Evolution, Chance, and God

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In dealing with the theory of evolution the Christian believer must consider a number of difficult questions. The first is how to remain faithful to the biblical text if one is to accept a scientific account which seems to negate the traditional interpretation of the creation account in Genesis 1-2. The second and perhaps more difficult question concerns the problem that arises in relation to Genesis 3, the account of the Fall, and the subsequent impact on our understanding of redemption. Finally there is the more general question of God’s relationship to the created order.

In this short piece I would like to focus on this third question, on the relationship between God and the created order. Put simply the question is, how does God act in the world? I want to be clear here that I’m not talking about instances of miraculous interventions whereby God acts with sovereign freedom, but about the “normal” course of events, the day-to-day out-workings of divine providence. Specifically the question is, Can God bring about the divine purpose through events which are chance events? Of course there are difficulties about how one might define “chance events” here, but the underlying issue concerns questions of randomness and its place in the relationship between God and creation.

Indeed it seems to me that this issue underlies some of the current debates around evolution. For example, the basic argument of people such as Dawkins is as follows:

  • arguments for the existence of God depend on God being some sort of designer;
  • evolution depends on chance (genetic mutations, natural selection);
  • chance is incompatible with divine design;
  • so God is not involved in evolution or in creation as a whole;
  • therefore God is a redundant hypothesis.

Dawkins’s rejection of a creator God is linked to the position that God cannot be involved in random processes.

On the other hand I think we can find the same assumption operative in those who adopt the position of Intelligent Design. Their argument is as follows:

  • chance is not enough to explain the process of evolution (for which they provide apparent evidence, viz.,irreducible complexity);
  • the only way to fix the gaps in the evolutionary process is to posit an Intelligent Designer who intervenes in the system;
  • therefore God is still a viable option.

What I think is going on here is a fusing of Christian belief in an efficacious divine providence, with a scientific determinism that arose out of the success of the Newtonian worldview. The ghost of Deism, linking God’s action with the “necessary” and deterministic laws of nature resulting in a clock-work universe, haunts the debate. Indeed the logic is compelling: What God wills, necessarily happens; and this necessity is conveyed through the scientific determinism of Newtonian mechanics. There is no chance because God operates through necessary scientific laws. If there is chance, on the other hand, God cannot be involved.

Recognition of the force of the tension between divine design and contingency of outcome was not invented by Deism, though Deism did give the argument a certain scientific respectability. In the Summa contra Gentiles[henceforth SCG] medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas deals with questions concerning divine providence and its relation to chance and necessity. The objections raised by our modern debates are already evident.

If all things that are done here below, even chance events, are subject to divine providence [read: divine design], then, seemingly, either providence cannot be certain [read: there is no real design], or else all things happen by necessity [read: there is no chance]. (SCG, 3, c.94.)

This is the issue underlying the debate between Dawkins and Intelligent Design. However Aquinas does not accept either of their conclusions. Among his long and detailed response we find the following illuminating comment:

If God foresees that this event will be, it will happen, just as the second argument suggested. But it will occur in the way that God foresaw that it would be. Now, He foresaw that it would occur by chance. So, it follows that, without fail, it will occur by chance and not necessarily. (SCG, 3, c.94)

Certainly Aquinas could see no contradiction between God acting through chance events and the certainty of divine design.

This same conclusion was adopted in the document “Communion and Stewardship” published in 2004 by the International Theological Commission, a body established to advise the Catholic Church on theological debates. Its comments on the present debate over evolution are instructive.

But it is important to note that … true contingency in the created order is not incompatible with a purposeful divine providence. Divine causality and created causality radically differ in kind and not only in degree. Thus, even the outcome of a truly contingent natural process can nonetheless fall within God’s providential plan for creation ... Divine causality can be active in a process that is both contingent and guided. Any evolutionary mechanism that is contingent can only be contingent because God made it so.

This notion of “radically differ in kind and not only in degree” corresponds to Aquinas’s distinction between God as primary cause of being, and secondary created causes, which are genuine causes in themselves, but are only able to operate because God causes them to exist as genuine causes (see Rev. Austriaco’s recent post on this issue).

Indeed it is not difficult to find analogies in our own experience which can help us understand the randomness and purposefulness are not opposed. Consider the link between smoking and lung cancer. It is well established that smoking causes lung cancer with a certain statistical frequency. We know that if we reduce the rate of smoking in the general public we will reduce the incidence of lung cancer. Suppose we introduce a public health advertising campaign to reduce the incidence of smoking. Some people will see the ad, others will not. Some people will be moved by the ad to quit smoking, others will not. Some will succeed in quitting, others will not. At each step along the way there will be an instance of chance variation around a statistical norm. In the end if the campaign is successful we will see a decrease in the number of deaths by lung cancer. We will have achieved our goal intelligently using a method full of chance processes. Perhaps the dichotomy between chance and purposefulness is somewhat overstated.

None of these ideas precludes the possibility of special creation or the interventions of an Intelligent Designer, but it does remove anxiety that the adoption of an evolutionary perspective is necessarily to adopt a materialistic and atheistic worldview. The affirmation of genuine chance and randomness in the universe does not rob the universe of meaning and purpose. In fact it creates the opportunity for genuinely novel things to occur, not in a mechanical and pre-determined way as the necessary outcome of pre-existing conditions but as truly “unpredictable” in terms of those pre-existing conditions. And so novel events of quite low probability can still arise because in a universe as big and as old as the one we live in even things with a very low probability of occurring can happen somewhere, sometime. And all this can occur within a framework of divine providence utilising statistical means to achieve God’s purpose.

Significantly all this can be accommodated within the framework of classical theism, the belief that God is eternal, immutable, and omnipotent. Some, particularly those who have adopted the process framework of Alfred North Whitehead, argue that in order to accommodate the contingent, the novel and genuinely unpredictable, it is necessary to posit contingency in God. As process theologian Charles Hartshorne puts it:

The entire history of philosophical theology, from Plato to Whitehead, can be focused on the relations between three propositions:

  1. The world is mutable and contingent;
  2. The ground of its possibility is a being unconditionally and in all respects necessary and immutable;
  3. The necessary being, God, has ideally complete knowledge of the world.

[Together] they imply the contradiction: a wholly non-contingent being has contingent knowledge.

(Charles Hartshorne, Aquinas to Whitehead: Seven Centuries of Metaphysics of Religion (Milwaukee: Marquette University Publications, 1976), 15.)

The difficulty that Hartshorne is alluding to is the apparent paradox of how this “wholly non-contingent being has contingent knowledge”; that is, How can God know things “in advance” that occur by chance?

What the process position does not take into account is that God’s knowledge is not a passive receptive knowledge, but an active and creative knowledge. God’s knowledge creates reality, it does not simply grasp a reality as already existing. As with the positions of Dawkins and Intelligent Design, the underlying assumption is that this divine creative act precludes chance and contingency. To accommodate contingency, the God of process thought is no longer a genuine creator of all that is, but can be surprised by novelty as new things emerge in the world. It is difficult to see how this aligns with the sovereign God of Christian belief.

Significantly, process thought also makes God subject to time, temporal, and changing. In our book, Creator God, evolving world (Fortress Press, 2013), we argue in fact that such a position is incompatible with an Einsteinian account of relativity, because it privileges one timeframe (God’s time) above all others. So in seeking to accommodate itself to the scientific account of evolution, in fact process thought falls foul of what we know from Einstein’s account of relativity. See Chapter 3 for details.


About the Author

Neil Ormerod

Neil Ormerod is research Professor of Theology at Australian Catholic University, Sydney Australia, and co-author with Cynthia Crysdale of Creator God, evolving world (Fortress Press, 2013). He is widely published in leading international theological journals and has another book, A Public God: Natural Theology Reconsidered, under contact with Fortress Press, to appear, 2014.

More posts by Neil Ormerod