More guest posts…. The meaning of “randomness” in science

Faculty at my university have gotten into a lively discussion about the scientific notion of “randomness,” as in random mutation (as the first step in natural selection), set off by some criticisms of Michael Behe’s Edge of Evolution (Behe is in the Intelligent Design movement). As Christians, they are (like me, of course) in the strange position of personally believing in “an intelligent designer,” so to speak, but — except for two that I know of (out of 140 faculty members) — of supporting Darwinism and opposing the teaching of Intelligent Design in biology classrooms.

So I’m going to post (with permission) several of our facnet emails, partly to take Hi off the hot seat, and partly because these guest posts may bring new questions, from a theistic standpoint this time around, into our eclectic conversation.

First, here is Richard from our school of religion. Followed by one of our biochemists, named Ben. And finally, a contribution by Stamatis, a Greek Orthodox Christian, a physicist who has taught Western science to Buddhist monks in India several times, at the Dalai Lama’s invitation.

Rick says: At the risk of grinding my own axe, and perhaps of dulling everybody else’s, I would like to ask for an explanation of “explanation.” That is, does any given scientific hypothesis have “explanatory power” because, and only to the extent that, it is capable of “saving the phenomena,” i.e., of furnishing a plausible account of the material and efficient causes of what we can observe in nature? And would such a hypothesis ipso facto furnish “evidence for God”? And does “evidence for God” mean “evidence for God’s existence,” or “evidence of God’s purposes”?

All of which is to say that I am not convinced—but maybe nobody is claiming—that a scientific hypothesis which had great “explanatory power” with respect to the “how” of certain natural phenomena would thereby satisfy the religious question of “why” those phenomena are as they are. And lacking that, I am not convinced that such a hypothesis would serve the purpose of giving warrant either for the belief that God exists or, if God does exist, for the belief that divine providence in some way directs the course of natural and human history as a whole and of our individual lives.

Let me put this with embarrassing concreteness. I happen to know something about “random mutations.” My eldest daughter is the victim of one—a particular mutation to the gene which controls skeletal development in vertebrates, and a mutation which occurs, at least among humans, in about one in every two million births. (I don’t know the frequency of occurrence in other vertebrates, although I’m sure it is exceedingly rare— and probably always fatal. The people who are researching this condition have reported no naturally occurring instances of the condition in other species, and are busy trying to create a “mouse model” of the disease in order to develop treatments and a cure.) Now, suppose a baby is born with the condition and properly diagnosed. The parents will quite naturally ask their doctor, “Why did this happen?” Would the doctor be said to have given them an answer to that question if she gave a thorough explanation of how “random mutations” occur in nature, and of how nature “selects” (or God decrees) certain mutations for incorporation into the genomes of various species, and of how this particular mutation is likely to effect the life of this particular child? I doubt it. Such information would have no “explanatory power” whatsoever with respect to the existential and religious question of how the parents are to make sense of what, for them, is not a biological curiosity but also a human tragedy.

This is by no means to deny the importance of having answers to the questions of why mutations occur, or how they are “selected for” or “selected against,” or how they shape the life of the individual organisms in which they occur. It is only to say that for the parents of a child with a genetic disease, finding God in the midst of their tragedy is something more, and something different, from having an explanation, however powerful, of the etiology of the mutation.

Ben writes:

I’m really enjoying the fascinating back-and-forth here, and since I’m the person who teaches Biochemistry I suppose I should take this chance to do a little in-box-filling of my own.

First of all, Rick’s post is about the most poignant reminder possible of the limits to our conversation, and the meaning of the word “explanation.” If we’re talking about truly satisfying explanation, then some type of revelation has to be involved. There’s no such thing as fully satisfying explanation from the natural world. If I want to make a drug that might help Sarah, I’m going to want the best possible physical mechanism for how that mutation causes her disease. I’ll want an explanation for how it works now, and maybe if I understand some parts of how that mechanism came to be, I’ll be able to make a better drug. This is only possible because of the God-given rationality and consistency of the natural world, so even this mechanism would be a gift of grace. I pray that grace and insight will be given in this area, and I know there are scientists working on that as I type. I think a prayer for wisdom for them would be fitting.
If Michael Behe’s theory would help me understand Sarah’s disease, and if that understanding could help me make a drug that could heal in whatever small or large way, I would latch onto that theory no matter if every other scientist in the world disagreed with me. I’m already biased into thinking there is a Creator, after all, so why not find his hand in the gaps of protein assembly? I would love to be able to do that. I’ve tried to adopt Behe’s theories and get them to work. But I can’t. They don’t work at the level of helping me design experiments. They don’t help at a level of helping me teach biochemistry, or explain disease mechanisms.
Part of this comes from the very nature of Behe’s argument, that it really is a “God of the gaps” argument writ small. If he’s right, then perhaps there is no useful knowledge to be gained from studying the intricacies of protein assembly because it is all designed directly by something supernatural.
I just don’t think Behe’s right because I, as a potentially sympathetic biochemist, cannot get his ideas to work well enough to even design an experiment to go after them. And only a handful of other scientists have even joined him in the possibility, none with anything concrete enough to be called a research program. Nothing I can build on, at least. I do have an idea for an experiment — but one that would directly prove that one of Behe’s foundational claims is wrong. (I was thinking about the irony of trying to get funding from the Discovery Institute for an experiment that, if it worked, would prove Intelligent Design wrong.) This hypothesis is not directly done because I have other experiments to do and, you know, a few classes to teach and other demands on my time and resources — but I have not given up on the idea yet!
There are lots of details in this that I’m just glossing over for a general audience, but the bottom line is that as a scientist with a professional interest in Behe’s ideas, I simply cannot build anything on his assumptions. It always falls down before I can even come up with a decent research plan, because it’s based on what we cannot know rather than what we can.
This post is already long enough, so I’ll leave with one more very summarized thought: I just read about a group of scientists that made a million random proteins in the test tube. The only design given to these proteins is that they were guaranteed to be “good” proteins: well-folded, globular, not clumping together or doing annoying things that would get in the way of the experiment. Other than that, you had a set of proteins that the only constraint is that they could just sit around and be proteins. That’s kind of boring in itself, but they took this set and tested it to see if any of these proteins, which were entirely undesigned and random with respect to function, would be able to act as enzymes. And they did find many that actually had “accidental” enzymatic activity: some could cleave esters, some were peroxidases, ande offhand I forget what else.
I wish I knew the Latin word for randomness (where’s Owen when you need him); I would describe this activity as being “ex [randomness]” (i.e. “out from randomness”). It’s really an amazing result, that points out to me how much can arise from randomness. That doesn’t mean they’re meaningless, far from it. It’s just the understanding of the mechanism for how life works on the smallest level can work with a large dollop of randomness thrown in, even running things in a way.
I’m sure I’m leaving lots out, because there have been lots of fascinating points on all sides I’ve been itching to reply to, but hopefully this is a start for the “biochemist’s perspective.”


Finally, Stamatis says: As a community of Christian scholars, we have a responsibility to practice radical reconciliation between faith and science in our churches, our children’s schools, and our lives. For me, that reconciliation involves finding evidence for God (in Miller’s words) “in what science does understand” as opposed to what science does not yet understand.

As a faculty member involved in the preparation of science teachers, I was particularly impressed with the clarity of Miller’s response to a question, which I reproduce below. In some regions of the U.S., educators are being encouraged, sometimes forced, by their institution to teach “alternative” ideas to evolution. What is your response to this development?

Miller: Disappointment. If the ideas being offered were genuinely scientific alternatives, if they were ideas that had significant support within the scientific community or substantial experimental evidence, it might be interesting to include them in the science classroom.

Unfortunately, the ”alternatives” actually being offered are not scientific at all. The insertion of an idea such as young-earth creationism, which requires a rejection of astronomy, physics, and chemistry as well as biology, into the scientific curriculum makes about as much sense as teaching witchcraft in medical school. The other alternative often proposed, so-called “intelligent” design, doesn’t even rise to the level of being a scientific hypothesis. It has no explanatory power and approaches scientific problems by nothing more than an appeal to the “designer.” Since such appeals are not testable, they don’t amount to science and can only mislead students as to the nature of science and scientific evidence.

[see the review of M. Behe’s Edge of Evolution by K. R. Miller in Nature 447, 1055-1056 (28 June 2007) | doi:10.1038/4471055a; Published online 27 June 2007. Miller is an eminent biochemist who teaches at Brown University and is an observant Christian. He offers from a scientist’s perspective another reading on “random.” See also, which discusses his Finding Darwin’s God.]

One thought on “More guest posts…. The meaning of “randomness” in science

  1. HI

    Regarding Rick’s comment:

    I don’t think there is any question that science only answer the questions of “how” and not of “why”. We might casually say “why”, but the answer, if examined carefully, is always about “how” and not “why”. “Why things fall?” “Because of gravity.” But gravity really is a description of how forces act between objects with mass. It doesn’t explain “why” objects with masses are attracted to each other. But that’s okay. It can explain phenomena ranging from an apple falling from a tree to the motions of stars. That is a far more satisfactory explanation than to say that the gods made the world this way.

    Not being a believer in gods, the purposes of the gods is not something I can know. So, I don’t know what serves as evidence for (or against) the purposes of the gods. So, if I consider “evidence for gods”, that is about “evidence for existence of gods” and “evidence for necessity of gods (to explain this world)” and not “evidence of purposes of gods”. I suspect that “God’s purposes” is a very Christian idea anyway and not something that, say, a Buddhist would be interested. And I’m not sure if it is helpful to think in terms of God’s purposes, unless you are already committed to the Christian idea of god.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.