UD Editors: This is an update from an article originally posted in 2014. We are posting it again in honor of the publication of “Theistic Evolution.”
Preliminary Note: I have put words in the TE’s mouth based on my understanding of what he would in fact say. If I have gotten it wrong, I trust you will inform me.
IDist: World-renowned atheist Richard Dawkins says that living things overwhelmingly impress us with the appearance of design by an agent (whom he calls a master watchmaker).
Theistic Evolutionist: Yes he does.
IDist: Do you agree with that observation?
TE: Yes of course. It is undeniable.
IDist: Dawkins goes on to say that the impression of design by an agent is an illusion, because the apparent design of living things can be accounted for on the basis of blind natural forces.
TE: Yes, that’s what Dawkins says.
IDist: As a TE you essentially agree with Dawkins on this point.
TE: Correct. The appearance of design by an agent is an illusion. Darwinism is reductionist at its core. The properties of all living things (except the human spirit) can ultimately be explained by the operation of blind natural forces, which St. Thomas would have grouped in the category of “secondary causes” were he alive today.
IDist: It seems that as far as material bodies are concerned (i.e., setting aside the human spirit) there is no daylight between your position and the position of someone like P.Z. Meyers, a radical atheist materialist reductionist. Am I wrong?
TE: At one level of ontology you are correct. From a methodological/empirical perspective there is no daylight between my position and the position of P.Z. Meyers (again, setting aside the issue of the human spirit). At a different, higher, more important level of ontology, however, you are wrong. You see, a process that to us appears to by haphazard and random may actually at a deeper ontological level be the product of design. In Chance, By Design, Stephen Barr argued that “horizontal randomness” should be distinguished from “vertical randomness.” Horizontal randomness is what we perceive empirically. If I roll fair dice fifty times, each roll has a 1/6 chance of being 7. But at a deeper level, what Barr calls “vertical randomness,” God can fix the game so that the roll comes up 7 as many times in a row as are necessary to accomplish his purposes. Therefore, if the dice come up “7” 50 times in a row, the series of rolls nevertheless remains the product of a stochastic process. This is “horizontal randomness.” But God willed the result in an empirically undetectable way to come out as it did (“vertical randomness”). Barr explains this in his article as follows:
. . . whether or not things unfold in accordance with natural randomness and natural probabilities, it is God who in the vertical sense is causing them to happen that way. As St. Thomas put it, ‘The effect of divine providence is not only that things should happen somehow; but that they should happen either by necessity or by contingency. Therefore, whatsoever divine providence ordains to happen infallibly and of necessity, happens infallibly and of necessity; [whereas those things that divine providence conceives should happen from contingency], happen by contingency.’
By itself, the doctrine of divine providence only tells us that everything unfolds in accordance with God’s plan. It does not tell us what that plan is, either in its general features or in its particular details. It does not tell us the mix of law and chance, or of necessity and contingency, that God chose to use in his plan. Evolutionary history may have unfolded entirely in accordance with natural laws, natural randomness, and natural probabilities, as the great majority of biologists believe, or there may have been some extraordinary events along the way that contravened those laws and probabilities. In either case, evolution unfolded exactly as known and willed by God from all eternity.
IDist. OK. I think I understand. Like the dice coming up “7” 50 times in a row, God ordained in an empirically undetectible way that the evolutionary dice came up “life.” From our limited perception we can see the results of the process only from the perspective of “horizontal randomness,” and we say “it looks like the game is fixed,” because the results of the rolls appear to us to be astronomically improbable. But the game is not fixed, because God can make even fair dice come up “7” 50 times in a row, and if that is what he wants even a seemingly (to us) random process is in reality infallibly designed because at a higher level – the level of “vertical randomness” — God willed it to happen.
IDist. Barr says God willed events to happen such that the biosphere as we now see it arose no matter how statistically improbably those events might be.
IDist. Another way of looking at it is that as the title of Barr’s article suggests (Chance, By Design), what appears to us to be random is actually, at a deeper level, designed.
IDist: That puts the TE in a peculiar position.
TE: How so?
IDist: Well, the TE says that the apparent design of living things is an illusion.
IDist. He also says that the illusion of design is explained by the working of random events and mechanical processes, i.e., reductionist Neo-Darwinian processes.
IDist: But then the TE goes a step further and says that the “random” processes at work in the Neo-Darwinian process are actually “random” only from our horizontal perspective. From God’s vertical perspective they are not random at all. They are infallibly willed, and another way of putting that is from a vertical perspective the events are designed to occur, no matter how improbable they appear to us.
IDist: So the TE says that the appearance of design is an illusion, and the reality that explains the illusion is random natural processes. But the reality that explains the illusion is itself an illusion, because from God’s perspective what appears to be the product of random processes is in fact designed.
TE: Yes, that is right.
IDist: So the reality behind the illusion is itself an illusion, and the ultimate reality behind that illusion is what you declared to be the initial illusion. If “design” is the ultimate reality would it not be more parsimonious to simply affirm it from the outset?