Painful lessons on worship, thanks to Bach

It had been a busy period approaching Easter, but Good Friday had arrived with the promise of a short break.  We decided to start the weekend with a treat – to listen to St Matthew’s Passion by Bach in Coventry Cathedral.  An amazing piece of music that has formed an act of worship for many people over hundreds of years, we were looking forward to it.  We shared a lift with friends, one of whom was performing in the choir.

I knew nothing of the piece, but was a little alarmed to hear that it lasted three hours – I know what cathedral chairs can be like, and I was feeling somewhat worn down by some stressful meetings at work.  We had well placed seats, although the gentleman who sat next to me wore ‘fragrance of smoker’, and I noticed when the music began that his breathing was rather loud.  I prepared myself to be ‘wowed’ by the wonderful music.

Fifteen minutes into the performance I realised that the music and I spoke different languages of worship.

Thirty minutes in and I prepared myself for the ordeal as I do for the discomfort of a long flight in cramped uncomfortable airline seats; try not to wriggle too much so as not to disturb others,  focus on trying to doze and calm oneself to patiently endure the flight, listen to some nice music through headphones – not something I could do here of course.

It was not an un-spiritual experience.  It reminded me that Christ had suffered intently on the cross, that it had gone dark for three hours, that he’d willingly submitted himself to the pain, but that it would not gave been an enjoyable experience.  And finally, thank God, it was finished.

The friends that I went with loved it, talking excitedly about different parts of the performance and how moved they were by it.  I was emotionally exhausted and felt excluded from the party – there was nothing positive I could think of to say, and I didn’t want to spoil their enjoyment of the evening so I was silent.  It was working until over dinner one of them mentioned I’d been quiet and asked what I’d thought of it.  After a few moments silence someone else spared me with ‘not your cup of tea then’, and the evening moved on.

Having had time to reflect a little, there are some lessons to learn from the experience.

  • Even the most brilliant worship music will not appeal to everyone, and will drive some people away.  If you want to help everyone ‘worship’, then you need a variety of approaches (not all musical!)
  • It feels very lonely and friendless being in an environment where others are enthusing about a method of worship that leaves you cold.  You can be left feeling ‘what’s wrong with me?’, and spiritually drained.  Don’t ‘demand’ that everyone enthuses about what you find uplifting, and don’t judge them if they don’t ‘connect’.
  • If you are feeling low, then a worship event may not be the best remedy.  You may end up worse that when you began.
  • Even if you are experiencing something painful, there are lessons to learn from it.

I don’t regret going, but I don’t suppose I will quickly repeat the experience.  Nobody wants to be the spectre at the feast.

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Direct from the San Francisco Book Review

The Big Picture – An Honest Examination of God, Science and Purpose
By P D Hemsley
eLectio Publishing, $4.99, 266 pages, Format: eBook

A former atheist/agnostic who gave God a chance offers open-minded readers this work which is both ambitious in scope and credible in approach: //The Big Picture: An Honest Examination of God, Science, and Purpose//.  Polarizing subject matter such as God and science, evolution, and intelligent design are revisited with the goal of gently challenging entrenched thinking on both sides.

Hemsley, a Chartered Engineer, “has lived on both sides of the faith fence.” His book is comparable to a technical presentation designed for a general audience. It is highly organized with stated goals, evidence, and the author’s conclusions. Fluid, straightforward writing helps the reader progress through several chapters or conclusions dealing with faith, science, purpose and design, quantum physics, free will, reason, Jesus, and more. Even so, those with less of a scientific bent will need to exercise their concentration skills in the scientific sections.

The strength of this book lies in complexity and compatibility. The chapters “Science Describes an Incredible Universe” and “The Universe Exhibits Design and Purpose” make for fascinating reading, especially the subsection where “challenged by the complexity of the biological machinery” Hemsley explores how a modern-day designer would engineer a human being and how long it would take. Additionally, the author’s version of the Genesis creation account featuring the compatibility of scientific discoveries and God’s design is an interesting interpretation to consider.

No emotional appeals are made to the atheist, agnostic, hardcore creationist, or plain honest seeker for a change in his or her worldview. In the words of the author, a self-described Minimalist Christian: “Whether you agree with my conclusion or not, I hope that many of the myths that currently inhibit so many of us will have been weakened or dispelled. I hope that a step can be taken towards finding purpose and experiencing life in abundance.”

http://citybookreview.com/the-big-picture-an-honest-examination-of-god-science-and-purpose/

Click HERE to buy a copy.

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Am I just a computer simulation?

Research suggests that human brain has more switches than the entire internet.  Each of the 125 trillion synapses that connect our 200 billion brain cells appears to have perhaps 1000 molecular scale switches. (ref 1)

Some areas of our brain take the input from our nerve cells and begin to process them.  They pass through other processing areas that start to interpret the signals; this sequence of signals from an eye might show us that an object is moving for instance.  Other areas deal with hearing or touch or smell.  Most of these areas carry out their functions without imposing on our consciousness.  At the top level, our brain presents a model of our environment to our conscious self.  The conclusion of this would seem to be that we are living within a computer simulation: generated by our brains based on input from the senses around our bodies interacting with our environment.  The question is, are we interacting with the computer simulation or are we the simulation itself?

Back in 2001 the Nick Bostrom speculated that scientific knowledge and computer power would at some time in the future increase sufficiently to build a simulation of the human brain in a computer (ref 2).  That computer would also be able to build a sufficiently complete model of the universe that an individual simulated human brain would not be able to distinguish it from the real thing.  The model would include not only one simulated person, but many, so that each ‘person’ had the true ‘experience’ of interacting with other ‘people’.

He reasoned that since the people who created this simulation would be likely to run a number of simulations (like our kids run lots of ‘Sims’ scenarios)  “Then it could be the case that the vast majority of minds like ours do not belong to the original race but rather to people simulated by the advanced descendants of an original race.”

There are inherent assumptions that Bostom builds on:  that our consciousness and ‘me-ness’ are simply emerging characteristics of the complex computer circuitry within our brain, and that science and technology will continue to advance until we understand and can model the brain operation.  The reasoned conclusion is that if these assumptions are correct then you and I are simulated beings in a computer simulation.

If that is the case, then we might conclude that it is of little consequence to switch off a particular simulation, in the same way that we are quite happy to switch off our computer.

But what if an alternative view is correct, that ‘we’ are not the simulation itself?  What if there is something about us that is more than an emergent property of a highly complex computer? What if there is a ‘me’ that transcends the ‘matter’ that makes up the computer in my head?  What happens then if the computer is switched off?  Do I cease to exist, or do I simply cease to interact with this particular computer?

The answer to that question lies beyond science and technology. We will have to look elsewhere for guidance.

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References:

1) http://www.cnet.com/uk/news/human-brain-has-more-switches-than-all-computers-on-earth/

2) Are you living in a computer simulation? Philosophical Quarterly (2003) Vol. 53, No 211, pp.243-255. (First Version: 2001)) Nick Bostrom

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For more on this topic and others see The Big Picture- an honest examination of God, Science and Purpose

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Four steps of reason leading to a personal God

As I begin this post, I ask myself “Am I deciding what to write?”  You might think that a strange question with an obvious answer, but if I were to have a materialist view of things then I would struggle to answer with a ‘yes’.  At the heart of the problem is the question of whether I have free will or not.  Am I able to exert any choice on any decision (such as what to write) or is my action simply a result of the state of the molecules in my brain at the particular time when I think I am making a choice?

If there is nothing but matter, and matter behaves according to strict laws then there is no scope for me, or you, to make a free choice about anything.  Holders of the materialist view have argued that those who believe in free will need to demonstrate a mechanism before free will can be accepted to exist.

I do not subscribe to that view of things.  A bumblebee flies even if I am unable to demonstrate the mechanism.

Other disagreements with such a view are subjective.  Whilst I recognise that many of my actions might indeed be simply as a result of my brain state at a given time, I identify situations where I stop myself behaving according to ‘habit’ and consciously choose to behave differently.

From a practical viewpoint, our whole society is built on the basis that we have free will.  If I have no free will to be able to choose how to behave, then what right has society to imprison me for murder?  I would have had no choice but to kill my neighbour – it would have been an action that simply resulted from the chemical configuration in my brain at the time.

So for all practical and from all subjective points of view, I accept that we have free will.

That is step one; that we have free will.

The fact that I can call an opinion subjective inherently means that there is an “I” that is choosing to have an opinion.  Similarly, I speak about personal experience which requires there to be a person.  My personal subjective view is that there is indeed an “I” who is considering the facts and deciding what to write.  Descartes’ famous statement “I think therefore I am” argues that the only thing I know is that there is an “I” who thinks, and therefore “I” must exist – even if everything else is just my imagination.

So step two is that there is an “I” who exists.

The next thing to consider is how I exist (with the proviso that my physical being might be a delusion – but I still exist).   I exist because I have the ability to exist; something is causing me to exist.  I am not causing myself to exist, it is something apart from me that is ensuring that I exist.  Some might call that something ‘the laws of physics’, but I shall choose here to call that something God. (A rose by any other name …).  That is step 3.  There is something that sustains me (and everything else) that can be called God.

The final step is to ask whether it is reasonable to imagine that this something (God) could sustain an “I”, who has free-will (which must operate outside the laws of physics) without itself having an “I-ness” to it.  Can the physical properties of a human being, which are sustained by God, ‘create’ an “I-ness” that God does not have itself?  Can “I-ness” be dependent on the sustaining power of God and yet above and separate from God?  And if not, then the power that sustains us must also have an “I-ness” about it.

Step four: the power that sustains us has itself the characteristics of a person: it is a personal God.

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A Masterpiece of Engineering

We think that we design pretty neat things these days.  We laugh at the man who said that the world would probably only need four or five computers.  Those of us who are old enough can remember when we did a sum on the newly invented pocket calculator that gave us the answer 0.7734, which said “hello” when we turned the calculator upside down.

But whilst researching my latest book I came across some pretty amazing statistics about a design that we all treat as commonplace – each and every human being.

Our 1.5kg brain comprises around 100 billion neurons, of 10,000 different types. Each neuron can have thousands of synapses (input connections from other neurons) and each synapse has perhaps a thousand molecular scale switches.  A single human brain is estimated to contain more switches than the entire internet.

Contained within our skin are around 650 muscles attached to over 200 bones, which vary in size from the femur in our thigh to the stirrup bone in the ear.  The muscle/bone combination is precise enough to paint a masterpiece, or to putt a golf ball twenty feet into a hole.

We have around 60,000 miles of veins and arteries and 1500 miles of pipes in our lungs.

Within our lymph nodes we have billions of B cells, each of which is different and each one defends against a particular very specific infection.

The list goes on – but you get the point.

Yet this whole complex organism is built from a single cell.

We begin as one single cell.  Within the cell is our DNA, the supposed blueprint for our manufacture.  We have a massive 3 billion base pairs (characters in the ‘code’) in our DNA. Yet there are around 50,000 billion different cells in the body.  Each cell is different, in function and in position – some nerve cells can be several feet long.  How can we imagine that there is enough information contained within our DNA to define our fully functioning body?

But we do start from just one cell.  And each cell only responds to the signals that cross the cell membrane.   As we develop, the cell is what it is as a result of its history – its ancestor cells.  And each of those cells only responded to the signals that crossed it’s membrane.  It’s like a massive pyramid, built the wrong way up – with the apex at the bottom.  The process is incredibly robust.  Look at identical twins.  Most of their development is as separate human beings and yet the final ‘product’ is identical.

A human being is truly a masterpiece of engineering.

Is it reasonable to state with certainty that this happened by chance?  Is it reasonable to assert that the properties of the sub-atomic particles in the universe are such that they behave in precisely the right way to manufacture you or I from a single cell by sheer luck? Or would that be a blind leap of faith?

 

 

See also:

http://philhemsley.wordpress.com/2013/03/03/information-dna-and-evolution/

http://philhemsley.wordpress.com/2012/09/17/the-dna-enigma/

 

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Time to ditch Jack Sparrow’s moral compass?

I read a headline this morning that the UK government is paying strip clubs and lap dancing bars thousands of pounds to employ young people.  http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/uk_news/National/article1376579.ece What sort of moral compass are they travelling by.  It is Jack Sparrow’s compass: it points at whatever you feel like.

Many of the young people I meet today have already succumbed to the temptations of smoking (tobacco and weed), drinking (to excess), internet pornography and instant gratification sex.  Many have anger management problems, are bored easily, struggle to see any purpose in life, and find it hard to get and keep jobs.  And I live in ‘middle England’, I can’t imagine what it is like in the most deprived areas.

Who can blame them?

We have structured our society so that we take our children away from their parents and put them in schools where the only adult interaction is focused on learning facts that will help them pass exams.  We have structured our economy such that parents have to work long hours, often at weekends, so our less affluent families have little time for child parent interaction.  We have so regulated schools with ‘child protection’ that the few adults who do interact with children are not allowed even to touch them, and who live in fear of accusation of child molesting. We have done our best to mock and marginalise religious institutions who try to suggest that some form of restraint might be beneficial.

We have put our children in an institutional ‘Lord of the Flies’ scenario, and added the instant gratification of TV, internet, and readily available drugs (legal and illegal).

Surely it is time for a serious rethink.

Instead of sticking plaster politics and abdicating any vision of the future to ‘market forces’, let’s try to define what we want society to be like, and then see what needs to be done to get there.

Please share your ideas of what an ideal society would look like.

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We’re a wealthy country… money’s no object…

Minimalist Christian:

Some very valid points in this blog…

Originally posted on Jane Young:

Flooding I’m supposed to be writing an important human rights report, but the political messages around today have tempted me to blog – for the first time since the turn of the year, when my anger about poverty spilled into a much less measured blog than usual. My anger has now got the better of me again…

First of all I must say, very clearly, that flooding is terrible for those affected and my heart goes out to all those who have experienced the horror of dirty, sewage-contaminated water flowing through their homes. This blog is not directed against flood victims, but is a comment on the political message and reality behind the Prime Minister’s promises.

The floods have reached the home counties. Beautiful homes next to the River Thames are awash. This is archetypal middle England. Confirmed Tory voters are now being affected by the floods which have ravaged the…

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