Backyard gene editing risks creating a monster | New Scientist

While we were all being distracted by cat videos and meaningless tweets by celebrities and politicians:

“Biohackers have already signalled their intention to use CRISPR, which poses a big problem for the authorities.” 

Source: Backyard gene editing risks creating a monster | New Scientist, 15 March 2017.”

The US Food and Drug Administration is allowing a dog breeder to use  CRISPR to fix a harmful mutation.  We are told that the FDA is trying not to stifle innovation.

By a dog breeder.

Why aren’t we reacting to this?  An article in the Atlantic suggests it might have something to do with the innocuous acronym for the tool used to fiddle with genetics.

Why does a revolutionary gene-editing technology sound like a candy bar? 

Source: CRISPR Has a Terrible Name – The Atlantic, April 11, 2017

Close your eyes and imagine it is 1938.  The German chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann have just discovered nuclear fission.

Now give the process of Uncontrolled Nuclear Fission an innocuous acronym like UNUFI, something that sounds a bit like a stuffed animal.  And imagine those chemists also discover ways to make it happen within reasonable reach of private parties at manageable costs.  Who can then use the process in a barn somewhere out in the woods.

The world might look more like this:

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Open Theism and the Nature of Time

I am clearly in over my head.

Several years ago, a leader in a local church introduced me to Open Theism.  The theology  appears grounded in the idea that the future is open and subject to chance and choice.  God knows all there is to know about what is settled reality but can only know the future in terms of possibilities.  And most of the writing I’ve encountered appears to rely on God as experiencing time.  This has been explained to me as a succession of moments.  Or, there is a moment (or a time) when God does not know something, and a moment (or a time) in which God does.

This has been bothering me like a bit of gravel stuck inside of a sandal.  It seems to grind against the physical phenomenon of time dilation, which is an implication of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity (STR).  STR describes what happens when velocities differ between objects in the absence of acceleration.  STR is based on two things:

  • The special principle of relativity: The laws of physics are the same for all observers, regardless of their velocity.
  • The speed of light in a vacuum (c) is constant: That is, everyone will always measure the speed of light as being the same (i.e. c = 299,798,458 m/s), regardless of their own velocity. [1]

These postulates establish relationships between time, distance, velocity, and the speed of light that can be described mathematically.  As regarding time this might boil down to the following.  Since the speed of light is constant, as velocity increases, time slows.  And if our velocities are different relative to each other, our experience of time is also different.

Clock face of Big Ben.

If I board a space ship and travel for a few years at some measurable fraction of the speed of light, when I return you will have biologically aged more rapidly than I.  My “present” will be no longer aligned with yours.  This time dilation can be tested in particle accelerators and with moving clocks.

And as it happens, GPS satellites factor in corrections for time dilation resulting from both velocity and gravity.  Accounting for the latter requires applying Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, and adds a level of complexity to this discussion I am simply going to avoid.  The point is that the passage of time seems inseparable from the fabric of the material world.  A clock does not merely measure time.  Time itself is in some way part of the operation of the clock.

In an attempt to wrap my head around the matter and give it a fair hearing I am currently reading God in an open universe: science, metaphysics, and open theism. [2]  The book has a section that discusses STR in detail.  It includes a fairly dense philosophical defense of Open Theism in the context of presentism vs. eternalism, as well as tensed and tenseless ideas about time.

But all of this really seems to be beside the point as it applies to God.  I am probably missing something but what I’ve read so far in the book does not seem to engage the core problem and what philosophy extrapolates from Relativity Theory might be irrelevant to this issue.  Time dilation is a physical phenomenon.  Which means time is an inherent feature of the material universe.

I could do with some clarification.  If what is meant is that God voluntarily limits the scope of interaction with the material world there might be some common ground here.  But I do not see any possible way for God to inherently experience time as a succession of moments.  What would also prevent thinking of God in terms of constraints such as distance, velocity, and the speed of light?  This risks anthropomorphisms like Zeus and Odin.

The bar seems quite high.  A while back Stephen Hawking participated in an episode of the television show Curiosity, titled Did God Create the Universe?  His answer to the question focused on the singularity of the Big Bang:

“…here too, time itself must come to a stop. You can’t get to a time before the Big Bang because there was no before the Big Bang. We have finally found something that doesn’t have a cause. Because there was no time for a cause to have existed. For me this means there is no possibility of a creator. Because there is no time for a creator to have existed.“[3]

Hawking seems to think he has disproven God’s existence.  There may be some unstated philosophical assumptions buried in the denial of causality, but let’s set that aside.  What Hawking does is provide another view of how time is welded into the material order.  And I think that what has actually happened is Hawking unwittingly illustrated the difficulties baked into defending any notion of anchoring God “in” time.

If my impressions of all this changes I will post an update.  Perhaps there are other ways to think about this.  I am neither a philosopher nor a theologian.  And my understanding of physics is a bit thin.  In an attempt to correct this last problem I am slowly gnawing away at a college primer on relativity theory.[4]  As I said when I started, I’m in over my head.  And I’m having trouble understanding how a problematic approach to cosmology can be a good context for a theology.

—————-

[1]  Adam Auton, An Introduction to Special Relativity (undated). Retrieved from Warphttp://adamauton.com/warp/lesson0.html.  See also links at this site for further reading and a downloadable PowerPoint titled Special Relativity for Dummies.

[2] William Hasker, Thomas Jay Oord, and Dean Zimmerman, editors.  God in an open universe: science, metaphysics, and open theism.  Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2011.

I found this book after an online back and forth with one of the editors.

[3] Did God Create the Universe?  Curiosity, Discovery Channel, aired August 7, 2011, Darlow Smithson Productions.  http://www.discovery.com/life-topics/curiosity/

[4] Edwin F Taylor and John Archibald Wheeler.  Spacetime Physics.  San Francisco: W.H Freemand and Company, 1963.

There is a second edition published in 1992. The book is listed on the Warp site above, and was also recommended in a forum as an accessible and less “mathy” introduction to modern relativity theory. I plan to acquire the more recent edition at some point. It’s a bit on the spendy side, probably as a result of being a college textbook.

An Idolatry of Politics

We are seriously doing this?

People working in ministry, music, and nonprofit advocacy are facing pressure for their political beliefs.

Source: These Conservative Christians Are Opposed to Trump—and Suffering the Consequences – The Atlantic

On the one hand, employees have a responsibility to exercise some sort of reasonable care and compartmentalize political activities from an employer’s business activity.  But once reasonable care has been exercised regarding that boundary we should be free to speak our minds.  And not be abused by other Christians.

If we are trolling fellow believers because of their political opinions our allegiance is no longer to the risen Christ.

It is to the idol of politics.

 

 

 

Size Matters

During our years in a former church my wife and I heard repeated admonitions from the leadership to greet visitors.  Then a couple years ago we found ourselves visiting churches looking for a new church community.  Now we were the newcomers.  In some of the communities I noticed obvious personal connections between congregants that were not readily visible in others.

The common thread appeared to be that the communities with this “connectedness” had a single service and were smaller congregations [1].  I can’t claim to be able to tease these observations apart.  The impact of multiple services could simply be a matter of a meeting location that doesn’t work particularly well, such as with crowd bottlenecks in congested building entrances.  But group size, on the other hand, seems to have some inherent dynamics beyond the physical constraints of a meeting place.

I’ve spent most of my working career inside of large organizations and something fundamentally different is going on among people in small social groups vs large ones.  In large groups the organizational structure, whatever that happens to be, seems to consistently take on a life of its own and define the function of the group, rather than any shared sense of mission or purpose.

There is a good chance this is a byproduct our cognitive makeup.  In the early 1990s British anthropologist Robin Dunbar observed a correlation between the average size of primate social groups and neocortex size [2].  Dunbar extrapolated from that to calculate the number of stable social relationships that humans could comfortably have as somewhere between 150 and 200.  He also made the following observation about human use of language, that it,

“…has two unusual properties that make it possible to form groups that are substantially larger than the 150-200 predicted by neocortex size: it allows us (1) to categorise individuals into types and (2) to instruct other individuals as to how they should behave towards specific types of individuals within society.”[3]

In short, it allows us to organize, which suggests a fundamental insight about why organizational structures dominate how people interact when group size grows.  Below the limit interaction is about social connection.   Above the limit interaction is driven by categorization and instruction.

Since Dunbar first published there appears to be have been a fair bit of debate as to where this boundary actually is, as well as contrary voices pointing out that personal networks in the modern world can be far larger [4].  I am not qualified to wander into the weeds here.  All I am suggesting is that the boundary is real and has practical effects on the way social groups and organizing institutions work.  And a good bit of political and economic theory seems to be blissfully unaware of it [5].

Why this matters to churches is that in the midst of theology and spiritual experience we seem to forget the limitations that characterize our physical existence.  These just might include aspects of how our brains are wired.  We are called into allegiance to the Body of Christ as part and parcel of our allegiance to the risen Lord.  But it is possible that we can unnecessarily complicate the outworking of that when the structures we create don’t account for our material boundaries.

This problem seems to me to reach back into the ancient world.  Group size was necessarily small when Christianity was a disfavored and sometimes persecuted minority.  Faith can certainly come through preaching but in a hostile environment it would spread primarily via personal contact along social networks, such as families, work, and in the marketplace.  Communities would be small and in periods of calm they could aggregate at the level of individual churches.  But with numerical growth comes categorization and direction.  And in learning how to do this the church absorbed the centralized authority practices of the surrounding culture.

And then Constantine’s official recognition of Christianity removed the limits to group size.  At large scales centralized authority became a dominant feature of how the Church presented itself.  It became an earthly kingdom that looked a whole lot like emperor, monarch, and baron.  It is debatable how much this mirrored the kingdom Jesus describe to Pilate as “not of this world.”

We have the conceit in the modern world to believe we have put all this aside.  But we also tend to uncritically absorb the authority and organizational structures from our own culture.  And as our churches grow those structures come to dominate how they present to the world.  Some of them have come to look a whole lot like corporations.

PublicDomainPictures.Net
Ripon Cathedral

I am not trying to suggest that churches can’t ever be large, or that everything is inherently sweetness and light in small congregations.  There are probably constructive ways that groups can grow in size and still foster stable community.  There is nothing in Dunbar’s research to suggest that this is not possible.

But is is likely to require conscious thinking about limits as a church grows.  Otherwise community is likely to be snuffed out by organization.

Size matters.

—————-

[1] By smaller I mean relative to what we were accustomed.  We participated in the same community for nearly three decades.  At the beginning attendance was a bit north of 300.  At one point attendance peaked at roughly 1000.  Relative to some mega-churches even this might be considered small.

[2] R.I.M. Dunbar, Neocortex Size as a Constraint on Group Size in Primates
Journal of Human Evolution 22(6):469-493. June 1992
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/222461154_Neocortex_Size_as_a_Constraint_on_Group_Size_in_Primates

[3] R.I.M. Dunbar. Coevolution of neocortical size, group size and language in humans.
Behavioral and Brain Sciences Volume 16, Issue 4 December 1993, pp. 681-694
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/245683083_Coevolution_of_neocortical_size_group_size_and_language_in_humans

[4] For an example see Barry Wellman, Is Dunbar’s number up?
British Journal of Psychology (2012), 103, 174–176
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/224050819_Is_Dunbar%27s_Number_Up

[5] This is probably why some of our grand ideas do not scale well.  Consider, for instance, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” That probably only can work when the “eachs” all know each other.  Or have reliable knowledge of reputation, and can readily identify freeloaders, liars and the power-hungry.  The moment organization is applied to scale up the idea it becomes all about the apparatus required to collect from those with ability and distribute to those with need. A weak apparatus will collapse under the weight of the freeloaders.  A strong apparatus will be dominated by the likes of Stalin and Mao.