God Is a Drunkard

Given for one instant an intelligence which could comprehend all the forces by which nature is animated and the respective positions of the beings which compose it, if moreover this intelligence were vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in the same formula both the movements of the largest bodies in the universe and those of the lightest atom; to it nothing would be uncertain, and the future as the past would be present to its eye.

- Pierre-Simon de Laplace

That initial word “given” introduces a formidable series of assumptions. An intelligence which can “comprehend all the forces” of nature is not your everyday intelligence. Indeed, when you think about it, the only possible such being is an omniscient God. This God also has to be a scientist who can analyse all the omniscient data He “comprehends.” It is only after this that Laplace’s omniscient God-scientist is presumed to be able to overcome uncertainty and know the future.

Upon observation this God-Scientist leaves a lot to be desired; he appears to be weaving through the universe like a drunkard — a supernova here, a galaxy collision over there, colliding black holes way off in a distant galaxy, PKS 2131–021…and on and on. And here at home He isn’t behaving much better — natural disasters abound, like the South Asian earthquake and tsunami in 2004 that killed hundreds of thousands, to mention just one of a multitude such catastrophes that regularly and randomly occur.

Theologians have struggled for centuries to understand how this almighty omniscient God refuses to act in the world as a benevolent omniscient being ought to. He stumbles around drunkenly, blowing things up, rewarding evil people and punishing good people. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 in particular raised these issues for Enlightenment thinkers; like Voltaire, in his long poem about the disaster (Examination of the Axiom, “All is Well” 1755):

Say ye, o’er that yet quivering mass of flesh:
“God is avenged: the wage of sin is death”?
What crime, what sin, had those young hearts conceived
That lie, bleeding and torn, on mother’s breast?
Did fallen Lisbon deeper drink of vice
Than London, Paris, or sunlit Madrid?

It has been said that we create God in our own image; capricious, intemperate and unpredictable. Scientists who study probability have termed this kind of erratic process a “Random Walk” or, more picturesquely, the “Drunkard’s Walk.” The Drunkard’s Walk is a powerful concept in many disciplines; it describes well the way things move randomly, like Brownian motion, even in a universe of orderly physical laws. From the Big Bang on, the universe has not behaved as uniformly as would be expected given the parameters of the Laws of Nature.

So even though we learn more and more about those Laws it seems the true nature of the universe in its profoundest depths is inaccessible to us. We struggle to understand a tiny corner of a vast mysterious tapestry and any hopes for a comprehensible determinism are shattered by the realities of haphazard indeterminism. The God created in our own image never fails to disappoint.

Certain pagan philosophers reject the triune concept of “past, present and future” and, instead, postulate a binary — “that which is” and “that which is becoming.” The past, up until the present moment is “that which is.” It is the reality we reside in. After that, randomness dominates and “that which is becoming” presents us with a cloud of probabilities that expands and becomes more diaphanous the further we look into the future; a butterfly wing in motion now can lead to a hurricane halfway across the world in the future.

The future has no physical reality. Like a quantum wave function it presents a cloud of probabilities, but until the present moment arrives, they don’t exist. The past consists of the observations and realities that occur when the wave function collapses and the one event — out of an infinite number of possibilities — occurs and the cloud dissipates. “That which is” is continuously emerging from the fog.

We are able to make choices which affect the future; like taking up smoking — or giving it up — these choices have been projected to favor certain probabilities within our personal cloud of future possibilities. Yet there are those who live well into their 90s while continuing to smoke heavily and there are those who die young of lung cancer who have never smoked. We stumble through what we imagine to be the best course, but our limited intelligence can’t peer through the fog very well and, anyway, it is damn hard to give up smoking.

The world in which we stumble is founded upon random mistakes. Naturally occurring mutations happen about 10,000 times per cell per day in humans. Of those trillions and trillions of mistakes, a tiny percentage are beneficial. It’s amazing! Out of an infinite reservoir of mistakes our entire natural world has come into being in its miraculous diversity, beauty and mystery. Most mistakes are useless, harmful or even deadly, but a tiny few convey distinct survival advantages upon the organisms in which they occur and from this, over hundreds of millions of years have emerged platypuses, parasitic wasps, humans and all the other species with whom we share our planet.

Like a mouse in a field, subject to the genetic mistakes which led to success in seeking food, mates and avoiding predation, we scurry about back and forth reacting to random encounters with our environment and those in it who are also stumbling along with us. Looking to God to explain things isn’t very helpful; He’s stumbling too. In the present moment we make what we hope are rational choices. And we pray to God for preferred outcomes. But the truth of our decision making is more like what Jonathan Haidt says in “The Righteous Mind,”

The mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. The rider is our conscious reasoning…Automatic processes run the human mind, just as they have been running animal minds for 500 million years, so they’re very good at what they do… the rider (language-based reasoning) evolved because it did something useful for the elephant… The rider is skilled at fabricating post hoc explanations for whatever the elephant has just done, and it is good at finding reasons to justify whatever the elephant wants to do next. Once human beings developed language… it became extremely valuable for elephants to carry around on their backs a full-time public relations firm.

Humanity is in quite a pickle these days. Like a herd of drunken elephants we have pursued our evolutionary advantages into a “that which is” that is profoundly confusing. The elephant herd looks around bewildered. Masses of riders are busily trying to rationalize the random walk through the Holocene that has led up to this dire new Anthropocene.

The riders can point to impressive successes. Humans are triumphant masters of the planet; covering the surface of the earth with our reproductively successful offspring and our marvelously ingenious technologies. All other creatures cower before us. We can hunt them down, bulldoze their habitat and dam their rivers for our own sustenance and enjoyment. There is, of course, an underside to this, as Aldo Leopold said, our technological innovations are “improvements in the pump, but not the well.”

The elephant herd brays and thunders, consuming voraciously and spreading dung everywhere; oceans fill with plastic, millions of square miles of landfills reach the end of their “trash receiving life,” non-renewable resources require more and more non-renewable fossil fueled energy to extract and, of course, the atmosphere and oceans warm dangerously. These things are not secrets. Riders struggle mightily to rationalize this disaster the elephants have created. It is a curious dilemma; life is so good for so many! Why limit my consumer “lifestyle” if it is the envy of the world? Would you trade places with those in poorer countries for whom such a trade would be the dream of a lifetime?

This all must be treated with a delicate hypocrisy; acknowledging the seriousness of the situation must be done in such a way that doesn’t question the much desired “lifestyle” — as in ever increasing masses of people being able to consume like medieval kings. Lies must be told while not seeming to be lies, because anyone who acknowledges the underlying dismal realities in too harsh a manner guarantees themselves a precipitous decline in the herd’s power hierarchy.

Leaders conceal the truth that their highest priority is climbing up the power hierarchy of the herd and maintaining their positions within it. It is a delicate dance, to proclaim virtue and “concern” for “the environment” while at the same time dealing with popular anger when the “lifestyle” is threatened. Gasoline must not become too expensive; even when an accurate cost — if all the externalities of its extraction, production and consumption were factored in to the price — would cause the herd to stomp and trumpet and dash to pieces anyone trying to enact such a price.

The Drunkard’s Walk the elephant herd has taken through the Holocene occurred and continues to occur within the parameters of the Laws of Nature. It has proceeded via the successful evolution of survival mechanisms which have lead to continued reproductive success. But, confusingly, in spite of this success the herd seems to be stumbling along in an unfortunate direction — towards a steep cliff.

We’ve had a good run. We’ve had some great ones out on the positive end of the Gaussian distribution — Bach, Shakespeare, Beethoven, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, etc… but, of course, they are balanced out by the ones out on the negative end. Nevertheless, it is the vast middle, the reversion to the mean, clustered around the median, that makes its slow rambling course onward out of the fog of probabilities into ‘that which is,” ever closer to the cliff.

It is a wondrous thing how so many riders can see the precipice coming but continue to ride their elephant stumbling towards it. Perhaps God will answer our prayers in his own drunken way and the Yellowstone caldera will blow; it’s due. That would solve a lot of problems. Or maybe a nearby star will go supernova. Or maybe a gamma ray burst in our galaxy will reset life on earth back to near zero. Who knows?

Most likely, though, the herd will stumble off the cliff in the not too distant future and, then, the survivors will pick themselves up, dust themselves off and wander off in a new direction.

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veritas curat

veritas curat

seeking to walk lightly upon the earth in a sacred and humble manner