May 28, 2010

Random Thoughts

Where did the universe come from? How did life develop? Do we have a purpose?

To the philosophical naturalist, our existence is the result of pure accident – the product of a series of random events in a multitude of universes.

Most Christians would take the opposite stance:   that the universe reflects God's intentional and purposeful design.  After all, the concept of chance is inconsistent with an omniscient and omnipotent God. 

Or is it?

For most of history, it wasn’t believers, but scientists that had the bigger problem with the concept of randomness. Science had always assumed “scientific determinism” – that every particle in the universe behaved in a completely predictable way in response to the laws of nature. In fact, when quantum scientists first began uncovering evidence of unpredictable behavior at a subatomic level, Albert Einstein refused to accept it, saying, “I am convinced that God does not throw dice.”

Yet the evidence for randomness in nature soon became so undeniable that science had to abandon its long-held assumption of determinism. Reknowned physicist Stephen Hawking now says, “All the evidence points to God being an inveterate gambler, who throws the dice on every possible occasion.” Even the development of life seems to be punctuated by, or perhaps even dependent on, the occurrence of seemingly random genetic mutations.

So if you accept the discoveries of science, how can you reconcile the seeming prevalence of random events with belief in a sovereign God who is in total control of the universe?

One solution is to say that acts of chance may seem random from our perspective, but from God’s perspective are not random at all. The Bible is full of stories in which seemingly chance events were later understood to be part of God’s plan. Proverbs 16:33 states this even more explicitly: “We may throw the dice, but the LORD determines how they fall.”

While we may agree that a sovereign God can, if He chooses, control the outcome of seemingly random events, does that necessarily imply that every time I play Monopoly, His master plan also covers whether or not I land on Boardwalk? Perhaps we need to take a closer look at the assumption of God being in "total control".

Let’s assume that God’s ultimate purpose in creation was to have other beings with whom He can have relationship. But relationship is meaningless if it's with something that's just an extension of Himself. How can He create something that really becomes independent of Him, and isn't just behaving the way He’s programmed it to? The answer is: a creation which has its own creative processes built into it – constrained to advance in a general, purposeful direction, but with enough randomness built in to guarantee an outcome that's more than just its creator pulling the strings. A creation can’t have free will unless its creator willingly relinquishes some level of control.

Here’s an analogy: Suppose I design a computer program to generate fractal designs. I've designed it with all the mathematical equations necessary to continue adding element after element until it completes a complex, colorful, and beautiful design. But suppose my knowledge of those equations is so intimate that I’m never able to modify them without automatically knowing exactly what the final result will look like. The results never surprise me. I want to give my computer program the ability to create something that is something other than just a deterministic result of my preconceived ideas.

In order to do this, I purposely put certain random elements in the equations. Now, every time I push the button, the design is different, even though they are all equally complex and beautiful. When I run the program, I can sit back and admire a work of art which exists only because of creative processes I put in place, but I can appreciate is in a new and different way, because it now contains characteristics that were purposely independent of my control.

I can see how God might have chosen to create in the same way. At the moment of creation, all the processes had been put into place to guarantee the eventual appearance of a biological species capable of having relationship with Him. And when His creation finally gave birth to the first human beings capable of acknowledging and responding to their Creator, I can see him rejoicing over his newborn children just as any new parent would.

Come to think of it, that's another pretty good analogy. When we, as humans, give birth to children, aren't we doing the same thing? There's a generally predictable outcome of the reproductive process, but there's enough randomness built in to the genetic mix that each child is unique, capable of having relationship with its parents, yet independent of them. I see it as another aspect of what "in God's image" means -- a part of our nature that's really a reflection of the nature of God.

In the end, we’re left with a creation governed, not by total randomness (which would be chaos), and not by precise order (which would be predictably boring), but by the perfect balance of randomness (free will) and order (God’s sovereign purpose).

And we're left with another opportunity for science and faith to stand side by side – science exploring how God “plays dice” (and how heavily the dice are “loaded”), and faith exploring why He does.  And with science and faith working together, we come to a deeper appreciation of both the nature of God, and the beauty and purpose inherent in His creation.


  1. so, you continue to cause me to be stretched in my thinking and perspective. you probably knoe I am not "there yet" with you but it seems I may be on the journey somewhere... still trying to understand the why's and a little less concerned with the how's. keep writing, mt friend, keep writing.

    Brad Wickersheim

  2. I absolutely agree! God put this universe into motion, but I don't believe that he governs everything that happens. Granted, He could, but what kind of life is that? For me, the struggle is in learning to hear God's voice in the midst of whatever is happening in my life, without becoming so reductionistic in my thinking as to assume that everything I experience can be traced back to a decision that God has made concerning me. That seems a bit narcissistic to me.

  3. Thanks for your comments, Deb. "Putting the universe into motion" is a phrase I avoid using, because it sounds too much like Deism, which is often described as belief in a God that "put the universe in motion and then walked away". Just to be clear, this is NOT a Deistic view of God.

    On the contrary, it is a view that pictures God as a loving parent — one who purposely chooses not to control His children, but who anxiously stands by waiting for us to invite Him to be involved.

    I see that as the purpose of prayer. We aren't telling God anything He doesn't already know, but we are giving Him permission to be involved.

  4. Isn't this just a non-falsifiable idea that let's you pretend that your invisible friend can have some influence on reality? If you can't show that a god exists, much less prove that it is the specific god of a specific religion with specific abilities and attributes, then why even bother speculating that it might be playing a computer game with randomly generated content?

  5. Josiah, I agree that claims to the existence and identity of God can’t be proved by logical or scientific methods, and disagree with the militant creationists who insist they can be proved. And I also agree with you that claims to the existence and identity of God can’t be falsified, and disagree with the militant atheists who insist they can be falsified.

    I even agree with you that much of what I write about is speculation. But far from being a worthless pursuit, as you seem to imply, I find speculation to be a stimulating and improving to the mind, whether it’s about life on other planets, multiple universes, time travel, or the existence and nature of God. Lots of really, really smart people enjoy these kinds of discussions (see for a small sample).

    And that’s my point. I find nothing in the Bible to preclude me from scientific speculation, and nothing in science to preclude me from speculating about God. But beyond that, I keep finding ways in which my speculations about science and my speculations about God synergistically build on one another. So I share some of my speculations because writing them down helps me sort out my own thoughts, and getting feedback from others, such as yourself, hopefully helps each of us on our own journey in search of truth.

  6. Just reading old posts and noticed your comment to me. No, I'm not a Deist. I think God is very personal and present, both transcendent and immanent. Do you have a simple way of describing what you're saying that doesn't smack of Deism?

  7. No, Deb, I haven't come up with a better way to describe what I'm saying other than using the parent-child relationship as an analogy. I'm just aware that some people assume "hands off" means "distant and uninterested", so they sometimes need additional help to understand the distinction.

    I've run into those who call Francis Collins a Deist because he says the laws of nature don't need divine intervention to continue operating -- even though in Language of God he specifically describes Deism as the first belief system he explored and rejected. So I've found it best to address that objection up front by describing the concept in terms of what it is not in addition to what it is.

  8. I believe it was Francis Schaeffer who said there are 3 choices for the cause of the universe: 1) Nothing, 2) Impersonal cause or 3) Personal cause. The best explanation is a personal cause because nothing can't create anything and neither can an impersonal cause. Impersonal scientific laws are merely a description of what happens under certain conditions. The best explanation is a personal cause because you need agency to really create something. God is the agency or the uncaused cause of everything including all the laws of science, matter, energy, etc. If God is indeed this prime reality, then He can choose how frequently he interacts with His creation. Miracles are the events in which God supersedes natural and scientific laws. Unfortunately we often confuse divine providence with miracles. Certain effects are definitely miracles: the virgin birth, Jesus resurrection and creation itself. Rare natural events, like the fog at Normandy during the Allied invasion, that appear to have come by direct intervention from God should be referred to as divine providence rather than a miracle.

    A good book to read is "God's Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?" by John Lennox, an Oxford Mathematics instructor.