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Chance and Reliability

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December 22, 2009 Tags: Divine Action & Purpose
Chance and Reliability

Today's entry was written by the BioLogos Editorial Team. You can read more about what we believe here.

A common criticism of evolution is the idea that it relegates the emergence of intelligent life to mere chance. Taken to its extremes, evolution is the story of random changes and mutations without a guiding influence. Yet in their book Questions of Truth, John Polkinghorne and Nicholas Beale point out that chance is only a part of the evolutionary equation:

At the heart of evolution is the interplay between “chance” (the contingent detail of what actually happens) and “necessity” (the lawfully regular environment in which events occur). It takes place “at the edge of chaos,” where order and openness interlace. If things are too orderly, they are too rigid for anything really new to emerge. If they are too haphazard, nothing that emerged could persist.


What are the theological implications of this interplay between chance and necessity?

From a theological point of view, we can see necessity as the gift of that reliability to creation that reflects the Creator’s steadfast faithfulness, and chance as the loving gift of a free openness within which creatures can explore God-given potentiality in a process by which they are allowed to “make themselves.” Such a world is surely a greater good than a ready-made world would have been.


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Jordan - #1106

December 22nd 2009

First off, thanks for the comments feed. It’s been getting harder and harder to watch all the conversations. It’s awesome that there has been so much discussion lately.

So if I read this right (please correct me here because I’m a bit unsure), Polkinghorne is is in at least some sense equating “necessity” in the evolutionary sense to God’s faithfulness. I’m not exactly sure what he means by necessity but I presume it to be along the lines of “natural selection” or “survival of the fittest”. I at least normally think of these processes as fairly brutal and not exactly loving and faithful. They are faithful in the sense of “constant” but not really in a “in your best interest” sense.

I find Polkinghorne’s analogy of openness and faithfulness very interesting but it almost seems superficial compared to something like ID. I keep getting the feeling that theistic evolution is more about putting a spiritual veneer on top of a naturalistic world view than any forceful proposition that God is an objective reality and a personal deity interested in you. I’m not trying to impugn BioLogos’ commitment to the Christian faith by any means, it just seems like a bit less forceful of an apologetic.

Mere_Christian - #1107

December 22nd 2009

Fitting square pegs into round holes PhD style? From the twisting and turning comes a Craps player theology. The only reason chance is created is for fthe un that sooner or later the odds will create a seven or eleven. So, are we lucky to be humans or are we just some chane throw of the stones that we can think at all?

Evolution then IS intelligent design?

Or is chance our God?

0 x 0 = atheism.

The odds of orderly things all around us seem to oppose nothing causing them to be.

Jordan - #1110

December 22nd 2009


I think Polkinghorne is trying to say that humanity is purposefully allowed to have great freedom in “self-creation”. Clearly he’s not saying that chance is everything, but that there’s freedom (chance) within God’s purposes.

I don’t understand what 0 x 0 = atheism is supposed to mean. I’ve seen it a number of times and haven’t a clue what it’s trying to say.

The question of whether evolution is intelligent design is interesting. Quite a few people have suggested it is but I think BioLogos, according to this post and others, seems to lean towards something maybe you could call “intelligent freedom”.

Glen Davidson - #1112

December 22nd 2009

Oof, I don’t especially like seeing the typically metaphysical words “chance” and “necessity” used with respect to evolution.  One reason being that it tends to grant some (illegitimate, I believe) credit to Dembski’s use of those words, and because in classical science chance is simply the working out of “lawful” interactions.  There is no (or very little at most) chance in classical science, except as we understand it to be that due to our ignorance, and nothing is truly “necessary”.  The ancients used those terms because they didn’t understand what really occurs in the world.

Glen Davidson

Glen Davidson - #1113

December 22nd 2009


IDists try to smuggle those terms into science in order to subvert understanding of what is really going on in evolution.  Indeed, they generally misuse the word “chance,” often writing it as “just chance.”  But the beauty of “random mutation” plus “natural selection” is that nothing falls outside of known laws and theories of physics.  Mutations are “random” from our viewpoint, but are understood statistically, and are generally predictive of what “natural selection” will be able to “act upon.”  I realize that this is largely acknowledged parenthetically in the quoted passages, but then the discussion of the “implications” pretty much goes right back to the pre-scientific metaphysical understandings of these matters.  Even with respect to the parenthetical statements, I would take issue at the notion of a “lawfully regular environment,” which are dynamic, and unpredictable in many of their aspects.

Glen Davidson

Glen Davidson - #1114

December 22nd 2009


As an example, who really would write of the weather as being due to “necessity” and “chance”?  There is no place where contingency leaves off and a “lawfully regular environment” rules, we just have “laws” and “law-like” behaviors and the particulars of the situation.  Weather is simply very complex, that’s the only real difference between it and the much more “predictable” example of billiard balls, and complexity is all that really marks evolution off from the deliberately simple examples typically used in teaching physics.

Worst of all from a science standpoint, Dembski likes to pretend that there’s something outside of “chance” and “necessity,” something not explicitly contained by either.  That’s “intelligence,” which in science apparently relies upon both regularities of action, and stochastic relatively “random” (again, simply as we understand it) processes, none of which falls outside of our understanding at a more basic level. 

Glen Davidson

Darrel Falk - #1119

December 22nd 2009


You begin by saying you don’t really like when the phrase “Chance and Necessity,” is used with respect to evolution.  I imagine you know that common use of the phrase originates from one of the greatest biologists of the 20th century, the late Jacques Monod, a staunch atheist who applied that title to his landmark book published in 1970.  Dembski and Meyer do use the term and you are right that they use it in reference to an “intelligence” that brings about the “necessary.”  As believers in an Intelligence within (and beyond) the universe, many of us do believe in “Chance and Necessity” in a manner that resembles to some extent Dembski and Meyer’s view.  I’ll have more to say about that in next Monday’s post.  I get the feeling though that you think that science has disproved the existence of such an intelligence.  If so, I’m puzzled.  I know of no set of experiments or body of knowledge that rules out a metaphysical intelligence, or even makes it unlikely.  Science, it seems, to me is silent on that issue.  Surely you must agree.

Glen Davidson - #1122

December 22nd 2009

I get the feeling though that you think that science has disproved the existence of such an intelligence.  If so, I’m puzzled.  I know of no set of experiments or body of knowledge that rules out a metaphysical intelligence, or even makes it unlikely.  Science, it seems, to me is silent on that issue.  Surely you must agree.

Does it make sense to say that you have the feeling that I think that science has disproved the existence of such an intelligence, and that I must agree that science is silent on that issue?

However that may be, of course I consider science to be silent on that issue, and do not think that science has disproved such an intelligence.  I am not a believer, but I do not know why I would be assumed to be making any sort of claim regarding theism here, especially when I am only discussing biology.  I care deeply about honest science, and am happy to get along with the religious, if possible.

Glen Davidson

Glen Davidson - #1123

December 22nd 2009


I am not impressed with the terms any “atheist” (is that term supposed to be authoritative to myself?) biologist may have used, and would consider Monod to have misused those terms as well if he used them as the quotes do (the parentheticals are mostly ok, yet the discussion does not seem to adhere to the narrowness there).

Glen Davidson

John A. Davison - #1131

December 23rd 2009

I feel there had to have been at least two Gods (programmers), one benevolent, the other malevolent.

I also see no reason to assume a monophyletic evolution, agreeing with Leo Berg that there probably were several primary forms which implies several independent creations. I also subscribe to the saltational evolution proposed independently by Richard B. Goldschmidt and Otto Schindewolf.

With this apology I offer my ideas and those of my sources for consideration by those like myself who realize how little we really know about the twin mysteries of ontogeny and phylogeny. 

“Neither in the one nor in the other is there room for chance.”
Leo Berg, Nomogenesis, page 134

“Science commits suicide when she adopts a creed.”
Thomas Henry Huxley

All are welcome to participate on my weblog where one will find more about a new hypothesis for organic evolution.


peter Enns - #1185

December 24th 2009

John and Glen,

Please email each other privately. it is clear you two have a previous issues you need to work through.

Also, BioLogos will not tolerate the type of exchange that we have witnessed here the last couple of days. The only factor permitting me from taking decisive action is that Christmas is upon us and our staff is not available. So, consider this a warning, gentlemen: please stop, immediately. As soon as possible, this exchange will be taken down from this thread. If there is a continuation of this behavior, we will not hesitate to take more decisive action.

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