Friday, October 31, 2008


I just returned from a week in the San Francisco area, and was stunned to find truth on a single sheet of paper tacked to a bulletin board. I took the pamphlet with me, and have copied it here so that it may be shared.

Do You Ever Doubt? Question? Wonder About God?

The great scholar William Temple once wrote, “Until we have reached the perfect understanding, which must be beyond our grasp so long as this life lasts, the wise man will alternate between these two activities, using his religion as the inspiration and guidance of his life unless he sees real reason for disregarding it, while he is as relentlessly thorough as his mental capacity allows in bringing to bear upon that religion the purging criticism of philosophic inquiry.” In other words, he's describing the wise man as someone who is continually doubtful. Sound strange? It's not.

Every one of us has felt, at some point in our lives, lost, confused, and unsure. Perhaps we thought we had the answers, but then learned we were wrong. Songs play over the radio every day about it, lamenting how we feel. In fact, it is a sin of pride to ever believe that we have the answers – even about God. If we close off our minds to ideas which do not fit our preconceived notions, we push ourselves farther down the dangerous path to arrogance than we ever intended. “Objectivity resides in recognizing your preferences and then subjecting them to especially harsh scrutiny,” evolutionist Steve Jay Gould explained, adding, “and also in a willingness to revise or abandon your theories when the tests fail.” The old idiom, “the more you know, the more you realize you don't know,” is true of God as well as life. “The act of faith is a constant dialogue with doubt” says Bishop J.A.T. Robinson. Our duty is not to hotly debate whether God exists and whether any given religion is the only way to know him; our duty is to seek the truth, realizing that in the end, whatever little we think we know, there is an unending supply of that which we do not know. “Never, in all eternity, shall we reach a point where we have accomplished all that there is to do, or discovered all that there is to know,” argues Eastern Orthodox bishop Kallistos Ware. Saint Irenaeus said, “not only in this present age but also in the Age to come, God will always have something more to teach man, and man will always have something more to learn from God.” Eternity signifies unending progress; as Eastern Orthodox bishop Newman puts it, “to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”

But how do we reach this perfection? By seeking the ultimate truth; that is, by seeking God. The symbolism of death and rebirth is an image of change and transformation; it occurs repeatedly in all human history, all myth, all fairytale and folklore, all true religion. In seeking God, we will find that we are constantly being transformed, changing, growing, and thus striving toward perfection. But it is not entirely an intellectual pursuit; it must involve our whole being. “Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment,” the Muslim mystic Jalal-uddin Rumi wrote; “cleverness is mere opinion, bewilderment is intuition.” The Pali scriptures describe the true disciples as those who are “anxious to learn.” The Christian mystic Eckhart phrased it this way: “why dost thou prate of God? Whatever thou sayest of Him is untrue.” Similarly, the early Church father Evagrius warns, “God cannot be [fully] grasped by the mind. If he could be grasped, he would not be God.” Every facet we uncover leads us to the overwhelming truth that there are million more facets yet to be uncovered. Even the atheist Bill Maher glimpses this truth when he says, “there is only one reasonable standpoint. It is not the arrogant certainty of religion, but doubt. Doubt is inherently humble.” Doubt is not only natural, it's honest, and it encourages us to keep attempting to find the answers, so long as we are not proud of our ignorance. We must always be learning, listening, growing, and we must learn to love growing, for in the ages to come there will be nothing more – or less – than this. “By doubting we come to inquiry,” states Peter Abelard, “and through inquiry we perceive truth.”

It is in my nature, not just me personally but as a human being, to be inquisitive and to seek to understand the mystery around me. I will continue seeking until I wake from the dream which is this life – but, in this life, I will not determine all the answers. Answers will evade me, even to the bitter end. But if there is to be no conclusion, no closure to this great and divine and spiritual mystery, then all is for naught. There is no meaning if there is no answer. Humanity would not intrinsically desire to find this ultimate truth, if it did not, in the end, exist; poet-saint Kabir described it thus: “behold but One in all things.” It is not enough to wait idly: “draw nigh unto God, and he will draw nigh unto you” (James 4:8). Mystic Tito Colliander writes, “it is for us to begin. If we take one step towards the Lord, he takes ten towards us – he who saw the prodigal son while he was yet at a distance, and had compassion and ran and embraced him.” If we search, honestly and with an open heart as well as an open mind, we will find in all of the true religions of the world, past and present, the same virtues: humility, self-denial, perseverance, charity, love. These are only small manifestations of the eternal truth, but they help to guide us toward that ultimate answer which we eternally seek. It is a long and possibly lonely journey, but it is one we must take. “Narrow is the way that leads to eternal life,” Christ taught, “and few find it,” because so few of us truly search for it. The taoist monk Chuang Tzu similarly stated, “great truths do not take hold of the hearts of the masses.”

“O nobly born,” reads the Tibetan Book of the Dead, “the time has now come for thee to seek the Path.” So long as we acknowledge that we have doubt and are willing to search, we are on the right path. So long as we are honest about being unsure, it does not matter if we follow Christ, or Buddha, or Mohammed, or Moses, or Ekeko, or Krishna, or Zoroaster, or Sango, or Baha'i Ullah, or Joseph Smith, or even Richard Dawkins. It is enough, then, to say: “all I know is that there is something ultimate to know, and that I do not yet know it.”

There is an anecdote recorded in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, and it goes as follows. One day some of the brethren came to see Abba Antony, and among them was Abba Joseph. Wishing to test them, the old man mentioned a text from Scripture, and starting with the youngest he asked them what it meant. Each explained it as best he could. But to each one the old man said, “You have not yet found the answer.” Last of all he said to Abba Joseph, “And what do you think the text means?” He replied, “I do not know.” Then Abba Antony said, “Truly, Abba Joseph has found the way, for he said: I do not know.”

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Lament of the Frightened

'Tis not hope till it ceases to be reasonable,
A man once said. And what he meant
Was that in times of horrid dread
We must cling to our hope eternal - but, if things seem hopeful,
Hope is dead.

A simple man may not be bothered by
A complex fear, but I have found
That though I hold the simple dear
I cannot help but clutch at straws, gasping for air, until
Safety is clear.

But even faith cannot commit my restless
Heart to peace. The terror seeps
From heart to head and head to knees
Then to my hands, which clench in fists, so long I know
They will not cease.

My Death approaches! See him marching in full dress,
His aim in sight, and as I try to run
I trip, I stumble, I alight - 
In that escape which seems so far from where I am,
My Death takes flight.

Monday, October 20, 2008

A few words on the Left Behind series

The words are not my own (and are perhaps a little tardy, given the first book of the series was written in 1995), but those of Daniel Radosh, author of Rapture Ready!
To say the Left Behind books are badly written is like saying the Great Wall of China is long. I use this analogy - cliched, unhelpful, and awkward - because LaHaye and Jenkins use it themselves in the first book: "To say the Israelis were caught off guard, Cameron Williams had written, was like saying the Great Wall of China was long." The comparison is even worse in this context - what does China have to do with Israel? - but what is most revealing is that the Cameron Williams character who wrote this sentence is supposed to be a brilliant and famous journalist. "To say the Israelis were caught off guard was like saying the Great Wall of China is long" is not just a random bad sentence, it's LaHaye and Jenkins's idea of Pulitzer-winning prose.
Cameron Williams is one of Left Behind's two main heroes. His friends call him Buck, "because they said he was always bucking tradition and authority." The other hero is Rayford Steele, an airline pilot. That's right, Buck Williams and Rayford Steele. There's also Steve Plank, Bruce Barnes, and Dick Burton. Apparently, having a porn star name is enough to keep you from getting raptured.
He later makes this point, something subtly lost on the series' target audience:
LaHaye and Jenkins protest vehemently when critics accuse them of bloodlust. They preach the unvarnished truth, they say, because they love non-Christians and want them to be saved. They take no glee in anyone's demise.
Let's go ahead and read an excerpt from the final book of the main series.
Men and women soldiers and horses seemed to explode where they stood. It was as if the very words of the Lord had superheated their blood, causing it to burst through their veins and skin.... Their innards and entrails gushed to the desert floor, and as those around them turned to run, they too were slain, their blood pooling and rising in the unforgiving brightness of the glory of Christ.
As Radosh says, "Suffice it to say that these claims are hard to square with what's in their books." Someone who truly understands Christianity couldn't in seriousness write something about "the unforgiving brightness... of Christ."

Radosh's description continues, unabashedly pointing out the idiocies and idiosyncrasies of the Left Behind books, concluding his poignant rant with this last, beautiful sentiment, which sums the entire series up in one sentence: "Gloria in excelsis Deo, motherfucker."

Thursday, October 16, 2008


Here is a fantastic quote from Stephen Jay Gould:
Sigmund Freud often remarked that great revolutions in the history of science have but one common, and ironic, feature: they knock human arrogance off one pedestal after another of our previous conviction about our own self-importance. In Freud's three examples, Copernicus moved our home from center to periphery, Darwin then relegated us to ‘descent from an animal world’; and, finally (in one of the least modest statements of intellectual history), Freud himself discovered the unconscious and exploded the myth of a fully rational mind. In this wise and crucial sense, the Darwinian revolution remains woefully incomplete because, even though thinking humanity accepts the fact of evolution, most of us are still unwilling to abandon the comforting view that evolution means (or at least embodies a central principle of) progress defined to render the appearance of something like human consciousness either virtually inevitable or at least predictable. The pedestal is not smashed until we abandon progress or complexification as a central principle and come to entertain the strong possibility that H. sapiens is but a tiny, late-arising twig on life's enormously arborescent bush—a small bud that would almost surely not appear a second time if we could replant the bush from seed and let it grow again.
— "The Evolution of Life On Earth," Scientific American 271 (October 1994): 91.
The best part is Freud's arrogant statement about smashing the pedestal of human arrogance. Classic.

When smashing black holes looks like theoretical nuclear physics
A new article out in PRL describes the authors' numerical solutions to the problem of colliding black holes. Not just any black holes, either. Fast ones.
In general relativity (Einstein's famous spacetime; see a tutorial here), black holes are the objects so dense, so massive, that they warp spacetime to the point that no light can escape. All manner of strange physics takes place inside of black holes, including the smashing together of particles moving nearly the speed of light (the authors refer to this regime as "ultrarelativistic," which seems odd to me, like saying that something is "ultralogarithmic," but oh well). This is what connects black holes to the Large Hadron Collider - the conditions in the LHC, as well as in collisions between ultra-high-energy cosmic rays and the upper atmosphere, are ripe for producing events where large kinetic energies (kinetic energy is much greater than the rest mass energy) and small distances (such that the C.M. energy is beyond the Planck scale and gravity will dominate) will create outcomes theoretically similar to those within black holes. In particular, two colliding black holes would provide evidence for gravity waves (ripples in spacetime due to moving mass), the very thing LIGO hopes to detect.

(image credits: Denver Museum of Nature and Science)

The paper itself is short (as PRL articles are), but it describes the methods and solutions for several sets of initial conditions. The simulated collision starts with two non-rotating, "boosted" (in other words, moving quickly) black holes of equal mass, varying in speed from 36% to 94% of the speed of light. The amount of energy radiated - in essence, lost to gravity waves - is given as a percentage of the total mass of the two colliding black holes. Earlier estimates placed an upper limit on this fraction at 29%, but the authors find that 14% is more likely.

This discrepancy, according to the authors, is important to searches for gravity waves, both at LIGO and the LHC. If you're expecting to lose 29% of your total energy but really only lose half of that, you'll be looking for your data in the wrong place.

The thing I find most amusing is how similar two colliding black holes look, mathematically, to two colliding particles, like nuclei or nucleons. That, as you get into the strange regimes on either side of the energy and dimension scales (either extremely high or extremely low), particles, even black holes, behave more like waves. From my point of view, anyway, it feels elegant (although I know I don't have a full understanding of general relativity). It's a pity that Einstein never believed in quantum mechanics.

Ulrich Sperhake, Vitor Cardoso, Frans Pretorius, Emanuele Berti, José A. González (2008). High-Energy Collision of Two Black Holes Physical Review Letters, 101 (16) DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.101.161101

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Ha! Ha, ha ha!

Poking around the website dedicated to that science which "makes us laugh, then makes us think" for the 2008 Ig Nobels, I came across this little gem (a pdf is available on arxiv - see below). Beautiful. Just beautiful.

I find it rather painfully amusing, only because it is true. There is a push in journals of "high renown" for papers to have lots of references, to show the importance of your work (though this is obviously a skewed metric). This forces authors to "copy and paste" reference lists (PhD theses are particularly bad), leading to the conclusion that only 20% of authors actually read the article they're citing.

It makes one want to go back to that website that randomly generates computer science papers. That was fun.

On a similar note, the Physics Nobel prize for 2008 has been awarded for the prediction of symmetry breaking at the subatomic level. Congratulations... although, why on earth would one give a Nobel prize to only the K and M of CKM?

M.V. Simkin, V.P. Roychowdhury (2003). Read before you cite! Complex Syst., 14, 269-274 DOI: arXiv:cond-mat/0212043v1

Sunday, October 5, 2008

That's "Religulous," Bill

After dinner out on Friday evening, the boys and I went to see Bill Maher's Religulous, at the only theater in Knoxville showing the film. It was, as you might expect, inflammatory and unscrupulous, sparing no one, but funny as hell, and at times even approaching kernels of (if you'll excuse the term) miraculous truth. Maher has made his documentary in the same way that Ben Stein made his, in the same way that Michael Moore makes his. He picks those individuals who personify the extremes (truckers in a Baptist chapel in Raleigh and a anti-Zionist Jewish rabbi who was at Iranian president Ahmadinejad's recent "there was no Holocaust" symposium, for example) and uses them to justify his position that religion is, on the whole, a dangerous and idiotic mass hysteria.

Instead of going into a rant on the many points on which I disagreed with Maher (there are certainly many - not all Muslims are violent extremists, for one, Christians and Jews are not required to believe that a man named Jonah literally lived inside of a whale/big fish for three days, and fairy tales speak to the human condition just as validly as do religious parables), I will point out his one major and manifestly brilliant truth, and his one major and manifestly impressive fault. A man's greatest virtue is also his greatest vice, as they say.

Five minutes from the end of the film, Maher quotes (and this is from memory, so I apologize that it is paraphrased):
There is only one reasonable standpoint. It is not the arrogant certainty of religion, but doubt. Doubt is inherently humble.
This is an amazing gem of genius. He's right, and he's more right that he is probably even aware. All religions, whether we acknowledge it or recognize it or not, teach that God - the ultimate Truth - is also ultimately unknowable (and so he does misspeak when he calls it the "arrogant certainty of religion;" what he means is the "arrogant certainty" of anyone who believes they're right and everyone else is wrong). No one has faith so strong that they do not have doubt, for doubt is a part of our innate human nature. It is part of what makes us human. We are, and must always be, searching, learning, seeking, asking. We never know all there is to know, nor can we, for we are human. Doubt is not a sin, as perhaps many misinformed people would have us believe. Doubt is indeed inherently humble, because it is the explicit and implicit acknowledgement that we don't know all the answers, and this makes it virtuous.

Continuing, however, Maher then authoritatively tells his audience to grow up and "give up" religion before we destroy each other and ourselves. His doubt - that virtue which, for one brief, shining and glorious moment, he understood to mean that he didn't understand - had transformed into an ugly arrogance, the very kind he was defaming. When doubt is preached as the alternative to faith, it has become, not a virtue, but a false idol. His doubt, in his mind, had become worthy of praise. He spent the remaining five minutes of the movie showing file footage of war and people in "religious" hysteria, claiming that all evils had been wrought on the world by religion, and by supposition claiming that his anti-religious doubt was therefore the cure for the world's ills. From that one brief but beautiful truth, he descends into the pride against which he rallied, and that is his one major flaw.

In the end, the movie will make you angry, unless you agree with Maher completely. That's fine. It has served its purpose if it makes you question and think and want to do something about it. But if you approach the film with the wrong mindset, you are destined to only become angry, and have nothing good or productive come from it. It is only his pride which offends our own. Learn from it if you will; "whoever has ears to hear, let him listen."

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Good dog

Here's to you, Claire.

I remember the day I first saw you. Your amber eyes reminded me of a wolf, and we gazed at each other through the glass of the kennel window, mesmerized.
I remember the day we brought you home; you were so excited that you tore up the stairs before we could catch you, and took a running leap from the stairwell right onto the nice oak kitchen table.
I remember the way you would chase squirrels so relentlessly that you ripped your own toenails trying to follow the little bastards up the tree in the backyard.
I remember when we first taught you bow, and shake, and beg, and sit, and down.
I remember how you'd never bark at dogs passing on the street until they were past the property line, as if to say, "and don't come back!"
I remember how ecstatic you'd become whenever one of us would ask if you wanted "to gofer." Ride in the car, walk, it didn't matter. You'd knock us down the stairs if we weren't careful.
I remember how adept you were at removing bandages from your leg. And how you shed so much, we would joke that we could make a whole new dog.
I remember the days when you were so lazy, you'd take up half the couch and refuse to move to let us watch TV.
And I remember the day my Mom told me you had cancer, and had to be put down.

"We long for an affection altogether ignorant of our faults. Heaven has accorded this to us in the uncritical canine attachment."
~ George Eliot