Archive for December, 2013

Year’s end (2013)

Tuesday, December 31st, 2013

This has been the best year of my life. It was the year I was given confidence. In this year I slew dragons.

This year I came together, and it was no easy thing. How do I reconcile Christianity and Atheism? Science and Faith? Wealth and Poverty? Hope and Despair?

At times, for whole moments, I understood.

How does a creature act when it knows it is about to die? It displays what it is – and there it is, forever.

Look in your mirror. Do you love someone? A child, perhaps?

We have become silly: a species of lemming. The wisest among us study signs, and give unmistakable warning. But we trust completely an antique idea about conflict and selfishness: contending only for ourselves, the Inscrutable will guarantee our collective promise. Do you love a child, perhaps?

We have, indeed, abandoned tomorrow. Our hope? Searching only for profit, men will invent tools to repair us. We are like smokers, deeply inhaling, confident the cure will arrive before our lungs collapse. Ask the wise ones. Carbon Dioxide is species extinction. Today, and yes – the day after. Do you love your child – at all?

Where are the monks self-immolating in our plazas?

This has been the best year of my life. If you love someone – if you feel her breathing; if you wait to see his face; if you’re eager for the look in her eye – be with him. Simply be with her.

The man and the method

Wednesday, December 25th, 2013

Our lives are remarkable. Well, you know how remarkable your life is. It’s astonishing, too, just because it is at all. I mean, that it’s possible. I lay on my back last night and watched  meteors brilliantly flare to nothingness against our sky. How excellent, I thought, our earth wrapped in its protective blanket.

There are so many things like that, peculiarities of temperature and composition; the vibrations of spheres and the amplitudes of waves, all of which perfectly coincide to make the universe possible – for us. The wizards of our day are impressed, too. For science, everything occurs in likelihoods: a thing becomes ‘true’ when it’s beyond likelihood it could be random. The superposition of so many congenial natural facts arrived together to provide a suitable home for us is way, way beyond the likelihood of ‘random.’

Scientists have a term for this. It’s called the ‘anthropic principle.’ Being human, they dispute what to make of it. There’s the ‘evolutionary’ camp, which observes all these finely tuned natural phenomena, then proclaims natural selection governed the adaptations which became life, and ultimately, us. There’s the less comfortable proposition: we already exist, and all these precision mysteries came into being – just for ourselves.

If you wrestle in this debate for a while, you’ll run into an argument over ‘free will.’ The evolutionists feel there’s no need for a larger intention behind our existence. The laws of nature describe what must be, and it simply is. Since nothing created us, there is nothing to dictate what we do next. The creationists, of course, believe we were made for a purpose, and we cannot avoid it.

I used to wonder about this, as a boy. If God is real, why not simply punish injustice? Why not allow me to perform miracles?

Then I thought, but how, then, could I believe in myself? If I applied my reason and made my experiments, and they were reliably true and I could trust them – what would it mean if some deity chose to hurl in an arbitrary thunderbolt? What ‘truth’ could I trust? How, indeed, would I be anything but a slave to God?

This is a genuine problem. If I believe, as I do, God loves us, and wants us to be free – how can I hope for a miracle? My freedom requires a world without God, where I can know with certainty the certain rules which apply to us all. If there is a God free to do as it chooses despite all my scientific calculations – how will the world ever be what I think it is?

And Jesus answered: ‘it won’t. Take a look!’



The pope, hope, and rich drunk drivers

Saturday, December 14th, 2013

Apparently the new pope senses a shift in the winds of culture. Perhaps he is just a good man. But he’s publicly making the argument that gets people killed: the love of money is the root of all evil.

This is a confusing phrase. We all love money. It’s the very life we lead. If we had more of it, we could be more ourselves. This is the loudest noise in the US today: money is the giver of goodness. Money is what life is about.

The obvious contradiction makes it easy for today’s cultural pundits to toss off the pope as a loony fluff. The gleefully powerful have science and history on their side. Capitalism has lifted the masses out of poverty. The mechanics of ‘marketplace’ societal control have created unprecedented prosperity. Who can argue with that?

The pope, it turns out. No-one has figured out a clear way to explain this to a middle-class American, yet, but Capitalism will work a lot better without the rich. The right-wing celebration of the wealthy is inspired by the traditionalist’s urge to worship powerful human beings, but it mistakes the owners for the institution (much like, in the old days, you could mistake the king for the monarchy). There’s nothing about Capitalism that requires the excess to flow to the happy hedonists at the top. In fact, putting money under the control of billionaires and bankers inhibits its distribution and mucks up the works. There would be far more prosperity – Capitalist prosperity –  if profits were simply handed out to employees.

Normally, we would all shrug and chuckle at the pope’s naivete. All the popular people in the nation (all the popular people in your private circle), are chained to their hope for higher income. So far, we’re all persuaded our opportunities lie with a blindly mechanical marketplace, which just incidentally necessitates the existence of an hereditary hedonist class. Morality doesn’t have anything to do with it.

Until it does. One day, rich murderers start going free because – they’re rich.

Frame of reference

Friday, December 6th, 2013

I’ll happily brag about my children. Unlike those of multitudes, my boasts have substance. This doesn’t mean we always get along well. Evan has enjoyed real latitude in personal behavior ever since we struck a deal years ago: ‘perfect performance at school, do what you want.’

He recently transferred to a school ‘of the Arts,’ and for once in our collective lives, the family was looking at a child with something less than a perfect report card.

There was a particularly stubborn and persistent ‘B’ in something called ‘participation.’ I don’t really know what ‘participation’ is, but I know what a ‘B’ is, and I’m frankly horrified contemplating how to exact vengeance should Evan break our aforementioned deal. So I spoke to him.

He said, “Dad, you don’t understand! Participation is something that is never used in high school. It absolutely never comes up in real life!’


Book review: The Outer Limits of Reason

Thursday, December 5th, 2013

I love this book. I’m fascinated by physics and mathematics, even though my poor education confines me to their pop culture derivations. Noson Yanofsky organizes his work around the limits on what can scientifically be known, and tells it clear and easy, to me. He presents a series of mathematical wonders, while announcing many unknowns beyond the reach of science. He’s well aware, this is an invitation to pursue my own fantasies. My attraction is really about what I hope to find – not what the actual science would present if I could learn it. Yanofsky writes with encouraging clarity, and I want to believe he knows what he’s talking about.

This topic is everywhere appropriate: what is reason and what sorts of questions can it be used to answer?

Mathematics is a wonderful way of thinking. From the first human efforts to organize our notions into sensibility, math has shown itself to be universally repeatable and reliable. It can be elaborated in one place and culture, put down and forgotten for centuries, recovered and reapplied and, behold, it works exactly as before. Like no other language, and no other way of thinking, it appears to accurately and unerringly describe physical reality itself. We can almost imagine it exists without us. Some of us do.

What is reason? To Yanofsky: the methods and processes which do not lead to contradictions or falsehoods. There are some surprising things which simply can’t be known. We can’t know the shortest route between a hundred cities. We can’t know the exact amount of time it takes the moon to orbit the earth. These things aren’t mathematically calculable. Yanofsky insists: if our assumptions don’t logically produce truths, or results can appear either true or false – then we simply cannot know. We’re beyond reason.

He Intersperses his romp along the boundaries of the reasonably knowable with tales from the history of mathematics. By coupling logic with a willingness to abandon contradictions and falsehoods – as soon as they’re discovered – science (and science alone) has learned to describe what is actually true.

Yanofsky’s interested in physical truth. Mostly, of course, I am not. If I were, I, too, would have become a mathematician or physicist. What I want to learn, and I habitually hope to prop up with claims from science, is whether my own irrational beliefs are correct.

Yanofsky cheerfully elucidates a bunch of truly arcane stuff. It’s fun for it’s own sake. He uses page after page to suggest and imply, without finally just saying so, that we – us, you and I, the conscious ones in the universe – are contradictions to what is reasonable. He often observes we’re capable of contradictions, but my intuition wants to leap: in its conclusions, reason appears to show we are the contradiction itself. Read the book, and you will know why reason dictates my intuition is wrong, but you will also find yourself this side of what (I think) everybody wants to know: where’s the proof we are what we’re supposed to be?

It’s not an accident such books are popular. Yanofsky knows why. He simply declares that, uniquely among human endeavors, science and technology build upon themselves, and so make progress. Nothing else progresses. Nothing. Not art. Not literature. Not culture or morality. Art by its definition wants to be different from what went before. How can literature have built upon itself if the greatest authors lived centuries ago? He quickly moves on.

This is a tremendous, though possibly unreasonable, idea. It has all that intuitive good feeling to it: we are what we have always been, playing with different toys. While today’s politicians and poets are indistinguishable from their neolithic counterparts, scientists have invented the computer. Science appears to be true.

This is why ‘scientific reason’ so easily becomes the religion Yanofsky himself is selling: there’s nothing inevitable about human beings. We’re unreasonable and we’ll believe anything. Only science can unerringly discern what is. What Yanofsky carefully reveals is: science doesn’t know the truth, either.

One way to show this is to talk about infinities. I was boggled by infinities as a child – how there are mathematically twice as many positive integers as positive even integers, but there are the same number of either in infinity. Yanofsky presents unsolvable problems, like the fact no computer program can predict if it will ever halt, and shows there’s a relation between problems which can be solved and those which cannot. Since a relationship exists, it’s a fact there are an uncountably infinite number of unsolvable problems.

Even he succumbs to himself, though: “world hunger will not be solved using feelings of love and warmth. Rather, genetically modified crops and ammonium nitrate fertilizers will help feed the world.”

Drink the elixer, and the same contradictions which tricked us into worshiping a Great Spirit will compel you to believe in a Multiverse – and your faith will be no less incomprehensible. The truth, however it’s approached, is extremely hard to find. For nearly all of us, believing is about being persuaded by someone else’s story. Science worshipers today self-consciously await imminent publication of the formal equations describing the human sensation of God. Why even have a sensation of God?

Yanofsy is clear: human progress results from the application of reason. Civilizations which adhere to reason advance. Those which do not, decline. He pulls us into his analysis of reason, and suggests our success depends on applying it. This has a familiar, religious, tone. He claims the universe is physically perfect, describable by perfectly consistent laws. Imperfect ideas contain contradictions. Discarding these ideas permits clarity and growth.

It is, however, very hard to understand what Yanofsky is saying. It takes diligence, and a lifetime of practice, really, to reflect fluidly and comfortably inside the pure language of science. So, too, with other methods of self-perfection: discarding the pretentious, artificial, or distracting, to settle simply on what remains within the permitted extent of awareness.

In all of these, what are so commonly ‘human’ inclinations – conflict, inhibition, desire, intuition – are methodically examined and set aside toward achieving a perfection of consciousness and a liberation from, well, being ‘human.’ Yanofsky asserts only the human mind, itself, is capable of the contradictions which disrupt the perfection of the universe. Outside the human mind, what does the universe matter?

Yanofsky’s is value laden science, and it’s very powerful religion indeed. Science is also the language of atheism. Today’s common cultural practice of non-scientific believers is to sit peaceably at table, quietly acknowledging each other’s mythologies and refraining from vocal dissent. But these mythologies are foundational truths for what I believe about all of reality. Consenting to share the table is formal acknowledgement that, in fact, I do not know what to believe. Otherwise, it would be silly (even indecent) not to correct my friends in their intellectual errors. Underlying my ‘not knowing’ is the assumption something else is the truth.

The (less and less frequently) unspoken something else is ‘scientific reason.’ I should take it seriously. If I have a contrary belief I want to preserve, I should not, in fact, be sitting respectfully at table. I should be yelling my head off.

There are those who believe in ‘reality.’ There are those who do not; who believe, instead, only in the descriptions of things – the ‘stories’ – told in human minds. Yanofsky makes clear discovering the difference may well be beyond the limits of reason.

All of this is enormously attractive to me, and it’s given urgency because of death. When I’m drawn toward ideas which pretend to eliminate contradictions and explore perfection, I’m interested because these hint at understanding being dead. Absent death, for me, there’s rarely reason to be urgently interested in anything at all.

There is no sorrow like that of watching a loved one recede.


About knowing and belief

Monday, December 2nd, 2013

I’ve become interested in the big questions – even, the Big Question, if there’s only one. I used to feel cowed and embarrassed in discussions of these, because I hung out with some heavy thinkers, and I know serious people have done much better work than I on the big ideas for millennia; have, in fact, seen with a clarity that makes my efforts silly. I’m aware how little I know; how foolish I sound.

Suddenly, I’ve arrived. The big questions matter because they apply to me, too, and I’ve got the only answers I’ll ever understand.

For decades I’ve been emphatic that: ‘I don’t know anything. I believe what I choose.’ My belief has been more than idea, though, it’s been a ‘living’ presence in my experience. I’ve acted on it, or felt judged according to when I’ve acted against it. It’s a special type of idea: unless I pay attention, I behave as if I know it’s true. This alarms me, and I re-emphasize: ‘I don’t know anything.’

Then, it occurred to me, perhaps I do know something. Perhaps I know a lot. I simply can’t know what things I know are true. Not knowing doesn’t invalidate, it just makes me ignorant. How can I clarify my semantics?

I just tried, ‘I don’t believe anything – I hope!’

Plunk that down into old fashioned Christianity and let it soak for a few minutes.