Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Of God and Snowflakes

Yesterday, as I walked to work, I looked down and noticed some unusually perfect snowflakes falling on the sleeve of my coat. More of them kept landing as I watched, each one a tiny little geometric marvel. So, of course, I took out my cell phone camera and tried to take a picture. And of course, that's the moment a coworker walked by and looked at me like you would look at a person standing in the middle of the sidewalk taking pictures of their sleeve.

The pictures aren't even any good, so I'll post one by somebody who knows what he's doing. I urge you to stop for a second and really look at it. Gaze into it like a mandala. It's worth a few seconds, I swear.

Photo by Alexey Kljatov. Click for more incredible images.

Incredible, isn't it? Some of the pictures on the photographer's page literally made me gasp. The snowflakes falling on my coat sleeve yesterday would have been equally stunning and varied if I could have looked closely enough. And now they're gone, just like the one in this picture.

What struck me as I watched them fall on my sleeve is this: We live in a universe where objects with this kind of breathtaking beauty are created spontaneously out of air and water, and fall by the billions all around us. What does that say about the universe?

Throughout most of history (and even possibly today) most people would say that God crafts each snowflake individually. I certainly understand seeing the divine in a snowflake, but we actually know God doesn't create them one by one. The physics of snowflake formation is well-understood--it really does happen spontaneously, through a combination of randomness and physical law. Snowflakes, at least in the immediate sense, have no designer.

If that's true--if the stunning order of a snowflake is such an easy trick for nature--why is it so hard for people to believe that more complex things, like whale sharks, diatoms, or snow leopards, could have been built by natural law? After all, nobody claims these things appeared overnight like snowflakes. They claim they evolved over eons; over periods of time that are to us as we are to a snowflake on a stove. If a few minutes in this universe can create a snowflake, what can a few million centuries create?

"Yes, but..." you may say, "what made such a creative universe in the first place?" It's a fair question. Maybe God didn't create snowflakes or snow leopards in the immediate sense, but he did create a universe capable of creating them. That might actually be more impressive, if you think about it. Maybe that's what happened, and maybe it isn't. Maybe creative universes like ours are strewn forth like snowflakes in some kind of multiverse, based on nothing but the laws of nature (in the broadest sense of "nature"). We just don't know.

Personally, I don't think it's a good idea to assume that God, if he exists, designed this creative universe. It turned out that he didn't design each snowflake, or each rattlesnake, so it's quite conceivable that he didn't create the universe as a whole. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer pointed out, a "God of the Gaps" is as problematic theologically as scientifically. The problem with seeing God in the gaps in our knowledge is that those gaps are rapidly shrinking. Each time a gap closes, you lose a little bit of that God. If I understand Bonhoeffer correctly, he thought it was far better to keep seeing God in what we already understand than consign him to what we don't. It seems like a good point to me, though I'm not sure God exists at all.

Whether he does or not, we still live in a universe that creates order and beauty so easily it's disposable. Most snowflakes melt away before anybody ever sees how beautiful they are, but the universe creates them anyway. It created them before there were people, and it will likely create them long after we're gone. It happens spontaneously. That's why it's not at all hard for me to believe that same universe created life spontaneously; just over a far, far longer timescale than a snowflake. Maybe God created the creative force itself, and maybe he didn't. Either way, it's glorious. God didn't handcraft that particular snowflake in the picture, but it's beautiful all the same.