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  • Writer's pictureSpirit Coding with Harold

Two of God's Good Gifts

Two of God’s gifts to humanity are ones you would never guess a preacher would nominate: The Bell Curve and Occam’s Razor.

In the mid-eighties I was taking a two-week course in Seattle, and on a day off, went to the Science Center at the Space Needle. A cool place. One exhibit that I found mesmerizing was technically the simplest. It was a box into which hundreds of balls the size of ping pong balls were dumped automatically. They dropped through about thirty rows of pegs deep and about thirty pegs wide. The front was glass so you could see what was happening.

They bounced back and forth from peg to peg until they found bottom. What was fascinating to me was that no matter how many times this was repeated, they always distributed themselves into a bell curve. Most were clustered toward the middle and the numbers thinned out toward the outside. Every time. I am easily amused it seems.

I have often said in sermons that the Bell Curve is one of God’s good gifts to us. The reality allows us to trust in the predictability of outcomes, most of the time. Rarely does the worst thing ever happen and rarely does the absolutely most wonderful thing happen. It’s about statistics and large numbers. Most of the time life is ordinary, and that’s a good thing.

This doesn’t mean there are no tragedies or triumphs. There are, but they are infrequent when viewed over large numbers of people and a long enough time span. That’s good news unless you just bought a lottery ticket. Sorry.

The other prize in my opinion is more of a philosophical, logical, theory, but it arises from concrete observations.

William of Occam, an English Franciscan friar who live in the early 1300’s proposed a theory of logic. It proposes that when confronted by more than one possible explanation for an event, go with the simplest explanation over the complicated explanation. Its not fool-proof, but it’s a good place to start.

I served on a jury a few years ago and saw it at work. A young man was accused of breaking and entering a home and of theft. There was plenty of evidence that he was guilty. What was more convincing to me at least, was that for every bit of evidence, his explanations of how this or that happened were so far-fetched and contradictory that you almost had to imagine he fell from an asteroid and accidentally landed on the lawn then was catapulted into the house where in a daze he had to rummage through its contents to figure out where he was. OK, I made that part up. But his explanations became increasingly more complicated and improbable for every event. I concluded he should take up creative writing rather than burglary. We convicted him.

The more contrived a story becomes the less likely it’s true, and events in our lives turn out in rather predictable ways most of the time. I find that all very reassuring, and I am thankful. It helps anchor me when confronted by a blizzard of contradictory theories and stories, all trying to convince me that this or that really is true.

Will I believe that I should fire my financial advisor because of a circulated story that some reclusive billionaire on the island of Corfu really has taken over the North American stock exchange? Nope. Occam’s razor says it’s got far too many points at which the whole thing just falls down.

And the Bell Curve reminds me that among all the financial advisors working in my city, most are ordinarily well meaning and honest. There could be a crook or two and maybe a genius or two, but most are neither. I like ours and enjoy visiting her when she calls us. And she’s given us good advice.

In summary, God gives us brains and ways of making sense of a complicated world. Keep it simple. Most people are just folks most of the time.

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