Friday, March 30, 2012

Simplicity Undergirding Complexity

You never know with science. You can find complexity in simple things (chaos theory/butterfly effect, quantum mechanics) or simplicity in complex things, you just never know. It turns out there is a grid or scaffold of simplicity underlying the arrangement of the brain. This is a wonderful thing to find, like Maxwell's equations relating electricity to magnetism or the gas laws of chemistry; more accurately, it's like a simple coordinate system (or map/address book?) that can be used for future studies of the brain. I'm sure when we dig a little deeper that there will be some maddening complexity that confounds us again, but today let's revel in the simplicity given to us!

Simple 3-D grid structure underlying complexity of primate brain

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Diane Ackerman on Love

All* of the more prominent Op-Eds in the New York Times today (Sunday, actually) are disappointing, simplistic and/or maddeningly one-sided, but this blog post by Diane Ackerman really hits the mark in scope as well as content. Although she's a science writer, I could imagine extending this into a theology of relationship that leads to the Trinity, or a nice re-affirmation of the importance of the body as well as the mind to faith, or any number of other areas. All of the other posts close off thought*; this one extends it.

* Ok, I admit, I rather enjoyed Russ Douthat's piece about Tebow, but they also put him down into the netherword of less-important links rather than at the top with the big names!

Friday, March 23, 2012

Today's Academic Takedown

Lawrence Krauss published a book titled A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing, which argues that the laws of quantum mechanics are sufficient to justify existence. Not just necessary, but sufficient. All the reviews I've scanned of it so far have been accepting (one thing I've noticed is that book reviews of popular science books in science magazines will criticize the science but will rarely criticize the philosophy so long as it hews to the party line). Richard Dawkins said this will do for the origin of the universe what the Origin of Species did for, well, the origin of species. But then in the New York Times a philosophy professor familiar with quantum mechanics reviewed it and, in short, he took it down. I have a feeling this review is more fun than the book is. Personally, I'm getting a little tired of the automatic acceptance of shoddy philosophy by the science magazines in their reviews, and this is a step in the other direction -- in the right direction, that is.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Book Review: Blackout

I am about as ambivalent about this book as I have been about any. It didn't help that nowhere on the materials did it mention that it is part 1 of a 2-part series, and it ends frustratingly abruptly with what some people call a cliffhanger but to me just seems confusing. I also didn't know that the author Connie Willis has set other time-travel stories in this same "universe", and I probably would have read some of the other ones first.

For most of the book it just seemed like a sub-par Doctor Who episode about time travelers observing the Blitz. I appreciated learning some of the extra historical detail but much of the plot action was solving a problem that turned out not to be a problem in the first place, or arranging train schedules or something. It didn't help that I wasn't convinced by the beginning of the story, which takes place in Oxford in 2060 as the time travelers depart, especially because the academics don't act like academics at all. The grad students aren't particularly smart, and there was nothing specifically Oxfordian about anything going on. Michael Crichton's grad students are much more convincing. Also, I'm not convinced by Willis's portraits of the children, who all seem to be either demonic or incredibly whiny.

Once stuff starts to go wrong (or does it?) the plot gets going and there's an efficiently exciting climax as a raid approaches. I enjoyed some cool historical stuff like inflatable tanks, but ultimately I was disappointed to find there's another whole book left. My first thought was that I had somehow missed the last audiodisk! We'll see. If trajectory is any guide I may end up enjoying this yet.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Soloveitchik Online: "Majesty and Humility"

For a brief taste of Soloveitchik's remarkable writing, see his essay "Majesty and Humility" here.

And, lo and behold, a PDF of "The Lonely Man of Faith" is also available. At a glance it looks like some of the footnotes are a little messed up but definitely most of it is there, rather than having to wait for it from interlibrary loan like I did!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Book Review: The Lonely Man of Faith

Oh me of little faith ... I was mildly embarrassed to be checking this book out (never mind that I had no idea who the person at the desk even was!) because it was kind of like saying "I'm lonely." When in a way that's exactly what the author, Joseph Soloveitchik, intended. He writes about the two different creation stories in Genesis, how they describe the creation of two different Adams: the first Adam and the second Adam, both of which are contained in each of us. Deftly moving from the Scripture through philosophy and history and back again, with a tantalizing smidgen of science thrown in, Soloveitchik makes the case that we are too focused on the first, "majestic" Adam and have neglected the important role of the second, "convenantal" Adam. He's right, to the point that a certain person can have a pang of shame at even checking out a book with "lonely" in the title.

Soloveitchik does not argue that the first Adam should be ignored or done away with, any more than he would argue that the first account of creation in Genesis should be done away with. Rather, he argues that there is a movement (a dialectical one) between the two Adams in each of our lives. As someone who works in science, you could say that I very easily lose sight of the second Adam and focus on the first. My own Weter lecture was primarily about the first Adam, in fact.

Reading this book reminded me more than anything of stepping into the world of Chaim Potok's communities, and it proved as spiritually refreshing. As a Christian, I see Christ as the second Adam personified, humble and completely God's, and lonely, then, after the ordeal of ordeals, raised to newness of life as the first Adam. I see the seeds of most everything I believe in the vibrant words of this book and its own faithfulness to the words of Genesis and the prophets. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Robinson and Malick and ???

Nice post on Slate noting that Marilynne Robinson and Terrence Malick are kindred spirits. My only addition: that's the tip of the iceberg. There's a LOT of artists and writers who look at the world that way. Maybe we have a movement going on under our noses and we're missing it?

Jeffrey Overstreet suggests we add Annie Dillard to that list. I suggest Owen Barfield and the author I'm reading right now, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. The movement needs a name ...

Monday, March 5, 2012

Owen Barfield: Man and Meaning Video

This is a video made by another reader of Barfield with some footage of Owen himself, some back story, and a few quotes. This is a good place to start when reading Barfield.

Owen Barfield: Man and Meaning from David Lavery on Vimeo.

[Proceed to the Introduction to the "Responding to Barfield" series]

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Responding to Barfield, Part 7: Why Christianity Needs Science (and Even Evolution)

[Back to Part 6]

This series began with "Pre-History Never Happened." One might be excused for thinking that some sort of defense of intelligent design or creationism was in store. I was wondering a little about Barfield at that point, myself. But one would be wrong. Look where we end up: "Why Christianity Needs Evolution." Sorry, IDers.

Barfield is one of the strongest proponents of evolution and Christianity I have read. (He's not necessarily a proponent of SCIENCE, but of evolution. Chew on that one.) This isn't some weak-tea theistic evolution in which God creeps in through quantum randomness, either. Barfield's theology of evolution is much more than that, because God is involved in creating and sustaining perception itself, and Barfield's all about perception. This is about changing how we think so much it changes how we see ("figuration" in Barfield's terms), and this is about moving forward, not back:

p.147-148 “To be able to experience the representations as idols, and then to be able also to perform the act of figuration consciously, so as to experience them as participated; that is imagination. … [T]he way of the West lies, not back but forward; not in withdrawal from the contacts of the senses, but in their transformation and redemption.”

In all of this, Barfield is at war with literalness, a brand of thinking that he sees taking us into all sorts of dead-ends. He puts a lot of the problems commonly associated with Christianity down to a literalness brought about (perhaps ironically) by the scientific revolution, a literalness which fights against, among other things, the very rite of the Eucharist:

p.162-163 “The relation between the mind and heart of man is a delicate mystery, and hardness is catching. It will, I believe, be found that there is a valid connection, at some level however deep, between what I have called ‘literalness’ and a certain hardness of heart. Listen attentively to the response of a dull or literal mind to what insistently presents itself as allegory or symbol, and you may detect a certain irritation, a faint, incipient aggressiveness in its refusal. Here I think is a deep-down moral gesture. … We could pursue the matter further and instance, on the positive side, a certain humble, tender receptiveness of heart which is nourished by a deep and deepening imagination and by the self-knowledge which that inevitably involves. Perhaps this is what Blake had in mind, when he called Imagination ‘The Divine Body of the Lord Jesus, blessed for ever’; but we have digressed too far already from the main road.”

p.159 “[The inner experience of the infinite God], on the one side, and on the other that valiant attempt, which began with the Reformation and ended in Fundamentalism, to understand and accept literally – and only literally – the words of the Bible, precisely while their meanings were being subtly drained away by idolatry – these are the opposite and complementary poles between which Protestantism has hitherto revolved.”

“If this book has succeeded in showing anything, it has shown that the only possible answer to the idolatry with which all our thinking is to-day infected, is the acceptance and conscious ensuing of that directionally creator relation to the phenomenal world, which we know to be a fact, whether we like it or not. Is God’s creation less awe-inspiring because I know that the light, for instance, out of which its visual substance is woven, streams forth from my own eyes? ‘Look upon the rainbow,’ wrote the author of Ecclesiasticus: Look upon the rainbow, and praise him that made it: / very beautiful it is in the brightness thereof. / It compasseth the heavens about with a glorious circle, / and the hands of the most High have bended it.

“Do I echo these words less warmly, when I recollect that YHWH is creating the rainbow through my eyes? When I know that to think otherwise is an illusion or a pretence? Does piety depend on initial participation? If so, one thing is for certain: there is no future for it. But fortunately it does not. I did not create my eyes. And if an understanding of the manner of my participation in the appearance of a rainbow does not diminish my awe before its Creator, why should that be the case with the other more palpable phenomena?”

The intimate role of our Creator in creating all things, even the rainbow, means that rigorous pursuit of science can be a worshipful end, if you end up putting it at the feet of God (rather than an idol such as science itself). And this wonder of creation, which science can describe so well, needs to be given to those who can't or don't have time to do the experiments themselves. Barfield describes this in my single favorite quote of his (I printed it out, and I hardly ever print out quotes):

p.164 “There will be a revival of Christianity when it becomes impossible to write a popular manual of science without referring to the incarnation of the Word. It is these books, not popular theology (however excellently and simply it is written, as to-day it often is) on which the mind of the proletariat seizes as it awakens from its ancient peasant-dreaming and peasant-wisdom. … The hungry sheep look up and are not fed.”

Christ is creator of science, and even-handed, humble pursuit of science is a worshipful activity. As someone who has tries to do science this way, and who worships Christ, I have come to the conclusion that evolution is consonant with the way God created. For Barfield, that is not enough. He says something along the lines of "if Christianity didn't discover evolution, it would have to invent it" because it goes together with the concept of the Incarnate Word in Christ so perfectly:

p.167 “I believe that the blind-spot which posterity will find most startling in the last hundred years or so of Western civilization, is that it had, on the one hand, a religion which differed from all others in its acceptance of time, and of a particular point in time, as a cardinal element of its faith; that it had, on the other hand, a picture in its mind of the history of the earth and man as an evolutionary process; and that it neither saw nor supposed any connection whatever between the two.”

Could Barfield be right? Once we move away from the literalist objection to evolution, and once we see the process through the lens of the cross, is it possible that Christianity and evolution are long-lost brothers? Barfield thinks so. I came at this from a different starting point, but I think I'm close to Barfield here: I believe Christianity is true (more precisely, that Christ is the truth), and that evolution brought us to this point of the Creator's plan. Can there be a revival of the mind in which the two are joined, not just because it's nice, but because it's necessary?

The other side of evolution being necessary to Christianity is that the theory of evolution cleansed nature of the various pagan idols of stream, forest, and tree. No one leaves offerings to these idols anymore in a real, heartfelt way: our perceptions of the world have simply moved on from what they were in the Roman empire. But that desacralization (is that a word?) of nature led to the manipulation of nature -- science -- which led to our knowledge of nature's mechanisms, and which according to Barfield, has led to our worship of the mechanisms. Barfield doesn't say "chuck it all" -- he says redirect that last step to the triune God:

p.185 “If, in Christ, we participate finally the Spirit we once participated originally; if, in so doing, we participate one another – so that ‘men’ once more become also ‘man’; if, in original participation, we were dreamers and unfree, and if Christ is a Being who can be participated only in vigilance and freedom, then what will chiefly be remembered about the scientific revolution will be the way in which it scoured the appearances clean of the last traces of spirit, freeing us from original, and for final, participation. And if what it produced thereby was, as I have suggested, a world of idols, yet, as Augustine of old could contemplate the greatest of evils and exclaim Felix peccatum! so we, looking steadily on that world, and accepting the burden of existential responsibility which final participation lays on us, may yet be moved to add: Felix eidolon!

"Blessed sin" and "Blessed fall" from Augustine; "Blessed idols" and "Blessed science" from Barfield.

At the end of this, I know it's about "putting it all together", but I'm not sure what "putting it together" looks like. Maybe we don't need to know when we start. Like N.T. Wright's story about the stoneworker in the cathedral, maybe we work on our incomplete part and then the cathedral builder lifts our little stone and puts it into the right place. At the very least, Barfield provides another way of looking at the world, and in that way, he has put some things together for me. It's worth being able to put on "Barfield glasses" for a while to see how things look different: a bit more like Lewis's and Tolkien's world perhaps, and a bit less like Darwin's but a bit more like Mendel's or Polanyi's? I don't have a strong conclusion to this summary of his thought, except to say if this is true it will gradually fit things together. If it is true, it will grow, and it will be worth thinking of again. I'll think about it and ... well, the rest of the story is what this blog is for. So till then ... felix eidolon!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Responding to Barfield, Part 6: Three Problems (Two Theological, One Scientific)

[Back to Part 5]

I always want to know, what does all this stuff really mean? How does it change how I look at the world and how I act? Barfield addresses this in scattered places throughout Saving the Appearances, and I've pulled out four areas, two theological and two scientific, in which he makes specific interpretations or recommendations that I want to think about. The first three: Eucharist, the Fall, and cancer research, are shorter and I'll put them here. The fourth, evolution, is more central and longer, and that will be part 7.

This writing is fueled by Barfield's view of the importance of participation combined with the avoidance of idolatry. Remember that "original participation" is, historically, living in a world of gods and spirits, animism or polytheism of some sort. Science has removed those gods and spirits (and according to some overzealous proponents threatens to remove the Creator himself), but Barfield's underlying message is that science too has become an idol and has cut us off from the participation in the world that was the silver lining of the gods and spirits. Barfield suggests that we move forward to "final participation" of realizing we are part of this system, that our scientific hypotheses are valid but limited, and that we can now put things together again in a poetic approach to understanding/seeing the world and its connections in which we understand that God is both the transcendent creator and the immanent, nearby spirit who holds all things together in Christ. He puts it this way:

p.172 “Original participation fires the heart from a source outside itself; the images enliven the heart. But in final participation – since the death and resurrection – the heart is fired from within by Christ; and it is for the heart to enliven the images.”

What more vivid form of participation is there than eating and drinking, taking in material from outside yourself and bringing it to become part of you, a participating part? The weird Christian theology that we eat and drink Christ in the Eucharist starts makes sense as Barfield's participation:

p.170 “[T]he tender shoot of final participation has from the first been acknowledged and protected by the Church in the institution of the Eucharist. For all who partake of the Eucharist first acknowledge that the man who was born in Bethlehem was ‘of one substance with the Father’, and that ‘all things were made’ by him; and then they take that substance into themselves, together with its representations named bread and wine. This is after all the heart of the matter. There was no difficulty in understanding it, as long as enough of the old participating consciousness survived. … But, by the physical act of communion as such, men can only take the Divine substance, the ‘Name apart’ directly into the unconscious part of themselves; by way of their blood.”

We could make some atoms in the bread and wine radioactive and trace them -- a few hours later some parts of you would be glowing with radioactivity. (Just a thought experiment!) The bread and wine become part of your system, and since they are part of the body and blood of Christ, he is in you, the suffering servant and the lord of all, the word of God who created the world and holds it together. That's powerful.

Another aspect of the "participating consciousness," as Barfield puts it, is that it is communal, just as words must be shared/spoken between at least two people to be truly part of a language, to truly convey meaning. Because participation is by definition communal (you're "participating" with/in something else), communal bonds and sharing are taken for granted, and something like the fact that the stain from the first human's sin infects all humanity is much more obvious. It doesn't require a "mode of transmission" through genetic material or cultural degradation, it's just obvious that we all participate with each other with our words and that one person is not an island from the others, and can therefore effect the others. So Adam's sin can infect me -- and it can be reversed by the Second Adam as well:

p.183-184 “For instance, a non-participating consciousness cannot avoid distinguishing abruptly between the concept of ‘man’, or ‘mankind’, or even ‘men in general’ on the one hand and that of ‘a man’ – an individual human spirit – on the other. This difficulty did not arise to anything like the same extent as long as original participation survived. Therefore our predecessors were able, quite inwardly, to accept the sin of Adam as being their original sin also. And therefore we are not – because, for us, Adam (if he existed) was after all – somebody else! This has brought with it the loss of the concept of the ‘fallen’ as an essential element in the make-up of human beings; which in its turn is responsible for the devastating shallowness of so much contemporary ethics and contemporary psychology. … When the evolution of phenomena is substituted for our supposed evolution of idols, it will, I believe, be seen without much difficulty that the evolution of the individual human spirit has always proceeded step by step with the evolution of nature; and that both are indeed ‘fallen’. The biological evolution of the human race is, in fact, only one half of the story; the other has still to be told.”

Sin is a brokenness in seeing and acting, and the way we see and act are tangled up with our fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters and neighbors, partially through words and partially through actions. This web of perception was distorted and tainted by the very first person, and has been ever since -- with the one exception of Christ, who showed us how to step outside of that selfish entanglement.

Notice how evolution is part of Barfield's previous quote. Since he's all about words, his discussion is about the body that speaks the words and its biological development as much as it is about spirit and sin (hold that thought for Part 7). The fragmentation and specialization of language that he highlights -- the same fragmentation that is reversed when we put things together through poetic metaphor -- finds its apogee in the highly specialized and precise language of science. This is a natural consequence of the increase of knowledge but is also something to be recognized and reversed, at least at one level.

For all his positive statements about evolution, Barfield is brutal on the subject of chance. For Barfield, statements about the randomness of the universe are a major factor accelerating the fragmentation of knowledge, and who can deny that fragmentation of knowledge is only increasing recently (politically, socially as well), catalyzed by technology?:

p.145 “The hypothesis of chance has already crept from the theory of evolution into the theory of the physical foundation of the earth itself; but, more serious perhaps than that, is the rapidly increasing ‘fragmentation of science’ which occasionally attracts the attention of the British Association. There is no ‘science of sciences’; no unity of knowledge. There is only an accelerating increase in that pigeon-holed knowledge by individuals of more and more about less and less, which, if persisted in indefinitely, can only lead mankind to a sort of ‘idiocy’ (in the original sense of the word) – a state of affairs, in which fewer and fewer representations will be collective, and more and more will be private, with the result that there will in the end be no means of communication between one intelligence and another.”

It bears repeating that this is not anti-science in anything but the philosophical mode of what people mean by "science." It is anti-materialism, but pro-rationality as long as that rationality is kept in context and in community. Even though I titled part I "Pre-history never happened," the models for pre-history are worth looking into, investigating, and figuring out. We just must always remember that they are models:

“The employment of ‘models’ for the purpose of thinking may be very well; for the purposes of exposition it may even be essential – as long as we know what were are doing and do not turn the models into idols. And we shall know what we are doing with pre-history, when we have firmly grasped the fact that the phenomenal world arises from the relation between a conscious and an unconscious and that evolution is the story of the changes that relation has undergone and is undergoing.”

Ok, that last sentence, even I don't really get and I've read two of Barfield's books. So we're not there yet, right? But Barfield puts forward an example of a scientist who saw things and put things together, and did better science, as a result of looking at the world the way Barfield was. This scientist is Rudolf Steiner. I don't know that much about Steiner, actually, but I can tell you some scientists think in the mode that Barfield describes, and that this is a valid form of progress in cancer research:

p.140-141 “Cancer is a process of generation, and once we admit the concept of the potentially phenomenal, we must see that generation is not a transition from not-being to being, but a transition from potential to phenomenal existence. Steiner’s method, based on perception of the potentially phenomenal, was to diagnose a pre-cancerous condition of the blood, a condition not yet detectable by physical symptoms, and thus to take the disease at a stage where it answers better to treatment. … Steiner showed that imagination, and the final participation it leads to, involve, unlike hypothetical thinking, the whole man – thought, feeling, will, and character – and his own revelations were clearly drawn from those further stages of participation – Inspiration and Intuition – to which the systematic use of the imagination may lead.”

Steiner seems to be a polarizing figure. C.S. Lewis had a negative view of him, and questions about Steiner's writing and thinking are one of the major faultlines I can find between Lewis and Barfield. This is probably one of the reasons that Lewis called Barfield the "Second Friend" in Surprised by Joy:

"... the Second Friend is the man who disagrees with you about everything... Of course he shares your interests; otherwise he would not become your friend at all. But he has approached them all at a different angle. he has read all the right books but has got the wrong thing out of every one... How can he be so nearly right, and yet, invariably, just not right?"

I want both Lewis and Barfield to be my friend! I find this example to be something I can at least mull over and think about. What was different about the way Steiner looked at science? And how can we look at science in a similarly different way now? How does this go together with some of H. Gilbert Welch's argument that now we pre-screen too much for cancer because we're thinking of things too mechanically, too analytically? What is the role of Inspiration and Intuition in science?

What do you think?

[Forward to Part 7]