Monthly Archives: July 2011

On procrastination

I sometimes wonder what it is that makes us procrastinate. I am terrible at this. I often find myself completing 80-90% of whatever I’m doing, when I suddenly “remember” that there’s something else I need to do that I haven’t started yet. So it often ends up that I have a lot of things mostly done but nothing complete. I’m not very good at sticking at one thing.

The same is true of blog posts. I have about half a dozen that I have been writing for some time, taking a look at, putting away again and not feeling ready to put them online because I’m not happy about them for one reason or another.

I have also been lacking time lately, as I’ve been busy with work, often only getting half an hour or so spare in the evenings, as well as the fact that I was away for the entire weekend. Although that was quite nice. I was trying to teach my 7 year old niece about the idea of a “characteristic” by describing something that:

• Has four legs
• Has fur
• Has a tail
• Has teeth & claws
• Says “meow”

It was only at this last clue that a broad grin slipped across her face. I then asked her what characteristics uncles have (as well as me, she has quite a few other uncles). Here response was that they:

• Are grown-up
• Are male
• Have a special talent.

Naturally, at this point, I asked her what special talents I had. “You’re good at maths and tickles,” she said. That made me smile.

I have a relatively free weekend coming up, so I hope to be able to finish some of these half-creations. There has been much to think about recently, probably a lot of which I shan’t put online. I was sorry to hear of the departure of the departure of John Stott. Though I have not read any of his books for many years, I always found them honest, heartfelt and challenging. I did not agree with 100% of what he taught, though I have a great respect for him. There have, however, been losses of those much closer to me and much younger, that it would be inappropriate for me to comment on further in public. I have also been trying to find the time to do some thorough reading on the potential discovery of the Higgs boson both at CERN and Fermilab, though I have not had the chance to read more than the first paragraph of any article, nor have I surveyed what evidence has been published so far. I am also trying to find time to read Steve Jones’ report on science reporting in the BBC. Again, I have only read a brief summary of his findings.

I will share one thought I had recently. I’ve been going through the gospels of Matthew and Mark lately, and noted that both of them contain mention of Jesus talking about “taking up a cross.” (Matt 16:21-28, Mark 8:31-38) Most christians, I think, read this in the context of a complete picture of the gospels, post-crucifixion. I think there are some redaction critics who suppose this was added by the gospel writers at a later date, knowing the method of Jesus’ execution. Now, while I’m no expert at anything much, and especially redaction criticism, I’m not sure what the evidence is to suppose this was a later insertion. So, assuming it was a truthful testimony, was Jesus making some kind of prediction as to his own method of execution? Was it a common phrase in use in Roman-occupied Judea/Israel/Palestine at the time? What would those around him have thought he meant by it? What, crucially, did Jesus himself think he meant by it?

I’ve heard some very platitudinous answers to this, though I am not convinced by them. I shall continue to search and to think.

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Book Review: Lost Christianities by Bart Ehrman

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect with this book. I had heard various things about Ehrman, though had not read anything of his before. Since he is a former student of Bruce Metzger, I expected extremely careful and thorough scholarship. At the same time, I had heard that his own beliefs had covered a gamut of viewpoints over the years from christian to atheist to agnostic, and that his writings were deeply critical and challenging to modern day christians. So, unsure of precisely what to expect, I opened his book with an open mind.

I have to start with a comment on Ehrman’s writing style and communication abilities: they are superb. He makes his case very cogently and acknowledges where there are doubts and possible objections to his propositions. Thoroughly honest in his approach, his model of writing is one that could well be followed by many others. Few theologians I have read have written with such clarity.

So what are these propositions? Well, he invents a new term for an old group known to any historian of church history. The early church leaders are now rebranded as “proto-orthodox.” That is, a group of people in the 2nd-4th centuries whose beliefs became what we now recognise as Christian orthodoxy. To summarise, imagine a young tree sapling. The traditional view of church history has been that “heretical” views and non-orthodox texts and opinions grew out of early christianity as a kind of ‘branch’ that either was cut-off or died anyway, leaving the main trunk intact. The revisionist viewpoint espoused by Ehrman was that there were lots of saplings growing in parallel, and that in the battle for survival, most of the saplings were killed and the victors, being the ones who wrote the history, distorted the true picture of what happened. Ehrman’s hypothesis, crudely outlined above, owes a great deal to Walter Bauer, who is given due recognition and acknowledgement in the text.

This certainly should raise a few eyebrows amongst historically-minded christians. For the first third of the book, which I thought were the most interesting, he looks at a few early non-canonical writings at the stories they contain as well as the stories behind their discovery and their authorship. Throughout this discourse, there is this thread of “proto-orthodox” though it seems entirely superfluous to the discussion, and no attempt is made to justify it. The central third of the book looks at the different bodies of beliefs, looking at the Ebionites, the Marcionites and there is a broad overview of the broad spectrum of belief which fell under the umbrella term of Gnosticism.

It is only in the last third of the book that Ehrman attempts to justify his proposition of the “proto-orthodox.” Crucial to this discussion is the authorship of the books of the New Testament. Here is where some of his arguments seem to lack coherency. For example, he states (quite correctly) that we have no surviving “original” documents but then goes on to argue that the “proto-orthodox” have altered the originals to suit their own doctrines. But if you do not know what the originals said, how can this be justified?

Likewise, I am well aware that there are controversies over the identity of the authors of the New Testament, but Ehrman does not really explore these. On a number of occasions, he states that the books of 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus and 2 Peter were probably forgeries, though no evidence to support this proposition is ever given. Instead we have reference to “most scholars” though these are not named or referenced. So, whilst being eager to get to grips with this more revisionist viewpoint, I was left frustrated that it was not well supported.

In conclusion, I do not find Ehrman’s revisionist definition of early christians as “proto-orthodox” to be convincing. It is well-argued, but the evidence presented just doesn’t seem to provide sufficient weight to back up his proposition. The conclusion of the book is also slightly odd. Ehrman recognises that there are some elements of heretical groups that are making a comeback in one guise or another, and he seems to suggest that a plurality of belief and the resurrection of some gonostic or Marcionite thinking is necessarily a good thing. But to me, applying Occam’s Razor, the simplest and most logical explanation behind the demise of the heretical elements looked at here were because they were late inventions that grew out a pre-existing orthodoxy that was already in place from the time of Acts. These later ideas lacked that most important ingredient: truth. While having different opinions is perfectly welcome, I do not agree with Ehrman that this in itself is a good thing if it introduces untruth. I have great respect for his writing and his research, and would recommend this book to anyone interested in this history of early christianity and the heretical beliefs that grew out of it. However, I would recommend it as part of a wider study, which I shall be doing myself. I have, as you may see, recently completed The New Testament And The People of God by N.T. Wright and on my table, waiting to be read this summer/autumn are Alister McGrath’s Heresy: A History of defending the truth and W.H.C. Frend’s The Early Church.

Book Review: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

Before reading this book, I had been under the impression that it was a children’s book. However, such impressions were quickly dispelled. What we have, instead, is a book that has been expertly written from the first person perspective of an autistic teenager. It was quite different from anything I have read before, and it is clear to see why it has won such acclaim.

The writing style fits perfectly the subject matter, and the reader is made to see the world through the eyes of this young boy, Christopher Boone. So what we have is a very honest and believable account of a boy who struggles to understand the foibles and deceits of others.

The book is instigated by the death of a neighbour’s dog, stabbed with a garden fork. Christopher decides to find out who did it, which involves talking to various neighbours and attempting to understand motives. Because the book is written from his point of view, we are made to see things in fairly stark contrasts, which I think is Haddon’s way of demonstrating what a peculiar and sometimes deceitful world we live in.

In spite of the page count, the book only took me 2 days’ worth of commuting to finish, as it is in fairly large print with wide margins, and is punctuated with quite a few diagrams and pictures. This makes it readily accessible to a wide audience and is eminently enjoyable, as well as heart-wrenching in places. Haddon’s use of an autistic viewpoint is his way of using an argument of reductio ad absurdum to point an accusing finger at everyday dishonesty, especially that of parents.

Praying, not shouting

I was really struck by something someone in my housegroup said last week, and I just thought I’d share some of those thoughts. The conversation had drifted onto prayer, and this person was paraphrasing Bill Johnson where the line of thought went something like this:

It is wrong to start your intercessory prayers, “God, if it’s your will….,” because we should be seeking God and trying to find work out what his will for us is. Then, once established, whatever we pray will be in God’s will anyway.

Now, I have a few reservations about such a line of thinking, but in the spirit of unity, I will lay those aside for now to carry on my main train of thought. This person went on to say that if we are given authority in our prayers, then we have no need to shout when we pray, because the Holy Spirit is the one with power, not our vocal chords.

It got me thinking about the cult of celebrity Christians and televangelists, etc. where you do see people putting on a performance. There was a very good show on faith healing hoaxes that Derren Brown did recently, which I would highly recommend you watch if you get the chance (though I do not know how to get hold of it on dvd, on-demand player, etc. – I’m no techno whizz, in spite of my bespectacled appearance). One aspect of the programme was to look at the theatrical over-exuberance of many so-called “faith healers” which I have always been highly sceptical about. The person in my housegroup managed to put into words what had previously been a half-formed thought in the back of my mind for some time.

I will not condemn anyone for shouting in their prayers, as that seems to me judgemental and potentially divisive and unnecessarily antagonistic. What I would like to do is to question why they do it, given that it seems completely illogical. It reminded me of 1 Kings 19, when Elijah was told to go and stand on a mountain. “And behold, JWH passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke the rocks before JWH. [But] JWH was not in the wind. After the wind, came an earthquake, [but] JWH was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake was a fire, [but] JWH was not in the fire. After the fire came a voice, a small whisper.”

Likewise, in Matthew 6, prior to Jesus giving the template for ‘The Lord’s Prayer,’ he said: “Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to pray standing in the synagogues, and in the corners of the open streets, so that they may be seen by others. But you, when you pray, enter into your room, shut your door and pray to your Father in secret.“

There is also a motif that Jesus used about the words that someone speaks being the fruit of what is in their heart. So if Bill Johnson is right (and I’m not saying that he is), then to pray “if it is your will” demonstrates an uncertainty in one’s heart. And if you are to pray in line with the God’s will, then that means you already have God’s will in your heart. The trouble I have with this is the question, “what if I’m wrong?” What if I have misunderstood? Should I go about boldly declaring what God’s will is, if my own fallibility has gotten in the way? It is for this reason that I embrace doubt and try to be careful with what I say. I don’t always get it right. I, like every other Christian and other human being, makes mistakes.

I don’t usually go the prayer meetings at my church. That tends to be because they are scheduled for the busiest time of the month for me, workwise, so I am not physically able to get out of the office and do the ~1.5 hour commute to get there on time. On the few occasions I have made it (where I am usually only of two people to turn up in a suit) it has always struck me that about 20% of the people do 80% of the “out-loud” praying. These people tend to be the more outgoing and charismatic sort of personalities, which is the polar opposite of me. I find talking to people an intensely stressful experience, as I like to construct what I have to say before starting to talk. Usually, by the time I have put together a train of thought in a coherent manner, any conversation to which it may pertain will have moved on. This is largely why I prefer typing. I can do it at my own pace, am less likely to say something stupid (though that probability is >0%) and can make extensive use of the backspace key.

I know that’s not the most structured thing I’ve ever written. I was just putting some thoughts down. I hope they have some semblance of congruity.

Book Review: You Are Here by Christopher Potter

I was first made aware of this book some time ago by an article in the Guardian which interviewed him. I cannot find the link for the particular article in question, nor can I recall the details of it. What I do recall, however, is that it piqued my interest and sounded like the kind of casual science reading that is right up my street. So I bought it, and then it sat on my shelf for a couple of months, unread, while I got on with other reading (just hit the tag “book reviews” to see all the others I have done lately).

The opening chapter was a bit mixed, where he talks a little bit about his own history, plus a fairly random smattering of other things, with no real structure to it. It turns out that Potter had a very similar background to me, being as he did his undergraduate studies in maths, before going on to pursue other things for a career, while maintaining an interest in science. There did seem to be a metaphysic which he laid on top of what he regarded science to be which I have only ever come across in those who are entirely untrained in science and yet talk it about confidently as the answer to everything. However, the rest of the book showed that if were ignorant about science, that that was entirely hidden.

He does a whistle-stop tour of the major philosophical developments of science over the last 2,500 years or so, along with a brave and noble attempt to summarise quantum mechanics and general relativity for the lay reader; a task which he does with some aplomb and not a little dexterity.

From here, there was a slightly peculiar list of seemingly random things which were listed in order of size. Potter’s aim was to look at bigger and bigger scales, effectively zooming out from our world to look at the wider universe. From here, Potter takes on a parallel journey, though instead of going from the smallest size to the largest size, he wants to take us from the earliest time right through to the present day, taking in an overview of the developments in cosmology and high energy physics.

Overall, the book is very much at the lightweight end of science writing, but nonetheless thoroughly enjoyable. It is spoilt a little by technical errors, though these are relatively minor (for example, he states that “Humans are often carnivorous” when he should have said omnivorous). The other drawback that is has, which is specific for his advocacy of the scientific method, is that he does not include references. All we have is a bibliography of further reading, where there is no linking between the books referenced and the relevant passages. The reader is left to work this out by the titles, I think. However, that would not stop me from recommending as a great book, especially a “starter” for someone not overly familiar with ‘pop science.’

Book Review: The New Testament Documents – are they reliable? by F.F. Bruce

It has to be noted that it is quite a short book (123 pages excluding preface, bibliography, etc.) though it does pretty much what it says on the tin by looking at some of the evidence in support of the reliability of the New Testament. Regardless of whether you agree with Bruce’s analysis, it has been a hugely influential book in modern christian thought.

In Bruce’s analysis, he does skim on some of the detail which I admit frustrated me a little. For example, in the first chapter, he looks at the date of the authorship of the books of the New Testament. I felt that this was a little too brief and that there could be plenty of arguments posed for dates slightly later than Bruce supposes.

After looking at the dates, he begins to look at the contents of the gospels, the importance of Paul’s writings, the historical detail in Luke’s writing (in particular, the book of Acts), before going on to look at other evidence outside of the New Testament such as archaeological evidence and other non-christian written sources.

The book serves as a great introduction to the subject of biblical criticism as a defence for its authenticity, though it is by no means a comprehensive survey. The non-canonical writings of the early church and of the gnostics are given extremely little space. But it is nothing more than an introduction. For the open-minded sceptic, who is willing to engage with the evidence and is looking for a comprehensive review, this is not the most convincing case. There are some gems to be found, though most of them lie towards the front of the book.

In the version I have, there is a great preface written by N.T. Wright, in which he sums up quite well the best use for this book: “The [person] who reads Bruce today will want to supplement him by reading judiciously in more recent writers. But he remains an excellent foundation.”

Did you know that there was an 19-digit number that has never been spoken by any human ever?

Well, it’s true. I want to show you why it is true. Before I do that though, I have to explain why I am writing this. During my time studying maths at university, I was never particularly impressed by most “existence theorems.” On the whole, I don’t find it particularly exciting or helpful to set about proving the existence of something without any prospect of actually calculating it (Examples of these include the Ham Sandwich Theorem and the Hairy Ball Theorem). The exception to this is the pigeonhole principle, which I first came across on an open day at Leicester University. The day sticks in my mind because it was pouring down with rain and one of the first guys we spoke to said that he didn’t expect many of the applicants present to go on there, on the basis of the poor weather. His idea was the first impressions were lasting and that bad weather left an overall bad impression, in spite of whatever efforts made by the university staff on the day, the applications would likely think of Leicester as a rainy place, compared to another university they may have visited on a sunny day.

I did not end up going to Leicester University.

But in their open day they did introduce me to the pigeonhole principle, by which one may prove all sorts of odd things. One of these, for example, is that there are at least two people in Newcastle with the exact same number of hairs on their head.

You can look up more details of the pigeonhole principle here, as I would rather assume it is known and then use it rather than recapitulate the whole thing.

A while ago I came across a number called Graham’s number, which was a peculiar for the fact that it was immensely large, no one has calculated it, but we do not that it ends in a 7 (when written in base 10, at least), which is the kind of quirky thing that really piques my interest. [I ought here to note that the episode of QI on which I first saw this was repeated on Monday night, after I wrote most of this, but before I put it online]

So I got thinking what is the potentially the smallest number that no person has ever written down, spoken aloud or actually even thought about. I wanted to ensure that I would be right so where I have had to make estimations, I have erred on the side of caution, leading me to suspect that though I am convinced I am right, I have over-shot the mark in at least one respect.

The first trouble was to estimate how many people have ever lived. Here, we are instantly presented with a problem of trying to define the demarcation of the first homo sapiens as opposed to an earlier ancestor and to then consider at what point in human evolution numeracy developed. As I had no idea I resorted to Wikipedia, who gave a statistic cited from an American study that estimated there had been between 100,000,000,000 and 115,000,000,000 people who have ever lived. So naturally, I added on a bit (just to be on the safe side) and assumed for the purpose of my calculation 120,000,000,000.

Next, I had to estimate how long they live for. Again, without any detailed research to hand, I made a guess by using the current average age of around 80 years. I suspect that over the course of human history, it has not been less than this, so my estimate is suitably conservative (if that phrase is not an oxymoron).

Of this, there are likely to be times (such as childhood and old age) when the ability to count to large numbers will not be present. So I took off 10 years, which I think is not unreasonable.

Next, how much of that time is spent asleep. I have heard that people spend a third of their lives asleep, and that the average person gets 8 hours sleep a night. Personally, I don’t know where these people get the time from. I get 6 hours a night, so I estimated that each person was only awake for 52.5 years.

Of course, most people do not spend every waking moment thinking about numbers. As a mathematician by training and an accountant by profession, I probably do it more than most, although even then I would estimate that I don’t spend more than 5% of my waking time thinking about numbers. There are far more everyday concerns that take up much of my thinking time. Again, erring on the side of caution, I plumped for 10%.

This means that on my grossly optimistic assumptions, the average human can spend 165,672,864 seconds in their lifetime thinking about numbers. Given our earlier estimate of the number of people, this gives the total thinking time to date as somewhere in the region of 19,880,743,680,000,000,000 seconds.

Now, even though it can be very quick to count to 10, the numbers we are interested are not likely to be small. So how long does it take to say them? Of course, this will depend on language, so I admit my figure is a plucked out of thin air. I would opt for 2 seconds. I think when you get the scale of the hundreds of thousands, that’s not unreasonable. Order of magnitude higher than that will probably take considerably longer, so 2 is a fair estimate to use for a conservative guess.

So what’s the answer then? I believe that there is a number which is less than 9,940,371,840,000,000,000 which no person in human history has ever spoken, written or thought about.

I am sure that this is far too high an estimate, as we have considered numbers like a googol and googolplex which are many orders of magnitude larger and I haven’t taken into account repetition. Goodness knows how many times the number 100 has been considered by humans over the years!

I know for certain that the number in question cannot be 4,724,557,109,087,242 because I just thought about it. In fact, any number I think about is, by definition, the wrong answer, because as soon as I think of it, it can no longer remain “un-thought-of.” I’d love to think that I “discovered” a number by being the first one to think about it. Of course, by continuity, we know that it must have existed, but I have no way of verifying if I was the first one to think of it.

It strikes me a little bit of quantum mechanics where a system will collapse into its eigenstates as soon as it is observed. Truly fascinating and enjoyable.

That’s why I love science!