Sensitive Dependence on Initial conditions – How I started being a Christian.

Chaos Book

Evangelism seems a thankless task. All those books written to convince us that God is real and Jesus is important. All those talks. Then a book comes along which seems to have nothing to do with God and it flicks a switch and makes it possible to believe in God after all. The picture here is of that actual book (Chaos, by James Gleick). It’s a bit mouldy and bent out of shape. It’s a great book and I would recommend it but, unless you are also a computer geek with an art degree it probably won’t change your life.

So what is Chaos? What it is not is complete disorder. As Gleick says:

Truly random data remains spread out in an undefined mess. But Chaos – deterministic and patterned – pulls the data into visible shapes. Of all the possible pathways of disorder, nature favours just a few.

But it is not straight lines and geometric shapes either. Go for a walk and look at the clouds. They are all different yet we know they form a pattern. That pattern can be modelled or represented using mathematics and so can the trees and the grass. This is how modern animators make their films look so real, using ‘fractal geometry’. This kind of geometry can be very complex but the principle is fairly simple. You take a function (often including an ‘imaginary’ number like the square root of minus 1) and run it over and over again for each spot on the graph, each time feeding back the result of the previous calculation. Do this thousands of times and, depending on where the result ends up, colour your spot a different colour.

mandlebrot set
This image is the output of such a process called a Mandlebrot set. One of the interesting things about this kind of maths is that, even if you do exactly the same maths, if you change your starting point very slightly (say by 0.00001) the results can be very different. This has become known as the ‘Butterfly Effect’ (because a butterfly flapping its wings in China can cause a hurricane in the USA) or ‘Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions’.

For me, that was the switch. I had been struggling to see what role God could have in the world. Then I had the idea that God was nudging the world subtly by changing the Initial Conditions, setting it off in a different direction every now and then. It was a very small role for God indeed and my conception of God’s role in the natural world has grown and grown until I feel we are literally surrounded and kept alive by the wonder of His ever changing world, but that is how I started being a Christian.