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Knowing the Mind of God: A Tribute to Stephen Hawking


Most people would find the picture of our universe as an infinite tower of tortoises rather ridiculous, but why do we think we know better?  What do we know about the universe, and how do we know it?  Where did the universe come from, and where is it going?  Did the universe have a beginning, and if so, what happened before then?  What is the nature of time?  Will it ever come to an end?  Recent breakthroughs in physics, made possible in part by fantastic new technologies, suggest answers to some of these longstanding questions.  Someday these answers may seem as obvious to us as the earth orbiting the sun--or perhaps as ridiculous as a tower of tortoises.  Only time (whatever that may be) will tell.

This is the second paragraph of Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time.  I read the book in college, I think when I was 19, and his follow up Black Holes and Baby Universes a few years later.  Hawking was already iconic among my high school friends--we were all sci fi and science geeks.  And I was in a phase where I had a deep fascination in cosmology and theoretical physics (I read most of the works of Paul Davies while in college and then wrote my senior Honors thesis about his concept of God).  

And this was the time when I was being drawn into philosophy, and metaphysics in particular, where these questions were explored.  

Since childhood even up to this morning when I was listening to the radio one thing has been guaranteed to make me nauseous--the thought of why anything exists at all and yet the idea of nothing existing makes no sense.  Rationality breaks down and my head and stomach spin.  And yet these limits of scientific and philosophical quandary drew me inexorably on.

The concluding chapter to A Brief History ventures further into the realm of philosophy and even theology and spirituality.  If we can achieve a complete unified theory (or theory of everything) then what role is left for God?  The book ends with a  most fascinating paragraph:

If we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason--for then we would know the mind of God.

The "mind of God" here should be understood in the Platonic sense--the highest reality in the Divided Line in the Republic.  Only the highest form of knowledge, a type of mystical contemplation, can know the mind of God.  From ancient wisdom we have understood that the limits of reason and scientific inquiry take us into the realm of mystical experience.  Here was a contemporary physicist developing a similar idea (Paul Davies argued that physics is a surer path to God than religion, for similar reasons, and even named a major work The Mind of God).

But the problem with the God of the theoretical physicists, as with the God of the philosophers, is that they aren't describing Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews. But, that discussion is for another time.

As my philosophical education advanced, I realized more of the flaws in Hawking's philosophical understanding of science (many scientists lack a philosophical understanding of their discipline), though looking at my marginalia, I already had some objections to simplistic understandings.  I don't think a theory of everything is possible, and one reason is that his understanding of the laws of physics can't survive philosophical critique.  Consider Nancy Cartwright's How the Laws of Physics Lie wherein she reveals that ‚ÄúRendered as descriptions of fact, they are false; amended to be true, they lose their fundamental explanatory force."

But it is still a grand hope and something to aspire to.  And Hawking is correct that could we do it we would achieve the "ultimate triumph of human reason."  Though it may just be that to achieve that highest form of knowledge we must transcend reason into the mystical.

A toast to Stephen Hawking for his brilliant mind and insightful ideas.  I thank him for helping to inspire me and launch the course of my intellectual life.

BTW, here's an excellent obituary by Roger Penrose.

A Community of Giving

From my theology reading today:

"Finally, the Spirit counters our indolence by placing us within the community of Christ's body. Community helps craft us into good givers. It's in the community that the Spirit suffuses our giving with hope; we hope because are part of a community of hope. It's in the community that the Spirit mold our character; we display a life of virtue because we live in a community that values and fosters virtue. And how does the Spirit energize and direct our talents? We allow the community's needs to lay claim on us, and we seek the community's wisdom to help us discern what we are good at. Finally, it is by the Spirit and through the waters of baptism that we die with Christ and rise to new life in him. We don't receive the Spirit's hope, the Spirit's fruit, the Spirit's gifts, and Christ's life on our own as isolated individuals. They are ours as we are members of a community of giving, whether that community is a family, a circle of close friends, or a church."--Miroslav Volf in Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace

Then a couple of paragraphs later he writes, "Communities don't make givers.  Givers are not made by humans at all.  They are born--born of the Spirit through the good practices of communities."

This spiritual truth is one reason we must resist our current political administration so and create small communities of virtue.


Hannah Arendt: The Last Interview and Other Conversations

The Last Interview and Other ConversationsThe Last Interview and Other Conversations by Hannah Arendt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked up this little volume of four Arendt interviews while in Oklahoma City last week. I continue to be impressed by Arendt's analysis and enjoy teaching her in my philosophy and ethics classes.

Among the interesting tidbits in this volume:

"A functionary, when he really is nothing more than a functionary, is really a very dangerous gentleman."

Her worry, in 1970, that the American working class was going to be attracted to nationalism.

That the student movements of the late 1960's had revealed the fun and joy of political action, what she called "public happiness." Also that the students acted with "the assurance of being able to change things by one's own efforts."

Her view that capitalism and socialism were both exploitative, even though the latter was created to solve that problem in the former.

The idea that she didn't consider herself a philosopher, but a political thinker.

She advocated a new form a government she called "the council system." People would be part of small councils working on a very local level--neighborhood, work, etc. The councils would discuss issues and make decisions. People who demonstrated strong capabilities would then represent the small councils at a higher level. In this system power would be horizontal, not vertical, and sovereignty and that nation state would vanish and be replaced by federations of councils.

This latter put me to mind of the congregational polity of the denominations I've been a part of and also what I valued about the Collegium model that the United Church of Christ had until last summer, which they unfortunately abandoned for a more corporate national structure.

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Texas Caviar


Recently I read The Cooking Gene by Michael W. Twitty, and it has inspired me to write a blog series on the role of food in my life.  Tonight was our book club, which I couldn't make.  But I went ahead and prepared the Texas Caviar I was going to take, using the opportunity to discuss foodways with our son Sebastian as he helped me to prepare the dish.

Texas Caviar is a black-eyed pea based dip often encountered at parties in Texas and surrounding areas.  I'm sure I was first acquainted with it in Oklahoma.

Now, growing up, I did not like black-eyed peas.  I thought they tasted like dirt in little packages.  Black-eyed peas were primarily fixed on New Year's Day when eating them was supposed to bring you good luck for the year.  My Mom generally cooked the dried peas in a pot of water with a hamhock.  I made this dish this year for New Year's when Mom and my sister Kelli were here visiting.  It made the house smell great.


Michael Twitty writes about black-eyed peas.  They came from Africa.  In the Yoruba culture they "represent fertility, the eye of God."  He writes, "They were spiritually potent food long before our arrival in America."  He adds that because the Yoruba word for black-eyed pea is close to the word for beauty, "To ingest black-eyed peas is to become filled with beauty, and ancestral tradition."

When I read his description, I was surprised and excited to learn the African roots of a tradition my very white Oklahoma family practiced.

But, as I said, I did not like black-eyed peas as a kid or young adult.  I came to enjoy them later.  Probably my first decent encounter with them was as part of Texas Caviar, this dip.  But I only began preparing black-eyed peas myself when Michael and I, in the late Aughts, began hosting an annual New Year's Day Open House.

The tradition of the New Year's Open House, I got from Dallas, Texas, where I would be invited to a handful every year.  So, in Oklahoma City, Michael and I started that tradition.  And we chose to make foods from our family's ancestral cultures that were associated with the new year.  So, from his Filipino side we had rice and leafy greens.  I wanted to make a black-eyed pea dish, so I learned to make Texas Caviar.  In later years I also started making Hoppin' John, a traditional dish that definitely originates in the experienced of enslaved African-Americans, though I didn't know that history.  I had not grown up with that dish, but enjoy making it some years on the holiday.


Since reading Twitty's book, I have tried to explain foodways and cultural connections to Sebastian while we are working in the kitchen.  I have always used this as time to teach him about food and good kitchen skills, but I have now added this element of culture and also a time to tell stories of my life and our family.


Tonight, as we prepared the Texas Caviar together, I talked about the fusion of sources in this recipe: black-eyed peas from African roots, peppers from indigenous American cultures, the garlic which is more European, along with the olive oil.  The rice vinegar might come from many traditions that cooked with rice, but the rice vinegar in our house is because of the Asian influences.  Then the tortilla chip with which to eat it coming from Hispano-Indian culture.  

What I enjoyed about Twitty's book was opening up meal preparation to this sense of rich story and history and cultural mixing.  This dip I had first experienced from middle class white people is a rich blend of global cultures.


The Cooking Gene

The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old SouthThe Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South by Michael W. Twitty
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I read/heard about this book last autumn, I recommended it to our church book club. They adopted it for our March gathering, so last weekend while traveling I read it.

I really liked the book in that I learned a lot from it, even feeling better informed about food I grew up on. For instance, learning that the annual New Year's tradition of eating black-eyed peas goes back to the Yoruba people. Now in future years I will know that I'm participating in an ancient African tradition that has long been a part of my white Oklahoma background.

The book has also inspired me to write a blog series on food and to be more intentional in the kitchen and at the table with our son to discuss food traditions and culture.

What I didn't like about the book was its odd and at times rambling and repetitive structure. I felt it could have used some further editing.

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Cutting for Stone

Cutting for StoneCutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My colleague Jim Harmon gave this to me for Christmas saying how much he enjoyed it and thought I would too. How correct he was. I think this will now rank among my favourite novels.

I was fully captivated by the characters, the setting, the plot, the writing--everything. At one point around 3/4 of the way through I wasn't sure the book hadn't made a mistake but then that plot development set up an amazing series of events to conclude the story. I finished the novel fully caught up in the emotion of these characters stories.

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