That’s Random! Not Really.

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.



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