Monday, September 07, 2009

Some more Pascal

I've been thinking about Blaise Pascal quite a bit recently. I don't really know enough about him but the little I do know has always made me a bit of a fan. Mostly, this is because he was a great all-rounder; physicist, mathematician, philosopher and theologian. I also know that he struggled his whole life with depression and doubt. It is said that when he died, they found sewn into the inside of his coat a little tag that said "remember Jesus died for you."

Pascal's Wager is probably his most famous philosophical pronoucement. It has been pointed out that it's a very poor argument for the existence of God. And it is. But that's not what it's really about. For those of you who don't know, Pascal's Wager it goes something like this;

If there is any doubt, the best course of action is to believe in God. If there is a God and you don't believe in him the downside is massive. If there isn't a God and you believe in him, there is very little downside. Essentially if you don't believe then your best-case scenario is the beliver's worst-case scenario.

Last year, the famous bus posters "There's Probably no God, now stop worrying and enjoy your life" caught the media attention. (Link here)

Pascal's wager is the answer to this. It's the answer to can't-be-bothered-agnostism as I like to call it. I'm not entirely sure how "There's probably no God" is meant to be comforting - a licence to unrestraint maybe but not comforting. There's no God so you are alone in a cold and hostile universe, you are just an animal like any other, you have no inherent worth, there is no justice, no hope and no purpose. Whilst the theist has to wrestle with why God allows suffering, the atheist has no right to expect anything else.

Where the argument "There's Probably no God" really falls down is that it's an attempt to find comfort by avoiding the idea that one is accountable to God. As C.S. Lewis said: If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair.


Tuesday, August 18, 2009


We are only truly happy when daydreaming about future happiness.

Blaise Pascal

Friday, May 08, 2009

Never talk about politics or religion.... (Part 2: The great lie of pervailing wisdom)

Part one, written earlier, is my disclaimer and confession of my perspective. The following is my argument.

I think that there is no real doubt that David Cameron is an extremely capable politician. The rise of the Conservative party does seem somewhat unstoppable at the moment. I really hope this is not true. Not simply for party political reasons but because I honestly believe that Cameron would be extremely damaging to this country as Prime Minister.

The current Conservative strategy involves relatively little policy, encouraging and capitalising on the government's unpopularity and promoting the received wisdom that Labour cannot manage the economy.

The received wisdom that they intend to propagate is that a Labour government always equals economic mismanagement. This is quite simply brilliant political strategy, because if it works it will win not only the next general election but the one after as well. Massive cuts in the public service and almost any policy in the next 6 years can be excused by the statement "the economy was so bad when we came to power that we had no choice..." The genius of it is obvious. There's one small problem, though - it's not true. However I do fear it will be successful.

Let's try an imagination trip. I want you to imagine with me, what the country would be like if we'd had a Conservative government for the last 12 years.

The economy
Much has been said ad nauseum about the root causes of the current world economic situation but two things are indisputable. Firstly, it is a world economic crisis with origins in some absolutely crazy decisions made in American financial institutions. A large number of first world banks (including many British ones) are extremely culpable because they made what are now clearly foolish decisions. Now we find ourselves in a situation whereby in order to survive, as a nation we are borrowing massive amounts of money and the national debt is expanding amazingly. The figures involved are both scary and astounding.

So, what would have been different if we'd had a Conservative government?

Firstly the banks were under-regulated - that is clear to all, but it would have been worse under Prime Minister Major or Hague or Duncan-Smith or Howard. All through the last decade the Conservative party maintained their mantra that the government's over-regulation was strangling business. It's worth remembering which party first deregulated the city in the 80's.

The subject of the national debt is one of much concern and much misinformation. Clearly more debt is bad but as a proportional of GDP (National wealth) our current debt level is still the second lowest of the G8 economies. Secondly, the official opposition opposed vociferously the decision by then chancellor Gordon Brown to use the money generated from selling 3G licences to mobile phone companies to reduce the national debt by £30bn.

Part of the argument is that the government spent too much money over the last decade and thus stored up this huge debt problem. This argument sounds very compelling initially, one merely has to look at how much public expenditure has increased and how much debt we now have to come to this conclusion. However it is deeply flawed for two reasons. Firstly, much of the increase is expenditure was absolutely vital - more of that later. And secondly the idea that the public finances would be better with a Conservative government is somewhat laughable. The Conservative Party argued then that the money should have been given away in tax cuts. Now the macro-economic effects are difficult to see - and impossible to quantify completely but you would have to argue that the economy as a whole would be significantly better off for the public finances to be in a genuinely better shape if Ken Clarke had been Chancellor in 2001. So we would have the same public debt but without the much needed investment in the public sector over the last 10 years.

Public Sector Investment
Now, I speak as one of these feather-bedded public sector workers who enjoys a final-salary pension scheme on the backs of the poor private sector workers...

I can only speak for the NHS properly as that is my direct experience. There are several things I don't like about the health service and much of the political interference is frustrating but there is no doubt that the NHS is much better than it was 10 years ago. Much needed capital investment, sensible rather than ridiculous waiting lists. The huge ideological shift to actually spending money on our public services was and is hugely significant. Since 1979 we have been told that the private sector is always better than the public one. To anyone who thinks that please take a good look at the banks.

I think it worth noting, that whilst all of us intrinsically want to pay less tax and whilst there is no doubt that there are things the government spends money on that I'd prefer they didn't. I think it needs to be said how much of a bargain taxes really are. The NHS provides total healthcare. We have a massive road and railway network, despite all the controversy our schools are actually among the best in the world and our universities attract applicants from every continent. It seems to me that most in Britain have no idea how bad things are in the third world and how amazing it is to have all the things we have.

The NHS, education, Surestart programs are all things that will probably be slashed by an in-coming Conservative government. The very rich will be ok. The moderately well off will buy private healthcare and education, possibly noting that it's actually more expensive for them to do it this way, possibly not and the poor will be left behind.

The idea that the Government didn't fix the roof while the sun was shining is laughable when you look at how under-invested in much of our infrastructure was. The reason why there was such a large expansion in public sector expenditure was because it was so needed. Do we really want to go back to doctors working 120 hours a week and kids being taught in portacabins that leak?

The economic crisis is worldwide and whilst there is some blame for the government - there's a lot to go round - the idea that a Conservative government would have done better is somewhat doubtful, particularly when you look at the potential bank collapse that was only just avoided last year. In 30 years time when historians look back at 2008-9, regardless of everything else, the saving of the banks will be the most significant decision made. If the opposition is to be believed on what they said, then they wouldn't have stepped in to save the banks.

There is much this government has done that is somewhat disappointing to me, on the other hand their achievements have been seriously under-rated; The Human Rights Act, NHS spending (nursing salaries and doctor's pay both significantly increased), Education, the minimum wage, devolution, justice for miners afflicted with lung disease, Military intervention in the Balkans and Sierra Leone...

The received wisdom is wrong. A Conservative government now would be in a much worse state and if they win next year, will do what I believe is significant damage to our country if they win.

That is why I am posting because these thoughts, I expect debate, I expect disagreement but let's talk about it. I think it does really matter, the decisions taken in the next 5 years by our government will affect all of us and probably have effects lasting for more than a generation.


End of Party Political Broadcast by the alien....

Never talk about politics or religion.... (Part 1: Disclaimer)

I've never liked that maxim. Politics is all about what's actually important to people in their daily lives and religion is all about what's actually important to people on a deeper level. Surely we should talk about the things that matter to us?

However, I have deliberately avoided any political statements on my blog thus far. Today is an exception, I am going to be very deliberately and unashamedly political. I cannot completely explain why I have avoided politics before but given that this blog is my thoughts, nothing more nothing less, I have decided that I am free to say what I actually think. Hopefully I can avoid polemic.

Firstly, I am unashamedly left wing in my politics. And there are some serious philosophical reasons for this. My political position is essentially Christian Socialist in the traditional sense. John Smith was known for holding this position and certainly it was an influence on both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. How much of an influence is a matter of debate.

Unfortunately "socialist" is a word with many negative associations; partly this is because of the evils of communism and partly this is because of the prevailing wisdom of the last 20-30 years surrounding a genuine and inherently good belief in the twin values of personal freedom and personal responsibility. I would suggest that anyone who thinks that socialism is evil should read Martin Luther King Jnr on the subject of communism - written in the sixties when the full fear of the East was very real he makes no apology for communism but points out how foolish and wrong it is to ignore the great injustices that lead to the rise and appeal of communism.

Moreover that's not what Christian Socialism is about. Put simply, my Christian faith informs my politics for the simple reason that my God is deeply concerned about individual human lives and social justice. Even a quick reading of the Old and New Testaments would lead one to conclude that the poor and justice are God's core issues. From that basis, I approach all political issues trying to see the good. I think all issues are moral ones. It is this kind of thinking that led to the creation of the wellfare state and the national health service. Fundamentally to leave people poor and sick in the name of 'personal freedom' is not only wrong but blatantly paradoxical. I do not wish to party-politicise God. Simply my challenge to all believers is to approach politics from a Christian perspective and then listen to my arguments. To all non-believers my challenge is; listen to my arguments.

So that is where I am coming from, but it doesn't explain why I felt the need to write this political comment. The answer to that question is David Cameron.

Friday, February 27, 2009


It's been a few months since I did any actual youthwork but I can't help but think of myself as a youthworker. I do miss it, although I am not regretting my decision to take a break for a while.

On the Interweb I have been involved in a discussion about professionalism in youthwork and the relationship between being a professional and having a calling. The Etymology of 'professional' was mentioned:

Looking at the 'roots' of such things ... from the Merriam-Webster on-line dictionary, we find:
Main Entry: pro·fes·sion
Pronunciation: \prə-ˈfe-shən\
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English professioun, from Anglo-French profession, from Late Latin & Latin; Late Latin profession-, professio, from Latin, public declaration, from profitēri
Date: 13th century
1: the act of taking the vows of a religious community
2: an act of openly declaring or publicly claiming a belief, faith, or opinion : protestation
3: an avowed religious faith
4 a: a calling requiring specialized knowledge and often long and intensive academic preparation b: a principal calling, vocation, or employment c: the whole body of persons engaged in a calling

This reminded me of my favourite definition of what it means to be a doctor from Thomas Sydenham in the 17th century:

It becomes every man who purposes to give himself to the care of others seriously to consider the four following things:
First that he must one day give an account to the supreme judge of all the lives entrusted to him.

Secondly, that all his skill and knowledge and energy, as they have been given by God, so they should be exercised for his glory and the good of mankind and not mere gain and ambition.

Thirdly, and not more beautifully than truly, let him reflect that he has undertaken the care of no mean creature, for in order that he may estimate the value, the greatness of the human race, the only begotten Son of God became himself a man and thus ignobled it with his divine dignity. And far more than this, died to redeem it.

And fourthly, that the doctor, being himself a mortal man, he should be diligent and tender in relieving his suffering patients in as much as he himself must one day be a like sufferer.

This got me thinking of whether one could draw parallels for a youthworker. This is what I came up with:

All of us who love the joy and the hard work of ministering to young people, let us reflect on the following:

Firstly a youthworker will one day give an account to the supreme judge for the influence he has had on all the young lives entrusted to him.

Secondly, whilst youthwork rarely brings financial rewards, let the youthworker remember that all his talent and energy are God-given and should be used for His glory.

Thirdly, a youthworker should remember always that God's own son died for every single young person. And if God thinks that someone is worth dying for, how dare I think otherwise. Most especially, let us remember that when faced with the young person who society deems unworthy of any care or attention.

And forthly, The Christian youthworker, being himself a forgiven-sinner, let him never forget that each of the young people need example and discipleship and not condemnation and judgementalism in order to grow to maturity in the same way that the youthworker needed it too.

Thoughts or comments?


Friday, February 06, 2009

Mobile Phones

I recently managed to throw my mobile in the bath. Now I wouldn't recommend this behaviour but I am pleased to say my phone has had a miraculous recovery from this near-death experience.

Here's what you do if you ever manage to drop your phone in water:

1. Remove it immediately. (If you don't do this one the rest is a waste of time!)
2. Remove the battery. (Don't pause to turn it off)
3. Dismantle the phone as much as possible and put it in a warm place to dry
4. Leave if for at least 12 hours (some websites recommend up to 72...)
5. Only when you are convinced it's been dried completely turn it on again and see if it works.

The key is that water shorts the circuitry and if you can get the battery out before the water's managed to seep into the phone itself it will be fine as long as it's completely dry when you switch it back on.

Just thought this might help anyone out there who's as stupid as me...!