I came across an essay by a theistic evolutionist on the history of the understanding of nature. Dealing with Thomas Aquinas he said:
Moreover, nature’s autonomy allows for the accidental and random. “It would be contrary to the nature of providence and to the perfection of the world if nothing happened by chance,” he wrote (cited in Haught 41). Randomness, then, is an essential feature of God’s creation.
The use of citation rather than primary source is a bad sign. The autonomy mentioned referred to what we now call natural laws, God-given, rather than “freedom”, so that’s clear enough. But the bit on “chance” reminded me of all the articles on randomness on BioLogos, in which it’s never made quite clear whether it’s random to God as well as us. I’ve written here, and on BioLogos itself, about the apparent incoherence of TE statements that God uses laws and chance, under providence, through his sustaining power, to do his will. As regular readers will know, I’ve been frustrated because no one ever says whether God directs this chance, or simply makes do with whatever it happens to produce. The only reply I’ve ever really had is “It’s a mystery.”
So the reference to Aquinas made me wonder if, in fact, I’d missed the subtlety of TEs’ philosophy, and that in Aquinas’ thorough system might be the answer to how providence and chance fit together in their view. I found more than I expected. Now philosophy, especially the Thomistic kind, isn’t something I’ve studied deeply, and Thomist Ed Feser always says one needs to pick up Aquinas’ basic concepts and vocabulary before asking detailed questions. So I was a little fearful in turning to his stuff on “chance”, which is largely covered under the heading Providence in De Veritate. Of Providence he says:
We may compare the providence by which God rules the world, to the domestic foresight by which a man rules his family, or to the political foresight by which a ruler governs a city or a kingdom, and directs the acts of others to a definite end.
To my surprise I found myself on familiar ground, for before dealing with chance he askes whether providence covers human free will, including the actions of sinners. His answers, I find, are so close to John Calvin’s that you could hardly get a cigarette paper between them. And I’ve read most of what Calvin wrote on it. Not surprising, I guess, since Calvin always claimed his teaching on free will to be drawn from Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Anselm and Augustine. There may be small differences, but in essence both say, on both philosophical and biblical principles, what people nowadays find so scandalous: that man’s decisions are truly free and accountable, and yet that God determines them by his providential will. Aquinas and Calvin have similar doctrines of predestination, too. To understand the arguments, read Aquinas – but disagreeing without following the logic won’t do. Though I can think of many nowadays for whom neither philosophy nor Scripture can outweigh “it stands to reason”.
But my point is this: when Aquinas then turns to chance, he follows similar principles to prove that, just as orderly events are due to secondary causes whose purpose can only be the outworking of God’s providential will, so chance too must infallibly work to the ends he has determined. Aquinas, of course, lived before the concept of natural law was established, and before chance was a matter of mathematical analysis: he thought only of the obvious patterns of nature, and the obvious rare events (for example, a man happening to meet his debtor at a fair). But that’s no matter, for he insists, on a number of grounds, that God disposes them both just as he disposes human will. In other words, for Aquinas chance is unequivocally not chance to God. He doesn’t admit any mystery or uncertainty on the matter.
Empedocles … asserted that it was by accident that the parts of animals came together in this way through friendship—and this was his explanation of an animal and of a frequent occurrence! This explanation, of course, is absurd, for those things that happen by chance, happen only rarely; we know from experience, however, that harmony and usefulness are found in nature either at all times or at least for the most part. This cannot be the result of mere chance; it must be because an end is intended… Consequently, since natural things have no knowledge, there must be some previously existing intelligence directing them to an end, like an archer who gives a definite motion to an arrow so that it will wing its way to a determined end. Now, the hit made by the arrow is said to be the work not of the arrow alone but also of the person who shot it. Similarly, philosophers call every work of nature the work of intelligence.
Well – either philosophy’s changed, or most people involved in evolutionary science aren’t philosophers. But to me the paragraph above would do as a summary of the design inference, with a philosophical rubber stamp of approval:
But contingency is not incompatible with providence, nor are chance or fortune or voluntary action, as we have shown. Therefore, nothing prohibits providence from also applying to these things, just as it does to incorruptible and universal things.
But how detailed is this providence of God? Is it consistent with the idea of God’s waiting until some kind of intelligent being evolved by chance, and then rejoicing in it? Aquinas talks about “singulars” as the detailed events at the end of any causal (or acausal, if one considers chance or free choice) chain:
[I]f God does not exercise providence over these singulars, this is either because He does not know them, or because He is not able to do so, or because He does not wish to take care of them.
That’s logical. But let me cite actual examples of each – in open theism and other “kenotic” theologies, God’s knowledge is limited. In much theistic evolution, God cannot or must not “interfere” with the Universe after setting it up. In much, too, nature’s “freedom” to create itself proves God does not wish to take care of details – it would be demeaning to him and “coercive” to nature. But to Aquinas God’s knowledge and power are infinite, and as for his wishes:
Nor, in fact, can it be said that God does not wish to govern them, since His will is universally concerned with every good thing, and the good of things that are governed lies chiefly in the order of governance. Therefore, it cannot be said that God takes no care of these singulars.
He butresses this in the next paragraph by the obvious truth that “causes that produce something take care of their products”. This detailed care even extends to what TEs are pleased to cause the errors in creation, that may not be attributed to God, they claim, without blasphemy:
A defective act which results occasionally in the generation of natural monstrosities is, of course, directed by God to some useful purpose; but to this defective act itself nothing else was directed. It happened merely on account of the failure of some cause. With regard to the first-named act of generation, the providence is one of approval; with regard to the second, it is one of permission.
I had an long and inconclusive argument on BioLogos trying to get agreement that providence is more than mere sustaining. Aquinas wouldn’t have procrastinated:
However, suppose someone says that God takes care of these singulars to the extent of preserving them in being, but not in regard to anything else; this is utterly impossible. In fact, all other events that occur in connection with singulars are related to their preservation or corruption. So, if God takes care of singulars as far as their preservation is concerned, He takes care of every contingent event connected with them.
Which as much as to say that if God didn’t watch the pennies, the pounds would soon disappear. He does indeed point out elsewhere in as many words that overall governance requires detailed governance. I must emphasise again that these are not just assertions, but founded on arguments for which, of course, I have no space here. But it’s nice to see that I wasn’t out on a limb in the conclusions I reached. As Aquinas says:
Hence it is said: “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing: and not one of them shall fall on the ground without My Father” (Matt. 10:29; see 6:26). And again: “She reaches from end to end mightily” (Wis. 8:1), that is, from the noblest creatures down to the lowest of them. So, also, we oppose the view of those who said: “The Lord has forsaken the earth, and the Lord does not see” (Ez. 9:9); and again: “He walks about the poles of heaven, and He does not consider our things” (Job 22:14).
By this conclusion we set aside the opinion of those who said that divine providence does not extend as far as these singular things.
Finally, Thomas even deals with the objection that’s always thrown at a traditional doctrine of Providence in creation: that God is not a micro-manager. Aquinas, does, of course, believe that God works through secondary causes, amongst which one could include physical laws, purposive organisms and even human (and angelic!) free will. He draws specific attention to human affairs, in which a governor doesn’t bother himself with the details, leaving them “to be planned by agents on a lower level”. But:
… as a matter of fact, this is so because of his own deficiency … Now, deficiencies of this kind are far removed from God, because He knows all singular things, and He does not make an effort to understand, or require any time for it; since, by understanding Himself He knows all other things, as we showed above. Therefore, He plans even the order for all singular things. So, His providence applies to all singulars immediately.
So I find that my original essayist’s “Randomness is an essential feature of God’s creation” is an obfuscation, potentially if not actually, of how Aquinas actually views the role of God in nature. A better summary would be:
Therefore, God Himself is the disposer of all things immediately by His providence, and whatever beings are called agents of providence under Him are executors of His providence.
Theistic evolutionists, I think, need to do more to refute this than they have so far, if they choose to disagree. But then they’re often better at equivocating than disagreeing.