Since I have Dr. Garvey's attention...God, free will, randomness, and evolution

What’s the difference between an ontologically random system and one that is indistinguishable from an ontologically random system?[quote=“Jon_Garvey, post:16, topic:37135”]
Maxwell’s demon, knowing all the variables perfectly, would be able to predict the results of a roulette wheel exactly.
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I don’t think that’s how Maxwell’s Demon works, but that is irrelevant for the moment.

What we need is a way to distinguish between ontological and epistemological randomness.

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I see a lot of “ifs” but no real data to back it up. What we do have is the observations of photons behaving as described by theories in QM.[quote=“Jon_Garvey, post:20, topic:37135”]
So, I’m the guy who’s so off-beam as to believe that God has healed patients of mine, but are you going to stick with the story that quantum effects on macroscopic events are settled science? And what other sources of ontological randomness can you actually suggest in nature?
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I don’t see what is so wacky about accepting theories that have been backed by mountains of experimental results. The wave function of particles is very well supported. If you have evidence showing these theories to be incorrect I would love to see it, and I am more than willing to change my mind if the evidence leads us in a different direction.

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Not really, for this discussion. If one can’t clearly demonstrate ontological randomness, then there’s no need to explain how an omniscient God allows it. But I’d be happy for you to suggest by what mechanism there can be ontological randomness at the macro level we’re concerned about. You’ve not been willing to suggest anything yet except roulette wheels - are you seriously suggesting that their behaviour is not explained by known physical laws?

How does one demonstrate ontological randomness?[quote=“Jon_Garvey, post:23, topic:37135”]
But I’d be happy for you to suggest by what mechanism there can be ontological randomness at the macro level we’re concerned about.
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Mutations happen at the atomic level, not the macro level.[quote=“Jon_Garvey, post:23, topic:37135”]
You’ve not been willing to suggest anything yet except roulette wheels - are you seriously suggesting that their behavious is not explained by known physical laws?
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I mentioned the wave function of high energy photons that are involved in producing mutations. Roulette wheels are just analogies for what is going on at the atomic level.

Equivocation or what? You seem to want to slant the discussion to suggest that I’m denying quantum theory at the photon level. You don’t exactly say to what your “ifs” without data apply, but if it’s Al Khalili (one of the leading TV science presenters over here, as it happens, and a Humanist atheist) then that was exactly my point. The guy who is most keen, and most qualified, to suggest that quantum effects determine mutations is unable to present data that they do. And he says that most physicists regard his ambition as wacky. If you don’t know why and think there’s not a problem, I guess you need to ask a physicist.

Therefore it is not currently legitimate to invoke quantum events as a cause for macroscopic randomness in nature. The cause of the individual quantum events themselves is a different matter, but not relevant to roulette - and their statistical nature still betrays intrinsic order. And it’s not I who say there is no cause for that order within nature, but the majority of interpreters of quantum theory - but maybe you’re a hidden variables guy?

So sticking to science, rather than faith, or your inability to distinguish epistemological randomness from ontological, what evidence can you provide that would convince someone that there is such a thing as ontological randomness in nature? If there is none, then stop pretending it’s science rather than metaphysics.

Do you or do you not accept the random distribution produced by the wave function of a photon?

It was in the quote you used:

“The holy grail is to find that quantum effects stimulate biological processes that are relevant to medicine,” says Al-Khalili. “Looking to the long term, if these effects underlie the mechanism of DNA mutations, that could allow for real progress in the treatment of cancer.”

Al-Khalili is talking about “quantum effects stimulating biological processes” which is different from what I am talking about. An x-ray hitting DNA is not a biological process.

Perhaps it would be helpful to look at a specific example. In reading the article you linked to, Al-Khalili gets a few things wrong when it comes to adaptive mutations. He mentions the increased emergence of mutations in the presence of lactose. As it turns out, a lot of the biology behind this process has been determined. When the E. coli are starved it produces DNA damage, and the E. coli respond by expressing error prone polymerases and DNA recombinases that increase the random mutation rate. It is analogous to a poor person buying more lottery tickets. The lottery is still random, but they just have more chances to win.

Where the quantum effects come in (outside of the x-ray example I used earlier) is the interaction of the different molecules. Point mutations can be produced when the DNA is copied, and it can occur when the wrong nucleotide is added to the DNA strand. This is due to a loose fit between the incoming nucleotide and the active site of the polymerase. Think of it as a large round hole that allows a square peg through from time to time. The probability of this occurring is governed by quantum interactions between proteins and nucleotides. You can read more about the active site of polymerases here. This is certainly not occurring at the macro level.

What evidence would convince you?

To use an analogy, if I were a forensic scientist at a crime scene and I find a fingerprint, would you claim that it is just an epistemological fingerprint but falls short of an ontological fingerprint because God could have put it there? It would seem to me that if something is indistinguishable from being random then it should be considered to be random until something else shows it not to be.

We should also note that the poor, the very old, and the very young suffer disproportionately from diseases. So do heal the sick, but remember who deliberately made them sick in the first place.

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The nice thing about BioLogos is that one always rely on anonymous commenters to correct the errors of leaders in particular fields.

What would convince me that one should base ones view of the universe and of God on the role of ontologically random quantum events is not reading literature on the provisional and controversial nature of quantum biology in its various forms wherever I look.

You’re advocating kind of methodological non-randomness then - you really believe something has no rational cause, but then conduct research to find the rational cause that doesn’t exist. How do you sell that to the grants committee?

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We’re swapping around between disparate arguments here, aren’t we? T_aquaticus claims that it’s now settled that evolution depends on quantum indeterminacy (but nobody’s told Jim Al-Khalili or Wikipedia, apparently).

But you’re saying ontological randomness must exist because it ought to, morally, or God would be to blame. But then ontological randomness must have preceded God, or he’d still be to blame for creating it. So we have two gods in the system, and the one that runs evolution is the irrational one. (Cue one liner to avoid thinking through issues).

I am relying on peer reviewed papers:

It would appear that we have different worldviews where that is concerned. I prefer tentativeness over dogmatism.[quote=“Jon_Garvey, post:28, topic:37135”]
You’re advocating kind of methodological non-randomness then - you really believe something has no rational cause, but then conduct research to find the rational cause that doesn’t exist. How do you sell that to the grants committee?
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Where did I say anything like that?

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I cited peer reviewed papers, so I don’t see what the problem is.

Cue one liner to insinuate that I am not thinking this through.

I am simply pointing out the unavoidable conclusion if one adopts the position that God guides mutations. If mutations aren’t random then that means God produces the good and bad mutations. Is there something I am missing?

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One of the differences that consistently surfaces in discussions here between those of theistic outlook and others is the matter of perspective; and we see this in spades in discussions about randomness. Theists do not, of course, have direct access to the mind of God (beyond what the Spirit allows us to have!) but we do at least have a mindset that just such an objective and independent mind outside of humanity does exist and we can at least imagine that this “God’s-eye view” actually exists that would infinitely surpass our own. Those not carrying this outlook, however, see the human mind, (whether individually or corporately as in what a widespread scientific consensus ostensibly looks like) as the only perspective that could possibly exist, and therefore the last [or only] word in epistemology.

Hence Jon or some others here such as myself can easily separate out epistemological randomness (an artifact of human ignorance or limited perspective) from any alleged ontological randomness, which purports to go deeper, always mysteriously disappearing into the very roots of reality. But for you, @T_aquaticus, it seems outside your domain of consideration that there could ever be a perspective higher or apart from human perspective (at least in any omniscient or God-like sense). So you are forever limited to the question: “how can we empirically know?” For you there is no higher court of adjudication about what reality is like than the human scientific enterprise. Theists, though, while seeing this as a very high court indeed, do not think of it as the ultimate authority. So we can and do easily navigate between axiomatic or faith-based conviction or even conjecture, and empirically or experientially evidenced convictions. So the notion that we could have “randomness” as we see it, that is yet highly governed and not random to God is a plausible doctrine with nothing at any of these levels that seems able to challenge it. But the non-theist has no mental scaffold (unless using the borrowed one from theism) with which to differentiate between epistemological randomness and real randomness. There is only one level to apprehend and our epistemology about it is either right, making it identical to ontological randomness, or not; in which case no real randomness exists. Since most of us here will agree that the ostensible randomness to human perspective certainly does exist, that leaves the non-theist with the only option they can allow: Randomness is real … all the way down.

The only problem is, (and I think Jon is right about this) … such an assertion has dipped its foot solidly down into the metaphysics pool. There is no way for science to assert something that would would then un-tether it from its own foundational assumption: that the universe is intelligible and that things happen for discoverable (i.e. nonrandom) reasons. To believe otherwise is to believe in such an ongoing multitude of un-caused events as would make the most enthusiatic supernaturalist blush with excitement. It is a deucedly awkward position for the non-theist to be in, especially when they are at great pains to persuade others that they eschew all things faith.

Edited (to remove the former concluding sentences, and to finish my original train of thought). I should have said above: “…persuade others that they have eschewed all things metaphysical.”

So it seems to me that there is an ironic reversal of roles here. The Theist has traditionally been challenged to give an answer to the “invisible dragon in the garage” charge. But here it would seem that the scientific garage has parked in it the invisible muscle car known as “randomness”. When challenged to explain it or how the engine works we only hear of the results …“something got us from there to here; so the car must exist, right?”. But nobody can find the invisible floating car, much less lift the hood to show us the engine. I’m not meaning this to be exclusively edgy towards non-theists here … there is plenty of mystery and cognitive dissonance to go round. All I’m saying is that this particular mystery is not touched on by science or repeated references to journals and statistics. As is (and probably always will be) the case with science: it specializes with much success in the “is” of physical reality and faces a stubbornly opaque, infinite regression when it we attempt to direct its gaze at the “why” or “how” when it comes to alleged randomness.

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That doesn’t represent anything I believe. The fact is that your theology determines your approach to science, which is why you can’t accept certain key facts.

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This line of argumentation cannot be resolved for the following:

  1. A theist begins with the statement that God created the heavens and the earth and science is the means by which we understand the creation. The atheist/materialist begins with the statement there is no God, and human intellect and science will provide data and evidence that shows there is no god, so everything in science is sufficient.

  2. Random is whatever point 1) permits. If random is absolute, than nothing in nature is predictable - indeed absolute randomness, in the extreme, would (or should) mean that a uv ray may cease to be a uv ray and randomly change into an electron, or some such absurdity. If random is a way of collating and examining data, than it is a knowable property of nature and point 1) rules the discussion.

I suppose the argument may than divert to science proving or detecting a god - then point 1) rules as for the theist God is known through revelation.

I do not think anyone can get out of such an endless argument. :heart_eyes:

OK Bilbo, you landed me in this thread to answer this question (free will being an aside), and I think the thread itself, rather than my arguments against the existence of randomness, speak to it. Of those whose whose comments were relevant to the matter. In any case the software has been reminding me not to hog the conversation.

George Brooks, Unitarian, seemed to hedge his bets on the existence of ontological randomness (OR), but I think he believes God has directed evolution, rather than a hands-off process. That seems to me to say that he doesn’t believe randomness is compatible with divine sovereignty, but if not he didn’t pursue an explanation.

T_Aquaticus, atheist, though not really clear on the philosophical difference between OR and epistemological randomness, was clearly using the existence of randomness as evidence against the need for God. Clearly, for him, randomness is the antithesis of divine sovereignty.

Jonathan Burke, Christadelphian, pulled the “Calvinist” card to discredit any arguments I might subsequently make. But since it seems to be divine sovereignty he objects to by this, he too would not seem to support its compatibility with OR.

Beaglelady, Episcopalian (I believe) picked up on T_Aquaticus’s theodicy track to say that given the bad state of the world, God is not sovereign (and presumably OR is to blame for unpleasant realities instead).

Merv Bitkofer (Mennonite) supported my view on OR, ie that it does not exist from God’s viewpoint.

GJDS (Orthodox) pointed out that OR is, in effect, a God-shaped gap in the atheist’s worldview.

Now note that, on the world’s leading theistic evolution site, no Christians have come forward to argue a case for the compatibility of ontological randomness with divine sovereignty: all commenters who presented arguments at all in effect made randomness and divine will mutually exclusive alternatives. And that, I think, tends to answer your question, if perhaps casting a little doubt on whether “most Christians believe in God’s sovereignty over all Creation.”

That is consistent with my findings over the last 8 years - although people may talk about God using (ontological) randomness to fulfil his purposes, they have never, ever, given coherent arguments as to how that could be so, or even for how and why such randomness can exist in a created universe. Either randomness is quietly shifted to the epistemological type (eg Brownian motion in cell function, the function of the immune system, etc or here, roulette wheels, until the common reversion to quantum events, which certainly don’t affect roulette and, according to current science, cannot be held to govern most chance events in nature at the macro scale). Or else God’s sovereignty is denied in favour of “spontaneity” or “freedom” or some other buzz-word that has little to do with the irrational happenstance that is actually represented by ontological randomness, as Merv cogently points out.

I have work to do elsewhere now, so will leave this thread to any Christians up for the challenge of saying that God can make a square circle, ie bring about his creative will using events that he has put beyond his own wisdom, power, knowledge - and will.

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I don’t think that is quite accurate. I don’t think we conclude that something is random because we are ignorant of it. We conclude that something is random because we have evidence that it is random. Randomness appears to be an intrinsic property of the natural laws that run the universe, and that is because we understand them.

That’s not true. I have considered that there could be a higher perspective, but I have yet to see evidence that compels me to accept the conclusions drawn by people who claim to hold to that perspective.

I also think that if you are going to find truth (little “t”) that you have to use criteria to differentiate between what is true and what is not true. I think a valid criteria is testing our ideas against we can demonstrate to be true independent of our beliefs. You may not adhere to this criteria, and that’s fine. As long as we both recognize where each of us coming from we can still have some fruitful exchanges.[quote=“Mervin_Bitikofer, post:32, topic:37135”]
The only problem is, (and I think Jon is right about this) … such an assertion has dipped its foot solidly down into the metaphysics pool. There is no way for science to assert something that would would then un-tether it from its own foundational assumption: that the universe is intelligible and that things happen for discoverable (i.e. nonrandom) reasons. To believe otherwise is to believe in such an ongoing multitude of un-caused events as would make the most enthusiatic supernaturalist blush with excitement. It is a deucedly awkward position for the non-theist to be in, especially when they are at great pains to persuade others that they eschew all things faith.
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  1. We can discover randomness through experimentation. It isn’t undiscoverable.

  2. Randomness is not synonymous with uncaused. We know what causes mutations, but they are still random with respect to fitness. We know what causes radioactive decay, but it is still a random quantum process. We know what causes particles to move randomly in a gas.

  3. The non-theist can describe randomness by referencing known natural processes. It isn’t supernatural.

Not all atheists start with the statement that there is no god. This atheist starts with the question “What is the independent and verifiable evidence that supports your claim?”. If there is no independent and verifiable evidence for a claim I don’t automatically claim that the claim is false, only that it hasn’t met the criteria of the question.

I would say that I adhere to parsimony (i.e. Occam’s Razor). If we find a natural explanation for a phenomenon then the natural explanation is sufficient. For example, the instability of atomic nuclei is a sufficient explanation for radioactive decay. I don’t see how adding God to the equation increases the quality of the explanation.

In order to have an ongoing argument it helps to agree upon a common epistemology. If we are talking about atheists and theists, this may not always be the case, which is fine. At such a crossroads, perhaps it is best to say your peace and agree to disagree.

Just to make my own position a bit clearer . . .

As I said in the previous post, I think parsimony is the best way to approach the issue. If there are natural processes that explain randomness then such an explanation is sufficient. At the same time, I don’t think it necessarily rules out the possibility of other factors that may be influencing what we observe, only that such additional factors need to have evidence to back them.

I am also fine if someone wants to claim that God uses randomness. People are free to define what their theology is and I am not going to tell people what their theology should be.

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[My emphasis added … a very fruitful typo, that. --if indeed it was a typo at all – if not: then great pun!]

I can actually probably begin to agree with you when you begin to add the qualifiers “…with respect to…”. I even add the additional qualifier that things are random with respect to human knowledge generally, or even human knowledge particularly, such as the sequence of license plate numbers on the cars in the parking lot outside my window which are random with respect to my knowledge, but each one is far from random to the owner of that car.

So we’re talking past each other here as we often do. I agree with you that apparent [to us] randomness is easily observed. But ontological randomness of a particularity at its roots is something you have not (I strongly suspect cannot) produce any evidence for because to do so is to go away from science, not toward it. To the extent that one knows the cause of a particular outcome is the same extent to which its very randomness is denied. So your multitude of examples … saying e.g. that we know what causes radioactive decay only serves to underscore Jon’s point: that a particular decay so caused then, must not have been random. A multitude of them neatly fill out a normal event distribution – we all agree about that already; so that isn’t the issue. You are only noting a stochastic outcome. I am speaking of a particular cause. Labeling the phenomenon as random does nothing to produce the “invisible floating muscle car” that allegedly exists to make something random in a most fundamental sense. That is what you don’t have and can’t produce.

Now … I may differ with Jon some on this; I’m actually okay with a truly ontological randomness actually existing and still doing so within the context of God’s sovereignty by virtue of God seeing all events through all time and knowing how they all unfold (even if God does not ‘cause’ all of them; which would preclude OR if God did.) That seems to be the square circle Jon is talking about. I don’t know how that would all be reconciled; but theologically the circle of God’s sovereignty still stretches around it, whether or not there manages to be a square in there somehow too. I don’t have a ‘death grip’ on this [alleged OR or denial of the same] either way as a theist. And I know you want to think you are open-minded to follow the evidence wherever. But I predict (okay --observe actually) that you do have a death-grip on OR despite an inability to produce any evidence whatsoever of a mechanism for it. And that is fine too --I’ve no axe to grind on this. I just think it fascinating to see these two hard philosophical forced choices imposed on us: either complete determinism all the way down, or barring that, then there must be truly uncaused events which to me would appear indistinguishable from what you call miracles.

One always needs to define what random means in each context. If we used license plates as our example, we could record 10,000 license plate numbers and plot them against number and letter usage, compare them to a random model where each number or letter should be equally represented, and then use statistical models to determine how closely the observations match the model. However, it would be extremely difficult to determine if a single event is random, no matter how you defined it. What you need is a higher n, as statisticians will often say.[quote=“Mervin_Bitikofer, post:39, topic:37135”]
So we’re talking past each other here as we often do. I agree with you that apparent [to us] randomness is easily observed. But ontological randomness of a particularity at its roots is something you have not (I strongly suspect cannot) produce any evidence for because to do so is to go away from science, not toward it. To the extent that one knows the cause of a particular outcome is the same extent to which its very randomness is denied. So your multitude of examples … saying e.g. that we know what causes radioactive decay only serves to underscore Jon’s point: that a particular decay so caused then, must not have been random. A multitude of them neatly fill out a normal event distribution – we all agree about that already; so that isn’t the issue. You are only noting a stochastic outcome. I am speaking of a particular cause. Labeling the phenomenon as random does nothing to produce the “invisible floating muscle car” that allegedly exists to make something random in a most fundamental sense. That is what you don’t have and can’t produce.
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Again, I think you are conflating the words “caused” and “random”. Those are not the same things. A cause can produce random results, so pointing to randomness in no way indicates that it is uncaused.[quote=“Mervin_Bitikofer, post:39, topic:37135”]
But I predict (okay --observe actually) that you do have a death-grip on OR despite an inability to produce any evidence whatsoever of a mechanism for it.
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I can name many mechanisms that cause mutations, and the mutations they cause are random. Do you want to see evidence for these mechanisms?