Sunday, April 20, 2008

Evolution In A Bucket

When I was a tender lad, the origins argument consisted of two competing narratives roughly equivalent to the partisans in conflict in the old Spencer Tracy movie, "Inherit The Wind." You either believe the dates printed in your Schofield Reference Bible, or you think you're a monkey's nephew.

Later, when in college, I learned that Creationists distinguish between Evolution in the small and Evolution in the large. Specifically, Creationists assert that we have verified proof with things like fruit flies, domesticated animals, or antibiotic-resistant bacteria that selective breeding and mutation can change the morphology of animals. But the evolution we see in the lab, and that we see in nature, is only evolution WITHIN species, not BETWEEN species.

Quite frankly, this distinction between micro and macro evolution seems to have the fossil record going for it. Though we see a lot of different fossils, we don't find a lot of "missing links." If Darwinian evolution explains the presence of millions of distinct species on this planet, then Darwinian evolution posits the existence of many millions more transitional forms between those species. When this complaint was first raised, well over a century ago, the reply was that "we haven't dug them up yet." Time has gone by and the transitional forms remain missing and the reply is twofold: not everything gets fossilized and missing links don't last many generations. The theory is called "punctuated equilibrium." Still it bothers me that there are so many species and so few (any?) transitional fossils. I'm no geologist, I may be wrong, so if there are lots of fossilized missing links out there, I'd like to hear of it.

I am more familiar with mathematical optimization and computer algorithms. Over the last couple decades I've heard of "genetic algorithms" or "evolutionary algorithms" that have been applied in some contexts, but when I'd read more, the details would get fuzzy and I'd lose the thread of what was being described.

However, in a completely different context, I heard a scientist describe an algorithm he called a "simulated anneal" that I could understand quite handily. Let's suppose you have a problem of connecting various things much like the atoms of a metal. Each connection contributes positively or negatively to some objective function. You want to come up with the "global minima" of the objective function. There are too many connections to exhaustively try them all. What to do? One approach is to look at every pair of atoms and make the link that's "best" then connect those pairs of atoms to the pair that's "best" and so on until everything's connected.

This is called a "greedy algorithm" and it often produces a poor result, getting caught in what's called a "local minima" of the objective function. This process is like dropping a marble in a bucket and letting it roll to the lowest point it finds. The trouble is that if the floor of the bucket is shaped inconveniently, say like a mountain range, you may find the marble trapped in a mountain valley whereas had it been dropped elsewhere it would have rolled to the lowland plains.

If this isn't good enough, if you need to get the marble to the bottom of the bucket, you need to dislodge it from its local minima. How do you do this? By shaking the bucket.

In the algorithm I described above, this is analogous to replacing the deterministic rule that I'll make the "best connections" with another rule. I'll add a random variable, analogous to temperature of an annealing vat of metal, to all pair-wise scores and decide whether to link or not on the basis of score+temperature. This biases the solution in the right way, but it doesn't lock it into local minima.

The idea is that over time if you repeatedly perform the process above, the solution (or marble in the bucket) will probabilistically spend more time in better local minimas. By slowly reducing the temperature, you get a solution that's much more likely to be better than you'd get from the greedy algorithm. This process is analogous to the formation of crystal domains in an annealed vat of metal.

Now, there's nothing biological in the last five paragraphs. It's just math and considerations of systems behaving not unlike what you see in soap bubbles or heat-treated metal. I was surprised when someone told me THAT algorithm I just described is also termed an evolutionary algorithm.

Does this mean that any algorithm that includes a random element and an objective function (i.e. fitness) can be termed Evolutionary? This furrows my brow because it makes the notion very expansive. I don't think of soap bubbles settling into minimum energy configurations in this way. I can't think of any Creationist who can have a problem with this sort of mathematics.

Now, could we by selective breeding do the same sort of optimization on successive generations of an animal? Isn't this what the fruit fly experiments demonstrate?

The Bible was written before Carl Linnaeus devised his system of classification. Thus the Creationist must tread lightly. My college Bible classes used the "baramin" which combines two Hebrew words, "bara" and "min." The Hebrew word "min" is translated "kind" but I think this word does NOT mean species in a Linnaeus sense. The phenomena in the Bible is procreation. Those parts of the Bible which speak of animals bringing forth "after their own kind" are places where this Hebrew is employed. Could the word "kind" merely reflect an animal's genotype? That is, does the Bible intend to convey only that the animals delivered their own DNA (with mutations perhaps) to the next generation?

Suppose, for sake of argument that we engage in a program of selective breeding among dogs. So much so that we come up with one breed of dog that cannot successfully mate with another breed. If this occurred, could we claim that speciation had occurred? Would this PROVE the Bible is wrong? I rather doubt it.

I don't know what the Creationist or the Evolutionist would say to this. However, when I've thought in these terms, the lines have tended to blur. No doubt both sides will want to burn me as a heretic.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Where Is The Archimedean Point?

I've been a bit troubled with thoughts of Descartes and his "cogito ergo sum" and trying to figure out exactly what it is that's bothering me.

Tonight, listening to The White Horse Inn I heard the term Archimedean Point. The immediate context was not Cartesian solipsism, but a sort of gnostic quietism. They were talking about "Barnes & Nobel Christianity" and all the self-help gospel types who provide spiritual "secrets" of looking inward in a sort of post-verbal, certainly post-rational, way.

The White Horse guys are masters of snark. And they laid into these people they termed gnostics with delicious sarcasm. Of course, they were unfair in their criticism, but they have a valid point and they miss a valid point that they oughtn't.

First, let me agree with the White Horse guys. It is wrong to tell people to "look inside yourself" for the divine. Luther was right when he said, "simul justus et peccator." If you tell a sinner to look within, you should also warn that person to expect to see sin when he does so. This is where the White Horse guys hit it out of the park. Calvin called the human heart "an idol factory." The Bible calls the human heart "desperately wicked" and "deceitful." Its greatest deceit is excusing and rationalizing away sin. Shame on any putative Christian preacher who blows off this point.

Second, let me disagree with the White Horse guys. My Bible tells me that as a believer in Christ, I have an indwelling Holy Spirit. And my bible also states that, despite the fall, I'm made in the image of God. Thus, when I "look within" I shouldn't be surprised to find God indwelling and God imaged in the architecture of my psyche. The White Horse guys need to be a little more charitable.

Putting these together, what do we get? If you look into my psyche, you'll find a mix of the sinful and the divine. Alexander Solzenitzen says the battle line between good and evil runs through the center of every man's heart. Thus, I'll have to test what I find within myself to see if it really is the divine or whether it is sinful self-deception.

How am I going to do that? That's where I heard Archimedean Point and thought it important. Archimedes said, "give me a lever and a place to stand and I will move the world." Upon what does Descartes stand when he says, "cogito ergo sum?" Nothing outside himself. As the guy on Mythbusters says, "there's your problem."

If you fail to establish an Archimedean Point outside yourself, that relativizes yourself and everything in your world, you've nothing to push against. You're like the astronaut in zero-gee pushing on a lever and flying backwards in reaction.

This is where God comes in. Three decades ago I gave my presentation in Epistemology class and the critique I heard was that it wasn't Cristocentric enough. You need a Christocentric Archimedean point.

Now, let's suppose you believe in orthodox protestant Christianity. Then you understand that God has disclosed himself in verbal propositional terms in Scripture. Thus, when you "seek God within yourself" you should not be surprised when a lot of Bible verses come to mind. Those are Bible verses that are made out of WORDS and those words hang together RATIONALLY. At least, that's how it is with me. When God speaks to me, when he delivers a "word of knowledge" it is through a Bible verse popping into my head unbidden.

That's what you do. If your heart says something ridiculous about having an adulterous affair, take a delivery from the clue train Exodus 20:14, you're hearing the deceitful part. If your heart says you're doing something wrong and it can provide chapter-and-verse, you're hearing the divine.

A Reason To Vote Against Mr. Obama

Heretofore, I've enumerated at least one specific reason why someone would vote for Mr. Obama. In the last week, Mr. Obama has provided a specific reason to vote against him.

When Mr. Obama was in San Francisco chatting informally with the rich power elite, he referred to rural Pennsylvania with these words:

You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. So it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

When I first read Mr. Obama's remarks I didn't think them particularly nasty or elitist. Perhaps this reflects poorly on my own tendencies toward arrogance.
Update: I forgot to stress that Mr. Obama's remarks are not so much troubling because they are elitist, but for the values they reflect.

But upon closer reflection, I started thinking about what this reflects about Mr. Obama's underlying worldview. What's primary in his thinking is the economic determinism latent in his remarks. What drives and defines the people of rural america are economic factors like jobs or government handouts. I don't believe any of this, but it appears Mr. Obama does. Karl Marx also believed in economic determinism and I don't agree with him, either. Am I saying Mr. Obama is a marxist? No, but sharing the same ecoomic worldview as Karl Marx makes it harder to not be a marxist.

Moreover, look at Mr. Obama's view of human suffering. Mankind, at least in rural Pennsylvania, suffers because of inadequate government compassion and activism. This kind of thinking is statist at best. Contrast this with Mr. Reagan's claim that government wasn't the solution, but that government was the problem. I don't think the government is my momma at whose breast I must be fed. But this is not the reason I have in mind to vote against Mr. Obama.

My reason to vote against Mr. Obama has to do with the opiate of the masses. Another idea of Karl Marx's.

Mr. Obama painted a picture of human pain, and then described how poor people self-medicate to dull that pain. One of those painkillers is religion. Religion, qua religion, as Mr. Obama has posed it, has nothing to do with events of 2000 years ago when our Saviour was crucified and rose again.

I think this explains why Mr. Obama was a member for 20 years of Trinity Church in Chicago. You'll recall that Mr. Obama has claimed he's not a racist, that he doesn't think God should damn America, etc. But he joined and stayed in that church where such things issue from the pulpit. Why? I think it's because he wasn't listening.

There is another explanation for why people in small towns in Pennsylvania go to church. This reason doesn't carry much weight with the power elites. There might just be something to religion. People might go to church because they find truth there.

If you don't believe that way, that's up to you and I'll respect you for it.

But if you believe there's only political expediency or economic painkillers in religion, and then you make any claim of faith, be it Islam, Christianity, or anything, you're a phony.

Because Mr. Obama's remark leads me to believe he's a religious phony, that's a reason to vote against him.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Uncertain? Who's Fault Is That?

It occurred to me this morning, that Truth and Certainty have something to do with communication. I think Truth is What God Knows. And if I'm to have any truth, God has to tell me. Now, this is a rather odd formulation if you aren't a theist. But if there is a God it doesn't matter that you're not a theist.

Now, communication is a process where ideas in my mind become ideas in your mind. Since communication isn't a perfect thing, there may be some change of the ideas during this process. I think in terms of language and I express ideas in my native language in either spoken or written words. My skill with language and my clarity of thought will bear upon the effectiveness with which thoughts get into your head. If your language differs from mine, or your cultural idioms differ, we should expect some translation will be necessary.

Christianity teaches that God discloses truth to mankind in General and Special revelation. Special revelation includes the Bible. And the communication model I've described above fits the process of reading and interpreting the Bible.

In dialog with an apostate years back I was confronted with a number of "contradictions" in the Bible. I used scare quotes around contradiction because I claimed then that there are no contradictions in the Bible. Now, we can easily interpret the Bible in a malicious fashion so as to contrive contradictions. e.g. Jesus said he was a vine, and John said he was a lamb, and a lamb is not a vine. (In this sense of "malicious interpretation" I'll concede that contradictions can be construed by the skeptic.) The matter is not that a contradictory interpretation can be contrived, but that no harmonious interpretation exists.

I was plowing through the list of contradictions my interlocutor had given me and I formulated harmonious explanations for all but one. And that one had me flummoxed. It was a crisis of faith. And I prayed about it.

Prayer changes things most frequently by changing the person doing the praying. And in the prayer I acknowledged a fair degree of pride in my ability to solve such problems. And pride is not one of the cardinal virtues of the Christian. In fact, it's on the vice side of the tally sheet.

And I realized two questions were in play: 1) is the Bible contradictory? and 2) am I skilled enough at hermeneutics to resolve this apparent cotradiction? If *I* fail to interpret a text correctly is it the text's fault or is it mine? Once the thought occurred to me that my failure to solve this hermenutical puzzle might be MY fault, the solution presented itself and all was well. Contradiction and Crisis of faith resolved. If curious, I've written up the "contradictions" here and here. (I apologize for the woodenness of my prose.)

In the truth and certainty debate, it is important to consider where blame for one's uncertainty should be placed. I think consideration of blame can help bring together the parties in an intramural debate between those asserting "philosophical uncertainty" and those who do not. Placing blame helps us distinguish "philosophical uncertainty" borne of creaturely humility from pagan, post-modern skepticism.

My atheist and agnostic friends blame uncertainty about the existence of God and his speaking in Scripture upon God and Scripture itself. And if there is no God, then uncertainty about his existence, indeed certainty of his non-existence is perfectly reasonable. However, if you are a Christian Theist, then there is a God who has spoken.

But did God mumble? If God mumbles, then he is to blame for any uncertainty about what he's said. I don't think anyone in the Emergent Church movement would grasp this thistle. I think it is slanderous to suggest they do.

If God speaks clearly, any uncertainty could be the fault of our ears. Christianity asserts that all men are fallen, and Reformed Christianity asserts that the fall touches man's every capability. (This is TULIP'S T.) I think this explains my atheist and agnostic friends' uncertainty about the existence of God. They were born deaf and have subsequently stuffed cotton in their ears. (Rom 1:20)

Catholicism seems to munge moral and metaphysical categories. The Catholic notion of grace has a metaphysical component that serves to bridge the gap between created and uncreated beings. (By means of metaphysical grace infused within the bones of a saint, Catholicism has claimed that a relic can perform miracles.) The goal of redemption in Catholic terms is the visio Dei that not only consists of the complete cleansing of the sinner of his sins, but a bridging of the impedance mismatch between the non-being of creatureliness and ultimate beingness of the Uncreated One. (Apologies if I've misrepresented Scholastic thinking. I'm only a Baptist after all.)

This metaphysical impedance mismatch between creature and uncreated might be to blame why God might speak clearly, but (incompletely) redeemed man not hear clearly enough to be certain.

I think we want to ask our brothers who claim "philosophical uncertainty" if they blame this uncertainty upon their creaturely finitude. This seems to be what R.C. Sproul is thinking about when he says he'd have to be omniscient to possess "philosophical certainty." And I'm cool with this. I think it's wrong, but this isn't a test-of-fellowship disagreement. If you blame your philosophical uncertainty upon your creaturely finitude, that is an expression of creaturely humility.

Indeed, creaturely humility is one of the cardinal virtues of Christianity.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

RC Sproul Is Mistaken

I just heard a quote where RC Sproul speaks of "absolute certainty about anything" and that this requires omniscience. I disagree. But first, let's make clear that I think he's right about everything else a Presbyterian can get right. (I'm a Baptist and Presbyterians sprinkle and I don't hold that against him.) Moreover, we must recall that Dr. Sproul is not a mathematician, but a theologian. And he's betrayed his ignorance of mathematics in the past.

Let's consider the claim that one must have omniscience to have absolute certainty about anything through the contrapositive. Consider the set of propositions known to omniscience. Every proposition therein will be absolutely certain, by the definition of omniscience. Now consider any finite subset of propositions drawn from the omniscience set. Each element of this finite subset will not be made less certain by this process.

For Dr. Sproul to claim that no one can have absolute certainty about anything is equivalent to positing the impossibility of the last paragraph's finite subset OR the impossibility of anyone ever possessing any such set. If these things are simultaneously possible, then Dr. Sproul's premise is mistaken. Q.E.D.

This assertion that you need omniscience to know anything with absolute certainty implies that nobody can ever know ANYTHING God knows, because it would serve as a counter-example.

Now, for purposes of illustration consider this example. Omniscience knows all the digits of PI. Let's suppose I possess this proposition: "PI is approximated by 3.14159." This is a remarkably ignorant statement. There is a countably infinite number of digits of PI that are left out of this proposition. HOWEVER, no matter how many digits you add to your knowledge, they cannot conspire to overthrow this proposition.

Consider Pope Benedict XVI's lecture at the University of Regensburg. He asserted that reason must be the basis of talk about God. Islam holds a contradictory notion about God's nature, claiming God's transcendence makes his will beyond our categories. To Islam there's no problem with God giving irrational or evil commands. Conversely, Christianity asserts an image relationship between God and man and that the transcendent deity discloses himself in a fashion comprehensible to mankind.

One might even go so far as to call that disclosure a finite subset of propositions drawn from the omniscience set.