Thursday, November 26, 2009

A warning for Black Friday

I just a read a classic George Will column on why Christmas spending is so outrageously inefficient. Commenting on the book Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn't Buy Presents for the Holidays, he points out:
Gifts that people buy for other people are usually poorly matched to the recipients' preferences. What the recipients would willingly pay for gifts is usually less than what the givers paid. The measure of the inefficiency of allocating value by gift-giving is the difference between the yield of satisfaction per dollar spent on gifts and the yield per dollar spent on recipients' own purchases.
Oh, George, you're all about efficiency. But seriously, the author of this book, Joel Waldfogel, has estimated that about $85 billion are wasted each year because of gift-shopping. And it hurts our economy, rather than helping it.

As Will writes,
If all spending justified itself, we would pay people to dig holes and then refill them -- or build bridges to unpopulated Alaskan islands. Spending is good if the purchaser, or the recipient of a gift, values the commodity more than he does the money it costs. Otherwise, there is a subtraction from society's store of value.
(Without saying so, Will is giving a subtle lecture on politics. One can easily see how the same principle would apply to the idea of government "stimulating" the economy. The question is not how much money goes through the system, but whether net value has actually been added.)

But don't people get net value from presents? It's the thought that counts, as they say. Maybe it's not all about efficiency, as stodgy conservatives think it is.

And yet, let's be honest--the thought that supposedly counts isn't usually very deep. My own family tradition has often involved excruciatingly excessive gift-giving, and the fact is you just have no idea what to get people. It's not just inefficient in terms of cost, it's inefficient in terms of people's feelings. You have no idea whether that person is going to like it.

As Will so cleverly puts it, "Were it not for sentimentality about sentiments, which are highly overrated, we would behave rationally..." (He goes on to suggest giving cash, which I admit is a little crass... but there's always gift cards!)

I think conservative religious types probably deserve to feel vindicated about this. In constantly harping on the excessive commercialization of Christmas, they're actually condemning something that legitimately hurts our economy.

So what can we do instead of gift-giving? Well, there's nothing wrong with gift-giving--as long as it's limited (the average American currently gives 23 gifts a year!!), and as long as it's meaningful. You don't add net value to an economy unless you provide something that will actually matter to people.

(Could it be that better relationships with one another would actually help our economy? Maybe a fundamental problem with this insane gift-giving is that we don't know each other well enough to see what would actually be meaningful.)

So this year, tell your friends and relatives you're going to help the economy by making your gift-giving more efficient. Limit the number of gifts you give, and make them meaningful.

Maybe you could buy them Waldfogel's book...

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Natural Religion

I was hanging out with other math graduate students last night, having dinner and a beer before going to a Live Arts presentation featuring experimental computer-generated music.

Socializing with grad students is an eclectic combination of typical small-talk, pseudo-intellectual babble, and pure nerdiness. Amidst the pseudo-intellectual babble, religion is often a topic of interest.

One of my friends said something that I've heard enough times to trigger quite a number of thoughts on it: When faced with the question of whether there is any reason for living our lives, especially in any sort of moral way, it is "natural" to look to (or create) religion for answers.

I don't know what struggles this particular friend has with these questions, but I've noticed that in general this kind of statement is used to explain religion away. The implication can either be patronizing (as in, "Oh, well, it's fine that you believe that... it's perfectly natural") or condescending (as in, "How can you still believe that in this enlightened age?").

But the obvious question is, what else should one turn to? It sometimes seems like a blasphemous question in the academy, the church of secularism. I wondered aloud what would become of society if most of the world started to believe there really is no transcendent meaning to the world.

As if annoyed, my friends responded that the world has gotten on for a long time already, and it would surely continue on the way it is. This statement is highly presumptuous, and then again it is also rather depressing.

Presumptuous, because to say such a thing is to utterly fail to acknowledge the achievements of religious worldviews. For instance, to act as if the Christian way of thinking had nothing to do with the achievements of the Western world is, I dare say, shockingly stupid, though many people who act this way are not stupid.

Depressing, because it implies that not only is there no meaning, but there really has never been. The things we have accomplished as human beings have only come about because we wanted to do something with our little blips of existence in this meaningless universe. Under this philosophy, we humans would continue to do that even if we didn't believe in God or anything else, because we just can't help it.

In light of how depressing this idea is, I suppose religion is "natural." But I was musing on that word for a while, and I realized that there are really at least two senses in which we use it.

One use of the word "natural" is when we're saying something is easy, or obvious, as in, "It's only natural that he would think only of himself." It's the way we are when we're not trying very hard. Thus my drum line coach in high school used to yell at us, "Don't just do whatever feels natural! Do it right!"

On the other hand, we sometimes use "natural" in a more positive sense to mean that something feels right. When I started doing mathematics as a young child, it felt natural to me. For others, this could've been used in the first sense, meaning it came easily to me. But for me, it was more than that. I worked hard at math because it felt right.

You don't get good at anything just by taking it easy. You have to do more than what comes "naturally" to you. That's the first sense of the word. But surely when you find something you love to work hard at doing, it feels "natural" to you. You feel you are in your element.

In this way, I think at least a few of the world's religion could be considered quite "natural," in the second sense of the word. They make sense. Once you carefully consider their deepest and most powerful teachings, you can see how someone might believe such an idea.

Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism (for example) all have ideas that really make sense of the world. In that sense it is "natural" to turn to one of them for answers to questions about the meaning of life. It makes sense.

Atheism, on the other hand, doesn't seem natural to me at all. It doesn't feel right. Is there really no transcendent meaning? What is the point, then?

But in the first sense, atheism is very natural, in the sense that it really is the most obvious answer. Is there a God? Well, I can't really see one, so I guess not. This is a very "natural" answer.

I imagine atheists would be extremely divided about this statement. I have read many opinions (from atheists) that say much the same thing that I am saying. Atheism is the obvious answer, and it's only this irrational desire for the second kind of "natural" that leads us to develop religion.

But I imagine other atheists would be deeply frustrated with my evaluation of their beliefs. Many atheists have had to really struggle to come to the conclusions about life they now hold. Given the culture in which they live, it is often a battle to leave the faith of one's youth and embrace a life of not knowing if there's really any point to it all.

I certainly don't want to diminish that struggle; I take it seriously. Yet I wonder if atheists take seriously enough the way in which religion has created a way for society to pass on the virtue of struggling for one's beliefs. "Seek, and ye shall find."

Christianity, in particular, does not assume that it is the default belief. (Many atheists, on the other hand, claim that atheism is the default belief.) Even where it is culturally dominant, Christianity admits and even insists that it is not the "natural" thing to believe.

This is why Christianity says faith is so important. True, "faith" can become a tool that the powerful use to brainwash the weak; but in its purest form "faith" is simply a statement of belief in something that is not obvious, yet is extremely important if it's true.

What if we lived in a society where struggle for one's beliefs was not considered a virtue? Sure, atheists are typically known for struggling to seek out knowledge now, in the culture in which we find ourselves, but what if it were different? What if no one felt the slightest urge to believe something that wasn't immediately apparent to all people?

Science would utterly collapse, just as much as any religion. Indeed, science is a religion, from a certain point of view. Although it easily passes as the true universal, uniting people from all cultures and all faiths, it really isn't any such thing.

Anyone who does math or science goes through a process of initiation, in which knowledge is revealed through many, many stages. Scientific knowledge is not natural in the first sense--it is not obvious--but it is natural in the second sense, in that once you see all the evidence, it begins to feel very natural, even if it's surprising.

To me, the truly atheist worldview has nothing of this second kind of naturalness that both scientific and religious knowledge have. Atheism just doesn't explain why. Worse, it almost seems to discourage asking such questions. All we can really know, it seems, is what.

Of course, my friends may continue to disbelieve in religion because religion lacks evidence, but I think that by this they mean only a certain kind of evidence, which does not include those indescribable connections a believer has with God.

For me, knowledge of God must begin with the heart, and all reason must subordinate itself to the connection found there. Surely this connection is not admitted as evidence by everyone, and perhaps with good reason--whose heart are we to believe, after all?

That is why I hesitate to insist upon how much I really know about God. I will say I know Him, but my mind is very limited in expressing this. Faith is a matter of the heart, and it is not always natural in the first sense. Yet it is natural in the sense of being beautiful, the way it is meant to be.

Thursday, November 12, 2009


Next week my students have their last exam of the semester before the Final Exam. Our Applied Calculus I course at UVA is brilliantly structured so that the first two exams are before the Withdrawal Deadline, after which they are stuck in the class for the rest of the semester! So now they're stuck taking the hardest of the three exams, and there's no way out of it. Muahahahahaha...

I am having more and more people come to office hours lately. It's almost like they're just finding out I can talk to them outside of class! Some students find this out right from the beginning of the course, and they never let go. Others are shy, and couldn't possibly imagine taking any of my precious time outside of class. Both of these traits can be detrimental--the first because it means they're not thinking for themselves, and the second because it means they're not getting help.

On the other hand, my honest assessment is that there's basically no correlation between how often a student comes to office hours and how well they do in the class. Some students don't come to office hours because they don't need to, others don't come even though they should. Some students come to office hours because they're really motivated and want to get an A or an A+, while others come to office hours because they're really not getting it.

But the main thing I realized this week is that I'm actually getting personally attached. It happened when some students ask me whether I'd be teaching Applied Calculus II next semester, so they could sign up for my section. I had to say I honestly don't know. And then it hit me. I actually would like to see these students again. I kind of like teaching them.

It was so easy back when the department sent out the class request list to write down that I just wanted to teach the same course again--that way I don't have to write new lecture notes, I don't have to work so hard to develop a course curriculum, and I can focus on my research. But now I'm realizing, oh snap, I actually do care about something more than my own goals; I actually care about my students.

Since the department has yet to assign grad students to teaching sections, I technically don't know yet whether or not I might actually get to see some of my students next semester; but the reality is, I probably won't. It's weird just being a grad student and teaching. You go into it feeling like it's mostly just a job--like I was telling one of my students the other day, we all do it to pay the bills. What I didn't count on exactly was that it might actually mean more to me than that. I guess I didn't factor that into my equation.

And I thought I was good at math.

Monday, November 9, 2009


Well, having become interested in the theological views of certain famous mathematicians recently, I decided to read Father Florensky's The Pillar and Ground of the Truth.

I realize this is not the kind of everyday pleasure reading that most people would engage in. But it appeals not only to my tendency towards abstraction (hello, I'm a mathematician), but also my deep personal desire to answer those scary questions, like what is truth?

This book has had a profound impact on me. Not that everything it says is thoroughly compelling to me, but its approach is unlike anything I've seen before. I love how Florensky starts from such an intensely personal point of view, and then delves into philosophical abstraction not only with intellect, but with passion.

The (Eastern) Orthodox way of thinking is fiercely Trinitarian. This is the Ground of the Truth. There simply is no Truth without Trinity.

Already in this we see Florensky powerfully seek to dismantle Western rationalism. For him any attempt to search for the Truth based on "givens," the axioms of the human mind, is deeply flawed. Thus he strongly condemns the Law of Self-Identity:
"A = A. That is the final answer. But this tautological formula, this lifeless, thought-less, and therefore meaningless equality A = A, is, in fact, only a generalization of the self-identity that is inherent in every given. But by no means is this formula an answer to our question 'Why?'


"'I = I' turns out to be nothing more than a cry of naked egotism: 'I!'"
The Truth, on the other hand, is absolute precisely because it transcends this egotistical self-assertion. It finds its self-identity through the denial of self, receiving itself back through love.
"Instead of an empty, dead, formal self-identity A = A, in virtue of which A should selfishly, self-assertively, egotistically exclude every not-A, we get a real self-identity of A, full of content and life, a self-identity that eternally rejects itself and that eternally receives itself in its self-rejection.


"Truth is the contemplation of Oneself through Another in a Third: Father, Son, and Spirit."
So in this view, Truth is found not (as dear old Schaeffer would have it) in the Principle of Non-Contradiction, but rather in the Principle of Self-Contradiction, the principle of denying oneself in order to find self-identity through love, rather than rationality.

This view of the Truth also leads to a similarly styled view of the truth (with a lower-case "t"). If the nature of Truth is the denial of this self-identity "I = I," then it's not surprising that Florensky comes to a view of "truth" (meaning knowledge about the Truth) that relishes antinomy, or contradiction:
"A rational formula can be above the attacks of life if and only if it gathers all of life into itself, with all of life's diversity and all of its present and possible future contradictions. ... It follows that truth is a judgment that also contains the limit of all its refutations, or (in other words) that truth is a self-contradictory judgment."
But if you really hate all this abstraction, you'll thank Florensky for pointing out how concretely this idea appears in scripture. He actually gives a little list of antinomies in scripture (one or two examples omitted):
Divinity: both One and Three
Christ: both human and divine
Relation of Man to God: both predistination (Rom 9) and free will (Rom 9:30 - 10:21)
Sin: both through the fall of Adam (Rom 5:12-21) and inherent in the flesh (1 Cor 15:50)
Retribution: both retribution according to works (Rom 2:6-10, 2 Cor 5:10) and free forgiveness (Rom 4:4, 9:11, 11:6)
Final Fate: both universal restoration (Rom 8:19-23, 11:30-36) and the "double end" (Rom 2:5-12)
Works: both the necessity of works (1 Cor 9:24) and the lack thereof (Rom 9:16). See also Phil 2:12 and then 2:13 for a related antinomy
Faith: both free and depending on free will (John 3:16-28) and God's gift not found in human will but in the will of God (John 6:44)
Judgment: "For judgment I come into the world" (John 9:39) "I came not to judge the world" (John 12:47)
Florensky isn't giving skeptics a cheat-sheet for how to argue against Christianity. He's stating powerfully what he feels to be the very strength of Orthodoxy.
"Contradiction! It is always a mystery of the soul, a mystery of prayer and love. The closer one is to God, the more distinct are the contradictions. In Heavenly Jerusalem, there are no contradictions. Here, on earth, there are contradictions in everything; and they can be removed neither by social reorganization nor by philosophical argument."
In this way he disparages all rationalistic worldviews. (No doubt the Soviets didn't approve of this, as their own Marxism depended on the strength of "social reorganization" to solve the contradictions of life.)

It is with these things in mind that I read a recent article by Al Mohler disparaging the postmodernism of "emergent church" types. He writes:
"The problem is this -- [the] argument that truth is plural means that the church should both embrace and celebrate different and even contradictory understandings of these doctrinal statements and core truths."
I wonder what Florensky would have to say about this classical Protestant attitude?
"A heresy, even a mystical one, is a rational one-sidedness that claims to be everything. ... Orthodoxy has a universal nature, but heresy essentially has a sectarian nature. The spirit of a sect is the egoism that emanates from it, spiritual separateness. A one-sided proposition takes the place of absolute Truth..."
Under this view, I suppose that Protestantism is, by its very nature, heretical. At its very core is the desire to get the Bible right, to boldly affirm one interpretation to the exclusion of other contradictory interpretations.

I wonder if Florensky has a point. The empirical evidence from the Bible is almost compelling enough. Can anyone actually resolve these passages together logically? Somehow I think those who do inevitably suck the life out of one passage or another.

But if that's not enough, can't you just take a look around at the sheer number of Protestant denominations and ask, didn't these all come from a desire to be "right"? Is there maybe a hint of egoism in our Protestant tendency to split, not only from the historic Church, but even from each other?

On the other hand, Protestantism is a reaction against idolatry. Thus it always seeks to remind humanity that its conceptions of God are always too small. If only Protestants would continually apply this principle to our own rationalistic interpretations of scripture!

There are many reasons to think about this conception of truth other than to critique Protestantism, for sure. This just happens to be on my mind at the moment, as it often is.

In any case, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth is shaping my thinking in lots of ways, and this won't be the last time I mention it.