Further reflection on chance

In a comment on a previous post about the role of creation in the origin of species, Noah asks:

What would you say about the randomness we observe in the process of evolution? …I guess it’s similar to our discussion on why it takes thousands/millions of sperm to fertilize an egg if God intends me to exist. We’re presented with a reality that sure as heck seems to involve a ton of randomness, not just in events (car crashes, etc.) but in being (how many things had to happen by chance for me to exist?).

I answer: Chance can only be meaningfully discussed relative to a particular agent. It is no more an absolute than velocity is in Einstein’s physics.

That is part of why it can never be considered a cause, since it is only ever an expression of someone, or something’s, ignorance of the true causes of an event. Thomas Aquinas used the example of a master (representing God) sending two servants out on separate errands, and their meeting “by chance” in the market. With reference to the servants, it was a chance meeting – with reference to the master, it was the result of his purposeful will.

Take another example, of a lion in a theme park. The park’s aim is to make the environment as natural as possible, for the sake of both the spectators’ experience and the lions’ wellbeing. So the lion roams around and finds its food “by chance”, since it has no idea where the carcase will show up. That is entirely analogous to the wild, where the considerable hunting skills of the lion are moderated by the uncertainty of the availability and behaviour of prey. But in the park the food is placed where the lion will find it according to the specific purpose of the park’s human owners, which of course is primarily to make sure the lion doesn’t starve, or get tempted to eat the tourists.

Likewise a dice throw is random with respect to a human operator, but is not at all random in relation to the laws of physics. God, governing those laws, can predict exactly what forces will be involved, even if the thrower cannot, and will know the future outcome (I speak at a mechanical level – God’s knowledge is intuitive and complete, not deductive). Under the doctrine of providence one can even say that God determines what forces will be used in the dice throw – but that providence also encompasses the ignorance of the thrower, and hence to that individual, with his particular relationship to secondary causes, the chance is real.

Similarly an immune system generates variants randomly with respect to the operation of the mechanism, but purposefully with respect to the function of the system as a whole, and theologically with respect to God’s intention to design an immune system that serves its defensive purpose well. The organism is not created to “know” in advance what immune challenges it will face, but rather that all kinds of assaults may occur, requiring protecting against every eventuality, as far as possible. That’s very like the lion patrolling around opportunistically knowing that prey will turn up somewhere.

So in the context of evolution, to speak of random variation or mutation, without a context of agency, is simply meaningless. It is indeed reasonable to envisage things happening to organisms “by accident”, from their own viewpoint. The organism has a built-in goal of preserving its nature, including its genome, intact, so that a mutation from some copying error or viral assault is “accidental”, and may even harm it (just as a lion may starve by bad luck, or be killed by its prey’s horn). But, of course, the mutation would be “intentional” from the point of view of a pathogenic virus following its natural goals.

It might even be less than “random” for the organism itself, even if the mutation proved deleterious in the event. James Shapiro marshalled much evidence that many mutations in response to severe stresses like ionising radiation are adaptive – the changes stand at least some chance of leading to survival in adverse circumstances. In that case, the question of where that teleological purpose arises or resides is rather mysterious. Shapiro has no real answer to the evolution of this “teleological evolution” (which he called “natural genetic engineering”) other than a postulated prior stage of random mutations and natural selection… which is only to fudge the issue that evolution isn’t actually random by saying it was random once: another example of evolutionary biology living on extended credit.

But without a frame of reference, “randomness” means no more than “velocity” does in relativity, ie nothing. As soon as you provide that frame of reference though, it has true meaning: in my car, on earth, I can travel at 50mph. And I can randomly be killed by a truck whose brakes fail. But both the velocity and the chance disappear outside the particular frame of reference. In the theological view, my life is in the hands of my Creator, and no hair of my head will perish apart from his will.

In that theological context chance is doubly meaningless, for nothing is unknown or unexpected to the Christian God. That a mutation may be random with respect to fitness is of trivial significance in explaining the teleological origin of species, just as a swallow flying a “random” search pattern in its flight tells us nothing about the serious teleology of its feeding strategy.

The swallow is, if you like, a secondary cause with its own unique viewpoint (I’m thinking of the whole organism and its nature, not just what it “thinks”). That viewpoint includes how it sees the world, and what it doesn’t see, such as exactly where all the insects will be when it’s feeding. It is part of its nature to fail sometimes – to suffer poor feeding, to have broods taken by jays, to get shot in its migration, and so on. Those things are what constitute “chance” to a swallow.

But to God, overseeing the whole universe, they serve goals and aims for the good of the  whole, some of which may be obvious, and some entirely opaque to mere humans. Amongst the obvious, swallow populations have numerical optima, jays need to feed their families too, Maltese “traditionalists” (apparently) have good reasons to blast songbirds out of the sky.

In principle, discovering deleterious mutations (occurring “by chance” as far as the organism is concerned) is no more mysterious than the sparrows in the gospel falling to the ground. It is a random mischance to the sparrow – and, note, a random event to a human observer, too – though not, perhaps, random to the sparrowhawk that eventuated its fall. But it is nevertheless fully known to God (and therefore not “objectively” random, even apart from his providential willing of it). And this is true of every event in the universe: there is therefore no randomness in God’s frame of reference as Creator.

Which is a bit of luck.

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.
This entry was posted in Creation, Science, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Further reflection on chance

  1. Noah White says:

    Solid post, Jon. I’m definitely tracking with you better now. For some reason, I thought you were presenting a totally new development (might we call it a “special creation”? Anyone? Bueller?) rather than fleshing out further ideas you’ve already touched upon.

    My next question would be, is there anything wrong practically with discussing chance in the way we discuss it, all metaphysical baggage aside? If mutations/events/what have you are random with respect to us, when we’re discussing things in scientific terms with people who lack the theological convictions we do, shouldn’t the language of chance and randomness do well enough to get the job done (holy run-on, Batman!). I prefer to have terms defined clearly, etc., but the open theist and I should be able to discuss the minutiae of genetic mutations without getting hung up on metaphysical disagreements. Or, do you have something more radical in mind?

    Finally, a shameless plug: I recently started a blog of my own–no need to worry about a turf war, as I’m mostly touching on film/tv/music and tangentially bringing theology into the discussion :-). You may find some of it of interest, but if not no worries!

    • Jon Garvey says:

      Thanks for the plug, Noah – hope the blog goes well… but does it depend on chance??

      My problem with using the language of chance in evolution-talk is that, almost inevitably, it is metaphysically loaded.

      Either people just haven’t thought through what it means and treat it as if it were an absolute, and a true efficient cause at that. That’s as good as to say, “lack of cause was the cause”, which is incoherent.

      Or else (with much the same result) they generalise from something that is unknown to us and assume that means it’s unknowable and so undirected, whereas they have no way of knowing (for the very reason it’s unknown to them) whether it’s (for example) purposefully caused by the organism or a mechanism within the organism, or set in place by the choice of God himself.

      Take a limiting example. Someone says “Currently we have no idea how (say) memory works, and therefore it’s random”. By definition it is random to one who is ignorant of the cause, but actually nobody believes memory works by chance by that token. It has, presumably, some mechanism directed to remembering – whether that be neurological, spiritual or whatever cannot even be guessed whilst one is in ignorance.

      On the face of it “random with respect to fitness” sounds as if it’s being precise in its terms about mutations. But since “random” means “of unknown cause”, who or what exactly is being ignorant, and how do we know? If it were a claim about our lack of knowledge, then it would simply mean we don’t know the relationship of mutations to fitness, whereas we’re in fact making a truth claim that they definitely don’t aim at fitness (assuming we can define fitness, but that’s another story!).

      But suppose that, to the organism, mutations were a matter of indifference except those rare ones it deliberately induced at the points when it was purposefully evolving. In such a case applying the word “random” to all mutations would be positively misleading: evolution would be a physiological process, not a chance event. Likewise, if God applied creative changes judiciously, then lumping them together with copying errors as “random with respect to fitness” would be simply to claim ignorance of directed causation as knowledge of undirectedness. I don’t see how that increases knowledge.

  2. Edward Robinson says:

    Good post, Jon, and good clarifying reply to Noah.

    I remember that once, two or three years back, you pleaded lack of knowledge of philosophy. But as time goes on, your posts more and more show that you have been bitten by the philosophical bug. And I mean that as a compliment. To your scientific training, and your formal and informal theological training, you have added philosophical understanding. And this is what is needed in origins discussions. Philosophy is the natural third component — the necessary bridging element — in discussions connecting science and theology.

    One of the biggest defects of BioLogos (and of American TE/EC generally) is a tendency to argue from a comparmentalized position: science over here, theology (usually in the form of a personal “faith” rather than a systematic study of the Christian classics) over there. The two sit side by side, without ever being integrated. They are both affirmed as true (“we know from science that mutations are random, and by faith we believe that God is Creator”) but the relationship of the two beliefs is muddy. Randomness is real to the TEs as biologists and providence is real to them as churchgoers, but how the two are related, most TE/EC leaders simply aren’t interested in discussing.

    Part of the reason for this unwillingness to relate theology to natural science is the TE leaders’ lack of knowledge of philosophy, the bridging discipline. Whereas Augustine and Aquinas spent many years mastering the best philosophy of their respective eras, the typical TE leader writes as if no such effort is necessary for a Christian scientist trying to understand origins.

    When one looks at the roll call of TE leaders, at least those strongly associated with BioLogos, one finds a lack of training in and/or indifference to philosophical reasoning: Venema, Applegate, Louis, Alexander, Falk, Ussery, F. Collins, the Haarsmas, Isaac, Giberson (who studied philosophy as an undergrad, but has never let its methods come into his science-apologetic writing about ID, EC, and origins); and of course among the commenters on BioLogos the absence of interest in philosophy, even the philosophical side of Christian theology, is noteworthy. And Swamidass’s recent embrace of a so-called “Lutheran” approach to knowledge of God is anti-philosophical at its heart. Only Jim Stump among BioLogos leaders seems to possess advanced training specifically in philosophy/theology (though Ted Davis as a good historian of science is aware of the philosophical issues) and to think that philosophical reasoning is very important in theology/science discourse — but alas, Jim Stump’s reaction to the philosophical tradition regarding God, creation, etc. is to offer as a serious Christian possibility the heresies of people like Oord.

    To talk properly about the interrelations of “randomness” and “providence”, or about “divine action” or about how God might be related to the evolutionary process, we need an intelligible language which both scientists and theologians (and other people of faith) can use, and that language can’t be one which presupposes the truth of certain accounts of “nature” or “science” or certain accounts of Christian faith (e.g., fideism as opposed to Thomistic, rationally expressed faith). The language of philosophy is the natural go-between. It’s the language that has been used by Greek and Latin Fathers, by the Scholastics, by the Reformers (though with some caution since they were reacting to a certain overuse of Aristotle in theology), by the Cambridge Platonists, by A.E. Taylor, C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, Alvin Plantinga, William Lane Craig, and many others. But when philosophical approaches have been offered to the BioLogos and ASA folks names above, the reaction is generally a tacit rejection of such approaches — a rejection indicated by either complete silence or shrugs of lack of interest.

    Origen, Augustine, Abelard, Albert the Great, Aquinas, Calvin, etc. would not have made ignorance of philosophy into a great virtue for a Christian thinker. Why the TE/EC leaders think they can harmonize faith and science, or theology and science, while exhibiting contempt for the field of philosophy, is hard to understand.

    Possibly the answer is a simple one: most American TE/EC leaders are scientists who happen to be Christian believers, rather than humanistically-trained scholars who happen to be Christian believers. And philosophy forms no part of the typical science curriculum of the USA. Not even *philosophy of science* is a required part of a scientist’s education at any secular scientific institution in the USA. It’s possible to become a very successful research scientist without ever having to address philosophical questions in one’s research or publications. If an American scientist happens to be interested in philosophy, it’s an accident, not a direct result of the process of American education in science.

    At a major research university, there was a physics professor who had won a Nobel Prize. That professor was now speculating philosophically about the foundations of modern physics. The clever young physics grad students at his school were bemoaning the fact that the great scientist was no longer doing science but wasting his time in muddy speculations. These are the social pressures within the science world. Reflecting philosophically on the results of science, the methods of science, etc. is considered as a luxury which scientists can’t afford, a slacking off from their real business. I think that Venema, Falk, etc. were fed this narrow conception of science like mother’s milk and that the result shows in the pretty naive way they write about science and nature, as if they had never read a line of Popper, Kuhn, Feyerabend, Polanyi, etc., let alone anything historical such as Burtt, Lovejoy, Koyre, etc.

    I read a recent piece by Applegate on methodological naturalism; it was a pastiche of arguments recycled from other EC leaders. There was no sense that Applegate had dug in, in a deep way, to the history and philosophy of science, the philosophy of nature, etc. There was no sense that she had read the major works of the last century on the nature of science: Polanyi, Feyerabend, etc. And if she had read the discussion of nature, science and design by current Calvin College philosopher Del Ratzsch, it sure didn’t show.

    But again, this is to be expected. To earn her Ph.D. in computational cell biology from The Scripps Institute, a place where technical specialists are trained, she would not have been required to read any such authors, and would not have been required to give much thought to a question like: “What assumptions are we making when we use the phrase ‘random mutations’ or ‘natural causes’?” Thoughtfulness about such questions is not a requirement for career success in the competitive, grant-grabbing, publish-or-perish world of US science, so the educational institutions don’t encourage such philosophical reflections. To the extent that a few TE/EC leaders do ask such questions, it’s because of problems arising due to their Christian faith, not because of the way they were trained as scientists; and precisely because of the way they were trained as scientists, their academic training gives them no help in dealing with faith-generated intellectual difficulties.

    In short, it’s quite possible that the narrowness of the intellectual training of the TE/EC personnel is in large part responsible for the narrowness and weakness of their analysis of theology/science questions. American TE/EC is led, for the most part, by precisely the kind of scientist whose educational formation is unlikely to drive them to employ philosophical thinking.

    Of course, there are TE/EC leaders who operate largely outside the BioLogos orbit, who are more philosophically aware: Robert Russell, Robin Collins and so on. (Though I understand that Robin Collins is more of a half-and-half, a TE/ID split.) But what readers are being fed at BioLogos, and in a good number of papers presented in the ASA journal, is a rather half-baked “science and faith” discussion by Christian scientists who don’t see the need for much study in philosophy — even such philosophy as is found in the Christian theological classics. Thus, their discussion of the larger issues isn’t half as acute as your own. You’re providing a great corrective for Christian readers here, Jon. Keep it up.

    • Jon Garvey says:

      Thanks for that pat on the head, Eddie.

      It doesn’t seem to me there’s any secret formula except the desire to see how things fit together. Richard Feynman (and people like him) had that inquisitiveness about radios and ants, and became a good scientist, but famously he stopped asking the questions behind what he was investigating and so hated philosophy. I’ve forgotten which famous thinker has compared him unfavourably, for that reason, with previous generations of physicists, who refused to ignore the philosophical implications of their work.

      It’s not even a question of embracing a further academic discipline really: as soon as you wonder how your faith (not even just your theology) and nature (not even just science) fit together, you’re doing philosophy. In fact, chances are you find yourself doing history, sociology, poetry and a bunch of other stuff too, sometimes without knowing what they’re called.

      There’s maybe some glimmer of hope, at least in England. Our saxophone group rehearses in a local VIth form school common room, and last week I noticed a workbook lying around referring to what was obviously a course on PoS, up to and including Kuhn. I noticed it missed out Feyerabend – maybe a good sign, given his post-modern bent! Of course, it might be that the course doesn’t apply such stuff to science as the unquestioned religion it tends to have become, but at least the kids have been exposed to the questions.

      • Edward Robinson says:

        Hi, Jon.

        I agree that one doesn’t necessarily have to have formally studied philosophy in a philosophy department to do philosophy. In fact, depending on the teachers involved, that can turn students off, because in many modern departments a suffocating, dry, pseudo-mathematical “analytic” approach has made much of academic philosophy remote from the original Socratic questions. Indeed, some of the best philosophy these days is done by professors in departments such as History, Greek and Roman Classics, Religious Studies, and Political Science, not in philosophy departments. And there is nothing to prevent a good poet, painter, or novelist from reasoning philosophically outside the confines of university courses. After all, Socrates had no degrees in philosophy.

        My complaint was not so much that scientists don’t take formal courses from philosophy departments, but that philosophical thinking is not — as it should be — an inbuilt part of scientific education. It was so in the days of medieval science, and in the work of Newton, Galileo, Boyle, and so on. The complete purging of “the big questions” from natural science is a relatively recent development.

        I think it would be good if scientists — in their own science programs — studied some of the history of science (at the very least, of their specific scientific discipline, e.g., biology) and looked at some of the philosophical foundations of science (e.g., examining some writings of Hume, of Polanyi, and the like). In most of the social science and humanities subjects — at least, as they are taught in North American schools — foundational questions about the nature of the discipline — its methods, strengths, weaknesses, potential blind spots — are part of the training in that discipline.

        Most Religious Studies students take an undergrad honors course called something like “Approaches to the Study of Religion” where they compare the various analyses of religion (of Weber, William James, Freud, Durkheim, Eliade, Otto, Niebuhr, etc.) and ask: “What exactly are we doing when we study “religion”?” or even “Is it possible that the academic study of religion deforms the very subject (religion, religious life, God, etc.) that it purports to objectively study?”

        Similarly, undergrad history programs frequently include a course on historiography — on the assumptions about the purpose and methods of history employed by various historians from Herodotus through Gibbon and Ranke and Sombart to the present. Undergrad English programs frequently include courses on the nature of literary criticism — what ideological assumptions may underlie the critical activity and so on. Ditto for anthropology, political science, etc. But I have not yet seen a secular university in which such self-reflective courses are taught in chemistry, physics, astronomy, etc. departments as a mandatory part of the curriculum. Science departments seem to be very confident that the methods and assumption of natural science are sound and require no philosophical inspection.

        Thus, I’m much more likely to doubt some of the sacred methodological dogmas of religious studies, philosophy, history, literary criticism, because of the self-reflective academic training I received, than someone like Applegate or Venema is to doubt the firmness of the conception of “randomness” or of “nature”, precisely because they haven’t been trained to think of judicious criticism of the foundations of their own disciplines as an essential part of what it means to be a scientist. And I am not making this as a personal boast about myself; I’m saying it’s a systemic problem, built into the largely non-reflective type of education that natural scientists receive, versus the more reflective type of education that humanists and social scientists receive (at least sometimes).

        It’s good to hear that English students are at least in some cases being informed that “science” is a term that requires some reflection. In my own high school, more years ago than I care to remember, we had a course on earth/space science in which the teacher introduced us to the idea that certain people were making overclaims about what “science” could establish. Such ideas were never to be found in my other science courses — chemistry, physics and biology — which were taught in a more conventional way.

        Of course, Eugenie Scott and the NCSE have promoted exactly that conventional way of teaching science in American high schools. They are of the view that there is “not enough time” for science students to talk about philosophical questions, that the US is already falling behind Europe and Asia in technical coverage as it is. But that misconceives the whole notion of science — it treats science as a purely mechanical account of the world and philosophy of science as an unneeded extra. But the philosophical aspect of science is as important as the mechanical. “The nature of nature” must be talked about before any natural science can be done at all. If nature is a random mess of unrelated happenings, then there can’t be any natural science; if nature is governed by laws proceeding from the Mind of God, then there can be. That’s why Newton, etc. engaged in what we would call philosophical discussions at the foundations of modern natural science. They knew that Epicureanism could not produce a foundation for natural science. They thus rejected Epicureanism — or modified it by taming Epicurean necessity to the designs of the Christian God. And even for a non-Christian pantheist, philosophical assumptions about order in nature are at the heart of modern science, not frivolous, time-wasting extras that there’s “no time to cover” in science class. Science educators do their students a great intellectual disservice whenever they omit or gloss over such questions.

        • Jon Garvey says:


          There’s more than a little evidence to support the not-uncommon thesis that, to many entering science as a profession, science remains a kind of fundamentalist religion, The Truth which is immune to self-examination outside of its own presuppositions.

          You mention teaching history of science, which would be great – but plenty of history does get repeated by scientists, in the form of the myths supporting the metanarrative of Science the Great Enlightener. We’ve all seen these hoary myths rise from the dead even after being slain by facts – the mediaeval flat earth, the Galileo as martyr myth and so on.

          The same seems true at the philosophical and metaphysical level, with an Enlightenment creed of rational progress against darkness still dominating the worldview of many. The lack of thought about chance, as per the OP, is one symptom of that; as is the failure to realise that “matter and energy” is no less a philosophical abstraction than Aristotle’s “prime matter and form” were. But one could add the regular trotting out of the “God of the Gaps” critique, totally failing to appreciate its irrationality

          For Joe Public to be ignorant of these things is understandable – though surely a sign of the religious nature of scientific education both formal and via the media. But for working scientists not to care is an indictment of the whole field of “science” as an academic pursuit – and for Christians, ostensibly seeking to reconcile their biblical faith with science, to regard it as esoteric is an inexcusable abandonment of being “salt and light” to society.

  3. drnmud says:

    It seems that you’re saying randomness is in the eyes of the beholder, or more specifically, that nothing is random from God’s perspective. With this understanding, TEs would be correct in believing all living things including man resulted from mutations which were truly random from a human, and scientific, perspective.

    What I don’t understand is how mutations of something like a bacteria could lead eventually to a Bible scholar. But I suppose the evolutionary biologists don’t either.

    • Jon Garvey says:


      Your last point returns us to considerations of form, and so on, again: is change of natural form intrinsically even possible, by whatever natural means? Ignoring that (for the sake of argument), then one could argue that it’s hard to envisage mutation leading from jars of water at Cana to vintage wine, but it happened.

      The catch in that case would be in the use of the phrase “random from a human, and scientific, perspective”. That would be correct in itself, since nobody can explain it by natural laws alone. But ones whole view of the situation would be changed as soon as one admitted that it was not random from God’s perspective: both teleology and process then become possible.

      Note, however, that our ignorance of natural (ie lawlike) process remains the same – and that is the case whenever we invoke the word “chance”, because that, and only that, is what the word means. “X happened by chance” always means “I don’t know why X happened”, even when a scientific paper says it.

      Incidentally I’ve done a bunch of stuff on chance and randomness over the years here. If you’re interest, try “chance” or “randomness” in the search function – a particularly long and disconnected series starts here.

  4. Merv Bitikofer says:

    Jon wrote: “Chance can only be meaningfully discussed relative to a particular agent. It is no more an absolute than velocity is in Einstein’s physics.
    That is part of why it can never be considered a cause, since it is only ever an expression of someone, or something’s, ignorance of the true causes of an event.”

    As usual, Jon, your clarity of expression continues to illumine the topic of randomness for me. Thanks.

    So “chance” is 100% in the eye of the beholder — that sounds reasonable to me. Velocity too. Okay. But can’t causation also then be in the eye of the beholder? Velocity is relative, not absolute, yes; but we do allow for reasonable expression that “his excessive velocity caused much of this property damage in the auto accident” without quibbling about the questionable ontological status of velocity. It is enough for us to have relative velocity in our world to begin to attribute effects to that very thing, relative as it is to us in our surroundings. This makes me wonder if I’m pressing your analogy beyond its useful service and beyond your intent. Randomness is metaphysically speaking a matter of our own perspective. I’m solidly with you there. Can it not as just such a perspective be real enough to us for at least some casual use? I get it that it would be better to always have the qualifier behind it that this is “not random to God”, and that such a qualifier becomes most significant in its deliberate and frequent absence when applied to hot-button origins topics. But then again, most of us are quite willing to “take our chances” as we roll the dice in family games or other matters of “chance” in life. For my own part as a Christian, I don’t think I ever use the word “chance” or “randomness” anymore without personally seeing scare quotes around the term –to such an extent that those have become an implicit part of the concept for me and inseparable from it even when I don’t always bother to put them in. I guess that is problematic in communication with others who view those concepts very differently than I do. In any case, thanks for the continued thoughts.

    • Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Merv –

      I don’t think the analogy between velocity and chance can be pressed like that. I believe it’s valid as regards their both having the property of relativity, as I used the analogy, but only in that respect.

      Velocity is a physical attribute, and therefore an efficient material cause, even if one ought properly to view it as relative to some other velocity. If I arbitrarily designate that other velocity “zero” (eg, applying it to a tree), then the velocity of the car, translated into momentum and hence impact force, is a true cause of my hurtling to my death through the windscreen.

      Randomness, however, is relative only with respect to a psychical quality, ie ignorance of cause. It therefore cannot ever be considered a true cause in itself.

      Colloquially, I grant, “chance” favours the winner of a game of dice, as reasonable shorthand for “our known inability to control the parameters of a carefully designed system, and our ignorance of God’s controlling providence, made us unable to predict the outcome of the game, and hence led to a degree of interest and excitement”.

      But that should not apply to scientific explanations, which are supposed to be a rational consideration of real efficent causes. Where science cannot attribute a repeatable/reproducible cause, it should keep silence and not pretend its ignorance is an explanation.

      Even colloquially, “chance” terminology is theologically risky. I’ve mentioned in the past how the Puritan Richard Baxter, as a teenager, was cured of gambling by an unlikely set of wins that set him thinking that the Devil, rather than chance, controlled the dice. My son had a similar sense of unease when he had a statistically improbable run of success in Yahtze on holiday.

      Somehow one has a different perspective on games of chance – and especially on gambling – if one has in mind a concept of universal providence. Why would one enter a lottery in the hope of solving one’s financial problems when one could pray instead? If chance isn’t actually blind, one treats it with more respect.

      In more general terms, I remember being slightly annoyed by Christian brothers and sisters using the term “Godincidence”. It was great that they saw God’s hand in events, of course, but the unstated assumption was that coincidence (ie “ontological chance”) is the norm, with which God might on occasion interfere. But that leads directly to all the old TE issues – chance and necessity usually run the cosmos, so why would God need to “interfere”?

      But if one sees that neither chance nor necessity are true causes, but only descriptions of God’s faithful or contingent activity (whether direct or indirect), the world is seen to be working in an entirely different way.

      How that impacts playing Monopoly is, perhaps, a question to be answered from the pulpit!

Leave a Reply