On Not Having All the Answers

One of the challenges of living in a time of
great change is that ideas don’t stay tied down. They move. Or they get
replaced and disappear. Or they transmogrify into some other form. It’s
exuberating sometimes. Frightening at others. But it’s part of creation and
it’s part of understanding life today.

The challenge of living in a time of great change, such as our time, is that ideas don’t stay tied down. They move. They get replaced or disproved and some disappear. Others transmogrify into another form. In times of change we re-discover that knowledge is pliable. This is a part of the great conversation occurring in many disciplines today. Technology provides information that alters knowledge so fundamentally that it leads us to change our way of thinking or acting. Part of the struggle that is called culture wars is the attempt to hold onto orthodox standards to maintain integrity and a sense of order in a sea of swirling change.

For our survival
and well-being,
Wilson says, we
need a consensus
about our origins,
our nature as
human beings, our
place in the
natural world
and our purpose,
or what it
is that makes
life worth living.
–Steve Pope
reviewing Consilience: The
Unity of Knowledge
,
By Edward 0. Wilson

I think it’s necessary to try to understand the change that technology introduces in our quality of life and to reflect on how it alters our thinking. We experience change at an increasing pace and we accommodate to it or get left behind, and not in the goofy way some writer of Christian pulp novels has described being left behind.


It’s more about how we come to terms with an unfolding understanding of the universe, and how we adapt to new-found information borne on new technology. As I write this, the morning paper tells of new proposals about how planets in our solar system developed their current orbits after a period of chaotic interaction. Last week, the largest planet yet-to-be-discovered, was announced. We cannot comprehend all of this, nor accommodate to it in so brief a time. Yet, eventually we must because each of the new pieces of the puzzle of the universe will alter our self-understanding and our ways of arriving at whatever is true for us in a given period. In a letter to the editor of the New York Times, John Ehrenfeld recently wrote in four succinct paragraphs the core of this issue:

Buried in the faulty rhetoric of intelligent design theory is the presumption that the human mind should be able to comprehend everything about the world. This position, completely ungrounded in science or religion, is perhaps the most arrogant claim one can make on behalf of our species.

Modern understanding of the wonders of nature is built on an appreciation that ecosystems behave in fundamentally unpredictable ways that we know we cannot describe with even our most sophisticated scientific laws.

As much as anyone would want science to be able to explain everything about the world we perceive, the very nature of science must always leave something out.

And what is left out is nothing more than a reflection of the limits of science and the humans who do its hard work.

–John Ehrenfeld
New York Times, May 22, 2005

Well, maybe. While this statement makes eminent sense, it posits the absence of information in a way that makes me concerned. I believe there is more in the unknown than the statement seems to imply. There is more than can be observed. There is mystery. There is purpose. And it does not get its meaning from our comprehension. It is.

When the theory of everything is arrived at, it will still be limited if it explains only the observable. If it does not lead us to those dimensions that remain a mystery beyond observation; if it does not lead us to the yearning for meaning and purpose, it will not explain everything.

To get to meaning in this way will require us to step from science to theology. It’s not as great a leap as one might think, for theology is no less than a careful and systematic effort to capture what we know, and what we leave out, when referring to the ultimate meaning of our lives. It’s an attempt to comprehend what is. I’m aware that some scientists reject this outright and others are driven to apoplexy by such a statement. But the Big Bang theory, while widely accepted, remains a theory. It’s accepted because there’s no better explanation for how the universe started.

Therefore, taking due note from the outset that scientists don’t “believe,” they “accept,” based on observable evidence, I also note that lacking conclusive evidence, many, never the less, accept the theory of the Big Bang because existing evidence points them in that direction. But their acceptance goes beyond the observable. This neither discredits nor undermines science, but it should be a reason for humility. And it says something about taking a leap of inference, if not a leap of faith.

Theologians, who work with other information and theoretical structures, come to similar stages of acceptance in their discipline. Reading the work of a theologian and that of a theoretical physicist is to read how these thinkers not only accept theory, but also how they convert it into statements that attempt to explain the nature of the universe and the place of human beings in it.

In a process as fluid as this the two disciplines employ similar practices to arrive at conclusions which, of course, don’t stay tied down. I read an exchange between two theologians recently in which one claimed the other didn’t know where he stood, meaning that he did not identify sufficiently with orthodox teaching and practice to have a foundation upon which to make claims about life. I thought to myself, what if, in fact, he knows precisely where he stands? What if he know he stands in an expanding universe about which we know precious little? A system in which 70% of the energy is called dark energy and 25% is made of dark matter also undefined. And some of this mysterious dark energy appears to be causing the universe to expand.


So I ask, what if the theologian has fixed his gaze on a distant star, as humans have done for centuries to locate themselves in the universe. He’s rooted in time-honored knowledge. But, his star is moving! Physicists say it’s moving away from him at an astonishing, accelerating rate.

The universe is dynamic, not fixed. How do you anchor to a fixed referent when the foundation is moving?

Lest someone contend I can’t mix theology and cosmology, I have to argue that the mix is already done. My hypothetical theologian is attempting to define meaning in a context–the universe–and the context is changing as he/she works. Theology must be responsive to this reality, or be irrelevant. The theologian and the physicist are asking many of the same big questions: How did we–and all other things–get here, what is our purpose, and how do the pieces fit together? Put another way that last question could be, “what is the meaning of all of this?”

I am compelled to ask, even with my admittedly rudimentary understanding, “What is hidden in that mysterious energy and dark matter that we don’t even have words to adequately describe? How can we stake a claim to eternal verities in a universe that is unfolding itself to us in what seem to be be palatable bites that sometimes take us a few hundred years to digest?”

What could be more humbling than the realization that we can’t even describe the known universe, much less comprehend the Source of this magnificent and mysterious creative process? Or that the wild card of unpredictability takes us in new directions, when we thought our theories were tied down? Theologians and physicists should gulp a huge dose of humility as they stake out claims to explain life. Viewed from this perspective, it seems to me that theology cannot be done apart from theoretical physics, or at least it’s a mistake to try.

Scientists argue that the telling difference is verification; the scientific method makes science different. But, the theory of black holes leads to questions about verification that, on this side, are substantial. If black holes warp time and space how can the observer entering a black hole return to report the observation? It requires a leap of inference, if not faith, just to discuss it.


But even more than this, the ability to observe directly is increasingly difficult, if not beyond our present capabilities. Crashing atoms into each other at high velocity under the controlled parameters of the super collider is creating as many hypotheses as verifiable data, and in the microcosm these datum cannot be observed with the naked eye, they require the mediation of technology. More about that in a moment.

Science and religion are not the same. But each can inform the other, for both seek to deal with unknowable mystery. Moreover, in a world that often seems alienating the two, each in its own unique way, could lead us to deeper understanding of our connection to the universe and the sacred. The knowledge and understanding derived from each could be unifying and healing.

Knowing the limits of my rudimentary understanding, I can’t do anything but remain open to unfolding revelation and comprehension. Thus, for me to deal with the surprising unpredictability of the universe is to also discover new ways of comprehending the Creation and appreciating the work of the Creator, mysterious and unfathomable as it is.

It might puzzle you how a communicator gets engaged in this line of thought. Here’s how. The new information that is propelling us to these questions and leading us to even more, is possible only because new technology provides us the means to explore the universe outside the bounds of earth and the subatomic universe too minute for the human eye to see.

The human race has moved beyond “naked-eye” observation. We now live in a mediated universe. Reality is being conveyed through digital images on screens. Without these media our understanding of reality would be significantly lessened. The most popular tool known to the general population is the Hubbell Telescope. Hubbell images have opened our minds to the vastness of the universe in ways words could never do.


At first this seems yet another step in a sequence of adaptation, but it seems to me it’s more. We live in what Thomas De Zengotita calls a representational culture. A culture in which screens provide images that represent reality. In the case of exploration of the universe, it’s screens and Adobe Photoshop. Reality is now being constructed of x’s and o’s and pixels manipulated by a software program.

Interpreting the universe is no longer about the world as we know it. It’s about the world as presented to us through the mediation of technology, interpreted through the limits of machines and software, interpreted through the limits of language and theories tested under conditions that developed before these technologies and this software existed.

It’s no longer simply (I use that word with great appreciation for the fact that it isn’t so simple) about deconstructing language. It’s about constructing a new theoretical framework to describe the information this technology is making available to us and this will inevitably change our beliefs and our appropriation of knowledge as surely as the printing press created the modern era and gave humans new self-awareness.

There is much work to do in comprehending how learning, comprehension and reasoning occur in a mediated reality based on representational images. Much of the examination of media today is cultural critique. But the challenge before us is greater than critiquing the content of television and video games, as much as I enjoy doing that. The challenge is to consider how these media are changing us, our culture, our community, our sense of selfhood and our relationship to the universe.

And finally, the most important piece of it all, for me. How does this new knowledge affect faith? How are we to grasp the meaning of Creation and the Great Spirit as we also seek to grasp the makeup of the greatness of the universe?
It can’t get much more exciting than this.

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