Do Metroids Dream...

God's Dice

Dice “God does not play dice.”
     - Albert Einstein

“The Lord is subtle, not malicious.”
     - Albert Einstein

“Einstein, stop telling God what to do!”  - Niels Bohr

Assuming God, what is the relationship between God and chance? If the universe is the product of a divine plan, what is the meaning of randomness? And is it possible that these two ideas of chance and God might be compatible? In essence: does God play dice? Let us take a brief sojourn into modern theology.

Theology, the science of studying God, naturally presupposes God or else it could never be fruitful. Although it may seem anti-scientific to lead with an assumption, this is not uncommon in sciences. All modern astrophysics presupposes the constancy of the speed of light, and science in general presupposes that induction is reliable. Just as cosmology as currently practised assumes the absolute value of the speed of light, theology assumes God. Sadly, most theology is actually Christian metaphysics in disguise, but once this limitation is accepted, it can be an interesting field to explore.

The most interesting question in contemporary theology to my mind is the question: what is the relationship between God and chance? There are three basic positions.

Firstly, “God is in absolute and total control of every little detail throughout the universe”, which leads to a theistic determinism, with its own specific problems, most notably the problem of evil. If God controls everything (and God is good, which many theologians also assume) why is there evil in the world? This is the position of many Christian and other Abrahamic theologians, although many alternative views abound.

Secondly, “there is no God”, or atheology, a relatively new branch of theology that presupposes that God does not exist and then seeks to fortify its case. Richard Dawkins, for instance, is a proponent of an atheology in which the universe in its entirety is explained by the action of natural selection (up to and including natural selection between universes) – an interesting metaphysical belief, to be sure, but by invoking a quantum multiverse it introduces as enormous an untestable deus ex machina as God. Dawkins denies that this position devolves everything to chance, since he asserts that it should instead be reduced to natural selection. However, in theological terms a focus on natural selection necessitates a central role for random factors, as in Stephen Jay Gould’s concept of “extinction by lottery”, which substantially undermined the traditional paradigm of the “ladder of progress”. This position is thus chance and no God - the inverse of the traditional theistic determinism.

Lastly, the idea that God and chance are not incompatible at all – that in fact, chance may be part of a divine plan. This idea, which is comparatively recent and has been born out of the growing attention theologians are paying to the incorporation of modern scientific ideas about evolution and quantum physics into theological terms. What is most interesting about this attempt is its capacity to provide solutions to very old theological problems, in particular the problem of evil.

Sir John Polkinghorne, a former Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge and notable theologian, sees no conflict between God and chance. To Polkinghorne, God embodies that which sustains the laws and governs the equations by which physics functions (a metaphysical gap that science lacks a means to close), and additionally suggests that God uses the interplay of order and chance as a means to generate novel possibilities – as in the evolution of complex life.

Similarly, David J. Bartholomew has suggested in his free-to-download book God of Chance that theology has much to gain by accepting a role for chance. It immediately provides sufficient wiggle room to allow for free will, and bears directly on the problem of evil: free will explains why God must allow human evil, while in the context of natural disasters and the like, Bartholomew notes: “there seems to be a residuum of mischances which are part of the very nature of things.” This sidesteps the problem of evil, which stems from belief in an absolute determinism that was compatible with the Newtonian science of the previous few centuries, but not with twenty and twenty first century scientific thought. The recognition of both free will and chance allows theologians to preserve a notion of a divine plan without the need to explain every event in this context.

But can the notion of a personal God, which Einstein argued against, survive the incorporation of chance into theology? I see no reason that it should not. What is required for the idea of a personal God to be sustained is that God can have a personal relationship with an individual by some means, and this question is entirely independent of the wider question of God’s putative role in establishing and maintaining the universe. Indeed, in a theology with both God and chance, events become even more mysterious as one cannot establish what is a result of chance, and what is a result of the unseen action of divine forces.

I believe there is an additional benefit to theologians accepting the role of chance, namely that the issue of religious diversity can be seen from another perspective. There is a severe problem reconciling a traditional deterministic theology with the fact that people are born into different cultures and religions. The conventional Christian response, I’m sorry to say, has been to commit to converting people “unfortunate” enough to be born in different circumstances to Christianity in order to “save their souls”. Yet, in deterministic theology, these people were born into these circumstances by divine intent. This creates a conflict between a theology which acknowledges only one “True religion”, and the evangelical mandate to convert. Why would a God of love want to damn so many people as a result of the geography of their birth?

However, in a theology which acknowledges both God and chance, there is no difficulty explaining why people are born to different cultural and religious backgrounds and, either way, since a divine plan is assumed to be in place, does it not then make sense to imagine that each religion is its own part of the divine plan, as the Sufi, Bahá'í and others believe? Rather than salvation being a metaphysical lottery where some are destined to be born into the circumstances that lead to eternal life and others can only earn it through conversion, some wider plan may be seen to be at work, uniting diverse religions into a common framework that need not invalidate any religion’s vital beliefs.

In a theology of God and chance, the importance of the role of people is emphasised – since in such a theology, God’s capacity to act comes in two ways: through the influence of random events, and through the influence of people. While the former may create incredible miracles, such as the existence of human life, it is perhaps the latter which holds out the hope of the most amazing possibilities. Consider this quote by political theorist and British Baron, Bhikhu Parekh:

There is a pervasive tendency among religious people to claim to be in possession of divinely vouchsafed infallible and final truths which they are not at liberty to compromise and which others must always respect. This is a wholly false reading of religion. Every religion is a joint creation of God and human beings. Its origin and inspiration are divine but human beings determine its meaning and content. The divine will is revealed to a human being who, however inspired, has human limitations, and is communicated in a human language with all its obvious limitations.

What an astounding theology we might construct under such a perspective, one which – if you will excuse a lapse into overtly Christian terms – might truly bring to pass “the Kingdom of God” as Jesus arguably had always intended: “on Earth, as it is in Heaven.” Not by chance, and not by God alone, but through the actions of divinely inspired people working together to make a better world. If there is any chance that such a world could be the theological consequence of accepting God's dice, it's worth the wager.


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A small quibble, but I don't think it's accurate to say that astrophysics assumes a constant speed of light. There actually have been experiments done that verify certain effects predicted by Relativity. So it's not like we are taking it as a completely unverified axiom, if that's what you meant.

psu: no, it's not quite what I mean, but thanks for asking about this!

Speaking as an ex-astrophysist, one cannot know that the speed of light (in a vacuum) has always been constant. In fact, we do not know that the speed of light is constant - we largely assume it. (I have to add 'in a vacuum', because the speed of light is not constant in any other context - it changes according to the medium the light propagates within).

There is no way of knowing if in the early universe (for instance) there was a gradual evolution of this value towards its current value - and if that is the case, then almost all modern cosmology collapses.

Both special and general relativity have been validated, but neither require c (the speed of light in a vacuum) to have a constant value. If you ask most cosmologists about a variable value for c, they may freak out - because it is a tenet of modern cosmology that c has always been constant (something we cannot actually know at this time).

What would shore up the case for c being constant would be an explanation of why the value is the way that it is, which is a difficult thing for science to achieve and becomes rapidly metaphysical.

In conclusion: the case that c is a constant is strong, but it is not proven exhaustively - this is parallel to the problem of induction that occurs in any science. Cosmologists tend to assume it is a constant, because if it was not *there could be no cosmology as we understand it*. The parallel with theology thus becomes quite explicit.

I actually did say more about this in the early draft of the piece, but cut it for clarity and length. I'm glad to have the chance to add this explanation to the comments.

Thanks for asking!

Yeah sure that's fair. Of course, at that level nothing in science is really for sure. But I've always figured people are comfortable with that.

In conclusion: the case that c is a constant is strong, but it is not proven exhaustively [...]

Of course, ref Popper, no other scientific theory is proven exhaustively either; they merely haven't been disproved yet. The constancy of c is not special here. This does not stop scientists doing the mental equivalent of looking at the sand on which they're building, finding a bit that hasn't been observed to shift for a while, shrugging and going "Bugg'rit, it's good enough to build on."

Peter: absolutely, and bonus points for citing Popper. :D

I just finished reading Wittenstein's "On Certainty"; he notes at one point: "There are cases where doubt is unreasonable, but others where it seems logically impossible. And there seems to be no clear boundary between them." So it is with science.

We don't conduct science on a basis of certainty, but rather we behave with certainty where (to paraphrase Wittgenstein) there is no way for doubt to get a foothold, nor any obvious further test to be applied.

Best wishes!

If there is a difference between God and chance, could we tell?

"science of studying God"

Even despite the comment's discussion which seems so reasonable, I still cannot see how you can equate theology with a science simply by saying that most scientific branches include assumptions. God is not even close to the same kind of subject matter as any science.
It's a subject matter of pure workings of the mind, and the numbers you may produce about the amount of disparate people having similar numinous experiences in no way equates to the tangible, measurable origins of sensory experience that most science worth the name deals with.

"by invoking a quantum multiverse it introduces as enormous an untestable deus ex machina as God"

Dawkins doesn't leave everything up to natural selection, he invokes the anhtropomorphic principle in the case of the origin of life. As for the multiverse, this is hardly on the level of the God hypothesis - the former claims only an answer to how such a remarkably unlikely universe could have formed, without invoking supernatural explanations; the latter is the one-note answer that our universe was designed and put in place, which only begs a further question (where'd the designer come from?!).

Finally, how can God's omniscience or omnipotence be reconciled with chance? Further, how could any unlimited comprehension of four-dimensional space be reconciled with chance?

I remember that one of my grandfather's favorite quotes was the "...time and chance happenth to them all" line from Ecclesiastes. He used the quote to emphasize the importance of hard work, thrift, and preparedness. Of course, my grandfather was a bit of a Deist who believed that the "Creator", after launching the universe and imbuing humans with all the skills needed to thrive, assumed a hands-off posture. For him, chance was a gift because it prevented stagnation and favored the people who were diligent.

My grandfather also held a Gospel of Thomas-like belief that the path to salvation is unique to each individual and is found through a search for personal growth and self-knowledge. And he seemed to feel that chance was a key impetus in moving that search along.

I recall a time when the local Baptist preacher visited my grandfather's farm in Tennessee. The preacher asked my grandfather: "Don't you believe that the Lord has a master plan in which everything is pre-determined?"

My grandfather answered: "If the Creator has a master plan, he has not chosen to share it with me. Therefore, if I do not know the plan, then I think it most prudent to behave as if my fate is entirely in my own hands."

At the end of the day, my grandfather's philosophy makes eminent sense to me. What difference if the universe is entirely deterministic if none of us have the master blueprints. Without the blueprints, life will appear to us as if chance abounds. Therefore, I agree with my grandfather that the most prudent course of action is to build your life around the practical existence of "time and chance" even if you philosophically believe it does not exist at some uber-level.

More thoughtful comments... Many thanks!

Chill: "If there is a difference between God and chance, could we tell?"

Only if God chose to reveal itself - which of course, is what the revealed religions claim. But I think you are essentially correct in your claim here - as evan also notes, albeit from a different perspective.

zenBen: "I still cannot see how you can equate theology with a science"

Theology *was* a science by definition for many centuries (that's what "ology" means, after all) - Feyerabend and I are just claiming it still is, from a certain perspective.

Your inability to equate theology with science probably comes from a modern perspective where the meaning of "science" has changed somewhat to mean "hypothetico-deductive science" (or something similar). It's back to: what is the boundary condition of science?

It may help to remember that "science" used to mean "field of knowledge", and to some extent still does.

If we want science to exclude theology, I believe we must also exclude evolutionary psychology and many other borderline sciences (we covered all this in the metaphysics campaign, of course). My preferred solution is to follow Feyerabend and say: it doesn't actually matter what qualifies as a science.

Pragmatically, theology has more in common with philosophy these days (it makes few if any predictions) but still, I see no harm in allowing theology the name of 'science' it had always enjoyed up until the last century.

If the role of modern theology is to reconcile notions of God with scientific ideas, I consider it valuable - irrespective of whether one chooses to consider it a science or a philosophy or anything else besides!

Let me put it this way: which would you prefer, theology or "Creation Science"?

"Dawkins doesn't leave everything up to natural selection, he invokes the anthropomorphic principle in the case of the origin of life."

Of course, he'd have to, but it doesn't add anything to his position: the conditions by which we need to be here must apply because we are here, but this has no especial bearing on this issue at hand, as it is still up to the individual to interpret this state of affairs. There is no scientific preference for metaphysical interpretations by definition.

"As for the multiverse, this is hardly on the level of the God hypothesis"

You think that metaphysical conjectures can be compared and rated by some objective measure to establish comparative probabilities or some such? How would this work exactly? I rather suspect this expresses your personal metaphysical preferences.

Besides, the "God hypothesis" as you, Dawkins and others put it is the "argument from design". This has been roundly invalidated since Hume and Kant more than three centuries ago. There is no credible thing that could be called "the God hypothesis" in theology (I already made this explicit: God is assumed, not hypothesised - theology is not testing for God in any shape or form). To behave as if this was still relevant to the issue would be to confuse theism and Creationism - which Dawkins does appear to do.

I appreciate you attempting to bat for Dawkins corner, but his position is fairly weak compared to (say) Hume, who was batting from a similar direction.

On a related issue, though, note that I managed to talk about Dawkins' atheology without getting angry! I consider this a personal triumph. :D

evan: thanks so much for sharing this anecdote! This is a beautiful story which bears perfectly on the issue (and on Chill's earlier question).

Out of time... Thanks once again for the comments!

"If we want science to exclude theology, I believe we must also exclude evolutionary psychology and many other borderline sciences"

On the issue of theology as a science, it seems to me still less appropriate as a moniker than for the example mentioned, or most 'boderline cases'. Not that evolutionary psychology is particularly strong science, but at least it deals with something that we know existed. Similarly, philosophy deals with the human condition. Which we know exists. Etc.

As for Dawkins, I don't really want to be his batsman. I'd much rather have the time to read Hume and Kant and all the others and be my own batsman, but it won't happen soon! I mainly read Dawkins because it was a present and there was peer pressure - same reason I read The DaVinci Code (hours of my life - wasted! When I could have just spent them, wasted :D ).

I still say the multiverse is a more satisfactory answer to how our improbable life-supporting universe could be, than the designer God, namely because of the complexity question and the irreducibility it lends the whole question.
The singular concept of a God outside all physical laws and before time is too simplistic to be satisfactory to me. It's just a full stop, a 'here endeth the lesson'.


Frankly, whether theology is to be considered science or not is totally tangential - I only went to bat on this to encourage atheists to comment. :D

It actually doesn't greatly matter whether we designate various fields as science of philosophy in my opinion - the fields do what they do whatever they are called.

However, I would note, as a final jest on this subject, that science often deals with things that it doesn't know exists - consider the ether and phlogiston. Can we truly say that scientists knew these existed, when we now believe the contrary? ;)

"The singular concept of a God outside all physical laws and before time is too simplistic to be satisfactory to me. It's just a full stop, a 'here endeth the lesson'."

Your desire to know renders a solution based on the unknown as undesirable? I can appreciate that. But it doesn't render that solution (God) as any less improbable than any other metaphysical idea - just unsatisfying to one motivated by rationality.

I want to include the quote that says something along the lines of 'to admit that one does not know is the beginning of wisdom', but alas I can't find it. :)

Best wishes!

"Your desire to know renders a solution based on the unknown as undesirable?"

It's not just that it's unknown, but that God as an answer seems unknowable. That is, it is indivisible, illogical, unaesthetic, even boring. That is my major quibble - if the answer was God, what would be the point of asking the question?

Its the kind of answer Douglas Adams would have been totally bored by.

Hope I'm being clear here - it's really not a lucid concept that I've worked out and set down in a tome somewhere.

ZenBen: I believe I understand, and I'm sure you're not alone. I certainly don't find God an unaesthetic or boring choice, but that perhaps says more about my conception(s) of God than anything else. :)

Best wishes!

So then the interesting question turns out to be: "What is not God, actually?" ;)

"Frankly, whether theology is to be considered science or not is totally tangential [...]"

Possibly an unwise comment to have put in, then, considering the rather selective comments that are often made on blog posts in general :-).

ref God choosing to reveal itself from earlier posts... once again, how could we tell? What is a *sufficiently large* departure from the norm that it is unambiguously caused by godly powers rather than chance or hoax? And does the answer to that ultimately depend on each individual's preconceptions?

translucy: "what God is not" is the subject of negative theology. There hasn't been much of this from inside Christianity, but all the other theistic variants have a long and noble tradition of exploring this very question. :)

Peter: "ref God choosing to reveal itself from earlier posts... once again, how could we tell?"

To some extent, preconceptions are a factor, but there are cases of people who are atheists being converted to theistic religion by a divine revelation so it can't be the whole story.

I think that in this case, eliminating chance as a factor is less of an issue than eliminating a breakdown in mental faculty: am I mad or did I just experience the divine? And so you end up back to personal faith as a distinguishing factor.

Theists of various favours must accept that either God is highly selective about revelation, or else very shy indeed. :) A numinous experience of the wholly other (which is a common experience in theistic religions) is not the same kind of experience as a divine revelation.

Best wishes!

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