Sunday Night Journal 2004 Feed

Sunday Night Journal — September 26, 2004

I Miss the Future

David Mills of Touchstone, writing on that magazine’s blog one day last week, solicited readers’ opinions as to the best science-fiction movie ever made. It required no reflection at all for me to come up with my answer: 2001: A Space Odyssey. There aren’t many sci-fi films that I consider to be worthy of comparison with 2001. Mr. Mills asked his question in the context of discussing a survey in which a number of scientists named Blade Runner as the top science fiction film. I haven’t seen Blade Runner, having been frightened away by its reputation for graphic violence, so I’ll admit the possibility that it may be better than 2001, but I imagine I would still prefer the latter. That’s because it is more than a good movie: it represents a kind of science fiction, and a kind of future, that is now for me an object of nostalgia.

As a boy in the early 1960s I fell deeply under the spell of science fiction for a couple of years. The pictures of exotic worlds and futures painted in the stories I read were almost mystically attractive to me, mainly, I think, because of their strangeness and remoteness. I directed to them what I later recognized as a displaced religious longing. The phase did not last very long, partly because most of the writing was inferior to that in the classics I was also then discovering, and partly because the vision of a future technological wonderland soon came to seem thin and shallow.

But now and then I have spells of nostalgia for those days of wonder, and sometimes in the midst of these I do slightly embarrassing things, such as seeking out and purchasing on eBay some of the very issues of Analog which enchanted me at sixteen. I find, somewhat to my disappointment but not much to my surprise, that most of the writing is even worse than I feared. Stories purveying ideas which seemed at the time very deep now seem naïve at best. Many of them seem, aside from their fanciful settings and gadgetry, almost laughably conventional: genre pieces in the basic pattern of Westerns and war stories, but done up with futuristic trappings which all too often are amusingly bound to the time in which they were written. One story, for instance, in which the special effects work of a movie crew provides a trick that saves the day, refers continually to the manipulation of tape—on a starship. The effect is of an anachronistic future, in which the electronic systems of the imagined distant future sometimes still have vacuum tubes and mechanical relays that were obsolete by 1970 or so.

And yet there is still an appeal in the endless vistas of technological marvels and galactic civilizations, and 2001 captures it better than any movie I know. It was the first movie in which technology could actually provide a convincing visual representation of what science-fictions writers and readers had previously only imagined. (“Star Trek,” for instance, never interested me much, because it was so visually unconvincing, and the stories were simplistic even by the standards of printed sci-fi.)

Thematically, 2001 is, as you know if you’ve seen it, an exercise in evolutionary wishful thinking. It supposes an ascent of human progress by evolution as directed and encouraged by an ancient, wise, and benevolent alien civilization. Stanley Kubrick had the good sense to keep these aliens offstage, so that they remain suitably beyond the ordinary. It’s remarkable how often this basic notion of salvation by godlike aliens recurs in science fiction and apparently among some scientists: the late Carl Sagan seems to have felt its pull quite strongly. It is an idea supported by considerably less empirical evidence (to wit, none) than the Resurrection, yet some intelligent people seem more willing to believe in it than in any traditional religion.

I find it fascinating that this vision of the future suffered a rapid decline even as it attained its greatest expression. I didn’t follow science fiction very closely after the mid-60s, but it’s my impression that by the 1980s dystopia was the prevalent theme. I did read a few of the so-called “cyberpunk” novels of the ‘80s, such as William Gibson’s Neuromancer, and they were certainly grim enough. A number of very popular movies, such as the Terminator and Alien series, which are at least superficially classifiable as science fiction, are set in a nightmarish future. I don’t consider these as being quite in the running for the sci-fi prize, as they are basically horror or action films with sci-fi paraphernalia. The Star Wars series is more in the old-time mode, and I’ve always enjoyed the original trilogy enormously, but it’s pretty lightweight stuff, a comic-book style adventure the excellence of which is in proportion to its lack of seriousness.

Here’s a question for the Christian: which is better: the hope and optimism of 2001, founded on illusions and delusions, or the darkness and violence of Blade Runner? Perhaps Blade Runner is more true to the earthly condition. I suppose I really ought to see it. But for sheer entertainment, and for its capturing of a sense of cosmic mystery, purpose, and grandeur, I much prefer 2001 and its older future.

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Sunday Night Journal — September 19, 2004

After the Storm

We missed the worst of Hurricane Ivan, or rather it missed us. The storm did weaken somewhat before it made landfall, but was still a worse-than-average hurricane. We went to bed on Tuesday night having made the decision to flee inland if the storm did not significantly weaken or change direction overnight. It didn’t, and we did, heading eighty miles or so inland to Thomasville, where my brother-in-law and his family live.

I’m always a little surprised at the readiness of family members to come to each other’s aid when it really counts. The way my wife put it to me was that she had called her brother and “told them we might be coming,” as if there were no question that they would be willing to have us—if not to welcome us actively, then at least to accept us in the emergency. In the event we were in fact warmly welcomed although we were extremely inconvenient, being five people, two dogs, and a cat. We drove up on Wednesday morning, taking back roads to avoid the congested interstate, and left a couple of days later, deeply grateful and feeling that we really ought to see them more often.

Home is the place where, when you have to go there
They have to take you in.

I heard that cynical but true line from Robert Frost’s “The Death of the Hired Man” long before I read the poem. The line is spoken by the husband of a farm couple discussing whether they should take in a former hand who “has come home to die,” as the wife says—whether they should be to him as his actual family, in the person of a rich brother, is not. It was much later that I read the warmer and wiser response of the farmer’s wife:

I should have called it
Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.

Both together make, to me, as vivid a nutshell summary as any I know of what family really means: a tie deeper than mere affection, a bond of obligation so potent as to outweigh most others. In using the word “home” the wife is making the hired man part of the family, in effect adopting him. Read the poem, if you don’t know it; it is one of Frost’s masterpieces.

We were lucky, or blessed, or both. The storm took a last-minute turn to the east, with the result that instead of being on the fiercer east side of the system our house was in the middle, with the eye passing directly over it. The house suffered minor damage in the form of a hole in the roof which ruined the ceiling and a few expendable furnishings in a bedroom, but it will be easily repaired. Thirty miles or so to the south and the east it was another story; there is devastation on the coast and as much as fifty miles inland. The downed trees must number in the thousands; everywhere you go there are huge piles of debris piled beside the street, containing everything from leaves to eighteen-inch logs. This area will feel the effects for years to come.

The power of these storms is almost inconceivable. There is a half-remembered line from the Bible floating around in my mind, something to the effect that if the Lord did not stay his hand no flesh would live. As the old routine re-forms around the obstacles—power outages, cleanup, and the like—I think of how much we owe, at all times, to mercy.


Sunday Night Journal — September 12, 2004

Sunday Night Comes on a Tuesday Morning This Week

If you looked in at this site anytime between Monday afternoon and 11am or so (Central Daylight Time) Tuesday morning you saw a journal entry dealing with the Dan Rather/CBS/apparently-forged-memos controversy. But now I’m staring down the barrel of a very large gun labeled Hurricane Ivan, and somehow carping at the hapless Mr. Rather isn’t the appropriate note.

Maybe it never is. Samuel Johnson in a famous remark noted that the prospect of hanging concentrates the mind wonderfully. Flannery O’Connor in A Good Man is Hard to Find has the psycho killer say to an old woman, just before he shoots her, that she would’ve been a good woman if she’d had somebody ready to shoot her all the time. It’s highly unlikely that I will die in this hurricane, but at the moment it looks entirely possible, if not probable, that my pleasant life will be seriously and lastingly disrupted. It feels a bit like a rehearsal for the end of life, and time to let go of political quarrels, at least for now.

If you’re reading this before it happens, please offer a prayer that the power of this hurricane would be diminished before it makes landfall, as it seems pretty certain to do. At the moment it is of such force that its impact would be devastating, with effects that would last for many years.

I wonder if anyone recognizes the Pogo reference in my title above.

See the August 15 journal entry for some thoughts on hurricanes and Providence.


Sunday Night Journal — September 5, 2004

As One Human Being to Another

When Ronald Reagan died a few months ago I wondered what sort of obituary I might produce on the death of Bill Clinton. The question returned this week when the ex-President entered the hospital for coronary bypass surgery. I was a little surprised at my immediate reaction, which was quite simple and direct: Good luck; best wishes; get well soon. It really was an unforced reaction, and I was glad to see that the intense and bitter partisanship which Clinton provoked in me (as in many) was not so poisonous that I did not, when a question of life and death presented itself, react simply as one human being to another.

It happened on Saturday night that I saw a re-broadcast of a June interview with Mr. Clinton on Larry King Live. Perhaps still a bit under the influence of the sympathy I felt because of his illness, I was struck again by how very gifted this man is. He discussed the war in Iraq with something pretty close to wisdom, and was in general, as is usually the case when his self-interest is not at stake, intelligent and articulate to a rare degree. I found myself for a moment understanding why people fell for him. And I felt an unexpected regret: I think I fully appreciated, for the first time, his potential as a democratic leader, and, simultaneously, his failure to achieve it.

As his admirers are quick to point out, he is still a fairly young man. Does he have something else to contribute? Genuine love of his country is undoubtedly a real component of his complex motivations. Will he spend it in the relatively petty and partisan maneuverings that characterized his presidency, or can he rise above that? Might a brush with death awaken a greater seriousness of purpose within him? In what capacity could he yet serve, since he cannot be president again?

I write this only a few weeks after the Democratic convention, in which Mr. Clinton delivered a speech that was a classic expression of the talents and attitudes we saw most while he was president: a brilliantly planned and charmingly executed piece of demagoguery, in which, in a practiced move, he used the charge of divisiveness to divide. Shall we look forward to this sort of thing for the rest of this political career, or can he find his way to higher ground?

Best wishes, Mr. Clinton. Get well soon.


Sunday Night Journal — August 29, 2004

Invasion of the Old Fools

On my way to work one recent morning, late as usual and trying to hurry, I found myself behind a car going very slowly in the left lane on Highway 98. This road has grown steadily more congested over the twelve years during which I’ve driven it to and from work. I’m convinced that on the average I’m likely to reach the end of this ten-mile stretch more quickly, and without too much vexation, if I get in the left lane and stay there. The right lane seems to move a bit more slowly most of the time, and switching lanes only leads to frustration, in accordance with the well-known fact that switching from a slower-moving queue to a faster-moving one will cause the former to speed up and the latter to slow down.

The key to preserving my equanimity in this situation while still being in a hurry is to recognize that although I may win the bet more often than not, I am still going to lose regularly, and to be ready to accept gracefully those occasions when the left lane is consistently slower. On the day in question I happened to be directly behind the car that was causing the slowdown. It was occupied by a man and a woman who appeared to be in their sixties or so. This also is not unusual, but what was unusual was that their car bore several bumper stickers advertising various more or less left-wing opinions.

Vexed after a mile or so of their blockade, and beginning to think it was time to give the right lane a try after all, I found myself thinking No fool like an old fool. An uncharitable thought, to be sure, and yet there is something a little unseemly about an old person with political views of multiple-bumper-sticker intensity. It is very hard for such a person to avoid seeming, or in fact being, a crank, or worse—for instance, the hardened old women one sees sometimes in pro-abortion marches. Left-wing causes, which at least in their more innocent forms (“Give peace a chance!”) are based on hope but often also on naivete, seem in general more fitted to youth. Or perhaps it is only that near-fanatic attachment to a political cause, whether right or left, seems more fitted to youth. Age should be more serene and more measured.

Be that as it may, I think the old saw about the old fool is going to find a lot of application over the next twenty years or so. My generation, the baby boomers, is about to join the ranks of “senior citizens” (a term I dislike—I would rather be called simply “old”), and I do not expect us to handle it well. I remember thinking, sometime around 1990 or so as I entered my early forties, that it would probably not be long before someone of my generation became president, and that I did not expect to like him. My pessimism was rewarded with Bill Clinton (and of course Hillary Clinton).

Of course like many people who discuss the baby boomers I’m really not thinking of the whole cohort of people born between 1945 and 1962 or so, but of the most visible subset of them, those of us who perpetrated the Great Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s. My generation is often given, or appropriates for itself, credit for such noble works of the 1960s as the civil rights movement. But in fact we were too young to be much of a factor in that struggle, which was at its most intense from the mid-‘50s to the mid-‘60s. We saw it and experienced its effects, but we did not much participate in it, much less initiate or lead it. A person born in 1946 was only sixteen at the time of the March on Washington. Moreover, many of the most influential artists of the time—Bob Dylan and the Beatles, for instance—were not baby boomers but rather were born in the early ‘40s.

No, our contribution was to propagate, later in the decade, the gospel of drugs and sex. We did not invent it, but we (and again I am speaking of that active and attention-getting minority) made it our own, and, what is far more important, we institutionalized it.

When I started college in 1966 there were very strict rules that kept the boys and girls out of each other’s living quarters. Neither sex could pass beyond the lobby of the other’s dormitory, and the girls had a rigorously enforced curfew, which was arguably unfair but which had the effect of providing an informal curfew for the boys as well, because once the girls were locked up there wasn’t much for them to do. By the time my wife entered the same school in 1970 all that was gone, as if it had never been. And the drugs which a few years before had been the secret of a few hipsters were to be found in fraternity and sorority houses. And within a few more years society as a whole was being transformed and ravaged by the effects of promiscuity and drug addiction.

We were young fools, that’s plain enough. But the young are often foolish. The reason the population of old fools is about to increase greatly and abruptly is that so many of us have never admitted that we were wrong or faced the harm we did. Far too many influential people in entertainment, politics, and education now accept as normal and inevitable and even laudable a level of sexual activity among teenagers that is clearly doing them a great deal of harm, especially the girls. The response of these people to the risks involved is to push a cold-blooded program of contraception and “safe sex” which operates on the impossible and absurd premise that young people can be encouraged to give in to their urges but only after coolly evaluating the costs and benefits, like bankers considering a loan. (It is mostly women, I think, who push this, women who seem to be some horrid combination of bawd and schoolmarm—most men either don’t care or know better, while women understand the risk for the girls and utterly misunderstand the boys.)

I mentioned a while back my habit of reading Dear Abby. I quote from today’s column:

I’m 14 and my name is “Pearl.” I just found out that I might have chlamydia. I really like this guy and I need to know if I should tell him. What should I do? I am a little scared. Please answer soon.

I don’t think it’s too strong to say that those who do not acknowledge the relationship between the pathetic situation of “Pearl” and the great cultural shift of the late ‘60s are fools, and I think there are a lot of them.


Sunday Night Journal — August 22, 2004

Dragonfly

This will be a brief entry. I have not had much time this weekend to think about what I would write today, and this may be the case for the next few weeks. I hope to add some more of my older writings to this site as well as to finish a couple of poems in progress.

In my August 1 journal entry I mentioned the existence of dragonflies as an intuitive argument against the idea that living things have evolved by purely random processes. I mentioned to my wife that it would be nice to have a picture of a dragonfly to go with the text. She was very willing to make the attempt, but it turned out that taking a dragonfly’s picture is no easy matter. It really needs a long lens and a lot of time. Dragonflies are skittish and timid and they don’t stay put for very long. But eventually she succeeded.

Photo by Karen Horton

Which of these, the dragonfly or the radio antenna on which it is perched, shows more evidence of being the product of deliberate and intelligent design? The dragonfly is by orders of magnitude more complex and more precisely organized. It seems to me that only prejudice could lead one to answer that it is the antenna that seems to be the product of intelligence. Such an appeal to intuition and common sense proves nothing, but it might suggest, to a person truly open-minded on the question, that educated opinion for the past hundred years and more may have been insufficiently skeptical of the doctrine of atheistic evolution.


Sunday Night Journal — August 15, 2004

Charley and Job

One often comes across stories in the news in which someone has a narrow escape and, talking to a reporter afterwards, thanks God for sparing him. This is obviously an admirable sentiment, but it often includes something along the lines of “I guess God was just watching out for me.” And when the background of that statement is, say, a car crash in which everyone else was killed, one can’t help taking a few steps down the logical path to which such statements point, and which ends with another statement: “I guess God was just not watching out for those other people.” Or, perhaps, “I guess God just decided to kill those people, but not me.”

Now, on some level incomprehensible to us, those last two statements must be true, or else we are in some pretty bad theological territory: that which is, so I’m told, traversed in the best-seller When Bad Things Happen to Good People, which apparently resolves the paradoxes of divine omnipotence and human free will by denying the former. I don’t intend to touch this particular theological knot; the book of Job is enough for me: “Touching the Almighty, we cannot find him out.” Still, there is something a little unseemly about the survivor’s assertion that he was saved by God while the others were abandoned, unless he follows it with the recognition that God must have had some purpose in preserving him and that his life henceforward ought to be considered as being always at God’s disposal.

To those of us who live on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, from the tip of Florida all around to Yucatan (and, presumably, the northern coast of Cuba), hurricane season presents a moral dilemma. Once a hurricane starts charging around in the Gulf, it is almost certainly going to make landfall somewhere before it dissipates, and one can’t help thinking “please don’t let it land here”—which is only the converse of “please let it land somewhere else,” that is, “please let those people in Florida or Mississippi or Louisiana or Texas or Mexico, not me, have their homes damaged or destroyed.” One may modify this instinctive prayer and say instead “please let this storm disappear,” and this is obviously a much nobler wish, but when the storm is a hundred miles away and is not only not disappearing but growing stronger, and the clouds are moving in and the wind is picking up—when one is, in short, staring down the barrel of the gun—few, I think, can honestly say that they do not wish the storm to visit their neighbor rather than themselves.

Hurricane Charley devastated parts of Florida’s west coast last Friday. When it entered the Gulf of Mexico as a tropical storm a week or so ago, it looked as if it might go anywhere. But a cold front moving in from the west pushed the storm eastward to the Florida coast. Beginning on Wednesday or Thursday and continuing through the weekend, we had unseasonably wonderful weather: cool, cloudless, and dry, a breath of autumn in what is ordinarily the uninterrupted sauna of our coastal summer. While a dozen or more people lost their lives and thousands lost their homes, we had a beautiful weekend which didn’t just coexist ironically with the storm but actually contributed to its landing where it did.

Were we blessed, and if so why? Was Punta Gorda, Florida, cursed, and if so why? Neither and both, I think: we are all cursed and living in a world which from time to time seems to make war on us; we are all blessed and living in a world which from time to time smiles on us. Nature has a wildness which operates in the physical realm somewhat as free will operates in mankind, producing unpredictable and undeserved results, which, while known and understood by God, are inscrutable as to their justice or injustice. To insist that we have sorted out these rights and wrongs is to court the judgment of Job’s comforters, of whom the Lord said “My wrath is kindled against thee…for ye have not spoken of me the thing that is right.”


Sunday Night Journal — August 8, 2004

Deflated

Boswell to Johnson: Sir, you observed one day at General Oglethorpe’s, that a man is never happy for the present, but when he is drunk. Will you not add,—or when driving rapidly in a post-chaise?

If I were asked to decide whether the private automobile has done, on balance, more good or harm for the human race, I would find it difficult to reach a conclusion. I could easily argue it either way. Like all technologies, it has solved some problems and created others; it has brought us closer together and driven us farther apart; it has given us access to many places and weakened our connection to any place in particular; it has given us a sense of freedom and bound us tightly to itself.

On one count, though, my view is entirely unambivalent: I love to drive. I have a sixty-mile round-trip to work every day, and I don’t begrudge it at all, even though the time spent on the road is most often wasted. A day-long drive in a comfortable car with plenty of music on hand is a day’s vacation for me. One of my daydreams of retirement involves taking a fast quiet car on a month-long tour of the American West; specifically, I see myself in a Mitsubishi Eclipse, cream or silver-colored, zipping across a long stretch of empty desert highway into an enormous brilliant sunset. My wife, who is frugal and practical and does not care for long rides, finds this prospect unattractive, and suggests that a pickup truck with a camper top would be the right vehicle for such a trek—a suggestion I receive with the enthusiasm of a hare being told that what he really needs is a nice thick heavy shell, like the one the tortoise has. Sure, camping for a month would be nice, too, but it’s not the stuff of my daydreams.

Some months ago I bought a 2001 Honda Civic, which is a pretty humdrum car by most standards but the nicest I’ve ever owned. It’s a little bigger, significantly quicker, and much quieter and more comfortable than its predecessor, a 1990 Civic which had 260,000 miles on it when I finally decided that its increasingly frequent need for repair had reached the point of diminishing returns. I love this car, and this is a new experience for me. Of the many cars I’ve owned over the years, I’ve liked some more than others, but have never before felt the enthusiasm which, apparently, quite a few people do for their cars and which I do for this one. I actively look forward to getting into it twice a day for my drive to and from work. My family makes fun of my devotion.

On the walk from my office to the car, which takes more time than you might think because I park it in a distant area where I hope to minimize the possibility of someone opening a door into its side, I think happily about what CD I’m going to listen to on the way home. This decision involves many factors: the weather, the season, my own mood; frequently the choice is ambient music which provides an atmospheric background against which my mind wanders and is even, at times, productive. I sometimes do a little mental writing during this drive.

My commute is a forty-minute interlude on a magic carpet. Twenty of the thirty miles are on I65 and I10 and generally very smooth sailing. I fly along, a little traveling air-conditioned capsule of solitude and music, temporarily unencumbered by gravity and the crushing heat of our sub-tropical summer. The highway I travel is an inhuman environment for a person on foot, and a disaster for animals, but it makes me feel free.

And there is nothing quite like the sudden shock of having that magic carpet suddenly drift to the ground and become a plain and immobile rug. The experience of car trouble is also one with which I am very familiar. My last car went through a period of destroying distributors—I think this was due to improper installation—and whenever a distributor gave out the car simply switched off, and if I was lucky had enough momentum for me to steer it out of traffic. To suddenly find your feet on the ground and yourself with a potential maximum speed of three or four miles an hour, in unpleasant weather, in a hostile and dangerous environment is startling and illuminating, as reality often is.

One day last week I had a flat tire. I was involved enough in the Jimi Hendrix album I was listening to that I did not at first notice the sort of rhythmic roar made by a tire going flat, and by the time it sank in on me that I had a problem and found a place to pull over, I had driven so far on it that it was almost too hot to touch when I changed it.

In the space of a minute I had gone from climate-controlled speed and comfort to blistering heat and hard labor, dirt and sweat. I had been brought back to the reality in which all of the human race lived for thousands of years and in which most still live. I was not pleased, but I can’t deny that it was a healthy shock. And I can’t help wondering if one day our technological civilization may run out of tricks and leave us all once again taking seriously a phrase like hot dusty road.


Philosophy of Evolution, Science of Geology

Sunday Night Journal — August 1, 2004

I had an interesting note from my brother John in reply to my July 11 journal entry about the Intelligent Design movement. I wrote there that I am not a young-earth creationist—that is, I don’t dispute the current scientific consensus that age of the earth is billions of years,  not ten thousand years or so.  And I reflected on the significance of the old-earth hypothesis to Christian faith.

John is an evangelical Protestant and a young-earth creationist. He writes that he is “perplexed that [I] seem to so easily accept the current view on the age of the earth,” and, giving me some examples of problems with the old-earth hypothesis, challenges me to be open to the idea that it is in error.

Well, being open is not the problem—I’m very open to this idea, and would be delighted to learn that it is true. My difficulty is not any lack of willingness to consider it. My problem is that “How old is the earth?” is a very different sort of question from “Is life the product of blind physical forces operating purely at random?”

For convenience, let’s use the term “evolution” as shorthand for the idea of materialistic chance-driven evolution and “design” as shorthand for the idea that conscious intelligence is at work in the development of life (and indeed of the whole universe). As I think everyone realizes, but not everyone admits, the debate between evolution and design is not a purely scientific one. It’s also philosophical. A firm commitment to evolution, in the sense noted above, is also a firm commitment to the idea that the entire cosmos is a closed physical system within which everything can be explained without recourse to consciousness or intelligence. This is defended as integral to the scientific method. It isn’t, of course, or at least it shouldn’t be.

It’s reasonable when investigating the physical world to take as a working assumption that most physical phenomena have as their immediate cause other physical phenomena, but it is totally unwarranted and illogical to leap from this to the philosophical conclusion that nothing exists except physical phenomena. The exclusion of conscious intention from the picture is useful for relatively narrow purposes but cannot logically be required when one is thinking about the cosmos as a whole. The fact that a home run can be described entirely in terms of physical phenomena does not mean that it can be explained in those terms. (This is why even a perfectly consistent, plausible, and provable theory of physical evolution would not solve the philosophical question of the First Cause.)

The point of this is that as soon I notice the philosophical component of evolution I am on an equal footing with the scientists propounding it. In their role as scientists they have no more standing to assert the correctness of their philosophical position than I do. Their materialism is an axiom which they most certainly cannot prove. And since that axiom clearly plays a significant and perhaps decisive role in justifying their commitment to evolution, as well as in governing their interpretation of the data, I am perfectly justified, on this basis alone, in being skeptical of their insistence that “science” has “proved” that design is an unnecessary hypothesis as regards the physical world.

Going a step beyond that, I notice also that a critical component of their argument is the idea that random changes in a system can cause that system to become more complex and more powerful. Having spent the past twenty-five years in the information technology trade, including ten years writing fairly complex software, I view this as implausible. Yes, I know, supposedly all that’s required is enough time, and a mechanism for preserving useful changes, and all the complex flowering of life will happen as if by the turning of a crank. But I doubt this. I think of what I could expect to happen if I simply changed the state of a single bit (zero to one or one to zero) in a complex computer system. It is overwhelmingly likely that this would cause the program to malfunction, although perhaps only in a minor way. The odds that it would actually correct a defect are surely extremely remote. The odds that it would somehow introduce, or provide a first step toward introducing, an entirely new and useful function to the program seem infinitesimal.

All that seems more or less intuitive to me, based on my experience. I have to consider that I have not worked out the mathematics of this (nor would I know how to do so). But then I hear of people who have worked out the mathematics and have concluded that even the billions of years postulated by old-earth dating methods are not enough for chance to have produced the world we see around us.

So all in all, I have a pretty sound set of reasons for doubting the evolutionist’s insistence that his view is proven, established, and not to be challenged. And I can get this far without knowing anything to speak of about biology and chemistry. When I add to all this the simple intuition that if something is so complex and finely assembled that it appears to have been designed—take, for instance, one of the dragonflies which hover about my yard these days—the most obvious explanation is that it was designed, I begin to feel some confidence in my skepticism about evolution, and that I am not merely believing what I admittedly would prefer to believe.

The question of the earth’s age, on the other hand, is not so easily addressed in this abstract way. There’s nothing contrary to logic or common sense or even the concept of design in the idea that the earth is actually billions of years old. It appears to contradict Genesis, of course, but since I don’t necessarily believe that everything there is to be taken literally, I can’t resolve the question on that basis.

The only recourse here is to the physical facts. And unlike the situation with evolution as a philosophical or religious doctrine, here I’m decidedly not on an equal footing with the scientists. The only way I can argue with the old-earth hypothesis is to become an expert in geology, which is not possible (or at least not reasonable) for me to do. I can read the arguments of young-earth proponents, but as a matter of intellectual honesty I also have to read the arguments of the other side, and I know (because I’ve taken a few steps in this direction) that I will be faced with contradictory claims that I’m unequipped to judge. When two people who both claim to be competent geologists contradict each other, there is no way for me to know which of them is right.

In spite of the very human biases of scientists, and their occasional failure to be always perfectly faithful to the facts and the facts only, I have enough faith in science and scientists to believe that if the earth is indeed only ten thousand or so years old, scientists will eventually come to that conclusion. If not—and either way in the meantime—I believe I’m obliged to live with the puzzle.


Divine Office

Sunday Night Journal — July 25, 2004

I have a new office—a very nice new office—with which I am extremely, even excessively and unreasonably, pleased. A few days ago I was writing to someone about an entirely unrelated matter and found myself beginning to babble about my new office. In describing it to people, I’ve found myself about to use the description that “I feel like I’ve died and gone to heaven,” but I stop myself, because I do hope that no matter how nice my new office is, it really isn’t in the same league as heaven. And I hope and expect that heaven will not include the maintenance of computer systems (although I won’t be surprised if purgatory does). Still, the expression is apt in a couple of ways.

I work for a small liberal arts college. I’m in charge of administrative information services, which means that I’m responsible for the systems that manage the “back office” functions of the college—the very mundane stuff such as student records and financial systems which are necessary for, but a step removed from, the real work of the college, which of course is education. As anyone who has ever worked in higher education knows, the administrative side of the school is generally apart from and often perceived as being in opposition to the rest of the institution: we are, after all, only overhead, a cost of doing business, and there is frequently a degree of resentment on the part of the faculty about the resources we consume: like “powerful” to “House Ways and Means Committee” or “shadowy” to “Opus Dei”, the word “overpaid” often seems permanently attached to the word “administrator.” Those of us on this side of the house tend to operate in our own world. Just to name one difference, the traditional academic routine of long breaks and a summer lull is not for us—we work right through them, and only notice academic events that involve us, such as student registration.

The other half of information technology here, as at most colleges, was called until recently Academic Computing and deals with computing as it applies to education: student labs, technology in the curriculum and in the classroom, and the like. My school decided several years ago to build a new library. Early in the planning for the building, the decision was made that all information technology services would be housed there, mainly in order to bring library services and academic technology services closer together, as they had been overlapping considerably for some time. My department was included in this plan more or less as a tag-along: plans for the new building included a lot of computing infrastructure that we would share, and so it just made sense for us to have office space there.

Concomitant with the planning for and construction of the new library, my department was busy with the implementation of an entirely new administrative software system. This has been a huge project and we have not paid attention to much else. We had been informed that we would be moving to the new library, but beyond going to an occasional meeting to discuss some specific details of our office space and of the system room, the library project proceeded without us. We knew it was in progress but gave it very little thought until the time for us to move in became imminent.

To communicate the shock we felt at the sight of the nearly-finished facilities really requires some before-and-after pictures, which I don’t have. It’s not that the new office is luxurious. It would certainly not set any hearts on fire in Silicon Valley or on Wall Street. But it is large and open and pristine, and it has a huge desk, guest seating, and a great deal of storage. I have a weakness for desks: give me a goodly expanse of open desk, a blank legal pad, and a pen, and I feel capable of great work.

The old office was, by comparison, a slum. And here is where we get into the theology of the thing. While it is true that the old office was in an old building which is in great need of renovation, its worst aspects—the really slummy aspects—were my doing. My office was one of several rooms that housed three people and a lot of hardware. It had become a warren of equipment, much of it broken or obsolete, and boxes of forms we no longer use. In part because it was so full of junk, and in part because of scheduling problems resulting from the whole little complex having its own keys and alarm codes, the housekeeping staff more or less abandoned us to our own devices years ago, except for emptying the trash. Consequently the whole area had become pretty grungy.

My office in particular was disheartening to say the least, and often elicited clearly heartfelt sympathy from visitors seeing it for the first time. Roughly one third of it was occupied by useless equipment which I, due to some mild neurosis, could not bring myself to discard: for example, a cabinet maybe three or four cubic feet in size containing two mighty 650 megabyte disk drives, which had housed a significant chunk of the college’s administrative database in 1991 or so. (If these numbers mean nothing to you, consider the fact that the laptop computer on which I am writing these words has about forty times that amount of storage.) Half the space was occupied by an enormous desk which was mostly covered in stacks of loose paper and trade magazines which I felt that I should look at but never did, and therefore did not discard. There was no place for a guest to sit (and I admit that as a typically introverted computer geek I did not consider this a problem, but rather the contrary). Ten years of spilling things while eating lunch at my desk combined with the fact that the room was only vacuumed every few months had left the cheap carpet, which was not merely not stain-repellent but positively stain-receptive, fairly nasty.

I am, in short, a grievous sinner given the unmerited grace of a fresh start. It wasn’t until I saw the nearly-completed building that I finally paid attention and realized just how much work and planning had gone into the project. Aside from the obvious monumental labors of the workers who did the actual construction, my colleagues in Academic Computing and Library Services had spent many long hours in meetings that were either difficult and contentious or deadly boring to make the thousands of decisions required.

And I had to do almost nothing except walk in and take possession. I am, to be sure, repentant, and will try very hard not to make a slum of my new office. But the grace came first, and I am grateful.