Re: [asa] philological notes on randomness

From: Murray Hogg <>
Date: Sun Nov 15 2009 - 02:47:15 EST

Hi Cameron,

All quite fair comments, I think - and without hitting the literature, I wouldn't want to make any stronger remarks than I already have.

I will say one thing about the connection between "Darwinian randomness" and "chance" of the sort we're dealing with in the biblical narrative, however, namely that the idea of a single archer drawing a bow and letting of a lucky shot is just not an analogue for what purportedly occurs in evolution.

In the biblical example, we're talking about a single shot - and we either get a hit, or we don't - so even a probability of 99.999% doesn't guarantee a hit.

In evolution, we're talking about probability distributions - and given enough trials even a probability of .001% DOES guarantee a hit. In that respect, a better analogue would be an entire company of archers letting fly at an entire body of troops rather than just one man firing at one man.

In that respect I'd be open to the idea that the biblical story might just be a case of the author making too much of the situation - a bit like a World War 1 historian remarking on how incredible it was that Fritz Gruber from Kiel just happened to shoot Tommy Watkins from Liverpool at precisely 10am on the second day of the battle of the Somme. Well, yeah, the event in itself is improbable, but there was a lot of lead flying around that day...

But getting back to evolution: I recognize that there are still issues here centred upon just how many trials evolution allows and what is the probability of the required mutations but the point remains: when we speak scientifically about "randomness" it simply doesn't do to argue that a very small probability of outcome with respect to a single event makes the outcome of a large number of events even remotely unlikely.

What I'd like to work through is just what implication this has for evolutionary theory. As it stands, I'm pretty sure that simply pointing out that Darwin and his contemporary disciples really mean "random" when they use the term "random" doesn't really constitute a water tight objection. In extremis it's like arguing that a piece of heated metal emits quanta of light at random then the bedroom might stay dark when I flick the light switch. Not going to happen.

But please note that I write "In Extremis": the reality is that I personally don't have much idea what sort of numbers we're talking about here. I don't know what the probability of an individual mutation is. Nor do I know how many "trials" there might have been. So I don't know how the mathematical analysis of the probabilities would work out. Neither do Dawkins, et al, I'll bet! Indeed, it's precisely the ambiguity that they are hiding behind.

All I know is that predictability of outcome of multiple events isn't precluded by genuine randomness in the individual events themselves - and it simply won't be possible to convince any mathematically literate person otherwise.


Cameron Wybrow wrote:
> Murray:
> Thanks for these thoughts on the Chronicles passage.
> I forgot about the disguise when I wrote my post, so one sentence in my
> argument would have to be removed or re-cast. You're right that the
> archer couldn't have been intending to aim at Ahab if he didn't
> recognize him.
> I agree with you that the hitting of Ahab was accidental. However, I
> don't think that in itself can rescue the translation "at random". "At
> random", in the context that we are discussing (e.g., cosmic rays which
> strike a genome "randomly" with respect to the mutation they are going
> to cause, or its potential survival benefit) would suggest "without any
> thought of hitting a target", and clearly, as you admit, even if the
> archers where wheeling around and just sending off a parting shot, they
> would have aimed in the general direction of the enemy soldiers, hoping
> that their arrows would find their way into the main mass of Israelite
> warriors. So they may not have been aiming at Ahab or any individual,
> but they were aiming at a group of foes. There was intent or design.
> But the bigger problem is the Hebrew expression itself. The root
> suggests wholeness, integrity, purity, etc. It would be very odd for a
> root with such a meaning to be turned into a meaning like "random". The
> usual way of getting to this result, as found in commentaries and
> translations, is through the idea of "innocence". We think of a man of
> purity and integrity as being "innocent", in the literal sense of
> "non-harmful" to others. But we also use the phrase "innocent of"
> something, innocent of the intention to do this or that. So the archer
> was "innocent of" firing upon Ahab, since he didn't know where Ahab was,
> and couldn't have intended his arrow for Ahab in particular. But this
> is a great stretch, first of all because it presumes that the same
> transitions of thought apply to the Hebrew root *tom*/*tam* as are found
> in the English transition whole-integral-pure-innocent-unintending, and
> second of all because it doesn't make sense in the story. The archer
> wasn't "innocent" in the sense of not wishing to do harm to someone. He
> wished his arrow to hit *some* Israelite warrior. The root *tom* isn't
> appropriate for a warrior in this situation.
> That's why I have suggested a different transition, which works in
> English as well as in Hebrew. The root *tom*/*tam* is often translated
> as "whole", with the notion being one of "completeness" or "perfection"
> in the moral sense. There is an imaginable transition from moral
> "perfection" to "perfection" in one's military actions. Thus, "in his
> perfection", i.e., "in the perfection of his shot" would make sense of
> both the plot at that point, and the Hebrew root. And true, it is not
> easy to achieve perfect aim while riding away on a chariot, but stories
> of war are filled with great deeds of skill, so that's not a serious
> difficulty. In any case, the perfection of his shot would not be that
> it struck Ahab, since the archer was not aiming at Ahab in particular;
> the perfection would consist in the fact that it struck one of the enemy
> at all; it did not miss. (As you have pointed out, it would have been
> more likely to miss than to hit.)
> Now I'm not sticking to this explanation at all costs; there are other
> explanations possible. (For example, our Hebrew text may be corrupt,
> and the original words may have been different.) But the gist of my
> explanation has the double advantage of fitting roughly in with the idea
> of "perfection" in the root *tom* and also of harmonizing roughly with
> the Septuagint translation, which speaks of firing "with good aim"
> (eustochos). A "perfect" shot and a "well-aimed" shot fit together.
> Of course, I am not arguing against your point that the hitting of Ahab
> was accidental from the archer's point of view, and I see the overall
> point that this accidental shot succeeded in bringing about God's will.
> So I get the point about the relationship between "accident" or "chance"
> and God's will. But I would argue that the Bible intends this to say
> that God uses *apparent* accidents for his ends, i.e., that ultimately
> there are no accidents, at least, not where God's plans are concerned.
> The analogy to evolution would be that mutations, at least those which
> turn out to be of evolutionary significance, are no accidents. They are
> manipulated by God just as that archer was manipulated by God. And this
> is not what Darwin or people like Mayr or Gaylord Simpson thought was
> going on in evolution. They did not think that it was all being
> controlled by a plan.
> True, Darwin would from time to time say things like "God could have
> employed natural causes just as well as miracles". But then, the
> overall thrust of his discussion is unmistakeably that there is no plan
> to evolution, so it is hard to see how this would work out. Either he
> is being insincere with the God business, or he has only some fuzzy,
> vague idea that God might somehow be involved even though the whole
> process is structured to work without guidance or planning of any kind.
> If he was really concerned to make the radical contingency of variation
> and natural selection compatible with a God who providentially guides
> evolution, he would have spent much more time thinking about and writing
> about that. But basically he sets God off to one side with pious
> platitudes so that he doesn't really have to think it out. I don't see
> anything in Darwin that's at all reminiscent of the constant tying of
> events to God that permeates the narratives in the Hebrew Bible.
> So yes, there's a sense in which the Hebrew Bible brings "accidental" or
> "chance" events under the sway of God. But that's not the notion of
> "truly random" events that Logan Gage and other ID people are
> criticizing as inadequate to have generated macroevolutionary change.
> So the example given by Richard and/or Randy misfires, not only because
> of the dubious or bad translation in this one case, but because the type
> of event it refers to in the Bible is not "truly random", but random
> only to the human observer. But people like Bertrand Russell and
> Gaylord Simpson and Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins
> believe that truly random changes could have done the trick, and in fact
> did do the trick, in the case of macroevolution.
> Cameron.
> ----- Original Message ----- From: "Murray Hogg" <>
> To: "ASA" <>
> Sent: Saturday, November 14, 2009 3:43 PM
> Subject: Re: [asa] philological notes on randomness
>> Hi Cameron,
>> Nice catch on the philological issue.
>> Re-reading the passage this morning, let me give you my sense of it;
>> First, we can set the context by noting that;
>> 1) The Syrian attackers were chariot mounted (30,31) therefore our
>> "certain man" of v.33 is a chariot archer
>> 2) "The King of Israel" (Ahab is, curiously, not called by name) is
>> fighting in disguise (29)
>> 3) The attackers were focused on Jehoshaphat thinking him to be Ahab (31)
>> 4) They had just broken off pursuit (32) because a) they had orders to
>> attack only the King of Israel (30) and b) had realized their quarry
>> was not he (32)
>> I think that taken together these negate the idea that the man fired
>> with any intent to hit Ahab.
>> Rather, I imagine that, with the termination of the pursuit, the
>> chariot archers let loose with a volley of arrows fired in the hope of
>> just hitting *something* and it's in that parting effort that Ahab
>> gets hit.
>> To my mind, this allows us to make some sense of why the Hebrew speaks
>> of the archer drawing "in his fullness." Surely the imagery is of an
>> archer faced with a rapidly departing enemy who will soon be out of
>> bow range - so he takes up his bow, draws to maximum pull, and lets
>> fly a shot.
>> So why "in his fullness"? I can think of a few possibilities:
>> First, "at random" (although ONLY if one takes appropriate heed of the
>> context i.e. the guy clearly was NOT firing "at random" in a strong
>> sense of the term). Two other renderings in related vein are "at a
>> venture" - which I think is better - and "without thought of its
>> direction" (Bible in Basic English) - which I think is just terrible -
>> what soldier in what army ever discharged a weapon "without thought of
>> its direction"? If "at random" is too strong a translation, then this
>> falls to the same critique.
>> Interesting is the fact that the lexicon entry for the cognate noun
>> gives "completeness, integrity" which can be taken as "innocence,
>> simplicity" and thence "without definite aim" (we might say "without
>> malice aforethought") and as the idea of "dealing with integrity" is
>> not entirely absent from the Hebrew 'tom' so perhaps this might colour
>> the usage here? It is, however, drawing a long bow (pun!).
>> Second, is your idea of "perfect aim." Which I wouldn't fully discount
>> but for two critical observations; First, I don't know that it makes
>> much sense to speak of an archer in a moving chariot taking careful
>> aim and hitting an individual in a rapidly departing enemy chariot?
>> The idea would make sense if 2 Chron. were a kind of mythic saga after
>> the manner of the Iliad. But, more significantly, given Ahab's
>> disguise it is certain that even if the archer's aim were incredibly
>> good, the fact that he targeted, hit, and killed Ahab was still a
>> matter of dumb luck. And I think the text intends us to read it that way.
>> Third, is the idea of fullness or completeness which can go two ways;
>> A. The idea that the guy drew his bow "in his fullness" is taken as
>> something like "to the completeness/fullness of its capacity" (i.e.
>> "with all his strength") - in which case we have an archer taking one
>> last shot at a rapidly distancing enemy at or near maximum range with
>> the resulting shot being, in effect, a "Hail Mary".
>> or
>> B. The idea that the guy drew his bow "for the last time" - which
>> really amounts to the same as A. above.
>> Personally, I prefer something like the third - and I think that if
>> one then takes the context into account then a translation of "at
>> random" or "at a venture" makes some sense.
>> We then arrive at one of those "random within constraints" situations
>> - it doesn't seem to me that the text intends to suggest that the
>> archer identified Ahab and took careful aim with a fair degree of
>> confidence in a hit - but neither was he just blasting away in any old
>> direction. And even if he DID take careful aim, it was at an anonymous
>> individual who the archer could not possibly have known to be Ahab.
>> So no matter how I slice it, I think the text is very clear in stating
>> that Ahab's death was an essentially 'random' event - albeit one where
>> 'random' needs to be nuanced somewhat. Just what it implies for a
>> discussion of origins is unclear to me - it's easy for me to conceive
>> of why one would refer to this as a "random" shot - the idea really
>> does work for me. But, at the same time, I note that the shot involved
>> the intelligent agency of a skilled soldier (Syrian chariot archers
>> were no amateurs). I leave it to others to decide what implications
>> THAT has for the broader discussion.
>> Blessings,
>> Murray
>> Cameron Wybrow wrote:
>>> Fifth, the Biblical passage quoted is given in English translation,
>>> and it does not appear that those who are employing it below (Randy
>>> or Richard or both; I'm not sure from all the layers of quotation and
>>> commentary) have taken the time to ascertain the original expression
>>> used which is here translated "at random". In the original Hebrew,
>>> it is said that the man strikes "in his wholeness". The word
>>> "wholeness" ("tom", long o) can also be translated as righteousness,
>>> purity, moral perfection, integrity, etc. It has nothing
>>> intrinsically to do with chance, randomness, etc. It is unclear why
>>> the Hebrew writer uses this phrase. It is possible that it means
>>> "innocently", i.e., not intending to hit the king specifically, and
>>> therefore that he hit the king by accident. But even if so, "by
>>> accident" does not mean exactly the same as "at random"; presumably
>>> the archer was aiming at *some* target, not just firing his arrow
>>> anywhere, hoping to hit something. "By accident", would suggest that
>>> maybe he was aiming at the guy next to the king, and hit the king
>>> instead. Thus, "at random" is an over-translation. The King James
>>> and Revised Standard have "at a venture", which would be better. But
>>> even this translation is questionable. Why would the archer's
>>> "innocence" be stressed here? Wouldn't an enemy archer *want* to hit
>>> the king, and knock out the motor of the opposing army? And this
>>> leads us to consider the Septuagint translation. The Greek Jews who
>>> translated this expression used the adverb *eustochos*, related to
>>> the verb *eustocheo*, which means "aim well (and therefore hit)".
>>> That is, the archer intended to hit the king, and, with a
>>> "well-aimed" shot, did so. So, if the Septuagint translators had our
>>> current Hebrew text, they must have interpreted it the noun *tom* as
>>> meaning something like "perfection" in a non-moral sense: "in his
>>> perfection", i.e., "in the perfection of his aim", he hit the king.
>>> I suspect that the Greek translators have hit upon the intended
>>> meaning of the original. But in any case, the translation "at
>>> random" is highly questionable, and should not be used as a "killer
>>> argument" in the way that it is used below. More generally, it is not
>>> safe to rely upon English translations of the Bible when a "loaded"
>>> word is involved.
>> To unsubscribe, send a message to with
>> "unsubscribe asa" (no quotes) as the body of the message.
> To unsubscribe, send a message to with
> "unsubscribe asa" (no quotes) as the body of the message.

To unsubscribe, send a message to with
"unsubscribe asa" (no quotes) as the body of the message.
Received on Sun Nov 15 02:47:49 2009

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.8 : Sun Nov 15 2009 - 02:47:49 EST