Big truths from tiny pieces



The current pandemic has stimulated all manner of time-absorbing activities.  Although no great fans of jigsaw puzzles, my wife and I did tackle a 1000piece project – a quite beautiful panorama of New Zealand flora and fauna. With the contents of the puzzle box scattered over a large part of the dining tablewe began locating all the straight-edge pieces and assembling these to create the overall frame of the puzzle. Next came that intense scrutiny of the magnificent image on the box, selecting pieces almost at random and then searching for a tentative match with some part of the picture.  The activity was strangely seductive, moments of elation when a fit was founddespair when it proved phony and so our search would begin all over again.  

But in the midst of this pictorial struggle, I came to the realisation that our activity was revealing a deeper truthand one that challenges the beliefs of our modern scientificallyinformed culture.  I say this because there are two dominant views about life and the world. One view is that underpinning the entire edifice of life is the creative activity of a transcendent Mind – God. All that exists is in some profound and mysterious sense an expression of that Mind.  We can call this the religious view. The other view, and one that largely dominates our secular culture, is that the grand edifice of life can be explained from the grinding away of completely unthinking, impersonal physical laws –  this is the materialist view of life. 

So, what can we learn from beavering away at our jigsaw puzzle?  Well first, if  we are to make any progress, there are crucial rules or laws that must be obeyed – the edge pieces can only fit at the edges – never in an interior location (and don’t ever try!); the lock and key fit between adjacent pieces has to be correct – no forcing a near-fit is permitted.  Then comes the really challenging task of piecing together local parts of the image, this involving searching for correct colour matches, ensuring continuity of detail across neighbouring pieces etc..   

All of these rules are analogous to the laws of physics and chemistry that science so beautifully and powerfully  reveals – those describing gravitythe direction of heat flow, how light is refracted, how atoms interact to produce molecules – just to list a few of the most obvious that we have learned from our high school science. Thinking we can use an edge piece in the interior of the puzzle is a bit like saying we can alter the law of gravity or make heat flow from cold to hot! 

But what really struck me about our jigsaw activity was our utter reliance on the image displayed on the puzzle box. Without this we would have been stuck in a sea of utter confusion, and this despite obeying all the puzzle rules. Even if we, by chance, scored the occasional correct fit, it was only by referring to that cover image that we knew it to be correct. Indeed, that beautiful image on the box had to be our destination, the very purpose of our activity. 

In the same way, the laws that science has so beautifully described are dumb without this bigger picture. Take the most simple of useful objects – say a paper clip. The impersonal physical laws governing how the metal atoms interact, while giving us the necessary metallic properties, will never ever on their own lead to our paper clip unless we impose on the metallic material the idea or goal of making such an objectThe maker will have to decide, for example, what diameter of steel wire to use, what radius to bend it to, what length to make the clip and whether to coat it in plastic or chrome – all decisions that rely on mind rather than physics. And this principle applies equally to anything that expresses intention or purpose – they are always the expression of a creative mind. So whether we are thinking of the image on the jigsaw puzzle box, our humble paper clip, or any functioning part of the living world, the materialist’s belief in an ultimately mindless universe seems incredibly hollow. For me, a profound mind, the Mind of God, is at the very heart of Creation. 

Neil Broom is an Emeritus Professor in the Faculty of Engineering, University of Auckland, and has a particular interest in the relationship between science and faith. 


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