International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

God, Chance and Necessity

by Keith Ward

Introductory Essay by David J. Bartholomew

This is one of the classics of the Science and Religion literature. It was first published in 1996 and has been reprinted several times since then without, as far as one can see, any revision. The book has stood the test of time but a prospective reader should be aware that a great deal has happened in the field over the last decade. Much of the book is focused on two of the original ’new atheists’ - Richard Dawkins and Peter Atkins. Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, John Paulos, Victor Stenger, all now prominent in this movement, had yet to make their impact.

This is not an easy book; its author is a philosophical theologian and this shows. Ward makes it quite clear that he fully accepts evolution, driven by natural selection, though he thinks there is much that it does not explain.

Chapter 1 is largely directed against Atkins who has claimed that something can come out of nothing, without need of a Creator. According to Ward, the best explanation is that the universe was conceived in the mind of God and brought into being by him to express a purpose. This theme continues through the next two chapters over the course of which Ward makes the important point that purpose does not have to be expressed only in the ‘end’ of a process but that it can be seen even in the transient (eg as in a symphony).

In the course of Chapter 4, the author points out that natural selection does not account for many of the things which figure so prominently in human life such as consciousness, value, beauty, culture, beneficence, passion, love and a sense of moral obligation. Taking the atheist perspective, these things have to be regarded as epiphenomena. Only by treating them thus can Atkin’s claim that God is superfluous be sustained.

Chapter 5, The Metaphysics of Theism, is short, but in some ways the key chapter of the book. Strongly critical of Dawkins; the author sees the real conflict as between Theism and Materialism, not between Theism and Science. He argues that materialism makes assumptions about the nature of reality which are no less acts of faith than the metaphysical underpinnings of theism.

The title of the book sets chance in opposition to purpose. The author firmly believes that the universe expresses purpose so must explain how purpose can meet the challenge of chance. Ward allows that it is possible that the unguided random nature of evolution may have led to the world as we know it but he regards this as very unlikely. Instead, he holds that God influences the probability distributions underlying genetic processes rather than the actual outcomes themselves.

Since Ward’s original writing, authors including Simon Conway Morris have brought convergence into the dialogue. According to him, the evolutionary process is not necessarily purposeless. Although mutation might well be accidental, the constraints imposed by the environment (and competition from other life forms) appear to severely limit the number of viable evolutionary paths which can actually exist so that the appearance of intelligent life may not have been unlikely at all.