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The Problematic Phenomenon of Order

July 24, 2008

In the realm of Christian apologetics, much ink has been spilt concerning the so-called problem of evil. The issue consists in the coexisting reality of a good, perfect, all-powerful God and the presence of evil acts.

The focus on this issue sometimes, especially in undergraduate philosophy courses, obscures the presence of problems for atheists (particularly, the dogmatic Darwinian variety). The wide-spread existence of certain phenomena that have no readily apparent merit for human survival (e.g., emotions, love, hope) makes for awkward bullets to be bitten by the new atheists. Thinkers such as Alvin Plantinga have also pointed to the problem of reason for evolutionary atheists: can something rational arise from irrational processes, and if something rational arose from irrationality, could we even trust it?

A recent episode of Radiolab, Emergence, discussed another problematic phenomenon for atheists: order. Consider two examples from nature.

Fireflies in Thai jungles exhibit an odd tendency. Tens of thousands of fireflies along riverbanks flash in unison, unlike the randomly flashing variety we’re used to in North America. Imagine during a dark night, the entire riverbank lighting up and then reverting to total darkness. Cornell mathematician Steve Strogatz mentions that scientists have ten different explanations for this phenomenon, none of which has exhibited any superiority. What puzzles Strogatz is this question, “how can order come out of disorder? … This is the big, big mystery of science.”

Ants are an interesting case as well. Stanford biologist Debra Gordon notes some peculiarities about these creatures. Individually, ants are, well, dumb. Gordon mentions putting a twig inside an ant observatory and observing ants struggle to move the twig. One ant would push, while another would pull; this battle of give and take could go on for months. Yet, as a group, ants can perform amazing feats. For instance, right before monsoon season, ants will dig turrets around their hills to prevent flooding. Tasks like these Robert Krulwich compares to massive civil works projects, like the Tennessee Valley Authority from FDR’s New Deal.

What puzzles Gordon, and the hosts of Radiolab, is that none of the ants exercises authority over the others. The queen ant does not beckon orders; she only spawns. There are explanations for ant phenomena: sense of smell orders much ant activity, while the preparation for monsoon season may be triggered by a change in barometric pressure. The remaining question, though, is where is the rule? How do the ants know to react to the pressure changes and the smells? Gordon calls this question “uncomfortable” and “hard.”

Order can be a perturbing reality for naturalists, but it has long been a comfort for Christians. Jonathan Edwards, in the 86th entry in his “Miscellanies,” dwells on this source of comfort. He says of Jesus Christ that “the motion of every atom is under his mediatorial government, that he guides so as shall be best for his church.” Edwards sees the presence of order as the result of the sovereign, almighty work of the Lord Christ.

And Edwards’ comment brings us back to the problem of evil. How can evil exist when this good, sovereign, almighty God governs every atom? It can only exist because God decrees it to exist and, even, uses it for his purposes. As Edwards says in the 85th miscellany, “God decrees that [a sinful action] shall be sinful for the sake of the good that he causes to arise from the sinfulness thereof.”

Let us, too, take hope in God’s meticulous orchestration of all things for the good of his people and the glory of his name.

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