Saturday, December 24, 2016

Creation that keeps on creating

When I think of human freedom, I tend not to think of "free will" in the sense that the future is undetermined. I think there are good reasons to contemplate whether the will is free or not in this sense, but there's another dimension I find more important. The question is really whether human beings contribute anything substantial to the universe. Is the universe a closed system with no room for genuine addition, or is human action meaningful in the sense that it changes something about our world?

Consider two disciplines and the fundamental principles driving them. In physics, the conservation of energy is a unifying principle. Matter and energy are interchangeable, so everything is energy. Everything that happens is essentially an exchange of energy. The total energy in the universe should never change. From this point of view, nothing humans do can ever "contribute," because any addition of energy must be compensated by a transfer elsewhere.

In economics, by contrast, an exchange can be a net positive. Indeed, whenever an exchange is voluntary, it typically follows that all parties have gained something through it. Or consider the work of just one person. Although work involves nothing more than a transfer of energy, it is said to produce wealth. Someone who builds a tool which allows us to more easily harvest food has added to the economy, though matter and energy have neither been created nor destroyed.

The economy is thus said to grow, not just in a fictitious sense but in a way that is apparently meaningful; whereas the total energy of the universe is said to be constant. How do we reconcile these two things?

I don't mean to give the impression that physics is all about constants. There are many physical quantities that meaningfully change. But it seems there is no physical quantity that can make sense of the concept of economic growth. If wealth has any meaning, it is not a physical meaning. More importantly, it is created by human activity, as opposed to merely increasing as a byproduct of random events (as in the case of entropy, for instance).

Most of the time we talk as if such creative action is meaningful, but do we really mean it? The ontological status of wealth seems to depend on whether we are talking about politics or about the ultimate fate of the universe. I suppose even a religious person, who believes in the afterlife, might suggest that all our wealth will ultimately amount to nothing. But certainly a scientist who believes in nothing beyond the physical universe must at some point laugh at the absurdity of trying to make "progress" as a species. Our ultimate fate is apparently either to freeze in an ever cooling universe or else to be swallowed up by a "big crunch." I don't see how either of these possibilities allow for human creativity to be anything more than an illusion. Anything that appears to be created will be compensated by some future destruction. More than that: every act of human beings is simply a transfer of energy from one place to another, and it has no special meaning or purpose. The emergence of intelligence is just one of the many possibilities when some of the innumerable planets in the universe happen to be the right distance from certain appropriately sized stars; the universe as a whole neither gains nor loses significance because of the particulars of its evolution.

That is, unless concepts like "significance" and "value" do have an ontological status similar to matter and energy, and/or they need not be conserved quantities. But to believe this requires certain theological commitments. First of all, it will not do to formulate a dualistic framework in which the significance of human life is completely unrelated to its physical fate. Even the religious believer who insists that the afterlife will be completely disconnected from this present physical existence has essentially condemned all human activity to meaninglessness. Human life is defined by creative activity. If all of it is destined for the void, there was no point in it ever existing in the first place.

To illustrate my point, there is a reason why I write these thoughts down, and why so many people keep journals, and why literature in general is so precious to our species. How can we separate ourselves from the words we choose, from the phrases we carefully construct, from the arguments we thereby assemble, and from the stories we tell? One cannot begin to express what would be destroyed if all of our writing ceased to be. And this is arguably only a small dimension of human activity.

As a Christian, my most cherished hope is that all that we do in the present is destined to mean something eternal. Not that the continuity needs to be perfectly obvious, or that every last detail needs to be taken into account. Just as the cells in my body continue to be replaced periodically, and yet somehow there is a continuity to my identity, so also I believe that somehow the universe will have one continuous identity from now to forever. Even if at some moment there is a cataclysmic event which wipes away all the influence of evil on our world (Lord, let it be soon), there will be those things which hang on, by which we will see that the creation was never aribtrary but was always good.

So now I'm finally getting to my point, which is that I think the purpose of creation is to keep on creating. The universe evolves through transfers of matter and energy, yet each transfer has the potential to contribute something new. In a real sense, the universe grows (and not merely in size, which is rather trivial). Human beings seem to have a key role in this, since we are capable of intentional creation.

Christian tradition has always made a big deal of the declaration in Genesis that we are made in God's image. The meaning of this phrase seems to me that when we speak, something comes into being. I don't know how to resolve the puzzle of free will, but I believe the human will is indeed free in the sense that it genuinely creates something that wasn't there before. A man who says to his wife at the altar, "I do," creates a new bond that did not exist before. A president who pardons a prisoner gives him freedom that he didn't have before. A scholar who writes an influential paper creates a new way of seeing the world that will in turn open new pathways to greater understanding and even prosperity. An inventor sketches a new idea, builds a prototype, and after enough tests changes the world. Most of these examples are indeed merely words, but they have a profound effect on the physical world. As the proverbs say, "From the fruit of their words good persons eat good things..."

It is possible, of course, to "zoom out" and with the mind's eye to view our tiny planet from a great distance, so that all of these supposed creative acts seem to mean nothing at all. There are many who take this view, insisting that it is only for the present life on this world that any of it matters. It is best, from that point of view, to avoid thinking about eternity, about the universe as a whole. No wonder people spend infinitely more time talking about politics than about science! It would appear that cosmology does nothing but crush human dreams of meaning something, whereas politics, despite all of the anguish and fear it causes, at least holds out to us hope of being important.

With Christian faith, it is different. Yet I have a hard time finding even Christians who seem to be able to make the connection. I mentioned earlier the religious believer who finds no connection between here and the hereafter. That is every bit as discouraging as cosmology, I suppose. Perhaps it is even a response to cosmology. If modern science confirms nothing in Christian belief, maybe the only way out for Christians is to separate this world and the next into utterly distinct realities. But this, in my view, is to deny the doctrine of creation. It is to say that everything we see now, all of this conserved matter and energy, is essentially arbitrary. The creationists, for all of their faults, at least have the right instinct on this point.

The key, it seems to me, is to embrace a higher ontological status for things beyond matter and energy. When we look at objects in the "real world," we are seeing more than just physical objects. Their properties go beyond size, shape, mass, temperature, and the like; they also include meaning, purpose, value, and beauty. After all, why should physical properties get any special privilege? We see them just as much "out there," where the earth is small, as we do here in our own little world. The earth is all the more beautiful seen from space. When we gaze out into the cosmos, does not our heart whisper to us that it all has a sublime purpose? Why should a super nova appear so wonderful? It is certainly not because it serves some evolutionary purpose.

I suppose this is nothing more than a romantic discourse without the support of any rigorous arguments, but the alternative seems to me no more rigorously defended. The only reason to believe that our universe is meaningless is out of a desire to be cautious, to resist romanticism because it feels too self-indulgent. I confess I feel a bit self-indulgent as I write these things. Maybe it's all just a fantasy to keep me going.

Or maybe, on the other hand, it actually takes quite a lot of self-discipline to take the universe seriously, as a place illumined with meaning and not just an arbitrary assemblage of matter where we can make our mark however we want. It's both inspiring and frightening to believe in God. If the universe was created for a purpose, and we are working against that purpose, we have nowhere to run from Him. That means our freedom has somewhat high stakes. It is not given to us for our mere amusement.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Providence and freedom

I wanted to develop a thought from yesterday on providence and free will. But where to start...

Imagine a world governed entirely by God's arbitrary will, that is, with no discernible regularities in it. Everything is an immediate invention of God's mind and need not have any connection with anything before or after. One is tempted to say that we would have no free will in that case, as an immediate corollary. But then, a compatibilist view of free will, in which human agency does not contradict determinism (which latter could be the result of scientific or theological suppositions), might still hold in such a universe. God could give each of us the sensation of having free will, producing in us the experience of making decisions and having some perceptible impact on our environment. If that doesn't sound like genuine free will to you, then I guess you're not a compatibilist. (I'm not either.)

Anyway the real problem isn't whether we might have the sensation of a will of our own. The real problem is that we couldn't possibly learn or understand anything. Learning is always a matter of seeing connections between things. We find causal or logical relationships between events and concepts, we perceive similarities and differences allowing us to categorize things and experiences, and in so doing we build a web of knowledge. Now if God were always there to possibly interrupt all such connections, we would have no choice but to view life as fundamentally absurd. Learning would be not just pointless, but impossible. Scientific knowledge (in the modern sense) would be impossible, since repeated experiments would not necessarily yield the same results. Personal relationships would be just as impossible, since the bond of trust could never exist in a world without predictable patterns.

Only if God's will is bound by definite patterns that are in some sense universal can human beings come to understand the world as such. This fact need not infringe on God's supremacy. Those patterns could have their origin in God's own will or character. The point is not to say what God must be like in any conceivable universe, but rather to say what He must be like given that we exist.

By contrast, a world completely governed by unchanging laws is, ironically, the most fertile ground for free will. In this case the mind can discern order in the universe, because it is actually there. We acquire knowledge through experience and memory. Memory doesn't fail us because the present really is connected to the past, and experience doesn't fail us because there is a true link (causal, rational) between our actions and their consequences. One potential irony is that we ourselves are governed by physical laws, and so arguably we aren't genuinely free; all our decisions are perhaps the inevitable result of evolution given certain initial conditions. Or maybe not. It is entirely conceivable that in a world governed by universal physical laws, there may exist rational beings with the power to choose between several physical possibilities; by what logical principle must a physical law allow at most one outcome for each initial condition? The universe still remains intelligible if possibilities are limited in a consistent way.

What impresses me the most is the analogy that exists between this seemingly abstract consideration and real world politics. In free societies, laws are consistently applied, so that individual members can be assured that if they abide by a certain base line code of conduct, they will be free to pursue their own ends. In tyrannical societies, it is often observed, a general atmosphere of suspicion falls on the entire people. The concept of truth itself becomes degraded. When the actions of the state are totally unpredictable, people resign themselves to a life with no intelligible order. Only might makes right.

Is God a god whose might makes right? In the world we actually live in, certainly not. We live in a universe so well ordered by laws that those who understand them may question the existence of any exceptions whatsoever. In other words, in a world where scientists tend not to believe in miracles, you can be assured that God is not a tyrant. On the contrary, you might criticize Him for being too libertarian. But for the Christian who believes that everything in the universe is under God's control, these universal laws become windows into His character. There is, presumably, a reason why He adheres to these laws in particular. Reflecting on those reasons can be particularly painful when the consequences of said laws seems so devastating. It hardly seems comforting to think that God is in control of tsunamis that wipe out hundreds of thousands of mostly innocent people, or that He is in control of diseases that kill millions of people every year. Why can't He break these laws for our sake, that is, for the sake of justice?

I think part of the resolution of such questions lies in God's ultimate destiny for human beings, and part lies in the inherent goodness of the entire created order (why should the wind and waves stop because we want them to leave us alone?). But another important factor is, I wager, our capacity for freedom. God knows that the only way for rational minds to exist in the created world is for the order of creation to be consistent. We would not be able to discern His character if He erratically imposed His will on us. Instead, He acts toward us according to a coherent set of principles, allowing us to accumulate knowledge of Him and His creation. In so gaining understanding, it's worth restating that we also become more free to pursue our own ends. It would appear that God values our freedom, the kind that comes from learning and growing in wisdom.

I make no attempt to actually address the classical problem of "free will" here. I am more interested in the nature of God's providence as it relates to our freedom. As best I can tell, it matters for our freedom what kind of control God exercises over the world, and it seems to me that the kind of control He in fact does exercise permits the growth of free, rational minds. This says a great deal about the purpose of creation. It says also a great deal about our purpose as rational beings.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The justice of miracles

One could discuss without end the many difficulties of accepting the occurrence of a miracle. What evidence could possibly be convincing enough? What evidence should be admissible?

But in my opinion the most interesting question of all is what the occurrence of a miracle says about God's character. The most difficult problem with miracles is a moral one. Why should God intervene sometimes and not others? Why should the miraculous be rare? Why shouldn't it simply be a law that nothing bad can ever happen, that only justice will prevail because God will always intervene to see it done? This is the problem of evil.

On the other hand, why should God intervene at all? Why not rather leave nature as a closed system, with all creatures free to determine their own destiny insofar as they are able? To intervene is to show favoritism, which would be evidence of God's injustice.

There are various Christian answers to these questions, and what's interesting is to see how they line up on a spectrum between "grace" and "free will." Some traditions attempt to diminish the distinction between natural occurrences and miracles by asserting that everything is due to God's providence--all is grace. Others emphasize that evil exists in nature due to free will, and miracles are ways of God intervening to overcome the fall.

My goal is not to assess the strengths and weaknesses of each side, but rather to observe that each has chosen one side of a divide in our very conception of justice. At some point we have to be honest: no matter what God does or doesn't do--whether or not God does or does not exist--we will have some complaint to make against Him.

Which sort of universe would I prefer to live in? On the one hand, I could live in one in which God's providence covers absolutely everything, so that no evil could ever take place, because He would intervene to prevent it. In such a world, would my decisions be meaningful in any way? And how can I truly be a sentient being without any connection between what I decide and what then happens? In such a world, there would be nothing that could appropriately be called physical laws, because cause and effect would have to be entirely overridden by the supreme will of God who would prevent anything unjust. There would be no point in any sort of empirical science. By the same reasoning, I wouldn't see any utility in any sort of learning. What is the point of knowledge if the thing known has absolutely no connection with my ability to act in relation to it? My free will is intimately connected with my understanding of the world. It is only through conscious experience, in which I try one thing to see its causal connection with something else, that I can gain wisdom. This is so whether the experience is physical (as in a scientific experiment) or intellectual (as in a thought experiment). But if there are no consequences which cannot be overridden, neither is there any knowledge to be gained.

On the other hand, I could live in a universe, as many believe we do, which is entirely governed by laws or natural regularities and in which miracles do not happen. There is no reason why only atheists should accept this view; it is also perfectly compatible with deism. Why shouldn't it vindicate God's justice, after all, to think that nature is wholly bound by abstract laws? It is merely the classical theological principle that God shows no partiality taken to the extreme. More than the fact that all creatures are equally subject to nature's laws, we sentient beings are also thereby liberated. For if God does not intervene, then the only will that can be imposed on our surroundings is our own. By learning nature's laws, we come to master nature. By increasing our understanding, we increase our freedom. Is this not the grand aspiration of modern human beings? And if nature with all of its laws is the creation of God, should we not be thankful that He does not intervene? For if He did, then it would be our freedom against His; but if His freedom is bound by the natural order He has imposed, then our freedom is only limited by whatever is consistent with nature.

If miracles do occur in this world, perhaps it is in part to remind us that both of the views are insufficient. On the one hand, God's intervention means that our will can never be supreme. No matter how much we learn about the universe, we can never master it, for there is always a will superior to our own governing its very existence. On the other hand, the fact that such intervention is intermittent implies that we are free to a large degree, that our actions are not meaningless and that we ought to learn something about the abstract laws which create order in nature. Our science is essential, even if it is not all-encompassing.

Or perhaps the purpose of miracles is instead of draw our attention to laws whose "enforcement" is delayed for some reason. The miracle valued most highly by Christians is the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which previews the resurrection and final judgment of all people. Thus God's special intervention into human history serves (from a Christian point of view) only to confirm His impartiality.

But neither of these explanations resolve the essential tension between freedom and grace. The important fact is that such tension exists within the very concept of justice. Is the ideal society one in which everyone is provided for, so that nothing bad ever happens? Or is it one in which people are free to discover and invent, to do what is admirable or perhaps what is detestable? We have never been able to resolve this tension in our political life as human beings; I think this is related to our incapacity to resolve the theological question I have asked. Even in a somehow "perfect" world, in which the interventionist state could carry out its mission flawlessly or, alternatively, the state would be utterly consistent in enforcing the law--even then it would be difficult to see whether an interventionist or a liberal state would be ideal. So it is as least as difficult to understand God's own position as ruler over nature.

Continuing in my own Florenskian mission to allow no tension a resolution, I propose that once again the best, most righteous belief is to somehow believe in both grace and freedom--a leap of faith, to be sure. We must accept this world as a gift, and everything that happens in it is the providence of God. And yet we may contribute to it with our own minds, increasing in understanding and mastering it to our benefit and the benefit of others (and of the world itself). Nature is ordered according to fixed laws, yet it is bursting with God's purpose. How we embrace both must remain a mystery to the rational mind.

But in spite of this statement of faith, I will confess my own personal bias toward freedom, more specifically toward deism. I was born with a temperament such that I would like to believe all knowledge can be mastered, giving rise to ultimate freedom. This explains perfectly, I think, my attraction to mathematics and physics. But if the universe is to be truly transparent to the rational mind, it must be a closed system; there can be no room for miracles. Combined with the fact that I, personally, have never witnessed anything that could rightly be called a miracle, this has been a recipe for theological struggle most of my life. If I believe in Jesus Christ, I cannot be a mere deist.

Then again, the deepest places of my heart certainly recognize the allure of grace. In a way, one must understand the joy of not understanding. There is a suprarational element to faith that is far better expressed by poets or artists than by me. Yet even I can appreciate it in the depths of my soul.

As for whether any particular miracle has actually occurred, I still remain skeptical in most cases, because in most cases it seems not much is at stake. The one miracle on which my Christian commitment hangs is the resurrection of Christ, and for that I am thankful that there are people who have written so extensively about it. But I would love to remain open to the many other miracles reported by faithful Christians. It is not as if God's grace should put an end to my rational investigation of the world. On the contrary, it gives it meaning and hope.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Starting from zero

I tend to think of the origin of all things as a tension between One and Zero, that is, between Something and Nothing, or between Existence and Nonexistence.

In a sense, I start counting from zero.

To get to one from zero is an infinite leap, an unprecedented creative act by which existence comes into being. To reach one is to declare that something exists, that counting is possible.

Zero is a place where one can naturally start and remain for all eternity. It is complete in itself--add zero to zero, multiply by zero, and you're right back where you started. To reach one is, in the greatest of ironies, to reject uniformity, to create a chasm between the utterly self-sufficient zero and the utterly insufficient unit.

Indeed, in creating such a chasm, it is clear that what has been created is not one but two--a choice, between something and nothing. But two is not nearly so remarkable at one. The chasm between zero and one is infinite. The chasm between one and two is one itself.

One is insufficient. If we add one again, we get two, then three, then four... We tumble off into infinity, and we find that really this one generates something that cannot be contained. The leap was indeed infinite, and we see an infinite set emerge because of that.

But something really strange happens when we try to close this system. If we can go out from zero by adding one, we also want to be able to go back toward zero, by subtraction. Suppose we reach zero and decide to continue subtracting. Then we create a mirror image of the natural numbers. Perhaps there's nothing strange about this yet, until we consider that now we have an infinite set extending symmetrically in two directions. As a result, zero becomes arbitrary. There is no reason to think of zero is the "true middle" of this infinite set, precisely because it is infinite. One can simply move to a different "origin" and the two infinite branches proceeding from it are still equal in length.

This is the nature of Euclidean space: it has no center. In other words, a center (very suggestively called "origin" in mathematics) can be chosen arbitrarily. By convention we call this point "zero," but by a change of coordinates any point can be zero.

In geometry, then, the meaning of zero becomes distorted. It is merely a reference point, having no particular identity for the purposes of ontology. Indeed, no point in a geometric space possesses any such identity. Geometry is about relationships, without any center. Everything is relative.

Yet the existence of space is absolute. Either a thing exists or it doesn't. There is an infinite chasm between existence and nonexistence. Geometry has no infinite chasms. In geometry, everything is ultimately rather close to everything else, in an absolute sense; only in a relative sense can something be close or far away.

Kronecker is supposed to have said that God made the integers, and that all else was the work of man. I suppose the intuition for this comes from the fundamental difference between the study of number and the study of measure. For the latter, we take existence for granted. The construction of the real number line is a matter of "filling in the gaps" between points which are already imagined to have some spatiotemporal existence. But the construction of the set of natural numbers is something else entirely. It bursts into existence from nothingness. To measure the difference between existence and nonexistence is meaningless.

As moderns we laugh at the quaintness of a geocentric view of the universe. But I think we should try to be aware of what we might have lost in shedding the innocence of that view. Our universe no longer has any center, or rather we can choose one arbitrarily. Once upon a time space was every bit as real as number. Now it is wholly relativized. We might as well measure everything only in relation to ourselves.

But there is a point of reference far more absolute than we realize. When we envision our universe as nothing more than a space-time continuum, talking of a (geometric) origin becomes meaningless. It is only when we reflect upon its existence or nonexistence that we realize the true center. The true "origin," to which we must compare everything, is nonexistence.

How is it that the universe bursts into existence? How is this infinite chasm bridged? This is the fundamental question. The distance that everything around us traveled to get where it is now is a pitifully small question compared to the fundamental one.

The center of the universe does not lie geometrically in the center of our world, underneath the ground below us. Rather, it lies ontologically in the fires of hell--that is, in nonexistence. The Bible describes judgment as a fire that is never quenched. That is because fire obliterates flesh, and eternal destruction is the return to the center of the universe--to utter nothingness. There can be no greater torture than this. The sheer contemplation of ceasing to exist terrifies me more than words can express.

To exist is always to be away from this center. There is an infinite chasm between heaven and hell. Heaven means eternal existence, where one continually marvels at the fact of being, where there is infinite joy because there are infinite possibilities. In hell there are no possibilities.

What will the redemption of all things look like? Will it mean an end to the story, the end of time? Yet to imagine an end is to cut off all these infinite possibilities distinguish existence from nonexistence. It is zero that stays fixed forever; one, by contrast, can't help but generate infinite sets beyond itself. Heaven cannot be a place of eternal inactivity. It is not a place where all stories end.

God creates out of nothing. Even if space has no center, even if time itself has no real beginning, nevertheless the creation is the most fundamental fact of the universe. If we lose sight of this, we become disoriented. When the universe stops becoming a gift and is rather a meaningless background on top of which our lives are arbitrarily thrown, it is because we have lost the center. The center of all existence is nonexistence. Christ descended into hell, so that all might be raised to heaven.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

What is a person?

Once my wife and I were musing on the fact that we don't remember anything from before we were three or four years old. My wife hypothesized that during the first three years of life, the brain is too plastic to form any long lasting memories. On the other end, as we age the mind can become calcified, losing the ability to make new memories for essentially the opposite reason.

Science may have various things to say about this, but my reflections led me to contemplate the idea of personhood. Our identity has to do with striking the right balance between freedom and definition. What I think of as the "self" is a character gradually constructed from a series of experiences, actions, decisions.... It's important that these experiences be coherent, so my freedom to decide is not absolute. On the other hand, it's important that I be the one truly acting, so that one cannot simply deduce my next move from some abstract understanding of my nature.

For example, if I suddenly decided to abandon human civilization and go live in the forest, without any prior indication that such a decision was consistent with my values or desires, my family and friends would think I had gone insane, with good reason. Sudden shifts in our personality are considered disorders. We treat them, not because we want to squelch a person's true identity but rather because we want to liberate it. If our decisions are totally random with no coherence at all, we have no more identity than we would if we were mere particles subject to deterministic laws.

Such is the delicate balance that defines a person. Some have personalities which are far more dynamic than others; they constantly reinvent themselves. Others are more conservative, content with their habits and resistant to change. But go too far in either direction, and what you have is a tragedy. It is heartbreaking to see a person instantly change into "someone else." We feel that person has truly died. And it can be equally painful to watch someone who, as they age, becomes incapable of embracing anything new whatsoever, to the point of being unable to recognize new people they meet or retain any memories but their oldest ones.

I don't think this is a strictly "physical" problem. Certainly it is through our brains that we form memories, develop personalities, make decisions, and so on. But I don't think the question of our identity is the result of the particular "hardware" we are given. Any being capable of self-awareness would face more or less the same issue. How can I be "self-aware"? On the one hand, the phrase seems to presuppose that a definite "self" exists and I am aware of it, but on the other hand, the attention given to the self is a conscious act of the mind which requires the capacity to change. Thus the problem of free will is a dilemma faced within the very nature of any self-aware being, even apart from considering their relationship to the outside world and its laws.

So it seems God Himself must face the same dilemma. Is God perfectly free, or are His actions constrained by a definite identity which pre-exists any given action? In the right sense this is a false dilemma. Perfect freedom isn't a matter of being unconstrained. We want to be constrained by our own identity. It is by acting in perfect accord with our own selves that we feel most free. The mystery is not how we can be free in this way but rather how we can understand the self in light of this. How do I know my identity before I make any decisions? Or how do I know what decisions I will make before I know my identity?

It is like what mathematicians call a fixed point problem, which involves finding a point x for a given function f such that f(x) = x. For a given identity, one has a certain set of actions coherent with that identity; but for each set of actions, an identity is constructed. At some point the two must match, a sort of "fixed point" or equilibrium. But unlike mathematical fixed point problems, there is very little information by which we might understand, in advance, exactly where the equilibrium will occur.

The universe itself may be the outworking of this mysterious fixed point problem, in which God's own identity both constructs and is constructed. For if God creates the universe, this is surely coherent with His nature. Yet the precise way in which the universe unfolds also gradually determines and reveals His character. We don't have a precise rule giving the relationship between God's character and God's actions, but perhaps we can learn it piece by piece through prayer, theology, and rigorous study and observation (science).

Some will say I am bringing God down. Is He not absolutely free and beyond any constraint? But what does that even mean? If we can't make sense of our own freedom, how can we dare apply the word to God? It seems to me far from obvious that we can envision God as utterly unaffected by His own choices. The dynamic tension between decision and decision-maker seems inherent in the very concept of choice. So my answer is that I am not so much bringing God down as bringing humans up, that is, making them face the level of responsibility they actually possess. Not that we are somehow creators of our own fate, but simply that our identities must be cultivated. True freedom is a virtuous cycle more than anything else--the more one chooses the good, the easier it is to be good.

These reflections rapidly become very complex, and I am always forced to cut them off abruptly and prematurely. But I hope that what is emerging in these blog posts is a general pattern of thought, emphasizing the need to synthesize what often seems like two opposing concepts. Here those concepts are freedom and constraint. Yet one cannot synthesize these concepts in the abstract. It is only by living the good life that one sees what I am talking about.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Against politics

My blog has taken a turn toward philosophical and religious speculation in the past several months. I have no talked about the election. I have not even discussed political issues. Although I do engage in political discussions on facebook (and no, I don't always find it a complete waste of time) I have very consciously avoided politics on this blog.

I will admit that some of it is fatigue. When we talk about politics, passions can get the better of us. It's not good to think about it all the time, simply because it will suck us dry.

On the other hand, I've never been one to avoid controversial topics out of the desire not to offend. The idea that we should all just "get along" presumes that the way we all live is basically OK and there's nothing wrong. But many political issues are important just because they point out what's wrong with the way we live, and more particularly with the way we treat others who are on the "outside." Sure, maybe we can get along, but what about people who are influenced by our foreign policy and immigration laws? What about the children we abort? What about the unarmed civilians who get shot by police? What about people who lose their livelihood because of government regulation of the economy? I've never been able to ignore these issues of basic justice, nor do I understand how anyone else can.

Indeed, if the increasing polarization of our society bothers me, it's not because I wish we could all agree to get along and empathize with one another. Don't get me wrong, empathy and getting along are great, and if we get better at them, we've certainly accomplished something. But to me the real danger is not just that polarization makes us mean but that it makes us stupid. We become so angry at "the other side" that we justify everything that "our side" does. It makes us incapable of applying principles consistently. The most obvious is when one party criticizes the other party's president for enacting virtually the same foreign policy (secret kill list and all), for encroaching on our civil liberties in many of the same ways, and so on. I could also get more specific on particular issues, but there's no time for that here.

So anger makes us blind, damaging our relationships and distorting our thinking. But where does this anger come from in the first place?

I think it comes from a belief, sometimes conscious and other times subconscious, that the most important thing we do is politics. If we don't elect the right candidate, we will doom our society by leaving it in the hands of evil or incompetence (or both). But if we can just enact the right policies, we can cure society's ills and have justice. It is tempting to think this is the highest of all human endeavors. Every election becomes the most important in our lifetime. The news can find nothing more important than the decisions of government.

I claim this belief is false. We have only to imagine a world in which government is just, and good policies are implemented. What, then? Have we finished all the important work? Is there nothing left but to sit back and relax and enjoy an easy life? Would that not be utterly devoid of meaning? Would it not be...boring?

Christians have long wondered (and debated) what the kingdom of heaven will really be like. Will we just play harps all day and sing praise to God? Will it be one endless party? There are many people who say they would not want immortality, because they would be utterly bored. If the limited visions presented are literally correct, I suppose they are right. We need to refine our imaginations a little bit.

I don't see how the mind can live forever without continually growing and, indeed, working. The end of evil would not mean the eternal victory of laziness. On the contrary. Work is at the heart of who we are, who we are intended to be. The mind is satisfied when it creates and discovers. The reason we are so miserable in this modern age is that we have so many things to distract us that we fail to satisfy our deepest need to discover things eternal and spiritual. We have reduced everything to a problem to be solved, and presumably once that problem is solved we have no purpose left.

This is vanity and a chasing after wind. Impatience makes us miserable. If we want a cure for all this anger and grief caused by politics, the only answer is thinking beyond the next four years, beyond even the next century. I am not drained by politics only because it provokes anger, but also because it disconnects me from the mysterious, the beautiful, and the transcendent. I forget about music and poetry and nature. I forget about those haunting questions about free will and salvation and the nature of mind.

Supposing we managed to enact all the right policies and save society from its ills, what would it then have? Would there be any meaning in such a perfect existence? Does satisfying every physical need of human beings give them what their souls desire?

It is fashionable these days for Christians to critique the older tendency to reject temporal concerns in favor of eternal, spiritual ones. But we have slipped into the opposite tendency. I think we need to rediscover the virtue of relativizing the needs of the present. It is only by rediscovering the eternal significance of our lives that we can address our temporal needs without losing our minds. Life is not one big problem to be solved. It is a gift, one which we can learn to appreciate more and more for all eternity.

So I think I need to detach myself from politics, at least until I am able to come back to it with a right perspective. Engaging in politics should be an act of love on the part of one who has the proper goal in mind. Jesus entered into our world and did not despise the temporal, but he came down from heaven. We ourselves also need to enter into the heavenly realms, so that we can labor on earth with the energy of heaven.

But I have said this the wrong way. It is not so that we can labor on earth that we strive for the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven is the goal; all the rest will be added to us because "your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things." Let us strive first for the kingdom.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Could the world have been otherwise?

Often I feel like I'm dreaming, or not quite sure if there's a difference between asleep and awake. Like Descartes, I wonder how I can trust my senses. All of life feels so trapped "inside," like my mind is a chamber from which I never really leave. Ultimately I can't prove that what I experience inside ever really comes from outside. Maybe it's all just my imagination.

On the other hand I'm quite convinced it's not my imagination, because if it were, I would enjoy so much more freedom. Why is it such a fixed law that I cannot pass through solid objects? Why, in order to get from point A to point B, must I pass through all the points in between? Why am I subject to forces, unable to turn them off, so to speak? If I could turn off gravity at will, making it no longer universal but applicable only when I wanted it to be, then I could fly at will. But I could do better; I could simply decide to change my location at will. There would be no physical constraints.

There would still be constraints, of course. Wouldn't logic always constrain my thoughts? As long as one is one and two is two and three is three, one and two make three; it simply cannot be any other way, even in a dream world. It is only the rules governing physical events that seem arbitrary to my mind, not the laws of thought themselves. If I saw someone instantly move from one point to another, I would think I am dreaming, but I would not think there is no difference between falsehood and truth. In a world where people can teleport, they can still be right or wrong about what they think, can't they?

Still, there are at least two things that puzzle me. One is time. Is time logical, or merely physical? When we imagine time travel, we are able to get a long way before we run into irreconcilable paradoxes. We create entire stories based on time travel, but they are always written to carefully avoid the details that bother us. If I can go back and change my own past, then how can I be who I presently am? As my past changes, I change, and therefore I can never actually be who I presently am. That seems to be a logical absurdity, not merely a physical one.

But the deeper puzzle, in my opinion, is how, if at all, I can imagine a world of my own without simply rearranging what I experience in the "real" world (assuming there is such a thing). If I dream up a world by visualizing some new landscape, are there not colors? Are not those colors those I have already seen with my eyes? And if I don't visualize, must I not at least hear or feel something? And how can I possibly imagine sound apart from "remixing" the sounds I have already heard? Or what can it possibly mean to feel other than what I actually experience every day? Is it possible to totally invent a new sensation which has no connection at all with what has already been imposed on me by life in this world? I confess I have tried many times, but I utterly failed.

This is frustrating, because I am aware that there are many sensations which a being could theoretically experience in this "real world" which I cannot. There are animals which hear higher and/or lower frequencies of sound than I ever will, or see different frequencies of light. There are creatures which tolerate different temperatures; do they then have different experiences of temperature? Yet all of these are simply differences of degree, after all. Each of these things can be put on a scale with a number assigned to them, and there are indeed precise mathematical relationships between those numbers. Double a frequency and you go up an octave, or cut it in half to go down. One can almost imagine going higher and higher or lower and lower in frequency with no limit. For me it is much more difficult to understand how different frequencies of light would lead to different experiences, but maybe it is possible, in principle.

The fact that these basic experiences are so attached to mathematical relationships suggests that maybe there is something fundamental about them. Perhaps even in a dream world one could not escape them. Although one can amuse oneself by wondering if anyone else sees the exact same color blue as in one's own mind, maybe the truth is that there is only one color blue, just as there is only one musical note that one hears at 440 Hz. It might be hard to say the same about feelings--how can smoothness, roughness, softness and hardness be quantified? Yet the mere fact that such feelings exist on a continuum suggests that even these might be literally quantifiable and, on some level, fundamental.

In other words, maybe there inheres in all things that exist some fundamental principle of existence. If so, is this not God Himself? But is God's creation of the universe an act of the will, or is it almost a forced decision, a mere logical outworking of principles which even He cannot contradict? Can God himself decide that the laws of logic do not apply? If this is absurd, what if it is no less absurd to think that God could have created a different color blue?

It seems to me impossible to state which would be preferable--that God Himself is subject to laws beyond His own control or design, or that God made the universe according to an arbitrary act of will. The first implies God is not really God at all, but rather an impersonal force which may not have a will of its own whatsoever. The second implies that God is an arbitrary dictator, forcing us to live in a world which very easily could have been different, and for which we may therefore rightly complain about Him.

But if we reject the dichotomy, insisting that in some mysterious way both of these assertions are true--God created the universe both according to His will and according to laws which cannot be altered--we find the world suddenly illuminated with meaning. Nothing is merely arbitrary. Everything possesses some special relationship with that which is absolute, eternal, profoundly mysterious and beautiful. Every single thing. The color blue is worth meditating on. The frequency 440 Hz is worthy of our contemplation. The intervals studied by music theorists are not merely patterns found in our own music; they are divine creations, which can be explored even by the mind and the heart. The laws of physics are no longer constraints, for through them we have access to that which has no location--the divine Himself.

Still, one wonders then what becomes of prayer. If all these relationships are so precisely attuned to God's own will, how can He change them? Why would He ever intervene with a miracle? Why would He ever listen to our input? But our own minds must have some eternal relationship to Him; if language is related to our own actions, why not His as well?

I make no attempt here to resolve these paradoxes. I just find them delightful.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Origen on the inspiration of Scripture

From On First Principles, Book IV, Chapter I:
"Now if we consider how in a ery few years, although those who professor Christianity are persecuted and some are put to death on account of it while others suffer the loss of their possessions, yet the word has been able, in spite of the fewness of its teachers, to be "preached everywhere in the world" (cf. Mt 24:14) so that the Greeks and barbarians, wise and foolish (cf. Rom 1:14) have adopted the religion of Jesus, we shall not hesitate to say that this achievement is more than human, remembering that Jesus taught with all authority and convincing power that his word should prevail (cf. Mk 13:31).
"Consequenctly we may reasonably regard as oracles those utterances of his such as...." 
Further on:
"Now when we thus briefly demonstrate the divine nature of Jesus and use the words spoken in prophecy about him, we demonstrate at the same time that the writings which prophesy about him are divinely inspired and that the words which announce his sojourning here and his teaching were spoken with all power and authority and that this is the reason why they have prevailed over the elect people taken from among the nations. And we must add that it was after the advent of Jesus that the inspiration of the prophetic words and the spiritual nature of Moses's law came to light."
In other words, the Scriptures themselves do not attest independently of their own inspiration; they are wholly dependent on the coming of Jesus Christ.

Later on in Chapters II - III he explains that the Scriptures must be understood in a spiritual way. Passages have both a "soul" and a "body." The body is the physical, literal, or straightforward meaning, when there is one. But there isn't always a "bodily sense" that is acceptable! Origen gives a list of examples (Chapter III) in which the Bible cannot be taken literally, starting with (interestingly enough) the creation story:
"Now what man of intelligence will believe that the first and the second and the third day, and the evening and the morning existed without the sun and moon and stars? ... And when God is said to 'walk in the paradise in the cool of the day' and Adam to hide himself behind a tree, I do not think anyone will doubt that these are figurative expressions which indicate certain mysteries through a semblance of history and not through actual events."
He gives many other examples of things from Scripture which he finds to be unlikely or even "impossible."

To me, the most significant thing about these arguments is that they come from what is perhaps the first systematic theology ever written in the Christian tradition. Far from some modern liberal interpretation of the Bible, this comes from one of the oldest sources we have on Christian doctrine. And while I disagree with Origen about many things, this is one thing on which I agree totally, and I can't express quite enough how thankful I am for it. It makes the Bible readable. Everyone who has read the entirety of Scripture knows that there are passages and even whole themes (such as the divinely ordered destruction of the peoples of Canaan) that present impossible problems for Christians. But if we read every passage in a spiritual way, inspired not just by any thoughts that happen to arise in our heads but rather by the person of Jesus Christ found in the gospels, we rediscover the Bible as a source of power. We find in all of these stories of war and divine wrath a story about our own struggles with sin and evil and longing for redemption.

And what could be more Christian? Christ is the center; the rest must be understood in terms of him.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

The heart and the head

Yesterday as I was finishing up a blog post, I surprised myself with these words: "And although the heart is quite easily intimidated by the head, I think one sees more clearly through it than through any power of reason." I admit this is not obviously true. When we consider the kinds of debates that occur on the Internet, we find most people swept away by their own feelings rather than committed to rational inquiry. At the same time, no one wants to admit that the heart is overpowering the head. They will argue by telling you what books or articles they have read. They will criticize your intelligence, not your gut instinct. They will give you their credentials, rather than admitting that what they are saying is simply what they want to be true. In other words, the heart is never secure in its beliefs; it always needs the head to bring the appropriate amount of intimidation.

Atheism is born of skepticism, and skepticism is essentially a moral principle. We must not accept a claim simply because we would like it to be true, or because many other people accept it. Rigorously applied, this leads us to question all hope, including and perhaps especially that of eternal life. Even if everyone would naturally like to live forever (and in fact this is apparently not the case), that is not a good enough reason to think eternal life is real.

I think all of us accept this principle, but then it is a question of rigorous application. We realize we need the head to discipline the heart, because the heart is so easily confused. But I think that if the head finally wins out, so that it no longer serves the heart by its discipline but instead becomes a tyrant over it, then we are just as lost as if we allowed the heart to abandon the head.

It is true that the truth is not always what we want to hear, but how can the truth be devoid of anything good? In that case I don't see why we shouldn't abandon it. It is only because of an ingrained moral principle that we insist on seeking the truth. By what argument will we insist on upholding this moral principle when the truth has nothing good to offer?

I remember an argument we had in a philosophy class in college. We had a speaker give a presentation on altruism and the "free rider problem" in evolutionary biology. The basic idea is that the presence of altruism in any species is somewhat remarkable, because altruists expose themselves to greater danger of extinction relative to those who benefit from their altruism. Some of my classmates objected that in the human species, at any rate, we never see any genuine altruism. Instead, we only see people motivated by some reward--eternal life, perhaps, or maybe just the good feeling of being morally superior, or even just the feeling of being good (even without the superiority).

Now, my classmates thought they were being very clever. I think they were being idiots. Someone who acts unselfishly for no reason whatsoever is not a "true altruist" but a robot. A true altruist has some vision of the good and pursues it. To be unselfish simply means to act for the sake of others, rather than thinking of one's own needs first. That one does so thinking that it leads to eternal life does not diminish its value, but rather shows that one believes there is justice in the universe. For if altruism is ultimately rewarded by a cold, empty universe in which no one exists to even tell the tale of such deeds, what was the point of doing it at all?

Of course one need not believe in eternal life in order to have some vision of the good. One might consider that the propagation of the human species as long as possible is an end worth pursuing. Or there may be other candidates. But in any case, we are motivated by this fundamental good, which we hope will be realized.

I see very little appeal to the idea that truth is good for its own sake, except insofar as it is beautiful. But not all truth is beautiful. In mathematics, I find many truths beautiful; but there are many facts in life which I find boring or burdensome, and not at all beautiful.

And as for the ultimate truth about the destiny of the universe... It is true that we cannot simply wish it to be good. But if we are convinced that our destiny is bad, what argument do we have that finding out the truth was even a worthwhile pursuit? In what way does it help us to know that everything we do will come to nothing?

Not everything is truly good. Many of the things we cling to with the heart are only distortions of what is good. Political visions tend to fall into this category. We develop a theory of a just society and seek to impose it on others, not realizing that what we have is an imperfect vision of the good. In that case the head must come to discipline the heart, pointing out that what we thought was good is not consistent with other things which we know are good. The head demands consistency from the heart, and so disciplines it until it arrives at its true destination.

But for the head to stamp out all hope, so that the heart no longer has a destination, is to render life absurd. It is not because the Bible is primitive that it holds out promises of life and death. Moses does not say, "Choose truth," but rather, "Choose life, so that you may live." That is the ultimate wisdom. Truth does not exist for its own sake, but rathe for the sake of life, which is the ultimate good.

So while I believe that the world could always use a large dose of rationalism to correct for its excessive laziness in thinking about what is good, at some point the rationalist must allow the heart to keep itself from being crushed by the head. If this sounds like vain optimism or even sentimentalism, I can only reply that it doesn't make sense to me to live otherwise. I prefer vain optimism to hopeless futility.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Consciousness and reality

Descartes' "cogito" is not a syllogism but a profound mystical experience of one's reality. (Pavel Florensky)
It is all the rage these days for scientists to become interested in the question of consciousness. We want to explain this phenomenon, because it seems like the last bastion of metaphysics where physics cannot touch. No scientific materialist can resist such a challenge.

But consciousness is not simply a "phenomenon." It is the background of all phenomena. To assert that something exists is the same as saying, "I am conscious that it exists." If there is no consciousness, there is essentially no existence. We can imagine a closed system in which no conscious being exists. But such a reality is merely hypothetical. It would not--could not--have any meaningful existence outside of our own thought experiment, which is itself the product of consciousness!

Reflecting in this manner, one is slightly tempted by solipsism. Perhaps all of reality is actually the product of my consciousness. Yet this is only a very slight temptation, because it feels immediately absurd. In reality, I have so little control over my surroundings, so little understanding even of myself. If I am at all self-aware, I have the constant sensation of being a very small part of a vast universe which goes on existing whether I do or not.

So if the existence of the universe depends on consciousness, it certainly does not seem to depend on my consciousness.

Both of these reflections have such a strong intuitive appeal that I can't help but accept them both. I conclude that my own consciousness is in fact one small result of a much greater consciousness, to which all things in existence are attached.

The materialist will argue that all of my experiences are the result of processes which occur physically in the brain, and therefore there is no reason to posit any notion of immaterial consciousness. But this is only to explain consciousness as an external phenomenon, one which we can observe, test, and then circumscribe in physical theory. That is not at all what consciousness is. We cannot reduce consciousness down to anything else because it is the most fundamental fact of all, as Descartes sensed vividly when he said, "I think, therefore I am." The most fundamental fact is, "I am." But that fact is precisely consciousness, which is why for Florensky this is not a syllogism but rather a mystical experience, that is, a powerful awareness that we normally suppress.

This is why the name of God translates to, "I am." There is nothing more fundamental than that something exists. But that fact would no longer be a fact if it were not known. Hence the universe comes into being through the words, "I am."

Obviously our own awareness of the universe is very limited, and it is only made possible by our extraordinarily complex material composition (in particular, the brain). But as much as we might understand the human brain, we will never remotely penetrate the question of why there exists something rather than nothing, and in the same way we will never be able to theoretically circumscribe consciousness. Indeed, consciousness is that which circumscribes all our theories.

Instead, we ought to try to understand the whole universe as an outworking of this assertion, "I am." Although our own consciousness is receptive, seeking to understand that which precedes it, God's consciousness is an active one, calling things into existence. The physical complexity of our brains is a requirement for us because we need so many complex functions to be able to respond to the world as it exists. God, on the other hand, needs no complex parts, because His consciousness is all-encompassing.

We encounter here the mystery of human existence. If we retreat into our own minds, we encounter consciousness, and it is as if we ourselves were God. But if we look outward for even a moment, we realize that we are mere creatures, and it is only because of the absurdly rich genetic inheritance that we have received that we have even a drop of consciousness in us. We cannot decide whether we are creatures or creators.

Scientific materialism leaves no room for this mystery. It makes us into mere creatures because it wants to assert that we are creators. It is the ultimate irony. We are alone in the universe; apart from sufficiently complex organisms, there is no such thing as consciousness; the universe is empty, no one is listening, no one is watching. We therefore must make our own reality, except that reality is already imposed on us; we are mere creatures, desperately attempting to be creators on the basis of our intellectual capacities. But since we are not created but the product of mere time and chance, we are not even creatures but rather objects. There is no mystery of existence; rather, it is a tragedy, or a farce.

I realize that it is with a very aggressive tone that I make these assertions, but that is not because I am so certain of my own position. Quite the opposite. I admit it's plausible, when we look at the world from a human point of view, that we are an accidental blip of consciousness in an otherwise dead universe. For me, it is more the heart than the head which rails against such conclusions. And although the heart is quite easily intimidated by the head, I think one sees more clearly through it than through any power of reason.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Free will and theodicy

Reading through Origen's On First Principles, I discovered that he used free will as a way of justifying God, to the point where he quite apparently says that all souls are born into different stations in life because of the good or bad they did in previous lives. Aside from the fact that this sounds more like a Hindu doctrine than a Christian one, I was struck by how much it differs from the Augustinian interpretation of grace. Calvin took Augustine to the extreme. For Calvin, there is no reason to justify God in the first place. God foreordains everything according to His good purpose, and if it makes no sense to us, it is only because we are so limited and/or corrupted.

Now being acquainted with these two extremes in Christian thought, I'm tempted to go the moderate route. It seems perfectly reasonable that God would create the world with creatures of various stations, not because of any question of merit, but rather simply because diversity is a good and beautiful thing (contra Origen). On the other hand, it also seems reasonable to think that many of these creatures have free will, and will be judged on the basis of what they do with their limited capacities, in proportion to the extent of those capacities. To suggest, as Calvin seems to do, that we can't use our common sense to understand what is right and wrong for God to do puts us in a pretty bad position when it comes to theology--how do we know that God is not actually a demon?

But the moderate route isn't entirely satisfying. If God isn't truly in control of everything that happens, how can we call Him Lord of all creation? There are many passages of Scripture that seem to attribute to God absolute power over human actions, even the human mind. So Isaiah 63:17--"Why, O Lord, do you make us stray from your ways and harden our heart, so that we do not fear you?" Or Proverbs 16:9--"The human mind plans the way, but the Lord directs the steps." Or Jeremiah 31:33--"I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts." There are plenty of other verses which affirm human responsibility, but these are hard to ignore.

The difficulty in trying to justify God is trying to determine just what kind of universe He should have made. I suppose Calvin saw this more than most of us. It seems impossible to imagine a universe for which God could not receive some reproach. The fact that anything exists at all is a miracle and, at the same time, a condemnation--if I exist, I am doomed to be whatever it is I am and not something else. One could imagine that this horrible tension is the root of all sin. Adam and Eve had a paradise to live in, yet they still found themselves tempted by what it was not.

At the same time, to jettison all sense of justice by which to evaluate God's action is to destroy prayer as it is found in the Bible. There are, of course, the psalms, which make very direct complaints to God, calling on Him to remember His steadfast love and His promises. But the paragons of prayer are Abraham and Moses. Abraham negotiated with God over the destruction of Sodom: "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?" And Moses interceded for his people on the basis of reason: "Why should the Egytians say, 'It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth'?" If these men had been willing merely to accept God's plans, convincing themselves by some theological argument that whatever God did was right, they would never have been heroes of the faith.

I don't see any way out of the tension between what is and what is not. It seems to me the essence of life itself. We desire to reach a point of perfection, where we can finally stop and say, "It is enough." Yet we know that if we stopped completely, that would be an end to life itself. All life is motion and change. A perfect, finished worked of art is lifeless. It is only in the contemplation of that art, in the active appreciation, that we derive any pleasure from it.

Behold the central paradox of Christian theology. Christ did not consider equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a human being, and become obedient even to the point of death on a cross. He who knew no sin became sin. God took on imperfection in order to attain perfection.

What does this have to do with free will? Only that in Christian thought, free will relates to theodicy, the justification of God. Some will justify God's wrath by reminding us of our responsibility. Others will justify it by asserting God's supremacy. The argument goes back and forth eternally. The disagreement is honest. It is a living response; any resolution to the argument would mean we are no more than a lifeless work of art.

Prayer, more than debate, is a living response. Abraham and Moses argued their case before God. Jesus, and then Stephen the martyr, prayed, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Ultimately, the resolution of God's wrath is on the cross. Christ died for us while we were still sinners. We are told he even went and proclaimed the good news to the dead (1 Peter 3:19). For the Christian, then, there is limitless hope for the salvation of the world, of every soul. There is no reason to resign ourselves to believing in the eternal damnation of some for the sake of God's eternal purpose (contra Augustine and Calvin). God's eternal purpose is the cross, that impossible event which changes everything.

Jesus told his disciples to take up their own cross. This is the ultimate living response. Instead of justifying God by our theories, we ought to vindicate Him by imitating Him. Whether or not this is a free choice, I still don't know, but it is a choice: to take up our cross daily, to embrace the contradiction in our own lives between our desire to be and our desire to be something else.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Breath, spirit, will

My wife pointed out to me the other day something profound. The breath, she said, is essentially the border between the conscious will and the unconscious, automatic processes governing the human body. The heart, for example, beats at whatever rate it's supposed to. The stomach gets to work whether you tell it to or not. On the other hand, most things we control consciously do very little automatically. We choose to walk around; it is extremely rare for someone to start walking in their sleep. As for our mental life, well, it is true that we may have both conscious and subconscious thoughts, but how they interact is a complete mystery to me; in my common sense experience of the world, my thoughts are purely conscious.

But the breath is in between. On the one hand, I don't need to consciously think about breathing. When I sleep, my body automatically breathes. Even when I don't sleep, my lungs will automatically work at the pace they need to when the occasion calls for it. Yet I can choose to override these automatic rhythms. I can hold my breath. I can choose to breathe more slowly, or more quickly if I so desire.

This is especially evident in that most human of all activities: speech. To speak, I must take a breath big enough to finish the phrase I have in mind. This act of will is taken to a higher level in song.

In the Bible, "spirit" means "breath" or "wind." As far as I know, this is true in both Hebrew and Greek, both Old and New Testaments.

The Spirit of God, then, might be seen as the will of God coming to life in the physical world. As God prepares to speak, He takes a breath... and the Word that comes out will not fall to the ground without accomplishing its purpose. God is a good speaker, a well-trained singer.

The traditional Christian Trinity is recited as "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit," but one could make the case that "Father, Spirit, Son" is also an appropriate order. The Son is the Word, and the Word comes from the Father through His Spirit, that is, His Breath. Do we not say that the Son was conceived by the Holy Spirit? And if the Son is God Incarnate, that is, the Will of God made into a body, then is not the Spirit of God, so to speak, the boundary between God and His body? But I am stretching the image rather far; I don't mean to invent new theories, only jot down hypotheses.

For us, I think rediscovering the breath as spirit is important for our lives. When we focus on the breath as the center of our being, we reconnect the spiritual with the physical. We reconnect the human will with the human animal.

Sit and concentrate on your breathing. Sit up straight, fix your posture so that you have plenty of room to take in the air. Breathe slowly, so that you can enjoy it. As you breathe, you will notice that the rest of your body responds. Your heart changes its rhythm in response to the breath. You will feel the blood flow through all parts of your body and be made more aware of them. You will come into contact with your body on a physical level which is not habitual. On the other hand, you will also be more spiritually alert. The breath is an act of the will; it is a striving toward truth, toward beauty, toward the good. As you straighten out your back and breathe deeply, you will be reminded that your body is a sanctuary for the divine, a building that reaches upward.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Florensky on evolutionism -- "What is the differential equation?"

From At the Crossroads of Science and Mysticism, Lecture Four:
Renaissance culture also gave attention to the other principal form of being--time. The examination of the concept of time occurred later, and the fragmentation of being in time was performed later than the fragmentation in space: evolutionism came after mechanism.

Evolutionism does have a healthy seed--gentism, according to which an essence does not unfold in some single moment, and the spiritual meaning of an object is not exhausted by some single state, but exists in the totality of its states. But evolutionism errs when it states that this genesis is made up of infinitely small additions, so small that each separately can be considered not a creative act. ...

For example, let us consider the question of the origin of man. Evolutionism denies that there is a qualitative and fundamental difference between man and animals. But if this process occurs discontinuously, if man is descended from the apes, this theory loses its anti-religious character, since a qualitative change suddenly occurs. And if man was created from the dust of the earth by a special creative act, why not then allow in principle--only in principle--that man was created by a momentary addition of spiritual qualities to the ape?
What I am pretty sure Florensky is saying is that one need not take the creation story in the Bible literally to have a Christian worldview, but on the other hand he does insist on a "discontinuous" development of spiritual qualities. On the one hand, I suppose that science can't now and perhaps never will be able to address the important qualitative differences between man and the apes. For example, there will never be a fossil record of spoken language, so we will never know definitively when or how speech developed. On the other hand, Florensky (writing in 1920, mind you) could be taken as throwing his lot in with what might be called the "intelligent design" crowd. How else to interpret this statement, particularly with its wording about "creative acts"?

There's a very thought-provoking passage on how the differential calculus was absorbed into modern science:
For the immediate consciousness rest is opposite to motion, while the essence of science is the fact that we can study motion only by separating it into states as if of rest, with the result being the differential equation. The latter becomes the universal instrument of mathematics, and then of all science and the whole Renaissance epoch, since, to quote Kant, every science is a science insofar as it incorporates mathematics.
 He goes on:
What is the differential equation? Some sort of process is occurring, and we stop it and break it up into a series of instants and see it as if in sectional view. The differential equation is a general formula suitable for the sectioning and study of any process. With this method we are not concerned with the past, with what occurred earlier in time, with whether these are people or whether they are statues who suddenly started moving again after we had stopped them. Only the present is important for us here, not the past; but for many phenomena it is precisely the past that is important.
Writing in 1920, I suppose Florensky could simply not have known about all the modern developments in differential equations. Now it is commonplace to deal with integro-differential equations which were developed to take into account nonlocal interactions across both time and space. I wonder what he would say if he could have lived to see the era in which most differential equations do not involve continuous functions and Taylor series, but rather wild, mysterious functions and generalizations thereof.

Even today, one might think at first glance that Florensky is basically right in his description of differential equations, in that they are meant to break down a process into infinitesimal moments, each of which may be viewed as "not a creative act" but rather a blind obedience to some universal law. But even creative acts or subjective experiences can be modeled quantitatively. The whole use of optimal control theory to predict social behavior comes from the idea not that human beings follow mechanical laws but rather that they exhibit optimizing behavior, i.e. genuine acts of will. Florensky simply could not have seen this, since its development came only after his death.

Still, Florensky challenges me like no other thinker, perhaps because so few theologians know or write anything about differential equations! It would be naive to assume that mathematical objects appeared in a philosophical vaccuum. I should pay closer attention to how today's concepts are used (or could be used) to shape our world view.

To me, there will always be one fundamental discontinuity that cannot be ignored by any scientific theory, and that is the mere fact of existence. Between existence and non-existence there is no continuum. There can be no "probability" that the universe would come into being. Rather, its existence is pure impenetrable mystery. For me, this is basically the same thing as to say that God spoke the universe into being.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Florensky on philosophy

"Psychologically, it is natural for people to say that everything is very simple. This is opposite to the sense that begot philosophy--the sense of wonder. To be a philosopher is always to perceive reality as something new, as something that is never boring or stale. The adventure of the spiritual life consists in the fact that everything is renewed, first is one's consciousness and then outside oneself. The one essential thing is to transform all of reality. We must die and forget everything that seemed boring and stale, and when we awaken, all will be renewed for us; it will be beautiful and eternally joyous." -- Pavel Florensky, At the Crossroads of Science and Mysticism
I think this is my new mission statement for life. For context, this is actually part of a critique of modern thought. The quote continues:
"And to some degree this actually happened. The second part of Faust represents spiritual renewal after suffering. Its beginning is depicted in hues reminiscent of the sky, an approximate vision of the primordial creature, in contrast to the task of Renaissance culture--not to wonder at anything." 
 This book is a gem, absolutely necessary for anyone thinking about building a Christian worldview.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Elon the Zebulunite

After him Elon the Zebulunite judged Israel; and he judged Israel ten years. Then Elon the Zebulunite died, and was buried at Aijalon in the land of Zebulun. (Judges 12:11-12)
There are certain passages of scripture, like this one, which stand out for being so...useless. There is no wisdom, no moral teaching, not even a story. Even Ibzan of Bethlehem and Abdon son of Hillel the Pirathonite, who came before and after Elon, had little tales attached to their name (Ibzan had thirty sons and thirty daughters, who all married people from outside the clan; Abdon "had forty sons and thirty grandsons, who rode on seventy donkeys"). Elon judged ten years; that's it.

That's not to say there isn't a lot to be gleaned from a deep analysis of these two verses. A quick Google search yielded an article delving into the historical Israelite practices surrounding transfer of territory. Of course, even that topic is history mainly for history's sake. If Israel is itself sacred, then understanding its history is of religious value. Perhaps that is one of the main draws of this brief passage. We can imagine an historian dutifully recording Elon's brief appointment as judge, for no other reason than to faithfully reproduce the sequences of events that led Israel from the days of Joshua up to the time of the kings.

Still, what about Elon himself? We will never know anything about him other than his name, his title, and the fact that he bore that title for ten years. I often imagine all the saints meeting in the kingdom of heaven. Many of them will meet Elon and ask him what he did during his life on earth. Perhaps he will respond with many stories. Or maybe he will just smile and say, "I judged Israel ten years."

Following the teaching of Jesus, who said such things as "the last will be first and the first will be last," and, "whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave," one might say Elon is the greatest of all the judges. There are no stories glorifying him. It is enough for him to have served the nation of Israel, God's people. In this way, maybe a Christian can glean from this brief mention of Elon a model of heroism, after the manner that Christ taught us. But I suppose that's rather reaching. After all, Elon was judge. He was not slave of all; unlike Christ, he did not refuse to be put in a position of power (cf. John 6:15).

Implicit in my questions about this text is the notion that every text of scripture should be edifying, as in 2 Timothy 3:16, "All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness." One has to really reach in order to apply this principle to all scripture. For the Christian, it's not enough that a passage should faithfully record the history of Israel; some application to our lives, as we strive to become more like Christ, is necessary. And anyway, modern historical criticism casts so much doubt on the history recorded in scripture that taking these passages at their word is a leap of faith.

So what do we do with Elon the Zebulunite? What do we do with any of the judges? Even the great ones like Samson can hardly be considered models. But at least a story like that of Samson may or may not have an allegorical interpretation which is edifying. Elon is simply a footnote.

But there he is, eternally etched into the narrative of scripture, refusing to budge. I am tempted to think one simply has to have a sense of humor when approaching the Bible. It did not come together the way anyone would expect if one were imagining God speaking directly to us. Now that it has enjoyed its 2000 year status as canonical, there's no changing it. We can rest assured Elon the Zebulunite will remain there, challenging us to find a spiritual meaning behind his name and his ten years as judge.

I think there is something edifying about this, after all. We need continual reminders that the universe is the way it is because of events that preceded us, that we cannot change, and that defy any sort of theoretical explanation. We live in God's world, not a world which is "designed" according to human standards. Not everything has an immediately obvious purpose. And yet, if it had not been for all of these apparently meaningless events in the exact sequence they happened, I would not exist.

In other words, as much as I might naturally feel that my life would be totally unaffected if Elon the Zebulunite's name did not appear where it does in scripture, in fact it would change everything. Over two thousand years of history would be altered. If a butterfly flapping its wings can cause a hurricane...or however that's supposed to go,,.one can only imagine what it would mean if even a single character, however uninteresting, were removed from the Bible.

The more I read the Bible and reflect, the more I become less concerned with the abstract principles it teaches (though I have not lost sight of them), and the more I am aware of its very presence. Almost the very essence of the Bible's power is that it cannot be changed. Although it may have gone through many revisions to become what it is today, from now on no such revision is even conceivable. (Here I am not talking about translation and interpretation. I am mostly certainly aware that there will always be as many interpretations of scripture as there are human beings on the planet, but I think this can be safely distinguished from the content of the Bible.) That is the kind of presence in our world that can be felt, all the more so when one makes it a habit to read these now unchangeable document.

Paradoxically, this judge without a story has provoked in me more thought than any other, thus becoming the judge I would be least in favor of omitting from any reading of scripture. Of course, I doubt anyone would know who I'm talking about if I casually brought him up in conversation. The presence of scripture can be felt, but its contents remain a secret hidden in plain sight. I suppose that's natural. I don't mean to lament the lack of biblical literacy of our society based on the evidence that no one has ever heard of Elon the Zebulunite. This is simply a meditation, one that cannot possibly resolve all the mysteries surrounding this strange text.

Then again, it would be nice to know that the Christians who, in speaking about scripture practically deify it, actually knew its contents. Maybe then they would speak about it with much less certainty.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Aristotelian realism

An article I read in Aeon Magazine by James Franklin gives me a good springboard for some of my own thoughts about the philosophy of mathematics. The author (who has a book on the subject) essentially opposes two extreme positions, the one nominalist and the other Platonist. The nominalist seems to say that mathematics doesn't study any real objects; it is merely a language, a series of tautologies that has great instrumental value but has no content on its own. The Platonist says that, on the contrary, mathematical objects exist in their own realm, and that the human mind has access to that realm through contemplation and logical reasoning.

The problem with the first view is that to any mathematician, it seems fairly straightforward to assert that we actually discover something--not just logical relationships between symbols, but actual content. The problem with the second view is that the world of mathematical concepts seems remote; how can we physical beings have access to it?

The alternative is Aristotelian realism, which asserts that mathematical objects inhere in nature. Our minds have access to them initially through observation, then through abstraction and logical reasoning.

This alternative is very attractive for at least two reasons. One reason is that it makes sense of applications far more easily than either Platonism or nominalism. Why should mathematical models be so good at describing real world phenomena? Under the Platonist view, there's not much reason even to wonder about it, since mathematical objects are eternal and inherently separate from the contingent world we live in. Under the nominalist view, the puzzle is why a mere language would be so effective in discovering things about the universe before they are even observed (think about the mathematical development of general relativity). Realism has a simple explanation: we draw mathematical concepts out of the real world, so it's natural that we should use them to explain how it works.

Another reason is that it's satisfying from the point of view of a practicing mathematician. Platonism also has that trait, in that it elevates the objects of mathematical study themselves. But Aristotelian realism allows us to assert that mathematics has real content without divorcing it from common experience. I find this accords well with my own practice of mathematics, both in research and teaching. I always emphasize to my students that common sense should be the starting point for thinking about any mathematical problem. Of course we have to take a long journey out from that starting point, but ultimately each step is grounded in reasoning that any flesh and blood human being can understand.

For me there's a third, more theological reason to appreciate Aristotelian realism. Franklin alludes to theological import himself:
Aristotelian realism stands in a difficult relationship with naturalism, the project of showing that all of the world and human knowledge can be explained in terms of physics, biology and neuroscience. If mathematical properties are realised in the physical world and capable of being perceived, then mathematics can seem no more inexplicable than colour perception, which surely can be explained in naturalist terms. On the other hand, Aristotelians agree with Platonists that the mathematical grasp of necessities is mysterious. What is necessary is true in all possible worlds, but how can perception see into other possible worlds? The scholastics, the Aristotelian Catholic philosophers of the Middle Ages, were so impressed with the mind’s grasp of necessary truths as to conclude that the intellect was immaterial and immortal. If today’s naturalists do not wish to agree with that, there is a challenge for them. ‘Don’t tell me, show me’: build an artificial intelligence system that imitates genuine mathematical insight. There seem to be no promising plans on the drawing board.
This paragraph is delightfully provocative. I suspect many proponents of artifical intelligence believe they are not so far off as Franklin believes, but I can neither confirm nor deny such claims. In any case, artificial intelligence is not what interests me most. Instead, I tend to fixate on this question, "What is necessary is true in all possible worlds, but how can perception see into other possible worlds?"

To me the advantage Aristotelian realism has over Platonism is that it lets us see the eternal, even the sacred, in all things. Whereas the Platonist sees objects in the world as mere shadows on the wall, as it were, the Aristotelian sees them as sources of truth in themselves. For this reason I think Aristotelianism can affirm creation in a way that Platonism can't.

It is common for applied mathematicians to point out that their models are only approximations of reality, and that real life, unlike beautiful mathematical theories, is "messy." And I think that both for the nominalist and the Platonist, there is a sense in which one must choose between the beautiful realm of theory and the messy realm of facts. I reject this dualism by taking the radical position that eternal, necessary truths are inherent in real objects. I do not thereby deny the contingency of the universe; of course it could have been different from the way it is. Yet every object reveals necessary truths; paradoxically, we find the infinite and the eternal in the finite and temporary.

To put it in starkly theological terms, I would compare Platonism to gnosticism and nominalism to idolatry. The one would have discovery be a way of escaping the created order; the other would have discovery be entirely about finite, contingent reality. Instead, I think discovery involves an interlocking of the temporal and the eternal. From real world objects we discover eternal, necessary truths; in return, we can use these eternal truths to understand--and also care for--the world we inhabit.

Indeed, is it not the mystery of whether physical laws are truly necessary that drives so much of theoretical physics? One encounters mathematical relations between objects with fundamental constants which can be measured empirically, and it is natural to wonder whether such constants could actually be deduced from some deeper principle. Or whether the laws of physics themselves are actually corollaries of some more fundamental Law. Could the universe have "come into being" through some means other than what we call the "big bang"? Such questions magnify the interlocking of the eternal and the temporal, the necessary and the contingent. God's glory shines in all things, to such an extent that it is difficult to see where his invisible glory ends and the more visible nature of things begins.

As a corollary, I see mathematics not so much as a way of escaping into abstract truths in a higher realm, nor as a mere tool of the sciences, but rather as a humble servant of empirical investigation. We study mathematics not only to understand what the world is like but also how it must be, and in that sense it gives some of the deepest insight of any science. Yet the inspiration for its progress is not so much a desire to ascend toward heaven as to see the heavenly on earth. Whose heart can be so cold as to resist finding the beauty in Euler's formula? Yet if we never saw such things as oscillations in common experience, I'm sure we never would have seen such a beautiful equation.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Sleep and death

A: Last time you were saying that life was our most fundamental desire, and that it didn't make sense not to seek eternal life, even if we had no proof that it exists.

B: More or less.

A: I thought about that some more. What if we make an analogy between death and sleep? Imagine the end of a long day of work, both physical and mental. You lie down in bed, your work finished, no more distractions. You don't just accept sleep--you embrace it. You relish the moment when your eyes close, and there is nothing more to do than to simply drift off.

B: I know the feeling. I suppose you're going to say we could accept death the same way.

A: Exactly. That's the ideal, anyway. A life well lived, leading to a noble death, which you can embrace just as much as you relish sleep at the end of the day. What's wrong with that?

B: There's no denying that having a need satisfied feels wonderful. I love that feeling of falling asleep, all cozy and warm, just as anyone else. But sleeping is like eating. It is a need we satisfy so that we can keep on living. Nothing feels better than to eat after feeling famished, or to drink after feeling intense thirst. That doesn't mean I actually "embrace" hunger or thirst, except in the sense that I know I need to eat and drink and that doing so brings pleasure.

A: That's quite a lot of ambivalence, there. You don't embrace hunger or thirst, but you do get pleasure out of eating and drinking.

B: Exactly! I love eating and drinking, not hunger and thirst.

A: That supports my point, not yours. You love eating, drinking, and... sleeping! And in the same way, one could come to appreciate death as a satisfaction of our ultimate desire--to be set free after a life well lived.

B: But death is not analogous with the other three. I eat and drink and sleep in order to sustain my life.

A: No, you also said there was pleasure involved. Isn't it true that we do these things primarily for the pleasure they give us? Sure, after the fact you can give this justification that you're sustaining life, but the immediate effect is to satisfy a desire.

B: True. Desire is a complicated business. Our desires compete with one another. We can't discretize them and satisfy them one by one, and call that happiness.

A: I suppose not. Still, can't one have the desire to die a good death, and be happy with fulfilling that desire at the end of a life well lived?

B: The problem is that death is an end to all desire, hence to all satisfaction of desire. I submit that part of what it means to live, especially as a conscious being, is to continually learn better what it is we truly want and how to find fulfillment.

A: OK, but eternally? That sounds tedious.

B: Not if there is genuine discovery all along the way. Although one might describe it abstractly as a repetitive existence--one always learns new things--in terms of concrete experiences, it is never dull, never repetitive.

A: Fine, fine, but you haven't responded to the initial comparison between sleep and death. Sleep is not like eating or drinking; it is much more like death, since in falling asleep you let go of consciousness. And you do so willingly, even gladly. How can you do that if the desire for life is so fundamental?

B: Hold on. I never said the desire for life is fundamental in the sense of being "primal," in the way that food and drink and sleep are. I don't have an "urge" for life. It would be more reasonable to say that life is made possible through urges, since only by continually searching to meet our needs can we grow and sustain life. At the same time, not all urges should be listened to equally. We often have urges to eat bad food or to drink too much. If we care for our life, we won't give into these urges.

A: Are you saying sleep can be the same way?

B: Sometimes. "As a door turns on its hinges, so does a lazy person in bed."

A: Right, but keep in mind the analogy I've been trying to make. Just as one shouldn't desire sleep until the end of a day well spent, so also one shouldn't desire death until the end of a life well lived.

B: At the end of a day well spent, one ought to desire sleep in the same way that three times a day, one ought to desire food. Our hunger for food should be kept in check, but we also need food, so we should listen to our bodies. In the same way, we need sleep, and we ought to listen to that need.

A: And one day, we all must die.

B: Only if you mean we must die in order to live, which in fact I believe.

A: Well there's an interesting twist.

B: Just as you cited last time, Jesus did say, "Those who find their life will lose it, but those who lose their life for my sake will find it." The goal behind renouncing one's life is to find true life, eternal life. The goal is not simply to embrace the void.

A: I know it seems like I'm willing to "embrace the void," as you say. I understand there's a tragic element to a vision of the world without eternal life. But it comes down to making the most of what we actually have, rather than wishing it could be otherwise. So we're really back to where we started.

B: Indeed. I still think you're being the defeatist in the desert.

A: I am by no means a defeatist. On the contrary, I think we should make the best of what we have now, rather than hoping for an eternity that probably isn't going to exist.

B: And what would that mean? How does one make the most of what is here?

A: By savoring every moment, by loving people, by leaving the world better than we found it.

B: Leaving the world better than we found it? But how can it ever be better than we found it, when in fact it is destined for destruction?

A: What, you mean several billions of years from now? That doesn't mean we can leave our descendants with something better than what we have.

B: I suppose we can, but they are just as doomed as we are. Each generation can decide, out of stubborn devotion to an ideal given to them by their ancestors, to leave the world better than they found it, yet no matter how many generations of human beings exist, you say that the human race must one day die out, do you not?

A: Who can know for sure? I mean, the best science we have says that's true, but we have a long time ahead of us to discover some way around that. Besides, even if the human race will all die out, why would that mean we shouldn't leave the world better than we found it for the next generation?

B: I don't know if it means we should or shouldn't. I'm simply trying to understand what it means to "make the most of what is here." When you say "make the most," you must realize that whatever you make is only temporary, and no matter how good you make it, its destiny is destruction. Or do you believe in the possibility of eternal life after all?

A: I never said I had proof that eternal life doesn't exist. I just don't think it's very likely, given what we know. And I think it's more important to accept what we know to be true than it is to hope for things for which we have no evidence.

B: Yet you persist in hope for things for which we have very little evidence. You want to leave the world better than it is for the next generation. Setting aside the ultimate destiny of the human race, why should we have faith in the next generation? Will it be much better than ours? Who is to say it will not destroy itself and/or the world?

A: You're being a bit pessimistic. We don't have much evidence to suggest that the human race will destroy itself in the next few generations.

B: What kind of argument will you give for that? "It's never happened before"? That's hardly a good argument, firstly because in fact entire civilizations have been wiped out before, and secondly because modern humans have more dangerous means than ever before. History may be cyclical in many ways, but nuclear weapons simply didn't exist before 1940, and that changes many things.

A: I'm not sure where you're going with this. Are you trying to pin me down, saying that I really have some sort of quasi-religious faith after all? Look, I have no illusions about humanity. I agree that we are in danger of self-destruction all the tie. All we can do is put our best foot forward, hoping that the next generation will benefit from whatever we do now. And even if they don't, we only have one life to live, so we'd better appreciate the time we have.

B: So it ultimately comes down to appreciating one's own personal experiences.

A: I suppose it does. That's all we have, in the end.

B: And even they won't last.

A: No, they won't, not as far as I can tell.

B: I agree with you, the evidence that we can examine for ourselves seems to point in the direction you say. As much as I would love to assert that the argument for the resurrection of Jesus Christ is air tight, that is far from being true. If I'm going to base my opinions on our best science, on science alone, then I will have to admit that all we can do is appreciate the short life we have. But that is precisely why I place my desire for life above my desire for truth. If I strive to make myself an "objective thinker," if I scour the evidence and try to make the most dispassionate assertion I can about what is most likely, I am confident I will come to the same conclusion as you. But I did not marry my wife because I had dispassionately investigated whether or not I would actually be able to fulfill my vows to her--to love her my whole life long. Rather, I made that vow in the hope of fulfilling it through daily effort, because she is my true love. In the same way, I have made a commitment to Christ in the hope of obtaining eternal life, not because I have measured the odds solidly in its favor, but rather because it is my one true desire. Knowledge comes afterward, in service of life, not the other way around.

A: That's fine for you, but you know the problems I have with that approach. Anyway, we can continue this discussion later.

B: You have some other moments to savor now, do you?

A: Exactly.