Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Free Universe

So I was reading the February issue of Notices of the American Mathematical Society when I came upon a surprising article entitled, "The Strong Free Will Theorem." The meaning of the theorem is that if humans have free will, then so do the particles that make up matter.

"More precisely, if the experimenter can freely choose the directions in which to orient his apparatus in a certain measurement, then the particle's response... is not determined by the entire previous history of the universe."

The Strong Free Will Theorem is the result of some basic assumptions of quantum mechanics and relativity, which virtually all physicists would agree on. The article is quite technical, but I found the philosophical implications fascinating. Essentially, it's bye bye determinism.

"Although... determinism may formally be shown to be consistent, there is no longer any evidence that supports it, in view of the fact that classical physics has been superseded by quantum mechanics, a non-deterministic theory."

So, what does this mean? Is the universe random, rather than determined?

"Although the FWT [Free Will Theorem] suggest to us that determinism is not a viable option, it nevertheless enables us to agree with Einstein that 'God does not play dice with the Universe.' In the present state of knowledge, it is certainly beyond our capabilities to understand the connection between the free decisions of particles and humans, but the free will of neither of these is accounted for by mere randomness."

The short answer is no, randomness has nothing to do with it.

To elaborate a little more with some of my own amazing mathematical knowledge, what these guys Conway and Kochen have proven is that there is no function relating the initial parameters of an experiment to what the elementary particles in that experiment do.

In probability theory, however, there can and must be a function relating initial assumptions with future events. The idea of probability is that you can define a measure on events, given a set of outcomes. For instance, if I have a fair coin with sides heads and tails, the probability that I flip a head has a measure of one half.

The (Strong) Free Will Theorem shows that in an experiment involving elementary particles, there is simply no such function, allowing particles to do... what they want?

I can't help but contemplate the theological implications, as well as the questions. If the universe makes decisions, then... what are its reasons?

Human free will is the freedom to act based on reasons and not as the inevitable result of past events. So when I ask you how you chose what your career would be, you can say something like, "I've always had a passion for [insert pastime here]," or, "Because I wanted to make money," and not, "Because the sequence of physical events of the past 15 billion years have led inevitably up to this point in history, in which I would choose to be a [insert career here]."

Does the universe have any such reasons? Is there any reason why a particle should make one choice over another? These are basically theological questions, aren't they?

It seems appropriate in this instance to end my post with a question, rather than an answer. Have fun pondering. :)

Sunday, February 22, 2009

School Choice--A Matter of Equality

Michelle Bernard (picture on the right) has written a great editorial in the DC Examiner about school choice, giving me all the more reason to be passionate about education reform:
"The promise of Brown v. Board of Education was to open every school house door to minorities. But many schools remain off-limits for too many black families today. The single most important step that we could take to promote full equality for all Americans would be to ensure that all children benefit from a quality education, and that requires giving parents more options and control over where their children go to school.

Of course, talking about school choice runs against the conventional wisdom of much of the black leadership, which defends the public schools. However, our children's future is too important to avoid uncomfortable truths."
I'm not sure what my black friends would say about this, but I agree with Bernard. The fact is, school vouchers work for everyone, even those who don't leave public school:
"'Contrary to the hypothesis that school choice harms students who remain in public schools, this study finds that students eligible for vouchers who remained in the public schools made greater academic improvements as their school choices increased.'

This should not surprise us, since competition is essential to our economic system, operating as a force to drive down prices while expanding options and promoting innovation.

Choice initiatives force the public schools to better serve their students - all of them. The benefits are particularly significant for minorities, who typically enjoy the fewest alternatives."
I found one reason to be optimistic about Barack Obama's take on this, coming from a blog on school choice:
"'If there was any argument for vouchers, it was "Let's see if the experiment works,"' Obama said. 'And if it does, whatever my preconception, you do what's best for kids.'"
So much the better. My frustration with this issue has been that for some reason "progressives" have been less than progressive on education reform. Supposedly school choice is a "conservative" idea, as if Sweden and the Netherlands are bastions of conservative thought.

I would think conservatives and liberals could agree on this issue. For the conservative, school vouchers put power back in the hands of the individual consumer and allow resources to be used more efficiently. For the liberal, vouchers give power to the less fortunate, enabling social progress. Personally, I find both of these ideas appealing.

In other news, I've started tutoring at a middle school in a lower income part of town through Charlottesville Abundant Life Ministries. If anyone else from Charlottesville happens to read this, we're always in need of more tutors.
One lesson I learned recently during this very tutoring program is that freedom in education is essential. This past week I actually heard a student compare coming to school with being sold into slavery.

This was probably an immature comparison, but it does underscore the idea that when students feel they have no choice in going to school, they really don't enjoy it. My hope is that one day school vouchers around the country will help change all that.

There's no denying that when you make your own choice about what to buy, you value it more. The same principle applies to education: when you choose to learn, it becomes infinitely more effective.

I hope that one day the students I tutor will have the same kinds of opportunities I've had. I hope they can make the choice to learn on their own. Then there would be nothing stopping them from having the life they want.

And isn't that what we all want for America?

Friday, February 20, 2009


I do enjoy people with enough gumption to make a web site called, "God is imaginary." The proofs they offer that God does not exist are rather formidable, and I see no reason to pretend such arguments don't exist.

However, one argument against God's existence was especially curious to me. In Proof #7, "Understanding religious delusions," a comparison is made between belief in Santa Claus, belief in Mormonism, belief in Islam, and belief in Christianity.

The core arguments are substantial, namely that each belief has to an inordinate amount of rationalizing in order to recover from a lot of skeptical questions. Empirical evidence, it is claimed, will show that none of these beliefs are necessary or even helpful; in fact, quite the opposite, since to believe a fairy tale is unhealthy.

"No one (besides little kids) believes in Santa Claus. No one outside the Mormon church believes Joseph Smith's story. No one outside the Muslim faith believes the story of Mohammed and Gabriel and the winged horse. No one outside the Christian faith believes in Jesus' divinity, miracles, resurrection, etc."
The implication throughout is that each of us from our various faiths looks at the others incredulously.

"Why is it that human beings can detect fairy tales with complete certainty when those fairy tales come from other faiths, but they cannot detect the fairy tales that underpin their own faith? Why do they believe their chosen fairy tale with unrelenting passion and reject the others as nonsense?"
I guess what disturbs me about this brand of atheist thinking is that it has lost even the old liberal openness to dialogue. It assumes that Christians see nothing useful in Islam, and that Muslims see nothing useful in Christianity, etc.

But this is not the case with those who are truly committed to the deeper things of God. I will readily admit that there are good reasons to believe Islam. I can accept this without believing Islam. I simply respect the fact that many Muslims have thought about their faith, and understand how it ties together their human experience.

Moreover, Christians don't reject Islam for all the same reasons atheists do. Much of it simply has to do with theology--we don't agree on what God is like, even though we both agree God exists. I don't have to make Mohammed look like an idiot in order to make my theological points to a Muslim.

These same principles work between all religions.

Atheists, too, have good reasons for their beliefs, but what makes dialogue difficult sometimes is that atheists can be so incredulous. As a Christian with a sense of the sacred, I may not agree with Jews and Muslims, but I can comprehend their traditions as expressions of a similar sense of the sacred. The same goes for Buddhism, Hinduism, and any other religion. This creates room for dialogue.

In a certain way, there is a sense of the sacred in some secular thought (just look at Carl Sagan). But a sense of the sacred must translate, for all of us, into humility about our various traditions. Comparing any religion to belief in Santa Claus is counterproductive and, well, rude.

I firmly believe there is one true religion, but that doesn't keep me from seeing God's influence in all world religions. In fact, to think otherwise would make God look pretty small.

I respect the audacity it takes to say, "God is imaginary." But what I truly love is the audacity it takes to believe that every voice is worth taking seriously. Given the divisive rhetoric of our day, I'd say it takes some guts to stand up for openness. And I mean real openness, not the silly kind that says, "Well, we're both right!" and then gets on with life.

On the other hand, I guess I could be wrong. :)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Sunday, February 15, 2009


So I'm currently taking a Sunday school class at Trinity Presbyterian called "Searching for a Better God," which is taken from the title of a new book that one of our very own pastors, Wade Bradshaw, has written.

The basic idea of the book is that there are really two critical questions when it comes to God, one of which is sometimes assumed to be the only real question--namely, does He exist?

The other question has also been asked throughout history, but it has a huge impact on today's culture: is God good? This is the question Wade means to focus on.

I have a friend who was raised conservative Baptist, went to college, and became an atheist. Of course there were numerous reasons, but the first one (both logically and chronologically) was that he found he could no longer justify the malevolent behavior of God in the Bible.

Indeed, every thinking Christian has probably wondered about these things at some point. That's why I thought I'd check out this class.

I like the book so far, and I've made it almost all the way through. Wade has a sensitivity very akin to Francis Schaeffer (no surprise there--he spent 12 years at L'Abri in England).

My one complaint (and this would not be a complaint for some) is that his answers are too classic evangelical. I've heard them before, and they're not always so satisfying as they sound.

For instance, in addressing the question "Is God Angry?" he goes through another version, albeit a much more sensitive version, of the standard argument: yes, God is angry, but not in the way in which sinful people are angry (He does not let His emotions get the best of Him, He does not take out His wrath on people arbitrarily, etc.); and He is angry because something is wrong with the world, because He created it good and people went bad. His anger is impartial, directed entirely at what is evil. And we wouldn't want a God who just didn't care about evil.

Wade makes these points much more sensitively and eloquently than I have just summarized, and I think he does a good job. I just don't know if these answers are enough.

What is this judgment stuff all about? In searching for an answer, I've begun to contemplate a different conception of God than I'm used to. I think part of the reason judgment sounds so unbelievably horrible to us is because of the model we have of God.

Christianity has come to dominate Western culture, and people have used it to justify use and abuse of power for centuries. How might that affect our image of God? The prevailing metaphor for God in our culture is the omnipotent King, who could do anything if He wanted.

So then, why doesn't He? In particular, why doesn't He just teach us all to be good, and we can skip all that stuff about judgment? (And why does He allow suffering? These questions are all interconnected.)

But where did this judgment talk in the Bible come from? Somehow we are apt to forget that the ancient Israelites were never a very important people by the world's standards. In fact, my guess is that the lack of archeological evidence for the Exodus is probably not so much a sign that the Bible is false, as it is a testament to how relatively insignificant the people of Israel really were.

I'm definitely not badmouthing the Jews or anything. What I'm saying is that the prevailing metaphor must have been totally different: they were always the underdog. If God the omnipotent King is fighting on the side of the oppressed, then there might be justice in the world, after all.

When Jesus spoke of judgment, was he not speaking as an underdog? Indeed, an underdog beneath an underdog--a rebel against the Jewish establishment, who were themselves a small minority within the Roman Empire. How might this change your view of his words?

It does seem to me that judgment in the Bible is all about rescuing the underling from the oppressors. It struck me today that we as human beings are more powerful than we think, and if only we realize how much power we have to oppress, we would be more open to the concept that we are guilty before God.

Here's where I might just have to depart from the classical theology I've been taught all my life. I think that in a very real way, God is not in charge of the world. Scripture says He created humans to take care of the land, and it does seem He refuses to take that back from us. God has placed us in charge, and that's how it has been ever since.

Why is there suffering? Because God isn't in charge. Why do people sin? Because God isn't in charge. We are in charge, and we have made a mess of things. We are the oppressors of God's creation.

So what's all this talk about judgment? Doesn't that sound like tyranny? The Bible means for it to sound like a Cinderella story. A come-from-behind victory. God, the courageous rebel against the oppressors of His people, is going to liberate us from Egypt, and take us to the promised land. It's the story that inspired the civil rights movement--it's the story we all secretly (or not so secretly) want to be part of. And the Bible says, yeah, that's what life is all about.

God has to be in charge of the universe in some ultimate way, if He's God. But I think knowing God is often about choosing the best model for understanding Him. His omnipotence is certainly not so cut-and-dry as saying, "He can do anything." That kind of shallow reasoning leaves you open to the childish retort, "Can He make a rock so heavy He can't lift it?"

So what I'm saying is that the best model for understanding God's judgment is not the old model, where God looks down on His unholy creations from a distance and says, "Ew! How pathetic." Rather, the best model is one in which God comes to His people to dwell among them, so that He can free them from bondage. Judgment means overthrowing the oppressor.

Just some thoughts, I guess. Like my blog title says, whenever I have a thought, I just write it down for the whole world to see.

I just thought you'd like to know what I'm reading.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Imagine the Potential (tm)

Provocative, perhaps, but I appreciate the emphasis on the positive. (Click here to help air the ad.)

Thursday, February 12, 2009


The International Criminal Court is expected to issue an arrest warrant for President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan. You can read the full story here. The Save Darfur Coalition has posted a response here.

According to the Save Darfur Coaltion, this is the first time the ICC has indicted a head of state. This decision puts international legal backing behind the already well-known fact: "primary responsibility for the atrocities in Darfur rests with the regime that Bashir heads."

So there is progress. The killing in Darfur has been going on since 2003, with the death count being as high as 300,000 and approximately 2.5 million people forced out of their homes.

I, for one, am praying that the international community will be able to put a stop to this.

I also sent a message to President Obama, which you can do, as well.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The objective of objectivity

So I found an interesting new book in the New York Times "First Chapters" section, called Darwin's Sacred Cause. The basic thesis of the book is that Darwin's theory of evolution developed out of a complex process of very human thoughts about life, as opposed to simply sitting down to watch Finches one day and deciding animals evolved.

In particular, Darwin was a staunch abolitionist, which made the fact of common ancestry of all humans very important to him. Whereas his religious allies in the abolition movement used Adam, he used apes (to boil it down cartoonishly) establishing a common humanity between blacks and whites.

What this shows is that the notion of "purely objective science" is not very useful in the real world. There simply are no observers with no personal attachments to some kind of worldview. A completely detached, impartial judge of reality is a modernist myth, a hero that never existed.

Yet what we have, I believe, is something better. Scientists are and should be like Darwin--real human beings with real concerns about life other than purely mechanistic explanations of how things work. These explanations are key parts of how we see the world, but they are not the whole picture.
Incidentally, I also recently watched an episode of the Colbert Report featuring guest Jonah Lehrer, author of the new book How We Decide. The thesis of this book is that there are two parts of the brain involved in decision-making, which Lehrer calls the "rational" and the "emotional" parts. Good decision-making involves using both in healthy proportions.

Let me quibble with the terminology here. I always think rational means "most in line with truth." Here it's not really being used that way, because, as Lehrer admits, those who think only using this part of the brain have incredible problems in the real world, such as being unable to make simple choices at a grocery store.

Indeed, his whole point is that to act in line with the truth, which I would call rationally, means to successfully combine the "emotional" or gut instincts with the more cognative, analytical side of thinking.

Even as a mathematician, I don't think it's possible to leave one side of your thinking at the door. Mathematics has everything to do with intuition, with mental "exploration" being the first real step in solving a problem. Hadamard would agree.

The prevailing modernist conception of objectivity needs to be altered. First, we can't step back from reality as observers and pretend we have no attachments to it. Second, we really wouldn't want to. Third, a very real possibility for objectivity still remains after giving up this version.

Before explaining what the alternative is, let me point out where I think we go wrong in trying to define objectivity. We tend to think fair = impartial = detached. A fair judge is an impartial judge, which is a judge with no attachments to either party in a given case. That's the common sense of many centuries of tradition.

But we have to avoid thinking impartiality means zero attachment. In order to judge justly, a judge must care very deeply about something we all have in common, namely, our common value as human beings. A judge who doesn't think humans are worth anything has absolutely no reason to judge fairly, nor unfairly.

Thus a judge really ought to have a real attachment to both sides in a case. He ought to care equally for both sides, to see they get a fair trial. The goal is not detachment, but rather broader attachment.
I just think of all the debates in politics about issues like, say, poverty. We tend to imagine there are some who operate on emotion, saying, well, we just have to do something about it, and there are others who operate on cold hard reason, which tells them, no, we have to think about the costs.

I would argue that those who consider the costs are not emotionless (maybe in some cases they are, in which case they should not be trusted). Rather, those who consider the costs are mindful of all people equally--yes, they care for the poor, but they are equally concerned for others whose resources they would have to borrow/take in order to help the poor.

To show genuine concern for all people is to be truly rational when it comes to justice. And I would take that principle and apply it elsewhere.

When we talk about objective science, we should not mean science done by robotic people with no attachments. Rather, we should mean people who are willing to stretch their attachments based on the principle that the understanding of physical reality is important.

Much as people would like to make scientific discovery entirely about finding the means to be more efficient with tasks we already want to do, most science is simply not about that. Technological applications are wonderful, but they are often propelled forward by discoveries that initially have no preconceived application. Science is done for the love of understanding.

I think love really is at the heart of everything, especially knowledge. We can't know something without loving it (conversely, we can't really love something unless we know it).
Where do we find any reason to love the physical world? Isn't it just full of mostly lifeless matter, most of which is useless to us and much of which is dangerous? A cynical pragmatist might say we study science simply to master such dangers, so we don't have to be afraid of the physical world.

But I think that we can find meaning in the physical world. Operating under the principle of divine creation, we see that there is more than just stuff to be described; there are meaningful things to be understood. In God science finds its integration point with other concerns of human existence, namely purpose, wisdom, and virtue.

If science can be done objectively, why not religion? I believe love will indeed take us to knowledge, not just of things but of the thing, the person, the God in whom all things hold together. The same objectivity principle applies--we must simply be committed to knowing the universal, rather than our own personal god.
It is only natural that love is a basis for understanding if a personal, knowable God is at the heart of all reality.

So why is any of this relevant? In our culture, being perceived as more objective than the next guy gives you more power. It makes sense that everyone, not only the scientific community but also in the media and in politics, would be scrambling for the title of "most objective."
All I'm saying is, here's a simple test of objectivity. Does this person love all people involved in a discussion? Is he willing to empathize with, and thus truly understand, each point of view? Is he willing to carefully and humbly offer up his own point of view as a possible corrective to faulty points of view?
Maybe this can shed light on some very heated discussions that take place in our culture. For love's sake, I hope it can.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Where should the money go?

Here's an example of the kind of reasoning I'm so opposed to when it comes to the issue of school vouchers.
A bill to create school vouchers has been introduced in the Georgia Senate. A local news station in Chatham County reports that their school superintendent is vehemently opposed to the bill.

Among his reasons, which are all pretty weak, is that "taxpayer dollars shouldn’t fund private or parochial schools."

Of course not! Here is where people fudge the issue. When it comes to education, taxpayer dollars should fund children, not particular schools.

Parents ought to be empowered to choose where their children learn best. This would create maximum flexibility in the education system, whereas the current system has little to no flexibility for students who can't pay for it.

Here's an interesting quote from said superintendent:

“It’s not fair to say that my teachers are held accountable for children who have some challenges in their lives. Give me the same playing field as private and parochial schools and I’ll give you the same results if not better.”

If you want a level playing field, wouldn't it be best to allow students who don't have a lot of money to still have the option of choosing a different school? As it is, the whole reason public schools are left with certain children with "challenges in their lives" is that such children aren't rich enough to choose something else.

School administrators need to understand that the current system hurts them, too. Because there are so few options, children are not placed in the optimal setting, and that leaves public schools with a large and diverse collection children whom they are in no position to serve. Then when public schools aren't as good as other schools, administrators get blamed. It's not fair for anyone.

If we're going to spend as much money as we do on education, we deserve to expect results. We can get those result better if we free up the system to allow a more efficient allocation of resources.

Hence, we need school vouchers. Or at least something to give real choices to students.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Separation of Church and People

From BBC news:

An atheist group has backed a decision by a healthcare trust to suspend a nurse who said she would pray for an elderly patient.
Caroline Petrie, a Christian mother of two from Weston-super-Mare, was suspended by North Somerset Primary Care Trust in December.
The 45-year-old is now awaiting the outcome of a disciplinary hearing.
In a statement the National Secular Society (NSS) said it was inappropriate for health workers to "evangelise".
Keith Porteous-Wood, the executive director of NSS said: "Medical practitioners are, quite rightly, not to be permitted to offer religious services to patients."

I don't know about this. "Religious services"? It seems to me that prayer, at worst, does nothing, and at best it would actually heal people. What's wrong with a nurse offering to pray for you?

In our country, we value the separation of Church and State. But more and more these days, it seems like what secularists really want is just separation of Church and people.

Freedom of religion is ultimately meaningless if it is not allowed to intersect with all parts of your life. A religion is not a private commitment. It is a total commitment that encompasses every aspect of your being, including both public and private affairs.

Of course there are some behaviors that can't be justified on "religious" grounds. For instance, bombing civilians is never acceptable, even if done in the name of God.

But praying for patients? You've got to wonder what makes secularists so uptight.

I could do that...

Check out my brothers of Phi Beta Sigma this past weekend competing in Lip Synch at Washington & Lee University. It's nice that someone has finally made this a real competition.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Number Six

My brother beat me to it, but I just wanted to say that yes, the Super Bowl was amazing. It's fun being a Steelers fan.
The Office was pretty great, too.

Sunday, February 1, 2009


This morning in Sunday School at Trinity Presbyterian, we were talking about how God speaks today. One way, the teacher said, quoting A. W. Tozer, was in the silence. Away from the distractions of the world, alone with your own thoughts, allowing the persistent presence of God to permeate your mind, there is much to discover about life.

It's funny how often life is about going back and forth. These days there is so much information for us to consume. A quick Google search and you can find out almost any little thing you want to know. There is great advantage in that. The world is meant to be explored, and at no time in history has that been easier than now.

But sometimes all the noise drowns out that persistent presence known as Yahweh. I remember one time being taught to breathe the name of God. Indeed, the name Yahweh flows in and out very easily, and sounds like a whisper, piercing through the storms of noise around us.

I've noticed that for some reason American Christians tend to prefer the practical to the mystical, and if the mystical is desired it is most often in the context of loud storms of emotion. I like discovering elements of the mystical in my own faith.

It is a serene, cool, crisp winter day here in Charlottesville. Perfect for... watching the Super Bowl, no doubt. And getting work done for tomorrow. And for surfing the Internet, and talking to friends and family on the phone...

But if I can just stop for a second, I notice that it's really quiet in my room right now. The world looks very still through my window. It's late afternoon, and the sun is shining at a low angle on my desk, highlighting the edges of a beautiful framed quote that an old friend gave me.

And I can hear my own breathing.

God, the world is so beautiful.

I feel like a stranger. I don't come to the silence often enough. Just like I don't get back to my old home town enough, that small town with nothing to do but see old friends. I guess that's why I fumble so much on the question "Where are you from?" I've never made my roots strong enough anywhere to have a reasonable answer.

Just the same, I wonder if I know who I am, since I find it so hard to describe the silence of being alone.

Maybe the one who does know will tell me.