Monday, 10 November 2008

More Thoughts on Intelligent Design and Theodicy

Deus absconditus (the hidden God) is not clearly and widely manifest in the world, but here and there, like touches of dappled sunlight, divine action seems to break through. The rest, though, is darkness of human sin and the inescapable unpleasantness of physical existence.

The most obvious challenge to "Intelligent Design" is that it is merely a form of "God of the Gaps" theology, in which God is invoked to explain things that are currently beyond either our theories or our imagination. Natural selection is perfectly adequate to explain (say) mammalian morphology, but when it comes to (say) the mechanism of ciliary action, we don't have surviving instances of any intermediate stages, and we can't imagine what they might have been, so the propenents of ID usher in God as the explanation. This seems both unscientific and intellectually feeble.

Might it be reasonable to expect God's action in creation to be similar to his apparent mode of action in the here-and-now universe? Most of the time it is a chaotic maelstrom of mere material cause and effect, on which the mischoices of the human will are superimposed; but where an opening exists, God is able to act. Where a human soul opens itself in prayer, there is an option for the divine. The problem with applying this to the non-human world is that it requires some kind of vitalist theory of the universe: the heterodox notion that something analogous to free will is possessed by elements within inanimate nature. Without this, there is no logic to the occasions on which God acts: why should he so beautifully design the biochemistry of the cell, and then sit back while parasitic insects chew their way through the larvae of other species? I am not convinced.

Friday, 7 November 2008

I Caught a Falling Leaf

I was told in my distant youth that this brings good luck. It certainly evoked a chuckle from the infant, as I cavorted across the playground trying to anticipate the flight path of the descending leaf.

Monday, 13 October 2008

Books and Food

I really must get the books physically organized, as well as catalogued on LibraryThing. It is all very well having a hugely erudite collection, but it is annoying when attempting to cook dinner to search on the cookery bookshelf for Marvellous Meals with Mince and find only Hymns of St Ephrem the Syrian and the like.

The mince recipe (a cross between shepherd's pie and moussaka with a layer of sliced beetroot which rather failed to harmonize) received a rather mixed reception. However, it gave rise to a more inspired follow-up: Crimson Venison Casserole (TM). Having boiled the beetroot, I was left with almost half a litre of bright purple cooking liquid, and it seemed a pity not to do something with it. The diced venison in the freezer needed using, and the recipe on the back of the box required dried cranberries, of which we did have an ancient packet in the cupboard. No fresh mushrooms, no shallots: no matter. Substituting beetroot for beef stock, I adapted the recipe so heavily as to make it unrecognizable. The result was really rather delicious. For those who would like to try it, here is the procedure:

Crimson Venison Casserole
by Myopic Bookworm

(Optional: beforehand, soak a small sample of dried oyster mushrooms or similar in boiling water.) In a flameproof casserole, brown handfuls of diced venison in some hot olive oil, removing once brown to a handy plate. Chop a medium onion fairly small, mince some garlic, and fry both in the remaining oil for a couple of minutes. Chuck in a tablespoon of wholemeal flour and keep cooking for another minute. Throw in a decent portion of roughly chopped carrot, a handful at a time, stirring into the flour mix. Add around 40-50g dried cranberries, 500ml beetroot stock and 100ml red wine, a pinch of dark brown sugar, and a good sprinkling of dried thyme, and stir again (adding the soaked and drained oyster mushrooms if you've got some). Lay the venison on top, screw on some fresh black pepper, and put in a preheated moderate oven (can't remember temperature; must have been about 180C in our fan oven) for 75 to 90 minutes. Serve with potato (boiled new potatoes or mashed) and a green vegetable (we had purple sprouting broccoli).

The combination of orange carrot and crimson beetroot juice is just stunning.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Autumn III

Idyllic is the word that comes to mind to describe my brief experience yesterday afternoon. I found myself driving across the Oxfordshire countryside in the slanting sun, through the winding lanes west of Worminghall, with the infant slumbering peacefully in the back seat. As I reached Islip and headed out towards Bletchingdon and Long Hanborough*, the BBC began to play Butterworth's "By Banks of Green Willow". And on cue, I passed a willow tree.

By the time I reached the borders of Gloucestershire, the fields were hazy with dust and mist, the sun was westering, and if you could have distilled the air, it would have tasted of honey spread on fresh-baked crusty bread.

* The village elders seem to have decided that the signs on the main roads should bear the name "Bletchington", and the lorries from the local stone quarry have the same spelling. But I prefer "Bletchingdon", as the older road-signs have it. Aside from the proximity of Abingdon, it feels more distinctive and interesting. There is a similar variance at Long Hanborough, where the railway station is called "Handborough", I know not why.

Friday, 3 October 2008

Existence is Suffering

Sitting in the Chapel of Our Lady by the Martyrdom in Canterbury Cathedral yesterday morning, I was wondering about my present difficulty. Then, looking at the carved crucifix which hangs behind the altar, and wondering what it might mean, I had a thought. Existence is suffering, say the Buddhists. It is no use an atheist protesting at the suffering in the universe: the atheist simply has to accept the world as it is, having no God to protest to. But it is no use a theist protesting either. The world is as it is, whether or not the word "God" has any objective meaning. Just because there is a God, that doesn't mean that the world could have been made in a different way. A universe is a complex thing, and to assert that it could have been done better is a ridiculous pretention. If existence is suffering, then how much more is creation suffering? Even if you attempt to ditch all Paul's theology of atonement, the death of Jesus still stands as a central feature of Jesus's ministry, his most dramatic acted parable. And a parable must have a meaning: the Lamb slain at the foundation of the world. God knows that the world suffers, and in some sense he suffers with it, and in his death Christ shows us that he suffers with it.

Maybe my next heavy book (if I can face any heavy book soon) must be Paul Fiddes's The Creative Suffering of God. For the moment, I shall work my way through Rowan Williams's Tokens of Trust, which I picked up at the Cathedral bookshop. The first chapter is promising: he manages to discuss belief in such a way that the 'existence' of God become almost a non-issue.

Friday, 26 September 2008

This and That

Look, I don't do regular updates! I rarely kept a diary up for more than a couple of weeks.

For those who are interested (greetings, weird people!), we had a very enjoyable few days on the island of Jersey, during which I read nothing at all (except the Saturday paper and some tourist leaflets). We will be spending part of next week on a trip to Canterbury Cathedral. The Squirmle has produced his first canine tooth (total count now 13).

I'm sort of following threads on the Christianity group at Library Thing, but my present intellectual/spiritual position is too much in flux for me to add anything to them with any degree of confidence or self-consistency. I have, for the moment, two problems. I have lost confidence in the notion of God as Creator; and I have lost confidence in the moral and spiritual authority of the New Testament. I am therefore going through one of my periodic attempts to see whether a sustainable liberal Christian faith can actually be reconstructed.

The first is prompted partly by some kind of psychic seepage from reading or hearing about the religious views of some of my personal heroes and luminaries, such as Ralph Vaughan Williams and David Attenborough. Also by watching Richard Dawkins on TV. Dawkins is supremely annoying in his insistence on engaging almost entirely with the lunatic end of contemporary Christianity, which obliges me to keep agreeing with him while saying "yes, but...". On the other hand, I do wonder whether my own position (a kind of loose evolutionary theism) is ultimately tenable. In discussion with my other half a couple of weeks ago, I found myself adumbrating Deism.

If God really were an Intelligent Designer, then so much of the design is morally repugnant that theodicy would become a problem. (To paraphrase Attenborough, why believe in a God who designs worms that live in children's eyeballs?) Perhaps I must put to myself the argument I have put to others: God cannot do something categorically impossible, and if creating a Nice universe with free creatures is categorically impossible, then he couldn't have done it any other way. But if God is not able or willing to intervene in evolution (any more than in natural disasters), then what is his contribution to creation? If he is merely a First Cause and Ground of Being, then it is hard to see how a created universe might differ from an uncreated one. The notion of a Creator then becomes entirely a matter of faith based on tradition: there simply is nothing in the universe to stand as evidence one way or the other. "God does not reveal himself in the world." My loss of confidence in the Creator is, perhaps, a result of so much recent exposure to Creationism, and my deeply felt rejection of it. Without the bedrock of irrational commitment to authority, it is hard to maintain grip on a liberal faith.

As for the New Testament: just as the realization that evolution is a fact undermines a traditional view of the Old Testament, the realization that homosexuality is a fact undermines a traditional view of the New Testament. Trying to retain Jesus while regurgitating Paul is hardly a new conundrum, but it is one which I am addressing anew.

If neither Creation nor Scripture can offer a reliable support for religious faith, then one has only the exercise of religion itself. I realize that I once summed up faith just so, about 20 years ago, as "the practice of prayer and virtue". But to engage with a non-interventionist God requires commitment to the kind of non-conceptual and contemplative prayer in which I have so often tried and failed. Perhaps I must make another effort towards Zen, which I once described as offering "a way of praying on those days when I don't believe in God". What, though, to do while attending public worship (irritating, distracting, boring)? As a householder (grihastha), I am no longer a free agent, able to wander at will between Solemn High Mass and the Friends' Meeting for Worship.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Adventurous Challenge Met

Taking the children swimming is no doubt viewed by many parents as a fairly routine thing. For me, however, it was a bit of an adventure, as I have never done it on my own before, and the Squirmle hasn't been in a pool for nearly a year, which for him is two-thirds of a lifetime. We were going to go with his friend Paul, but Paul has a cold. I compounded the challenge by deciding to put my Green hat on and take the Squirmle and his buggy on the bus, which is also something I have not done before.

I am pleased to report an almost unqualified success. A bit of a wait for the bus, which became unexpectedly busy (another buggy, and hordes of pensioners), but the infant fell asleep early in the journey, which helped, especially as it also enabled me to check out without interruption all those hateful details (where are the lockers? how do you get into them? where are the loos? ditto? etc.).

The Squirmle was overwhelmed by the pool at first - mainly, I think, by the noise and the number of people - and he clutched me and whimpered for the first ten minutes or so. Then he realized that all those other children were actually laughing and enjoying themselves, and that sploshing gently up and down in the water was not unpleasant. Pretty soon he had remembered how to smile and kick feebly while being floated around on his tummy, so we had a good 20 minutes before his teeth started to chatter. Memo to self: take a bigger bag - one that will carry not only all the towels, changing stuff, snacks, etc., but also all the clothes that both of you are wearing, including shoes and coats! No hot snacks at the leisure centre this morning, but we found our way to the Cathedral coffee shop and shared a jacket potato with baked beans.

Got back at 2 o'clock, and he's still asleep two hours later! Result! For making an acquaintance with water, it was a lot more hassle for me than letting him pour muddy water over himself out of a flowerpot on the patio (which was yesterday's amusement), but involves less laundry.

Friday, 15 August 2008

Not reading books

Not reading books is a talent I need to cultivate. Especially with non-fiction, I have a tendency to pick up a book that looks as if it might be interesting, and then keep picking it up and reading a bit more, even though I've realized it's not actually that interesting and I could use my time more constructively (or enjoyably) doing something else. I am doing this with "Hating America" at the moment: I guess that, like Winnie-the-Pooh with a jar of honey, I am making quite sure that it is the same all the way to the bottom, and faintly hoping that the last section (on the most modern period) might have a bit more interest. I may find myself doing the same with "Emergence": books about things like complexity and game theory always have that patina of boringness, with the use of small line drawings to illustrate concepts which are either incomprehensible anyway or blindingly obvious. It's partly to do with the nature of the detail: if you're interested in emergence in the evolution of the biosphere, a disquisition on checkers-playing computers is simply an irritation.

Friday, 4 July 2008

Who needs people when you've got books?

The latest plan for the reorganization of the house involves the removal of the guest double bed in favour of a pair of single beds which stack one below the other. One of these is currently under our bed, the other in the study. This will free up the space under our bed for boxes of books, and a whole wall of the study will become available for bookcases full of books. Future guests must reconcile themselves to a slightly less comfortable bed, but a more accessible collection of reading matter. I think that's a fair compromise!

Friday, 27 June 2008

Further Steps

Further steps have been taken by the Squirmle: he is now capable of walking the length of the kitchen by himself. He is also capable of climbing up the stairs (though not down). I discovered this a couple of weeks ago. Having nipped upstairs for something, I watched from the top as he boldly set out from the bottom. I knew he could manage a couple of steps, but he was two thirds of the way up before he stopped and looked up to grin. His next move, I suspected, would be to stand up, and then sit down in mid air. Hoping to avert this catastrophe, I stretched down and took his hand. I then had to keep hold of him while getting down below him, which meant worming down the stairs on my stomach and then turning round, an exercise both inelegant and uncomfortable. He is now barred from the front hall by a gate in the kitchen doorway and a closed door to the living room.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Busy, busy, busy

Too busy to blog for a while, mainly because of trying to do some DIY and sort out a lot of workmen. Had to clear much of a house, which involved about half a dozen trips to the dump in the trusty Morris Traveller.

We spent a week in Bunessan on the Isle of Mull, and had a mainly excellent holiday. The Squirmle did throw up on the Iona ferry, while I was carrying him in a backpack, so that caused a bit of fuss as both of us needed wiping down when we got there. Still made it to the morning service at the Abbey, though. The Squirmle rapidly discovered that abbeys have great acoustics, so I walked around the cloister while K stayed in the service. He passed through a brief period of heptodonty during the week, and finished up a fully toothed octodont.

Friday, 2 May 2008

Reading time

Fitting books into my life has never seemed trickier, but I'm managing to get some reading done. A little parental neglect over the past couple of days has enabled me to get through the pleasant if underwhelming Prelude to Foundation by Asimov, and putting The Small World of Fred Hoyle into the loobry enabled me to get through that in less than a week. The latter is one of those few books in which I have made pencil marks in the margin, finding several short passages worthy of noting, but not intending to hang on to the book in the long term. The plan is to type the notable bits into the laptop and then pass the book on. When I will get time for this I can't imagine...

Friday, 18 April 2008

Upstanding citizen

Standing up has become the Squirmle's favourite amusement. He has now graduated to scaling the sheer sides of pieces of furniture, including the coffee table and the fridge. He can also walk practically the full length of the kitchen when held up by both hands. The vinyl is rather slippery, but his habit of removing his socks at almost every opportunity makes progress possible.

For the first time, he has shown interest in his "Baby Einstein" video. To prevent him from standing up two inches from the screen and trying to touch the pictures, I have wedged a baby walker in front of the TV, so he can stand and watch at a more reasonable distance. (I still don't see the point of much of the video: why, when a voice is heard counting to twenty in some language or other, do we see a hand slowly moving four or five objects?)

We went in the garden this week, as the weather was (at last) just warm enough. When first placed on the lawn several weeks ago, he screamed, apparently at the unfamiliar cold green furry surface: this time, exploring from the safety of the picnic rug, he seemed unconcerned.

Monday, 7 April 2008

Onwards to Summer, Backwards to Winter

Exmoor in April can be a welcoming place, if the sun shines. Last week, fortunately, it did. We raided the bookshop at Dulverton (mostly for Buchan), walked (briefly) on Dunster Beach, and took a more extended walk through the fields and woods between the ancient clapperbridge at Tarr Steps and the pretty hamlet of Hawkridge. This was the first major outing for the Squirmle in his backpack, an unwieldy rucksack-like frame giving him a splendid vantage point from which to pull his parent's hair, or to challenge his bearer's equilibrium by writhing uncontrollably with delight at the approach of a dog.

My cottage pie was a success, though I had not planned to make so much that it could provide meals for five more people when reheated! So thanks to Delia, even if she has since betrayed us by failing to support cruelty-free poultry farming.

I thought I had better take Lorna Doone as my holiday reading, since I have never read it and it is set in Exmoor. I have not yet got halfway through it: the sheer amount of verbiage is stunning, and I am not surprised that publishers have sought to abridge the book. Almost a whole page simply details the effect of the east wind on a fruit tree in the garden!

Our return home was marked with a fall of snow, which produced a winter wonderland on Sunday morning. Having at last planted my much-anticipated quince tree less than a fortnight ago, I thought that I had better tap it gently to reduce the amount of snow on its freshly opening leaf-buds.

Friday, 28 March 2008

Progress Report

The hexodont has now learned to clap hands, and to heave himself into a standing position while clutching someone's leg or the bars of his den. He has not yet learned that it would be nicer/wiser to eat everything that is presented to him, rather than distractedly catapulting it on to the kitchen floor, but we persevere.

I have now finished reading Diane Duane's Wizardry trilogy [*see comments], and thought it rather good. In fact, it was so enjoyable and thought-provoking that it made some of the Diana Wynne Jones I have also read recently seem a bit trivial. I'm not sure I shall seek to acquire any more of Duane's books, as reading some more Madeleine L'Engle and Russell Hoban is a higher priority (so many authors, so little time...), but I'm very glad to have tried these.

But as next week's family gathering is in Exmoor, I feel I ought to take Lorna Doone as my holiday reading.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

Return of the Bug

Not since I got food poisoning from the canapes at an office reception have I had such a violent disturbance of the gut as the Squirmle's bug gave me last night: at least it was a short, sharp shock. Between 8 p.m. and midnight I made 6 visits as my lower intestine expelled its contents wetly, then at 1.30 a.m., after visit no. 7, I had a stupendous chunder, and in a few moments felt much better. I know: you really didn't need to know that, but I just had to mark the occasion for posterity.

A friend consoles me with the thought that, once your immune system has been hardened up by all the nursery bugs, you may hope for a couple of illness-free years before school starts the process again.

Monday, 3 March 2008

Bugs, books, and babies

Recovering from the last bug brought home by the Squirmle, we are now confronted with the prospect of another. He deposited a deeply-coloured blueberry residue across his cot at some point last night. Hoping that this was an isolated and cough-related incident, we packed him off to nursery, but they phoned late in the morning to say that he had been sick, and brought up his entire breakfast. Oh joy! We shall have to treat him as infectious for at least 24 hours, which means no Toddlers Club tomorrow.

Our ranking in the LT Largest Libraries Zeitgeist has slipped from peak position of No. 353, as other users have been beavering away. The list of similar libraries has been curiously fluid, presumably because adding even a dozen books subtly changes the statistics.

Monday, 18 February 2008

Getting older

My knees are getting wrinklier. Is it just age, or also wear and tear from sprawling on the carpet with the Squirmle? My birthday presents included a baking tray (a nice solid one which won't buckle) and an insulated mug with a tight lid (useful for keeping coffee warm while dealing with the Squirmle, and for avoiding spillages).

Spent yesterday hacking down the horrible ivy which my neighbour had wrenched off the back fence. His new fence is shorter than the old one, so we have even more of a grandstand view of his rather lurid tan-coloured shed. I'm going to have to find something very large to plant there: perhaps a Fatsia. Since I also need to buy and plant a quince tree this spring, and move a small conifer at the front, it's going to be a busy time.

Friday, 8 February 2008


Only after the doctor gave him antibiotics did the Squirmle show real signs of being ill: by the Thursday his temperature had reached over 100. Fortunately by Monday lunchtime he was back to normal, so I could take him to nursery and then crash out myself to try and fight off whatever he had passed on to me.

However, last Friday I woke early in the morning with a dull ache in both hands, reaching halfway up the forearm, and found that my fingers didn't work properly. I had no strength in my grip, and any attempt to lift or pull anything caused pain in the fingers and forearm. Pouring the tea took two hands, and I had to find a new way of holding my spray deodorant. Amid mutterings about "carpal tunnel syndrome" (which it certainly wasn't), I contacted the doctor. It may just have been a side effect of the viral infection, but it was worrying, since it made actions like picking up the baby and changing his nappy both extremely difficult and acutely painful. I was relieved that by today it had subsided to a vague tiredness of the muscles. Actually, the bit that made me feel the worst was the blood test ordered by the doctor. I've always felt faint after blood donation (had to give it up), but I discovered that having even a small amount of blood removed left me faint, nauseated, and deeply unhappy. I had to lie down for five minutes while the Squirmle wriggled in his buggy.

Monday, 21 January 2008

Restless nights

Teething and a cold are being blamed for the Squirmle's restlessness, which got me out of bed at least four times last night. Also, he is developing the habit of rocking on hands and knees in the cot, which I did a lot as a child. Tomorrow we see the doctor about eczema ointment, so maybe she can help with the snufflebug as well.

The LibraryThing catalogue has now hit the children's books. No hiding place. Must read some of them!

Thursday, 10 January 2008


Sorry to see that a Wikipedia editor with whom I have had fleeting contact (Sdedeo) is quitting because of proposed changes which would restrict the ability of casual editors to edit Wikipedia without some form of moderation.

I do not have the time to read up on the dispute. There are several "moderated" Wikipedia clones already. I see no reason to compromise the complete freedom of access which has characterized the original.

Link to original rhubarb is susan post.