President’s Obama’s Farewell Speech – Science and Reason Matter

President Barack Obama’s farewell speech last night in Chicago took a look at some of his positive achievements in the past eight years – and there have admittedly been quite a few. In his own words, his Presidency helped:

…reverse a great recession, reboot our auto industry, and unleash the longest stretch of job creation in our history — if I had told you that we would open up a new chapter with the Cuban people, shut down Iran’s nuclear weapons program without firing a shot, take out the mastermind of 9/11 — if I had told you that we would win marriage equality, and secure the right to health insurance for another 20 million of our fellow citizens…we’ve halved our dependence on foreign oil; we’ve doubled our renewable energy …

Those are impressive achievements particularly when one remembers that there were many influential players, not least the Israel lobby, who were eagerly pushing for war against Iran. Who can forget the former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon who said “the day the United States finishes with Iraq, it should start with Iran” or Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s comical antics at the UN where he shrieked about the imminent danger of a nuclear capable Iran? Little wonder that Netanyahu has so warmly welcomed the election of Donald Trump.

Obama praised the spirit of the Enlightenment, the spirit that insists that “science and reason matter”, the spirit that:

… made us an economic powerhouse — the spirit that took flight at Kitty Hawk and Cape Canaveral; the spirit that cures disease and put a computer in every pocket.

He urged people to value their democracy and its values and be vigilant in protecting them:

I learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved and they get engaged, and they come together to demand it…we are all created equal, endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It’s the insistence that these rights, while self-evident, have never been self-executing…If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing. If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself.

He added that these Enlightenment values deserve to be spread around the world and that it was necessary to make the world a better and more safer place:

That’s why I reject discrimination against Muslim Americans…That’s why we cannot withdraw from big global fights — to expand democracy, and human rights, and women’s rights, and LGBT rights. No matter how imperfect our efforts, no matter how expedient ignoring such values may seem, that’s part of defending America. For the fight against extremism and intolerance and sectarianism and chauvinism are of a piece with the fight against authoritarianism and nationalist aggression. If the scope of freedom and respect for the rule of law shrinks around the world, the likelihood of war within and between nations increases, and our own freedoms will eventually be threatened.

And he mentioned some of the dangers that continue to face America:

…violent fanatics who claim to speak for Islam; more recently by autocrats in foreign capitals who see free markets and open democracies and civil society itself as a threat to their power. The peril each poses to our democracy is more far-reaching than a car bomb or a missile. It represents the fear of change; the fear of people who look or speak or pray differently; a contempt for the rule of law that holds leaders accountable; an intolerance of dissent and free thought; a belief that the sword or the gun or the bomb or the propaganda machine is the ultimate arbiter of what’s true and what’s right.

Obama will have disappointed many Muslims around the world with his failure to make progress on the key issue of securing a just settlement for the Palestinians, yet it is fair to say – and perhaps particularly so given the impending handover of power to Donald Trump – that the world will miss him.

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Israeli Plot To “Take Down” Tory Minister Makes UK Headlines

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An Israeli Embassy official in the UK, Shai Masot, has been captured on undercover film talking about “taking down” the Deputy Foreign Secretary, Sir Alan Duncan, because he is “doing a lot of problems”. Masot also described the UK’s Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, as “an idiot” who was a good friend of Israel but “if something real happened…it would be Duncan.”

Masot was also captured on film separately with the Labour MP and member of the Labour Friends of Israel, Joan Ryan, saying that he had obtained “more than £1 million” to pay for sympathetic Labour MPs to visit Israel.

The story has been published on the front page of today’s Mail on Sunday – who also publish full transcripts of the conversations – and is also carried by a number of other major media outlets including the Observer, the Sunday Telegraph and the BBC.

Sir Alan Duncan is a well known critic of Israel’s illegal Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories and in October 2014 he delivered a speech at the Royal United Services Institute in which he was scathing about the illegal settlements. Duncan said:

“No settlement endorser should be considered fit to stand for election, remain a member of a mainstream political party or sit in a Parliament. How can we accept lawmakers in our country, or any country, when they support lawbreakers in another? They are extremists, and they should be treated as such…Many settlers are state-sponsored militia, defying international law, driving out the rightful inhabitants from their land, and creating an illegal economy at the expense of those who have been cruelly displaced”.

The undercover footage was filmed by Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit and is part of a four part documentary called “The Lobby” that is scheduled to be aired on Jan 15-18.

The Israeli Embassy has issued a statement saying that their Ambassador, Mark Regev, has apologized to Sir Alan Duncan and have added that Shai Masot “will be ending his term of employment with the Embassy shortly.”

Back in 2009, Channel Four’s Dispatches series broadcast an episode called “Inside Britain’s Israel Lobby” presented by the seasoned journalist, Peter Oborne, in which he looked at how the Israeli lobby operates in the UK. The episode can still be viewed at this link.

Update 1: Maria Strizzolo – the senior civil servant and former aide to Robert Halfon MP (who was himself previously the Political Director at the Conservative Friends of Israel) – has resigned following the release of video footage showing her discussing the “taking down” of Sir Alan Duncan. This is good news for those who are appalled at how Israel is trying to undermine British democracy. However, as Craig Murray has asked: why has the Israeli Embassy official, Shai Mosat, not yet been expelled by the UK government?

Posted in Government, Zionism | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

Interview with David Deutsch

I have blogged previously about the Oxford physicist, David Deutsch, and his wonderful book The Beginning of Infinity.

There is a recent 30 minute interview with David Deutsch now posted on YouTube which explores several of the ideas he discusses in BoI. He is questioned about a number of issues including fallibilism, the value of uncertainty, moral progress and Karl Popper.

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US Elections -Celebrating the Peaceful Transfer of Power

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The victory of Donald Trump in the US presidential election results has shocked many – including myself. It is dispiriting to see so many older white voters in the USA clearly energized by a campaign that tapped into some of the nastier undercurrents common in large parts of society including suspicion of immigrants, Muslims and the LGBT community.

However, amidst the disappointment, it is worth taking a minute to recognize the strength of the US political system which ensures regular elections every four years and, if the incumbent loses, then a peaceful transfer of power. Even if the incumbent wins, s/he has to vacate the office of Presidency after a maximum of eight years.

In her concession speech today, Hillary Clinton made reference to this precise point.

This is not the outcome we wanted or we worked so hard for and I’m sorry that we did not win this election for the values we share and the vision we hold for our country…

We have seen that our nation is more deeply divided than we thought. But I still believe in America and I always will. And if you do, then we must accept this result and then look to the future. Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead.

Our constitutional democracy enshrines the peaceful transfer of power and we don’t just respect that, we cherish it. It also enshrines other things; the rule of law, the principle that we are all equal in rights and dignity, freedom of worship and expression. We respect and cherish these values too and we must defend them.

This peaceful transfer of power is a hugely important achievement of the American people. Contrast the eight-year limit on executive power with the condition of much of the Muslim world where we have so many autocratic Kings or Life Presidents who can only be shifted after they die – only to be replaced by a close relative – or are violently overthrown or killed. The result is constant mayhem and the development of society is held back by that chronically unstable political situation.

Even in the much-lauded time of the so-called “rightly-guided Caliphs”, we only saw a peaceful transfer of power once – and that was only because the first Caliph, Abu Bakr, died. The second Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab was murdered as was his successor ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan. The accession of ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib resulted in a civil war which ultimately led to his own killing.

So, the democratic institutions that have been built in the USA deserve our respect and admiration. Despite, or especially because of, the election of Donald Trump, we have to hope that the checks and balances that are built into those institutions are strong enough to ensure that his offensive and divisive campaign rhetoric is not translated into actual policies in office. And let us also hope that those who voted for Hillary Clinton will not lose heart but will stand up for their values in the coming four years.

 

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The Qur’an: Science vs Ancient Myths

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This blog was created in large part to share my love of books and my wish to learn more about humanity, the universe around us and our place in it.

Over the years I have built up a nice little collection of ten separate English translations of the Qur’an including my most recent purchase which was The Study Qur’an – a collective translation and commentary effort undertaken by a small committee of academics under the leadership of the renowned Iranian Islamic scholar, Seyyed Hossein Nasr.

I have derived a huge amount of enjoyment and comfort over the years from reciting and reflecting on verses from the Qur’an and continue to do so. This post is part of a life long desire to learn and try and improve my understanding by asking questions and subjecting ideas to criticism.

This process has over the years seen me depart from some widely-held Muslim opinions on a number of issues including the Satanic Verses affair, free speech and the right to cause offence, the theory of evolution by natural selection, gay rights, the undesirability of living in a religious state etc.

History is littered with ideas and viewpoints/interpretations that were once passionately held only to be overturned by later discoveries, scientific findings or more convincing arguments. Recall the Catholic Church’s opposition to the ideas of Copernicus who held that it was the earth that revolved around the sun. The Catholic Church insisted that Biblical doctrine taught that it was the sun that revolved around the earth and it persecuted those who dared to believe otherwise. Even the celebrated scientist Galileo was brought in front of the Inquisition and forced to recant his adherence to Copernican views: an adherence that was based on his own astronomical observations with the telescope he had himself designed and built.

Does the Qur’an contain passages which – in their traditional interpretation(s) – do not stand up to modern scrutiny? And if that is the case, what consequences should that have as to how the Qur’an is viewed and interpreted today as a religious scripture?

In four separate passages in the Qur’an (15:16-18; 37:6-10; 67:5 and 72:8-9) reference is made which – according to the majority of Qur’anic interpretations I have seen – concerns the phenomenon of shooting stars. Let’s take a closer look at each of those passages:

And We have placed within the heaven great stars and have beautified it for the observers.
And We have protected it from every devil expelled [from the mercy of Allah]
Except one who steals a hearing and is pursued by a clear burning flame.
(Qur’an 15:16-18)

Indeed, We have adorned the nearest heaven with an adornment of stars
And as protection against every rebellious devil
[So] they may not listen to the exalted assembly [of angels] and are pelted from every side,
Repelled; and for them is a constant punishment,
Except one who snatches [some words] by theft, but they are pursued by a burning flame, piercing [in brightness].
(Quran 37:6-10)

And We have certainly beautified the nearest heaven with stars and have made [from] them what is thrown at the devils and have prepared for them the punishment of the Blaze.
(Qur’an 67:5)

And we have sought [to reach] the heaven but found it filled with powerful guards and burning flames.
And we used to sit therein in positions for hearing, but whoever listens now will find a burning flame lying in wait for him.
(Qur’an 72:8-9)

According to traditional Muslim commentators these above passages refer to jinns (a kind of ethereal being) who try to listen in to discussions between angels in the heavens and who are then pelted with bright flames which are associated with shooting stars. The Study Qur’an that I mentioned near the beginning of this post says the following in connection with the passage at 37:6-10:

“It is believed that after the Prophet Muhammad began receiving revelations, God cut off all such access to angelic discussions for the jinn, establishing angels as sentries and repelling the jinn with meteors.” The Study Qur’an, Note 10, p1086

Is the proposition that meteors are a punishment aimed at mischievous jinns trying to eavesdrop really a credible explanation? While it may perhaps have seemed a plausible explanation in past times, it is surely plausible no longer.

The NASA website has a far more convincing explanation for the phenomenon of shooting stars: they are dust particles in space that burn up on entry into the earth’s atmosphere. Indeed, when the earth passes through a trail of debris left by a comet then we see meteor showers whose dates astronomers are able to accurately predict each year based on the earth’s revolution around the sun.

So, it is disconcerting and very regrettable to see the Study Qur’an published in 2015 still repeating the discredited older explanation without any criticism or updating whatsoever given the additional knowledge we have gained in the intervening fourteen centuries since the Qur’an was first preached by the Prophet Muhammad.

The esteemed team behind the Study Qur’an are by no means alone though. On the Ask Imam website, when a correspondent asked about the Qur’an’s apparent references to shooting stars he was given an answer that to me seems long-winded, highly evasive and thoroughly unconvincing. You can read the Ask Imam response here and decide for yourself whether it was a convincing explanation.

Is it impious or sinful to raise questions regarding interpretations of the Qur’an which do not appear to make sense? Surely, it should not be. Progress depends on all ideas being allowed to be criticised. If the ideas are good ones then they will be able to withstand the criticism and its proponents will be able to convince others of their merits. If not, then bad ideas should be replaced by better and more convincing ideas.

Update (14th Aug 2016): The above blog attracted some of the nonsensical views below I had expected including someone who claimed that the fact that we have meteor showers at certain times of the year merely serves to show that God knows exactly when Jinn tend to be at their most mischievous because he is all-knowing. Still, for those who prefer objective knowledge to stupidity, here is a fine extract from The Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch in which shows how science helps us choose between rival explanations of the same phenomenon:

…the ‘angel’ theory of planetary motion is untestable because no matter how planets moved, that motion could be attributed to angels; therefore the angel theory cannot explain the particular motions that we see, unless it is supplemented by an independent theory of how angels move. That is why there is a methodological rule in science which says that once an experimentally testable theory has passed the appropriate tests, any less testable rival theories about the same phenomena are summarily rejected, for their explanations are bound to be inferior.

(The Fabric of Reality, David Deutsch, p66)

Posted in Books, Islam, Science & Evolution | Tagged , , | 59 Comments

Orlando Massacre: The Need To Challenge Homophobia

Orlando_attack

Just over six months after a Muslim couple killed 14 people in San Bernardino County, USA – killings in whose aftermath US Presidential candidate Donald Trump would call for an immediate ban on all Muslims entering the USA – we have witnessed yet another massacre committed by a US Muslim.

It is too early at this stage to say whether the killer Omar Mateen’s possible mental health issues played a role in the massacre. There will also no doubt be the usual questioning of the ridiculous US gun laws which appear to make lethal weapons readily available to aspiring murderers.

What we can perhaps most safely say at the moment is that the killings which took place in the Orlando gay club were motivated by a virulent form of homophobia.

The main monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all have a lamentable record when it comes to the persecution of gays.

A few years back, when I was in the MCB and had written an article for the Guardian defending gay rights, I recall shortly afterwards that the MCB received an email from a leading figure in a Salafi mosque in Luton criticising me in pretty severe terms for my “deviant views”. I just shrugged it off at the time as being the usual narrow-minded nonsense from Salafi nutjobs, but perhaps, in retrospect, I should have called them out openly at the time and challenged their views.

It is sad to see so many Muslims who have first hand experience of anti-Muslim bigotry and discrimination, being too ready to indulge in anti-gay bigotry. As a society, we in the UK have come a commendably long way in just the past thirty years when it comes to recognising anti-gay attitudes and challenging them. It could be that more needs to be done in our schools to teach about the benefits and value of living in a free, secular and liberal society that prohibits discrimination based on gender, ethnicity, religion or sexuality.

Just over three years ago, in May 2013, two UK Muslims killed Fusilier Lee Rigby openly in the streets and boasted that they “wanted to start a war in London.” Fortunately, they failed to achieve that vile aim. It could be that the San Bernardino killers and the Orlando killer, Omar Mateen, also wanted to provoke an anti-Muslim backlash in the USA to further civil disharmony. If so, with the frightening spectre of Donald Trump looming large in the background, one can only hope that they too fail to achieve their dishonourable goals.

Posted in Extremism, Islam | Tagged , , | 48 Comments

Book Review: The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch

the_beginning_of_infinity_cover

Back in April 2015 I wrote a short blog listing my top ten favourite books of all time. The list included the Oxford physicist David Deutsch’s The Beginning of Infinity. I think I might have been on to something because in his list of 23 books which he thinks we all should read, the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg also included The Beginning of Infinity!

Published in 2011, I first came across The Beginning of Infinity the following year while browsing in a book store at St Pancras station in London. In the four years since then, I have reread the book each year. Parts of the book, especially the chapters about the Infinity Hotel and the Multiverse, I have found pretty hard going and difficult. Other chapters are simply brilliant and very persuasive – the chapters on Optimism and The Dream of Socrates are surely worth the price of the book (and indeed much more) all by themselves – and have quite simply changed the way I look at the world.

So, what is the book about?

Deutsch states that rapid progress that has continued over a number of generations has only occurred once in human history and that coincides with the start of the scientific revolution from approximately the beginning of the 17th century and it is still underway. He argues that whenever progress has been made, it has resulted from a single human activity which he calls the quest for good explanations.

Humanity has known many bad types of explanation throughout its history. Thunder was once believed to be the result of the gods being angry. Later we learned of  a better explanation involving atmospheric conditions, electrical discharges and sound waves.

The changing seasons and the onset of winter were once thought by the Greeks to be due to the sadness of Demeter, the goddess of the earth and agriculture. Once again, we learned of a better explanation, thanks to science, involving the tilting axis of the earth.

The search for good explanations is no mere intellectual exercise. Deutsch says it is fundamental to making progress. All evils, he asserts, are due to insufficient knowledge. To create knowledge, we need to seek good explanations.

“Since the Enlightenment, technological progress has depended specifically on the creation of explanatory knowledge. People had dreamed for millennia of flying to the moon, but it was only with the advent of Newton’s theories about the behaviour of invisible entities such as forces and momentum that they began to understand what was needed in order to go there.

“This increasingly intimate connection between explaining the world and controlling it is no accident, but is part of the deep structure of the world.” (p55)

Problems are inevitable. On one page in the book, Deutsch actually – and very memorably – carves this maxim out in stone for us so that we are left in no doubt as to its importance along with a second maxim which is also carved out in stone: Problems are soluble.

Climate change, meteors, disease pandemics, cancer etc., – the list of problems we are facing and will face in the future is long indeed. However, if we are to overcome those problems then knowledge creation has to be made a top priority for all of us.

Deutsch attributes the progress made by the West in recent centuries to the values of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was, Deutsch informs us, a rebellion, “specifically a rebellion against authority in regard to knowledge.” (p12)

He directs us to the motto of the Royal Society – established in 1660 – which is “Nullius in verba”: it means “take nobody’s word for it”.

History has known a number of mini-enlightenments, including during the Islamic Golden Age, which Deutsch dates to between the 8th and 13th centuries.

“…there have always been a few individuals who see obstacles as problems, and see problems as soluble. And so, very occasionally, there have been places and moments when there was, briefly, an end to pessimism. As far as I know, no historian has investigated the history of optimism, but my guess is that whenever it has emerged in a civilisation there has been a mini-enlightenment: a tradition of criticism resulting in an efflorescence of many of the patterns of human progress with which we are familiar, such as art, literature, philosophy, science, technology and the institutions of an open society. The end of pessimism is potentially a beginning of infinity. Yet I also guess that in every case – with the single tremendous exception (so far) of our own Enlightenment – this process was soon brought to an end and the reign of pessimism was restored.” (p216)

These mini-enlightenments, however, were all snuffed out, often by religious repression.

To achieve sustained knowledge growth, according to Deutsch, what is essential is the practise of Fallibilism. In his own words:

“…the recognition that there are no authoritative sources of knowledge, nor any reliable means of justifying ideas as being true or probable – is called fallibilism. To believers in the justified-true-belief theory of knowledge, this recognition is the occasion for despair or cynicism, because to them it means that knowledge is unattainable. But to those of us for whom creating knowledge means understanding better what is really there, and how it really behaves and why, fallibilism is part of the very means by which this is achieved. Fallibilists expect even their best and most fundamental explanations to contain misconceptions in addition to truth, and so they are predisposed to try and change them for the better. In contrast, the logic of justificationism is to seek (and typically, to believe that one has found) ways of securing ideas against change. Moreover, the logic of fallibilism is that one not only seeks to correct the misconceptions of the past, but hopes in the future to find and change mistaken ideas that no one today questions or finds problematic. So it is fallibilism, not mere rejection of authority, that is essential for the initiation of unlimited knowledge growth – the beginning of infinity.” (p9)

The prerequisites for making progress include religious tolerance, having a tradition of criticism and dissent and being open to new ideas.

In his chapter on The Evolution of Culture, Deutsch talks compellingly about the difference between Dynamic societies and Static societies and the promotion of rational and anti-rational memes. Static societies seek to disable the critical faculties of their members by discouraging innovation and new ideas and seeking to maintain the status quo through an emphasis on obedience and false piety and by discouraging criticism of authorities. It does not take a great amount of imagination to sadly see these forces at work across many Muslim cultures.

And Deutsch issues this, quite chilling warning:

“Nations beyond the West today are also changing rapidly, sometimes through the exigencies of warfare with their neighbours, but more often and even more powerfully by the peaceful transmission of Western memes. Their cultures, too, cannot become static again. They must either become “Western” in their mode of operation or lose all their knowledge and thus cease to exist – a dilemma which is becoming increasingly significant in world politics.” (p390-391)

This is bound to be a controversial observation – but is Deutsch correct in his analysis here?

A number of Muslim societies have undoubtedly found it very difficult to adapt to the modern world and remain largely consumer societies, rather than productive and knowledge-creating members. One looks at the Satanic Verses Affair, the Danish cartoons, the Boko Haram sect, the nihilist movements of al-Qa’ida and ISIS and the recent murders of secular intellectuals in South Asia and can’t help but see a once great and proud civilisation in crisis.

The West’s scientific revolution took wings once the power of the Christian religious institutions and particularly the Catholic Church was curtailed. Could it be that the Muslim world too needs to see a lessening of the influence of religious authorities if it is to emerge as a creative civilisation once again?

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