Considering Randomness & the Providence of God: Part 1

By Michael J. Mobley, PhD
Executive Director, Center for Integrated Science, Engineering and Technology

Posted on April 01, 2016  in  [ Engineering & Technology ]

How does the Christian faith reconcile the apparent conflict between the randomness observed in nature and the providence of God?

In a series of blog posts over the next few weeks, we will discuss this question, which frames a key issue for how we integrate an understanding of natural processes, scientific analysis and the Christian faith.

It is argued that the existence of randomness in physical processes is fully compatible with a biblical understanding of the sovereignty of God.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary provides two primary definitions for the adjective “random.”

  • “lacking a definite plan, purpose, or pattern”
  • “relating to, having, or being elements or events with definite probability of occurrence”

The second definition is that normally used by scientists and mathematicians when referring to the processes and samplings in nature found to be governed by statistical probabilities; hence, the ubiquitous use of the term “randomness” in the characterization of nature and our limitations in the prediction of natural occurrences. The Christian doctrine of divine providence teaches that God is actively involved with his creation – directing, guiding and giving it purpose. Nature’s randomness and God’s providence appear to be in conflict.

We are very familiar with random events in our daily lives. The flipping of a coin is considered a mathematically random process with equal probability of landing heads or tails. This randomness is built into the nature of the process and the symmetry of the coin that also limits us to only two possibilities. If we flip a coin 100 times and record our results, we can generate a sequence of heads (H) or tails (T) that would look something like this:

HTTHHTHTTHTHHHTHTTHTTHTHTHHHTHTHHTTHTHHTTTHHTTHTHHHHTHHTTTTTHHTTHT …

The sequence is random, and each particular ordering of heads and tails has a very low probability of occurring (one in 2100), with all sequences having an equal probability. The most probable number of flips that come up heads is 50 (we get heads 50 percent of the time), but it is physically possible that far fewer or far more flips turn up heads.

This process is characterized by statistical probabilities. If we should complete one million coin flips, we would find that the average number of flips that come up heads will come closer and closer (converge) to 50 percent. Scientists have consistently observed that natural processes can be characterized by such statistical probabilities and “randomness.”[1]

This has led many scientists to suggest that nature also adheres to the first definition of random in that it lacks a definite plan or purpose. Can we assume the second definition applies to nature without concluding the first definition must also? If statistical probabilities govern the processes of nature, how could this be consistent with the definite plan and purpose of God? How could God direct His creation to fulfill His purposes? Must a Christian conclude there is an incompatibility between natural randomness and the providence of God or can these be reconciled? Does the omnipotence of God guarantee that His sovereignty governs the randomness of nature?

If there are two distinct definitions for “randomness,” would one be compatible with God’s providence? If so, then clearly when we are engaging in scientific or philosophical discourse, we must be certain which definition we are using and in what context we are using it.

We can illustrate why this is important to the Christian. Grudem’s well-cited text on systematic theology summarizes the traditional objections to theistic evolution,[2] “The clear teaching of Scripture that there is purposefulness in God’s work of creation seems incompatible with the randomness demanded by evolutionary theory. … The fundamental difference between a biblical view of creation and theistic evolution lies here: the driving force that brings about change and the development of new species in all evolutionary schemes is randomness.  Without the random mutation of organisms you do not have evolution in the modern scientific sense at all. Random mutation is the underlying force that brings about eventual development from simplest to the most complex life forms. But the driving force in the development of new organisms according to Scripture is God’s intelligent design.” [3]

And later, “But once a Christian agrees to some active, purposeful design by God, then there is no longer any need for randomness or any development emerging from random mutation.”

If we assume in this quotation “randomness” means without purpose, plan or design, then such randomness associated with evolution or any scientific theory would be in conflict with the traditional Christian doctrine of divine providence. Then, the objection to theistic evolution articulated here would be totally accurate and well substantiated.

However, if “randomness” is restricted to mean that relevant processes are characterized by statistical probabilities, then such a view might not be incompatible with a purposeful, directing, sustaining and ”providential” God.

Similarly, the reformed theologian R.C. Sproul refutes the determinative power of chance, “The mere existence of chance is enough to rip God from his cosmic throne. … If chance exists in its frailest possible form, God is finished.”[4]

These assertions frame our question: Can nature operate by apparently random processes that conform to statistical probabilities and simultaneously be directed by God’s providential hand?

Grand Canyon University is a Christian college with a biblically rooted mission. Visit our website for more information about how we integrate Christian values into everything we do.

References:

  • 1 Scientists can point out that an unpredictable process such as coin flipping may be subject to statistical probabilities, but that underlying variables (e.g. the speed, angular momentum, trajectory of the coin and how it lands) will “determine” the outcome. Scientists disagree whether physical processes governed by quantum mechanics are “deterministic.” The Copenhagen interpretation championed by Bohr and Heisenberg argues that quantum uncertainty is inherent and not deterministic, whereas Einstein, de Broglie and, more recently, Bohm argue it is only statistical based upon the limitations to measurement capabilities.
  • 2 Grudem, Wayne, Systematic Theology: an Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, pp. 276-277 (1994).
  • 3 The modern argument for “intelligent design” can be traced to the teleological argument of Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae. Its history and more recent arguments for design have been summarized by Dembski, William A., Intelligent Design, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove (1999).
  • 4 Sproul, R.C., Not a Chance: The Myth of Chance in Modern Science and Cosmology, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, p.3. (1994)

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.

About College of Science, Engineering and Technology

The College of Science, Engineering and Technology offers degree programs that prepare students for high-demand professions in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. With an emphasis on Grand Canyon University’s Christian worldview, our college believes in instilling social awareness, responsibility, ethical character and compassion. Our blog, Brain STEM, focuses on topics related to science, engineering and technology, with engaging contributions from students, staff and faculty. On the blog, you can find helpful resources relating to STEM fields and learn more about current events occurring globally, locally and within GCU. We hope to provide our readers with information that helps them learn about the necessary knowledge, skills and mental disciplines to succeed in today’s job market.


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