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Friday, July 11, 2014

God, Climate Change, And The Uncertainty Principle

“It’s colder than a witch’s tit”, said Bobby Fellows as he pulled the old Indian blanket up around his neck and threw another log on the fire.

“Polar Vortex”, said Bradley Cowper. “The climate is warming up, great chunks of ice are hiving off from the polar icecaps, cooling the oceans and making a mess of the weather.”

“Maybe”, said Bobby.

“Yeah, maybe” replied his friend.

The two men had gone hunting in northern Wisconsin for years and had built a cabin on Lake Cri de Coeur near Lake Superior. They drove from Milwaukee to Ashland, through the Chippewa Forest, and on to their cabin.  Any farther north and inland and they would have had to fly in on a Twin Otter. 

They had known each other for years and enjoyed the solitude and intimate camaraderie of the woods, the lake, and the cabin.  In all the years hunting in the north woods in early November, this was the first time that it had been so cold, the temperature hovering near 0F.  Not only that a storm had come roaring out of Canada, dumped two feet of snow, and blew snow drifts that completely covered the Land Rover.


They kept the cabin well stocked with canned goods, water, beer, beef jerky, and single malt so they knew that they could ride out the storm no matter how severe or persistent.

After three days the storm blew itself out, but the only way to get out of the cabin was through a trap door in the roof, a common feature in the higher latitudes of North America because of the snow and the drifting.  It took them hours to dig out the door and the windows; but since it would be days before they could even consider making it down the rutted track out of the woods, they never even gave a second thought to the Land Rover.

In another two days, the temperature changed.  In just a few hours the thermometer registered above freezing and well into the 40s.  That night it was warm enough to open the window, and the next day the temperature was well into the 70s. The Polar Vortex had been displaced by an unusual circulation of low pressure which had sucked warm air from the Gulf of Mexico in once-in-a-decade anticyclone.



“Global warming”, said Bradley Cowper.

The two friends were neither climate change deniers nor passionate advocates for energy reform.  They were both resigned to a natural course of events which, regardless of determinate causes, would play themselves out in unpredictable ways.  There was no point in getting exercised.

Bradley Cowper had grown up in the Mississippi Delta, in a small town not far from the Mississippi River. His family had come down from the hills shortly after the Civil War and transformed themselves from yeomen to small plantation owners; but over the course of generations they saw their modest wealth disappear through bad decisions, drinking, and misfortune.  They had been totally wiped out in the Great Flood of 1927, and never made it back to economic health.  Bradley’s grandfather became a tradesman in Greenwood, operating a small hardware store, and his father ran it until his death.

The Cowpers, like most white and black families in the Delta, were profoundly religious; and Bradley went to the Third Baptist Church of Christ every Sunday with his mother and father.  Pastor Luke preached at the eleven o’clock service, and although by that time the summer heat was high and the church airless and hot, Thad Cowper wanted his boys to hear his sermon.  Luke was a big man and an imposing one; and when he strode up to the pulpit holding his worn and dog-eared Bible, the congregation shifted and squirmed in anticipation.  He rose up to his full 6’2” height, mopped his brow, loosened his collar and tie, and began.



“Jesus loves you”, he said quietly and calmly. “He died for your sins on Calvary,was crucified, nailed to the cross, and bleeding suffered a most horrible death for you.  Imagine his pain and torment….”
Here Pastor Luke paused and then went on with the most gory and painful details of Christ’s slow death by asphyxiation.  The Pastor’s breathing became choked and irregular, his face became contorted, and his eyes rolled back in his head. “He….died….for….you”, he managed, short of breath, sweat streaming into his eyes, head bowed, and arms listless at his sides.

Despite all the theatrical bombast, Pastor Luke was as logical as St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine, charted out the complex but complementary configuration of the Trinity, the nature of Good and Evil, and even touched on determinism, faith, and destiny.


“There are only three things you need to know, my friends”, he said. “The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit”; but somehow he managed to refer to the doctrinal debate at Nicaea, Kierkegaard and even Paradise Lost.  “The Devil was a smart one”, Pastor Luke said, but God was smarter”; and went on to describe the titanic struggle between Good and Evil.

“Satan told Adam and Eve that God had cheated them by keeping them from the Tree of Knowledge.  God was a tyrant who wanted to reserve the right to know everything; but Satan understood Man’s arrogance, and knew that he could tempt Eve by offering her a place equal to God; but Brothers and Sisters, there is no place equal to God”.


Pastor Luke knew that he couldn’t get to heavy-handed and intellectual and borrowed a page from Father Brophy, the Catholic priest at Annunciation Church in nearby Indianola who harangued his flock with tales of sin and damnation, fire and brimstone, lechery and adultery, and eternal perdition.  Catholics in Indianola flocked to the eleven o’clock Mass to hear Father Brophy just like the faithful at the Third Baptist Church did to hear Pastor Luke.

The genius of Luke was his ability to weave the melodramatic and theatrical with the logical – Billy Sunday with Augustine.  Everyone left church for their Sunday dinners with something.

Bradley Cowper left the Delta and the South to go to a Northern university, and although he was schooled in secularism and intellectual skepticism, he never lost his belief in God, nor his understanding that God – not Man – determined the course of human events. After the Fall, Man wandered alone and despairing, defiant and rebellious, and never accepted God’s primacy and supremacy. This was the cause of all human suffering. God engineered the Fall so that Man would have to prove himself worthy.

Bradley remembered Pastor Luke reading The Grand Inquisitor chapter of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. How could Christ have given Man such false promise, denying him bread and offering him only the hope of eternal salvation? “Ivan Karamazov was willful, defiant, arrogant, and presumptuous”, the Pastor said. “God is the be-all and end-all of existence; and this postlapsarian arrogance defines us today.”



The point of all this was that Bradley Cowper could not get exercised about global warming because God held all the cards.  He was the Divine Croupier with a stacked deck. He created the cue ball – human nature – and sent the rest of the balls flying, banging and clacking in a seemingly random way.  But it wasn’t random at all. God was behind the cue ball and behind the distribution of the 4-ball, the 5-ball, and the 8-ball.

Bobby Fellows had grown up in Providence, Rhode Island.  His ancestors had been slavers in the Three-Cornered Trade, and had made a fortune shipping rum and human cargo from New Bedford and Newport.  As the Industrial Revolution took hold, Bobby’s family went legit and built and operated the factories that provided the capital for America’s great democratic experiment.  When the Civil War came, Bobby’s ancestors produced the rifles, balls, and bayonets for the Union Army.

His great-grandfather, grandfather, and father had gone to Harvard, but that time was far from the Puritan days of its founding 100 years before.  They had been schooled in science, philosophy, and literature; and were the first secular humanists, albeit with a religious foundation.

Bobby also went to Harvard, majored in mathematics, and then went on to  MIT for a doctorate in theoretical physics.  He had held positions at Brown and Yale, and was currently a tenured professor at his alma mater.

Bobby’s education taught him that the only certainties in life were death, taxes, and human nature.  Shakespeare’s Histories were predictable because in all of them human greed, ambition, venality, self-interest, and self-aggrandizement played themselves out in similar, expected ways.  The only reason Shakespeare wrote the plays was because of the infinitude of expressions of human folly within this narrow context of self-will.  All kings acted according to the same genetic imperatives, but every Henry, John, and Richard played out the DNA drama in fascinating and entertaining ways.



“You think the break of billiard balls is random”, said Bobby to his friend. “Hundreds of millions of subatomic particles are banging each other at velocities approaching the speed of light, and no one can know both where they are and how fast they are going.  If you can pinpoint their location, you have no clue about their speed.  If you can gauge their velocity, you have no idea where they are.  The Uncertainty Principle.” 



If in an observable world events are driven by an ineluctable human nature which in turn produces erratic, unpredictable results that cause other random events; then there is no room for ‘principled’ human intervention,.  We live in an amoral world – one of endlessly clacking and banging earthly billiard balls.  There is no reason to get exercised about climate change.

A few days after the Great Thaw, the two friends dug out their Land Rover, and made their way along the slushy, muddy, but passable track to the county road which would eventually take them back to Milwaukee.  The sun was bright, and the air fresh and warm.  Bradley thought of the first warm days of Spring when his father rolled the windows down on the truck, and he could smell the scent of earth – the dark, black alluvial soil of the Delta; plants sprouting, trees budding, and summer coming.



Bobby’s winters seemed endless, and he often wondered, when April suffered brutal cold snaps, whether or not the newly budded trees would survive. Would this be a year without flowers?

The two friends had often wondered whether their very different upbringings, education, and widely divergent personal philosophies would eventually drive them apart.  They knew that many of their friends believed that political philosophy defined personality and character and that Conservative and Progressive could never meet. 

These critics were wrong.  Bobby and Bradley were examples of parallel evolution.  Bobby was a hawk and Bradley was an owl.  They came from totally different branches of the phylogenetic tree, but both ended up seeing well, flying straight, and killing voles.  They were friends and always would be.

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