Randomness and God’s Governance, Part 2
Note: This essay is Part 2 of a three-part series from Randall Pruim’s chapter in the book Delight in Creation: Scientists Share Their Work with the Church, edited by Deborah Haarsma & Scott Hoezee. Other essays from the book appear at The Ministry Theorem.
The first post in this series explained what scientists and mathematicians mean when they speak of something being “random.” Building on this concept, today Pruim’s essay addresses God's use of apparent randomness in creation.
Could God Use Randomness to Achieve His Purposes?
I ended last week by noting that despite our familiarity with children’s games and the importance of stochastic models throughout the sciences, many Christians have a reaction to randomness that falls somewhere between uneasy and antagonistic. So where does the uneasiness come from? Likely it comes from the feeling that taking randomness seriously means not taking God seriously. Or put more strongly, it comes from a fear that believing in randomness means not believing in God. But rather than seeing apparent randomness as being in opposition to Christian belief that God is active and sovereign in the world, could God use actually randomness to achieve his purposes?
Whether and how God uses randomness is difficult to tell, but randomness may not be as incompatible with a creating and sustaining God as some Christians fear. Too often, arguments make claims about randomness that are not warranted and therefore set up the false dichotomy of God (exclusive) or randomness.
One common issue is terminology. Randomness is often associated with words like “blind,” “chaotic,” and “uncontrolled,” but as the examples in part one show, randomness can also be designed, purposeful, and creative. When mathematicians and scientists use the word “random,” they are using it in a technical sense to refer to the unpredictability of individual events, not in the common sense of “purposeless.” Randomness does not in itself preclude divine action or control.
To further complicate things, in the 1970s mathematicians borrowed the word “chaos,” which originally indicated an abyss or emptiness, but had been used at least since the Vulgate to describe the void at the beginning of creation, and eventually came to be associated with anything disorderly or disordered. Mathematicians use “chaos’’ to describe a particular type of deterministic process that is so sensitive to its initial conditions, that any amount of imprecision in the knowledge of the initial state renders the long-term state of the process unpredictable. In fact, the situation is even worse, since for a chaotic system, improving the accuracy of the initial measurements will not necessarily improve the accuracy of the projections into the future, so the only practical models of these situations are stochastic models.
Passages like Genesis 1 are sometimes taught as a battle between “cosmos” (order) and “chaos” (disorder), in which the God of order wins over the gods of disorder. While this makes sense in the context of ancient near east cultures, it ignores the possibility that God could bring about order using processes that are random in a mathematical sense.
The Sierpinski Triangle example shows how randomness can be used to obtain highly predictable, desired results. This same principle applies in more practical settings as well. Stochastic screening, for example, is a printing technique that places small dots of ink randomly according to rules that control the overall impression of color. Stochastic screening gives a more natural appearance than older methods that place dots of ink (of varying size) at predetermined locations.
When I began graduate work in mathematics at the University of Wisconsin, I lived in the apartment below Joe Wergin. Joe was in his late seventies at the time and also loved games. When he was younger, he had been a high school football coach. When I met him, his games of choice were Cribbage and Skat (a popular card game in Germany). He had written books about both games and loved to tell a story about a time he played Cribbage against an opponent who had an inflated estimation of his own ability. While his opponent was out of the room, Joe removed all of the 5’s from the deck of cards they were using. Aided by his knowledge that there were no fives in the deck, Joe won their game handily. His opponent didn’t even notice.
It is important to note that the Cribbage game did not become less random when the 5’s were removed. Joe neither controlled nor knew which cards he and his opponent would receive. But he knew there would be no 5’s and that the other cards were equally likely. This was more than enough to ensure victory. Perhaps part of God’s creating and sustaining work is similar to these examples. What if God set up the conditions and random processes to achieve desired ends? To be fair, considering this possibility may mean expanding the definition of what it means to achieve one’s purposes. My two randomly generated triangles are not identical, but they both equally suit my purposes (along with a large number of other triangles).
Lest one object that this is too small a role for God, I should mention that generating “true” randomness is not at all easy to do. Entire research agendas center on producing reasonably good pseudo-random number generators, in verifying their properties, and determining whether physical phenomena like atmospheric noise or radioactive decay provide sufficiently random results. Mathematicians have created an entire hierarchy of definitions of random, so that it is possible to talk about things being more random or less random in a technical, mathematical sense.
Statisticians and computer scientists discuss the best procedures for testing purported random data. Physicists search for the best physical sources from which randomness can be retrieved and harnessed. A God who can create randomness, determine the parameters in which it operates, and use it to achieve certain purposes is not a weak and powerless God. The idea is clever and elegant; the implementation, challenging.
This is not to say it really works this way. God’s use of randomness is a challenging metaphysical issue for philosophers, theologians, and scientists to think about together. But before we claim to know both how the world works and how God works in it, we should at least consider this option carefully, weighing how it fits with our best scientific, philosophical, and theological theories. And we must not too readily dismiss it as incompatible with a God who exercises creative and sustaining influence over our lives and the world around us.
On the other hand, if God doesn’t use randomness, why does it look that way to us? That’s the question we’ll address next week in Part 3.
Randall Pruim is Professor of Mathematics and Statistics at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His research interests include biostatistics, statistical genetics, and the relationships among statistics, philosophy, and religion.