Knowledge, Chance, and Creation

On the difficulty to know, and the role of the second law of thermodynamics as an instrument of creation.


Knowledge and Ignorance

``If someone imagines he knows something - such a man has not yet realized how one ought to know.''
(1 Cor. 8:2)

The apostle Paul comments here on a common problem of people who think they know something because they have firm convictions about it. The prevalence of ignorance over knowledge is a general problem for people with convictions of all shades, not only in science and religion but in every area where our knowledge is not put to the test of reality.

One has to realize that it is really hard to properly know something, instead of following simply a tradition that one picked up in good faith from a source that seemed reliable, such as parents, schools, books, TV, or experts. All these sources may give a correct account of a subject or a highly distorted one, depending on the amount of bias and carefulness in the presenter's way of discriminating between truth and prejudice or superficial reasoning.

It must also be seen that the same source may be very trustworthy on some topic but have grossly simplified or even misleading views on related issues. For example, while Martin Luther may have had many valuable insights into the nature of salvation, it would be terrible to rely on his views about Jews... His expertise on salvation was checked for reliability through his own agonizing and relieving experience with the underlying conflict; his views on the Jews never underwent such a purifying process and hence don't reflect the truth but the social context in which he lived.

To rely, without checking it, on what another Christian thinks is true may be a grave mistake. In 1 Kings 13 the bible tells a story where this kind of credulity cost a prophet his life. For our faith, such misguided trust is today as dangerous as ever (see, e.g., Disillusioned by Christian Arguments).

Whenever I get really interested in something, my previous views on what is fact and what is prejudice undergo a rapid development as I get to know better the various possible approaches to the field. After a while, what I thought to be true (because of what I had picked up before, without a deliberate attempt to discriminate true knowledge) is replaced by a more mature (and often more cautious) view of reality in this field. And each time, thinking back, my initial ideas about truth were embarrassingly superficial or even wrong (cf. 1 Cor. 13:11; in some respects we always remain children).

To a minor degree, this even happens occasionally today in some topics where I am considered to be an expert.


Chance and Creation

``The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.''
(Proverbs 16:33)

God made the laws of nature in order to help him rule the universe, and his laws therefore have a tendency to encourage life. The bad reputation of chance among many Christians stems, I think, to a large extent from the unspoken conviction that only the supernatural is proof of God's power, and that what can be explained by science (or by chance) cannot be the working of God. But I think we are surrounded by many everyday miracles, done by God within and through the laws of nature, including its stochastic (chance-like) aspects. The laws of nature are, in this sense, the plan that He likes to carry out in detail at every moment.

About ten years ago, I started to investigate the role of chance in science, prompted by questions of some creationists in my congregation. Being forced to reconcile two apparently diverging (if not hostile) approaches of viewing the world, one must think much more clearly and carefully about many things, and as a result one will see much what others ignore.

``Check out everything, and stick to that which is good'', recommended Paul (1 Thess. 5:21-22). I had no idea how difficult this checking out proved to be, but it was very rewarding. It changed radically the way I perceive science, and it deepened my respect for the creativity and engineering capabilities of God. I learned to see that chance is intrinsically interwoven with much of modern science, not just with evolution, as creationists make one think to assume.

I learnt to see chance as the innovative potential of the Creator, both in small things (Prov. 16:33) that may be insignificant and in decisive situations (Ps. 139:13). I learnt to see that (when one looks at the bottom line of arguments of chance, where they can be checked through calculations that can be compared with experiments) chance is simply the scientist's way to account for influences beyond one's control, that cannot be modeled by deterministic laws but appear to have a degree of surprise. (And indeed, one can find technical definitions of the concepts of `innovation' and `surprise' in some treatises of statistics. I recently wrote a formal paper about surprise.)

Chance is simply the deviation from expectation, without any reference to a cause. (For a technical justification of this remark, see my paper ''Ensembles and experiments in classical and quantum physics''. One day I hope to expand it to a book covering the mathematical and philosophical foundations of science. But this appears to be a life long project...)

Chance is simply the rug under which (when properly done) scientists may hide with clear conscience all their ignorance about reality. Apart from any philosophy that is usually mixed with the pure facts, saying that `life developed by chance' is simply the scientifically acceptable formulation of the statement `life developed by innovations that we don't have an explanation for but that obey certain statistical regularities'. And of course, science - being methodically atheistic - cannot arrive at any other conclusion. (See also Chance from a Theistic Perspective by Loren Haarsma.)


Evolution

``And God said: Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kind. And it was so. The land produced vegetation.''
(Gen. 1:11-12)

The statistical models I have seen discussed in attempts to refute evolution are far too simple-minded. Although I haven't had the time to really work on it - perhaps I'll do so some day -, one should get much more acceptable probabilities under proper modeling. But good models require more knowledge and work than those interested in the creation-evolution battle are usually prepared to invest.

Evolution doesn't happen by itself. Even atheists only claim evolution through a cooperation of chance and necessity. Where does the part that forces necessity come from? Atheists and agnostics usually ignore this question of origin.

Indeed, the cooperation of chance and necessity is a highly structured mathematical masterpiece of God that allows chance to do its creative work.

Evolution is one of God's major constructive principles in our universe, at every scale, not just the evolution of life. The evolution of snow crystals freezing at the surface of a window follows the same mathematical pattern as the growth of the bones in a human hand or the development of an animal species; in each case, the underlying model is a partial differential equation of reaction-diffusion type. The working of the nuclear reactions in an H-bomb is essentially similar though complicated by quantum phenomena.

In each case, the second law of thermodynamics plays a constructive role, generating complex but regular patterns. The same second law is also responsible for the fact that water freezes or evaporates, that minerals crystallize and form rocks, that radioactive materials decay, that glass is transparent but metal isn't. And all is based on statistical mechanics: chance made constructive through the law of large numbers. It would be very surprising if God who makes use of chance and evolution at every level of our existence would not use the same tool for creating and sustaining life.

Creationists tend to think of entropy as a measure of order, and thus are lead into lots of false analogies. The scientifically more appropriate interpretation is that of (microscopic) complexity: Formally, the entropy is the logarithm of the number of decisions needed to analyze a state down to the last detail - the more complex a state is the higher the entropy. If you pour milk into your coffee and stir, the entropy increases, but the final state is macroscopically as regular as you may want, a uniform grey combination of coffee and milk. But to pin down the details - where each molecule sits - has become much more difficult because of the mixing: the complexity increased.

In an open system, entropy need not increase, and (at fixed temperature and pressure) the second law of thermodynamics rather takes the form that the free energy decreases. This is one of the primary driving forces of what is called (a little misleading) self-organization.

Crystals, formed in geological processes when molten minerals are cooled, automatically assume their regular and ordered shapes because these are the configurations of minimal energy. Even if the process leading to the final shapes is stochastic, i.e., with a chance component, the final form can be predicted by global optimization of the free energy. (This is one of my fields of expertise, where I do research.)

Precisely the same kind of arguments (but with a vaguer concept of adaptivity in place of free energy) applies to biological evolution: Nature tends towards optimality as long as the boundary conditions are constant, and this explains to the satisfaction of most biologists why life is so well adapted - each ecological niche is forced by the second law to be populated by individuals where most of them are nearly optimal with respect to critical and constant boundary conditions. And when the boundary conditions change there is scope for development, just as when pressure or temperature change in a geological context. This fits the observed biological data very well, and it also makes sense when considering God's creation from an engineering point of view.

More global optimization is involved in understanding the working of living cells: The way protein molecules fold into their biologically active state is determined by the same mechanism: different possible conformers compete for survival, and the law of large numbers guarantees that most of the molecules will be in the shape corresponding to the smallest energy - forcing the shape to be in a well-defined form that allows the molecule to be used as a biological machine. (See my protein folding survey.) The process is exactly the same as that postulated for evolution of life (and on good grounds, of course); the difference is that the conditions in a cell are so much more constant than those in our environment that it is much more predictable what shape results.

The possibilities of life are built in into the delicate mixture of deterministic and stochastic laws of nature; which possibilities are realized are determined by the creativity of God, combined with the properties of the environment that carries out the plans of God through self-organization processes governed by the second law of thermodynamics.


Science, Chance and God

``If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.''
(Proverbs 16:33)

The proper scope of science is to describe the regularities of nature, to make it more predictable and to have a better command over it. By design, to achieve its objective, science has no framework to formulate or answer questions about purpose, values, meaning of life.

Thus, what matters most in our everyday life is outside the scope of science; science is completely blind for it. However, modern science (in the view of its agnostic proponents) tends to replace God by Chance, giving Her most of the qualities traditionally assigned to God, with one notable exception: it is asserted that Chance is blind.

Science, blind for purpose by the design of its creators, promotes (according to its agnostic spokesmen) the blind Chance as its most creative power. And the science-credulous mankind of the 20th century accepted as its new Goddess this poor substitute for the real God. With the supreme wisdom ``Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!'' (Eccl. 1:2) on its banner, borrowed from ancient times, Goddess Chance leads us into a life that turns out to be a chasing after the wind.

The greatest scientists of former times, like Newton and Maxwell, considered their science to be work to the glory of God; today God must let his prophets speak again: ``My people have committed two sins: they have turned away from me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own wells, broken wells that cannot hold water'' (Jer. 2:12-13). But today the Lord still invites us: ``Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters... Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live.'' (Is. 55:1-3)

I used to be an atheist till the age of 25 when I discovered the reality of God as the power that is responsible for purpose in life. I was reading the stories of the old Israeli kings and heroes in the bible, in order to find out what kind of God they were talking of. And it struck me at some point that one of the important threads was God as the author of purpose in seeming chance. Now I had seen purposeful chance in my own life - having taken it before simply as pure chance, I suddenly discovered that I've had encounters with God, without having realized it. From that day on, God was a reality for me, and He changed my life.

Modern science has vastly expanded our knowledge of how the world works, and for those who can see (Rom. 1:19-20), it commands greater and greater respect for Him who designed it all and keeps it working through His creativity and innovation.


What I know now is very different from what I used to take as knowledge. And is has tremendously extended my understanding of the Creator, whose work seems to me more and more impressive the more I realize the beauty and intricacies of the way he made the world work.

Arnold Neumaier


``Great are the works of the Lord; all who research them find pleasure therein (or: all who have pleasure in them want to understand them).''
(Psalm 111:2)


My Views on the Christian Way of Life
Gedanken zum Leben als Christ (German)
On Christianity
Science and Faith
my home page (http://www.mat.univie.ac.at/~neum)

Arnold Neumaier (Arnold.Neumaier@univie.ac.at)