The Image of God

Imagine an art historian whose life work is to study Picasso paintings.  She analyses the minute flecks of paint on each work, to determine their composition.  She also goes to conferences where people divide the paintings into different eras, and tries to see if her results can be related to their discoveries.

However, she doesn't believe Picasso actually existed.  Nor do most of her colleagues.  A few of them do, but it is considered somewhat gauche to mention it in talks or official publications.

It's a bit like this whenever a scientist doesn't believe in God.  The work may have technical expertise, even brilliance, but it misses the forest for the trees.  It is blind to the biggest, most important result of all.

I don't mean to imply that Atheism is as implausible as Picasso-denial would be.  The philosophical arguments for the existence of God require careful contemplation, and some thoughtful individuals have resisted them as (in their opinion) fallacious.  Indeed, most scientists don't give the question careful thought at all.  But as somebody who is convinced God exists, the final outcome still seems (regardless of how understandable it may be) a little bit comic or absurd.  You may not believe in God, but you carefully study his laws and decrees.  Look up from your work, contemplate the ocean or hills, and ask your heart where all this beauty came from!

There is yet another respect in which God haunts Science, as its inspiration and origin.  We can also look at the scientist as a human being.  Without the human mind, Nature would of course still exist, but Science (which is just the careful study of Nature by beings with minds) would not.

Jews and Christians believe that all human beings — no exceptions! — are created in the image of God.  It is because we have a likeness to the Creator, that we are capable of both Science (understanding God's creation) and Art (making our own creations).  So scientists who don't believe in God aren't just blind to what's in front of them, they are also blind to their own true self, to the spiritual power that enables them to work on a calculation or a measurement.  But, their work still reflects God's glory, even though they don't recognize it.

Now God is invisible.  As the Creator, God precedes Nature and transcends it.  Divinity has no physical form, and the human mind cannot comprehend it.  To make a graven image of any animal or person, and worship that as if it were divine, is regarded in the Bible as idolatry, a serious sin.  Yet this same book insists from its very first chapter that God created men and women in his own image!

The human animal may be a rather Picasso-esque, surreal representation of the uncreated, bodiless, singular Power that set the stars in the sky and binds quarks into nuclei; yet it is the representation that is given to us, as a handle to reach out and touch the divine.  We are not God, but we are like God; and by serving our neighbor we also serve the one who made him.

And although none of us yet fully live up to our potential as icons or paintings of God, we have the promise that the Master Artist is working on us, striving forcefully to make us that perfect image (if only we allow ourselves to be worked on).  We are all broken in many ways, and that definitely includes me!  But the same God who patiently waited billions of years to make our world — who brought forth the evolution of single cells, sponges, fish, dinosaurs, and (in these last days) birds — is also working to redeem each of us, and the human family as a whole.  That is why Christ came to earth, on a daring rescue mission: to put us back in touch with the source of the whole universe.

This is far more exciting and interesting than the shallow sentiments that most moderns try to console themselves with.  As St. Dorothy Sayers observed, "There was never anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy, nothing so sane and so thrilling."  In that respect it is, again, like the best moments of scientific discovery.

Posted in Theology | 5 Comments

Peace Prayer

This prayer is on my mind today.  It is often wrongly attributed to St. Francis, but is clearly modern.

When something like this is repeated by enough different people, it can start to sound like a cliché, but none of these requests are trivial-minded!  The only real flaw with the structure is that it focusses on the word "me" far too often for a prayer that is supposed to be about "self-forgetting".  Nevertheless, there is some real spiritual beauty here that is worth meditating on:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
Where there is offense, let me bring pardon.
Where there is discord, let me bring union.
Where there is error, let me bring truth.
Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.
Where there is despair, let me bring hope.
Where there is darkness, let me bring your light.
Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.

O Master, let me not seek as much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love,
for it is in giving that one receives,
it is in self-forgetting that one finds,
it is in pardoning that one is pardoned,
it is in dying that one is raised to eternal life.

Lord, may it be so!  And as every Eastern Orthodox priest recites during the liturgy: "Forgive those who hate us, and those that love us."  Amen.

Posted in Blog, Poetry, Theology | 5 Comments

Science and Sin: Random Links

Even though I haven't been blogging much recently, I've still been accumulating a large number of links, far too many for one sitting.  I've noticed that they all seem to mostly belong to two categories: Science or Sin.  So that tells you which things I find interesting.  Here they are:

♦  This tool will tell you immediately whether your email address has been compromised by any known data breaches.

♦  "Molecular Dynamics" is the name of computer simulations to describe the behavior of atoms in motion.  Instead of reading the rest of the links, you should try out this online Interactive MD simulator.  (The name is a bit of a misnomer, since in this case there are no molecules, just `atoms' interacting with a force law which is attractive when the atoms are a bit close, but repulsive when they get very close.)  Despite the fact that it has only 2 space dimensions, there is still a clear distinction between solid, liquid, and gas phases (except above the critical point, where the atoms are too crowded for there to be a sharp distinction between liquid and gas).  See if you can adjust the pressure and temperature so that solid, liquid, and gas phases all simultaneously coexist!

♦  Galileo: the first science publicist?

♦  Although the Catholic Church may have had some temporary hangups about Heliocentrism, it seems the Church has never had any problems with String Theory.  In 1277, the Bishop of Paris condemned as heretical the propositions that God "could not make more than three dimensions of space simultaneously" and that God "could not make several universes".  To be clear, it's OK not to believe in extra dimensions or universes, but if you think they couldn't have existed, then you are telling God what he can and can't do, and that puts you in the same geometrically-misguided camp as the Spherical Heretics.

♦  Haven't checked how good it is, but here's some interesting looking online math and science tutorials at brilliant.org.

♦  Apparently scientists found (in an asteroid) some diamonds which could only have been formed in a planet bigger than Mercury but smaller than Mars.  Of which there are currently none in our Solar System.  But one of the things I learned in Graduate Mechanics (see also #3 here) is that the Solar System is surprisingly unstable over periods of many millions of years.  You might think that the small gravitational effects of planets on each other would be more or less random.  But if any two of the orbits happen to synch up into a small whole-number ratio (e.g. 3:2) then these small effects happen in a consistent way each cycle.  Sometimes they accumulate, causing large changes to the system (e.g. a planet may be ejected from the Solar System).

♦  Around 49 million years ago, a bunch of freshwater Azolla fern blooms sank down to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean and sequestered about 80% of the CO2, causing the planet to shift from a "greenhouse Earth state, hot enough for turtles and palm trees to prosper at the poles, to the icehouse Earth it has been since."

In other news, we are now dumping large quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere.  Every time you take a breath, you are getting about 40% more CO2 in your lungs than people got before the Industrial Revolution.  (By the way, there's a name for the political philosophy that we shouldn't allow random large changes to the world because of the risk of unintended consequences.  It's called conservativism.)  Here's one good solution.  Sometimes, my fellow conservatives, we need to allow a small change to prevent an even bigger change.  :-)

♦  ...or I guess we could try to stop supervolcanos instead.

♦  This is not really a political blog, but I hope nobody thinks I don't condemn all the bad things just because I don't talk about them much.  I continue to believe that we should not have elected President Trump, that as citizens we ought to speak respectfully about the President (no matter who fills the office), and that one of the things we should respectfully say is that he's done some incompetent and immoral things.  As one little example of the latter, consider the pardon of Joe Arpaio several months ago.  (The guy who wrote the editorial is some kind of socialist, but facts is facts.)  On the whole, I'm pleasantly surprised by how little he's been able to implement his specific political agenda, but I would prefer to have a President who doesn't systematically undermine his own Cabinet members whenever they try to do anything useful.

♦  If we don't like judges reinterpreting the Constitution, then there's a case for reforming Article V to make it easier for people to change it when there is enough popular consensus.

♦  Since the US justice system is almost entirely based on plea bargains, it's worth knowing that there are countries like Germany that manage to avoid it entirely.  Not sure it is possible with our judicial system though.

♦  What is the most effective means of dealing with people with reprehensible political opinions?  Is it punching Nazis, like Captain America?  Is it mockery?  How about something with a proven track record—befriending people who think they hate you?  The last link is about St. Daryl Davis, a black musician who talks to KKK members, and has numerous KKK robes in his closet given to him by people who he convinced to leave the organization.

♦  People often assume that people mostly only believe in religions because they were raised in them.  They also often assume (perhaps because of their social circles) that deconversion from religion is common while conversion is quite rare.  Actually, both events are quite frequent.  In the USA, the statistics seem to say that religiously unaffiliated people are actually more likely to convert to a religion, than religious people are to become unaffiliated:

"Paradoxically, the unaffiliated have gained the most members in the process of religious change despite having one of the lowest retention rates of all religious groups. Indeed, most people who were raised unaffiliated now belong to a religious group.  Nearly four-in-ten of those raised unaffiliated have become Protestant (including 22% who now belong to evangelical denominations), 6% have become Catholic and 9% are now associated with other faiths."  (page 2 of Pew link)

Of course "unaffiliated" is not necessarily the same thing as atheist (although probably most "unaffiliated" households at least do not provide strong social pressure to believe in God or any particular religion.)

♦  James Mellaart (1925-2012) was one of the great archaeologists of the 20th century (or so it seemed); he made several major finds but had a tendency to be involved in controversy over the acquisition of artifacts.  But recently it was revealed that he engaged in a course of systematic fraud that casts doubt on his entire career.  This is the guy who popularized the idea of a prehistoric Mother Goddess religion, although this had been disconfirmed by scholarship long before the discovery of his wrongdoing.

♦  Also from St. Brandon Watson's blog, one of the best answers I've ever seen to the rather silly Argument from Lots of Space that some atheists use.

♦  A radio debate between St. Luke Barnes (whose book I mentioned here and here) and Sean Carroll, about whether Naturalism or Theism best explains the universe.

♦  The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Cosmology is pretty good as these things go.

♦  Stanford researchers on the analogue of dark matter in biology: 99 percent of the microbes inside of you are unknown to Science.

♦  Speaking of Stanford, it seems that St. Jane Stanford — the cofounder and architectural designer of The Leland Stanford Jr. University, named after her scholarly son who died at the age of 15 before he could attend college — was murdered, quite possibly by the first President of the University (whom she intended to fire, before her sudden death by strychnine poisoning).  Fun fact, when this story was told to me at a dinner party, two other people shared accounts of academic poisoning scandals, e.g. the time Oppenheimer tried to poison his tutor at Cambridge (but he changed his mind before it was too late).

♦  Passing from the 6th commandment "Thou shalt not murder", to the 4th commandment to keep the Sabbath (including allowing your servants to rest): Just-in-Time Scheduling is the oppressive practice of telling part-time workers at the last minute what their hours are, based on obscure computer algorithms.  Without of course paying them for the hours they had to set aside for work, but didn't end up being assigned to.  This makes it difficult for workers in the retail industry to regularly attend church, attend to children, or indeed have any kind of outside life.

This is bad and it should stop.  "You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your countrymen or one of your aliens who is in your land in your towns" (Deut 24:15).  If anyone reading this happens to be complicit, then "Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you.  The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty" (James 5:4).  So repent from your wicked deeds, turn to the Lord and seek forgiveness!

♦  Apparently the literary trope of intimidating the natives by predicting an eclipse you just happen to know is scheduled to occur soon, actually happened once, although the instigator was a crackpot who didn't know how to calculate the radius of the Earth correctly, and was incidentally a tyrannical oppressor himself...

♦  An interesting article by Catholic apologist St. Jimmy Akin on whether the Exodus happened (readers can compare to my own take here).  Fun quote:

If you read the military records left by Egyptian pharaohs, guess what! They never lost a battle! (Though we do sometimes read about them “winning” battles progressively closer and closer to home as their armies were forced to retreat.)

♦  A nice review of St. David Bentley Hart’s new translation of the New Testament.  It's pretty cool but one thing it is definitely not is letting the New Testament speak for itself apart from an agenda, since Hart is very opinionated about a few very specific topics.

One notable eccentricity is he bends over backwards to translate in a way which allows for (but does not require) belief in universal salvation, generally by translating αἰώνιος as something like "in the Age" where other translations say "eternal".

Less defensibly, St. Hart (who is Eastern Orthodox) also claims that the Protestant belief in salvation apart from works has no basis in the text, and fights against it by translating ἔργα (which is a fairly generic term for doings or deeds) throughout St. Paul's letters as "observances" rather than "works".  E.g. Hart translates Gal 2:16 as "A human being is vindicated not by observances of the Law but by the faithfulness of the Anointed One Jesus" (click on the link to compare to other translations).  Hart claims that St. Paul "rejected only the notion that one might be `shown righteous' by `works' of the Mosaic Law—that is, ritual `observances' like circumcision and keeping kosher" (from the Preface).

However, the `Jewish rituals' interpretation of ἔργα (works) and νόμος (law)—while within the possible scope of meaning in certain contexts—fails to make sense of several key passages in Romans.  For example, in Romans 2:14, when the Gentiles are a "law to themselves", this clearly refers to their conscience rather than to Jewish ritual.  Or in 4:6, when St. Paul writes that "David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the one to whom God credits righteousness apart from works" (NIV), is it really plausible that King David's song about forgiveness is about the blessing of not having to obey Jewish ritual law anymore?  Isn't it more likely about him being forgiven for an ethical breach, like maybe sleeping with Bathsheba and murdering her husband?  Or in 7:7, the "law" which Paul says he was condemned by is "Do not covet", which highlights an ethical problem, not a ceremonial one!

Inconsistently, St. Hart retains the traditional translations of ἔργα as "works" and πίστις as "faith" in the famous passage in James 2:24 which says that "a human being is made righteous by works, and not by faith alone"!  However, this apparent contradiction is to be resolved theologically, I do not believe that a translator should put his thumb on the scale by rendering the exact same contrasting pair of words differently in these verses, to support a preferred theological agenda.  (Less importantly, it seems that if he is going to write "Logos" in the opening of John, it would have been nice to also use it in passages like James 1:18, "He chose to give us birth through the word of truth..." where λόγος seems to have a similarly expansive meaning.)

♦  Is Critical Thinking Epistemically Responsible?
Yes, Critical Thinking Is Epistemically Responsible!

♦  Teaching people lists of fallacies is insufficient for critical thinking, because almost all supposed "fallacies" become legitimate arguments in certain circumstances, and only careful thinkers can tell the difference.

♦  On being an informed media consumer, with reference to the mythology from Genesis of the Tower of Babel.  The final conclusion is a bit exaggerated, but makes an interesting point.

♦  One more reason to engage in critical thinking: the mindless, uncritical use of a single statistical method throughout the social and medical sciences.

♦  But the education grant world is even worse.  Where worse means not just being incapable of distinguishing between succeeding at one's goal and the strategy you choose to implement it, but also horribly racist things like assuming children must be in greater need of "help" just because they are black and poor, and therefore putting them in remedial math classes (without ever checking their math ability) where they aren't taught appropriately.

♦  If you'd like to send money to a good cause where rational people actually check to make sure that it is highly effective at helping people, then please consider the charities endorsed by GiveWell, a nonprofit that does just this.  Not surprisingly, the best bang for the buck is spending money in 3rd world countries, usually for public health.

(GiveWell only rates secular charities.  If you want to give effectively to Christian evangelism then I personally recommend either Wycliffe Bible Translators or the Jesus Film.)

Posted in Links | 18 Comments

Crossing the Ocean

For the last several months I've been very busy with job interviews and I haven't had much time to actually think about Physics, let alone blog about it.  Sorry to everyone whose comments I've neglected in the meantime, but I hope you were having fun discussing among yourselves...

That brings us to a major life announcement.  Last week I've accepted a Lectureship at the University of Cambridge!  (Yes, the one in England.)  Needless to say, I was shocked, humbled, and flattered (all at once) when I heard I would be getting an offer a few weeks ago.  So starting Jan 1st, 2019 (Lord willing and the visa come) I'll be a faculty member at the 4th oldest University in the world (after Bologna, Paris, and Oxford)*.  Nicole and I are very excited!  Until this new job begins, I remain at Stanford.

The faculty job ranks in the UK go like this: Lecturer → Reader → Professor.  This is roughly equivalent to Assistant Professor → Associate Professor → Full Professor in the USA, but unfortunately it means you can't call me "professor" yet while anyone from the UK is listening.  That includes here on the internet, sorry.

In another shocking twist of convention (and I'm sure it won't be the last) Theoretical Physics is considered a subcategory of Maths in the UK (note the Britishised spelling, which gives the term its own local colour).  Specifically I'll be at DAMTP.  Apparently the Physics Department does something else, I guess they're the folks who interact with the actual physical world?

The good news is, it seems I don't have to worry about getting tenure.  Technically there's a 5 year probationary period before I'd get appointed to retirement age, but apparently no one in Maths has ever been denied in living memory.  (Although you never know, I could always be the first—everyone's always said I'm exceptional.)  Except for a few big names, the universities in the US like to reassure their junior hires that their tenure rates are in the high nineties.  But there's a big difference between marrying a spouse who's 95% likely to be faithful, and one who is virtually certain to be—it's nice not to have to worry about it!

Cambridge has 31 affiliated colleges (like Baskin-Robbins and flavours), each with their own heraldic scarf colors.  The Lectures and Exams are set by the University Teaching Officers, while the College Fellows tutor the students in the material in groups of 1-3 students.  Unlike Oxford, membership in a college is optional for University faculty, and many people in math and science don't.  But I think it would be cool (I mean, brilliant!) to dine with people working in completely different fields.  And while I'd like to believe I'll do a good job lecturing, my talents shine best in a one-on-one setting, where I can adapt my approach to each student.  So I'll definitely apply to join a college, but I don't know which one yet.  We'll just have to see what their Sorting Hat has to say about it.

Obviously, I'm sad not to be able to see Stephen Hawking after I arrive.  I was introduced to him a few years ago at a conference lunch in Brussels, but he was completely non-responsive at the time (he was eating).  But he did come to my talk the next day.  Now he has departed on a far more significant journey than my crossing to England will be...  I hope he is now at peace, and pray that he will find mercy and full healing when the Lord returns.  (Same goes for Joe Polchinski, a colleague from Santa Barbara who died a couple months ago of brain cancer.)  There are, however, lots of other superb gravitational theorists at Cambridge who are still among the earthly living, and I look forward to working with them.

* Disclaimer: History is always more fractaline than the simple narratives whenever you look at it closely, and this claim is no exception.  I went to Wikipedia to check it, and of course there are disputes about what counts as a University and what counts as its founding date.  It's really old, let's leave it at that.  (Needless to say, the views in this post are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Cambridge University.)

Posted in Blog, Education | 16 Comments

Apostles' Creed Readings

UPDATE: The series is now complete, and I have posted pdfs of a complete set of handouts below.

Recently, Nicole and I have been running a discussion group on the Apostles' Creed at our Church.  The Apostles' Creed is a traditional statement of faith, used during baptisms, that developed organically in the Western Church over the first few centuries.  It wasn't actually written by the apostles, although it is an accurate summary of their teachings.

Here are the handouts we wrote to use in the discussion:

APOSTLES' CREED:

I believe in God the Father Almighty
Maker of Heaven and Earth
And in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary <-  Christmas readings!
Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified
Dead, and buried
He descended into hell
The third day he rose again from the dead
He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty
From there he shall come to judge the living and the dead
I believe in the Holy Spirit
I believe in the Holy Catholic* Church
The communion of saints
The forgiveness of sins
The resurrection of the body
and the life everlasting.

*i.e. universal

Each handout discusses a different line in the Creed, and contains 1) a few quotes from the Bible, 2) a few quotes from Christian writers, always  and 3) two very quick arguments for why Christians believe that part of the Creed.  We always included at least one scripture from each Testament, and at least one quote from an ancient Christian saint as well as at least one from a modern Christian saint.

If you or your church wish to run a similar group, you are free to print out, use, and/or modify these handouts with no restrictions.  We begin with prayer, and take turns reading from the handout.  Then I've been getting a different church member each Sunday (not necessarily a regular member of the group) to testify for 5-10 minutes what that line in the Creed means to them personally—unfortunately this isn't included in the handouts!—and this opens up a general discussion.  Then we end with prayer.  The whole thing takes an hour.

Have a Merry Christmas everyone!

Posted in Theology | 11 Comments