Thursday, February 27, 2014

Putting some spirit into spiritual

I read a good article by Robin Ince on the subject of spirituality this morning; it's a subject that I find incredibly slippery and it would seem that Ince has the exact same problem with it. Like me he often hears people say things like "I'm not religious, but, I am spiritual", in the article he examines what this word really means.

It's clear from the infinite variety of documented "spiritual" experiences that the word means completely different things to different people, but I suspect Ince has nailed the real underlying meaning, he concludes that "spirituality" is a word people use to give the illusion of depth and understanding to some experience that they find impressive but do not fully understand. Like our primitive ancestors standing on the ridge observing the moonrise or at the graves-edge contemplating the life of a loved one, many experiences challenge our comprehension, they may be beautiful or terrifying and may have the potential to harm or benefit us but it's almost always a fallacy to assume there is a master plan that involves the observer.

Our brains have evolved to seek meaning and look for purpose in the world, it's how our species gained the upper hand over other species that are faster, stronger and more agile than us; it's how we made it through the Pleistocene to become the most dominant animal on the savannah. When we reach the limit of our ability to rationalise something some of us throw it in a bucket labelled "spiritual". I think this urge to label stems from an instinctive dislike of the unlabelled, Human beings would much rather have a bad explanation for something than no explanation at all, the hardest words for us to utter are "I don't know".

Since the invention of science the spiritual bucket has been emptying fast, science punctures holes in the fabric of this vessel like nothing else, providing practical and deep explanations for things seen and unseen. However, many people still cling to the old ways of thinking about the unknown, they maintain a vice like grip on the ever lightening spiritual bucket for fear that by releasing it they will lose something inspiring or wondrous in their lives. I believe this fear is an illusion; the feeling that is craved is just the feeling we all get when our comprehension is challenged; this experience is equally accessible via a rational approach to life as it is a spiritual one, in fact I would argue that even though harder, the former is by far the more fulfilling.

If "spiritual" is simply the word some people use to describe what it feels like when their neural pathways reach the edge and can go no further then Science is a proven way to extend those pathways. On the other hand, simply labelling the experience "spiritual" and quitting at that point seems to me to be much less satisfying.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014


Don't you find it uncanny that the demands of "God" are invariably aligned to the petty parochial interests and prejudices of his followers, funny that.

I recently watched the film 12 years a slave which won a BAFTA last week (highly recommended). This excellent film is a very precise telling of a book written by a man called Solomon Northup who was a (free) black man living in New York, America in the 1850s its a first person account of a family man being kidnapped into slavery and forcefully transported to the cotton fields of Mississippi and Louisiana; it left me feeling numb. Even if you don't see the film you can download the book for free from here it's short and makes for an eye-opening read. Both the book and the film are replete with God fearing white men wielding perverse interpretations of their "holy" books to justify the suffering of slaves for the purposes of self-enrichment. Much like the current-day religious right, they drink heavily from the well of confirmation bias and were complicit in a world-wide trade which one could argue was the rule and not the exception at that time, there was clearly lots of blood on lots of hands.

It's a risky business to "judge" the actions of people from history, their moral landscape was different from ours, what counts as moral behaviour evolves as we learn more about the world we live in. I think the best we can do is educate ourselves and ensure that useful lessons learnt are not lost. In my travels I often find that religious apologists often prefer to defocus the role of religion in slavery by claiming that these people just didn't interpret scripture correctly or that the abolitionists were also Christians (interpreting the same texts!), however, regardless of your faith or otherwise it's indisputable that people of all strokes are capable of sustained evil of the highest order. Such people always gravitate toward unfalsifiable ideas and theologies in order to justify their actions, break this spell with accountability, reason and enlightenment and things invariably improve for all.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Things that boggle my mind

People (as we would recognise ourselves) have been around on this planet for quite a decent period of time, certainly in the order of a quarter of a million years or so; we invented agriculture around 10,000 years ago and started to develop organised societies with cities, systems of government, religions and writing some 5,000 years ago; the Romans rose up around 2100 years ago and disappeared a few hundred years later. 500 years ago printing was invented and as early as 300 years ago we were making maps of the night sky using early optical telescopes. We had the beginnings of what was necessary to truly understand our place in the universe and a mechanism to communicate it widely. It took another 200 years to grasp the true size and scale of our cosmic back-yard and throughout the Enlightenment as we discarded our primitive paranoia about magic deities in the sky who governed our thoughts, we've been improving our knowledge at an ever increasing rate.

This year we have a brand new European space craft in an L2 orbit 1.5 million km from the Earth called Gaia. The two tonne space-craft will remain in orbit for 5 years mapping around 1% of the 100 billion stars in our galaxy with an unprecedented degree of precision. The camera on board the ESA Gaia platform has around 1 billion pixels, that's a lot of pixels! It can resolve objects to 1/3600th of a degree, which is equivalent to resolving a mobile phone on the surface of the Moon and is several thousand times what the Hubble space telescope can do. Over the years Gaia will measure the change in positions of the stars as well as their apparent motion as the Earth moves around the Sun (parallax) it will also look at what the stars are made of via their electromagnetic spectra as well as their Doppler shift which tells us their precise motion through space. The data should enable us to understand our place in the universe much better than before and who knows, just like the early star charts, this data may be used by some future explorer as a navigation aid on some pioneering cosmic voyage, I wonder if I'll still be around to see it.

Snake oil salesmen

I came across this little story this morning, it's about one of those hell fire and brimstone preacher types in America who think it's a good idea to juggle rattlesnakes in the name of their so called "faith". This particular guy had a number of run-in's with the law and also a number of bites, one of which was so bad it caused one of his fingers to drop off. Eventually his luck ran out and he died of a snake bite last week for which he had refused medical treatment, what an idiot.

Anyway, I don't want to dwell on this person and his reptile fetishes what struck me more about the story was just how awesome snake venom is, a true marvel of the evolutionary process, a specialisation that allows animals with severely restricted mobility (i.e. snakes) to capture prey that can easily out run, out swim or out fly them. In evolutionary terms venom seems to be a highly modified kind of saliva and contains a complex mixture of proteins, enzymes and other chemicals some of which are adapted to particular biological functions within particular prey species. Generally venom knocks out the capability of the prey to escape or fight, usually this means by paralysing the victim or at least slowing it down enough to enable it to be tracked and followed by the snake. In some cases the venom also acts as a digesting agent, helping to convert the hapless prey into organic mush prior to being eaten by the predator.

It's these specific biological actions that makes some venoms useful to medical science. Pharmacologists have discovered that by isolating certain chemicals from the venom of certain species of snake it's possible to cherry pick desirable characteristics such as suppression of blood clotting that helps people with high blood pressure etc. In addition to this they have also discovered that it's possible to trigger an immune response to venom by extracting and diluting it and then injecting it into a person who then becomes able to resist the worse effects of the real thing. Many lives have been saved through this research in places like Australia and India where a staggering number of people are bitten (around 400,000 per year!)

It's amazing that this fascinating product of evolution can be exploited by humans for such diverse purposes, on the one hand we have a completely perverted and dishonest side-show, designed to convince people of imaginary powers and extract money from them. On the other hand we have truly useful and practical scientific research that has saved hundreds of thousands of lives regardless of race, creed or culture; the contrast between our past and our future could not be greater.

Thursday, February 13, 2014


I notice that the Twitter-sphere is alight with angry voices after Tory grandee Nigel Lawson appeared with Brian Hoskins (PHD climatologist) on radio 4 this morning to talk about climate change. You can listen to the programme here, but the opinions expressed by Lawson were predictably like the sediment deposited in people's homes by the Thames this week, i.e. stubbornly immoveable and malodorous. On the whole I don't think people are upset that Lord Lawson holds such anti-science, anti-evidence views, he is after all entitled to hold whatever opinions he chooses and is (fortunately for us) not accountable to the general public any longer. The problem people seem to have is that he was presented by the BBC as a credible voice to counter the cautious, reasoned views of a life-long climate scientist and world renowned expert in the field. No mention was made that Lawson has precisely zero qualifications in this area and is funded to make noise by the industries that stand to lose the most from changes in government policy on green initiatives like wind and solar power generation. Regardless of the evidence for man-made climate change (and there is lots) and regardless of your political leanings surely it makes better strategic sense (from the point of view of sustainable economic growth and security) to be investing in new forms of power generation technology and to lead those fields rather than focus on shaving ever leaner fillets from the rotting carcass of big oil? Seeking sound information on climate from lobbyists like Lawson is rather like seeking recommendations for Christmas lunch from turkeys, you have to ask yourself, who stands to gain most from avoiding the issue?

Never a truer word...

A classic dark coloured cooking utensil situation... and there was me thinking this was a free country..

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

New Brew

I had a free hour on Saturday afternoon so I took a trip to Finchamstead to visit a new brewery that opened last year, its called "Siren Craft Brew" and is located in a little industrial unit on the outskirts of the village about 3-4 miles from my house. I'm a big fan of small scale brewing initiatives like this, especially local ones and was keen to try a few beers and see what they could offer, I'm glad to report that I wasn't disappointed.

The company has what they call a "core range" of 4 beers and also produce experimental and seasonal brews that you need to snap up when they become available. I tried all of the core beers which were called Soundwave, Undercurrent, Liquid Mistress and Broken Dream. I liked all of them but my favourite was Soundwave, an American style IPA which was fruity, bitter and hop filled. Broken Dream, their stout, was also nice and flavoured with coffee, a little gimmicky perhaps but very complex flavours and probably nice in small quantities with food since it was also quite strong (6%) I bought some bottles directly from the little shop there but the man also told me that they had started supplying Laithwaites and Majestic with mixed boxes, certainly not a cheap beer (£2.50 for 330ml) but definitely not run of the mill.

Knotty theological problems

In news yesterday we learn of a terrorist trainer in Iraq who thought it would be a good idea to have some "live ammo" practice with his students. He strapped himself into an explosive belt and proceeded to detonate himself and 21 other hopeful suicide bombers, I guess since he's now covering the class with his subject he won't be covering that subject in his class again? Delicious irony perhaps but I bet the residents of Baghdad will be overjoyed to learn that these extremists won't now be sharing their ideas and their vaporised brains with the general population. The more important theological question for the year below is, will they still get the virgins?

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Double speak

Two things struck me today, #1 it was the first day in ages that I actually wanted to go outside, blue sky and winter sun, lovely walk around Frensham pond, and #2 where the heck has January gone?

Time seems to pass faster than ever these days! Yesterday I had a visit to my front door by a Jehovah's Witness dropping off his little leaflet exclaiming "the truth!" and crammed with Bible verses thereby proving it was true. I did point out that being a bit of a traditionalist I felt using a book to prove the validity of that same book seemed a little circular to me but the young lad doing the "witnessing" (who looked about 12 years old) clearly hadn't yet grappled with the broad sweep of Human relationships, reproduction and personal hygiene let alone the finer points of logic and reason. The conversation and the leaflet put me in mind of the above cartoon, with faulty logic like this people can't fail to feel safe and self righteous (unfortunately, only in their heads), but then again on a day like today (no rain!) the only resistance I could muster was a smile and shrug. It's sad that there seem to be a lot of people for whom the realities of life on beautiful day in a beautiful place aren't enough.