Updated: Dec 14, 2020
Randomness or divine Providence. Which is it? It can’t be both, can it?
Or can it?
Though I am no trained scientist by a good stretch, questions of divine purpose and its relationship to indeterminate processes has been an on again/off again interest of mine for a long time, stretching back to my days at Princeton Seminary in the early 90s and to my many conversations with students, faculty, and visiting scholars, such as T. F. Torrance, who, fortuitously enough, I had had occasion to meet several times while he was studying at the Center for Theological Inquiry. Dr. Torrance and I spoke at length about his book The Christian Frame of Mind and about the convergence of the rational and moral orders and, as the subtitle of the book states, reason and openness. I also had an ongoing five-year conversation on this and related matters with my academic mentor, Jim Loder, while I was at PTS and which continued after I graduated in 1994. Jim introduced me to his friend Jim Neidhardt (with whom he co-wrote The Knight’s Move), and the three of us had some animated discussions about such things as the work of the Spirit in logic and transformation. My class with Diogenes Allen on the theology of Austin Farrer, and in particular Farrer’s provocative book Finite and Infinite, was another catalyst in my interest surrounding divine Providence and indeterminate processes.
My interests have continued since then, though in a strictly amateur capacity. For the last couple of years I’ve been intrigued with the question of the fine-structure constant and its relation to divine Providence, and whether such a conflict actually exists between what we understand to be indeterminate processes, on the one hand, and the monotheistic doctrine that God is omniscient and omnipotent, on the other. A recent paper (2010) published in the area of α (the fine-structure constant) suggests some pretty provocative ideas that have received little to no attention in the ongoing questions surrounding randomness and providence, and which, if the speculations the paper makes are true about the inconsistency of the fine-structure constant, would revolutionize the fields of both physics and theology. If the fine-structure constant isn’t so constant, then divine Providence and the scientific idea of randomness are not incompatible in any linear sense.
Randomness assumes there is order. The entire field of physics is based on the fundamental premise that certain physical laws are inviolable: the speed of light, the “law” of gravity, the conservation of mass-energy and momentum, the laws of thermodynamics, and so on. Each is a bedrock of physics. Recent work in the field of physics, however, has raised questions about these laws’ inviolability. A paper published in 2010 by John Webb and Julian King from the University of New South Wales in Australia, which examined the properties of what Richard Feynman called “one of the greatest damn mysteries of physics,” casts a shadow over the hegemony of physical laws as science currently understands them.
The fine-structure constant is a number so precise that even the smallest deviation would create an environment unsuitable for carbon-based life forms. The reason for its precise value, however, remains a conundrum to scientists, even though the working assumption up to now has been that the entire universe operates within its exacting parameters. The Webb/King study’s findings appear to challenge this notion, leaving some to wonder if the fine-structure constant may not be so constant after all. There is still much work to be done in this area and far more studies to be conducted, to be sure, before an entire field of science does an about-face, and many theorists are dubious, to say the least, of the study’s findings, but IF the Webb/King study is right, the entire field of physics will be turned on its head and the assumptions we now have about the physical laws of the universe would have to be reassessed. They would no longer be inviolable laws, for starters. They would be, cosmologically speaking, temporary and localized conditions.
The theological implications of such an idea, were it to be proven, are profound. If the properties of α only pertain to this tiny corner of the universe, for example, then human beings can claim, with scientific confidence, a unique status for life. Nowhere else in the universe would such suitable conditions necessarily exist. Life is a one-off, in other words. Perhaps even a miracle. Such a finding would also mean that the whole idea of randomness would be moot, since there are no laws to violate in the first place. That is to say, God’s divine providence cannot be assumed to either mirror or violate the laws of nature since no such laws (given their now temporary and localized status) exist.
When God declares in Revelation 22:13, “I am the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last,” his words take on new resonance in light of these provocative, albeit tentative, new findings. Perhaps God wasn’t being figurative after all, and the entire concept of randomness could be subsumed under God’s other imperial and cosmic declaration in Isaiah 55:9, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” What we see now as either randomness or the inscrutability of God’s providence is but a reiteration of God as α, which is (to quote Mr. Feynman) the greatest damn mystery of life.
See a fuller article on this in the Economist Sept. 2010 issue, entitled: “The fine-structure constant and the nature of the universe. Ye cannae change the laws of physics. Or can you?”