Archive for May, 2017

Neighbourliness and it’s limits

May 24th, 2017

20 dead in Manchester suicide bombing, I read. It feels too close to home; I drove round Manchester on Saturday, I’ve been to the location, and there are people I know who knew people who were there (although not any of the casualties, it seems).

That is, I suppose, two or three degrees of separation for me. It’s said that in six degrees of separation, I’m connected with the whole world. On 3rd May, three died and 28 were injured in a suicide bombing in Kabul, so I’m presumably connected with the victims (and the perpetrator) by six degrees or less – and yet, I didn’t really register that news, assuming that I ever read it.

I am not supposed to take into account degrees of separation in working out if someone is my neighbour, and therefore deserves my love and care – the parable of the Good Samaritan establishes that with force, as Samaritans in the first century were the hereditary enemies of the Jews and would be assumed to be more likely to be the bandits who beat the traveller and dumped his body beside the road than to help him in any way, far less the abundant way portrayed. So, in thinking of Manchester, I have to think also of Kabul and of countless locations across the Middle East – and not restricted to the Middle East – where similar or worse atrocities have been happening. I need to weep for all the victims of violence towards random innocents worldwide – and that includes the random innocents regularly killed or maimed by my own country in Syria at the moment.

I cannot practice selective compassion, in other words. But it’s difficult, because two degrees of separation is a lot closer than six, and by US or particularly Canadian standards Manchester is practically next door – I could be on the outskirts of Manchester within about an hour, given reasonably clear roads, and my Canadian aunt used to think it reasonable to drive much further than that to visit a decent restaurant. It’s difficult because the victims in other countries are not as much like me as are the victims in Manchester. OK, granted the Manchester victims are mostly teen or subteen girls with a liking for Ariana Grande, which makes them nearly as foreign to me as does another language and another religion, and they are presumably mostly from Lancashire (and I’m from Yorkshire, and traditionally Yorkshiremen may have needed to hear the parable of the Good Lancastrian, as the events of the 15th century still have traction), but even so… my daughter might just about have been one of them fifteen or more years ago, and none of my family have ever been to Kabul as far as I’m aware. That, however, is to try hard to find difference, and to equate differences which I can’t feel are anything like equivalent. Afghans, Iraquis or Syrians are “more foreign” by quite a long way.

But they are my neighbours, and I weep for them as I weep for the dead and injured of Manchester.

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Give to those who ask

May 13th, 2017

I’ve just read a piece on dealing with panhandlers (for an UK audience, street beggars) which I thoroughly approve of. I want to focus on one of the “rules”, the second “If you do give to a panhandler, remember it is a gift, and the person is free to do with it whatever he or she wants to do.

I regularly hear people saying “don’t give them money, they’ll just spend it on drugs or alcohol”, and in a neighbouring city the churches often have cards in the pews advising not to give money to beggars, and giving details of charities for the homeless which people can give to instead. I know people who will gladly buy beggars a coffee or a sandwich, but will not give money.

I don’t normally do that. I try to follow Jesus’ instruction “give to anyone who asks of you”. After all, I am attempting to follow him, to love him – and if I love him, I will follow his commandments, no? He didn’t leave wiggle room for “only if I think it’ll be spent on something I approve of”, after all.

OK, if I judge that someone will absolutely definitely be spending anything I give them on drugs or alcohol, I will buy a coffee or a sandwich instead, and I will judge that on the basis that they are already high or drunk, and assuming that their need for drugs or alcohol has already been taken care of, but the nature of addiction is such that there is no such thing as “enough”.

Otherwise, though? I’ll give them money, and look them in the eye and talk to them, and if I have time spend a few minutes chatting.

Yes, they may go and spend the money on drugs or alcohol, but it is a gift, and is theirs to do with as they want. God can exercise undeserved grace towards us, so we might try to mirror that. I know only too well that, for an addict, if they have not taken their drug of choice (which might be alcohol) recently, that is going to be so pressing a need that it will eclipse any other, more prudent use of money.

But if I answer their immediate need, they will not need (for instance) to steal to feed their addiction, nor to prostitute themselves, at least for a short time – and that is a good. With luck, as that need is filled, they may use the next money they get from begging to get food or non-alcoholic drink or towards getting lodging for the night. I don’t know that that will happen, but I hope it will.

And, in any case, I will have shown them that someone cares about them, someone recognises them and that they are still a part of society, that they are not the rubbish amidst which so many of them live.

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Imaginary friends…

May 12th, 2017

There’s a new attempt to claim that the existence of God is rationally probable kicking around at the moment, divided into five “reasons”.

Therer’s a general problem about all of these, in that while they may point to there being something which we don’t yet fully understand underlying existence, the directions the author is going in would lead to a “God of the philosophers”, which (as I’ve complained regularly) looks nothing like the God of the Bible. In fact, it looks a lot more like Stephen Hawking’s “Theory of Everything”, and while I would be absolutely fascinated to see Hawking or some other brilliant mind come up with such a theory, and I would no doubt regard it as wonderful, awesome and similar words, I can’t see myself worshiping, loving or having allegiance to a theory.

I may come back to the other four reasons, but at this point I want to talk about the first, which has been called by others “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics”. The link I use there refers to a number of objections by Richard Hamming, but the list of names who have regarded this as a puzzle which requires answering includes some very great thinkers, and I don’t think it can be dismissed out of hand. As Max Tegmark suggests, perhaps at a fundamental level everything IS mathematical. It is definitely the case that mathematics comes up with concepts, and those concepts later find use when some theoretical scientist realises that that piece of maths describes (at least reasonably well) the mechanism which they are studying. The use of the Riemann mathematics in General Relativity, rather a lot of years later, is indeed a fine example.

I am not going to set out to dismiss the idea, but I do see a number of problems (apart from the fact that equating God with mathematics would negate virtually every religious or spiritual writing in history). Hamming mentions one, which I think has a lot of force – mathematics continues to produce a load of concepts, and not all of them by any manner of means manage to find a natural mechanism to describe. Some of them don’t describe the mechanism particularly well – I would argue, for instance, that string theory (which is an admirably complex piece of mathematical thinking) doesn’t actually describe the fundamental state of matter particularly well, given that to date it has failed to make any prediction which could be tested and that it keeps on being modified by legions of theoretical physicists in the hopes that one day it might.

He then develops that (it’s listed as a separate objection, but I think it flows from the above) to argue that we use the conceptual tools we have (which are, in science, largely provided by mathematics) to try to explain things. If we lack a mathematical concept for something, science doesn’t explain it, at least not yet.

What concerns me more, however, is the fact that mathematics throws up concepts which have no physical correspondent. Infinity is one such; we cannot observe an infinity; if we could, it would not be an infinity. It (together with a class of mathematical concepts which are quasi-infinities, called “transfinites”) is incapable of being experimentally verified; they just result from a contemplation of what would happen if an operation which you can perform a lot of times were continued indefinitely. I’ve written elsewhere of the problems faced by referring to attributes of God such as omnipotence and omniscience as infinite; I am deeply uncertain of the wisdom of this habit of saying “well, it looks as if it’s going there” without actually doing the experiment, as concepts have a habit of breaking down in limit conditions.

However, there’s another mathematical concept which cannot exist in the real world at all (it isn’t just not verifiable by experiment, it cannot exist) and that is the square root of -1, called “i”. The definition is i2 + 1 = 0. It is actually called an “imaginary number” for just that reason – it can have no real world equivalent. Mathematics therefore (arguably) axiomatically overspecifies what actually exists (axiomatically as opposed to the as-yet-unused mathematical concepts which may find an application some day).

I grant you, a very common use of imaginary numbers is in complex numbers of the form a + bi, where a is the “real” and bi the “imaginary” part; the imaginary part is then thought of as somewhere on an axis at right angles to the real axis. Any point on a two dimensional graph can therefore be represented as a single complex number.

The thing is, imaginary numbers are all over the place in some fields of mathematics, notably in areas like Rieman spaces (mentioned above) and anything to do with waves, including quantum physics. The mathematics for things which do exist therefore relies on concepts which don’t and can’t exist, despite the comments of the mathematicians talking with Melvyn Bragg in this BBC programme.

There are, I suppose, two ways of looking at this. The first is to say that mathematics clearly includes nonexistent things, and therefore cannot demonstrate the existence of God, because, well, God exists and they don’t.

The other is to say that if, just perhaps, there is something in the author’s argument that mathematics can tell us something about God, it is that “God exists” is at best a deceptive statement – because God includes some aspect which is, strictly speaking, imaginary…

So, my atheist friends, forgive me if I laugh at your comments about God as my “imaginary friend”. You’re reading this courtesy of techology which relies on imaginary numbers to exist.

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I’d call this “election blues” but really – anything but blue…

May 8th, 2017

In a little over four weeks, we are going to have a general election. This should not be happening. And I’m angry. No, more than that, I’m enraged.

So, this is going to be a bit of a rant.

First of all, the excuse given for calling the election by Mrs. May was that the country had “come together behind” Brexit, but MPs by and large hadn’t. That was a bare-faced lie – after all, despite the fact that around two thirds of the spineless excuses for human beings in parliament opposed Brexit in the first place, they have rolled over and enabled the Fuhrer to start the process and invoke article 50. On the other hand, polls have consistently indicated that if the Brexit vote were rerun, it would now lose – is that “coming together behind Brexit”? I think not.

It is possible that Mrs. May has paid attention to polls such as that quoted today in the Economist, possibly with the same message their writer gives: “Pollsters find little sign that they have changed their mind, nor much demand for a second referendum. A survey by BritainThinks, a Labour-leaning think-tank, finds 67% of Britons actively favour or reluctantly accept Brexit.” Hold on there – that is not “67% support Brexit”, that is “67% either support Brexit or have come to the (correct) conclusion that they have been right royally shafted and there is probably nothing they can do about it”. The other 33%, clearly, don’t accept it at all, and are presumably dusting off the Armalites under their beds prior to going postal and shooting anyone who wears blue, or purple, or quite possibly red or orange as well (see later) or talks to them in a condescending way about “taking back sovereignty”. Heck, I count as one of that 67%, and if I could see any way of stopping Brexit short of the illegal, I’d do it. Note that “short of the illegal” – no, I don’t have an Armalite.

It should also not be happening because one of the few major measures which the Liberal Democrats managed to force on the Conservatives during the coalition was the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. There should have been no election until 2020 unless either they pass a motion of “no confidence” or a 67% supermajority of the House of Commons votes for an early election. The whole point of this was to remove the power of the Prime Minister to call a snap election at a time beneficial to the ruling party. Mrs. May has a slender majority, but would be very unlikely to have a vote of “no confidence” passed against her (despite the fact that I suspect around 67% of MPs actually have no confidence in her… there’s that 67% figure again!). What do the brainless idiots in (in particular) the Labour Party go and do? They vote for a snap election anyhow, at a time when all the polls indicate that Mrs. May will do very well in an election and get a stonking majority at their expense. Exactly what the Act was designed to STOP happening.

Actually, I would suggest that given the wafer-thin majority in favour of Brexit, the best representation we could have in parliament is a wafer-thin majority in favour of the Tories. But far be it from the other party leaders to point that out and resolutely vote against an election!

I might almost suspect that the die-hard Blairites who populate most of the Labour seats hate Corbyn so much that they want to force an election in which he will do badly even if they lose their seats in the process and even if it is the worst possible thing for the country to have a large Tory majority at the moment (and it pretty much is…) I grant you, Corbyn supported the move, but did he fall or was he pushed?

So, we are to vote for May because she is a “strong leader” and is best to represent us in the Brexit negotiations, should we? Well, given that a majority of us don’t actually want Brexit, can I suggest that what we actually want is a weak, incompetent leader who will make such a mess of the negotiations that parliament will come to it’s collective senses and decide “no, that wasn’t a good idea after all”? Someone who makes Jim Hacker look like Winston Churchill?

The alternative is, of course, Corbyn, or (in an ideal world) a coalition involving Corbyn, Nicola Sturgeon and (preferably) Tim Farrand. You want a strong leader to represent us? OK, maybe that isn’t Corbyn, but how about Nicola Sturgeon, who could (I think) give any European leader cause to tremble. Corbyn himself? Well, I look at the chorus of hate which has been being directed at him (not least from his own party) and cannot help thinking of the chorus of hate directed at Hilary Clinton, which (see the Guardian article I linked above) is probably in both cases largely down to Cambridge Analytics and their world-beating brand of disinformation peddling. I actually think Corbyn is more like Bernie Sanders than anything else, in that he’s honest, and he’s a social democrat, and he cares more about the good of the people than he does about his own career and self-importance (in which he’s a complete contrast to Mrs. May, who was against Brexit until she spotted the opportunity to be given a mandate to handbag Europe).

However, as the Economist article actually gets right, mostly the election is going to be about how much power the Conservatives should be given. They were fairly nasty when in coalition with the Liberal Democrats (for which, unfortunately, the Liberal Democrats have not yet been forgiven, despite it being clear that they moderated the awfulness of the Tories quite well) and have proved significantly more nasty without the restriction of coalition, but with a rather thin majority. I shudder to think what things will be like if they manage a majority of over 100, because that generally signals that the government can also largely ignore its back benchers.

The one good thing about there being an election is that it gives us an opportunity to correct both our recent mistakes – the Tory majority, and the Brexit vote.

But it pains and angers me to concede that this is probably a vain hope. Unless the polls are horribly wrong (and I pray that they are) we will see a massive Conservative majority after June. A couple of years hence, we will experience a hard Brexit (Europe can’t afford a soft one), and our complaints about some prices going up a bit because of the weakness of the pound will look trivial, as we see an even weaker pound, tariffs flying around in every direction and, probably, a 10-15% reduction in our economy. By then, the NHS and the Welfare State will be jokes, and our reduced wages will not go far against American-style health bills.

The trouble is, all the main parties (apart from the Scottish Nationalists) have now agreed to go along with a Brexit of some kind, even the Liberal Democrats, though their pledge to put the issue to another referendum can rightly be regarded as code for “You’re not going to like the terms, and will reject them”. However, given the other policy issues facing us, what we need to do is swallow any concerns about leadership (see above) and vote for policies.

And the overriding policy should be ABC – “Anything but Conservative”. It’s easy if you’re in Scotland – just vote SNP (you were going to do that anyhow!). Otherwise, vote for whichever of Labour, Liberal Democrat, Green or Plaid Cymru stands the best chance of beating the Conservative candidate.

And hope that the polls are wrong…

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Can we become Scandinavian? Please?

May 7th, 2017

I have occasionally lamented the fact that under Thatcher (and, frankly, Blair) the communitarian heart of England seems to have been lost in favour of an unquestioning acceptance of neoliberal economics, and hoped that we could find some way back there. It’s probably foolish to want to turn any clocks back, but in this case I see neoliberal economics heading for a precipice (i.e. a collapse of world economic systems), and I think it’s probably still worth banging on about the idea.

I’d like to present to any of my readers who is still thinking “there is no alternative to financialised free market capitalism” this article, which points out that a quite different unquestioning acceptance holds in Scandinavia, which the author describes as “green social liberalism”. That is, I dimly recall, where I thought, back in the 70’s, the UK was going to go – and it was well on the way there at the time. I thought that the abiding social gospel orientation which was so widespread at the time would survive the galloping secularisation which was clearly happening (in my youth, it was a sensible question to ask “which church do you go to?”; in my teens and twenties it was clear that my generation was by and large stopping going to church, but seemed to maintain much of the attitude I associated with being a “red letter” Christian; now the question “do you go to church?” is considered bizarre by most people – of course they don’t! The only bit of the country which has held to that track through thick and thin since then is Scotland, where the SNP look fairly green social liberal to me.

Against this, somehow Scandinavia seems to have managed to become, if anything, even more secular than the UK – but has still navigated a route to a thoroughly social-gospel compatible outlook being normative.

I wish I knew how to get there from here. Maybe, just maybe, we could remember that in my part of the country we were once part of the “Danelaw”, settled by Anglians from Denmark for the most part, and thus scattering placenames like “Fangfoss” and “Wetwang” around the countryside – my nearest city is York, which is derived from the Norse “Yorvik”. We could probably make common cause with those bits which were historically Celtic (obviously Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but also Cornwall). They seem to retain a little more of the green social liberal attitude as well.

Up with the Northmen, and down with those Saxons?

I can dream…



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