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Belief and science

“You can only convince people who think they can benefit from being convinced.” Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Bed of Procrustes (2010), p. 64

Probably one of the most important ideas in rhetoric.

The basic motion to change one’s mind comes internally, from a person’s volition. They decide they want to change their mind, then look to see if it can be justified.

For science, this is why it is important to cultivate a valuation of truth for truth’s sake, and why money and status in science can be problematic. If a large amount of money depends on a belief, a person will typically look every which way to see how it can be defended.

How does God act?

How does the Christian God act?

I want to suggest an hypothesis, which is summarized as follows.

1. Miracles are marked out by (as the name suggests – ‘miraculum’ meaning wonder) their tendency to cause wonder.

2. They cause wonder because the observer notices the event seems highly unlikely to have occurred in the way it did, even though, for example, they witnessed it (hence, wonder at how it occurred).

3. What is unlikely is the coordination of things in the world.

4. These sorts of events are on-going and widespread.

Before discussing the advantages of this hypothesis, a brief aside on the supernatural-natural notion.

Supernatural vs. natural causes

Consider if someone claimed electromagnetic phenomena were ‘supernatural’ and contact mechanics was ‘natural’. OK, but in what way does that distinction make a difference in the cause-and-effect world? For the people drawing up equations and models of electromagnetic activity, it’s not clear why this kind of distinction would matter. Electromagnetic phenomena operates in a very different way from contact mechanics, but so what?

What I’m interested in here is how God (supposedly) acts, not in theological speculation about what ‘kind’ God’s acts are. Instead of theology -> theory of how God acts, I rather observation -> theory of how God acts.

Consider. The idea of supernatural causation is about a creator ‘outside’ of nature. Nature (the universe) is a creation of God. Involved in this notion of God being the creator of nature are theological ideas, such as God being necessary, unchanging, outside of time, and so on. These are all important theological topics.

That the Christian God is such a being is debatable. Christians need not look to the Old Testament to figure out how the universe came into being, but if a Christian is looking to the Old Testament, the accounts of what God did don’t seem to be a creation ex nihilo (out of nothing), even though creation ex nihilo is the standard Christian theological view nowadays. Rather, God is portrayed as shaping or ordering something – perhaps as a potter crafts clay to form pottery.

Yet, to what extent does the idea of a God existing outside of the universe impact our understanding of how God acts? For example, if Jesus healed someone, was this a natural or supernatural event? Well, it was unusual, and no one knows how it would have happened, but for all that it could have occurred within creation, i.e., without any kind of (special) outside-of-nature activity. That it’s unusual, or because we don’t have a well worked out model of how it works, doesn’t mean it’s supernatural. This is an old point, and I hope it’s obvious.

Now consider 3. If it’s right, then when looking at miracles, the ‘efficient causes’, so to speak, at least in most cases, should be findable. Yet, you don’t explain the miracle of the donkey Jesus rode into Jerusalem on, say, by saying ‘there was a donkey, and someone found it’. Instead, you have to explain the likelihood of it. It is the unlikeliness that points to God’s activity, i.e., a miracle.

This is why the Catholic church’s attempts to discern if something is a miracle are misled (and this mistake is based on their theology, and in particular the supernatural-natural distinction about God’s activity originating ‘outside’ of nature). They attempt to see if any known natural cause could account for the miracle. Being unable to find one, they conclude it is a miracle. This leads to ignoring large amounts of what Christians take to be everyday miracles, and excludes ascribing to God these miracles by definition.

Yet, when Christians talk about everyday miracles, they are almost always talking about natural causes that have been coordinated in an unlikely way. What’s key (under the theory I am here expounding) isn’t natural causes but how likely it is that those causes came together in the way they did. We can say God’s activity can be found in the ‘final’ cause, not a lack of natural ‘efficient’ causes.

Advantages of this characterization of miracles

1. It describes a large number of miracles Christians report, where there are conventional operators but unconventional coordination of them.

2. For miracles where it is not clear if it’s just the coordination of conventional operators, this is a matter of our knowledge. We don’t know what’s going on, and so it could be just a coordination.

3. It is compatible with either supernaturalism or naturalism – God can be conceived as the creator in the sense of being ‘outside’ of the universe and creating all things ex nihilo, or a creator in the sense of being ‘inside’ of the universe and creating all things as a ‘shaper’ of pre-existing aspects of the universe.

 

Why care about Christianity? Examples

Following this post, if you don’t understand Christianity it will be very difficult to understand Western Civilization. Some examples, and associated general patterns.

1. Tolkien was a devout Christian, and Christian themes pervade his The Lord of the Rings. It is entirely possible to read his works and simply enjoy the escapist fantasy, adventure, and so on. Yet, if you really want to plumb the meaning of his novels, you have to understand significant parts of Christianity. A similar case can be made for much of Western literature.

2. Columbus. The experts of the day thought the world was much bigger than Columbus thought (and they turned out to be right). It just so happened that there was a land mass near abouts where Columbus thought Asia would be. Columbus thought he was being told by God to sail west. You can’t understand the history of western exploration without understanding the pivotal trip of Columbus, and you can’t understand that without understanding something of Columbus’ Christianity. A similar case can be made for much of Western geographical expansion – it is difficult to understand it without understanding something of Christianity, not just at an abstract level but on an individual level.

3. Newton, besides being probably the most important scientist yet, wrote a large amount of theology. Most of this was unpublished, and discovered after his death (so he wasn’t writing it to ingratiate himself with the authorities, or what have you). It’s clear that theological issues mattered greatly to Newton. How can you understand what he accomplished without understanding some of the Christian ideas that motivated or informed him? Similarly with Boyle, Faraday, and on and on. Most of the pillars of modern science were devout Christians. How can you understand the unique development of science within the Christian West without understanding Christianity?

4. Bach. It’s straightforwardly clear that Bach’s music is beautiful, and one can simply enjoy it on that level (as with Tolkien’s works). Yet, Bach was a very well-informed Christian, and you can’t really understand what’s going on in his music without understanding the (supposed) events he is writing about. So on and so forth for much of Western music.

Big fish in small pond, or small fish in big pond?

Ought one to aim to be a big fish in small pond, or small fish in big pond?

As a rule of thumb, you want to be a big fish in a small pond.

Consider two examples.

First, if looking at joining a basketball team where one wants to improve one’s skills, actually playing games probably outweighs the advantages of being around better players. Here, being a bigger fish in a smaller pond probably makes sense to a degree.

Second, though, consider a case where one wants to get degree primarily for recognition. In this case, it is not so much about improving one’s skills, but about simply getting into an institution. Think Harvard or Stanford. In this case, being in as ‘big’ (recognized) a pond as possible is probably a better strategy.

I think the best general strategy is to be a big fish in a small pond, and then pond hop, to consecutively larger ponds.

Virtuous strands of Western Civilization

Just as one trait becomes a virtue as it works harmoniously with other traits towards achievement of the good on a personal level, so there are multiple strands within real Western Civilization that come together – Christianity is one strand, another is Stoicism, Platonism, Aristotelianism, and so on. These strands can balance and enhance each other – when used in the proper way together, they can help to bring about a virtuous civilization, i.e., achieve the good. They can be complementary or synergistic, and indeed, my guess is that this synergy is part of what makes Western Civilization as important as it has been.

The Amish Option

The Amish Option is meant here as, simply, to reduce one’s contact with standard pop. culture, and to instead focus on cultivating projects, experiences, personal relationships, and so on, of a higher quality.

A focus on different cultural sources -> different society.

This is not a binary option, nor is it exclusive of various other options that are responses to aspects of contemporary society.

(Nor does it mean relinquishing various technologies, such as electric-powered light or automobiles. Of course, being critical of the consequences of a given technology on one’s quality of life – on whether it’s moving you towards or away from the important stuff – is an important habit. Adopting a technology simply because others have is a bad idea.)

For examples of the Amish Option, to watch significantly less television, to read more high quality books, to get started on meaningful projects, and to network with like-minded people. All these are simple, compatible with the reality of most people’s immediate circumstances, and allow for gradations or variations of implementation.

Contra some who would consider this a retreat from society, I think it more accurately is an advance. It is not so much to run away from pop. culture as to move to something better.

Consider, if you leave a city behind, and instead move to the countryside – because the traffic’s better, people are more friendly, you get to experience more of nature, and there’s less crime per capita – then this is more relevantly an advance, a movement to something better.

Similarly, if you hear of an island somewhere, with a significantly higher quality of life than the country you are living in now, and you endeavour to move there, this is better characterized as an exploration and adventure of moving to another, possibly better place.

Pithily, any movement is in a sense a retreat in one direction and advance in another. The Amish Option is an advance towards a possibly better way of living.

For example, I haven’t watched television for something like 12 years. Because it freed up time, it opened up aspects of culture I wouldn’t have experienced otherwise (books, architecture, projects, and so on). It was an advance towards a better culture. However, it was a deliberate removal of an aspect of pop. culture from my life – a ‘retreat’.

Similarly, when you ratchet down the pop. culture noise in your life, and start focusing on more important things, this is an advance – an ascent. It is an – I think – erroneous mentality which treats the removal of pop. culture from one’s life as a ‘retreat’ – i.e., the person has internalized that pop. culture is what is important in the world, except it isn’t – not from most individuals’ perspectives.

This isn’t to say that bridges between pop. secular culture and better cultures aren’t important – of course they are. However, my guess is that is a specific calling – for most people, simply dramatically improving their immediate environment by implementing aspects of the Amish Option is more important and relevant.

Thy problem-solving be done

Why ask God for solutions, according to Christianity?

Because God’s solutions are typically way better than only-human solutions. There is a harmony to them*, where things come together in a way that is typically beyond human engineering. (See satisfying endings to stories as an example, if unfamiliar with examples of this sort yourself.)

* (harmony is similar to the concept of wholeness, from which we get the term ‘holiness’ – holiness, not surprisingly, involves a kind of harmony)

So, it probably makes sense for a Christian to cultivate the habit of “God, help guide us to a solution on this.” I.e., the instinct should be to seek God’s guidance and coordination when encountering a problem. Whenever one finds oneself worrying about a problem, this is the habit to replace that thought pattern with. (This is an Iteration on “Thy will be done,” a part of the set of keys for Christian practice given by Jesus of Nazareth in the ‘Our Father’ in the Sermon on the Mount, supposedly.)

It is important to note that this isn’t about inaction (although non-action is an important component of any problem-solving tool-box – waiting for the correct circumstances, for example, before springing into action). Too often, it seems to me, Christians pray for God to ‘do something’, when an important point in Christianity is the Christians themselves doing things, guided by God.

Instead, the basic cycle is asking for guidance -> getting guidance -> acting on the guidance. This is part of the practice of ‘discernment’. If you don’t act (“Thy will be done“), then the cycle doesn’t complete.

How not to think of career

How not to think of career:

“I’m going to university to become a biologist.”

Rather,

“I am a biologist. I’m going to university to get further practical knowledge and certification.”

The point here is that one should start being a biologist a significant amount of time before deciding to go to a university (say) to further one’s biology-related career. That is, one should start doing things that biologists do before deciding to go to a university to further one’s career in this area.

Most high-school students ‘decide’ to start a profession without having done much of anything in relation to that profession! Most of the time, they don’t actually have good reasons for believing that is the right profession for them.

This attitude is part of the institutionalization (‘Mandarinization’, to use William James’ phrase) of Western society, education, and careers.

Christian identity

It seems to me a better dynamic within Christendom is engendered by the following emphasis.

1. Christian first.

To be Christian is to a) take Jesus of Nazareth as in some meaningful sense to be the Christ, and b) attempt in one’s thoughts and actions to follow the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth.

In short, being a follower of Christ ought to be first, as far as one’s identity vis a vis Christianity goes. Everything else is secondary. Which isn’t to say secondary differences aren’t important – they are.

2. Denomination second.

So, one isn’t a Mormon, rather one is a Christian. One isn’t a Methodist, but rather a Christian.

Only secondarily is one a Mormon Christian, or a Methodist Christian, and so on.