Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Conor Cunningham and Darwinism

Philosopher and theologian, Conor Cunningham, argues that Darwinism is consistent with Christianity. His argument is that the Biblical account of the creation of man in Genesis, is merely allegorical, and that it was traditional amongst the Founding Fathers of the Christian church not to interpret Genesis literally. Augustine, he claims, would not have been perturbed were he to have known about Darwinian evolution.

Cunningham, however, seems to have missed a crucial point. Darwin’s account of the origin of mankind not only refuted the literal Biblical account, it also refutes the belief that God is responsible for the existence of mankind. Evolution by natural selection is not a deterministic process, hence unless one postulates that the universe is deterministic on a lower level than that at which evolutionary biology operates (a postulate which quantum theory renders problematic), the evolution of humanity by natural selection entails that the existence of humanity is a matter of pure chance; the existence of humanity is a contingent property of the universe, something which might not have happened at all.

Hence, Darwinian evolution is inconsistent with the essential Christian belief that God is responsible for the existence of mankind.

The Wire and Jana Bennett

The Wire has been widely feted by critics as the greatest show on television. Hence, now that the BBC have acquired the UK terrestrial broadcasting rights, they've scheduled the show in a graveyard slot on its secondary channel, BBC2.

Congratulations must go to Jana Bennett, the 'Director of Vision' at the BBC, who, whilst not directly responsible for scheduling, reputedly has "overall creative and leadership responsibility" at the Beeb.

According to the BBC Press Office, "Jana's time at the helm of BBC TV has seen the emergence of ground-breaking cross-genre, channel and platform events such as Africa Lives; The Big Read; Great Britons; Dunkirk; Springwatch and Flashmob."

Platform events?

Jana is an OBE, so I presume she must have made a unique and indispensable contribution to society. Perhaps she found a cure to some disease, or maybe she's spent countless years of selfless toil working in an Aids hospice in Africa. Whatever, I'm sure one can't just acquire an OBE by working in something as trivial as television administration.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Vettel's penalty and concepts of justice

There was no reason to expect that the FIA stewards would have suddenly discovered wisdom over the winter. Nevertheless, it comes as a disappointment to see those negative expectations vindicated so swiftly.

Sebastian Vettel has been judged culpable, and duly sentenced to a 10-place grid penalty at the next Grand Prix, for his accident with Robert Kubica in the closing stages of today's Australian Grand Prix. One could dispute whether Vettel was fully responsible for the accident, but this is hardly the point. For two drivers fighting over second place late in a Grand Prix, and for what was generally thought to be a 'racing accident', without any deliberate intent, the very notion that the FIA stewards are qualified to pass judgement and issue a penalty, is, to use the language with which such non-entities operate, 'wholly inappropriate'. The penalty issued might be considered absurdly draconian, were it not for the substantial precedent already established by the FIA stewards on the subject of 'avoidable collisions'.

In general terms, there are three possible components to the justification of punitive justice: (i) Retribution, (ii) Reform, and (iii) Deterrence. Consider, then, whether any one of these components can be used to justify the punishment meted out to Vettel:

(i) Retribution. Both Vettel and Kubica retired as a consequence of their collision. Vettel therefore gained no advantage. There was no requirement for the FIA stewards to intervene in order to balance out the scales of justice here.

(ii) Reform. Vettel, if truly responsible for the accident, committed little more than an instantaneous, inadvertent error of judgement. There is no form of punishment, never mind a ten-place grid penalty, which will eliminate small and honest human error. If drivers become less error-prone over the course of a career, it is as a result of experience, not as a result of being victimised by punitive administrators.

(iii) Deterrence. Overtaking is difficult enough as it is. The FIA claims that it wants to encourage racing and overtaking, and has forced the teams to substantially modify the aerodynamics of their cars this year to that very end. Yet the meting-out of penalties whenever a racing accident occurs, does nothing more than deter the drivers from engaging in genuine wheel-to-wheel racing.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Failing to diffuse the situation

You have to admire the evil genius of Max and Bernie.

After instigating an attempt to undermine the unity of the Formula One Teams' Association (FOTA) with a voluntary budget cap of £30 million from 2010 - a measure cloaked by the confusion over this year's points-scoring system - Max has opportunistically utilised a vital ambiguity in the new technical regulations to sow further seeds of division.

Three of the teams, Williams, Toyota and Brawn, have taller diffusers at the rear of their cars. Diffusers, in motorsport parlance, are the upswept trailing edges of the underside of the cars, situated between the rear wheels. They generate a significant proportion of the downforce created at the rear of the car, and the regulations which govern their dimensions have been changed this year. The three aforementioned teams have exploited an ambiguity in those regulations to employ taller diffusers, which generate more downforce.

These diffusers were protested at scrutineering on Thursday for the opening race of the season, the Australian Grand Prix, but the stewards of the meeting rejected the protests. The matter will now proceed to the International Court of Appeal, which will pass a retrospective judgement on the legality of the Williams, Toyota and Brawn cars in the opening races of the season. Red Bull have already been moved to claim in public that there is effectively one race for the 'diffuser-gang', and another race for the others.

Formula 1 correspondent for The Times, the excellent Ed Gorman reports on his blog:

I would say the Formula One paddock has never been so frenetic in terms of the sporting side, the political and the poisonous. It has been crazy and difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff. My guess is the "diffuser 3" will for "political reasons" and "Formula One financial reasons" and as part of the mission by the two most powerful people in the sport to destroy Fota, win their case. The others might as well give up now and start re-designing the back end of their cars.

However, pace Gorman, the crucial fact about the diffuser controversy is that Max has already sown the seeds of division between the teams, irrespective of the outcome from the International Court of Appeal. Such a technical dispute would normally have been settled by a rule clarification prior to the season, (despite what Max says). By allowing some teams to start the season with the more voluminous diffusers, and some without, any retrospective decision by the Court of Appeal is guaranteed to benefit some teams and penalise others.

If the Court of Appeal judges the larger diffusers to be illegal, and retrospectively strips victory in the opening races from the 'diffuser-gang', that might actually suit Max and Bernie's agenda much better. Williams and Team Brawn, at least, would likely feel most aggrieved at the other teams for protesting them, and would be more likely to splinter from FOTA. Straight into the waiting hands of Max and Bernie.


It's rational to believe that irrationality is an ineliminable aspect of human mentality. As the consistently superb Paul Broks puts it,

The capacity to hold rational thoughts alongside irrational intuitions is part of the mind's design. Even if we deny belief in the supernatural - in ghosts, say, or astrology - we are all inclined towards magical thinking and superstition. It's a frame of mind that one direction opens out to a dream world of myth and imagination and the other leads to practical creativity in the arts and sciences. The dark side is mental illness.

Psychologist Bruce Hood claims in his recent book Supersense, that such irrationality has evolved by natural selection, by virtue of contributing to our survival at some point in the past. This is a viable hypothesis, although, as Michael Brooks points out in his New Scientist review, not necessarily one which is supported by any solid evidence as yet. However, Hood also appears to extrude the following philosophically flimsy argument from this hypothesis:

There are good, scientific reasons why religion won't disappear...Spiritual thinking is not about being simple-minded or stupid it's about being human. We are, [Hood] suggests, "a sacred species"...Our supersense gives us sacred values, and our sacred values create taboos. Taboos, in turn, provide a means for group cohesion. "Irrationality makes our beliefs rational because these beliefs hold society together," Hood says. If hardened sceptics were to accept that irrationality is, well, rational insofar as it serves to hold societies together, that would constitute an important step toward a more tolerant and unified society.

The first error here lies in the conflation of the irrational with the sacred. There are many types of irrationality, some of which are necessary to maintain personal relationships and social cohesion, but which don't involve the religious type of sacred belief. Socially-cohesive irrationality may well involve holding certain things as sacred in the sense that they are held in great reverence, but without involving the religious notion of the sacred, which explicitly requires belief in the supernatural.

Secondly, the religiously sacred brand of irrationality is demonstrably unnecessary for social cohesion. There are, for example, numerous non-religious, professional or collegiate groups, such as doctors, trades unions, and soldiers, which are not bound together by a shared belief in the sacred or supernatural, but simply by shared interests and experiences. Moreover, the existence of socially cohesive secular European states attests to the socially superfluous nature of religiously sacred belief.

Thirdly, the religiously sacred strain of irrationality is demonstrably insufficient to promote social cohesion. For example, the notoriously religious United States is beset with much higher levels of violence and homicide than secular Europe; that's hardly a great advert for the socially cohesive power of religion.

Finally, even if it is acknowledged that there are circumstances under which religiously sacred beliefs do promote greater social cohesion, such as that to be found within the Islamic theocracies which spawned Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah, the existence of religiously-driven social cohesion seems to promote a vicious in-group/out-group mentality which leads to inter-group conflict. In this respect, it is perhaps no coincidence that the notoriously religious United States is also the notoriously war-mongering United States.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Voiding the issue

There's a nice article by Timothy Clifton and Pablo Ferreira in the April issue of Scientific American, on the possibility that we inhabit a comparative void in the universe.

A decade ago, observations of distant supernovae found that for a given redshift, the supernovae were dimmer than expected. This suggested that the supernovae must be further away than expected, which, in turn, entailed that their light must have taken longer to reach us than expected for their redshift. Assuming a spatially homogeneous distribution of matter, this implied that the universe must have taken longer to reach its present size than it would have if the expansion rate had never been slower in the past. Hence, it was concluded that the expansion rate must be getting faster.

This apparent acceleration in the expansion of the universe has typically been explained by postulating the presence of gravitationally repulsive 'dark energy'. However, it could also potentially be explained if we inhabit a region of lower-than-average matter density in the universe. Regions of lower-than-average density expand faster than denser regions, hence the light entering an under-dense region will experience an increasing redshift which mimics the effect of a universe whose expansion is accelerating. As Clifton and Ferreira put it:

Light traveling a given distance is redshifted by less than it would be if the whole universe expanded at our local rate. Conversely, to achieve a certain redshift in such a universe, the light has to travel a greater distance than it would in a uniformly expanding universe, in which case the supernova has to be farther away and therefore appear dimmer.

Whilst the supernovae observations which support the notion of accelerative expansion extend out to billions of light years, observations of the distribution of galaxies only extend out to hundreds of millions of light years. Hence, although the distribution of galaxies might look homogeneous on the length-scales hitherto observed, it may be that the universe is inhomogeneous on longer length-scales. This potentially challenges the Copernican Principle, which assumes that our perspective upon the universe is typical.

Clifton and Ferreira also provide an accurate, concise explanation of an intriguing foundational problem in general relativistic cosmology, which might explain the apparent observation of accelerative expansion:

Another possibility is that dark energy is an artifact of the mathematical approximations that cosmologists routinely use. To calculate the cosmic expansion rate, we typically count up how much matter a region of space contains, divide by the volume of the region and arrive at the average energy density. We then insert this average density into Einstein's equations for gravity and determine the averaged expansion rate of the universe. Although the density varies from place to place, we treat this scatter as small fluctuations about the overall average.

The problem is that solving Einstein's equations for an averaged matter distribution is not the same as solving for the real matter distribution and then averaging the resulting geometry. In other words, we average and then solve, when really we should solve and then average.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Not Achille Varzi

Achille Varzi, unarguably one of the great names in the history of motorsport, is not unarguably most famous for what he didn't achieve. On the 1930 Mille Miglia, his great rival, the hugely popular and charismatic Tazio Nuvolari, "was comfortably leading the race but was still behind Varzi (holder of provisional second position) on the road. In the dim half light of early dawn Nuvolari tailed Varzi with his headlights off, thereby not being visible in the latter's rear-view mirrors. He then overtook Varzi on the straight roads approaching the finish at Brescia, by pulling alongside and flicking his headlights on."

Achille C. Varzi, Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, is not unrelated to the former racing driver, is not unknown for specialising in the philosophy of holes, and did not refrain from writing a negative biographic sketch of himself.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Oh ye of little faith!

Has Rafa Benitez had some sort of footballing epiphany? After 5 years of domestic form ranging from the insipid to the inconsistent, Liverpool spent the early weeks of this year squandering a valuable lead over Manchester United in the Premiership. After defeat to Middlesborough on the final day of February, it looked all over, Man. Utd 7 points in front with a game in hand.

Then something happened. Despite defeating Real Madrid by a single goal in the first leg of their Champions' League encounter, Benitez was criticised in the Spanish press for his team's excessively cautious and boring style of play. Since then, the results have gone:

10/03: Liverpool 4 Real Madrid 0
14/03: Man. Utd 1 Liverpool 4
22/03: Liverpool 5 Aston Villa 0

The speed, power and dexterity of the play against Real Madrid was electrifying, the most impressive Liverpool performance since the days of Roy Evans, and perhaps even since the days of Dalglish. Liverpool simply devastated the most famous team in the world.

Then, last Saturday, Liverpool adjusted to cope with the pre-match loss of two key players, came back from conceding an early goal, and proceeded to thoroughly humiliate Manchester United at Old Trafford: "Ferguson, standing on the touchline in a coat reminiscent of Michael Foot, had the legs cut from under him and took to twitching from a seat in the dugout," whilst Wayne Rooney was reduced to an arm-whirling figure of anger and despair.

Things didn't go well for Wayne this weekend either, and it may be that his head will literally explode with anger, live on TV, at some stage between now and the end of the season.

Liverpool routed Aston Villa today to move to within 1 point of Man. Utd, and for the first time, Rafa Benitez now appears to be capable of winning the Premiership. Whether or not it really was the criticism in the Spanish media which did it, it seems that Benitez has suddenly grasped the fact that you need to play attacking, and often direct, football to win the Premiership.

It's been a long time coming, Rafa, but long may it continue.


In the hushed, reverential tones normally reserved for the passing away of royalty, it was announced on the radio this morning that Jade Goody had died. On Mother's Day.

Jade represented the celebration of vulgarity, stupidity and ignorance in modern Western society. Those who share those characteristics empathised with her to varying degrees, and vicariously experienced her tragedy and suffering.

The decision to use Jade's cancer and death as a revenue stream for her children, is considered by many to provide sufficient justification for this public spectacle, and to place it beyond reproach or satire. On the contrary, the extension of exhibitionism to one's own death throes strips death of any sanctity, and drags it through the profanity of tabloid journalism and the prurient fascination of the public. This has been a disgusting spectacle.

Max Clifford sold his own soul for money a long time ago. This time he sold someone else's soul.

Today I feel sympathy for all those unknown millions who have died from cancer, with dignity, whose pain and tragedy was just as keen, but whose stories are known only in private to their friends and family.

Comedy at the BBC

From the BBC's ubiquitous use of Horne and Corden in their various heavy-duty publicity campaigns, one can only presume that the corporation considers this modern comedy due to be representative of the overall quality of BBC's programme output.

I can only agree. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that Horne and Corden have exactly the same amount of talent, and are exactly as funny, as Catherine Tate.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Templeton Prize won by epistemic structural realist

The Templeton Prize for 2009, worth a cool £1 million, has been awarded to French philosopher of physics, Bernard d'Espagnat.

D'Espagnat accepts that there is a world which exists independently of experience, observation, and measurement, and in philosophical terms he is therefore a realist. He believes, however, that whilst science enables us to "glimpse some basic structures of...reality," it cannot provide complete knowledge of the world which exists beyond the empirical data; rather, it is a 'veiled' reality. D'Espagnat therefore endorses a version of what is referred to in modern philosophy of science as epistemic structural realism. (In contrast, an ontic structural realist holds that the structure of reality is the only thing which exists).

In theological terms, D'Espagnat's epistemological structural realism then enables him to advocate a pantheistic, noumenal concept of God. In other words, God is equated with the noumenal world, the unknowable world beyond our empirical experience and observation. Such a proposal is distinct from pantheistic notions which equate God with the natural world, because D'Espagnat relegates the natural world - the world of space, time and matter - to what Kant referred to as the 'phenomenal' world, the world produced by the modus operandi of our minds upon the noumenal world.

Last year's winner of the Templeton Prize, Michael Heller, can perhaps be classified as an ontic structural realist, hence it seems that all the philosophical bases are being covered here.

New Scientist's very own embedded philosopher of physics, Amanda Gefter, concludes:

It would be nonsensical to paint [D'Espagnat's God] with the figure of a personal God or attribute to it specific concerns or commandments.

The 'veiled reality', then, can in no way help Christians or Muslims or Jews or anyone else rationalise their specific beliefs. The Templeton Foundation – despite being headed up by John Templeton Jr, an evangelical Christian – claims to afford no bias to any particular religion, and by awarding their prize to d'Espagnat, I think they've proven that to be true.

I happen to believe that drawing any spiritual conclusions from quantum mechanics is an unfounded leap in logic – but if someone out there in the world is willing to pay someone £1 million for pondering the nature of reality, that's a world I'm happy to live in.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Dr Karl

What is belly-button fluff?
Why do whales get beached?
Why is there something rather than nothing?
What would the effect have been if this week's near-miss asteroid had hit the Earth?
Can you be scared to death?
How can people be heard simply by the expulsion of air?
Why does scratching an itch relieve it?
What's the cleanest fuel to heat the home?
What causes people to lisp?
Does dry air increase static shocks?
Can you overdose on garlic?

The massively erudite and urbane Dr Karl is on sublime form this week. Catch him here on Radio 5's Up all Night, between hours 2 and 3, or here on the podcast.

It's a genuine tour de force of popular science.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

A philosophy of danger

The post-war years in the Western world have featured a general drive to reduce the incidence of accidental injuries and deaths in society. This drive falls under the notorious aegis of Health and Safety.

There are some, however, who have resisted, and continue to resist this drive towards ever higher levels of safety. Those who work within the Health and Safety industry, (the true acolytes, if you like), believe that such people simply haven't thought things through properly. Consequently, they think that a neglect of safety can be remedied by greater Health and Safety education. In particular, the Health and Safety people believe that the deviants can be reformed by showing them the suffering experienced by people who have been involved in nasty accidents, or the grief of those left behind by the deceased.

There is, however, a logical flaw behind this Health and Safety evangelicanism: It is consistent to appreciate that accidental injuries and deaths are bad things, which we don't want to happen, and which we regret, or feel remorse towards when they do occur, without entailing that laws and regulations should be introduced to reduce the incidence of such injuries and deaths.

The Health and Safety community make the following inference:

Accidental injuries and deaths are bad things, therefore they shouldn't be permitted to happen.

Whilst the premise of this inference is a negative evaluative statement, the conclusion is a proscriptive statement. The Health and Safety community implicitly rely, therefore, upon the following assumption:

A negative value judgement entails proscription.

Or, in more colloquial terms:

Bad things shouldn't be permitted to happen.

Can this assumption be justified? As a general proposition, I'd argue that it cannot, that it leads to contradiction for the following reason:

Some bad things are a necessary by-product of things which are, on the whole, good.

If some bad things are a necessary by-product of good things, then stopping those bad things requires stopping the good things, and if stopping a good thing is considered to be a bad thing, it follows that stopping a bad thing requires one to do a bad thing, contradicting the initial assumption that bad things shouldn't be permitted to happen.

So the general proposition doesn't work, and one could certainly argue that it is a good thing for the people in a society to encounter some degree of danger, risk and fear in their lives. Successfully negotiating danger and risk, and conquering fear, is a necessary part of healthy human development; it helps us to appreciate being alive. The inevitable by-product, however, is that some people will get injured, or even killed, in accidents.

Whilst the general proposition doesn't work then, how should danger and risk be handled on a case-by-case basis? This is where Health and Safety wins, because one can only compare the intense suffering and grief that results from each type of accident to the negligible damage caused to society as a whole by reducing the frequency of the circumstances which sometimes lead to those accidents. For this reason, one can't argue against Health and Safety on a case-by-case basis. The cumulative, long-term effect, however, is to produce a neurotic, excessively risk-averse society.