Sunday, 17 February 2013

Of the Making of Models

I was thinking about models in science and theology, the other day, as you do.

The concept of models in science is generally pretty well understood, I guess. We use them in situations where only analogies will do, or where an approximate model will do to estimate the real thing. These models could be the ball-on-stick models that we use to understand the structure of molecules, or the "solid ball" way of expressing the structure of an atom. Or it could, stretching the definition of "science" a bit, be the sorts of mathematical models that the Treasury use to try and predict how the economy will work. The point about models is that they give you insights into the truth, but they're not the real thing. They're normally either rough approximations to the impossibly complicated real world, or they only show half a truth - as when you fire electrons at a diffraction grating and realise the hard-ball model doesn't work on this occasion.

Maybe some of the things we deal with in church are much the same? I was chatting to some Christians this morning who hold the full fundamentalist view on these things. To them, the story of salvation goes like this:

God created a perfect world.
"Man" disobeyed. (I use their terminology, because it's their salvation story). 
It got sharply worse from there on in. The "sin" of the first munched forbidden fruit spread like a virus into all the resultant branches and twigs of the human family tree. 
God was so angry that someone had to pay for all the sins that the humans were now coming up with. 
It was Jesus who died, to make that payment. 
God's wrath was satisfied, he wasn't angry any more, and now we are one big happy family. 
Or, at least, all the conservative evangelicals and God are one big happy family. The rest of us will have to make other arrangements.

As I say, I may be approximating. But that's my model of their story. If any fundamentalists or more conservative evangelicals are reading this, and I've got it wrong, I apologise and will correct it.

To my mind, there's a few things I have problems with here. The main one being the idea of Adam and Eve. Put quite simply, I don't believe they existed. There, I've said it. I don't believe Adam and Eve lived in a garden called Eden before there were any other people about, and then after all that fuss with the snake and the apple, Cain went off and married some of the other people that weren't about. And I don't not believe it just because what I wrote pointed out one of the more obvious problems with the literalist view. I more don't believe it because if Genesis 2ff were literally true, then  a vast body of science isn't true. And my experience of the scientific method is that it works - which is why I'm writing this blog on a netbook and not scrawling it in charcoal on a cave wall under a picture of a buffalo.

But the story in Genesis 2 does work for me whether it's literally true or not. A man, a woman, a temptation, a right and wrong decision, and the wrong one made - that works for me. Tells me a ton of stuff about human beings. And that story about sin spreading - as it were - genetically or virally, and everyone being affected and God getting angry and sending a cure - well, it doesn't make much sense to me. But maybe that's because, for me, it's not a very good model.

The thing is, faced with something awesome, incredible and - at a very deep level - inexplicable in straightforward terms, we head for models. The early Christians knew something marvellous had happened, and came up with some explanations - payments, punishments, baptismal imagery. There's dozens of models of salvation at different times through history - I like Christ the Victor - punching the Dark One on the nose and smashing the gates of hell down. Or Christ the Upholder - dragging a universe upwards towards the Father, but having to get underneath it - deep in the depths - himself first. It just seems a shame to have to lump all the richness of the story of people and God into one model - rather as if we are allowed to believe that electrons are waves, or that they're little balls, but not both.

In fact, you could say there's loads of models of Jesus in the New Testament as well, as the early Church ransacked their vocabulary - cornerstone, Messiah, Son of David, King of the Jews, priest-king like Melchizedek... each with its own nuances, its own language, its own insights.

So I'd like to be able to refer to "Adam and Eve" without anyone thinking I believe that these people existed, except figuratively. I am aware that their power to explain is just as great whether they existed or not - in the same way that talking about electron "orbitals" makes sense, even though I know electrons don't literally orbit round the nucleus the same way that the earth orbits the sun. I know sin is an unmeasurable thing - and an old concept. Maybe that model of sin as a virus or genetic failure doesn't work any more - we need a different model. Or maybe it just doesn't work for me. Maybe we need to think of Jesus as paying a debt, not an enormous fine. Maybe we need to look at him as being in solidarity with our state, rather than taking our punishment. Or maybe we can use all of those models, when they make sense, while remembering that, when we're approaching a situation where the model doesn't work, we can lay it down and pick up another one.

Those stick-and-ball molecules served their purpose. But, no matter how strong your microscope, you'll never see a little black carbon ball connected to another one by a pipe-cleaner stick. 


  1. You've stolen my sermon on "The Metaphor of God Incarnate"!

  2. Being a non-scientist I tend to talk of facets of the truth, but the meaning's the same.

  3. As a person who once aspired to be a scientist, I remember thinking of models as a kind of fraud. You'd work as hard as you could to figure out one, and then someone would come along and say "Oh, that one's not really right, learn THIS one." And eventually someone would say exactly the same thing about the new model and present a newer one.

    I know intellectually that each model is a different (and maybe nearer) approximation to the truth, but it doesn't feel that way.

  4. I think we'll always be limited by our language and various intellectual frameworks when it comes to how accurate our casual (linguistic) models of reality can be, the double slit experiment is a classic example of this in that we simply don't have the everyday language to describe this behaviour (no reason why we should!). We do however have mathematics, but not everyone wants (or needs) to pay the heavy price in terms of time to understand Feynman's path integral formulations (including me!) I still believe there's a big difference between good and bad models though, something about utility and fitness rather than beauty or age, not all models are created equal, just look at Kate Moss!


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