Sufficient means

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.

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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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6 Responses to Sufficient means

  1. Avatar photo GD says:

    Hi Jon,

    A couple of comments that may be relevant. I like the treatment in CS Lewis: The Funeral of a Great Myth (for the debate on atheism as religion) – I think most people who visit your site are familiar with this so I will not add to it. The second point fascinates me, but I regard it as speculative. By this, I mean that theoretical physics (that I struggle with) may imply that along with the non-commutative understanding at the QM level, there is a notion that information is still present that occurred at the point, or event, of creation. This is neither a top-down or bottom-up view, but a sense of eternity as being always present (an awkward way to say it). Such a notion, combined with the fact that the basic particles of the Universe cannot be considered as existents (we cannot isolate them as matter or energy in the classical sense) and I feel a sense of wonder regarding the creation.

    God knowing, determining and what have you seem somehow inadequate terms – God IS because He IS, seems closer to the mark.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      What you seem to be describing in para 1 is the interface between perceived reality and God. There clearly must be such an interface – inside or outside material reality or on the border. Given the inherent mysteries of QM science I’d be very open to ideas that one can probe the edges of such an interface and attempt to describe it, and that part of that interface might be wbetween time and eternity.

      For example, non-locality is part of the classical conception of God (in negative theology terms) – he is immense, meaning he is as fully present in Christ as he is uncontainable in the Universe.

      The closer it gets to God himself, of course, the more ineffable it would be.

      Such an “interface” idea seems to bridge the gap between your expression and mine – if God acts in eternity to produce temporal effects, then it’s no great stertch to postulate that eternity meets temporality at some point. Nevertheless, that’s clearly a far more “hands-on” conception than the deistic classical physics “frontloading” that seems popular with so many TEs.

      • Avatar photo GD says:

        An interface is an interesting way of discussing these matters – I am more interested in “meaning” (and corresponding comprehension by us) when we use the word God – I think that as we contemplate the various ways Orthodox Christianity comprehends the revealed knowledge of God, we are also empowered to achieve further insights related to the creation (another way of saying the creation points to its Creator).

        Theoretical physics deal with matter and energy as we perceive it and although intellectually demanding, we may expand our understanding of theological aspects by discussing physics within that context.

        On your favourite topic of TE (and related subject matter), I am inclined to view life as an additional dimension that still waits for our comprehension. When we add the specific act of God creating human beings, we are moving to an even higher (or intellectually greater challenging) concept.

        The notions such as frontloading or the simpler information addition via some arrangements of genes and what have you, seem to me to be extremely primitive, naïve, and theologically nonsense.

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


          Funnily enough your last two paragraphs accord with Michael Denton in a recent interview with mathematician David Berlinski. Denton said that the basic impasse between darwinians and non-darwinians is their insistence that life can be explained from the bottom up, whereas he believes it can only be explained (even scientifically) from the top down. He equates it with the difference beween Aristotle and Descartes.

          That relates to the difference beween building up “genes” to make living things, and genes as part of the expression of living things. TEs, of course, tend to cluster around the first concept, as do many IDists (though the best understand the second concept).

          Berlinski agreed, but said that because of this, it is likely that a change in the understanding of biology would probably end up overturning the whole Cartesian/Netwonian paradigm of science itself. He pointed out that no paradigm lasts forever, and this one is looking fairly careworn after 400 years. Interesting stuff – here.

          • Cath Olic says:

            Near the beginning of the audio of your ending hyperlink, Berlinski seems to be saying that the reason many conservative intellectuals don’t want to be associated with ID is FEAR, driven by the idol of human respect.
            They know that the rest of the intelligentsia consider IDers (and creationists) as stupid, anti-science Bible-thumpers. The conservative intellectuals fear being painted with the same (biased, bogus) brush.
            They fear the opinion of men more than they cherish the unbiased quest for truth.

            I would agree with him.

            Also, Berlinski or Denton says the two sides of the origins debate always end up talking past each other and seemingly can never agree because of fundamental differences in perspective.
            The evolutionist presumes the truth of a contingent, and *especially bottom-up*, history of life, while the IDers (and creationists) presume a designed, *top-down* history of life.

            I think this, too, is likely true.

            And I think the *bottom-up* view is yours as well, Jon.

            • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


              Berlinski reflects a common ID accusation in the “fear” thing, but as usual I think he means it at a more subtle level than most (like, say, Denyse O’Leary at Uncommon Descent). She majors on the venial – professors wanting to hold on to jobs, etc.

              Whereas I think Berlinski is more about the fear of “loss of face” in the light of the quite savage ostracism of non-positivist views. That seems more a feature of American Academia than ours (though of the UK’s more than, say, Eastern Europe.) It has relatively little traction outside academia – most citizens don’t care what Neil de Grasse thinks of them – though they may be intimidated by the fact that “everyone” knows such and such is a fact, etc.

              It was Denton who made the remark on top-down v bottom-up (see my reply to GD), and I think you’ve mischaracterised it – the clue is in the “Aristotle v Descartes” comment.

              Descartes, as a good Catholic, believed in God, but held (crudely speaking) that God created laws which the inert particles (that’s his “bottom”) of the universe obey to build up the world we see. Presumably at that time he excluded Creation from that, since YEC was the only game in town.

              Aristotle didn’t believe in a Creator, but had an organic view of nature in which natural teleology (that’s his “top”) was the fundamental explanation of nature: the natures controlled the particles, rather than the particles determining natures. Christian Aristotelians like Aquinas would make God the final source of that teleology, but (usually) say that the secondary natures have their own teleological powers from God.

              Applied to evolution, Denton (voting with Aristotle, but apparently agnostic with regard to God) would say that the creatures had an inbuilt nature to evolve, as opposed to the Cartesian, who (he would say) puts his emphasis on the causality of genes and their apparently chance interactions.

              I’m actually more comfortable with Aristotle, albeit after a lifetime exposed to Cartesian science – but my main concern is that, whichever approach is taken, due regard is given to the active providence of God in governing them.

              When amongst Gentiles, I speak as a Gentile…

              Denton doesn’t really allow for providence in his entirely frontloaded scheme (and Berlinksi is an avowed agnostic), and modern theistic evolution, for the most part, also gives a very poor account of providence even when it doesn’t deny it altogether.

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