Biochemistry: Randomness and God

(system) #1
Can random processes generate meaningful mechanisms?
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

(Dcscccc) #2

hi dr ruth. a tipical protein is about 300 amino acid long or a sequence space of 20^300. we know that most of the protein length is necessary for its minimal function (from scientific papers). so the question is how many functional sequences we have in this sequence space. a good estimation we can get from a human design. how many functional systems a human can made base on 2-3 parts? more then the number of sand grains on the earth?(10^25) its still nothing compare to the whole space. so even 4 bilion years is too short. and its mean that even if the evolution is true (and we have evidences that its not true)- it cant be a natural process.

(George Brooks) #3

This is a great article (link above) !!

Some may remember my offering COSMIC RADIATION as one of God’s favored instrument of genetic mutation.

But the article provides a short list of much more mundane causes!

"Keith’s own work is on DNA, which usually takes on a double helix structure. DNA can take on other forms, and Keith studies the triple and quadruple helices that some stretches of DNA can make under certain conditions. Another property of DNA is that it is damaged all the time by factors as common as

[1] water,
[2] oxygen, and
[3] ultraviolet light.

There are 168 genes involved in repairing damaged DNA, and this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry was for work on this process."

(Larry Bunce) #4

I have always wondered if “random” events represented the will of God. That may be the case, but that would make gambling the worst possible sin, since it would involve betting on God’s actions.

(Kathryn Applegate) #5

Hi dcscccc,

I’ll offer a quick reply, since we have some great material already on the BioLogos site dealing with this question. In particular I recommend Dennis Venema’s series, “The Origin of Biological Information,” especially Part 4. Your argument is that there’s no way functional proteins could arise naturally given the enormity of sequence space. However, there’s strong evidence from a comprehensive (28,000 proteins!) study of protein sequences and activities (as well as other lines of evidence, which Dennis describes) that functionality arises from repeated cycles of change and selection. So functional proteins are not tiny islands in sequence space–instead they “‘branch’ through sequence space – with each modern form connected to a previous form of which it is a modified descendant.”

Your last sentence is interesting to me. You claim to have evidence that evolution is not true, but then want to ensure that even if it were, it would somehow be supernatural (or in some other way “not natural,” i.e. presumably designed by a master intelligence). Does it bother you to imagine that God (assuming “supernatural” is ok with you) might work, often enough, through events that appear to be merely natural?

Again I think we’re tapping into the discomfort people have with the idea that randomness might be a good and useful part of God’s creation.

(Dcscccc) #6

hi kathryn. i will make a short response. even if prof venema was right- we still has a lot of orphans proteins- a proteins that dont have any homologous proteins. so we cant change one of those proteins into another step wise (because there is no step wise). more then that- we can check it from empirical prespective and find out how many mutations we will need to evolve a new biological system from another. and even in this case we need a lot more then 4 bilion years (i can show you why if you want).

maybe. if it can made without any intelligent (lets say to change a fish into a human)- then why we need god (intelligent) to explain those phenomenon?


(Kevin Schroeder) #7

Interestingly enough WM Briggs commented a few days ago on the non-existence of chance. As a statistician he states that there is no such thing as chance, which I would infer could include the concept of randomness. He states “Best guess, as I’ll show, is that chance appears to be as a synonym of mostly not predictable.” He uses craps as an example and states

"There are any number of physical mechanisms that cause each dice total, causes of which we are mostly or completely ignorant. We know the causes must be there, we just don’t know what they are. "

I am neither a chemist nor a statistician but if Briggs is correct the problem isn’t that there is inherent randomness in chemical processes, we just don’t have access to sufficient data to predict it.

(Patrick ) #8

The odds of winning at craps are well known. Don’t understand how this connects with the randomness of gene mutations.

(Kevin Schroeder) #9

Briggs in the article uses craps as an example to illustrate a point. His point is that randomness is not actually random; we simply don’t have enough information to make a prediction, or the information we have gives us a certain level of error in our predictions. Briggs’ point is not that the odds of winning at craps are well known, it is that there is no such thing as “odds”. “Odds” are possible outcomes derived from what we do not know.

With that in mind, I wonder (again I am neither a chemist, physicist, nor statistician) if what we call “randomness” in bio-chemistry is more accurately defined as “stuff we don’t know”, but on a level orders of magnitude higher than something like craps. WE define it as random because we cannot measure things at a sufficient level to predict with 100% accuracy. In addition, given that what we measure changes, especially on the molecular level, it is conceivable that it is actually impossible for us to measure in sufficient detail to perfectly predict the outcome. But that doesn’t mean that the outcome is unpredictable, and, thus, random. One who could measure from outside the realm of physical effects could be able to measure perfect information to make perfect predictions, even on the molecular level.

In other words, it is not a question of craps vs molecules, it is a question of scale.


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Is this a “God of the craps” argument?

(Patrick ) #12

The Briggs article mentions nothing about biochemistry, biological processes, chemistry or physics. Where are you getting the connection between craps and the randomness of genetic mutations which is the topic at hand?

(Kevin Schroeder) #13

From the very first few sentences in the article. Briggs is not talking about “craps theory”, he is talking about chance.

What is a game of chance? There is no such thing as chance. Chance does not exist, though many think it does.

But if there is truly no such thing as chance or randomness, and what we define as random is actually a lack of information, Brigg’s article has everything to do with biochemistry, biological processes, chemistry or physics. For something to be truly random ALL causes must be known perfectly with continuing unpredictable outcomes.

  1. Surely it is obvious that most of what the average person considers to be “random” is actually just something for which insufficient data is available to easily anticipate or predict.

The flip of a coin is probably the most common example. If one were to measure to sufficient significant digits of precision the mass distribution of the metal in the three-dimensional plane of the coin along with exact positioning of the coin before the timing, placement, velocity/“spin” of the moving thumb were to set it in motion…and the air temperature, humidity, and ambient air movements and every other imaginable vector force and physics variable, fairly mundane calculations would produce a “deterministic assurance” of whether a head or a tail is about to land facing upward. The outcome is random because it is, for all practical purposes unknown. (However, enough grad students have done massive experiments over the years for particular types of coin in order to show that 50/50 outcomes may actually be more like 5013/4987 because of more metal on the “head-side” of certain coins.)

Weather forecasting is another scenario where the talk of probabilities gives them impression of “randomness”----yet, if it were somehow possible to gather the relevant weather data from every point on the surface of planet earth and at every even-numbered inch of elevation above the planet to a height of several miles, then with sufficient supercomputer processing power (a big “if/then” to tackle!), then tomorrow’s weather could probably be predicted for any point on earth with incredible accuracy. Yet, because no weather forecaster has anywhere near that much input data for making the calculations (nor anywhere near that much computing power in the available time frame), most people hear “50% chance of rain tomorrow” and think of any such weather as a random event.

  1. Yet, the bigger question and bafflement for me is why so many Christians are bothered by the idea of “random processes” operating in God’s creation. The Bible tells us that God is sovereign even over the roll of the dice (i.e., casting of lots). Some would argue that God even included the Urim and Thummin in the high priest’s Breastplate of Judgment in order to use what many people today would consider a “random draw from a hat”, so to speak, to help an Israelite get help with a decision.

Indeed, if one truly believes that God is sovereign over everything in the universe he created, why should any Christian fear the idea of randomness? After all, anybody who has taken a statistics course understands that “random chance” is actually something which can be described, understood, and even used for making useful predictions.

Furthermore, anybody who has taken a few low-level physics courses understands that even some of the most “truly random” natural processes are so extremely dependable/reliable and predictable that we can use them for measuring all sorts of things. For example, in a given sample of some radioisotope, no human knows exactly which and when some atom will experience radioactive decay. Yet, scientists know to incredible levels of accuracy how long it will take for half of the atoms in the sample to decay. That is why the half-life of various radioisotopes are so useful, reliable, and extremely accurate in determining the age of various materials.

Obviously, “random processes” have become extremely useful within many fields of science and few scientists are surprised to see random processes generating so many “meaningful mechanism”. So why would anyone who believes in an omniscient and omnipotent God find it hard to believe that such a God uses processes which humans consider “random” for his glory and good purposes?

{The above covers my main question—but I’ve appended the material below for those who would challenge radiometrics or want more details. I might as well post the explanations now as later.}

********** OPTIONAL **************

Of course, when I was a creation science fan in the early 1960’s, The Genesis Flood by Morris & Whitcomb convinced me that radiometrics was useless for reliably dating anything. They never mentioned how many independent ways the reliable accuracy of radiometrics had been determined through comparison with other phenomena involving totally unrelated natural processes. (The term “consilience” was not yet used in science textbooks but the concept that word describes was already intrinsic to such science.) And even back then when their TGF book launched the creation science craze, the laboratory methodologies had been so meticulously honed for decades to greater and greater accuracies in ways which Henry Morris and John Whitcomb Jr. had no comprehension. Yet, in the half century since then the quality-control standards that radiometric labs utilize in Carbon-14, Potassium-Argon, Uranium-Lead, and Chlorine-36 (my personal favorite for reasons which are a long story) and various other dating methodologies have become all the more incredibly meticulous in reducing contaminations, anomalous samples, and data noise. (If someone doesn’t believe me, consult the many extremely specialized radiometric-methodologies technical journals and bulletins or attend one of the annual conferences&trade-shows or spend some time as an intern at one of the major radiometric analysis labs.)

In fact, it was while I was double-checking the reliability and honesty of Morris’ & Whitcomb’s complaints about radiometric dating that I first became extremely discouraged (and frankly, fearful, in terms of the potential implications for my young earth creationist “faith”) as I saw more and more instances of deceptive quote-mining. Sadly, so many of the same false claims they had made about radiometric dating in 1961 are still being repeated on far too many Christian websites today despite the fact that they are even more outrageously false now than back then. (I don’t recall if it was stated in The Genesis Flood but in their “creation conference” lectures and church sermons Morris & Whitcomb [and sometimes Dr. Gish] used to say things like “Radiometric dating falls apart when it is realized that one can’t know the original starting values of the various radioisotopes in the sample long ago before the decay began.” Not until years later did I realize that they either never bothered to learn about isochron dating–already commonly used back in the early 60’s—or they decided to withhold that huge but inconvenient fact which contradicted their complaint against radiometric dating.)

Anyway, considering the fact that I’m Mr.Molinist, nobody should be surprised that I have no difficulty assuming that God in his sovereignty over the universe he created chose the particular “arrow of time” path of events which we know as reality—including all of the “chance” events which seem “totally random” to us but were/are not at all surprising or unknown to an omniscient diety. So I am not in the least surprised that God would use everything he chose to happen—including “random processes”—for his glory and purposes.

Accordingly, I believe that God’s omnipotence and omniscience included complete foreknowledge of every radioactive atom that would ever decay (and exactly when)----and would also include foreknowledge of every mutation and every organism and biological structure which God intended his evolutionary processes to engineer and produce. Of course, a truly omniscient and omnipotent Creator God doesn’t have to nervously stand-by and “nudge and tweak” his creation to do what he designed it to do. I’m using that tongue-in-cheek yet embarrassingly and essentially accurate description of how I looked at God as “guiding his creation” back in the days when I loved creation science and hated evolution. It shocks me now to admit it but I used to think that God apparently did such an insufficient job of designing “the laws of physics governing his universe” such that he had to act like a 24/7 always-on-duty engineer-in-the-basement so that he could repeatedly nudge that universe along or else it would quickly fall into complete chaos and even disintegrate! Back then I didn’t pause to consider that a REALLY sharp and powerful engineer could create natural processes in such a way that they would bring about exactly the universe and its entire event-timeline exactly as the all-wise Creator willed it to be.

Yet, you don’t have to be a Molinist to consider God fully capable of creating a universe which would function exactly as he willed it to function and “play out”. Surely everyone can agree that the God of the Bible is not subservient to or governed in any way by time. (No, time is just an inevitable attribute of a matter-energy universe. And before the first matter was created, there was no time because time is an attribute of mass-energy. If anyone disagrees, please explain how one can measure the passage of time without using matter and energy to do it.Thus, before the creation of the universe, matter and energy did not exist—and therefore time could not exist. [Yes, I realize that some physicists would challenge me on this but I make that bold assertion not necessarily to “win over” anyone to a side—but simply to help frame an interesting discussion among non-physicists on these forums.])

Whatever your view on God’s sovereignty vs. free will questions, I wrote this rather long explanation NOT to win anyone over to a particular position but so that readers can help me to understand WHY some Christians find “random chance” upsetting and/or disconcerting and WHY you find my Molinist view of the created universe unsatisfactory.

P.S. If anyone feels called to declare radiometric dating “useless and unreliable” by listing here the standard compilation of complaints that Morris & Whitcomb published and every anti-evolution ministry in the half-century since has dutifully and trustingly repeated, please consider that (1) I could recite those denials in my sleep, if necessary, because I used to teach them, and (2) I’m certainly not the only one here who actually did coursework and extensive research into the science and, therefore, will not be swayed by yet another repetition of AIG-talking points for non-scientists who don’t understand the physics, biology, and geology involved and how the complaints don’t make any sense.

[I say that with no smug joy because I’m continually embarrassed to admit that I helped initiate and promote this science-denialism propaganda within American Evangelicalism. I do consider the renouncing in this manner of my former false-teachings *absolutely essential in accordance with the Biblical doctrine of repentance.* I look back on a lifetime of ministry and consider my promotion of “creation science” (as a young university professor with strong influence over vulnerable audiences) the greatest professional failure of my career as a minister and academic. I declared entire fields of the science academy—and thereby even my Christian brethren within them—as totally in error despite (at the point in my life) my lacking a relevant PhD or even significant graduate training and experiential knowledge in those academic disciplines. That was a terrible wrong on my part.]

(GJDS) #15

The controversy regarding “random” is not derived from science, but rather from the atheists who use the term to promote a view that “random” means to them, lack of purpose, direction and predictability of outcomes regarding evolution. This outlook is used to promote a view that science, via random processes, is supposed to show there is no God. Obviously this is false and is an ideological position from atheists.

I think if this central point is ignored by TE/EC, they miss the basis for such controversy, and instead indulge, within this context, in pointless discussion. All scientists with any training understand what stochastic and random mean within their discipline, which is statistical treatments show what outcomes are predicted (probabilities), and other treatments that are unpredictable because of lack of sufficient information - there is little, or no, controversy on these matters, from science. Evolution, on the other hand, can be discussed with this unscientific outlook of random, and as I said, this is ideological and not science.

(Kathryn Applegate) #16

Very interesting, Mr.Molinist. As someone in the Reformed tradition, I resonate with a lot of what you are saying here about God’s sovereignty. Thanks for your humility in admitting your former views and the damage they may have caused.

(George Brooks) #17

Well said! @Mr.Molinist

It seems to me that the ‘default’ position on the issue of “randomness” is: whether randomness is real or just an artifact of the limitations of human knowledge (or even human capacity), God either works WITH or THROUGH randomness.

It should have zero affect on the theological stance of BioLogos.


(Jon Garvey) #18

Larry -

That’s precisely why gambling had such a bad rap in evangelical writing for several centuries. The Puritan Richard Baxter was scared off from an adolescent affection for gaming by suddenly winning many times in a row - he came to the conclusion that God wouldn’t have been the one to do that.

(Jon Garvey) #19

Amen to all this, Mr Molinist - interesting to see that pretty well all your examples are those I’ve written about in the same vein.

The unmentioned issue in your post, though, is what follows from this statement:

Indeed, if one truly believes that God is sovereign over everything in the universe he created, why should any Christian fear the idea of randomness?

Your paragraphs about Creationists show how they wrongly believe that randomness challenges God’s sovereignty. But at least they believe in, and rejoice in, God’s sovereignty.

Much of the theodicy in modern theistic evolution (Ayala, Haught, Van Till, Ken Miller and many more key figures) depends on allowing an autonomy to nature, which being interpreted means randomness filtered through an open-ended Darwinian evolution (as opposed to an unfolding view of evolution, which is philosophically more satisfactory, but reatins an unwanted degree of divine quotes coercion unquotes.

The same erroneous view of randomness obtains with these people, but to correct it actually threatens their view of God simply by suggesting he is sovereign over every decision of the lot (or quantum event). And it is precisely that which these Christians have to fear.

So it may be a good question to ask where such a theology of nature’s autonomy can hide once randomness is shown (as in your excellent presentation) to be little more than (in David L Wilcox’s charming terrm) “the hand of God”.

In fact it was Wilcox, a population geneticist, who wrote:

On the other hand, for those who have committed themselves by faith to nature’s autonomy, the idea of intelligent direction of natural causes is simply incomprehensible (even for those who believe in God). For them, a “god” who acts in nature would be the ultimate intruder in a closed system.

So does the theology get finally abandoned as incoherent, or does a misconstrued “randomness” still get trotted out regularly as an autonomous demiurge and co-creator with God? Or do your remarks just get quietly forgotten whilst life goes on?


Thanks for commenting on those examples, Jon. The fact that so many of us have independently been drawn to those very same natural phenomena (and scriptures) in addressing the often-polarizing topic of “random chance” tells me that those examples truly are just that obvious and applicable. I wonder how many Christians have simply adopted the anti-randomness philosophy trumpeted by so many non-scientist Christian leaders without ever pausing to apply thought and common sense as to the implications. Of course, the fact that I was willing to think that the Creator could be somehow frustrated and overwhelmed by “random chance” in his created universe is why I often say that I’m so relieved to have abandoned the weak and puny deity of my “creation science” past. I consistently preached all of the systematic theology textbook superlatives concerning God’s omnipotence and omniscience, yet my brand of science denialism was just as insulting to God as to science itself.