Thursday, July 02, 2015

The Accidental Universe by Alan Lightman (Book Review #54 of 2015)

The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew
I have read several of Brian Greene's and Stephen Hawking's books detailing the history of modern physics, string theory in its various iterations, and the theoretical possibilities of a multiverse. Lightman does a much better job summing up the philosophical implications of theoretical physics in very stark form. He is also much more transparent about the fact that there are Nobel prize-winning physicists who don't buy the multiverse theory and believe in a Creator and an intelligence behind the design of our universe rather than a theoretically infinite number of universes created by no intelligence. Lightman admits the "fine-tuning" of the cosmological constants necessary for our universe to be the way it is are astronomically improbable. While charitable to his colleagues who believe in a higher power, Lightman disagrees with them. In Lightman's view, we are simply a random collection of molecules put together by chance. "We are an accident," he states, a mathematical improbability in our own universe -- "one millionth of one billionth of a percent in our universe is life" -- but when the denominator is infinity (the infinite multiverse) improbable is relative. "Science can never know how universe was created," yet he's certain how it was not created.

He details early in the book what this means for humans. He loves his daughter, feels attached to her, cares for her. But then he remembers that she's just a random collection of atoms and, like his own atoms, will one day be nothing more than scattered into the universe. He admits this is hard to wrap his mind around, his mind longs for eternity and he is "self-delusional" in his longing for immortality. But since everything in the universe decays or dies and the law of entropy says that everything moves from order to disorder there can be nothing more than this. Life is therefore meaningless, absurd. Not since Hawking wrote in Black Holes and Baby Universes that we have two options: God, or  grand unifying theory that explains everything from the Big Bang to why I ate a salad for lunch. Hawking rejected the former and later recanted on the GUT (which was supposed to bridge quantum mechanics with the standard model), basically the multiverse via string theory has replaced his GUT. Meaning, again, that both the big bang and my salad were random and need no explanation.

It's odd that Lightman even uses the word "life" in the book since how do you define a random collection of atoms whose extinguishing means nothing as "life"? What is consciousness? If I were to kill his daughter, why would that be wrong, I'm just scattering her atoms about the universe? The fact that his brain has evolved to find that idea repulsive is his own problem. Atoms have no ethics and it's silly to call things that are random "evil." For an MIT professor who also teaches philosophy he surprisingly doesn't raise the question. Odder still is that he later heralds natural selection and the ability of millions of cells to transmit information when reproducing without noting that some atheist biologists have concluded that this is impossible without some sort of guided process. How did the basic building blocks of life know that they needed to survive? These biologists have followed Lightman's logic to its conclusion, apparently unknown to Lightman himself, that we are the result of a completely random process.

I have also read physicist Lee Smolin's The Trouble with Physics, critiquing string theory and modern physics in general. I highly recommend that book to anyone who thinks string theory is all that there is. There are alternative, testable theories out there. Which is another irony because Lightman writes that science "must be verified and tested" but doesn't apply this to either string theory or the multiverse. Stephen Hawking wrote in The Universe in a Nutshell that you would need a particle collider larger than the size of the universe to test some aspects of string theory. Yet Lightman hails theoretical physics as "the purest form of science."

Cosmologist George Ellis was quoted recently in Scientific American criticizing physicists like Lightman and Lawrence Krauss who have moved away from physics and science to pure metaphysical hypotheses which are not testable.
"Krauss does not explain in what way these entities could have pre-existed the coming into being of the universe, why they should have existed at all, or why they should have had the form they did.  And he gives no experimental or observational process whereby we could test these vivid speculations of the supposed universe-generation mechanism. How indeed can you test what existed before the universe existed? You can’t."

Lightman's essays contradict themselves in this regard: he praises scientific measurement and cheering on the work of phsyics toward a complete set of the fundamental laws of our universe while earlier saying that if the multiverse is true them most of physics is "useless" as there is "no point" in explaining why things in our universe are the way they are-- it was just random. Other universes are flat, some are round, some are finite, some are infinite, some contain the null set, and in some universes every law that holds in ours doesn't hold, and vice-versa.

Lightman contends that a God "consistent with science" can only exist outside the universe, never intervening in its immutable, unchangeable laws. This rules out anything miraculous, whether there is evidence or not to the contrary-- and he examines no evidence or testimony of the physically unexplainable. (I read Eric Metaxas' Miracles just prior to this book, the first bit of which argues philosophically against Lightman's conclusions.) God is the watchmaker who let the universe wind up, go and never intervenes, somehow can't intervene without the entire universe falling apart according to Lightman. Lightman rejects the "immanentism" of Spinoza and Einstein.

The essays also contain brief explanations of the importance of symmetry and discovery of the Higgs-Boson. There is also some overview of philosophical history but nothing in-depth. As I wrote above, he ignores his own theory's implications for ethics and the problem of evil. He writes of how he had somehow a sort of mental connection with a bird once, yet seemingly forgets that this, like his daugher, was purely random and meaningless. He cites plenty of deist scientists along the way, and criticizes Lawrence Krauss for being critical of faith. He considers faith to be rational, and rightly notes many scientific, economic, and political achievements that have come forth from theists who felt their exploration of science was a way to understand better how God created things, wrong-headed though they were. But this again ignores the fact that it's hard to define what is "ethical" or an "advancement" when we're purely random and there are no consequences, ultimately, for our actions.

He concludes the book with some futurist silliness that reminded me of Lightman's fellow multiverse proponent Brian Greene in The Hidden Reality where Greene writes that another plausible alternative to the multiverse is that nothing in our world is actually real, we could all be living in a simulated multiverse. A "software glitch" explains why we can't reconcile quantum mechanics and the standard model or discover all of the fundamental laws. We are just Sims in someone's video game, and those playing us are also likely Sims, who are being played by Sims and so on. Physics has truly set philosophy back millenia.

As I wrote above, Lightman's work does a great job showing the logical conclusion of the multiverse in a succinct fashion. I recommend reading it for yourself, but only 3.5 stars because as another sympathetic reviewer writing for the left-leaning magazine Salon pointed out: "Perhaps Lightman contradicts himself."

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Miracles by Eric Metaxas (Book Review #53 of 2015)

Miracles: What They Are, Why They Happen, and How They Can Change Your Life

This is my first encounter with Metaxas' writing outside of childrens books he wrote early in his career that my son has. I read atheist-humanist physicist/philosopher Alan Lightman's The Accidental Universe immediately after this book, and I highly recommend the two juxtaposed. Lightman's book confirms Metaxas' summary of modern physics and cosmology, while taking the completely opposite view. For a preview of the cosmology of the book, check out Metaxas' article in the Wall Street Journal last year, which is supposedly the most-clicked article the history of the website.

Much of this book is autobiographical. Metaxas is of Greek-German descent and was raised in a Greek Orthodox church. When he later comes to a saving faith, he encounters his church in different ways. He reconnects with his German roots in the process of writing his bestseller Bonhoeffer, and he describes what he believes are supernatural events around that book. Metaxas is a good student of C.S. Lewis, quoting heavily from several of his works. I think this book is targeted at two audiences: Hyper-cessasionists like John MacArthur and atheists/materialists skeptical of anything unexplained by nature. On the former, Metaxas notes it would be inconsistent with God's character to intervene throughout history recorded by Scripture to reveal himself to others and encourage His followers and not afterward. To the latter, besides arguing for the probability of design in the cosmos, he also provides testimony that is verifiable by eyewitnesses of various events. One cannot prove either that God created or did not create the cosmos or that any of the recorded events happen, but one can give evidence "beyond a reasonable doubt," which he states is his purpose. Metaxas was a member of Tim Keller's Redeemer Presbyterian, so you know he's been discipled with good doctrine. He's widely considered orthodox and uncontroversial, but some of the details of the miracle accounts are troubling for their somewhat "anything goes" implications. I highly recommend reading the last chapters of Augustine's classic The City of God before reading this book as you'll see similarities between the miracles that Augustine observes and recounts and what Metaxas recounts. It does not appear Metaxas has read Augustine, which is too bad.

The first chapters deal with cosmology. I have read Lightman, Hawking, Greene, Smolin, and others on the issue of cosmology, string theory, M-theory, and the multiverse. Why do things exist, and why do they keep existing? Metaxas recounts all of the "fine-tuning" of the cosmological constants necessary in order for our current universe to exist and for life to exist on earth:

"For instance, if the ratio between the nuclear strong force and the electromagnetic force had been off by the tiniest fraction of the tiniest fraction—by even one part in 100,000,000,000,000,000—then no stars could have ever formed at all. Feel free to gulp. Multiply that single parameter by all the other necessary conditions, and the odds against the universe existing are so heart-stoppingly astronomical that the notion that it all “just happened” defies common sense. It would be like tossing a coin and having it come up heads 10 quintillion times in a row. Really?"

Since the SETI experiments in the 1970s, scientists have come out with increasingly stringent requirements for life to exist elsewhere such that now the odds of our own existence are something like one in ten to the fiftieth power. This is why many scientists, physicists included, do not reject the existence of a Creator.

Hawking and Lightman deal with the anthropic principle in their books, and argue that the only true way around it is the theory of the multiverse, which they readily subscribe to. Comsmologist George Ellis was quoted recently in Scientific American criticizing physicists like them who have moved away from physics and science to pure metaphysical hypotheses which are not testable.
"(Lawrence) Krauss does not explain in what way these entities could have pre-existed the coming into being of the universe, why they should have existed at all, or why they should have had the form they did.  And he gives no experimental or observational process whereby we could test these vivid speculations of the supposed universe-generation mechanism. How indeed can you test what existed before the universe existed? You can’t."

Lightman argues that since all scientific laws are immutable, God cannot interfere with them-- if he created the universe he's the watchmaker who wound it up and let it go. All events thereafter are the result of random chance as the processes play out. Metaxas' point is that the evidence suggests otherwise-- both that there was an order to design and that things today happen non-randomly, and that the laws of nature are violated. And if everything that happens here is a result of random assembly of molecules, then we have no basis for calling anything a "life," ethics, laws, morals, etc. The randomness of string theorists does not play well with the theory of natural selection, which requires information be transmitted non-randomly via genes. He notes Nobel prize winners in various fields, including physics, who uphold Design as a possibility. For Lightman et al, the multiverse is the answer-- the highly improbable becomes probable when dealing with infinite possibilities that co-exist at the same time. Metaxas calls this "laughable," agreeing with George Ellis and other physicists as this unscientific way out of dealing with a Creator. Metaxas writes that he stops short of calling the media's assumption of materialism being correct and intelligent a "conspiracy."

Miracles are events that happen to people which could not have been caused by man's intervention alone. The creation of the universe was a miracle. God answering any prayer is a miracle, as are the various processes in our body such as its ability to heal. One valid criticism of the book is that it's hard to delineate "mysterious natural process" from "miracle" at some points. Waking up is a miracle.

If you can accept that a Creator God made it and sustains it, then His ability to intervene in the space-time continuum without making everything fly apart doesn't seem a stretch. From cosmology, Metaxas moves to the life of Jesus-- God intervening in the biological process and implanting His nature into a man that develops naturally. Metaxas looks at some of Jesus' miracles and notes that while see the feeding of the large crowds as miraculous, we miss the thousands of healings that took place as "they brought their sick to him and he healed them." He also engages in a couple lengthy sermons related to interpreting the miracles. "The feeding of the 5,000 show God's generosity," etc. This was perhaps weak and unnecessary. He addresses the common arguments against the Resurrection, and does so pretty succinctly. Many Christian apologists I know of always come back to the high likelihood of the resurrection given all available evidence when faced with doubts in other areas. From Jesus, Metaxas moves to conversion stories.

All of the stories in the book are from people Metaxas knows personally, which creates a small sample size but lends reliability that Metaxas vouches for the person's trustworthiness. He tells several conversion stories, giving his own testimony of a changed life and that of others who he saw radically change after turning to Christ. Metaxas does not deal with any radical changes from those joining cults or other religions, nor tell any miracle stories by those who are not Christians or did not later become Christians. This is a weakness of the book. It may also imply that God's common grace does not go from the general to the more specific.

From here, Metaxas retells five healing miracles, the most radical is that of an innmate on his deathbed with AIDS being completely healed of the virus. That is a long story that is worth reading as it also involves another inmate's radical conversion, which has miraculous aspects as well including visions, voices, favor from authorities, and electronics that suddenly stopped working. Another woman is healed of a documented deadly nut allergy that had debilitated her. From there, Metaxas moves to stories of visions, healed marriages, encounters with angels, and phenonenal coincidences. One problem is that there are no journalistic efforts on Metaxas part to verify medical records, eyewitness accounts, etc. In some cases it's simply one person's word-- sincerely held, but lacking credibility to a skeptic. If you are saved from drowning by someone who scoops you out of the water and disappears then that's a miracle, but if no one else sees it then it's just your word. He explains premonitions he had in writing his Bonhoeffer biography, dreams with strange consequences.

Perhaps the more controversial is the story of Lutheran pastor Paul Teske who had a stroke while preaching--his watch also stopped working at that precise moment. He believed God had spoken to him that he'd be healed 28 days later. He went with his wife to a Benny Hinn crusade on the 27th and 28th days. While he was brought on stage and "slain the spirit" by Hinn on the 27th, the healing came while he was in his seat on the 28th, after which Hinn brought him up to give testimony. Hinn then prophecies that he will have a healing ministry. Teske has since written a bestseller titled Healing for Today and appears on TBN.

I find it odd that Teske would feel the need to go to a Hinn crusade on the day he felt he needed to be healed. Hinn is a false teacher, making several unbiblical statements, false prophecies, etc. from stage. Metaxas has no commentary on this, which is somewhat troubling. However, I don't see a lot of criticism of evangelicals of Teske like one will find of Hinn. Interestingly, this person claims he was healed of stroke symptoms after hearing this story listening to the audiobook:

One of Metaxas' final miracles was particularly troubling; a Catholic widow prayed to her husband in heaven for intervention in a particular court case. She essentially demanded a sign from him that he was her husband and cared for her. Metaxas does not comment on whether this is biblical or sound practice, which is troubling. In the end, the judge in the case remarkably had known her husband decades before and he'd had a profound impact on his life. She sees this as a sign from her husband, rather than from God. Not everything supernatural is from God, which is important to remember and is left out of this book.

Metaxas notes that for many of these who have been healed or have had visions of heaven, their fears are removed and they live life differently, demonstrating greater trust in God and willing to take more risks. Those who have had a near-death experience with a vision of heaven no longer fear going there, and have a renewed sense of purpose. Don Piper is not mentioned in the book but I have seen him speak and can testify to his own renewed sense to share the Gospel with others after his documented resuscitation.

In all, I give this book 3 stars out of 5. The author has collected evidence against materialists who argue nothing supernatural can occur. But that evidence is poorly documented. It is also lacking much theological foundation for a Christian. Reading this book at face value, I might pray to a dead relative or think Benny Hinn is legit, which is problematic biblically. The strengths are the summation of cosmology and evidences for the resurrection as well as the testimony of the Christians in this book who are living truly different lives than before and give all glory to God.

Monday, June 29, 2015

You and Me Forever by Francis and Lisa Chan (Book Review #52 of 2015)

You and Me Forever: Marriage in Light of Eternity
The Chans self-published this book in order to make it free, although donations are accepted and versions and a study guide can be purcahsed. It was the free download of the month at in February. My wife and I listened it together on a car ride. We both found it humbling, convicting, and thought-provoking. I highly recommend it to anyone who is married or engaged. There is much more in this brief book, so read it for yourself.

Francis Chan is one of the few Christians who really lives out his theology. If Jesus says our blood relatives aren't the most important thing, and Romans 8 is true for Christians, then why do we act like it's such a sacrifice to send family overseas or get angry at God if a child dies "prematurely?" Don't we know that all things come from God's hand and sovereign love? Don't we know our time here is momentary and the purpose is to be ambassadors for Christ alone? Why don't we act like it? That was sort of the point of Crazy Love and this book is no different.

The book does not give specific how-to tips on dealing with conflict, intimacy, and communication issues. Plenty of other books have been written for those. This deals with putting your marriage on mission and looking at marriage in light of eternity. The book is Scripture-soaked with more references and long quotes than perhaps any other marriage book I have ever read. I found out about the book while listening to Chan's guest appearance on John Piper's podcast. This is very much Piper's Desiring God and Don't Waste Your Life set to marriage.

Chapter One is titled "Marriage Isn't That Great," making the blunt point that marriage is temporary and that our love for our spouse (or children or grandchildren) should pale in light of our love for Jesus. If you'd rather see your kids grow up than see Jesus, then your family is an idol. If you worry what will happen to your kids when you're gone, then you've misunderstood God's providence. The ultimate prescription for marital health is getting on the same "team" in regards to mission. The Chans compare it to a sports team working toward a common goal-- the individuals of the team are diverse and may not get along as friends, but they build camaraderie working toward a prize they can only win together. That's marriage.

In the chapter on marital conflict, "Learn to Fight Well," Chan holds up that our conflicts would vanish if we would truly consider our spouse as better than ourselves and surrender what we selfishly see as our rights or entitlements. Husbands should give themselves up in service just as Christ gave himself up for the church, and wives should follow his leadership. Husbands should point their families to Jesus in all that they do (p. 78):

"Practically speaking, this will mean encouraging her in her time alone with God. Sacrifice to make sure she has time. It will mean reminding her not to love the world or the things of the world. Keep her focus eternal. It will mean guiding her towards acts of love that will result in eternal reward. Men, have you ever considered your role as a husband in these terms? This is huge." 
We should love our wives so much and so extravagantly that it should be remarkable to those who see it, and that opens the door for us to share the Gospel (p. 80):
"Here's a blueprint for marriage:
1. We become overwhelmed by Christ's care for us.
2. So we shower our wives with the same love we receive from God.
3. Then, people are shocked by our extravagant love toward our wives.
4. As a result, we are given an opportunity to tell them about the love of Christ that compels us.
Sadly, very few marriages work this way...But this can all change. It starts with you rejoicing about being a member of Christ's body...This has to be our motivation." 

I appreciated his thoughts on grace in parenting, similar to Elyse Fitzpatrick's Give Them Grace. Our children's salvation does not depend on us, but is up to God. This frees us from works-based parenting where we put pressure on ourselves to bend our children's behavior toward God somehow. He does recount the long and difficult period of praying for a daughter who went wayward, sharing the joy of seeing her choose Christ and go on mission with the family. We should weave the Gospel into every situation and speak to their hearts. "Don't let a day go by without talking about heaven...We have raised kids who aren't overly afraid of death....(they) are prepared for the time that mom and dad go to be with Jesus" (p. 169). "This mission is too important to squander because of our insecurities, our longing for comfort, or our fears" (p. 180).

"If I am in a third world country helping to find solutions to poverty and starvation, and my kids are home crying because they miss me, my wife quickly reminds them how blessed they are to have a dad who is out caring for others...The moment I come home, I reassure them of how much I missed them and how I wish I could just stay with them all the time. And then I remind them again about the's important for them to understand that the mission involves saving people from eternal torment, so we must all be willing to make sacrifices for a greater purpose. In fact, if they don't see the sacrifices made, they will later question whether or not we truly believe what we say we believe" (p. 167). 

Chan posits that 75 percent of church-raised children leave the church when they turn 18 because "they see the gap between our supposed beliefs and our actions and decide not to join the hypocrisy."

The book also reads a bit like Platt's Radical. Chan holds up examples of families, including his own, who have taken in homeless people into their crowded lives in order to minister to them. Of radical adoptions and financial poverty, etc. One can think of a myriad of examples that would be difficult to flesh out in reality. His advice on financial matters is sort of the opposite of Dave Ramsey's Legacy mentality-- don't worry about leaving an inheritance to your kids as that might "[impede] their growth as servants" (p. 165). He argues that "God likes seeing children care for their parents" rather than the parents insuring they need no support.

The Chans close the book with a powerful prayer for marriages (P. 190-191).
"May we spend our married days reminding each other of Your glory, Your gospel, Your love, Your power, Your mission, and Your promise of what is to come." 
4.5 stars out of 5.

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin (Book Review #51 of 2015)

The Art of Learning: A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence
2.5 stars. This book comes highly recommended by Tim Ferriss (who bought the rights to the audio version) and many Ferriss-types who frequent his podcast. I found it fell far short of the hype. Perhaps it was groundbreaking at the time, but I read a lot of articles and books related to behavioral economics, the brain, learning, psychology, and self-improvement and didn't find anything new here. I just read Jon Kabat-Zinn's Mindfulness for Beginners and found it more useful in thinking about breathing and awareness than anything Waitzkin writes in this book. I believe that he is somewhere on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. Waitzkin's perception of the world reads similarly to books by authors with Asperger's like David Finch's Journal of Best Practices and John Elder Robinson's Look Me in the Eye, both of which I rated more highly.
At its core, this is an autobiography by a typical self-centered athlete/celebrity who thinks he's discovered secrets you can use for your own success.

If you're looking for the latest science on how our brains process information, retain memories, and adapt, there is little here. Likewise, if you're looking for tips on how to do things more quickly and efficiently, this is not your book (try the 4-Hour Body, the 4-Hour Chef, or something like Matt Perman's What's Best Next). This book will also not help you learn to win friends and influence people. As such, I feel the book was mistitled. Waitzkin does begin with looking at how "learning theorists" differ from those who believe our abilities are limited by genetics. Learning theorists basically believe you can do/learn anything you put your mind to. If you're skeptical of brain plasticity and an ability to learn, then maybe you wouldn't read this book anyway. But Waitzkin was dubbed "prodigy" for a reason: he could see the chess board differently than 99% of other people from the start. So, talent, neurobiology, whatever you want to call it, was already in his favor, he was just able to hone it through years of training and concentration. This same intuitive advantage helps him in Tai Chi, he writes. He sees chess when doing Tai Chi and vice-versa, if that's you, then you'll like this book. If not, meh. Waitzkin claims to have been able to peform remarkable feats with his mind-- like mentally transferring the physical work he was doing with one arm to his other broken arm such that it did not lose any strength despite being unused. He does not really describe how to do that for yourself, so take that for what you will.

Waitzkin writes of his process in becoming chess champion and later world Tai Chi champion, now he's a consultant helping "great" athletes become "truly elite." But many of his observations have been observed by athletes and non-athletes for millenia, I found Waitzkin's writing to be pretty shallow-- he seems not to have read for depth or breadth in his lifetime. Every experience he has he almost assumes is unique to himself, like he's a pioneer, not recognizing that there is truly "nothing new under the sun." 90% of the book is focused on chess and Tai Chi, but it's hard to relate the lessons learned from these solitary competitions that depend on psychological warfare to team sports where one is simply a fraction of the whole and has to work to make others better, and let them make you better as well. For example, I found little in this book that I could use to improve the learning and efficiency a team of employees who struggle with communication and trust, and very little I could use to strengthen my marriage. Most of the books Tim Ferriss recommends (and most of the people he interviews) are written by unmarrieds with no children to concern themselves with, and Waitzkin is definitely of that ilk.

Anyone who has run a mile or given birth understands the importance of breathing and pushing through when your body says "stop." Anyone who has experienced middle school understands the difficulty of dealing with bullies and staying mentally tough when life is unfair; you don't need to read Waitzkin to know these. There are very few school/social experiences in the Waitzkin book.

I appreciated the validity it added to the Searching for Bobby Fisher movie, which I am currently watching again, and Waitzkin's description of how being thrust into the limelight by the book and film made his life more challenging. It helps to watch certain scenes and see how Waitzkin describes what processes were going on in his head at that time in his life. There were many more psychological games going on-- Russians were quite good at it-- that Waitzkin had to learn to deal with and overcome. Noise distractions, tapping on the board, kicking, blatant cheating, etc. You can't just ignore these injustices, but you have to accept them and channel your feelings about them into a focus on overcoming and winning.

Here are some insights from Waitzkin that I'd argue you could get from any personal trainer:
Short-term goals are useful if and only if they are part of a long-term plan. You need to build your own habits that help you maintain your incremental progress. Create your own triggers for generating creativity. Become at peace with the discomfort around you. Minimize the repetition of errors. Sometimes less is more. Be comfortable with imperfection, and use your own imperfection and weaknesses to your advantage. Internally create inspiring conditions, be self-motivated. Don't change your personality (his best chess coaches recognized it was best to let him be himself) but use it to your advantage.

Waitzkin recommends "chunking," the process of combining things that can be learned together. This is often used in language study, don't study and memorize words, but memorize them in the context of a sentence or phrase-- a chunk of language. Recovery periods are important, every high-performance athlete must be able to "let go" and spend time on the bench resting/recovering. (What athlete doesn't already know this? Sabbaths have been around for millenia.) Elite competitors are cool under pressure, they don't crack. We have to learn to love waiting and embrace it to help us recover.

What do you do when your antagonist is a relentless bully and justice is nowhere to be found? Don't block out your emotions, channel them instead. "Dirty players are the best teacher." Learn to have no fear, in many cases he was thrown around by dirty Tai Chi players because he ultimately feared them. Once he faced the fear, he could anticipate their attacks better.

There are lengthy descriptions of Waitzkin's push hands competitions, what was going on in his head, and how he overcame himself and his opponents mentally. The book ends with his becoming world co-champion in Taiwan after the locals continually changed the rules and cheated to try and defeat the foreigners (I'm convinced by Waitzkin and others I know in internationally in kickboxing, wrestling, and other martial arts that martial arts is the most corrupt sport, their bodies make FIFA look upstanding.)

Again, there is little information about Waitzkin's relationship with his fellow man. Does he look to serve anyone than himself? He writes about girlfriends but gives no information as to how his Art of Learning related to his relationships. He loved his parents, that much is clear, and he did learn a few life lessons from his dad. But if you're juggling a couple jobs, a spouse, kids, and civic organizations you will find Waitzkin's life (like any professional athlete's) mostly irrelevant to yours. I found the book to be just an autobiography pretending to be a self-improvement book.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Podcast of the Week (6/14 - 6/20, 2015) The Gospel Coalition roundtable "Biblical Foundations for Seeking God's Justice in a Sinful World"

Tim Keller, John Piper, Thabiti Anyabwile, Voddie Baucham, Don Carson, and Miguel Núñezin an April 15 panel discussion. "Biblical Foundations for Seeking God's Justice in a Sinful World" Audio and video available here.

Among the topics are where do we get a biblical foundation for justice and human rights? Should the U.S. intervene abroad in the name of justice?

I think Piper wins the latter topic with his "I don't know if America should police the world" and the point is made that the U.S. has gotten so used to fighting the never-ending war on terror that we (Christians) no longer ask "Is this just? Are we considering the cost?" One of the panelists seems to think strongly that we should intervene, another makes a good argument that Romans 13 also requires us to respect other nations' sovereignty, which leads to a question of where we draw the line at an injustice worthy enough for a U.S. military intervention. Which the U.N. debates all the time, seems sort of a waste to discuss it as such in this forum. I don't think anyone in this discussion is sufficiently educated in the evolution of foreign policy. But it's useful to hear the initial viewpoints of Christian thought-leaders.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Mindfulness for Beginners by Jon Kabat-Zinn (Book Review #50 of 2015)

Mindfulness for Beginners

I provide a bit more to this than a normal book review. I give this book 4 stars, it is exactly as advertised.

Pray. Meditate. Don't worry. Relax. Breathe. Have a quiet time. These are all things we know we're supposed to do but neglect to do. They require intentional desire and discipline. This book is about how to practice being intentional about it.

This book is a short summary and introduction into the exercise of mindfulness. The author has a PhD from MIT. I became intrigued by mindfulness after watching the author in this 60 Minutes piece.  Tim Ferriss interviews a lot of Silicon Valley entrepreneur types on his show and practicing some form of meditation seems to be a common link among all of them. I blogged about that here.
I recently saw a profile of the CEO of health care giant AETNA, and how he offers yoga and meditation courses to employees, which are quite popular. They've seen a drop in health care costs that they attribute to the practice reducing stress.
"Employees report a 28 percent decrease in stress levels, a 20 percent improvement in sleep quality and 19 percent reduction in pain. "

I listen to several fitness podcasts and the elite athletes and trainers all practice some form of meditation and yoga as part of their mental fitness and physical recovery. Yoga (a difficult form) is included in P90X and is something that I appreciate and don't do correctly or often enough.

Most Christians think of Eastern meditation as emptying one's mind, whereas that does not appear to be the case with mindfulness. Zinn reportedly developed his style by combining his studies with Buddhist practioners "with science." It's instead a practice of focusing one's mind, and as such I find it compatible with a Christian discipline of meditation.

I read a couple books on spiritual disciplines last year, meditation and prayer are two points covered that are similar. Tim Challies has a brief "faith hacking" post on meditation on Scripture.

In another post, he interviews Joel Beeke on how the Puritans used the word "meditation," and I find it quite compatible:
Puritan meditation engages the mind with God’s revealed truth in order to inflame the heart with affections towards God and transform the life unto obedience. Thomas Hooker defined it like this: “Meditation is a serious intention of the mind whereby we come to search out the truth, and settle it effectually upon the heart.” The direction of our minds reveals the truest love of our hearts, and so, Hooker said, he who loves God’s Word meditates on it regularly (Ps. 119:97). Therefore, Puritan meditation is not repeating a sound, emptying the mind, or imagining physical sights and sensations, but a focused exercise of thought and faith upon the Word of God."
"Here is a method for meditation based on Puritan writings. First, pray for the power to focus your mind on the Word with faith. Second, read the Bible and select a verse or two. Third, repeat those verses to yourself in order to memorize them. Fourth, think about what those verses say and imply, probing the book of Scripture (other verses on the same topic), the book of conscience (how you have believed or disbelieved, obeyed or disobeyed), and the book of nature (how this truth appears in experience and the world). Fifth, stir up your affections unto love, desire, grief, hope, zeal, and joy as appropriate. Preach the text to yourself with powerful application. Sixth, arouse your soul to the specific duty which the text requires, making holy resolutions for the glory of God. Seventh, conclude with prayers for divine assistance, thanksgiving for graces given, and singing psalms of praise to God."

The Psalmist wrote (Psalm 131) "But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
    like a weaned child with its mother;
    like a weaned child is my soul within me"

There's a quietness about it. There's a prayer closet we have to build, either physically or mentally throughout our day, to be like Jesus and move away from the crowds and pray (Mark 1:35-37). To appreciate that God is moving every molecule in our universe, including those in our immediate surroundings. "Multitasking jams the voice of God."

Zinn says that "mindfulness is a way of being, not just a good idea." It's about living in the present moment, not worrying about the past or the future (Matthew 6:34). When the Apostle Paul wrote "Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus" (1 Thess. 5:16-18) I think he gave us a command to be mindful of the truth of our salvation and how God is working His will in our lives all the time. Trusting in truth and accepting reality are an essential part of mindfulness, according to Zinn. Where a non-Christian gets his self-identity and truth from are another matter, but for the Christian it's important to think about large chunks of truth like Romans 5 and Romans 8.

Then, once we have taken the time to meditate on these truths, we have a basis on which to act. We can love others because we remember that Christ first loved us. "Let the doing come out of being," says Zinn.

Zinn invents the verb "awarenessing" which involves using your mind and all of your senses to appreciate your surroundings. You can "appreciate the senses individually as miraculous." Even focusing on something as simple as a raisin, as Zinn uses for his example. We Americans simply throw down a handful while we're sitting at our desk hurrying onto the next thing. Instead, think about the raisin that was once a grape that grew in a miraculous process repeated for millenia. It was picked by someone you don't know and literally thousands of people's effort went to bringing it to market for you to purchase. The process of chewing and digesting are all remarkable. When you slow down and think about it and really appreciate it. It's simple, but we don't do it.

Zinn states that a beginner's mind (like a child) sees infinite possibilities, whereas an "expert" mind sees only two: right and wrong. This brings to mind Jesus' admonition to "become like little children" to "enter the kingdom of heaven." A child marvels at the smallest and simplest things. A child doesn't doubt that God is capable of anything, whereas we lose that faith as adults. Mindfulness is somewhat about getting back that childlike marvel.

In the end, Zinn leads the listener in an exercise of breathing and focusing on the present moment, meditating on truth, and bringing your mind back in focus when it wanders. Any of us who have sat down to pray have had the problem of a wandering mind, the trick is to "lovingly bring it back."

Some prominent Christians in the media have decried mindfulness meditation as nonsense without understanding what it is, or looking at the scientific data on the health benefits of meditation and yoga generally. Yet they also seem to value having a quiet time, prayer, and meditating on scripture. It's a shame they don't recognize that non-Christians have become the developers of a practice once honed by Christians-- including the Puritans.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Fat tails, nuclear war, Google, and lack of planning

Today's XKCD comic really struck me today.

Earlier in the week I was listening to a Russ Roberts EconTalk podcast with Martin Weitzman, co-author of the book Climate Shock. Weitzman seems to have moved Roberts toward the let's-take-action camp by appealing to the Nassim Taleb argument of climate change having "fat tails." Taleb and Weitzman use the term "fat-tailed" to describe an event where there is a low probability of a catastrophic outcome. The argument is that the greater the uncertainty, the greater the impetus for doing something because the outcome could be even worse than you think or perhaps more probable than you calculate. (I reviewed Taleb's Antifragile here.)

This had me thinking about all of the fat-tailed events that we generally ignore, and the fallacy of applying this logic to every human action. Flying commercially is a fat-tailed event: There is a low probability of anything going wrong but if something does go wrong you will not likely survive it-- catastrophe. This is different then, say, driving on the interstate where you still have a pretty good chance of survival if something goes wrong.

I thought about nuclear weapons, especially now that Vladimir Putin announced he wants to increase his arsenal. What do you think more likely, that the earth's temperature will increase enough in the next 30-50 years to cause disastrous and irreversible harm to our species or that we'll use (or have an accident with) the nuclear weapons we've scattered around the world aimed at one another and housed in decaying electronic infrastructure?  There used to be an impetus on reducing those arsenals, but we still see nations (Iran, N. Korea) striving to obtain them even as we have reduced the overall amount since the 1970s. There is still plenty to blow the world up many times over.

I would say the probability and consequence of nuclear war higher than the risk of climate change, yet we're doing nothing about it. That does not come up in the conversation with Dr. Weitzman. Roberts makes the point about opportunity cost-- what if it costs us 50% of world GDP to make the change, is that really worth it? I think we've decided as a world that it's not worth even a fraction of that cost.