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 ...

11 comments:

Siamang said...

Great ideas here. I'm enjoying your blog.

This sentence:

"But first, in the next post, we will consider a common assumption: that randomness implies atheism."

Can you clarify the phrasing of this. I think I know what you mean by it... is it this:

"..we will consider a common assumption: that randomness implies there is no God."


Just asking, for clarity sake, to seperate the idea that the universe is without a God from "atheism" which is an idea or viewpoint that I think can only be held by a person.

Perhaps it's my lack of hearing the word used this way. But I haven't heard the universe described as being "atheist" before, to mean the lack of gods in the universe.

Perhaps there is or should be words that mean "this universe has a god" and "this universe has no god". We might say a created universe or an uncreated universe. Perhaps we coin the terms divinate universe and an adivinate universe?

The reason being that one can be atheist in a divinate universe, or a theist in an adivinate universe.

I think there's much more to be said about the nature and role of randomness in the universe than will be uncovered in our lifetimes. I'm intrigued with where you're headed. I do think that you are pointed toward a novel approach to classical theological problems.

I would be wary of the temptation to "hide" God's intentions behind quantum uncertainty... I think that's a temptation, and a strong one, but it's, I think just a nice conveinent dark corner that beckons a God of the Gaps. Sticking God's intention into quantum uncertainty isn't, to my mind, anything but a slightly removed version of Michael Behe or Dembski sticking His intention in genetic mutation.

If in a generation or two we come to have a new, better model of physics, and we understand Heisenberg better, we don't want to have physics teachers explaining to all the little Christian kids that the Quantum Discovery Institute has mandated that a disclaimer sticker go on the front of their textbooks, and that a competing theory is available in the library: "Of Photons and People"!

Back to the question then: what of purpose?

That, I can't help you with... even on my most deistic days, I don't much think about God's purpose. I do think that too much is made by theists around the idea that God's got a big test tube and he's cooking up a batch of homo sapiens. I guess it's because I'm not much for the spirit/soul/ghost idea of humans.. and not much for the idea that animals, plants, bacteria, etc are ghostless/spiritless/soulless creatures and we're the special ones.

For example, if I believed in a God, I think He'd be just as pleased with the dinosaurs, or the bacteria, or the brine-shrimp as us. Maybe moreso! I'm not sure He'd have a "living thing" bias over nonliving things (since there's so much more nonliving matter in the universe... He seems to like that better. He seems to like empty space best of all!).

So I don't see life as "leading up to humans" at all. The anthropomorphizing that humans do (to everything, not just gods), makes us think God was waiting around, lonely, for something to talk to! HA! He was watching dinosaur fights for 60 billion years, and loving it!

So anyway, I'm not big on God's purpose... that can be for the theists to ask and answer. But I do imagine that the sheer size of the universe paints a picture of a God who's got a massively parallel process going on. Did He need to intend homo sapiens in order to GET homo sapiens? I think not. In a simulation the size of the universe, He'd get something interesting no matter what!


(and yes, obviously, I'm not immune from the anthropormorhizing bug myself.)

Siamang said...

(edit) make that 60 MILLION years.

Dinosaurs aren't THAT awesome.

Cliff Martin said...

Siamang,

When I wrote that “randomness implies atheism” is a common assumption, what I meant was simply this: some people assume that a belief in randomness equates to atheism — that anyone who believes in randomness would likely be an atheist. And this is a notion that I hope to dispel.

Interestingly, I do plan to bring the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics into this discussion; but not at all in the way you imagine. Stay tuned ...

And, if you stay with me, you will learn that I do believe that life “leads up to humans” (or at least I see this as a strong possibility) and that I do take into account the vastness of the universe. But that, too, is a discussion for another day.

As for your expressed thoughts about God, I can hardly imagine a personal God who would delight in a door knob as much as a man or woman who is seeking to know him. The Bible declares that we are made in his image. If this is true, Christians would not be guilty of anthropomorphism. We should rather expect that our minds, our emotions, our creativity, our loves, our desires, etc., would all be reflections of the Creator's. And thus, it would be natural to expect that such a God would take special interest in human beings.

Thank you for your comments.

Siamang said...

"As for your expressed thoughts about God, I can hardly imagine a personal God who would delight in a door knob as much as a man or woman who is seeking to know him. "

But that is the very defintion of a personal God. But what of the doorknobs of this world? Surely if they could dream of gods, they'd dream of doorknobian ones! In the theology of doorknobs, humans would only be a step, a necessary step, in the bringing to the universe the doorknobs that God has been waiting for since the beginning of time. Surely the pinnacle of all that exists is the doorknob... an item so unlikely that life had to be created first, then evolve to humans.. before the era of the doorknobs could even begin.



"The Bible declares that we are made in his image. If this is true, Christians would not be guilty of anthropomorphism. "

But if it is not, man in his infinite hubris would be almost powerless not to invent religions where it were so.

Hmm... which do I have more belief in, an infinite superpower who is the spitting image of a few hairless overly self-important, pompous, violent, brutish apes on one dust-speck among thousands of billions, or the ability of those apes to flatter themselves utterly and fashion a deity in their own self-aggrandized likeness?

Hmmm! I'll go with human hubris. I've seen that at work, I think I'm good at recognizing that.

I mean, isn't that exactly what Behe and Dembski do? Behe imagines God as a biochemist. Dembski imagines Him as a mathematician. I'm sure Behe's god wears a jaunty cap, and Dembski's an oversize sweater. This is the very mistake that Intelligent Design advocates make... they assume that God creates in the same way humans do... by setting out a design and a plan and then going in and physically manipulating the DNA the way a genetic engineer would. It's the ultimate anthropomorphism: God as lab tech.

Cliff Martin said...

Of course, I agree with you in regard to Behe and Dembski. Unlike them, I accept the power of randomness to accomplish the purposes of God without God having to come along and "fix" the process because he didn't quite get it right the first time.

But for me, such a process need not be without ultimate purpose, and hence, ultimate design. Thus the paradox of my post, a paradox of which I hope to make sense.

Of course, to a degree this is all suppositional. Each of us must begin with a supposition or two. If the story that proceeds from the supposition is sensible, and if it lines up with reality and our experience, if it yields up meaning and value to life, if it results in a loving and joy-filled life, then it passes the litmus of truth for me. Or at the very least, probability.

So far, of all that we have found in this cosmos, human beings are the only creatures with a highly developed self-consciousness. And, as far as we know, the only creatures capable of God-consciousness. Do you agree? If so, are these observational findings meaningless?

Siamang said...

"So far, of all that we have found in this cosmos, human beings are the only creatures with a highly developed self-consciousness."

Sure... but I wouldn't pat ourselves on the back for that. It speaks more of our own ignorance and lack of exploration than it does our own dominance. We haven't even been to another planet yet.


" And, as far as we know, the only creatures capable of God-consciousness. Do you agree?"

I don't know what you mean by "God-consciousness." What does that mean? Does it mean that we're the only creatures we know that can imagine there might be a God?


" If so, are these observational findings meaningless?"

You'd have to clarify for me what you think these observations are.

We're also (for example) the only creatures we know that can imagine that there might be unicorns. Someone might call this unicorn-consciousness. This doesn't mean that unicorns exist.

Cliff Martin said...

Siamang,
We seem to be talking right past each other.

When I point out that we alone among known entities in the cosmos possess a highly developed self-consciousness, I was responding to your doubts about man’s uniqueness in the cosmos. Of course, there may be other creatures out there like us. But we know of none. And it really would not change my views significantly if we find some. But when I point out that we know about no other such creatures, I am merely using the familiar parameters of the materialists who insist that we work only with the data at hand.

Do you really not know what I mean by God-consciousness? Have you never thought about the possibility of a Supernatural Being, a First Cause, a God? Of course you have. Our conversation is an example of God-consciousness. I doubt if giraffes or quasars or doorknobs have these conversations.

I am not forwarding this fact of God-consciousness as some kind of theistic proof. If you hang around me for long, you will learn that I forward no theistic proofs. I will site evidence that is real, sometimes empirical, sometimes logical, but I claim no proofs for God’s existence. Of course, as you point out, God-consciousness says no more about his existence than unicorn consciousness says about unicorn existence. Again, my point is that there are many things about human beings that set us apart from the rest of the universe of things both living and non.

Unless I mistake your contention, you seem to be saying that theists are irrational and overly self-congratulatory for imagining that we might be of special interest to God if he exists. I am responding to that point.

As you fairly pointed out elsewhere, there are other more appropriate venues for debating God's existence. That really is not the point here. In this post, and those that follow, I am "trying randomness on" to see how it might fit into a Christian/theistic framework.

Siamang said...

"Again, my point is that there are many things about human beings that set us apart from the rest of the universe of things both living and non."

Of course I cannot support this argumentally, I suspect that 'setting humans apart' from the rest of the universe isn't the wisest way to look at creation or seek a transcendant truth.


"Unless I mistake your contention, you seem to be saying that theists are irrational and overly self-congratulatory for imagining that we might be of special interest to God if he exists. I am responding to that point."

I think that humans are irrational and overly self-congratulatory creatures. I have no reason to believe that this tendency stops at the chapel door. Rather, I have noticed that among the faithful that faith (from my point of view, and in my opinion) seems to inflate this tendency.



"Do you really not know what I mean by God-consciousness? Have you never thought about the possibility of a Supernatural Being, a First Cause, a God? Of course you have. Our conversation is an example of God-consciousness. I doubt if giraffes or quasars or doorknobs have these conversations."

And yet since they exist, they may have more to say in their own way about trancendant truth than we do in our philosophical self-pronouncements. I'm not exempting myself from this... I recognize that I'm doing the exact same thing you are... attempting to make rational sense of the world around us and be ourselves and exist as a small part of the wonder and truth of existence. I just don't think that our ability to think about these questions makes us superior to a quasar's ability to be part of the universe and SPEAK of wonder and truth by being what it is. If there is a creator God, then quasars are part of the plan as well. Far be it from me to discount that, or indeed place my importance over that. I'm attempting to quiet my mind of human self-aggrandizement to the point where something of wonder is allowed to be wonderful without me expecting that the quasar and the neutrino and the Planck constant were authored for my personal enjoyment. Or worse, irrelevant lesser states of matter only useful when creating humans. What massive possible avenues for the discovery of truth we might discard while gazing at our own navels in narcisistic wonderment!

'As you fairly pointed out elsewhere, there are other more appropriate venues for debating God's existence. That really is not the point here. In this post, and those that follow, I am "trying randomness on" to see how it might fit into a Christian/theistic framework.'

Certainly certainly. And I see that in my first comment I'm rushing ahead of you and not letting you make the points you have planned for upcoming posts. Sorry for that.

Cliff Martin said...

Siamang,
You ask about giraffes, quasars and doorknobs, "And yet since they exist, they may have more to say in their own way about trancendant truth than we do in our philosophical self-pronouncements."
Perhaps you are right. But if this is true, who is listening? To whom are they making their declarations about transcendence? Or doesn't it matter?

Without question, we have much to learn from the nature of animals, from the stars, and from the material world itself. "The heavens declare the glory of God" (the 19th psalm), and we would do well to listen better than we have. But to confuse us with inanimate objects and lower life forms in terms of value to the Creator, or whatever purposes he may have for the cosmos, seems dubious to me. Call it inflated self-importance if you will ... but I'll stick with my preferential conviction that you and I have greater significance than a lobster.

Siamang said...

"Perhaps you are right. But if this is true, who is listening? To whom are they making their declarations about transcendence?"

Why not God? If you think that God listens to you when you shine and do what you do best, why would he not listen to quasars as well?

If God has nothing to gain from quasars, why are there quasars? If he has nothing to gain from quasar human interaction, why are both in the same Creation and not seperate creations?


"Or doesn't it matter? "

Perhaps it doesn't. Perhaps what matters is the mere being... the "I am" of quasars, and doorknobs and giraffes. The "i am" of these things is at least something that I can get behind as existing... and there is a truth to that, however non-trancendent it may sound, that I find comforting and awe-inspiring.

"But to confuse us with inanimate objects and lower life forms in terms of value to the Creator, or whatever purposes he may have for the cosmos, seems dubious to me."

To someone like me who hasn't accepted the authority of the Bible on these matters, I don't think we should throw away avenues of exploration about the root truth of the universe. Giraffes and quasars and doorknobs may have more to say about things than we know.

Cliff Martin said...

Fair enough. I suspect there is more commonality in our thinking than what appears to either of us.
I enjoy conversing with you!