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God and Complexity

by John C. Glasgow II

Why a new science implies God, if he exists, must be more remote than even skeptics think.

In 1984 scientists from many disciplines including physics, biology, economics, meteorology,
computer science, astronomy, and philosophy joined to form the Santa Fe Institute in Santa Fe
New Mexico. They established the institute to consolidate investigations into the general nature
of the systems studied in the various disciplines. They chose the name ‘Complexity’ to represent
the subject of their investigation. Complexity theory deals with systems of any kind and size. Its
purpose is to understand why some systems grow and organize themselves, exhibiting
unpredictable, complex behavior, perhaps even intelligence, while others are predictable,
repetitive, static, self destructive, or ephemeral. It approaches the subject by developing theory
that works for real systems. This means that complexity is a science, and subject to verification.
You can test its theories to the extent that computer simulations, models, and observations of
nature can test theory. To a limited extent it is even an experimental science. We will describe its
content more completely below. What is surprising is that complexity theory promises to
discredit at least one longstanding argument for the existence of God, namely, the argument from
design. There is nothing new in a development of science disturbing religious beliefs. But I think
the implications of this new science will be as disquieting to theologians as the moons of Jupiter
were in Galileo's day. If so, the development of complexity theory will have contributed another
step in the historical dissolution of religious certainty about the nature of God and the universe.

In the following you must concede certain facts about the nature of the world. In particular, you
must allow that the natural history of the world as discovered by science really happened and is
fixed so that even God cannot change it. This is no minor concession. Most religions have their
own version of history. For example, most Christian denominations maintain that God created
the universe, almost instantaneously, six thousand or so years ago. When they make that
assertion, they leave many questions unanswered. Why do fossils, dating to millions of years
ago, exist? Why is light arriving at earth from stars that are millions of light years distant? Why
does it appear that the universe has been expanding for the last eighteen billion years? If they
insist that these inconsistencies are just artifacts of the creation, then they must agree that God
could just as well have created the universe two seconds ago. Furthermore, God could redo
creation with a new set of spurious records at anytime. In denying science they make
instantaneous creation unassailable, and uninteresting. Most theologians, however, do concede
the validity of science. Perhaps the best demonstration is that scientific creationists try to use
science to reconcile their history with the inconsistencies, or to discredit research that leads to
inconsistencies. They would not bother if they did not accept the validity of using natural
records to discover the nature of the universe. So, please accept that God, if he exists, cannot
change history and, since science derives the laws of the universe from that history, he cannot or
does not change the laws of the universe.

Many persuasive arguments regarding the existence of God rely on the assumption of the
existence of the supernatural. E.g., further assume 1) the perfect must exist otherwise it would
not be perfect, 2) since the natural world is imperfect the perfect must exist supernaturally, and
3) God needs no explanation. The third assumption implies God is perfect. The proof is, you
could assume God is not perfect, but then you would have to explain the imperfections, but by 3,
he needs no explanation (reductio ad absurdum). Then, since God is perfect he exists and is a
supernatural being (by 1 and 2). The argument is fine (if a bit dependent on semantics) but the
conclusion is implicit in the assumptions which are not subject to challenge. From our viewpoint
such arguments are as uninteresting as the argument for instantaneous creation. However,
religions go further and assert that God created the natural world (i.e., the universe and us). This
idea is supported by a more convincing proof for the existence of God; the argument from design.
The argument is simply that since the natural world exhibits design, there must be a designer, or,
God. The argument is based on the observation of nature and deductive logic so that science,
contrary to its usual effect on religious argument, supports it. Let’s briefly review the effect
science has had on western religious thought over the centuries.

Philosophers of the sixteenth century placed man at the center of the universe. They believed
God created the natural world with us in mind. Confirmation came from the fact that everything
revolved around the world. When Galileo observed moons orbiting Jupiter through his telescope
he provided evidence that some planets did not revolve around earth. The idea was so shocking
that the church held Galileo under house arrest and forbade him to teach his discoveries.
Nevertheless, within a few years philosophers reckoned the sun to be the center of the universe.
That was not yet correct but it was closer to the truth. The new discovery was a blow to man’s
vanity, but not necessarily to religious thought. Philosophers could maintain that God was on the
job, deciding every sparrow's fate, causing the winds to blow, and directing the planets in their

In the seventeenth century, Isaac Newton showed that simple laws direct all such physical
events. In his scheme the world resembled a clock. Once put in motion, it operated by its own
internal laws and needed no intervention. Continuous supervision by God was superfluous. This
knowledge probably did not disturb the average man’s faith. The fact that people feel free to
make arbitrary decisions discourages belief in the idea. Still, by the eighteenth century, Deists
(religious radicals who subscribed to the clockwork theory) considered God a benign observer.
God, however, remained the Creator. The laws themselves were evidence of his handiwork.

Theologians could take solace in the biblical assertion that God made man in his own image. It
placed man closer to God than other life. What is more important, it supported the belief that
God made the natural world with man in mind. Scholars (e.g., Linnaeus) labored to construct the
ladder of life, arranging all life forms on the rungs of a ladder. God occupied the top rung and the
lowest life forms (algae and such) occupied the bottom rungs. Man occupied the rung just
beneath the angels and above the animals. Then, in the mid nineteenth century, Charles Darwin
published his theory of evolution and knocked man down a rung on the ladder. Darwin’s theory
cast doubt on the story of creation in Genesis. The faithful, who accepted the Bible as the literal
word of God, had to reject Darwin’s theories. Believers less concerned with literal interpretations
could reconcile evolution and Genesis by viewing evolution as the mechanism God used to create

By the early twentieth century scientists were beginning to realize the immensity of the universe.
It is vast and expanding. From its expansion we can calculate that it is between fifteen and
twenty billion years old. The earth is four or five billion years old. Life has existed on earth for
more than three billion years. Man has been around for only a few hundred thousand years. Our
solar system is a speck in a cluster near a spiral arm of a galaxy containing billions of stars. Our
galaxy is just one of the hundreds of billions of galaxies scattered throughout the visible universe.
From the scientist’s point of view man is a newcomer and insignificant in the scheme of things.

From the theologians point of view the universe is the ultimate evidence of God. The universe
undeniably exhibits design. Where there is design, there must be a designer . . . or God. That this
does not constitute a proof of the existence of God was pointed out long ago by David Hume
who noted that analogy is not proof. But absolute proof is not often a necessary component of
belief. In particular no one can say that God didn’t design the laws that lead directly, most
fortuitiously, to ourselves. This argument seems to stem the flood of scientific evidence that has
eroded man’s certainty of his place in the cosmos, and his relation with God. Maybe God is not
directing everything moment by moment. Maybe humankind is not the only reason he created the
universe. Maybe we are just one among many of his creations, and maybe he employed indirect
mechanisms to create us, but we can infer that he did intentionally create us. Perhaps, just
perhaps, we are the masterpiece among his works and a special object of his love! But, wait.
Given the above pattern, might we expect some new theory to challenge this conclusion? I think
complexity theory could do just that.

Complexity theory asserts that the universe is full of, even characterized by, chaotic yet
structured systems whose form and nature evolve unpredictably. That is, for complex systems,
perfect knowledge of a set of initial conditions and the rules that govern a system does not imply
perfect predictability. In fact, complexity theory maintains that it is impossible to make a perfect
prediction about a complex system. The further in the future the prediction, the less precise the
prediction can be. For sufficiently far in the future, prediction is a purely statistical endeavor. In
contrast, determinism associates perfect knowledge of the initial conditions and rules of a system
with the ability to perfectly predict the future of the system. From Isaac Newton’s time to the
beginning of the twentieth century (and the development of quantum theory) scientists thought
all of the systems in the universe were deterministic. That is why Einstein said “God doesn’t
play dice with the universe.” Scientists now recognize that most natural systems are complex.
For our purposes this raises questions about God’s intentions when he created the universe.
The universe has been full of complex systems for most, or all of its existence. Remember,
complex systems are not predictable, especially in the long run. Remember too, that we have
stipulated God does not have the power to go back and amend history. He works forward. Once
he sets up laws, he cannot or does not change them. In the early history of the universe, space,
time, matter, and energy, did not resemble what we see today. The present universe grew and
evolved from that very different initial state. Over history complex systems must have worked
themselves out in ways that God could not predict. Because of this, God could not have known
about us at creation. He could not have known in advance, of our form, nature, and other things
he supposedly purposely created. Even after life formed on earth, he could not have predicted
that human beings would evolve. We must conclude that we cannot have been an intentional
creation of God. He cannot have designed us in the full sense of that word. But then, what kind
of relationship can we have with God?

Well, maybe God didn’t plan us in advance, but he could be watching over us and be concerned
with our behavior. We can pose a personal God who hears our prayers and perhaps intervenes
from time to time. Perhaps he even participates in the evolution of the universe. At critical points
he makes decisions to direct things along a course he chooses. Maybe he didn’t create everything
at once, as described in Genesis, but he can see far enough ahead to mold things to his liking. He
can’t change the rules and systems already in place, but he can influence those decision points
where chance dictates that new structures or levels can arise. He can make the most out of what
he has to work with. This reduces humankind to an opportunistic variation on a theme rather
than a masterpiece or reason for creating the universe. At least it saves the personal God idea. Or
does it? The hierarchical nature of complex systems makes even that doubtful.

To understand, consider that everything in the universe exists in a hierarchy. At an early age the
universe was a two level hierarchy consisting of the level of the universe as a whole, and the level
of the quanta, which were the only things in the universe. Then the quanta formed systems called
particles. The universe had progressed to a hierarchy with three levels, quanta, particles, and the
universe. In time the particles formed systems namely hydrogen and helium atoms. The atoms
and particles formed gases and plasma in space (more systems and new levels). The gases
collapsed and formed star systems. The stars created the other elements out of the hydrogen and
helium atoms. Chemistry resulted. Planetary systems formed from the matter of exploded stars.
On a larger scale, star systems formed (e.g., galaxies, clusters, nebulae). On planets (at least on
earth), life emerged from the chemistry, geology, meteorology, and energy flux of the solar
system. Life evolved in many levels characterized by viral, cellular, multicellular, organic, social,
and ecological systems. The process continues throughout the universe as new levels insert
themselves between older levels.

The systems at one level are the objects at another level. Atomic systems are the objects in
molecules. Star systems are the objects in a galaxy. Cell systems are the objects in a tissue, and
tissues the objects in an organ. The larger systems come into existence when the objects they are
composed from, interact according to what we perceive of as rules. Molecules form solids,
liquids, and gases according to the rules of chemistry. Galaxies form Globular clusters according
to the rules of astrophysics. Cells form tissues according to rules of molecular biology and
genetics. Here is the crux of the matter; The emergence of new systems and levels from the
interactions of old systems (objects) is complex. That is, you cannot use knowledge of
constituent systems, and rules to predict the future behavior of the emerging systems. What is
more important for our purpose, the interactions between systems occur mainly within a
hierarchical level, much less so across levels. For example, while at the lowest level galaxies
consist of quanta, quanta do not interact to form galaxies. Only star systems interact to form
galaxies. Galaxies are immune to the behavior of individual quanta. In general the farther removed
the levels, the less behavior of systems at one level affect (or communicate with) the systems at
the other level. Despite the claim of astrologers, the stars do not guide our destinies any more
than our actions guide the stars. However, adjacent levels do affect each other. Thus if tissue in
the heart dies, the heart can work improperly and the body can get ill or even die. But it is less
likely that the death of a person will affect the ecology of the world. The amount that one system
can potentially affect another system is a measure of the distance between their respective levels.
So what does this have to do with God?

God, by default, must operate at all levels. According to our supposition he created the basic
hierarchy, and then guided each level of the succeeding hierarchies into existence. Also by our
original stipulation God has to play by the rules he creates. That is, whatever he causes to
happen must happen through natural means; he cannot go back and erase levels or substitute new
rules and systems. That would be changing history. Miracles cannot occur because, by definition,
they defy established rules. Intervention from other levels is more problematical. For example,
according to the old testament God stopped the sun in the sky to allow the satisfactory
conclusion of a battle. That is impossible because it requires the breaking of a rule at another level
. . . the instantaneous cessation of the rotation of the earth violates the first law of motion. The
Old Testament also says that after the flood, God created the rainbow as a promise that he would
never again destroy the world by flood. That too, is impossible. If there were no such thing as a
rainbow before the flood, God would have to change the rules at the level of particle physics to
provide rainbows after the flood. From the point of view of a human, everything that happens,
at all levels in the universe, must occur naturally. A storm can destroy the Spanish Armada
before it can attack England. The English can call it a miracle and thank God. But there is no way
to know if God had a hand in it because a storm is a natural occurrence. The upshot is that we
can never know a manifestation of God for what it is. Nor can we know God as he must be.

Our conscious being exists as a complex system at a level, namely human society. We can never
identify with or communicate with systems at levels far removed from our conscious being. We
cannot commune with galaxies or converse with quanta. We don’t banter with bacteria or hear the
music of the spheres because those things exist at levels far removed from ours. But God, if he
exists, is the God of all levels, and there are many levels. We can never know God at those levels
because they are not the level of our existence. Therefore, we can never know the greater part of
God. And we can never know God at our own level for the reason given in the preceding
paragraph. That is we can never know God. If we cannot know him, he cannot be a personal

We have not disproved the existence of God. We have argued, that if complexity theory proves
valid then the ideas that God intentionally created us, and is a personal God are wrong.
Essentially we have presented a rebuttal to the argument, based on design, that God designed us,
and that he therefore cares about us. This is possible because something termed ‘emergence’ is
implicit in complexity theory. Complexity allows newly created systems and rules to emerge
from old systems and rules. The new systems are creations in that they are not implicit in the
old systems. They cannot be predicted from a knowledge of the rules and objects in the old
systems. The newly created systems exhibit the hallmarks of design, but complexity theory
explains them . . . there is no need to resort to a supernatural creator.

Further reading

Davies, Paul The Mind of God. New York: Simon and Schuster; 1992.

Waldrop, Mitchell M. Complexity: The Emerging Science At The Edge of Order and Chaos.
New York: Simon and Schuster; 1992.