Tuesday, December 20, 2011

North Korea: What do you do when your god dies?

That's "god," not "God:"

Found at Video: The weeping North Koreans
Don’t just sample the clip for 10 seconds. Watch to the end and drink in the full spectacle of grown men, prostrate, screaming in grief at the death of their subjugator. I take it state media beamed this out to show the world how unlikely a North Korean Spring is; it might be their first honest moment. Count me in with Michael Totten and Dan Foster in thinking these histrionics are more genuine than we’d like to believe. After all, lesser cult leaders like Jim Jones and Marshall Applewhite have asked and gotten more from their followers than this; surely a few tears were in order in Pyongyang upon learning that God is dead. The whole point of totalitarian conditioning is to draw this reaction without needing soldiers to stand just out of frame pointing rifles at the crowd. Go figure that it actually works on some people.
You cannot reason someone out of something that they were never reasoned into.

The god is dead. Long live the new god!

Totalitarianism must evolve into a religion to survive. The cultic center of the religion must be the dictator. In Lenin's Russia, the religion was communism. Lenin and the party changed it to Marxism-Leninism, but Lenin did not live long enough to become a true cultic center.

Lenin's successor, Stalin, did, with all Stalinism's attendant horrors. After Stalin died in 1953, the Party determined that no general secretary would become a cultic figure again. Instead, they substituted a theology of an Ideal Time and a reformed humanity, the goal being formally announced in 1964 by GenSec Leonid Brezhnev as the attainment of True Communism.
Marxism is an eschatological ideology (a godless religion in its own right, really). The ideal time is when "the workers control the means of production" after the capitalists have been violently overthrown. Lee Harris explained the basic tenets of Marxism, and its fundamental flaws, in his excellent essay, "The Intellectual Origins of America-Bashing." Suffice it to say here that Marx considered revolution by the oppressed both essential and inevitable for true socialism to be established. This was a political version of Judgment Day, when the wicked capitalists would be judged and destroyed so that the pure in heart (the heavily romanticized working classes) could attain the Ideal Time.

This appealing but basically foolish ideology held power in the USSR for 70 years, abandoned long before its end by almost all the working classes themselves and most of the ruling class. Soviet communism became a shell game in which commissars and higher ranks lived large and the masses merely lived. Its Ideal Time, however, was hammered home by the propagandists as just around the corner. True Communism was always coming soon, a state in which material production was so great that all human needs were met without shortage. Greed would therefore disappear and the inherent but capitalist-suppressed natural nobility of men and women would emerge. They would be transformed into true communists - altruists who worked each day for the good of the people, not for crass, selfish profit.
That year, 1964, really marked the beginning of the long decline of Soviet communism because non-cultic True Communism required an exhaustively worked and intellectually rigorous theology founded on rationalistic, not cultic, bases. That eliminated Stalinism once for all and Brezhnevism never got started. But without a cultic figure the center would not hold. Brezhnev ruled from 1964 until his death in 1982. After his death, the USSR went through general secretaries like a kid eating candy until it dissolved in 1990-1991. Brezhnev's 18-year tenure is what made the USSR last as long as it did after Stalin's death.

The Party's problem with trying to remake the empire on a non-cultic, intellectual religion was that the state had to devote great efforts and resources into reasoning and educating its people into the religion, beginning the arduous process in pre-school and never ceasing it.

Cultic tyranny's major efforts are domestic, to maintain the regime and its supporting apparatus. Foreign and military endeavors by cultic dictators tend to do poorly because the apparatchiks are selected and elevated based on their loyalty to the leader, not their basic competence in their duties. So: for Stalin, the Great Patriotic War; for Saddam Hussein the Iran War, the Persian Gulf War and the Iraq War - all bungled jobs by their cultic leaders.

It was not until the Communist Party of the Soviet Union ejected cultism from its ideology that the USSR became genuinely dangerous to the West. Brezhnev was never a cult figure, instead he was the leader of a triumphant, missionary religion. True Communism brought the USSR into nuclear-military-superpower status. It was under the banner of True communism that the USSR sponsored "wars of national liberation" in Asia and Africa and sought to subvert the governments of Europe and many others. Soviet-sponsored terrorist cells flourished in western Europe, such as the Rote Armee Faction in West Germany. Blessedly for the West and the world, Brezhnev was not succeeded by young, vigorous true believers but by aged Party-climbing apparatchiks who each had not long to live, until Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary. Gorbachev, however, was no true believer and True Communism had no thrall over him. Even before the Berlin Wall was hammered down, he and almost the whole regime were mightily glad to be quit of it.

Intellectually and religiously both, True Communism simply sputtered out, having been built on foundations of sand to begin with. Having exhausted itself into reasoning the people into True Communism, the state never recognized that people who are reasoned into something can be reasoned out (or reason themselves out), and there were more than enough smart Russians to figure out the flaws and inherent, fatal contradictions of the whole, phony system. (The coerced member states of the USSR pretty much never bought into this Russian religion in the first place.)

And so the whole intellectual, rationlistic-but-fragile edifice of True Communism could be brought crashing to ruin by, for example, asking the very simple question, "Who will carry the sewage under communism?"
"Take Kiev, for instance, and see how much of its one and a half million inhabitants arranges his own sewerage system, in his free time, and cleans it and maintains it in good order.

"Who, under communism, will bury the corpses? Will it be self-service or will amateurs carry out the work in their spare time? There is plenty of dirty work in a society and not everyone is a general or a diplomat. Who will carve up the pig carcasses? And who will sweep the streets and cart off the rubbish? . . . Will there be any waiters under communism? . . .

"And finally, for someone who at present has not the slightest idea about how to set about sewage-cleaning, like Comrade Yakubovskiy himself for instance, has he any personal interest at all in the arrival of that day, when he will have to clean up his own crap all by himself? . . .

"What, exactly, does an ordinary, run-of-the-mill Secretary of the District Party Committee stand to gain from this communism? Eh? Plenty of caviar? But he’s got so much caviar already that he can even eat it through his [rear end] if he wishes. A car? But he has two personal Volga cars and a private one as well. Medical care? Food, women, a country house? But he already has all these things. So our dear Secretary of the most Godforsaken District Party Committee stands to gain bugger-all from communism!"
North Korea decades ago ceased to be communist in any sense of the word. Kim Il Sung's objective was never communism, it was dictatorship, a goal he achieved brilliantly. Since then the overriding imperative of the regime has been simply stated and easily enforced: maintain the status quo for the regime no matter the cost in lives and treasure to the rest of the country.

What will change with the apparent succession to the throne of his grandson, Kim Jong Un? Let us hope nothing will. The country is making plenty of trouble in the world now. May its cultic religion remain, for if North Korea's dictator(s) ever get converted to a theology of True Communism, there will really be trouble, indeed.

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Sunday, November 27, 2011

What not to say to the grieving

Having corresponded with James Joyner over the years, it was a blow to visit his site early this morning to read that his wife, Kimberly, died suddenly last night from unknown causes. Presumably, the cause will be determined, but now James and his two small daughters are in shock.

I have had a lot of experience with funerals and people in mourning, both as one whose kin have died and in ministering to the bereaved. Here is a short course in what to say to the next of kin of the deceased.

What not to say
Do not attempt to explain the death. Comments such as, "This is all part of God's plan," or "There is some purpose served here that we don't understand" are not helpful. Just skip them. Grieving parents, widows or widowers are not looking for cosmic wisdom or theology. No matter how helpful you think such things are, or how intensely you believe them, they do not help and can be very hurtful.

Do not minimize the impact of the death. Deaths of loved ones are consequential, and must be regarded as such. A woman I knew had to bury her three-day-old baby girl. A woman of her church told her, "At least it wasn't a boy." In the recent death of my elderly and long-term ill mother-in-law, several people said to my wife and me, "At least she isn't suffering anymore." I have heard family members say that, but others should not. That's their call, not yours. These kinds of comments are not helpful.

Do not talk about the unfairness of life or make the deceased and the family a victim of circumstances. Comments such as, "I don't see why the doctors could not have done more," or "Your wife was such a good woman, I don't see why she had to die" or the like harm rather than help. The deaths of loved ones create chaos in the mental and emotional states of the families. Often, they wonder whether they could have done something more to save the deceased. Don't say anything that could reinforce these feelings.

What to say
Express sympathy and offer support. Be a friend. Be brief and sincere. Here is a template you can use either verbally or in writing a sympathy card:
I am saddened to hear of your loss. Please be assured that my prayers are with you. I know these days are difficult for you. You have many friends who will support you and who are eager to give you aid and comfort. We pray that you will be strengthened through God's grace, and come to find rest and peace. Sincerely, [name].
It is not inappropriate to offer, "If there is anything we can do, let us know," but not many next of kin will let you know. If you truly want to offer more than moral support, just do it. Offer to take their car to be washed before the funeral. Offer to do their laundry or house sit or visit to answer the phone. Be imaginative in discerning what routine tasks you can perform for the bereaved; those are the tasks that tend to be left undone. Never force yourself on the bereaved, of course, but usually a doer is gratefully welcomed while a mere promiser is forgotten.

If the death was tragic (that is, premature, suicidal or violent) then you should understand that support will be needed for many weeks, not just a few days. The level of support required will decrease, but do not expect that after only a week or so the bereavement will just end and the bereaved will get on with life. "Getting over it" is something that may never happen for the families of those who died tragically. Parents who lose children, for example, never get over it emotionally although after a time their routines may appear normal. But they always grieve, even after decades.

Anniversary dates can be particularly difficult. For those who lose spouses, the next Valentine's Day can be very difficult. A card or bouquet on that day will be very helpful. A phone call on wedding anniversaries or birthdays of the deceased will be much appreciated.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Sex, marriage and exchange of value

One of the classic definitions of economics is that it is the study of the exchange of value. The exchange does not have to be an exchange of money. Things other than money, such as time or labor, are also of value.

Usually, we think of dating, courtship and marriage as matters of the heart, of love, and not very much in economic terms. But this is an aberration in history. Throughout most of humanity's time upon the earth, mating or marriage was seen primarily in economic terms and for billions of people today is still seen that way. The basic foundation of arranged marriages is that marriages are much too important in their broader effect upon the community (usually a tribe or clan) to be left up to the whims of the heart.

Even our own wedding vows - at least those still used by most churches and civil magistrates - reflect a economic-contractual origin, mainly from European feudalism. After all, "I name, take you, name, to have to to hold from this day forward," is legal language derived from taking possession of property. When this formula was established for weddings, the bride pretty much was property of her father, then of her husband. Hence, the minister's traditional question, "Who gives this woman to be married to this man?"

(This question, btw, is excluded from the United Methodist Church's modern vows. Yet every wedding I have officiated, the bride, no matter how financially independent or modern, wants dad to hand her over. I phrase it this way: " Who presents this woman to be married to this man?" I explain early in our meetings that I simply will not ask, "Who gives... ." The brides have always been fine with it, but one time at a rehearsal the bride's uncle (her father was deceased) became so upset at the substitution that I thought he was going to swing at me. But calmer heads prevailed.)

It's somewhat trite nowadays to bemoan the sorry state of the institution of marriage in America and Europe. I bemoan it, too. But unless we understand the economics of sex and marriage - that is, the exchange of value that is transacted in the acts or institutions - then we won't understand the status quo and what to do about it.

And, as the old joke goes, "status quo" is Latin for "the mess we're in." So how did we get to be in the mess we're in?

Trend one: Women's employment

In 1918, a huge pop music hit was, "How 'Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm? (After They've Seen Paree)," wondering whether the boys over there in France would very willingly return to their prewar occupations, such as farming:
How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm
After they've seen Paree'
How ya gonna keep 'em away from Broadway
Jazzin around and paintin' the town
How ya gonna keep 'em away from harm, that's a mystery
They'll never want to see a rake or plow
And who the deuce can parleyvous a cow?
How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm
After they've seen Paree'
Fast forward only one generation and you would ask the same question about Rosie the Riveter. 

How ya gonna keep her back in the home
after she's built a tank?
How ya gonna keep her away from bizness
earning an income and making those deals?
She'll never want to see a broom or a stove
and who the deuce can build a bomber at home?
How ya gonna keep her back in the home
after she's built a tank?

The inflow of women into careers and jobs heretofore held by men was enormous during World War II. Not only were women riveters on defense production lines, they were welders, assemblers, test and transport pilots, sheet-metal workers, tool and die makers, you name it. Large numbers joined the armed forces and were assigned "as weather observers and forecasters, cryptographers, radio operators and repairmen, sheet metal workers, parachute riggers, link trainer instructors, bombsight maintenance specialists, aerial photograph analysts, and control tower operators. By January 1945 only 50 percent of AAF [Army Air Forces] WACs [Women’s Army Corps] held traditional assignments such as file clerk, typist, and stenographer.” 

With the end of the war, civilian distaff employment and military service decreased dramatically but not to their prewar levels. By 1950, paid employment of women was increasing again and in that year one-third of adult women had paying jobs. By 1956 the number had ticked up to 35 percent, including a quarter of all married women. By `1959 the overall rate had risen from one in three (1950) to two of five. The pace slowed after that and rose only to three of five by 1998. At the peak of women's employment outside the home in 2000, 77 percent of women between 25-64 were employed, but then the percentage dropped.

"Women's lib" began long before most people think. Today more than one-fourth of non-farm business are owned by women. 

Trend two: effective, cheap birth control

I covered the effects of the Pill on marriage in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in 2004 so I won't belabor it at length here. Key excerpt:

Since the invention of the Pill some 40 years ago, human beings have for the first time been able to control reproduction with a very high degree of assurance. That led to what our grandparents would have called rampant promiscuity. The causal relationships between sex, pregnancy and marriage were severed in a fundamental way. The impulse toward premarital chastity for women was always the fear of bearing a child alone. The Pill removed this fear. Along with it went the need of men to commit themselves exclusively to one woman in order to enjoy sexual relations at all. Over the past four decades, women have trained men that marriage is no longer necessary for sex. But women have also sadly discovered that they can't reliably gain men's sexual and emotional commitment to them by giving them sex before marriage.

Nationwide, the marriage rate has plunged 43% since 1960. Instead of getting married, men and women are just living together, cohabitation having increased tenfold in the same period. According to a University of Chicago study, cohabitation has become the norm. More than half the men and women who do get married have already lived together.
Remember, that was seven years ago and trends have moved on. Now we are in the age of "Cheap dates - How the ‘price’ of sex has dropped to record lows." 
Women are jumping into the sack faster and with fewer expectations about long-term commitments than ever, effectively discounting the “price” of sex to a record low, according to social psychologists.

More than 25% of young women report giving it up within the first week of dating. While researchers don’t have a baseline to compare it to, interviews they have conducted lead them to believe this is higher than before, which increases the pressure on other women and changes the expectations of men. ...

Sex is so cheap that researchers found a full 30% of young men’s sexual relationships involve no romance at all -- no wooing, dating, goofy text messaging. Nothing. Just sex.

Men want sex more than women do. It’s a fact that sounds sexist and outdated. But it is a fact all the same -- one that women used for centuries to keep the price of sex high (if you liked it back in the day, you really had to put a ring on it). With gender equality, the Pill and the advent of Internet porn, women’s control of the meet market has been butchered.

As a result, says Mark Regnerus, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin, men are “quicker to have sex in our relationships these days, slower to commitment and just plain pickier.”
This is not an improvement. Despite almost 50 years of social engineering to try to find a manless substitute for marriage, nothing better than traditional marriage has been found to propagate the next generation, which is, after all, what keeps homo sapiens a going concern. Obviously, unwed women can bear children as we know all too well, but those children are at a marked disadvantage compared to kids raised in households living with both natural parents, disadvantage not only financially but socially. 

But with easy availability to sex, men have less and less incentive to marry. Saint Paul advised young men that "it is better to marry than to burn" with lust, but today young men don't have to do either. See also, "Why Are Women More Promiscuous Than Ever?" that asks the truly stupid question, "And why are men taking advantage of it by withholding commitment? " Because, to be deliberately pedantic, "you don't need to buy a cow when milk is cheap." Hence,

It’s little wonder that the percentage of 25- to 34-year-olds who are married has shrunk by an average of 1% each year this past decade -- down to 46% now. Single women have been catching on, but those who don’t discount sex say they can’t seem to get anyone to “pay” their higher price.
Meaning that women whose position is that he don't get the thing if she don't get the ring find that the market is wide open for him to look elsewhere. Only if enormous numbers of women decided alike to charge a higher price for their favors could this trend be reversed. But what are the odds?
“Let’s be realistic: It’s not going to happen here,” Regnerus says. “Women don’t really need men and marriage -- economically, socially, and culturally -- like they once did. What I hear in interviews with women is plenty of complaining about men or about the dating scene, but their annoyance is seldom directed at other women.”
Trend three: "The perils of no-fault divorce"
In states with no-fault divorce (including New York) the marital contract is severed on the unilateral demand of one spouse -- often the wrongdoer, with whom matrimonial judges consistently side. Victory in family court frequently coincides, too, with effective use of “preemptive strikes” -- legal motions and maneuvers that empower the “prepared” side (i.e., the one who launched the divorce), and especially the one with more cash on hand.

And eyes roll at any mention of misdeeds like adultery. It’s the 21st century, folks!

Because most judges face a huge volume of cases, litigants get herded in and out as quickly as possible. Dissents and other attempts to hold up the process get slapped down: This is a divorce factory, not an effort to produce justice.
Once upon a time, society in general valued the integrity of the marriage contract so highly that divorce was granted only for exceptional reasons. No fault divorce changed that and now either the husband or the wife can file to dissolve the marriage for any reason s/he wants. All fifty states and D.C. have no-fault divorce laws on the books. At least 70 percent of divorces are initiated by the wife and up to 90 percent of custody awards go to the woman (link).

A deleterious result is that men are increasingly reluctant (or able) to marry at all. Recent data on decreasing marriage rates of men are skewed by effects of the Great recession that began in 2008 and continued higher jobless rates of men than women. However, just from 2008-2009, the rate dropped significantly, continuing a trend of a few decades.

Trend four: increasing rates of cohabitation

My anecdotal observation is that since entering full-time clergy appointment in 1997, 90 percent of the couples who have asked me to officiate their wedding were already living together. I actually think, but don't know, that the other 10 percent were, too, but I know that 90 percent were. They were of all ages, including a couple in their fifties.

Repeated studies show that the cohabitation rate has risen sharply since 1960. This bodes ill for their marriage.

Many studies have found that those who live together before marriage have a considerably higher chance of eventually divorcing. The reasons for this are not well understood. In part, the type of people who are willing to cohabit may also be those who are more willing to divorce. There is some evidence that the act of cohabitation itself generates attitudes in people that are more conducive to divorce, for example the attitude that relationships are temporary and easily can be ended.
If either of the partners has a child when they move in together (almost always it is the woman, hardly ever the man) then the risk to the child is raised well above the risk a child has when living with both actual parants who are married. This risk is higher even if the couple shacking up are both the parents of the child. 

Wintery Knight asks, " Is cohabitation a bigger problem for society than divorce?

new report says cohabitation has replaced divorce as the biggest source of instability for American families. ...

It certainly is the case that cohabiting couples who have children tend to be less educated, poorer, and less committed to their relationship than couples who have children in marriage.

So one reason that children are less likely to thrive in cohabiting families than in intact, married families is that their parents, or the adults in their lives, have fewer of the resources that they need to be good parents.

But the best research on cohabitation and child well-being controls for factors like income, education, and race/ethnicity. And even after you control for these factors, you still find that children in cohabiting families are significantly more likely to suffer from depression, delinquency, drug use, and the like.

For instance, one study from the University of Texas at Austin found that teens living in a cohabiting stepfamily were more than twice as likely to use drugs, compared to teens living in an intact married family–even after controlling for differences in income, education, race, and family instability.
Read the whole thing.

Typically, discovering that the market rate for sex is practically zero and that men are thus less inclined to marry (for other reasons, too), a woman often concludes that since sex won't make a man commit to her (since he can get it else-whom easily), maybe living with her will. Once he discovers how desirable she is in other ways, she thinks he'll decide to tie the knot. Sometimes, yes, but if cohabiting couples do get married, the woman typically marries the third man she has lived with and the man the second woman. A woman usually thinks that cohabiting will lead to marriage, but the man thinks that cohabiting substitutes for marriage.

Anyway, soon the typical cohabiting woman discovers the downside: Men who shack up with women are bums, literally -- "A new study reveals that a man is more likely to live with a woman outside marriage if he is financially unstable." Well, duh.

Trend five: the rise of the woman professional and the impossible-standard fantasy

Women are as a group becoming better educated than men. This alone makes it tough for marriage because women are generally hypergamous, meaning they almost never agree to "marry down," while men have never had a problem with it. When a successful, financially well-off woman professional surveys bachelor availability, there are diminishing numbers of single men who are of equal or greater status. 

And increasing number of women are choosing careers over marriage themselves. It is not just men who are delaying or avoiding marriage. More and more women are, too, since they can have sex without fear of pregnancy (except for, "oops") and altogether need men less and less for financial support. Increasingly, women are deciding in their college years that they can delay marriage until their advanced degrees are completed and their careers established, meaning that many of them deliberately decide to wait until their thirties to marry.

Which is not to say that their decision will come true. When a professional woman reaches her thirties, who does she think will be waiting for her? By then pretty much all the single men left will be (a) never married and not much inclined to it, (b) divorced, which has its own attendant risks since second marriages fail at a much higher rate than first marriages, or (c), well, gay. Good luck with that. Even a minimally hypergamous woman will find very slim pickings, indeed.

The Time cover story of Aug. 21, 2000 (no link), reported,

Danielle Crittenden, author of What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us, argues that women have set themselves up for disappointment, many putting off marriage until their 30s only to find themselves unskilled in the art of compatibility and surrounded by male peers looking over their Chardonnays at women in their 20s. "Modern people approach marriage like it's a Bosnia-Serbia negotiation. Marriage is no longer as attractive to men," she says. "No one's telling college girls it's easier to have kids in your 20s than in your 30s."

Michael Broder, a Philadelphia psychotherapist and author of The Art of Living Single, decries what he calls the "perfect-person problem," in which women refuse to engage unless they're immediately taken with a man, failing to give a relationship a chance to develop. "Few women can't tell you about someone they turned down, and I'm not talking about some grotesque monster," he says. "But there's the idea that there has to be this great degree of passion to get involved, which isn't always functional. So you have people saying things like, 'If I can't have my soul mate, I'd rather be alone.' And after that, I say, 'Well, you got your second choice."

I am just describing, not prescribing, for I don't have a prescription that is realistically possible in our culture. Women simply do not need a man's financial support as much as they used to. At the same time, a woman's sexual inducement for a man to take vows is practically shredded by other women lowering the "price" of sex to almost nil. And the widening belief among men (justified or not) is that most marriages are doomed to begin with and will end in divorce, and that lessens their willingness to marry, too.

This is not going to be turned around. It is the new reality and the new "normal." But there is nothing normal about it.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Time of Your Life

I read the news today oh boy
about a lucky man who made the grade. ...
He blew his mind out in a car,
he didn't notice that the light had changed.
It is in dispute among the narrow section people who care about such things whether John Lennon wrote of "a lucky man who made the grade" or "the grave." Considering the theme of the section, "grave" would fit, but the words printed on the back of the original album say "grade," which would seem authoritative. Since Lennon has himself made the grave, no doubt the discussion will continue.

Time will tell.

Saturday, en route home from the North Carolina shore, we stopped at Black Mountain, a small but thriving town not far east of Asheville, in the foothills of the Appalachians, just north of I-40. The putative reason was that my wife and daughter wanted to relieve me of my hard-earned coin at the Doncaster outlet store there.

I argued not. I wanted to go the the town also. Not to shop for clothing but to buy some more time. There is a place there called Pellom's Time Shop. Gerard wrote about it a couple of years ago.
It's the oldest shop in Black Mountain, North Carolina. None of the other shop keepers can remember a time when it wasn't here. Nobody in town can remember a time when Pellom himself wasn't here. The Time Shop and Pellom may well have been here before the town was here; before even the Cherokee were here. Nobody can say. ... 
Most people look into the cluttered and dust-layered window of the Time Shop and walk on by. The stores full of crafts made the old-time way lure them on. After all, most of those who walk up and down this street in Black Mountain are retired and have, they think, all the time in the world. 
Pellom doesn't mind. He knows what time it is. He also knows what can happen to time. How it can come unsprung. How it can run slow and still run fast. How time runs down. How time goes by. How time runs out. That's why he's careful, when he can, to save time. 
You can, if he decides he likes you, buy some time at the Time Shop. All you have to do is to step through the seldom used door of the Time Shop and say "Good afternoon, Mr. Pellom." Then you need to look around the shop carefully and slowly. You need, most of all, to take your time. 
In time, if the time is right, Pellom will glance up at you from behind his bench, his green eyeshade shadowing his eyes, and say, "What can I get you?" 
Not "What are you looking for?," or "How can I help you?," but "What can I get you?" 
You'd be well advised to take him at his word and say, "I'd like to buy some more time." 
Then, if your request is timely, Pellom will nod and fetch that small cloud-blue glass-stoppered bottle from the shelf behind him and bring it over to the counter and put it down in front of you with a sharp, satisfying clack on the glass of the counter. Looking into it all you will see is, towards the center, the faintest mist made from the color out of space and inside that, towards the core of the mist, a shovel of stars. 
"Very good, sir," Pellom will say. "How much time would you like?" 
I'd advise you to buy as much time as you can afford, as often as you can afford it, time after time. 
Just because Pellom has some extra time today doesn't mean he won't be out of time tomorrow. Most of the time, time is always in short supply. Tonight, while you sleep, your government will be awake printing more money. Nobody is printing more time. Which is why you should be careful how you spend time in the first place. Just ask Pellom down at the Time Shop.
"Nobody is printing more time."

One day in seminary we pulled our desks into a circle and took the sets of construction paper the instructor passed out, four squares each of four colors. On the first, she said (she'd been years a chaplain at a large Catholic hospital), write the names of the four people you love most. On the second, the names of the four places you enjoy most to go to. The third, your four favorite ways to spend leisure time. The fourth, your four favorite restaurants. We complied.

"Now listen," she said. "You have recently had exploratory surgery and the doctor has the lab tests back. You are in his office. 'It's cancer,' he says. (Pause) Now, select any one of the sixteen pieces of paper, crumple it into a ball and throw it into the middle of the room."

My piece of paper marked "beach" went sailing. I don't get there all that often and there are other places to go, anyway.

"You are going to have to undergo chemotherapy beginning this coming Monday. Toss another piece of paper." This time I crumpled up a restaurant and pitched it into the pile.

"The chemotherapy did not work. Next is radiation therapy, but the oncologist has already told you that its chances are less than the chemo. Throw one more piece."

And so it went. You throw away a piece of your life one at a time. At first it's not hard because of the four categories for which you have written four items, there is always one item that does not mean that much to you and so is quickly tossed. Until about the sixth or seventh throw when you realize that you have kept every piece of paper with the names of the people you love most. Almost every restaurant is gone and all but one favorite place to go.

Before long she says, "The cancer is in stage four and is inoperable. The doctor prescribes hospice care." And you look at your papers, mocking you like a two-high hand with a missing card, and all that is left are the names of the four people you love most - for me they were my wife and three children.

"Throw away a piece of paper," she says. I stare. Who shall I throw away? And the answer is no one. Game over. I fold my cards by laying the papers down and leaning back.

"Does anyone really know what time it is? Does anyone really care about time?"

So I went to Pellom's Time Shop, not really believing that Pellom will fetch a small, cloud-blue, glass-stoppered bottle from the shelf behind him and bring it over to the counter and put it down in front of me with a sharp clack on the glass of the counter. And even if he did such a thing, I did not think that looking into it all I would see is, towards the center, the faintest mist made from the color out of space and inside that, towards the core of the mist, a shovel of stars.

I took the picture above from across the street and then went to the door. The Time Shop is so small that I almost went through the door of the next shop over, but corrected myself. A gray-headed man was standing near the door facing the right wall, manipulating some time when I walked in. He turned slightly toward me and said hello. "Hello," I answered.

I awaited the question I knew had to come: "What can I get you?" Not "What are you looking for?," or "How can I help you?," but "What can I get you?"

"Pretty cool day," he said. "Yes," I answered, "it is." Chit chat was not what I expected. Truth is, I didn't really know what to expect. "Are you Mr. Pellom?" It seemed a foolish question, for who else would be in here?

"John Pellom," he said. "Indeed." He put his right hand out. I took at and shook it gently.

"My name is Don Sensing."

As you can see, one thing John Pellom has plenty of is time. Time is everywhere in the Time Shop. (It is a real place, you know.)

"Ah, well, Mr. Don Sensing, I am glad to meet you. What brings you here today?"

"My wife and daughter are presently bankrupting me over at Doncasters, and I don't want to be there for that bloodletting. So I searched for your Time Shop."

"How did you know I was here?"

"I read about your shop on the Internet." I pulled out my smartphone and opened Gerard's post from the prior decade and showed it to him. He scanned it quietly. He read about the small, cloud-blue, glass-stoppered bottle and the mist of stars.

"Well," he said, "that would really be something."

We made small talk for a few moments. I gave him my card and briefly explained what we had done on vacation. He told me that his he kept busy repairing globe clocks and putting antique wristwatches back into service. I learned that his father opened the Time Shop in 1929. "Not before the Cherokee?" I quizzed. John chuckled. "Well, I don't think so."

My phone buzzed. I knew it was the deadly shopping duo telling me that the MasterCard was now maxed out and would I please go to a bank and bring them a wheelbarrow full of ben franklins. I verified the accuracy of my prophecy.

"John, it was a fine pleasure meeting you. I hope you are open for a long time." I turned toward the door.

"Reverend Sensing," John said. I glanced back. He peered kindly at me a moment. "One more thing I have to ask you." I felt his pale blue eyes looking right through mine to the infinity beyond the Time Shop. "What can I get you?"

I said nothing for two heartbeats, then spoke slowly. "I'd like to buy some more time."

There was no shelf behind him. He reached into his pocket and produced a small, cloud-blue, glass-stoppered bottle. "Take this," he said, "and look inside."

There was, just as Gerard had written, a faint mist of a color out of space and inside that, towards the core of the mist, a shovel of stars. And you must believe me when I tell you that at that moment, time stood still. Traffic outside ceased, birdsongs stopped, the dustmites in the sunbeam froze in the air. The ticking of the clocks in the Time Shop stopped. The bottle drew me in so that I barely had time to think, then I was surrounded by timelessness.

There were scenes. Sometimes just still shots and sometimes short clips of short seconds - except there were no seconds, or minutes, or hours, because those things are all time. Inside the cloud-blue bottle there was no time.

There I was as a small boy learning to ride a bike. There I was with neighborhood kids playing kick the can after dark. There was my dad giving me my first set of golf clubs when I was 5. My mom holding my hand while the doctor gave me a series of antibiotic shots. My first grade teacher, Mrs. Jarvis, unjustly punishing me for another kid's spill of paint, but I didn't fink. My older brother complimenting me for kicking a football well. A homerun in a backyard game. Walking Valerie home from seventh grade. Trying to play football in high school. My first job at Woodlawn Market and owner Pappy's fondness for the bottle, but he was a jolly drunk. My grandfather teaching me to milk cows and my grandmother rocking me when I was small. Creeks I stomped in, Boy Scout hikes and merit badges. First girl I kissed. Hunting and golfing with my dad. First day of college. First parachute jump. A pretty girl who told me she liked my beard my senior year. Wedding day. Birth of children. Honors and awards. This was the highlight reel, I thought. And it felt good overall.

The blue bottle wasn't finished.

The lies I told. The kids I treated badly because they were different. The lessons I would not learn. The defiance to my parents. The anger at my brothers. The blows I landed. The push I gave a child when I got home and all he wanted to do was hug me. The prideful stands and the cruel words said. The barriers I put up. The books I didn't read to my children. Contemptuous words uttered. Affections neither accepted nor given. Arguments started. The cursory treatments. The tantrums. The self-centeredness, the services never rendered, the people dismissed, the loveworthy ignored. This was the low-light reel. It burned.

The blue bottle wasn't finished.

The kindnesses given. Taking Mrs. Adams’ paper to her in the winter because she couldn’t walk in the snow. The elderly befriended. The mother's hand held at her son's last breath. The prayers for the grieving, the bereaved consoled. The shoulder to cry on. The blessings invoked. The needy assisted. The children cared for. The life I saved. The celebrations blessed, the dying anointed. The Word spoken truly, the sacraments offered duly. The friendships offered and the hands extended. The prisoners visited, the hungry fed, the naked clothed, the strangers welcomed, the sick cared for. The counsels offered. The listening ear. The prayers too deep for words.

The scenes ended. Time returned. I looked up. John Pellom was there as before. I whispered, "Did I get more time?"

He shook his head. "Son, no mortal can give you more time."

"But the blue bottle ..."

"All it can do is show you the time of your life, so far."

My phone buzzed again. I ignored it. "Is there a lesson here?"

John glanced again at my card. "Reverend, you know the lesson."

I did, but I needed to hear it. "Tell me."

He locked his eyes on mine. "There is only one question you will have to answer before the Lord when that time comes. You tell it to me."

"How did you spend the time of your life."

A gentle smile crossed John's face. "That's it. Now what do you think the right answer is?"

My phone buzzed again. "It's time for you to rejoin your family," John said.

"Thank you for your time, John," I answered. We shook hands.

"Anytime," he said.

I left the Time Shop and walked back to the car in the rain. The financial damage that two human females can do working as a team would put a pride of lionesses to shame, allegorically speaking, but this was no time to worry about that. Plenty of time to do that later.

We sat in the car for a few moments. "Where did you go?" Cathy asked. I told her of the Time Shop and showed her the two photos I had taken. I tried to read her Gerard's explanation of the Time Shop but could not make it to the end. Time was out of joint. Time's fabric had been ripped and had not yet been woven back together. Rain was falling, closing the world off from us.

We were silent for awhile, then she said, "It's time to go." I started the car and we drove home.

No matter how it is phrased, the Lord will ask each of us only one question: How did you spend the time of your life?

What do you think the right answer is?
"'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’"
No one is printing more time. The time of your life is measured only by the love you give away, so make sure you always have time enough for love.

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Sunday, July 3, 2011

Clairvoyant science and the Deep Blue God

Can computational physics inform us of the foreknowledge of God?
An Answer I call "Deep Blue Theism."

On July 1, my wife and I drove to Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tenn., to pick our daughter up from her completion of the Governor's School for Computational Physics. There are 12 Governor's Schools every summer in Tennessee at various state university campuses (see here). They are for "for gifted and talented high school students" who have just completed either their sophomore or junior years.

During the closing ceremony, Dr. Jaime Taylor, dean of the College of Science and Mathematics and professor of physics, explained briefly that a growing field in computational science is what he called "clairvoyant science."

"Clairvoyant science" is a term so new that Googling it in quotes yields only four results and none of them are relevant to what Dr. Taylor meant. Even so, almost certainly you are already familiar with clairvoyant science and encounter it frequently.

Dr. Taylor's example was Netflix. When he logs on to Netflix, he said, the site always recommends unviewed movies for him based on what he has already watched. This is a crude form of clairvoyant science.

My Netflix account does that, too, of course, but I would say that Amazon is much better at it because it encompasses many different products or services than Netflix and seems for me to do a better job at the clairvoyance part.

But Dr. Taylor's department carries clairvoyant science a step further. They have developed the computational skills to offer students a refined curriculum of classes based not only on what courses they have already taken, but on the grades they received. Furthermore, their educational clairvoyant science can predict, plus or minus one letter, what grade the student will earn in those courses.

Now, I would say that plus or minus a letter grade is a huge variance. I could achieve the almost the same accuracy just by predicting everyone will receive a B. But the point is that the computational methodology will only become evermore refined and accurate. One day it will be able to predict a student's grade not to within a letter, but within a point or two. And yet the computer model itself has no effect whatsoever on the determining the student's grade, of course, even though it "knows" what the grade will be.

This kind of technology helps us understand how God can know the future without predestining it. Being able coherently to invalidate the proposition that God's knowledge of the future necessarily predetermines the future is critical if we are to understand what does it mean to say, "God knows everything."

When most Christians say, "God knows everything," they are imagining "everything" too narrowly. "Everything" in fact encompasses much more than they think it does.

Now put on hold hold for a moment the predictive ability of the implications of these computational methods and let's turn our attention to the game of chess.

Supercomputing and predictive ability

In 1997, IBM's Deep Blue supercomputer became the first computer ever to defeat a world chess champion by beating Garry Kasparov, who held the title at the time.
On February 10, 1996, Deep Blue became the first machine to win a chess game against a reigning world champion (Garry Kasparov) under regular time controls. However, Kasparov won three and drew two of the following five games, beating Deep Blue by a score of 4–2 (wins count 1 point, draws count ½ point). The match concluded on February 17, 1996.

Deep Blue was then heavily upgraded (unofficially nicknamed "Deeper Blue") and played Kasparov again in May 1997, winning the six-game rematch 3½–2½, ending on May 11. Deep Blue won the deciding game six after Kasparov made a mistake in the opening, becoming the first computer system to defeat a reigning world champion in a match under standard chess tournament time controls.
Whether the tournament was actually a fair one is still disputed (just as IBM's Watson computer victory in Jeopardy last February was not really fair, either). Deep Blue was designed and programmed only for chess. It's strengths were its brute computing power and programming customized for nothing but playing chess.
It was capable of evaluating 200 million positions per second, twice as fast as the 1996 version. ... The Deep Blue chess computer which defeated Kasparov in 1997 would typically search to a depth of between six and eight moves to a maximum of twenty or even more moves in some situations.
Deep Blue could not predict what move Kasparov would make next with certainty, but it could calculate the hierarchy of possible moves in likelihood order because its database included the complete move sequences of 700,000 grandmaster games. Deep Blue simply outcalculated Kasparov. The wonder, perhaps, is not that Kasparov lost but that he lost so closely.

What if clairvoyant science computational methods had been built into Deep Blue? Not only would the computer have been able to draw upon the record of 700K games to assess Kasparov's possible moves, it would have been specifically able to refine the likelihood of moves based upon Kasparov's actual play so far in that very tournament, not just the Russian's games among the database. Deep Blue would have learned as the games progressed, knowing more in, say, the third game, than its vast database initially contained before the first game. Had that been the case, surely Kasparov's defeat would have been more pronounced.

However, even a computationally clairvoyant Deep Blue could not have exercised deterministic control over Kasparov's moves, even though as the game progressed and he steadily lost, his possible moves certainly did decrease in number.

Which simply means that the flow of the game would be free, bounded only by the rules of the game, but the outcome would be certain. Deep Blue would win without question but Kasparov's moves would be his to decide. No move would be directly predetermined by Deep Blue. Even at a game's end, when Kasparov might have been down to only his king, Deep Blue could not have predetermined whether Kasparov would move his king one more time or simply tip it over and concede, though Deep Blue might have been able to offer very profitable advice to onlookers on which way to wager.

I am wondering whether a combination of clairvoyant science and Deep Blue analysis of enormous numbers of potentialities can provide new insights to understand what it means to say, "God knows everything."

My thesis is that God indeed does know everything, but that "everything" in God's knowledge is infinitely greater than theology has classically conceived and Christians have conventionally thought.

God's knowledge, human will and future events: the classical position

Classical theism is probably the dominant theology among most Western church people. In classical theism, God “is believed to have created the entire universe, to rule over it, and to intend to bring it to its fulfillment or realization, to ‘save it,’” wrote Langdon Gilkey in Christian Theology, an Introduction to Its Traditions and Tasks. However, classical theism is based on Greek philosophy at least as much as Scripture and perhaps even more. Most church people do not realize that classical theism's main claims about God - God's changelessness, power, knowledge and goodness - are derived from Plato and Aristotle as much (or more) than from Genesis through Revelation. The historical reasons for this are not relevant to this post; perhaps another time.

Long before the Protestant Reformation, Catholic Scholasticism developed Aristotelian formulations of God as absolute, changeless, eternal being or actuality. Tthe dominant theology of the RCC was that of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), who had taught at the University of Paris. His theology of God derived heavily from Aristotle's development of the Unmoved Mover.

The idea of God's impassive immutability remained in the Reformation, though the Reformers, especially Martin Luther, revived Plato's philosophy to buttress their arguments, mediated via the writings of St. Augustine (354-430), who had been trained extensively in the Platonic school. The Reformers emphasized God’s sovereignty as unchallenged, his power as absolute, his knowledge as unbounded and God's character as wholly righteous and gracious. (This last point was of course affirmed by all sides.) Hence, the Protestant Reformation was almost as much a continuation of the centuries-old squabble between Aristotelians and Platonists as between Christian apologists.

God, the Reformers insisted, has absolute priority and sole decisiveness in events of the created order. Always known as powerful in the Jewish and Christian traditions, God was now understood as absolutely omnipotent, able to do anything God chose. This, of course, required that God's knowledge be unlimited, for the exercise of divine power necessitates that the deity be unrestrained in knowing just what he is exercising power about.

This connection inevitably led both Martin Luther and John Calvin to reject entirely the notion of human freedom. They both insisted (independently, they were not theological collaborators) that God's power cannot be divorced from God's will and that God's will cannot be divorced from God's knowledge. Hence, God's power = God's will = God's knowledge.

According to John Calvin in his book, Institutes of the Christian Religion,
All events whatsoever are governed by the secret counsel of God [who] so overrules all things that nothing happens without his counsel. Events are so regulated by God, and all events so proceed from his determinate counsel, that nothing happens fortuitously.
In Calvin's theology, human beings are inherently unable to make free choices. The world proceeds along a path preselected by God and has no role to play except to follow a divine script that is unchangeable down to the tiniest detail. In this view, human beings are puppets on God's strings. We are "free" only to do what God has already ordained to be our nature.

Though not a systematic theologian like Calvin, Martin Luther came to the same conclusion. Luther wrote in Bondage of the Will,
God knows nothing contingently, but that he foresees, purposes, and does all things according to his immutable, eternal and infallible will. This bombshell knocks ‘free-will’ flat, and utterly shatters it.
Classical theism, then, views the past, present and future as equally concretized in God’s knowledge. Thus, God’s omniscience equals his omnipotence, since unless God determines every detail of the world, something might happen that was not immutably known to God in advance. But a God who can be surprised, classical theism insists, is no God at all.

But this is a very narrow understanding of what it means for God to know something.

A closer look at God's omniscience

When the claim is made, "God knows everything," a faithful Christian or Jew would be hard pressed to say otherwise. There are ample Scriptural references of the knowledge of God. Psalm 139 is perhaps the most complete single reference, in which the Psalmist observes with wonder,
O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.
Yet to say, "God knows everything" begs, What is "everything?" This is the question that tripped up Luther. Having adopted the Platonic view that there is no difference between the past, present and future to God (a view that I don't think is very Scripturally supportable), which means that there is only an "eternal now" to God, Luther equated the "eternal now" with everything.

But that means necessarily that the eternal now can consist only of what is real. Consider the question, "Does God know Santa Claus?" Well, God knows our Santa Claus story and all its lies we tell our children every December. God knows the man who dresses up in a red suit and sits in the mall the day after Thanksgiving. But how can God know Santa Claus? There is no Santa Claus for God to know!

So: That which is not, is not knowable.

What then does it mean to say, "God knows everything?" It can mean nothing except that God knows everything that is knowable. This is possible only for God, of course, but the fact remains that the knowable is what is, not what is not. God knows the Santa Claus actor in the mall as a thing in itself because the actor is real in himself. God does not know Santa Claus as a thing in itself because Santa Claus is not real as a thing in itself.

Please note a distinction I am making. I might say with equal validity that God does not know my grandchildren because I do not (only yet, I hope) have any grandchildren. But my grandchildren, though they do not exist, do not exist in a critically different way than the way that Santa Claus does not exist.

I can envision a future in which I have grandchildren. I can also envision a future in which I do not. I do not know either future absolutely, but I know them both potentially (or as Luther would put it, "contingently."). And if I can know them potentially, so can God. Luther is thus so simply proved wrong: if I can know something contingently, then necessarily God does, too, else we are left with the stunning proposition that I can know something God cannot know.

Therefore: God knows contingencies (potentialities) as fully as actualities.

Though God does not know absolutely my grandchildren, because they do not exist, hence are not actualities, God does know the nearly unlimited permutations of possibilities of a future in which my grandchildren are born (or not). Since clairvoyant science helps us understand how God can foresee a future event - say, my grandson's first home run - without predetermining it, it is self evident that God can also know every possible alternative to that event, such as a groundout instead of a home run, or a walk, a ground-rule double, game called because of rain, whatever.

All of these things God knows contingently, to use Luther's word, contingently because none of them have yet occurred. Because God knows every possible alternative as the future unfolds means that it is not necessary for us to postulate that whatever God knows must come to pass as the Reformers thought. Their concept of God's knowledge was far too narrow. God knows in advance not only the potentialities that will become actualities, God knows every possible alternative to each actuality. God conceives of what might not happen as fully as he conceives of what does happen.

God therefore cannot be "taken by surprise." No matter what happens, God has already fully foreseen it and is just as prepared for it as if he had directly caused it.

Back to Santa Claus. My grandchildren are potentially real as things in themselves while Santa Claus is not. Thus, my grandchildren are potentialities that may become actualities, while Santa Claus is not. God can envision and prepare for a future in which I have grandchildren. But this cannot be said of Santa Claus.

The Reality of Time

"Time flies like an arrow," goes an old joke, "while fruit flies like a banana." Because classical theism holds that God lives in an eternal now while human beings and indeed the entire created order exist within the arrow's flight of time, in which there is a definite past, present and future, then some thoughts about time are in order.

Both modern science and the Bible agree that the universe had a definite beginning in time. The universe is expanding. The predominant view among scientists is that the universe will continue to expand without ever stopping and then falling back together. That is, we have had the Big Bang but the universe won't have a "Big Crunch." Time is unidirectional, it has no "reverse." Time moves only forward.

It is within that structure of time that human being live, move and have our being. Classical theism holds that God is outside time. Yet if God is to interact with his creation then God must be able to operate within time's arrow; God must be able to enter into time's arrow as well as be apart from it.

That God interacts with humanity within time's arrow is well attested by the Scriptures. The movements of God within human history in the books of the Jewish Scriptures attest to it. Peter's sermon in Acts on the day of Pentecost also makes no sense unless God is accomplishing his will within human frameworks of time and understanding.

There are ample biblical passages that can reasonably be read to indicate that God either admits or implies that he does not know something because the arrow of time has not reached that point yet. That is, of all the potentialities God is preparing for, none have actualized as concrete events, hence are not knowable absolutely, only potentially. Here are examples, all using the NIV:

Gen. 2.19
Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.
The implication is that God did not know what names Adam would give the creatures.

Gen. 6:5-6
The LORD saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The LORD regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled.
Other translations say that the Lord "repented" that he had created human beings. The implication is that God did not know in advance how rotten people turned out to be, else why would he regret or repent of creating us? Why would he be troubled if classical theism is right - that everything always turns out exactly as God plans it?

There are many other places in the Bible where God repents of what he has done, for example, 1 Samuel 15, where the Lord repents that he had made Saul king of Israel. Again, if God exercises the meticulous control over creation that classical theism insists he does, then God must be repenting over things that he knew in advance would happen.

Deut. 8:2
Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands.
This verse says that God sent the children of Israel into the wilderness to discover whether they would be capable of being God's people. Of course, the 40 years in the wilderness had another purpose, to teach the people humility before God. But is there not clearly the implication that at the end of the 40 years God would know something he did not know at their beginning? If the verse does not mean that, what does it mean?

Isaiah 5:2-4, in which Israel and Judah are the vineyard of the Lord (see v. 7)
He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. ... Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit. 3 “Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. 4 What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it? When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad?
Clearly, God expected his chosen people to produce good fruit, but they did not. In this passage, God wonders what else he could have done for them and expresses puzzlement at why they turned out bad.

Can we take these and the many other passages like them into account and still maintain that God is in control of human and cosmic destiny?

Can we postulate that God does not know everything, past-present-future, absolutely and yet is still absolutely going to accomplish his cosmic purposes?

I think we can, and I think we can in a way that honors both the Scriptural teaching of human free will and still affirms that "God's power = God's will = God's knowledge."

The Clairvoyant, Deep Blue God

Having asked earlier how much more lopsided Kasparov's match would have been with Deep Blue had Deep Blue's programming included computational clairvoyance as well as database analysis, I am prepared to try to answer how we can affirm the (at least apparent) biblical teaching that God does not absolutely know absolutely everything in advance. So permit me to explain my premises.

Premise 1
"But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day" (2 Peter 3.8).

However within time's arrow God operates when dealing with his creation, God's understanding of time is nonetheless radically different from ours. God's "now" cannot compare to what now means to us mortals. As the Psalmist wrote, "Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain."

So we must be mindful of the fact that our own knowledge will always be woefully incomplete and our language inadequate to the task. But we must do the best we can, always in humility.

Premise 2
God knows everything that can be known and knows it absolutely. Everything that can be known includes all actualities and all potentialities. God's knowledge of what happened during the Exodus is just as certain as what happened on your last birthday. And God's knowledge of what is happening with the remotest hydrogen atom in the most distant galaxy is just as complete as what is happening in your mind while you read these words. But God does not know Santa Claus because Santa Claus is neither actual nor potential.

Premise 3
Because God's knowledge of the future includes all its potentialities, human beings really do have freedom to choose among multiple potential courses. The possible choices are neither unlimited nor unbounded. That is, our freedom is finite in potential and limited in actuality. Kasparov did have freedom to choose how to move his pieces, but only within the rules of the game.

"Choose this day whom you will serve," Joshua admonished the people before they crossed into the Promised Land. The choice is real, and so is the choosing.

Premise 4
Every event, no matter how minute, is influenced in passing from "potential" to "real" by three things:

A. Its antecedents in time, the past events that created the finity of possibilities. But the past cannot be the only influence because then there would be no novelty in the world.

B. The nature of the thing in question. This nature both opens and closes potentialities: things must be and become what they are but cannot be or become what they are not. There is freedom in the becoming, though. "Birds gotta sing and fish gotta swim," but they do not all sing or swim the same, even within the same species.

C. The will of God for each potentiality. In every event, no matter how minute, God is willing the event to its finest possible fulfillment. As the Isaiah passage above indicates, God's will does not always come to pass, at least not wholly or perhaps not yet.

Because God foresees every possibility, God's will is always active and always present. Not everything that happens is God's will, but God's will is present (hence, can be sought) no matter what happens.

This is a key point: Just as the more stuff you buy from Amazon, the more accurate Amazon predicts your next purchases, God learns as time passes, as the verses cited above indicate (and there are others). That is, God's "certainty" range of knowledge of future events is increasing while the "potential" range of his knowledge of future events is decreasing, enabling God to be more effective in shaping events as they transition from potential to actual.

Premise 5
God adjusts to circumstances as they become, which are not always as he intended. Example, Matthew 19, in which Jesus says to some men who had questioned him about divorce, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning."

The Law of Moses was a gift of God and explained God's will. Here Jesus says that God did not intend "in the beginning" that husbands and wives should divorce but permits it because of the intractability of human sinfulness.

God makes temporal adjustments to his will to account for the facts of creation. God's ends do not change, but his means for accomplishing them do, based on how creation's freedom plays out within the parameters God has set for it.

Shakespeare must have figured this out: "There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, Rough-hew them how we will—" (Hamlet, Act 5).

Premise 6
If there is anything that God does not know absolutely, as the Scriptures seem to indicate, God's knowledge of the future is infinitely greater than human knowledge of the present. Which is to say that even God's uncertainty of future events is indescribably superior to our certainty of past or present. Paul would seem to affirm this in 1 Cor. 1.25: "For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength."

No matter which possibilities of billions or more turn out to become reality, the "clairvoyant science, Deep Blue" God has already entirely foreseen them in all their permutations. Gregory Boyd put it this way in Satan and the Problem of Evil:
God perfectly knows from all time what will be, what would be, and what may be. And he sovereignly sets the parameters for all three categories. Moreover, because God possesses infinite intelligence, his knowledge of what might be leaves him no less prepared for the future than his knowledge of determinate aspects of creation. ...

Because he is infinitely intelligent, he does not need to “thin out” his attention over numerous possibilities as we do. He is able to attend to each one of a trillion billion possibilities, whether they be logical possibilities, what would be, or what might be, as though it was the only possibility he had to consider. He is infinitely attentive to each and every one. Hence, whatever possibility ends up coming to pass, we may say that from all eternity God was preparing for just this possibility, as though it were the only possibility that could ever possibly occur. Even when possibilities occur that are objectively improbable – and to this extent surprise or disappoint God – it is not at all the case that he is caught off guard. He is as perfectly prepared for the improbable as he is for the probable. [Italics added]
God has a will for the universe and everything within it. Yet everything within creation has a will, too, even if only a mechanistic one. Freedom is real but always exists and is exercised within the boundaries inherent in the created order. God, having created this order to begin with, is greater than it is. Nothing can happen in the universe that God cannot foresee, but to foresee is not to know absolutely in the sense that classical theism conceives of it.

Even so, from our human perspective perhaps it is a distinction without a difference except for a very critical one: we are not predestined at birth either to heaven or hell as the Reformers believed. Of all the freedoms we have to choose or not, there is only one that matters eternally. It is simply whether we will say yes to God. It is God's will that no one should perish (2 Peter 3:9) but we do have the ability to reject God's grace.

Just as Kasparov's choices of potential moves was diminished by the loss of every piece, eventually the universe's potentialities are narrowed until the only possibility that is left is the final fulfillment of God's will. Then it truly will be that "the old order of things has passed away" (Rev. 21).

The problems

Classical theism protects the unbridled sovereignty of God at the expense of human freedom and morality. While one might like to assert, "God is in his heavens and all is well in the world," the world is manifestly not well. The book of Job strikes directly to heart of the problem: if God is as classical theism describes him, why do the innocent suffer? Whence come war, disease, massively-destructive natural disasters and all the other evils of life?

In God at War, Gregory Boyd posits,
Assuming (rightly) that God is perfectly loving and good, and assuming (wrongly, I hold) that divine omnipotence entails meticulous control, the problem of evil ... becomes simply unsolvable.
Resolving the problem of evil is far beyond the scope of this post, but classical theism is unable to answer its basic conundrum: if God is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good, then Job is right - God has some 'splaining to do. The usual approach, as Rabbi Kushner explained in his bestselling Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People, is to adjust one's concept either of God's power or knowledge in order to protect at all costs God's goodness. For if God is not purely and absolutely good, then we are lost. We would have no basis to trust God and while we should fear him there would be no reason to worship or love him.

My concept, rough as it is, of "Deep Blue Theism" avoids this conundrum, though certainly difficult questions remain. Chief among them is that Deep Blue theology must allow for God's direct intervention in human affairs and into individual human actions, of which there are many examples in Scripture (notably, for example, God's convincing Joseph not to send Mary away but to take her as his wife). If I allow for these and other Scriptural examples, why not allow for it all around?

Another problem: I have expressed that there are natural constraints on human freedom built into how we are created. In what sense, then, are we meaningfully free before God since God has already limited our freedom by the way he created us?

Finally, I wrote that "God's 'certainty' range of knowledge of future events is increasing while the 'potential' range of his knowledge of future events is decreasing, enabling God's will to be more effective in shaping events." If that is so, then we would expect the world to be conforming evermore to godliness. But that seems be a hard claim to support empirically.

All this is to say, however, that human freedom in relation to God is difficult to understand. Classical theism does not even try and this is, I think, its fatal failing. Classical theism is all about God and not much about God's creation. But self-evidently, God is not about himself but about his creation - in the giving of the covenant at Sinai, for example, in John 3:16 and in Matthew 20.28, "the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." God is deeply and personally involved in the world in the most intimate ways possible to the extent that he is willing to accept that his will can be thwarted in order to preserve our ability to love him back (understanding that God's will can only be thwarted temporarily).

But a question lingers: Could God choose to exercise the meticulous, micromanaging control over every instant that classical theism says he does but that Deep Blue Theism says he does not? The obvious answer is yes, God could do that if God wanted, but an even deeper question is thereby provoked: would it be loving of God to do so? "Yes" is far from an obvious answer to that. Love is inherently relational. A puppeteer may love his puppets but most assuredly they do not love him back. Love desires willing responses, not robotic role playing. So no wonder that God advised his people, "You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart" (Jer. 29.13).

1 John 4.8 says, "God is love." 2 Timothy 2.13 says that even if we are unfaithful to God (hence unloving), God remains faithful (hence loving) to us "for he cannot deny himself."

God is love. God cannot be not-God. Hence God cannot be unloving of his creation. And so, wanting each of us to seek him all our hearts, God does not close the future, but opens it to permit us to shape it along with him and all the attendant uncertainties that go along with that - and he cannot be or do otherwise, "for he cannot deny himself.

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Monday, June 20, 2011

Directions for Theresa and Sam

Here are a few photos and a video for you.

This is the ramp right from Hiway 96 onto Fairview Blvd/Hiway 100 South. It is not well marked. But if you go under the bridge straight ahead it will merge with 100 North, so don't go under a bridge!

This is the top of the ramp merging onto Hiway 100 S. As I mentioned earlier, there is no merge lane at all. Be careful for traffic coming from the rear.

Stay on Hwy 100S for 3.2 miles or so after merging. They are tearing up a stretch of the road thru "downtown" Fairview:

Just keep on trucking!

A little movie action for you, showing where to turn.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

What's the most epic photo ever taken? - Quora

What's the most epic photo ever taken? - Quora

The answer is a photo of Earth taken from the edge of the solar system.
Pale Blue Dot is a photograph of planet Earth taken from a record distance of 3.7 billion miles, at the edge of our solar system. It was shot and transmitted by the Voyager 1 spacecraft almost 13 years after its launch.
See also my Google Docs presentation on Genesis and the Origin of Life.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Jeopardy's Watson computer: Just a high-speed moron

Here is the Youtube of IBM's computer, Watson, beating its human challengers like a mongrel dog on Jeopardy last night. Look carefully at the clues? Notice anything?

Almost none of the answers on the game board required any kind of abstract reasoning to answer. In fact, you could put a human with practically no knowledge of the subjects on the board in front of a computer connected to Google and that person could simply type in the nouns of the clues and get the same answers.

Example - the first question of the game:

And the Google:

Strip out Watson's blinding speed, and it is no smarter than human beings at all. Watson, for all its engineering impressiveness, simply did only what computers have always done: collate at blinding speed (and compute mathematical probabilities to choose an answer). It does not matter that Watson was not connected to the Internet since its mass-memory unit holds 16 Terabytes of data, processed by a 2,880 processor core. As my own computer professor said (many years ago!), "A computer is just a high-speed moron." There is nothing about Watson that I have read so far that obviates that observation.

I think its programmers must have realized this since they artificially crippled Watson by design. Note that Watson was programmed not to buzz in unless it computed an answer of at least 50 percent "confidence" of being right. This was an entirely artificial barrier. Why not 75 percent? Or 25 percent? Or any level at all? Watson is so blindingly fast that it could have buzzed in for every question before either champion (making their presence merely ceremonial, which it almost was anyway). Then Watson simply could have given its top answer, regardless of confidence level, and the computer still would have got 90% of the questions right.

In other words, if the game had allowed Watson to give uncrippled answers, it would have always answered first and would have won even more decisively. But then, with access to the same amounts of data resources through Google, I could beat the two champions if the game always allowed me to answer first. In fact, I'd win under the same confidence crippling as long as I could answer first - because clearly Watson will always be able to buzz in faster than a person.

So what does Watson really prove? From a technical, engineering and programming perspective, it's an amazing achievement with enormous potential for a wide range of applications ranging across broad multi-disciplinary subjects and problems. As for the Jeopardy game, there's less than meets the eye. Count it as a proof-of-concept exercise. What it did not do was reason abstractly. It just collated amazing amounts of information very rapidly. But we already knew that computers are faster than we are for specified tasks. That's why we build them to begin with.

Sorry, Prof. Reynolds, the Singularity has not arrived.

Update: Good discussion on this at The Speculist, including this nugget:

@stephentgo: Repercussions of IBM's Watson unknown, but any job that involves answering questions by phone will soon be at risk. http://bit.ly/hp91hW

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