Wednesday, January 30, 2008

POST #12: Randomness, what does it say about purpose?

ran’dom•ness, noun, a lack of order, purpose, cause, or predictability; proceeding, made, or occurring without definite aim, reason, or pattern.
de•sign’, noun, the purposeful or inventive arrangement of parts or details.

I am currently reading Random Designer by Richard G. Colling. (I will be offering a review here soon.) Colling owns up to the seemingly oxymoronic nature of his own title in the first chapter. According to the definitions above, randomness implies a lack of purpose, while design implies purposefulness. Can randomness ever be “by design” without ceasing to be random? Can randomness be purposeful? In this post, I will explore these questions and invite your comments. In future posts, I will further develop the prospect of randomness in evolution/creation, and the theological possibilities suggested by randomness.

Randomness is the linchpin of naturalistic evolution. A continual stream of apparently unguided genetic mutations form the potential raw material of gradual change demanded by the Darwinian model. Only an extremely small percentage of these mutations actually result in useful adaptations that offer improvement to the species. The great majority are neutral in effect, and some are damaging. This vast pool of mostly inconsequential mutations yielding only rare adaptive changes gives rise to the notion of randomness as the driver of evolutionary processes.

But does such a view of randomness (which I accept) necessarily translate into purposelessness? Can randomness be intentional? Can randomness be teleological (that is, can it serve a long-range purpose)? Can randomness be a tool to generate desired effects which would be unattainable otherwise? The answer to all these questions is yes!

This has been, and promises to continue to be, a politically charged election year in the United States. And in the ever changing fortunes of the candidates, we have been reminded again and again of the power of the unofficial poll. Just this morning I read that both John Edwards and Rudy Giuliani are likely to drop of their respective party’s nomination races. In each case, their decisions seem to be guided by the poll numbers in states which will vote next week. Polls may be useful, but their accuracy and usefulness hinge on one very essential polling principle:
random sampling. Because a relatively small number of potential voters are actually polled, and the results are extrapolated to predict how the full electorate is likely to vote, polling organizations recognize that their sample of voters must be random. Randomness is a necessary tool to accomplish a desired purpose. Poll takers thus go to great efforts to ensure randomness.

Or consider the example of random number generators (RNG). An RNG is a physical device, and/or computer based program, which is designed to do just what the name implies: spit out sequences of numbers that are genuinely random. In cases where absolute randomness is required, an RNG is sometimes more difficult to design than one might think. Random number generators are used in applications where unpredictability is desired such as in cryptography, statistical sampling and, of course, in gambling. So again we can see that the principle of randomness can be planned, intentional, and purposeful.

Back to the title of the book I’m reading:
Random Designer may not be as self-contradicting as it at first appears. Perhaps an Almighty Creator, able to accomplish his purposes in any manner he chooses might use randomness as His tool of choice. But, we may well ask, is it even possible for a sovereign God to leave things to chance? In Ecclesiates, Koheleth puzzles over such questions. In 3:1 through 17 he sees all that happens as falling in line with the timings and eternal purposes of God. Yet in 9:11 he observes that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, and he laments that all is governed by chance. Koheleth seems content to live with the paradox; he offers no sure sounding logical solution.

When I consider the possibility of randomness in the purposes of God, my thoughts range far beyond arbitrary genetic mutations and adaptive changes in species. I’ve considered how randomness may function beyond evolution in the purposes of God. It may be His tool of choice to accomplish desired ends attainable through no other process. God may even now be using randomness.

As we move forward in this series of posts, we will discuss some possibilities about why God may be doing just that. We may discover how randomness provides meaning and texture to existence. We may find that randomness offers relevant answers to some very troubling questions about life, and about God. But first, in the next post, we will consider a common assumption: that randomness implies atheism.

Have you considered the possibility of randomness in the purposes of the Creator? Or does it seem impossible to you that a sovereign God could or would allow randomness to function in his Creation? Please comment ...

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Book Review: Relics of Eden

Whether believers are comfortable with it or not, biological evolution is an issue that is not going away anytime soon. As the very strong case for common descent settles down upon the church in the coming years, many will be deeply troubled by it’s implications. To dismiss the issue as inconsequential ignores the impact it will have on the faith of many. The head-in-the-sand approach of many believers who refuse to study the question, choosing to hold on to their long-held beliefs strikes me as dangerous. For this reason, I am suggesting to my friends who wish to be informed on this subject this book, Relics of Eden by Daniel J. Fairbanks.

I read
Relics of Eden (Prometheus Books, 2007) upon the recommendation of my friend, Gordon Glover. Fairbanks, writing from his perspective as a research geneticist, lays out in layman’s language some of the basic building blocks for reconstructing the history of life on our planet from DNA. He proceeds to give the reader an overview of what DNA tells us about the interrelatedness of species. I found the book easy to read, and informative. Some of the early chapters (as he develops the building blocks of genetic understanding) are somewhat technical. But the payoff comes as he demonstrates how these bits of information are used to paint a remarkably consistent picture of our past.

As I have said elsewhere, I consider common descent to be undeniable in the face of DNA evidence. Either humans share a common ancestry with all living things, or God went to a great deal of trouble to make it look that way, right down to the tiniest details of our DNA. If evolution did not happen, then the Creator is a trickster and a deceiver, and all science is rendered meaningless.
Relics of Eden powerfully confirms this understanding (Fairbanks describes the mounting evidence as “spectacular”). But the trail of DNA science does not stop there. Comparative DNA is like an accurate time clock, giving us strong clues regarding the “when” of various evolutionary events. This growing treasure trove of information is also being used to reconstruct the great human migrations across our planet, and to do so with a precision which has never been possible for the anthropologist before. And perhaps most significantly, DNA science today is able to trace the history and development of various diseases, and offer up new ways of combating them. It is ironic that so many who resist what DNA is telling us about the history of life are more than ready to accept the great medical advancements of our day which are based upon the same science. Modern medical science is built upon the evolutionary model.

The final two chapters consist of an appeal to both sides of what Fairbanks characterizes as a false dichotomy: that somehow
faith and reason cannot co-exist. Without detailing his own beliefs, Fairbanks makes it clear that he is a man of faith who believes in God as Creator. He appeals to those who choose to perpetuate psuedo-scientific creationism and Intelligent Design to reexamine the evidence, and lay down their battle-axes. I say, “Amen!”

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Book Review: God's Universe

In the last few months, a number of wonderful books have crossed my desk, and I wish to recommend some of them to you. The first of these is Owen Gingerich’s God’s Universe.

Owen Gingerich is a Harvard Professor of Astronomy and the History of Science, Emeritus, and a life-long Mennonite, a combination I found interesting. As a Bible-believing Christian, his books often deal with the interface of faith and science. God’s Universe (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006), is his most recent offering.

The first chapter is a response to the prevalent scientific understanding known as the
Copernican Principle, and its corollary, Mediocrity Principle. Gingerich takes exception to “Mediocrity”, arguing for the unique place humankind may occupy in the Universe, and citing evidence of purposeful design, though the design for which Gingerich advocates is not the same as Intelligent Design. This becomes more clear in the second chapter, entitled “Dare a Scientist Believe in Design?” He is careful to distinguish his view of design from that being asserted by the Intelligent Design movement. On pages 68 - 69, we writes,
Whether we look at the nature and abundance of the atoms themselves or the remarkable ratio of electrostatic to gravitational attraction or the many other details of our physical universe, we know that without these design features we would not be here. In a word, I believe in intelligent design, lower case i and lower case d.

But I have a problem with Intelligent Design, capital
I and capital D. It is being sold increasingly as a political movement, as if somehow it is an alternative to Darwinian evolution. Evolution today is an unfinished theory. There are many question about details it does not answer, but these are not grounds for dismissing it.
Indeed, in the ensuing pages, Gingerich expresses substantial agreement with Steven Jay Gould’s assessment of evolution as being fact. So, how might design express itself in the seemingly random processes of Darwinian evolution? Gingerich answers with his own questions on page 70:
Are mutations blind chance, or is God’s miraculous hand continually at work, disguised in the ambiguity of the uncertainty principle? Or we could be more subtle, and ask whether God designed the universe in the first place to make possible the catalysts and unknown pathways that enable the formation of life.
As for design in cosmology, Gingerich devotes several pages to the fascinating studies of Fred Holye, the late British astronomer who, despite his own development of the overwhelming likelihood of design in the cosmos, remained an atheist his entire life. For me, these pages were worth the price of the book.

In the third chapter, “Questions without Answers”,
Gingerich suggests that when it comes to the “why” questions, religious belief offers up better answers than unbelief. While Gingerich presents a strong case that contemplation of the universe can be more meaningful and coherent if it is viewed as the work of a transcendent designer, he readily admits that metaphysical assumptions may lead one to such a conclusion. In the end, these assumptions are more matters of the heart than the reason, as the closing Pascal quote suggests: “The heart has its reasons that reason does not know.”

This little book (just over 100 pages) is easy to read, and it is a wonderful primer to science and faith, randomness and reason, design and purpose. I recommend this book to my readers.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

I'm back ...

Though I only gave it a somewhat veiled remark, one of the chief reasons for my hiatus from blogging was a disturbance in my own church fellowship. I help to lead a small fellowship of 50 or so believers here in Toledo, Oregon. When my friends here learned (from my own mouth!) that I consider common biological descent to be undeniable, and that I am open to Darwinian evolution, which seems to be the most likely theory to explain common descent, many were deeply troubled. It resulted in a crisis in our church life, and in a number of important relationships.

It has become clear to me that many of my friends either do not understand what I am doing here on this blog, or they suspect that science is somehow leading me away from Biblical faith. Nothing could be farther from the truth!

Evolution is a very small piece of the larger picture I am trying to develop here at “OutsideTheBox” But it is the piece that results in the strongest reactions among my friends. As I reenter this arena of writing, and interacting with you, I wish at the outset to submit to you once again what I am trying to accomplish here, and how evolution fits into the bigger picture.

Some of my friends are offended or deeply disappointed with me. Others are undisturbed, but unconvinced. A handful (mostly those who have read
Francis Collins or Gordon Glover) find themselves in agreement with me. But there are others who have indicated that they just "don't care about this issue." That is, it matters little to them whether we got here by special creation or by natural processes. I must say that, as an isolated question, I am right there: it doesn't matter to me either. I frankly hated biology in school. Evolution is not some little hobby horse of mine. (I am far more interested in physics.) But here is the deal. I find that all of the scientific findings of the last 100 years play in big to our understanding of Scripture and theology. And I find that very few evangelical theologians and church leaders of our day have taken notice of this salient fact.

Not many people realize that after he came to his remarkable and earth shaking understandings about gravitational fields and the laws of motion, Newton spent the last years of his life thinking and writing about his favorite subject:
theology. But this has not been true for the 20th century leaders of science such as Einstein, Bohr, Hubble, or Dirac. What changed? For many centuries, believers drove the engine of scientific discovery, and the engine was fueled by their love of the Creator. And with each new revelation of natural truth, they would go back and adjust the theology of the church as needed. The exploration of our cosmos and natural phenomena was seen as a doorway to deeper and more accurate understandings of God. Of course, these adjustments were always in line with the written revelation, although often a change in the way we read and understand scripture was necessary. Science was helping us to “rightly divide the word of truth.”

But with the near wholesale rejection of Darwin at the turn of the 20th century, a new course was set. We deeded over nearly all of science to the secularists. The church, as a whole, paid little attention. And certainly, faith no longer drove science.

My main interest is today, as it has always been,
theology ... knowing and understanding God and his ways. And ultimately, not theoretical theology, but theology that filters down into the every day life of the believer. I study as I do because I want to make sense of my life and my world. I study science because it profoundly informs my theology ... it helps me to see what God might be up to in this world as he forms his Kingdom though people of faith. 

Evolution is a very small part of this picture. But evolution does imply some things about the possible place of randomness in the workings of God. Evolution does suggest some strong possibilities about how God may have chosen, and may still choose, to operate through natural processes. Evolution may have some extremely profound things to say about an ages-long battle between the powers of death and the Power of Life! 

But I am even more interested in things like Big Bang cosmology and what we have discovered about entropy in the last 40 years. Nothing in recent science touches upon theology more than this! It effects our doctrines of salvation, atonement, etc.; it profoundly effects eschatology; it effects the prayer of the church; it effects how and why we do what we do in the world. I am deeply interested in Einstein's relativity and how that impacts Newton's laws of motion, and how that, in turn, speaks to theological determinism (an expression of ultra-calvinism.) Newton left us with a world in which the very laws of physics strongly endorsed determinism. Einstein changes all of that. But even more, quantum physics changes all of that. Quantum physics may just be God's delayed message to us late-day people that the stage of this life, and the ultimate battle with evil, has not been rigged ... indeed, could not have been rigged.

So, left to itself, I couldn't care less about the competing sciences of origins. Or science in general! But I do care deeply about understanding pain and suffering. I do care deeply about why God watches Hitler and Pol Pot and Stalin from the sidelines, and chooses not to intervene. I do care deeply about the "why" of my wife’s life-threatening cancer. And I care deeply that the church learn to respond with better answers to the reasoned objections and questions currently being voiced by the skeptics. For many believers, the stock answers which the church has been offering for hundreds of years are adequate. For me, and many like me, they simply are not. 

This might be hard for my friends to believe, but I am actually not a science buff! I am, as I have always been, a disciple of Jesus and a student of the Bible first and foremost. But I am jazzed about the possibilities suggested strongly by what science is uncovering in God's universe, and how these possibilities impact the way we think about God, how he operates, and what the Scriptures are saying. 

I think about how science informs my understandings of the Scriptures when I consider and pray for my wife, Ginger. I think about how science informs my understandings of the Scriptures as I listen to and try to minister to hurting people (such as Kathy, a recent guest at our fellowship.) I think about how science informs my understandings of the Scriptures when I deal with hard questions about evil and suffering from young people today. I think about how science informs my understandings of the Scriptures when I encounter the arguments of my atheist friends (and many of those arguments would blow most believers I know right out of the water!). And I think about how science informs my understandings of the Scriptures when I consider the coming train wreck for the church when the powerful DNA evidence for common decent finally filters down to be understood by the masses. It will not be a pretty sight. I feel desperately the need to alert my friends. 

Apart from all of that ...
I couldn't care less about evolution!