All posts for the month July, 2012

This latest piece by the BHA is at last a balanced collection of views from notable humanists – about what humanism is about. (I made a plea for balance earlier.)

A little too much focus on the “life after death” issue maybe – surely a non-issue to a humanist. The “why we hold science in high regard” section is pretty balanced too; emphasising the contingency of layers of knowledge built up over time, and the open-mindedness to correction. But yet again the high priest of science put his foot in it. This was my comment on the video:

As a long term humanist / atheist I have no problem holding science in high regard. Bronowski inspired me 35 40 years ago to the massively important – awesome – place of science in human civilisation, and humans in the cosmos. BUT the self-importance of scientists who say

science is THE poetry of reality

are as closed-minded and deluded as any religious believer.

It’s a very important poetry (and rhetoric and logic) of the presumed “out there” reality, sure, probably the most important from that presumption, but poetry and reality are far more than that to a humanist. So much more to human nature and human reasoning in the world than science. Science is full of human creativity, and human creativity extends well beyond science, thank goodness, as Bronowski knew.

The Conversion of a Climate-Change Skeptic (Richard Muller) in the NYT, via BBC.

Call me a converted skeptic. Three years ago I identified problems in previous climate studies that, in my mind, threw doubt on the very existence of global warming. Last year, following an intensive research effort involving a dozen scientists, I concluded that global warming was real and that the prior estimates of the rate of warming were correct.

I’m now going a step further:
Humans are almost entirely the cause.

Never any doubt, but some people prefer “proof” whatever that is.

Great piece by Jonathan Ree in the New Humanist reviewing the work of Bruno Latour particularly his latest “The Modern Cult of the Factish Gods” (Hat tip to David Morey on Facebook)

But who in this great brawl is really believing naively? Not the religious believers, according to Latour, but the modern atheists, afflicted as they are by the “naïve belief … that ignorant people believe naively”. Indeed the much-loved contrast between the so-called “facts” that provide a foundation for enlightened knowledge and the “fetishes” that animate the beliefs of fools is itself a superstition – a delusion which Latour proposes to commemorate with his new hybrid word “factish”.

Factish, in short, is what happens when our own “facts” turn out to be fetishes, and the “fetishes” of others turn out to be facts.

But who is the image-worshipper at this table? Not the believers, surely, because however much they treasure their icons, they know very well (most of the time at least) that they are human artefacts. If superstition is at work here, it seems to be on the side of the idol-smashers, however modern they may be and proud of their dispassionate rationality; otherwise how could they get excited about destroying something that is after all no more than an image? Icons are thus the idols of the iconoclasts, making a cult of their anti-cultism.

(My emphasis) Has all the feel of a Foggy-Froggie / PoMo – he is French, but look at that jacket! Indeed he was one of the targets of the great Sokal hoax, but he has nailed the superstition – the psychological disease I call scientism – the delusion he calls factish and Maxwell calls scientific neurosis.

Value-free science is a superstition.

(PS Looks like the New Humanist / Rationalist Association is the antidote to the naivete of the BHA. Time to switch subscriptions.)

This is trending in the twittersphere (via @rickygervais who else?)

Post – My son is 15 he gave his heart to the Lord when he was 4, but now he claims to be an atheist. I’ve been praying for him day and night I don’t know what else to do. PLEASE help.

Response (example) – Let go and let God. At 15 he is still at that age where uncertainty is at its best. Keep praying for him and lead by example. If you force him to believe in God he will move further away. Ask God to soften his heart. Keep praying for him. take care.

What atheists should notice is that even unsophisticated theists understand how to make progress with other human beings. You can always pick a fight if you want one – but unless war is your objective, it pays to use more subtle “co-evolutionary” tactics.

Uncertainty is best, lead by example, don’t force, care … it’s all there.

Society has always needed “court jesters” and we need Ricky to poke fun at the expense of theistic madness. The point of the court jester IS to point out things that those actually responsible for progress probably shouldn’t say. A court made up entirety of jesters is not the optimum solution.

Anyway, I’ve made enough points about being pissed at the BHA for being a stream of simply one negative campaign against another. Atheists need to up their game for the sake of humanism / humanity. Listen to the poets (as well as the jesters).

You must go, and I must set you free,
Only that will bring you back to me.

Neil Hannon (Divine Comedy)

Saw this clip the other day – Craig Bellamy being interviewed about being in the GB Olympic football team – and thought as well as being surprisingly articulate, his school-boyish enthusiasm and all round good humour made such a change from all the usual earnest and corporately correct punditry and commentary.

I wasn’t the only person to notice.

[Post Note - And ironic that Welshman Bellamy should score the opening goal, only to have the Daily Express report him scoring for "england".]

If we will disbelieve everything, because we cannot certainly know all things, we shall do much what as wisely as he, who would not use his legs, but sit still and perish, because he had no wings to fly.

John Locke – “On The Understanding” (1670-80ish)

Been looking for this quote. Two purposes; firstly the general idea of pragmatism – ie it’s better to do something than sit and worry about rules and definitions, and secondly the more specific god vs science – proven / not-proven stalemates, where each holds up an impossible (disingenuous) truth test to the other. All truth – except our immediate personal empirical experience –  involves some faith in the current state of authority and some level of creative metaphor, or both. There are no absolute facts in theology or science.

Couldn’t remember where I’d come across it or even that it was John Locke, and actually gave up when searches for the key words on quotation sites failed to find it. Then noticed it was the motto I’d seen on the BrewDog web pages. Funny old world.

In vino veritas, well, craft-beer anyway.

I’m against the teaching of creationism in school. Teaching about it in social / cultural / religious studies is a different matter of course. Teaching its content as factual is a no-no. But then the balance of good teaching is not pedagogical anyway – it’s about learning how to learn and think.

I’m also totally fed up with campaigns that are always against things – see my reference to the BHA below. It was of course the recent “free schools to teach creationism” scaremongering headlines to which I was reacting in part in that post. It is naturally suspect that the headline is actually true, but no smoke without fire I guess. Hence this post to confirm what I am actually against, lest there be any doubt.

Better though to see much more intelligent comment from Tom Chivers in The Telegraph, and Tom taking the time to moderate and comment on the comment thread generated. Real debate takes effort, not 140 character knee-jerk tweets.

Been reading around Philip Pullman since discovering earlier this year he was a beacon of hope in the BHA (British Humanist Association) and that he’d received the BHA award for services to humanism in 2011. (I guess in that context Dawkins‘ award in 2012 counts as balance?)

I’ve been a humanist since I recognised the word used by my first mentor back in the early 80′s. I’m a BHA member, a non-theist / atheist, but sick and tired of their monotonous cracked-record of one campaign after another against just about anything religious; faith-based schooling, creationism, the lords-spiritual, etc, with barely a hint as to what they might actually be for apart from science, scientific knowledge, scientific truth, evidence-based choice, etc. A literal god is not great – we get it already. What else? Beginning to despair that humanism had redefined itself entirely as scientism set against theistic faith.

If humanism is to be more than scientism the BHA must redress this balance in the messages it promotes. Finding things to fight against is all too easy, or poke fun at (fair game) if you’re the recognised court jester like @rickygervais, but what is BHA’s vision of a better future ? That’s not in fact a rhetorical question, but I digress from the point of this post. Pullman has a wiser vision.

Rather than murder by my analytical dissection, just read this and weep.

Recognising “the system” that makes you “twice-born” rather than clinging to the belief that you operate within a baggage-free neutral absence-of-belief-system. Better a good value system than the neurotic pretence of none. Beautifully argued. Twice-born(*) = Wise. Hallelujah. Nuff said.
[So close to Nick Maxwell's scientific neurosis thesis too.]

[More - And so gently but skilfully effective in damning (Dawkins and Hawking) with genuinely-respectful-but-faint praise for being half-right - as in 100% right but barely half the humanist story. On a par with Wittgenstein - who came to bury logic, not to praise it. So many more good articles here too.]

[(*) Not to be confused with born-again.]

Stevie’s right when he asks,

When did Britain become a police state?

Little people (the people holding the event license) hide behind applying rules, to apply objectivity rather than sound judgement. It’s what gives “health and safety” and a lot more a bad name. The only point he has wrong, is in blaming the police, he should be blaming us for wanting clear application of blame. The blame game wins. More’n my job’s worth, to do anything where I could be blamed for overriding objective facts. Where he is right is that UK and Europe are much worse than US.

Couple of things to report – little time for reviews – quite a few half-finished reads to come back to, but for now …

I finished Martin Sixsmith’s “Russia” in 3 or 4 concentrated sittings last week whilst on aircraft / in airports / in hotel bars etc. Un-put-down-able – straightforward, knowing and journalistic history of Russia from 862 up to Putin & Medvedev and the 2011 Domodedovo terrorist bombing. The timeline of deaths per page is numbing – hundreds, thousands, millions, thousands, hundreds, tens – yet an easy witty read, packed with information from first hand research and experience. Sixsmith grew up in Russia as well as being BBC correspondent. Question – Putin really is scary, but how would you govern a “state” that spans 9 time zones from the arctic to the Caucasus and the steppes of central Asia.

Example 1: We probably knew that after Borodino/1812 Napoleon got very close to the heart of Moscow before being repulsed. That and the parallel with Hitler are still very close to modern Muscovites I detect, but did we know that the Russians pursued Napoleon’s retreat all the way to the centre of Paris? That had escaped me.

Example 2: The pragmatism of selecting a unifying “culture” – any one will do if it works as a tool of governance. Did we know that Russia chose to import orthodox Christianity from pre-Ottoman Constantinople of the Roman Empire rather than Islam from their central Asian neighbours since that would have interfered with their Vodka drinking ?

Example 3: I didn’t know “Russia” was created by Rurik the Rus in (Ukrainian, Kievan) Novgorod. Given that the Rus were Vikings from the modern-day Norway /Sweden area – we all knew Vikings explored south down the Volga I guess – but I never knew the connection between the modern Scandinavian culture of Rus and the country that carries its name today. Intriguing fact among many in a recommended read. Perhaps no so far from the truth to brand modern Norway the last remaining soviet state. Kruschev and Gorbachev came so close … hang in there Russia.

Also picked-up – in true airport-bookstall anything will do purchasing mode – a copy of Le Carre’s Our Kind of Traitor, and also finished it in just a few days. Not his best, and a tough conversational style across first and third-persons, in a mix of real-time dialogue and reported narrative – you gotta keep up with who’s who. But purely coincidentally, tying up the current threads of Banking and Morality with Russian oligarchs, top-management, politicians, terrorists, spies and sport thrown in. Fun current-affairs-founded fiction.

Agius self-assured as you’d expect and still loyal to Diamond, despite the fact both have resigned their posts – ex-chair Agius is now temporarily de-facto acting CEO – a little Putin & Medvedev there ;-)

Plenty of admission of specific failures. Very clear message that Diamond was and still is wanted and seen as very strong in terms of business leadership from his board and from shareholders. Basically it was the personal loss of regulator confidence that forced the resignation. His full-year severance pay (ex bonuses etc.) is clearly a retainer for his continued cooperation and availability to the bank.

Clear that bankers were in state of terror at the time, but interesting aside that regulators’ saw Barclays itself as the best in class on compliance amongst the big banks.

Other main issue is the demarcation between investment and retailing arms and the “culture” that may or may not be shared within parts and across the whole, and the fact that Diamond was part of the move to unify – mentioned earlier note (1) here. Pretty clear that independence of investment and retailing is going to become the regulators’ preferred strategy going forward – not that that actually excuses local moral failures, whatever the divisional culture. May be that the counter-intuitive unification is actually the better option ? (Lord Thurso – who seems very respectful of Agius personal integrity – is on the right lines … which layers of culture matter is beyond any one business … IMHO)

Interesting also that many of the other perps in other banks were ex-Barclays people … no doubt quite common, as in many industries. Culture is always in layers within and across organizations. Use of the word “low-balling” also tells a story about the original “crime”. Not really concerned here with whether the original manipulation was immoral or illegal – anti-trust collusion – everyone seems to agree it was wrong, whatever I think (I have a bigger agenda) – but low-balling does suggest it was a normal negotiation game as part of setting rates – achieving a low rate was what everyone believed was needed at the time, understood – whatever their individual motivations or (lack of) instructions. A case of ends not justifying means, but clear ends nevertheless.

[Post Note :

This interesting point from Robert Peston last week. When is low-balling, lying ?

 "[Barclays] understated [their borrowing rates] to try to reassure the market.

Barclays’ defence is that it was dreadfully unfair that its perceived borrowing costs were higher than other banks. And it is convinced that many of these banks were even bigger liars than it was about what they were paying to borrow.

It also points out that in practice its balance sheet, its finances, were in fact stronger than many of these other banks: its creditors were wrong, it would say, to have so little trust in it [due in part to the complexity and opacity of some of its financial instruments].

So was its lie about what it was paying to borrow justified – especially if the survival of the bank was at stake? And if Paul Tucker at the Bank of England encouraged Barclays to lie, as is implied by Diamond’s memo, would he have been justified in doing so?

As it happens, a number of senior figures in the City who are unconnected to Barclays think this lying was the right thing to do in the circumstances. They think Mr Tucker encouraged Barclays to lie and they applaud him for doing so.

You might well say that is evidence of a cancerous moral relativism at the heart of the City. Or you might applaud their common sense realism.”

My point exactly. Those who did the dirty deed took one on behalf of the whole bank. And, of course, Tucker didn’t actually ask them to lie, to low-ball, he just needed to point out that being too high was a problem, for everyone’s confidence in a time of extreme “skittishness”.]

Niall Ferguson’s latest Reith Lecture.

Internet social networks communicate, may even communicate collective action and action collective communications, but don’t themselves take collective physical action.

Drawing extensively on de Toqueville. US experience of low individual reliance on central government and state institutions, and high propensity to form voluntary institutions for so many different ends and moral purposes. Spontaneous participation in the troupe, beyond the family. Historically, statistically such participation is declining and expectation of state responsibility for action is growing. (State should only interfere for common good – over and above the legal framework – for natural monopolies across the troupes, protection from tyrrany of majorities, etc.)

Education for example: Biodiversity of mixed and varied private and public schooling arrangements is preferable to any dead-hand of monopoly. (NB Education is a huge part of Burke’s partnership across the generations.) Good public / state education is also good, measures of quality would probably include community participation.

The challenge is still a class / affluence gap in propensity to voluntary participation ?
“Think before taking sides” – a good message, a la Zizek.

Good to hear Baroness Betty Boothroyd on BBC R4 Today this morning.

Reform needs institutional conservatism. I for one cannot believe the hypocrisy of those baying for blood at government culpability in so many political and economic so-called scandals, yet demanding popular elections for the second chamber. Reckless and ill-considered outrage, as she says.

[Surely the value of British tradition is obvious.]

One in a long series, but here an example that’s new to me.

Faster frame rate TV and Film, cameras and projectors, and interpolation of additional frames to smooth slower frame rate media – may make images more “real”, but not necessarily better.

Here : Home vs showroom vs cinema settings generally.
Here : Slumdog as a cinematic example.
Interesting recommendation that plasma is better than LED, and otherwise unsurprising difficulty in truly comparing TV’s in a showroom setting – tried hard to compensate for this before.

Hat tip to Matt of WordPress.