The Psalmist writes, “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14). In a recent Zoom talk hosted by the Natural Sciences division, biologist Sean Carroll, vice president of science education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, pointed out the extraordinary role played by chance — tiny chances — in human development, such as when DNA mutates during copying. Given the “chanciness” of our development, things begin to look rather bleak for the claim that God “made” us. This, at least, is how Carroll took it.
It is, of course, silly to think that this is an either/or issue: that babies are either made by God or through chancy natural processes. Christians believe it can be both. There need be no incompatibility between divine intentions and chance. So why does Carroll think it one or the other?
Some think that for any physical outcome to count as intended or designed by God, God must intervene in the natural order. But this is not the only means for God to accomplish his designs. God can also create through the natural order by establishing a system that leads to his intended end.
But what if the natural order is “chancy” or random? Perhaps it is not the natural processes per se that rule out divine intentions, but the fact that such processes involve chance. To assess this, we first have to figure out what we mean by “chancy” or “random.” Not all possible meanings of “randomness” are incompatible with determinism — the position that the laws of nature and initial conditions logically entail the conditions at all future times. For instance, philosopher Elliot Sober explains that, when evolutionary theory calls genetic mutations “random,” it means only that, “There is no physical mechanism … that detects which mutations would be beneficial and causes those mutations to occur.” Mutations can obviously be “random” in this sense even if determinism be true; and if determinism is true, then God can providentially bring about certain outcomes simply by setting up the dominos and knocking down the first one.
But what if the laws are indeterministic? Then events will be “random” in the sense that initial conditions and physical laws do not logically entail one particular outcome. However, it remains possible for indeterministic outcomes to be intentionally brought about by God in at least three ways.
The first view, called “Molinism,” ascribes to God “middle” knowledge of how things would happen were God to actualize certain states of affairs, even in genuinely indeterministic processes. According to Molinism, God knows what you would freely choose were you given a choice, even without that choice being determined by prior factors. Knowing how indeterministic things will shake out depending on when or where or how he starts the process, God can providentially guide indeterministic processes to accomplish his intended ends, all without interrupting the natural order. Chance and divine intention can thus be harmonized.
On a more Thomistic model, God stands to the world somewhat as an author stands to a book. The difference between a novel and God’s creation is that what happens in the book isn’t real, whereas the story God writes is real. Now, within a story, events and substances stand in causal relations to one another. This is akin to the creaturely order of secondary causation whereby events or substances cause one another in accordance with the laws of nature. The causation occurring within a story is to be distinguished from the way in which the author causes the story to exist. The author’s work is not just another event within the story; it is the event behind the story that provides for its being. This is the order of primary causation. God, through his act of primary causation, is able to bring about any sequence of events he deems fit, including ones whose secondary causes are indeterministic. He can determine the outcome of random events to the last detail or only occasionally. But his activity is not that of a puppet master working a marionette; it is more fundamental, at all times sustaining a chancy universe, and sometimes determining where the chances will fall.
Then there’s also the worst-case scenario for God. “Open Theists” maintain that God lacks foreknowledge of future contingents, and so he cannot accomplish his designs infallibly. What happens in the universe is chancy in the deepest sense. Even still, it is possible for God to set up the laws such that, in all probability, he will achieve certain outcomes (e.g. the emergence of life). Such outcomes still occur by divine intention. Like a slot machine that favors the house, the outcome is intended, although the path there is chancy.
And so in a variety of ways an outcome can be intended by God — brought about by him for a specific purpose — even if there are natural causes of that event and even if those natural causes are indeterministic.
Why, then, is it so tempting for Carroll to infer purposelessness from chanciness? The inference comes so naturally to him he doesn’t seem to realize he’s making it. This implicit philosophical position is called “scientism,” commonly referring to the creed that scientific facts are the only real truths. Hence, if science doesn’t (or can’t) demonstrate purpose or intent in a process, there isn’t any. Alas, scientism so defined is self-refuting. The claim that all truths are scientific facts is not itself a scientific fact! It is a philosophical truth if it is true at all, in which case scientism can only be true if it is false. Ouch.
It may be that the natural world is all there is and, thus, that the chanciness observed in nature is in fact taking place in a purposeless world. Our point is that the science itself, even the fact of probabilistic processes, doesn’t tell us that.
So what is the place of wonder in a chancy world? Consider what God accomplishes through evolution: the universe is a vast kaleidoscope of life and beauty, an ever-shifting manifestation of the goodness of God, whose infinity cannot be expressed in any one thing but expresses itself inexhaustibly in the endlessly new configurations and combinations of the things he has made. Christians should wonder at the chanciness of the cosmos and allow that wonder to draw them towards the Creator God.
Blake McAllister, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of philosophy.
Jordan Joseph Wales, Ph.D., is an associate professor of theology.