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Theoretical problems

What happens when dead men bleed and mean girls win?

Issue: "Tiananmen massacre," June 6, 2009

If you remember nothing else from the book of Numbers you remember the story of the 10 spies. They came back to the camp with a report on the Promised Land teeming with giants and other reasons why conquest was impossible. They had theories about what is possible.

I have theories too. I understand the difference between a hypothesis and a theory is tightness. Hypotheses are pretty loosey-goosey, more like hunches. Theories are hypotheses that have scraped up critical mass and crossed over into something like immutable truth.

The earliest theory I devised was the boy theory: To get a boy to like you, be mean to him. It was never articulated, of course. Saying it out loud to another living soul would have exposed the ludicrousness of the idea.

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It's important to understand that once something is a theory it is almost impossible to disprove. That is because the evidence-collecting phase starts working backwards. All new bits of data that come its way become absorbed into the Theory. The thing has become unkillable. Contradictions are efficiently gobbled up and spit out as qualifications, till you are left with an unwieldy and many-tentacled thing.

You are perhaps familiar with the joke about the man in the psychiatrist's office who believed that he was dead. The psychiatrist finally thought of a foolproof argument: He asked his patient: "Do dead men bleed?" The man answered, "No." Then he pricked the patient's finger with a pin, releasing a drop of blood. Triumphant, he said to his patient, "So now what do you think?" The patient, visibly stunned, said to the doctor, "Well, what do you know, dead men do bleed!"

In the case of the "boy theory," I must have observed a cute boy in love with a mean girl, and so decided this was the way to go. What I did not realize, of course, was what bad science this is. First of all, it could be that the boy liked the girl in spite of and not because of her surliness. It could be that he would have liked her even better if she had been kinder. Most importantly, what I could not see was the end of the story. Meanness as a strategy might have short-term efficacy but long-term failure rates in the high percentages.

I grew up and became a Christian and thought to have "put away childish things." I was in fact still infested with theories. It was ninth grade again-except this time with no good reason. Upon my conversion I had supposedly brought my magic arts to the bonfire (Acts 19). I had subscribed to God's Word about what works in life, about where joy is to be found. I was committed, in the abstract, to the God who "so loves the world" and for whom "all things are possible," and who gives good gifts with "no shadow of turning." In practice I was watching my back. A book by David McCaulay, The Way Things Work, teaches a lot about the mechanics of everything from airfoil to zippers. I, now in my 50s, still harbor theories-about what outcomes are possible, probable, and impossible; what strategies are necessary; how men think. I trust my theories over God's Word because "what my net can't catch ain't fish."

There is only one problem. To make a theory that works, I would have to have exhaustive knowledge of the universe-every contingency and every stray atom. Nobody lives long enough to have a "theory of everything." And God has strong words for those who try:

"Behold, all you who kindle a fire, who equip yourselves with burning torches! Walk by the light of your fire, and by the torches that you have kindled! This you have from my hand: you shall lie down in torment" (Isaiah 50:11).

But what if there were some One who had a life with no beginning and no end? What if there were no stray atoms with Him? What if He had human psychology down because He had made humans? What if He knew the way to joy because He invented it? What if for once in my life I trusted God's Word and not my theories? To tell you the truth, they never worked that well anyway.
If you have a question or comment for Andrée Seu, send it to aseu@worldmag.com.
To hear commentaries by Andrée Seu, click here.

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again. Follow Andrée on Twitter @Andreespeterson.

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