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Archive for the ‘God’ Category

Turtles, or terrapins, on a log in a pondToday we visited the beautiful Airlie Gardens in Wilmington, NC, USA, and came across a contented herd of turtles sunning themselves on a log.

The scene brought to mind the amusing “turtles all the way down” anecdote. On the surface, it makes fun of credulity. But I think it also has something to say about the nature of infinity and eternity.

The anecdote, which might be apocryphal, sometimes names Bertrand Russell as the scientist confronted by a determined old lady. But I like John Robert Ross‘s version, which names William James as the scientist:

After a lecture on cosmology and the structure of the solar system, James was accosted by a little old lady.

“Your theory that the sun is the center of the solar system, and that the earth is a ball which rotates around it, has a very convincing ring to it, Mr. James, but it’s wrong. I’ve got a better theory,” said the little old lady.

“And what is that, madam?” inquired James politely.

“That we live on a crust of earth which is on the back of a giant turtle.”

Not wishing to demolish this absurd little theory by bringing to bear the masses of scientific evidence he had at his command, James decided to gently dissuade his opponent by making her see some of the inadequacies of her position.

“If your theory is correct, madam,” he asked, “what does this turtle stand on?”

“You’re a very clever man, Mr. James, and that’s a very good question,” replied the little old lady, “but I have an answer to it. And it’s this: the first turtle stands on the back of a second, far larger, turtle, who stands directly under him.”

“But what does this second turtle stand on?” persisted James patiently.

To this, the little old lady crowed triumphantly, “It’s no use, Mr. James — it’s turtles all the way down!”

(Source: J0hn Robert Ross, Constraints on variables in syntax. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dept. of Modern Languages and Linguistics. Thesis. 1967.)

Drawing of a hemispherical earth on the backs of four elephants, in turn standing on a turtle's back

This story references a supposed Hindu cosmology that imagined the earth resting on the backs of a group of elephants standing on a tortoise’s back.

“Turtles all the way down” makes me reflect on the idea of infinity. Where does the universe end? It’s turtles all the way out there.

And, while I can imagine living on forever into the future, I have a hard time conceiving of an eternal being that has always existed. When did God begin? It’s turtles all the way back.

ARK — 19 February 2017

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The short answer is no, but he has said some interesting things about who God might be.

Michio Kaku

Michio Kaku. Credit: Cristiano Sant´Anna/indicefoto.com. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

This question came to my attention this past week, when someone pointed me to articles on this topic, including “Top scientist claims proof that God exists, says humans live in a ‘world made by rules created by an intelligence’,” at the website Christian Today.  That article makes the claim:

A respected figure in the scientific community recently said he found evidence proving that there is a Higher Being, which he described as the action of a force “that governs everything.”

Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, who is known as one of the developers of the revolutionary String Theory, said theoretical particles known as “primitive semi-radius tachyons” may be used to prove the existence of God.

However, nothing on this topic appears on Kaku’s official website, and a search of academic sources reveals nothing written by Kaku referring to “semi-radius tachyons.” According to Jay L. Wile, a nuclear chemist and textbook author,

Tachyons are theoretical particles. We have no idea whether or not they exist. If they exist, they travel faster than the speed of light, so it’s hard to know how in the world we could ever detect them, much less conduct tests on them. I have no idea how such particles can tell us something about the nature of the universe. I looked in vain for an article on the subject authored by Dr. Kaku himself. I then went to his Facebook page, which made no mention of this “monumental discovery.”

Since I couldn’t find anything written by Dr. Kaku, I decided to investigate these “primitive semi-radius tachyons” myself. I had never heard that term before, but then again, I am not a particle physicist. So today, I tried to find the term in my reference books. I could not. When I did an internet search on the term, the only hits I got were to articles about this supposed discovery. As a result, I seriously doubt that primitive semi-radius tachyons exist, even in the minds of theoretical physicists.

Wile, in fact, discovered that this assertion about Kaku’s “discovery” goes back to at least 2013, when it was apparently circulating on Spanish- and Portuguese-language websites.

So the claims that Michio Kaku has found God seem fabricated, or at least exaggerated. However, I do find that Kaku has made some interesting statements about the possibility of design in the universe. Wile characterizes Kaku as “a theoretical physicist who had done some cutting edge research a couple of decades ago, but is more of a ‘scilebrity’ today, promoting science and his ideas about the future on television shows, etc.” For that reason, it’s possible to find a number of video presentations by him. In some ways, Kaku seems to espouse a belief in the god of Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who believed not in a personal God, but in a god “who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists,” as Albert Einstein put it.

In a 2013 video program, Kaku said:

The goal of physics, we believe, is to find an equation perhaps no more than one inch long, which will allow us to unify all the forces of nature and allow us to read the mind of God.

And what is the key to that one-inch equation? Super-symmetry. A symmetry that comes out of physics, not mathematics, and has shocked the world of mathematics.

But you see, all this is pure mathematics, and so the final resolution could be that God is a mathematician. And when you read the mind of God, we actually have a candidate for the mind of God. The mind of God, we believe, is cosmic music, the music of strings resonating through eleven-dimensional hyperspace. That is the mind of God.

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein in 1947. Photo by Orren Jack Turner.

And in a 2011 interview, he more specifically referenced Einstein and Spinoza:

Einstein was asked the big question, Is there a God? Is there a meaning to everything, right? And here’s how Einstein answered the question. He said there really are two kinds of gods. We have to be very scientific. We have to define what we mean by God. If God is the God of intervention, a personal God, a god of prayer, the God who parts the waters, then he had a hard time believing in that. Would God listen to all our prayers, for a bicycle for Christmas? Smite the Philistines for me, please.

He didn’t think so. However, he believed in the God of order, harmony, beauty, simplicity, and elegance, the God of Spinoza. That’s the God that he believed in, because he thought the universe was so gorgeous. It didn’t have to be that way. It could have been chaotic. It could have been ugly, messy. But here we have the fact that all the equations of physics can be placed on a simple sheet of paper. Einstein’s equation is only one inch long. And the quantum theory is about a yard long, but you can squeeze it onto a sheet of paper…

… And with string theory, you can even put those two equations together, and string theory can be squeezed into an equation one inch long. And that equation, but the way, is my equation. That’s String Field Theory. That’s my contribution.

But we want to know, where did that equation come from, you know. This is what Einstein asked. Did God have a choice? Was there any choice in building a universe? When he woke up in the morning, he would say, “I want to create a universe. I want to be God today. What kind of universe would I create?” This is how he created much of his theory.

So, Kaku doesn’t really claim to have proven the existence of God through physics. However, he does acknowledge that the physical universe implies that there is something more going on than just a big random mess.

ARK — 19 June 2016

 

 

 

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One of the tasks of a fiction writer is to decide what to name his or her characters. I’ve had to think carefully about how to handle that in the Edhai historical-fiction series I’m working on.

The series begins in the time before the Biblical Deluge and thus in a period when all the world spoke a single language. In more recent times — meaning the past few thousand years — people have been shorter-lived, so languages have been more apt to change. But in the pre-flood period, people lived much longer — Adam for 930 years, Seth for 912 years, Enosh for 905 years, and so on (see Gen 5:3-11). Given such longer lifetimes and the overlap among generations, I surmise that there would have been more stability in language. It would have changed less.

Even after the Flood, humans lived for a relatively long period of time, Noah living to 950 years and his son Shem to 600 years (see Gen 9:29 and 11:10, 11). This would likely also contribute to linguistic stability until the confusion of human languages at Babel sometime between 2269 and 2030 BCE during the lifetime of Peleg (Gen 10:25, 11:1-9).

What I’m getting at here is that for the first couple of thousand years of human existence all humans would likely have spoken the same language — Hebrew or something like it — and might never even have conceived of the idea of a foreign tongue. This would affect all names of humans and places, which would have been based on words and their meanings, rather than just on family traditions or the sound of the name — ‘my grandfather’s name was Robert, let’s name the baby after him’ or ‘I like the way “Chelsea” sounds.’

Tetragrammaton

The Tetragrammaton as it appears on a church window in Decorah, Iowa. via Wikimedia.

So in The Cursed Ground, the initial novel in the series, I’m choosing names with real English meanings. For example, the two main characters are named Boon and Temper. The story doesn’t deal much with historical characters like Noah and Lamech, but even when they are mentioned, I try to employ English equivalents, such as Soothe and Plainspeaker.

This is an interesting problem, but not as easily solved as you might think. Not all English words really sound that great if you try to use them as proper names — calling someone “Smart” or “Friendly” or “Robust” just doesn’t have quite the right ring to it.

What to call the true God presented an especial challenge when I was trying to decide how the characters would refer to him in the story. Ancient people who knew the name of God would have pronounced it in their own language, using something like “Yehewah” or “Jehovah” or “Yahweh.” But in the story, I wanted to have the characters speaking of God with consciousness of the meaning of his name.

The name JHVH or YHWH (a.k.a., the Tetragrammaton) in Hebrew expresses the causative form and imperfect state of the verb ha-wah’, or “become.” The divine name, then, basically means “He Causes to Become,” in that Jehovah causes himself to become whatever he wishes in order to fulfill his purposes. Thus I decided that in The Cursed Ground and in the sequels to follow, the characters who know this God would refer to him as “He Who Causes to Become,” or, more often “the Becomer.”

Anyhow, I thought I would share my thought process leading to the way names are devised in the Edhai series, in case this might be of interest to readers.

ARK — 22 October 2014

 

 

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The Great Detective

The Great Detective

So here’s a Sunday-late-night meditation. I love to read mystery fiction and to watch detective stories on TV. What is it about detective fiction that resonates with the human spirit (or at least with the spirit of some of us)?

I think at our core as humans we might have a hardwired attraction for storytelling. Storytelling seems to be a part of human culture for as far back as written records exist. But many of those stories involve enigmas and riddles. Tonight I’m wondering whether riddles and mysteries represent a storytelling form that might appeal to the human spirit at its core. Why? I’m not sure. Does a puzzle somehow help us to exercise mental muscles in a way that challenges and intrigues us? Maybe so.

Another thought I’ve had is that mysteries appeal to us in a moral sense. Most mysteries are fundamentally about justice. A great injustice has been committed — usually the horrific crime of spilled blood. The murderer must be identified, caught, and punished, or at least stopped. A student of the Scriptures would say that one of the primary qualities of Jehovah the Creator is justice. Created in his image, we reflect that moral quality. So perhaps we are drawn to a story that centers around that theme.

Okay, now back to the detective show I was watching …

ARK — 5 October 2014

 

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Philosopher Daniel Dennett

Philosopher Daniel Dennett

Atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett recently published “Seven Tools for Thinking” in The Guardian. An excerpt from his new book, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, Dennett’s seven tools make up a useful set of guidelines for some aspects of rhetorical arguments.

However, I was particularly struck by a seeming irony that shows up between tool number 4 (“Answer Rhetorical Questions”) and tool number 5 (“Employ Occam’s Razor”). In his section on rhetorical questions, he has just encouraged the reader to check his baloney meter any time he hears the word “surely,” saying that “often the word “surely” is as good as a blinking light locating a weak point in the argument.” Then he makes a similar point about rhetorical questions:

Just as you should keep a sharp eye out for “surely”, you should develop a sensitivity for rhetorical questions in any argument or polemic. Why? Because, like the use of “surely”, they represent an author’s eagerness to take a short cut…

This seems like a useful piece of advice for evaluating arguments. But what struck me was what he writes in the very next section on Occam’s Razor (“don’t concoct a complicated, extravagant theory if you’ve got a simpler one (containing fewer ingredients, fewer entities) that handles the phenomenon just as well”):

One of the least impressive attempts to apply Occam’s razor to a gnarly problem is the claim (and provoked counterclaims) that postulating a God as creator of the universe is simpler, more parsimonious, than the alternatives. How could postulating something supernatural and incomprehensible be parsimonious?

Did you notice his rhetorical question? Dang, I almost wonder whether this is calculated to somehow entrap the unwary theist into a debate, because I would say Dennett’s use of a rhetorical question at that point represents the “author’s eagerness to take a short cut” and spotlights “a weak point in the argument.” Having in the previous section been sensitized to rhetorical questions, I find myself reflecting on Dennett’s linking of the four key words: postulate, supernatural, incomprehensible, parsimonious. What does his selection of these words indicate about his thinking, his biases, his rhetorical purpose, and the weakness of the argument implied in his question?

In his section on rhetorical questions, Dennett makes a useful suggestion:

Here is a good habit to develop: whenever you see a rhetorical question, try – silently, to yourself – to give it an unobvious answer. If you find a good one, surprise your interlocutor by answering the question.

I like that idea. If I were to answer the rhetorical question, “How could postulating something supernatural and incomprehensible be parsimonious?,” how would I do so? An interesting exercise.

One answer might be to focus on the weakness inherent in that question, the assumption that a supernatural being is incomprehensible.

Another answer might be that evoking God as as creator of the universe is parsimonious if it happens to be true.

In any case, hats off to Dr. Dennett for putting together a thought-provoking set of rhetorical guidelines.

ARK — 24 May 2014

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English Catholic missionary known as Saint Patrick

In spite of my Irish ancestry, I’ve never paid much attention to Saint Patrick’s Day (March 17), except as a day to stay off the roads if possible. But today, I ran across some interesting comments about the true origins of Saint Patrick’s Day, thanks to Claire Mulkieran, who describes herself as a systems security designer and a pagan descended from a long line of witches.

Given that cultural perspective, Mulkieran has an interesting contrarian take on “Saint” Patrick, a fifth-century English Catholic missionary to Ireland, regarded as the patron saint of Ireland. Mulkieran makes some fascinating claims about Patrick. It would be interesting to look into them further, although I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they are historically accurate. In her 17 March 2009 blog post, “Pagans and Saint Patrick’s Day: The Real Meaning of the Holiday,” Mulkieran writes:

If most people know anything about Saint Patrick, it’s that his one claim to fame is that he drove the snakes from Ireland. What most people don’t realize is that the snake is a Pagan symbol, and that the snakes referred to in the Saint Patrick mythos are not meant in the literal sense, but refer to Pagans; i.e., Saint Patrick drove the Pagans (specifically, the Celts) out of Ireland (although it could be said, and has been argued, that much has been done in Saint Patrick’s name, but that the man himself was relatively unimportant). So what is celebrated on Saint Patrick’s Day with drinking and much cavorting is, ironically, the spread of Christianity throughout Ireland and the subjugation and conversion of the Celts.

She also makes a connection between Saint Patrick’s Day and Easter, writing:

It wasn’t arbitrary that the day honoring Saint Patrick was placed on the 17th of March. The festival was designed to coincide, and, it was hoped, to replace the Pagan holiday known as Ostara; the second spring festival which occurs each year, which celebrates the rebirth of nature, the balance of the universe when the day and night are equal in length, and which takes place at the Spring Equinox (March 22nd this year [2009]). In other words, Saint Patrick’s Day is yet another Christian replacement for a much older, ancient Pagan holiday; although generally speaking Ostara was most prominently replaced by the Christian celebration of Easter (the eggs and the bunny come from Ostara traditions, and the name “Easter” comes from the Pagan goddess Eostre).

I’ve already written about the connection between Easter and older pagan practices in my entry “Is Easter named after the pagan goddess Eostre?” Mulkieran also credits Patrick with using the shamrock to teach people about the triune god worshipped in christendom’s religions.

ARK — 9 March 2013

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Sometimes you hear people say that God created other beings because he was lonely, but that makes little sense. Today I ran across a comment about 1 John 4:8, which says that “God is love.” In other words, that is his main quality, the essence of his being. The comment I read was, “Jehovah became the Creator as an expression of his endearing quality of love.” That makes more sense. The thought that comes to me, then, is that God created the universe and other intelligent creatures out of his love for everything and everyone that could come to exist.

ARK — 20 Nov. 2012

 

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