Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Afflicted by Science

Another published letter - Issue 97, Philosophy Now:

‘Once a scientist, always a scientist’ seems to be an affliction I suffer from. Although I have recently gained a number of postgraduate qualifications in Philosophy, it seems that my initial training as a biochemist has embedded a pragmatism that ruins my ability to think more ‘philosophically’. A great recent example came whilst reading Peter Benson’s article ‘The Ontology of Photography’ in Issue 95. I found myself intrigued and fascinated as I pondered the difference between analogue and digital pictures – before my scientist head kicked in. More specifically the part of me that processes X-ray diffraction images collected on CCD detectors. Here I regularly find myself analyzing the distribution of pixels in order to distinguish between background levels and the intensity peaks that represent my data. As soon as you start performing analyses at this level, you quickly discover distributions of pixels in ‘real’ digital images that would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to fake, even with the best Photoshop skills. So although Peter Benson may not be able to distinguish a good ‘fake’ digital photograph from a ‘real’ one with his eyes, I’m pretty convinced I could distinguish it rather easily using a couple of histograms.

Here we have what I perceive to be a problem with philosophy, especially ontological arguments. Philosophers come up with some great ideas that catch the imagination; however, a weekend with a science textbook often seems to deflate such arguments rather depressingly. It’s one of the reasons I have moved into ethics, because here at least philosophical thinking can occupy its own space without making claims that can be ruined by some simple mathematics or inconvenient observations that everyone except the philosophers seems to know about.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Being a Christian in Research

Wrote the following leaflet for Christians in Science:

..and issue 88 - "How can I be happy?"

The magazine "Philosophy Now" has a question of the month. The following was my published answer to the question "How can I be happy?"

Ducks. Well, more precisely, according to my two-year-old son, “feeding duckies.” Okay, so complications can still arise, such as being so hungry that you eat the duck’s bread yourself, or arriving at the duck pond so late in the day that the ducks have already been stuffed by the offerings from the other neighbourhood toddlers. But generally, feeding ducks is happiness.
Watching my son’s reaction to this mundane activity suggests that happiness is not linked to cognitive ability. Indeed, this is not exactly a new observation, and it’s humorously pointed out in an excellent episode of The Simpsons, where Homer is turned into a genius by the discovery and subsequent removal of a crayon that had become lodged in his brain as a child. Although Homer’s relationship with Lisa is transformed, he soon re-inserts the crayon, maintaining that he was much happier when he was stupid. More seriously, this point about happiness being easier the less complicated your thinking is, was driven home to me during a recent visit to a developmental centre in the US that’s home to a community of extremely-low-IQ individuals – people who cannot function in normal society. Credit must go to the staff of that unit as I have never been in a happier place. Granted, work activities included folding paper and sorting paper clips, but the residents seemed so happy, and were enthusiastic about welcoming visitors.
One thing that my two-year-old son and the developmental home residents seem to have in common is little understanding of the future. They very much live in the moment, and if their activity is currently satisfying, they are happy. Those of us who have ‘grown-up’, or (even worse) have philosophical tendencies, can never escape the discovery that actions have consequences – that we are responsible for obtaining life’s provisions, and that, ultimately, we face a step into the unknown, through death. We can do our best to try and live in the moment, to temporarily forget these things. However, the uncertainties in life remain the main barriers to happiness. The more we worry about life, the less happy we are, implying that happiness is closely linked to being satisfied in the moment, and indeed, finding the time to enjoy feeding the ducks.

Issue 87 - a follow up letter from issue 85

Another letter published in Philosophy Now:

Dear Editor: I particularly enjoyed Carl Murray’s ‘The Dead German Philosopher’s Club’ in your last issue, especially as it reminded me of Wittgenstein’s claim that the “philosophical problems that exercise us are examples of language going on holiday.” On reading it I realised exactly what had been worrying me about the second half of an earlier piece in the same issue by John Holroyd, where he was discussing the question ‘Is religious faith a matter of blind faith?’ Thanks to my online subscription, I copied the text of this article into a word processor and used the search and replace function to change all the occurrences of the word ‘faith’ into the word ‘belief’. As I had suspected, the meaning of the argument did not seem to change, confirming my suspicion that the author is guilty of an equivocation. As I argued in Issue 85 Letters, the word ‘faith’ is notoriously misused. Although I am sympathetic to the general thrust of John Holroyd’s argument – and acknowledge that he does discuss Terry Eagleton’s more sophisticated definition of faith – the article does a poor job of distinguishing between faith proper and the rhetorical characterisation of faith as ‘a belief I do not agree with’. In fact, rather than being a type of belief, faith is the jump from argument to conviction based upon ‘good enough’ evidence. Faith is therefore not the belief in itself, but rather the process of settling on – or becoming convinced by – a certain belief. As such, ‘blind faith’ is an example of an epistemological error, not a metaphysical one. For this reason although I remain sympathetic to John Holroyd’s overall contention that many people’s religious faith is an example of ‘blind faith’, at the same time I maintain that no matter how common this may be, any argument that uses this observation to dispute the existence of God is merely an ad hominem attack on believers. John Holroyd is not the first to get himself tied in a knot over this issue.

Issue 86 of Philosophy Now - "What is Truth?"

The magazine "Philosophy Now" has a question of the month. The following was my published answer to the question "What is Truth":

I dilute my solution, place it into a cuvette, and take a reading with the spectrophotometer: 0.8. I repeat the procedure once more and get 0.7; and once again to get 0.9. From this I get the average of 0.8 that I write in my lab-book. The variation is probably based upon tiny inconsistencies in how I am handling the equipment, so three readings should be sufficient for my purposes. Have I discovered the truth? Well yes – I have a measurement that seems roughly consistent, and should, assuming that my notes are complete and my spectrophotometer has been calibrated, be repeatable in many other labs around the world. However, this ‘truth’ is meaningless without some understanding of what I am trying to achieve. The spectrophotometer is set at 280nm, which – so I have been taught – is the wavelength used to measure protein concentration. I know I have made up my solution from a bottle labelled ‘albumin’, which – again, as I have been taught – is a protein. So my experiment has determined the truth of how much protein is in the cuvette. But again, a wider context is needed. What is a protein, how do spectrophotometers work, what is albumin, why do I want to know the concentration in the first place? Observations are great, but really rather pointless without a reason to make them, and without the theoretical knowledge for how to interpret them. Truth, even in science, is therefore highly contextual. What truth is varies not so much with different people, but rather with the narrative they are living by. Two people with a similar narrative will probably agree on how to treat certain observations, and might agree on a conclusion they call the truth, but as narratives diverge so too does agreement on what ‘truth’ might be. In the end, even in an entirely materialistic world, truth is just the word we use to describe an observation that we think fits into our narrative.

Letter in issue 85 of the magazine "Philosophy Now"

The following letter seems to have been picked up by quite a few people around the web. Interestingly people assume I am an atheist!!

Scientific Faith

Dear Editor: As a mere biochemist, I am often amazed, enlightened and humbled by the clear thinking and ruthless logic demonstrated by many authors in your excellent magazine. However despite this excellence, I’ve noticed a curious blind spot that seems to occur time and again whenever the word ‘faith’ is mentioned. In the last issue Tim Wilkinson became the latest in a long line of offenders when he defined ‘faith’ as “belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence”. I find such a definition really rather curious, because I cannot imagine how such a belief could possibly exist. Even the wackiest conspiracy theory or most bizarre superstition is still based on at least a small amount of evidence and logical connections. Granted, you or I might think that such beliefs are based upon bad evidence and logic. However this does not mean there is no evidence or logic (however weak). Too often, rather than using the word ‘faith’ to actually mean something useful, it seems that many authors use it to mean ‘a belief that I do not agree with’. To me such a pejorative and rhetorical use of the word shows a far better example of people “temporarily misplacing their dictionaries whilst simultaneously taking leave of their senses” – to quote Tim again.

Like your columnist Massimo Pigliucci, I also “tend not to believe in anything that isn’t made of either matter or energy”. However, I am also comfortable with the word ‘faith’ even in a scientific context. When putting together a scientific argument, it is essential to pull together as many different types of experimental observations to form the basis of the argument. However it is fascinating how many other scientists, trying to be equally rational, can look at the same experimental evidence and draw very different conclusions. So faith, in this context, is having enough confidence to turn your results into a published conclusion that you are happy for others to try and challenge. It is taking the leap from tentatively believing a theory, to using that theory as a working principle. It is not belief in the absence of logic or evidence; it is a belief based upon ‘good enough’ evidence. Such a definition seems far more useful than the impossible definition of ‘ a belief without evidence’, or the rhetorical use as ‘a belief I do not agree with’.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Can we trust Scientists?

Spent an hour or so in the BBC radio Solent studio this morning discussing the question "Can we trust scientists?" with Steve Harris. I felt it went quite well and rather enjoyed it! I've stuck a edited recording on the following link:

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Why is there suffering in the world?

My daily thoughts on BBC radio Solent this week are about something that has been concerning me a lot recently - why is there pain and suffering in the world? Although I don't think I have an answer, I have found some things helpful when thinking about this question.

Click on the link for the recording, text pasted below.

Tuesday 26th April
Wednesday 27th April
Thursday 28th April
Friday 29th April

Day 1

Earlier this month it was announced that Lord Rees, the astronomer royal and recent president of the Royal Society, had been awarded the 1 million pound Templeton prize for making “exceptional contributions to affirming life's spiritual dimension”. This quickly provoked a vitriolic response from well-known atheist scientists such as Richard Dawkins and Harry Kroto, the latter referring to spirituality as “congenital wishful thinking”.  However interestingly, as I have been following this story over the last couple of weeks, I’ve actually found more articles critical of Dawkins and Kroto, than articles surprised that a famous scientist finds spirituality important.

I think this is because people are beginning to tire of the rhetoric that says science and spirituality are opposites or incompatible. I am a scientist who happens to think that science is one of the most important activities that humans engage in, however I do not think it provides the only lense through which we see life. Take for instance the recent earth-quake and Tsunami in Japan. Science provides excellent explanations for why these natural disasters happen and indeed why they must happen in order for there to be life on this planet. Science can even get a certain distance in explaining a bit about the human tragedy - perhaps why people live in such places and why we react the way we do when disaster strikes. However seeing a disaster just in terms of plate tectonics, fluid dynamics, sociology or psychology seems cold and callous. Yes of course the rationality provided by science is important, however when faced with unspeakable human tragedy we need the comfort and hope provided by faith, religion and spirituality far more than we need any textbook of physics.

Day 2

As a child I really enjoyed the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical “Joseph and the amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat”. Of course, along with the fun songs, this musical is memorable for telling the biblical story of Joseph - a young boy who is sold into slavery by his brothers before a series of adventures results in him becoming the powerful governor of Egypt. In this position he successfully predicts the coming of a famine and is able to oversee the storage of grain so that Egypt does not suffer the effects of this natural disaster. The story finishes with a happy ending when Joseph is reconciled with his brothers after they come pleading for help because of the effects of the famine.

The story of Joseph is an exciting, feel-good, rags to riches tale. It is particularly alluring because it reminds us that no matter how bad things might seem there is always the possibility – the hope – of future success and happiness. Interestingly, in the case of Joseph, personal qualities or planning only contribute a very small part to his success because the main events seem to be engineered by God who has a much bigger plan in mind. The story of Joseph is thus powerful because it reminds us that even apparently hopeless situations do unexpectedly turn to good through causes that are beyond our control. In a small way I find this quite a comforting thought - knowing that however bad or confusing a situation might be, everything doesn’t depend entirely upon me, there are other forces at work, and there is a much bigger picture that often I simply cannot see.

Day 3

Perhaps one of the most unfortunate characters of all time was a bloke called Job. He was a wealthy landowner in the middle-east with seven sons, three daughters, many servants, oxen, camels and flocks of sheep. However, during the course of just 24 hours his children are killed, his animals destroyed, he catches a terrible disease and his wife first mocks and then deserts him. These misfortunes kick off one of the earliest recorded philosophical exchanges as a number of his friends gather to discuss what he had done wrong to be so unfortunate, and what he should do to fix the situation. But, after a 15,000-word dialogue Job and his friends are still at a loss to explain why suffering occurs in the world. At this point God enters the conversation: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. 
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone?” God reminds Job and his friends that they are only men with a very limited understanding.

I find it funny how many people think that being religious means thinking that you have all the answers.  This is not my experience. Instead for me Christianity is not really about answers, but rather about stories that help me come to terms with both the world and myself. The stories in the bible are not there to tell us what to do, but rather to provide guidance for how to approach and think about problems. Today’s example, the story of Job, reminds us that we are limited beings and in fact cannot know everything – something that we certainly need to be reminded in this current age of science and technology.

Day 4

I found the events in Japan on March 11th truly shocking. I watched with absolute horror the television footage of the Tsunami overtaking cars, smashing buildings, swallowing up farmland and destroying lives. This event reminded me that no matter how sophisticated humans become, we are still at the mercy of natural forces that are simply beyond our control. It is interesting to note, however, that although the earthquake in Japan was stronger than the one in Haiti a year ago, there were only a couple deaths in Japan from the actual earthquake whilst 316 thousand people died in poverty stricken Haiti. Similarly the early warning systems in Japan saved many thousands of lives, so that compared to the 230 thousand people who died in the 2005 Boxing Day Tsunami, the Japanese death toll has actually been an order of magnitude lower. These statistics suggest to me that along with uncontrolled natural forces, poverty and injustice also play a very large role in these terrible disasters.

As a Christian I do not believe that the bible gives us an answer to suffering, but it does tell us some stories that help us come to terms with what we find around us. The story of Joseph reminds us that bigger plans are often at work, the story of Job tells us that we cannot always expect to understand why things happen, and the story of Jesus tells us that we have a duty to care for the poor and come alongside those who are suffering. It is for these reasons – these stories – that I think spirituality and religion are extremely important and do contribute to our lives in an essential way. Although the rationality provided by science tells us how the world works, it is the spiritual stories that help us understand the much bigger picture of we call life.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Julian's People - BBC radio Solent March

Had another couple minute interview today. I finally managed to spend some time talking about science, philosophy and ethics today!

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Bioethics talk

Did a talk at a church in Brighton a couple weeks back on Bioethics. They kindly recorded the talk and put it on their website:

This was the first time I had given this talk so it wasn't quite as polished as I may of liked and had a good deal of umming an erring, however it did seem to go down quite well and was followed with a very good question and answer session.

I find this subject really interesting as it is misunderstood by Christians who make assumptions without properly thinking things through, and by agnostics/atheists who assume that all Christians follow an ethics guided by Rome and hence oppose abortion, contraception etc. Indeed the local atheists turned up and told me that they agreed with pretty much all of what I said apart from my statement that the Christian narrative was the best framework through which to see life (and on which to base a virtue ethic). This pleased me because I respect atheists for their rigorous logic and refusal to accept jumps in reasoning.