Still Learning to Wild-camp: Hobo Stove Issues

I’m publishing this post here at my lettersquash blog for now, but I’ve decided to split the blog into two – lettersquash will continue to deal with philosophy, religion, science, pseudo-science, etc., and I’ll move the posts about camping and making stuff to a new blog, yet to be named.

I had another of my rare nights out wild camping at the beginning of September. It was a bit more difficult than I expected, but I’m starting to get the hang of it! I’d intended it to be a two-nighter, from Saturday to Monday, but I was home by Sunday evening, a bit disappointed and pretty knackered. Still, for that one night, I found a great spot with wonderful views, and, as I descended from the hill, I managed to think of it as another valuable learning experience.

Moors above Gouthwaite Reservoir

On the Moor above Gouthwaite Reservoir

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The Scientific Christian, Part 3: The Spin Doctor

We have seen that Rev Dr Nick Hawkes, author of Who Ordered the Universe? is a master of the begged question, and we have seen that he is quite adept at quote-mining.

Looking at chapter 2, The Evidence of God in Nature, I again found Hawkes cherry-picking quotations to feign support where it does not exist.

Nudging and Fudging

He begins with a brief lesson on the Urey-Millar experiment, the discovery that amino acids naturally assemble themselves from nothing more than a flask of water, atmospheric gases and a bit of faux lightning. He rightly says that this is a long way from building proteins, but then, very wrongly, restates the creationist argument that the odds of such complex entities as proteins arising by chance are infinitesimal.

He describes the problem as like getting a particular result on 200 slot machines simultaneously (the number of amino acids in your average protein), each with 20 symbols (the number of relevant amino acid types). He says:

You don’t think that’s a big deal? Let me explain. It would require you to spin the wheels more times than there are atoms in the universe.1

Chasing up the little superscript ‘1’ in the notes, we find “Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything, p.254″. That’s odd. I didn’t think Bill Bryson would proffer that argument in a positive light.

I found my copy and checked out page 254. Nope. Lots about meteorites; nothing about proteins or casinos. I began to scan back and forth, then checked the index. I eventually found the relevant passages, much as Hawkes put it, but leading up to this explanation, on page 354:

Take those amazingly improbable proteins. The wonder we see in their assembly comes in assuming that they arrived on the scene fully formed. But what if the protein chains didn’t assemble all at once? What if, in the great slot machine of creation, some of the wheels could be held, as a gambler might hold a number of promising cherries? What if, in other words, proteins didn’t suddenly burst into being, but evolved? – Bill Bryson

Did Hawkes miss this passage and the many supporting arguments surrounding it? Did he choose Bryson, rather than any number of creationists, to give the argument an air of comfortable scientific acceptance? Did he give the wrong page reference deliberately to throw people off the scent if they looked it up? That last question might seem unfair or cynical, but presenting such a puzzle and omitting the solution from the same few pages is so remiss as to make me wonder. Anyway, readers who take the inference at face value, and those who look up the reference but fail to find it, might assume that Bill Bryson shares Hawkes’ incredulity that proteins spontaneously self-assemble from primordial soups in one go (just as, in Chapter 1, we might think that Paul Davies is a fellow creationist and Professor Hawking believes in God!). Continue reading

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Brexit. Best of Three?

That’s what I usually say when I can’t believe I lost the first game of pool (which is usual): “Best of Three?”

Or two! – if we could just do it again and take the second answer, but everyone wake up this time.

Sometimes when the pros and cons of a binary choice seem fairly well balanced – Shall I mow the lawn first or wash up? – I used to toss a coin (having decided which side represents which decision), and then try to assess how I’d really feel if it wasn’t just a test. Continue reading

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The Scientific Christian, Part 2: Peanuts to Space

Oh no not again [1]

I’m reviewing Who Ordered the Universe? by Nick Hawkes. I must apologise to readers who prefer their book reviews short and pithy: the Reverend Doctor manages to cram an inordinate number of dubious statements into every paragraph, and I’m finding it hard not to respond to all of them. I’m in danger of writing more review than there is book, but hopefully I’ll find I have dealt with all the important issues soon, allowing a more concise treatment of the few outstanding points.

In Part 1, I examined the Introduction. Chapter One is entitled The Evidence of God in the Cosmos. It begins, like an unfortunate parody of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

The universe is big – I mean, really, really big. It blows your mind.

With an imagination somewhat less fertile than Douglas Adams’, Hawkes concludes the thought:

And I have a sneaking suspicion that it is meant to. … The more scientists understand the universe, the more mysterious and spectacular it becomes.

I find the idea that science makes the universe more mysterious quite odd. With it we have solved a large number of mysteries that puzzled the ancients. Where mystery has increased, this is usually from discovering abstruse facts that must replace transparent-seeming falsehoods. Some of these are extraordinarily counter-intuitive and difficult to understand, but in principle science can surely only make the world less mysterious, even if more awe-inspiring. Continue reading

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The Scientific Christian, Part 1: Begging the Question

I have been reading a book by Rev Dr Nick Hawkes, a pastor, writer and broadcaster living in Australia, who has four degrees, two in science and two in theology. The book is called Who Ordered the Universe?: Evidence for God in unexpected places.

I didn’t exactly choose it, but the book happened to come my way and I decided to read it, partly to challenge my current view, and partly because I thought it was about time I wrote a review or critique of Christian theology. It was just published in 2015, so it should, if Hawkes is worth his title of Reverend, represent the bleeding edge of Christian theology. It also claims that science and faith are compatible, which is one of the main contentions that I wish to address.

From the blurb:

Dr Nick Hawkes gathers evidence from science, history, and mathematics to seek out the signature of God. By surveying the various fields of study, he gathers a mass of evidence, concluding that faith in God is reasonable and that the evidence invites it. Addressing the big questions of origins and meaning, Hawkes considers the cosmos and the arguments for a Creator behind creation. He looks at biology, and the ideas of Darwin and Dr Richard Dawkins. He examines the significance of suffering and the phenomenon of mathematics – the code by which we understand how things work.

I very soon found that it would take a sizeable article to address the Introduction alone, so this post is confined just to that. Some of the chapters of the book will demand further posts in due course. Continue reading

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Keeping Our Heads: Global Politics and Conspiracy Theories

Prompted by the arrival of a new commentator, Paul, I decided to approach the thorny subjects of global politics and conspiracy theories. Paul posted a link to wikispooks (User:Peter) in a comment, saying that the preamble there was also his view. I responded by distancing myself from the content, to which Paul replied that he is

certain that events such as Woolwich, 9.11, Boston and 7.7 are state sponsored government psyops.

The weighty subject of world politics has often been in my thoughts, but I find myself unable to make much sense of it, with or without conspiracy theories. The latter are, of course, quite prevalent on the Net, and, after researching them for a little while, I usually end up finding most of them ridiculous, or having grains of truth buried under silos of nonsense … as far as I can tell; often I really don’t know what to think. It’s ok; I’m a sceptic. Not knowing comes naturally. Continue reading

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Agape, Anyone?

Yakaru’s recent post about finding “common ground” between religion & science by distorting both reminded me of a review I wrote in 2012 on the Amazon site of the book Religion for Atheists: A non-believer’s guide to the uses of religion, by Alain de Botton. It’s maybe a different phenomenon from what Yakaru was talking about, but similar in some ways. I thought I’d copy an edited version of my review here.

Atheism for the Religious?

This book is seriously weird. In it, Alain de Botton advocates the remodelling of our now thoroughly secular societies, which are sad, sick and generally horrible, by importing elements he considers good from the domain of religion, whence, apparently, all good things come. By the time I had got to the suggestion, not very far into the book, that we reintroduce an official period of debauchery once a year in newly created “Agape Restaurants”, because people hate following the rules all the time (Agape Restaurants having been created as places where people can show each other non-religious, non-sexual, but somehow spiritual love, over coffee, to replace the function of churches) , I thought I must be reading it wrong. Was it some kind of satire? Or had de Botton lost his mind? Continue reading

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Humanity Waking Up: origins of religion

Petrified Tree

Standing stone inside Neolithic passage tomb, probably constructed from a petrified tree. Bryn Celli Ddu, Anglesea, Wales.

For some time I’ve been interested in religion as a natural phenomenon, how it might have developed in early human cultures, what evolutionary processes might be involved, and so on. I wrote a review here of Breaking the Spell, by Daniel Dennett, which I read as my first serious foray into the subject. Since I was somewhat disappointed with that, I tried Inside the Neolithic Mind: Consciousness, Cosmos and the Realm of the Gods by David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce, which suited me better.

I found Inside the Neolithic Mind (INM) not just fascinating, but actually so inspiring that I had to break off to write about it. I had an extraordinary feeling of wonder contemplating evolution, humanity and the dawn of religious thought. This blog post developed from those notes. It’s been a long time coming, and it’s a long post. (I’m an obsessive editor and it’s not even finished now, as I’d like to add more images and links, but the text is pretty well there, and if I don’t click Publish today, I may never finish it!)

Shortly after reading the book, my partner and I took our autumn break in North Wales at my suggestion, so that I could visit some of the Neolithic sites on Anglesea discussed by Lewis-Williams and Pearce, which brought the descriptions alive for me and provided some holiday snaps to post here.

This is not intended as a comprehensive book review, as I no longer have the library book to refer to. There are a great many interesting insights in INM that I haven’t shared, I will relate some other relevant scientific facts here, and I will explore my own conjectures about the development of religion (by which I do not mean to imply that they are original, just that no-one else should be blamed for them!). In addition, I hope I can express something of the awe that a sceptical atheist can feel in the process of understanding naturalistic explanations of things. This is, I believe, one of the fears people have when they dare to doubt their faith – that the atheistic world view seems unemotional and without wonder. It isn’t. Ooh! doesn’t depend on woo. Continue reading

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Stephen Cave Video

I just thought I’d share this.

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WARNING: You May Be Being Liked Too Much!


Bryce Gorman, for instance, is being Liked too much

I’ve taken the Like button off my blog. I’ve disabled the Like feature entirely, in fact. You can’t Like me anymore. I don’t want to be Liked!

I know, it’s the posts you’re Liking, but even so – go and Like somebody else’s!

The thing is, WordPress blogs are being targeted by spammy Likers who, truth be told, aren’t very Likeable. If you’ve got a WP blog, check out your Likers: you might find some of them are similar – unbelievably rich, free and enthusiastic entrepreneurs (or so they tell you), who want nothing more than to share with you the secrets of their success. IT’S TRUE, THEY ARE UNBELIEVABLE, DON’T BELIEVE THEM!

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