Patterns All Around

Question from Charles:
Why are there patterns (some mathematical), symmetry and fractals in nature?

Answer by SmartLX:
The patterns in nature result from the fact that all objects, biological or otherwise, obey certain physical laws with predictable consequences.

– If the number of a given group of organisms or biological features affects the number in the next level or generation, the iterative propagation can produce patterns like the Fibonacci sequence, and golden ratios will often follow. It’s an emergent phenomenon, rather than a design.
– Likewise, if a force acts on a substance on multiple scales, branching effects can be observed which visually approximate the infinitely dense features of fractal geometry.
– Both bilateral and radial symmetry evolved a long time ago in very primitive plants, animals and viruses. Its evolutionary benefit is obvious with regard to movement (anyone with one leg shortened by traction will tell you what a hindrance it can be) but there are plenty of other reasons for it to be favoured in natural selection, for instance accurate binocular vision.

So, the patterns we see are a natural consequence of the consistency of the universe in which we live. For a religious apologist, the next step from there is to argue that a god must be responsible for this consistency and for the natural laws that govern us. Even if there were a complete lack of other explanations, to conclude the necessity of a god would be an argument from ignorance, but fortunately there are other possibilities. One of these is the idea that the laws are as eternal and independent of the universe as the hypothetical god is supposed to be. As I’m fond of saying, any constraints you place on the universe in order to necessitate a god must immediately be broken in order to allow for a god, and there’s no justification for it.

Quantum Golden Ratios. Whoa.

Question from Bill:
Why is the golden ratio found in the human body, DNA, the human genome, and in subatomic particles?

A pattern couldn’t just be found anywhere in the quantum world. So how do atheists respond to this?

Answer by SmartLX:
As I explained earlier, it is very simple to produce a Fibonacci sequence and therefore a golden ratio of 1.618 through basic, repeated, natural occurrences such as cell division, which is why it’s so common in biology. The fact that the same appears to occur in quantum mechanics in a specific case suggests that the underlying physical mechanisms that produce these effects may make use of similar recursions.

The key thing about the golden ratio is that it’s an emergent phenomenon. Like evolution, it emerges as a result when the starting conditions of a system happen to be conducive to it. Only after it’s happened do we notice the pattern; whatever the system is, it just looks like it’s going about its business until the effect appears. There’s no guidance and no direction necessary, it just happens – and it was already known to be so common that its emergence in the mysterious quantum world, though fascinating, is not that surprising. It says no more about the existence of a god than any other instance of a golden ratio, so atheists will respond with the same sort of interest as everyone else.

God in the numbers? The devil’s in the details.

Question from Neil:
As a ill-educated atheist how do I best explain the Golden Ratio and Fibonacci sequence being nothing to do with a god?

Answer by SmartLX:
The same way Darwin explained that the diversity of life need have nothing to do with a god: by showing the Ratio’s natural origins.

For those unfamiliar with the terms, here’s the basic math: take two 1’s as the start of a sequence and make each new number in that sequence the sum of the previous two:
(1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144…)
That’s the Fibonacci sequence, named after the first European to document it.

The interesting thing about it is that the ratio between any two adjacent numbers in it (after the first few) tends toward about 1:1.618, which is called the Golden Ratio. What’s interesting about that number is that ratios close to the Golden Ratio appear regularly in nature: it’s about the ratio between the different segments of your fingers, for example. Some believers see these natural occurrences as a kind of signature by the Creator – a sign of the created order of living beings.

The problem with this idea is the fact of how simple it is to create a sequence that features the Ratio: I started with two equal numbers (they don’t have to be 1), and started adding. Nature can do this too, particularly genetic instructions: “build this part using these two other parts as a reference”. The omnipresent Ratio is an observation we make afterwards; rather than an inbuilt standard, it’s an emergent property of a simple, common, repeated process. No god is necessary, or even of use.