On correction

Why is it so hard to accept what someone else says, even if it is right? In issues of morality as well as thought I sometimes find this to be true. I think it is because when one listens to someone else, one becomes a servant. If someone points something out to you, and you change your behavior, they can tell you what to do. Even in less moral and more intellectual or aesthetic confrontations of the mildest kind, when someone says they like Rachmaninoff and you know in your heart that you adore Rachmaninoff but you recognize that it is bad taste to admit this too earnestly in public, as if it were confessing to who you had a crush on in middle school, and you have to distinguish yourself through some more knowing and worldly-wise reference. To agree is to be undistinguished, unless it is agreement which secures one’s place in the inner circle about which C.S. Lewis has spoken.

We think the truth belongs to us, and it has to come out of our own mouths. In classrooms, everyone waits until they can say something sufficiently clever to maintain the facade that they completely understand what is being discussed, and no one touches what they might not yet fully grasp, or dares to risk misunderstanding. But why not risk it, for the sake of your classmates? Why not be wrong, so that someone else can be right, and everyone will see more clearly for it? Does one learn to swim by only submerging one’s shins? Can one learn to dance by oneself?

The other half of the coin is also relevant: why don’t people ever seem to listen to us when we are right? Why doesn’t the pot smoker just stop, why doesn’t that family member just let go of that habit we’ve been reminding them about for years? Many things are going on here, but one of them is that it would be fatal to our characters to know that we can change people and tell them what to do. We are not God, we don’t have that power, and anytime we think otherwise the world is very quick on the draw to remind us that that is a lie.

Truth is out there, outside of our minds, and its public. As a matter of the plainest practical reality, if the students in a classroom or the family members in a dispute do not believe that the truth is only reached through conversations in which you are frequently wrong, truth will not be approached. The Lord is the creator of all, and he became man to become the servant of all. We are not lords, and our Lord distinguished himself through being like us in all ways except sin. We can afford to let other people be right.

A lesson from Antarctica

The ratio of permanent residents to churches on Antarctica is 500:1 in the summer and about 120:1 during the winter. The US ratio is about 900:1.

Antarctica has proportionally more churches than America. And half are Roman Catholic, three are Orthodox, one is Protestant (this is like a 4th grade math problem, how many are there? but to be fair, the interdenominational Protestant one is the oldest).

As of 2015, Moscow had about 20000 persons per church. The “Build 200 Churches” program (that had some wags worried about overbuilding…) would leave the ratio at 15000 persons per church, still a long way from the US or Antarctica.

As an interesting tangent, upper estimates for Christianity in China report perhaps 1:10 to 1:20 persons as Christian. If a house church averages 20-40 people (a total guess), that would put the population:church ratio at about 200-800 : 1 – possibly better than the US.

Anyhow, if I had grabbed a population-per-church number out of the air, it would probably be close to 1000:1, which fits the US. I would not have guessed that Antarctica was way out front. (No data on attendance, though.)

But the annual-average winner (in my very limited survey of the internets):

Vatican City. 120:1. (All Catholic, of course…)

Go figure.

 

Dostoevsky

I felt pretty odd after reading Notes from the Underground in a sitting. But I think it’s supposed to be tackled whole, like it is written, in no more than two breaths, and those breathings are the panting of a madman.

But it made sense.

Dostoevsky dearly wanted man to be saved – or at least to be saveable, and I think that is why he so deeply explores the bitter depths of tormented characters. Notes seems to sit unfinished, like it is the parlor game in The Idiot where each tells the worst thing he or she has done. But the book certainly doesn’t end there. And Crime and Punishment does not even end at the prison – we are told so by its reliable narrator.

The narrator of Notes is not reliable, in the extreme. But his thesis – that man cannot be perfectable, because of his basic drive to muck it all up – is actually a demand that the door be left open to salvation and Christ. While he himself may perish (we are not told), his demand is that mankind be left unperfected, natural, raw, capable of good and evil. If the perfect (social/predictive/descriptive/governmental) system is ever found, man will be left knowing that he is incapable of good or evil, simply because it had to be that way according to the system. Dostoevsky demands, via his really awful narrator, that the system be left open. The door must be ajar. The window shall remain cracked, that the Holy Spirit may blow through when He wills.

And as you probably remember from my Iain McGilchrist kick, I think that’s spot on. However, postmodernism may have made one positive contribution that Dostoevsky hinted at (or maybe he got there first, not sure): any attempt to fully close the system, shut the door, slam the window, will make the house of cards fall flat.

I’m hoping Andrew will interact some with this as he ploughs the seas of Kant – does Kant think he exhaustively critiqued pure (or applied) reason? I’m curious, because to claim an exhaustive critique is also to claim a perfectly closed system.

Anyhow, there may be more on this theme from me, too, as I have a bit more of Idiot, and a re-read of Brothers K- ahead (the Pevear and Volokhonsky translations – my travel books).

Kindly,

Mark

Devotionals with Kant

“On the contrary, it is plain that the hope of a future life arises from the feeling, which exists in the breast of every man, that the temporal is inadequate to meet and satisfy the demands of his nature.”

From the introduction to the second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason.

I have begun to try to wade through this book and came upon this edifying little spark. It’s like C.S. Lewis’ argument from desire, without the heat. According to what I have found biographically, Kant was actually a very engaging lecturer, and worked as an unsalaried but successful teacher for some time, if you can imagine that. He also taught at the same school in Königsberg for forty-odd years, turning down a much more prestigious poetry (!) position in Berlin in the middle of his career. I think he knew he was going to turn the world upside down and running around Europe chasing glamorous positions wasn’t going to help with that. For some reason, even though I’m not sure what to make of the effect of his labors, I found that quite inspiring.

Disclaimer: I make no promises to actually finish this book and reserve the right to toss it to the floor if the going gets rough.

 

Wisdom

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

T.S. Eliot (from Choruses from the Rock)

 

Later this month, I will be bringing home Stefan from Bulgaria. He is eight. He has some receptive language (in Bulgarian) and no known expressive language. He has been institutionalized from birth. When I first met him, he was five, and he greeted Ana and me with gentle pats and hoots. When I met him again on the official visit trip, this past January, he was able to demonstrate hand-over-hand instruction, as when he wanted me to open my water bottle. He will join our little family and begin to learn what his home is.

Our salvation is spoken of in terms of adoption at times. And many (perhaps most) people have an unrealistically rosy picture of adoption, and I suggest, of salvation, too.

Adoption is violence. It is the disruption of some kind of status quo. Perhaps the status quo was horrific. Perhaps it was merely oppressive or simply banal. But our expectations of the possible are conditioned by our experience, and we humans are remarkably adaptive to awful situations.

But (done by loving people and for the right reasons) adoption can be good violence. Christ did great violence to the Gates of Hell. We enter the kingdom following the voice of the Good Shepherd, but this does not mean the road is easy. It is narrow, and it is hard. The kingdom of heaven is taken by violence.

And I wonder if we (especially in comfy America) are really interested in a violent salvation.

We do not like to have our world shaken. Yet this is one of the things Christ promises (literally, in the Olivet discourse). And we realize, upon following the Shepherd into the sheepfold, that we are in a strange place surrounded by strangers. Many of them are strangely kind. But we do not yet know them. It takes time to get accustomed to the light, after being in darkness. It takes a long time to become part of the family. It takes time to learn a new language, a new culture, new foods, new music (or perhaps, music for the first time). We do not love well. Yet, if our hearts are following our Father, we want to love well, and try not to get discouraged when we fail. And we fail.

And what do we learn?

We can gather information about our new home. Names, dates, facts, data.

We can, eventually, synthesize this into knowledge of the new place. How to do things there. What things can be done there.

But if, by the grace of God, love takes deep root, we may become wise in the ways of our new home. This is never quick. It is never easy. But it is the most important. And it does not necessarily depend on the other two.

Ana loves us, her family. She may have no (or extremely limited) information about us, her home, her school (she got a 4.0, but made minimal progress on her IEP goals… oh the US public schools…). She has very limited knowledge (lip smacking brings food, fussing might get extra snuggles). But I believe – and I have been told by those holier than myself – that she has wisdom.

She has the wisdom of waiting.

She has the wisdom of trusting.

She has the wisdom to love the sounds, smells, and motions of God’s holy temple.

She has the wisdom of taking the Eucharist, even though she will spit other food out of her mouth.

Will Stefan attain to wisdom? He is more able than Ana, he will likely be quite good at assembling information and synthesizing knowledge in his own ways. In time, he may be adept at these things in the more conventional Western ways. But I pray most of all that he will have the wisdom to love.

And I must pray that for myself, as I gird my loins to undertake the violence of an adoption pickup trip, with its interminable waits at clinics, embassy, and airports; with nights I expect to be long and uncertain; with meals that are utterly alien to this young Bulgarian who must eat, but has never tasted his country’s delectable food; with a hole in my heart for my family at home, to whom I am bringing a stranger who only I have met.

It will not be by might or by power, but by the Holy Spirit. And I ask for the one thing God has promised to give: wisdom.

Lord, have mercy.

Mark

 

Ex Nihil

Dear readers,

This is a draft of a post I intend to publish on LinkedIn after further thought and comments from dear readers like you. So please share your thoughts!

In Christ,

Mark

 

“choice, informed by fact, not by revelation”

These are the words of my colleague Lawrence Krauss, in the epilogue to his book A Universe from Nothing (2012), reflecting his views on how we approach the question of origins. He is an atheistic scientist-philosopher in my own department, engaged in the search for confirmation of his hypotheses (as most academia is, to be fair). The hypothesis relevant to this statement, of course, is that no revelation is possible. And if it is impossible, it is not necessary.

Of course, the origins debate has raged for millennia, and there is no reason to believe it will be settled until our time is up. But there is a strong insinuation – at times overtly declared, as by Richard Dawkins in the afterword to the aforementioned book – that science is deadly to supernaturalism, that a Creator begs the question of his own creation, that our world as it is does not require God to exist.

And yet Krauss has rather a point when he summarizes that “something from nothing may have been required for the universe to come into being”, an observation that is simple and profound. The question, then, is how this transition from something-to-nothing happened. He submits that a stochastic quantum multiverse of spontaneous particle-antiparticle generation in vacuum solves the problem of how things happened and which laws happen to apply to us, but he makes a frank admission that “we generally assume that certain properties, like quantum mechanics, permeate all possibilities.”

This is the rub. If one is asking a question about the boundaries of the known, and engages in the task using known tools, one will inevitably find that the boundaries are at the limits of the tools. Maybe that’s confusingly put, but I think of Dionysius Burger’s Sphereland, and the exhaustive investigations of a finite surface undertaken by the squares. They can determine (much to the establishment’s horror) that space is curved – they live on a sphere. But they cannot determine anything about what might lie above or below the surface of the sphere. It is beyond their ken. When the three-dimensional Oversphere reveals himself, it is indeed a revelation. Something outside the bounds of the knowable is reaching into those bounds.

So there is a fundamental problem with the quote from Krauss that opens this article. How does one know that fact is fact? He addresses this internally in his admission of the assumption of the generality of quantum mechanics. But why are the quantum fields facts? They are theories, and they may be very impressive and useful and observable. That’s wonderful! But to call them multiversal fact and treat them as the pre-existing pillars of the universe(s) is questionable.

To be fair, there is also the question of the veracity of revelation. Historic Christianity (among many other religions) declares the existence of the spirit world, of angels, the devil and other fallen angels. Revelation may come from unreliable sources. This is not meant to muddy the waters, but to apply the same challenge to revelation as to fact – how reliable is it?

One can take this skepticism a step further – are we even able to reliably interpret or adjudicate truth claims? This is a major sticking point in psychotherapy – whose definition of health is supreme? We are once again stuck – I think so because I think so. Is there a guide to labeling something “ordered” or “disordered”? How can we even define the term “nothing”? We have no experience of it, as the quantum fluctuations demonstrate (ie – we cannot ever observe “nothing”, because there are always stochastic fluctuations of particle-antiparticle pairs in the quantum field).

To me, of course, this strongly supports the Christian assertion that truth is personal and is found in Jesus Christ. The alternative is a faith-based affirmation of chaos (which flies in the face of observed order, anyhow). And, we can have confidence in the cosmos and in our investigations of it because of the continuous upholding and ruling of it by the divine energy of God. And, we accept the limits of our finitude, and are grateful for revelations made by this personal God in Jesus Christ – revelations of things not knowable to us, such as the beginnings and ends of all things.

Krauss is unlikely to be convinced of anything by such claims (and it’s quite unlikely that he’ll even come across my take on this), but conversely, I am unlikely to be persuaded by his claims. Because, as I mentioned, this debate goes back millennia. Is matter pre-existent? Is a Creator pre-existent? Can either be known with certainty? Can either be investigated with the tools of science?

That last question is perhaps the one to explore further, as it is the assertion of Krauss. History is subject to search. Origins are a trickier question, as this is the transition between unknowable and knowable. Perhaps revelation could give us facts about these, but that’s another discussion.

Cosmologists tend to be math folks. You work with such absurdly large quantities, and you have to find ways of lumping parameters together to ask questions you are interested in. Krauss speculates on the origin of “something”, but swirling around this discussion like the arms on the Milky Way is the question of what that something is. Specifically, the one instance of that something that we know of – our universe, our world, ourselves. Where did we come from?

This is the question pursued by two increasingly convergent fields – evolutionary biologists and astrophysicists/astrobiologists. The latter two disciplines are conjoined, as they are concerned with what kind of worlds there may be, and what kind are needed for life. The evolutionary biologists are concerned with how life can come to be on such worlds.

Let’s introduce the Drake equation, as we’ll refer to it several times.

N_civ = N_galaxy * f_star * f_planet * f_life

where:

N_civ = the number of expected civilizations per galaxy

N_galaxy = the average number of stars per galaxy

f_star = the probability that a star has the needed properties to sustain life

f_planet = the conditional probability that, given a suitable star, one has a suitable planet

f_life = the conditional probability that, given a suitable planet, one develops life

Now, let’s look through a very limited selection of writings that (I suggest) captures the trajectory of serious thought on the origin of life and its possible origin elsewhere in our big universe.

1781 – Immanuel Kant would wager many conveniences in life that there are inhabitants of other worlds. Critique of Pure Reason, Ch.2, S.3, para.112

1855 – William Whewell reasons by analogy that, as extensive as space is, there must be a plurality of worlds, on some of which there must be (by analogy) creatures of whom God is mindful, just as the Psalmist writes in the eighth Psalm. Of the plurality of worlds: an essay.

Late 1800s – Camille Flammaron and Percival Lowell popularize the belief that the Martian “canali” were evidence of civilization on the Red Planet, culminating in Lowell’s 1908 work Mars as the Abode of Life.

1933 – Cal Berkely Prof. C. B. Lipman reports bacteria in meteorites. The bacteria is identical to terrestrial bacteria. NY Times article, 31 January.

1963 – Large group of scientists urge that the chief aim of NASA should be the search for extraterrestrial life, with many suggesting “reasonable prospects of finding some simple living organisms” on Mars. NY Times article, 10 January.

1975 – Gregory Cain, following Carl Sagan’s values in the Drake equation, suggests on the order of ten million advanced civilizations in our own galaxy. The Physics Teacher, 13, p404 (1975);

1998 – Lee Werth urges that we are hopelessly anthropic, and the search is absurd, because we could never recognize extraterrestrial intelligence if we found it. Journal of Applied Philosophy, Vol. 15, No. 1, 1998

2012 – J Woods Halley publishes a Springer Reference work entitled, blandly yet simply, How likely is extraterrestrial life? This book sequentially explores the Drake equation, and the term for the probability of life developing stochastically comes back (assuming DNA is the destination) as 10^( -300943). Simplifying the assumed end-state proto-life structure (to a length shorter than a non-self-reproductive viral phage), the probability of life of 10^(-555) is reached. It should be noted that in the remainder of this chapter, the equation is run backwards with an assumed probability of civilization development >1, thus forcing the chain length “required” for life to evolve to be rather short (130 elements, compared to 5×10^6 base pairs in E. Coli, and 3.2×10^9 for the human genome).

I suggest, on observing these works, that cosmology recapitulates philosophy. The faith in church and revelation of the Christian era was disputed by the Reformers, with rationalism leading to the confidence of the Enlightenment, which gave way to the optimistic science of modernity, which is now giving way to the postmodern despair. The only possible (rationalistic) answer to the postmodern despair is to hide in statistics. These, however, fail when it comes to the origin of life. The estimated life of the universe is 10^10 years or so. It is extraordinarily improbable that the human genome could assemble itself even once. (The odds are more like 1 in 10^300930, a number so big that I struggle to grasp its magnitude – like one byte in a tera-of-tera-of-tera-of-tera-of-terabytes).

And so I trace an expectation that life is out there, nearby, and sentient, turning into a hope that simple proto-life may be detected not too far away, and fading into a desperate effort to probablistically convince ourselves that we aren’t alone. Then the stats come in from the evolutionary biologists. And the Drake equation says that we’re alone. And in fact, that we shouldn’t really exist at all. The bookies would not take bets on us existing, anyhow. And Halley et al. commit the gambler’s fallacy by betting on a second win.

So, out of nothing, something marvelous comes – something that asks questions about origins, self, truth, goodness, beauty, fate, and God. And if we will humble ourselves as creatures, under the Creator, in need of the Redeemer, then this exploration of creation will lead us to joy in that Creator and that Redeemer, Jesus. (NB – Orthodox iconography – in contrast to the Sistine Chapel – consistently depicts Jesus creating the world, per the first verses of the gospel of St. John.)

While we kick against the goads, it will drive us to despair.

But in the meantime, while we apply for grants, we will be as cheerful and optimistic as we can…