Why are there so few Christians among scientists? (part 2)

In my previous post of this series, I showed the following distribution of people who believe in God across increasing levels of scientific achievement:


My task in this post is to explain the shape of this graph. I have already ruled out a fundamental incompatibility between Christianity and science as the reason. The above distribution looks qualitatively different from the distribution of scientifically incorrect beliefs, and we also have the very words of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and Galileo Galilei stating that Christianity and science are compatible. Well then, if it's not incompatibility, why are there so few Christians among scientists?

There are multiple sociological reasons. I will present the summary graph below, then explain the each reason individually.

(Consider opening this graph in a separate window and keeping it there to look at - I will be referring to it often for the remainder of this post. Also please note that this graph is not meant to be quantitative. It is meant to only show the qualitative deflections that each social effect is likely to have on the distribution.)


First, if we assume that there are no relationships between Christianity and the level of scientific achievement whatsoever, we expect the distribution to be flat. Proportionally, there would be just as many Christians who are NAS members as there are Christians who only have a 3rd grade education. This will be our starting distribution, shown as the dark blue line labeled "no social effect" in the graph above.

The first social effect that changes this flat distribution is the Christian outreach to the poor, the outcast, and the marginalized - a group which includes the intellectually challenged, the uneducated, the superstitious, and the unscientifically minded, none of who are likely to achieve great scientific goals. This causes the distribution for Christians to rise on the left side of the graph, which has been shown as the red line labeled "outreach to poor" in the graph above.

At this point, I'm going to momentarily abandon whatever objectivity I'm supposed to have here, and simply say that I'm glad about this. I would not abandon this social effect even to have 100% of the Nobel prizes won by Christians. I don't care that this reinforces the "Christians are dumb" stereotype. I don't care that this means I have to spend time tutoring inner city kids in teaching them multiplication tables instead of learning more quantum field theory. Christians have ministries serving convicted felons, sex workers, homeless vagrants, and the mentally ill - people that we actively recruit who "drag us down" or "can't carry their weight" in this competition for scientific advancement. This puts us behind scientific organizations or atheists groups, who do not have such ministries (that I know of) and therefore get further ahead of us as a population in the sciences. It's totally worth it. Give us your uneducated, your intellectually challenged, and your mentally ill. We're followers of Christ. We have no standards. We let just anyone in.

There have been some people whom I've been in church with who are severely lacking in intellectual ability. I consider it an honor that they chose to come to my church, while they would have been excluded from my science classes. While I constantly fail in my attempt to see them as Christ sees them and not judge them by their intellectual abilities, they do me the honor of showing me how God works in ways that I would never have realized by myself.

Back to social effects: the next effect which causes a change in the distribution graph is the tendency for the intellectual elite to separate themselves from the population at large. This has nothing to do with Christianity - it's simply an effect of the fact that it takes some confidence and some knowledge to not believe what everyone else is believing, and that exceptional individuals like to distinguish themselves from the general population. I've heard it described as intellectual hipsterism. Since the United States is largely Christian, this effect turns the intellectual elite non-Christian. In a non-Christian country, this effect works in the reverse direction and increase the number of Christians in the upper echelons of society. See, for example, Japan, which is only roughly 1% Christian, but has had 8 Christian prime ministers. South Korean Christians also have a disproportionate effect on their society, despite Christianity being a minority religion in that country. Exceptional individuals will frequently break away from the herd, whatever the "herd" may be. The orange line labeled "break from herd" on the graph shows how the distribution changes when this effect is considered on top of the previous effect.

We next consider that religion and science do require different modes of thinking, and therefore religious people are less likely to pursue science. This causes a deviation downwards in our distribution as people go to college and choose their majors, and the effect increases as they need to pursue an increasingly narrower education to advance in the scientific world. This, of course, does not mean that the two fields are incompatible, only that they require different modes of thought. Consider physics and fashion. Not many people are deeply engaged in both fields. Does that mean physics is unfashionable (some would say yes), or that fashion defies the laws of physics (some would say yes again)? Is it not rather that few people can easily work in these two vastly different modes of thinking? The green line labeled "different modes" on the graph above shows how the distribution changes when this effect is considered on top of the previous effects.

Next, consider that being a good Christian is hard, and pursuing science is also hard. Few have the resources to do both. Being a Christian is not simply a label you give yourself; it will take, on a very tangible level, some number of hours per week, and some number of dollars per month. I will not venture to pin down an exact number of hours, but suffice it to say that it is non-negligible, and increases significantly if one wants to be intellectually engaged in Christianity, which Christians are commanded to do. Furthermore, the kind of Christians who would pursue higher scientific goals are the same ones those who are inclined to spend significant amounts of time exploring their faith intellectually. All this means that being a Christian of a high intellectual caliber requires a great deal of time.

This time competes with the time one has to put in to advance in science. Consider the difficulties of advancing beyond a bachelor's degree in the sciences. It's common for graduate students to put in 80-plus hour workweeks at some point in their PhD program. The travails of being a grad student are well known. And things just ramp up from there; if you want tenure at a research university, you have to be prepared to give up many things, perhaps including things like having a healthy family life, or even having a family at all. The people who reach the highest level are ones who are obsessively focused on their tasks and who have made tremendous sacrifices to get there. To reach that level, it's simply easier if you have a world view which is also easy - one that doesn't demand anything of you and doesn't take a lot of thought. Whereas if you're a Christian, it becomes increasingly difficult to meet all the demands on your time and energy.

I suspect that the ratio of scientists engaged in any extraneous time-consuming activity is very low, as it is for Christianity. It's a simple fact arising from the fact that there just isn't enough time. So only 7% of the NAS members believe in God - but how does that prove that Christianity is incompatible with science? How many NAS members are are fashion designers or published poets or professional athletes or little league coaches?

This also means that the Christians who do succeed at the highest levels of academia are worthy of double honor - they are exceptional individuals deserving our admiration and imitation.

This twofold demand upon one's time and energy is a strong effect that drags the distribution of Christians downward, starting from when one reaches graduate school, and increasing as we go further along the scientific achievement axis. The purple line labeled "additional effort" on the graph shows how the distribution changes when this effect is considered on top of everything else so far.

The last effect is merely simple social pressure. Humans want to be like those around themselves and those whom they look up to. They're less likely to join a group that they feel doesn't represent them or might be hostile to them. It's the same effect that plagues any kind of minority (women, people of color) in high levels of academia. It's unfortunate, but it exists. For our purposes, This causes the left end of the distribution to rise, since the majority of the people there are Christians. It also causes the right end of the distribution to dip, since there are fewer Christians among that group, and fewer still as the people there look up to those who have advanced further in the sciences. The light blue line labeled "social pressure" on the graph shows how the distribution changes when this effect is considered on top of everything else, and that brings us to our final distribution.

I believe that the combined effect of all these societal pressures explains the distribution of Christians in different levels of scientific achievement. The qualitative effect of these pressures does give the correct shape, and that gives me confidence in my conclusion - but if anyone has any quantitative data on these things, I would very much appreciate them.

That is the end of my explanation for the shape of the graph. So, where do we go from here? This whole situation seems rather unfortunate, from both the perspective of a Christian and a scientist. Some of these effects we can do something about, and some seem beyond remedy. There are many things to address. But for now, I will merely mention that there are things that we, the Christian Church, can do now to improve the situation. Some of the things are addressed in this Relevant Magazine article. We also need to reform our bad theology regarding how we approach nature and science - I swept this under the "different modes" effect in the analysis above, but some of our theology concerning natural revelation and science drives Christians away from science, and we are at fault if we don't fix it. All this, and much more that I'd like to to talk about, will have to wait for another post at some future time.


You may next want to read:
How physics fits within Christianity (part 2)
The limits of science as evidence for Christianity
Another post, from the table of contents

NaClhv will now update every Monday

I don't think I have any readers yet who check for every update, but I should still be thorough.

When I started this blog, I was thinking that a typical post would maybe be around 300 words, consisting of some insightful comments, but not requiring a substantial organization and systematization of my thoughts. Well, it seems that I'm far more verbose than I suspected. My last few posts are all around a thousand words or more, and several posts that I thought would be short ended up becoming two-parters. This is content generation at a rate far greater than I anticipated. I feel that the quality is also suffering due to the output rate.

So, going forward, NaClhv will update once a week, on Mondays, starting on February 3rd. Tomorrow (January 30th) will be the last Thursday update.

I hope you continue to find the entries thoughtful. Please continue to visit in the future - I have some good things coming up.


You may next want to read:
Another post, from the table of contents

Why are there so few Christians among scientists? (part 1)

The following numbers are subject to the usual caveats about statistics, but I will present them at face value as I believe that that the general trend they represent is real: in the United States, among the general population, 83% believe in God. Among scientists, 33% believe in God. Among "greater" scientists (members of the National Academy of Sciences), the number is about 7%.

How could this be, if science and Christianity are compatible, as I have claimed? Doesn't this clearly show that science disproves Christianity? That they are incompatible?

No. The fewer number of Christians in the higher level of sciences are due to sociological factors rather than due to fundamental incompatibilities between the two worldviews. In the rest of this post I will address the issue of incompatibility, and in my next post I will address the sociological factors.

First, let's consider the distribution of theists along the "scientific achievement" axis. Divide the American population into categories by the highest level of scientific achievement that a person attained. Plot that on the x-axis. Then in each category (that is, for each x-value), plot the percent of people who believe that God exists, on the y-axis. If we suppose that there is a fundamental scientific incompatibility between Christianity and science - if Christianity is simply scientifically wrong - what would you expect this distribution to look like?

This question may be too charged, so let's first consider some similar questions that's easier to tackle: if you asked people, "do you think the seasons are caused by the changing distance between the Earth and the sun?", and plotted the distribution made from their answers, what would it look like? The seasons are in fact caused by the tilt of the earth's rotational axis, so the people who answer "yes" are holding an incorrect belief. So, among people who are pursuing astronomy, I'd imagine that the distribution would look roughly like this:


How about if we asked "do you think the randomness of quantum mechanics can become predictable with future developments, if we discovered some deeper, (local) hidden variables in the system?" What kind of distribution would that produce? Local hidden variable theories are disproven by Bell's theorem, so again, the people who answer "yes" are holding an incorrect belief. Then, among people pursuing physics, I'd imagine the distribution to look something like this:


In general, a belief that's definitively, scientifically wrong will display characteristics of the above graphs. The graph starts out at around 50%, because people who are totally ignorant of the question start out by just guessing. It then slowly decreases as people become more exposed to the correct answer, and then it drops to virtually zero as people eventually reach a solid, scientific understanding of the question at hand. Thereafter, those who are further along on the "scientific achievement" axis are nearly unanimous in the rejection of the incorrect belief - which is what makes it possible to speak of a scientific consensus. The precipitous drop and the consensus afterwards remains even for a controversial belief, such as evolution or global warming. There is a fairly distinct, step-function like quality to the whole graph. I consider all this to be obvious enough that, although I don't have data or studies on this particular issue, I feel confident in using this qualitatively in my reasoning. If anyone does have data or studies, by all means please inform me. I would be grateful.

Now, let's consider the question of "Do you believe in God?". Does the distribution of answers along increasing levels of scientific achievement have this characteristic shape? Let's see:


I marked the three statistics I mentioned at the beginning as diamonds on the graph, taking the "general population" to have a high school/college education in the sciences. I then filled in the rest of the distribution based on a combination of data from this graph on this website, the perception of the culture at large, and personal experience. Again, if anyone has better data, please let me know.

This is a qualitatively different graph than the ones showing scientifically false beliefs. There is no sharp turn - off as one achieves a solid scientific understanding of God's nonexistence. There is no clear level of scientific achievement beyond which there is clear scientific consensus. The only possible location for such turning point (which is still a stretch) would be between "university professor" and "greater scientists", but that seems impossible, for several reasons. Firstly, that would mean one can finish graduate school and obtain a PhD in a relevant field without ever learning about the very important scientific result that there is no God. Secondly, there would be tremendous conflict over this very important question between "greater scientists" and "lesser scientists", and furthermore this conflict would take the form of the "greater scientists" accusing the "lesser scientists" of scientific ignorance and stupidity. Lastly, even the supposed 7% figure is not nearly enough to point to scientific consensus, although it may look small. The poll was asking about personal convictions, not professional scientific opinions, and there are also a sizable portion of scientists who expressed agnosticism. Compare that to controversial things that truly do have scientific consensus - such as the issues of global warming or evolution - which weigh in at 97+% consensus of ALL scientists (that is, including the "professor" level). All of this demonstrates that God's existence is scientifically undecided, and therefore suggests there there is no fundamental conflict between Christianity and science.

Of course, there is a shortcut through all this that answers the question quite simply. Why not directly ask the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) - the group of these "greater scientists" - whether there is a conflict? Surely that would settle the question, as they are the "greater scientists", and that 7% statistic which is supposed to represent them is the strongest evidence against compatibility. Well, the NAS has addressed that very issue, and has clearly stated that there is no fundamental disagreement between science and religion. They've also endorsed individual Christian members who are outspoken on the compatibility between religion and science.

Oh, and if the NAS isn't good enough for you, then we can always go that patron saint of those who claim incompatibility, someone who's been called the father of modern science - Galileo Galilei. But Galileo was actually fully Catholic, and he believed that there is perfect harmony between science and Christianity throughout history, as he spells out in this lengthy letter.

You may now say, "Well if you were going to just take that shortcut anyways, why did I have to look at all your wobbly graphs?" Because while the NAS and Galileo clearly state that there is compatibility between Christianity and science, we still haven't answered why there are so few Christians among scientists. In fact the question becomes more acute: if it's not due to incompatibility, then why? Our reason should not only explain why Christians are few in number in the sciences, but also why the distribution of Christians along increasing levels of scientific achievement has that particular shape in my graphs.

This is what I'll cover in the next post of this series.


You may next want to read:
Why are there so few Christians among scientists? (part 2) (Next post of this series)
Science as evidence for Christianity (Summary and Conclusion)
Miracles: their definition, properties, and purpose
Another post, from the table of contents

How physics fits within Christianity (part 2)

My previous post in this series examined what physics says about God. This post is about what God says about physics in particular, and science in general. There will be many parallels with the previous post, since natural revelation and special revelation must be in agreement, and we're just looking at one relationship from those two perspectives. But certain things will be clearer in one perspective than the other.

So, what does God say about physics, or about science in general?

We start with Genesis 1:1. "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." This tells us that the universe is God's creation. Contrast that with some early heresies, which said the physical universe was created by Satan or other lesser beings, and atheism, which says that the universe doesn't have a Creator. Believing either of those falsehoods would have implications about how we study the universe, or whether it's possible or advisable at all. But the book of Genesis says that the universe is a good thing (although it's been marred by the fall) - the work of a good Creator, who declared it to be good.

When we examine the universe, we agree with Genesis 1 and find it to be good, a fitting product for the work of the Almighty. We also agree with king David, who in Psalms 19:1 says "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands". In this passage we are also partly informed of the purpose of the universe. The universe is not just good, but also glorious, because it was made to declare the glory of God himself. The universe was meant to show us what God is like. It shows us that he is good and glorious.

The universe reveals God to us, not only by its outward appearances (such as the heavens in Psalms 19), but also in its inner workings. Proverbs 3:19-20 and Jeremiah 10:12 says that God used knowledge, wisdom and understanding in addition to his power to make the universe. The universe is not made haphazardly. It is also not made from a simple, raw act of God's power over existence, which would then contain no trace of his wisdom and understanding. Instead it's built with patterns, rules, beauty, and truth - in short, wisdom and understanding - in every slice of its construction. This is where physics takes place. The reason for all this is still the same: so that the universe can reveal what God is like to us. Therefore by looking at the universe - at both the existing matter and its inner workings - we can see that God is good and glorious, full of knowledge and wisdom.

All this means that science is actually possible. We can examine, study, and understand the universe for ourselves to learn more about God, because that very activity is one of God's goals in making the universe. The Bible encourages us to do exactly that: Psalms 111:2 says "Great are the works of the Lord; they are pondered by all who delight in them." That is a succinct description of natural philosophy, a precursor to science. Proverbs 25:2 says "It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings", thereby elevating science - the pursuit of God's secrets - to the kingly glory of playing hide and seek with God.

Now, when God is revealed in science, he does not merely inform us about himself - he changes us. Psalms 8:3-8 describes the proper response to God's revelation in nature. "When I consider... the work of your fingers... What is mankind that you are mindful of him?" This is the sense of awe and humility reported by many scientists. It is likely what Einstein called "the sense of the mysterious", and what Newton has described as being like a small child playing on the beach to a vast ocean of truth. We cannot help but feel small and humble when compared to the splendor and vastness of God's creation. And yet, the passage in Psalms 8 continues and says "You have... crowned [humans] with glory and honor. You have made them rulers over the works of your hands", showing us that somehow (that is, through Christ), we small humans are actually the pinnacles of God's creation and rulers over nature. So studying science is both a humbling and uplifting process, as described by Psalms 8.

Does this all mean that science is the chief end of man, the purpose for which he was created? No. Apostle Paul uses God's revelation in nature as a way to convict us of sin in Romans 1:19-20, leading up to his presentation of the Gospel. Indeed, the proper understanding of nature as a whole (including disciplines like evolutionary biology and psychology) shows us how much we are unlike God, how far we are from his perfection, and how much we need him. Science, like all other gifts that God has given us, serves only as a pointer to Christ, in whom we do find the ultimate purpose for our creation.

Paul summarizes this in 1 Corinthians 13. One day - one dreadful, fine, perfect day - all science, all knowledge, even if it is wondrous, heavenly knowledge such as the understanding of tongues of angels or prophecies or mysteries, will pass away. There will only be Love himself, in whom we will have everything else. Because when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. We are now children, and our knowledge, science, thoughts, and reasoning are still childish and will eventually be put away. We see through science a picture of God, as in an imperfect, fallen mirror. But one day, we shall be fully grown. Then we shall see face to face. Then we shall know fully, even as we are fully known.

Meanwhile, we are to do the best we can with what we have. Because our current science is imperfect, we are told in 1 Thessalonians 5:21 to test everything, and hold on to the good. That is the essence of the scientific method, which is the best we can do in a fallen world. But we keep going, because science is still a noble pursuit, and even imperfect knowledge gives us glimpses of what God is like. As Deuteronomy 29:29 says: "The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and our children forever".


You may next want to read:
Science as evidence for Christianity (Summary and Conclusion)
The Gospel: the central message of Christianity (part 1)
Another post, from the table of contents

How physics fits within Christianity (part 1)

I have said:
"So, no matter what your field of study is, it is based on God, and it is about God. It says something about God, and God says something about it. Your job, as a Christian who is in your particular field, is to find out what these "something"s are so that you may love God more perfectly."
My field is physics. I write this post to follow my own rule.

So, what does physics say about God?

Now, I hope nobody expects me to say things like "since the first energy level hydrogen is at 13.6eV, it means that God wants us to tithe from our gross income instead of our net income". That's silly. The universe is one of God's creations, and physics is a particular filter that we use to look at that creation. We don't expect decisions on specific theological issues via physics, no more than we expect a painting to contain the artist's phone number, or a film to contain the director's tax returns. Rather, we expect that physics will tell us about God in broad strokes. Nevertheless, these will be deep truths about God, just as a great work of art ably expresses the artist's deep thoughts and feelings.

Also, this post will not be an "if physics, then God" kind of "proof" that some may expect. I will write things of that flavor in the future (which still won't be "proofs"), but this post is not it. You cannot prove the existence of God that way. Instead I will postulate that he already exists, then explore of what physics says about God and show that physics is compatible with the Christian God.

So, to begin: the first thing that many people note about physics is its mathematical logic and consistency. The laws of nature are mathematical in nature, and they are consistently applied in the universe. It reveals a creator who has those traits as an important part of his personality - God is logical and faithful.

There is an austere beauty about the laws of physics; they expresses the kind of unyielding truth that remains true whether you believe in it or not. These laws are applied consistently whether you're inconvenienced by them or not. And yet, the knowledge of these laws illuminates your mind, and your very life depends on the consistency of their application. There is something like the fear of God in studying and approaching them - in looking at something that is larger than yourself, immovable and implacable and inviolable, and yet is also your light and life.

In light of the above, one of the strangest things about physics is that it's comprehensible and interesting. On the one hand, the universe is not fundamentally too hard or strange to understand - we humans, with our 1500cc of cranial capacity, can somehow make sense of even things like quantum mechanics without quite going mad from the revelation. On the other hand, it is not so simple as to be boring: if the only important thing about the universe was that it's logical and consistent, then total nothingness would be the simplest thing. But we are at neither extreme, and physics is fascinating and fun. I cannot shake the feeling that physics was set as a puzzle for us to solve. It seems that God has conspired to tie our capacity for thought to the very mechanics of the universe that we think about, by making our physical brains the engines for thinking. This ensures that the puzzle will be challenging but not impossible.

There are also a great deal of unexpected, creative surprises in this puzzle we call physics. Again, this is not something you'd expect from something described as "logical" and "consistent". Yet progress in science takes us to unforeseen and exciting new directions at every turn. Who, before physics, imagined the periodic table emerging from spherically symmetric solutions to Schrodinger's equation? Who foresaw the unification of electricity, magnetism and relativity in the Lorentz-invariant form of Maxwell's equations? These are a testament to the artistry of the Great Architect, who infused creativity into a logical, consistent universe.

The laws of physics are said to be elegant, by which physicists mean that many phenomena are explained by only a few simple laws; This is true enough, but the simplicity of the laws are... complicated. It seems to me that the simplicity in the number of laws comes at the expense of complexity in the mathematical structures necessary to express these laws. So we say that quantum mechanical wavefunctions live in an infinite-dimensional Hilbert space, giving us the simple and elegant Schrodinger equation, but we somehow forget to mention to non-physicists that to make an infinite-dimensional Hilbert space, we need to pile several infinite things on top of each other in very specific ways (math exercise: construct an infinite-dimensional Hilbert space starting from whole numbers). This is why most people can't do high-level physics, despite the equations being "simple". This is how physicists end up saying black holes have no hair, (by which they mean that a black hole is a simple object - you only need three numbers to describe them completely) while the average person can't understand a single letter in Einstein's field equations. But to those who understand them, these laws of nature are simple and elegant and beautiful.

Now, what does this "elegance" say about God? If these physical laws reflect God's character, it suggests that God himself must be like them - somehow simple but complex. Thomas Aquinas has expressed that God is infinitely simple, and therefore appears as infinitely complex to finite minds. I feel that this statement agrees well with the characteristics of the physical laws of the universe that God created.

Physics also shows that the universe itself is not the final, "ultimate being" which exists independent of other things: the material universe depends on physical laws, and physical laws depend on mathematics. That which we call an electron need not necessarily exist, but if one does exist, it needs to obey the physical laws, which are not themselves an electron. In turn, the physical laws are mathematical in nature, but they are not themselves just pure math, for not all mathematical statements are physical laws. At each step these show that they are not the ultimate reality, since they depend on something else for their existence, yet are not the thing that they depend on. All these things are contingent upon Someone who truly is the "Ultimate Being" to make them the way they are.

Speaking of electrons - I love electrons. They are elementary particles (as far as we know), which are familiar to middle school students ("they're the negatively charged particles in atoms!"), yet causes Nobel Prize winners to bang their heads against the wall ("how to derive the rest mass of an electron?"). They show that even the smallest things contain the infinity and mystery of God. Thinking about electrons is both humbling and uplifting, for anything created by God - no matter how small - cannot truly be understood apart from him, yet we can get a glimpse of God's character by looking at that small creation. In light of all this, I'd like to quote Thomas Aquinas again, this time to update him: he's said that "all the efforts of the human mind cannot exhaust the essence of a single fly". It should now read, "all the efforts of the human mind cannot exhaust the essence of a single electron".

Also, the process of studying physics shows that there is more to this existence than studying physics. You won't hear many physicists say it professionally, but in private some of them admit that there are better things in life than to do physics (no, I'm not just saying that. I have firsthand accounts). There is a limit to calculations for macroscopic objects from physical first principles, which seems insurmountable in the foreseeable future. Even if we could solve for the wavefunction of some macroscopic object, such as an apple, it'd be totally useless because we could never write down the answer (it'd be too long), nor would we be able to interpret it by wading through the solution. As interesting as physics is, its most interesting function is to serve as the substrate for the other, higher order organizing principles which arise out of it. And to discover those, we have to go on up to other fields, such as chemistry and biology. Those are what will tell you that the apple is delicious. But even those aren't the last word on what's truly important in life.

All of these higher order organizations flow out of physics. Like a well-crafted video game, the entire play experience stems naturally from the fundamental mechanics of the game, instead of having to be added ad-hoc at different times. The manifold wisdom of God is revealed in that when we pursue life's highest goal - to glorify God and enjoy him forever - we do so through the natural extension of the ordinary workings of physics through the higher levels of organization. This is God's perfect craftsmanship: that all these levels of understanding the universe - all the different filters we use to look at creation - work perfectly, consistently, and in unison to generate the universe that God wanted to create. Thus they all testify to his workmanship, and point to him as the one thing that this existence is for and about.

In the next post of this series, I'll address the other half of our question: What does God say about physics?


You may next want to read:
How physics fits within Christianity (part 2) (Next post of this series)
How is God related to all other fields of study?
Science as evidence for Christianity against atheism (introduction)
Another post, from the table of contents

The word "If" does not apply to God

The word "if" does not apply to God. God is the ultimate being, the essence of existence, the one in whom reality itself finds root. All things exist by and through him.

Consider the question, "if 2+2=5, what is the square root of 4?" The "if" in that question makes it nonsense, because if 2+2 were to equal 5, that would mean everything about mathematics would have to change. What does multiplication or square root mean, if 2+2=5? We would have no idea. Hence the implication of the "if" condition makes everything change in such a way that the question cannot even be sensibly posed.

Another example would be "if the dinosaurs hadn't died out, would Barack Obama still have won the 2008 election?". The question is nonsense. The "if" condition requires postulating such a vague, ill-defined universe that the second half of the sentence - the question - cannot possibly be answered in that universe.

We can think of many such questions. "if I were a butterfly, when would my birthday be?" "If the speed of light depended on the observer, would the Tycho Brahe still have observed the 1572 supernova?" "If the rules of logic didn't exist, what would be the population of the United States?" All of them are nonsense.

But God is the absolute being. He is the one on whom all other things are contingent. Postulating an "if" to God - that is, postulating what things would be like if God were different - involves postulating such a totally different state of things that no question can be sensibly answered.

Note that the Bible contains virtually no instances of "if" applied to God in the conditional, "what if" sense. Try doing a search on "if God" in the Bible. Nearly all the results fall into two categories. They are either a statement of ignorance on the part of a human speaker, (for example, "If God will be with me and watch over me..."), or a statement of logical implication that can also be stated as "since God..." (for example, "If God is for us, who can be against us?"). Nearly none of them are speculations or reasoning based on God being different from who he is. The only possible exception that I can see is Romans 9:22, which is a notoriously difficult verse on a difficult and controversial topic (predestination). It is the only verse which contains the phrase "what if God" in many English translations of the Bible. But let us leave the difficult topic of predestination for a future time: for now, there is strong Scriptural support for the idea that it is meaningless to speculate on God being different somehow.

Look for people saying "what if God..." in your conversations and readings. If the statement that they're making seems like nonsense to you, it's almost certainly because it is.


You may next want to read:
Can God make a rock so heavy that he cannot lift it?
Another post, from the table of contents

Can God make a rock so heavy that he cannot lift it?

This is something I wrote about a decade ago, on my old website which no longer exists. I still like it, so I reproduce it here with some minor edits.



What I am about to write should not really be necessary. I am certain that a satisfactory discussion of the subject exists elsewhere, and the matter is simple enough that anyone who feels compelled to find the answer can do so on his own, given some time. However, the frequency with which this question comes up disturbs me, and I am a little weary of repeating to myself the same line of thought every time I see it. Besides, I like my own answer better than someone else's. So I will write this, and the next time I see the question, I will simply follow the link in my mind to this essay.



It is often asked, "Can God create a rock so heavy that he cannot lift it?" There are variations, of course, such as "Can God create a being more powerful than himself?", "Can God decree that he will be no longer omnipotent?", etc. But they are only variations, and my analysis of the first question easily translates into the others. Presently, therefore, I will concern myself with only the first question.

Following the question, it is asserted that the question can be only answered yes or no. If the answer is no, then God cannot create such a rock, therefore he is not omnipotent. If the answer is yes, then God cannot lift such a rock, so again, he is not omnipotent. It is then impossible for God to be omnipotent, but the Christian God is said to possess this attribute. Therefore, the Christian God cannot exist.

Let us now see how a Christian can respond to this argument.

First, the precise meaning of "omnipotence" must be determined. In particular, it should be determined whether or not omnipotence entails being able to defy logic. If it does, God's omnipotence can be preserved by asserting that God can both create a rock that he cannot lift, and lift it. This would imply that logic is a creation of God: God created it to govern the universe, but it doesn't apply to him, and he overrides it at will. The Christian can simply choose this definition of omnipotence, and the debate of whether the Christian God can exist is technically over. The nonchristian may assert that this is the incorrect definition, but the Christian has the prerogative to decide precisely what "omnipotence" means in his own belief system. However, the Christian is now forced into the view that logic is necessarily a creation of God (which may or may not be true. All else being equal, it is better to leave this issue unresolved, for the sake of flexibility). In order to avoid this situation, it is desirable to demonstrate that God can maintain his omnipotence even if omnipotence does not entail defying logic.

If defying logic is not a part of omnipotence, the argument of the previous paragraph doesn't hold. God could not both create a rock he cannot lift, and lift it. That would be a logical impossibility. In this scenario, logic is an attribute of God, rather than his creation. God would be "he who is logical", and he could not be illogical, since that would mean God is not God. At this point, it may be asked "Can God be illogical?" or "Can God be not God?", in a further attempt to show that if God is to be bound by logic, then he cannot preserve his omnipotence. But these questions are just simpler versions of the original question that we are trying to answer. Rather than waiting until the end of the analysis to answer these variations, We will address them now, where they can serve to illuminate how the original question about the rock can be answered.

The more elemental question of the two is "Can God be not God?" The answer is, "No. That would be a logical impossibility". But does that not mean God is not omnipotent, since he cannot be not God? No, because under our current definition, omnipotence does not include the ability to do the logically impossible. And clearly, it is a logical impossibility and meaningless nonsense for anything to be both God and not God. So the question, "Can God be not God?" cannot discredit the Christian God's omnipotence. Likewise, any question in the same form is equally ineffective. Now it remains to be shown that all other questions that were previously mentioned can be reduced to this form.

Consider the question, "Can God be illogical?" Among the properties that God has, the relevant one in this case is "he who is logical". Substituting this meaning for the word "God", we get: "Can he who is logical be illogical?" So the true construction of the question is seen, with its clearly self-contradictory nature.

The original question about the rock that God cannot lift is only slightly more complicated. Let us start with the exact question: "Can God create a rock so heavy that he cannot lift it?" Here, "he" is referring to God, who can lift any rock. Substituting this description of God for the word "he", we get: "Can God create a rock so heavy that he who can lift any rock cannot lift it?"

"A rock so heavy that he who can lift any rock cannot lift it" is the logically impossible element in this question. God cannot create such a rock. It would be a logical impossibility. God is still omnipotent, since omnipotence does not include the ability to perform logical impossibilities.

So, the omnipotent Christian God can exist, with either definition of omnipotence. It remains to be determined which definition is the correct one. My personal belief is that logic is an attribute of God, and therefore omnipotence does not include the power to break logic. But that is another matter for another time. For now, the question at hand is settled.


You may next want to read:
A real discussion on the problem of evil and omnipotence.
Another post, from the table of contents

Orthodoxy vs. living out the Gospel: which is more important?

"I consider this question part of a standard test for orthodoxy: any theological system which claims adherence to the system as being more important than living out the gospel fails."

I posted that on the internet somewhere. This is written to explain what I meant by that.

I do not want to imply that adherence to orthodoxy is not important. If I believed that, then I wouldn't care whether a theological system placed orthodoxy or "living out the Gospel" on top.

But I do care, I do believe that there is a theologically correct answer (which is what orthodoxy is), I believe that it is important for us to get the answer right, and that the correct answer is "living out the Gospel" is more important than acknowledging the truth of doctrinal statements.

At this point I should specify what I mean by "living out the gospel". It's simple: believe in Jesus. Furthermore, believing in Jesus will naturally lead to orthodoxy. For example, we come to believe that the Scriptures are inspired because Jesus himself cited the Old Testament and implied that he would cause the apostles to write the New Testament. If I believe in Jesus, then I should naturally be lead to believe in the Bible. That is to say, "if Jesus then Bible". If you believe in Jesus because you first believe the Scriptures to be true (which I'll summarize as "if Bible then Jesus"), I think you have your cause and effect backwards: the Author is greater than his word. But one thing is for sure: "believe in the Lord Jesus Christ" is more important than "which is right: if Jesus then Bible, or if Bible then Jesus?", or any other such debate we may get into about the inspiration of the Scriptures.

Alright, so believing in Jesus is well and good, but what am I to do with that? How should I live my life? Jesus gives us the answer: love God, love one another. These things - believing in Jesus, which directly leads to loving God and loving one another, are the main things I have in mind when I say "living out the Gospel"

My position is strongly supported in the Bible in the holistic sense and in specific "proof texts". Whenever there is discussion about the "most important thing" in the Bible, it is pretty much ALWAYS either "Jesus" or "Love". James says that "faith (in the sense of intellectual adherence to certain doctrines, even correct and important ones such as belief in one God) without works is dead". Paul is probably the biggest stickler for doctrinal purity in the Bible, but even he says that all knowledge - including all heavenly knowledge such as the understanding of "mysteries" and the tongues of angels - is nothing without love. It is only a childish reflection of the perfection that is love. Jesus himself says that loving God and loving one another is the most important commandment, which sums up all other commandments.

In contrast to this, orthodoxy or doctrinal purity is NEVER stated to be the "most important thing". This of course does not mean that it's not important, merely that it's not the most important thing. I personally believe that it is very (but not supremely) important. Otherwise I would not be writing this lengthy post about it. The Bible does have much to say about watching out for false prophets or teachers, keeping the faith that was handed down to us, etc., but never in the context of it being the most important thing.

Therefore, I believe that someone who claims orthodoxy (in the sense of intellectual assent to the right set of facts) is more important than believing in Jesus, loving God, and loving one another (summarized as "living out the Gospel") is in doctrinal error. I believe my position is strongly supported by the Bible, my personal experience, tradition, and the majority of other people I know to be Christians.

Let's say that I come across two people, called Alice and Bob. Alice doesn't know much of anything about theology, even about really important thing such as the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, or the inspiration of the Scriptures. She's even in blatant error about some of those doctrines. But she believes in Jesus wholeheartedly, and therefore actually does the things that she believes that Jesus would want her to do. This leads her to love God and love people.

Bob, on the other hand, has the perfect doctrine: he is right about everything and knows everything. But this does not lead him to trust Jesus, nor to love God or other people.

Between the two of them I would say that Alice is doing better. In fact I would say that Alice is saved while Bob is not. Now, Alice is still in a ton of trouble. Her deviation from orthodoxy will cause her to sin repeatedly, severely cripple her ability to love, and will cause her faith in Jesus to weaken. But this only means that it is obviously better to both "live out the Gospel" and maintain orthodoxy, than to do just one. It's not an either-or choice. In fact they reinforce each other.

All of this though - everything that I've written here - is only explaining a particular doctrine I hold to. It is, by its own argument, not the most important thing. So if you read it and forget it, or if you read it and think that I'm wrong or get angry at me, I will not mind all that much. As long as you believe in Jesus, which leads you to love God and other people. Because that is the most important thing.


You may next want to read:
Jesus is like these things in his incarnate nature:
The Gospel: the central message of Christianity (part 1)
Another post, from the table of contents

Miracles: their definition, properties, and purpose

There are some really terrible ways to define "miracle". Some of the worst definitions are "something that violates the laws of nature" or "a low probability event". Aside from the blatant biases embedded in these definitions, they are poor definitions in the sense that it is difficult to apply them to label real world events. Laws of nature as understood by whom? Is quantum tunneling a miracle to Isaac Newton? If we discovered a magnetic monopole would that be a miracle? If we say "laws of nature as they actually are", then how is anyone to know what those are and apply them today, with our limited scientific knowledge? Similarly, if we define "miracle" as "a low probability event", probability according to what model and what background information?

Defining "miracle" as simply "an act of God" is also problematic. It's too broad, because everything is an act of God. On the flip side, this definition suggests the erroneous thought that God does some things but not others - that he may raise the dead but not cause the sunrise - by labeling one as a miracle and the other as normal.

Defining "miracle" as an "unusual act of God" still runs into the problem of how to define "unusual". But we are getting closer. We must be very careful of what we mean by "unusual". Does God have two separate modes of operation? Does the fact that he sometimes needs to resort to miracles mean that he is inconsistent or that he needed to make an exception to his usual laws? This is the kind of error we may fall into with the wrong meaning of "unusual".

Here, then, is my definition: A miracle is an event which reveals more of God to humans. Alternatively (and equivalently), miracles are events which causes humans to learn new things about God. Let's now apply this definition to some examples:

Is quantum tunneling a miracle to Isaac Newton? Yes. Quantum tunneling reveals more about the universe to Newton, and therefore reveals more about the universe's Creator to him. It would continue to be a miracle for Newton until he fully understood the phenomena (by learning quantum mechanics), at which point the phenomenon would cease to be a miracle, to be subsumed by the deeper miracle of the revelation of new laws of nature.

Is quantum tunneling a miracle to a modern physicist? No. The phenomenon itself is understood and therefore we get no new information about the universe and its Creator by observing it. But even to the modern physicist, the deeper miracle of the revelation of the laws of nature would remain. Note that miracles are specific to individual persons - What is a miracle for one person is not to another.

However, sometimes an event is a miracle is for everyone - that is, it is something new and unexpected to the entire human race. The discovery of a magnetic monopole would be such a miracle, because nobody currently knows for certain that they exist. Now, this would be a minor miracle, because it doesn't tell us a whole lot about God. It would be a relatively minor modification to our current understanding of physics, which only partly inform us about God. So it would be a small miracle, but for everyone.

Is a solar eclipse a miracle? To an astronomer, no. This is like the case of quantum tunneling to a physicist. How about for someone ignorant of astronomy? Possibly, if the ignorant person actually learns more about God as a result. He may think, "I didn't know that the Creator allowed things like that to happen!" in which case it's a miracle. Or he may think "The sky dog is eating the heat ball", in which case it's not. Note that whether something is a miracle for a person depends on their interpretation of it. This is why Jesus did not perform miracles among people who lacked faith. In extreme cases, such persons would choose to learn nothing of God even if a dead man were to come back to life. As C.S. Lewis said in his book "Miracle", one must first settle the philosophical question in favor of allowing for miracles, otherwise nothing will convince you.

A sunset can be a very small miracle if you allow it to teach you that God is beautiful, faithful, and glorious. But not every sunset will be a miracle - only the ones that you actually learn new things from.

A scientist should not consider any phenomenon that they can physically explain as a physical miracle: they can, however, still appreciate the miracle in a sunset. Any new, unknown phenomena (which we'll always be discovering more of) would be a miracle to them, as it teaches that God is a little bit bigger, a little bit cleverer, than they previously understood.

But the superior miracle granted to the scientist is the revelation of the laws of nature. It is a miracle that explains many other miracles of less knowledgeable individuals. It is a grand miracle, as it reveals a great deal about who God is. It is a universal miracle, in that discovering an additional law of nature is news to everyone in the world.

"But", you may say, "at this point, have we not gotten far away from a simple understanding of what a miracle is? You can define the word however you'd like, but what good is it if it's different from everyone else's understanding of the word?" Good point. I will now show how my definition coincides with the normal understanding of "miracle", in the sense of it being an unusual, surprising event attributed to God.

The reason that miracles are unusual, surprising, and rare is because these we do not learn anything new from information we already have. In order to learn more about God we must be confronted with an event that is beyond what our current understanding of God can explain. If the event is more unusual, then my understanding of God changes more, so I learn more, and therefore it is a greater miracle. I already know that God created the world so that gravity causes things to fall. Therefore observing something falling is not a miracle. If, after much petition in prayer, something did NOT fall according to gravity, that would be a miracle because I would have learned something new about God - that either God created the laws of physics to be different than what I know, or that God somehow works strangely altogether. This is surprising and unusual to me because it is not how I expected God to act. Note, however, that this is a statement about MY ignorance of God, not about how God works usually or unusually or inconsistently or violates his own rules.

Say you witnessed God raising someone from the dead. This would be a miracle on several levels, but on the question of science, it would be a miracle to you because you do not know how God could have done it. It would teach you new things about God because it is different than what you expected of him. But again, this is a reflection of YOUR lack of knowledge, not a statement about how God breaks the laws of nature or is inconsistent. If you do in fact believe this event happened (which is a separate question), the proper thing to do is to confess your ignorance and learn more about God and the world he created, rather than simply claiming that it is impossible based on your limited current scientific knowledge.

I have explained how my definition accounts for the rarity and unexpectedness of miracles. It also explains why the frequency of miracles decrease as time goes on. In world history, in a particular nation or people's history, and in an individual's life, there are fewer miracles with the passage of time, because when we are ignorant there is much to learn, but later there are fewer (but deeper) things to learn about God which explains the earlier miracles. My definition also explains why God does not do miracles on demand: because that would teach us the wrong thing about God, namely that we could control him. My definition explains why God rarely if ever breaks the laws of nature, choosing rather to do his miracles through the laws of nature: to teach us that God is the Creator who made these laws, not a magic genie who must work against them. It furthermore explains why God does not miraculously answer every prayer: because miracles are for teaching us more about God, not for making our lives easier. He does sometimes answer miraculously, but only to teach us that he cares for us on a far deeper level.

I've mentioned how miracles happen in different levels. Higher level miracles explain the lower level miracles, and deeper truths we learn about God explain the shallower truths. There are no miracles at the highest level: If we could somehow understand God completely through one last final miracle, we'd find that there are no exceptions or surprises or inconsistencies in God, for God is perfectly logical and consistent in himself. All the lower level miracles would be contained and explained in the last miracle to give a complete picture of God.

We can see this happening on smaller miracles: a miraculous healing is miraculous at the medical care level, but perhaps not miraculous at the chemical level or a physics level. That is to say, if we could understand how God works in all the movement of all the particles at the physics or chemistry level (which we of course cannot), then there would be nothing unusual going on and no new information to learn by saying that the person was healed. The catching of many fish is miraculous in the life of a fisherman, but I presume nothing miraculous happened at the biological or deeper levels. David defeating Goliath is said to be a miracle, and it was for king Saul and his army. But on a spiritual level? Goliath went against David with spears and swords, and David opposed him in the name of the God of Israel, whom Goliath had defied. How could Goliath have ever had a chance?

The last, deepest, greatest miracle is the Incarnation. It is a miracle at the level of the nature of God himself. It reveals to us everything about God. "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father". It is the miracle that explains all other miracles.


You may next want to read:
For Christmas: the Incarnation
Answering objections: science as evidence for Christianity against atheism
Another post, from the table of contents

An analysis of "Let It Go" in Disney's "Frozen"

Image: by Alice X. Zhang
(This post contains spoilers. Go watch "Frozen" before you read it)

Disney's latest film "Frozen" is receiving rave reviews, and the song "Let It Go" is one of the highlights of the film. Don't take my word for it - Wikipedia, as usual, is great for such simple background facts. I am currently having an internal debate about whether Elsa is my favorite Disney character, and whether "Let It Go" is my favorite Disney song - time will tell, but I'm leaning towards "yes" on both questions. On my Google search history, there are queries such as "let it go is brilliant" and "frozen let it go analysis", but having found nothing satisfactory, I've decided to write this post instead.

There has been much written about "Let It Go", and a typical opinion on the song is that it is "liberating" or "empowering", that it is about Elsa coming into her true identity, and that it is a jubilant celebration of release for those who have been living in fear or bondage. But while all this is true as far as that goes, stopping the analysis there misses the great depth and subtlety of the song. Yes, the song is about empowerment, but there is also tragedy, anger, bitterness, and self-deception in it, in even greater measure. It doesn't mark Elsa's claiming of her identity or her apotheosis - instead, by the end of the song, she is in severe danger of losing herself. The song does lift her up, but only to set her perched atop a high precipice, with slippery slopes falling into a despair event horizon on one side and a moral event horizon on the other. The potency of the song derives not from how uplifting or positive it is, but rather how perfectly it fits into the overall narrative, and how much it does to develop Elsa into a compelling, relatable character.

(At this point I would like to link the video and the lyrics for the song - I'll be referencing them often for the remainder of this post)

First, consider the placement of the song in the whole movie. Elsa has just run away from her own coronation, and has brought the eternal winter upon Arendelle. The song itself only marks the end of the first act. The story has just begun, so this cannot be the end of the character development for Elsa - it is actually only the end of the beginning, and the primary function of the song is to set down the conflicts that Elsa must go through - the demons that she must face - before the story is over. In fact, much of the rest of the story will be played out to specifically reverse many of the most triumphant lines of her song. Consider the following:

Elsa sings several times, "Let the storm rage on", referring to her stormy heart and mind. (The weather itself is actually quite calm for most of the song). She also sings that she's now free. She is trying to convince herself that she can live with the turmoil inside. But, in Elsa's next scene (For The First Time In Forever (Reprise)), she is confronted with what she's done to Arendelle and sings, "Oh, I'm such a fool, I can't be free / No escape from this storm inside of me", driving her further toward despair. So she takes back what she had said, in her very next scene. She is, in fact, not yet free and is not fine with the storm raging on inside her.

In "Let It Go", the line "Let the storm rage on" is followed by "The cold never bothered me anyway" - a line many people remember, as it's said twice, sung in a different style, and is the last line of the song. Of course, as the Snow Queen, Elsa is not bothered by low temperatures in the literal sense. But in the other senses of the word "cold", she is still frightened of it. Uncontrolled release of her powers still remains the primary problem in the story, and after building her ice palace she is never again happy while using her powers, until the end of the movie.

Most importantly, "cold" as in isolation from other people, is still bothering her to the core. Think about what she does after she finishes her song, right after she sings that last line "the cold never bothered me anyway": she turns around and slams shut the doors to her new castle, as she had done in Arendelle. Her way of dealing with her problem is still the same as it was before her coronation: she thinks as long as she shuts people out - and if that doesn't work, as long as she's far enough away and isolated and alone - she'll be okay. But this is diametrically opposed to the central message of the film - that instead of not being bothered by the cold of isolation, she needs to be embraced by the warmth of love. The movie cannot end until she recants this sly, subtle line, which she does only at the climax. Until then, Elsa is lying to herself.

Another line in the song that's a self deception is when she says "You'll never see me cry". Both this line and "the cold never bothered me anyway" are the kind of things said by people who are trying to convince themselves; they are not usually said by people for whom this is simply true. Of course, we do see Elsa cry over Anna at the end, as a testament to the love that Elsa has for her. Again, by negating this very line in the song and shedding tears, she is finally becoming the person she wants to be. Elsa finds her identity and finally comes into her own character, not in embracing the message of these lines in "Let It Go", but in rejecting them in the climax.

Additional examples abound. Elsa sings "here I stand, and here I'll stay", and "I'm never going back". But of course, she does go back to Arendelle. She eventually abandons the ice palace (while keeping the new dress and hair). She sings "That perfect girl is gone", but in the end, she does in fact become the perfect girl she always wanted to be - fully in command of her powers, and on top of that beloved of her sister and her people. She sings "the past is in the past", but her final salvation comes from her relationship with her sister, stemming from Elsa's deepest past.

Lastly in the matter of lyrics, consider the title of the song itself, "Let It Go", which is sung repeatedly. What is she letting go of? Firstly and most obviously, it refers to Elsa letting go of the restraints of her powers, to "see what [she] can do / to test the limits and breaking through". This is the positive element in the song, and what most listeners unfortunately latch on to, to the exclusion of other elements. Personal empowerment is obviously good. If you look carefully at Elsa's expressions while she's singing, the few tens of seconds around this line is the only time she is genuinely happy. But personal empowerment, though good, is fraught with danger, as indicated by the next line: "No right, no wrong, no rules for me".

Seriously, how many characters say something like that and not become evil? These are probably the most telling lines for picking up on the narrative meaning of the song. And that is the second thing that she's letting go of: her sense of right and wrong, of the rules and restrictions that being a "good girl" imposed on her releasing her powers. Now obviously some of the rules constraining her before were restrictive and counterproductive, but they were also for the safety of others. How much of that is she letting go? Only some specific rules? All of it? The entire concept of goodness? We don't know, but her singing "No right, no wrong, no rules for me" should have set off alarm bells in the audience's heads. "Let It Go" was originally meant as a villain song, and Disney wanted the possibility of Elsa being a villain to be alive in the audience's minds. We are supposed to be worried for Elsa's soul at this point, and the rest of her character development is about how she is saved from her precarious position.

Elsa is also letting go of any hope or desire of companionship with people. This is the third meaning of "let it go". If the above second meaning of "let it go" indicated an erosion of Elsa's goodness, this third meaning indicates an erosion of her hope. The second meaning pushes Elsa towards evil, the third meaning pushes her towards despair. The second meaning may lead to villainy, and the third meaning may lead to tragedy. She has decided to stay away from all that she loves, and she's tried to convince herself that she's fine with that.

Look again at Elsa's expressions as she sings "Let It Go", especially during the lines that I've mentioned above. Open up the video, put it on a HD resolution, and slow down the speed to 0.25 during key moments. Or go see my study of Elsa's facial expressions during "Let It Go". Look for the emotions flitting across her face almost frame by frame. She switches rapidly between resignation, bitterness, giddy happiness, genuine smiles, sorrow weighing down her brow, anger, resolve, and many mixtures of these emotions. Some of the most negative emotions are on Elsa's face during some of the most triumphant lines. The animators, songwriters, and the singer did a remarkable job of conveying all this in this beautifully crafted, intricately complicated song - it's a pity that many people simply see a positive empowerment song.

"Let It Go" informs the audience of the evil and the despair that Elsa has the potential to fall into, while keeping her a completely sympathetic character. Her empowerment, while clearly a good thing, also raises the danger that she may fall one way or another. It makes the audience able to relate to her while at the same time causing us to be wary of her and worried for her. Who hasn't felt that they could become more powerful if only they let go of other people and their restrictions and morality? Who hasn't felt that there is nothing they could do in certain helpless situations, powerless despite their abilities? And who hasn't felt their soul imperiled by these feelings? For all these reasons, despite being the only human with superpowers, Elsa is the most real, relatable character in "Frozen".

After setting up this remarkable character in "Let It Go", the rest of the film is about showing how Elsa successfully navigates these potential ruins and comes to be a wholly good person, worthy to be a heroine in one of Disney's best films. She has some close calls - she nearly became evil in rebuffing the visitors and intruders in her castle. She did despair when she thought Anna was dead. But through Anna's deep love and help from the others, she earns her happy ending.

I think that if you take "Let It Go" simply as an uplifting empowerment song, you rob Elsa of a great deal of her intricate characterization. You collapse her into a two-dimensional character. If the song was entirely positive, if her soul was not in actual danger of ruin when the song ended, then she loses her agency for character development. She simply becomes someone nice and powerful who reacts to what happens in her environment. She would not be fundamentally all that different in the end than she was in the middle. To be a fully fleshed out character, Elsa's empowerment must also imperil her.

It has to be this way because it's true in real life. We have heard that "with great power comes great responsibility". We have heard that "nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power". We know that "power corrupts". Unfortunately, this is not a sentiment I hear often among many groups who have recently become empowered. There is much talk about how good and progressive and positive personal empowerment is. But not many are saying to these people that power is not a right or a privilege, but a sacred charge, to be used for doing and becoming good.

Thank God that we have in Elsa a wonderfully compelling character who perfectly combines all these points. And thank you Disney, for bringing us a beautiful song, a superb character, and an excellent film.


You may next want to read:
The dividing moment - a short alternate ending to "Frozen" that I wrote to illustrate just how close Elsa came to desolation and perdition. Beware; it's dark, tragic, and graphic.
Elsa's facial expressions during "Let It Go", in Disney's "Frozen"
The Gospel according to Disney's "Frozen"
The Gospel according to Disney's "Tangled"
Another post, from the table of contents