Sunday, August 06, 2006

I don't get me...

Today's reading relates to control theory.
A man's steps are directed by the Lord
How then can anyone understand his own way?
Proverbs 20.24
Upon reading this verse, a number of things sprang to my mind:
  • The principle of control theory that says an order(N) device needs an order(N+1 or higher) device to control it. (I'm sure I don't have the words right, but you get the idea)
  • The part in Exodus where we read that the Lord hardened Pharoah's heart, then Pharoah makes some really bad decisions (not understanding why), leading to his downfall
  • Come to think of it, any number of other places in the Bible where the Lord determines to do something (usually bad) to someone, and that person makes some really bad decisions (not understanding why), etc.
  • Any number of stupid or bad things I've done in my life, although I'm not sure if those were because the Lord was trying to teach me something, or because of my own folly.
In particular I remember an incident from my childhood, when I was looking at a chalk-line. This is a retractable length of string in a container filled with chalk dust -- you stretch it out on a board or something and "snap" it, and the chalk makes a straight line on the board.

Anyway, the filler cap (for when you run out of chalk) said "turn counterclockwise to open" so I asked my father, "What's counterclockwise?" He didn't want to tell me because he was sure I'd open it and spill chalk dust all over the place. I protested that I wouldn't, so he told me it was opposite of the way the clock went. Immediately (I have no idea why) I ran over to the clock to see which way was clockwise, and began to unscrew the chalk filler.

He stopped me immediately, and in the next moment I realized what I had done. I still had no idea why. (In fact, I still have no idea why.) I think we laughed about it. But anyway, my father knew what I was going to do -- well, he was pretty sure -- before I did it.

So that verse, and those experiences, underline for me that man often has no idea of his own motives. Why did Pharoah make those bad decisions that ruined his country? Why did I want to unscrew the chalk-line filler?

Even today, I can identify only some of my motivations, and even those I'm not 100% sure of. In The Blank Slate, Pinker refers to some fanciful explanations given by a fellow whose corpus callosum has been severed (chapter 3, p.43). He thinks he knows his motivations, but in fact he's clueless.

Looking at the verse again, it occurs to me that I know the answer to the rhetorical question: How then can anyone understand his own way? Ask someone who knows, of course!

Because I think the split-brained fellow could have understood his motivations. Had he been willing to ask, the scientists could have told him: "Well, sir, I played a little trick on you, by showing you different pictures in each eye. Here is the picture I showed to your left eye, and here is the picture you saw with your right." The psychologist could have gone on to explain how one side of the brain mostly deals with language and the other side plans the next step (like standing up to walk into the next room).

Applying that to our life with God, I guess I can understand my own way by seeking the Lord. I have to give up any illusion that I can ultimately figure it out by myself, and ask God to search me, as the psalmist said
Search me, O God, and know my thoughts.
Test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me
and lead me in the way everlasting
Psalm 139.23-24

posted 8/13

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