Why We Need Disorder: A physicist’s perspective on the living world

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Cropped from From Chaos to Order By Sebastien Wiertz. Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

The Genesis creation story may seem to be all about God getting rid of disorder and turning it into order, but that’s not how a physicist sees it. In her lecture at the Christians in Science conference in Oxford a few weeks ago, Dr Rhoda Hawkins explained why.

Hawkins studies how unpredictable events on a microscopic scale can produce something very predictable and useful on a larger scale. For example, zooming out from an image of white noise produces a fairly even grey colour, or the random movement of gas particles can produce an overall temperature. So while in everyday language the word ‘random’ often means ‘purposeless’, in science it just means that something is unpredictable – and that unpredictability can be put to good use.

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Cells keep their shape with actin filaments (red) and microtubules (green). By NIH Image Gallery. Flickr. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

In a closed or isolated system things always gets more disordered overall (this is the second law of thermodynamics). That doesn’t sound like good news for the universe, but order can actually increase in one area within that system if the conditions are right. For example, living things keep order by taking in energy in the form of food, which allows them to grow and develop in the right directions. In Rhoda’s own work she looks at how cells can channel the disordered movement of certain molecules to make them form long filaments that act like a skeleton to move it around.

So although it’s impossible to predict each individual event in a randomly moving group of molecules, it can be relatively easy to predict the overall outcome. A cell’s inner filaments might be pointing in all sorts of directions, but together they can help the cell to move along in one direction. A molecule vibrates at random, but that movement enables a chemical reaction to happen. Without the initial disordered movement, nothing would happen because the channelling forces of the cell would have nothing to work with.

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J. M. W. Turner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
For physicists “chaos is the womb of order” , and this can also be seen in the Biblical creation stories. In Genesis 1:1 the earth is described as ‘formless and empty’, before God began to create order. In Job chapter 38, God creates order by fixing limits on the sea. Another physicist has pointed out that in these passages, “chaotic energy is not denied but channeled” . Without disorder to begin with, perhaps these things couldn’t have been created in the first place.

With this view of the world, Rhoda finds that she resonates well with the idea that God may not know the outcome of every single tiny event in the world in advance. There might be an overall purpose, but the individual details of how that purpose is achieved may not be determined. She also accepts that God might be able to see overall order in events where we may be stuck in the details and seeing only disorder. We may want ordered answers, and what seems like a fair outcome of events, but that does not always happen. Of course there is a negative sort of disorder, as we see when genetic mutations cause cancer, and this could be compared to the sin that ruins God’s order for the world and cost Jesus his life.

Overall, the relationship between order and disorder here seems to be something of a paradox. Something that seems random may actually be heading in a fruitful direction. Seemingly purposeless activity on a small scale may be achieving something very purposeful. Westerners sometimes find this difficult, but the Hebrew worldview was apparently far more comfortable with it and often puts things together that seem to be opposites: God is three persons but also one, Jesus is both God and man, when I am weak then I am strong. Perhaps, said Rhoda, to understand these things we need to tap into the Chinese philosophies where opposing forces are connected? In the end, order can produce patterns that are incredibly beautiful. This beauty leads many scientists to wonder, and for physicists like Rhoda they can also lead to worship of the one who is ultimately responsible for them.

Author: Ruth Bancewicz

[1] Alister McGrath, Biology and Natural Theology, lecture in Biology & Belief, Faraday short course no. 34 (Feb 2016).

[2] Tom McLeish, Faith and Wisdom in Science (Oxford University Press, 2014)

rhoda-hawkinsDr Rhoda Hawkins is a lecturer in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Sheffield, and a visiting lecturer at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences. Her research involves using theoretical physics approaches to shed light on problems in biology, including cell movement and polarisation, the cytoskeleton, and protein allostery. She completed a degree in physics at University of Oxford, and a PhD in the Polymers And Complex Fluids group at the University of Leeds. Her postdoctoral research was at the FOM Institute for Atomic and Molecular Physics, Amsterdam, the Curie Institute and University of Pierre and Marie Curie, Paris, and the University of Bristol, and she has been a visiting researcher and lecturer at African Institute for Mathematical Sciences in Cape Town. Rhoda is a keen fell runner, on the Christians in Science committee, and a member of St Timothy’s church, Sheffield.

16 thoughts on “Why We Need Disorder: A physicist’s perspective on the living world

  1. Michala November 24, 2016 / 11:39 am

    The conclusion may be correct , an entity or god of the universe may be responsible for the fine tuning in the universe & on earth.See the entity theory Michio Kaku ( atheist) argues that nothing in the universe is random.particles or an entity may govern the natural laws & guide the processes which cannot be explained by evolution.
    For example there is no evolution of the natural laws, they appear suddenly. Something caused them to appear, the law of causation cause & effect.further there is no evolution of information. In conclusion, there are many other theories & to suggest chaos produces order without guidance is merely speculation.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Richard Barker November 24, 2016 / 1:08 pm

    Reblogged this on Richard's Watch and commented:
    Terrific timing because not only have I been ruminating for a few weeks on those ‘first days’ but also I was asked to read out Gen 1:1-2 at an Alpha meeting last night! Moreover, am interested in a reader’s reference to the co-founder of string field theory as am learning about his concepts…

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    • Ruth M. Bancewicz November 24, 2016 / 1:24 pm

      Thank you Richard, this is deep stuff for a biologist to be writing about but it’s worth listening to Rhoda’a talk when it goes online – keen an eye on http://www.cis.org.uk for details…

      Like

  3. djwimago November 25, 2016 / 11:27 am

    Ruth. Along with Rhoda, I do think that it isn’t necessary for God to know the outcome of every single tiny event in the world (‘in advance’); so there may, possibly, be no determining factor for every eventuality–including the genetic changes responsible for cancer. Moreover, her comments vis a vis our ‘need’ to have ordered answers when there may be none are, I think, very helpful ‘pastorally’ as it is important that we realise that it isn’t God who inflicts such things but rather that such eventualities are the result of ‘changes’ that are presently beyond our ability to comprehend. Of course it may well be the case that diseases such as cancer have something to do with certain events in ‘The Garden’ However, I doubt, very much, that one need assume that SIN ‘cost Jesus his life’–as if ‘Jesus’ were disconnected from ‘God the Father. Indeed, it is the case that the Triune God was/is/will be–fully aware of the suffering brought about by such life threatening changes. This though is the best of possible worlds for God’s ‘present’ purposes. I hope that makes sense…Derek

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    • Ruth M. Bancewicz November 25, 2016 / 2:38 pm

      Hi Derek, Thank you for your thoughts can you expand on ‘However, I doubt, very much, that one need assume that SIN ‘cost Jesus his life’–as if ‘Jesus’ were disconnected from ‘God the Father.’ please? I’m not sure I follow you there.

      Thanks,

      Ruth

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      • djwimago November 26, 2016 / 1:36 pm

        Hi Ruth! Sorry to be vague. What I mean is: If we say that ‘sin cost Jesus his life’ it gives the impression that the Triune God ‘sacrificed his Son’—considered by some to be the action of some kind of cosmic sadist—sending the Son, punishing the Son—hardly taking the sin of the world upon Himself. Of course we know that God, in Christ, was redeeming the world through [the Triune] God’s ultimate expression of love—‘For God so loved the world that, (yes) God gave his son–this being the action of a relational God (Father,Son,Spirit) rather than a lesser ‘deity’. A bit picky perhaps. Soli Deo Gloria!!!

        Derek

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  4. Dennis Read November 25, 2016 / 5:10 pm

    Hi Ruth Enjoyed the article very much, particularly the references to the relationship between order and disorder. Having spent 32 years working in the Inorganic chemicals field in an industrial R&D dept, followed by 10 years as Lay school inspector I can relate to many of your contributors in the organic field. It could well be a good study for the School RE /SMSC curriculum. Now well into retirement (81), and as an accredited Lay minister I find my self in the position of the opposite to your conference title .I am a “Scientist in Christianity ” .I suppose I always have been as I was confirmed in 1950 , but did not graduate (B.Sc Dunelm , Chem & Phys) until 1959. My faith came first!! Have used several of your posts as a basis former Thursday mornings “Thoughts for the Day” or talks in Sunday morning or evening servicesat St. Margaret’s. .Look forward to further papers Kind regards Dennis Read Sent from my iPad

    >

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    • Ruth M. Bancewicz November 28, 2016 / 1:12 pm

      Thank you Dennis, I’m so glad that has provided you with some useful material – that was exactly one of the results I was hoping for when I started this blog site!

      Like

  5. Miguel Panão November 26, 2016 / 11:53 am

    Wonderful post. Reminds the “opportunity” randomness and disorder actually contain in this world. Also, it reminded me of the line of thought developed by theologians, such as Denis Edwards, where God act in a non-interventionist way. Something I explored in my book on “Challenges in Science and Faith” (www.mpcombooks.com)

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  6. Tim January 1, 2017 / 7:17 pm

    The distinction between the two different definitions of random is hugely important. Just because something is unpredictable doesn’t mean it is therefore purposeless. Yet this is exactly the conclusion so many come to when discussing the randomness of events that determine the direction of our lives and societies.

    So see ‘random’ as simple unpredictability frees the Christian thinker to believe God is in control, though not predictable by a human being. In fact ‘random’ is more a statement of the inadequacy of our knowledge than it is a statement about the event itself or, indeed, its purpose.

    Like

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