We love a good road trip, and a highlight for us is using our time in the car to learn something new. So during our week away, we enjoyed listening to three podcasts hosted by Melvyn Bragg. The series, In Our Time, features specialist academics, who are guided by Bragg in a discussion of a particular topic. Bragg has a unique ability to facilitate conversations about complex issues in terms that an average person finds accessible.
We listened to a podcast on the ancient, medieval, and renaissance notion ‘The Music of the Spheres’; the idea that the universe is patterned and orderly and that this is reflected in a fundamental rhythm or music.
In the millennia before the separation of the sciences into individual disciplines, and the separation of faith and knowledge, the great minds of each era sought a unified theory to explain the observable universe, as well as patterns of human life and experience. The music of the spheres merged what we would now call astrology, astronomy, and mathematics (including music) in order to account for philosophers’ observations of the night sky, as well as their sense that life was determined to a large extent by the movements and actions of heavenly bodies.
The extent to which these various and complex formulations and accounts of ‘the music’ were embedded in what we would call religious frameworks was an eye-opener for us. For example, the eventual re-assertion of the earth’s status as a satellite of the sun did not emerge from a science-only position, but was tied to the big questions that reflected a faith and belief in an external force which determined life and patterns across the universe. In the twenty-first century, it has become fairly normal to talk about science as an endeavour conducted in isolation; as if it represents a worldview exclusive of all others. However, the great names we associate with science and mathematics, from the ancient to the modern era, worked, thought, and processed their observations in light of a wide variety of worldviews.
‘Rosa Luxemburg’ was the focus of another podcast. Luxemburg was an incredibly energetic Polish intellectual of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, perhaps most famous as a martyr for the revolutionary socialist cause. She was a philosopher, economic thinker, and writer of note. She was brutally killed in the turbulent period following an attempted coup of the German government in 1919.
One of Luxemburg’s key contributions to intellectual thought is the role of the inner life and emotion in the cause of revolution. She argued that revolution could not be organised or timetabled by leaders, but had to rely on a spontaneous up-swelling of emotion from the underclasses. This idea that a movement of a community has to stem from within the community, and cannot be imposed from the outside, strongly resonated with us. It’s a central principle of community and language development that control, timing, and motivation rests within the community and not with the facilitator. Indeed, effective Bible translation is reliant on the ownership and motivation of the community, which cannot be created or dictated by an expatriate consultant. This does not remove the idea that outside planning and encouragement may be helpful to communities or language development projects, but it acknowledges that priority be given to the autonomy of the community. And as people of faith, we also need to be able to allow for ‘divine opportunities’, that may redirect or refocus what was originally planned, and trust the Spirit’s movement within the community.
‘Probability’ was the topic of the third podcast – yes, a dive into the world of mathematics and statistics. A fascinating historical overview introduced a few of the major questions and themes of probability. It’s amusing that probability theory owes its emergence to the very practical questions around predicting winners in gambling. And from that beginning, probability science is hovering all about us in daily life. For Graham at least, one consolation of the episode was the statement that the results of probability don’t feel intuitive. Knowing that a result is probable but not intuitive is reassuring.
We also enjoyed the realisation that although probability may seem to be based in ‘luck’ or ‘randomness’, it actually is based on the premise that there are laws and rules which govern the universe and can be predicted. It is important, however, to understand whether or not events are isolated from one another or connected to one another. One famous example is the coin-tossing phenomena. Each time a coin is tossed, there is a mostly even chance that it will land on heads or tails. The probability of it landing on one or the other side does not actually increase or decrease which each successive toss. However, if you could calculate the wind speed, force at which the coin is tossed, and any other variables, you may be able to increase the odds of correctly predicting the probable outcome of the coin toss – so it is not exactly random.
Another famous example is the game show that has a contestant choose among 3 doors. Usually they choose, then one of the doors not chosen is revealed, and the contestant is given the opportunity to change their original decision. Often the contestant does not change. But unlike the coin toss, the doors are related to one another. In the initial choice, the contestant has a one-in-three probability of choosing the best door. Once a door is revealed and eliminated from the equation, the probability of the contestant choosing the best door is now one-in-two. So it is in the contestant’s best interest to change their original decision in order to increase the odds of choosing the best door. It does seem counter-intuitive, but this is what the probability states.
To us, such laws of probability that are built into the fabric of our universe point us to our Creator, who speaks order into chaos and encourages us to seek understanding of the world he’s made and the laws he’s established to govern it.