Thursday 23 October 2008

Steven Pinker: The Stuff of Thought:: Language as a Window into Human Nature

Having just read this book I can’t help but feel that the Hobbit Haired Professor is brainier than an extra large slice of brain pie with lashing of Tesco’s finest extra creamy brain sauce. Pinker eloquently demonstrates how the evolution of a language and its syntax are derived from our instinctive human nature. Pinker shows how we have subconsciously created categories for verbs based on various attributes that unbeknownst to us have determined how we construct the syntax of our language. This allow us to instinctively define rules for when we can use certain verbs in certain contexts and when their usage will just not sound right. In subsequent chapters he goes on to explore why we have fashions in names for our children and what determines the rise and fall of those fashions. My favourite chapter however has to be where Pinker delves into our most seedy swear words to uncover how and why each language defines a certain set of taboo words, how the perceived potency of those words can vary over time and how and why we incorporate them into our vocabulary. Throughout the book Pinker peppers his writing with cartoons, quotations and examples, many of which were familiar to me from watching far too much Monty Python. If watching banal TV soaps and talent shows rots your brain (As I suspect it does), this book is the perfect antidote.

Friday 17 October 2008

The view from Mount Improbable

This blog is not about the 3-4 billion year journey that my genes and their ancestors have taken to get me to, what our species arrogantly consider, the top of Mount Improbable. Professor Dawkins has already eloquently written that book. This blog is about my personal journey to understanding how I reached the summit and a look back down at the path I trod.

My initial attraction to Christianity and my subsequent “decline” into atheism have been gradual journeys. No blinding light was seen either on my road to Damascus or in the pages of Darwin. On my journey to an honest appreciation of the universe through the best endeavours of science’s current comprehension, I have found one thing very easy. The acceptance of evidence based on sound, proven theories like, evolution, the age of the earth, astronomy and fossil records that appear to be at odds with traditional biblical texts. I guess this was because I always felt uneasy about either having to metaphorically reinterpret vast swathes of the bible to fit in with our current knowledge or simply dismiss what we have learnt since the days when the bible was written in favour of clinging to that original definition of the world. As a Christian I always feared that an understanding of science and critical thinking could undermine my faith, so like, I suspect, many others, I tried to just ignore it. When my dissatisfaction with biblical answers and my curiosity for understanding grew too strong, I was forced to stop ignoring it, investigate it, study it and eventually embrace it. The gradually increasing weight of the scientific evidence (as I read more science books) eventually stretched my faith too far, ultimately causing it to snap. I can now look back and wonder why I resisted letting go of my faith. Understanding why I eventually let go may help us to enable others to follow.

The two key reasons I came up with for initially defending my faith have now turned into two of the key reasons why I utterly reject it. The two reasons are “Fear” and “Morality”. In the remainder of this blog I shall attempt to explain why these two elements have changed their polarity from attracting to repelling my faith.

Firstly, Fear. Death can be a frightening thing and the only conceivable way of appeasing that fear that I could see as a child was the hope in an afterlife. A genuine fear of death or burning in hell could send you straight into the open arms your nearest clergyman. Freeing my mind of the attractive fantasy of heaven was therefore something I wasn’t initially keen on doing. So what I have I gained by abandoning this fairytale that has reversed my fear? Well, I can now see threatening children with a non existent hell for the child abuse that is, I can feel honesty with myself for not disingenuously forcing myself to believe in the ridiculous but best of all, I can feel a sense of wonder in the only precious life I will ever have. This new perspective and appreciation of my mortality encourages me to make the most of my opportunity on this earth, to try and understand it, preserve it, to travel it (if that doesn’t contradict the previous wish) and watch my children grow up in it. This life is not just a shallow waiting room for next.

Secondly, Morality. Another reason I was attracted to the Church was because of the fine upstanding pillars of the community it contained and the sense of honourable morality I believed it created and imbued. I’m not now claiming that religion is immoral (although you could argue that fundamentalist religion is), I’ve just come to appreciate that religion is not the source of our morality and it would thrive perfectly well and indeed blossom without religion. I now see how religious morality was founded by piggy backing onto the human morality of the times when it was written down. Our modern morality has (mostly) advanced since the days of the Old Testament when we were advised to stone people and cut off their hands for inconsequential offences. On the whole, we’re more liberal than the Inquisitors who tortured and burned those whose strict dogmas did not align with theirs, we’ve abolished slavery and we are overturning the female subservience mandated by many holy texts. If religion got its morale’s directly from God then surely it would transcend the morale’s of the time by pre-empting our post-biblical morality and even beyond. The human race had evolved enough morality by the time of Moses to have some sound thoughts on murder and theft that have made their way into the Ten Commandments. All very laudable, but if we were writing them today we might leave out the stuff about coveting your neighbours house, or megalomaniacal claims to have no other god in favour of saying something about rape or child abuse. In fact, in addition to not being the source of morality, religion positively lags behind the secular humanist morale zeitgeist led by godless liberals. As religion is still playing morale catch-up on matters such as homosexuality and female equality I can no longer see it as a positive attribute of faith.

So here I am, atop Mount Improbable surveying the world in its splendour, and I can’t help but feeling a little evangelical about sharing my vantage point. I mentioned earlier that the small crack of doubt in my faith was filled by a tiny droplet of science that eventually expanded and cracked my faith to its foundation. The best way I see of sharing our vantage point is by ensuring enough drops of science are out there to seep into the multitude of cracks that must surely exist. I see this being achieved by the promotion of science education in schools and on TV. When I was a kid, the public perception of science got men to the moon and built supersonic passenger planes, now it puts nasty chemicals in our food and experiments with nice fluffy animals. Lets reignite the public enthusiasm for science and all it can for us. The abolition of faith schools promoting myths and superstitions would help too.

Tuesday 14 October 2008

A Day in the Life: Monday 13th October 2008

Woken up by the dulcet tones of Evan Davis on the “Today” programme as the radio alarm clock clicks over to 6am. The wife always has to comment on how bizarre looking he is whenever we se him on “Dragon’s Den”. Anyway you don’t have to look at the ugly old bugger on Radio 4. I lay in bed for 20 minutes to see how the economy is likely to fair this morning after the governments latest attempts to bolster the failing and ever more timid banks. Sounds quite positive, perhaps the shares might fair a little better today.

Drove to the car park next to the station in order to catch the 6:52 train. The car park is virtually empty at this time of the morning apart from 4 or 5 cars, so it’s always a tadge frustrating when someone has already nabbed my preferred space. I like the end space as it gives me a little extra room with my particularly wide car. So why does some silly git in a little Corsa insist on parking there? He could park in one of the normal annoyingly small spaces and still get his doors open. Fortunately, I get there first today and claim the end spot. I suspect however, if I drove a small car, I would feel equal contempt for those annoying people in their unnecessarily large gas guzzlers.

Train leaves Basingstoke dead on time. I remember making constant jokes at the expense of British Rail’s inability to have a train on time, but I have to admit they regularly seem to be on time these days. It was rather cosy on the train this morning as the heating seems to be on full blast, but presumably they are unable to turn in down and someone complains so the ticket inspect decides to open the window and cause a howling gale to blow in my face for the remainder of the journey, thus foiling my plans for a little morning doze. I decide to make use of the time by listening to my favourite weekly Podcast from the “Skeptics Guide to the Universe”. They were interviewing PZ Myers today (he of the famous Pharyangula blogs on

Arrive at Waterloo on time today, the train can sometimes wait outside the station for 3-4 minutes, presumably waiting for the platform to clear. Anyway this means I get into Waterloo in time to catch the overland train from Waterloo East to London Bridge.

Arrived at the office, checked my email and BBC news website before settling down to my mornings work. I’ve just set up a new test tool to manage the test cases, scripts and results for the CAD2010 project, so I spent the morning putting a backup procedure in place to automatically run a small script I wrote to backup my data. Punctuated my mornings work with a quick walk down the road to Prêt-a-Manger for my morning Latte and a check on the share prices. Documented the new backup procedure and then went to the gym.

Hopped on to my preferred cross trainer and plugged myself into the TV. Ran for 50 minutes and burnt 620 calories, whilst rather embarrassing watching “Bargain Hunt” and the 1 o’clock news to hear Robert Peston’s analysis of the markets so far today. A quick trip to Prêt again for some lunch as the wife didn’t make me any sandwiches this morning.

Spent the afternoon importing, reviewing and approving test scripts into the new tool for the CTAK Enhancements project.

Train from London Bridge back to Waterloo in time to catch the 16:50 train from Waterloo and get my preferred seat. Facing backwards, as the evening sun can blind you facing forwards, in the aisle seat, so I can get out easily at Basingstoke without being hemmed in and in the table seats as they have more leg room. As usual there’s some people who obviously don’t normally take the train, trying to claim two seats by sprawling their coats and bags across the seat next to them. The train is always full to standing room only, so they’ll have to move them sooner or later. As I get older and grumpier I’m taking more delight in asking them if the seat next to them is free and getting them to move their stuff. I Managed to read a chapter of my book before my eyes get too heavy. My train book is currently “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” by Daniel Dennett, an American Philosopher and professor of Cognitive Studies at Tufts University.

Miraculously come out of my slumber just as we pull into Basingstoke Station. I’m not sure how I always manage to do that. So far I haven’t managed to fall asleep and wake up at Yeovil Junction. I was considering moving to the opposite seat as the lady who normally has the window seat opposite also gets out at Basingstoke. Perhaps if I sat next to her, and I fell asleep, she would have to wake me up to get out herself. Then again, I would have the problem of the sun in my eyes. I might adopt this tactic if my ability to wake up in time starts to fail me.

Arrived home. Need to feed the dog first as he greets me with a few acrobatic leaps to indicate the fact that he wants his dinner

Have to have dinner early on Monday night, as Peter has to be at cubs by 18:30 and we need to eat before he goes. I have to pick him up tonight which is rather annoying because tonight is the London Skeptics in the pub meeting (2nd Monday of the Month) and I have to miss it. Bit of shame as they have a mad creationist speaking this evening and I wanted to ensure he was asked some suitably probing questions. Never mind, Peter only has a few weeks of cubs left which should free up my Monday nights.

Peter’s off to cubs and Victoria and India are preparing for Guides, which gives me a chance to check my email, unwrap and latest parcel from Amazon and ensure my iTunes library and Record Database are nicely up to date.

Pick the boy up from cubs. He’s in a rather excellent mood as he was presented with a trophy for winning the circuit orienteering competition at the weekend. He’s got an hour before bedtime, so we spend some father/son time together watching TV. I give him the choice of two programmes I recorded earlier, James May’s Bright Ideas or Mythbusters. He chooses Mythbusters which fits in well because Victoria gets really annoyed with it so watching it while she’s at Guides seems like a cunning plan.

Victoria and India get back from Guides, so after putting the kids to bed we get a couple of hours to ourselves, which I shan’t elaborate on in this blog.

Just time to read a few chapters of my bedtime book. I’m currently reading “Your Inner Fish” by Neil Shubin, a palaeontologist famous for his discovery of the Tiktalik fossil which nicely fills the previous fossil gap between fish and amphibians/reptiles.