Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Book Review: I am a Strange Loop (Part 2)

(Continued: Part two of an anticipated four parts)

Your book really comes together when your own life fell apart, halfway through when you talk about the sudden loss of your wife. Like you say, this is a book with the same focus as the one you wrote in your late 20’s, but older and therefore sadder. The idea of letting your dead wife see her children through your eyes is heartbreaking and yet comforting. I can accept that as a good "echo" of the reality of marriage. And your philosophy lets you put forward a model of marriage with the idea of selves that are intermingled, reflected, and even transferred: truly a “one mind” argument that is very close to the Biblical term “one flesh.” Isn’t it interesting, though, that the Biblical term is that much more physical? At any rate, the soul-merger language you employ (and rightfully so!) about marriage is actually several steps down the road to the Paradox of all Paradoxes: the mystery of the Trinity, three “selves” merged yet distinct. So I have to thank you for your scientific insights enriching my theology!

You know, most science writing tries to (but often fails to) avoid teleology, the end purpose of things, while you dive headlong into it. Really, your model of a soul is all about the goals of the self. When you talk about Carol living in you, the main justification is that her ends live on in you. So I’m going to turn the tables on myself and argue against teleology in this respect. In marriage, the “ends” have merged, and her goals are your goals, but after she’s gone, the copy you have of her in you is faint and, here’s the real nub, it only matters to you (and less so to the others around you). Not to her. According to your philosophy, “she” stopped when her body stopped. Her memories do live on, that is so valuable. But she is only a reflection in your mind, a genetic reflection in your children, and she will never surprise you again. She will never truly know anything, if the ashes stay ashes and the dust stays dust. There’s no gentle way to say it: the consolation of living on in memory is a consolation to the rest of us but not to her. And you SHOULD fight against that, and that IS wrong, that death cuts a young mother off from her children and that she never gets to see them grow. Our insistence that the universe is wrong here is human; there’s no need to defend the universe by developing a complicated scheme for selves and self-awareness.

What I see in this book is an initial strict definition of causality that’s only bottom-up, and it ends up eating itself, or dissolving itself in Dennett’s metaphor of Darwinism (here meaning materialism) as the ultimate acid. You don’t allow top-down causality, then you end up disassembling your own will. I would like you to admit into your philosophy a third level of being and two-way causality. I don’t think anything is inaccurate in your description of the first atomic level, or even the second symbolic level, except you have made the choice by fiat that all reality must be reducible and laboratory-controlled. That explains a lot – but not everything.

It’s funny, as I was reading I said to myself, “I really wish he’d write about teleportation of the body” and then at the end of the book you do! So thanks for anticipating that. You seem to think this causes problems, so I may be missing something, but to me it’s simple. If I am disassembled on Earth and my atoms are reassembled on Mars, I have just been torn apart on Earth. End of story. The reassembly of my atoms means my memories and future actions and everything about me is on Mars, sure, and so to the rest of the universe “I” am still there. But to me, to my only possession of my point of view and my choices, I am gone. The copied me is a different me. Therefore, I will never step into a “teleporter”!

Now, my proposal with the resurrection is that the creator of it all can reconstitute everything down to my point of view and my will, which I believe requires my body to be reassembled, that this interiority can be put together but not by me or by any one of us, no matter how complicated our reassembly apparatus.

(To be continued in Part 3, in which I get a little snippy)

Monday, August 29, 2011

Book Review: I am a Strange Loop (Part 1)

(To sort out my thoughts in reply to this remarkable book, I was going to try something very much in the book’s spirit and impose a virtual dialogue between myself and its author (or more precisely, the neural representation of the author in my head), but my neural representation must be too thin because I ended up talking too much and drowning out the poor author. I just don’t have a strong enough strange loop of Douglas Hofstadter in my head, so I’ll write a normal-ish review but address it directly to him to see how that plays out.)

Dear neural representation of Douglas Hofstadter in my head (and I do mean “dear”),

Your book got under my skin for a couple of weeks, so I have far more to react to than can fit on a blog, but let’s start out with the overall adjectives and superlatives: although it’s a bit longwinded – you add some obvious “padding” to make the paragraphs fit your aesthetic scheme – it’s everything a book should be, exuberant, poignant, detailed, fun to read. Whereas your previous book Godel, Escher, Bach taught me how computers really work vividly enough to stick with me permanently, this book has an excellent chapter or two on math talking about the same thing from a different perspective, but really you spend most of your time trying to suss out philosophical implications that you feel were in the previous book but not picked up on by most. I picked up on them and am not as sure this book is necessary as you seem to think, but I do have a soft spot for good sequels, and this counts as one. Ultimately, I agree, the different emphasis of this book was necessary, although I wonder if it could have been half the length. Nonetheless, it’s a lot of fun to follow along. I find your emphasis on the developing and ever-changing self to be very helpful: I’m reminded of the one day in middle school that I tried to slick back my hair to try on a new self in imitation of a friend of mine, but by the end of the day it all fell back to where it started. Do you emphasize the mutability of the soul in order to minimize the constant elements to it? Yet aren’t those constant elements the truly distinctive ones?

I actually have no problem with where you start. I just think your universe needs more than you allow on top of what you already allow. I can see your entire philosophical-scientific scheme of what minds are made of as actually compatible with my orthodox Christian belief, because I think historically that the speculation on the soul as a separate substance is more a Medieval imposition on the text (in which they tried to make everything invisible – souls, righteousness, etc. – a kind of fluid or substance) rather than in the original text itself. So I have no theological objection to being built up from atoms, and being tied to my body, because according my theological system, we’re going to get bodies when we’re resurrected, so the body and soul are just as tightly linked for me as they are for you. Actually, being intimately linked to a pattern of atoms lets me see one level of just how God will reconstruct that pattern.

At this fundamental level, I have to ask that beyond your two levels of meaning -- the atomic and the abstract/mental/symbolic -- why can’t there be a third level of meaning beyond that? Now, I don’t think this third level is composed of patterns formed entirely by the first two levels, but I think it can interact with them. How it interacts may be a problem, but one that’s fun to think about rather than one that negates the entire system. And I don’t think this third level has to be some substance like what you derisively call “feelium,” which is as unfair a simplification on your part as Searle’s pop-can analogy, which you detest, is to your own philosophy. Better to call it “personality” than “feelium” and to remember that it is not reducible and not a substance or fluid or any thing like that, so mocking it with a substance-seeming synonym is just as wrong as Searle proposing one pop can can represent thirst. Your problem, as I see it, is that you still have to deal with the fact that a careening mass of atoms somehow gave rise to personalities in what is to you a universe void of personality. In your universe, the fact that I own a bit of personality that really is my only true possession is a problem, while in mine it is an expected and predicted part of the system. I find that amazingly strange in a universe of physics and thermodynamics – not impossible by any means, just weird.

Your insistence that “I” is an illusion (but an illusion that is real in that it should act real), and that the illusion can be disassembled with the proper scientific insight, seems much like the very old ideas of the Gnostics. Your focus on abstraction is the same as theirs. There is a paradox here, in that you build up your Gnosticism from purely physical bits, but end up with a realm of thought that de-emphasizes the physical bits and even seeks to escape them. In true scientific fashion, you have edited the first person out of your writing.

(To be continued in Part 2)

Thursday, August 25, 2011

George Murphy Quote of the Day

One of the constants of any ASA meeting is that George Murphy will give an excellent, provocative, challenging, and polished talk. His talk at the 2011 meeting ("Kenosis and the Inspiration of Scripture," which I just listened to online, and which can be found here) is no exception. Let me repeat the conclusion:

"The fundamental point in all of this is not one or another statement about the natural sciences or human history. It is rather that the Bible is both fully human writing and the Word of God, just as Jesus is fully human and fully divine. The scientific and historical limitations of Scripture should not be seen as embarrassments which have to be explained away, but as a consequence of the fullness with which God enters into the history of our world."

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Planet that Absorbs Light

Recently found: A planet that absorbs the light that falls on it. It is darker than black paint (by 20% at least).

If nothing else, a science fiction show set on this planet could save a lot of money on the cost of constructing the sets. And lighting. And CGI ...

The Hairs on (and the Neurons in) Your Head

[Part 3 of what has turned out to be a trilogy on Matthew 5-7]

The claim that God knows the number of hairs on your head is to my mind one of the most striking theological insights that Jesus gave us about God. He actually says this in Matthew 10 and Luke 12, not Matthew 5-7, which is interesting because in both cases he is talking to his closer followers and encouraging them to continue in hard times. Although it is not technically in the Sermon on the Mount it underlies its theology. It makes theological sense that God knows this much because practically all of the Sermon on the Mount depends on God knowing us entirely, down to the innermost thought, and being both Your Father Who Sees in Secret and Your Father Who Will Reward You. But it's so easy to slip out of the practical belief that, oops, just lost a hair, well, God's number just went down by one. It's one of those things that's hard to believe, yet is absolutely crucial.

There's a lot of hairs on a lot of heads in Jesus' day, like the sand on the seashore in the promise to Abraham, an inconceivably large number to human brains. The fact that we can look down orders upon orders of magnitude and see atoms and quarks, then look up orders upon orders of magnitude and see galaxies and superclusters of galaxies, is a difference of degree but not a fundamental difference. Whichever way you look at it, it's beyond you.

It's not too much more of a step to say God knows the numbers of neurons in your brain, and their current state. Come to think of it, maybe that's why we find this hard to believe, because we don't want to believe it. We don't WANT God to know all these random thoughts that run around inside our heads like the Beatles' "Revolution 9". (I heard once that Lennon said that song came closer than anything else to capturing the music he actually heard in his head.) Realizing God knows all that stuff for all of history gives a new perspective on infinite patience and gentleness. Maybe he can stand it because he once experienced it himself.

This comes down to one of the major problems I have with the Intelligent Design argument. If Michael Behe is right and the irreducible complexity of the flagellum required a little divine design the same way as someone might debug a balky program or sketch a blueprint for a car engine, then God stepped in to what Behe would argue is a random, meaningless process and injected a little bit of non-random meaning.

But that means for thousands or millions of years bacteria lived in a random, meaningless universe until God stepped in, played LEGO with the proteins, then stepped out again. If you argue that the flagellum needed a tinkering kind of miracle, then you must argue that the rest of the time the flagellum was non-miraculous. You end up with a universe that is 99.9% non-miraculous with 0.1% of a miracle thrown in. (And, if the percentage of miracles bugs you, it should, because quantifying the miraculous is the logical endpoint of the Intelligent Design philosophy.)

The thing that really gets me is that the 0.1% is constantly shrinking. I've seen it happen, Behe might argue it isn't, but my best professional judgment from decades of study is that it is. If and when we figure out a mechanism for flagellum evolution, then it becomes 0.09%. The mirculous has just been diminished.

The thing is, by focusing so much on the hardest-case scenario and demanding a miracle for it, the ID community inadvertently implies that everything else that is more easily explained is non-miraculous, and therefore random, and therefore meaningless. We end up in a more meaningless universe as a result. You can go with the "Dawkins universe" which 100% lacks meaning or the "ID universe" which 99.9% lacks meaning ... oh wait, I just read another paper explaining another biological mechanism, make that 99.91%.

What can get us out of this dichotomy? Reading closely the words of scripture.

If God knows the very hairs on your head, and by extention the very atoms, neurons, and thoughts in your head, and if in Christ all things hold together (thank you, Paul), then the process that produced thoughts from atoms is not a meaningless mechanism. It is a fascinating interplay of matter, mind, and relationship, held together by its Creator. God is immanent and active -- God is Creator and God is love. He is not absent, but he is patient. Every bond formed, every breath taken, every thought complete is a small miracle.**

Stop before you fall off the cliff of pantheism. God knows all about the hairs on your head but he is not the hairs. I think it's safe to say that God transcends hairs. Also, he is not your thoughts, but you can bring your thoughts in line with his direction, you can bring your thoughts to be "in Christ" as Paul would put it.

Because God knows all these things, you can talk to him, with your vocal cords or without. So what I really want to know of other Christians is not "What do you think about science?" or "How old do you think the earth is?". It's not "What denomination are you?" or "How do you interpet this word or that phrase?". It's a lot closer to the question "Do you pray?" because you gotta talk to God to really see his grace at work, but it's not even that, because I cannot tell when you're really talking to him or when you're mouthing words or dozing off, that's between you and him. What it comes down to is, how well do you love? Loving God is internal, but loving others is external and part of loving God, and it requires daily commitment and dusting yourself off after repeated failure. It requires conformity to the cross found at the heart of creation.

All the stuff about judge not lest ye be judged is part of this. God knows it all, I only know a part. Through a glass darkly, for now. The hope is that the Creator who started it all and who knows every hair therefore loves his creation, and will faithfully see it through from its incomplete, broken state to completion "in Christ." I'm not sure what that means but I'm looking forward to finding out. The path is through the pattern set in his story.

(** I've got more to say that is along the lines of how it is that a BIG disruptive event like the resurrection is a miracle brought about by this God who is closer to you than you are to yourself, but for now it's sufficient to note that, as Stanely Hauerwas pointed out in his Gifford lectures, the resurrection is a miracle that "goes along with the grain of the universe." It is ultimately consistent with the Creator's will and not a violation or suspension of it, and it is necessary.)

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Book Review: The Ale Boy's Feast

Since this is book 4 of 4 in a series, I don't want to give too much away. But a few observations: This series is so unique it needs a new word for it (or we need to recover the original value of the word "unique"!). Most fantasy novels, you pretty much know what you're going to get, thanks to the "Ancestor" Tolkien founding the field and setting the rules that others riff on. Tad Williams has specifically noted that many of his plot points are specifically there to work out issues he had with Tolkien's series, both references and modifications. But the basic shape of the plot and the point of the writing all seems to be the same with carying levels of detail: to tell a story exploring a new world with many things different but most things the same as Tolkien's vision.

Because it's fantasy, and because he too follows a few of Tolkien's conventions, it would be easy to put Jeffrey Overstreet's books in with the rest, and I approached the series with those assumption, but it just doesn't fit. There's something distinctly different about Overstreet's vision. I've noted before how Overstreet writes cinematically: it starts from art, color, and image rather than being a typical campfire-type of story. In particular, in this closing book there's some metaphors about what art does and what it IS that are much deeper than any other fantasy novel, with the possible exception of Tolkien. It has a satisfying narrative conclusion; in fact, it follows the pattern of having multiple "endings" that unfold when the expected ending isn't enough. You see things in the conclusion that Tolkien himself didn't put in his trilogy, things that I always wished Tolkien would do. But the "satisfaction" of the ending, though real, isn't the point. Overstreet leaves just enough threads unfinished that it is not neatly packed up, but rather tantalizingly open, resolved yet still alive. Anyone who complains about a lack of resolution in this book, honestly, hasn't read the earlier books closely enough. (I feel the same way about LOST.)

I think one of the reason most fantasy authors avoid making their novels about "real" things like art and faith is that their writing honestly isn't up to it. Overstreet's writing supports his main point because it is up to the task. It is itself artistic and so the book can be about art. Lapidary phrases are scattered throughout the book like gems on the shore, turning up when you least expect it.

Other things I'm happy to say are in this book: a funny (to me, I've got a bit of a twisted sense of humor, and I thought the most evil characters were kind of darkly funny at first) Thomas Kinkaid reference; some really horrific scenes with the evil characters; a really solid resolution of the central mystery about the ancestor and the houses; a meaningful philosophical exchange between a student and his mentor about what's real and what's not near the end; and a fascinating underground geography that you can only do in a novel like this.

I realized near the end of this: I'm going to have to read it all again. Thanks Jeffrey for a wonderful and unique series.

And a final word: I miss the missing "scarjo." I know, I know it's still there, but the original term just seems more right to me. A matter of taste.

A final final word: are there any openings for imityriologists?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

From the Nearby Flowers to the Distant Future

It should be familiar by now. I've studied it all my life in one way or another and when I saw that the upcoming teaching series was Matthew 5-7, there was a part of me that thought I wouldn't get much out of it. That part of me was wrong. Every week there's something new and, well, the only word for it is convicting. It's not necessarily the eloquence of the teaching: I've seen the different pastors in the series struggle with the words like Jacob wrestling by the river. It's the words. These words are alive and unlike any other words.

As a scientist it amazes me how much of the Sermon on the Mount starts with observation of the natural world (anything that starts with "Consider ... "). Jesus saw God active, close, and immanent in nature, in the lilies of the field and the birds in the air, in the engineering principles of strong house foundations and the growth of trees. He also saw Scripture, and not just the words themselves but God's intentions behind the words, the transcendence of God's purposes. If you enter into the world of the Sermon on the Mount you find a world that is painted with bright colors far and near, one that rewards careful investigation and careful reading, but is more than the focus on the detail, it is the forest and the trees in one.

The fact that the lilies are thrown into the fire is not a problem like the problem of evil is for us comfortable people. Jesus says see how beautiful they are now, and how much more you are than they.

In the Everlasting Man, GK Chesterton sums this up:

“There is perhaps nothing so perfect in all language or literature as the use of these three degrees in the parable of the lilies of the field; in which he first seems to take one small flower in his hand and note its simplicity and even its impotence; then suddenly expands it in flamboyant colours into all the palaces and pavilions full of a great name in national legend and national glory; and then, by yet a third overturn, shrivels it to nothing once more with a gesture as if flinging it away. … Merely in a literary sense it would be more of a masterpiece than most of the masterpieces in libraries; yet it seems to have been uttered almost at random while a man might pull a flower. … There is nothing that really indicates a subtle and in the true sense a superior mind so much as this power of comparing a lower thing with a higher and yet that higher with a higher still; of thinking on three planes at once. … something that can only be called subtle and superior, something that is capable of long views and even of double meanings, …”

Just as Jesus looked at a lily from these angles, I want to pluck out DNA sequences and look at them the same way, looking not just for the relationships but at the Creator's intent behind those relationships, accepting the surprises as they come. And always, to remember, how much more are we? When Jesus looks at a lily and sees so much in it, it's important to remember, this is how God looks at us. We don't do this ourselves; the Spirit is the enabler and the catalyst of this view of the world. But when we step into it and let God work through it, I believe this will fix us.

This is why I believe: because these words are the words of life.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Judgment, Tenure, and the Fall

Academia is weird. There's the robes and square hats we wear to graduation, the impenetrable papers we write, and the way we constantly use personal eccentricities to disguise the injustices we perpetuate on those who work for us. And it costs a LOT of money to send a student to college to be taught by these weird profs. I get it. It's tempting to look at tenure and chalk it up as just another quirk, even a damaging mark, in academia. I admit I've asked that question myself. Why do we have tenure in this day and age?

This is why.

To sum up: John Schneider, a theologian at Calvin College, presented an article (and apparently is working on a book) about how he interprets the early chapters of Genesis in the light of the information stored in ancient DNA. Basically, the DNA evidence suggests that the community of humans we're all descended from is small, but cannot be from a single person. A cover article in Christianity Today and recent NPR story included Schneider. I just found out from that story that, although he had tenure at Calvin, he chose to step down uder pressure from the board, after 25 years. So the tenure system didn't protect Schneider from his board when he published an article they disagreed with. At the very least, a tenure system is there to protect professors to be able to publish interpretations contrary to their boards. Now, the added element to this mix is Christian orthodoxy: did Schneider violate the terms of Calvin's faith statement? Read his article and I don't think you see a "false prophet," but a Christian with some insightful things to say about the nature of the fall and the power of art. Whatever you see, I think the question is at least open.

Even if there is a disagreement about the nature of the Fall between Schneider and the Board, it should be re-emphasized that the version of the Fall being fought over is younger than the Bible. The person whose word is being reinterpreted is not really Jesus or Moses, but Augustine of Hippo. Augustine's ideas about the Fall were one of many options at the time. The Eastern church has a much different view of the Fall that branched off from different Christian fathers. So Schneider is not being punished for contradicting the Bible, but Augustine. I have to believe that should put the dispute in a different light.

Of all the opinions put forward, this exchange is the one that sticks out to me, from the NPR story:

“This stuff is unavoidable,” says Dan Harlow at Calvin College. “Evangelicals have to either face up to it or they have to stick their head in the sand. And if they do that, they will lose whatever intellectual currency or respectability they have.”

“If so, that’s simply the price we’ll have to pay,” says Southern Baptist seminary’s Albert Mohler. “The moment you say ‘We have to abandon this theology in order to have the respect of the world,’ you end up with neither biblical orthodoxy nor the respect of the

The problem with Mohler's quote is that it is exactly contradictory to the sermon I just heard on Sunday. That sermon wasn't from Genesis 1. It was from Matthew 7, the Sermon on the Mount, the famously, probably too-often quoted "Judge not, let ye be judged" passage. It's struck me how this passage is in tension with other passages, particularly 1 Corinthians when Paul says "Don't you remember, one day you're going to judge angels!" to the lawsuit-happy Corinthians. One of the things my pastor mentioned was that the judgment of Matthew 7 is one where you think you can tell where someone is at spiritually from external "indicators." It is a judgment of the soul, of intentions, which is exactly what Mohler is doing. Look at that quote: it uses the same words but twists them to make the respect of the world the focus of the statment, when it's actually incidental to Harlow's comment. Mohler is saying that the respect of the world is the primary driver of the scientists who seek to reconcile genes with Genesis. I don't know why Mohler is doing this, but from his words I can see that he is doing it.

Well, if Matthew 7 is Scripture then Mohler has just opened himself up to the exact same judgment, and that's what I'm seeing all over the internet today, with scores of opinionated people trying to determine, descry and declaim Mohler's inner motives. So now we have a rampant speck-vs-mote tournament in the virtual world. Just stop it.

Note that this isn't really about evolution. It's about the Fall. And it's not really about Genesis, it's about Augustine and later interpretations of Genesis. Schneider's writing actually helped me understand some things about the Fall, but I'm not sure we know enough science to speculate entirely on its historical nature yet. I think there's a creative and surprising solution out there that may not be entirely biological! I want to keep learning about it, because I think there's some fascinating ways in which we can understand the Fall and how it broke things apart. I'm sure it happened, but I'm not sure how. And I'd like to hear others who have thought about it without fear of reprisal.

If the Fall that we're fighting about is really Augustine's theology and not Jesus's, then that means Schneider was essentially fired because his writing disagreed with a human construct built on the foundation of scripture. 2000 years ago there was another debate between Jesus and the Pharisees about another human construct built on the foundation of scripture. I remember how that disagreement turned out. It would be a shame for the church to make the same mistake. But then again, isn't that what we all do? After all, we are fallen.