Thursday, 17 January 2013

Is our world based on chance?

Let nothing lead you to disbelief. Do not say: this or that happened by chance or for no reason. In everything that exists, there is nothing disorderly, uncertain, purposeless or random. Do not say: misfortune or evil hour, for only unreasonable people say so. "Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? Аnd one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father" (Matt. 10:29)? How many hairs are there on one head? And not a single one is neglected. So can you see God's supervision, from which not a thing, even a tiniest one, can escape.
St Basil the Great, Homilies on the Book of Psalms, Psalm 32. 
Translation from Russian is mine — E.S.

I would like to discuss my recent debate on the Internet with an incognito Creationist. Despite the fact that we share the same philosophical views, my colleague disagreed vehemently with some things that I say here in my blog. His concerns can be summarised as two questions:
  • Is our world based on chance?
  • What is chance?
According to my opponent, the Holy Fathers of the Church did not accept chance contingency or randomness as a scientific category. This does not seem right to me. Yes, they argued against chance but metaphysically. Let us discuss this apparent contradiction in a bit more detail.

We have the scientific method, a consistent, albeit limited in means, way of exploring the world. Science per se cannot give us true metaphysical knowledge about the nature of everything. This knowledge is attainable only through Divine Revelation and faith. The Holy Fathers of the Church (from Irineus of Lyon, Justine the Martyr and other immediate successors to the Apostles through the Cappadocians — Sts Gregory the Theologian, Gregory of Nyssa, and Basil the Great — all the way to St John of Damascus in the VIII century) engaged in the practical theology of Christian asceticism and purification of the heart in order to acquire that true knowledge of God. They did not deal with science as it is understood today. Instead they spoke about metaphysical knowledge. E.g. St Gregory of Nazianzus labelled the atomistic views as absurd [1], but this does not mean that either Christian theology or science is incorrect. It seems to me that apparent contradictions may arise if we disregard the difference between the theological and scientific endeavours. Science is inherently analytical in that it explores the physical world by recursively decomposing observed complex phenomena into simpler constituents, whereas theology is aimed at a synthesis, which is beyond the capabilities of science.

Intelligent Design (ID) and Creationism are different. In contrast to Creationism, ID is a scientific theory which does not include the Holy Scripture in its axiomatics or basic notions. Besides, it is not correct to require comprehensiveness of a scientific theory. If someone claimed to have proposed a theory that was both scientific and comprehensive (something akin to Hilbert's dream, a beautiful but infeasible idea of formulating a mathematical theory of everything, see [2]), such a theory would have to be discarded from the start. So, "scientific" does not mean "able to answer all questions".

It is wrong to assume that ID is in contradiction with the belief that the world was perfectly created by a Personal God. ID just posits that the best in some concrete sense explanation of observed complex configurations of matter is purposive design, provided an a priory functional specification is satisfied by that configuration. We cannot say anything with regards to simple configurations, according to ID.

One has to carefully distinguish between science per se and various philosophical interpretations of scientific theories, esp. when these interpretations are used to create a "scientific picture of the world". With that in mind, we can be safe from any contradictions in the above sense.

So is our world based on chance? Of course, not. It is out there not by chance, to start with. And, in this sense, there is ultimately no randomness. However this does not mean that I undermine the scientific worth of chance contingency. I cannot see any fundamental issues with this: metaphysical non-randomness is beyond the sensitivity of science.
  • Note that I purposefully avoid using the word "determinism", because to say that the world is deterministic would be wrong as we have here the third Aristotelian type of causation, i.e. volition or choice.
Randomness detectable and objectively present in the physical world does not invalidate the belief in Divine Providence maintaining the universe in a functional state. Science operates within this world and, consequently, it is unable to reveal the nature of the universe.
  • This is why I think, in particular, that the multiverse hypothesis is non-scientific. It is neither provable nor falsifiable scientifically because we can make observations only in this world.
Science, being narrow and incomplete, in practice is necessarily part of a wider metaphysical framework of some sort. Science per se is merely a formalisation of our rational faculty and does not lead anywhere. Some scholars believe in God, others do not, as ever.

Before the quantum era the agenda was formulated by Positivism with its reliance on experimentation based on the assumption that the precision of measurement is limited only by technology. However, as it turned out, in the micro-world it is not possible to do forecasting with an arbitrary accuracy since the process of measurement itself influences its result. But is that really important for the belief in Providence?

Who was right, Niels Bohr and his followers or John von Neumann and his school in their interpretations of quantum entanglement?
  • According to the first interpretation (the Copenhagen school) the state of particles is indeterminate before the experiment; the second interpretation explained entanglement by the influence of human consciousness on the experimental results.
Is John Bell right in claiming that local realism has been falsified at quantum level? Or were Laplace and Einstein correct, who posited each in his time, that what we observe as randomness is only an effect of incomplete knowledge on our part? All that is immaterial inasmuch as we maintain that the cause of the existence of this world itself was not random, and that this universe is taken care of by Providence at any time, which two things are beyond the capabilities of correctly defined science. If they were subject to scientific proof or falsification, belief would not be belief.

The easiest thing for us would be to agree with Einstein who rightly said: "God does not play dice". The problem is that he said this in a very narrow context meaning the correctness of the locality principle which has been falsified by quantum mechanics. What is important for us though, is that science cannot invalidate the metaphysical veracity of this assertion. Beyond any doubt, God does not play dice. Revelation testifies to there being a God who loves and cares for His world.

In conclusion, I will respond to one more criticism from my unknown colleague. He suggested that we should leave any "attempts to scientifically analyse the process of creation", as he put it. Well, to analyse the process is in fact impossible because it is already complete. At the risk of repeating myself, I will say that science deals with the already existing natural world which we ourselves are part of. Unlike the Creator capable of creating ex nihilo, we can only create using available resources. All that said, I am convinced that we nonetheless can scientifically develop an understanding, at least with a certain degree of confidence, of how some specific things might have occurred in the deep past of the world. These may include the sequence and temporal framework of various processes, e.g. the stages and timing of the generation of biological function and whether or not intelligence agency might be involved in any of them.
  • By the way, as far as analysing the properties of biosystems, experimentation is indeed feasible in principle. As an example, some time ago Craig Venter succeeded in replacing the natural DNA of a cell with an artificially synthesised one, which in my opinion can be interpreted as the proof of concept for ID. What is more suggesting is that he also coded into the DNA his own "signature" using redundant nucleotides.
Anyhow, disputes between various scientific schools with their championed interpretations change very little. Science does not claim that it can on its own shed light on the nature of the created world. Nor can it answer how exactly the world was created, nor how exactly God sustains it. Interpretations remain interpretations.


  1. St Gregory the Theologian. Second Theological Oration.
  2. Gregory Chaitin. The Limits of Reason, Scientific American, 2006.

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