Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Book Review: Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America by Chris Arnade

This was a deeply affecting book. Chris Arnade had a Ph.D. in physics and a Wall Street analyst job, but he left it and went on several road trips through America. At every town, he got out with his camera, walked around and talked to people. Often he ended up at two places he previously avoided: McDonald's and church. He talks about how important these places are to back row America and why so much of the country has been left behind. There's only six chapters (going from memory): 1. McDonald's; 2. Drugs; 3. Church; 4. Place; 5. Race; 6. Respect. Each person Arnade talks to, and Arnade himself, is a broken and biased reporter, but the sheer generosity of his ear and scope of his travels makes this book worth reading. Arnade challenges the status quo from beneath, and he changed the way I see my city. Of the chapters, the one on race may be the weakest, because Arnade has the least personal connection to that. But this isn't about Arnade, it's about the people whose voices he transcribes, and that is the reason to read this book.  One thing is clear: the average academic consensus is wrong in many ways. Why was it assumed throughout my life that place doesn't matter? I was supposed to move across the country for college, then for grad school, then post-doc, then job. Because of my sense of place I resisted that somewhat, only moving across the country for grad school, and then staying in place. I therefore understand the people who stay in their hometowns to take care of family even when neoliberalism and neoconservatism both assume they should just move to where the jobs are. And a quick glance at this blog shows I have always seen the point of church, while Arnade discovered it empirically, as the faith of the poor wore away at his academic atheism. There is a sense of futility upon finishing this book, but as someone who appreciates church (and McDonald's) I also find a distinct, strange hope, even an encouragement for the light shining through the cracks.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Book Review: Exhalation by Ted Chiang

My head was delighted by this collection, but my heart was slightly disappointed. All the big ideas are here, as they always are in Ted Chiang's work. You won't find a better treatment of the many-worlds hypothesis of quantum mechanics and parallel universes anywhere, this is how it would work. And there's a lot of heart, too. One story about raising digital creatures unexpectedly resonated with my own experiencing parenting teenagers. Every story is a notch above average -- it's like other authors have their ideas in standard definition but Chiang's grasp of the science and its implications is high-res. But there's no story that stands out as much as "Story of Your Life" in its sheer scope, originality, and depth. I didn't develop a deep emotional connection to any of the characters in this collection. I was most excited by "Omphalos," a story in which a 19th-century scientist follows a chain of discoveries and surprises in a world like ours that was created only a few tens of thousands of years ago. But for all the prayers we read from the central character, I don't feel like her faith is quite recognizable or tangible. It's not "high-resolution" like the science is. This is the same issue I had with Chiang's previous collection: he deals with science so well, and characters so well, that his slight shortcomings dealing with the deep nature of faith stand out all the more. The conclusion of "Omphalos" throws up unnecessary walls, describing certain aspects of science as problems to faith when a robust theology like JRR Tolkien's theory of subcreation would not only endure the problems but use them to strengthen the role of faith. It's hard to talk about this without spoilers, so I'll leave it at that. There is a five-star story here about parrots by the Arecibo observatory, but it's too short to lift the whole collection to the level of Chiang's previous collection. I am sure that I'd give this four stars if I hadn't read Stories of Your Life and Others, but since I gave that one four (while considering five), I'll have to give this one three (while considering four).

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Book Review: Creation and Anarchy by Giorgio Agamben

This is a book for people who want to dive into words, and the first sign of that comes from how you read the title. "Creation" is indeed a theme of the book, more in the artistic sense than the natural, but the "anarchy" Agamben talks about is about things that have no beginning or "arche" (an-arche). The first essay is about the "archeology" of "works of art" but I associate it with etymology, rather: it's about how Aristotle and company most highly valued the artworks that changed the person, inside, rather than those that produced a physical object. Therefore, contemplation was a high good, much higher than it is today. I'd like to contemplate bringing that back.

Overall, this book is the second I've read by Agamben and both have been the very definition of pithy. These books are only 100 pages or so and 5-6 chapters, but open them up and they have as much depth as the Tardis. Occasional paragraphs get bogged down in philosophical complexities, but Agamben's ability to take words apart and reconstruct their meanings means that if you have a passing knowledge of Greek or Latin, then you're able to keep up with the fundamental ideas, which are what really matter.

The last two essays (of five) are the best, and overlap with David Bosworth's The Demise of Virtue in Virtual America, another little book with big implications. Agamben points out that the conflict between science and religion may reflect how the two disciplines use words: philosophy and science use words of description; law, religion, and magic use words of command. There's a great gulf between describing something passively, and speaking to make something true, respectively. That crystalline insight is an example of why, if you like words, you should read Agamben.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Book Review: The Language God Talks

Herman Wouk has always fascinated me as an author: someone who could write huge, ambitious, and (most uniquely of all) popular books about World War II with what can only be called heart. Like Stephen King, he's not a perfect writer but he's perfectly readable and has something to say beneath the flowing, even breezy, language. Sometimes breezy is a breath of fresh air.

This book is a short work about Richard Feynman and the space program (I happened to start it on the 50th anniversary of the moon landing), as well as Wouk's method for writing The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. I read those in high school but don't remember many details, I just remember how Wouk had a knack for complicated, epic plotting on the scale of the big Marvel Cinematic Universe Movies.

Here he talks about science, writing, and God. Wouk is an American Orthodox Jew and he uses Feynman as a foil for the big questions. In A World from Dust, I end with a plea for conversations exactly like this (though the final imaged conversation isn't as compelling as the actual ones!).

For Wouk, there's actually two "languages God talks" to refer to the title: calculus and the Torah/Talmud. Wouk only speaks the latter, but he speaks it fluently and persuasively. This quote is the center of the book, in which Wouk refers to the "Ghost Light" that stagehands would set on a stage after everyone else had gone home, always burning, to make sure no one would trip and to keep away the ghosts. I'll leave you with this gem:

“For Feynman, the Ghost Light was nothing but his own piercing mind, the spark of Adam in his genius brain, contemplating creation and finding it glorious but senseless. It is a popular view, also the considered view of some, not all, advanced thinkers. As for the author of this causerie, I see a different Ghost Light, distinctly there but very far off and hard to make out. It is not a single brilliant light like Feynman’s intellect. It is an odd irregular flickering flame, like a tumbleweed or low bush that has caught fire. Each time I look, there it is, burning.”

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: https://archive.org/stream/DisorderAndOrder/Disorder%20and%20Order_djvu.txt)

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.