Making God Laugh 

The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, a benchmark in the evolution of science, in essence suggests that matter, at it's most basic level, has no predictable qualities. I find it reassuring that matter is just as uncertain as I am. Which leads me to these few words from Henri-Frédéric Amiel the 19th century Swiss philosopher and poet:

“Uncertainty is the refuge of hope.”

“The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning. Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers.”

       - Erich Fromm:

“I doubt, therefore I think, I think, therefore I am." 

    - From Discourse on Method by Rene Descarte 

"Contrariwise," continued Tweedledee, "if it was so, it might be, and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn't, it ain't. That's logic!" 

From Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

God's most recent divine messenger's name is Bobe. B-o-b-e.

He has a place of business at 10261 Sorrento Rd, in Pensacola Florida. I have confirmed this via a Google search which I hold in my hand. For people of faith this humble document might serve as evidence of the divine. 

I came to know of Bobe and his miraculous powers participating in one of our culture's most prevalent rite of passage - the pilgrimage to Florida during the holy period we call Spring Break.

I undertook this epic journey with three high school friends in the long ago spring of 1974. The journey was powered by Faith. Faith that the pittance we had on hand would cover our gas, cheap food, campsite fees, and the common currency of spring break, beer. Faith that our chariot to the promised land, an ancient sedan with a rare and peculiar push button transmission, would make the trip intact. Our Faith, supported by our youthful ignorance, suggested to us that, in spite of our abundant lack of planning, resources, or common sense, everything would work out just fine. 

One of our group had a friend who had been to a place called Grand Isle, Louisiana on a previous Spring Break. He described it as a Garden of Eden peopled by the inhabitants of Rome before the fall. Well, didn't that sound promising? Our karmic destination was chosen.

The trip started with a burst of imbecilic energy and the electric sensation of embarking on a grand adventure. We jabbered ourselves silly for the first few hours and as time passed and the adrenaline of our departure wore off we began to grow quiet. Darkness approached and we fueled ourselves with coffee and the sort of substances one inevitably dabbled in in the early 70s, none of which are known for their calming effects. 

Interstate 57 took us first into the boot heel of Missouri, through Arkansas past Memphis, and finally we crossed into the Mysterious Deep South as we entered Mississippi. We marveled at the accents of the folks behind the counter at the gas station and the fact that we were ever farther from home. 

We had decided to save money by driving straight through, so as we drove through the pine forests of Mississippi, the self-medication began to falter and we grew exhausted and cranky. Someone recalled an old girlfriend who ditched him for another of us. The mood turned sour. Then somewhere around Oxford, as if on cue, in the middle of a crescendoing argument over some long forgotten umbrage, a strange and horrifying sound screeched through the night. It sounded like a bandsaw cutting through sheet metal, and it came from the drive train of the car. This was a sound that creates a diuretic effect. The occupants of the car got very quiet. We each silently calculated the reality that something was terribly wrong with the car, that we were a long, long way from home, we knew no one within hundreds of miles, we had barely enough money for gas, much less a major auto repair. 

But the miles coasted by without any more immediate sounds of a death throe from the drive-train. The conversation remained subdued given the length of the day and the now embedded thought that the car was doomed to break down. What conversation there was focused on the inadequacies of our companions. No real rest was possible in this state, so we maintained a perpetual state of discomfort. Any tiny noise from the car paralyzed us with anxiety. Mississippi seemed to go on forever. As dawn began to flicker, I felt a disturbing tingle on my lip and the car's drive train suddenly screeched again, this time lurching the car from side to side. The tension of being stranded far from home intensified. 

After an eternity, we reached the border of Louisiana. This was still quite a distance from New Orleans but we got a measure of comfort from the obvious fact that Grand Isle would be just past New Orleans, since New Orleans is a port city and Grand Isle is on the Gulf.

Eventually we reached the suburbs of New Orleans and approached our promised land. More coffee and self medication created the illusion of wakefulness. Our exhaustion was so complete that all we could think about was setting up the tent and sleeping as long as it took to begin our vacation refreshed in the Fabled Grand Isle. 

Unfortunately none of us had looked critically at a map before we left on our journey. We were to discover that Louisiana continues for unimaginable distances south of New Orleans, all of it an inch above sea level, a landscape with nothingness extending to the horizon. After about an hour, when we realized we still had many miles to go, a sense of exhausted defeat filled the car. We had become modern Flying Dutchman doomed to roam the world forever. The car suddenly screeched and lurched again. The tension in the car became unbearable and hints of violence began to exhibit themselves. I passed the time indulging myself in thinking of all the ways my companions had betrayed me in high school. Thankfully we had brought no weapons. This was no longer a vacation but a quest for survival.

Finally, at our darkest moment, off in the distance we saw a slight rise and a curiously large number of high-tension power wires. Behold! The Glory of Grand Isle, LA.

You may recall Kafka's novel the Metamorphosis. In the novel a man has nothing and no one, is filled with utter despair, thinks only of leaving this mortal coil, a man to whom things can not possibly get worse. He then turns into a cockroach.

I mention this because one would think that as we entered Grand Isle the suffering of our endless trip would be mitigated by reaching our destination. But, as we drove through the burg of Grand Isle our relief turned to despair as we viewed what the town had to offer. Our mother faith admonishes us to refrain from judgment. That moral precept was not strong enough to survive my exposure to Grand Isle. We found ourselves in a grey, dingy village of grim frame houses and rundown bars and front yards loaded with junk and listless dogs. There was sand everywhere, but not the beautiful beach sand of the brochures, but rather grey, styrofoam laden sand fit for a litter box. The most singular feature of the village was the fact that huge, high-tension power towers and the associated wires were everywhere. This wasn't a resort town but rather something out of a backwoods Blade Runner. Any spot on the town's rundown beach that you might care to frolic on would be in the shadows of high tension wires. Any suntan you might  wring out of the hazy sun while lying on the grimy sand next to the oily Gulf waters would invite a crazed geometric pattern on your skin from the towers overhead.

But don't take my word on the charms of our vacation destination. A recent best selling book called Braving Home by Jake Halpern had the unique theme of locating the five worst places to live in America. The back cover blurb states "Outlandish and often hellish places in the US inhabited by a handful of stalwarts who refuse to leave". As you might guess, Mr. Halpern included Grand Isle as one of the five worst places to live in America. The best thing he had to say about it after living there for a few weeks was that it is an "oversized sandbar of silt from the Mississippi River."

This garden spot, my friends, was where my three cockroach companions and I had chosen to go on vacation.

You will recall that we hadn't slept in 48 hours, we were crabby and argumentative, that all we could do was dream of resting in our tent. But our view of Grand Isle had a galvanizing effect on us. A quick meeting featuring bickering, threats, and clinched fists resulted in the decision that we could only salvage the trip by immediately driving to Florida. This ridiculous and counterintuitive plan would extend our lack of sleep and force us to drive countless more hours. But haven't we already established that informed decision-making was not our strong suit? Off we went cursing the fool who recommended this hellish place.

Back past the emptiness south of New Orleans, around the metropolitan area, back into Mississippi and then along the Gulf coast. Another gut tightening screech from the car, then another an hour later. They were becoming conspicuously closer together. Soon the screeching and lurching occurred every half hour. The tingle on my lip had turned to a full blown itch. As the endless drive proceeded, the source of the itch became apparent. I, the pilgrim on a Spring break crusade to meet and charm college girls, was developing the kryptonite of romance, a very painful and conspicuous cold sore.

Finally, we could go no further. We stopped at a campground just west of Mobile Alabama and collapsed into our tent. I recall a supper of cold beef stew directly from a can, numerous warm beers, and a few more recriminations about the heritage of the soul who recommended Grand Isle. This was followed by a few hours of restless sleep on the cold, hard floor of the tent. 

The next morning my lip was throbbing. I looked in the side mirror of the car and on my lip witnessed a sore that seemed to me to be the size of a water balloon. My - wouldn't girls want to seek me out? I wanted to cry.

But wait - there is more. In a karmic twist the owner of the car and the cruise director who guided us to Grand Isle had been bitten by a spider in the night. His hand was swollen to cartoon size. We obviously had been very bad boys in a previous life.

What else to do but pile in the car and head for our new destination, Panama City, FL.

Every 15 minutes the car screeched and lurched. The endless anxiety was a palpable presence in the car. Our driver winced when he had to use his cartoon hand to turn the steering wheel. When we pulled up next to cars at stop lights, adults would avert their eyes and children in the cars would recoil in horror and begin crying when they saw my lip. At least that is what I imagined. Some vacation. We no longer were dreaming of sinful pleasure on Palm lined beaches, we just wanted to survive with life and limb and a debt we could pay off within a few years when the final karmic explosion occurred.

As we approached an intersection in Pensacola, just hours from our new destination, the car let out a long death screech, lurched and stopped. 

Our worst fear had been realized. We had almost no money and this had the profile of a destroyed transmission, an extremely expensive repair that often takes days to accomplish. We knew no one within a thousand miles. And did I mention it was Sunday? Morning? Try getting a car repaired on a Sunday morning in your hometown with a pocket full of money. It isn't going to happen. 

But we were in the middle of a busy road. A basic decision on where to push the car had to be made quickly. I don't recall why but we made the absurd decision to push the car forward and to the left, across the lanes of traffic, irritating numerous drivers on their way to church. We put it in a parking space along the side of the road.

There we were, shell shocked and beaten, leaning on the car, whimpering like the lost souls we were. 

After a few minutes of catatonia someone noticed a sign right next to the car that said Bobe's Garage. Since it was, as I said, Sunday morning and all shops were closed there in the Bible belt, I assumed the sign's cosmic purpose was to mock us. But we went through a gate and into a courtyard and there was a fellow working on a car. I inquired if he might be Bobe. He was. You might note that this was the first positive development on this trip since we first put the key in the ignition 3 days and 2 nights earlier. 

Bobe was working on his own car. Might he, we asked, find time to take a look at our car? This was the deep, deep south and nothing happens in a hurry. Bobe cocked his head, thought about it for a bit and agreed. We explained in detail the sounds the car had been making, pausing occasionally to stifle sobs. Bobe pondered. We showed him the car. He pondered some more. We waited to be told that it would take a week to get a new transmission, and would cost the equivalent of a years wages to install it. I meditated on the possibilities of life in a southern jail.

At no point did Bobe open the hood, look under the car, or inspect it in any way beyond a cursory glance. He squatted in the sand and dirt of the courtyard. He proceeded to explain the source of the screeching sound in a slow drawl. He picked up a small stick. He drew a diagram in the dirt to illustrate the nature of the problem. We stared at it dumbly. He walked to his garage. He came back with an allen wrench. He removed the right rear hubcap. He inserted the allen wrench into the hub of the wheel. He turned the allen wrench one revolution. He said, "That oughta do it."

Those of you who know cars know that when your car repeatedly makes sounds like a chainsaw cutting through aluminum siding, it is never, ever, ever fixed with an allen wrench. You might fix your eyeglasses with an allen wrench, but not your car. A breakdown like this involves a week-long project with a shop full of power tools and a cash outlay that means the kids won't be going to college after all. 

This odd development, to use an appropriate cliché, did not compute. Was Bobe some kind of cruel jokester having a chuckle at the expense of 4 beaten youths? That ought to do it he'd said! We had just spent 72 hours and a thousand miles in a hell of throbbing anxiety over the impending break down of our car; far from home with no hope of having it repaired, contemplating the awful consequences that would ensue, and a twist of an allen wrench fixed it? 

We started the car and drove it around the block. It purred like a kitten.

I asked Bobe what we owed him. Bobe scratched his head, looked at the ground. "Would a coupla dollars be too much?" So, this I thought, is what it means to be born again.

We paid Bobe, threw in another buck out of wild extravagance, and went on our way. We put another 1500 miles on the car before we got back home and the car ran like a sewing machine the entire way.

As for Panama City, one of us my comrades got sun poisoning, another got caught in the undertow, girls avoided us like the plague and rightfully so given our obvious deficiencies.

But that was irrelevant. I was thrilled to not be in jail or hitchhiking home, or lying dead along the side of the road after being abused by rednecks out of a fevered image of the South of Deliverance. Bobe's knowledge of our peculiar car was a revelation. Our vehicle could have given up the ghost in any of an almost infinite number of places along a 1000-mile stretch of road but it gave up around the corner from Bobe. I did some research when I got home and discovered that our odd AMC sedan had only been made for a few years over a decade earlier, was an abysmal failure that had virtually disappeared from our roads, and only a handful of mechanics in the entire country had a grasp of it’s odd and complex engineering.

You could ask a thousand mechanics about troubleshooting our screeching drive train, and be lucky to find a single one who had even seen a push button car, much less having the knowledge to diagnose and fix it.

I was astonished by this statistically improbable turn of events when it happened, I am just as astonished now, as I relate it to you. I would suggest it was fiction except that it happened to me.

I offer this story as an example of how entertainingly unpredictable life can be. We make plans and fate rules otherwise.

So, what do we make of this? Since I am standing behind a pulpit it would follow that we must attempt to make something of it. 

When I reminded my mom of this adventure recently she had a ready answer for how such a knee buckling coincidence could occur. As a devout Christian, she assured me that it was God's intervention that delivered us into Bobe's capable hands. God was simply looking out for us. Since I am a religious skeptic, as superstitious as a slide rule, I find this explanation to be unsatisfactory, but far be it from me to quarrel with the loving woman who brought me into the world. I let it pass.

And isn't her explanation appealing? And don't you think it is a fairly universal explanation for people of faith? It is so nice to have everything confusing explained in such a tidy way. I am extremely envious of folks who can submit to the warm embrace of faith. But I am undermined by my allegiance to reason.

So I can't accept that a Christian God led us to Bobe. I think I have given ample illustration that we were shallow, misguided, boneheaded examples of the callowness of youth. Why would an omnipotent God guide us to safety when others far more worthy around the world are doomed to suffer. I recall the Afghan children who were "accidentally" killed recently by US gunfire. Four doofuses from Illinois are sent a messenger named Bobe and innocent Afghani children are sent uranium tipped bullets? Forgive me for thinking otherwise.

Absent Faith, what would science have to say about a trip to Louisiana that would take us instead to Florida and our remarkably coincidental interlude with Bobe? The realm of science has long been involved in finding explanations for events in the natural world. Cutting edge fields of inquiry like chaos theory, quantum physics, fractal theory, complexity theory, and string theory would suggest that predicting anything is a fool's game. There is an old Yiddish saying, "If you want to make God laugh tell him your plans". That could be paraphrased to state, "if you want to make a chaos theorist laugh tell him your plans".

For centuries scientists labored under the assumption that by gathering enough data and utilizing constants and mathematical analysis, complex events could be reasonably understood and predicted. But, after Einstein, science moved towards a more abstract reality, a reality without constants, a reality that is almost entirely unpredictable. In the 20th century scientific theorists began to return to the Pythagorean thesis of the interrelationship of all things. System theory, a formalization of this concept of interrelationships, emerged with the realization that the interrelationships of elements within a system determine the nature of a system as much as the qualities of the elements themselves. A most entertaining anecdote regarding the universe's inter-connectiveness is illustrated in the concept called Strange Attractors. A Strange Attractor is an event that acts as the instigator of unpredictable phenomena that follows. What captures the imagination about these Strange Attractors is how small they can be, and how immense the possibilities of their consequences. Thus we have the anecdote that a butterfly flapping it's wings in the Amazon might possibly lead to a hurricane in a distant Ocean. 

A few years ago Steven Wolfram published a book called "A New Kind of Science". Wolfram has impressive credentials, he is a mathematician who has been a MacArthur genius grant recipient, a self-made millionaire by way of developing and marketing a computer program called "Mathematica", which is the gold standard of computational software for math students and scholars. Wolfram, as a world-class thinker and mathematician, had delved deeper and deeper into math for answers to fundamental questions. But the further along he got the less sure he was of his path. Some years ago, with things like chaos theory and fractal theory developing a buzz, and with his knowledge of computer logic growing, he decided to take a different path to understand pure science's fundamental question - "why are things the way they are?". He became fascinated with research showing that extremely simple computer programs could create complex and unpredictable patterns that suggested patterns in nature. As he experimented he discovered that programs with a minimal number of rules could create patterns of astonishing complexity. The patterns he works with are self replicating, in some ways mimicking the sort of genetic replication that is at the core of evolution. Wolfram now suggests that it isn't complex computations that will explain existence, but rather the recognition of  simple self replicating sets of basic rules. His thesis, and here I quote Charles Petit in the journal Science and Technology," is that the universe is in essence just a simple computer program. All of the universe's complexity, up to and including ourselves, is the product of a few, as yet unknown instructions - the equivalent of a few lines of code in a digital computer." 

Do tell.

Wolfram calls these sets of rules cellular automata. When setting a cellular automaton in motion, in spite of the simple rules, complex and unpredictable patterns appear. Wolfram believes that cellular automata he explores in his book are a faint whisper of the rules that create, define, and set in motion the very substance of existence.

Most of us operate under the assumption that life is bewilderingly complex. The 14th century Theologian, William of Ockham developed the principle called Occam's Razor, one of the foundation of modern scientific method. Occam's Razor states that given competing theories or explanations, all other things being equal, the simpler one is preferred. Following William of Ockham's lead, many of the theories currently being pursued by science suggest that the complexities of life have fundamentally simple origins. Physical reality can be defined by 4 simple points in space, creating a tetrahedron, the foundation of form. The entire blueprint of life is created by combinations of the four chemicals that make up DNA. And as we have discussed, a simple set of rules, in the form of cellular automata, might possibly be the instructions for the form and behavior of all things. Bobe may have been part of the pattern created by the logical yet unpredictable permutations of the simple set of instructions we based our Spring Break ritual on: Instruction 1. Drive south until you hit a beach, Instruction 2. drink beer, Instruction 3. Seek out female companionship, Result: meet Bobe the mechanic. And Bobe might have been the Strange Attractor that brought me to this room. Bobe turns an Allen Wrench and a chain of events is set in motion that years later brings me to this room at this time.

You might have noticed that I am endeavoring to use reason and the evolving logic of science to suggest a possible explanation for startling coincidences like that of my companions and I. This is almost as tempting, and perhaps just as suspect as Faith in an interventionist God.

A book called Software for the Brain by Michael Hewitt-Gleeson throws a dramatic curve at the attractiveness of reason. Gleeson's books has a vertigo inducing premise. It traces the history of thought via two people whose ideas, in Gleeson's estimation, negatively  infected the brains of the vast majority of people in western civilization.

The first, Plato, elevated thought to another level. He developed the idea that the more one thought about matters, the more one tried to discover and understand their true form, the more insights one could experience. Makes sense doesn't it? But he took this idea an important step further, in a way that continues to vex civilization to this day. I quote from the book. "Plato figured there must be a finite end to the relentless search for meaning, an ultimate destination to a thinker's efforts, so he called that destination objective truth".

Gleeson calls this idea, that objective, ultimate truth can be deduced and quantified via thinking, the Plato Truth Virus. 

Like a biological virus this idea replicated itself to other hosts. Consider it's power. Once infected an individual can think ones way to ultimate truth. This is an impressive illness. 

The Plato virus lay mostly dormant, it's powers not entirely engaged until it infected the brain of what the Disease Control Center might call Patient Zero. And that patient was, according to Gleeson, the second most influential thinker in Western History.

St. Thomas Aquinas was a brilliant fellow from a wealthy background who did not lack in confidence. In spite of his families misgivings he became a Franciscan friar. In those days the church was the Microsoft of the times, controlling much of the wealth and virtually all access to media based information in the western world. One of the sources of information St. Thomas became infatuated with was a translation of the works of the great Greek thinkers. Imagine how he indulged himself when he discovered a systematic method of deducing ultimate truth. He was inspired by Plato to think intensely about absolute truth and his intense thinking led him to deduce that the repository of objective, absolute truth was to be found in the doctrine of his Catholic Church. Imagine that. Since St. Thomas Aquinas was an extremely influential man and since the Church controlled the information and educational system for much of the western world at the time, it isn't a stretch to imagine what truths were taught to generation after generation of students and followers. The most important truth they taught was this: Ultimate truth exists and it was a wholly owned subsidiary of the church. History records the results.

But humans are nothing if not persistent and contrary. In spite of the Universal Church's heavy handed and often violent approach to enforcing these truths, other thinkers inevitably thought themselves into contradictory absolute truths. The dissonance of competing absolute truths resulted. Consider the Lutherans, Islam, the Mormons, the Unification Church, 7th Day Adventists, Scientologists, the Branch Dividians, and so many others. And each absolute truth is so obvious, so logical, so beyond doubt, that they often mock, browbeat, and even kill people whose truths differ from theirs. The Plato Truth Virus is one powerful bug.

And it also infects people of secular thought. Marx did some thinking, which infected Lenin , and an absolute truth led to the horrors of totalitarian socialism. Hitler did some thinking and his absolute truths led to the Final Solution. 

So rational thinking, the faithful companion of my refuge, science, can be just as suspect as faith when people forget that science and rational thought provide the best current answer to inquiry, not the absolute answer.

It should be apparent by this point in the proceedings that I am at a loss as to why fate led me to the Prophet Bobe. 

Was this remarkable coincidence an example of Divine intervention, an example of God protecting those too ignorant to protect themselves? Was it an example of the unpredictable consequences of Cellular Automata or chaos theory? Was it an example of  sheer dumb coincidence? Or is any explanation at all merely symptomatic of an infection of the Plato Truth Virus? What shall we make of Bobe's statistically improbable entrance into my life? I am afraid I must leave it to you to decide.

I have here the allen wrench that Bobe used to fix our car on that fateful day. With a turn of this wrench, a miracle happened. I offer it to the congregation and will have it on display after the service for you to make of it what you will, much as pilgrims gaze upon splinters of the cross as they commune with something bigger than themselves in the great churches of Europe. The deaf hear, the lame walk, and the cursed are set free in the presence of those relics.

A bit of a confession however. This isn't really Bobe's allen wrench, I bought it at Ace Hardware to use as a prop. I assume Bobe is still using his allen wrench to serve his many satisfied customers. But as Mark Twain pointed out in "The Innocents Abroad" churches in Europe have on display enough splinters of the cross to construct dozens of crosses, making their provenance suspect as well. This deception would not appear to make a whit of difference in the experience of the faithful. Apparently it’s the thought that counts. So whether it is a relic of divine intervention, dumb coincidence, a cellular  automata, or an example of the Plato Truth Virus, let this tiny wrench serve as a reminder of the wonderfully unpredictable nature of existence and the never ending entertainment value of this marvelous quality of life.

My beliefs are informed by the scientific method, which unlike most organized religions, is self correcting. If I discover that a belief is particularly boneheaded, I can cast it aside without the anxiety of losing face or going to hell. Science doesn’t have to be burdened by someone’s neurotic and dissonant certainties.

But science, of course, doesn’t have absolute answers. It has the best answers at any given time, and like the inhabits of the universe science examines, the answers evolve over time.

Our observations have led me and countless others to notice that flocks of birds, and schools of fish, and many other natural phenomena behave in concert - they exhibit and interconnectedness that suggests group consciousness. This leads me to believe that there is a scientific and common sense basis for my belief that what we call God is the likely consciousness that arises from the interactive sum of all things in this universe. The philospher Spinoza called this idea Panthesim. I believe that everything that happened on our ill-fated trip, both good and bad, like everything that ever happens, is evidence of the marvelously interconnected nature of existence. Accordingly, I believe that the design of the universe, enforced by creation, was involved in our interlude with Bobe. So maybe, just maybe, in the end my mother's explanation and mine aren't so far apart. And that, I trust, is another reason for God to Laugh.

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