International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

God, Chance and Purpose: Can God Have It Both Ways?

by David J. Bartholomew

Introductory Essay by Michael Poole

Debates about the place of stochastic processes in the economy of a purposeful God, have featured Monod, embracing ‘chance’ and rejecting God, and the Intelligent Design Movement claiming that God and chance are mutually exclusive. The author distances himself from both in arguing “chance lies within the purposes of God” [ix]. The reification of ‘chance’, treating it as a purposive agent, is dismissed early on.

Bartholomew’s professional expertise lies in having “the critical eyes of someone trained in the statistical sciences” to evaluate such issues. Reassuringly, there is “almost no technical discussion in the book which requires formulae for its expression”. The first chapter addresses “what we mean by chance”, asking whether it arises from present ignorance (epistemological chance) or because there’s “no knowledge we could possibly have which would make any difference” (ontological chance). Chapter 2 continues with this theme, moving on to chance and ignorance, accident, contingency, causation, necessity, ‘pure chance’ and ‘freewill’.

The next two chapters explore the interconnectedness of order and disorder. Attention is drawn to levels and scales (micro, human or macro [cosmic]), since “Lawfulness at the higher level” may be “the direct consequence of complete randomness at the lower level” [7].  “Order out of chaos “ and  “Chaos out of order” follow. Topics included are accidents/coincidences, generation of pseudo-random numbers, and an investigation of chaos theory with its deterministic roots but practical uncertainties.

Attempts to ‘find room’ for divine activity through chaos theory are contentious. Other theological issues arise where orderliness is appealed to as evidence of divine activity, prompting an examination of two sorts of probability based, respectively, on frequencies and the more subjective concept of a ‘degree of belief’. A caution against multiplying probabilities unless dealing with independent events precedes a reminder that  “all probabilities are conditional “.  “What can very small probabilities tell us? “, guides us through a minefield of spurious statistical arguments, including some concerning the existence of God. It precedes an entire chapter devoted to ‘Intelligent Design’ arguments which draws upon significance testing from the previous chapter and judges Dembski’s ID arguments by answering both the questions  “is the logic sound and is the method correctly applied? “ in the negative.

The remaining seven chapters explore the positive rôles played by ‘chance’, starting by asking whether  “statistical laws … offer space for God to act in the world “. Three scenarios are explored with their consequent conundrums