Irreducible Complexity

This is Andrew’s dad writing.  Andrew is taking a brief vacation from blogging, but he will be back.

Back in the 1960s, when electronic computers were new, and far less powerful than today, Edward Lorenz was trying to simulate weather systems.  The runs took a long time by today’s standards, and in order to save computer time, Lorenz thought to start his simulation half-way through, by copying intermediate numbers printed out from a previous run.  His first run, which he ran to check his work, used the exact same parameters.

Imagine his surprise when this “identical” run produced wildly different results.  He was expecting that an error on his part would create a small discrepancy.  Instead, the results looked like an entirely different simulation.  He checked his work, and made sure that the input numbers matched exactly, and still the results were totally different numbers.

It made no sense to him.  Then, he realized that while the computer was using “single precision” arithmetic (roughly what a calculator prints out), his report only showed three digits of precision.  So, his numbers in the new simulation would be something like “347”, but internally the computer was using something like “306.75729”.  These differences were far less than a 1% difference, and he thought they would at most have a negligible effect.  But those tiny rounding discrepancies completely altered the results.

Lorenz spent much of the rest of his career studying this effect.  His work, along with many others, is called “chaos theory.”  It is the mathematical study of systems which are difficult or impossible to predict.  It is a discipline made practical by the advent of the computer, with its ability to perform more calculations than would be possible for a human to do unaided.

I’m reminded of Andrew’s post called The Cobra Effect.  The Imperial government in India was trying to improve things, and they used human tools to “fix” a problem.  The difficulty is that large groups of people, like the weather or water rushing in a channel, are chaotic and unpredictable.  Apart from being able to anticipate all behaviors, it is impossible to do more than try to influence things and hope for the best.

Chaotic systems tell us something about God.  In the early 20th Century, Alfred North Whitehead advocated “process theology,” which imagines a god who persuades rather than coerces, who influences rather than controls.  “Some medieval and modern philosophers got into the unfortunate habit of paying God metaphysical compliments,” Whitehead claimed.

While Edward Lorenz tells us nothing about God directly, he does tell us something valuable indirectly:  Alfred North Whitehead’s “sometimes powerful” god is essentially powerless.  The vast cosmos encompasses staggering complexity, and so is chaotic, unpredictable, and certainly uncontrollable.  It is the cobra effect on steroids.

Jesus, on the other hand, tells us: “The very hairs on your head are numbered.” There are no rounding errors for God.  There cannot be.  A God who doesn’t know how many hairs I’ve got cannot help with my cancer, or my job, or my family.  It’s all interrelated and connected.

1 thought on “Irreducible Complexity”

  1. I hadn’t heard of process theology—it seems quite interesting based on the WikiPedia page.

    I don’t understand your last two paragraphs: Why does God need to know how many hairs are on your head to help with your cancer? Couldn’t he reach down and remove the cancer cells, even if he can’t perfectly predict the outcome of the entire universe?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.