|God & Nature Magazine
god, love, and chance
By Robert C. Bishop
Some argue that chance is inconsistent with the idea of design in creation (e.g. Dembski 1999) or with God’s active involvement in and rule over creation (Sproul and Mathison 2014), but is this really the case?
The triune love of God is the foundation for all of creation. Furthermore, the loving community of the Trinity is a freeing love -- creation was a free act of the Father, Son, and Spirit. If God’s relationship to creation is one of freeing love, then the Trinity had no need to create out of the necessity of divine nature or some sense of incompleteness. The implication is that God made creation for its own sake as an object of divine love. The Spirit’s enablement and energizing of creation to be what the Father called it to be is not only for God’s glory but also for the sake of creation. Moreover, the Spirit’s work, enabling and perfecting creation, implies that when creation acts, it is a means through which God acts (Gunton 1998; Bishop et al. in press).
This is the context in which we need to understand chance or randomness in God’s creation. Christians (as well as non-Christians) often trip over common confusions in discussions about randomness in natural processes. Perhaps the most important misunderstanding in discussions of chance is that randomness is simply lawless chaos lacking any order whatsoever. If true, then the supposed implication is that God cannot be involved in such processes. This is a fallacy about randomness because there is no such kind of unordered chaos anywhere in the sciences where randomness plays an important role.
Some of the confusion comes about because of missing a crucial distinction scientists make about two kinds of randomness. The first is apparent randomness. In this kind of randomness, the outcomes of systems, such as roulette wheels or rolling dice, have an underlying deterministic basis but are unpredictable due to our ignorance of the precise initial conditions or the specific setup for the system. The normal laws of mechanics, electricity, and magnetism apply to such systems, but limits on our knowledge of some details about the systems mean their outcomes appear random to us.
The second kind is irreducible randomness. This is a form of randomness where the full set of physical conditions determine the probability for outcomes, but not the specific outcome in a system itself. Radioactive decay would be an example. Given a sample of a radioactive isotope, the probability for how many nuclei on average in the sample will undergo a decay event in a 24-hour period is determined by the relevant physical conditions. Yet all relevant factors will not determine when any particular nucleus in the sample will decay. Nevertheless, it is important to emphasize that with irreducible randomness the outcomes still conform to fixed probabilities. These probabilities are constrained by laws -- in this case statistical rather than deterministic laws. So at the end of 24 hours the on-average number of nuclei will have decayed. Irreducible randomness, then, is a different form of order than the deterministic order we normally experience with mechanical systems, but it is order. It is not lawless chaos! These are regularities of creation that scientists rely upon all the time.
There are several options for understanding how God works through chance in creation to achieve purposes. One is that all the randomness in creation is only apparent randomness, meaning there is an underlying physical deterministic basis, but epistemic limitations preclude us from knowing all of the conditions precisely. This option is fully consistent with deism, where God starts the universe and everything unfolds according to the laws and initial conditions. Yet, this option is inconsistent with triune freeing love where creation has been gifted and called to participate in God’s plans and purposes as something God loves for its own sake. Doesn’t a love relationship imply that the object of love has at least some freedom to participate in the life and love of God?
A second possibility is that although God established the probabilities for irreducibly random outcomes through creation’s functional integrity, it is God who actualizes the particular outcomes such that they always fulfill the laws of nature (Russell 1997). However, if God is continually actualizing all or even most of these outcomes, this implies creation’s functional integrity is somehow inadequate to participate in its calling to fulfill the Father’s plans and purposes. Are such continuous interventions in creation’s functional integrity the way of love? Suppose a parent always intervened and superseded a child’s freedom and abilities every time the child attempted to do something. What would that child “grow” up to be like?
A third possibility is that irreducible randomness is part of the very nature of the creation that God made for its own sake. The Father established the kinds of physical and biological order by setting up probabilities for outcomes such as radioactive decay. Meanwhile, The Spirit enables nature to bring about these outcomes through creation’s functional integrity such that creation also is a genuine actor and participant in all that happens. This implies not only that creation’s functional integrity is sufficient to participate in its calling to completion in the Son, but also that the Trinity’s freeing love towards creation extends to its farthest reaches, from quarks to the universe as a whole. This is grand design of cosmic proportions!
From a Trinitarian vantagepoint, we can see irreducible randomness as enabled by the Spirit to fulfill divine purposes. After all, we work through radioactive processes all the time in medicine and nuclear power to accomplish purposes. We are genuine actors, as are these irreducibly random processes. How much more so, then, is God able to act in mediated ways through such processes to fulfill divine purposes. Chance and design unite in overflowing Trinitarian love!
Bishop, Robert C., Funck, Larry L., Lewis, Raymond J., Moshier, Stephen O., and Walton, John H. In press. Understanding Scientific Theories of Origins: Cosmology, Geology, and Biology in Christian Perspective. InterVarsity Press.
Dembski, William. 1999. Intelligent Design: The Bridge between Science & Theology. InterVarsity Press.
Gunton, Colin. 1998. The Triune Creator: A Historical and Systematic Study. Eerdmans.
Russell, Robert John. 1997. “Does ‘the God who acts’ Really Act? New Approaches to Divine Action in the Light of Science.” Theology Today 54: 43-65.
Sproul, R. C., and Mathison, Keith. 2014. Not a Chance: God, Science, and the Revolt against Reason. Baker Books.
Robert C. Bishop is associate professor of physics and the John and Madeleine McIntyre Endowed Professor of Philosophy and History of Science at Wheaton College.