Faith Across the Multiverse: Parables from Modern Science
Chapter 2: The Hound of Heaven across the Multiverse
By Andy Walsh
We are blogging through the book, “Faith Across the Multiverse, Parables from Modern Science” by Andy Walsh. Today is Chapter 2: The Hound of Heaven across the Multiverse. Walsh begins the chapter by recounting the story of the recent movie, “The Martian”. The Martian is the story of astronaut Mark Watney inadvertently stranded on the surface of Mars and his struggles to survive and be rescued. Walsh notes there are a couple of math equations vital to the story and to Watney’s survival. One would be CT=ϵd, where ϵ represents Watney’s eating rate in calories per day and CT the total calories needed to survive d days. Looking in his pantry tells him he does not have enough food to survive the 400 days until he can be rescued. The equation is straightforward reality; to survive he has to change one of the variables. He can lower his eating rate ϵ, but only to a certain extent because he still has to be able to function. He can hope for rescue sooner, but that is out of his control. His third option is to increase CT by ingeniously fashioning a garden and growing his own food.
Another equation relevant to The Martian is the rocket equation:
Δ V = Vex log [(mr + mf )/ m] – gt
At some point, Watney will have to accelerate his rocket, or change his velocity (ΔV) into orbit around Mars to rendezvous with his rescue ship. He knows how much fuel (mf) he has, which is fixed by what’s in his tanks, and he knows the required exhaust velocity (Vex) or propulsion needed to get high enough into orbit. Acceleration due to gravity (g) is in the opposite direction and is constant for a given planet over the time (t) to achieve the necessary height. The only factor he can change is the mass of rocket (mr) by discarding as much material as he can that he doesn’t need. As Walsh says:
All of that drama flows from the equation, because it encapsulates the relationship of gravity and rocket fuel. The cleverness of the storytelling is to connect that relationship with Watney’s relationship to his home, his future, and his fellow astronauts. The narrative establishes a new equation: lowering rocket mass equals increasing thrust equals Mark Watney catches a ride home. We intuitively understand the human elements, the need to commune with other people and to return home. By constructing the narrative equation this way, we now have a connection between something we understand well and the less familiar physics of rocket science. As we go forward here, we can build on what we have learned about rocket science and the math involved to understand more about God.
Walsh is talking about a mathematical principle called “optimization”.
In the pictured example, the optimal or “highest” point on the figure is indicated by the blue dot. In everyday life, optimization often means finding an alternative with the most cost effective or highest achievable performance under the given constraints, by maximizing desired factors and minimizing undesired ones. We all do this on an almost daily basis; we shop for groceries where we can find the most food that is the most nutritious and best tasting or freshest at the lowest price. If price and quantity are what we want to optimize, we shop the bargain bins, if freshness and nutrition are to be optimized, we shop the pricier stores.
Walsh relates this optimization process to having made the choice of faith discussed in the last chapter to know God as an axiom and explore the truth contained in that axiomatic system, we accept the particular behavioral evaluation function that God establishes. (And he does make the point that there may well be the empirical observation that plenty of people lead functional, socially constructive, and happy lives following another moral code; those alternatives aren’t completely bankrupt or vacuous.)
However, having decided to hold himself to a “biblical” standard, he needs to know what God is trying to optimize. In Isaiah 28:17 it says, “I will make justice the measuring line and righteousness the plumb line” and Micah 6:8 says, “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly”. Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness”. Walsh is trying to say the standards of morality in the Bible are presented within the framework of covenants. Rather than saying, “You must do this because I said so”, God describes what a relationship with Him entails, both the benefits and the conditions. Such relationships can then be built on informed consent, not blind obedience. One common thread through concepts like justice, fairness, and peacemaking is a sense of communal well-being. We are not simply finding the best possible versions of ourselves independent of everyone else, but the best possible collective version of ourselves.
He points out another notable feature of these values we are trying to optimize is the tension between some of them. If we were to maximize only justice, there would be little or no mercy, while maximizing mercy would yield very little justice. In mathematical optimization it is common to have multiple constraints. The optimal solution across all of them might not correspond to the optimal solution for just a single constraint. He asserts that the Bible calls us to balance justice and mercy rather than purely optimizing just one or the other.
He cites the conquering of Canaan that is often held up, if not as an example of God’s wrath, then at the very least of his extreme sense of justice. Yet Joshua also recounts in chapter 9 the experience of the Gibeonites, a group who lived in Canaan. They convinced Joshua and the other Israelite leaders that they weren’t local as a pretense to secure a treaty. Even after the truth is revealed, Israel upholds the treaty and the Gibeonites are spared. This mercy is never condemned, and indeed years later when the Israelite king Saul violates the treaty, he is sanctioned for it (2 Samuel 21).
Jesus also stands up for justice as well as mercy. He cleanses the temple courts of merchants who are exploiting the poor. When he spares a women accused of adultery from stoning, he is showing her mercy while also standing against the injustice of prosecuting her alone.
Walsh wants to conceive of sin as deviating from the path of an optimal version of ourselves. Sin starts when we choose to optimize qualities other than the ones God invites us to optimize. He thinks the Genesis 3 story of Adam and Eve describes this scenario. Adam and Eve walk with God, and he leads them down the path to an optimal existence. The one condition of their arrangement is that they not eat from one specific tree. This is not a hardship, as food is available in abundance. Not eating from the tree is how they communicate that they want to participate in the relationship God offers.
The serpent comes along and offers a different interpretation of what God meant. Adam and Eve could have chosen to use their relationship with God to explore his intended meaning, but instead they decide to make their own meaning. So in choosing their own interpretation for why God prohibited eating from that tree, Adam and Eve also chose to use their own optimization goals rather than God’s. They were no longer following God by his map; they were drawing their own map and forging their own path. And thus their sin was born as they began to deviate from the optimal version of their lives that God offered. Walsh says:
The idea of choosing one’s own qualities to optimize, to forge one’s own path, to be master of one’s own destiny—these may all sound quite positive. Self-determination is a core virtue of libertine society in general and the American mythos I grew up with. I appreciate and respect the value placed on deciding one’s own fate. A great number of injustices have been perpetrated precisely by taking away self-determination, and restoring self-determination has been an important force for justice. Therefore, I am not advocating complete rejection of it, especially in the context of how we relate to each other, and I don’t believe God calls us to that either. At the same time, just as God calls us to balance justice and mercy, he also calls us to balance self-determination with submission to his will.