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Posts tagged as “Jesus and Godel”

Keep Holy the Sabbath Day

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keep holy the sabbath day As it says on the tin. I know this is riffing off some of my earlier titles, but even though I have a lot of work to do for the move, I made a deliberate effort to build the rocking chair and outdoor end tables I'd bought a week or so back, hose and mop off the courtyard porch, set them up, and chill out with a few books prior to dinner. It was only twenty minutes of "rest", but it sure did feel good. Almost like there is something to this "the Sabbath was made for Man" idea. -the Centaur Pictured: A quick illustration. Nothing special. Illustrator remains harder to use than Photoshop.  

Lawful but not Expedient

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paul headshot The Old Testament is filled with rules and regulations - reams of them scattered through Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, and then fleshed out further in Deuteronomy. And Jesus said that He didn't come to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them. But not so fast. Even though Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount that nothing would be struck from the the law until "all was accomplished," elsewhere, He said the law and the prophets were proclaimed - past tense - until John, and since then the Gospel has been proclaimed, and everyone's trying to get in. What's this mean? And how do we fit this in with the fact that Jesus reinterpreted the law all the time? The key comes from this comment by the Apostle Paul: "All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any." This phrase is part of a longer explanation by Paul of principles that Jesus demonstrates by example. Both Paul's arguments in Corinthians, and Jesus's frequent rebuttals of the Pharisees, both reject strict applications of the law in favor of appeals to focus on what's good for everyone involved. I've argued before that Jesus's approach to the law is surprisingly modern and scientific, focusing not on whether someone is strictly obedient to the letter of the law but instead on what various acts do to people. Food passes through the body, and so doesn't make us unclean; but bad thoughts do. Paul's approach is similar, suggesting that believers resolve disputes not with lawsuits but by arbitration by fellow Christians, and that people who are hurting themselves or others with greed, theft, idolatry, lust, or betrayal are committing sins against their own bodies, which should be sanctified for God. While both Paul and Jesus condemn various behaviors, we shouldn't take those as an exhaustive list. That's the whole point of the passages: just because something isn't listed on that list doesn't make it right, and conversely, treating Paul or Jesus's examples as Pharisaical commands misses the point. In Catholic theology, this kind of thinking is called having a "scrupulous conscience" - taking the law as a very literal set of rules which we should follow to the letter, like a roleplayer in a D&D game trying to argue with the gamemaster about whether a given spell would or would not slay a crystal dragon. But what's printed in the rules of D&D - no matter how specific, regardless of edition - takes second place to what the gamemaster wants to run in his campaign. Similarly, Jesus and Paul want us to develop our own moral imagination, so we can decide, as Jesus did, that it's okay to rescue an ox on the Sabbath. To unpack this, the laws of the Old Testament are ceremonial, civil and moral. Ceremonial law had to do with Israel's worship, which Christians think pointed ahead to Jesus's coming, became obsolete with his Resurrection, and were arguably - though disputedly - set aside in the Incident at Antioch. The civil laws of the Old Testament, like the declaration of a jubilee year or the rules for managing slaves, had to do with a society which is very different from the one we have today, and even though they're described as being eternal laws, few Christians think we should apply them all strictly. Moral laws, like the Ten Commandments and the Great Commandment (which is normally associated with Jesus, but is also present in the Old Testament) retain their force. Not coveting, lying, cheating, stealing, or murdering remain as problematic for us today as they were back in the day. Jesus's ministry, especially the Sermons of the Mount and the Plain, both adds to and takes away from our understanding of these Old Testament laws. He reinforces some old laws, reinterprets laws like divorce, and provides new examples that set a higher standard. And yet, He still says the law wasn't going to pass away until everything is fulfilled - a fulfillment which many people take to mean His Resurrection. But I think there's more to it than that. Jesus was God, and taught with authority, so for him to emphasize the law, even as he went beyond it, meant something. Paul again provides us the key. Perhaps it is true that all things are lawful now, but not everything's good for us. And on the principle that things are not good because the law says so, but that the law says so because things are good for us - we should study the law and use it to guide our understanding. Yes, we no longer celebrate a jubilee year. Yes, the Jewish dietary restrictions are no longer relevant. Yes, the Biblical attitude to homosexuality is grounded in the prejudices of the cultures at the time, and shows neither a correct understanding of human sexuality nor a Christian respect for individual persons. But it's worth understanding why these were laws in the first place. It's worthwhile to consider canceling debts. It's worthwhile to consider whether our diets are healthy. It's worthwhile to consider our expression of our sexuality and ask whether it is building up our tearing down our lives and the lives of our partners. All things may be lawful in the Christian faith if the most important point of Christianity is believing in Jesus and choosing to follow Him - but that can be a difficult path, so it's worth reviewing our lives and asking whether we're making it easy to follow Him, or throwing stumbling blocks down for ourselves. -the Centaur Pictured: the Apostle Paul, interpolated from three early paintings and the only physical description of him that I know of: of middling size, with scanty hair, large eyes, a long nose, and eyebrows that met.

Jesus is Everywhere – and for Everyone

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dafoe headshot Something I neither hide nor advertise is being part of the BDSM / fetish / leather community. Perhaps that's obvious to anyone who's read my novels, but I still miss Atlanta's great fetish club, the Chamber, where goth-industrial music used to play until 4 in the morning - and where I met my future wife. That scene wasn't for everyone. Costumes sparkled, music pounded, lights flashed, dancers crowded, and onstage were spectacular shows, like a workman "cutting" a dancer out of a chastity belt in a shower of sparks. (Not really - the sparks were made with a grinder against an added block of metal). This was a great place to go and unwind after a long week at graduate school, for even at 1AM I could head down to the Chamber, watch the dance floor until until my nerves started to unwind (I rarely drink, so this took at least half an hour) and then join in for a couple hours of dancing before close. The Chamber was a place I could, briefly, forget all the worries of my graduate studies and have fun in a very mildly transgressive way. But to me, the only norms worth transgressing are purely social ones, not moral laws, so I never let down my boundaries. And, thankfully enough, I always had a guide. One of the great things about the BDSM community is its focus on respect and safety. Many of the things that people enjoy doing are dangerous, and so the community is built on the principles of "safe, sane, consensual" - don't do dangerous things, stay in your right mind, and act with your partner's consent. Not everyone from outside the community respects these standards, and if you aren't a person who goes out to "normal" bars and dance clubs a lot - why would I have? I rarely drink - the behavior of people from outside the community - the games that they play - can be a little surprising and upsetting. Once, a few years before I met my wife, I was dancing at the Chamber and a girl started dancing with me. After a few minutes, the girl's apparent boyfriend came up and shoved me. Put mildly, this ain't typical behavior for the Chamber, and it very quickly became clear he was trying to start a fight. But I'd thrown off his first shove with a sweeping Taido block, and turned away, dancing. I was there to dance, not play childish games, and I'd never been so over a pair of people in such a short time. The guy shoved me again, but I blocked again, continuing to dance. After half a minute, they lost interest, and left. Now, my martial arts training helped here - while Taido is based on turning defense into offense, three of its broader rules are: "If you think there's going to be trouble, don't be there. If there's trouble, don't be there. And the mind, body, and spirit are one: be dignified by this unity and you need fear no insult." The point of that last, arcanely worded bit is easy to lose, so let's unpack it a bit: Your mind is a part of your body, and your body is one with your eternal spirit, which cannot be damaged by mere words. So if someone insults you, don't let it get to you; rest in the calm of your spirit instead. In other words, turn the other cheek. It's been years since then, but in the moment in which that shove slid off my block and I turned away - and a fight did not immediately follow - that I recall recognizing the wisdom of turning the other cheek. I'd heard about this phenomenon in Taido class a number of times, and now I was seeing it in real life. While I'm not telling you not to defend yourself, violence begets violence - as the character of Jesus said in the Last Temptation of Christ, "If you don't change the spirit first, change what's inside ... [then even] if you're victorious, you'll still be filled with the poison. You've got to break the chain of evil ... with love." Even in places that we might not expect to find him, Jesus is there. In a movie based on a book banned by the Roman Catholic Church for sacrilege, in a martial art designed to turn defense into offense, in a mildly-transgressive nightclub, even in the attack of a drunk jerk - Jesus is there, ready to guide us. At another event, I decided to leave because my new boots were killing me. Grabbing a soda at the bar on my way out, I struck up a conversation with a nice dominatrix, who - and it's really hard to convey how completely platonic this act was - massaged the tip of my boot to make the pain go away. We talked for half an hour, until a friend dropped by and enthusiastically started telling us about a new development in their relationship which sounded, um, doomed. I and my soda-and-boots buddy listened, increasingly concerned, when finally, the dominatrix diplomatically asked, "Is that really what you want?" Our friend didn't listen, and ended up having serious problems in their relationship. But what really struck me in these encounters is that all of the traditional social taboos of our culture had fallen away - we were at a fetish club in outlandish costumes - but the teachings of Jesus were still there and as alive as ever. The costumes were outlandish, but the people in the club were not characters in our internal dramas: they were people, who deserved to be treated like people - and who were trying to live to that standard.  Fixing the kink in my boot was not a transaction - it was a Samaritan kindness to a fellow human being. And the principle that motivated our concern for our friend was seeing that friend not treat their partners with the same respect they'd expect in return - a failure to love your neighbor as yourself. Our society's traditional relationship norms were absent. The principles of Christianity were present and alive. These events - the not-fight in the bar, the quiet voice of concern for a friend taking a wrong path, the rubbing of a boot, so like the washing of feet - started to convinced me that Jesus was everywhere, even in the places that our traditional society thinks would exclude Him. But Jesus will not be excluded. The Christian faith is a catholic faith - for everyone. And if the key to following Jesus is not where you are on the path of goodness - for God is infinitely good, and is not impressed with our good works, even if we are - but what direction you're facing, then Jesus is there for you on the path, to point the right way. Even if the music is loud, and some of the people around you are shouting. -the Centaur Pictured: Willem Dafoe, portraying Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ. And the phrase "neither hide nor advertise" refers to things that I talk freely about if they come up, but which I don't make a special effort to bring up on their own, as opposed to, say, robots. By the way ... robots, robots, robots. Robot.

The Formation of the Resurrection Narratives

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fuller headshot One stumbling block many scientifically minded people have with accepting Christianity is the false doctrine of biblical literalism. This bad idea, that the Bible is literally true, is not compatible with the Bible's errors in cosmology, geology, meteorology, biology, psychology or even history. If you believe in the Big Bang - and I do, until a better scientific hypothesis presents itself - you might give some credit to the Bible for God saying "Let there be light!". But this is a pretty thin correspondence to our modern understanding - actually, whether that understanding is religious or scientific. Both the Big Bang theory and modern Christian theology assume the world was created from nothing - ex nihilo. But Genesis describes a formless earth, vast dark waters, and the Spirit of God hovering over them. But in Christian theology, God made Creation from the outside, in Eternity, beyond time itself. This idea isn't nonsense - it's similar to the creation of spacetime out of more abstract algebraic entities in certain grand unified theories of non-commutative geometry - but it isn't literally, in the Bible. Instead, it developed through the sincere discernment of the faith leaders Jesus asked to guide his Church. When we project our modern sensibilities on the Bible, we easily make mistakes. A fundamentalist seeking certainty in the face of scientific advances projects a "literal" truth upon the words that simple understanding of the text supports and neither the authors nor the curators of the texts meant. Similarly, a scientist who seeking empirically tested theoretical models projects onto the Bible something that wasn't even conceptually present when it was written. Modern hypothesis testing wasn't invented until the 1000's, and didn't crystallize until the work of Francis Bacon in the 1500's. Similar problems occur with the Bible's understanding not just of cosmology, but geology, like the Flood,  or meteorology, like the storehouse of wind, or biology, like the creation of animals, or psychology, like Paul's explanations of homosexuality, or even history, like much of the Biblical history of Israel. The discovery of a destruction layer at Jericho - and the debate about whether it fits the time frame of the fall of Jericho in the book of Joshua, which according it to radiocarbon dating, it does not - shows that the Old Testament may have some correspondence with history, but it's loose at best. And yet, loose correspondence to history is not no correspondence. Richard Feynman once said that uncertain phenomena are like images seen through a dirty windshield; if the image isn't real, it will wash away as you wipe away the dirt; but the image becomes clearer as you study it, it's a real phenomenon. The Old Testament is muddied by age and history. But what about the New Testament? The New Testament is not filled with histories written centuries after the events they describe; it's filled with letters and testaments written by people in the orbit of Jesus, or, in a few cases, actually knew Jesus. Peter undoubtedly knew Jesus, and some scholars believe that he wrote the First Epistle of Peter; so we might have in this book a direct record by someone who knew Jesus; but even scholars who contest this suggest the book was written no later than 81AD, roughly fifty years after Jesus' death. But the letters of the Apostle Paul are more certain. At least seven of them are very likely authentic - letters written by someone alleged to have been metaphorically knocked off his horse by a revelation from God. Whether you believe that's true or not, these letters are a window into the early Church. This is important because of another stumbling block people have with Christianity: the Resurrection of  Jesus appears to have been a late addition. The Gospel of Mark, written around 70AD, roughly forty years after Jesus's death, originally ended with the empty tomb, with no appearances of Jesus. If this is the most important story about Jesus, these people ask, why is it a late addition? Seems like it was made up. But in the book Formation of the Resurrection Narratives, Reginald Fuller unpacks an even earlier and better attested First Narrative of Jesus's Resurrection. In First Corinthians, a letter to the church at Corinth, written by the Apostle Peter at or shortly after 53AD - only twenty years or so after Jesus's death, we have the very First Resurrection Narrative that we know of, recorded in 15 Corinthians 3-7. It's brief, but describes at least five appearances of Jesus:
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins and not against all, in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.
In his book, Fuller drills deep into these narratives, analyzing in detail the parts of this text and how it suggests, based on a textual analysis of its wording, that Paul was collating information from a variety of traditions about the appearances of Jesus and presenting them as a coherent narrative. But what I want to drill in on is that first sentence: "For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received." Elsewhere, Paul insists his knowledge of Jesus came from direct revelation ... but here, he appears to let on that he received some information from the Christian community. This kind of tell is used in biblical scholarship as a sign of true information. If someone's spinning a tale to make someone look good, they often leave out the nasty bits. If someone includes some embarrassing information - like Jesus's death, or Paul's receipt of information - it may be a sign it really happened. I'll grant that Paul may have received a revelation of the divinity of Jesus on the road to Damascus. But the details of who Jesus appeared to in the community of believers at Jerusalem likely came from those believers themselves ... and Paul tells us a little bit more about this in his letters as well. In Galatians - another authentic letter of Paul's, written in the 40's, roughly a decade after Jesus died - Paul dates his conversion to the mid-30's; given that Jesus died in roughly 33AD, this means Paul likely converted sometime between 34 and 36 AD - one to three years after Jesus's death. But Paul didn't know Jesus when he was alive, and met Jesus in a revelation. To get at what the early Church thought, we need instead to look at what Paul describes himself as doing. In Galatians 1:18, he claims to have visited Peter in Jerusalem, three years after his conversion. Put these things together. Less than ten years after Jesus died, Paul recounts an earlier story of meeting Peter, somewhere between 4 and 6 years after Jesus's death. Whether Paul learned about Jesus's post-resurrection appearances from God or Peter, at the least, Paul and Peter were on the same page. That means the First Narrative of the Resurrection doesn't date to twenty years after Jesus' death: it dates to five years after Jesus's death, and was consistent with the teachings that the community of people who knew Jesus - and Jesus's chosen rock to found his Church, Peter. Paul, who we believe existed, and who wrote slightly embarrassing things about himself in his letters that lead us to think they were true, describes a meeting with Jesus's right hand man only five years after Jesus's death, where the community was already telling stories of post-resurrection appearances. In fact, if we believe Paul's testimony that he'd already been preaching up to three years earlier after his conversion, and that he was proclaiming the same faith as the people he once persecuted, then these stories were already circulating in the persecuted community as early as one year after Jesus's death. We can use the scientific method to try to scrub away the historical inaccuracies of the Bible. We can use Christian theology to identify the true myths embedded in these recorded stories. But when we use the tools of historical analysis, there's an image that refuses to be scrubbed away: the Resurrection. Whether you believe in it or not, the Resurrection of Jesus - and his appearances after - are attested by the First Resurrection Narrative, and that, along with the other letters of Paul, show that the Christian community was already telling these stories within a few years - perhaps one year - after He died. The story of the Resurrection was not a late addition: it was there from the beginning. And it will not be scrubbed away. -the Centaur Pictured: Reginald Fuller.

Radical Forgiveness and the Prisoner’s Dilemma

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axelrod headshot Here's a pickle: If you could tell someone only one thing about Christianity, what would it be? Many Christians believe God already gave us the answer in John 3:16: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." This hits all the highlights: God, the divinity of Jesus, the sacrifice of the Resurrection to redeem the world, the importance of belief; the promise of eternal life. That's why you see John 3:16 on t-shirts and bumper stickers: in one sentence, it sums up the spiritual - dare I say cosmic - essence of Christianity. We've touched on another important one, the Great Commandment, John 13:34: "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another." This version of the  Golden Rule appears in all the Gospels, so it must be pretty important. But it appears in Leviticus 19:18 too: "You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord." And this starts to get closer to one of the most important things I think Christianity teaches: the need to forgive. Paul puts it this way in Romans 12:19: "Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it[a] to the wrath of God, for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.'" Well, that's cute, and I agree with it, but Paul is still talking about doing good to your enemies transactionally, to get something out of it. We might call this "selfish altruism": doing good for our own benefit. See Romans 12:20-21: "To the contrary, 'if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.' 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." Paul's key point is overcoming evil with good. But we can do better. "Reciprocal altruism" in evolutionary biology occurs when organisms pay a penalty when interacting with another organism, which can't explained from pure selfishness, unless the organism expects its counterpart to repay the favor. Reciprocal altruism is the next level of altruism, but it's fragile: in it, agents quit cooperating at the first betrayal. But scientists studying how societies remain stable when filled with selfish agents have found that there are even better strategies, like "tit for tat," which, despite its name, is even more cooperative. The Prisoner's Dilemma is a microcosm of cooperation that game theorists use to study altruism. In it, two prisoners are being interrogated separately for a crime. If neither rats out the other, both get off with a misdemeanor; but if one fingers the other, the snitch gets off scott free and the rube goes to prison. The so-called "rational" response to this doesn't work: each agent acting independently would rat out the other, and both end up in the clink. What works is "superrationality": making your choice assuming everyone's seeking the best outcome for everyone, and both prisoners walk with a slap on the wrist. Superrationality has been compared to Kant's "categorical imperative": only act on principles that you would want to be universal laws. The challenge with this is that correct superrationality requires not only that you're perfectly rational, but also that other agents reason in precisely the same perfect way. In real life, not all agents are superrational, and the tit-for-tat strategy suggests that you cooperate until betrayed, but then hit back only once, cooperating if your opponent returns to the fold. This enables you and your opponent to learn how cooperative each other are, and perhaps to develop cooperation. Scientists studying models of human societies think that strategies like tit-for-tat altruism are literally mathematically necessary to keep societies stable in the presence of the occasional defector who wants to defect in the Prisoner's Dilemma. So tit-for-tat altruism is actually doing good for everyone's sake. That's all well and good, but Jesus asks us to set an even higher standard than that. From Luke 6:27-29: "But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also." In this famous passage on turning the other cheek, Jesus asks us to do several important things which climb up past the transactional all the way up to the spiritual. Yes, he says do good to those who hate you - the kind of transaction recommended by Paul and the scientists who study social cooperation. But he goes beyond that to the emotional: love your enemies - take their goals on as your own. To the spiritual: bless those who curse you - wish them well. To the intercessional: pray for those who abuse you - ask God to help those who are hurting you. Like both the Apostle Paul and students of the evolution of cooperation, I think this is good for us, and good for the world too, and that's why Jesus asks us to do it: Jesus wants us to look past pure transactions and to think how we can make the Kingdom of God real here on earth. I interpret this to mean we should forgive everyone. Priests I respect - and the tradition of mighty men of valor in the Bible - suggest that there's room to respond in defense against violence when lives are at stake, but beyond that, once the shouting is over, we should forgive and move on. I call this radical forgiveness - the principle that, unless there's an active fight happening actually right now, we should forgive the sins of others, no matter how grievous the crime, no matter how much it pains us. This isn't just good for the world, or good for us transactionally, but just ... good. Good for our souls. I gave the philosophy of radical forgiveness to Dakota Frost, protagonist of my Skindancer urban fantasy novels. In it, Dakota is repeatedly challenged by weretigers, vampires, and fire magicians, and while she gives as good as she gets, as quick as she can, she does her best to forgive those who have hurt her. Most of her allies in the series are people who, at one time or another, have pushed her away, screwed her over, or even assaulted her violently. Not every threat can be glossed over, of course, but in the series I try to show how the practice of radical forgiveness could realistically build a better world. I have tried to put radical forgiveness into practice myself. I'm ... not always great at it: some people make themselves hard to forgive. But whenever I've had the opportunity to practice radical forgiveness, I've always been rewarded with less stress, stronger relationships, and a better situation in life. Almost like the things Jesus calls good are things that He knows are good for us and the world. -the Centaur Pictured: Robert Axelrod, author of The Evolution of Cooperation.

How Philosophy Lies About Religion

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jaynes headshot I wish there was a better word than lying for spreading false information. It's concise, charged, connected to the idea that the information being conveyed is false. But the scientific definition of "lie" isn't a false statement. We make false statements all the time, unintentionally. They're called mistakes. The scientific definition of a "lie" is a statement intended to deceive. Intent is critical to this definition. If I tell you, "Bob's in the robot lab" because that's where I saw him last, but he's actually headed out to the barista, that isn't a lie, even though it's false: it's just a mistake. But if I tell you "Bob's back at the office" - knowing full well that you're likely to look at his desk in the office, when he's actually taking a nap behind a closed conference room door across the hall, where you're unlikely to find him - then I've lied, even though the statement is true. The problem is worse when we consider intellectual dishonesty. When someone puts forth a really terrible argument, are they actually being dishonest, or are they simply caught up in fallacious reasoning or even just honestly mistaken beliefs? The truth is, people argue in bad faith all the time, and it's legitimately hard to tell - most humans are quite bad at spotting liars. Once an activist asked me to workshop a proposal he was making about a telescope built on native Hawai'ian land: he demanded ten percent of the budget go to native education. "Isn't that reasonable?" he asked. "No," I said. "Imagine you're building a house. If you've budgeted a million bucks - half to land and half to construction, then if someone chops ten percent out of your budget, there goes your roof. No-one could agree to that even if they wanted to." He tried various other unworkable permutations, until I finally asked, "Look, what do you want?" He thought, then said: "I want to put forth something so reasonable-sounding that no-one could oppose it, but which would be a poison pill for the telescope project. I want the telescope not to be built." I declined to help him further. He was arguing in bad faith. To a casual observer, his proposals sounded like he genuinely wanted to help native Hawai'ian education, and was just naive about building construction: but behind that facade was a deliberate attempt to deceive. It's hard to tell these apart. Politicians often lie, fooling mostly their own constituents; partisans assume their opponents lie by default. But the principle of charity demands that we assume the opposite: that others use ordinary words to make true statements with valid arguments about something interesting. So, when positivist philosophers fail to extend this principle of charity to the tenets of religion, it's perhaps a stretch to accuse them of lying. I'm not even sure that they're actually being intellectually dishonest - but it is funny to encounter incoherent arguments from someone arguing that religion is incoherent. I encountered this incoherence in an essay disparaging one of the key issues of the Great Schism that split the Roman Catholic Church from the Eastern Orthodox Churches: the doctrine of the Trinity, or, more specifically, how the Holy Spirit "proceeds": from the Father, or from the Father and the Son. While this was enough to fracture churches back in the day, modern theologians think this "difference" to be mostly semantic, not doctrinal. But the author of the essay went further, claiming that it wasn't simply semantics - but that both positions had some unspecified fatal flaw which rendered them unintelligible. But this 18 page essay on what's wrong with religious and philosophical thinking never gets around to actually telling you what, concretely, wrong with this kind of thinking. I'm not going to link the essay until I can read it again to be sure, but as you may have guessed, the problem is in the author's thinking. The author mistook his disbelief in the premises for a flaw in the arguments. Since there is no logical flaw in these arguments - and I'll get back to that - they, as they said repeatedly in the article, found it difficult to put a finger on what's precisely wrong with this and other similar kinds of reasoning. Well, I can help you out with that: the key mistakes philosophers make about religion is the allegation that religion consists of statements that are unprovable in principle, and therefore, because these statements are unprovable, they are therefore incoherent. One professor put it like this: A man claims they met a man in a garden. You see no-one, so they claim the man's invisible. You listen, so they claim the man's inaudible. You excavate the garden and scan the dirt with X-rays, so they claim the man's intangible. At some point, you decide, the man just ain't there. But that's not what happened at all. That's just the procession of bad judgments that follows from the bad arguments in David Hume's essay "Of Miracles", which we took apart earlier, perhaps unfairly, because Hume didn't have Bayesian or Jaynesian probabilistic reasoning at his disposal, but it's still wrong. To be intellectually honest, we need to be up-front and open about the moves we're making. Religious people are not like a man claiming to have met an invisible man in a garden: they're like a man with a letter in his hand from that absent friend, reading it in the garden, waiting for them to come back. You can claim that the letter is a forgery, or that the author is dead and is never coming back. Jaynesian probability theory tells us that if you entertain a variety of alternative hypotheses, you can get trapped in a state where you never accept an unlikely proposition, whether it is true or not. And that's fine. That's your prerogative. But it's also a choice. And choosing not to believe the premises of an argument doesn't make the content or structure of the argument invalid. It just makes it not relevant to you. Like arguments over phlogiston or the luminiferous ether, they're simply no longer relevant. Humans suck at understanding our judgments about logical arguments. We're strongly biased to think arguments are valid if we feel good about the conclusion, and invalid otherwise. If you've internalized Hume, and wrongly exclude the possibility of miracles, any argument about the spiritual feels wrong. But choosing not to believe in the spiritual doesn't make it impossible. Jesus Christ did or did not come back from the dead; He was or was not the Son of God; He is or is not one Person of the divine Trinity, and did or did not inspire the information recorded about Him in the Bible. If all that is true, why, then there may be any number of technical points which need to be worked out, and there's nothing incoherent about asking the question whether one aspect of this God we barely understand has this or that relationship to another aspect, which is equally difficult. Similar debates go on right now in quantum mechanics, where extremely subtle issues about reality and measurement are debated every day, and while they look as abstract and as arcane as any arguments about angels dancing on the head of a pin, they can get cashed out into real experiments. If there is a Judgment Day, discussions of the Trinity will get cashed out into real experiences as well. If not, they won't. If a philosopher, in their heart of hearts, just doesn't find the evidence for the Trinity convincing, I think he can be excused for gracefully bowing out of any of those discussions. But calling those discussions incoherent is wrong, I think it's intellectually dishonest, and it sure feels like lying. I don't know that the people who hold that are actually lying, so I extend the principle of charity: and yet ... If you don't believe, just say you don't believe: don't argue your opponents are incoherent. -the Centaur Pictured: E. T. Jaynes, author of Probability Theory: The Logic of Science.

Coveting is the Least of Your Worries

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watson headshot Coveting is distinctive among the Ten Commandments in that it is a thought crime. For those not familiar with the Ten Commandments, they're a set of guidelines from God in Exodus and Deuteronomy in the Bible. How the guidelines break into "ten" is up for debate, but the rough outline, loosely interpreted, is:
  1. God is the Lord of everything.
  2. Don't have any other Gods.
  3. Don't misuse God's name.
  4. Keep the Sabbath holy.
  5. Honor your parents.
  6. Don't murder people.
  7. Don't commit adultery.
  8. Don't steal things.
  9. Don't lie in court.
  10. Don't covet your neighbor's stuff.
The first command is a statement of God's authority; the second through the ninth are involve some kind of action - making an idol, cursing a blue streak, shopping on Sunday, dressing up like a bat, killing Bruce Wayne's parents, making off with the Lost Ark, telling Tom Cruise he can't handle the truth. But coveting is different. You don't have to physically do anything, like take your neighbor's nice new car: you just need to think about it. Jesus goes even further in Matthew 5:27-28, suggesting that if you look at a woman with lust, you've committed adultery with her in your heart. Seems harsh, but I've heard priests speculate that God's reasoning behind these challenging passages is that coveting is really bad for you. It's not just that coveting your neighbor's house, spouse or possessions is a gateway to theft or adultery, it's that it puts your brain in a bad state. Coveting is "yearning to possess something": possessions themselves are things which can possess us if we are not careful. But there's nothing wrong with wanting something per se: you can want a soda if you're thirsty, a better car if you're in the rat race, the four walls of your freedom if you're a monk. But coveting someone else's possessions - not wanting a house to keep up with the Joneses, but wanting your neighbor Jones's specific house - is the problem. Coveting the possessions of others puts us in mental conflict with the people around us, which can lead to real conflict. So even though it seems innocuous, coveting is a pitfall which is important enough that God wanted to warn us about it. But in a way, that makes coveting a very obvious pitfall. Unfortunately, coveting is just one of the ways that our human brains can go wrong with regards to our view of the people around us. One of the modern "technologies" that humans have developed for maintaining the health of our minds is cognitive behavior therapy, a collection of experimentally tested cognitive and behavioral psychology techniques, designed to improve our well-being by detecting and correcting bad thought patterns. These "cognitive distortions" can be self-destructive - thoughts like "I'm not good enough" - but they can just as easily be self-serving - "Everything would work out if they'd just listen to me." These self-serving narratives have the advantage of making us feel good about ourselves - but they don't better ourselves. When we interact with other people, a healthy mental response keeps things in perspective. Someone speaks over you in a meeting, which happened to me a lot today; but you recognize that there are simple explanations involving no bad intent (as it turns out, my internet was flaky, and my voice kept cutting out). But when cognitive distortions kick in, simple events like that can get overgeneralized ("This always happens to me"), magnified ("They didn't hear me at all"), can swamp out positives (like forgetting the good stuff) and can lead to catastrophizing ("Everything is going to hell in a handbasket"). These distortions aren't accurate, but they enhance the intensity of the events, worsening our stress levels - but, paradoxically, making it feel a relief when the events are over, giving us a bit of a dopamine hit for surviving the encounter, leading to the distortions growing stronger and stronger. Cognitive distortions can turn into internal narratives, which can turn a momentary event into a years-long obsession. On one volunteer project, our group leader took offense when the previous leader tried to boss me around. I'd barely remember this, if our group leader didn't bring it up every time we talk. Loving your neighbor as yourself is hard. But Jesus also says in Matthew 5:44 that you should love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Jesus clearly meant this to be directed at real enemies, people who've harmed us, but it applies with equal force to people who we just think have harmed us. Loving your enemies is really hard if those enemies exist only in your own mind, because your cognitive distortions will twist anything that they do into something that is evil - like in politics, where partisans disbelieve anything the opposition leader says, even if he's reading the time off of an atomic clock. But learning not to covet is like ... training wheels for eliminating cognitive distortions. It's good and healthy to want a sandwich if you're hungry. It's not so healthy to want someone else's sandwich. Perhaps that won't motivate you to take it. But you might think they got the better deal. Even in something as petty as who gets the best slice of the cake, we can build tiny slights up into a tower of resentments. Techniques such as "one cuts, the other chooses" may be game-theory optimal, but we are rarely in situations where these techniques can always be applied. So the solution starts with us. Don't covet your sister's slice of the cake. Don't resent your coworker's "DAYYMNN" sportscar. (No, really, it is VERY jawdroppingly nice). Don't covet your neighbor's spouse. Learn to distinguish between wanting to improve your situation, and envying the situations of others. Building the cognitive tools we need to avoid self-serving narratives is hard, because each person's mind and situation are unique. Fortunately, we can start with something easier, something both easy to detect and easy to fix, by following the tenth of the Ten Commandments: do not covet your neighbor's stuff. -the Centaur Pictured: John Watson, founder of behaviorism.  

Raise Your Oxen on the Sabbath Day

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raise your oxen Keeping with the Sunday theme of a day of rest, let's keep this short. Jesus once said:
And answered them, saying, Which of you shall have an ass or an ox fallen into a pit, and will not straightway pull him out on the sabbath day? [Luke 14:5]
To help me observe the Sabbath, I attend Mass, perhaps read a section of a religious book, and try to avoid shopping (or even to have groceries / packages arrive on Sunday, if I can). But sometimes errands gotta err. And Jesus points out that the Sabbath was made for us:
And he said unto them, The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath. [Mark 2:27]
And so one way to take your day of rest is to deal with the things which are like your oxen in the well - those things in a metaphorical pit which will keep getting worse unless you make them better. -the Centaur

Suitcase Words and Sloppy Theology

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hofstadter headshot If you're a working scientist - if you work day-to-day in domains not well understood enough to engineer solutions from known principles, if collecting data, generating theories, formulating hypotheses, and testing them are your bread and butter - then religious arguments often seem pretty crappy. It's not that scientists can't make terrible mental gaffes, of course - they're human, like everyone else. But there's a certain mental discipline necessary for doing real science well which surpasses even the rigor expected in the philosophical and rationalist communities. We just don't know as much as we like. And while some theology, regardless of whether you buy the premises, is based on solid argument - even though he lacked modern tools of valid argumentation, Aquinas is no slouch - vast swathes of religious thinking is based on a particular kind of garbage: reasoning from analogy. Again, don't get me wrong: analogical reasoning is indispensable. Cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter built his career by demonstrating the power of analogy in thought. At one talk, his host said something like, "We'll join you at coffee hour after we drop Doug's books off at my office slash study." Hofstadter whirled, smiled, and said, "At your office slash study. Beautiful." Beautiful, because his host had illustrated precisely what Hofstadter had shown in his talk: that we use analogy constantly in our day to day reasoning, case in point: an office slash study is a place used for work and to store books. Everyone knew what he meant, and that's the beauty of the analogy. But just because we understand his off-the-cuff comment doesn't mean it's a meaningful foundation for a science of "office slash studies" - it was a convenience category, useful for calling something out, not for drawing firm conclusions. Unfortunately, Christian "apologetics" leans heavily on analogies. In God in the Dock, C. S. Lewis said that Islam is the greatest of the Christian heresies, and all that's best in Judaism survives in Christianity. Well, that's cute, and it may even make you think, but it's bunk if you know the histories of the religions. All too often, Christians use analogies about Jesus, their faith, and the world to argue for one point or the other - but then go beyond it to act as if those analogies were real. This is how Augustine got in the trap of arguing for forced conversions for "pastoral" reasons, forgetting about the real people being abused. One such analogy is behind the idea that "food dulls the soul." This is a relatively obscure theological point, I admit - as J. K. Rowling might say, we're pretty deep in wand lore here - but it illuminates both the positive value of this kind of reasoning and the pitfalls inherent in this kind of imprecise reasoning. "Food dulls the soul" is a concept - from Lewis or Miller, elaborated by a local priest - that if you find yourself backsliding into a sin you thought you'd conquered, check your diet over the last twenty-four hours: it's likely that you had a big, hearty - dare I say gluttonous - meal which softened you up. The general idea is that the Devil assails a poorly defended point - it's easy to accidentally overeat - before attempting deeper corruption. The proposed theological mechanism is that "food dulls the soul" - focusing you on your body, detaching you from your spiritual connection, making it easier to sin. I've observed this. The overall phenomenon is real. The explanation even has a grain of truith in it. But as stated, the explanation is garbage. True-sounding garbage: the precise phrase would be specious bullshit, statements that sound true but which are simply made up to suit the author's purpose. For the soul is the form of the body. At very the least, it's an eternal Einsteinian record of every event that ever happened to you in the mind of God, and at the most, it's an eternal, indestructible spiritual essence under the total control of the Supreme Being of the Universe. The soul is the form of the body. You can't separate it from the body. You can't be born without it, or sell it to the Devil, or cut it away with a subtle knife. If you hop in the transporter, or get transported to the grid, your soul will go with you, no matter how convoluted the episode. Commander Data would have one. And so: you can't "dull" the soul. That would be like wearing out the number five: it's not even wrong, it's incoherent. And yet, something rings quite true about this idea - to the point that I recognized the immediately. What gives, then? This is a problem well known to artificial intelligence researchers: "Soul" is a suitcase word. In The Emotion Machine, Marvin Minsky defines "suitcase words" as words with a whole cluster of meanings we carry around like a suitcase. My favorite is "consciousness," which packs in attention (I was conscious of the noise) to wakefulness (I lost consciousness) to sensation (conscious experience). When that priest discussed "food dulling the soul," he was engaged in a bit of sloppy theology to convey a subtle idea. The soul should be reserved for the theological soul - which has a precise definition to keep us out of trouble - but it's a stand-in for our intellects, our hearts, our spirits, our state of grace. The theological soul itself can't be dulled, but we humans as rational animals can get in a very animal state, where we are focused on this world to the exclusion of the next. Our rationality become reactive; our spiritual senses can get dulled; our actions are in touch with our bodies, not our spirits. Whether the Devil literally exists or not, whether we are tempted by spiritual forces of evil or whether we're simply vulnerable to engaging in locally greedy policies rather than appropriately delaying gratification to gather greater reward, we can get in a mode where we're self-satisfied. And when we do - when we overfeed our bellies, or underfeed our spirits - that's when we are vulnerable to falling into deeper problems. Like the "office slash study" where Hofstadter's books got dropped off, "food dulls the soul" is an analogy, a stand-in for a whole cluster of related ideas. Much of Christian apologetics and spiritual advice falls into this category. Specious bullshit is too unkind for this kind of analogical reasoning when it is used in its proper fashion: as a roadmap. This kind of theology is technically untrue, but may be useful, guiding us in the general direction of the good. Feynman once said "the sole test of any idea is experiment". But is it? Astronomers might disagree. Even though telescopes put on space probes are called "experiments", they aren't: they are instruments for gathering observations. Astronomy is an (almost) purely observational science. But even though it isn't strictly true as stated, Feynman's maxim is nevertheless useful - a bright, clearly visible sign that can guide us away from deadend a priori thought-mazes and towards evidence-grounded a posteriori theories which are falsifiable. The same can be said of many theological maxims. Food may not technically dull the soul, but it can get you into trouble. Islam isn't a Christian heresy and Judaism isn't contained within Christianity, but the faiths do exist in a relationship which is fruitful for Christian thinkers to seriously consider. But, while they may be useful, these maxims aren't literally true. So be careful with the theology you encounter. It may be a useful crutch for your thinking, but don't swallow it whole or try to build castles atop of it. At best it will leave a bad taste in your mouth, at worst buried in a pile of sand. That last bit isn't true either, but hopefully you get something out of what I mean. -the Centaur Pictured: Douglas Hofstadter.

Truth and Holiness

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  darwin headshot Back in the day, I had both a "Jesus fish" and a "Darwin fish" on the back of my car (as I recall, it was an Isuzu Rodeo, a nice car but nowhere near as reliable as my beloved Nissan Pathfinder or my seemingly unkillable Toyota Prius). I also had a "Cthulhu fish" fridge magnet which I had as a joke. But I wouldn't have put a Cthulhu bumper sticker on my car, because the school of fish on that bumper were not a joke (though I admit I enjoyed the smidge of irony) but instead represented a sincere advertisement of my beliefs - and while it's a fun story, Cthulhu doesn't cut that mustard. You're reading a Lenten series, so I hope it's apparent that I'm a Christian; during this series, I mentioned that once I thought of becoming an evolutionary biologist. To some Christians, these things seem hard to fit together, as many Christians are dead set on sticking to the cosmology of the Hebrews. But the stories told in Genesis are wrong, at least as cosmology, geology, biology or history. The meaning behind the misleading Catholic term "myth" for some stories in the Bible is that stories are inspired by God and teach important truths, even if they aren't precisely accurate histories. Despite some people's attempts to treat the Bible as a fax from God, our understanding of God has progressed since the books of the Bible were written by their authors, collated by early Christians, and ultimately approved by the early Catholic Church. For example, the Trinity - the notion that the one (1) God manifests in three distinct "persons", Father, Son and Holy Ghost - doesn't appear directly in the Bible; we developed that understanding over time. But it's the most important Christian doctrine. You can't understand Jesus as the Son of God without it. On the other hand, other ideas we have discarded. Even within the Bible, we see debates between sincere believers, such as the rejection of Jewish dietary rules for Gentiles in Acts of the Apostles. Doctrines like the divine right of kings and the proper treatment of slaves have been abandoned. Now, science is familiar with this process. Some scientific ideas were bad from the get-go. The Earth was never at the center of the universe, matter isn't composed of four elements, and the motion of projectiles can't be explained by an "impulse" that slowly runs out: these ideas were never right. Other ideas - like the Earth being round, matter being made of atoms, or light being made of waves or particles - started off right. Now, Earth isn't perfectly round, and atoms aren't perfectly indivisible, and tiny things are weirdly both waves and particles - but these ideas were on the right track from the beginning. There's very little that science can "prove" to be true. All science is based on observation, generalization and experiment, and new experiments could show nuances that could force us to throw out our ideas - the technical term for this is "defeasible" reasoning - likely outcomes which might be true. This is a natural outcome of the probabilistic reasoning that underlies most of our formal reasoning apparatus (and might even explain some of the inner guts of cognition as well): unless something is absolutely certain, conclusions founded on it can't be absolutely certain. The best you can hope for, as far as proofs go, is to develop theorems of broad applicability. Physicists argue from symmetries, which enable vast regions of deduction from very few premises. Computer scientists use the theory of computation, which applies to a broad category of possible universes. But, between our observations, our generalizations, our experiments, our theories, and our theorems, science has come up with a few things we can count on - the Earth is round, matter is made of atoms, and at the speed and scale experienced by humans, the Newtonian approximation to mechanics. Science doesn't have definitive truths, but it is an engine for seeking it - for expanding the regions we think are probable and discarding the ideas which contradict experiment or each other. "The sole test of any idea open to observation is experiment" is the best tool we have for reaching truth - in any area. That's why I put the Darwin fish with its cute little feet on my car: to represent the search for truth. But science is not enough. Science, by itself, is amoral: it can tell us what exists in the world, but it can't tell us what to do with it. That's where ethics, morals, religion and spirituality come in. You can go far without invoking the supernatural. Philosophers argue that you can't go from an "is" to an "ought" - to argue from what exists to what to do about it - but this isn't quite true. Ayn Rand points out ethics are judgments about what's good for human beings, so we're not free to pick any ethics we like. But as we discussed earlier, no individual human being experiences enough to make accurate ethical judgments on their own - nor are we guaranteed that our society has experienced enough to make our ethics accurate either. And if there really is an afterlife or a spiritual realm, experience won't cut it. If there is a God, then we rely on Him to inform us about the spiritual dimension of the universe which either exist in the afterlife we haven't yet reached or are part of the cosmic nature of the universe which we don't have the stature to grasp. And this information - this Revelation - is therefore special. This is the reason early Jews and Christians wrote down their experiences, and the reason the early Church collated it and preserved it. It's the reason fundamentalists treat the Bible as literally true, and the reason I treat the Bible as primary source material. Ethics come from the spiritual dimension of the universe, and are ultimately holy. What we should do is determined by what is - and who - is behind it. Choosing the right action isn't just a good idea: it's seeking holiness - it's choosing to follow God. And that's why the Jesus fish was on my bumper. I say "truth and holiness" - with the truth first - because truth must come first. I don't believe in Jesus because I think He's holy; I think He's holy because I believe the stories about him are true. And while parts of the Bible that are myth, to me the Gospels (and Acts) are my primary source about Jesus. But once you understand the truth, you need to decide what to do about it. And like the cosmology of the Bible was modified by on our current understanding, there are principles in the Bible that have needed refinement as we learn more about the world. But it's important to start there, every time. Truth, and holiness: first find out what's true, then try to do the right thing, treating the good as sacred. -the Centaur Pictured: Chuck D.