Attended Theos event “Does Humanism need Christianity?” at Kings College, London last night

The dean introduced Nick Spencer of Theos, who in turn introduced chair, Clare Carlisle.

Christian speakers were Angus Ritchie and Alison Milbank.
Humanist speakers were Julian Baggini and Richard Norman.

The topic was a conversation in response to the Theos essay / booklet by Spencer and Ritchie “The Case for Christian Humanism” a critique of the Amsterdam declaration of Humanist values. A critique controversial amongst humanists when published last year, suggesting that, bar one anti-religious declaration, all Humanist values were shared with Christianity.

[And I have previously reviewed Spencer’s work on the shared histories of atheist humanism.]

Apparently it was recorded – so look out for the link – and @theosthinktank tweeted #theoshumanism continuously, and subsequently “storified” here – so I won’t include all my notes on the conversation. But a conversation it was. Proper dialogue rather than the standard debating to win.

For sure, the title as worded wasn’t going to be agreed with, that Humanism needs Christianity, or theistic religion in general, but it was clear humanists need christians, and muslims, and jews, and …

Humans need dialogue with humans.

My take-aways were:

Late on, Socrates’ Euthyphro arguments against the existence of god was cited (anonymously) from Plato’s Dialogues, from the audience. In fact it’s easy for each “side” to prove the other’s basis of belief is unfounded in an objectively narrow logical sense. Thing is we all as humans (really) see our rationality as something wider and deeper than this.

Transcendence – a grace or god or spiritual idea, being “somehow” one with, connected with the world, beyond the boundaries of our “self” and our “known” rationality. The Saganian “we are (all) stardust” suggestion quoted from the audience; we are an integral part of the cosmos and our terrestrial ecosystem, special only because of the responsibilities that come with our faculties. This as stated from a humanist audience member, correctly described as religious – a sentiment that binds us as humans – by Milbank.

Religious God-given stick / reward justifications for faith or the desire for absolute rational objective grounding are both ultimately misguided. And dogma is misguided in any context. The rationality of “turtles all the way down”; objective empirical, logical rationalism still ends at recursive first-cause questions of grounding. Accepting the thin ice we skate on (Baggini) might look like a kind of faith, a choosing to believe the best foundations on which we build our world view, but more an assertion we choose to believe pragmatically and contingently to live life without spending all our time in deep philosophical debate. (The trick is for us not to allow our ego and arrogance lose sight of the reality of this thin ice grounding our rational edifices.)

The real question neatly summed-up by Ritchie in his closing remarks, given we pretty much agree human values, and the nature or quality of their groundings, is “what is for the best for “conservation” of this understanding of these human values and their basis, for the future of humanity in the cosmos?”.

Turning every human value into explicit (objectively rationalised, evidence-based) human rights, might not be the best exclusive answer. Goods include transcendent sentiments and responsibilities.

A very encouraging dialogue.



ROUGH NOTES – retained until recording or transcript can be linked.

case for christian humanism essay by nick and angus

ritchie – words n language affect values and perception. humanism.

historically inclusive of human values, not simply atheistic. church problem of giving up use of the word except catholics inc pope. atheist humanists sawing off branch?

norman – humanist atheist but happy with xtians also being humanist. dependency less clear. grounding of dignity of humans is the question. common problem to both camps. real issue is basis of reason n cognitive capacity? kahneman cognitive evolution and biases. no prior underpinning morality grounded in what it is to be human can agree.

milbank – h needs transcendent “god”.meaning always exceeds our grasp through metaphor etc bound religare. there is a meta dimension whether you call it metaphysical or spiritual. poetic beauty. is secular humanism setting human as a privikeged in itself. settibg limits at boundary of self. participation as creatures. more than rational and autonomous.

baggini – turtles all the way down story. moral nothing is groubded all the way down. rational secular accept reality of this – though dogmatic might not. god of the gaps as missing foundation doesn’t actually solve it. noones human reaction to the beauty of a new born is neitger theological or rational.

Humanists don’t see need for grace to complete the human?
Lots in common but few specific disagreement – based on Amsterdam declaration.
Stuff known by revelation in the religious is a specific difference.
Human capacity is enough grounding says Norman.
So do humanism needs to “trust” in the intuition that is ok to rely on the thin ice of human capacity. Not says Baggini more an assertion that it’s good enough- neither founded in pure reason out there cast in stone nor mere preference. This is a false dichotomy
Human appreciation of the baby?
We’re all human, but we’re not all Christian. Hard for Christian (sect) to claim universality.
Milbank Still sticking seeing humanists seeing humans end in themselves. Revelatory
No we really see that the human perspective is pragmatic limit to grounding.
Managing objects. Reacting to this is not just pomo different issues.
Does right and appropriate allow moral sentiment as well as objectively rational.
Really about theism not Christianity. Spiritual question. Genesis is Jewish anyway. Judaism has wonderful human view. Dominion is not negative. Tolkien fan!
We have Christian heritage culturally. Yes secular humans recognise complex relations beyond our autonomous self-identity.
Assertion not faith? Many affective inputs as well as rational objective. Right is morally rational.
Demands for absolute grounding of morality doesn’t win an argument against someone who fails to hold right moral view. Agreed must not cash out morality as simply result of some other.
Transcendence also shared by secular humanist views. We are stardust. We are oriented to find meaning beyond ourselves.
Humanists do need Christians! Agreed.
Anti-religious humanists made most noise for a while, but there are plenty who do recognise value in the other. Conversation not debate.
Best at protecting the values we share – a conservatism.
No we are not certain – we know we’re on thin ice.

Been aware of a couple of tweets from Sabine at BackReaction on the topic of continuity over scales in physics, starting with a post by Krauss in Nautilus, and culminating today with another Nautilus link to a Max Tegmark piece that Sabine “wishes she could find something to disagree with” and this from FQXi on Quantum Cybernetics. As Sabine suggested in response to the first, so much more one could say if we had the time. Somewhere in there Frank Wilczek gets a reference too. So far this week I’ve just skimmed over these, but needed to read so I could comment.

Before I do, the meme coming back to me is Peter Rowlands observation on the topic of a theory everything, that abandoning the idea of physics having a coherent story to tell, was to make physics itself meaningless. Certainly a physics made of mathematical laws relating the objects of physics can never cut it. Information is more fundamental than a mathematical physics that accepts its fragmentation.

For me the real issue is the weirdness of causation itself, and it follows from Hofstadter’s strange loops, that at different scales different (why) causes and effects are in play, but they are all manifestations of an underlying reality, a coherent (how) story of the workings. This the common accusations of reductionism and determinism, that some high level behaviours are simply the sum total or net effect of many smaller causes and effects. Dennett warns against this greedy reductionism.

So what does Krauss have to say?

We know of no theory that both
makes contact with the empirical world,
and is absolutely and always true.

True. And that’s the reason the demand for “evidence” can become a fetish, if evidence is presumed to be objectively empirical. We know the world rationally through many forms of evidence or experience, not all of which can be objectively empirical.

So, what is going on?
Is a universal theory a legitimate goal,
or will scientific truth always be scale-dependent?

And here the fetish is that “scientific truth” is some primary or universal truth. Physics – fundamental science – is about how things work, not about “truth”. Is it possible Krauss has learned the value of philosophy?

The closer you get to the electron,
the more deeply you are penetrating inside
the “cloud” of virtual particles that are surrounding the electron.

Thereby preserving a preference for a particle model. The “cloud” of virtual particles in inverted commas is a hopeful sign. Further quoting Feynman:

“theory is simply a way to sweep difficulties […] under the rug.”

Feynman’s concerns 
were, in a sense, misplaced.
The problem was not with the theory,
but with trying to push the theory …

Well it is the problem – theories are only models, not reality. All models – theories – are created for a purpose (a local subjective reason). So, clearly it’s not likely to work out of that context. Unger and Smolin (and others) have already suggested that maths and physical laws change over time (and hence space). Like everything else, they evolve. What is universal is not “a” physics, but a meta-physics, with meta-laws and processes. The field of possibility exists, the particles are simply our objectified things. Waves and forces happen, but they’re only things when we objectify them for our subjective purposes, our working model. Krauss concludes:

Which road is the real road to reality is up for grabs. If we knew the correct path to discovery, it wouldn’t be discovery. Perhaps my own predilection is just based on a misplaced hope of continued job security for physicists! But I also like the possibility that there will forever be mysteries to solve. Because life without mystery can get very boring, at any scale.

Refreshingly honest admission of personal interest as a physicist. It’s wishful thinking to see reality as a physical model. The road of physics can never lead to reality, just better (more useful) physics. Of course, he couldn’t be that honest when given the opportunity of debating with a philosopher or two.

Tegmark on the other hand – given his title, I cannot imagine how he avoids a Dennett and Hofstadter GEB / EGB reference!

The bird surveys the landscape of reality from high “above,” akin to a physicist studying the mathematical structure of spacetime as described by the equations of physics. The frog, on the other hand, lives inside the landscape surveyed by the bird.

The delusion of physicists that they are working towards some god’s eye view of reality in a nutshell. Living in the landscape is reality. Reminded of William James observing the squirrel going “around” the tree in Tegmark’s next analogy, the moon orbiting the earth. I had to stop reading Tegmark at this point:

That our universe is approximately described by mathematics means that some but not all of its properties are mathematical. That it is mathematical means that all of its properties are mathematical; that it has no properties at all except mathematical ones. If I’m right and this is true, then it’s good news for physics …. It also implies that our reality is vastly larger than we thought, containing a diverse collection of universes obeying all mathematically possible laws of physics.

“That it is” is merely an assertion. No science to see here, folks. Lines, volumes and patterns woven through space-time are not new metaphors. Quoting a non-physicist friend Tegmark reports:

If someone says
“I can’t believe I’m just a heap of atoms!’’
I object to the use of the word “just”.

Good. Me too. Reality isn’t “just” a collection of things. History (the braid) matters, for one thing. Just seeing higher levels as assemblies of the lower is the greedy reductionism Dennett warns against.

On the Adesso and Girolami piece on Quantum Cybernetics in FQXi – some good stuff. Ashby, Wiener, “requisite variety” and a lot more, though not sure I came away understanding what they mean by their catchphrase. But OBVIOUSLY, given my agenda, Cybernetics is reality; how the real world’s working are governed. The objects of maths and physics are artefacts, phenomena, species we give names to in order to manipulate their information (through Cybernetics), but not fundamental reality.

In fact the summary in the headline says it:

Quantum Cybernetics – the quest for a meta-theory of quantum control that could one day explain physical systems, certain biological phenomena—and maybe even politics.

Not sure about “quantum control” but it’s certainly a meta-theory we’re in need of. [Ah, and “control” simply as a translation of “governance” (cybernetics)?]

Interesting piece from Nick Cohen in the Spectator that picked-up some twitter traffic – good addition to the freedom of speech debate and its limits in a free society.

Slightly baffled by a “just say no to demands for self-censorship” summary in the twitter threads.

Political correctness is a deep issue that needs to to be recognised for what it is – pernicious – and Nick lists great advice in the many guises it manifests itself. A must read for that reason. I have more reasons for pointing out political correctness problems in even more fields, more seemingly objective fields far removed from art and politics, like would-be science itself, but that’s my agenda.

Being censored or asked to censor for PC reasons is to be resisted. Just say no.

Self censorship is however entirely wise.

Anyone who does understand their topic and does understand where political correctness traps lie within and around their topic is entitled to indulge in their freedom to speak. Anyone who doesn’t should self-censor – ie shut up. But, anyone who does, must also make wise choices about what they should say to achieve informative and active goals, and what not to say to avoid redundant and counterproductive distractions.

Being asked to self-censor is an oxymoron – simply PC cover for censorship itself, surely to be resisted.

One for later, some tough reading (120 page technical PDF), but a philosophical view of “modern” physics by Hans Christian Öttinger that dares suggest:

… in the words of Margenau:

“it is quite proper for us to assume that we know what a dog is
even if we may not be able to define him”

Philosophy shall here serve as
a practical tool for doing better physics.

Very much Dennett’s “hold your definition” stance, and very much the same rejection of definitive objectivity I was referring to here. As Öttinger says:

Emphasis on the importance of beliefs,
even if they are justi ed by a variety
of philosophical and physical ideas,
may irritate the physicist.

Definitions are matters of hindsight, like species in evolution. Objects are simply abstractions – artefacts – of the model we are using, even when we’re doing physics of what we consider to be the “real” world.

[Hat Tip to Sabine on Backreaction.]

With 15 years and several thousand posts, with thousands of links between them in the archives, page rendering is now so slow (without cacheing*) that I am going to have to retire the site and start a fresh one.

That still leaves me with the housekeeping problem of how I keep links to important older posts working (without cacheing*).

(*) Seems I am to remain without cacheing, thanks to the permalink option I selected way back when I first migrated to WordPress, where every link is a query – which would be flattened by the cacheing, thereby losing ALL existing archive links. Need to find some link search and replace mechanism that doesn’t screw up the database, or progressively manually migrate the important links. The strategy adopted will affect whether I can preserve the main address for the site.

[Post Note : looks like with a change of theme, switching permalinks does maintain backward link compatibility in both the cached and live pages, so with a couple of other tweaks I can fix this. Tried out a few ideas on another blog, and will update here in a week or two.]

Brain Eno topical on several axes and interesting to compare with Grayson Perry 2013 Reith Lectures on Art.

In the Peel spirit of encouraging novelty and possibility beyond any established lists or genres, but Eno’s topic not specifically music. Very much on art in the broadest view of culture as the creative arts; and arts, as those things – aspects of stylisation and ornamentation of stuff – that we don’t need to do.

The whole lecture a plea for proper understanding the value of the arts & humanities. Contrasting arts & humanities with “STEM” contribution of distinct numerical quantities to “the economy”, as opposed to patterning & stylisation of information and stuff. Also topical for other reasons, and as a basis for humanity to understand how those “STEM” things do relate to our world.

Creative arts – Creating worlds to imagine, experience and learn from whilst avoiding dangerous crashes in the “real” world. And they can be switched off or stepped away from, if they cause anyone a problem in the external objective world. But not just safe, and not just a luxury or add-on to that objective world; necessary quality and value beyond the quantifiable. We can experience far more through art that we can in real life, and from it learn far more about real life in the real world.

They’re a vehicle to synchronise views of things we cannot all possibly know expertly, or even know of at all, in the “real” world, and anyway even the real world is really the established objective model – an abstraction – of an actual reality. An accepted narrative, with art as alternative narratives. Collectively they also provide “scenius”, an interdependent ecosystem or “scene” for genius, creativity in a synchronised genre of art or culture. That ecosystem includes far-sighted institutions and altruistic social engineering that support such possibilities. Like the NHS, benefits and the dole – without which budding would-be artists wouldn’t be free to discover their art. No individual piece of art is created in isolation, no artist is a genius in isolation.

Interestingly Eno cites Paul Mason in searching for economic models that recognise activity beyond the objective core that contributes to the numbers. The more we have abundant, productive, automated activity on the “STEM” economic inputs and outputs game, the more important to ask the question how do we live a coherent meaningful life outside that objectively productive core of countable-scarce-resource-based economic activity.  The more competitive the capitalist free-market core;’ the more efficiently our living can be sustained by less resources and labour, the more Culture, Art & Humanities form a greater part of our existence – not less. Quoting Barbara Ehrenreich – they simply provide us with the joy of simultaneous existence.


Kenan Malik gave the Stephen Lissenberg Memorial Lecture at the NIESR in London last week (23rd Sept). The full transcript is here on his Pandaemonium web pages: “On Fences and Fractures – or what’s wrong with multiculturalism” so no need for a detailed summary here.

His critique of multiculturalism is not new, but he was able to relate the issues to the topical “Syrian refugee crisis” we are seeing from our European perspective today. My takeaways were as follows:

Firstly we need to be clear what we we’re talking about with Multiculturalism – to recognise the distinction between:

  • The reality of lived experience in a society with multi-cultural diversity.
  • The idea of a policy to police multiple cultures in that society.

The former is reality, concerned with diversity of our cultural experience. The main thesis however is that the latter has (in general) been a policy failure, though one audience reaction reminded us that even those practitioners enacting multiple local aspects of multiculturalism have their own meta-processes for ensuring policy itself is flexible and avoids a simplistic one-size-fits-all policy mentality. (This was largely an audience of policy makers and practitioners.)

Malik’s is largely a historical perspective, particularly the former giving the illusion that things are more multicultural in recent times – right up to recent Muslim vs Islamist and topical refugee crisis issues. In fact culture is much more flattened in recent times. Groups with some distinct difference; ethnic, religious, whatever are generally much more aligned on mass-cultural axes thanks to growth of media, travel and communications. (Many examples of reactions to earlier “incomprehensible” groups of immigrants not forgetting the Briton, Roman, Saxon, Viking ancestry of our UK perspective, but also other colonial, European and French examples.)

“Our” culture has always morphed – and always will – by accretion and evolution, and there has always been fear of novelty and change. Perception and fear may be amplified but the reality is less diversity.

The thesis is that policing culture is no more than an aspect governing society with its values and institutions, evolving with its diversity of cultural inputs, but not in any sense defining or preserving diverse and distinct original cultures. It should not be a policy in itself. Policy aimed at directing cultural groups to given cultural ends falls foul of the problem of classifying groups and issues perceived as related to those groups. Which aspect of an identifiable group or which relationship to wider society is often subtle and nuanced, and anyway, these evolve themselves as society and policy evolve. Convenient cultural labels are rarely meaningful classes for policy purposes.

For me, more generally, taxonomies & classifications of groups are always purpose driven, rarely based on immediate objective “properties” of individual members. The colour of skin or religious affiliation or ethnic self-identification may be the most obvious classifying characteristics, but often the least relevant to the issues being policed and the outcomes desired.

The point I made: It is in fact a fetishisation to hope and seek for simple clear objective basis for classifying groups – in all aspects of life in the real world. In fact the exclusive evidence-based scientistic dogma of our time appears to demand it, but it will only ever be a reductionist simplistication. Useful classifications always depend on purposes and contexts, not on treating the subjects as objects. Attaching ourselves to that dogma despite our better judgement, is a fetish.

Harking back to Malik’s title, in the sphere of general taxonomy an adage oft quoted by a colleague of mine is that “good fences make good neighbours”. The emphases being on good and on mutuality. A solid fence that simply reifies a fracture – a difference – is only ever a short-term defensive measure. Fences at state and EU borders are a different matter, they’re not taxonomic but rather a pragmatic matter of policing values and rule of law of existing states. Divide and rule may be a tactical measure, colonially, imperially and, if and when applied to cultural “groups” within a society, it should only ever be recognised for the tactical management tool that it is.

As promised, I’ve obtained and started reading Alice Dreger’s personal account of mis-directed politics both in science and in its place in society. Clearly very much within my own agenda, so as I often do, I like to post a preview of my first impressions and (my own) prejudices, it ensures any eventual review is transparently honest.

Firstly, Galileo himself, heroic legend in science, has had so much written already, it’s hard to separate fact from myth and motivation, and these from the valid symbolism that nevertheless remains to the benefit of science and society. In Dreger’s case, she additionally latches onto the spin-on-it / flippin-the-finger allusion in Galileo’s middle finger being preserved as a “religious” relic in Florence. Of Galileo the hero, Dreger acknowledges the common picture containing reality as well as mythology by reference to David Wooton’s (2010) biography. Based on my recent reading of Arthur Koestler (1959), I have to say there is a good deal more myth than fact. His “persecution” and “house-arrest” by the Catholic church really seemed to suit the stroking of his own ego. And, though his terrestrial mechanics and espoused open-questioning of scientific progress, against dogmas of the day, remain immensely important and valuable any day, his actual ideas in cosmology were almost entirely political in practice – (see Catholic church and ego above!) [Interesting up-front dedication by Dreger “For Kepler, who saved his mother.” – Koestler’s hero in the above.]

Talking of the Catholic church, Dreger opens with a thought she suspects not many readers would get in advance – that the Catholic church is in fact full of rational free-thinkers. I’m already there. The Jesuits in general and the Bishops and Cardinals often had much more nuanced and honest views of the relationship between dogma and rationality, than their scientific “enemies” display. [And I have a side thread on intellectuals migrating to catholicism.] Science is often much more dogmatic than religion.

Secondly, taxonomy, gender taxonomy in Dreger’s case, is a core topic for me. She is at pains early on to point out the inherent fuzziness of gender for between 1 in 300 to 1 in 100 of us (depending on how … ), before we get to any “so what?” questions. Assignment of classes is always purpose driven, class boundaries are always fuzzy and dependent on your chosen bases for membership. Classes (male or female) are never wholly objective. However this does not mean the identification of major classes of membership must be dismissed as meaningless and useless, far from it. It is always a matter of value and purpose to assign class (gender) in any case. As I’ve written before when it comes to humans, class membership is “identity politics” and more – and there is no better basis than self-identity where there are multiple, fuzzy or otherwise overlapping groups and purposes as bases of membership.

Thirdly and finally for now, she says:

” I have come to understand that the pursuit of evidence
is probably the most pressing moral imperative of our time.”

Interesting qualifiers there – not evidence itself and not definitely. Shock. Horror. I’m less strongly pro-evidence than even that. We should always seek evidence and never ignore that which exists, but we must not fetishise evidence to the point that its lack paralyses essential value-based decisions and actions (A view I share with Dick Taverne). Caveats aside, the agenda and signalled conclusions are bang on. She continues:

“Yet … we’ve built up a system in which scientists and social justice
advocates are fighting in ways that poison the soil on which both depend.”

So, my own agenda front and centre, I’m reading on …