the poetry of probability
by Lucas Mix
I have a riddle for you.
Upp, upp, mín sál og allt mitt geð,
upp mitt hjarta og rómur með,
hugur og tunga hjálpi til.
Herrans pínu ég minnast vil.
The first time I read this, it baffled me. Thinking in English, I found it almost meaningful. The ð puzzled me. A closer look revealed something interesting. The strange letter ended two lines, just as “il” ended the other two. The lines rhymed! With that in mind, I counted the syllables. There were eight in each line, a common pattern called long meter. Not only was I looking at a poem, I was likely looking at a song.
I read these lines for the first time standing in a church in Reykjavik. They come from Hymns of the Passion, by Hallgrímur Pétursson, a 17th century minister and one of the most famous poets of Iceland. Once I found an English translation, I knew what it meant in full.
Arise, my soul, my heart, my mind,
And all that I within me find,
Come, help me, tongue, my Lord to own
And make His wondrous passion known!
We can know in part, even when we do not know in full. We can recognize large scale patterns, even while the details elude us. The lines could have been nonsense, but they were not.
Between Chaos and Order
Most Christians have problems with the idea that anything in the universe really is nonsense, completely beyond God’s control. Some religions believe that gods of order fight personified Chaos. The Babylonians saw Marduk slaying Tiamat; the Egyptians spoke of Ra holding back Apophis. Genesis lacks this conflict, and Jews and Christians reject such dualisms, believing that God rules the “formless deep” and uses it to bring forth light and life. And yet we struggle with a world that seems full of disorder, suffering, and nonsense.
Probability can be troubling, because it looks like partial order. In probability, we can predict how a batch of events will occur, even though we cannot predict a single event. We can flip a coin over and over and know it will land heads roughly half the time without knowing the outcome each time.
What do we do with the middle ground, between a perfect, knowable order and utter chaos? What do we do with partial order? The mathematics of “chaos theory” are a wonderful example. “Chaotic” systems are strictly, mechanically determined. Examples include traffic patterns and the population dynamics of predators and prey. In these systems, the initial conditions fully constrain the outcome. And yet tiny changes in those initial conditions can have tremendous effects. Often the outcome is totally unpredictable – seemingly random – because we cannot make precise enough measurements.
The same is true of rolling a die or flipping a coin. The process is ruled by Newtonian mechanics. If you knew the precise mechanics, down to the atom, you could know the outcome of every throw as soon as it left your hand.
Physicists and philosophers argue about whether the more complicated probabilities of quantum mechanics and evolution will ever be fully understood, even in principle. In any case, we perceive them as out of control, unpredictable, and chaotic. This leads some to use words like random to mean “without order.” The science, however, only tells us that the order is not apparent. John Henry Newman once said, “I do not [see] that ‘the accidental evolution of organic beings’ is inconsistent with divine design. – It is accidental to us, not to God.”
More to the point, scientists speak of probability when some but not all order is apparent. We can predict the outcome of many coin tosses even though we can’t predict every toss. We can know in part, even when we do not know in full, and even when we don’t know if there is more to know.
I think of God as a poet, writing in a rhyme and meter that I am just starting to understand. Just like a complex rhyming scheme, the rules of probability reflect a higher-level order. I do not know – yet – what the words mean. I still struggle to know. In the meantime, I take comfort in discovering each new meaning. I can’t say whether we will ever have a science that renders the world fully predictable to humans. I suspect not. The world is too wild and wonderful.
Rene Descartes (1596-1650) and Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655) proposed a mechanical philosophy, wherein everything in the physical universe operates like a clockwork machine. This, they said, was proof of God, because a clock needs a designer and someone to wind it up. Thus, many Christians in the 17th through 19th centuries saw science and a mechanical universe as proof of a clockmaker God.
I think we must appreciate God’s creation for what it is. It may be beyond our comprehension. It is certainly beyond the comprehension of modern science. Yet we know more than nothing. Probability means that we know about the whole, even while ignorant of the parts. We can see the ramparts, though we cannot see the bricks. We know the rhyme and meter, though we cannot read the words. We may have to look just a little bit closer to see it all.
This perspective does not solve the problem of the Christian meaning of chaos. We truly don’t understand why we suffer, and how God might have a hand in it. We rely on Jesus Christ – God with us in our suffering and struggle – to handle those challenges. We wait, with Christ, for God to unveil the order of eternity. But in that waiting, probability reminds us that the world is more than a jumble of letters. The “chaos” of thermodynamics and evolution reflects rhythm and meter, even though we do not know the words. It looks like a poem, perhaps even a hymn.
“For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” I Cor. 13:12 KJV
 Pétursson, Hallgrímur. Passíusálmar. Reykjavik: Landsbókasafn Íslands – Háskólabókasafn, 1996. First stanza.
 Pétursson, Hallgrímur. Hymns of the Passion: Meditations on the Passion of Christ. Translated by Arthur Charles Gook. Reykjavik: Hallgrím’s Church, 1978.
 Dessain, C.S., and T. Gornall, eds. The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman, Vol. 24, p. 78. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973.
Lucas Mix is a writer and speaker, specializing in theoretical and theological biology. He received a PhD in Evolutionary Biology from Harvard University and an MDiv from the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, CA. He serves as an officer in the Society of Ordained Scientists and maintains a blog on contemporary Christianity.