Monday, April 30, 2007

I hate April

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.

- from T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land

Friday, April 27, 2007

Identity is messy

Just jokin' about the post I promised you. I'm going to post this one first, because I like it, and because it's marginally related.

What follows is a musing by my Victorian* friend Sara Martinez.

In case you weren't aware, "musing" is a literary genre, named by Sara, which often involves thoughts written on napkins, trees, walls and random Web sites. This musing was first published on the wildly illustrated wall of an art studio on the ACU campus. Imagine it's written in blue marker.

I am myself, a single, whole entity, having only one physical manifestation and occupying only a set length of time, having only one soul, whose destiny is unique. Yet I am myself a plurality, made of various, uncertainly connected, discrete parts.

For I am made of emotions that bow to various masters, of thoughts born from various progenitors, of opinions that have grown from, are growing from, or have yet to grow from seeds sown by various cultivators.

My heart cannot be said to be one to give to one, for it is free for the tearing to many, who may hate me, who may love me, who may never have even imagined my existence.

I am not of a uniform, singular, or unique spirit, being prone to mercurial changes in tone of mind and direction of purpose.

Bearing all this in mind, then, though I am but one person, in what way, exactly, am I an individual?

* "Victorian" as in "from Victoria", with no connotations of prudishness or steampunk.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Thinking Blogger Awards

I've been tagged with the "thinking blogger" award-slash-meme by Paul and Richard. (Richard thinks it started here.) I am supposed to respond by naming five bloggers who make me think. I'll go ahead and start with ... Paul and Richard:

1. Original Faith is Paul Martin's blog. Paul knows about interesting things like belief, psychology, and being really ill. Also, He's a bit of a poet. I like that about him.

2. Experimental Theology is Richard Beck's blog. Richard is a philosophy professor at my alma mater, Abilene Christian University, and shares my peculiar religious tradition. He knows about interesting things like genes, psychology, and speakeasies in New Orleans. He plugged me as "one of the few people I know who might be more heretical than I am". I like that about him.

Here are six other bloggers who make me think. I need to do extra because I don't want a real "blogroll" on my sidebar, and I feel bad about it sometimes. This is my way of expurgating that guilt. I'm glad you can all help me out.

3. Douglas Muder is a Unitarian Universalist, who once upon a time gently thumped me down because I said he had written a book he hadn't written. He's not a frequent poster, but he occasionally drops some good stuff at Free and Responsible Search.

4. Jack Whelan and Crystal are both Catholic, so I'm cheating and squeezing them into one slot. Jack's blog, After the Future, is primarily political, with a little touch of Catholic theology thrown in occasionally to spice things up. Crystal's blog, Perspective, is probably the most personal blog that I read, and has lots of Catholic theology with the occasional sci-fi movie review thrown in to spice things up.

5. Scoots is a Ph.D. student at Boston College, which happens to be in Boston. Scoots is a contrarian in a sea of liberals, just like I'm a contrarian in a sea of conservatives, so his posts tend to be a little conservative. His almost-eponymous blog tends to talk about things like the Bible and songs by Rich Mullins. But it's pretty good anyway.

6. Joel Spolsky, at Joel on Software, writes mostly about software development, but a lot of his insights apply to entrepreneurship in general. He used to work for Microsoft, started his own software company and wrote a couple of books, and has since ascended to the status of demigod in the programming community. I think this might have something to do with the fact that he says things like, "programmers should not be farmed in cubicles, but should have their own private offices with doors." I could be way off base, though.

7. Pastor Katherine preaches at South Bay Christian Church of Redondo Beach, which should make you deeply jealous. Her Sermon Blog is here, and she mostly keeps it updated. On a fairly regular basis, Pastor K's sermons manage to be triumphant without being cotton-candy. That's pretty sweet.

So there you have it, my set of "thinking blogger" awards. Hugs and kisses to all the winners.

Next up: the promised post about God and information theory.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Panentheism and Theodicy: Creator's guilt

I strongly suspect that the panentheistic approach isn't a silver bullet for theodicy problems, but it does have some interesting implications. For example, Scoots asked...
Would we understand a panentheistic God as having created the cosmos, i.e., with some form of intention? Because if we don't, then we still need some explanation for why there's a universe, and if we do then that god would still bear culpability for making a world where horrors would take place.

I think a panentheist could go either way on this one, depending on how he understands the relationship between God and the universe. An epiphenominal panentheist* who says that the mind of God arises from out of the universe, would probably say that God did not create the universe, but instead the universe created God. Regarding the origin of the universe ... who knows? I guess he could ascribe to some scientific theory about the of the universe, or he could dip into some narrative that attempts to explain existence, or he could simply argue that the question of "why" doesn't make any sense with regard to brute existence.

A pattern panentheist* might argue that God is not personal, and is therefore both unable to willfully "create" and, by similar reasoning, exempt from guilt altogether.

But a Platonic panentheist* might say that God is personal and did in fact create the universe. Then, like Scoots says, he would need to justify God's decision to create. If God created the universe, and could have foreseen the horrors that would come to pass, then God should be held responsible for those horrors. I expect a Platonic panentheist would use one of the many arguments that traditional theists have already made attempting to extricate God from creator's guilt. Maybe he would take a line from Romans 9 and say that it's OK for God to create things with the intent of destroying them. I don't like that approach very much. Maybe he would argue this is this is indeed the best possible world, and that the goods of existence outweigh the horrors that seem to remove any possibility of meaning from that existence. I don't like that approach either.

But here's a possibility: what if the idea of "creator's guilt" makes sense when discussing, say, the atomic bomb, but is inherently contradictory when discussing the creation of worlds. Here's what I mean:

Suppose that God is puttering around in God's kitchen, making Mrs. God an egg sandwich and trying to decide whether or not to create a universe. And to simplify things, let's further suppose that God wants to create a deterministic universe, where all events in time can be known based on the universe's starting configuration.

Also, God is making the egg sandwich using eggs from free-range, grain-fed chickens, so there's no guilt to deal with there.

To decide whether a universe is worth creating, God can simply follow the implications of the universe's configuration, thinking it through, so to speak, and decide whether the horrors in this potential universe are justifiable. If they're not justifiable, God will refrain from creating the universe. If they are justifiable, then God can go right ahead and do whatever God wants.

So, settling down in an easy chair, God begins thinking through our universe. God begins with the big bang, or whatever came before that, and proceeds to the formation of earth, and the animal ferocity of life as it evolved. God's mind simulates the universe perfectly, so God knows your person in its entirety. God knows what Abraham will think about Isaac, and what Pharaoh will do about the Israelites, and what you will think about these words you are reading right now. God considers, in every detail, the suffering of starving children, the grief of mothers, lovers, friends, every single detail up to the point that God decides should be the end of the universe.

But wait.

In thinking so exactly about the world, and its people, and their thoughts and feelings, God has essentially created that world.

In information systems terms, the hardware of the universe is the mind of God. The program of the universe is composed of its its initial configuration and physical laws. And because, in our panentheistic model, the mind of God is the only reality we have to work with, the only way to know the outcome the universe is to run the program. Once the program has been run, the horrors have already occurred. God simply can't think through a potential universe without making it an actual universe.

And if that's not curious enough: what if this is the simulation? What if, right now, God is simultaneously considering all possible universes, and the salvation of the universe involves God's ultimately selecting the best possible universe, or - even better - merging all the possible universes into the Best Possible Universe?

Hunh. Things keep getting curiouser and curiouser.

* I just kind of made up the terms "epiphenominal panentheist", "pattern panentheist" and "Platonic panentheist", so you might not want to use them in essays or on dates or anywhere important.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Panentheism and Theodicy: Why worship?

Next, Connor and Jennifer hand us this question regarding the God described in the previous posts.
What about him is compelling, or inspires you to worship or follow him?

I think I'm going to have to begin by unpacking some of this panentheism stuff. Briefly, panentheism is the belief that God both transcends and is radically present within the universe. It is distinct from pantheism, which teaches that God and the universe are identical. So in terms of set theory, pantheism teaches that Universe = God, while panentheism teaches that Universe ⊂ God.

Paul's speech to the Areopagus begins to move in this direction:
"The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. 'For in him we live and move and have our being.' As some of your own poets have said, 'We are his offspring.'

There are lots of metaphorical approaches to this idea, each with slightly different implications. You might take the Platonic route and think of God as the Divine Nature or Form of Divinity, and all the things in the universe as being instances that reflect this form to a greater or lesser degree. Or you might think of God as the Divine Pattern, with all things in the universe exhibiting this pattern to a greater or lesser degree. Or you might think of God as the Divine Mind, a consciousness arising from the interactions of the physical universe in the same way that a creature's mind arises from the physical interactions in its brain.

Each of these metaphors provides a different way of describing God's relationship with the world, and each has slightly different implications for God's relationship to the good. If God is most accurately described as a Form that exists separately from the world, but is instantiated within the world, then good becomes the degree to which an instance reflects the divine form.

If God is most accurately described as a pattern that is replicated on small and grand scales throughout the universe (think fractals), then good becomes a part of this pattern, or perhaps is identical with the pattern itself.

If God is the mind that arises from the interactions of the universe, then the good is likely an idea that has some independence from God, but the mind of God would always affirm the good, and insofar as the mind of God could interact with other minds, the mind of God would always promote the good.

I think that these metaphors present sufficient reason for feeling worshipful awe and affection toward God: First, because God is immense, subsuming the universe we know and probably all the universes that we don't know; second, because God is present, immanent, intimately involved in every moment, suffering as we suffer, and rejoicing as we rejoice; third, because we can identify God with all the good we experience, either because God is the source of that goodness, or evident within that goodness, or personally affirming that goodness.