Saturday, October 25, 2008

Pascal's Wager found useless — news at (Hebrews) 11

One common argument that Christians use to persuade atheists to risk a belief in God runs like so:

God is or He is not... Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.

Of course, it typically comes out these days sounding a touch more linguistically modern: "If God exists and you believe in Him, you win big; if God exists and you don't believe in Him, you lose really big; and if God doesn't exist, it doesn't matter what you think. But why risk it?" The original quote sounds old because it is — it comes from 17th century mathematician Blaise Pascal, and is commonly referred to as Pascal's Wager

I grew up hearing this sort of argument all the time. All the time. It wasn't until much later in life that I learned of its origins. And of its shortcomings. Namely, that the whole thing depends on God necessarily rewarding folks for believing in Him. Christians, of course, think that dependency is met by simple evaluation of the nature and recorded words of God — of course God wants us to believe in Him. But you can't play those cards with an atheist, since you have yet to establish that the God with said nature exists.

Now, if you're reading this and expect my next paragraph to be a newly revised wager that's logically solid, I'm sorry to disappoint you. I'm only here to say to that in my Bible reading for today, I came across a verse that — perhaps loosely interpreted — pretty much shoots Pascal's wager in the foot on the same grounds. Hebrews 11:6 says:

And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.

Did you catch that? Not only does the author of Hebrews state up front that belief in God's existence requires faith — that is, cannot be proven empirically — but then he says that even if you get that far, you need still more faith to believe that God actually wants you to seek Him. This pretty much buries Pascal's Wager. But at least atheism can't say it was first to bury it.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

"...there's just something about that name."

A most peculiar thing happened in and around me on the flight back from Germany last Friday. I was pretty tired when I settled into seat 35C of Lufthansa flight LH428 from Munich to Charlotte. In fact, I fell asleep before the plane was pushed back away from the gate, and woke nearly an hour into the flight. As I was waking, a young child was just settling into her Daddy's lap for a nap in the seats to my right (and back a little ... a half-row offset). The family in seats 35D-35G was comprised of a man, woman, and two beautiful little girls of maybe 3 and 6 years of age. The youngest girl was the one nodding off as I woke. After taking in my surroundings (since my sleepy head clearly missed the chance to do so when I boarded the plane), I turned my attention elsewhere.

A couple of hours later, the little girl woke, whining. The whining turned to crying tinged with the occasional "Owie", and then the whole bit transformed into outright screaming. She was obviously in pain, not merely unhappy. My guess was that her ears were bothering her. She continued quite loudly expressing her pain for at least five minutes, during which she was passed from her father to her mother. Many in the cabin were rubbernecking to see what was going on, and when the mother was asked directly about the child's problem, I overheard the response: "She has an ear infection."

If there's one thing I knew at that moment, it was how painful flying with ear issues can be. On a recent return flight from California, both of my ears refused to "pop", and I was tormented for a half-hour by the nearly unbearable pain that results. It can be a bit like having nails driven into your ears, if you haven't experienced it. I tried everything at the time—drinking water, yawning, chewing gum, forcing high pressure into my ears. Nothing worked.

As I recalled that pain from just a few months ago and imagined what that precious little girl was going through, I realized something: my cheeks were cold, with trails of tears coming down them. Some may say it isn't "manly" to cry. I say it isn't manly to be so self-consumed that you risk not caring for the suffering innocent. And so I did the only thing I could do at the time: I prayed.

Now, I don't consider myself a prayer warrior by any stretch. I don't lay claim to any of supernatural spiritual gifts so celebrated in charismatic congregations today. I'm guilty of slapping the old "inJesusnameAmen" at the end of my utterances, and usually with nary a thought as to who Jesus is and why in the world we pray in his name, anyway. But the seeming injustice of a little girl in pain on this airplane was overwhelming to me at that moment, and so I prayed for her relief. And because I've been taught that there is power in the name of Jesus, and because at that rare moment I was able to believe wholesale that God could and would spare this child, I prayed specifically in the name of Jesus Christ for this relief to occur.

Now, if there another thing I knew at that moment, it was about waves of warmth. I take a medicine that can cause flushing incidents—basically, your body feels like it's on fire on the inside, your skin turns splotchy red, and for a couple of hours everything that touches you feels like it's made of straight pins. I also know that when I get emotional—especially when I'm angry—a wave of heat passes over my body and I'm a sweaty mess in three seconds flat. But at the very moment that I invoked the name of Jesus in my prayer, I felt something like that wave of heat pass over me, but without the typical tell-tale sweaty results. Almost immediately, the screaming girl in row 35 began to calm down, and soon was asleep in her father's lap again.

In the name of full disclosure, I noticed that at about the time I was praying, the parents were administering an oral medication. Maybe that stuff is powerful enough to dissolve that kind of pain in thirty seconds flat. I can only speak to the situation as I perceived it, and to the extent that I was involved.

To the family in row 35 of flight LH428 on Friday, October 17, I hope your little girl heals quickly. You as parents showed an incredible amount of patience in what could have been a stressful and embarrassing situation, and are to be commended for it. And while I'll never be able to say for sure whether God intervened in this situation, I am confident of two things: He is a just God who cares for people, and for once I did in faith exactly what I was supposed to do.

Monday, October 20, 2008

SubConf/Munich trip wrap-up

Last week, after a wonderful beach vacation, I was in Munich, Germany for SubConf 2008. First of all, I'd just like to reiterate how weird it is to think that this little open source software project called Subversion has become such a worldwide ... thing. If you had asked me seven years ago how I saw all this playing out, I'm not exactly sure what I would have said, but I can pretty much guarantee the words "worldwide user conference" would not have been a part of it. And this year—bonus!—we were able to combine the user conference with a simultaneously happening developer summit.

The start of the week found me still awake, very sleepy, and frantically working to setup a new work laptop. We got back from vacation Saturday afternoon, picking up this new laptop from Amy's parents' place before we arrived at our own home. We unpacked the car, began sorting the dirty laundry, and started the night-long process of cleaning every article of clothing in the house. While the washer and dryer were doing their thing, I was shrinking partitions and installing Ubuntu Linux and copying data from backup. So, with three hours of sleep, we headed off to church on Sunday morning. And after church, we came home just long enough for me to pack some last-minute stuff and drive off to the airport.

Now, the flight from Charlotte to Munich is not a short one, but I was only able to grab about an hour-long nap. I arrived in Munich on Monday morning, took a pair of trains to the Riem stop, and began the half-mile walk from the train station to the NH Hotel (where I was staying, and where SubConf was held). Along the way, I passed some friends headed into Munich for some sightseeing: Mark Phippard, Paul Burba, and Hyrum Wright. We agreed to let me check in and drop off my stuff so we could all head out again together.

Munich is a beautiful city, and we had a great time trampsing around it. Much of what I saw was stuff I'd seen last year, but it was great to revisit these places with a different group of folks. We got a few rounds of laughs at Hyrum's "mission", which was allegedly about picking up some textbooks for his professor from a German bookseller, but wound up looking strangely like a shakedown of a nice elderly German lady in a faux antiquities warehouse. And Mark's running narration of a pseudo-history of Germany was a steady source of humor (though, I do fear for his children's future social studies grades).

On Tuesday, the developer summit began. We chronicled much of the happenings there at, so I won't repeat them here. But I think overall the meeting (which continued Wednesday and Thursday, too) was useful for all. Tuesday night the devs sat in a horseshoe shape in front of sixty or so Subversion users to "get drilled" with questions and complaints, but the drilling never happened and folks were (for the most part) quite polite in their feedback.

SubConf proper began on Wednesday. I mostly stayed with the other devs in the summit room. I gave the last talk of the evening in one of the tracks, just providing a heads up about what we expect to be released in Subversion 1.6, as well as a little bit about what's currently in the oven for future releases. As always, I was a touch nervous when I first began the talk, but I got over it quickly enough. Honestly, I'd prefer to just field questions so that I know that what I'm saying is at least addressing one person's needs, rather than dumping my previously prepared information in the laps of folks who may or may not care at all.

Thursday I again chose to attend the developer summit rather than the SubConf presentations.

I still managed to find my way into many side conversations with non-devs over the course of the three days, so I definitely would not count this as a missed opportunity to connect with Subversion's users. And of course the nights ran long as I was hacking on Subversion's 'fs-rep-sharing' logic, releasing ViewVC 1.0.7, and so on. When I finally landed in Charlotte Friday evening after a ten-hour flight, I think I'd had about twenty hours of sleep in six days. But it was so worth it!

Here are some of the highlights for me, in no particular order:

  • The Subversion Developer Round Table, which I half-suspected was going to be underpopulated and shy on audience participation, was neither. Conference organizers were surprised by the turnout, and there were almost no moments of awkward silence.
  • Meeting some of the other developers I hadn't met before: Erik Hülsmann, Bert Huijben, Neels Hofmeyr, and so on.
  • As Hyrum noted on his blog, the somewhat spontaneous emergence of the idea of "packing" Subversion FSFS revision shards was both unexpected and a source of pleasant reflection throughout the conference.
  • High-bandwidth discussion with other developers. I love my wife and kids, and they are great sounding boards for development ideas, but the feedback quality is — somewhat lacking.
  • Erik H. rockin' the red corduroy pants, red sweater, and red-and-white striped shirt beneath. I can't pull off style like that.
  • Souvenir (and dinner) hunting with Hyrum on Thursday evening.

Oh! And as a special treat, I got to design the T-shirt for the developer summit. It's pretty geeky, a cartoon about the resolution of so-called "tree conflicts". But then, why shouldn't a geek gathering have a geeky commemorative shirt? (By the way, I did the entire design in Windows using OpenOffice Draw, with final touch-ups in PhotoShop—much thanks to the folks at Contagious Graphics in Charlotte who fast-tracked this order through while I was at the beach.)

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Mistrials in the Court of Public Opinion

Last night, Amy and I watched an hour-long preview of the DVD release Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West. (I'm not sure how you can call an hour-long movie a "preview" when the full version is only 17 minutes longer, but I digress.) We got the DVD from a friend who lives in Charlotte, who had gotten it via its inclusion in a recent edition of The Charlotte Observer. We were in the mood for a movie, but it was getting late and we didn't want to invest in a two-hour romantic comedy, so we popped this disk in instead.

As a piece of documentary, it was interesting. Not the most exciting thing in the world, but definitely interesting. The film begins with a pretty clear explanation that it is talking exclusively about a particular minority subgroup of the Muslim population that promotes and engages in acts of violence, not about the majority of Muslims who are peaceful, law-abiding citizens. Most of the film consists of footage from Iranian and Arabian television broadcasts, with bits of commentary from a handful of folks (a former PLO terrorist, the daughter of a suicide bomber, an anti-Semitism expert, an ex-Hitler Youth officer, etc.) between clips. The television footage — especially the stuff showing children passionately reciting jihadist poetry and huge assemblies of people chanting "Death to America" — are intriguing enough. But the commentators serve to add the "personal touch" plea for awareness and action by all people (Muslim or otherwise).

After the film was over, Amy and I were both of the same frame of mind. You might assume we were angry at Islam or something. You'd be wrong. Our mindset was one of sadness on behalf of the children taught to hate and kill in the name of Allah. We had brief discussion about the movie, then turned off the lights to go to sleep. But just as we were doing so, Amy wanted to know more about the folks who produced the film. I had noticed that the copyright on the disc was for 2006, which seemed odd as I was seeing it for the first time in 2008. I had even rhetorically asked Amy earlier, "Why is this just now coming out, seven years after 9/11?" And we both wondered if the Observer was the only newspaper that participated in this distribution. So we got back out of bed to hover around the computer.

The movie's website wasn't able to quickly answer the question about which newspapers participated in the distribution of the DVD, so we started Googling around. (We later found some of that information on the movie's Wikipedia page.) We visited a handful of top results in our Google searches, and every site we found was criticizing the film, its producers, or the recent distribution. But what turned our mood from sadness into frustration was that none of the criticism was about factual inaccuracies in the film, but about tangential issues. Most of what we saw was one of the following:

  • Complaints from Muslim groups saying that the film enforces a negative stereotype of all Muslims and would encourage hate crimes against Muslims. I dunno. The movie does carry the disclaimer I mentioned at the beginning of the film, carries video footage of Tony Blair echoing the same sentiments in person at the end of the film, and everywhere in-between the commentators are careful to speak about "radical Islamists" or "jihadists" and appealing to the peaceful majority of Islam-dom to decry the violence of the radical wing thereof. I guess I don't see how this piece of film could possibly affect the Muslim stereotype more than is already done every time one of the Islamic terror groups gets mentioned on the evening news for perpetrating their violence d'jour.
  • Complaints that the film is clearly a political piece promoting a particular candidate for the U.S. Presidency. But I don't recall the movie or its packaging ever mentioning any such candidates or political parties. Unless I'm mistaken, the only times you see American political figures in the film is in radical Muslim propaganda footage portraying George W. Bush as evil (which is pretty common in American media, too). The claim is apparently that the film's backers are decidedly pro-McCain, anti-Obama. But that sentiment is simply not present in the film itself. You'd need out-of-band information to draw that conclusion, the most influential of which is the viewer's already-formed opinions about a particular candidate's ability and willingness to respond to the described threat.

In other words, what we quickly found by Googling around was the online equivalent of a mistrial.

To the Muslims concerned that documentaries on radical Islamic jihadists will enhance negative stereotypes of all Muslims: It is certainly disappointing that that's probably true for some viewers. Every documentary about Death Row enforces negative stereotypes of black males in some folks' minds. Every documentary about gang violence enforces negative stereotypes of the ethnic groups represented in those gangs. Every documentary about The Crusades or Christian abortion clinic bombers enforces negative stereotypes of Christians like myself, too. (Sheesh, the media tends to negatively portray even peaceful, law-abiding Christians, for that matter.) I think people cling to stereotypes because we all inherently like to categorize stuff, and stereotypes are the intellectually easy way to do that categorization. The questions that all folks who are victims of unfair stereotypes must ask of themselves is, "What am I doing to correct or refine that inaccurate stereotype?" Are you and I and the Jew and the black man and the Latino and the [insert stereotyped person here] supporting our respective stereotypes with our lives, or do we daily disprove that we are what the weak-minded claim we are? Do we speak out against the crimes committed by people "like us", or does our silence allow folks to assume we support those crimes?

I don't know if there's some political agenda behind the recent distribution of this film. My heart tells me there probably is. But if that's the point that everyone is dwelling on, am I alone in thinking that's sorta bad? Is the documentary a giant lie? If so, discredit it with the truth. But if it isn't — if, in fact, radical Islam is as the DVD suggests a historical recurrence of the pattern last seen in the ethnic cleansing perpetrated by Nazi Germany — does it ultimately matter why the documentary was distributed? Would not the terrorism itself be considered a somewhat more high-priority issue than who paid what to inform us about it and why they did so? One would think so.