Showing posts with label Richard Dawkins. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Richard Dawkins. Show all posts

Friday, January 22, 2016

Dawkins and his dog

This short video shows Richard Dawkins in the company of his dog Tiger.

"We think we know what it's like to be a dog... and we don't. We delude ourselves. But that's part of what goes on when we love a dog. What am I doing with my dog? I'm empathizing. I'm making an imaginative leap to see the world from a dog's perspective."

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

An Oxford lady named Sarah Outen

In the website of Richard Dawkins, there's a charming presentation of a smart and adventurous young Oxford lady, a graduate in biology, named Sarah Outen [click here].

In July 2009, while rowing across the Indian Ocean, she sent Dawkins an email, indicating that she liked to listen (when her solar-powered batteries were operational) to the professor and his wife reading The God Delusion. Dawkins thanked her with a poem:
I’ve received a splendid email
From a most courageous female.
Battling onward to Mauritius,
Lone among the flying fishes,
Albatrosses, giant whales,
Turning turtle in the gales.
To hell with Health and Safety rules,
She’s in tune with tuna schools.
She’ll dance, while others dance in bars,
With pilot fish and Pilot Stars.
I have not the faintest notion
How to brave the Indian Ocean
In anything that keeps afloat,
Let alone a rowing boat.
But Sarah takes it in her stride,
And going with her, for the ride,
A book, or audio CD
Read by Lalla and by me.
To speed her trip to its conclusion
We’re reading her The God Delusion!

All godly tripe and tosh she’s doubtin’
So raise your glass to Sarah Outen.
I find these communications between Oxfordians most pleasant and stylish.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Same eyes, nose and mouth as our cousin ?

Don't take me seriously. I'm joking, while cynically evoking suggestions that might be made harmlessly by members of my family. Some people place a lot of emphasis upon the presence of comparable physical traits that I'm generally incapable, personally, of detecting to any recognizable extent whatsoever. A late aunt was even convinced that the sinuous form of certain hands in our family (her own hands in particular) was a clear proof that we descended from the Vikings. Although I never dared to tell her so, I found that belief utter hogwash.

Bodily and indeed psychological resemblances do in fact flow down from parents to their biological offspring, and are often displayed most strikingly in sporting achievements. But an observer needs to be wary of drawing conclusions. Two complementary questions spring into mind as soon as a researcher becomes interested in his/her genealogical origins:

• When we've assembled more-or-less factual data concerning interesting characteristics of one of our eight great-grandparents (who are often the most ancient ancestors about whom we've obtained relatively in-depth information), can we then assume that some living members of the researcher's present-day generations might be likely to express those same ancestral characteristics?

• Inversely, when we've found exceptional physical or psychological characteristics in a particular living member of the researcher's present-day generations, is it thinkable that our family-history research might enable us to identify a particular great-grandparent who could be looked upon as the biological source of those characteristics?

Questions of this kind arise, of course, when a family-history researcher happens to run into various disturbing ancestors. In my maternal-oriented book A Little Bit of Irish, I ran into ancestors in the bushranger domain, and I was tempted to wonder whether some of that behavior might have "rubbed off" onto members of recent generations. In the accompanying paternal-oriented book, They Sought the Last of Lands, I was particularly troubled by the crazy case of my English great-grandfather William Skyvington [1868-1959], and I couldn't help but wonder if I might have inherited a dangerous dose of his nutty fruitcake genes.

Let me drag into the picture my most-admired source of scientific wisdom: Richard Dawkins.

I would like to evoke his literary masterpiece of 2004, The Ancestor's Tale, which might be described as a time-reversed variation of The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan (1678).

Richard Dawkins is not at all the sort of person who makes a point of rambling on (like me) about his personal ancestors. It's not for want of expert knowledge about genealogical research that Dawkins remains underspoken about his ancestors; it's surely because he realizes (as I'm certain to realize sooner or later, if I become a little wiser) that we're likely to make silly blunders as soon as we dare to describe our personal ancestors as if we knew all about them. Here's how Dawkins speaks politely about his recent ancestors:
I remember my four grandparents clearly, but of my eight great-grandparents I know a handful of fragmentary anecdotes. One great-grandfather habitually sang a certain nonsense rhyme (which I can sing), but only while lacing his boots. Another was greedy for cream, and would knock the chess board over when losing. A third was a country doctor. That is about my limit. How have eight entire lives been so reduced? How, when the chain of informants connecting us back to the eyewitness seems so short, and human conversation so rich, could all those thousands of personal details that made up the lifetimes of eight human individuals be so fast forgotten?
Dawkins talks a little of a group of distinguished human beings: our Tasmanians. I referred to these exceptional people, who played a rather special role in the history of human beings, in an earlier blog post:

I strongly recommend this Dawkins tale to readers who would be interested in discovering the great writer in a pleasant readable context that is relatively free of difficult scientific technicalities, while steering totally clear of religious themes.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Charles Darwin [1809-1882] "relatively little known in France"

In view of my total enthusiasm for the work in evolutionary biology of my hero Richard Dawkins, it's surprising that I should be equally enthusiastic about living in France, where Charles Darwin [1809-1882], founder of the theory of evolution, is designated, rightly or wrongly, as "relatively little known". I prefer to think it's a journalistic slip of the pen. In any case, there's a presentation at the Cité des Sciences in Paris, until the end of July 2016,  of this illustrious Englishman Darwin and his research work.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Love letters to Richard Dawkins

This is the second video instalment of Richard Dawkins reading some of his hate mail. It’s hilarious.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Survival of the fittest

There's no doubt in my mind that Richard Dawkins will survive, for he's surely one of the fittest thinkers on our planet Earth.

The poor man (no doubt a millionaire) is constantly under attack. The latest case of mild anti-Dawkins impertinence comes from an unexpected critic: the great US biologist Edward Osborne Wilson, who’s a world authority on ants, and “the father of sociobiology” (the investigation of animals who live in a societal context).

During a recent BBC interview, Wilson was asked to comment upon differences between his views of natural selection and those of Dawkins. The 85-year-old Harvard professor replied:
“There is no dispute between me and Richard Dawkins and there never has been, because he’s a journalist, and journalists are people that report what the scientists have found and the arguments I’ve had have actually been with scientists doing research.”
Now, lots of people would be thrilled to be described as a journalist by a distinguished scientist such as Wilson, who has been awarded two Pulitzer Prizes for general non-fiction. If Wilson were to declare publicly that William Skyvington is a journalist, I would be awfully proud, and I would promptly start to inundate many of the world’s great newspapers with freelance articles… about my dog Fitzroy, for example. But I suspect that the former Oxford professor Richard Dawkins is not necessarily happy to be labeled as a mere journalist by an old fellow born in Alabama.

In fact, a couple of years ago, Dawkins sacrificed all chances of remaining a good buddy of the Harvard man when his review of Wilson’s latest book culminated in the following advice:
“… this is not a book to be tossed lightly aside. It should be thrown with great force. And sincere regret.”
Is the Wilson/Dawkins dispute merely a storm in an academic teacup between two strong egos? Not at all. Their conflict, very real and profound, concerns one of the most fundamental aspects of evolutionary theory. In a nutshell: When genetic mutations affect the “fitness” (survival potential) of members of a set of living creatures, how do we identify the beneficiaries (either positive, negative or neutral) of the newly-created situation?

At the risk of putting my neck on the block, I would say that, over the century and a half since the publication of The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin,  there have been three kinds of reactions to this question.

1. The nicest and most convenient answer is designated globally as adaptationism. The gist of this explanation is that mutations tend to modify all living creatures in such a way that future generations of their descendants will be better adapted to handling the challenges of their daily existence. In our “best of all possible worlds”, mutations enable giraffes to grow longer necks so that they’ll be able to reach tasty leaves on tall trees. These days, few folk (apart from religious crackpots of various flavors) would be content with this adaptationist answer… which doesn’t even take into account the ugly realities (see Dawkins for ample explanations) of giraffe necks.

2. Most observers have imagined, often on the basis of common sense, that evolution’s famous fitness to survive is to be applied to such-and-such a category of animals… where the term “category” usually means a family or a species. For example, mutations that camouflaged grubs with respect to their background (reducing their role as bird fodder) were “aimed” (insofar as evolution might be thought of as aiming at anything at all) at making life safer for grubs in general. These days, whenever evolutionary explanations of this kind are evoked, the keyword is “group”, since fitness for survival is thought of as affecting such-and-such a group to which the mutated specimens belong. And this remains the level at which E O Wilson seeks to interpret evolutionary theory.

3. Starting with the celebrated publication of The Selfish Gene in 1976, Richard Dawkins upset the apple cart by proclaiming that the primary beneficiaries of evolutionary mutations are not at all the bulky creatures (organisms) that we run into in the everyday world, but rather the tiny almost-abstract entities known as genes. Many would-be readers were put off by the book’s title. What on earth was this selfish little Homunculus, designated as a gene? Was Dawkins suggesting that this nasty invisible microbe, intent upon getting its way on the planet Earth, might be a scientific model for our human societies? What an ugly idea! But worse still, the explanations of Dawkins called upon a nice but often nasty concept: kinship.

In other words, not only are the Dawkins genes selfish, but they spend their time trying to keep things in the family, in notorious Sicilian traditions. [I'm joking, of course.]

Now, all I’ve just said is more or less true, and it’s easy to see that a conflict might have arisen between Wilson and Dawkins. The former prefers to imagine that genetic mutations make his ants and bees happier, whereas the latter asserts that egocentric genes don’t really give a sentimental shit about worldly entities (organisms) such as birds and bees; all they’re concerned about is their fellow-strings of DNA, devoid of souls, sentiments and subtle intentions.

The scientific arena is so terribly arid that it’s a godsend that two famous pugilists should arrive on the empty scene, and start slugging stupidly at one another. But Wilson versus Dawkins is a bad match. An unfair fight. It's not a question of age, but of acuity.

Now, to celebrate the victory of a fight that never really took place: If ever you weren’t familiar with Richard Dawkins, I suggest that you listen to our intellectual hero for a moment (28 minutes).

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Infinitesimally slow changes

Four sisters. Forty years. This simple and beautiful pictorial story started in 1975 with a delightful image.

— photo by Nicholas Nixon, annotated by William Skyvington

The original photo was taken in Connecticut by Nicholas Nixon, who happened to be the husband of the young woman named Bebe Brown. Afterwards—year in, year out, for 40 years—Nicholas called upon his wife and her sisters for the creation of an updated portrait. Click here to see the result, published by the New York Times.

I’m reminded of a fascinating theme for reflection, inspired by Richard Dawkins, concerning the impossibility of ascertaining the moment at which one kind of being is transformed into another kind of being, one species into another, one fossil into another. Was there a year in which the lovely Brown sisters ceased to be “girls”, changing into “young women”, followed by later years in which they became “women”, then “middle-aged women” ? No, it would be pointless, if not stupid, to seek such punctual moments. Everything happened gradually.

We are often tempted to imagine that life is punctuated by so-called events, when the present leaps instantly towards the future. In fact, time never “leaps”. It simply nudges imperceptibly forwards… as in the case of the Brown sisters.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Free Assange now!

Click to enlarge

Richard Dawkins has just retweeted a message from WikiLeaks informing us that, as of today, the UK has spent 7 million quid of taxpayers’ dough in their attempts to foil the asylum of Julian Assange.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Celebrated Gerin elixir

In my blog post of 6 October 2012, entitled Pierrot wanted a wife [display], I spoke of the local Gerin family, one of whom, Hippolyte Gerin [1884-1957], was the owner of my property at Gamone during the first half of the 20th century. I never knew exactly how Hippolyte earned his living on these beautiful but harsh Alpine slopes. Amazingly, the British scientist Richard Dawkins has provided a quite plausible answer. It would appear that members of that ancient family produced a celebrated elixir: a transparent narcotic substance that became known as Gerin Oil, which was beautifully bottled and marketed under the name Geriniol.

Click here to see Dawkins’s scholarly presentation of this strange affair.

PS Readers will have understood, I hope, that the terms "Gerin Oil" and "Geriniol" are simply anagrams of the word "religion". I guess that Dawkins invented this fine irony. I should explain, for those who are interested, that my Photoshopped bottle originally held a mythical liquid known (among believers) as "holy water". On the other hand, the Gerin people here at Gamone were perfectly real.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Bon appétit !

This Dawkins fellow has an amazing talent for finding the right arguments, the right words and the right ideas. I would designate him, in a nutshell, as a scientific poet, a poetic scientist, a great poet who also happens to be a creative scientist, whose various books on genetic themes are masterpieces of adventurous thinking.

I agree entirely with the gastronomical slant in the title of his autobiography. Dawkins is a master chef who proposes us countless delicious dishes that are all variations on a single theme. Their basic ingredient is indeed the wonder of science.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Disgrace to the human species

This video, dating from 2009, is one of the finest, shortest and most precise statements made by Richard Dawkins on the subject of creationist madness, seen simply as a refusal to listen to anything that contradicts their so-called "scripture".

It's often interesting to see a photo of an individual—such as Kurt Wise—who has made statements that sound like insanity.

Creationist Kurt Wise

I'm not suggesting that there's any kind of correlation between an individual's physical appearance and his crazy thinking. It's simply a matter of giving oneself an opportunity of trying to imagine the communication experience of hearing such a person say such things. Here's how Dawkins once spoke of Wise:
Kurt Wise doesn’t need the challenge; he volunteers that, even if all the evidence in the universe flatly contradicted Scripture, and even if he had reached the point of admitting this to himself, he would still take his stand on Scripture and deny the evidence. This leaves me, as a scientist, speechless... We have it on the authority of a man who may well be creationism’s most highly qualified and most intelligent scientist that no evidence, no matter how overwhelming, no matter how all-embracing, no matter how devastatingly convincing, can ever make any difference.
The final assertion of Dawkins in the video—about creationist stubbornness being "a disgrace to the human species"—is blunt but invigorating... and terribly credible.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Amazing science

There's a new atheist kid on the YouTube block: Jaclyn Glenn.

Here's her profile:
Jaclyn Glenn was born March 25, 1988, and lives in Florida, US. She is currently going to medical school and uploads regularly. It is believed that she was married in 2010, but her current relationship status is unknown. Her success on youtube is with the channel "JaclynGlenn", where she discusses topics such as religion, atheism, animal rights, politics, masturbation, and many other issues in a serious yet comical fashion. She has recently admitted to being an atheist and skeptic, but does not have an abrasive personality like many other atheist vloggers on the site.
In that final sentence, the term "vloggers" designates video bloggers: that's to say, individuals who submit regular blog posts in video form. Jaclyn Glenn's video creations can be found here. Countless Americans will be shocked by her following moving version of a sacred anthem:

Needless to say, Richard Dawkins was an instant fan of Jaclyn.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Baby beasts at Gamone

About a month ago, I caught sight of a small animal cantering down the road from my house, in the style of a rabbit. I only had a rear view of the moving animal, from a distance of some 50 metres, and it disappeared quickly, so I wasn't able to examine it. I concluded that it was probably a stray cat. Still, the cantering (or maybe galloping) movement seemed to be rather weird for a cat. And I have never seen rabbits or hares at Gamone. I came across a few small black turds on the road near my house, and they too didn't seem to have come from a cat. Besides, there are no scraps left lying around the house to attract cats. So, the identity of the small animal remained a mystery.

This morning, just after the annual passage of the fellow in a tractor who cuts the weeds alongside the narrow road up to Gamone, I think I finally solved the mystery. Unfortunately, I didn't have time to take photos, but here's a Web image of the kind of beasts (same size and colors) that I saw quite clearly, at close range, half an hour ago.

In the vicinity of my mailbox, Fitzroy and I suddenly found ourselves alongside three baby wild boors (called marcassins in French) which promptly cantered off down the road, with my dog on their heels. They disappeared into the grass alongside the creek, and Fitzroy didn't seem to be capable of picking up their scent. A few seconds later, one of them reappeared on the road, and he squealed in terror when he found that Fitzroy was chasing him. But the marcassin disappeared instantly, and all ended well. I have the impression that Fitzroy was just as surprised as me to come upon such small beasts at Gamone.

I left a message with a friend in Châtelus, Daniel Berger, who's a hunter and an expert in the behavior of wild boors, asking him for advice on how I should handle this affair. Wild boors, as their name indicates, are wild beasts, and I don't know whether it's a good idea to have a litter of marcassins just alongside the house. I can imagine some of my readers saying: "Oh, they're so cute. William should catch them and keep them as pets, as friends for Fitzroy." Yes, a great idea... but totally impossible!

Seriously, I don't deny that I would indeed be pushed by an obscure physical desire to cuddle such splendid little beasts (like I cuddle Fitzroy) and to experience the power and determination they would no doubt exert in trying to break free. I would be fascinated, above all, by their marvelous little snouts, used both as a marvelous sensory device (enabling them to carry on dozing in the undergrowth while dogs abound all around them) and as a tool for digging up hard soil and rocks in their search for tasty food. Of the same order as basic human sexuality, the attraction that emanates from domestic and wild animals is a wonderful and mysterious force that surely takes me back mysteriously to my evolutionary origins as an African ape (an expression employed regularly by Richard Dawkins). I often feel that the silly adjective "cute" might in fact be based upon this profound archaic association (resuscitated thanks to a handful of surviving genes) between our ancestors and us. I'm reminded of these links, every morning at about 7 o'clock, when Fitzroy wanders upstairs into my bedroom, moves his front paws stealthily up onto the bed, reaches around until he finds one of my hands (I'm usually still half-asleep), and then starts to lick it conscientiously, cleaning me up (symbolically, at least) for the approaching day.

POST SCRIPTUM: The property of my neighbors Jackie and Fafa, a couple of hundred metres further up the road, is bordered all around by woods. So, it's logical that they receive more visits from wild animals than I do. Jackie tells me that he has often seen a couple of marcassins hanging around their house.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

An eye for an eye

As a child in South Grafton, I was expected to admire a gushy poem penned by a young American Catholic fellow named Joyce Kilmer, killed in 1918 by a sniper's bullet on the Western Front in France.

I would imagine that countless English-speaking people of my generation can recite most of this poem by heart:
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is pressed
Against the earth's sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
The US musician Oscar Rasbach [1888-1975] wrote music for Kilmer's celebrated poem, and our local radio station 2GF in Grafton used to play constantly the version sung by the Austrian-Jewish tenor Richard Tauber [1891-1948]... whose Teutonic accent irritated me almost as much as the syrupy sentiments of the song.

The only aspect of Kilmer's poem with which I agreed was that it had been written by a sentimental fool. I was accustomed to wandering around on my father's bush property, which provided me with ample visions of trees. Not one of them, however, gave me the impression that it might be pressing its hungry mouth against the "sweet flowing breast" of the dry ground. If I observed lots of "leafy arms", they did in fact seem to be lifted most often in a plea for rain, but I never imagined for an instant that God might be playing a role in this meteorological affair. True enough, certain trees wore nests in their "hair", and the birds who had built them were generally either raucous crows, screeching parrots or savage magpies. There may have been robins in the bush, but I don't remember them. And the idea that snow might ever lay upon the "bosom" of one of our eucalyptus trees was frankly unthinkable. (I was 21 years old when I came in contact with snow for the first time in my life, in France.)

The final line of Kilmer's poem annoyed me most of all, with its silly idea that God might "make" trees. We all knew that Australian gum trees proliferated everywhere with no need for any kind of divine intervention. Indeed, the only domain in which my father would have surely appreciated a helping hand from God was ring-barking, designed to clear land so that our cattle would have sufficient grass to eat.

I realize retrospectively today that one of the advantages of growing up in rural Australia was that I soon developed a healthy respect for the power of Nature, which was often brutal, with no apparent concern for the welfare of us humans. The harsh Australian environment is not the sort of place in which a clear-thinking dweller would invent the quaint notion of a benevolent Creator. I've always considered that the Christian divinity is basically a humanistic Mediterranean concept: the intellectual reflection of a setting distinguished by harmony, where Nature is regulated by pleasant seasons. No authentic Australian (such as our Aborigines, above all) would have ever been inclined to invent the gentleman who delivered the Sermon on the Mount.

Once, as a boy, I asked my father why he never went to church (as had become my habit). I have never forgotten his marvelous reply: "Billy, you probably won't understand what I have to say. My cathedral is my bush paddock." In fact, not only did I end up understanding my father's metaphor, but I finally got around to adopting a similar attitude. At the age of 14, I came upon a little book on pantheism, in my grandparents' library, and I was so impressed by this primitive philosophy (which sees the natural world—in a similar spirit to that of our Aborigines—as a vast assembly of autonomous divinities) that I dared to reveal my enthusiasm explicitly to Dean Warr of Christ Church Cathedral... who was not exactly impressed by my revelation. Fortunately, my emerging fascination for mathematics and physics soon dissuaded me from delving more deeply into the archaic metaphysics of pantheism. Meanwhile, my encounter with the mildly sacrilegious book Life of Jesus by Ernest Renan took the wind out of my slack and flapping Christian sails forever.

These days, the terms "creationism" and "intelligent design" designate the variety of religious faith that exploits the splendors of the natural world as proof that a Supreme Designer must have been at work in the beginning. There again, it's difficult for an Australian to be a creationist, because almost everything in the Antipodes seems to have been designed differently (if at all) from what you find in the Mediterranean world. If God thought that jumping was a good mode of locomotion for our kangaroos, why didn't he design jumping creatures for the Northern Hemisphere? If he thought that waddling in an upright position would enable Antarctic penguins to move around easily on ice, why didn't he use the same principle for Arctic creatures? Either the Supreme Designer worked in an experimental fashion, and often got things wrong, or else there was a team of several senior designers who didn't necessarily adopt the same principles.

Adepts of creationism and intelligent design apparently find it difficult to believe that an organ as complex as the human eye could have emerged from Darwinian evolution. They raise doubts concerning the feasibility and evolutionary benefits of the intermediary stage that is often designated as "half an eye". In his Climbing Mount Improbable, Richard Dawkins devoted an entire 54-page chapter to the fascinating subject of the evolution of various kinds of eyes, which have emerged independently from scratch at least 40 times in the history of the animal world. In The Greatest Show on Earth, Dawkins returned to the question of eyes, and insisted upon the fact that our human eye provides a case study in "unintelligent design". In a recent issue of the UK's Daily Mail, there's an extraordinary collection of fine photos [access] of eyes of all kinds.

Let me conclude this rambling post by a lovely photo of a pair of astonishing eyes: those of a baby Madagascan lemur born recently in a French zoo.

Blogs are written by fools like me,
But only an adult lemur couple can make a baby lemur.
My words don't have the same poetic impact as those of Joyce Kilmer. What's more, they're not entirely true from a clinical viewpoint, since they neglect the theme of what we used to call "test-tube babies".

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Toys for almost everybody

This simple graphic struck me as funny... but my sense of humor might well be atypical, if not frankly perverted:

I don't have a Facebook account, and I certainly don't want one, since I have no desire to get engulfed in so-called "social media" of that superficial kind. Consequently, I don't know the identity of the bright folk who gave us this graphic, retweeted by Richard Dawkins.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Pinnacle of worldly fame

It's all very well to be an Oxford professor, a successful author of books, and to have been awarded a pile of honorary doctorates. That doesn't necessarily make you a famous person.

To become a genuine celebrity, the English biologist Richard Dawkins still needed a greatly-sought-after extra feather in his hat. Happily, we've learned today that the flame of true fame has finally touched Dawkins. Within a few days, he will be able to think of himself, at last, as an international megastar. Next Sunday, on US television, Richard Dawkins will be appearing in an episode of The Simpsons, in the role of himself, using his own voice.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Several things that make sense

Over the last hour, a guy named Richard Dawkins has been using Twitter to create a brilliantly succinct treatise on Christian theology.

Here are the basic points of his theological wisdom, which all make sense... even though they are necessarily so esoteric at times that common mortals might not grasp their profound sense immediately:
• Joseph Ratzinger became infallible in a puff of smoke 19/4/2005. About to become fallible again 28/2/2013. Makes sense.
A wafer, if blessed by a priest (who must have a penis and intact testicles) literally becomes the body of Christ. Makes sense.

God is simultaneously himself and his son (and a ghost). Makes sense.

God couldn't think of a better way to forgive the sin of Adam (who never existed) than to have his son (aka himself) executed. Makes sense.

Adam didn't exist, but his sin was so huge that the Creator of the Expanding Universe needed a blood sacrifice to pay for it. Makes sense.

The SUBSTANCE of the wine truly becomes the blood of a 1st century Jew. Only the ACCIDENTALS are fermented grape juice. Makes sense.

Jesus's 12 apostles all had penises. Therefore if you don't have a penis you can't be a priest. Makes sense.

Isaiah prophesied "young woman" would bear a messiah. Mistranslated into Greek as virgin. So Jesus had to have a virgin mother. Makes sense.
"Let your women keep silence in the churches; for it is not permitted unto them to speak" Makes sense.

And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home; for it is a shame for women to speak in the church." Makes sense.
Creator of the Universe went to great trouble to create the foreskin. Then insisted that you cut it off. Makes sense.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Old family portrait

In my blog post of 22 October 2011 entitled What science is saying [display], I spoke of a fabulous book for young and old alike: The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins. And I borrowed a couple of Dave McKean's wonderful depictions of our prehistoric ancestors. Now, those illustrations were largely figments of the artist's imagination. Today, we are offered a considerably more authoritative portrait of an immensely archaic granddaddy:

Illustration by Carl Buell

This fellow is the outcome of a lengthy study of primeval mammalian genealogy some 66 million years ago. The creature in the portrait was about the size of a rat, and it weighed about a quarter of a kilogram. Like the dormice that I mentioned in my blog post of 31 December 2012 entitled Walnut war [display], it had a bushy tail. Its scientific name is Protungulatum donnae, but I'll refer to him here as Adam.

It's important to understand that the scientists at Stony Brook University (Long Island, New York) who've just presented a picture of Adam to his living descendants did not dig him up out of the ground, as if he were a run-of-the-mill monarch in search of a horse. Nobody has ever set eyes upon an actual fossil of this "first ungulate" (hoofed beast). Instead, Adam was created virtually on the basis of a whole set of fossil specimens and evolutionary facts.

Visual data in my blog post of the day before yesterday entitled Wolf territory [display] indicates the presence of a furry hoof attached to the extremity of the bone that Fitzroy was gnawing. I wondered for a moment or two whether my dog might have unearthed a specimen of a modern descendant of Adam, but I soon realized that Fitzroy's beast was much larger than a rat. So, I was obliged to rule out the likelihood that my dog had got involved in paleontology.

Adam is looked upon as humanity's most recent common ancestor with other mammals. The scientists say he ate insects. His long furry dormouse-like tail makes me wonder if he didn't appreciate walnuts, too. One thing about Adam's appetite for fruit is certain. As revealed in a celebrated book of archaic wisdom, he acquired a taste for apples. And that's where everything got totally screwed up for the rest of eternity.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Magicians reveal what the world's all about

For several years, I've been fascinated by the popular books of three physicists: Brian Greene, David Deutsch and Lawrence Krauss.

Funnily enough, although the three of them are writing about the same general subject—our state-of-the-art understanding of the nature of the universe—they rarely, if ever, get around to handling the same questions in comparable, if not similar, fashions. Moreover, in their latest books, they hardly even refer to one another's work.

It's easy to understand superficially why Greene, Deutsch and Krauss don't seem to have a lot to say to one another. Greene has been reputed for a long time as an adept of string theory, and there's no reason to imagine that the other two physicists are particularly keen on this theory. Earlier this year, Krauss became widely known through his presentation of an esoteric explanation of how the ultimate "free lunch"—obtaining something from nothingness—is a perfectly plausible phenomenon at a cosmic level.

As for the 59-year-old Oxfordian David Deutsch, he comes through to me as the most philosophical member of the trio. Indeed, he offers us a multiverse view of existence that is totally amazing. As in his first book, The Fabric of Reality, Deutsch pursues in The Beginning of Infinity his quest for a Theory of Everything inspired by the work of a somewhat heteroclite foursome: Karl Popper (epistemology), Hugh Everett (multiverse theory), Alan Turing (computation) and Richard Dawkins (evolution). Indeed, between the Popperian explanations of knowledge, the connotations of quantum theory leading to the existence of multiple universes, the vast theories of classical computing put forward by Turing (which are no doubt sufficient to handle, not only the DNA computer responsible for replication and life, but also the phenomena of neuronal computing) and finally the processes of Darwinian evolution and genetics so brilliantly presented by Dawkins, most observers would agree that we've no doubt covered many of the basic essentials of a scientific outlook on reality. Deutsch himself refers to these four grand dimensions of his global philosophical approach as strands (a word I like, which evokes weaving a fabric).

A few weeks ago, I was excited to learn that Deutsch has been working on a kind of fifth strand, of a subterranean nature, which he calls constructor theory. If you've got 47 minutes of free time, I urge you to click here to listen to Deutsch himself presenting this work. Basically, it's a matter of trying to understand why certain things are possible (even though they may have never actually happened yet) whereas countless other potential events are impossible because certain laws of physics have "blacklisted" them forever. In other words, he has enhanced astronomically the sense of the concept of possibility, to the point of claiming that anything and everything is strictly possible... provided only that we know of no law of physics that forbids such a happening, and therefore renders it impossible. Deutsch draw our attention to the strict binarity of the situation. Between the impossible (ruled out by physics) and the possible, there is no third way out. On the one hand, nothing—not even the most extravagant events—should be branded as theoretically impossible unless we are already aware of a law of physics that forbids such things. On the other hand, everything else should be thought of as theoretically possible.

In his eagerness to point out the counterintuitive nature of this thinking, Deutsch hit upon an amusing easy-to-grasp example, which goes straight to the heart of my Antipodes blog. Most of us agree that people on the other side of the planet Earth are in an upside-down position with respect to us, and vice versa.

That old Epinal image is funny but quite silly, of course, because nobody really believes that Antipodeans get around on their hands, with their Hobbit-like feet stretching towards the heavens. But are we truly ready to admit that the heads of Antipodeans point constantly in the opposite direction to our own heads? If technology were to offer me a magical real-time closeup view of Antipodeans, in strict conformity with our mutual orientations, in the same way that binoculars enable me to observe distant objects through my bedroom window, would I not be somewhat surprised to receive upskirt images of Antipodean ladies whose heads appear to be receding upwards into the sky? My surprise (which would be inevitable, I think) would seem to confirm that, to a certain extent, I've never really believed wholeheartedly that the heads of Antipodeans point in the opposite direction to mine. And David Deutsch considers that this mild form of surprise, or doubt, reflects my persistent quest for a third way out, between the possible and the impossible. My scientific culture persuades me that there is no law of physics that would forbid Antipodeans from getting around in an upside-down position with respect to me. So, I conclude that it's perfectly possible for this to be the case. At the same time, I consider that modern laws of celestial mechanics have quashed forever all remnants of flat-Earth theories, meaning that it's unthinkable that the heads of Antipodeans might point in the same direction as mine. And yet I don't seem to have gone one tiny step further and admitted explicitly, in a tangible concrete sense, that people down on the opposite side of the planet are truly presenting me constantly (if only the Earth were transparent) with an upskirt vision of their environment.

What David Deutsch seems to be saying (in a roundabout fashion) is that we would do well to consider, in an equally tangible and concrete sense, that we exist within a multiverse where the quantum effects admitted by today's laws of physics must be thought of, not only as possible happenings, but as garden-variety aspects of the fabric of everyday reality. And I'm not sure that many of us are prepared, at present, to assimilate profoundly that weird mode of looking at existence. Between archaic fairy tales (often supported by so-called commonsense) and hard state-of-the-art science, we persist in hoping, if not believing, that there must surely be some kind of convenient "third way out".

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Nonsense cartoon

Apparently Mitt Romney believes the kind of frightening nonsense expressed in the following cartoon:

It's scary to think that such a believer could become the US president, with control over a vast nuclear arsenal. Sure, we were more or less broken in to such a situation through George W Bush, but I'm convinced that Mitt the Nitwit would be far worse. It's really weird that the citizens of a great nation such as the USA would be prepared to call upon a Mormon moron to lead them.

Meanwhile, Richard Dawkins has just tweeted an interesting observation:
Mormonism is no nuttier than ancient religions, but they have the excuse of being ancient, not 19th-century fabrications.
I often wonder whether there's any hope for the USA. For that matter, I often wonder whether there's any hope for the so-called civilized world. I believe there is, but in a distant future. For the moment, we're moving through a dark age, which is likely to last for a long time.