Unhelpful

16 Jan

aetiological

adjective

  • alternative spelling of etiological.

etiological

adjective

  • Of or pertaining to an etiology.

etiology

noun

  • alternative spelling of aetiology.

aetiology

noun

  • The study of causes or origins.
  • The known or speculated upon origin of a disease or class of diseases, of use in nosology, pathology, and prophylaxis.
  • The ascertained origin of a particular case of a disease. This presumes adiagnosis, and may be relevant to a prognosis, but is distinct from both.

Cats and Aesthetics

4 Feb

I am prepared to offer an answer to that burning question of our time: Do cats have a sense of aesthetics?

Yes.

What evidence do I have to prove this? I give you this picture:

Two laptops lay beside each other on the ground, the cat sits on one

Why would the cat choose to sit on the laptop? It offers no cover or concealment, is not elevated enough to provide a better view, and is not a comfortable seat. Clearly the only reason is that she values it as a square.

Don’t believe me? I give you this picture:

Three laptops form 3/4 of a square, the cat sits in the open quarter

Add another laptop to the arrangement and the cat moves to the open space. Why? Because that space is now the clearly defined square.

And, finally, to complete the case:

Cat sitting on an iPad on the bed

There can be no reason for the cat to sit on the iPad rather than on the comfortable bed other than its squareness.

So, yes, cats have a sense of aesthetics. At least for squares.

Modern Parables? Christians’ Silly Stories and the Lessons they Teach

24 Oct

Recently a friend shared a variation1 of the following story on Facebook:

Does evil exist?

The university professor challenged his students with this question. Did God create everything that exists? A student bravely replied, “Yes, he did!”

“God created everything? The professor asked.

“Yes sir”, the student replied.

The professor answered, “If God created everything, then God created evil since evil exists, and according to the principal that our works define who we are then God is evil”. The student became quiet before such an answer. The professor was quite pleased with himself and boasted to the students that he had proven once more that the Christian faith was a myth.

Another student raised his hand and said, “Can I ask you a question professor?”

“Of course”, replied the professor.

The student stood up and asked, “Professor, does cold exist?”

“What kind of question is this? Of course it exists. Have you never been cold?” The students snickered at the young man’s question.

The young man replied, “In fact sir, cold does not exist. According to the laws of physics, what we consider cold is in reality the absence of heat. Every body or object is susceptible to study when it has or transmits energy, and heat is what makes a body or matter have or transmit energy. Absolute zero (-460 degrees F) is the total absence of heat; all matter becomes inert and incapable of reaction at that temperature. Cold does not exist. We have created this word to describe how we feel if we have no heat.”

The student continued, “Professor, does darkness exist?”

The professor responded, “Of course it does.”

The student replied, “Once again you are wrong sir, darkness does not exist either. Darkness is in reality the absence of light. Light we can study, but not darkness. In fact we can use Newton’s prism to break white light into many colors and study the various wavelengths of each color. You cannot measure darkness. A simple ray of light can break into a world of darkness and illuminate it. How can you know how dark a certain space is? You measure the amount of light present. Isn’t this correct? Darkness is a term used by man to describe what happens when there is no light present.”

Finally the young man asked the professor, “Sir, does evil exist?”

Now uncertain, the professor responded, “Of course as I have already said. We see it every day. It is in the daily example of man’s inhumanity to man. It is in the multitude of crime and violence everywhere in the world. These manifestations are nothing else but evil.”

To this the student replied, “Evil does not exist sir, or at least it does not exist unto itself. Evil is simply the absence of God. It is just like darkness and cold, a word that man has created to describe the absence of God. God did not create evil. Evil is not like faith, or love that exist just as does light and heat. Evil is the result of what happens when man does not have God’s love present in his heart. It’s like the cold that comes when there is no heat or the darkness that comes when there is no light.”

The professor sat down.

The young man’s name — Albert Einstein.

Some quick googling reveals that the story is false, as you probably—like me—suspected from the beginning. The Snopes article explains that Einstein has become a stand in for the genius in modern culture, and details how the atheist professor is constructed as a straw man.

There are other tales of a similar kind, including the infamous dropped chalk and several where the professor tells his class that God can’t knock him off the platform, prompting a Christian to come do so for God. The tales seem to come in three varieties:

  • The logical refutation, as with Einstein
  • The supernatural intervention, as with the chalk
  • The Christian doing God’s will, as with the platform

Snopes gives a fairly good, if somewhat biased sounding, explanation of the social functions of these stories: to act as “modern day parables”. As such the actual truth of the story matters little. They are meant to serve as rallying cries to true believers, reinforcing faith and inspiring similar actions in those who hear.

But I think the article misses something. If these stories are like parables, and I think the comparison is astute, we must remember what the goals of a parable are. While inspiring resolve in true believers is one, the primary goal of a parable is to teach. And, indeed, I think these stories do teach us something about God and faith, as silly as they may be.

Returning to our three varieties, we can find a different lesson in each. The logical refutation tends to highlight a flaw in the arguments against God. Evil as the absence of God is a persuasive—though not definitive—argument for His existence. While the logical refutation can never prove God, it can prove that God and faith cannot be proved or disproved.

The second variety, supernatural intervention, teaches that God can act in this world. God’s direct action in the world is a key belief of Christianity. The chalk’s altered path to the ground shows the listener that God can and will intervene in circumstances when necessary.

I find the lesson from the third variety, the Christian doing God’s will, most interesting. On the surface these are the silliest. In the case of knocking the professor off the platform it feels more like a comeuppance than a theological lesson. Of course knocking him over proves nothing. But, when read at a deeper level, these stories serve to challenge the assumption that God’s only—or primary—means of work is through direct action. Much of the Christian faith is based on God’s movement through humans. This type of tale brings that movement into the modern world.

Is teaching the principle goal of these stories? Probably not. Their typical tone and the social aspect of their distribution make it more likely that they are intended to reinforce faith (or adherence to the “party” line, if you’re cynical) than to teach lessons. So if the primary purpose of a parable is to teach, these are probably not primarily parables.2

Yet, I think there is some lesson in each from which we can learn. And it’s worth remember this even as we laugh, scoff, or shake our heads in disbelief at them.

1 The variation in question was actually an amusing combination of at least two different tales and included a nice swipe at evolution. It amused me.

2 How’s that for alliteration? Perhaps I should go into ministry.

A Vegetarian Conversion

8 Aug

God took pity on me for my lack of an evangelical conversion experience and provided me with one. The only catch is that it doesn’t involve my eternal salvation. It involves my diet. I’ve had a vegetarian conversion.

My Bible for this conversion was Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. I purchased it on a whim after reading a blog post singing it’s praises. Meticulously researched and skillfully written, it’s less a persuasive essay than an inner dialogue shared with the world. In the end it serves as a sobering presentation of modern meat eating.

Did you know that:

  • Over 99% of animal products come from factory farms.
  • We’ve modified the turkeys and  chickens we eat so much that they are incapable of living to adulthood.
  • The average chicken whose eggs you eat lives in 67 square inches of space. That’s smaller than the computer monitor you’re reading this on.*
  • Free range? It just means there’s a door somewhere that leads outdoors.
  • It’s not uncommon for animals (chicken, pig, cow, take your pick) to be alive during the butchering process because the stunning method fails.

I’ll stop there. There are more facts to present than I have space for. I’d highly recommend that you read Eating Animals or do your own research.

In the end it’s hard to argue with the facts. Modern meat comes from factory farms. Factory farms are almost inevitably cruel and inhumane. Shall I complete the logic?

Bacon is good. Bacon is really good. There’s no denying that. There’s also no denying that the pig you eat the bacon from probably never saw outdoors. It was fed a completely unnatural diet replete with antibiotics to keep it alive. There’s a good chance it was born in a gestation crate not even big enough for its mother to turn around in.

How good is that bacon now?

And this doesn’t even get into the public health, environmental, climate change, or nutrition aspects of eating meat. Not to mention the ethics of eating meat. But let’s leave all that aside.

Knowing that you can eat a perfectly healthy diet without meat, is the cruelty worth it to you? Can you justify it?

One of my favorite passages from Eating Animals is Foer’s response to the accusation that vegetarians are sentimentalists. He politely points out that people who eat meat do so because of tradition and people who don’t because they know the facts of animal welfare. Who’s the sentimentalist here?

Some would say that real men eat meat. I say that real men look at the facts and decide if their actions are worth it. I’ve decided mine aren’t. Are yours?

I’ve asked a lot of rhetorical questions. So does Foer. But there’s a reason for that. No one is going to force you or I to change our diets. There’s no law against eating meat. It comes down to personal choice. A judgment call, if you will. You have to ask questions, of the meat industry, and of yourself. You may not be comfortable with the answers.

I challenge you to give it a go. Ask the questions. Read a book. Do the research. Maybe you’ll have a conversion like me. Maybe not. But at least you’ll know what it means for us to be eating animals.

* If you’re on your iPhone, imagine a space about 6.5 times the size of your phone. Yes, it’s that small.

Re-Link from the Past

4 Jul

Browsing through my old posts, I came across one called “Blogging and Meta-Blogging“. Evidently I could actually write in 2009.

While the Smidgin has been a useful endeavor, helping me form my opinion on numerous topics, I fully admit that my writing skill in the early days was not fully developed (as if it is today). Some of the early posts are particularly bad.

But, “Blogging and Meta-Blogging” actually works. The observations are spot-on and the jokes are good. At least, I think so. So if I may indulge in self-flattery in this post, since I didn’t in that post, I’ll tell you to go read it.

Interesting Use of Data Visualization

23 Jun

At least, for a news organization. It’s not an interactive graphic, it’s a part of the article itself. To get to the conclusion, you have to scroll through the graphic. And it makes its point.

Or lack of a point.

Precisely.

BBC News – Go Figure: Do we understand risk of mobile phone use?.

Psalm 139: God in Knowledge, Space, and Time

21 Jun

Reading Psalm 139 with friends this morning, I noted something interesting. The first two thirds of the Psalm can be broken in to three parts, each focusing on a different aspect of God.

God Surpasses Human Knowledge

1 O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high; I cannot attain it.

In the first six verses, the focus is on God’s knowledge. As verse six sums up, God has a degree of knowledge which is impossible for humans to achieve. While we think man has achieved great things in knowledge, the Lord knew each accomplishment before us. His knowledge is so vast, and in some means different, that it completely encompasses our abilities.

God Is Not Limited By Human Space

Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light about me be night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you.

In the next section, the focus shifts from knowledge to space. Our human conception of space is such that if I am here, I am not there. This is not true for God, and the Psalmist realizes it. It’s not simply that God follows the Psalmist from heaven to Sheol to the other side of the sea, but that when the Psalmist reaches each place he realizes that God is there too.

A friend also pointed out that God does not see as we see. While darkness means we cannot see, “even the darkness is not dark to” God. Our human understanding of sight is not God’s sight.

God Exceeds Human Time

13 For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there was none of them.

Finally, the psalmist examines God in time. Like our human understanding of space, our understanding of time is I was in the past, I am now, and I will be in the future. I am always in the present and have both a past and a future. Not so for God. Our days in the future are known to him “when as yet there was none of them.” God somehow exists in time as we do not.

The psalmist concludes with a section which reflects on these unknowable attributes of God, and there meaning for our lives:

17 How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
18 If I would count them, they are more than the sand.
I awake, and I am still with you.

19 Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God!
O men of blood, depart from me!
20 They speak against you with malicious intent;
your enemies take your name in vain!
21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
22 I hate them with complete hatred;
I count them my enemies.

23 Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
24 And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting!

The final verses seem to be the only appropriate response to a God who is so utterly more than us in knowledge, space, and time.

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