Sunday, October 09, 2005

Providence and Chance

For my bio class I've been investigating Darwinism and I promised to write something about my explorations. I present some preliminary conclusions here.

Now I need to warn you that my results are a bit unsatisfying to a compulsive contrarian like me. Yes, I'm proposing a way that Darwinism and Providence are compatible. But I think this explanation is a little different from the usual hand-wavy, quasi-philosophic incantations that accompany such apologetics. The argument rests purely in ordinary non-sectarian reason (assuming from religion only the definitions of its terms). The upshot is that the conclusion refrains from shuffling religion off to "the kiddie table," that is, to its own "magisterial realm" completely divorced from the visible, real world.1

The Christian (and I surmise traditional Jewish) idea of Providence is God's complete and ultimate control over every single event in His creation: strictly speaking THERE IS NO CHANCE:

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father's will.2

Modern science invokes chance when a system involves too many complications to treat in detail or with generality. The classic example is tossing a coin: a physicist could model all the classical mechanics of the process, but there are too many uncertainties in measurement of boundary conditions to predict outcome with any accuracy, so he just treats it as a fifty-fifty chance of each side landing up.

In other words, science invokes chance to express ignorance of causality.3

So my basic point is that the "random" mutations that Darwinians use to "explain" the genetic novelty that natural selection works4 on is no explanation at all, but really just a way of saying "we can't explain the particular events that caused adaptive mutations." Now, I'm not faulting Darwinists for invoking chance, as it is almost certainly impossible to say why a particular cosmic ray struck a particular codon in the DNA of a particular sparrow's germ-line cell to make the species mutate in a special adaptive way. Such are the limits of modern science.5

This is where Providence has an opening to big enough to pilot an aircraft carrier through.6

Of course, some Darwinists will derogate such an explanation as a "God in the gaps" theory. Fine. But labeling an explanation "chance" is no better than labeling it "God." Neither Providence nor chance is a scientific explanation: Providence isn't "scientific" (that is, naturalistic) and chance isn't an explanation.

So despite my visceral reaction against saying it, I have to conclude that Darwinism, as a scientific theory, is not incompatible with Providence.

The Limited Efficacy of Numbers

The problem is when some Darwinists try to extend the reach of science to the domain where science must remain silent. There are permanent limits to scientific methodology, especially the quantitative.7 What's problematic is the claim that because we can't scientifically find a cause then there must be no cause ("chance").8

Atheistic Darwinists have completely over-reached when they invoke Darwinism to deny evidence of design in creation and thus of the reality of its Creator.9

This over-reach is essentially what Cardinal Schönborn was getting at when he clarified his July 7 New York Times op-ed:

[N]eo-Darwinians who adduce random genetic variation and natural selection as evidence that the process of evolution is absolutely unguided are straying beyond what can be demonstrated by science.

The key word phrase is "absolutely unguided." The touchstone of modern science is measurement. Science can no more speak definitively of absolutely everything than it can measure absolutely everything. One can certainly hypothesize that the universe is infinite, for example, but such an assertion can never be scientifically confirmed.

The Panda's Thumb discussion thought-provokingly flagged the Cardinal's clarification as inconsistent with the op-ed. Among the sentences highlighted:

Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science.

What might have annoyed them is the phrase "overwhelming evidence... in biology." On the surface there does seem to be an inconsistency: on the one hand, the Cardinal is saying there's overwhelming evidence for design in biology and on the other hand he's saying that scientists can validly say there's no evidence of design.

The difference turns on what one means by "biology."

On the one hand, the design in nature is evident to anyone who looks at the order in the natural world with an open mind: the merest child spontaneously asks who made the world.10 Biology, in this broad, traditional sense, can't help but see design.

On the other hand, biology—like everything else these days—is following physics in becoming uniformly quantitative. Concentrating purely on quantity strips the world of the living enfleshment of qualities.11 This is not to say that quantities are not important (could I be a physicist and believe that?), but simply that they don't suffice to explain the world completely. It is biology in this narrow, quantitative sense that is blind to order and design. After all, how does one reduce to mere numbers a multi-faceted, metaphysical reality like order12?

So the problem is not the scientific theory of Darwinism; the problem is taking Darwinism to be a complete, comprehensive explanation of life in general, and human life in particular. As far as religion is concerned, Darwinism is not a wide-ranging wolf, but a yipping yard-dog.

Conventional wisdom would say that science is master of the visible world but might gratuitously grant religion a small fiefdom of reality. What I'm saying is that science (Darwinian) has a small kingdom that poses no threat to the very real and sizable domain that religion owns outright. There is a frontier between the two that science is impotent to cross—whether or not it can see it. That Darwinists might "deign" to tolerate religion is like believing the fantastic claims of the businessman in The Little Prince to own unreachable planets.

Why the Popular Mistrust?

Scientists assure us Darwinism is scientifically true, but with all their equivocations (one example discussed here) it's hard not to suspect there's an extra-scientific agenda lurking in the background, especially when you've got Doctors Gould and Dawkins weilding Darwin as a club for atheism.

Darwinian friends, let's be reasonable here. If this sort of evangelizing atheistic Darwinists—the kind that superciliously affix "Darwin" amphibian logos to their cars— misrepresent Darwinism, then why aren't "scientific" proponents of Darwinism evangelizing just as sincerely against these people's misconception that Darwinism supports atheism as they are for teaching Darwinism in schools? And if not, how can anyone seriously believe that teaching Darwinism in public schools is non-sectarian?

To swallow that fish-story would really require "blind" faith.

The Deeper Lesson

Gould, Dawkins & Company insinuate that if God's effects aren't scientifically measurable, then He isn't real. That's the real danger: failing to realize that science is not the last word on absolutely everything. To see only the magnified shadow is to make the Darwinian mouse that casts it your master. Don't grant atheistic evolutionists that power.

As great as modern science is, it has very real limits—limits that all of us, scientists and citizens, disregard at the cost of our freedom.


1. Cf. Gould's "Non-Overlapping Magisteria" (NOMA).

2. Mt 10:29, cf. Lk 12:6.

3. For the philosophically minded, chance is the intersection of two otherwise independent lines of causality (Aristotle). You go to the market and happen to run into a friend. Neither of you coordinated the meeting. There was no interaction between the lines of causality: they are independent. "Chance" doesn't explain the meeting, but can only express our ignorance of the cause. Western civilization, and indeed science itself, is built on the belief that everything in the visible world has a cause, whether we can know it or not. To define chance as the cause is to resort to pure irrationality.

4. As you can read in any biology textbook, natural selection only eliminates individuals from populations, but doesn't explain where the genetic variation/novelty came from in the first place. Random mutation is the empiriological explanation for genetic novelty. You can think of the gene pool of a population as precisely a pool of genes or characteristics. Natural selection only siphons off and disposes of some of the pool, narrowing it, not expanding it. Random mutation is what causes the pool to broaden, according to Darwinists.

5. What I am faulting them for is saying that chance is an explanation.

6. This is not to say that God sticks his finger into the universe everytime there's a genetic mutation, but that every mutation is part of his Design from all eternity; there need be no break in the self-consistency of the physical universe. On the other hand this doesn't necessitate deism, cf. Jn 1 and Col 1. See also J. Pelikan's chapter on the historical Christian belief in Christ as Logos and Archetype of creation in Jesus Through the Centuries.

7. For example, the ideology called "empiricism" says that only the measureable is real; unfortunately "empiricism" is itself immeasureable.

8. This very same disease afflicts the conventional, Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics.

9. See St. Paul's Letter to the Romans, chapter 1, itself a paraphrase of Wisdom 13. Also the pronouncements of the First Vatican Council.

10. Formally philosphically, the principle of sufficient causality tells us that the maker of a thing can have no less perfections than the thing he makes, so whatever perfections anything in the universe has must be attributable to its Creator, and primarily these are the transcendentals: Truth, Goodness, Unity, etc.; but also the rational perfections of human beings: intelligence and will.

11. For more on qualitative (non-ID) biology, see the Nature Institute.

12. Negentropy (negative entropy) is a likely candidate, but is only analogous to order. Information is another proxy, and the attempt to equate order with information can have validity, but limited.

Christoph Schönborn, "Finding Design in Nature," New York Times (July 7, 2005).

John L. Allen, Jr., "Follow up news: Schönborn and evolution," National Catholic Reporter (August 5, 2005 Vol. 4, No. 43).

Stephen M. Barr, "The Devil’s Chaplain Confounded," First Things 145 (August/September 2004): 25-31.


greg said...

I agree with you regarding the limitations of Darwinism to explain (pontificate) about that which it has neither the authority nor the means to measure, namely, religion and metaphysics. However, given Dubay's and Barr's discussion about the complexity of the neuro-system and the retina as well as the lack of evidence of intermediate/transitional organisms, how exactly strong is the case for Darwinism anyway? Hell, Henry Adams said the history of the US presidency from Washington to the present day was more than sufficient to completely disproved evolution. (Grant was the current occupant at the time.)


David M. Smith said...

Excellent post MJ. Consider me an on-line student.

Lawrence Gage said...

Thanks, David.


How strong is the case for Darwinism? The real question is: how strong is the argument of a person who says nothing?

The key point is that Darwinism's invocation of "chance" means "we can't say any more."

You can't argue with a man who says "I don't know." To do so makes you look stupid.

The only thing more blockheaded is to claim that one's ignorance is a scientific explanation. But in an effort to justify their atheism, many Darwinists do just that.

As far as Darwinism the scientific theory is concerned, it's fully compatible with ID. At the point Darwin shuts up (invoking chance), ID (or some other theory) takes over.

Hoping to post more on the subject this weekend... if I can manage to get my work far enough along while recovering from this cold. I need to be more concrete about the inability of "science" to truly comprehend reality.


Skemono said...

Wow. Your constant denigration of evolution as "Darwinism", as if the best-supported theory in all of biology were nothing more than a schoolgirl's fan club, shreds your credibility on this topic.

And everything else you write sets those shreds on fire and reduces them to ashes.

Lawrence Gage said...

I think I must be misunderstanding you because I don't see how calling evolution "Darwinism" degrades it in the least.

It might be possible you need to re-read. I haven't denigraded Darwinism the scientific theory, but Darwinism the ideology.

Labeling Darwinism as science and properly interpreting what it actually implies will only appear as denigration to ideologues.


Michael "Sotek" Ralston said...

Um, no serious scientist thinks that mutations happen by "Chance". They'll describe that way, because the causes are complicated and essentially unpredictable - but they're not "Chance".

Carbon-14 in a piece of DNA undergoing radioactive decay causes a mutation. We can't predict when it'll happen, and we certainly can't predict where it'll happen, but it's not "chance" - except in as much as "chance" summarizes various things which are too complex to predict.

Rolling a die is chance - because there's too many variables determining how it'll end up, but it's not the kind of "Chance" that means it's impossible to know what determines it, even if you can't predict it.

But if you say God influences the various quantum things we don't understand (which lead to a particular radioactive atom decaying at a particular time, for instance), explicitly in order to make things evolve the way He wants them? Well ... okay.

But that hardly is an argument against evolution, and "Darwinism" is a term I've never seen used by anyone who it could be construed as applying to, which makes me wonder why you keep using it.

Anyway - Chance is not ignorance of causality, and claiming that the way you did is such a horrid misrepresentation of the facts you yourself presented that it might as well be a lie.

Chance is inability to predict - BECAUSE it's impossible to measure everything that needs to be measured.

Do you think we don't know why the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is true? Do you think we don't understand causality there? We can't predict - because we can't measure effectively enough without affecting it.

Lawrence Gage said...

If no serious scientist thinks mutations happen by chance, then why do they describe them that way? To say something that one believes to untrue is usually called lying.

I call it Darwinism because I want to specify what theory I'm discussing. If we're not talking about Darwin's theory of "evolution" (that is, the origin of species by natural selection), whose are we discussing?

An historical note: "evolution" is a philosophical theory devised by Herbert Spencer. Charles Darwin only adopted the term in later editions of The Origin of Species--that is, much after the fact.

"Chance is not ignorance of causality....Chance is inability to predict"

Really? I am ignorant of the cause of any given nuclear decay even after the fact. Perhaps you can enlighten me and the rest of the world?


Lawrence Gage said...

PS I'm not arguing against evolution.

Skemono said...

No, "Darwinism" is offensive because it implies that the theory of evolution is nothing but ideology, a cult of personality started by Charles Darwin. It's much like calling a Muslim a Mohammedan--it completely misses the point. Evolution is a scientific theory with a great deal of evidence supporting it that has evolved beyond what Darwin originally proposed, so if you're fixated on discussing "Darwin's theory of evolution", you need to catch up.

As for why scientists call things "chance" when they're not 100% random (here; educate yourself)--that's simple. Because it's easier to call it chance than to spend pages explaining the mechanisms involved. Scientists themselves understand the difference, but that scientific meaning is lost on layfolk, and apparently on yourself. It's like the distinction between "theory" in scientific and lay vernacular.

Oolong said...

Evolutionary theory does not posit the existence of uncaused events. "Random" does not mean "uncaused" in biological lingo. It might in quantum physics, but it doesn't in biology. I think you've missed the boat here, my friend.

Lawrence Gage said...

Perhaps I haven't made it sufficiently clear that I'm not attacking Darwinism (popularly known as "evolution") in this post. All I show is that it is culturally irrelevant--as is the whole flap with the ID movement.


The very document you point me to quotes Dawkins speaking of "Darwinism," e.g. "Darwinism is widely misunderstood as a theory of pure chance." I suppose Dawkins thinks evolution by whatever name only an ideology?

In any event, the sense of randomness that the article plainly admits is exactly what I am attributing to (what Dawkins calls) Darwinism: the theory can't explain why we have what we have now--that is the particular creatures and their characteristics.

As the article says,

Gould has written that if we could rewind the "tape" of evolution and replay it, the result would not be the same (Gould 1989). Among other things, humans are almost certain not to re-evolve. This is because the number of contingent causes (asteroids hitting the earth, continental drift, cosmic radiation, the likelihood of significant individuals mating and producing progeny, etc) are so high that it is unlikely they would occur again in the same sequence, or even occur at all. If an asteroid hadn't hit the Yucátan Peninsula 65 million years ago, for example, mammals probably would never have diversified, as they didn't in the 100 million years before that.

Darwinism provides only the most general framework for understanding the origin of species; it is a necessary but insufficient condition for understanding the development of species. It is an incomplete explanation.

It's interesting that Dawkins leaves open the possibility that some directed process could steer "random" mutations:

It is not necessary that mutation should be random for natural selection to work. Selection can still do its work whether mutation is directed or not.

("Oolong" seems to be unaware that he is reiterating my point: science doesn't deal with uncaused events.)


Ed Darrell said...

The errors start with the claim that Jews and Christians think God controls everything completely, and it goes downhill from there.

"Random mutation" does not mean that causes are not known -- Morgan used radiation to cause the mutations, for example, so the cause was known from the start -- but rather, it means that the mutations are not made to a specific point of a gene by intention of any specific intelligent entity. Unless one assumes that God personally directs each cosmic ray, each photon of light, etc., one is agreeing in essence.

Scientists don't say that random means God didn't do it, either.

Who has time to Fisk such a piece, really?

Lawrence Gage said...

Scientists don't say that random means God didn't do it, either.

Thank you, Ed.


Oolong said...


No, what I said was that biology is not positing the existence of uncaused events. Yoiu are assuming they are saying this when they are not. If they are not, your beef is much ado about nada.

Lawrence Gage said...

And I agreed with you, just as my post did. Biology doesn't posit uncaused events. And I would add: only ideology posits uncaused events.


Oolong said...

So is that whole post really about how biology calls mutation random but yet suggests that the mutations are caused? That's it?

David M. Smith said...

Wow MJ,

Great illustration of the difficulty in trying to reason with religious zealots.

It appears that no matter how much humans evolve as a species, blind faith will still interfere in the ability of many to think clearly and reason intelligently.

Thanks for being different.

Lawrence Gage said...


I think you've still misunderstood: evolutionary biology's use of the category "random" means that it cannot speak meeaningfully about the actual cause. Notice I'm not saying that science posits uncaused events, but merely that it cannot comprehend the cause. There's always a cause, even if you can't figure out what it is.

For more on this take a look at the succeeding post, my most recent:

Intelligence Transcends Science


Thanks for your support! Religion is a great good, so it is a shame when people use it as a substitute for thinking, instead of a basis for seeking understanding. As Augustine enjoined, Crede, ut intelligas ("Believe in order that you may understand," Sermon 43.7, 9)

Of course blind faith is not limited to people traditionally called religious. The anti-religious indulge in their share of bigotry as well--all the more dangerous because their assumptions often go unacknowledged as faith.

Thanks again!


P.S. David, where did you get that anti-spam software you're using on your blog?

David M. Smith said...

Hi MJ,

The Anti-Spam setting is part of the Blogger settings now. You just need to check yes for word verification in the comment tab and then save your change.