Overview

A recent book (A Mind for Tomorrow: Facts, Values, and the Future, David Stover and Erika Erdmann, Praeger Publishers, Westport, CT, USA, 2000) expresses a perspective on randomness that is often articulated but not frequently challenged:

The more we understand of the workings of nature, the more we realize that the forces that shape it are those of blind, purposeless chance. Across a universe encompassing billions of light years, through scales of magnitude extending from subnuclear particles to immense galaxies colliding like a clash of cymbals, there is no hint of plan or purpose.

The popular concept of randomness underlying this statement is not having a governing design, method, or purpose; without order; without cause. But this is far from how mathematicians and scientists use the term; in fact, it is far from actual popular usage. For example, rolling a fair die produces six possible outcomes, each with probability 1/6. Most scientists and lay people regard that outcome as random, but the die is carefully designed and purposeful, possesses uncertainty within carefully selected and constrained limits, and its outcome has a clear (arguably non-deterministic) cause. The situation is highly structured and has more in common with a single deterministic outcome than with totally unpredictable chaos – as Michael Heller put it, “The laws of probability are still laws."

Physical scientists, mathematicians, and statisticians have not yet agreed on a single unambiguous definition of the term “randomness,” but among these scholars, the term consistently refers to a family of related concepts that focus on unpredictability of the outcomes of single events and the absence of pattern in sequences of outcomes. A distinction is often made between “epistemic randomness” and “ontological randomness.” The first is a function of human limitations in predicting outcomes and discerning patterns; the second refers to a more profound indeterminacy that is a property of the nature of things not just of human understanding of them.

In spite of its ambiguities, the notion that randomness is a central aspect of the natural world has come to be widely accepted in contemporary Western culture. However, allowing for ontological randomness poses a challenge for theism – it seems inconsistent with the idea that the natural world is the creation of an omnipotent, omniscient, purposeful creator who continues to exercise providential care over every aspect of the world without remainder. One way that some theists have addressed this challenge is by asserting that all randomness is epistemic; however, recent scientific evidence is making it increasingly difficult to justify such an assertion.

This project proposes to advance philosophical and theological understanding of randomness by funding 8-10 research projects that will address key issues in clarifying the nature of randomness and in relating randomness and divine providence.