Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Soul Problem

"...to say we end the heartache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to? 'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished." - Hamlet, Act 3, Shakespeare
In Christianity, a goal for adherents is to receive eternal life, but what does that mean, exactly?  There is some debate over whether or not those resurrected into eternal life will have a regular physical body like we do now, or if it will be some sort of glorified physical body which stays perfectly intact and is at a perfect age forever (like 35 years old), or if instead it will be a completely spiritual body with no physical matter at all.  But one thing is certain: no matter what bodily form awaits you in eternal life, you will still be you.  The only caveat is that, in most theoretical versions, you will no longer have the desire for sin.

That fact spawns the question: what are "you?"

What is your personality?  Not personality type, but your actual personality.  What is it that makes you act differently (even if marginally so) than anyone else in the world?  What is it that drives your decisions and fosters your relationships?  What makes you an individual?  Christianity offers up the "soul" as the answer to these questions.  This body you have now will die.  Your soul, your "you," will allegedly continue on to face God on Judgement Day.  By that time, your old physical body may have turned into clay.

In this perspective, your soul is presently using your physical body as a meat puppet through which it lives its life, and because of this, all of those nasty, evil, physical temptations nag at your soul to pleasure your body.

That is a great myth and all, but no soul exists.  No soul exists, and I can prove it in two words: brain damage.

It is a well established fact that brain damage, depending on the type, will affect behavior.  It can do so in very profound ways, ways which completely change a person's personality, ways that effectively change the outward manifestations which collectively we would consider to be evidence of a particular soul.

But, you Fool, that is BRAIN DAMAGE!  (You might object.)

That is exactly my point.  It is brain damage, not soul damage.  If our bodies are nothing more than meat puppets to the soul, then there is no way in which your "you," your soul, can be changed directly by physical damage.  At most, what would happen in this "meat puppet" case is that you would be unable to make the body do what you want it to do because the controls are broken.  Your inward personality could not be broken, because, according to Christian theology, it is not at all physical.  Yet reality is quite different.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Good Fishing

Not too long ago, I went out to dinner and heard a gentleman speaking about a fish catch which involved God.  The story went like this:

The man went out to his favorite spot on the lake to fish, but the weather and time of day was not  right for catching fish.  He cast his line into the water a couple times without even the slightest bite.

Something was on his mind, and, knowing the conditions were awful for fishing, and being a religious man, he prayed to God for a sign.  The sign he asked for was to catch a fish.  He told God that it didn't matter how big it was, and it didn't matter if he caught any other fish while he was out that day.

The very next time he cast his line into the water, he got a bite, and quickly at that.  At that moment, he knew that God had just answered his prayer, and a great happiness and peace came over him.

He reeled his catch in to find a rather meager looking bass.  He tossed it back into the water, and kept on fishing for another couple hours.  He never had another bite that entire time.

It's easy to scoff at such a "sign."  It's just coincidence.  It's certainly not a rigorous sign like we find Gideon requesting in Judges 6:36-40, where Gideon requests God to make dew to form on some wool fleece one night, and then asks God to make dew form on everything except the wool fleece the following night, just to be sure.  But so what?

This gentleman had asked for this sign because he was concerned about his wife, who had recently passed away under distressed circumstances.  This woman was the love of his life, and he just wanted a sign from God that she was OK in the afterlife.  For him, this fish catch was that sign.

It is hard to justify challenging such a man's faith.  Clearly, in this case, his faith that God provided a sign lifted a great burden from his heart.

Yet, at the same time, there comes the realization that the heavy burden this man carried in his heart was because of that religion.  If there was no afterlife to worry about, then this man's heart would have been free from that addition burden beyond the tragic loss of his beloved wife.

Religion is messy.  Be careful.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Genesis, Aliens, and Empiricism Gone Wrong

A Christian friend of mine and I have been debating back and forth for years now, and in one of the recent exchanges, he was chastising my reliance on empirical knowledge.  Pesky engineers, always leaning on empiricism.  I replied with something to the effect of "empirical data isn't everything, but it's pretty damn important."

I need to clarify.  Equally important as empirical data itself is having an accurate interpretation of that data.

In a 2006 interview with Bill Moyers (part of an excellent series called "on Faith and Reason" available on Netflix), Welsh climatologist Sir John Houghton (scientist, Christian, author, and leading figure in global climate change research) discussed the perspective of being a leading scientist as well as a lifelong Christian.  Houghton expressed how he didn't really see a conflict.  Pointing to the creation story in Genesis, he opined that it was obviously meant as a fable or metaphor because light was created on the first day (Genesis 1:1-5) while the sun and stars were created on the fourth day (Genesis 1:14-19).  Anyone knows that this is impossible.

That is, anyone knows that this is impossible now...

However, Genesis was written a long, long time ago; during a time before mankind fully understood the reflective, refractive, wave-like, and ray nature of light.  This is not to say that physics was any different back then, but rather they did not have the proper mental tools to completely understand them.

The picture to the right here is of Yellowstone Lake in Wyoming, roughly twenty minutes before sunrise.

To the left here, you see a picture outside of El Paso, Texas, roughly ten minutes after the sun has dropped below the horizon (figuratively speaking, of course).

Notice anything common in these photos?  Despite the fact that the sun is not visible, there is still light.  It may not seem so in the photos, but there was enough light to read books then!

What would someone five thousand years ago think about that?

To the right is a photo at approximately eleven in the morning in a small town in Hungary.  It was completely overcast that day, drizzling on and off, and the sun could not be seen.  Yet look at how bright it is.  Look at how well lit it appears, even under the awnings and trees.  There are no defined shadows.

What does this empirical evidence point to?  That the sun is the source of our primary light here on earth?  Or does it suggest instead that while the sun is a source of light, it is not the source of light?

The "light" of five thousand years ago was not the same as we understand "light" today.  It matched the empirical observations and the level of "scientific knowledge" which they had at the time.  Just like it was obvious that light appeared every day before the sun actually arose from the horizon, there was no difficulty in their understanding that "God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light" before there was a sun in the sky.  What appears to us today as fable, metaphor, or myth was very real and logical back then.

I have another good friend who is on the fringes of being a conspiracy theorist, and he has been hooked into the "ancient astronaut" theory.  As he was describing the theory and some of the evidence, I was very skeptical.  He kept prodding me to watch the History Channel's series called "Ancient Aliens."  In the spirit of being a good friend, and enjoying a challenge to my own belief systems, I took him up on it.

I had somewhat expected it to be a bologna and crazy sandwich, but the series actually has proven to be pretty interesting.  Check out this episode from Season 2, for example.  That's not to say I believe it.  It's not that I strain at a gnat (Christianity) and swallow a camel (aliens bred us to be a slave race, one of dozens of theories proposed during the series).  However, they point out many finds from archeology which are fascinating to ponder.  There are many more spectacular and mysterious megalithic structures on this earth than I was aware of, and that alone has made the series slightly addicting.

The show's investigators, theorists, and scientists do a pretty good job in establishing the possibility of ancient alien contact.  Logically it makes some sense too.  I mean, when you think that our planet is actually relatively young in our universe, if we allow for the possibility of intelligent life on other planets and efficient space travel, it is not impossible for aliens to have visited our planet a long time ago.  Unlikely, maybe, but not impossible.

However, the show also serves as an excellent case study in confirmation bias.  While the show does sometimes present alternate opinions, the major hosts have already sold themselves completely on the surety of ancient alien contact.  When you are a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.  And apparently when you are an ancient alien astronaut theorist, every little bit of evidence which could possibly support that theory, no matter how flimsy, is accepted as factual evidence.  So many of their legitimate points, questions, and theories are sullied by junk science; by empiricism gone wrong due to incorrect interpretation.

Incorrect interpretation is just one reason why empiricism is not always the best tool in trying to arrive at the truth.  Other reasons will have to come in later posts... :-)

Thursday, February 9, 2012

First Class Nuns

I've got about a zillion posts screaming to get out of my skull, but sometimes I've got to pay the bills, and sometimes that happens unexpectedly.  One moment pondering the precise comfy position I will take on the couch tomorrow, the next moment making travel plans instead.  So there's more to come later.

On my first flight, there were a couple of nuns.  They sat in first class.  Something makes the thought of "first class nuns" very funny to me.  :-)

Thursday, February 2, 2012

My Bio

Many people have been asking me lately what my background is.  And by many people, I mean one.  :-)  (You know who you are!)  So here's my background in a small, side-view mirror:

Being brought up Christian, one of the values I was raised with a type of humility, and out of that, I did not often talk about myself or speak of my accomplishments.  Still, today, it seems a little awkward for me to do so, even though I logically recognize that such dialog helps build relationships.  That, coupled with a desire to remain anonymous online for my family, is probably why I hadn't thought of doing a bio before.  Here it is...

Childhood and Early School
My childhood, thanks to my parents, was spread across Florida, New York, and Tennessee.  I claim to be an Yankee or a Southerner as it's convenient.  ;-)  Or neither when claiming Florida.

In many ways, I felt blessed growing up.  We were firmly in the lower-middle class, but, largely taking the Christian message against money to heart, I never really felt like I needed or wanted more.

I had a greater-than-average intelligence, but I had problems with my speech.  In elementary school, both the gifted program and the speech program were adders, meaning that I had to remember to pull myself out of class to go to these programs at certain times.  The problem was that I was so bored in class that I would distract myself with daydreams, or using my pencils and erasers as toys, and loose all track of time.  I regularly missed the gifted and speech programs.

I nearly flunked a couple grades in middle school.  At that time, my parents had gone through a divorce.  Psychologists would probably suggest my school problems were due to this divorce, but I was actually OK with the divorce.  My biggest problem, again, was boredom.  School was still very slow, and not very interesting.  Although the speech issues had cleared up by then, spelling was my new nemesis, and it still haunts me today.  (Curse you, English language!)

I remember one frustrated middle school teacher yanked me out of class one day into the hallway with a grade book in hand.  She pointed to a number a bit larger than 100 next to my name and said "Do you know what this is?"  I sheepishly said, "No."  "This is your IQ, mister," she said.  "There is no reason for you to be doing this poorly in school.  You need to get your act together, young man, or you are going to end up held back."  Of course, at that time, I didn't even know what an IQ score was, let alone what was a good or a bad score.

I still don't know how, but I made it to next grade, 8th.  The classes started to get interesting, as I had a couple of really good teachers.  I started to pay a little more attention to the teaching, and my grades reflected it.  Then we moved.

So I finished 8th grade and the rest of high school in a new place, but my attention to learning continued.  I still got bored, but I had learned when and how much I needed to pay attention.  I was mastering the art of doing the least amount of effort to get a good grade.  My memory was a real boon to this effort.  At the end of year long classes, I would have a notebook with maybe five or ten pages of notes for each class.  My classmates, holding their voluminous notes, would marvel at the discrepancy.

I was placed in all of the Advanced Placement (AP) classes which the high school had, but it was a new program then, so that was a very short list.  Still it saved me cash and time for college credits.  :-)

I graduated Magna Cum Laude.

In high school, I had worked as a car wash attendant for a few months, then at a restaurant as a cook and a waiter for the remainder.

College Life
I went to a community college while living at home.  "Harvard by the Highway" we used to call it.  There I earned my Associate's degree with a focus in preparation for engineering.  For a little school, it had some fantastic teachers who kept me interested, but I was still in a minimal-effort mode.

While there, I joined their "Brain Bowl" academic competition quiz team at the recommendation of some of the teachers.  Every now and then a question about the Bible would come up during a competition, and I remember feeling pretty embarrassed that I didn't know the Bible better.  I wish I could say I was the star of the team, but I wasn't.

I was inducted into Phi Theta Kappa, a scholastic honor society for community colleges, and I graduated Cum Laude.  My minimal-effort strategy wasn't as successful here as in high school, but it was still pretty damn good in college.

While at the community college, I continued to work at the restaurant, but I also worked as a math tutor in their Math Lab.  A great deal of students arriving at the community college, having graduated from high school, still needed remedial training to get up to college level mathematics.  That was one of the most rewarding occupations I have ever had.  Helping people understand, helping them get to that "aha!" moment when the knowledge really becomes theirs, is something special.  I had considered going into teaching because of that.  (I veered away from teaching, but today I still contemplate teaching or tutoring again once I retire.)  On occasions, my fellow classmates would also stop in to see me for help with Chemistry, or Differential Equations, or whatever.

I moved into an apartment, and started the rest of my college education at, let's call it, Big State University, or BS U for short.  ;-)  I signed up for Mechanical Engineering, and I actually kept that major.  I still hadn't progressed beyond the minimalist-effort strategy for school, but that didn't stop me from being inducted into the engineering honor society, Tau Beta Pi., and the mechanical engineering honor society, Pi Tau Sigma.  It did, however, stop me from graduating with Latin honors, despite earning a 3.5 GPA four and half years later.  Four and a half years later?  Yes, I was working full time for about four of those years, taking only a part time load of classes, so that I could pay for said classes, and some nice vacations.

Speaking of work, when I first moved down for BSU, I got a job schlepping seafood at a supermarket.  At the time, I didn't even like seafood, so it was a lot of fun coming home at night reeking of dead fish.  Lemon juice works wonders.

Anyway, that was part time work, and I had no long-term plans of staying there.  Through a good personal connection, I snagged an interview for a full time technician's job at, let's say, Mega Engineering House (MEH).  This wasn't like a "technician" technician.  This was essentially technically focused engineer's helper.  I won the job.

Contrary to my school strategy, my work ethic was completely the opposite.  If someone was paying me, I made sure that they got their money's worth, and then some.  If I didn't have something assigned for me to do, I would think up side projects for myself.  I would do projects to make my future work easier, and the work of the entire department easier.  I taught myself Visual Basic, and ended up implementing an automation system which eliminated double manual entry (which had resulted in a number of costly typos).  I didn't study hard, but I worked hard, and that earned the respect of my group.

At the same time, I became a little disillusioned, as not everyone shared that work ethic.  Aside from a handful of exceptions, MEH was full of, well, average performers.  And it did not seem to matter if they had earned a Master's degree, or had even achieved a Doctorate.  (Of course, I couldn't see that where it really mattered was the paycheck.)  Not only that, but there was very little direct engineering which was done beyond the Bachelors' level, and only rarely at that.  Most calculations were done with established proprietary equations or through finite element analysis programs.  So I decided that a higher degree was not really worth pursuing unless I really just wanted the knowledge for myself.

After College
Just before I got my degree, MEH promoted me to the level of engineer.  The salary jump from technician, while substantial, was well below market value.  The actual salary didn't bother me, but the fact that I had work so hard but had not been compensated appropriately for it was a little insulting.  So soon after I graduated, I jumped over to something completely out of my field; industrial simulation gaming.  This was for the company, let's say, Polygons Flying Terribly (PFT).

For a year and a half, I worked shoulder to shoulder with computer engineers.  It was a bit of learning for me, but, to me, my degree was little more than a certificate showing that I was capable of learning.  (I never really clung to the identity of a Mechanical Engineer, except for comedic effect.)  In a way, the PFT world was similar to MEH, in that there was very little actual engineering going on.  Far from being outgunned by my computer-focused colleagues, I was able to shine again with my Visual Basic skills by creating a parsing program to identify errors in thousands of log files which they were still manually reviewing via random inspection.

Not impressed with the way PFT was headed for me in the long term, I took a series of steps which headed me back to MEH.  Given the good impression I had left with, my old group at MEH welcomed me back with open arms, and a much bigger salary.  That particular group's job was handing issues which came in from the field, from customers using our products.  This was really a great fit for me, because you never knew how a customer would break something.  It kept you guessing at times.  :-)

After several more years in a comfy chair in the security of the cubicles of MEH, I initiated a change.  Well, a couple changes.  Due to some marital issues, I filed for divorce.  Relatively soon thereafter, I decided that I wanted to go out in the field and see these products myself.  (It was pretty amazing to think that I had been recommending repairs on multi-million dollar pieces of equipment when I had scarcely seen them other than in drawing form.) So I joined a different division of MEH, and the road became my office.

When I am not traveling for work, I am home, left to my own devices.  It is through all of this spare time that my Bible studies have gone to the next level.  Now over seven years into it, I feel I could go head-to-head with several of the best scholars when it comes down to what the Bible actually says.  However, my scholarship is not as robust as many of those other scholars given that I have nearly completely focused on the Bible itself, as opposed to learning Hebrew or Greek, or about Roman law, or any of the other million ancillary details which could provide the "most complete" picture available.