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 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.