Another Note, Another Table

22 01 2014

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I was so taken by the note I’d run across the other day in Nebraska (see recent blog “Note on a Table”), I figured I’d return to see if lightning struck twice. It did. Same coffee shop, different table, another note. Does this guy see me coming? Does he regularly leave his missives at the table for any random person to read? Is this his way of “getting the word out”? Whatever his reasons, here is another letter I discovered from Mr. (or is it Mrs. ?) D.B. Wyatt.

Nothing but Now
by D. B. Wyatt

“Probably Not”

I see what I see. All I’ve got is what I have. A couple of grown kids, a pleasant spouse, a few kicks and bruises doled out by life. Some irreparable friendships, a few lies for safe-keeping, a good dog, a comfortable house with a fenced back yard for the grandchildren some day (knock on wood). And some stories. Quite a few of them, actually. Life lived at the micro level, where paying attention is required. You see things others don’t — and probably don’t want to. Sometimes you have to shake your head and look again. A memory of something very small, happened on a Tuesday afternoon about 3,000 Tuesday afternoons ago. You remember. But you’re not sure why. Sometimes you are.

I’ve seen a lot. All I’ve got is what I’ve had. Some poems published in reputable magazines. Long conversations with friends long since gone. A run-in once with William Faulkner. He and his wife were visiting Omaha for some writers’ conference at the college where I taught, and he had been asked to speak. My better half and I were selected to take “Bill and Estelle” out for drinks and dinner afterwards. They both drank more than they ate and got into a big row about money. I made the fatal mistake of siding with Estelle to minimize the embarrassment it was causing all of us. Didn’t end that well. Then there was my friendship with Gus, my mechanic for 30+ years. Smartest guy I ever knew. Would quote Wittgenstein while fixing my carburetor. I asked him once if he believed in God. He told me, “Wittgenstein said, ‘Since the mystical is inexpressible, there is nothing more to be said.’” That was his reply. That’s all he ever said about the subject. Every once in awhile I’d catch him walking to the local Baptist church on a Sunday morning, all dressed up, smart shoes, bow tie. Alone. Never quite figured Gus out.

If you focus on the frame, that’s all you see. If life is supposed to add up, you’ll only see the additions. But if it isn’t ~ if it’s supposed to not add up, which is presumably where faith comes in, then we’re stuck doing additions while the truth is not a sum but some product, a quotient. I’m reminded of my early math lessons when I thought I’d go that route instead of writing poetry: “The derivative of a product is not the product of the derivatives.” You’re not even asking the right questions if you think life is supposed to add up. Is God supposed to add up? If God were God, he wouldn’t.

So probably not. I’ll keep my manifesto for another day, just in case. But God? This is about all you can say:

(f g)≠ f t g t





Note on a Table

18 01 2014

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Had to go to Nebraska for a couple of different reasons. Went to a coffee shop for breakfast and found a note lying on the table. This is what it said.

 

My Future’s Manifesto
by D. B. Wyatt

“Probably”

I can see it and hear it now: Computers so smart they can actually mimic spirituality, because we’ll find that that a sufficient amount of computing power actually leads to an innate exocentricity – the impulse to “go beyond” one’s capacities, and this inevitably leads to a belief in God. The replication of intelligence begets replication, which by law of finite extrapolation, always leads to a desire for more. So get smart enough and you’ll want more than you have, and need more than you are. It’s a natural urge, which means that religion would have been developed whether or not there was a God. This doesn’t disprove the existence of God, but it makes it much less likely that such a being exists.

I can see it and hear it now. Computers so smart they can out-write, out-rhyme, out-paint, and generally out-create us. Because we’ll find certain innate algorithms built into nature that are expressly designed to create, and we’ll be able to replicate (and even manipulate and perhaps even improve upon) those algorithms in computers, but given that their computing power is so much greater, they will be able to out-perform us in creative tasks. So a computer will be funnier, more charming, even more sexy, than its human counterpart.

So religion will become a relic of the past, a natural stage in the progression of human intelligence, as we find that computers themselves begin to get not only personalities, but faiths. And this will prove, convincingly to most people, the true provenance of religious belief.

We’ll also come to the conclusion that we actually aren’t moral animals, we humans, and that our instincts for goodness are actually adaptability strategies in order to get along. We’ll find that there is no right and wrong, technically speaking, and that such concepts are developed for the propagation of the species. We make this shit up in order to survive, in other words. And it usually works, except when it doesn’t. It backfires because nature backfires. Every natural cycle is incomplete. Nature isn’t perfect – if it were, it wouldn’t change. Evolution is the process of attempting to reach perfection, which would be homeostasis. Religions call it eternity.

Anyway, all these religious impulses, all this morality wrought out of guilt, all this inspiration that supposedly came from the gods – all of this will, in time, be understood for precisely what it is – mechanisms built into the process of change for the purpose of insuring the survival of the host. Morality has no actual moral content of its own. Things are what we make them to be, and we make things that reflect what we want to be.

Will this lead to chaos and a rupture in the social fabric? Hopefully not, as people begin to accept that to live is better than to die, and so we must do everything we can to insure not only our own survival, but the survival of our progeny. This instinct alone, the desire and will to survive, will be recognized as the ultimate impulse—the ultimate religious impulse, if you will—that must be protected. Living will become the God. Life will be the God. Life will be God. God will be Life. It will be reduced to that kind of simplicity. There will be no need for sufficient complexity. It will be a call for sufficient simplicity. The simpler, the better, the more elegant, the more economical, the more efficient. Nature is actually on course to becoming more simple. It’s just that the road to get there is pretty complex ~

“I’m sorry this letter is so long. I didn’t have time to write a shorter one.” Blaise Pascal





The Shallows and the Deep: The Democratization of Truth

15 04 2013

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I found myself in one of those awkward situations yesterday where I was leading a discussion that was getting sidetracked by sincere questions that I knew from experience would lead to nothing but a series of tangled dead-ends, all of which begin with the implied qualification, “For what it’s worth,” to which the answer in each case was, “Not much.”

Okay, let me get more specific. It was about evolution and whether humans are simply the product of natural selection, or whether, perhaps, there’s a little more to it than that, like… say… God.

(*Qualifier: I’m no fan of creationism or any other religious attempt to usurp the basic theory of evolution. Nor, however, do I buy into the naturalistic assumptions of Darwinian theory, given that I believe that somewhere along the path to full humanity, God saw fit to establish a loving relationship with his creation and did so by giving us spirits, which I consider to be a basic element of our humanity, and likely the place where our species began. How, when, and where, exactly, did he do this? Ummm… January 1st, 10,000 BC, 6am local time? Humans are irreducibly spiritual beings, which entails the simple fact that our core selves cannot be reduced to the effects of naturalistic evolution.)

Okay, right? So boring as hell, so pre-2008. But please note: this wasn’t a discussion at a local chapter of the Society of Skeptics. No, this was an after-church discussion group at my local parish made up of five people plus myself: three college students from the school where I teach, all of whom happen to be wicked smart and traditionally conservative believers (no, not an oxymoron); our priest; and a graduate student from Caltech. You get three guesses who my interlocutor was.

And no, it wasn’t my priest. Or my students.

Let me get specific-er. Caltech guy was saying (arguing) that 1.) the process of evolution in no way presumes that God could not be a part of such a process and that 2.) humans are in no way qualitatively different from other species of animals but only quantitatively so, due to the evolutionary advantage of coming late to the party called existence, which has the wonderful fringe benefit of a measurably larger prefrontal cortex. Ergo, there’s nothing terribly unique about us that can’t be traced back to the circumference of our brains.

I was saying (arguing) that 1.) the process of Darwinian naturalistic evolution, to which my Caltech friend was referring, actually does presume both that God is not a part of the process and that the totality of our existence can be explained by simple reference to naturalistic causes; and 2.) that contrary to this, I believe humans are qualitatively different from other species of animals due to the fact that we were created imago Dei and have thus been endowed with spirits, which I take to be an uncontested fact in a setting of Christian believers (the fact, that is, that we are bodies and spirits and not merely bodies).

Caltech guy was incredulous at this, “this” being my position that we are qualitatively different from other animals due to our being the only ones created in the image of God, a point which I take to be one of the least sexy points I’ve made in probably, oh, three or four years. He was incredulous not because what I was saying contradicted scripture, which it does not, but because it contradicted his view of evolution, which he takes to be a theologically value neutral proposition, which it is not. No matter that what I was saying is implied (or explicitly stated) from Genesis to Revelation, and that Jesus makes repeated assertions throughout the gospels of our being unique by dint of our unique relationship to God, or that Paul insists again and again on the ontological priority of the human-God relationship vis-a-vis the rest of creation (Martin Buber’s I/Thou idea). Is it even prudent at such a point to start trotting out texts that speak directly to this issue (Romans 8:29, 1 Cor. 11:7, 15:49, 2 Cor. 3:18, Colossians 3:10, etc.)?

Regarding the whole idea of the biblical meaning of imago Dei, I refer you to this careful study by John Piper:

http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/articles/the-image-of-god

A few years back I did a talk for a local church on the biblical evidence for animals having souls (nephesh in the Greek), which I gathered was a good enough reason to treat animals with respect and care, and I was practically run out of the church by my own species. My point then, as now, is that the bible makes distinctions between animals and humans, bodies, souls, and spirits; and this is but one reason why hard-core evolutionists have such trouble with the Christian position, because we insist there is a God in whose image we humans are created, which is a complete non-starter for them (and understandably so).

But it isn’t just our position anymore. Even among scientific ranks there is division. Ian Tattersall, paleontologist and curator emeritus with the American Muesum of Natural History in New York and a noted expert on evolution, has argued that humans represent a “totally unprecedented entity” on the planet, and that “Homo sapiens is not simply an improved version of its ancestors – it’s a new concept” (from his book Becoming Human: Evolution and Human Uniqueness, [1998]). It’s important to note that Tattersall is not coming from any particular religious perspective in saying this. He’s simply making the point that, scientifically speaking, “the notion of human evolution as being a linear trudge from primitivism to perfection is totally wrong” (from his Wikipedia page).

But back now to my Caltech interlocutor and our sabre rattling at yesterday’s church discussion. I found the whole give and take disheartening for a few reasons. First, I know precious little about what my Caltech friend is studying in the field of quantum mechanics, and given that he is the far more trained person than I in this area, I’d fully expect him to begin rolling his eyes if I started to put up too many objections if he happened to be leading a discussion on, say, whether light is a particle or a wave. So yesterday I tried to keep my comments civil and not roll my eyes as he continued to press me for answers to questions that, to be quite honest, betrayed any real familiarity with the issue beyond a casual grasp of basic concepts that could be gleaned from a close reading of one or two books on the subject. But secondly, and even more depressingly, was the tenor of his questions, the rank presumptuousness with which he questioned my position and the utter incredulity he expressed over rather basic and time-honored suggestions such as, for example, that human beings are unique in creation.

Why is it that when any topic related to theological concerns comes up, everyone thinks themselves an expert? Why? Because theology is, by design, accessible even to children. We begin asking deep theological questions at the age of five. The mistake comes in the presumption that its very accessibility allows anyone, regardless of training, to somehow master the more complicated ideas — which theologians have been thinking over and wrestling with for thousands of years — in a single afternoon’s discussion over Chinese food. It would be like my assuming I could question a physicist’s foundational assumptions about photons because I can wire a light switch.

This kind of presumption is rife in today’s know-it-all “scientistic” culture, where gigabytes of information can be gathered in a single minute’s Google search sweep. But information is not knowledge, and so the truth — of anything — is not subject to majority rule or the principles of democracy or the hegemony of the scientific method. There is nothing inherently democratic (or, for that matter scientific) about the truth. It is entirely autocratic, even despotic, it its exactitude, by which I mean that even though our knowledge of any truth may be partially or even entirely limited, the truth still stands on its own as is, willy-nilly. And yes, this means that I believe in objective truth. And for those who think this a trifle bit naïf, I offer this bit of wisdom from philosopher Roger Scruton who said, “The man who tells you truth doesn’t exist is inviting you not to believe him. So don’t.”

In our age of democratizing claims to truth, it seems that anyone can question anyone any time about anything. Self-critical scrutiny of one’s own position, on the other hand, is a scarce commodity. How sometimes I wish theology was not accessible to children. But then, what would it be? The provenance of scholars only? Indeed, St. Jerome was right when he said about scripture, which I extend here to the task of theology, that it is “shallow enough for a babe to come and drink without fear of drowning and deep enough for theologians to swim in without ever touching bottom.”

And, if I may add, deep enough for quantum physicists to drown in.





The Tryanny of Experience

17 03 2013

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We live in an age when a person’s best authority is herself. What a poor and impoverished replacement that is for what used to count for authority: inherited wisdom, otherwise known as the giants on whose shoulders we stood in order to see farther. But in our hubris, we’ve jumped off their shoulders and claim to be able to see farther and know better, all from our vaulted perspective 6 inches off the ground.

Sure, there have always been things about our past (our traditions and elders) that we’ve needed to repudiate: slavery, the subjugation of women, child labor, bear baiting… But we’ve taken their whole system, all of their assumptions about the world and each other, both good and bad, and tossed it aside. We’ve reinvented the wheel and called it an improvement to ride around on square blocks. That’s the problem with progress… we always assume it means progress; or rather, that progress is always a good thing. Is the hydrogen bomb really an improvement over dynamite? Well, yes, in a way…

By elevating our own experience as the ultimate authority in matters of life and death, we’ve placed ourselves at the middle of the universe and essentially sacralized our perspectives. There is no room here for humility in this new order of things — the order of I (or should I say “i”?), and as a result, we have no claim to final authority, since your experience is your experience, and mine is mine, and whose going to gainsay anyone’s experience?

Well, I am. I’m not only going to gainsay your experience, I’m going to gainsay mine as well. Why? Because I’ve been paying attention the last 48 years of living, and if I’ve learned anything about human nature, starting with myself, it’s this: that much of the time we’re right about things, but almost an equal amount of time, we’re wrong, which means that at best, it’s a 50/50 proposition to hold ourselves up as an authority over much of anything terribly important. Even a broken clock is right twice a day. But here’s the zinger: those things that we stand the chance of being most wrong about are precisely those things that we hold most dear because they valorize our human proclivity for provincial thinking and denial, which is the second thing I’ve learned in my 48 years of paying attention: we live in denial much of the time in order to validate our own view of things, and we do all of this as a coping mechanism for the nihilism that we breathe in all round us.

And where does this leave us? That at the very places where we most need to have authorities outside of ourselves to give us perspective, we are least likely to avail ourselves of them. And so we take the wisdom of our ancestors and reform it to reflect our prejudices, and we fashion the religion and politics of our forefathers and mothers and mold them into our own biases and tastes. We change everything we believe to adjust to our experiences, never for a second thinking to ask ourselves whether our experiences themselves are open to other interpretations, or whether our experiences might actually be misleading. If this is the way I understand what’s happened to me, then by golly, that’s precisely what happened to me! Right?

Never was there a time so many of us trusted so unquestioningly our own personal view of things. Never was there a time our own personal view of things was so influenced by the deluded voices around us.

La la la la la la….





Fortunes and Futures

11 03 2013

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Could this be one of those times in human history when the future looks more bleak than the past? I look out ahead of me and don’t like what I see: explanations of our existence bereft of any soul; theories of our origins that could be explained with a pencil and a slide rule; ideas about love that are the provenance of chemists and not poets; and poetry itself, reduced to nothing but syntax arranged by a computer.

Marilynne Robinson once wrote, “I miss culture and I want it back” (from her “The Death of Adam and Other Essays” collection, I think). I join in her lament. Scientists, those high priests of truth, are the self-appointed experts on everything, a position we all happily oblige them. After all, says we, if they can invent a light bulb, surely they can explain the mysteries of life. And so, slowly but surely, eternity morphs into infinity, poetry into word-play, erotic love into the chemical consummation of oxytocin and dopamine. You see this kind of reductionist metamorphosis all around you if you know where — and more importantly, how —  to look. Ads on TV, the perfume fragrance strips of magazines, pop music. It’s all about appearances, about glitz and glamor, pomp and ceremony, OMG! and Highlight reels. Even talk of content these days is so stylized, so self-conscious. Our souls collectively waste away as we settle for the Quick Fix.

Yes, I believe in souls, and that we embody them, and that because of this, our existence is greater than the sum of our parts, more complicated than our chemical alchemy, more mysterious than multiverses. Even philosophers, long since relegated to the back of the cultural and intellectual bus (I mean, who’s the last living philosopher you’ve read?), think they can cash in on the cheapest bit of intellectual property left for intellectual speculators: religion. It won’t be long before religion becomes an artifact of history, and supernatural belief a diagnosis in the DSM. Flannery O’Connor was right when she said that nihilism is in the very air we breathe.

Count me among the relics if and when that time comes, because explaining life by nothing more than a series of fantastical collisions of atoms does nothing for me. It doesn’t even make me sigh. It’s like being hit over the head by a fortune cookie. I mean, what’s the point?





The Walmartization of America

21 11 2012

Of course Walmart will continue to flourish in spite of its deleterious effects on the American economy, on its own workers, on those who work in sweatshops around the globe for its suppliers, and on small businesses everywhere. It will continue to flourish because America is the Utopia of Pragmatism, which is by far the most deeply entrenched religion in the New World.

We believe in things that work, even if they work at our expense. We believe in the cheapest, most convenient path to happiness, even if it’s a counterfeit happiness that doesn’t linger beyond our short-term memories. Why we do we insist on this kind of living? Because in the face of such convenience and the possibility of acquiring something shiny and new, nothing else — not even the quality of our own lives — matters.

Walmart stands for everything that is wrong with America. This is why Romney almost won, in spite of the fact that he explicitly supported everything that got us into this economic hell hole to begin with. Because he promised a quick fix, and we Americans are like Pavlov’s dogs when the quick-fix bell rings: we salivate.

And so on black Friday, which has now become black Thursday (otherwise known as Thanksgiving), many will go out to shop for the best deals, the cheapest finds, the must-have items, because so many of us are powerless in the face of such a reality, entirely unable to exercise that most illusive of all virtues: restraint. Even if we are being led to the slaughter, we will, like sheep, willingly go, as long as the promise of the “best deal” is fulfilled.

And so we willingly allow Walmart to decimate the economic landscape, put millions of small businesses out of business, and co-opt our most sacred holidays, Thanksgiving being the last that still had a modicum of respectability. It was still, up until a few years ago, about family and friends getting together to give thanks for all the blessings we have incurred in this, the Land of Plenty; or at the very least, for the blessings we have reaped in the form of friends, and health, and life, even in the face of disasters and downturns.

But no more. Now Thanksgiving will be an addendum to the far more important tradition of Greed, a tradition that America not only invented in the form of boldfaced capitalism, but disguised and perfected under that name that is above all names: the American Dream.

To gain the world and lose one’s soul. How easy, how convenient, it turned out to be.

As for me? I’m relaxing with my family this weekend; going to my aunt’s and uncle’s on Thanksgiving, the Huntington Library and Gardens with my wife and son and daughter on Friday, spending the day together hiking in the San Gabriel mountains on Saturday, and then coming home, lighting a fire and eating Chinese food while playing a game or two of Yahtzee. Sunday morning we’ll go to our little church, and then it’s errands around the house and the yard in the afternoon, followed by a little 60 Minutes or AFV (depending on who wins the coin toss). Totally old school. Totally civilized. Totally can’t wait.

As for Walmart? Well, I guess it can take all the profits it robbed from the soul of America and go straight to hell.





0.00729735253 and Divine Providence

17 11 2012

Randomness or divine Providence. Which is it? It can’t be both, can it?

Or can it?

Though I am no trained scientist by a good stretch, questions of divine purpose and its relationship to indeterminate processes has been an on again/off again interest of mine for a long time, stretching back to my days at Princeton Seminary in the early 90s and to my many conversations with students (including then newcomer Bill Dembski) and faculty, such as T. F. Torrance who, fortuitously enough, I had had occasion to meet several times while he was studying at the Center for Theological Inquiry. Dr. Torrance and I spoke at length about his book The Christian Frame of Mind and about the convergence of the rational and moral orders and, as the subtitle of the book states, reason and openness. I also had an ongoing five-year conversation on this and related matters with my academic mentor, Jim Loder, while I was at PTS and which continued after I graduated in 1994. Jim introduced me to his friend Jim Neidhardt (with whom he co-wrote The Knight’s Move), and the three of us had some animated discussions about such things as the work of the Spirit in logic and transformation. My class with Diogenes Allen on the theology of Austin Farrer, and in particular Farrer’s provocative book Finite and Infinite, was another catalyst in my interest surrounding divine Providence and indeterminate processes.

My interests have continued since then, though in a strictly amateur capacity. For the last couple of years I’ve been intrigued with the question of the fine-structure constant and its relation to divine Providence, and whether such a conflict actually exists between what we understand to be indeterminate processes, on the one hand, and the monotheistic doctrine that God is omniscient and omnipotent, on the other. A recent paper (2010) published in the area of α (the fine-structure constant) suggests some pretty provocative ideas that have received little to no attention in the ongoing questions surrounding randomness and providence, and which, if the speculations the paper makes are true about the inconsistency of the fine-structure constant, would revolutionize the fields of both physics and theology. If the fine-structure constant isn’t so constant, then divine Providence and the scientific idea of randomness are not incompatible in any linear sense.

Randomness assumes there is order. The entire field of physics is based on the fundamental premise that certain physical laws are inviolable: the speed of light, the “law” of gravity, the conservation of mass-energy and momentum, the laws of thermodynamics, and so on. Each is a bedrock of physics. Recent work in the field of physics, however, has raised questions about these laws’ inviolability. A paper published in 2010 by John Webb and Julian King from the University of New South Wales in Australia, which examined the properties of what Richard Feynman called “one of the greatest damn mysteries of physics,” casts a shadow over the hegemony of physical laws as science currently understands them.

The fine-structure constant is a number so precise that even the smallest deviation would create an environment unsuitable for carbon-based life forms. The reason for its precise value, however, remains a conundrum to scientists, even though the working assumption up to now has been that the entire universe operates within its exacting parameters. The Webb/King study’s findings appear to challenge this notion, leaving some to wonder if the fine-structure constant may not be so constant after all. There is still much work to be done in this area and far more studies to be conducted, to be sure, before an entire field of science does an about-face, and many theorists are dubious, to say the least, of the study’s findings, but IF the Webb/King study is right, the entire field of physics will be turned on its head and the assumptions we now have about the physical laws of the universe would have to be reassessed. They would no longer be inviolable laws, for starters. They would be, cosmologically speaking, temporary and localized conditions.

The theological implications of such an idea, were it to be proven, are profound. If the properties of α only pertain to this tiny corner of the universe, for example, then human beings can claim, with scientific confidence, a unique status for life. Nowhere else in the universe would such suitable conditions necessarily exist. Life is a one-off, in other words. Perhaps even a miracle. Such a finding would also mean that the whole idea of randomness would be moot, since there are no laws to violate in the first place. That is to say, God’s divine providence cannot be assumed to either mirror or violate the laws of nature since no such laws (given their now temporary and localized status) exist.

When God declares in Revelation 22:13, “I am the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last,” his words take on new resonance in light of these provocative, albeit tentative, new findings. Perhaps God wasn’t being figurative after all, and the entire concept of randomness could be subsumed under God’s other imperial and cosmic declaration in Isaiah 55:9, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” What we see now as either randomness or the inscrutability of God’s providence is but a reiteration of God as α, which is (to quote Mr. Feynman) the greatest damn mystery of life.

See a fuller article on this in the Economist Sept. 2010 issue, entitled: “The fine-structure constant and the nature of the universe. Ye cannae change the laws of physics. Or can you?”