Category Archives: Science

Sex, Worship, and Embodiment

We are embodied beings.

We interact with the world through various organs. We use our hands and eyes and ears and voices and other faculties to experience and contribute to the world. And that includes our relationships. I look into my wife’s beautiful blue eyes and she looks into mine and this act facilitates intimacy. Our hands touch one another’s, not merely as an act symbolizing mutual possession, but also as a means of enjoying and cultivating it. Holding hands is part of the relationship. It mediates and enhances intimacy.

A critical climax of a marital union is only achievable by means of our physical bodies. In intercourse the organs of one person coordinate with the organs of another for a biological purpose for which an individual human body is insufficient. Unlike the intrapersonal organic cooperation that occurs during systemic nervous, cardiovascular, and respiratory processes, human reproduction requires that two human beings with different organ sets become a united whole. Only by this kind of union is this new whole, this new function, possible.

To work on discovering and describing the empirical facts about sex is a beneficial project. But to then argue that there isn’t some profound purpose driving it or that the intimacy shared by those who unite in sexual intercourse isn’t real is a mistake. Our bodies mediate our interaction with the world. Our bodies mediate our intimacy with one another. Organic union is the highest act of intimacy.

Now when I drive my body to the building that my community assembles in on Sunday morning and place my body in proximity to theirs and open my mouth and begin singing, there is another kind of union that takes place and facilitates another kind of intimacy. My voice cooperates with the voices of other humans in order to achieve a musical purpose for which an individual human voice is insufficient: harmony. To this is added the music generated by the humans playing various instruments. This mixture constitutes a new sound that is not possible for me to produce on my own and therefore in corporate worship we do not merely symbolize our unity, we embody it. The act of musical union mediates and enhances our intimacy with one another.

But it goes further than this, because musical union in worship has an object. We come together, not merely to sing, but specifically to sing to our Creator. Our music has the property of being about something—or rather, of being directed to Somebody. Our union in corporate worship then not only facilitates our intimacy with one another, but also our relationship to God.

As I mature throughout my life I become more deeply emotionally moved during worship. It is not all that rare that I will tear up. I do not pretend that there are not physical facts about my relationship to God. Discovering and describing these facts might very well be a fruitful enterprise. However to argue on the basis of the existence of these physical facts to atheism is ridiculous. To say that because thus and such occur in my brain when I sing or when I pray, therefore the object of my song or my prayer is not real is just as big of a mistake as saying that because thus and such occur in my brain when I see or hold hands with or unite with my wife, she is therefore not real.

We are embodied beings, after all.

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Necessity, Chance, or Design?

Bracketing agent-causation, there are only three types of things that govern the universe: constants, quantities, and laws.

By “constants” I just mean phenomena that are universal in nature and unchanging in value. For example the speed of light in a vacuum, the Gravitational Constant, the elementary charge, etc. We can include the rate of entropy in this category if you want (and if you think it is stable).

By “quantities” I mostly just mean the amount of matter and dark matter that exist, and the amount of energy that exists (and the amount of dark energy, if any exists). Theoretically those quantities should remain constant, but if they have changed (or can), then just take their initial values. We can include the amount of entropy in this category if you want, or rather the initial amount of entropy (or zero if there was none).

By “laws” I mean things like gravity (or, more accurately, Relativity), electromagnetism, etc. Keep in mind that most of the laws listed in that link are laws describing the behavior of high-order phenomena like buoyancy and thermodynamics and others that operate on matter at a high level of description like planetary bodies, chemicals, etc. Theoretically all of these logically supervene on lower-level phenomena like the nuclear forces, that operate on matter at a low level of description like subatomic particles. Ultimately it’s probably all governed by just a few fundamental interactions (and maybe even just one), operating on just a few fundamental particles like quarks or maybe strings.

So get this though. It turns out that the values of these constants, quantities, and laws could have been anything. There is nothing about the gravitational constant that makes it logically necessary. It could have been a totally different value altogether. It seems somewhat arbitrary that it is dialed to the value that it is. There is no explanation for it. And the same goes for the amounts of the stuff in the universe, and the laws governing it all—why is energy equal to mass times the square of the speed of light? It could have been the cube of the speed of light, and the speed of light could have been different, or the phenomena could have behaved according to different rules relative to different phenomena altogether.

The possibilities are, logically, infinite.

But it gets weirder. If the values of any one of these things had been different by even a hair’s breadth, the universe wouldn’t have been life-permitting. Planetary bodies couldn’t have formed, space couldn’t have expanded or would have expanded too quickly, etc. The logically possible scenarios according to which the universe could have existed such that it could not have been able to sustain life are infinite, while the life-permitting scenarios are extremely few.

To conceptualize the situation, I like to picture a number line for each value that requires fine-tuning—so there is a number line for the Gravitational Constant, and the value for the GC could have been anything on that infinitely long line, but it needs to fall within an infinitesimal range to play its role in a life-permitting universe, the boundaries for which are marked in red on the line. Then I picture another number line below that with Planck’s Constant, with the markings, and so on. There are a quite a few of these number lines (some lists are longer than others), but even if there were only one, the possibility is equivalent to one in infinity.

Then I like to imagine a lottery, the results from which determine the values for each thing. The lottery is run once to determine each value, and there are an infinite number of possible outcomes each time. This helps me wrap my mind around how improbable a life-permitting universe is. And it doesn’t even touch on the fact that a life-permitting universe alone doesn’t necessarily yield life. You have to somehow get life into it (a topic for another post), and then you need a planet within the universe that can support the life (the specific requirements of which I’ll leave for another post as well).

And yet, here we are.

It’s obvious to me that cosmic fine-tuning cannot be due to necessity, and I explained why earlier. But by now it should be almost as obvious that it is not likely to have occurred by chance either. Like literally, mathematically, it is unlikely. So the question you have to ask yourself at this point is:

How plausible is it that this fine-tuning is due to Design?

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Gravity, et al. & Mind

Last Sunday while on a longer bike ride, it occurred to me that gravity, electromagnetism, and the two nuclear forces (or whatever force winds up being posited by the Theory of Everything to supplant them), are examples of non-physical things that operate on physical objects. This is significant because it counters thinkers who object to interactionist dualism (a view I happen to hold, and for more reasons than just the Ice Cream Argument) by claiming that something non-physical cannot operate causally on something physical.

So a naive objection to dualism might be made by someone who thinks up instances of things causing effects in other things by means of purely physical mechanisms. Billiard balls and dominoes smack into each other and knock each around, tires rub against asphalt and move cyclists forward, propellers churn through water and generate momentum, etc. In light of these cases, one might argue, it seems like causation occurs by physical interactions between physical objects (setting aside Humean objections for a second). Assuming non-physical entities like minds could even exist, what would it even look like for them to be able to act causally on physical brains?

I have my opinions about the models for mind-brain interactions that are out there, and maybe I’ll get around to talking about them someday. But in the meantime, to make it seem less weird, it might help to think about gravity. Because of gravity, physical bodies like planets act causally on one another without touching physically. And this even occurs across billions of lightyears of empty space.

Kinda freaky, right?

In fact, it turns out that all causality is this way. The only reason billiard balls ricochet off one another is electromagnetism. If you could zoom way in and observe a billiard ball collision extremely loud and incredibly close (shout out), according to particle physics, you wouldn’t see solid masses striking each other. You would see spheres suspended in space do-si-doing around one another in patterns that, at some distance, make up large spherical clouds. These clouds could easily pass through each other if it weren’t for some invisible force that, when they got close to one another, drove them apart: electromagnetism.

It’s the only reason I’m not drug though the floor into the center of the earth. Gravity is strong but electromagnetism is stronger.

These four fundamental forces are all “non-contact” forces. All of them. The fundamental ones.

So maybe it isn’t too weird to think about causality non-physically, since, well, even the most “physical” examples of causality we can think of like billiard balls and dominoes, are non-physical anyway.

I admit that, in the case of the fantastic four forces, we are not necessarily talking about non-physical entities, but about interactions between physical entities, whereas in the case of the mind, we are talking about a non-physical entity interacting with a physical one. But maybe stopping to remember that causal interactions themselves are all non-physical to begin with can encourage skeptical layman to consider the possibility of souls a little more open-mindedly. After all, these how-type objections to dualism only concern the possibility of interaction to begin with (not the possibility of the existence of non-physical objects). So granting me, for the sake of argument, that there may be non-physical objects like minds, why wouldn’t they be able to interact causally with physical objects?

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ESP Meta-Analysis

From Wikipedia:

In 1940, Rhine, J.G. Pratt, and others at Duke authored a review of all card-guessing experiments conducted internationally since 1882. Titled Extra-Sensory Perception After Sixty Years, it has become recognized as the first meta-analysis in science.[8] It included details of replications of Rhine’s studies. Through these years, 50 studies were published, of which 33 were contributed by investigators other than Rhine and the Duke University group; 61% of these independent studies reported significant results suggestive of ESP.[9] Among these were psychologists at Colorado University and Hunter College, New York, who completed the studies with the largest number of trials and the highest levels of significance.[10][11]

[8] Bösch, H. (2004). “Reanalyzing a meta-analysis on extra-sensory perception dating from 1940, the first comprehensive meta-analysis in the history of science”. 47th Annual Convention of the Parapsychological Association.
[9] Honorton, C. (1975). “Error some place!”. Journal of Communication 25 (25): 103–116. doi:10.1111/j.1460-2466.1975.tb00560.x.
[10] Martin, D.R., & Stribic, F.P. (1938). “Studies in extrasensory perception: I. An analysis of 25, 000 trials”. Journal of Parapsychology 2: 23–30.
[11] Riess, B.F. (1937). “A case of high scores in card guessing at a distance”. Journal of Parapsychology 1: 260–263.

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On evolution.

What about evolution? My friend recently asked during a conversation about the existence of God.

What about it?

The term is used pretty vaguely in pop culture, so let’s define it.

I take it that “Evolution” basically refers to two driving ideas. The first idea is Common Descent, the doctrine that all species on earth share a common ancestor (proposed by Darwin in “Origin of Species“). However, there are prominent evolutionary biologists, such as Ford Doolittle and Paul Davies (start at 9:00—H/T William Dembski), who strongly question or earnestly reject Common Descent, but maintain instead that there has been descent with modification. So strict Common Descent need not be affirmed by someone for him to be accepted by the evolutionary community as a true evolutionist.

Before I go on to the next idea, I want to make a quick note here. I know of no significant origin-of-species view that outright denies that descent with some amount of modification ever occurs. The furthest away from mainstream evolutionary theory one can possibly get is Young Earth Creationism. But even YEC needs to account for present-day biodiversity in light of the number of animals that could have physically fit within the dimensions of Noah’s ark. Most of their models actually have modifications occurring more rapidly than mainstream evolutionary models, as there hasn’t been much time between the Flood and the present day for the biodiversity we observe to have developed. However, the Young Earth Creationists usually argue that while evolution can occur within “kinds” (usually understood as phyla, though biological classifications are constantly in flux), it cannot occur across their bounds. Often they argue that evolution can isolate traits (think of dog breeding), but can’t ever go in reverse—you can’t take a population of poodles or pugs and breed them back up into dingos or wolves.

My point here is that while full-blown Common Descent is not seen as necessary to evolution, mere descent with modification is not seen as sufficient.

Evolution’s next idea concerns the mechanism by which modifications occur. Previously it was something like Natural Selection working in tandem with genetic mutation. If you went to public school, you know the story about how this is supposed to work. But evolutionary theory nowadays is far more complex than that. My point here is that there isn’t actually any one specific mechanism or type of mechanism that is seen as absolutely essential to evolution. In fact, the whole point of science is to be progressive. Scientists are constantly in dialogue. So the denial that Natural Selection in tandem with genetic mutation is sufficient to account for biodiversity does not place one outside the bounds of evolutionary orthodoxy (since few if any evolutionists hold to that anymore). Moreover questioning or even denying any given tenant of the Modern Synthesis does not put one under anathema from the community either; it’s an expected mechanism for scientific progress!

And once again, I know of no significant origin-of-species view that outright denies that any of the mechanisms ever proposed by evolutionists to account for modifications ever have any impact on genetics. Even Young Earth Creationists often adopt mechanisms such as Natural Selection or other ideas in the Modern Synthesis as good working explanations of certain types of changes in populations. No one accounts for every little variation in species by saying “God did it!” and pretending that that’s the whole story.

Whether or not those skeptical about the sufficiency of the mechanisms proposed thus far to account for the differences in species are accepted as evolutionists hinges on just one simple thing.

So if neither of the two driving ideas behind evolution are essential to the theory, what is? If one can question Common Descent and the Modern Synthesis and still be an evolutionist, what one thing must one affirm in order to have a chance at being accepted by the evolutionary community, and whose denial results in exclusion? Philip E. Johnson argues in his books that it’s the philosophical presupposition of Naturalism [Edit: Alvin Plantinga just came out with a book making a similar case, called “Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism“]. Naturalism is the belief that nothing other than the natural world exists. So rocks exist on this view, but souls do not. The various breeds of dogs exist, dinosaurs existed, and physical mechanisms like Natural Selection may exist, but supernatural entities like angels, numbers, Plato’s forms, and God could not. This presumption drives evolutionists to try to figure out a purely physical explanation for biodiversity. And so long as one maintains this approach, he can be accepted by the evolutionary community. The moment someone considers any supernatural explanation, he’s expelled (there was even a documentary about it). In the time since Johnson’s work, the evolutionist community has actually become explicit about this very thing, with Daniel Dennett actually literally saying that we have to presuppose Naturalism at all costs—supernatural explanations of phenomena are not even admitted into the pool of live options, not even considered, not even taken seriously. They are precluded from discussion.

Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.

Richard Lewontin

Is the presumption of Naturalism justified? The mere fact that such a question can be asked implies that Naturalism should not be blindly presupposed. If you were trying to investigate a phenomenon, would you want to consider gaseous causes but ignore solid causes? Or would you admit electromagnetic causes into the discussion but ridicule the scientist who proposes that perhaps you should consider potential gravitational influences? No. And neither should we assume that causation is always merely physical and impersonal.

The debate on Naturalism in the philosophical literature is very much alive (see this recent piece, published by the New York Times, in which Timothy Williamson, the Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford University and an unabashed atheist, argues against Naturalism), and this attitude that Naturalism is just a given wouldn’t go unchallenged for one second in an undergraduate philosophy classroom. You can’t just go around assuming controversial philosophical positions without argument and evidence, refusing to even admit opposing views into the discussion. That’s not science, it’s faith.

If you confuse Darwinism with unguided Darwinism, a confusion Dennett makes and Dawkins encourages, you will see science and religion as in conflict at this point (See Ruse, The Evolution-Creation Struggle 2005).

Manifestations of this confusion: the conflict raging over Intelligent Design; the National Association of Biology Teachers: until 1997 that organization stated as part of its official position that “the-diversity of life on earth is the outcome of evolution: an unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable and natural process.

This confusion between Darwinism and unguided Darwinism is a crucial cause of the continuing debate. Darwinism, the scientific theory, is compatible with theism and theistic religion; unguided Darwinism, a consequence of naturalism, is incompatible with theism, but isn’t entailed by the scientific theory. It is instead a metaphysical or theological add-on.

-Alvin Plantinga, “Science and Religion: Why Does the Debate Continue?”.
(Podcast & Handout)

So how do I answer objections to theism from evolution? Frankly, whether species evolved from a common ancestor has nothing to do with whether God exists. And the mechanism by which this alleged evolution takes place is not an account of the origin origin of life from non-living matter. Nor is it an account of the coming into being of the universe. So theism seems untouched by the theory of evolution.

As a Christian then, what do I make of evolution? Well, there are non-heretical, historical, and actively defended interpretations of the Biblical creation accounts that are compatible with the theory of Common Descent. In fact, William Lane Craig readily points out in his debates that as early as the third century, St. Augustine believed in a kind of theistic evolution. Augustine wrote in his commentary on Genesis about how God imbued creation with certain potencies that would unravel over time across successive generations—something he seemed to believe he got out of the book from pure textual exegesis.

And that was 1500 years before Darwin.

So any Christians today who entertain Natural Selection, Genetic Drift, or another evolutionary idea aren’t necessarily revising or compromising their faith to fit with the scientific evidence. Rather it seems that the essentials of the Christian faith have always had room in them to allow believing philosophers and scientists to follow the evidence where it leads on many of the issues pertaining to the origin of species.

However, while I truly believe that Christians are free to follow the scientific evidence wherever it leads, I also happen to think that there are some very serious scientific challenges to the doctrine of Common Descent (or anything remotely resembling a “Tree of Life” account of the origin of species). In addition to various biochemical, informational, cellular, mathematical, and other challenges to Common Descent (some of which, like Specified Complexity and Irreducible Complexity, I would like to treat in another post), two stand out as fairly straightforward yet powerful arguments for Uncommon Descent. These tend to be very well put by William Lane Craig, and can be found in his debate with Christopher Hitchens, as well as in various episodes of Dr. Craig’s Defender’s podcast.

The first of these challenges concerns the fossil record. Every couple of years or so, a so-called “missing link” such as Tiktaalik, Archaeopteryx, or Australopithecus Sediba, is found and sensationalized in the media (there was even a book about this cultural cycle, “Icons of Evolution”, which was made into a movie). But the thing is, in order for Common Descent to be true, there would have to be millions of transitional life forms. Think of all the transitional forms that would have to have existed just for a whale and a bat to share a common ancestor. Not to mention a giraffe and an iguana, or an anteater and a toucan. The gaps in the fossil record are not such that they can be bridged by just one fossil find of one in-between looking life form. If Common Descent were true, we would expect to have transitional fossils that are just as common as the others—it would be a very fluid, slow-morphing chain of fossils like an MC Escher painting, instead of the hurry-up-and-wait pattern we see in the fossil record. This was actually responsible for Darwin’s biggest hesitation with his own theory and it still causes doubts (cf. the Discovery Institute’s treatment of the Cambrian Explosion).


Whale Evolution vs. The Actual Fossil Evidence

But not only are there no transitional forms where we’d expect to find millions, there are more forms where we’d expect to find fewer. If Common Descent were true, the further back you go in the fossil record, the fewer forms you would find—forms from which modern species have since branched. But instead of finding fewer, we actually find more that have become extinct (some estimate that up to 99.9% of species are now extinct, including taxa all the way up to the phyla level). The fossil record indicates attrition rather than evolution.

The second challenge facing Common Descent is simply its uncanny unlikeliness. John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler in their book “The Anthropic Cosmological Principle” (Oxford University Press) list 10 steps in the course of the evolution of the human genome, each of which is so improbable that before it would occur, the Sun would cease to be a main sequence star and thereby incinerated the Earth. They calculate the probability of the evolution of the human genome to be somewhere between 1 in 4 to the 180th power to the 110,000th power and 4 to the 360th to the 110,000th power. It is simply unfathomably improbable. Dr. Craig argues somewhat rhetorically that therefore, if evolution did occur, it could be considered a miracle, and therefore evidence for the existence of God and His superintendence of the process of biological evolution.

So while I think Christian orthodoxy is broad enough to allow Believers to think freely concerning the various aspects of evolutionary theory, the doctrine of Common Descent is suspect even among evolutionists, demonstrably mathematically unlikely, and doesn’t accord with the fossil record; the various mechanisms posited to account for genetic changes are all under active revision and so do not necessarily demand a high degree of credence; and the presumption of Naturalism is utterly gratuitous. For these and other reasons, I am skeptical of the explanatory power, explanatory scope, and motivation of evolution relative to other accounts of biodiversity that may admit descent with modification but do involve special creation (especially of humans), and don’t really involve evolution across kinds (probably phyla). I wouldn’t be surprised to witness a revolution in which it is more or less abandoned or significantly reassessed by the mainstream as a scientific paradigm sometime in the next 50 years. I guess that makes me a freethinking skeptic.

Evolution is unproved and unprovable, we believe it because the only alternative is special creation, which is unthinkable.

-Sir Arthur Keith, foreward to the 100th
Anniversary Edition of “Origin of Species”

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The Dream Within Which Another Dream Is

There are those that deny that reality is mind-independent. “We create our own reality,” they will say, “there is not a way that reality actually is”. But by claiming this they do claim something about reality. Or at least about a meta-reality. They are saying that the world is a way; the world is such that it is not just one way, but is created by every individual exclusively for that individual. But can one individual’s creation of their own reality reach up out of the individual’s reality and into this meta-reality in order to reform it such that it imposes itself uniformly and indiscriminately back down onto every other individual and destroys their own local self-created reality that was at work previously? If this is possible, it has already been done by all those who believe in metaphysical realism, who believe that there is only one reality in which everyone is regardless of their own personal beliefs, and metaphysical anti-realism is now therefore false. If it is not possible to reform this meta-reality posited by the metaphysical anti-realist, by those who believe that reality is such that it is created by every individual exclusively for that individual, if nobody can transcend their own reality then anti-realism is just another realist view (even if that which is real is one level meta from that which is “real” for each individual—but that seems like it amounts to something more like an epistemology than a metaphysic).

Thus, metaphysical anti-realism is false.

Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow-
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand-
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep- while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

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Reading in the 21st Century and the Collapsing of Wave Functions

On my phone I have a number of small reading apps. One is called simply “Classics“, and it is beautiful. It looks like a bookshelf with some classics on it. The covers are illustrated, you can drag and drop the books themselves from their places on the shelf, and when you click on one, it opens animatedly. You can flip through the pages of the book (which is rather satisfying, in this e-tactile way), and enjoy the page-turn animations. The typesetting is beautiful and deliberate and there are even settings to fine-tune it to your preferences. The books usually have illustrations inside them as well.

I have another one that accesses the entire Project Gutenberg database and can serve any one of over 100,000 books from the elusive “public domain” into the palm of my hand.

And another one into which I can transmit PDFs, Docs, and eBooks that I happen to have on my computer, another one made by Apple through which I can buy just about any book in electronic form, Amazon’s Kindle app, and a few others still.

I like to read a couple pages at a time in line at the coffee shop, putting my feet up on the couch, and under the covers when I can’t sleep. I feel like a boy inside my blanket tent, admiring my most recent treasure in all its coolness, assuming a unique appreciation for the coolness of the cosmos as fragmentally instantiated in this neat trinket, which I have exclusive access to.

My first complete read through was the “Time Machine”, by H. G. Wells. I had read it in jr. high, but wanted to read through it again. Then I read “The Importance of Being Earnest”, by Oscar Wilde. I then started on “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, and am about halfway through now. However, I couldn’t resist starting “The Book of Atrus” recently when I found out about it and realized that there are three whole (and geekily acclaimed) books to get through before these yahoos finish their movie. I’ve been following their journey for a long time, but my interest in their project bumped up a notch when they started writing this kind of hooha.

In other, related news, in my adult life I’ve realized just how many people there are in the world like me. Now don’t get me wrong, I still struggle with a certain kind of perennial despair, which crops up in my heart about one thing or another (and gets exasperated by things like lack of sleep, lack of vitamin D, and other lacks when any such are comorbid). I’m just saying there are far more people than I thought in the world interested in philosophy, theology, and, you know, like, all the questions that actually matter in this world. And most people are nerds, too! Like, most people are kinda into something a little outside the mainstream. And many of those nerds are nerdy in many of the ways in which I am nerdy. And that’s a good thing, and comforting.

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