Friday, June 12, 2009

God's sovereignty and blind chance

Stephen M. Barr responds to the argument that "theistic evolution" as advanced by people like Francis Collins is incompatible, in Joe Carter's words, "with a strong view of God’s omniscience." Barr thinks that is a false dilemma:
.... The dilemma is created by a failure to take adequately into account the complete sovereignty of God and the fact that God is outside of time. This is ironic, because Joe says he is a Calvinist, and Calvinists of all people, should have no problem with these issues.

Let’s back off from the emotionally heated subject of evolution for a moment and look at an issue that is much simpler. We have all played games of chance, I suppose. When you roll a pair of dice, is there not an obvious sense in which the outcome is “random”? Is there not an obvious sense in which the rolling of dice is a matter of “chance” so that one can use the concepts of “probability”? On the other hand, isn’t it also true that God knows and wills from all eternity what numbers come up when dice are rolled? If anyone thinks there is a contradiction between these statements, then I suggest that he hasn’t really grasped the traditional teaching about God’s atemporality. And I would further suggest that he lacks certain basic theological insights that would allow him to think clearly about evolution. ....

.... To say, as Joe says, that “God making evolution appear undirected is similar to the idea that he planted dinosaur fossils and created geological strata to fool us into thinking the earth has been around more than 6,000 years,” is in my view completely to misunderstand what scientists and ordinary people mean when they speak about random processes. When one shuffles a deck of cards, one is really randomizing it—the whole point of shuffling. The randomness is not some sort of ploy or ruse on God’s part. But when we shuffle a deck, we are not escaping in any way from God’s absolute control over events: God knows and wills in exact detail from all eternity that I will shuffle the deck, precisely how I will shuffle the deck, and what the order of the cards will be after I shuffle the deck. On this point Calvinism and Catholicism agree.

Francis Collins understands the issues very well. His theological mentors are St. Augustine and C.S. Lewis. His understanding of divine providence, omnipotence, and omniscience are thoroughly in accord with the insights and explanations to be found in St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the mainstream of Christian tradition. ....

Every person of common sense realizes that there is some sense in which one can truly speak of randomness and chance in the world. Actuaries, weather forecasters, poker players, physicists, investors, pollsters, people who engage in statistical analyses of data, and all sorts of other people understand this. It in no way implies a denial of divine foreknowledge or absolute divine sovereignty over the world. St. Thomas Aquinas devoted an entire chapter (Book 3, chapter 74) of his Summa Contra Gentiles to arguing this. The title of that chapter is “Divine providence does not exclude fortune and chance.” I think Calvin would have agreed with Aquinas on this point.

One problem, I believe, is that some people think that saying “Nature is blind” is equivalent to saying “God is blind.” The two statements, however, are poles apart. God is not Nature and Nature is not God. When scientists say that certain things in nature are random, this does mean that Nature is in a certain sense blind; it does not imply anything about God’s knowledge or purposes. [more]
Joe Carter responds to the response, denying that he is victim of the described false dilemma and agreeing with Barr about the compatibility of sovereignty and chance. In part:
My criticism is not of all neo-Darwinists and/or theistic evolutionists but only those who believe that the the process is “absolutely unguided.” This may not apply to Francis Collins, and if not then I am sorry that I followed John West in misrepresenting the views of a man I greatly admire.
Re: The New Theistic Evolutionists, A Random Response to Stephen Barr

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