Archive for June, 2009

I Don’t Dance

June 27, 2009 3 comments

I would like to write for the moment about something those of you who know me may have noticed about me: I do not dance. Last night, this was made quite clear to a group of you (you know who you are!). Let me say, I honestly appreciate your efforts. I need people in my life who are willing to try to coax me out of my shell, to participate in those social activities that often I am so reluctant to engage in. I’m really grateful for those of you who do this for me. But I would now like to explain, as best I can, my specific aversion to dancing, and why, for now at least, it’s basically futile and hopeless to try to get me to do this particular activity.

I’ll begin by admitted that I have actually danced, really danced, on a few occasions. The most memorable of these was when I went to a Beastie Boys concert in Toronto. I think I was about 16 at the time, and the Beastie Boys were my favorite group. I thought they were the best thing ever, and I was so excited about this concert, I basically didn’t care about anything else going on around me. And when they played “Puttin shame in your game,” which for some reason I thought was the most incredible song ever at the time (I still think it’s a pretty good song), I just lost it. One reason, I think, was because I wasn’t even really expecting them to play it; though I had a strange affinity for it, it wasn’t one of their more popular songs. So when it came on, I felt like it had been put there just for me. Suddenly I didn’t care about anyone around me, or what I looked like…I just felt the need to move to the music. I think that eventually I was moving about so hard that I cleared out a five foot radius circle around me in the crowd–though my memory is probably exaggerated on this point. I probably looked ridiculous, but I didn’t care.

My point is, I achieved a true dancing moment then. The right circumstances in my life converged so that dancing was the natural thing for me to be doing. But this is incredibly rare for me, and here is my main point: I don’t think that this is entirely because I’m shy and reserved. I think these aspects of my personality are why people tend to assume that I don’t want to dance. So they think to themselves: if I can just get him to overcome his inhibitions, he’ll be dancing and enjoying it! So I’d like to respond to this: not necessarily. Don’t assume you know the whole of why someone doesn’t want to do something. It’s rarely a simple thing. I used to think the high school principal would enjoy a good “bong rip,” if he just wasn’t so uptight. And maybe I was right about my school principal being uptight. But I never thought that he might have other good reasons for not wanting to smoke weed.

So I am certainly shy and reserved, but this isn’t the whole of why I don’t want to dance. Or, at least, if I overcame these things in the contexts in which I am naturally expected to dance, it wouldn’t mean that I’d suddenly be in the mood for dancing. It wouldn’t mean I’d spontaneously be able to get into it. If I’ve learned anything from my limited experience with dancing, it’s that dancing is most certainly something that a person needs to put their entire self into. A person can’t dance unless they really want to–it’s like trying to smile when you aren’t really happy. You can fake it, but basically everyone can tell.

Now, you might argue that dancing is the sort of thing that always starts out like this, as fake and awkward, but eventually you grow to enjoy. And I actually think this is a pretty good counterpoint to what I’ve said here. I’ll admit, I probably could try to get into it, and have some success–on a few occasions, I have done this. And it’s true, I can sort of move with the music; this isn’t totally a foreign thing to me. I can dance to cheesy pop music and not feel like I’m totally faking it. But the whole time I’m basically just hoping it will be over soon. Maybe if I danced for longer, or more often, or had a bit more to drink, I’d finally lose myself in the music. Maybe. But I’m not currently a person whose character is suited to dancing spontaneously, a person for whom this is very often a natural activity, and I’m OK with that. I have no desire for this aspect of myself to change. A person can, by effort, transform himself into something other than he currently is, but that doesn’t always mean that he should. Sometimes it does.

Maybe someday I’ll see things differently. I’m certainly not saying that dancing is a bad thing; it seems to be a very basic human activity. In my last post, I even used the analogy of a dance to describe the relationship between the soul and the body! I was, however, imagining a more traditional sort of dance than the sort I’m usually invited to engage in. Anyway, for now, when any of you drag me to a place of dancing, I’ll probably stick to quietly sipping my drink in the corner and trying not to judge you…

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Descartes, the Brain, and the Resurrection of the Body

June 23, 2009 4 comments

Last thursday, I went to an event called “Geeked Out,” hosted by Gelf magazine, in the Brooklyn neighborhood of DUMBO. The topic of the event was the interaction between science and religion. It featured three speakers; I only stayed for the first two. I’d have liked to stay for them all, but it was getting late, and the L train isn’t behaving very well this summer.

The second speaker, Paul Bloom, was by far the more interesting of the two that I saw, and it is his talk that I’d like to focus on. Mr. Bloom is a psychologist who has written a book entitled Descartes’ Baby. I really liked the guy; he was warm, articulate, and had a good sense of humor. He was an excellent public speaker. Mr. Bloom’s talk began with a cute little video depicting an interesting and real psychological experiment that, according to Bloom, demonstrates the existence of an altruistic instinct in young children–an innate desire to help people. The video shows a very small child who has been placed in the corner of a room. In the other corner of the room is a cabinet of some sort. The child watches as an adult carries a stack of book over to the cabinet, and then proceeds to repeatedly bump the stack of books into the cabinet doors. The idea conveyed to the child is that the man wants to put the books in the cabinet, but is either unable to do so or is simply unaware of how to go about doing so. Touchingly (and, I must admit, I was surprised by this), the child walks across the room and opens both doors to the cabinet for the man.

Another video was shown in which a child observes two objects interacting with each other. One object is shaped like a square and the other like a circle. The objects are made to move in such a way as to convey the idea that the square is acting aggressively and violently towards the circle. The child then is presented with both objects, and chooses to pick up the circle. Bloom explained how when this experiment was repeated the children tested demonstrated a definite preference for the circle. Furthermore, if the roles of the square and circle were reversed, the results were the same: the children always preferred to associate with the “victim” rather than the “aggressor.” According to Bloom, these experiments demonstrate an innate and instinctual sense of compassion that children have. I think I agree.

The talk then became much more philosophical. Bloom began to talk about dualism, which he defined as a belief in the existence of a soul that is somehow independent of the body and of the material realm in general. He explained how young children seem to instinctually accept a sort of basic naive dualism like what Descartes (the guy who said, “I think, therefore I am”) believed in. Children naturally accept the existence of a “me” that doesn’t depend on their brain or anything physical. Rather than believing that “me” is a brain, as some adults are inclined to believe, they tend to see the brain as a tool, used by “me,” for thinking.

Bloom then began to describe how a lot of our more negative ethical tendencies have to do with us denying this individual spiritual reality of others, by seeing people as simply being objects. That is, the more that we see people as “bodies”–as mere physical objects–the more able we are to suppress our positive moral affections towards them. Bloom cited pornography as one prime example of how this happens. He also talked a lot in particular about the concept of revulsion, and how physical revulsion can unconsciously lead a person to a sort of moral revulsion. He cited some more interesting psychological experiments in order to demonstrate this. In one, he described how a test group of people were asked to give various political opinions, including their views on commonly maligned groups such as gays and immigrants. Another test group was asked exactly the same questions, but with one important difference in the setting: the researches introduced a foul smell into the room beforehand. Apparently, this actually caused the second test group to be harsher in its evaluation of these people groups.

While certainly interesting, I did find this train of thought of his to be somewhat gnostic. That is, I think that Bloom’s analysis tended towards the mistake of viewing matter and the material realm as intrinsically evil, and spirit and the spiritual realm as intrinsically good. This is somewhat ironic since, as I will talk about in a moment, Bloom doesn’t believe in a “spiritual realm.” I think part of the difficulty is that Bloom is making a basic error in his concept of the “soul.” I will get to this error shortly. For now, I’d like to note that one could equally well point out physical experiences and realities that lead us towards moral behavior and compassion. And, conversely, one could certainly talk about the spiritual side of evil, of pride and envy and wrath and so on.

Bloom concluded that the belief in a soul may be necessary to preserve our basic morality. To Bloom, such a belief may thus amount to a necessary fiction, since he believes the soul is basically an illusion. To him, the idea that the soul (as he has defined it) has any actually reality to it is contradicted in particular by the findings of neuroscience, which show how many of the human attributes that we once naively assumed to be “spiritual” are now known to be linked to brain functions. So the idea of the mind as being something that could in any way exist independently of the brain seems improbable.

In the Q and A, and also briefly after the talk, I talked to Bloom about whether he might consider any sort of middle ground between the sort of “naive dualism” that he sees as being contradicted by neuroscience, and the pure materialism (that is, the idea that matter is all that there is) that he seems to embrace as the only alternative. He was quite steadfast in his materialism. He pointed out the fact that even our memory is heavily dependent on brain function. He considers this fact to be strong evidence that there is no “me” apart from my brain. I got the basic impression from all of this that he sees advances in neuroscience as inevitably encroaching, so to speak, further and further onto the territory once occupied by the soul, which is practically seen by him as being “that which cannot be correlated with brain activity.” So, every time we correlate brain activity with something that we thought was spiritual, the soul becomes less necessary to posit.

I think that the basic mistake Bloom makes in all of this is to think of the soul as being the purely spiritual component of a person. I could be wrong, but I believe this was the major error that Descartes made, and popularized. Descartes made it a point to sharply distinguish the “me that thinks” (and therefore exists) from the material world. His objective, I think, was to show that, though the latter could be an illusion or deception, the former was certain. Ironically, it seems as though the opposite view has triumphed.

I wanted to get Bloom to see that believing a spiritual component to man is not the same thing as accepting Descartes view of the mind. I wish I could have talked to him longer. I wanted to convey to him how the orthodox Christian concept of man, of human beings as rational animals, as a syntheses of material and spiritual components, is not the same thing as what Descartes believed. It is not negated by our rapidly advancing understanding of the brain, but is rather very much in line with what we are discovering. If human beings are such a synthesis, we would expect the two realms to be related, even inextricably linked, to such a degree that we couldn’t really conceive of the actions of one without taking into consideration the other. To draw an analogy, when two partners dance, every leading motion made by the man has a correlative responsive motion made by the woman, and vice verse. We cannot separate the two of them! We could, of course, try to study the woman’s movement in isolation, and point out that there is no aspect of the man’s motion that is not mirrored or represented in her movement somehow–whenever he bends forward, she bends back; when he lifts his arm holding her hand, she twirls.

In the same way, the spiritual component and the material component of a human being are deeply intertwined, both mirroring and complimenting each other. So often it does not make much sense to try to separate them, to try to conceive of what the one is, without taking into account the other. This brings us back to Descartes error. Really the soul, which we can naively conceive of and talk about quite easily, should not be thought of as the purely spiritual component of man, but rather is the focal point of this dance, the essential me (or you), a human personality and agent, that results from this synthesis. The human soul does not “inhabit” the body, at least not in the same way that we can perhaps imagine angels (which are purely spiritual beings, so their essence is spiritual) inhabiting bodies. We are not purely spiritual personalities that wear our physical bodies as a sort of garment, but rather our bodies are essential to who we are, and to what our soul is. Our soul is not complete without its body, and the brain is part of the body. This, by the way, is why the doctrine of final resurrection is so important to the Christian hope for the future.

And this brings me to what was, in my opinion, the saddest part of Blooms talk. Bloom thinks that the overturning of our dualism, in addition to undermining morality, effectively undoes all religious notions, and in particular the notion that people have of “life after death.” I think that this is absolutely not so, though I can see why a person might think so, given how our culture tends to think about these things. I’d love for Bloom to read NT Wright’s Surprised by Hope, and find out about how the true historic Christian belief about the afterlife is certainly not about our disembodied spirits floating about in heaven. Instead, the New Testament paints to us a picture of how God will bring into existence a redeemed body that our redeemed souls will be joined with in the new creation, the new heavens and the new earth. This redeemed body will, I imagine, include a redeemed brain, with memories and all. There is no difficulty for our individual personality, our soul, to be preserved and restored after death, provided God brings back to life the requisite physical components needed for it function. This is certainly miraculous, but that’s the point! Thus it may be truly said that neuroscience refutes many of the pagan notions of life after death, but not the orthodox Christian notion.

In conclusion, I’ll say that I think Bloom and others are actually doing a service to the Church by revealing the difficulties that neuroscience presents for the dualism that has been so damaging to our ability to keep sight of this basic Christian hope. If one’s belief in “the afterlife” depends simply on a metaphysical conception of us as “having a spirit,” without reference to God, his material creation, and his necessary action in redeeming it, then it is good to see this overturned. But it’s sad that Bloom doesn’t think that there is an alternative to a hopeless materialism, when really there is open to him the greatest alternative in the world.

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Book Review: A Mathematicians Lament, by Paul Lockhart

June 21, 2009 2 comments

This book is fantastic. I recommend it to all those people who, upon hearing from me that I do math, have replied, “Oh, I suck at math” or “Oh, I always hated math in school.” For years I’ve encountered recurring frustration at the fact that, whenever I tell people that I’m studying mathematics, I tend to discover that they have an almost completely wrong impression of what it is that I do (or at least try to do). It is not always easy to correct this impression. At my best, I try to tell them: you hate math because you don’t know what it is. You hate it because the stuff they taught you in school was not math, but almost something else entirely. Real math is fun and interesting and makes you think both logically and imaginatively, it is both beautiful and surprising. But I never quite feel like I get the whole truth across.

This book gets the whole truth across, or at least a good portion of it. It says everything I’ve ever wanted to say (as well as many things I hadn’t thought of) in regards to the question of what mathematicians actually do, but does a much better job than I ever could. He accurately portrays exactly how it is that people commonly misunderstand what mathematicians do, the common misperceptions that they tend to have. Then he goes on to critique what is pretty obviously at the root of all this misunderstanding: the state of math education itself. Through a few clever analogies and a bit of simple explanation, the author demonstrates how the average student’s assessment of the “mathematics” that we are taught in school is completely accurate: it is arbitrary, stupid, and boring. The analogy he opens the book with is worth quoting:

A Musician wakes from a terrible nightmare. In his dream he finds himself in a society where music education has been made mandatory. “We are helping our students become more competitive in an increasingly sound-filled world.” Educators, school systems, and the state are put in charge of this vital project. Studies are commissioned, committees are formed, and decisions are made–all without the advice or participation of a single working musician or composer.
Since musicians are known to set down their ideas in the form of sheet music, these curious black dots and lines must constitute the “language of music.” It is imperative that students become fluent in this language if they are to attain any degree of musical competence; indeed, it would be ludicrous to expect a child to sing a song or play an instrument without having a thorough grounding in music notation and theory. Playing and listening to music, let alone composing an original piece, are considered very advanced topics and are generally put off until college, and more often graduate school.
As for the primary and secondary schools, their mission is to train students to use this language–to jiggle symbols around according to a fixed set of rules…
In the higher grades the pressure is really on. After all, the students must be prepared for the standardized tests and college admissions exams. Students must take courses in scales and modes, meter, harmony, and counterpoint. “It’s a lot for them to learn, but later in college when they finally get to hear all this stuff, they’ll really appreciate all the work they did in high school…” (p. 15-17)

Lockhart goes on to clearly and succinctly articulates the tragedy of the public math education system, and how it poisons the general public’s understanding of what mathematics is, and never even comes close to giving the general public a real sense of what the subject is even about. He gleefully and accurately (and also quite humorously) tears to shreds the current K-12 curriculum, exposing it’s idiocy.

But the book doesn’t stop there; after showing us what is wrong with the current state of mathematics education, he goes on to give a brief and wonderful little demonstration, through several very accessible examples, of what mathematics really is, the types of things that mathematicians actually think about, and why they are interesting.  I found this to be wonderful–the best part of the book.

Here is one of his examples. Suppose I just decide to start adding up the odd numbers:

1+ 3 = 4
1 + 3 + 5 = 9
1 + 3 + 5 + 7 = 16
1 + 3 + 5 + 7 + 9 = 25

Notice a pattern? Yes, each of these sums is a perfect square! Does this pattern continue? It seems to. But why should it? What should odd numbers and squares have to do with each other? Can I show that the pattern goes on forever? Lockhart explains how this is the sort of thing that fascinates mathematicians: when there seems to be a pattern somewhere, or a relation between things that we never imagined would be related. We then try to discover the heart of why that pattern or relation exists–this is how mathematical proofs are born. Lockhart’s proof of this particular fact is a gem; you’ll have to read the book to see it. I also encourage the reader (as Lockhart does), to try to prove it himself.

The whole book is superbly written; his choice of words had me laughing out loud at times.

Finally, reading this book actually made me feel somewhat ashamed of my sometimes aloof personal attitude towards my area of study; my tendency to think of my subject as something intractably esoteric and advanced, inaccessible to the general public (because, of course, only the intellectual elite such as myself are capable of comprehending it). At one point he makes note of the fact that many people make it most of the way through graduate school believing (because they’ve always been told) that they are good at math, only to discover, when they attempt to do some real mathematics, that all they were really good at is following directions. Ouch. I hope that isn’t me…

So again, I recommend this book to all my friends and family who wonder what it is that I’m trying to do. I may even be buying it for some of you, come Christmas time.

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First Post

June 21, 2009 3 comments

So I decided to start a blog, and this is it. Perhaps an explanation of the name of the blog will give the reader a basic idea of the intended content. “Pascal’s Lager,” is a pretty weak play on words; the phrase “Pascal Wager” refers to the (often misunderstood) argument for believing in God made by Blaise Pascal. Pascal was a theologian, philosopher, and mathematician. Lager is one of the two main types of beer, the other being ale (cf. Wikipedia). Thus this play on words manages, in only two words, to bring to mind four of my personal interests: theology, philosophy, mathematics, and beer. I’ll be writing about all of these, except possibly  beer, which I’ll probably only be drinking. I’ll probably be writing about a few other things too. Thanks for reading!

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