Jim Taylor's Columns - 'Soft Edges' and 'Sharp Edges'

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Published on Friday, May 13, 2022

The gap between cause and correspondence

Thursday May 5, 2022


The coyotes were howling on the hill above my home, the other night. A. howl echoed through the woods. Then another. And several more. Accompanied by a multitude of something like barks. Punctuated by a whole series of high-pitched yips, which I assumed was a bunch of coyote pups joining in with their elders.

            Not long after, a magnificent full moon rose over the hill.

            I’m sure some of you immediately thought, “They were howling at the moon!”

            No, they weren’t. They started howling long before the moon appeared. And I doubt that coyotes have a lunar calendar to advise them when a full moon is coming.

            Also, because I heard them howling the same way two weeks before, when there was no visible moon at all.

            Author Stephen Pinker tackles some of the many ways we misinterpret evidence in his new book Rationality. We confuse correspondence with cause, for example. We hear critters howling when the moon is full; we think the two must be connected.

            Not necessarily.

            Certainly, the coyotes’ howls do not cause a full moon.

            Nor, according to a host of scientific studies, does a full moon cause wolves (and coyotes) to howl.

            The moon, in fact, does only two things. Its surface reflects sunlight. Its gravitation causes tides.

            Neither of which change the moon itself. The moon remains the same, whether full or dark.

            For all the effect it can have on coyotes, or wolves, or humans, it might as well be made of green cheese. Hey diddle diddle…


Folklore and superstition

            Many bits of our folklore confuse cause and correspondence. Like the beliefs that a black cat crossing your path, or breaking a mirror, or neglecting to follow the instructions in a chain letter, will cause you bad luck. Even if it happens long after.

            Granted, there’s some validity to the caution about walking under a ladder. Someone might be up there, slopping paint on a wall. Or dropping a hammer.

            And obviously throwing stones inside glass houses can be a shattering experience.

            Writing in the New York Times, Paul Krugman noted another logical discrepancy. We commonly think of peace and trade going together.

            Peace certainly encourages trade, he wrote. But it doesn’t follow that trade promotes peace. Trade, especially in rare minerals or scarce commodities, can be ruthlessly competitive.

            Nations have often gone to war to seize valuable resources.

            Unfortunately for simplistic answers, war may also promote trade. Some companies – and nations -- reap far bigger profits by selling munitions during active wars than selling widgets in peace.

            Another example: according to a recent Angus-Reid survey of religiosity in Canada, 73% of evangelicals in Canada claim to experience God’s presence regularly. Among people who deny any religious commitment, 78% say they never experience God’s presence.

            Does their religious affiliation, or lack of it, affect their awareness of God in their lives? Or does their experience of God, or lack of it, determine their affiliation?

            Which is the cause? Which is the consequence?

            The survey didn’t attempt to define either. It merely noted the correspondence.

            Do coyotes howl only when there’s a full moon? Could any other factor cause them to howl?

            Could they just be saying grace before joining in a meal?


Copyright © 2022 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.

                  To comment on this column, write jimt@quixotic.ca





For last week’s column, I told the story of my daughter Sharon’s in-vitro pregnancy, and how the loss of those three blastocysts – who Sharon named Huey, Dewey, and Louis -- affected me.


Laurna Tallman commented: “I don’t think Louie Duck was French”.

            Laurna continued, “I do think it curious that you would blame ‘God’ for the failure of a man-made alternative to procreation.

            “The notion of entitlement attached to child-bearing concerns me. I have read about or have seen so many natural and artificial versions of child-bearing run into such a variety of problems and sorrows that I cannot understand why women and men become so insistent when their sexual relationship fails to produce offspring.

            “I occasionally come across a story where a couple who cannot conceive a child decides to adopt a child.  Heaven knows there are vast numbers of literally or figuratively orphaned children who need loving homes. In the majority of those cases, the parents and the child find deep satisfaction in the arrangement, although not all. Some couples who conceive their children also adopt. Then, there are the blended families of divorced parents who remarry.

            “You might rather bring ‘God’ into the picture precisely where that sense of entitlement arises, if you can pinpoint it.”

            JT: Sharon did adopt, about two years later. And I think I would rather avoid the issue of “entitlement,” and bring God into the love that can be experienced by parent and who are not genetically related.


“Wow, Jim! Yes!” wrote Wayne Irwin. “Long ago, while in seminary, I too had an ‘Aha!’ moment like the awakening you describe. I was asking, in my questing prayer, what is the actual core of the Gospel. And in my listening, I had that moment of deep knowing: ‘God’ is for us, not against us. All else are details. And it behoves me to live simply trusting this gift of ‘knowing’.”


Isabel Gibson expressed sorrow for “Sharon's loss and yours and Joan's, even though I know the rest of the story.

            “Humans live in a universe and on a planet where we came into being. We have emerged out of, and are therefore grounded in and supported by (and sometimes threatened by), the planet and its ecosystems. Feeling that connection with all life matters. (Indeed, I just finished reading a book by David Quammen where he reports on the findings that about 8% of the human genome has been brought in from other life forms - microbes - and incorporated in our DNA.)

            “God, to me, is a different matter. On the days I believe, I'd say that God is not the impersonal universe, but a someone who cares deeply about us and walks with us if/when we allow. Not a someone who can or does fix things, but a someone who can help us fix some things and bear the rest.”


Jim Henderschedt: “Thank you so much for today's Soft Edge and for reminding me that yes, the cosmos does indeed ‘give a shit’ [JT: though perhaps not always in the way we might wish.] In one of my devotions published during Holy Week  I revealed my displeasure with condensing Holy Week into a one-hour church service. It was a small voice that said ... ‘Jim, it is not all about you.’ When I let go of ‘what I wanted’ I saw a much bigger picture. And sometimes it takes heartbreak to see it.”


David Winans sympathized with my reaction to Sharon’s loss: “I, too, have endured the failure of a daughter's IVF. She was in her forties at the time but her disappointment, self-blame, and agony registered with me as if she were five years old and beyond the reach of my outstretched arms.  I relate with her as the capable, loving, responsible adult she has become -- unless she hurts, when I still want to shield my little girl. Futile as the shield attempts are, it is one of the chief reasons to avoid dying. I still, foolishly perhaps, want to believe I can make more of a difference for her than any memories of me could do.

            “There are children seeking parents who could not be more fortunate than to have her and her husband as parents.  My unspoken wish is that a union occurs for them and for the child(ren). She, and her husband will decide. And, not my wish, but their decision will be the right thing to do.”




Psalm paraphrase


Psalm 23 is the psalm that started this whole paraphrase project, some 30 years ago, now. I heard people reading, or repeating, the familiar words, and I remember thinking, “Most of these people have never known a shepherd, or a sheep, let alone a banquet set out on a battlefield.” To paraphrase the message, not just to water it down with pablum words, I needed a different metaphor entirely. This is what came out.


Mommy holds my hand;

I'm not afraid.

She takes me to school in the mornings;

She lets me play in the playgrounds and the parks;

She makes me feel good.

She shows me how to cross the streets,

because she loves me.

Even when we walk among the crowds and the cars,
I am not afraid.

If I can reach her hand or her coat,
I know she's with me,

And I'm all right.

When I fall down and I'm all covered with mud
and I come home crying,

she picks me up in her arms.

She wipes my hands, and dries my tears,

and I have to cry again,

'Cause she loves me so much.

How can anything go wrong

with that kind of Mommy near me?

I want to live the rest of my life with Mommy,

in my Mommy's home for ever'n'ever.


You can find paraphrases of most of the psalms in the Revised Common Lectionary in my book Everyday Psalmsavailable from Wood Lake Publishing, info@woodlake.com.






If you want to comment on something, send a message directly to me, jimt@quixotic.ca.

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                  I write a second column each Sunday called Sharp Edges, which tends to be somewhat more cutting about social and justice issues. To sign up for Sharp Edges, write to me directly, jimt@quixotic.ca, or send a note to sharpedges-subscribe@lists.quixotic.ca

                  And for those of you who like poetry, please check my webpage .https://quixotic.ca/My-Poetry I posted several new poetic works there a few weeks ago. If you’d like to receive notifications about new poems, write me at jimt@quixotic.ca, or subscribe yourself to the list by sending a blank email (no message) to poetry-subscribe@lists.quixotic.ca (If it doesn’t work, please let me know.)






To use the links in this section, you’ll have to insert the necessary symbols. Some spam filters have blocked my posts because they’re suspicious of some of the web links.

                  Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca He’s also relatively inexpensive!

                  I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom. She also has lots of beautiful photos. Especially of birds.

                  Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom (NB that’s “watso” not “watson”)



                  I have acquired (don’t ask how) the complete archive of the late Alva Wood’s collection of satiric and sometimes wildly funny columns about a mythical village’s misadventures. I’ve put them on my website: http://quixotic.ca/Alva-Wood-Archive. You’re welcome to browse. No charge. (Although maybe if I charged a fee, more people would find the archive worth visiting.)




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Author: Jim Taylor

Categories: Soft Edges

Tags: logic, moon, Coyotes, reasoning



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