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Showing posts from February, 2008

The smedlium case

There's a short piece by me here on systems of measurement - for the philosophers among you. It's on something I call the smedlium case : Imagine a world quite similar to our own that contains large quantities of a metal-like material – let's call it smedlium – which gradually and unpredictably alters in size. All smedlium objects expand and contract in unison. At one o'clock on one particular day all the smedlium objects are 5% larger than they were at mid-day; at two o'clock they are all 10% smaller, and so on. Despite this peculiarity, smedlium remains a useful material. In fact, it is the strongest and most durable material available. One of the inhabitants of this world builds machinery made wholly out of smedlium. The machines are used in situations where their size relative to non-smedlium objects doesn't matter. The smedlium engineer constructs and calibrates a measuring rule made out of smedlium to use when manufacturing such machines. She measures dim

Ice climbing Scotland

Just been to Fort William for ice climbing, but it was a wash out due to weather. Got Fiacall Coulior and Invernookie done in the Cairngorms. I used a guide for one day, Chris Ensoll , who is an envangelical Christian, so we had some interesting chats. He's previously taken me up the Curtain , Comb Gully and Tower Ridge. Here's photo I took last time round - vanishing gully, at the point where it vanishes ( Alan Kimber in photo; Alan is in his early Sixties, so there is hope for us all). I recommend Chris Ensoll very strongly: he's totally unpretentious, friendly, genuine, enthusiastic, teaches you a lot, and goes out of his way to give you a good day - I'm booking him for 9 or 10 days in Chamonix next summer (09) to do big harder stuff that would otherwise be beyond me.

Alan Bennett: Ban private schools

Those of you that have been reading this blog for a while will know that I have spent some time arguing for the abolition of private schools . I just noticed Alan Bennett takes the same view . By the way, today's Independent (p.2.) reports that "Students from poor backgrounds 'catch up' at university". There's an interesting experiment going on at St George's Medical School in London, where you need only show that your A level results are 60% better than the average for your school to get in. Yet, in their first year final exams, these students' marks were only 1 percent lower than those admitted under the standard route. Here's a further little bit of evidence to support my earlier contention that we have nothing remotely like a meritocracy in this country. And, assuming we want those with the most native wit and talent to fly highest, nor will we until we ban private schools, which allow a small minority of parents to buy their own second-rat

Mystical experiences

We have been discussing mystical experiences with Ibrahim Lawson (who defends a sort of Islamic mysticism) and others. Let's sum up a bit: I am sceptical about such experiences for many reasons including these three: (1) It seems to me we have good reason to expect people to report mystical experiences anyway , whether or not any mystical reality exists , because of what we know about human beings, including that: (i) they are prone to all sorts of weird experiences (on a scale ranging from fairly everyday moments of euphoria, etc. to full-blown schizophrenic hallucinations, delusions, etc.). (ii) that they are amazingly prone to the power of suggestion , which can shape what they experience. Why is it that the Romans experienced Zeus, the Norse experienced Thor, and Catholics Mary? Clearly, the power of suggestion is very much involved in shaping these experiences. And once we have acknowledged that, we surely have to take seriously the possibility that in many cases, they are wh

Ibrahim on rhetoric and sophistry vs. reason

Ibrahim Lawson says here (scroll to end) that, in defending Islam, "The ‘reasoning’ I would use might resemble appeal to evidence and argument but would not be functioning as such, having been uprooted from its empiricist context, so to speak. It would resemble more a rhetorical form of argument or sophistry, which has got itself a bad name in the western tradition. But let’s not forget, the purpose of having an argument is to win; it’s only you rationalists who insist on the use of reason exclusively, and, like good catholics, have declared all other forms of argument heretical. So I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere while the criticism of religious belief is that there is no evidence to justify it and that it is therefore indistinguishable from any arbitrary belief you can invent or indeed, schizophrenia..." STEPHEN RESPONDS: I agree with anticant - " the purpose of an argument is to win" is a quite extraordinary thing to say (note the " the "

A mystical poem

Ibrahim has posted a poem to illustrate the mystical Islamic tradition that he admires. Ibrahim in italics. It's in response to my posting on intellectual black holes (which you should probably read first). My comments follow: IBRAHIM WRITES: I am posting the following as an example of a text from within the Islamic mystical tradition. The author is Muhammad ibn al-Habib, a Moroccan shaykh who died in 1972 (see Wikipedia). It offers a view onto a non-rationalist tradition, which is either nothing but fantasy and imagination (or simple insanity), or an internally coherent and viable worldview shared and practised by millions of adherents past and present – or both. Note the stanza which appears towards the end: “Strip yourselves of all knowledge and understanding”. This is a technique which is referred to in other mystical traditions: “Except that ye be as little children…” and “In pursuit of knowledge, every day something is acquired; in pursuit of the Tao, every day something is

Ibrahim Lawson responds to last post

Here's Ibrahim's latest response to the immediately preceding post on religion and intellectual black holes. I think your piece on the ‘madness’ of mystical beliefs is very apposite and highlights the difference between us very well. I would add that the contributor who cites Lois Theroux’s work raises a similar point. I saw the program on white racists and the two girls being brought up to be pop stars singing racist songs who seemed to be quite comfortable with the abhorrent ideology their parents were imposing on them. This raises the quite valid question as to how a committed ‘non-‘, ‘anti-‘, ‘ir-‘ or supra-rationalist such as I may be can justify their own particular brand of ‘mythos’ as the only ‘true’ one having apparently denied any grounds on which this might be done. You suggest that these ‘mythoi’ may be cultural memes that evolve according to some sociological principle until such time as ‘rationalism’ emerges and puts a stop to the process by providing clearly o

Religion, and intellectual black holes

[This is partly in response to some excellent comments on the preceding post: The Emperor's New Clothes . Commentators have suggested that appeals to God's mysteriousness and ineffability in order to deal with rational objections can be perfectly legitimate. Possibly, but read on...] Suppose I believe in an evil God. A supremely evil and powerful being. God is hate. Sometimes I even appear to sense this at some deep level of my being. The world seems to me infused with a ghastly, horrific pallor that reflects the infinitely depraved character of its maker (apparently, such horrific visions are not uncommon among some mentally deranged folk). So gripped am I by this vision of the world that I even write poetry about it in attempt to express what it seems to me I have glimpsed of the fundamental character of reality. You, of course, think I must be a borderline nutcase. You point out there’s a great deal of evidence against the existence of such an evil being. Why on earth would

The Emperor's New Clothes

This is a brief response to the several comments Ibrahim Lawson has made here and here . Ibrahim has been defending Islam by suggesting that Islam is mystical, beyond the reach of reason, etc. Hello Ibrahim The appeal to mystery and the mystical has of course been a bog-standard technique of cultists and other purveyors of snake oil down through the centuries whenever they are accused of talking cobblers. Pointing out that their belief makes no sense provokes such responses as - "But you are arrogantly applying Western-techno-rationality, yet failing to acknowledge its own limits." "It does all make sense - only in some profound way inaccessible to us mere humans." and so on... In this way, the cultists make a virtue of the fact their belief system doesn't make any sense (indeed a logical contradiction in what they believe is considered a plus!) The failure is not theirs for believing a load of patent nonsense, but ours for failing to be humble enough to reco

Psychic powers

Incidentally, talking of psychic powers, not everyone who shows an amazing ability is necessarily deliberately deceiving others (though most are). Funnily enough I discovered this myself, doing a silly card trick with two friends. My first friend and I set up a "mind-reading" situation where he would ask the colour of the next card and I would guess. The clue was he'd say "right" or "ok" depending on whether it was black or red. We appeared to start doing it just mucking around, when we had in fact carefully rehearsed. We made sure we included a few mistakes to add credibility. We were curious to see how long it would take before our other friends rumbled us. One other friend was amazed, so we tested her. And she found she could do it too. She got more and more excited as she got card after card right - apparently using her own "psychic powers". She was subliminally reading the same clues, of course. Her disappointment on discovering how sh

Sally Morgan - Star Psychic

Sally is a psychic. She communicates with your dead relatives, who are standing right next to you. I watched a bit of two of her shows (ITV2 Wed 11pm) a few weeks back. She had a rather cynical TV presenter celeb on, and proceeded to tell him all sorts of details about his life, including that he was about to sign up for a big new tv deal, that he had a flat in Brighton and was thinking of buying another, etc. How did she do it? Most of this information was not, I guess, Google-able. The TV celeb was certainly amazed. So was comedienne Rhonna Cameron, who got a reading on a different episode. Rhonna was very sceptical, but ended up getting tearful as Sally scored hit after hit, even being able to say she had two dogs that had died, being able to name dead relatives, the dogs, all of whom were supposedly right there in the room, etc. etc. I'd be very interested to get more information on Sally Morgan's techniques. I believe that psychics do pool info about clients, but these pe

The Scouts clarify: atheists are not welcome

Just been listening to a debate on Radio 5 live between Derek Twine (Scouts) and Keith Porteus Wood (Nat. Secular Soc.). The Scouts require all members swear an oath to God. The NSS wants this oath optional, as atheist children are thereby excluded (or else must lie). Derek Twine pointed out that those of other faiths are welcome - Sikhs, Hindus, etc. But he made clear that those of none are not. Scouts welcome everyone - except atheists . Should the Scouts be free to discriminate in this way, or not? Is this like e.g. a political club discriminating against those of other political persuasions (ok, surely), or more like a golf club discriminating against women/black people (not ok, I think)? POST SCRIPT at 14.57pm. One thought I have had about this is, whether or not the discrimination is morally permitted (I don't think it is - but I'll explain why later) , there's something slightly distasteful about it . As there would be if secularists started up a similar organizati