Tuesday, February 27, 2024

They that make them will become like them

Kristor at Orthosphere has a series of posts on “Anselmian Skeleton Key”, in which he attempts to demonstrate the existence or at least plausibility of a god along the lines of the Christian understanding of God.

His problem is that a demonstration is not convincing, since to be convinced requires assent by the “convincee”.

If the “convincee” thinks the price of changing gods is too high (it might include admitting that he was wrong!), or the risk too great, his “most important”/”greatest thing in the universe” won’t change.

What does it mean to me if I believe that something is the most important thing in the universe? On reflection, it needn’t mean anything unless it is also the most important thing in “my universe.”

I could claim, for instance, that the most important/greatest thing in the universe is Cygnus X-3. It’s the center of the universe (so is anywhere else, of course) and a thing of immense power–nothing in our galaxy comes close. Yet I cannot even see it; nothing it is doing has any bearing on me (yet!), nor does anything I do have any bearing on it. It makes no demands of me, offers no benefits. It is King Log–or perhaps I should say “God Log.” In “my universe” the Earth and Sun are more important–I rely on them every day–as are other things like my wife and home and even my library.

I could claim that the deist god is the ultimate. The Watchmaker non-interventionist god makes no more demands on my life than does Cygnus X-3, though it does help my mind understand the world better, and begin to understand understanding.

In a purely materialist universe I have no reason to claim I truly know anything–I react in certain ways, and that’s all one can say. A deist can point to an origin in order and reason, and to some degree share in that. A deist has a different (I would say higher) conception of himself because he has a different (higher) conception of his god.

Unfortunately the term “Greatest” or “Most important” is a bit ambiguous in “my universe.” Theory and practice diverge. I may say that (e.g.) my wife is the most important thing in “my universe”, and even be willing in a pinch to give up my life for her (giving up everything else in the process), but have little reflection of this value in day to day decisions or attitudes.

Alternatively, I might say that I valued God more than anything, and am committed to my religious duties–unless there’s a game on. Or that all fellow believers/worshippers are my brothers and sisters unless one expresses a political view I don’t like.

In both sets of examples my nominal values conflict with my values as expressed in action. The inconsistency might be due to indiscipline, or there might be an unacknowledged greater value. One, or perhaps both, of those values is an idol for me. (You can easily devise other examples–a good Volk-worshiper who believed the Nazi party was its prophet who nevertheless out of compassion fed strangers without asking if the fugitive was Jewish.)

One can make a test out of this: “By their fruits you will know them.” Do I get more riled when somebody insults my favorite candidate or when someone insults my God? (I can make the excuse that God can take care of Himself but I have to look out for the reputation of my fellow-human. It would even likely be true for insults to family.) Does that tell something about what the real god of “my universe” is?

It might. We have it on good authority that it can be a useful way to find out what somebody else’s real god is too. But it might be merely the result of a sloppy life, or not having worked through the details yet. We’re good at giving ourselves the benefit of the doubt–except for those of us who are skilled at looking for worst cases in ourselves.

Take it a bit further. The work I do demands concentration on the thing more often than the purpose. That doesn’t necessarily mean I value the thing more than the purpose–though that is a risk–but how much should the purpose be part of my mind as I work? Am I working as if for the Lord if I’m thinking entirely about how to get this next leg attached to the chair?

I think the answer might be yes. Obviously that would make the test even less clear-cut that it already is. I suspect we need to be careful judging others, and also be careful judging ourselves. But not complacent. There are plenty of idols around, and plenty of people who are unquestionably idolaters. Greed amounts to idolatry, and we’re a-swamp in that–as usual. I could go on listing other idolatries to which I am not greatly tempted, but I think I’ll stop here.

But what my god is shapes what I choose, and shapes me.

Sunday, February 25, 2024


A resident tells me that there appears to be an unwritten rule that any vacant building must be turned into either a marijuana dispensary or a "prompt care" medical center (not necessarily with equipment like X-ray machines).

Saturday, February 17, 2024

Important things

Years ago I ran across Murphy's Laws, and a little afterwards found a collection called "Murphy's Laws of Combat." ("Friendly fire isn't", etc)

Three of them jumped out at me as good descriptions of Christian life.

  1. The important things are always simple.
  2. The simple things are always hard.
  3. The easy way is always mined.

It is a good thing to know the nature of prayer. The important thing is to do it, and the knowledge of it (connaitre) will rise from that.

Yes, "My yoke is easy and my burden is light." Eventually.

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

The Assassins

by Bernard Lewis.

This is the history of the Assassin sect: a branch of Ismaili which are a branch of Shia. Thumbnail: Ismaili followed the disinherited Isma'il, who they regard as the correct 7'th Imam. There came to be two branches: Old Preaching and New Preaching. The New Preaching was most prominent in Persia, and the adherents showed two political distinctives: concentrating on acquiring or building castles in mountainous regions, and creating loyalists who were willing to stab those their Imam declared to be enemies--and die in the effort.

Their skills at infiltration must have been terrific, because they were quite successful for a while at making it dangerous for rulers to oppose them. Their killers seem to have limited themselves to daggers, and not used poisons or ranged weapons. And for a surprisingly long time (especially since the Crusaders turned up during their heyday), their enemies and usual targets were Sunnis.

When things started getting hot in Persia they sent missionaries west to Syria, where the "castle in the mountains" approach didn't work so well.

He cites a story, possibly even true, about an Ismaili messenger requesting a personal meeting with Saladin. He was searched carefully, and allowed in, where he said he had a message for Saladin alone. Everybody left except Saladin's private bodyguard.

Saladin said, "I regard these as my own sons, they and I are as one." Then the messenger turned to the two Mamluks and said "If I were to order you in the name of my master to kill this Sultan, would you do so?" They answered yes, and drew their swords, and said "Command us as you wish."

Saladin was impressed.

After a while they decided Crusaders were legitimate targets (or else it was politically appropriate--other times they allied with them), and started killing some. They found that the Hospitallers and Templars were tough, and one of the Ismailis explained why they didn't assassinate many of them. Recall that many of the Middle East rulers held power through personal loyalties, and these didn't always survive their deaths. The spokeman said the Hospitalars would just replace a murdered ruler with another one just as good, so the Ismailis would lose assassins and not achieve any useful objective, so they decided to leave them alone. Another possibility that occurred to me is that Hospitaller security was better (less interest in buying local status luxuries?), making it hard for Moslems to worm their way into proximity--and the Ismailis would never admit that since it would be giving away trade secrets.

At any rate, the Mongols were the last straw for the Persian branch, and their castles were taken from them or destroyed, and in Syria they lost too many local conflicts. The remaining Ismailis seem to have been peaceful--or as peaceful as any other group in the region. Their "force-multiplier" (they were a minority group) assassin corp is long gone.

At the end Lewis found it necessary to cite other scholars' ideas about why the Ismailis went the assassination route--mostly economic. The economic reductionists should get out more.

If you're curious, read it. Lewis writes well.

Monday, February 12, 2024

On reflection

This week I was reviewing a decade-old unpublished math note.

I'm glad I didn't try to publish it. I scribbled corrections all over the thing. How did I come to that conclusion; it's just wrong!

I hadn't taken the time to make notation consistent either (it had grown over the course of several years). It's better now, though not good enough--an interesting approach, but it doesn't go enough of anywhere to call it useful.

Now that I have more leisure to go over things carefully, it's amazing what I find.


Dr. Boli has a site devoted to quotations.

Sunday, February 11, 2024

Best laid plans

"Put not your faith in princes" Or in "the people", or in parties, or in plans, or in procedures.

Judas always has a seat at the table.

Who? Jesus' disciples, obtuse though they often seem, had the wit to ask "Is it I?"

Saturday, February 10, 2024

The simpler proving the more profound

I see a bit of a parallel between Martha's talk with Jesus about resurrection and Jesus' interaction with the paralytic brought down through the roof.

In the former passage, Martha hints to Jesus that He can raise her dead brother (though she falters in that belief later), then Jesus reminds her generically of resurrection, which she recognizes as the general resurrection on the last day, then Jesus explains that HE is resurrection--the most important thing, and then He proves it by doing the "simple resurrection"(*) Martha hinted at at the start.

In the latter passage Jesus approves the faith of the man's friends by forgiving his sins, then meeting the scribes' objection to this by asking which is harder, announcing forgiveness or healing (obviously the doing of forgiveness is harder though healing is easier to demonstrate), and then demonstrating his authority to do spiritual healing (or spiritual resurrection?) by doing the physical healing.

It seems like the same general arc: someone wants a physical miracle, is offered a greater spiritual one, and then is given the physical one as proof.

(*) Not that there's anything simple about it. Maybe "preliminary" is better, or "temporary."

Thursday, February 08, 2024

Forest detectors

The forest as a neutrino detector: "We explore in this article the feasibility of using the forest as a detector. Trees have been shown to be efficient broadband antennas, and may, without damage to the tree, be instrumented with a minimum of apparatus. A large scale array of such trees may be the key to achieving the requisite target volumes for UHE neutrino astronomy."

Your first impression might be to wonder what the author's dreams are like.

However, the idea isn't completely crazy. Presumably because of fluid in the living trees, they conduct electricity at some level. Therefore they can act as antennas for radio waves, and in fact this was studied by the military at one point. They tried driving nails into the tree and hooking receivers to wires attached, and also tried winding coils of wire around the trunk. Both actually worked, though the latter worked better.

OK, now the next question is why one would care. Answer: At high enough energies neutrinos do not zip through everything almost without interacting--they actually do interact, generally creating a lepton in the process, which does interact, generally with showers of other particles. Lots of them. Enough that their current, in the Earth's magnetic field, produces radio waves. You can detect those radio waves, and with an array of antennas figure to detect their timing, you can figure out the track of the shower--and therefore the initial cosmic ray.

Getting an idea of where this is going?

There are some technicalities--you want to detect showers that seem to be coming up out of the Earth, or out of a mountain, to try to filter out things other than neutrinos interacting very near the surface. But the general idea is that the patterns of radio waves corresponding to such particle showers can be pieced out of the general radio background. This is already being done successfully in several different experiments.

The bulk of the hardware cost of such an experiment is in the radio antennas, the electronics to read them out, and the labor to do it. If the antennas are already standing around, there's some savings already. Plus, trees are tall, so they'd help pick up lower frequency radio waves.

Another advantage to using trees is that you don't need to find a bare spot to put up your antennas, so you've got more choices for locations. And you don't have to lug a lot of heavy gear around to places that may not always be easy to get to.

Downsides... The electronics costs the same, and is a substantial part of the total. One guy said it cost more than the antennas--he was probably thinking about short antennas, though, not tree-sized. Also you can predict the sensitivity of a steel antenna--how do you calibrate the radio wave sensitivity of jackpine number 88-K?

And, we wonders, aye we wonders, what the wildlife will think of tasty wires strung here and there in the woods. In the planning for the SSC designers realized that fire ants would colonize their electrical distribution boxes, and nibble.

Wednesday, February 07, 2024

Experiencing God

I've heard several people counseling us that we should not want God's gifts so much as God Himself. This seems true enough, and that union with Him would be the goal and summit of life. (In a way wanting to obey is Martha, wanting to be with is Mary, Jesus said the latter was better. Except that we need both--it's hard to be with Him when we disobey.)

There are some subtleties, though--or perhaps I'm obtuse or inexperienced.

Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can, I say my [daily prayers], I fast a little, I pray and meditate. I live in peace as far as I can. I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Then the old man stood up, stretched his arms towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you want, you can be all flame.”

Moses was warned that he could not see God and live, and pagan stories recognize this too. The finite, and even the infinite, cannot experience God as He is in Himself. The experience won't fit in our minds, our hearts, our nature. God gave Moses an experience of Himself that would fit in his mind, and He gave us a living image of Himself in Jesus.

How far can we go in union with God?

And since the mystery of our faith is directed toward a God of utter transcendence, the direct experience of His energies leaves the theologian with an awestruck recognition that God’s essence lies yet beyond those energies, and that the theologian is forever unable to experience it. Thus he is left not only negating correlations between his experience and nature, but also negating correlations between his experience and God’s essence.

We're assured that heaven is not imaginable. Even so, it would seem that the experience of God, however infinite, will be consonant with our nature, and so be limited by our nature. Other created things may experience aspects of God that we won't. That wouldn't make our experience wrong or incomplete, of course. It wouldn't even make it finite.

But. Would my experience be limited not just by the shape of our common human nature, but also by how I have failed to conform my life to Christ here?

UPDATE: Dante seems to have thought so

Saturday, February 03, 2024

Currency defacement

Can you guess what this was about? Nollywood star sentenced for stepping on naira notes. "A Nigerian actress has been sentenced to six months imprisonment for tampering with the currency after she was filmed spraying and stepping on newly issued naira notes last year."

"six months imprisonment with an option to pay $250 fine"

I wonder what would have happened if she'd lit a cigar with a 1000 niara note.

From a Nigerian source: "It was at a time there was a severe scarcity of Naira notes following the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN)’s withdrawal of old 200, 500 and 1000 Naira notes from circulation and replacement of the affected currency notes with newly designed versions which were hard to come by at the time." I'm guessing that flaunting wealth that way when the economy was in a mess from lack of currency was what led them to charge her with currency defacement. Not because she'd done anything substantively wrong, just that she'd angered a lot of people...