CommonPlaces Breaking60 TravelingNotes UU Exploration Belief and Practice


A sermon presented to the UUFC, 3/15/92. This was conceived as a relatively didactic discussion of the modern theory of chaos but changed during gestation to a meditation concerning reason and belief; a discussion of sources of belief and suggestions for living a life in modern times. The program included Yeats' poem "The Second Coming" and a passage from James Gleick (Chaos: Making a New Science) concerning "the notion that a butterfly stirring the air in Peking can transform the storm systems tomorrow in New York."

Friend, Brothers and Sisters, do you believe??

Do you believe that God has a plan for your life?

I see that I have caught your attention!

This is, of course, a copy of the Christian bible - the Book - in which many place their hope and from which many can divine God's plan for their lives.

This is a copy of Science for October 11, 1991, the annual report on the effort to map the human genome, to understand those genetic messages which mold our limbs, shape our intellect and, if we are to believe the sociobiologists, direct our behavior.

Throughout human history, a central concern has been to understand the order in the Universe, in the interdependent web of being, and to divine our place in it.

I use the words understand and divine deliberately, since they stand in place for two lines of inquiry that stretch backwards from today: reason and belief. In the far distant past, at the beginning of things, they must merge together, as there were and could not be any human witnesses. Even in Genesis, there can be no true human account of first causes since man and woman were not available as witnesses until the sixth day of the World.

There has been a tension, even at times warfare, between the rationalists who strive to understand and the believers who strive to divine our beginning, our path and its end. But both rationalists and believers share a common goal: to escape from chaos and to prevent its return.

In ancient Greek mythology chaos signified the abyss, the emptiness that existed before time began. Out of chaos was born Erebus, the god of darkness and night. Night gave birth both to the Aether, the bright upper air and to Day and its joys while darkness is the father of sleep, of dreams, of the great fears of humankind: grief, famine, strife, war and death.

From Genesis:

"And the earth was without form and void; and the darkness was upon the face of the deep. God said, let there be light and there was light. God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day."

Thus order, both of the physical world and in human affairs, was early seen as desirable, as a way of holding back darkness, disorder, chaos. Humans from the beginning have strived to live facing the light, putting the darkness behind them. Today we consider the day to start with sunrise, not with darkness, as in Genesis.

In every era, no matter what the small gains made, there has always been a fear of chaos and the abyss. Especially at the end of epoches, when change is more apparent, the people despair.

William Butler Yeats1, writing in the chaos after the Great War to end all war:

"The Falcon cannot hear the falconer. Things fall apart; the center cannot hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world."

The early Greek physicist-philosophers strove to understand the Universe as a great machine. That effort has continued through the ages, in the work of Da Vinci, of Kepler, of Galileo, of Newton, of Einstein, of scientists too numerous to mention. Always the enemy is ignorance, superstition, belief.

In the early days, scientific developments rested on solid, rational ground. The physical world was understood, codified into physical laws: Kepler's law of planetary motion, Newton's three laws of mechanics, the three laws of thermodynamics, Maxwell's four electromagnetic relations and on and on.

As the industrial revolution unfolded, serious scientific interest turned to the life force and its physical embodiments. At first the going was easy: knowledge of physiology and the invention of organic synthetic chemistry lead to the triumphs of modern medicine. But then scientists began to focus on human behavior: economics, psychology, and that oxymoron, political science.

Still the drive was to discover fundamental predictive laws, to reduce to reason matters which had depended on judgment, on intuition, on belief. Only the supreme rational arrogance of the late 19th. and early 20th. centuries could have given intellectual birth to Marx, to Engels and to Hitler, all of whom claimed the twin mantles of science and reason to shelter their inhumane, unworkable theories.

Today science has come to the outer limits of rational absurdity. The fifty mile circumference (!) Superconducting Supercollider2 (SSC) is being constructed to search for a single entity, the Higgs particle, which lies at the summit of a so-called "standard theory of matter" - but this theory has so far departed from describing the physical world that its attributes - color, parity, strangeness, etc. - are not even explicable, let alone intelligible to the lay person.

The biological scientists have stumbled up their own blind alley: an attempt to map the human genome, to determine the exact order of the approximately three billion small molecules which, strung together like beads, determine our individual genetic makeup.

Let me paraphrase a story which appeared recently in the American Physical Society's monthly magazine, Physics Today:

The advent of digital computers has made it possible to develop concordances of sentences and their structures in the work of any author. By analyzing each work for common aspects, word order and frequency, idiomatic forms, etc., it is asserted that it is possible to examine the plays attributed to Shakespeare and determine which were not written by him but rather by some other author, such as Bacon or Marlowe.

However, some wag now suggests that the essence of Shakespeare lies not in the words and their associated order but in their components, the letters. So a great concordance of letters, their frequency, associations, etc, is prepared.

But then it is observed that the letters have elements in common: a Q resembles an O more than it resembles an A, and so on. So a further, larger concordance is constructed which expresses Shakespeare's work and that of his contemporaries in terms of straight and curved lines, the sub-elements of letters.

But within the computer, all of this information is coded electronically so Juliet's impassioned speech from the balcony becomes simply a very long number made up of two symbols: one and zero.

Can the creative, emotional essence of Shakespeare be expressed in such a cool, unified way, depending merely on the order of two symbols? Perhaps it is rationally so, but you and I would agree that something is lost in the translation. To our eyes, the outcome is chaos: an apparently random succession of circles and vertical lines.

And as it is for theoretical physics and genetics so it is for many other fields of science: the endless fevered drive for order, the headlong flight from chaos, has produced a new chaos. For what is a one but an absence of zero and zero an absence of one. Turn a circle on edge and it becomes a line; turn it further and it becomes round again.


We have come at the end back to the earliest symbol of belief still preserved and revered: the T'ai Chi. Two interlocked teardrops: one dark: Yin, passive, negative, weak, yielding, the earth below. The other light: Yang, active, positive, firm, the heaven above. And within each a seed of the other: light in dark, dark in light.

This symbol is preserved for us from a much earlier age in the I Ching, the Book of Changes, first written down some five millennia ago from a much earlier oral tradition. It reflects an ancient belief that the universe is ordered, that order extends even to the life of human kind and that the only constant attribute is change: yin to yang, yang to yin, light to dark, dark to light, firm to yielding, yielding to firm, zero to one, one to zero.

The I Ching is consulted by mentally framing a question and then generating a numerical pattern through a complex process of casting down stalks of yarrow at random and counting up the results. It derives from earlier beliefs in numerology and dreams and it is probably safe to say that more people today consult the I Ching than rely on the Bible for guidance in conduct of both the trivial and the important events of their lives. The sixty-four hexagrams or messages of the I Ching can be combined in more than 5000 ways. Each way has accumulated multiple commentaries down through the millennia, thus suiting the I Ching to any occasion.

And it has many more accessible children: the prophecies of Nostradamas, medieval and modern books of dream interpretation, the Ouiji board, horoscopes which appear in our daily newspapers, even fortune cookies.

All of these stem from the same beliefs: that there is a basic order in the Universe and that its effects on human life are accessible either through the action of pure thought or by divination through techniques which scientists consider random and thus, not causal, not rational.

Shalom Aleichem's Tevye3 asks:

"Lord God, who made the lion and the lamb, you decreed I should be what I am. Would it spoil some vast eternal plan if I were a wealthy man?"

Even more respectably in modern terms, our religious forbearers, the Puritans, believed that God has perfected a prototype for each life and that the supreme goal of humans on earth is to try to divine God's intent. God rewards correct divination (and behavior) by bestowing health, wealth and happiness while punishing those who stray from the path.

In Puritan terms, bad things do not happen to good people.

But herein lies a trap: by seeking this order, this divine plan, we may set aside common sense and arrive at a greater disorder: acts without forethought, actions without self-responsibility: for they are the "will of God," the way of the Universe.

So here we are today:

The divinationists continue to believe that all things are possible but that a divine plan exists which dictates those things which actually occur.

The scientists continue to reason that only those things occur which are causally possible and reject belief as a source of truth.

Where can we look for guidance and for reassurance?

We UUs speak of the interdependent web of being. Is it a web which binds us to pre-determined events or are all things possible under heaven?

Was Einstein right when he declared that God does not play at dice or do the dice roll ever onward on a table which we strain to see?

Until recently there was a no man's land between these points of view. The two opposing forces, bearing the banners of reason and belief respectively, stared uneasily at each other across an unclaimed space:

This space existed because even the most hard bitten, dedicated scientist, while steadfastly denying the reality of flying saucers, could accept two propositions:

First: many miracles have rational explanations - the argument over their divinity is merely a disagreement over their first causes. Does the great machine, the wheel of the universe, turn of its own accord or is it guided by an all-knowing hand?

Second, but more troubling, while Newtonian physics can, in principle, explain all macrophenomena, all but very simple events are far too complex to deal with practically: thus a Peking butterfly's fluttering could cause a storm in New York , but no one could compute, that is predict, this result.

These two propositions made it possible for the great rationalist Pascal to believe in God "just in case" and for more modern scientists, such as William Eisner, to speak of a "God of the Gaps," a deity existing in the gaps between rational explanations of existence.

But now chaos has taken on a new meaning: it is the name of a new science of dynamic systems. Chaos is a great unifying approach which defies accepted ways of working in science. It makes strong claims about the existence of a common, universal behavior of complexity.

Again, from James Gleick:

"Chaos seems to be everywhere. A rising column of cigarette smoke breaks into wild swirls. A flag snaps back and forth in the wind. A dripping faucet goes from a steady pattern to a random one. Chaos appears in the behavior of cars clustering on an expressway, the behavior of oil flowing in underground pipes." 4

To this list, one may add the progress of epidemics, the rise and fall of the stock market, even the distribution of stars in the firmament.

This new order in disorder has several constant aspects:

* All of these complex events, whose representational patterns are remarkable similar and hauntingly beautiful, arise from extremely simple Newtonian systems which are pushed beyond their normal limits, like a car in a cartoon rushing down hill, faster and faster, until the speedometer becomes a pinwheel.

* All of the patterns which describe these behaviors are fractal: that is, they reproduce themselves at each order of magnification. No matter how closely or distantly we view them, we see the same motifs repeated again and again. Thus the solar system resembles an atom.

* And, finally, and most disturbing, the progress and direction of all of these phenomena depend exquisitely on details of their starting conditions and, given those exact same conditions, are exactly reproducible.

This last aspect should have come as no surprise. For decades, computer persons have strived to produce a random number generator: a program which would endlessly produce a series of numbers such that any number yields no prediction of the next to come. We know that, in the ordered number series, 6 always follows 5. In a random series, any of the ten digits, 0 though 9, is equally likely to follow any 5. This goal has been largely achieved except for one small, nagging problem: each program requires a "seed," a beginning. And if given the same seed twice, the series produced, while internally random, will be identical!

So now there is no gap: the emerging understanding of Chaos has brought the opposing forces nose to nose: the physical world is apparently causal, to the limits of human perception, and all events can now, in theory, be predicted: Newtonian events from recent history, Chaotic events from initial conditions.

Again, the argument reduces to first causes: What was the seed? How did the wheel start to turn?

"And the earth was without form and void; and the darkness was upon the face of the deep. "

Lao Tzu, "the Old Master," in the Tao Te Ching, counsels us in our perplexity:

"The ways that can be walked are not the eternal Way;

The names that can be named are not the eternal name

The nameless is the origin of the myriad creatures;

The named is the mother of the myriad creatures.


Always be without desire

in order to observe its' wondrous subtleties;

Always have desire

so that you may observe its manifestations.

Both of these derive from the same source;

They have different names but the same designation.

Mystery of mysteries

The gate of all wonders!"

The seed, the gate of all wonders, is unknowable but surely known, for without a seed, all would be without form and void and darkness would be over all.

A life, my life, your life and your life, is not a blank canvas on which we can paint at will nor is it a numbered, fill in the spaces, preplaned picture. Think of it rather as a great unfinished tapestry: here before you for a brief time are the long fibers of the warp, the eternal Way, stretching back to the original seed and forward into the unseen future; and here, within your reach, are the brilliant, wonderful multicolored yarns of the weft. You may choose between them as you form the patterns of your life, as you create your own order from chaos. On either side of you, as you work, are your loved ones, close friends, associates; further away, distant acquaintances and beyond, strangers and all the rest of humanity, all weaving their own lives. You borrow from them, imitate them and they in turn are affected by your choices. Threads meet, cross, run together for a time, separate to different directions.

Together we weave the wonderful order of life, daily defeating chaos and challenging the power of the abyss.

Seize this day! Take up the threads of your life! It matters not from whence they come but merely that they are before you, within your grasp.

This day comes not again. Even if it did, we would each choose differently, for we will each be different for its passage.

Weave well this day!

1 The Second Coming (1921)

2 Since this sermon was written, the US Congress, probably for the wrong reason, mercifully cancelled the SSC project

3 Best known to readers from the song "If I were a Rich Man" from the musical "Fiddler on the Roof."

4 Chaos: Making A New Science (1987)