Monday, September 27, 2010

Truth on the Surface

So much of the modern search for truth has been an attempt to get to the root causes, the bare essentials. This causes that which causes that; this is a function of this which is a function of that; this makes up this which makes up that--in other words reductionism. The idea being that if we understand the most fundamental laws and building blocks of life, the galaxy, the universe etc. that we will understand everything more fully. But as we focus on the fundamentals, on the essentials, and attempt to deconstruct surfaces as nothing other than mere eventualities of something else 'more true', the truths of the surfaces themselves become lost. I would argue that surfaces can be just as, if not more, true than those 'fundamentals'.

We all know what it means to view or experience beauty, but if you take a painting by Michaelangelo, a composition by Mozart, or a film by Kurosawa and deconstruct it scientifically, which you can do, all that remains is a sterile set of facts. In this process of breaking down the beauty you will have lost the beauty because the beauty is contained in the surface, in the harmony, in the composition, in the way the various elements of a piece play on one another to yield something greater. Similarly you can reduce human beings to nothing other than a collection of organs, and then a collection of living cells, and then a collection of atoms, which are composed of subatomic particles. So you could say, correctly in a sense, that we are nothing but a collection of particles and energy operating under certain physical laws. So the question is whether or not 'beauty' is merely a human delusion, something that we experience but which has no real meaning or ontology. The question is whether or not humanity is merely a particular collection of particles that we have chosen to delineate from other particles. The question is whether or not the parts that make up the whole are really all that there is, or whether the whole is something actually and meaningfully different from the sum of its parts.

This is the achilles heel of the scientific 'rationalism' of the Enlightenment. It can't account for beauty, it can't affirm humanity as anything other than a collection of particles, and it can't find any basis for values. But our fellow man, beauty, truth, justice, love; all of these things are self-evident truths that we all experience and are familiar with. Granted, these are truths that are contained in surfaces, but they are truths all the same. Where common sense and every day experience are successful at revealing these truths a rigorous scientific reductionism remains impotent.

And, if you're a Christian, you are familiar with truth contained in surfaces as the foundation of your faith is contained in the particularities, idiosyncracies and physical, human personage of Jesus Christ. In his bodily death and bodily resurrection. Not in some other-worldly essence or 'fundamental', not really in any set of precepts, but in a particular first century Jew. Who was certainly a collection of particles, cells and organs, but who was just as certainly something more than that.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Retrospect for 'Retrospect For Life'

The song "Retrospect for Life" is featured on the 1997 album by Common One Day It'll All Make Sense, the eagerly awaited follow up to his masterpiece Resurrection. The song features the vocals of Lauryn Hill singing lines from Stevie Wonder's Never Dreamed You'd Leave in Summer. The song was the first single released for the album. Living in 2010, an era where the first single to a rap album is almost required to be some catchy club-friendly tune which can easily translate into a ringtone, the idea of a mellow, soulful, conceptual track about abortion being the lead commercial single for an album seems almost inconceivable. And even in 1997 it was far from typical, but then Common isn't your typical artist.

The song is about a man reflecting on the decision that he made with his current girlfriend to abort their child. The first verse of the song is addressed to the aborted child; the second verse is addressed to the girlfriend. While I would hesitate to call the song 'Pro-life' it is certainly anti-abortion. For me there is no distinction between those two things, but some people believe that a woman should have a legal right to terminate a pregnancy, even though they believe it's the wrong thing to do. Such people might correctly be labeled 'anti-abortion', but not 'pro-life'. I believe such a position is confused, but that isn't the point of this piece. The point is that Common might merely be espousing an anti-abortion position rather than a Pro-life one.

In the first verse Common reflects on what it would have meant for him to have a son:

You would've been much more than a mouth to feed
But someone, I woulda fed this information I read
And someone, my life for you I woulda had to lead
Instead I lead you to death
I'm sorry for takin your first breath
First step, and first cry

And he goes on to address his own hypocrisy:

Nerve I got to talk about them [people] with a gun
Must have really thought I was God to take the life of my son

These lines are both clever and profound. In the first bar he's referencing the ideals that he professes in his own music. Namely the fact that he opposes much of the violence in popular rap music, as well as the violence he sees within urban culture in general. Yet here he is performing an act of the most heinous violence against his own son for his own selfish purposes. While the second bar is a brilliant double entendre.

The song is not intended to be an ideological treatise on abortion or to even comment on the arguments that surround the legal and moral aspects of the issue. Instead it's approached in a manner that comes off as introspective and self-searching rather than as demagoguery. The downside to this is that some of the very human thoughts and emotions contain some very pitiful rationalizations which the narrator wanders through. Such as: "But I wasn't prepared mentally nor financially / Havin a child shouldn't have to bring out the man in me / Plus I wanted you to be raised within a family / I don't wanna, go through the drama of havin a baby's momma / Weekend visits and buyin J's ain't gon' make me a father" While these thoughts and concerns are certainly understandable, one should rightly point out that they are concerns that should probably be addressed before impregnating someone. Plus they ignore the viable option of putting the child up for adoption. Ultimately, though, the rationalizations lose out as a decidedly anti-abortion conclusion is reached, most poignantly at the end of the first verse: "from now on I'ma use self control instead of birth control / Cause 315 dollars ain't worth your soul / 315 dollars ain't worth your soul / 315 dollars ain't worth it."

While the first verse dealt more with the past--with the act that had taken place and the narrator's remorse--the second verse is more about the present and future. Addressed to his girlfriend it's an exploration of their relationship and where it's headed. How the abortion brought certain issues and emotions to the surface which now have to be dealt with. Ideally these would be the type of things that people in a mature relationship would consider and discuss before choosing to have sexual relations, but in the real world they often don't come up until after the fact.

Happy deep down but not joyed enough to have it
But even that's a lie, in less than two weeks, we was back at it
Is this unprotected love or safe to say it's lust
Bustin, more than the sweat is somebody you trust
Or is it that we don't trust each other enough
And believe havin this child'll make us have to stay together
I want you in my life cause you have made it better
Thinkin we are in love cause we can spend a day together?
We talkin spendin the rest of our lives
There's too many black women that can say they're mothers
but can't say that they're wives

The strength of the song is the personal, probing depth of the perspective that is taken. Rather than addressing the issues in a detatched or external way, they're addressed from from within. Its scope isn't limited to the question of abortion itself, but includes the nature of family, relationships, love etc. and how they are all interrelated. It's a powerful and poignant exploration of the abortion issue from a human perspective, with all the imperfection that that entails.

Monday, September 13, 2010

'The Grand Design' Review

When I picked up The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking I was expecting a fairly in-depth look at some specifics about M-theory and how it might be a possible candidate for a 'theory of everything' in physics. I figured that the supposed theological and philosophical implications of this would be tangents which the media had blown out of proportion. I was mistaken. The Grand Design is appropriately--though ironically-- titled and has a very broad scope focusing on 'the big questions', the history of science and the current most complete scientific understandings as they supposedly relate to those questions. All done with a minimal amount of mathematical detail, easily understandable language, and a large number of illustrations and metaphors.

It made for a quick and enjoyable read. As an overview of the history of science it's a wonderful little guide. And I was startled that the entire purpose of the project seemed to be to address the 'big questions'--most prominently the question posed by Leibniz "why does something exist rather than nothing?"-- by tracing the historical responses to those questions, both 'religious' and more modern scientific 'answers', culminating with M-theory. I was startled because serious physicists, including Hawking, tend to shy away from addressing such questions in their work, preferring to let the work and its implications speak for themselves--if indeed there are any implications for 'the big questions'. This made the project much more interesting for me as it makes it of more direct relevance to issues that I'm interested in. Unfortunately the book doesn't really address the philosophical and metaphysical issues that it purports to address at all.

In the second paragraph of the book Hawking proclaims that "philosophy is dead" and that it has been replaced by science. It seems he neglected to have one philosopher--or at least logician--proofread his work, as directly on the heels of that pronouncement he launches into a defense of the philosophical proposition that scientific determinism is true. A philosopher would have been able to inform him that all of his methods and conclusions rest on various philosophical presuppositions. So from the very outset he begins to undermine himself by failing to properly set up the terms of the conversation.

At least twice in the book he contrasts a scientific understanding of the world that has been proven to be true against a specifically Young-Earth creationist proposition that has been proven to be false in a seemingly self-satisfied way, never bothering to differentiate between Young and Old Earth creationism. Revealing himself to be fairly uninformed as to the various positions that are held on the issues at hand. However when it comes to the metaphysical arguments of natural theology--such as the Kalam cosmological argument and the teleological argument--he does seem to have some grasp of the significance of those arguments and addresses them head on, for the most part. In my estimation his lack of comprehension of the relevant philosophical terms--such as 'nothing' and 'being'--prevents him from making a sound rebuttal to those arguments, though he does seem to grasp how the arguments work. Indeed, one entire chapter reads almost like something out of Reasons to Believe's catalog where he extensively lists all of the fine-tuned parameters of the universe. He believes the fine-tuning is essentially due to chance--if quantum fluctuations result in 10^500 universes, one of them will have the fortunate properties of this one and it will appear to be designed and appear to be fine-tuned for life. Despite his alternate explanation of the fine-tuning of the universe, this account of how the universe is fine-tuned is very well laid out and can actually be a useful source to cite. The universe is magnificently, precisely fine-tuned for human life: Stephen Hawking says so himself.

The book concludes abruptly and strangely stating that "Because gravity exists the universe can and will create itself from nothing." Which, even if that statement is true, doesn't even address Leibniz's question of "why is there something rather than nothing?" All it does is describes how one physical state--subatomic empty dimensional space governed by the laws of quantum mechanics--transfers into another state. Or how something goes from being something to being something else. Secularists who are more rigorous logistically and philosophically correctly attempt to dismiss the question as either meaningless or nonsensical. This is actually the proper approach. Either the question can't be answered or the answer is supernatural. Hawking's whole project then, as exciting as it may appear to him, is doomed from the start. And precisely for philosophical reasons, philosophy which he deemed to be irrelevant and useless.

Physics, as an investigation of mechanisms internal to the universe--or if not the universe the 'multiple histories of the universe' as Hawking would have it--is impotent to address the question of the source of being. Fine-tuning without a fine-tuner? The Grand Design without a Grand Designer? If these notions seem incoherent on their face, that's because they are. And though Hawking attempts to explain why such nonsensical notions might actually in fact be the case, he doesn't present any compelling evidence why we should believe that they are. Indeed, M-theory has not been experimentally confirmed, and it's difficult to see how it ever could be. Not to mention that even if it ever was empirically confirmed it would still fail to address the 'big questions' that this book claims to address.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Kurosawa's 'Rashomon' & The Gospels

The primary Christian source of truth is the Bible, and more specifically the Gospels. God has chosen to reveal his word to humans in the physical person of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, and has transmitted the account of Jesus' life and death, not via a supernaturally engraved tablet, but using human witnesses with their own particularities, linguistics, idiosyncracies and quirks. And, in order to preserve the truth at the heart of their witness, He has built in redundancy as a means of accounting for the varying perspectives and indiosyncracies of the witnesses. Thus the truth is not lost, but is revealed and indeed heightened through their cumulative witness. Living in an age where we have become acutely aware of the significance of perspective and presuppositions, this method for transmitting truth seems appropriate.

Note that I'm not saying that the Gospels reveal anything less than absolute truth, only that they do so through a collection of subjective perspectives. But those slightly varying perspectives only serve to reinforce and give depth to one another, rather than to counteract each other.

In the film Rashomon directed by Akira Kurosawa a trial takes place. An incident occurred that was witnessed by the participants. In the trial the witnesses are questioned and they give testimony as to what took place. As the story progresses the film shows each person's account of the events. It becomes clear through their testimony that the way each witness perceived the events was colored by their own temperament, personality, emotional state, expectations and selective memory. And though each account is quite divergent as to the specifics and particularities, there is a significant amount of overlap to the narratives such that a picture of what 'actually' happened emerges from the cumulative accounts--despite the fact that each singular account is highly affected by the prejudices of the particular witness. When we account for the differing perspectives and personalities, the account of the event becomes quite clear. In some ways even more clear than if, for instance, we had sterile evidence of exactly what transpired--like perhaps videotape evidence.

In Rashomon the accounts given by the parties are quite disparate. Although a cohesive narrative can be derived from the widely varying accounts, the degree to which the details of the accounts diverge from one another is extremely high. This is obviously more interesting dramatically than having four accounts that are mostly identical, with very small degrees of variance between them--which is what we have with The Gospels. Still, I think Rashomon serves as a beautiful filmic analogy on the nature of truth and how human witnesses--as imperfect as they are--can serve to reveal truth, sometimes a deeper truth than a list of brute 'facts'.

This message isn't the most immediate interpretation of Rashomon. In some ways you could say that the message of the film is largely the opposite of what I have said. That it's about how truth is unavoidably lost in flawed human recollections. Take this excerpt from the film for instance:

Commoner: Well, men are only men. That's why they lie. They can't tell the truth, even to themselves.
Priest: That may be true. Because men are weak, they lie to deceive themselves.
Commoner: Not another sermon! I don't mind a lie if it's interesting.

Nevertheless, if you are aware of the fact that men are interminably flawed and that in any account there is a particular agenda at work, or indeed a need to 'lie', truth can still be salvaged. Especially when we have multiple perspectives of a single event, and the individual characteristics of each witness can be taken into account. So the analogy to the Gospels isn't fully appropriate in this sense, with the Gospels being free of deception. However, the way in which the film serves as an instructive illustration is that both Rashomon and the Gospels feature four different accounts of the same events from different human perspectives, with each of the accounts heightening, complimenting, and enriching the others.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Stephen Hawking and God

I may be responding prematurely here. Stephen Hawking's book is not out yet, so I'm sure the selected excerpts printed in the press don't necessarily do justice to the totality of his argument. However, I'm familiar enough with the most recent discoveries in cosmology and physics, and theories regarding the beginning of the universe to deduce what I think he means, and respond intelligibly to the partly explicit and partly implicit argument that he's making. It's of course possible that the excerpts are taken out of context, or that the book clarifies the argument more. So, with that in mind, my response will be subject to revision.

First I think I should point out that many headlines state something along the lines of "Stephen Hawking says God did not create the universe". It's worth noting that this is not a direct quotation, and that what Hawking actually says is that given the law of gravity, one need not invoke God to explain the existence of the universe. This may be a small distinction but worth mentioning because it does not say that God certainly did not create, or that it is impossible that he created.

So what did he actually say? Direct quotations from the recent press release are:

"Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist,"

"It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going."

"That makes the coincidences of our planetary conditions -- the single Sun, the lucky combination of Earth-Sun distance and solar mass, far less remarkable, and far less compelling evidence that the Earth was carefully designed just to please us human beings,"

The most pertinent one is the first, and I will be focusing on that one. My response will be on two levels. First pointing out that this particular model of the universe that he is referring to is one of numerous models of the universe, and the theoretical multiverse, none of which has been verified empirically. So there is nothing that compels us to accept the conclusions he draws from the model that he is in favor of since that model is not necessarily representative of reality, it is only one of various possibilities. Secondly, even if the model that he supports does in fact turn out to be a true representation of reality, then--even given what he says--God is still not necessarily ruled out. Neither is he made any less necessary.

Note the form that the first statement takes. "Because there is a law such as gravity" - the statement presupposes gravity as a brute fact, as a given, apparently without need for explanation. Why does the universe need an explanation but the law of gravity doesn't? Even if the law of gravity acting on 'nothingness' would inevitably result in the universe (again, which is something that is itself unsubstantiated), this only shifts the question from "where did the universe come from" to "where did the law of gravity come from?" A materialist conception of the universe will invariably run into the problem of an infinite regress until it comes to a true beginning or source beyond which no further inquiry can take place. Saying "because the law of gravity exists, the universe can and will create itself from nothing" is a bit like saying, 100(0)s of years ago when we learned how the Earth was formulated, "because the law of gravity exists, the Earth can and will create itself from nothing." Gravity certainly was instrumental in discovering how the Earth was formed, but it doesn't eliminate the need for further inquiry, but rather immediately poses a variety of other questions that need answering. And the same is true here. The law of gravity is not nothing, but something. This seems to be a very simple categorical or philosophical oversight by Hawking.

The third statement also deserves a brief response, but I'll defer to astrophysicist Hugh Ross who does a very good job of responding to this particular issue in a recent episode of the Science News Flash podcast. But, to paraphrase Ross, Hawking is just mistaken on this point, the evidence does not support what he is claiming.