Monday, March 21, 2011

Lose a little faith--it'll be good for you

As I have mentioned before, I am an manufacturing engineer by trade. My job is to take a designed product from a design engineer and design the equipment, controls, processes, etc. necessary to manufacture it in mass-production. Basically, the show Modern Marvels is what we do in ME/IE (manufacturing/industrial engineering).

A preconceived notion that under-runs all engineering is the belief that anything, properly understood, can be properly controlled. Sometimes you’ll hear a factory worker say that such-and-such process is an ‘art’ or a 'craft'; to which I have always responded, “an art is just science that we haven’t learned yet.” In other words, mysteries are not unexplainable, they are just not yet explained. With the proper investigation, the problem (and therefore the solution) will become clear. In engineering, we use tools like six sigma design of experiments (DoE), statistical process control (SPC), eight disciplined problem solving (8D), corrective and preventative action investigation (CAPA), root cause analysis (RCA) and total quality management (TQM) to investigate these mysteries. (As you can see, no engineering system is good unless it has been defined by an acronym. That way we can send emails like, “In the process of RCA for the issue, we will utilize a DoE based upon our SPC results and update the CAPA accordingly.” It makes us sound smarter than we really are.)

This approach (mysteries are “not yet explained” rather than “unexplainable”) comes to engineers through our scientific background. The view of science ever since the Enlightenment has been that if we just learn enough data, we could explain everything. With a powerful-enough computer, and the correct information, you could predict anything. If we can’t predict it, then we just don’t understand the system. Now, the advancements of chaos theory in mathematics and quantum mechanics in physics have shown us that at least in some ways this is not reality. In particular, quantum mechanics has shown that, at the fundamental levels of the universe, things are inherently unpredictable. Albert Einstein found the idea so repugnant that he famously said, “God does not play with dice.” To which physicist Steven Hawking replied, “God not only plays with dice, He also sometimes throws the dice where they cannot be seen.”

Still, from an engineering perspective, quantum mechanics has little bearing on day-to-day life. From a practical standpoint, if we just learn more details and information, we could understand everything, right? God prefers order and law to chaos, so surely at the fundamental levels of the universe we would find just a few building blocks and a handful of fundamental laws which underlie everything, wouldn’t we? Certainly many think so—thousands of physicists have dedicated their careers to seeking out the “Theory of Everything” (ToE) that combines quantum mechanics and relativity.

And so I always accepted this. Until the last twelve months or so.

Last year, preparing to head down to the beach for our annual vacation at the Gulf, I of course was closely watching the BP oil spill. And being the engineer that I am, I looked into the results of how the actual problem happened. This started me thinking and researching about other engineering disasters: space shuttle explosions, Apollo 13, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island. Why do backups fail? Why do controls fail? In addition, I have taken a closer look at our processes internally, and found much more randomness and much more interaction than I ever suspected. And what really spoke to me through all of this was that the universe is not nearly as controllable or understandable as I originally thought. In each disaster there are things not fully understood or controllable, which require safety limits to be built and safety controls put in place. And sure enough, when those controls/limits are violated, disaster happens.

The end result is, frankly, that I have lost faith in engineering. Or more specifically—I no longer believe that mysteries are all simply not yet explained, or that risks are just not yet controlled. I now accept that some things about the universe are actually unexplainable, and uncontrollable: this is true not just at the quantum levels, but in macro-levels as well. There are some things which actually are mysteries. There are some things that science cannot, and will never be able to, explain. It begins in the quantum foam, but it does not stop there.

Just as the Law cannot impart morality on us (but rather clarifies our immorality), so too am I starting to see that we cannot ever truly control or understand the universe through our engineering. No matter how good we get, the underlying fabric of the universe is as much an ‘art’ as it is ‘science’.

So, what does this have to do with Christianity?

I have always taught on this blog, “In essentials, unity, in non-essentials, liberty.” But that has become all the more clear to me during this time.

You see, I always approached theology from an engineering bent. Our job was, using the information we had, to develop our theologies—end times theology, creation theology, covenant theology, salvation theology, etc. What little guesswork existed was there simply because we just didn’t know enough data yet. If we knew just a bit more information, we would be able to truly understand God. Things were not unexplainable…we just hadn’t explained them yet.

How silly that now seems.

I once saw the universe as completely predictable, if we just knew enough information – and thus I imposed that belief upon God as well. So do theologians. But now that I understand more about the universe that He created—now that I know that He actually did create uncertainty and mystery and unpredictability, that He created events that we will never be able to explain, even with perfect data…my view of theology changes as well.

I used to say to people, “Don’t argue about theology, but know your own theology. One day we’ll understand it all, when we get to heaven. One day we’ll know how many days God used to create the universe; one day we’ll know what Revelation is all about; one day we’ll know how many points of Calvinism are correct.”

Now I think that is complete nonsense.

Where in Scripture are we led to believe that God will tell us anything? Where are we led to believe that we will spend the first few days of eternity in “History 101” and “Theology 101” coursework? (Who teaches those classes, anyway? I hear that Gabriel’s pop quizzes are brutal.) Where are we led to believe that we will even care about the answers, once we are standing in His glorious presence?

Some things about this universe are mysteries—both the physical universe and the spiritual universe. And they were designed that way. And they probably will always stay that way. So why do we argue about it? Why do we waste time and energy studying it, splitting churches over it, wasting our lives on it?

Wouldn’t life be so much better if, instead, we focused on learning about God’s character through His word, having faith in Him and His promises, and stopped worrying so much about how He goes about loving us and instead reveled in the mere fact that He does love us?

Time for us all to lose a little faith in engineering, science, and theology—in other words, in ourselves and our own wisdom. Time instead to gain a little faith in God.

We don’t have to understand all of His brushstrokes in order to enjoy living in His marvelous painting.

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