When God plays biased dice

by
31 July 2015

Small miracles can happen; it is well worth praying for them, argues Adrian Low

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IT IS good to live in a world where things are predictable — except, of course, the weather, the incidence of cancer, length of life, chance of a car accident, winning the lottery, having a coalition government, miracles, inspiration, joy, and so on.

Actually, we live in a world dominated by probabilities, and there is good science to explain why that is the case. It may be that the same science also gives us a clue to God’s ability to respond to our pain, and what we can confidently pray for. It could be that this is how God intervenes and keeps the show on the road.

It was Einstein who famously said, in 1922, that God did not play dice. His words were in response to discoveries in quantum mechanics which, effectively, mean that if you know where something is, right now, you cannot predict exactly where it will be a short time later. He believed that the physics of creation should be deterministic, like clockwork; and, rather than accept the unpredictable, he suggested that there were undiscovered variables, somewhere, that made it deterministic — variables that, 100 years later, remain undiscovered, and probably do not exist.

There is inbuilt randomness in every fundamental particle in the universe; and, while that is not the same randomness as my mislaying the church key again, because everything is made of these particles, this randomness relates to all matter, including both the church key and my remembering where it is.

All we can say about a stationary particle’s location is that the most likely place it will be in a moment or two is near where you left it. We can calculate the precise probability of a particle’s being in a particular place, but that probability is never going to be 100 per cent; so, simply, we don’t know exactly where it will be.

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Indeed, less than a second later, the particle could be 100,000 miles away in any direction. Think of a stone thrown into a pond, but, instead of its dropping to the bottom, imagine that the stone will finish up floating on the crest of one of those circular waves, but it becomes visible only when the wave hits the edge of the pond. Which crest, and in which direction? That is the unknown.

We don’t see such minuscule particle movement, of course. Stonehenge, as far as we perceive, is stationary, even though every particle in it is permanently on the move.

 

SUPPOSE, however, that what Einstein saw as an annoying randomness is actually where God is constantly at work in the world: God influencing the smallest of everything. Yeast, mustard seed, the lightest touch to a garment, and the still, small voice all come to mind.

What if the immensity of God is that every fundamental particle, everywhere, is in God’s hands, and that the laws of nature that self-constrain God are not merely Newton’s or Einstein’s equations, but primarily are the statistics of particle movement — statistics that provide God with a means, designed into nature, to interact with the world?

The probability that a big lump of matter will relocate a significant distance is almost zero, but not zero; it is very rare indeed — the bigger the lump, and the further the distance, the rarer it is. It is like an army of soldiers on the parade ground each being told to move in a random direction, and all of them choosing to move in the same direction, so that the whole army moves.

It is as rare as, for example, the precise combination of atoms inside each one of us being part of one sentient life in this universe. It is extraordinarily rare — but, because it is such a big universe, rare things happen.

So, feeding five thousand, healing broken cells, stilling a storm, and turning water into wine are not impossible in terms of physics: they are just extraordinarily rare. But, if you are God, with a handle on the universe of particles, you have the opportunity to play that rare-moment card when you choose.

At the tiny end of the scale, every moment, God may be influencing just a few particles to fire the hair-trigger of one neuron in our brain, instigating a fleeting thought that sparks an idea and generates an activity that takes on a life of its own. Nature amplifies the mustard seed: read up on the butterfly effect.

 

THE underlying statistical foundation, however, must remain secure. Life needs some predictability, and God is not going to undermine that. Feeding the world’s hungry every week, using millions of repeated blindingly amazing Galilean miracles, bucks that statistical fabric too far. It is like forcing the dice to roll sixes every time almost for ever. It is better to run with many minor miracles, such as inspiring the rich and powerful to be generous to the hungry — these are unmeasurable, almost invisible miracles.

It means that big miracles will be rare, while small miracles can be frequent — and don’t we know that, anyway? Pray for the tectonic plates to adjust themselves without an earthquake, and you are asking for God to play a trump card. But pray for inspiration, and that smallest of all miracles — the firing of some neurons — can be there, often instantly.

Pray for a change of mind — for reconciliation, for faith, hope, or love — and God, occasionally waiting to be asked, is able to respond practically — provided, of course, that that is his will.

Meanwhile, like us, God has to make the invidious choice of where to play the rare card when big things have gone dreadfully wrong. Thankfully, 2000 years ago, God used one trump card — and the rest is history.

 

The Revd Adrian Low is Emeritus Professor of Computer Education at Staffordshire University and Assistant Curate of Abbots Bromley, Blithfield, Colton, Colwich, and Great Haywood.

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