Randomness and God’s Governance, Part 3
Note: This essay is Part 3 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.” In part two, Pruim addressed God's use of apparent randomness in creation. Today, he concludes by considering why apparent randomness pervades nature, and whether it matters if God did use randomness in the process of creation.
If God Doesn’t Use Randomness, Why Does it Look That Way to Us?
Perhaps, as Einstein famously claimed, “God doesn’t throw dice.” Some may find the view in which God utterly controls all the minutia of everyday life—each coin toss, each radioactively decaying particle—simple and comforting. In this context, randomness only reflects our lack of knowledge and represents our best coping strategy for things we cannot understand any other way.
This belief alone doesn’t answer everything, however. In particular, it doesn’t explain why things look so random. As I already mentioned, making things appear random is non-trivial—and constraining. So does God choose all of the outcomes of all of the things scientists model with randomness, but then just happen to do so in a way that all the laws of probability are satisfied?
Even supposing this scenario is true, scientists—including Christian scientists—will not abandon their stochastic models and probabilistic explanations for the simple reason that they are the best thing we have going. For the most part, we do this without considering any deep philosophical or theological implications. We do it because it works. When pressed, most of us would probably admit that the world feels random to us, not because we deny God his proper role, but because the random models fit the available data. In some cases, like quantum mechanics, it is difficult to even describe the phenomena without the language of probability. Randomness in this context isn’t so scary. It helps make sense of the world around us.
One must be careful not to retreat to the position that randomness is incompatible with faith out of a sense that science is the antithesis of faith and that anything scientists believe must be misguided. At the height of the Enlightenment, scientists like Pierre Simon Laplace were convinced that mathematics could describe the deterministic workings of the world without the need for a “God hypothesis.” In A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities, he wrote:
We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.
At the time, many felt that this mathematical determinism left no room for God. At best, it relegated God to the clockmaker of a clockwork universe that now runs without any divine intervention. As the discovery of systems with sensitive dependence on their initial conditions and especially quantum mechanics made it clear to scientists that the deterministic perspective was insufficient, they turned to random models. Now, some fear that randomness leaves no room for God and must be rejected.
Does it Matter?
At a practical level, it probably does not matter how we think God relates to randomness. It is an interesting question why stochastic models work so well, but there is no denying that stochastic models have been incredibly effective in a wide range of situations, and there is no reason to expect that this will change any time soon.
However, how we interpret seemingly random events can matter at a personal, subjective level. In churches, where lots are cast to select leaders, do we imagine that God is picking individual people for these positions— and rejecting others? Or do we think it is merely the luck of the draw? Our answer might affect how we draw up the initial slate of candidates, and it certainly can make a difference in the feelings of those selected or not selected in the process.
When “coincidences” occur in our daily lives, do we see them as evidence of God directly intervening to achieve some purpose? If so, are we as willing to do so when the immediate impact is negative as when the immediate impact is positive? Or do things “just happen?” Do we interpret these events in a broader context in which, given enough opportunities, unlikely things are sure to happen to someone, or in a narrower context in which things are very unlikely to happen to me?
“The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord,” writes the author of Proverbs (16:33). How broadly does this verse apply, and when is it appropriate to cast lots to make decisions? Should we flip a coin to decide what house to buy, what job offer to accept, what college to attend, whom to marry, or which dessert to order? If not, why not? Does God treat a casually tossed coin or a decaying atom differently from a prayerfully cast lot?
Some Christian communities are opposed to insurance, but most of the Christians I know insure their homes, vehicles, health, and lives—at least to the extent they can afford to do so. Where do we draw the line between putting God to the test and trusting?
These challenging questions do not have simple answers. The contemporary scientific way of treating these situations is by modeling the randomness and using the resulting models to gather information and make effective decisions. Regardless of how we resolve the theological issues, it is a mistake to think that scientists use stochastic models because they are atheists and leave no room for God, or that this approach represents an attack on our faith—even though there are some scientists who would like to make these claims. One way or another, this approach works, and scientists of every religious persuasion are using it to make sense of the world around them. I choose to view this as part of God’s care for us and his preparation of us to care for his creation.
For a more thorough treatment of probability aimed at the educated layperson, see The Drunkard’s Walk by Leonard Mlodinow. Several scientists have explored ways in which God could make use of randomness in creating and sustaining the cosmos. Among them are John Polkinghorne (a physicist and priest), David Bartholomew (a statistician), and Richard Colling (a biologist).
- Bartholomew, David J. God, Chance, and Purpose: Can God Have It Both Ways? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
- Colling, Richard. Random Designer: Created from Chaos to Connect with Creator. Bourbonnais, IL: Browning Press, 2004. Laplace, Pierre Simon. A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities, 6th ed. Translated by F. W. Truscott and F. L. Emory. New York: Dover Publications, 1951.
- Mlodinow, Leonard. The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives. New York: Vintage Books, 2009. Polkinghorne, John C. Quarks, Chaos and Christianity: Questions to Science and Religion. London: Triangle, 1994.
- Polkinghorne, John C. Science and Providence: God’s Interaction with the World. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Foundation Press, 2005. Pruim, Randall. “Review of The Drunkard ’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 63, no. 3 (2011): 210.
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.