Chance, Coin Tosses, and Sovereignty

Vern Poythress, in his fascinating new book soon to be released — Chance and the Sovereignty of God: A God-Centered Approach to Probability and Random Events (Crossway, 2014) — writes on pages 119–20:

An appeal to Chance does not explain how chance events fit coherently into the larger patterns of this world. Rain fits into patterns of seasonal weather, and coin flips fit into patterns where heads come up half of the time.

Rain is water, and conforms to the laws governing the behavior of water. Coins thrown into the air conform to the laws of gravitation and rigid-body motion. Even chance events have rationality to them.

Moreover, these events, even in their uniqueness or unpredictable character, can be described in language. Rationality and language belong to persons and the thinking of persons, not to the thinking of rocks and subpersonal creatures. We show by the way we act that we know that chance events conform to personal thinking and speech. We show that we know, deep down, that God specifies them and controls them.

We know that the unpredictability in chance events shows God’s creativity and the superiority of his greatness to our wisdom. We are suppressing what we know when we declare that these events are a result merely of Chance, the impersonal substitute.

And then he follows with this (pages 209–10):

People who do not want to acknowledge God have difficulty explaining randomness.

Consider the flip of a coin as an example. Why should it be the case that no possible pattern in previous flips allows any advantage in predictability for the next flip? The outcome of the next flip is unpredictable. That means that, as far as we know, either outcome is compatible with known physical laws. That is, an outcome of heads conforms to law, and an outcome of tails also conforms to law. It follows that an outcome of heads followed by a second outcome of heads conforms to law.

We can infer that it is lawful for the next 100 outcomes all to be heads, and then 100 tails, and then 100 heads. People who will not acknowledge God cannot explain why, in addition to the physical laws, we rightly expect no future series of outcomes to be any more probable than another. The record of the past gives us no guarantee, because the principle of randomness says that the future is not predictable from the past.

The fact that we cannot predict any particular outcome has no power to force the outcome to be what it is.The ultimate explanation goes back to God’s control. God, who is all-wise, produces what we experience as randomness, and this randomness is far above our ability to produce.

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