There’s an unfortunate choice being offered in the war between those two noisy gangs of soap-boxers – intelligent designers and materialistic naturalists. The former preach a humanoid god with mundane thought patterns who set the world in motion in a week and now doles out favors in response to His sycophants’ fervent prayers. The latter – many of whom have earned impressive scientific bona fides – assure us that their worldview puts us on a road to explain everything – including thoughts, feelings, and self awareness. To me, explaining those most real of realities exclusively in terms of particles, waves and forces is as far fetched as thinking women descended from someone’s rib.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m definitely on board when it comes to new species originating through a hard-to-predict process of mutations, a few of which improve survivability in a specific environment. Where I get lost is when I’m asked to leap from that to understanding why I decided to sit down this evening and write.
The materialistic naturalists will point out that an MRI done when I decided to do that would show activation of the very same part of my brain which buzzes in everyone else who gets a creative urge. Well, if that is the end of it then the entire reason my car goes faster is that I step on the accelerator harder. It has nothing to do with the rate at which fuel is delivered to the vehicle’s combustion chambers, or the distillation of gasoline from crude oil, or the tankers which carried the crude from Saudi Arabia to Texas, or the process by which ancient ferns decomposed to make crude oil, etc etc. What I mean is that there’s a lot more to it than pressing on the accelerator just as there’s more to it than a flash on the MRI in my frontal lobes.
If one winds the materialistic naturalist thinking back to its beginnings, one discovers…..chance. Molecules bumping into one another randomly. And after an uncountable number of random bumps among just the right combination of molecules over a very very long time finally just the right set of circumstances occur and – boom – we get the first molecule that is self replicating. Then, very gradual change – evolution – over time, and the fittest ones survive. Well, with effort, I can imagine all that happening too. But the operational words here are “chance” and “random”. There’s the rub.
The other day I overheard the following between two young women : “So, out of the blue, Tom calls up Mary and says he wanted to, like, break up! I mean, it was totally random.”
It got me thinking.
The Online Slang Dictionary defines “random” as “unexpected and surprising.”
A more sober source – The Cambridge Dictionary of Statistics – says it means “Governed by chance, not completely governed by other factors. Non-deterministic.” Unfortunately there are no entries for either “chance” or “non-deterministic.”
But a traditional word referee -The Merriam Webster Online Dictionary – has this to say about the word “chance.”:
“Something that happens unpredictably without discernible human intention or observable cause.”
When you come right down to it, those words really mean “so complex we Homo sapiens can’t understand the chain of causation.” We shuffle the cards and deal them out at random – but if we had watched the shuffle in super slow motion and knew the order of cards in the original deck and had a really good memory and thought very very fast we would know exactly what cards were being dealt to whom and why. There were reasons the fellow across from us got that pair of aces. There was just so much going on so fast no one could predict it. And, by the way, neither we nor anyone else played a conscious role in making it happen. Same thing with roulette, really. And dice? If we knew how hard they were shaken, the direction of all the forces, the torque of the crap shooter’s wrist and lots of other details we would know in advance exactly how they were going to land. Those demonstrations in science museums where ping pong balls are dropped onto rows of pegs and end up arranged in a perfect Gaussian pattern? Same deal. Random just means really really complicated – so complicated that we mortals can’t follow the process. It says nothing about ultimate order, or meaning, or purpose.
So when those strict materialistic naturalists preach that life is dictated by a series of random events, I don’t get the least bit depressed. All they are saying is that they are just as much in the dark about ultimate causes as the rest of us!
And as for that conversation about breaking up? I’m sure it was unexpected and came as a big surprise to the two young women and probably to Mary as well. But I suspect there was a great deal of thought behind it by Tom.
Excellent piece, Peter!
Love the title! And great post. Poor Mary, though!