Saturday, February 16, 2008

Q4H: How random is random?

The "little bit o' Proverbs" segment of today's reading covered Proverbs 16:22-33. Now, verse 33 in my Bible is squeezed into the top of a column, immediately above a drop-cap-style "17" (the next chapter). I almost didn't see it there, but I'm glad I did. The verse reads:

The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.

This was interesting to me because it seems to overlap so many things I've read about just in this past week or so.

In Sunday School, we've been looking at Jonah. Most folks know at least the rough details of Jonah's story. But I recalled one detail revealed in Jonah 1:7. Jonah is on a ship, running away from God's command for him to preach in Nineveh, and a violent storm comes up. The sailors are all freaking out, and — in truly superstitious fashion — decide to cast lots to see which person on board is to blame. Guess where the lots fall? To Jonah. What are the odds? The boat was big enough to have a deck that you could go below (because Jonah did) — how many hands were required to operate such a vessel?

Discussions around another topic with Amy have had us reading in the book of Acts as of late. There (in Acts 1:21-26), the eleven disciples (the original twelve minus Judas the Betrayer) decide to cast lots to see who would replace Judas in the lineup. The odds here are less interesting — there were only two contenders. (A dude named Matthias won.) Of interest to me was that until today, I had always thought, "What a stupid way to choose a ministry partner!" But if the Lord controls the lots, maybe it's not so stupid after all.

Finally, I read much about the debate between Evolution and Intelligent Design theorists. Evolutionists essentially believe that all that is today is the result of random mutations of cells and sub-cell bits, plus this idea of natural selection (where the mutations that prove beneficial get to stick around through future generations, and those that don't … don't). Pure IDers don't necessarily have any beef with those processes, but also don't believe that they are alone enough to explain the vast degrees of change over the assumed period of time that the Evolutionists claim. IDers believe there is an intelligent agent in the mix somewhere, perhaps guiding the selection process or somesuch. But if random isn't truly random (as our verse in Proverbs could imply), maybe the selection really is natural, and the it's the mutations that carry the intelligence.

Unfortunately, if we extrapolate this fully, things start to feel wrong. Is gambling okay because God controls the outcome? (Or is it only okay if you're winning, because God is blessing you?) Should we flip coins to find marriage partners? Roll dice to decide whether to attend or skip school today?

Certainly we aren't called to demonstrate a lack of discernment. Take the decision about the new twelfth disciple, for example. Among the thousands of Christ-followers to choose from, only two were proposed. A great deal of filtering had occurred before the lots were cast. Both men were equally suited for the job, and the coin-toss approach was as good as any a way to pick one without hurting the other's feelings. Also, the Bible does reveal moral absolutes — you can be sure that if chance, luck, Fate, or whatever drives you is driving you against those grains, it ain't God casting the lots.

Use your head, and don't leave the game of life up to mere chance and guesswork. Unless, of course, you work for Hasbro.

1 comment:

  1. That's a good point, about the potential God-directedness of randomness.

    FWIW, I don't think IDers (at least not the original ones) think that an intelligent agent is "perhaps guiding the selection process or somesuch". Rather, they do believe in the randomness that underlies evolution by natural selection, but argue that there are a few special base cases: certain original forms that cannot be explained as the result of random mutation. IIRC, a microsopic wheel-like organ found in bacteria (or perhaps it was the flagella?) was one of their original examples.

    There are several logical flaws to this argument, I think, but the heaviest is that it depends for its explanatory power on the paucity of imagination of the particular humans considering the biological form. Basically, ID says "If you can't think of a path by which some form might have evolved via natural selection from something else, then it must not have arrived in its present form via natural selection."

    This is both unfalsifiable (hence unscientific by definition) and extremely fragile in the face of new knowledge: it has no answer for the situation where you can't think of the selection path today, but can tomorrow.

    Anyway. I seem to have digressed into a critique of Intelligent Design, when all I meant to do was point out that the ID hypothesis isn't what it's often painted as. People take ID to be an argument about guided mutation, but it actually intends to be an argument about irreducible complexity, saying nothing about guided mutation.

    And all of that is secondary to your main point, which is a really interesting one: that the existence of God implies the absence of true randomness, although many human actions (even some mentioned in the bible) imply that we think true randomness is accessible to us.