In the last essay I posted, Mathematical Models of Human Communities: Local and Global Processes, I discussed briefly my oft-stated opinion that we need to model human nature, personal and communal, by a model (qualitative and quantitative) which is much like those of the theory of general relativity where local regions of space and time are, so to speak, Euclidean and Newtonian, while larger regions of space and time (with great mass also being a form of `larger’) are curved into some non-Euclidean and relativistic geometry. Even such a model doesn’t do the `whole’ job. That model of human nature must be seen as a general model of particular entities interacting in what we might call narratives or stories and much of what is important is found in those narratives or stories.
That prior posting was written as a response to specific comments by the physicist Wolfgang Weidlich in his book, Sociodynamics: A Systematic Approach to Mathematical Modelling in the Social Sciences (Dover Publications, 2006), which was an effort to develop a model of some aspects of human communities. I’ll continue responding to specific comments made by Weidlich in that book. As is my custom, I’ll be playing off a work worthy of respect in order to take a discussion in the direction of my worldview, a sort-of Thomistic philosophy expanded to explicitly consider modern empirical knowledge, including both the ways in which the ideas of St Thomas Aquinas on human nature are enriched and complexified by drawing upon the insights of modern evolutionary biology and brain sciences and also the ways in which the ideas of St John the Evangelist on the primacy of relationships over stuff are enriched and complexified by drawing upon the insights of quantum physics and modern mathematics.
In this short essay, I’ll move on to deal with narratives, stories, which aren’t even parts of this world so much as they are the world and certainly even our human lives, individual and communal.
On page 149, Weidlich writes:
These large scale transitions in societies [such as that from the liberal Wiemar republic system to the totalitarian Nazi system] are mostly of a tragic nature. They include the breakdown of a whole political system, the liquidation of its established institutions etc, and for the people involved as witnesses and/or active or passive participants it means a break in their personal biography, and in the worst case of the arisal of a violent totalitarian regime it can mean concentration camp and death for its victims.
Each of such large scale phase-transitions is of course a unique event in so far as it will never recur in exactly the same form. however, in each event of this kind there appear universal structures of human character and social behaviour which play an essential role in enabling political phase-transitions.
“[U]nique event[.]” Indeed. I emphasize this is Weidlich’s term and I’ll claim without qualification he is right to use such a term. We’re dealing with unique events in a story moving forward. Whatever might be the truth or legend of tales, sometimes egomaniacal boasts, of genocidal brutality in the Hebraic books of the Bible, none of those ruthless men were Hitler. Nor were the Mongols under Genghis Khan and his descendants much the Nazis though they did share a brutal attitude toward other human beings. Ruthless killers they were, but they followed different ways of killing, different ways of being cruel to survivors. And the brutality of the Medieval Mongols was differently motivated from that of the 20th century Nazis.
The title of this essay says much: We live in narratives, not models. Models, whether those of modern physics or social sciences, can tell us much about some specific aspects or specific types of flows of events in a narrative of a human life, whether that of an individual or a community. Models, as they are generally understood and are generally built, can’t reproduce the richness and complexity, the “uniqueness” and “randomness” of our human lives. So far, no one has even managed to built a model true to the more quantitative narrative of the physical universe. Such will likely occur and maybe soon, but the point is the difficulty of even a `straightforward’ model of physical processes of a more complex sort.
There is such a thing as reality. Some would wish to override reality with selected pieces or aspects of reality from which they would construct all that exists or at least pretend to do so. In reality, in the universe as human beings know it and as it can reliably be described to truly be, narratives exist and are not limited to what can be found in the algorithms of human models. Those narratives include “unique events” and also “random events” (sometimes, but not always being the same events). Sometimes those events are such that they can be used to enrich a model going forward. Sometimes not; sometimes they are of a nature beyond the mainstream discipline of modeling. I’m arguing for the expansion of our understanding of reality to include what might be called the qualitative tools of mathematics and some of those can be added to models, but only at the expense of making those models at least somewhat indeterminate and at least somewhat non-quantitative. And, even then, we don’t know if our knowledge of being, abstract and concrete, is great enough for us to produce a proper encapsulation of this universe, of this world which is this universe seen in light of God’s purposes for it, and of all of Creation.
I have used the word `encapsulation’ as I often do in my discussions of the nature of the human mind and how it forms. “What do we know?” “What is knowledge?”
What we know is not some sort of rules, axiomatic knowledge independent of Creation and to be applied to Creation to bring it into order. What we know is what is, though that is a simplistic description of a very complex process of shaping our minds to created being and its various processes and—most importantly—its relationships. We encapsulate reality and then can sometimes enter into a recursive process of understanding more complex parts of reality by building them up from simpler parts. This secondary process can be taken seriously only when it matches our encapsulation of reality, that is—our minds, and then perhaps adds to the richness and complexity of that encapsulation.
Our most basic knowledge, common sense and intuition, is what is put into our heads by the evolutionary processes which selected our ancestors for their ability to respond properly to their immediate environments and more. These selection processes resulted in a brain that assumes much that is useful about our environments and more—as we began to see the abstract forms of being from which those environments are shaped. Some of those assumptions are true only in qualified ways and some at least point to greater truths, though I think we know not enough to be sure what is an absolute truth.
Knowledge is some sort of model, qualitative and quantitative, of reality, of created being. Knowledge, true knowledge, is drawn from reality and encapsulates that reality in various ways and in various realms of created being. Sometimes, as I stated above, this process of drawing and encapsulating has occurred in the evolution of our species and sometimes it occurs in our individual lives or our communal lives, though many individuals and communities can be said to more truly mis-know reality and not just in the sense of being in an early stage of development and learning.
I’ve spoken of different realms of being, ranging from this highly concrete world of things which is being shaped from a more abstract realm of being, which is itself being shaped from a still more abstract realm of being, right back to the most abstract realm of being I can conjecture—the realm of truths which God manifested as the raw stuff of Creation. Our world, this concrete realm of things and thing-like relationships, is also the realm of narratives. There are the narratives sketched by cosmologists and evolutionary biologists and all sorts of historians, from those specializing in prehistory to those specializing in last week’s events. There are far greater narratives, some even having or hinting of moral purposes.
We’ve crossed over to realms where God’s presence is more personal in a meaningful sense; the Almighty is no longer some sort of mathematician or physicist or engineer who might well be the Deity of many Enlightenment thinkers. The basic structure of spacetime has been shaped, the other stuffs of thing-like being have been made—protons and electrons and all that. When our universe came into being, God began to show Himself a story-teller and a participant in the stories He tells. I’ve already mentioned the truths God manifested as the raw stuff of this Creation, but what is the purpose of it all? So far as we can currently see, Creation relentlessly moves toward the concrete, the particular and even the peculiar. The power which drives this story and its many stories might well come from the Enlightenment Deity or the Godhead of a higher pagan, but stories move toward particularity and even the potential of personhood, toward a meeting with the Triune God, three Persons in one divine Nature. The possibility of persons in the form of mortal creatures and the possibility of stories with moral meanings arise during this process, the process by which Christ and His Father and Their Spirit are revealed as the true Creator.
We human beings must ask: “What sort of Creation, Cosmos if you prefer, has the abstract stuff of personhood and stories?” and we Christians answer: “A Creation of a Personal Creator.”
I’ll freely admit that there is no way to prove my answer in the way of an experiment in physics or chemistry but that matters little because we can’t prove the universe or the world which arises from it. We can only accept it on its own terms and try to understand. We need to also explain stories and persons on their own terms and not reduce them to the physical stuff and physical relationships in which they are truly embodied but to which they aren’t limited. I’m certainly not arguing fora supernatural souls but rather for what might be called natural souls: much that is so important about human nature, individual and communal, and also important about even the physical universe in its greater scope is to be found in the totality of created being, abstract and concrete. We understand not by trying to reduce the world in terms of scientific myths created by those who would explain by biology or physics what must be explained by first accepting reality, Creation, on its own terms, encapsulating it in our own minds and as our own minds, and then realizing that the encapsulation (of, for example, human nature) is the understanding, is the explanation. But it is an encapsulation which makes sense only as part of far greater encapsulations which consider all that we can discover about created being and all that is built into the very physical stuff of our brains and our entire bodies.
The ultimate in particularity is a person, an entity which is self-aware and seems to hint, however lightly, of a greater sustainability and even one without any necessary end. Death intrudes, casting doubt upon our hopes or pretenses of possessing true life, life without end even if it had a beginning. We must remember that `death’ as a human concept is a result of our self-awareness, the very self-awareness that brings the possibility of being images of our Creator and even of sharing His life. Our awareness of death also raises the possibility of the greatest of blessings, a sharing of the life of God.
Let me restate my position in even more explicitly Christian terms. From God comes terribly abstract truths manifested as the raw stuff of Creation, of created being of all forms and all combinations. This is somewhat analogous to God in His divine nature, that is—Creation viewed as stuff is somewhat the image of God’s Nature. But the Lord set in motion processes by which abstract being becomes particularized, eventually becoming thing-like being of a somewhat abstract sort, muons and baryons and leptons and so forth, which develops and evolves toward concrete forms.
We can imagine, in a highly disciplined way, what might be the stage just one step more abstract than the thing-like being of this universe. That is, we can speak of the strange and abstract form of being which is described in the works of Schrodinger and Heisenberg and their successors, abstract and mathematical being which `collapses’ to thing-like being. More than `described’, I think there is a strong sense in which those mathematical formalisms are that being from which the physical stuff of this universe is shaped.
One product of the particularization of abstract being to concrete being, followed by the processes of concrete being evolving and developing, is the human animal which has some of the properties of a person and the potential to become more truly a person. At this point, what was analogous to the divine nature of God has produced biological beings analogous to the Son of God, a divine Person. This is the ultimate goal of these processes of shaping more particular forms of being—to produce a world and a species into which the Son could be incarnated, emptying Himself, learning the discipline appropriate to a mere human creature, and offering His own Self back to the Father. This theological analogy would imply a situation discussed, in an aphoristic style, by Wittgenstein: if we succeed in penetrating to the smallest components of this universe, we might find that foundational level is supported by the whole of the universe. From that extremely abstract stuff which is the raw stuff of created being and which is analogous to the nature of God arises the possibility of person-like creatures, creatures which can maybe become true persons by way of sharing the life of God.
There are those who examine human life, communal or personal, from the viewpoint of an empirical scientist recognizing the validity of only knowledge which can be validated by the standards of physics or biology or perhaps history. Some will claim that only this bottom-up knowledge can be accepted, denying in the process much knowledge of the global nature of processes not yet completed. There are also parallel misconceptions among Christian thinkers, including those who deny the validity of natural theology just because they think of nature only as this thing-like stuff and these processes which arise from matter and its self-interactions. In realizing that greater sophistication and complexity is needed in our understanding of Creation—even in the restricted sense of `Nature’ in its traditional sense, we pass by the limiting idea that the whole is but a complicated assemblage of parts and thus not capable of coherence or unity or completeness. Under the limiting and non-Christian viewpoint, the universe is not capable of being a world; a human animal is not capable of being a human person
This is to say that a reductionistic form of respect for empirical reality will fail to see a world forming from a universe, a human person forming from a human animal, a morally meaningful narrative forming from interactions of the entities of thing-like being. Neither a universe nor a human animal can achieve, even in principle, the coherence and unity and completeness toward which they seemingly strive.
The world does form from the universe, itself a rather remarkable entity. A human being does form from a human animal, itself a rather remarkable entity. Greater stories, stories with deep meanings, arise from mere tales—themselves remarkable—of interacting entities reducible to `mere’ physical processes.
We live those stories and live in those stories; we seem not only wrong but also rather silly when we deny such to be the case.