Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Mr Magoriums Wonder Emporium

I am watching this film as I start typing this post, which is fun and light-hearted, and Christmassy, but there was one comment or quote that stuck out for me.

Molly Mahoney is talking to a new accountant, and tells him "you are a 'just' person. This is 'just' a store, that is 'just' a tree, or 'just' a bench." (the quote is not exact, but that is the essence). It struck me as an interesting description of someone.

I think a lot of people are 'just' people - all they see is the physical world, the practical aspects. They miss the wonder, the beauty, the divine in the reality.

Let me take an example from church life - communion. There are a number of different interpretations of the communion elements, from being the actual body and blood of Jesus to being simply bread and wine used to represent these. I am on the latter side quite strongly. In truth, I tend towards saying that they are 'just' ordinary bread and wine.

And yet, when taken in context, they are a representation of something else. They may be, to all common chemical analysis, the same bread and wine you might eat the rest of the week, but they are there are something to represent a greater reality, a greater truth.

I don't go all mystical about it - the idea that they actually transform into something else is, for me, ridiculous. I could take them and find that their composition shows them clearly to be bread and wine. But, as I take them, THIS piece of bread is, for me, Jesus body; THIS sip of wine is, for me, his blood. They are symbols of something else, something more. They are not 'just' bread and wine - they are bread and wine and meaning.

It is the same idea when people say the church is 'just' a building, or even 'just' a group of people. Or an internet site is 'just' a discussion board. Yes, they are those things, but they can represent something more, something with significance. In the end, there is no reason I should meet with God more in one place than another, but I do. There are places where that touching the spiritual, engaging with something more, happens more easily. There are discussions that take place online that are important, significant.

This presents two problems: Firstly, 'just' people miss out on the wonder that there is. They so often see places in simple terms - windy, cold, ripe for development. They miss seeing the beauty, the spirituality, the other about things, people, places. I feel sorry for them actually, because it must be like seeing everything in black and white, and missing all of the colour.

Secondly, 'just' people tend to destroy the important places and things. If it is 'just' a tree, it doesn't really matter if it has to go. If it is a special tree for some people, then maybe it does, maybe it has more significance than other trees. Maybe it is important to save it. Maybe it cannot so easily be replaced.

No, I don't believe in magic as in this film. But I do believe that there is more than 'just' what we can see. And I believe that the more may be the most important parts.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

The lunatics have taken over the asylum

Back in the day, when I first joined the Green party, we had a credibility problem. The problem was that the party was thought to be filled with ex-hippies with odd fringe ideas. In truth, we probably did attract people with peculiar views, because the idea of a political party focused around the environment was pretty extreme.

These days, it seems that some of the same odd fringe ideas are getting traction in government. Let me give some examples:

Homeopathy. All sorts of alternative therapy ideas were very trendy, some of which have been found to have a solid basis, or at least provide some viable relief. One of these is homeopathy. Despite a commons report indicating that there is no evidence found for homeopathy to work, David Tredinnick seems to be supporting it and questioning the science that disproves it.

Over the summer, there were a number of people calling for homeopathic treatment for Ebola. So this is not an isolated incident. It seems that belief in homeopathy is alive and well in the heart of government - precisely what many critics of the Greens were afraid of if they voted for them.

Let me state it here clearly, in case there is any confusion: homeopathy is baseless, does not work, and should not be promoted as a serious medical discipline. It has placebo effects, but no more. That anyone in government could be considering promoting it or supporting it is a disgrace.

Climate change denial. Now of course, the greens have never really attracted any of these. However, in the early days, the idea of climate change - especially as caused by humans - was very fringe, very extreme. These days, the scientific evidence is absolutely clear, there is no doubt that climate change is happening, or that it is being caused by our actions. And yet we still have in government people like Owen Paterson, who rejects the clear scientific evidence. He is not alone - there are climate change deniers at the heart of government.

There are many reasons for rejecting the idea of climate change caused by us, but science is not one. The fact that there is not 100% agreement (more like 99%) is just the nature of the scientific process - it is rare to get 100% agreement. The evidence of the scientific community is overwhelmingly in favour of human-cause climate change. The focus should be on changing this, not arguing against it.

These are the main two areas that I have seen recently. Both are flying in the face of scientific evidence. I do not think that science has all of the answers, I do think there is more to life than that. But where there is a scientific conclusion, I have to accept that, however much I may dislike it. Science has dis-proven homeopathy. Science has supported climate change caused by us. Now I have to get on with it. I can make other arguments, but what I cannot do is argue that the science is wrong.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Reality is overrated

Ok, this one is going to be a roller-coaster, but stick with me. I believe that reality as we experience it is true, but I cannot prove it. In fact, I would argue that it is unproveable. We could be living in a matrix-like reality but we would never know.

I compare to The Matrix deliberately, because they actually had a grasp on the way it could be. Everything we know and experience comes to us through our senses. We take these sensory inputs and process them into impressions of the reality around us, and then into memories. we interpret the sensory inputs through our memories, meaning that they are no more than another sensory input. In fact, our understanding and interpretation of "now" and what we are currently experiencing is simply a set of neurological stimuli.

"OK," you say, "I know some biology, and this is all stored in our brains. so what?" The thing is, all of the biology you know has come via your senses, all of the knowledge that we have, all of the scientific explanation of the reality around us we obtain comes via our senses. We cannot actually know whether our interpretation of reality is accurate, because we have no external frame of reference to explore it from. All we know is that every source of data input into what we know as our consciousness presents a consistent picture that we call reality, and that we can rely on. There is no way that we can know whether this is because it is an external reality or because our interpretation of a generation form of reality is consistent. What is more, because we have a predilection for consistency, it is very hard to know whether even our individual perception of reality is consistent, or whether we simply interpret the reality that we are presented with in a way that is consistent.

What we do find, as we study the way the human mind works is that our ability to impose our personal worldview on the sensory input we receive is quite remarkable. What we find is that any data that doesn't fit in with our worldview - or explanatory picture of how reality is - we tend to reject. This is why it is very difficult to convince somebody that they are wrong in a basic way - that their faith, for example, is mistaken. It is why we often find people stay in abusive situations stay there, because to reject them or get out is a challenge to their worldview. When they do, it can be very damaging to them, because their view of how reality is has been challenged and it takes time to restore this.

The question of whether what we experience is true or not is disturbing to some people. I don't find this, because it doesn't actually make a lot of difference. We can behave as if what we experience is real. But it is useful sometimes to sit back and consider if this core principle is actually one we can demonstrate or not - and it turns out that we are really taking it as a core principle - that is, on faith. Everything else builds on the assumption that the reality we experience has something more concrete than simply our neurological responses to it. But it may not.

There are two points to all of this. Firstly, there is an acknowledgement that our interpretation of reality is based on our own sensory inputs. This understanding is crucial, because, even assuming that the reality we perceive has an existence beyond ourselves, OUR individual reality may differ from another persons. In fact, it will, because it is ALWAYS mitigated by our consciousness.

Secondly, it means that we cannot escape from the possibility that reality is as consistent as it is because it is our own creation. The consistency of reality is important - we can predict and interpret what is going on in other galaxies because we are certain that all of reality follows the same core laws and principles. What we cannot be certain of is whether this consistency is because reality is consistent, or because reality is all our own interpretation.

This is where the matrix references come back full circle. Red pill or blue pill? If you take the red pill, then reality is, you are a human being living in it, and everything is exactly as it was before. You believe what you want. If you take the blue pill, though, you realise that all we take for granted, all the certainties we thought we knew, are gone. It may not make much difference to how you actually behave, how you handle life. There is no way of getting beyond the matrix. But you know just how tenuous this reality is. If your mind survives.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Are we alone?

One important question that is raised repeatedly - and is raised in "What I Believe but Cannot Prove" - is the important issue of whether we are alone in the universe.

It is important to distinguish two questions here: is there other life in the universe; and is there other intelligent life in the universe? These are fundamentally different questions, and have different implications. Firstly, what do I mean by "intelligent life"? I would count this as any species who has an awareness of themselves. It therefore implies that they could have an awareness of other beings in the universe.

So, is there other life in the universe? That is, are there other planets where life has independently evolved? The evidence we have from this planet, and the other planets we have investigated in our solar system, does suggest that life in some form is incredibly resilient, and will find a way to survive in the harshest of conditions. It would seem reasonable to surmise that, if life has evolved anywhere, it would find a way to survive. The question then comes down to whether life had evolved elsewhere, whether the miracle and wonder of life is commonplace or rare.

The question of whether there is life elsewhere boils down to whether the core processes that generate life are common or not, are they easy and natural processes that we can expect to occur everywhere or not? This is actually a harder question to answer that it might seem. While the core chemical components of life are relatively common - Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen - the complexity of the appropriate combination, the necessity for a few other chemicals, the combination of the compounds to make the required amino-acids, the combination of these to produce basic life: these processes are very complex, very difficult. A single celled organism is, in truth, an incredibly complex piece of chemical engineering. How often is this likely to have happened in the universe?

Of course, the universe is very large, so something that will only occur very infrequently will still occur thousands or millions of times. What is more, we don't know whether the processes that turn a few chemicals into life are common or not. We know that if life can start, it seems to be able to adapt to whatever situation, but does it start easily, or only very occasionally? We don't know, and the answer is crucial. If it is common and easy, then we should expect life in many places. If it is not, then life may be very uncommon, even unique.

The second question, about intelligent life, is a different question. For this to have occurred, it requires not just any life environment to be available, but a very stable one, over a long time. this is needed to enable highly complex life to evolve and settle. Our own planet is very unusual - the large moon jeeps it stable in orbit, the goldilocks zone location makes it ideal for a wide variety of life, the presence of larger planets helps to keep the worst of the space debris away from us. How common is a good, stable environment for highly complex life to evolve in the universe? The unusual nature of our situation, the very strange situation that we find ourselves in would suggest to me that we are unusual. Even if life is common, the idea that it should have developed self-awareness seems to require a very unusual state of affairs - our Earths situation is accepted to be peculiar, unusual, very unexpected. Of course, intelligent life doesn't need a situation exactly like ours, but it does need a stable environment. And we do not know how common stable environments are, however they are created.

In the end, there are tow possibilities: We are alone as intelligent beings in the universe, or; we are not alone as intelligent beings in the universe. We have no idea which of these is the reality, but either option gives us a challenge. To be alone should make us value ourselves far more than we do - to treat life as lightly as we do if we are alone is reckless. To be one of many intelligences in the universe should make us consider just how we might appear to others.

The question may be just an interesting point to muse, but the implications of whichever route we go should challenge us and make us thing.

Friday, 12 December 2014

What I believe but cannot prove

I am currently reading a book from the site Edge, asking this question. So I thought it would be an interesting question to answer - what do I believe but cannot prove?

The thing I believe but cannot prove is that there exists a spiritual realm, that there exists reality that is not subject to empirical validation or testing. This is not only something that I cannot prove, but it is unproveable, in terms of scientific or empirical proof. In particular, the empiricist requirement that events are repeatable - I believe that there are events that are one-offs, that are not repeatable whatever you do.

I have deliberately not said "I believe there is a God" - actually, that is a development of the belief that there is a spiritual realm, and one that I would support, but that is an argument you can only start to make if you accept the assumption that there is a spiritual realm of reality, and that this is "real" just as much as the more physical world around us. I will be doing a post later exploring the meaning of reality, because even that is not as solid or defined as we might like or assume.

There are two things that this belief is not doing. Firstly, it is not a rejection of the scientific basis for understanding the reality around us. Trees do not grow because of "mystical spiritual power" - they grow because of reasonably well understood biological processes, because of scientific principles. All I am saying is that the empirical, scientific reality is not all. Of course, this cannot be "proved" in any sense, especially not to someone who starts from the requirement of empirical definition. In fact it is also a matter of belief that is unproveable that the empirical reality is all there is. If that is your belief, and you only accept proof within that context, than I cannot "prove" to you that this is wrong.

Secondly, it is not saying that the spiritual "has to be", to account for things that are not yet explained. I am not arguing for a "God of the Gaps" belief system, because that is a very dangerous and mistaken approach to take. The spiritual reality is not a necessity, which doesn't mean that it isn't real. What it means is that however much scientific advances progress, it will not be squeezed out, because they are not occupying the same ontological space.

What it is doing is saying that science is wonderful, awesome and amazing at helping us to understand the world around us. It can tell me how a tree grows, how and why it progresses through the seasons, it can even go some way towards explaining why I get an emotional response seeing it in various states and stages - and why I can appropriately mourn when it dies. It can explain all of that. And yet, there is still more. There is something in the wonder of a tree, of life, of existence, of reality that is way beyond the scientific empirical definition. There is a spiritual reality in parallel.

So I believe at least.

Friday, 5 December 2014

There is a country

There is a country that needs something done about it. It is a country where violence is endemic. Where the population are armed, sometimes very heavily, because they need to protect themselves against other members of the population, who are also armed.

Of course, in this situation, there are often tragedies, where misunderstandings lead to deaths. That is just the price they feel they have to pay for the safety and security that their weapons give them. There are also cases where young people get hold of weapons, and kill themselves or others. Or disgruntled teenagers shoot up their schools. This is, sadly, the price they have to pay for being safe.

Unfortunately, the country does have a long history of racism and racial oppression. This is not to say that everyone who lives there is racist, just that the the dominant race does have all of the privileges, and the other races are considered to be of the criminal classes by the authorities. This is particularly an issue because of the prevalence of guns, meaning that the security forces are well armed, and will often shoot first. Of course, if they shoot a member of the criminal classes, they are simply protecting themselves, because there is a good chance they are armed.

The final irony is that this country, where nobody is safe, so everyone has to be armed (or everyone has to be armed, so nobody is safe), where racism is endemic, where people can be shot and killed simply for the colour of their skin, calls itself "The Land of the Free". There's the irony - if you are in the privileged group (Wealth, White and Christian) then you are free. But that freedom comes at the expense of the non-privileged.

Freedom for the blindfolded. Freedom at one end of a gun.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Sporting injuries

It is a strange phenomena, but when someone died while pursuing their chosen sport, as Philip Hughes did last week, it seems to hit us very hard. Everyone is shocked. And yet people aged 25 and less die every day, some of them may well be very talented people, who also never get to show their talent

This BBC article addresses this to an extent, because these people are the heroes of our times, they are achieving things that we could never do, despite the fact that we share the same basic physiology. But they are also people that we hero-worship, to greater or lesser degrees. Personally, I follow Formula one, where we have not had a fatality for a long time, which is really good news. However this season, Jules Bianchi had a very serious accident, and is still in hospital being treated, and will be for a long time yet. He demonstrates the dangers of the sport, dangers that are managed to a large extent, but not removed completely. Accidents in F1 demonstrate the skill that the drivers need to not have accidents more often. Bianchi demonstrates why accidents at this sort of speed, even in very safe cars, can still be very dangerous.

But I think there is another reason. When someone in the public eye dies unexpectedly it serves as a focus for our grief - grief for many others, grief for those we have not been able to mourn because there has been too many. It focusses feelings that people experience the rest of the time, but cannot explore.

This is why the comments that so often come that "hundreds of people die in x-country every day" are, I think, unhelpful. Yes, lots of people whose names we don't know die each day. Every one is a tragedy. If we were to let ourselves mourn each one by name, we would be overcome by grief, by the senselessness of it all, by a nihilism, because we, as humans, are not designed to take that level of grief. It would destroy us. But we feel it.

When we have a name we can put this grief onto, it is helpful, cathartic. When we see someone who is engaging in an entertainment activity (which sporting is, for the non-participants), we can focus the waste, the tragedy. We can grieve for one person, but in that, grieve for all of those who die needlessly, pointlessly, too young. And we can acknowledge that everyone dies "too young", we always want another day, another week, another year.

So yes, we are shocked when sports people die or are seriously injured. But I think this is because we are shocked when anyone dies, and this is our only way of expressing the pain of the hundreds and thousands of deaths that occur daily. We are made to exist in a social environment, but a small one of hundreds. We are, I think, overwhelmed by the social community that is the whole world. That is too much.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Purists in the Church?

"Purists brush this dilemma testily aside because it’s Mothering Sunday. They would no more say Mother’s Day than they would split an infinitive or drop litter. Such people make up ninety-eight per cent of the population of the UK’s Cathedral Closes." Catherine Fox, Acts and Omission.

 This is an excellent book, and well worth a read, but this particular passage stood out for me when I read it, because I do wonder whether this is true, and whether it is a problem. Earlier, there is a discussion about whether it is a Christening or a Baptism ("A baptism is simply a christening whose significance has been properly understood."), a discussion in real life which did reveal the pedantry that some people have for words.

Personally, I use Mothering Sunday and Mothers Day pretty well interchangeably. For personal reasons, I don't especially celebrate it as a major festival, as some do, but I don't have any problems over what to call it. Language changes, develops, lives, and while there are changes that should be resisted (not all change is good), there are many which are just part of the natural development. Do those people who insist on it being Mothering Sunday also refuse to give out flowers to mothers, because it isn't about mothers, it is about the Mother Church?

But is it a problem that some people are language purists? As a general rule, not at all - we need some people to be focused on accuracy, precision and correctness. We need the conservative pull to ensure that language actually means something, that we retain some semblance of communicability about ideas more complex than the colour of nail polish.

The problem I have is that "such people make up ninety-eight per cent of the population of the UK’s Cathedral Closes" - in other words, this is seen as a positive trait within the church hierarchy. In case those who are not Anglican want to feel superior, the same attitude is present in other churches, to various degrees and in different ways. Even in non-hierarchical churches, the people who rise to the top tend to be the ones who are purists for the particular style and form of that congregation.

I am reminded of the history of the language used in the New Testament - known as Koine Greek. When this was originally seen, it was thought that the style, which differed from most of the other official documents found, was a special, high form of the language used for spiritual writing. In fact, it was a common form of Greek, used for non-formal communication. The New Testament was written in Facebook and Twitter language, not literary language. They would have referred to Mother's Day.

If the Bible was written in language that ordinary people use, because it was written for ordinary people to read (not entirely, because not everyone could read), surely we should worship in normal language, surely knowing what LOL stands for should be more important than knowing that it is Mothering Sunday? Surely a concern to keep up with changing language should be more important than a conservative resistance to change?

In case you have missed it, I am not promoting change for the sake of change. I do think that those who seek to oppose change have an important place (I am not one of those, and I often clash with them, but I accept that they have a place to provide balance). I am just not sure that this place is populating the senior ranks of the church - any church. Because purism is seen as very elitist, and elitism gives a message of "we are better than you". Whereas the Christian message is "we are no better than you. We all need help".

So yes, I do know the difference. But I don't care - there are far more important things to care about.