Randomness and Theology


Leaving aside the moral questions surrounding that particular analogy, and also being clear God has right to directly intervene by primary causation in any pulls as he sees fit.

But in that scenario, the results of the games are random. The cards are shuffled randomly. The ball falls into a random slot on the roulette wheel. The dice roll randomly. The only exception would be those rare cases in which the casino cheats by forcing a deal, fall, or roll. Even loaded dice are random, just not with the distribution the sucker thinks. This “secondary causation” does seem to allow for true randomness. Whether God knows what the random result will be is a different question.

There’s a pretty big difference between artificial and natural selection. I don’t think natural selection would have been likely to select for cms in maize do you?

True, if the probabilistic resources of the system allowed for a full search of the relevant search space. If they don’t, then He couldn’t leave it to chance.

No, just the ones that are needed to both overcome the probabilistic hurdles and make sure God’s intended outcome, humans made in His image, obtained. That’s from a theological perspective. Scientifically I personally have a problem with a model that suggests God guided some mutations and not others, which seems to be required by such a view.

Well I’d have to explain my entire view on free will to answer that question. In short, I think the free will/sovereignty issue is resolved neatly by God being outside of time and therefore knowing the future without causing it. That also means He doesn’t control our choices, but His plan does account for them.

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We don’t abandon scientific models because we think they are false. It’s virtually certain that all scientific models are false at least in part. We abandon scientific theories if better ones are available. I don’t see better theories available that explain the same data as those you mentioned.

Going deeper than that, the reason why the random model of evolution has failed is that the system in question doesn’t have the probabilistic resources available to successfully navigate the sequence space to all the observed fitness peaks. I’m not seeing a reason to think that in those other cases you mentioned we have reason to believe the same thing.

CMS occurs in the wild.


The existence of the will is not seriously in doubt, because it is is our direct experience - together with consciousness, our sole direct experience.

The existence of chance, now - that’s more problematic. I’ve not been able to find any plausible source of ontological chance in nature, whereas epistemological chance - as Iunderstand it, the only legitimate form of randomness within science - is merely a statement about our human lack of omnipotence, which is scarcely an earth-shattering truth.

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None of the things you mention here are random in the ontological sense - every case is about human lack of knowledge of individual event-causation, because of the human inability to control parameters like force of dice throw, etc. Scientifically all the events are deterministic. But the House has a greater knowledge of statistical theory.

That is entirely different from the case of God in classical theology, as James Clerk Maxwell acknowledged at the very dawn of statistical physics:

Would it not be more profound and feasible to determine the general constraints within which the deity must act than to track each event the divine will enacts?

I think Maxwell’s use of “must” has the sense of “surely” rather than “constrainedly,” because there is no mechanism by which the omniscient Creator would not know the outcomes of scientifically determined events, nor would he not determine them if he determined the laws and the initial conditions.

Now, omitted from that rather deistic account are free choices of human beings or God himself, but the former are, in all mainstream theology before Socinius and his offspring, the Open Theists, completely known to God, and the latter simply confirms God’s knowledge and control in the matter of things beyond scientific laws.

The only way to rehabilitate randomness of which God is ignorant, and powerless, is either to believe in it by faith, as the Epicureans did and do, or to find it somewhere in nature, which has not been done either in statistical science, in chaos theory or (certainly at the macro-level) in quantum physics. If one wants to invoke that kind of chance, in other words, one has got an uphill battle to prove it first.

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Technically artificial selection is an instance of natural selection. Humans are part of the environment of maize, and what humans happen to find desirable among expressed maize phenotypes then has the effect of favoring particular maize traits over others, regardless of what genetic mechanisms they are caused by or happen to be carried along with them, which is in principle no different than when a particular species of bee happen to find a particular flower phenotype more desirable than another, which has the effect of making pollination of flowers exhibiting that phenotype more likely. And in the same way, that selection on desirable flower traits by bees can carry along other genetic and molecular traits, even if these might otherwise be competitively worse in environments without those bees.

And by the way, many cms species of plants exist. So apparently nature had no problem favoring this trait under the right circumstances.

It’s not necessary to fully search a space to find something useful or desirable.

Speaking for God now, are we? God could in principle do anything He might want to, including but not limited to “leaving things to chance”.

There’s no basis for imagining a probabilistic hurdle, and God could of course still have “left it to chance” to produce organisms “in His image”. And God could even have been sure that this outcome would obtain simply from his foreknowledge and capacity to make lots of universes, or a universe so big that even with low odds and a chance process, the result he wanted was guaranteed to obtain anyway. God can of course also simply know how the dice will land when he throws them, hence he very well might play dice.

What basis is there for this theology of yours? From what do you extract these conclusions about what God did or didn’t do, and how he deemed it appropriate to do it?

That’s not scientific, it’s personal only. What you happen to have a problem with is not a constraint on what a God might want to do or not.

If God can know the future without causing it, God could be “sure” that his throw of the dice nevertheless would eventually produce beings in His image.

God could be doing with chance processes what you think He’s doing with humans that have free will.

So God could create a process he does not intervene to control, steer, or manipulate, let it proceed “by chance”, and he could have done this knowing in advance this chance process would eventually produce said beings somewhere in this colossal universe.
He could have made the universe big for that reason, to raise the probability that even though the odds of beings in His image are a low probability outcome of the chance process, which itself might only occur on very rare planets, there would go on to be enough stars and planets that those beings would occur with high likelihood anyway.

God doesn’t need to fiddle around with anything, it can all proceed by blind physical forces and still be “according to plan”. God is defined as a being that has the capacities that would be necessary to allow all these possibilities and more: omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience. As Christians say, with God all things are possible.


No analogy is perfect, so I would expect there to be exceptions.

The main point of the analogy is that the outcome is known but no one has to specifically guide any of the processes. To be more specific, the casino boss doesn’t have to decide who wins or loses and the gamblers have complete free will in a fair game. With all of those conditions, the casino boss can still be confident that the house will make a profit which is the goal.

True, but you would be depending on chance not design. @T_aquaticus casino owner analogy applies well here. Games of chance can be designed to produce the intended outcome. In a biological context this can be done by making sure the probabilistic resources of the system are enough to fully search the sequence space. If they aren’t, then the outcome wasn’t intended; it was chance.

Yes, there is. Doug Axe and subsequent work has shown this.

It’s a scientific issue at that point because some mutations being guided and others not raises issues of falsification, ad-hocness, God-of-the-gaps problems, etc. It creates problems with interpreting what’s happening with mutations that we can currently observe in laboratory environments. Is God guiding those mutations or are they just happening on their own? Could He be manipulating them to produce a certain conclusion that has nothing to do with the purpose of the experiment? It becomes a major epistemic issue.

All things are not possible in the philosophic sense. Logically impossible things are not possible. God cannot act against His own nature. All sorts of things are not possible.

What I said in my post above is that God knowing how things will go means He can account for them in His plan. He must still act to counter events which go against His purpose.

So for example let’s say that Bob has free will and decides he wishes to thwart God’s plan for the world and determines that some action A brings about event X that God did not want to occur. Let’s further stipulate that absent God’s action, Bob is correct. However, since God knows Bob’s choices ahead of time, He can work out in advance corrective actions which are outside of Bob’s knowledge and or control to make sure event X doesn’t actually occur, despite Bob’s action A. This does not mean God doesn’t have to act. It simply means He’s in control.

The same is true of random events which are indeterminate as are free will choices. If God is not @T_aquaticus 's casino owner and didn’t rig the odds in His favor, then He would still know random event B would occur that would result in event Y occuring which He doesn’t want. He would then have to act in the same way as above to prevent Y from occurring even if B does occur.

Simply knowing an indeterminate event will occur does not ensure that indeterminate event is what He wants to happen or that He’s in control of it.

Yes, but how do you know it came about through natural selection?

Yes, but it’s an analogy. In the analogy, God is in the position of the casino manager, who is human. The manager doesn’t know what will happen in any individual case. And we must separate knowledge from causation: more importantly, the manager doesn’t cause any particular result; he just sets up the odds. If that isn’t true for God, the analogy is meaningless.

This is a different sense of “determine” from what we were talking about.

I’m puzzled by your claim that quantum physics doesn’t rescue randomness. You seem to imply that it does exist at the micro-level. But how is the micro-level kept from influencing the macro-level?

If cms had been beneficial in a natural environment then it could have been selected for. Both artificial and natural selection is based on phenotype, so they are the same in that respect.

You are assuming that there is only one outcome that God would be happy with.

Is God a bipedal mammal? If not, then I’m not sure how meaningful that sentence is. If God’s image is a highly intelligent sapient being then there are many, many possible avenues.

Would that make hard Determinism part of the theology?

How do you determine if a theory is better?

Can you show us how random mutations do not fit the data in biology? Experiments such as the Luria-Delbruck fluctuation assay and the Lederberg plate replica experiment produce data that is consistent with random mutations. If you think there is a better scientific model that incorporates non-random mutations then those experiments would probably be the ones to start with.


We are not saying mutations are random because of allegiance to some ideology. Rather, we conclude that mutations are random because that is what experiments show us.

I have never seen evidence that backs this claim. It is always an empty assertion which is why it isn’t taken seriously in biology.

No, I’m only assuming that the number of outcomes God would have been happy with are much lower probability than can be reasonably expected to occur on a random model within the natural order as we understand it.

No. I’m not sure why you think I’m saying that.

I agree that mutations are random at least in the epistemic sense and don’t particularly care if they are random in the ontic sense. I think there’s been a misunderstanding here.

WLC, Plantinga, presumably @swamidass and many others in and around the TE/EC camp are trying to argue that the evolutionary model, including random mutations (epistemic not ontic) is compatible with the Christian doctrine of creation. I disagree. Mutations are random, and even if that is only in the epistemic sense it’s still incompatible with the doctrine of creation.

WLC has been arguing that “random” in evolutionary biology only means “random with respect to the usefulness to the organism,” a definition he got from Francisco Ayala. You have put your finger precisely on the problem with that. Mutations are also known and observed to be “random with respect to their position on the genome.” The Ayala definition is almost a century out of date, but WLC is applying it with philosophical precision that it does not have in order to make the compatibility argument. It might be enough for evolutionary theory, but it does not account for how scientists today understand mutations. A hundred years ago, mutations were only observed in a biological context. Now we can observe them in a biochemical context. Ayala, and Craig following them, are simply lacking in their understanding.

Surely you have seen this.


I may seem to imply that, but I don’t - it’s just more controversial a discussion at the micro level. But there does seem to be little to no evidence that quantum randomness (whether epistemological or ontological) scales up to significant influence at the macro level, exceptions of course being the experiments of quantum physicists (caused by mind and will), and possibly bird migration mechanisms etc according to some.

The idea that single quantum radiation events would cause, for example, specific biological mutations appears to be based on a belief, rather than evidence, that there is no threshold level for radiation-induced mutations - which goes back to Muller, but that’s another interesting story. And there is no hint of a quantum influence on the behaviour of roulette wheels or dice.

But I agree the analogy of the casino is meaningless for God, whether by “determine” one means knowledge or decision - in classical theology they are interchangeable because God’s knowledge is full knowledge of himself as the Creator of all things. He knows because he decides.

And that, if you think about it, makes ontological randomness in a theistic universe, ie causation not caused by God (or the creation of causelessness) incoherent apart from a dualism in which there are actually two eternal Gods, one a rational God of order, and the other an irrational God of randomness.

Historically that’s not been popular - it’s what the Epicureans and the Platonists/Aristotelians disputed about.

I repeat, hard evidence for ontological randomness in the macro world is hard to come by, making its existence a matter of faith.

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@BenKissling, are you suggesting that the evolution of CMS in the wild is due to neutral genetic processes? That’s an interesting idea. How do you suppose this might happen?


The idea that evolution depends on specific mutations appears to be based on belief rather than on evidence.

Presumably you’re referring to the 2004 JMB paper. If you are that confident about what Axe has shown, would you please answer some questions? I’ve done a lot of work studying how single-residue substitutions affect activity.

  1. Why did Axe start with a ts mutant, explicitly selected to be unstable?
  2. Why didn’t Axe bother to measure activity? Commercial assays cost only $7 each.
  3. How does Axe’s number hold up to finding beta-lactamase activity (unlike Axe, measured!) at a frequency greater than 10^-8?
  4. How do you account for that massive difference?
  5. Which study was performed more thoroughly?
  6. Why hasn’t Axe attempted to test his generalization?


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Transient ischemic attack??? :question: