Models vs. Reality

A little-known change in the attempt to learn about nature happened, in a sense, several hundred years ago. People replaced Natural Philosophy with mathematical Science, in which the attempt to know what nature is was replaced with mathematical models of nature which can predict measurable aspects of nature.

The difference between these two things is that a model may, possibly, tell you about what the underlying reality is. On the other hand, it may not. Models can be accurate entirely by accident.

Trivial examples are always easier, so consider the following model of how often Richard Dawkins is eaten by an alligator, where f is the number of times he’s been eaten by an alligator and t is the time (in the sense of precise date):

f(t) = 0

This model is accurate to more than 200 decimal places. If you conclude from this model that Richard Dawkins is alligator-proof and throw him in an alligator pit to enjoy the spectacle of frustrated alligators, you will be very sadly mistaken. But it’s so accurate!

This is of course a silly example; no one would ever confuse this model or its accuracy for a full description of reality. However, there’s a very interesting story from astronomy where people did exactly that.

I’m speaking, in particular, of the long-running Ptolemaic model of the planets and its eventual overthrow of the Copernican model. The Ptolemaic model was the one where the earth was at the center of the solar system and the planets traveled in cycles and epicycles around it. The thing about this model is that it was actually extremely accurate in its predictions.

(If you’re wondering how it could be so accurate while being so wrong, the thing you have to realize is that Special Relativity actually means that it’s just fine for the earth to be taken as the center of the coordinate. The math just gets harder for some calculations; this is basically what happened. The Ptolemaic model was, basically, a close approximation of that more complicated math.)

However, there is a yet simpler example of incorrect models producing correct results: just consider, for two minutes, that for most of history everyone believed that the Sun orbited the earth and yet they still had highly accurate calendars. Despite not thinking of a year as the time the earth takes to orbit the Sun they nevertheless recorded the years and predicted the solstices with great precision.

Incidentally, if you’re interested in a full history of the shift from the Earth being the center of the solar system to the Sun being at the center, be sure to read the extraordinarily good series of articles by TOF, The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown (originally published in Analog magazine). It is very well worth your time.

The Lessons of Beetles

I once heard a story which I have dearly loved ever since. It was originally told as a joke, I believe, but I think it actually captures an important theological insight:

Some time in the seventeenth century a naturalist, funded by the crown, returned from one of his voyages and came to an audience before the Queen, who was the one principally responsible for his being funded. After he recounted some of his more interesting discoveries the Queen asked him, “And what have your investigations into the natural world taught you about the Creator?” The naturalist paused for a moment to consider, then replied, “That he has an inordinate fondness for beetles.”

Beetles currently comprise about 25% of known life-forms and 40% of all known insects, with new species of beetles being described all the time (currently there are around 400,000 described species of beetles). Clearly, God loves beetles. But humans who love beetles are considered quite weird: in movies they’re usually played by scrawny guys wearing glasses and bad haircuts and given dialog which proves in every line that they have neither social skills nor friends. And in fairness, God does stand alone; “from whom does God take counsel?” and all that. But the critical difference is, of course, why.

Human beings, being fallen creatures, love things primarily out of need. We are a dying species in a dying world, and we seek scraps of life wherever we can get them. This is almost a literal description of eating food, but it is more relevantly a description of the things we enjoy. We go on hikes because the beauty of trees and rocks and sunshine fills us up for a little while. We go on roller coasters because the rush of power reminds us for a moment that we are alive. We’ll even go to the ruins of ancient buildings made by long-dead hands because, remote as it is, we can feed on the crumbs of life which spilled over when someone was so filled with life that he built something only that it might exist. Art, when it is not purely commercial, is an act of generosity, and therefore life, because things are generous precisely to the degree that they live.

God stands apart because God is fully alive, and therefore needs nothing. He is not just fully alive, he is life itself, or as Saint Thomas Aquinas put it, the “subsistent act of to be”. (Subsistent in this case meaning to be in itself, rather than in another as a subject; the terms of scholastic philosophy are rather specialized.) God loves things in a purely generous way. He does not love anything because it is interesting; it is interesting because he loves it. When Saint John famously said, “God is love”, that might reasonably be rendered, “God is generosity”. Generosity, after all, comes from the same root as “generate”.

God loves all things into existence that he may give them more and bring them from potentiality into full actuality with him in his eternal actuality, which is why God does not disdain the smallest thing. We disdain the small things because our needs are so great; God needs nothing, and so he disdains nothing. God is interested in everything because his ability to give is so great.

God loves beetles, and he even loves the dung which the dung beetles feed on. There is no spec of dust on any cold and lonely planet so far from its sun that the sun just looks like another star in its sky which is not immediately in the presence of God. Most of our lives are made up of mundane moments no one would ever make a movie about; perhaps we can all take comfort, as we trudge through the details of everyday life, from the fact that God is inordinately fond of beetles. For it means that the smallness and dullness of our lives is only a defect in our sight.