Saturday, July 04, 2015

Philosophy Addendum to this morning

A quick supplement to my post earlier this morning.

In a non-Christian setting especially, philosophy is the place where a student will encounter ethics in its most potent form. As I will argue in subsequent posts, they should also encounter ethics in history, literature, and other parts of the liberal arts curriculum.

But philosophy can and should set the stage for discussions on the meaning of life and the significance of virtue and beauty. Philosophy should challenge utilitarian assumptions while also demonstrating their potential value. On a Christian campus, these discussions interact naturally with faith and Scripture.

Ethics will be the primary way in which faith integrates with the content of several other disciplines. For example, in business and economics, it is not enough to know the principles of how to make money. One should also know the importance of ethical considerations. Philosophy questions whether the making of profit is an appropriate end-in-itself.

In any case, I didn't want to leave the importance of philosophy in a liberal arts curriculum without mentioning this most important piece. Individual disciplines may know the content of ethical issues in their discipline the best, but philosophy reigns as the meta-discipline best equipped to process that content.

Liberal Arts 2: The Value of Philosophy

Continuing my series on the value of the liberal arts in college...

1. I've said before that philosophy logically stands at the heart of a liberal arts curriculum. This is because philosophy stands alongside every other discipline and clarifies what that discipline is really about and what is going on when you study that discipline. And, obviously, philosophy on a Christian campus will clarify all other disciplines from a Christian standpoint. [1]

2. Take critical thinking. Logic is one of the areas treated by philosophy, how to think clearly.

Logic is the bedrock of civilization, rational thinking. One of the things I find reassuring about logic is that it is timeless and absolute. It doesn't matter where you are from or when you live in history, logic does not change.

Learning about culture is also part of the liberal arts (history and sociology), and I strongly affirm its value as well. But civilization is toast if we yield to the notion that a European simply cannot understand an African or that a man simply cannot understand a woman. Logic cuts across location and particularity.

Different cultures may assume different propositions in their communication. They may have different rules for how one thought "causes" another. But the nature of cause and effect remains the same. A logician could "translate" conversation and culture into a clarified language of logic.

So "tribal" thinking is the enemy of civilization and philosophy undermines it at its very heart. Philosophy looks for truths that are bigger than us as individuals or groups. Philosophy says that the same truth applies to a white person as to a black person. Philosophy insists that each truth claim be considered on its own, no matter who suggested the truth.

This all sounds rather modernist, and it is to a large degree an impossible dream. But civilization steers by this dream of timeless, objective, universal truth. Postmodernism, if made the shining star, becomes the enemy of civilization. [2] Presuppositional epistemologies that overextend assumptions far beyond what is demonstrable are the enemies of civilization. [3] And a "party-spirit" such as voting only for one political party or only accepting information from one cable news channel is a threat to civilization.

Logic leads us to this conclusion, while giving each option its turn to speak and letting each student come to her own conclusion.

2. Philosophy lays bare our thought assumptions. It shows us ourselves. It shows us options we did not know to consider. In that sense it makes us "freer" persons, as the liberal arts are meant to. We now can freely choose option A among options A through E.

Before, we didn't know B, C, D, or E. We were an unthinking slave to option A. Now we may still choose option A, but we will now choose it freely rather than because our mommy always said that and we had never heard anything different.

A science major may think that he or she is completely objective. A science major may assume that empirical method is the only valid way to arrive at truth. Philosophy comes alongside and points out that science has a lot of assumptions. In walks Thomas Kuhn and makes it clear that science goes through trends and phases, that "normal science" resists paradigm shifts.

Even in religion, a person may assume that he or she is just reading the Bible and doing what it says. Philosophy comes alongside and points out that tens of thousands of other Bible readers think the same and yet disagree vastly with them. Philosophy points out that while the content of a person's theology may come largely from the Bible, the organization of that content comes from far more complex sources, including the interpretive traditions to which the Bible reader is heir.

3. Philosophy makes us humble. Despite the modernist bent of everything I've said so far, postmodernism does come along and warn us that even the philosopher is not outside reality looking on. I as a knower am part of what I am knowing. I cannot pull myself out of the world to make it an object. My interpretation of the world will always be unreflective and constructive to some extent.

Philosophy leads me to the conclusion that faith is intrinsic to all human knowing (except, perhaps, my sense that something exists). Philosophy suggests that the human elements to existence are more significant than the cognitive. Philosophy suggests that ideas are simply tools we use to help us make our way through the world.

But, then again, I am giving you my conclusions from philosophy, which no doubt relate strongly to my identity as a Christian. Nevertheless, conclusions like these, I believe, stand at the heart of a thriving civilization.

But philosophy will equip you and then let you decide. It is the ground zero foundation of the liberal arts... and potentially one of the most powerful weapons against barbarism.

See also this addendum.

[1] We are talking here about the cognitive dimensions of a curriculum. IMO, a Christian philosophy also suggests that these cognitive dimensions are not the most important human dimensions.

[2] Understand me. Insofar as postmodernism contributes to truths about the limitations of modernism, it is to be embraced. Underlying my scheme here is not contradiction but pragmatism, the only coherent philosophical option in the end. See my posts this fall as we read through Preludes to Pragmatism.

[3] Yes, I am targeting Reformed epistemology here as potentially hostile to civilization.

Friday, July 03, 2015

A Vision for the Liberal Arts 1

1. I wish there was a better name for them, given the fact that a lot of people break out in hives at the word, "liberal" (the phrase comes from millennia before the current sense of the word, "liberal"). "General education requirements" has no power at all. "Liberating arts" does clarify a little, but again doesn't communicate much to outsiders.

How about this--it's the part of a college curriculum meant to protect civilization from barbarism? The liberal arts is the part of the curriculum meant to separate students from apes and monkeys. It's the part of the curriculum meant to protect society from stupid.

History, literature, art and music, philosophy, psychology, basic math and science, those are typical fare in a general education curriculum. The medieval topics were grammar, logic, rhetoric (the trivium), music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy (the quadrivium). The State of Indiana has translated them into certain core skills: written communication, speaking and listening, quantitative reasoning, thinking scientifically, thinking socially/behaviorally, and thinking humanly/artistically. Those Indiana colleges that participate can swap a 30 hour block fulfilling these competencies.

2. There are still places where the liberal or "freeing" arts can be taught without explanation. I fear, though, that in our "what's it for," utilitarian world, they will be in danger. Their vulnerability is compounded, I think, by professors and colleges who do not show or articulate what they are for. If the professor loves the topic and can communicate that enthusiasm, a student can be changed without necessarily knowing why he or she was required to take that course.

But if the professor is merely selfish, just teaching what he or she wants to teach, if the professor begrudges having to teach a general education course, if some hapless adjunct is drafted to teach it who doesn't really know what he or she is doing, then it would probably have been better if the student hadn't had to take the class. Where there is no vision, the liberal arts perish.

3. I might brand them this way--The liberal arts are civilization's best defense against barbarism, against us being mere animals, ripping whatever meat satisfies our passing appetites. A business major without a sense of virtue and human value is just a gorilla, no matter how much money he or she ends up making. A political science major with no sense of the meaning of life is just a baboon.

You might ask where my mention of Christianity is in this. Obviously there is a rich, Christian way of teaching these subjects. Indeed, these subjects could be taught in an insidious, evil way that deconstructed humanity. When I speak of the value of the liberal arts, I mean when they are taught in the way that coincides with core Judeo-Christian values like the worth of every person and the existence of meaning.

But there are plenty of people calling themselves Christians out there who are just as animal as anyone else. Religion, even Christianity, is often used as a tool of stupid and oppression. When stupid reads the Bible, stupid thinks the Bible teaches stupid things and then beats up others who disagree with stupid. The same goes for stupid reading the Qur'an or the Communist Manifesto.

4. The purist might not like the tactic I'm taking--using abusive language and arguing for the utility of the liberal arts. The liberal arts usually are meant to move us toward peaceful co-existence, not my militant and strident tone. The liberal arts are usually thought to be valuable for their own sake, not for their instrumental value.

But I wonder if the truth could use some "mercenaries" from time to time. Utility usually wins, especially when resources are scarce. Power wins over truth time and time again. The meek will inherit the earth to come, but in the meantime force tends to win. I have no problem with Bonhoeffer cooperating in the plot to assassinate Hitler and do not consider it sinful. (However, if you've absorbed the benefit of the liberal arts, all sorts of warning lights should be going off at what I'm saying).

So think of me as a mercenary for truth. No, I'm not going to kill anybody. In the next few posts I'm going to argue that, in terms of the long term benefit for the human race, the liberal arts are actually more important than being able to get a job or having a major, at least when they are taught well and with the assumption of universal human value and the meaningfulness of life.

They hold the power to make the world a better place for a longer time than some passing skill you might learn in a major. And a deep Christian version of them, I believe, is the most powerful of all to change the world for good.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

E4. The church is one body even though it has many members.

This is the fourth post on the Church in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first unit in this series had to do with God and Creation (book here), and the second unit was on Christology and Atonement.

We are now in the third and final unit: The Holy Spirit and the Church. The first set of posts in this final unit on the Spirit and the Church was on the Holy Spirit.
_______________________________
The church is one body even though it has many members.

1. When the church at Corinth was having problems with disunity, Paul drew on a metaphor that was arguably known in the Greek-speaking world and perhaps particularly known in some way at Corinth. [1] Although the precise background is not clear, Paul's meaning seems clear enough, especially in the light of the Corinthian situation.

The Corinthian church suffered from significant disunity. Its key problem seems to be that some in the community thought themselves superior to others in the community. Indeed, some of them seemed to think themselves superior to Paul.

Some clearly thought themselves wiser than others (e.g., 1 Cor. 3:18). Because they thought they had superior knowledge, some seemed to revel in their superior freedom to do things others in the community did not do (cf. 8:2, 7). Some thought that they had superior spiritual gifts to others in the church, such as the gift of tongues (e.g., 12:4; 14:1-2).

1 Corinthians 12-14 is Paul's response to this problem in the Corinthian church. The various individuals in the Corinthian church are like the various members of a body. It would be absurd for the parts of a body to fight against each other because they are one body. The different parts of the body serve different functions, and they all contribute to the common benefit (1 Cor. 12:7).

The different parts of the body are not to look down on each other (e.g., 1 Cor. 12:16). We give extra honor to the parts of the body that are often overlooked just to even out the honor among the parts of the body (e.g., 12:23). "For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit" (12:13).

Paul reiterates this image of unity in diversity throughout first Corinthians. The one loaf in the Lord's Supper indicates that, "because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread" (1 Cor. 10:17). [2] The collective body of Christ at Corinth is "the temple of God" (3:16).

2. So in what does the unity of the Church consist and in what ways is it diverse? 1 Corinthians 13 makes it clear that a key characteristic of its unity is the love of the members of the church for each other. It is no coincidence that 1 Corinthians 13 appears here, in the middle of a discussion of spiritual gifts. If the Corinthian church was divided, the solution was for them to love each other.

Paul repeatedly expresses this aspect of Christian unity. Tell Euodia and Syntyche to be of the same mind (Phil. 4:2). Tell the Philippians as a whole to be of the same mind, in one spirit, in one accord (2:2). Have the attitude of Christ, who had the rank of a king, but had the attitude of a servant (2:5-7).

Paul was not speaking of unity in belief here, although he assumed that all Christians affirmed Jesus as Lord on the basis of his resurrection (Rom. 10:9). They served one God (Eph. 4:6), and Paul no doubt assumed a number of beliefs Christians held in common. But in his letters, the focus of unity is on Christians loving each other and considering each other to be of equal value.

In Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 10, Paul makes it clear that this unity in spirit was more important than unity on the debated issues of his day. There was disagreement in his day on whether believers should eat meat offered to an idol. There was disagreement on whether Gentile believers should observe the Jewish Sabbath. Paul indicates that unity of spirit and building each other up was more important than getting the right answer on these issues.

3. Paul thus assumed that there would be diversity both in the local assembly and the universal Church. In 1 Corinthians, he assumes a diversity both of gifts and functions in the church. We should be careful not to make the various lists he gives into anything like absolutes. The letters of the New Testament are generally "occasional" in nature. That is to say, they were written on specific occasions to address specific issues. Paul did not write them--and God did not intend them--to be anything like absolute categories.

It would be absurd for a Christian to say, "I cannot help with that task because my spiritual gift is x." Similarly, it would be ridiculous for a believer to say, "I do not do that function because I am a prophet or a teacher." It is human nature to want to categorize and to pigeonhole, but that is not Paul's purpose. He is giving us examples of the kinds of gifts people have and the key roles of the early church. He was not giving exhaustive lists or absolute categories, nor was he thinking that the roles he mentioned would necessarily extend two thousand years.

For example, an apostle for Paul was a role unique to his day because to be one, the risen Jesus needed to have appeared to you physically and commissioned you to go as a witness to the resurrection (1 Cor. 9:1). In 1 Corinthians 15:8, Paul indicates that he was the last of this sort of apostle. So anyone who calls him or herself an apostle today is not using the word in the same way as the New Testament. [3]

Nevertheless, Paul's lists illustrate the kind of diversity of gifts among the body of Christ, as well as the various roles that individual believers often play. Romans 12:8 mentions people who are good at giving, people who are cheerful, people who are compassionate, people who are diligent. 1 Corinthians 12:28 mentions those who are good at helping others. Then there are the more showy gifts: healing, prophecy, tongues, leadership, teaching (Rom. 12:6-7; 1 Cor. 12:8-10, 28; Eph. 4:11).

The functions that take place in the church are the key, not these roles as clear cut, distinct offices ordained by God. Indeed, to make these roles into distinct positions runs the risk of giving an individual the temptation to boast that he or she is such and such a thing in the church. No personality profile or strengths test is meant to become a self-fulfilling prophecy but to describe your general gifts and tendencies so that you can function as well as possible in the world and be able to manage your weaknesses.

The capacity of human nature to take the good and use it for ill is both astounding and pervasive. How ironic it is, therefore, that many take so much pride in their supposed spiritual gifts or their supposed God-given role in the church. And how foolish it would be to limit what God wants to do through you because you have resolved that you are only an eye or that you are only an ear! That was not Paul's point.

The Church is made up of many members with many different gifts. These gifts match naturally with varying roles that we all may play in the body of Christ. But none of us are more significant in God's eyes. All of us are equally loved in God's eyes. And so should we be in each other's eyes.

The Church is one body, even though it has many members.

Next Sunday: E5. There is no one, correct form of church government or denomination.

[1] The classic study here is Ernest Best's, One Body in Christ: A Study in the Relationship of the Church to Christ in the Epistles of the Apostle Paul (London: SPCK, 1955). It was, for example, an image known in Stoic circles. See also Robert Banks, Paul's Idea of Community: The Early House Churches in Their Cultural Setting, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1994).

[2] The tendency of individualistic American Christians to use individual cups and wafers is a general demonstration of the fact that we have missed one of the major points of communion--oneness.

[3] There seems to be an assumption by some that, because the lists in Ephesians and 1 Corinthians mention apostles, that there must still be apostles today. But this is a pre-reflective reading of Scripture that does not yet know that these words were written to them first before they became God's word for us.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Ruled out of Oord-er

Yesterday, Northwest Nazarene confirmed its decision to let Thomas Oord go. My initial post on this situation is here. Tom has recorded and posted a civil response here and his video version here.

1. I have greatly mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I suspect Dr. Oord could win a lawsuit against NNU. It is overwhelmingly clear to any fair-minded person that this lay off is for ideological reasons rather than NNU's economic situation. And given that Kevin Timpe is leaving for Calvin, there is a theology/philosophy spot open anyway. In short, this is exactly why tenure was invented and about the only thing it is actually good for.

2. On the other hand, I sympathize with the board and administration, because having professors that are radical for their clientele is not good for a desired trajectory or potentially for business. This may seem Cro-Magnon to say, but universities do have to have students to stay open, and what parents think of a university is a significant factor in whether you have students.

Yes, I like to think of universities as "liberating" the minds of youth. Yes, I see universities as one of the best hopes for the future of Western civilization.

But there is a balancing act here. Woody Allen once wrote, "If it bends, it's funny. If it breaks, it's not." The same might be said of a "niche" educational institution such as Christian colleges are. You can stretch students and their parents will tolerate some stretching if it is within tolerable limits. But there is also a break point, where faculty are just not mission fit and "bad for business."

Most of the time, truth is not this objectively obvious thing. Those who think all universities should just hire the best scholars are several decades behind the curve. If postmodernism is good for anything, it has shown us that there is no such thing as the Spock-like, objective scholar. This is especially the case in the liberal arts and subjects like theology.

3. Who a university hires sets a trajectory not only for the university but for generations of students. I'll use Dr. Martin at IWU as an example. His thinking had significant elements of Reformed epistemology to them, IMO. As a Wesleyan I didn't like it, even though he was a godly man, a great professor, and an incredible mentor.

He had an immense impact on generations of IWU students. I sometimes hear his voice even in Steve Deneff's preaching (truth is revealed rather than discovered). Who a university hires can have an immense impact on generations, especially at small colleges, especially when they are forming the leaders of a denomination.

So you think of the fact that open theism seems very prevalent in the Nazarene Church. Why is that? Is it not because there are a number of influential Nazarene professors who teach it? Again, I don't think open theism is the boogie man. As heresies go, I put it in the category of heresy-light, the kind that most of us have rattling around somewhere in our thinking.

So I feel for the board and administration in that sense. Tom is obviously a great guy and a great professor, but they very likely see him as a bad influence on the denomination. This is why it is essential to hire the right people to teach on the front end.

4. But lastly and mostly, I feel for Tom and the faculty at NNU. Here is one of the Nazarene church's best scholars and brightest minds. One model for a university is as a place where experts on particular topics push the boundaries of knowledge and understanding on that topic. In some cases, a university is a place where the brightest minds of a particular generation become masters of truth.

But there are other models that are also legitimate and more dominant for obvious reasons. There's the model of college as a place to learn a skill to get a job. There's college as a place for students to be formed according to the particular virtues and ideology of a particular group. Christian colleges tend to fall especially in this last "formational" category, IMO.

Most professors unthinkingly assume that their role is the first one--to pursue the bounds of knowledge and enlighten students. By contrast, parents (especially at Christian colleges) assume that the point of the college is the last two--to form students in some particular Christian set of ideas and values and to equip them to get a job.

Of course the ideological pinch is also present at secular institutions, but with different boundaries. There are boundaries you just can't push there either, just different ones. And social media is lynching secular professors these days too.

The leadership of NNU has soundly located it yesterday in the formation/vocation camp with this decision, not the research/push the bounds of truth camp. They've implicitly said, "Send your kids here to be formed along traditional Nazarene lines." They've rejected, "Send your kids here to be cutting edge thinkers." I accept this decision as the nature of the game, even if it saddens me.

5. So its just a bad situation all around. Tom is an excellent thinker and professor. He should be teaching somewhere. I was hoping maybe United in Dayton would hire him, since Jason Vickers is leaving there for Asbury Memphis. (nudge, nudge) I think there are students who would go to a particular graduate school just to study with him (including a LOT of angry young Nazarenes right now).

The world needs thinkers who push the boundaries. They just need to be at the right schools. They need to be at places where it's okay to push their particular boundaries of choice.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Friday Novel: The Run

Alan's alarm went off at 5:45am, reminding him that he was not in Chicago any more. For a moment he struggled to get his bearings, to figure out where he was in the world. The impulse to go back to sleep was immense, and he almost did. Catching himself on the verge of unconsciousness, he deliberately rolled himself off the dorm room bed onto the floor below.

He was to meet someone called Quirk in front of Peterhouse for a morning run and exercises. This was a "run club" in Peterhouse. He would be joined by a random collection of Peterhouse students who, for various reasons, liked to kill themselves early in the morning.

He arrived to find eight or nine students already there, mostly men but with a couple women, as well as a slightly older person he took to be Quirk. He imagined that some of this collection must also be part of the Society. Clearly he was the new person.

"Six kilometers this morning, ladies and gents," Quirk said. "I expect all of you but the new guy to be under 32 minutes. Randolph, I'm with you this morning."

Fox had warned him that there was a physical component for those who were able. It wasn't expected of every member of the Society. After all, Fox had said, some members were constantly falling down stairs because their heads were somewhere else.

But Fox thought he might have the capacity to be the complete package, the "full monty," the brains and the brawn.

"Begin at your leisure," Quirk finally said. "Ready Randolph? How far do you think you can run and how fast?"

"I've been training for the last month," he said. "I've been doing three miles in about twenty-two minutes."

"Well, that's pathetic," he said. "Alright then. Let's go."

Thursday, June 25, 2015

How the Bible and Theology Connect

The Bible and theology connect in two ways, in terms of their content.

1. First, they connect historically. The community of faith from which the books of the OT emerged (Israel) was in continuity with the community from which the books of the NT emerged (Jesus movement), which was in continuity with the community that recognized these books as Scriptural canon (the early church). The central beliefs and core ethics of Christianity reached a kind of stability in the community of the early church, and these beliefs and ethics have a continuity historically with the communities that preceded.

Thus the theology of the Church grew historically out of the theology of the earliest church, which grew out of the theology of Israel diachronically.

2. Synchronically, we can say that the historically particular materials of the Bible provide the raw content of Christian theology, while Christian theology provides the organization of that content. Pre-reflectively, we do not see this distinction. We see them as one as the same. We think the Bible is theology. We might read the text as a collection of individual universal truths and our theology as something like knowing which verse to quote on which topic.

But this perspective is usually unreflective. It does not understand the historical particularity of each text (or a "hyper-reflective" reader may choose to look past it). As reflective readers, we recognize that the organization of the biblical content is an act that, de re, must take place from outside the text. The texts themselves, to a large degree, do not tell us how to integrate their content with one another. It is something our minds (or preferably communities) do of necessity, whether we realize it or not.

This implies that theology is primary in terms of cognitive meaning in the sense that the organization of content is far more determinative of meaning than the content itself. To the extent that we do not realize that we are the ones organizing the content, to that extent we mistake ourselves for the Bible, to that extent we lift ourselves to have the authority of the Bible. This unreflective approach to the Bible is also why there are tens of thousands of Christian interpretive groups who think they are just following the Bible when they are mostly following the coincidences of their own interpretations.

3. In the same sense that we always live in the present, and we only understand the past in the present (and it is hard to meet the past apart from traditions that bring it to us), Christian belief and practice is understood and taught most clearly in its organized, theological form. There is a drive to connect this theology to specific biblical texts and there is a perceived power in doing so, but this primarily has to do with the affective dimensions of our thinking and practice. In terms of cognitive content, it complicates and can obfuscate.

Yet Scripture is arguably about much more than the cognitive. Arguably its function in the Christian community is primarily sacramental. In that sense, while theology can stand alone cognitively, it loses a good deal of its power when it is not connected to biblical materials.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Feynman 7: New Laws of Nature?

And so we reach the end of Richard Feynman's famous lectures, The Character of Physical Law, a series of lectures he gave at Cornell in 1964. The six previous were:
1. In the six previous lectures, Feynman had given some descriptions of the principles of nature. But what is nature. What is the something that these are principles of? What is the energy that is conserved? What is the something that has these mechanical laws?

First, that something is matter. Feynman embarks then to give a taste of the panoply of particles that had been discovered by 1964. The "standard model" was then in process of development. In fact, I have another book of Feynman's from the 80s I'd like to blog through sometime called QED, in which he presents some of this material from a vantage point twenty years later.

"All ordinary phenomena can be explained by the actions and the motions of particles" (151). And these particles are present everywhere in the universe. The make-up of matter in far away galaxies is exactly the same as the make-up of matter here.

The many particles that have been discovered--electrons, protons, neutrons, photons, neutrinos, mesons, anti-particles, etc--can be grouped into families. Feynman describes the situation in his time as similar to that of Mendeleev when he was putting together the periodic table and scientists were locating elements on it.

He also mentions a problem that I believe continues even today, which I consider to be Kuhnian "naughty data" just calling for an Einstein or Dirac to solve. Why do so many of the equations of quantum mechanics go to infinity unless you trick them?

2. So how do you find "new laws" of nature? Feynman presents the scientific method. He is worth quoting: "If it disagrees with experiment, it is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It does not make any difference how beautiful your guess is. It does not make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is--if it disagrees with experiment, it is wrong. That is all there is to it" (156).

One interesting feature about the development of twentieth century physics is the fact that studies were sometimes wrong and not immediately recognized to be so. That is encouraging. These individuals who developed relativity and quantum mechanics sometimes presented papers with errors. They weren't like the proofs of geometry. The greatest minds in physics often did not immediately see what was wrong with their experiments or lines of thought. They were, in the end, mere mortals.

Feynman gives a nearly straight line from Karl Popper--"There is always the possibility of proving any definite theory wrong; but notice that we can never prove it right" (157).

3. It is fun to see how Feynman suggests the process begins. First you look in an area where there are problems and unknowns. Then there is a "feeling" around, an intuitive step because you do not know exactly where to look or even perhaps what you are looking for. Let's just say this is not how a lot of people imagine science working.

As the chapter progressed, Feynman makes it clear that he gets regular mail from ignoramic crack pots like me making stupid suggestions in an area about which they are incompetent. Here are some fun quotes from the last part of this chapter:
  • "Such remarks are obvious and are perfectly clear to anybody who is working on this problem. It does not do any good to point this out. The problem is not only what might be wrong but what, precisely, might be substituted in place of it" (161).
  • "So please do not send me any letters truly to tell me how the thing is going to work. I read them--I always read them to make sure that I have not already thought of what is suggested--but it takes too long to answer them, because they are usually in the class of 'try 10:20:30'" (161-62).
  • "The inexperienced, and crackpots, and people like that, make guesses that are simple, but you can immediately see that they are wrong, so that does not count" (171).
He talks about how people tell him to start from first principles. The problem here is that "all the principles that are known are inconsistent with each other" (160-61). It's easy to point out the problems (as I have)--inconsistencies, infinities--but what are you going to substitute in its place? THAT is what is important.

And there are an infinite number of possibilities of these simple types.

4. In the end, Feynman argues, the great discoverers are great guessers. He mentions Newton and Maxwell, the two first greats. Newton's laws were fairly close to the surface. Not so today. Maxwell guessed at the right answers on the basis of a wrong idea. Einstein was driven to resolve paradoxes among existing laws. Quantum mechanics was developed from two completely different starting points.

Here is another key insight of Feynman: "We must keep all the theories in our heads, and every theoretical physicist who is any good knows six or seven different theoretical representations for exactly the same physics. He knows that they are all equivalent, and that nobody is ever going to be able to decide which one is right at that level, but he keeps them in his head, hoping that they will give him different ideas for guessing" (168).

In the end, he does not believe that history repeats itself in physics. The next big discovery will not come in the way it came for Newton or Maxwell or Einstein or Schrödinger. How do you know when it has worked? "Science is only useful if it tells you about some experiment that has not been done" (164). "You can have as much junk in the guess as you like, provided that the consequences can be compared with experiment." "It is not unscientific to make a guess" (165).

When two principles work in a certain area but are inconsistent with each other, how do you find harmony, if you should? "To guess what to keep and what to throw away takes considerable skill. Actually, it is probably merely a matter of luck, but it looks as if it takes considerable skill" (166).

Feynman gives some of his guesses. Here's an interesting one: "I rather suspect that the simple rules of geometry, extended down into infinitely small space, are wrong." In other words, his hunch is that space is not continuous.

5. You can tell that Feynman isn't particularly impressed with a lot of philosophers. However, "the philosophers who are always on the outside making stupid remarks will be able to close in" eventually, as the science gets closer and closer to completeness. Eventually, the unknown of physics will become known, and then the physicists will not be able to "push them away" (173).

The chapter ends with these striking thoughts on the future of physics. "I think it has to end in one way or another" (172). "We are very lucky to live in an age in which we are still making discoveries. It is like the discovery of America--you only discover it once. The age in which we live is the age in which we are discovering the fundamental laws of nature, an that day will never come again."

"There will be a degeneration of ideas, just like the degeneration that great explorers fell is occurring when tourists begin moving in on a territory." "In this age people are experiencing a delight, a tremendous delight that you get when you guess how nature will work in a new situation never seen before." (173).

Why does it work like this? Feynman's feeling is that it is because "nature has a simplicity and therefore a great beauty" (173). Feynman, who of course was a genius the likes of which I have never met, could recognize when he had a breakthrough. "You can recognize truth by its beauty and simplicity. It is always easy when you have made a guess, and done two or three little calculations to make sure that it is not obviously wrong, to know that it is right" (171).

6. The quote at the beginning of the last paragraph is the end of the chapter and the book. Of course, again, these are arguments that have next been extended to God as the great artist and creator, the great designer.

But in my following the flow I have missed what I consider an important point. Many experimental physicists by their very personality as pragmatists may scoff at competing philosophies about what is happening. My post over the previous chapter dipped into some of those debates, which many consider irrelevant.

But Feynman makes it clear that these philosophies can actually be important. These philosophies are "really tricky ways to compute consequences quickly" (169). "A philosophy, which is sometimes called an understanding of the law, is simply a way that a person holds the laws in his mind in order to guess quickly at consequences."

But it may be that one of these approaches to the data gives a slightly better way forward with the unknown. Newton's laws of gravitation worked oh so well except for this tiny discrepancy with Mercury. That gave Einstein a window to completely re-conceptualize the matter. And so, if it were to turn out that pilot waves provided a way forward that indeterminacy does not, even though the results are entirely the same otherwise, that would make it a better theory.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Feynman 6: Quantum Mechanical View of Nature

This is the second to last chapter in Richard Feynman's, The Character of Physical Law, a series of lectures he gave at Cornell in 1964. The five previous were:
1. In this lecture Feynman gives the Bohr interpretation of quantum mechanics, the interpretation of quantum phenomena held by the majority of quantum physicists. Mind you, the majority of quantum physicists are simply followers of a Kuhnian paradigm they learned in school. Much smarter than me, but not the likes of Feynman or Hawking or Kip Thorne. And Hawking is wrong as often as not these days (e.g., on the existence of the Higg's boson).

I suspect most quantum physicists get annoyed at the question of whether the dogma of uncertainty is right. But it smells like classic Kuhn to me. Logical positivism died in philosophy some sixty years ago, but it is still the name of the game among classical physicists. Feynman ends this chapter with a nice touch. It's okay to have biases as long as you're willing to change them given experimental evidence. I'm willing.

But the current situation in physics has Kuhn written all over it. Bohr, it seems to me, was an ideological bully with charisma. When de Broglie proposed that nuclear particles had pilot waves, he was shut down by the Bohr mafia, the clique that ruled the physics roost at that time. John von Neumann claimed in 1932 to have shown that there couldn't be any other hidden variables like de Broglie's pilot waves that go with particles. It's what the Kuhnian dominant group wanted to hear. Case closed.

Except it wasn't. A physicist by the name of Greta Hermann found an error in von Neumann's argument in 1935, a fact ignored till the 1980s. No one wanted to hear.

Similarly, David Bohm in the 1950s was able to solve the problems with de Broglie's original version of pilot wave theory. John Stewart Bell revived Bohm's approach in the 1980s and also clarified why von Neumann's objection didn't work. And now, John W. M. Bush at MIT has shown that analogous phenomenon in fluid mechanics demonstrate the same results as the standard quantum approach. They require more complex explanations, but the results are the same.

2. I checked some of the online physicist response to Bush and it sounds very much like what Kuhn described as the expected reaction of "normal science." "Who cares." "It's just a different interpretation." It yields the same results but the Copenhagen interpretation is simpler. "It's just about what philosophy you feel most comfortable with."

Here I suppose my theology should bias me toward the indeterminant Copenhagen, but my distaste for logical positivism is even greater. Logical positivism basically says that a falling tree doesn't make a noise in the forest unless someone is there to hear it. If you can't observe it, it doesn't exist.

On the other hand, physics has been stuck for a long time. Hawking can talk about a theory of everything but he's got nothin. There hasn't been any real progress made on a unified theory in a half a century. Quantum mechanics and relativity are just as irreconcilable as they were in the 1930s. String theory has produced NOTHING, and Sheldon was smart to give it up (Big Bang Theory).

This situation suggests to me that something needs backed up to first principles, and the Copenhagen bullies seem as good a place to start as any.

3. Of course none of this is what Feynman presents in this chapter. For all Feynman knew in 1964, von Neumann's critique of de Broglie stood. In his words, "That theory cannot be true" (146).

The double slit experiment basically shows a number of seemingly contradictory things (watch the video):
  • that electrons go through one of the two slits one at a time (and thus behave like particles)
  • that electrons going through two slits produce an interference pattern (an thus behave like waves)
Even if you send the electrons one by one, particle by particle, they will end up producing an interference pattern like a wave. This is a remarkable thing. It's like the electrons know where they need to go to make the interference pattern even though you shoot them one by one.

But if you try to observe which slit each electron goes through, it stops yielding an interference pattern. You can't tell which hole the electron goes through without in effect changing the situation (to detect is to force a different outcome).

4. Feynman again emphasizes that there is nothing that can be understood about this situation. We simply have to accept it. The equations work even though they have no meaning.

"We invent an 'a', which we call a probability amplitude, because we do not know what it means... To get the total probability amplitude to arrive you add the two together and square it" (137).
  • Nobody can give you a deeper explanation for this situation. They can only describe it in more detail. So "you can mention that they are complex numbers instead of real numbers" (145). "But the deep mystery is that no one can go any deeper today." 
  • Nature herself does not know which slit the electron will go through.
In effect, "the future is unpredictable" (147). "It is impossible to predict in any way, from any information ahead of time, through which hole the thing will go, or which hole it will be seen behind" (146).
4. I am open to the Copenhagen interpretation, mind you. At the beginning of the lecture Feynman warned that intuition and common sense are completely useless in quantum physics because there simply aren't ordinary human world analogies. "I think I can safely say," Feynman said, "that nobody understands quantum mechanics" (129).

Monday, June 22, 2015

Logic - comic (graphic novel with Bertrand Russell)

A few weeks back, my Wesley Seminary colleague Brannon Hancock mentioned a couple of graphic novels to me, one largely focused on Bertrand Russell and the second on Richard Feynman. I finished the one on Russell yesterday and wanted to report.

1. The one on Russell is called Logicomix. It's a whopping 352 pages. It gives you a taste of Russell, along with an important collection of others working on logic in the late 1800s and first part of the twentieth century: Gottlob Frege, David Hilbert, Kurt Gödel, Ludwig Wittgenstein, etc. One theme that runs throughout the novel is the frequent connection between the obsession of some of these for logic and a certain madness many of them skirted with.

Russell's family itself had a fair amount of schizophrenia in it. Georg Cantor and Kurt Gödel both had serious mental health issues. Frege turned out to have horrible Nazi sympathies. Wittgenstein himself, like Russell, had seriously obsessive tendencies.

The setting of the graphic novel is the writers of the novel writing the novel, in Greece, nonetheless. This allows the narrators to step into the story at various points to explain things and to reflect on the overall themes. An interesting backdrop is that one of them is also in a play being performed from Greek tragedy, the Oresteia. This is a series of blood obligations started when one Greek king killed the children of another.

Then ensues a series of revenge obligations that ends with Orestes on trial before Athens with Athena arguing that the blood debt needs to stop and the Furies insisting that he must die for killing his mother. This backdrop fits with the madness theme.

2. The setting of the story itself is Russell giving a lecture in America in 1939 while America is on the brink of war. He had taken a pacifist stance on WW1 and the group to which he was speaking was hoping he would do so again with WW2. In response, he presents his life story.

The story is largely one of his obsession and the obsession of others to ground mathematics on a firm basis. He and Alfred North Whitehead spend 10 years writing volumes meant to ground mathematics firmly on logic. Russell considered the work a failure. But as an example, they spend some 250 pages proving that 1 + 1 = 2.

Wittgenstein enters the scene as someone who undermines Russell's whole enterprise. "Whereof we cannot speak, we must be silent," and Wittgenstein would include the ultimate foundations of logic and math in that category. The climax of the novel, it seems to me, is Kurt Gödel's incompleteness theorem, which demonstrated that you could not ultimately prove anything as a self-contained system. Nothing can be completely grounded in itself.

(This is a major qualification to sola scriptura--the meaning of the Bible as a whole cannot hold together without some axioms which are ultimately outside of the Bible itself.)

3. The tortured point of the novel seems to be that extreme positions and obsessions--on logic, on war, on communism or capitalism--all seem to invite madness and insanity. Russell wrestles with how Frege could be so brilliant and yet froth at the mouth at the murder of Jews or how Hilbert could completely disown his schizophrenic son. Not long after Gödel's breakthrough, Moritz Schlick was gunned down by a Nazi in Vienna (1936).

In the graphic novel, Russell tells the pacifist crowd that they would have to make up their own minds about World War 2. In the novel he says, "The thought of Hitler and Stalin taking over Europe is too hard to bear" (296), despite his distaste for war. This doesn't seem to be a completely accurate picture of Russell, since he supported Chamberlain's appeasement policy.

4. I would say that as a graphic novel on such heady topics, it held my attention. It shows that there is a market for such things. This collection of eccentrics were, more or less, the founders of analytic philosophy. I have some admiration for them, whose goals were clarity and certainty. Gödel took the latter away from them, but I am nonetheless thankful for these accountants of philosophy.

I believe that the thinking of the world right now, including America, could use some serious house cleaning. I would love to break down our thinking into "atoms of principle" and try to help us find clarity on the most important issues of the day.

It remains as hard as ever to do that, though, because of the politics of knowledge and the persistence of our individual intuitions. The "preaching" I hear in person, page, and social media often seems oh so irrelevant, destined to continue the marginalization of Christianity within society. The rich and powerful play jacks with each other while the world burns. Their resources have nothing to do with truth, only perpetuating self-interest. But they have the power to make it happen. The public runs rampant with madness, convinced that its ignorance is true insight.

Who will free us from this body of death?

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Feynman 5: Telling the Past from the Future

This is the fifth of seven chapters in Richard Feynman's, The Character of Physical Law, a series of lectures he gave at Cornell in 1964. The four previous were:
Another fascinating lecture. It was a little disappointing at the end because for most of the chapter I might have been listening to an apologist presenting the cosmological argument for the existence of God. He did mention God at the end but did not venture to address ultimate questions. He ended by only saying that those who look at the small workings and those who ask the big metaphysical questions should not look down on each other or on any of those who figure out the stuff in between.

1. Most of the chapter was about the irreversibility of things on a large scale despite the theoretical reversibility of everything on a small scale. So on a small scale, "there does not seem to be any distinction between the past and future" (109). He does mention friction and beta decay as irreversible.

Perhaps the clearest example he gives in the chapter is of mixing together blue and white water. Gradually, they will combine into a whitish blue throughout the whole tank. Nothing in theory would keep it from becoming unmixed again into blue and white corners. We just know it isn't going to happen in a lifetime.

"One of the rules of the world is that the thing goes from an ordered condition to a disordered" (113).

He then hypothesizes an obscure device that might turn because of random air molecules against a vane only allowed to go one way. The illustration didn't work for me but I got the point. Eventually, heat evens out in a system and reaches equilibrium.

2. This sounded exactly like versions of the cosmological argument that I grew up with. He even mentions entropy (121), the famed second law of thermodynamics that Christians often use to argue that the universe had a beginning. Things go from ordered to disordered and the process seems irreversible. That suggests there must have been an orderly beginning.

Feynman doesn't go there. Indeed, like a novel reader, I kept waiting for the denouement. In a universe this vast, it is possible to find a small pocket of random order, but then we would expect complete bluish-white everywhere else. But we don't. So what was the order with which it all began?

3. At another point, Feynman gives us an amazing instance of the anthropic principle of which I had never heard. Apparently, it is easy to suggest how hydrogen atoms might come together to form helium atoms in a primordial soup of hot atoms. But cosmologists hit a snag when it come to the formation of larger atoms like carbon.

Fred Hoyle found a possible way. If one of the electron levels of carbon was at precisely 7.82 million volts, then three helium atoms could stick together just long enough for carbon to form. And so it was. Carbon does have an energy level in its electron orbitals that is 7.82 million volts. If it didn't, there would be no universe other than a random collection of cooling hydrogen and helium atoms (for the most part).

"The most important things in the real world appear to be a kind of complicated accidental result of a lot of laws" (122).

4. He ends the chapter with a concept he calls a "hierarchy of ideas." At the bottom of this hierarchy are the fundamental laws of nature. Then above them are basic principles like heat. Then there are bigger items like surface tension or refractive indices, properties of substances.

Still further up are waves, sun spots, stars. Then things like frogs. Then further up is history, "man," political expediency. Then evil, beauty, hope. It is here that he finally mentions God, although he does not believe that either end is truly closer to God. By implication, both ends point to God.

"The great mass of workers in between, connecting one step to another, are improving all the time our understanding of the world, both from working at the ends and working in the middle, and in that way we are gradually understanding this tremendous world of interconnecting hierarchies" (126).

Friday, June 19, 2015

Feynman 4: Symmetry in Physical Law

This is the fourth of seven chapters in Richard Feynman's, The Character of Physical Law, a series of lectures he gave at Cornell in 1965. The previous three were:
I didn't find this lecture as interesting or as clear. It's curious to me why the idea of symmetry seems at first glance to be rather boring. I suspect it is partly because I don't know much about it. But it is probably also because of some matter of my personality. I remember studying "translation" in high school, mapping one coordinate frame onto another. I remember it seeming very boring.

But the end of the lecture hinted at something interesting about symmetry. Apparently, the laws of conservation in the previous lecture relate in some way to the symmetries in this one.

1. The first part of the chapter explores several different kinds of symmetry in nature. He defines symmetry as being able to change something in some way and it looking exactly as before.

The ones he presents are:
  • symmetry of translation (if you move everything over, it operates the same)
  • translation of time (if you move stuff forward in time, the laws of nature operate the same)
  • rotating things (if you turn everything a certain way, they operate the same)
  • motion in a straight line (relative to your frame of reference, everything operates the same)
  • atom replacement (you can replace one atom with another same atom and everything works the same)
There are some interesting twists and turns in his presentation of these, although sometimes he gets a little tedious with his "what ifs." Here were the "what ifs" I found most interesting:
  • If the universe had a beginning, then the translation of time symmetry wouldn't work for the beginning of time, but usually scientists don't include that part of time in their discussion of such symmetry.
  • Einstein's theory of relativity sets the speed of light as an absolute speed limit for the universe, so motion in a straight line only is symmetrical within a frame of reference, not from one frame of reference to another moving relative to it.
2. Then he presents some items of the universe that are not symmetrical.
  • Change of scale. If you make something bigger, it does not operate the same way. If you took a matchbox cathedral and increased the scale to the size of an actual cathedral, it would collapse under its own weight. This relates to one of the random discussions on Big Bang Theory on whether a giant rat was possible. 
  • Spinning is not symmetrical in the sense that you can tell if you are spinning (e.g., with a gyroscope). By contrast, you cannot tell if you are moving at constant velocity without looking outside your car.
  • One of the most interesting apparent non-symmetries is reflection. I did a quick search to see if this non-symmetry still holds. From my brief look, it seems like it does. 
Feynman shows that reflection symmetry holds to a very large extent. There are some interesting twists. For example, apparently living organisms prefer "right-handed" molecules. Bacteria will eat all the sugar that comes from nature. But they will only eat half of the sugar that is artificially produced, even though it has the same chemical formula. (This is an argument, by the way, that all life is derivative on the same basic original life-structure--all life is "right-handed" on the molecular level, so to speak).

But when he gets down to the atomic level, apparently all electrons spin left. You can create a positron (positively charged electron) that spins right, but it isn't (if I understand correctly) an exact mirror. So on the subatomic level, symmetry doesn't hold. You can't create a right-handed electron.

3. So we arrive at the pay off of the chapter, which is a deep connection between symmetry and laws of conservation. He lines them up this way:
  • symmetry of translation relates to conservation of momentum
  • symmetry in time relations to the conservation of energy
  • symmetry in rotation relates to the conservation of angular momentum
Interesting!

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Oh Feyn, Man!

When I entered my forties, I went through a kind of nerd mid-life crisis. I began to re-open some of the math and science books I had bought in my teens and early twenties. I hadn't understood them then and I still didn't understand them.

Five years ago I bought some of the latest math and science textbooks, including a university physics book. My goal was only to read a page a day, with the hope I would get through them by the time I turned fifty. That's not going to happen. I'll be lucky to make it by 55.

I'm only a little more than 300 pages into the physics book I bought, but my experience with the Seminary curriculum has already had me thinking a number of things about how one might teach this content in a better way: 
  • There's some overlap between physics and chemistry--why separate them so sharply?
  • There are a lot of things at the end of the book that could really come earlier. As it is, you hardly get to them, especially if you're only taking two semesters of physics. The stuff I'm most interested in is like 1000 pages in!
  • It doesn't really have to be taught in this order, even though it seems like everyone does.
So, lo and behold, I discover that Richard Feynman did much of what I have in mind... in 1963. He touches on relativity and quantum physics really early in the series. He crosses into chemistry type topics. I've been doing video tutorials as I go through the book I have. But a big part of me wishes I had known about these!

What is more, they are all available for free online on the Cal Tech website! What a rush it must have been to be a physics student at Cal Tech when he taught these!

Feynman 3: Great Principles of Conservation

This is the third of seven chapters in Richard Feynman's, The Character of Physical Law, a series of lectures he gave at Cornell in 1965. The previous two were:
In this third lecture, he muses about principles of conservation that seem to apply throughout the universe. I say "muses" because he makes no claims to know why these patterns seem to hold or whether they will continue to hold in the future.

As a sign of his genius, he did not have a prepared manuscript for these lectures, only some notes. They were delivered extempore and then written up from the recordings. For example, in the course of this lecture he constructed a chart on a chalkboard. He is truly unusual among such geniuses to be able to communicate so clearly. Truly amazing.

1. Feynman spent the bulk of the lecture presenting examples of conservation in nature, especially the conservation of energy. But near the end he does begin to reflect on the possible significance of it all.

The main conclusion he reaches is that science is uncertain. It is in its very nature to reach beyond the known to the unknown, and this requires guesswork and the expectation that the laws that already seem to work in one area will also work in another. But he makes it clear that scientists can't assume they will continue to work.

For example, when it was found that a neutron could deteriorate into a proton and an electron, Niels Bohr famously suggested that they had finally found a situation where energy was not conserved. By that time he was so used to time-held notions going out the window that he had a penchant for wanting to overturn time honored scientific notions.

But it turned out he was wrong. There was another tiny particle, an anti-neutrino, that was involved, and energy was conserved.

For Feynman, though, it was important for scientists to be willing to throw out the conservation of energy principle if the evidence seemed to warrant it. And so it is for all true truth-seekers in every area except for the axiomatic.

2. The conservation of energy takes up the most space in the lecture. As usual, Feynman puts it in incredibly clear terms. He uses the analogy of a mother who leaves her child alone in a room with 28 blocks. One way or another, she will always be able to account for 28 blocks when she comes back to the room.

Perhaps the child will throw one block out the window. Perhaps the child has put one in a box--she can weigh the box to find out if she knows how much it weighed before and how much each block weighs. If there is a sink full of water, she can measure how high the water level has risen to account for submerged blocks.

And so he gives the analogy to the conservation of energy. Sometimes the energy hides, but science so far has always been able to account for all the "blocks" before and after some process.

3. Electric charge is always conserved. Feynman gets into a little relativity in his discussion here. Charge is always conserved locally, meaning in a particular frame of motion. Someone in a different frame of motion may not seem to observe conservation of charge.

He notes also that many things that are conserved come in units. Charges come in units. Another thing that comes in units and is conserved are "baryons," a heavier type of atomic particle like a proton or a neutron. The standard model of physics wasn't quite assembled completely when Feynman gave these lectures, but it was well on its way.

Two other conservations he mentions are the conservation of momentum (mass times velocity) and the conservation of angular momentum (the area created by motion over time from a certain reference point, such as the area between the moving planets per given time and the sun).

In all these things, Feynman sees deep yet seemingly inexplicable connections.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Relationship of Physics to Math (Feynman 2)

Yesterday morning I read the first chapter of Richard Feynman's The Character of Physical Law, a series of lectures he gave at Cornell in 1965, fifty years ago. This morning I read the second chapter, "The Relation of Mathematics to Physics." In this chapter you really catch a glimpse of this man's genius, as well as his uncanny ability to explain things.

This chapter is full of insights that, interestingly enough, I have caught these last twenty years or so at IWU, especially being friends with the likes of Keith Drury and Russ Gunsalus. These are insights that were part of the founding of Wesley Seminary, insights that are hard to catch, hard to communicate, hard to convince. When they train you to be a scholar, they do not teach you to think like Feynman, a physicist. They teach you to think like a mathematician.

1. Feynman of course is not disparaging of mathematicians in the least. Indeed, he ends the chapter by apologizing to the layman for the difficulty of mathematics. "If you want to learn about nature, to appreciate nature, it is necessary to understand the language that she speaks in" (58), by which he means math. In the chapter, he references people like me, who read book after book, hoping that the next person will finally be able to explain to me what is going on with quantum physics.

But in the end it is just tough. Either you can hack the stuff or you can't. In the words of Euclid to a king, wanting an easier explanation, "There is no royal road to geometry" (58). In the words of the nineteenth century physicist Jeans, "The Great Architect seems to be a mathematician."

This is a powerful statement: "To those who do not know mathematics it is difficult to get across a real feeling as to the beauty, the deepest beauty, of nature... [there are] people who have and people who have not had this experience of understanding mathematics well enough to appreciate nature once."

2. Still, Feynman spends most of the chapter indicating that physics is quite distinct from math. He wonders if the mathematicians will prove to be right in the end, that all of nature can be boiled down to certain axioms, certain "building blocks" of knowledge, as it were. He calls this the Greek approach to math, to start with foundational claims and build all other claims from there.

But we are not there yet at all, he indicates. Even in math, he suggests, you can start at different places and get to the same destination. But in physics, things are much more like the Babylonian way of doing math. By his description, the Babylonian way of doing math is that you know a collection of things that are true.

You do not break them down into truth atoms. You see some connections between these various mathematical truths and you intuit when to use one tool and when to use another. There are many analogies in physics, he says, where there are no clear connections between differing rules at all, but they have an uncanny similarity to each other.

3. This is the state of physics right now. It is impossible in physics right now to know what the first principles are--or whether there even are first principles. When Newton was asked what his theory of universal gravitation meant, he indicated that it didn't mean anything. It simply describes how things move.

I have said this many times here and it is in my philosophy book. Science is a collection of very precise myths that express the mystery of the world's operations.

Feynman gave as an illustration three completely independent and apparently unrelated ways to express the phenomenon of movement. The first was Newton's "action at a distance model," where a force is acting on an object at a distance. But there is a second model that looks only on the mass and potential of the object itself. And there is a third model, Euler's principle of least action. This last one was the inspiration for Feynman's claim to fame in quantum physics. Somehow, particles know to take the path of least action.

These three expressions (myths, if you would) are completely unrelated, apparently, but they all explain the motion of a body from one point to another correctly, at least on a macro-scale. "The correct laws of physics seem to be expressible in such a tremendous variety of ways" (55).

4. Practical theology is much more like physics than it is mathematics, in that regard. There are these macro-truths. It isn't always helpful to try to break them down into fundamental truth atoms. As a Biblehead, the game we often play of trying to break down life into Bible atoms (i.e., proof texts) is really embarrassing. It's really just a silly game.

But I digress. There are times when the "physics" of life and morality isn't working right and you need to bring in the "mathematicians." And sometimes the "mathematicians," while exploring the beauty of thought for its own sake, will generate useful tools for life without thinking of its relevance.

Feynman would say that the physicists need the mathematicians at key points, although most of what physicists do, in his own words, is fly by the seat of their pants, to see if something works in the real world. And, of course, Feynman was also very good at math.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

New Seminary MA Specialization - Ordination Track

In what I think will be my last Seminary Academic Affairs meeting with me chairing (I have one more with Dave Smith chairing in August, I suspect), we passed a new MA in Ministry specialization in "Pastoral Ministry" this afternoon. It is a delightful finale to my generally "creative" Deaning, created with the brainstorming help of none other than Russ Gunsalus and Joel Liechty.

This MA specialization will take 6 hours more than the base degree (which is 36 hours), but you will be able to meet all the educational requirements for ordination in the Wesleyan Church in 42 credit hours. There's not an ounce of fat in this degree, and (aside from one course--Lenny Luchetti's Pastor, Church, and World), this will be the only completely online way to meet ordination requirements for the Wesleyan Church and get a degree in the process.

It will only take two years and a semester to complete, and you will be able to transfer in up to 15 graduate hours toward it from somewhere else. You can possibly get up to 6 hours of advanced standing toward it from appropriate undergraduate work as well. All the requirements for licensure are completed in the first year.

I think this will be a tremendous addition to the tool set of the Wesleyan Church. Mind you, the Master of Divinity degree remains the ideal seminary degree for a minister. It is obviously a much more robust degree than this MA, and it is the degree that hospitals, the military, and doctoral programs recognize.

So this degree is not meant to be a substitute for the MDIV. It's meant to be a more robust option for those who wouldn't have done a degree at all.

Feynman's The Character of Physical Law 1

The second half of June is often the season when administrators take what they can of their remaining vacation days, so I am relaxing a bit these next two weeks (though I am happily and gratefully continuing to work for the Seminary until the end of August).

1. So this morning I picked up an old book of interest to me by Richard Feynman, The Character of Physical Law. I make no promises to finish it, but I read the first chapter this morning.

Feynman was a curious soul. I blogged through the first eight chapters of a biography of him last summer, then stopped when the school year came on heavy. Perhaps I will try to finish working through it. I am cursed with too many interests, too little intellect, and too little time. I wish there was a chamber you could enter where time outside freezes but you can go in and study for a while.

Einstein-Dirac-Feynman-Hawking--that's my current list of the greatest geniuses of twentieth century physics. Feynman gave these lectures in 1965 at Cornell.

2. Chapter 1 is about the law of gravitation, first set down by Newton. I'm not sure what to expect from this book. I'm looking for some insight behind physical law. My hunch is that Feynman will not be able to tell me. My hunch is that he is going to muse about patterns, scientific development, and curious correspondences. But there are no real answers to why the laws of nature work the way they do.

He mentions some of these mysteries in this chapter. So the inverse square of distance seems to have some deep significance, but we don't know what it is (30). It shows up both in the law of universal gravitation and in the formula for electric charge. But the relationship between these two forces is unknown and different on the level of 10 to the 42nd power (a one with 42 zeros after it).

Newton's law of gravitation also had to be modified a little by Einstein, who with the help of David Hilbert set out a general theory of relativity that included gravity. Yet even here, Feynman noted that this theory could not yet account for gravity on the quantum level. This is one of the cutting edges of physics.

Feynman ends this first lecture with three observations.

a. The first is the correspondence between physical reality and mathematics. I've mentioned the inverse square feature.

A fun story in the chapter is when two individuals using only math and the observed movements of Uranus independently asked two different observatories to turn their satellites toward a part of the sky where they expected to find a planet, Neptune. The rationale was the hypothesis that Uranus' orbit was being affected by another large planet.

Feynman's account is different from others. He basically suggests that the British observatory thought it ridiculous that you could find a planet by math, while the German observatory dutifully looked and found. This is probably a better story but perhaps less true.

b. The second observation is that these discoveries are not exact, as in the need for modification by Einstein and still by someone in relation to quantum gravity.

c. The third, though, is the simplicity of Newton's basic equation and fourthly its universal character.

3. In the meantime, the chapter gives a lovely tale of how the law developed from Copernicus to Kepler and Galileo to Newton to Cavendish and several other scientists up till the twentieth century. A reassuring reminder is that it took some four centuries to unfold the content of this chapter and that these scientists worked a lifetime on them. They seem amazingly brilliant after the fact, and no doubt they were.

But they weren't brilliant every day. We tend to miss the trial and error of their probings and the long story of development.

P.S. I forgot to mention the old idea around the time of Galileo that angels pushed the planets around. (Feynman had a flair for the dramatic, so I probably should confirm this) He suggests that this is not entirely wrong, but that they were wrong on the direction in which the angels were pushing. The angels--gravity--were pushing inward toward the sun rather than pushing behind the planet. After all, a body in motion stays in motion all by itself... another mystery whose reasons we know not why.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

E3. The invisible Church meets in visible churches.

This is the third post on the Church in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first unit in this series had to do with God and Creation (book here), and the second unit was on Christology and Atonement.

We are now in the third and final unit: The Holy Spirit and the Church. The first set of posts in this final unit on the Spirit and the Church was on the Holy Spirit.
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The true Church is both visible and invisible.

1. The true, invisible Church is visible in that those who are in Christ inevitably will come together to worship, disciple, fellowship, and participate in God's mission to the world. Even though the true Church is invisible, it is not individual. The Church is a corporate entity.

When Paul tells the Corinthians that "you are God's temple" and that "God's Spirit dwells in you (1 Cor. 3:16), he does not use the singular word for "you" in Greek, but the plural. It is the collective body of Christ that is the Church rather than me in my individual body. [1] We are God's temple far more than I am God's temple.

So it is questionable whether a person who claims to be in Christ but never meets together with other believers is truly in Christ unless their circumstances truly prevent them from doing so. God has created us in a way that we need each other for spiritual strength. God often chooses to heal us through others, even though he could do it directly.

Are you discouraged? God could encourage you directly, but he more often uses others. Indeed, there are situations where we cannot even sense God's presence as individuals and, rather than push through the clouds directly, God uses our fellow believers to heal our antennae. [2] In the mystery of his will, God uses people to do so much of his work on this earth.

2. It does not matter whether you are an introvert or an extrovert. Christians assemble together (e.g., Heb. 10:25). Indeed, the word church in Greek, ekklesia, means an "assembly," a gathering of individuals. [3] The apostle Paul's primary use of the word is in reference to a local gathering of believers rather than the body of Christ everywhere.

So the first meaning of the word church is in reference to a local gathering of believers, probably gathering in a house. A city like Rome and Ephesus would have many such churches. The church at Corinth seems to have been able to gather together in the house of Erastus, suggesting that Corinth may have only had 40 or 50 believers in the city (cf. Rom. 16:23). [4]

To refer to all the churches everywhere as the "Church" is thus a figurative expression, a metaphor built off the primarily meaning of a church as a local gathering of believers. The invisible, global, timeless Church is the collection of all the "assemblies of God" (cf. 1 Thess. 2:14) that have met in all times and places for the last two thousand years.

3. Before the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, there was only one church for any one region. If you lived in the West, you were Roman Catholic. If you lived in the East, you were Orthodox. If you lived in Egypt, you were Coptic. So while these groups might question whether the others were truly in the Church, there was no doubt for those who lived in a particular place as to who was in the church there.

So the church in a specific location was quite visible, even if we might now say that its true membership was invisible even then. But there was no question as to what was a church and what wasn't.

However, the Protestant Reformation raised this question with force: How do you know when you are truly in a church? If the Church is invisible and there is more than one visible, human organization that claims to be the Church or at least part of the Church, how do you know which ones are legitimate and which ones are not?

From this question would develop the "three marks of the Church." A true church is anywhere there is 1) the pure preaching of the gospel, 2) the pure administration of the sacraments, and 3) the practice of church discipline. [5] This model suggests that a true, visible church--rather than a mere Bible study or meeting for fellowship--is one where someone proclaims the word of God, where individuals are baptized and the Lord's Supper eaten, and where there is enough organization and leadership for church discipline to take place.

Yet the Reformers here no doubt were still reading their own assumptions into these definitions. They were elevating the importance of preaching in keeping with the fact that the Reformation centered on Scripture. In much of their thinking they retained a sense of the sacraments that had developed as much in Christian history as in the Bible, only pruning the number down to two. And they assumed an importance to church structure that fit with the need to counterbalance the power of the Roman Catholic Church. None of these drives were bad, but were they essential?

4. What was a "gathering" in the early church? Perhaps more fundamental for its existence than what they did when they gathered is the mere fact that they did gather, regularly. So first, a visible church is a collection of believers that gathers regularly. As Matthew 18:20 suggests, there is a special, authoritative sense of God's presence when even two or three of God's people are together.

What do they do when they gather regularly? There is a collection of activities that they do, and we need not limit them to say that a church is only a church when they are doing a certain core of them. [6] They worship together (which often includes the sacraments). They often hear a word from the Lord and instruct each other (often if not usually involving Scripture). They fellowship together. They admonish one another (which can include church discipline and leadership). They participate in the mission of God to redeem the world.

Over time, we might say that a true, visible church will end up doing all these things and that, if it does not, it is perhaps imbalanced in some way. But the core ingredient, the core identifier, is that a group of individuals in the invisible Church are meeting together regularly to do these sorts of things. A true, visible church is a collection of individuals who have the Holy Spirit and are in Christ who meet together regularly to worship, disciple, fellowship, admonish, and spread the gospel in the world.

The Church is invisible, but it meets together in visible churches.

Next week: E4. The church is one body even though it has many members.

[1] There is arguably nuance even to 1 Corinthians 6:19, which is often taken in relation to my individual, physical body as a temple (a verse often used against smoking). The "yous" in this verse are all plural, leading us to think that, primarily, Paul is again thinking of the collective body of Christ at Corinth. What each man does with his individual body with a prostitute corrupts the whole body of Christ at Corinth. See Kenneth Schenck, 1 and 2 Corinthians: A Commentary for Bible Students (Indianapolis: Wesleyan Publishing House, 2006).

[2] A book that was once meaningful to me in this regard was David Seamand's Healing of Memories (Colorado Springs: Chariot Victor, 1985).

[3] Although the image of the church as the "called-out ones" is a helpful illustration, it is not technically accurate. This is an example of the etymological fallacy, where you assume that the history of a word--in this case the words that once came together in Greek history to form the word--determine what the word means. So since ek means "out of" and kalein means "to call," the conclusion is reached that ekklesia means "called out of."

But no Greek thought this any more than we think of "understanding" as "standing under" something. These words had been joined together centuries before the New Testament and people just used the word without thinking of its history. The clearest example of this fact is Acts 19:41, when the city clerk sends a mob away. This verse says that he dismissed this ekklesia.

[4] See especially Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (New Haven: Yale University, 2003 [1983]).

[5] The number varied a little at first. John Calvin, for example, only mentions the first two in his 1536 Institutes of the Christian Religion, but he mentions church discipline elsewhere as a practice of the Church.

[6] This is a key insight from the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. There is not always a core set of universal characteristics to something we name. Sometimes an "entity" is defined by a looser collection of characteristics and "family resemblances." In other words, there are trends of characteristics for the group that may be prevalent but not universal (e.g., a family may be known for having big noses without everyone in the family having a big nose).

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