Data Analysis and Ecclesiastes

I admit it. I’m a data freak. I analyze sports numbers to relax. (Incidentally, it’s a travesty that #11 Louisville is still ranked above #13 Pitt.) Data analytics, particularly predictive analysis, is a fast growing field, with marketing firms and large companies (such as IBM) joining the rush to use stats to predict things before they happen.

But as I was studying through Ecclesiastes, I noticed a few things that made me rethink the efficacy or even the godliness of these efforts. Ecclesiastes has a great deal to say about power and control, mostly that men don’t have it. Despite all of our toil, our struggle for any advantage over nature under the Sun is ultimately empty and futile. Death is the great equalizer, and it comes to all men regardless of influence or wealth, the same as it comes to the animals. The end game of Ecclesiastes is of course that God gives us the gifts to enjoy life regardless, because He is the master of death (even more poignant after the resurrection).

I’m thinking in particular of the “Time for Everything” passage, which has often been romanticized in our culture. What the passage is talking about is not so much that everything that can happen will happen as it is telling us that every event and action is predetermined by God. There is a preordained time for every action, and each action has a purpose. Furthermore, man cannot know when these times are, despite God placing the desire to know in our hearts.

So the dilemma I faced was this: is predictive analysis a way to circumvent God’s plan and forecast the future? Are we trying to cheat the system? Since nothing is random, do we have the ability to perfectly know God’s work from beginning to end (as Eccl. 3:11 denies)?

Obviously, the simple answer is that the Bible is right and man is wrong (as is the answer to pretty much every question). And honestly, if Ecclesiastes only consisted of chapter 3, we might well say that analyzing data to forecast the future is an ungodly endeavor.

But it’s not the only chapter.

There are a couple reasons why data analysis is not in fact a demonic pursuit:

  1. Things happen pretty much the same way each time. Eccl. 1:9 says “That which has been is what will be, that which is done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” The sun rises the same way every day, spiders will spin their webs the same way, and North Florida’s basketball team will score a predictable amount of points each game (pro-tip: they’re going to beat Kennesaw State this Thursday). There isn’t a whole lot of variation in the world, and that’s ok, for reasons Jim Jordan would be more than happy to explain (you low-church heathens need to get you some liturgy).
  2. No analytical system can allow us to cheat death, as much as some scientists and sundry laymen would like to believe. This is one of Solomon’s primary concerns. You’re going to die no matter how much data you run. So this part of the issue asks if we are trying to cheat God by performing these analyses. I would argue that we are merely utilizing the patterns God has set down in the way He governs the world, enabling us to be efficient stewards of our dominion.

These are just a few thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head for a while. Feel free to share your own.

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