In response to my previous post, I got an email from Nick Matzke, a biology grad student at Berkeley who formerly worked for the National Center for Science Education (a prominent anti-intelligent design group). He suggested that I could respond to his email on his blog, so I thought I’d do so. There was a lot to his email but I’ll pick out one line of argument. 

Here’s what Matzke said about my previous post (with typos corrected):

Unfortunately I think it shows that you’ve been reading ID literature a bit too much without detailed critique! My primary beef is your uncritical use of “chance”, which exactly mirrors the uncritical use of “chance” by Dembski, Ratzsch, et al.

Basically, except perhaps in the case of quantum mechanics, the term “chance” is *scientifically* just a statement about human uncertainty in an outcome due to its being caused by deterministic causes that interact in a complex and unpredictable way.

But in the ID literature, and in your blog, “chance” is opposed to “design”, and when this occurs, “chance” implies metaphysical meaninglessness, “things just happen”, God-is-being-ruled-out, etc. Even worse is when the term “chance” is equated with “natural causes”, which is also something you do, following the ID guys. But natural causes as commonly understood are anything but “chance.” It is not “chance” that water flows downhill, that canyons form as a result, that hard rocks erode one way and soft rocks another, etc. Similarly, the key force explaining “design” in biology, natural selection, is explicitly and obviously the opposite of anything resembling a “chance” process.

To sum up: The correct thing to do, if one is interested in this, is ask if something is due to “design” or “natural causes”, not “chance”.

What Matzke is presumably complaining about is this line from my previous post:

If that reaction didn’t have any substantive effects, we would probably conclude that the reaction happened as a result of chance processes. 

To be honest, I don’t think Matzke’s criticism is especially important; I see this as just an issue of terminology. It’s true that intelligent design proponents often use the term “chance” to refer to undesigned processes, and I could see how someone who wasn’t familiar with what they were talking about would assume that they are talking about purely chancy processes, when in fact they are not. But once one gets familiar with the terminology, one knows what intelligent design proponents are talking about, and I don’t think it’s a big deal to use the term “chance” the way that intelligent design proponents do, as long as everyone is clear about what it means in this context. 

But that said, I think that chance plays a more fundamental role in science than Matzke thinks it does. There are two ways in which this is the case.

First, Matzke quickly sets aside quantum mechanics, but in fact quantum mechanics is the most fundamental theory we have concerning physical objects and how they interact. And, according to most interpretations of quantum mechanics, most all physical processes are chancy processes, in the sense that there are multiple possible outcomes that have a non-zero probability of occurring. For example, consider the textbook example of a Newtonian deterministic process, a billiard ball that knocks into another billiard ball and starts it moving. According to quantum mechanics, the wave function of a particle has non-zero value in an unbounded region of space, and that means that there is some non-zero probability that, when the location of the particle is measured, the particle will be arbitrarily far from its starting point. The same holds for collections of particles, and hence, when the billiard ball hits the second billiard ball, there’s a non-zero probability that the second billiard ball will spontaneously end up in the next town over. Obviously, this probability is very small, but the important fact is that it’s non-zero. I would say that any process that has multiple possible outcomes, where each outcome has a non-zero probability of occurring, is a chancy process, and thus billiard ball interactions are chancy. The same holds for flowing water forming canyons, and so forth. 

Here’s the second way in which I think chance plays a more fundamental role in science than Matzke thinks it does. Let’s set aside quantum mechanics, as he does, and let’s suppose that the laws of physics are fully deterministic. Matzke says elsewhere in his email that

the natural Oklo nuclear reactor which you vaguely mentioned was not the product of “chance”, it was just the right combination of uranium ore coming into contact with groundwater.

But what accounts for the existence of the right amount of uranium ore in that location? And what accounts for the existence of the groundwater in that location? There are complex physical processes that led to those events occurring, and (given a fully determinstic theory of physics) those complex physical processes can be traced back to the initial state of the universe (assuming, that is, that the universe had an initial state). So now we can ask the question: why did the universe have that initial state, as opposed to some other initial state that wouldn’t have led to the natural Oklo nuclear reactor? Presumably there was no quantum phenomenon that led to probabilities for the various possibilities for the initial conditions. But in the absence of a designer, my opinion is that it makes sense to hold that it was a matter of chance that the initial conditions of the universe were what they were. And thus, it makes sense to hold that physical processes that happen as a result of the initial conditions being what they are are chancy physical processes. 

(For more on different ways of understanding the terminology of “chance”, I recommend Alan Hajek’s article on interpretations of probability.)

Suppose I did start using the “natural causes” terminology instead, as Matzke recommends. I’d still be opening myself to critique. Prominent philosopher of physics John Norton has argued that the notion of causation is a folk scientific notion; it’s not a concept that one gets from fundamental physics. Thus, if I started using the “natural causes” terminology, I could see someone who has read Norton complaining that I shouldn’t be thinking in terms of folk science; I should be thinking in terms of fundamental physics, and in fundamental physics causation plays no role. 

In sum, as is so typical with language, there may not be an ideal term to exactly capture what intelligent design proponents mean by “chance” and what Matzke means by “natural causes”. But that doesn’t matter, as long as we understand what we’re talking about.