Faith Across the Multiverse, Parables from Modern Science- Chapter 0: The Power of Babel Fish, By Andy Walsh

Faith Across the Multiverse: Parables from Modern Science — Chapter 0: The Power of Babel Fish

By Andy Walsh

We are going to blog through the book, “Faith Across the Multiverse, Parables from Modern Science” by Andy Walsh.  RJS, the science blogger from Jesus Creed, has reviewed the book as well here, and here .  She said:

My personal favorite is Andy Walsh’s Faith Across the Multiverse. In this book Walsh mixes fiction (usually science fiction of a sort), math, science, and the bible to explore our understanding of the Christian faith and the ways it can be made to live in our times.  I’ve been slowly working through it and will continue.  This is a good book for the science student, engineer or other interested Christian. It also provides insight into the coherence between modern science and Christian faith and may be useful to any one interested in evangelism today. This is for the science geeks among us (and I put myself in that category).

Andy Walsh

Andy Walsh completed his postdoctoral fellowship at Carnegie Mellon University in computational biology.  He earned a PhD in molecular microbiology and immunology for the Bloomberg School of Public Health at John Hopkins University.  Andy serves as science writer for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s Emerging Scholars blog, and his writing can also be found on the Patheos network and in The Behemoth, a Christianity Today publication.

Walsh intends in this book to visit several domains of science; math, physics, biology, and computer science and reveal how each one has illuminated his reading of the Bible while also using science fiction to help us wrap our minds around the new ideas.  He is going to try and use what he sees as common themes and motifs and share the metaphors that he has discovered by learning what modern science has been up to for the past few centuries that have helped him make sense of words written several millennia ago.  So far the book has been a unique mixture of science, science fiction, and humor that Walsh has used, not to set out abstract theological propositions, but to see if simple principles from the past can encompass the complexity of the present and abstract ideas like faith, sin, and grace can be defined in terms that make sense to nerdy, funny scientists.

Chapter 0 is called, “The Power of the Babel Fish”, which is a reference to Douglas Adams and his famous book, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”.  The Babel Fish is… well… let’s just quote Adams from the book:

“The Babel fish is small, yellow and leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the Universe. It feeds on brainwave energy received not from its own carrier but from those around it. It absorbs all unconscious mental frequencies from this brainwave energy to nourish itself with. It then excretes into the mind of its carrier a telepathic matrix formed by combining the conscious thought frequencies with the nerve signals picked up from the speech centers of the brain which has supplied them. The practical upshot of all this is that if you stick a Babel fish in your ear you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language. The speech patterns you actually hear decode the brainwave matrix which has been fed into your mind by your Babel fish.

Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mindbogglingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen it to see it as a final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God.

The argument goes something like this: “I refuse to prove that I exist,” says God, “for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.”

“But,” says Man, “the Babel fish is a dead giveaway isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and therefore, by your own arguments, you don’t. QED.”

“Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn’t thought of that,” and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.

“Oh, that was easy,” says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets killed on the next zebra crossing.”

So Walsh wants to begin at the end, as in the end of the world.  No, he doesn’t throw out end-time scenarios of destruction and judgement, he points out the end of the world is a great place to eat.  Which, again, is a reference to Adam’s second book in the Hitchhiker’s Guide trilogy, “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe”. The restaurant of the title is a place where the characters go and can literally watch the end of the Universe during dinner.  Walsh points out the Bible has a similar story arc:

The last chapters of the Bible describe a great wedding feast at the end of the world. People from all over the world and all throughout time celebrate together; it is the place to be.  Money isn’t an issue, no one could afford the price if it were.  A strict dress code is enforced, however.  The good news is that if you choose to attend, arrangements have been graciously made to provide the necessary clothes for you.  The wedding gives the Bible the structure of a comedy, not in the humorous sense of Adam’s books but the classical sense of resolving with a community reconciled to itself via symbolic or literal marriage.

Now that is a clever bit of hermeneutic that I have never considered before!  Now if we are to make an informed decision about whether we want to attend this banquet, we need to know what we are committing to.  Who is God? What is He like?  Is he the sort of God with whom we would wish to spend a possibly infinite amount of time?  After all, even brief social occasions can drag insufferably when we are with the wrong people; that goes double for eternity.

The Bible provides information to guide such a decision.  Through it we may know God.  God revealed himself in particular ways to specific people at specific times, in order that the whole of the human race could come to know him.  In the first two chapters of Genesis, God gives Adam two jobs.  The first is a long-term, open-ended project given to all living things, to be fruitful and multiply.  The second is a task specific to Adam: to name all of the animals.  In one sense the job is done when Adam names them all.  In another, Walsh says, Adam has merely initiated the ongoing work of science to name everything in the physical world.  And by giving Adam this job, God gave Adam, and by implication all of humankind, a powerful tool for knowing God, a Babel fish that interprets the physical universe into a language that helps us to know God relationally.

An example of the unusual way Walsh uses his science analogies is anticipating the return of Messiah.  Several sections of the Bible tell the reader to expect Jesus of Nazareth, having died and resurrected, to return in the flesh.  When those texts were written, his return was expected at any moment.  Jesus himself implied he would come back at any time.  “Therefore you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him” (Matthew 24:44).  We have experience waiting for other people.  On average, people arrive on time.  The longer we wait for someone the less likely the person we are waiting for is actually coming.  We have an expectation of a probability of the person showing up that fits a Gaussian distribution—you know the typical bell curve.

The upper and lower tails reflect the probability that the person will show up earlier or later.  So if we have the expectation that Jesus is showing up under a Gaussian probability, then 2000 years is pretty late and we might be tempted to conclude he isn’t showing up at all.

However, the Gaussian distribution doesn’t describe everything.  There are plenty of normal phenomena that deviate from the Gaussian model.  Failure times of electronics follow a distribution other than the Gaussian.  Assuming a defect-free electronic, how long a device has been running tells you very little about how likely it is to fail at any given time. Some electronic components work just fine, right up until they don’t, and there is rarely a measurable indication that failure is getting closer.  Unexpected, unscheduled arrivals work the same way; the person isn’t there right up until the moment they are, with no signal of their approach.  Walsh says:

The exponential distribution can model wait times for these scenarios well.  One reason is the fact that the model is memoryless.  Memoryless means the probability of our friend showing up now, given we’ve been waiting ten minutes, is the same as if we’d been waiting for ten years or ten centuries.  One way to understand this is to look at a plot of the distribution, which shows that any later portion of the distribution is proportional to the whole (illustrated in Figure 0.2)… Even though it is counterintuitive, it is perfectly reasonable from a mathematical perspective to say the return of Jesus is just as likely now that we’ve been waiting for two thousand years as it was when his disciples had only been waiting for ten hours or ten weeks.

The discovery that a math concept could illuminate our reading of the Bible is just the type of experience that Walsh wants to demonstrate can be a way of knowing God through science, rather than just knowing of him.  This should be interesting.

46 thoughts on “Faith Across the Multiverse, Parables from Modern Science- Chapter 0: The Power of Babel Fish, By Andy Walsh

  1. The problem I observe among my evangelical in-laws is that it’s a personal relationship in name only. Once the conversion to Christ happens, and faith is professed, that’s it; .

    The deal is closed, you’ve got your Fire Insurance (individual, not group), and free complementary Rapture Boarding Pass.

    from that point on, the main thing involved in the relationship is that one witnesses to Christ, and makes other converts.

    That’s how you pay for your Fire Insurance; by making commission on selling more policies, to be cashed in on J-Day for your position in Heaven.

    Sheep whose only purpose is to Save More Sheep whose only purpose is to Save More Sheep.

    The guy that founded Campus Crusade called it “Multiplying Ministry”.
    Everyone else calls it “just like a pyramid scheme”.


  2. Actually, it’s not just theological conjecture. Church mystics have been saying something like this, or in line with it, from early on. There are even intimations of it in the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments.


  3. Aye, there’s the rub in describing one’s relationship to God as personal. I don’t talk with God the way I do with my wife or others; how then can it be a personal relationship? Some may have such a relationship; the apostles certainly did, as they spoke to Jesus and he responded directly to them in so many words. But not me or the vast majority of Christians and Jews throughout history, as you say Eeyore. How then can I insist, and I do, that if Jesus is a person, and if I’m in relationship to him, it must be a personal relationship?

    Obviously, my thoughts on this amount to theological conjecture, but I find some grounding in them for my own spirituality and my sense of my relationship to a personal God. To wit: The way we as human persons normally relate to each other, via language and other signals, includes so much that is false, so much misrepresentation of ourselves and others, our desires, motivations, and secret lives, so much evasion, that our ways of speaking, our languages, our communications are full of deafening distortion. As a result, God chooses most of the time to address us in a language that is indistinguishable to us from silence, that is direct and immediate in a way our mediating and indirect words and communications are not. God’s thorough knowledge of us needs no mediating language, exactly because his knowledge is immediate in a way spoken words and other signals are not; likewise, God can and usually does address us in a way that is immediate and direct, that does not play into the falsity that our languages are full of. God uses his own direct language because he chooses not to play the games we do with our indirect and deceiving words. The Christian mystics have much to say about this, and even if we are not mystics ourselves (though I’m not sure we aren’t all mystics to some degree), we can and should learn from them about the personal, unmediated, and transcendent nature and character of God’s speech to us. “Deep calls to deep…”


  4. But the revivalistic branch of Christianity, in the reverse of Chronos, devours its fathers and mothers in the faith. I saw it among the Southern Baptists who accused the very Constantinian Dutch Reformed of not being converted, only to be surprised when the charismatics applied the same tactic to them fifteen years later.

    Welcome to the French Revolution, Citizen.


  5. The Good Christian People have already anticipated you, Christiane:
    2) “Science” So-Called or WORD OF GAWD!
    3) It’s All Gonna Burn anyway. “This World Is Not My Home, I’m Just Passin’ Thru…”


  6. Well, unless God is holding actual two-way conversations with you on a regular basis, that is as “personal” as you can possibly get.


  7. But even if mathematics is the only evidence that can be adduced, and even if it were sufficient as stand-alone evidence, it implies that the multiverse is really just a ginormous universe, in which all the far-flung neighborhoods obey the laws of mathematics, which is the overarching system that connects them all. Hence, multiverse remains a misnomer; it’s really a universe connected by mathematical superstructure, which implies a common causal force behind the far-flung neighborhoods.


  8. A bird in the hand (whom you’ve met personally) is worth two in the bush (whom you’ve never met, though you believe they must exist, because you’ve read their books and repeated their prayers).


  9. These two quotes are germane I think.
    Both are attributed to Nikola Tesla:

    “Today’s scientists have substituted mathematics for experiments, and they wander off through equation after equation, and eventually build a structure which has no relation to reality.”


    “The scientists of today think deeply instead of clearly. One must be sane to think clearly, but one can think deeply and be quite insane.”


  10. I see Reformed Christianity as a strange bird, kind of halfway between the catholic and revivalistic camps, or being the transormational form between the two.

    In real life, I have never met a Francis-level Christian, catholic or otherwise. I read their books, repeat their prayers, and thus believe they exist. Thus, I can say that two or three of the Reformed people I’ve been fortunate to know with are the holiest Christians I have met. It doesn’t make me want to be Reformed again though, nor does it subtract from their excellence that the bar is not set very high.


  11. I think God fully revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ, so I think the images proffered to us by God in his incarnation and life provide direct knowledge of him. There is one caveat I would make, however, and it’s a big one: Even in the case of another mere human being, I can never completely plumb or know the depths of their inner life. None of us have access even to the deepest depths of our own lives, never mind those of others; only God has access to them. In the case of Jesus Christ, the depths of his inner personal life must be infinitely greater than any other human person, and so there is much that we don’t know, not because God holds back, but because personality is endlessly deep in his case. It is this were invited to explore and endlessly learn to know throughout eternity.


  12. Yet you’ve said elsewhere in the iMonk comments that some of the Reformed believers you were acquainted with were the holiest people you’ve ever known personally. How does that fit in with your comment, with regard to the catholic version of Christianity being the one that has more success in developing holy people?


  13. That’s my thinking too. Honestly I don’t know how it could be anything other. The only questions to me revolve around the nature of that relationship. Carl Young said that we could not know God directly but only though the prism of archetypal images. I disagree with him on that front but not too terribly much. We do see dimly through a glass and knowing God is a lifetime’s quest that barely even begins BUT it is the essential Christian element. We become an individual living expression of God as we develop (growing up into Him in all things). Faulty in our handling of this gift, yes. That goes without saying. Still it is the very thing He is after. Love is by definition a living thing. He takes on our flesh and loves as we love. No longer I but Christ in me, etc. We become our essential and I truest selves as one facet of a trillion sided diamond named God. It’s only through that relationship that we find out we are one in body and Spirit with Him. I’m going on now so I’ll end with this: if everything I experience from simple prayers to unpronounceable deep stuff is only me yacking to myself and God is not entwined in it then I am to be pitied if not mildly disdained. Still my whole life’s experience tells me different so I move along contented. This may have all been overreaction to Adam’s statement and he wasn’t saying what I thought, I don’t know. Anyway, gotta get to work now.


  14. Even worse.
    Multi-level-marketing upstream rather than boss.

    This contrast between Christianity in its catholic and its revivalistic forms has bedevilled me for some time.

    In its more catholic, time-worn manifestations, you have the state Churches, or at least the expectation that eveyone born into that society is a Christian of some sort. Nobody gets “born again”, although spiritual illuminations and experiences are common. What is surprising is that a high level of sanctity (St. Francis, St Seraphim of Sarov, Mother Basilea Schlinck) is often achieved by Christians operating under this paradigm, despite the fact that most cannot point to a discrete “conversion moment”.

    Under the revivalistic paradigm, the catholics are not Christian in any significant sense. Baptism merely moistens them, and they are cordwood for Hell. The “personal relationship with Jesus ” is paramount with this crowd, and they are the ones who point out that the best of the catholics usually have a realtionship with the Church, whereas the worst are generally preoccupied mostly with “the flesh”; eating, drinking, dressing, copulating, and amassing wealth before they drop unlamented into the grave and Hell. You would think that a “personal relationship with Jesus” would produce some cardinal Christians, but my experience has been that the revivalistic paradigm has a worse track record for producing Francis-level Christians than the catholic paradigm.

    What makes this contrast worse for me is that I had a revivalistic experience myself. I wasn’t really all that interested in Christianity, although I was fascinated by Hinduism, Buddhism, and astrology. Then I started reading the New Testament with what I thought was an open mind, and I was amazed by the portrait of Jesus that emerged from the pages. I attempted a typical revivalistic transaction with the Jesus I encountered in the Gospels and I guess I got “born again”. The interesting thing was that I never understood the darkness-to-light contrast so crucial in revivalistic conversion stories. I never thought I was that bad before, and I certainly didn’t improve very much afterwards, or if I did, it was incremental and uncertain at best.

    My sojourn in Reformed-dom, where they take this sort of introspection v-e-r-y seriously, taught me to believe that I was insufficiently converted, having never undergone a ‘law work’ that displayed to me my absolute wretchedness in inability ot meet God’s righteous standard. However, even among the neo-Puritans I found none who would admit to having undergone this level of conversion either. the “law work’ was like a piece of pre-Columbian ceramic work in a museum, perfect in its context but nobody was producing the same sort of thing these days.

    But the revivalistic branch of Christianity, in the reverse of Chronos, devours its fathers and mothers in the faith. I saw it among the Southern Baptists who accused the very Constantinian Dutch Reformed of not being converted, only to be surprised when the charismatics applied the same tactic to them fifteen years later.


  15. I think God is personal, since I believe God is fully present as the Lord Jesus Christ, who was and is a person,and that therefore, whatever else it might be, my relationship to him would have to also be a personal one.


  16. That’s particularly what I’m speaking about. Adam seems to be saying that the whole idea of an experiential and cognitive relationship between human and God is not only not possible but not biblical. Am I correct?


  17. Could somebody clear something up for me: If multiverse is actually true, then it’s not “the multiverse”, right, because there is no causal connection between the multitude of universes, they are completely discrete individual entities without any overlap or relationship whatsoever, right? I mean, if they existed inside a wider framework together, then they would not be a multiverse, but just various neighborhoods of a single universe much bigger than we have evidence for or can observe right at the moment, right? Doesn’t the idea of “a multiverse”, or “the multiverse”, neutralize the whole idea of what would actually constitute the state of affairs described by the idea of multiple, discrete universes? Yes, no?


  18. The strange attractor/grace-freewill math exercise RJS referred to in the book review is very interesting as well.


  19. The problem I observe among my evangelical in-laws is that it’s a personal relationship in name only. Once the conversion to Christ happens, and faith is professed, that’s it; from that point on, the main thing involved in the relationship is that one witnesses to Christ, and makes other converts. It’s more like a business relationship than a personal one, with God as the boss and you as an employee.


  20. It is when it’s ALL That Is.

    Since the tent-meeting Revivals, Evangelicals have been committed to “A Gospel of Personal Salvation and ONLY Personal Salvation”. Add entropy and you get Self-Absorption if not Ayn Rand-level Selfishness. No Church, no Community, only Lone Ranger Saved and their individual Personal LORD And Savior(TM).


  21. An awful lot of Jewish scholarly and religious dialogues have to do with ‘resolving’ conflicting points of view in a way that respect both viewpoints but doesn’t dismiss how the different viewpoints truly vary, which is obviously a kind of ‘peace-making’ on a very high level, but it is part of the Talmudic tradition to engage in this kind of discussion.

    I’m wondering if the work of Dr. Gerald Lawrence Schroeder is related in some way to the model of viewing ‘time’ as expressed in the post.
    Here is a quote and a link that tells about this rabbi/scientist/author and some of his proposed ‘reconciliations’ of orthodox Jewish belief and modern science in the field of ‘time stretching’:

    “Schroeder attempts to reconcile a six-day creation as described in Genesis with the scientific evidence that the world is billions of years old using the idea that the perceived flow of time for a given event in an expanding universe varies with the observer’s perspective of that event. He attempts to reconcile the two perspectives numerically, calculating the effect of the stretching of space-time, based on Einstein’s general relativity.”

    we have in our Christianity those in fundamentalism who say to their children ‘you can’t believe in evolution and still be saved’; and sometimes, unable to accept that ‘truth’ from the people they trust most, the children, when older, may encounter ‘evidence’ to the contrary and, thinking themselves ‘unsaved’, may walk away from the Church.
    Soooooo . . . . maybe it would be of value to find some OTHER viewpoint that can help resolve the issue for these young people in a way that ‘reconciles’ their upbringing with their startled encounter with scientific evidence, in a way that preserves for them some integral way to see both viewpoints by examining God’s view of ‘time’ (for example, to God ‘a day is as a thousand years’ ) ??

    There IS some use of ways of reconciling differences while still respecting the differences . . . . at least for those who struggle between two worlds: the strict orthodox/fundamentalist and the honest seeker of scientific knowledge about the natural world.

    So I say, bring on the ‘new parables’ if it helps people, as long as honesty and integrity and mutual respect are not compromised.


  22. But… did you know that 42 is the ASCII value for the asterisk (*) which is used in computer terms to signify everything?


  23. The drug of choice for mathematics is not alcohol but caffeine. And I’m told that pot really helps with the quantum physics.


  24. Imre Lakatos has applied Falsification to Mathematics which seriously injures the math-is-not-a-science argument. However. it is very difficult to stay awake through those conversations – especially after a couple beers.


  25. > The big evangelical push, and I’m not faulting it, was and is a “personal relationship”

    I am willing to challenge that push as a deep fundamental essential failure to understand scripture, God, and humanity..


  26. The big evangelical push, and I’m not faulting it, was and is a “personal relationship” with the Lord. What I am faulting is the nature of that relationship. It seems once it is established it falls into a static, formulaic trough. It becomes wooden. The same words are said with an occasional tweak. There is no humor, or woefully little. There is little honesty when it comes to the negatives. “I’m bored” or “”I’m pissed off” are completely foreign to any conversation and would just never happen. There is no subtlety. It’s all fairly predictable and repetitive. I don’t see joy or growth in that. A living, vital relationship has to have a similar feel to the humanness that was referred to by Merton because that is where we live and what we are made of. It is the human side of the God/Man Union. Take the human out and put some phony god like automaton image of what is ‘supposed’ to be holy and you end up with a desert. There has to be a natural element to the Devine relationship and that means ebb and flow and up and down and Life.


  27. “The Ultimate Answer to Life, The Universe and Everything is…42!”

    ? Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

    I think this quote is as good as anyone will get to knowing just what is being talked about.


  28. Good Morning Robert,
    sadly by the time some of these good Christian people sort it out that the REAL ‘demons’ were the greedy Petroleum Industry barons, it may be too late to set things right.


  29. I don’t understand the math. I’m not good at math, or the sciences in general, for that matter. The stuff Walsh and you are saying here I have to take on faith. A lot of people are in my position; they’re not good at the math and science, so they can’t really follow the arguments or discussions.

    Where I differ from many of my coreligionists is that I trust that the science community is not out to falsify reality, or lie to me; and that the scientific method (which I have a fundamental, though rude, understanding of, thanks to my public school science-positive education) is a reliable way to know reality, because it is predicated on the common sense way we perceive, think about and approach reality in daily life, albeit with the distortions of ordinary perception and faulty thinking filtered out as much as possible.

    But many Christians believe that scientists are deceived and/or deceiving, and that either the scientific method itself or the way it is practiced by the scientific community is not a reliable way to understand reality. They’ve been taught a hermeneutic of suspicion regarding science and scientists, based on a hermeneutic of suspicion regarding reality itself. What they believe and have been taught about reality is that Satan and/or their their sinful natures, and the sinful natures of other people, are constantly distorting their perception of it, and the perceptions of scientists, and that the ultimate purpose and result of these distortions is to condemn them into everlasting hell. This tradition of religious paranoia as taught by many branches of Christianity, particularly with regard to how the demons intend to deceive human beings, requires them to believe there is a grand, demonic conspiracy of disinformation that permeates the creation. The scientific community is victim and purveyor (wittingly or unwittingly) of this conspiracy, as are the social and political structures and influences that surround us.

    Is it any wonder that Christians are so prone to conspiracy theories, and so easily prey to them? They believe their eternal felicity depends on them not getting conned; ironically enough, this makes them distrust the people who are telling them the truth, such as scientists, and trust the con men who read and know how to play and manipulate their weaknesses and fears.


  30. And speaking of ‘illumination’, it’s St. Lucia’s Day. A good day to read the introduction to the Holy Gospel of St. John


  31. > The discovery that a math concept could illuminate..

    Pfftt! It’s Math! Of course it can illuminate.

    When all other lights have gone out Math will show you the way [or at least honestly, calmly, tell you: “Nope, you’re screwed, there is a giant spider in here. Bye!”].


  32. In His wisdom, it would be a miracle if Our Lord were to use the familiar to call us to engage with that which we may not yet understand spiritually. But St. John Chrysostom has noted that this kind of ‘miracle’ has already happened:

    “For in His condescension to men, He called the wise men by a star, the fishermen by their art of fishing. ”
    (St John Chrysostom)

    so if Andy Walsh “. . . is going to try and use what he sees as common themes and motifs and share the metaphors that he has discovered by learning what modern science has been up to for the past few centuries that have helped him make sense of words written several millennia ago”;
    then he is in sync with St. John Chrysostom’s idea that God has already demonstrated that He is ABLE to use mankind’s familiarity with the natural world in order to help us to understand what is spiritual and transcendent and and ‘unseen’ and belongs to Him Who is ‘unto the ages of ages’.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: