Sunday, June 26, 2016

Those who increase knowledge increase sorrow

The title of this post comes from Ecclesiastes 1:18. I was reminded of these words as I was finishing Stephen Weinberg's wonderful book, The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe. Most of the book is devoted to scientific arguments (though accessible to a layman) in favor of big bang cosmology. Perhaps not unexpectedly, the epilogue is much more philosophical than the rest. In it, Weinberg lays out the two possibilities for the eventual fate of the universe. Either its density is less than a certain critical number, and therefore it will continue to expand forever and ever, cooling gradually until nothing can live in it; or else it will one day stop expanding, start to contract, and the big bang will be echoed by a symmetric event (a "big crunch").

Either way, the future does not look too promising for living things, least of all human beings. Which leads Weinberg to the following concluding reflection (emphasis mine):
It is almost irresistible for humans to believe that we have some special relation to the universe, that human life is not just a more-or-less farcical outcome of a chain of accidents reaching back to the first three minutes, but that we were somehow built in from the beginning. As I write this I happen to be in an airplane at 30,00 feet, flying over Wyoming en route home from San Francisco to Boston. Below, the earth looks very soft and comfortable--fluffy clouds here and there, snow turning pink as the sun sets, roads stretching straight across the country from one town to another. It is very hard to realize that this all is just a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe. It is even harder to realize that this present universe has evolved from an unspeakably unfamiliar early condition, and faces a futile extinction of endless cold or intolerable heat. The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.
But if there is no solace in the fruits of our research, there is at least some consolation in the research itself. Men and women are not content to comfort themselves with tales of gods and giants, or to confine their thoughts to the daily affairs of life; they also build telescopes and satellites and accelerators, and sit at their desks for endless hours working out the meaning of the data they gather. The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life a little above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy.
At least it's a tragedy and not a farce. That is the sole comfort modern science can give us. "Vanity of Vanities, says the Teacher, All is Vanity." (Ecc. 1:2)
I saw that wisdom excels follow as light excels darkness.
The wise have eyes in their head,
but fools walk in darkness.
Yet I perceived that the same fate befalls all of them. (Ecc. 2:13-14)
Before jumping into a critique of Weinberg's point of view, I did want to make it clear that his words are strongly echoed by Scripture. It is not as if believers in God had never noticed how small we are in this vast, pointless universe.

Yet I could never merely accept this view without pursuing further. If our efforts to study the universe reveal that it is pointless, perhaps it is we who are at fault. For one thing, I suspect we are looking for the wrong thing if we search for our own special place, rather than an all-encompassing purpose for everything that exists. But I can't deny that finding our own purpose is equally important. Is it really any less farcical to think that human intelligence has arisen from random processes, only to discover as much and conclude that we really have no purpose, than to go on living like animals? It almost seems like more of a farce--a sick cosmic joke. Except no one is really there to tell it.

What if the problem is this word "comprehensible"? The grand theme of Weinberg's book is that we can understand the beginning and end of the universe because it follows simple mathematical rules. At very high temperatures, everything that exists is governed entirely by the laws of statistical mechanics. There is nothing to look at but averages. Such things as meaning and beauty have no ontological status in this view--only measurable quantities. (I find this terribly ironic, since physicists are attracted to these theories precisely because of their beauty; there is nothing more attractive than symmetry.) Thus "comprehensible" secretly means "quantifiable and predictable," excluding all other forms of understanding.

What if the meaning and beauty we find in the universe, emerging as they do thanks to random processes governed by comprehensible laws, point to a higher reality? What if human beings have access to that reality? (What if other things do, as well? There is no reason to be anthropocentric.) It would not necessarily be a reality governed by mathematical laws. Yet it could intersect with this physical realm, as evidenced by the fact that we catch glimpses of it through concrete experiences of beauty.

The problem for physics is that such a higher realm cannot be understood through mathematical description. Its nature is not susceptible to prediction, and it cannot be discovered through observation and experimentation. It is known only by contemplation, or even by faith. If that is unacceptable for an intellectual of the modern world, I can only say that we are the more impoverished for it.

Not that any of this takes away from the glory of Big Bang cosmology. To think that modern science has revealed to us details about the beginning and end of our physical universe is awe-inspiring. In case I need to clarify, I absolutely love this book, and I think the world is richer for works such as these which make science accessible to general audiences.

It's just that I'm not content to have physics without a soul.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Why proofs of God's existence don't thrill me

The other day one of my Catholic apologist friends (I have many online) posted a link to "An Aristotelian Proof of the Existence of God" given by Edward Feser. My friend claimed that atheists shouldn't start with the Bible, but rather with reason and logic, in order to arrive at belief in God's existence.

Now, I don't think atheists should start with the Bible, either. Most people don't when they come to faith--at least, not the whole Bible. If you try to read the good book cover to cover in search of some sort of proof of God's existence, you will only find it by a miracle (which I would not rule out, but neither would I hold my breath). Ordinarily, such a straightforward reading of Scripture will lead you to many scandalous passages and incomprehensible claims about God, and to stories whose meaning is rather obscure without some additional cultural context. Certainly the story of Jesus himself is provocative enough to sell itself, but even in the gospels one is as often perplexed as not.

But I'm not sure the classical "proofs" of God's existence hold much water. Professor Feser is certainly a brilliant man, and his exposition of the argument is solid, but I've just never been impressed with Aristotelian/Thomist arguments that The Unmoved Mover/Uncaused Causer/Purely Actual Being/whatever exists. The same holds for Anselm's Ontological Argument, and any similar methods of proof.

It's not that I wouldn't want to have such a proof. It's not even that I don't like entertaining the arguments. On the contrary, such abstract lines of reasoning are fun for me (which is why I chose mathematics as a profession).

The problem is, I just don't think abstract reasoning reveals God. As much as I love my profession, I don't think its tools are appropriate for theology. In fact, I think of mathematics as the simplest and humblest of all the sciences, whereas theology is the loftiest and most difficult. But I'll get to that.

The word "abstract" literally means "to draw away." It is well known that logical arguments in philosophy or mathematics lead us farther away from our direct experience. This makes them considerably less attractive as aids to knowing God, whose presence is everywhere and is therefore constantly part of our everyday experience.

Not that things which are omnipresent can't be the subject of abstract arguments. Atoms are everywhere, but we need theoretical physics to understand and know them. Yet the problem with atoms is that they are small, not that they are difficult to understand. In many ways, atoms are like numbers. They are highly predictable, following precise patterns expounded by the laws of physics.

Anyone reading this might find remarkable that I say an atom is not hard to understand. But I stand by that claim, and I say that math is even simpler. I appeal to a wonderful quote from the great John von Neumann: "If people do not believe that mathematics is simple, it is only because they do not realize how complicated life is." Mathematics and physics have made such incredible progress by concentrating on things which are simple, meaning predictable, utterly bound by rules. Thanks to this form of simplicity, our abstract arguments are applicable no matter how "drawn away" they become from direct experience.

Neumann hit the nail on the head: how complicated life is! How amazingly different it is from proving a theorem! Living things are not utterly rule bound. Human beings make choices, act spontaneously, and often actively resist the rules which are supposed to apply. How, then, do we seem so comfortable with other humans, and how do we know them so well?

The question would really be a mystery if abstract reasoning were our primal way of knowing, but that is not the case. There is nothing more natural in the world than getting to know other human beings, and it is not because we know what they will do at any given moment. It is rather because we have a built-in desire to be with others. More is gained through the direct experience of their company than through being able to predict their behavior. Only marketers are interested in understanding human beings the way physicists understand atoms. The rest of us just want to be loved.

Which brings me to proofs of the existence of God. No son has ever asked himself, "How do I know my mother exists? What are the properties she should have? From what starting principles might I argue toward the existence of such a being?" A son knows his mother because she is there--to feed him, clothe him, clean him, comfort him--and she always has been. Before a boy can do any abstract reasoning whatsoever, he must learn words, most likely from his parents. The primal form of knowledge is the direct experience of someone. Their presence alone is the start of every other kind of knowledge we could possibly have.

It is true that a son whose mother has long been absent must reason abstractly, saying, "All humans are born to a mother and father, therefore I too must have a mother whom I don't know." This is, at best, the type of theological knowledge which Aristotelian/Thomist/Anselmian/etc. arguments can give us. It is a theology of orphans. It is only useful or necessary if God is absent, and has been for a long time.

"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God." If I understand the Christian faith correctly, I would say that the only thing separating us from God is our sin. God's constant presence ought to be perfectly clear to us, but we are blind. Christ does not offer theorems but rather a way to see again.

I catch glimpses of God from time to time. If I really began to fully repent, perhaps I would see him all the time in everything. But "surely there is no one on earth so righteous as to do good without ever sinning." (Ecc. 7:20) I only know it is that direct experience which sustains me.

I don't want to say that "existence proofs" are a total waste of time. God does often feel very absent, and perhaps we need these arguments to give us a hint of his presence. But I think it's very telling that in Scripture, to know God is to do justice, more than anything else. Christianity's great intellectual tradition notwithstanding, I say it is more a religion of doing than of reasoning.

And I think our theology ought to be done accordingly...

Friday, June 10, 2016

Libertarianism's surprising virtue

There is a virtue which I have found--to my surprise--to be far more deeply cultivated among libertarians, as a political movement, than either progressives or conservatives. That virtue is gratitude.

I say I am surprised by this because before I started reading a certain collection of libertarian media, I associated libertarianism with a certain angry crowd who complained endlessly about the government and the downfall of freedom. Now, there is certainly room to complain endlessly about the government. But what I have found is that between Reason Magazine's regular coverage of technological and social innovation, or the quietly optimistic tone of blogs such as Marginal Revolution ("small steps toward a much better world"), or especially the Cato Institute's new project, there seems to be a trend among libertarians of a more intellectual variety to emphasize the positive.

More deeply, libertarians start with the premise that for us modern humans, especially Westerners, our entire way of life is nothing short of a miracle. They then form a political philosophy based on the study of how that way of life came into being, combined with intuitive moral reasoning (which, it is often acknowledged, is itself a product of our way of life). They conclude that a maximal amount of individual freedom and a government firmly restrained by the rule of law is not only how we got here, but also the way we continue to advance in leaps and bounds.

There is a certain cheerfulness in the whole story. Although most of humankind in all times and places struggled to get by, today we are blessed to have received the right kind of institutions which allow both freedom and prosperity to flourish. If we can but use that freedom, in part to defend those institutions but mostly to pursue whatever good ideas we are fortunate to stumble upon, then the potential for future progress is practically infinite.

Now contrast this story with progressivism. Especially when speaking about poverty, progressives tend to assume that if something is wrong in the world, it must be our fault, or more particularly the fault of big bad rich people. Never mind how any of those riches got there in the first place. The conversation most certainly does not start (or end) with gratitude, but rather with a demand. The poor are entitled to progress, and if we don't give it to them we are thieves and bandits.

Conservatives, too, suffer from a lack of gratitude, but for a different reason. While conservatives wholeheartedly agree that we ought to be thankful for having inherited the right kind of institutions, their gratefulness is soured by a pessimistic view of future progress. It seems that conservatives have very little faith in the very institutions for which they are so thankful. Especially when speaking about immigration, they bemoan any major cultural change as an existential threat to our way of life.

I don't deny that both progressive and conservative impulses are necessary. At times progress must be demanded, and at other times it must be critiqued. But I think both sides ultimately propose policies that are built on a distortion of reality, and society pays for that. Whether it is the ever expanding welfare state proposed by progressives or the ever more authoritarian federal law enforcement agencies bolstered by conservatives, the cost and burden of government continues to grow. This is truly a cause for concern.

Yet despite the continual errors of conservatives and progressives in government, I deeply appreciate how libertarians have not lost their spark of optimism. We indeed have so much to be thankful for, and we have so much at our disposal to make the world a better place. As technological progress outpaces government regulation, experimentation will lead to better ways of doing things before our leaders get their hands on the brakes. Cultural change is nothing to be afraid of, so long as we succeed in transmitting the fundamental ideas which have served us so well until now. The institutions which make freedom possible are not fragile; they are alive and well.

As a Christian, I think the very first step to a happy life is thanksgiving. We did absolutely nothing to cause our own existence. We owe every molecule in our body to inheritance. What we do with that wonderful inheritance--and in our day it is more wonderful than our ancestors could have ever imagined!--is up to us, but we will most likely do better if we start by recognizing how good it is.

So I think it is fitting that our politics should start with gratitude, as well. Let no discussion of any of society's problems begin without first acknowledging what we have to be thankful for. And once we study and determine where all these good things came from, then let's decide how we can do even better.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Steven Weinberg on scientific progress

I'm a big fan of this passage from The First Three Minutes, Chapter V (emphasis added):
In following this account of the first three minutes [of the universe], the reader may feel that he can detect a note of scientific overconfidence. He might be right. However, I do not believe that scientific progress is always best advanced by keeping an altogether open mind. It is often necessary to forget one's doubts and to follow the consequences of one's assumptions wherever they may lead--the great thing is not to be free of theortical prejudices, but to have the right theoretical prejudices. And always, the test of any theoretical preconception is in where it leads. The standard model of the early universe has scored some successes, and it provides a coherent theoretical framework for future experimental programs. This does not mean that it is true, but it does mean that it deserves to be taken seriously.
It certainly begs the question which prejudices are the right ones!

Thursday, June 2, 2016

God's belated wrath

It's easy to read the Bible, especially the Old Testament, and feel overwhelmed by how angry God is. Long passages of Scripture dwell on all of the ways God will punish and destroy. For instance, Deuteronomy 28 spends 14 verses describing all the blessings the Israelites will receive if they obey the law; then it spends 54 more verses describing in increasing levels of horror all that God will do to punish them if they do not obey. And not all of it is hypothetical. Elsewhere we can read of plagues, venomous snakes, and the earth swallowing up Israelites because of their sins.

All of this, of course, becomes fodder for skeptics to throw at Christianity. It becomes a stumbling block for Christians like me. It's not easy to see how to reconcile "God is love" (1 John 4:16) with these passages of Scripture.

But let's back up to the beginning. In Genesis 3:3, Eve explains to the serpent that "God said, 'You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.'" Of course, Adam and Eve did eat the fruit, and they were banished from the Garden of Eden. Some say that this was a spiritual death. Christian tradition has often taught that human beings were created immortal, and that through this first sin they lost immortality. But what does the text say?
Then the Lord God said, 'See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever'--therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. (Genesis 3:22-23)
The text does not at all indicate that humans were immortal. On the contrary, God wanted to prevent them from becoming immortal. So what happened to the threat, "Or you shall die"?

The very next story is far more telling. The second generation of human beings--Cain and Abel--manages to introduce murder to the world. So what does God do to Cain, who murders his brother? He doesn't kill him. On the contrary, God protects Cain: "Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance." (Genesis 4:15)

Ten generations go by, from Adam to Noah. Then God looks down and sees the wickedness of humankind. "And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart." (Genesis 6:6) So he decides to wipe out all the creatures with a huge flood--except, of course, sparing Noah.

In other words, God waits ten generations (the number ten may have some significance...) before finally unleashing justice on humankind. Even then, he can't go all the way through with it (he spares Noah and his family). Then, in a telling passage, he says,
I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done. (Genesis 8:21, emphasis added)
Now, consider that not only does God promise never to wipe out humankind again, but he even takes away the one punishment he had given Cain, the first murderer. Why? Not because human beings are good, after all, but rather because they are evil! One can hear a tremendous sigh in this passage, like an incredible divine realization that humans are beyond hope.

It is interesting that God, after this covenant made with Noah, finally introduces the death penalty for murderers (Gensis 9:6). Then he blesses Noah and gives him the rainbow as a sign of his covenant never to flood the earth again. We think of a rainbow as pretty and colorful, but let's not forget what it is. It's a bow, that is to say a weapon, pointed toward the heavens. It is as if God is saying, "May the arrows of his bow strike me if I should ever think to flood the earth again."

And so Noah and his sons go out from the ark to repopulate the earth--a fresh beginning. So what happens? Noah gets drunk and is violated by his son, thus absolutely confirming what God says in Genesis 8:21.

Generations go by. Then human beings once again try to obtain immortality, not by eating from the Tree of Life but rather by constructing a tower to heaven. Just as in the Garden of Eden, God is wary of this outcome: "Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them." (Genesis 11:6) Much as he shut out Adam and Even from the Garden of Eden, so he now shuts down the Tower of Babel by confusing the people's speech. Such is God's terrifying act of wrath...

After this story, ten more generations are listed, starting with Shem and finishing with Abraham. Just as Noah became the father of all nations, so now Abraham's very name means "ancestor of a multitude of nations" (Genesis 17:4). Abraham is God's new hope for a renewed humanity, just like Noah was.

So is it time for another judgment? It is. God hears a cry against Sodom, and he tells Abraham that he is going to send judgment on it. In a famous passage (Genesis 18:23-33), Abraham negotiates with God to see how many righteous people there would have to be left in Sodom in order for God to stay his wrath. God patiently listens while Abraham whittles the number slowly down from 50 to 10, after which the conversation ends in a chilling sense of foreboding--there aren't even 10 righteous people left in Sodom, are there? God has waited the maximum allowable time, until there is simply nothing left to do.

But I have skipped over something. God promises to Abraham the land of Canaan. He says,
Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgment on the nation they they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for yourself, you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete. (Gensis 15:12-16)
What an odd plan! God very forthrightly admits that he is going to tolerate oppression and injustice for four hundred years until finally judging the oppressors. And as for the Amorites who occupy the land promised to Abraham, God freely admits they are already sinful, but he would rather wait before sending judgment on them. Four hundred years, no less!

All of this lays God open to the charge that in fact he is not quick enough to enact judgment. He is indeed "slow to anger" (Exodus 34:6) but when his anger finally arises, how terrible it is!

This theme of God's belated wrath is taken up once again in the New Testament, where Paul declares,
While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead. (Acts 17:30-31)
And yet, here we are, two thousand years later...

All of this should give us a bit of a framework in which to read the rest of the Bible. Since it does talk so much about God's wrath and how imminent it is, we find it easy to be taken aback. But there are at least two points to consider. For one, perhaps when God says his wrath is imminent, it is really not so imminent, after all. This is why Peter has to urge his readers, saying, "The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance." (2 Peter 3:9) The prophets, who probably have the longest extended passages describing God's wrath, probably should not be taken too literally, and they should always be read keeping in mind that the goal is to urge the people to repentance.

Another point to keep in mind is that if God is harsh with Israel, it is because he doesn't want to make the same mistake (!) that he made with earlier generations. "Know then in your heart that as a parent disciplines a child so the Lord your God disciplines you." (Deuteronomy 8:5) I have often struggled with that verse. Surely sending fiery snakes and plagues is a little more harsh than the discipline one gives a child. But then, perhaps the literal meaning of these stories is not so important as the spiritual meaning, by which we understand all these acts of judment to be a cleansing of God's people. Or maybe we ought to believe that God can use death itself as a tool of discipline, saving our eternal souls by putting utterly to death our present bodies of flesh.

In any case, if we keep in mind the whole story that the Bible tells, we cannot possibly see God as some cantankerous deity waiting to throw thunderbolts on a whim. On the contrary, the psalms often complain that he is too slow to do so! God's patience almost seems blameworthy--why did he wait so long before finally judging the earth which was so full of wickedness, or before giving his people justice and saving them from slavery? Yet it is precisely this patience which gives us the chance to repent and find salvation. This tension is difficult to resolve.

And so often it is with the Bible, that ultimately we never find resolution, but we live spurred on by that tension. "Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming." (Matthew 24:42) If we are led by faith in Jesus Christ, we must always live as if judgment is just around the corner, and yet we must continue to believe in God's infinite patience. That is just one of the many paradoxes, it seems to me, of the Christian faith.