Chaos and Coherence on BBC4

There was a fascinating documentary on BBC4 today – High Anxieties: The Mathematics of Chaos – looking at the way understanding more of ‘chaos’ theory leads us to a very uncertain place, and touching on the implications in terms of the economy (very timely) and the environment.

The central premise was that historically we have loved to kid ourselves that the world operates according to nicely ordered processes, but that the reality is much less ordered than this, and that we need to face up to this in order to survive.

I have a couple of specific questions about the coherency of the message of the show, and then some thoughts about application for Christians.

Firstly, despite the surface message that the programme was promoting, the underlying message seemed to be (and I acknowledge that my mathematics may be lacking here) that systems ARE regular, but that miniscule variations in ‘starting conditions’ can dramatically affect the outcome of the system. In other words, it is not that ‘reality’ is any more chaotic than we like to think, but that our grasp of reality is much weaker than we have tended to assume. That is, rather than undermining our ability to make ‘real’ models, it really suggests that we should be more modest in the claims we make for our systems, recognising the limitations of our own observation of ‘starting conditions’. It is really a call for humility.

Secondly, one of the more negative views of the current environmental situation we are in suggested that far from being at a ‘tipping point’ (with its implications of being able to tip back the other way), we are actually on a slope – the only question being at what point our momentum will become so great that we will be unable to hold on. In other words, he was suggesting that there is some kind of linear pattern to the changing pattern of the environment. And yet, one of the main points of the mathematics of the programme was that a small (and potentially unobserved) change early on in the system may have dramatic consquences later on which we are unable to predict. By building his model on a ‘long view’ of the earth’s environmental changes he was falling foul of the very fallacy which the programme was trying to expose.

So much for the coherency of the model.

In terms of Christian application, we probably fall back to some well-worn paths. The limits of our own knowledge and observation (of ‘starting conditions’) are precisely a function of our creaturely-ness. Our creator God is limited by no such lack of knowledge. So in Him lies the possibility of true knowledge, and indeed the foundation for all our own attempts to ‘do science’ or to speak truly of the world (see almost anything John Frame has written for a fuller argument on these lines).

Apologetically, the uncertainty caused by economic and environmental chaos must be a good starting point for gospel proclamation. We have a message of certainty and hope to proclaim in a world which lacks these things.

Pragmatically, whether many non-Christians are prepared to acknowledge these doubts, to question the inconsistencies in their own worldview, and to consider the claims of Christ is a moot point. But such a spiritual battle must always be fought in the first instance upon our knees.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *