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Sorry Dr Barr, “Chance By Design” is an Oxymoron


Christians have traditionally believed that the design of living things is evidence of God’s handiwork.  For millennia they agreed with the psalmist who gave thanks to God for the obvious and exquisite design of his body:  “For You formed my inward parts; You wove me in my mother’s womb.  I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made . . .”  Psalm 139:13-14. 

Honest atheists do not dispute the Christian belief that living things appear to be designed.  Even world famous arch-atheist Richard Dawkins concedes this point, writing that “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.”  Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker.  Dawkins does not mince words.  According to him the appearance of design in living things is not subtle, but rather is “overwhelmingly” impressed on us.  Id.  To be sure, Dawkins goes on to explain why he believes the appearance of design is an illusion and that natural selection combined with random chance are sufficient to account for the appearance of design without having to resort to a designer.  

And then you have theistic evolutionists like Stephen M. Barr who want to have it both ways.  Barr has an article in the December issue of First Things entitled Chance, By Design in which he rehashes arguments in support of theistic evolution that he has made a number of times before.  See here and here.  Even though he is a Christian, Barr is perfectly happy to accept Darwinian evolution.  So how is Barr different from Dawkins?  In one sense, he is not.  Christian Barr and atheist Dawkins both assert that mechanical necessesity and random chance are sufficient to account for the apparent design of living things.  Both Dawkins and Barr hang a sign on the front door that says “no designers need apply.”   

The difference is that Barr is willing to crack the back door open just a little and let God in so long as he behaves himself and doesn’t make a ruckus.  Barr does this by asserting that when he uses the word “random,” he is not using it in the same way Dawkins does.  Dawkins would say that, by definition, a “random process” is undirected, but Barr says that when he uses the word random he means “only apparently random but really directed at a deeper level of existence.”  As I have written before: 

Barr believes that, in Einstein’s famous phrase, God really does play dice with the universe. But according to Barr, God, has loaded the dice so that they rolled “life,” however improbable that might have been (like a thousand 7′s in a row with real dice), and God’s dice loading is so clever that the “fix” can never be detected empirically.


In this way Barr maintains membership in the academic cool kids club by espousing a Darwinian account of origins that is indistinguishable from the account of origins atheists Dawkins and Dennnett espouse. Yet he keeps the “T” in his “TE” by saying that at a wholly different level of existence God fixed the game so that “random” is not really random but directed.


Both Barr and Dawkins appeal to random chance to explain the apparent design of life.  The only difference is that Dawkins believes the dice are fair and Barr believes they are fixed.   

The interesting thing about Barr’s argument is that it cannot be refuted by appeals to either logic or evidence.  It is not logically impossible for God to create through a process that appears to be random but is in fact directed. And no amount of evidence for design can undermine Barr’s position.  I assume Barr would concede with Dawkins that the appearance of design in living things is “overwhelming,” but to Barr the overwhelming evidence of his own eyes is irrelevant.  Because no matter how overwhelming that evidence may be, Barr can always follow Dawkins in asserting it is an illusion.  

In summary, there are three positions in play here. 

(1) The traditional theist observes the overwhelming appearance of design in living things and is content to conclude that things are they way they appear to be, i.e., that living things appear to be designed for a purpose because they are in fact designed for a purpose. 

(2) The atheist admits that the appearance of design in living things is overwhelming but asserts that the appearance of design is an illusion and in reality natural law and random chance combine to produce a result that only appears to be designed.   

(3) The Barr-type theistic evolutionist admits that the appearance of design in living things is overwhelming but asserts — like the atheist — that the appearance of design is an illusion and in reality natural law and random chance combine to produce a result that only appears to be designed.  The TE then goes one step further by asserting that the explanation of the illusion of design is itself an illusion, because the randomness of evolution is in fact directed.   

Barr says that the appearance of design must give way to an appeal to random chance which in turn must give way to design.  Why go through this convoluted process?  If you are going to conclude “design” at the end, why not just stick with the conclusion of “design” at the beginning?  The answer, I believe, lies in the fact that Barr is a Darwinian true believer.  He really does believe the evidence compels him to concede that the Darwinian evolution is true.  Yet as a Christian he also feels compelled to concede that God created living things.  And when people feel compelled to believe contradictory things there is no end to the linguistic knots they will tie for themselves (like saying that “random” means “directed”).   

If the empirical case for Darwinian evolution were unanswerable one might be tempted by Barr’s position (though it seems to me that if that were the case Dawkins’ position would be even more tempting).  But the empirical case for Darwinian evolution is far from unanswerable.  In fact, while it will probably remain textbook orthodoxy for some time, it is becoming increasingly apparent that Darwinian evolution is an analog relic of the Victorian steam age trying (and not succeeding very well) to find its way in a digital information age.  As we have discussed several times in these pages recently, even thoughtful atheists are starting to doubt whether Emperor Charles is quite so fully clothed as they once thought.  And just at a time when even atheists are starting to jump ship, TE’s like Barr come along to double down on their commitment to a failing theory.   

I miss Richard John Neuhaus.  When he ran the show First Things was always willing to give ID proponents a fair hearing.  Barr and his ilk now control the FT editorial board, and, sadly, that once great journal is sliding slowly into irrelevance.  I will leave it to others to judge whether there is a connection between those two facts.