The Evangelical Universalist Forum

The River - an Epistemological Fable

I gave the below as a “Chapel Talk” at my old boarding school. I’ve never really shared it before, but I’d love folks’ feedback…

When asked whether he believed in human Free Will, Christopher Hitchens – public intellectual, outspoken atheist, and World’s Least Likely Person to be quoted in a Chapel Talk – replied: “We have no choice”. Very clever, and very revealing: believe in Free Will, in our own Independence of Mind, despite mounting scientific evidence of its non-existence, or our world unwinds in a spiral of paradoxes and contradictions. Here’s one of those contradictions:

The Copenhagen Interpretation asserts that electrons remain exclusively waves of probability until human observation collapses them into discrete particles. Richard Feynman, brilliant quantum physicist and strict materialist, dismissively rejected this seminal theory, saying: “I do not believe in the ability of the Human Mind to alter the course of an electron.” Lesser minds – my own, certainly – cannot read this statement without pondering how many billions of electrons’ courses were altered by Mr. Feynman simply writing it down.

These quotes hint that Modernity’s Civil War between super-natural Belief and natural Science is a War of Ignorance - - Believers’ ignorance of science’s methods and discoveries, certainly, but Skeptics’ ignorance as well, of Science’s epistemological foundation. Epistemology is a branch of philosophy with a humble ambition – it seeks a coherent theory of knowledge. Epistemology poses the Big Questions:
–“Is objective knowledge possible?”
–“Can Creativity and Free Thought exist outside the inexorable, deterministic tide of Nature?”
–“If the world is a watch, and we are all just gears of the watch, who will tell the time?”
In the heady days of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, these Big Questions consumed the Who’s Who of Western Civilization’s Great Minds – Renee Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Immanuel Kant. These men were Philosophical Giants, Intellectual Titans! Unfortunately, none of them were available this morning. But this being the Post-Modern 21st Century, it’s a little late for an Enlightenment lecture on Epistemology, anyway. I’d rather tell you a story, what you might call an Epistemological Fable…


Before I begin, I should tell you in good faith that I made this story up. At least, that was my experience of the creation of the story. I sat at the kitchen table with my two young sons very early on a Wednesday morning. They ate breakfast and did their homework, and I typed at my computer. Ideas flowed into my mind and took shape; I distilled them into words; my fingers moved over the surface of my computer; and this story came up on the screen. So I believe I made this story up. But standing here, I can’t tell you with certainty where those ideas came from.

It is possible that I — unwitting— was inspired by some Great Spirit, and I – unknowing — was merely transcribing some Great Truth. But I don’t think so.

It is also possible that my genetic fingerprint, unique in all the universe, when combined with my peculiar life experience prior to that Wednesday morning, created neuro-chemical conditions in my brain which predetermined that the only thing that could have happened at that kitchen table, on that early morning, was these fingers moving over the surface of that computer, typing this story. But I don’t think so. My testimony, in good faith, my experience of this story’s creation was this: I made it up. I should start the story.

In the beginning, there was only The River, nothing else. This is simple to say, but it’s hard to picture, because as I’ve said, there was nothing else at all – not even the concept of a river. For there to be a river, it would seem that there has to be something else, something that isn’t river – air, or sky, land on either side. But there wasn’t. There was only The River. The River was smooth – though no-one was there to see it – and almost formless.

How long was it like that? As I’ve said, no-one was there, and if there’s nothing but a River, and a perfectly smooth River at that, some sticklers maintain it isn’t technically possible to define Time. I don’t know for sure, and when I think about it, my head starts to hurt, but it does seem to me that even if Time could be defined in a universe with only a smooth, formless River, it’s not a particularly useful concept. And as I’ve said, there wasn’t anything other than The River, and Time would be something else.

Then, Something happened. Now some said later that the Spirit of the Lord moved over the surface of the waters, but the only thing we can be sure of on that count is that they weren’t there. And if the Lord did that, I don’t know where He came from – there was only The River, after all – that’s what I’ve been trying to say – nothing else. I made the story up, so it was probably just me. It’s embarrassing and vaguely blasphemous to be mistaken for the Spirit of the Lord. Then again, I still can’t tell you where the ideas came from, so it could have been Him after all. It’s confusing.

What I do know is that The River stopped being smooth. There were small disturbances, almost imperceptible at first. Swirls and eddies formed. Again, I can’t say how long all this took - maybe a few minutes, but it could’ve been eons. The eddies became currents, and waves and splashes and holes and washes erupted. At this point I think we can say for the first time with certainty that there wasn’t just The River anymore, because whatever else the Noise of a River is – the Gurgles and Splashes and Crashes and Roars that erupted – you’d have to agree that those Noises are not, themselves, The River.

Now The River shook and splashed and ran and swirled around endlessly, and even without being aware of itself, or even of Joy itself, it seemed joyful – but I’m willing to admit that this could be a projection on my part. Again, who knows how long this unselfconscious state of affairs lasted? There was clearly Something going on – Events (loosely defined). But just as clearly there was no Consciousness to record the Events, or even to even experience them, in the sense you and I take for granted.

And then…there was. Or there appeared to be. Some of the waves in The River became what might be called Standing Waves. They moved – but they didn’t move on. They were there, over time, and Time began - - only because the Standing Waves were aware of The Something that was going on. Or I think they were aware – but they didn’t really think about it at all, they just experienced it, splashing each other and slowly developing greeting gurgles that meant “hello”, or identifying splashing noises unique to that particular Standing Wave – naming themselves. A whole language of the Standing Waves developed, again, perhaps over eons – it should be obvious that no-one was writing this down, and I only started writing this down last Wednesday morning.

These Standing Waves called themselves Naiads, because they apprehended that they were something other than The River itself. The Naiads could see The River, observe its movement. Though some said it was a very naïve illusion, the Naiads felt that their own movements, their particular splashes and gurgles and roars, were voluntary – part of the River, yes, and yet under the agency of the Naiads themselves.

(We might here begin to call these wave movements, and this water rolling past, not just Time, but History, because there weren’t just Events, and there wasn’t just Consciousness to observe the Events; there was Self-consciousness to observe the Consciousness, and to conceive that the Consciousness might itself influence and cause the Events.)

And sometime during their History, certain Naiads started to think more deeply, not just about The River, but about their observations of the River. Observing The River was really all they could do, so you can hardly blame them. It was all they could see – their whole world – the entirety of Nature to them, so thinking about it took up a good deal of their time. And they wondered…

  • Could they, Naiads, who were clearly part of the River – Standing Waves within the River – really be said to “observe” the River?
  • Or, to speak more plainly, did it make any sense at all to assert say that the River observed itself?

The Naiads were philosophical by nature, really very Reasonable, and they knew a tautology when they saw one. They didn’t express it this way, of course, but they did recognize intuitively that this innocent act of Observation had done great violence to their simple world, cleaving it cleanly in two, along the Great Epistemological Divide between The Observer and The Observed. This sounds a bit extreme and very grave, and I thought they were over-reacting at first. But reasoned observations, they observed, are made, and can only be made, by an independent Observer. Otherwise, there is no observation at all - it’s a Catch-22 - like an Escher print where a man climbs stairs only to reach the same floor he started from. Or maybe more like a circular error in a spreadsheet, when you mistakenly reference the cell you’re trying to solve for, as one of the inputs, and the computer cycles endlessly trying to reach an answer to your incoherent question, tirelessly climbing binary stairs and gaining no altitude. For observations to be valid, the mind of the observer must be quite distinct, completely independent from the thing being observed. And this independence of Mind, they reasoned, is the very essence of Reason. (The Naiads didn’t use the word “Reason”, of course. Their word is difficult for us to pronounce – it sounds to our ears like a drop of water falling from great height into a tranquil pool…)
We’re made mostly of water, too, so examples of this exist in our own experience: If someone’s decisions aren’t independent from natural causes – if they are coerced by psychological brainwashing, say, or extreme physical duress, or chemicals, or drugs – we say they’re no longer “Reasonable”. If grief, or madness, or rabies, or any biological or chemical imperative controls someone’s thoughts we might say “They’ve lost their Reason.” The concept of Reason, of reasoning, is wholly dependent on its independence from Nature’s coercion, and without that independence, Reason doesn’t exist, at least not as a coherent idea. Reason must be by its very nature (and I hesitate to use this word) “super-natural”, which I mean only in the very narrow sense of something above, separate and independent from the flow of Nature.

This issue of “Independence of Mind” they muddled on for quite some time. They also muddled on the other, closely related, meaning of Reason – which is “Independence of Cause”. The River was, for them, all of Nature - - I’ve tried very hard to make that clear. That seems simple, and yet this part was still difficult for them, and to be honest, it’s difficult for me, and I’m the one making this story up. If, as I’ve tried with increasing difficulty to maintain, there was only The River, then The River was the Reason for everything – the only Reason for anything – including what they thought of as their own thoughts and actions. If the Naiads were simply The River, and not (and this is the last time I’ll use this word) “super-natural”, then they had no independence, no Reason, and couldn’t be an independent Reason for anything else. But if they were NOT The River, then what - - in the name of all that was wet - - were they?

{{{{{{{{Despite the fact that every Naiad felt he or she was Conscious and Separate from the River, every Naiad could also plainly see that they were a part of the River, and some said this perception of separateness, of consciousness, of OTHERNESS, was, as I’ve said, a naïve illusion, albeit a happy one. They were adamant that there was Nothing but The River. That IS how this story started, after all, and no-one ever could prove otherwise, then or since}}}}}}}}}}.

Finally, one singularly sage Naiad had a singularly simple idea: He suggested that since no Naiad could ever prove that they were The River - - (such a Proof, if you thought about it, implied the non-existence of the Prover), and no Naiad could ever prove that they were something else, (since, as has been endlessly reiterated, nothing but The River existed), the Naiads must simply ASSUME that they were Other than The River.

This was a cataclysm! Under this Promethean operating assumption, their Reason could operate - independent of The River - and the Naiads could themselves BE a Reason for other things. Now, as genuine Observers, they could rely upon and compile their observations with confidence. This observational confidence gave birth to Science, and they made extraordinary progress. These Naiads were now Subjects, separate from the grammatical Object of The River, and they could perform powerful Verbs! Sentences could mean something now (which comes as a particular relief to me, in my role as Narrator), so I’ll write a few describing what they did. They constructed mathematical models for The River’s flow, predicted its seasonal diversions, even constructed probability tables regarding The River level. An extraordinary time! More and more knowledge of The River, more study and discovery! They never could find the Source of the River, and it was hypothesized the River flowed and flowed until it came back around and started again, in a Great Circle. But they COULD see how the currents of The River were diverted by Obstructions, and how wakes and turbulence were mathematically, hydro-logically determined.

<The careful listeners among you – the Juniors in Honors English, probably, the Seniors in AP History, certainly, will no doubt here cry “Foul!”, though I see you’re too polite to say it aloud. “Haven’t we been sufficiently browbeaten with this idea that there was nothing other than The River? Where did these obstacles come from? ” I beg ignorance here. I didn’t put them in the story, and apparently none of the Naiads themselves ever saw, ever touched, or in any way directly experienced these Obstructions either. It’s just that their hydrological models required them – they were necessary inputs to the mathematical equations that explained the River’s movements. If you didn’t assume the Obstructions, the models didn’t work. If you did assume the Obstructions, the models did work. The Obstructions must exist! Odd, really, that while the Naiads had profound doubts about their own existence separate and apart from The River, they were completely sure of the existence of these implied Obstructions with which they had no direct experience whatsoever. Confidence in their hydrological models was at this point quite profound.>

But this profound understanding of the physics of waves, of their causes and consequences, while a magnificent leap, began a line of inquiry that troubled the waters. If waves were ultimately and deterministically the mathematical result of The River’s movements and currents, what about these Standing Waves – the Naiads themselves? Were they similarly mere hydrological phenomena as well? Further study was required, and further study ensued.

This study confirmed the Naiads’ worst fears. It was determined that, as Standing Waves, the Naiads were nothing other than the peculiar and pernicious heaving of the River – its bizarre yet rigorously mathematical response to these unseen, but statistically certain, Obstructions. The Naiad’s actions, their very thoughts, were nothing other than waves within the River. The Naiads had believed they were controlling their own gurgles, their splashes, their playful crashing, even their own diligent observations of The River, but they had been mistaken. All these behaviors – if you could now call them behaviors – were explained by the mechanical wave action of The River. The final answer to that initial question had been scientifically and conclusively rendered: the Naiads were, in fact, nothing other than The River.

That rending this conclusion also rent the very founding assumption of the Naiad scientific effort – that the Naiads were reliable, distinct observers, separate from The River they observed – occurred to no-one. It had been hundreds of years since that wise Naiad had suggested that the Naiads must simply assume that they were Other than The River, assume that they had Reason, could themselves BE Reasons. The progress and knowledge and models that had been gained since, seemed so certain now, and so concrete, that none of the Naiads could now conceive that all of these rested on the simple assumption of their Reason, their Independence of Mind, their discrete existence. And now their discrete existence had been conclusively disproved.

The Naiads, tragically unaware of this paradox, reluctantly but dutifully gave up their existence. Although saying they gave up their existence isn’t quite right, since the Naiads now realized that technically they had never really been, not in the sense that you and I take for granted. This process of giving up took a long time, who can say exactly how long? The meme of identity, of believing your ideas, emotions, and memories to be discrete from the physical processes that sustain them, turned out to be resilient habit, and virulent, infecting others through social contact. This discovery and pronouncement of their extinction was hard. Especially for the young Naiads, who hadn’t lived long enough to experience the dulling, mechanical repetition that comes of long existence, and which seemed another pitiless proof to older Naiads of their true, deterministic essence.

I still can hear echoes of those rich, chromatic, waterfall voices of the Naiads calling out, in games, or in simple greeting - -“Hello!”
A simple word, which when you think about it, says Nothing at all – “Hello!”
And yet it communicates Everything: “Hello! I am here! I am a Being, I exist! And I testify that I see you, too; I recognize you, Fellow Being!”

But slowly, fewer and fewer voices called out across the slowing, slowly smoothing River. Because there really wasn’t anything other than The River. And maybe The River hadn’t ever really been, either. No-one ever observed it, so there isn’t anyone to say. And anyway, I was very clear, right at the outset, that I made it up.

I believe I did, though I still can’t tell you with any certainty where the idea came from.


My story is ended. You aren’t yet on the frontlines of Modernity’s Civil War between Belief and Science. But you will be drafted into it, or eagerly volunteer for it, in your coming College years. That war is desperately in need of blue-helmeted peace-keepers, who with humility will remind the combatants that – while all supernatural belief must be subject to rigorous critique – all scientific inquiry is based on the assumption that the Human Mind is an Independent, Reasonable, “super-natural” Observer.

That’s brilliant.

Mind you, it’s just the a splash of a wave …


Really thought-provoking stuff, man. Thanks for sharing :slight_smile:

Thank you. I’ve never written anything like it - and it doesnt really feel like I wrote it at all when I read it.

I’m not joking in the story when I say I don’t know where it came from! Weird.

Thanks again.

Wow! Really good, Notirbd! (if indeed it actually exists!)

I’ve occasionally had stories come to me like that; seemingly out of nowhere. I think it’s the Holy Spirit. Great, most excellent, very helpful. :slight_smile: Thanks!

Blessings, Cindy

:unamused: I like it! Were you good at cats cradle when you were young? Chris