CHAOS, COMPLEXITY AND THE SEARCH FOR MEANING
CHAOS, COMPLEXITY, AND THE SEARCH FOR MEANING
© by Carolyn A. Neeper, November, 2002
For an extensive bibliography on complexity
For recommended readings in science and religion
Given: Scientists agree that most natural systems—from the distribution of galaxies to weather and the human embryo—exhibit the characteristics of fractal geometry (self-similarity at all scales), deterministic chaos characterized by strange attractors, or complexity. Living and non-living systems alike may show "self-organized criticality," the hallmark of complexity along with fractals and 1/f noise. Living systems constructed from feedback networks of open, nonlinear, systems far from equilibrium are characterized as "complex adaptive systems" of "dissipative structures" that practice self-organization and achieve emergence.
Unlike complex systems, closed systems that are predictable and easily described by linear equations provide useful models, but they are special cases, the rare exceptions in the natural world of systems open to a continuous source of energy. We are embedded in a vast network of layered complex systems whose everyday modus operandi is self-organization, extreme sensitivity to initial conditions resulting in long-term unpredictability, and emergence, in which the behavior of the whole cannot be explained by the summation or the behavior of the parts. We still rely on the practical world of Newton and Schrödinger that produces automotive engineering and transistors, but we can no longer extend that determinism to the larger picture painted by questions of emergence, initial causes, and ultimate ends--open systems of high entropy that evolve to ever higher states of complexity.
In the last few decades many scientists and philosophers have recognized that indeterminism in quantum mechanics, in the mathematical axioms of Gödel, and in complex systems, makes the old notion of a clockwork cosmos obsolete. That idea emerged with the phenomenal technological successes (applications of Newton’s Laws) in the 19th and 20th centuries. Natural systems seemed to obey immutable laws, slavishly following the tenet of determinism that all events flow by direct cause from earlier events.
If a result could not be predicted, it was not considered useful. If the behavior of a system was apparently random, it was ignored. Until computers made system modeling possible, scientists didn’t make the paradigm shift required to see the workings of ordered chaos. They could not begin to agree on the general principles of complexity theory or the definition of chaos until computers made possible millions of calculations of iterative and nonlinear equations and enabled the exploration of reactions far from equilibrium.
In The Cosmic Blueprint (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988) Paul Davies says "...there is increasing evidence that...complexity is the norm and simplicity (the closed system analysis of Newtonian physics) is a special case. We have seen how almost all dynamical systems...belong to the unpredictable class called chaotic. The simple dynamical systems discussed in most physics textbooks, which have formed the principal topics in mechanics for 300 years, actually belong to an incredibly restricted class...Much more common are far-from-equilibrium open systems. . . Scientists naturally choose to work on problems with which they are likely to make some progress...Complex systems are enormously harder to understand and are difficult to attack systematically. The spectacular progress made with simple systems has thus tended to obscure the fact that they are indeed very special cases."
How does this relatively new information impact our philosophy or theology? How does it inspire faith? What does long-term unpredictability tell us about Deity acting in history? What does it suggest to the idea of free will in living creatures? Are we trapped in a chaotic, meaningless universe, or is there Greater Meaning to be found in God's Strange Attractors? Though we exercise free will, and though the effects of what we do are unpredictable in the long run, are they bounded, falling within the orbit of a Supreme Attractor? Or is nature’s self-organized architecture something apart from its Architect? Is the Meaning that contains and gives shape to all existence to be found in the ubiquitous self-organization and naturally selective chemical processes of cosmology and biology? Does the meaning of our lives lie in the pervasive sensitivity to initial conditions we influence? Though what we do may be unpredictable in the long-run, can we extract meaning for our lives from the fact that we might make big differences by changing the initial conditions of the myriad hierarchical systems in which we live? Does it matter that those differences may result in unpredictable disasters? Is there a mechanism to keep good deeds on track?
While their impact on philosophy and theology may be tenuous, the emerging laws of self-organization and complexity are having major impacts on all fields of study from physics to economics. Thanks to computer modeling and the analytical work of many organized Institutes of Complexity (50 in Western Europe, in Santa Fe, and in Austin, Texas), we suddenly find ourselves in a new paradigm, where we can search for theories of the whole. Now we can look at the big, open-ended picture, where short-term predictions are more realistic, and the limits to long-term predictions are understood. Later in this essay I will propose we set aside all our religious presuppositions, for the moment, and explore philosophical and theological ideas derived from the study of complexity and chaos theory.
In our writing and thinking we will need to distinguish those scientific concepts from their older usage, for the words chaos and complexity both have long histories in the common language and in mythology. The confusion in usage extends into some excellent books published in recent years. There is no consensus yet, but the word complexity is often identified with its theoretical requirements (See Per Bak, How Nature Works (Springer-Verlag, New York, 1996).
First we will distinguish deterministic chaos from randomness, then chaos from complexity as it is emerging from the new science of that name. Then, we will look at some features of everyday experience that suggest chaos or exhibit fractal geometry and test positive for complexity.
In How Nature Works, Per Bak, Professor of Physics at Brookhaven National Laboratory, clearly distinguishes the terms by pointing out that chaotic systems cannot produce a spatial fractal structure like a coastline; i.e. chaos theory cannot explain complexity. Chaotic systems don’t retain memory or evolve. The strange attractors that describe chaotic motion have fractal properties, but they are mathematical objects using abstract phase space. They do not represent the "…geometric fractals in real space like those we see in nature. Chaos theory shows that simple dynamical systems described by simple equations can exhibit unpredictable behavior—no matter how much is known about their initial state."
Solé and Goodwin, in a footnote on page 250 of Signs of Life, warn against confusing the "…intrinsic unpredictability of complex systems made of many parts with chaos." The fascination with "well-identified chaotic systems" comes from its "…deterministic and low-dimensional character." Though both chaotic and complex systems are inherently unpredictable, complexity involves both "…stochastic and deterministic ingredients…." Random events in complex systems are seen at the bifurcation points, where the choice between two paths cannot be determined, due to unknown historical influences as well as to the system’s extreme sensitivity to random, changing environmental influences.
One of the clearest examples distinguishing chaos and complexity comes from the British biologist Robert May, who looked at different growth rates (G) in a population model. The variable G reflects a limiting factor in the environment, perhaps a coyote. The size of the living rabbit (?) population is plotted for each new generation (Pn+1=G * Pn(1-Pn). We look at the behavior of the population size of succeeding generations when we push the growth rate to higher levels.
When the growth factor (G) is 0.5 the population eventually becomes extinct, no matter how large the initial population. With growth factors of 1.2 to 1.7, the population eventually stabilizes at approximately 2/3 of its initial size.. At growth factor 3.1 the population oscillates between two values; at growth factor 3.4 the population oscillates around four sizes. The oscillations can be seen as bifurcation points, places where the curve splits into two paths when G is plotted against population size. As we push G toward the critical point, 3.57, the oscillations increase to 256 (at 3.56999) and continue doubling.
With a growth factor above 3.57 there is no discernible pattern except in short bursts; the population oscillates chaotically and its size is unpredictable at any one time. The changes in size of each generation are like white noise; they appear random. They do not evolve into higher states of organization.
Complexity occurs in this system only when the growth rate is 3.57, the critical point, also called the Feigenbaum Point, named for the man at Los Alamos National Laboratory who modeled this as a predator-prey system. Beyond this "critical" point the size of the living population fluctuates chaotically. Complexity is found only at that one, precise Feigenbaum point, where the transition to chaos first appears. According to Per Bak in How Nature Works, complexity theory needs to explain this 1/f noise, as well as the regularity of catastrophes, geometric fractals in natural objects, and Zipf’s Law, which is 1/f noise in human activities, like the size of cities.
One over f (1/f) noise is a power law: On a logarithmic plot the frequency of events decreases in a straight line as the size of the event increases. There are many small earthquakes, fewer medium-sized quakes, and rare catastrophic earthquakes.
Crucial to philosophical inquiry is the fact that both complex systems and chaotic behavior have a sensitive dependence on initial conditions that renders the long-term unpredictable. Only complex systems, not chaos, also exhibit self-organization and emergent behavior; 1/f noise, the regularity of catastrophes, and fractals being distinguishing features. Finally, deterministic chaos can be distinguished from meaningless random behavior by finding in the data a strange attractor.
Attractors are plots of the evolving state of a system in what is called a phase diagram. Each axis represents one dynamic variable (for example, time plus three directions in space). Each point in such "phase space" represents the state of the system at a moment frozen in time. If there are more variables in a system, the mathematician simply adds more dimensions to the plot, so that each point in phase space represents the total state of the system.
Linear systems draw simple patterns in phase (state) space. For example, a curve reaching a steady state moves in on one point in a phase diagram. A regularly repeating curve draws a cyclic path. In a chaotic system points on a phase diagram gather around one or more attractors. The most famous example is the Lorenz butterfly, discovered by Edward A. Lorenz at MIT in 1963. His equations describing air flows in the atmosphere draw trajectories that loop around two points, drawing a 3D butterfly without lifting the pen or retracing any of the looping lines. Attractors are described as each wing of the butterfly.
ORDERED (DETERMINISTIC) CHAOS
We know that simple equations can lead to chaotic results. An early definition of chaos by a 1986 conference of the Royal Society of London: "Stochastic (random or lawless) behavior occurring in a deterministic (simple, ordered) system." (See Ian Stewart’s Does god Play Dice? The New Mathematics of Chaos, Second Edition. UK: Blackwell, 2002.
It is important to note that simplicity does not make a system predictable. The predictable behavior of a billiard ball on the usual rectangular pool table becomes chaotic if the shape of the pool table is oval. The simplest dynamical system—any process that changes with time—can produce chaos, and with it, unpredictable behavior. Though the quality of that behavior is indicated by its attractor, any simulation is pointless because it can only repeat the actual path of the chaotic system’s attractor.
In the late 1970's, a group at Santa Cruz working with the mathematics of ordered chaos realized early on that evolution and thought processes exhibit chaotic behavior. Other popular candidates for chaos, besides the weather, include shorelines, plate tectonics, and the distribution of galaxies in the universe.
The good news, philosophically, is that, though unpredictable, chaotic systems can be controlled to some degree, sometimes by other chaotic systems. Perhaps good attractors can guide other attractors toward good results in the long run, and unpredictability doesn’t have to make our choices so scary that it drives out the meaning in our actions. William L. Ditto and Louis M. Pecora ("Mastering chaos," Scientific American, August 1993, p.78) point out that "chaos has already been applied to increase the power of lasers, synchronize the output of electronic circuits, control oscillations in chemical reactions, stabilize the erratic beat of unhealthy animal hearts and encode electronic messages for secure communications." The authors found that nonlinear (complex?) systems can be stable when driven with a chaotic signal—a fact that may be crucial to many natural systems.
To summarize: Some rough indicators suggesting chaotic behavior may prove useful in a philosophical context.
1) Likely candidates include systems which involve large numbers and seem to be predictable only in the short term—like the weather.
2) Apparent randomness interrupted by distinct patterns indicates chaotic behavior. If, on close inspection of random-like behavior, bursts of activity, mini-patterns, are seen, chaotic behavior can be suspected. A good example is the Great Red Spot of Jupiter, an organized cyclone in the midst of the turbulent flow of the atmosphere.
3) Lorenz (Strange) Attractors in phase diagrams are clear indicators of chaotic systems.
4) The end results at any point in a chaotic system are sensitive to small differences in the initial conditions of the system. In a chaotic set of points generated by a simple equation, a small change in input leads to a large difference in the end result. This is true of the population (Logistic) plots.
The current consensus seems to be that 1/f noise is an indicator of phenomena described (but not yet rigorously defined) as complex. Also, we might suspect that a system is complex, not simply chaotic, if it exhibits fractals as its underlying geometric feature, like the repeating patterns in a fern leaf. In such fractals, scaling in similar patterns is repeated at all magnifications. Each tiny branchlet is similar to the larger leaf and the entire plant, which is produced by the complex reactions of genetics and botany.
To come full circle, back to the Logistic Map definition of complexity at the critical point: Gell-Mann (Complexity 1:1, p. 68) points out that "...something almost entirely random, with practically no regularities, would have effective complexity near zero. So would something completely regular, such as a bit string consisting entirely of zeroes. Effective complexity can be high only in a region intermediate between total order and complete disorder." This is the critical point, or the "edge of chaos" described by Stuart Kauffman (At Home in the Universe. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.)
Gell-Mann explains that "In contemplating natural phenomena, we frequently have to distinguish between effective complexity and logical depth. The apparently complicated pattern of energy levels of atomic nuclei has a good deal of logical depth and very little effective complexity… Mandelbrot's famous fractal set is not very complex; it can be generated from a very simple formula. It has some logical depth but no effective complexity." (Logical depth can be thought of as the length of computer time needed to simulate the behavior of the system.)
The Mandelbrot Set, an infinitely gorgeous design at all levels of magnification, comes from a terse computer program! Each point in a Mandelbrot Set is tested by calculating over and over again a simple quadratic equation containing a complex number, a + ib, where i is the square root of -1. In each iteration the previous answer is used to recalculate the equation; this is repeated again and again. The images are generated by allowing the equation to be calculated a maximum of 200 to 2000 times for each pixel generated. If by that time the calculation has not reached a certain value on its way to infinity, the iteration is stopped and the pixel is colored black. The black pixels of the "main onion" define the Mandelbrot Set. If at another pixel the calculation reaches a defined value, the pixel is colored according to the number of iterations calculated. Colored pixels are outside the Mandelbrot Set. (See The Beauty of Fractals by H.-O. Peitgen and P. H. Richter, Springer-Varlag, New York, 1986.
All things, even individual human beings, owe their existence to both chance and order. The order: the fundamental laws of physics and chemistry and the boundary conditions on the early universe (See The Six Numbers by Martin Rees, Basic Books, New York, 2000). The chance: the "inconceivably long sequence of probabilistic events, each of which could have turned out differently." (Murray Gell-Man "What is complexity?" Complexity, 1995).
In his article Gell-Mann lists examples of complex adaptive systems on Earth: "...biological evolution, learning and thinking in animals (including people), the functioning of the immune system in mammals and other vertebrates, the operation of the human scientific enterprise, and the behavior of computers that are built or programmed to evolve strategies…"—for example by means of neural nets or genetic algorithms. Clearly, complex adaptive systems have a tendency to give rise to other complex adaptive systems.
From these examples, we can see why the essence of complexity lies in non-equilibrium reactions, the "dissipative systems" of Ilya Prigogine. To quote from Paul Davies’ The Cosmic Blueprint, p. 87: "It is hard to overemphasize the importance of the distinction between matter and energy in, or close to, equilibrium...and far-from equilibrium dissipative systems. Prigogine has referred to the latter as active matter, because of its potential to spontaneously and unpredictably develop new structures. "…Disequilibrium, claims Prigogine, 'is the source of order' in the universe; it brings 'order out of chaos'." Indeed, it appears that a state of high entropy is required before a system given a continual input of energy can self-organize into a higher state of complexity. The Second Law of Thermodynamics is not violated; the universe ultimately pays for the production of waste by living organisms.
Stuart Kauffman’s thesis At Home in the Universe, New York: Oxford University Press, 1995) is that biological systems evolve on the edge of chaos, to self-organized criticality, just inside the ordered state, where stability is in delicate balance with flexibility, and collective properties are understood as a complex emergent whole. The beauty of Kauffman’s idea is that they are testable. If life is the inevitable consequence of "…selection [acting] on systems that exhibit spontaneous order…" we may see life (self-reproducing systems) emerge in the laboratory in a few decades.
Kauffman notes that reductionist approaches will continue to be necessary and "spectacularly successful," but we are now able to grasp collective properties, emergent features, to add to our understanding.
From Paul Davies’ The Cosmic Blueprint, 94 ff.: "The degree of complexity in living organisms far exceeds that of any other familiar physical system. The complexity is hierarchical, ranging from the elaborate structure and activity of macromolecules such as proteins and nucleic acid to the exquisitely orchestrated complexity of animal behavior. At every level, and bridging between levels, is a bewildering network of feedback mechanisms and controls…each new level in the hierarchical organization of matter brings into existence new qualities that are simply irrelevant at the atomistic level."
Looming just as large as self-organization and unpredictability in our philosophical outlook is the concept of emergence in complex systems: properties of the system that cannot be reduced to the properties or behavior of the component parts.
The essence of emergence is the behavior of the whole being irreducible to the properties of the parts. Life is an emergent property of self-organizing material, exhibiting the phenomena that characterize complex systems. A brief discussion of both emergence and self-organization can be found in Fritjof Capra’s The Web of Life. A thorough discussion of natural selection working with self-organizing chemistry to produce life is found in Stuart Kauffman’s At Home in the Universe and Solé and Goodwin’s Signs of Life. The book Emergence by John H. Holland (Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA, 1998) provides a good introduction to studies of emergent phenomena, and The Emergence of Everything: How the World Became Complex by Harold J. Morowitz (Oxford University Press, 2002) explores the subject from the emergence of stars to the human spirit.
What does emergence and self-organization mean for our philosophy or our theology? Is God the Emergent property of the Universe, as our minds or souls or personality are the emergent property of our lives? Charles Hartshorne (The Philosophy of Charles Hartshorne LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1991) anticipated the idea of God being the emergent property of the universe (the whole being greater than the sum of its parts) with his ideas of panentheism, a process philosophy in which God is a participant in—or God is—cosmic evolution. This theistic naturalism regards God as the whole of which we are contributing parts with an "…appropriate degree of autonomy."
Since unpredictability is an observable part of all levels of reality, free will seems easier to defend. At the same time, God working in history seems a reasonable leap at the bifurcation points of an evolving complex system.
The far future can not be known or determined, except qualitatively, within the boundaries of the attractors of chaotic action at each level of complexity. Does this mean God loses omniscience, except as Deity is part of the evolving universe? Does the unpredictability and regularity of catastrophes indicate a Creator helpless to intervene if we are in the wrong place at the wrong time? Omnipotence is out of the question if a Creator is locked into the requirements of the essential constants and the properties of matter needed to realize creatures conscious of a Creator’s existence as universal process. Unpredictability and catastrophes suggest traditional omnipotence and physical miracles are realized only in their mythological value.
This conclusion goes far to explain why bad things happen to good people. God can only weep for creatures caught in the inevitable consequences of material existence, even as he rejoices in their consciousness. Evil falls squarely in the lap of the creatures whose complexity is essential, but includes a brain with such complexity that it can fly off in unpredictable, catastrophic directions, given a wrong turn at the bifurcation points.
Most importantly to me is the new sense of meaning that is revealed in complexity and chaos theory. We can’t help but change small initial conditions that lead to enormous, long-reaching consequences, whether we know it or not. Unpredictable self-fulfillment may be all we can expect as a logical goal for our lives, but sensitivity to changes in initial conditions can provide us with a sense of built-in meaning--if we hold to our faith in knowledge and process beyond the physical measure of science and grow into a faith in the Ultimate Source of Existence, Whatever it may be.
© by Carolyn A. Neeper
A talk given at the Unitarian Church of Los Alamos,
August 1995, revised September, 2002
Philosophically, this is the most exciting of times. We have not only discovered the universe—the larger space of Great Attractors and Great Walls filled with an inconceivable number of galaxies—we have also discovered the micro-universe of subatomic particles. We have seen how the universe could have begun, no less subject to the natural selection of nonlinear states than the emergence of life. We know about stars that create atoms that build huge molecules like DNA, we have begun to unravel the feedback networks that make living cells work, we know that billions of neuronal cells weave complex webs culminating in human knowledge and wonder. Insignificant? We miracle machines that live and love and learn and think? Insignificant? The fact that six constants describing the universe are tuned on a knife edge so that unimaginable energy could create roses and dolphins that play with bow wakes? Never.
When we tickle the universe, the galaxies shudder and turn in their course. We are a significant part of an unpredictable, complex Whole. The miracle of such a finely tuned universe and the chaotic nature of the systems that sustain us tell us so. Our lives are embedded in a vast network of complex systems, each so sensitive to the changes we might make that we can be certain to change things in the long run, whether we mean to or not. Those changes may be unpredictable, but the fact that one chaotic system can influence another, means the buffers surround us, helping to keep us riding the strange attractors we would choose if we could.
Knowledge gleaned in the last few decades, when we discovered our place in the cosmos and understood our role in complexity, makes it easier to leap onto the faith in meaning that pervades the teachings of the great religions: among them the Biblical messages of love, the Buddhist stress on the importance of the present and the dangers of desire, the deep questioning of the Song of Creation in the Rigveda—all confirming that are inherently part of that meaning.
The story of the discovery of the complex universe is told in a large number of excellent books. It is a fascinating story with startling, uplifting conclusions. It shouldn't be missed. All I can do here is examine the bottom line and try to outline a view of the universe as we understand it now. We should recognize that the details will change as more data comes in, but, more than likely, the broad outlines of the bottom line will hold true for some time to come, for they are based on observations confirmed by countless hours of earnest explorers collecting data, questioning it, observing it again, hypothesizing, redoing experiments, recalculating and testing the work of others—a continuous cycle of dragging one another back to the drawing board—all the hard work that makes science what it is. Accepting the bottom line is an act of faith on our part as laymen, but it is not for the experts—it is an act of shifting their paradigm to fit what has been repeatably shown to be true by teams of their peers, who love to find fault with each other's work.
Science has very little to do with faith, which needs to be distinguished from belief, religious or not. Faith is a very personal religious experience that goes beyond the knowledge that may or may not inspire it. In my experience, faith rests much more comfortably in the human spirit if it is in tune with what one observes. What I am describing here is my observation-derived faith, my leap to spirituality, a religious faith inspired by the bottom line that scientists have painted for us, mostly within my lifetime.
Cosmologists, theorists of chemical and cosmic evolution, and specialists in nonequilibrium systems and complexity theory have shown us to be an intimate product of a universe way beyond our ability to fully comprehend. For all practical purposes, we are isolated on the edge of a commonplace galaxy racing with several other galaxies toward some as yet ill-defined Great Attractor, while the larger universe of galaxies expands like a balloon out of control, exploding here and there with the violence of black holes, gamma ray bursts, and supernovae. We are a product of all this, with complex systems driving our existence, probably on the edge of deterministic chaos. Though the long-term effects of our lives are unpredictable, they travel on paths within the boundaries of a myriad strange attractors where the small differences we make trigger huge differences in some unknown future.
According to Thinh Xuan Thuan in The Secret Melody, the Earth has spun out half its years as a viable planet. In another 4.5 billion years all our sun’s hydrogen will be used up. It will swell to 100 times its current size, become a Red Giant, fill 1/15 of our sky, and swallow up Mercury. All life on Earth will be fried at 1200 degrees Centigrade as the atmosphere burns off and the oceans dry up. The descendents of clever species on Earth might escape to Neptune or Pluto for a while, but eventually everything in the universe will cool down to iron as it flies into nowhere, then it will disappear into black holes. Or—if the universe is too massive to be open—it will condense into particle soup.
That is far in the future. Considering 4.5 billion years, would it matter if we escaped to Pluto or not? In 4.5 billion years evolution will have carved new beings many times over from the human species. We will be no more recognizable to those beings than ancestral dinosaurs are to hummingbirds. In short, the evolution of living beings and the future of the stars confirm the importance of how we live here and now.
The search for meaning is meaningless if we can’t include the cosmos and the implications of complexity in our religious paradigm. Think in terms of millions of years, not human life spans. Consider the dinosaurs, a very successful group. They lasted 260 million years. In Earth’s history, the average species has lasted 4 million years. So far Homo sapiens has lasted 200,000 years at best. Complex species that have lasted the longest include the sharks and the cockroaches. Even if we, i.e. our recognizable descendents, lasted 500 million years, in spite of our continuously changing environment, we would then evolve to an unrecognizable different species at least nine times in the next 4.5 billion years.
As you shift your focus to the long run, the real question to ask is, "What matters?" Does it make a difference in my life if Homo sapiens evolves into something else? Perhaps into a more caring, more loving, less territorial, smarter being?
Ultimately the universe will cool down to iron and evaporate into a myriad tiny black holes, or it will collapse into an overheated primordial soup of subatomic particles. Do we care? Why? Time has little meaning at the ultimate beginning or end of things. Like the evolution of species, the evolution of the universe tells us loud and clear: what we do now matters.
The religious question is this: Can we release God, Creator, Source of Existence, Meaning, Prime Mover from the prison of this Earth and the self-centeredness of Homo sapiens that demand He place us on center stage for the focus of His attention. We are all center stage; we know we play a role that matters. Whatever we do re-creates the universe. How important then that we should stay in tune with the larger Creation, and let It be Whatever It is.
Though the hard facts of space and time tell us that we are forever isolated on this small planet, we are certainly not alone. In such a large universe of so many chaotic systems, we can safely guess that nearly everything not forbidden is compulsory. Somewhere else out there some other living creature will survive longer or live without violence. We may fail as a species, but other life will move on. It’s okay to know that humans may be expendable, as long as we know we’ve tried our best—because everything we do helps push the universe toward fulfillment.
As we examine the observations that impact our faith, let's consider together what science is, what it actually does, and what it can not do. The so-called conflict between science and religion is caused by the failure of theologians and scientists to distinguish between the two. Every utterance by a scientist is questioned and tested by a 100 other scientists who would love to prove him wrong. If it cannot be substantiated by observation and experiment, a scientific statement remains in the limbo of mathematical theory or unproved hypothesis.
It would help if scientists and philosophers of science would not use the word why. It is confusing to say that scientists ask "Why?" in their experiments. The Random House and Webster definitions of why ("for what reason, cause or purpose" are too broad to be useful. Doesn't why imply meaning? We could save ourselves a lot of confusion by restricting it to mean "for what motive?".
In practice scientists use the word why only in the sense of cause and effect. Science looks at ways to describe how something works. It makes observations, tests its hypotheses when it can, disputes them continuously, and re-tests them. If the results are repeatable the scientist develops a theory and tests the predictions it makes. Only then does the scientist draw tentative conclusions based on the most frequently repeated observations. Science never asks why in the word's sense of "reason...or purpose."
I'm suggesting that we reserve the question "Why?" for religion and philosophy. There is no observation that can give us a reason, a purpose or a motive. Science gives us reputable observations; that is all. With a leap of faith—that is, an exercise of religion—we discover what we believe about those observations and we sense how they relate to our lives.
If a discipline openly questions, tests and repeats observations, it is no longer religion, it is science. Religion can not function as a fact-finding exercise; the truth of religious myths go deeper than fact, but they are not testable or verifiable. Most religious teachings were never meant to be scientific observations or literal truths. The views and directives of any religious utterance can only be taken on faith, because their source is not based on objective inquiry and verification.
If religious articles of faith run counter to the world we experience, or disallow our common sense, or contradict our knowledge based on the reality of reputable data, we are in serious trouble spiritually and intellectually.
The confusion between verity and faith is made worse by scientists, as well as by well-meaning advocates of literal truth in mythological or metaphysical writings. Some writers, most of them physicists, leave the reader in muddy water, where the eddies of quantum mechanics or cosmology quit and God begins. Some seem to forget the limits of science or neglect to define where their faith begins.
Though many unsubstantiated or untestable theories require faith in mathematics we don’t understand or faith in the process of verification—a religious belief always, by definition, requires a leap. Suppose the physicists find their Unified Theory and agree on all the details of everything that happens from the beginning of time, beyond 10-43 seconds to 0 seconds. Suppose that Theory accounts for 100%, not just 10% of the universal mass. Suppose the ultimate fate of the universe becomes crystal clear—whether it be the far-off glimmer of the last bit of iron collapsing into its tiny black hole or the next raging condensate in a never-ending series of Big Bangs? So what? It's still a description of what happens, nothing more. Science can't tell us why or why not. It can’t tell us what our lives mean in relation to the universe. That takes faith—an unfounded belief or unbelief in ultimate meaning—an intuition that cannot be measured. When science finishes its job—inspiring us to awe with existence’s intricacy, its majesty and its beauty—there is no place to go but over the precipice into religion.
From the scientific observations of the last few decades, I make the leap to a belief system that sees every moment as a new beginning. Simplistically, the complex process tells me that good deeds eventually send a system cycling onto a good attractor. Likewise, evil deeds carry me toward attractors that amplify long-range evil. My life has meaning because, as creation unfolds, we make small differences leading to huge effects. Though I can never know or predict the long-range outcome of anything I do, I believe there is a why to it all—because I have been blessed with the experience of beauty and I have seen the power of love between living creatures. I have faith in the good nature of existence as I see it and as its intricacy and its enormity has been revealed by the accumulation of human knowledge.