Monday, 16 September 2013

Rainbow


I drove home late this afternoon with a rainbow spanning the whole sky, moving ahead of me the way rainbows do. I stopped about a kilometre from home to take a picture and thought of a couple of times recently when I have heard the rainbow used as a metaphor for the way consciousness and reality interact.
 
For example,
"For the rainbow experience to happen we need sunshine, raindrops, and a spectator. It is not that the sun and the raindrops cease to exist if there is no one there to see them… But unless someone is present at a particular point no colored arch can appear. The rainbow is hence a process requiring various elements, one of which happens to be an instrument of sense perception. It doesn’t exist whole and separate in the world nor does it exist as an acquired image in the head separated from what is perceived (the view held by the ‘internalists’ who account for the majority of neuroscientists); rather, consciousness is spread between sunlight, raindrops, and visual cortex, creating a unique, transitory new whole, the rainbow experience. Or again: the viewer doesn’t see the world; he is part of a world process". -Riccardo Manzotti

Now I'm not sure I quite understand Manzotti's 'externalism' much less agree with it, but I find this a helpful explanation of the peculiar relationship of consciousness and matter at a quantum level. And also of the existence of the self, which, like the rainbow, exists only as a perception by a consciousness. Two people, standing side by side will see the rainbow, and agree on its dimensions and ooh and ahhh over its colour but it has no objective reality. It is an illusion, a trick of the interaction of light and water - which are themselves a similar kind of illusion, except in very slow motion. Water and light are what we name our perceptions of energy in two particular states. So too, the self we take such trouble to protect and care for is a trick of the light, and, so says Jesus, must be killed off if we are to truly live.

I got back into the car (I didn't want to get wet and it was starting to get dark) and took myself home.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

The Language of God

A number of people recommended this book to me recently and I'm glad they did. I interrupted my reading schedule and knocked it off in a couple of sittings. It is a thorough book but not a difficult one.

Francis S Collins is a scientist of impeccable credentials. He has studied physics and biochemistry and is one of the world's leading geneticists. He is also an evangelical Christian. The book is in part his testimony of faith but mostly it is a defence of science for those who are sceptical about science and an apologetic for God for those who are sceptical about religion. He includes a brief history of the years he spent as leader of the team which produced the first map of the human genome, one of the most significant scientific achievements of the last Century.

It is a book whose emphasis I found a little surprising. For me, it is axiomatic that the universe and everything in it is evolving. It has been about 40 years now since the issue of reconciling evolution to faith was significant for me, and probably 20 years since I have had much interest in the topic at all. My guess would be that the overwhelming majority of New Zealanders (90%?) would have a worldview which included an ancient earth and gradual descent of species from a common ancestor, so the issue of evolution is relegated to small, conservative  portions of the church and doesn't get discussed much outside of that arena. My surprise was in the information Collins relayed that about 45% of Americans subscribed to views on the age of the earth and the descent of humankind which are not scientifically defensible. As Collins points out, one of the elegant characteristics of science is its self correcting nature: while it is possible for false scientific ideas to gain some widespread popularity, they cannot do it for long and evolution has been one of the mainstays of Western scientific thought for well over a century now. The book is largely about evolution, and here was I thinking that the argument was pretty much done and dusted. Apparently, not so.

Collins does a very good job of explaining evolution and its cornerstone role in science and gives a patient explanation of how his own field, genetics, enhances our view of the processes through which we have descended. His explanations of faith are based largely on the works of popular theologians such as C S Lewis. He shows no great knowledge of Biblical criticism, assuming for example that the Gospels of  Matthew and John were written by two of Jesus' 12 disciples. Where he really shines is in the sections which come from his heart: where he shows how he has managed, personally, to reconcile his utter commitment to a scientific worldview with deep personal faith in and experience of God. He is astute, though brief, in his analysis  of the intellectual bankruptcy of both radical atheism and the Intelligent Design movement. He critiques Intelligent Design, fairly IMHO, as a "God of the Gaps" theory which has planted its flag on a patch of ground which must inevitably get smaller and smaller as scientific knowledge increases. He doesn't seem to have noticed however that his own principle argument is open to the same analysis.

Francis Collins, following C S Lewis recognises the universality of a moral code as a sign of God's presence in the universe and participation in the creation of humankind. While I agree with him that attempts to explain the moral code, and particularly altruism, on the grounds of evolution through natural selection are, to date anyway, a little feeble, there is no guarantee that some explanation won't be found. I think he has not quite seen through to the depths of the position he so eloquently espouses in the rest of the book: namely that even if an evolutionary explanation for altruism is found, it doesn't diminish one whit its standing as a sign of Gods presence and of Gods nature.

This is a good book which should be a helpful read for people who are in doubt about either faith or religion. I didn't learn much from it that I didn't know already but he did leave me with some reminders of the acuity of C S Lewis and with one intriguing thought: that the universe is the act of creation. It is the process through which God is creating (note, IS) that which is to follow. So what would it have been like to have been present at the Big Bang when all that we know and understand came into being? Well actually, the Big Bang is going on all around us and we are part of it which is why, I suppose, the universe is in this headlong rush of change and development, producing ever more wonderful arrangements of matter and, in the last tiny percentage of its history, those extraordinary mysteries, life and consciousness.

I won't be distracted by this book into re entering the tedious debate on whether or not evolution is happening, but I'm glad Francis S Collins is giving to those still interested this careful and accessible way of working through the issue. There are other matters however, connected to the debate which the Christian Church sorely needs to address, and these have to do with reconciling the great truths of our faith with the ancient and ever changing universe which is assumed as fact by the overwhelming majority of people who make up our society.

Friday, 6 September 2013

All Fixed

On Monday the computer crashed. On Wednesday I got it back, pretty much fixed and ready to go; it was only only a couple of days, but it was a revelation. During Tuesday I lived with the possibility that I wasn't going to get any data off the hard drive, and found that I was not actually all that bothered. There is a pile of old sermon notes but I hardly ever refer to them any more. There are a few hundred Power Point presentations, made to go with the sermons and they also don't get looked at much. There are countless folders of word processing files, copied from computer to computer all the way back to the Atari ST I owned in the 1980s and they are of interest sometimes - old letters and plans and notes and essays. There is a book I sporadically work on, but I'm not optimistic about finishing it. And there are the photos, thousands of the things. Most of them have been seen only by me and most of them are junk. There are, admittedly, a few that I am quite fond of but it's a very long time since I dreamed of being Richard Avendon or Ansel Adams and on Tuesday I knew the world would be no poorer for the loss of a couple of thousand pictures of sunsets and beach scenes and picturesque rural cottages.

I got it home late in the afternoon. and set it up on my desk and made a cup of tea. All the programs were gone but the data files had been restored and were all present. At least, I think they are; I had a quick flick through the photos, and made sure the music was there, but to tell the truth, I haven't yet opened any of the document files. It took me until about midnight to uninstall all the programs that Mr. Asus thought I would be pretty keen on owning and to put back the ones I thought I might like to have. I set up an account with Carbonite and started copying everything to the cloud - two days later, after continually uploading, 30% of it has made the journey. I plugged in a new external drive and made a proper image of the contents of my two drives.  But why?

I find myself bemused by all this accumulation of data and this drive to record and keep things, even as I am sitting up late to do it. Perhaps I am a little clearer about the reasons for recording images. One  is to help people explore who they are and where they come from, which is what family snaps are about. Another is a little more subtle. The world is an astonishingly beautiful place. Everyday it bombards us with an impermanent, ever shifting kaleidoscope of colours and textures and shapes and forms and relationships. Every minute, or perhaps every second there is some new vista which opens up to show the beauty in which we are continually steeped. Oddly, some people, don't seem to notice and that's where I come over all evangelical. Perhaps if I try hard enough; perhaps if I learn enough about how the light falls and how my machinery can capture it, then I can make an image which freezes one small current of the Heraclitean flux for long enough that someone can see what is there - not there in the photo but there in the Universe, everywhere and all the time. Truth is beauty, beauty truth. Taking pictures is a way for me to try and see the truth and try to tell it. And perhaps the few dozen times when I have managed to do that a little bit is worth the 50,000  times I have failed.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Data

This last weekend I was in Queenstown attending the 150th anniversary celebrations  for St. Peter's church. It was a very full programme, with a walk around the historic sites of the still rumbustious mining town, talks on some of the interesting pioneers, including the founder of the parish, W.G. Rees and music led for the most part by the incomparable Mark Wilson whose gob smacking jazz improvisations on Happy Birthday enlivened Saturday evening and whose lovely hymn ( Mark on piano, his wife Emma on trumpet) did the same on Sunday morning.  Clemency wore a light blue Victorian  gown with a bustle and frills and I wore a top hat and a wing collar, well some of the time anyway. There was a meal at the Vicarage attended by, obviously, David Coles the Vicar and also five previous vicars all with their respective spouses. A sumptuous lunch after church finished things off very nicely indeed.
It was a great start to the week. Then on Monday my new computer crashed. As it was only a few months old I took it into the shop where I bought it and watched the techie guy shake his head sadly while he told me that perhaps the people in Auckland might be able to get some of the data off it. I came home chastened. It contained all my photographs, except for ones like the above which were still in the camera. And all my email, documents, sermons from the last 20 or so years, and a book I am sporadically working on. I plugged my old computer into the monitor and keyboard and was given a demonstration on why it was replaced: it crashed about a dozen times in the space of three hours, told me it had signed me into a temporary profile and wrecked the old, non temporary one. To date, I haven't managed to get any useful files off it. The external hard drive onto which I thought I had backed up proved to be blank. I tried everything I knew, and a few more besides but it seems that everything has gone.

I'll see what the techies come up with, but I have been thinking a lot about the loss of all that data: especially, the 50,000 or so photographs. Some were of family events, weddings and overseas trips. Some I had worked over for long periods, tweaking and trimming and erasing and shifting around. Some, maybe a dozen or so, I was very very pleased with indeed. But now there is the real possibility they are gone beyond recovery, and I have been surprised how little that has bothered me. I did lie awake for some of the night and I did look at my quite large and elaborate camera and question the reason for its existence, but mostly it has been business as usual: a quick trip to Invercargill and back and a pile of email on my work computer and phone.

This morning when I pulled the curtains back there was a band of strong horizontal light falling on the hills on the other side of the harbour.The clouds were mother of pearl and branches of a neighbourhood tree were silhouetted against them. Sun glistened from some windows and a shadow fell in a curving ribbon on others. It was lovely and it might have made a beautiful photograph. But why take it? Why this effort to capture moments and hold them still? Why the drive to deny that all things are temporary and all fade away, as did that scene as the sun slowly rose behind me? I thought of the old ones, who slogged up the Kawerau Gorge and set up a tent city by Lake Wakatipu. Was their life any less full and rich for not being able to capture instant colour images of it all and to Tweet each other about their breakfast menus?

Actually, no.

Sometimes the invitation of God is most volubly heard not so much in what is given, but, rather, in what is taken away.