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The Wisdom of Crowds

Sir Francis Galton (Wikipedia)

Galton undoubtedly thought that the average guess of the group would be way off the mark. After all, mix a few very smart people with some mediocre people and a lot of dumb people, and it seems likely you’d end up with a dumb answer. But Galton was wrong. The crowd had guessed that the ox, after it had been slaughtered and dressed, would weigh 1,197 pounds. After it had been slaughtered and dressed, the ox weighed 1,198 pounds. In other words, the crowd’s judgement was essentially perfect. … Galton wrote later, “The result seems more creditable to the trustworthiness of a democratic judgement than might have been expected.” That was, to say the least, an understatement.

James Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowds

It’s crowded inside my head right now–

  • The national elections are coming up in November,
  • Some of my friends are predicting the end of the world as we know it,
  • We are experiencing a global energy transition,
  • We are trying to come to grips with the reality of climate change,
  • The universe is evolving toward infinite complexity,
  • We need to do something…

(One difference between me and my computer is that I can decided to jump outside of a problem without my computer thinking I am broken. I think I will do that now!)

I bought Surowiecki’s book, if not his argument. I think that strange things happen all the time in life, and while there is inescapable correctness in both democracy and the Iowa Electronic Markets, there are also brilliant flash-insights that go against the majority’s opinion.

Jumping out of jumping-out-of-the-problem, here are some interesting statistics that might seem unrelated to my list, or to ‘wisdom’. On one hand…

Americans’ self-reported church attendance has continued to inch up in 2010, with 43.1% of Americans reporting weekly or almost weekly attendance. This is up slightly from 42.8% in 2009 and 42.1% in 2008. The increase comes as Americans’ economic confidence has also risen, suggesting that, instead of church attendance rising when economic times get bad, as some theorize, the opposite pattern may be occurring.

—Frank Newport, Gallup

On the other hand…

Characterizations of religious life in the United States typically refererence poll data on church attendance. Consistently high levels of participation reported in these data suggest an exceptionally religious population, little affected by secularizing trends. This picture of vitality, however, contradicts other empirical evidence indicating declining strength among many religious institutions. Using a variety of data sources and data collection procedures, we estimate that church attendance rates for Protestants and Catholics are, in fact, approximately one-half the generally accepted levels.

—Hadaway, Marler and Chaves, What the Polls Don’t Show

“Secularizing trends?” You mean, like in science…

Source: Pew Research Center for the People & the Press

The recent survey of scientists tracks fairly closely with earlier polls that gauged scientists’ views on religion. The first of these was conducted in 1914 by Swiss-American psychologist James Leuba, who surveyed about 1,000 scientists in the United States to ask them about their views on God. Leuba found the scientific community equally divided, with 42% saying that they believed in a personal God and the same number saying they did not.

More than 80 years later, Edward Larson, a historian of science then teaching at the University of Georgia, recreated Leuba’s survey, asking the same number of scientists the exact same questions. To the surprise of many, Larson’s 1996 poll came up with similar results, finding that 40% of scientists believed in a personal God, while 45% said they did not. Other surveys of scientists have yielded roughly similar results.

—The Pew Forum, Scientists and Belief

(In the direction of peer pressure, and since science is a collegial enterprise, one could assume that the unbelieving group of scientists would not be truthful.)

  • As many as 51% of scientists believe a higher power exists in the universe.
  • As many as 20% of “regular citizens” do not attend church regularly, but do lie about it.
  • Fracking could replace global warming as the Next Big Thing Argument.
  • Whoever gets elected in November will very likely be the right candidate for the job.
  • The world as we know it is always ending. That’s a good thing, actually.
  • The universe is probably evolving exactly as it thinks it should.
  • We don’t need to do anything, but we get to, if we want.
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Love and Suffering

I wrote a short piece a couple years ago that turned into this clip… 

Fuel For Forgiveness from The Work Of The People on Vimeo.

It is an attempt to understand how a “Loving God” can “allow suffering” …

Contemplating Death and Resurrection[1]

copyright 12-Mar-2010

Mark W. Ingalls

Stories We Like, Stories We Don’t

·       Why do we like stories of triumph over adversity?

·       Why don’t we like stories of total mastery– from start to finish?

·       Why don’t we like stories of unmitigated suffering from start to finish?

·       Why don’t we like stories of endless peace and happiness in an innocent and endless Garden of Eden?

·       Why don’t we like stories of perfectly average people to whom nothing overly good or bad happens?

·       At the same time, it is the ‘over’ part of adversity we seem to like more in our personal lives.

·       And at the same time we tend to run from suffering like “we hid our faces from him.”

Is Easter Christianity about ‘Over’ ?

What if Jesus had come to earth, taught, prayed, worked miracles, healed people, suffered, died, and rose from the dead, but did not appear to anybody? The Jesus we ‘know’ – how would he be different?
What if Jesus didn’t die, or even suffer, but had overwhelmed his crucifiers with a bolt of lightning and floored them all with his transfigured glory? The Christianity we ‘know’ – how would it be different?
We believe that he is coming again, but what if he had already come again, and we were born after that? The faith we ‘have’ – how would it be different?
What would it be like if it was all just ‘over’?

Good and Evil

(Looking at my own life…) What if I had always been ‘good’? (There was a time when Tiger Woods had always been ‘good’; when did Good-being Tiger end, exactly?)
What if all (or even most) of us were like:

·       Billy Graham

·       Mother Theresa

·       Albert Einstein

–or–

·       Dylan Klebold

·       Timothy McVeigh

·       Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot…

What if God was like a powerful government: Cross the line far enough and He attacks you? (Incidentally, a religious government is still a government.)
But maybe God doesn’t exist, like some say, and the reason we like the Easter story Christianity is because it gives us relief from all the suffering and doubt.

Three Questions

What if Easter is more than an event in history, more than merely a metaphoric ‘three day story’, but a real glimpse into the unchanging character of God? What if suffering is as much in God’s character as are forgiveness, compassion, love, holiness, righteousness and power?
What if suffering is transcendental, in the same way as “transcendental meditation?”
What if suffering is like fuel that powers forgiveness?
We might boil all this storytelling about God and good down to three questions–

  1. How do we ‘know’ God exists?
  2. To what extent is the Easter story ‘true’?
  3. What is its meaning for us today?

How We ‘Know’

(This line of thinking comes from C.S. Lewis, by way of John Ortberg.)
How we ‘know’ something depends on what we believe ‘know’ means. For example, we might ‘know’ that Billy Graham is good and Timothy McVeigh is evil, while some other person might ‘know’ exactly the opposite.
Still, all of us have concepts of ‘unjust’ and ‘inhumane’, because we all have concepts of ‘just’ and ‘humane’; we recognize ‘good’ by differentiating it from ‘evil’ and can differentiate ‘beauty’ from ‘tawdriness’. So we ‘know’ what we believe we have experienced or felt.
We can also ‘know’ something even when it is not always ‘true’. For example, we ‘know’ we can trust our close friends and loved ones even though we also ‘know’ they have (or will) let us down.
There is another way to ‘know’ something. If someone we trust tells us ‘the truth’ then we ‘know’ their ‘true’ story even though we have not experienced or felt it ourselves.

Historical ‘Truth’

We all know that our beliefs about past events can change– like our beliefs about ‘Good’ Tiger Woods, for example. Even our beliefs about events in the distant past are subject to scrutiny. One example is that we used to believe Christopher Columbus discovered the New World, but now we believe that Leif Ericson did, and some people even think there is evidence that the Phoenicians came here even before the Vikings did.
So, our picture of history is constantly changing as we discover new artifacts and documents from the past. Some artifacts and documents may be viewed with suspicion by historians because they don’t appear to be ‘legitimate’ or because they tend to promote one particular viewpoint over others. Other times, the obvious falsehood, or ’embarrassment’ of a document is what makes it historically ‘true’. For example, the ancient Egyptian Merneptah Stele is inscribed with the words, “Israel is laid waste; its seed is no more,” sometime between 1213 and 1203 BCE (before the Christian era). Now today, we know that it’s not ‘true’ because we know that Israel existed after that time. But what the ‘untrue’ Merneptah Stele proves is that there was a group of people named “Israel” large enough for the King of Egypt to brag about ‘wasting’ in 1200 BCE!

‘Doubting’ Thomas

You could say that the disciple called Thomas was somewhat embarrassing to the Gospel story, because he was a skeptic: “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands…” We don’t hear anything about him is in Acts 1:13, where he is reported to be present with the other disciples. The only other association Western historians make between Thomas and Christianity is that his name was attached to a ‘heretical’ early Christian document, written much later than he would have been alive. Thus does Thomas disappear from the traditions of the Western church.

Mar Thoma Church

On the Southwest coast of India is a tiny, ancient sect of Christians, who call themselves, “Mar Thoma.” They started out as Jewish refugees in India who were converted to Christianity by (they claim) Doubting Thomas, the disciple who needed to see the nail marks, in 52 AD.
There are many independent (though obscure) historical verifications of their claims, such as the report by the philosopher, missionary and church father, Pantaenus (died by 200 AD), who wrote that he had personally found pre-existing Christians in India who used the Gospel of Matthew, written in Hebrew, as their only New Testament scriptures. (This is an important ’embarrassing’ detail, because the only manuscript copies of Matthew’s Gospel ever found have been Greek, and Matthew’s Gospel is supposed to have been originally composed in Greek, according to modern biblical scholars.) Another embarrassing fact of history was the Synod of Diamper by Portuguese Catholics. As one result, all religious texts differing from the Catholic Bible were burned.
The fact that these embarrassing ancient ‘Christians’ who were not like us and didn’t have our Bible still celebrated Easter (and communion) goes a long way toward convincing us that the Easter story is ‘true’– at least we know it was a story that truly existed far away from the Western church very long ago.

Suffering

‘Suffering’ used to be the go-to argument in the philosophical debate about the existence of God. I’ve personally never understood what the big deal is, because clearly God suffers. But what good is suffering and why does it matter to God? Let’s try to take a fresh look at suffering by asking what the world would be like if suffering never was.
How would we know we loved somebody (or some thing, even) if suffering never was? No delayed gratification, no emotion attached to being without our love object, how can ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ and ‘love’ coexist? So we see that a world without suffering might also be a world without love. Similarly, we can make a case for each of the following claims:

·       No suffering, no comfort

·       No suffering, no joy

·       No suffering, no forgiveness

·       No suffering, no grace

·       No suffering, no peacemakers

·       No suffering, no patience…

To Everything a Season

We might now come to the point of view that evil and good, suffering and joy, sin and love, are all necessarily balanced in tension, and that is the way it must be. That appears to be the point of view of the writer of Ecclesiastes, after all. But it is also the writer’s point of view that:
“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”

Ecclesiastes 1:2

This is the pre-Easter state of humanity: everything balanced and meaningless… Twentieth century philosophers called this “Existential Dread”…

Balance, Beauty, Big Bang

The idea that the universe must be in balance runs deep. For example, symmetry has been known to be an important component of aesthetic beauty. Attractiveness studies show that composite (balanced, symmetrical) human faces are deemed more beautiful than any of the individuals’ faces used to create the composites. Mathematics seeks to balance equations. Physics theories strive for balance– “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Life is about balance… or is it?
The universe we know exists because of a huge imbalance: “matter” far outweighs “antimatter” in our universe. The reason for this bald fact is one of the unsolved questions of theoretical physics, because “The Big Bang” should have created equal amounts of antimatter and matter. To a physicist, there is no mathematical reason that the universe as it is would even exist. Ultimately, then, life as we know it is about a huge imbalance: that of matter over antimatter.

Unbalance Makes Meaning

So, here we are living in a universe where, if you want to study antimatter you have to create it in the laboratory. If we imagine a theoretical physicist who had never witnessed our universe, he might say that this was an absurd idea– “Matter must be balanced by antimatter; symmetry must be preserved!” But I think we can ‘know’ our experience is ‘true’…
In a similar way, the pre-Easter man would say that a universe without suffering and pain is absurd. But what if someone came to us who had been in that universe, someone we could trust? What if there is a universe where, if you want to study suffering, you have to create it in a laboratory?

Necessity for Suffering Only for Awhile

In this universe, God (who is attested to exist by Jesus, who is attested to have risen by Thomas, who is attested to have converted to Christianity the Mar Thoma, who are attested to have used a Hebrew gospel similar to Matthew and to have existed before 200 A.D. by Pantaenus and attested to have been ‘heretics’ by the Portuguese, …) suffers. We don’t have a proper theory for that, we just know it is true, just like the matter/antimatter imbalance.
In this universe, we have no way to understand the meaning of good without evil, because we are somehow wired to perceive beauty in symmetry. Again, we don’t have a good theory for the beauty of averageness, but it’s true nonetheless. At the same time we find composite faces attractive, we find composite lives of composite people boring.
In this suffering, loving universe a suffering, loving being is said to have appeared talking about peacemaking, humility, forgiveness, and joy. This being claimed to be the inventor of everything. This being, this Christ, claimed to have also created another universe, a parallel universe where suffering was like antimatter. This is the meaning of Easter Christianity for us today.


[1] All ‘fact-checking’ can easily be done using http://en.wikipedia.org

The Myth of Matter, p. 6

The “Conflict Thesis”

Looking back down the timeline from the perspective of the late 1800’s with the clarity of hindsight one could easily say, “Democritus and Wycliffe (… Copernicus and Galileo…) were right, and religious orthodoxy was wrong.” [1]

Should we then make the inference that religion –and in particular, Christianity– is the enemy of science?

“The conflict thesis proposes an intrinsic intellectual conflict between religion and science based on what its authors considered to be historical evidence of perpetual opposition between religion and science. … Despite recent scholarly reevaluation, the conflict thesis remains a popular view among the general public.”[2]

He probably knew better than believe his own thesis.

This idea, unsupported by modern scholarship, was put forth by a handful of 19th century thinkers (John W. Draper, Andrew D. White, Washington Irving). I will have more to say about these fellows in a subsequent post, perhaps.

Should we make the inference then that science is the enemy of religion?


[1] It turns out that “religious orthodoxy,” in view of what was done to Joan d’Arc or Giordano Bruno, did not treat these guys too badly.

[2] Wikipedia//Conflict thesis

The Myth of Matter, p. 3

Hylomorphism [1]

William of Ockham, from stained glass window a...

Atoms violated "Occam's Razor." (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The winners of the argument thought matter was continuously variable. They argued convincingly that pure matter came in simple shapes, such as lines, planes, circles, spheres, pyramids and so on, and that matter became objects in a way similar to how we use primitive shapes to create a computer drawing. Let’s call them ‘morphists’ for short.

Morphists had iron-clad mathematical reasons to support their point of view. The reasoning went like something like this:

  1. Let us pick two numbers, say 1 and 11/3.
  2. Isn’t it true that there is number between those two numbers, like 11/6?
  3. Isn’t it true that there is a number between 11/6 and 11/3?
  4. Can’t we go on finding in-between numbers forever? (And isn’t it also true that they don’t have to be made with fractions?)
  5. Then why shouldn’t we consider the rest of reality to operate the same way?
Table I: Fourteenth Century Atomists and their Critics[2]

Atomists

‘Morphists’

Henry of Harclay William of Alnwick
Walter Chatton Adam Wodeham
William Crathorn Thomas Bradwardine
John Wycliffe William of Ockham
Gerard of Odo Roger Rosetus
Nicholas Bonetus Walter Burley
John Gedo John the Canon
Marcus Trevisano
Nicholas Autrecourt

The Middle Ages’ strongest mathematical reasoning was augmented with really powerful theological ideas that everyone –even the atomists– believed by faith. The combination of (inadequate) mathematical reasoning and (inflexible) religious orthodoxy is illustrated in the story of John Wycliffe.


[1] ‘Hylo’: matter, ‘morph’: form; Greek

[2] Christophe Grellard and Aurélien Robert, eds., Atomism in Late Medieval Philosophy and Theology, Brill,Leiden, 2009.

The Blind Men and the Elephant, p. 2


This is one man’s depiction of his religious beliefs. It is the oldest known version of “Christ Pantocrator”, painted five or six hundred years after its subject had left this earth. This is my favorite Christian icon, surviving as it did some other blind men, those iconoclasts who viewed such depictions of the divine as equivalent to a graven image.
Looking at that conflict between different factions of the same religion from the vantage point of thirteen more centuries of smashing things and name-calling, I try to be as accommodating as can be of other people’s iconography, and as demure as can be with my own.

We might transliterate Pantocrator today as Master of the Universe; quite in contrast with this depiction…

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