Simplistic Equals Wrong - Guardian piece by Ian Birrell on responses to Foley’s brutal murder.

Just a riff of connected thoughts arising. That article is dead right – we need to maintain consistent foreign policy, and that’s complicated with the sway of political terms and public opinion in “the west”.

The recent history of the Gulf / Iraq / Afghanistan wars, followed by those arising from the Arab Spring, like Libya, meant that by the time Syria came along we’d lost appetite for considered intervention. “No boots on the ground” or “no military force” became a dogma rather than a considered conclusion based on long-term policies. So now that Israel Palestine reignites, Ukraine / Russia and Syria becomes ISIS in Syria and Iraq our foreign policy is on the back foot. (Made worse in the UK by discontinuity in the FO itself and divisive diversions of UK / Scotland and UK / EU, rather than strengthening of international collaborations.)

These conflicts are all connected, and connected on many levels and issues. If we don’t follow policy that actually reflects them all – their continuity and all their complexity – we have little hope of achieving stable positive outcomes. Into the vacuum flows simplistic “Islamic Caliphate for Dummies” – brutal, evil, wrong. We can do better.

(I say “the west” but of course the other Arab nations and much more also need to align concensus long-term policies more honestly rather than short-term opportunistic stances.)

I attended the “Particle Physics Evening” Hosted by Jon Butterworth (of Smashing Physics fame) at University College London yesterday evening. Altogether, including two streaming in from CERN, there were 7 speakers and reasonably lively Q&A with the 250ish audience, so I came away thinking I’d learned a bit.

[Post Note: I should add this public meeting was a part of the gathering of particle physicists at UCL for BOOST2014]

Given the more general title as advertised, I was expecting something like – forget the press banging on about Higgs, here’s the interesting stuff – but in fact the focus of this team, and hence the talk, was almost entirely on Higgs. The multiple correlation by multiple different test teams using different LHC experiments and technologies to detect Higgs-predicted multiple decay patterns meant a very high level of certainty that the new particle “discovered” was the real 126GeV mass particle predicted for Higgs. Their use of the D-word indicated this very high level of statistical certainty. They admitted that as well as planning new objectives for research when LHC restarts next year at its near doubled 14TeV capacity, there were plenty of things they still needed to test and confirm about the Higgs itself besides its mass and predicted decay patterns, and still masses (excuse the pun) of existing data to analyse before LHC restarts.

What struck me was that the “standard model” being talked about – for which the Higgs provided the missing piece – is really only “complete” for unifying Electro-Weak forces. Still nothing said about strong forces or even gravity, despite mass being the point of the Higgs interest, and therefore still less said about possible dark-matter and dark-energies and gravitational interactions between these masses. The cosmological model is far from complete, even with Higgs.

Someone did ask the question I’ve expressed many times. How logically can finding a massive particle explain why other particles have mass? The answer threw up another item I’d not recognised previously. Higg’s only explains the asymmetry of mass between the otherwise “identical” particle triplets, and it only explains how they came to acquire their different masses during the evolution of the universe, masses which no longer depend on any ongoing interactions with Higgs. Nowadays Higgs only exist in certain extreme conditions with extremely short decay life otherwise. This is the kind of explanation that depends on such a fine-tuned timing in the early post-big-bang universe, that the sceptic in me still finds it pretty far fetched. What they’re really establishing is internal consistency of their incomplete model.

Given the recognition that the standard EW model (completed by Higgs) was far from a complete cosmological model, what might exist beyond it came up only in the last throwaway remark of Jon’s closing comments. SuperSymmetry – a whole set of mirror equivalents of the standard model with complementary properties and much much higher masses. The same again and much more is still missing from the postulated model.

I did ask Jon afterwards (given the previous post) did he see anything in supersymmetry – or whatever lay beyond – that could yet unravel the standard EW model? Initially he said no, without being specific all the remaining gaps looked like things that should be confirmed and refined, but admitted that until they were (confirmed and detailed) technically it maybe could unravel. Supersymmetry was only one of the hypotheses for what lay beyond, though many of the others were as he put it, more philosophical than physical. Well said and very significant.

Two other interesting topics:

The whole question of data collection and data analysis - the algorithms used to select “interesting” data sets (few hundred per second) from the background noise (millions per second). Surely observer bias in the algorithms must skew the findings? David Miller’s role in this team was to address exactly that – ensuring sampling of the noise as well as the “interesting” signals checked they weren’t discarding significant sets. The sceptic in me again says, that since it’s patterns we’re really looking for – not standalone indications – that the results are still hugely at risk to this process. Hmmm.

And finally, meta, but maybe the most significant point: One thing I’ve been looking at creating is a forum based on moderated wisdom of real people with respect for each other, as opposed to the troll-addled offense-by-ridicule polarised threads of comments and social media. Well that was pretty much exactly how Jay Wacker described Quora. Wikipedia is great for non-contentious facts, as I’ve said many times, but Quora was set up to be a respect-mediated way to collect informed-wisdom. Excellent initiative, and a lesson to those “humanist” forums and threads that this initiative on wise opinion came from “real” geeky physicists, who clearly understand the reality of life more than either scientistic-atheist-humanists or religious-fundamentalists. Very interesting – I shall try it out and see how it works.

Interesting pair of papers, one from this week, and one from Nov 2012, on the “failure” of the Large Hadron Collider work to find any evidence of “supersymmetry” particles to support the standard model, and the idea that mass is not a particle property, and so maybe even the Higgs field / boson is a myth. No, really? It’s been said here before.

The best thing about this is the suggestion that maybe the “wrong turn” in particle physics was taken quite some time ago, several decades, so rather than fiddling with and knocking corners off existing theories, more radical new hypotheses really are needed. The latest paper is suggesting mass and length are not even real, and that falling back on (parallel) multiverses as a reason why we find the particular properties we do in this universe, is simply not satisfactory as any kind of explanation. And a lot more. Fascinating reads.

Mass was of course a fudge ever since Newton introduced it to explain inertial resistance to acceleration; Boscovich and Mach (and hence Einstein) recognised this of course. For a true physicalist model, dynamics are much more primary than anything like matter is to a materialist. So many other possibilities if we escape the materialist dogma.

Much too hard for any lay / amateur like myself to understand all the scientific (mathematical) arguments, but the all too human quotes of the practitioners are very illuminating. Disappointment and failure. No more jobs in particle physics, time to find work in neuroscience, etc. LOL.

What is also good about the two Simons Foundation source papers is that the comment threads are not hysterically polarised attack and defence. Several pointing out that “failure” is not the right way to look at scientific progress – unless you were involved in big-science funding justifications maybe – fair enough, but most finding the reports though-provoking and joining the dots with other sources of ideas. Progress.

[Hat tip to David Morey on Facebook for the links.]

Rupert Sheldrake’s “The Science Delusion” (2012) so-called by his publisher as a pointed response to Dawkins, is called “Science Set Free” in the US. Given my agenda – alternatives to logical-positivist materialist-reductionist scientistic-dogma worldviews – it’s not possible for me to be ignorant of Sheldrake, but I’m pretty sure I’ve not read anything of his until his 2012 book. Certainly not his seminal “New Science of Life – The Hypothesis of Morphic Resonance” (1981).

The 2012 book seems to summarise his previous work, and although it covers the whole range of his ideas on alternative medicine, telepathy and the “paranormal”, his main agenda is to point out dogmatic arrogant dismissive politically distorting aspects of the modern science enterprise – hear, hear. He may never recover from some of his ideas being too whacky – too new-agey – for orthodox science to take seriously, but there are attractive aspects of his morphic resonance hypothesis for the open-minded.

Much evidence for consciousness and memory as something like pan-psychism, extending beyond the physical structures of any one brain – like I heard Iain McGilchrist say recently, better to think of highly-evolved brains as the best “transducers” of consciousness, rather than its source or physical location. Similarly some of the complex behaviours of simple organisms (like Alan Rayner and his funghi) cannot just be reduced to properties of their physical structures. Also much evidence that the Cosmological Anthropic Principle casts doubt on the accepted standard model(s) and ideas of downward as well as upward causation and “natural” lines of evolution.

All the so-called “paranormal” stuff he has, like Sue Blackmore, taken seriously as a research topic for some time. Some interesting ideas about problems researching anything telepathic “under laboratory conditions” and anything like double-blind arrangements where researcher’s biases are not in play. But as he points out these problems beset much “big science” and business motivated medical science too. He actually uses several Ben Goldacre quotes positively, when I can imagine “Bad Science” easily taking a pop at Sheldrake.

I also happen to believe materialist-as-physicalist philosophy with “emergence” of patterns upon patterns of fit consistent with Sheldrake’s morphic resonance,  wouldn’t cause Dennett as much problem as Sheldrake assumes on the appearances of intention and creative purpose [ref needed] . Be interesting to hear the two together.

I’ve said before when arguing against orthodoxy it’s possible to be “too open minded” and leave yourself open to criticism based on ridicule, but for an open mind Sheldrake does cover a lot of worthwhile ground.

[Post Note:  Final conclusions reading The Science Delusion are that Sheldrake sounds frustrated and tired delivering a message he's clearly been banging on about for a long time. His core point - that materialist reductionist science has become dogmatic and closed minded, and that society is becoming dangerously distorted by its dominance - is surely true. But the examples of alternatives he cites are too many, too personally "cause-celebre" and maybe insufficiently coherently argued to create change in themselves. I should add, I've now moved on to reading Thomas Nagel's "Mind and Cosmos" - an atheist version of the same agenda it seems.]

Interesting. Not sure it says much about the religion vs science debate, but it does say a lot about effective styles of interaction. If you go in “taking the piss” and showing your audience no respect, I’m not sure you can expect your audience to show any respect to you or what you might have to say. A sad case. (Sue needs to take a lesson from Dan Dennett, below.)

Sadly, I thought Sue had already changed her mind away from Religions as Viruses of the Mind. Sure there is a lot of memetics in how and why religions (and any beliefs) catch-on and spread, but trivialising it with crass reductionist examples helps no-one.

No-one has the right not to be offended.
But that gives no-one the right to offend and ridicule as their main thrust.

Dennett – in Intution Pumps (and earlier works). He credits these as Rappaport’s rules, but this is the version Dennett presents : How to compose a successful critical commentary:

You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

These first three rules I call elsewhere: “Respect, respect & respect”.

[Post Note: Here endeth the lesson.]

Interesting piece because of the suggestion this affects its advertisers, but a large number of twitter users are “bots”.

But by its definition, I’m a bot.

The reason I like Twitter compared to that other useless piece of social media, is precisely because it’s a “channel” whose UI I can avoid using at all costs. Everything I post to or read from Twitter I do as a human, but the feeds are automated from other UI’s. This blog for one thing, outbound posts and with embedded readers on other pages, and more recently Tweetdeck both in and outbound and other WordPress plug-ins. So yes “promoted” tweets sometimes make it into the inbound channel as well as the humanly “followed” tweets. But I can dismiss these. There are no other UI widgets trying to second guess what commercial or “sex” driven content to put in front of my eyes, alongside the user content on my desktop.

Twitter is great because it’s a channel without inherent content.
Please make your business model out of that fact.

After the “Relaxed About Theology” post, I largely drafted this one in response to another twitter exchange involving a tweeter who clearly wasn’t at all relaxed about the religious connections between the Sheldonian and the recent World Humanist Congress (#WHC2014) held there. Having drafted it I decided not to post it, since although he had a point his aggressive motive wasn’t clear, and no-one from BHA or other humanist organisation seemed to have engaged. So maybe better let sleeping trolls lie. Well I discover today BHA did engage – totally defensively and dismissively, so I feel moved to share my view:

@getyourshare1 was making the point that the Sheldonian as a “religious” building was not appropriate as a humanist venue. Of course troll-style, he was making his point with emotive terms like “hypocrites”,  “betrayal”, etc. and making claims that were exaggerating what may (or may not) have been partly true. My initial tweeted response was that 1000 humanists taking over the (ex-religious) asylum had a certain delicious irony to it. But, he responded suggesting the church may have made rent out of the event at the expense of humanism. After one attempt to put a positive spin on it – “OK if that were true, what would you suggest we do about it” (other than hurl abuse)? But the hint wasn’t taken, so I shut up – Monday I think.

Anyway, it seems BHA have as recently as today simply been denying and dismissing his claims. My take is this:

The Church(es) are massive landowners in the UK. The major ancient universities were to a great extent founded by the churches, and as well as having that heritage, if Oxford is anything like Cambridge and Durham, we can be sure the churches still own a great deal of the property with ground rents and covenants and the like where the whole buildings are no longer owned. No doubt the concerns that run the academic institutions as businesses and charities have quite complex relations to their landlords, so whilst the Sheldonian is not “owned” by the church, or any hiring rents paid directly to the church, I wouldn’t be surprised if the church did benefit indirectly to some extent. (Tried to research that out of interest, but very difficult to bottom out the detail.)

What is undeniable however, is that the Sheldonian has religious heritage and a “congregational” layout, not to mention the organ and other religious artefacts, symbols and mottos all over it. Denied by the BHA.

The congregational element of humanism’s congress, and indeed of its Sunday “assemblies”, was one of the features that led Andrew Brown to point out similarities between humanism and a religion. Denied and indeed attacked with ridiculing and dismissive rhetoric by the BHA members.

Clearly not everyone in humanism is Relaxed About Theology, but the worry is that so many voices associated with humanism feel the need to attack or deny it every time some point of contact arises, rather than engage in reasonable dialogue.

[Links to all the twitter tags, handles and tweets deliberately omitted here, anyone following who has interest in reasonable dialogue knows how to make contact. Stoking trolls in 140 character sound bites is not reasonable dialogue.]

[Post Note : a particularly "shrill" denial of any case comparing humanism to religion, as a response to the Andrew Brown piece, posted at almost exactly the same time as this post.]

Sad to hear, but have to agree – wanted to give the artist Imogen Heap a chance – but this review says what I’ve been feeling about her recently.

I first came across her in Jeff Beck’s Ronnie Scott event with Eric Clapton and Tal Wilkenfeld. Some real magic delivery of both a blues-rock standard and one of her own numbers with this stellar “backing band”.

Saw her live with her own “friends” on a tour (in Oslo) 3 or 4 years ago, and found it very self-indulgent, having jolly good fun with whacky musical ideas and instruments – but sorry, not really delivering much entertainment or “soul” to an audience. Maintained an interest – because after all, quality will out – and followed her recent tweets to her self-made promo-videos, and oh dear – none too promising musically. Didn’t write a detailed review, assuming maybe this was a project in progress that needed some space to develop.

It’s like Clive James says – it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing – you can take the creative improv too far. The opening para of Grauniad review by Rebecca Nicholson of the album “Sparks” therefore comes as no surprise:

Imogen Heap‘s fourth record is less a coherent album than a collection of crowdsourced collaborations, generated through methods and techniques that include a running app and a pair of gloves that turns the wearer’s body into a human harp. Sparks was written in a community garden in Hangzhou, China, and in the Himalayas in Bhutan. There’s a song called The Listening Chair that will never be finished, with Heap promising to add a new verse every seven years. If you uploaded images of your footprints to her website, you’ll find them reproduced on the cover. (As fan interaction goes, it’s definitely one up on a T-shirt.) Musically, Sparks is a bit of a mess.

You don’t want to kick a girl when she’s down, but take note Imogen, we know you can do it.

[Post Note : rewatching that could'a had religion / rollin' and tumbin' with Jeff Beck - happier times, and Tal's expression and body language within seconds of Imogen opening her mouth says it all. But do watch Blanket too.]

I’ve often used examples of football events and stories as parables for morality in life in general – if I’d tagged them more carefully you could find them; I’ll dig up a few examples. Anyway, today a great piece by Mark Kettle in the Grauniad, that frankly I could have written myself. Football has got too big for its fancy-coloured boots.

The whole stupid, stretching 10-month juggernaut of Premier League excess is about to grind back into action this weekend – a return that’s about as welcome as a drunk on the late bus home.

Don’t get this wrong. I like football. I always have. I watch a lot of games. I always did. I still have my season ticket and, though I regularly think about giving it up and putting the money to other uses, I’ll be back in the stands again this year too. But without real enthusiasm, at least until the weather gets colder, wetter and darker – when the real football weather begins. The truth is that football is just way too big for its fancy-coloured boots …

The charge sheet against modern football is not difficult to draw up. Too much money. Too many mercenaries. Too little motivation. Too few roots. Not enough skill or nurture. No moral compass.

Still, I guess the counter-example to day is that thankfully, the football arbitrators have upheld Suarez long ban for his (third) biting offence.

Letter in the Telegraph with an interesting list of signatories from the clergy and atheists of many colours. Hat tip to BHA for sharing.

As usual the letter is considered and eminently sensible, if necessarily thin on detail given the broad agreement, but the comment thread is mostly the knee-jerk critics conflating every religious issue they can think of, with a few hopeful people trying to point out the error of their views. Voted a few comments up and down, but didn’t dive into this one, so a few thoughts here:

This is basically a question of secularism.

I don’t believe any “faith-based” schools should be government supported at all. They should simply meet standards for national curricula. Faith-based schools, and indeed all forms of private schooling, raise many issues but this is not what the letter is about.

Faith-based or not-faith-based curricula should include RE “about” religion generally. This is what the letter is about – what that “RE” standard should be – according to national and global standards. The main point – it seems long overdue to recognise that the curriculum should not be tied to the official Anglican religion - “established” religion practically in symbolic name only and important primarily from a national (and international) cultural heritage standpoint. Even the Anglican church itself sees the error in being formally “established”.

The encouraging thing in the letter apart from it’s breadth of support is the implication that theology – understanding what belief means or “the place of religion & belief” – is the core of the agenda, not just some PC value-free cultural history of a balanced selection of specific religions, valuable though these also are.

I hope those signatories that are the formal voices of atheism and humanism ( eg @andrewcopson ) will be open to dialogue about what makes a good belief system, whilst no-doubt rejecting “religious” and “faith-based” labels themselves. Even belief systems wedded to their own definitions of rationality find they need some declared “credo” or basis of values, wherever these come from. They’d need to shed all such declared values if they wanted to reject even the tag “belief system”.

[Post Note : And as I said the key issue is secularism - disestablishment. The above is one aspect of getting our own UK house in order, but this is main issue in so many religious problems around the world. Hat tip to Secularism UK for reminding us of the Boko Haram example - I'm sure you can think of many more.]

‘Tis. ‘Tisn’t. ‘Tis. ‘Tisn’t …. One reason the left / right brain myth persists is because there is of course some truth to it. The problem is the simplistication of reality leading to the wrong myth, one that’s fairly easy to “debunk” as people often do, but one reason the left / right brain myth persists is ….

Some Common Facts …. Sure enough, calling people left-brained or right-brained is just a label for the balance between real thinking-behavioural traits – the wrong part of the myth is that it’s because we predominantly “use” that half of the brain in the label. We use pretty much all of our brain in most “left-brained” or “right-brained” tasks as any neural correlate scans will show (and do show). And of course the brain is tremendously plastic in terms of both development and repair of different physical sites for functional processing – different things can and do happen in multiple places in both halves anyway. OK so that’s debunked the myth that right and left brained people USE predominantly different halves of their brains. Job done ? Well, no.

But There’s More …. Whilst using both halves, the communication between the two halves and the sum-total of the processing that is elevated into our immediate consciousness is controlled (permissively) by the corpus-callosum – it’s practically the only structure that physically connects the otherwise entirely divided halves of our brain. We couldn’t “know” what our brain is telling us without this connection and its connection to our wider nervous and somatic systems. Whatever we think our mind is, it is surely illogical not to recognise that it must involve the integration of all our brain resources. No?

So The Reality Is … What is really being captured in the left/right brain labelling is the relative dominance of the different processing tasks and styles happening in the two halves making it into the integrated whole picture our consciousness picks up through that split-but-connected architecture. The processing happening in the two brain hemispheres provides the whole mind with different views or perspectives. In the same way that there are neural correlate scans that debunk the idea that processing itself is happening in one half more than the other, there are scans of accidental and deliberate lesions affecting the halves and the connecting structures that correlate the lost connectivity to functionality with the thinking-behaviour traits. That is NOT a myth, it’s the true part of the more generally misunderstood myth.

I’ll Need Some Evidence …. All of the above is my paraphrase of what I’ve learned mainly from Iain McGilchrist – and in fact he has a very accessible 15 minute animated lecture that says all of the above much more eloquently than I. If you care enough to argue further about it, then please do also read his deeply referenced work for all the empirical scientific support. The Master and His Emissary is the book for popular science reading, but that doesn’t mean the papers and scientific texts don’t also exist. Don’t dismiss. Do the research. Follow the references.

Let vs right-brained-ness is NOT a myth.
It’s not WHICH halves of the brain are functioning.
It’s HOW the two halves are connected in the conscious mind.

[And my brain ? You'll find it here. And a zillion more links to the topic here.]

Apparently the teaching of Sanskrit is controversial in India because of its association with Hinduism, but as the article notes much ancient Sanskrit literature is non-religious anyway.

Part of the Indo-Aryan language group and indeed phonetically rooted in Proto-Indo-European language, it is the root of many. But it’s not a living language, so I can’t imagine anyone is suggesting its a language everyone should be taught to read, write and speak. It’s a bit like classical Greek and Latin in the English-speaking context. Everyone should be taught something about it, and some should be encouraged to study it for what it is. A “Sanskrit Week” celebration sounds reasonable?

Religion without a church? Humanism almost qualifies - writes Andrew Brown in the Grauniad. After comparing WHC2104 to a religious event, which is not difficult, and the likely reaction to such labelling, he concludes with:

… there are some humanists who take dialogue seriously. I talked to Babu Goginieni, now the international director of the movement, who was relaxed about theology: “The enemies of humanism are not only on the religious side,” he said. “I think the government has no business taking up any side. Atheism is not important. I happen to be an atheist, but that’s not the point – what is important is freedom and human values, and a way of living with others and with nature. Once we have concluded there is no God, we move on.”

I actually believe it’s a good piece that should lead BHA and international humanism generally to think about its real constitution. I made my comments in the thread:

The Babu Goginieni quote is well chosen. As a humanist I’m atheist too, but I’m not defined by my atheism, just am non-theist.

One correction – humanism is not defined by humanity being sacred – it’s reality that’s sacred. We humanists recognise human responsibilities to the whole alongside our rights and freedoms.

On the “being a religion” angle – sure any group develops social cohesion, through shared behaviours, but I think a key aspect of humanism (besides its inevitable universalism) is that its prefers to couch its “lore” as values supporting action, rather than as specific rules. But we’re really only having this discussion as you say, because the “religion” brand has become toxic to all “rationalists”.

[Typically - and meta - the comment thread is full of ad-hominem and "aggressive" comments denying and ridiculing Brown and his piece. Humanism needs to get a grip on this kind of twisted conception of freedom of speech even appearing to be done in its name. It's been said before but unmediated comment threads are on their way out.]

[I made my own summary of WHC2014 here.]

[Post Note : Brown's point in quoting  Babu Goginieni is specifically "humanists who take dialogue seriously". One comment in the thread that arrived after mine became favourited on twitter as "nailing" the argument.

But I still beg to differ - made my own comment:

Hmm, witty rhetoric about calling a spade a shovel when it comes to suggesting humanism is (like) a religion. But Babu Goginieni's point was about theism. Brown is not suggesting humanists are theists, he's simply suggesting humanism is (like) a religion (not necessarily one that believes in god).

Bit disingenuous to imply theism and religion are the same.

The Brown piece is an offer of dialogue at the interface between humanism and religion(s) of which BHA should take note. Benjamin O'Donnell's comment aligns with mine (and includes interesting rant against Rod Liddle - another story).]

I Wasn’t There - Earlier this year I attended the IAI’s How the Light Gets In festival and The Rationalist Association’s AGM to mention a couple of events, but I didn’t make plans to attend the WHC2014 organised in Oxford this weekend by the BHA. You see, I’ve had a bit of a mixed relationship with the BHA, a little bit “who’s more humanist than who” and, following the God vs Science wars, BHA and their “mob” of social media commenters seemed to have become fixated on the entirely negative anti-religion agenda, typified by recent campaigns (and victories) in religious control and curricula in UK schools, but also by a very narrow “scientistic” critical take on what passes for rational argument.

A Theme In Our Time? – When they announced the “Freedom of Speech” theme for WHC2014 this weekend, whilst the real world is facing Israel vs Gaza (again), and the spectre of IS(IS) in Iraq and more, they appeared to have dropped the ball of any serious discussion on the fit between religion, rationality and humanism and gone for the ubiquitous underpinnings of any-old-libertarian agenda. Freedom of speech and thought? We agree already. Some people are never happy, not even me. I even said so on Friday as the WHC2014 agenda started to appear on social media.

Twitter Take-Aways – Anyway, having got myself hooked into a fair selection of the relevant #hashtags and @tweeters on the Friday, and with the “Biblical” rains of Bertha confining us indoors, I spent almost the entire weekend glued to #WHC2014 and associated sub-tags on twitter until close of business on Sunday. I’m glad I did, in fact I’m massively disappointed I wasn’t there. There was a huge range of international participation, and a wide selection of topics in the plenary and parallel sessions. Suffice to say the tweeting from the event by BHA volunteers was excellent. The take-aways for me are:

Fighting Talk (and Action) – In parts of the world where religion is oppressive, particularly of women and liberal education, as well as socially sectarian, militant and/or brutal in its enforcement, then surely a firm stand needs to be taken against it, vocally and where necessary physically. And furthermore, the courage of those making the stand locally needs to be recognised and supported by those who find ourselves safely remote from the front lines. Many more eloquent and courageous than I spoke and have written on these aspects of the WHC2014 event. Examples like Gulalai Ismail and Wole Soyinka honoured with awards and Taslima Nasreen honoured with a keynote speaking slot and the ovation to close any congress. All I can add is – Absolutely!

Feminism, really! – A corollary of the above proved to be recognising the true place and value of women. A bit like Dawkins own “Doh!” moment, I’ve personally not felt the need to express “feminism” for several decades. Like, obviously! This is news? In fact a large part of my own agenda – under the banner Vive la Difference – is not so much being gender-blind in treating women as fully-paid-up humans (that really is a given within humanism, surely), but in fact recognising special feminine strengths in many team and governance contexts. We human individuals are all different, and fortunately at least half of us are females of the species.

Tactical Aggression – A further corollary of the aggressive response to brutal and oppressive religion was the recognition that this is tactical aggression suited to the particular battle. Quite a bit of chatter about the old misguided idea that benign expressions of religion are merely cover for militant and inhuman kinds and therefore to be challenged as aggressively as any. To be aggressive – even vocally – is not a value or strategy of humanism. It’s a necessary tool we mustn’t shy away from using – but speak softly and carry a big stick would seem to be the ready-made default adage.

Freedom of Speech – On the freedom of speech agenda, the conclusions were in the end-of-conference declaration. For me the key statement had been tweeted several times over the course of the weekend, and I have no knowledge of the drafting process of the statement. I’m guessing a statement already existed, and probably had conference-theme-specific amendments drafted in advance, to be finalised during the congress? I have a long-standing caveat to the idea that freedom of speech includes the right to offend – infamously, to “blaspheme” in a religious context – the caveat being that this is not a humanist license to gratuitously insult those you don’t respect enough to understand. (I pointed to Dennett’s espousal of Rappaport’s rules for criticism for those who asked. Second block-quote.)  In these days of social media and comment-threads-with-everything, attack and criticism are the norm, and a side order of rhetorical insult – casual or vindictive – comes as standard. The key concluding statement is:

“There is no right not to be offended.”

The double negative from the side of the receiver is not entirely novel, but as a choice is about as good an expression of this value as any I’ve heard. Progress. Any statement is part of a conversation, a conversation which, if there is any point to it, leads to better working outcomes over some practical time-scales. Sure, I may expect that I may be offended, after all any change of mind hurts, but I can also expect that offence is not the point or intention of the dialogue.

[Post Note : The "final" version of the declaration is here. It was drafted and open for comment in advance, and comments are therefore now (technically) closed. Pity the clause on restraint ends with "only" rather than indicate positive value of restraint.]

Humour – In the same vein much humour evident in the congress as well as the twitter exchanges, including several messages that needing a sense of humour was absolutely essential. As with offence generally, “No-one has a right not to be ridiculed or be offended by a joke at their expense” is not the same as carte-blanche for everyone to ridicule anyone at any time. If you’re not the court jester (or the house cartoonist) humour should only be aimed at another in circumstances where the mutual respect and intentions are clear – social-media tongue-in-cheek straw-men wise-crackers take note. Anyone can do it, but the “right to offend” is a non-existent defence; it’s not how the value is framed.

Working Together – perhaps unsurprisingly the political thread converged on the idea that more working together with each other and with the prevailing political machinery is to be encouraged. Given topical news I was surprised not to hear any mention of say, either Baroness Warsi or Michael Cashman as supporters and collaborators from distinct perspectives. Quite a few comparing sizes of humanist organisations to religious and other lobby groups. Anyway, reassuringly, the idea that if so many disparate groups are going to work together in different political systems on myriad specific agenda priorities in the name of humanism, we’re going to need some overarching manifesto or constitution in which to capture the values we so far share only implicitly. Good news is that the BHA and other international humanist organisations clearly have drafting such a constitution on their agenda(s), and no doubt the declaration on Freedom of Speech (and Thought) is one piece of that jigsaw. I’m looking forward to hearing from and contributing to that development.

The Dawkins Backlash – One encouraging sign of the maturing humanist agenda was the recognition that those combative and “shrill” spokespeople, we’ve come to associate with the “science vs religion” voice of humanism, and indeed who have been instrumental in promoting humanism, may no longer be the figureheads we need to make progress, if they ever were. Richard Dawkins was the unfortunate representative of “the four horseman” whose feet were held to the fire in a keynote interview by Samira Ahmed. The applause for Dawkins was decidedly divided, and there were strong statements elsewhere that the dominant western scientific conception of rationality were part of the problem facing humanism; something that some of us have been warning for some time. Doubly significant that fellow spaghetti westerner PZ Myers felt moved to blog that his friend Dawkins was still missing the point – digging himself a bigger hole – in continuing to defend his recent logical argument using the relative merits of date-rape as his example.

Imperfect Makes Progress – my reflections reflect what I picked up from the twitter traffic and the interactions I chose to engage with, so no doubt my biased view missed other important points. Much has already been blogged elsewhere. However I came a away, like so many others reported, with a tremendous positive vibe and optimism for the future of humanism, and hence the future of humanity. I must repeat; well done to the organisers, the participants and the tweeters. Much appreciated. Roll on Sao Paolo WHC2017.

[END]

[12 links and counting. With acknowledgements to the many other humanists whose tweets I absorbed by osmosis and so far failed to link explicitly - ping me and I'm happy to amend @psybertron.]

[Post Note : Another collection of highlights at Blackwells Broad Conversation.]

[And here : Kenan Malik's summary of his own talk - one I didn't catch on twitter.]

[And here a retweeted tweet I noted during the conference, but in response to PZ Myers own posting of his link - mentioned in The Dawkins Backlash above - I was moved to ask where the #irony tag had gone. Still not sure of the context of this remark - on face value I agree with it:

And here another view from ex-pastor Catherine Dunphy:

... the privilege of seeing the values that I aspired to being lived and communicated, all the while staying cognizant of ideological baggage and being open to hearing divergent opinions.

- That's all for now.]

Sad thing given the World Humanist Congress 2014 kicking off today is their chosen theme “Freedom of Speech”.

After a decade of humanists hammering (exercising their own freedom of speech against) the religious in the science vs religion wars, we find ourselves at a point where religious wars are recognised for what they are. “Wars of Religion” proclaims The Times front page banner headline – in response to US authorising strikes against IS(IS)(IL) in Iraq. (A good move.)

Yes freedom of speech is wonderful, like motherhood and apple pie, even if the practical subtleties of its responsibilities escape many of its adherents. The same day BHA hails “we win” in the other headline about the withdrawal of state funding from nurseries with extremist religious agendas (like creationism). The BHA appears to support batlles, so long as it wins them. Even A C Grayling, philosopher following in the footsteps of J S Mill, kicks off his own introduction to WNC2014 with “No one is born with religion”. No-one is born with science, or with speech either for that matter, so the anti-religion slogan is pretty fatuous. All education and development is based on the values of the cultural environment of the child. British values says the (British) minister, but human values in a free society for sure – sod all to do with science or religion – but all to do with a philosophical belief system called humanism.

I do wish WHC2014 every success, but ho hum. What a missed opportunity to major specifically on religion and war in terms of human values from the ground up. Timing is everything. Freedom (of speech) is the ubiquitous value in a free society.

When Hamas started its volley of rockets at Israel 3 weeks ago or so, it was already too late for anyone outside Israel or Gaza to have much effect beyond hand-wringing and expressions of outrage over the armed tit for tat.

There are several interested parties here, dozens of them, all distinct and different …

  • Palestinians, Gazans, Hamas, Fatah and other assorted Islamist factions in and out of Gaza.
  • Israel, Israelis, Israeli Jews, Jews generally and various whackier factions of Jewry in and out of Israel.
  • Wider Arab & “Western” nations and interests. Western here needs to include Russia (see other local difficulty)
  • Current interests, plus historical & cultural interests, responsibilities, claims, offers and rejections.

The immediate conflict is between Israel and Hamas. Gazans and Israelis are collateral damage.

Having decided to rocket Israel Hamas has chosen to be the aggressor in the current armed conflict (*1). (Gazan’s specifically(*2), plus Palestinians and Arabs more generally, let the world know your affiliation with Hamas …. Hamas’ own aims are clear and public.)

Having decided to respond to the attacks defensively, and then by pre-emptive attacks, Israel is within its rights. Its responsibilities are then “proportionality” and humanitarian care for the collateral damage on both sides.

Once in the mess of the current armed exchanges with sporadic cease-fires, broken several times by Hamas and ignored (“for operational reasons”) occasionally by Israel, it’s still the same mess we’re in.

Collateral damage of innocents(*) is part of the mess, attributing whose direct and indirect responsibility for whose ordnance hits which “accidental” targets and who located the targets, once we’re in the mess, is the fog of war and blame-game rhetoric. Shit happens because shit is happening when we’re in this kinda mess.

It was too late to avoid the mess 3 weeks ago, other than pleas to humanity. Only the US has forces to match Israel anyway, and whilst US and Russia are miles apart in the world right now, there is little chance of external intervention of genuinely neutral force. This conflagration needs to burn itself out.

Same is true now for both Hamas and Israel, in the sense that the current mess is unavoidable, it’s the current reality; (it wasn’t 3 weeks ago, but now it is). Now we’re in this mess “we” might as well finish the job – the damage is already done, it’s not really about numbers. Having kicked-off the mess originally against Hamas rockets, and their sources, the threat of invasion tunnels became not only real (actual physical assaults) but more extensive, as more were unearthed on the Gazan side – it makes perfect military operational sense to complete their “destruction” with the (human) forces you’ve already put at risk.

The belligerents need to cease any new operations, and cease fire, and withdraw to at-peace dispositions. Fast. Then they need to talk, with mediators clearly.

  • That talk needs to address the whole of the real problem, not the unfortunate recent mess.
  • The talking to solve the problem also needs parallel ongoing strategies for responding to provocations to any new mess arising.
  • The talk must not stop. And the talking shop needs sustained and continuous world effort and variety to maintain its credibility.

That real underlying problem is complicated. What we mustn’t do is wait for the next mess before we fix it, because if it’s not fixed we all share responsibilities for the next mess, just as we do for this and previous examples.

(*1) Hostilities are ongoing, so the precise start of the current armed conflict is a matter of perspective. Before the rocket strikes on Israel per se – ie civilian targets – there had of course been tit for tat kidnappings and killings of individuals on both sides, and Israeli strikes against specific Hamas targets. Hamas themselves confirmed the victims were their own military leaders.

(*2) The parents of Gazan children, and their local leaders are NOT innocent when it comes to Hamas launching rockets and building attack tunnels “in their name”.

[Post Notes :

This started as a riff - some short sharp statements, without explicit arguments and connected paragraphs. Only response so far has been personal twitter abuse, but I'm gradually adding referenced facts. and subtly modifying details as I do. One suggestion was I was ignorant of facts in this Henry Siegman piece at Democracy Now. Good news is that Siegman agrees with my first point and indeed it's his first point - in the shorter term now this mess has erupted there is nothing to do but hope the disaster is short-lived. All strategy, planning and action concerns what next, based on deeper understanding of the parties and real issues, current and historical. Reading on, I don't find anything of which I'm not generally aware, that's not covered by my "it's complicated" above. But feel free to point out and ask any specific, anyone. Immediate interest for me is current Gazan "governance" and where Hamas fits in. The fact current Palestinian Gazan's find themselves "blockaded" into their current narrow strip is a long and sorry tale of missed opportunity in itself - the idea that they are forced to live this way simply being "Israel's fault" is laughably simplistic. That is one point I depart from Siegman.

Anyway for now - the riff stands. (Fixed the Fatah reference). Sure "provocation" is part of what leads to outbreak of armed exchanges, given the tense conflict of the status quo. No-one is blameless, and sure, I do think Israeli response has been disproportionate and inhumane - I add my voice to that outrage, but I believe other Israelis and Jews saying "not in our name" says that much more eloquently and forcefully than the rest of us hand-wringing bystanders. But both sides have a longer agenda here. Beyond the immediate ending of hostilities but before the "full solution" the short-to-medium term issue has to be Hamas. It won a Palestinian-wide election back in 2006, but had to impose its own Islamic rule of force in 2007 to take control over Gaza from shared secular responsibility with Fatah ... since then it's declared aim of the destruction of Israel, and it's alignment with other Islamic movements since the Arab spring, Egypt and Syria crises means several things. (1) we need to know where Palestinians and Gazan's (and wider Arabs) stand on Hamas aims and actions in 2014, and (2), if the supported aims are Islamic militant, against tolerance of other cultures and beliefs, internal or neighbouring - we have a much larger issue to work on whilst "peace-keeping" in and around Gaza.

And here's a good piece from Brian Eno on the immediate humanist issues.

And (5 Aug) another strong action from Baroness Warsi.

And (5 Aug) the HuffPo interview with Warsi - very explicit on the loss of William Hague, and the internal FO unrest. How much more evidence needed for long-life meritocratic second house, and "wisdom" rather than vote-catching fads manning important ministries - like the FO - that have tough ethical decisions to make over long and short time-scales.

From both Eric (Pickles) and William (Hauge) I learnt the art of reconciling passion and idealism with pragmatism and realism ...

Art not science, notice.

Meanwhile (1 Aug) ISIS in Syria and Iraq and .... where next. There is still one complicated problem here called "the middle east" and Israel/Hamas are the bull & red-rag in the china shop.

The belief that Isis is interested only in ‘Muslim against Muslim’ struggles is another instance of wishful thinking: Isis has shown it will fight anybody who doesn’t adhere to its bigoted, puritanical and violent variant of Islam. Where Isis differs from al-Qaida is that it’s a well-run military organisation that is very careful in choosing its targets and the optimum moment to attack them .... A new and terrifying state has been born.

Disappointing to see the myth that Sykes-Picot was "implemented" after WW1? Hopefully just short-hand. After all that's what myths are for.]

Put my comment in the thread already : “Richard Dawkins, what on earth happened to you?” by Eleanor Robertson in The Grauniad. Stick to the science, Dick.

Don’t know enough about Ms Robertson as to why she gets to publish a personal tirade against the individual, but the point is real (of all the 4, 5, 6 horsemen, not just Dawkins).

To say x is bad, y is worse, presumes bad and worse are some objective measures that lie logically related along some common scale. x and y are different sure, but they’re not to be reduced to objects.The value judgments depends on whose perspective and a lot more than are found in your philosophy (of science) Mr Dawkins.

The Eagleton quote is spot on. The horsemen should stick to their science, and show a little humility – given their public profiles – when launching beyond science, pushing scientism where its contribution is doubtful, even laughable.

His logical point that a statement about B says nothing about a previous statement about A – is true enough. His (scientistic) error is to pick an example topic where simple logical objective points are least relevant, and to be ignorant of the error or its significance. That’s the recurring error of all the “horsemen”, and the reason it brings the anti-personal reactions it does, rather than well-reasoned arguments. That argument is about what a well-reasoned argument is, and their capital error is the arrogant belief that science holds a monopoly on rationality – scientism.

[Followed-up by Dawkins here. Where, to be fair, he does emphasise his logical point about the X and Y statements. Rather than apologise, after all it's OK to cause offense in his world, he does acknowledge that the subjective personal violation examples he chose as illustrations, could have been reversed without invalidating his original logical point. Which shows PRECISELY that these non-scientific examples cannot be decided / ranked / valued by his scientific logic - merely expressed as vacuous logical examples of no real world value - opposite statements having equal value, logically, scientistically, in the real world beyond science. THIS is what his detractors (me included) are railing against. Stick to the science Dick, or wake up to the real world. ]

One article of faith in science is that dinosaurs became extinct 60-odd million years ago and couldn’t have been around at the same time as early hominids. Article of faith in the sense that evidence for it refutes any possible young-earth creationism. Herewith a current story pointing out the elements of chance in evolutionary progress, if anyone needed reminding.

However here also a couple of stories [CSUN Story] [Smithsonian Story] that show why it really is an article of faith amongst scientists, rather than good science. When evidence of (potentially) shorter lifecycle occurs in the fossil record, (potentially) supporting young-earth creationism arguments – actions to reject and suppress the evidence (rather than find better explanations) are anti-religious and far from scientific. [Hat tip to Rick on Facebook for the CSUN Story.]

Maybe some pockets of population did survive longer, niche-habitats are crucial to many evolutionary stories. Maybe there are mechanisms of soft-tissue preservation and /or substitution that do occur protected inside older fossils of larger bones. Maybe the original interpretation of having found preserved soft tissue is misguided or wishful thinking. Maybe a hundred and one other hypotheses – one rule of scientific method is that potential hypotheses are infinite. Who knows, without the science, but failing that, let’s bash the perceived “enemy” of science anyway (*).

Anyway, I can’t research all the circumstances and motives of all the people in the linked stories – some individuals clearly do have creationist religious views – but the scientific community response to evidence is far from scientific. My call is for neurotic science to wake up from turning itself into its own religion in order to counter the kinds of religion of which its consensus doesn’t approve.

[(*) Post Note ; Following up more "Speculative Realism" sources - ones I can read and understand. Recently bought, but found too turgid after the excellent introductory chapters Quentin Meillassoux's "After Finitude", so went back to my previous reading of Levi Bryant's "Democracy of Objects" to restore faith. In the context of this post, and the previous post on democratic "consensus" in science, I found this previously quoted passage spot on the mark:

On the one hand we have the pro-science crowd that vigorously argues that science gives us the true representation of reality. It is not difficult to detect, lurking in the background, a protracted battle against the role that superstition and religion play in the political sphere. Society, at all costs, must be protected from the superstitious and religious irrationalities that threaten to plunge us back into the Dark Ages.

Where "at all costs" includes the unwise corruption of science itself. Anyway, faith restored, I've now also ordered Levi Bryant's (ed) "The Speculative Turn":

... the new currents of continental [including UK] philosophy depart from the text-centered hermeneutic models of the [PoMo] past and engage in daring speculations about the nature of reality itself.

What I’ve been refering to as PoPoMo. More later.]

Science is an appeal to authority, but where does that authority come from? An interesting Guardian piece by Graham Redfearn on Naomi Oreskes (with a TED Talk of hers at the bottom)

There really is no scientific method.

  • Inductive of hypotheses and predictions, true, but actually a rare case
  • Deductive of observed evidence, true, but much judgement and interpretation of evidence and experience and of correlation and causation, and with varying faith and trust in people and reports – very little evidence is direct observation causally related to any hypothesis or law.
  • And, both confirmation and falsification logic can be flawed by unrecognised assumptions in your model.
  • So in practice, almost “anything goes” (Feyerabend), there is much creativity and imagination involved.
  • Ultimately science is the emergent and evolving collective consensus (of scientists).

Paradox of modern science:

  • Science IS an appeal to authority (albeit the authority of a collective consensus).

This is the root of a large part of the agenda here – where the topic is at the boundaries of accepted science, even questioning the accepted boundaries of science, the consensus cannot come entirely from those who are scientists or with declared interests in science.

Fact: The quality of thinking and questioning required to achieve such consensus cannot be derived entirely the received wisdom of the existing scientific consensus.