Models: Science and Theology

Sometimes it is helpful to think about familiar things using unfamiliar language or concepts. That exercise can help us see things in a different and sometimes helpful way. Today I am suggesting we consider the concept of models. Magnus Manske , DNA polymeraseI’m not talking about model planes but rather models in the way science uses them. And I’m not saying that we should try to use scientific techniques to prove that God exists. But the way scientists think about and use models can, I think, be helpful as we think about and talk about God.

There is actually quite a lot that can be said about the various uses of models in science. For our purposes here, just a few concepts about models are important. Models are an attempt to describe something. Often a model is a simplified version the the thing being described. Dividing a complex thing into smaller parts and using models can help us understand how the more complex thing works. So for example, remember the solar system models from school? They show the big items, the sun and the planets, and they show that the planets revolve around the sun. But they don’t show every object in the solar system and the orbits in the model are not exactly like the actual orbits of the planets. Also the relative distances are not to scale. Still we all learned important things from this quite useful, if simple model. And as we advanced in our science education we were able to use more complex and detailed models.

Models also help us make predictions. Of course how good the predictions are depends on the complexity and accuracy of our model and the complexity of the system being studied.  Weather forecasters use models to try to understand and then make predictions of a very complex system. 

Remember the classic math problem of two trains leaving the station at the same time, one travels west at 30 mph, the other… you recall how it goes. The point of the problem was to make an accurate prediction of arrival times using mathematical models.

Prof. Kenneth A. Mauritz dielectric responsesAnd perhaps most importantly, we need to understand and respect the limits of our models. A model is not the real object. It is a representation of the real thing appropriate to our level of understanding. The physicists I know have a much more complex and sophisticated model of the universe than I do. I need a model with very little… all right, no math. So my model of the universe is quite simplistic. My model doesn’t advance our knowledge of the universe. 

Part of what happens in science is that our models become more accurate and more complex as we investigate and learn. ( All though it is also good sometimes, to keep simple models that work well.) Models can be changed and improved.

What does all this have to do with God? Well, it’s this. All of our best thinking meister_von_heiligenkreuz_Ein Sterbender empfielt seine Seele Gottabout God, what God is like, what God does, what God wants us to do, all of it is incomplete, insufficient. None of us truly knows everything about God. It’s not possible. It seems to me, all we can do is take the evidence we have and construct our best model.

Thinking about my beliefs about God as models, helps me remember that my conception of God may not, in fact probably is not, totally correct. There are things about God that I can’t know. There are things about God I don’t understand. There are things about God that I only partially understand. My model has limits.

If I remember that all that I know about God is a model, my best but limited attempt to understand God; then I am able to grow in my beliefs. I can recognize a particular part of the model is flawed and I need to rethink it. I can realize a part of my model is insufficient, too small and I need to improve it.  God is not the one who is changing. My ideas, my model can change and I hope improve.

Creation of the Sun and Moon by Michelangelo, face detail of GodThis way of thinking about God helps me retain some humility. It helps keep me open to experiencing and learning new things about God. The language of model is not typically part of our discussions about God. But I find it helpful. Its not the only way to think about God. Its not much help devotionally or in worship for example. But in theological discussions and in Bible study, it can be helpful. It can keep us from mistaking our idea, our model about God for the real God.

I’d like to know, what do you think?

If you would like to read some more about models in science: here’s something from NASA, from (who else?) Wikipedia, Model, and Scientific Modelling and from Western Washington University.

My thanks to Karen Gipson for her comments (in various forums) on the uses of models in science that sparked my further theological reflection.



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