Saturday, March 12, 2011

God: the Author of Chaos?

When I share my views about open theology (that God might not know details about the future) or about God’s noninterventionist ways (that God is mostly “hands-off” with respect to Creation, our individual lives, and the flow of human history), some believers get noticeably anxious! They worry about a world not tightly supervised by its God, a world which is not controlled, and micro-engineered by God. More than once have my views been characterized as deistic. But I am not deist. I believe in, and base my life hope in, a God who is personal, vitally interested in us, and highly purposeful! Nevertheless, it seems that, for some, conceiving of God as the “blessed controller” provides a level of comfort and security they are unwilling to give up. And they often wonder out loud how a universe ungoverned could ever accomplish the ends of a purposeful Creator.

I believe that science can help to solve this mystery! Throughout the natural order, we see a confluence of randomness with design and purpose and ultimate predictability that is fascinating to me; and which may be instructive as we seek to understand the ways of God. Three examples are chaos theory, quantum uncertainty, and evolutionary convergence. I’ve written on some of these in the past. Here I bring them together for your consideration.

Chaos theory, originally explored as a mathematical phenomenon, has been observed and studied in a variety of fields from meteorology to economics to philosophy. Chaos theory tells us that very small, seemingly insignificant variations in initial conditions may result in enormous alterations to the long-range outcomes. The familiar example is that of the “butterfly effect”. A butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can, according to chaos theory, set off a disturbance in air patterns which could ultimately cause a destructive hurricane to strike Texas, or Indonesia! Chaos theory deals with causes and effects that are, by some measures, completely unpredictable. But there are corollary principles to chaos theory, called fractals. Examples of fractals include the principle of “self-similarity”, and the “Lorenz attractor”. These principles bring a level of order and predictability even to chaotic systems. That is, while initially, effects may splay out in totally unpredictable and chaotic ways, on larger (or smaller) scales certain patterns emerge. And these patterns become predictable, and stable.

In Quantum mechanics, the principle of Uncertainty speaks of the utter unpredictability of the movements and behaviors of subatomic particles. And yet, while the physicist may be unable to predict how a given quark or other quantum particle will behave, when observed as a mass of collective particles, the sum of the behavior of such particles becomes predictable with a high degree of accuracy.

Biology bows to a similar pattern. The competing principles of contingency and convergence don’t actually compete at all. Both principles are operating throughout evolution. Contingency suggests that mutations and adaptations are unpredictable. Thus the evolutionary trajectory of similar organisms isolated geographically may vary widely even within similar biomes. And yet, convergence suggests that certain ultimate effects are quite predictable, as evolution will self-guide into preexisting, or developing ecological niches. Together, contingency and convergence are the opposing sides of the same coin. They tell us that God could create life just as he willed it by allowing it to move along paths that appear to be totally random. Simon Conway-Morris has theorized that the evolution of man, substantially as we have seen on this planet, was inevitable, and would occur on any planet given the same set of initial conditions, even though the paths might vary widely.

This pattern — this phenomenon of random, unpredictable movements and processes ultimately coalescing into long-range outcomes which are foreseeable — provides us with illustrations from nature: natural phenomena which mirror and typify spiritual phenomena. But might they be more than that? Might they suggest a continuity of patterns built into the structure of the cosmos that extend from discernible physical and biological laws to spiritual laws? Do they identify a divine rubric, God’s chosen M.O? I believe they do!

And if so, they suggest that the purposes of God can and will be accomplished through his Creation even as he restrains his hand.