Written by David Bartholomew on
Chance appears to have replaced God as the explanation for much that happens. The world, in which God was presumed to control every detail, has gone for ever.
Wherever we look the story seems to be the same. In physics, for example, the solidity of stones and tables dissolves into the bizarre world of quantum theory -- when viewed on a small enough scale. This is a world where there is an inescapable uncertainty in how things develop. In biology, the course of evolution depends crucially on accidents of reproduction. Indeed, it is over the role of chance in evolution that belief in a controlling God has taken the hardest knocks. Writers like Richard Dawkins see God as unnecessary; chance and accident do it all.
If they are right, there appears very little left for any God to do. So, is there any longer a point in trying to retain a place for a God who is supposed to be in charge? After all, in previous battles, science always seems to have won. Would it not be better to recognise the inevitable and retire gracefully?
Retreat would be premature. First, because it is mistaken to suppose that chance is inconsistent with order and purpose. On the contrary, some of life's greatest certainties are built on chance.
For instance, boy and girl babies are born in roughly equal numbers. But this is not because sex has to be determined on an individual basis by heavenly edict. Instead, it results from something more like the toss of a coin. This is a simple way of ensuring that roughly equal numbers of the two sexes are born -- in the long run.
The same principle underpins the insurance industry. Whether our particular home is destroyed by fire next year is unpredictable. But the number of such fires nationally is near enough certain for insurance companies to make a good living. In the same manner, mathematicians solve some of their most intractable problems by using sophisticated versions of the coin tossing idea. The production of what are called random numbers for this purpose is big mathematical business.
Thus, uncertainty at one level can lead to certainty at another.
Of course, not all chance happenings in nature get averaged out in this fashion. Sometimes a one-off random occurrence can have crucial long-term consequences. A single event way back in the evolutionary family tree, for example, might have played a determining role in whether or not humans would eventually appear on Earth. Again, the chance impact of a meteorite can wipe out whole species -- as is believed happened to the dinosaurs.
But even in such cases, one can still point to a way in which certainty may emerge from uncertainty. There may be many paths to essentially the same end; if one avenue is closed others remain. There are certainly examples of very similar creatures with different ancestral histories -- as with placental and marsupial mammals. Further, the randomness itself may serve an evolutionarily useful purpose. By creating variety it may make it more likely that there will be some survivors of any catastrophe capable of living in the new environment. Indeed there is good and growing evidence from current research that the complexity needed to support life may be an inevitable consequence of primeval chaos. Chance may well be a necessary ingredient of the recipe for producing life.
From this viewpoint, chance is not an alternative to God but something one might expect him to know about and use. After all, if it is such an elegant way of producing a living world, we should not be surprised if it was part of his toolkit. God does not have to fashion 'each tiny flower that opens' in minutest detail. He goes one better and creates a system with the potential for self-creation.
One thing about which we are certain is that intelligent life has appeared in at least one place in the Universe. It follows that, in the beginning, the chance of life occurring somewhere could not have been zero -- otherwise we should not be here. If there were many sites where it could happen then, in such a vast Universe, it is likely that life would arise sometime, somewhere.
But does all of this make it any easier to see how God might actually do things, like answer prayer?
In their eagerness to retain a role for God, some believers have supposed that, if we can see no reason for something happening, then God must be directly responsible. The chance at the heart of the atom is then seen as one place where God may be pulling the strings.
The modern mathematical theory of chaos lends some credence to this idea because it shows that undetectable perturbations to a system can have major consequences. Without us knowing, it could therefore be quite easy for God, who understands how it all works, to manipulate things on the small scale to produce effects which we can observe.
Perhaps. But it is not clear whether this method of control would actually work in a system as complicated as our Universe.
Maybe God's way of acting is as mysterious as our own. After all, we really have little idea of how our own intentions arise and are translated into actions. When we have solved that problem, we might be better placed to tackle the bigger question of how God does it.
David Bartholemew is Emeritus Professor of Statistics at the London School of Economics, and former President of the Royal Statistical Society; a Methodist local preacher; editor of the Forum's magazine REVIEWS
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