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December 15, 2011 Tags: Design

Today's video features Ard Louis. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

Today's video is courtesy of filmmaker Ryan Pettey, director/editor of Satellite Pictures and features physicist Ard Louis.

In today's video, Oxford physicist Ard Louis discusses the famous debate between renowned evolutionary biologists Stephen Jay Gould and Simon Conway Morris. Gould believed (and wrote in his book Wonderful Life) that if the "tape" of evolution were rerun, the chance that anything like human intelligence would emerge is essentially zero. In other words, humanity is here through random accident. Gould pointed to the work of Morris and fellow scientists in their research of the Burgess Shale as evidence for this view.

However, Morris himself disagrees, pointing to what is called evolutionary convergence. As Morris notes, there are numerous examples of identical features evolving multiple times throughout the history of life independently. Morris believes that if the tape of life were replayed, we would see something like humans emerge. A Christian might say, it looks like we were planned.

Some Christians might find Simon Conway Morris' viewpoint, with its implicit teleology, more attractive. Others, perhaps motivated by a high view of providence, may find Gould's emphasis on contingency equally congenial to their faith. What do you think?

Commentary written by the BioLogos editorial team.

Ard Louis is a Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Oxford, where he leads a interdisciplinary research group studying problems on the border between chemistry, physics and biology, and is also director of graduate studies in theoretical physics. From 2002 to 2010 he was a Royal Society University Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford. He is also an associate of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. He has written for the BioLogos Foundation, where as of November 2011, he sat on the Board of Directors. He engages in molecular gastronomy. Prior to his post at Oxford he taught Theoretical Chemistry at Cambridge University where he was also director of studies in Natural Sciences at Hughes Hall. He was born in the Netherlands, was raised in Gabon and received his first degree from the University of Utrecht and his Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Cornell University.

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KevinR - #66567

December 15th 2011

Mmmmhhhh, interesting. So what Morris is saying is that because for something to “evolve” ONCE in the first place is akin to a miracle. Therefore, for something to have “evolved” multiple times is so stupendously improbable that it could only occur if some intelligent outside agent had specifically planned and produced those somethings.

The term “convergent” is forced on evolutionists because they simply have no other explanation for the truly miraculous existence of such biological features in multiple supposedly completely unrelated “evolutionary tree” branches of organisms.

paul.bruggink1 - #66631

December 16th 2011

Actually, I think Simon Conway Morris is saying something more like that the many observances of convergence make it possible to believe (though not to scientifically prove) that God set up the universe so that something like humans would inevitably evolve.  In addition, observances of convergence also enhance the likelihood that biological evolution is the best explanation of how life on earth got to be the way it is, since the processes of mutation and natural selection in similar environments within geographically isolated places produced similar results.

Ashe - #66638

December 16th 2011

The environment is not irrelevant but it is not primary, if truly there was a beginning with an end in mind. See:

Jon Garvey - #66643

December 17th 2011

The thread is contrasting Gould’s random evolution and Conway Morris’s convergent evolution, of course.

But on a logical basis, does convergence actually enhance the likelihood of biological evolution, which as the two approaches shows take predictions in diametrically opposed directions. Who’s to say which models evolution better? Convergence would appear to make evolution a very efficient process (environment A reliably produces result B) which goes against the grain of much modern work, like the neutral theory.

I would have thought (without supporting it) that the fact of convergence actually fits special creation just as well or better - necessary ideas recycled in different contexts for a purpose. Of course, Morris’s idea of a Universe predisposed to certain evolutionary results works too - but until there’s some suggestion of how that’s done, the only advantage over special creation is putting the supernatural element back a few billion years.

Ashe’s point below is a good one: if teleology is present in a theory, any causal factor becomes secondary - the “how” rather than the “why”.

Ashe - #66581

December 15th 2011

It’s pretty ironic (for Gould) that the Panda’s thumb is itself an example of convergence. The false thumb of pandas is not a real finger, but a modified sesamoid bone. These bones are present in the ankle and wrist of all mammals, placed on some carpals, and on the articulations between metapodials and phalanxes, and between phalanxes. In pandas, one of these bones, that one called radial sesamoid and placed on the scapholunar (a carpal) has enlarged and acts as a “thumb”, because the real thumb of these animals is disposed parallel to the other fingers, and cannot handle objects as primates do. So, the fingers flex on this bone, and thus the animal can hold the bamboo branches.

The most interesting thing is that giant and red panda are not related species, the former being an ursid (Family Ursidae) and the latter being an ailurid (Family Ailuridae). So their sharing of an enlarged radial sesamoid does not imply a common ancestor, but a convergence.  When the morphology of the false thumb is closely analyzed, as with all examples of convergence that I am aware of, several differences can be seen, revealing this different origin. The giant panda lineage developed this structure from terrestrial ancestors, whereas the red panda lineage, in which Simocyon is included, derives from arboreal animals, thus producing this different false thumb morphology. 
Norman - #66647

December 17th 2011

Biological evolution had a half billion years to produce intelligent hominoids and it only happened in the last one or two million years among mammals.  This raises questions about the time frame needed for biological processes to produce intelligence.  Taking the example of the placenta mammals contrasted to marsupial and egg producing warm bloodied animals that failed to produce intelligent beings one would think that intelligence convergence would have had plenty of time to come about in those groups as well but it didn’t.  Environmental factors that are so deterministic in these equations are astronomically involved as well, which means that a sister earth could go on for perhaps a billion years and never produce intelligence if the physical circumstances didn’t all come together properly.  

I tend to not go quite as far as Morris does but I indeed see the equation that convergence should fall into.  However it is an equation that fostered human intelligence once, but it would very likely never run in exactly the same sequence ever again. Therefore I see the hand of the creator bringing it about but in a manner that can never be demonstrated unequivocally to suit our many questions. It is a phenomenon to behold and marvel at which is what the Bible often states in their ancient wonderment as well.


James R - #66650

December 17th 2011

The video contains a good, clear summary of the differences between the two paleontologists, and of the theological implications.  I have a comment, however, on the introductory writing underneath the video. 

Sometimes the theological terminology employed by regular or guest columnists on this site seems idiosyncratic and the meaning is hard to follow.  There is an instance of this in the column above.

“Others, perhaps motivated by a high view of providence, may find Gould’s emphasis on contingency equally congenial to their faith.”

What is meant by “a high view of providence”?  In the original meaning of the word “providence”—God “provides” what is needed—Gould’s emphasis would not be congenial to Christian faith.  In Gould’s view, the appearance of man, far from being “providential”, is sheer accident.  One slight twitch or quiver of nature in a different direction a few hundred million years ago, one crucial evolutionary link swallowed up by a predator before it could reproduce, and man would never have emerged.  Evolution, as Gould envisioned it, could not “provide” for anything; the evolutionary process is the very opposite of providence.  Indeed, Conway Morris’s view, being teleological, would endorse a providential view, in that God has set up the universe so that it will yield certain results—he has “provided” evolution with the ability to repeatedly produce certain results (eyes, wings, sabre teeth, etc.), including man or a manlike being. 
If I may make a constructive suggestion—and I mean to offer it politely, and not in a curmudgeonly way— it would help the understanding of readers here, who come from a variety of religious traditions, and also have very different levels of understanding of theological language, if terms, when employed, were defined.  It would also help to reduce confusion if theological terms (providence, foreknowledge, omnipotence, etc.) were employed in the sense given to them over a period od centuries by the great writers of the tradition—Augustine, Calvin, etc. —rather than in senses that have only arisen among fairly recent writers, and only among some even of those.

Chip - #66679

December 19th 2011

American Scientist has weighed in on this recently.  A couple excerpts: 

According to Gould, if we could somehow “rewind the tape” of evolution and let it play again, chance would favor a different selection of that original multitude, and the world would be a very different place from the one we see around us. There is nothing “preordained” about the appearance of humanity or the human level of awareness…

Conway Morris wants to convince us that we (or thinking beings very like us) are the unique yet intended goal of evolution. The word “creation” in his title is not to be taken lightly…

In the end, he wants us to believe that something very like human nature was bound to emerge sooner or later from the evolutionary process. This contrasts with Gould’s position, which follows a materialist tradition pioneered by the founder of modern Darwinian paleontology, George Gaylord Simpson, who insisted that humans were a most unlikely product of so haphazard a process. Gould’s Marxist leanings are well known, and we can see why he would favor a viewpoint that leaves the human race to figure out its own moral values with no hints provided by any transcendental source.

Source:  http://www.americanscientist.org/bookshelf/pub/cambrian-conflict-crucible-an-assault-on-goulds-burgess-shale-interpretation

Given this, James R is certainly correct:  Gould’s view cannot reasonably be interpreted as being “congenial to faith,” as it is represented in the introduction above.

KevinR - #66685

December 20th 2011

I see quite a few comments here to the effect of “God set up the universe such that evolution could do this, that or the other”.
How do you know this?
How do  you know that God did NOT simply speak living organisms into existence in a few days?

If God “set up the universe” does that imply that evolution was given the power to produce life? Where/How did life originate on earth?

Ard Louis - #66691

December 20th 2011

A few quick notes:

1) Even scientists like myself who agree with Conway Morris that convergence may point to deep principles in nature also think that contingency has an important role to play in evolutionary outcomes, e.g. see this paper I recently wrote on “Epistasis can lead to fragmented neutral spaces and contingency in Evolution”, Proc Roy. Soc. B http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/early/2011/12/01/rspb.2011.2183.short?rss=1
Other aspects of the same systems we study here may shed light on convergence.

2) One should always be careful when taking scientific metaphors (like contingency) and freighting them with metaphysical baggage.  You can read a bit more about convergence (and metaphors) in this serialization: http://biologos.org/blog/addressing-christian-concerns-about-the-implications-of-biologos-science-5 of my white paper

3) In endnote 51 of the full white paper:http://biologos.org/uploads/projects/louis_white_paper.pdf

Christians with a high view of God’s providence would probably be content with either viewpoint. Think of I Kings 22, where in v17 the prophet Micaiah prophecies that king Ahab will be killed in battle. Then in v 34 we read: “But someone drew his bow at random and hit the king of Israel between the sections of his armor,” which killed him. In the Bible things that appear random or contingent to us (e.g. unplanned by the archer) are not outside God’s providential control. See also D. Bartholomew, God, Chance and Purpose, Cambridge University Press (2008). I should also point out the metaphysical and theological implications of convergence are much richer than just a question about the role of chance, see e.g. http://www.iscast.org/conway_morris_bio.




James R - #66694

December 20th 2011

Dear Dr. Louis:

As there is no indentation in your comment, it is impossible for me to tell whether it is directed to me, or to someone else.  If it is directed to me, I don’t find it an adequate response to my concerns.

In your Point 2 above, you warn about the danger of “freighting” terms like contingency with “metaphysical baggage.”  It was precisely the unclear connection between scientific and theological language that I was protesting.  The introductory blurb above (underneath the window for the video) implies a connection between Gould’s scientific usage of the notion of contingency and the traditional Christian theological notion of providence.  But the connection made is not explicit and it is blurry.  I was trying to get the person who wrote that passage (and I have no idea who it was, as no name is given) to respond with a clear and forthright statement of the relationship that was being intimated.  Of course, if you did not write the passage, you are not responsible to explicate what someone else meant.  But if you did write it, you still have not explained the connection that you were intimating.  To start with, you would have to explain what you mean by “a high view of providence” (a phrase which is just as vague as “a high view of Scripture”). 

Regarding your Biblical reference, Gould is not referring to apparent chance events that are actually (unbeknownst to us) within God’s control.  Gould assumes that the evolutionary process is not under God’s control.  He does not understand “contingency” in a way that would be compatible with the Biblical view you are indicating.  That is why the remark in the blurb under the video is so puzzling.

Ard Louis - #66732

December 21st 2011

James R.  Comments were not aimed at you; I’d heard that the video was up and just wanted to add a few points to it.

I have now read your posts.

 The video & the short blurb under them are not theological treatises but short pieces meant to elicit some discussion.

 I supplied the last two sentences, but not the blurb above.    I thought it would be obvious that we are not asking whether a Gouldian metaphysical interpretation of evolution is congenial to faith, bur rather if an emphasis on contingency in the evolutionary process was necessarily inimical to faith.   Clearly, given the comments, we should have explained this more clearly to our readers.  Nevertheless, I am puzzled by the misunderstanding.

Chip - #66695

December 20th 2011


I too had a follow up and was wondering if you could explain this statement more fully: 

things that appear random or contingent to us… are not outside God’s providential control

Questions:  When and how is this control exercised, and how do you know?  What does God actually do—program the system in advance?  Intervene along the way?  Some combination of the two? 

Regardless of where you land on such details, if you advocate for providence, an intentional, intelligent agent is non-optional (you yourself said his actions only appear random), which makes “Providential Control Theory,” ironically very similiar to that other much-maligned theory that the good scientists at BL consistently reject. 

On the other hand, if control is never actually exercised, we end up with theological deism.  You, and BL more generally, simply can’t have it both ways.

James R - #66700

December 20th 2011


Good question.  To say that random events are controlled by God’s providence is a vacuous statement unless the “how” is supplied.  That’s why I asked for a clear definition of what the author of the blurb above meant by “a high view of providence.”

If it means that God is constantly subtly tinkering with all the apparently random events, that is compatible with Biblical language (and more than compatible with it, because the Israelite God was very much a hands-on participant in events), but such a view is certainly incompatible with the view of Gould.  But then, given the strong naturalistic leanings of many columnists here, it is unlikely that anyone here would endorse the notion of tinkering, anyway.  So what, then?  God has the whole evolutionary process pre-programmed so that it has to turn out what it does?  That would fit with Conway Morris, but not with Gould.  Or does God neither tinker nor preprogram?  Then how does God exercise his providence?

It seems that the word “providence” is often called in to serve an explanatory function, but it usually turns out to be devoid of causal contents.  That’s why it should never be allowed in science-religion discussions unless the person using it is willing to define the term and give examples of its proper application to causal sequences of events.

Norman - #66704

December 20th 2011

James R.

That’s the conundrum isn’t it? Who can ever ultimately define “the how” concerning all the questions concerning biological life and the physical existence of the universe much less our conscious awareness to even perceive what we think is reality. There will never be a satisfactory conclusion or explanation but always wonderment about how it all transpired.  One can simply keep probing beneath the latest uncovering’s to find that they are no closer to the answer than the ancients like Job were at the end of the day. 

What if we find out that the big bang just keeps repeating itself over and over and over again endlessly with an ongoing expansion and collapsing forever and that the blackness of space is never ending without comprehension .  What would that demonstrate or prove about God the creator that even the ancients acknowledged that they could not fathom in their limited knowledge. We are not much better off in rectifying the ultimate question about the Creator than they were.  Just because we are not God and can’t answer that question doesn’t mean we have to default to a “literalist” ancient creation account. This is especially pertinent when well-grounded examinations of the literature demonstrate that a physical understanding of the Universe wasn’t the intent or purpose of that literature in the first place.

However we can chip away at what God has given us to examine the Gift of life and how it works and came about from our limited perspective. It can grow in knowledge yet it can never answer the final Question about “the how”.  If we can’t answer “the How”, how in the world are we going to explain the unfathomable “providential” care that He bestows upon us? I submit that we can’t rationally answer that question and so we rely on “faith”.

Heb 11:1 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

I believe in God the Creator; the unseen and incomprehensible One; and I believe in His Son who came to earth to reconcile men to him so that we may have life eternal.  I also believe in the evidence of evolutionarily principles yet I can’t yet begin to fathom the beginning of life and the known and seen universe. If I did I would tell you how God did it, but I also know that Genesis is not telling you the details as well.

beaglelady - #66714

December 21st 2011

What if we find out that the big bang just keeps repeating itself over
and over and over again endlessly with an ongoing expansion and
collapsing forever and that the blackness of space is never ending
without comprehension.

Doesn’t cosmic inflation rule out the “big bang/big crunch in an infinite loop”  scenario?

Norman - #66715

December 21st 2011


Whether inflation is never ending or recycled is in the end extraneous to my point that ultimately there is no answer to the infinite concept of the Universe. Where and how the universe begins; or can the concept of a beginning even be a rational idea outside of the physical matter that can be measured. Sure we can measure and interpret the physics of observable and measurable matter but what about the seemingly endless void of space that comprises no such matter until the known universe that we observe expands into it. How do you conceptualize the non-measurable? What lies beyond? More universes without end? The possibilities are infinite and beyond comprehension eventually which gets back to my point that we will never ever be able to define something that is incomprehensible from a purely material/physical explanation.

Jon attempted to summaries the possibilities concerning how to rationalize these issues related to God’s providence yet it is very difficult to nuance such propositions that will make everyone happy. It’s a tough nut to crack to say the least.

beaglelady - #66718

December 21st 2011

We know that the universe had a beginning, and since inflation is accelerating there probably won’t be a big crunch. 

Norman - #66720

December 21st 2011


I’m not sure how you can catagorically state these positions but I would challenge the idea that we are defining the Universe in the same dimensions.  Yes we do know that the big bang started the expansion of the physical dynamics as I stated above, not the void of the Universe itself. This is what scientist measure and deal with. However I’m not sure you are entirely correct that that inflation will always continue as it seems the jury is still out on that concept but I will defer to the scientist ultimately on that question. Again though there also may be an end to the Universe  (physical dynamic matter that is) as either it decays into dead matter or collapses back in upon itself and “possibly” reignites the process all over again. Any way you look at it seems that the void of space has always existed as far as we can imagine and that it will always exist. With no begining nor end. Now this idea is clearly able to evolve/change as times and knowledge increase.

beaglelady - #66739

December 21st 2011

Did I say that inflation would always continue?  I said there is little chance of a big crunch.  And what exactly is the “void of the universe”?

As far as I know there was neither space nor time before the big bang.

Norman - #66745

December 22nd 2011

That’s an interesting concept that “neither space nor time existed before the big bang” Is that perhaps a scientific observation or a religiously derived supposition? If time could be demonstrated to have existed before the big bang and continues theoretically into infinity what might that demonstrate regarding God’s Providence?

beaglelady - #66771

December 23rd 2011

That’s an interesting concept that “neither space nor time existed
before the big bang” Is that perhaps a scientific observation or a
religiously derived supposition?

The Big Bang was the beginning of space/time, according to physicist Brian Greene (“Fabric of the Cosmos: The Illusion of Time” on PBS.  I intend to read the book on which this excellent series was based.)  I’ve heard this elsewhere, but this is the most recent time I’ve heard it stated.

If time could be demonstrated to have existed before the big bang and
continues theoretically into infinity what might that demonstrate
regarding God’s Providence?

As God’s Providence is what it is, so I doubt any existence of time before the BB would change it. 

Jon Garvey - #66705

December 21st 2011

Norman (and James and Chip. Maybe Ard, too)

The fact that the “how” remains uncertain doesn’t affect the issue of agency. Chip is absolutely right in saying either that God acts intentionally, or he doesn’t. Whether one gleans this by prior faith commitment (“I’m a Christian”), by understanding of the process (“Miracle occurs here…”) or by assessment of the outcome (“This is clearly designed”) makes no difference. For if God does act providentially certain things necessarily follow.

The first is that the outcome is a design, in the broad sense of taking the form and function it does for a purpose. Gould’s view is therefore excluded, unless one has a theology in which God stands back and “lets” things happen randomly, in which case ones claim that God is behind them is meaningless.

The second is that, whether you have detected it or not, there must be one or more points of God’s direct activity in nature, and they ought at least to be hypothesised to give the “Providence” view any coherence. If for instance God acts only by fine tuning the Big Bang, then one should be able to find obviously finely tuned laws and initial conditions that predict all the actual outcomes: Conway Morris’s approach,  for example, has so far failed to do this rigorously enough to make convergent evolution a more parsimonious explanation than, say, special creation. Indeed all current theories of “emergence” lack concrete evidence and are really only speculations.

Incidentally, the only distinction of such a view from materialistic determinism would that the latter would deny the obvious reality of the fine tuning.

If, on the other hand,  God controls chance events (and Scripture says he does) then one would expect to find highly contingent steps on the path to life, without adequate natural causation (or to put that more scientifically, the only explanation should be “How flukey is that?”). Informed observers will realise that highly unlikely, purposeful events are actually nothing but a definition of information - which is the ID case in a nutshell.

The third alternative is to show that life is actually dead easy to produce, so high contingency need not be invoked. Because everything else in nature shows that highly ordered complexity doesn’t happen easily, and because we’ve been unable to reproduce either the origins or processes of life easily, this seems unlikely. But if it were found to be so, it would really be a confirmation of extreme fine-tuning: you don’t get ‘owt for nowt in this world - except for life, which happens as soon as you turn your back.

What, then, is unacceptable is to try and have ones cake and eat it, by saying: “God does not visibly load natural law, neither does he visibly load chance: nevertheless his providence is behind and under everything that happens.” Neither does it help to say, for example, that God pre-loads the physical laws, but plays dice as far as chance is concerned. For then God is not the first cause, “behind and under” creation, but one of two first causes, God’s providence and Blind chance, with the second in the Dualistic pantheon being the final arbiter of events.

penman - #66708

December 21st 2011

If all that “random” means is “unpredictable to finite minds”, I’m afraid I’m prepared to remain agnostic (if need be) on how divine providence controls events. It seems to me that scripture reveals the fact (God is in control) but not the mode. Has anyone ever found in scripture a satisfactory explanation of the mode whereby God controls the human will without violating its integrity? The fact that He does so is stated (eg Acts 4:26-8), but beyond that, we are in the realm of theological speculation.

So it isn’t necessarily bad to say that one believes in the providential government of all events without knowing how it is achieved (the mechanisms).

However, a greater problem for many on BioLogos appears to be a reluctance even to affirm divine providence in the sense of God’s control of all events (“being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things after the counsel of His will”, Eph.1:11). Giving over whole chunks of creation to a divine hands-off sort of contingency or freedom concerns me more than my putative inability to define all the immanent mechanisms of divine sovereignty.

However, I’ll reiterate my agreement with Jon Garvey that I can’t see why in principle the presence of design in nature shouldn’t be detectable. I still await the scriptural argument against this….

Chip - #66712

December 21st 2011

In the end, it would seem we have the standard message from Biologos, where the bottom line is always the defense and promotion of fully naturalistic evolutionary theory. As long as that is accepted and upheld, virtually any theological patina one wants to paint over it is OK—even one as intrinsically contradictory as equating providence with the views of Gould.  

Ard Louis - #66733

December 21st 2011

I am sorry Chip, but I think your accusations here are completely over the top. 

beaglelady - #66750

December 22nd 2011

They truly are over the top and then some.

James R - #66738

December 21st 2011

Ard Louis (66732) wrote:

“Nevertheless, I am puzzled by the misunderstanding.”

And I am puzzled by the fact that you are puzzled by the misunderstanding!  Perhaps it will help if I show the way in which I read your statement by the use of capital letters, indicating where I naturally placed the stress:

“Some Christians might find SIMON CONWAY MORRIS’ viewpoint, with its implicit TELEOLOGY, more attractive. Others, perhaps MOTIVATED BY A HIGH VIEW OF PROVIDENCE, may find GOULD’S emphasis on CONTINGENCY equally congenial to their faith.”

This passage, like the video to which it refers, sets up a contrast between the two evolutionists and two views of evolution:  Conway Morris/teleology; Gould/contingency.  It then suggests that someone who was MOTIVATED BY A HIGH VIEW OF PROVIDENCE may find an emphasis on “contingency” (which has been associated with Gould by the sentence) as congenial to faith as others find teleology congenial to faith. 

If you had left out the “motivated by a high view of providence” bit, I would have read the passage as meaning something like:  “Some Christians are more attracted to evolutionary models involving teleology, and others are more attracted to evolutionary models involving contingency.”  But with “providence” stuck in there, the emphasis becomes changed.  The unmistakeable suggestion is that “a high view of providence” would naturally lead someone to be more comfortable with “contingency” than if he had “a low view of providence.”  It also perhaps suggests, indirectly, that people with “a high view of providence” might not be particularly enthusiastic about “teleology.”  But it isn’t at all clear why you would intimate such things, as the connection between “providence” and “contingency” in theology is far from obvious; indeed, if anything, the two terms are in tension.  (One would instinctively expect a closer association of providence and teleology.)  There may be a way of harmonizing providence and contingency, but the passage as written suggests that no harmonizing would be necessary, as if it’s just obvious that someone who holds a high view of providence would find contingency congenial.  But to this philosopher/theologian, that’s anything but obvious.

I thought I explained my concern about providence and contingency in some detail in my comment; either I was not clear, or you did not see that what I was asking for was an explication of what was meant by “providence” and “a high view of providence.”  In the most obvious meaning of the term, Gould’s is the most “unprovidential” account of evolution ever given.  So the ball is in your court.  Would you define what you mean by “providence” and “a high view of providence,” and explain how such a view is compatible with or perhaps even favorable to a radically contingent view of evolution?

I am not picking on you in particular, here, Dr. Louis. There is a big problem here, bigger than the two of us.  Many TEs have brought the terms “providence” into their discussions of God and evolution, and always they have failed to give even a rough working definition of the word.  This allows it to be used loosely, to give a theological “cover” for just about any confused assertion about the relationship between God and evolution.  But theology-science assertions are too important to be defended by means of murky and elusive terms.  So I’m giving you the chance to offer theoretical clarity where all others TEs (in my experience) have lacked it.

penman - #66740

December 22nd 2011

I don’t know about Dr Louis, but as a Reformed TE (or EC as I prefer) I’m happy with the definition of providence in the Westminster Confession:

God the great Creator of all things doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, & things, from the greatest even to the least, by His most wise & holy providence, according to His infallible foreknowledge, & the free & immutable counsel of His own will.

Although in relation to the foreknowledge & decree of God, the First Cause, all things come to pass immutably & infallibly, yet by the same providence He ordereth them to fall out according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently.

The almighty power, unsearchable wisdom, & infinite goodness of God so far manifest themselves in His providence that it extendeth itself even to the first fall, & all other sins of angels & men, & that not by a bare permission, but such as hath joined with it a most wise & powerful bounding, & otherwise ordering & governing of them in a manifold dispensation to His own holy ends; yet so as the sinfulness thereof proceedeth only from the creature & not from God, who being most holy & righteous, neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin.

[WC chapter 5 sections 1, 3, & 4]

The proof texts are worth looking at too.
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James R - #66776

December 23rd 2011


On your second point, we agree.  My main objection to most American (and some British) versions of TE is that it affirms a “divine hands off” notion of contingency.  And this problem is not adequately addressed by (after greatly stressing that God does not tinker and does not front-load, and that randomness has absolutely amazing creative powers) throwing in a quotation that sounds kind of “Reformish,” as many TEs do, just to “cover themselves,” as if to say, “Don’t get me wrong; even though I’ve just proved that divine action is entirely superfluous and that all the scientific observations are most economically acccounted for by the view of nature advanced by Dawkins and Dennett, God’s in there, too.”  The sprinkling of a superficial layer of Calvinism (vague references to God’s omnipotence and providence, unaccompanied by explanation, or even citations from traditional sources) upon a theology which appears to me to be heavily Arminian just will not do.

The problem as I see it, penman, is that most of the leading TEs are scientists who have taken up theology as avocation.  Very few of them have spent any considerable time reading the primary sources (Calvin, Augustine, Luther, etc.), and the secondary sources they read appear to be mostly liberal evangelical ones.  As a student and teacher of theology I have read thousands of books and articles on classical Christian theology, and almost never have I seen one of those sources quoted or even mentioned by a TE.  The conception of Christian theology that is offered by most of the leading TEs is largely unhistorical and unscholarly, a cherry-picking of themes that they like out of the Christian past, and an ignoring (if not deliberately suppressing) of traditional Christian views which are harder to reconcile with some of the things that TEs say.

On the first point, we will have to agree to disagree.  I’m not a Calvinist on the question of providence, predestination, or free will, and do not find Calvinist discussions on those subjects at all satisfactory.  In fact—though I think that this was not at all Calvin’s intention, as I think he would raise many objections to the writings of almost all the leading TEs—it is precisely the murkiness of the Reformed discussion that allows TEs to have everything both way.  It can all be chance and randomness, and yet all be caused by God—they get that from Calvin and the Reformed tradition, even if they get it by cherry-picking and taking things out of context.  

You might be interested to know, penman, that among the ID people, the Reformed tradition is the most heavily represented.  And the ID version of the Reformed tradition is much more inclined to focus on God’s omnipotence, will, and control, and much less inclined to talk about chance and randomness.  Thus, ID people would be much more interested in an evolutionary view like that of Conway Morris, as having Christian potential, than in one like Gould’s, which they would have absolutely no interest in baptizing, as some TEs seem eager to do.

beaglelady - #66791

December 25th 2011

Where did you teach theology?

James R - #66777

December 23rd 2011


I’m sorry.  My comment above was meant to be appended under your #66708 above.  It is relevant to your post about Calvinism as well, but it was aimed at the earlier one.

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