Yes, Virginia, you CAN prove a negative

Groucho Marx (from Wikipedia)
Thanks for loaning the elephant, Groucho. I’ll try to have the pajamas pressed. (Image from Wikipedia)

Logic class, today! After a week of house hunting, a quick post like this feels like just the thing to cleanse the palate, so please forgive my indulgence.

Though it is often claimed–and tempting to believe, because it can sound sensible–it is completely false that you cannot prove a negative. (That is, for instance, that you cannot prove something doesn’t exist.)

I have heard the claim many times, often by wonderful and sincere people but, to be sure, wonderful and sincere people who don’t know what they are talking about — club of which all of us are members from time to time. For instance, I have heard atheists say “You can’t prove a negative!” in an effort to absolve themselves of the need to justify their belief that God does not exist. On the other side, I have heard Christians say “You can’t prove a negative!” in an effort to show that the atheist position is impossible.

Both are in error. Both seem to miss the fact that we prove negatives all the time and the fact that the same sort of “reasoning” they offer would defend belief in Santa Clause, the Easter Bunny, and flying purple leprechauns named Marty.

This was brought up to me more than once by someone who objected to what I wrote for Tomorrow’s World publications concerning the non-existent 2012 Mayan Apocalypse. I would point out that, based on all the evidence we have, the Mayans said no such thing about the year 2012. All of the hoopla and hype was due to New Age goofiness (drug use included) and sloppy, agenda-driven non-scholarship performed by hobbyists and individuals with something to sell. And this is definitely the record we have of the Maya culture–no modern, credible scholar of Mesoamerican culture disagrees with the assessment that the Maya simply did not believe in a 2012 apocalypse.

However, someone apparently bothered when I pointed that out would sometimes write, saying, “You can’t prove a negative!” His point seemed to be that you can’t say that the Mayans never said that the universe would end in 2012. Of course, if it is true that you can’t prove the Mayans did not say something, then it would also be “logically” unreasonable to believe that the Mayans never said President Obama would be elected in 2008, that the Mayans never said “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” or that the Mayans never said they were the descendants of the undiscovered planet Great Googly Gumdrops and never prophesied the coming of their most dangerous foe, Mork from Ork.

Often (though not always, it should be said), the claim “you can’t prove a negative” is made in reaction to something one does not want to hear, as if it will somehow back their opponent into a logical corner. But that is far from the truth.

In fact, you absolutely can prove a negative.

Now, I should qualify that when I say “prove” I mean the same thing we faulty human beings commonly mean when we talk about “proving” anything — for instance, establishing something as the most reasonable position to take among known alternatives. If “prove” means “prove with mathematical exactness and precision but in real life” then virtually all “proofs” would escape us, meaning we could prove neither negatives nor positives! (Actually, we can thank Gödel for helping us to see that, in a very real way, such “proofs” can’t even be assumed for mathematics, itself.)

But if you mean “prove” as in “I can prove you took the cookie from the cookie jar” — a belief established by the preponderance of the evidence — then, oh yeah, we’re golden. We can prove negative statements to just as high a level of certainty as we are able to prove positive statements. In fact, we draw reasonable, sound conclusions about the truth of negatives all the time.

It seems to me that the question is often related to the old saying, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” which is usually abused in this context. Because, very simply, sometimes absence of evidence is, indeed, evidence of absence. For instance, if I told you that, right now, there was an elephant in your kitchen wearing your pajamas (hat tip to Groucho), and you went into your tiny kitchen and saw no pajama-wearing elephant, you would be perfectly justified by the lack of evidence in saying, “I have proven there is no elephant in my kitchen wearing my pajamas.” Why? Because were a pajama-wearing elephant actually in your kitchen, you would be justified in expecting evidence to be left. If you don’t even see a table pushed out of the way as the elephant fled in embarrassment upon hearing your approach (elephants have big ears), you have very good cause to say that your position is proved. For someone to say, “Well, you can’t say you’ve proven there is no elephant in your kitchen because you can’t prove a negative!” would say more about their misunderstanding of logic than it would about your argument. Your argument would be absolutely valid and sound.

If evidence is to be expected and no evidence is present, then absence can be logically inferred. So, perhaps the saying should be amended to say, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence unless evidence should be expected.”

This is why we can, indeed, reasonably conclude that the ancient Mayan culture did not expect the universe to end in some sort of cataclysm on December of 2012. For all the New Agers’ and misguided hobbyists’ hoopla about what was supposed to be a universe-changing event, the evidence that the Maya thought about it as such a vastly significant date is just simply absent. Despite the vast volumes of cultural artifacts we have including volumes and volumes of information they, themselves, inscribed and wrote down, they say nothing about such a day being the end of the world. I won’t go into all of the details again [you can search the blog on “2012” and probably find more than you ever wanted to know], but the tiny crumbs that are generally offered by ill-informed hobbyists and tainted “researchers” always fail to pass the test. Monument 6 in Tortuguero? Understood in cultural context (as opposed to ignorantly imposing upon it non-Mayan ideas), it says nothing about the end of the world. The Comalcalco tile? Ditto. The much-later, Christianity-corrupted Chilam Balam? Actually evidence against 2012 date-setting theories when you understand it. The Dresden Codex? Not even.

(FYI on that last point: As all the unchristian 2012-addiction died down back then, the last stab I saw at trying to magically turn the Dresden Codex into “evidence” that the Mayans thought 2012 might be the end of the world was claiming that the last page of the codex is depicting the transit of Venus. No one offered proof the last page said anything like this, or even real evidence. Just an assertion that it is so, in the apparent hope that a confident sounding statement will add some credibility to what they are saying. Except that people — people with actual training in astronomy and Mayan works — have said that, no, the Dresden Codex absolutely does not mention the Venus Transit. Anyone who says the transit of Venus is in the Codex has no credibility. In fact, there’s a negative that can be proved: “The Dresden Codex does not mention the Transit of Venus.” — Sorry! So much of that pointless 2012 goofiness is still running around in my noggin that it spills out sometimes… Back to the post!)

For what should have been the one of the most significant events in their culture’s eschatology, the supposed “end of the world” date of December 2012 was remarkably and unreasonably absent from the vast collection of writings we have. Indeed, absence of evidence is, in this case, evidence of absence.

And, frankly, all of that ignores the positive evidence that the Mayans did not believe 2012 was the end of the world: many inscriptions concerning dates further out that 2012, the calendar discovery at Xultún, et al., ad nauseam. But that is an aside unrelated to the point of this lazy post, today. 🙂

In similar manner, you can prove the negative that Santa did not come down your chimney last Christmas. (Of course, he’d better not come to my house!) The absence of evidence that a fat man crawled down your chimney while you were asleep is pretty good evidence for the absence of such a fat man.

We can, indeed, prove negatives, and lack of evidence is sometimes evidence, itself. When an atheist claims that he doesn’t need to justify his belief that God doesn’t exist because you can’t prove a negative, he is not being rational. When a believer claims that the atheist’s position is not logical because you can’t prove a negative, he is also not being rational. No one gets off the hook. (Don’t get me started on the illogical fad among many atheists today to claim that “belief” doesn’t mean “belief” anymore. That would be a whole ‘nuther post…)

If someone ever tries to shut you down by claiming “You can’t prove a negative,” feel free to ask them to prove that such a proof does not exist, since that would require proving a negative, themselves. (Did you see that? I turned it around, didn’t I? Yes, I do think I’m clever, thank you.) Or, you can just ask them if it’s reasonable to strongly believe that Santa Claus does not exist. If they won’t say “Yes” to that, then I suspect they have more problems than their grasp of logic. In that case, you might recommend that they keep an eye out for any pajama-coveting elephants…

I’ve hardly scratched the surface of the topic, but I’ve seen the “you can’t prove a negative” fallacy used enough that I thought it would be something fun to write about. Yes, I have an odd idea of “fun,” but it has succeeded in relaxing me a bit after all of this house hunting! If anyone wants to read more about the mistaken notion that one cannot prove a negative, here is a decent essay by Dr. Steven Hales of Bloomsburg University, appropriately titled “You Can Prove a Negative” — knock yourself out. 🙂

Quick survey: Do you save old letters and correspondence?

I hope everyone’s Sunday has gone well! Even though this quick post has nothing to do with what many have been focused on today, I will feel remiss if I don’t address it. So if Easter was a part of your day, today, please do hang around, but you might want to check out any one of these first (in fact, check them all out):

Sorry — given the day, I couldn’t help myself!

However, that really is not what this post is about. Rather, I have a question: Do you save old correspondence, at all?

That's right, kids. This is what e-mail used to look like! (Image credit: Stuart Miles at
That’s right, kids. This is what e-mail used to look like! (Image credit: Stuart Miles at

I’m a pretty sentimental sort. I save letters and cards. Cards I will eventually throw away before letters, but letters — I mean, real letters, handwritten by friends and loved ones — I usually cannot bring myself to throw away. Not entirely sure why, but it’s certainly true.

This has been brought to light by a little water damage part of our belongings experienced not too long ago. Here were we are staying while we are “between homes,” we were storing some things in a room that allowed some water in (totally our fault!) which our stored belongings in their cardboard boxes dutifully soaked up. (Good job, stuff!) Much of the newly soggified items were, thankfully, items that I had only packed up out of laziness and which I should have gotten rid of in the first round of moving — items in my library that I will never read again, nor care all that much to keep, some old schoolwork from my kids from years ago that should have been thrown away (not the cute little essays or writings; more like the boring, fill-in-the-blank worksheets). Some of the items were or more importance (some old photos and some actually worthwhile books), but not that big of a deal.

However, one thing that did get soaked that caught my attention were some old letters. Just this morning, I was going through some of them, and they included, for instance, some of the letters the Now-Mrs. Wallace Smith and I had exchanged during our early friendship and dating in the pre-Mrs. Wallace Smith days. These things are precious to me, and — again, as a sentimental sort — I hold on to stuff like this. I see them as “the historical documents” (I think I got that phrase from the movie Galaxy Quest). I imagine my kids one day reading through them after I’m dead (hopefully later than next week, by the way 🙂 ) and seeing how our family came together. Needless to say, I am letting them dry out and planning to keep them, even if the ink is a little blurred, now.

Other letters are there, as well — from back when I was in high school, or on the other side of the child/adult divide, from friends after college. Of course, with Gmail, one can keep everything, and I keep way too much out of laziness. But all of these are from a day when writing someone took more effort, and first drafts were often the only drafts.

I often question whether I am too sentimental about such things. Maybe all of it should be chucked. Or maybe none of it should be chucked. Or maybe those notes to my sweetheart should be kept, but the others should go the way of my decades-old tax records. (Actually, come to think of it I still have those. I’ll try to think of another example as I warm up the shredder…)

So, let me turn it over to you: Do you hold on to your old correspondence? That is, your non-email correspondence? If so, do you keep it all? Do you keep some? Is there a date when it becomes “old enough” to throw away? Do you keep only special letters, or is it a matter of keeping letters from special someones, whether significant in content or not?

Let me know, below, if you’re in the mood. It’s a lot faster than writing me a letter. 🙂

How will we live? How will we SURVIVE?!?! Without…

"No, I know I said you could all keep your Internet service. But what I meant was..."
“Now, I know I said you could all keep your Internet service. But what I meant was…”

…the internet.

My family is experiencing a communications crisis as out home Internet access has ceased to exist. And, since our television and phone service worked through the Internet, it is down, too.

(I am posting this through the use of a tiny bit of unused bandwidth in the tracking device my reptilian, [fill in adjectives describing your favorite conspiracy theory bad guys here] overlords have implanted in my brain while pretending to be aliens abducting me. Hopefully they won’t notice.)

It won’t be so bad for me and the missus. We are about to leave this afternoon to head north for some visiting and services/Bible Study/Spokesman Club/quilting action then turning southeastward Sunday morning for North Carolina for COE meetings and a Tomorrow’s World taping. We won’t be back until Friday at the earliest, so we won’t miss it. Boys #1, #2, #3, and #4, as well as for Father-in-Law and Mother-in-Law, will have to bear the burden.

They should be fine, though. Time to rediscover some board games, which the kids really enjoy.

Actually, things may be fixed Monday when the service dude comes. The problem, as best I can tell, is the coax cable connection feeding us our fiber optic input. That is, the problem isn’t our router (power cycled 400 times, now) but lies in the actual input coming into the house or how that input is passed along the coaxial cable or how it is converted for the Ethernet connection. Company’s stuff, so hopefully company will pay to fix it. (Hopefully.)

Still — last night, as it became clear it was more than a “power cycle” problem, it was oddly unnerving. It’s not like a connection to the Internet is necessary for life, love, and happiness, but it did feel like a real “crisis” building.

What would Macgyver do? Be too busy defusing a bomb, probably.

All of that said, as mentioned above my missus and I will be off to Charlotte for some good meetin’s, good fellowshippin’, and good telecastin’ — busy times, so comment moderation will probably be even slower than usual and posting will probably be nonexistent. Have a great week!

What song or piece of music inspires & motivates you?

So, name one that moves and inspires you.
So, name one that moves and inspires you.

Rather than some of the things I had considered writing about recently (the country is going down the toilet, strategies of non-prophets, how crazy good pistachios taste), I thought this might be a nice post. I was negative about music recently, and perhaps this will help to make up for it.

Is there a song or piece of music that really inspires you or motivates you? If you are like me, there may be many such songs. Today in the car on the way to the Post Office, I played “The Impossible Dream (the Quest)” from the musical “Man of La Mancha” about Don Quixote. The words of that song really move me and I have found much motivation and inspiration in them for many years. They stir me to dedicate myself to a higher calling, and I find in them many things that parallel the commitment I’ve made to Christ and to the Kingdom of God. I find it a beautiful song that has brought me to tears at times, and its context of being a “knight errant” on a mission only enhances it in my affections.

What song or piece of music really does that for you? Let me know below — and keep it to one piece of music. I know that is an arbitrary rule, but I thought it would be a fun restriction that would force us to think. If you have lots of others, perhaps I will ask this question again. After all, there are lots of pieces of music that do this for me, and I can use that future post as a chance to talk about them! But for this time, I am sticking to one: so you do the same! 🙂

So, of the songs or musical pieces that inspire you and motivate you, name one below and explain why it is so moving and stirring for you.

Wow, that’s a lot of music

I’ve been working to transfer my iTunes library over to my Mac and a couple of random files here and there have been tripping me up. (Apparently something to do with Windows/Mac issues; not a big deal, just irritating.) So, it proceeds apace, and may even be finished by the end of the day.

The thing that grabbed me, though, was the sight of just how many music files I possessed. Sure, a number of them were sermon tracks or even audio readings of chapters from the Bible, and some were copies of voicemails or voice memos I’d made for myself. But, still, even with those aside, I had 2000+ songs on my computer, alone. And that doesn’t include the CDs I own that I have not moved onto my computer, nor the cassette tapes (yes, I still have some) I bought back when those things were bought, nor the vinyl albums (yes, I still have some) I have but have lost the ability to play, nor the eight-track cassettes… Ha! Just kidding on that one! (Though I certainly did have some of those.)

It truly is staggering how much music we can so easily access in a virtual instant in our world. And in the car, in addition to my entire iTunes Library of music that I can carry on my phone and listen to wirelessly through the car’s speakers, I can also turn on the radio and listen to an amazing variety of stations — and since it is a satellite radio, I can tune in to some rather specific stations, based on decade, genre, or even artist in some cases.

It is amazing. The presence of music was such a vastly more rare thing in the past. Really, to hear a symphony, you had to go to… a symphony. And if they weren’t playing, you weren’t hearing anything. Perhaps royalty could hear music on demand, but not many other people unless they could play for themselves. And even then, the range was greatly limited. Compared to the kings of history, I have more access to music than virtually all of them combined, to listen to at a whim.

While I think this is potentially a good thing, it is also so very potentially bad. As Mr. Armstrong used to say, the thing itself may not be good or evil, but how it is used is very much so.

Personally, I believe that the widespread availability of music, and super cheap at that, is part of what has degraded music and allowed the proliferation of complete junk. When a commodity is no longer rare, it is no longer as precious or as valuable. The concept of what is “music” has been cheapened over the decades, and much of what is produced is drivel and rot.

(As a side note… The widespread availability of music hasn’t helped the Art/Life Cycle of Doom to slow down any, either: Art chooses something on the fringe of Life to focus on, Life begins to move its center to that which Art has focused on, Art moves to something on the newly defined fringe, etc. Given the natural proclivities of carnal man, this isn’t the best cycle for civilization…)

Don’t get me wrong — I’m glad I have access to such a wide range of beautiful music. More than that, I am thankful for it. I just think it is interesting what excess there is. And I think that some of what is bad about much in “music” today is tied to the fact that it is so easily available in excess. Surely Proverbs 25:16 comes into play here — and not just personally, but is it also possible that it plays on a societal level?

Thoughts are welcome. And have a marvelous Sabbath!

An American in Paris (and Louvier, and Brugge, and Brussels, and Berlin, and Rome)

[NOTE: This was actually written a couple of days ago while we were still in the air, but this is the first time things have settled down enough after our return for me to put it out here. — WGS]

My apologies if some of you had comments waiting in the moderation queue for a while and if you came out checking the blog for the last two weeks or so only to find that, yet again, there was nothing here. I have been negligent in posting because my wife and I have been in Europe. (You might have noticed the tweet I did a couple of weeks ago, which was, I believe, my last dispatch before leaving.)

The Arc de Triomphe -- also known as the Crazy Traffic Circle of Guaranteed Death
The Arc de Triomphe in Paris — also known as the Crazy Traffic Circle of Guaranteed Death

Actually, it was my goal to blog from Europe while we were there. That (plus being very busy) is why I did not post about the trip before we left. I thought a surprise “Ah ha! I am posting from Paris!” post would be fun, but I should listen to my wife more, who has pointed out to me that my desire to surprise sometimes doesn’t work out well. It was my goal to make video dispatches for my congregations from various locales, as well. But the pace was so hectic (and WiFi so unpredictable) that all I managed to do was produce a couple of Friday Night Greetings videos for my local churches and make sporadic e-mail checks. So, a “post-Europe trip” post it is!

And why were we in Europe in the first place? Would you believe that Francis wanted to look at some of our literature? No?

Brussels Town Hall at night
Brussels Town Hall at night — gorgeous and creepy all rolled into one

Mr. Meredith has mentioned to me many times that it would be beneficial for my outlook and my ability to serve to have some experience in Europe, even if brief, and that’s what this trip was about, much like he had asked of Mr. Ogwyn several years ago. After consulting with various helpful ones, a two week trip was planned, ultimately involving visits to Paris, Brussels, Berlin, and Rome. Along the way, side trips to Louvier (visiting with our friends the Boyer family!) and Brugge (accompanied by the delightful Mr. & Mrs. Rees Ellis) materialized. Of the two Sabbaths, only the first involved being in an area where we have a congregation: Charleroi, Belgium. The congregation there in Charleroi was wonderful — I really enjoyed getting to give the sermon there and I wish we could have had more time with them! What a great bunch of people. The second Sabbath my wife and I spent together in Rome in personal study, much-needed rest, and waiting for Signore Francis to call requesting a Bible Study. (He didn’t.)

Actually, as I write this the trip is not technically over, yet. I am, at this particular moment, approximately 35,103 feet above the Atlantic Ocean where it is a balmy -73 degrees Fahrenheit outside and we are still 3,030 miles from our stop in New York, where we’ll hop a second plane to Cincinnati after passing through customs. But I won’t be able to post this until we’re home, so it will be done by the time this gets posted.

Ruins from a market gate entrance to ancient Miletus (the city mentioned in Acts 20:17 and 2 Timorhy 4:20), present at the Pergamon museum in Berlin
Ruins from a market gate entrance to ancient Miletus (the city mentioned in Acts 20:17 and 2 Timothy 4:20), rebuilt at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin

While I had more grandiose plans when starting this post, I think I will have to make it a bit more perfunctory. I wanted to gather my thoughts a bit about the trip and begin making some observations, but–wow–there is just so much! Mr. Meredith believed that some time in Europe–again, however brief–would expand my viewpoint a bit, and I certainly believe it has. I did visit England very briefly when I was a pre-teen, but he felt that focusing on the cultures there on the continent would be more beneficial for these purposes, and I think he was right. But, to borrow a metaphor I sometimes use too much, all of this in just two weeks was much like drinking from a firehose, and my wife and I both think that it will take a little while for out thoughts to settle and for so many disparate ideas and observations to mature. I’d like some time to categorize what I’ve seen and experienced, as it really seems as though I’ve got a few too many thoughts for my teeny little brain to process efficiently. Still, I’ll mention a few things here before I wrap up.

The Brandenburg Gate (one of my favorite structures in Europe). Beautiful Wife (my favorite structure on any continent) can be seen in the lower right corner taking a picture.
The Brandenburg Gate (one of my favorite structures in Europe) in Berlin. Beautiful Wife (my favorite structure on any continent) can be seen in the lower right corner taking a picture.

Though the trip was very rushed (in a sense, it seemed as though we only had enough time to realize that we need to come back to spend more time!) there was a benefit to seeing several different approaches to life on the continent in such a small span of days. The iron and clay nature of the future European power really stood out as one culture differed in so many ways from the next. It’s a political union, to be sure, but the sense of national identity is still very strong–so much more so than the individual sense of identity that American’s attach to their state. (Well, except Texans, perhaps…) It really will need something to bind it together and to influence individuals to think of themselves more as Europeans. In Brussels, though, the Parlamentarium exhibit (which was a very interesting place to visit, by the way) embodied the very opposite of that spirit, as a place where a single “Europa” lives and breathes. It strove to celebrate the EU, sell the EU, and explain the “why” behind the EU. On this last point, I thought the Parlamentarium was most valuable. While some of the ideas would seem abhorrent to many Americans, our country hasn’t experienced what European continent has, and seeing it from that perspective (part of the purpose of the trip) changes the calculations entirely. I’ll revisit that another time and try to blog about it.

Detail in the Arch of Titus, depicting the treasures of the Temple in Jerusalem being carried away in victory.
Detail in the Arch of Titus, depicting the treasures of the Temple in Jerusalem being carried away in victory.

On a more practical note, let me say here that one of the most valuable things we did was to take two bike tours from the “Fat Tire” tour guide company while in Berlin. The first focused on the Jewish experience leading up to and during WWII and the rise and fall of Nazism, and the second focused on the post-war period, the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall, and the East-West divide in Germany. Both were headed by excellent guides who helped us bike around Berlin in groups visiting significant places related to each theme while educating us on the topics. Not only was it nice to have some wheels on those days (my feet and I are no longer on speaking terms after this trip), but the educational experience was fantastic. While both Beautiful Wife and I have learned much about these things over time, having such a concentrated focus while actually visiting the relevant sites was amazing. If someone is ever going to Berlin (and they also serve other cities) and is able to ride a bicycle, I highly recommend a “Fat Tire” bike tour.

The last trip in Rome–which did include the Vatican–was amazing in a number of ways. Again, I need some processing time to put it all together into some coherent points worth dressing up with words. But it was very humbling to walk around among the ruins of the Palatine Hill, the center of the famous Seven Hills of Rome, gazing at the few weathered, impotent columns and stones that remain of the once impressive Roman Forum. Two words constantly came to mind, over and over: “Empires fall.”

Beautiful Wife had some particularly interesting thoughts while were where there, both in Rome at the Forum and walking around the (so-called) St. Peter’s Basilica and I look forward to sharing them eventually. Actually, her observations in all of these cities was very helpful and insightful (if I do say so, myself), and I’ll be sure to mention them when I get to writing more.

Gluten-free bruschetta in Italy -- easily the most "gluten-free friendly" country on our trip.
Gluten-free bruschetta in Italy — easily the most “gluten-free friendly” country on our trip.

I should warn, though, that it really might take a while. Not only will I likely be only semi-verbal after landing (jet lag, mind knot, experience overload, etc.), but also we have to turn around and gear up to leave in less than a week for one of the regular Council of Elders meetings, and some tasks (camp, Feast, and good old pastorin’) have built up a bit while we’ve been gone. Plus, I’d hate to put off blogging about whatever goofy things come up while my thoughts continue to bake–if scientists discover a new pair of quarks (fuzzy & bald? apple & pc?), I want to be there to say something inconsequential about it! 🙂 Besides, I’ve learned than when I have bigger thoughts that are taking a while to come together, if I force them to be “next in line” then I go for a long time writing nothing, which gets me out of a writing mode and doesn’t do my scripts or articles any good. So, I’ll try to blog inconsistently and inefficiently like usual, while allowing observations from the trip to come out in a natural way from time to time.

Until then, just accept my apologies if your comment waited unusually long in the moderation queue before being approved! And I will try to use many of the new foreign language words I learned on our trip in my next post–maybe even all five or six of them.

Warning: I’ve been hacked

A quick warning: Apparently a boat load of e-mails went out from somewhere last night or early this morning that said they were from me but they were not. They used an old (old, old, old) AT&T e-mail address I used to have.

I have no idea where all the address came from, but I recognize the addresses on one of the e-mails sent to me as addresses I have used before, including, for instance, a professor I had e-mailed way back when I began researching 2012 stuff for the telecast. So it is a matter of one of my old databases somewhere being hacked, whether it’s one of my computers or some database kept online by AT&T or whatever.

Any suggestions would be welcome! In the meantime, I’ll be thinking of more ways to warn people and figuring out if I need to clean some computers when I get home late tonight…

Sorry for the inconvenience!

Personal Canon

Cannon Firing
No, I do not mean a pocket sized one of these. That’s a cannon, not a canon. (Photo by David Brandt via Wikipedia)

Just a brief thought today about what I am coming to call “personal canon.” It might seem an odd topic–or, perhaps, a normal topic oddly worded, but, to be honest, it is still a “thought in development,” so hopefully you will bear with me.

Most of us are probably familiar with the word “canon” in our readings about the Bible, as in the biblical canon is the collection of works that are believed to be authentic and authoritative–or “canonical.” However, the word admits to usage outside of discussions of the Bible, such as in sci-fi franchises. For instance, with a franchise such as Star Trek, which has produced eleven movies so far (the twelfth is coming out next summer, apparently), practically countless books, a cartoon series, and story-based video games–let alone fan fiction–those who are “true fans” want to know which stories are “canon”–that is, which ones should be considered “true” and part of the franchise’s universe, such that any canonical additional stories must take into account those canonical stories that were written before them and can’t contradict them. Other, non-canon stories can differ from other stories as much as they like.  (Star Wars fans have not had as complicated a time as Trekkies, since their favorite franchise has not had as long to develop a vast amount of novels, but the new Disney-produced movies may pose a challenge as they will likely establish a new line of canon after the six previous Star Wars movies that will differ from the novels that had been considered canon up to this time.)

“Canon” is, in that sense, the “official tale” or “authorized story or set of facts.”

So, that said (why did I say it would be a “brief” thought today?), what do I mean by “personal canon”? I’m speaking of our individual efforts to weave a narrative tale for ourselves that we take to be true and by which we judge the truthfulness of other tales. For instance, one might be a aficionado of the American Civil War and have, in your mind, a working “canon” of how it progressed and what influences were responsible for what effects over the course of the war. Then, when you encounter new information, you compare it to the canon you’ve established: Does it fit your canon or not? If not, we tend to want to reject the idea outright or to accept it only with modification. If it fits our canon, then the information is assimilated more easily–even possibly reinforcing the canon.

If we’re rejected the information “as is” due to its disagreement with our personal canon, then we’re either right or wrong to do so… If we’re right, then no harm done in most cases. If we’re wrong, then we’ve missed a chance to revise our canon–to see that, just maybe, we don’t have things right after all.

What concerns me, though, isn’t so much our opinions about the Civil War. What concerns me is my interactions with others.

It is not uncommon (in my experience, at least) to see grudges continued on and on and on out of problems with personal canons: “This is the way it was, and there is no telling me that it was some other way!” And sometimes it seems that the individual who will not budge works hard at maintaining his or her belief in his personal canon even when ample evidence mounts that the canon is wrong.

Actually, I am reminded of the Apostle “Doubting” Thomas, with whom I identify a bit. When ten of his closest friends try to explain to him that they have seen the risen Christ, he refuses to modify his personal canon, part of which includes the belief that dead people just don’t come back to life again:

Now Thomas, called the Twin, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said to him, “We have seen the Lord.” So he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.” (John 20:24-25)

I really do sympathize with Thomas, here. As they surely relate to him the details of their encounter with Jesus–the sights, the sounds, His specific words–he is willing to say that each and every one of these ten men is, essentially, either insane or lying, rather than to accept that he is simply wrong about the matter. (David Hume would be proud.)

And I’ve seen the same in personal grudges and disputes…

  • “I’m upset because they said X.”
  • Who said X?
  • “A, B, and C said X.”
  • But I just spoke with A, B, and C, and all of them say that they didn’t mean to say X at all–they were trying to say Y. Perhaps you just misunderstood what they meant.
  • “Well, they are lying now. They said X and meant it the way I know they mean it.”

In other words, “I’ve established my personal canon, and there is no going back.”

(By the way, any resemblance between A, B, & C and certain children whose last names rhyme with “Schmith” is completely not coincidental. 🙂 Resemblance to anyone else in your life, on the Internet, working in talk radio, or staring at you from your mirror may or may not be also. I will let you make that call!)

I am thankful to have had my tendency to build personal canon thrown in my face when I was 19 years old by my college roommate. We were in our beds chatting before falling asleep and he said something with which I disagreed and told him so–not rudely (at least I don’t think), just making conversation. He then, after a brief pause, said, “You know Wally, when someone says something you disagree with you don’t even consider what they said–you just figure it’s wrong and then keep thinking what you were thinking.” (Or, at least something to that effect.)

Of course, my first thought was, “That’s not true!” But, hopefully realizing that I was, perhaps, validating the very accusation that was presented to me, I resisted that thought and considered what he said. And, sure enough, as I examined myself that evening I found, annoyingly enough, that he was right–that is how I tended to react. I really didn’t give the comments of others enough weight if they obviously challenged my personal canon.

Now, that doesn’t mean that every such comment should be given equal weight. If anyone ever comes up to me and says that they just saw Elvis dressed like a leprechaun and chasing Bigfoot while riding a diamond-studded unicorn, I will be unlikely to exert any effort at all in examining my personal canon to revise it for this new “fact.” (Everyone knows Elvis rides UFOs, not unicorns.)

But when it comes to relationships or what I “know” to be true about others and what they’ve said and done or even thought and felt, I must be willing to see them differently than I do at any given moment. I have to be able to revise my personal canon, developed over my history with them, because–last I checked–I am human, and making mistakes is something that we humans are good at, even over long periods of time.

Marriage teaches this, or at least it should. We think we really know this person we’ve been married to for X years, and then they go and surprise us! Sometimes good, sometimes bad — I know that I have given my Beautiful Wife plenty of examples of both over the last 20 years. 🙂 But if I can still be surprised by someone whom I know better than anyone else on the planet, is it possible that I’ve made mistakes in my effort to understand anyone else? To be sure, I have and do.

I hope God will protect me from getting so married to my own personal canon that when reasonable evidence arrives to let me know I should revise it I end up refusing and risking damage to my relationships, my character, or even those around me in the future. Our personal canons should reflect reality, and that will take a willingness to revise them from time to time. Sometimes that thing I think A, B, and C meant really isn’t what A, B, and C meant.

Dear Dr Pepper…

Hello, my old friend.
Hello, my old friend.

Dear Dr Pepper,

This is a hard letter to write, but–to be honest–it has been a long time in coming.

Let me be upfront: I think we’ve been seeing too much of each other, and I want to spend some time apart. Well, I suppose it isn’t so much that we’ve been seeing too much of each other… More that I’ve been seeing too much of me. You catch my drift, right? Yeah–I knew you would.

Actually, you’ve always been understanding and ready to please. After a hard day, there you’ve been waiting: keeping calm and cool and ready to help me take a load off. On all my long drives, who’s been there to help? You were. A little sugar, a little caffeine, and 12 oz of liquid companionship. Sure there have been times when you haven’t been there, but often that wasn’t even your fault. How many times have I asked for you in some restaurant only to be told that Mr. Pibb would be coming by instead. (He’s always been jealous of you, I know… And look at him: So envious of the PhD you have that he could never earn!) Those times aside, whenever I called, if it was within your power, you came running. Thanks for your faithfulness, my friend.

But there comes a time when we have to part ways, and I’m afraid that time has come.

No, no… Don’t try to talk me out of it, Dr Pepper. No, this isn’t just some “lame New Year’s resolution.” You know I don’t observe New Year’s and I don’t do resolutions. Don’t insult me by pretending you don’t know me better than that–we’ve spent way too much time together over the last two decades for such things like that to be a mystery anymore. The plain truth is that we ran out of you in the fridge and it’s time to make up my mind: buy more of you or finally turn down a different path. And right now, that path is calling.

What? Is it the high fructose corn syrup, you ask? Well, that does have something to do with it, perhaps. I know that isn’t your best quality. Recent studies don’t have the most pleasant things to say about your fructose and its relationship to the nation’s waistlines. But if friends can’t look over a few personality defects here and there, what good are they?

Sorry -- it's more than your HFCS...
Sorry — it’s more than your HFCS…

…No, seriously, I know you can change–that isn’t going to make a difference, I’m afraid. Whether its pure cane sugar or corn syrup, my mind is completely made up. The fact is that chugging down sugary syrup–regardless of the kind of “sugary” being chugged–just isn’t in my best interest right now. Nor is it in my family’s best interest for me to continue doing so. It’s time for me to move on. What? Oh, no–no way… Frankly, I find Diet You just a bit spooky–sort of like the new “TEN” You. Not only do I not trust how you make those so sweet, but I suspect that they would just be “gateway drinks” to plain old sugary you.

Yes, yes… Of course I still love Texas… No, I’m not going to be seeing Big Red behind your back. The call of the Lone Star State isn’t enough to keep me from making up my mind. They have just plain water in Texas, too…

I know — we really have shared some good times. Remember the giant “penny bank” my family used to put their pennies in that was shaped like a bottle with your name on it? Remember the visit to your museum back when my Beautiful Wife’s cousin worked there? And then afterward, when we went to the Mr. Pibb museum? (Ha, ha! Yeah, I know… There is no Mr. Pibb museum. I always thought that was a funny one, too.) Remember those years in my 20s, when you and I were teaching calculus together? My students got so used to seeing you up there that one bought us that 24-pack one time as a surprise present to concede our running argument–remember that? Man, that was funny. Then there was that time I gave you as a gift to Mr. Christal, since he worked for Coca-Cola? Ha! Remember how Jay and I would take a break at the office in Plano to go downstairs and visit you? Ooooo–and that time when my friend was invited to be part of a marketing test group when they were designing your new look? And–wow–could we even count the number of times you and I stayed up working on telecast scripts together? Good times…

But things change, Dr Pepper, and we have to change with them. Life continues forward and asks different things of us. You know my family history: Heart troubles, adult onset diabetes… I’ve got every reason to leave you behind, and nary a reason to stay–reasons that include my Beautiful Wife and The Four Boys. (What? Well, yes, I’m sure real people do use “nary” these days. Don’t get me distracted…) And, frankly, my friend, I’m supposed to consider my body to be the temple of God’s spirit, and for too long I have been painting the walls with a thick layer of sugary goodness. God’s temple deserves better.

Sorry, what was that? Moderation? Oh, come on, DP, you know me. I’ve thought about that, and it would be nice if it could work. But it doesn’t. “Moderation” is what my Jeremiah 17:9 heart always whispers, but the results are always the same. If I’m going to move on I’m going to have to go cold turkey. You go your way and I go mine. No, I don’t plan to write. No, I’m not going to text. No, you know I don’t even go onto Facebook that much.

You know, as we wrap things up here, Dr Pepper, I have to say that you’re taking things better than I thought you might. I thought you were crying there for a while, but I realized it was just condensation. And I’m glad. I’d rather end things in a friendly way than with some sort of dramatic scene where you “lose it.” (Remember that Coke that Aunt Kay left in the freezer down in Waco? That wasn’t pretty.) Let’s just remember the good times and look to the future. Want to shake hands? Oh, yeah… sorry about that.

Sure, sure… We’ll probably meet again. When I’m where I want to be and I know that I am staying there, we may be able to get together every once in a while–maybe. I’ll reevaluate things then. But don’t get your hopes up. And, to be honest, we’re probably talking about a long time from now. Until then, make new friends! Talk to the other cans in the convenience store’s beverage section. Resolve your grudge with Coke and Pepsi. You never know–you might even become friends with Mr. Pibb if you tried hard enough. He really isn’t so bad when you get to know him. (Just a little defensive about the whole “advanced degree” thing.)

Warm regards,
Wallace Smith

Camp camp camp camp camp camp…


The Missouri Pre-Teen Camp begins tomorrow, and it will absorb most of my waking thoughts for the next week, so blogging very likely isn’t going to be happening.  (Not to mention that the squirrels and raccoons are terrible network operators, so the Internet connections out here aren’t the best.)  And if I were to write anything it would essentially be “Camp camp camp camp camp” so it’s probably best, anyway.

Still, have a wonderful week, and we look forward being back in our area soon!