Saturday, January 14, 2017

To such as these the kingdom of heaven belongs

"Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs." (Matthew 19:14) Jesus reproaches his disciples for thinking that the kingdom of God is primarily about adults. On the contrary, he insists. "Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 18:3)

Yet Paul's rhetoric is always the other way around. "I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food." (1 Cor. 3:1-2) "When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways." (1 Cor. 13:11)

So which is it? I am genuinely puzzled. Jesus also said, "Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 18:4) Are children humble? Are they not mainly concerned with their own needs, desires, and feelings? As a new parent myself, I have many words to describe our beautiful baby boy, but I'm not sure "humble" would be one of them.

Or maybe there is humility in always screaming when one is in need, or even when one feels in need. The psalms are full of complaints which seem to abruptly transition into praise. Those who truly pray to God do not hold back. Even if their cry is entirely irrational, just like the cry of a young child ofen is, the comfort of knowing God hears is what counts.

Is there an ironic sort of maturity in this? The "wise" in Paul's are sometimes those who are wise according to the world, sometimes those who are spiritually wise. In Christ everything gets flipped upside down. "God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong." (1 Cor. 1:27) This resonates much better with the sayings of Jesus.

Sometimes, I have learned, children's cries can only be calmed by subtle reminders of their parents' love. Our baby had quite a lot of difficulty learning to fall asleep alone. It was necessary to let him cry, a lot at first, less and less over time. Not that we were ever absent. We went into his room to gently remind him of our presence. It just wasn't what he wanted. He wanted to be in our arms, and especially to drink his mother's milk.

Maybe prayer is like that. At first we believe we need "milk, not solid food." In time we realize that the whole purpose of life is to gradually mature. Sometimes our prayers are only answered in the most subtle of ways. We cry ourselves to sleep at first, but we soon learn that we are truly not alone.

But it is not spiritual maturity to stop crying. The world is full of sadness, injustice, oppression, horrors of every kind. If we refuse to cry, it is only because our souls have forgotten that we have a Father in heaven. "If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!" (Matthew 7:11)

Once again, the Christian life is a paradox. It means becoming more human by becoming more divine, more mature by becoming more childlike.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Creation that keeps on creating

When I think of human freedom, I tend not to think of "free will" in the sense that the future is undetermined. I think there are good reasons to contemplate whether the will is free or not in this sense, but there's another dimension I find more important. The question is really whether human beings contribute anything substantial to the universe. Is the universe a closed system with no room for genuine addition, or is human action meaningful in the sense that it changes something about our world?

Consider two disciplines and the fundamental principles driving them. In physics, the conservation of energy is a unifying principle. Matter and energy are interchangeable, so everything is energy. Everything that happens is essentially an exchange of energy. The total energy in the universe should never change. From this point of view, nothing humans do can ever "contribute," because any addition of energy must be compensated by a transfer elsewhere.

In economics, by contrast, an exchange can be a net positive. Indeed, whenever an exchange is voluntary, it typically follows that all parties have gained something through it. Or consider the work of just one person. Although work involves nothing more than a transfer of energy, it is said to produce wealth. Someone who builds a tool which allows us to more easily harvest food has added to the economy, though matter and energy have neither been created nor destroyed.

The economy is thus said to grow, not just in a fictitious sense but in a way that is apparently meaningful; whereas the total energy of the universe is said to be constant. How do we reconcile these two things?

I don't mean to give the impression that physics is all about constants. There are many physical quantities that meaningfully change. But it seems there is no physical quantity that can make sense of the concept of economic growth. If wealth has any meaning, it is not a physical meaning. More importantly, it is created by human activity, as opposed to merely increasing as a byproduct of random events (as in the case of entropy, for instance).

Most of the time we talk as if such creative action is meaningful, but do we really mean it? The ontological status of wealth seems to depend on whether we are talking about politics or about the ultimate fate of the universe. I suppose even a religious person, who believes in the afterlife, might suggest that all our wealth will ultimately amount to nothing. But certainly a scientist who believes in nothing beyond the physical universe must at some point laugh at the absurdity of trying to make "progress" as a species. Our ultimate fate is apparently either to freeze in an ever cooling universe or else to be swallowed up by a "big crunch." I don't see how either of these possibilities allow for human creativity to be anything more than an illusion. Anything that appears to be created will be compensated by some future destruction. More than that: every act of human beings is simply a transfer of energy from one place to another, and it has no special meaning or purpose. The emergence of intelligence is just one of the many possibilities when some of the innumerable planets in the universe happen to be the right distance from certain appropriately sized stars; the universe as a whole neither gains nor loses significance because of the particulars of its evolution.

That is, unless concepts like "significance" and "value" do have an ontological status similar to matter and energy, and/or they need not be conserved quantities. But to believe this requires certain theological commitments. First of all, it will not do to formulate a dualistic framework in which the significance of human life is completely unrelated to its physical fate. Even the religious believer who insists that the afterlife will be completely disconnected from this present physical existence has essentially condemned all human activity to meaninglessness. Human life is defined by creative activity. If all of it is destined for the void, there was no point in it ever existing in the first place.

To illustrate my point, there is a reason why I write these thoughts down, and why so many people keep journals, and why literature in general is so precious to our species. How can we separate ourselves from the words we choose, from the phrases we carefully construct, from the arguments we thereby assemble, and from the stories we tell? One cannot begin to express what would be destroyed if all of our writing ceased to be. And this is arguably only a small dimension of human activity.

As a Christian, my most cherished hope is that all that we do in the present is destined to mean something eternal. Not that the continuity needs to be perfectly obvious, or that every last detail needs to be taken into account. Just as the cells in my body continue to be replaced periodically, and yet somehow there is a continuity to my identity, so also I believe that somehow the universe will have one continuous identity from now to forever. Even if at some moment there is a cataclysmic event which wipes away all the influence of evil on our world (Lord, let it be soon), there will be those things which hang on, by which we will see that the creation was never aribtrary but was always good.

So now I'm finally getting to my point, which is that I think the purpose of creation is to keep on creating. The universe evolves through transfers of matter and energy, yet each transfer has the potential to contribute something new. In a real sense, the universe grows (and not merely in size, which is rather trivial). Human beings seem to have a key role in this, since we are capable of intentional creation.

Christian tradition has always made a big deal of the declaration in Genesis that we are made in God's image. The meaning of this phrase seems to me that when we speak, something comes into being. I don't know how to resolve the puzzle of free will, but I believe the human will is indeed free in the sense that it genuinely creates something that wasn't there before. A man who says to his wife at the altar, "I do," creates a new bond that did not exist before. A president who pardons a prisoner gives him freedom that he didn't have before. A scholar who writes an influential paper creates a new way of seeing the world that will in turn open new pathways to greater understanding and even prosperity. An inventor sketches a new idea, builds a prototype, and after enough tests changes the world. Most of these examples are indeed merely words, but they have a profound effect on the physical world. As the proverbs say, "From the fruit of their words good persons eat good things..."

It is possible, of course, to "zoom out" and with the mind's eye to view our tiny planet from a great distance, so that all of these supposed creative acts seem to mean nothing at all. There are many who take this view, insisting that it is only for the present life on this world that any of it matters. It is best, from that point of view, to avoid thinking about eternity, about the universe as a whole. No wonder people spend infinitely more time talking about politics than about science! It would appear that cosmology does nothing but crush human dreams of meaning something, whereas politics, despite all of the anguish and fear it causes, at least holds out to us hope of being important.

With Christian faith, it is different. Yet I have a hard time finding even Christians who seem to be able to make the connection. I mentioned earlier the religious believer who finds no connection between here and the hereafter. That is every bit as discouraging as cosmology, I suppose. Perhaps it is even a response to cosmology. If modern science confirms nothing in Christian belief, maybe the only way out for Christians is to separate this world and the next into utterly distinct realities. But this, in my view, is to deny the doctrine of creation. It is to say that everything we see now, all of this conserved matter and energy, is essentially arbitrary. The creationists, for all of their faults, at least have the right instinct on this point.

The key, it seems to me, is to embrace a higher ontological status for things beyond matter and energy. When we look at objects in the "real world," we are seeing more than just physical objects. Their properties go beyond size, shape, mass, temperature, and the like; they also include meaning, purpose, value, and beauty. After all, why should physical properties get any special privilege? We see them just as much "out there," where the earth is small, as we do here in our own little world. The earth is all the more beautiful seen from space. When we gaze out into the cosmos, does not our heart whisper to us that it all has a sublime purpose? Why should a super nova appear so wonderful? It is certainly not because it serves some evolutionary purpose.

I suppose this is nothing more than a romantic discourse without the support of any rigorous arguments, but the alternative seems to me no more rigorously defended. The only reason to believe that our universe is meaningless is out of a desire to be cautious, to resist romanticism because it feels too self-indulgent. I confess I feel a bit self-indulgent as I write these things. Maybe it's all just a fantasy to keep me going.

Or maybe, on the other hand, it actually takes quite a lot of self-discipline to take the universe seriously, as a place illumined with meaning and not just an arbitrary assemblage of matter where we can make our mark however we want. It's both inspiring and frightening to believe in God. If the universe was created for a purpose, and we are working against that purpose, we have nowhere to run from Him. That means our freedom has somewhat high stakes. It is not given to us for our mere amusement.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Providence and freedom

I wanted to develop a thought from yesterday on providence and free will. But where to start...

Imagine a world governed entirely by God's arbitrary will, that is, with no discernible regularities in it. Everything is an immediate invention of God's mind and need not have any connection with anything before or after. One is tempted to say that we would have no free will in that case, as an immediate corollary. But then, a compatibilist view of free will, in which human agency does not contradict determinism (which latter could be the result of scientific or theological suppositions), might still hold in such a universe. God could give each of us the sensation of having free will, producing in us the experience of making decisions and having some perceptible impact on our environment. If that doesn't sound like genuine free will to you, then I guess you're not a compatibilist. (I'm not either.)

Anyway the real problem isn't whether we might have the sensation of a will of our own. The real problem is that we couldn't possibly learn or understand anything. Learning is always a matter of seeing connections between things. We find causal or logical relationships between events and concepts, we perceive similarities and differences allowing us to categorize things and experiences, and in so doing we build a web of knowledge. Now if God were always there to possibly interrupt all such connections, we would have no choice but to view life as fundamentally absurd. Learning would be not just pointless, but impossible. Scientific knowledge (in the modern sense) would be impossible, since repeated experiments would not necessarily yield the same results. Personal relationships would be just as impossible, since the bond of trust could never exist in a world without predictable patterns.

Only if God's will is bound by definite patterns that are in some sense universal can human beings come to understand the world as such. This fact need not infringe on God's supremacy. Those patterns could have their origin in God's own will or character. The point is not to say what God must be like in any conceivable universe, but rather to say what He must be like given that we exist.

By contrast, a world completely governed by unchanging laws is, ironically, the most fertile ground for free will. In this case the mind can discern order in the universe, because it is actually there. We acquire knowledge through experience and memory. Memory doesn't fail us because the present really is connected to the past, and experience doesn't fail us because there is a true link (causal, rational) between our actions and their consequences. One potential irony is that we ourselves are governed by physical laws, and so arguably we aren't genuinely free; all our decisions are perhaps the inevitable result of evolution given certain initial conditions. Or maybe not. It is entirely conceivable that in a world governed by universal physical laws, there may exist rational beings with the power to choose between several physical possibilities; by what logical principle must a physical law allow at most one outcome for each initial condition? The universe still remains intelligible if possibilities are limited in a consistent way.

What impresses me the most is the analogy that exists between this seemingly abstract consideration and real world politics. In free societies, laws are consistently applied, so that individual members can be assured that if they abide by a certain base line code of conduct, they will be free to pursue their own ends. In tyrannical societies, it is often observed, a general atmosphere of suspicion falls on the entire people. The concept of truth itself becomes degraded. When the actions of the state are totally unpredictable, people resign themselves to a life with no intelligible order. Only might makes right.

Is God a god whose might makes right? In the world we actually live in, certainly not. We live in a universe so well ordered by laws that those who understand them may question the existence of any exceptions whatsoever. In other words, in a world where scientists tend not to believe in miracles, you can be assured that God is not a tyrant. On the contrary, you might criticize Him for being too libertarian. But for the Christian who believes that everything in the universe is under God's control, these universal laws become windows into His character. There is, presumably, a reason why He adheres to these laws in particular. Reflecting on those reasons can be particularly painful when the consequences of said laws seems so devastating. It hardly seems comforting to think that God is in control of tsunamis that wipe out hundreds of thousands of mostly innocent people, or that He is in control of diseases that kill millions of people every year. Why can't He break these laws for our sake, that is, for the sake of justice?

I think part of the resolution of such questions lies in God's ultimate destiny for human beings, and part lies in the inherent goodness of the entire created order (why should the wind and waves stop because we want them to leave us alone?). But another important factor is, I wager, our capacity for freedom. God knows that the only way for rational minds to exist in the created world is for the order of creation to be consistent. We would not be able to discern His character if He erratically imposed His will on us. Instead, He acts toward us according to a coherent set of principles, allowing us to accumulate knowledge of Him and His creation. In so gaining understanding, it's worth restating that we also become more free to pursue our own ends. It would appear that God values our freedom, the kind that comes from learning and growing in wisdom.

I make no attempt to actually address the classical problem of "free will" here. I am more interested in the nature of God's providence as it relates to our freedom. As best I can tell, it matters for our freedom what kind of control God exercises over the world, and it seems to me that the kind of control He in fact does exercise permits the growth of free, rational minds. This says a great deal about the purpose of creation. It says also a great deal about our purpose as rational beings.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The justice of miracles

One could discuss without end the many difficulties of accepting the occurrence of a miracle. What evidence could possibly be convincing enough? What evidence should be admissible?

But in my opinion the most interesting question of all is what the occurrence of a miracle says about God's character. The most difficult problem with miracles is a moral one. Why should God intervene sometimes and not others? Why should the miraculous be rare? Why shouldn't it simply be a law that nothing bad can ever happen, that only justice will prevail because God will always intervene to see it done? This is the problem of evil.

On the other hand, why should God intervene at all? Why not rather leave nature as a closed system, with all creatures free to determine their own destiny insofar as they are able? To intervene is to show favoritism, which would be evidence of God's injustice.

There are various Christian answers to these questions, and what's interesting is to see how they line up on a spectrum between "grace" and "free will." Some traditions attempt to diminish the distinction between natural occurrences and miracles by asserting that everything is due to God's providence--all is grace. Others emphasize that evil exists in nature due to free will, and miracles are ways of God intervening to overcome the fall.

My goal is not to assess the strengths and weaknesses of each side, but rather to observe that each has chosen one side of a divide in our very conception of justice. At some point we have to be honest: no matter what God does or doesn't do--whether or not God does or does not exist--we will have some complaint to make against Him.

Which sort of universe would I prefer to live in? On the one hand, I could live in one in which God's providence covers absolutely everything, so that no evil could ever take place, because He would intervene to prevent it. In such a world, would my decisions be meaningful in any way? And how can I truly be a sentient being without any connection between what I decide and what then happens? In such a world, there would be nothing that could appropriately be called physical laws, because cause and effect would have to be entirely overridden by the supreme will of God who would prevent anything unjust. There would be no point in any sort of empirical science. By the same reasoning, I wouldn't see any utility in any sort of learning. What is the point of knowledge if the thing known has absolutely no connection with my ability to act in relation to it? My free will is intimately connected with my understanding of the world. It is only through conscious experience, in which I try one thing to see its causal connection with something else, that I can gain wisdom. This is so whether the experience is physical (as in a scientific experiment) or intellectual (as in a thought experiment). But if there are no consequences which cannot be overridden, neither is there any knowledge to be gained.

On the other hand, I could live in a universe, as many believe we do, which is entirely governed by laws or natural regularities and in which miracles do not happen. There is no reason why only atheists should accept this view; it is also perfectly compatible with deism. Why shouldn't it vindicate God's justice, after all, to think that nature is wholly bound by abstract laws? It is merely the classical theological principle that God shows no partiality taken to the extreme. More than the fact that all creatures are equally subject to nature's laws, we sentient beings are also thereby liberated. For if God does not intervene, then the only will that can be imposed on our surroundings is our own. By learning nature's laws, we come to master nature. By increasing our understanding, we increase our freedom. Is this not the grand aspiration of modern human beings? And if nature with all of its laws is the creation of God, should we not be thankful that He does not intervene? For if He did, then it would be our freedom against His; but if His freedom is bound by the natural order He has imposed, then our freedom is only limited by whatever is consistent with nature.

If miracles do occur in this world, perhaps it is in part to remind us that both of the views are insufficient. On the one hand, God's intervention means that our will can never be supreme. No matter how much we learn about the universe, we can never master it, for there is always a will superior to our own governing its very existence. On the other hand, the fact that such intervention is intermittent implies that we are free to a large degree, that our actions are not meaningless and that we ought to learn something about the abstract laws which create order in nature. Our science is essential, even if it is not all-encompassing.

Or perhaps the purpose of miracles is instead of draw our attention to laws whose "enforcement" is delayed for some reason. The miracle valued most highly by Christians is the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which previews the resurrection and final judgment of all people. Thus God's special intervention into human history serves (from a Christian point of view) only to confirm His impartiality.

But neither of these explanations resolve the essential tension between freedom and grace. The important fact is that such tension exists within the very concept of justice. Is the ideal society one in which everyone is provided for, so that nothing bad ever happens? Or is it one in which people are free to discover and invent, to do what is admirable or perhaps what is detestable? We have never been able to resolve this tension in our political life as human beings; I think this is related to our incapacity to resolve the theological question I have asked. Even in a somehow "perfect" world, in which the interventionist state could carry out its mission flawlessly or, alternatively, the state would be utterly consistent in enforcing the law--even then it would be difficult to see whether an interventionist or a liberal state would be ideal. So it is as least as difficult to understand God's own position as ruler over nature.

Continuing in my own Florenskian mission to allow no tension a resolution, I propose that once again the best, most righteous belief is to somehow believe in both grace and freedom--a leap of faith, to be sure. We must accept this world as a gift, and everything that happens in it is the providence of God. And yet we may contribute to it with our own minds, increasing in understanding and mastering it to our benefit and the benefit of others (and of the world itself). Nature is ordered according to fixed laws, yet it is bursting with God's purpose. How we embrace both must remain a mystery to the rational mind.

But in spite of this statement of faith, I will confess my own personal bias toward freedom, more specifically toward deism. I was born with a temperament such that I would like to believe all knowledge can be mastered, giving rise to ultimate freedom. This explains perfectly, I think, my attraction to mathematics and physics. But if the universe is to be truly transparent to the rational mind, it must be a closed system; there can be no room for miracles. Combined with the fact that I, personally, have never witnessed anything that could rightly be called a miracle, this has been a recipe for theological struggle most of my life. If I believe in Jesus Christ, I cannot be a mere deist.

Then again, the deepest places of my heart certainly recognize the allure of grace. In a way, one must understand the joy of not understanding. There is a suprarational element to faith that is far better expressed by poets or artists than by me. Yet even I can appreciate it in the depths of my soul.

As for whether any particular miracle has actually occurred, I still remain skeptical in most cases, because in most cases it seems not much is at stake. The one miracle on which my Christian commitment hangs is the resurrection of Christ, and for that I am thankful that there are people who have written so extensively about it. But I would love to remain open to the many other miracles reported by faithful Christians. It is not as if God's grace should put an end to my rational investigation of the world. On the contrary, it gives it meaning and hope.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Starting from zero

I tend to think of the origin of all things as a tension between One and Zero, that is, between Something and Nothing, or between Existence and Nonexistence.

In a sense, I start counting from zero.

To get to one from zero is an infinite leap, an unprecedented creative act by which existence comes into being. To reach one is to declare that something exists, that counting is possible.

Zero is a place where one can naturally start and remain for all eternity. It is complete in itself--add zero to zero, multiply by zero, and you're right back where you started. To reach one is, in the greatest of ironies, to reject uniformity, to create a chasm between the utterly self-sufficient zero and the utterly insufficient unit.

Indeed, in creating such a chasm, it is clear that what has been created is not one but two--a choice, between something and nothing. But two is not nearly so remarkable at one. The chasm between zero and one is infinite. The chasm between one and two is one itself.

One is insufficient. If we add one again, we get two, then three, then four... We tumble off into infinity, and we find that really this one generates something that cannot be contained. The leap was indeed infinite, and we see an infinite set emerge because of that.

But something really strange happens when we try to close this system. If we can go out from zero by adding one, we also want to be able to go back toward zero, by subtraction. Suppose we reach zero and decide to continue subtracting. Then we create a mirror image of the natural numbers. Perhaps there's nothing strange about this yet, until we consider that now we have an infinite set extending symmetrically in two directions. As a result, zero becomes arbitrary. There is no reason to think of zero is the "true middle" of this infinite set, precisely because it is infinite. One can simply move to a different "origin" and the two infinite branches proceeding from it are still equal in length.

This is the nature of Euclidean space: it has no center. In other words, a center (very suggestively called "origin" in mathematics) can be chosen arbitrarily. By convention we call this point "zero," but by a change of coordinates any point can be zero.

In geometry, then, the meaning of zero becomes distorted. It is merely a reference point, having no particular identity for the purposes of ontology. Indeed, no point in a geometric space possesses any such identity. Geometry is about relationships, without any center. Everything is relative.

Yet the existence of space is absolute. Either a thing exists or it doesn't. There is an infinite chasm between existence and nonexistence. Geometry has no infinite chasms. In geometry, everything is ultimately rather close to everything else, in an absolute sense; only in a relative sense can something be close or far away.

Kronecker is supposed to have said that God made the integers, and that all else was the work of man. I suppose the intuition for this comes from the fundamental difference between the study of number and the study of measure. For the latter, we take existence for granted. The construction of the real number line is a matter of "filling in the gaps" between points which are already imagined to have some spatiotemporal existence. But the construction of the set of natural numbers is something else entirely. It bursts into existence from nothingness. To measure the difference between existence and nonexistence is meaningless.

As moderns we laugh at the quaintness of a geocentric view of the universe. But I think we should try to be aware of what we might have lost in shedding the innocence of that view. Our universe no longer has any center, or rather we can choose one arbitrarily. Once upon a time space was every bit as real as number. Now it is wholly relativized. We might as well measure everything only in relation to ourselves.

But there is a point of reference far more absolute than we realize. When we envision our universe as nothing more than a space-time continuum, talking of a (geometric) origin becomes meaningless. It is only when we reflect upon its existence or nonexistence that we realize the true center. The true "origin," to which we must compare everything, is nonexistence.

How is it that the universe bursts into existence? How is this infinite chasm bridged? This is the fundamental question. The distance that everything around us traveled to get where it is now is a pitifully small question compared to the fundamental one.

The center of the universe does not lie geometrically in the center of our world, underneath the ground below us. Rather, it lies ontologically in the fires of hell--that is, in nonexistence. The Bible describes judgment as a fire that is never quenched. That is because fire obliterates flesh, and eternal destruction is the return to the center of the universe--to utter nothingness. There can be no greater torture than this. The sheer contemplation of ceasing to exist terrifies me more than words can express.

To exist is always to be away from this center. There is an infinite chasm between heaven and hell. Heaven means eternal existence, where one continually marvels at the fact of being, where there is infinite joy because there are infinite possibilities. In hell there are no possibilities.

What will the redemption of all things look like? Will it mean an end to the story, the end of time? Yet to imagine an end is to cut off all these infinite possibilities distinguish existence from nonexistence. It is zero that stays fixed forever; one, by contrast, can't help but generate infinite sets beyond itself. Heaven cannot be a place of eternal inactivity. It is not a place where all stories end.

God creates out of nothing. Even if space has no center, even if time itself has no real beginning, nevertheless the creation is the most fundamental fact of the universe. If we lose sight of this, we become disoriented. When the universe stops becoming a gift and is rather a meaningless background on top of which our lives are arbitrarily thrown, it is because we have lost the center. The center of all existence is nonexistence. Christ descended into hell, so that all might be raised to heaven.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

What is a person?

Once my wife and I were musing on the fact that we don't remember anything from before we were three or four years old. My wife hypothesized that during the first three years of life, the brain is too plastic to form any long lasting memories. On the other end, as we age the mind can become calcified, losing the ability to make new memories for essentially the opposite reason.

Science may have various things to say about this, but my reflections led me to contemplate the idea of personhood. Our identity has to do with striking the right balance between freedom and definition. What I think of as the "self" is a character gradually constructed from a series of experiences, actions, decisions.... It's important that these experiences be coherent, so my freedom to decide is not absolute. On the other hand, it's important that I be the one truly acting, so that one cannot simply deduce my next move from some abstract understanding of my nature.

For example, if I suddenly decided to abandon human civilization and go live in the forest, without any prior indication that such a decision was consistent with my values or desires, my family and friends would think I had gone insane, with good reason. Sudden shifts in our personality are considered disorders. We treat them, not because we want to squelch a person's true identity but rather because we want to liberate it. If our decisions are totally random with no coherence at all, we have no more identity than we would if we were mere particles subject to deterministic laws.

Such is the delicate balance that defines a person. Some have personalities which are far more dynamic than others; they constantly reinvent themselves. Others are more conservative, content with their habits and resistant to change. But go too far in either direction, and what you have is a tragedy. It is heartbreaking to see a person instantly change into "someone else." We feel that person has truly died. And it can be equally painful to watch someone who, as they age, becomes incapable of embracing anything new whatsoever, to the point of being unable to recognize new people they meet or retain any memories but their oldest ones.

I don't think this is a strictly "physical" problem. Certainly it is through our brains that we form memories, develop personalities, make decisions, and so on. But I don't think the question of our identity is the result of the particular "hardware" we are given. Any being capable of self-awareness would face more or less the same issue. How can I be "self-aware"? On the one hand, the phrase seems to presuppose that a definite "self" exists and I am aware of it, but on the other hand, the attention given to the self is a conscious act of the mind which requires the capacity to change. Thus the problem of free will is a dilemma faced within the very nature of any self-aware being, even apart from considering their relationship to the outside world and its laws.

So it seems God Himself must face the same dilemma. Is God perfectly free, or are His actions constrained by a definite identity which pre-exists any given action? In the right sense this is a false dilemma. Perfect freedom isn't a matter of being unconstrained. We want to be constrained by our own identity. It is by acting in perfect accord with our own selves that we feel most free. The mystery is not how we can be free in this way but rather how we can understand the self in light of this. How do I know my identity before I make any decisions? Or how do I know what decisions I will make before I know my identity?

It is like what mathematicians call a fixed point problem, which involves finding a point x for a given function f such that f(x) = x. For a given identity, one has a certain set of actions coherent with that identity; but for each set of actions, an identity is constructed. At some point the two must match, a sort of "fixed point" or equilibrium. But unlike mathematical fixed point problems, there is very little information by which we might understand, in advance, exactly where the equilibrium will occur.

The universe itself may be the outworking of this mysterious fixed point problem, in which God's own identity both constructs and is constructed. For if God creates the universe, this is surely coherent with His nature. Yet the precise way in which the universe unfolds also gradually determines and reveals His character. We don't have a precise rule giving the relationship between God's character and God's actions, but perhaps we can learn it piece by piece through prayer, theology, and rigorous study and observation (science).

Some will say I am bringing God down. Is He not absolutely free and beyond any constraint? But what does that even mean? If we can't make sense of our own freedom, how can we dare apply the word to God? It seems to me far from obvious that we can envision God as utterly unaffected by His own choices. The dynamic tension between decision and decision-maker seems inherent in the very concept of choice. So my answer is that I am not so much bringing God down as bringing humans up, that is, making them face the level of responsibility they actually possess. Not that we are somehow creators of our own fate, but simply that our identities must be cultivated. True freedom is a virtuous cycle more than anything else--the more one chooses the good, the easier it is to be good.

These reflections rapidly become very complex, and I am always forced to cut them off abruptly and prematurely. But I hope that what is emerging in these blog posts is a general pattern of thought, emphasizing the need to synthesize what often seems like two opposing concepts. Here those concepts are freedom and constraint. Yet one cannot synthesize these concepts in the abstract. It is only by living the good life that one sees what I am talking about.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Against politics

My blog has taken a turn toward philosophical and religious speculation in the past several months. I have no talked about the election. I have not even discussed political issues. Although I do engage in political discussions on facebook (and no, I don't always find it a complete waste of time) I have very consciously avoided politics on this blog.

I will admit that some of it is fatigue. When we talk about politics, passions can get the better of us. It's not good to think about it all the time, simply because it will suck us dry.

On the other hand, I've never been one to avoid controversial topics out of the desire not to offend. The idea that we should all just "get along" presumes that the way we all live is basically OK and there's nothing wrong. But many political issues are important just because they point out what's wrong with the way we live, and more particularly with the way we treat others who are on the "outside." Sure, maybe we can get along, but what about people who are influenced by our foreign policy and immigration laws? What about the children we abort? What about the unarmed civilians who get shot by police? What about people who lose their livelihood because of government regulation of the economy? I've never been able to ignore these issues of basic justice, nor do I understand how anyone else can.

Indeed, if the increasing polarization of our society bothers me, it's not because I wish we could all agree to get along and empathize with one another. Don't get me wrong, empathy and getting along are great, and if we get better at them, we've certainly accomplished something. But to me the real danger is not just that polarization makes us mean but that it makes us stupid. We become so angry at "the other side" that we justify everything that "our side" does. It makes us incapable of applying principles consistently. The most obvious is when one party criticizes the other party's president for enacting virtually the same foreign policy (secret kill list and all), for encroaching on our civil liberties in many of the same ways, and so on. I could also get more specific on particular issues, but there's no time for that here.

So anger makes us blind, damaging our relationships and distorting our thinking. But where does this anger come from in the first place?

I think it comes from a belief, sometimes conscious and other times subconscious, that the most important thing we do is politics. If we don't elect the right candidate, we will doom our society by leaving it in the hands of evil or incompetence (or both). But if we can just enact the right policies, we can cure society's ills and have justice. It is tempting to think this is the highest of all human endeavors. Every election becomes the most important in our lifetime. The news can find nothing more important than the decisions of government.

I claim this belief is false. We have only to imagine a world in which government is just, and good policies are implemented. What, then? Have we finished all the important work? Is there nothing left but to sit back and relax and enjoy an easy life? Would that not be utterly devoid of meaning? Would it not be...boring?

Christians have long wondered (and debated) what the kingdom of heaven will really be like. Will we just play harps all day and sing praise to God? Will it be one endless party? There are many people who say they would not want immortality, because they would be utterly bored. If the limited visions presented are literally correct, I suppose they are right. We need to refine our imaginations a little bit.

I don't see how the mind can live forever without continually growing and, indeed, working. The end of evil would not mean the eternal victory of laziness. On the contrary. Work is at the heart of who we are, who we are intended to be. The mind is satisfied when it creates and discovers. The reason we are so miserable in this modern age is that we have so many things to distract us that we fail to satisfy our deepest need to discover things eternal and spiritual. We have reduced everything to a problem to be solved, and presumably once that problem is solved we have no purpose left.

This is vanity and a chasing after wind. Impatience makes us miserable. If we want a cure for all this anger and grief caused by politics, the only answer is thinking beyond the next four years, beyond even the next century. I am not drained by politics only because it provokes anger, but also because it disconnects me from the mysterious, the beautiful, and the transcendent. I forget about music and poetry and nature. I forget about those haunting questions about free will and salvation and the nature of mind.

Supposing we managed to enact all the right policies and save society from its ills, what would it then have? Would there be any meaning in such a perfect existence? Does satisfying every physical need of human beings give them what their souls desire?

It is fashionable these days for Christians to critique the older tendency to reject temporal concerns in favor of eternal, spiritual ones. But we have slipped into the opposite tendency. I think we need to rediscover the virtue of relativizing the needs of the present. It is only by rediscovering the eternal significance of our lives that we can address our temporal needs without losing our minds. Life is not one big problem to be solved. It is a gift, one which we can learn to appreciate more and more for all eternity.

So I think I need to detach myself from politics, at least until I am able to come back to it with a right perspective. Engaging in politics should be an act of love on the part of one who has the proper goal in mind. Jesus entered into our world and did not despise the temporal, but he came down from heaven. We ourselves also need to enter into the heavenly realms, so that we can labor on earth with the energy of heaven.

But I have said this the wrong way. It is not so that we can labor on earth that we strive for the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven is the goal; all the rest will be added to us because "your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things." Let us strive first for the kingdom.