A Dialogue of Historic Proportions

Every so often I enjoy switching gears with my reading, and I found my reading of Leonard Mlodinow’s Feynman’s1374045481 Rainbow quite pleasant.  I got introduced to a few scientific ideas, and some interesting insights into the brilliance and insecurities of the top physicist’s in the world.

Among other things, Mlodinow delves into the rivalry between Richard Feynmann and Murray Gell-Mann, each brilliant in his own way, each a Nobel Prize Winner, and each with a very different approach to physics. Gell-Man represented what Mlodinow called the “Greek” school of physics, Feynmann the “Babylonian.”

He describes them this way:

The Babylonians made western civilization’s first great strides in understanding numbers and equations, and in geometry.  Yet it was the later Greeks–in particular Thales, Pythagoras, and Euclid–whom we credit inventing mathematics.  This is because Babylonians cared only whether or not a method of calculation worked–that is, adequately described a real physical phenomena–and not whether or not it was exact, or fit into any logical system.  . . . To put it simply, the Babylonians focused on the phenomena, the Greeks on the underlying order.

Both approaches can be powerful.  [“Greek”] physicists are guided by the mathematical beauty of their theories, and it has led to many beautiful applications of mathematics.  The Babylonian approach lends itself to a certain freedom of imagination, and allows you to follow your “gut feeling” about nature, without worrying about rigor and justification.  In fact, physicists employing this kind of thinking sometimes violate the formal rules of math, or make up a strange new (and unproven) math of their own based on their understanding of experimental data.

In the book, Feynmann occupies our attention and captivates it.  Gell-Mann’s extraordinary demand for rigor makes him a bit socially awkward, among other things (today would we consider him autistic?).  But which is the right approach?  I can’t say much about either approach in science, but historians come in Babylonians and Greek forms as well.  Herodotus, the “Father of History” was “Greek,” but subtley so.  Thucydides would have been “Greek.”  Other “Greeks” might include Polybius, St. Augustine, Gibbon, H.G. Wells, Spengler, and Toynbee.  But most modern historians react strongly against the “Greeks.”  I strongly dislike some of the “Greeks” I mentioned (Gibbon for one) and love others.  Where to take a stand?

Well, the issue needs settled, and I thought I would write a Socratic dialogue to hash it out, with apologies to Plato.

Greek and Babylonian Views of History

Babylonian (B): Before we discuss historical knowledge, I suggest that first we discuss the foundation of all knowledge, the knowledge of God.

Greek (G): Agreed!  An order of operations!  How very Greek of you to suggest it.

B: I concede the point, but we’re just getting started.  You haven’t won yet.  I argue that God cannot be systematized, and so knowledge of God will also lack a system.

G: Yes, God cannot be “put in a box,” as you say.  I agree that God is beyond a system.  He is of course, Personal (and Beyond Personality), and so an approach to God that attempts to dissect via a formula will fail.

B: Well if knowledge of the Highest is attained without a system, it follows that knowledge of lesser things, i.e. mankind itself, should also avoid systems.  So “systematic” historians like Toynbee err in their approach.  Ha!

G: Another great example of Greek logic!  I’ll have you yet.  You would agree, I’m sure that reason has its place in life?

B: Yes.

G: No doubt you would also say that knowing God means going beyond our reason.

B: I couldn’t have put it better myself.  Now you’ve conceded the victory to me!

G: Not yet . . . Knowledge of God is beyond our reason but is not against our reason.  In the same way, God stands above our finite human capacity to fully know everything, but we do know some things.

B: Yes – we know some things.  But we have only a few pieces of the puzzle.  We’re not God, you know, and so can’t create the rest of the puzzle out of nothing.

G: Yes, but we’re not making it out of nothing.  God has given us some things for us to know, and more than “some things.”  He has given us knowledge of Himself!  And He calls us to make sense of what we know.

B: Agreed, but He calls us first to humility.  Let us not overreach, let us appreciate the mystery.

G: Let us also not be lazy.  How can we make sense of what we know if we don’t give it some kind of order in our minds.  You would have it so we know nothing besides isolated facts.  And if all we know is isolated facts, then we really know nothing, for nothing can be known without context.  But always in Scripture the authors draw conclusions based on what they know.  One thing leads to another.

B: And what are these conclusions?  Are they a system?  You said that “we give it some kind of order.”  Just because “we” give it order doesn’t make it true.

G: Ok . . . new approach.  I say we have a template for knowing God in Jesus Himself.  “He who has seen me has seen the Father.”

B: Jesus shows us the Father, yes.  But the picture He gave on Earth was not the full picture.  He Himself admitted to not knowing the date of His return.  And surely, Jesus hid things as well.  He did not tell even His disciples everything He thought and felt at every moment.  I love Chesterton’s comment at the end of his Orthodoxy: “There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.”

G: Ok, Mr. Babylonian, what can we know, then?  Out with it!

B: God reveals enough for us not to fall afoul — we have markers and signposts. We can know that we are in the right ocean.  But we do not have enough eternal perspective to make systems of the signposts.  We can’t know where we are in the vast ocean.

G: But God’s commands surely make sense!  Do not murder, for example.  And Jesus “spoke plainly.”  I once had a professor say that, “Scripture is shallow enough so a baby can wade and deep enough so an elephant to swim.”  I grant you the elephant, but you throw the baby out.  You think, Babylonian, that you’re all open and mystical for your approach.  But actually, you’re more closed than I.  I love the part in Chesterton’s Orthodoxy (which you know so well), where he describes how fences give us more, not less freedom.

B: Do you suppose there will be such fences in Heaven?  They are temporary expedients for finite creatures.  The key word there is expedients.  They are temporary, not eternal, and thus, not rooted in Truth.

G: You see again that you cannot avoid an order of thinking.  You will admit defeat soon, I hope.  But if you wish to talk of finite creatures, let us do so, for History is primarily a study of mankind and only indirectly a study of God.

B: Yes, for it here that you will meet your match.

G: Oh?  Let us leave aside to what extent God can be known for the moment.  But you and I are both men.  And we know each other.  Finite man can know something about himself, surely?

B: Oh yes, he can know something.  He can know enough to know He is a mystery.  All this modern talk of “looking within yourself” has given us not just terrible Disney movies, but also a terribly confused generation of people.

G: Don’t you try and link me to those wretched movies!  But yes, man too is a mystery.  But imagine a man driving down the road.  He reaches a fork and can turn right or left.  He can know why he turns one way or the other, and he can communicate that to us.

B: No — not even he would know all the reasons for his choice.  He might delude himself into thinking one thing and it’s really another.  And if he can’t really be sure, what can he tell us?  If he can’t tell us, how can we know?

G: You confuse the issue again.  In a purely individual and isolated case you may be right.  But the “Greek” historian never deals with such isolated moments in time in a vacuum.  He has a whole field of action at His disposal.  Like in physics, each atom has lots of empty space and unpredictability, but if you put a bunch of them together, you can build bridges.  Because you can build bridges doesn’t mean you know everything about matter, but you enough to consistently build bridges.  So too with people. Yes, mystery exists in humanity.  But we know something of what it means to be made in His image. We know something of what it means to sin and fall short of the glory of God.  We can observe thousands of years of human activity and see that we tend to act in certain ways in certain times.

B: Yes, but you, “Mr. Look at me I’m so Open to Everything,” are closing God out of the picture.  Supposing God steps in to change something?  That alters your equation.  And God may intervene and we would not know if He did or not.  So how can we really predict?  How can we create any system at all with an actual “God in the machine?”  What we can do is stand back and admire the mystery.

G: Well how does God work then?  His intervention does not make men non-men.  God is always there — “in Him we live and move and have our being.”  But He does not take one thing and make it another. So we are still studying “mankind,” in every case, when looking at History.  Look at Pharaoh.  Yes, God hardened his heart, but He did not fundamentally alter Pharaoh’s character.

B: “He does not take one thing and make it another?”  How about changing water into wine?  How about making a dead man come alive again?

G: Well, water is a vital part of wine.  And in raising Lazarus, he raised Lazarus, not some new and different man.  The Church rejected gospels where Jesus’ miracles seemed random or non-sensical. God gave us brains to use them.  If He directly intervenes He will do so to enhance our understanding, not confuse it.  This is why we need “Greek” historians.

B: But Greek historians are always wrong at least in part. Toynbee’s last volume of A Study of History retracted and corrected parts of his earlier work.  You can say, “No one is perfect,” but that’s the point. No system works perfectly because no man works perfectly.  If we know it contains errors, what value can it have as a system?

G: Toynbee showed the very humility you seek in his retractions.  But I won’t argue for any particular system.  Instead I’ll claim victory on your own turf by looking at any individual man.  In truth, we all practice a form of “Greek” history all the time in our daily lives.  We interpret and synthesize from our experience.  We must, for we cannot view life as random and seemingly meaningless.  Without this continual synthesis, no one would gain any wisdom.  And you  must concede God calls us to gain wisdom?

B: But wisdom is not a system.

G: Agreed, but . . . it is a form of synthesized and applied general knowledge, and that, my friend, clinches it.

B: And so this means that I’ve lost?

G: Yes, but you lost right away, as I told you, when you rightly imposed an order of how to think about the question.

B: Phooey.

G: Victory!  I am so smart!

What about Babylonian and Greek science?  Shall we debate that?

No.  I would look even more silly than usual.

But if I wrote it I would give the victory to the Babylonian, or at least for the moment.  Do we even know what matter is?  Are we even sure that matter, if we define matter as an irreducibly small and purely physical entity, even exists?  Here the Christian may have more caution in imposing a system, at least for now when our knowledge remains quite incomplete about the most basic things.  Perhaps I should slightly temper my affection for  the “Greek” historian.  But in the end, I will side with Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius, St. Augustine, and the like even if it means inviting Gibbon to the party.