Posts that don’t fit into any other category.

Rational Optimism

I spotted a friend had updated her Facebook status earlier today, describing her young son’s horror at reports of riots on Newsround. At the end of her status update she posed the question : “What world is it that we are creating her our children?

My initial one line response was “Not one that is materially much worse than at many points in human history.

Her response was : “But don’t we have the knowledge, wealth and the humanity to ensure that the future we offer our children is better? Did you watch the programme on BBC3 recently about children living in poverty? My grandmother grew up in London between the wars dependent on poor relief (her father was a WWI casualty). I find it hard to comprehend that there are kids today that are in the same position. I know the reasons can be debated but the only thing I know is that the kids aren’t to blame.

A very good point. And entirely true. The one group that are not to blame are the children themselves. This got me thinking, and writing. I have edited and tweaked what I responded with mostly just for grammar and typing (I keyed it out on an iPad). I have added some examples at the end, which were not there in the original. But this isn’t shown as a part of the quote.

Specifically picking up your point on knowledge…. knowledge is cumulative and the only situations in which knowledge is detrimental is when it isn’t universally available; or where it is deliberately withheld … ultimately rationally acquired (and by implication I mean truth) can only move us forwards as a population. Even where we discover something uncomfortable, it is still better that we know. Global warming being a possible example.

Wealth is a touchy one. Much as instinctively I feel that a capitalist system is the “least worst” option, it, by its very existence, creates “haves” and “have nots”. But as I say, it does seem to be the only system that works in some way. Where capitalism goes wrong is where it becomes corrupt. There are people who say capitalism inevitably and unavoidably leads to corruption. I prefer to take an optimistic outlook on this. I think regulated capitalism need not be corrupt. The biggest alternative; Communism just doesn’t work. I think it wouldn’t be foolish to say history proves this.

Has humanity really diminished? Or Would the press just like us all to believe it has? An overdeveloped sense nostalgia is, I believe, why people think people are not as kind towards each other as they used to be.. People who say that there was no crime in the 40s and 50s are wrong. Innate in almost all human beings is a sense of empathy. Evolutionarily I don’t think we would have made it this far without. That’s all I can really say on that.

And yet, having said all that, we still have child poverty, food mountains in some parts of the world and starving and thirsty in others. To paraphrase Sagan, we are a young species, and we have much to learn. I hope it isn’t a matter of ‘faith’ on my part that I remain optimistic that knowledge will save us. I don’t think it is; I think history shows promising signs.

So that’s what I said. I wonder if I come across as unreasonably optimistic. Or irrationally optimistic. But a few examples of where harm comes from the deliberate denial of knowledge or truth directly causes harm :

The starving and thirsty I mention; clearly I am referring to famine ridden Africa. One of the key problems is overpopulation. One of the simplest ways of remedying this problem is with proper education about birth control. Certain factions and groups are dead against this; to the extent of spreading lies and misinforming those that might benefit most from it. The denial of knowledge and education is costing thousands of lives.

Slightly closer to home but on the same subject, “abstinence only” sex education is demonstrated to actually co-incide with  higher rates of unwanted pregnancy among teens. And higher rates of STD infection.

There are probably countless other examples where the denial, or simple unavailability of knowledge on a given subject can cause real suffering; recreational drugs, alternative medicines, and so on.

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Uncaged Monkeys @ Hammersmith Apollo

I went to see Brian Cox, Robin Ince et al at Hammersmith Apollo on Monday night, doing the show they call “Uncaged Monkeys”.

The show takes its name from the Radio 4 Show “Infinite Monkey Cage” which Cox and Ince co-present with a variety of guests. The radio show and the live show are based around a mixture of science, rationalism, comedy and music.

For a far better and “detail heavy” review of the gig, go here. I’m not really attempting to review it, but just comment on my own experience watching it.

I like Robin Ince, I like Brian Cox, I like Simon Singh, I like Ben Goldacre, I like Richard Wiseman, I like Helen Arney, I like Matt Parker. I like those I’ve not been thorough enough to remember to mention……

I do not like Hammersmith….. At all.

I do not like Hammersmith Apollo…………    At all.

Possibly the hottest, sweatiest gig I have ever been to in my life. I almost fell asleep during proceedings. So, firstly, a massive thumbs down to the venue. Poor show Apollo. Have you heard of air conditioning? We paid almost 30 quid a ticket, is it too much to ask?

Secondly, I think I’ve profoundly realised that one can have too much of a good thing. Feeling slightly like a man who tells his friends that he tires of eating caviar, …. here goes.

I’ve now seen Brian Cox live something like 3-4 times in the last 6 months (ish). And, however amazing his talk is (it really is), once you’ve seen virtually the same talk, including jokes, more than a couple of times, you tend to start to pre-empt them. I almost feel guilty writing that. His talks are brilliant. But… Meh. There it is!

Same with Robin Ince. I’ve heard the same ‘set’ several times now. It’s a good set, very funny. But once you’ve seen it a few times, it does lose its appeal.

So to turn this whole thing around into a positive….

If you missed Uncaged Monkeys, BUT did manage to get to 9 Lessons and Carols for Godless People, don’t be sad! You probably saw most of it already.

If you haven’t seen one or more of the speakers before go and see it. It is a truly brilliant bunch of contributors, absolutely at the top of their game. No doubt a fantastic night out, if you don’t feel you’ve seen it a few times before. Special mentions for Matt Parker (stand up mathematician) and Ben Goldacre who were awesome.

Once again, I feel slightly embarrassed at the contents of this post.

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A.C. Grayling and Rowan Williams

Rowan Williams

I had the pleasure of being in the audience of a discussion event featuring the philosopher Anthony Grayling and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams yesterday evening. It was at London’s Southbank Centre.

It was an excellent discussion. I have to be honest and say, probably not one where I really learned any new facts, but certainly one which was interesting and thought provoking.

To hear two polite, highly intelligent and articulate individuals, whose core outlooks are polar opposites when it comes to religion, engaged in polite, respectful discussion and debate was a good experience.

Anthony Grayling

A common criticism levelled at the horsemen of the ‘new atheism’ (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens etc) is that they argue without due respect, or are “shrill”. I don’t generally agree with that point of view, but it is commonly held, by believers and rationalists alike.

Nobody could possibly have levelled that criticism at last night’s conversation. It felt like the best sort of very British conversation. Think of Family Guy’s “drive by argument” joke.

I arrived at the venue with a generous measure of pre-existing respect for Grayling, but possibly through ignorance, or just bias on my part, not so much for Williams. Having  now heard him speak, listened to his (at times, frankly, brilliant) wit, and the depth of his knowledge and uncompromisingly academic approach, I would say I have a similar level of respect for him as that which I reserve for Grayling and the other rationalist/scientist speakers I’ve seen. Obviously I’m not about to become religious as a result, but I was very impressed by his points, how he explained them or argued them and (most surprising of all) by his sense of humour.

The best quote of the evening came in response to an audience question which talked about god, but didn’t actually use the word :

Grayling  : “Well it’s clear you didn’t mention the obvious elephant in the room….”
Williams : “I’m pleased to hear you think he’s in the room.”
(audience laughter and applause)

Always nice to have your preconceptions challenged, and although this wasn’t a watershed realisation moment, I would certainly go out of my way to hear Williams in discussion with Grayling or another similar rationalist in future.

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First post – header photo

header image

My site header

Just showed this building site to a friend who said “I hate that theme”. To which I said “at least I changed the photo”…. (pause) …. “for one I took myself”. To which he replied “thought it was a stock photo.. looks amazing”.

Yes I took the photo myself, it’s the top of City Hall next to Tower Bridge. I was walking back from Shad Thames in the direction of London Bridge and spotted they were having a party up there. It was taken without tripod too 🙂

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