This morning we had a telephone call from Joan in Detroit. Many years ago Joan unexpectedly became an important figure in our lives.
When I started my second year at university, war had just been declared and was beginning to have an impact on us students. On Saturday afternoons, however, we still went to intercollegiate football games at the stadium.
On one of those October afternoons, in a carefree mood, I put on my jaunty Glengarry hat – a Scottish-looking wedgie with ribbons at the back – and went to the stadium with a bunch of male students. Sitting up in the bleachers before the game began, my friend Bert and I joined in the fun of drawing attention to anything unusual about any female students who were arriving.
Two young women came in down below. One looked up in our direction, spoke to the other, then led the way up the stairs and sat down next to me. The pair spread a blanket over their laps and the game began. They soon joined in the fun of university yells and songs.
But the fall afternoon air was a bit chilly. I felt that it was only fair that people who had more blanket than they actually needed should share it with poor unblanketed me. Without difficulty I somehow managed to move over and sit between the two of them. Lots of laughs and crazy nonsense with a shared blanket filled the afternoon. A football game was also going on.
The gal who had first sat down beside me was getting along nicely with Bert, but I found myself quite interested in the other one. When the game was over, I proposed that the four of us should go to a restaurant across the street from the stadium. The invitation was readily accepted.
Seated there sipping our Honeydew, we shared names and found out who we all were. I had some general notions about the kind of woman I hoped someday to marry. The more the one called Joan told about her companion, Kay, the more Kay seemed to fill my bill. She came from a good close family. Her father was a minister. She was at university on scholarship, studying household economics. She was attractive and lively. I told her right then and there that she was just the girl I was looking for.
Naturally this was a bit too brash for her to believe. Nevertheless when I asked for her phone number, she gave it to me – skeptically of course. The next day however I did call her, inviting her to a recital by a string ensemble. That evening we thoroughly enjoyed both the music and each other’s company. It was not long before she began to feel that I might really have meant what I had said to her after the game.
Later Kay told me that Joan and she had been late-finishing lab partners that Saturday. Joan practically had to drag her to the stadium, because she knew nothing about football and had intended to do other things that afternoon. In the throng of students, Joan had spotted my Glengarry hat and said to Kay, “There’s a guy in uniform. Let’s go and sit beside him.” Four years later Joan was one of Kay’s bridesmaids at our wedding.
Occasionally Kay and I reflect upon all that had to happen before the two of us could meet. In the year that I was born, several hundred miles away a girl baby was also born. As she grew up she attended schools in several places, but never where I was getting my schooling. She was able to go to university on scholarship; so was I. All unknown to each other, we registered at the same university. A year later, thanks to Joan and my distinctive hat, we met at that football game and “clicked.” The hat remains one of our prized possessions.
All things considered, we have always felt overawed at all the divine coordinating which had brought together a man and a woman who were meant for each other.
Some people, of course, would say that it was just “good luck” that brought us together. With “bad luck” either of us might have been riding in a speeding car that crashed and… Events do happen which we haven’t foreseen, events which we couldn’t have predicted, produced or controlled. Who can foretell anyone’s personal future?
When some people cannot account for their gains or losses, they tend to thank or blame an undefined, invented agency called “chance,” “lucky stars,” or “Lady Luck.” But chance is not a thing or a person, nor an initiating power or agency. Chance cannot cause anything to happen or make strands of history coincide. Luck is only a trumped-up figment of explanatory imagination – a roundabout way of confessing our ignorance of all the real circumstances.
People who discount unplanned but significant meetings as “mere coincidences” use that derogatory word “mere” for suspiciously emotional, often atheistic, reasons. Though they may not know for sure why two or more lines of development came together when and where they did, their ignorance does not justify their outspoken certainty that no “Lord of time” had anything to do with it. Lack of direct knowledge is not sufficient to provide certainty that God does not exist or that God lacks power and purpose. Neither does inconclusive information prove that a supreme God actually exists and is able to love and accomplish good intentions. Personal faith in God usually grows or diminishes as personal “evidence” accumulates one way or the other.
This is not the place to summarize arguments about the existence of God. But, on that subject, the import of the wonderful and sustained coordination demonstrated by the countless billions of this world’s successful ongoing systems should be thoughtfully considered.
Probably Kay and I gave special significance to our meeting at the stadium because it unexpectedly changed the course of our lives and opened a door toward mutual help, joy and fulfillment. During a routine day I may meet up with and speak to lots of people, but rarely do any of those contacts arouse a feeling that extraordinary importance was attached to it. When an incident of coordination links up with my deep feelings or fulfils my earnest desires, however, that is likely to amplify my sense of its significance.
Recently I decided that I needed a new watch. Since my birthday is not far away, when I was downtown getting some things last week, I thought I should just have a look at watches in a nearby department store. It crossed my mind that Kay might be pleased to find out what I would like to be given for a birthday present.
I had no sooner stepped inside the door of that store, when I heard the P.A. announce a sale of watches at 30% off! The voice said, “Don’t leave the store until you’ve had a look at these great bargains.”
“Wow!” I said. “Today must be the day to buy!” I quickly found that the store was offering the very kind of watch I wanted at an attractive price. So … I bought one. When Kay gave it to me on my birthday, I was quick to exclaim, “Oh, thank you! It’s just what I wanted.”
Most people will acknowledge that they have had more than one experience of this kind. Their strong inner feelings have been met and confirmed by some unusual external happening. Or, bothered by some insistent question, they suddenly come upon a clue which leads directly to the answer. Perhaps a strange conjunction of events solves a long-standing, worrisome problem. Or a prayer in a seemingly impossible situation was answered positively. These events, where external physical processes coincide with inner states in such a timely fashion, have been called “synchronicities.” They pack a remarkable emotional punch that can easily take on transcendental significance.
At the level of large-scale day-to-day events, one can never be quite certain at any moment about what is really going on here or anywhere. Unknown to us, things which are happening elsewhere right now may at some time in the future come to exert a profound influence upon the course of our lives. The import of those unknown, remotely situated events may not home in on us until long after they have actually taken place.
In the cosmic time process, the universe is always running seemingly separate strands of development along “in parallel” with all the others. If two or more of these strands ever converge, in their coming together, spatially separated contemporary events may turn out to have been freighted with great potential significance for the future of who-knows-whom.
Trains on tracks on two continents separated by an ocean could never arrive at the same station. The tracks would never meet, so no exchanges of freight, fuel or written orders could ever be accomplished. Like those separated trains, if the world consisted of processes so separated that none of them could ever get together to exchange materials, energies or information, that bundle of processes could hardly be called a world at all.
For us the word “we” has real meaning. This is a social world where people can meet, engage in various kinds of exchanges and cooperatively pool their efforts. Individuals, each with their own background, find themselves linked with partners, families, friends, clans and tribes. They come together to form communities, teams, associations, corporations, nation-states and international agencies. Conditions in this world definitely favor the existence of relational systems and intercommunicating societies.
Even in the mini-microlevel of the physical world, subatomic particles come together, clustering according to their affinities to form atoms. These atoms in turn may come together to form molecules of the substances which make up the components of functioning systems.
Things which have been produced by long, drawn-out processes within the mineral, vegetable and animal kingdoms may later be brought together by humans and used for all sorts of purposes. No matter what we humans may achieve or manufacture, developments in various levels of the world have participated with us in the enterprise. Always we are only coproducers.
I believe that this universally pervasive coordinating, socializing and systemizing tendency is one of the most significant clues we have about the meaning of the universe and its history. Chance encounters of randomly hurtling particles can never provide an adequate explanation for the multitude of integrated, complex systems which we find in every direction on every level of the world. Even if the world should eventually end in disorganization and disintegration, the prevalence of complexly integrated individual entities and highly organized systems over millions of years, despite the hindrance of entropy, demands explanation.
Whatever the ultimate purpose of the Creator may be, it seems to involve exploring all the possibilities of togetherness and systemic organization. Who can foresee an end to what can be produced by that creative ingenuity which is able to bring together strands of history from the ends of the earth – and even perhaps from beyond?
To fill out their story of how the plant and animal kingdoms developed through the ages, evolutionary biologists suggest that, at all the crucial points in the process, certain “fortunate accidents” occurred. The fortunate-accident gambit may seem appropriate in evolutionary biology, but it doesn’t appear to cover the parallel situation in primeval physical chemistry.
The various kinds of subatomic particles which appeared soon after the Big Bang were what eventually came together to become the world’s standard atoms and molecules. That creative explosion must have been miraculously well organized. From the beginning those aboriginal elementary particles were endowed with potentialities that equipped them to fit together quickly, neatly and variously with other diverse thinglings which appeared at or about the same time. Darting around at relatively great distances from each other, none of those primal particles could have “known” in advance anything about the past careers and potentialities of any other particles. Nevertheless they were able eventually to form up into countless multitudes of stable and orderly structures. If from the very first those elementary particles had not had the potentialities for forming hydrogen, oxygen, carbon and about sixty other elements, life could not have appeared on earth. All of these had to be present at once as “dust of the earth” before our kind of life could begin.
Kay and I once went to see the assembly line at Dearborn, Michigan, where Ford cars are put together. A never-ending chain was bringing unit after unit to the various work stations. While a chassis was moving to the next work station, a certain crew would be quickly installing some components. We could see, say, a bright red body coming along on an overhead track. Red doors and fenders were also approaching on other tracks, arriving at just the right time to be installed on the red body. The next set might be gray, then others green or black. Every few minutes a completed car of a uniform color would be started up and driven away. Another case of meeting and mating.
A system is an assemblage of components which are connected dynamically and interdependently so as to form a complex functional unicity. A car, for example, is a system made up of subsystems which have been brought together and attached to a welded frame. In addition to the body, a complex engine and a power train, there has to be an electrical system, a fueling system, a lubrication system, a cooling system, a steering system, a braking system, a window-washing system, etc. Each of these systems consists of a number of components, all of which must be present and in working condition. If a single component of any system is missing or defective that system will not work. If one of the many systems is missing or defective, sooner or later there will be trouble. If the components which were put together remain together and continue to work together, the person who drives that car can head for all sorts of important meetings and interesting destinations.
Most people tend to think of a certain familiar bridge as being simply a structure of steel and concrete resting on the two banks of a river – just part of the landscape. They seldom realize that, in days gone by, in order to put together that bridge, social considerations, political decisions, tax money, engineering know-how and skilled labor, as well as steel and concrete components, had to be coordinated.
A regional political organization had to recognize the economic, social and personal advantages of linking one side of the river with the other. From construction companies they had to secure plans and bids, then engage the company whose bid was compatible with their financial resources. That company had to send specific orders to steel and concrete suppliers for the necessary materials, specifying dates for their delivery. Surveyors had to line up the proposed construction site. Site engineers, foremen and laborers had to be assigned to the project. The necessary materials – concrete, steel girders, rods, plates, rivets, and cable – had to be delivered by all the suppliers at the right times and in the right order so that the construction could go smoothly.
During the whole project, all of the people involved had to fit their own private lives in with their working hours. While one worker was doing an assigned job in a certain place, others were doing other tasks elsewhere. Only the supervising site engineers who coordinated all the operations knew exactly how each aspect of the work would contribute to the completion of the bridge. A wealth of previous experience and forethought kept the logistics of the construction project from running into crippling foul-ups.
All in all that bridge was a remarkable achievement. On the day the beaming government official cut the ribbon to open the bridge to traffic, few in the crowd realized that they were witnessing a magical moment. The opening of that completed bridge was a triumph of coordination.
That bridge represents the coming together of many processes that happened at different rates in different places. It is the product of a multitude of seemingly unrelated events. And no one knows today what effect this bridge has already had or will yet have upon people’s life-stories or upon the history of that region, perhaps of the world.
Behind every subject or object, living or lifeless, there has been a similar history of strings of events which ran simultaneously in parallel until they converged, matched and fitted together, cohering and cofunctioning.
Time has been, is and will ever be a fascinating story of creative cosmic coordination.
Coordination, the secret of life
For decades scientists have wanted to understand how life on Earth originated. The chances are infinitesimally small that an organism capable of reproducing itself could come alive spontaneously in some fortuitous chemical soup. The complexity of a single living cell far exceeds that of the most elaborately constructed bridge by many magnitudes.
Before the spontaneous emergence of the very simplest single cell organism – if any living organisms are truly simple – an extensive array of mutually harmonious substances would have had to come together from various sources, assembling in the same “ideal” place at the same time. Some of these constituent substances could be considered relatively “simple,” but others, such as specialized and extremely complex enzymes, would be also absolutely required.
All of the necessary ingredients would have had to follow convergent paths in order to come together. If and when they did arrive, they would have had to distribute themselves in exactly the right mix. Each ingredient would have had to come in at exactly the right energy level in order to combine properly with the right others.
This combining would have had to take place in an environment with temperature, moisture and shielding which was totally conducive, affording the right forces necessary to distribute the right resources in the right pattern, all the way to the point of convergence and combination. If, under such demanding circumstances, some entity were ever actually to have generated life in itself spontaneously, that highly vulnerable, fragile neogenerate would have had to be specially shielded from all environmental hazards. All threatening influences would have had to be excluded, while a good supply of whatever would contribute to the survival of the helpless organism would have had to be allowed free entrance.
From its first moment of life, moreover, that first inexperienced living creature would have had to be capable of seeking out and ingesting its proper nourishment. It would certainly have had to possess some way of balancing its output with its input – while carefully excluding and excreting all useless or dangerous substances. That wise feat of selectivity would have had to be accomplished without the benefit of parental instruction or that sophisticated genetic programming which some biologists claim must have developed gradually during ages of a species’ survival experience. That delicate proto-organism would have had to be endowed quickly with remarkable skills.
The development of sexuality also poses all kinds of coordination problems. In the first place, why would a proto-organism decide to divide or produce offspring – a move which would be sure to strain its time and resources. How would it know how to turn itself into two of the same kind? If somehow there did come to be a number of separated organisms of the same kind, why would any one of them begin separately to develop the relative aspects of, say, male sexuality, while another one elsewhere was simultaneously developing the complementary characteristics of female sexuality? Two of those sexually differentiated organisms would then have had to come together in the same place at the same time. They would have had to be not only complementary but mutually attractive, cooperative and compatible – a far cry from the inevitable competition that old-time biologists used to feature. The likelihood of such meetings and matings is astronomically incalculable.
All in all, a tall order of diverse developmental pathways and complex relatings would have had to be met before the simplest organism could have sprung to life – life which would last for a significant time. Even if the earth were many orders of magnitude older than it actually is, the list of “just right” requirements is far too long to have been filled by haphazard comings and goings of materials and radiation.
The coordinating movement and cooperative behavior of cells within the developing embryo of a multicelled organism are also difficult to explain. Cells which developed in the same region may move a considerable distance apart to other places in the embryo and associate themselves with cells coming from a very different region. In that liaison they may then change their rate of growth and their shape, folding in with the others to form a particular kind of tissue or organ. Thus two cells which came from the same original location may participate in the development of very different organs in different parts of a growing body. With incredible accuracy the neurons from the eye must grow toward the rear of the brain and seek out there the right optic locale among countless other groping nerve fibers.
The different organs of a developing organism develop in an uncannily coordinated way, speeding up their growth or slowing it down as necessary, connecting up with other organs to form a functioning system of systems. The various organs and systems interact collectively to constitute a single unitary organism which somehow knows how to do all the things that such a living creature must ordinarily do.
What makes all those billions of cells and organic systems work together in harmony for their common good? Internal organs and glands do their things at the right times in the right amounts without receiving explicit orders from a conscious mind. The processes of life depend upon the existence of thousands of different enzymes, each of which appears to have been expressly devised for a narrowly specialized purpose.
When conditions seem right, a whole seed cooperates in a decision to start growing. The plant as a whole at a certain time decides to branch out, to bear leaves and distinctive flowers, to produce seeds and to die down. Each individual cell apparently follows a certain schedule of development which is appropriate to the development of a root, stem, leaves, flowers or seeds. When it is time for the forming of some new feature, existing individual cells could be in quite diverse phases of their life-schedules and already involved in different particular operations. Yet somehow all of them become coordinated in unanimous support of each new developmental enterprise of the whole plant.
Control and coordination
Keeping a collection of various kinds of clocks going and synchronized requires the ongoing attention of an expert. The synchronization of all the systems in a single organism normally seems to proceed automatically, smoothly and quietly. When that achievement is carefully examined, however, it appears to be an exceedingly complex feat. Controlling and coordinating all the systems on all the levels of the entire universe is undoubtedly a God-sized job!
Everybody smiles and agrees with Murphy’s Law – that if anything can go wrong, it will. But if Murphy’s Law is true, how is it that such a huge number of multicomponent systems keep coming into existence and working together so smoothly for years? So many things could go wrong but for a long time they don’t.
Controlling a dynamic system so that it will run just right, avoiding undesirable or random outcomes, is always a difficult and complex task. The huge books which contain the mathematics and methodology of Control Systems Engineering are sufficient witness to that truth.
To control future developments one must imagine a desirable goal, then plan the details of all steps toward that goal. In order to decide when to start each of the required processes, it is essential to be able to make a reliable estimate of how long each and every one of those steps will take. To devise an optimally productive process, the meeting and mating of necessary materials, energy and information must be carefully scheduled.
Pushing a child on a swing, ringing a tower bell or playing a melody on an instrument demonstrates that the correct timing of inputs into a process is crucial. Too soon or too late just won’t work.
If an industrial process is to be controlled and properly coordinated it must be observable. For purposes of fine-tuning, accurate and timely feedback information must be readily available. But who keeps track of all the details of the thousands of complex molecular processes which are always operating at the sub-microscopic level of living organisms?
Aeons before speedy electronic, computerized control devices had been invented, in every living cell extremely complicated biochemical processes were coordinating well and were under control. The “simplest” living cell can produce thousands of different proteins and enzymes at different times under varying conditions. It can put substances together or take them apart. It can repair and maintain its inner structure. It can utilize sources of energy to move, to replicate itself and to communicate with other cells. Each cell is an amazingly interwoven meshwork of different systems, each of which requires the interaction of many different components. The superb coordination that arises from the timely control of so many vital processes cannot be explained by a reference to programming by DNA. What coordinated the DNA itself so remarkably? The development of such detailed control cannot be satisfactorily accounted for by a series of “fortunate accidents” which occurred over the ages. That hypothesis, like the popular theme of “autopoiesis” (self-building), has to rely utterly upon the ongoing agency of time which no earthly being is capable of producing for itself. The fertility of time in devising so many kinds of complicated, well-coordinated, functioning systems is an ultimate, scientifically inscrutable mystery.