Academic journal article Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith

Randomness and God's Nature

Academic journal article Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith

Randomness and God's Nature

Article excerpt

1. The Problem

Observations of apparently random phenomena are commonplace in the natural sciences. But randomness is often seen as incompatible with the historic Christian understanding of God's nature both by naturalists and theists.

Some naturalists accept the existence of chance but deny God; for example,

   The more we understand of the workings
   of nature, the more we realize
   that the forces that shape it are those
   of blind, purposeless chance. Across
   a universe encompassing billions of
   light years, through scales of magnitude
   extending from subnuclear particles
   to immense galaxies colliding
   like a clash of cymbals, there is no hint
   of plan or purpose. (1)

Some theologians affirm God's existence but deny chance; R. C. Sproul writes,

   The mere existence of chance is
   enough to rip God from his cosmic
   throne. Chance does not need to rule;
   it does not need to be sovereign. If
   it exists as a mere, impotent humble
   servant, it leaves God not only out of
   date but out of a job. If chance exists
   in its frailest possible form, God is
   finished. (2)

In this article, I argue that the scientific concept of randomness and the historic Christian understanding of God's nature are compatible. I will not provide a conclusive demonstration of the existence of randomness--in fact, I will argue that its existence cannot be settled scientifically; rather I will argue that it provides a plausible interpretation of scientific data and its existence is consistent with God's attributes.

The argument proceeds as follows. In Section 2, I examine several exemplars of randomness. This is to place the subsequent philosophical and theological discussion of randomness within the actual practice of probability, statistics, and the natural sciences. Section 3 explores the concepts these exemplars are used to convey and presents two interpretations of nondeterministic models--instrumentalism and realism. I argue that it is impossible to choose between them on scientific grounds alone; hence the study of randomness necessarily involves metaphysical and/or theological reflection. Section 4 explains how randomness can plausibly be viewed as a key feature of the physical world. Section 5 presents the classical perspective on God's attributes as studied in systematic theology. It argues that most of God's attributes do not pose a consistency problem with realism about randomness; nevertheless, four issues--purpose, control, foreknowledge, and causality--do pose potential conflicts. Sections 6 through 9 address each of these, showing how the apparent conflict can be resolved. Section 10 discusses how a realist interpretation of randomness might influence our understanding of God's relational attributes.

2. Exemplars of Randomness

A popular conceptualization of randomness is not having a governing design, method, or purpose; unsystematic; without cause. But this concept is not how randomness is actually used in mathematics, statistics, and the sciences. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn drew on the notion of exemplar, those examples in a discipline that transmit its key concepts from one generation to the next. He wrote,

By [exemplar] I mean, initially, the concrete problem-solutions that students encounter from the start of their scientific education, whether in laboratories, on examinations, or at the ends of chapters in science texts ... All physicists, for example, begin by learning the same exemplars: problems such as the inclined plane, the conical pendulum, and Keplerian orbits; instruments such as the vernier, the calorimeter, and the Wheatstone bridge. (3)

I begin with nine exemplars of randomness that show how the term is used in mathematics, statistics, and the sciences; they will illustrate key ideas later in this article.

Exemplar 1: Games of chance

"Games of chance" employ playing cards, dice, coin flips, and roulette wheels; frequently, these introduce probability to students. …

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