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.