A God of patterned chaos

By Adrian Worsfold

On March 2 at the University of Surrey Professor Jim Al-Khalili, Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Surrey, will be interviewing the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, at the University.

This should be interesting, because as Professor of Public Engagement in Science Jim Al-Khalili holds to an entirely self-organising view of the universe and its activity, equal to that of Professor Dawkins of the University of Oxford, who was previously Professor of the Public Understanding of Science. One wonders how Rowan Williams’s apparent place among the intellectual leaders of Britain will demonstrate itself, or whether his subject of theology as it exists will tie itself in knots in comparison to the explanatory narrative of science today.

Jim Al-Khalili is one of those gifted communicators who can transmit in modern media the important headlining findings of contemporary science, perhaps with one or two more adjectives than necessary. His presentations are about the recent history of mathematics and science.

A recent programme is relevant regarding recent events in our world. In The Secret Life of Chaos (2010) he describes key figures who have helped overturn key Newtonian assumptions when it comes to fundamentals of physics, biology and chemistry. There are also some lessons in two biographies.

First lesson is the treatment of gay people. Alan Turing is the parent of modern computers. During the war the authorities knew he was gay, but he was too valuable in his code-breaking to touch. In the 1950s his ex-lover burgled his flat and Turing contacted the police. They ended up arresting Turing, accused him of leading the burglar astray because he was gay, and the judge offered him either imprisonment or sessions of female hormones treatment to cure him. The result was he became depressed and killed himself aged 41 by eating an arsenic laced apple. The loss to science is immeasurable. However, he left us with a ground breaking suggestion that simple mathematics could demonstrate dynamic patterning self-organisation.

The second lesson is dogma. About the same time, Boris Belusov was carrying out experiments regarding how the body extracts sugars. He created a chemical mix. The mixture oscillated between becoming colourful and going clear again. This seemed to violate the laws of nature. Belusov repeated the experiment many times, but the journal told him his experiment was not fit to publish because of the current dogma of science. As a result, Belusov abandoned this line of experimentation and soon withdrew from science. Indeed the dogma of the Iron Curtain meant he was also unable to see that Turing had produced the abstraction for what Belusov had demonstrated.

Other scientists went on to discover a bland chemical mix in a petri dish could produce and move waves, scrolls and spirals.

Then in the early 1960s Edward Lorenz hoped that computing power would allow prediction of the weather through equations. He could not. From him came the now well known phrase, ‘The Butterly Effect’. In the early 1970s Robert May discovered that tiny changes in the birth rate had unpredictable consequences in the populations of animals.

What was clear was that pattern formation and unpredictability went hand in hand: one works with the other. The system is such that the tiniest variation in the starting point leads to familiar patterns but never quite the same outcome, and the result is unpredictable. Then Benoit Mandelbrot used computing power and included the simplest feedback equation of Z+(Z*Z)+C to produce the Mandelbrot fractal (that looks like a Buddha), to produce self-similarity at level after level within complex patterns.

Evolution is also a feedback mechanism that works on the pattern forming feedback systems, to refine what fits best environmentally. Torsten Reil has looked at such order in systems. Today massive computer power with tiny rules have mimicked the three and a half billion years it has taken to produce the refined intelligence of us: a hundred very wobbly leg walking examples were bred to allow them to walk, producing eventually a self-programmed set of highly refined real-time reactive virtual men. No programmer could have produced these.

There are a number of points from all this, I think. First is the chaotic side. The fact is that the patterns of activity on earth: from us in the environment, to the crashing economy, being within the awful recent weather, and sitting on top of devastating earthquakes, are all self-generating chaotic systems. They are patterned activity, and chaos means tipping points where an old equilibrium collapses and is replaced by another. That’s what happened with the banks, what happened with the extended snow, and what has happened in Haiti.

Secondly is the pattern side, including the relative stability still for our lives at present, and the beauty of nature, the sunsets, or the flocks of birds moving in the sky for which there is no overall driving mechanism. Simplicity and feedback is these need. The artist drawing a rounded tree knows that the twigs go outwards but the leaves are dotted in using semi-circular waves.

For me, all this ought to involve a revolution in theology. God is not some sort of intervening being, poking the system from without, or with historical moments of intevention, but is of the meaning of it all. I don’t go along with a deistic argument: it used to be that God set up a steady state universe and withdrew, or set the universe off with a bang and withdrew, and now would be a simple feedback maths rule-setter. That still relies on an intelligence producing complexity argument, whereas the whole point of this is that simplicity produces complexity and intelligence. The computer power iteration shows that: the universe’s thirteen billion years allows that; the three and a half billion years of life on earth allows that.

What we are is part of the self-generating pattern making, and we’ll be around until we pattern ourselves out of existence or a catastrophe does it for us (for as yet unknown patterns to grow and replace us). The theological questions now are how we behave as intelligences within the systems and these are going to be ethical questions.

I bet the Archbishop of Canterbury says nothing like this to his interviewer in March. He’ll still be on about an interventionist God with lots of don’t knows and caveats, and narratives as if historical facts; he will still dealing in the kind of dogma that finished Belusov, and we wonder whether he has forgotten about employing ethics, given that some Anglican Churches would still have their countries treat an Alan Turning like the British did in the 1950s.

Adrian Worsfold (Pluralist), has a doctorate in sociology and a masters degree in contemporary theology. He lives near Hull, in northeast England and keeps the blog Pluralist Speaks.


Khalili, J. (2010), ‘The Secret Life of Chaos’, BBC 4, [Television], [Transmitted: Thursday January 14 2010, 21:00-22:00]

Khalili, J. (2010), al-khalili.co.uk: the Official Website of Jim al-Khalili, University of Surrey, [Online], Available World Wide Web, URL: http://www.al-khalili.co.uk/. [Accessed: Friday January 15 2010, 18:10]

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