The Milky Way through NASA’s Hubble Tele­scope. | Flickr

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.