A while ago biologist Francisco Ayala, in discussion with William Lane Craig, made a rather fatuous argument against ID proponent William Dembski’s “Universal Probability Bound.”
“You don’t need to argue with professor Dembski because, by his own argumentation, he does not exist. His genetic makeup has a mother component and a father component. The mother during her life will produce about 500 eggs, each one with a different genetic composition. The father produce about 10^12 sperm, each with a different genetic composition. The probability that he will get the two right compositions is 10^-15. . . . Going one generation back, the probability that Dr. Dembski exists, by his own argumentation, is 10^-45. If I go one more generation the probability that he exists is smaller than the reciprocal of the number of atoms in the universe. Those arguments have no seriousness for any serious scientist.”
As Wayne Rossiter pointed out in a blog last year, he’s obfuscating the issue by comparing chalk with cheese. In Ayala’s example, if your target is “William Dembski”, then he’s vanishingly unlikely to come into existence. But nevertheless he does exist, ergo since life also exists Dembski’s low probabilities mean nothing.
The error is that when Mr and Mrs Dembski senior got together, although the chances of that particular William being conceived were miniscule, the chances of a human child being born were approaching 100%, barring accidents. Indeed, if they chose his name in advance, there was a near 50% chance of William arriving – if not the one with the mathematical mind and ID sympathies.
Dembski’s own example is quite different: by taking advice on the minimum requirements for a self-reproducing molecule that might start life, he came up with a vanishingly small likelihood – the point being that the near 100% of other possibilities would result in nothing at all. If there is only one fertile egg, and one potent spermatozoon, in Ayala’s universe – rather than only one Bill Dembski – the issue is very different.
But I want to focus today on just one factor in that tale – the probabilities involved in human sexual reproduction. For Jeremiah the prophet was told by God:
‘Before I formed you in the womb I foreknew you,
before you were born I set you apart;
I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.’ (Jer 1.5)
Personally I don’t think that kind of call is unique, for Paul tells all Christians:
For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. (Eph 1.4)
But never mind that here – Jeremiah was chosen, and chosen as a prophet, before his conception. For the Hebrew word for “foreknew” entails more than prediction, but choice: God is also said to have foreknown Israel, and they would never even exist unless he had created them as a nation. It would, indeed, be absurd to suggest that God merely knew by foresight that Jeremiah would be a prophet, because he only became one by God’s call. That’s why it’s equally foolish to suggest God waited for a “suitable” embryo with the right potential and then set him apart. He might wait forever. The whole thing is about God’s sovereignty in forming the man, not his patience and opportunism as a talent-spotter.
Now we know quite a lot about the biology of conception – enough to know that Ayala’s figures are pretty much correct. Biologically speaking, the process of fertilization is intended to provide genetic diversity through random combination of one egg amongst hundreds by one sperm amongs zillions. So by what power did God “ensure” that Hilkiah and his wife were delivered of young Jeremiah?
It could, of course, be deemed a miracle. But the emphasis of the passage is not on Jeremiah’s wondrous birth, but on God’s sovereign election, just as is the case in the election of believers in Ephesians. Jeremiah’s birth was quite natural, but its outcome was according to God’s predetermining will. “Miracle” doesn’t seem quite the right category.
If not miracle, then what? Did God set up the Universe at the time of the big bang so as to guarantee that, at Anathoth at that particular time, those particular gametes would combine? Well, that might have been plausible back at the time of Laplace, when the laws of the universe were believed to be rigidly deterministic. But those days have long passed. At most, one can imagine the Universe as statistically deterministic on the large scale. But the specifying of a specific human is not on such a scale.
There is no kind of frontloading that could predictably result in Jeremiah – even at the very time of his conception the odds, as Ayala shows, are just too slim. The process itself is clearly highly contingent – and at the biological level designedly so. Simply for daily survival (rather than long-term evolution) a species needs wide variation of its gene-pool.
But what in biological terms, or even human social terms, is best decided by random sorting, is from God’s point of view a matter of deliberate choice. And so in the case of Jeremiah (not to mention all the millions of elect in Christ down the centuries) God must have been exercising some form of providential control over the process that, naturally speaking, is the epitome of chance. The parents toss dice – but God creates the prophet of Anathoth.
Now, as you might have suspected, I want to apply this analogically to evolution, primarily of the Darwinian form, but perhaps also by any other mechanism one might conceive. And let us assume that those theistic evolutionists who say “God intended mankind” are speaking straightforwardly. We could put words in God’s mouth in this scenario:
‘Before I formed you from LUCA I foreknew you,
before you were evolved from hominids I set you apart;
I appointed you as my image on earth.’
It should become immediately apparent that, given the random elements in Neodarwinism, those words would be nonsense in the absence of some directive action of God. Darwinian evolution cannot possibly be that specific, even had God spoken at the point at which mankind evolved. Neither is it really possible to conceive how any more frontloaded system could be sufficiently specific, left to itself. Michael Denton’s structuralism might get us to an intelligent being, but scarcely to Homo sapiens, let alone Homo divinus.
So the TEs (a majority, it seems) who say that a competent God would set up evolution to run without tinkering are being disingenuous if they want us to believe he set it up to produce man, or any other specific taxon. They are as foolish as those who say that God created sexual reproduction with a view to forming the prophet Jeremiah at such-and-such a time and place.
On the other hand, creation through a physical process is quite compatible with God’s action. As the psalmist says of the usual reproductive process:
For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. (Ps 139.13)
We have seen from the Jeremiah passage that this must mean very something very much more specific than “You created sexual reproduction, and it worked for me.” The difference between a naturalistic and totally unrealistic deism – both in the case of the origin of species and the case of the origin of created souls – and something that gives substance to God’s wisdom and purpose, can only be a strong doctrine of providence. Whether one regards that as “miraculous” is largely irrelevant – but as I pointed out above, the Bible’s use of that term is more restricted than the universal assertion that God acts in all things moment by moment.
The substance must be that God is genuinely, and constantly, hands on in the government of his creation. If he isn’t – no Jeremiah (or at least, a Jeremiah whose conviction that he was foreknown by God is a total lie). And no “evolutionary creation”, except as a complete sham for God’s doing nothing in particular.
And that is true not only for Darwinian evolution, but for any other theory you might come up with.