervening in it?

Friday, 10 April 2009

We call this Friday God

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer's art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind of our, and Adam's curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.

The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.

The chill ascends from feet to knees
The fever sings in mental wires.
If to be warmed, then I must freeze
And quake in frigid purgatorial fires
Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.

The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood -
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.

I have just typed by hand these famous words from T.S. Eliot's poem East Coker, the second of his series Four Quartets. I took the words from my yellowing copy of T.S. Eliot's Collected Poems. The page on which these words are printed has virtually fallen out of the book; evidence of repeated re-visits to the text, to be read and re-read as different layers of meaning are peeled off and revealed to me.

Why go to the effort of typing it out by hand, when I could just as easily have cut-and-pasted it from one of the numerous websites that contain the text of Four Quartets?

It is because it is fitting on this day not to take the easy way out. Matthew 26:38-39: Let this cup pass from my lips; yet not my will but thine be done reminds us just how tempting it is to take the easy way out, and how, on our behalf, Christ chose the difficult path; the path of suffering, and in doing so, becomes a wounded surgeon who is able to heal us of the brokenness that ruins each and every one of us.

Nor did I just copy-type out the words; I typed them slowly, seeing the key words, many of them uncomfortable ones, form letter by letter on the screen. The last verse I started typing at my normal touch-typist's speed, and saw a couple of lines on the screen before I realised. So I wiped them and re-typed, forcing my fingers to slow down from their natural rhythm, and re-experienced the hammer blows of the words one by one. Sometimes this exercise can lead to unexpected new meanings; that perhaps were not intended by the author, or maybe only in his subconscious. I slowed down to a crawl of typing on the last line so e a c h l e t t e r c a m e u p d i s c r e t e l y a s a s e p a r a t e e v e n t i n t i m e .

I stopped for some thirty seconds at We call this Friday go and for a long while the letter d formed itself invisibly on the screen. Is it a deliberate word-play by Eliot? I do not know. In Christian hymns the words good and blood are a common enough half rhyme that is employed, and so are god and blood.

And it seems fitting that on this Good Friday we should call on God. Our whole world, it seems just now is falling apart. If Eliot's "ruined millionaire" is a reference to Adam, then it seems doubly appropriate in these days of world financial crisis. Was Adam a banker, I wonder?

I cannot let today pass without a word about my gay Christian brothers and sisters across the world. Many, after horrific struggles, despair and depression, have become healed, in the sense of being reconciled to their sexuality. They are able to move on and get on with their spiritual lives. But there are many others, I am sure, who this Friday will approach the foot of the Cross, and seek earnestly an operation from the wounded surgeon that He may well not perform: to cut out an essential part of themselves. The flaming rose, in Eliot's poem, is a symbol of love, the briars a symbol of punishment, and perhaps of repression. Who is to say that the homophobic attitudes of many who are otherwise delightful Christians, are not briars that prevent the blossoming of true love?

We call this Friday God; we call on him to act, but we should not presume the answers.

In the meantime, I wish a joyous Easter time to any who read this. If you're looking for a suitable spiritual path to follow, appropriate for a Good Friday, then I invite you to do what I just did; print off Eliot's words and re-type them slowly, or better still, write them down on a piece of paper, digesting each word as it flows out from the pen. Maybe other insights will occur to you.

Saturday, 3 January 2009

Keep religion and philosophy out of science lessons, Prof. Dawkins!

I've just finished watching the Royal Institution Christmas lecture series for 2008, which was televised last week in the UK. This is a long and venerable lecture series, dating back to 1825 when the first series of lectures were given by Michael Faraday (see here for a list of all the lecturers). I myself attended the lectures in 1969 (Prof. Sir George Porter on Time Machines) and 1970 (J. Napier on evolution). The lectures are primarily aimed at schoolchildren from the ages of 11 onwards. Many eminent scientists have given these lectures before, including both holders of the post of Professor of Public Understanding of Science, Richard Dawkins, and the current holder, Marcus du Sautoy.

This year's lectures were of special interest to me as they were given by my PhD supervisor, Chris Bishop, who is head researcher at Microsoft Research in Cambridge.

In one of the lectures, Bishop gave an amusing demonstration of the precision of the laws of physics; saying that the smallest deviation from the laws of physics in the demonstration could result in him being killed. He had rigged up a 14 Kg weight on the end of a long cable that was suspended from the high ceiling of the Royal Institution lecture theatre. Standing at the edge of the stage, he took the weight and lifted it up so it touched his face. Then he let go and watched as it swung alarmingly fast across the lecture theatre and then back again, coming to rest a few inches from his face without harming him.

He then went on to make the interesting teaching point that the laws of physics are so precisely predictable that we can simulate them in a computer - to such a degree of realism that when airline pilots are trained in flying a new type of aircraft, they can do the training entirely on a flight simulator powered by a computer - and that the first time a pilot flew that kind of aircraft for real would have been when fare-paying passengers were on board.

This, it seems to me, is science teaching at its best. Perform an interesting and exciting demonstration showing an abstract concept - and then capitalise on the demonstration to show how this science relates to something we can all appreciate in the real world. It's what the Royal Institution Christmas lectures are all about.

Now, the reason I relate this is that I discovered that Richard Dawkins (who as we know went on to be the first holder of the Charles Simonyi Chair of Public Understanding of Science in Oxford) also gave precisely the same demonstration in the first of his 1991 series of Royal Institution Christmas Lectures: Growing Up in the Universe

However, Dawkins didn't use the illustration to show how it relates to other branches of science. Instead the sole purpose was to show that there was nothing wrong with having faith in a proper scientific prediction (having spoken for some time about how silly it was to have a faith in the supernatural). Dawkins thereby neglected his duty as a science teacher, and instead used a scientific experiment to propagate his own philosophical viewpoint.

It is therefore gratifying to read that his successor as Professor of Public Understanding of Science, the mathematician Marcus du Sautoy, who is just as much an atheist as Dawkins, is intending to concentrate in his role on the communication of science, and not making a name for himself as a crusader against religion.