Thursday, October 29, 2015

God against humanity

I'm going to be intentionally provocative here, exaggerating my point just to make it clear.

Traditionally (in our culture) Christianity is presented as a story about humanity. We were meant to live in relationship with God, and the problem is that sin destroys that relationship and leads to death. So in order to fulfill our purpose and find happiness we need to deal with sin. The Christian answer to this problem is to put our faith in Jesus Christ, whose perfect sacrifice on our behalf completely erases our guilty, and whose Spirit enables us to live holy lives.

This story is beautiful, but it's totally anthropocentric. There is no need for the world to exist. "Relationship" can be rather abstract--it can be minds or souls that interact on an ethereal plane, without any need for bodies. Moreover, sin in this story could come from anywhere. It could be that sin exists solely because God has established certain arbitrary rules. If He would just relent and change the rules, couldn't He deal with sin that way instead? So while beautiful from one point of view, the anthropocentric story might be problematic.

What's really interesting is that as I read the Bible, the story is not at all anthropocentric. God starts by creating a world. He spends six days creating before human beings ever cross His mind. When He does create them, He wants them specifically to cultivate the ground and rule over the animals. When they turn against Him, God is sorry He ever made them. He destroys them with a flood, except for one family, whom He watches grow into another human population, most of which will become utterly evil once again.

He calls out the Israelites from their enslavement to go wipe out the people who live in the land of Canaan. He assures them that it is not for their sake that He is calling them, it is for the sake of the land. The evil of the Canaanites pollutes the land, and their evil has to be utterly wiped out so that the land will be purified. If the Israelites sin as the Canaanites did, God assures them that the land will "vomit them out" just like the Canaanites. Yes, God is faithful to His convenant with Abraham, and eventually He will bring the Israelites back to the promised land after they repent with all their heart. But, He says, the land must have a sabbath before permitting them to return.

In this story, the nature of sin is clear: it hurts the land. That is, it hurts God's good creation. God create humankind to tend to His garden, and instead they destroy it. God has to strike back, or else humans will totally ruin everything. It's God versus humanity.

God's violence in the Bible appears horrendous if God is some abstractly conceived "perfect" being--omniscienct, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. But in the Bible, God is first and foremost the Creator of a good world, who must keep things in order by maintaining justice and restoring balance. He creates human beings in order to help Him do this, but they turn against Him and do just the opposite.

From that point of view, the story of Jesus takes a whole new meaning. Rather than continuing to fight back, God surrenders. He humbles Himself to the point of taking on human flesh, then lets Himself be killed by the empire of humanity. Yet He has the last victory by coming back from the dead. What is His purpose? Presumably the same as it ever was: to save the world that He made.

I suppose that raises many more questions than answers, but it's a way to throw out old baggage and to think about the whole story in a different way. Because the story is not so anthropocentric, it's a little more mysterious how humans fit into it. I guess I'll leave that for another time.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Why not intentionality?

A typical explanation (or "explaining away") of human religion is that we tend to see intentionality everywhere, since we are so familiar with the concept from our own thought processes. In other words, since our own actions can typically be explained by our own purposes, it is natural to explain events in nature according to some purpose--the storm has come because the gods are angry, there is no rain because the gods are punishing us, we won the war because the gods were on our side, and so on. We know better now, the argument goes, than to impose our anthropocentric reasoning on the world around us. Nature doesn't follow any purpose; it follows laws.

I don't have a problem with the idea that intentionality is a concept we impose on our vision of reality in order to understand it. What I would like people to call into question is whether there's any other way to understand reality. Cartesian coordinates are not inherent to space; they are a conceptual framework which aids spatial reasoning. Mathematical laws are likewise not inherently "there;" we filter our experience through them in order to understand some particular feature of what's going on. Seeing our favorite conceptual framework as the way things "really are" is normally not a problem in science. In fact, coming up with a conceptual framework to "impose" on reality is one of the most important roles of a scientist.

The question is, of course, whether the concept of intentionality helps us understand anything, whether it ought to be replaced by a better framework, and whether it can be refined to give better understanding. I submit that most complex systems really need to be understood in intentional terms. When we observe the behavior of animals, for example, there is really no substitute for saying they want or don't want food. It is no triumph of modern science to "reduce" living things down to mere machines, because there simply is no mechanical language that significantly captures desire as a state of being. Desire and intention are fundamental concepts. They can be applied to plenty of other complex systems, too, which may not traditionally be considered beings with "souls." The market, for example, clearly wants things. If there is too much of a good, its price will go down. If there is too much uncertainty in financial markets, there will be large price volatility. It is vain to continually "remind" ourselves that the market does not "really" want things, because after all it is not a human being. So what? It is not a human being, but like human beings, it clearly moves in such a way as to pursue discernible goals.

One day computers may become intelligent enough to have intentions. Certainly computers are machines. If even they can have intentions, why can't we just admit that intentionality is a much more general concept than just some "anthropocentric" rendering of the world around us? Perhaps, on the contrary, we experience intentionality because we are part of a universe where it is abundant, and somehow we satisfy the criteria necessary to experience it.

The universe itself is, by definition, the most complex thing that exists. It only seems natural that it should have intentions. Perhaps this sounds more like pantheism than monotheism. Yet one thing that is still unclear, no matter how many people assert that it is clear, is what relationship exists between being and intention. Does my intention drive my being, or does my being drive my intention? In many ways this is an extremely practical concern. Do the ugly things I say result from hunger or a lack of sleep? Or am I responsible for those words in a way that transcends my physical existence? Well, the same question could be asked of the universe. Does all the complexity of the universe arise from a promordial physical state, thus allowing intentionality to emerge? Or is the universe intended to exist?

As much as scientists these days seem increasingly successful at showing that complex phenomena can emerge out of simpler ones, I don't think this question is any more decided by science than whether human beings have free will. It is of course entirely reasonable to explain human life in terms of simpler physical processes. That gives rise to modern medicine and improvements in physical well-being. Yet it doesn't help anyone decide whether life is really worth living or not. It doesn't tell anyone whether there's something wonderful about the world we live in. And ultimtely it doesn't really explain how we do anything. I have no doubt in my mind that, whatever difficulties might be there on account of my physical limitations, I make decisions that determine my behavior. If, indeed, this experience of free will is only an illusion, who, exactly, is performing it?

The grand irony is that we jettison the concept of intentionality more vigorously precisely when we wish all the more to control things. We wish to control how long we live, so clearly the human body is nothing but physical processes. We wish to control nature, so clearly there is no meaning to nature other than physical laws. Thus in seeking to control life, we render it totally unintelligible. Life cannot truly be life unless it has that spontaneous force we call intention. Living longer is certainly an understandable goal, but if in order to do so we must view ourselves as machines rather than as living things, is it truly life that is prolonged?

The concept of intentionality is robust and can be refined. We need not believe the gods are angry when there is a storm. But it is not at all unreasonable to talk about nature "seeking" a kind of equilibrium, so that weather can indeed be seen as a result of nature's intentions. And why wouldn't it be reasonable to extend this more broadly, to see broad connections between all the processes in the universe, and to find common purpose behind them? For example, we know that through a cycle of birth and death living things evolve and branch out into many different organisms of increasing complexity. Why shouldn't that be part of the purpose of the universe? In dying, we give life. Through suffering, we are purified. Perhaps this process can continue indefinitely, and one day the universe will see the will of God done on earth as it is in heaven. Who knows? Such questions may be beyond the scope of any one scientific discipline, but there is no reason why intelligent human beings should find such questions ridiculous.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Name of God in everything

I've spent a lot of time rejecting Descartes, because I've found such deep critiques of rationalism as to convince me it's one of the greatest intellectual sins of the modern world. You cannot build up all knowledge from nothing; starting from absolute doubt, you will get nowhere, and wherever you think you've gotten, you're secretly drawing from the assumptions you were supposed to have rejected. Human knowledge is heavily dependent on tradition, imitation, and intuition, and Cartesian rationalism seems to me a form of intellectual self-flattery with no solid foundation.

Then again, we often rebel the hardest against that which is closest to our hearts. In the classic statement, "I think, therefore I am," I've always seen a most profound and courageous kind of insight. Even if nothing else is certain, there is still one thing of which I'm absolutely sure: I exist. And the reason I am certain of that is the very act of thinking. Do I exist? If I have the ability to ask the question, then surely the answer is yes.

If there is any weakness in this argument, it's in the subject, not the verb. Normally when I use the word "I," either in public communication or private thought, it is to distinguish an inner and an outer world. I have thoughts which, I presume, are hidden from others. The world "out there" might be totally mysterious and deceptive, but at least I am sure of my own inner life.

But why should I think that? What gives me the right, a priori, to distinguish between "inner" and "outer"? That is a metaphor imposed on me by the language I use; it is not an inevitable deduction made from experience. What is certain is that thought occurs. If others claim not to be able to see these thoughts--"my" thoughts--happening, that will perhaps lead me to claim the thoughts as "mine." But if I take nothing for granted, if I seek to go back to first principles, then the only thing absolutely sure is that something is happening. Thought occurs. Therefore something--everything--must exist. That is to say, there exists an "everything" which really is there. And I arrive at that conclusion by the mere act of thought.

That is to say, every act of thought finally reposes on the firm foundation of God's very Name--"I Am." This is not an individual I, not an interiority or a selfish ego. It is, rather, existence itself.

The most profound mystery of life is neither its origin nor its ultimate destiny nor even its purpose. It is the fact that it exists. I've always wondered why "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and knowledge." That "fear," it seems to me, is the overwhelming awe one experiences at the very thought that something exists at all. If you start from there, everything else is trivial by comparison.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Then the Lord raised up judges

After a four year hiatus, I've decided to resume my series on the Bible on this blog. My other posts are here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. No explanation for giving up on this series could ever be honest--it's been four years now, and I simply don't remember why exactly I stopped. I do remember that the last post on Joshua made quite an impact on me. Genocide and the Bible: it seems like it would be a common question, but if you Google it there's a surprising dearth of resources on the topic for a religious perspective. Most answers you get will be from skeptics, which makes sense. The best little article I found from a Christian perspective was from Peter Enns, but it's quite brief and doesn't get too deep. Other Christian responses more or less waffle between, "I promise there's a perfectly reasonable explanation for all this," and, "Does the potter have no right over the clay?" These are hardly satisfying answers.

The reason I harp on this is because war is in no way a small theme in the Bible. In the Old Testament, "salvation" means, almost always, God rescuing his people in battle. To enter into the world of the Old Testament is to rejoin a warrior nation with constant danger on every side. If I'm honest with myself, I must admit two things. One, I have no idea from real experience what this is like. Two, I nevertheless sense deep down an atavistic longing awakened by these texts. I mention this because, before we sit in judgment over the text with our self-righteous modern ethical mindset, I think we should let ourselves be disarmed by the Bible. Before we ask, "How do we interpret the text and apply it to our lives?" maybe we should first just try to enjoy the stories. If you do this, you will absolutely love the book of Judges.

The theme of the book is laid out near the beginning, in 2:11-23, of which I'll quote 16-19:
Then the Lord raised up judges, who delivered them out of the power of those who plundered them. Yet they did not listen even to their judges; for they lusted after other gods and bowed down to them. They soon turned aside from the way in which their ancestors had walked, who had obeyed the commandments of the Lord; they did not follow their example. Whenever the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge, and he delivered them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge; for the Lord would be moved to pity by their groaning because of those who persecuted and oppressed them. But whenever the judge died, they would relapse and behave worse than their ancestors, following other gods, worshiping them and bowing down to them. They would not drop any of their practices or their stubborn ways.
There are basically two parts of the book after this. The first part, which runs through Chapter 16, is a series of tales recounting the deeds of the awesome judges. The Greeks had their pantheon of gods; the Israelites had their judges, each one of them known for showing glory in battle. You cannot find more entertaining stories, but let the reader be warned--there are blood and guts everywhere. The first of these stories is Ehud defeating King Eglon of Moab. "Now Eglon was a very fat man," says the sacred text. So do you know how Ehud killed him? He went before the king all alone to give him a "message from God," then he plunged a sword into his belly, "and the fat closed over the blade." This is in the Bible, folks.

Then there's the story of Deborah and Barak. Deborah the prophetess tells Barak to go to battle against Sisera, but Barak won't go without Deborah. So she tells him that because of this, "the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman." Now the woman she's talking about is actually Jael, who tricks Sisera into coming to rest in her tent after he flees from battle. Then while he's sleeping, she takes a tent peg and drives it into his skull.

Then there's the awesome story of Gideon, who defeats the Midianites. God commands him to narrow his army of 22,000 down to just 300 (why does that number sound familiar?), so that the Israelites will be convinced that the victory was truly miraculous. Gideon is one of my favorite characters because of something he says near the end of his story. From 8:22-23:
Then the Israelites said to Gideon, "Rule over us, you and your son and your grandson also; for you have delivered us out of the hand if Midian." Gideon said to them, "I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the Lord will rule over you."
This beautiful statement of Israelite allegiance to God over all human authorities is that tainted by what happens just after. Gideon creates an idol for the people, and they bow down and worship it. The Bible is full of this kind of stuff: there is never a clean victory, because even the good guys always screw up something.

After Gideon one of his seventy sons, Abimelech, tries to establish himself as king by first killing off all of his brothers. Only one of them, Jotham, survives. Jotham prophesies that the people's allegience to Abimelech will backfire, and that is what happens: Abimelech burns all the people of the Tower of Shechem, and in the very next scene Abimelech has a millstone thrown on his head and dies.

Then there's story of Jephthah, who delivers the people from the Ammonites. Jepthah makes the most twisted vow I've ever heard of: he promises that if God gives him victory, he'll kill the first thing that comes out of his house upon his return as a sacrifice. So guess what that is? His daughter--his only child. And guess what happens next? He actually kills her. Even worse, his daughter agrees with his decision; she only asks to be allowed to go to the mountains for two months to "bewail her virginity."

I actually heard a sermon about this passage once, for which I applaud the pastor. It was something about not acting on bad theology; Jephthah was basically the example of what not to do. For that I applaud this particular pastor.

By the way, Jephthah is where we get that word Shibboleth. The Ephraimites get angry at Jephthah because he went to battle without them, so they go to war with the Gileadites (Jephthah's people). If any of the Ephraimites tried to escape, here's what the Gileadites did (12:5-6):
Then the Gileadites took the fords of the Jordan against the Ephraimites. Whenever one of the fugitives of Ephraim said, "Let me go over," the men of Gilead would say to him, "Are you an Ephraimite?" When he said, "No," they said to him, "Then say Shibboleth," and he said, "Sibboleth," for he could not pronounce it right. Then they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan.
Finally, the last great tale in this series is Samson. In terms of awesome heroes, it doesn't get much better than this: he kills a lion with his bare hands, he kills thirty men at once by himself in order to pay a debt, he kills a thousand Philistines with a donkey's jawbone. And last and best of all, he is seduced by Delilah, which turns out to be his undoing, because she gets him to tell her the secret of his strength. As 16:16 says, "Finally, after she had nagged him with her words day after day, and pestered him, he was tired to death." I'm telling you guys, the Bible can tell it like it is. The Philistines cut off his hair, which takes away his strength, so they capture him and throw him in prison. But do not fear, Samson's end is glorious. The Philistines make him perform in front of them in their temple. Then Samson asks God for one last bit of super-strength in order to crush the Philistines. His hair grows back just in time for him to push against the pillars of the temple, crushing all of the Philistines and himself.

The reason I list all of these stories is that they deserve the repetition. Simply trying to derive an abstract meaning from them would do them and the reader a disservice. This is not a morality play. I would never teach my children to try to be like Ehud or Gideon, certainly not Jephthah or Samson. These are heroes because of their strength, pure and simple.

Yet there is a clear message which comes through as all these stories are woven together. God will never stop saving his people. There are enemies all around, and God will show his strength by raising up a hero to stop them. But why? Why does God still love his people after they've betrayed him over, and over, and over again? That's love, folks. No matter how angry God is with Israel, he always welcomes them back.

There is a second part of this book, Chapters 17 - 21, which is just about the most horrifying thing you can find in all of literature. I read these chapters as one unit, framed by the repetition of the following verse, which is both 17:6 and 21:25, the very last verse of the book:
In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.
It is a tale of idolatry, rape, murder, war, and lawlessness. There is a clear comparison made between the Benjaminites of Gibeah and the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah from Genesis. The whole story is not worth recounting here, and I'm not sure my stomach could take it if I tried.

The ending of Judges sends a mixed message. Is it now time for God to install a king in Israel? Perhaps that will turn them back from their wickedness. Yet all of this time, God himself has been their king; why do they need human protection? Later Samuel will tell the Israelites they have sinned in asking for a king, though God will give them one anyway. One way to read these words--"In those days there was no king in Israel"--is that the people had rejected even God as their king, and that is what they did "what was right in their own eyes."

If the first part was attractive because of its stories of strength and glory, the second part is nothing of the sort: it can only make one shudder. The Bible can be a very dark book.

But the thing is, I've always found Judges less disturbing than Joshua. It's no wonder that we see darkness when all the people do what is right in their own eyes. Somehow I can deal with that much more easily than I can with God himself commanding people to "show no mercy."

We'll just have to keep dealing with this as the Old Testament stories progress. War never stops being a central theme. Maybe by the time we get to Jesus there will be a way to make sense of it all.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

My one simple rule of politics

I have a simple rule for choosing the right view on any particular political issue. Whatever position makes you feel better about yourself--more patriotic, more compassionate, more socially conscious, more "American" (or whatever nationality you like)--is probably wrong. The right position is the one that makes you feel deflated--that you are just one small individual in a very large world, of no greater or lesser value than any of the other 7 billion people who walk the earth, wise enough to take care of perhaps your own affairs but not others', and that if there is hope for human progress, it comes from the unpredictable changes that occur when all these billions of people stumble onto solutions to their various problems.

To be sure, if you want to feel more compassionate, you can be more compassionate--by giving your money, your time, your work, and yourself to others. If you want to be more patriotic, you can do that, too--for instance, by joining the military (or perhaps better yet by actually reading what the Founding Fathers thought about government). But if believing in a particular public policy makes you feel any of these things without you actually doing anything, then it's wrong. Don't believe it. And definitely stop listening to anyone who tells you that you must believe in a particularly policy or else you won't be considered compassionate, patriotic, socially conscious, and so on.

In a word, the rule I'm talking about is humility.

That pretty much sums up my Christian pseudo-libertarianism. I say "pseudo" because it's not a philosophy primarily based on a love of liberty or a hatred of coercion. It's primarily based on a steadfast opposition to pride. And I suppose that makes it even less popular than actual libertarianism. In a world in which humans try so savagely to find a chieftain to rule their tribe, it's unlikely that humility will ever be considered a political virtue. I know of a man who once tried to declare himself a humble king. Well, they crucified him.

There is good news that comes after, or so I've been told. And I hope it's true, because if it isn't then I guess we'll just have to accept that the powerful get their way after all.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Morality in the abstract

There's a fascinating debate here between John Hare and Peter Singer, in which the latter opens by giving all the standard arguments why no belief in God is necessary in order to have a theory of morality. I won't rehash all the arguments. What I thought was fascinating was the point Singer conceded: the atheist has difficulty fully motivating a commitment to the moral life. The problem naturally arises once your ethical system makes high demands on you. Singer is a utilitarian, which, once you work it out, makes rather enormous demands.

What I found to be an amazing tension in his discourse was between his statement, on the one hand, that nothing could be more important than knowing how to live morally and, on the other hand, his answer to a personal question posed during Q&A. When asked how he dealt with moral failure in his own life, he revealed that he did not, in fact, feel guilt, but merely accepted that he is not as good as he ought to be. I suppose he also implied that he would try to improve bit by bit, which is fair enough. On the other hand, he was quick to add that, to be sure, he already gave more of his income than most people who call themselves Christian. It was truly striking to hear such an answer, coming as I do from a tradition which acknowledges human frailty, our constant need of forgiveness, and the need for humility.

The experience highlighted for me one common point of tension in these debates over God and morality. It is now a standard litany among Christian intellectuals debating the topic that "of course, atheists can be moral, too, and indeed some of them are so moral as to put most Christians to shame." All the same, we clearly do not quite agree on what really is right and wrong. So it's hard to know by what standard we're repeating this litany.

But that is not the point which stuck out most. Listening to Singer, I was left with a profound question: is morality nothing more than an abstract concept? It's important to mention that Singer (like Hare) emphasizes the central role of reason in determining right and wrong, and more particularly the necessity of taking the most universal point of view possible. By considering the consequences of our actions not only for ourselves and those around us but also for every other conscious creature in existence (an abstract form of the Golden Rule), we come to increase our ethical knowledge.

It is not the enormity of that task which particularly bothers me. Rather, the product of this process seems detached from reality. We get a theoretical vision of what might maximize something called happiness or utility or well-being. But the vision is ahistorical--it doesn't go anywhere. Commitment to this vision is entirely optional, as Singer concedes. If one commits to the ethical life, it is not in hope of any fulfillment, but merely because one is inclined to follow abstract principles wherever they lead.

The Christian vision of ethics, it seems to me, is entirely different. The point of Christian ethics is not to obtain a theoretical blueprint of how to maximize an abstract quantity, like happiness. The point is to be part of God's ongoing project of saving the world. Thus our commitment to live morally or immorally is not an arbitrary choice, but instead a response to a commitment that God has already made--we are either with him or against him. When we ask what it means to live ethically in the world, the question is not how to maximize an abstract quantity, but rather what will it look like to live in the world that God will one day realize.

Of course, the Christian vision is incomprehensible if one thinks of God himself as abstract and impersonal. Then one is left, as Singer is, with no plausible answer to the problem of evil. If God is defined by the three qualities of omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence, then God does not exist. Yet I thank God that such a god does not exist, because if it did, I do not see how anything in the world would ever happen--everything would be predetermined by a set of principles, and the kind of spontaneity that characterizes all that is living and beautiful would not exist.

For the Christian, God is not known through abstract principles which define him, but through God's story. He, like us, has a history, which starts with glorious creation but also involves the pain and suffering not only if his creatures but also his own suffering and death. If the resurrection of Jesus tells Christians that God's victory over evil has finally begun, this does not mean that the victory will be easy or that it won't be messy.

Now, if Jesus really didn't rise from the dead, none of this really matters. But I think there are compelling arguments to suggest he did, and as a bonus I find it to be a much firmer grounding for ethical thinking than secular rationalism. I certainly don't begrudge anyone who wants to try and live morally for whatever reason. I simply find that when I contemplate the choice to make moral commitments, I can't help but feel paralyzed at the thought of how arbitrary such a choice would ultimately be--unless that choice is in response to a project which is already at work in the world. In other words, I have a hard time with morality in the abstract. The world is either going somewhere or it isn't, and if it isn't going anywhere, then I don't see much point in doing anything.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

A humble science

Mathematics is the lowest and humblest of all the sciences. It makes slow but steady progress, and it says little to nothing about the questions dearest to the hearts of human beings, but what it says is absolutely certain. What gives it such certainty? It is content to study objects which are wholly abstract, so that the relations between them are absolute, eternal, and necessary. The word abstract implies that they are drawn away from reality. In this way they are lifeless. Rather than exploring strange new worlds with their own vibrant existence, the mathematician is content to study lifeless forms which are absolutely transparent to the mind. Let the brave adventurers go off to study living creatures, the cosmos, and that most mysterious object of all, human pyschology. The mathematician will humbly work at understanding that which is already closer to home than anything can be--that is, close to the mind.

It would be a fatal mistake, then, to view mathematics as a lofty venture, towering over all the other sciences, for that is the opposite of the truth. Mathematics, like anyone who wishes to be great in God's kingdom, must be the servant of all. We happily live in a world which follows certain patterns, often not at all obvious, and the objects we encounter, though they have in some sense a life of their own, can be seen to follow abstract rules which can be studied at the level of theory. In this way the applications of mathematics are abundant, starting with the simplest of all objects (physics) and working our way up even to the most complex and spontaneous (biology, economics).

But it is a slippery slope from application to assimilation. The problem with much modern thought is the way it treats all objects as abstract, lifeless forms. What mathematics so useful and reliable is that it studies objects which have no independent existence and no context. To study living things--and particularly the human mind--in such a way would be (and often is) disastrous. Psychologists have noticed, for example, that searching for universal principles governing human thought by observing only Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic people is a flawed idea. Yet in observing that our methods do not lead to what we are searching for, rarely do we ask whether the search itself is misguided.

Why does modern thought push relentlessly toward that which is universal? I suspect the reason is as much moral as scientific. On the one hand, science seeks that which is universal because it gives us a deeper understanding of life as a whole, and that allows us to do the greatest amount of good. On the other hand, we would also find it unfair if our particular context really mattered. The universe should be, above all, fair, even if that implies it is meaningless. History must be random, because otherwise that would imply something special about the way things happen to be. We have concluded, after thoroughly deconstructing the moral pretentions of past generations, that there can be nothing special about our heritage, culture, or anything else passed down to us.

As an aside, I highly suspect this attitude explains why physicists have come up with the idea of a multiverse. If there really is one universe, with exactly one history, that means a practically infinite number of possibilities are shut off forever from all reality. That would mean all of reality is dependent on a particular context--it is no longer held captive by abstract concepts. Such a conclusion is intolerable in our intellectual climate.

The modern reaction against the Judeo-Christian tradition can be explained in these terms. If there is a God, its existence should be explicable in rational, abstract terms that do not depend on context--that is, mathematically. There is a long tradition of such proofs in Western tradition. But that is not what we find in the Bible. What we find there is a God who, though he is supposed to be the creator of all things, has attached himself to a particular people in the Middle East. "I Am Who I Am," God says, affirming his utterly transcendent identity, and then adds soon after, "the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." How can all of reality find its source in a God so particular? How could one petty group of people out in the middle of nowhere happened to have stumbled onto the source of life and hope for all humanity, and indeed all the universe?

As much as it offends our sensibilities, we ought to be able to understand this. Life is a serious of decisions and commitments, each of which cuts off others which were at one time possible. Once you say a word, it will be forever true that you said it. Once you are married, it will be forever true that you decided to marry. Once you go to your grave, whatever you have done with your life is all that you have done. There is no going back. Indeed, we might perhaps better understand this than our ancestors, since because of the Internet, nearly everything we say in public will be forever recorded somewhere in this vast ocean of data.

Is it really so impossible to believe that God himself would make such commitments, and that those commitments would be the basis of all reality? In fact I myself find it very hard. If at one time in human development it was natural to anthropomorphize God, today it seems difficult to think of God as anything other than an abstract concept.

Theology isn't the only thing at stake. It is not just the living God whom we try to kill with our abstract thinking. It is anything living. We moderns are increasingly detached from our own history, living in the dream that we can transcend history, which was random and arbitrary up to exactly our generation, and then build the future on abstract principles from here on. Naturally, we refuse to believe that this dream came from anywhere other than our own reason.

To be sure, looking at the abstract principles behind living realities is a good thing. It helps us to simplify problems and find solutions agreeable to everyone. It can even help us know better what we observe, so that we can appreciate it all the more. (I find this especially true of music, and I suspect it is true of art. For me, music theory makes great works come to life even more than they already do.)

The problem comes when we confuse abstract principles with true or ultimate reality. That is the path to self-destructive rationalism--it empties the world of all meaning, it jettisons history as a source of knowledge, and it risks degrading civilization itself, which is built on living traditions. No, reality is not a set of equations. It is a living, spontaneous, external universe which imposes its particularity on us. I say this not to denigrate my own field, but merely to put it in its rightful place as a loving servant of the real.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Miracles and the problem of evil

Judging from the questions people ask scientists who are also Christians, I take it that popular opinion holds that modern science and belief in miracles are fundamentally incompatible. I don't know why this is exactly, but I'm sure it's all David Hume's fault.

The argument seems to go something like this. Science is based on the understanding that all of nature exhibits certain regularities, called laws, and that by examining its parts through repeatable experiments, we can learn more about it. If miracles exist, then this regularity doesn't hold. Yet we know that science keeps telling us more and more about the way the universe really is. So miracles don't exist.

But that doesn't follow. If science is based on studying things which are repeatable, then science will tell you about those aspects of the universe which tend to repeat themselves. One will find it extremely difficult to prove that the whole universe follows (and always has followed) certain laws without any irregularity. If you say that we have not found any such irregularity yet, you are begging the question. First of all, a lot of people disagree with you, based on the amount of testimony that exists claiming miracles have occurred. Secondly, your sample size is vanishingly small--especially if modern science is in fact correct about the size and age of the universe. The only way you could possibly extrapolate from such a small sample size is to assume what you want to prove.

On the other hand, I confess that despite my religious affections (or perhaps because of them, as I'll explain shortly), I am attracted to the idea of a globally regular universe--that is, a universe without miracles. This would appear to put me in quite a predicament, and I'm not always sure how to overcome it.

My reason for being attracted to this idea is entirely aesthetic. The most incomprehensible thing about the universe, Einstein said, is that it is comprehensible. That is, the most incomprehensibly beautiful thing. You start with a very short list of axioms, you derive a mathematical theory, and then you watch in awe as physical objects actually seem to obey this theory, as if the Creator of the universe were some sort of divine mathematician. And you realize that whatever inherent limitations this puts on you and your life--for instance, I suppose it means death for us humans is probably inevitable--it is simply pure joy to see that at the heart of all reality is supreme rationality, such that only through the slow and painstaking efforts of the greatest minds can human beings start to glimpse the underlying principles. If we have a purpose in this world, it is to be the products of such a divinely rational order.

Aside from sheer awe, however, there is a big payoff to living in a world guided by universal, comprehensible laws. Through science, we can master the world, creating technologies which push back against death and disease, increase our comfort, and allow us to live more fulfilling lives. If this is starting to sound like some sort of modern secular religion, is that at all surprising? Haven't we, thanks to the scientific revolution, in fact stumbled onto something quite extraordinary? All religions have features both attractive and repulsive, and this new scientific religion is no different. It may not promise eternity or redemption, but it promises both awe of the transcendent and practical means by which we can live meaningful lives. That is hardly something to scoff at.

Now if miracles are real, then this glorious vision is tainted, if not shattered. Not only does it ruin the idea of perfectly uniform mathematical laws governing the universe, but it even makes us wonder why we put so much effort into understanding the universe when there is a much easier way. If God can simply cure diseases and raise the dead by the uttering a word, why doesn't he? Why do we slave away trying to understand laws which are not really laws at all, when all the while God could step in and just fix everything whenever he likes? It seems both sacrilegeous and immoral. Only a divine bully with no respect for transcendent beauty could possibly intervene at such irregular intervals, while hiding in the dark the rest of the time.

Thus the problem of miracles reduces to the problem of evil: how is God's existence compatible with the presence of suffering, death, and disasters in this world? These latter are most certainly consistent with the laws of the universe--laws cannot be broken, even if it would suit our purposes to do so. But a personal God, capable of intervening--how can he allow it?

The other side is not without objection. There is, for instance, the problem of good: how can we make the concept of goodness intelligible in a world governed entirely by impersonal, unyielding laws? We can push back against suffering and death, yes, but to what end? Short life and disease do not threaten modern people nearly as much as boredom, depression, and even suicide. Try as we might to create our own meaning, anything we invent without any reference to a transcendent source eventually appears, well, meaningless.

I am inclined to think that neither of these problems can really be "solved." So I find my reflections on this matter humbling, both as a mathematician and as a Christian. On the one hand, as much as many of us would love to claim science as the banner of objective truth, the reality is that the vision driving us is every bit as religious as Christianity or any other major world religion, with just as many weaknesses. On the other hand, as a Christian I need to consider this modern, secular religion to be a real contender for my heart and soul. When Einstein spoke of a "cosmic religious feeling," he wasn't kidding.

Whether one of these religions will ultimately succeed in shaping our civilization in the future surely depends in part on how we answer serious philosophical questions like that of miracles. But I believe the more important factor is the human heart, which, once it receives and adopts a certain of vision of the world, will follow it far and wide, for reasons far beyond the intellect's comprehension. For the Christian's heart, of course there are miracles. And for the modernist's, of course there are not. And for those of us somewhere in between, I suppose there is the hope that one day we'll know for sure.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Evolution, tradition, reason, faith

To me the Bible is the greatest book never written. Its contents were collected and edited over centuries until finally becoming the self-contained cornerstone of Judeo-Christian tradition that it is today. Like any great institution, the Bible was grown, not designed.

As a result of its history, the Bible carries around it now a sort of magical fence which, Catholic-Protestant debates notwithstanding, prevents any serious changes to be made to its contents. There is a marvelous double effect of the Bible on the community of Christian believers: on the one hand, conservative Bible believers are forced to confront a wealth of confusing, frustrating, and downright bizarre stories and passages which, by their own standard, cannot be erased; and on the other hand, liberals are forced to confront the reality that faith is not the result of pure reason, that rationalistic belief can only be something other than Christianity, and that it is in ancient tradition rather than current that the mind continues to receive its greatest stimulation and challenge.

It's a delicious irony. Conservatives, who hate evolution because they love the idea of God the designer of all things, are in reality relying on an evolved tradition, while liberals, who love evolution because they love the process of reason which discovered evolutionary theory, have in reality found the very principle which destroys their own rationalism.

If you really want to be a rationalist, the logical belief is not that the creation story was too short (thousands of years vs. billions of years) but rather too long, as Origen pointed out. Everyone knows God the great architect really created everything at once. Those seven days are all just metaphors.

Indeed, it's hard to accept that God might just like watching things grow. Evolution requires both patience and spontaneity; that is, one must go into it knowing it will take a very long time but not at all knowing the final outcome. And the really strange thing is that the conservative hates this because he is too impatient, while the liberal hates it because he isn't spontaneous--when it should really be the other way around.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Ellis Island

Last week I was in New York to give a mathematics presentation at NYU. On the side I did a little tourism, in particular a day at Ellis Island. These days the immigration issue, a hot button in politics, has become far more personal to me. My wife is not American, and it turns out these days you don't just show up on a boat to immigrate like you did back in the day--even if you're married to an American! But anyway, I've always been attracted by the story of America's great hey day of immigration. People left poverty and oppression seeking opportunity and freedom--there's nothing more beautiful to me than that, especially when there's a happy ending.

Ellis Island wasn't a completely open border in the sense that they let literally everyone in, but it was enough to satisfy me. About 2% of all people who showed up were eventually turned away, for health reasons or political factors (mostly unspecified by the tour). Still, that's only 2%. Today's system seems to make it the other way around--only a small fraction of people who would like to come here ever get the chance (legally). By comparison, the old way was far more welcoming.

Not that it was a picnic. You showed up on an overcrowded boat, you got in line with hundreds of other immigrants, you spent all day answering questions, getting a medical examination, and sometimes being examined further (to see whether you were insane, to see whether you were illiterate, to see whether you were a pauper...). Sometimes the immigration officers were kind, other times not so much. But again, you still had a 98% chance of making it out of that process (an 80% chance, if I understood correctly, of making it out in a single day) to live your new life in America.

And of course life was hard for new arrivals. There was a story commonly recounted by Italian immigrants that went something like this: "I came to America because I thought the streets were paved with gold. When I arrived, I learned three things: one, the streets of America were not paved with gold; two, the streets were not paved at all; and three, that I was expected to pave them." Just because there was more opportunity in America doesn't mean that wealth would be automatic.

I was highly impressed by the number of associations set up to welcome new immigrants. From the YMCA/YWCA and the Salvation Army to an array of organizations representing every ethnic and religious group you could think of. These groups took care of their own. Assimilation was not immediate; the first people you met in your new country were people who spoke your language and believed the things you believed. Yet there's no question that the immigrants loved America. How could they not, considering what they left to be here?

It was probably inevitable that Ellis Island be shut down at some point. Transportation has changed in the modern world--there's no reason to received everyone by boat on an island. Yet the real reason the center shut down when it did is that the laws become more restrictive. After World War I, America stopped welcoming newcomers. This seems to have been because of a confluence of economic protectionism together with anti-foreign bias that was aggravated by the Great War and the rise of communism in Russia. The 1920s may have been roaring, but they were not welcoming, and things only became worse shortly after. After 1924 Ellis Island went from processing new arrivals to detaining and deporting illegal immigrants. It finally closed in 1954, falling into disrepair.

I am glad to see the restorations they have done since the 1980s. It truly was a magnificent building, and, as they emphasized on the tour, this was not for kings but for the people--the rabble--who came here looking for a better life. It really makes my heart ache when I think of the difference between then and now. If I remember correctly, 40% of Americans can trace their ancestry back to someone who immigrated at Ellis Island. What would we be today if not for this amazing place? How can Americans despise their own history in accepting today's agonizingly restrictive immigration system?

I suppose history is full of such contradictions.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Billions of years

This past week I saw a story about the recent discovery of the world's oldest tools, dating around 3.3 million years old. Which got me thinking again about the big picture of the evolution of life. How many generations of life are simply gone forever? They may have left behind hints and traces of their existence--or not. In either case, what are we to make of our relationship to them?

When people ask about God and Darwinian evolution, they are usually given one of three answers: atheism, creationism, and compatibilism. These are all characterized by being straightforward: the first picks Darwin over God, the second picks God over Darwin, and the third asks why we can't simply have both.

If the first two responses are too absolutist, the third response strikes me as far too easy. The question that concerns me most is not so much the interpretation of Scripture--which is theologically varied enough already, without having to worry about scientific questions. Rather, what bothers me is the basic existential question: did all of those humans (to say nothing of other creatures) live and die for nothing? Or if it was for something, is it something we can appreciate?

Christianity in many ways promotes a hatred of death. God is the God of the living, not the dead. Christ's resurrection is said to defeat death, and one day his followers believe they will also be free to death. It is only in the paradoxical way that Christ taught--that those who love their life will lose it, while those who hate their life for his sake will find it for eternity--that Christians can be reconciled to death. Only with the promise of emerging victorious over death do Christians face it willingly.

But doesn't this promise of victory over death come a little late in the development of human beings? And what about other creatures? Is there any promise for them?

It would be one thing if we could take the Christian story of the Fall quite literally. By that I don't mean word for word out of Genesis 2 and 3. I simply mean that, at a given time in history, the earth was really a paradise, that human beings could eat of the tree of life and not die, that everything was in harmony. Then by an act of disobedience against God we humans, God's chosen guardians of the earth, destroyed that harmony and lost our chance to live eternally. Then the story of redemption playing out through Israel and then through Jesus Christ would answer that. Even if one might raise legitimate doubts about this redemption story, it would be plausible.

Yet if there was no such paradise, and if there was no such cataclysmic moment that literally occurred in history, if death was always part of the natural cycle of life, then what? Are there are truly Christian answers that can be given?

These billions of years really do loom large over the Christian consciousness. Certainly one need not be a biblical literalist to feel the pressure.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Edible words

And he said to me, “Son of man, feed your belly with this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it.” Then I ate it, and it was in my mouth as sweet as honey. (Ezekiel 3:3)
And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. (Deuteronomy 8:3)
I have sometimes wondered whether the Bible's prohibition against idolatry was really consistent. After all, aren't words themselves symbolic windows into God's existence, a sort of image for the ears rather than the eyes? One could argue that using words to describe God's ineffable existence is just as dangerous as trying to depict it through images.

Yet recently I was once again struck by the Bible's description of words as food. Funny thing about food: whatever you eat was once a living thing, and then it died.

And isn't that exactly how words function in reality? A single word is so short-lived. It has hardly left your mouth before it is dead, yielding totally to the words or silence which come after it. Even the written word functions this way. You cannot read by staring at a single word; you must let it die, letting your eyes advance continually in order to gain the whole idea of phrases and paragraphs.

Images do just they opposite. They impose upon you. If an image is before you, even if you want, you cannot simply let it pass away. It demands that you at least allow it a place in the background of your mind. It can change your mood without you even realizing it. It insists on immovability, a sort of immortality, if you will.

But Jesus said, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away." The most permanent fixtures in all of ordinary human experience will die, but these words--which die as soon as they are born--will live forever.

It is the great paradox of Christianity once again. "Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it." Images insist on their own immortality, but they are in fact lifeless. Words exist only to die, and thus they feed us, and so they live forever.

I don't mean this meditation to be polemical, but I will confess that it confirms my iconoclasm, which is standard for Protestants. Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox have good arguments in favor of icons. They argue that the incarnation of Jesus, the Son of God, changes and sanctifies physical reality in such a way that to prohibit icons would be to deny that incarnation. But I think these arguments nevertheless miss the most radical part of Christ's incarnation--he came to die. It is only because he died that he can feed us with himself. And let's not forget that when he rose again, he rose with a new body that was barely recognizable to his disciples. If there is an image of Christ to be used in worship, it is of course the bread and the wine; but even these are meant to be consumed.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

When our eyes fooled us

Sometimes whatever I'm thinking about at a given moment magically comes into focus in the public sphere shortly thereafter. Such is was the case yesterday when, less than two weeks after I reflected on what it means to perceive objects, social media was abuzz about a photograph of a dress which could be mysteriously interpreted in two very different color pairings. It didn't take long for the inevitable modern reaction to play out.

  1. The image went viral, and everyone immediately formed an opinion about it.
  2. Vicious arguments ensued.
  3. An investigation into the origins of the image proved conclusively what color the dress actually was.
  4. A scientific explanation rationalized our disagreement, supposedly revealing something about ourselves, at least to those of us enlightened enough to listen.
  5. The image has instantly become a cultural artifact of our time, and will be the source of thousands of sarcastic comments to come.
It's that fourth point that hit closest to home. I'm part of that large demographic that eats this stuff up:
Light enters the eye through the lens—different wavelengths corresponding to different colors. The light hits the retina in the back of the eye where pigments fire up neural connections to the visual cortex, the part of the brain that processes those signals into an image. Critically, though, that first burst of light is made of whatever wavelengths are illuminating the world, reflecting off whatever you’re looking at. Without you having to worry about it, your brain figures out what color light is bouncing off the thing your eyes are looking at, and essentially subtracts that color from the “real” color of the object. “Our visual system is supposed to throw away information about the illuminant and extract information about the actual reflectance,” says Jay Neitz, a neuroscientist at the University of Washington. “But I’ve studied individual differences in color vision for 30 years, and this is one of the biggest individual differences I’ve ever seen.”
Notice the language used here. Let me isolate one of those sentences with emphasis added:
Without you having to worry about it, your brain figures out what color light is bouncing off the thing your eyes are looking at, and essentially subtracts that color from the “real” color of the object.
For all of the scientific materialism that permeates this kind of explanation, it remains stubbornly dualistic. There's you, and then there's your brain, and also your eyes. You, in this model, don't have access to what's "real" (in quotation marks, because how can we be sure there is such a thing?) because it's all mediated to you by something in between, namely your eyes. This is a consistent theme in modern scientific explanations of ourselves--as much as we would like to explain everything mechanistically, we can't seem to include ourselves in the explanation, even though we are clearly part of "everything".

Let's go back to that point 2, which, as the Wired article says, is "just another Thursday" on the Internet. A common explanation for these arguments is that people just like to be quarrelsome, especially in an anonymous setting like the Internet. That is certainly a good explanation for the magnitude of these arguments, for the eruption of emotion that accompanies them. Still, why exactly do we care enough to argue in the first place?

It really wouldn't make sense for us to argue about what our senses are telling us if our senses were separate from ourselves. To get a better idea of what is going on, I think one should take a look at a few of the hilarious customer reviews which have been added to the Amazon web page of the now infamous dress, including, "This dress is a glitch in the Matrix," "Not as described -- wrong color, ate soul," and "Carves a crooked path through perceptual reality and leaves behind it a wake of confusion and existential crises." One of my friends posted on facebook that the dress taught them how easily their world could be shattered.

These comments are funny not because they are false, but because they are true. No matter how many illusions we see, no matter how aware we become that our senses can "fool" us, we still remain attached to our sensory judgments as true experiences of the world, only to find time and time again that our vision must change as we experience things in a new way. If we could be equally honest about more serious controversies, we would say the same thing (and sometimes we do).

That is because sensory experience is not a signal being sent from my eyes and my brain to me. It is, rather, an initial vision of things, that spontaneous image created by me, using the tools I have (which happen to be eyes and a brain). This is not a mere turn of phrase. The point is that my sensory organs are not flawed sources of information. Indeed, the only way I will ever learn that I was wrong to see white and gold is by again using my eyes, not by dispensing with them. The problem is not the means with which I encounter the world, but rather the level of patience I have when doing so. If I cling to my initial conception of reality, I will later face the painful process of having that conception torn to pieces.

Modern scientific rationalization of our perceptual failures is probably dualistic for this reason. We wish to distance ourselves from our mistakes. No, we didn't fail--it's our organs that failed, and we need to learn not to trust them. Applied to more important issues, such as religion and politics, we blame difference of perception on cognitive biases. If the brain is a tool, we just need to figure out why that tool doesn't always work right. Then we will all naturally agree, because we will be able to filter out all the errors.

But all controversies are really the same. We don't simply try to receive information about the world and then attempt to filter out the errors. Rather, we imagine the world in an attempt to relate to it. Being told you are wrong is always personal, even if it's over a very trivial thing. It's like being told that a person you know isn't the person you thought they were. In the less important cases, it can be disconcerting, while in very important cases it can break your heart.

Of course I believe that we should try to eliminate bias and errors from our thinking. I am simply saying that the solution is not to distance ourselves from the "instruments" that supposedly cause these errors. Our eyes are not fooling us--we are simply clinging too tightly to what we spontaneously imagine to be real. Our brains are not the product of evolution--we are the product of evolution, that is, of history, both our own and that which has come before us. The way to correct ourselves is through humility, realizing that things are not always as we imagine them, but that there is endless joy in trying to reimagine as we experience more.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Are my eyes fooling me?

It's question natural enough that it has been asked by many a philosopher. Descartes always seems to be the first who comes to mind, since his whole method was based on doubting everything until he could determine which things were most certain.

In the modern world, you don't have to be in a Cartesian state of doubt to wonder. The standard example is that when you look around, you see many solid objects, but in fact physics tells us that this is mostly empty space. Or if that is too abstract, there are plenty of common illusions of a more mundane sort. Are my eyes telling me lies? It's worth probing the question a bit.

The only illusion, in fact, is the idea that there are direct experiences of things, as opposed to interpretations of them. This illusion is caused by the fact that most of our interpretations of the objects around us are spontaneous. I do not consciously invent the shape and color of the computer screen in front of me, it just happens. To imagine my computer as really a collection of atoms and empty space, or even to imagine it in terms of its constituent electronic parts, requires conscious effort based on training and contemplation.

Yet the difference is in degree, not kind. Whether I am casually observing something or rigorously studying it, my only access to a thing is to imagine it. Indeed, this applies to all of external reality, to such an extent that it is possible to understand the world as not being composed of "things" at all. There are some religions and philosophies which posit a universe which is really all one, and the separateness of the things around us is just an illusion--it is all really one thing.

Imagination is perhaps most naturally associated with fiction, but even in everyday language, we use it more generally, as when someone might say, "I imagine it is difficult to move to a new a country," when that person has never done so. That person means to state a belief, not to invent a world. So it is with all of our beliefs: they are expressions of how we imagine the world.

To clarify, the difference between imagination and merely pretending is that in the latter case we make no attempt to test or change what it is we imagine, but we leave it entirely up to our choice. The kind of imagination which leads to a greater understanding of the world might be called "theorizing" or "hypothesizing." There is a kind of naïve view of the sciences which imagines (indeed!) that a theory is basically reducible to a sentence with causal structure, as in, "If X, then Y." But most scientific theories are really based on what one might call "models," and these are really ways of imagining the world that one can test. For instance, Newton's laws of motion are far from being mere causal statements. They can be best expressed by imagining the world as a three-dimensional Euclidean space measured by spatial coordinates, and objects as points in that space whose coordinates change in time and are governed by differential equations. If you want to know what really makes Einsteinian relativity different from Newtonian mechanics, you need to start by imagining the universe in four dimensions rather than three and go from there. Certainly, what proves that Einstein was more correct than Newton is that certain testable predictions are made, and Newton is shown to be lacking where Einstein is not. But you will not truly have a theory if all you have is a set of prediction statements.

So even our most sophisticated theories about the universe are no different in kind, but only in degree, from the spontaneous images our minds produce when casually observing it. I look at the coffee mug on the table in front of me, and I spontaneously see its colors, a cylindrical shape and a little handle protruding from it. With a little more conscious imagination, I might imagine Cartesian coordinates enveloping it, so that I can more precisely analyze its geometric relation to other objects on the table. Or with a little more imagination, I imagine it as little atoms quickly vibrating against one another, and then even the air around it as atoms moving much more freely. Everything seems to change as I move from one mode to another, yet it is the same reality. There is no reason to say that, after this mental exercise, I have understand my coffee mug "better" than before. And that is because the purpose of my coffee mug is to hold my coffee, which anyone is perfectly capable of seeing even with only a limited scientific imagination, or none at all.

Why, then, should I want to imagine things in different ways? That is a good question, and I don't think there is one single response that applies to all cases. It depends on our intentions, our desires, on our relationship with the world around us. If there were never anything puzzling or difficult or otherwise problematic about the world, I imagine we would be perfectly content with the way we spontaneously envision it--a coffee mug would be a coffee mug, and that's that. And yet there wouldn't even exist such things as coffee mugs, because such an invention comes only in the face of solving a problem--namely that coffee is a hot liquid which I want to drink! Even if something had the size and shape of one, we would not call it a coffee mug nor even have any other sort of name for it were it not for our intention to drink coffee.

An illusion, then, is a way of imagining the world which damages, rather than helps, our relationship to it. This is in relation to a certain context. For instance, if you look at the Müller-Lyer illusion, you will see two lines which appear to have different length, even though in fact they have the same. The reason you are fooled is that your visual senses are calibrated to see such things in a three-dimensional world, and transported into a two-dimensional context you are fooled. I should think you would be rather thankful that your brain is incapable of "unseeing" this illusion, because your ability to navigate the three-dimensional world may very well depend on it!

So the pursuit of truth and the rejection of illusion cannot be devoid of value judgments. How you imagine the world depends greatly on how you desire to live in it. If you seek to master it and control it, you will continually be testing your theories to try to reimagine the world more accurately. If you seek to understand reality as a whole, you will be continually inventing or perfecting robust abstract concepts which capture the essence of everything.

If you seek to appreciate and enjoy the world, perhaps you will not be concerned with theories, but you certainly will be engaged in imagination. You will seek to refine your ability to notice colors, smells, tastes, sounds, and their relationship to one another. This is yet another way of imagining the world, one which often takes the form not only of observation but response, in the form of literature, art, music, and other sorts of performance. All of these are forms of knowledge, as sure as any science. All knowledge is simply a refinement of imagination.

Whether or not I can trust my senses or other faculties is ultimately the same question as whether or not I can live well in this world. Is the world sufficiently inviting to my presence that my attempts to understand it will be fruitful? It is not a question that can be answered a priori; it must be explored as with any other relationship, though this relationship might be decidedly one way. I don't want to go further down this trail of thought, but I mention it only to raise an objection to the notion, common today, that questions of truth are unrelated to questions of goodness.

Now, it seems to me, one thing you can never fully understand is your own mind. Why? Because it is precisely that mind which is doing the imagining, and to imagine itself is a hopelessly recursive task. Take an analogy to some physical object. When you try to understand physical things, you imagine them not only as they are but as they would be in hypothetical situations. So you imagine not only the baseball as a round object in space but also as something being hit by a baseball bat, and you visualize its reaction. You can even quantify such reactions with physical laws (differential equations). Now suppose you try to do the same thing with your own mind. You try to imagine it in such a way that you will be able to predict its behavior. How will you test this, when it is in fact that very mind which decides how to act? Could I have predicted that my mind would formulate this question, and then would seek to respond to it? Can I predict what its response will be? It is like a dog chasing its own tail--the effect is dizzying.

There are, of course, scientific theories of the brain which are rapidly developing. But I do not think any of these can constitute a complete theory of mind, and indeed I do not think there can be any sort of complete theory of mind whatsoever. It is the mind that has theories, the mind that imagines, and the mind that tests itself against the world. The mind cannot test itself against itself.

There is nothing tragic in this. When I read the state of modern day philosophy of mind, I sense an air of sadness that there might be one thing in this universe which we can never understand. Yet this notion is based on the strange separation of our minds from ourselves. To fully understand the mind is futile, because the mind is not in fact external to itself.

Instead of lamenting this futility, perhaps we need to remind ourselves about the point of trying to understand anything at all. Things are not simply there to be understood, but to be lived with. The goal is to increasingly perfect the relationship between our minds--or rather our whole selves--and the world we live in. We cannot step outside the world to understand it is a whole, and why would we want to? If we were removed from this world, there would be no point in understanding it.

It could be objected that there would be great value in understanding another mind, which is not my own, on the assumption that my own mind is much like that other mind. There is a point to this--it is a principle which bears much fruit in fields of study like psychology. But there is still an insurmountable problem, which is that I cannot trascend my own freedom. There can never be a complete theory of my own mind which gives me the ability to predict my mind's own actions, because in fact those actions are choices--my choices. To make this clearer, perhaps one should go read about Newcomb's paradox and then ask, "Am I a one-boxer or a two-boxer?" The problem is that your answer will not simply be a prediction, but rather a conclusion of your own thoughts--a choice.

So I think I have finally articulated an explanation, however faulty or incomplete, of why I think the whole project of comprehensively explaining the mind is flawed to begin with. Of course, words like "choice" and "imagination" are sure to raise controversy, but for now I simply have no other way to see the problem.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Thoughts on Augustine's City of God

A while back I promised myself to read City of God. It was a bit like reading through Calvin's Institutes, in that it is a massive work written at a pivotal time in Christian history, and also in that Augustine and Calvin really do sound a lot alike (as much as two men separated by more than a thousand years can sound alike). I have not blogged through my entire reading of the book, as I did for Calvin, and I did not space my reading evenly over a year, but I think I still retain enough of an idea to summarize some of my reactions here.

Augustine was writing at a time just after Rome had been sacked. The world had changed. In light of that change, a defense of Christianity had to be given. I confess that I'm so underinformed about history that I still have trouble making sense of this--hadn't Christianity already become the religion of the empire? But perhaps this book alone sheds some light on how naïve it is to think that Christianity was ever really the religion of Rome. The Roman pagans gave what would be, I suppose, the natural response to Rome's fall: it's the Christians fault. And so Augustine launches himself into a critique of paganism in all its forms, followed by a philosophy of history based on the Christian Bible, in order to put historical events into a larger narrative.

I'm not an expert in how this book shaped history following that moment, but the very fact that we're here (Christians in the West, that is) means that it probably had a massive influence. After Rome fell, Christianity not only held on but continued to spread, eventually shaping all of what we now think of as "Western culture." (As an aside, I always find it terribly confusing when people think of Christianity as merely the "local religion" of something called "Western culture." As if there would be anything called "Western civilization" had it not been for the spread of Christianity which eventually united all of these European barbarians!)

Now to the text itself. The first ten books are devoted to refuting paganism, starting with gods and goddesses, then moving on to various pagan philosophies, and finishing with the Platonists, who Augustine says are the closest to the truth of Christianity. If you've ever engaged in modern debate on religion and theism, you've probably heard someone ask something like this:
"Why should we believe in the Christian God and not, say, Zeus or Poseidon? What evidence is there for one which there isn't for the other?"
It's true that in the modern world we don't feel the pressing need to refute the existence of Zeus. Augustine did. So if you'd like to know why Christians reject the existence of Zeus and other gods, you can read about 300 pages of painstaking refutations. Fair warning: you will, as a modern person, feel a bit silly reading them. Yet Augustine took the religions of his day seriously, as I think modern Christians take (or ought to take) Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and of course Judaism very seriously. (Note that Augustine never "refutes" Judaism, which was also an important competitor to Christianity. The implication seems to be that the only dividing line between Judaism and Christianity is the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and I suppose that despite the divergent evolution of the two religions, that's still ultimately true today.)

What gives me occasion to reflect very deeply about my faith is the fact that Augustine's refutations of paganism rest largely on moral grounds. The gods were either immoral, or were worshipped in immoral ways, or were celebrated in tales of immorality. Is not the same charge leveled today against the Christian God? The argument worked very well for Augustine, because in fact Greek and Roman philosophers really did find the popular religion quite embarrassing (I recall that Plato wanted to ban poetry from his ideal Republic, because it gave people false impressions of the gods). In some sense that argument works today on Christians, does it not? In my experience, when you talk to more sophisticated Christian theologians, they tend to finesse difficult biblical passages until they are allegorized or spiritualized into oblivion, or else they flat out reject those passages! On some occasions you will find a very stern theologian willing to bite the bullet on every biblical passage, but these find it more and more difficult to get a hearing in today's world, even within the Church. And I think this is not without reason. It is just plain difficult to see how the same God who would lovingly die on the cross for our sins, refusing to fight evil with evil, would also order the wholesale slaughter of women and children or even of anyone at all, as we read in the Old Testament. To me this question remains perpetually unresolved, which is either part of the beautiful mystery of Christianity or else a grave weakness which will ultimately be its undoing. Yet this is not a new problem by any means--it has been there since the beginning of Christianity--and here we are after 2000 years.

So much, I suppose, for the first half of the book. The second half is Augustine's attempt to explain all of human history. I read in the preface that many scholars think of this is the first "philosophy of history" ever written, and I suppose that's one way to think of it. It's hard to imagine you'd ever consider a "philosophy of history" something worth writing unless you already had one given to you by Scripture or something else. And that is indeed the case for Augustine. He looks at the Bible as a whole, and from its contents deduces an outline to all of human history based on the presence of two cities: the city of man and the city of God.

I won't outline the whole argument. I will instead tell you to simply go read the Bible, cover to cover, with Augustine's basic framework in mind. The city of man is all the children of Adam after being expelled from Eden, and the city of God is all those who by faith in God lived and now live in the hope of new life to come in Jesus Christ. Indeed, one way to think of Augustine's work is as a "philosophy of history," but perhaps a more direct way to think of it is as a synthetic exposition of all of Scripture. In that it really is akin to Calvin's Institutes.

There are other ways in which Augustine's and Calvin's works are similar, and that is because they appear to have similar theological bents. First, they both emphasize regularly the power and foreknowledge of God, the weakness of the human will after the fall, and the sheer unmerited grace which allows us to attain to the hope of new life in Christ. Second, they both base their arguments on the sheer authority of Scripture as an unquestionable guide in matters of doctrine. I think it's good to put this second point after the first, though some might believe it should go first--after all, it's from the Scriptures that we know about God's power and foreknowledge, isn't it? Yet it pretty clearly acts as an interpretive framework over Scripture, so that any time God is said to change his mind or make a decision, this is interpreted as merely a way to describe God in human terms, and not literally true. Everything else in the Bible might be literally true, but not those parts! This comment is not meant to prove that Augustine and Calvin are wrong, but only to show which ideas they truly put first. In my view, there simply is no interpreting Scripture without some first principle(s) guiding you, which must come from outside of Scripture itself.

Now, the reason I am emphasizing similarities between Augustine and Calvin is mostly because of my own experience reading through Calvin, and not to do any favors to Calvinists, who will take such comparisons as a compliment. Personally, I find that the things Augustine and Calvin hold in common are what make them both difficult to read. Consider their view of Scripture. Now, their justification of the authority of Scripture is slightly different: Calvin emphasized the direct confirmation of the Holy Spirit, while Augustine uses a somewhat different argument. Isn't it amazing, he says, how the whole world has come to accept the authority of the Bible? And this, he says, is also a fulfillment of biblical prophecy, which only bolsters that accepted authority. The argument isn't circular in either case, but it is rather frustrating, because it seems completely inaccessible to reason.

Let me stay with Augustine's argument for a moment. It interests me, because its plausibility in Augustine's mind must have been related to the historical context. Christianity had just seen, over the course of a few hundred years, a breathtaking rate of growth throughout a pagan empire, despite (or indeed because of) persecutions, all by the transmission of these words of Scripture. It is commonplace today to insist that "many other religions" have had similar experiences, but how many are there, really? Buddhism counts, I suppose, and perhaps certain sects within both the Christian and Islamic traditions. And of course there is Judaism with its own rather unique story, but it bears repeating that the line between Christianity and Judaism has always been, frustratingly, very thin. I honestly can't think of many others which have spread and flourished in quite the same way that Christianity did in its early years. Given all of that, I think we should be sympathetic to Augustine's argument. The words of Scripture changed people in a way that suggests real power.

Yet of course it's quite a logical leap to conclude that the Bible is therefore completely accurate in everything that it says. This is an aspect of Augustine's thought that disappointed me. I was set up for this by modern pastors and theologians of a certain intellectual type who like to bang on about how we don't read the Bible today the way ancient Christians did. They bring this up in the context of modern debates about faith and science, claiming that the early Church Fathers never did take Genesis 1 literally, and so why should we do any different? We should relearn to give sophisticated, spiritual readings of biblical texts, not focusing on their historicity but on how they point to Christ. I find this approach attractive.

It's true that from what I've read of Origen, that man truly did not take Scripture literally. But Augustine, let's face it--he's a fundamentalist. Now, that does not make him less intelligent, nor does it mean that his philosophical reflections are any less sophisticated. Some of the most profound reflections on joy and suffering in this world can be found in Augustine. And of course, Augustine loves allegorical interpretations of the Bible--as everyone does! I find it absolutely laughable when modern Catholic and Orthodox Christians assert or imply that Protestants hate allegorical interpretations, insisting only on the literal. They have clearly never listened to a Bible-thumping Baptist sermon, full of allusions and comparisons between Scripture and present-day events. It is simply impossible to read the Bible and not draw analogies between the texts and our own world, or between different texts themselves. No one has ever seriously denied this. But Augustine, like traditional Protestants (and all traditional Christians, I suppose, depending on what you mean by "traditional"), believes that the Bible should also be taken historically. He leaves no doubt that he thinks Adam was the first human being, that the world is only a few thousand years old, and that every word of the Bible is to be taken as telling us how human history happened exactly. To be fair, he is not so simplistic as not to notice all the problems of translation, all the mysterious numbers that appear in certain texts, and all the competing historical claims from nonchristian sources. Yet to a modern reader, it is quite difficult, if not impossible, to share Augustine's confidence in the veracity of Scriptural history.

All of this causes me more and more problems as the book draws to a close, where Augustine finally deals with judgment and salvation. I will have to save that for another post, because there is a lot to unpack.

Let me conclude this summary post by saying what I learned about myself by reading City of God. I learned that I am truly (sadly?) unfamiliar with the Greco-Roman world, but perhaps more at home than I thought I would be in the ancient Christian world. When Augustine talks about Homer or Plato, I struggle to recall the few basic lessons I learned in school, and my reading is slow. When Augustine quotes Scripture, I find myself reading quickly. It is not just what he says, but even the objections he responds to, which I find amazingly familiar. Truly, there are few theological controversies which divide Christians today which did not already exist in the early Church. We may have new language in which to express them, and perhaps new reasons to find them important, but we are not the first people to think of such problems.

Finally, I have to mention that City of God is a very different reading from, say, Confessions. I learned to love Augustine from reading the latter when I was much younger, and so I assumed (perhaps naïvely) that reading City of God would only reinforce that love. That is not quite true. I find now that I both love and hate Augustine, much in the same way that I both love and hate Calvin. That is perhaps an inevitable reaction to anyone with enough gumption to lay out a definitive history of the human race. You will find incredible beauty in this book, but you will not be able to look away from all the things which perplex and terrify you.

If I find time, I will come back to some particular passages of this book, because they deserve some meditation, but I think I've managed here to touch on all my general reactions. It's a work that certainly makes an impression, and I'm glad I took the time to read it.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

What evidence?

I recently watched a debate between Keith Ward and Arif Ahmed on belief in God. On the theistic side, I'm sympathetic to Ward's philosophical idealism, as well as his belief that faith is fundamentally experiential. Still, overall I was underwhelmed, particularly by his Q&A.

On the atheistic side, I found Ahmed's argument very standard, and he expresses it very well. In particular, he drove home on more than one occasion the central tenet of his empiricism: one should only believe on the basis of evidence. By contrast, he says, you should not believe something because you want it to be true, because you believed it when you were a child, or even if it makes you a better person.

It's the third point of that list that struck a chord with me. This form of empiricism seems to be now a sort of modern orthodoxy, so that even devout Christians seem more often than not inclined to nod assent to it. Permit me to be a heretic.

What if this central tenet of empiricism is false? Maybe the point of believing something is to be a better person. In some sense this doesn't actually change the positive requirement of empiricism, which is to believe things only on the basis of evidence. But it does change what kinds of things you might accept as evidence.

Whatever tenets of empiricism philosophers may profess, science is sold more often than we realize on the basis of making us better people. Modern cosmology makes us humble in the face of our own smallness. The theory of evolution teaches us how many weaknesses and biases we naturally inherit, in the hopes that we will be mindful of them. The same theory also teaches us how little difference there really is between what we call different "races" of human beings. Technology in general and medicine in particular allow us to help others like never before. And the list goes on.

Certainly, having a false impression of how the physical world works usually hinders you being a good person. False views of economics, for example, will harm your ability to help the world's poor, no matter how good your intentions. False views of science will make you blind to the harm we've done to the environment. Again, the list goes on.

But what about that which does not concern physical phenomena? If believing that love itself is eternal, that goodness, beauty, and truth unite in one infinite, eternal being--if believing that and acting upon it causes you to grow into a better person, what are we to make of that? Are we to presume it is false, simply because it doesn't help predict physical phenomena?

If one tries to tear truth and goodness in two, then I suppose you end up with atheism. But I don't think we should do that. Your search for truth should ultimately be one with your search for goodness and beauty.

One application would be in response to the Poseidon question. This was a question from the audience to which I think Keith Ward gave the most disappointing response of the debate. The questioner asked whether substituting "Poseidon" for "Jesus" in all of Ward's arguments would have made any difference.

The answer is that Poseidon does not lead us any closer to what is good. Pray to him all you want, you won't be any better acquainted with the mystery of transcendent love. Ancient pagans prayed and sacrifice to their gods to appease them, essentially as a way of sanctifying political power. Jesus has nothing to do with that.

Poseidon is the god of the sea. If you believe in gods of different things, you are still far from believing in anything truly transcendent. The God of classical theism is not attached to any one particular thing. One does not pray to God in order to appease Him or to gain power over this or that object, but rather to know and love the very essence of the whole universe.

Monday, February 2, 2015

My biggest problem with "eliminative materialism"

In college I took a course on the philosophy of mind according to Paul and Patricia Churchland. We got to meet Paul at the end of the course, which is a story I could tell another day. I was simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by the Churchlands' idea of mind. They go even further than other materialists in insisting that the mind really is the brain and nothing else. See, you can be a materialist and still hold to some functionalist perspective in which the brain "gives raise" to certain traits, and those traits can be said to be "mind." The Churchlands throw even that out. That's why they call it "eliminative" materialism.

I was reminded of this as I read through a recent article on why we can't solve the "Hard Problem." For some reason, not even David Chalmers can convince the Churchlands (or Daniel Dennett, who, I believe, really is a zombie) that it really is a problem. Instead, they (or at least Patricia) keep coming back to this line of argument:
“The history of science is full of cases where people thought a phenomenon wasutterly unique, that there couldn’t be any possible mechanism for it, that we mightnever solve it, that there was nothing in the universe like it,” said Patricia Churchland of the University of California, a self-described “neurophilosopher” and one of Chalmers’s most forthright critics. Churchland’s opinion of the Hard Problem, which she expresses in caustic vocal italics, is that it is nonsense, kept alive by philosophers who fear that science might be about to eliminate one of the puzzles that has kept them gainfully employed for years. Look at the precedents: in the 17th century, scholars were convinced that light couldn’t possibly be physical – that it had to be something occult, beyond the usual laws of nature. Or take life itself: early scientists were convinced that there had to be some magical spirit – the élan vital – that distinguished living beings from mere machines. But there wasn’t, of course. Light is electromagnetic radiation; life is just the label we give to certain kinds of objects that can grow and reproduce. Eventually, neuroscience will show that consciousness is just brain states. Churchland said: “The history of science really gives you perspective on how easy it is to talk ourselves into this sort of thinking – that if my big, wonderful brain can’t envisage the solution, then it must be a really, really hard problem!”
Consciousness is not like light. Light is something we observe, consciousness is that by which we observe. If we can be said to "observe" consciousness, that really means consciousness observing itself, already a weird sort of self-referential loop. The mysteries compound themselves when we try to figure out exactly how that might be taking place in a network of neurons. But, unless you really are a robot, you can't just pretend that this "phenomenon" (if it can really even be called that) doesn't exist.

Yet all of that isn't actually what bugs me the most, because it gets very confusing to narrow in on exactly what we're targeting philosophically. What boggles my mind is that the Churchlands actually seem to believe that our language should change to reflect a more scientifically accurate view of the brain. I remember Paul giving a talk to our class in which he described how his grandmother used to cheer him up when he was feeling down, using terminology completely alien to normal speech--hormonal imbalances repaired, neuronal excitation, things with which I myself am too unfamiliar to reproduce any specifics. That approach, I think, is silly on even the most basic level.

We all know the earth isn't flat, that the sun doesn't go up in the morning and down in the evening. But if I ask you what time is the sunrise tomorrow morning, it would be in completely bad faith for you to reply, "You know the sun doesn't actually rise, don't you?" No matter how far we progress in cosmology, we will always (as long as we live here on Earth) use the terms "sunrise" and "sunset." That's because, whatever the "real explanation" might be, these things happen, every day. Indeed, they give meaning the word "day."

Consciousness is similar to sunrise and sunset. We cannot avoid talking about it. If I want to do something, there is no other useful way to communicate that other than by using just those words. If I think something is true, it will never be unreasonable for me to say, "I believe that..." It would only obscure everything for me to start babbling on about activation patterns across neural networks. Not only that, but the language of consciousness--thought, feeling, intention, and so on--is what gives meaning to the very concept of "I." The boundaries of a day are sunrise and sunset. So in some sense thoughts, feelings, beliefs and desires are the boundaries of a particular person.

If science has taught us anything about what a day really is, it has done nothing to change our relationship to it (except through technology, such as the modern invention of clocks, which have nothing to do with whether the earth is flat or goes around the sun). It is still an ever-present reality. Similarly, I don't think consciousness will ever cease to be the thing of which we are most aware in ourselves, and for that reason the most mysterious thing which could possibly exist.

I think there are good reasons to entertain speculation about the "panpsychism" proposed by David Chalmers and others, but that will have to wait until another day.

To finish, I also wanted to comment on something that never ceases to amaze me in the debate about science in philosophy. Do you notice that line in the quote above--"Light is electromagnetic radition"? And this is supposed to be an explanation of why it isn't supernatural! I have the impression that many people would like to make everything which "science" has explained into something ordinary. Oh, how mundane, this wave-particle governed by Maxwell's equations! And we thought it was all so very mysterious before!

I once heard a scientist claim that Einstein should not have been so very surprised when he said, "The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible." Why, if humans evolved in this world, it should not be surprising that our minds our adapted to understand it! This is the level at which some scientists understand the world they live in. Everything is trivial, perhaps tautological. After all, everything that exists, well, exists! So it should not be surprising, really, that it exists. Such is the wholly undeveloped "cosmic religious sense," as Einstein called it, of far too many "intellectuals" of our day. It is no wonder that something like New Atheism can thrive in such a world. Science has become a matter of winning the argument for its own sake, detached from any sense of reverence. It is no wonder, really, that there should be philosophers who wish to eliminate entirely the concept of a soul.