A friend gave me a gospel tract the other day. We were at church; he was showing me some of the Christian materials he was using. He held the tract out for my perusal and I glanced over it. It was a pretty standard gospel tract with a simple gospel message, a sinner’s prayer, and a selection of well known verses. It seemed a little funny to me, though, and I allowed myself a little smile. Of course, the tract ought to be familiar to me – I wrote it.
About a year earlier, our church had held out an evangelism evening and I’d put together a one page reference to help a prayer counselor lead someone through the gospel.
My friend apparently had stumbled across a copy of this and taken it to a local mission organization, who had slapped a picture with a caption on the front (“There is more mercy in God than there are sins in us”) and a copy of the apostles creed on the back and voila! One Gospel tract.
I was now a proud tract author.
My first act as a published author was to cringe at the glaring typo on Step 6 of “The Simple Gospel”. The second was to frown at how jargony and cliched the language of the tract was. I had never asked where these gospel tracts came from or how they got written… but I guess now I know. They come from unsuspecting seminary students.
But most of all, I was greatly encouraged… which is the entire point of this post. I didn’t even know that I had written a tract, and yet here it was before me. A little thing I did had grown into a bigger thing and I realized that what we do can be important, even if we can’t see how or why. Of course, I wish I had written a perfect document with better language and no typos, but it was an encouragement to think that maybe, just maybe, the time I spent laying out God’s message in a simple, readable format might touch someone, somewhere, somehow.
This means, of course, that I have to be prudent in choosing when to mock gospel tracts and their authors. Oh, well. I guess fame has its costs. Thanks be to God.
I am drowning in Real Life Busyness right now and all my wonderful blogdreams are not materializing. But I thought I’d throw something nice up.
I just found out about Andy Gullahorn – a tremendous songwriter. Maybe I like him so much because other (more famous) people sing his songs and he seems so humble about it. Maybe because his songs are great. How can you not love a songwriter who adapts Walt Wangerin Jr.?
I’m trying out a little game I thought up. The game is to retell a fairy tale or children’s story while omitting one of the major characters. In this one, beauty goes missing. Part I. Part II. Part III. Part V comes next Sunday.
“A long time ago, a prince lived in the castle. He was an only child, and his parents spoiled him badly when he was young. He grew up thinking of no-one but himself, and whatever he did was only for his own pleasure.
“There was no one to correct him. The king and queen died when he was still a young man, and he was left alone to rule in the castle.
The soldier made an unhappy little sound. None of this seemed relevant to the town. The priest ignored him and went on.
“One night there was a terrible storm, with howling winds and biting rain and a black, black sky. In the middle of the storm, an old woman showed up at the door of the castle, seeking a place to escape the wind and rain.
“The prince, angered by the interruption, turned the old woman away. She begged and pleaded for him to have mercy, but his heart was hard and he would not listen. Finally, she turned away and went back into the storm. The prince went to bed and thought no more of it.
“In the middle of the night, the prince was woken by a crashing sound. He came down from his chamber and found that the castle door was flung wide open, the wind and the rain gusting in. The prince was furious at being woken in the middle of the night and upset at the rain coming in. At the very moment that he moved to close the door, however, a great flash of lightening struck, right on his doorstep.
The soldier sat up. A prince, killed in an accident? This was worth paying attention to. A lordless town which others might want to claim? That could lead to burnt cottages and a fleeing population.
“The prince was flung backward on the ground, momentarily blinded by the flash. As he sat up…
The soldier sighed.
“… he saw a shining lady standing in the doorway. ‘I am a great fairy,’ she said.”
The soldier let loose a snort of disgust. A fairytale.
“But you’re a priest,” he said, “you don’t believe in that stuff.”
“Well, that depends on what you mean by ‘believe in’, and by ‘that’ and by ‘stuff’” the priest murmured, almost to himself. “Do you want to hear the story, or not?”
The soldier was not at all sure he wanted to waste his time on a fairytale, but as there was not much else he could do, he merely grumbled a bit and was quiet.
“‘I am a great fairy.” the lady said. ‘This very night, I came to you for shelter, and you refused. It was not a great thing, and yet when I begged you for mercy and for compassion, you thought only of your own self and your own comfort.’ This confused the prince. He was so self-centred that he had already forgotten that there had been an old woman earlier that same night.
“‘Only a beast thinks of nothing but itself and of its own welfare’ declared the fairy. ‘A beast you are, and a beast you shall be, until you can learn to love someone outside yourself.’
“The prince felt a horrible energy come all over him. It made him shudder and writhe against his own will; he looked down at his hands and saw that they were not hands, but paws. The prince screamed, but it was not a scream. It was a screeching howl. When he looked back up, the fairy was gone… and he was left a terrifying beast.”
The soldier, in spite of himself, was captivated.
“And?” he said.
The priest shrugged. “He became a beast.” he said. “That is the story as they tell it here.”
“But only until he could learn to love someone other than himself, ” the soldier argued. “How did he come to turn back into a human?”
“Turn back? What makes you think he turned back into a human?”
The soldier struggled. It seemed that the prince must turn back into a human again, however it might happen. The thought of a man turned beast forever bothered him. It wasn’t right, somehow.
Then he realized he was upsetting himself over a fairy tale.
“It’s all nonsense,” he said, and as he did, another thought struck him.
“This castle,” he said. “It is deserted?”
“None of the townsfolk dare go there, ” said the priest. “I’ve never been there myself, though it’s not far from here, just up the road to the north. Is it deserted? The townsfolk say that the beast lives there.”
The soldier was thinking. Obviously there was no lord. If the townsfolk were frightened to go, then it must be deserted.
“I see, I see.” And then, casually, “Much banditry around here? Brigands, highwaymen?”
“No, not around here. Sometimes they come. They never stay for long.” The priest was looking intently at the soldier again. It made the soldier most uncomfortable; the round face was vibrant, it seemed so full of life and energy that when it looked with intent, the soldier was overwhelmed by the sheer force of it. The soldier looked away.
“You’re not thinking of going there?” The priest’s voice had a warning tone rather than a fearful one. “I wouldn’t recommend that. It’s not a good idea.”
The soldier thought that it was a very good idea. A deserted castle and the townspeople kept away by superstition, no robbers to take over the place… There could be anything there. Locked storerooms filled with… he would just have to go and see. Just up the northern road, eh?
His little voices were speaking now, reminding him of ghostly footsteps. The soldier ignored them. Footsteps, indeed. Here was a silly superstitious town with a foolish fat priest who spent his time peddling fairy tales. There could be gold in this, maybe even something better. He glanced in the corner where his musket and boots rested. They had carried him through far worse places than an empty castle.
Hallelujah! It has the right title and asks the right question – “What can a brain scan tell us about free will?” Now this is a subject worth talking about! [fw] (The article even references St. Augustine Unfortunately, the article never really answers its own question – it’s a bit of a puff piece – but it does link to some fascinatingstuff.
I’m going to get to talking about the articles listed in another post, but before I do, I want to explain why they matter to me.
In North America, For a Christian, the world of thought and life depicted in Scripture (and experienced in reality) is worlds away from what is being suggested by these articles. Two worldviews, a secular and a Christian, are struggling over what is true and real. Our minds are at stake – the same minds that the apostle Paul insists we let be renewed.
I was talking with a friend about this worldview struggle yesterday, and I used the phrase, “death by a thousand cuts”. This is how I feel. I live and walk in a world of smothering secularism, and it hurts. I feel like I’m being actively discouraged from believing that God will live and act and cause real things to happen in the world around me. I feel like I’m being choked and smothered and told that comfort is more important than obedience, wealth is more valuable than trust, and ‘being smart’ is more important than belief.
This is death to living faith; it’s a basket being slammed over a lamp, a cluster of thorns crowding out a seedling. It’s a chronic and pernicious unbelief that steals joy and makes me limp and ineffective and dead.
Living in a culture that seems hell-bent on choking out life[strong] wherever it can be found doesn’t make me feel good. I think it makes lots of people not feel good – just google “rise in depression” and see what comes up. The statistics aren’t pretty. What’s going on is a struggle for life, but it hides itself in a thousand tiny little struggles, none of which seem very big, but all of which are critical. The Apostle Paul, for instance, is very stern when he describes this struggle, because life is at stake. What we believe about cause and effect really matters.
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience – among whom we all once lived in the passions of the flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind — Eph 2:1:3
“And you were dead…” Paul lives in a rich, rich world of cause and effect; a vibrant and complicated sphere that includes not only ourselves and our sinful natures, but also real spiritual forces (“…the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work…”) which have a real impact in our lives and choices. Make no mistake, if we are nothing more than the sum of our desires, we are dead. Indeed, the physical world we interact with is not the full reality, and not even the most important part of reality…
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus. — Eph 2:4-7
The ultimate reality, the real thing to know, is that we are loved by God. Now, if this passage is true, and God has the ability to seat us “in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,” what does that say about how immeasurably rich and complicated our world is?
What does Paul say about the forces and causality at work in our world? How big or small are they?
“… I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your heart enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power towards those who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him, as head over all things, to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” — Eph 1:16-23
Paul lives in a world with an awesome power dynamic that is controlled, not by physical forces, but by God acting in a real way (a way that involves the physical resurrection of a man), by Jesus Christ sitting in authority over all things and pouring out his power into the church, by his Holy Spirit. Paul lives in a world where spiritual revelation is a first-class means of knowing real things, where we can know things by the direct causality of God, working his power in mighty ways.
For Paul, we are really, truly hampered in our ability to know things if we are cut off from Jesus Christ. Knowledge for Paul is not a simple, facile thing. It is not bland scientific observation; it is far, far deeper and richer. We depend on, for our very richness of life, a spirit of knowledge and revelation that comes only from God.
Paul is not opposed to scientific observation[sciobs], but he is definitely averse to shallow scientific observation that lies about our experience of Creation. It is stupid (and bad reasoning) to think that because we can observe the world scientifically, that is the only way we experience it. See what he writes:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to become wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. — Romans 1:18-23
Science, for Paul, is also worship. It has to be. Why does Paul talk like this? It’s because he’s a Hebrew man, with a Hebrew view of the world. He has been studying the Ketuvim, the writings. He’s been reading poetry, soaking in a knowledge of God that is more than just academic.
The heavens declare the glory of God and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. –Psalm 19:1:3
If you are a Jew like Paul, you are not a modern person, and you accept that it is simply wrong to try and experience Creation without letting it draw you closer to God. Scientific observation for Paul is not a small thing; it is a very big thing; it is an act of being human, of having God’s breath in you, of seeing the work of God’s hands, of allowing it to lead you into worship. Interaction with and observation of the world is an act of discovering God; it requires praise and thanksgiving and worship.
Neither do we get to choose or determine what our interaction with Creation is. It is what it is; it is an encounter with the Maker’s Creation. We can only acknowledge and give thanks… or not. Because looking at the world is a big and spiritual thing, if you try and keep the pipette while cutting away the prayer,[divide] it will lead to death:
“…they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.”
When Paul talks about causality in our minds, this is not a separate thing from God, or from the devil at work, or from our own physical desires. There are many forces at work in this struggle, tied into a power dynamic and reality that is far beyond our ability to measure with an MRI.
The secular mind attempts to shift me from a world that is rich, deep, and living into one that is shallow and dead. The real world is complicated and beyond my ability to observe; the world of determinism and strict material causality is, in comparison, trivial and trite. The real world has glorious mysteries and wonders, as well as some things which are deeply disturbing (like my own sin and unrighteousness) and that don’t need to exist in the secular one[exist]…
Now, this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to their hardness of hearts.
They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But this is not how you learned Christ! – assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. — Eph. 4:17-24
The secular worldview presents a very simple, neat and narrow answer to the thorny issues at hand: brain chemistry drives everything! Anything that seems wrong or problematic is just an illusion; you just feel troubled by things, they don’t mean anything. Things which don’t make sense are just that – complex meaningless patterns which don’t make sense, but which are fundamentally the same as things which do make sense.[phil] It’s a nice dodge that conveniently avoids sin.
In contrast, Paul’s picture of causality and thought is very messy. Horror – is Paul really suggesting that our urges and desires might be shaped by our own agency? (I thought it was supposed to be the other way round…) What does it mean to “be renewed in the spirit of your minds”? Is he implying that God can actively cause something in my mind to be different than it would otherwise have been? Does this new self have implications for my physical brain chemistry? How would I know? If I am “putting off” does that have implications for physical manifestations of consciousness and my ability to direct these?[spir]
Living in the real world is difficult; it doesn’t feel good when I realize that my own heart is incredibly hard. But it is. I am stiff with unbelief and burdened by fear. At the same time, I struggle to not run away from it; it’s a daily fight for me to stay and be more in the world that Paul lives in. I struggle to get there.
It’s only by soaking in Paul a while that I think I can read the articles and make sense of what they’re trying to say. This entire post has been an attempt to do just this, and now maybe I’m ready to take a little peek at the article.
All this raises a question for the philosopher – what are the implications of advances in knowledge about human decision-making for our conception of free will? Will scientific progress undermine our sense that we have free will? Will it eventually lead us to conclude that free will is an illusion?
The BBC piece actually says very little on its own. It raises good questions but does little to try and answer them. But it links to an interesting nature.com article on scientists who think they can predict decision making (with the implication that ‘choices’ are driven by brain chemistry) and it presents a story from the New Scientist about a man with a brain tumour which caused behavioral changes.
The article makes a suitably guarded philosophical statement, poking a little at the implications of accepting a fully secular perspective. It does a good job of raising the question of whether or not we can be held responsible for our actions if we’re all controlled by chemicals:
But we are all physical beings in a (largely) deterministic universe. Why is one physical cause – a tumour – different from any other? Might, in future, neuroscientists be brought into court to explain away all manner of transgressions, for example: “This man can’t be held responsible for his shoplifting – it was due to his unusually high levels of dopamine.”
This is a great line of questioning, but the article doesn’t actually go far enough, here, according to its own question. If we’re asking what separates one physical cause from another, we should excuse someone who has normal levels of dopamine, as well. After all, why should we distinguish between the presence/absence of dopamine as a causal factor. The big argument would be, “This is deterministically caused.” Of course, the judge in the court could simply reply, “So is this sentence of life in prison.” because the entire episode would be farce that no one would believe in.
The article goes on to give a brief overview of the history of free will philosophy:
Most of our philosophical concepts go back to the ancient Greeks. Not the concept of free will.
The Homeric Greeks believed in fate, rather than freedom. They believed that circumstances were beyond their control. In the writings of Plato and Aristotle, there is no term that would naturally be translated as “free will”. The emergence of the concept of free will can be dated to about the 4th Century AD, and was an ingenious solution of Christian theologians to the so-called Problem of Evil. If God is all powerful, and God is all good, how come there is evil in the world? The answer, said Saint Augustine, is that man has free will.
Frustratingly, the article ignores the Hebrew world – the world of Paul and of Jesus and of YHWH. Perhaps it is correct to ignore this, however, in philosophical dicussion. It is not, after all, a world of dry philosophical premise. The Hebrew world is big and messy.
In the Hebrew world, men are prompted to do things by the devil or by God himself, sometimes in the same story (2 Sam 24:1 / 1 Chron 21:1). God hardens mens hearts. Men freely choose to act out of jealousy or faith, envy or love. The most righteous of humans gets tormented by the devil in a world where cause and effect seem disconnected and chaotic. Men stand before God and get no answer, but are only awed into humble silence. Humans struggle against their own hearts and wicked characters, trying to gain mastery over a sinful enemy.
This is a world where God warns Cain, “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” God puts on Cain an expectation of mastery over… what? His own nature? An external threat?
This is a world where YHWH sees the intentions of our hearts are wicked from our youth, and takes the bewildering step of blessing us anyway.
This is a world where men are made in the image of God, and where, more bewildering than that, God changes his mind. He is flexible. He is emotional; he responds to people.
This is a world where God is ceaselessly creative and interactive.
This is a world where smaller armies win precisely because the way things usually seem to work is not ultimate.
This is a world where evil spirits are real and have power.
This is a world where the Spirit of God comes upon someone and their behaviour changes. (1 Sam 10:10)
This is a world where the Spirit of God comes upon someone and their physical ability changes (Judges 14:14)
This is a world where the Spirit of God comes upon someone and their personality changes (1 Sam 10:6)
In the Hebrew scriptures, God brings dreams and visions and he strikes people blind and he interacts with the physical world in all sorts of ways that make simplistic pictures of causality simply untenable. You can’t read these stories for very long and hold a simple view of what makes people do things.
Living in a world this messy forces us to admit that there are things we can’t understand. It’s a shame the article doesn’t explore it.
Augustine didn’t invent free will, it’s right there (in a messy way) in God’s speech to Cain: “If you do well, will you not be accepted?” And it’s also there (in a messy way) in the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.
The challenge, if we are Christians, is to put things like this together and make sense of them, side by side. Don’t look at me; I don’t know how to do it! But I do know that calling ourselves meat-sacks ain’t gonna cut it. If you’re going to start to ask questions about what sorts of things cause other things, and how they cause them, a good starting point is acknowledging that it’s complicated.
What can a brain scan tell us about free will? Very little that matters. In the next post, I’ll look at the articles linked by the BBC – at the substance of what it talks about, and poke around with how it fits into the big, messy world of the Bible.
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
If you read my previous blog post, you already know my personal answer to the question of the article: observing brain scans can tell us nothing about what causes what. It can, however give us some interesting data to think about.↵
I’m using strong words here, but I feel strongly. I guess I’m using strong words because how we think and live is a big deal. I’m trying to wake myself up to it.↵
I have been intending to write, and still intend to, the post which explains why a Hebrew understanding of YHWH’s character gave birth to scientific observation as we know it.↵
This is why a divide between our minds and hearts in the name of being “objective” is a terrible thing. We can’t be objective, distant scientists. (I am not saying “we ought to choose not to be”, I am saying we don’t have a choice – we can’t be). Treating science and ethics as different fields of study, for instance, is a big stupid charade, pretending that there are times when we are not fully faceted (thinking, feeling, spiritual, ethical, physical, artistic, etc) humans before God. As such, it is wicked, because it’s telling lies about the nature of the people whom God made and loves. It also allows us to produce abominable things, because we pretend that scientific observation is neutral, trying to force our hearts to look away from the things we’re making.↵
They do need to exist if the secular worldview is going to accurately portray reality. But they don’t fit well into a deterministic view, which raises questions whether or not a deterministic view is sufficient.↵
I’m not going to get into the philosophy of this because it’s way too big and I’m way too ignorant. But it goes very quickly to the question of “Why should we believe anything at all?” which includes the question of “Why should we believe that brain chemistry causes everything to happen?” I only want to point out that the article gives only a brief hat-tip to the thorniness of this – a naive philosophy destroys itself, because if you really are a meatsack, why should you believe anything a meatsack believes, up to and including the idea that you’re a meatsack? Xkcd sums this up nicely.
You can come up with some very tricky questions to answer if you dwell on this topic long enough. I feel like a common answer is to produce a “Spiritual Disconnect” where some things happen spiritually (“Oh, this is a spiritual truth and not a physical one”) and don’t need to have any physical effect. Such a disconnect must eventually fall, however. A neat and tidy spiritual world that is disconnected from the physical one is neat and tidy but it’s also useless.
As just one example, if the Holy Spirit indwells us spiritually, we might be okay with accepting no physical manifestation. But if he’s going to bear fruit in us, then things like joy and peace come into play…. and these are things which necessarily impact our emotional state, which in turn means that somewhere, something spiritual is altering brain activity in a truly causal way.↵
I’m trying out a little game I thought up. The game is to retell a fairy tale or children’s story while omitting one of the major characters. In this one, beauty goes missing. Part I. Part II. Part IV comes next Sunday.
The little face swam before the soldier’s eyes until the world slowly crystallized into focus and his eyes adjusted to the dim light. The head was not disembodied but connected to a set of black robes: it was a priest.
It was a short priest, with a happy fat face and small round spectacles. Behind the spectacles were circular dark eyes that peered inquisitively – and with disturbing intensity – at the soldier. The robes looked like they hid someone rather tubby; chubby appendages with fat little digits barely poked out from billowing sleeves that were just a little bit too long.
The soldier had little use for priests, generally. He had no hatred of them, as such – simply no use for them. He vaguely guessed that they did some people some good, some times, but he rarely bothered himself with the specifics of who or what or when. He was usually too busy shooting and getting shot at to worry about things like that. But here was a man – another human being – and the soldier was glad to see him.
While the soldier was recovering himself, the priest was looking over him, a curious little smile on his face. His little round eyes were flicking back and forth, taking in everything about the stranger in front of him – his shortness of the soldier’s breath, the musket he had flung down beside him, the door barred solid.
“It’s all right,” he said, “you’re perfectly safe in here.”
The soldier bristled, ashamed to be caught unawares and frightened by this dumpy little scrap of a man. He stooped and picked up his musket.
“It’s foolish to leave a door open.” The words came out clipped, brusque. He gave the priest a disdainful glance. “I’m surprised the wolves haven’t eaten you by now.”
“Wolves?” the priest smiled, a genuinely happy smile, but one which disturbed the soldier deeply. “No, I don’t imagine we’ll have any problems with wolves.”
Was there a little extra emphasis on the ‘wolves’? The soldier shifted his musket uneasily. The priest unnerved him. He was all alone in an abandoned town, and smiling as if it were a Sunday afternoon parish luncheon. His voices were starting to murmur, and he glanced around the church sanctuary.
All was quiet; no lights were lit and it was quite gloomy inside. But it looked well kept up – no cobwebs or dust visible, and the altar at the front was laid out in an orderly fashion.
“I’m sorry for the dark,” said the priest. “It’s just me, you see, and I don’t often need a light to get around. I don’t like to use the candles, you know. We’ve lost our beekeeper, and it’s hard for me to get wax now.”
His face brightened. “But now that you’re here, of course we must have a light!” He darted off before the soldier could stop him. The soldier very much wanted to ask him some questions. Why was the town empty? Why was the priest all alone?
The priest came back with a lit candle. It was not an ordinary candle, but a very tall thick one. The priest saw the soldier looking at it, and immediately looked embarrassed.
“I know I’m not supposed to,” he said. “But it is so very dark and I’m sure St. Stephen wouldn’t mind. After all, he is a saint so I’m sure he’s quite forbearing.” The priest looked upward momentarily, presumably making a silent apology to the long dead slighted saint. Then he looked down and smiled again.
“But you must eat!” he exclaimed. “You are tired! You have had a weary day, or at the least a dusty one! And if you have come here…” he paused, “… you have come many miles.”
The soldier opened his mouth to speak but the priest was off again, calling over his shoulder for the soldier to follow him, and waddling away at surprising speed. “Come,” he called, “the rectory’s just out the back.”
It occurred to the soldier that he was incredibly tired. He was a soldier, and wore his fatigue like his old coat, familiar and ever present, but as his battle rush faded he felt empty, drained. He had marched all day, and at the end of it, assaulted an (empty) town. He followed the vanishing candle out the back of the church and into the small house at the back of the church yard.
The house was a simple cottage – a single room with a straw bed in one corner, and a chest beside. Onions and corn and other foods hung in bunches from the ceiling. The furniture was plain – a single rough-hewn chair and a small table. A fire was burning in the fireplace, with a black pot over it, simmering.
The soldier sat at the table while the priest bustled about, preparing supper. The priest was like a little rubber ball, always in motion, bouncing from one place to another, happy and inexplicably full of energy. Even when he stood still he was in motion, chopping vegetables or stirring a pot. “A part of him is always jiggling,” thought the soldier, and it was true.
The soldier had questions, but, tired as he was, he was happy to sit for a while and let the priest bustle around the room. The soldier sat, thinking on what had happened on the road and in the town. Now, warmed by the fire and in the company of a living breathing human, he felt stupid for having ambushed an empty town. What had he been running from? He thought of his embarrassment by the the barred door, the priest looking at him. “All nonsense,” he thought to himself.
Supper was a simple meal of beans and vegetables, but a hearty one, and plentiful. There was no conversation; the soldier was busy eating, and the priest seemed content to let his guest eat, although he watched him intently as he did so.
By the end of the meal, full and satisfied, the soldier had managed to convince himself that he had allowed the loneliness of the road to play tricks on him. But he was curious about what had happened in the town. It was deserted, after all.
“Where is everyone?” he asked.
“Gone.” said the priest. “Everyone gone, except me.”
“Where?” cried the soldier. “Why?”
The priest spread his hands out. “It’s forest all around,” he said. “They left.”
The soldier’s eyes narrowed. Something was definitely amiss.
“There are houses burned here,” he said. “How? Isn’t there a lord over this town? Were there bandits?”
“They left the fires unattended.” murmured the priest.
“But why did they flee?” The soldier was quickly becoming bewildered… and wary. Nothing was making sense. “Who is your lord? How could his tenants just leave?”
The soldier couldn’t understand it. The priest, for his part, was not looking away from the soldier or avoiding his questions. Quite the opposite! He was looking intensely at the soldier, scrutinizing him, evaluating him, making the soldier feel rather uncomfortable. He was trying to ask questions… but felt that he himself was being questioned, somehow.
“There is a lord.” said the priest, quietly. He was not smiling, and the soldier felt even more uneasy. “The people here have an old story about him.”
An old story? About the current lord? This didn’t make any sense.
“Well?” demanded the soldier. “What is it?”
There was a brief pause; the priest was clearly weighing up the soldier in his mind, deciding whether or not he could trust him with the story. And then, abruptly, he decided.
“All right,” he said. “You may not know that there is a castle in the woods to the north, not far from here. That is where the lord lives…”
The soldier was listening intently. It was pitch dark outside and there was no sound except the priest’s voice, quiet in the night. The fire crackled and popped; it set long shadows dancing and flickering on the cottage wall as the priest began his story.
UPDATE: There’s actually another article on the BBC today that looks at the question I write about here. Real life intervenes, but I’ll dissect it in another post once I have the chance to think about it.
Hey, it turns out that rats’ brains are active when they’re dying. That is to say, sometimes they’re even more active than when the rats are awake! Ok, that’s pretty cool. It’s all in the linked BBC article on some new research.
What I really want to draw attention to, however, is the opening line of the article. It starts out:
“A surge of electrical activity in the brain could be responsible for the vivid experiences reported by near-death survivors, scientists report.”
The rest of the article unpacks this:
“In the 30-second period after the animal’s hearts stopped beating, they measured a sharp increase in high-frequency brainwaves called gamma oscillations.
“These pulses are one of the neuronal features that are thought to underpin consciousness in humans, especially when they help to “link” information from different parts of the brain.
“In the rats, these electrical pulses were found at even higher levels just after the cardiac arrest than when animals were awake and well.
“Dr Borjigin said that it was feasible that the same thing would happen in the human brain, and that an elevated level of brain activity and consciousness could give rise to near-death visions.
Commenting on the research, Dr Jason Braithwaite, of the University of Birmingham, said: “This is a very neat demonstration of an idea that’s been around for a long time: that under certain unfamiliar and confusing circumstances – like near-death – the brain becomes overstimulated and hyperexcited.
“Like ‘fire raging through the brain’, activity can surge through brain areas involved in conscious experience, furnishing all resultant perceptions with realer-than-real feelings and emotions.”
What I just want to point out is something that has bugged me as a professional Christian for quite a while now. It’s that old scientific maxim which scientists themselves (and definitely science reporters) seem to be blind to: Correlation does not imply causation.
When talking about the brain and consciousness, it’s fair to ask, “What causes what?” The article blithely presupposes the answer to this. Look at the language used:
“A surge of electrical activity could be responsible for the vivid experiences…”
“These pulses are one of the neuronal features that are thought to underpin consciousness…”
“…an elevated level of brain activity and consciousness could give rise to…”
Causality in the world of the article flows one way, from the world of the electrical mechanics – from the plumbing – to the higher level of what we think and feel and experience. But the truth is, causality is a whole lot more complicated than that, at least when it comes to thinking.[jbp] Did the author ever consider that maybe, just maybe, the experiences could be causing the electrical activity, or that both the experiences and the activity were the same thing, and caused by something else entirely?
To put it Real Simple Like: “Would the electrical surges be causing the visions, or would the visions be causing the surges? Were they caused by something else?”
Now, the dirty secret of scientific discovery is that scientific observation can tell us absolutely nothing about causality. We have to figure out what is causing what ourselves, and the way we do it is by what seems right to us. By “seems” I mean by what we think and feel and by what matches our dogmatic belief-you know, what “seems to fit”. It’s a human distinction. This turns every scientist into a philosopher and a theologian, whether they like it or not, because they need to make decisions on what sorts of things are allowed to cause other things.
Is randomness a real thing? Can it cause things to happen?
How about God? Can he actually cause things to happen?
How about human free will? Does it exist?
I have a big beef with an article like the one linked, because it’s written to completely ignore and bypass these questions – which are primary to everything that the article is talking about! Instead, the article presupposes a very narrow philosophy that is nonetheless dominant among scientists – that all higher order experiences (thoughts, feelings, symbols, ideas, etc.) are caused by physical (chemical, mechanical, biological) interactions.[pc] In this philosophy, the reason that higher order experiences feel like real, separate things is that the underlying systems are so complex that we just can’t determine how the underlying systems cause them.
In other words, your brain chemistry explains everything you feel, you’re just not smart enough to understand why your feelings are just electrochemical reactions. But don’t take it too hard, you’re only a human meat sack, after all. [hard]
Unfortunately, when I said that causality was more complicated, I meant it. First off, we need to accept there’s good evidence to make us think (it seems) that lower order brain chemistry can in fact cause higher order thoughts and feelings. Scientists aren’t stupid. After all, we take certain drugs and we feel really happy. Others, and we feel sad. Others… and we hallucinate There’s strong evidence[ev] that causality flows in (at least) that one direction. We can cause our thoughts to do funny things, sometimes, by altering our brain activity.
However, the fact that causality seems to flow in one direction sometimes can’t be taken to mean that it flows exclusively in that direction. Maybe the world is more complicated than that. After all, scientists aren’t stupid… but they tend to be bad philosophers.[phil]
The real question, the burning question for me, is whether or not there is something in the human being that can genuinely, really, truly, absolutely cause things to happen – that can alter the flow of space time and make the universe different than it might have otherwise been. We can’t study our way to answer this, scientifically… it underlies scientific inquiry!
If there is (and I believe there is) then the question of causality in consciousness must be taken seriously as a two directional flow – I can cause my brain to act differently, by my own choice.
The fact that my choice can be influenced by outside factors (even chemical factors) is not evidence that my ability to choose does not exist. Sane people recognize that we can simultaneously both make choices and be influenced in making them. This is not a new idea – that we have choice and yet are subject to influence.
This makes sense to me when I think about my own thoughts. There are certainly thoughts which can be forced upon me (if elephants are mentioned, they will spring to mind) yet I also have ability to stop thinking about elephants and to choose to think about something else. [body] If I believe that I actually have a choice (and I do, and I do) then I accept that I can alter the flow of the universe in such a way as to make things different – and that means that I can cause my brain activity to be different than it otherwise would have been – and causality is all of a sudden a two way street. I can affect my thoughts… but so can the drugs. Messy.
But the world of causality is more complicated still. If you are a Christian, I would argue that you need to acknowledge a complicated and rich world of agency and causality which goes far beyond a one way flow of what causes what, and even beyond a causality that accepts human consciousness as a first order reality.
When God inspires a dream, for example, we need to accept that he has the power to really, truly cause the neurons to fire. In this case the electrochemical activity is because God is doing something – the higher order thing is a real thing, and the lower-order the manifestation. In fact, there is no higher order/lower order distinction. There is only one thing, and it is really happening and it has physical manifestation as well as spiritual truth and emotional impact and everything else associated with it… and it is caused by a source outside of human examination or control.[sci]
If you are a Christian, you have to struggle with a statement like Hebrews 1:3, that talks about Jesus, and says that,
“He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.” (ESV)
What do we do with this? Can we really accept that things are allowed to cause other things because Jesus stands at the center of every event that happens, allowing it to continue, allowing things to cause other things? Is that what this verse is saying?[auth]
In short, if I think that I can choose something, and that my choosing is not just a complex illusion of choice, I have to believe that, in some instances and to some extent, I can direct my brain chemistry, in a way that is real causality and not just illusion. The fact that there are other causal influences in my thinking and in my brain activity are not a threat to this. People making choices have known that we are influenced from the outside (and from the inside) for a long, long time.
But if I want to take Christian scripture seriously, I need to accept a God who can alter the flow of space-time, humans who can alter the flow of space time (and be held accountable for doing so), and a risen and exalted Christ who allows space-time, in all its causal relationships, to continue. This is a philosophical and a theological belief, one which “science” can say nothing about, because, as stated previously, scientific observation can say precisely nothing about causality.[cause]
So we come back to the poor rats. Hey, their brains are firing. Cool! But it doesn’t really matter how closely you watch rat brains (or human brains, or any kind of brains), unless you get the causality question in hand first.
For me, an article like this is not okay. It’s not okay because it subtly presupposes a secular mindset (and not even a sophisticated secular mindset, but a naive one!) while ignoring the big questions about what the research could possibly mean. An article like this is also personally frustrating to me, because it’s not harmless.
And now, time for full personal disclosure. I didn’t blog this article because I care about rat brains. I blogged it because I wanted to remind myself that I live in a secular world, one that gains victory over my mind and heart not only by big bold lies, but by a thousand little splinters that embed and work their way deep. I still remember realizing one day that I was a functional atheist, that the things I said I believed about God I didn’t believe at all, because what I actually believed was found in articles like this.
I had a secular mind, not because it made sense or because it fit the real world well, but simply because I had soaked in a secular world for so long. An article like this should be asking the question, “What makes us think?” What it does instead is presuppose the answer, presenting an easy to swallow set of facile lies. The thinking given in the article is not good thinking (in fact, the thinking is not explicitly presented at all), the philosophy given is not good philosophy, and yet I’m expected to read and swallow without any sort of fuss. How is that okay?
I have a personal daily struggle to remind myself that despite articles like these, Jesus Christ is at the center of all causality, and that the existence of physical relationships between things does not make belief in him stupid. I guess I blog articles like this because if I don’t, the struggle becomes that little bit harder. Peace.
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
I blame Jordan B. Peterson for formally reminding me of this. (I say “formally remind” because this is something that we all already know) In the linked lecture (he makes the point right at the start), he points out a couple things about consciousness, particularly that we know hardly anything about it, and that it’s not adequately explained by neuronal activity, because neuronal activity happens even when we’re not conscious↵
Is it fair to blame a science article for not addressing philosophical questions? You’re not going to get anyone mad at you for presupposing this particular philosophy in a news article (except me, I guess, and I don’t really count for much). I personally suspect that it’s the dominant working philosophy for most people (Christian or not) across Europe and North America. I think it’s a lousy philosophy, which is another way of saying it doesn’t make sense to me.↵
But really, take it as hard as you feel like. Because you don’t actually have a choice. And what you feel doesn’t matter, after all. You just are going to take it at a certain hardness which is determined by powers outside your control. And you’ll either enjoy it or not.↵
By strong evidence I mean that there are observations which, when we look at them, really seem to fit.↵
I’m a bad philosopher, too. I think most of us are. There’s no shame in it, but there tends to be a great scientific arrogance that gets really mad when its bad philosophy gets questioned.↵
My mind is actually not different from the rest of my body in this respect. I can exercise control over my limbs and move them, and no sane person would say that I don’t have control over them. Yet a doctor can hit them with a hammer and make them move unconsciously. Do I have control or don’t I? I can breathe consciously or unconsciously. Do I have control, or don’t I? It would be stupid to deny that conscious control over my body exists just because it works differently when my muscles are full of lactic acid and therefore don’t move in the way I want them to. We handle this sort of complexity and ambiguity in stride when talking about the rest of our body, why would we deny ourselves real power to direct our own thoughts? But real power to direct our own thoughts requires causal direction of brain chemistry…↵
The thought that God could mess with science experiments must be terrifying to any scientist. The more I think about this, the more I come to the belief that we have no basis to not be terrified, except that we believe God’s character does not lead him to do this. At least, not regularly. Which, when you think about it, is a pretty substantial reason. Arguing things based on the character of God is a perfectly solid thing to do.↵
Certainly the author wasn’t thinking about physics when he wrote this, but if you had suggested to him that this didn’t apply to the physical world which really exists, he might have hit you.↵
You can observe the physical world until you are blue in the face, and you will only ever see correlations between things – things happening at the same time, or closely following one another. The determination of which is causing which is strictly a human decision. As such, it can’t be separated from thought, feeling… or theological belief. At the very bottom of things, we can’t say that we have evidence against a certain causal relationship… we can only say that we disbelieve in it. And I will disbelieve all day long in a causal framework that denies real human choice.↵
I’m trying out a little game I thought up. The game is to retell a fairy tale or children’s story while omitting one of the major characters. In this one, beauty goes missing. Part I. Part III comes next week.
The soldier was not a superstitious man; he believed in things that could be touched and felt. A musket ball was real; a bayonet was real. You didn’t waste time thinking about imaginary things when there were important things happening; he had stayed alive by paying attention to real things.
He did, however, listen to the voices he heard in his head. When they told him to take cover or to charge forward or to lie flat, he listened and obeyed. These voices were unquestionably real; unquestionably there. They weren’t his thoughts, per se, and while he didn’t think about them or ask where they came from, he never ignored them.
The voices were speaking to him now, as he jogged out of the forest edge and into the fields leading up to the town. Dusk was coming and the light was fading fast, but he still could see enough to give him pause.
The fields were a tangle of shrubs and weeds, long abandoned. The town itself lay a little below him, down a gentle slope. He could see holes in the thatched roofs -roofs dilapidated and beaten down by rain. Some houses had been burned; charred rafters and beams jutted out from their rubble. In the middle of the town he could see the church, its tower and slate roof still whole, still watching over the rest.
Every reasonable thought said that the violence had happened a long ago, that it was now quiet and safe, but his voices were vigorously disagreeing. He could almost smell the danger.
He came up to the town on his belly, through the fields. When he reached the first house, he crouched up close against it, his old friend the musket at the ready. He wished once more that he had a company of men with him.
House by house he crept, darted, crouching, dashing, peering… they were all empty. The soldier reached the main street but did not dare to step out onto it. He waited, listening, trying to find out what was there, hoping to see what it was that was causing his voices to cry out incessantly in fear.
He checked the priming on his musket, for and his old friend had a pact; they were responsible for taking good care of one another. Then he listened, and listened… and listened. For a long time, nothing. He pressed close to the corner of a house, risking occasional glances out onto the street. For the cost of his life, he could be patient for a while.
And then… what was it? It was something. The sound was very soft very soft. It didn’t sound like it came from they street, but it was a set of footsteps, soft, padding steps. Where were they coming from? The soldier’s head darted back and forth. His eyes saw nothing; indeed, his ears heard nothing – yet the footsteps were there! They were approaching, but not on any street around him.
He was tingling all over, yet refused to let panic control him.
It’s time to move, soldier, they’ve marked your spot. Keep moving, get around them, take them by surprise.
The soldier tensed, knowing he had to move, but without knowing where to go to. The thought came: the church! Its steeple commanded the whole town.
Let them come at me up there; they’ll be sorry.
He smiled: a hard, mean grin. His blood was up now. Whoever was out there would soon have regrets. As he turned to make his way to the church, however, he froze.
The footsteps were louder now, clearer. Closer. Heavy steps, but muffled; padded. By now his inner voices were screaming, telling him he must get clear from the threat, he must get to safety. This was no time for control, it was time for action!
Run for it!
The soldier broke, running for the church, darting past houses, crouching low, vaulting fences. He could hear the footsteps behind him, now slightly faster than before. They were quicker, but unhurried, and their very patience chilled him. They were not chasing him so much as… tracking him. Hunting – slowly, patiently, inexorably. The soldier ran.
He didn’t break stride as he reached the church steps – flying up them, grasping at the heavy doors which still stood, whole and sound, at the top. Were they barred? No, they were open! He threw himself inside and slammed them shut, the crash resounding in the hollow space. Where was the bar? There it was! He rammed it home, his heart pounding now as the bar slammed to. For a few brief seconds he stood, leaning against the door.
He heard a thudding loud in his ears… but it was his heart. The footsteps were gone.
The soldier turned to face the dim of the unlit sanctuary, gloomy in the evening light. He saw a small round face floating in front of him.
I’m trying out a little game I thought up. The game is to retell a fairy tale or children’s story while omitting one of the major characters. In this one, beauty goes missing. Part II.
The soldier’s boots threw up little puffs of dust as he marched. Dust and mud and gravel and rock and muck… they had seen it all. Hundreds of thousands of steps they had traveled, thousands of miles, and step by weary step they still moved forward, locked in the eternal rhythm of the march.
These boots had carried him through the blood and smoke of battle, through brothels and taverns, across mountains and rivers… They had tramped through seven countries, and now… now, they were tramping him home. Or… they would have been, if he had a home. For though he was back from the wars, his fighting finished, he had been too long a soldier and knew no other life. His home was in his boots.
And so he marched, his feet moving by pure habit, going no place but Forward, leaving no place but Behind.
His oldest and dearest friend marched with him – the musket slung over his shoulder. He had had other friends, certainly, (living friends even, not just the bottle and the bayonet) but they were gone, now. Some had been discharged home to wives and sweethearts. Others had been long discharged to meet with a more grim companion: blown to bloody bits, run through or struck with ague and dysentery. Some had been hanged.
He held living friends cheaply. There was, after all, only one friend who stood with him in everything, who fought and killed for him, protected his life, never went against him… And so his musket marched with him, because his musket understood and enforced the soldier’s first rule. It was the soldier’s belief that one can only enjoy life if one is alive, and he had an unwavering creed in battle: “If it’s him or me, he gets it.” Of course, if you are alive, then you might as well enjoy it, so when it came to women, booze or bread, the soldier’s rule was reversed, so that the soldier would get it. His friend the musket had proved most effective at enforcing the rule… in both directions.
The soldier paid little attention to the forest around him. Where he was didn’t matter: there was nothing there that interested him. For all this, he was alert, though he himself didn’t know it. Had there been a sound other than the wind or the birds or the squirrels, his ears would have caught it and his musket would have leapt from his shoulder to his hand without him ever knowing he had called it there. But… he was alone, and that was fine with him.
He had been alone before. On the battlefield, surrounded by men, screaming, killing, bleeding, dying… then he had been terribly alone. In the taverns, surrounded by friends, drinking and singing… but every man of them alone in his mug and song. Even in the brothels he was alone – pleasured, but alone. And, lying in his cot at night, adrift in his own thoughts, he was most alone. All the blood spilled – his own, his enemies’ – was with him, then, but he was alone in it.
Well, that was fine with him.
He took note, however, of a hewn stump by the roadside. An axe meant people. His hand went automatically to the cartridge pouch at his side. It was still mostly full. Before long, the woodcutter’s cottage came into view around a bend. The soldier’s thoughts of hot soup and pretty daughters vanished as soon as he saw the thistles crowding around the rail fence and the thick growth in the yard. It was abandoned, and had been for some time.
The soldier felt the tingle. He had no name for this sense, but it had kept him alive many times. Once when he was very young, he had questioned it and only by sheer luck (and bad aim from the enemy) had he escaped death. He had never questioned it again. His musket was in his hand, now, and he was off the road, up against a tree. His eyes swept the forest all around.
Something was there. His ears only told him about the wind and the birds and the squirrels, but something. was. there. Suddenly, being alone was no so agreeable, but his comrades were long departed. There was no-one to flank or cover the rear, and even his best friend felt very uncertain in his hand.
But he was not a soldier for nothing. Discipline clamped down as his eyes swept over the woods again, looking for any sort of target to explain the tingle down his back. Nothing. A knot of fear was in his gut, now, but it was controlled, that good sort of tightness that kept a man sharp, that kept him alive.
All right, soldier. He’s out there and he won’t show his head. Fair enough. That doesn’t mean that you should stand exposed like a bloody idiot with his shirt-tail hanging out. We’ll get the b******* when he comes for us. In the meantime, soldier, clear out!
The soldier was back on the road, and this time, his boots were beating out a double quick time – not a rushed step, but a steady, quick, purposeful jog. His head was up and he was scanning the trees in front of him, behind him. He was alert, not scared. He was thinking and intent. He would get out of the forest, into the village that must be ahead, somewhere.
Once he could see his enemy, when he could draw a bead on him… then, he would fight.
There was one hidden observation in it that caught me – the idea that our Facebook personas are highly edited and don’t truly reflect our day to day lives. As the fella in the video notes: according to his Facebook, he’s outside all the time, doing non-stop fun stuff.
On one level, this is obvious and unremarkable. Who doesn’t take care to put the best of themselves on Facebook (particularly when it comes to photos )? This isn’t even much a departure from the “real world” social status quo; it’s just an extension of it. We’ve all been projecting social images and putting on masks ever since high school… [earlier]
I guess what stuck in my mind when I was watching the clip, though, was that this effect is a lot more pronounced on Facebook. When I’m joking with friends, they know when I say something stupid. On Facebook, though, I have a lot of time to pick my ‘bon mots’, far more than when I am hanging out in real-time. My digital mask gets way more polish than my ordinary social one; I have more editorial control over it.
The big question that bugs me is, “What is the effect of this fakery?” What happens when we swim in a digital pond where all the other fish are happy all the time? What does dwelling in such an environment do to us? It makes small talk easier when we get together with friends, sure… but what does it do to deep talking?
Yeah, yeah, I know. There’s nothing new about superficiality on the internet…
Still, I can’t shake the feeling that our digital world is also a fantasy world. It bothers me. When I look at myself, my peers, and those younger who are following us, I can’t help feeling that the last thing we need is another seduction into fantasy that will force us farther apart in reality.
It’s not that I think that my friends and I are fake, but that the medium itself is pushing us, shaping our behavior. We can content ourselves that our Facebook is still us… that it’s just the best of us (hat-tip to “Gattaca” for that line). Still… it’s fake. The medium itself is decidedly corporate and driven by advertising. Or rather, perhaps, we have become advertising vehicles, and the medium drives us.
How did our friendships come to be mediated by advertisers’ designs? I don’t know. But they have become so, which is troubling. The world of advertising is, of course, light, fluffy and happy. It has Crest-white smiles and infinite freedom and money to spend – it’s our life, just the best of our life, the life we wish we had. Our Happy Life shows up in the events we attend we publicly admit to attending and the pages we ‘like’.
The incentive structure of the platform means it will always (in whatever ways it can) influence our personas to be happy and carefree… and superficial. No advertiser wants to be tagged in a post on depression!
What bothers me is that I suspect all of this makes it harder to love people. If we soak in a world of superficiality, I have to believe that this affects us, that it shapes us subconsciously. Part of me says that it simply can’t be wise to train ourselves in this mode of acting and sharing.
Maybe we just oughtn’t to get good at Facebook.
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
Who am I kidding? We all know that it started way earlier than that!↵