The distinguishing marks of the impossible

I recently noticed one of the “Christian scientists” (not “Christian Scientists”, you understand, which are a different thing) on BioLogos replying to some ID poster with the remark that the genome shows every sign of being cobbled together by chance and circumstance rather than being designed for a purpose. I suppose it drew my attention because it’s one of the common atheist arguments for a purposeless and undirected version of evolution, but used by a Christian it gave pause for thought.

There is a very valid objection to this argument which says that if, in one breath, one claims that design cannot be proved from the natural creation, then one cannot justifiably argue in the next breath that non-design can be proved. And I concur that design cannot be proven, because it is always possible to argue Epicurean chance-contingency as an alternative, the matter resting on subjective plausibility rather than scientific demonstration.

However, a scientist may speak non-scientifically of his intuitions on the matter, which presumably must be what our brother was doing, the appearance of chance not being a provable matter of science. But I want to go one step beyond arguments about proof to discuss the relative merits of “design intuition” versus “non-design intuition”, particularly when either is employed by Christians. It really didn’t require a Doug Axe to show how universal the intuition of design in nature is. Apart from famous quotes by Dawkins about life consisting of things that look designed, or Darwin’s analogy between deliberate selective breeding and natural selection as a design tool, the comparability of human design to at least many components of living things is clear for all to see.

To point to just a couple, much human design is done in conscious and conscientious imitation of nature. From the start, flying machines were modelled on birds’ wings. When early attempts to imitate flapping failed, nevertheless the basic aerodynamics were learned from nature and applied successfully. And so on for inventions like the camera based on the mammalian eye, streamlining of submarines and a myriad others.

Perhaps even more telling are those instances where human design was found, retrospectively, to have its counterpart in natural “machinery”. I remember one chapter in a book I read long ago, by the naturalist Gerald Durrell. On the ship home from a collecting trip he challenged fellow passengers, who were boasting of the unique achievements of mankind, to think of any invention that had not already been dreamed up by nature. I can’t remember the exact examples he gave many decades on, but they included things like radar and bat echo-location, jet propulsion and the octopus, and firearms and the archer fish.

And so whatever difficulties we may have with “proof”, we can say unhesitatingly that there are many examples in nature of things which we intuitively recognise as comparable to human design. And for the Christian that is no surprise, because creation is presented in the Bible and Christian tradition most often in terms of “God the artificer”, even if sophisticated theologians may understand that as applying only analogically.

We now have to look at the merits of the opposite “intuition”, of things in nature happening haphazardly without design, and here the Christian, at least, hits a problem. For neither Christian tradition nor Scripture actually has a category of undirected, haphazard events, for all things are created and given function by God, “without him nothing was made that was made”, and he “works all things according to the purpose of his will.”

Take, for instance, the oft-quoted scriptural proverb about the lot being cast into the lap, but its every decision coming from God. That’s often spun nowadays as the ability of God to control, perhaps only occasionally, events that we know to be governed by “natural causes”. But from what we know of ancient thought generally, as well as Hebrew religion, that’s an anachronistic interpretation. For ancient peoples, all events were the result of personal agency, and the question was only a matter of who the personal agents were in any given case. So the proverb is actually saying that the result of a dice throw, though the throw is made by a man, is not determined by man’s agency but by God’s.

One might respond that that is a primitive and anthropomorphic understanding, but actually the development of theology and theistic science up to and within the Christian era, prior to the conscious removal of God from his world after the Enlightenment, was about the interposition of secondary causes between God and the physical world, not the substitution of secondary causes for God. God works through secondary causes, and so in the proverb the “natural causes” we now envisage are not independent of God’s personal agency, but the means by which that agency ensures that the lot’s every decision is his. And that is why the verse can still be true in a scientific age.

And so New Testament theology understands even the rulers of the nations and wicked men to be the agents of God’s will (just as the free human casting of the lot gave the result God intended). The regular causes in nature, represented by our “laws of nature” were seen by previous generations of believing scientists as being like machines set in reliable motion by God. Deism was, of course, the taking of that idea to its extreme. To sophisticated occasionalists such as the theologian and philosopher Jonathan Edwards, the divine agency was even more direct. The doctrine of providence then, as propounded by the Fathers, analysed in detail by Aquinas or assumed by James Clerk Maxwell, saw God as, in one way or another, the governor in detail even of those events which, through our human ignorance, we perceive as chance.

The Christian doctrine of chance (that chance is epistemological, never ontological), therefore, is firstly about those things whose regular causes we do not perceive, and secondarily about those things whose genuinely irregular contingency, arising from God’s wise choice, is not apparent to us. By that I mean that if we see Jesus raise Lazarus to life, our intuition is that it is a purposeful event; but if we subsequently saw the same Lazarus, years later, die from food poisoning or a stroke, our human intuition would be that he died from mischance. But our theology would tell us that, despite our intuition, the accident was as much in God’s hands as Lazarus’s resuscitation by Jesus had been, and equally subordinate to his greater providential purposes both for beloved Lazarus and a beloved world.

The one category that Christian theology tells us is entirely missing from the world, though, and therefore analogous to nothing in God’s creation, is Epicurean chance. The genome cannot arise fortuitously and undirected by God simply because nothing, even the casting of a lot, does so in the Christian cosmos. If human evil is subordinated to God’s mysterious working of all things to their proper ends, “even the wicked for a day of disaster”, then how much more the processes that produce his good creation?

So the “design inference” draws on an analogy that we see in all our dealings with nature as designing beings ourselves, and which is used extensively in Scripture to describe God as Creator. The “non-design inference”, on the contrary, is based on a purely hypothetical construct (ontological chance) which cannot be proven in nature, and which is denied even to exist both by the Bible and by historical theology.

How, then, can something like the genome be said to have “every appearance of arising by undirected chance” when Christianity has always taught that undirected chance does not exist? How can one compare a phenomenon to something that doesn’t exist in principle, of which therefore one has never seen a single example? One might as well describe something in nature as having every appearance of being a square circle.

No, the statement about resembling an undirected event is innately metaphysical, and the metaphysics involved is naturalism, not Christianity. It is the belief that chance is real but meaningless, and that therefore things that appear to resemble chance are also indicative of purposelessness. It’s a belief that is unwarranted empirically, and contrary to historic Christian teaching.

Since I drafted this piece, another piece of the jigsaw has slotted into place from this BioLogos thread by Joshua Swamidass, in which he critiques pretty cogently the use of information theory in ID as a pointer to design over chance. His arguments, to the extent I understand them, persuade me, and actually reinforce the point above that chance and design cannot be formally distinguished.

Since that is counterintuitive, it leads again to the possibility that the explanation for this indistinguishability of opposites is that “chance” is only and always, in reality, God’s choice. Chance looks the same as choice simply because chance always is choice, the providential choices of the logos of God.

Of course, the opposite conclusion might be true, so that there is no decision-making God and everything happens by chance, even apparent design. As I said above, the matter rests on subjective plausibility rather than science or, in this case, information theory. But you can’t say, as a Christian, that something resembles an undirected process until you demolish the doctrine of providence, which says that there are no undirected processes and that God directs all things to their ends, and until you establish the existence of Epicurean randomness in its place.

And you’ll never do that through science.

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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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2 Responses to The distinguishing marks of the impossible

  1. Hi Jon,

    Whilst it may be argued that God determines the outcome of every throw of a dice, I suggest that it does not necessarily follow from this that he also determines the outcome of everything else.
    Does He, for example, determine the outcome of every human thought process? Are all human decisions his decisions? As you know, this is a matter of historical dispute among Christians.

    I understand (I think) your position from this post and from your previous writings, and I may not have commented were it not for your statement about *the* doctrine of divine providence.
    I suggest that the binary choice presented in your last paragraph, ‘there is no decision-making God’ and ‘God directs all things’, does not acknowledge (even if you reject it) an alternative doctrine of divine providence that does allow for some undirected processes and, accordingly, a God who has placed limitations on his sovereignty.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Peter

      The first thing is to make a distinction between “direction” and “determination”, the former being the word used in relation to providence here. For God to direct all things towards their ends does not (necessarily) imply that he determines, for example, every free human act – though it might do so in some sense, and still be compatible with free-will (see Hugh McCann on that).

      The second, more relevant, point is to stress that this piece is about ontological chance in relation to providence: it only mentions human acts to demonstrate how Scripture shows all things, even the extreme of malevolent human acts in crucifying the Lord, to be governed by his providence. Human acts, whatever their complex relationship to the divine will, do not occur undirectedly or causelessly by “chance”, and that’s the subject of the post.

      Nevertheless, when it comes to “an alternative doctrine of divine providence that does allow for some undirected processes and, accordingly, a God who has placed limitations on his sovereignty,” I’d have to plead guilty because it’s not hard to demonstrate that such a view of providence, historically, had no place in Christian theology until after the time of the Deists. The early Church’s doctrine of providence was, in fact, overtly opposed to (quoting Berkhof) “the Epicurian notion that the world is governed by chance, and the Stoic view that it is ruled by fate.” The fact that some people take that view of providence does not make it compatible with apostolic doctrine, any more than the fact that some people view Christ as merely a wise man does.

      The universality of providence (as the direction of all things to their proper ends) is seen in Catholic teaching (; in Orthodox teaching (; in Reformed teaching of course (“Although, in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first Cause, all things come to pass immutably, and infallibly; yet, by the same providence, he ordereth them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently,” Westminster Confession) and even in Arminius, who though rather self-contradictory, or maybe just confused, on human choice (a) regarded even sin as foreseen and permitted in advance (“The destined concession of its concurrence, which, on account of the dependence of a second on the first cause, is a necessary concurrence,”) and (b) regarded all the rest of creation as both foreseen and governed (“My sentiments respecting the providence of God are these: It is present with, and presides over, all things; and all things, according to their essences, quantities, qualities, relations, actions, passions, places, times, stations and habits, are subject to its governance, conservation, and direction. I except neither particular, sublunary, vile, nor contingent things, not even the free wills of men or of angels, either good or evil…”).

      Now, even taking less nuanced later versions of Arminian providence into account, God is still regarded as at least foreseeing all things, and what is foreseen cannot, by very definition, occur by chance, because chance just is unpredictability: one cannot foresee what is only possible.

      The Open Theists, it is true, claim that God has put limitations on his sovereignty. I deny the truth of that very recent aberration, and especially when it comes to Epicurean chance, which has never been compatible with any mainstream doctrine of providence.

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