Stein's Law and Solomon’s Wisdom
April 2, 2020 · C.E. Carter
In times of calamity I find myself pondering not how things have gone so horribly wrong, but how things seemed to remain stable for the great duration of serenity leading up to the present moment. My instincts as a scientist (but not an epidemiologist) tell me that outbreaks of infectious disease on this scale ought to be more common. Perhaps that’s an argument as to how good our pandemic deterrence systems really are, or perhaps it’s a comment better served to a skeptic of the drastic political reaction to this disease. The widespread social and economic consequences of the event are unprecedented, but only in our lifetimes. Human history is a sequential enumeration of calamities, oppressions, disasters, revolutions, and the like. If it’s not a virus, then it is political tension, or threat of terrorism, or business cycles, or natural catastrophes. The world is not, as many Rousseauians would like to believe, a harmonious paradise whose calamities are the result of human activity alone, nor are humans “noble savages” who have only society to blame for their deep corruption. Catastrophe is always imminent at every level of existence, and at the limits of human ingenuity to keep it at bay and simple dumb luck to avoid it, we experience the invocation of Stein’s Law: “if something cannot go on forever, it will stop”.
We would be tempted to believe that the interference of calamity in daily life can be mitigated by the acquisition or redistribution of human power, in that, 1) we believe that by our own might we can create a world devoid of calamity by investing our energy in continual scientific and political progress, or 2) we have a duty to defer our own power to those in authority over us because we perceive them to be more competent in handling a situation of calamity. As a scientist, a technologist, and a man who believes his Bible when it says “submit to government”, I think these are wise things to do in the proper context. Where they become improper is when we make them antecedent to a false consequent, as doing these things places no guarantee on the likelihood of future calamity as a whole, nor the efficiency of the mitigation of current strife. Technological and political advancements merely trade calamity of one sort for calamity of another sort, the former calamities being a result of the simplicity of the former regime, and the latter being the result of the subsequently more complex regime. There is a reason that “vanity of vanities” is the most prominent Biblical comment on all of human activity; man’s activities are impotent to eradicate pain and suffering from the earth, much less stop the future calamity which will be brought about when the whole world is brought under the judgement of God. The book of Ecclesiastes drives this maxim with a sledgehammer, as if God were urging man to look around at the futility of progress, and then to look within and consider the great existential dread which is He has placed him; the same dread which was felt by the congregants who were within earshot of Jonathan Edwards’ infamous Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, a simple exposition of God’s wrath, to lift the eyes of the congregation from the business of their daily lives and gaze with fresh eyes at the lurking peril of eternal judgement. We are not mighty beings who stand on our own solid construction; we are impotent spiders who must cling to brittle strands of web affixed above a roaring fire to the hand of God, who holds all of humanity out of the flames simply out of kindness to us, His enemies.
Worldly calamity will always come and go, just as it has always come and gone. Even the most legendary wars and plagues and political conflicts of human history eventually meet their end. By Stein’s Law, COVID-19 will eventually become a thing of the past, and in the future, new diseases will cause similar pandemics. To those who are in Christ, calamity is a reminder of the transience of this life, that this world is not our home, and that a better world awaits us in the coming millennia. To those who are not in Christ, calamity serves as a grave warning of the fragility of life, and the imminence of the greater calamity of God’s judgement. If we expect to avoid deferred hope, we have no option to hope in any human thing or any worldly thing, no matter how good or how serene it may appear to be. An object of true hope must either exist beyond the world, or not exist at all, and once it is understood that mankind’s corruption infinitely outweighs their good deeds, then no hope can be placed in religious exercise of the kind performed by the Muslims, the Bhuddists, the Hindus, the Jews, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Mormons, or any other religion of man. We have no options; we must either hope in the eternal God, condescended as Christ in the flesh, exalted as Christ the risen, who takes our sin away by grace alone, or we must give up on hope entirely. Christianity, or nihilism. There are no other options.