subconscious silliness

I’m enjoying my time in Hamilton, Ontario, for the final conference of my trip, with the first full day tomorro, involving a workshop on the origin of life.I’ve already met some interesting people, and am grateful for the opportunity.


I write this at about 1am though as I can’t sleep, with aan overactive brain. In the hour or two of decent sleep I’ve managed, I had a bizarre dream which I will try to capture for posterity.





I found myself the leader of a WWII-style guerilla resistance group, trying to build up to a point where they could openly fight the Nazis. It seemed to be based in NZ. The situation deteriorated into a battle of egos within the group, culminating (after I had agreed to donate a kidney) in a drawn-out knife fight. No nazis died in the story. A key motif was trying to train polar bears to fight – it didn’t work with the trainee, but later turned out that its descendants became quite effective anti-Nazi weapons, possibly through a kind of epigenetic inheritance.




I could go on, but one of the oddest aspects is I suspect the whole thing was sparked by seeing a meme about Hitler on Facebook – don’t Socialmedia and sleep, kids.


recent travels

I was pretty sure I had posted a travel summary here a couple of days ago, but it doesn’t seem to have happened – either I just dreamed about it or the internet wasn’t working and it didn’t actually post – either way, it’s a warning for me about blogging when I should be sleeping instead. So instead of the spiel I wrote (unless I find it somewhere eventually), you get this short update. [Edit: as per usual, this got longer than expected]

Since last blogging about my travels I’ve let New York via a train to Montreal, spent some time there with my adviser and his lab group, which was cool. Montreal was nice, I had one or two rather weird experiences there, but generally enjoyed it. Lots of kind of odd people, including a French guy in my hostel dorm room whose day job is apparently healing people with magnets – I tend to prefer actual medicine, but hey, whatever ‘attracts’ you I guess.  At first I was impressed that everyone in Montreal appears sophisticated, and French is cool – but soon enough I began to fit in to some extent – I had people ask me for directions in French four times, which I was quite chuffed about – even though I don’t speak enough French to be able to answer, but maybe next time I will.

Few people in Montreal seemed happy; there were a lot of homeless people asking for money (and, interestingly, unlike in the US I never saw anyone give any of them money), people smoking, and strip clubs (as three examples that particularly struck me) – none of which I associate with a happy and healthy city. I can’t blame all three of these on poutine, but I didn’t enjoy that dish – french fries made slightly soggy because they were covered in gravy, and then lumps of an odd fairly tasteless and slightly rubbery polymer supposedly derived from milk and known as ‘cheese curds’ was added. I couldn’t finish my container of the stuff, which is rare for me, as I dislike wasting food but I decided the risk of feeling quite uncomfortable and possibly even vomiting it was a little too high. I’m sure you’re all glad I shared that with you.  There were also a tonne of gay bars and cafes with rainbow flags hanging outside. I enjoyed drinking a frozen raspberry lemonade in one of them after a struggle to find a cafe in a residential area, realizing in hindsight that the bright pink drink wasn’t the most conservative choice. The heat was quite oppressive, so I’m sure you would have done similarly. So, I mostly enjoyed Montreal, got some good feedback on my thesis work, and stayed in a couple of good hostels – and the city really was beautiful. I also spent some time sitting on park benches and in cafes writing perhaps half (up to ~8k words) of a booklet on evolution and related stuff, and it was good to commit thoughts to paper/laptop, even if I should have been doing other work.

After that, a couple of days ago, I flew to Seattle via Vancouver. To review the cities, DC was not great (particularly the neighbourhood where I stayed), New York was not great (no doubt better if I’d had more money and had stayed in a nicer place, had more time to adjust, had made it to some parks, and/or knew people there), Boston was very nice, and Montreal was too, but Seattle is fantastic on account of the people; the levels of mutual respect and appreciation and the number of shared interests are high, and I’m very glad I’m here.

Now I will get back to working on my thesis a little, or pretending to. Merci beaucoup.

the progress of Science

Some sketchy thoughts on the development of science, having been immersed in discussions on related things over the last couple of days and in doing the preparatory readings over the last few weeks. The last couple of days have been extraordinarily intellectually fruitful and personally helpful, and I’ve probably had more interesting conversations on things I am ‘professionally’ interested in than I normally would in a few months – on evolutionary mechanisms, scientific research programmes, materialism, theism vs naturalism, properly basic beliefs, moral intuitions, the problem of evil, Old Testament ethics, career possibilities, the history of science, cosmology, epigenetics, evo-devo, the interpretation of Genesis, whether the design argument is an argument from analogy, apologetics, etc etc – and that list was mostly just from one conversation.

The standard story in our (I’m assuming commonality between us, whoever you are, here, but let’s just run with it) culture regarding the development of science is one of the triumph of naturalism and materialism (good) over theism and superstition (bad). “Science succeeds and religion recedes: welcome to the 21st Century, loser.” [As with everything on this blog, that quote is my intellectual property, by the way]. I’m more and more convinced that the story is faced with too many counter-examples to work.

Firstly, materialism, the idea that the universe is fundamentally just matter in motion, is an old doctrine, popular with some ancient Greek thinkers (if ‘medieval’ is a derogatory term, ‘ancient Greek’ should be a swear-word, but things don’t work like that). It fell out of favour however, in light of the arguments of people such as Plato and Aristotle, who made space for a transcendent realm as a place which was not only in existence, but was necessary to explain the features of our world. Yay Plato – I don’t agree with him a lot, but I am a fan.
Materialism (in a highly modified way, heavily influenced by Christian theism) came back into favour with the rise of modern science, but it is unclear that it was purely for scientific reasons that this occurred.

The science-associated decline of superstition, or polytheistic, animistic or pantheistic-type divine interactions with the world (pantheism is perhaps different, but think it has some similarities in this context), or ‘a spirit under every rock’ thinking is actually entirely harmonious with Christian theism (yay Science), at least as much as it is harmonious with naturalism. Christianity is not a superstitious religion in this sense, and the death of superstition is by no means the death of God. Much of the Old Testament is a strongly-worded polemic against such thinking.

Modern science is I suspect less materialistic than science of a couple of centuries ago – modern physics is interested in energy and forces and waves and regular laws and mathematics (including, it seems, (arguably) aesthetic virtues such as elegance and simplicity as criteria of theory-choice), and large amounts of empty space and the anthropic principle and dark matter, maybe the multiverse, and perhaps at the bottom of it all we have strings – certainly not just matter in (chaotic) motion! To an old-school materialist wouldn’t this all sound like bizarre pseudo-spiritual hokum? “Where’d my nice tidy solid atoms crashing into each other go??”  In case that wasn’t enough, quantum mechanics’ introduction of indeterminism and cosmology’s inclusion of the initial singularity should both be, let’s say, just a little disconcerting for a classical deterministic materialist.
I’ve heard it suggested that just as biology became more and more enchanted with reductionism and/or physicalism, physics was moving away from it. If the trend continued, we might end up with biologists convinced that the world is all reducible down to cold hard molecules, while physicists think it’s about dancing strings and beautiful mathematics with indeterministic quantum effects influenced by observers’ consciousness (I speak very loosely here of course).

Modern science has not removed irreducible sense-experience, consciousness or even free-will from reality – in fact, I suspect that as a human project it depends on these very things.

Despite what I mentioned before about biologists’ love of reductionism (I was thinking more of earlier decades, when molecular biology was a new thing and people assumed that molecules were what everything is really about in some fundamental way), modern biology is arguably (in fact almost certainly, in a technical sense) non-reductionistic, concerned (minimally) with ‘functions’, ‘systems biology’,  ‘cellular machines’, ‘metabolic cycles’, ‘signalling networks’, and ‘information’/’codes’ in molecular biology, and in sub-fields dealing with the larger scale aspects of life and ecosystems it includes evolutionary explanations (again interested in functions) and systems-level approaches to ecological interactions. Not just ‘matter in motion’. Of course, non-reductionism or ’emergence’ or something of the sort might be fully compatible with naturalism/physicalism – or it may not, it’s an interesting question I’d like to do more work on. It’s certainly not what earlier materialists were talking about.

Now, to change tack a bit, another note that comes to mind, which I may develop later.
How does design-influenced scientific thinking differ from naturalistic science, one may ask? Perhaps it doesn’t differ much in some areas of biology, insofar as the Darwinian programme in biology has taken over earlier teleology-friendly science and ‘rechristened’ it (illegitimately I suspect, for various reasons, but you can wait for my eventually forthcoming little booklet for the details) as a child of naturalism. I’m a fan of adoption, but this is one counter-example – in this case “get your own kid!”, I’m inclined to say. Under naturalistic Darwinism, people expect the biological world to look like it was designed pretty well for the jobs that various sub-features of it do – Nature, after all, has weeded out the failures and left us with the good stuff, so no wonder organisms look pretty well suited to Nature. Under some design-influenced view (say a teleological account of evolution), we’d expect pretty much the same thing. This is no failure of a design-sympathetic account, but it does make it hard to sell such an account as beneficial for science – unless of course it turns out that the alternative account doesn’t have all of the goods that it claims it does – something I take to be a fascinating open question.

On that heresy, I leave you. Feel free to ask me any questions on what I’ve written – I can’t guarantee I’ll answer in much detail, but you’re most welcome to try me.

Goodbye Grandma

My Grandma, my Mum’s mother, passed away this week aged 88.
I wasn’t very close to her, and this had been expected for a while, so it is not a devastating shock for me, but I would like to reflect a little on her influence. It may seem odd to some families that I remain in Canada rather than returning to NZ for the funeral, but she wouldn’t expect anything different, having never, it seems, placed herself first in the order of importance in life. I would have preferred to be home though.

Elaine Cook was a quiet introvert, who probably never received much recognition, but she trusted in Jesus and I have every reason to expect that she will be honoured as His faithful servant when they meet face to face. Her husband, Eldred, passed away on Christmas Eve a few years ago, at the start of my time at university, and was of more conscious influence on me. For much of his working life he was a pastor in various parts of New Zealand, and before that a refrigeration engineer. His death, the first in my family that I was old enough to really grasp, came as a shock to me, and I hope he would be proud of what I’ve done with my life in the intervening years. As I think about it though, they were both of some influence on my life.

Firstly, I’m grateful to have had three sets of praying grandparents (ignore the maths on that one for now), along with other people from their generation who have shown an interest in my life, and I fairly often mentally attribute successes I’ve had to that network of Christian care.

As noted, Elaine trusted in Jesus. She hadn’t attended church for many years, out of convictions on the nature of the church that she shared with her husband and that I don’t understand. However, reading the Bible and Christian faith were incredibly important for both of them. When Eldred went to the hospital for the final time, as I understand, all he wanted to take was his New Testament.

I’ve learned some things from them. They never had much money, or never seemed to, and always lived very simply. But they were extremely generous, and through their savings gave away a lot of money to causes few would doubt were worthy. I would say they were ‘conservatives’ in one of the best senses of that term, and remarkably others-centred. When I have extra money, I can easily spend it on myself without a thought, but they lived differently – I hope I remember this challenge for the rest of my life.

They were not, by today’s standards, extremely ‘well educated’, as a nurse and engineer but they were well informed and curious about the world. They read a lot, including reading the New Zealand Herald from cover to cover for many years. My more ‘sophisticated’ liberal friends may sneer at this, but I’m inclined to praise the habit of reading wherever it is found. They also bought the National Geographic for many years and happily for my family, passed it on, no doubt stoking my own interest in science. Until her memory started to go not too long ago, Grandma was quite a crossword expert. They had a large network of people around the world who they regularly wrote letters to. They showed much more intellectual curiosity, care, and common-sense than most “well-educated” people around me, and I am very grateful for their example.

I am currently overseas on my fifth international trip, but my Grandma never left New Zealand (I’m not sure about Poppa, though I don’t think he did either). In fact, until a few months ago, when she attended my cousin’s wedding in the South Island, she had never boarded a plane. As I said, they lived simply, out of choice.

Grandma wasn’t seeking the praise of others, and she quietly did what she could to make the world a better place, devoted to God and her family. The idea that the Christian faith is irrelevant to life or ethics would I think have made her laugh. Her kind of lifestyle is, I fear, becoming rare. I hope that to some extent I can emulate it.