Uh Oh, What if God Actually DOES Play Dice (or, Is Evolution Random?)

Helen De Cruz (Katholieke Universiteit LeuvenInstitute of Philosophy), recently posted a brief article “A Darwinian Dilemma for the Theist Who Accepts Evolutionary Theory.”

Despite the fact that Dr. De Cruz is clearly one of the brighter bulbs in the chandelier (she has PhDs in philosophy and archaeology, her areas of interestes are things like Cognitive Science of Religion, Cognitive Archaeology, Philosophy of Cognitive Science, and her home institution doesn’t come up on my spellcheck) she has posted a very readable article that theists (namely Christians) who are also evolutionists might want to read.

Evolution, as we all know, challenges traditional Christian notions of how and when humanity (and the cosmos) began. These traditional notions come from the Bible, namely Genesis 1 (God created in 6 days) and Genesis 2 (Adam was the first human formed out of dust in an act of special creation by God).

Some of us who are Christian and accept evolution focus on the biblical interpretation side of this issue and write books and blogs explaining why a literal (scientific, historical) reading of the Bible is placing more of a burden on the Bible than it is prepared to deliver.

But there are many other sorts of challenges that thoughtful Christians need to think about, which is where philosophers like Helen De Cruz come into the picture.

The point of her article is basically this. One way that Christians commonly reconcile Christianity and evolution is by claiming that God is present in the evolutionary process by guiding it toward an end. That means that, despite the apparent randomness of evolution (stochasticity), God’s way of creating is by a guided evolutionary process–even in the smallest subatomic details–that moves toward a goal or end (Greek “telos”), namely, we humans created in God’s image.

In other words, evolution is not random (stochastic) but purposeful (teleological).

Now, you need to read the article to see the details, but De Cruz’s main point is that the stochasticity (randomness) of evolution doesn’t seem to be “apparent” but real. If that’s so, you can’t claim that God’s purpose can be “seen” in evolution (at least not “seen” in a scientific sense) because “purpose” means “not random.”

I think if I said more I’d just confuse the issue more, so read the article. But, one last thought.

I can imagine some might be tempted to use this idea of the randomness of evolution as an excuse to dismiss the whole idea because of how (seemingly) incompatible it is with God’s existence. “See!! Evolution and Christianity ARE incompatible, like I’ve been warning you all along!!!! If evolution is random, it needs to be rejected by anyone claiming to believe in God, because God isn’t random.”

Let me say, slow down cowboy. The reasons for accepting evolution are still there, even if evolution raises some serious questions. The proper way forward is not to dismiss evolution like a bad dream, but to accept the theological challenge and the need to work through it.

  • Al

    Despite the possibility that evolution is indeed a random process (stochastic optimiser to borrow Ard Louis’ phrase) I think part of the solution from an evolutionary creation point of view is to be found in Simon Conway Morris’ book Life’s Solution in which he argues that, were evolutionary history to be replayed the outcomes would be fairly similar. He bases his argument on the idea of evolutionary convergence: certain evolutionary pathways have been repeatedly followed by a variety of life forms as a solution to a specific problem (the eye is an obvious example). His argument is based on a recognition that it is the conditions for life as well as the innate features of organic life which ‘determine’ a degree of predictability in the evolutionary journey.

  • http://www.Yeshua21.com/ Wayne

    The solution is to be found in these lines from T.S. Eliot:

    With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this
    We shall not cease from exploration
    And the end of all our exploring
    Will be to arrive where we started
    And know the place for the first time.
    Through the unknown, unremembered gate
    When the last of earth left to discover
    Is that which was the beginning;
    At the source of the longest river
    The voice of the hidden waterfall
    And the children in the apple-tree
    Not known, because not looked for
    But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
    Between two waves of the sea.
    Quick now, here, now, always—
    A condition of complete simplicity
    (Costing not less than everything)
    ~ T. S. Eliot (excerpt from “Little Gidding”)

    Our “end” or “telos” is here and now– in the beginning with God! The “second coming” or “parousia” also becomes intelligible in this light. Now is the accepted time… Now is the day of salvation… Whosoever will may come and drink of the water of life freely! Take up your cross–the kingdom of heaven is at hand! :)


    • rvs

      I was thinking more along the lines of The Wasteland:

      Who is the third who walks always beside you?
      When I count, there are only you and I together
      But when I look ahead up the white road
      There is always another one walking beside you
      Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
      I do not know whether a man or a woman
      —But who is that on the other side of you?

  • Mel

    That article wasn’t about randomness per se so much as God’s motivations (why would he choose a messy process)? I was a little disappointed. As such it’s not particularly different from the question of why he would give Adam and Even free will at all, or why he would allow the snake it the garden, etc. It’s a perennial question but it doesn’t actually affect my views on the intersection of evolution and religion at all. Frankly, the Bible already shows a messy process, even if you take it literally. We always hit a wall in discussing God’s motivations, somewhere, at some point.

  • http://prodigalthought.net Scott

    Interesting stuff to read. In September, I’ll begin my studies at KU Leuven towards my PhD in theology. It’s a great institute with the world’s largest theological library. Looking forward to the opportunity of being a ‘student’ once again (we are always students!).

  • LoneWolf

    Here’s a bit of trivia: Einstein actually quipped “God does not play dice with the universe” to rebutt the apparently random nature of quantum mechanics. People never mention Neils Bohr’s response to Einstein’s perception: “Don’t tell God what to do with His dice.”

    • vorjack

      Einstein actually quipped …

      Over and over and over again until everybody was sick of hearing about God and dice.

      Einstein could be a little too impressed with himself.

  • mountainguy

    God doesn`t play dice… he always preferred billiard

  • Bilbo

    Suppose we could track down all the mutations that have occurred in the evolutionary history leading up to human beings. Even if they looked random (no obvious specified complexity, for example), how would we know they were actually random, and that God hadn’t been cheating?

    But let’s assume that God allows the universe to play dice and the odds of getting human beings are too small for one universe to win. It seems all God would need to do is create many universes. Eventually one of them will win.

    • Stephen W

      Or just one, very very big universe :)

  • Scott Caulley

    I found myself seriously questioning Einstein’s “Gott wuerfelt nicht” when, a few years ago, several teenagers from a nearby town were killed while enjoying a ski holiday. A construction-helicopter in the mountains erroneously overflew the ski lift and at the same time inexplicably lost its load, dropping a hopper of cement onto the gondola car below– occupied by those teenagers (two cars were sent into the ravine). I told myself it was just physics and really, really bad luck. Small comfort to the families of the deceased.

    My questions got me the same answers as Job got– it’s not really my business to understand the “why” of such things. The more I learn about the universe– including evolution– the less I know about God. Or maybe I’m just dragged back to Kierkegaard’s “infinite qualitative distinction” (and Barth’s ‘Nein!’), and reminded that evangelicals tend to think they have “God in a box”. I’m pretty sure none of us does.

    btw, a good discussion on the problem of “randomness” in evolution is in Richard Colling’s “Random Designer: Created from Chaos to Connect with the Creator” (Browning Press, 2004). The book was an attempt by a believing professor to address on behalf of his perplexed students the disconnect between Christian faith and science. But the result was that Colling was constrained to resign his job teaching science at an evangelical college. The book can’t be all bad….

  • Stephen

    Thanks for posting this piece; I’ll read it soon.

    FWIW, it’s also relevant to note that we have evolved to detect (well, posit) design and purpose. We are intuitive teleologists.

  • http://linkd.in/XNH3w1 Keith C Furman, PhD

    The book “Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe”, and work of Simon Conway Morris (SCM) http://amzn.to/ZifUEn and http://bit.ly/10O3V1U (audio) makes possible for me to to be an intellectually fulfilled Christian in evolutionary paradigm (to turn a phrase of Richard Dawkins).

    Simon Conway Morris’ work focuses on the ubiquitous evidence for convergence (when evolution lands upon the same solutions time and time again in vastly divergent organisms) in evolution. For example, the invertebrate octopus has camera-like eyes very much like our own. Camera-like eyes have evolved independently at least several other times. Think how many different kinds of organisms fly: birds, mammals (bats), reptiles, insects, etc. — yet they clearly have no common flying ancestor. Why. While not nearly so smart as humans, many animals are intelligent including: primates, dolphins, elephants, New Caledonian crows, the octopus, etc. Man’s intelligence and other features developed from a common ancestor with apes in a mere ~6 million years.

    Thus, based on the ubiquitous evidence for convergence in evolution, the Cambridge paleontologist, Simon Conway Morris clearly shows that, if you rewound the tape of evolution and ran it again, one thing is CERTAIN, you’d have flight, you’d have camera-like eyes, you’d have intelligence and so on. Thus, all the features of life are INEVITABLE because the randomness (think equal opportunity provider) of genetic mutations merely provides the ability for genetic change that is constrained by necessity, natural law and other constraints. These constraints trace back to the initial conditions of our universe. Even essentially man is arguably inevitable!

    Note that Simon Conway Morris is not a creationist or an ID proponent (though they would like to claim him in view of the implications of his work) but is a Christian who believes in the Creator.

    Combine this with the fine-tuning argument http://bit.ly/169aj6Z and it is easy to see how God, in foreknowledge and insight could have designed the universe in the beginning with no need to intervene, i.e., God got it right at the beginning (i.e., whether at the moment of big bang or setting the conditions for a multiverse that would have inevitably produced a right set of conditions).

    God is above space and time . A thousand (or million or trillion…) years is as a day. So, how long it took is completely irrelevant.

    Follow me on Twitter @EvoCreatn

  • http://firstbaptistnewark.com Mark Farmer

    This is where I am grateful for process theology, such as John Cobb’s.

  • Marshall

    All you really need for a progressive evolution is for God to lend special protection to selected individuals. Plus the occasional catastrophe to break up excessively stable entrenched structures. And in that case, free will is preserved.

  • http://www.spiritofthescripture.com Joshua Tilghman

    It has always struck me as strange that Paul said Man is without excuse because of what we can look around and see in nature. Obviously something about nature speaks of God. Well, nature works in cycles. Cycles don’t seem random to me. Perhaps evolution seems random but in the grander cycle of the cosmos evolution is not random, but a huge cycle. Perhaps Paul also had a different God in mind than the one Christianity has always espoused? Christian mysticism and their method of Biblical interpretation has always made more sense to me.

  • http://enterthesilence.blogspot.com/ Jay

    Thanks for this post Peter. I haven’t had a good chance to hear current dialogue on the topic since I graduated four years ago. Makes me miss my philosophical studies.

    My basic answer to her question is found in the plausibility of infinite universes. Which in fact is being found to be more and more possible in quantum physics. Basically that if an infinite number of universes does really exist and the God we read of in the Bible is the creator of all of them (I believe s/he is) then half of all possible universes are not “fallen” therefore there is no suffering, of humans or otherwise. And that the hominid species as we know it may only exist in this form on this manifestation of earth. There could be universes with multiple sentient beings, completely different sentient beings, or none at all.

    Not sure if this really helps the argument, but as an artist/philosopher I really like the idea.

    • Van

      Jay posits: “Basically that if an infinite number of universes does really exist and the God we read of in the Bible is the creator of all of them (I believe s/he is) then half of all possible universes are not “fallen” therefore there is no suffering, of humans or otherwise. And that the hominid species as we know it may only exist in this form on this manifestation of earth.”
      Evolutionists have totally failed in their attempt to make the case for an accidental explosion ‘out of nothing’ to account for the incredible complexity and obvious design of our own visible universe and its crowning jewel — the earth and its inhabitants. So, now, what do they conjure up? You guessed it: a multitude of imaginary so-called ‘multiple universes’ that remain to be discovered and, thus, cannot be verified by TRUE science.
      It’s bad enough that they have imagined a big myth, but they have also imagined that these ‘mentally-created’ universes are populated with all kinds of star-trek type beings, thus making it unnecessary for there to be a God-created universe with its God-created life forms — including the likes of you and me.
      May I suggest that first explain to our satisfaction the origin of the universe they can actually see, touch and smell before they dream up some stupid theories about something they dreamed up after eating pizza just before bedtime.

  • http://@EvoCreatn Keith C Furman, PhD

    You might be surprised at what modern science actually does say in this article, “Evolution: Is God Just Playing Dice?” http://huff.to/10nZob3 .

    Note that this is NOT an ID approach. This is simply what the ubiquitous evidence of convergence arguably tells us.

    See also, “Far from random, evolution follows a predictable genetic pattern, Princeton researchers finds”, at http://www.princeton.edu/main/news/archive/S35/06/74S40/.

    I’ve also tried to summarize some of Simon Conway Morris’ work on convergence in evolution here: http://bit.ly/171mZxc .

  • http://crystalmatrix.us/ Major_Ray

    Most scientists do not have the ability to understand
    biocreation or intelligent design. It is like having one eye that understands
    biology, chemistry and physics, but the other eye never developed. Being
    a great scientist (not necessarily a prolific or famous one) does not produce
    an eye or a heart for the things of God. Once I discovered the biological
    meaning of “Ezekiel’s wheel” (it is more than DNA), I documented my
    work (not through peer review), and left my position as a research affiliate at
    MIT. I could not be happier than I am now!

  • herewegokids

    Thank you.

  • herewegokids

    And, am I totally behind the 8-ball here Peter, or does Lynn Margulis still have something to add to the conversation with the work she did? “Margulis was best known for her theory of symbiogenesis, which challenges central tenets of neo-Darwinism. She argued that inherited variation, significant in evolution, does not come mainly from random mutations. Rather, new tissues, organs, and even new species evolve primarily through the long-lasting intimacy of strangers. The fusion of genomes in symbioses followed by natural selection, she suggests, leads to increasingly complex levels of individuality. Margulis was also acknowledged for her contribution to James E. Lovelock’s Gaia concept. Gaia theory posits that the Earth’s surface interactions among living beings sediment, air, and water have created a vast self-regulating system.” Lynn dismissed any creationist element involving a deity, I believe…however she was an OBSERVER and not afraid to challenge the status quo. It’s been my understanding that current science isn’t settled on the question of randomness, ie, whether it’s genuine or only in appearance, or whether we as a species are even old enough to make a judgement on that. In that sense, could we say it’s a moot point?

  • David Buchanan

    One could also start by not perpetuating the idea that evolution is entirely random. Evolution operates through a combination of random activities (e.g. mutation, genetic drift, recombination) with activities that have a direction (e.g. natural selection, migration).