Wednesday, 24 August 2011

plus ca change

I've changed blogs again, so that everything is contained on one site with a new URL. And I've started a second blog (as if I haven't already got enough to do with my time!).

So if you want to keep up, please try the following:

  • Is there a God website and blog - looking at questions about whether God exists, different religions, what is ethics, and fulfillment in life.
  • the Way? - written for christians who want to keep their faith relevant to our contemporary world while staying true to Jesus.

Hope to see you over at one of these! Ciao.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

the old and the new

This blog is now virtually superseded. I'll probably post on it from time to time, but my main blog is now part of my website is god real?

If you want to read any more from me, please try the is god real blog.

Thanks for your interest!

Thursday, 29 April 2010

english as she is sometimes spoke

Translation is a risky business. Here are how some people translated their information into English:

In a Dry Cleaners window in Thailand: "Drop your trousers here for the best results."

On the menu in the USA: "French creeps."

Comforting promise in a Dutch airline notice: "We take your bags and send them in all directions."

In Russia, the sad truth: "If this is your first visit to the USSR, you are welcome to it."

An invitation in a laundry in Italy: "Ladies, leave your clothes here and spend the afternoon having a good time."

Hardly kosher in a butcher's in Israel: "I slaughter myself twice daily."

Honesty in an Indian shop: "Why go somewhere else to be cheated when you can come here?"

In a Paris park, a hard instruction to disobey: "Please do not be a dog."

Sign in a Chinese temple: "Please take one step forward and crap twice."

On shampoo in Taiwan (you were warned!): "Use repeatedly for severe damage."

In a hotel in Taiwan: "Please do not bring solicitors into your room."

An unfortunate pun in Spain: "We highly recommend the hotel tart."

And a health warning in a Mexican hotel: "The manager has personally passed all the water served here."

These and many others may be found in the book Lost in Translation by Charlie Croker.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

so who's irrational?

A common accusation of atheists is that christians are irrational, preferring faith to evidence. To some christians this is not an insult, for they choose faith over logic. But other christians find this accusation both insulting and untrue, for they believe faith is based on reason and evidence.

I cannot recall anyone providing any scientific evidence for this claim. The evidence generally offered is simply that christianity involves faith, faith is not based on evidence and that is irrational.

I have just come across a book which turns this argument on its head. The Making of an Atheist by James Speigel (a professor of philosophy) argues that many atheists come to their beliefs by non-rational means. I have not read the book, but I have read parts of it and several reviews.

The book is based on scriptural teaching, but it uses evidence from psychology, the philosophy of science and atheists' own words, to establish this conclusion. The author argues that experiences in childhood, unwillingness to submit to God and immorality are all psychological factors leading to disbelief.

I'm sure there is truth in all this, although I feel some atheists I have "met" on the internet also have other, more honourable, reasons for their lack of belief in God. And I don't think I'll be using this book's conclusions to press any atheists to believe - I have objected often to atheists making unbased psychological explanations for my belief, so I don't think I should return the "compliment".

But it may be helpful to know what is in this book. At least it provides a counter to the old "christians are delusional" argument should I ever be really pressed on the matter.

Monday, 8 February 2010

is that true?

Came across this today on this blog - a list of statements that people sometimes make, but which are actually "self-refuting" or logically inconsistent. I think they're worth sharing.

  • Truth does not exist (Is that a true statement?)
  • Nothing is absolute (Is that absolutely true?)
  • I do not exist (You must exist to deny that you exist)
  • Science is the only way to know (Can you scientifically prove that?)
  • Only what can be perceived by the five senses exists (Can you prove that by the five senses?)
  • Nobody can know anything for sure (Do you know that for sure?)
  • Nobody can know anything about God (How do you know that?)
  • Talk about God is meaningless (Since it is a statement about God, this statement is meaningless too)
  • Reality is just your interpretation, objective reality does not exist (That’s just your interpretation)
  • “‘Everything we think and do is the function of our genes/nervous system’” (Is this belief itself just the result of genetic/neutral activity? If so, why trust it — or any belief we have? If your belief happens to be right, it’s just by accident)
  • There are no beliefs (You expect me to believe that?)
  • Everything is meaningless (So is that statement)

Thursday, 4 February 2010

worth listening to

Some of the music most worth listening to is not often played on mainstream radio. Here's some of what I'm enjoying at the moment.

all india radio

All India Radio is Martin Kennedy plus assorted other musicians from time to time. This generally instrumental music can occasionally be a little trite and simple, but more often it is strange, beautiful and haunting ambient sounds. Perhaps best of all is the only vocal album, "Fall", where the strong, expressive voice of Leona Prue fronts some fine Kennedy instrumentation. Right now (Feb 2010) you can get cheap and even free downloads from All India Radio's Myspace page.

auburn lull

These four guys from "somewhere in middle America" (Michigan) play what is sometimes called "space rock" - atmospheric, lush music that is somewhere between rock and ambient. The vocals can be a little weak, but the mainly instrumental music really soars. Check out their music at Myspace.

my brightest diamond

My Brightest Diamond is mainly Shara Worden. Trained as an opera singer, she has toured with Sufjan Stevens (see below) as a back-up singer as well as a performer of her own material. Her music is dramatic, individual and her singing can be electrifying. Her Myspace page will let you listen to some of her music.

radical face

Radical face is one of several projects of Ben Cooper, who does just about everything on the superb album "Ghost", including record it in his backyard shed. The music is beautiful and folky soft rock, and the lyrics on this album are based on the fantasy that houses have ghostly memories which remain and may haunt those who move in next. "Down the Road" from this album is one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard. Check out Ben's website.

sigur ros

Possibly the most well known of the bands here, these Icelanders play quirky, anthemic songs with a big sound. Never in a hurry, the music builds slowly, ebbs and flows and contains many surprises. But don't try to decipher the lyrics, they're generally in Icelandic or Hopelandic, an invented mini-language. Here's the Sigur Ros website.

sufjan stevens

Sufjan may just be the most talented and quirky musician I have ever heard. He writes some of the simplest and best lyrics you'll ever hear (try "Casimir Pulaski Day"), he plays most instruments, does his own gentle singing, and his choral and musical arrangements are sometimes intricate and always creative (try "They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back From the Dead!!…") And did I say he has a mad sense of humour and some outrageous song titles? His website sums it up this way: "Sufjan Stevens mixes autobiography, religious fantasy, and regional history to create folk songs of grand proportions." On top of this, he established Asthmatic Kitty records, which is now home to a large bunch of quirky, obscure and talented musicians.

the middle east

The Middle East are a creative bunch of Aussies who can play anything from modern folk to anthemic rock. Recent performances have endeared them to a growing clan of loyal followers. On stage, they are a six or seven piece collective that can on occasion be augmented to include a string section and/or a choir. "Blood" is a moving folky song about family and the hurts that can come with the package. Pig Food live (which has the full string section plus choir) is well worth a listen (though not as tight as on recording - it was on the original "The Recordings of the Middle East", but not on the re-release). I really hope this amazing band is heard by many more happy listeners. Check out their Myspace page.

Monday, 25 January 2010

there is a god

Almost 2 years ago, I reported on the conclusion by leading philosopher and former atheist, Antony Flew, that there is indeed a God after all (see one Flew out of the cuckoo's nest?). I described how many atheists had accused him of selling out, of not writing his new book himself, and of being senile.

I have now, belatedly, had the opportunity to read the book. I was worried it might be too philosophical for me, or, conversely, that it might indeed be the writings of a man who was past it. But I needn't have worried on either count, because it was an enjoyable, easy and worthwhile read.

This is not a philosophical book - he doesn't present any rigorous arguments. It is rather a personal memoir, a look back on his life and why he became an atheist in the first place despite a christian upbringing, and a summary of the ideas and the people who had influenced him to change his mind at this late stage in his life. I wouldn't think anyone would be convinced by the book alone, but any thoughtful person should find plenty of worthwhile ideas to follow up, and the references to do so.

He certainly doesn't sound senile, but he is getting old (he is now approaching 87), as this video shows. And he certainly does sound quite sure of himself. I found it a very human book, with the weakest parts being those written by his co-author (Preface and Appendix 1).

The main reasons why he changed his mind were "the fact that nature obeys laws", the "intelligently organised and purpose-driven life which arose from matter" and "the very existence of nature" (i.e. the universe). Based on the scientific discoveries in these areas, he has concluded that none of these could have occurred if they had not been "brought into existence by an infinite intelligence". He goes on to say that he is open to the possibility that God has revealed himself in the world, and believes christianity is the most likely candidate. He makes it clear he is now considering christianity, and accordingly gave NT Wright, the famous New Testament scholar, the opportunity to write an appendix answering some of Flew's questions about christianity.

According to Wikipedia (last updated March 2009), there is ongoing controversy over Flew's departure from atheism. Certainly I have found on various internet forums that he is not respected by atheists, who tend to react with comments about senility if his name is even mentioned. But I think the book is worth reading for anyone with an interest in philosophy.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

on the frontier

Up until the sixteenth century, the Coahuiltecan native American peoples lived a nomadic, subsistence life in the semi-arid regions of what is now southern Texas. But all this was soon to change, for two reasons.

  1. The Coahuiltecans were not a powerful people. The land and climate would not support large groups, and they were often victims of raids from their northern neighbours, the Apache and Comanche people.
  2. Colonists from three European nations, the Spanish in Mexico to the south, the French in Louisiana to the east and the British in the United States to the north were all vying for supremacy and ownership of lands in the area. In the early 18th century, the Spanish, both government and the Catholic church, moved northwards into Texas and set up a number of missions. By the middle of the century, five missions were well established along the San Antonio River.

Mission Concepción, south of San Antonio, the oldest unrestored church building in the US.

The walls of Mission Concepción compound. Native Americans and soldiers lived in the quarters built into the walls.

Because of the pressure of the raids, many of the Coahuiltecans decided to accept the protection and stability offered by the missions and the Spanish army. They moved into the missions behind protective walls, received food and religious instruction and learned farming and other skills. The missions flourished for a time, but declined in the early nineteenth century as the native Americans succumbed to European diseases. Finally, in 1836, Texans of mostly British heritage fought the Spanish/Mexican army and, despite defeat at the Alamo (one of the five missions which had been converted into a garrison), drove the Spanish from Texas. Texas became an independent nation for a short time, and then joined the United States.

The granary at Mission Concepción

I am not a Catholic, and I do not support European colonialism by any of the three nations involved. But visiting the harsh environment in the dry summer heat makes me admire the commitment of the Spanish monks who established the missions. Some of the descendents of the Coahuiltecans still live in the area today.

Desert plants give an indication of the arid climate.

Walkway at Mission Concepción

The partially ruined Mission San Juan

Mission Espada church and priest's quarters - with the current priest in black out the front.

Inside the Mission Espada church

The Mission San Antonio de Valero, now the Alamo, and virtually a sacred American site.

Read more about the San Antonio Missions here, here and here, and the battle of the Alamo.

Friday, 18 December 2009

god in australia

A recent survey, reported in the Sydney Morning Herald and summarised here, provides the latest information on the beliefs of Aussies. And the results are a possibly a little different to what most of us would expect:

  • 68% believe in God, 24% believe there is no God, and 6% are not sure.
  • 50% of the population call themselves christian (although other surveys such as NCLS show only 10-20% attend church regularly), with 6% following other major religions (including 2% Muslims) and 5% having a belief in a "universal spirit or life force". 6% said they were Jedi, which is fun, but perhaps should be interpreted as 'agnostic' in reality.
  • Curiously, more people appear to believe in Jesus than believe in God - 94% say he was a historical figure, 91% that he was the son of God (how does that work?), 85% that he rose from the dead and 72% that his mother was a virgin at his birth.
  • But the christians and the rest are not as dogmatic as one might expect - only a third of Aussies believe any of the holy books is "the word of God", only a quarter believe any holy book is literally true and only a fifth believe there is only one true interpretation of their religion. Nevertheless, "almost nine out of 10 Australian Christians were absolutely or fairly certain of their beliefs".
  • Belief in various christian doctrines was variable - over half of Aussies believe in heaven and life after death; more than a third believe in hell and the devil; almost two thirds believe in miracles, half believe in angels, more than a fifth believe in witches.
  • But belief in the non-christian "para-normal" is also high - a third believe in UFOs, 4 in 10 believe in astrology and almost half believe in psychic powers.
  • 42% of Aussies believe in evolution without God, 32% believe in God-guided evolution and 23% believe God directly created life within the last 10,000 years.
  • Women believe in God, and almost everything else, more than men do.

What can we conclude? There are more strong disbelievers than there used to be, but belief in God and in religion seems as strong as ever, though more diverse. There seem to be fewer agnostics than I would have expected, and it seems we have polarised a little into the belief and non-belief groups. But Aussies seem to have become more individualistic in their faith, and perhaps prefer to choose their own "mix and match" beliefs rather than be told what they should believe, whether by religious leaders or scientific atheists.

And surely there is a lesson for the churches: emphasise Jesus more and adherence to rules less.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

do miracles occur? - practice

Arguing the philosophy of miracles is one thing, claiming to have observed them is another. And who better to report on healing miracles than qualified doctors? (See miracles happen for some background, and heart starting action for a well-reported example.)

The World Christian Doctors Network (WCDN) compiles case histories of apparent miracles, and presents them on its website, and at its annual conferences. It recently held its 2009 conference in Kiev, Ukraine.

Many cases of apparent miraculous healing were reported at the conference, including a documented case of an Australian man who had been given only a short time to live because of recurring skin cancer which had "metastasized" to his chest and lungs. But after attending a christian healing prayer meeting, "tumor regression started" and after further prayer his skin cancer disappeared, and a CT scan showed the lung cancer had gone as well.

The same Aussie doctor also told of how she had been revived after being "dead" for 45 minutes, an occurrence she regards as a miracle because she suffered no brain damage.

what are we to make of this?

For many christians, these stories are easily believed, but sceptics (which includes some christians) can always find reasons to disbelieve - perhaps the documentation is deemed inadequate, perhaps the event occurred but was a fortuitous but natural occurrence, or perhaps they just simply cannot believe because of their scepticism.

It seems to me that we have to at least accept that some miracles appear to have occurred, and resolutely maintaining that none of these events are actually miracles seems contrary to the evidence. But these events raise other questions, such as "if these miracles really did occur, why doesn't God do miracles happen more often?" I wish I knew the answer to that one!

Monday, 16 November 2009

do miracles occur? - theory

Some people believe in miracles, some believe they never happen.

Sceptics tend to quote philosopher David Hume, who argued that if someone tells us about an apparent miracle (an event that is contrary to the known laws of nature), it is always more likely that the person's testimony is doubtful than that the miracle actually happened. Thus, he argued, we can never be justified in believing the miracle occurred.

Sceptics often take this to mean that Hume showed that miracles cannot occur, but this isn't correct. If we regard Hume's argument as valid, it doesn't show that miracles cannot or do not occur, only that we cannot ever have sufficient reasons to believe they have - which is very different.

Hume's argument is assumed by some to have ended the matter, but philosophers are now much less inclined to think Hume got it right. Books such as John Earman's "Hume's Abject Failure" and "Hume, holism, and miracles" by David Johnson argue that Hume got it wrong, perhaps very badly wrong. Other philosophers argue that Hume's argument can be re-worked into a form that is still valid. But perhaps the general view, for example, as expressed in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, is that miracles are now an open question.

What is the basis for the arguments against Hume?

Richard Swinburne argues that we have many more means to test miracles these days than the simple personal testimony of a few alleged eyewitnesses as Hume seemed to assume. Thus it may not be likely that the evidence is unable to overcome the improbability of a miracle, especially if one is open-minded about the possibility of God existing.

Victor Reppert and Earman both use probability theory to show that Hume's claims are wrong. For example, if there are enough eye-witnesses to a supposed miracle, the probability of them all being mistaken can be shown mathematically to diminish to almost zero. (Reppert also points out that if Hume's argument is correct, we could never believe a newspaper report about a lottery winner because the probability of winning the lottery will always be less than the probability that the newspaper got it wrong!)

A related issue is whether science has proven miracles impossible, as some sceptics say. But the philosophers tell us that science has done no such thing. Science shows us what happens in the natural course of events, and cannot tell us whether God might interfere.

But even though the philosophers, in general, seem to maintain an open mind on the possibility of miracles, scientists and sceptics seem unwilling to admit even the possibility. For example, Carter Bancroft, Professor of Physiology and Biophysics, writes: "A central tenet of science (particularly of the physical sciences) holds that, at least since the Big Bang, a fundamental set of laws has governed the entire universe—no exceptions permitted." In other words, the laws of nature don't simply describe what normally happens, they describe what must happen, with no allowance for freely willed actions, by people or by God.

But then again, as Miracle Max said in "The Princess Bride": "Look who knows so much!"

Next post, do miracles occur? - practice.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

illegal immigration?

Photo: MorgueFile

For many years now, Australia has been the destination of "boat people" - refugees or would-be immigrants from troubled lands to the north and west. Decades ago they were from Vietnam, more recently from the Middle East, Afganistan and Sri Lanka.

And for the same period, debate has raged in Australia between those who want to keep out the "illegals", and those who want to offer help to people in distress. Elections have been fought over the issue, and opinions are highly polarised.

Take these two examples:

In favour of compassion

Recently my friend Russ presented on his blog, Out on a limb, a number of reasons in favour of treating refugees like humans, based on material prepared by GetUp!. It was presented in the form of myths about asylum seekers, which were:

Myth 1 – Australia takes in more than its fair share of asylum seekers

Australia's current intake is lower than average, below UN recommendations, and per capita only 20th (out of 44 countries considered) in the world.

Myth 2 – Boat people are swamping our shores

Only 10% of asylum seekers arrive by boat, most come by air. A greater percentage of boat arrivals are found to have valid reasons. Far more people overstay their visas illegally.

Myth 3 – the Government's changes in policy have made Australia a soft target

There is no evidence that changes in Government policy, either a "tougher" stance or a more lenient one, have made any significant difference to the numbers of arrivals. Rather, conditions in the countries of origin seem to be the main factor.

Myth 4 – Refugees are a burden on our economy

Refugees are an insignificant proportion of welfare payments and may assist the economy in providing expansion to the workforce.

Myth 5 – Boats are bringing terrorists to our shores

This is an unlikely route for terrorists. In the US, all immigrants involved in the World Trade Centre attacks arrived on visas.

Myth 6 – Asylum seekers are illegal immigrants

Seeking asylum is legal under Australian and international law to which Australia is a signatory. Whether they are allowed entry as genuine refugees is a matter for Australia to determine.

All this seems very reasonable and humane. On these facts, it would seem that Australia should be more generous to people in distress. Yet there is another side to the story.

In favour of a "stronger" policy

In a recent Sydney Morning Herald, journalist Paul Sheehan (Migration: the true story) argued that Australia is not a racist, inhumane or intolerant society:

1. The record high number of refugees admitted by the previous government did not generate significant public opposition.

2. Despite rising violence by militant Islamists around the world, the increase in Muslim numbers via legal channels in the past two decades has generated no meaningful political opposition.

3. Australia has a high number of foreign-born residents (almost 25%) and one of the world's largest per capita immigrants intakes, with the majority of arrivals being non-European.

4. It is more difficult to identify and check those people who arrive by boat than those who arrive by air and overstay their visas.

5. A recent spate of convictions for terrorist activity within Australia has largely involved people who came as immigrants.

6. The Tamil Tigers, from whom many recent arrivals originate, have received considerable support in Australia.

7. Australia can only accept a certain number of refugees without harm to economy, environment or social structure.

8. The present Government deploys a zero-sum refugee policy, so if boat arrivals are accepted, those who register to immigrate have to wait longer.

9. UN conventions on asylum seekers do not override Australian law.

10. Some would-be immigrants are demanding rights that do not exist under international law.

This too seems reasonable, if not so humane. Which story is true?

It seems likely that both sets of facts are true. In which case, the truth is very complex, and there are no easy answers. We want to help the unfortunate refugees, but we want to remain in control and be fair to others. There are arguments both ways, and the Australian Government and people will have to resolve them.

I am still a little inclined to the compassionate option. But we would all be better served if politicians on both sides spoke less like the "shock jocks" of talkback radio and gave us their considered assessments of these facts and the best possible compromise.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

mind and brain


What is our brain? What is consciousness?

These are tricky questions. Naturalists, who believe the physical world is all there is, don't have a simple answer. For we can distinguish between the physical brain processes which accompany an emotion like sadness (which neuroscience can measure), and the feeling of sadness (which science cannot measure, but which we experience). The experience is real, yet it isn't in any obvious sense physical.

The usual answer is that the mind and consciousness are emergent properties of the brain. They cannot exist without the brain (it is assumed) and they are thus anchored in the physical.

Neuroscience, and science generally, assumes naturalism. Even scientists who are non-naturalists (e.g. theists) work from the basis of methodological naturalism - a supernatural explanation is generally not acceptable as science. And methodological naturalism has reigned supreme in science, including neuroscience, for more than a century.

But some challenges to the naturalist view of neuroscience are appearing. One is the number of near death experiences (which I reported on in near death experiences - could they be real?) which seem to be unexplainable on naturalistic assumptions.

Another is the research of neuroscientist Dr Jeffrey Schwartz, whose study of brain dysfunction has yielded what he sees as unexpected results. Dr Schwartz has long experience in treating patients with obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD) using behavioural therapy, where the patient's behaviour is modified by their own will and discipline. In essence, when they feel compelled to do a particular action which is unnecessary, they, in a sense, "talk themselves out of it". This approach is recognised as a very useful means of dealing with OCD.

The unexpected result was that this therapy actually brought about a measurable change in the physical structure of their brains, in their neural pathways. It was a scientific case of "mind over matter" - non-physical thinking seems to have changed physical processes and structure.

All this is obviously welcome. However, Dr Schwartz has gone on to argue that these experiments demonstrate that the naturalist or materialist explanation of the brain/mind is clearly wrong, and a non-materialist explanation is required. This seems to entail some form of dualism. This of course is not acceptable to materialists. And so his views have copped criticism, e.g. from atheists like Austin Cline and PZ Myers.

I don't take too much notice of Myers on this - the vehemence of his critique is surely much more based on his preconceived metaphysics than on objective science. But despite searching, I haven't found any objective assessment of Schwartz's dualistic ideas, so while his therapy is well regarded, it is hard to know how his views on the non-material brain are being accepted.

I have also had little success finding out his religious (or otherwise) beliefs. He has signed the Discovery Institute's A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism, and his conclusions are well regarded by science journalist and author Denyse O'Leary, who is a christian. On the other hand, the only religious comment I have found from him is his comparison of his therapy with the Buddhist practice of mindfulness.

But regardless, metaphysics has again impinged on science, and the ensuing battle is likely to be more about the metaphysics than the science.

Read about Schwartz's book The Mind and the Brain, and a brief summary of his views from his website.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

wasted lives: the last deaths in World War 1

The so-called Great War has an awful fascination for me. Yes, so many men responded heroically under inhuman conditions. But many of these conditions were created by (in Sting's phrase) "corpulent generals, safe behind lines", who gave orders that brutally disregarded the lives of the men who served under them, and were often made regardless of the actual conditions, but based more on tradition and limited understanding of modern warfare.

And so Gallipoli, Passchendaele, the Somme and many other names have become part of our history and folklore, and testimony to military and political folly as well as human resilience and bravery, as millions died for no real gain.

That much I already knew. But I only learned of the even greater folly of the last days of the war in a recent BBC documentary, The Last Day of World War One.

The Allies and the Germans had been negotiating a cease-fire, virtually a German surrender, for several days. On the morning of the 11th November, 1918, between 5:00 and 6:00 am, the cease-fire was signed by both parties, to come into effect at 11:00 am - presumably to allow time for all field units to be notified. The generals knew about the imminent cease-fire hours beforehand.

Most field commanders stood their troops down, resting until the cease-fire, when they could safely leave their trenches. But, inexplicably, in a war characterised by enormous loss of life for very little gain in ground, some generals ordered their men to continue fighting, with continued loss of life. Incredibly, a total of 11,000 casualties (killed, wounded or missing) were sustained on Armistice Day, more than the casualties on D-Day in WW2.

Some of the stories are poignant, most show disregard for human life, all induce anger and grief.

  • The last British soldier to die was Private George Ellison, aged 40, who had survived more than 4 years of trench warfare, artillery bombardments, gas attacks, tanks, machine guns and snipers that had killed more than a million of his fellow Britishers, only to miss out on returning to his waiting wife and child by less than ninety minutes.
  • The last French soldier to die was Augustin Trebuchon, a runner bringing the message of the cease-fire to troops on the front line, just 15 minutes before it took effect.
  • Canadian Private George Lawrence Price was still fighting, needlessly chasing German soldiers from houses that they would be vacating after the cease-fire, and was shot with just 2 minutes of the remaining. (It may be that Price's death was the result, not of orders, but of reckless action by his patrol.)
  • And US soldier Henry Gunther participated in a charge on entrenched German positions. The Germans, knowing the cease-fire was imminent, waved the charging soldiers back, but they kept coming, and Gunther was shot just 1 minute before the end.
  • It appears that the last German soldier to die was shot after the armistice came into effect. Leutnant Tomas approached US soldiers after 11:00 to arrange the evacuation of his troops, but was shot because the US soldiers had not been informed of the cease-fire.

After the war, the reckless disregard of some US generals for the lives of their men was questioned:

  • General Wright's troops were exhausted and dirty, and hearing there were bathing facilities available in the nearby town of Stenay, he decided to take the town so his men could refresh themselves (a few hours earlier than could have occurred after the cease-fire). That "lunatic decision" cost something like 300 casualties.
  • Maj Gen Sumerall sent his troops out on one last attack across the Meuse River with these words: "I don’t expect to see any of you again, but that doesn’t matter. You have the honor of a definitive success–give yourself to that."
  • General Pershing, the US commander, thought the Allies should have pursued the Germans all the way to Berlin, to utterly defeat them, believing the Armistice would only pave the way for further conflict in the future as the Germans would not believe they were defeated. History suggests that it was the ignominy of the defeat that led in part to World war 2, suggesting Pershing's bellicose judgment was in error. But, ironically, one of the German soldiers who survived the war but may have been killed if Pershing had his way, was Corporal Adolf Hitler. Pershing was later questioned by a US Government committee about his decision to keep fighting right up to the Armistice, and he defended it on the grounds that he did not trust the Germans to surrender. (One would have thought that he could have waited to see, and dealt with that situation if it occurred.)

And so the terrible "war to end all wars" claimed its last unnecessary lives, truly a monument to human folly.

Private George Ellison, RIP. Photo: robk blog

Friday, 7 August 2009

sam harris - man of reason?

Sam Harris is rapidly making a name for himself - author of two books, outspoken atheist, critical of religion in the US, and now the founder of The Reason Project, a "nonprofit foundation devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society".

The project is definitely about the secular approach to reason, for which read "atheism", even militant atheism. Its advisory board includes a who's who of modern western militant atheism - Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, Grayling, Weinberg, Coyne, Atkins, Pinker, Venter, and a few who may be presumed to be anti-religion - Salman Rushdie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. With a cast like that, one expects intelligent, even intellectual content, and scathing attacks on religion and superstition.

But what sort of person is Sam, the main man?

Harris has a bachelor's degree in philosophy and is current researching for a PhD in neuroscience. Wikipedia reports that he follows some practices (mainly meditation and control of "self") of Buddhism and Hinduism, but of course he does not believe the spiritual or superstitious aspects of those religions. And he has some outspoken views. Here are a few I have gleaned from the web.

The starting point for any summary is his atheism and criticism of religion, especially as practiced in the US. He argues that all beliefs should be based on reason, but religious beliefs are based on dogma and are anti-reason. He says no sensible person can believe many doctrines of christianity, and if an individual made up such beliefs we would think them "mad". He believes there is a taboo against arguing against religious belief, which is given too much respect, and that modern western civilisation's survival is threatened by religion, especially militant Islam. (All this from Wikipedia.)

All this is pretty standard militant atheist rhetoric these days, but some other aspects of Harris's views are attracting more criticism.

  • In his book The End of Faith (page 52-53), he says: ”Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.” He has been much criticised for this, on the grounds that he is advocating killing people not for what they have done, but simply for what they believe. He claims he has been interpreted wrongly, but also argues that there is a strong link between belief and action, suggesting he really does mean what he says.
  • In a chapter on Islam in the same book he says that if Islamic nations develop long range nuclear weapons, "the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own". He says (somewhat contradictorily) this would be "an unthinkable crime" but also "it may be the only course of action available to us" and calls such a pre-emptive strike "an unconscionable act of self-defense".
  • Again in The End of Faith (p 199), Harris defends the use of torture, which "in certain circumstances, would seem to be not only permissible but necessary." He has copped a lot of criticism for this.
  • Harris is part of a growing movement among militant atheists to argue that science and faith are so opposed that it is not possible for a good scientist to be a believer. Thus he has joined a chorus of criticism of President Barack Obama's appointment of Francis Collins to a senior science post, not because anyone disputes Collins' scientific credentials, but because he believes that he can't be a true scientist while holding religious beliefs that cannot be verified by science.
  • In the same article, Harris suggests that it may be scientifically true that black Africans are less intelligent than other races, a view which has been labelled as both racist and scientifically in error.
  • These views lead him to be opposed to freedom of conscience in religious belief: "I hope to show that the very ideal of religious tolerance—born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God—is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss.” This too has drawn strong criticism even from his fellow atheists (e.g. Margaret Wertheim and Michael Shermer), who say his intolerance is as damaging as the religious fanaticism he opposes (Wikipedia).

Harris's critics also query his logic and his scientific basis, and some apparently contradictory statements.

  • His criticisms of religious belief as illogical and unproven seem inconsistent with his view of ethics: "the reliance on intuition, therefore, should be no more discomfiting for the ethicist than for the physicist." (EoF p. 183)
  • His embracing of some aspects of eastern religions, even the suggestion that "there may even be some credible evidence for reincarnation" (EoF p. 242) has been criticised by many.
  • Other critics argue that Harris doesn't apply scientific understanding in his criticisms of the harm done by religion ("scientifically baseless, psychologically uninformed, politically naïve, and counterproductive") and the motivations of suicide bombers (Harris's views are contradicted by research).

So those are some of the ideas of Sam Harris. They're perhaps less humanistic than one might expect and he seems to exhibit as much intolerance as reason. If I was an atheist, I wouldn't want Harris speaking on my behalf, but many people like him.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

the genesis enigma - and the andrew parker enigma

This story is a shocker, no matter how you look at it.

It has all the ingredients to get people going. One of the UK's top young research scientists, an evolutionary biologist from Oxford University, whose main area of research is in the evolution of sight and the eye. A well-received book on that subject, In the Blink of an Eye. A mild atheist. His name is Andrew Parker.

Then he comes out and blows everyone away by writing a book called "the Genesis Enigma: the Hidden Science of Creation". In the US the title appears to be "The Genesis Enigma: Why the Bible is scientifically accurate".

Of course the atheists are incensed. This interview in The Metro is hardly sympathetic, and the internet discussion boards are full of statements like: "It's sad that some people have this time bomb in their heads that, when presented with enough complexity, explodes and makes them think all sorts of craziness" and "It sounds as though Professor Parker found himself a pair of Bible goggles. Everything looks different when you look at the world through your Bible goggles." Angry disbelievers drew comparisons with Antony Flew, a recent high profile defection from atheism.

But hard-core creationist christians can't rejoice too much, because Parker is still a strong evolutionist, and said in the interview: "Creationism is totally unfounded. It is as dangerous as fundamentalism in other religions." And more moderate christians who believe in theistic evolution look a little askance because he seems to have no understanding of their carefully worked out rules for interpreting Genesis.

so what's the book all about?

I haven't read it, but it appears that Parker has started from orthodox evolutionary science (not something creationists do) and then found some interesting parallels in the Genesis account of creation, which he has interpreted rather liberally. But he concludes that:

"It appears that the author of the creation account had predicted precisely the true history of the earth and life. The Genesis Enigma will explain that no human could have constructed a creation story in this way, particularly in Biblical times."

So Parker, once "leaned toward being an atheist" but "that’s changed during the writing of this book" - "it’s the strongest evidence for the existence of God I’ve come across." But exactly what he believes isn't clear just yet - perhaps not even to him, as he seems to be still working out his conclusions.

Whatever you think of this conclusion, he is clearly a brave man who is driven by what he believes is the evidence. He won't be popular among his scientific colleagues.

The MailOnline has a sympathetic and constructively critical review of the book, which credits Parker's intelligence and credentials in evolutionary biology, but questions his finding such detailed evidence for evolution in Genesis.

I think we can learn a lot when established patterns are challenged. We can watch with interest, and perhaps a little trepidation, how this turns out.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

either you got faith or you got unbelief

"Either you got faith or you got unbelief" Bob Dylan, "Precious Angel"

A book recently released ("Losing my Religion: Unbelief in Australia" by Tom Frame) studies unbelief in Australia.

The book utilises census statistics on religious affiliation. Frame distinguishes between disbelief (a conscious rejection of belief) and unbelief (not so much a denial of God as an inability to believe in God). Frame suggests it is the latter who predominate in Australia at present, and for most of our history. He says that few Australians have deliberately rejected belief, most simply can't see why they need to be bothered with religion at all.

He is critical of the more militant on both sides of the debate: "Recent interactions between certain religious believers and unbelievers ..... have been remarkable for neither respect nor amity. I attribute the main sources of discord to conservative Protestants and positive atheists. Neither group seems able to accept the other's existence."

Frame recently spoke at a session on religion at the Sydney Writer's Festival. Here is one blogger's summary of what he had to say:

"Religion is not just about being religious; it explores the questions we all face: life, death, ethics/morality. In Australia, nearly 80% of the population believes in a divine entity, 63% define themselves as Christian, with 5% identifying as non-Christian religion or spirituality. So the big questions that are being asked in the public sphere are what does it mean to behave (with a community and within society more broadly). Church attendance (from 30% -> 4-5%) is not an indicator that people are no longer interested in religion; all organizations with an outward form of affiliation are in steady decline"

I think most of that we already knew, but the discussion of the issues by a sane and balanced writer is welcome.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

near death experiences - could they be real?

We've all heard of them - people who are clinically dead for a while but are then revived, and who report experiencing things which their dormant brain should not be able to experience. There seem to be two main types of these near death experiences (NDEs):

1. People report travelling down a tunnel of light to a peaceful place, where they are met by a loved one who has died or a religious figure such as Jesus. After a short time in this blessed environment, they are reluctantly sent back to "real life", are revived from clinical death, and remember the experience.

For example, in 1964 famous comedian and actor Peter Sellers had a series of heart attacks. While his doctor tried to revive him, Sellers reports that he saw an "incredibly beautiful bright loving white light above me". "I know there was love, real love, on the other side of the light which was attracting me so much. It was kind and loving and I remember thinking That's God."

Sellers saw a hand reach through the light, and then a voice said: "It's not time. Go back and finish. It's not time." He felt himself return to his body and he woke up.

2. People can report details of what was happening while they were unconscious and clinically dead. Sometimes they observe the room from above, as if they were floating near the ceiling.

A famous example of this is Pam Reynolds, whose story is particularly amazing. Pam had a brain operation that entailed the doctors inducing cardiac arrest, her eyes taped shut and 95 decibel speakers placed in her ear canals, and the blood drained from her head. Despite all this, Pam was subsequently able to recall many minor details of what occurred while she was in this state, including conversations by the staff and the music being played in the theatre. These details were all confirmed by medical staff.

are these experiences real?

There are of course both believers and sceptics. The sceptics say that these experiences cannot possibly be real; either the stories are unreliable, or the people weren't really dead, or the experiences are the result of lack of oxygen and increased carbon dioxide in the brain.

On the other hand, researchers such as Drs Edward and Emily Kelly of the University of Virginia and Sam Parnia of the Weill Cornell Medical Centre have investigated many reports and say that the sceptics' explanations are quite inadequate.

so ..... ?

It seems to me that we might more easily dismiss the stories of visits to "heaven" to meet God or dead loved ones. These stories are generally unverifiable, they often reveal very different and contradictory aspects of the after-life and God, and the sceptical explanations may be more plausible. Even so, it is impossible to totally dismiss them.

However the stories where patients are known to be clinically dead (as far as modern medical science can determine) and their accounts of events in the operating theatre can be verified, are not easily dismissed, and the sceptical "explanations" so far seem weak.

So, perhaps these accounts "prove" there is life after death, but more likely they show that we still don't understand the relationship between consciousness and the brain. Perhaps there is indeed more to consciousness than what physical science so far understands.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

the bible and modern science

I couldn't resist coming out of retirement for this.

The debate about religion vs science seems to be hotting up. In past centuries, many scientists were believers, and that is still true today. But those on the atheist side of science seem to be starting to press the point that science and religion don't mix, and that true scientists cannot hold religious beliefs because (they say) such beliefs are based on faith and not on reason. (Never mind that many believers offer reason-based explanations for their beliefs.)

An example of this is from fellow Aussie, Russell Blackford, in his blog Metaphysician and the Hellfire Club (great title!). In this post he claims that sacred writings like the Bible cannot be considered true in any sense because they don't contain accurate scientific information. He writes:

"if a god or angel or similar being has inspired the religion's poets and prophets, or dictated actual text for inclusion in its holy books, the god or angel (or whatever) could easily reveal such facts as the true age of the Earth, the fact that it revolves around the Sun, the fact that it is spherical and rotates on its axis, and the evolutionary origin of human beings."

This set my imagination running, as I envisaged Moses (about 1400BC and the traditional author of the first 5 books of the Bible) discussing science with his brother Aaron.

Moses: Hey Aaron, how do you spell "quark" in Hebrew?

Aaron: No idea. What do you want to know that for?

Moses: It's Yahweh again. Keeps telling all this strange stuff about strangeness and charm and spin, and quarks and gravitons and dark matter. I don't mind not understanding, but I need to know how to write this stuff down.

Aaron: Tell him we're just stone-age goat-herders living a subsistence existence, and you're the only one who can read and write. Ask Him for something simpler, like why does the sun rise every morning?

Moses goes away up Mt Sinai, and returns 3 days later.

Moses: He says the sun doesn't rise in the morning, its the earth moving.

Aaron: I've felt the earth move once or twice (snigger), but not usually in the morning!

Moses: Nothing like that bro', we live on a giant ball, and it goes round and round on its axis, and that makes the sun look like it's moving.

Aaron: What's a ball?

Moses: Dunno, bro', I asked him that and he started to talk about radii and something called a pie, and the number 3.1412, but then he said "forget it!" and muttered under his breath about next time I'll just say 3.

Aaron: Did he tell you anything else?

Moses: Two more things. One was that when he said we came from the dust of the ground he meant we had gradually evolved for billions of years.

Aaron: What's billions?

Moses: Dunno mate, but I think it's a number greater than two.

Aaron: What does evolved mean?

Moses: He says it actually took him more than 6 days to make all this. I told him I didn't really care how long he took, I wasn't in any hurry.

Aaron: What was the other thing you learnt?

Moses: He said that one day people would find it easier to believe all this came about by chance than believe in him. I said, no, I was willing to believe all the other crazy stuff about quarks and pie if He said so, but I couldn't come at that!

Aaron: What did he say then?

Moses: He said, let's start again. Just write this down: "In the beginning, God made the heavens and the earth" And I said, that's more like it, now you're talking my language! He just smiled and said, thanks.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

the last post?

Photo: Australian Government

I started this blog almost two years ago, as an experiment. I've made 150+ posts in two years, which is 1-2 per week. It's been fun, I've learnt a lot (both about blogging and from the research I've done to prepare the posts) and I've had some interesting comments.

But I think I've run my race. There are supposedly a hundred million blogs out there, so what distinguishes mine to make it interesting to anyone?

So this may be the last post. I will leave the blog online for a while, because people still find their way to it from the search engines, and because it contans some information useful to me. And if something moves me enough, I may post on it. But don't hold your breath.

So if anyone reads this, and for those who've visited over the two years, thanks for reading and best wishes.