New Job, excuses for not posting

This is just a quick note to say I've been travelling a lot recently (to Japan to visit the IPMU and to Seattle for Christmas) and have also been very busy with job application stuff.

I've accepted an exciting new postdoc at the Institute for Advanced Study near Princeton, starting in the fall.  Also, this Wed I am scheduled to interview for a faculty position at U Chicago.  We'll see if any of the planes are actually going there on Tuesday.   "Winter Storm Ion" is apparently going to provide the Windy City with the coldest temperatures in 20 years.  I went to the Sports Authority to get some cold-weather gear so I don't die.

I'm hoping to get back to blogging later this month.

Posted in Blog | 5 Comments

The "nuclear option" was illegal

Last week, 52 Senate Democrats voted to get rid of the filibuster for Presidential nominations to certain positions—in particular for Lower and Appelate Court Nominees, but not for Supreme Court nominees.  This move was branded as the "nuclear option" back when Republicans threatened to do it (but did not) during the Bush presidency.  It was completely and unabashedly illegal, and those Senators who voted for it (most of whom denounced it vigorously when Republicans proposed it) should be ashamed of themselves.  This post will explain why their decision was contrary to the law.

The most important law in the United States is the Constitution.  It takes precedence over all other laws, and describes under what conditions laws can be made.  It says among other things that

Each House [of Congress] may determine the Rules of its Proceedings, punish its Members for disorderly Behaviour, and, with the Concurrence of two thirds, expel a Member.  (Article I. Sec. 5)

In accordance with this proviso, each of the two houses of Congress has adopted a set of rules, which they use regulate debate, votes, and other matters (kind of like Robert's Rules of Order, but the details are different).  The Sentate Rules can be found here (Rule 22 being the most important for issues surrounding the filibuster). 

Since the Constitution authorizes the Senate to make Rules for itself, these Rules are just as much binding law as ordinary federal legislation is.  The only possible exception would be if a Rule contradicted the Constitution.  In that case, the Rule would be invalid.  For example, if the Senate passed a Rule saying that they could expel Senators with a majority vote, then this rule would be invalid, since the section of the Constitution which I quoted requires a 2/3 vote.  But on most procedural issues, the Constitution is silent so the Senate gets to decide.

The important Rules to know about are the following:

  • Technically, it only takes a majority of the Senate (if all are present 51, 50 with the VP) to pass Bills, to approve a Presidential Nominee, or to change the Rules, but this is only once debate on the Bill or Rule ends.

The hard way to end debate (which almost never happens) is to give two chances to each Senator to speak as long as they can on the topic (without taking breaks to go to the bathroom!).  This was used to pass the Civil Rights act of 1957, after Senator Strom Thurmand spoke for 24 hours and 18 minutes.  (This was a real filibuster, the kind where you read biscuit recipies, which almost never happens these days.)

The easy way is to invoke cloture, which limits the time left for debate:

  • It takes a 3/5 majority (60 votes) to end debate on most topics,
  • except on a motion to change the Senate Rules, which takes a 2/3 majority (67 votes).

So, practically speaking it takes 60 votes to do anything in the Senate.  This Rule forces the Majority Party to have to reach out at least a little bit to the Minority Party when they pass legislation.  Otherwise the Minority might refuse to vote for end debate (and this is what is usually called a "filibuster" in these boring times).

Some additional important Rules:

  • At any time, the Senate may agree to temporarily waive a Rule, but this requires a unanimous vote.
  • If there is a question about what a Rule means, the Presiding Officer gets to interpret the rule.  However, the matter can then be appealed (without debate) to the entire Senate, and by a majority vote they can sustain or reject the decision.

Now notice this.  It takes a 2/3 vote to change the Rules (really to end debate on a Rule change).  But it only takes a majority vote to interpret the Rules.  This makes sense: when the Senators vote to change a rule, they are exercising a legislative function, deciding what the rule ought to be.  When the Senators vote on interpeting the rules, they are excercising a quasi-judicial function.  Essentially, they are the "Supreme Court" which decides what the Rules mean.  When making this vote, surely they are morally bound to judge honestly, and decide, not what they think the rule ought to be, but what it actually is.  Otherwise, there would be no need for a higher threshold in order to actually change the rules.

But the power to interpret necessarily includes the power to misinterpret the Rules.  This can be used to abolish any Rule by majority vote—not by amending it, but simply by interpreting it not to apply, even when it clearly does apply.

This is the "nuclear option".  The way it plays out was as follows.  Majority Leader Reid raises a Question of Order asking whether the Rules permit him to end debate on a Judicial Nominee with only a majority vote.  Patrick Leahy, the Presiding Officer, rules that according to Senate Rules and precedents, the answer is No—the Rules clearly state that a 3/5 vote is required.  So Reid appeals the decision to the main body of the Senate.  The Senate voted 52-48 to overrule the decision of the Presiding Officer (among the 52 being Leahy himself!).  Bye bye filibuster for Judicial Nominees.  (3 Democrats had the integrity to vote against, and of course so did the Republicans.)

Note that no actual change to the text of the Rule occured.  It was only "reinterpreted", in a Humpty Dumpty-esque act of linguistic power:

'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.'

'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.'

'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master—that's all.'     (St. Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass)

I have asserted that there can be no actual justification for the Senate's interpretation of Rule 22 .  There are only 2 possible ways the decision could be correct.  Either: A) Rule 22 has a special exception for certain Judicial Nominees or else B) Rule 22's 3/5 vote requirement is unconstitutional when used to filibuster Judical Nominees.  (But apparently  not Supreme Court and Executive Branch Nominees?!?)

Option (A) is clearly absurd.  Rule 22 gives the threshold to "bring to a close the debate upon any measure, motion, other matter pending before the Senate".  Clearly the approval of a Judicial Nominee  "a measure, motion, or other matter".

Option (B) is only slightly less absurd.  The Constitution says that the President:

shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law.  (Article II. Sec. 2)

The argument here is that "Advice and Consent" implicitly includes the idea of a majority vote.  This is a rather weak argument, since "majority vote" is nowhere included in the text.  Whereas the statement about the Senate making its own Rules is quite explicit.  So this interpretation of the Constitution seems quite dubious.

Even if the Constitution did require a majority vote for Nominees, there is absolutely no good reason why this should apply to some types of Nominees but not others.  Nor is it obvious why the filibuster would be constitutional for legislation, since the majority vote requirement could just as easily be read into the power of the Senate to pass Bills.  But if the filibuster is unconstitutional in general, this would be a rather surprising thing to find out now, after 170 years of precendent to the contrary.

The fact is that those who voted for the "nuclear option" knew perfectly well that it was of extremely dubious legality.  They didn't do it because they genuinely believed in it.  They did it for political reasons, as a naked act of political power.

Can any justification can be made for this act?  Let me make some points about what is and is not relevant:

  1. Whether or not the "nuclear option" was legal cannot possibly depend on how frequently the Republicans were filibustering Judicial nominees.  It is a question of legal interpretation, not a question of history.  The unfair tactics and hypocrisy of the other side is irrelevant.
    .
  2. Besides, the Opposition Party in a democracy is allowed to use any legal tactic in order to delay or obstruct legislation.  If their obstruction is unwise, unprecedented, immoral, or hypocritical, voters may take note and respond.  But excessive use of a legal tactic on one side cannot justify use of an illegal tactic on the other side.
    .
  3. The liberty of a free people depends on the fact that government officials do not consider themselves above the law, but instead obey it.  Without this social norm, restrictions on the government (such as the Bill of Rights) would be meaningless.  This social norm is therefore far more important than nearly all of the minor partisan squabbles which could tempt one political party to abadon it.
    .
  4. There may be extreme circumstances which may justify illegal actions, but "There are hypocritical obstructionists in Congress" doesn't qualify.  That's way too common of an occurence to justify anything!
    .
  5. When I call the nuclear option illegal, I don't mean that the Senate doesn't have the power to interpret its own rules, or that this decision doesn't stand as a precedent from now on.  If the Supreme Court were to rule 5-4 that the First Amendment allows the government to ban books, this act would be legal in the sense that they are charged with interpreting the Constitution, yet still wrongly decided in the sense that it directly violates the text they are charged with interpeting.
    .
    If we further suppose that the Supreme Court knew perfectly well that the decision was erroneous, but did it anyway in order to spite their political opponents, then that would be a pretty close analogue to what the Senate just did.
    .
  6. Strictly speaking, it is the act of banning books which is unconstitutional, not the decision itself.  Similarly, the Senate decision is tantamount to an illegal violation of the Senate rules, but since it is the highest court for interpreting its own Rules, there is another sense in which what it did is now de facto legal.
    .
    This doesn't make much practical difference, though.  A completely lawless use of the power to interpret is exactly the same as if there were no law at all.
    .
  7. My views are not based on which party is in charge.  I was vehemently opposed to the "nuclear option" when Republicans proposed it, and I am still opposed now.

All told, it is a dark day for the Republic.  The trouble is, these days both Parties hate each other so much that they spend all their time thinking about how the other side is hypocritical, without noticing that they also chang their position whenever it is convenient.  (See Kerr's Law).  Political expediency trumps truth.  I'll spare you all the juicy quotes from the Senators who flip flopped on this issue when the Party roles were reversed.

Instead I will remind us of the words of the Master whom most of those in Congress claim to serve:

How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.  (Matthew 7:4-5)

Posted in Politics | 2 Comments

How to Construct Laws of Physics

Suppose you want to write down the laws of physics.  How would you go about it?

What?  You want to do some experiments first?  Forget about that.  This is theoretical physics.  Let's not worry about pedantic things like what the actually correct laws of physics are.  Instead, let's try to ask what they should look like more generally.  What are the ground rules for trying to construct laws of physics?

(Of course, in reality we do get these ground rules from experiment.  The way it works is, we make up rules to describe lots of specific systems which we actually measure, and then eventually we get some idea of what the meta-rules are, i.e. the rules for constructing the rules.  But let's just try to make something up here, and see how close we get to reality.)

Let's try to do this step by step.  Let's take for granted the existence of a spacetime.  In the first step, we need to decide what kind of entites there are moving around in this spacetime.  Since we're on the hook for giving an exact description, we'd better start with something which is mathematically simple.  For example, we could postulate that there are a bunch of point particles flying around.  If there are N particles, and space is 3 dimensional, then we can describe all of their positions with 3N parameters.  (We can then think of the universe as a point moving around in a 3N dimensional space, called configuration space.)

Or maybe there's a bunch of strings wiggling around.  Or perhaps there are fields, whose values are defined at each point of space.  (In these cases, we will need an infinite number of parameters to describe what is going on at each moment of time!   But don't worry—since we won't be doing any actual calculations, this won't necessarily make things any harder.)

All right.  Now that we've decided what kind of stuff we have, we need to know how it changes with time.  For this we need to write down equations of motion.

We could write down an equation involving one derivative of positions with respect to time.  This would determines the velocity of each piece of particle/string/field/whatever in terms of its position.  But that won't be like real physics since real physical objects have inertia.  Stuff keeps on trucking until a force acts on it.  This means that the future motion of an object doesn't just depend on where it is right now, but also on how fast it is going.

So instead we need to write down an equation involving two derivatives of the position with respect to time.  This will determine the acceleration of each entity, as a function of its position and/or velocity.  That's a bit more like real life.   (In other words, to work out what happens we need to know about both the positions and velocities.  If we have N particles, this is a 6N dimensional space called phase space.)

So you could just sit down and write down some second-order differential equation equation involving acceleration, and call that the laws of physics.  But most of these would still be qualitatively different from the fundamental laws of actual physics.  For example, nothing would stop you from including friction terms which would cause the motion of objects to slow down as time passes.  For example, if we have a particle moving along the x-axis, we could write down an equation like this:

\ddot{x} = -\dot{x}.

This would cause the particle to slow down as time passes.  But in reality, friction only ever happens when some object rubs up against another object.  The motion doesn't disappear, it just goes into the other object.  This is related to Newton's Third Law, a.k.a conservation of momentum.

So physics has more rules then one might think are really necessary.  You can't just write down any old equations of motion.  They have to be special, magical equations, which satisfy certain properties.

We could just make some giant list of desired laws.  But that would be rather ad hoc.  Instead, physicists try to derive all of the magic from some simple framework.  We've just seen that just writing down equations of motion is not the best framework since it doesn't guarantee basic physics principles like conservation laws.

There are two particularly simple frameworks which can be used.  For most systems these are equivalent, and you can derive one framework from the other.  I'm just going to summarize these at lightening speed here:

  • Lagrangian mechanics:  Here the fundamental concept is the action, a number

    S = \int L(x,\,\dot{x})\,dt

    obtained by integrating some function L(x,\,\dot{x}) of the positions and velocities over all moments of time.  (L is called the "Lagrangian", and is normally equal to the kinetic energy minus the potential energy).  The basic rule is that a small change \delta x(t) in the paths of particles/strings/fields/whatever in any finite time interval  t_\mathrm{initial} < t < t_\mathrm{final} should leave the action unchanged, to first order (i.e. up to terms linear in \delta x(t)).  In other words:

    \frac{\delta S}{\delta x(t)} = 0.

    Here x can be any of the position parameters in the theory.  Once you write down a single equation specifying S, all of the equations of motion for all entities are determined by this rule.
    .
    As a simple example, consider a point particle moving along a 1-dimensional coordinate x, with a potential V(x) which depends on your position.  This might describe a train sliding frictionlessly along a roller coaster track, where x is the length measured along the track and V(x) is proportional to its height measured from the ground. The Lagrangian is kinetic energy minus potential energy:

    \frac{m\dot{x}^2}{2} - V(x).

    The rule here is that given the initial and final locations of the train in some short time interval, the train moves in a way that minimizes the total action of its trajectory—which implies by basic principles of calculus that small variations of the path have to leave the action unchanged.
    .
    Imagine if you are walking from your house to a shop.  You leave your house and 9 am, and you need to be at the shop at exactly 10 am.  You don't like walking too quickly, because it expends too  energy.  On the other hand, if it's a bit chilly you might also prefer to spend more time in sunny areas, and less time in shady areas.  What would you do?  If you want to maximize your happiness (or minimize your unhappiness), you would compromise by walking more quickly in the shade than in the sun.  Similarly, if we fancifully suppose that the train had a soul and that it preferred to spend more time up high (so long as it gets to its destination on time), we would then have an explanation for why the train lingers at the higher parts of the track.  More generally, when the potential energy is higher the kinetic energy is less—one can prove that the total energy is conserved.
  • Hamiltonian mechanics: The fundamental concept here is that all parameters in physics come in ``conjugate'' pairs.  For example, for a regular particle, the conjugate variable to the position x is the momentum p = m\dot{x}, while the conjugate variable to momentum is minus the position, -x.  (That minus sign is important: without it conservation laws wouldn't work properly.)  The variable which is conjugate to time is known as the "Hamiltonian" H—this turns out to be nothing other than the total energy of the system (kinetic plus potential).   It turns out that if you know the Hamiltonian H(x,\,p) as a function of the positions and their conjugate momenta, you can work out everything that happens.  You work out the equations of motion with the rule (called "Hamilton's equations" that the change of a parameter with respect to time, equals the change of the energy with respect to the conjugate variable.  In other words:

    \frac{dx}{dt} = \frac{\partial H}{\partial p},\qquad\frac{dp}{dt} = -\frac{\partial H}{\partial x}.

    The minus sign in the second equation means that position is to momentum as momentum is to minus momentum, just like I told you.
    .
    A consequence of "Hamilton's equations" is that, assuming H does not depend on some particular position coordinate x, \partial H / \partial x = 0 and so p is conserved.  More generally, Hamilton's second equation says that the "force" \dot{p} is zero when the gradient (i.e. derivative) of H with respect to position is zero.  Similarly, if the gradient of H with respect to the p coordinate is zero, then \partial H / \partial p = 0, and Hamilton's first equation says that the velocity \dot{x} is zero.  If the fomula for kinetic energy is the usual nonrelativistic formula p^2 / 2m (written as a function of the momentum p instead of \dot{x} since this formulation of physics is all about p's), this tells us that the "velocity" is zero when the momentum is zero.
    .
    More generally, Hamilton's equations tell you that if you graph out the 2 dimensional phase space of a particular pair of x-p coordinates, the trajectory of the system in the x-p plane is at right angles to the direction of the gradient of H, and equal in size to the gradient.  This means that the system always moves along a direction where H isn't changing, and so H is conserved (unless we make it an explicit function of time, in which case we would have to write it as H(x,\,p\,t)).

From either of these two equivalent formulations of physics, there is a famous theorem first proved by Emmy Noether.  She showed that any time H or L has a symmetry which shifts some parameter, its conjugate parameter is conserved (it doesn't change with time).  I've already shown you some specific examples (symmetry with respect to x shifts makes p be conserved, symmetry with respect to t shifts makes H be conserved).  This is the most important theorem in all of theoretical physics.

If you just start by trying to write down equations of motion for your laws of physics, you can't prove Noether's theorem.  It just doesn't work.  Since you don't have a notion of conjugate quantities, you can't even get started.  Many important physical concepts such as energy, momentum, mass, force, and so on won't even be defined.  So there's a lot more to life than the equations of motion.

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Some Mythical Conflicts between Science and Religion

A couple posts elsewhere refuting a common Medieval-bashing trope, that the Medieval Church tried to suppress scientific ideas, in a series of mythical conflicts between Science and Religion, by historian of Science St. James Hannam.

On the same site, Tim O' Neill writes some further commentary along the same lines, in the course of reviewing Hannam's book God's Philosophers.

Of course, even if stupid religious people had been persecuting scientists for the last fourteen millennia, it wouldn't make the least bit of difference to the question of whether the two sets of ideas are compatible.  That is a philosophical, not a historical question.

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The Achievement Gap

Sometimes educators talk about "closing the achievement gap" which separates high and low performing students.  There are documented gaps in educational outcomes on the basis of e.g. economic classes, race, etc.  Some of these gaps lead to serious social problems down the road.  But even if we somehow produced a society which had equal outcomes for every factor in the current Politically Correct List of Superficial Ways to Classify People™, there would still be high-performing students and low-performing students.  Educators don't like this sort of situation, because they don't want to feel like they are failing some of their students.

Now, there are two ways to close a gap.  One is to take the students who are doing badly, and teach them better.  The other way is to take the students who are doing better, and teach them worse.  Or at least, don't pay any special attention to them, since the goal is to produce equality.  This shows the danger of adopting equality as a goal.  Inequality is defined as a difference between two people.  Adopting equality as a goal means you are trying to benefit one person as compared to another.  If all better-off students were worse off, there would be less to feel bad about.

Instead, we ought to adopt the goal of benefiting all students.  But especially the ones who are most capable of benefiting from education.  This is, primarily, the more intelligent and motivated students.  People with (small "d") democratic sensibilities don't want to hear this.  But as St. Lewis writes in an essay on "Democratic Education":

Equality (outside mathematics) is a purely social conception. It applies to man as a political and economic animal.  It has no place in the life of the mind.  Beauty is not democratic; she reveals herself more to the few than to the many, more to the persistent and disciplined seekers than to the careless.  Virtue is not democratic; she is achieved by those who pursue her more hotly than most men.  Truth is not democratic; she demands special talents and special industry in those to whom she gives her favors.  Political democracy is doomed if it tries to extend its demand for equality into these higher spheres.  Ethical, intellectual, or aesthetic democracy is death.

A truly democratic education—one which will preserve democracy—must be, in its own field, ruthlessly aristocratic, shamelessly `high-brow'.  In drawing up its curriculum it should always have chiefly in view the interests of the boy who wants to know and can know.  (With very few exceptions, they are the same boy.  The stupid boy, nearly always, is the boy who does not want to know.)  It must, in a certain sense, subordinate the needs of the many to the needs of the few, and it must subordinate the school to the university.  Only thus can it be a nursery of those first-class intellects without which neither a democracy nor any other State can thrive.

The goal of leaving No Child Left Behind sounds enlightened, but leaving some children behind is in fact a necessary logical corollary of teaching children difficult subjects.  If your only goal is not to abandon the children who are behind, then you will abandon those who are ahead: the ones who are actually interested in learning.  Most people, believe it or not, forget most of what they were made to learn in school.  The future philosophers, scientists, authors, judges, and so on will actually remember (part of) their education and apply it.

This is not to say that education is unimportant for the masses.  A certain quantum of literacy and comprehension is necessary to survive in the world.   By definition, a democracy has votes, and a certain degree of education is necessary to vote wisely.  When broad sections of society are deprived of a good education, and become a permanent underclass, society suffers.  The heroic teachers who try to remedy this, by volunteering to teach failing students, are worthy of our respect.  It is a valuable project, but it ought not to have such an exclusive monopoly on our thinking that we forget the need to teach those most capable of learning.

But aren't those students going to be learning anyway, in pretty much whatever environment you put them in?  To some extent, yes.  But it makes a difference what you think is the point of education.  The current goal is to produce a system in which any student can succeed if they really try.  This means lots of busywork, and a hefty amount of grade inflation (rewarding the consistently effortful, and punishing those who take chances on difficult subjects).  It does not necessarily mean teaching critical thinking.  Teaching people to be "good at school" can mean be a sort of slave-mentality, while the goal of a liberal arts education is to produce people who can think for themselves.  This involves a sort of paradox: you have to teach people to teach themselves.  Ignoring a student's needs is one way to try to encourage this, but it is not the best way.

Let me be autobiographical for a moment, just to give a concrete example. I hope that I am now old enough and fulfilled enough to be beyond any resentment, but I feel that a specific example will be helpful, and I am the example I know best.

In the area of mathematics, I was "left ahead" as a child for pretty much my entire school career before I started taking college classes.  The teachers recognized my knowledge, but none of them did what was required to give me sufficiently advanced material.  I suppose they probably had their hands full with the students who needed more help with the assigned curriculum.

Eventually, in the 7th grade, someone put me into the 8th grade Algebra class.  It was too late—I was already starting to do Calculus by then.  I was too bored by the subject to do any homework, so the teacher failed me, even though she knew I knew all the material.  She thought I was lazy and needed study skills, which was true, although this was hardly the correct motivator to produce them.  I had to repeat the class again in 8th grade.   I was mortified, but fortunately none of my classmates knew about the situation.  I still didn't do any homework (through guilt-ridden procrastination and deception, not through a firmly decided upon rebellion), but this time she recommended me into the Honors Geometry class in the 9th grade.

This time homework was only 10% of the grade, but the extremely formulaic and tedious standards for proofs docked me another 10% or so on the exams.  (See A Mathematicians Lament for an important critique of the way we teach Geometry and other mathematical subjects.)  That got me to a C+.  As a result I was looking at having to take the non-honors version of the next course in the sequence Algebra II.  (Los Altos High School had a policy against skipping classes).  Bear in mind that, on my own, I was learning Maxwell's equations,  General Relativity, and Quantum Mechanics at this point.

There was a standardized test to overcome the C, but in a school full of overachievers it was deliberately designed to be impossible.  Too many questions in too short of a time.  I knew immediately, before getting the results, that it wasn't going to fly.  I was going to be steamrollered under the wheels of an formalistic bureaucracy which was unable to make a plain human diagnosis of the sort of student I was: lazy but brilliant.  I was terrified that I would never receive the help I needed to succeed at what I already knew I wanted to do in life: theoretical physics.

 Some wandered in desert wastelands,
finding no way to a city where they could settle.
They were hungry and thirsty,
and their lives ebbed away.
Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress.
He led them by a straight way
to a city where they could settle.
Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love
and his wonderful deeds for mankind,
for he satisfies the thirsty
and fills the hungry with good things. 
(Psalm 107:4-9.  Read the whole thing!)

So I cried out to the Lord to save me, and he rescued me from my afflictions.  The instruments of his salvation were as follows: Although I complained of the inhuman bureaucracy, in fact there was an excellent academic counselor at the school who knew my situation and advised me to apply to the Foothill Middle College Program, basically a way to flunk out of high school into the local community college. They only take Juniors and Seniors, so I had to skip my Sophomore year.  No regrets!

When I went there, Foothill finally gave me an actual placement test, and I got the highest result and so placed into Calculus 1A (I made an arrangement with the prof to skip the classes and take the final: with Calculus 1B I finally got to new material).

My weird education story doesn't end there, but this was a critical turning point.  It happened because at some point certain educators cared enough design and implement a program for people like me.  For this and many other gifts I give thanks to the Head Teacher:

I love the Lord, for he heard my voice;
he heard my cry for mercy.
Because he turned his ear to me,
I will call on him as long as I live.
(Psalm 116:1-2)

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The Teacher

But you are not to be called `Rabbi', for you have only one Master and you are all brothers.  And do not call anyone on earth `father', for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.  Nor are you to be called `teacher', for you have one teacher, the Christ.  The greatest among you will be your servant.  For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.  (Matthew 23:8-12)

Only one teacher!—and he is Christ.  None of the rest of us can claim that status, which he reserves for himself.  Yet for that very reason, all instruction which is true instruction must find its origin in him.  Those of us who are earthly instructors must therefore recognize, that if there is any wisdom in what we say, it comes from the Son of God.  We are not the teacher, but we allow God to be the teacher.

In every form of knowledge, there is both a spiritual opportunity: seeing Jesus as your teacher, and a spiritual danger: idolatry.  Idolatry comes when we see ourselves or others as the teacher, and don't allow the knowledge to lead us onward to God.  In some ways, the more noble the pursuit, the greater the danger of idolatry.  When scientists are satisfied to learn about creation without learning about the Creator, Science becomes a mere distraction to occupy the mind.  Maybe this is the real reason why fewer scientists than ordinary folk believe in God.  Science is so interesting that one doesn't feel the need to investigate deeper questions . . . and so the opportunity for salvation slips by, unnoticed.

On the other hand, the spiritual opportunity is present no matter how "low" on the scale of spiritual values is the thing which is being taught.  So long as the thing contains within itself something that is good, whether physical or mental, aesthetic or practical, there is a spiritual lesson to be had in it.  Any craft demands that one humbly learn from some particular Reality what is the right way to approach it: the corollary is the need to repent of your bad habits and learn how to do the thing properly.  Different tasks demand different skills, but the skill of humility is always the same.

To the extent that any earthly teacher is worthy of the name, it is only because they are first and foremost a student of the Reality being studied.  Even Jesus is the Teacher only because he is the Student:

The Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.  For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does" (John 5:19-20).

Within the Trinity, the Son receives everything he is from the Father.  (Indeed, the Father's identity consists entirely in his love, that is, in his breathing the Spirit into his Son.  As Christians, we must not think that our Father is anything more or other than the Father of Jesus Christ, or that the Father held back anything of himself when he gave his Son.)  The Son's divinity consists entirely of learning from the Father.

We also see this play out in the humility of his earthly life:

In the same way, Christ did not take on himself the glory of becoming a high priest. But God said to him,

“You are my Son;
today I have become your Father.” [Psalm 2:7]

And he says in another place,

“You are a priest forever,
in the order of Melchizedek.” [Psalm 110:4]

During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek. (Hebrews 5:5-10)

Now as our teacher, Jesus taught about the Kingdom of Heaven using stories taken from the crafts of his day.  After instructing his disciples in the meaning of his parables, he says this:

“Have you understood all these things?” Jesus asked.

“Yes,” they replied.

He said to them, “Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.” (Matthew 13:51-52)

If Jesus is your teacher, he will also teach you about the Kingdom using your own craft, whatever it is.  Not that your craft is God's Kingdom, but any time you have the bracing shock of really learning something, there is some way in which it is going to be similar to the Kingdom.

In college, I did some fencing.  Recently I decided to take it up again, since this August.    The game consists of trying to trick people into allowing themselves to be stabbed with a metal stick.  But to explain how this connects onto spirtual topics, I need to go a little further back.

In high school I briefly took instruction from a karate instructor named Rob, for high school credit.  (My mother and brother had much more extensive lessons though).  Rob is a Christian, and he said that learning martial arts was very informative for his spirituality.

One learns about original sin—prior to being instructed, your instincts about what to do are pretty much always going to be wrong.  Your stance is wrong, your posture is wrong, and your motions are wrong.  The first thing you have to do is accept this as a fact, swallowing your wounded pride, and trust your teacher to correct you.

Then you have to actually do what the teacher says, without sliding back into what seems "natural"—until what is correct becomes second nature.  (I'm pretty sure there's something about a second nature in the New Testament somewhere or other.)  Rob also liked to say "practice doesn't make perfect, practicing perfect makes perfect".

Progress in holiness doesn't come about from "gradual improvement".  Rather, it comes from being "perfect, just as your father in heaven is perfect" (Matthew 5:48).  (By the way, in Greek the word "perfect" means complete, not flawless.) Of course, you can't do it.  So the teacher comes alongside of you and moves you into the right shape.  Jesus, the same personality who lived, died, and rose again, is there beside you showing you what to do.  That's what we believe.

Then you become perfect—forgiving your enemies and loving the unlovable—for about five minutes, perhaps, before relapsing again.  But at any time you can come back again.

The spiritual journey is more like continually being recalled back to what we ought to be, than like walking down a road to a destination.  Getting into shape may take years, but getting into the right posture only takes seconds.  In the same way, you can be who God wants you to be in a matter of seconds, if you really chooseSanctification involves making that choice over and over again.

This may sound like hard work, but it isn't salvation by works.  There's no nonsense about merit or deserving here.  "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick" (Mark 2:17).  And when corrected, you don't have to waste time agonizing about it.  That's just pride.  Just allow yourself to be corrected, and then think of the next thing.

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Does the Atonement make ethical sense?

...and so, the Judge sentenced the murderer to go to the electric chair.  But just then, the Judge's only Son piped up.  "Please punish me instead!  That way, he won't have to die."  Out of his compassion for the criminal, the Judge agreed.  The Judge's Son was executed, and the criminal went free .  Tears pouring down his face, the killer vowed to be a new man from that day forward...

This parable is found nowhere in the Bible, but I'm pretty sure I've heard some version of it preached from the pulpit once or twice, as an analogy for what Jesus did for us on the Cross.  Here's the problem: the story is ethically outrageous.  How could punishing an innocent person instead of a guilty person possibly be just?  In the story, the Son volunteers to die; it's not as though the judge just ordered the execution of some random person.  But how could the guilt of punishment possibly be "transferred" from one person to another?  The basic responsibility of the Judge to judge correctly is violated:

Acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent—
the Lord detests them both.   (Prov 17:15)

Admittedly, the story I began with was just meant to be an illustration, not the actuality.  There are many different metaphors in the Bible to describe the Atonement, and most of them don't have to do with the justice system.  The Bible talks about ransoming slaves, healing diseases, growing new life, being adopted as sons, and so on.  But the criminal justice metaphor is one of the most common analogies in Western Christianity, so let's try to run with it for a moment.

Metaphors do not need to accord with the reality in every single way.  It is even possible to illustrate righteous behavior by means of a person who, in the fictional story, behaves immorally.  (For example, in Jesus' parable of the Dishonest Steward, the steward's clever way of enriching his master's debtors by fraud, to get special treatment from them later, is an analogy for how Christians should give away their "worldly" possessions to the poor in order to gain something more valuable.  One is a sin and the other isn't, but Jesus' point is that they are similarly clever.)

However, in the (nonbiblical) story of the Judge's Son, the ethics of the story is so anomalous that it seems to render suspect any meaning which can reasonably be obtained from the story.  The motivations of the characters don't make any sense, either from an altruistic or a selfish perspective, so it's unclear how we should react, other than with horror at the perversion of justice.

But now let's change the setting a little bit.  We'll replace the criminal trial with a civil trial, and the death penalty with a fine:

A man breaks his neighbor's window.  The neighbor sues, and the Judge orders the man to pay $200 to repair the broken window.  However, the man is unable to pay, due to his poverty.  So his friend kindly agrees to pay the fine instead.   The friend pays $200 to the neighbor, and the windowbreaker goes free.

Suddenly, most of the ethical problems seem to evaporate.  Most of us would have no problem with a Judge allowing this.  In certain cases, we might feel like it is was a little unfair for a perpetrator to get off scott-free, because someone else paid the fine.  But here, the windowbreaker couldn't pay.  In light of the circumstances, the resolution of the case seems reasonable.  What is the difference?

Part of it, presumably, is that we are more used to thinking of money as fungible than life.  The concept of transferring debts is in accordance with our culture's common sense, while paying an innocent life for a guilty life is not (and rightly so)!

But I think the bigger issue here is the question of what the punishment is expected to accomplish.  In the case of the fine, the main issue is that the window is broken!  The fact that the windowbreaker is guilty comes in only secondarily.  Given that the new window needs to be paid for, it seems fair to assign the liability to the man who—whether accidentally, or in a fit of rage—broke the first one.  But if someone else wants to repair the window, that solves the problem: (1) The neighbor is compensated for the damage to his building, so he has no right to object, (2) The friend is allowed to do whatever he likes with his own money, and (3) the windowbreaker is enabled to pay the fine.  No more problem!

Things are quite different in the case of a murderer, who pushes someone out the window and breaks their skull instead of the glass.  Here, the main problem is quite different.

One might be tempted to say that the main problem in the criminal case is that the victim is dead.  But that isn't so!  The death of the victim is the most tragic part of the situation, but it is not what the criminal trial is there to fix!  Sentencing murders to death does not bring back their victims.   Last I checked, not even a sentence of life-without-possibility-of-parole does that.  No, in the criminal trial, punishing the criminal is the entire point of the proceedings (although there are multiple goals which this punishment might accomplish).

Another way to see this, is to compare to a situation where the victim dies accidentally.  In this case, the death of the victim part is exactly the same.  That they were murdered is the crucial difference.  This fact is not located in the victim (who may not have known whether or not the fall was an accident), rather it is located in the mind and heart of the murderer.  The murderer kills the body of the victim, but it is their own soul which they are doing violence to.  If you murder someone, in the next moment you become the sort of person who would murder someone.

So then, this is the stain which the criminal punishment is supposed to fix.  As Socrates says in the Gorgias, having wickedness in the soul is the worst thing that can possibly happen to you, and the guilty who are punished are benefited by it, since the punishment is a medicine for their wickedness.

It then becomes clear why it is impossible for an innocent person to justly take on the punishment of a murderer.  Because it would not in fact fix the problem.  In the criminal case, it is the murderer who is the broken window.  Punishing the guilty party through the judicial system is our (usually very inadequate) way of trying to restore the window: to patch over the cracks with tape, or at least to sweep up the broken glass by taking away their power to hurt anyone else.  Punishing an innocent person does no good at all.  Unless...

Unless things were so arranged, so that the death of the innocent person actually did fix the broken window—or to drop the analogy, what if Jesus' death actually causes the stain in the murder's soul to be cleansed and purified?  Suppose that, by accepting Jesus' death, the soul of the murderer is put to death (Romans 6:6-11) and then restored, so that the person who once hated his victim is now is full of love and compassion.  In that case, justice would be done (but in a way invisible to the justice system, and perhaps even to society).  The murderer would be simultaneously punished and forgiven by one and the same act of God.

How is that even possible?  Well, I assume it has something to do with the divinity of Jesus; that when God assumed a human nature, this affected his relationship with every human being who ever lived.  I suppose it has something to do with the Holy Spirit tampering with the neural network of our brain, after we give him permission to do so.  I believe it has something to do with the omnipotent Father wanting to express his forgiveness through a tangible, observable event taking place in spacetime history.

But now we are asking a different question: does the Atonement make metaphysical sense?  That is, is it the sort of thing which could happen in the real world, given the most basic structure of existence (whatever that is).  The original question was whether the Atonement makes ethical sense.  That is, supposing it to be possible, would it be desirable?

Assuming it is possible, it seems clear that offering the possibility of moral redemption to every person on Earth, no matter how wicked, is a very great benefit.  One might still ask (if one is inclined to second-guess the Creator) whether we really need such a desperate remedy, and why God did not provide forgiveness in some less bloody way.  This does not change the fact that it works.

At the Cross, we see the God's solidarity with human beings.  He suffers with the innocent, and for the guilty (and we have all been both at times).  The Cross shows up the depths of human depravity, and reveals that the primary victim of our sin has always been God.  But it is also the triumph of God's mercy, because it shows us that no matter what suffering we cause to ourselves and others, God is there accepting the pain, refusing to retaliate and offering continual forgiveness.  I cannot imagine any more graphic way for God to show this, than the way he did.

Posted in Theology | 4 Comments

What actually happened with Galileo

This finished a bit too late to get into the previous collection of Random Stuff, so it gets to be its own post.  A long but fascinating saga by St. Michael Flynn on the topic of what actually went down with Galileo, and the many competing astronomical models of his time:

The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown

I also very much enjoyed his book Eifelheim, about aliens landing in medieval Europe.  It gives a much better impression of how medievals actually thought, compared to the usual fare.  (Although I thought the frame story, set in the near-future, was a little weak.)

I've been travelling a bit recently, to Princeton and to the Perimeter Institute (which is in Waterloo, Ontario), but I hope to be able to get back to blogging soon.  But this week, I have a visiting collaborator, and potentially jury duty (which for the record, I am not trying to evade.)

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