Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Book Review: Order Out of Chaos by Prigogine and Stengers

It's often said that an author really writes only one book, over and over again in different ways. This has never been more true than for Ilya Prigogine. I have read three of his books over the past few months, and each is making the same points in different ways. The most useful distinction is audience: From Being to Becoming (the earliest) is for chemists and physicists; The End of Certainty (the most recent) is for the sci-curious at a popular science level; and Order Out of Chaos is for the academics and philosophers. OOoC has the most material for my undergraduate classes. I appreciate especially the historical foundations provided by Boltzmann, Carnot, and others, because those were not detailed in my physical chemistry classes and knowing the history makes the physical chemistry a lot clearer. I took several historical notes about WHY we have different laws of thermodynamics with different emphases. This historical and philosophical richness must be attributed to Isabelle Stengers, and her contribution really makes this book work differently from the others.

For all that, I'm glad I read this book after the other two, mostly because there's not enough room to include the full arguments. As a result, many of the crucial arguments come down to important elements that must be tucked into a citation or waved away -- you can't fully derive the true mathematical germ that explains why it has to be this way, or at least you don't have the tools to fully challenge it when it's asserted. So I don't think OOoC would convince a skeptic in the same way From Being to Becoming did, at least in the areas of kinetics where I am equipped to be skeptical.

On the other hand, From Being to Becoming was a difficult read for me and I still don't have the tools to really use what Prigogine says about quantum mechanics. That's not really my area. But FBtB was like a scenic mountain hike, a lot of climbing and some fog but ultimately worth it, especially for the kinetics/non-linear dynamics part, which is Prigogine's specialty.

It's also possible that Prigogine downplayed his QM ideas in his later writings, after they were challenged (which I know they were and they don't seem to have taken hold at least for QM). Still, in my opinion, the heart of what he has to say is nonetheless intact. So I don't worry about the QM, I'm happy to take the kinetics and run with it.

Another issue is that I would have liked more philosophy at the end, thinking about what this all means. We have some of that but it's not as thorough as the historical review itself.

But this story is worth telling three different ways in the end analysis. So I recommend reading all three books, and not reading this one first, but reading it nonetheless.

A Letter to My Son About the Soul

Monday, May 7, 2019

Dear Aidan,

It was a blessing and a curse watching you compete Saturday. Yes, it was Bible Quiz (of all things), but it’s the same emotions any parent feels watching their kid play a weekend sport. I hoped you would take to this, and you have beyond any expectations.

So it was a blessing watching you remember words precisely and play the little parts of the game expertly, especially when you guess right and gain a lot of points.

But your high-risk strategy has a necessary downside, when you guess wrong and lose a lot of points. You take a lot of three-point shots, and the percentage is worse, but they’re worth more.

After that one prelim round, when your losses clustered all together, I saw my own reaction mirrored in yours. You couldn’t talk. You collapsed into yourself and walked away. I tried to put a hand on your shoulder but I don’t know if you even felt it. I could only let you be, and wait for the next round, if there was a next round.

There was, and you brought it all. You sailed through it with a tight precision. Then you went on, climbing step by step to take the top prize, winning a trophy so big it can only be classified as baggage. The trophy shows in its own ludicrous size that it is not the point. Who wants this chunk of wood and “gold” paint?

I wasn’t happy to have to make space for that thing in the trunk, but I was happy because it culminated months of your hard work. You wanted this, you considered the cost, planned a path, executed a strategy, ran into an obstacle, and overcame it.

I thought about why you were doing this, and I recalled the musical version of Percy Jackson that we had seen two nights before. The first song was all about the young demigods trying to catch their distant god-parents’ attention by accomplishing something big, something that the distracted gods just HAVE to notice. Did you notice how even their camp schedule was based around competition, and how the daughter of Athena honed her own battle strategy so that her god-mother would notice her? That’s the natural consequence of a world of competition: winning forces people to take notice. It was true for the Greeks, it was true for the Egyptians, and the Norse, and the soccer moms today.

Percy Jackson is missing his god-father, and that aspect to his character fits with the Greco-Roman world. All the powerful people believed this 2000 years ago: a god was a powerful man who gave you life but is off on business now and has left you to make a mark. Make some noise and maybe he’ll notice.

Jesus contradicted all this. He said God is near, God is love, God scatters life through a world like a sower scattering seed through a world of obstacles -- but God doesn’t just leave it there. God makes every seed grow, even the tiniest mustard seed, without us knowing exactly how. God gives Godself, overflowing as the Spirit, a bubbling stream to anyone who asks.

This is very different from a world where the person who captures the flag or wins the quest might get his father’s attention. Jesus was building on a foundation of Hebrew prophecies, laws, and songs showing that God is the good creator and sustainer of all things. Jesus took it farther by saying God is so good at giving gifts that God knows not just what you want but what you need. What we need is, ultimately, the Spirit of the Good Giver, who made us to need that Spirit.

Since it’s the week after Easter, I’m reminded of John’s picture of Jesus, risen from the grave, giving the disciples the Spirit by breathing on them. Kind of weird -- not the kind of image that has been repeated in Western Art that often -- but deep and resonant in its weirdness. That action means a lot:

First, don’t miss the obvious. Jesus had breath, a physical body that does the one thing physical, living bodies do all the time, in that it exhaled air.

Second, he gave that breath away, emptying himself to lift them up.

And he did so in a deliberate repetition of what happened thousands of years before in the Garden of Eden, when God breathed into Adam’s nostrils the breath of life, and he became a living soul.

This last image is from Genesis 2. It takes place in the same Bible as John 20, but many pages before, written at a different time in a different language. The Genesis verse doesn’t have much detail beyond a few solid, earthy words: “blow”; “nostrils” (they were face to face); and the mysterious term “soul.”

At this point in the story, God had formed Adam’s body from the dust, but that wasn’t enough. God was the good father to the first man and gave the gift of breath, and Adam started to move. I like the Latin term for soul best: “anima.” (Knowing the many sides of this word is why you’re learning Latin!) God blew on Adam and Adam became ANIMA-ted. “Soul” is an earthy term like “dust” and “nostrils,” and can be applied to all things that move. But in Adam’s case it was a special gift of God, reflected in the special phrase “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” God only knows precisely how that worked, but somehow something thin, active, and without parts flooded the physical, soulish body of Adam.

I can take apart an animated thing in the lab and learn something about how it works. The amazing thing is how much I can see. Living things are built from an untold number of chemical cycles, in which food comes in, is broken down, is used to build new cells, is breathed out as carbon dioxide, which a plant can “breathe in” and build up. The atoms are constantly cycling. As you breathe in and out, some atoms get lodged in your body but others fly away. I read once that 98% of the atoms in your body are replaced every year.

But you’re clearly the same Aidan who competed in Bible Quiz last year, right? So whatever it is that makes you “you,” it’s not the atoms. And whatever made Adam Adam, it wasn’t the atoms. The point of Genesis 2 is not to trace the atoms, it’s to show God giving the soul, face to face with the first man. (The point of chemistry is to trace the atoms, and that’s so relatively unimportant that we could wait a couple more millenia before learning it.)

Adam’s body of chemical cycles, reproducing and repairing, breathing air in and out, it all came from the earth. Each cycle moves because it is missing something: the atoms bind and the chemicals react to make something new. Also, each cycle has a hole in the middle. There’s a lot of empty space in the cycles. Even the atoms themselves, which seem so solid to us, are mostly empty space, with each dense nucleus relative to the atomic radius being only the size of a pea in a cathedral. Even the most solid things and the most dynamic things are open and empty, matter moving in the void. If this seems inadequate, that’s because it is inadequate. I think this is a sign that behind the void is a Creator without parts who has non-material, non-dissectable ways of filling all that emptiness.

Can I reiterate how much I don’t know here? It doesn’t really matter how long it took for these cycles to build from the dust, because there wasn’t anyone around to be impatient about it. Adam only became a soul when his eyes faced God’s (we know that that means on his side but not on God’s) and God’s breath became his. Whatever atoms were involved would soon leave him.

What would always remain in him was thin, strong, and without parts: Adam’s memory of the fact that there was once a relationship, face to face, Creator to creature. God had the same memory. God remembered Adam and his descendants.

The word-picture in Genesis 2 is like the verse in Genesis 1 where humans are all made in God’s “image,” to bring in another mysterious word. The simplest way to make an image of something is to hold a mirror to it. When Adam saw God, imagine God’s own image reflecting off Adam’s eyes, being pieced together in Adam’s brain, and therefore flooding and shaping Adam’s being. Carefully put Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 2:7 side by side, and imagine Adam face to face with God, reflecting his Creator, shining for all others to see.

There’s a lot of questions you probably have about the rest of Genesis 2, but this letter’s already long enough. In the rest of Genesis 2 relationships are made, and in Genesis 3, they are broken.

The image language shows up in a few other places scatted through the Hebrew scriptures. In Psalm 73, the same Hebrew word for image is used for God looking on the proud and mighty, the demigods of this world, but here something is broken: “Like one waking from a dream, Lord, when arising, you will despise their image.” We’ve all warped the mirror and defaced the image in some ways, all of us except Jesus, the perfect and accurate image of God. Paul uses the word “image” to say this exact thing in Colossians 1.

Adam’s body was a bottle of flesh, made with dynamic cycles of atoms with empty space scatted throughout, from the dust of this world, according to the patterns of this world. God gave Adam a puff of “breath” that made him a living soul, able to move deliberately, think, and speak, able to relate. God gave you this same “breath,” through Adam and Eve, through Cain and Cain’s wife or Seth and his wife, through … … … , through Grandpa and Nana, through me, to you. You can also move, think, speak, relate, and choose. For example, you can choose to work hard to win Bible Quiz, and I respect and admire that choice. I want it to pay off, even as I know it won’t always.

The gift of God comes from above and is not subject to scientific study or dissection. It has no parts we can pry open, but a secret center only you (and God) can detect. The rules of science, worked out over hundreds of years, apply to atoms, but the soul was forged by a relationship with a God not made of atoms, or any parts at all.

Science can only dissect what’s below it, so that God’s gifts of spirit and soul were excluded from it at this beginning. We can hear the sound of God’s breath with our own God-given minds, but we can’t tell where it came from or where it is going.

But we have something better than science for studying the soul. I have my own soul and you have yours. This is the secret place at the center, the closet where Jesus says only the Father can see. Only God knows what was going on inside you when you had that terrible round of quizzing, I could only guess. I couldn’t reach you, but God heard every word you prayed, however frantically or half-heartedly or even unknowingly in groans too deep for words.

Others have talked about this mystery: the soul as a gift of God, embedded in but independent from the atoms of the flesh. Philosophers like Descartes and Spinoza might have something to offer, some good, some not. However, my current favorite word-picture for the soul comes not from a philosopher but from a poet.

That poet is John Davies, who lived around the time of Shakespeare, when people were struggling with this same question and we started to learn how to take the world apart. From this struggle, Davies wrote a poem in which he approached the problem systematically, like a scientist, but with poetry in the place of the scientific method. Davies tries on eight metaphors and discards each as not fitting:

The soul doesn’t dwell in the body like a tent;
it’s not like a pilot sitting in a ship;
or a spider in its web;
or an imprint in wax;
or water in a bottle;
or as a liquid mixed in another;
or as heat emitted from a fire;
or as a voice spreading through the air.

Each of these has its points (I’m intrigued by the idea of a soul as an imprint in wax), but each also has a flaw (if the soul’s an empty imprint, then what is the part that thinks and feels and stays with God, that part of the dying thief that Jesus promised would be with him this day “in Paradise”?).

Davies finds a metaphor that exceeds the rest when he finally compares the soul to sunlight through air. Specifically, the soul is in the body the same way that morning light fills a room, which “in an instant doth herself unite / To the transparent air, in all and part.”

This works really well as a metaphor, especially given all the empty space inside atoms and in the biochemical cycles of life. Imagine how the light is independent of the air, how it can be blocked by the air, but it’s still there. The sun still shines outside, and the sunlight is still given to even the most clouded room.

In the same way, if the body corrupted by disease or decay, or weighed down by stress or depression, the soul is still there, given by its Giver, diffusing every part of the body as the sunlight fills the room. You can’t dissect or control the sunlight, you can only reflect it. And I read somewhere that God made the light and Jesus is the light of the world: “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,  begotten, not made, one in Being with the Father” as Christians have recited for more than a millennium in the Nicene Creed.

Another Christian picked up on the same sort of image in a different way, this one a father of four called J.R.R. Tolkien. You probably figured I’d bring him into this sooner or later. Tolkien’s metaphor of soul and body is the Phial of Galadriel. Galadriel, one of the characters closest to the Creator, gives Frodo a tiny bottle. I remember being disappointed the first time I read this. Bilbo got a glowing sword, but Frodo gets a fragile bottle?

Of course, this isn’t just any bottle. The water holds the light of Earendil’s star, from a jewel called a Silmaril that itself holds the brilliant light of the Two Trees that once lit the world, in a chain reaching back to the beginning of creation. Imagine it glimmering like the light of Venus or Jupiter, unwavering in the western sky on our evening walks. It doesn’t seem like much, but it drives the darkness of monstrous, entangling evil away.

Your soul is a light filling the bottle of your flesh. You choose how you hold it up and pour out its light. This is the gift God gave to you, through Adam and through me.

Jesus reflected and embodied this light, with a hidden, humble glory that only some saw. Take care of your soul like Frodo took care of the Phial of Galadriel, and at a moment when “even the memory of colours and of forms and of any light faded out of thought” you may find yourself holding it high as you recite ancient words in the moment of need. Frodo found that “another voice spoke through his, clear, untroubled by the foul air of the pit.” This voice can speak through you too.

As you trudge along the path, you might wonder if that light is even there, but in the darkness it will shine. When you struggled on Saturday at the Quiz Meet, things got dark and you had to trust that the habits you formed in secret would return by God’s grace. That’s just a foretaste to the bigger challenges that you cannot meet alone. Saturday, you met a big spider, but Shelob herself is out there.

Fear not. Jesus defeated the darkness by standing firm and taking the worst sin can do – which is that it killed him and stopped all his motion, all his “anima,” down to the atoms. Jesus stood firm as others mocked because he knew that all they could do was destroy his body. Jesus trusted that God would give him a new “bottle” after the old one was destroyed.

Jesus was right. God’s light shines on even when the body is destroyed by death, and that part of you that perceives and feels and dreams will be with Jesus always. God will hold you safe, as the good Father who is better than we can ask or imagine.

Jesus studied his Bible, the Hebrew Scriptures, as you studied. Those scriptures told him that God has always worked this way: God’s Messiah would suffer shame and would die, then would rise after three days. Even study itself is filled with empty spaces and pauses, with times of blankness that God fills with the light of God’s Spirit. As you work to push these words into your memory, they shape faith and literally reshape the atoms in your neurons into windows that light can shine through.

I believe that shaping your brain to follow his words will open the space to let God’s light fill your body and soul. It’s not about the words themselves, but the space they open for God to move.

Even if this space closes, and you lose sight of God’s grace in the heat of competition, and if a fleshly and idolatrous brain drains the meaning from words by rote repetition, even if the quiz round crashes and burns and you don’t move on, God is in the failure too, because God himself failed according to the world’s standards, yet we call that day of failure “Good Friday.” Trust that God sees in secret and God gives life in secret, even in the face of failure, whatever befall.

Even in a stuffy Bible Quiz room when you’re hungry and tired and you have hours to go, and you’ve disappointed yourself after months of work, you have never disappointed me and you have never disappointed your heavenly Father, who always runs with open arms toward his prodigal son.

Remember that God’s light shines like the sun behind the clouds, and that Jesus himself is the reality that made everything and sits enthroned above and behind everything. Let God’s light be your vision, filling you and lifting you to see the hidden, generous glory of Christ that has sustained creation since God first said, “Let there be light.”

On March 25 fifteen years ago God said “Let there be Aidan.” I held your tiny form and saw that light when I first looked into your eyes, face to face. The light between us revealed to me that God gave us to each other. At that moment God created a truth that will never change: that I am filled with light when I remember you, because I love you. And I love you because God loved you first, and made you for this.

Love, Dad

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Book Review: Disorder And Order: Proceedings Of The Stanford International Symposium (Sept. 14 16, 1981)

This was a hard book to track down, but it was worth it. Cynthia Haven's biography of Girard describes a conference he helped host in the 60s in great detail. In 1981, after moving to Stanford, Girard co-hosted another conference with a Nobel Prize winner ... in Chemistry. The Nobelist was Ilya Prigogine, who has some very interesting ideas about complex chemical systems that help reinterpret quantum mechanics and even challenge the common conception of time itself. What do Girard and Prigogine have in common? I wished I could attend that 1981 conference. And lo and behold, in a sense, I can. Every talk from the conference, with discussion, is recorded in this book. Some of the essays are five-star essays. There's enough essays not up there that my rating's brought down to four stars, but the essays worth reading are very much in the majority. Here's my favorites with a sentence about how I liked each one. (Full text is here:

ILYA PRIGOGINE, "Order out of Chaos": One of the best summaries of Prigogine's ideas for a general audience ... well, a more general audience than Ph.D. chemists, at least. 
RENE GIRARD, "Disorder and Order in Mythology": A fine summary in itself, although I was mostly familiar with this from my recent reading already. The discussion afterwards may be more originally illuminating than the talk itself.
JEAN- PIERRE DUPUY, "Shaking the Invisible Hand": A nice take on how Adam Smith and Girard fit together. Also, might be a better summary of Girard's application than Girard's own talk!
JOHN FRECCERO, "Cosmology and Rhetoric": The hidden gem of the conference. I expected a wonderful reading of Dante from a Dante scholar, but this is a reading of my favorite image from The Divine Comedy that extends to show how Augustine of Hippo anticipated an answer to one of Einstein's big questions, and it all has to do with reading the universe like a poem, with attention.
FRANCISCO J. VARELA, "Living Ways of Sense-Making: A Middle Path for Neuroscience": Another hidden gem. Varela raises some very good questions about perception of color and puts things together in a way that's new for me, and bridges both Prigogine's ideas about the importance of the observer and Girard's ideas about order from chaos.
Workshop 1: Girard's comments are of course good, but the best parts are when Isabelle Stenger (Prigogine's colleague and co-author) speaks. Pay attention -- I wish she had been given her own talk.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Book Review: Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

This collection of stories has two big award-winners. I was floored by one (5 stars!) and only merely impressed by the other (3 stars). The other stories fall in between those extremes -- which means the collection as a whole is impressive. Chiang has a gift for taking an original, plausible, intriguing idea to its logical conclusion -- then blowing past mere logic to fully realize the implications, both scientific and personal. His science is prescient and creative, but it's in combination with its effects on people that it really shines. Each story is at least as good as a good sci-fi novel. And "Story of Your Life," the basis of Arrival, is one of the best stories I've ever read. This is my fifth time experiencing it (third time reading and have watched the movie twice), and it opens up new depths of meaning each time. This time the theological implications fell out, and the deep connection between mother and daughter. The other award-winning story, "Hell is the Absence of God," on the other hand, took an excellent idea but showed how science takes religious concepts and ossifies them into idols, and I think it showed a lack of theological sophistication, which would have been fine if that had been the point. I still think it's far better than most sci-fi depictions of faith, but it felt as wrong and dystopic as The Hunger Games. God is not like that, and this story contains really good reasons why God is not like that. Even that of course has distinct value. Each story is intellectually provocative and this book by itself makes me want to read more short stories. Chiang's newly released book is going in my queue now.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Book Review: The End of Certainty

This is the book by Ilya Prigogine that I will send people to. It's genuinely for a general audience and seems to have been influenced by the success of A Brief History of Time. I actually think this book is more interesting than Hawking's, but I'm a chemist, so of course I would. Even here, fascinating connections are made and not fleshed out: I'm particularly intrigued by connections to music, and his frequent insistence that non-equilibrium dissipative systems allow matter to "see." Most of his argument from On Being and Becoming is recapitulated here, and its later publication date allows for more interaction with the scientific community (although he doesn't really engage with critics significantly, I guess when you've got a Nobel prize you don't worry about that so much?). This is a book with an argument that catches fire and makes connections you never saw coming. Time itself is reformulated. I haven't had time yet to be completely convinced, but I do want to think more about how the cosmos is musical from the description Prigogine gives.

Book Review: From Being to Becoming

This seems like Ilya Prigogine's post-Nobel victory lap book. It claims to be written for a general audience, but, no, it's not. Prigogine is challenging the very way physicists and physical chemists do calculations, and that's not going to be accessible to a general audience. This book lays out his case in one place for chemists and physicists, and it's probably not enough to convince skeptics, but it worked for me to see a bird's eye view of his argument from outside the field. I'd say it requires at least a BS in Chemistry or Physics to read this book and recommend his other books for people who actually want to read an argument rather than deduce it from equations and figures.

Book Review: Circe by Madeline Miller

Madeline Miller is in the same league as Eric Shanower (Age of Bronze) and Kate Tempest (Brand New Ancients). Circe's perspective as a mother is the most compelling part of this book. The parts about her relationship with her parents and siblings, and about her sorcery, all feel like something I've heard before, but her relationship with her son feels urgent and vital. Maybe I've just had too many isolated underdog stories lately, but I'd prefer to know more about her positive relationships than her negative ones. Of the other characters, Odysseus is particularly well drawn: it's a long time before he's named, but it's clear he's a magnetic and brilliant (and cunning) personality. Telemachus is fascinating, too, and is very different from his father. Come to think of it, the brief role Icarus plays in the story is another standout moment, so parents and children are a strong theme here. The story itself avoids the problems of pacing that go with a story of exile, although the conclusion feels faded, just like the myths do at that point. I prefer Tempest's mix of today and yesterday, and I think myth isn't quite represented by Miller the way it really works, but as a novel set in a mythical context, this worked.