The Engineer and the theological puzzle


Read a sad piece today about a software engineer, a fundamentalist Christian, who lost his faith because of evolution. Ed Suominen is an engineer and inventor, and was monkeying (!) around with software that mimicked the ability of "widgets" to take on new characteristics and evolve into new widgets. This mindless ability of these widgets to evolve new and useful designs is exactly what evolutionary theory states. No god is needed to explain the variety and intricacy of Earth's flora and fauna -- just copious time and brainless genes that have the ability to change and compete for advantage.

Problem is that some versions of Christian theology don't work in a world in which mankind evolves. If you are a biblical literalist, then you need a perfect creation (made by God) which get permanently messed up by a bad man (Adam), after which a good man (Jesus) is needed to set things right again. If creation were not perfect to start with, a fall from grace couldn't occur. Without a fall, there's no need for a redeemer to rescue fallen creation. And without he need for a redeemer, Christ is out of a job.

And so, Suominen lost his faith.

Not being one, I smirked inwardly at the idea of an engineer losing his faith over this. Typical engineers, of whom I count many as friends and colleagues, have one great strength and one glaring weakness. As a strength, they have the ability to see the world as a complex collection of interacting, irreducible components -- widgets. To you and me, a bridge is a wondrous span that connects land masses. To an engineer, it is a mass of bolts, nuts, struts, girders, cables and caissons that exists in a matrix of forces -- gravity, tensile strength, etc. This strength is a wonderful gift to humanity, because it allows a bridge engineer to design safe bridges, a software engineer to exploit the Internet, and a genetic engineer to tinker with the components of life itself. Because of engineers, we have flown to the moon, sent interstellar probes to distant planets, built devices that extract information out of the ether, probed the depths of the sea and the complex machinery of the cell.

So what's not to like?

Unfortunately, more than a few engineers are plagued by a hubris that suggests that the engineering mindset is the only one worth having. A problem that cannot be componentized is not a problem worth solving. And a person who cannot think in terms of organizing components can hardly be said to be thinking at all.

Ed Suominen seems to be the kind of man who cannot imagine any way to experience the universe other than the way that fits his own mind. He is a prisoner of his own mental machinery, unable to theorize that other forms of knowing are possible than the engineering paradigm. Sure, engineering has brought us to heights of power and living that were unimaginable a few centuries ago. But, though the universe has yielded many of its secrets to science and engineering, should we think that all secrets are a matter of math and machinery?

When it comes to imaging a theory of redemption that is not dependent on a literal Adam, Suominen falls short. Probably, he can't help it. The old theory, with its few interconnected parts and its necessary outcomes, was irresistibly mechanical. But it cannot stand under a world in which beings self-replicate from a few characters in a genetic alphabet. And it cannot tolerate a world in which human widgets are unpredictable and fail to fall into neat moral categories.

But is that a problem with faith? Or is that a problem with Suominen's ability to express faith?

Redemption can no longer be seen as the return to glory and acceptance of a race damned by its own curiosity and propensity for self-aggrandizement. But abandoning faith is not the only option. We may need to reinvent faith, reinterpreting old stories in the light of new understanding, brought to us thanks to the scientific method. The God that we humans seek can no longer be perceived in the working of weather systems, the gyre of stars in their courses, the outcome of a throw of bones or the incantations of a priest. But our own sacred writings point us in the direction of a moral science. One that relies less on dragooning gods to explain the workings of our world, and more on a God who soothes the tumults of our minds, satisfies the longings of our hearts and heals the rifts in our communities. The redemption we need may be the one that frees us from mechanistic, black-and-white realm of the moral engineer, the theologian, and places us in the fluid and forgiving kingdom where enemies become friends, prostitutes precede the pious and the late worker gets paid the same as the one who worked all day.