Posted by: dacalu | 24 March 2012


So, I’ve spent a week on the unit based, reductionist leaning notion of atoms and agents and another week talking about the idea of a self-less, individual-less, atemporal holistic philosophy.  Hopefully I’ve convinced you that each is a compelling way of looking at the universe and that each is consistent with science and Christianity (or your religion of choice).  All of which begs the question, which is correct?

What a silly question.  Neither, of course.

A quote from a famous evolutionary biologist seems appropriate here.

“Now, my suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” – JBS Haldane

The world is messy and complicated, immensely interesting and (in some deep way) unfathomable.  Once again Christianity and science are in complete agreement here.  A Christian would point out Matthew 24:36 (“‘But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”) or perhaps Isaiah 55:8 (“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.”).  We are asked to love God and one another, not to understand.  A scientist may be more inclined to point out the nature of stochastic processes in a probabilistic universe – the apparent fact that we cannot know things like when an individual radioactive particle will decay.  She might also mention the nature of chaotic processes and the proven insolubility of certain problems.  We cannot deny the incomprehensibility of the universe.  Anyone who does is selling something.  Really.

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to understand, simply that we must do so with humility and a sense of humor.  Here’s where the two world systems come in.  Both say something useful about the universe.  Both provide insights.  When you can’t solve a problem, what you need most is the ability to look at it in a new way and flexible philosophy allows this.  It prevents us from falling into the trap of thinking that a problem must be solvable in a particular context.

Frequently the context itself has created the problem.

Those of you familiar with research, or military strategy, or policy, or marketing, or really any other form of advanced problem solving know this already.  Nine times out of ten, the most important thing is to look at the problem in a new way.  We must not disallow this important toll in philosophy or theology.  If the universe made sense, we could.  We could just say: “Wow, X explains everything and that wraps it up.”  Alas, we’re not even close to such a worldview.  The universe is weird and we daily face things beyond our experience or even our imagination (that is if you’re paying attention).

It’s ever so important that we train ourselves and others in multiple useful ways of looking at the world.  A fixed system will only solve a certain type of problem, but the ability to think in terms of systems – to construct, compare, operate within, and (perhaps most importantly) discard systems – can provide endless benefits.  An ability to think critically about how you think, that provides the skills necessary to deal with unexpected and novel problems.

I advocate philosophical and theological cross-training.  With billions of people out there, chances are good that more than one of them will have thought up useful systems of thought.  I think people should be familiar with at least two.  It’s like learning to drive a stick and an automatic, or being familiar with Mac and PC.  Sure, you can get by with just one, but sometimes an opportunity will arise which cannot be taken unless you know both.  Knowing both means you have an idea, not just of the model, but of the thing itself (being driving, or computing, or understanding the world).  It forces you to recognize the constructed and imperfect nature of the model, so that you can use it to it’s fullest.

This Lent I wish a little confusion to all of you.  And I’ll encourage you to cultivate that confusion, not as an end in itself, but as the first step to a fuller knowledge of the things that cannot be fully understood, but can be appreciated.



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