There’s an article on BioLogos, about divine contingency, by Neil Ormerod, based on Thomas Aquinas’ teaching. I’ve commented there, partly supportively but also with some criticisms, particularly on the article’s targeting Intelligent Design (largely inappropriately) and glossing over what would be far more approppriate criticisms of modern theistic evolution. First remove the beam from your own eye…
To be honest, compared to the relative straightforwordness of Aquinas’ own writing, I found it a little hard to comprehend what picture of the world the article was painting, and in particular what idea of chance itself, which in the article was most often referred to as “genuine contingency.” So I’ll look at that here.
The essence of dictionary definitions of contingency is its unforeseeableness and uncontrollability. So to be “genuinely contingent” means to be genuinely unforeseeable and uncontrollable. And that’s confusing when one is talking about divine action in the way the article does, because Ormerod is adamant, contra process theology, that God foresees all contingent events, and not just passively either, but from within his own knowledge of himself and what he will do.
In other words, “genuinely contingent” events can only be so to us – or perhaps to the universe in some undefined way. They cannot be unforeseen to God, if he sees them, and they cannot be uncontrollable to him, if he uses them creatively whilst forseeing them. Aquinas certainly teaches that, but I’m unaware of any ID writers, or any orthodox Christians, who deny it. On the other hand there are many TEs who do object to it, building their theodicy on a theology of God’s inability to predict (in Open Theism) and inability, or unwillingness, to control outcomes in the “free process” theology of … well, of most of the TEs one encounters nowadays. So is he saying (or has he provided warrant to say) any more than that God can foresee and control what we can’t? If not, what is he saying?
It may help to unpack that a bit by looking at those specific types of contingency I can think of. Perhaps the obvious example that Aquinas himself considered was the coincidence of events common and predictable in themselves. Two ships sailing straight courses under their crew’s control on an empty ocean may collide on rare occasions. Human ignorance of each other’s existence is the only contingency: their collision is determined even apart from a completely Laplacian physical determinism. But given the reliability of scientific laws, to an all-knowing God such events are not contingent at all, even if he were only a good mathematician, let alone that he foresees all reality and determines the laws.
Then there are chaotic events, which in a precise sense were unknown to Aquinas, though he, like everyone, was aware of the unstable tile that happens to break free just as an unfortunate victim walks beneath. But chaotic events are believed to be deterministic, their uncertainty proceeeding from the wide variance resulting from small changes to conditions. It is because, in any calculation or measurement, we must approximate to a degree that exceeds the stability of the system that they are unpredictable. You don’t need a Laplacian demon who knows the precise position and velocity of every component – without having to approximate – to remove the contingency. You just need God who maintains every particle in being.
As far as I know, the only truly indeterminate events in physical science (according to the majority view) are quantum events. Unless one subscribes to the notion that their statistical behaviour has no cause, then like all things their first cause is God. And in any case, accepting Neil Ormerod’s orthodox theological argument, they are fully known to God in advance.
There seems to be some dispute (at least here on The Hump and on BioLogos!) as to whether macro-events can ever be influenced by quantum changes. For myself I’m prepared to accept the possibility that mutations in biological micro-molecules might be triggered by single quantum events, since a retina can respond to a single photon, potentially leading to changed behaviour of the entire organism. Science-faith writer Robert J Russell has suggested that God might guide quantum events in order to direct evolution – if so, he’s saying little more than is implicit in Aquinas, and Neil Ormerod’s interpretation of him. And that is, that what is contingent in quantum events in known and ordained by God.
The last category of contingent events is that of choice, though human choice has nothing to do with the question of natural evolution under discussion. But let’s consider even the limited choice that animals have, even if we consider that to be completely under the control of natural instinct and biology. One might suppose a predator’s fine decision to attack or not attack some evolutionarily important prey item, a decision which might go either way. Or more subtly, to judge or misjudge his strike – the animal equivalent of drawing a bow at a venture and killing King Ahab. Yet the God who foresees all – actively – has just as much control in this as in the other cases, even had Aquinas not also specifically dealt with the fact that God’s providence oversees human choice just as much as it does chance.
The point, in the end, is that God’s providence, by definition (in Aquinas!) is his provision of the right means to achieve his ends. Natural laws are genuine secondary causes – but causes that are bent to God’s purposes in the universe. Chance – whether through coincidence, chaos or quanta – is either bent to God’s specific ends or is not included in providence. And both Aquinas and Ormerod are adamant that it is. But in itself, as I have shown, chance is not a cause of anything: it’s just an expression of our ignorance of the cause or our impotence to affect it – an ignorance and impotence not shared by the Omniscient and Omnipotent One.
So what’s the point being made in the article, when it’s a view shared by every classical theist including most Intelligent Design people and Creationists?
One conclusion Ormerod drew was, I’m sure, an invalid use of Aquinas and in itself rather anti-scientific. He made the point that ID people were foolish to look at cosmically low odds for, say, the origin of DNA and conclude that they could not happen by chance. Nothing in Aquinas, ignorant though he was of modern statistics, leads us to believe that absolutely anything can happen by chance, especially if that’s somehow linked to some deficiency of intention on God’s part. What would such a thing even mean? God actively foreknows that he will bring about a chance event (through the laws and quantum events he’s determined) to achieve some end of his, yet doesn’t design it? Does that seem coherent to you?
Aquinas did not conceive that “contingency” meant a lion coincidentally giving birth to a unicorn, or the existence of a Precambrian rabbit. Neither could a theistic evolutionist legitimately conclude that life is statistically a 1 in 10 million-universe event, but that God used lucky chance to make it happen and no further scientific or theological reason is required. It doesn’t mean anything to make such statements (though if I read Ormerod right he is saying something like that) especially when Aquinas has a perfectly good category of providence under which to classify near-impossible events: he calls it “miracle.”