God and contingency

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.”

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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15 Responses to God and contingency

  1. Avatar photo GD says:

    I will briefly discuss terms relevant to science, to clarify one or two points Jon.

    Indeterminate, as stated in the Oxford Concise, is:

    “not exactly known, established, or defined. Mathematics (of a quantity) having no definite or definable value.”

    A ‘quantum event’ is a difficult term to define; ordinarily we would say quantum, and in physics this is (Oxford):

    “a discrete quantity of energy proportional in magnitude to a particular frequency of radiation and corresponding e.g. to a single photon or to a transition of an atom between energy states.”

    If I take a slightly humorous approach, we may say that every event in Nature is a quantum event, as in such a dynamic system, all manner of events may undergo quantum transitions; we also know that many scientific calculations are made of such events using QM with great precision. In this context, my question is, “What QM event is not known with great precision in your discussion?”

    A ‘retina responding to a photon’, is an odd way to state such an event. A photon can be understood using QM, and the energy changes within the molecular system(s) comprising the retina and associated biochemical systems can, in principle, be mapped out and understood. None of these biochemical events are determinate or indeterminate quantum events. It is another question regarding the completeness of our knowledge of the entire molecular mechanism of sight– but this is our ignorance, not some property of any ‘quantum event’.

    The somewhat bizarre exchange with Lou has been ‘triggered’ by what I feel is an attempt to sidestep these extremely complex bio-chemical mechanisms, with a vacuous generalisation that inevitably falls back to the uncertainty principle. The discussions around the uncertainty principle are ongoing and extremely complicated – some may wish to make vast generalisations related to how they use terms such as determinate/indeterminate, and this is their choice. My objection has been against a habit displayed by some, of using such QM terms without seeking a reasonable understanding of the uncertainty principle, and claiming that observations made on a molecular scale (and also a macromolecular scale) can inevitably be termed an ‘a QM indeterminate something’. It is somewhat ironic that quantum = discreet, and consequently (in principle) known exactly; thus QM computations can map out the energy levels of small molecules with great precision, and we can also have knowledge of short lived transition molecular states – again with great accuracy. Consequently the Oxford dictionary of indeterminate would show us the folly of such discussions; knowing with great precision is the opposite of indeterminate.

    The uncertainty principle, real entities and locality, and associated matters require considerable discussion and scientific insights, and I do not think these can be discussed with any clarity on this blog. But even in these matters, drawing inferences regarding how God may act, or some insights into evolution, is inappropriate – for the simple reason that these are argued amongst physicists and will undoubtedly undergo changes in theory and maths with time. We may indulge in theological discussions in a later post.

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    Whatever the specific issues about qantum indeterminacy, it’s obvious that Thomas Aquinas was completely oblivious to them. So when he talks of “contingency” in the world, it’s hard to see that he’s got anyconcept of things that are actually (ie divinely, ratherb than physically) undetermined: he must mean things that have no known cause to humans, as the examples he gives show: eg people fortuitously meeting in a market, where they have independently been directed by the same master (representing God, of course).

    For God in his wisdom to have included such things in his world for us is indeed worthy of the detailed discussion he gives it, but that purpose, in Aquinas’ mind, cannot have been to do with the intrinsic good or beauty of absolute indeterminacy, as opposed to God’s determination of events. Because providence, by definition, means determination, and nothing whatsoever is excluded from Aquinas’ view of divine providence.

    So I sense a bit of sophistry going on when he’s cited by scholars to the effect that there’s an inherent virtue in contingency for its own sake, when the issue is really the human one that a degree of uncertainty is good for us.

    My only real interest in quantum indeterminacy is to ensure that, if it is held to exist, that it is subject to providence – Aquinas would certainly have said so had he lived 800 years or so later.

  3. Avatar photo GD says:

    My view is that everything is subject to God – as a Christian I have held that to be obvious and without argumentation. On matters that seem to us as happenstance or ‘out of the blue’ so to speak – this is another way of realising our limitations. I cannot think that Thomas would have believed otherwise. On QM, I am not convinced by notions of any indeterminacy, contingency, or unknowability, in the Creation when we speak of God. Novelty, diversity, and the vastness of the Universe are testament to its Creator and for our benefit regarding Faith.

    I feel that QM is used in an odd and perhaps flippant manner in discussions regarding random and contingency in nature.

  4. Cal says:

    This was good. Many times it seems like the most ‘orthodox’ on BL attempt to have their cake and eat it too. Staying within whatever the realm of ‘orthodoxy’ is (name dropping some heavy hitter like Calvin, or Aquinas, or Augustine to back them up), yet also appeasing the process theologies etc. out there. In the end it comes out less than coherent.

    Also, what does ‘active foreknowledge’ mean?


    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      I’m not entirely sure what Ormerod thinks “active foreknowledge” meant to Aquinas, but I see it as the fact that all knowledge ultimately comes from within God himself. His knowledge of the future isn’t because the future reveals itself to God, but because he creates the future… a complete departure from the God of process theology/free process.

      There’s a Scriptural sense that’s related to that, in that God’s foreknowledge appears often to imply election or foreordination. For example, Rom 11.2 speaks of the God who foreknows Israel not by sensing they’ll make good in the end, but by bringing about their making-good. The same sense occurs in Jer 1.5. I think that the “active foreknowledge” of classical theism arises necessarily from consideration of such passages: it’s inherent in the revelation.

      • Cal says:

        What would you say about the times in Scripture where it seems to be that 1) something was done contrary to the Lord’s will and yet 2) In full wisdom, this did nothing to offset His plan, but only brought about in fulfilling it.

        Specifically I’m thinking about Israel’s clamoring for a king, but in so doing, only bring about the Lord’s fulfillment.

        Obviously, I’m more interested in the actual conscious and find that process-theology/open-theism’s attempt at a convoluted theodicy by making the creation self-making rational, but wrong.

        I guess where I’m going is that the terms we use are always bankrupt to describe the dynamic of things. Hence why the Lord answers the way He does in Job.


        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

          Cal, I’d say that people’s disobedience only results in fulfilling his plan!

          That saves getting into important but well-rehearsed discussions about (a) distinctions between the commanding and determinative will of God and (b) the way Scripture (and God in his dealings with us over all) has to use human metaphor in describing his ways.

          Where was I reading just the other day that all Scripture is necessarily anthropmorphic? Oh yes – “Beyond the Bounds” (Piper, Taylor, Helseth). Writes A B Caneday:

          Classical Christian theology has not escaped influence by Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment philosophers who disparaged
          anthropomorphism. This “iconoclastic bias,” born in philosophy and transferred to theology, “is the assumption that the least metaphoric concept of God is the best.” It is tempting to suppose that we can know God as he truly is in himself. We may think we honor God by abstracting him from the very form and manner in which he reveals himself to us, namely in human form and likeness. To represent God with abstract philosophical concepts may seem more suitable for our transcendent God than to conceive of him as an actor on the earthly stage, engaged in this drama that seems so utterly human. But is it? Do we really sanctify the Lord in our hearts and uphold his majesty by capturing him with philosophical abstractions? If we represent God with philosophical abstractions, we will tend to exaggerate either God’s transcendence or his immanence. We will conceive of God either as held captive by his own creation or as depersonalized. It is necessary to steer the theological vessel away from Scylla, the yawning cave of idolatry, toward which open theism will take it. Yet, we must always be alert lest we overcorrect and steer into Charybdis, the vortex of divine aloofness, by focusing upon God’s transcendence to the reduction of his immanence.

  5. Lou Jost says:

    I won’t comment on the theology but just the science.

    “But chaotic events are believed to be deterministic, their uncertainty proceeeding from the wide variance resulting from small changes to conditions.”
    QM applies to everything, and this means that initial positions and momentums of any set of particles cannot be specified precisely. Thus physical chaotic systems (systems of real particles in which infinitely small changes in initial conditions result in arbitrarily large changes down the road) are not deterministic.

    Re QM: “Unless one subscribes to the notion that their statistical behaviour has no cause, then like all things their first cause is God.”
    The majority view (by a landslide) is that many kinds of individual events in QM have no cause. There are some technical reasons for thinking this must be the case to avoid certain causal paradoxes.

    “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.”
    Jon comes down on the right side of this “dispute” (which is not really disputed in physics). A Geiger counter (or any measurement of a quantum event) creates macroscopic consequences for QM events. It is a common misconception among non-physicists that QM does not have macroscopic consequences. Mutations are one of them.

    I agree with GD that a proper discussion of indeterminacy needs to be technical. I disagree with his constant claims that I am being flippant about it. As I said before, this subject was my focus of study at the University of Texas. I have discussed these question with some of the founders of QM, including Wigner, Bohm, John Wheeler, and others. I can provide as much technical detail for my claims as GD would like. This is just not the place for that.

  6. Avatar photo GD says:

    No-one has claimed a split between these odd ‘quantum events’ and the molecular and macromolecular world – indeed my comments show that we can measure and model these systems (provided we know enough about them) with great accuracy) – thus the notion of some indeterminate property is clearly odd. Nor is there a dispute (except for an odd outlook in discussing ‘events’ that measurements are related to the system measured. The flippant comment is to suggest otherwise. And how can anyone discuss individual quantum events – this terminology is absurd. Do we have experiments in which a photon is present for a given time, and then it disappears because it is a indeterminate quantum event? Do we have any system that is so indeterminate that measurements can sometimes be made, and at other times cannot? And what dynamic system is so chaotic that a measurement(s) cannot be made?

    On causality, in any scientific experiment, the philosophy commences with a system that is – and we then obtain information/data concerning a clearly defined system. The notion that macro-events are caused by non-causing ‘quantum events’ is another example of absurd rhetoric.

    • Lou Jost says:

      I have no idea what you just said. How is it absurd to talk about a single quantum event?

      Just to be clear, take my Geiger counter example. The decay of a particular unstable nucleus is a quantum event. The exact moment that this nucleus decays is indeterminate in the quantum mechanical sense. According to QM, there is no cause that makes it decay at a particular moment; the causes only affect the probability of decay per unit time. The Geiger counter can detect that single quantum event, the radioactive decay of a single nucleus, and it can magnify the effects until the Geiger counter emits an audible click (or the Geiger counter could be connected to any other macroscopic object, to trigger any big macroscopic event).

      The exact moment that the Geiger counter emits the click (or triggers some big event) is as indeterminate as the decay event that caused it. This is a completely uncontroversial example of a macroscopic event that is “indeterminate”, in the sense that even complete knowledge of the initial conditions prior to the decay, and perfect knowledge of all relevant physical laws, are not sufficient to permit prediction of the moment of the event. Do you disagree with this statement?

      • Avatar photo GD says:

        This sort of exchange can go on without a reasonable end result. I have given the meaning of indeterminate, and quantum, and you have failed to respond – if these terms are understood by you, then your argument has little merit. You now switch from indeterminate to how something is measured and consequently ‘known’ by us. This shows how inconsistent you are, and also how inordinately insistent you are in arguing some odd point.

        Radioactivity is a know property (how can you then seek a cause for what is clearly known and measured), and many details on the why and how are also known – measurements are made, and these inevitably show an acceptable reproducibility – so what is ‘not known’? Just what is a quantum cause, let alone a quantum event? You wish to model something with perfect predictions (radioactive decay), and find you cannot not. So what! How does this make radioactivity unknowable and makes laws of science irrelevant or somehow not known. Again your rhetoric is gravely inadequate or simply absurd.

        • Lou Jost says:

          The exact moment of decay of an unstable nucleus has no cause in QM; the only thing predicted by QM is the probability distribution of the decay times. Likewise, if we take a slit and shine a light through it onto a photographic plate, there is no way to predict where a particular photon will hit the plate. QM gives only the probability distribution for the places where the photon will land. There is no cause that makes it land in a particular spot, according to QM. This is the essence of QM. Read any textbook on the subject.

          • Lou Jost says:

            And Bell’s theorem proves that there are no local “hidden variables” underlying these probability distributions–they are not due to our ignorance of underlying mechanisms.

            • Avatar photo GD says:

              What indeed – this is the last time I will indulge in these useless exchanges with you – while many workers discuss hidden variables and labour in this area, you, as the ultimate authority, declare the matter settled. And even you should at least be aware that a radioactive atom has the property we discuss, but then you begin your theatrics and look to your undergraduate lectures in physics. Since we are giving gratuitous advice on reading text books, look up the workings of an atomic clock – very accurate stuff, yet they apply the uncertainty principle – go figure!!!

              I doubt very much that you even understand causality and the reasoning behind it. Nonetheless, this is my final comment to you.

              • Lou Jost says:

                “Since we are giving gratuitous advice on reading text books, look up the workings of an atomic clock – very accurate stuff, yet they apply the uncertainty principle – go figure!!!”
                Atomic clocks are not based on moments of decay of unstable nuclei but on the precision of the energy differences between electron states in atoms.

                The fundamental principle of QM is this: the wave function is the basic description of nature, and (after complex-conjugate squaring) the wave function only gives the probabilities of the different allowed outcomes. I agree with GD that there is no need to argue more about this; anybody can look it up and see who is right.

                Regarding hidden variables: after the experimental disproof of Bell’s inequality (an inequality that would have to be satisfied by any theory of local hidden variables), the consensus view among physicists is that local hidden variables cannot exist. (There are some interesting proposals for how to get around Bell’s inequalities, involving things like imposing mathematical limitations on the amount of free will available to an experimenter!

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