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

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

Author: Javier Sánchez Cañizares, University of Navarra
Published in: yearbook Filosófico 41/3 (2008), 693-695. Review of David J. Bartholomew, God, Chance and Purpose. Can God Have It Both Ways?, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2008, 259 p., 14 x 21.5, ISBN 978-0-521-70708-4.
Publication date: 2008

This is a courageous book, written by an expert in statistical science, in which the role of chance in modern science is presented in all its splendour. The author also tackles the questions about God and his action in the universe that inevitably arise in this connection. As degree scroll makes clear, the main idea to be conveyed is that chance belongs to creation (p. ix, 14) and is not necessarily the enemy of the rational or the antithesis of design. Chance would remain within God's providence (p. 99).

One of the merits of this work is to illustrate the interconnection of order and chaos at the various levels of physical reality. Chance would be playing the preponderant role at the most basic levels and would paradoxically allow the emergence of physical legality at the higher levels. Order emerging at the border of chaos would be a characteristic of the most relevant phenomena in our universe (p. 42).

Bartholomew rejects the argument of the defenders of Intelligent Design (ID) that seeks to eliminate chance at all costs. He does so by showing Dembski's errors in the calculation of probabilities and, more fundamentally, by attacking the very logic of the ID argument, which he accuses of being tautological. It is certainly not clear how it could be demonstrated that chance is not a sufficient explanation from a quantitative methodology, as the defenders of ID seem to claim. As we know, the problem of the confrontation between evolutionists and creationists is not quantitative but philosophical.

These considerations lead the author to a more ambitious goal : to give chance its proper place within theology (p. xi, 226). The central role of chance in the current scientific view should be reconciled with the way theology presents God's action in the world. Bartholomew's ideas are especially suggestive for dealing with the explanation of natural disasters or miracles, but they are incompatible with a theology that sees God at position in the smallest details (naïve orthodoxy) and make him very critical of the vision of God provided by Revelation (p. 242).

Throughout the text there is a certain conceptual oscillation in the use of the term chance. The author wants to determine as much as possible what he is referring to when he uses this word, but result is not satisfactory. On the one hand, Bartholomew acknowledges that chance is understood above all as the absence of finality, but regards this view as an absolute misunderstanding (p. 175); on the other hand, he seems to adhere to a gnoseological interpretation of chance, the essence of which would be the impossibility of prediction (p. 26, 214); sometimes chance is identified with that which has no cause (p. 218). From his more definite statements, we conclude that Bartholomew refers mainly to epistemological chance, although without excluding ontological chance (p. 197-198).

More problematic is the way in which chance and God are related. The author considers it more in keeping with the divine dignity not to have to control all the details of the universe (p. 205) and to let order and regularities be achieved by chance. Behind this perspective, in our opinion, lie two difficulties: (i) Bartholomew has an anthropomorphic view of God (pp. 125, 196, 205). He sees the complexity of interconnections between causes and effects as a problem for the divine power and ends up compromising its sovereignty at all levels (p. 58). There would be a contrast between the omniscient God and the loving God (p. 152); (ii) Bartholomew and most of the scientists cited in the book understand God's action in the world as direct, immediate, interfering with the processes of nature and changing probabilities. In that view, the possibilities would be that God acts always, that he does nothing and runs the risk of chance in evolution, or that he acts occasionally (p. 151-152). Despite the author's preference for the second option (p. 182), none of these three proposals are satisfactory as they stand, since they do not take into account that divine action occurs on the transcendental plane of being (thus extending to all levels of reality, even the most basic ones) without removing causality from nature.

Finally, Bartholomew's work provides an opportunity to reflect on the understanding of the primacy of reason over chance, characteristic of classical Philosophy and Christian thought. In our opinion, it must be maintained that the attempt to explain the emergence of reason on the basis of chance is always insufficient. It is one thing that the rationality of each level of reality is different - that there is, for example, an appearance of chance at the microscopic levels - and another thing the rationality of the overall view, which relates some levels to others. Obviously, the consideration of chance as the absence of finality at a given level does not apply to the whole. Taking into account the global vision, only the rational and the existence of a finality can be given primacy. Therefore, the chance governing microscopic processes still obeys the ultimate sense of totality, since the higher levels of reality possess a consistency of their own, not only probably, but with the solidity provided by the background of finality. At final, it seems to us that it is always a matter of granting a certain provisionality to chance, for if it is absolutised, it would be incompatible with that concatenation of levels, of chaos and order, which sample the logos of creation.