The Randomness Project
It is not uncommon to hear voices proclaiming that biology and physics have shown us that—at fundamental levels—nature is random, hence meaningless, purposeless, and without a creator. In fact, chance (or randomness) has often been seen as inconsistent with Christian faith by Christians, too, not just by those opposed to faith. For instance, none other than John Calvin wrote:
Suppose a man falls among thieves, or wild beasts; is shipwrecked at sea by a sudden gale; is killed by a falling house or tree. Suppose another man wandering through the desert finds help in his straits; having been tossed by the waves, reaches harbor; miraculously escapes death by a finger’s breadth. Carnal reason ascribes all such happenings, whether prosperous or adverse, to fortune. But anyone who has been taught by Christ’s lips that all the hairs if his head are numbered [Matt. 10:30] will look further afield for a cause, and will consider that all events are governed by God’s secret plan.
In this passage, Calvin presents belief in “fortune” as evidence of carnal reasoning, and statements like this one have contributed to a widely-held notion that modern scientific understandings of the role that randomness plays in nature is inconsistent with belief in divine providence. In other words, if “randomness” equals blind and capricious “fortune,” then how can God be said to be working all things to his ends?
But Calvin could not have known of the very different understanding of randomness held by today’s scholars. Physical scientists, mathematicians, and statisticians have not yet agreed on a single unambiguous definition of the term “randomness,” but among these scientists, the term consistently refers to a family of related concepts focusing on unpredictability of the outcomes of single events and the absence of pattern in sequences of outcomes. I like this statement by John Polkinghorne, “Chance doesn't mean meaningless randomness, but historical contingency. This happens rather than that, and that's the way that novelty, new things, come about.” In Polkinghorne’s view, chance is an agent of creativity and can be perceived as being purposeful.
In fact, there are abundant examples of phenomena in nature in which randomness plays a role one could understand as being purposeful. For example, osmosis is a marvelous mechanism that enables all 10 trillion cells in our bodies to be nourished – it depends on the random motion of molecules. The human immune system is able to defend the body against attacks from millions of different microorganisms using a relatively small number of building blocks and random combinations of these to fashion defenses specific to each adversary. We never take a breath and find it to be all nitrogen or carbon dioxide – random motion of molecules keeps oxygen close to uniformly distributed throughout the atmosphere.
In 2007, a British statistician, David Bartholomew published God, Chance, and Purpose in which he argues that God “can have it both ways”—that he can use low level randomness to accomplish divine purposes while simultaneously maintaining order at a higher level. Of course, we cannot prove that God ordained these random processes to achieve divine purposes in the world. But to a person of faith, such an interpretation in both consistent with the observations we make in science and with the Scriptural notion of God’s providential care for the world.
Considerations like these led the John Templeton Foundation to provide a generous grant of $1.69 million to support a new research initiative on the theme of Randomness and Divine providence. Beginning this past summer, the program has the purpose of providing support for solid theoretical exploration of the kinds of ideas and possibilities expressed above—involving theology, philosophy, natural science, mathematics, and statistics. The grant will support individual scholars and teams of scholars who are willing to devote a significant amount of time between March of 2013 and June of 2015 to such work, and the project’s request for proposals suggests the following as questions researchers might pursue:
- How might God work providentially through indeterminate processes? Can recent advances in understanding the nature of randomness offered by algorithmic information theory, physics, biology, and other sciences provide insight into this question?
- Can we bring clarity to the concept of "randomness"? Philosophers and scientists have tried on occasion to give precise definitions of when a process is random, but more work needs to be done on the question. How do (or should) conceptions of randomness vary across academic disciplines?
- What are some possible implications of randomness for hiding or unfolding divine creativity and purpose in the world? Could God use randomness to (1) generate creativity, (2) hide divine actions, or (3) unfold information? Why might God do so?
- How might we identify and come to understand a significant collection of nondeterministic processes in which agents could intentionally employ randomness to bring about purposeful results?
- How might we mathematically and physically model random processes in ways that help us understand how divine providence could be exercised in a "chance-governed" world?
- How do "laws and orders" in nature interplay with "chance and randomness" in bringing about results that can be interpreted as aspects of divine providence?
- Might randomness be evidence of limitations in human knowledge but nothing more? Or might it be evidence of ontological indeterminism? Might this be tested?
- What implications does randomness have for aspects of God’s relationship with the physical world such as God’s relationship to time and God’s role in causation? How might randomness be reconciled with God’s foreknowledge?
- How might an understanding of providence based on an extended Molinism and/or open theology incorporate randomness? For example, could an extended Molinism provide a plausible account of the relationship between quantum mechanics and divine providence?
- What are some theodical implications of randomness, particularly for the issue of natural evil?
- How have the theological traditions of Augustine, Maimonides, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin addressed chance and fortune? In what ways might they incorporate ontological randomness?
- How do or could religions other than the Judeo/Christian tradition understand and incorporate randomness?
- How is the concept of randomness understood by advocates of secularism, naturalism, and new atheism? What are the strengths and weaknesses of these usages?
- How might an understanding of randomness in the world alter our conceptions of divinity, especially our understanding of divine providence?
Despite the range of issues mentioned above, research is by no means restricted only to these topics. In fact, the structure of the program is designed to foster collaboration and build community between scholars, with the end of expanding the range and integration of their work: two conferences will be held to bring scholars together with each other and then with members of the public—one at Calvin College in 2013 and the other at Fuller Theological Seminary in 2015. To get more information and to learn how to submit a proposal, see the project website; then join us in exploring the truth that all creation glorifies God—even randomness!
James Bradley is a Professor of Mathematics emeritus at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA. He received his bachelor of science in mathematics from MIT and his doctorate in mathematics from the University of Rochester. His mathematical specialty has been game theory and operations research. In recent years, he has pursued an interest in mathematics and theology. He coedited Mathematics in a Postmodern Age: a Christian Perspective and the mathematics volume in Harper One’s Through the Eyes of Faith series. He also edits the Journal of the Association of Christians in the Mathematical Sciences.