Does Randomness Really Exist?

(system) #1
Randomness is nothing strange or fearful—it’s a necessary part of living in a complex world in which there are many independent entities.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

(George Brooks) #2

The question covers 2 kinds of randomness:

1) Is there a randomness in any category of causation, where identical causal parameters does NOT lead to identical results? If so, we can call this random causation.
2) Is there a category of random causation where even an Omniscient deity would not know the result?
3) And even if God knows all results, is random causation merely a human perception, where ultimately, any observer with sufficient technological assistance will be able to accurate predict the results?

(Larry Bunce) #3

Early computers were built with genuine random number generators, using a bad electronic component that produced a random voltage that could be sampled to yield a random value. There were two problems with this approach: one was that the results tended to cluster h.igh and low at computer speeds, and the other was that the outcome could not be repeated for verification. The solution was to generate pseudo-random numbers by mathematical equations, which passed the tests of randomness, but which would repeat exactly on subsequent run

(Robert J. Kurland, Ph.D.) #4

Those interested might pursue one of William Briggs (“Statistican to the Stars”) posts on randomness.
I’ll make three comments.

  1. When I was learning (and teaching) elementary statistics, one of the definitions I found most comprehensible was that for a “random sample”: a sample such that each member of the set was equally likely to be selected. This helped explain how probability assessments could be made in tossing dice, drawing a poker hand, etc. In this type of situation, the arrangement is there–the order of cards in the deck is determined–but we don’t know it. If we knew in precise detail (neglecting considerations of chaotic dynamics) the physical parameters of the dice throw or coin toss, we could predict the outcome.
  2. Gregory Chaitin in his book, “The Unknowable”, talks about program size complexity, and terms a random string of digits one such that the size of the program to generate the string is as large as the string. In other words, the string of digits expressing “pi” or “e” are not random, since a computer program of much smaller size than the string can yield the string. Also, “pseudo-random numbers” mentioned by Larry Bunce are not truly random.
  3. Quantum mechanics; This is probably the only case where there are truly many alternatives which might occur in a measurement, and we would not know which, without interfering with the experiment (e.g. placing a camera at the slits of a double-slit experiment to determine which slit a photon had gone through, destroys the probabilistic nature of the interference).
    How God enters into all this is not, I believe, an important question. As a Catholic I believe that God–as the Holy Spirit–continuously sustains the Universe, so it is not critical that He acts only in events that might be considered random.

(Patrick ) #5

Your description of randomness was very informative. Can you comment on the randomness of a quantum mechanical system where the Heisenberg uncertainty principle applies. Whereas classical particles have well-defined positions and momenta, quantum wavefunctions give only the probability distributions of those quantities. For example, an electron spontaneously jumps from one energy level to another while orbiting a proton and a photon is emitted. What is known about the photon after it is emitted? And to what certainty?

(GJDS) #6

The scientific understanding of random is not debated nor do we need a better definition - the controversy is mainly theological in that some would view randomness as a type of freedom from God. Atheists who are also active amongst theists seek to use science and randomness to propose a notion that God cannot exists because nature is random, indeterminate, and not subject to God’s will. Evolutionary notions have become central in this odd theist-antitheist controversy, in that a random notion makes evolution become in an indeterminate manner.

I feel that BioLogos will continue to be bogged down theologically, unless they offer a clear view that removes them from what I have labelled, the random evolutionary controversy.

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #7

I have come to an interesting conclusion about randomness. In the macro-world we observe objects at rest. They do not move unless caused to move. In the quantum world quantum particles are never “at rest.” They contain energy and energy is movement, so they are moving without external cause, since the cause is internal energy.

(Patrick ) #8

That is correct, quantum particles are both particles and waves at the same time, never at rest and never in a specific location nor state. They can be here or there, both here and there, and neither here or there. And never with any certainty.


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(Robert J. Kurland, Ph.D.) #10

Eddie, that was a fine exposition, with much food for thought. Thank you!
I should add, that I laid out my religious position in my comment, but I’ll repeat it. As a Catholic I believe that God sustains the Universe continuously (not continually) so in that respect, randomness is not an issue.


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(Robert J. Kurland, Ph.D.) #12

Patrick, there are interpretations of quantum mechanics in which there is no uncertainty, the Bohm guided wave, the Many Worlds / Many Minds interpretations for example. And in fact, in the fundamental framework of quantum mechanics, the uncertainty only comes in via the measurement process. If there is no measurement, the state function evolves in a deterministic way–probabilities don’t enter. It’s only when measurement (and our consciousness of the measurement result) occurs that probability/randomness has to be invoked.

(Patrick ) #13

I am talking about the 2016 experimentally verified version of QM. Quantum entanglement was proven experimentally in three experiments last year. Also wave/particle duality and the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle have been shown to be one and the same.

(Robert J. Kurland, Ph.D.) #14

Patrick nothing in my comment negates what you say. I would be the last one to deny that quantum entanglement is real. (Read my ebook the Quantum Catholic when it’s published.) It is not quite true, or perhaps I should say inexact, to say “wave/particle duality and the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle are one and the same”. The Heisenberg uncertainty principle is derived from commutation relations between pairs of operators representing canonical variables: coordinate and canonical momentum; time and energy, etc.
The uncertainty principle and the wave-particle duality do not proceed from each other, are not identical, and are not derived from one another. DeBroglie introduced the wave nature of particles from a relativistic analog. He calculated the momentum of a photon as p = h / wavelength. (See the hyperphysics site.)He then argued this should hold for particles also. This derivation was prior to that of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.

I repeat: If measurement is excluded, quantum mechanics is totally deterministic. The state vector evolves in time in a totally deterministic manner given prescribed initial and boundary conditions (or, to use the Heisienberg representation, the operators representing the state evolve determinisitically). Probability (Randomness) enters when measurement and the observation of measurement occur… It is the case, nevertheless, that some interpretations of quantum mechanics, totally consistent with the experimental results predicted by quantum mechanics, are totally deterministic, . Read the Wikipedia article on interpretations of quantum mechanics: and you’ll see what I mean.

(Robert J. Kurland, Ph.D.) #15

Relates, I believe you’re referring to zero-point energy, and the “cause” can be construed as localization. For a totally free particle, it can have zero energy (although that would require an infinite spatial extension).

(Andrew M. Wolfe) #16

In my opinion, this is not a reasonable request. Someone like Dennis Venema whose expertise is in genetics shouldn’t need to respond to philosophical / theological questions. It’s out of his realm of expertise, unless I’m mistaken and he has an MDiv or ThD somewhere in his CV that I haven’t ferreted out. Your expectation assumes that all thinking, committed Christians (almost by definition, must) come down unequivocally one way or another in these matters of God’s sovereignty; it assumes that agnosticism in such matters is not an option for the serious follower of Jesus. This is not the case.

A better request (again, imho, and I do mean the “h” part here) might be that BioLogos would host a “five views” sort of blog-dialogue about these matters. (Perhaps they have already done so.) This would allow the exploration of these matters for those like you who are interested.

By the way, “heresy” used in the colloquial sense is a relative term; there are Christian traditions (yea, even Protestant ones) that find Calvinism (“Calvinism,” I could say, as typically understood) to be heretical, as I’m sure you know.

(GJDS) #17

I agree that it is unreasonable to expect anyone to venture outside their area of expertise, and I do not think this is what is requested from BioLogos. As I understand it, BioLogos subscribes to the orthodox teachings of Christianity - yet within this context, they have put enormous effort in propagating the neo-Darwinian paradigm (ND), and also have put forward opinions which on my reading, may modify teachings of the Christian faith. While I find the conflict between creationists and TE’s to confuse/muddle this conflict, it is nonetheless clear to me that an agnostic view is not proposed by many contributors to these blogs, in the context found on this site. I have made comments on the theological implications derived from the predominant view of ND put forward on the BioLogos site, so I will not repeat these comments.

Thus it is not that anyone “must” come to one view or another, since the major theological orthodox teachings are said to be accepted on his site. The question revolves about clear statements that promote ND within a theological context - I do not detect an agnostic position on this point. I am not suggesting discussions should not take place, but I do think that if anyone claims orthodoxy, and yet puts opinions that may be contrary to this, it must draw criticisms from others who maintain the centrality of orthodox Christian teachings - the default position imo is that ND is not sufficient (be this any versions of TE. EC. open theism) and this should be made forcefully within a theological context.


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(Andrew M. Wolfe) #20

I appreciate a lot in this comment, Eddie.

I particularly see value in the careful distinction you draw in saying that what you see in the EC movement reflects sea changes in the wider Evangelical community. I also agree that while there has always been a diversity of views about providence and free will within Protestantism, at least in the circles I ran in growing up a couple of decades ago (which were reasonably diverse), Open Theism as a position was always considered outside the bounds of historical orthodoxy. That does seem to be changing in some quarters.

I continue to disagree with you that it is reasonable to line up all BioLogos writers and demand they clarify their views on theology. Sure, you don’t comment this way on Dennis’s blog posts — but in response to this blog post, you state that (emphasis mine)

and this includes Dennis, even if that’s not maybe what you intended. You repeat it again when in this last comment you reference

I still don’t see this as reasonable. It still feels like a witch hunt to me.

Nevertheless I see your point about conversations being dropped. I wasn’t there for most of those conversations, but I don’t doubt your account. Brad may be able to correct you as he corrected MATT (his caps) in the other thread, but your account doesn’t seem unlikely.

In response, my tentative gut-level synthesis (as one very much on the periphery of things and not at all qualified to give an informed opinion) is that I ought to pray that BioLogos might find some vocal scholars on the philosophy / theology / history side of things that are as careful about minding traditional boundaries of orthodoxy as (for instance) you are, yet who are equally adamant that we embrace at least most of the scientific consensus view (and I’m not getting into Neo-Darwinian vs. other evolutionary views, etc. here). It seems that many of the big-name public academics that seem drawn to their programme — I’m thinking here of the likes of Enns, Polkinghorne, Wright, Giberson, and others, though obviously these are all in very different places along the Scale of American Evangelical Acceptability — are more comfortable with outside-the-box thinking in other areas as well. This unfortunately lends weight to the slippery-slope fears of conservative anti-evolutionists, in what then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we had more folks like, say, Tim Keller, who are careful to hew to their Evangelical bona fides, but who could (perhaps unlike Tim Keller) take the conversation still deeper into the gritty academic particulars of the historical / theological / philosophical questions you touch on in your comment here, perhaps BioLogos could gain more traction.

I suspect that pestering the existing columnists about their personal views ad nauseam (my unflattering perspective on your comments, if you’ll forgive me the frankness) may not be particularly productive, but I do see how the lack of which you speak is probably real, and for the success of BioLogos itself, I pray they are able to fill it.