Simulation and Theology

Steven PeckSo, me, a biologist, wrote this book on speculative theology. The promise is rather, shall we say, curious (‘weird’ would also work)? The usual thinking goes, especially for Mormons, that first we do religion, then science. If either is to bow, it is science. The book is an experiment on the premise that the reverse it true: the real world must impose its will on our theology (as explained in the work, I mean something specific by this term). It’s a long argument hence the book-length treatment. I tried to squeeze it into 140 words, but my arguments lost some of their heft and nuance. So look at my book and you’ll get the big picture, but I wanted to explain why I think it is at least worth thinking about.

I am a computer modeler. I build ecologies in a computer; then populate these ecologies with digital creatures. The weird thing is, and it has been shown to be true again and again, that these digital creations tell us useful things about real flesh and hemolymph creatures. This is shocking to me. I’m always completely astonished that digital entities made of 1s and 0s can teach me about actual animals living in the wild. Why should that work? How can it even be possible? It seems to imply that there is something deeply fundamental about object-like things and how they relate to each other. Strange that objects are of such a general nature that if you take the right kinds of objects, with the right kinds of properties, you can cash out commonalities about one to inform you about the other. Even such that as different objects as digitally defined flies told to act like genuine flies in certain ways, can, (given rules about how these should act in digital encounters within their bit/byte ecology) say something true about the universe.

The process of forming an ecological computer model is revealing. I start out by sketching out all my ideas about the processes and entities I want to explore, say tsetse flies, or ecological communities. Then I rough out a model with a pencil and paper by making little hand drawn boxes with little arrows pointing this way and that, and once I’ve included all the things I think are relevant I try to implement it on a computer. Like this:

PSA PP 1 - Page 1

In this model of community ecology the objects under consideration are species, under evolutionary forces and environmental perturbations.

So for the eventual formal computer model, the real conceptual work starts with this initial model that proposes a scheme for how the world works. Why not at least try this step with theology?

I see theology as I kind of proto-simulation experiment. A simulation experiment in which you try to frame out the necessary or informative components, articulate multiple ideas about how theologically these components work together, map out some of the consequences of your scheme, and then compare them with the world you find in nature.

It’s sort of fun. Almost as fun as doing ecological simulation. So fun I wrote a book on it. Go read it (and if you want, review it!) and let’s talk.


  1. “the real world must impose its will on our theology”

    Wouldn’t a scientific review of world religions show us exactly that?

  2. Steve, I don’t think so. Religious beliefs can be scientifically studied (in an anthropological sense), but asking what are the implications of those beliefs being true if we take them seriously in an attempt to make them reflect the world and be coherent internally with what else we know is a rather different project.

    BCC conscience, as you point out, models are always wrong because they are an abstraction, and that cannot take in all details, but its in their wrongness they become useful. That I can ever only approach truth asymptotically is true off all fields and certainly does not negate that that approximation is useful.

  3. J. Stapley says:

    We are always seeing through a glass darkly. Excellent thoughts, SteveP.

  4. So would you model and simulate something like the “Golden Rule” and see how it help/hurts? Cloud this help us understand the limits to this teaching?

    In regards to your book, I loved it. Also, I can’t help thinking about all the times the Church has decided to do battle with ideas that are strongly supported by peer reviewed science. I can’t think of a single instance where it went well for us members.

  5. The obvious objection is that the real world doesn’t have a will and as such is totally indifferent about how we describe or think about it. God and his prophets, by contrast do.

    If we are pitting somebody’s will against theology, we should be less metaphorical about whose will it is.

  6. It seems to me that the big divide is between revelation and theology. If one is going with revelation it trumps all else and the only serious questions are ones of authority and source. If one is into theology, it’s all models, all dialogue, all asymptotic (in the best case) or failed (in the usual case). And the “science” component is only whether you include the step of “compare [the consequences of the model] with the world you find in nature.” Since that seems both proper and necessary to me, game over.

    But maybe it’s not so easy. If we’re going to include in the “world you find in nature” ideas about consciousness, identity, agency, change/variability/chaos, time, we run up against powerful intuitions. It is as much a part of the observed world that human beings insist on self-determinism as it is that observation tells (me, anyway) that choice either does not exist or is not the same as I feel like it must be. Whatever one thinks about thumbs and brain pans, the visceral certainty that consciousness or soul ‘just can not’ be a product of evolution has to be part of the world we are testing against. That takes time and a more careful presentation.

    To the book itself (and potentially controversial and even troll-like), I end up wondering whether “Science the Key to Theology” is really the search for truth that science purports to be, or is just the 2017 presentation of what SteveP can make sense of today? (To ameliorate the troll-like nature of this comment, let me protest that in fact I would happily listen to “what Steve can make sense of today” for as long as you cared to speak.) For example, we currently have some tools for thinking about emergence, chaos, consciousness, time. And an uneasy recognition that quantum effects are beyond comprehension. I’m old enough to have watched those concepts come into popular awareness and I remember when they were not (although maybe not old enough to watch the deepest thinkers of the 20th century as they worked on some of these ideas). Without those tools, would the book exist? To put a specific, upon reading Chapter 11 (Arrow of Time etc.), I am left with the suspicion that behind the scenes there’s an “aha!, the block universe didn’t work for my theology, but now that I have a dynamic picture of time to work with I can write my book.”

  7. “Without those tools, would the book exist? To put a specific, upon reading Chapter 11 (Arrow of Time etc.), I am left with the suspicion that behind the scenes there’s an “aha!, the block universe didn’t work for my theology, but now that I have a dynamic picture of time to work with I can write my book.” Perhaps not, or rather I think it would be a different book. I think my biggest point is that every age has to wrestle with current science and our best understanding of the universe as we see knowledge about it unfold. This is not a bug, but a feature. So the next generation’s equivalent of my book may be contending with dark matter, multi universes, or things that I’ve not even conceived of. But this is healthy and the way that both science and theology progress. But I think your comment on theology and revelation is an important one. I see how we should engage with revelation, (how it is recognized, authorized, etc.) is a theological question. And an important one.

  8. John Mansfield says:

    That diagram of an ecological model reminds me that there is a lot of faith that goes into sticking with a scientific process long enough, combing through all the errors in method and design to arrive at a point that an experiment or theory isn’t producing nonsense. So many times I have produced nonsense, then simplified and simplified again until the nonsense coheres into something that can be identified as a discrepancy, and the discrepancy chased down to an explanation. In the middle of that process I fight despair by identifying what principles I am counting on, such as chemical species and heat conservation or simple arithmetic. In a few instances I have pared a computer routine down to a single line, which in some cases I had mistyped and couldn’t recognize as mistaken until I had nothing else to look at, and in other cases I had found a compiler bug. Another memory that stands out is a day standing atop a power plant exhaust duct in Florida, running a 10-foot pitot probe up and down, in and out of a series of ports to produce a velocity profile. The measurements weren’t making sense, which is why we were brought in, and when we analyzed them that afternoon, they were impossible, which is a helpful nudge that something isn’t what you think it is. We thought it through, suspected the bundle of hoses running from the probe to the manometers, assembled a new bundle in the hotel hallway that night, retested the next day, and flew home as heroes who had solved the plant’s problem. It is an amazing thing to follow such a process to the point that an analog is reproducing already known phenomena, and then trust it as a tool to discover the unknown.

  9. “every age has to wrestle with current science and our best understanding of the universe as we see knowledge about it unfold” — This is a much stronger proposition regarding science and theology than (my formulation of the easier proposition) “theology has to wrestle with the world as it really is.”

    The challenge is that there’s a potential disconnect between the rapid change in our understanding of the world and our (natural?) desire for a stable theology of the eternities. It’s not even “every age.” Even if we figure out something now, given the rate of change just next year we might have to disrupt everything to deal with a consensus string theory (no, never happen!?) or dark matter.

    I think you’re calling for an ever-changing fluid “theology”, always tentative, continuously tested and rethought. I like it (if that isn’t clear, i.e., this is all exciting, interesting, positive, to me) but it’s a heavy lift for theology as most people think of or want it.

  10. Steve L. Peck says:

    John Mansfield, ha ha, I could relate so much with everything you said there. Everything!

  11. christiankimball yes, there is much discomfort in examining our theology in light of new information, but I think it is necessary and frames the difference between theology and dogmatics. So often what we think is unchangeable, suddenly is and then too often people think the entire project is over and abandon their theological commitments because they suddenly find there is trouble. If we recognize the inherent fallibility of both science and theology, but their value at honing in on their target, all the while trying to keep the two in conversation, I think we are better off.

  12. BCC conscience, not following. Elaborate.

  13. SteveP: I read your book about a month ago. I will preface my comment by admitting that I did not follow/understand it all that well. But one thing sticks out. I was surprised that you seemed to simply assume God made the universe. There are two problems there: the process of simply assuming (in an otherwise science-based book) and the conclusion, with, ultimately only faith (subjective experience), that God exists or made the universe.

    Or, did I miss your point in that regard?

  14. fbisti, Help me here because I don’t claim anywhere that God ‘made’ the universe. ‘Made’ has too much engineering context and I argued specifically against naive notions of a “Harry Potter” God that waved a wand and it was so. I think if I had to pick a word it would be ‘encouraged’ a universe, or maybe ‘planted’ a universe (both of which still remain inadequate metaphors). And you say, “only faith” in a way that suggest you think subjective experience is somehow not involved in science or another form of possibility for coming to knowledge, but the main arguments about faith isn’t in ascertaining the factual nature of the cosmos, but a way to form a relationship with God, hence science and faith are fully compatible. I think you did miss my point, but that’s OK, because it opens some interesting discussions.

  15. Steve3141, at 9:40 AM:
    I am a proponent, well, more accurately, a believer, that God has had very little or no influence on the course of the universe–He doesn’t need to, so he doesn’t. Further, by way of better understanding one another, I am often overly pedantic, logical, and overly concerned by the precise meaning of words. But to speak to my contention that in this book you seem to imply that God “made.” the Universe…

    On my Kindle, at Location 2412 (page 139?), you wrote…

    “What of Creation?
    Not only is God’s voice important; his handiwork is too. I believe that the universe, that great artifact of His creative will…”

    At Location 2785, in the imaginary dialogue with *Lost in Confusion* who wants to teach Intelligent Design:

    “…God’s influence is subtler I think. We are supposed to explore the universe. It’s a gift. One squandered by ID.”

    Perhaps I don’t grasp how you are defining “made,” but “his handiwork,” “artifact of His creative will,” and “It’s a gift” seem to me to mean originated, prime mover, maker, creator, or some version of *made*–though clearly you also recognize that natural processes (evolution, quantum physics, chemical reactions, etc.) “made” what we experience today.

    Am I still getting it wrong/misunderstanding you?

  16. I suppose the best metaphor what what I mean would be a gardener’s relationship to a garden. Certainly a gardener sets conditions that bring about the garden, but the processes of the universe like sunlight, rain, soil, bacteria, seeds, and other conditions combine with that desire to put a garden in this place and time.

  17. Emily U says:

    I like the idea of your simulation experiment. I’m going to read the book.

  18. Steve, I’ve got a question and not sure where else to ask this. When BYU began teaching evolution again in 1971, did it have anything to do with accreditation, or was the administration otherwise convinced it was time?

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