Blogs > Liberty and Power > Of Social Snowflakes...

Mar 31, 2008

Of Social Snowflakes...

My RSS reader this morning brought me this post from Marginal Revolution, which contains a spectacular close-up picture of a snowflake, taken from a book of such pictures. As I hope it does for you, just looking at that photo brought me up short and made me stop in awe, reverence, and wonder. The intricacy, detail, complexity, and sheer beauty of that product of nature cannot be captured in words. And when you stop to consider the uncountable number of snowflakes that fall each year (most of them on my driveway it would seem), all of that awe is upped an order of magnitude.

When I see that snowflake, it engages my reverence for the beauty of the undesigned order of the natural world. Look at the symmetry and detail of that snowflake, and then consider that is the product of undesigned natural processes. I find it an object of awe that natural processes can produce a thing of such detail, complexity and beauty. It is said that only God can make a snowflake. Well for those who understand the science, or who are atheists, we know that you don't need God to do so. But even to an atheist like myself, the spontaneous order of nature can (and should!) generate the same awe, reverence, and wonder that the contemplation of God generates in those who believe. Unfortunately, whenever my wonder at the beauty of nature is engaged, it is with a tinge of frustration.The frustration I feel is that so many smart and caring people seem unable to see and appreciate the identical processes of undesigned order in the social world. "Social snowflakes" are all around us, yet precious few seem to be able to understand and appreciate them to the degree we do the snowflakes found in nature. And too many people think that these "social snowflakes" require a "Creator."

That snowflake produces in me the same aesthetic-emotional reaction I have when I begin to think about Leonard Read's "I, Pencil," or when I ponder the intricate, detailed, complex, and beautiful processes by which Chilean grapes appear in my grocery store in rural New York in the middle of winter. The pencil and the grapes are "social snowflakes": they look simple, but when we hold them still and examine them with the analogous level of detail as that photo produces in the snowflake, they turn out to be the products of extraordinarily complex and intricate social processes that were designed by no one. My aesthetic reaction of awe and wonder is a response to what Pete Boettke, in a perfect turn of phrase, recently referred to as "the mystery of the mundane." What is more mundane than a snowflake? And yet what, it turns out, is more beautiful and complex than a snowflake? And in the way their mundane surface appearances hide processes of production whose awesome complexity was the product of human action but not human design, and should equally be a source of aesthetic and intellectual contemplation, the pencil and grapes are indeed "social snowflakes."

My fervent wish for the 21st century is that more smart and caring people can begin to see and appreciate "social snowflakes." People who are so willing to accept the existence and beauty (and benevolence!) of undesigned order in the natural world should be more willing to open themselves to the possibility that there are processes of undesigned order at work in the social world too. These people know that no one can make a snowflake, but seem blind to the fact that much of the innocent blood that was spilled in the last century was because too many people thought they could intelligently design the social world. Not repeating those mistakes will require a renewed aesthetic appreciation of, and deep desire to understand, the awesome beauty and complexity of the undesigned order of "social snowflakes."

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K D Vallier - 12/26/2005


Point taken. But part of what I was implying is that it is hard for me to see how, well, very much of *anything* can happen without a God, including any spontaneous order. God needn't guide the details, but the stuff being ordered didn't make or move itself.

This will get us into a standard metaphysical debate (which I think the theist has the upper hand on, btw) pretty soon though, so I'll quit.

Steven Horwitz - 12/26/2005


In an earlier draft of that post, the central focus was on how undesigned natural order could provoke a religious-like awe even in an atheist, and it was much more of a riff responding to the view of atheists as incapable of such awe. But when the phrase "social snowflake" popped into my head, I wound up re-drafting it significantly. One reason was that I really didn't want to enter the metaphysical debate you've just waded into.

I was very careful to say that you don't need God to make a snowflake. Notice I left open the possibility of the argument you make - we might not *need* God, but that doesn't mean the existence of God is in conflict with undesigned natural forces in just the way you lay out. I even explicitly wrote, in that earlier draft, that belief in both God and undesigned natural processes are not in contradiction with each other. Hence, this one atheist can appreciate the point you make.

I, myself, am not a believer, but I think the argument you make is about the only version of God that I could ever accept. My central point was only that God wasn't necessary to explain how a snowflake might be created, not that the existence of undesigned natural orders rules out the existence of God.

K D Vallier - 12/26/2005


It may well be the case that there need be no supernatural cause of the beauty and intricacy of a snowflake anywhere amongst the most proximate causes that bring snowflakes about. But as a theist and one who, at least I think, understands spontaneous orders, I can marvel at both the creative power of God to fine tune the laws of physics and at the ability of those laws to spontaneously produce things as beautiful as this.

God knows that He needn't intervene directly in nature to bring about this effect. But presumably the constants of physics that make such order possible are both caused and not caused by themselves. It isn't an irrational inference to suppose that an intelligent necessary being deliberately set the contingent laws of physics up as they are.

I think your assertion that the snowflake is 'undesigned' then should be reinterpreted. It is true that God did not design the snowflake in the way that we would have to. His intentionality is capable of entertaining all possible effects simultaneously, even those far into the long life of the universe. He can will the near infinite complexity of the universe into being all at once.

But for those of us embedded in space-time we see a continuous uninterrupted order producing stunning complexity without no visible intentional cause, and that can be quite stunning. All the same, the snowflake can still be to the glory of God.

So in the end, the majesty of God and the majesty of spontaneous orders need not be mutually exclusive. It would be a wonderful thing if in the next century both theists and atheists could come to understand that.

Mark Brady - 12/25/2005

What an appropriate post for today!

Sheldon Richman - 12/25/2005

Spectacular! Thanks, Steve.