Sunday, December 25, 2016

Christmas and the Light in the Darkness

The people who lived in darkness have seen a great light. (Isaiah 9:2, Matthew 4:6)
Sometimes we can't stop looking at the darkness. Sometimes it seems overwhelming. When we think about the direction of the world, it is easy to focus on the darkness, easy to lose hope.

But how many times have I been tempted to lose hope -- sometimes, have lost hope -- then later discovered that I was wrong? When I hear that "hope" is a virtue, in darker hours I mock that idea, thinking hope is baseless. And yet later events prove: really, it was the despair that was baseless. That has happened time and again over the years. If I have sometimes wrongly laughed off hope as baseless, when is the last time I laughed off despair as baseless?

Christmas -- Jesus' birth -- reaches a world where there is plenty of darkness. But there is also a lot of wallowing in darkness. "Hello, Darkness, my old friend" begins the haunting and resonating song -- we understand exactly what he means. We have lived there. There is a lot of seeing the world through dark glasses in order to be serious, and to be taken seriously. And there is a strange comfort in embracing the darkness.
The world loved darkness better. (John 3:19)
Today we light festive lights which cheer up the darkness. It's a visible reminder that the light is more lovely than the darkness. We remember that lights -- decorative lights on the tree or the home, candles, firesides -- are also our old friends. And in the light, we can remember what we did not see in the dark: that our old friends are also our old friends, that despair has often proved false. That there may be a lot of enmity towards that child in the manger -- and to the Holy Immortal that would light the world -- but there are many who hold his name dear, along with the hope he brings us.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Christmas: Holding an infant changes us

When was the last time you held an infant? Newborns bring out the best in many of us. There is such overwhelming tenderness and compassion. The connection has a heartbreaking intensity. It overwhelms our other thoughts and feelings. Each detail adds to our awe: the tiny fingers, the perfect miniature fingernails, the wobbly-uncertain movements of the new arms. People simply like to hold an infant. We can hold an infant for hours.

In this world, an infant is the closest we see to a pure heart: someone who has never been bitter, never schemed, never manipulated, never held a grudge, never laid a trap, never plotted payback. The innocence of childhood is something that we hope that each new child can maintain because that innocence has both beauty and power. In some measure we adore the innocence and the possibilities for good that come from it. We admire it because we desire it. Holding an infant re-awakens all that we hope for, all that we ever hoped for.

It re-awakens our knowledge of what God hopes for: Peace on earth, goodwill towards humanity. We hold onto a child because it re-awakens the best in us too.

It is easy to let the mockers win the day. We don't fully trust the good to last; since when did we have enough strength to withstand the mockers without becoming tarnished ourselves? But when we have a child in our arms, it is easier to say: I will enjoy this moment and its promise. And so God comes to us in a way that not only holds all the promise of what he can be, but renews the promise of what we can be.
"The weakness of God is stronger than man's strength."

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Whatever is true ...

This morning (as I write this, in 2020) I found an old meditation that I had written on a church bulletin. I wanted to preserve it here and hope to arrange to publish it on the bulletin's date (Dec 18, 2016). 

  • Whatever is true: It is much colder here today than yesterday
  • Whatever is good: A full night of restful sleep
  • Whatever is just: Hearing both sides of an argument without prejudice before deciding
  • Whatever is of good reputation: Friendship
  • Whatever is praiseworthy: The courage to admit a mistake
  • Whatever is lovely: The cat, curled up under the Christmas tree for a nap
  • Whatever is honorable: A policeman who risks his life to keep others safe
  • Anything of virtue: Keeping our word
  • Any thing excellent, worthy of praise: The Ukrainian bell carol

Monday, December 12, 2016

If anything is worthy of praise

Finally, brothers, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honorable, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there is anything of virtue/excellence, and if there is any worthy of praise, think on these things. (Philippians 4:8)
When I read this, I have often been shamefully dismissive of it. There is a cynical part of my mind which sees it as wishful thinking, or a sort of determined naivety. The more open-minded voice inside me recognizes and acknowledges the value -- and then wants credit merely for speaking up against the cynicism, without actually doing what we are here encouraged to do.
  • What is true? The sun came up this morning. 
  • What is honorable? Those who stand by their convictions with modesty and reason.
  • What is just? The Day when hatred will cease.
  • What is pure? The hope for a spark of joy.
  • What is lovely? The out-of-season lily that is still blooming under the crepe myrtle.
  • What has a good reputation? I had to think really hard about this one. I'm going with: Green vegetables.
  • Is there anything of virtue/excellence (older translation: any virtue)? Joy.
  • Is there anything worthy of praise? The skill of a certain pianist that I have in mind.
Think on these things. Take inventory of them. Take stock. Some good things fade away for lack of recognition, or lack of care. May it not be on our watch.

Update 12/14/2016: Dr Platypus has added a list of his own, which is truly worth a read.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Sorting-Hat Questions: Fighting against polarized discourse

In our era, civil discourse is rare. And as we have seen, heated rhetoric can spill over into widespread violence. Over the last few years, riots have become more common than I have ever known them in my lifetime. Some of them are sponsored, and they have become increasingly coordinated, which is troubling. Once the infrastructure has been established for nationwide demonstrations-on-demand, will it ever be deactivated? Will its exercise make a fragile situation even more unstable? (How many would welcome that goal?)
Against this background, in a seemingly-civil conversation, a greeting is often followed by a question: What do you think of such-and-such?

In my experience, there is typically no interest in learning what the other person thinks on the topic: the reasons why, the personal perspective, the pros and cons, the deciding factors. The question is not asked in order to gain understanding of the topic or of the other person. It is asked in order to sort the person into Gryffindor or Slytherin according to the views of the person asking. Possibly the questioner has already decided that people failing to give the "right" answer are defective and dangerous -- deserving of hatred, according to leading voices. There are some in Texas who have considered secession as a way to preserve the right of self-determination; there are some in California considering the same. In our so-called culture war, the two sides may not be compatible. What is considered progress by one side is seen as a shocking devaluation of life by the other, and that cuts both ways. In our nation, if we can be said to have peace right now, it is a fragile peace.

Against this background, while there is hope for peace, I think I should work for peace. While there is hope for understanding, I think I should work for understanding. Which means that, when someone asks me: "Halt! Gryffindor or Slytherin?" I would like to find out, "Do you want to understand my reasons?" And if not, I think that the time is more suited to pushing back against the practice of judging people without hearing them, rather than the long list of things over which people judge each other.

I hope to write posts that honestly reflect the things that are overlooked in a "Friend or foe!" challenge: the reasons why, the personal perspective, the pros and cons, the deciding factors. I hope to be fair and honest even about views that I firmly believe are wrong (not supportive, mind you, simply fair and honest; that shouldn't need justifying). I have no wish to relativize the truth on divisive topics; I do wish to place the humanity of both sides at the forefront of the conversation. Right now there's not quite enough goodwill or trust to move the conversation forward, and so my focus is on those. I hope we can de-legitimize the "Friend or foe!" challenge; it assumes we're already at war.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Enter His Gates with Thanksgiving

Enter into His gates with thanksgiving, and into His courts with praise. (Psalm 100:4)

It has been an exceptionally rough year this year. It has been affecting my attitude, and my "spiritual life" if you want to call it that. When a friend suggested that I try practicing gratitude, I wasn't very receptive to the idea. Without realizing it, I had started counting my curses instead of my blessings. Still, the friend challenged me to try for 30 days, each day writing down 3 things for which I'm grateful.

My first few days were fairly surly. They were in the "thanks a lot" category. As I continued day after day, I realized that I had been focusing on negatives -- which had been more common this past year -- while ignoring a lot of good things as if they didn't matter. Everything in my field of vision had looked dark. I was focusing on the things that were going wrong to the point where I couldn't even see the good, even though it was there. The rough season in my life is clearly not finished. But neither is everything 100% dark. And it turns out that a certain amount of my misery was self-inflicted by giving all my focus to worst.

I've come to believe that gratitude is the art of appreciating life. If we don't enjoy the good, what's the point of it? Enjoyment seems incomplete without gratitude. With gratitude, my spiritual life is not completely stuck in dark-night mode. "Bidden or unbidden, God is present." But it was gratitude -- or "thanksgiving" -- that re-opened that door for me. So when I hear Psalm 100 now, I hear it differently. Thanksgiving opens that gate, and praise opens us to God's presence.
Enter into His gates with thanksgiving, and into His courts with praise. (Psalm 100:4)

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Perks of Being an Introvert

Over at CADRE Comments, BK has an excellent and piece that I'm sure many of us can relate to, about being an introvert at social gatherings, and how he is intrigued by the thought of going into a social setting with a particular kind of Christian agenda: being a blessing to those around him.

He brings up an excellent point, so I wanted to continue spreading that message. Over the years I have slowly gone from "painfully introverted" to "somewhat introverted" to "somewhat extroverted." These days I generally enjoy being around a group of people. What moved me to that point was awakening more to the idea that my involvement could be positive or even welcome. I didn't have to focus on my insecurities. And once I stopped focusing on them and getting tripped up by them, they gradually started to fade away.

I try to remember a few things in a conversation:
  • If someone is hurting: Listen. Really listen. Just listen. Don't plan a response, don't question whether they should feel the way that they feel, don't intellectualize to hide from uncomfortable emotions, don't fix, just listen. 
  • Not zombie-listening, but validating-listening. Acknowledge the point of their story. Maybe they tell a story about being ignored, treated unfairly, or not being taken seriously. Make it right for them: be the one who pays attention, treats them fairly, and takes them seriously.
  • We listen better when we have an active mind, so here's an agenda in a conversation: try to understand. Try to empathize. Try to see things through their eyes.
  • If we find ourselves listening for points for followup in a conversation, find something good to acknowledge or recognize about the other person: find a way to encourage them. 
  • Lots of people really do want to tell you how their day was. Or, more to the point, they want someone who will actually listen and care if they can't honestly say "Everything Is Awesome!" 
  • "Rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn."
Kudos to BK for a topic that I imagine is helpful to many of us. We can be a blessing just by being truly human to each other. I'd be glad to hear additions from people with their own experiences there. It would be a worthy project to build a collection of Christian insights into how to season our conversations.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

The Middle Ground is the Humanity of the Enemy

"Let your light so shine" : I'm concerned that we're nearing the critical mass of hatred. We're at a dark time. Before it gets any darker, if you see someone promoting hatred, please try to counteract it -- with gentleness and respect. Bless those who curse us, pray for those who persecute us.

I beg your pardon for again mixing religion and politics. The tension in the U.S. is thicker than I've seen it in my lifetime. The issue is that the candidates are a little on the disturbing side this time around, which makes it tempting -- and so easy -- to mix religion and politics in order to justify hating people who have a different opinion of which is the lesser of two evils. I have heard both candidates called "Satanic" by people trying to incite hatred of the other team's candidate -- and the one inciting the hatred had been successfully inflamed by someone else's hatred. I have seen two people who are for the most part decent people -- and even consider themselves Christians -- make jokes about wishing the other party's candidate dead (I've heard that from one friend or relative on each side of the aisle). By a steady stream of dehumanizing messages about "them", we are being conditioned to hate, trained to despise people over the faults of candidates that, for the most part, nobody is defending. And there is nothing Christian about that.

When I talk about "middle ground" I don't want anyone to misunderstand. I am not saying that there is middle ground on (for instance) whether we should tolerate a public figure being lewd (language I'd prefer not to quote but I expect everyone has heard by now), or whether we should tolerate a politician's publicity team discussing "If the objective is purely to undermine the Benghazi hearings, I think these spots will certainly help do that." I'm saying that the best argument for Hillary is Trump, and the best argument for Trump is Hillary, and we should not be drawn into denying the humanity of another person by pretending that they support their candidate's flaws. There is something about the political process -- especially when the stakes are this high -- that tends to distort our view of "the other". I truly believe that we can't have that distorted a view of someone else unless we have first let someone else distort our perceptions and therefore to some extent distort us and our own worldview.

The middle ground is not to pretend that any of the awful stuff is ok; it's not. The middle ground is to remember that "the enemy" that voted for "the monster" (pardon, "the Satanic monster") is still human, and would probably have gladly voted for someone else given more (viable) choices. (This would have been such a great chance for a third party, if they had bothered to field a serious candidate.) The next four years are going to be rough enough no matter which of those two wins this election; we have to stick together better than that. If there is no middle ground, what options remain except deadlock, oppression or civil war?

According to Jesus, the greatest commandment is love of God, and the second is love of neighbor. Therefore Jesus -- and any religion that actually takes guidance from him -- will not provide top-cover for our hatred of our neighbor. If anyone cannot bear the thought of one or the other candidate escaping justice, we can take comfort: whoever escapes accountability for their crimes in this world, there is a Just Judge they will meet one day who was not appointed by a politician or bought by political groups, and no PR campaign in the world will help on that day. The same goes for us all, which is a thing that we can keep in mind, whenever we're tempted to hate.

Seriously, please help push back against the hatred when you see it on Facebook or elsewhere. 

Monday, October 31, 2016

The most important things for us to support this election

In a normal presidential election year, I save an election post for election day. This election year is so unusual that I thought it might be better to say this before things get any more interesting than they already are. The most important things for us to support would not be Flawed Candidate R (rude, crude, and lewd) or Flawed Candidate D (so dishonest and corrupt that even long-time political insiders express shock repeatedly; for the full story see WikiLeaks). It's unfortunate that the alternative parties didn't nominate anyone particularly qualified; this could have been their opportunity.

This election -- of all elections that I can remember -- we should be able to see why people would have reservations about whichever candidate we ultimately vote for (or already voted for, to recognize the early voters). Hateful rants about the opposition candidate are even more unhelpful than usual when both candidates are so deeply flawed. This election -- of all elections that I can remember -- we go into the election knowing that, whoever becomes our next president, most of us sincerely wished for better options. This election -- of all elections -- we need to firmly reconcile with the people who voted differently, and if we presume to think they need forgiving, then forgive them already. As a nation, we're awfully close to the edge of the cliff.

From a purely political viewpoint, I think the most important things for us to support this election are: 
  1. The acceptance that all law-abiding adult citizens are allowed a vote, regardless of whether they vote with you.
  2. The insistence that fair and legal elections will place the candidate elected by the voters, which is how we ensure the consent of the governed (usual disclaimer that we run the totals by state here, so that the little states don't get steamrolled by the big ones).
  3. That the legitimacy of the election is more important than our party winning. 

If our party membership supports the nation, then it makes the nation stronger. If our party membership takes precedence over the idea of equal citizenship or the consent of the governed, then the nation loses.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Essential Bible Verses for Evangelism

I've added a few comments, though most of these verses are presented without comment. 
  1. Grace be with you/The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you (and variations on the same). (Romans 16:24, 1 Corinthians 16:23, 2 Corinthians 13:14, Philippians 4:23, Colossians 4:18, 1 Thessalonians 5:28, 2 Thessalonians 3:18, 2 Timothy 4:22, Titus 3:15, Hebrews 13:25, 2 John 1:3, Revelation 22:21)
    Many of the letters of the New Testament end with nearly the same blessing. Religion, done right, is a channel of blessing because Jesus revealed his Father as the God who blesses. Our mission as evangelists is to bring good news, so that the person who hears is blessed. Evangelism, done right, is a channel of grace and blessing to the one who hears.
  2. It was right that we should make merry, and be glad: for your brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found. (Luke 15:32)
    The lost are our own brothers and sisters in Christ. It helps to be conscious of both their loss and ours, and that rightly any two people should have a brotherly relationship.
  3. You are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the Living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of the human heart. (2 Corinthians 3:3)
  4. The wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving (James 3:17)
  5. Christ is the wisdom of God and the power of God (I Corinthians 1:22)
    The Word of God has a human face, and compassion, and values love -- and values us.
  6. Let your light so shine before all that they may see your good works and glorify your father in heaven. (Matthew 5:16)
    In our worship, we glorify God. If we go to the world and live the way He teaches -- which is the worship He has asked of us -- we add to the number of people who glorify God.
  7. But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you (1 Peter 3:15a)
  8. Do this with gentleness and respect. (1 Peter 3:15b)
  9. Having a good conscience; that, whereas they speak evil of you, as of evildoers, they may be ashamed that falsely accuse your good conversation in Christ. (1 Peter 3:16)
  10. We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:20)

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Essential Bible Verses for Healing Shame

Shame has different elements, from feeling dirty or exposed, abandoned, and disowned, to a loss of confidence about being accepted or valued, to the fear of rejection and being alone. The Bible speaks to these: 
  1. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief. We hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we assigned him no value. (Isaiah 53:3)
  2. God opposes the proud, and gives grace to the humble. (I Peter 5:5)
  3. There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who had no need to repent. (Luke 15:7)
  4. Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me. (Psalm 51:10)
  5. You are washed, you are made holy, you are made innocent in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God. (I Corinthians 6:11)
  6. And white robes were given to every one of them; and it was said to them, that they should rest yet for a little season. (Revelation 6:11)
  7. You shall no longer be called Forsaken; neither shall your land any more be called Desolate. (Isaiah 62:4)
  8. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the children of God. (John 1:12)
  9. He calls his own sheep by name. (John 10:3)
  10. That you may be blameless and faultless, the children of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom you shine as lights in the world. (Philippians 2:15)
  11. To him who overcomes, I will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no one knows except the one who receives it. (Revelation 2:15)
  12. The home of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. (Revelation 21:3)

Follow-Up: A Well-Loved Pitcher and Glasses

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Order of Confession

P: If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

C: Create in me a clean heart, O God.
I confess to you the things of which I am ashamed.
I confess to you the things for which I wish to make excuses, or would rather hide the truth.
I confess to you the things for which I have blamed others.
I confess my resentment for when I have been wrongfully blamed.
I confess my satisfaction at the downfall of the arrogant.
I confess my gladness when the crooked are caught in their own snares.
I confess my eagerness to hear evil of those I despise.
I confess that I despise those whom you love, and that I wish to justify it.
I confess my willingness to repeat evil tales.
I confess my fondness for complaining or arguing.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.

P: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Guilt and Shame: Where religion and psychology meet

I've mentioned before that I've been participating in a Twelve-Step group for people whose parents were addicts. It has come as a surprise to me that shame plays such a key role for children of addicts. Without breaking any confidences, I think it's safe to say that shame is a typical struggle for people who were raised in a dysfunctional home. The varieties of shame, and the fact that it's such a common experience, are beyond anything that I'd have suspected. There is shame over being unwanted / unimportant, shame over things that were said or done to us, shame over the government taking an interest in the parenting in that home, over problems in school, over being hungry or badly dressed or having lice or having the utilities cut off or being from "that home" with the police car flashing its lights outside (again). It's about having so many experiences that can't be repeated in polite company.

Keep in mind that shame is an entirely different thing than guilt. It's easy for someone to offer as consolation:  "It wasn't your fault." True enough, and that would help if the problem were guilt; but that's not the point when the problem is shame. I'll put it like this: almost a year and a half ago, my mom said I could take some of my grandmother's things - a pitcher and some glasses -- from her home over to mine. I could see the potential in the pitcher and one of the glasses, but I wasn't sure I wanted the rest of them. They were filthy. I couldn't imagine ever drinking from them. They were so filthy that I was unwilling to put them in the dishwasher with other plates and glasses, since I didn't think that the dishwasher could manage that level of dirt. I filled the sink with hot water and soaked them, and washed them by hand. After the first wash they were still dripping dirt and the water was too dirty to clean them further. So I emptied the old water and did it again. After the second wash, they were still dripping a little bit cloudy when the second batch of water became too dirty to get them any cleaner. After the third wash, I was willing to put them in the dishwasher. Now that they are clean, I can see that they are actually beautiful. But in their original state, they were beyond ordinary "dirt" issues. They needed a lot of work before they were up to an ordinary level of mess, where they could go in the dishwasher. In that home, the levels of neglect are so profound that anything coming out of there will need remedial work. So at the end of the story: On a human level, shame is when you are so dirty that you can't even go in the dishwasher with the good dishes.

Some kinds of shame are about feeling dirty, some are about feeling unwanted. To heal the wounds of shame, it is necessary to become clean, and wanted, and welcome at the table.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Taking a stand against hatred in the public square

Remember that 'art' exhibit of Christ submerged in urine?

If works of art in general are free speech, this is hate speech.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Spiritual health checklist - Moving forward

As I have written before, I have wanted to create a spiritual health checklist, mostly for the purposes of keeping myself honest and challenging myself to grow. This is a first draft where I try to give shape to the specific items to check. (Not all of these are positive things; some of them identify negatives.) All questions and feedback are welcome.
I have too much stuff.
I take good care of my things.
I manage my finances well.
I feel satisfaction and gratitude for what I have.

I have habits that disrupt my life, that I have trouble controlling.
I am easily upset.
I end up eating, drinking, or spending more than I want.
I can stick to a schedule or a budget.

When someone criticizes me or my work, I go on the offense.
I often find myself in situations where I feel righteous anger.
When I joke around, I sometimes go too far. I make comments about other people that I would prefer to keep private.

Many people don't live up to my standards.
When someone is rude or unkind to me, it bothers me for a long time. 

I can find the right thing to say.
I am on peaceful terms with the people in my family.

I avoid social situations because I feel awkward.
I'm glad when someone joins me for lunch.
I invite people to my home or to eat with me.

I admire the best achievements or traits in many people.
I am willing to lead if asked.
I am willing to serve if asked.
Am I more comfortable with, or enthusiastic about, leading or following?

I am my own worst critic. 
When someone criticizes me or my work, I become defensive.
If someone compliments me, I accept it graciously. 

Some of the virtues, or spiritual strengths that are on my mind:
I'd be glad for any comments, suggestions, or insights.

* A checklist based on the Rudyard Kipling poem, "If"

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Moses: Two Ways of Resisting Oppression

In the book of Exodus we read about the life of Moses. He was troubled by the injustice in Egypt and how his own people were oppressed. At different times in his life, he took two very different approaches to confronting the evil.

In his earlier days, when he saw an Egyptian mistreating a Hebrew, he attacked and killed the Egyptian. No good came to his people, no good came to him, no good came to the name of God or the cause of righteousness. He fled Egypt as a refugee, a criminal and a wanted man. His violence had helped nothing.  His fleeing had helped nothing. 

He came back to Egypt when God sent him. Moses still cared that his people suffered; now he knew that God cared too. And nothing changed without the power of God. The Egyptians could not blame the Israelites for their calamities, because the calamities did not come from their hands. It took the power of God to free his people without the people resorting to bloodshed. God accomplished Israel's freedom through the power of the word, through signs and through wonders -- but not through Moses' attack.

There are different ways of resisting oppression. Evil must be resisted, but there are ways of resisting that only increase the evil. Without a devotion to what is right -- and with blood staining the hands of those who rise up -- the fall of one oppressor is followed by the rise of another. When a leader has seen God, and knows his unworthiness, and will lead to Sinai -- when the people will become a godly people -- then there is hope.

Sunday, September 04, 2016

Leadership and Top Cover

top cover (noun): combat airplanes flying at high altitude to protect a military force from air attack, especially from other airplanes flying at a lower altitude (adapted from Merriam-Webster, rephrased for readability) 

In much the western world, Christianity has been has been stripped of top cover. The seminaries and high level church leadership no longer take a public stand against the constant attacks against Christianity. In many cases, the counter arguments against atheists and other anti Christians are often made in a disorganized way at the lowest level where individual church members take leadership. The pastors and church leaders no longer write editorials to newspapers to set the record straight on the Christian position or appeal for peaceful behavior in a crisis, as a survey of newspapers from older times will show was once normal. The individual churches no longer expect and insist that their people stay clear of drugs, excess alcohol, and non marital sex. This leads to a lower quality of life for the people they are supposedly serving. 

It often seems that the Christian leadership is more interested in other things than providing top cover to Christians. Those on the right seem more interested in revisiting arguments with other Christian groups than in leading their flocks and through the current round of attacks. Those on the left often seem more interested in proving they are not like those on the right. And as always, there are some few more interested in their own reputations than in Christ's. "The people are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd." That says something about the shepherds. Here are some areas where Christians could truly benefit from top cover:
  1. The idea that “nothing is really wrong” is morally bankrupt. It is against all human experience and leaves us with no way to condemn obvious wrongs such as the slave trade or the holocaust.
  2. The Bible contains much that is good for all cultures, places, and times. Besides things that are specific to the cultures where the books of Bible were written, there are human universals that need to be considered.
  3. No man is an island. For culture to work together, either it shares values or it resorts to coercion. I think most people would agree it is better to work for shared values.
  4. Modern culture’s rejection of the traditional family has led directly to modern high levels of poverty for women and children. It creates a cycle in which the children are at higher risk of all kinds of harm during childhood, experience lower chances of success throughout their own lives, and often repeat that cycle for another generation. The current poverty-and-welfare model of the single mother family does not benefit the mother, the child, or the father.
  5. As long as children continue to be born, it will be best for the children if their father and mother are together and learn to live in peace. As long as raising children costs money and takes work, it will be best for the father and mother to be a team that learns to work together well and treat each other with respect.
  6. Marriage is more than a piece of paper. The stable family model continues to benefit the parents into their old age, when they do not have to face their declining years alone. Simple and routine daily tasks can be shared, someone else can help look after the home and health, and such a simple thing as a ride to the doctor’s office can be more manageable as part of a team.
Dear pastors, seminary professors, and church leaders: whenever you see someone struggling, and that struggle could have been prevented by living in a less broken society, hear the call to step up and provide top cover.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Across the divide: Are there benefits in private confession?

When we look at divisions in the church, what do we think of? For me, it's easy to focus on areas where I would want other groups to see the advantages of my own point of view. (Do we want others to see the errors of their ways because it confirms that we are right?) But what if I looked at the other side? What if there are advantages to someone else's point of view?

With that in mind, I wanted to take a look at the practice of Confession. Some people may not belong to groups that practice confession at all. So consider what happens to us -- or to someone we love -- after doing something truly inexcusably wrong.

If a wrong is defended, it becomes a living part of us.
If a wrong is excused, it is accepted and will be repeated.
If a wrong is ignored, it stays with us.
If a wrong is rejected, only then does it leave us.

We would do well to forgive ourselves only after we have rejected the wrong, not before. 

While some Protestant groups have confession, it is unusual for it to be private confession. It is more often a public confession in which common sins are discussed at a common level. That is to say, it's awfully generic -- possibly too generic for us to receive the full benefits of actually confessing and rejecting our own particular faults. The Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox still commonly have private confession.

So, what are the benefits of private confession? It allows us to see -- more, confronts us with -- the realities of our own character. We gain in both honesty and humility. We lose arrogance and gain perspective. It builds our compassion for others, renews our relationships and directs us towards healing and reconciliation. And if there is a confessor -- someone who hears our confessions -- that person can hold us accountable in the future. With forgiveness, there is cleansing and renewal. We cannot "come clean" without acknowledging that we were wrong.

"If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness."

On the other side of the divides in our churches, there are things we can learn from each other.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

How should we disciple others?

Martin LaBar posted earlier this month, giving guidelines on discipling others. There's a worthy read. He invites suggestions and so I'd like to offer mine here. I think he begins in an excellent place:
The most important guideline is to be an example of Christlikeness.
As I picture "making disciples", I wonder where to start, and here is a draft which could surely use improvement. For most items I simply list them, but on a few I've added some explanation that I hope is helpful:
  1. Cultivate love of God.
  2. Cultivate love of neighbor.
  3. Cultivate a desire to understand.
  4. Cultivate humility. Recognition of our own faults leads to compassion towards others' faults. An honest examination of our own faults is healthy -- not to cultivate guilt or shame but to cultivate humility, appreciation for others' kindness and for their insights. Knowing our own shortcomings helps to cultivate humility towards others, towards "enemies", towards the Bible's teachings, and towards people whose views we do not understand.
  5. Cultivate a love of righteousness. Along with it, cultivate an understanding of righteousness: that it is not for exalting ourselves, but for uplifting others, for safeguarding their peace and well-being.
  6. Cultivate a delight in the word of God, and in His righteousness.
  7. Cultivate a love of wisdom. Build the understanding that knowledge without love is incomplete.
  8. Cultivate gratitude. Gratitude is an intentional appreciation of our blessings that enriches our spiritual lives and strengthens our love of God and others. It gives the most blessings when practiced continually and habitually. Gratitude towards God will strengthen both love of God and faith in God, and these in turn will strengthen our hope. Gratitude towards our family, friends, and other people in our lives will bless both them and ourselves.
  9. Cultivate fellowship. Look at the lost as our own brothers or sisters, as the prodigal's father reminded the brother, "Your brother was lost". Look at the found as our own brothers and sisters, too.
  10. Cultivate gentleness and respect, without which we cannot answer anyone rightly.
  11. Encourage them to have 'heroes of the faith' among the Biblical figures such as Abraham and Ruth, or heroes of spiritual excellence outside the Bible. The examples inspire us, and the act of appreciating others is itself healthy. I'm convinced that our hearts and minds grow in proportion to the number of people we honestly admire.
  12. Encourage them to consider how their own life's work will be a blessing, through means such as friendship, honesty, and compassion.
And then I didn't find a handy heading for these, which might come under several of the other items above: 
In our thoughts, do not rehearse grievances but how to resolve them. In our words, do not rehearse insults or comebacks but praise and blessings. Become adept at graceful words and satisfying phrases of recognition. Learn how to apologize sincerely and humbly in a way that repairs the original insult or injury with suitable recognition that is due. Ready your arsenal -- or first aid kit -- of apt words to meet the challenges you know you will face. Aim for mastery at peacemaking and fellowship. Never intentionally meet enemies -- or people in a strained relationship with you -- without first praying for their good.

I was edified by the exercise that Martin suggested; I miss the old "meme" days of the blogosphere when it would be handy to tag people and invite a lot of participation. I'd encourage people to try to organize their own thoughts on how we should disciple others. It helps the focus.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The worries of this world

... The worries of this world, and the deceitfulness of wealth, choke the word, and he becomes unfruitful ... (Matthew 13:22)
"Worry" is one of the acceptable vices. It can come from honest care, from love, from concern. When worry comes, it does not seem like a temptation. Instead, refraining from worry seems like indifference or coldness. And then so many noble causes promote themselves through fear: fear of some impending apocalypse if we do (or don't) vote for a certain candidate, or promote a certain cause. (And some causes claim to be noble by promoting fear. After all, saving us from catastrophe must be noble.) Every day we hear it implied, "Every good person ought to be worried!" 

And lately I have had personal reasons to struggle with worry, as one relative struggles with COPD, another with addiction, another having been deployed to an area that is not exactly as safe as back home.

Worry is based on fear and helplessness. It drains our energy without accomplishing anything. Worry takes my focus off of the things that I can control, off of my own responsibilities. It makes things more unmanageable by adding exhaustion, tension, and fear to our cares. And if it is a thing under my control -- I could plan or act instead of worrying.

Would it be better to do nothing than to worry? At least, at the end, I would not have drained myself. Worry is marked by how unproductive it is: we come to the same worries over again, and there is no end to the worries because the worry did not improve anything. If there is something I can or should do, let me do that instead of worrying. If there is nothing that I can do, let me voice my cares to one who is in control, and let it go.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

How 12-Step Groups Reach the Unchurched with God's Love

I'm watching someone close to me struggle with addiction. I'm grateful for 12-Step programs because they may be the only place that an unchurched person with that kind of need will ever hear about the love of God. Here are some ways that they reach out:
  1. They refuse to engage in divisive controversies so that meeting time can be unifying, and used for edifying. Their dogmas about the nature of God (which they would not call dogmas) are limited to the ones that would foster health and recovery in their members.
  2. They meet a felt need.
  3. They actively seek to enable people to improve the quality of their lives and their conscious contact with God.
  4. They take seriously the need to talk about our struggles, and to gain wisdom from listening to others who have had the same struggles.
  5. They value vulnerability in sharing about mistakes, and set up guidelines to prevent that vulnerability from being used as anything other than a bridge to someone who can relate, and a growth lesson.
  6. They take seriously the value of people understanding their own life stories, how their lives take shape, how they can recognize what things are under their control, and how they can transform their own lives through knowing God and serving others.
  7. They take seriously the value of spiritual direction, generally called "sponsorship" in those groups.
  8. They have a large number of seasoned spiritual directors (sponsors). They also have a growing collection of spiritual exercises that are designed to help people through real-world problems such as resentments, a tendency to isolate from other people, difficulty praying, anger at God, repairing relationships, etc.
  9. They take seriously the desire for spiritual growth.
  10. They take seriously the benefits of spiritual growth to the person who is growing and to the community as a whole.
  11. They take seriously the need to define a meaningful goal and offer steps by which someone might reach that goal.
  12. They offer both broad guidelines for developing and recognizing growth, and a personal flexibility in what it might take to achieve them.
  13. They hold each person accountable for growth, while offering compassion for shortcomings and support for the growth process.
  14. They recognize that the 'more advanced' members, including spiritual directors, often need reminding of basic things and provide tools to help with that.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Blessings: The Beginning

I've been in search of ways to bless certain people in my life who are going through a dark time. We have looked before at how God meets us in hardship and blesses us, for instance when we are hungry or thirsty, isolated or sick or in prison, and how we follow in God's footsteps there. But if we are far away, if the main tool we have is words, how do we bless people?

Looking at some things God has done, starting in Genesis: 

"I will bless you, and make your name great." (Genesis 12:2):
I can show honor and respect to a person who has lost much of what he once had. I can recognize his dignity. I can make sure that his former acts of kindness and compassion aren't forgotten, and that his new ones are not overlooked.
And God blessed the seventh day, and made it holy: because in it he rested from all his work which God created and made. (Genesis 2:3)
Thankfulness is a blessing in itself. Without thankfulness, we have not enjoyed what we have achieved. Even if we have succeeded, it does not satisfy us until we are thankful for it. And if we work, how can we tell when we are done, except when we are satisfied? The one who is not thankful can never rest, can never enjoy, can never take satisfaction in what he has or is or does. 

The poor man who has enough
has more than the rich man who is not satisfied.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Verbal Abuse in Public Discourse

Verbal abuse (definition): harsh and insulting language directed at a person
(Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
Emotional abuse (definition): the denial of a person's feelings, abilities, value, worth, or relevance.
(Adapted from medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary)

Much of American public 'discussion' is more accurately characterized as public verbal abuse and emotional abuse. It's difficult to think of a political campaign -- or so-called news reporting -- that isn't saturated with unhealthy amounts of abuse. (And everybody notices the other side more than their own, because the barbs thrown by the other side are received as hurtful, but the barbs thrown by the partisan's own side are savored as satisfying.) It's so widespread that even popular children's authors may routinely dehumanize the "bad" characters, and people with respected positions within Christianity may try to bring people to their view of the Old Testament, or Second Temple Judaism, or the New Perspective on Paul, by throwing the "anti-Semitic" smear -- an unsubtle comparison to Nazi genocidal maniacs committing crimes against humanity. (With a passing wave at the boy who cried 'wolf', let's save the "anti-Semitic" label for people who actually didn't have a problem with the Holocaust.)

There has been much said during the current campaign season about cultural decay and/or cultural progress (describing the same events from opposing perspectives). I wish the Christians, at least, could agree: we at least can refrain from verbal abuse and emotional abuse. 

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Blessed are those who mourn

In the Jewish lectionary, many of the beautiful prophecies of Isaiah are read in the weeks of later summer and early autumn. There is some question about how long ago the readings were fixed to their dates and places in the lectionary, and about variations in exactly what was read that long ago. But there is a possibility that Jesus' sermon in the synagogue of Nazareth took place in late summer or early autumn, the week when either the Torah portion Ki Tavo or Nitzavim was read. In current Jewish lectionaries, those weeks both contain readings from Isaiah that are neighboring to what Jesus read in his sermon, either immediately before or close after the passage that he read.

So it's possible that Jesus chose that time to read in the synagogue, when he read these words of Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives, and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (Isaiah 61:1-2, see also Luke 4:18-19)
Jesus read that in his sermon at the synagogue in Nazareth. Jesus' Sermon on the Mount seems nearly a continuation of that, on another day in another place. Not only does the Sermon on the Mount continue the theme of proclaiming good news, but its beginning has a reference to the same verse of Isaiah on which he stopped reading in the synagogue:
to comfort all who mourn (Isaiah 61:2)
"Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted." (Matthew 5:4)
The question of timing intrigues me, since Jesus in the New Testament was a regular at the synagogues, and his life and teachings were in tune with the Jewish festival calendar and the regular cycle of readings. I'll briefly consider what else was the theme of the Jewish lectionary on those two Sabbaths:
  • The Ki Tavo Torah portion focuses on the blessings for keeping faith with God, or the curses for failing to keep faith with God. It also discusses whether the people have eyes to see, ears to hear, and a heart to understand, which are themes that Jesus takes up again in his own teachings.
  • The Nitzavim reading from Isaiah is said to be the seventh and final in a series of readings of consolation or comfort, all taken from Isaiah, in the weeks preceding the Feast of Trumpets and then the Day of Atonement. The focus is on God's redemption, and on how God shares in suffering.

Jesus' teachings seem to be woven together with the weekly readings to make his point. And so here I will continue with what Isaiah said about blessing for those who mourn:
... to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion -- to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. ... Instead of their shame, my people will receive a double portion, and instead of disgrace, they will rejoice in their inheritance; and so they will inherit a double portion in the land, and everlasting joy will be theirs. ... In my faithfulness I will reward them and make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants will be known among the nations and their offspring among the peoples. All who see them will acknowledge that they are a people the Lord has blessed. (Isaiah 61, various)

Sunday, July 17, 2016

What is the most destructive force on the human mind?

I have been watching some people near-and-dear to me self-destruct lately. It is a terrible thing to see loved ones self-destructing, or trying to destroy each other. And it is hard to get untangled from a group that has turned on itself. I'm trying to get my head wrapped around all the drama here. In the mind of each of the people self-destructing or trying to destroy someone else, one of the others in that group is the villain. There is no doubt that each of them has played the villain in the others' lives -- sometimes really savoring the role, too.

But -- including all of humanity here -- what turns us into villains? The current contenders in the local drama are: 
  • Addiction
  • Hatred
  • Vengefulness
  • Self-righteousness
  • Pride
  • Greed
It's hard to pick the single most destructive thing. Is self-righteousness the enabler for vengefulness and hatred? And one thing that troubles me: the people who are acting in spite are completely sure that they are in the right. And then there is hatred, the foundation for so many evil acts. Is "vengefulness" -- the desire to hurt someone else -- really anything but another name for hatred? But "vengefulness" makes a claim to being right. It uses the victim card to claim unlimited reparations or retaliation. Does it take self-righteousness to give moral top-cover to cruelty?

We're all of us prone to justify our own mistakes. We want to be good and right, and that tendency can be corrupted. We've all known that temptation to justify a mistake rather than admit it. And if we have someone waiting to pounce on a mistake, we are less likely we are to admit it because the price tag is so high.

It's so easy for someone to appoint themselves the Accuser for someone else who has wronged them. In the Bible, the Accuser is a title for Satan. Do we willingly take up that role?

I see so many things that I consider to be poisons. The antidotes are love, humility, and forgiveness. But is it possible to reach someone who is caught up in a spiral of escalating vindictiveness? Can they even see that, in their determination to top the other person, they are poisoning themselves? I've said it before and will likely say it again: We cannot dehumanize other people without dehumanizing ourselves.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Physics, Biology, and the Mind

This continues a conversation with Stan about whether the human mind works by natural means (where I have the "pro" side, and he has the "con" side). 

Some premises

I'd like to start with something that seems to be an axiom in your understanding of the mind, starting with your comment:
... it exists outside and beyond the four known physical forces (note 3), which would make it non-physical, non-material ... (Stan)
Your premise here seems to be that, if a thing is not caused by the four forces of physics (gravity, electromagnetism, weak subatomic, and strong subatomic) then it is non-physical, and non-material. I'd strongly disagree: biology is not accounted for here. Much of life in general works outside the four forces of physics. If a flea hops, there's nothing in the four forces that made it hop, so there's something more going on than the four forces -- but there may not be anything more going on than instinct.  (Another working definition: let 'instinct' be the motives and reactions that are hardwired into a living thing.) If we want to explain something as simple as a worm wriggling, we need something more than the four forces of physics, but we're not looking at something non-physical or non-material either.  So I don't think that "outside the four forces of physics" means that we are working in a realm that is "non-physical, non-material" by any stretch; it may instead be covered by biology.

I'd also like to start with something that is basic to my own understanding of reason as it is generally used:
'Reason' tells us the reasons why the thing we want is right. 
In general, I think people often attach themselves to a conclusion (or a goal, or a side) first, and then set the mind to work to justify what was already desired. Some people want truth; some people want dominance, acceptance, prestige, luxury, or a really nice dinner. When people make a decision, even the "rational exercise" of making a pros-and-cons list usually has the "pros" list cataloging "how does it benefit me personally", and the "cons" list considering "how does it harm me personally." Consider how many rational decisions are, in effect, rational self-interest. (Take an example when certain atheists argue that Christianity grew and thrived because it has positive adaptive characteristics that helped people survive better. As soon as you answer, "So, you're saying that Christianity grew because it is a positive and helpful force?" some types of atheists will change tack with dizzying speed, if all they were looking for was a stick with which to beat Christianity.)

Marking territory and the desire to conquer Europe

You mentioned the desire to conquer Europe as an example of an irrational thing that humans do.
shows the necessity of the software's ability to generate irrational adherence to fallacious pursuits, ideologies, and subjective opinion over fact, because that is part of the human mind, too.
In some cases (e.g. the desire to conquer Europe), irrationality seems to track to our more animal natures. Computers, without an animal nature, would "lack" that irrationality. (Is the lack really on their side, here?) I would never expect computers to duplicate an animal need for dominance or territory. Neither do I see our animal need for dominance or territory as some sort of proof that we are 'more than physical' in our minds; I'd say it's proof that we are less than rational. Dominance and claiming territory are expressions of animal instincts.

So I don't see validity to claims along the lines of "computers don't need to feed/fight/flee/mate, so that proves humans are more than physical" ... On the contrary, I'd think it shows that humans are so physical that our instincts hijack our better judgment, and it can interfere with our minds' trustworthiness. There's definitely something more going on than the forces of physics, but it seems to be something animal / biological.

The scope of the proof

You were saying:
if the human mind is to be shown reducible to software, thereby demonstrating that the human mind is likely to be merely physical in nature, then the software must demonstrate the ability to produce all (sum total) of the processes which are available to the human mind ... (Stan)
I'd disagree because of the animal / biological features of our mind. That is to say: The human mind also includes things I'd attribute to biology (e.g. animal instinct). So I'd say that a software system as analogy for the mind would need to account only for those items not accounted for by biology. One or both of us have mentioned biological things like feeding, fighting, fleeing, mating, relationships, motives / desires, and instincts. Those whole arenas of the human mind are the province of living things, as far as I can see. Anything we'd attribute to hormones and adrenaline are biological and physical, yet outside the scope of what a computer would or could do.

My main area of interest is rational thought, which is the original topic on which I'd posted, where our conversation started. I'm also interested in some follow-up on topics you mentioned that intrigue me (e.g. the all-too-common misapplication of Bayes Theorem, or the nature of creativity).

However, if your view is that a software program would need to duplicate even biological instincts, because you believe the scope of the proof would need to include biology because biology is not covered by the laws of physics, then we'd have a fairly insurmountable difference of opinion on the scope of the proof for this topic. Though we might have finally found one thing on which we agree: I doubt that software would manage to duplicate the effects of our animal instincts.

Monday, July 04, 2016

The determinism of logic, and the desire for understanding

This continues a discussion with Stan on how minds work, and to what extent the mind works by natural processes. It picks up with Stan's most recent post and moves on from there.

What if two people were arguing, and had something to prove? Let's say they wanted to do it logically. Sooner or later, they're likely to use a syllogism. Maybe someone would begin like this:
1. "All humans are mammals"
2. "All mammals are vertebrates"
Therefore ...?
I'll come back to that in a moment. First, to clear up a few things that you (Stan) had mentioned:

1. On digestion: you'll notice on a close reading of my prior post that I'm not saying that the stomach is uninvolved in digestion. Though if someone were to ask, "At what point did such-a-nutrient from your lunch become available (etc) ... and what was the corresponding stomach change?", we might have a difficult time pinpointing a stomach change, even though there is no doubt in either of our minds that it's a natural process. The point of this analogy is that, even when we're in agreement that there's a physical system doing 100% of the work, it's still not a simple thing to look at the enduring organs and pinpoint the physical change that corresponds to a particular event, especially when there are layers of processing (such as enzymes). So that if someone asks me, "Show me the physical change in the brain that corresponds to you wanting a peach with lunch" I don't know how much success we'd have there, but that obstacle does not make me think that there's something beyond-the-natural about wanting a peach. We'll come to more interesting examples than peaches shortly.

2. I want to clarify that humans are not analogs of computers, and I'm not saying that we can replicate humans using computers. I expect we can replicate rational thought using computers. Rational thought is one of the easier things to produce deterministically such as in a computer (with the usual acknowledgments that of course we designed the computers in such a way as to make that happen.) To be clear, here, "rational thought" is distinct from irrational thought, creativity, motivation, emotional bonding, and various other kinds of human behavior.

By the point that you (Stan) are contending that we are not automatons, that we do not have automatic responses to all inputs: on that we agree.

It appears to me that the analogs presented are too small, too limited in scope to reflect the actual range of the exquisite capabilities of human minds and intellect

I'd agree about the scope of what I'm saying. I know I've fielded questions on everything from lonely computers to AI bonding, but for my own first argument I'd set out with a more focused scope: "rational thought". I see "rational thought" as things where we can break down our understanding to the level of syllogisms. If you look at the history of humans trying to decide when a thing is proven, syllogisms are forerunners of computer programs. More on that shortly; I wanted to respond to more of your points.

Where we might part company again in some ways (but not others) is where you say,
There is nothing known to physically exist which has the range of capability of the human mind, and which would serve as an adequate analog; the mind is superior to all other systems because it is unfettered by dependence on physics and cause and effect.
You seem to take our range of capability, the fact that we're not automatons (to that point I'd agree), to mean that there's something immaterial going on there, something more than the brain function of the mind. Which brings us to your cat, showing curiosity ...
Because it was an act of intellectual curiosity, his actions were clearly outside the domain of deterministic cause and effect acting on initial conditions.
Are you sure? It seems likely that "intellectual curiosity" is hardwired into brains of a certain complexity. Let's say somewhere above the "flatworm" level but below the "house cat" level, curiosity becomes a fairly standard trait. At some point, animals reach a level of advancement where there's some benefit if it understands more of its world. I'm not convinced that we're outside the domain of deterministic cause and effect at this point ... which I'll explain more as we get deeper into your responses and mine in return.

You also used hardware/software as an analogy for dualism. But software works deterministically. If you're ok with the mind being a deterministic system ... I think it's more likely that I've misunderstood you somewhere, or that I'm reading too much into the choice of analogy, & you were using a convenient one that we'd already discussed.

So (hoping I've cleared up any miscommunication to this point, and with those questions in mind) let me move us onto new ground somewhat:

What if two people were arguing, and had something to prove? Let's say they wanted to do it logically. Sooner or later, they're likely to use a syllogism. Maybe someone would begin like this:
1. "All humans are mammals"
2. "All mammals are vertebrates"
Therefore ...?
Rational thought -- the type that can be broken down into words and expressed in syllogisms -- is a special category in this way: it is defined by the fact that everyone can and should get the same results, given the same input. "Rational thought" is fairly deterministic in its own way (not the physical way). 

If we work through that yawn-inducing syllogism as an example, then anyone who is following the syllogism will come up with the same conclusion from there. "Rational thought" is a specialized area of thought where we do try to show that a certain train of thought must have a fixed outcome. Given certain inputs, we must get a certain result. You even rely on the determinism of logic, and appeal to the determinism of logic, when you say things like:

Therefore Scientism cannot be the case, and it must be false. (emphasis added)
Your appeal is to the determinism of logical argument: Therefore (based on the given input) the outcome must be determined. It's why rational thought is fairly compatible with deterministic systems like computers.

Our claim to rationality, to having other people recognize the validity of our own logic, is based on the "rules of logic" being deterministic after all (after their own rules ... again, more shortly). When it comes to rational thought, if a certain outcome or conclusion weren't inevitable based on the input, would there be any basis for rational proof?

So I'd submit that the act of having a rational discussion -- of presenting evidence and arguments, and expecting them to be taken conclusively --is an acknowledgment that rational thought is in fact supposed to have a predetermined outcome. I'll go one more step: it's not a problem for logic or for rationality that the outcome is predetermined; in fact that inevitability is its main claim to validity.

There's a danger that the words related to determinism can be misunderstood when applied in the two different scenarios. I'd like to draw attention to the fact that, in rational thought (as opposed to, say, laws of motion) the cause of the pre-determination has changed from external physical forces (such as gravity)
to principles of logic. If the outcome of a proof were determined based on processes which operate in ways that are indifferent to the rationality of the outcome (such as gravity), the determinism would be a problem. But here the deterministic nature of the process is logical determinism, not physical determinism. It doesn't actually compromise the rationality of the outcome; in fact the deterministic nature is at that point the guarantee of rationality. In a well-constructed argument with all the facts in hand, there is only one possible conclusion; that is the whole basis of the claim for others to accept a line of logic.

You speak of human minds in a way that assumes (to use your words) "violations of the laws of physics".
I doubt that human minds violate the laws of physics any more than computers violate the laws of physics when the electricity in them jumps through hoops (figuratively speaking) to perform calculations that it wouldn't do except that it's executing instructions to perform some calculation or other function.

You continue:
Both digestion and computers are limited to the predetermined responses of which they are capable ... In order to make the case, it seems that a reason (or reasoning) must be found for the existence of non-determinism in the mind, when the entire physical universe other than the mind is deterministic and obeys laws which have been discovered by physicists, and which are necessary and sufficient for the entire universe, save minds.
Let's start with a few basic assumptions, even if only for the sake of argument. If we suppose that our minds have:
  1. The desire to understand the world
  2. The concept of good / better
  3. The desire to exercise our own agency
Then (to my thinking) that covers the areas of the human condition that we've discussed.

We haven't really gone in-depth on the topic of desire and its place in the question "Is this determinism?" Desires are particular to living things and so are a distinct feature of the living. They are a force of a certain kind, though not in the same sense as when we discuss physics or electromagnetism. I suppose I should mention my working definition of "desire": it is a motive (something that causes action) that may be felt as a need, and attaches to one or a series of goals/objects to satisfy it. That much said: Desire can have a very physical basis.

And that is a good point to pause because here's a question that would affect the course of our conversation: Do you see "desire" as a deterministic thing? Where do you see it fitting into the picture that you outlined before:
when the entire physical universe other than the mind is deterministic and obeys laws which have been discovered by physicists, and which are necessary and sufficient for the entire universe, save minds.
In your thinking, does the mind include desire as one of the inexplicable non-deterministic things?

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Minds and Motives

Stan - I appreciate your understanding of the situation with the day job and real-life time constraints. Here is my next follow-up on our conversation. For this round, I've organized our conversation under these headings: Clarifying our previous conversation, Motivation, and Who or what operates the brain?, as our main current topics.

Clarifying our previous conversation
In your comments you restated my position, showing some places where I should clarify. Let me start there:

I would not say that 'the mind operates the brain'; I would say that the brain is the basis for the mind. I doubt that there is anything that the mind does independently of the brain. I'll explain with some analogies to see if it helps communicate the point. To give an analogy using digestion as a comparison: there's a lot that happens in the stomach, though you wouldn't necessarily see a change in the stomach itself for every change in its contents because there are things like enzymes involved. In the same way, there are things that happen in the brain where I'd suspect, when we look at the the mechanisms, some of them will as transient as our thoughts. Or if we use a computer analogy, the brain is something like hardware and the mind is something like software ... in some ways more like the Operating System or even like BIOS. If anyone reading along wants a short intro to BIOS: it is very low-level software that underpins even the operating system, and is used by the operating system. BIOS is barely above the hardware level, and comes pre-loaded on the hardware, regardless of which operating system is installed over it. I think the most basic brain functions -- like trying to make sense of the world -- are comparable to BIOS. We see early versions of understanding in dogs and cats, though not as fully-developed as in humans. We come back to a closely-related question in the last section of this post, so I'll leave further comments until then.

As far as I can tell, motivation requires life. (You're a theist; what's the difference between God and 'the Force'? I see the difference as awareness and motive. Motive implies having a stake in the outcome. And the questions, "What are God's motives?" and "Why does God even have motives?" are some interesting questions in philosophy of religion.) When it comes to computers and artificial intelligence, maybe I should say specifically that I doubt they could have self-motivation, in that I don't see how they could have a stake in the outcome. A computer could be given a motivation. It might even have a motivation built into its system, like a hypothetical chess-bot with instructions to analyze other chess programs to find logic with the highest win-percentage, or most efficient code for getting there. But that 'motivation' would come from outside because it's not living. More follow-up on that next.

Look at human motivation: it's generally to meet some kind of need or fulfill some kind of desire. (Is there more that goes into 'motivation'? Let's at least start there.) What 'need' does a computer have? You could argue 'Electricity' ... but if the power goes out, it doesn't destroy the computer. It cannot sense pain so wouldn't seek to avoid it. It doesn't even have a concept of itself, so does not think about the day that its hardware fails and it's taken to a recycling center. It doesn't have any commitment to an idea of its own superiority, so it doesn't go around trolling. It doesn't have a desire for competence/mastery. (Ever notice the satisfaction we get from competence/mastery? We have an emotional investment, even in understanding things.) So we could probably give a computer motivations by building it into the instruction set. But I wouldn't expect motivations to arise independently in a being with no wants or needs or desires or self-concept. By the way, it interests me whether God gave us the desire to understand which, taken to its ultimate limits, leads us to reach out to him. There's that old quote from St Augustine, "Our hearts are restless until they rest in You."

So after we talk about motivations, we get back to an interesting question that you introduced: 

Who or what operates the brain?
You introduced the background question of who or what operates the brain. That's a good conversation to have, so let's go there next. I'm going to start with the old digestion analogy just so we have a starting place where I'm hoping we both agree: the stomach and digestion are basically automatic. That is to say, nothing really 'operates' that system except built-in biological functions. I think there is something analogous in the brain/mind where we have a built-in function of trying to understand and make sense of the world. Previously I talked about how there are animals that we wouldn't consider to be very rational (worm, dog or cat) that have some level of understanding.

I'm curious ... I don't know what your view is: Would you say that a dog or cat has some kind of mind-duality going because they have a basic level of understanding? Or is duality something that begins at a higher level? Is duality just for humans, in your opinion? Does the dog's/cat's mind require duality in order to recognize you and be glad to see you? What functions do you see as needing some sort of transcendence? (Do you consider yourself a dualist? Or would you put it some other way?) I'm considering all those questions as general prompts to see what you think; feel free to pick whichever offers you the best starting point for explaining what you think.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Way more than you ever wanted to know about my thoughts on AI

In my earlier post about rational thought, I'd started with a fairly limited focus: that if we assume our minds work on a natural basis, we can still think logically. That post generated more interest than I expected, and I'm glad of that. Much of the conversation has been beyond that original focus, expanding to related topics such as perception and its subjective qualities, whether thoughts can be physically captured, and the scope of AI. Those are interesting topics to me, even if not quite my original point. I should mention: because of the day job and other Real Life(TM) constraints, after today it may be next weekend before I have time to post again. 

Continuing the conversation with Stan, I wanted to start with some working definitions of terms, to give us better odds of understanding each other. After I put together the list, I checked that these definitions are in fact dictionary-compatible. The word "natural" had almost too many different dictionary definitions, so high risk of misunderstandings around that word.

  • brain - the physical organ commonly known by that name
  • thought - as a particular ("a thought"): an idea or set of ideas, usually can be expressed in words
    - in general ("thought" as phenomenon): the ability to reason or to introspect
  • consciousness - state of being aware of existence and surroundings; may also include self-awareness and awareness of internal states
  • mind - collection of all mental functions such as thoughts, consciousness; considered by some as "The Brain, collected works". 
  • material - physical (has mass and takes up space)
  • natural - operating according to laws of nature (physics, chemistry, biology, electromagnetics, etc)

So with that as a handy reference point, I wanted to talk to Stan some more. He was saying:
It is not clear at this point how the progression leads to the concept that mind is purely physical, 
Good point; I should state my premises more explicitly. Background: I use computers as a working analogy, and  as shorthand to talk about whatever functions of the mind can be reproduced (or mimicked, if you'd rather) by purely natural processes. Computers work in purely natural ways. So whenever we get to the point of demonstrating that a certain function of the mind can be done by a computer, we have shown that function can be done in a purely natural way. And I rely on Occam's Razor from there: once we have a sufficient explanation, that's our "definition of 'Done'". 

And then it looks like the examples I picked of "how to analyze thoughts" were aspects / approaches that address what I'm interested in, but don't correspond to Stan's own interests. Stan, am I understanding you correctly that what you're really looking for is whether a thought itself (e.g. "Almost time for dinner, wonder what I'll have tonight") can be found somewhere physical in the brain? Or am I not grasping your question yet? 

And Stan wants to know about my hypothetical system, an AI system that I've sometimes considered how I'd design. As a preface, I should mention: this is way beyond-scope of my original post arguing that rational thought can be handled by a natural system. Not only does it get beyond "thought" but it also gets beyond "rational" (see below). Still, it's interesting, so let's do it anyway. Stan was asking the following (and I'll vary font color and respond in line there.) 
While I’m sure you could code curiosity into a deterministic serial machine, can you code in creativity (To some extent. To a computer, that's "looking for combinations or applications not yet in your own data set". Imagine an AI system with a respectable starter data set -- similar to what we try to do for kids in school -- and a way to expand on it (e.g. library, internet, wikipedia), and a way to apply it.) followed by realization? (Realization depends so much on having a big picture of the significance of things. In order for something to be more significant than just information, that involves having motivations and values and priorities. I could get a computer to recognize that it had found something new. ("Record does not exist.") But whether it could judge if that was trivial or important would depend on how much perspective it had on the outside world and the world of need.) Do you really think that you can code in every human relationship (Lol, I seriously doubt that. So many human relationships are based on our biology, etc.), desire (Again, the non-living nature of the computer would handicap it. Desire is generally based on need.), lust (I'd put that down to animal nature in humans; hormone-based and not 'rational thought' even in us.), passion (If you mean 'lust' see above; if you mean being passionate then computers do the 'single-focus/driven' routine really well, if that's the kind of passion you had in mind. Though again I'd draw the boundary at whether they had any investment or personal stake in the outcome. Computers, as we know them, have no skin in the game. It's a handicap.), intellectual neediness (If that works out to 'thirst for knowledge', that would probably have to be an explicit instruction to them, since non-living things don't have motives.), intellectual fallacy due to improper axioms acquired by voluntary ideological bias (yikes, that's definitely not rational stuff in humans, so I'd hope to steer well away from that. Though it might be interesting to model it, if doing an AI model for use in psychology. Anyway, it almost seems like you're arguing it would be an advantage for a computer to be bad at thinking -- to match humans at our worst. I can only suspect I've missed one of your goals here.), or need for belonging, or fear of rejection (Needs and fears about belonging/rejection are basically the territory of living things that are also social creatures. There would have to be a whole community of distinct AI beings for that to be feasible and those AI machines would need actual stakes on the outcome in order for 'need' and 'fear' to apply. I'm not sure of how there could be stakes on the outcome.)? Is there nothing about your own job which an algorithm cannot perform just as well? Background: For the code I've written, aside from the "re-usable" standard, I've also written code-generator programs for some predictable / repetitive code. So there are sets of programs that were not written directly by me, but were generated by a program that I wrote. And there are other people at my company who have also written code-generators since they are time-savers. My prior job likewise. I don't think it's particularly unusual. So as far as being a coder, there are parts that are disturbingly machine-like and may be automated eventually. Still the systems are written for humans to use, and so I expect there will always be some advantage to having humans make the decisions. 
Stan continues:
You have to presume mental behaviors to be either (a) algorithmic or (b) huge full featured non-algorithmic programs with nearly infinite branching or (c) self-modifying on the fly, all the while not self-destructing (too often, anyway). Or maybe there is some sort of parallel programming you know about that I don’t. If so, please explain.
I expect mostly (a) and (c), with balancing mechanisms for resolving internal conflicts. From our point-of-view, it's priorities and values and -- as a significant part of that -- self-perceived identity. ("Am I the kind of person who would ____?")

Stan: Please give an example of the ability to create new processor instructions.
Imagine an AI system that could read source code libraries, and could add new functions to itself that it found there. Or if it had the ability to redefine one of its existing functions, if it wanted to be able to make a minor mod. E.g. picture a chess app that could read other chess apps and search them for features it didn't have. Of course it would have to be told that it should try to do that: a non-living thing has no reason to care about chess. 
Stan: Unless that means that the new instruction for the processor is actually a combination of instructions the processor is already designed to handle at the level from machine code
I think it's a "given" that an AI system would be hosted on some particular machine, and that any new code would have to be compatible with the processor on that machine. 
Stan: At this point I’m still not sure what you’re trying to say: is a mind/thought a completely physical thing, with the universal attributes of mass/energy existing in space/time? Or are you saying that the mind/thought merely uses the brain as a physical platform for operating in the physical realm?
I'm saying that mind/thought uses the brain as a physical platform, and that as far as I can tell, mind and thought occur in ways consistent with them being natural. 

I'm not quite sure whether we agree or disagree since we may not have shared definitions, but it's been a good conversation. I know I've imposed a lot on your time; let me know if you're interested in continuing. 

Saturday, June 18, 2016

The purpose and goal of the mind

This is a follow-up to the earlier post Why I'd like my Christian friends to consider that rational thought is a natural phenomenon. , and a continuation of the conversation posted by Stan in An Analysis of the Purely Physical Mind and Rational Thought. My thanks to Stan for his interest in the topic. Since this post is in part a response to his, "you" in this post means Stan.

There are many people who are used to this topic being discussed between theists and atheists. So I'd like to start by clearing up my position on a few assumptions or questions that people may bring to the discussion: 
  • My view of a natural mind does not take sides in whether the preconditions for the mind are naturalistic. I'm a Christian myself and believe that there is a Creator; that doesn't mean that rational thought doesn't work through natural means. 
  • To the best of my knowledge, life comes from life in all known cases
  • I have no objection to the view that the First Cause is a non-material entity
  • I have no interest in steering people into a dichotomy between the mind being either deterministically controlled or due to quantum randomness
  • I'm not arguing whether or not we came by our goals ourselves or were given them from outside. For the present, the scope is whether the mind operates wholly on natural processes. 
Stan interacted with my post at some length, including the analogy of digestion. When I read peoples' responses to my earlier post, this seems to be a main area where I didn't succeed in getting my point across, based on reading what people thought I was saying and comparing that to what I actually wanted to communicate. So I'll make my point more explicit here.

The point of the original "digestion" analogy is that digestion acts with complexity and purpose that it could not manage in isolation. It manages to fulfill a purpose or goal beyond itself as part of a larger system, though I think everyone would grant that digestion works naturally.

Applying that to the mind, let's talk about the 'purpose or goal' of the mind. The short version (indented for emphasis, so it doesn't get lost in the shuffle): 
I believe the 'purpose or goal of the mind' is to provide us with a map or model of the world in which we live, and that the mind has an innate disposition to explore and understand its surroundings. 
So if we give a rational system (a mind) enough time, it will in fact turn to everything it can find, including paradox, dilemmas, self-evidence, and the nature of comprehension. I'd say that the mind is the natural function of the brain (and associated nervous system e.g. input from the eyes), and that the mind uses natural processes for operation.

How do we get to a point where I'd say that? I'd like to start with the simplest examples and step forward through a few layers of complexity.

Example 1: A simple creature may have the ability to sense heat, or may have an eye spot (not even quite an eye). Through their senses -- and probably without anything we'd recognize as thought -- they gain a simple awareness of heat and light, and can react in self-preservation.

Example 2: A dog or cat has fairly well-developed senses for perceiving its surroundings. It has a basic working model of its home that allows it to recognize people, tell when it's time for dinner, and try to avoid trips to the vet (good luck with that). It's got a more complete set of senses and a more developed mental model of the world. They have a grasp of how to be an actor rather than just a passive reactor; they try to cue us when it's time for dinner, or when they want to play. We're inching closer to something we might recognize as a 'mind', though we're nothing like what humans can manage.

Example 3: Humans have a mind with a drive to understand the world. We go looking for information. We look for new and better ways of storing information, communicating information, and exploring for information. We look for ways to model information, organize information, and put all that understanding to good use. If we find a limit, we look for a way past it. (There's more to our minds than information, but we'll start there, since 'understanding' does involve information.)

I know there's more to be said but for the sake of brevity we'll start there. And now we're far enough along that I can interact with something Stan brought up:
"Because comprehension, thoughts, and concepts are not physical lumps amenable to be analyzed empirically ..."
Actually, just because comprehension, thoughts, and concepts are not physical lumps, that doesn't stop us from analyzing them empirically. (If we find a limit, we look for a way past it.) Here are some ways we humans have come up with to empirically analyze our own comprehension, thoughts, and concepts, and we have come up with a good variety of ways. Some tools focus on the 'understanding' part of it, and some focus on the 'brain' electrical / biomechanics of it:
  • We turn our understanding into a hypothesis. We use that hypothesis to design an experiment, and then test our understanding with that experiment
  • We turn our concepts into a syllogism to test each thought's compatibility with other thoughts in the same system
  • We turn our comprehension into images -- maps, drawings, charts, graphs
  • We turn our understanding into words, and work to grasp the world by defining each thing or idea in words
  • We turn thoughts into mechanical models like little world-map globes or solar-system models
  • We turn concepts of events and people into stories. We also use stories to evaluate "what-if?" with different scenarios, or when we want to see how or why our struggles matter and grasp how our lives have meaning
  • We try to peek inside our own minds with tools like Rorschach blots, dream analysis, word association, and other tools for analyzing our own psychology
  • We have developed brain scans to give us a more direct view on the electrical impulses and brain functions involved in our thoughts and emotions
  • We're making progress towards being able to turn visual images in the brain into computer-output, e.g. take a mental image and turn it into a photo. Based on existing early work, I expect the day will come when we can take a daydream and download it as a movie. (Imagine the job listing for that: Help wanted. Daydreamer. Detail-oriented a must. Familiarity with Synapse-Interface Software required ...) (May Google Minds never develop a Mental StreetView camera ...)

So there are lots of ways in which we model our own thoughts and concepts so that we can examine them. At this point I'm not sure which of those were of interest to you (Stan), or if there's another direction you had in mind.

One thing that persuades me that the mind works naturally is (background: I'm a professional coder with an interest in AI) that I haven't yet heard someone propose a mental function that I couldn't imagine a way of coding into a computer. (No, I don't get to do anything near that cool for my day job, which is just the usual corporate coding to pay the bills. It keeps my mind exercised, though without a ton of creative leeway. But sometimes I mull over how I would go about designing an AI system, and there are people who have done more than mull it over.) There are perfectly natural ways to code awareness, evaluative framework, even the ability for a computer to add new abilities into its own design/framework and exceed its original instruction base.

I'm hoping that makes it somewhat clearer how I see the purpose and goal of the mind, and why that all seems like natural processing to me. I look forward to hearing other peoples' thoughts. I'm glad for the interaction and interest in the topic.