By Michael J. Mobley, PhD
Executive Director, Center for Integrated Science, Engineering and Technology
In our first blog post on this subject, we began our discussion of how the randomness observed in nature and the providence of God are reconciled in the Christian faith. We continue our discussion by discussing nature, thermodynamics and biological systems.
Randomness in Nature
Scientists have identified four primary forces of nature (the strong force, weak force, electromagnetic force and gravity) and determined that all forces are constrained by laws conserving momentum and energy. These laws have been applied to physical and chemical processes to converge upon the laws of thermodynamics and our equations that describe how the energy distribution, temperature and entropy (disorder) of a system changes with time. No natural systems have been shown to violate these laws of thermodynamics – these Laws operate for all the chemical and biological processes we observe here on Earth and the process of nuclear fusion that fuels the stars. Thus, scientists are convinced these laws operate everywhere in the universe and that they have been governing the changes in our universe ever since it began, apparently about 13.7 billion years ago.
The earliest equations of thermodynamics were generated through experimental observations in the attempt to identify more efficient production processes. As scientists in the 19th century discovered that matter is made up of discrete atoms and molecules and that these could occupy a distribution of energy and momentum states, the disciplines of statistical mechanics and chemical thermodynamics emerged.
These disciplines provided a much firmer theoretical foundation for thermodynamics. Statistical mechanics demonstrated that the macroscopic properties we observe for a system (e.g. pressure, temperature) were related to the microscopic properties (e.g. energy distribution, states, numbers and densities) of the different molecules that make up a system. Because there could be such a large number of molecules and variety of states, the whole system could be characterized by statistical distributions and probabilities.
To provide perspective on the large numbers involved and how small atoms are, we note that just 12 grams of carbon (a small lump of coal) is made up of carbon atoms. These large numbers allow scientists to describe systems in mathematical terms, characterizing them by state distributions, statistical ensembles, internal energy (enthalpy) and entropy changes.
Recalling our analogy to the flipping of a coin, a specific distribution of molecules and energy states will have a very low probability, like the low probability for a specific sequence of heads and tails. However, the macroscopic properties of the system, such as the percent distribution of the different chemicals, can be narrowly defined like the percentage of coin flips that give us heads or tails.
Thus, although randomness (statistical probability) characterizes the microscopic interactions within a system, there is convergence in the manifestation of macroscopic properties as a system changes to minimize its “free energy.” This observation has allowed scientists to conclude there is a natural determinism at the macroscopic scale. This determinism says that a very large closed system in a specific initial state will evolve with time to a specific (determined) alternate macroscopic state.
To provide a simplified analogy, assume we have two tanks filled with different gases and linked by a valve between them. The tanks are initially at different pressures. If we open the valve between them, the gases will begin to mix and the pressure will begin to equilibrate, dropping in one and rising in the other. With time the gases will come to an equal distribution in each tank. The final conditions of temperature, pressure and density of the gases will be dependent upon the initial conditions when we opened the valve.
Such determinism is what provides repeatability to all the chemical reactions we run each day in laboratories. This confidence in determinism is what allows our rocket scientists to manage the trajectories of rockets. It allows meteorologists to predict the next day’s weather. (The accuracy of their predications should not be taken as evidence for the relevance of determinism.) Similarly, cosmologists will assert that the specific conditions during the Big Bang are determinative of the ratio of helium to hydrogen, the distribution of galaxies and the density of cosmic background radiation in the universe, asserting an extremely high level of specificity in the Big Bang.
It should be emphasized that this determinism associated with thermodynamics operates for closed systems at the macroscopic scale, but that significant variation can occur at smaller scales. Variation that trends against standard deviations for chemical or statistical distributions can also happen when reactions are perturbed in some way by an external influence or some form of information is integrated into the reaction processes. This exception allows the chemist to form new chemicals in the laboratory that may not be found in nature as skilled chemists are able to reverse local entropy and bring together in an orderly manner new distributions of chemicals, catalysts and temperatures that could not be replicated in nature.
Similarly, living organisms themselves are localized violations of thermodynamic determinism as their internal processes are guided by information templates (chromosomes and proteins) that guide localized chemical processes that reduce entropy. The processes used by the chemist and the living organism are still subject to statistical probabilities associated with all processes in nature.
In living organisms, randomness is not only encountered in the chemical processes associated with the millions of molecules involved in cellular metabolic activity, but also in other important biological activity such as reproduction. Sexual reproduction and gene inheritance can be well characterized by statistical probabilities. Meiosis exhibits statistical variation in the formation of the gametes (sperm and eggs) for various species.
In this process, homologous chromosome pairs (maternal and paternal) that contain genetic information encoded in the DNA are separated and randomly distributed as each chromosome segregates into each gamete. As a sperm will normally have either a male or female sex chromosome, this nearly equal probability of distribution will result in nearly equal distributions of male and female offspring. Further, variation is generated by the physical exchange of homologous chromosomal regions (chromosomal crossover). This process of random variation ensures that the organism that forms when egg and sperm unite is genetically different (has a different DNA sequence) from both parents and different from its siblings.
The process is found to conform to statistical probabilities though bound by certain limits to variation. This process is at work for all sexually reproducing organisms, which includes humans. Randomness in genetic inheritance will also apply to the integration of mutations in the DNA sequence. Thus, genetic mutation is also characterized as a random process as we would apply it to the evolution of species variations. The boundary to this variation is set by the chemical construction of the chromosomes that program the growth and differentiation of every cell and organism from formation until death.
There are countless examples of how randomness is integral to the processes we find in nature. The overwhelming weight of data obtained for the past two hundred years has made such randomness a universal tenet of science. James Bradley also provides a considered review of the different “exemplars” of randomness in nature and the question of determinism versus nondeterminism in the physical world. Though he argues for the plausibility of “ontological” randomness – that nondeterminism exists – he recognizes that science may not be able to definitively address this question. He goes on to suggest that randomness is a tool to manage physiological processes and biological diversity and that God created randomness to accomplish his ends.1
Another scientist, Paul Ewart, also argues that randomness would be consistent with the purposes of God, further suggesting that “chance is a necessary part of God’s creation in which creatures are allowed free will.”2
The dominant interpretation of quantum theory, the “Copenhagen Interpretation,” contends that uncertainty is an integral component to quantum processes and that nondeterminism exists. This contends that no “hidden variables” can be observed that remove the statistical uncertainties of a process.
But, what if a the providence of God is also a master over hidden variables that determine outcomes in uncertain quantum processes? This compels us to examine further how the consistent observation of randomness in nature can be reconciled with Biblical teachings and the doctrines of the faith.
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- 1 Bradley, James, “Randomness and God’s Nature,” in Perspective on Science and Christian Faith, American Scientific Affiliation, Vol 64, 2, pp 75 -89 (2012)
- 2 Ewart, Paul, “The Necessity of Chance: Randomness, Purpose and the Sovereignty of God,” Science & Christian Belief, Vol 21, 2, pp 111-131 (2009)
More about Michael:
Michael Mobley, PhD, is executive director of the Center for Integrated Science, Engineering and Technology at GCU, leading the design and integration of new STEM education programs and building relations with industry partners. Dr. Mobley has over 30 years of experience in industrial and academic settings and as a consultant to the health products industry. Dr. Mobley is also co-founder and CEO of eHealth Nexus, a health information services company. He was recently associate director for the Biodesign Institute at ASU, responsible for many operational elements in the formation of the new research institute. Formerly, Dr. Mobley held senior positions as director of R&D at the Procter & Gamble Company, managing large divisions in their healthcare and skin beauty care sectors. Dr. Mobley maintains his graduate research interests in theoretical physics and optics. He has served as chair of the Board of Directors of the Arizona BioIndustry Association and on the AZ Bioscience Roadmap Steering Committee.