Carl Sagan and the Pale Blue Dot

solar_system

The above image is taken from a presentation that the American astronomer Carl Sagan gave during the Gifford Lectures in October 1985 at Edinburgh University. That collection of lectures is available in book format as The Varieties of Scientific Experience. Let Carl himself explain the point he was making by including this in his presentation:

CS_solar_system

Carl Sagan achieved global fame with his immensely popular thirteen-part series Cosmos broadcast in 1980. Over the past year I have been catching up with several of his books including Cosmos, Billions and Billions, The Demon-Haunted World and, of course, The Varieties of Scientific Experience. His science writing is an absolute joy to read and he succeeds so well in instilling in the reader an immense sense of awe and wonder at our own place in the universe.

Before he died prematurely in 1996, he published “Pale Blue Dot“. It contains perhaps the most well known passage from his writings. Carl Sagan was involved in many NASA missions, and in February 1990 he made a suggestion to NASA. The Voyager 1 spacecraft had come to the end of its mission of photographing some of the outer planets and was now past Neptune and was six billion kilometres from the Earth (over 40 times the distance between the Earth and the Sun). Carl asked NASA to programme Voyager 1 to turn its camera around and point it towards the Earth for one final picture.

CS_pale_blue_dot

And below you can hear Carl  Sagan narrate that beautiful passage himself.

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My Top Ten Books of All Time

top10

Everyone enjoys top ten lists, right? So, here it is. My very own list of the Top Ten books that have most influenced me and contributed towards shaping my outlook. I didn’t want it all to look too narcissistic so have decided to limit my comments on each book to a single sentence explaining why I was so taken by the book.

Please do add your own all time favourite book recommendations along with the reasons why in the comments section below!

1. The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch

the beginning of infinity
A compellingly argued paean to the scientific method and the Enlightenment as our best means of overcoming the inevitable obstacles that humankind faces and will inevitably continue to face in the future.
2. Finding Darwin’s God by Kenneth R. Miller

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Played a key role in convincing me of the truth of evolution and highlighting the ignorance and indeed sheer stupidity of those who are in denial about Darwin’s tremendous achievement.

 

3. The Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski

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Accompanying the landmark 1973 BBC television series, this book is an inspiring celebration of the numerous peaks that humankind has crossed on its way to modern civilisation.

 

4. Muhammad at Mecca/Muhammad at Medina by W. Montgomery Watt

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Many Muslim-authored biographies of the Prophet Muhammad suffer from being too hagiographical, while Watt’s two- volume book appears to be fair and balanced in comparison.

 

5. The Qur’an Translation by Abdullah Yusuf Ali

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Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s translation and particularly his extensive and erudite commentary is a continual pleasure to read and learn from. (Note: This refers to the original Abdullah Yusuf Ali translation and commentary, not the “Revised” translation and commentary by the Saudi-financed shit-heads that butchered his work as it offended their Salafi ideology).

 

6. Who Needs An Islamic State? by Abdulwahab el-Affendi

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Convinced me that those movements calling for the establishment of an “Islamic State” would almost certainly set up repressive and authoritarian regimes if they succeeded in gaining power.

7. Catch 22 by Joseph Heller

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Extremely black comedy about war that helps build up a healthy scepticism towards those wielding power.

 

8. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
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A plausible and deeply haunting look at the apocalyptic future awaiting humankind if we do not come to our senses and refrain from using weapons of mass destruction.

9. The End of Science by John Horgan

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A sceptical look at some of the latest ideas in the world of science accompanied by a series of searching and amusing interviews with some of its most famous current practitioners.

 

10. Cosmos by Carl Sagan

cosmos
A passionate plea for humankind to turn away from narrow sectarian differences, to reject superstition and instead to fulfil our innate curiosity to learn more about the universe and our place within it.

Posted in Books | Tagged | 4 Comments

Theresa May and the Mystery of the Missing Pledge About Hate Crimes Against Muslims

Mystery

Last Monday (23rd March 2015), the Home Secretary, Theresa May, delivered an important speech outlining the government’s counter-extremism strategy.

The full speech contained quite a few passages I would normally take issue with, but it also contained a crucially important sentence that was very welcome news indeed. The Home Secretary said:

“We will require police forces to record anti-Muslim crimes as well as anti-Semitic crime.”

This is something that many Muslim organisations including MEND and the Muslim Council of Britain have been calling for, for a number of years now in order that we might obtain an accurate picture of what is happening across the country and develop a more comprehensive strategy to tackle anti-Muslim prejudice.

But wait…what is this? A look at the same speech today finds that the passage above no longer appears in the speech on the official government website. How very bizarre and indeed how unsettling. What could be the explanation?

I have written to the Home Secretary as follows:

Dear Home Secretary,

I read the transcript of your speech “A Stronger Britain, Built On Our Values” as it appeared on the official government website (https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/a-stronger-britain-built-on-our-values) last week with great interest.

I was particularly impressed by the following passage in your speech:

“We will require police forces to record anti-Muslim crimes as well as anti-Semitic crime.”

Muslim communities have long been asking to be treated equally in respect of hate crimes. Just as police forces currently record anti-semitic hate crimes as a separate category, we have looked to our government to ensure that the police also record anti-Muslim hate crimes too so that we can have an accurate picture of what is happening in our communities across our country where we are hearing reports of regular attacks against Muslim individuals and on our places of worship and even on our cemeteries.

You can imagine my disappointment today when I re-read your speech and found that your commitment to require police forces to record anti-Muslim crimes no longer appeared there.

This disappearance is very puzzling as this passage certainly appeared in your speech as published on the government website just last week.

Home Secretary, in your speech, you said that your government’s counter-extremism strategy “aims to tackle the whole spectrum of extremism, violent and non-violent, ideological and non-ideological, Islamist and neo-Nazi – hate and fear in all their forms.”

By seemingly back-tracking on the commitment to require police forces to record anti-Muslim crimes I am afraid many will quite rightly wonder just how serious the government really is about tackling “the whole spectrum” of hate and fear.

I hope you will take this opportunity to re-assure British Muslims that you consider anti-Muslim crimes to be just as unacceptable as anti-semitic crimes and that police forces will indeed now be required to keep accurate records of all such incidents.

Yours faithfully,
Inayat Bunglawala
Muslims4UK
http://www.muslims4uk.org

Update (2nd April 2015): I have managed to get hold of a copy of the original speech as delivered by the Home Secretary, Theresa May, and as I mentioned in the above blog post the promise to “require police forces to record anti-Muslim crimes as well as anti-Semitic crimes” does indeed appear in the speech on page 6. The paragraph in which that promise occurs and two subsequent paragraphs have all been removed from the version of the speech that is now on the Home Office website, so it does look like this issue could well be part of an ongoing internal policy debate between the civil service, the Tories and the Lib-Dems.

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The Muslim Community from Rushdie to Hebdo

SatanicVersesI went along to the Muslim Institute in Old Street, London, earlier this afternoon to take part in a panel discussion entitled “The Muslim Community from Rushdie to Hebdo”. I have written about this topic on several previous occasions so I used the opportunity to place the topic in a wider context that interests me most. A summary of the points I made follows below:

  • The Satanic Verses Affair led to the launch of the Muslim Institute’s Muslim Manifesto in 1990 which called for the creation of a Muslim Parliament and described it as a “non-territorial Islamic State” in Britain. The demands to ban/pulp  the book etc are all rather embarrassing now! Still, we were a very young community at the time and were bound to make lots of mistakes.
  • There will always be some people who will call for a ban on books, movies, art, music that they find offensive or sacrilegious.
  • Europe has an understandable suspicion of the role of religion in issues to do with freedom. In the 17th Century, Galileo faced the Inquisition due to his support and advocacy of the Copernican revolution which contended that the Earth revolved around the Sun and not vice versa which had been the view prior to that. The Catholic Church regarded Galileo’s views as sacrilegious and placed him under house arrest for the last nine years of his life.
  • In his book, The Beginning of Infinity, the scientist David Deutsche argues that a Tradition of Criticism is essential for progress in science and politics and many other fields of human endeavour. To his detractors, Rushdie’s novel was a blasphemous book. To his supporters, the book was an exploration of themes to do with immigration and religion.
  • Charles Darwin wanted originally to publish On The Origin of Species only after his death as he was quite aware of the controversy his views on evolution would cause in Victorian England. Many in the Church found his theory to be anti-Christian and anti-Biblical. Today, the theory of evolution sits at the centre of all biology. As Dobzhansky observed “Nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution.” Great insights may well challenge the religious authorities/thinkers of the time. That is not a reason to suppress the ideas/insights.
  • After lecturing British Muslims about the value of free speech back in the late 1980s, the UK government is today itself intent on eroding our free speech. Witness this week’s announcements by the Home Secretary Theresa May regarding Banning Orders, Mosque Closure Orders and the open intimidation of universities to force them to deny a platform to speakers the government deems “undesirable”.
  • Theresa May provided a definition of extremism in her speech as follows:

 “the vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs”.

  • theresa mayMaybe she was tipsy when she delivered her speech as the definition of “extremists” is so broad that it would certainly encompass the well known scientist and atheist Richard Dawkins who famously did not display much “respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs” when he wrote in The God Delusion that:

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

  • Will the government seek to deny Professor Dawkins a platform at universities to speak? I doubt it.
  • While pointing fingers at British Muslims for not doing enough to integrate and adhere to “British Values” the government just a few weeks ago lowered the British flag at a number of government buildings in response to the death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. This honour was reserved for a despot who ruled as an absolute monarch and who presided over an insanely corrupt kingdom which routinely features in lists of the world’s worst places for respecting freedom. This was also a good excuse for me to insert a Powerpoint slide entitled “David Cameron – The Twat”.
  • I ended with an observation from Salman Rushdie as I thought it was a poignant way to end the presentation given that I had started with the Satanic Verses:

freedom-of-thought-becomes-impossible-salman-rushdie

  • And during Q&A I made a comment regarding the government’s curious attempts to engineer a favourable government-friendly Muslim identity that is uncritical of the government’s foreign policy disasters in the Muslim world and its draconian counter-terrorism measures at home. I noted that a Freedom of Information request had been submitted to find out the names of the British Muslim organisations that the government had been supporting/financing in this regard – but they had refused to provide this information.  How bizarre.
Posted in Extremism, Islam, islamophobia, Science & Evolution | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

The Islamic State as a Curse of Humanity

 

 

mosul_museum_destruction

One of the joys of being in London is the easy access to its magnificent free museums and their fabulous treasures. Here one can wander about leisurely and gently allow your spirit to soar as you marvel at the historical artefacts that have been collected assiduously from all parts of the world.

In the British Library, there is a Qur’an dating back to the early 8th century and it always gives me goose bumps when I compare it to a modern Qur’an and can identify the very same passage there.

A few years back, the Director of the British Museum, Neil McGregor, published a glorious book called “A History of the World in 100 Objects” in which he selected 100 pieces from the Museum’s unrivalled collection of artefacts to help tell the story of humanity. It also featured as a major BBC Radio 4 series (which can still be heard at the link provided).

So, what are we to make of the news over the past couple of weeks that followers of the self-styled Islamic State have been proudly showing off video footage of their destruction of pre-Islamic objects and monuments in Mosul Museum and the ancient city of Nimrud?

The actions of these cultural vandals raises so many questions.

The early Islamic civilisation was renowned for its patronage for learning and science. In his landmark 1973 book and BBC TV series, The Ascent of Man, Dr Jacob Bronowski, commented that those early Muslims had built:

“…an empire of spectacular strength and grace, while Europe lapsed in the Dark Ages. In this proselytising religion, the science of the conquered nations was gathered with a kleptomaniac zest…The Masjid-I-Jami (The Friday Mosque) in Isfahan is one of the statuesque monuments of early Islam. In centres like these, the knowledge of Greece and of the East was treasured, absorbed and diversified…It may be a quality in Islam as a religion, which, although it strove to convert people, did not despise their knowledge.”

The contrast with what is happening today in parts of Iraq and Syria is quite depressing. Whereas those early Muslims were builders and gathered and expanded existing knowledge and in the process left a legacy that has benefited humanity as a whole, these modern followers are enthusiastically seeking to destroy the knowledge of our past.

And it is to this “Islamic state” that so many young British Muslims are travelling to give their allegiance. Sometimes there just are no words.

Posted in Extremism, Islam | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

The Prophet Muhammad Should Not Be Off Limits for Satire

freedom-of-thought-becomes-impossible-salman-rushdie

Salman Rushdie is right.

Those who perpetrated today’s brutal attack on the staff of Charlie Hebdo may perhaps have thought that they were acting to defend Islam from gratuitous insult. However, in practice, they were defending a narrow-minded interpretation of religion that is well-nigh suffocating much of the Muslim world.

Everyone must have the right to satirise religions and religious figures – without exception. And that includes Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. The freedom that makes it a pre-requisite to be allowed to satirise others is the very same freedom that protects fearless scientific inquiry and progress. It is the very same freedom that acts as a painful thorn in the backside of dictators and autocrats and two-faced politicians everywhere.

Now it could well be that today’s attackers – who are still on the loose and have not been captured at the time of writing – wanted to further inflame tensions in France and elsewhere with a view to increasing the polarisation and suspicion between Muslim and non-Muslim communities. Last year, the British killers of the soldier Lee Rigby openly proclaimed how they wanted “to start a war in London tonight.” Fortunately, they failed in their ignominious aim and are currently cooling their heels in prison.

Just this week we have seen 18,000 people turn out for an anti-Muslim rally in Dresden, Germany. Today’s attack is a gift for such xenophobes.

Ultimately, freedom is very much in the interests of Islam and those Muslims who crave genuine progress.

The price of that freedom is that some people may sometimes say things you do not like and will find offensive. It is in reality a very small price to pay.

Posted in Extremism, Islam | Tagged | 29 Comments

Hamza Tzortzis, Evolution and the Epistemology Argument

eschew_obfuscation

An email popped up in my inbox last week and caught my interest. “Science explains everything…doesn’t it?” – it read. Now this was a bit odd as I have yet to come across a science book where the scientist has claimed that science explains everything. Science by its very nature is a continuous work in progress.

Nevermind, I thought, I’ll bite, and read the rest of the email which appeared to be an invitation to attend a forthcoming talk by a Muslim speaker called Hamza Tzortzis. A quick check on Google revealed that this chap had written a lengthy 2013 article entitled “Has Evolution Been Misunderstood? Revelation, Science and Certainty.”

Now, I have read many articles by Muslims about evolution. The vast majority of them have been disappointingly poor and I have written elsewhere about the misinformation I have come across about evolution from Muslims and have also debated the issue with Harun Yahya (a prolific Muslim author of anti-evolution polemics). Would Hamza Tzortzis prove different and discuss the topic of evolution sensibly? The title of the email did not inspire much hope in that direction but who knew? So I read his article…

Well, it was almost 8000 words long. 8000 words of tedious mind-numbing waffle. Scrape away the bullshit and the argument that he appeared to be making was that the topic of evolution should be discussed from an “epistemic approach. We believe that this approach exposes the false assumption that the theory of evolution is a fact, or is certain.”

Tzortzis criticised the way the discussion around evolution has usually been framed and said that “… there is a hidden premise. This premise is that science produces certainty, evolution is fact and science is the only way to establish or verify truth claims.”

Just like the title of the email, this passage was misleading. I have yet to come across a scientist that claims that science produces certainty. Every decent book I have read says that the scientific method produces only approximations to truth and that as our theories improve over time, so should our understanding of reality or truth, but that we can never achieve 100% certainty (and there is a reason for this as we will see in a minute or two).

Now, as it happens, evolution is a fact. It is also a theory. I could try and explain this but why bother when the Harvard palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould explains it so much more clearly in an extract on the Talk Origins website (the full article “Evolution is a Fact and a Theory” at the above link is a must read – just compare it with the one from Tzortzis and the difference is between day and night).

In the American vernacular, “theory” often means “imperfect fact”–part of a hierarchy of confidence running downhill from fact to theory to hypothesis to guess. Thus the power of the creationist argument: evolution is “only” a theory and intense debate now rages about many aspects of the theory. If evolution is worse than a fact, and scientists can’t even make up their minds about the theory, then what confidence can we have in it? Indeed, President Reagan echoed this argument before an evangelical group in Dallas when he said (in what I devoutly hope was campaign rhetoric): “Well, it is a theory. It is a scientific theory only, and it has in recent years been challenged in the world of science–that is, not believed in the scientific community to be as infallible as it once was.”

Well evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world’s data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts don’t go away when scientists debate rival theories to explain them. Einstein’s theory of gravitation replaced Newton’s in this century, but apples didn’t suspend themselves in midair, pending the outcome. And humans evolved from ape-like ancestors whether they did so by Darwin’s proposed mechanism or by some other yet to be discovered.

Moreover, “fact” doesn’t mean “absolute certainty”; there ain’t no such animal in an exciting and complex world. The final proofs of logic and mathematics flow deductively from stated premises and achieve certainty only because they are not about the empirical world. Evolutionists make no claim for perpetual truth, though creationists often do (and then attack us falsely for a style of argument that they themselves favor). In science “fact” can only mean “confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional consent.” I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms.

Evolutionists have been very clear about this distinction of fact and theory from the very beginning, if only because we have always acknowledged how far we are from completely understanding the mechanisms (theory) by which evolution (fact) occurred. Darwin continually emphasized the difference between his two great and separate accomplishments: establishing the fact of evolution, and proposing a theory–natural selection–to explain the mechanism of evolution.

So, to return to Tzortzis’s epistemology argument – that evolution cannot be proven with 100% certainty, this is a familiar trope and every bit as misleading as the argument about “facts”. Here is H.J. Muller as quoted in Talk Origins:

The honest scientist, like the philosopher, will tell you that nothing whatever can be or has been proved with fully 100% certainty, not even that you or I exist, nor anyone except himself, since he might be dreaming the whole thing. Thus there is no sharp line between speculation, hypothesis, theory, principle, and fact, but only a difference along a sliding scale, in the degree of probability of the idea. When we say a thing is a fact, then, we only mean that its probability is an extremely high one: so high that we are not bothered by doubt about it and are ready to act accordingly. Now in this use of the term fact, the only proper one, evolution is a fact. For the evidence in favor of it is as voluminous, diverse, and convincing as in the case of any other well established fact of science concerning the existence of things that cannot be directly seen, such as atoms, neutrons, or solar gravitation ….

So enormous, ramifying, and consistent has the evidence for evolution become that if anyone could now disprove it, I should have my conception of the orderliness of the universe so shaken as to lead me to doubt even my own existence. If you like, then, I will grant you that in an absolute sense evolution is not a fact, or rather, that it is no more a fact than that you are hearing or reading these words.

It is always depressing to hear Muslims such as Tzortzis offer such breathtakingly poor arguments against evolution. It reminds you of the terrible contemporary state of much of Muslim civilisation. Tzortzis claims in his article that Islam is “pro-science” and I do agree with that. It is just that I am not convinced that most Muslims (including Tzortzis) are pro-science. And that is a tragedy.

 

 

Posted in Islam, Science & Evolution | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments