Pope Francis schools the world on systems of equations.

Please let me know what you think of this analogy:

Late in elementary school or somewhere in middle school, kids encounter one several branch points that tend to separate those likely to continue in mathematics and science from those who won’t: systems of equations. The background is available on many web sites:

A system of equations is a collection of two or more equations with a same set of unknowns. In solving a system of equations, we try to find values for each of the unknowns that will satisfy every equation in the system. The equations in the system can be linear or non-linear. [emphasis added]

Here’s a simple example:

X + Y                   =   28

X + 3Y + 0.05Z =   74

0.9X + 2Y + Z   = 245.

And here’s a more complicated system of equations:


Atmospheric scientists will recognize this latter equation set immediately.

Add in an additional equation of state for an ideal gas and you have the system of equations that must be solved simultaneously in numerical weather prediction. Add equations of radiative transfer and information about the radiative properties of trace gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and you can calculate the amount of climate warming resulting from different levels of CO2 in the atmosphere.

It’s tempting to physical (atmospheric) scientists to stop here. We say to the world, Job done! We’ve solved the system of equations that matters, and look out! The use of fossil fuels is warming the atmosphere to unacceptable levels. We’ve got to cut back on fossil fuel consumption.

But, going back to our simple example, it’s as if we looked only at the first of our three equations and convinced ourselves that X=26; Y= 2 was the solution. We’re saying the X factor (the physics of the challenge – the rise in global atmospheric temperature) is the only piece that matters. The social piece – let’s call it the Y factor – is merely fossil-fuel consumption and shouldn’t matter much; there are multiple alternative energy options. In view of such a great environmental threat physical scientists and ecologists might not be blamed for thinking society ought readily to find easy workarounds. (We tend to minimalize the many trillions of dollars invested in a vast infrastructure worldwide and the millions of workers extracting and redistributing this energy and keeping the world’s lights on and the world’s vehicles moving.)

Enter now the social scientists. To them, the social dimensions of the problem can’t be trivialized in this way. Instead they loom large. Social scientists offer an entirely new way of looking at climate change – as a matter of human choice. They suggest that policymakers:

  1. View the issue of climate change holistically, not just as the problem of emissions reductions. 
  1. Recognize that, for climate policymaking, institutional limits to global sustainability are at least as important as environmental limits.
  1. Prepare for the likelihood that social, economic, and technological change will be more rapid and have greater direct impacts on human populations than climate change.
  1. Recognize the limits of rational planning.
  1. Employ the full range of analytical perspectives and decision aids from natural and social sciences and the humanities in climate change policymaking.
  1. Design policy instruments for real world conditions rather than try to make the world conform to a particular policy model. 
  1. Incorporate climate change into other more immediate issues, such as employment, defense, economic development, and public health.
  1. Take a regional and local approach to climate policymaking and implementation. 
  1. Direct resources into identifying vulnerability and promoting resilience, especially where the impacts will be largest.

 10. Use a pluralistic approach to decision-making.

It’s as if they showed up with the second of our two simple equations, based on their science. Note they’ve introduced a new variable, one that the physical scientists hadn’t considered…the Z factor. For the moment let’s say it reflects item 4 in the above list: the limits of rational planning. Let’s also say that the social scientists are under the sway of economists. (With considerable – okay, probably even unfair – oversimplification) economists believe we are all rational actors and so Z must be small, so that we can throw it out.

We then have (please bear with me here – almost done) two equations in two unknowns:

X + Y   = 30

X + 3Y = 74,

with the solution X=8, Y=22.

Hmm. Rather different from the earlier surmise that X=26; Y=2.

Enter now Pope Francis, who suggests that in addition to physical and social realities (the X and Y of our story), there’s a moral element that underpins both. Let’s call it that “irrational” factor Z that we all threw away earlier. He reinserts it, telling us we need to view the issue as spiritual at its core. To him, both the physical and the social challenges stem from our willingness to objectify our natural surroundings rather than appreciate them at a deep level, to see all of creation as merely background to be exploited. What’s worse, the pope tells us, is that over time, we’ve allowed ourselves to objectify each other, especially those living in squalor a world away. We all too willingly ignore their plight, and absorb ourselves instead in a cocoon of technology and virtual reality (all this poorly articulated here relative to the encyclical, but we all get the idea). The pope tells us, bluntly, we need to get the spiritual part right, both as it operates in each of us as individuals and in the way we function as community, to have any hope of solving the climate change problem – which is only a symptom of a larger spiritual-social-physical malaise.

It’s as if he restored the factor 0.05Z to the second equation and brought the third equation to the table:

0.9X + 2Y + Z   = 245.

It’s only at this point that we finally arrive at the solution: X=10; Y=18; Z=200.

Of course the math and especially the wholly arbitrary numerical values are not what matters here. The pope is saying that we’ve incompletely specified the problem. Physical scientists are focused only on the inanimate piece of the puzzle, minimizing both social and spiritual realities. The social scientists have been punctilious in correcting the physicists, but haven’t been noticeably any more eager to embrace the spiritual part. It’s implicit at best in their ten suggestions for policymakers; more likely it’s simply missing.

The pope is saying nothing less than that spiritual part is the essential starting point. But he’s also saying that the God he worships is lord of it all – the physical, social, and spiritual part. All of it matters. In agreement with social scientists and their first suggestion, he’s looking for holistic approaches to the problem, but he wants “holistic” to be truly so, to encompass every dimension.


A footnote in closing. The pope doesn’t stop there. He goes on to assert something much more profound. He’s argues that this God factor is not zero sum: God is not simply the Celestial Scold. He is love, He wants to help, and He’s able to do so. He’s encouraging Catholic believers but really all of us to tap into this limitless reservoir of (totally renewable) energy and good will. If we are realistic (says the pope), in all senses of that word, we recognize God’s been intervening throughout human history to the benefit of both man and life forms on this host planet. We haven’t gotten this far by ourselves. If we work with Him and with each other we can make the 21st century the greatest century ever.

Of course, many might prefer instead to argue with the pope on these points – and might rather find logic to prove themselves right than be happy.

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2 Responses to Pope Francis schools the world on systems of equations.

  1. Mike Hall says:

    Sound reasoning, Bill. I like it. I like the Pope and believe in what he is doing and saying. Secular society as it exists today is a dead end for homo sapiens, and environmental sciences without humans (as part of the EQUATION!) is hopelessly reductionist. -Mike

  2. William Hooke says:

    Thanks, Mike: and my apologies for taking so long to approve this for posting. Came in while i was out of town and then got buried in the pile. warmest regards/thanks for staying engaged.

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