Monday, November 29, 2010

A few sweet blogs

There are a lot of really terrible blogs out there, but there are also a few good ones. Here are a few of the ones I frequent:

Frontal Cortex
This is Jonah Lehrer's blog (the author of How We Decide and Proust Was a Neuroscientist). Every post so far has been very enlightening, well written, and well researched. This is probably the only blog where I make a serious effort to read every post.

Mind Hacks
This one publishes a lot of posts so I have a hard time keeping up. Still, the posts are short and generally very interesting. Its main thread of interest is the mind, and topics generally touch on the ideas of consciousness, psychology, illusion, and awareness. I think I discovered this one via Lehrer's blog, but I'm not sure.

Science of the big bang
I just found this one today. I am doing a bit of research on nuclear reactor technology and ran across this classic text by Glasstone on reactor design. When I did a Google search on him, I found this blog (Glasstone is dead, but this guy must have liked his work, hence the url). The very first post dives into climate skepticism, cold war propaganda and the arms race, and the un-provable nature of string theory. I'll probably be pulling information from this blog in future posts.

Not technically a blog but rather a website with articles that analyze popular trends using statistics. A lot of popular conception is debunked, which is basically my criteria for good reading, so this one is fun.

The Economist -- Science
Most of the articles I have read in the Economist have been very well done. The topics are also usually relevant and objective, and the science section is particularly interesting for me. One problem is that you can only access a small number of articles before you reach your quota for free access. This will be one the one publication I'll almost certainly get in print later on in life.

The Big Picture
Since most news is pretty boring, I use this as my substitute. This site provides a chronology of current major world events through pictures. From natural disasters to political gatherings, it covers it all in brilliant photographs.

I like cars, and I especially like to follow the technological innovations going into new car designs. This Wired blog does a great job of covering this side of the business. For reviews of production cars, is a great free source that allows you to get all the info you want without purchasing one of those shiny (and expensive) car magazines.

American Enterprise Institute - Energy and the environment
Energy and the environment does not seem to have a section on the AEI website, but it is one of the RSS feeds available. AEI is a conservative think tank, and most of the writers seem to be libertarians. AEI is fairly similar to the Cato Institute and the Ludwig von Mises Institute in this way, but the articles from AEI come less frequently and are more put together than the blog posts from Mises, and they are less political than the stuff at Cato. One nice thing about AEI is they tie in economics, business, and government fairly well. There is a bias toward conservative views in all three of the sources I mentioned here. I realize all media is going to have biases, but I'll occasionally try to augment these with articles from the New York Times to get a little more balance in view.

Harvard Business Review
This is another blog that will overwhelm you with posts if you try to read all of them. The posts cover a wide range of very MBA-ish topics like leadership, management, etc. In my opnion, a lot of this stuff is not very useful, but it does help you develop the lingo needed to communicate with MBA types. Also, there is the occasional article that will inspire you with a great story or share an interesting tidbit of knowledge.

As a bonus, here are two great links my father shared with me. These are interactive maps that allow you to view interesting data on different places in the USA:
1 - Forbes migration map
2 - Measure of America Map

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Literalism and scripture

Any mention of a reading of scripture that does not take the Bible literally amounts to heresy in most evangelical congregations. Conversely, most of the non-Christian community assumes that any self-respecting Christian would never give a second thought to anything the Bible says -- we absorb and retain, but do not question. We are sheep, and proud of it.

Yes, you say, and rightly so. God calls us sheep, so we best act the part. Still, I have to ask, is this something to aspire to? This depends on what God means when He calls us His sheep: is it a good thing or a bad thing? Any short amount of time spent with sheep should help to clear this up. Although I have not had the privilege of spending any significant amount of time around them, my friends who have have all reached a unanimous conclusion: being called a sheep is not a compliment. They are incredibly stupid animals and God was surely aware of that when He called us sheep.

What does this mean? Perhaps it means context matters. To me it is fairly clear that God calls us sheep to make us aware of our shortcomings, not to give us a model to aspire to. This leads into the main point of this positing, which is context. Our struggles with Biblical literalism can be viewed as but a small battle in our larger war with context. Also, since God called us out on our sheepishness (meaning here stupidity rather than timidity, although I for one certainly have an excess of both), perhaps we could do a little better utilize our thinking faculties, and where's a better place to start than in trying to understand what God is saying? Even though the Bible teaches us that the world will probably never really see us as geniuses, perhaps we can do a better job of coming across a little more intelligently to the secular population as well.

There is a lot I feel like I could write about this (the general idea of thinking and being a Christian), but in the spirit of concision, I'll try to stick to my main topic of Biblical literalism. In particular, I'll look at three pieces by Tim Keller. Up until recently I had not read or listened to anything by Keller, but I had several friends who brought him up frequently and I've also done two Bible studies using materials he produced, so I figured it was about time. In response to the completely reasonable objection that three pieces by the same person may not provide a very well rounded view of a topic, I have to say I agree. Fortunately, I have thought about this before and read and listened to others' opinions on this topic, so I have a few diverse viewpoints to contrast which I hope will make the conversation more interesting.

I'll go through the pieces in order of ascending interest and applicability, so if you are only interested in skimming the best part, skip to the end, but I'll try to keep the less interesting parts brief.

Sermon: "Literalism: Isn't the Bible historically unreliable and regressive?"
Strangely enough, the sermon with the title that seemed closest to the topic was the least interesting and least applicable (at least for me). This sermon seemed a lot like a lot of rehashing of information from Lee Strobel's book The Case for Christ. In the first half his arguments deal mostly with the trustworthiness of New Testament information. He presents ideas such as:
  • The gospel accounts were written in the style of a historical narrative. Nothing akin to our modern conception of the novel existed back then, so it's fairly clear that this is nonfiction.
  • If the gospel is propaganda, it's pretty poor propaganda. Especially using women as the first witnesses of the risen Christ is a bad call because women were so low in the social strata that their testimony wasn't even allowed in court.
  • Letters to the churches mention that people who had been with Christ and seen certain events were still alive and they could be consulted about the historical accuracy of the gospel accounts. This would have been a pretty counter productive thing to write if what he was writing about had not happened.
In the second half of the sermon Keller talks about barriers to faith. These include our natural assumption of moral superiority in our own culture (also dealt with by a different author in a very cool way here) and our misunderstanding of scripture (he mentions the idea that many people thinks the Bible condones slavery, which is not really the case). In my opinion the main idea of this sermon is that trust in what the Bible says is important, and if you find yourself doubting scripture, you should check your facts and premises.

Sermon: "Evolution and Science"
This sermon (which interestingly was delivered in New York the day before the September 11th attacks) was a bit more of what I was looking for. Instead of finding evidence to support what we already culturally (as Christians) believe to be true, this sermon talks a bit about how the Bible is completely congruous with unconventional (i.e., non-conservative) beliefs. As a side note, if you chose to listen to this one, he doesn't really start getting into it until the 7 minute mark, so you may want to skip to there.

I'll start with what many may consider to be the punchline of the sermon: Keller does not believe in a "young earth" or a literal 6 day creation. I'll let that soak in. For those of you who were raised in conservative evangelical congregations, this probably means that you would usually disregard anything else he said as the Godless ramblings of a Bible-bashing heretic. But if you're reading this, hopefully you're in an accepting mood and you'll be willing to hear him out.

First of all, Keller covers a few other topics before he gets there. He talks about the cultural shift toward the acceptance of miracles and uses the decline of positivist philosophy (the idea that only the measured can be true) and the introduction of quantum mechanics (one of the postulates of which is that you can't predict how things are going to happen) to explain this shift. Although his description of the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics is not really accurate, he does a decent job with this part of the sermon.

In a particularly interesting aside, Keller mentions that facts alone do not generally lead to someone coming to the faith. Even people like Lee Strobel and C.S. Lewis, who many view as coming to Christ through very intellectual routes, admit that they were drawn by something beyond fact to acceptance of Christ. Keller states that "rational, psychological, and social factors" all combine to lead to conversion. This implies that a belief that having all the facts would make you the perfect witness is really unfounded. I think this is an important thing to keep in mind when having conversations with people with significant religious doubts.

In the last bit of the sermon Keller talks a bit about Genesis 1 and 2. He mentions the fact that a lot of non-Christians are quick to reject Christianity because they can't bring themselves to adopt a system of belief that denies that evolution happened (and it still happening!). He goes quickly over Genesis 1 and 2, mentioning how even the Roman Catholic Church backs the idea of micro evolution, and how the passages are unclear about how exactly creation proceeded. He then states that the arguments with non-Christians about the literal meaning of creationism really don't need to happen: it's possible to believe in God and not be a creationist, and he is an example of this. Instead of going more over his arguments for this here (which are pretty sparse anyway), I will move on to the final piece where he does a better job of explaining this.

White Paper: Creation, Evolution, and Christian Lay-People
This work doesn't have a date on it, but it seems to have been written after 2009 because it cites a few works from that year. This means it was written about 8 years after the previous sermon, and Keller seems to have grown even more accepting of the idea of macro evolution. In the essay he answers 4 main questions:
  1. What implication does a non-literal reading of Genesis 1 and 2 have for Biblical authority?
  2. If evolution happened, doesn't that change our worldview?
  3. If creation is not a literal 6 day deal, what about Adam and Eve? Were they real or just a metaphor?
  4. If God used evolution, how could there have been a "fall" because there would have been death and suffering in the world before sin?
I really don't have much to add to his response to the first point. He brings in ideas from people from several different specialties to explain why we can read Genesis 1 figuratively and not toss all of Biblical authority in doing so. He covers the idea of literary form in detail. If there is only one excerpt you are going to read through all of this, make it this first section of this paper.

For his second point, he discusses the difference between believing in macro-evolution and what he refers to as the "Grand Theory of Evolution" (GTE) espoused by modern atheist intellectuals such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris. He says that believing in evolution may be o.k., but making it your framework for understanding everything is not. His writing in this section is not very clear, and I was at times not sure if he really understood what he was fighting against. Having taken a great course on evolution, creationism, and the meaning of life with this guy, I feel like I can say with a good deal of confidence that you don't have to accept GTE even if you are an believer in the big bang and macro-evolution. The main idea to consider is whether God made evolution or evolution made God. If you believe the first you're on solid ground; if you believe the second you've probably been persuaded by GTE arguments.

With my criticism of Keller's clarity aside, I do like what he has to say about the attitudes of the "new atheists," as he calls them. He states that:
"[GTE] is fast becoming ... a ‘plausibility structure’. It is a set of beliefs considered so basic, and with so much support from authoritative figures and institutions, that it is becoming impossible for individuals to publicly question them. ... The disdain and refusal to show any respect to opponents is not actually an effort to refute them logically, but to ostracize them socially and turn their own views into a plausibility structure."
If you have read any of the stuff I've written on the global warming consensus, you will understand that there is no love lost between me and the "plausibility structure", and I'm glad that Keller pointed this out.

I have one main problem with this section, and that is where Keller states:
"Another very important area where we must ‘push back’ against GTE is in its efforts to explain away moral intuitions." Although he may mean well, this statement could easily be interpreted as saying that we should "resist the attempts of the world to understand our moral tendencies in light of our biological and social past." I think this is a rather immature response. God can certainly hold up to our inquiries, and I personally wonder if God could not have used evolution to bring about a world in which His form of morality is the most perfectly functioning form? If He used evolution to create us, could he not also use it to bring about the forces that guide us to Him and the path of righteousness?

The final two sections of Keller's paper run together for me. In the third section, he goes over some problems related to the historicity of Adam and Eve. He states that this section probably gives him the most trouble because several later Biblical authors refer to Adam as if he were a real person, and the evidence seems too great to reject. But then again, many of these passages can be honestly interpreted in other ways that don't make this necessary. He goes over several theories for what the Adam and Eve really looked like, with these varying from the idea that Adam was an evolved primate who God endowed with a soul to the idea that the whole Adam and Eve thing is just a metaphor to explain how we rejected God as we evolved our higher functions and a capability to exercise free will. Some of these theories do a good job of explaining where Cain found a wife and why he was scared of people killing him.

In my humble opinion, the reoccuring genealogies suggest pretty strongly that Adam and Eve were real, but I don't think that they were the sole source of humanity and I do think God probably used evolution to make them. Paul states that sin entered the world through one man (Adam), but it is not clear (to me at least) why this is. Perhaps God did create him from scratch. There's nothing wrong with that, but God often seems to be more subtle than that. If He did use evolution to make Adam and Eve, perhaps they were the first thinking beings to consciously disobey God. There are many ways it could have played out, so I think this should be something people are willing to share and talk about in the Church.

The final section (the fourth), is, as I said before, just an extension of the third. It deals with how sin came into the world. If evolution was God's method of biological creation, how did evolution function without death, suffering, etc. -- the very things that were supposed to be withheld from us before original sin? To explain this Keller introduces a little classical theology. He states:
"Traditional theology has never believed that humanity and the world in Genesis 2-3 was in a glorified, perfect state. Augustine taught that Adam and Eve were posse non peccare (able not to sin) but they fell into the state of non posse non peccare (not able not to sin)."
So for hundreds of years (read: since before Darwin) theology has held this view, and accepting evolution does nothing to distort it. Of course just because the argument has been around for a long time doesn't make it good, but this way of thinking about things does seem to line up with the scriptures so it will probably become by default way of thinking about things until I hear a more impressive argument somewhere else.

That's the end of the last article. Through all thins, I think we've seen a few things from Keller:
  1. You can be evangelical and think.
  2. You can be a Christian and believe in evolution.
  3. There are other thinking people out there how have thought about these things. You should make an effort to seek them out and read what they have to say.
  4. It's o.k. to disagree on theological issues. Even though absolute truth most certainly exists, our understanding of it now is not perfect, and castigating fellow believers for their willingness to question establishment and seek God outside of our common perceptions of Him is not at all edifying.
To wrap all this up, I would like to mention another application for this topic. This is in reading the book of Revelation. I think that their are a great deal of people who expect to see literal dragons and literal multi-colored horses and literal bitter stars falling as signs of the end of the world. Perhaps God will do it this way, and if He does, I'll find nothing wrong with that. Still, if you look at how past prophecies were interpreted you notice two consistent themes: things don't happen when people expect, and things don't happen the way people expect. Consider the coming of Christ. Even though the scriptures all talked about Him and there were many signs and prophecies of His coming, He was still completely missed by the most knowledgeable scripture scholars of His day. If they (how had all the Old Testament books memorized, by the way) couldn't fully understand prophesy, what makes us think it is so straightforward? This doesn't mean we shouldn't read Revelations or think about and discuss it, but we have to realize that without God's guidance we'll be hit by that falling start before we even know it's coming.

Keep this in mind and always check that you're reading the scriptures with an open mind and spirit, as well a as good bit of humility.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Oh that chemical? I wouldn't worry about it.

It seems that today one of the favorite topics on shows like 20-20 and 60 minutes is "chemicals". The shows examine things like why BPA will kill you and why nuclear waste will kill everybody.

There are a few reasons why these shows work so well. Firstly, the average person doesn't know much about chemistry. Most people didn't like chemistry when they took it. It's a fairly difficult subject, and there is less logic in it than mathematics and it is less intuitive than the physics you usually learn in high school. Another reason is that unnatural chemicals are all around us. They're relevant.

I'm definitely not going to say that all of these reports are blown way out of control, I just want to point out that, as I have mentioned before, you shouldn't believe everything you hear, even if it's from "experts." As a few examples, consider the books Silent Spring and Slow Death by Rubber Duck. (As a disclaimer, I haven't read either book in it's entirety, only selections from each and both laudatory and critical commentary.)

Silent Spring was written largely as an attack on the use of DDT, which the author claimed was resulting in the near extinction of many animal species. Her book was a very large part of the decision by many countries to ban the use of DDT. In the developing world, the abrupt halt in DDT application resulted in thousands of malaria related deaths that would have been easily prevented had DDT continued to be used. Even if DDT was just as bad as they claimed it was, this would have been an awful decision, but as it turns out DDT doesn't seem to be nearly as bad for you as was originally claimed. Still, it sounds scary and people don't understand it, so, as usual, political policy trumps good public health policies.

Slow Death by Rubber Duck is a similar type of book. It discusses all of the things that you encounter everyday that contain chemicals that can kill you. Although several selections from the book bother me a bit (it bothered another group of people so badly they named a "bad science" award after the book), one is the section where the authors talk about the amount of BPA they find in their bloodstream after a week of self experimentation. I think this article does an excellent job of pointing out the key problem: yeah, levels of the chemical went up, but the levels were so small that it is very unrealistic to expect it to be causing a problem. In addition, just as with DDT, BPA doesn't seem to be as bad as it's made out to be. The results of studies on the health effects of BPA are so inconclusive that even the EFSA (the European version of the EPA) thinks it's silly to regulate it.

It seems that these types of problems in accounting for health effects pop up all over the place. In a recent article on one of my favorite websites,, there is a discussion about attempts by government policy makers to use models relating vice-taxes and health to decide how much of a health benefit would come from a certain tax on alcohol. The article does an excellent job of pointing out the main flaws in the model. I thought this example was particularly interesting because in a recent posting I presented an article that discussed why alcohol may be good for you. Combining this and the criticism of the author, the model used to predict health effects could likely be qualitatively wrong, meaning that the actual result would be overall worse health instead of improved health for certain levels of tax.

To wrap up, I want to present on last argument, and this is the subject of using LD-50 data to predict fatality rates from a chemical release. I think Alan Waltar did an excellent job of covering the problem with this in his book on nuclear energy, so I will use a modified version of his example here.

Let's assume there is a major chemical spill and arsenic is released. Arsenic is one of the most deadly poisons in the world. The LD50 for arsenic (the amount it takes to kill 50% of subjects exposed) is only 13 mg/kg body weight, so for a fairly average person weighing 80 kg it takes only 1040 mg to have a 50% shot at killing you. Let's say the 80 kg you is exposed to 104 mg of arsenic. What are your chances for survival. A quick bit of math says that it should be around 5%. What about if you were secretly given that 104 mg dose of arsenic for 10 days? It looks like the chance of death is about 50% again.

Well, it looks like, but it's not. To demonstrate how preposterous this is, consider water. Water is, believe it or not, toxic if you have too much of it. As a matter of fact, it's LD-50 has been measured to be 90 ml/kg (for rats, the unfortunate species on which most of these tests are performed). So if you still weigh 80 kg after your encounters with arsenic, it would take 7200 ml to kill you half of the time. Using the same analysis we used for arsenic, you would die 5% of the time whenever you drank 720 ml (about 3 cups) of water. If you kept this up for 10 days, you would have a 50% chance of dying. Actually, you'd probably be pretty dehydrated.

The point of this is to demonstrate why assuming the effects of chemical exposure scale linearly with the exposure amount is not just overly simplified, it's just plain wrong. Things are much more complicated than this, and using accurate measurements that don't apply will result in incorrect conclusions about the danger of certain scenarios. This is one of the reasons why practical options like dumping nuclear waste into deep ocean trenches will always be rejected. It's too easy to come up with a practical sounding and scary argument (and also because of monster movies, which always seem to involve a situation like this...)

To conclude: in the future, remember to be careful, but it's probably not as bad as they say it is.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

New evidence for Lamarkian genetics

When Darwin published the Descent of Man, one of the central revolutionary ideas of his work was that acquired traits were not inherited. On a practical level, this means that if you work very hard to get yourself in good physical shape and improve yourself mentally, your hard work will not bring any benefit to the genome of your children. They will be born the same regardless of your state of health at the time of conception.

This Darwinian genetic model (i.e. only genes matter and you can't change them) was a strong rebuttal to the dominant model of the time, Lamarkian genetics. The Lamarkian model, which assumed the inheritance of acquired characteristics, was dismissed by western cultures by the beginning of the 20th century, but it was used by the Soviet government to plan out their food crops program. The miserable failure of the program was seen as definitive proof that the Darwinian model was correct.

Still, we knew it couldn't be that simple, and since the 1940s a new field called epigenetics has been developing which blends characteristics of the Darwinian and Lamarkian models. Epigenetics is defined on wikipedia as "the study of inherited changes in phenotype (appearance) or gene expression caused by mechanisms other than changes in the underlying DNA sequence ." The basic idea is that genes expression can be modulated (genes can be turned on or off) without actually modifying any DNA.

A great new example of this is a recent study reviewed on Wired which found that diabetic mouse fathers can pass on diabetic traits to their children. For these mice, diabetes was certainly an inherited characteristic, but it was transmitted in a very Lamarkian way. This has profound implications for our society where an unsettling large percentage of people are obese. This study implies that you might now just be hurting yourself, your hurting your kids. In addition, there are the social aspects to consider (the nurture side of the nature vs nurture debate). Even ignoring any genetic changes, a child that grows up in a home with unhealthy eating habits modeled for him or her is most likely going to make similar choices when he or she grows up.

So what are the take home messages here? Firstly, science is great and awesome, but its important to realize that just because a scientist or group of scientists say something doesn't mean it's completely true, or even partially true. If something is important to you, read their work and try to understand their logic. Sometimes its very good, sometimes its not, but the fact that a group of intelligent people think something doesn't mean its correct.

Secondly, take care of your body, both for your sake, and the sake of your kids. If diabetic traits can be passed down, who knows what other genetic goodies you can give your children if you take care of yourself?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Faith and the (un)predictability of God

Tonight I helped lead a Bible study that used one of Tim Keller's guides for looking at the book of Judges. We focused on Judges 3. In this passage, we see a pattern that continues to show up over and over again throughout the Old Testament. The pattern is: Israelites are happy. Israelites forget God. Israelites have trouble. God saves Israelites. Rinse and repeat.

So from this, it seems the big lesson is God's faithfulness. We get into trouble, and God is always going to be there to save us, right? Yes and no. The truth, it seems, always merits a deeper look into things, and the Bible is certainly no exception to this rule. (In fact, it may be most true in this case -- but that's a discussion for another day.)

Certainly, this passage shows us that we are constantly in need of God's grace. But is also shows us that this grace comes in ways we rarely expect. In the passage, the Isrealites are first saved by Othneil. Othneil seems like the "sensible" choice. He is a man the community can admire just because of who he is, and he transitions into a leadership easily once God places His spirit upon Him. Othneil leads Israel to whoop up on their captors in open battle. O.k., nothing too special here. The Isaelites just needed a little help getting started, and they seemed perfectly capable of taking care of the rest.

In the next cycle, God raises up Ehud to save Israel. Ehud is described as"left-handed" in the text, which doesn't seem very special to us. But Tim Keller states that the way the verse is phrased seems to indicate that this person was not just left handed, but that his right hand was somehow damaged. I am not a Hebrew scholar so there would be little point for me to investigate the original text to see if this is true (I actually found this article that had a bit of a different take on this), but I can see why this could make sense. In many eastern societies the left hand is considered dirty. Often it was (and still is) used to wipe oneself after defecating. Knowing this, the people really tried to use the right hand for everything else, because the left hand was just plain dirty. If Ehud chose to use his left hand, I'm sure this was not a choice he made lightly out of some minor convenience. He probably did it because the right hand was just non-functional.

So, we have this guy Ehud who was possibly deformed and probably looked down upon as unclean because he had to use his poop hand for everyday activities. Not a good start. What God does with him doesn't really improve the situation. Ehud deceives the king of the conglomerate of nations ruling over the Israelites and assassinates him. When I first read this my first thought was: "well that's not very honorable." Even in modern warfare, engaging the enemy in open battle is seen as honorable, but tactics like utilizing snipes, spies, and assassins is looked down upon as "second class warfare." Why did God chose such a strange path to save Israel?

The question gets more obvious as the book of Judges continues past chapter 3. We see Deborah, a woman, raised up a a Judge. Later we see Gideon, a serious doubter and a person of little significance. Even further on we see Samson, a womanizer. Why would God use these people? The answer is given in a very beautiful way in 1 Corinthians 1:27-29. God does this so no one may boast, that God may get the glory instead of the individual.

So what does this tell us about how God acts in general? Well, first of all, He's complicated. If you think you have God figured out, what you're worshiping is probably not God, but some picture of Him that you have manufactured to make yourself feel comfortable. God is not something we can wrap our minds around. The book of Job does well summing this up.

If this is true, how do we balance our belief in God's faithfulness with our knowledge that we cannot fully understand Him? God says He is faithful and consistent, but He seems most consistent in doing things we don't expect. We are told our sins are paid for, yet we are told that we should expect suffering. We are told that we should follow the 10 commandments, yet Christ reveals that God's view of morality is actually quite a bit more complex than that. How do we maintain faith in such a complex God who we can't understand or predict?

This question brings us back to where we started, in Judges. We are told over and over again that the Israelites "forgot" their God. Does this mean that in one short generation any memory of God vanished from the collective mind of Jewish society? Doubtful. More likely, the Israelites forgot about who God is. Maybe they remembered what He had done, but their vision of God narrowed as they fell further away from Him. They constructed a comfortable vision of God based on His past actions, failing to maintain the fearful uncertainty commanded by an eternal God wholly beyond their comprehension. Such an understanding is the beginning of true faith.

I have come to see that maintaining faith in God is a balance between remembering His past faithfulness and expecting the unexpected from Him, remembering God is capable of acting in ways you will not be able to fully expect or comprehend and having absolute respect for His sovereignty in this decision. I hope God's unpredictability in your life is a reminder for you of the fact that the your life in controlled by a sovereign God who chooses the weak, the foolish, and the depraved to carry out His plan for drawing His creation back to Himself, so that He may receive all the glory on the day this plan is fulfilled. To God be the glory!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Article Dump - 10-18-2010

Since part of the point of starting this blog was to locate and disseminate interesting articles to anybody who may be interested, this posting will be mostly just a list of interesting articles I have read, with maybe a few thoughts about them.

The Gospel of Wealth - David Brooks
I read his book "On Paradise Drive" a few weeks ago, and topics from that book have come up several times in conversation since then. I originally read his book because Ravi Zacharias (see his sermons online) mentioned him during one of his sermons on materialism. The books was very funny in some parts and very revealing in others. Brooks seems to be criticized consistently because he is a bit of a pseudo-scientist. He has a lot of cool ideas but he doesn't have a lot of facts to back them up. Regardless, I enjoy reading what he writes. I think he has a lot of good ideas and I like the way he expresses them. In this article his trademark sarcasm comes across in his discussion of America's obsession with headroom, and he also mentions a book by a mega-church pastor that actually looks like it's worth reading. You can see a short video about the book here.

Intelligent Individuals Don’t Make Groups Smarter - Wired Blog (Brandon Keim)
This article talks about research on the subject of collective mind intelligence. The basic question is "what individual traits allow people to work well together in groups?" Interestingly, the article finds that individual intelligence has little to do with the ability of a group to perform.
As a side note, when I was reading this I was thinking somewhat about my "theory" that the intelligence of a mob is inversely proportional to its size. A group of people can make decisions that no individual in their right mind would ever make. This research that shows that individual intelligence matters very little is a first step toward showing this to be a viable theory...

In Climate Denial, Again - NYT
Climate change is something that I have really tried to keep myself informed on. I don't claim to be an expert, but I have been a part of research on modeling alternative energy systems, I go to many seminars and lectures on engineering approaches to new energy sources, I read many articles and books on the subject, I actually saw Al Gore give his talk on global warming, and I even published a review paper on applications of certain materials to carbon dioxide capture and storage. Even with all this, I have to say that global warming may or may not be a problem. Yeah, I know -- not a very exciting conclusion.
But I'm not alone. I actually am in company with many other scientists I have conversed with, and with somebody named Bjorn Lomberg. Bjorn is an economist who is famous (or perhaps infamous) for his book The Skeptical Environmentalist, which discusses a lot of evidence that raises doubt on the legitimacy of the global warming debate. His most important point, however, is that focusing on global warming just does not make economic sense right now. You can see a great video of one of his talks on why global warming should not be our highest priority here.
Having read all this, I get a little frustrated when people use the word "skeptic" like a slur, and hang all other who don't want to do "whatever it takes" to stop global warming on the cross of "denialism."
This is a complex topic. Top scientists at top institutions do not agree on how data is modeled, and and even on whether the earth is heating up or cooling down. For example, Prof. Lindzen at MIT has proposed a theory about feedback systems in climate called the Infrared Iris Effect. Check out the wikipedia article for a taste of just how certain people are about this theory. I worked with another scientist who models the effects of clouds in climate. The uncertainty associated with clouds is so large that a small variation could drown out all other effects in nearly any climate model.
So, if you want to read this article and get a taste for why the discussion never goes anywhere (i.e. misinformed and emotional accusations and labeling) go right ahead. Realize, though, that you probably won't learn anything new about global warming. However, if you are interested in reading about the sometimes extreme tactics used by environmentalists to advance their cause in a rather entertaining form, check out the book State of Fear (granted, it's not scientifically rigorous but it's a good start). Or, if you'd rather watch a video, check out Penn and Teller's take on things. Just remember that anyone who claims to have it all figured out probably has no idea what's going on.

Nuclear fuel report challenges key assumptions - From MIT
Earlier this year I read the book America the Powerless, which is a very pro-nuclear book that discusses all the benefits of nuclear energy, why it fell out of favor, basic fuel cycles, readiation health hazards, etc. This book also discussed how breeder reactors and the thorium cycle could together lead to a supply of nuclear energy that was well beyond even that available from coal (for which we have a multi-hundred year supply). After reading that book and also recently reading a great article in Science about nuclear energy, this was really not a big surprise. Still, I thought it was nice that MIT agrees, because when they say it's o.k. people tend to listen. Hopefully we'll make a shift toward this very clean, safe, environmentally friendly, and inexpensive form of energy soon.

Why Alcohol is Good For You
This is the first of what will probably be many articles from Jonah Lehrer, the author of How we Decide and Proust was a Neuroscientist. Although I haven't read either of his books yet, his articles are similar in style to those from Malcom Gladwell (meaning they're pretty awesome).
This article talks about the upsides and downsides to drinking alcohol. This one goes beyond the traditional arguments about a glass of red wine being good for you and discusses a study that examined how drinking in general effects your life expectancy. It is found that drinking makes you live longer, even when alcoholics are included in the data. Lehrer goes through several reasons why this could be the case in his article, but I want to focus on one in particular -- the idea that people who drink are happier because of the calming effect of the alcohol and it's ability to relieve stress. Stress is very damaging to the body, so I think this is a good point.
So my next thought was whether this could be extended to smoking. Could smoking, in some circumstances, actually be a beneficial activity? Perhaps there is a healthy balance of using smoking to relieve stress but not smoking so much to give yourself a sure shot at emphysema. In this case the adage "all things in moderation" rings especially true.

The articles above were the ones I found most interesting, but the ones below weren't too bad either, so I included themas well.

Rare and Foolish - Paul Krugman
This article discusses China's willingness to use economic power to achieve political ends. The view he takes is that the U.S. government should have done a better job of protecting America's ability to mine rare earth metals. My thought is this: would China's attempts to use economics in politics be effective if American government wasn't so tied to industry, or the industry so tied to government? I sure don't think so.

Tales of the Tea Party - NYT
In this article the author discusses the tea party movement and why it just doesn't seem to go away, and especially why efforts of a largely liberal media to discount the movement are falling flat. Since I identify largely with libertarian ideals, I have tried to educate myself on some of the principles of the tea party. It's good to see that the crazy ones are not messing things up too much for the rest of the tea party members who are actually pretty reasonable and, in my opinion, have some pretty good ideas.

I hope that was informative. Article dumps like this should occur every few weeks, whenever I get tired of research for a day and feel a desire to visit my RSS feeds and learn something new.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Faith and action, caring and acceptance

"One must not think slightingly of the paradoxical…for the paradox is the source of the thinker’s passion, and the thinker without a paradox is like a lover without feeling: a paltry mediocrity." – Soren Kierkegaard

The first several times I read it, I had a hard time wrapping my head around the meaning of this quote. After a discussion with a friend tonight, I think I finally had a glimpse into its meaning.

We were discussing several things, but above all much of it came down to faith. Faith is, in itself, a contradiction and a paradox. Faith in God means we have supreme confidence in the sovereignty of the actions of God, and yet by that very acceptance of His sovereignty, we have complete uncertainty about the path He will choose for us. In brief: if we perfectly submit our lives and actions to God, we have no idea what will happen.

As an aside for the science buffs, this is nicely paralleled by the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which is simply stated as: if you perfectly know your position, your momentum has infinite uncertainty. In our example, position is your relationship with God (your complete and perfect submission), and momentum is your life (what happens to you).

The natural question that follows is: how does this play out in our lives, day to day? Practically, how can we take any action, since if we fully accept the idea of an infinite God, we have to recognize that our knowledge of Him is infinitely lacking?

This problem of action in the midst of paralyzing uncertainty about the morality or “correctness” of an action is a reoccurring topic of existentialism known as “angst” or “anxiety”. Kierkegaard sums it up by saying that “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” If we are to maintain that God is in complete control and we will never understand His ways, how are we ever supposed to even start to act in a way that He would approve of?

In my life, this often takes the form of a “it just doesn’t matter” philosophy. Since God is sovereign, everything that plays out happens because He said it should play out that way. Now, we are told in the Bible that “all things work out for the good of those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose.” Yet we are told that in this world we “see through a glass, darkly”, so our view of the world and God’s actions in it is obscured by a layer of misunderstanding about who God is and what His plan is for redeeming His creation. We just don’t know what God’s plan is or how it’s working out, and it would seem that our actions matter so little that it really shouldn’t matter what we do.

But I feel like if we fully embrace this ideology, we miss out on something very important. If we stop concerning ourselves with the outcomes of our actions (because, for example, even if we act correctly we are not guaranteed a "good" outcome), and if we see everything that happens as occurring “just because” and we don’t fight to understand the meaning behind all this, we stop caring. If we don’t care, we can’t love.

I feel like that’s often where I end. I come to feel that any actions on this earth have so little eternal meaning (and I have so limited understanding of them) that I stop concerning myself with life in general. If I saw somebody drowning, I would not hesitate to jump in to try to save them, even at the expense of my own life. This sounds great and virtuous, because we are told that the greatest love is for a man to “lay his life down for his friends.” The problem is this: I would be acting because I value my life so little, not because I value their life so much.

I think this distinction is really non-trivial, and it brings us back to the idea of how to act in faith – in the way God wants us to. The answer is, as Kierkegaard hints, a paradox. We must both have perfect love for people (which means having compassion and genuinely caring about them) and have perfect submission to God (which means we are o.k. with the outcome no matter what it is). I think if we lean too much toward having compassion and caring we become can become depressed because we feel hopeless to help these people who are suffering. If we lean too far toward submission to God we can become cold and uncaring. The correct position seems to be not somewhere in the middle (e.g., God is fairly sovereign but perhaps if I care enough I can change things), but at both ends at once.

These kinds of paradoxes are what compel us to stay close to God. When we are honest in our study of God’s word, we realize the teachings there are very hard, and we realize living in this way is not possible without Christ directly interceding with us at every step. One of my favorite verses is the following: “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.” Here we see that even when we cannot even pray correctly, the spirit corrects our prayers.

In the same way, I believe the spirit can guide and correct our actions. One of my constant prayers is that God will make me miserable when I am off the path He has set for me, and that He would not give me rest or solace until I get back on that path. I personally find that such prayers of self-chastisement are nearly always honored by God.

So, what have we covered here? God is complicated and cannot be understood. We are asked to have perfect faith in God. We are asked to love others. This is an impossible task. God send us the spirit to guide us on this task, and He sent His son to repair the relationship between us that has been severed so severely by our complete inability to follow these "simple" commands.

Personally, I reach the same conclusion I usually come to when I really dig deep: God is awesome, and He has a heck of a great plan to work things out between us.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Christian voting

I had a conversation the other day about the morality of voting as a Christian. My question was about voting for or against gay marriage rights.

From what I have seen, there seems to be one dominant view in Christian society about voting on gay rights. The idea is that voting to allow gay marriage will result in the destruction of the "family unit" and a consequential degradation of the moral fabric of society at large. Marriage, they argue, is an institution under God, and allowing gays to enter into the covenant of marriage desecrates that covenant to the point of meaninglessness.

On the surface, their logic seems to make sense. Allowing same sex marriages would certainly change the very visible definition of marriage in the United States from man-woman to human-human.

Still, when I consider the incredibly high rates of divorce and marital infidelity, I have to wonder if our current idea of marriage is really what was planned all along. Is divorce itself not a desecration of the covenant of marriage? Last time I checked the rate of Christian divorces was about the same as the rate for non-Christians. What about marriages between non-Christians? People who do not believe in God to get married every day -- is this not a desecration of equal magnitude and importance?

My idea is that marriage by the state and marriage by the church are two completely different things. Marriage by the state is a legal covenant, while marriage in the Church adds another layer -- a spiritual covenant. For some reason, people in the Church seem to believe that allowing gays to have a union defined as "marriage" will take away from what they have. In my mind, it doesn't matter if it's called the same thing -- it's obvious enough to me that the spiritual covenant of marriage in the church is something completely separate from anything the state can establish.

Do I think gays should be married by the Church? Nope. In my view, marriage in the Church should be the pairing up of two Christians (i.e., people who have given over control of their lives to Christ). Although I think sinners are married in legitimate Biblical marriages everyday in the Church (because we all DO sin), I think in this circumstance the Church would be condoning this sin. Perhaps just as importantly, it would also be putting two people in a position where sin is easier, instead of helping to lead these people to find freedom from this sin. Sin is not o.k., not in any form. Although the Church should love and accept you with your sin, it should never wink at it or suggest it doesn't matter.

So, in sum, marriage in the Church is wholly separate from marriage by the state, and gay marriage in the Church should not be allowed. Gay marriage is really no threat to the institution of marriage in the Church.

So if the answer is not a definite “vote no”, does that mean it should be “vote yes”? I will close with a question, which will perhaps be the subject of future postings.

Does voting to confine the rights of others to fit within the Biblical view of morality line up the Christian mission?

Statement of purpose

I resisted the idea of starting a blog for a long time because I saw them either as tools to indulge people who don't have anything interesting enough to say to hold an actual audience captive, or tools for people with lots of really cool things to say to have their voice heard by a wider audience.

I personally didn't, and still don't, believe I fall into either of those categories. Rather what made me change my mind is that I started reading a few blogs. I found information posted on blogs in the form of book reviews, new perspectives on research, politics, and philisophy, and many other subjects that piqued my interest.

After consuming a certain about of information from these sites, I finally came to the conclusion that I may have something to contribute to the discussion. So if you were randomly searching the internet and bumbled across this page, you are exactly my target audience, and I hope you find something useful here.

So, what should be expected in terms of posts? I will try to keep my posts short and informative, although I realize both terms are relative. I will not try to keep my posts confined to a certain theme, otherwise I may start feeling obligated to comment on things I don't care about. Instead, I will write on things that are interesting to me, regardless of the subject area.

What do I want from you? Sure, you can read and not comment. I rarely if ever comment on any blogs I read. But, if you feel so inclined, even if you have no idea who I am, please comment. Comment on my thoughts. Comment with your thoughts. Comment on my writing abilities -- part of the reason I am doing this is in hopes that they improve. I can not guarantee that I will respond or even read your comment every time, but perhaps someone else cruising along on the WWW will find your comment and find it more interesting or enlightening than my original post, and I certainly hope that happens from time to time.

Who do I expect to read this post? I guess that will be people who are confused by later posts, or are for some strange reason interested in why I started blogging. If you are confused, I apologize, and I hope you find your answers. If you are just curious, well, I hope this did it for you.