Tag Archives: truth

Return from blogging break

Picture courtesy of Damian Gadal (Creative Commons)

Picture courtesy of Damian Gadal (Creative Commons)

Hello all. I’m back from my blogging break. There’s been an awful lot happening in the last couple of months. There have been lots of thoughts running through my head that have gone by without being written down or explored. I’ve made a few comments on other blogs or news/comment websites, but taking a break from the blog was necessary and I think it’s done some good.

I must confess that I have done some writing during the ‘off’ period, mostly in August. Though many are not finished, I thought I’d give a taster of what’s to come, either to whet your appetite or else warn you to stay away.

At some point, I plan to finish my series ‘The Nature and Origin of Morality’ which has lain dormant for a few years now. I tried an initial sketch when the opportunity arose when guest blogging for The Big Bible blog a few months ago, but I hope to build on this if I get a few days uninterrupted to think and write.

One of the main reasons for the break has been that I moved house. I have written two bits on this. One is a detailed account of the process; the other is a list of hints and tips that I either employed and found useful or things I wish I had done but didn’t. The former was written more for my own reference, but some of you may find it interesting. The latter is more for your benefit or, if I word it correctly for search engine optimisation (SEO) it might help a complete stranger.

Over the summer, one of the big buzz topics has been feminism and the online reaction to some of its outspoken advocates. I’ve commented a little on some points and offered messages of support who have been victims of online bullying, but this piece will hopefully clarify my position of why I will support many feminists but why I don’t adopt the term myself, preferring the expression ‘egalitarian’.

Another topic, as triggered by the cases of Julian Assange, Bradley/Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden is that of whistleblowing. I think, given this name of this blog, I ought to explore the nature of speaking the truth and what consequences that has and whether there ought to be any restrictions on doing so.

I’m working on a couple of pieces on christian belief, atheism and existentialism with the slightly provocative working titles of ‘Sympathy for atheists’ and ‘On the non-existence of God’. These are quite embryonic in their development and have yet to start their journey from my brain to my fingertips.

One piece that I started a couple of years ago, but have struggled with the wording explores the fallibility of human nature and the wrongdoings that are committed by christians, sometimes in the name of christianity. I’ve restarted it a couple of times and shelved it again and again. This time, I’m aiming to finish it. If you can goad me on or offer encouragement, then that’ll be much appreciated.

The most ambitious project, which I’ve started work on, but am a long way (maybe 2-3 years) from finishing is a statement of faith. I realise that I don’t have anything like that which is at all thorough on this blog, so my intention is to look at the 129 questions of the Heidelberg Catechism, looking at the answers given and giving my own response. I’m aiming to do one per week, in the hope that this will be as much an investigation into my own beliefs as it is an exposition. The objective, as ever, will be to provide food for thought.

In amongst these, I’ll also be putting in some book reviews. Specifically, these are:

Thinking in Numbers – Daniel Tammet
Dogmatics in Outline – Karl Barth
Borders: A Very Short Introduction – Alexander Diener & Joshua Hagen
From the Earth to the Moon – Jules Verne
Longitude – Dava Sobel
A Broad Place – Jurgen Moltmann
Dialogues and Natural History of Religion – David Hume
Around the Moon – Jules Verne
Mathematics: A Very Short Introduction – Timothy Gowers
History of the Peloponnesian War – Thucydides
The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories – H.P. Lovecraft
Robotics:A Very Short Introduction – Alan Winfield
Confessions – Augustine of Hippo

So that’s the plan. I can’t say it’s all a promise I’ll stick to. I may well get stuck with some of these posts and have to shelve them for a while. Other things may crop up which will intrude, either because they are interesting or there is some need that must be addressed. Meanwhile, the offer is always open to host any guest writers. Feel free to contact me if you’re interested. If you’ve got things you’d like to see here, whether it be a point of clarification over some issue or just something you think would be interesting, then please send your suggestions in. I’m always on the lookout for further book recommendations. I’ve got a few hundred on my reading list, but it can never be too long.

So what about you? Been up to anything interesting over the summer?

Advertisements

Foolish christianity

‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.’

This was Jesus’ encouragement to his listeners, as we have it recorded in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s account of the gospel. Interestingly, there is a footnote in most bibles over whether the “falsely” was included in the original text, as some early manuscripts have it, whilst others don’t. I’ve erred on the side of inclusion, though I admit I’ve not looked into the textual criticism on this matter.

I had a discussion a while ago where an atheist friend was mocking fundamentalists who wanted to celebrate “being fools for Christ” by holding onto some absurd views and then claiming they were persecuted when they were ridiculed for doing so. Such a portrait is not wholly unfamiliar as most churches I have been a part of have harboured a small clutch of such people. My aim here is not to ridicule, I love such people dearly, even if it’s not always reciprocated. But I would lovingly correct them as I really don’t think that holding onto conservative ideas such creationism or intelligent design (see here for more on these) really add much credibility to christianity. There are plenty of other ideas that are often claimed by christians which do little to make us appear credible witnesses; I’m sure you can think of some others.

To many people, there are at least some aspects of christianity which may be deemed absurd. What aspects, and to what degree, will vary from person to person. Some might reject christianity in nearly its entirety, others may pick at bits of various creeds, others may criticise what various christians say or write. Others I know have rejected christianity because they’ve been hurt by christians acting insensitively, though that I’ll save for another time.

When I asked the question, “How do you define a christian?” I looked a little at a creedal definition. Now when it comes to the question of the virgin birth, I don’t consider this to be a core part of my faith. Though I don’t denounce the idea, I remain strongly sceptical of its historicity and do not affirm its truth. Likewise, if you read my rather tongue-in-cheek take on The Purpose Driven Life, you’ll see that I don’t refrain from criticising other christians. Does this make me a bad christian? Maybe. I’ll let you be the judge of that.

My point is this: even if we regard the core claims of christianity to be true (aka the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, along with the subsequent implications of the existence of God, the nature of sin and the narrative story of the covenantal restoration of humankind, etc.), not everything that is written it its favour is necessarily correct. You might even take issue with my carefully worded parentheses in the preceding sentence. I freely admit that there are aspects of christianity which run counter to our intuition based on everyday experience, probably none more so than the resurrection. Yet I would contend that to dismiss the claims on the basis of its counter-intuitive nature would be a mistake. There are many other things we know to be true in spite of being counter-intuitive. To pick from my own educational background, I would cite the dual slit experiment of quantum mechanics and Noether’s theorem as examples.

But it would fly in the face of rationality to suppose that anything and everything counter-intuitive is true. There is good reason why some things are counter-intuitive, they are just plain nonsense. It does no one any good to claim that holding foolish ideas is a credit to the Church and the message it proclaims. Yet the apparent foolishness of some aspects of the gospel can be a source of embarrassment (something Paul wrote far more eloquently about than I could in 1 Corinthians).

I have read many supposed refutations of the resurrection, yet none that I have encountered take into account the belief in resurrection. i.e. why, given the difference between the christian view of anastasis from that in the contemporary Judaism and paganism, would a belief in a Jewish messiah having risen with a transformed body begin in the first place and become so uniform and widespread within a generation. Yet even this might not be the most “foolish” aspect of christianity. For me, the dichotomy between the idea of a God who is at once just and merciful is one of the greatest paradoxes – certainly one that I would make no claim to fully understand. The notions of grace and forgiveness run against a common human desire for punishment and retribution. You may think of other aspects, but to my way of thinking, these are the most dazzling. Yet even I cannot focus my eyes on the sun, I do not deny its power – so it is with these follies of the christian faith.

After I wrote the first draft of this, I heard a sermon at church which went in a very different direction. The preacher stated that she claimed she had been healed, only to be told by the doctor that there had been a misdiagnosis. By stating this, the doctor was somehow robbing her of her testimony of healing. I sat and listened, but couldn’t help but be sceptical.

I quite like hearing testimonies of healing, but I would really like to see some evidence to back it up. If christians can’t back up the claims in their personal testimony, I wonder how they expect others to believe anything else they might say. If we’re to be mocked or even persecuted, let it be for telling awkward truths, not just for being fools.

What is a faith school really like? Part 2: Curriculum and teaching

Carrying on my look at what life was like in a faith school, (see here for part 1 – looking at the background of the school), here we come to the curriculum and teaching of the school.

Curriculum

One of the ideas that seems to have some currency is that faith schools are a hotbed for teaching creationism. As popular as this idea is, it is without evidence.

The curriculum conformed to the standards that were required of any school, as laid out in the legislation governing primary and secondary education at the time. When a child was in the ILC, and for the first few years in the MLC, they studied 4 core subjects: Maths, English, Social Studies and Science.

All four were done through self-learning. We never had lessons for these subjects. Each week, you would have a tiny piece of card, on which you would write your targets on a day-by-day basis. You would write down the page numbers that you intended to work through the next day. These would be checked to ensure that you weren’t being too easy on yourself. If you didn’t finish your work by the end of the allotted time, you would have to finish it for homework.

When you had finished a page, you would have to mark it. All students marked the work themselves. You would have to ask permission to go to a “scoring table” which had the books with all the answers in them. You’d check your answers against the model answers and say if you got them right or wrong. You’d then get a monitor (classroom assistant) to double-check that you’d done the scoring correctly.

Maths

Maths was done through a company called Heinemann. Most people started at age on Heinemann primary mathematics group, working through the problems one by one and when you finish one book you move onto the next. I was a slow starter, so I actually started on infant maths, when I was aged 7. However, the self-learning style suited me much better, and I raced through these.

Once I finished all the primary maths books, I moved onto the secondary maths books. These were completed with as much gusto as all the previous ones and before long I was onto uncharted territory: Heinemann 8 and then Heinemann 9. These last 2 were supposed to reflect the year numbers in which you were supposed to do them. However, I finished Heinemann 9 not long after I started year 9, and there were no other textbooks to work through. So for a while, I was at a bit of a loose end, but I managed to accelerate my work in other areas and to do past examples of GCSE maths coursework.

English

This was by far the toughest of the subjects to do. The books we used were called LIFEPACs. I think they were christian, but any references to anything identifiably christian were few and far between. They were much more advanced than students at state schools were used to. This is evidenced by the fact that the grammar which we learned by the age of 10 was that which students found was actually part of their A-level courses when they encountered them 6-8 years later. They were based much more in understanding the material than the rote learning of Social Studies and Science (see below).

Social Studies

This is a mixture of mostly geography and history, with a few random bits thrown in. This was mostly done through the ACE system, an American christian education plan. ACE stands for Accelerated Christian Education. The books were known as PACEs, Pack of Accelerated Christian Education. They were really easy to work through and I confess I made no attempt to use them the way they were ever intended. When you open the book, the left hand page contains text for you to read; the right hand page had individual sentences with one or two words omitted. Your task was to read the text so that you could fill in the words. Most people did this simply by scanning down the left hand page to find the sentence that matched the question they were being asked.

The ACE system wasn’t followed precisely. As it was an American set of books, and social studies included history, there was, inevitably, a few PACEs that focused on American history. What the school did was to omit these PACEs and instead, one of the teachers wrote their own books on British History. There were 2 levels: the yellow book and the green book. This was our first exposure to what I was now call “proper study”. In order to answer the questions, we had to go away and do research. The answers weren’t to be found on the adjacent page, as they were in the PACEs. Instead, you’d have to trawl through 3 or 4 textbooks (these ones weren’t written by our teacher) to piece together an essay-style answer. Nomatter how bright the student was, everybody struggled with British History.

Science

This is pretty much what it says on the tin. Bear in mind that this started from PACE 1, started at the age of 7, though to (I think) PACE 94. I know certainly got to the 90s, but didn’t get through to the 100s. They covered all the basics that you needed for science, though there was a noticeable lack of experimental work. As a consequence, we never set foot in a laboratory until we were doing our GCSEs.

But they laid out the basics. There wasn’t much chemistry at all. What I remember of the biology PACEs mostly revolved around naming bits of a plant, describing how they related to the reproductive process and lots on photosynthesis and various cycles (like the water cycle and the carbon cycle). I was never particularly interested in these; instead, I longed for and savoured the more physics-based PACEs, especially those on astronomy.

Creationism?

Since this seems to be an odd fascination for some people, I thought if you’re likely to skip straight to any particular paragraph, it would be this one. But if you’ve done this, please do take the time to read the wider context.

As stated above, the school did not teach creationism. That said, the headmaster was partial to it and there was about half a dozen issues of Ex Nihilo magazine (which did more to educate me in Latin than in science) in the school library, next to New Scientist. These were never introduced into science lessons.

The church did support creationism and I recall one summer when the evening services ditched the sermons in favour of watching Ken Ham videos.

As part of the biology syllabus for the double-science GCSE, we had to do some basic evolutionary biology. This mostly consisted of genetics, learning about genotypes, phenotypes, inheritance and variations based on mutations. Roughly, this made up about a quarter of the biology syllabus we studied (set by the EdExcel exam board). The only thing that could possibly have been misinterpreted as creationism was a strong emphasis in science to have a sceptical attitude. This included scepticism about what we were being taught. Yes, we had to know lots for our exams, but that should never stop us questioning accepted wisdom. This was not limited to science, and such an enquiring attitude was encouraged throughout the school curriculum.

GCSEs

Mid way through year 9 (i.e. when I was 13) I had to take my ‘options’ – so they were ironically called. This was supposed to mark the end of the self-learning and the start of the classroom work. At this point all the ACE and similar work was left behind. It was a mere educational backdrop; now the work towards the important qualifications began. Classes varied in size depending on how many people were doing each subject and what ‘tier’ they did. For example, if you wanted an A or A* you had to do the upper tier in each subject. If you did a lower tier, then your maximum grade was capped. The largest class would have years 10  & 11 taught together, so for something like IT, we had up to about 14 in the class when I was in year 11. The smallest class was the upper tier maths. There started out with 3 of us in the class, but one found it too tough and dropped down a tier while the other person left the school before finishing their GCSEs. So it ended up being one-on-one tuition.

For most subjects, the bulk of year 10 was spent getting our coursework done. There were some mock exams done at the end of the year, but they were just intended to see how you were getting on. The main mock exams came in January of year 11 before the final run-in towards the real things.

Coming up

In the last part of this mini series, I’ll look at the academic standards of the school as well as the challenges it had which other schools didn’t. Some of that will relate to gaps left above, but I’ve done so for reasons of space. I’ll also look briefly at the school’s legacy and how it has, or hasn’t, helped shape me as a person.

Book Review: Jesus and the Victory of God by N.T. Wright

At last, I return to Christian Origins and the Question of God. For those of you who don’t know, this is a series of books by N.T. (Tom) Wright which is he is still in the process of writing. I began in late 2010 by jumping straight to volume 3, The Resurrection of the Son of God (RSG). At the time, I wasn’t aware it was a series, but stuck with it at the time. I have since gone back to volume 1, which was The New Testament and the People of God (NTPG). Now, as I write this review, the next volume, with the tentative title Paul and the Faithfulness of God (PFG), is due to be completed this summer and should be published in the summer of 2013.

In this volume, as the title suggests, Wright looks at Jesus. In his introduction, he takes issue with those who propose that we can know very little about Jesus himself and propose that there is a stark difference between the ‘Jesus of faith’ and the ‘Jesus of history’. Instead of accepting this proposition at face value, Wright sets out to examine who the Jesus of history was and what his aims were. He proposes that many Christian theologians have, over the years, examined very closely the idea of why did Jesus die, but at the neglect of the question as to why he lived.

The introduction is almost as detailed as that of NTPG and runs on for well over 100 pages. So this is a book for the patient reader, yet it is well worth it. The one drawback to the book, which is highlighted early on, is that, for the most part, the testimony of John’s gospel is ignored. Instead, what we have is a study solely of the synoptic tradition. This may frustrate many readers as it seems as though, in acting as jury, Wright is dismissing one of the key witness statements. Part of the reason given for this was one of brevity, as the book is over 600 pages long (plus bibliography and index) on the basis of the 3 other gospel accounts.

However, hints are given that he will return to the John, along with the other gospels in a later volume in the series. Yet I couldn’t help but think that this hinders Wright’s analysis from the off. I think most readers of this blog are fairly theologically astute (probably more so than me) so will know what I mean if I say that John’s account is more christologically developed than the Synoptics. Yet Wright seems to want to disentangle Jesus from Christology and so, while he often criticises Bultmann and his ‘demythologisation’ Wright seems to be following Bultmann’s footsteps very closely indeed, even if he is looking in a slightly different direction whilst doing so. That said, Wright does outline, at the very end of the book a kind of ‘christology’ thought it is one that is very different from what most churches teach.

An example of this may be found when dealing with the problem any historian looking at Jesus must face: the miracles. Rather than tackle the issue head-on, Wright somewhat sidesteps the issue and instead focuses purely on what the 1st century ‘audience’ would have interpreted by the signs. Yet dodging the historicity and moving straight onto the interpretation is the same approach that Marcus Borg takes to the biggest miracle of all: the resurrection. If you see his 2006 book ‘Jesus’ (not published in the UK until 2011) he says of the resurrection: “Seeing the Easter stories as parables need not involve a denial of their factuality….If you believe the tomb was empty, fine…..And if you’re not sure, or even quite sure they didn’t happen this way, fine. Now, what do these stories mean?” Yet Wright spends a significant amount of space in volume 3 of this series (which was the first that I read) arguing very much for the historicity of the resurrection. Whether Wright went through a significant change of mind between his writing volumes 2 and 3 is unclear, but his approach certainly appears to have shifted.

Wright’s portrait of Jesus is that of a man who understood himself, and was understood by others, as being a prophet, using as his foundation passages such as Mark 8: 27-30 and its parallels. The key theme to the book is what Jesus meant by the “kingdom of god” – a topic that I’ve often found glossed over in many different churches, presumably on the assumption that everyone knew and agreed what the referent was, even if it somewhat hazy.

After his “portrait of a prophet” Wright moves on to look at the aims and beliefs of Jesus. Much of this is tied in with what has gone before. It is here that Jesus moves onto the end of Jesus’ life.

In trying to understand Jesus in his historical context, Wright does seem to be missing a very big side of the story. He is keen to stress that in order to understand Christology you must first get “Jesusology” or else risk putting the cart before the horse. But I cannot feel that by focusing exclusively on Jesus’ reformation of the Jewish worldview and ignoring the impact on Gentiles and at any time and place other than 1st century Israel/Palestine, that Wright is painting a portrait of the horse and cart, only without legs and wheels, so that Jesus is so firmly rooted in his setting that he is static and has nothing of relevance to say to 21st century westernised christians. Only at the very end of the book is this problem acknowledged. The proposed solution is that everything changes with the resurrection, so the reader is referred onto the next volume.

This is not the only thing that may rattle those of us who hold to fairly orthodox (note the small ‘o’) beliefs. In in his discourse of Jesus in relation to “apocalyptic” Wright swims against the tide of 2,000 years of theology to deny that there will be a “second coming.” Though hints are dropped throughout the book, the core argument is given in Wright’s exegesis of Mark 13. Rather than consider this a new form of apocalyptic, Wright chooses to read this as a strictly Jewish apocalyptic in exactly the same vein as Daniel.

I realise that this review may sound quite negative, but that is not the impression I want to give. I would wholeheartedly recommend this book to christians, jews, muslims and atheists. To understand christianity (and how it relates to Judaism) one has to study the figure of Jesus. And though this doesn’t cover all aspects of Jesus’ ministry and life, it certainly covers a lot and in a lot of depth. It is at once both enlightening and challenging, asking us to look at our worldview in a different light – just as Jesus did in his day.

What kind of evidence would you like?

There were two instances recently where the idea of evidence and epistemology came to the fore. I just wanted to explore my own thoughts on the matter and to find out what you think. The first came in an internet discussion which was raking over old ground of christianity v atheism. Someone had made the statement that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and I couldn’t resist the bait to jump in and correct their use of this logical fallacy.

The second was when I was at the Job Centre Plus and I was asked to provide “proof” of my savings. Those that know me will be aware that I am quite pedantic, especially when it comes to the semantic difference between proof and evidence. What they were really after was strong evidence since proof is so much more an exacting standard that is almost impossible to achieve outside of the platonic world of mathematics.

Without going into too much detail of each specific case, this got me thinking about what kind of evidence one accepts and how we compare that to what is available. In the case of christianity, the extraordinary claim at the heart of my belief is the resurrection of Jesus. Yet I am constantly told that this requires extraordinary evidence.  So, I ask, what kind of evidence would you accept? The event was a one-off and so the scientific paradigm (as much as I am in favour of it) doesn’t apply since you cannot repeat any experimentation under controlled conditions. Instead, we have to adopt the mindset of the historian, where we have to deal with the evidence as it stands. We cannot create evidence; all we can do is uncover that which already exists.

In the case of the jobseekers’ allowance (JSA), most of my savings are held in e-savings accounts. The reasons for this are compound, but one of these is that they use less paper since I don’t get statements through the post. I just log on to my online bank to see what the balances are. I offered to log on and demonstrate to the staff at the job centre how much I had in each account (I’m still not certain about the precise reason, but I won’t get JSA if they don’t know how much I have in my accounts) but they wouldn’t accept the evidence that existed and which I was willing to show them.

The interesting thing is that evidence only ever points to truths which already exist. The evidence only affects (or effects, even) our knowledge of those truths, it doesn’t create truth out of the void. In other words, the ontology is independent of the epistemology. While we would all surely love to have all the evidence we want to support or falsify our views in the exact format we would like, the universe isn’t really that simple.

There are instances where evidence is destroyed or lost which may lead us to areas of great uncertainty but which do not impinge on the truth (or otherwise) of whatever matter we are investigating. For example, we know very little about the contents of the ancient library of Alexandria, or the precise location of where Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon. Sometimes all the evidence we have is that of the eyewitnesses to an event.

It is often easier to dismiss an idea on the basis of it lacking the kind of evidence you would prefer than it is to undertake a serious examination of the evidence that exists. There is much said and written about the historicity of the christian claims, though of those I have read lately, the best are those by Tom Wright: Surprised by Hope (shorter and written at a very accessible level) and The Resurrection of the Son of God (longer and more detailed). To give a snippet, he states in the former “I do not claim…that I have ‘proved’ the resurrection I terms of some neutral standpoint. I am offering, rather a historical challenge to other explanations, and to the worldviews within which they gain their meaning….No other explanations have been offered, in two thousand years of sneering scepticism against the Christian witness, that can satisfactorily account for how the tomb came to be empty, how the disciples came to see Jesus, and how their lives and worldviews were transformed.”

When we lack definitive proof, as we do in 99% of all things, all we have to rely on is incomplete evidence. It is up to us individually to decide how we treat that evidence and what conclusions we may draw from it. My opinion is that we should maintain a healthy scepticism (here, my idea of scepticism differs a little from Wright) and that we should always consider the possibility that we might be wrong, no matter how much we might want something to be true (or untrue). This scepticism leads to an inevitable doubt about that which we hold dear to our hearts. But so long as that doubt leads to investigation and hopefully to increased knowledge, doubt is not a bad thing. If it leads to disbelief where we preclude possibilities then we are wilfully choosing to neglect our intellects; this, I do not agree with.

So those are my thoughts. What are yours?

Einstein, falsification and the spirit of science

There has been much written over the last few days in reaction to the news coming out of CERN that some neutrinos may have been observed breaking the “cosmic speed barrier.” I won’t go into too much detail here, as there is plenty to be found elsewhere on the web, though of varying qualities. One of the things that has bothered me is that many of the news sources refer to c as “the speed of light.” This is incorrect as the c which is used in relativistic notation is specifically “the speed of light in a vacuum.” Everyday experience tells us that the speed of light varies in different media. When you’ve seen a straw or stick in water appear to be bent, this is due to refraction. Refraction occurs because the light has a slower speed in water than it does in air.

My second slight gripe is over the fact that the result has not been confirmed. At the time of writing (Friday night/Saturday morning) the results are still subject to further scrutiny. For me, I wonder if the experiment which produced the result has been repeated. The best science must always be reproducible, given the same setup. This, of course, does assume invariance under time translation. Now *THAT* would shatter the scientific paradigm, if it were falsified.

There is also a slight laxity when discussing the idea of neutrinos breaking the speed barrier. The special theory of relativity doesn’t actually prohibit faster than light travel. If you actually work through the equations, what you end with is that you cannot accelerate a massive particle (that is, a particle that has mass, it’s nothing to do with it being exceptionally large) to c or beyond, from a speed which is less than c. The reason being that as it accelerates, it actually gains mass. The more mass it has, the harder it is to accelerate and you end up that as the speed approached c, the mass is unbounded (or in other words, it tends to infinity) and so cannot be accelerated any further. In theory, if a particle, at the point of its creation, travels faster than c, then it will remain faster, though it does throw out a whole host of other problems which I shan’t go into here.

So what if Einstein was wrong? He was still a hell of a lot smarter than I am. He wrote the paper “On the electrodynamics of moving bodies” when he was 26, younger than I am now. I still find it amazing at how much others achieve at a comparatively young age, and to be honest I find it quite depressing at how little I have achieved given that I am fast approaching 30.

If Einstein’s theory does need to be superseded, you can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. You have to remember the historical context in which he worked. The Michelson-Morley experiment had falsified the idea of the ether, so something new was needed. Building on the work of Lorentz, Einstein’s view not only needed to be radically different from the prevailing Newtonian viewpoint that had dominated physics (or natural philosophy as it was originally known) for the previous few hundred years, but it also had to incorporate the well-tested Newtonian model in the vast majority of cases. In other words, for massive particles travelling at significantly less than c, the theoretical predictions between Newtonian and Einsteinian dynamics should differ by an unobservably small amount.

If Einstein now needs to be revised by another paradigm shift, any new model will also have to incorporate the results that have supported Einstein’s work over the last hundred years. Einstein’s remains a very accurate model of reality. Had it been a poor model, it might have been found out much sooner.

All this points me towards falsification. I think I have mentioned in another recent post that I am currently reading through Popper’s The Logic Of Scientific Discovery. Towards the start, he makes a very good demolition of positivism, and makes his proposal that scientific theories ought be falsifiable, rather than be built up via a kind of inductive method based on verification.

While this is my first time reading it, the general philosophy is very familiar, having been woven into the fabric of my scientific education.

All of science is provisional. The work of the great scientists represents our current and best understanding of the universe we live in. As Richard Feynman put it, “science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.” Nothing is to be deemed unquestionable, whether it be the work of Newton, Rutherford, Dalton, Darwin, Maxwell, Einstein, Feynman, Witten or Hawking. All are fair game.

To claim that to challenge any scientist or any theory is a kind “heresy” is a claim that could only be made by someone who has little to no understanding of the spirit of science. No theory of nature should be beyond question, even if we don’t have the answer. In fact, the nature of science is to state that there we don’t have the answer. All we can come up with are models of how the universe works that line up as closely as possible with reality. Of course, not everyone holds this view, as was demonstrated by Hawking & Mlodinow last year when they published The Grand Design in which they proposed a bizarre model of “model-dependent realism” though, thankfully, this seems not to have caught on. Yet I applaud them for at least challenging the spirit, which in itself is a spirit to challenge. A merry-go round of Russian dolls, perplexities and unknowns, and so the confidence of an earlier generation may be shown to be no more than hubris, and the quest for truth continues.

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!