Tuesday 29 April 2014

Why should anyone believe scientists?

An old schoolmate recently asked an interesting question:

Most people don't really understand science. They are only repeating what they heard at school or in the media. So aren't they just taking science on faith, as if it were another religion?

Short answer: No.

Long answer: First of all, professional scientists don't understand most of science. How could it be otherwise? The totality of science is the work of thousands if not millions of people, over hundreds of years. It's far more than one human being could learn in a lifetime.

So the question isn't why the ordinary person in the street should believe what scientists say. Why should anyone believe them?

One good reason is that any given part of science is open to being observed and understood by a newcomer. Here is an example from my personal experience.

Friday 25 April 2014

Monday 21 April 2014

Transcendence: Review

3/5 stars

Transcendence is an ambitious film about the rise of a superhuman artificial intelligence. It doesn't achieve all it sets out to do, but it is a commendable attempt.

Hollywood's record in trying to address artificial intelligence has been patchy at best. It includes the sentimental nonsense of Spielberg's AI: Artificial Intelligence, the stylish kung-fu nonsense of The Matrix, and the totally absurd nonsense of The Lawnmower Man. Transcendence seems to be keenly aware of this history, and it is desperate to be taken seriously. To some extent it is successful. Much like its main character, Transcendence has overcome the weakness of its ancestors, but lost something of its humanity along the way.

Thursday 17 April 2014

Cute Cat Thursday 2014-04-17: Dexter

Friday is a holiday, so Cute Cat Day is here early! Dexter has been enjoying the spring sunshine, and the lawn is covered with apple blossom petals.

Tuesday 15 April 2014

Calvary: Review

If the late Iain Banks had scripted an episode of Father Ted, it might have looked something like Calvary.

Calvary is a meditation on what purpose and meaning the Catholic Church can have in the modern world, set in small-town Ireland. In other hands the result might have been insufferably earnest, but Calvary neatly sidesteps this trap with a wickedly dark sense of humour.

Brendan Gleeson gives a towering performance as Father James Lavelle, a priest living just outside the town of Sligo on the west coast of Ireland. As the film opens, he is hearing the confession of one of his parishoners, who calmly informs Lavelle he will kill him in eight days' time. The would-be murderer has a grudge against the Catholic Church, and wants to kill one of its clergy in order to make a statement; but he wants to kill a good priest, not an evil one, and has chosen Lavelle. We do not know the person's identity, at least to begin with; but Lavelle himself does.

For the rest of the film, Lavelle tries to go about his usual business, while he wrestles with the question of how to react to this extraordinary threat. He counsels people with all the compassion and wisdom he can bring to bear, and receives a visit from a close family member. He meets a former pupil of his who became a serial killer and is now incarcerated for his crimes, and he struggles with what redemption or forgiveness might mean for such a person.

Lavelle's parish is a severely eccentric place, and its residents bring a much-needed dose of humour. Outstanding are M Emmet Walsh as a frail, irascible American writer; Dylan Moran as a self-hating financier; and David Wilmot as Lavelle's rather foolish housemate and fellow priest.  An arrogant doctor played by Aiden Gillen has a more than passing resemblance to his character Littlefinger in Game of Thrones.

In these everyday interactions, we see that at best, people regard Lavelle as well-meaning but unimportant. At worst, they look at the church he represents with open contempt and hatred, and they have good reasons for doing so. The Catholic Church's vile response to child abuse within its ranks is repeatedly referenced, and so is its impotence in the face of Ireland's financial crisis and recession.

Overshadowing Lavelle's every action and conversation is the threat of death. In part, this is a study of how a man might live for a week if he knew it was likely to be his last. He discusses the matter with his bishop, but there are more drastic actions open to him. He could go to the police, flee the country, or choose to meet violence with violence.

There is another option, which seems to have a powerful attraction for Lavelle. He could go willingly to face his would-be executioner, and either talk him out of it or be killed. In a real and literal sense, Lavelle contemplates becoming a Christian martyr. Calvary itself is the name of the hill where Jesus was crucified. The whole concept of martyrdom seems unreal and anachronistic; but Gleeson convinces us that for his character at least, it is very real indeed.

Calvary offers no glib answers, but it succeeds in raising questions of faith and meaning in the context of a magnificent black comedy. It doesn't always get the balance right; in particular, the segment with the imprisoned serial killer felt heavy-handed. But even in the more unbelievable scenes, the powerful screen presence of Brendan Gleeson keeps the film grounded.

Calvary is both a remarkable achievement and seriously funny.

Friday 11 April 2014

Wednesday 9 April 2014

Gay Marriage 2: Personal Thoughts

Gay marriage became legal in England and Wales on 29 March this year.

I am a straight white male, which as John Scalzi has wisely observed, is the lowest possible difficulty setting in the game of Real Life. This doesn't directly affect me, does it? But I'm very glad gay couples can now have legal recognition of their love and commitment, and receive all the legal benefits which I do from my own marriage.

Two wedding rings
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Not everyone is so happy about this change.

I emphasised the word legal because this is a law passed by the British Parliament which allows particular individuals to enter into a formal, binding commitment together. The more excitable opponents of gay marriage would do well to remember that.

If a religious group thinks gay marriage is wrong and not a "real" marriage, it can continue to do so. Similarly, the Church of England and Roman Catholic Church do not recognise divorce, and believe the remarriage of a divorced person is not valid. That is their right, but it has no effect on the law of the land.

The Victorian ideal of marriage

Wedding of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, 1840.
Source: Wikipedia

Many opponents of gay marriage complain that "redefining marriage" will, in some unspecified way, bring about negative consequences for society. Here are some other definitions of marriage which the UK has discarded:

  • A religious ceremony which must be carried out by the Church of England, not any civil authority or other religious denomination. Negated in 1836 by the Marriage Act, which introduced civil weddings.
  • A contract which lasts for life and cannot be legally dissolved. Negated in 1857 by the Matrimonial Causes Act.  (Divorces had taken place earlier, but each one required an individual Act of Parliament.)
  • A contract in which the woman surrenders all rights to her own property. Negated in 1882 by the Married Women's Property Act.
The UK made radical changes more than 100 years ago, in the Victorian era. Every time, there were dire warnings. The Bishop of Exeter sternly denounced civil weddings in 1836:

Not solemnized by the church of England, may be celebrated without entering into a consecrated building, may be contracted by anybody, and will be equally valid, whether it takes place in the house of God, or in the house of a registering clerk, one of the lowest functionaries of the state. The parties may take one another for better and for worse, without calling God to witness their plighted troth. No blessing sought; no solemn vows of mutual fidelity; no religious solemnity whatever …

In fact, marriage survived perfectly well. Men and women continued to fall in love, promise to live together and support each other, and receive legal protection for that promise. Now men and men, or women and women, can do the same thing. I see that as a cause for celebration, not alarm.


The protection of the law


Scales of justice
Source: Wikimedia commons


Legal protection may not be romantic, but it is important. My wife and I can jointly own property. If I am unlucky enough to be severely injured in an accident, my wife can visit me in the hospital. She can make decisions about my medical care. If I die, she will inherit all of my assets without any inheritance tax, and receive a share of my pension. These are our clear and unquestioned legal rights.

Now gay couples can claim the same rights. How is that meant to bring about the downfall of society?

What is marriage for?


From the perspective of married people, it is (or at least should be) about love, but what is the state's interest? From a cold-blooded utilitarian point of view, why does the law give any special status to marriage?

It is not simply because of the children. The rights of a married couple apply whether they have children together or not, and whether they are capable of conceiving children or not. There are plenty of married couples with no children, stepfamilies of different configurations, and couples with adopted children.

A demand that a heterosexual couple prove their mutual fertility before they were married would be rightly seen as barbaric. A man and woman can get married at the age of eighty and have exactly the same legal rights and responsibilities as at the age of twenty. So gay couples being unable to conceive children together is not an obstacle. (They have been able to adopt children since 2002.)

The conclusion must be that stable, loving partnerships are good for society in and of themselves.

Is a partnership of equal value when the two people involved are of the same sex? In legalising gay marriage, our society has decided the answer is yes. We all have the ability to love and contribute to a community, no matter where we fall on the Kinsey scale of sexual preference.

Newly married men kissing
One of the first same-sex weddings in the UK.
Source: BBC News

Protecting our civilization

I think in many cases, opposition to gay marriage comes from a belief that gayness should be discouraged. It comes from the same place as the infamous Section 28, which formerly banned the "promotion of homosexuality" in British schools. If only society could be sufficiently harsh to gay people, more of them would remain in the closet. In this school of thought, heterosexuality must be defended against the very suggestion that being gay is acceptable.

Opponents of gay marriage are becoming reluctant to say this openly, for fear of being seen as hateful bigots. I suppose that is a kind of progress, but this belief still exists, and I think it is responsible for vehement opposition to gay marriage.

This is not only cruel, it is ridiculous. Look around you, at the couples walking down the street. Look at dating websites. Look at at films, books, magazines, television, advertising. Straightness is alive and well, and it totally dominates our media.

Hunger Games: Catching Fire poster
A very successful film with no visible gay characters. Source: IMDB

Do you think I am exaggerating? Have a look at the highest-grossing films for 2013 in the USA.
  • In first place we have The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, grossing $424 million in the USA, whose main character is in a heterosexual love triangle. 
  • To the best of my knowledge, the top-grossing film with any significant gay characters is Dallas Buyers Club in 95th place, with $27 million. Even then, the main character is very much a straight man. 
  • The highest-placed film with a gay central character appears to be Blue Is The Warmest Colour, in 177th place with $2 million.
  • [EDIT]: The 2013 results for the UK are arguably "straighter", because Dallas Buyers Club wasn't released here until 2014. Unless you count Filth in 73rd place (which I personally don't, but I won't say any more for fear of spoilers), I don't know of any films with gay major characters until you reach Blue Is The Warmest Colour at number 152. Blue took just over US$1 million at the UK box office, compared to Despicable Me 2 in first place with $72 million.
I hasten to add these are all perfectly good films, but the heterosexual ones were a lot more profitable. Heterosexuality does not need to be protected by denying legal rights to anyone.

In particular, my own marriage does not need this kind of protection. My love for my wife is not in any way diminished because gay couples can now get married. I am personally insulted by any suggestion that it could be. It makes me very angry.

So as it turns out, the debate on gay marriage has a small direct effect on me. It causes ignorant people to insult me and my marriage. Well, let them do so. These individuals who purport to be defending heterosexual marriage do not represent me.

Best wishes to all the gay couples getting married, now and in the future.

Rainbow flag
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Previous post on this topic: The Church of Obfuscation

Sunday 6 April 2014

Gay Marriage 1: The Church of Obfuscation

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Gay marriage became legal in England and Wales on 29 March this year. Personally, I think this is great news. The Church of England disagrees, and their response was remarkable. It is not plain and simple ignorant bigotry, but the rarefied stupidity of highly trained theologians.

The law has been changed to permit civil weddings for gay couples:

The law prohibits the Church of England from performing same-sex weddings, and allows other religious organisations to refuse to perform them.

The most senior member of the C of E's clergy is Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury. Welby discussed the issue in a radio phone-in on 4 April.

Justin Welby.
Source: The Guardian

He started off as one might expect. He opposes homophobia, but doesn't think gay marriage has any place in the C of E. If he left it there, the rest of us would shrug our shoulders and move on.

Instead, Welby felt the need to share this:

"I have stood by gravesides in Africa of a group of Christians who had been attacked because of something that had happened in America. We have to listen to that. We have to be aware of the fact," Welby said. If the Church of England celebrated gay marriages, he added, "the impact of that on Christians far from here, in South Sudan, Pakistan, Nigeria and other places would be absolutely catastrophic. Everything we say here goes round the world."

Welby is concerned that if the C of E endorses gay marriage, it will have a negative impact on Christians in other parts of the world.

The Most Reverend And Right Honourable The Lord Archbishop of Canterbury (to give him his full official title), educated at Eton College and Trinity College, Cambridge, must imagine this sort of dialogue will take place:



FIRST KILLER: Let's go and massacre those Christians! They want everyone to be gay!
SECOND KILLER: No, we shouldn't. Their big boss in England tolerates gay people, but won't have gay wedding ceremonies.
FIRST: Isn't tolerating gay people a reason for us to kill them?
SECOND: No, it has to be marriage.
FIRST: Can we kill them because we want their land?
SECOND: No, no. It's very simple. We can only commit mass murder if the Church of England supports gay marriage.
FIRST: We're not in England.
SECOND: That's not the point. Anything the white man says goes around the world, and the English aren't being gay enough to justify a massacre.
FIRST: Oh, all right. That village is lucky the Archbishop of Canterbury doesn't hold with gay marriage.
SECOND: Yeah, it is. Let's go get a beer instead.


Welby's education has failed him. His statement is one of the most ridiculous and naive things I have ever heard from a public figure.

Not only that, it is more than a little racist. It is unclear which specific massacre Welby is talking about; it may be the 2009 Boko Haram killings in Nigeria. The Wikipedia page on massacres in Nigeria makes instructive if depressing reading. Christian-Muslim violence has been taking place there for years. The Miss World beauty contest was used as an excuse for riots which killed over 200 people in 2002.

Does Welby imagine he has a meaningful effect on this situation? Does he suppose Africans are simpletons who will be provoked into murderous rage by a gay wedding in England, when they would otherwise be calm and peaceful?

If criminals and fanatics want an excuse to kill people, they will find one.

Conversely, why is a mass murder relevant to the nuances of doctrine on gay marriage?

Imagine the Christian God decided to get tough. Anyone who tries to kill a Christian is instantly struck down by a bolt of lightning. Welby is free to say whatever he likes. He could express his real, genuine opinion on gay marriage, which must be one of the following:

  1. He believes it is wrong. In that case, he could have simply said so, without mentioning any massacres. However, saying it so bluntly would anger his more liberal clergy, and he doesn't want that inconvenience, so he pretends the threat of massacres has forced him to reject gay marriage.
  2. He believes it is right. He would like to say so, but is afraid to for the reasons I have discussed.
  3. He doesn't know what he believes, but thinks talking about massacres will distract everyone.

In the second case, Welby is a pathetic fool. In the first and third cases, he is a cynical villain who does not care if he looks like a pathetic fool. This much is certain: Welby is a coward, and he is using the horrific murders of 330 men, women, and children in Nigeria to obfuscate his real beliefs on gay marriage.

By way of contrast, consider Archbishop Desmond Tutu's courageous stand against apartheid in South Africa. Many white racists responded with greater fear, hatred, and violence towards black people. Welby's words will have little or no impact on people's safety; this was not so for Tutu.

Tutu knew this, and he stood up for what was right. Something which is right does not become wrong because people hate you for it. Anyone who calls himself a Christian should be capable of understanding that.

Welby should be ashamed of himself. The Church of England is swiftly declining into irrelevance, and with leadership like this it deserves to.

Part 2: Some more personal thoughts on gay marriage.

Friday 4 April 2014

Cute Cat Friday 2013-04-04: Dexter

Dexter looking sleepy and contented; as well he might, with the sofa and blankets all to himself.

Thursday 3 April 2014

The Android's Bicycle: A Problem of Uploading

Mind uploading is a common idea in modern science fiction.

The concept is simple enough. The human brain is a physical system, made up of cellular structures, chemicals and electrical activity. If we could scan a living brain at high enough resolution, a sufficiently complex computer could be used to simulate it. We could "run" human consciousness like a computer program. The simulated mind might have all the memories of the original.

Transparent human head with brain

The technical barriers are formidable. We have only a vague idea of how much resolution or processing power is "enough". Is it necessary to simulate the brain's physical structure, including complex feedback loops to the rest of the body; or can we use abstract representations of thought to achieve the same effect?

Imagine we did learn how to upload minds. This raises some tricky questions. Would the uploaded personality really be conscious? Would it be the same person as the one who had been scanned? If the original brain was destroyed, perhaps as part of the scanning process, is that person dead or still alive as an upload?

On a more practical level, how does the upload experience the universe? Could its perceptions be so different as to bring about radical changes in personality, so that it might not be the same individual after all?

Here is a little thought experiment which makes this last issue more concrete.