On the suitability of politicians…

June 6th, 2017
by Chris

I’m imagining a conversation in Ancient Rome:-

“You really ought to condemn all this trash talk about Senator Incitatus – after all, I condemned the trash talk about Senator Asinius”

“But there really is no comparison between Incitatus and Asinius – what was said about Asinius was slander, and on the whole he did a pretty good job, whereas Incitatus is completely unfitted to be a Roman Senator”

“Even so, fairness dictates that you should condemn all this trash talk about Incitatus and give him a chance – after all, he’s hardly been in post a year…”

“No, look, there REALLY is no comparison. Asinius was, after all, human, but Incitatus is a horse”

“Left-wing bigotry!”

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The Social Gospel: a mandate for our whole society

June 4th, 2017
by Chris

Some while ago, I found myself (in the course of my editing work, which not infrequently involves trying to improve texts which adopt a theology I cringe at) trying to improve a book which basically argued against any attempt to implement the “social gospel” thought government action. I won’t link to that; I really would prefer it if no-one read it. Yes, it was my job to do that (in the same way as once upon a time I found myself arguing cases in court which I thought should lose, and not infrequently winning them), but just as in those cases I feel somewhat guilty for doing it. The author, in the broadest terms, was advancing the case that it was the job of the church (not the state) to care for the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the sick and generally those without the most basic needs of human existence (Matt. 25:31-46), and that the state (in essence) took money from individuals under the threat of force, and therefore any such expenditure was immoral.

Morgan Guyton has an excellent piece countering the first of these arguments. That bites even harder in my country than in his, as weekly church attendance in the States is still fairly healthy at 20%+, while in my country it’s around 5%. However, I also have the benefit of having studied the history of England in the 19th and early 20th centuries at what I think equates to “college” level in the States.

If you go back to the dawn of the Industrial Revolution here, parishes cared for the needy within their parish. They didn’t always do it very well, but all parishes did it. The economy was largely rural, and there was a lot of social cohesion in farming communities anyhow; in towns and cities, there were masses of parishes, and there were also guilds which cared for the needy within their numbers. Tithing was ubiquitous up to Tudor times (and, with an established church, no-one was exempt), and then contributions via property rates were made under the Poor Laws. Then came the massive movement of workers away from the land and into cities, as the agricultural revolution axed the need for agricultual workers and the huge demand for cheap, mass-produced goods from England throughout the world (most of which didn’t catch up with industrialisation until significantly later) demanded masses of workers in the towns and cities. There was a hiccup for a while as mass production eliminated many skilled jobs, notably in the textile industries, but export led demand soon mopped up much of the surplus labour, albeit at a fraction of the skilled wages they had commanded.

In 1836, the new Poor Law dictated that relief should only be given within the system of workhouses which had been growing up in an attempt to stem the cost of caring for the poor. The workhouses were appalling places to find oneself, and my grandparents generation had, in general, a mortal fear of ending up “on the parish” as a result; they were organised round the principle that it should never be remotely attractive for someone to be in them (recent Conservative governments would regard that as “helping people to find work”…) and they magnificiently achieved that, except in a few isolated instances where those administering them thought, generally on good Christian principles, that caring for the needy should mean a little more than hard labour on starvation rations in prison-like surroundings. The system was also adorned with the bussing of people back to their “home parish” and by disqualification from voting for those receiving assistance in some cases, reminiscent of US disqualifications from assistance and voting both for “felons”. I regularly pass along a street called “Union Lane”, which now has several branches of the social welfare establishment spread along one side, which was named because before most of it was knocked down as being both supremely ugly and unfit for human habitation even by social workers, it was the site of the Union Workhouse. “Union” because it was operated by a union of several parishes rather than merely one. Some while ago I wrote about this, linking to a programme by Ian Hislop criticising the renaissance of the thinking which led to this, which is now available on You Tube (and not via the link I then gave); it repays another viewing.

The Liberal and then Labour governments of the first half of the 20th century rightly thought this system was barbaric, erratic and inadequate, and steadily dismantled it, culminating in the National Insurance Act of 1911, the 1946 National Health Service Act and the 1948 National Assistance Act which gave us a welfare state.

My point is that history shows that even in a country with around 90% church attendance and around 98% nominal Christianity, the charity of churches and their members failed miserably to meet the need – even in an age when, frankly, the payments to the church were backed up not only by immense moral pressure but also with force. No objections were made to the transition from relying on tithes to the Poor Law rates on the basis that this was effectively “demanding money with menaces”, which is what many conservatives seem to regard taxation as being (generally unless it’s to pay for inflated militaries or bailouts for companies…); the idea wasn’t something which could sensibly be thought  in those days.


Because by and large, people recognised that they were part of a community, and they were organising that community in accordance with Christian principles to care for the needy. It helped, perhaps, that not only was that community overwhelmingly Christian in at least nominal belief and in actual attendance, but the flavour of Christianity which the vast majority espoused was the established religion; it was so enmeshed with the state that the two could not be separated. In case any readers from the US should be under any misconception, the nation (in its communal aspect of parliament) controlled the church, rather than vice versa; it was nothing like a theocracy, at least from the mid 1700s onwards.

Separation of church and state is, of course, a principle dear to American hearts; their national myth is, after all, that the Pilgrim Fathers were escaping religious persecution in England (though in fact they were escaping religious tolerance in Holland and looking to set up their own near-theocracy in the New World), and insofar as that means that no-one should be discriminated against on the basis of religion, I agree with it. However, I think that separation is probably impractical and definitely problematic in theory.

Impractical because the example of the United States, the first country to espouse separation of church and state officially, is that it is more religiously oriented than any of the European democracies which still have, at least nominally, a state church. Much has been written recently about the co-option of Christianity into a sort of national religion of empire in the States, and there are disturbing suggestions that some politicians on the right in the States espouse a form of Christian Dominionism. Vladika Lazar Puhalo wrote: “We must remember that America is not actually a Christian nation because the religion of America is America, it is not Christ. Jesus Christ is a sort of misused ‘front’ for American self-worship, which often crosses the border into a nationalist idolatry.”

Problematic in theory because any politician needs to take with them into office their morality and ethics, and where those are founded in Christianity, saying that there must be separation of church and state starts looking like “leave your morality at the door when you enter government”. As this seems to be an extremely powerful drive in any event, judging by the crop of politicians both sides of the Atlantic at the moment, the last thing it needs is a theoretical underpinning. I can speak personally here, as someone who stood for elected office multiple times and who was elected as a local councillor over rather more than 20 years; I consider it right that, as a Christian, I looked to bring Christian principles into my expression of the will of the community as a whole. That would have been the case even if the majority here were not culturally inculcated into Christian principles even if only a small minority actually practice Christianity in any formal sense; if I could get elected, I would be elected precisely for my moral and ethical principles (together with their expression in my manifesto), and I would expect the same to apply to any Muslim, Jewish or other religious candidate (and, incidentally, having studied most of the great religions, a candidate espousing any of them would not as a result be debarred from attracting my vote – though anyone espousing Christian Dominionism certainly would!) No, we desperately need moral politicians, and I would prefer my candidate to have some religious or philosophical underpinnings for morality (there is no need for God to figure in those – humanism will do very nicely).

I need to stress this aspect of community. The right, and particularly the Libertarian strand of the right, consider that any infringement upon individual freedom is anathema. To them, government is intrinsically a bad thing, as it takes from the individual, under the threat of force, and applies the resulting taxes to something they would not want to buy for themselves. Notably, this is things like food and drink, medical attention and housing for their neighbour. If they are Christians, they will acknowledge that they are obliged to care for their neighbour, and will argue themselves blind that no-one should usurp their God-given right to fail to do that. Morgan Guyton has rightly pointed out that in the States that is happening now, and I have outlined some social history in England which comes to the same conclusion.

I do not consider that this fantasy of the Libertarians is warranted. None of us springs fully armed from our father’s brow; “it takes a village to raise a child” is a proverb hailing from Nigeria, but is very true – most of us are unable to fend for ourselves until aged well into double figures, and in a modern world full functioning may need to wait until at least our 20s. We are social animals, and John Locke’s “no man is an island” is as true now as it was when he wrote it. We all arrive at adulthood on the basis of a collossal amount of other people’s time and money, and, as we cannot sensibly pay those who spent so lavishly, fairness indicates that we should “pay it forward”. The article I link to, by the way, understates the parental contribution substantially and fails utterly to account for the whole societal infrastructure in which we are brought up. A reasonable estimate would probably indicate that our society had contributed substantially more than did our parents – and unless we elect to go and “live off the grid”, we continue to benefit from that. Much of that infrastructure is provided or at least contributed to by government. Thus, even if “government” were a dictatorship (as another part of the American founding myth wrongly thought King George was), it is very sensibly arguable that we grow up in debt to it, and should honour that debt (an argument made in huge detail several centuries ago by Thomas Hobbes – though he preferred a respresentative system – treating it as a “civil contract”).

But government is not a dictatorship on either side of the Atlantic; both the USA and the UK are democracies, though the USA is a republican democracy and the UK is technically a constitutional monarchy; both are, assuming their democracies work, ruled by the people for the people. I will grant that neither of those democracies works anything like perfectly at the moment, but that does not entirely delegitimate the government.

It is a source of continual surprise to me that so many conservatives have this view of government. One would have thought that obedience to government (involving both regard for authority and group loyalty, both conservative moral values) would have had some impact. Romans 13:1-2 would also indicate strongly that this should be a value which Christians should take seriously, though I confess that as a liberal it is not a value which I would ever place above fairness or care.

Perhaps, though, this conservative impulse involves defining the group to which they are loyal to exclude, for example, the poor? The poor, after all, are inclined to be smelly and messy, which excites conservative values of purity, and may well not be good church-goers (assuming they are allowed and welcomed in church, which is far from being the case). I do not think we can be good Christians and exclude anyone from “our community” or “our people”, however; Jesus reached out to the poor, the sick, the ritually unclean, the morally dubious, the foreigner, the member of an heretical religion and the enemy soldier of the occupying power. Oh, and women and children, of course… Frankly, I think that if you are excited by a purity instinct, you should consider that the poor are smelly and messy and disruptive largely precisely because they are poor, and purity can as well be satisfied by giving them sufficient that they are not poor any more. Give to someone sufficient to raise them from the lowest, mere subsistence level of Maslow’s hierarchy and they will usually stop being smelly, messy and disruptive – and if they don’t, it’s probably because they’re ill, and require another element of basic care.

Given that we cannot in conscience exclude anyone from our community, I fail to see why conservatives are not moved by the fact that the presence of poor and marginalised people reflects upon all members of the community – the adage that a community is only as rich as its poorest member seems to have no traction.

But, of course, a primary conservative value which Jonathan Haidt does not identify is the reverence for private property. I questioned whether this was something which had a sound foundation some time ago; I fancy that the controlling texts should probably be “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” (Ps. 24:1) and “Give unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s” (Mark 12:17), even if I did not argue that the fundamental sin which might just be original is in fact self-centredness and that the pursuit of profit (possessions) is the foundation of following Satan. And no, I am not a paragon of virtue in this respect; I have not sold everything I have and given it to the poor – or even half of it. Recognising, however, that I probably should have done this, I really am in no position to complain that I am taxed to provide for the community at large; if that taxation provided reasonably adequately for everyone in my community, I could feel less guilty about keeping possessions other than those I was actually using at the time – but it does not, so I will consistently vote for parties which want to tax more and provide more benefits – and I will feel good about paying the resulting tax bill.

There is, however, one value shared by liberals and conservatives alike, fairness, which leads to difficulties here. To the conservative, it is fair that he who works should not have to support he who does not work. The sentiment is summed up in a rhyme I learned many years ago (and for those who don’t remember pounds, shilling and pence, a sixpence was half of a shilling)
“What is a communist?
One who has yearnings
to share equal profits
from unequal earnings.
Be he idler or  bungler
or both, he is willing
to fork out his sixpence
and pocket your shilling”.
I feel that too, and indeed when I originally learned it, I agreed with it wholeheartedly (I hadn’t spent so many years reading the gospels then…). But I find that although there are always going to be those among us who want to freeload (just as there will always be the poor, although that statement should not excuse us from trying to eliminate poverty), most people want to work, and they want to work at something which seems useful. Although the parable of the vineyard is often used to justify huge discrepancy in rewards for work (and I’ll return to that in a moment), I think it should better be read as indicating that if you do work as much as you are able to (and that is what the later workers in the vineyard were doing) you should still receive a living wage.

To the liberal sensibility (and, I think, to at least some conservatives) fairness also demands that there should not be absolutely collossal differences in what people can earn from a day’s work. That is not to say that there should be no difference at all (or that the Marxist maxim of “from each according to his abilities to each according to his needs” should be strictly adhered to, just that it is difficult-to-impossible for most of us to see fairness where one person “earns” in an hour what another couldn’t earn in years.

There seems to be, among at least some conservatives, a trusting faith that “the market” means that a person is paid what they are worth, without examining whether there is any foundation for that. I really can’t see that that is well-founded when (for instance) a trainee salesman can earn many times what a qualified nurse earns, given that he’s selling a reasonably high-value product. “The market” seems to have little or sometimes no regard for how long people have to train in order to be able to do the job, how many years experience they have doing it, how dangerous or unpleasant it is or any of a number of other factors which a normal person might think should lead to higher wages.

Equally, there seems to be a persistent belief that everyone can educate themselves into a position where they can succeed. This seems particularly prevalent among Americans, coupled with the “work hard and you’ll succeed” myth. That just plain isn’t true either, and it’s getting less true as the jobs which haven’t been automated require more and more training and ability in order to do them. An increasing percentage of people just don’t have the capacity to be trained to the point at which they can command serious wages (as the skill level of the jobs increases) and things are made worse by the advances in technology making old jobs redundant and providing new jobs which require retraining; these days, a “job for life” is increasingly a thing of the past, and people should expect to have to retrain every few years for an entirely new occupation. From what I can see, the majority of people just can’t do that, however hard they work at it.

As Christians, we should not assume that wealth means that we are worthy of that wealth. Allan Bevere writes:- “Indeed, if blessedness is conditional, then those in positions of wealth and power need to be concerned that their situation is a result of a certain character that results in being cursed. Thus, wealth and power are not the result of blessing; they are the result of a character disobedient to the covenant. While Matthew does not explicitly mention the character of those who are cursed, in Jesus’ Jewish context it is clearly implied. Luke makes the curses, the woes, explicit in his Sermon on the Plain” (Luke 6:22-26)

I need, however, to return to the concept of community. There has been a regrettable tendency in Christianity to focus on the individual; reformed and evangelical theology in particular think in terms of individual salvation; you are saved irrespective of the situation of other members of your family, or other members of your community. I think this is possibly very seriously flawed in the light of the Biblical witness.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly those charting, from a theological standpoint, the history of Israel, there is a regular pattern of ascribing success or failure of the whole people of Israel to how they have acted in respect of God’s commandments. A paradigmatic example of this is found in Isaiah 1:1-17, which ends with the words:- Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow”.

It is the people as a whole who are condemned by the Prophet, and it is the people as a whole who are suffering as a result – and their wrongdoing is precisely the communal lack of care for the oppressed and marginalised, in this case symbolised by the widow and the orphan (though they tend to be emblematic, the categories included in the Biblical injunctions to provide are not restricted to widows and orphans, but include the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the homeless and the foreigner). I have near certainty that among the people there will have been a few who adhered to all those injunctions, who were even charitable paragons of virtue – but, as I outlined earlier, their efforts were not enough. You need the whole society to be observant.

Now, I do not myself have a concept of God as one who will bring down on us foreign invasion, famine, plague or other natural disaster as a result of our communal failure to provide for those unable to provide adequately for themselves; I don’t think that God acts in the world in that way. But I do endorse the Prophet’s vision that our communal failure to provide for the least among us is a stain on our whole society. My own vision is that Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:37-40 need to be taken literally; we are failing to provide for Jesus himself inasmuch as we fail to provide for every one of the needy around us.

And we have to do that as a society, not just as a little group of people who have the same beliefs.

In the words of John Donne:-

“Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.  “



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The Living Years

June 1st, 2017
by Chris

A recent “Nakedly Examined Music” podcast featuring Steve Hackett threw me into a voyage of discovery into albums by members of Genesis other than those from the goup itself, and this resulted in me listening to “The Living Years” from Mike and the Mechanics, the eponymous Mike being Mike Rutherford, the Genesis bassist.

When that came out, it seems in 1988, I noted it as something I liked, but not much more than that. In 1988, however, I still had a full complement of parents (Mr. Rutherford wrote that after losing his father). My father died in 2001, my mother in 2014, and at this point the song really stikes home forcibly.

I definitely didn’t spend enough time talking with my father, in particular about religion and spirituality, but also about his immense life experience. I fancy he’d been somewhat traumatised by having an evangelical atheist son (as I was from around 9 to 14 years old) and was reluctant to argue, though actually there was huge room for discussion rather than argument during at least the last 10-15 years of his life. But I was busy, and preoccupied, and the time passed me by. I spent more time with my mother after that, but again only had about a year after I emerged from the depths of depression and was sensibly able to listen to her at length, and it wasn’t enough.

So, in the words of the song:-
Say it loud (say it loud), say it clear (oh say it clear)
You can listen as well as you hear
It’s too late (it’s too late) when we die (oh when we die)
To admit we don’t see eye to eye

If you’re lucky enough still to have parents, go and talk to them.

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Neighbourliness and it’s limits

May 24th, 2017
by Chris

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
by Chris

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
by Chris

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
by Chris

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
by Chris

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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We cannot merely pray…

April 28th, 2017
by Chris

In the course of editing a book by Bob LaRochelle (thanks, Bob!), I came across the quotation of a prayer by Rabbi Harold Kushner, the author of “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”, and need to share it:-

We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end war;
For we know that You have made the world in a way
So that all of us must find our own path to peace,
Within ourselves and with our neighbors.

We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end hunger;
For you have already given us the resources
With which to feed the entire world,
If we would only use them wisely.

We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to root out our prejudice;
For You have already given us eyes
With which to see the good in all people,
If we would only use them rightly.

We cannot merely pray to you, O God, to end despair;
For You have already given us the power
To clear away slums and to give hope,
If we would only use our power justly.

We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end disease;
For You have already given us great minds
With which to search out cures and healing,
If we could only use them constructively.

Therefore, we pray to You instead, O God,
For strength, determination, and courage,
To do instead of just to pray,
To become instead of merely to wish

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The (very) long view of history.

April 24th, 2017
by Chris

Many moons ago, my son was presented with an essay title for his History GCSE, which was on the causes of the First World War. He decided to talk to me about it.

The immediate cause was, of course, the network of alliances which had grown up between European powers which was intended to create a sort of detente, a situation where no-one could afford to be aggressive because of the likely invocation of alliances bringing in the then “big players”. History records, of course, that an agression by one of the more minor players, Serbia, via a terrorist act, resulted in the whole structure being mobilised – as were troops all over Europe. This is beautifully lampooned in a joke comparing the whole thing to a bar fight. Current commentators worry, not without reason, about minor players like the Baltics and Ukraine drawing Nato into a world conflict in the same way.

Looking to expand his appreciation of the broad sweep of history, I encouraged him to think about why there were competing ethnicities and religions in the area, and we traced that back by stages. His eventual essay (which got him an A*) stopped at Trajan’s Dacian wars – he was probably sensible in not going all the way to where our discussion ended, something like four hours after we started.

However, we didn’t stop there in conversation. The Dacian wars were at least in part caused by population pressure from the east. It was thus one of a series of waves of pressure on Europe from that direction, as tribes moved west over the whole area from Mongolia to the borders of Europe, each pressed by those to the east of them. Sometimes, the more eastern tribes actually managed to conquer and form alliances well enough for their members to arrive in Europe itself; the Huns were the first, followed by the Mongols; the Turks were another. In Trajan’s time, however, the Dacian movement was a knock-on effect. The Dacians were pressed by those east of them, such as the Scythians.

Why, we asked, did this set of waves of migration actually occur, and why hadn’t they happened earlier in the history of the Roman Empire? My best guess at this rested on climate change. Where there was a relatively wet, cool period, the homelands of the more eastern tribes and their natural raiding areas (largely China) became more fertile, producing an increasing ability to support population. The period in question was marked by a set of cycles of cool wet weather followed by warm dry weather, though, and when it turned warmer and dryer, the population in the east couldn’t be supported there any more. At the same time, warmer, dryer weather dried out the immense areas of marshland along the Dnepr river (including the well known Pripyat marshes) and lesser ones along the Don and Vistula rivers. What was, in wet weather, a hostile landscape for horse-warriors became plains which were ideal for large mounted operations, and effectively created a highway all the way through to the Balkans in the south and Germany in the north. It wasn’t just Europe which suffered this way; the Middle East had its own waves, for example that under Timur Leng which ended the golden age of Islam, that under Ghengis and Kublai Khan which replaced the native Chinese empire with a Mongol one for centuries, and that under Babur which founded the Mughal Empire in North India.

The ultimate cause was, therefore, changes in climate, which interacted with the predominantly horse-oriented nomadic culture of the eastern part of north Asia to produce very massive population movements.

I’ve been reminded of this by reading a New York Times article on how climate change produces migration. We focus a great deal when talking about Syria or Yemen on political issues, but the map at the beginning of that article makes clear the unacknowledged fact that from Syria down into the Arabian Peninsula, climate change is affecting the ability of the land to support population, and that is going to produce increased competition for the increasingly scare resources, wars and both economic migrants and those fleeing war and civil disorder. The same goes for a swathe of land through Sudan to the horn of Africa, and for areas in central West Africa as well, those being the source of much of the migration trying to cross the Mediterranean from the more Western points such as Libya. Americans should notice the intensity of red dots in the north of South America and in Central America.

Rome, of course, eventually collapsed in the fact of these waves of migrants, unable to stem the tide; the Goths, Vandals and Franks were pushed (largely by the Huns) westward, and took down the civilisation in the Western Empire; in the Eastern Empire it was the Turks in a later wave who dealt the coup de grace, though there had been an earlier Arab expansion (which I can’t connect to climate change, but which may well be another instance) which had done immeasurable damage first.

We’re a lot stronger than Rome was in Europe and America, of course. But we should perhaps wonder whether we can actually get away with merely building a wall along the Mexican border and fences along the long European border to the east. The Chinese had a frontier-long wall as well…

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