Monday, April 27, 2009

A chancy universe

It's hard not to like Wendell Berry. Farmer, poet, philosopher, ecologist, economist. Champion of perennial values rooted in land and faith. Speaker of truth to power. What's not to like?

Yet I do not always find myself in full sympathy with Berry, as for example on the occasion of his dueling books with E. O. Wilson. Or as I read his poem "By Chance, Of Course" in the February issue of Harper's Magazine. I wish I could quote the entire poem here, or that it was available without subscription on Harper's website. But let me try to convey the gist, and quote only enough to qualify as "fair use."

The poem takes the form of comments from "the mad farmer" sitting in the back row at an academic conference on causality and the big bang. The farmer takes exception to the evocation of "chance" as a default explanation when cause-and-effect runs up against the big-bang Why, and by extension throughout creation.
Prove to me that chance did ever
make a sycamore tree, a yellow-
throated warbler nesting and singing
high up among the white limbs
and the golden leaf-light, and a man
to love the tree, the bird, the song...
Berry does not tell us in the poem what he would invoke in place of chance, but we sense lurking in the background a good Old Testament God, the God we meet in the 7th Question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism:
Q: What are the decrees of God?
A: The decrees of God are, his eternal purpose, according to the counsel of his will, whereby, for his own glory, he hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass.
A sparrow shall not fall, and all that.

Berry is quite correct to suggest that science can only tell us in the broadest strokes why there is a sycamore tree and yellow-throated warbler. The evolutionist would say there is an element of chance in the creation as we find it. As Stephen Jay Gould said, run the tape of evolution again and it is unlikely that you would get precisely the same sycamore tree and yellow-throated warbler. But surely we can celebrate the tree, the bird and the song with reverence, humility and awe without surrendering our curiosity about how it all came to pass.

The universe is supremely complicated to the point that chance can be a practical explanation, if not an ultimate one. Was it chance that sent an asteroid smashing into the Earth 65 million years ago, redirecting the course of reptile and mammal evolution? It's as good a word as "God did it," and conveys exactly as much information. The difference is that "chance" is open to ever deeper investigation, whereas "God did it" is a closed door.

We presumably have much more to learn about quantum indeterminacy, entanglement, mutation, and other apparent elements of chance. The quest for pattern and law in nature is open-ended, and it is fair to say -- as Berry suggests -- that "chance" explains nothing. Chance is a placeholder in the vast territories of our ignorance, roughly equivalent to "I don't know." Why the big bang? I don't know. Why something rather than nothing? I don't know? What are the decrees of chance? I don't know. To invoke the decrees of God, his eternal purpose, according to the counsel of his will, whereby, for his own glory, he hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass tells us exactly as much as "chance," that is to say, nothing.

Wendell Berry and the big bang theorists reside in the same bailiwick of ignorance. The big bang theorist chisels away at his ignorance; Berry gives his ignorance a name and lets it go at that.