University

Would you remove free will?

What would you do if you were God for a day?

I once spent a few hours asking people that very question. It was a question board I did with the Christian Union at university.

The premise of a question board is simple. There is a board with a question on it, passers by are asked to answer the question, those answers are stuck on the board using post-it notes. It’s a good way to quickly gauge opinions about something, and discuss them if people are interested in doing so. On this occasion the question put people in the place of God. How would people use the power? How would you?

Most of the responses I received have been lost to the mists of an imperfect memory, but one sticks very clearly in the mind. I remember it because I was shocked by it, and because it was by far the most common answer that the people I spoke to had.

I’d remove free will.

At the time I was totally unprepared for that answer. It had simply never occurred to me that people thought they had too much free will. Too little, maybe – after all, plenty of people seem to think of religion as a set of restrictive rules – but too much free will?!

I guess we can think of free will as being free to do what we want to do. I’m sure a philosopher could pick holes in such a simplistic definition (do leave comments to help me refine it), but it’ll do for my purposes. If I have a certain desire, can I satisfy it? Can I do the things which I most want to do?

Is this a type of free will which we have? It seems to me that people do have this freedom, but paradoxically are enslaved by it. We can do what we want, but I’m not sure we can do anything else! We always act according to our desires, and when we deny ourselves it simply shows we have found a greater desire. I may forgo the pleasure of some food, but only the greater pleasure (or at least, what I perceive as the greater pleasure) of losing weight. Or conversely, I might (and often do!) forgo the pleasure of fitness for the greater pleasure of laziness. We are constrained to follow our own free will.

Into this world, Jesus came and offered freedom. Freedom from what? From slavery to our desires which often go against God’s good desires for our lives. That is why Jesus calls you and me “slaves to sin”. How does Jesus give us this freedom? He changes our desires. He cuts right to the heart of the problem, and changes us from being slaves to sin to being slaves to righteousness. We are still constrained, but to live a completely different way. The way that God knows is best for us.

I assume that the people who told me they would remove free will had in mind that they would impose perfection on the world. I assume they would prevent people from doing things which cause suffering. Perhaps they would even force people to worship them. How different the God of the Bible is! Rather than making people act against their will, He changes people from the inside out. The Christian isn’t compelled to do good, but longs to do it. God doesn’t force us to worship Him, but shows us how wonderful He is and our worship flows naturally from it. What a gentle way of dealing with a race of sinful humans!

What would you do if you were God for a day? What do you think of the idea of removing free will?

A big day out

Tuesday was Gareth’s big day out – a day spent in London consisting of culture, friendship, and a name worthy of a Wallace and Gromit film.

We kicked off at the British Museum with a guided tour of some of the exhibits which relate to the Bible. I was impressed by the speed at which we went round, as my parents always do museums far too slowly to keep my interest. It did strike me just how much archaeological stuff is pottery, which makes for a very monochrome museum, but it was nevertheless interesting to see some of the details of the lives of people in Biblical eras. It helped to drive home the reality of who these people were, and the world in which they lived.

After lunch it was on to the Tate Britain, where the art lover within me failed to materialise. I didn’t understand any of the art, but I did think about art for the first time. I did actually quite like one of the abstract pieces, but my artistic observations were along the lines of ‘It’s very big’ or ‘Oh, that’s green’! I’m a little confused about what art is after being told it doesn’t need to look nice and doesn’t need to require skill, but I think art is anything that’s been created by someone inside the art world. By the same (somewhat cynical) token, good art seems to be anything which has caught the eye of someone influential enough to display it somewhere.

For me, the highlight of the day was walking past the houses of parliament and looking at the security arrangements. I didn’t dare photograph them too closely for fear of being arrested, but I was fascinated. I can only imagine that having a whole bunch of new MPs must have caused chaos for the security arrangements! It’s a small thing, but seeing a van being let into nearby Downing Street was, bizarrely, a slightly special moment.

The day was my first experience of tourism in London, and the related joy of the tube (or underground tram network, as it’s been aptly described). It was a nice day, it did broaden my mind a little bit, and I got to take photos of colourful elephant statues and equally colourful sword-wielding soldiers. The only disappointment was that I expected Trafalgar Square to be a bit bigger, but considering it’s prime London land then I must admit £240 is a cracking price for it! Monopoly will never be the same again.

Amazing Nathan

It turns out that asking friends for suggestions for blog posts is not necessarily a good idea. It seemed a bit strange to ask for ideas when I have 55 blog posts in varying stages of draft at the moment, but I wanted to post something fairly light and trivial. Most of those ideas need development (which I suppose is why they’re still drafts, not fully fledged posts). I asked a friend of mine, Nathan, for an idea for a blog post, and sure enough he delivered the goods. As it happens, he wants me to blog about how amazing he is.

Perhaps I should start with his amazing humility.

As I thought about it, it did occur to me that he is actually quite amazing. Not the most amazing person I know, obviously, but still amazing in a good way. For a start he can juggle, which is always a good start for anyone trying to be amazing. He also owns an impressive array of entertaining T-shirts. I don’t actually know if that’s true or not, but he has at least two that I’ve noticed, making him possibly the only person who owns any clothing I could describe. I’m not the most observant chap in the world.

But back to Nathan (after all, he is amazing). We met early on this academic year as he is a Christian fresher at the university of Reading. I don’t remember our first meeting, but we got on well from the start. It must be because Nathan is such an amazing conversationalist. We’re quite similar people in many ways (except that he is more amazing than me) so I think I’ve been able to relate to him better than I can to most people.

Technically, me and Nathan go further back than our time at university. Last summer I had the privilege of working for UBM in their Leeds office, and Nathan booked to come on a UBM team. Apparently he was in the background of a phone call I answered. His amazingness didn’t really shine through though, as he never actually spoke to me. Lucky him!

Another one of the many amazing things about Nathan is his sense of humour. It takes an amazing person to make their facebook profile picture a photo of them falling out of a car. It takes an amazing person to sit opposite me and not mind the extent of my sarcasm, and still make jokes which are actually funny. It takes an amazing person to take a video of me not-quite-dancing, and put it in an infinite loop online.

There are other things I could say about the amazing Nathan, like the fact his word of the day is both cheese and pencil today (but it’s still a singular word of the day, not multiple words). Thinking about it, that doesn’t really show how amazing he is, but he asked me to include it anyway. In fact, the reality is that there is only one more thing I actually want to say about Nathan.

As I’ve got to know Nathan more throughout the year, the main reason I think he is amazing is that I have found him to be a tremendous encouragement to my soul. He has been amazing, because he has supported me as I’ve failed God time and time again. He has been amazing, because he is so often able not only to sympathise, but also to empathise. He has been amazing in his comforting of me when I’ve felt very low, giving me very wise advice. He has been amazing in sharpening my Bible study in a way matched only by one other individual in the last three years. Most amazing of all has been seeing Nathan’s growth in Christ, which I think he is completely oblivious to.

I think ultimately the reason Nathan is amazing is because God has adopted him, and given him to me as a friend and encourager. By God’s grace, he’s doing a good job of it, so when I say Nathan is amazing, I think I mean God is amazing. And I’m grateful to Him for Nathan.

Starving to death on pleasure

A scientific study which I’d come across before was mentioned in my bionics lecture today. A scientist called James Olds managed to locate the ‘pleasure centre’ in rats’ brains. This is an area which, when electrically stimulated, produces a feeling of pleasure. Olds attached electrodes to the pleasure centre of some rats, and wired them to a button to which the rats had access. They quickly learnt that they could induce pleasure in themselves by pressing this button, as would be expected, but more interestingly when given the choice between immediate pleasure and food the rats starved themselves to death in favour of the short term pleasure.

It struck me that people are no better. The rats died because they didn’t consider the long-term consequences of their choices, but do people? Certainly not! Most people consider only the short-term, physical effects of their behaviour, missing out the eternal spiritual effects. They too starve themselves to death, feeding themselves on extremely temporary pleasure rather than the living bread which lasts forever. Small wonder that they’re spiritually dead!

A missing 20%

Having just been reading some of the mark sheets for my final year project, I have come across an interesting mark scheme. I had naively assumed the mark which I received would be somewhere in the range 0-100% (inclusive). While this is true, I have found it is impossible to score outside of the (again inclusive) range 15-95%. And there was I thinking that daft marking procedures were left behind at school to be replaced by sensible people at university. Apparently not.

A type of touch

I came back to university on Saturday and the wireless keyboard I use on my computer died soon after I started using it. I assumed that the batteries were flat, but that soon turned out not to be the case. I took it apart to check for loose wires and the like, but (as expected) couldn’t find the problem. I finished off what I was doing using the windows on-screen keyboard and dealt with emails from my mobile phone. The keyboard now lies dead next to my desk waiting to be thrown out (I’m not just being lazy, the outside bin is full and the second bin is the other side of lots of snow).

The keyboard is dead.

Long live the keyboard!

It wasn’t realistic for me to work without a keyboard, so I purchased one pronto and it arrived on Monday. It’s an ergonomic keyboard, which serves to highlight that I can’t type properly. I can manage a reasonable speed, but I’m still really just a two finger typist (though depending on where the key I want is I might use any finger or thumb).

Touch typing is virtually always faster than typing like I do, but it takes time and effort to learn. As I googled for a website that would teach me I came across one which also listed some extra benefits I’d not previously considered. Touch typing is more efficient once you’re proficient at it, because you can have confidence that what you type is the same as what you mean to type. This allows you to avoid wasting time looking at the keyboard or screen when typing something from a paper document, and means you don’t have to break your train of thought if you’re authoring the content as you type. The typing should not only be fast, but accurate.

Typing tests take both into account, measuring speed (measured in words per minute, wpm, in which a ‘word’ is defined as 5 key presses) and accuracy (reporting the number of mistakes). Using my usual typing style I took a typing test and was asked to type this:

“My name is O’Kelly, I’ve heard the Revelly From Birr to Bareilly, from Leeds to Lahore, Hong-Kong and Peshawur, Lucknow and Etawah, And fifty-five more all endin’ in “pore”. Black Death and his quickness, the depth and the thickness, Of sorrow and sickness I’ve known on my way, But I’m old and I’m nervis, I’m cast from the Service, And all I deserve is a shillin’ a day. Shillin’ a day, Bloomin’ good pay, Lucky to touch it, a shillin’ a day!”

My result was 53wpm, with 3 mistakes (though I could only find one, even though they were highlighted in bold – two looked to me like they were identical to the desired words!). The challenge now is to invest the effort to learn to touch type and see how much I can improve.

But Tim strengthened himself in the Lord

Yesterday was a depressing day. I had hoped to spend about 5 hours spread throughout the day working on one assignment, a report into “the architectures of humanoid robot systems”. I didn’t spend all that time working, but I did use most of it. By the time I went to bed, however, I hadn’t made any significant progress towards writing the report. I was already behind my schedule for work on that assignment, and the situation certainly wasn’t improved by a few hours of apparently finding nothing useful in my research. My feelings were quite nicely summed up by what a friend posted on facebook that evening (albeit for very different reasons to me):

“I didn’t get anywhere near the amount of work done I wanted to do today and I really can’t be bothered to do anymore now!”

It felt so unjust that I should spend to much time working, yet produce no useful output. That single assignment has frustrated me incredibly, and it is set by a lecturer who set a piece of work last year that I was forced to accept a mark of zero for because I was completely unable to do it. I felt miserable and didn’t know where to turn for help.

This morning in my daily Bible reading I came across 1 Samuel 30:6. David, not yet king of Israel, had been away from home fighting and returned home to discover the whole town had been burnt down, and all the women and children had been taken captive. As his troops rounded on him and threatened to stone him, we read

“David was greatly distressed, for the people spoke of stoning him, because the soul of all the people was grieved, every man for his sons and his daughters. But David strengthened himself in the LORD his God.”

Is this not an immense privilege that Christians have? Regardless of circumstances, we have a God who is the almighty Lord of everything! We come to Him united with Christ and can be sure He will never turn us away. An email I was sent within the last week contained Psalm 55:22, which reads

“Cast your burden on the LORD, and He shall sustain you;  He shall never permit the righteous to be moved.”

Once again I have the privilege of testifying this to be true, as the Lord did graciously strengthen me to renew my fellowship with Him. Why did I worry about my work? The Lord has control of all things, and I am His child.

P-P-P-Pick up a project

In the third and final year of my degree I must complete a project. Because my degree is robotics, I can choose between a computer science (CS) project and a cybernetics (cyb) project. The process for selecting a project starts with the university producing a list of suitable projects proposed by members of staff. In my case there are two lists, one for CS projects and one for cyb projects. Students pick three projects they would like to do, and the projects are essentially allocated on a first-come, first-serve basis (hence the need to pick backup projects). Each student will do one project, though some projects will have multiple students working on them. My preference has been toward the CS, because I know my strengths lie in programming and understanding the theory behind computing, rather than in making physical things and understanding the physics behind electronics.

In the light of this, I decided to look at the list of CS project proposals before the cyb proposals. It turns out that picking a project is actually very difficult. Many of the projects are very dull, which I think is a good feature to avoid in a project which lasts for a year. The interesting ones are inordinately difficult, and in some cases I literally have no ideas how I could begin the project, let alone how I could complete it (a requirement for getting my degree).

I have always been aware that this project is a tremendous opportunity to try something which I could do for a living, in order to find out whether or not I am capable of doing it and whether or not I enjoy it. I suppose in my mind there has always been a subconscious idea of a fairytale project which I would be brilliant at and would love doing, and would result in me showing an interviewer the fruits of my labour, thereby convincing them to hire me on the spot to continue the same wonderfully fulfilling work. That idea is now definitely dispelled. Choosing a project is proving to be difficult enough, and even if I do find the perfect project I have a sneaking suspicion that finding a job that allows me to use the same skills will be nigh impossible. Thinking about the project has led to me think about my long term future, and the need to find paid employment in the not-too-distant future, and this has in turn led to the realisation that I cannot think of any job related to my degree that I would actually enjoy.

This sounds incredibly pessimistic, and I suppose it is, but I don’t want people to worry that I’m about to get hideously depressed about it. I’m convinced God will provide an appropriate occupation for me, but it’s not easy to see what it will be. I trust God for my future, as I have done for several years, but now I’m much less blasé about it. I have faith God will guide and protect me, but the ridiculous notion of my professional life being given to me on a silver platter is, I’m happy to say, gone. I know the Christian life is difficult, and I’m glad that God has shown me yet another way in which He may call me to suffer doubt and rely more than usual on His gracious providence.

Returning to my original topic and to something approaching positivity, some of the projects were actually quite interesting and of perfectly feasible difficulty. Ironically, given my degree is robotics, none of them involved robots anywhere. Most involved no hardware beyond a normal common or garden computer. I haven’t looked at the cyb projects yet, so I’m not diving into a decisions at the moment, but I do need to pick a project soon (the formal selection process is on the 3rd of June so I need at least three ideas by then). Praise God for His grace in reminding me that I need to bring all my decisions to Him in prayer, and need to wait and listen for His guiding and comforting voice to speak.

An early holiday?

I live in a house with five friends. From the six of us, there will be three of us in the house for the next few days. One housemate has gone home, one is going to his girlfriend’s house and one has gone with his girlfriend to visit his extended family. It’s contributing to the feeling that it is in fact the end of term, and my calendars are lying to me. It can’t only be week five of ten; the term must be more than half way through!

Having one (easy) exam left means I’m relaxed about uni work. Having months before freshers arrive means I’m relaxed about freshers’ week. Having rediscovered the joys of Prince of Persia means I’m relaxed about my use of time. But too much relaxation is probably not a brilliant way of living. As a human I’m supposed to live a six-day working week. I’m probably doing about one day’s work each week at the moment.

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying that rest is wrong. I believe that resting is just as important as working. But that doesn’t mean it should take up as much time. The term is, in fact, far from over. I have to revise for the exam and commit it to God in prayer. I have to select my modules for next year, and pick a project to work on. Then I have to work on it! I have to organise freshers’ week before CU members start going home and become difficult to contact. I want to learn passages of scripture. I want to clarify my opinions towards various controversial beliefs. I want to write a  study of some of the shorter books in the Bible. This isn’t a sympathy plea, or an attempt to show you how difficult my life is. I love my life! But when you see me around, check if I’m making good use of my time. At the top of my to-do list are three things which have been at the top for quite a while:

See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil. (Ephesians 5:15-16)

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice! (Philippians 4:4)

And just to keep everyone relaxed, an introduction to Apple’s latest product, the MacBook Wheel.

The joys of hard work

In recent weeks I’ve had a lot on my plate. I am continually amazed by how much work is generated by being on the committee of a Christian Union. I still don’t know what causes it all – it seems to be a continual supply of one-offs provided by God to encourage me to rely more on His all sustaining grace.

It’s incredibly tempting at times to feel resentful of the amount of responsibility I have. Not only do I have a to-do list as long as Lee’s hair, but I’m also meant to find time to pray for God’s blessing on it all? Ridiculous!

As I sat listening to Ludovico Einaudi and preparing a Bible study for the RUCU committee meeting last week I was struck by the joy of salvation, and the privilege of serving God. I’d chosen to look at Psalm 116, which is well worth a read any day of the year. The Psalmist speaks about his salvation, and his gratitude shines through in each sentence before he turns his attention to serving and worshipping God. Having written about this joyous subject, the Psalmist ends in the only way he knows how – “Praise the Lord!”

Suddenly giving up a few hours of revision time doesn’t seem so bad. The same God who raised Jesus from the dead and has given me new life is sustaining me and enabling me to work for Him! I can work hard for God’s glory in God’s power! I know God expects me to give my whole life to Him, but He expects no more. God wants 100% from me – but not 110%! He doesn’t want me to do more than He has enabled me to do. God has called me to work hard for His glory, and to trust Him with the results of it. This applies to revision, organising CU events, doing housework, talking to friends, and everything inbetween!

I don’t expect my struggles to disappear. I don’t expect to be able to get the balance between working for my degree, serving the CU and spending time with friends right. I don’t expect to know how much time to spend relaxing. But I do expect God to help me learn. I do expect God to bless the work I do for Him. Most of all, I do expect God to glorify Himself through me. And no other thought has made me appreciate my work so much!

Further reading: http://gazleaney.blogspot.com/2009/03/chill-out.html