Considering chaos

The Gospel According to Relativity by James Geiger mentions a book called Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick. The mystery of why I resonate so much with Mr. Geiger’s work is solved, well at least partially. Chaos was immensely influential to my theological thinking when I was a senior in college ten years ago (reunion next month!). Wrote a paper on Chaos that I think was a key formation for much of my thinking as I worked in churches, went through seminary, and basically found myself on ancient and hidden trails. So, here is is:

As I gaze out of my window I see before me two prominent structures. The first, and largest, is rectangular shaped, with sharp defined angles and straight, uncurving lines. The second seems to follow no distinct pattern, with its central support branching out seemingly randomly, becoming smaller and smaller as it goes. The first structure, a building, was designed by architects working with centuries of accumulated knowledge from a great variety of scientific fields. The second structure is a tree. A tree with no great inherent merit, or attributes. Simply a tree like any other tree. Upon initial examination, one might say that the building is the marvel. It is the product of an advanced species, who over the course of their existence have developed ingenious places to live and work, far beyond that which was initially provided to them in nature. The tree is just a tree. This was the dominant view of the Enlightenment, marveling at human ability to understand and conceive, to build and create. Nature was seen as something to dominate, to conquer, to control.

Yet, in the past few decades scientists are re-examining this view. After moving past seemingly simple structures such as trees in pursuit of increasingly complex phenomena, they are beginning once again to consider the trees, the clouds, and the commonplace. For despite their seeming simplicity, these structures contain a complexity that is almost beyond understanding. The tree is not a random structure, but rather one that is absolutely full of order, though vastly beyond the ability of prior science to determine what kind of order it is. This order and complexity is on a scale that makes the building behind it amazingly simplistic and not even worthy of consideration. This new science, this study of overwhelming complex structures underlying seemingly simple systems is called chaos, and it has revolutionized the scientific world.

I come to this topic without any of the necessary qualifications needed to satisfiably examine the richness of chaos. My mathematical and scientific training essentially ended five years ago when I graduated from high school. My years at Wheaton have been spent engaged in the study of history and the Bible, in Blanchard and BGC rather than in Armerding. I do not, however, come to this topic without interest or concern. It is the way of things that science is considered the elite of all fields of study, the area in which human logic and understanding are most emphasized and highlighted. For most of human history philosophy and religion have influenced how society studied the scientific world. Since the dawning of the Enlightenment, however, this trend has shifted. All fields began to try to model their study on the methodology of the scientists, raising the Heroic Model of Science to a supreme role. Just as one could discover the laws of physics and know the internal workings of living things, so too could educated men discover the “laws of society” and truly know that which had happened and that which will happen. As science adjusts itself and its views, other fields make similar adjustments, though often lagging years behind. It is with this thought in mind that I come to the study of chaos.

In his book Chaos, James Gleick examines the formational history of the study of chaos. He looks at the major figures and the major forms of thought that went into developing the idea of chaos into a major factor of modern scientific thought. It all began with a meteorologist who was working with a primitive computer on weather patterns. Seeking to simulate a weather system over a period of time Edward Lorenz formulated weather patterns into numerical data which the computer would develop into continuous weather systems that fairly accurately reflected actual conditions. Seeking to examine a specific sequence one day, Lorenz began a simulation in the middle of a run of equations, using numbers from an earlier printout. After letting this pattern run its course for a while, Lorenz returned to find that the new printout was vastly different from the earlier one. Although the pattern began the same, it quickly began to diverge and then became something totally different. He soon realized what had happened. When he re-entered the numbers, he only entered three decimal places, while the original sequence used six decimal places. Lorenz was amazed at the fact that seemingly inconsequential numbers had such a influential impact on the system as a whole. The complexity and sensitivity of the weather system was greater than anyone had ever imagined. Using this newfound knowledge, scientists now realized that, theoretically, the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Peking could transform future storm systems in New York. As Lorenz, and others, began to examine nonlinear systems they discovered that seemingly random systems of all types, including trees and clouds, followed an intricate pattern which was not random, but beautifully full of order and pattern.

This discovery of sensitive dependence on initial conditions began a movement in the scientific realm that Thomas Kuhn of Harvard describes as a paradigm shift. Occurring very rarely, and with great resistance, these shifts enact a total change in how scientists view their fields of study. Old presuppositions and assumptions are thrown out, and past data is re-examined in light of the new underlying concept. These shifts come when new discoveries break down old systems of thought, and the allowances and rationalizations that come with the old systems. Suddenly, the inconsequential became vital, and the nonlinear became a field of study of its own.

In the twentieth century a new understanding of humanity developed. No longer could humanity be seen as a creature of progression or inherent goodness. World War I burst the bubble of thought that proclaimed that all of our social ills could be solved as we progressed in our knowledge. Historians, philosophers, and theologians found an inherent unpredictability in the human species that defied understanding. With this came a breakdown in the pursuit of accumulated knowledge. Neither God nor history could be known. Belief was separated from fact as all positions became relative to one another. The Heroic Model of Science broke down, and academics had nothing to replace it which could put order and veracity back into their study. Relativistic thinking ruled the middle decades of the twentieth century. As science became increasingly specialized, the humanities had no where to turn to for an encompassing model of study. The question now before us is whether or not Chaos could be this new overarching theory which reaches beyond the scientific realm and into all fields of academia.

Christianity has not always been receptive to scientific understanding. Oftentimes, particular Christian presuppositions have opposed and debated with what science proclaims, feeling threatened by the new discoveries. The theory of evolution stands out in this regard. Yet, in a conflict with science Christianity can lose a great deal. What is science but the quest of humanity to discover the nature of creation? Although many would not acknowledge the work of the Creator God, that does not take anything away from the fact that God did indeed create. The idea of chaos, in my mind, glorifies the omniscient Creator. We find that even simple systems are complex beyond understanding, that random events are actually bound to order, and that nature is imbued with a beauty and wonder that defies description even on the most basic levels. This is not a random world where trees and streams form as they will, but one in which detail and intricacy abound.

Whether it be the elaborate beauty of mapped magnetic attraction, or the accumulation of water molecules on an ice crystal, we find that nature is part of an intricate interaction with itself, a dance in which every aspect plays an important and decisive role. We exist only because of this crucial and supersensitive interaction. This complexity is not formed according to chance or randomness, but exists because of the intricate and complex mind of the one who created it. The basic structures of the universe are, as Behe proclaims, irreducibly complex, and only an intelligent designer could have created such a marvel.

There are few systems more inherently complex and unpredictable than humanity. Thus, those who try to study human behavior and interaction face an almost impossible task if they try to predict or fully explain behavior. The vast amounts of variables that go into human thought and actions is immense. People seem to diverge from predicted models on a seemingly random basis. A method of therapy can do wonders for one person, and have no effect on a seemingly similar person. How does one explain a Hitler or a Ghandi? What made these two so strikingly different not only from each other but also from those who came out of identical backgrounds? Could it be the inconsequentials that had a major effect on their lives? Past historians sought to explain their actions by looking at major influences and strong formational events. Can it be said that the major differences were not noticed even by those involved? A smile, a reproach, or any other numerous, minor events could have created a shift which resulted in their final form. It seems that the idea of chaos is completely apropos to the study of the human system.

With this in mind, the lessons that Christ had to teach us become even more vital. Jesus knew the intricacy and sensitivity of the system. He knew that small interactions and decisions could have determinative influences in our lives. Just looking at his own interactions, and the way he changed people’s lives, shows us how a simple touch or a few words could impact the world as a whole. Minor changes in thought, or minor decisions on actions could vitally influence a life. In this way God can interact and influence us and our lives in imperceptible ways. A miracle need not be grand to be great. In the same way moral decisions become ever more important. God did not dictate random morality that could be individually decided upon. He knew that moral actions have consequences, and that these consequences can impact not just the individual but whole societies.

In the popular book and movie Jurassic Park mathematician Ian Malcolm uses the idea of chaos to predict the restoration of dinosaurs from an artificial state to a natural state. The minor manipulations of the scientists in that movie were inconsequential in comparison to the myriad of other variables that guided the system as a whole. They could not control the behavior because they did not have control over all the influencing factors. God does have control, and he is fully aware of how the system should be acting in order to maximize its great potential. When sin entered humanity, the system began to stray toward destruction. Sin causes death and spirals humanity into eventual ruin. Knowing the variables involved God interacted with the system in order to show the proper methods of correcting the system as it continues. He gave us his law. These are the laws that guide humanity toward what God intended his system to be. The ornate and complex set of morality that he gave us seems inconsequential and irrelevant, but in fact is crucial to our survival.

The idea of chaos gave order to what was dismissed as unknowable and inconsequential. When minute data was found to be crucial to the systems as a whole a shift took place in which all fields of science were affected. Men such as Lorenz and Mandelbrot showed the intricacy and sensitivity inherent in the created world. No longer could words such as random and chance be used to describe what was going on in this world. This paradigm shift has only recently taken hold of the scientific world. As other fields of study follow, people will begin to realize the order and sensitivity inherent in all of creation, including humanity. What we do affects this world. We are not isolated beings uninfluenced and uninfluential. We are responsible to each other and to our creator for our actions, no matter how seemingly insignificant. This world is a system of unimaginable complexity, a fact which we are only beginning to discover. As we face life knowing that even the smallest decisions could have significant impact it would behoove us to go to the Creator continuously in order to gain His perspective and wisdom. In the face of chaos we can find guidance and salvation only in Christ, the Creator of the intricate and complex.

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