Monday, January 17, 2011

Eating Barnes & Noble 2

You have to start somewhere — the middle seems best.

I suppose I could be depressed about how much I don't know. I have worked hard all my life to increase and sharpen my store of knowledge. I have cultivated an inquisitive mind. I have from time-to-time impressed my peers with my cleverness and insight, but as soon as I push just beyond my first degree of separation, the light dims dramatically, shapes fade into shadows, and my ignorance opens to swallow me. As I move to the edge of my light and my eyes adjust to the dark, I see a vast chamber of tiny lights, a field of stars and galaxies of ideas and structures of thought that stretch away to infinity and mark the distance of my ignorance. The depth is infinite and unimaginable. My little circle of light is finite and preeminently imaginable. (Indeed, it appears to be composed entirely of imagination.)

This image captures nicely for me our human situation: I inhabit a tiny bubble of light floating in a vast abyss of near darkness, like the Earth in the cosmos, and even if I knew everything within my own little bubble, I would still know very little that there is to know. Even if I knew everything about this Earth, understood it all, I would still know very little of what there is to know about this Universe in which my Earth floats like the faintest abstraction of an elementary quark, a wisp of imagination that appears magically in a physicist's cloud chamber, performs its magic, and then disappears in foam.

This image of reality can be daunting, humbling, almost humiliating, and many seem unable to confront it. Intimidated by the vast darkness, people reduce reality to their little circle of light, their little Earth, to make sense of it. This reductionism takes at least two forms with which I am familiar — religion and science — and both forms reduce the complexity of the Universe to make it fit within the little bubbles of people's imaginations. In the long run, this reductionism has awful consequences for both the Universe and the people who engage in it.

I learned reductionist religion first. My father is a Christian Pentecostal minister, and I was raised knowing that history began some six thousand years ago when God the Father created the heavens and the earth. Man fell in the Garden of Eden and struggled until Jesus Christ redeemed the world on the Cross and gave us the one truth by which to live. Finally, I learned that all of history would soon end with the Second Coming of Christ in the Rapture of the Church and the initiation of the Great Tribulation, all as foretold by the  Book of Revelations in the Christian Bible. After the final Battle at Armageddon, where Christ defeats Satan, the Triune God will set up the New Jerusalem on Earth, and the Redeemed will live eternally in perfection with God. My church has reduced all of history and all the Universe to a single story, tellable in under five minutes. Of course, the details of the story vary from place to place, evangelist to evangelist, but the main story remains consistent. God has it all under control, and that is really all we need to know.

I learned reductionist science second. I went to college, and I learned that the Universe is knowable and that soon humanity will explain everything in terms of elementary particles and fields and the regular interactions of those particles and fields. It's called the Theory of Everything, or TOE (why otherwise bright scientists don't stub their toe on the irony of TOE is beyond me). Science has reduced all of history and all the Universe to a single theory, expressible in a single formula. Of course, the details of the story vary from place to place, scientist to scientist, but the main story remains consistent. Nature has it all under control of a few fundamental physical laws, and that is really all we need to know.

May God protect us from the unrelenting and overwhelming boredom of both of these theories.

Can you imagine an eternity after the denouement of either of these reductionist beliefs? And which would be worse? An eternity of playing harps, singing hymns, and reclining on cloud banks or an eternity of mopping up the tedious details of a Theory of Everything. Either way, there is nothing new to learn, nothing new to do, nothing new to discover. This little light of mine will have expanded to include all the Universe, and I'll understand it all by and by. The only advantage of reductionist science is that it, at least, promises no after-life. If the science fundamentalists are correct, then each of us shall find in the annihilation of death some relief from the Big TOE. Thank God. If the religious fundamentalists are correct, then there may be no relief.

The awful consequence of reductionism, then, is that it reduces an infinitely rich, varied, and fecund universe into a single story or formula that accounts for everything. This, of course, is also the great benefit of reductionism. It reduces the chaos to a single story or formula that can be understood by humans. Chance is eliminated, and we know what to do. We have clarity, certainty, and knowledge. We have power.

These are not false benefits, nor are they trivial. Fundamental religion provides an all-encompassing light that informs and guides the lives of billions. Fundamental science provides gadgets and insight that enrich and prolong the lives of billions. For billions, these benefits far outweigh any possible benefits that might arise from embracing the complexity of life. I can understand why fundamentalism wins so many converts

You have to stop somewhere — the middle seems best.
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