Christmas Diary

My pre-new-year resolution for this diary entry is to resist the temptation to write about the credit crunch, global warming, the bankers, George Osborne, the Pope, the stock exchange, Governor Sarah Palin, the Daily Mail, the weather, Jonathan Ross, the flu epidemic or Osama bin Laden. Unfortunately I seem to have broken that resolution already.   So I’ll say a word about Christmas cards instead. For the first time this year J and I aren’t sending any — well, hardly any.   For years now J has done all the tedious work of buying and writing the cards, addressing the envelopes, getting the stamps, and struggling out in the freezing fog to post them. Apart from the freezing fog, J was doing this even when we had several hundred official cards, as well as our private ones, to send out from foreign parts, all those years ago.    I have always thought that just about the sole convincing reason for sending Christmas cards was to have a contact at least once a year with old friends with whom we would otherwise lose touch.   Now that’s much more easily achieved by the occasional e-mail, exchanges on the blog, even the odd telephone call, without all that business of reindeer in hard copy, manual work with the pen and the stamps, and excursions to letter-boxes — all so last century.    What’s worse, because of the dire new Post Office postage pricing rules which involve measuring the envelopes as well as weighing them, you really have to take all the cards to the post office to be measured individually before you can safely post them.

J however explains our new non-policy on Christmas cards far more incisively. She puts it down to ‘senile inertia’.

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A few years ago, when I was involved in that splendid institution the Royal Hospital for Neuro-Disability (non-profit, non-NHS, but many of the patients funded by their local health authorities), I used to pop in to see one long-stay patient, who had been severely disabled by an asthma attack as a young curate but whose mind and, especially, sense of humour had remained (and still remain) unimpaired.   His Christmas e-mail reminds me that his website is a real treasure-trove of jokes of every conceivable kind, many really funny (and that’s not just the few that I have contributed). The best thing I could find this year in reply to his message was:

“There was a little confusion at the meeting there at the White House when President Bush was told that Obama was coming. He said ‘Oh, you mean we caught him?'” (David Letterman).

Well, it made me giggle, anyway.

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Yet another admiring programme about Prince Charles has been on television recently. Some of it has been (presumably unintentionally) revealing. I loved the bit where HRH explains why he likes to be accompanied at all times by a member of his staff with a pen and a notebook. “If they don’t write down everything I say, it gets forgotten and nothing ever gets done.” Boswell, where art thou?

The Princess of Wales, Camilla (to give her her rightful title, even if she has been prevailed upon not to use it) has a walk-on part in the programme and performs it with notable grace. If and when the Prince succeeds his mother on the throne, Queen Camilla (to give her her rightful future title, even if she continues to be prevailed upon not to use it) shows every sign of being an excellent Queen Consort and probably an extremely good influence on a potentially wayward monarch.

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Tony Travers, the director of the Greater London Group at the LSE, had an interesting piece in Tuesday’s Guardian about what he called “a catalogue of struggles between the Conservatives and Scotland Yard”, of which the latest round has been the denunciation, now retracted with apologies, by Assistant Commissioner Bob Quick, of the Tories’ alleged and denied role in publicising Quick’s private address in the Daily Mail (damn!), forcing him and his family to move to a different address.   Quick, head of Special Operations at the Yard — not head of counter-terrorism as commonly said, although counter-terrorism is one important element in his command — is in charge of the investigation of two years of systematic leaks to a front-bench Conservative MP by a Conservative activist and civil servant at the home office.   A potentially useful debate on the rights and, especially, wrongs of party-political leaking by civil servants to anti-government MPs has unfortunately been sidelined by the huge row over the arrest for questioning of the MP in question by Quick’s coppers, and the search of the MP’s parliamentary office for evidence.   The police didn’t have a search warrant for the latter activity, but they did have written permission for it from the parliamentary Serjeant-at-Arms, which seems to me just as good.   Anyway, such has been the hysterical uproar over the treatment of the MP by the police that it now looks as if the original police investigation of systematic leaking from the home office may be abandoned, much to the obvious relief of the more perceptive Tories.   If there’s really a “struggle between the Conservatives and Scotland Yard” going on, I know whose side I’m on, for once.

The last sentence of Mr Travers’s article, by the way, referring to the two adversaries — the Tories and the Metropolitan Police — reads:

Both sides are better than the other would have us believe.

Who, I wonder is this “other” who would have us believe something? Obviously an unidentified third party. It’s a pity that good clear expressions such as “each other” and “one another” are being supplanted more and more by “both”, in this context ‘both’ inaccurate and ambiguous.

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J and I listened with nostalgic attention to the live radio broadcast this afternoon, Christmas Eve, of the traditional Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge.  We have been overseas for each of the past six or seven Christmas Eves so this was the first time we had heard the live broadcast for a long time.  We were both sadly disappointed.  The King’s choir, world-famous for its clarity and purity of tone, sounded muddy and even under-rehearsed.  The boy solo treble who, as always, introduces the service with “Once in Royal David’s City” sounded understandably but regrettably nervous.  The new carols sung for the first time in this event sounded tuneless and inaccessible (surprisingly: at least one of them was by the late Peter Tranchell, who composed great quantities of memorably tuneful music for cabaret and musical comedies when I was a Cambridge undergraduate, rather a long time ago).  Even some of the old, familiar, traditional carols had been tinkered with for no discernible purpose unless to irritate.  To cap it all, the nine lessons were almost all read by the usual assorted King’s big-wigs and small-wigs in a mannered and distracting style, with strong stresses in odd places.

Perhaps the Festival has always been like this and it’s just that when we were younger we didn’t notice, or didn’t mind.  Now we do.

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Polly Toynbee, the Guardian‘s resident humanist and secularist, headed her Christmas column:  “My Christmas message? There’s probably no God,” a partial quotation from a poster message that’s to appear shortly on a fleet of London and other buses in a new secularist campaign:  “There’s probably no God.  Now stop worrying and enjoy your life“.  This seems to me to strike all the right notes.  No dogmatic assertion that God doesn’t exist:  just a suitably cautious reminder that on the balance of probabilities and the available evidence so far, his existence is more improbable than probable, and thus no more a sensible hypothesis on which to build our lives than any other improbable proposition.  The advice to stop worrying about it also seems apt, given the pervasive guilt and obsession with sin relentlessly propagated by much religion.  And the exhortation to enjoy life pithily reminds us that it’s — probably — the only one we’re going to get, so it’s no good putting up with misery and oppression now in the vain hope that it will all be all right in the next one.  Polly’s article has prompted the predictable tsunami of abusive denunciation from the dwindling ranks of the God-fearing faithful: 723 comments in Comment is Free, and counting;  and a raft of laughably feeble ripostes on today’s Guardian letters page, including efforts by a Right Reverend, a Prebendary and a Rabbi, arguing variously that religion has contributed wonderful art, poetry, etc. to our culture;  that “belief in atheism” is no more “rational” than “the adoption of religion” — breathtaking!;  that Ms Toynbee’s liberal values are “largely based” on “Christian principles” (so much for millions of Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Druids and flat-earthers);  and that Polly shouldn’t attack religion at Christmas time.   One letter denounces the invitation not to worry, because “True religion demands that we should be worried about our world, particularly in these troubled times, and take our lives and our responsibilities seriously.”   Controversial stuff!  Judging by those 723 comments on the Guardian website, the Toynbee column will have attracted a massive postbag of letters about the Toynbee column and submitted for publication in the paper.  If those selected for publication today were really the best of the lot, God help the religious lobby (so to speak)!  Sensible Christians like the intellectually rigorous and clear-sighted Revd. Giles Fraser, the vicar of Putney, must be thinking: “with friends like these….”

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Happy Christmas!


11 Responses

  1. Barrie says:

    Christmas cards. Good on ya, Brian. I believe John Humphrys has the same policy. I hope one day we’ll have the courage to do the same.

    Prince and Princess of Wales. Did I detect the gentle start of a PR campaign for the succession in The Queen’s speech on Thursday?

    Secularist bus poster campaign. I agree with all that you say. I too am one of those who have found no inconvenience in living without the help of the supernatural. I try not to call myself an atheist, though, as I don’t see why I should be defined in terms of the strange beliefs of others. For those who can’t live without such support, there’s an alternative in the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster here:

    Brian writes: Thanks, Barrie. I hope we’ll soon be able to welcome you to the Christmas Cards Non-Senders League. Be strong! I must obviously watch the Queen’s Christmas message again for the signs you think you detected: but if you thought she was preparing the way for an abdication, I’ll take a lot of convincing, as I doubt if that’s on the agenda at all. And, finally, many thanks for pointing us all at the wonderful Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and its irresistible website. I have submitted to it (or Him) my ten-point proof of His existence, still at the time of writing awaiting moderation.

  2. Clive Willis says:

    Dear Brian, That weasel word ‘probably’ is rather evasive, isn’t it? Dawkins must surely despair of such a faint-hearted approach. But then one recalls Clement Attlee: when asked whether he was an agnostic, he is alleged to have replied ‘I don’t know.’ Happy Saturnalia!
    Still enjoying life.
    PS Why are churches full of ‘cribs’ when there ‘was no crib (for a bed)’?

    Brian writes: No, I think Dawkins will warmly approve of that ‘probably’, as I do! It makes the vital sharp distinction between those who claim to know that God exists (and that, e.g. “my Redeemer liveth”, etc) on the one hand, quoting all sorts of intricate ‘proofs’ of that proposition: and on the other hand, those who freely acknowledge that the statement “God exists” is a factual one, theoretically capable of being confirmed but not of being disproved: that the task is accordingly to consider the evidence and compare it with the inherent improbability of the statement, since it is strongly counter-intuitive and runs counter to all evidence-based human experience that we know of: and then to form a necessarily tentative conclusion on the lower, civil standard of ‘proof’, namely the balance of probabilities — it’s plainly incapable of proof ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’, the criminal standard of proof.. It has to be tentative because if God does exist, there’s always the possibility that He might make His existence known in some indisputable manner, in which case Dawkins and I and a good many others would say: OK, we made our best judgement on the then available evidence and concluded that God probably didn’t exist, but this new evidence shows that we were wrong. Until such new and incontrovertible evidence materialises, there can’t be any justification for basing our lives on a hypothesis which is more likely to be false than true. We try not to do that in other spheres, and there’s no obvious case for doing it in this case.

    Which is a long-winded way of saying that to my mind, “God probably doesn’t exist” sums it up perfectly. It’s impossible to be dogmatic about it, but one can be pretty confident, absent fresh evidence, that He doesn’t.

    (I acknowledge that some Christians would reply that God did supply incontrovertible evidence of His existence in the person of Jesus, but that leads off into a whole new thicket of argument about the quality of the evidence for the divinity of Jesus, and we’re back in balance of probabilities territory. It also raises the problem of the basis for a belief in God on the part of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Trotskyites….)

    So I wouldn’t accept your epithet ‘evasive’. Seems to me spot on!

    You seem to have a good point about crib or bed versus manger, according to the online OED:

    CRIB: I. 1. a. A barred receptacle for fodder used in cowsheds and fold-yards; also in fields, for beasts lying out during the winter; a CRATCH. (In nearly all early quots. applied to the manger in which the infant Christ was laid; cf. CRATCH n.)
    b. (Orig. in R.C. Ch.) A representation of the manger in which the infant Christ was laid, erected in churches.

    MANGER: 1. a. A long open box or trough in a stable, barn, etc., out of which horses and cattle can eat fodder (esp. fodder which cannot be placed, like hay and straw, in a rack above).
    1526 Bible (Tyndale) Luke ii. 7 She..wrapped hym in swadlynge cloothes, and layed hym in a manger [so 1582 Rheims and 1611; c1384 Wycliffite, E.V. cracche; a1425 Wycliffite, L.V. cratche; Geneva cretche: see CRATCH n.1 1b].

    Lots of other examples too, of course. The carol ought to say “Just a crib for a bed”, or “a manger, no bed”. But the former wouldn’t do because nowadays a crib means a perfectly comfortable bed for a child and nothing to do with animals.

    Well, these are interesting matters! (And the Attlee quotation is wonderful.)

  3. Clive Willis says:

    Of course, one can’t prove a negative. ‘Probably’ leaves the door ajar.

    Just in case…I prefer ‘It’s improbable that there is no God.’ By contrast, you would seem to prefer ‘It’s improbable that there is a God.’ We both lack conclusive evidence. On that we (probably?) agree!

    Brian writes: Clive, apologies for being obstinate, but I can’t accept your implied equivalence of the evidence both for and against the existence of a supernatural creator deity. It’s literally true that the evidence on both sides is ‘inconclusive’, but there the equivalence surely ends. To adopt Dawkins’s funny reductio ad absurdum argument, the evidence for and against the proposition that there is a teapot rotating round the sun is equally inconclusive, but the evidence for is so pitifully weak, and involves such a negation of all our ordinary experience, of scientific method, and of common sense, that it would be absurd to act on the assumption that it’s probably the case — or even that there’s as much reason to believe it as there is to disbelieve it.

  4. Barrie says:

    It’s a matter of where the balance of probability lies. Clive’s formulation places the balance on the plus side, whereas Brian’s places it on the minus side. In the absence of any evidence at all, shouldn’t we apply Occam’s razor? Let us, as a thought experiment, try a bit of substitution. Which of these two is more convincing?

    ‘It’s improbable that there is no Thor’; or
    ‘It’s improbable that there is a Thor.’

  5. Tim Weakley says:

    1.  ‘Both’.  I frequently have to stop myself from saying ‘They’re both the same [as one another]’ – as if A could be the same as B, but B different from A.

    2.  ‘Crib’.  Luke’s gospel (AV) says ‘manger’ (twice – I’ve just looked).  ‘Crib’ comes only in the carol.

    3.  When we talk about God, let us state whether we are discussing (i) the deity of some specified religion or (ii) the abstract Prime Mover who possibly underlies the origin of the universe?    In case (i), we are discussing a deity invented in human form because of the human need for explanations and the human capacity for asking ‘how?’ and ‘why?’ questions – if God really exists, why did he reveal himself ten thousand times to as many human groups and bands since early paleolithic times, with as many sets of assertions about himself and commands for his worship, knowing what friction and misery this would lead to?  What a capricious being!  Away with him!  In case (ii), we can say nothing about this Entity, his properties, powers, and attributes, because we have no access to the Time Before (if indeed that has any meaning) or to anything outside our own universe, and have therefore no way of knowing whether his existence is more than speculation.  Myself, I would wager good money (if I had any way of collecting on the bet) that there is a naturalistic explanation for everything; and that if you and I am wrong and God the Prime Mover proves to exist, he will be gracefully absorbed into physics as the fifth force with definable and calculable properties.

    Brian writes: Please see my response to this — i.e. (3) — here.

  6. Clive says:

    Tim and I both seem to be the victims of some gremlin in your blogograph, Brian, which rejects all carriage-returns and bundles paragraphs together without even a space between them. In that gremlin I devoutly believe (no ‘probably’ about it).

    Meanwhile, how convenient it would be if there were a naturalistic explanation that would allow us to discard the notion of a non-contingent Prime Mover. Without such an explanation, I cling on to my primitive beliefs, poor misguided star-gazer that I am. I feel bound to recognize that there is something out there that is superior to me (No, not you, Brian) and which could explain why there is anything at all.

    Brian writes: Clive, I have tried several times to reproduce your and Tim’s paragraphing problem both in Firefox and, reluctantly, in MS Internet Explorer, but completely without success. I have even tried copying and pasting some prose from Word, which created the usual dire problems — all the formatting tags reproduced, etc. — but didn’t encounter any problems with paragraphing. Writing directly into the Ephems comment box (pressing “Enter” twice for a new paragraph) also came out fine in both browsers. I’m baffled. All I can suggest is that those who really must write their comments in Word should please copy and paste them into Notepad and only then copy-and-paste them from Notepad into the blog comment box; then edit the comment in the blog comment box, ensuring that there is one blank line between paragraphs (but only one), adding any hyperlinks, bold, italics, etc., and then clicking ‘Submit’. But much the easiest course is to write and edit the comment in the blog comment box in the first place — pressing “Enter” twice at the end of each paragraph… (The results of these experiments are to be found in a test post and comments here.)

    If anyone follows all this guidance and still has a problem with paragraphing, please e-mail me from the ‘Contact’ page (click Contact at the top of each web page) with the fullest possible details of how you wrote and edited the comment.

    I am replying on the Prime Mover in a separate and new Comment.

  7. Tim Weakley says:

    Like Clive, I too feel there’s something out there that is superior to me: it’s pretty awesome and a lot older and bigger than me and its (physical) sentient parts are many of them much more intelligent, and it’s called the Universe.  Clive’s last six words echo the question that I believe nags philosophers in the chill small hours: why is there something instead of nothing?  I wish they would turn the question around and ask: why shouldn’t there be something instead of nothing?  Is there some compelling reason for its non-existence which the universe irresponsibly overlooked when it formed spontaneously as an expanding bubble in the fabric of space-time (or whatever hand-waving form of words the cosmologists are currently using to give substance to their equations)?  Dear me, sorry, we’ve come a long way from Christmas.

  8. Brian says:

    In his Comment above, Clive writes:   

    …how convenient it would be if there were a naturalistic explanation that would allow us to discard the notion of a non-contingent Prime Mover. Without such an explanation, I cling on to my primitive beliefs, poor misguided star-gazer that I am. I feel bound to recognize that there is something out there that is superior to me (No, not you, Brian) and which could explain why there is anything at all. 

    I’m baffled by this search for an explanation of everything.  There’s no reason, surely, to assume that every fact or event is capable of having or needing an explanation, or indeed a meaning.  What is the explanation of Mozart’s genius or the meaning of the B Minor Mass?  Of life, or the existence of matter?  If the intricacy of a wrist-watch must imply a watch-maker, and the intricacy of a watch-maker must imply a Being who designed and created the watch-maker, why doesn’t the even greater intricacy of the watch-maker’s Creator require a yet more intricate Super-Creator, and so on ad infinitum?  Of course such an infinite regression is theoretically conceivable, but the simpler “explanation” seems preferable:  life has evolved on Darwinian lines from basic matter, probably from an original big bang, producing at this point in evolution humans, some of whom can and do make watches.  What further explanation is required?

    Tim, in his comment here, draws a distinction between on the one hand the God of any specific religion with the attributes defined by that religion, and on the other hand a Prime Mover, about whom (or Whom) he writes:

    we can say nothing about this Entity, his properties, powers, and attributes, because we have no access to the Time Before (if indeed that has any meaning) or to anything outside our own universe, and have therefore no way of knowing whether his existence is more than speculation.

    Exactly so.  Or, as Wittgenstein sagely remarked, “Whereof one cannot speak, one must remain silent.”  There can be no possible purpose in discussing either the attributes or even the existence of this metaphysical concept, for Whom or Which by definition there is and can be no evidence.

    Similarly, it doesn’t help discussion to re-define ‘God’ as “the love principle” or any other such abstract idea.  He, She or It may be a subject for poetry but not for rational debate on the existence of God.  It seems to me misleading to refer to such an amorphous entity as ‘God’, a hypothetical Being who has plenty of attributes and undertones, even if these vary from religion to religion, and whose existence or non-existence can perfectly well be rationally discussed.  ‘God’ as almost universally understood seems to me to have a number of well defined characteristics:  unlimited power to intervene at will in the natural order and in human affairs;  all-knowing;  author of a code of behaviour, often enshrined in a book believed to have supernatural authority and binding on all humans at all times;  ‘good’, ‘merciful’, etc., but also capable of anger, vengeful and seemingly capricious; possessing some but not all human characteristics, such as masculinity;  and presiding over an afterlife into which all humans survive after death with their personalities intact (but probably not physically reassembled) and in which all individuals are either rewarded or punished by this God for their behaviour on Earth.  Belief in the existence of God by definition entails belief in a supernatural being possessing all, or nearly all, these characteristics.  Belief in the love principle, or an original prime mover who takes no further interest in its creation, or in the power of music to move the soul — all these are perfectly permissible creeds, but to equate any of them with a belief in God is to deprive words of their meaning.  At this point philosophy, theology, metaphysics and reason are replaced by  semantics, and further debate becomes otiose. 

    That’s my view, anyway — and I guess Tim’s, too.  OK, your turn.


  9. Clive says:

    We now have a syllogism. There was probably a Big Bang. We don’t need an explanation. So there’s probably no God. Hmm… Ever gone 12 rounds with an amoeba?

    Brian writes: I don’t know where you dredged that syllogism up from, Clive: it rings no bells with me. It’s certainly no more (nor less) convincing than: Stuff exists; stuff is made by a supernatural being called God; therefore God exists. Try: We assume the existence only of that which is reconcilable with our experience and for which there is cogent evidence; the existence of a supernatural being is irreconcilable with our experience and there is no cogent evidence for it; therefore we have no basis for assuming the existence of a supernatural being.

    More simply, I’m suggesting that you can’t legitimately infer the existence of a supernatural Creator or Prime Mover from the absence of any other explanation for a phenomenon which is inherently incapable of being ‘explained’. Nor have I argued that the improbability of there being a God can be inferred simply from there being no need (or possibility) to explain the origin of matter, as you allege with your syllogism; obviously it can’t.

    Note that I do not make a dogmatic assertion that no supernatural being exists: only that on the available evidence its existence is by some distance more improbable than probable. Which is pretty much where I came in.

    I suppose that the amoeba reference implies that I keep changing my position? I plead not guilty to that: I detect no shifts at any point in either your or my positions — only abortive attempts by each of us to redefine the other’s position in order to expose the alleged fallacies in it! Shall we leave it at that?

  10. Barrie says:

    The question ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ embodies concepts which are peculiarly human. They have relevance in terms of our own evolution, but not in terms of anything else. I find it impossible to give the word ‘nothing’ any meaning in a cosmological context. In any case, isn’t ‘nothing’ itself ‘something’? As you say, Brian (or rather Ludwig), ‘Wovon man nicht sprechen kann . . . ’.

  11. Barrie says:

    As we recently touched on the philosopher’s best-known dictum I thought you all might, or equally might not, be interested to see M A Numminen sings Wittgenstein which I came across recently on YouTube at

    (He also does an interesting interpretation of a Schubert lied at

    Brian writes: Profound thanks for these masterpieces. Wittgenstein set to music! If only I had thought of that. The musicianship is matched, I suggest, only by the immortal Florence Foster Jenkins singing the Queen of the Night aria from the Magic Flute (in a collection called, appropriately, Florence Jenkins Murders Mozart), which we can hear, also on YouTube, at