25 December 2013

Ancient of Days

Filed under: Fiction, Genesis 1, Reflections — ktismatics @ 9:15 am

“I no longer recall precisely when I first arrived in this place,” the old man began, “but if the cobbled clatter of my stick had momentarily distracted you from more ethereal concerns you would have given little heed to the greybeard canted slightly forward like a man carrying a heavy burden uphill – and so I felt myself to be, but that is of no concern… The fact of the matter is this: I could have been a brigand or a prince, a troubadour or a contriver of schemes, and you would have paid me no more mind than if I had been one of these wretches.”

Reaching out a crabbed hand the old man snatched by the scruff a dog that had been snuffling about at the hem of his robe. The scrofulous cur, used to ill-treatment, cowered, its whimper inaudible to all but his canine fellows skulking silently to the other side of the room. With one hand the old man pulled the dog’s muzzle up and forward while with the other he swabbed a piece of bread through a mostly empty bowl of soup. The abbé, whose soup it was, shrugged and muttered a common but colorful French obscenity. The old man dropped the sop to the floor and released his canine captive. The dog quickly gulped down the morsel before slinking between the tables and through the kitchen door. In a trice three other dogs moved to the speaker’s side.

“What if I were to tell you,” he continued, “that that stooped old fellow hobbling along the road was a figure of legend, a traveler from a land unknown even to those who have traded in the silk bazaars of Samarkand or passed among the floating spice islands of Shikoku or gazed upon the unveiled faces of the blue women whose footsteps leave no trace in the endless desert – a man as ancient as the world he walks, one for whom the times to come are even more tediously familiar than the times that have already been, one for whom there had been neither direction nor destination until that unreckoned day he passed unnoticed through the city gates and happened upon this particular inn?”

“I would say,” said the Trappist without looking up from the ball of string he had been unraveling, “that I would never have known.”

“Precisely,” remarked the old emissary.

“And your point is what, precisely, my dear Sage?”

The Sage considered whether this question, posed archly by the smartly-dressed young Westerner, constituted an invitation or a challenge. Neither, he decided. A gangly acolyte passed through the Great Room ringing the sacristy bells, alerting the gathered scholars and contemplatives that sabbath services in the town would begin soon. “Which summons shall we heed this morning?” the old man asked of no one in particular.

“But it was my understanding…”

“Yes of course. However, my dossier instructs me to respect the local customs.”

“A man of legend holds no portfolio,” challenged the Antipodean.

“This is the usual objection,” the Sage acknowledged as he hoisted his coat over his shoulders. “It is not obligation but curiosity that impels me.”

Without restraint the bitter wind scattered the voices of the cloaked and cowled theologians, figures from an unremembered dream who drifted toward their appointed but unstated destination.


This book has been finished for nearly four years now, and until this month I hadn’t given it much attention since then. “Let the beginning serve as the annual Christmas story,” the Sage suggested in a precative mood, and it was so.

19 December 2013

An Obamacare Testimonial

Filed under: Culture, Reflections — ktismatics @ 10:23 am

We signed up for Obamacare yesterday, and I’m a satisfied customer.

I’m here to report that the process of applying for and obtaining health insurance on the much-maligned website is much easier than applying for private insurance the old-fashioned way. We encountered an initial glitch in logging in, but it turned out to be our own fault, not the site’s. No questions are posed about hospitalizations over the past 5 years, prior surgeries, prescribed medicines, most recent blood pressure readings, diagnosed health conditions, and all the other data that the companies insist on collecting from you every time you change insurers. As I recall, the only health-related information we provided were age, whether we currently smoke, and whether we have difficulties in performing activities of daily living (eating, dressing, toileting).

To determine the amount of your government subsidy for covering insurance premiums, the site asks you to estimate your income for 2014. It’s possible to enter varying estimates offline to see how much of a price break you might get for varying income levels. The discounts turn out to be quite steep, even for income levels that don’t fall below the officially recognized poverty line. Since this is a program administered by the federal government, it will be possible at the end of the year for the Obamacare administrators to identify, via your income tax returns, how much income you actually made. If it turns out you make more income than you estimated, you will have to repay unmerited subsidies. If you earn less than you estimated, then you get the additional subsidy refunded to you or applied to the subsequent year’s insurance premium.

When you’re ready to buy insurance, you’re presented with a list of insurance plans offered by private insurers that have agreed to participate in the Obamacare program. I thought that maybe there would be two choices, but there were maybe 40, clumped according to comprehensiveness of coverage (bronze, silver, gold, and platinum, of course). For each option the website displays the basic features: deductible, coinsurance, copay, maximum out-of-pocket expenses, prescription prices. The price of each option is displayed: the unsubsidized full amount as well as the amount you would have to pay after your calculated subsidy. Even if you don’t quality for a subsidy, the site’s method of displaying comparative costs and benefits of various options is extremely helpful.

We selected a plan from the list that best suited our preferences for coverage and price, then clicked the button. Congratulations! You’ve successfully signed up for Obamacare-administered health insurance. Presumably we’ll receive an email from the insurance carrier within the next couple of days instructing us on how to pay. Coverage goes into effect on 1 January 2014 — a mere 14 days after applying.

In conclusion, Obamacare is the easiest and best way of buying private health insurance that I’ve ever experienced. The website lets you shop for features and compare competing products head to head. And the program does make private coverage much more affordable to people with low incomes.

14 December 2013

Jonathan Edwards, Calvinist Neuroscientist

Filed under: Christianity, Psychology — ktismatics @ 2:21 pm

Despite the best of intentions, I keep finding myself drawn back into the ongoing kerfuffle surrounding novelist-blogger Scott Bakker’s Blind Brain Theory. The core premise — that humans are unable through introspection to understand their own thinking — is undeniable, though I’d regard human self-reflexivity as correctably presbyopic rather than blind. I’m also okay with regarding mind as coextensive with neural activities centered in the brain and distributed throughout the body. And while I believe that people do formulate intentions and act on them, I’m also in agreement that intents, like other natural processes, are the effects of causes. (Of course, just because I give intellectual assent doesn’t mean that I renounce my self-image as fully autonomous free agent.]

While Bakker frames and buttresses his contentions primarily with his interpretation of contemporary neuroscience, the controversy has a long history. When I was back there in seminary school, most of my profs were Calvinists, and so was I. Predicated largely on the Pauline New Testament writings, the core contention of Calvinism can be stated succinctly: the person doesn’t choose God; God chooses the person. And yet isn’t it true that the sinner who comes to God acknowledges his depravity, repents, accepts the salvation freely offered through Christ’s death and resurrection? In other words, doesn’t salvation hinge on the sinner’s intention as an autonomous agent to choose good over evil? Sure, said Calvin, but that intention is the result of God’s grace working in the sinner, causing him to form the necessary intentions leading to his salvation. And that grace is irresistible: he whom God chooses to save will invariably and inevitably make the intentional act of choosing God.

Most Americans know Jonathan Edwards as the author of the fire-and-brimstone sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” But Edwards wasn’t just a motivational speaker; he was also a theologian, and a great one. In his multivolume Freedom of the Will (1754), Edwards set out to explain that human intentions and the will to act on them are, like other natural events, the effects of causes and therefore not free. In particular, intentions are shaped by motives, which may conflict with each other. Motives jostle for preference outside of the person’s awareness, with the winner “exciting” volition and shaping the will. Though he doesn’t use the term “unconscious” to describe this internal conflict among motives, that’s what Edwards is talking about.

Educated at Yale and an enthusiastic student of Enlightenment science, Edwards traces a trajectory that leads into contemporary neuroscience. I suppose you could say that, when it comes to intentionality, I’m still a Calvinist but without the overriding determinations of the Prime Intender.

Here are some particularly telling excerpts:


Jonathan Edwards, Freedom of the Will, 1754


The activity of the soul may enable it to be the cause of effects; but it don’t at all enable or help it to be the subject of effects which have no cause… Activity of nature will no more enable a being to produce effects, and determine the manner of their existence, within itself, without a cause, than out of itself, in some other being. But if an active being should, through its activity, produce and determine an effect in some external object, how absurd would it be to say, that the effect was produced without a cause!

…The mind’s being a designing cause, only enables it to produce effects in consequence of its design; it will not enable it to be the designing cause of all its own designs. The mind’s being an elective cause, will only enable it to produce effects in consequence of its elections, and according to them; but can’t enable it to be the elective cause of all its own elections; because that supposes an election before the first election. So the mind’s being an active cause enables it to produce effects in consequence of its own acts, but can’t enable it to be the determining cause of all its own acts; for that is still in the same manner a contradiction; as it supposes a determining act conversant about the first act, and prior to it, having a causal influence on its existence, and manner of existence.


Tis a thing chiefly insisted on by Arminians, in this controversy, as a thing most important and essential in human liberty, that volitions, or the acts of the will, are contingent events; understanding contingence as opposite, not only to constraint, but to all necessity. Therefore I would particularly consider this matter…

To suppose there are some events which have a cause and ground of their existence, that yet are not necessarily connected with their cause, is to suppose that they have a cause which is not their cause. Thus, if the effect be not necessarily connected with the cause, with its influence, and influential circumstances; then, as I observed before, ’tis a thing possible and supposable, that the cause may sometimes exert the same influence, under the same circumstances, and yet the effect not follow. And if this actually happens in any instance, this instance is a proof, in fact, that the influence of the cause is not sufficient to produce the effect. For if it had been sufficient, it would have done it. And yet, by the supposition, in another instance, the same cause, with perfectly the same influence, and when all circumstances which have any influence, are the same, it was followed with the effect. By which it is manifest, that the effect in this last instance was not owing to the influence of the cause, but must come to pass some other way. For it was proved before, that the influence of the cause was not sufficient to produce the effect. And if it was not sufficient to produce it, then the production of it could not be owing to that influence, but must be owing to something else, or owing to nothing. And if the effect be not owing to the influence of the cause, then it is not the cause. Which brings us to the contradiction, of a cause, and no cause, that which is the ground and reason of the existence of a thing, and at the same time is not the ground and reason of its existence, nor is sufficient to be so.


[E]very act of the will is some way connected with the understanding, and is as the greatest apparent good is, in the manner which has already been explained; namely, that the soul always wills or chooses that which, in the present view of the mind, considered in the whole of that view, and all that belongs to it, appears most agreeable…

I am sensible, the Doctor’s [Daniel Whitby, an Arminian] aim in these assertions is against the Calvinists; to show, in opposition to them, that there is no need of any physical operation of the Spirit of God on the will, to change and determine that to a good choice, but that God’s operation and assistance is only moral, suggesting ideas to the understanding; which he supposes to be enough, if those ideas are attended to, infallibly to obtain the end. But whatever his design was, nothing can more directly and fully prove, that every determination of the will, in choosing and refusing, is necessary; directly contrary to his own notion of the liberty of the will. For if the determination of the will, evermore, in this manner, follows the light, conviction and view of the understanding, concerning the greatest good and evil, and this be that alone which moves the will, and it be a contradiction to suppose otherwise; then it is necessarily so, the will necessarily follows this light or view of the understanding, not only in some of its acts, but in every act of choosing and refusing. So that the will don’t determine itself in any one of its own acts; but all its acts, every act of choice and refusal, depends on, and is necessarily connected with some antecedent cause; which cause is not the will itself, nor any act of its own, nor anything pertaining to that faculty, but something belonging to another faculty, whose acts go before the will, in all its acts, and govern and determine them every one…

And let us suppose as many acts of the will, one preceding another, as we please, yet they are everyone of them necessarily determined by a certain degree of light in the understanding, concerning the greatest and most eligible good in that case; and so, not one of them free according to Dr. Whitby’s notion of freedom…

If liberty consists in that which Arminians suppose, viz. in the will’s determining its own acts, having free opportunity, and being without all necessity; this is the same as to say, that liberty consists in the soul’s having power and opportunity to have what determinations of the will it pleases or chooses. And if the determinations of the will, and the last dictates of the understanding be the same thing, then liberty consists in the mind’s having power to have what dictates of the understanding it pleases, having opportunity to choose its own dictates of understanding. But this is absurd; for it is to make the determination of choice prior to the dictate of understanding, and the ground of it; which can’t consist with the dictate of understanding’s being the determination of choice itself.


That every act of the will has some cause, and consequently (by what has been already proved) has a necessary connection with its cause, and so is necessary by a necessity of connection and consequence, is evident by this, that every act of the will whatsoever, is excited by some motive: which is manifest, because, if the will or mind, in willing and choosing after the manner that it does, is excited so to do by no motive or inducement, then it has no end which it proposes to itself, or pursues in so doing; it aims at nothing, and seeks nothing. And if it seeks nothing, then it don’t go after anything, or exert any inclination or preference towards anything. Which brings the matter to a contradiction; because for the mind to will something, and for it to go after something by an act of preference and inclination, are the same thing.

But if every act of the will is excited by a motive, then that motive is the cause of the act of the will. If the acts of the will are excited by motives, then motives are the causes of their being excited; or, which is the same thing, the cause of their being put forth into act and existence. And if so, the existence of the acts of the will is properly the effect of their motives. Motives do nothing as motives or inducements, but by their influence; and so much as is done by their influence, is the effect of them. For that is the notion of an effect, something that is brought to pass by the influence of another thing.

And if volitions are properly the effects of their motives, then they are necessarily connected with their motives. Every effect and event being, as was proved before, necessarily connected with that which is the proper ground and reason of its existence. Thus it is manifest, that volition is necessary, and is not from any self-determining power in the will: the volition which is caused by previous motive and inducement, is not caused by the will exercising a sovereign power over itself, to determine, cause and excite volitions in itself…

There is such a thing as a diversity of strength in motives to choice, previous to the choice itself. Mr. Chubb himself  [Thomas Chubb, a deist] supposes, that they do “previously invite,” “induce,” “excite” and “dispose the mind to action.” This implies, that they have something in themselves that is inviting, some tendency to induce and dispose to volition, previous to volition itself. And if they have in themselves this nature and tendency, doubtless they have it in certain limited degrees, which are capable of diversity; and some have it in greater degrees, others in less; and they that have most of this tendency, considered with all their nature and circumstances, previous to volition, they are the strongest motives; and those that have least, are the weakest motives…

[N]ow if motives excite the will, they move it… And again (if language is of any significance at all) if motives excite volition, then they are the cause of its being excited; and to cause volition to be excited, is to cause it to be put forth or exerted… To excite, is positively to do something; and certainly that which does something, is the cause of the thing done by it. To create, is to cause to be created; to make, is to cause to be made; to kill, is to cause to be killed; to quicken, is to cause to be quickened; and to excite, is to cause to be excited. To excite, is to be a cause, in the most proper sense, not merely a negative occasion, but a ground of existence by positive influence. The notion of exciting, is exerting influence to cause the effect to arise or come forth into existence.

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