I think both John West and Joe Carter are trapped in a false dilemma, namely the choice between believing that certain processes are random or believing that they are directed by God. The dilemma is created by a failure to take adequately into account the complete sovereignty of God and the fact that God is outside of time. This is ironic, because Joe says he is a Calvinist, and Calvinists of all people, should have no problem with these issues.

Let’s back off from the emotionally heated subject of evolution for a moment and look at an issue that is much simpler. We have all played games of chance, I suppose. When you roll a pair of dice, is there not an obvious sense in which the outcome is “random”? Is there not an obvious sense in which the rolling of dice is a matter of “chance” so that one can use the concepts of “probability”? On the other hand, isn’t it also true that God knows and wills from all eternity what numbers come up when dice are rolled? If anyone thinks there is a contradiction between these statements, then I suggest that he hasn’t really grasped the traditional teaching about God’s atemporality. And I would further suggest that he lacks certain basic theological insights that would allow him to think clearly about evolution.

What makes a series of dice rolls a “random sequence,” in the terminology of mathematics, is that there is no systematic correlation between the different rolls. That means that one cannot predict the outcome of a roll from knowing the outcomes of previous rolls or subsequent rolls of the dice. The rolls are “statistically independent” of each other. Moreover, if we are using dice in a game, like Risk or Monopoly, then the dice rolls are also independent of the situation in the game . In other words, one cannot predict the outcome of a roll of the dice from knowing what numbers would be helpful to one of the players. In that sense, the outcomes of the dice are not oriented toward certain game outcomes . Incidentally, this is exactly the sense in which biology calls mutations random. One cannot predict what mutations will occur (it is claimed) either from what mutations previously occurred or from which mutations would be helpful to a species.

To quote Ayala and Kiger’s textbook, Modern Genetics : “There is no way of knowing whether a given gene will mutate in a particular cell or in a particular generation,” because the mutations “are unoriented with respect to adaptation.”

To return to games of chance: We would not consider such a game fair and we would not sit down to play it if we thought the dice had a predictable pattern or systematically favored certain outcomes or certain players in the game, i.e. were not “random.” Nevertheless, even in a game of “chance,” God certainly knows and wills the outcome from all eternity. He knows and wills every roll of the dice. God knows the outcomes from all eternity not because there is some secret pattern in the sequence of outcomes that allows him to compute the outcome of one roll from the outcomes of prior rolls. God knows the outcome of every roll “in advance” because he knows all things from all eternity in a single atemporal act of knowing.

To say, as Joe says, that “God making evolution appear undirected is similar to the idea that he planted dinosaur fossils and created geological strata to fool us into thinking the earth has been around more than 6,000 years,” is in my view completely to misunderstand what scientists and ordinary people mean when they speak about random processes. When one shuffles a deck of cards, one is really randomizing it—the whole point of shuffling. The randomness is not some sort of ploy or ruse on God’s part. But when we shuffle a deck, we are not escaping in any way from God’s absolute control over events: God knows and wills in exact detail from all eternity that I will shuffle the deck, precisely how I will shuffle the deck, and what the order of the cards will be after I shuffle the deck. On this point Calvinism and Catholicism agree.

Francis Collins understands the issues very well. His theological mentors are St. Augustine and C.S. Lewis. His understanding of divine providence, omnipotence, and omniscience are thoroughly in accord with the insights and explanations to be found in St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the mainstream of Christian tradition. John West quotes Francis Collins as saying that God “could” have known the specific outcomes of evolution beforehand. West picks up on the word “could” as though it indicated that Collins is not sure whether God did in fact know beforehand. Anyone who has read Collins’s book, however, should realize that Collins absolutely and unequivocally holds the belief that God knows all events from all eternity. To suggest otherwise is quite unfair. The context in the book makes quite clear that Collins was not using the word “could” in the way West seems to interpret him.

Every person of common sense realizes that there is some sense in which one can truly speak of randomness and chance in the world. Actuaries, weather forecasters, poker players, physicists, investors, pollsters, people who engage in statistical analyses of data, and all sorts of other people understand this. It in no way implies a denial of divine foreknowledge or absolute divine sovereignty over the world. St. Thomas Aquinas devoted an entire chapter (Book 3, chapter 74) of his Summa Contra Gentiles to arguing this. The title of that chapter is “Divine providence does not exclude fortune and chance.” I think Calvin would have agreed with Aquinas on this point.

One problem, I believe, is that some people think that saying “Nature is blind” is equivalent to saying “God is blind.” The two statements, however, are poles apart. God is not Nature and Nature is not God. When scientists say that certain things in nature are random, this does mean that Nature is in a certain sense blind; it does not imply anything about God’s knowledge or purposes.

Articles by Stephen M. Barr


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