Teacher, feminist, krautrock connoisseur, anime enthusiast, player of video games, occasional modder, intermittent blogger

His Dark Materials

It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors. Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital. When critics disagree the artist is in accord with himself.
- Oscar Wilde

Philip Pullman once remarked that he was surprised that the Christian right had taken so little notice of his trilogy. That seems to have changed with the release of the cinematic version of the first volume, and recently I've been reading various reviews and interviews that I've found around the internet. And a better illustration of Wilde's dictum I can't imagine.

Pretty much the only thing that's certain is that Pullman regards himself as an atheist, and considers his novel as an attack on organised religion, and Christianity in particular. Anything more than that is unclear. While some avowed Christians believe that Pullman is teaching children to kill God, and that His Dark Materials is evil, others—most notably the Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Church of England, Dr Rowan Williams—think that the novel(s) should be read by everyone. I've even heard it called 'a Christian classic', with some believing that, while Pullman thinks he is attacking Christianity, he is inadvertently upholding its principles. Many materialists and atheists have embraced the work as being 'anti-Narnia'; yet others—myself included—have been mildly confused as to why everyone thinks the novel is so materialist: it rather seems dualist, since everyone in Lyra's world has a dæmon, effectively an embodiment of the soul. Pullman's response: you don't have to be an emergent materialist to be a materialist.

Maybe you do, maybe you don't. But while some have called for a boycott of the film, others have criticised it for pulling too many punches—for not bashing God enough (for example, the tyrannical Magisterium is never referred to as 'the Church', as it is in the novel).

There are altogether too many critics, too many bandwagons, too many agendas: blissful ignorance is not an option, then, for anyone with a modicum of intelligence. Less antagonistically, I mean to say that the books are causing such controversy that you owe it to yourself to ignore everything you've heard, read them, and find out what the fuss is about. Just remember that, as Wilde said, art mirrors the spectator, not reality.

Leaps of faith

There’s been some discussion on the Dilbert Blog about whether sceptics and believers require the same leap of faith. For example, here's a comment from Omar:
It does require faith to believe in both the existence AND non existence of God. And by faith here, I mean a leap from the place were the evidence ends, to the place where you draw the conclusion.

I think that there IS an important difference here. Basically, claiming that God does not exist is inductive, whereas it may be argued that claiming that God does exist involves a leap of faith. Let’s have some explanation of a couple of terms before we go on.

Deductive means that the conclusion of an argument is necessitated by the premises, as in the typical syllogism:

  • All men are mortal;
  • Socrates is a man;
  • therefore
  • Socrates is mortal.

Induction is an argument in which the premises of support the conclusion but do not ensure it, such as:

  • All observed crows are black;
  • therefore
  • All crows are black.

Generally, a careful sceptic will make an inductive argument about the existence of God, something like this:

  • No evidence of the existence of God has been observed;
  • therefore
  • God does not exist.

Note that this is not a deductive proof of the non-existence of God. It does not exclude the possibility of some future proof, but it does take current evidence and base a generalisation on it. The typical response of a modern Christian believer is that belief in God does not require proof, but faith, and no amount of ‘missing’ evidence can disprove anything, let alone God. These two positions can coexist with little more trouble than the usual tension between believer and non-believer: on the basis of the lack of evidence the sceptic sees no reasonable grounds to believe, while the believer claims that ‘reasonable grounds’ are not the point.

Less sophisticated believers and sceptics will make more ‘aggressive’ statements which have absolutely no validity, such as saying that no proof of God constitutes a disproof, or that since there is no disproof, that constitutes some kind of proof. It would be wrong, however, to think that either of these positions require a ‘leap of faith’, since that would be synonymous with ‘faulty logic’ here. A ‘leap of faith’ happens elsewhere.

Going back to the more sophisticated positions, it may be true, as Omar suggests, that faith begins where evidence ends. An inductive argument about all crows being black may require faith in the sense that it assumes that all the non-observed crows will be similar to the observed crows. But one should be careful talking about ‘faith’ here, since the word has far wider religious connotations, and conflating faith based on evidence and faith based on belief would seriously muddy the waters of discussion.

The inductive argument cannot be said to require a ‘leap’ either, although we can still distinguish between strong and weak induction, an example of the latter being as follows:

  • I always hang pictures on nails;
  • therefore
  • All pictures hang from nails.

That may well involve a ‘leap’, but it is still based on evidence, and is as such inductive rather than faith-based.

The believer, on the other hand, makes a leap of faith because they believe regardless of the evidence. They may well describe their faith as precisely ignoring the lack of evidence, such as saying that God wants you to believe freely with an open heart, rather than requiring some qualified evidence-based belief.

Both positions may arguably be valid, but they do not require the same ‘faith’ or the same ‘leap’.

It might be, however, that a believer may base their belief on a different kind of evidence (the evidence of the heart, for want of a better way of expressing it). And if that is the case, then they might also claim that their belief does not require a leap of faith, because to them it is self-evident. Asking a sceptic to take their word for it and therefore to believe, would be asking the sceptic to make a leap of faith, which no sceptic would be prepared to do. In fact, rather than saying that both sceptics and believers have to make a leap of faith, I’d be tempted to argue that neither do.


God's own truth

Oh no, another long comment from the Dilbert Blog. This time the topic is the errors and inconsistencies in the Bible, and people who believe that the Bible is the literal word of God.

I didn’t read through all the comments posted over there, but what I did read was more worrying than the original topic. Why would anyone want to argue that the errors in the Bible prove that it’s all a load of rubbish? And why would anyone want to say that any books discussing the same errors are just a liberal (not a dirty word in Europe, btw) attempt to undermine Bush’s voters? None of this has anything to do with the point.

The fact that there are errors in the Bible is, quite frankly, passé. It should be utterly uncontroversial. There are whole sections missing from what most people now consider the definitive versions, namely the Apocrypha. These were once considered as much a part of the text as the current canon, but were edited out at a later date because they seemed inconsistent - in fact, they were included in the earliest versions of the King James Bible. There are entire disciplines of scriptural study looking into the origin, consistency and meaning of the Bible. For example, religious scholars have for centuries concerned themselves with hermeneutics:
The rationalist Enlightenment led hermeneuts, especially Protestant exegetes, to view Scriptural texts as secular Classical texts were viewed. Scripture thus was interpreted as responses to historical or social forces, so that apparent contradictions and difficult passages in the New Testament, for example, might be clarified by comparing their possible meanings with contemporaneous Christian practices.

So there is nothing new about any of this. After all, The King James Bible is a English translation. And if a text is translated, say, from English into German, and then back again, the new English text will contain countless discrepancies from the original source. It is factually impossible to regard the Bible as the literal word of God when what we mean by ‘The Bible’ is an English-language translation, the standard version of which dates from more than 1,500 years after Christ is supposed to have died.

As far as I know, Muslims do believe that the Koran is the word of God, and accordingly any translation is merely a stepping-stone to the real thing. And again, as far as I know, they have a proof, and a test - the language is supposed to be so beautiful that it could not have been written by humans, and there is a age-old challenge to disbelievers to write something more beautiful. For better or for worse, the Bible has never been like that, and even less so since Martin Luther made the translation of the Bible into the ‘common’ language one of the defining points of Protestantism (and how many of you Catholics have a Latin or Greek Bible at home?).

What I’m getting at is that no-one with any awareness of the study of scripture would find anything here to get fired up about. Pointing out that there are errors and inconsistencies in the Bible should make absolutely no difference to a believer’s faith, any more than a list of clumsy sentences by Shakespeare would undermine the fact that he was the greatest writer of English to have ever lived.

I’m reminded of a song on an embarrassing CD that I own. It has the inspired lyric, “I keep my Bible in a bucket of blood so that I don’t get corrupted by its lies.” It struck me when I first heard it that the only people to get quite so angry about the Bible are fundamentalists and Heavy-Metal singers. They mutually offend each other, the Bible being kicked back and forth like a football, only neither side scores a goal, because both sides miss the point. The Bible is above all this, as a text, as an object of faith, as a means to God. I’m not religious, but it seems clear to me that reducing it to the mere words on the page, for whatever reason - either for their truth or their falsity - is to bend it to someone’s will, rather than letting it speak for itself.

I’ll end with a little thought-experiment, in the form of a quotation from that favourite fundamentalist scapegoat, Marilyn Manson: “Do you love your guns? God? Government?” Look at that list carefully: if you see nothing offensive in the associations being made, and no actual criticism of the Bible itself, then there there’s hope (he says patronisingly). But then, you probably couldn’t see what all the fuss was about with the errors in the Bible, either.

Free Will and Determinism

Been a while since I posted anything on The Dilbert Blog, but today’s topic got me going, so here you are: a typical Matt rant.

Here’s my take on the whole free will thing, for what it’s worth. And I’m going to start by talking about Leibnitz.

Leibnitz’s view of cause and effect is that they are, in themselves, unconnected. What we call a cause does not lead to what we, with our teleological world-view, call an effect. They are simply events, occurrences. What holds these two things together, according to Leibnitz, is God, who has created a pre-established harmony between all things. Here's an example from Wikipedia:
An apple falls on Alice's head, apparently causing the experience of pain in her mind. In fact, the apple does not cause the pain - the pain is caused by some previous state of Alice's mind. If Alice then seems to shake her hand in anger, it is not actually her mind that causes this, but some previous state of her hand.

I mention this for couple of reasons. Firstly, to illustrate cause and effect may not be as simple as most people assume. The statement ‘X causes Y’ makes assumptions about the nature of the world, and those assumptions may be substituted for others - indeed, with no difference to what we see in the world around us. I will still associate the apple falling on my head with pain - all I must do is discard the notion that the apple ‘causes’ the pain.

Secondly, Leibnitz ascribes the actual relationship between a supposed cause and effect to God. While this may seem somewhat preposterous with the example of the apple, most everyone in the Christian world (I can’t vouch for the others) is perfectly familiar with this concept. ‘God moves in mysterious ways’, we say, meaning that some event cannot be understood by our usual appeals to ‘simple’ cause and effect, or indeed free will. It’s a form of shorthand for explaining how some absurdly fortuitous event came to take place - how, out of the multitude of possibilities, the right person seemed to be in the right place at the right time for the right thing to happen to them. This common phrase simply means that a certain series of causes and events seems best understood as have been aligned by God. And of course, this is not dissimilar from the whole Intelligent Design argument (don’t worry, we won’t be going there).

If we think about the example with the apple, the same explanation can easily be applied - the wrong person was in the wrong place at the wrong time for the wrong thing to happen to them. But this too can easily become ‘the right thing’ - Alice is knocked unconscious by the falling apple, then falls in love with the nurse who tends to her. A seemingly bad series of events leads to a good result, and the best explanation we can offer is those mysterious ways of God.

Now my point here is not that I think that God is responsible for a pre-established harmony, but rather that there is, if we look closely, something indefinable - mysterious - about cause and effect, in particular in how it relates to our lives. We have a very localised common-sense understanding of cause and effect - the apple causes the pain - but the moment we start to look further afield - to the wind blowing, causing the ripe apple to fall, hitting Alice on the head when she only paused under the tree to tie her shoelace which had just come undone - that common sense understanding of cause and effect begins to break down into something which we generally struggle to understand. Leibnitz, and the familiar phrase mentioned above, called that indefinability ‘God’. The essence of Leibnitz’s argument about pre-established harmony is taking this oddness of wider, less-localised causality, and applying it to supposedly ‘simple’ causality - in effect saying, ‘There’s no such thing as simple causality - we can’t even understand why an apple falling on a head causes pain!’

In the discussion about free will and cause and effect, this is the level at which we have to pitch the argument. ‘X causes Y’ it isn’t; you’ll get a better idea of the problems and implications of causality if you remember the notion that ‘God moves in mysterious ways’.

Someone might object that Alice chose to bend down under that tree and tie her shoelace, but how do we know? What does ‘choice’ mean? A proponent of the determinism (such as me, I guess) would say that she thought she chose, meaning that she was unable to see the near-infinite complex of causes which led to that action. That complex of causes is mysterious, indefinable and imperceptible to our human perception of the world, and in everyday parlance we are happy to call it ‘choice’, or to ascribe purpose to God. But these are short-hands for our limited perspective sensing something it cannot grasp, and seeking to describe it.

Free will, in its common everyday usage, is no better than ‘choice’, in my view. It is simply a (natural) inability to understand the wider causes and effects. We ascribe it to ourselves, as the ‘highest’ intelligence we are aware of, and are sceptical of applying it to supposedly ‘lower’ life-forms, whose determinism we think we understand. But I’m sure that in some way a cat ‘thinks’ it's thinking, thinks it has free will - from its own perspective - and most likely ascribes the same level of intelligence to us. The late, brilliant, Douglas Adams supposed than mankind was only the third most intelligent species on the planet; naturally, the more intelligent species (dolphins and mice) were aware that humans were less intelligent, but humans were unaware of the fact - assuming themselves to the the only intelligent creatures, and the only ones with free-will.

What I’m getting at is that the idea of free-will stems from the limits of our own perception of cause and effect. We conceive of ourselves as having free-will, but a creature more intelligent than us would most likely not - although they might very well be aware that we think we do. We ourselves are no longer convinced, as we look more and more into genetics, biology, psychology, and so on to find explanations for behaviour and actions.

But free-will is not dead, just a hypothetical default. If we find an acceptable alternative, we employ it. If a court of law determines that a murderer is insane, he or she is not punished in the same way as someone who is considered to be in full control of their senses. On the argument I’ve put forward above, the sane person is no more in control than the lunatic; only in the case of the lunatic we have a ‘simple’ explanation - a simple cause, if you will - and with the sane person we do not. But the court still acts ‘as if’ the sane person is in full control, ‘as if’ they have free-will. Whether they ‘actually’ do has no bearing on the functioning of the court and the world in general. There would be no anarchy if everyone became a card-carrying proponent of determinism; indeed, it might be more complicated if everyone became a proponent of absolute free-will. Nothing would be changed, anymore than, to the naked eye, the world looks any different if we use a Ptolemaic system (the sun goes round the earth) or a Copernican system (the earth goes round the sun); but the finer details will be more precise.

In my view, everything about the scientific perspective leads to determinism, and free-will is at best a metaphor. It is an important one, which, when no simpler, more practical explanation is offered, has a fundamental role in the functioning of society. Yet while there is nothing more to it than an ‘as if’, there is nothing simplistic or debasing in recognising that determinism is the only adequate description of the world; Leibnitz, after all, equated cause and effect with God.

ID is as old as the hills

Scientists do not welcome teaching ID in science classes for the simple reason that, apart from NOT being science at all, it is a totally made-up construct built with the intent of sneaking religion in the science classroom by presenting it as a plausible scientific theory. 
—Ugo Cei, on the Dilbert Blog

That one’s easy to knock on the head at least. Wait for it… ID is older than Darwinism. It’s known as the teleological argument for the existence of God, and can be formulated as follows (I’m quoting the Wikipedia article):

  1. X is too complex to have occurred randomly or naturally.
  2. Therefore, X must have been created by an intelligent being.
  3. Y is that intelligent being.
  4. Therefore, Y exists.

In fact, the more cautious ID people would only go as far as step 2 above, and make no claims about which Y is that intelligent being (the FSM enters the argument at step 3, and as such, as I said a couple of days ago, is irrelevant.)

And the Wikipedia article also notes that Cicero (106 BC-43 BC - note BC) made one of the earliest teleological arguments:
When you see a sundial or a water-clock, you see that it tells the time by design and not by chance. How then can you imagine that the universe as a whole is devoid of purpose and intelligence, when it embraces everything, including these artifacts themselves and their artificers? (Gjertsen 1989, p. 199, quoted by Dennett 1995, p. 29)
Just to put that in context, Darwin first proposed the theory of natural selection in 1858. That’s nearly 2000 years after Cicero. There is nothing new or made up about ID. It is only a modern formulation of an extremely old idea; and if people keep shouting at the proponents of ID that they are only making it up in order to force religion into the science classroom, it’s no wonder they become indignant. The least we can do is have the common courtesy to acknowledge that the theory they are espousing is far, far older than anything that upstart Darwin ever thought of.

Finally, a good defense of ID

After literally hundreds of posts on the Dilbert Blog, someone called Mark came up will a good defence of the principles of Intelligent Design. I’ll quote a bit:
They only propose that according to their theory logic demands a single uncaused cause for all and that various phenomena support the theory of design better than randomness and therefore the implication is intelligence.

That places the ID discussion on the very edge of science, where it becomes metaphysics in the sense of the word which Kant meant - what comes after physics. As such, it is a proper object of science, although hardly the kind of science you should be teaching in school rooms.
But the identity of this intelligence is beyond the scope of their theory just as it is beyond the scope of the theories of most astrophysicists who restrict their analyses to that of existence at its earliest moment and no further back.

And so it isn’t theology either. Now that is something we can get our teeth into. Thanks, Mark, for the interesting post.

Thought experiment of the day

I really must get round to posting something that isn’t a Dilbert Blog comment. But every morning I awaken, check my mail, and trundle over to Scott Adam’s place and read his latest wind-up. And a fine way to start the day it is too. Here’s an extract from today's post, followed by my comment.

Imagine that lightning suddenly carves into the side of the Washington Monument the words “I am God. I created you. Darwin was a nut.” And let’s say there are hundreds of witnesses who all have video cameras and capture it from multiple angles. Now imagine that the same phenomenon repeats every day for a month, each time on a different monument. Scientists study the phenomena and conclude that humans probably didn’t cause it, but beyond that, there are no further scientific clues about how lighting could seem so directed. If I crafted my thought experiment right, no one would have any idea how to devise a test that would confirm or exclude the possibility that God really did it. Hypothetically, being omnipotent and all, he would be capable of leaving no clues, other than signing his name. Therefore, any speculation as to the cause is not science. Here’s the question: Should teachers be allowed to tell science students about the lightning messages?

My (typically long) comment:

I remember one of my philosophy lecturers saying that, if someone presented him with a seemingly flawless argument for the existence of God, he still wouldn’t go away and start believing in God. Rather, he would expect that the flaw in the argument would become apparent to him sometime later.

My guess is that something similar would happen with your thought experiment: the mere signature, with lack of proof as to whether it was a hoax or the real thing, would lead most scientists to still treat it with the utmost suspicion. The dogmatists would say, it’s a hoax, because God doesn’t exist, and we’ll find a proof soon - remember crop circles? More cautious ones might say, we just don’t know, but that we’ll keep looking for an answer to the phenomenon.

God would find it very difficult to prove His existence to unbelievers in this day and age, I think. Merely leaving us The Commandments, vol. 2 would not impress many people. He’d have to make a public appearance at the very least.

As for the question of whether the phenomenon should be discussed (I notice that you didn’t use the word ‘teach’, and hope that ‘discuss’ is an acceptable paraphrase of ‘tell’) in school, well, why not? But if so, it would undoubtedly end up in the ‘Unexplained, because it's probably a hoax’ box, alongside the Loch Ness Monster.

However, I don’t ever remember being told about Nessie at school, but only encountered ‘her’ on pseudo-documentaries on TV. And I don’t recall ever being told about UFOs or crop circles, either. Because most schools are conservative places where the teachers teach what they’ve always taught. Very few teachers actually discuss current affairs with their pupils, preferring to wait until the subject enters the curriculum, or the canon of acceptable text-books. I know, I’m a teacher.

So I think it could be talked about, but it would be categorised as ‘unexplained’ at best, and even if some reactionary scientists were loudly proclaiming the existence of God as the only possible explanation, only reactionary teachers would actually let that affect what they actually considered teaching in class.

And here’s another thought: if the noise got loud enough, what’s the chance that proof that it was all a hoax would be found from somewhere? Did anyone meet the guys purported to have made the crop circles? God deciding to show up would be a major inconvenience, and Jesus would end up in the loony bin, or safely locked away in a maximum security prison in Iraq.

So my telling of the thought experiment would be this: God leaves His signature on monuments all over the USA; this causes a major media uprising of


  • people claiming it’s true;
  • people claiming it’s baloney;
  • people claiming it’s terrorists;
  • people of other religions claiming that they are victims of religious persecution;
  • people of other religions praying for their God to do the same;
  • people claiming it was aliens;
  • people claiming that they did it - for 15 minutes of fame; and so on.

Then the media blitz would die down as we move on to the discovery of a breed of shark which seems to have developed legs, and eventually a scapegoat (sorry, proof based on legitimate science) would be found. It would be a couple of desperate comedians from Cleveland, or something, and none of us would be any the wiser.

Why the Flying Spaghetti Monster misses the point

I’m afraid I've caught the ID/evolutionism bug. The following is based on a post I just made to Scott Adam’s blog, where I got infected in the first place. I made three pages of notes in the Chinese restaurant today, so there's more to come.

What I have been thinking today:

The Flying Spaghetti Monster, which several people provided links to, utterly misses the point of ID and so precisely provides more evidence for Scott’s point in his original post. ID needs only to say that the evidence could be interpreted as supporting either the existence of an intelligent designer, or a process of natural selection - in fact, all it needs to do is say that it neither proves one nor the other. That, despite all the protests, is a scientific/philosophical question, because it challenges our assumptions about how to explain the evidence, and about whether the evidence actually proves evolutionary theory or not. Any debate about which designer is the realm of religion.

So the Flying Spaghetti Monster theorists contend that FSM should be taught alongside ID, on the basis that God didn’t create the universe, the FSM did. Which means they’re attacking the religious agenda which they infer as being behind ID, rather than the actual point being made. And that comes under mistake #2: Turn someone’s factual statements into implied preferences [from the Scott Adam's Results of why I'm stupid post].

What is needed is to attack ID on it’s own terms. Ironically, that’s just what the FSM people see themselves as doing. But whether we claim that the designer behind the universe is God, a Flying Spaghetti Monster or a fur-ball is completely irrelevant to ID.

The Dilbert Blog

I’ve become something of a regular over at the Dilbert Blog recently. About a month ago, Scott Adams launched the blog, and it has proved to be well worth a visit. Generally the posts are humorous, but a recent post dealt with Intelligent Design vs. evolution and prompted a great deal of fervour among the readers, much to Scott’s delight, I think. I myself printed out the first post on the topic and used it as a basis for a discussion in my Proficiency class, with the general gist being: what is the problem? Three people in a class had even heard of Intelligent Design, and none thought it was deserving of the controversy which it has obviously generated on Scott’s blog. Seems like it’s the hottest scientific America, but that no-one in Europe would even realise it was a topic. Very odd, and interesting reading.

So, I would absolutely recommend people stopping by Scott’s place and subscribing to his RSS feed. Intelligent, often surreal, controversial, and wonderfully funny. Even the comments are an eye-opener.

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