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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Showing posts with label reflection. Show all posts
Showing posts with label reflection. Show all posts

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

twenty one pilots and How to Drown Out Self-Reflection

It's no secret we live in a noisy world. Many pixels have been spilled on just how interrupted our lives have become. Advertisers are competing in an ever more crowded space, seeking to be noticed. Since there's an old maxim that a customer must see one's ad seven times for it to be optimally effective, each tries harder and more frequently to rise above the din and be noticed. Of course, that means invasive advertising escalates until everyone is shouting.

However, it isn't only advertisers that have added to the noise in our world. As with many of the problems arising from modernity, we are not only victims but we suffer from self-inflicted wounds. We carry screens with us at every step. Not only does this provide the channel for those vying for our attention to shout at us, it creates its own distractions. We add our own noise by seeking to be entertained, distracted, or otherwise engaged throughout our day.

Again, none of this is new. What is interesting, though, is it isn't only the "old curmudgeons" that are lamenting the loss of self-reflection. My fifteen-year-old son played me a song from the band twenty one pilots which made the same point. Their 2013 hit "Car Radio" casts a young man lamenting the fact that his radio has been stolen, leaving him alone with his thoughts. Here's a portion of the lyrics:
I hate this car that I'm driving
There's no hiding for me
I'm forced to deal with what I feel
There is no distraction to mask what is real
I could pull the steering wheel
I have these thoughts
So often I ought
To replace that slot
With what I once bought
'Cause somebody stole
My car radio
And now I just sit in silence
Sometimes quiet is violent
I find it hard to hide it
My pride is no longer inside
It's on my sleeve
My skin will scream
Reminding me of
Who I killed inside my dream1
The song paints a picture of a young person who isn't complaining about the noise, but pining for it. The silence has forced the driver into self-reflection and he really doesn't like what he's discovering about himself: a person who's prideful, perhaps selfish and definitely shallow. Instead of knowing how to process and perhaps work on his deficiencies, he'd rather have the noise to cover them up and divert his attention once more. Reality, like the quiet, can be brutally honest and I think that many people in our society—both young and old—have sought to dodge self-reflection through business and noise.

Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living. But I don't think we know how to do quiet contemplation well any more. Ask yourself, how long can you sit in a room with nothing but your own thoughts? Researchers recently reported more people were willing to administer electric shocks to themselves than sitting in a chair unstimulated for ten or fifteen minutes.2

Like anything else, quiet reflection and thoughtfulness is a skill that must be practiced. I outline some of the basic principles on just how to do that here. Christians especially are commanded to be contemplative, meditating on God's word and their own place. We may feel discomfort about our own shortcomings, but the answer isn't to turn up the volume. It's to think even more deliberately and more carefully, seeking to minimize them while honoring our God. As the song says:
There's faith and there's sleep
We need to pick one please because
Faith is to be awake
And to be awake is for us to think
And for us to think is to be alive.2


1. Joseph, Tyler, and Josh Dun. "Car Radio." Vessel. twenty one Pilots. 2013. MP3.
2. Pomeroy, Ross. "Some People Prefer Electric Shocks to Thinking Quietly by Themselves" RealClearScience. RealClearScience, 13 July 2014. Web. 29 Dec. 2014.
3. Joseph and Dun, 2013.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Monkeys, Typewriters, and Assumptions

Have you ever heard the suggestion that given enough monkeys banging on enough typewriters with enough time, they will eventually produce something like a work of Shakespeare? That idea was first proposed by French mathematician Émile Borel1 and then used by British astronomer Arthur Eddington. Both were using the analogy to show while nothing can be considered impossible from a mathematical standpoint, certain ideas are so unlikely that they can be discounted.2

However, as what came to be known as the Infinite Monkey Theorem entered the popular culture, it seemed to be turned on its head. Many people seem to think that the analogy shows that absolutely nothing is impossible given enough time. The problem is m the analogy was used to show just how improbable a particular theory on gas movements really is by comparing it to something more easily pictured in people's minds: monkeys producing works of literature. That's why Eddington finished his version of the analogy with "The chance of the monkeys doing so is decidedly more favourable than the chance of the molecules returning to one half of the vessel."3

The folks over at Uncommon Descent have written a detailed response to the Infinite Monkey Theorem and how it applies to the origin of life, but that isn't my reason for writing this post. The more interesting point in my opinion is the assumptions that are carried along with the analogy itself. In Borel's day, there were no such things as computers that could generate purely random outputs of letters, so he used a theoretical monkey to make his case. But the folks over at the University of Plymouth were intrigued by the concept, so they thought they'd give it a try on a much smaller scale.

Real Monkeys and a Word Processor

In 2003, researchers placed a computer with monitor and keyboard in a cage of six monkeys at the Paignton Zoo for a month. The Associated Press report quoted lead researcher Mike Philips who said, "At first, the lead male got a stone and started bashing the hell out of it. Another thing they were interested in was in defecating and urinating all over the keyboard." 4

Eventually, the simians figured out that the screen would respond to a keyboard touch. Would this be the breakthrough to have the monkeys produce a word or two of English? Unfortunately, no as the primates only "produced five pages of text, composed primarily of the letter S. Later, the letters A, J, L and M crept in."5

How Our Assumptions Color Our Beliefs

The Infinite Monkey Theorem is interesting on several levels. While it is mathematically possible to generate something like Hamlet using an infinite number of computers for an infinite time, such actions would require more time and more matter than has been estimated in our universe since its beginning. It is therefore zero for all practical purposes. So such word pictures don't help on issues like the origin of life.

More importantly, it demonstrates how much we color scenarios with our assumptions. Most people picture putting a keyboard before a monkey and the animal will be pushing buttons before too long, not using it as a lavatory. Our humanity assumes that others will act like us. It's why many animal researchers make the mistake of anthropomorphizing animal behavior and what's responsible for the Clever Hans effect.

So, it's important to examine your own beliefs. Sometimes your biases are harder to spot than you think!


1. See The analogy seems to have first appeared in Borel's "Mécanique Statistique et Irréversibilité," J. Phys. 5e série, vol. 3, 1913, pp.189-196.
A big thanks to Guillaume Bignon for providing me with his translation of Borel's analogy from : "Let's imagine that one trained a million monkeys to randomly hit strokes on a typewriter, and that, under the watch of unlettered slave-drivers, these typist monkeys work painstakingly 10 hours every day with a million typewriters of different types. The unlettered slave-drivers would gather the blackened sheets and bind them into volumes. And after a year, these volumes would contain the exact copy of the books of all natures and all languages, found in the riches libraries in the world. Such is the probability that during a very short instant, in a space of any given length, a notable spread occurs (away) from what statistical mechanics considers to be the most probable phenomenon."
2. Kairosfocus. "ID Foundations, 11: Borel's Infinite Monkeys Analysis and the Significance of the Log Reduced Chi Metric, Chi_500 = I*S – 500." Uncommon Descent. Uncommon Descent, Inc., 26 Nov. 2011. Web. 11 Dec. 2014.
3. Eddington, A. S.. The Nature of the Physical World: The Gifford Lectures, 1927. New York: Macmillan, 1929. Print. 72.
4. Associated Press. "Plymouth Experiment's Monkeys Type No Shakespeare-like Text." Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, 10 May 2003. Web. 11 Dec. 2014.
5. Associated Press, Ibid.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Why Holy Saturday is so important

Dr. N.T. Wright on the importance of Holy Saturday in the Resurrection Week:
After Good Friday comes Holy Saturday, the day of waiting, waiting without hope, without knowing what will come next. Go down deep into Holy Saturday, because once again you are called away from the public arena – extroverts in particular find this hard – and into the stillness where you don’t understand, you don’t have an agenda to work on, you don’t know what it is you want or expect God to do. Without the still, dark privacy of Holy Saturday, the new kind of public message which is the resurrection of Jesus could turn simply into a shallow or angry response to the taunts and violence of Good Friday, answering the world in its own terms. The church is sometimes tempted to do that, to huff and puff and charge off to 'defend' God and the gospel. Holy Saturday commands us to lay down our swords and wait: wait without thought, says Eliot, for you are not yet ready for thought.
Wright, N.T. "God in Private and Public" 20 March 2008 Accessed: 4/19/2014

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Have We Lost the Christian Mind?

Many believers have absorbed the fact/value, public/private dichotomy, restricting faith to the religious sphere while adopting whatever views are current in their professional or social circles. … The problem was phrased succinctly by Harry Blamires: "There is no longer a Christian mind."

...What did [Blamires] mean? To say that there is no Christian mind means that believers may be highly educated in terms of technical proficiency, and yet have no biblical worldview for interpreting the subject matter of their field. "We speak of the 'modern mind', and of the 'scientific mind', using that word 'mind' of a collectively accepted set of notions and attitudes," Blamires explains. But we have lost the Christian mind. There is now no shared, biblically based set of assumptions on subjects like law, education, economics, politics, science, or the arts. As a moral being, the Christian follows the biblical ethic. As a spiritual being, he prays and attends worship services. But as a thinking Christian, he has succumbed to secularism.

—Nancy Pearcey in Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity,
(Wheaton, Il: Crossway, 2004).33-34.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christian Megathemes: Thinking Less About Stuff and More About God

We've recently been looking at the Barna Group's findings of six Christian Megathemes—dramatic shifts in beliefs, attitudes and actions of the Christian church—that have emerged in the last ten years. The trends are not healthy, and in this series I seek to provide some recommendations on how both churches and individuals can be proactive in reversing them. Click here to read previous entries.

Theme #3: Growing numbers of people are less interested in spiritual principles and more desirous of learning pragmatic solutions for life.

The third megatrend Barna discovered is that American Christians, especially young Christians, tend to minimize the intangible aspects of their lives like developing a deeper and more meaningful faith for the more tangible and material. They report:
When asked what matters most, teenagers prioritize education, career development, friendships, and travel. Faith is significant to them, but it takes a back seat to life accomplishments and is not necessarily perceived to affect their ability to achieve their dreams. Among adults the areas of growing importance are lifestyle comfort, success, and personal achievements. Those dimensions have risen at the expense of investment in both faith and family…. Practical to a fault, Americans consider survival in the present to be much more significant than eternal security and spiritual possibilities. Because we continue to separate our spirituality from other dimensions of life through compartmentalization, a relatively superficial approach to faith has become a central means of optimizing our life experience.
While Americans have always been known for their pragmatism, I feel that this shift is significant and different. The desire to get things done and accomplish goals is not bad in and of itself, and it has helped grow our country. But that desire should always be guided and guarded by understanding that there are bigger ideas to which we are beholden. Growing a strong agricultural economy is good, since it feeds people and raises the standard of living. But if such an economic model relies on slaves, then it should be abandoned. The bigger idea of all human beings having equal value outweighs economic concerns. Therefore, giving up the pragmatic approach to slave-driven agriculture and facing an upheaval in the economic model of the South was necessary.

As Christians, we should always judge our actions and desires in this way. Paul instructed the Thessalonian church that they should "Examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good" ( 1 Thess. 5-:21). But, the only way one can measure anything is by a standard against which they may compare it. As C.S. Lewis noted, one cannot tell what a crooked line is unless one first has a some idea of a straight line. Barna noted part of the problem when he wrote:
The turbo-charged pace of society leaves people with little time for reflection. The deeper thinking that occurs typically relates to economic concerns or relational pressures. Spiritual practices like contemplation, solitude, silence, and simplicity are rare.  (It is ironic that more than four out of five adults claim to live a simple life.)
This is a huge problem with the practice of Christianity in the modern world. The noise of this present age has trained us to be uncomfortable in quiet reflection. Try this experiment and see how you do – the next time you have to travel for some distance, say 30 minutes or so, turn off the radio or iPod and any other distractions.  See how long you can go without needing any distracting stimulus to counter the silence so you can think. Most people will get very uncomfortable after less than ten minutes in such circumstances.

Paul, when writing to the Colossian church instructed them to start thinking more circumspectly about matters of faith. "Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things." (Col. 3:1-2) We need to relearn how to be quiet and train our minds to think about specific thing very deeply; we need to be intentional in concentrating on the things of God. By avoiding wrestling with ethical and theological questions, we are doomed to hold a very superficial view of both Christianity AND life. That is not only sin, it is a travesty of living.

Tips on becoming more spiritually reflective and less superficial

For the individual:
  • Set aside some devotional time each day, with some of that time reserved for reflection. Start with smaller quantities of tine, say 10 minutes, and gradually increase it as you become better at reflection.
  • Don't try to rush through your devotional reading, but think about different ways the verses may apply to you.
  • Start journaling or blogging. Writing down your thoughts forces you to express them in a cogent manner and the act of writing gives you more time to see if what you feel is really what you mean.
  • Pick a book that's a little above you intellectually. Determine to not only read it, but to understand it. This may require additional helps, such as commentaries or reference works. That's OK. The goal is to stretch yourself.
For the Church:
  • Pastors need to stress the concept of thinking through passages of scripture.  This doesn't come naturally, so your congregation will need to be trained on how to do so.
  • Preach the importance and the scriptural commandment of developing the Christian mind.
  • Rather than simply preaching against the superficiality of the world, we need to model how to think through issues. Hold an apologetics class or a Sunday School class and offer up some real ethical dilemmas. Talk through each aspect of the choices people may make.  Here's a good example from a Harvard philosophy class.
Image "American way of life" by AnaïsFernandes - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
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