Not been tempted to interject yet in the PM “Christian Country” vs the BHA Open Letter response, but there is one point I need to make.

Fact: we are a Christian country in the sense that not only cultural but also deep and long-standing institutional “traditions” have arisen from Christian values.

That says nothing exclusive about whether equivalent values could not have arisen from any other religious or secular traditions, nor whether the values inherited from Christian tradition were themselves inherited from earlier mythologies and practices, nor continuously evolving with parallel traditions.

It also says nothing about God or belief in any god, or modern religious and secular practices of any current population. Christ was a human prophet, or at least the imperfectly-attributed preachings of a collection of human prophets, together with a whole lot of baggage concerning mythical and metaphorical explanations and exhortations.

Humanist values may not need a Christian tradition, but they don’t need amnesia either. It is (probably) possible to build a fairly comprehensive set of rules of thumb regarding human behaviour starting with the golden rule, though it is equally improbable that the golden rule could itself be derived from first principles in any absolute sense. The point is we’d need “our values”  enshrined in some “tradition” – we can’t afford every human to learn every value by individual empirical experience, nor by popular vote in each generation.

Life is not a repeatable experiment.

On the big questions, of time and causation, the origins and composition of the universe, even science long since left empirical falsifiability far behind.

[Previously here. And update here, Miliband "Jewish but not religious."]


As 300 more go to a watery grave, can I just point out the the biggest problem facing us is not terrorism or evil conspiracies, rather the globally endemic cock-up of systematically lousy decision-making. My agenda to understand why and how to fix. (Some of the terrorism and reactionary evil is no doubt a symptom of dissatisfaction with dominant prevailing decision-making memeplex / paradigm / genre.)

My thought seeing the first photos the other day was, how come only two of the many dozens of inflatable life-rafts seemed to have been deployed. State of the art ship – yet the crew paralysed between standby and prepare to abandon ship, and …. appropriate action.

Talking of enjoying success, here’s hoping the Geneva Ukraine / Russian talks prove fruitful.

If the Ukrainian “Ambassador at Large” Olexander Scherva is anything to go by, interviewed on Newsnight last night and the Today programme this morning, there is good reason for hope. A very impressive and credible representative putting things into both immediate and historical perspective.

Even when expressing hope, Putin still can’t resist the rhetoric of power and “rights” though. As I said before, turn down the rhetoric, please. If you have the rights (and the power) and hope not to use them, why say it?

[And that's a two-way street of course Stop Poking the Bear - Engage with Putin, don't castigate.]

Apropos nothing in particular, great to see Gareth Bale enjoying success.


Pic courtesy the BBC (oh, and Getty Images of course). And an excuse to try out the new WordPress 3.9 image drag / drop / resize features in the post editor. Simples.

Despite the obvious direction of motion frozen in the sporting context, hard not to see him being drawn up to the heavenly light ;-) In fact, what with his foreground scale against the crowd, and the tiers in the stadium, not so much spot-the-ball as stairway-to-heaven.

[And success at the other end of the scale, well done to John Still and Luton Town for regaining their football league status.]

I’m reading Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia, picked-up along with his much acclaimed new translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. More on the latter later.

The title resonated with a recent quote from Eagleton in Culture and the Death of God:

Like most avant-gardists,
[... when it comes to Christian culture ...]
Nietzsche is a devout amnesiac.

Tend to forget, brought up on James’s quick fire TV and Magazine pieces, that he’s a seriously polyglot, well-read poet and cultural historian, pulling in references he’s clearly read in the original French, German, Russian and Italian, not to mention Spanish / Portuguese and classical Greek and Latin. You can hear his voice in the rhythmic prose delivery, but the content is both wide and deep.

I’m only up to the C’s but already loving it. It’s a series of essays, loosely-based on named individuals, triggered by contemporary marginal notes from his 20th century readings, then arranged (arbitrarily) in alphabetical order. Many recurring themes; popular culture naturally, the Jews, world-wars I & II, American cultural dominance from his antipodean perspective – but the common thread is the poetry, with Dante leading the field. The expression of culture in well crafted phrasing of the day, often borrowed, evolved by judicious selection (or typesetter’s error) and re-purposed from another day.

So many people and references new to me, but so far all excellent, absolutely wonderful. Exemplary piece on Gianfranco Contini analysing poetic criticism on “rules” of rhyme and rhythm, and the concept of “learning  by heart”. The latter we may pejoratively translate as almost robotic or mechanical – uh oh – don’t forget the heart. It’s a kind of imperfect recall compression skill that comes from real learning and near-perfect appreciation. Fascinating.

Another from Contini: You heard the idea of no such thing as problems, only opportunities ? Well try this

The departure point for inspiration is the obstacle.
[Varianti - essays 1938-68]

A cheaper, less inspiring idea for a book it’s hard to imagine, which means James’ imaginative content stands by itself. An immense and unexpected pleasure, and being in essay form, an easy piecemeal read, no rush.

Piece in The Spectator to read later. Tweeted by Andrew Neil.

Dreadful piece it turns out, too exclusively Christian, but the main point is true enough.

The new atheists may not like it,
but they’ve had their say.
It’s time for a serious discussion.

It’s a plug for a book that’s clearly been a long time in the writing, the Terry Eagleton reference is from 2009, as opposed to his 2014 book. (Which, ironically, I criticised for being written a decade too late. Better late than never I guess.)

In addition to the 2006 references below, there are more later even better observations.

For example, “Does the motion of the solar system affect the microwave sky?

Rick Ryals adds on Facebook:

There have been a number of scientific papers written that derive the same results…
… yet look at them now, they act like thy never saw any of it before…

Also, “Is the low-l microwave background cosmic?

And, “Large-angle anomalies in the CMB

And, “Why is the solar system cosmically aligned?

Larry Krauss has been tweeting about clips of him being inserted into a “documentary” about geocentrism, and as a result has posted a robust rebuttal on the Future Tense blog at The Slate.

Obviously (as an atheist), I’m interested in this because I’ve quoted Krauss before remarking on a surprising apparent geocentrism in Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) correlating with earth’s orbit around the sun. (Hat tip to Island / Rick Ryals linked multiple times in the link above.) On a cosmic scale that’s a kind of geocentrism – an anthropocentrism – we, our earth, our solar system, our milky way, our local group …. “we” seem to occupy a “special” place in our “observed” universe. One to which you can react (at least) two ways. Both start with – that’s mad, there’s something wrong here. The question is what might be wrong; either the very idea of geocentrism is wrong (mad, ridiculous, worthy only of scorn), or maybe the underlying (standard) cosmology against which we’re judging the CMB correlation is itself flawed. The first is political prejudice, the second is science. Unless of course the correlation has already been explained away by valid follow-up analysis of the “apparent” observations. A question I’ve asked Larry a few times in the blogo-twitter-sphere, to no avail.

Of course if you’re a faith-based literal-nut-case theist (the third option), as per the makers of the film I’ve not actually seen, then you cite a respected, famous, authoritative scientist on the side of your geo-anthropo-centrist-creationist agenda. And you get the obvious reactionary knee-jerk response – shooting creationist fish in a barrel. Oh what sport. Whatever turns you on Larry.

Don’t be a jerk just because creationist nut-cases are jerks – why play their game – instead, why not try some science Larry. Answer the question (ATFQ).

Why might CMB observations correlate with the place of “our” planet in the cosmos ?

[Hint - there are plenty of serious scientists out there with suspected candidates for the flaw in our accepted "standard" model.]

Baffled by this. Same issue on two counts.

(1) That the common House / Tree Sparrow is logged as the most commonly seen UK garden bird.

(2) The Dunnock (aka Hedge Sparrow) doesn’t even make the top 10.

Are people just reporting “sparrow-like” birds and are the RSPB not differentiating what is reported. Dunnock and House Sparrow are not just different species they’re quite different types of bird. In my experience of several gardens in different locations, Dunnocks are much more common these days than Sparrows.

[Also incidentally - no Coal Tit ? At least as common as the Blue and Great Tits surely? And Goldfinch increasingly common yes, but no Greenfinch?]

This evening Nick Maxwell presented “How Universities Can Help Create a Wiser World” launching his latest book of the same name. Alan Sokal and and Philip Ball provided responses.

Some 50/55 in the theatre as the UCL Grand Challenge on Human Wellbeing is introduced.

Nick describing his main theme that science has enabled the technologies that have contributed, even created, many of the global problems we face, but blaming science is the wrong response. Obviously science and technology are to be credited with immense positive progress. The problem is a damagingly irrational conception of “enquiry” that dissociates the pursuit of knowledge from how we apply technologies to achieving what is of value in the world.

The idea that Human Well-being is seen as a grand challenge by an academic institution like UCL is an indication that some part of the necessary revolution is already under way. But the rationality of Wisdom Enquiry is not yet recognised as part of this. The problem is that Knowledge Enquiry excludes value-based aspects of problem definition and problem solving – objectivisation and even hyper-specialisation often, without any interaction with the values and aims of the bigger picture. And that’s true even though the concern with the bigger picture may be exercising the minds of the same participants in their wider social world, evenings and weekends.

If you’ve read Nick’s earlier works, the continuing arguments are well recognised and rehearsed. (From Knowledge to Wisdom and Is Science Neurotic for example.) His 7-level model of Aim-Oriented Empiricism / Rationality. In fact as Nick concludes, it’s the same message he’s been pushing for over 40 years.

Feeding AOR into “Social Life” –  the task is social methodology or social philosophy, not social science. Methodology notice, philosophy of action, about doing not theorising

Dr Philip Ball responds, mainly to the book itself. Science is much less methodical that it appears, than it might formally admit (Maxwell’s scientific neurosis?). Trend to have to define and justify (funding) aims in terms of economic benefit. (But must aims be economic – bean-countable?) Dr Ball sees the solutions as essentially economic, even if they may require alternate market models and incentives. The recently recurring reminder that Adam Smith was a moral philosopher before and above his position as an economist. (Very Benthamite – reducing all issues to cost-benefit, even justifying art projects on relevance and benefit.) Democracy is not a necessary part of scientific progress. Agree focus must shift from knowing, but to doing.

Alan Sokal responding;  Science does make metaphysical assumptions, even though it would deny it. Scientists take weekends off, but we all know when non-unified scientific hypotheses are crazy. Nick’s work on the hierarchical AOE/R are important contributions to the philosophy of science, but the lack of “Wisdom Inquiry” in academic institutions is not really the fundamental problem preventing progress, rather than say economic incentives. Nick’s wisdom inquiry claims are probably more targeted at the social sciences than the natural sciences. (Quite the opposite in fact.)

My take is this.

Alan Sokal is well known for his fighting on the side of strict rationality against social constructivism, and yes we can all shoot PoMo Social Constructivists like fish in a barrel. Nick Maxwell’s “Aim Oriented Empiricism” basis for wisdom is however at that interface of rational knowledge with the social.

Yes, the rationality of the processes of gaining and applying knowledge may be strictly objective, logical, scientific. But, the rationality of aims is more than that. It’s also about what we value and how we agree what we should value. That is philosophical, even subjective and clearly social. They’re “problematic” – the task as Nick says is social methodology or social philosophy, not social science - requiring more than rational knowledge to manage and solve. Wisdom.

So, does Alan Sokal believe there can be more to applied wisdom than strictly logical, objective, scientific rationality and knowledge? Apparently not.

Ultimately disappointing, the discussion drew out into very general criticisms of “too hard”, and wider questions of national, resource and conflict governance – the arithmetic of democracy not excluded (*1) – well beyond academe. In fact both respondents really failed to pick up on the social values aspect of Nick’s “Aim Orientation”, slipping too easily to see aims as quantifiable economic goals (*2).



(*1) Sure, the one man one vote emancipation, epitomises the importance of the value of any human, but we’re talking here about methodology and doing, We can’t all take equal roles in every action, let alone deciding every action by popular poll.

(*2) Sure, technology is universally recognised as the main driver of global economic activity, and science as the main enabler of technology (Kondratiev, Schumpeter, Kuhn, you name them). But as well as enabling, what we do needs enacting, requiring populations of people with hearts and minds, hopes and fears, that ultimately determine what is achieved; Hiroshima or Hinkley.

I’ve been reading my way through Terry Eagleton’s “Culture and the Death of God” pretty slowly – blogged a few times I was both enjoying it and finding it a bit tough going. Subject-wise I’m pretty well read, but of course Terry is really well read and not afraid to construct his rhetorical flourishes from technically knowing material, confident in his own knowledge. Keep up mere mortal.

I really have only the one criticism, apart from the one implied above. That is, why someone so well read and intelligent is writing this in 2014, when it could have been written 10 or 12 years ago in the aftermath of 9/11? We agree, already.

95% of the text is so infuriatingly quoting, and more often summarising, critical views of one school / writer’s view of another – that it is well nigh impossible to glean Terry’s own view, except as inferred from his choice of adjective and adverb modifiers. Every view is stated from every side. Everything from the Hellenics to the Po-Po-Mo’s, humanists and new-atheists not being spared. Apart from the subjective modifiers nothing is laid on the table until the final chapter.

Herewith my highlights – a thoroughly recommended read (*), worth the effort needed (avoided the risk of more notes than original text):

[(*) Aside - As you can maybe tell from the criticisms, my position is jealousy - another book I wish I'd written, in fact it's the book I've been trying to write since 2001, though of course I'd be aiming higher - for the message to be assimilable by the voting masses, as well as an intellectual elite. Irony noted Terry?]

Talking of idealists on p64 Eagleton cites Herder :

“[For Herder] reason is a historical facility … “

Compare the Pirsigian “Rationality is 20:20 hindsight” cited in Friends in Low Places by GP Dr James Willis. For Herder, Eagleton continues:

“The enlightenment has served to justify colonial oppression,  and in doing so has proved itself an anti-poetic power, stifling the folk from whom the truest poetry wells up. … Literature must become more earthy and engage. History is the work not of politicians but of poets, prophets and visionaries.  It is the narrative of nations not states.”

Continuing; most of the rest of my recorded notes are just points of interest to give a flavour of the content and language:

p143 “As usual it proved easier to dispose of a caricature of the opposition rather than the real thing”

p148 “… faith has more in common with the American dream than it does … with justice.”

p150 “reason has its roots in the human body”

Interestingly, he quotes (well, paraphrases) Zizek positively on p158. Interesting because reading Eagleton I have trouble not hearing the Zizek lisp in Eagleton’s lecturing delivery, so parallel are the lines of argument since 9/11 and The Empty Wheelbarrow.

“We know that God is dead, but does he?”

On p159 to p166 he cites the Nietzsche’s (unwitting orthodoxy) of “twice-born” in his UberMensch.

“That the death of God involves the death of Man, along with the birth of a new form of humanity, is orthodox Christian doctrine; a fact of which Nietzsche seems not to have been aware …. Like most avant-gardists, Nietzsche is a devout amnesiac”

(Eagleton constantly pillories sources that defend a knowing  intelligentsia vs the convenient ignorance of the masses. Is he denying relative knowledge and wisdom between individuals?)

His opening paragraph on Modernism and After, he says:

p174 “Scientific rationalism takes over doctrinal certainties [of religion]. ”

p175 George Steiner: “Is a luminary”.

Which will be reassuring for Pirsigians.

p179 Shelling: “No act can be more free than the decision to relinquish one’s liberty.”

p183 “It is no accident that Adam Smith is moralist and economist together. The merchant and the Man of Feeling are not to be treated as Antitypes”

p189 Nietzsche: “The Ubermensh stamps his image on a world of mere flux and difference.”

p191 Joyce: “It is the worldly and well-heeled who think of [theistic or non-theistic] religion as cosmic harmony and esoteric cult, rather as the idea of the artist as a shock-haired bohemian.”

p192 “One reason why post-modern thought is atheistic is its suspicion of faith. Not just religious faith, but faith as such. It makes the mistake of supposing that all passionate conviction is incipiently dogmatic.”

p193 A J P Taylor: “extreme views held moderately.”

(Many earlier references to this “Strong views, lightly held” concept, and one recent one.)

p194 summarizing Nietzsche Joyful Wisdom: “If one believes in freedom,  then this must surely include a certain freedom from one’s belief in it [....] Not all certainty is dogmatic and not all ambiguity is on the side of angels.”

p196 after de Certeau: “The market place would continue to behave atheistically even if every one of its actors was born-again Evangelical [....] just as western capitalism may have been edging in the direction of [jettisoning religious conviction], two aircraft slammed into Word Trade Center” and metaphysical ardour broke out afresh. … [and, a la Zizek] … the irony of the so-called war on terror is hard to overrate.”

p202 “an off the peg version of Enlightenment [is being] recycled by the so-called new atheism [in the aftermath of the above].”

Like this blog for example [see footnote]. Compare also Dennett on those naive scientistic types who believe science provides all the off the peg philosophy one could ever need.

p204 “reluctant atheists who can be distinguished from the Archbishop of Canterbury only by the fact that they do not believe in god”

p207 summarizing Nietzsche: “less the death of God than the bad faith of man.”

p208 (concluding paragraph) “[It is] a solidarity with the poor and powerless [in which] a new configuration of faith, culture and politics might be born.”

Solidarity – the latest buzzword. Not just values, but a variety of values worth sharing.

Not usually one for Obit’s but I thought this quote was telling in the the context of my agenda.

“I try to operate on two unconnected levels. One on the practical level of action in which I am extremely cautious and conservative. The second is the realm of ideas where I try to be very free”
Tony Benn, 1925-2014
People tend to think of expressed thought and actual action as necessarily tightly related, and raise accusations of hypocrisy when they’re not, but wisdom knows better. (May make more sense when I post my Terry Eagleton review later – Strong views, lightly held …. etc.)

Interesting summary, prompted by the ongoing Malaysian Airlines loss naturally, but harking back to many previous crashes, including AF447.

” ….technology is so good today that pilots are not really necessary. The technology exists now for an airliner to fly without a pilot from London to Beijing. Today planes hardly ever fail – I can’t think of a [recent] accident caused by engines failing or wings dropping off.”

Sorta. Kinda. The crew are in supervisory command of a complex system, of which they are part – their real value (and risk) is what they are capable of doing when something goes wrong or simply the unexpected happens. The incidental chains of events that lead to some unrecognised or misunderstood piece of information are typified by the Tenerife example, but are in fact typical full stop.

Hence the interest in my agenda here – from Deepwater Horizon to MH370 – the problem is how to decide what to do with (imperfect) knowledge.

[Example - series of twin-engined 737  accidents, including BMI @ Kegworth.

  • Passenger to cabin crew - the right engine's on fire.
  • Instruments to flight crew - shut-down left engine.]

Is it just me or is Putin playing the Russian hand as straight as could be in Ukraine?

With the UK press and media, and the rhetoric of various international premiers and foreign secretaries casting him as the bad guy, almost clamouring for violent conflict I can see Russia’s point.

OK, so as a “sovereign nation” Ukraine has rights not to be invaded (even threatened) by its powerful neighbour. But Crimea is a special case.

Geographically, thanks to Ukraine being split in half by the Dniepr, and the Crimea being further separated by an isthmus out into Russian waters, the Crimea is only part of Ukraine because of special circumstances. Originally bequeathed as a gift by Kruschev [*], the home of the Russian Black Sea navy as well as many ethnic Russians and Tatars, and a strategically significant territory overlooking the Kerch channel from Russia into the Black Sea, Crimea has always been a special case subject to special international conditions and agreements, before and since the break-up of the Soviet Union. People are humans, sovereign nations are just lines on maps after all.

I’m trying to imagine Scots Nats threatening British citizens and assets in Faslane or Leuchars with violence, and not expecting the UK government to assert its interests, yes vote or no.

Whatever the strategic economic and military power plays going on (which they clearly are), Russia’s not spilled any blood yet asserting its interests in Crimea, unlike the last few months’ events in Kyiv. Let’s keep it that way, and turn down the rhetoric please.

[Post note - I see today Thursday, the Crimean parliament has voted for Russia - the fact the arrangements include a Crimean parliament tells us it's not as simple as Ukrainian sovereignty?]

[*] Paraphrasing from Wikipedia :

On 18 May 1944; [under Stalin] the entire population of the Crimean Tatars was forcibly deported.

On 19 February 1954; [under Kruschev] Crimea decreed to the Ukraine as a symbolic gesture.

On 20 January 1991; [under Ukrainian referendum] Crimea upgraded to an Autonomous Republic.

Since 1992;  autonomy vs self-government compromised as part of ongoing agreements to be part of Ukraine and partly fudged around both Ukrainian and Russian “shared” naval interests there and Crimeans being “permitted” to hold Russian passports.
In 2014; By constitutional means or revolutionary coup in Kyiv, there is no way a Ukrainian government can determine the status of Crimea, without the agreement of both Crimea and Russia. What’s popular in Kyiv in 2014 doesn’t govern Crimea.

Two interesting reads this morning.

Dan Dennett conversation in The Edge, on the co-evolution of culture with human individual mental capabilities. “De-Darwinizing” the presumed processes to recognise the chicken-and-egg of co-creativity.

Also today in Best Thinking is Alan Rayner’s piece “What Stops the Penny Dropping“, born of the frustration with “Abstract Mindedness” where we assume our reason is a thing apart from the world in which we (fail to) engage.

The common theme is receptivity as part of co-creativity.

[BTW still reading Terry Eagleton's "Culture and the Death of God", reminded of course by Dennett's cultural references. A slow read thanks to dense references and technical language, but still enjoying. Another case of if I had started taking detailed notes when I began reading, I'd have more notes than original text, but as it is I will have to read again if I am to have more than a few specific recollections. Good though.]

[Also this morning a plug from Amazon for Michael Tomasello's A Natural History of Human Thinking - can't help thinking reading the book description blurb - tell us something we don't know?]