“The animal creation is captive to matter, God has given freedom to man. The animal cannot escape the law of nature, whereas man may control it, for he, containing nature, can rise above it.”
May 20, 2012. There is a whole cottage industry – or sometimes it seems – of folks dreaming up different ways to say that science shows that we don’t need God. Usually, the argument is that this or that feature of the world is now explained by science.
Pierre-Simon Laplace is the patron saint of this form of explanation. Napoleon, receiving Laplace on a state visit to present his latest book, asked why it had no mention of God. “I have no need of that hypothesis!” Laplace replied, setting an example slavishly imitated ever since.
Don Quixote tilting at windmills comes to mind when explanations of this sort come up. Of course, the real question to ask, as people have known for more than 2,500 years, is about the origins of the laws. Where do these laws come from that lead to this or that feature of the world? Without these laws, nothing would exists, not even science.
Chance, Randomness, and God
The idea goes something like this. If evolution is driven by chance, then it is without direction and thus without purpose. This means – or proves, depending on the exuberance of the writer doing the arguing – that God not only isn’t needed for humans to come into existence, but that God’s role is ruled out, the later supposedly so because of the role of chance and the directionless nature of evolution. Voila! God is not needed!
Our last blog detailed some well known arguments along these lines by some famous thinkers. Today’s blog looks at the physics of chance, randomness and direction.
Basically, chance and randomness are the necessary driving mechanisms behind multitudinous physical, chemical, and biological process, many highly directional and purposeful. What this means – a conclusion I think unavoidable – is that proposals to the effect that chance, randomness, and statistical effects in evolution have larger implications about the lack of direction in life are without scientific foundation.
The modern scientific worldview has certain core ideas at it heart – atomism being one of the most important (or more correctly, corpuscularianism). The basic idea is that all things are made up of particles. Wikipedia describes this view thus:
According to Aristotle, atoms are indestructible and immutable and there are an infinite variety of shapes and sizes. They move through the void, bouncing off each other, sometimes becoming hooked with one or more others to form a cluster. Clusters of different shapes, arrangements, and positions give rise to the various macroscopic substances in the world.
Our modern scientific view, which comes to us courtesy of Descartes, also include ideas from what is called corpuscularianism, which holds that the particles which make up things can be further divided. Ideas to the effect that all things are made of particles underlie not only modern science, but affect modern political and moral philosophies as well under the guise of individualism. It is one of the science’s great unifying ideas.
The Ubiquity of Randomness
Let me illustrate. As I write, a gentle spring breeze wafts through my window. That breeze is composed of air molecules, mainly nitrogen and oxygen, but countless other types of molecules as well, all moving back and forth with various statistical distributions of random velocities and colliding at random times with each other. The breeze – a deterministic phenomena if there every was one (explore your air conditioner fan, if you have doubts) – is, when you look it microscopically, made up of countless particles randomly moving here and there, constantly and randomly colliding.
And when the hairs on my skin feel the breeze, it is due to the random collisions of the air molecules with those hairs that travel to my “hair transducers” and then cause chemical/electrical nerve impulses that are transmitted by random-like neural process to my CPU (er, brain). And the children chatting in the park below? I hear them through pressure variations in the air based on the same underlying motions – complete with random variations – that lead to the breeze. My brain (er, CPU) selects out the high-pitched children’s voices from the more or less random background noises – airplanes going overhead, adults talking, cars driving by, the freeway a mile away, the Safeway’s ventilation system.
The scent of flowers outside? Random scent molecules randomly detected by my nose and extracted out from other smell signals by the signal processing software of my brain.
As I type, keystrokes gate electrical pulses – composed of random distributions of electrons to my computer’s CPU (brain?) which translates them as letters.
And what do I see when I look out the window? Photons detected individually and randomly. Pattern recognition software in my eyes and brains, some hardwired, some not, translate them into an image of a young child throwing a paper airplane in the park below.
At the microscopic level, then there is always randomness all the time. It is an intrinsic and unavoidable part of the world at the most fundamental microscopic levels.
The French philosophes – and the humanists wanting to be scientific – based much of their beliefs on the 17th and 18th clockwork universe we hear so much about, but the clockwork mechanisms of that universe were – and are – made of particles in constant random motion at the microscopic level. Randomness – it turns out – is intrinsic to the universe.
The only time when random processes were stilled – or at least people thought until the 20th century – was when the temperature was absolute zero, i.e., minus −273.15° C.
But then people discovered quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics, it turns out, has built-in randomness, or quantum indeterminacy. That means that even at absolute zero, there are what are called vacuum fluctuations.
Quantum mechanics goes even farther than that. All things, it turns out, can be thought of as either particles – like the particles discussed above – or as fields. And this means that the randomness inherent to particles is inherent to quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics is saying that randomness is at the heart of the most fundamental laws of the universe at its microscopic levels.
Dr. Tonomura of Japan’s Hitachi Central Research Institute created a famous experimental illustration of this. Using a specially-built electron microscope, he carried out a quantum double-slit experiment where electrons act as both waves and particles. The picture on the left shows the electrons arriving randomly at first with no apparent pattern (a). Then as the signal builds up, the interference caused by the wavelike nature of the electrons going past the double slit becomes evident as the furrowed pattern. Randomness, structure, and pattern all come together as the picture.
And this is not an isolated case. All image creation methods – from photographs on film to photographs from CCD cameras to vision at your eyes – share in this mix of random build-up and patterns as an essential aspect of structure and information.
All processes that we know about – ranging from the creation of the universe( if the Big Bang theory is correct) to the mechanisms of thermodynamic processes that make biological entities possible – partake of this double mechanism of determinism and randomness. It’s ubiquitous!
What Does This Mean for Evolution, Chance, and Necessity
What this means for evolution, chance, and directionless in the universe is that one cannot claim randomness and chance to be the opposite of direction and purpose. Any mechanism that we know about that is deterministic – i.e., it leads in a law-like way to certain results – has to have chance and randomness built into it. Otherwise it is not about the real world, where there are always millions, billions, and trillions – and trillions of trillions – of individual quanta and particles all interacting with each other in ways that are intrinsically random.
Of course, modern evolutionary scientists know this only too well. They just forget it when they have their “Laplace moment.”
Why did Darwin include it? Well, for several reasons. One was that his argument for evolution was based in large part on breeding. In breeding, offspring show a distribution of traits, just as you would expect from randomness coming into play. Also, breeders purposefully select out offspring with traits they wish to preserve. To make a theory of natural selection – as opposed to the artificial selection practiced in breeding – Darwin had to invoke random, not purposeful, processes. Nature, not people, were doing the selecting.
There was another and equally compelling cultural reason. 19th century thought – especially economic and moral thought – was dominated by invisible hand concepts where the randomness involved in large numbers of individual actors was thought to lead to marvelous and superior outcomes (as in the combined capital/moral theories of Adam Smith). In many ways, especially in its interpretation, evolution is close kin to 19th century mercantilism and liberalism.
Next week, I will discuss how physicists see random processes in complex system as driving the phenomena of emergence – the creation of, or more accurately, the accessing of – new states and structures. Randomness and chance are, according to emergence points of view – the driver and the creator of growth and direction.
This is the 15th in a series of blogs on evolution and religion. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked at NTT in Japan before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.