Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Big T Truth versus Little T Truth

Einstein hated quantum physics. When asked about it he responded, “God does not play dice with the universe.” The problem was, Einstein helped to create quantum physics. Without his groundbreaking work, the pioneers of quantum theory like Max Plank and Edwin Schrodinger wouldn’t have been able to articulate the theory that Einstein hated so much.

The writer of Ecclesiastes -- usually just called “The Teacher” -- does not seem like a fun person to hang around. All throughout the book the refrain: “Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless” keeps coming up. The Teacher is kind of a downer.

The thought is that Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes. We don’t know for sure since the book itself doesn’t say, but in some ways it makes sense. He was the wisest man who ever lived, thanks to God, and he probably wanted to share that wisdom with the world. He also probably wrote big chunks of Proverbs and the Song of Solomon (surprise!). While the tone of Proverbs is very practical and the tone of Song of Solomon is romantic, the tone of Ecclesiastes is depressing. Seriously, Eeyore could have written a happier book.

Einstein rejected the ideas of quantum physics (at least at first) because of all the randomness involved. Without getting too technical, it says that sub-atomic particles aren’t in one place at one time, but in many places all at the same time. There are any number of possibilities for how the particles will move and exist and all of them are right, all at once.

The really freaky thing about quantum physics is that they’ve proven through experiments that the behavior of a particle changes because you observe it. Here’s a cartoon explaining it (it’s still freaky). In the quantum world everything is possible, all at the same time.

The Teacher lived a long life. If it was Solomon, then we know some of the details of having gobs of money, ruling a country, and having nearly a thousand women. Think of Warren Buffett as the unquestioned king of his own country; there is nothing that he couldn’t do. At the end of all of that the answer was this: “Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless.”

Wait, what?

It’s not just that money can’t buy happiness, but neither can sex, power, or even wisdom. It would almost be better to be a stuffed donkey in the Hundred Acre Wood. At least then you wouldn’t have so many people complaining all the time.

At the end of all of the depression and meaninglessness of Ecclesiastes The Teacher sums up the truth: “Fear God and keep his commandments,” (12:13).

That’s it. That’s the truth that The Teacher discovered after all that searching. Fear God; keep his commands. It’s almost like Jesus summing up the entire Law (which is really big, have you read all that stuff?) in just two commands: Love God and love your neighbors.

The intellectual and philosophical age known as modernity (from about 1500 to 2000) tried to use logic and reason to find the right answer. It worked well enough, but the longer it went on the more holes showed through. Eventually people noticed that there were different ways of looking at things and started to question to whole premise of having just one right answer.

That led to postmodernity, which was really just a reaction to modernity. From an intellectual and philosophical standpoint it wasn’t very satisfying. It basically took anything that modernity said and replied with a resounding: “Nuh-uh!”

While the critique of postmodernity is necessary, it doesn’t really offer a better way to figure out the truth. It doesn’t make a move toward truth, but away from it. In rejecting the modern goal of finding the right answer (to rule them all), postmodernity rejects any possibility of having a right answer.

What Einstein and The Teacher illustrate is that the pursuit of truth can be painful and costly. There is an emotional and even physical cost to pay in searching for the truth. And, when you get there, you may not like what you find.

Quantum theory gives us a picture of how our world is put together at the smallest level (that we can currently observe). Our world is not made up of precise gears moving in a specifically prescribed order, but it’s built on randomness and chaos. Yet, in the end, that randomness still settles out to the point where we can live life. We can move, eat, breathe, and send rockets to the moon. For all the randomness, we can still bank on things working a certain way.

Postmodernity is right to question the absolute nature of modernity. The world we live in is made of chaos that we can’t completely predict or control. But modernity was right in that we can use logic and reason to figure out quite a bit about what’s going on.

The difference between truth and Truth is perspective. God knows the Truth -- scratch that, God is the Truth (John 14:6) -- but try as we might we will never completely figure God out. We can come up with some good observations. We can use our logic, reason, and emotions to understand things. But the best we’ll come up with are probabilities.

The reason we can still send a rocket to the moon even though at the quantum level everything is a soup of weirdness is because it all shakes out into the most probable option. Sure our particles have the possibility of flying across the universe at the speed of light, but the overwhelming probability is that they’ll stay put and we’ll keep breathing.

We can’t know for 100 percent certainty that God will or won’t do anything. But we can know to a very high degree of probability how to fear God and keep his commandments. We may not ever know exactly what Jesus meant by every word, but we can know fairly certainly that if we love God with our whole selves and love each other, we’ll be on the right track.


What movie, TV show or other media just infuriates you? Why is that?

What would you do if you won the lottery?

How long do you think you would enjoy having won the lottery? Why?

Do you consider yourself to be more logical or emotional? Why do you think that is?

How is the church better for having the right answer? How is the church worse for thinking it has the right answer?  

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