Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Mr & Mrs JW: I have some questions…

October 3, 2017

In recent months, I’ve noticed more of you in pairs with portable pamphlet displays, congregating mostly around public transport interchanges, train stations, busy street corners, and near the occasional university in Adelaide.

Are we special or is the picture more or less the same elsewhere?

Is the Apocalypse impending? Wasn’t it supposed to happen in the mid-70s? Where’s the evidence that it will ever happen? Please don’t say “it’s in the Bible”. That doesn’t count as evidence. Telling me to “have faith” doesn’t help either. I prefer not to pretend to know things I don’t know, especially for no apparent reason and certainly not about things that could profoundly affect my life, in spite of Pascal’s Wager.

Why do you think it’s reasonable that Joseph Rutherford in the early 1930s declared that only 144,000 would make it to heaven once the total number of JWs exceeded that number?

Isn’t that just a little bit convenient?

Do you think you’re one of those 144,000?

If not, what makes you OK with the idea that millions of you will be resurrected bodily, zombie-like (from Jehovah’s Witness to Jehovah’s Zombie?) to live in “paradise” (no, not Paradise, the Adelaide suburb, although that is close to a major bus interchange) built upon the 7 billion human corpses of the Apocalypse, assuming the rest of us haven’t become followers by then. Unlikely!

And why exactly is it that every other species on Earth must pay for the sins of humankind with their future? Why the heck does it always have to be about us? What makes you think we’re so special? That we have a soul? Evidence?

But that’s your mission now, isn’t it? To get yourself and the rest of us through the Apocalypse and into this paradise on earth depicted by the Watch Tower publications you hand out.

Isn’t that at least a little bit creepy?

What will happen in Paradise? What will our newly resurrected bodies be sustained by? All other species will be dead, won’t they, or are some going to be bodily resurrected too just so they can be consumed again? Will we get to worship your genocidal god for eternity? If so, we’ll need to be sustained for eternity so we’ll need food for eternity.

I hope we find strong evidence for life on other worlds. Not because we will be able to communicate within reasonable timeframes, but so that the Copernican revolution continues on its logical trajectory toward deposing us from our delusion of central importance in the universe. We can be important to one another and create meaning in our lives without being favoured by gods. Watch Pale Blue Dot! It always comes back to that.

How is it that you don’t see that in the marketplace of religions, yours is just as manufactured as the rest? We create gods in our own image not the other way around!

What evidence do you have that around 1915, your religion was “selected” by Jesus to be the one true religion? Has no-one else declared such a status for their religion?

And don’t get me started on shunning, your theological allergy to blood transfusions, or allegations of child sexual abuse in your chosen church? It’s not just the Catholics and Anglicans anymore who are under the spotlight.

I’ve engaged in civil conversation with JWs when they’ve knocked on our door, especially when a child has been in attendance, so they at least hear a different viewpoint. But door knocks are infrequent and I feel the need to engage in street epistemology with JWs (or Mormons or …) where I find them.

I don’t particularly enjoy debate or conflict, but I like dogmatic thinking less.

I wrote this post after hearing a compelling interview with Lloyd Evans, an ex Jehovah’s Witness, on The Thinking Atheist podcast.

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Questionable church websites: prayer by email?

September 17, 2017

I passed by a school and associated church-next-door while out walking in an Adelaide suburb yesterday. They had a web address on their signage so I navigated there in my phone’s browser to get an idea of their theology. Not too fundamentalist. Probably not too different from the sort of liberal theology I grew up with. Probably a nice bunch of people and a caring community.

But I did a double-take when I saw this:

img_1721

Intrigued, I clicked “Request Prayer”.

what_would_like_pray

they asked. Hmm. So, I felt compelled to reply:

email2g

Seriously, I know that (the Christian) God is supposed to forgive all sins, but a missing personal pronoun and an unnecessary capitalisation? Blasphemy!

Anyway, I’ve at least made the suggestion that direct email communication with the almighty might be a Good Thing. We’ll see what comes of it. Not much I suspect.

The church in question has my email address (what the heck, so does the rest of the Internet it seems).

However, after clicking Submit, I did get this response page:

img_1720

Naturally, I have a question… You know what’s coming, don’t you?

My question is this: who has my submission been received by, exactly? ūüôā

As you might imagine, I have not received an email response yet (from a god or a parishioner concerned for my soul) and I suspect I won’t. After all, it was not actually a prayer request, more like web site feedback, if a little cheeky. It should be taken as gentle satire of course, something to reflect upon.

There is a serious point to be made here though. If gods really wanted to communicate with us, they could choose to do so clearly and distinctly. Sagan (as always) captures the essence of this for me:

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot (source)

 

Questionable church signs #2

May 11, 2017

Another church sign, same non-fundamentalist denomination, one month later:

So, there exists at least one Christian not opposed to marriage equality.

Hmm…

Fairly uncontroversial given the likely diversity of theological views in such a congregation.

I appreciate that this is an attempt to counter the opinions of those of a more conservative persuasion, but it’s¬†not a terribly strong message.

The essential problem is that it suggests a house divided and says little about what Christianity has to offer to the problem.

How can inter-faith dialogue even at the highest level recognise world views that are fundamentally incompatible and in principle, immune to revision? The truth is it really matters what billions of human beings believe and why they believe it.
(Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation)

 

Questionable church signs #1

May 9, 2017

An Adelaide church sign recently caught my attention:

I’ve omitted the border because I’m not interested in pointing to a particular congregation.

While cute, what struck me about the words is that it illustrates how we are able to create gods in our own image.

Is it really such a leap to go from this to considering the Ten Commandments or the golden rule as the possible product of a human community rather than divine inspiration?

Wouldn’t it be more effective just to point people to Carl Sagan’s¬†Pale Blue Dot¬†on YouTube?

On porting an ACE program to HTML5 (among other things)

March 1, 2017

In recent times¬†I’ve been thinking¬†about¬†ACE BASIC, a¬†compiler for the Amiga I stopped working on just over 20 years ago; nostalgia’s setting in I guess. A few years ago wrote a bit about ACE¬†in relation to¬†BASIC’s 50th;¬†there’s¬†more in these¬†1994 and 1997¬†articles.

As mentioned in the 50th post, a wonderfully thriving community built up around ACE between 1991 and 1996 centred upon an active mailing list and contributions of ideas, example programs and tools. I have been mildly (but pleasantly) surprised by a couple of things since I stopped development:

  1. Continued use of ACE on Amiga hardware and emulators for at least a decade afterward.
  2. An project to modify the code generator for post mid-90s Amiga operating systems and additional targets such as PowerPC and Intel.

Among other things, I’ve been thinking about a re-write for a modern platform or target, e.g. HTML5. The world of the 90s was still very platform-centric, but in the same year I stopped developing ACE, version 1.0 of the Java Development Kit¬†was released, putting the power of Java and its ¬†virtual machine into the hands of eager programmers.¬†Java and¬†JavaScript¬†helped to consolidate the browser as an important platform and to define the shape of web development in a post-CGI¬†(Common Gateway Interface, not¬†Computer Generated Imagery) world.

A new compiler or interpreter is a non-trivial task, especially in my current spare-time-poor state, but I wanted to explore how an ACE program could be rewritten for an HTML5 context.

One of my favourite ACE programs was an¬†implementation¬†of IFS (Iterated Function Systems)¬†to generate simple 2D structures such as ferns, trees, the Sierpinski Triangle and so on. So I started with this. It’s simple yet¬†complex enough to allow for a comparison of approaches.

Here are a few observations on the original IFS ACE source code (ifs.b) and my initial HTML5 port of the code.

  • JavaScript in the browser appears to be faster than ACE on the Amiga. Sure, processors and clock speeds have improved since the mid-90s but ACE generated native 68000 assembly code. Then again, to think of JavaScript as an interpreted language¬†is very simplistic¬†with just in time compilation in widespread use.
  • The ACE code is quite data-centric. DATA statements containing comma-separated¬†values are read into two dimensional arrays, so the original data is not close to where it’s used and it’s not clear what the numbers are associated with. I could have taken¬†this approach in the port, but chose instead to create a data object, a map, close to the point of use, copying¬†the original array names¬†(bad in some cases: a, b, c, okay in others: xoffset, yscale) from the ACE program for use¬†as map key names, to make a¬†correspondence easier to see.
    • This meant first transposing the data (in Excel) so that DATA columns became rows.
    • Preserving the existing DATA organisation could be accomplished¬†by introducing functions such as data() and read() that create and read, respectively, a pool of data values. For future DATA-centric ACE program ports, I’ll try that approach.
  • In ACE, the creation of a menu and its items is simple¬†as shown by¬†the creation of the¬†Special menu below; this menu name is an Amiga convention. Shortcut key letters are optional.
    • menu 1,0,1,"Project"
      menu 1,1,1,"Sierpinski Triangle"
      menu 1,2,1,"Square"
      menu 1,3,1,"Fern"
      menu 1,4,1,"Tree #1"
      menu 1,5,1,"Tree #2"
      menu 1,6,1,"Sunflower"
      menu 1,7,0,"-------------------"
      menu 1,8,1,"Help...","H"
      menu 1,9,1,"About...","A"
  • Compare this with the odd combination of HTML, CSS and JavaScript in this initial attempt at a¬†port.
  • On the other hand, ACE’s (and so AmigaBASIC’s) reliance upon numeric identifiers is almost¬†as unreadable as a collection of DATA statements. The MENU statements above declare the Project¬†menu to be the first (from the left of a menu bar), with each menu item numbered in order of desired appearance and 1 or 0 enabling or disabling the menu item. Subsequent enable/disable operations on menus must refer to the same combination of numeric IDs, e.g. menu 1,2,0 would disable the Square¬†item. Also, menu item selection handling is a bit awkward in ACE.

The code eventually morphed¬†into what I’ve dubbed ACEjs, in the spirit of some other JavaScript library/frameworks. I’m not claiming any novelty here. The idea was to answer the question: how might ACE code look in a modern context? I’m less concerned with slavishly preserving the look and feel of the program, i.e. I’m not trying to make it look like it’s running on an Amiga. I just want to make it functionally equivalent.

Here’s a screenshot of the simple example ifs.b¬†program in¬†ACEjs¬†form:

IFS in ACEjs

I don’t currently have a screenshot of ifs.b¬†running on an Amiga or an emulator.

In any case, the outcome so far is that I have made progress toward an ACE-inspired JavaScript library for HTML5. Here are some key aspects:

  • CSS, DOM, jQuery (so JavaScript) as web assembly language but only JavaScript code needs to be written.
  • Functions like menu(), window(), dialog() manipulate the DOM to add¬†elements (canvas, list etc) via jQuery under the hood.
    • A menu declaration corresponding to¬†the ACE code’s¬†Project menu (with Help and separator¬†items omitted) follows, a key difference¬†being that menu items are paired with callback functions (e.g. see sierpinski below), another being that there is no support for shortcut keys currently:
      • acejs.menu("Project", [
            ["Sierpinski Triangle", sierpinski],
            ["Square", square],
            ["Fern", fern],
            ["Tree #1", tree1],
            ["Tree #2", tree2],
            ["Sunflower", sunflower],
            ["About...", about]
        ]);
    • A window declaration that adds a framed canvas looks like this:
      • wdw_id = acejs.window("IFS", 640, 400);
    • and operations on¬†the window make use of an¬†ID:
      • acejs.clear(wdw_id);
      • acejs.pset(wdw_id, outX, outY, pixelColor);
    • Multiple menus and windows can be created.
    • acejs.css is almost non-existent currently. I’m sure someone who delights in CSS could make it look suitably dark and brooding with their eyes closed. I make no claim to have any special talent in web design.

There’s arguably no need for a compiler or interpreter. JavaScript’s iteration, selection, and expressions are adequate. Having said that, ACEjs¬†could form the basis of¬†a target if I ever chose to write another ACE compiler or interpreter (with all that spare time of mine).

With ACEjs you only have to write an app.js source file for your application and use a standard index.html that brings in your code and whatever else is needed, in particular acejs.css (trivial right now) and acejs.js. The only special thing you have to do is to define an init() function in app.js to be invoked by the framework. The best way to see how this works is to look at the example.

You can either download the contents of the public_html directory and open index.html in your browser or see the example application running here.

In early 2000 I wrote an article for Sky & Telescope (S&T) magazine’s astronomical computation column entitled Scripting: a programming alternative¬†which proposed JavaScript as a suitable alternative to BASIC for astronomical computation, long used by S&T and others to disseminate programs. Even at that time, JavaScript was arguably the only programming language interpreter available on almost every personal computer, by virtue of the ubiquity of web browsers.

In essence, JavaScript had become the equivalent of the BASIC interpreter every old personal computer (formerly called microcomputers, especially in the 80s) once had. I made the example programs from the article available and experimented further; some examples show the original BASIC listing along with the JavaScript implementation.

A variant of the ideas that led to ACEjs are revealed in what I said on this page:

Peter Girard has suggested the creation of an ECMAScript code library for astronomical algorithms.

An idea I’ve had is to write a BASIC (which dialect: GWBASIC, QBasic, etc?) to ECMAScript translator, written in ECMAScript or Java. One could paste BASIC code into a text area on a web page, and have ECMAScript and HTML code generated on the fly. This would make the BASIC code on¬†Sky & Telescope‘s web site available as interactive programs. Or, it could generate a listing, making Peter Girard’s idea of a code library easier to achieve.

Of course, there are now plenty of examples of BASIC interpreters written in JavaScript, e.g. here’s a QBasic implementation that generates bytecode and uses canvas. Then again, as I have noted, my aim was not to slavishly recreate the exact look & feel of the original platform.

S&T showed some initial interest in JavaScript, again in 2005 regarding an orbit viewer page I wrote that combined JavaScript, a Java applet and cross-domain AJAX while Internet Explorer allowed it, and before CORS was a thing.

Of course since then and for all kinds of reasons, JavaScript has come to dominate rich client browser applications, especially after the introduction of AJAX, and has generally become the assembly language of the web. More recently we’ve seen the rise of Node.js, an explosion of JavaScript web frameworks (Angular, React, …), and mobile JavaScript development frameworks¬†like Apache Cordova. JavaScript has good points and bad along with detractors aplenty, but it’s hard to argue with its success.

History has shown that a programming language does not have to be perfect to succeed. I love C, but it’s far from perfect and holes in its type system¬†allow one to, as the saying goes, “shoot one’s¬†foot off”. Additionally, these same holes¬†are responsible for security vulnerabilities¬†in the operating systems we rely upon. Notice, I’m not saying that C itself is responsible (it’s not a person or a company) for exploits of those vulnerabilities; that’s attributable to the moral barrenness of the people involved. It’s unlikely that we’ll see the sum total of mainstream OS-land rewritten in safer languages (Rust, Haskell, …), to save us from ourselves, anytime soon.

But I digress…

I could repurpose ACE to generate JavaScript, but we are living in a time of “programming language¬†plenty”. Creating a new¬†language today¬†should be considered a last resort. Domain Specific Languages, sure. Libraries and frameworks, perhaps. New languages? Looking at what’s available first before reinventing the wheel should be considered a responsibility. Also, a language is no longer enough by itself. You need an ecosystem of tools (IDE, debugger at least) and libraries for anyone to care enough to want to use your shiny new language beyond very simple programs. ACE had a couple of IDEs but no debugger. Heck, I didn’t even use a debugger when writing¬†the compiler! Now I seem to live in source level debuggers. I’m obviously getting soft. ūüôā

When I was a junior academic¬†in the computing department at¬†UTAS¬†in the mid-90s, upon learning about my development of ACE, a senior and sometimes less-than-tactful colleague remarked that creating a new language was, as he so delicately put it, “a wank”. I disagreed. ACE was about providing¬†the power of a compiled language for a particular platform (Amiga) to¬†people who knew an interpreted language (AmigaBASIC), wanted to leverage that experience and existing code and didn’t feel confident enough to learn the¬†dominant systems-level language of the time¬†(C). It was also about improving the precursor¬†language.

Now, I would agree that the decision to create a new programming language or library requires some circumspection, at the very least. But the programming language landscape has expanded a lot since the mid-90s. There is of course value in writing an interpreter or compiler, just for the learning as an end in itself and every computer science or software engineering student should do so.

So, in the end: why ACEjs?

In part because I wanted to explore simple ways to write or port a certain class of application (e.g. old ACE programs) to client-side web applications.

Partly out of a sense of nostalgia.

In part because I want to learn more JavaScript, Canvas, jQuery and jQuery-ui and the subtle differences between JavaScript versions.

Mostly, I wanted¬†to get a bundle of ideas out of my system, which I’ve more or less done.

ACEjs is a simple starting point and if it’s useful to me, I’ll continue to improve it;¬†if not, it will happily fade away. So far, I’ve tested it¬†using¬†Chrome version¬†56 and Safari version 9 and¬†ECMAScript (the underlying JavaScript standard) 5 and 6.

Finally, look in the About box of the example application for a small dedication, also present in the even simpler About box of¬†ifs.b; my wife spent far too long listening to me talk about programming languages and compilers in the 90s. Now the talk is more likely to be¬†about variable stars. Thanks Karen. We both like ferns as well, IFS generated or natural. ūüôā

In any case, enjoy. Feedback welcome.

The Arrival, linguistic determinism, and programming languages

January 1, 2017

My son and I recently saw¬†The Arrival, a movie that at first reminded me of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. The trailer suggested more action than was delivered, not a bad thing; the impact was primarily¬†psychological.

Spacecraft arrive in several¬†locations, hovering just above the ground. As you might guess, each country’s¬†military forces quickly take control. The focus is on the US contingent (of course), although Australia, China and other¬†countries are initially in frequent¬†communication to collectively figure out what’s going on.

A¬†sliding “door”¬†periodically¬†opens in the underside of each craft and personnel enter to try to make contact. Artificial gravity inside the atrium in which the humans stand makes things a little easier. A mostly opaque rectangular window separates them from the aliens and their atmosphere. The military personnel quickly realise that they need outside help so they enlist a linguist and a physicist. Apparently only America has competent linguists and physicists. ūüôā

1

I won’t say more about the plot¬†because I want¬†to focus on one aspect and head off¬†on a tangent. After a lot of puzzling by the main protagonists over the strange circle-based language in which the aliens try to communicate, the linguist eventually understands, with the help of a close encounter, why they have come. Nothing sinister as it turns out.

Along the way, the linguist talks to her physicist colleague and friend about the now somewhat outmoded Whorf-Sapir hypothesis (or just Whorfianism) of language or in which the structure of language is thought to affect the world view or cognition of its speakers. The weak form of this, linguistic relativity, says that a language merely influences thought, whereas the strong form, known as linguistic determinism, suggests that language determines what can be thought.

As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein put it in his Tractatus Logico Philosophicus:

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.

and

About what one cannot speak, one must remain silent.

The Arrival adds an interesting twist to this by allowing the linguist, who understands and internalises the alien language, to experience the world in a way that is, shall we say: temporally flexible.

The tangent has almost arrived; just a couple more paragraphs… ūüôā

There is research suggesting that languages with names for particular colour shades make it easier for its speakers to remember those shades. This is an example of the weak form. However, we know that it is possible to perceive and describe shades, even if we have no explicit names for them, evidence against the strong form of the hypothesis.

Another example of the weak form would seem to be the fact that the Greek language has a different words for love: for God, friendship, the love of a parent for a child, and love between intimate partners.

I have not researched this enough to know whether there really are plausibly¬†deterministic examples in natural languages, but I’d be interested in seeing some.

EDIT:¬†It occurred to me today that I had heard of and recently read (here) about a culture whose language has only the number¬†words one and¬†two¬†with many being the catch-all for other quantities. This¬†most definitely places constraints upon the worldview of its people. In particular: the ability to count to specific numbers beyond two. It may be that in such¬†a culture, this is all that’s required for enumeration in daily life, but it’s difficult to argue that growth is not limited by this, in particular: the discovery and use of mathematics. This¬†is an example of linguistic determinism in natural languages.

Now finally, the tangent…

This all got me thinking about linguistic relativism and determinism in programming languages. To what extent does a programming language influence or determine what a programmer can think or limit his/her world view?

Whereas a language like assembly, C or C++ gives complete access to the hardware of a computer, Virtual Machine based languages like Java don’t, so too for explicit memory de-allocation vs garbage collection and other “unsafe” operations.

For example, not being able to express¬†the thought in code: “write 42 to memory address 673416” limits what can be thought (programmed) in that language, an example of the strong form, so linguistic determinism.

There are of course many applications for which it is completely unnecessary (and dangerous) to be able to express¬†such thoughts, so type systems that rule out whole classes of dangerous “code thoughts”, do us a great service, but at the cost of limiting our world and forcing us to be silent about certain things, as Wittgenstein might say, and possibly but not necessarily at the cost of performance.

Similarly, a language with even simple intrinsic data structures such as lists and maps permits more complex code with less effort. So long as suitable language constructs exist, i.e. pointers and dynamic memory allocation, such data structures (and algorithms to operate over them) can be created by the programmer, albeit at a greater cost and cognitive effort, and made available as libraries for use by others. Here we are closer to linguistic relativity I think. It was not uncommon to find myself, especially in the 90s, writing custom list data structures and search or sort algorithms from scratch when coding in the C programming language.

Perhaps the strongest encounter I had with the idea of language-as-influencer-of-thought was when learning Perl 20 years ago while working for a dial-up era Internet provider. The combination of regular expressions, lists, and maps in particular provided new ways to think about text processing, beyond simple character-by-character or sub-string comparisons.

If you had asked me 15 years ago which languages I could “think fastest” in, I would have said Perl and Java. Before them, the answer would have been C. The Perl experience translated to similar scripting languages all of which have been only incrementally better or worse, including Python.

At University I had studied and taught programming paradigms,  written a couple of compilers (e.g. ACE), engaged in some language design; I spent a lot of time in the 90s and early 2000s on the latter two.

The impact of object-oriented languages like Java and C++ (in fact,¬†embodying multiple¬†paradigms) was¬†longer-lasting than most, especially with respect to the design and maintenance of large code bases. In recent years I’ve had increasing¬†sympathy with the functional programming paradigm¬†and strongly statically typed languages that limit the set of “legal” programs (for my¬†own good).

As I have said in a different post, all programming languages are crude approximations of some Platonic ideal of a coming together of minds, artificial and natural, and there are very few languages yet that make communion with the machine or, just as important, with other programmers, a beautiful experience.

The idea of a programming language that doesn’t just place limits on my world, but one that radically changes the way I think about the world, as the alien language did for the linguist in The Arrival, is alluring.

I remain in search of such a language (and its ecosystem of libraries and tools), one that of course can only ever be asymptotically approached.

Writing this has scratched an itch that has been irritating me for a long time. Perhaps I’ll have more to say about particular languages and how they live up to the “ideal” in future posts.

Musings on lecture by Vatican Astronomer

October 28, 2016
cq5dam-web-1280-1280
Vatican Observatory, Arizona (source: goo.gl/cl7EpF)

Jesuit priest and Vatican observatory director Brother Guy J. Consolmagno visited Adelaide in August and gave a public lecture at UniSA.

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Guy J. Consolmagno (source: goo.gl/Sxui6h)

I arrived early to have a meal at the Mawson Lakes hotel. Paul Curnow (ASSA vice president) and I spotted each other. He was at a table with a group of people, two of whom wore clerical collars, so I assumed one was Brother Guy. Paul invited me to eat with the group, a mixture of amateur astronomers (ASSA members) and Catholic church members, and in some cases, possibly both.

During dinner I asked Guy about the forthcoming southern edition of his book, Turn Left at Orion. He recently co-authored another book, Would you Baptize an Extraterrestrial? Whatever my pre-conceptions may have been, he seemed smart and witty, hard not to like.

His talk was titled¬†The Heavens Proclaim: Astronomy and the Vatican after a now out of print book. It quickly became clear that he was a very good Science communicator (in 2014 he was recipient of the¬†Carl Sagan Medal for excellence in education and public outreach) and a long-time practitioner of the Scientific Method. He also writes an interesting blog. The talk ranged widely from the Vatican Observatory‘s roots in the Gregorian Calendar reform of 1582 to the work of the Jesuit astronomers at the observatory’s current (and surprising!) location in Arizona.

A number of slides in the talk were devoted to Galileo. Guy admitted¬†that while the whole sordid business was more nuanced than¬†is sometimes realised, the church should not¬†have gone after Galileo in the way it did. Contrast this to Mother Theresa who said she would have sided with the church over Galileo!¬†It should of course be still further admitted¬†that the fact that it took 350 years for the Catholic church to pardon Galileo¬†(not until 1992, and assuming he needed pardoning at all!) of the charge of heresy should be more than a bit¬†embarrassing to the Church. I don’t want to dwell on this here though.
Guy mentioned¬†religion¬†at various points¬†during¬†the talk, quoting scripture a handful of times, citing¬†for example¬†the number of occurrences of “star” in the Bible. He didn’t¬†justify why he thought Christianity¬†and the Catholic¬†denomination in particular was the correct¬†one out of all the possible religions (or none at all). Given the convictions of a substantial part of the audience, I suspect he didn’t feel the need to do so.
He wittily reversed the atheist quip about believing in only one less god than a monotheist, saying that he believed in only one more god than Richard Dawkins; not a valid move of course, but funny.

I wondered whether¬†Guy’s¬†view of the relationship between Science and Religion would align with the late evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould’s Non-overlapping Magesteria:

Here, I believe, lies the greatest strength and necessity of NOMA, the nonoverlapping magisteria of science and religion. NOMA permits‚ÄĒindeed enjoins‚ÄĒthe prospect of respectful discourse, of constant input from both magisteria toward the common goal of wisdom. If human beings are anything special, we are the creatures that must ponder and talk. Pope John Paul II would surely point out to me that his magisterium has always recognized this distinction, for “in principio, erat verbum”‚ÄĒ”In the beginning was the Word.”

In his talk, Guy said that Science brings him closer to God. According to his wikipedia page:

He believes in the need for¬†science¬†and¬†religion¬†to work alongside one another rather than as competing ideologies. In 2006, he said, “Religion needs science to keep it away from superstition and keep it close to reality, to protect it from¬†creationism.”

The relationship Guy espouses seems more strongly aligned with Science¬†than does NOMA, with a focus on preventing religion from going off the rails, yet¬†still it’s clear (and not surprising since¬†he’s a Jesuit priest) that for Guy, religion acts to inspire his relationship with Science.

Guy commented upon¬†Georges Lema√ģtre, the Belgian Catholic¬†priest who published a paper in 1927 titled¬†A homogeneous Universe of constant mass and growing radius accounting for the radial velocity of extragalactic nebulae, and¬†later the idea of a “primeval atom”, making him the father of Big Bang theory. In the paper he proposed a value for the estimated rate of universal expansion¬†subsequently¬†confirmed¬†by Edwin Hubble, now called the Hubble Constant. There’s an argument to be made that it should have been the Lema√ģtre Constant after the less widely published Belgian scientist.

lemaitre

Georges Lema√ģtre (source:¬†goo.gl/BN6EKm)

Although¬†Lema√ģtre¬†may have been sympathetic to the essence of NOMA,¬†he helped to persuade¬†Pope Pius XII to stop making proclamations about the relationship between science and religion, stating that there was neither a connection nor a contradiction between religion and his hypotheses.

During question time at the end of the talk, someone asked Guy how young people could be encouraged not to abandon religion as they learn more about Science. Guy responded by agreeing that adopting a scientific world view doesn’t mean abandoning religion, reiterating that Science brings him closer to God, and suggesting that an atheistic worldview was unnecessary and perhaps even a little further,¬†at least to him and the questioner, not tasteful.

As an atheist and secular humanist, I obviously disagree with this viewpoint. It’s possible to retain a sense of wonder and a hunger for knowledge without the need for a deity.

Guy spoke about the fact that¬†Lema√ģtre understood the importance of allowing the data to speak, to provide evidence in support of (or not) an hypothesis.

In relation to the god hypothesis, that is all an atheist claims.

What I don’t understand is why the god hypothesis is different from any other. Is there supporting evidence for a deity of a particular kind, the god(s) of the Bible, for example? Shouldn’t the Scientific Method be applied here? Does Guy consider this valid? That’s the question I would ask¬†if I spoke with him again, I think.

My only other criticism was the brief mention Guy made about how the Catholic church helps the poor, arguably not appropriate¬†for a talk about astronomy, but not surprising when you accept that it was part lecture, part sermon. I’ve sat through (and given enough in my misguided past) sermons to know one when I hear one.¬†I’ve written more about the relationship between the church and the poor elsewhere.

There’s no doubt that Brother Guy Consolmagno and the other Jesuit astronomers at the¬†Vatican Observatory¬†are doing good Science. In particular,¬†Guy’s research¬†explores connections between meteorites, asteroids, and the evolution of small solar system bodies and he employs the observatory’s 1.8 metre telescope to observe Kuiper Belt objects.

Of course, you need math, science, and a telescope or at least data from someone else’s telescope to do astronomy. You don’t need religion to do astronomy.

To borrow the title of the 2009 Intelligence¬†Squared¬†debate, “is the Catholic Church a force for a good in the world” insofar as¬†astronomy is concerned?¬†It would seem so, but in the end, I can’t help but feel¬†that the Vatican Observatory and its astronomers stand in stark¬†contrast¬†to the Catholic church’s irresponsible¬†prohibitions against contraception, the scandal of child abuse by clergy, and the extravagance of beatification.

Mother Teresa: saint?

September 18, 2016

The September 2016¬†Richard Dawkin’s Foundation newsletter¬†highlighted¬†an article by Joe Nickell titled:¬†St. [Mother] Teresa and the Miracles Game:

Around the world, the Catholic faithful clamor for their beloved late priest, nun, or other personage to be added to the roster of saints. Pope John Paul II (1920‚Äď2005) heard them and lowered the requirement from three verified miracles to two (one for beatification, another for canonization), creating numerous saints and beatifying over 1,300 others‚ÄĒmore than had all his predecessors together.

mother-teresa-blog-yaaree-com-1

Source: Mommy dearest, Mother Teresa not so saintly

Mother Teresa’s canonisation (confirmation as a saint) occurred¬†on September 4 after the “necessary” two¬†miracles were “identified”, the first¬†for beatification¬†(in which the Pope declares the dead saint-to-be as being in a state of bliss) in 2003, the second for sainthood.

For the beatification, the case of an Indian tribal woman was selected. Monica Besra claimed to have been cured in 1998 of stomach cancer, in the form of a tubercular tumor, after she placed a locket with a picture of Mother Teresa on her abdomen.

Nickell goes on to say that the doctors treating the woman said the cyst (not tumor) had continued to receive treatment even after the death of Mother Teresa. Mrs Besra’s husband is quoted as saying: “It is much ado about nothing. My wife was cured by the doctors and not by any miracle.” He conceded that his wife “…felt¬†less pain one night when she used the locket, but her pain had been coming and going. Then she went to the doctors, and they cured her.”

Mrs Besra herself still believed in the miracle, while admitting she was treated by doctors in hospital. “I took the medicines they gave me, but the locket gave me complete relief from the pain.” It is of course not outside of the realm of possibility that the placebo effect could account for the pain relief. In any case, it appears that the claim that Mother Teresa cured Mrs Besra, is unfounded.

As a an aside, why¬†do some consider it acceptable to thank God for the honest, hard work of doctors and nurses? The fact is that God can’t lose. If a patient dies, it was His will. If they live, He is praised. If only gods were held to the same account as people…

The second case, the one that took Mother Teresa over the line to sainthood was that of a Brazillian man who had lapsed into a coma due to some kind of brain infection (the details differ with the source). His priest prayed for Mother Teresa to intervene with God, and the man supposedly awoke suddenly as a result. As Nickell points out, it may of course simply be that the treatment he was undergoing was effective, after all.

Again from Nickell:

In both cases ‚Äúmiracle‚ÄĚ was defined as it always is in such matters as ‚Äúmedically inexplicable.‚ÄĚ The evidence is therefore not positive but negative, resulting in a logical fallacy called¬†argumentum ad ignorantiam¬†‚Äúan argument from ignorance‚ÄĚ‚ÄĒthat is, a lack of knowledge. One cannot draw a conclusion from ‚Äúwe don‚Äôt know‚ÄĚ‚ÄĒleast of all that a miracle (supposedly a supernatural occurrence) was involved.

and

Doctors‚ÄĒincluding Catholic doctors‚ÄĒshould refuse to play the miracles game. If the Church wishes to honor a doctrinaire nun, let it do so without an affront to science and reason.

Miracles, like the existence of gods, should be treated with the same scrutiny as any other phenomenon. As Gregory A. Clark wrote in The Salt Lake Tribune, Sainthood for Mother Teresa exposes the delusion of religion:

Seeking intellectual respect,¬†Pope Francis recently declared¬†that God is not “a magician, with a magic wand.” But as the pope’s canonizing Mother Teresa shows, he’s happy to promote God’s magic when it makes for good PR.

and in response Clarke points out that:

One miracle is as possible ‚ÄĒ or impossible ‚ÄĒ as another. Preach that an omnipotent deity can perform miracles, and you also preach that at other times He chooses not to.

Apart from the more well publicised evils, especially of late, the corruption of the Catholic Church is again revealed in a casual disregard of evidence and abuse of logic.

But just suppose for a moment that the idea of sainthood made sense. What kind of a saint is Mother Teresa?

In her 1979 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Mother Teresa had this to say:

And I feel one thing I want to share with you all, the greatest destroyer of peace today is the cry of the innocent unborn child. For if a mother can murder her own child in her womb, what is left for you and for me to kill each other?

The Catholic News Agency provides the transcript of a 1954 speech by Mother Teresa to the National Prayer Breakfast, some of which is eerily similar to the Nobel Peace Prize speech 25 years later. After similar sermonising about abortion, we see this, also shared as a quote by the Faithful Catholics website:

Once that living love is destroyed by contraception, abortion follows very easily.

It is bit of a stretch to see how the conclusion follows from the premise of either of the statements:

  • if a mother can abort a pregnancy¬†then¬†we are more likely¬†to commit murder.
  • if (some form of) love is destroyed by contraception then abortion easily follows.

Indeed, the nature of the “living love” that is “destroyed by contraception” is unclear and seems vaguely reminiscent of Monty Python’s “every sperm is sacred” song from the Meaning of Life.

To those of a less¬†dogmatic persuasion, there are surely greater “evils” than abortion, as a child affected by the Zika virus attests to.

Preceding this in the 1954 speech we have the following pearl of wisdom:

I know that couples have to plan their family and for that there is natural family planning. The way to plan the family is natural family planning, not contraception. In destroying the power of giving life, through contraception, a husband or wife is doing something to self.

There’s nothing surprising about this stance from the viewpoint of a Catholic worldview of course, but there are well-known¬†problems that can be directly linked¬†to¬†religious sanctions against contraception, e.g. the spread of HIV, poverty, overpopulation.

Arguably, aside from the abuse of children by priests, the command to the faithful not to use contraception is one of the greatest evils of the Catholic Church.

Mother Teresa founded the Missionaries of Charity in 1950. Visitors to the Home for the Dying in Calcutta have reported that patients were placed on basic stretcher beds (indeed,¬†video footage¬†shows this), strong pain relief was rarely used (in a “hospice”, where people are dying in significant pain), so too¬†for¬†antibiotics, and needles were observed being rinsed under running water rather than sterilised. There were also reports of¬†patients who could have recovered with proper treatment¬†not being sent¬†to a hospital, including the case of a 15 year old boy with a kidney infection that went untreated by antibiotics;¬†a transfer to hospital was prevented.

This despite associating with and receiving prizes from shady individuals such as Jean-Claude Duvallier, the right-wing Hatian dictator and amassing funds from corrupt individuals such as Charles Keating, who sent Mother Teresa millions and lent her his private jet when she visited the United States. Instead of creating world-class medical facilities with such funds, the Missionaries of Charity spread to more than 100 countries.

Yet when sick later in life, for example when she required a pacemaker, Mother Teresa herself received top medical care in the West.

Although she and her missionary sisters and volunteers no doubt provided some comfort to the sick and dying, there was a cult-ish element to the work of Mother Teresa. For example, she is quoted as saying:

I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people.

and of telling a terminal cancer patient in extreme pain:

You are suffering like Christ on the cross. So Jesus must be kissing you.

Mother Teresa seemed at least as interested in using the poor and their suffering as an opportunity for conversion to Christianity as anything else, the ultimate point of missionary activity after all.

Watching the short (24 minute) film by Christopher Hitchens, Hell’s angel¬†(YouTube), provides a quick way to revise your pre-conceptions about Teresa of Calcutta.

Coincidentally,¬†a few weeks before the canonisation, I finally made time to¬†listen to the audio version¬†of Hitchen’s book:¬†The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, which provides further insight.

Hitchens visited¬†the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta and acted as a Devil’s Advocate in the case for her canonisation, giving testimony to the Archdiocese of Washington.¬†As is so often the case, he says it best:

Mother Teresa was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction.

Commentary on Q&A’s church and politics

May 16, 2016

ABC’s Q&A¬†on April 25 2016 discussed¬†the relationship between the (Christian) church and politics and I’d like to make¬†some observations from watching this. The panel consisted of:

  • John Haldane, Visiting Professor and Catholic intellectual
  • Julie McCrossin, (Uniting) Church elder and journalist
  • Ray Minniecon, Indigenous Anglican Pastor
  • Rev. Tiffany Sparks, Anglican Priest and representative for¬†A Progressive Christian Voice;
  • Lyle Shelton, Managing Director, Australian Christian Lobby.

So, there was¬†a Catholic, a representative of the Uniting Church (UC), two Anglicans, and a person of undeclared denomination. No Church of Christ, Lutherans, Baptists, Seven Day Adventists,¬†Christian Scientists,¬†Jehovah’s Witnesses. At least protestants and catholics of some sort were broadly represented I suppose.

I suppose it was an interesting discussion, albeit within the narrow confines of the Christian church. John Haldane was easiest to listen and seemed the most lucid, ironic, given the evils of the Catholic church.

Julie McCrossin suggested that people of other faiths (e.g. Muslim people) should have been included on the panel and mentioned that her particular UC encouraged columns from other religions in their newsletter. I wonder whether¬†pastafarians, adherents of¬†Jainism¬†(a gentler, saner religion than most), Hindus, Buddhists, Satanists, or Scientologists are also welcome to speak in such a column? Or aren’t they “serious” religions?

This inclusiveness struck me as both positive and odd at the same time. Positive because dialogue of any sort is better than none. Odd because it seems to suggest unitarian leanings. Just as I was once encouraged not to be a fence sitter, an agnostic at the time, and so found my way to atheism, I would have thought that people of faith should make up their mind what counts as valid belief and what does not.

How can inter-faith dialogue even at the highest level recognise world views that are fundamentally incompatible and in principle, immune to revision? The truth is it really matters what billions of human beings believe and why they believe it.
(Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation)

What bothers me about such talk of inter-faith dialogue, and certainly as expressed on Q&A, is that secularists including atheists are often not mentioned at all or only in passing, as if they couldn’t be moral agents. True, secular humanists, atheists and agnostics are the odd ones out here. Still,¬†inter-faith dialogue just seems too much like the blind leading the blind or at least, the biased leading the biased.

John Haldane challenged Ray Minniecon about the claim that aboriginal people owned the land before white settlers arrived. A sensitive topic. There is of course, a need to acknowledge the awful details of our white settler history far more than we do, not just the romantic versions of it, the ANZAC spirit, and so on. But honestly, we really all need to get a grip. The idea that any human owns a country, an area of land, is very odd, and arguably just an artefact of the world we have constructed.

I have great sympathy with the idea that generations of aboriginal or other can live on a landscape and develop a  deep attachment to it; even a few days spent bushwalking can deeply affect you. But such experiences do not imply ownership.

Ray Minniecon made a reasonable yet familiar remark about white settlement having happened only a short time ago compared to the aboriginal settlement of Australia. I found myself puzzled by a follow-on comment from him about Christianity also being a blip in time compared to aboriginal settlement. It left me wondering why he was a Christian minister, given his apparently disinterested view of the importance of the appearance of Christ on Earth.

Of course, all human events are a blip in time compared to the age of the Universe. Again, we need to get over our pompous self-importance. In approximate terms, we have in reverse chronological order (and gap-riddled):

  • White settlement of Australia: 200 years ago
  • Birth of Christianity: 2000 years ago
  • Aboriginal occupation of Australia: 50,000 years ago
  • End of the reign of dinosaurs: 65 million years ago
  • Formation of Earth: 4.5 billion years ago
  • Big Bang: 13.8 billion years ago

I’ve always found the¬†Cosmic Calendar¬†quite compelling. Popularised by Carl Sagan on¬†Cosmos, the whole timescale of the universe is compressed into 12 months. Nothing remotely human begins until late¬†morning on December 31. The original settlement of Australia by seafarers didn’t happen until 11:58pm and the last few thousand years of human history occupies the last 30 seconds of the day!

cosmos-04-hulu

source: http://k1017fm.com/files/2014/03/Cosmos-04-Hulu.jpg

The totality of human civilisation on Earth is indeed a blip on the cosmic timescale. Arguably the most important thing to have happened in that final 30 seconds of December 31 was the invention of the Scientific Method, the only reliable way to understand the world. Not faith.

One of the greatest challenges facing civilisation in the 21st century is for human beings to learn to speak about their deepest personal concerns, about ethics, spiritual experience, and the inevitability of human suffering, in ways that are not flagrantly irrational. We desperately need a public discourse that encourages critical thinking and intellectual honesty. Nothing stands in the way of this project more than the respect we accord religious faith.

(Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation)

It’s Darwin Day (actually)

February 11, 2016

Happy Darwin Day 2016!

charles-darwin-evolved-marketing-leader1

Freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds which follows from the advance of science. (Charles Darwin)

The darwinday.org website has lots of resources about the life and work of Charles Darwin (1809 to 1882) and the Richard Dawkins Foundation has recently added teacher materials.

From so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. (Charles Darwin, Origin of Species)

Meanwhile, let creationism talk itself into oblivion.

It has often and confidently been asserted, that man’s origin can never be known; but ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge; it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science. (Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man)