Saturday, 26 January 2013

The problem of Evil

A friend of mine is doing an Edinubrgh Adult education course on the problem of evil and asked me for my opinion. I once (about 15 years ago) at the invitation of a friend of mine who was a unitarian minister gave a sermon on the subject at his church in Manchester. As my friend found it helpful I publish it here, despite my deep antipathy to traditional religion I do have respect for liberal religious people such as Quakers and Unitatrians, anyway I publish the Sermon in it's entirety here as it was given back in 1996 so some of the historical references may be a bit dated. I think it still more or less encapsulates my views. I feel that the Arts by articulating the problem of evil does a much better job of articulating the issues than either traditional theology or philosophy.

The Problem of Suffering A Non Theistic Approach


The so called problem of suffering raises severe questions for any one who is in any sense religious or spiritual. How can we who are such believe that the world shows itself to have some underlying harmony in the face of the barbarism and brutatility shown by such disasters as the Holocaust, the world wide famine, the endless wars in the world and the death of innocent children most recently shown by the massacre at Dunblane. or the James Bulger case.

It is clear that those who believe in the concept of God as an ‘Active agent’ or as all powerful are faced with a serious challenge. If God is all powerful and mighty then why does he or she let such suffering happen. Alternatively if God intervenes in the world the why aren’t all the evil dictators who cause such misery struck down by lightning. This is not so ridiculous as it may seem, some of you may remember that when David Jenkins was enthroned as Bishop of Durham York Minster was struck by lightning and there was no shortage of people ready to blame it on God intervening because he was displeased with the Bishops view on the virgin birth. Clearly a God who is prepared to intervene to correct a Bishop’s theology is capable of intervening to stop madmen like Stalin or Hitler.
Over the centuries there have been a nuimber of so called theodocies which attempt to address the problem in my opinion these responses have ranged from evasion, farce or have made such a God more of a monster rather than some one to be respected or worshipped.
To give a few examples:
  1. The Free Will argument
  2. .: This basically says that it’s all our fault, God gave us free will, to enable us to become fully human we needed to exercise our choice between ‘right and wrong’ and hence suffering is an inevitable consequence. This evades the issue what we wish in the face of our and others suffering is some way to remedy the hurt and pain which we all feel. This argument essentially blames the victim and does not show any way forward.

  • God’s Answer to Job:
  • This essentially says that you are unable to understand my ways I am ultimately mysterious and more powerful than you will ever be. In the fullness of time all will be revealed until now you will have to wait and see.

  • ‘Sufferings Good for you’
  • Whilst it’s true that an awareness of suffering prevents us from being complacent and reminds us that ‘This is not the best of all possible worlds ‘ as Leibniz argued. This argument if taken to extremes turns God into a tyrant I cannot believe that it was good for the Jews to suffer in the holocaust. or the children of Dunblane to be massacared, or for people to suffer long and slow agonising death.

    The traditional arguments are summarised in John Hick’s book ‘Evil and the God of Love’ unfortunately I find this type of argument just leaves me cold and in the light of these and many other explanations along similar lines there really is no justification for the traditional concept of God who is all powerful and attributing natural disasters to such a God just turns him into a tyrant.

    Does this mean that there is an end to theology or for those of us who reject such a concept of God is that the end of the matter. I would say not because we are still faced with the problem of injustice, tyranny and ‘Mans inhumanity to man’ and any theology or philosophy which brushes aside such problems as meaningless can be accused of indifference and is probably just as callous as many of the traditional arguments.

    Much of great Art and Music has suffering or tragedy as an undercurrent running through it. The novels of Thomas Hardy have as one of their themes the act of a Malevolent fate which destroys everything in its path. The song cycles of Schubert, the Music of Mahler and the tragedies of Shakespeare to name just a few examples are able to articulate in ways which transcend any rational analysis the deep dilemmas associated with the human condition.

    In describing his famous painting the Scream the painter Eduard Munch says:

    "I was walking along a path with two friends, the sun was setting, I felt a breath of melancholy. Suddenly the sky turned blood-red. I stopped and leant against the railing, deathly tired lookiing out across flaming clouds that hang like blood and a sword over the deep blue sea fjord and town. My friends walked on, I stood there trembling with anxiety and I felt an infinite scream pass through nature"

    Within the context of the Christian tradition there has always been a strand of theological thinking which has stressed the empathy of its major figures with the suffering of all mankind. For example the Catholic tradition exemplified in the Stabat Mater elevates the individual sufferings of Mary to a universal plane. Similarly the concept of Jesus not as a miracle worker but as the man of sorrows and the suffering servant to my mind speaks more meaningfully than any concept of God as powerful and mighty.

    Since the 2nd World War there has been a strand of Modern theology starting with Dietrich Bonhoeffer and continuing with Jurgen Moltmann which has rediscovered this aspect of the Christian tradition. In Bonhoeffer’s last work ‘Letters and Papers from Prison’ he writes

    ‘God as a working hypothesis in morals, politics or science has been surmounted and abolished; and the same thing has happened in philosophy and religion. For the sake of intellectual honesty, that working hypothesis should be dropped…..
    And we cannot be honest unless we recognise that we have to live in the world etsi deus non daretur. (as if God does not exist)….God lets himself be pushed out of the world onto the cross. He is weak and powerless and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering’

    These seeds are developed further in the theology of Jurgen Moltmann in his book ‘The Crucified God’ which attempts to place the cross at the heart of Christian theology. In themselves the individual sufferings of Jesus have no more or less significance than the many other victims of injustice or tyranny. However for reasons essentially to do with social. cultural and accidents of history the Christian Church has placed the sufferings of Jesus at the centre of its worship. In the traditional approach this is linked with views of the atonement. I myself find great difficulty with this approach. The idea that a capricious tyrant God needs appeasing by the blood of innocent victims is to my mind abhorrent. On the other hand if the death of Jesus is seen as representing of all suffering in the world then the Christian hope as exemplified in the resurrection myths is that in the end despite all evidence to the contrary love is able to triumph over evil.

    Ultimately the answer to the problem of suffering lies with us, there is no active agent out there who will wave a magic wand and make it better. Yet in our own lives by seeking a more compassionate, just and fairer society and by giving comfort and support to those who suffer then this vale of tears will be transformed. Just as each individual act of suffering has a dimension which has an almost metaphysical dimension. So I believe each individual act of love and kindness has a universal significance which ultimately will help to heal the suffering and pain which pervades much of our world today.
    Suggestions For Further Reading/Study 


    Voltaire Candide. Voltaire was shocked by the Lisbon Earthquake and wrote this book as an attack on the optimistic views of Liebniz here caricatured as Dr Pangloss who believed ‘That this was the best of all possible worlds’

    Dostoevsky ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ This famous book includes a dialogue between 2 of the brothers one of whom is a monk and the other a sceptical intellectual about the problem of suffering.

    Thomas Hardy Jude the Obscure


    John Hick ‘Evil and the God of love’

    Dietrich Bonhoeffer ‘Letters and Papers from Prison’
    Jurgen Moltmann ‘The Crucified God’


    Mahler’s Symphonies especially Nos 6 and 9
    Schubert’s Songs especially the song cycle ‘Die Wintereisse’.
    and of course the passions of Bach, Mozart's Requiem and the Stabat Maters of Pergolesi and Vivaldi.
    Sermon given at Manchester Unitarian Church June 1996.

      To the above references I would also add D. Z. Philips book 'The Problem of Evil and The problem of God.' a scating attack on the traditional arguments. Also I would encourage people to read the book of Job even if they aren't particularly religious. One of the problems with traditional religous people hijacking texts like the Bible and claiming that it is the infallible word of God is that it's merits as literature tends to be missed by agnostics or secular liberals. The book of Job considered as a dialogue in the spirit of say Plato is a literary masterpiece even if the final answer is somewhat unsatisfactory. Again even though I'm not particularly religious I can still appreciate the theology of people such as Bonhoeffer or Jurgen Moltmann, indeed The Crucifued God was influential in my thinking when I was a liberal Christian. It's combination of radical theology and drawing insights from the Frankfurt school is still relevant to today's problems as it was when it was written 40 years ago,

    Sunday, 20 January 2013

    What is the purpose of Cosmology ?

    This post is an attempt to ask what is the purpose of Cosmology. The context arises from some discussions I've been having on the OU science fora about the so called Big bang. It is apparent that some people there seem to want Cosmology to explain more than it can. One correspondent in particular seemed to think that it was ill defined, something with which I quite disagree also he and some others seemed to subscribe to the view that there was a conspiracy to prevent debate about other alternatives. So lets start with what physicists mean by the big bang. It is actually a combination of particular models deriving from fundamental theories the synthesis finally arising in the mid-sixties. So what are the components

    1) The Friedmann model of the expansion of the universe which is a consequence of the Robertson Walker metric which is one of the many possible solutions of Einstein's Field equations of General Relativity

    2) Fermi's theory of the Weak interaction which is now part of the Standard Model of particle physics itself one of many particular quantum field theories

    3) Relativistic Statistical physics which when coupled with 1 gives rise to expressions which govern the temperature of the universe as a function of time.

    4) A very detailed chain of nuclear fusion reactions which is responsible for the relative abundances of the light elements from this the correct hydrogen and helium abundance something which the steady state models of cosmology could not predict accurately. However Gamow's original hope that the abundance of all elements could be derived from this chain turned out not to be correct as the chain stops at iron. It is now known that the other elements are produced from stellar explosions.

    This synthesis was achieved by Peebles and other workers. At the time it was thought that all matter could be accounted for but we now know that ths was a bit optimistic given the apparent need for dark matter and dark energy. However as the nature of the latter two forms of matter are somewhat elusive I think it's fair to say that the calculations of Peebles now collectively known as the Big Bang gives the best account we have of the calcluation of the abundance of the light elements and is a lasting achievement similar to the calculation of the energy levels of the hydrogen atom in quantum physics, the deduction of electromagnetic waves from Maxwell's equations and all the other key calculations of physics.

    Whatever subsequent developments in Cosmology, it seems highly unlikely that this will be overthrown, Yes of course there are unknown questions at the edges but the big bang is here to stay. In this context the universe as far as cosmologists  are concerned is essentially that sea of neutrons, protons and their associated neutrino's which existed round about 1/100 th of a second to the first three minutes when the light elements were formed. A vague notion that the universe contains everything, the dreams and wishes of us all, our imagination and creativity as one of the correspondents wanted to claim is certainly not relevant to cosmology. Of course I'm not claiming that those issues are irrelevant, it's just that cosmology cannot explain those things it is just outside of cosmology's remit.

    You might claim that by limiting the scope of Cosmology to the prediction of elemental abundances or developing models of Galaxy formation and all the other stuff of Astrophysics that this is not enough. Yet it is only by limiting itself to the prediction of measurable quantities that Cosmology and indeed physics as a whole gains it successes. By this means we can obtain the most precise account of what happened at the early stages of the universe that mankind has produced and that should be more than enough to satisfy most people.

    Friday, 11 January 2013

    First TMA back for MST326 Fluids

    Well got my first TMA back for the fluids course. Got in the high end of a grade 2 pass just a few marks short of distinction. Made a couple of silly errors (as always) but on the whole quite pleased with this one. Currently in the middle of block 2 hoping to finish the TMA off in a couple of weeks. The emphasis on block two is on the physics (or even engineering ) of fluids. All good solid stuff but doesn't stint on the maths (hooray !!) plenty of vector calculus. A bit of debate as to which is the more mathematically sophisticated of the two courses on the fora. This one or MST324 I tend to think this one. But other people seem to differ any way of which more later when I review TMA02

    Sunday, 6 January 2013

    I must be mad SM358 quantum mechanics

    Well for better or worse I have decided to register for the quantum physics course. Ok technically I don't need it but I feel the OU would look more favourably on my application to do the quantum entanglement project in October if I have the course under my belt. It will be revision of one of my favourite subjects and also a chance to get a glimpse of the new stuff which has emerged since it was shown that quantum mechanics is incompatible with the Bell inequalities which forms the basis of quantum information theory.

    As readers of this blog will know I tend to favour the minimalist interpretation in that the so called wave-function is essentially the complex sqaure root of a probability density function and not a real field in configuration space. It will be interesting to see what the official OU line is.  I hope it is more of the 'Shut up and calculate' rather than getting bogged down in interpretational issues. All a working physicist needs to apply quantum mechanics to model the world is

    1) The Born rule namely the fact that the modulus squared of the wave function when suitably normalised gives rise to a probability density function.

    2) An algorithm to convert classical Hamiltonians or lagrangians into quantum mechanical terms this is essentially converting momentum into a differential operator. For non- relativistic situations this leads to the Schrodinger equation, for relativistic situations it is depending on the spin of the particle involved either the Klein Gordan equation, The Dirac equation or for photons a quantised version of Maxwell's equations.

    3) The eigenvalue - eigenstate rule for the wavefunction or probability state vector. Namely that the eigenvalues of the wavefunction or probability state vector is related to the energy levels of the system under consideration.

    4) The most controversial aspect namely a rule for relating the time evolution of the wave-function of quantum mechanics which contains all the possiblities to the single outcome seen in measurement. The so called collapse of the wave-function. 

    If you take the Born rule seriously then as the wavefunction is essentially statisitical this presents no problem in interpretation all that happens is that one of the many possiblities is realised, just as in classical probability theory one spin of the roulette wheel or throw of the dice realises one of the possibilities. There is nothing magical about this certainly we don't create the world by measurement.

    On the other hand those interpretations such as many worlds or the Bohm interpretation (as currently formulated) have to postulate either the reality of the 3N+1 configuration space or the even more fantastical idea that a parallel universe is created every time a measurement is made. I prefer the simplest interpretation consistent with the facts and it seems to me seeing the wavefunction as the complex square root of a  probability density function is all one needs and dissolves much of the misguided debate about the real meaning of the wave-function.

     Anyway I'm looking forward to this as a preliminary to doing the entanglement project alongside Number theory and logic in October.

    Saturday, 5 January 2013

    Music by Numbers

    One of the standard myths about composition is that a composer or song writer just hears a tune in his head then writes it down. You get the idea Mozart playing billiards whilst composing tunes in his head, Schubert walks by a brook and gets the idea for his Schone Mullerin, Beethoven walking in the country, sketch book in hand listening to bird song and writes down instantaneously his Pastoral symphony and so forth. Thus the ability to compose music is seen as an inuitive affair only given to specially gifted people who are seen as creative genius's whilst mere mortals can only gasp in awe and wonder.

    It may surprise some people that quite often music is constructed to conform to a pattern or to use a modern term algortihm. One of the simplest algorithms or forms is the 4 bar phrase. It only requires three chords in any major scale to write a tune. A triad is formed from three notes on the scale each a third above each other the three main triads are formed from the first degree of the scale, the fourth degree of the scale and the fifth degree of the scale. Thus the primary triads are

                                         I    -   1 3 5
                                         IV -  4 6 1
                                         V  -  5 7 2

    and for C major I would be CEG, IV would be FAC  V would be GBD  To harmonise these chords notes on the strong beat of a melody must usually be taken from notes of the chord and generally speaking each bar normally is based around the notes of a chord. For a four bar phrase the pattern is usually I-IV-V-I

    If one uses chords in root position then the bass line per bar is already written for you it is simply

      1 4 5 1 and normallly the base line starts with a descent

    Thus for C major the bass line would be C F G C. The melody would normally start on the first note of the scale so that must be C or 1 one or two octaves above. generall two. The melody normally moves in the opposite direction to the bass line so for our melody we must have a general  upward ascent to the  4th or 6th  and then continue  degree of the scale to fit in with the notes needed to match the notes of the IVth triad in the first bar a downward descent to the 5th Degree of the scale in the third bar and a continuation downward to the first degree. So the basic shape of the melody is 1-4(or 6) then there must a descent to 2  and then finally 1 . Quite often the penultimate note in the melody is 2 which nicely leads to the first degree. So that is the recipe for the melody. In C major start on  C ascend to  F in the second bar,throw in some A's  in the third bar make a descent from either F or A to D and end on C in the last bar.  This pattern will work for all 12 major keys. So there you are 12 tunes for the price of 1

    Then the other two parts are more or less dictated by the need to avoid consecutive 5ths or Octaves by which is meant that between any two chords in each part there must not be intervals of 5th or Octave between them. This is quite tricky to achieve but a bit of patience normally gets there. One trick is to alternate triads in closed position with triads in open position and also make sure that the inner parts move to the nearest note.

    A basic pattern for the chords which avoids parallel fifths would be
        S    1   4   2  1
        A   5    6  7  5
        T    3   2  2  3
        B    1   4  5  1

    Note that although the Bass and the soprano move from the first degree of the scale to the 4th degree this does not count as a parallel octave as the octave is approached by contrary motion.

    So there you have it how to write music by numbers. This basic formula forms the basis of most pop music or hymn tunes. What makes the variety is of course  the use of different rhythmic devices or say arpeggios of the chords. So that instead of a block chord in the bass line you would have C E G ascending.

    Needless to say as more and more harmonies are introduced the music becomes much more sophisticated and classical music is usually more complicated than the basic I-IV-V-I formula one of the reasons why I feel that it is not elitist to acknowledge the superiority of classical music over most pop music certainly the stuff that seems to form the basis of the X factor and other such commercial pap.