“Any sufficiently advanced technology is undistinguishable from magic.” Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law of the Future.
“Any sufficiently explained magic is indistinguishable from technology.” Halpern’s corollary to Clarke’s Third Law. *
A few weeks ago, during a Wednesday night Family Bible Study I showed the children my one trick, the collapsing handkerchief, and explained the trick to them. I then insisted that there was no such thing as magic – there are miracles, though. Clarke’s Third Law is certainly true. Any sufficiently advanced technology seems like magic. Mark Twain wrote about this in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. In this wonderful book Factory Superintendent Frank Morgan is transported back to Medieval England and is considered a greater wizard than Merlin because he knows about gunpowder and solar eclipses. I remember my Grandmother’s similar awe of color television. When the Voyager satellite was made to turn around and take a goodbye photograph of the solar system a few years back – I knew that there was an explanation for how that was even possible, but for all my lack of understanding, it might as well have been magic.
The flipside of the pendant is that when we feel we have sufficiently explained a phenomenon we lose all sense of wonder. In last night’s Wednesday Night Family Bible Study I talked about God’s amazing process of turning caterpillars into butterflies – a miracle so commonplace to us that it has become mundane.
We have learned so much about the universe. Human achievement and understanding are, indeed, amazing. It was 1970’s technology – less advanced than the key-fob of your car – which sent Voyager beyond the bubble of our solar system. But the more we know the smaller we should feel because each answer brings more questions. Our ignorance (or at least the perception of it) grows exponentially. The Large Hadron Collider at CERN discovered, then confirmed a year later the Higgs Boson – the particle which makes possible the existence of matter. One path of discovery was concluded, but a thousand others opened-up - each demanding a thousand more answers.
Our importance and our smallness are facts which exist simultaneously. Both are communicated by David in Psalm 139. In it, David reminds us that “we are fearfully and wonderfully made” (v.14) and that God’s immenseness dwarfs us:
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, it is too high, I cannot attain it. (v.9)
How precious are your thoughts to me, O God, how vast is the sum of them! If I should count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand. (vv. 17-18).
COVID-19 has reminded us how wonderfully made we are, and how fragile we can become. It has shown us at our best and at our worst. It has demonstrated our potential for innovation, and for superstition, for selflessness and for selfishness. What this virus should do is remind us how special we are to God, and how small we are compared to Him.
There are times, during these times, when I have so much hope – not just that we will get through this, but that moving forward our human species will act sensibly. Then there are other times when this supposedly sentient species seems irredeemably selfish, stupid, and small. Of course, all of it is true, and all at the same time in this sinful world. The constant is God. God is good. God made us, and we are fearfully and wonderfully made.
In that farewell snapshot of the solar system Voyager took a few years ago, the earth is just a pixel, a spec of glitter in a sunbeam. Our solar system is a speck of glitter in the Milky Way Galaxy. Our Galaxy is a speck of glitter in the vast universe. God is bigger than all of it, and God made it for us. Those facts are immutable.
- Barry Bryson
*from “No Ghost in the Machine,” by Mark Halpern, in The American Scholar, Spring 2020, p.22.