Posts Tagged ‘Science and Religion’

That’s Random! Not Really.

May 16, 2014

One of the stumbling blocks that happens when scientists and non scientists talk to each other is that words which have one meaning for most people have another technical meaning for scientists.  For example, back in 2009 we explored what scientists mean when they talk about a theory.

Like theory, randomness is a word with different meanings depending on who is using the word. I started thinking about randomness and what it means after attending the Grand Dialogue Conference here in Grand Rapids. One of the sessions I attended was “Randomness, Divine Providence and Anxiety” presented by James Bradley, emeritus professor of mathematics Calvin College.( You can learn more about his work about Randomness and God  here,and  here.)

Random, according to, is an adjective which means:

1. proceeding, made, or occurring without definite aim, reasonor pattern: the random selection of numbers.
2. Statistics. of or characterizing a process of selection in which each item of a set has an equal probability of being chosen.
3. Building Trades.

a. (of building materials) lacking uniformity of dimensions: random shingles.
b. (of ashlar) laid without continuous courses.
c. constructed or applied without regularity: random bond.
4. Informal.

a. unknown, unidentified, or out of place: A couple of random guys showed up at the party.
b. odd and unpredictable in an amusing way: my totally random life.

Some synonyms of random are haphazard, accidental, aimless, arbitrary, incidental, indiscriminate, irregular, odd, and unplanned.

Does that sound about right to you?

For scientists, random has a different meaning.

  1. Relating to a type of circumstance or event that is described by a probability distribution.
  2. Relating to an event in which all outcomes are equally likely, as in the testing of a blood sample for the presence of substance.

To learn what a random sample is in polling , watch this.

To learn a bit about randomness in biological systems, watch this.

Christians sometimes worry that when scientist say something in the world is random then they must mean that God is not in control or is powerless to affect the material world. But for scientists the idea of  random has to do with probability and our inability to accurately predict an outcome.

As Christians when we listen to scientists talk about randomness in the world, we need to remember the proper scientific definition. Random doesn’t mean purposeless. It does have to do with unpredictability. Unpredictability, however, doesn’t mean anything at all is possible. When we flip a coin, there is no way to predict whether we’ll get heads or tails. The probability is 50/50, either heads or tails. Still, the unpredictability of the coin flip occurs withing certain limits. We don’t flip a coin and get “ears”.

Physicists who study the very odd quantum world find that our very orderly and predictable world emerges out of the randomness, the unpredictability of very small particles. That raises interesting questions for both physicists and theologians. However not identical questions. Physicists have their questions, theologians have their questions. Both sets of questions are interesting and both sets ought to be asked.




The Elephant in our brains.

June 2, 2012
English: Elephant

English: Elephant (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second. Moral intuitions arise automatically and almost instantaneously, long before moral reasoning has a chance to set started, and those first intuitions tend to drive our later reasoning. If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you’ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you. But if you think about moral reasoning as a skill we humans evolved to further our social agendas- to justify our own actions and to defend the teams we belong to- then things will make a lot more sense. Keep your eye on the intuitions, and don’t take people’s moral arguments at face value.

The central metaphor of these four chapters is that the mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. The rider is our conscious reasoning- the stream of words and images of which we are fully aware. The elephant is the other 99 percent of mental processes- the ones that occur outside of awareness but that actually govern most of our behaviors. (Haidt, xiv)

So says moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his very interesting book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and ReligionThe book is divided into three sections and the quote above is about the first section.+  There are lots of quite interesting ideas in this first section. Haidt says that we have two kinds of cognition -ways we know things-intuition and reasoning (45). He also claims most of our knowing is intuition and our reasoning primarily exists to explain and support our intuition. He makes the case that we are not as interested in “truth” as we are interested with having people agree with us.

Some people find the idea that most of what we do is governed by unconscious and intuitive processes disconcerting. Haidt suggests we might not be the autonomous individuals western society glorifies. It seems we are much more interested in belonging. And we might be much more affected by biology than we previously believed. We’re comfortable with the idea that cats, robins, bees, and wildebeests are governed for the most part by instinct. The idea that we might be governed to a significant degree by instinct is a less comfortable thought. Never the less, our behavior does appear to be significantly affected by instinct and intuition.

The idea that we are not as different from other animals as we previously thought can be unsettling for some people. Traditionally, one of the ways Christians have thought about what it means to be human is to believe humans are distinct, and substantially so, from animals. Being created in the image of God has often been understood to mean we bear little in common with animals. But biologists and ethologists tell us otherwise. Is there anything special about humans? *

I think our “specialness” is not because we are significantly different than animals but that we have been given a particular vocation. God gives humans a particular and unique responsibility to care for the rest of creation and we have some particular abilities which allow us to fulfill our vocation. To recognize how much of our behavior is influenced by biology doesn’t change our vocation. In fact, understanding our selves better, may allow us to fulfill our vocation with greater care and skill.

Haidt also makes the case that one of our most important concerns ( all thought often unrecognized by us) is to be accepted as part of a group. This need to belong and the need to have others agree with us is a major driver of our behavior. Theologians are fond of talking about the importance of community. It is difficult, some would say impossible, to be a Christian- in the fullest sense of the word- by ones self. It seems that biologists and psychologists would agree; we are made for community, not just spiritually but also biologically. The need to belong to a group is deeply embedded in humans, just as it is in horses and lions.

We are not completely illogical or irrational.We are not solely driven by instinct and intuition. It is not that the truth doesn’t matter to us. But neither are we the rational, evidence driven, truth seekers we believe ourselves to be. The reality about us is more complex and more interesting.

What do you think about Haidt’s ideas? Do they make sense to you? Do they describe reality? Or do they make you uncomfortable? I’d like to know, what do you think?


+ Each section has a “principle” and a central metaphor. Part one: Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second. Central Metaphor:The mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant.  Part Two: There’s more to morality than harm and fairness. Central Metaphor: The righteous mind is like a tongue with six taste receptors. Part Three: Morality binds and blinds. Central Metaphor: Human beings are 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee.

* Thinking about what it means to be human and what it means to be created in God’s image has been a frequent topic in this blog. (And too often to list comprehensively here.) If you search the archives under “human”, “Genesis”, “animal”, and “God” you will find several posts. You might want to begin with my first post on this subject, here.


Cross posted at Presbyterian Bloggers.

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