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Chance vs. Randomness: Another theological dance in Darwin’s defense?

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Let’s hope not. From the Carl F.H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding:

One recent morning I gave my friend John Wilson, the longtime editor of Books & Culture, a copy of my new book, Introducing Evangelical Theology. By early evening he was tweeting his dissent about p. 122. There I summarize parameters from Donald Bloesch: “God’s providence is personal: we do not believe in fate. God’s providence involves design: we do not believe in chance.” John objected, “I’m a Christian, and I believe in chance.” However, he went on to concede, “But ‘chance’ has so many meanings. It turns out to be surprisingly tricky to define.” Indeed.

I responded with a distinction that surfaced through conversations related to the Creation Project, between chance and randomness. We can acknowledge “randomness” within God’s providence, while rejecting “chance” in the sense of fundamentally uncertain events lying outside the scope of God’s will. John and a couple of other tweeters decided that the subject needs more discussion, and here we are. This isn’t surprising, since these matters are perennial…

What is “chance,” how (if at all) is it different from “randomness,” and what place (if any) do these concepts have within Christian faith and understanding?


Daniel Treier, “What are the chances?” at Sapientia (September 23, 2019)

Pardon the suspicion but some of us remember sneery “science-splains” at theistic evolution sites as to how there is a huge difference between chance and randomness—which sounded exactly like some scuzz claiming that there is a huge difference between taking money to keep quiet about wrongdoing and a bribe.

The whole scene just seemed like an excuse for Christian Darwinism and other church closers. Maybe this is a happy exception.

Then as now, the proper response is: no scuzz, no – (O’Leary for News)

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11 Replies to “Chance vs. Randomness: Another theological dance in Darwin’s defense?

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    ET says:

    With evolution the random nature of mutations means they are chance events- not planned, they are accidents, errors and mistakes.

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    Ed George says:

    ET

    With evolution the random nature of mutations means they are chance events- not planned, they are accidents, errors and mistakes.

    No, it doesn’t mean that they are chance events. Certain chemicals and radiations will induce mutations at predictable rates. But, other than our efforts in biological research, I agree that they are not planned. And, as they are not planned, it is not possible for them to be errors or mistakes.

    Use of these types of words, something that I and most scientists are also guilty of, is the inappropriate application of anthropometric terms.

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    ET says:

    Acartia Eddie:

    No, it doesn’t mean that they are chance events.

    Ernst Mayr disagrees with you:

    The first step in selection, the production of genetic variation, is almost exclusively a chance phenomenon except that the nature of the changes at a given locus is strongly constrained.

    You lose, again

    And, as they are not planned, it is not possible for them to be errors or mistakes.

    Evolutionary biologists disagree with you. Copying errors creep in. And they are called errors and mistakes in the literature. Accidents occur when DNA is damaged.

    Clearly Acartia Eddie doesn’t know what it is talking about.

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    Silver Asiatic says:

    Theistic evolution destroys the concept of Creation since the creative act of God requires intention, and blind, random, chance, unplanned, unintelligent actions lack an intention.
    The First Cause is the creator of all contingent reality and is therefore Intelligent and Intentional.

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    ET says:

    If mutations aren’t accidents, errors or mistakes, then why is there a proof-reading and error-correction process? 😎

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    ET says:

    Acartia Eddie? Anything to say in the face of my refutation of your claim?

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    ET says:

    As supported by many references, with evolution, the random nature of mutations means they are chance events- not planned, they are accidents, errors and mistakes.

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    jerry says:

    Here is a partial transcript of the lecture on Boethius.

    We turn, then, to the actual arguments of the Consolation. The prisoner’s main complaint is that divine providence leaves human affairs ungoverned, so that the wicked have power and the good suffer at their hands. It’s not simply “Why do bad things happen to good people?” It’s, “Why does God govern all the rest of nature in an orderly way but allow human affairs to go on haphazardly and unjustly?”

    What prompts the question is obviously Boethius’s own miserable situation. But the Consolation answers the question by moving outwards from one man’s feelings about a specific historical situation to a timeless, global, “God’s-eye” view of the whole sweep of the universe. It considers the nature of providence, its relation to human affairs, and the nature of good and evil.

    But that’s not where we start. We start, not with anything so grand, but with Boethius’s complaint. He first complains about the loss of good fortune. He has lost his reputation. He has lost his freedom. He has lost his high public office. He is the victim of unjust accusations, a smear campaign conducted by people who are not even worthy of his notice. Fortune has turned against him, and it’s not fair. Philosophy replies that it is of the nature of Fortune to be fickle. She says:

    You think that Fortune has changed toward you, but you are wrong. Her ways—her character—are always the same. She has simply shown you the fickleness that is her only constant feature.

    It is in this context that Lady Philosophy introduces Fortune’s wheel. Fortune—personified as a woman—was often shown in Hellenistic and Roman art, and portrayed in literature, as spinning a wheel. So the image is not new with Boethius by any means, but he is an important channel by which that image is transmitted to the Middle Ages, in which it is very popular. Lady Philosophy reminds Boethius that he has accepted the good things that Fortune once brought him. Now he must accept the reversals that come with Fortune’s territory. She says:

    Having entrusted yourself to Fortune’s dominion, you must conform to your mistress’s ways. Are you trying to restrain the motion of her whirling wheel? You must be the stupidest man alive! You have to realize that once her wheel begins to stand still, it ceases to be fortune.

    But the fickleness of Fortune is only the warm up. The truly important point here is that the goods of Fortune are not true goods anyway. Boethius is mourning the loss of things that do not bring true happiness anyway. This is the disease from which Boethius is suffering: the pursuit—in this case, the ultimately unsuccessful— pursuit of false goods.

    But what’s wrong with these goods? Why are they false goods? Well, to answer that question we need to compare these false goods to true goods. So Lady Philosophy begins a discussion of the true good. She says:

    Mortal creatures have only one concern. They struggle in all sorts of ways to attain it; they follow any number of paths to achieve it. But all this effort is aimed at one, and only one, goal: happiness. Happiness is a good that, once attained, puts an end to the possibility of any further desire. It is the highest of all goods and encompasses all goods within itself. If anything were lacking from happiness, it could not be the highest good, since something would be left outside it that would be worthy of desire. Everyone, as I have said, strives to attain it, though by different paths. For a longing for the true good is implanted by nature in the human mind, but error diverts people toward false goods.

    Note that in this passage Lady Philosophy offers three things: a theory of happiness, a theory of motivation, and an explanation of wrongdoing.

    The theory of happiness is an abstract description of happiness. What I mean is that she doesn’t tell us concretely and specifically what happiness is like. She just tells us that, whatever it is, it is a good that leaves nothing further to be desired.

    The theory of motivation is that all human beings, in everything they do, are aiming at happiness. They take many different roads and they work for it in many different ways, but their ultimate motivation has to be the search for happiness. And it has to be the search for happiness because that motivation is implanted in us by nature. But if everyone naturally seeks happiness, and happiness is a perfect and all-encompassing good, why is it that so many people miss the mark? That’s where the theory of wrong doing comes in. People are indeed always aiming at happiness. They must because nature has implanted in us that desire. But because they fall into mistakes about what happiness is, they naturally veer off course and fail to achieve what they’re aiming for.

    The problem, Lady Philosophy says, is that misguided people seek to attain happiness through wealth, public office, kingship, celebrity and pleasure. Why do they do this? Because people believe that through wealth they will attain self-sufficiency; that through public office, they will attain respect; that through kingship, they will attain power; that through celebrity, they will attain renown; that through pleasure, they will attain joy.

    The really interesting point Philosophy makes here—the one that I think sets Boethius’s analysis apart from so many conventional arguments—is that these false goods don’t even provide the aspect or part of happiness for the sake of which they are pursued. It’s a very standard argument in philosophy to say that wealth, for example, does not bring happiness. And so many other philosophers will note that these goods don’t, in fact, bring complete happiness. What Boethius does distinctively in this is to emphasize that these goods don’t even bring the partial happiness that they might plausibly be thought to bring.

    So wealth, Lady Philosophy has said, is sought for the sake of selfsufficiency, but it doesn’t actually bring you self-sufficiency.

    Actually it makes you dependent on other people to guard your money and, in fact, no amount of money is going to make you free from worry—the promise of self-sufficiency is illusory.

    People seek public office for the sake of respect, but we cannot regard people as worthy of respect simply because they hold office if we consider them unworthy of the office. And if a person is wise, that person is worthy of respect in office or out of it. Furthermore, honors bestowed by the common folk cannot impart such dignity.

    This is a remark that is very much in tune with the aristocratic dismissal of popular acclaim.

    People seek kingship for the sake of power. But even a king doesn’t have the power to banish cares and worries, the danger of rebellion or overthrow. Kings don’t even have the power to win friends who will protect them from such dangers, since their so-called friends will desert them when things are tough. And even whatever happiness does come from kingly power is limited, since the power itself is limited in extent. And true happiness, as we’ve already seen, has to be complete. True happiness is something that leaves nothing else to be desired.

    People seek celebrity. They seek fame and glory for the sake of renown. But glory is often deceptive and worthless, and even deserved glory can’t add to the self-assessment of the wise man. If I know that I am deserving of glory, I do not need you to tell me that. People seek pleasure for the sake of joy, but bodily pleasures bring illness, pain, and melancholy in their train. Anyway, we have bodily pleasures in common with the beasts of the field, and we clearly cannot call the beasts of the field blessed. How can our happiness consist in something that we share with the lower animals? And even honorable pleasures, especially those of the family, can go sour on you. Your children might be ungrateful. They might disappoint you. And—Lady Philosophy does not spare Boethius’s feelings here— Boethius himself is agonizing over how his own misfortunes will affect his children. Pleasures, she says, are like bees. They tempt you with sweet honey, but then they sting you, and they’re gone. So these are the false goods that misguided people seek, thinking, wrongly, that they will bring happiness, but the important work is not merely exposing these goods as deceptive. The important work is Philosophy’s diagnosis of the reason these goods cannot bring satisfaction. The problem, she says, is that people seek these goods as if they were separate things, when in fact they are all one, and they can only be attained in the one true, all-encompassing good. She says:

    This good is, by its very nature, one and simple. But human perversity breaks it up. And as long as it strives to seize a part of a thing that has no parts, it attains neither a portion nor the whole. It does not attain a portion, because there are no portions; it does not attain the whole because it does not desire or aim at the whole.

    That is so true, and perfect happiness is a single thing, one thing, that makes a person self-sufficient and venerable and powerful and renowned and joyful—all at once. But where can such happiness be found? Well certainly not in “mortal and transient things.” The Platonist influence here is very clear. Our ultimate happiness, our ultimate place of rest and peace is surely not to be found in mortal and transient things. Such things may offer a fleeting, temporary counterfeit of happiness; but only a complete and perfect good, only a good that does not come into being and pass away, only an eternal and permanent good can offer the real thing.

    Lady Philosophy continues to argue in a way that is easy to recognize as Platonic in its inspiration. She goes on: It is impossible to deny that a perfect good exists, and that it is the fount of all true goods. After all, anything that is said to be imperfect is called “imperfect” because it is discrepant from what is perfect. Consequently, if there appears to be something imperfect in a given class of things, there must also be something perfect in that class. Take away that perfection, and one cannot even imagine how the imperfect thing could have come into existence.

    Remember that in Platonism we understand sensible things in light of their perfect intelligible paradigms and not the other way around. We do not need sensible things to make sense of the perfect intelligible things. We need intelligible things to make sense of the sensible things that merely imitate them in a deficient and fragmentary way.

    So there has to be a perfect good that is the source of all goods. And that good has to be in God, since we already believe that nothing better than God can be imagined. Now if God were not the source of all goods, we could imagine something better than God. That source of all goodness—whatever it would be—would take precedence over God. And that is of course impossible, so God himself must be the source of all goodness.

    But God is not merely the source of all goodness. God is goodness itself. Goodness is not a feature that God has; goodness is what God is. This claim is associated with the doctrine of divine simplicity, a very widely held medieval doctrine. A brief discussion of that doctrine fits very nicely here, because the doctrine of divine simplicity is just the doctrine that God has no parts of any kind. In particular, he has no metaphysical parts, as we might call them. That is, in God there is no distinction between God and his various features or attributes.

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