This Doesn’t Mean War

I’m a Christian and I believe in science.

It’s a strange day we live in when that sentence (or its reverse) seems to be a contradiction in terms.

On Monday I finally got a chance to clear a NOVA program on fractals from my DVR. For those of you not familiar, Fractals are complex geometric shapes. They have self similarity (if you zoom in or out the shape looks basically the same), and are often produced by a simple algorithm or equation which is iterated (fancy math talk for repeated) thousands of times. Fractals can be used to describe all kinds of things in nature, from a bolt of lightning to mountain ranges, to the capilaries in your hand to the leaves on a tree. In many ways fractals are the mathematics of nature.

Fractals have been an interest of mine since elementary school. As a programmer they offer me a way to express visual art and provide unique programming challenges. The NOVA program was right up my alley but one thing one of the scientists said bothered me. The thought was basically this, “[Fractals are] all over in biology. They’re solutions that natural selection has come up with over and over and over again.”

Let me just make it clear I’m not bothered by evolution or the idea of natural selection. In fact, I’m quite comfortable with these being the mechanisms that God used to create man (more on this later).

What bothered me is that it seemed to be completely irrelevant to the discussion. What we know is that fractals can describe nature, and they are present all around us. But nothing in the rest of the program, or the science as I understand it, gives any reason why this is evolutionarily advantageous. I have a speculation as to why but it only goes so far. Basically fractals are really simple ideas that give rise to complex structures (in other words it doesn’t take a whole lot of information to make a complex object). This is why fractals were and are commonly used in computer graphics. Instead of mapping every crag in a coastline or mountain, a simple algorithm can generate something that looks real and takes far less memory. This enabled one of the first CGI sequences “The Genesis Effect” from Star Trek II.

This is a very digital way of thinking, we have limited space and resources and so we need to describe things as simply as we can. But is nature digital or analog? It would seem to me that nature does not have “memory limitations” in the sense we understand them in computers. It is certainly elegant that a leaf has the same basic structure as the tree it is attached to, but is elegance an inherent property of evolution?

I believe that the statement was an expression of faith, a faith that natural selection is a force that can use fractals as a solution to practical evolutionary problems. Again, this faith doesn’t bother me, it’s when it is expressed as fact that I grow concerned.

Natural selection is proven scientific fact, a force of nature. But is that force of nature something that is a random or inherent property of the universe. Did natural selection rise up on its own or was it a rule designed by a creator?

Science doesn’t answer this question as proven fact, and neither does religion. Their answer is based on faith.

Science is one way that we as humans increase our knowledge of the universe, religion (in my case Christianity) is another. Why do we as humans seek to limit our understanding to one or the other? I’m not just calling out scientists, there are far too many of my Christian friends who dispute global warming and climate change despite the Bible’s call for creation care. I understand that science produces measureable facts, and I think it is unwise to dismiss such things as pure hokum. Inferances from data can be wrong, but that’s why there is peer review, and more study. But no scientist would say that they could definitively prove God does not exist, and it would be a fool’s errand to try.

So why make the statement that fractals are a solution natural selection uses? Regardless of the mechanism behind it, it is simply fascinating that nature which we once thought to be complex can be described in a such an elegant way. Why not leave it at that? From my perspective, I find it deeply fascinating that science and mathematics has enabled us to understand our world in better ways with each generation. We are getting to see a little of God’s engineering, God’s design. If it’s different than what we first thought, that’s because we are only growing in our understanding.

Faith in God and Faith in Science are not a contradiction in terms. Let’s play nicer on both sides, let’s prove what can be proven, and leave the rest to faith.

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7 Comments

Filed under Faith + Life

7 responses to “This Doesn’t Mean War

  1. Georgi

    I absolutely LOVE your last two sentences! I don’t feel adequate to discuss fractals, not even a little bit! but I am so thankful there are Christians out there like you who really think deeply about things like this. I have been frustrated recently regarding the huge division I’ve witnessed concerning creation among Christians – we can’t even seem to play nicely among ourselves when we are on the same side! (Sigh)

    • Thanks Georgi! I’ll post a couple of my fractal pieces on Friday. Creation care is something that seems to be hard to get agreement on Christian or not. I may expand more on this subject in future. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Chuck Conover

    No matter on which side of the fence you are – our biases can’t help but make their way into the rhetoric. Ben, even in your writing, your Christian bias is clear. This in itself is not a bad thing, if it is recognized as such. I am sure the authors of the piece you viewed had a similar bias – one which you are pointing out.

    I myself do not own any grand answers, and I would not pretend to them. I am OK with being able to say, “I don’t know.” Today we can’t say with any proved precision how life was created, the precise steps taken to reach the mammalian pinnacle represented by humans. (Personal bias here – for I assume, I want to believe, we ARE the pinnacle of life on Earth. I could be wrong.) Both sides must exercise some faith in these discussion, for mystery still exists.

    I like the mystery …. it keeps things exciting.

    • I thought we were the third most intelligent species on Earth, behind dolphins and white mice. I like the mystery too, that’s actually why I felt the comment was unnecessary. The show did not otherwise seem to have that bias, it was just about the math.

  3. Pingback: Bonus Friday Post (Pool, Fractals and New Features) | Ben Trube

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