Posted tagged ‘randomness’

Providence and Probability

January 15, 2009

Let me begin with a disclaimer about this blog entry. This entry falls into the category of speculative as opposed to certainty. That is to say, I’m holding at least some aspects of this entry loosely in my hand as compared to the death grip I use for those things that are absolutely certain such as the deity of Christ and the authority of scripture.

For some time now I have struggled with the tension between the concept of God’s sovereignty in the universe and with what little I’ve learned over the years as a scientist. First of all I’ve come to see that the concept of God’s sovereignty is not that of the ultimate puppet master–consciously, directly, and specifically determining and controlling the location and energy of every proton, neutron, electron (and all those sub atomic particles with the cool names that I don’t understand). In establishing the universe, God clearly set up rules for much of it to function autonomously. By these “rules” I mean what we call the laws of physics. Chemistry and biology are built on the foundation laid by the fundamental laws of physics. For example, chemical reactions are governed by thermodynamics and kinetics. They are reproducible and predictable and because of that reproducibility chemical processes can be developed and biological systems can be sustained.

At the atomic/molecular level there is a degree of what I will call ordered randomness. For example, there is a distribution of the velocities of gas molecules in a container at a given temperature, pressure, and number of gas molecules. The “temperature” of the gas is a measure of the average velocity of the gas molecules in the container. The shape of the velocity distribution plot is predictable and governed by basic statistics.  Which molecule is traveling at what direction and at what velocity at any given time is randomly determined. Yet in that randomness there is order.  The dynamic equilibrium that occurs between a liquid and it’s vapor is also “ordered randomness”. The partial pressure of the vapor above the liquid can be predicted using theory and experiment. However, which molecules are in the liquid and the vapor phase at any given time is constantly changing because the equilibrium is dynamic.

On the macro-scale we also see randomness that ranges from what clothes I put on in the morning to what lane I drive in on the tollway on my way into work. Granted, these choices are limited by the clothes in my closet and drawers and the number of lanes that are open (i.e. not under construction) on the tollway. In experimental data, the underlying randomness is often referred to as noise. Sometimes it is an artifact of the measuring instrument and other times it is inherent in the system being studied.

Thus to varying degrees this stochastic background noise permeates the universe on all levels. It obeys the laws of probability but it is random nevertheless. The first thesis I propose in reconciling this stochastic background noise with the sovereignty of God is that God has ordained this stochastic background noise in creation for at least two reasons. The first reason is that in a system with many moving parts, it is necessary, and secondly it gives Him freedom to work his sovereign plan in a “stealth” manner that most of the time appears to be completely natural-like riding with no hands appears to a small child  like the bicycle is steering itself.

First of all, let me offer two arguments as to why this stochastic background noise is necessary. The first argument is based on analogy. I am fully aware that arguments based on analogy are never sufficient to prove a point but they do serve to make us feel more comfortable with a point that at first makes us feel uncomfortable. Consider an automobile engine. In order for that engine to work there has be some tolerance in the dimensions of the moving parts. Pistons cannot fit too tightly in the cylinder or they will not move and there has to be some allowance in the design of the engine for dimensional changes due to frictional wear, erosion, and corrosion. These tolerances result in a limited randomness to the location and dimensions of the engine components at any given time. It is a necessary component of the engine design. The number of “moving parts” in the universe is an extremely big (but finite) number and requires a degree of tolerance in the design for it to function.

The second argument is that designing a universe that runs semi-autonomously or semi-automatically with a degree of stochastic randomness from the subatomic to the cosmic scale is an incredible feat. There are no sloppy patches or kludge fixes, it is an elegant system that speaks volumes about the power and wisdom of its designer (more on this in a future post). In short, it glorifies God.

In discussing how God uses this stochastic background noise to stealthily work his sovereign will I will use two scripture passages, one from the old testament and one from the new testament.  In I Kings 22:29-37 King Jehoshaphat of Judah goes into battle alongside  King Ahab of Israel against the Syrians.  To make himself less of a target, Ahab disguises himself as a common soldier while Jehoshaphat goes to battle wearing royal battledress. The Syrians had orders specifically to kill Ahab and for a while pursued Jehoshaphat (recognizable as a king by his garments) until they realized that he was not King Ahab. While this was going on in verse 34 it states, “But a certain man, drew his bow at random and struck the king of Israel between the scale armor and the breastplate. The would proved fatal and as the words of the prophet had spoken when the washed the blood out of the bottom of his chariot, the dogs licked up his blood and the prostitutes bathed in it (verse 38). In this passage God clearly superintends a “random” event (the arrow shot) to work his divine will. Prophecy ahead of the event called attention to the seemingly random event as in fact the specific will of God.

A similar event occurs in the Matthew 17: 24-27. In this passage Jesus instructs Peter to go to the sea (of Galilee) cast a hook and take the first fish he catches. He then tells Peter that when he opens the mouth of the fish he will find the exact amount of money (one shekel) to pay the half-shekel tax for Jesus and himself. Jesus did not tell him where to stand or where to cast the hook. He demonstrated complete control over a random event. It was regarded as a miracle because no one but God could achieve such a feat.

It is my opinion that God directly intervenes regularly in the realm of the stochastic background noise in our lives to work His will. Doing so in this manner exhibits an amazing degree of artistry and finesse because although the hands are not on the handlebars, He is still able to direct the bicycle in the direction he chooses. We do have freedom in the realm of stochastic background noise but those that think that the stochastic background noise is all there is are like those who leave the concert hall right after the cacophony of the orchestra tuning concludes and the buzz in the audience subsides mistakenly assuming that the concert is over. They are in fact missing out on hearing and playing in a magnificent symphony composed and created by master of the universe.