Theistic Perspective on "Chance" (possible talk.origins FAQ)

lhaarsma@OPAL.TUFTS.EDU
Fri, 19 Jul 1996 11:52:35 -0400 (EDT)

Friends,

I plan to submit the following essay, "Chance from a Theistic
Perspective," to the talk.origins FAQ archive. I'm sending it here
first for comments and feedback.

I'm not a big reader of talk.origins, but a few months ago I spotted a
new FAQ, "Chance and Metaphysics," written by John Wilkins. It was
pretty good, so I sent him a short note with some references on
"chance from a theistic perspective," suggesting that he include those
in the bibliography in his next version. He encouraged me to write a
few paragraphs on this topic, which he would include as a codicil to
his FAQ. I did so, he liked them, and he encouraged me to write even
more on the topic. Well, my essay is now long enough that we agreed
it should be a FAQ in its own right (with cross-references to each
other's FAQs). We plan to submit my essay and version two of his
FAQ simultaneously to t.o for comments.

Since John is ready to go with his, I'd appreciate it if I could
receive your comments (if any) within the next week (by July 26).
Thanks.

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Chance from a Theistic Perspective FAQ -- talk.origins
======================================================

Loren Haarsma <lhaarsma@opal.tufts.edu>

Version 1.0
July 19, 1996

Introduction and Summary
========================

Many Christians are suspicious of the role played by "chance" in
evolution. Their suspicions are exacerbated whenever apologists for
evolution treat "chance" like some metaphysical entity antithetical to
God. This apparent conflict between Chance and God is illusory and
unnecessary. The role played by chance in biological evolution ---
microevolution or macroevolution --- is no different than the role
played by chance in any other scientific theory (e.g. quantum
mechanics, statistical mechanics, thermodynamics, meteorology,
pathology).

The use of the term "chance" in any scientific theory is not,
strictly, a statement about *causation* (or lack of causation);
rather, it is a statement about our lack of *knowledge* about
causation. Theism has always maintained that God can and does
determine the outcome of "random" events. Therefore, "random" events
in nature are in no way an obstacle to God's providential action;
quite the opposite, they are one way in which God could exert
providential care.

What do scientists mean by "chance"?
====================================

When physicists use the term "chance" in a scientific theory, they
mean simply this: The final state of a system cannot be completely
specified in terms of its initial conditions, either in principle
(e.g. the results of a "quantum measurement"), or in practice. In
quantum mechanics, the element of chance is formally built into the
theory; the outcomes of quantum measurements can only be specified
probabilistically. In classical mechanics, the final state of
"chaotic" systems depend so sensitively upon the initial conditions
that, in practice, it is impossible to specify all the variables
precisely enough to predict the final state. In these systems, based
upon experience and certain general considerations, ensembles of final
states can be assigned certain probabilities of occurring.

Biologists and medical professionals use "chance" and probabilities in
this second, classical sense. (For example, the chance that a disease
will recur in a patient.) In evolutionary biology, a "chance" event
is simply and occurrence which affects an organism's survival (e.g. a
natural disaster) or genetic information (e.g. a mutation) but which
was not caused by the organism itself, and which could not have been
predicted given our limited knowledge of the initial conditions.
"Chance" in evolution, or any other scientific theory, is a
semi-quantitative statement about our ignorance --- our lack of
precise knowledge of the initial conditions, or our lack of
understanding of how a particular final state is selected.

(For a more information on this topic, see the Chance in Evolution FAQ
by John Wilkins, http:// )

How can "chance" events be compatible with God's providence?
============================================================

The use of the term "chance" in any scientific theory is not,
strictly, a statement about *causation* (or lack of causation);
rather, it is a statement about our lack of *knowledge* about
causation. Events which appear random from our (human) perspective
need not be uncaused from a divine, transcendent perspective. On the
contrary, theistic philosophy has always maintained that God can and
does determine the outcome of "chance" events. (Proverbs 16:33, "The
lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord."
NIV)

The purpose of this FAQ is not to argue that chance events *must*
be seen from a theistic perspective; it is merely to point out that the
element of chance in macroevolution, or any other scientific theory, is
in no way antithetical to the traditional theology of God's
providential control.

A number of scientists, who have both a solid scientific understanding
of "chance" and a thorough understanding of the Christian doctrine of
Providence, have written essays on this topic. Donald MacKay [1978,
1988] and John Polkinghorne [1989] offer two excellent perspectives.

Donald MacKay's perspective:
============================

MacKay explains that events which are fundamentally unpredictable from
human perspective (e.g. the outcomes of quantum measurements) need not
be undetermined from God's perspective. He begins by rejecting the
idea of a universe which can run "on its own" without God, instead
suggesting the idea of "dynamic stability." The apparent stability of
the matter particles and fields of the universe is not an intrinsic
property; rather, it is due to the continual, dynamic, sustaining
activity of God. MacKay uses the analogy of a game of PONG played on
a television screen. Although the paddles, ball, and walls on the
television screen appear to be stable objects, we know that, in fact,
the screen is continually bombarded by electron beams and the images
of the objects are refreshed dozens of times per second in a dynamic
process which gives the illusion of intrinsic stability.

MacKay writes that one of the goals of science -- perhaps its main
goal -- is to understand the causal connections between events. God
is not a "missing link" in an otherwise complete chain of causal
events; rather, God is the basis for the whole chain. Again, he uses
the PONG analogy. By observing the way the ball bounces off the
paddles and walls, we may develop "laws" for the motion of the ball.
But we know that the underlying basis for its motion is the
programming in the black box that sits in front of the television. It
would be premature to conclude that -- once we know the laws of the
behavior of the paddles and the ball -- the black box is unnecessary!

The theistic perspective of dynamic stability neatly removes any
metaphysical teeth from the word "Chance." A physical event which is
not completely predictable by its initial conditions, such as the
result of a quantum measurement, is neither meaningless nor uncaused.
The outcome is still very much under God's control; we simply cannot
fully predict it.

John Polkinghorne's perspective:
================================

Polkinghorne offers a perspective which is different from and
complimentary to MacKay's. Polkinghorne moves quickly past any
consideration of quantum mechanics or "dynamic stability." Instead,
he discusses how modern understandings of "chaos" allow the
possibility for God to affect the outcomes of chance events without
contravening the ordinary laws of nature.

Polkinghorne begins by stressing that chance and necessity go
hand-in-hand. "Random" events occur within systems which both
constrain the choices and respond to the choices made. For example,
random meetings of pre-biotic organic molecules happen within a system
of natural laws, laws which were designed by the Creator to favor
certain combinations. In the same way, genetic mutations can be
thought of as small-step explorations of large-dimensional "genomic
phase space" which was also designed by the Creator. Polkinghorne
writes [1989: 38ff],

"Necessity is the regular ground of possibility, expressed in
scientific law. Chance, in this context, is the means for the
exploration and realization of inherent possibility, through
continually changing (and therefore at any time contingent)
individual circumstances. It is important to realize that chance
is being used in this `tame' sense, meaning the shuffling
operations by which what is potential is made actual. It is not
a synonym for chaotic randomness, nor does it signify just a
lucky fluke.... I am still deeply impressed by the anthropic
potentiality of the laws of nature which enable the small-step
explorations of tamed chance to result in systems of such
wonderful complexity as ourselves."

Second, Polkinghorne notes that if the laws of necessity --- the
playing field upon which shuffling operations of "chance" must operate
--- are designed, the ultimate outcome need not be unforeseeable or
arbitrary. [1989: 40]

"It is from this inter-relationship [between chance and
certainty] that order rises out of chaos, as we see exemplified
in the behaviour of dissipative systems which converge on to
predictable limit cycles, approached along contingent paths....
To acknowledge a role for tame chance is not in the least to deny
the possibility that there is a divinely ordained general
direction in which the process of the world is moving, however
contingent detailed aspects of that progression (such as the
number of human toes) might be."

Third, Polkinghorne notes that the sensitivity and open flexibility of
"chaotic" systems allows God one way to subtly, yet effectively,
interact with his creation. For example, one could imagine God
"tweaking" microscopic events to cause macroscopic results; but
Polkinghorne has something much less crude in mind. He calls
attention to our own, human, ability to choose and to act. Although
certain "bottom-up" principles (physical laws such as the conservation
of energy) constrain the way our brains work, the great sensitivity
and flexibility of such complex systems allow the possibility for
certain "top-down" organizing principles (e.g. our sense of
consciousness, free will) to have significant effects (without
contravening physical law). Polkinghorne does not speculate how this
might actually work within our brains; those answers are still well
beyond our understanding. He does, however, point out that the open
flexibility of complex systems allows for the possibility of such
"top-down" principles. Polkinghorne uses this as an analogy for how
God might also use "top-down" principles in his personal interaction
with his creation.

In summary, Polkinghorne emphasizes that the universe is not a
universe of clock-work determinism. From a theistic perspective, the
interplay of chance and necessity which we see scientifically suggests
that the universe is so constructed that (1) God can act personally
within it; (2) human beings may exercise their free will within it;
(3) the universe can explore its own freedom and potential by an
evolving process.

Conclusion
==========

In closing, I should note that MacKay and Polkinghorne do not wish to
*restrict* God to this sort of "subtle" action. Both authors write
about miracles, but that is outside the scope of this FAQ. The
point of both authors, for this FAQ, is that "random" events in nature
(whether described by physics, evolutionary biology, or any other
science) is in no way an obstacle to God's providential action; quite
the opposite, they are one way in which God could exert providential
care.

Acknowledgements
================

Thanks for John Wilkins for his encouragement to write this FAQ.
See also the Chance and Metaphysics FAQ,
http://

Bibliography
============

MacKay D M _Science, Chance, and Providence_ Oxford UP 1978

MacKay discusses how events which are fundamentally unpredictable
from human perspective (e.g. the outcomes of quantum measurements)
need not be *undetermined* from God's perspective.

MacKay D M _The Open Mind and Other Essays_ Inter-Varsity Press 1988

Contains most of the content of _Science, Chance, and Providence_,
and is more widely available.

Polkinghorne J C _Science and Providence_ Shambhala Publications 1989.

Polkinghorne discusses how modern understandings of "chaos" allow the
possibility for God to affect the outcomes of "chance" events
without contravening the ordinary laws of nature.

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Loren Haarsma lhaarsma@opal.tufts.edu