Tom Pittman's WebLog

Earlier this year
 

2018 September 15 -- Thinking: Work or Audacity

A couple years ago I started reading Moby Dick. It was heavy going, so I'd read a couple chapters, then read something else -- mostly library books -- for a while. Some library books are real page-turners, and I stay awake late and finish them is a couple days. Others are so full of gutter language or inner turmoil they just are no fun to read, so I don't finish them, but most of the books I bring home take up to a week to read. You never know, so lately I've been piling up a stack of four books, so I won't find myself out of reading material before the next weekly trip to the library. Last week there were two duds and two fast reads, so I took the time to finish Moby Dick, and was impressed by this odd remark eight pages from the end:
Here's food for though, had Ahab time to think; but Ahab never thinks; he only feels, feels, feels, that's tingling enough for mortal man! to think's audacity. God only has that right and privilege. Thinking is, or ought to be, a coolness and a calmness; and our poor hearts throb, and out poor brains beat too much for that.
I see it the other way around. God certainly was the first to think, and the image of God created in Adam conferred that ability on all of us, but it's hard work, and not many people want to put the effort into it. At the end of the day, even I get too tired to think, and must set my work aside and take it up again the next day. I used to be able to work longer hours, but part of that was a sense of purpose, which -- except these last few months -- is largely gone. So I do more brainless reading. Moby Dick was not an example of brainless reading.

One of the books I picked up this week similarly was heavy, partly the same reason as Melville: this author invented a lot of strange terms for commonplace ideas to make it feel alien and other-worldly, where Melville used 170-year-old terminology (and not a few words no longer in the English language nor my vocabulary). So when it became obvious that the author praised on the cover for his military prose was actually planning to do the feminazi thing, I didn't feel bad about putting it down after only two chapters. If reading a novel is not "a coolness and a calmness," why bother?

I mentioned space-op novelist David Drake earlier this year, because he's a fun read. He thumbs his nose at the establishment. He also evokes the feeling of cultural difference between the warring empires in his RCN series, not by inventing odd terminology, but by the judicious switching off between metric and English units of measure, both familiar to his readers, which he is ever at pains to explain is in both cases a translation of whatever units a far future culture actually would use. So he gets the feeling of alienness without making us work to read it. The best of both worlds.
 

2018 September 11 -- My "Religion"

Last month I mentioned a magazine editor's comment -- which I took as a confession -- that "humans decisively prefer to spread lies over truth." It's a disease that seems to afflict pretty much the whole nation, perhaps even the whole world but I have less access to observe it. I try not to let that include me, but it makes for awkward moments.

I mentored this computer summer program for high-school students, and we recently finished the second year. The director likes to promote it as "the kids do everything," but the real world does not work that way. We need tools to make things happen, and he says "Let the kids do it," except they don't do the kind of quality work you need in tools. How can they? They're just kids. You need experience using the kinds of tools you want to make, before you can make them do what needs to be done. But it's my job to help them do as much as possible. I'm a tool maker. It worked out that way.

This year, one of the things the kids were supposed to be doing is building a model for their program that can be exported to other venues across the country and around the world. We got invited to an international conference to tell them what we are doing -- the fact that it's high school kids makes it look impressive, which probably figured in the motivation for the invitation -- but the nature of scheduling is that we had to commit to going and presenting before we knew whether we had anything to show.

The director has spent a lifetime creating companies that produce quality commercial products, so he knows how to do these kinds of things. Instead of the plastic vacuum-formed body that comes with the radio-control cars we are taking over by computer, he went out and engaged professional designers to make it look industrial. It looks fabulous, but the kids didn't do it. No big deal, they are designing software, not hardware. The director had two cars made up, but they were a little behind schedule: the second one was not fully functional until after the summer program ended. No big deal, we had one to run on.

Getting the software to take the car around the track was a bigger deal, they almost didn't finish. Well-run companies have experienced people in management positions -- or in his case, at least a cultural heritage of doing things Right. These are kids, and they don't have that same heritage. I'm not particularly good at that kind of management either (I told him that up front). At least I know it's not something God made me good at. 55 years ago (at their age) I didn't have a clue, but nobody tried to lay on me that kind of responsibility. In reality, the director was doing it to me, not to the kids.

Here comes the "religion" part... "Religion," you will recall from a couple months ago, is the set of things we know to be true despite any evidence to the contrary. I know I have crummy management skills, and I have lots of experience proving it. That's not religion. The kids are not much better (if any), and I know that too. I do not deceive myself. The director is something else. He has more religion than I do.

I am not completely irreligious, I don't think anybody is -- certainly not the self-confessed atheists: they have much more religion than I ever will. They know about the laws of physics and the entropy law (things get worse over time, not better) in particular, but they prefer to believe that things are getting better, that "people are more likely to be incompetent than dishonest," as one of them recently put it to me. But the evidence supports Virginia Heffernan, that "humans decisively prefer lies over truth."

So I got to thinking, what do I believe as true despite any apparent evidence to the contrary? Not that there is a God, the evidence firmly supports that (see "What's Really Important"), but what kind of God is He? The Bible tells me "God is Good." The existence of calamity and just plain Bad People seems to convince a lot of people that God is either not good or else incompetent. I'm willing to defer judgment, based on the fact that I'm not any kind of god, I'm lucky if I can get my computer programs right, let alone the whole universe, so I have no problem accepting that God can be and is in control. That's the logical difference between a god and us mere mortals.

What about the calamities? Is God Good? The evidence isn't particularly impressive on that, certainly not like the evidence that God is there and running things, nor even as good as the evidence that the Bible is God's work, not mere humans. So really that's all I have: the Bible says so. It's religion. It's not really illogical, God cannot give us free will and at the same time restrain the Bad Guys from doing harm. Free will is good, I wouldn't want to be a robot with no choice. So there are broken eggs. Dostoyevsky gives us a clue to the way out of this: "if there's no immortality of the soul, then there's no virtue, and everything is lawful" (see my blog post "Incomplete Christianity" five years ago). Virtue is rewarded in the future, and the rewards are so much bigger than the calamities, but you can't see that from here. That's why it's religion. Unlike Darwinism, and unlike the notion that people are basically generous and unselfish and giving, it's not contrary to the available facts, but the supporting facts are pretty slim.
 

Links:

The Job Affair -- He didn't have to wait until eternity, he got paid back double his losses in this life
Biological Evolution: Did It Happen? -- Darwinism is more religious than the Christian origins story
What's Really Important -- Why (most) Christian teaching is evidence-based, not religion

Earlier this year / Later this year
Complete Blog Index
Itty Bitty Computers home page