Alison Wohler, January 2, 2011

Unitarian Universalist Society of Amherst


As the oldest child I felt it my job to offer the first toast at my parents’ recent anniversary party.  First I raised my glass to my great-grandmother who bought the Chautauqua cottage.  Then I lifted up the Chautauqua UU Fellowship that has gathered so many people, including my parents, together over the summer months each year.  Then I toasted the whole reason my family existed at all – the reason my parents met and the reason I am here today: my father’s big feet.


If not for his size 14 feet my dad’s enlistment into the service would not have been delayed (for lack of shoes that would fit him).  If not for the delay he wouldn’t have met a man named Bill Martin in the next group of enlistees who became a good friend and who later lured my father to Case Institute of Technology (in Cleveland) after their enlistment was over.  If not for those big feet my dad wouldn’t have met a woman named Lenore who lived in the dormitory with Bill’s sister.  And if not for those big feet Lenore would not have become my dad’s wife and my mom.  It was all meant to be – right?  The cause: big feet.  The effect: me.


We have a strong human tendency to “see” order and pattern and purpose in our world and in our lives.  I would say that’s part of what makes us the religious creatures we are.  We like to see pattern and purpose – these things make it easier to live our lives.  


One of the things we have a tendency to do is to point out coincidences and how spooky they are.  Sometimes we call this synchronicity.  Synchronicity is defined as “the experience of two or more events that are apparently causally unrelated occurring together in a meaningful manner.” It’s a term coined by Karl Jung who was, [himself], “transfixed by the idea that life was not a series of random events but rather an expression of a deeper order.”  (  


A couple examples of synchronicity: (same source as above)


The wardrobe department for The Wizard of Oz unknowingly purchased a coat for character Professor Marvel from a second-hand store, which was later verified to have originally been owned by L. Frank Baum, the author of the novel on which the film was based.  Spooky.


Fourteen years prior to the sinking of the Titanic, the writer Morgan Robertson wrote the novel Futility, the central event of which is the sinking by a collision with an iceberg of the transatlantic Titan, described in the novel as allegedly unsinkable.  Very spooky.


Correlations, to which we attach incorrect cause and effect conclusions, are another human propensity.  “Silly correlations find there way into all kinds of seemingly well-reasoned arguments.  For example, Hal Lewis, in his book Technological Risk, cites the case of the antifluoridation publication that warned that most cases of AIDS were found in cities with fluoridated water.  ‘It could have just as easily have said they occurred in cities with a public library,’ writes Lewis.  ‘Equally true – equally irrelevant.’” (The Universe and the Teacup, K. C. Cole, p. 138) 


Correlations are often nothing more than examples of coincidence.  You could say that puberty causes the need for orthodontia, but one could just as easily propose that orthodontia causes puberty, since the two tend to happen at about the same time. (same source as last paragraph)


As I mentioned earlier, our minds like to find meaning and predictability in our lives.  Throughout history, sequentially using magic, religion, and science, people have sought to perceive order and meaning in a seemingly chaotic and meaningless world. This quest for order reached its ultimate goal in the seventeenth century when newtonian dynamics provided an ordered, deterministic view of the entire universe epitomized in P. S. de Laplace’s statement, “We ought then to regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its preceding state and as the cause of its succeeding state.”  (



This is called determinism – the ultimate game of cause and effect.  For many throughout history that “cause” has been called God.


And the most serious game of determinism I could think of uses Calvin’s rules (shall we call them doctrines) from the Protestant Reformation.  These are as I found them at a web site called, and not necessarily as Calvin would have described them: 


God controls everything, and everything is predestined.  Nevertheless, the following must be admitted, despite the mystery of apparent inconsistency to our fallen minds.

If you are damned, it’s entirely your own fault, and not God’s fault at all (though God controls everything).  

If you are saved, it’s entirely God’s doing, and not to your credit at all.  

We all deserve to be damned as rebels against God – that’s God’s justice.

Some of us are saved by God – that’s God’s mercy. 


This is the Calvinist predestination of our religious forebears, right here in Unitarian Universalism.  We emerged out of this Puritan thinking as we rejected both the depravity of the human condition and the ability of a god to damn anyone.  


It always bothers me when I hear people on TV, after a disaster, thanking God that they were saved, while ignoring the logical correlated conclusion that the other people apparently died because they were not worthy of God’s grace.


I call grace the undeserved luck of the draw.


And bad luck is just the same  undeserved.


Cancer doesn’t go around looking for the person who most deserves to suffer.


Airplanes don’t crash because the country where the plane took off supports same sex marriage.


This is flawed cause and effect determinism.


Science, itself, however, has had its own determinism.  Scientific determinism proposes that if we had the ability to know all the rules of nature, including the physics of the sub-atomic world, it would be possible to predict every move within the interdependent web, into the infinite future.  The next infinitely small fraction of a second of the future predicted by the conditions of the present equally small fraction of a second.  But something happened to the possibility of this kind of determinism as science delved deeper into the workings of our world at levels smaller than the classic idea of an atom.  


Our minds have a hard time dismissing apparent (to our senses) connections and tendencies.  To conceive of a purely random Universe is nigh on to impossible for most of us.  But that is what new discoveries in the field of quantum physics are telling us.  Even Albert Einstein, who was alive when much of this original research was taking place, was not convinced.  As science led to the inescapable conclusion that at subatomic scales particles could not be pinned down to a particular place at a particular moment in time; that it was all a matter of probabilities, Einstein steadfastly remained unconverted to “that fundamental game of dice,” as he called it. (The Universe and the Teacup, K. C. Cole, p. 131)


If you are of my generation you will remember those simple representations of atoms with which we grew up.  The proton/neutron nucleus in the middle; the electrons in their various, but well defined, orbits around that nucleus.  It all fit into a few inches on the blackboard.  Then we learned that the real relative proportions are as if the nucleus was a grain of sand on the pitcher’s mound of the Houston Astrodome, and the electron was a speck of dust moving around outside the dome in a full circle around the grain of sand. (The Non-Local Universe, Nadeau and Karatos, p. 52) This too was a flawed model of the Hydrogen atom, for in reality (or as close to reality as we have as yet seen it) the orbit of the electron is not a circle but rather a probability distribution describing where it might be found anywhere around that nucleus.  


The science is pretty clear – uncertainty is the name of the reality we live in – and by.


But we also still live with the ideology of determinism, pattern, cause and effect, that has become so much a part of our thinking that it may take generations to get it out of our systems.  How are we to adapt to the changes that quantum discoveries are bringing to our understanding of the nature of reality?  These are as important and as life-changing as the ideas that Darwin brought to us not so very long ago, and which are still not totally accepted today by some people.


“The British philosopher and mathematician, Bertrand Russell, wrote:


We all start from ‘naïve realism,’ i.e. the doctrine that things are what they seem.  We think that grass is green, that stones are hard, and that snow is cold.  But physics assures us that the greenness of grass, the hardness of stones, and the coldness of snow are not the greenness of grass, the hardness of stones, and the coldness of snow that we know in our own experience, but something very different.” (The Drunkard’s Walk, by Leonard Mlodinow, p. 6)


Richard G. Colling, in a book called A Random Universe, writes:  In a world that values rules, organization, structure, and order; where science speaks of laws; and where theological authority equates God with order and Satan with disorder, it may be difficult to appreciate physical laws that embody an element of randomness. (


In their book, The Non-Local Universe: The New Physics and Matters of the Mind, authors Nadeau and Kafatos also understand the difficulty these new discoveries bring.  They write:


In the strange new world of quantum physics we have consistently uncovered aspects of physical reality at odds with our everyday sense of this reality – and none so challenging to our usual understanding of the “way things are” than the amazing new fact of nature known as nonlocality. [the basic uncertainty inherent at the quantum level]  (p. 1)


There can hardly be a sharper contrast than that between the everlasting atoms of classical physics and the vanishing ‘particles’ of modern physics. Each atom turns out to be nothing but the potentialities of the behavior patterns of the others.  What we find, therefore, are not elementary space-time realities, but rather a web of relationships in which no part can stand alone, every part derives its meaning and existence only from its place within the whole. (p. 195-196)


This should sound very familiar to Unitarian Universalists, who in our principles acknowledge and accept a concept of the interdependent web of all existence.  The macro (the world we can see and in which we aspire to live as best we can) imitates the micro (behavior at the subatomic level).  It’s all a web – nothing can be looked at or taken out and looked at as a discrete entity.  This is a theologically significant point, something recognized by at least one of the scientists who made the discoveries of nonlocality.  


Werner Heisenberg (as in the Heisenberg uncertainty principle) wrote:


We do not know whether we shall succeed in once more expressing the spiritual form of our future communities in the old religious language.  A rationalistic play with words and concepts is of little assistance here; the most important preconditions are honesty and directness.  But since ethics is the basis for the communal life of men, [and women] and ethics can only be derived from that fundamental human attitude which I have called the spiritual pattern of the community, we must bend all our efforts to reuniting ourselves, along with the younger generation, in a common human outlook.  I am convinced that we can succeed in this if again we can find the right balance between the two kinds of truth. (The Non-Local Universe, p. 195)

Religion and Science.   Certainty and uncertainty.  The certainty our minds crave and which religion can sometimes provide; the uncertainty and random nature of our world as science is discovering it to be.  These are contradictions we, and traditional religious belief, must struggle with.  The reality may be one thing (random and uncertain) yet (and this is where religious tradition may still play a role) in order to live our lives we must think and act as if that were not the case.  That is the key, I think.  To understand, on a certain level, what the science really is, but to also understand that we might need to actually live by a different set of rules.  I may know on one level that this lectern is really mostly space between the atoms that make it up, but on another level I need to know that if I put my glass of water up here it’s not going to fall through those spaces.


On one level I may know that randomness and uncertainty rule at the quantum level underlying everything, but on another level I need to live as if my loving you, and you loving me, are not merely a probability distribution of the electrons interacting between us, but have some positive meaning in a real sense.  I am as certain as I can be, in this uncertain world, that this is true.  


My father is writing a paper this winter for his Philosophical Club about the question of whether there is another reality behind what we perceive as reality.  He and I think about a lot of the same questions these days.  Somewhere, lately, and it may be from his materials for this paper, I came across a quote that has stuck with me.  It says “No one has seen the whole picture, so no one knows there isn’t one.”  There are so many interesting things to think about.  Thank you for doing some thinking with me this morning.


Closing Words

from The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, by Leonard Mlodinow, p. ix


A few years ago a man won the Spanish national lottery with a ticket that ended in the number 48.  Proud of his “accomplishment,” he revealed the theory that brought him the riches.  “I dreamed of the number 7 for seven straight nights,” he said, “and 7 times 7 is 48.”  Thos of us with a better command of our multiplication tables might chuckle at the man’s error, but we all create our own view of the world and them employ it to filter and process our perceptions, extracting meaning from the ocean of data that washes over us in daily life.  And we often make errors that, though less obvious, are just as significant as his.