Friday, August 31, 2012

Clear Conscience Atheism.

It is with great sadness that I record the recent death of my brother-in-law Jonathan Benison. His obituary can be found here.

Jonathan had a busy career in teaching but nevertheless had the time to be a caring, sacrificial and successful family man. His commitment to family life extended beyond his nuclear family: I was very impressed when as late as May of this year he made the tedious journey from Paris with his Italian wife Daniela to my son’s wedding in London even though at that stage his health was clearly being impacted by the ravages of cancer.
Jon’s many pupils no doubt benefited from his literary erudition. In fact I myself was inspired by some of his work. I have in my possession three treasured books which would not have been possible without Jon’s input. These books can be seen in the photo below:

These books are:
Imago Mundi:. [1995 Biblos] This is a quality production on the history of cosmology by Francesco Bertola. Jonathan provided the section of this book that contains the English translation from the Italian. It is a good read for those who want a scholarly overview of the history of human perspectives on cosmology. (While we are on the subject of translations from the Italian, see the following blog entries where I provide some of Jon’s translations of the songs of Franscesco Guccini: See below and here  and here. He did these translations in the last two years of his life)
Brave New World: [1991 Cideb Editrice] This book contains Jon’s editorial commentary for English literature students.
The Time Machine: [1994 Cideb Editrice] This is another book containing Jon’s editorial expositions.
As I’m not a literary man I greatly benefited from Jon’s learning. In particular I found his found his exposition of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine extremely illuminating. This was a book that had fascinated me from my youth when I first read it (in 1967). In fact I found Jon’s commentary so inspiring that it prompted to I write a two part essay called “The Riddle of the Sphinx”. I may make those essays available on this blog at some stage, although they are not really recommended reading: Unlike Jon I’m not a fluent writer and I really only write as means of using it to crystalize my thinking and to ward off boredom. (It’s a kind of therapy for me)
Jon was an atheist and knowing him to be a deep and fair thinker he would undoubtedly have had good reasons to be so: I do not accept the common evangelical view that somehow all atheists are knowingly rebelling against God and have bad consciences (Fundamentalists may use their reading of Romans 1 to impeach the consciences of atheists). Amongst other reasons for rejecting religion I know that Jon had seen more than enough of the institutionalized nastiness of authoritarian religion and the conceits and deceits of the fundamentalists; such religion has the finger prints of flawed humanity all over it. In fact I’ve been all but put off Christianity by such people myself, so I’m sure Jon was justified in being repulsed by it all.
Although I'm seriously courting theism I never really had the chance to talk about theism & atheism with Jon. But a few months before his death (and after he had read some of my blog material) he emailed me about the subject and I had the opportunity to put my position before him.
As a theist what can I say about Jon’s atheism? For me a Biblical writer expresses it well:
For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.) This will take place on the day when God will judge men's secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares. Romans 2:13-16
If there is a next world and given that the gospel of Christ is about love, justice, sacrifice, mercy and above all grace, then in my opinion someone like Jonathan Benison ought to be well received in that world.
"Letter" by Franscesco Guccini:


The cherry-tree in the garden has come into bloom with the new sunshine
The neighbourhood is soon filled with snow from the poplars and with words.
At one o’clock on the dot the clatter of plates reaches the ears
The TVs’ thunderous rumble meets the unfazed indifference of the cats;
As you can see, everything’s normal in this pointless sarabande
But blowing through this unchanging pattern of life is the whiff of a question,
The prickly presence of an eternal doubt, what’s past seething like an ants’ nest,
Troubling those who leave it till winter to wish it were summer again.

The streets are coming back to life, a perfect finishing touch to the world,
Mother and daughter brazenly parade the same face and round bottom,
Identical in the head, no history, challenging everything, no limits,
Their strutting briefly outdone by the wailing of swallows and children;
As you can see, nothing out of the ordinary in this cumulus of life and death,
But, sobering thought, I’m not unhappy stuck in this rut of wishes and fate,
This over-shiny net, these goals we dream up for ourselves,
This unquenchable thirst, of those who hold back, unwilling to fly.

Slowly the roses wither, clusters of fruit appear on the apple-trees,
High up, clouds pass silently through the strips of cobalt-blue sky;
I lie stretched out on the fantastic green-grass plane of my past
But just-like-that age dispels all I believed and have not been;
As you can tell, everything’s just fine in this world free of worries,
As life skimmed past me, I correctly discussed the set topics,
My enthusiasms never lasted long, lots of philosophising stances,
A life of amusing encounters turned tragic, some too close for comfort, some not close enough.

But the times gone by, who will return them to me? Who’ll give me back the seasons
Of glass and sand, who can bring back rage and gestures, women and songs,
The lost friends, books I devoured, the simple enjoyment of appetites,
The healthy thirst of the parched, the blind faith in poor myths?
As you can see, everything’s as usual, just that time is pressing and the suspicion arises
That it’s not a big deal to be weary and breathless at the end of a race,
To be anxious as people are the day after, or sad at the end of a match,
No big deal the slow aimless unfolding of this thing that you call life.

Translated by Jonathan Benison

Saturday, August 25, 2012

It’s Science Larry, But Not As You Know It

Real Science is far more precipitous than the test tube precipitating and spring extending view of science cares to admit. 

Biochemist professor Larry Moran often tells us that “Science is way of knowing”. Most philosophically literate people, however, understand the probationary status of all claimed human “knowing”. For this reason I myself would much prefer to opt for the quip: Science is way of reaching an understanding; an understanding that doesn’t necessarily entail authentic knowledge.

But Larry goes much further than just asserting that science is way of knowing; to him there are no other authentic ways of knowing. It is therefore no surprise to see him in this post taking exception to psychologist’s Maria Konnikova’s suggestion that the humanities aren’t science. My view own on Konnikova’s statement is that in a very generalised sense the humanities are science, but they are a far cry from the test tube precipitating and spring extending experiments of the physical sciences, sciences where we deal with relatively simple elemental stuff. In short we are talking here of the difference between hard and soft science. The fact is not all ontologies with which we have to grapple are on an equal level in terms of their amenability to scientific probing. Objects vary on a sliding scale according to their accessibility, repeatability, testability and complexity and this impacts the level of formalism, clarity, equivocality, and rigour with which conclusions can be drawn. In turn this reflects the amount of guess work and imagination that is brought to bear in arriving at an understanding (as opposed to a knowing) of less tractable phenomena. In fact, I suspect that the linear progression of data acquisition is swamped by the exponentiating complexity of some higher level objects (especially in psychology and sociology) and thus it is likely that science, when up against some ontologies, ultimately faces fundamental barriers to progress.

Biochemist Larry Moran may yearn for the level of unequivocation reached in the physical sciences but I think he is out of kilter when it comes to subjects like politics, sociology, history, psychology, and even evolution. Of course, people can refrain from stating anything at all in these domains until they have attained the standard of “proof” that is on a level with the relatively amenable material of the test tube precipitating and spring extending sciences. But given the hardness of the objects dealt with by the soft sciences this is likely to result in very little being said with any rigour; the choice is between saying nothing at all, or taking one's best shot. The fall back situation is the expedient of using the imagination to elaborate upon a paucity of agreed facts. The procedure in the soft sciences is less that of setting up predictive tests than it is retrospectively embedding a consensus of facts into a plausible theoretical framework, a framework that acts as a sense making structure for those facts. Hard predictions are hard to come by and the lack of the impartial arbitrator of reality stepping in to confirm predictions means that in the soft sciences (which includes large tracts of evolutionary theory in my opinion), arriving at a consensus of conclusions is a contentious business: Just what constitutes a “best fit” narrative is not dictated by any clear cut mathematical criterion; we are not simply trying to fit curves to dots.

The other issue some physical scientists are likely to stumble on is the question of testability. It is truism in my opinion that ultimately all claimed knowledge is empirical in the sense that it must meet the challenge of our experiences – see the short article on my side bar entitled “The Ideas-Experience Contention”. I would even go as far as to say that religion is thoroughly empirical in as much as it attempts to make retrospective sense of experience (although one has to admit religion is big on the imagination and small on the consensus facts it tries to integrate into a world view). With post-hoc sense making narratives the “test” of experience exists only in as far as one attempts to evaluate how well these narratives successfully integrate post-hoc experience. Unfortunately the objects this kind of science deals with are complex, and difficult to access and control; therefore experimental testing at will may not be an option. There is one other thing that adds a further complication: “Experience”, so called, often turns out to be the words of other texts and narratives that are set beside the theoretical narrative under test. This means that the divide between theory and experience is in fact blurred. Text is tested against text rather than direct laboratory observations and the upshot is that social reputation, kudos and a gamut of sociological factors figure prominently even in the hard sciences; not good news for Larry!

Using test tube precipitating and spring extending science as the definitive paradigm of scientific epistemology results in a view of science that fails to make sense of science in its broadest meaning, especially as it is practiced in the necessarily informal atmosphere of the humanities. In fact even physical scientists experience some of the ambiguity one finds in the humanities when it comes to evolution, a theoretical structure which posits a complex history of change and shares a boundary with sociology. Except in the most elementary of cases there is seldom a straightforward one-to-one mapping between our experience and our theoretical objects. Leaps of the imagination have to be employed (cautiously and with fear and trembling) in order to make progress. The upshot is that although science can’t, with any surety, claim to be a way of knowing, it can claim to be a way of understanding, and a successful way at that. And yes, I’m prepared to echo something of Larry Moran in saying that science is the only way of understanding, but then my vision of science may be just a little more inclusive than his version of scientific fundamentalism.


Posts that are relevant to the above subject matter can be found here:
1. Homunculus ID as a case study in the difficulties of making prediction with the naturally postdictive science of Intelligent Design:
3. Grappling with Larry Moran's views again here:

Friday, August 10, 2012

Latest News on Jason Lisle and ASC

(More news here:

I was fascinated to see that we have at last got some movements from Jason Lisle on the relation of gravity to his Anisotropic Synchrony Convention solution to the YEC starlight problem. This can be seen in the comments section of a post dated August 3 on his blog. The post is in fact about something entirely different, but nevertheless an “Age Day creationist” called Kenny had the cheek to use the comments section of the thread to challenge Lisle. (Note: Much of Kenny's criticism suffers from a weakness which stems from the fact that the Edwards' space time is all but "non-physical")

Kenny refers to the “Missing Gravitational Field” and links to an article on Hugh Ross's Web Site where we find the gravitational criticism of ASC mentioned and a reference to a paper on the Edwards space time by Jian Qi Shen (What a coincidence! That’s the sequel to the same paper I referenced in my original criticism of Jason’s theory!

Anyway, here’s what Jason says to Kenny: 

> 2) Missing gravitational field:

 I had already planned to deal with this in detail in a future blog entry. But the short answer is: no, ASC does not require a gravitational field. It is simply a coordinate transformation from the ESC. And coordinate transformations do not introduce any real forces. 

 (Editor’s note: ASC = Anisotropic Synchrony Convention and ESC = Einstein Synchrony Convention)

There are at least three conceptual objects that have so far not been clearly distinguished in the discussions over Jason’s “ASC solution”: Firstly there is the Edwards space time which introduces a unidirectional and "non-physical" bias to the speed of light; by "non-physical" I mean that it doesn't effect experimental observations. Secondly, there is the concept of an actual geocentric skew to the speed of light which would introduce a gravitational field (although not of the usual kind). In other words, a geocentric skew to the speed of light is physical and I am sure Jason must understand this. Finally, there is simply the expedient of using of a "suitable" co-ordinate system which is what Jason is clearly laying claim to rather than telling us that light speed has a literal bias in the general direction of the Earth.* Coordinate systems are just ways of labelling “manifolds” of points with lists of numbers with a list-length equal to the dimensionality of the space concerned. For example, I could date all events as and when I received notification of them; if this numbering system results in a uniquely and consistently labeled set of events there is nothing to stop anyone doing it; in fact using some coordinate systems we find that an everyday object like a car can have an infinite velocity, or even go backwards in time!

This looks to me as though it’s really starting to shape up into something interesting! I am very much looking forward to Jason’s blog post on the subject. When a somewhat pathological coordinate system is allied to the YEC 6000 year time constraint it promises to result in the painting of a bizarre picture of reality; a bizarre picture of reality is to be expected when one is required to bend over backwards to support preconcieved notions that cannot come  under critical scrutiny without threat of divine displeasure.

For more on Jason Lisle's fundamentalist style of thinking, a style which seeks to secure charges of blasphemy against other Christians, see here:

* A literal geocentric skew in the speed of light is physically distinguishable from a mere coordinate transformation. I will deal with this at a later date; but let's see what Jason has to say for himself first.

Social Health Warning (25 Aug)
I would warn people who are attracted to religion against getting involved with fundamentalists. The ethos in fundamentalist communities permits quite extreme moral duress being applied: Fundamentalists have no compunction about applying this duress because they see themselves as God’s express instruments and mouth pieces; outsiders are at best regarded as having compromised morals and at worst part of the Satanic conspiracy against them. In fact as a freelance cult/sect researcher I have myself been on the receiving end of accusations of heinous sin and even when they are not making explicit accusations fundamentalist's thoughts about you are written on their sullen faces. People with a religious inclination are especially vulnerable to this kind of social pressure. As an example of the sort of thing I am referring to have a look toward the end of the comment thread here where an attempt is made to impugn my character; this is not because they want to cause me mischief, but because they see me as part of a compromised and persecuting spiritual Babylon and therefore a legitimate target of censure. See also in the same thread my reference to the treatment of gays. The general sense of marginalisation and even persecution makes fundamentalists sensitive to criticism and susceptible to conspiracy theories. (See here:

As a further illustration it is worth looking at the content of this article found on the YEC web site Creation Ministries. It concerns a certain “John MacKay", one time business partner of Answers in Genesis’s Ken Ham. After reading this content I felt that MacKay (pictured below) is not a man I would want to meet in a dark alley. [As a precaution I have stored the material of this link in case its content should be lost] . To be fair I must add that it is unlikely Jason Lisle would have anything to do with Mackay - or at least I hope he doesn't; Lisle at least seems normal in the sense that he doesn't have MacKay's spiritual ego issues.
Thorny character John Mackay makes a point

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Evolution and Computation


I was alerted to the video above by its appearance on atheist Larry Moran’s blog. It is part of an interview with John C Sandford, a plant geneticist, who is billed on his Wiki page as a onetime atheist, but who is now an intelligent design creationist. In the interview the following points are mooted: 

 1. There is a process of gene death going on involving a bit by bit corruption of the genetic code – Sandford calls this the “trade secret” of genetics. Organisms are going “down” and not “up” he says. 
2. These myriad small genetic mutations are too small in benefit for selection to get hold of. 
3. If we project this degeneration back in time it implies that the human race is younger than we thought. (In fact on his Wiki page Sandford is quoted as jumping to the unwarranted conclusion that the Earth, (that is, not just this or that organism) is less than 200,000 years old! - ed)
4. Eugenics as a philosophy is just under the surface as a possible remedy to genetic entropy; the evolutionary community is thinking about eugenics but doesn’t want to talk about it. However, increasing selection pressure doesn’t stop the degeneration. (There's a good hook for conspiracy theory here! - ed)
5. The genetic degeneration in our bodies means there is no prospect of extending life. 
6. “Genetic entropy” (that is, the decay of all genes in the body due to many small random mutations) is a fact no scientist can deny. Hence aging and death. Some of these mutations transmit to offspring and hence the whole race goes downhill. 
7. We are a perishing people living in dying world. This is the downward spiral as described in scripture from which only Christ can save us. 

I have doubts about conventional evolution as the engine that has driven natural history as it is observed in the fossil record. But I would nevertheless want to distance myself from people like Sandford. 

There are at least two distinct ways life could have formed. 

a) Living configuration have a realistic probability of forming in the life time of our universe given the providences of our physical regime (bearing in mind that it is very unlikely we have fully grasped all the provisions of the cosmic physical regime (PR) and its implications). This is the so called self organisation scenario, which in less generalized form is the requirement of evolution as traditionally conceived. 

b) The history of life is a product of the technological model of development. That is, some level of intelligence is posited allowing jumps to be made between biological innovations. This will lead to a history of change with development gaps between organisms. These gaps represent leaps between “islands of configurational self-sustainability”. These islands are separated by a considerable measure of computational complexity. Therefore they are traversed by computations done in background; that is, the computations necessary to traverse these islands are not reified on any medium we are familiar with and leave no trace in the fossil record; what we might refer to as a "computational complexity hiatus".

Amongst the homunculus ID community (b) is likely to be preferred. I’m not sure that I can respect the reason for this preference because I think it arises out of the 'God did it' vs. 'evolution did it' paradigm. It is ironic that option (b) is in fact a form of evolution that requires a level of reducible complexity - we have to assume that the islands of functionality are close enough for “island hoping” to take place given the quantum of intelligence available; this is true of human technological development. I have been actively considering (b) as an option since the 1990s. This is all part of a general theory of mine that intelligence is a generalized form of “evolution” involving searching, rejecting and selecting on some medium of computation.

But let me run with option (a) for bit: If the content of a PR can be embodied in a relatively small set of mathematical functions (such as the laws of physics) then we can frame the following question: What is the fraction of life favoring PRs to the total number of PRs? I suspect (although I certainly have no proof!) that this fraction is very small. If so, then assuming the principle of equal a-priori probabilities it follows that life has very high information content. 

But the information content of life has the potential of being higher still if (b) is true. Using the Church-Turing thesis it follows that if a PR can be expressed as set of mathematical functions then it can be reduced to algorithms. These algorithms can in turn be expressed, perhaps, as a few thousand bits of information. But if long  "living" configurations are to be generated in some form of “background processing” by an intelligence, such configurations may not be reachable in algorithmically realistic times: If we are limiting the algorithmic expression of a PR to a few thousand bits then it follows that there simply aren’t enough PRs to map to all the complex configurations that are much longer than a few thousand bits. In short, the computational complexity of at least some living forms could exceed what is possible algorithmically in a realistic time. 

The rules of chess considerably constrain the possible chess games, but not to the extent that moving the chess pieces around at random within those rules will produce a coherent game; the set of coherent games is only a small subset of the number of games that the bare rules of chess allow and therefore a coherent game is a highly improbable outcome given these rules alone. Likewise, our particular PR may not be enough to sufficiently enhance the probability of life forming by self-organisation in realistic cosmic times. In  fact  Sandford, who is effectively seeing the practical outcome of our particular PR at the molecular and genetic level, simply can’t see and can’t envisage how self-organization could happen; someone of Sandford’s experience is worth taking note of on this score. 

However, if Sandford is right he is right, I suspect, for some wrong reasons. Amongst the homunculus ID community evolution is being rejected within the context of a 'God did it' or 'evolution did it' dichotomy. It is perhaps no surprise that Sandford was once an atheist occupying the opposite polarity and who presumably believed "evolution did it!".

If our cosmic PR has been selected to favour self-organization then this self-organization takes place for the very reason that Sandford wrongly thinks of as a downward spiral: Random thermodynamic agitations are the very engine of progress; increases in thermodynamic entropy entails a filling out of the maximum available states within the constraints of the PR. This random seeking process is necessary if the cosmos is to find the quasi stable configurations of life and expand into them as does a gas into a volume. Thus, the formation of life is seen to be a result of a kind of morphological disequilibrium. Thermodynamics, then, is computation at work. As I have remarked before some people in the homunculus ID movement have a poor understanding of the second law of thermodynamics and Sandford shows it. However, I must qualify myself here. Thermodynamics may be computation at work, but if our PR is not sufficiently constrained that computation is then easily overwhelmed by the size of the search space. For this reason consideration must be given to those who challenge evolution; but I’ve never needed people like Sandford and others in the homunculus ID community to tell me this.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

The American Paradox.

I wouldn't want to claim that I have a one hundred percent mutual understanding with someone like Richard Dawkins, but nevertheless he seems to have captured well the paradox of America in the following quote:

As the saying goes "You don't make anything if you don't make mistakes". In America mega successes go together with some mega mistakes!

Some relevant links to previous posts: