More on mind and randomness

Just as Dennis Venema failed to reply to my serious questions about randomness on his BioLogos post in October, so also Darrel Falk abandoned any reply to my questions on his concept of randomness on his. Ones respect is bound to flag in the face of such determined non-interaction. Both propose a vaguely fuzzy idea that God can achieve his purposes through randomness, without saying anything specific either about what that randomness might be, or about the nature of God’s purposes. I conclude it’s yet another theistic evolution idea that depends on rhetoric rather than intellectual rigour, which is disappointing.

Yet, as this book extract shows, randomness in relation to evolutionary theory was being discussed at a much deeper level than that at the very start of the theory – and this book, at least, suggests that much of Darwin’s apologetic method was intended to “smuggle” a random process past the opposition of those who realised its implications for theism. And that was not simply the Bishop Wilberforces of the world, but those like Asa Gray and Charles Kingsley (inaccurately cited by Falk as amongst those happy for God to work through randomness) who openly opposed Darwin’s view on this, as of course did his co-theorist Alfred Wallace. Where is theistic evolution’s historical compass? I regret it’s in the same bottom drawer as its philosophy.

But meanwhile, there’s a link in this randomness thing to the kind of concept of knowledge as primarily and necessarily arising from mind, that I was examining in my two posts on musical “swing”.

In them, I demonstrated swing to be a definite auditory phenomenon which nevertheless cannot satisfactorily be reduced to theory, but only experienced directly and holistically. Furthermore, it has to arise in the mind before it can be perceived in the music. The book I’m currently reading on Goethian science, by Henri Bortoft, uses a visual example (far easier in a book!) to the same effect of showing that there is no “meaning” to perceive in nature apart from mental theory. Illusions, by bypassing the perceptive assumptions we’ve had since childhood, are good illustrations.

imagesThis is one picture he uses. Initially one sees only a random collection of black blotches. At some stage one perceives a giraffe amongst vegetation. And, as Bortoft points out, once that step is made, the picture is “giraffised” for you, and you can’t see it as anything else. You see a giraffe, or not – there is no possible intermediate state. And so you experience the giraffe only holistically, not by any building of knowledge from the picture.

The fascinating thing is that, in this case, no giraffe is there at all (beyond even the usually forgotten truth that even if it were not cryptic, it would only be a symbolic giraffe – your dog wouldn’t see an animal on the paper). Because it was painted, not photographed, there never was a giraffe, at any stage. The picture remains, as it always was, just a collection of disconnected black shapes, scattered apparently at random as far as any image-recognition software is concerned. There’s nothing to distinguish a particular mark as part of the image except by the whole image – and that’s an imposition of your mind upon the image.

5310432_std.gifActually, there are better examples than this one, because more obviously cryptic, such as this. But like the giraffe, this is not, despite appearances, a Rorsach set of random marks to detect personality types by their imaginative invention. In both cases, though there is no actual image on the paper, the impression of an image is quite intentional on the part of the artist. I’ll let you go mad as you try to connect with the maker’s meaning in this last case – but once you do, by the same sudden intuitive insight, you’ll have seen not a fanciful face in the clouds, but something real. It’s a strange thing that two minds can share a reality via a medium from which the reality is actually absent.

Now, until you do make the conection, the ink marks appear random, and in terms of statistical likelihood and order they are – but finding the meaning changes that entirely. It would be crazy talk to speak of the artist “using randomness” to achieve their purpose of showing you a giraffe or … the other thing. The picture is not random at all if it was planned and executed for a purpose. The randomness is purely epistemic, and not because it cannot be mathematically ordered, but because of a lack of direct, holistic human insight. The non-randomness is known simply because the mind imposes a genuine meaning on the randomness, revealing its underlying order and purpose.

I woke up last night with an inconvenient flash of insight that an even richer illustration of this principle is those “Magic Eye” pictures popular in the 1990s, such as this:

Stereogram_Tut_Animated_SharkOne could analyse such a non-pattern for ever without spotting the order. In fact, if you happen to have one eye you’re also in for a long and unsuccessful research program. My delight (given my train of thought) was great when I discovered that the correct name for such figures is “random dot autostereogram”. But whoever named them seems as woolly in their concept of randomness as the BioLogos crowd, for the dots are anything but random.

A helpful article at Wikipedia gives away the secret, and it involves a computer algorithm to manipulate an underlying pattern to implant stereoscopic infomation therein. The pattern, then, in its totality, involves human purpose. Human stereoscopic perception, loaded with both the advice to squint and the visual theory of a lifetime, unlocks that pattern directly and holistically. And the knowledge of purpose comes quite simply from the presence of a perceptible image, and is as reliable an indicator as any “real” perception of our vision.

In fact the only illusion around is the illusion of randomness, which as Bill Dembski so insightfully writes, is simply a pattern we’ve not yet comprehended. One thing I didn’t know before is that it’s quite possible to produce moving stereograms, like this one:


Click to view and wait for full loading

What is perceived before we “get it” is a series of stochastic changes occurring through time. Once we see it we see there is a series if bullseyes changing purposefully, which is quite enough to refute the stochastic initial impression. This is just an animated gif. Supposing instead that the changes we saw were ongoing in chemical bases over several billion years, and the associated pattern were the orderly progression of the household of life during the history of earth?

Could that in any sense be described, by a theist, as “God working through random changes”? Of course not. It would simply be a strong indicator that we should abandon the concept of randomness altogether – on the basis not directly of belief in God, but on the very evidence of organisation itself. After all, DNA is a digital code, and it’s perfectly possible to produce even humble autostereograms using letter codes:


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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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28 Responses to More on mind and randomness

  1. Lou Jost says:

    Shouldn’t you conclude that these images are clearly NOT random? They don’t really pass randomness tests.

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    I do conclude they’re not random, despite the official designation of the “Magic Eye” images. But (taking the straight pics) they’re only known as non-random by the subjective recognition of design: otherwise the pattern of black and white is non-repeating and non-algorithmic. What randomness test would they fail?

    Similarly the best of the stereographs (like the movie) depend on repeated patterns deep in the structure, which I suppose would reveal themselves if closely examined, but certainly appear random to the eye. You have to be looking for order even before you begin to exhaust all possible patterns to order the pattern itself. And even if sequenced they (a) are buried in a random looking structure so might appear to be anomalous repetitions (which certainly occur in commonly presumed random sequences such as coin tosses) and (b) represent specified complex images which don’t have a mathematically analysable structure.

    In the end, though, I’m using the images as a simple analogy. The pattern is much harder to determine formally from the fine structure that the meaning is from intelligent perception.

  3. Lou Jost says:

    “What randomness test would they fail?”
    Almost any test. The giraffe and the “other thing” have far too much clustering of white and black. The yellowish Magic Eye has a strong repeating pattern and the background is hyper-dispersed. All these images are obviously non-random, even without knowledge of the algorithm that produced them. If mutations and asteroid strikes were this non-random, there would be no atheists.

    But let’s take the analogy further. It could be that the data really did pass reasonable randomness tests, but that there was still a pattern. You’d need to know the algorithm in order to detect the pattern. On the other hand, as you’ve also shown, being told that there is a certain pattern can make you see that pattern even in truly random data. That’s why one has to be skeptical about claimed observations of patterns in near-random data.

    A good way to test whether near-random data have a real underlying order is to see whether the observed pattern in past data continues into new data. However, it is almost impossible to get religious people to make predictions about the world based on hypotheses about nonrandomness and “god’s purposes”, even though they are confident that the patterns are not random. And no matter what pattern they see, they attribute it to god, because they are primed for it. That’s why people are always seeing gods in bird droppings or burnt toast, or in common daily events…..

  4. Avatar photo GD says:


    A few general remarks. Perhaps an additional approach may be to commence with a definition of the term “random”. Before we do this, we need to acknowledge that we are the very intelligent beings who give ‘meaning’ to what some of us wish to regard as meaningless and ‘without purpose’. To begin at the beginning:

    The Oxford dictionary has three definitions for random (the third involves shapes and arrangements)
    1 made, done, or happening without method or conscious decision.
    2 Statistics governed by or involving equal chances for each item.
    3 (of masonry or something similarly constructed) with stones or components of irregular size and shape.

    The first is of particular interest. To make, or have done, or happen without (a method, or conscious decision), would also include without anything that a human being can identify as ‘anything’. It will become obvious that we would face more than an epistemic problem if we follow this line of reasoning – it either becomes circular, or concludes with the contradiction, that is, my meaning of this must be initially defined as meaningless, and my purpose must be defined as purposeless, and so on. Clearly this is a belief on the part of such a human being, and cannot be a conclusion based on a world he believes is without an intelligent agent or a human being participating in such an event (I mean in defining what he means!?).

    Most people would recognise the third definition as perhaps a ‘purposeful’ arrangement meant to appear without pattern or design. I suspect this may be of great interest to those who are involved in theist-antitheist culture wars – but if this were the case, they fail to recognise the obvious point, in that it is created in that way on purpose.

    We are left with the second, ‘scientific’ definition, and it is here that controversy (unnecessary imo) arises. A scientist may understand that any stochastic or statistical treatment MUST commence with a data set, and it requires considerable intelligence and conscious effort to achieve such a treatment. I understand this type of argument would expand to include boundary conditions and time related considerations, but for the time being, it is sufficient to see that a scientist cannot assume that he is removed from such a treatment, and he cannot indulge in a believe that (his/her) intelligence and purpose are removed – since he is that very agent providing the outcomes he wishes to label as ‘meaningless’.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Adress the issue of the post, Lou. The target was religious people who suggest that a random process can be used purposefully towards divine ends.

      My analogies were to demonstrate that purpose itself is incompatible with randomness of the process. Your strictures about the non-randomness of the examples only confirm that.

      Purpose does not entail prediction, though, any more than randomness does, unless that purpose is operating through law rather than free choice. I can only predict what your posts will say to the extent of the law-like pattern of your interest in the blog. I wouldn’t be too happy to put money even on that, still less extend it to the whole of your life, and still less to apply it to the Creator of all things.

      But one thing is sure – if your replies here were random, they would not achieve any purpose.

      By the way, are you implying in your last paragraph that acknowledging randomness in evolution also makes it impossible to make predictions, so nobody can? Or do you mean instead that the assumption of randomness gives a predictability that shouldn’t be there but is, whereas the assumption of agency ought to give predictability but doesn’t? What a mysterious world we live in indeed.

      • Lou Jost says:

        I am addressing the point of the post, Jon.

        “….are you implying in your last paragraph that acknowledging randomness in evolution also makes it impossible to make predictions, so nobody can? Or do you mean instead that the assumption of randomness gives a predictability that shouldn’t be there but is, whereas the assumption of agency ought to give predictability but doesn’t?”

        No, true randomness leads to specific statistical predictions; they are different predictions from one who thinks the outcomes will make a giraffe or have some other purpose.

        “Purpose does not entail prediction, though, any more than randomness does, unless that purpose is operating through law rather than free choice.”

        Predictions don’t depend on the outcomes being lawlike. I can very well predict some aspects of your posts even though you don’t follow a lawlike process in making them.

        You think you see a purpose underlying the processes, but you may be fooling yourself. A good way to keep yourself from being fooled (and convincing others that you are right) would be to use that perceived purpose to generate predictions. Until you do that, or something equivalent, you won’t be able to distinguish your observations from pareidolia, like seeing shapes in completely random patterns.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      I think those colloquial definitions all fall short of what’s needed in this discussion, but the first is clearly what BioLogos guys are working on: there is no purpose in the process, but it serves its purpose. Completely circular, as you say.

      The second definition is odd – I prefer Dembski’s more sophisticated idea that “randomness” refers to individual unpredictability according to a particular probability distribution. A tossed coin would be “equal chances” (in theory – in practice there are always biases). But I’m not sure that quantum probabilities work the same way.

      Nevertheless even those mathematical approaches assume an orderly causation: coins apprach 50:50 because somebody made the coin and chose the method of tossing with a sharply delineated either/or function. It’s hard to see how true randomness (in the sense of causelessness) would have any kind of probability distribution.

      • Lou Jost says:

        Yep, randomness is a vague word in English. To evaluate the randomness of the images you presented, for example, it makes a great deal of difference how we model the process of their creation. If we think each pixel is randomly assigned black or white with equal probability, then there are many tests we can do to test that hypothesis. The images you presented would not pass those tests.If we instead think that the image of the giraffe was made using a certain normally-distributed random number of very viscous gobs of paint, each random in size and normally distributed, we could test that hypothesis, and the results might be different,

  5. pngarrison says:

    I’m not so sure that an ability to perceive an image really means that the stimulus is non-random. It is well known that our brains are tuned to see faces with very minimal cues – hence all the rocks and burned tacos that are supposed to look like a face. Despite considerable attempts, I’ve never been able to see the images in the Magic Eye things (I can’t see wall-eyed stereo without a mirror viewer gizmo, but I can see cross-eyed stereo easily.)

    I had a strange set of experiences a couple of weeks ago. I had a bout of extreme insomnia for several days, and, due to our government’s drug war policies effects on pharmacies and doctors, I couldn’t get any pharmaceutical help. When I been awake for a couple of days, I noticed, while waiting a very long time in a doctor’s office that every time I looked at some white floor tiles that had blotches of brown dirt all over them that I could very easily see a host of faces in that dirt. If I looked away and then back, I could see it as dirt blotches again and then it would go back to faces and eventually I could also choose to see it in 3 dimensions as “dust bunnies” about 3 inches deep, when in fact it was just random dirt on a surface. When I got home every time I looked at my tan carpet with little flecks of brown (I assume they are there to camouflage actual dirt particles) there seemed to be writing at the scale of the carpet threads, although I couldn’t discern the words. On the bathroom tile (“random” non-repeating patterns) I again saw faces everywhere. After I had finally gotten some sleep, all this went away. Sometimes the data really is random, and our brains just find images where there really is nothing, and gain on this mechanism can be turned up physiologically. I wouldn’t be surprised if a large dose of Ritalin wouldn’t do the same thing.

    I have to give credit to our friend “fruit-fly” for first impressing on me that the relevant point in the Darwinian view is that the mutations are random with respect to what would be advantageous. I would have to consult a mathematician to define what it would take to really demonstrate that and whether it really has been shown.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Preston

      I’ll confuse myself with the paper later (I have a brass arrangement to do first).

      We’ll shelve discussing the autostereograms out of mercy for you. A shame you missed the punchline – perhaps someone could reverse engineer an algorithm for you to find the message.

      You raise an interesting point, though, in that Lou criticises the “blotch” pictures as failing the tests of randomness. My main argument, of course, is that in these cases the hidden images are intentional, but formally undetectable.

      But our ability to form images where none are intended is (as you say and I’ve said elsewhere) proverbial. In my case it used to be faces in my bedroom curtains and ducks in the bathroom tiles, but any similar unplanned set of blotches has the same effect. (The scary clowns on the pillow in childhood were actually febrile hallucinations rather than illusions, as may have been the shadowy goblin on the wardrobe).

      So I would suggest that any test of randomness failed by my images (especially the second) would also be failed by a pattern of flecks in floor tiles that reminded us of granny. Or passed, as the case may be. How could they be formally distinguished, without the informal (ie intuitive) acceptance that an image is, or is not, really present?

      Either that, or one reaches some Sheldrakian conclusion that random patterns don’t exist at all, and clouds and dirt spontaneously form themselves into familiar shapes by morphic resonance.

      The point about “random wrt fitness” was one I raised with Dennis Venema (with no reply). The only randomness requirement of Darwinian theory is that (and that’s the basis of what Darwin disputed with Gray). Even the mainstream is increasingly cagey about the randomness of variations themselves, such as that Swiss guy’s work about the limited search space actually explored in protein evolution.

      But “random wrt to fitness” is strictly epistemological randomness: that is the organism is not, supposedly, “aware” of any potential advantage to the variation, and neither are human observers.

      But if it is made absolute, that is putting by vraiation outside the planning of God, you end up in circularity, as GD rightly says. “God plans to achieve his goals by non-planning.” The only recourse is to put the planning in some other part of the process, which does nothing to weaken the classic design argument that “God purposed, and it came to pass”, but somewhat weakens the ability of any such process to deliver the goods.

      Chance cannot be both “within God’s providence” (Falk, citing McGrath) and “unplanned”, since providence IS planning.

      I hope you’re sleeping better now.

      • Lou Jost says:

        I agree with you that BioLogos can’t have it both ways. I also think you can’t have it your way either unless you can show that you aren’t experiencing pareidolia.

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

          Only valid if I’m trying to prove the existence of God from the existence of design.

          But in the OP the assumption that the giraffe etc are designed is based on knowledge of the artist’s existence and intention on other grounds, though there’s an element of saying the images could not plausibly be stochastic.

          • Lou Jost says:

            Sure, if your goal here is just to develop the consequences of a belief in a certain kind of god, you don’t need to distinguish pareidolia. But if you personally want to know if those consequences support your beliefs, you have to deal with this. I’d have thought that even if you already “know” your beliefs are true, you would want to rigorously check to see whether their consequences are instantiated.

    • Hanan says:

      “I have to give credit to our friend “fruit-fly” for first impressing on me that the relevant point in the Darwinian view is that the mutations are random with respect to what would be advantageous.”

      Yes. I remember him saying that a lot. I’m not sure how that really helped with anything, because when the question the most important question of whether God “intended” for anything, you would be answered with silence.

  6. pngarrison says:

    I just remembered that I stumbled on a paper today that seems maybe relevant, although I confess that the abstract left me totally confused about what they are up to. I haven’t read the paper yet, so I’m just throwing it out to see if you all can construct any meaning from it. 🙂

    Longevity and Plasticity of CFTR Provide an Argument for Noncanonical SNP Organization in Hominid DNA

  7. Lou Jost says:

    There is another lesson in those images. The lesson is that it is hard work to make something look random. Those images don’t do the trick. It takes purposeful work to conceal ones’s real purposes beneath a guise of randomness.

    If a god were achieving his ends under the cover of near-random processes that approximately passed randomness tests (as some religious people think), then he is trying to fool us.

    • pngarrison says:

      I think what we Christians say is, no, He’s not trying to fool us, He wants to be known in the interpersonal sense of “know,” not in the sense that means epistemological certainty.

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

        I agree with you completely, pngarrison, but the answer kind of implies that there is a thing called “epistemological certainty”, which is available for some things but not for belief in God.

        That would seem to require more demonstration.

    • Lou Jost says:

      But there were many instances in the Bible of Yahweh or Jesus doing things that would have caused them to be known in the empirical sense. It doesn’t seem like they were avoiding this.

  8. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    One individual at one given moment may not be able to have it both ways (i.e. purposeful or purposeless), but a community (such as Biologos) may include members on either side which could be one reason not to dogmatically assert that your community all align one way. Doing so makes your umbrella smaller. I’m not suggesting that a Christian organization such as Biologos can get away with saying there is no teleology to be found in creation. Christians should all be affirmative of that *at some level*, if not in everything. But to insist that the label “random” is a denial of all teleology in the so-described phenomenon is an action that the broader Christian community won’t all endorse.

    But recognizing the frustration of Jon and others here who are greeted with obstinate silence when pressing for details of how providence, much less Sovereignty can possibly operate with such loose parameters, surely we can also recognize the Gordian knot such an answer must entail. To explain the apparent randomness of a coin flipping and place that individual outcome underneath providence (which we Christians here agree it is) is identical to saying that the ongoing momentum of a traveling locomotive is equally under God’s providence. The latter case is not at all random, but yet presents exactly the same difficulty. The fact that it can be described without any explicit reference to God seems to bother so many in the former “random” case, and yet not at all in the latter non-random case. Why is that? Why should the obstinate momentum of a locomotive be any less antithetical to the notion of Sovereignty than the stochastic behavior of a coin?

    Some [many] Christians seem fine with partitioning mechanical and spiritual descriptions off as two different realms which they have faith do work together if all was known –and realizing that their partition is a human creation of convenience that will eventually dissolve in the light of full knowledge (even if not in this life). But others recognize the shoddy philosophical / theological nature of said partitions is intolerable. Are we to be permitted to have our faulty intellectual props on this side of the veil? I suppose not, if sound answers have been revealed that we have become too lazy to search out and eventually accept. But that is where patience is needed.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Irenic points, Merv.

      “Patience” in the world of ideas, though, surely doesn’t depend on waiting for internally inconsistent notions to evolve by chance! We change when our reasons are pointed out to be at fault (or perhaps we stay the same but the world leaves us behind). And providence is an idea with a long history of rigorous theological and philosophical thought and debate. It immediately follows “Creation” in the Westminster Confession, for example.

      The question of providence and the express train is not a problem for providence, but Providence 101: the background of God’s providence is the reliability of nature, as agreed by those concurrentists who believe in secondary causes and occasionalists who believe God is the only cause but often acts predictably. The Householder’s first priority is the house, and the house rules, before he starts varying the management.

      But the family are still right to thank the Householder for shelter, and ask him to fix the roof and maybe make exceptions to the rules under special circumstances. In political affairs, law shows the power of government (it would be perverse to say government’s powers are limited by laws).

      On the other hand, chance shows the limitations of human government. A famous (and apocryphal) quote from Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, asked by a journalist what is most likely to blow governments off course: “Events, dear boy, events.” So if you believe God’s government is not blown off course you must answer why what is true for Macmillan isn’t true for God. Obviously.

      But regarding the point on human fallibility and the, perhaps, inevitability of not knowing all we might this side of heaven, that’s a position that is fine for simple people of faith, but cannot really be taken by those who are urging the abandonment of certain types of ignorance.

      If one seeks to persuade Evangelicals that they ought to accept a particular scientific view of origins or commit intellectual suicide, you give others the right to insist on ones sorting out ones basic understanding of more central Christian matters of chance and providence.

      And, of course, you expose your weak flank if you send out a newsletter called “The Conversation” and then consistently duck central questions.

    • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:


      I think you’ve hit on something when you write:

      “One individual at one given moment may not be able to have it both ways (i.e. purposeful or purposeless), but a community (such as Biologos) may include members on either side which could be one reason not to dogmatically assert that your community all align one way. Doing so makes your umbrella smaller.”

      I want to run with these words, even at the cost of pressing them further than you might have intended.

      It seems to me that if one studies the writings of TE/EC leaders one by one, one discovers that they have differences in the way they relate God to evolution. Some, like Denis Lamoureux and perhaps Conway Morris (and maybe Deb Haarsma, lately), seem to think that the cosmos was “set up” at the beginning to produce certain results. So whatever “randomness” there might be in the short term is overwhelmed by the slant that God put on the cosmos at the beginning. Others, such as Darrel Falk, Dennis Venema, Ken Miller, seem to think that the process of evolution is such that it couldn’t have been set up at the beginning to produce any particular result, and therefore that God couldn’t have literally determined everything in advance; God might not have determined even that man (as opposed to an intelligent octopus) would be the outcome of evolution. This understanding of “randomness” tends — even if only unconsciously — to push those who hold to it toward some version of Open Theism.

      The question is, whey isn’t BioLogos — the main TE site on the planet — a battleground where the various TE/EC proponents each push their own understandings of providence, God, and evolution, and debate with each other (i.e., with other TEs) which is the best way of putting everything together? We never see such a debate on BioLogos. We see lots of ganging up on YEC folks, by TEs of all persuasions; we see lots of ganging up on ID folks, by TEs of all persuasions. But the important differences among the TEs are passed over in silence, almost as if there were an unwritten rule that these differences should not be discussed in public.

      You have suggested that the TEs want to keep their umbrella large. I am sure that is part of the answer. If they were to argue with each other, the public would not see “TE” or “EC” but only “Lamoureux EC” or “Ken Miller EC” or “Karl Giberson TE” etc. And that would draw attention to the inner coherence and solidity of each of these writers. Each writer would then be put under the microscope of theological analysis, and might be found wanting in argument, or even in very basic theological knowledge. By deliberately drawing a veil of obscurity over these differences, by never exhibiting them in public, the TE/EC folks at BioLogos create a false impression of monolithic unity and sound “historical Christian faith.” But that seems to be purely for political purposes, i.e., to give the impression of a strong united front against ID and creationism. There seems to be no intellectual integrity behind the tacit agreement that TE/EC leaders should never argue with each other in public.

      Take the analogy of the Republicans. Someone like Pat Buchanan, with his protectionism, is miles from the more “libertarian” Republicans. Different still are the “crunchy cons” who favor environmentalism. And the “Moral Majority” sort of Republican voters have many differences with the Republicans who are mainly about free enterprise and don’t think the Party should get involved with question of abortion, sexual morality, etc. Yet all of these people get together at election time to bash the Democrats. So important tensions within the Party — quite different views of life, of the State, of the economy, of culture — are papered over in order to create a large “umbrella.”

      I think this is going on in TE/EC. And just as it does the American people a disservice when the tensions among Republicans are *not* explored in public in an intellectually probing and coherent way, so it does theology/science discourse a disservice when TE/EC writers avoid debating each other over divine action in evolution in a probing and coherent way.

      I wish BioLogos would cease being a political advocacy site, aimed at conquering ID and TE, and become, instead, an intellectual forum on the relationship of faith and science and in particular, Christian faith and evolution. I wish the people at BioLogos would put their own pet theology/science theories at risk by exposing them in public and testing them against the theology/science theories of other TEs. But so far, that kind of courage has not been shown on BioLogos. Instead, there is a sort of saccharine papering over of differences, an attempt create a front of unity.

      I think the question of divine action in evolution is central, and requires people to be up front on how they conceive of God acting in nature generally, not just in evolution; and I don’t think most TE/EC leaders are willing to commit themselves on that subject. Not because of genuine intellectual humility, but either (1) because they actually cannot defend their views, because they simply don’t know enough philosophy or theology, or (2) because they fear a break in unity among evangelicals if confessional differences come to the fore.

      Most TE leaders seem frightened to take strong, theologically principled stands against each other on the question of divine action in evolution. I fear that a certain “ecumenical” spirit is strangling real intellectual discourse. But then, I never liked the “ecumenical” movement much anyway. I always thought that it put Peace as a higher value than Truth, and I think that Truth is higher than Peace. We shouldn’t fight each other unnecessarily, but where truth is at stake, we should not be afraid to disagree vigorously. BioLogos leaders are afraid to disagree with each other vigorously over theological matters. But without such frank and open disagreement, theology/science discussion is a complete waste of time.

      There is no generic “theology”: there is Thomist theology, Calvinist theology, etc. And if these disagree, then those disagreements *must* come into religion/science discussion. The great fraudulence of BioLogos is that, in its desire for a sweet ecumenism between different kinds of evangelical Christians, it pretends that one can discuss “theology and science” or “faith and science” or “Christianity and science” without clearly specifying *whose* theology, *whose* faith, and *whose* Christianity is being talked about.

      In fact, the differences can’t be avoided, as can be seen in the fact that the Nazarenes and Pietists among the TEs are against front-loading whereas the Calvinists and Catholics and Anglicans are open to it. The hostility to front-loading comes from the theology of freedom so typical of Nazarenes and Pietists, whereas the embrace of front-loading is easier for someone who emphasizes the omnipotence and sovereignty of God, rather than the freedom of his creatures.

      The original Protestants did not hesitate to debate each other — read the early history of the Reformation. And they pulled no punches, either. But TEs seem very hesitant to debate each other on theological questions. This is why their theology/science thought is so general, so bland, so vapid — just a few very broad sketchy affirmations that somehow God’s providence works through randomness, and admonitions that we must be satisfied with some mystery — as we get on with showing that Darwin was right and that absolutely no design was necessary to produce brains or cardiovascular systems.

      What I’ve been trying to do is persuade, beg, cajole, goad, prod — use what word you will — the TE leaders to speak more frankly about their private theologies and how those theologies affect their theology/science and creation/evolution discourse. I believe that if the TE leaders were entirely frank about all their beliefs and motives, the discussion could advance much more quickly. But I don’t think all the TE leaders are being entirely frank. I think they are letting a false overestimation of the importance of evangelical unity betray a more important commitment to Christian theological truth. So they hold back much, and settle for a bland compromise theology of “randomness is the way of God’s mysterious providence” that is in no-man’s-land, a theology that has never been held by any serious Christian since the beginning. The idea seems to be: better vagueness that promotes evangelical unity against ID and creationism, than intellectual rigor and precision that might lead to reviving the old quarrels between the Calvinists and the Arminians, etc. But “I come to bring not peace but a sword” — those quarrels were important and Christians of the modern era have been intellectual sloppy to pretend they aren’t.

      It makes a difference how God relates to evolution; and how you think God relates to evolution depends very much on your theology. This is why there cannot be a “generic” TE theology that is opposed to, say, ID or creationism. There can only be the theology of individual TEs, and there can only be the theology/science account of individual TEs. My main frustration is that the TE/EC leaders mostly (there are maybe 6 exceptions) lack either the courage or the intellectual ability to grasp this point. They need to talk more precisely about divine action in evolution; otherwise their religion/science books, articles, blogs, and talks in churches around the nation are just frothy bubbles, more diplomatic exercises than contributions to real intellectual debate or exploration.

  9. Avatar photo GD says:


    We may accept that the term ‘random’ is vague; a couple of comments regarding how the term is used and misused. The first misuse, and the one I find scientifically objectionable, is that often termed the ‘Heisenberg uncertainty principle’. This area of theoretical physics is appropriated at times by Darwinists in a weird and objectionable way, to give credibility to their weak position – but I will go past this. The second way the term is used, is to think of any series of random events – uv radiation, the way cells divide during reproduction, the response to some environmental changes, and if fact as many events as they can come up with, and to clump these as ‘uncaused causes’, for want of a coherent concept. The multiple and multi-various events are taken together, in a silly attempt to confer a scientific ground for so many possible events that result in mutations, that it is impossible to make an account of them all. Add to this the fantastic outcomes, be they neutral, malevolent, benign, or even confer an advantage, and as if by magic, the mess becomes scientific. BUT it does not end there – after all, these events are sometimes considered for individual species, and at other times, a population that undergoes even more magical reproductions, in such a way that natural selection has sway – so we have random – but wait for it, with respect to fitness.

    My primary objective to this fairy tale is that Darwinists insist that this intellectual mess is scientific. My secondary objection is intellectual offence – if they make a big enough mess of these matters, it MUST be random and purposeless – after all, what else can such a mess be??!! If people add theological changes, as is obviously the case in the USA, I think the situation is tragic.

    Parts of my comments are in jest – the serious point is the fact that a very complicated bio-world is treated in such a simplistic manner. I recall a comment from one of the world leaders on genome research, who went to some lengths to emphasise that they know about 2% of the ‘functional’ aspects of the genome. This scientist also spent some time saying that may scientists appear positive about this area to obtain funds – implying that many are ‘hidden’ sceptics when it comes to making certain pronouncements on the major tenets of Darwinian thinking.

    So perhaps wrt Darwinian evolution, the term ‘random’ may be better translated as ‘messy’, ‘unknown’, or ‘very, very, complicated stuff’, all simplistically put under a simpletons terminology (or dare I say it) as part of a (silly) semantic theory. Theologically we should look at the best in the sciences for our intellectual and faith endeavours, and leave the story telling to those whose faith is derived from Darwin.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      The one thing I want to pick up from your post is that of complexity being labelled as “random”. The only way one can talk, scientifically, of randomness is that it lacks a discernible law-like pattern (other than, in simple cases, its statistical predictability – clearly not applicable to “variations random wrt fitness”).

      But a succession of law-driven processes happening together will appear random, and there are clearly very many such lawlike processes happening through biological events, from the chemical through to the physiological. Like the magic-eye pictures, the superficial appearance of randomness (which is presumably the only justification for their offical name of “random dot autostereograms”) is simply due to inadequate knowledge.

      Dembski would argue that that is always the case. For example, so called “random number generators” (which being algorithmic are, of course, actually random number simulators) have to be updated as users or abusers are able to de-encrypt the patterns and crack the randomness.

      So to my mind, randomness ought always to be understood as a provisional epistemic judgement assumed, ab initio to be ultimately in error. I’d even apply the same to quantum indeterminacy, except that in that case it seems likely any determinate pattern lies outside the realm of physics.

      The assertion of randomness as a principle in evolution, then, seems to serve a metaphysical purpose primarily – the denial of teleology in principle. And as teleology is indispensible to theism, I can’t for the life of me see what place the word has in theistic evolution.

  10. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    Sorry that I’m so long between replies … fields and commitments … pray hold me excused … you may know the jingle.

    I’ve had a lot to say in reply to your excellent conversation and we’ll see if I can get some of it in finally here.

    Edward, I think your observations are spot-on regarding TEs and that is exactly where my ‘umbrella’ analogy was headed. The only tweak I might add is that perhaps the TEs in the U.S. could be forgiven for feeling a bit beseiged, and therefore in desperate want of such unity as they can muster. Though this depends on who you talk to. Some recall the fact that TEs are actually a strong but overly quiet majority of evangelicals, while others (often TEs) speak anecdotally of their lonely sojourn in hostile congregations. Politically speaking here in the U.S. it may feel different and varies here too as a function of the local crowd you’re bumping elbows with.

    Jon, I think I still see some unchewed meat on my freight train example. We observe phenomena, and then give the pattern a name, often calling it a “law” in popular parlance, though this isn’t meant as a term of governance so much as heavily invested inductive conclusion. So we think the train will operate with conserved momentum because they always do that minus the usual real-life caveat: friction. We don’t fuss about whether that momentum conservation is stubbornly independent from God’s sovereignty because, as you said: the durability of all these workings is in fact the very expression of God’s faithfulness.

    So how are the stochastic observations that we label as “random” any different? I take, and agree with all your points about the woeful imputation of “meaninglessness” or “unguidedness” to the now poisoned word “random”. We could choose a new word, but it would quickly contract the same disease. All that is *or should be* meant by the word is that the particulars are unpredictable to our perspective, but the general behavior over many samples follow a predictable trend. And all this should be cleanly and entirely divorced from any ontological claim that attempts to objectify it in absolute terms. All it has to do is *appear* random to you, such as: 814206171776691473035982534 and that appearance makes it random to you in the fullest sense of the word, though to an obsessive memorizer of pi, the excerpted sequence might be recognized, and therefore is no longer random in the slightest. I guess my point is that randomness is in the eye of the beholder, and perhaps entirely there, if we Christians are correct. And its general behavior is just as verifiable (though again, failing to produce any predictions of particulars) as are laws of momentum. The only course I see is to firmly and politely rescue the word from the religious monopoly of anti-theists who want it to become a staple of their religious campaign against any notion of guidance. But the fact that 100 coin flips consistently yields within 3 standard deviations of the mean response over 99% of the time exemplifies God’s faithfulness as much as the train barreling down the tracks, as much as the proper (yet random) mixture of air molecules in each of your inhalations.

    I think I can insist on all this while still finding your plickening thoughts of the next article all quite agreeable. So N.S. comes up short; no big surprise if that turns out to be true, nor the cause for celebration for which some creationists might yearn. But it seems a probable outcome to be discovered by those who don’t check their skepticism at the door whenever they enter the inner sactum of metaphysically-inflated randomness evolutionarily applied. “Randomness-of-the-gaps” indeed. So it is.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Thanks Merv, for those remarks. They give me an entrée on some qualifications to my strictrures on randomness and divine action.

      As you suggest, much that is epistemologically random to us is no more or less determined than what we deem law-governed events (though that’s a philosophical minefield in itself once you ask where those laws are – Bortoft points out that they are not believed to be in matter, but are imposed upon it, as if they exist in some kind of ideal platonic realm).

      Okay, as an example, it being a truism that the solidity of objects is a statistical probability of their particles’ combined kinetic energy, God, like us, in governing any physical interactions between solids, can simply “rely on statistics” – even though one would add that he is involved at the statistical particle level as well. But in that sense he “uses” randomness to whatever physical ends he might determine.

      Those are the kind of examples that, say, Kathryn Applegate uses. An analogy at the higher levels of biology would be if, for example, some tight constraints on mutation ensured that evolution continued to “work” and not suffer meltdown, as per the recent article.

      Theologically, then, the question would become the sufficiency of means to the particular ends God requires, and that’s another ball game. The statistical solidity of the earth means that it can be treated as a given for the outworking of history, barring exceptions like Jesus walking on water. But it does not govern the historical outcomes.

      Similarly evolving the species God wants, including man, is another matter, and any theistic evolution worth tuppence ought to have some brought theory on how that works. Maybe one even needs to call into question the basic determinism of the laws as well as of “random” events – which is why concurrence must apply both to “chance” and “necessity”.

      In that regard I was somewhat piqued by this observation by the infamous Rupert Sheldrake. Variations in scientific constants are assumed to be experimental errors in science, not on the basis of your statement that they are always observed to be the same – which they are not – but on the basis that they ought to be the same because (as Bortoft said) they’re some kind of platonic ideal that governs the Universe from a perfect realm “out there”.

      The basic scientific principle of the universality of physical laws and constants cannot actually be established by science, and comes from the long-forgotten original (and possibly simplistic) Christian Neo-platonic idea that a perfect God would mostly be concerned with perfect universal laws. Remove that theology, and it’s a pure philosophical prejudice disguised as science.

  11. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    Edward, I didn’t give as much reply as your thoughtful and good response deserved, but I did resonate with what you said, and affirm this yet too. I agree with you that TEs ought to not be afraid to air their differences, and that this could actually have a positive effect, not least because simple intellectual honesty demands it. Truth will have its day and we divorce it from peace at our own peril. That ‘sword of division’ that was brought in by our Prince of peace does not seem very peaceful to those of us not inclined to warfare, but there it is; so like the truth, we must face it.

    p.s. (from a ‘Pontius Puddle’ religious cartoon):
    Said parishioner to Pontius: “How was Sunday school this morning?”
    Replied Pontius: “Great! I scuttled two shallow convictions, exposed three misconceptions, and crushed one individual’s entire belief system!”
    Parting remark of parishioner: “I had no idea religion could be such a contact sport!”

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      Being marginalised is never comfortable, whether it’s evolutionary biologists by their churches or Creationists by their professors. If marginalisation occurs through intimidation, belittling, misinformation etc it’s a moral evil.

      At the same time, the only good reason for standing out against a local consensus is the conviction that you’re right, and that means having arguments that hold water. It’s the cause that makes the martyr, and there’s no way round that.

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