BUTTERFLY WINGS AND CLEOPATRA’S NOSE
By David Feddes
“Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?” That question was asked in a landmark lecture by Edward Lorenz of MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). At first it might seem obvious that a butterfly can’t cause a tornado. Its wings make only a tiny change in the air. But what if that tiny change, over time, leads to other changes in the atmosphere that are much greater? Is it possible that eventually, thousands of miles away, a tornado occurs that would not have occurred if the butterfly had not flapped?
“The butterfly effect” is the best-known symbol of what is known as chaos theory. Chaos theory says that tiny differences in initial conditions can lead to enormous differences in the eventual outcome. The differences are so small at first that they can’t be measured or taken into account, and yet they can make such a difference in later events that we are not able to predict outcomes in advance.
What prompted Edward Lorenz, the pioneer of chaos theory, to start thinking this way? One day he was running weather simulations on a computer. Things were going pretty much as expected, but he wanted to study one sequence more carefully. Instead of starting the whole thing over again, he took a shortcut and typed in numbers from a printout of the earlier sequence. This new run of make-believe weather should have exactly duplicated the old sequence, but it gradually became different until the simulated weather had nothing in common with the first run.
Lorenz was puzzled. At first he thought the computer had malfunctioned. Then he realized the problem: it was the numbers he had typed from the printout. The computer had stored six decimal places in memory but had printed out just three decimal places to save space. Lorenz had entered these round numbers from the printout, assuming that a difference of less than one part in a thousand wouldn’t matter. After all, a weather satellite would be lucky to measure ocean-surface temperature to the nearest thousandth, so rounding off in the computer simulation should have made little or no difference. But it turned out to make all the difference in the world.
The more Lorenz looked into it, the more convinced he became that even the smallest, most immeasurable difference in initial conditions can produce a very different sequence of events down the line. This led him to a profound conclusion: it’s not possible to predict weather very far in advance. Big surprise! Anybody with common sense already knew that.
The fact that chaos theory arose from weather forecasting makes me chuckle. Weather forecasts are so often wrong about the next day, never mind next month or next year, that we can’t help thinking that even if the weather itself isn’t total chaos, the minds of weather forecasters must be chaos. Chaos theory gives our local meteorologist a handy excuse whenever the weather doesn’t match the forecast.
I also had to laugh about the first consumer application of chaos theory: washing machines. I always thought scientists ought to find out how washing machines can defy every physical law and make one sock from a pair disappear without a trace. But even the experts don’t dare to tackle the mystery of the missing socks. They take parts of chaos theory about identifiable and predictable movements in nonlinear systems, apply these ideas to the swirling of water and the movement of bubbles, and make washing machines which are supposed to produce cleaner and less tangled clothes. That’s nice, but I won’t be satisfied till they find a way to make those vanishing socks reappear!
Seriously, I appreciate people who study weather and those who try to improve washing machines. I may joke about them, but I recognize that they know a lot more about such things than I do. I don’t want to knock their efforts, even if there are mysteries they’ll never solve. Also, chaos theory isn’t just a joke. It is a serious effort by brilliant people to describe complex systems in the physical world where outcomes are extremely sensitive to initial conditions.
Not Really Chaos
Chaos theory may have real value, but the label itself can be misleading. Dictionaries define chaos as “disorder” or “confusion,” so when some people hear of chaos theory, they jump to the conclusion that it’s a theory which says there is no real order in the universe. Some websites blare the slogan “Chaos reigns!” Others twist chaos theory to support anarchy or to promote irrational nature worship.
Such notions have little in common with the scientific ideas of Edward Lorenz and other chaos theorists. Lorenz insists that precise laws are involved. Even seemingly random events are not random at all. Definite patterns become evident after awhile. Chaos theory does not say that all is disorder and confusion; rather, it studies the underlying order in complex nonlinear dynamic systems. The goal is to find overall patterns and mathematical probabilities even in things that at first appear disorderly.
The idea that a butterfly’s movement might eventually alter entire weather systems in another part of the world does not mean everything is disorder. It means there is an order so finely tuned that even the smallest details matter. The butterfly effect is not about total chaos, without cause and effect. It is about minor causes having major effects. The causes may be so tiny as to go unnoticed by humans, but the eventual outcome may be utterly different from what it would have been without those tiny causes. Small things can make a big difference.
This means that for anyone to know much of anything about specific future events, he would have to know everything. He couldn’t be mistaken about even the smallest, most insignificant item. Otherwise, he might turn out to be wrong about a great many other things as well. He would have to know every last detail, no matter how tiny, with perfect exactness.
We humans don’t have that kind of all-embracing, exact knowledge. But God does. God knows the location of every butterfly on the planet and the movement of every air molecule caused by each wing. God knows the temperature of every drop of water in the world’s oceans without even a trillionth of a degree of error. God knows the exact location of every speck of dust in the atmosphere. God knows the precise path through the air of every swaying branch and every falling leaf. God knows tomorrow’s weather, next month’s weather and next year’s weather. And yes, God even knows the location of those socks that disappear in washing machines around the world! God really does know everything.
And God doesn’t just know things as they happen. He has always known them. Already before the world began, God knew every last detail about the world as it would be right now. It is all factored into his eternal plan and purpose. God’s knowledge of past and present is complete and exact, and so is his knowledge of the future. God sees it all before it happens. Nothing can ever catch God by surprise. He already knows it all, has included it in his plan, and directs every detail in a way that serves his own good goal for his world.
This world is not really chaos. Even chaos theory itself insists on an underlying order. What chaos theory says about the potential significance of tiny details and the presence of order in the midst of things that humans can’t predict, is consistent with what the Bible says about the all-knowing God’s attention to the smallest things and his plan which incorporates even things which strike us as utterly random and mysterious. Chaos doesn’t reign. “The Lord reigns, let the earth be glad” (Psalm 97:1).
God’s knowledge and control of all things is not just for scholars to debate but for ordinary people to marvel at and count on. As usual, Jesus himself put it best: “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows” (Luke 12:6-7). The best cure for fear and confusion is to trust the Lord who watches every sparrow and butterfly, who numbers each hair and cell in your body. Nothing is too small for him to notice or too large for him to handle.
God is in control. He says in the Bible, “I am God, and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please” (Isaiah 46:9-10). God knows people even before they exist. He knows events long before they happen. A god who doesn’t know everything, including everything in the future, is not worth believing in. The real God, the God of the Bible, the God of Jesus, is the God who knows from the beginning what will happen in the end.
Some people speak of God taking risks, but God doesn’t take risks. The Bible says, “He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?'” (Daniel 4:35).
Some people say God doesn’t know everything about the future, that he can’t know the choices people freely make until they actually make their choices. But God knows every free choice and every physical feature of every person who will ever live. If God doesn’t know such things, he doesn’t know anything worth knowing about the future of humanity.
The Bible is full of prophecies about the future that would not be possible if God did not know exactly what humans would choose in the future. For example, in the time of the Israelite kings, a prophet of God spoke of idol worship increasing and of a good king named Josiah who would clean things up (1 Kings 13:2). It would be nearly 300 more years before King Josiah came along and did this, yet God announced it as a sure fact already centuries before this good king was born or made any decision to serve God and call his people back to God.
God could not know any of this unless he knew absolutely everything. He had to know ahead of time every detail of biology and every detail of human choice. King Josiah would not have existed if his parents had gone to bed at a different time and if a different sperm had fertilized his mother’s ovum. The same would be true of all Josiah’s ancestors, and of you and me and all our ancestors as well. God couldn’t know anything about us in advance unless he knew how our parents and all our ancestors would meet, and precisely which sperm would unit with which ovum. God has always known every strand of DNA that would produce the bodies of every human, and he has known every choice that every person would ever make. God knew the choices various Israelites would make to worship idols, and he knew the choice King Josiah would make to serve God. He not only knew these choices but factored them into his plan and announced ahead of time what would happen. Does this mean people didn’t make real choices? No, it simply means God knew exactly what those choices would be and arranged for them in his overall plan.
If there was even one physical feature or one human decision that God did not know in advance, then God would know almost nothing about the future of humanity, and he could have no clear plan for the future. One detail can change everything. As the genius Pascal once put it, “If Cleopatra’s nose had been shorter, the whole face of the earth would have been changed.”
Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, had love affairs with Julius Caesar and then Marc Antony. If her nose had been too short or too long, her beauty would have been flawed, these Roman leaders would not have become her lovers, and entire nations and empires would have been different. God could not have known the future of Roman and Egypt if he had not also known the exact size and shape of Cleopatra’s nose before she was ever born, and if he had not known in advance that she and Caesar and Antony would choose to commit adultery. But in fact God did foresee every physical feature and every human choice, both good and bad, before these people ever existed.
God also knew in advance that Caesar’s heir, Octavian, would eventually triumph over Antony and become Caesar Augustus. God knew that Augustus would call for a census of the empire. God knew that, as a result of this census, a carpenter named Joseph and his pregnant wife would have to leave their home in Nazareth and travel to a small village called Bethlehem. God knew that Mary would go into labor during their visit to Bethlehem and that her baby would be born there. In fact, seven centuries before Jesus’ birth, God sent out a birth announcement through the prophet Micah, stating that the ruler of God’s people, someone of eternal origin, would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). How could God make this announcement about his Son’s birthplace long in advance? Because he also knew in advance the size of Cleopatra’s nose, the size of the ego and lust of Roman politicians, the timing of the Roman census, and countless other details, large and small, that led up to Jesus birth in a Bethlehem stable.
God foreknew and planned Jesus’ birth, and he foreknew and planned Jesus’ death. Already centuries earlier, God inspired Old Testament writers to speak of the Messiah being betrayed by a close friend (Psalm 41:9), despised and rejected by the people (Isaiah 53:3), his hands and feet pierced, surrounded by mockers, with his executioners gambling for his clothes (Psalm 22:16-18). Jesus himself also spoke ahead of time about his betrayal by Judas and his death at the hands of the authorities. If the Lord could not foresee human choices, he could not have announced such things in advance. But the Lord knew exactly what would happen long before it occurred. He knew even before he made the world.
Does this mean the people who killed Jesus did not make real choices and were not responsible for what they did? No, the Bible insists that they were completely responsible for doing what they did. Yet it was also God’s plan. The Bible says that Jesus was “handed over by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge” (Acts 2:23), and that the authorities who killed him “did what [God’s] power and will had decided beforehand should happen” (Acts 4:28). God knew how to arrange evil men and their choices to serve his own good purpose of offering his Son as a sacrifice to pay for human sin. Of course, God also knew how to raise his Son from the dead, not through any human actions, but through the direct intervention of divine power.
It is illogical and unbiblical to suppose that God doesn’t know everything about the future or that he takes risks without knowing how something will turn out. Nothing, absolutely nothing, lies outside God’s knowledge and plan.
A God Worth Trusting
The Lord’s power to predict the future sets him apart from every other being. As God says in the Bible, “Who foretold this long ago, who declared it from the distant past? Was it not I, the Lord? And there is no God apart from me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none but me. Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other” (Isaiah 45:21-22). God’s very nature as the Supreme Being, and his power to save, is inseparable from his detailed knowledge of all things, including the future.
You can have solid assurance that God is able to help you in present difficulties and save you for all eternity only if you believe that God knows all things and directs the future. If God did not know every cell in your body, and if he had no power to direct what happens in each cell in the future, what would be the use of praying to him when you are sick or injured? But God does know and does have power over each cell, and so there is great value in praying. God has a plan for your future, and the prayers you offer now are part of that plan. This doesn’t mean that you’re always guaranteed the healing you seek, but it does mean that God can heal you if he decides to do so and that your prayers figure prominently in his decision. This also means that if you pray as one of God’s people in Christ and God decides not to grant your request, he has a very good reason. He is planning something for your good and his glory which will be better accomplished by saying no to your prayer than by saying yes.
Faith in God’s promises depends on confidence in God’s all-knowing wisdom. If God were kind and well-intentioned but didn’t know all things, how could we be sure that we could count on his promises? What if things developed in a way he hadn’t planned on? What if something came up that he couldn’t handle? But God is indeed all-knowing and all-powerful.
This is a solid foundation for confidence even when everything seems to be going against us. When Jesus spoke about God’s care for sparrows and his numbering each hair on our heads, he wasn’t just offering a few pleasant words to people relaxing and enjoying some interesting speculations about how much God knows. Jesus was warning of troubles and persecutions to come. He didn’t say God would remove every trial and spare his people from any opposition. But Jesus did say that God would be watching over them through it all. They had nothing to fear because they would be in God’s hands. Anything they suffered would be for their good and the progress of God’s kingdom. His Holy Spirit would give them the right words to say in difficult situations, and his grace would give them strength to endure and win eternal rewards. Jesus could promise these things with total certainty because the Lord already knew what the future held and had planned it all out.
If you are a person of faith, you can be sure God’s promise in the Bible applies to you: “‘I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you'” (Jeremiah 29:11-12). If you belong to Christ, you can count on God to give you hope and a future, because everything about the future is already included in God’s knowledge and arranged in his plan.
I’m not sure whether the flap of a butterfly’s wings ever sets off a sequence of events that eventually changes entire weather systems. But I know that a baby in a manger and a man on a cross have set off an entire new creation. I also know that no matter how small or insignificant you feel, you have a bigger impact on the future than you realize.
Put your faith in the Lord, and you will understand more of your place in his plan. You will gain a fresh sense of awe at the mind-boggling wisdom of your all-knowing Father. You can live each day in the confidence that he knows and cares about every detail in your life down to the smallest hair. And you can rest assured that your eternal future is with him.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.