Archive for the ‘Science and Religion’ Category

That’s Random! Not Really.

May 16, 2014

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

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

Random, according to, is an adjective which means:

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

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

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

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

Does that sound about right to you?

For scientists, random has a different meaning.

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

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

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

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

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

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



Enlarging our Hives

July 27, 2012

If you read one book this year read, Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind I hope you read more, but if you don’t  read this one. Really, it’s that good. This is the third of three posts on this book ( part one and part two), but we have merely touched on the ideas he covers.

This week we’ll look at part III “Morality Binds and Blinds”. In this section, Haidt explores the idea that,

[H]uman beings are 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee. Human nature was produced by natural selection working at two levels simultaneously. Individuals compete within every group, and we are the descendants of primates who excelled at that competition… We are indeed selfish hypocrites so skilled at putting on a show of virtue that we fool even ourselves…

But human nature was also shaped as groups competed with other groups. As Darwin said long ago, the most cohesive and cooperative groups generally beat the groups of selfish individualists. .. We’re not always selfish hypocrites. We also have the ability, under special circumstances, to shut down our petty selves and become like cells in a larger body, or like bees in a hive, working for the good of the group. These experiences are often among the most cherished of our lives, although our hivishness can blind us to other moral concerns. Our bee-like nature facilitates altruism, heroism, war and genocide. (xv)

Our “groupish” behavior affects religion but is also found  in politics, clubs, teams, and the workplace. Haidt says there are four things that make us groupish;

– the need to defend a shared” nest” and food (humans and other animals do this)  (202-203)

-shared intentionality (the ability to work together and share mental representations of tasks and the ability to conform to group norms) Quoting a researcher on chimpanzee behavior Haidt writes “It is inconceivable that you would ever see two chimpanzees carry a log together”. (204-205)

-genes and culture co- evolve (cultural innovations can affect genetic evolution. For example,we select friends based on their ability to fit into our (shared) moral matrix. (211).

– these changes- of genetics and culture – can happen “quickly”evolutionarily speaking.  (212).

There are things that we, as a society, do which help us become part of the group and help us develop a sense of being part of something larger than ourselves. Rituals are an important part of this. Ritual, in this use of the word, means any expected and repeated behaviors. For example, football games are full of ritual- special clothes, foods, chants, half time, etc.  Music and dancing are other ways we become part of a group. Think of the way dances, especially in times past, helped shape communities and cultures. Think of the power of a music concert. And there are many other things we do which help us feel a sense on belonging. Holidays, pep rallies, uniforms…

When Haidt discusses religion and politics, he is thinking about them as they function, what people do and what they are trying to achieve. He wants to examine the binding practices, what brings and keeps a religious group or a political group together. For this discussion the question is not “is it true?” but “how does it function?”.

One practice that keeps groups ( and not just religious groups) together is the sacralization of something. Something becomes sacred it has become un touchable to the group. It could be family, country, taxes, the Bible, God, or any other of a number of things. Groups that last have something sacred which holds them together.

The grimmer side of groupish behavior is that the same things that bind us together, blind us. If we privilege our group we run the danger of  trivializing, dismissing, or demonizing other groups.

Haidt has quite a bit more, all of it fascinating, to say about groups, but this is enough I think to start reflecting on groupishness and religion.

It seems to me, one of the things we see in groups, especially perhaps religious groups, is the tendency for them to become rigid, to create more rules, to become more exclusive. Sometimes in religious discussions people make a distinction between dogma ( what we must believe, things central and essential) doctrine ( beliefs where there are legitimate differences of opinion) and ideas ( things that are open to discussion and speculation). What tends to happen over time is that ideas slip into doctrine, and doctrines become dogmas. Before you know it, you have people thinking that one’s ideas about evolution or the role of women in the church affect one’s salvation, rather than recalling the dogma that we are saved by grace and Christ alone.

It takes some serious and vigilant awareness to keep our groups focused yet open.  If we are not groupish enough, the group can’t last, there is nothing to hold us together, If we are too groupish, we won’t let anyone else in- or we are stringently particular about who we let in. Theologians sometimes speak of ‘bounded openness’ as they try to describe the balance the church needs.

So here is Christianity’s “hard problem” How do we include all sorts of people from all sorts of cultures and backgrounds and ideas and yet still be a group? Anytime someone new joins a group, the group is changed. The mere action of joining changes the group and if the person becomes active and engaged in the group, the group will change even more. How do we keep from building unnecessary walls between us, walls over worship style, the version of the Bible we read, church structure, and so on. How do we know what is essential to the faith? How long a list is that? Can we add to it and if so who decides? How do we keep ideas from sliding into doctrines and doctrine to dogmas? How do we keep from, often unwittingly, building a wall to keep “others” out?

How can there be a group where absolutely everyone is welcome?

I’d like to know, what do you think?

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