Monthly Archives: April 2013

Of Morality and Horology

Kylan Arianna Wenzel

Kylan Arianna Wenzel, Transgender Miss California Competitor

One of my daughter’s good friends recently came out as … well, I’m not sure what the word is. S/he was born male but feels like a lesbian. That seems a tad more complicated than transgender, but there you have it.

If one felt moved to make a moral pronouncement about that situation, what would one say?

For the evangelicals with whom I used to consort, the answer would be simple.

Or would it?

My thesis in this post is that traditional, sacred-text-based religions make morality more complicated than it really is, and therefore less clear.

Audemars Piguet Classique Grand Complication Pocket Watch

Audemars Piguet Classique Grand Complication Pocket Watch

I will set the stage with a digression to another field where complications are the order of the day: horology. The highest accomplishment in making a timepiece is to introduce as many complications as possible. Complication in horology is a term of art meaning a feature beyond displaying hours, minutes and seconds.

Patek Philippe Calibre 89

Patek Philippe Calibre 89 – Obverse

Patek Philippe claims to have made the three most complicated watches ever. The most complicated of them all is the Calibre 89, a pocket watch weighing in at over 1 kilogram and sporting 33 complications ranging from the date of Easter to the times of sunrise and sunset. It is valued at about $6 million.

In second place is the Super-complication custom-built for banker Henry Graves in 1933. It has 24 complications, including one that displays the current position of the stars over Graves’ New York home. It fetched $11 million at auction in 1999.

Henry-Graves Supercomplication - Obverse

Henry-Graves Supercomplication – Obverse and Interior

Henry Graves Supercomplication - Reverse

Henry Graves Supercomplication – Reverse

Greubel Forsey Double Tourbillon

Greubel Forsey Double Tourbillon

These ultra-luxe watches are not just gadget boxes. Their mechanical movements (quartz is for plebeians) are superbly crafted for accuracy. One complication, called a tourbillon, is designed to counter the bias that the force of gravity exerts on the movement, by encasing key components in an assembly that continually rotates, evening out gravitational effects. Of course, horologists did not stop there; there are double-axis tourbillons, triple-axis tourbillons and even flying tourbillons.

All this human genius is just that: human. The natural phenomenon on which these vastly complicated machines report could not be simpler. It is the one-way arrow of time, which lengthens at a constant rate.

The stupendous achievements of horologists remind me of certain religious texts. To come up with an accurate time, one must construct a movement of hundreds of parts: the balance spring to get things started; precisely crafted gears spinning in every direction; escapements to change one form of energy into another; tourbillons to counteract gravitational bias; and who-know-what else. Likewise, religious texts invariably contain many passages on a given topic, some suggesting one conclusion and others “balancing” that by pointing to another. That’s why people can spend hundreds of years arguing about what The Book really says.

There’s a lot that can go wrong for the horologist, and a lot that can go wrong for the exegete.

The Boston Marathon Bombings on April 15 were only the latest example of the peril of entrusting complicated scripture — with some passages spinning clockwise toward peace and others spinning counter-clockwise towards killing infidels — to the brains of people who, shall we say, take far less care making decisions about other people’s lives than Patek Philippe does making watches.

It seems to me that the underlying ideals are a lot less complicated than the Koran or the Bible make them out to be, just as the arrow of time is less complicated than a Calibre 89.

Even Jesus thought it was a good idea to simplify, saying,

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

(Admittedly, Jesus also said that not a single letter of the Old Testament Law was to be set aside, so he was not completely a simplificationist.)

The Dalai Lama said,

We can reject everything else: religion, ideology, all received wisdom. But we cannot escape the necessity of love and compassion…. This, then, is my true religion, my simple faith. In this sense, there is no need for temple or church, for mosque or synagogue, no need for complicated philosophy, doctrine or dogma. Our own heart, our own mind, is the temple. The doctrine is compassion. 

So what shall we say about my daughter’s friend? The Bible says lesbian desires are “shameful.” Does it still count as lesbian desire if you’re biologically a man? No? Then what if you’re biologically a man but have had a sex-change operation? And does the righteous course of action depend on whether the desires are inborn? Does it matter that God makes each of the way we are? Or is The Fall, not God, to blame for our perverse tendencies? But how can a just God hold us to account for Adam and Eve’s actions? Can you change sexual orientation through prayer? What if the prayer does not work?

All those complications should make us ask, “Are we making something that is as simple as time, as complicated as a watch?”

The Dalia Lama continued,

Love for others and respect for their rights and dignity, no matter who or what they are: ultimately these are all we need.

Zubeidat Tsarnaev and the Black Hole of Reality

Like many of you, I’ve been spellbound as the drama of the Boston Marathon bombings has unfolded. Since it took place just a few miles from my home, I have felt that I should blog something about it, but I’ve hung back until more of the facts were known.

Unfortunately, the more that has become known, the less unusual the story has become. We’ve seen so much of it before: A young man that everyone had voted least-likely-to-become-a-terrorist falls under the spell of hateful religious extremism, probably conveyed by his own brother. He blows the leg off a seven-year-old girl who had loved dancing — which somehow seems even worse than killing her eight-year-old brother along with at least two other people. While scoring in the 99th percentile for cold-blooded wickedness, he and his brother score in the 1st percentile for competence as criminals and are soon caught. All that is nothing new.

What is new, and what I’d like to muse on for a moment, is the brothers’ mother’s slow orbit around the black hole of reality — that place where all man-made falsehoods are first ripped to shreds and then compressed to a singularity of truth, whether we wish it or not. It has been both maddening and heartbreaking to watch.

Zubeidat Tsarnaev

Zubeidat Tsarnaev

Zubeidat Tsarnaev kept her distance from reality long before the Boston Marathon bombings. According to one of her spa customers, she believed that “9-11 was purposefully created by the American government to make America hate Muslims.”

After her sons were involved in a shootout with police, she told CNN correspondent Nick Walsh that her sons “were being killed because they were Muslims. Nothing else.”

Days later, according to CNN, she was still maintaining that the bombing was staged and the supposed blood was actually paint. Tellingly, she based this opinion on a video she had seen, but she had not seen any video of the actual bombing. It seems that she was staying as far from the black hole of reality as possible.

But then, in the same interview, she said of the bombing’s victims, “I really feel sorry for all of them” and repeated, “Really feel sorry for all of them.” Her voice was cracking, and so was the wall she had constructed to keep herself from reality.

Why would she feel sorry for the victims of a staged bombing, who were splattered only with paint? I think part of her knows the truth. Or as she put it, “There is something wrong.”

Is she still orbiting the black hole of reality at such a distance that it will not pull her in, or has her descent already begun? It’s too early to tell, but I suspect she has slowed below escape velocity and the black hole will soon rip her apart.

I hope it does, but not because I bear her any ill will. Quite the opposite.

(Now comes a Beagle’s Bark.)

I identify with Zubeidat Tsarnaev. She reminds me of myself during my evangelical days.

Just as she swallowed an unlikely theory from an off-the-wall video, but did not think it necessary to watch a video of the actual events, so I took the word of my fellow evangelicals on all manner of topics and did not conscientiously seek out the unfiltered opinions of my so-called opponents.

She projected her own us-versus-them mentality on the police, which caused her to misread their motives in the shootout. I, too, was prone to misread the motives of honest non-believers, chalking up their conclusions to atheistic assumptions and invoking conspiracy theories.

In fact, her claim that blood was actually paint reminds me of the claim, which I entertained but never felt comfortable with, that God created the Earth with only an appearance of great age.

And finally, her uneasy confession that “there is something wrong” is not unlike my own realization that something was amiss in evangelical Christianity, even as I struggled against the pull of godless reality.

I think Zubeidat Tsarnaev will fall into reality eventually. We don’t hear her saying things like, “My sons did not do this thing, but if they had I would be proud of them for killing infidels.” Her moral sense is not completely gone. If she were an evangelical and were confronted with Jehovah’s commands to enslave whole cities and his permission to force the most beautiful of their women into sham rape-marriages, it seems she might not be one of those who would say, “It must have been God’s righteous judgment.” I have hope for her.

Perhaps, when she discovers that the people to whom she has given her ear have been lying to her, it will be the same wake-up call for her that it was for me and she will no longer resist the gravitational pull of reality.

The process of leaving my faith did feel like being ripped apart by a black hole. But ultimately, I found I was happier as part of the singularity of reality than struggling against it.

I wish her a similar happiness.

Scratching Your Way Out of a Room

Benjamin Verdery is not only a fantastic classical guitarist, but a fabulous teacher. I once heard him use this memorable analogy to encourage a student to work on technique.

When you try to play the guitar without proper technique, you might learn to play faster or more expressively, but it will be as if you were trying to get out of this room by scratching your way through the wall, when there’s a door right over there.

Benjamin Verdery was saying, in essence, “Your body’s biomechanics work a certain way. Until you align with that reality, results will be hard to come by.”

Many people are trying to scratch their way out of rooms. When they don’t make progress, they try scratching harder rather than looking for a door. They might even berate themselves for having inadequate fingernails. Some people hope there is no door, because then all that scratching would have been for nothing.

I’m not here to criticize anyone’s favorite techniques for living — although regular readers will know what has not worked for me. Let me just encourage you: if your technique has not worked for a year, a decade or more, maybe the problem is not with your application of the technique. Maybe it’s not that you haven’t tried hard enough. Maybe you are not inadequate. Maybe you just need a new technique — one that is more aligned with the reality of your situation.

Are you having power struggles with your children? If clamping down on them has not worked, maybe clamping down harder will not work either. Instead, you could learn what it would take to earn their respect, and do that.

Has prayer not worked? Maybe it’s not your lack of faith or devotion. Maybe praying harder will not change anything. Perhaps it’s time to take action on your own.

Has talk therapy not cured your depression? Maybe you don’t need to talk more. Perhaps you are serotonin-deprived and need medication.

Do you continue to have anger issues? Maybe trying harder to stifle yourself will not to help. Perhaps you just need to look at life differently so you don’t get angry in the first place.

I’m suggesting that you give yourself a break. Don’t make life harder than it has to be. If you haven’t been able to scratch your way through the wall, maybe there’s a door.

Stick Your Head Out of the Window!

This morning, I had coffee with a friend who has semi-retired from a long career as a pilot. My friend is a Princeton graduate with an MBA to boot, and very bright.

I once asked him what he liked about flying. “Everything,” he had replied. “I just love everything about it.” That’s why I was surprised this morning when he said that some of the smartest pilots get bored with the job.

“Why didn’t you get bored, too?” I asked.

“I never lost the wonder of being up above the clouds. It never diminished one bit,” he replied. So … his secret to loving his job was just to look out the window.

It was soon time for me to drive to work. On the way, I saw something in my rear-view mirror that brought a smile to my face. A dog was sticking his head out of the window of the car behind me, as happy as could be.

I thought, “Whether you’re a Princeton graduate or a dog, you can still stick your head out of the window and be happy.”

Does Pi Contain the Universe?

I just ran across a very poetic meme about the number pi .

Pi is an infinite, non-repeating decimal — meaning that every possible number combination exists somewhere in pi. Converted into ASCII text [computer representation], somewhere in that infinite string of digits is the name of every person you will ever love; the date, time and manner of your death; and the answers to all the great questions of the universe. Converted into a bitmap [computer image], somewhere in that infinite string of digits is a pixel-perfect representation of the first thing you saw on this earth; the last thing you will see before your life leaves you; and all the moments, momentous and mundane, that will occur between these two points.

All the information that has ever existed or will ever exist, the DNA of every being in the universe.

EVERYTHING: all contained in the ratio of a circumference and a diameter.

Googling around for more about this, I saw someone point out that if the universe is finite, then pi must somewhere contain a representation of the entire universe.

I find this beautiful and very appealing. Judging by all the “Wow!” comments on the Internet, a lot of other people are equally fascinated.

The only problem is, it ain’t necessarily so. The non-sequitur is in the very first sentence: “Pi is an infinite, non-repeating decimal — meaning that every possible number combination exists somewhere in pi.” I studied a lot of math in college, and I admit that the error slipped by me. Before I knew it, I was carried away by the poetry and joined in the chorus of “Wow!”

The error (obvious now!) is that just because a number never repeats itself into all infinity, it does not follow that every possible number combination occurs. For example, maybe there are no sevens after the trillionth digit, but the other nine digits continue without repeating. If you’re looking for a sequence that contains a seven, and you don’t find it in the first trillion digits, you will never find it.

Sadly, the frisson I felt while reading transcendent thoughts about everyone’s favorite transcendental number was … unwarranted. Even a methodological naturalist like me must be careful to practice shaphat.

After further Googling, I learned that it could be true that pi contains all finite sequences. In fact, mathematicians suspect that it is true, even though it has not been proven one way or the other.

Now … how tempted am I to believe without proof, just because it’s beautiful?

I’ll leave that question with you as an exercise in shaphat. Can you refrain from judging what’s in my head when you have no proof? 🙂


The Hebrew Letter Shin

The Hebrew Letter Shin

So many things don’t bother me anymore — things that I used to consider grave sins — that someone recently asked me, “Don’t you care about anything?”

I considered my response for a full week, and decided that what I care about most is a specific virtue that does not seem to have an English name. I wrote about it a year ago in the post Can You Name This Virtue? and my most faithful commenter, ~Joshua, won the contest. Here is what he said (emphases mine).

… [To] ‘judge’ almost exactly describes your [mystery virtue]. Maybe not so much the English concept of it. Because English is a noun based language, we tend to think of some dude in a flowing robe with a wooden mallet and scowl.

The Hebrew word for judge is shaphat (שפט). Hebrew is an action based pictographic language upon which all other thoughts and concepts are built. Pictographically, shaphat means to ‘gather, divide and speak’. The tet (ט) is a basket which is used for gathering and holding, the shin (ש) is teeth which are used to divide, consume, or destroy, and the pey (פ) is a mouth which is used to speak.

This can also been seen in the Hebrew alefbet where the ayine (ע) comes before the pey (פ). They agyine (ע) is an eye both the outward ones and the inward or ‘mind’s eye’. With the eye a person see, looks, perceives. It comes before they pey because we should consider or think before we speak.

I think shaphat — to diligently gather facts and consider them honestly before speaking a conclusion even to oneself — is the highest virtue. Unless one does this, whatever other good one does is almost by accident.

Some might nominate love as the highest virtue. I disagree. It is possible to love too much, but it is not possible to be too honest. Suppose a boy misbehaves in class. If his mother loves him excessively, she may disbelieve the teacher’s report and the boy may not get the benefit of being corrected. We say the mother is “blinded by love” and the boy ultimately suffers for it. The only cure is honesty or, more poetically, the process ~Joshua described in the letter-story of shaphat.

In contrast, nobody was ever “blinded by honesty.” In fact, the more honest we are, the more we are able to love. Speaking for myself, when I lived in a world of dogma (the opposite of living shaphat), too much of my so-called love for other people consisted of wishing that they believed the things I did. As I wrote in Love the Sinner; Hate the Sin, real love includes questioning one’s own convictions about what is really sin. Now that I’m more focused on what makes people flourish in this life, instead of their acceptance of dogma as qualification for the next, I’m more able to love them as they are.

Without shaphat, it is even possible to love the wrong things. For me, that has especially meant wrong ideas. ~Joshua said, “The tet (ט) is a basket which is used for gathering and holding, the shin (ש) is teeth which are used to divide, consume, or destroy…” After we have gathered putative facts, are we willing to divide them into those that should should be consumed (internalized) and those that should be destroyed (rejected as non-facts)? Virtue is rarely easy, and it is certainly difficult to let go of cherished beliefs which, upon further shaphat, turn out to be untrue.

When the gathering phase has not yielded enough facts to warrant a conclusion, shaphat includes the ability to say, “I don’t know.” For most of my life, those were very hard words to speak. Now they’re the easiest in the world! They diffuse any argument, and saying “I don’t know” is much more comfortable than attempting to defend a position that does not have adequate support.

So that’s what I care about most. I wish you every blessing of shaphat.