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From Chaos to Order: The Random Process as the “Precision Tool"of God

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September 13, 2011 Tags: Divine Action & Purpose

Today's video features Ryan Pettey. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

For many, the importance of apparent randomness in evolution can be a major stumbling block when considering whether God could have created through an evolutionary process. After all, if God created for a purpose, how could there be room for “unguided and purposeless” processes? Aren’t randomness and design naturally opposed?

While these are indeed complex questions, some of the problems do stem from misunderstandings about what randomness means in a scientific sense and what role it plays in evolution. To help clarify some of these details, we offer these resources.

The “Randomness” installment of our Distinctions series (first posted earlier this year) looks at some of the basic misconceptions about the role of randomness in evolution. While it is understood by many simply to mean blind, undirected and purposeless, in truth, randomness is far more complex and awe-inspiring than this overly-simplified definition. Whether through genetic mutations or the combinations that occur between sperm and eggs, these processes can be seen as the continual unfolding of something that is decidedly not random--creation itself. Randomness, in essence, generates certainty. This is further illustrated in the second video.

In the clip “Randomness” from the upcoming film A Leap of Truth by Ryan Pettey, Richard Colling, Ard Louis, and John Polkinghorne offer several examples of random processes leading to order rather than disorder. As Dr. Louis points out, the scientific definition of “randomness” is quite different from our everyday understanding of the word. In fact, random generation is the most efficient way to generate complexity. Polkinghorne further notes that we live in a world where the balance of random mutations is almost perfectly tuned for fruitful life on Earth. This, we learn, is God's process: Randomness given time, can lead to that which is nearly certain.

This is beautifully illustrated in the following re-post from last year. Here, in a blog called "That's Random," Kathryn Applegate offers two examples of random motion leading to certainty in the process of assembling a virus. Because random processes can lead to that which is almost certain, it is not at all surprising that this has frequently been used by God over billions of years to create order out of chaos--God's creation, by God's way, in God's time.

That's Random

You hear it all the time: “That’s so random!” When used by people of my generation, the word “random” can simply mean “cool” or “surprising.” Or it can mean something like “disconnected,” as in the phrase, “I had a random thought” (which returns 189,000 hits on Google, by the way—random!).

Despite this usage, most of us know that randomness has something to do with probability, and that it often implies a lack of conscious intentionality. But what do mathematicians and scientists mean when they say something is random? Can a random process lead to an ordered, even predictable outcome? Is there evidence that God makes use of random processes to fulfill his creative purposes?

These are big questions, and we won’t address them all today. But I think randomness is an important topic to cover for two reasons: 1) it is integral to many processes in biology (and math, physics, chemistry, etc.), and 2) it is commonly misunderstood to be incompatible with Christianity.

As I said above, most of us know that randomness has something to do with probability. If you pick a card “at random” from a shuffled deck, you have a small probability of drawing an ace (4 out of 52, or a 7.7% chance). If you flip a coin, you have an equal probability of getting heads or tails.

Randomness also seems to imply a lack of intentionality or purposefulness. After all, you might hope for an ace when you draw a card, but you can’t choose one on purpose. You might call heads when you flip a coin, but you can’t know beforehand what the outcome will be. Thus the outcome is indeterminate, but is it purposeless? Not necessarily. Indeterminacy simply means the result cannot be predicted from the outset.

It should be noted that indeterminacy does not imply that God does not have foreknowledge of future events. Christians ought not to be uncomfortable with the idea of God interacting with his creation through chance. We often describe a seemingly-random (i.e. unplanned by us) sequence of events as being “providential,” or planned by God. A good introduction to the way divine action could drive physical processes can be found in this Question.

In biology, it is very hard or impossible to calculate precise probabilities for most processes, so when we say a process is random, we typically mean it is extremely unpredictable. Eventually we will discuss randomness within biological evolution, but first we must consider some simpler processes, like the self-assembly of a virus.

Viruses are remarkably efficient entities. Coiled tightly within a protein-based shell is a small amount of DNA needed for self-replication. The shell, called a capsid, is made of many repeating protein subunits and is therefore highly symmetrical (see figure). Important biomedical insights have certainly been gleaned from structural studies of viruses, but viruses also teach us about the emergence of order from non-order.

The virus life cycle has four main steps: 1) enter a host cell, 2) hijack the cell’s replication and translation machinery to make many copies of itself, 3) assemble into many virus particles, and 4) exit the cell to invade another host.

When I first learned about this process, I found it very hard to believe it just “happens.” The idea that a bunch of molecules bumping into each other inside a crowded cell could spontaneously assembly into a fully-functional virus seemed a bit far-fetched. Many viral capsids have over 100 protein subunits that must interact with each other in just the right way, or it won’t work. Surely there must be something driving this process, right?

There is! Random motion. I had to see it to believe it. I distinctly remember sitting in class during my first year of graduate school when the professor demonstrated self-assembly of a virus using a 3D model as shown in the following video. In less than 30 seconds, you can watch a jumbled heap of proteins become a beautifully ordered structure.

As the narrator explains, sub-assemblies form and break apart en route to the most stable structure, the full capsid. As the sub-assemblies begin to form, further associations with free subunits become more favorable and as a result occur rapidly, while the final steps may take considerably longer. While the subunits in the model are rigid, in reality the proteins take on multiple conformations, allowing the capsid to “breathe.”

Amazing as it is, the system we just considered—one virus capsid in a jar—is pretty simple. One wonders how self-assembly can happen in a crowded cell, where there are countless other molecules diffusing around, potentially getting in the way. We can’t directly see how it happens in a cell, but we can reconstitute the process in a test tube using different combinations of constituent molecules.

Consider two viruses, where each protein subunit in one virus is the mirror image of the corresponding subunit in the other. Putting the two viruses together by hand would be pretty tricky, because the constituent parts look so similar. But random motion can do the job in short order:

From this model, we can see clearly, in real-time, how distinct complex structures can arise from their parts randomly interacting with one another. Many large viruses also use special scaffolding proteins to assist in the assembly process, and some even use their own genomes as a scaffold. In addition, two closely-related viruses that happen to infect the same cell can exchange parts to create a new virus. This is one way viruses can evolve quickly to evade the host’s immune system.

Here we have seen how viruses demonstrate a principle inherent in God’s world—that order can emerge out of chaos from random processes.

Commentary written by the BioLogos editorial team.

Ryan Pettey is a filmmaker and the director/editor of Satellite Pictures. He produced the feature length video From the Dust, which examines the question of human physical origins from a theological, historical and social perspective.

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KevinR - #64708

September 14th 2011

“it is not at all surprising that this has frequently been used by God
over billions of years to create order out of chaos—God’s creation, by
God’s way, in God’s time.”

Just how does the author KNOW that this has happened since no one human being was there to record it? At this stage, this is sheer speculation because it’s not documented anywhere that God used evolution to create living organisms. Not in the bible. Not anywhere else, except in the fertile imaginations of people who would like to believe in evolution as God’s tool.

Furthermore the whole article wants to redefine what random and the consequences of random motion means. Sure you can get random interactions between already complex sub-systems but for evolution to work it has to CREATE those sub-systems first. There-in lies the rub - it can’t. Not in a billion trillion years.  So to come now and point out how random actions occur when all the right conditions are already established is simply overkill as far as extrapolation is concerned. One cannot observe random processes in the cell or anywhere and then come to the conclusion that those events could somehow by some sheer magic lead to the creation of LIFE and then also to the furtherance from one common ancestor to all of life as we know it. This is begging the question: HOW?

Darrel Falk - #64709

September 14th 2011

Dear Kevin,

With regard to your second paragraph, the process itself is God’s.  The “magic” you speak of is not coming from nowhere.  This is God’s process and it was God’s plan which brought it into being.  Furthermore, it is carried out through God’s ongoing activity in creation.(Colossians 1:16, 17).  The natural laws are simply a manifestation of the ongoing regular activity of God.  Without that, all would collapse into nothingness.  It might even be that this process accomplishes God’s purposes so effectively that no supernatural activity is needed.  We just don’t know. 

None of this implies that God has not chosen to use miracles in his relationship to humankind.  Scripture is full of examples of the supernatural activity of God.  The nature of the Holy Spirit and the manner in which the  Holy Spirit works in our individual lives defies scientific analysis.  We believe that God hears our prayers (millions of them all at once) and enters into relationship with us—again this takes us outside of the realm of scientific analysis and into the world of the supernatural.

The fact that the eternal God uses randomness to accomplish some of his purposes, does not imply absence of the Creator in any way shape or form.  Instead it confirms what Scripture has long taught—God’s time is not our time and God’s ways are not our ways. 

KevinR - #64743

September 15th 2011

Dear Darrel,
I take note of your careful choice of words. The random process discussed in the article  is obviously aimed at showing how evolution can assemble things without the need for intelligence.
However it is misleading from the start since the bible is quite clear on the fact that God created in six days and thereby leaves no time for any evolutionary process to exercise it’s creative powers.
It’s only when one considers the fallible science of men to have greater authority than the bible that one begins to give heed to the atheistic world view of evolution as creator - and that is really unnecessary since as knowledge accumulates it is becoming extremely clear just how impossible it is for random processes to assemble the myriad of complex cooperating subsystems one finds in the human body for instance.
The level of knowledge required is not limited to what is inside one cell, there is a need to have system-wide knowledge for the human body[and just about any other body] to work properly. Such system-wide knowledge cannot be generated by random processes since it requires foreknowledge of what is required elsewhere. Take the reproductive system for example - how does evolution develop sexual difference that works - simultaneously via a random process? It can’t. Except by a miracle that requires more faith than believing in a direct creator.
We don’t need evolution as a creation process.

jmunk - #64711

September 14th 2011

There are some statements in the videos that I think give the wrong impression. For example, when they say randomness is well-defined as having equal probability of occurrence, this is true, but you need a repeatable experiment to be able to show randomness in this sense. The grand experiment of our universe is not repeatable.

In a general sense, randomness is simply a synonym for ignorance. Consider the throwing of a 6-sided die. If I know precisely the rotational moments, the precise structure of the surface on which it bounces, the exact location of all objects that exert gravitational forces, then the result of the die-throw is not random at all. It is fully deterministic, actually.

Randomness is simply a useful tool for modeling complex systems about which we are ignorant. As a lowly engineer, I need to model many things as random. I don’t precisely know all of the force acting on a bridge, but I can model them as a random process and still build a pretty good bridge. But God doesn’t need to do this. To say He “uses randomness” is sort of an obfuscation of what I believe is going on. God *does* have perfect knowledge. To him the die-throw, the forces acting on the bridge, and the mixing of DNA, are not random at all. The results that occur are the necessary consequences of his creation.

Muff Potter - #64717

September 14th 2011


I’m with ya on this one.

Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827) was one of the greatest Mathematicians Western Hellenism has ever produced. He had this to say in a published work entitled: A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities.

“…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…”

As an engineer myself, I lean toward specifically designed components for a specifically designed system. I cannot rely on random bolt selection when it must be extremely high strength, say 17-4 PH vs. cheapo stuff from a big chain store that can barely be called steel legally.

Coulda-woulda-shoulda is fine for a specifically designed computer algorithm as in the vids, but what actually happened may be quite different altogether.  The Almighty is still the greatest designer and artist of them all.

Chip - #64712

September 14th 2011

Forgive my careful reading, but…

In biology, ...when we say a process is random, we typically mean it is extremely unpredictable.

And later…

In less than 30 seconds, you can watch a jumbled heap of proteins become a beautifully ordered structure.

Presumably, this last statement means the virus self-assembly process has been observed countless times.  If true, the process is very predictable and therefore (according to BL’s own definition of the term) non-random. 

C’mon guys—your own example explicitly contradicts your definition.  And you wonder why people aren’t buying the argument?

Ashe - #64715

September 14th 2011

You can’t predict exactly how or in what time non-uniform building blocks will self assemble, because it’s random. /span>

Roger A. Sawtelle - #64766

September 16th 2011

Ashe wrote:

“You can’t predict exactly how or in what time non-uniform building blocks will self assemble, because it’s random.”

Random according to the dictionary which is the authority on the meaning of words means “without order or structure.”  A process creates order and structure, so it is not random.  A random process is a contradiction in terms, like a sane crazy person. 

What Ashe has described is best expressed as an indeterminate or unpredictable process.  For whatever reason some people have redefined random to mean “indeterminate.”  Of course it still does not justify saying that something is indeterminate because it is indeterminate.  Random and indeterminate are descriptive terms rather than explanatory terms. 

What we have today is a Crisis of Meaning.  Some influential scientists, like Dawkins, claim that reality has no meaning.  They are using the word “random” to mean meaningless, at the same time that BioLogos is pushing the word random to mean indeterminate, which does not preclude God’s meaning.  If science wants to say and mean indeterminate, that is what it should say and mean.  Otherwise it appears that it is pushing the agenda of Dawkins & Co. 

The venue of these indeterminate processes is the nano quantum world, that humans cannot observe, so there is no way we can say that these processes are random.  This is the sphere of the
strong force, which humans do not understand.  Can God use these indeterminate forces to create God’s world?  Of course.  Can nature do the same?  Not really because nature is not an Agent, but since nature is created by God and given God’s Telos through the Logos, God works through nature.            

Darrel Falk - #64716

September 14th 2011

Dear Chip,

As you will have noted the details of the process by which the virus assembled was extremely unpredictable. How many different ways of assembling the virus are there?  A zillion, right?  Totally random, right? 

 The end result is not. 

Can you imagine a more elegant way to construct a structure in 30 seconds?

You’ve illustrated our point beautifully.  God bless you, Chip.
Chip - #64718

September 14th 2011

Hi Darrel,

My objections to evolutionary theory aren’t related to the fact that some elements of the created order are random.  Sure, the components can be put together in “a zillion ways,” but these “must interact with each other in just the right way, or it won’t work,” right?

Ironically, the model intended to illustrate the power and wonder of randomness only works if everything other than the order of assembly is carefully designed and controlled.  Consider:

1. The contents of the container, whose shapes, sizes, weight, density and even colors were selected by an intelligent agent such that they would fit together into the desired shape. 
2. The size of the container has to be big enough to allow movement, but small enough to allow collision of the components. (How good would the illustration be if the pieces were dropped into a swimming pool, or crammed into a thimble?) 
3. The container has to be clear—the “spinner” needs to be able to see what’s happening; he also knows to stop when a sphere is formed. 
4. The speed of rotation is relatively constant and within a fairly narrow band (ie, 5000 rpm probably wouldn’t work). 
5. The strength of the magnets (assuming that’s what provides the cohesion) has to be within certain tolerances

And on and on.  The point here is simply that all of these specifications (and probably others) are necessary to the success of the model, and that none of these were randomly determined, right? 

So what does the model really show?  That an intelligent entity can utilize randomness as a relatively minor part of a larger engineered and specified process. 

You’ve illustrated my point beautifully.  God bless you too. 

G8torBrent - #64726

September 14th 2011

When I try to explain why evolution shouldn’t be objectionable to Christians, I sometimes paint an imaginary picture of two bowlers. 

One takes his ball up to the lane, gets down on his hands and knees, pushes it towards the pins, and knocks them down one by one, never taking his hands off the ball. The other lines up, approaches the lane, releases the ball with just the right spin so that the ball hits the head pin and the resulting interactions knock all the pins down. 

The first bowler is the literal six-day creation. The second is evolution. Frankly, I’m more impressed with the second. But my awe of God doesn’t stop at the wonder of this process he uses. 

Continuing the bowling analogy, He created the widths and lengths of the lane, and decided the lane material would be a certain kind of would and not, say, gravel; He decided that the ball would be an acrylic ball and not a cube made of foam rubber; by His design, the pins are a certain shape and density and number.

All these things are about how the universe is “wired”—the physical laws, the elements of genetic mutation which spawn change and the very movement toward life itself. It is those things that make our existence, through evolution, possible once He has set it all in motion. 
Jon Garvey - #64731

September 15th 2011

The problem is that this has never been the formulation causing trouble, since way back in Warfield’s time and before. Six day creation was not the major issue until much later on, at least in the intellectual mainstream.

On the secular/nod-to-religion side, the analogy was that which skittles actually got knocked down was undirected and unpredictable and not determined by the laws that “The Creator” set up. Therefore life, and we ourselves, are unplanned rather than created.

The equivalent on the religious side, which is still echoed in much of the science-faith discussion now, is that God isn’t such a perfect bowler that he can be sure of scoring a strike, and even maybe that the uncertainty makes the game more fun for him.

Or in the context of randomness, maybe that God has built in randomising factors like pegs that pop up in the lane, or changing random biases in the ball, just to increase the “freedom” and “interactivity” of the game. The net result is still that the bowler’s skill is not the only factor in the final score.

So in the real debate, the one key issue is this: is randomness in nature random to God himself, or not? Does God assemble the virus he wants (for his own mysterious purposes) or does he get the one foisted on him by his Demiurge, chance? If the first, he is the Creator. If the second, he is merely one pole of a dualistic couple.

jmunk - #64748

September 15th 2011

“So in the real debate, the one key issue is this: is randomness in nature random to God himself, or not?”

Bingo. And the answer is no, nothing is random to Him or He is not the God of the Bible*
The did-God-assemble-us-out-of-dust v.s. did-God-assemble-us-through-evolution debate becomes moot from a theological standpoint once you realize that (1) both devices still imply God as the Creator and (2) neither device takes away from God as the Almighty.
(*There is another option that He willfully restrains his foreknowledge and endures randomness just as Christ willfully restrained His foreknowledge - e.g., to paraphrase, “no one, not even myself, knows the time of my return except for the Father” - but in this case, randomness is no Demiurge, as God is sovereign over it, as well).
G8torBrent - #64754

September 15th 2011

Restraining foreknowledge. Never heard it put that way before but it intrigues me. 

The randomness discussion is interesting, to me, because see God as sovereign, yet people are free to sin; so God’s will is achieved and we move through His-story inexorably toward His purpose, despite our ability to act in ways not intended (designed?) by Him. I’ve seen it pondered elsewhere on the BioLogos site, if the ability of humans to act in unpredictable ways is built-in, why couldn’t it be built into other elements of creation?
Jon Garvey - #64762

September 16th 2011

”...if the ability of humans to act in unpredictable ways is built-in, why couldn’t it be built into other elements of creation?”

There’s the rub - the “pondering” presupposes that human choice is somehow the same as randomness. Whereas the Biblical picture is that is is the ordered outworking of our moral nature (for good or ill: “out of the good man’s heart comes good” etc). So it’s all too predictable to God. We choose only as rational, moral agents in God’s image (for he is a rational moral agent).

That is simply inapplicable (and meaningless) in inanimate nature. If my computer generates a random string it gains no freedom, I gain no benefit and God gains no glory.

KevinR - #64741

September 15th 2011

Except for the small part in Genesis 1 where God states quite clearly that He created everything in only six days - thereby leaving ZERO time for evolution. God didn’t use evolution to create anything - He spoke and it came into being, directly. Just as Jesus told a paralytic to get up, take his mat and walk. Or turned water into wine. All in an instant.

Why do you feel a need to have things be created via evolution? What prompts you to bring the atheistic world view into the bible and moreover consider that worldview to be the authority on the origin of the world and everything in it? Do you not thereby say that the bible is subject to the authority of the fallible science of man? It brings the ultimate question : Do you believe the bible in it’s totality or do you pick and choose what you want to believe?

G8torBrent - #64745

September 15th 2011

You ask several questions at the end that I suspect you’ve already answered in your own mind. Nevertheless…

I have no need for the world to be created in any particular way. I’m more interested in how I should live in Christ, the one and only way to have a saving relationship with God and experience the life—the eternal life—God has always intended.

Atheistic worldview? It’s a common misperception that because an explanation doesn’t require God’s tinkering that it’s somehow atheistic. But, since I believe God created the world, I believe the evidence he built into it can be relied upon to understand the age and processes involved and so forth.

“The Bible subject to the authority of science?” (I must be more right; at least I capitalized “Bible.”) Why invoke authority at all here? Does science inform our interpretation of Scripture or not? Ask Galileo about that one. The Bible is revelation and as such, God is revealing to us things we can’t discover on our own. (As for science, it’s actually a pretty humble endeavor, in that theories are tested and when flaws are found, they’re either abandoned or revised. Even long trusted theories (gravitational therory, e.g.) never quite get “fact” status.)

Believing the Bible in its totality…picking and choosing. Hmm. Do you believe Jesus was a several slats of pressure-treated lumber hanging on a galvanized steel hinge? No? Why not? He said he was the gate. What about the eucharist? Is it literally, physically, the body and blood of Jesus?Do you picture God as a massive slab of rock? No? Why not? He is described as a rock, a fortress. What about the earth…does it move? It does? But what about where in Psalms we read that the foundations of the earth don’t move? What about Proverbs 6:16…are there six things God hates or seven? The writer seems to get it wrong and correct himself. Oh, you’re not picking and choosing, you say, you’re interpreting. Yes, but other interpretations, more literal, are possible, why not choose them? The point is believers have failed to apply due diligence to understanding the Scriptures well. We say we believe them but don’t invest the time to understand how the context of stories that emerged 4,000+ years ago in a very different place and culture from our own. In the ancient world, it wasn’t a case of the Bible’s stories or nothing. The creation stories “competed” with pagan creation mythologies which paint a very different, and often darker, picture about the meaning of creation. They esteem created things (sun and moon and stars) to a place of worship. The stories in the Bible God inspired in order to tell us the reality about the wild, wonderful world in which we live and what God’s purpose for us was. I recognize that the man-made term “evolution” describes the process God used to bring about a diversity of life. But if the Bible were to be written today, I still don’t think the description of origins would focus on the how, mainly because we’re still so far from understanding the how. Super string theory postulates something like seven additional dimensions in order to explain how the different physical laws all work together. I can’t even begin to get my head around that. And if I could, it might inspire awe in the Creator but doesn’t tell me anything about his purpose for me. 

By the way, you referenced Genesis 1 where God speaks everything into existence in six days. Why not reference Genesis 2 where God gets his hands dirty, so to speak, to create Adam/Man from the dust of the earth, stuff already created and in existence, before he created shrubs and plants as in the creation story of Genesis 1 and how the length of time in which he created is one day, “the day that the LORD God made earth and heaven”? Isn’t this internal discord between the two chapters reason enough to wonder if there’s a purpose other than explaining the when and how of our origins? Isn’t Cain’s lament that “whoever finds me will kill me” reason enough to suspect that other people existed and were created, unmentioned in the two accounts? Doesn’t it strike you as inconsistent that incest would be forbidden later on moral grounds but that it would have to be okay on moral grounds if the Genesis 1-2 is taken to be a literal, historical chronology of things? These are not questions from another worldview, but questions based upon a love for, respect for and a desire to take the Scriptures seriously, to “rightly divide the word of truth.”
Michael Marcacci1 - #64771

September 16th 2011

Hi Chip,

I see your point here – that intelligence went into the creation of this demonstration – but your conclusion errs in its domain. You merely showed that this was, in fact, a demonstration, and overlooked what it was demonstrating; the fact remains that all these “intelligent” conditions can occur without intelligence.

It’s perfectly possible that I could throw these pieces in the crowded trunk of a car, drive an hour on the interstate, and find them just as they were. It’s also possible that the trunk is empty, the road is unpaved, and I find self-assembled spheres instead of pieces.

Also this example is obviously not intended to show or suggest that “intelligence cannot play a role in self-assembly.” Rather, it’s a pretty clear demonstration that intelligence is not required for self-assembly.

Thanks for your thoughts!
penman - #64733

September 15th 2011

I’ve been a BioLogos watcher for a year or more now. This topic of randomness keeps coming up - rightly, in view of its importance.

Speaking with my theological hat on, underneath which is my church history hat, most of the forum’s arguments for randomness in nature are scientific arguments. They then proceed to argue that such randomness gives us a more beautiful or creative picture of God than envisage by alternatives. However, I personally find it difficult to get randomness from a strictly theological starting point. Scripture seems to paint a different picture, with divine sovereignty permeating all events, so that even the throw of the dice has an outcome directed by God (Prov.16:33). Same applies to human actions (Acts 4:27-8).

So I find myself impelled to the view that there can be only apparent randomness in nature. To us, events can be unpredictable & unfathomable, maybe even lacking any discernible causality. But not to God, who is pervasively sovereign, including over the dice & human decisions. If that seems to jeopardize our concepts of nature or freedom, I’d say either that our concepts need revision, or that we shouldn’t fear to embrace a healthy dose of apophatic mystery.

And in case everyone’s forgotten who I am, which is no loss to them, I speak as an evolutionary creationist. It’s my belief in God’s sovereignty that makes me so comfortable with evolution.

Merv - #64756

September 15th 2011

Hi again, Penman.  As a fellow lurker who drops in now & then for a “hit & run” I also am drawn by the “randomness” topic. 

I also share in your view of God’s sovereignty.  I would go even further and suggest that our concept of randomness breaks on earlier philosophical shoals before it has even reached any heights of theology or God’s sovereignty.

Randomness only applies forward in time from the present moment.  Our perspective from after the exact same event has collapsed into certainty.  There is some finite chance I will die in an auto accident tomorrow.  But there is 0% chance of it happening yesterday.  All probabilities between 0 & 100% collapse down to “it happened” or “it didn’t”.  So to an omniscient perspective, “chance” is rather meaningless.  But that doesn’t render it a useless concept to the rest of non-omniscient creatures.  In our perspective it’s still a useful statistical tool to apply (but only to the future—or to past events beyond our direct access.)


penman - #64764

September 16th 2011

Intriguing point, Merv, about randomness in relation to time. There’s nothing “unpredictable” about a known past….

I suppose what concerns me is constructing a concept of randomness from scientific study of nature, then projecting it onto God, or onto theology, when all the time the supreme source for theology (scripture) ITSELF has a pretty strong doctrine of providence. That doctrine seems to me to reduce “randomness” to nothing more than “human unpredictability”. Events & outcomes are not random to God. Revising our entire doctrine of God to make it fit in with a scientifically constructed concept of randomness does not do much justice to scripture or the theological tradition.

And it isn’t even necessary. I mean, why do it at all? Doesn’t a robust view of divine sovereignty provide all the theological framework we need for embracing the general theory of evolution without it threatening our belief in the divine meaningfulness of humanity as God’s image-bearer?

Merv - #64765

September 16th 2011

If scientists had used the somewhat more awkward phrase “humanly unpredictable” as a substitute for the word “random” in their descriptions of various processes seen in nature or evolution, would that make a difference to you?  Or do you think it would be less theologically threatening in general?


penman - #64767

September 16th 2011

Hi Merv
Yes, I’d have no problem with “humanly unpredictable”. Many processes & outcomes fall into that category. And yes, it SHOULD lack any air of theological “threat”. What’s human unpredictable can still be wholly predictable to God, & on top of that, decreed by God.

I suspect a lot of the TE/EC defenses of randomness are partially inspired by an animus against the idea of God decreeing everything, which itself in my experience is routinely misunderstood as if it were speaking of some mechanism of determinism. But I won’t get into that here! I prefer to rest on the strong biblical statements about divine providence, which in my view exclude the possibility of events being random in relation to God - either unpredictable, or reducing Him to a hands-off deistic spectator. I hope that makes sense….

And to reiterate, I’m a TE/EC myself, so I have absolutely no quarrel with the mission of BioLogos to set out a more scientifically credible alternative to Young Earth Creationism or even Old Earth Creationism. It’s the accompanying theology that sometimes rings the alarm bells.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #64772

September 16th 2011

Merv and Penman,

There is a perfectly good word that means humanly unpredictable and is much more accurate than random in this context and that is “indeterminate.”  Using this more appropriate word would clear up much of the confusion, except for that deliberately created.

See my comments above. 

Merv - #64799

September 17th 2011

Penman, I think I understand, though I also still think the alarm is both given and received by those who make sure their own use of random is bundled with philosophical or theological overtones.  Given this paraded usage, it’s understandable that such is now taken as part of the word’s meaning.

Roger, ‘indeterminate’ could indeed be a good alternative, though if it became common currency, its (now open-ended) definition could suffer the same fate as the more popular word ‘random’.  Eventually people would take it to be threatening as well.  We can respond to a ruined or polluted environ by abandoning it and seeking a virgin environ in which to start fresh.  But eventually we may want to begin asking why we are poisoning each well we use.  A new descriptive word may help only if we refrain from imputing anti-theological baggage to it as we did the old one.  I’m not confident that our culture is there.


penman - #64818

September 19th 2011

Not sure about “indeterminate”. Unless you qualify it with “humanly”, it could easily be taken as including God. But as I read Scripture, & the historic doctrine of providence, nothing is indeterminate with respect to God. He is never a detached hands-off spectator (= deism). His sovereignty permeates everything & there is nothing outside the jurisdiction of His decree. Theologically that provides a perfect undergirding for a TE/EC view. The development of life over geological time is just God’s way of carrying out His decree, which (as intended) culminates in humanity.

The only place I see in the process for a miracle (something above divinely controlled natural processes) is the emergence of the Imago Dei, which I think scripture says was bestowed by an immediate act of God.

And (postscript!) I still don’t see why any of this should exclude a real historical Adam as the divinely appointed covenant-head of the first generation of “imago dei humans”. The polemic against Adam, in my depressed opinion, is going to do more than anything else to convince conservative, historically-minded believers to shun evolution in all its forms.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #64827

September 19th 2011

Penman and Merv,

I do not think that we have to say “indeterminate as far as humans are concerned.”  I think that this is understood. 

The problem with “random” is that some insist that random is at the heart of reality.  If random means without structure or order which is the normal dictionary meaning of the word, then the Logos has been displaced by “science” and been replaced by Chaos or no order.

If BioLogos thinks that random no longer means random, without structure or order, what word takes the place of the old random?            

Chip - #64738

September 15th 2011

Hi Gator,

The second is evolution.

Not really. The second might be gradual (which I don’t object to at all), but it is not evolution.  In your model, God starts with an explicit goal (which evolution cannot have) and subsequently designs a system to accomplish it.  He directly controlls the timing, speed and rotation of the ball, as well as many, many other causal and environmental variables.  What you’re describing sounds like a variety of front-loaded programming, which is a flavor of ID (you even use the verbotten D-word in your description); it is not orthodox evolutionary theory.

G8torBrent - #64744

September 15th 2011

Since I described it as a strike, I knew the metaphor would be subject to such criticism. It could’ve been any number of pins. The point of it all, i think, is that the universe is wired for an outcome which God knew/imagine/desired, with built-in randomness. It has moved in a direction—toward life—when it didn’t have to.

By the way,  there’s a lot of “foreknowledge vs. predestination” loaded into these discussions which is pretty much impossible to completely understand…darn mystery.
KevinR - #64742

September 15th 2011

The above was addressed to G8toBrent.

G8torBrent - #64746

September 15th 2011


I answer to them all.
sy - #64806

September 18th 2011

If I might add one thing to this engaging and stimulating discussion of random events and processes. I agree that what is random or unpredictable to us, is not so to God. We cannot predict the weather, because we cannot know all the intitial conditions that go into a chaotic (but still deteministic) process. But God can. However, truly stochastic processes, like the fate of photons and electrons which behave according to  the laws of quantum mechanics, are by definition, not predictable, even by God.

So why would God have designed and created a universe, where even He is subject to some degree of unknowing? And why create a world for man, where almost everything is so complex as to seem virtually random? Why design life in such a way as to involve random mutations to influence when and how new life forms arise?

I believe the answer is freedom. Randomness allows for freedom and choice. We can choose our actions, God can choose to intervene or not, and if so, how to interact with His creation.

In a simple, predictable, non chaotic deterministic universe, there is no freedom and no choice. That is apparently not what the Lord wants for us, or for His world.

Merv - #64808

September 18th 2011

Sy, according to chaos theory, even the slightest quantum events (the proverbial extra electron at the edge of the universe) end up altering even the turbulent flows of macro systems (e.g. our weather).  So accepting that a quantum level event is unpredictable even to God is to accept that all systems are unpredictable in any omniscient sense unless one accepts that there is a macro-level predictability due to convergences that God sees or even designed.  Or does God just “break in” now & again with quantum level course corrections to ensure an occasional event?  How you would see omniscience or sovereignty co-existing with quantum uncertainty?  I’m curious.


sy - #64826

September 19th 2011


I have no idea, and I also do not really know if God can predict stochastic events or not. After typing that comment, I saw that I had put a limit on God’s omnicience, which is not something I wanted to do, but I didnt know how to correct my text. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to do so.
Anyway, the real issue is not so much whether complex events are chaotic or stochastic. Their complexity and unpredictability gives us freedom to make choices and gives God the freedom to choose when and how to act in the world, without affecting our own freedom of choice. I think that is a better way of saying what I meant to say.

Dunemeister - #65427

October 5th 2011

My objection to this line is that the fact we can see cases of randomness producing order (e.g., the virus) does not imply that the whole created order (at least, the living things) is possible as a result of random processes. It seems to me that thousands upon thousands of stages of arguments are missing.

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