Tuesday, February 12, 2008

POST #14: Randomness, and Atheism

In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.
– Richard Dawkins,
River out of Eden (HarperCollins, 1996), page 133.
Dawkins hits upon an important point for consideration. If this universe is governed to some degree by randomness (and the sciences of physics and biology both suggest that it is), than there will be an element of undesirable outcomes, pain and suffering, seemingly without purpose. For Dawkins, and other skeptics, this cold reality points to an ultimately purposeless universe, which in turns bolsters their belief that we are alone: There is no wise, loving, intentional God ... there is no God at all.

My friend Tom, also an unbeliever, claims
here that for him, true randomness (as opposed to a mere guise of randomness) is necessary or life is meaningless. Imagine that. A thoughtful atheist sees existence as meaningless apart from randomness. While I am anxious to see how his thoughts unfold along that line, he has been waiting for me to elucidate how randomness can be meaningful to one who believes in God. He asks me,
I need you to clarify your opinion and your thoughts on my statement about an omnipotent/omniscient God and randomness. This is a square peg and round hole (and not a trap, I really want to know). If God has built in randomness, he is not in control, nor omniscient, right? I suppose he can stop the simulation, monitor the progress, and with an infinite knowledge of the past, have an intuition about where it's going, but this is not all-knowing.
So, randomness seems to fit well into an atheistic worldview, but doesn’t seem to work out in a theistic worldview. So say the skeptics, and many Christians would agree. The notions of a wise, all-powerful, and loving God just cannot be made to jibe with the concept of randomness.

On the other side of this conundrum sits Richard Colling, a Bible-believing Christian and author of
Random Designer, who declares early in his book that
... randomness is the star of this story! It is the dynamo that commands living things to create order out of disorder in the midst of a sometimes erratic and chaotic world. But there is more to this picture than meets the casual eye, for while randomness is the driver, amazingly, the products possess miraculous elements of design. All of life on earth, including human beings, derives its origin, nurture, and sustenance from the seemingly implausible interplay between randomness and order.
Random Designer, (Browning Press, 2004), page 2.
As we continue to explore randomness, we will revisit Dawkins’ assertion that randomness results in pointless pain for some, incredible luck for others, and that all of this suggests that there is no justice, no goodness, and no God. And we will develop an overarching story in which randomness may actually serve a vital purpose in the ultimate intentions of God.

But for now, reader, what about it? does randomness, by its very nature, imply atheism? Is an attempt to fit God into a random world (or to fit randomness into a divinely created cosmos) like a square peg in a round hole? Or could it be, as Colling suggests, that randomness is a necessary tool that, paradoxically, brings order to an entropic universe?


ken said...

I think this comment will be disjointed (or perchance, "random") observations. I haven't yet decided what my point shall be.

Perhaps Dawkins is looking too closely as when you look too closely at an old-fashioned (yes, the one where you had to get up to change channels, in your bare feet, uphill both ways, in the snow) television and all you see are a bunch of red, green, and blue dots. It all looks random. But when you step back and get some perspective, there is order.

But we homo sapiens are extremely efficient at finding order; even amidst chaos. E.g. dragons in the clouds, a "system" for predicting lottery numbers, etc. So, just because we see it doesn't mean it's really there.

And so, we homo sapiens have frequently (especially if you take the stance that the Judeo-Christian God is THE God) "attempt[ed] to fit God into a random world." Astrology is one fitting example, I think.

Concerning omniscience, do I not know how to multiply just because I cannot immediately give the product of 4356453 and 9843245? I can figure it out (given enough paper, time, and an unlimited supply of whatever material erasers are made of). Isn't the universe more like an open book test for God -- if he can look it up and compute it, then he gets the answer correct.

And what, exactly IS the randomness of which we speak? The sub-atomic world is ripe with randomness -- probability functions, wave functions, electron clouds. Yet, those things don't impact "our" world much at all. I still can't put my head through the wall no matter how hard I try to correlate the wave functions for the electrons in my skull with those in the drywall. So, if God does not know the quantum state and spin for every electron -- what does it matter?

Omniscience does not, necessarily, imply intervention. God knows the comings and goings of man but does that mean he CAUSES everything?

Perhaps I should cease my stream of consciousness comments now.

Cliff Martin said...

Thanks for you thoughts, Ken.

I too have been uncomfortable with attempts to find “order and meaning” by arranging random events into some purposeful stream. Astrology is an excellent example, but I am equally uncomfortable with those attempts coming from my own faith. For me, Christian teaching does not make sense without randomness (see my following post).

Your questions about omniscience are problematic for me. I get trapped in the conundrum of my own thoughts. I sometimes try to conceive of God looking into the future as any good futurist (à la Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Alvin Toffler) might do, but with greater intelligence, and thus greater precision. No absolute knowledge of the the future, but a “pretty good” ability to predict. "Pretty good"?!? Of course, there is the rub that you have identified. Would he ever get it wrong? Would he have a 90% rate of accuracy? 99%?

So my question is, perhaps, less about God’s ability to predict, and more about his self-limited control. Your closing question is spot on: “Omniscience does not, necessarily, imply intervention. God knows the comings and goings of man but does that mean he CAUSES everything?”

It is true that we do not yet see how subatomic randomness relates to our larger scale world. So, you ask, “what does it matter?” But we clearly do not yet have all the data. As I am sure you know, the big push in physics is the search for a “unified theory” that will bind all of reality in one set of consistent laws. (As things now stand, Quantum Physics is irreconcilable with Relativity.) String Theory seems to be the best current candidate to restore consistency to physics. But my point is that Quantum Uncertainty (Heisenberg) may have ruled out the possibility of a predetermined world that Newton’s laws left us with (See my previous post). So, I am suggesting that the Creator actually built into this cosmos at its very physical foundations a law which made it impossible for even him to absolutely control all events. If he did this, what might have been his purpose? This is the question I am asking.

Anonymous said...

I find it difficult to believe that a God who, if He is who He says He is, as the creator of the universe, needs to micro-manage or even orchestrate. A God big enough for me to believe in would, of course, establish a system of random-systematic order, something that blows our mind in it's simplicity but is too complicated for us to really wrap our minds around. This is not the same as chaos. True chaos has never been known in the existence of at least this current creation.
I can't get away from my vision of God holding in all together, aware, able to intervene, but also letting His system take it's course...I'm still forming my thoughts on this; thanks for letting me scribble something down:)

Cliff Martin said...

Anonymous writes,
A God big enough for me to believe in would, of course, establish a system of random-systematic order, something that blows our mind in it's simplicity but is too complicated for us to really wrap our minds around.

Excellent point. I believe that when we at last understand how the paradox of randomness and divine order mesh, we will be astounded! It surely surpasses our imaginations today. You make excellent observations, and I hope to hear more from you.

I do believe there are some theological possibilities to explore when we allow that a pure sort of randomness is at work in our cosmos, and in our lives. The concept has the potential of answering some of the most perplexing difficulties for believers.

bi0dr0ne said...

Regarding randomness: I find it hard to think about all the random naturalistic processes without also thinking about the order in the universe. Maybe its just that I desire to focus on the ordered things, but nevertheless when I was reading your post and the comments I kept listing the ordered things in nature:

1. water always flows down hill
2. hot air rises, cold air sinks
3. magnetism, hydorgen bonding, and other chemical bonds are predictable enough to be reproducible
4. What about fractyls (sp?)

To me the more significant question is, in a universe that tends toward disorder, why is there so much order?

Cliff Martin said...

Good Questions!

Actually, it is something of a mystery why the universe is so ordered, and obeys so many laws, when we realize that its driving force is entropy. Einstein refers to this surprising state of affairs in the following quote:

“Well, a priori [reasoning from cause to effect] one should expect that the world would be rendered lawful [obedient to law and order] only to the extent that we [human beings] intervene with our ordering intelligence... [But instead we find] in the objective world a high degree of order that we were a priori in no way authorized to expect. This is the 'miracle' that is strengthened more and more with the development of our knowledge.”

So there are physical laws that govern the cosmos. And the cosmos obeys them quite well! Nevertheless, within the context of this ordered reality, randomness seems to play a significant role, both in the development of life on our planet, and in our every day experience of that life. Order and randomness are not counter-opposed concepts. For example, it takes a high level of predictable order to create a random number generator.