Thursday, August 31, 2017

Book Review: The Uncontrolling Love of God

I'm faced with a dilemma: how do I interact on a deep level with a book that challenges a central tenet of theology when I listened to the book as a free audiobook? One thing's for sure: I'm not going to be able to give a coherent contribution to this debate, so I'll settle for bullet points! Better yet, listen to Thomas Oord read his own book for free by downloading the book here, then join the conversation.

-- When I met Tom, I knew right away that he was a theologian to take seriously, because his very manner is not too serious. He exudes grace and life. This aspect of his personality shines through in his book. Tom argues that God's love comes before God's power in everything. Which includes his ability to control the natural world. God's nature of love makes it so that He cannot stop certain evils from happening. Tom makes it clear that God is still "all-mighty" and that miracles happen, but that God's love prevents him from coercing anything created because love comes first in the nature of God.

-- The word study I appreciated most was of the word "kenosis," which literally means "emptying," but Tom's preferred "pouring out" is better. This fits very well with Robert Spaemann's definition of life as being that "which exists in itself and pours itself out." Pouring is a dynamic process and there's lots to unpack for a chemist in that very definition.

-- Chapter 2 is an excellent summary of randomness and chaos. I think I may use it in class someday.

-- Tom's argument is fundamentally that God is near, being active in the very regularities of nature. That the regularity of nature is itself a manifestation of God's faithfulness. This is a fundamental tenet of theology that we have lost somewhere along the way, and this book helps us recover it.

-- I have several "what-about" questions: What about the Trinity (it's more implicit than explicit)? Why is explanation of evil so important when a large majority of evil is explainable, especially if we consider the risks we willingly take on when we move through this regular universe? (Tom refers to an example of a rock through a windshield, but I think this is a consequence of the technology that allows our soft bodies to move so quickly down the road. Expecting God to stop every fatal rock would be "putting God to the test" as much as Jesus flinging himself down from the Temple parapet.) He writes about Scripture and power later on but I think that should come earlier because it is so prevalent a theme that dealing with it feels tacked-on in so short a book. For example, when Jesus says "All authority is given to me in heaven and earth" what does that mean in terms of uncontrolling love? And most of all, what about the resurrection and eschatology?

-- Ultimately I agree that God is near and God is love. Tom's solution may be rooted too much in a modern view of the universe. Justifying evil events involves causation, and causation itself has become a slippery concept, and which makes blame and explanation slippery as well. Tom writes about chaos theory and the unpredictable results of small events, but then he comments that we may soon know more about chaos theory, when chaos theory says these things are by definition unknowable. This is where I wish I could engage exactly with this section, because to me chaos theory is like the uncertainty principle: it's not that we can eventually reduce the uncertainty but that the uncertainty is by definition irreducible. I don't think we'll ever know more about chaos theory in a way that would address that question (but I'm not sure from listening!).

-- What if this theology makes us more fearful? There is no fear in love. But uncontrolling love at first blush makes me more afraid. Is that my failing or that of the theology?

This is a thought-provoking book that is good for Christians to talk about, as long as we keep all our conversations grounded in the truth of both books (nature and scripture) and as always permeated with love. If we do that God will be there among the two or three gathered. In that spirit I look forward to the conversations that will result.

Movie Review: Song to Song

I almost didn't watch Song to Song last night. Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life is one of my top-10 films, but To the Wonder and Knight of Cups tested my patience too much between their moments of transcendence. The only thing I really remember from Knight of Cups is Natalie Portman's searing performance and that was about 10 minutes of the movie. I remember nothing from To the Wonder except a few images. (I enjoyed the IMAX Voyage of Time but in an entirely different way -- mostly because I could take my kids to a Terrence Malick film!). So, I had Song to Song from the library for two weeks and I almost didn't watch it.
I'm glad I did. Song to Song is not the masterpiece that The Tree of Life is, but it doesn't try to be. It has a strong enough plot and more importantly strong enough performances from all four leads to carry it through. There's enough similarities between the "post-Tree" films that To the Wonder and Knight of Cups seem like rough drafts, pointing toward Song to Song as the finished product.
The cameos from various musicians and the songs from all types of genres help color in the corners, too. The musicians are more real than the actors sometimes. The real center of the movie to me was Patti Smith, who tells her story of loss and sings a beautiful song about God.
Ultimately, this movie is a scattered journey through a moral universe. In fact, I feel like the morality is a little too open-and-shut, but I much prefer that to the wandering solipsism of Knight of Cups.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Dr. Lucy Van Pelt, Scientist (Part 3/3)

I hope you’ve enjoyed seeing Lucy count so many things and ask the question why they happen. She won the science fair by counting and writing down what she saw, after all. She’s good at it.

But sometimes Lucy goes too far and says things that sound pretty ridiculous! Here’s one example:

(It might help to know that today we call a “man-made moon” a “satellite”, so Lucy is talking about satellites. I was confused myself on this at first!)
Q: What’s wrong with what Lucy is thinking here?

A: Here’s my list:

1.) The satellite isn’t falling toward the Earth (it actually is falling, but the Earth is falling too – it’s a long story for another time!).

2.) It’s so small that it would burn up if it did start to fall toward the Earth.

3.) It’s so big that it would cause a problem for more than just one poor little dog if it did make it to the Earth!

You can tell Charlie Brown is thinking at least one of these things.

Here’s another one where Lucy makes a different kind of mistake. 

Q: What is Lucy’s mistake?

A: Lucy knows what a lava formation is and what one looks like, but again, she chooses a complex explanation when a simple one will do. If Lucy wanted to test her driveway, she’s find out soon that it’s only a little bit like an ancient lava flow.

At this point I wonder what tests Linus could do to show Lucy that their driveway is not an ancient lava flow. If you start thinking about these things, that’s thinking like a scientist. It’s all about arguing based on evidence of the things you can take apart.

(Or you could just decide to laugh at the comic strip and move on. That’s good too!)

Here’s a third kind of mistake that’s different from the last two. 

Q: What is Lucy doing wrong here?

A: The Earth does not revolve around Lucy! It’s not a good idea to put yourself at the center of anything. But sometimes it’s simpler to talk as if the sun rises rather than the earth spins. Or you can talk like Sally in this strip:

This next strip may be my favorite. Lucy is wrong, wrong, wrong, in every single panel. You’ll recognize these from the song “Little Known Facts” in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.

But here’s my main point: Even when Lucy is wrong, she’s always thinking like a scientist. That means she can be proved wrong and learn the right thing!

Since Lucy is a fussbudget, she’s making it up and enjoying the “authority” of science for a second. Once Linus is older, he starts to take things apart and put them together for himself, and he thinks more like a scientist too. Then he joins Charlie Brown in realizing when Lucy’s explanations don’t add up.

This works even when the cartoonist, Charles Schulz, thought the wrong thing. What do you think of these comic strips?

Schulz heard in school that no two snowflakes are alike. For many decades, that’s what scientists said and what students learned.

But recently a scientist at Cal Tech named Kenneth G. Libbrecht found a way to grow identical snowflakes in the lab. So much for that idea. Also, as that last strip shows, even if two snowflakes were alike, how would you know?

The story that “no two snowflakes are alike” is probably not true, but when Charles Schulz wrote his comic strips, it was something “everyone knew.” Charlie Brown says “it’s the truth” but, actually, Lucy’s right. It’s more of a legend.

So, you see that thinking like a scientist isn’t so simple, and you have to do it differently at different times. It’s not a simple game like checkers, it’s more of a complex game like chess.

Scientists say a lot of things. Once in a while, like Lucy, they go too far. But in those cases, you can be a scientist yourself by asking three right questions.

1.) Ask “What did they measure or count?”.

Sometimes, like Lucy counting twelve suns, a scientist can measure carefully, and then get the explanation wrong. But their measurements are usually right.

I trust a geologist who looks at rocks, counts the chemicals in them, and says they are billions of years old. (That’s chemistry and I can check some of it myself.) I trust a paleontologist who measures dinosaur bones and puts them in order. They can also pull DNA out of living animals and read information off of that.

2.) Ask “How many scientists are saying this?”.

If, like Linus and Lucy counting snowflakes, two scientists have found the same thing, you can trust it more. There are times when a lot of scientists are wrong, but the way they find out they’re wrong is by measuring or counting something new, not by arguing over the old measurements.

Thousands of geologists and biologists think that our planet is very old. I agree with them and with the thousands of scientists who think that every living thing is related through evolution. We can talk about all the reasons why when you’re older, but for now, this is what I think after decades of thinking about it. Evolution adds up and makes sense of how animals, plants, and even minerals work.

Through it all, I’ve kept an open mind to God’s sudden action in making life. That’s because I’ve seen His action in my own life – even on the day you were born.

I know God can work any way He wants. It looks like God made us in a way that we can understand, looking back. We can follow along through billions of years of evolution from the evidence, learn how He did it, and even control some parts of it. He gave all of that history and possibility to us.

3.) Ask “Is this a question science can ask?”.

This boils down to asking the question at the beginning of the first letter: “Is it something I can take apart and put together again?”. We can take apart a lot of things: computers, chemicals, bacteria, rocks, even things that were put together long ago, like old fossils or very old DNA. In this way we can take the past apart and put it together again.

But I cannot take you apart and put you together again. Only God can do that. When you were born, after five years of waiting for you, I couldn’t claim that I did very much at all in putting you together. God did that, and then He gave you to us. I thank Him every day for that.

The love God gave me for you on that day is like the love Linus showed to Lucy when she couldn’t count her blessings. Science cannot measure that love.

On your first day, God gave you breath and opened your eyes. He did that on this day, too. He gave you the gift of waking up this morning, of the food you ate today, of the videogames you played, and of the minutes you’re taking to read these words.

I know as a scientist that some of those gifts came through the oxygen in the air and the sugar in the food and the electrons in the electronics, because I can take apart the chemicals in them. Those gifts came through the atoms, but the gifts came from God.

There’s so much more to say, but this is enough for today. We can only think so many thoughts in one day, after all. (Which might be one of the reasons why the story of God creating the whole earth in Genesis 1 is so short!)

I wanted to take some of God’s gifts to me and use them to tell you about His gifts to you. It can get pretty mind-blowing, but at the end of the day, it’s pretty simple.

Every bit of life is a gift from the Maker of Life.

That means air, food, dinosaurs, DNA, the moon, the sun, others moons and suns around other planets … You can’t put your arms around God’s love. You can’t measure its size, because it’s too big. You can’t measure its speed, because it includes every second of every day.

You can trust in the world to act the same way when you take it apart. That too is a gift from God.

You don’t have to be afraid of what you’ll find when you ask questions about dinosaurs or DNA. Even when we refuse God’s gifts, He forgives us because He is love. So be bold and explore the park by the creek. (Just be safe when crossing the creek!) Take the things apart that you can take apart. Breathe in every bit of air God gives you. When His time for you is done, He will hold you in His arms even then.

Today He’s given me the chance to hold you in my arms. That is the best gift in the world and it is all that I need.

Love, Dad

Dr. Lucy Van Pelt, Scientist (Part 2/3)

Let’s talk more about why I think Lucy is the scientist in the Peanuts gang. In the last letter I showed you how Lucy won the science fair. Can you think of other comic strips where Lucy acts like a scientist?

Of course, since Lucy’s a bit of a fussbudget she can be kind of an annoying big-sister scientist. But I still think she’s a scientist at heart.

Here’s one that shows how much Lucy cares about watching the world around her very closely:

Q: What word did Linus use that probably made Lucy mad?

A: Linus calling the bugs “stupid” didn’t help that conversation start well. I think when Lucy looked at the bugs she was probably counting them.

I say this because there’s many other comic strips where Lucy carefully counts things in the world around her.

Or, at least she tries to. She counts the stars:

Then she counts the raindrops, although she may be a bit over her head with this project:

Then she counts the snowflakes:

Linus can count the snowflakes, too:

Q: Do you think that 13,000,004,003 is the right number of snowflakes?

A: If Lucy said it by herself, I wouldn’t believe her, but Linus got the same number. I wonder if it is the right number?

When two different scientists do the same experiment and get the same result, I’m much more confident that it’s the right result. If they’re both counting snowflakes and they get the same number, then they’re more certain that it is probably the right number. So it’s always important for scientists to talk to each other and see where they agree and disagree. And everyone knows Lucy’s not shy with her opinions.

Lucy’s always counting something. Like a scientist, Lucy counts how many times she’s “fallen in love” with Schroeder:

Lucy counts the electrical outlets in her house:

Here Lucy counts how many times she beats Charlie Brown at checkers:

But sometimes Lucy makes mistakes in her counting. Here she tries to improve her position to count the stars better:

Q: Can you think of a reason why the chair won’t help Lucy count more stars?

A: I’d say the distance to the stars is so big that the chair doesn’t make any difference.

Here’s another set of strips where Lucy gets an explanation wrong, but I think she’s still thinking like a scientist thinks.

Q: Can you tell what’s wrong with Lucy’s counting in this next series of strips?

A: I think Lucy’s problem is that she’s trusting too much in what her own eyes see! She won’t listen to Charlie Brown, who has a simpler explanation. It’s simpler to have one sun than to have twelve, with a new sun being made every day. After you count and make careful observations, you still have to listen to other people. Lucy still needs to learn to listen, in this area and in many other areas as well. So do I!

There’s one more way that Lucy thinks like a scientist and it gets her into trouble. It’s hard to count the things you can’t see. Think about what Lucy is trying to count in this comic strip:

Q: How does Linus help Lucy count her blessings in this? Does he help her count something she can see?

A: Lucy’s problem isn’t that she needs to count better. She needs to know that her little brother loves her (despite all the fights they have). Linus is right. That is the right thing to say.

When you say this to your brothers, it gives life to my heart too. Lucy needs to see and count her brother, and that’s what really counts here.

So Lucy is a scientist at heart because she likes to look closely at the world and count the things around her. This helped her win a science fair. Lucy is good at counting. She gets the right answer (or least an answer that agrees with Linus’s answer) when counting the snowflakes.

Sometimes she can have the right answer for one question and still get something wrong, like with the sun and Charlie Brown. But she’s wrong because of what happens after she counts. Her counting is still right.

In the last letter, I’ll tell you about some of the strips where Lucy plays the scientist. She usually gets one thing right and other things wrong. Those are some of my favorites, and I think you’ll laugh at them, too.

Dr. Lucy Van Pelt, Scientist (Part 1/3)

Note: This letter is for a first-grade student. Click here to read a similar letter that I wrote for my high-school son last October. (Since I have four sons I have two more chances to get this right!)

Dear Brendan,

I heard your favorite class in first grade is science. I’m so proud that you’re interested in the same type of class I teach. As you learn about scientists, I thought I’d let you learn something from me about what science means to me. If you want to really understand science, you have to know how to listen to scientists. It’s like if you really want to understand how God works, you have to listen to Him (in the many different ways that He speaks!).

So to understand science, first you have to understand the words scientists use. You’re learning the words scientists use in science class. Sometimes the words are long but that can be part of the fun. Then the real fun begins, when you use those words to look at the world around you.

A scientist can take the world apart and put it back together again, like a LEGO set. It’s great fun, but there are some things that you can’t take apart like that. (For example, you can’t take God apart, right?) It’s hard to tell “what you can take apart” from “what you can’t take apart.” I’m not always sure which things are which myself. But this is also part of the fun of science -- you’re never quite sure.

To really understand science, you have to understand scientists. I’ve watched you read through our Fantagraphics Peanuts comic books. I think one of those Peanuts characters is surprisingly close to being a scientist, or at least thinking like a scientist: crabby big sister Lucy, of all people, thinks like a scientist!

It’s OK if you don’t think of Lucy as a scientist. I only just realized it myself. Let me show you why I think this:

For one thing, Lucy plays at being a psychiatrist with her “Psychiatric Help” stand. But she actually does science at one point. Did you know that Lucy is the only Peanuts character to win a science fair?

It’s true! First, she looked at the world around her and decided which part of it to study (click on it to read the whole thing):

Of course, I think you should ask him (and us) before you run any experiments on your little brother. Linus isn’t exactly happy to be Lucy’s science project, but Lucy takes charge:

Then, Lucy starts her experiment and takes careful notes, like a good scientist:

Then Lucy reverses what she did and sees something change. She writes this down, too:

Did you notice how much Lucy is enjoying what she’s doing? Yes, she enjoys annoying her little brother, but, other than that, it seems like she really likes science. Once Lucy finishes her experiment, she makes a poster and presents her project:

Q: What do you see on her project that the other ones don’t have? (Other than a sighing little brother.)

 A: I see more words and squiggly-lined graphs than on the other projects. It looks like good science to me. Notice the ribbon. Lucy won first place!

 On the other hand, Peppermint Patty is not quite the scientist that Lucy is:

Q: Which do you think is the better project? Why?

A: I think Lucy ran a good science project. Peppermint Patty’s wasn’t as good.

But you can make it better!

Q: Maybe you can come up with a better project to run with toast? How could you do that?

I think you could come up with a pretty good project if you did it like Lucy:

-- changing things one by one,

-- watching closely,

-- writing down what you do, and

-- measuring it.

It doesn’t matter so much what part of the world you’re looking at. You could experiment on a piece of toast, or on your little brother, or anything inbetween. (Just be sure to be nice to him, and pay him with candy or something, please?)

What matters in science is that you do your experiment back and forth, many times, and measure what happens carefully. In this story, that’s exactly what Lucy did.

Even without this story, you could tell that Lucy’s a scientist at heart from other comics. Did you know that there are many other comic strips where Lucy acts like a scientist? I’ll tell you about those in the next letter.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Book Review: A Tale of Seven Scientists and a New Philosophy of Science

I feel like I'm coming late into a discussion already well underway by reading this book, and it's a fascinating subject. How does science work? Here Eric Scerri asks that question in the context of how the periodic table was built (one of his specialties). In freshman chemistry, this is taught through the Great Thoughts of a few Great Thinkers: Planck, Bohr, Fermi, etc. But Scerri tells the story of seven other thinkers who thought other thoughts. The Great Thinkers cobbled their own thoughts together from these other seven scientists, who in some cases were wrong in everything but one creative thought, and in other cases weren't even really scientists. In all cases, the seven scientists of the title were more or less forgotten, to the extent that Scerri had trouble even tracking down a photograph of one of them.

Scerri makes a convincing cases for the unique value of the small contributors, and of the creative potential of being wrong. I want to teach the periodic table this way, but it would only be appropriate for advanced students or an in-depth, focused course at the lower division, because you need more bandwidth to be able to follow the wrong turns and almost-there-but-not-quite theories. If there's a way to do it with students in general, I'd like to figure it out, because it's the way it happened.

The larger implications are what's particularly interesting here. Since the discovery of the periodic table worked this way -- smeared out over decades and dozens of thinkers -- what does that say about how science in general works? One thing's for sure, it's not through abrupt Kuhnian paradigm shifts. Scerri points out early that not even Kuhn proposed the absolute kind of paradigm shifts that are given his name in current discussions. Rather, Scerri enlists Kuhn himself to promote science as a more gradual, evolutionary process. Priority conflicts are manifestations of a convergent evolution of ideas. Since convergent evolution is one of my own personal fascinations, I'm only too happy to apply it to scientific knowledge as well (yes, yes, observer bias, I know!).

This is where I start to feel like I'm missing part of the conversation, having not participated in the "Science Wars" that have apparently raged over the past few decades. I'm with Scerri up to the point that he starts talking about truth:

"Similarly, I suggest, scientific theories evolve in order to adapt to the particular times that they exist in, rather than in order to conform to some objective or 'out there' criteria of eternal truth. To the extent that one can speak of theories describing the 'truth' it would have to be that theories provide the best description of the world as it happens to exist at a particular point in time." (p.191)

This gave me cognitive dissonance because it sounds so much like the ending of C.S. Lewis's The Discarded Image, which is the part that gave me the most trouble in that book. Both authors sound awfully close to saying we get the truth we ask for, which is very close to saying truth doesn't matter as much as what we ask for. I'm not able to go there.

"Scientific knowledge is never right or wrong, because it is not proceeding toward an external truth. It is driven from within, essentially by evolutionary forces, which look back to past science." (p.196)

I object. Just because we don't know the future doesn't mean we don't hypothesize about what will happen. Such projection into the future is part of what makes us human. I realize that this hardly ever happens in a pure form, but overall results on science are not completely determined by the past + random walks. Some projection and expectation must be taking place, and isn't that expectation more likely to be fulfilled if it is "right"? Some extrapolation must occur, and that implies that something true is "out there" that is being dis-covered by experiment. Of course, on the next page Scerri states "This is not to say that the world does not constrain our theorizing. ... But ... the scope of our theories is not determined by nature in advance of our inquiring about them." (p.197-8)

This is where is starts to sound like the constraints on evolution, like I talk about at length in A World from Dust and which also overlaps with Terrence Deacon's absential knowledge. The question seems to be whether the constraints are to be identified with the truth, and whether they are loose or tight. (I think "yes they are" and "pretty tight", by the way, both for evolution in biology and of scientific knowledge.)

In the end, this book presents a view of science that I like, and that is engaging to talk about and teach. It feels like some arguments go all the way back to the ancient stoics. Science works in some ways like a living thing. We make a lot of mistakes and think a lot of wrong thoughts on the way to getting to the right ones. We do a disservice to history when we turn a few men (and it's usually men) into the Great Thinkers while ignoring the smaller ideas they built from. Not shoulders of giants, but the shoulders of humanity.

I think the crucial difference may be whether the reality inside our heads corresponds exactly to the reality of outside our heads. I think it does, and so I'm comfortable with a lot of truth claims in a way that Scerri is not. I also have a higher view of language than Scerri does, and wonder if our "pre-linguistic" ideas (p. 210) aren't truly ideas until they are codified and communalized with words, if words play a part in the origins of thought and consciousness.

But I don't know if my beliefs in these two areas had a particular negative role to play in the Science Wars. That wasn't my war. Maybe I'm unknowingly wading in where angels fear to tread even now. Whatever, this is fascinating history and fun to think about, let's ask these questions.

The bottom line is that Scerri says that we should study how science works not through analytic philosophy but through the empirical investigation of how particular scientific theories were made. I am fully behind this bottom-up mode of investigation. It's not just more accurate and less prone to observer bias, it's also more interesting to study real people rather than abstract ideas. In general, this is the way forward, and more studies like this will help us figure out these big philosophical questions that we haven't yet figured out. One's reach must exceed one's grasp, after all.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Book Review: Nemesis Games (The Expanse #5)

(Completely spoiler-free review) It's a little unfair of me to give this novel three stars. I enjoyed it as much as the previous four novels in the series, most of which earned four stars. It has the same technical detail, emotional realism, respect for all types of human experience, and surprising blockbuster events as the previous ones. In fact, you could argue that the events in this are bigger and more impactful than anything else that's happened in the series. Actually, that's my complaint. The story has gotten too big, and the sheer size of the story requires some plot convolutions and pacing issues that weren't present previously. Also, so much tragedy occurs in this episode that it's hard to be entertained by it. But you better believe I'm still holding myself back to read the next one ASAP. In the long run, Nemesis Games deftly sets up the last four books in the series and maintains almost everything I liked about the previous ones, so it's pretty miraculous in just doing that. I also like how the politically marginalized are given a detailed psychology and politics of their own in this. If I could give three and a half stars I could, but this is the best I can do to express my very slight disappointment.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Book Review: St. Francis of Assisi by G.K. Chesterton

I read this book not because I wanted to know more about St. Francis (that was a bonus), but because I wanted to observe how Chesterton structured his biographical sketch. It's cherry-picking at its best, because you know going in that it's cherry-picked. Chesterton, as always, is best at the big picture and worst at the details. I found Chesterton's sketch of St. Thomas Aquinas to be better, but there were many memorable bits in this one: Chesterton's theory for why the Dark Ages were so dark, his ability to show the real point of the miraculous so you don't get sidetracked arguing what doesn't really matter, and his argument that Francis's mirroring of Christ goes both ways are all worth the price of admission. This seems to be less dense than his other work, which makes it faster reading but also leaves you chewing on his statements a little less . Good middle-of-the-road Chesterton and what it was lacking (slightly) in content it made up in inspiring me to write my own biosketches someday. Maybe you can write your own too?

Book Review: Gwendy's Button Box

This one was over too soon. King and Chizmar (although it must have been King because he started the story) tell a story about a box that is the perfect blend of mystery and power. You want to press the buttons and find out what happens, but you're also afraid of it -- although I want more detail. The central character is believable and grows up convincingly through her interactions with others -- although I want more detail. The whole story is an entertaining contrivance, without much weight to it, like the button box itself. It's also well-crafted -- I had no idea it was co-written till it I found out through an interview at the end. If this is the product of King co-writing, then he should co-write more.