Randomness versus the Providence of God?
by Michael J. Mobley
Can nature operate by random processes that conform to statistical probabilities and simultaneously be directed by God’s providential hand?
This is a recasting of the debate “Chance vs. Design” in theological terms. Biblical scholars must ultimately resolve this debate within the doctrine of God’s sovereignty. The concept of “random” used here has the definition “relating to, having, or being elements or events with definite probability of occurrence,” and it is contrasted with “chance” – “the assumed impersonal purposeless determiner of unaccountable happenings.”  R.C. Sproul refutes the determinative power of chance: “The mere existence of chance is enough to rip God from his cosmic throne. … If chance exists in its frailest possible form, God is finished.”
Chance vs. Design has sometimes been used to define the battle-lines for Theistic Evolution vs. Intelligent Design. As a Christian physical chemist, I’ve found myself both energized and disappointed by the intensity and rancor of such debates and, thus, felt compelled to add my two cents. A collection of essays by several notable authors that highlights such controversies, Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical and Theological Critique, was recently published. The publication is primarily a defense of Intelligent Design as a valid epistemological discipline. The introduction by Stephen Meyer helps to clarify the taxonomy of the debates. Recognizing God’s sovereignty over nature, here’s my interpretation of that taxonomy.
The broader debate of Chance vs. Design can be reduced to the question of Undirected vs. Directed Processes. Biblical doctrines should converge this further to the question of Undetectably Directed vs. Detectably Directed Processes. My observation is that most of those who hold to a Theistic Evolution view would accept an Undetectably Directed position while those leaning to Intelligent Design would view that many processes are Detectibly Directed. So this great debate comes down to this: “Is God’s sovereign hand detectible in nature scientifically or possibly though some other epistemological disciplines?” Here are some reflections.
The Apostle Paul has stated, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made...” God’s power is perceivable in his creation, but this apostle of the first century cannot reference the scientific method to confirm God’s handiwork. Paul recognizes other sources of knowledge to detect God’s activity that may not conform to the standard of “scientific” proof.
Perceiving God’s Power through Randomness
There are countless examples of how randomness is integral to the processes we find in nature. Mathematicians have developed probability models for a broad range of phenomena: e.g. the radioactive decay of unstable nuclei; the dispersion of a disease epidemic; or the chances of a golfer being struck by lightning. Those familiar with statistical mechanics (e.g. Boltzmann’s H-Theorem) understand that the time evolution of a physical system can be described in macroscopic terms (e.g. composition, phase, temperature, pressure), but there is low predictability for precise knowledge of the specific variables for individual elements (molecules). Though we may control the initial distributions, with time, systems evolve into a random distribution. Mathematicians have provided us with a simple rule for this. A system is characterized by a number of variable parameters and by a number of independent, defining relations (equations). If these numbers are equal, each variable can be defined. If the number of variables exceeds the number of independent equations, there will be undefined variables and the potential for random values for these variables. There will be indeterminacy in the system.
If we apply this analogy to the Big Bang, then the universe, when we note its specific details, has an extremely low probability. Are the defining relations sufficient to determine the values of all the variable parameters? If the Big Bang were repeated with all the same existing laws that produce the same distribution of hydrogen and deuterium, would our solar system still exist, or would our galaxy look very different? How much determinism could be packed into the primal singularity? If indeterminacy exists in our physical laws, then no two Big Bangs could be the same. The math suggests either that God needed to do more to ensure that “just right” conditions for life and sentient creatures would exist, or that the universe is completely determined.
In biological systems, randomness applies to the integration of mutations in the DNA sequence, leading to the existence of species variations. This randomness has been postulated to be essential in broader theories of evolutionary change for the whole biosphere. However, while random variation may be necessary, it is not sufficient for an adequate theory of evolution. Richard Dawkins recognizes that a special “crane” is needed, for only a “crane can do the business of working up gradually and plausibly from simplicity to otherwise improbable complexity.” He postulates, “The most ingenious and powerful crane so far discovered is Darwinian evolution by natural selection.” However, challenges have been raised as to whether natural selection is actually a sufficient driver of improbable complexity.
James Bradley provides a considered review of the different “exemplars” of randomness in nature and the question of determinism versus nondeterminism in the physical world. Though he argues for the plausibility of “ontological” randomness – that nondeterminism exists – he recognizes that science may not be able to definitively address this question. He goes on to suggest that randomness is a tool to manage physiological processes and biological diversity and that God created randomness to accomplish His ends.
God’s Providence in Natural Processes and the Taxonomy of Life
Scripture tells us that God is the author of life. To date, science has no satisfactory explanation for the origin of life despite abundant speculation in biology. The origin of life appears to be a supernatural event, but does Scripture prohibit us from speculating about how God created life? Scripture tells us that God made the plants and animals to populate the earth “each after its own kind” (Genesis 1:11, 24). But how are we to understand this? Does this also require a special act of “supernatural” creation for each kind or could God have worked within His ordained natural processes and the life (or kinds) that He had already created and were available at the appointed time? In analyzing God’s providence, such distinctions are not made in the Bible. Unless it is very clear that a natural process is impossible or unused by God, the default position should be to look for the natural process, as God can readily work within these processes.
One of the most significant divisions of kinds among living creatures is the classification of cells as either prokaryotes or eukaryotes. One defining characteristic of eukaryotic cells compared to prokaryotic cells is the presence of membrane-bound organelles, specialized compartments that help the cell accomplish specific functions such as storing DNA, folding proteins, and cellular digestion. It has been argued that genetic mutations in modern evolutionary theory cannot explain the emergence of eukaryotes about 1.5 billion years ago, because this involved structural changes (new organelles) that are not produced by genetic changes. It has been proposed by biologist Lynn Margulis that eukaryotes might have been formed by the fusion or enfolding of one prokaryote cell type within another (endosymbiosis) and that this highly improbable event would have happened on at least two separate occasions. These two events had greater impact on the evolution of life than the asteroid that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. Though this theory is speculative, it is viewed as very plausible by many evolutionary biologists.
If scientists were able to prove in the laboratory that a eukaryote could be produced through multiple cell fusions lending further credence to this theory, must we assume that this theory is in conflict with Scripture and that God would not create eukaryotes in this manner? Our review of scripture does not allow us to dismiss God acting in this way. Thus, we can be comfortable in looking for a natural process that may have been used by God to carry out His design.
Concurrence and God’s Sovereignty Over Nature
Isaiah gives voice to God’s sovereignty over nature: “I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the LORD, who does all these things” (Isaiah 45:7). Colin Humphrey has collated examples of how the “mighty works” of God (e.g. the plagues of Egypt) can leverage “extraordinary” but natural phenomena. God’s involvement appears to be a continuing activity; “He it is who makes the clouds rise at the end of the earth, who makes lightnings for the rain and brings forth the wind from his storehouses” (Ps 135:7). “By the breath of God ice is given, and the broad waters are frozen fast. He loads the thick cloud with moisture; the clouds scatter his lightning” (Job 37:10-11). “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matthew 6:26)
God’s active involvement with His creation is very explicitly called out in the doctrine of concurrence, which Grudem defines this way: “God cooperates with created things in every action, directing their distinctive properties to cause them to act as they do.” As Hebrews 1:3 says, “He upholds the universe by the word of His power.” In Psalm 139:14-15 David thanks God, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.” In Ephesians 1:11 Paul tells us, “In Him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will…” And in Romans 8:28, we are assured “… that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose.”
This doctrine of concurrence is very relevant to our discussion of natural randomness. The Bible teaches that God is in control of random events. The casting of lots mentioned in the Bible is analogous to the random flipping of a coin. In Proverbs 16:33, “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.” What is particularly relevant in this verse is that we are assured that God is not simply in control of macroscopically determinative processes like the weather, but every event and convergent process that is random and might be viewed as governed by “chance.” We may not see or ever measure God’s hand directing the casting of the lot, the flipping of the coin, or the sequence of a gene. However, we are assured by scripture that God is in control of these and all apparently random events.
. Merriam-Webster Dictionary, http://www.merriam-webster.com
. R.C. Sproul, Not a Chance: The Myth of Chance in Modern Science and Cosmology (Baker Books, Grand Rapids, 1994), 3.
. J.P. Moreland, Stephen Meyer, Christopher Shaw, and Wayne Grudem, Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique, (Crossway, Wheaton, 2017).
. Kerson Huang, Statistical Mechanics (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York, 1963).
. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (First Mariner Books, New York, 2008), 188.
. James Bradley, “Randomness and God’s Nature,” Perspective on Science and Christian Faith 64, 2, (2012): 75-89.
. Lynn Margulis, Symbiosis in Cell Evolution (New York, W. H. Freeman & Co Ltd. 1981).
. All Bible references are from English Standard Version.
. Colin J. Humphreys, The Miracles of Exodus: A Scientists Discovery of the Extraordinary Natural Causes of the Biblical Stories (HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.,New York, 2003).
. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: an Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, (Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, 1994) 317-331.
Michael Mobley is Professor and Executive Director at Grand Canyon University. He has a M.S. in Chemical Physics from Simon Fraser University and a Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry from Arizona State University. Previously, he’d served as Director of R&D at the Procter & Gamble Company and as Associate Director for the Biodesign Institute at ASU. He has been married to Kathryn for 45 years and they’ve raised 3 children.