Sunday, 21 November 2010

Garrow's Humour

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I wrote about the first series of Garrow's Law, and a second series has now started, which I'm pleased to report maintains the same high standards. It follows the partly true exploits of William Garrow, London barrister at the end of the eighteenth century, who practically invented cross-examination and appears to have played a great part in removing many injustices from the UK legal system. It's a triumph for writer and creator Tony Marchant.

Consider the second episode of series 2; in this, Marchant notes the iniquity of harsher sentences for women than men for the same offences. Phebe Harris was condemned to death by burning for counterfeiting coins (for which men would be hanged), and the sentence was executed on 21st June 1786. Thankfully, by 1790, when Sophie Girton was sentenced the same, she was pardoned (although still transported to Australia!), and the abolition of burning was well on the way.

He also weaves a story about a gay relationship uncovered by a spurned wife with the apparently widespread practice of blackmailing men by threatening to report them for sodomy (which carried the death sentence, even if consensual). Needless to say, a proportion of the male population indulged and discovery was much feared. Really thoughtfully done, although possibly a little anachronistic occasionally.

It highlights, I think, how far we've come in this country in a comparatively short time, but also how far we can fall, if primitive forces are allowed to prevail in our modern, liberal, secular societies. We have the prospect of an old man in a hat telling 1 billion people that they can now use condoms 'in certain cases'. Well, I don't think it should take a William Garrow to sort out these 'cases'; Catholics should tell the Pope to stick his 'certain cases' where the sun don't shine, and tell him to start thinking rationally and not doctrinally, where people's health is concerned.

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Thursday, 11 November 2010

The Interrogative Moo?

h/t and apologies to Padgett Powell - The Interrogative Mood

Do cows ask each other questions? Are you cowed by questions? Do bears shit in the woods? Does a falling tree in an empty wood make a noise? Do we hear what we want to hear? Are we here because we were meant to be? Are we here because we had to be? Does a puddle have to be puddle-shaped? Do we have to be human-shaped? Does thinking have to be thinking-shaped? Do we have to be shaped? Does thinking about it make it different?

If we mishear, what misses the ear? If something misheard means something else, is that meaningful? What is the meaning of life? What is six times nine? When does life start? What about the meanness of life? Who will think of the children? What do the children think of Will? Will they ever freely think of Will? Is their will free?

When did you last see your father? When did you last see your Father? Where's your cap? Where's your gym kit? Where's your homework? Where's your shame? Where's your innocence? Wears the soap?

What's the time? Does time fly? Do flies time? Does time travel? Can the time be written down on a piece of paper? What is time's arrow? Can it fly backwards? Can things be undone? Can zips be undone? Can zip be undone?

What do you call two grains of sand? What do you call three grains of sand? What do you call four grains of sand? What do you call five grains of sand? What do you call six grains of sand? What do you call one hundred grains of sand? At what point does this amount to a paragraph? At what point does this amount to a blog?

Do all novels sound like The Interrogative Mood to Australians?

(Well, you get the idea with that one)
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Wednesday, 3 November 2010

If not Phlogiston, is this Supernatural?

This image was selected as a picture of the da...Image via Wikipedia

The natural/supernatural debate rumbles on.

Chris Schoen responds to Coyne, Blackford, Boudry et al whilst sort of agreeing with Steve Zara, PZ et al, but also gets it wrong, in my opinion:
But I'll allow that just as it's a tautology to say "if we define the supernatural as that which science can't examine, then science can't examine it," so too is it a tautology to say that "if we include the supernatural among that which science can examine, then science can examine it." 
Both of these are word games. The question is whether there is a category of phenomena (empty or otherwise) which science is not equipped to study, and the obvious answer to this is yes.
But surely that's just a word game as well, because a 'category' is just a human construct, so he's defining the problem into existence too, and begging the question. Steve is much closer to this, I think, by insisting science investigates reality; the rest is arbitrary categorising. We cannot know a priori what exists, or if "a category of phenomena (empty or otherwise) which science is not equipped to study" exists. That our mind is capable of imagining such a category is no more proof of its existence than it is of Guanilo's Island. It just means our minds are capable of imagining the non-existent. And this is backed by cognitive and other studies of supernatural thinking (see Boyer's Religion Explained, for example). Of course, if in fact science cannot investigate something, we have no other way to investigate it either.
Science can't study what it can't define, quantify and observe.
Which just defines the problem into existence, which he mentioned earlier.
Since it is predicated on revealing laws, science cannot study that which is lawless ("capricious," in Russell's words.)
Well, surely it can; it can study anything that has an effect in reality. We may not be able to draw conclusions from those studies, however, and in particular I don't think we can conclude in favour of, or even prefer, a supernatural explanation.

I've often said, in response to theists who question how science has any jurisdiction over God, that it is so because theists say their God makes a difference in the world. That *difference* can be studied (and so far dismissed, as it happens). So science has historically dismissed claimed 'differences', and the vast number of these debunkings suggests that it's *reasonable* to infer that it will always be so. Not that it *will* always be so, but that it's a reasonable inference that it will always be so.

Realising their claims have been debunked, theists then look around and find some phenomenon that science has yet to explain and re-attach their theology to that phenomenon (consciousness, for example). And this will continue ad nauseam, since there will no doubt always be unexplained phenomena.

The claim that supernatural explanations cannot be accepted fundamentally derives from the simple observation that the phrase supernatural explanation is an oxymoron, and I don't see a way past that. 

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