Random Purpose

The latest Christianity Today (June, 2011) features a cover story on the controversy over Adam. From the point of view of evolutionary genetics, the beginning point of the human race appears to be a population of at least several thousand. How to square that with the biblical record of Adam and Eve as the first parents? This raises many familiar issues of faith and science in a slightly new garb.

One line in the sand is mentioned in the CT editorial. “In Darwinian thought, pure randomness was the engine of evolution. But randomness denies the divine Reason (the Logos in the language of John’s Gospel) behind the creative process. Christians must root for intelligence over chance.”

I want to point out that this “bright line” is actually rather fuzzy, because nothing is purely random. First, randomness is always constrained by the physical universe. The structure of the atom is clearly not random, nor are the physical constants of time, space, gravity and energy that earth labors under. If genetic mutations are randomly generated, it is only within a very narrow range of possibilities. And how those random mutations are culled for survival and for usefulness, and incorporated into the organism, is anything but random. If God made the physical cosmos, and holds it together still, how can these constraints be said to be anything but his intelligence?

Secondly, randomness is often a tool of intelligence. If I am a pollster, I generate a random sample of possible voters in order to understand the sentiments of the average voter.  If I am a scientist, I may use random sampling in order to compute the results of my experiment. If I am developing a new breed of wheat, I may randomly cross every variety in my seed bank in order to select for the hardiest. If I am an inventor, I may generate a random spectrum of design possibilities in order to select the best one. If I seek adventure, I may spin the globe and put my finger down at random. In all these examples, and many more, randomness is used in service of purpose. Clearly, intelligence is the governing agent, and randomness is an integral and essential part of the process used by that intelligence.

Where did that bright line go?

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One Response to “Random Purpose”

  1. David Graham Says:

    Well put. Your points in your third paragraph about randomness always working withing restraints is well taken. Even randomness works within a lawful framework.

    There are certain theological viewpoints that wouldn’t square with the analogies you gave in the fourth paragraph, since in each case the person using randomness is trying to learn something. Those who say that God is omniscient and therefore has nothing to learn would surely see problems in the randomness analogies. Those who have more of an “openness” theology would say that your analogies make perfectly good sense. “Sure, God learns – why not?”

    There is also the matter of directionality to consider, what Paul Davies called the “optimistic arrow of time,” which John Polkinghorne discusses in “The Faith of a Physicist.” Because we have gone from rocks circling around in the universe 4.6 billion years ago (as the earth was formed) to simple life to highly complex life, there is the sense that some intelligence is “directing” this upward march. Hard-core materialistic Darwinians say that natural processes are doing this (though they have nothing more than evidence-less theory for showing HOW this is being done…), but theists will say that there is an intelligence “directing” the development of life on this planet – and many would say directing even the development of history as it unfolds.

    In that sense, this intelligence, God, is more than an experimenter using randomness to find out a result – he is actually involved in causing results (whether that be on a micro or only macro level is yet another debate). Maybe in some sense that’s what most human experimenters also do??

    Good food for thought. Nice post.

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