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.

8 thoughts on “God in the numbers? The devil’s in the details.”

  1. You find flowers with the number of petals in the Fibonacci series. Conversly you do NOT find flowers with numbers of petas other than in the Fibonacci series. For example you do not find flowers with 9 10 11 12 petals but you do find flowers with 8 and 13 petals . If evolution was a continous process you would find flowers with all these steps, but no, you only find flowers at discrete steps at certain intervals, ie fibonacci intervals.

  2. Ed, take a look at this multitude of images of flowers with four petals, and these with six, and these with nine, and tell me that flowers are limited only to Fibonacci-numbered petals.

    Even if the above were true, evolution didn’t have to increase the number of petals one by one if it instead produced new methods of producing petals. A single mutation can easily produce more than one additional petal, simply by rearranging the flower so that there’s room for two more. Even without considering flowers, we’d know this is possible because children can be born with seven fingers on one hand, or seven toes on one foot, or many more, without their parents having a single extra digit.

    Have a look at this practical analysis of sunflower petals and how the constant pressure to be more efficient has quite naturally resulted in a Fibonacci pattern. The mathematics can tell you why golden ratios are beneficial, and therefore why they’re so common, but not every species reaches the same solution for optimal survival value.

  3. Couldn’t god have chosen some complexer/ more interesting series for producing patterns in nature to really make us “feel” his presence?
    Why not use the sum of squares of naturals for example, or even cubes, or why not just plain old primes only.

    Is the absence of flowers with a cube series number of petals only a direct confirmation of the absence of god? It certainly seems to be a direct confirmation of the absence of an imaginative god I guess!
    “Hmm … flower petals … yeah … let me just take the sum of the previous two numbers for the next batch …”

  4. “Nature can do this too, particularly genetic instructions: “build this part using these two other parts as a reference”.”

    “evolution didn’t have to increase the number of petals one by one if it instead produced new methods of producing petals.”

    How can nature follow “instructions”? Better yet, how can it create them? How can evolution “increase” or “produce”? You are ascribing attributes of intelligence to non-intelligent processes. Maybe you’re just trying to simplify things, but it’s not creating a good argument. In two sentences you have moved from atheist to intelligent design.

    On a side note, a child with seven fingers is not a beneficial mutation, is it? While this happens, albeit rarely, it is also not an argument for your position. If it were indeed an improvement, there would be a multitude of seven-fingered people running around (and an entire new revenue stream for glove manufacturers across the planet). Even if evolution had the intelligence to create this new method, why would it? How does it improve the flower?

  5. Non-intelligent processes can increase quantities. The gravitational forces of our solar system acting on loose rocks have steadily increased the number of craters on the moon for the last few billion years. A new one was created in 2006, and here’s a NASA report.

    Non-intelligent processes can produce materials. Every element heavier than helium was created by a dying star, fused together from helium and hydrogen atoms. That’s what Carl Sagan meant when he said we’re all “made of star stuff”.

    Non-intelligent processes can translate patterned sequences into actions or, in other words, follow instructions. A player piano scrolls through a piece of paper with precise perforations and plays a specific piece of music (though its performances tend to be somewhat staccato), purely through mechanical interactions between the paper and its hammers.

    Non-intelligent processes can create new instructions as well. Computer errors duplicate lines of code all the time, and if it’s the right line of code then some action will be performed multiple times, which might completely change the effect of the program. Precisely how the initial DNA code of the first life form came together is still a mystery, but all it needed to start was a self-replicating organism with the effective instruction “copy me”. Mutation and selection did the rest.

    The process of evolution has increased the complexity of life and produced countless new species and physical features. Life itself functions at all because a physical system exists which copies, alters and follows the instructions given by strands of DNA, and that physical system has nothing to do with brains, let alone intelligence. Intelligence does not have a monopoly on nearly as many abilities as you seem to think.

    Two extra fingers is not currently a beneficial mutation for a human being in a technologically advanced world designed by humans with ten fingers for humans with ten fingers. Imagine, however, that humans only had one finger on each hand. If a boy were then born with four fingers, how much more dextrous than anyone alive would he become? The point is that mutations like this do happen, and if they are beneficial in the time and place that they appear then they can spread.

    As for extra petals on the flowers, consider what flowers actually do: they attract insects and birds and use them to spread the pollen of the plant. (In a few cases, flowers attract insects in order to eat them instead.) If a flower has two more petals than those around it, it’s bigger and easier to see, and will attract wildlife from farther away. The more the merrier.

  6. “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.” <==== that would still be using the fibonacci itself…. starting with 2,2,… or 5,5… or 10,10… the first 2 numbers would show you a 1:1 ratio which is what the fibonacci sequence starts out… think of a new rebuttal.

  7. I’m well aware of the fact that the absolute values of the numbers are irrelevant to the ratio; I was highlighting this fact to those who may not be familiar with the mathematics.

    My point was that producing a Fibonacci sequence is incredibly easy. It uses a repeated operation simple enough that the equivalent is carried out by common, ordinary natural processes, such as cell division or population growth, which is why it appears so often. It does not require supernatural guidance of countless, obscure biological traits.

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