Evolution and Christianity: How design and chance are not mutually exclusive

This is a continuation of the previous post. Recall we are discussing an article that addresses what the Church believes and teaches about evolution.

The article goes on to further characterizes the Church’s teaching regarding evolution, which is basically accepting of it, because it does not simultaneously interpret it in such a way as to exclude the role of God in the world. Specifically the article states:

But it’s here where the Church falls flat. This is the classic argument made by all reconciliationists — the idea that religion and Darwinian natural selection can work in harmony together. It’s a “want my cake and eat it too” proposition that largely ignores the potency of Darwin’s dangerous idea as a God killer.

Here is the point where this article takes the wrong turn.

Darwin’s theory provides for a stand alone system. Evolution is fully autonomous process that does not require any guiding “rationality” (Benedict’s term) to function. It’s an agonizingly slow, brutish, and insanely methodical process, but it works.

This is a common misconception. There is a difference between saying that a process is random from a mathematical standpoint and saying that it is not planned from a theological standpoint. It is entirely possible that there exists “chance by design” as physics professor and Stephen Barr puts it in these articles: http://www.firstthings.com/article/2005/10/the-design-of-evolution


The point is that it is entirely possible that God created the world in such a way that there is no statistical pattern in the mutations throughout the history of natural selection however God uses this mechanism including its randomness to produce the end result. This may be difficult to understand, but with a closer look, it’s not absurd at all.

It is necessary to understand what is meant by God created the world. This is the key to understanding the error in the article. When a theologian states that “God creates,” he means that God gives reality to something, that is, He makes it real and maintains it in existence. The reason that something exists at any given moment is that God wills it to be that way. God wills creation, from all eternity, to exist in the manner in which it does. God does not start things off and then leave them be, this would be metaphysically impossible, rather, God timelessly wills all things to be, beginning, middle and end. This is what is meant by creation.

A helpful analogy is that of an author who writes a story. The story is created by the author in its entirety. The author doesn’t merely start things off and then tinker with her product later on. She wills a certain fiction to exist, and it does (obviously as fiction). See http://catholicxray.com/creation-god-the-author/ for more on this analogy and why it is important.

In any case, evolution obviously has nothing to do with God as creator. The very existence of an ongoing process is the existence of something which requires a cause. The first cell, every organism, the DNA of every organism, the laws of biochemistry which are in place making mutation possible, etc. are all held into existence by the will of God. One may dispute that they need a cause, however, that is a different argument. There is nothing specifically about evolution which shows there need not be a first cause. Hence the need for God as creator is independent of what goes on in creation, much as a story needs an author regardless of the events of the story.

Then what claim of natural theology is evolution meant to undermine? Judging by the article and what most people say, it seems that they deny an ongoing direction to evolution. They seem to say that evolution is either (1) guided by God or (2) random. They may admit that it could be “started off” by God and thus God could be a “first cause” yet they deny a continuous involvement of a designer directing evolution towards a goal. They claim that it is the science behind evolution itself which provides evidence against design because there is no mathematical pattern to the mutations which lead to new species, thus they argue it is random and therefore not designed.

The problem in this conclusion is that it misunderstands what design is from the standpoint of natural theology. Design is not something separate from creation itself but rather something that follows from it. This is the case given what creation is. Namely, given creation is an ongoing act from our standpoint (although one eternal act of God’s will). Creation isn’t just getting things going but about actualizing the world and all that exists in it at all points in time.

What then is design? Design basically comes down to what kind of world God creates. Assuming that we have demonstrated that God has intellect and will, any act of creation is necessarily design because it involves a decision to create this world rather than that one. We often say that something is designed if it has been consciously put together. For instance, we look at a watch and say that it is designed because it has parts which work together because a watchmaker put them together in that manner. On the other hand, we might say a room is well designed because the various pieces of furniture and decorations fit together in such a way that makes the room both efficient for whatever work it is made for (e.g. for cooking in a kitchen) and is aesthetically pleasing. We might say that a plot was well designed in a story if it progresses in such a way that takes into account minor details and sub-plots and character acts throughout the story in such a way that they come together in a coherent way for a coherent message in the story. We could say that if a sports team loses a handful of games in a row even when they were the favorite that the situation was “designed” in the sense that it was rigged. All of these examples show that design has something to do with consciously inserting some sort of order and purpose into a situation.

Since God is necessarily the cause of all that there is, He must necessarily be the designer. This is because any world in which God creates, He creates consciously. Any world could not be the way that it is without a conscious cause hence it could not exist without design. Because every piece of creation is a certain type of thing, a ‘this’ rather than ‘that’, it has some sort of inherent order or intelligibility. Since God always creates for His glory, He imbues creation with an inherent purpose, namely, the glorification of His own nature, in giving the natural world a share in this goodness.

Perhaps one would like to make the objection: simply because someone makes something or causes it to be, it does not follow that he has also designed a specific way. For instance, I could set a fire in a forest and then let it go. It could have no pattern or design to it, I just caused it and that’s it.

The problem with this objection is that it takes human ‘creation’ and God’s creation and then compares them. God’s creation means causing something to be at every moment and therefore it necessitates that God choses everything to be a certain way in the way that it is, hence it necessitates design. Human creation involves two main differences. First of all, human creation generally just involves starting things off and then possibly tampering with the thing at later points. Second, humans do not have control over all factors, therefore, in causing something to be, a human is really only providing one part of the cause, not the entire thing. For instance, in the fire analogy, the human might provide a match but he doesn’t provide the oxygen or the necessary conditions in the atmosphere etc. which make fire even possibly. Hence humans always act as partial causes. Since they always act as partial causes, there is an element of randomness which might exist when they cause something because there are certain things which they are not in control of. If this were not the case, the situation would be perfectly designed. In fact, this is usually what is meant when we say a situation was designed, that is, all conditions were under the control of the humans. For instance, when a scientist designs an experiment, she sets up certain environmental conditions that are to remain constant while changing other variables. She designs the situation because she is in causal control.

Since God is the complete cause of all there is, there is no room for any randomness outside of His will. Since God is the continuous cause of all that there is, there is no room for future randomness as there is when humans cause things. Returning to the story analogy, the story is necessarily designed by the author in the sense that it is impossible for the author to cause the story to be without also giving it some sort of inherent structure, otherwise, it wouldn’t be a story and wouldn’t be caused at all by an author.

Therefore, a proper understanding of design involves two sides. On the one side is God’s. On this side, design is the same act of God’s intelligent and free act of creation which exists from all eternity. On the other side of things is our side. From our perspective design means something different than merely creation because it considers creation under a specific light. It considers how God’s act of creation gives order and purpose into the world.

Is life designed by God then? Some may argue that it is not because life itself emerged and changed over time via natural principles, namely natural selection which happens because of the laws of biochemistry which ultimately supervene on the fundamental laws of nature. Some say that maybe God designed these laws but didn’t design life itself. This misunderstands God’s omnipotence and omniscience as well as His eternity. God, in actualizing a specific world, actualizes its entire history, beginning, middle and end. God makes each point in time a reality and gives it its inherent intelligibility at all points in time. Part of this intelligibility is the orderly laws which nature follows. There are some possible physical systems which behave according to physical laws which do not result in life emerging. Other systems do result in life but not life like life on earth. There are many possible physical realities. This is because there are many ways in which God could’ve created the world. The fact is that God created this reality. It is this reality, behaving according to the actual laws of physics, which exists for the actual amount of time that it exists for which results in the life we experience. In willing this world to be, God wills each event, each point in time, each effect which happens (of course, God allows certain things to happen when he allows evil. But this ultimately has to do with free will in which God creates a thing which does not behave according to physical laws but allows for immaterial, rational agents to make choices. This introduces a new question about the relation between human freedom and Divine sovereignty. Since this article has to do with evolution, which starts before free will even enters the picture, we can set that question aside at the moment). Additionally, God wills all things to be according to the way that they exist and according to the specific causal patterns which make them be the way that they are. For instance, if God wills it to rain, He wills rain, He wills clouds, and He wills it to rain on account of the clouds. We do not merely assert this to be the case but it is necessarily the case given that God is both complete cause and continuous cause of all that there is. If rain exists, it does so because God willed it to exist. If clouds exist, they do because God willed them to. The reason that clouds can cause rain is because of what they are. The reason clouds cause rain and not the sun is because of what clouds are versus what the sun is. Since God causes clouds to exist and He causes them to exist in the manner in which they do, that is, to have the power to cause rain under certain conditions, it is clear that God is the cause of the rain, the clouds, and the causal pattern which is present.

When the author determines that her story is to unfold according to a coherent theme, it is not as though she merely sets up a theme, an introductory event, a few characters, and then lets things go. On the contrary, a good author sets up a theme and a plot and decides that the plot should unfold according to that theme and then writes the story accordingly. We do not say “this event follows the structure of the story and therefore is not written by the author.” We say it is more elegantly written when the story is lawful. Likewise, the world is not less designed when it behaves lawfully.

Bringing the conversation back to evolution specifically, a few more points must be made. First of all, even if there is no statistical pattern this does not entail that at a fundamental level the process isn’t orderly. Suppose I flip a coin ten times. Although the results may appear random (and from one perspective they are) they in fact follow a very orderly set of physical laws. The apparent randomness in the coin flips presupposes order. Secondly, the apparent randomness really is only random from our perspective. Assuming we knew every physical factor (weight of coin, air pressure, force of thumb flick, etc.) we could presumably predict the end result. Hence the pattern of heads-tails simply flows from the specific conditions present at each coin toss which in turn vary according to the laws of nature themselves.

You may argue that the laws of physics themselves are indeterminate. If is the case, it simply means that God willed a physical system to exist which does not follow a determinist set of laws but rather behaves probabilistically. This does not show that design does not exist. Moreover, it doesn’t even show that God isn’t in control. God exists outside of time and therefore in making the world exist, He knows how the system will behave even if it doesn’t behave according to necessity. It may be that God has no preference to how a certain indeterminate system behaves, but this doesn’t mean that He isn’t the cause of the system. (although this point is admittedly a little shaky because it takes a very human-like perspective on preference and projects it onto God in a way that might be faulty. But that is beside the point of this post).

Second, applying what has been said to natural selection, it is clear that because the process in its entirety requires a cause, it requires a designer. That said, it does not necessarily provide a starting point for an argument from design (I will discuss this in a bit) but it does still require a first cause who acts as designer. Just as the story’s natural progression requires an author, so does the universe’s natural progression require a cause. Just like the author in causing the story causes all points in the story’s plot time to be and to behave in an orderly manner, so does the author of the universe cause its entire history to be and behave in an orderly manner. Even if something in a story happens randomly it does not mean this part of the story does not come from an author. For instance, a character’s street address may not have any great significance in the story and may appear “random.” The very fact that an address exists however in a story is because the author chose the character to have a certain address. If the address appears random or it has no greater significance in the story, it is because the author made the address to be part of the story in this specific way.

From God’s perspective, He is creator of this world, just like the author is the creator of a story atemporally. In creating this world, God choses a world which unfolds in such a way that natural selection occurs and it occurs producing the results which it does. All of this is true simply from considering God’s causal relation to the world and without appeal to revelation or ad hoc arguments to account for evolution. Evolution poses no problem to natural theology that any other change doesn’t pose. There is nothing unique about evolution compared to any other gradual process. God’s design of the world as well as God’s providence (which is really just God’s design considered from a different perspective, that is, from the perspective of God designing situations in such a way to provide for humans whereas design is God designs the physical system itself so as to provide a certain type of natural world) are in no way effected by the fact that change occurs in the world and sometimes it has no pattern. Thomas Aquinas discussed randomness here http://dhspriory.org/thomas/ContraGentiles3a.htm#74 (specifically questions 64-77 with a focus on 74) very long ago and its relation to Divine Providence.

Hence, although evolution doesn’t provide any unique form of evidence for rationality, it still needs a rational guide because it couldn’t exist in the first place were it not for God.


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