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Tuesday, 11 August 2009

ESE Contents: Addendum

This is the fifth post in a series on “An Evangelical Statement on Evolution (ESE)”. If you are new to the series, you may wish to read 1) Introduction, 2) ESE Objectives, 3) ESE Approach , and 4) ESE Contents first.

In preparing this series on the ESE, I never intended to get bogged down in the details of the actual statement – that is a future task. However, after receiving feedback on the content in the last post, I think this brief content addendum is required to fix some glaring omissions (three), and to suggest that one of our objectives should be addressed more indirectly.

A) Randomness and Purpose

Reconciling the randomness in evolution with God’s sovereignty is a huge hurdle for many (see comments by Vance); the ESE should address this, if only briefly. In the section on purpose, we could mention one or more of the following:

  1. randomness is closely tied to unpredictability. Unpredictability is often simply a function of human limitations. God does not have these limitations.
  2. Scripture asserts that God is in control & can accomplish his purposes even in random events (eg. Prov 16:33, Acts 1:26)
  3. God provides true freedom to his creation (eg. humanity) but is in complete control, and can accomplish his purposes, even when that freedom is abused.
Whole books have been written on this subject (eg. God, Chance, and Purpose by David Bartholomew) and rigorous debate on this reconciliation still persists, even within the EC camp. So we need to carefully consider what we say here. But to Vance’s point, we can not be silent.

B) Scientific Explanations and God

Something should be mentioned about the relationship between scientific explanations & divine action. Two related points here:
  1. Scientific explanations are not an alternative for God’s action in the world; divine action and natural events are not mutually exclusive (see Hornspiel’s comments). The resolution of this false dichotomy has been so ingrained in the EC mindset (or at least mine) that we sometimes forget others may consider it a problem. Since it is a significant issue for many in our audience, we should definitely make some statement addressing the false dichotomy – maybe it should be the first item mentioned in the section on science.
  2. On the other hand, science does not exclude the possibility of miracles (eg. Comment by Vance). Making scientific statements like “this event is extremely unlikely to occur given our current knowledge” or “no scientific explanation for this past event can be made at this time” are valid claims. However, science cannot rule out any event a priora. As Evangelical Christians we firmly believe that God can, has, and continues to perform miracles within his creation, and that some of those miracles would be deemed “impossible” by science.
C) Mention of the Fear of Science

An explicit statement to those “who fear science” may be counterproductive. Per the conversation in the comments with wtanksley (#1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, and #7), I agree we should take the explicit statement out of the ESE but address it indirectly since this target audience is important (even if there are many in this group that would not admit membership in it).

D) Positive Statement on the message of early Genesis

Stating something positive on the message of the early part of Genesis is, I suspect, the most glaring omission in the previous post – several people identified it (Joel was first). As a couple people noted (Allan & Cliff), Evangelical OT scholars have taken several different (often overlapping) hermeneutic approaches to the first few chapters of Genesis. Therefore we should be careful not to adopt one single approach. Still, I think there are some theological statements that should be mentioned. An example of what we might say is below (a slightly modified version of what Allan proposed):
The early chapters of Genesis have much to teach us about God (his sovereignty over all of creation, his faithfulness, and his love), creation (it is good, it owes is being to God) and humanity (our creation in the image of God, our disobedience, and our dependence on God’s faithfulness to repair our relationship). However, the inspired writers were not trying to convey scientific information in these early chapters and we should not expect it to answer our modern scientific questions.
So, yes I am abandoning my initial hesitation on taking a firm stance against scientific concordism.

Whew …

Not sure if I mentioned it before, but writing a short statement is probably going to be an order of magnitude more difficult than writing a long one.


Kent said...

Regarding A)This is how I reconcile Randomness and purpose:
Science provides a naturalistic explanation for the development of life that involves a random or probabilistic element. Non-believers call that chance and often conclude evolution is purposeless. But the believer can see the same scientific evidence in the context of evolutionary theory and see God's divine providence at work.

It is akin to what a Christian often experiences in answered prayer. What a non-believer might call luck (chance), the believer calls divine providence or intervention. Many miracles in the Bible have this character, such as the strong wind parting the sea for Moses.

Thus we can affirm that what in a scientific description must rightly described as random or probabilistic (insert here reference to limitations of science), are in fact exactly where the Christian rightly affirms that God's purposeful hand is or was at work.

This leads to B)Scientific Explanations and God, and D) a positive message about the first chapters of Genesis.

For example: I see the hand of God preparing the earth for Man (Adam) through millions of years of evolution. This is exactly what God is teaching in the days of creation in Genesis 1. The first three days God prepares places that are filled in days four through six. This is not concordism, but the scientific evidence seen through the lens of theology and faith, and completely compatible with scientific theory.

We must affirm that scientific explanations are man's best attempts at describing God's normal way of working (ref. Bube Putting it all together). Too often Christians see God only involved when "natural laws" are "broken." That view is heresy. God constantly upholds and sustains all things(Hebrews 1:3). If God ceased to do the universe would cease to exist.

Thus miracles that violate scientific "laws" occur when God decides to do something not normal. Since they are "one off" occurrences they cannot be described scientifically. Non-believers must explain away miracles, or they may simply be blind to them since they have no mental framework or categories for them. But believers see them not only as evidence of God's existence (possibly), but more importantly as signs of his character, especially his love.

Finally, C) we must convey the positive message that science and theology both point to the same loving creator God. That we in the TE community have found not only peace with science, but joy. For the pursuit science is also the pursuit of God.

I also agree: writing a short statement is much harder than a long one.

Geocreationist said...

In regards to scientific concordism, I believe it is there, but that the writer didn't intend it to be. Therefore, your statement, as worded, is okay with me.


Kyle said...

Thanks for your initiative and hard work on this project.

I have not kept up with the latest details of the "rigorous debate" regarding randomness, purpose, and sovereignty, so the following comments may have been addressed, supported, or repudiated already in other places. That being said, I wanted to offer some comments and qualifiers for the A)Randomness and Purpose section.

1) Randomness and unpredictability:

Randomness is often misunderstood or inaccurately portrayed so perhaps the statement should set forth a brief definition. In short, a random event is indeterminate, one for which more than one outcome is possible. There are only two options for natural events (mutations,recombinations,etc.): either total determinism or randomness. If the outcome of any event is not completely fixed, then it is a random event.

I would not equate randomness and unpredictability. The true opposite of random is not predictable but rather determinate or certain (or a "constant" in mathematical terms). Perhaps "unpredictable" is meant to indicate that the outcome cannot be predicted with absolute certainty. But given a known probability distribution for a random event, I would consider that event predictable. One would not be certain of the outcome, but one would know the probability of the outcomes.

Of course in the complexity of the real world one rarely knows the "true" probability distribution. This is where God not having our limitations in knowledge would allow him to "predict" events most accurately. God would know the true probability of every complex set of events.

Is there scientific (perceived) randomness in evolution only because our knowledge is limited, or are these events truly random? That depends on whether one believes that God determines every outcome, which perhaps is open to debate. But if we say that randomness is primarily unpredictability and that events are unpredictable only because we have incomplete knowledge, then it seems to me that we are implying that nothing is unpredictable to God in this sense, which means that nothing is truly random. That is my concern at least.

The scientific naturalists have paired randomness ("blind chance") and lack of purpose for so long that it is almost second nature to view "random" as a statement regarding intention or purpose. It is this connection that the statement should refute.

Kyle said...

2) (Prov 16:33, Acts 1:26)

I would be wary of over-generalizing these texts. God determining the outcome of cast lots makes the event only apparently random, but fixed in actuality. These passages beg the question of whether God always determines the outcome of "random events" so that his purpose is accomplished? God can determine outcomes of what appear to us to be random events, but I think we want to be careful not to say definitively that he always does so. Do we insist that all mutations are specifically guided by God? Or are some truly random (indeterminate to some degree; predictable given all knowledge yet not certain)?

3) I hesitate to affirm God's "complete control" without further qualification. If God grants "true freedom" to creation, then "complete control" cannot entail total determinism. Yet I sense that "complete control" strongly implies determinism. If, as Polkinghorne teaches, ours is a world of "true becoming," then a degree of randomness is part and parcel of the divinely ordered natural processes.

I view God's "complete control" as the ability to intervene wherever and whenever he sees fit, to determine and fix the outcome of some events that appear random to us. Yet I think the natural phenomena we observe suggests that he does not always do so.

I believe this facet of the statement should not endorse either position, total determinism vs. partial determinism (true randomness). Statistical/empirical/observational randomness, however one wants to label it, is the focus. The fact that statistical randomness does not equate to purposelessness is the point that needs to get across. If we can do so without definitively supporting either determinism or true randomness then all the better.

Could I boil the above thoughts into 30 words or less as a concise statement? Rather difficult, I agree, especially seeing as I couldn't even fit it into one post.


Steve Martin said...

Hornspiel: Again, excellent comments. Not much for me to add.

Re: “scientific explanations are man's best attempts at describing God's normal way of working”, that is exactly the way I see it. In a past discussion on Methodological Naturalism (MN) I articulated my tentative view of divine action as: “The pattern of God's cooperative action in the physical world is normally extraordinarily consistent“ – and that is why science works so well.

Mike: Sorry, I’m not sure I understand what you are saying – to me you seem to be saying the exact opposite of Denis Lamoureux. His view seems to be that Gen 1-11 is definitely about science, and that the authors thought it was good science, but that it was the science of the day and in fact, incorrect science. But maybe I’m completely missing what you are saying.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Kyle,

Well, I think you answered your own implied question (re: including a brief definition for randomness in the ESE) … we’d need to rename it to the EEE .. an Evangelical Encyclopaedia on Evolution .. hmm, maybe we should try that instead :-) .

I do agree completely with your statement that:
“The fact that statistical randomness does not equate to purposelessness is the point that needs to get across.”
… yes, that is exactly what I think we need to do.

On the second part
“If we can do so without definitively supporting either determinism or true randomness then all the better”
I think we need to be even stronger .. we definitely do NOT want to support either. I think there are probably equally brilliant philosophers, theologians, and scientists on each side of the debate. Hey they are even arguing about how to argue about the topic.

Re: equating randomness with unpredictability. In some definitions, it is my understanding that this is exactly the case. Ie. “The use of the term "chance" in any scientific theory is not, strictly, a statement about causation (or lack of causation); rather, it is a statement about our lack of knowledge about causation.” (see Loren Haarsma’s Chance from a Theistic Perspective at talk.origins.

Re: complete control. OK, I see your point that this could be misconstrued. What I think we need to get across is that God has the ability to control the final outcome – ie. His purposes will ultimately be accomplished. And he can do this even when some of his creatures that have been granted genuine freedom are working against his purposes. Not sure how exactly I’d want to phrase this though.

crevo said...

If anyone is interested, I wrote a paper for CRSQ on randomness that might be of interest for those wrestling with these types of ideas. I have a short summary of it here:


If anyone is interested in the full paper, I can email it to you. Just send an email to jonathan@bartlettpublishing.com.

You might also be interested in my summary of Caporale's paper on chance and evolution here:


And then a short post here:


The main points of all of these is that, (a) there are different meanings of randomness that each have extremely different philosophical implications; (b) statistical randomness, while it introduces uncertainty at the local level, actually it can be used to _decrease_ uncertainty at the macro level.

There was a great talk about this applied to biology in the 2008 ASA talk by McFarland on "Designing Proteins".

Steve Douglas said...

I am *almost* happy with Allan's statement on Genesis 1-3 in regard to concordism. A much more neutral way of saying it would be,

"...our disobedience, and our dependence on God’s faithfulness to repair our relationship). This revealed information is profitable for doctrine, reproof, and instruction in righteousness, designed to equip the believer for godliness (1 Tim 3:16-17). God was not trying to reveal scientific information in these early chapters and we should not expect them to answer our modern scientific questions."

That's fairly non-committal on the question of whether the writers themselves were attempting to represent an accurate scientific picture (which, of course, I believe they were).

Good work so far - I am impressed with how it's coming along!

Steve Martin said...

A quick update before I head off for a long weekend (with no net access).

Hi Crevo: Yes there are many different meanings for randomness, but I'm not sure your categories capture it that well. Your "philosophical randomness" seems to me to impute a philosophy (including causation?) into some definitions of randomness. As Haarsma article notes, "chance" when speaking scientifically is not strictly about causation but lack of knowledge of causation.

Stephen: Thanks. Good point on what scripture is actually meant for.

crevo said...

Steve -

See "On the dual notion of chance in evolutionary biology and paleobiology"


For additional notions of chance, see:

"Randomness is unpredictability"


Usually, in evolutionary biology, randomness (as in "random mutation") is meant to express philosophical randomness. The fact that these are also known as "copying errors" are a giveaway to philosophical randomness. It is often expressed something like "the chance of a mutation occurring is random (or indifferent) with respecto to its biological utility".

Kyle said...

I am a statistician, so "random" has a very precise meaning for me. I can see that "random" is not always used with the same meaning. If nothing else, this thread is yet another reminder of the potential ambiguity of language. Just as "evolution" needs to be defined to have a meaningful discussion, so does "random." Of course, in the ESE detailed discussion and development of the concept of randomness will not be possible or desired. The point is that randomness (however one uses the term) is not to be equated with lack of purpose.

(It was interesting to see how often chance was equivocated with random, and the juggling of definitions regarding determinism/indeterminism, predictable/unpredictable)

Re: "The chance of a mutation occurring is random (or indifferent) with respect to its biological utility."

Statistically, we would say that mutation and biological utility are independent rather than random. Just an interesting (to me) observation.

crevo said...

Kyle -

Excellent points. What's also interesting about the statistical meaning of randomness (i.e. Church 1940 - On the Concept of a Random Sequence) is that it actually excludes the possibility of a law governing its operation.

So, if randomness in a statistical sense is a real phenomenon (which is debatable, but I think it is), then that means that it cannot be due to a "lack of information" concerning the operation, but instead must be truly a fundamental function.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Kyle,

Re: “randomness (however one uses the term) is not to be equated with lack of purpose.”

Exactly – maybe that is all we need to say.

Hi Jonathan (Crevo):

I’m having difficulty understanding what you are driving at & what you mean by “philosophical randomness”. Can you give a definition? I think (given that you are a YEC adherent) that you mean believe 1) macroevolution is impossible given the randomness we find in nature (eg. In genetic mutations) 2) the idea that God works through nature (including random processes in evolution) is incompatible with God’s sovereignty. Is this a fair summary of your position? If not, can you give a very brief (one or two paragraph) description of your position (I am not looking for links to academic papers – most of which I do not have access). My own very brief (developing) summary position on this is included in the OP.

I am more interested in the second statement (theological) than the first (scientific). From my perspective, I find it puzzling that people have any problem with “indeterminate” physical processes (if indeed they exist – I tentatively hold that they do) and God’s ability to achieve his purposes these indeterminate processes notwithstanding. God is able to achieve his purposes even when humanity with true free-will work against his purposes, so what is the problem with randomness in evolution? God fulfilling his purposes in human history - now there is a tough nut to crack!

I like what Graeme Finlay says (HT James Kidder for reminding me of this) in last year's PCSF article Human Evolution: How Random Process Fulfills Divine Purpose.

There is of course mystery in this. The achievement of God’s purposes in the light of genetic or human freedom is a paradox to which we must hold. The actions of God in history are not obvious to the casual observer. Butterfield wrote that we cannot find the hand of God in secular history unless we have first gained assurance of God’s involvement by personal experience. It is Christ who makes sense of Israel’s tumultuous past. Once we have recognized how God’s blessing for the world arose from Israel’s tragic history, we may perceive with worship that he has created humanity by the random evolutionary route attested by our genome.

Kent said...

Great quote Steve. A statement on randomness certainly needs to be in the ESE.

How about:
"Randomness" describes a limitation of scientific description, not a limitation on God's ability to act.

We affirm, by faith, God's providential activity in events science describes as random, including the evolution of life.

It seems that the ESE needs to be accompanied by an "Evangelical Statement on Science."

Steve Martin said...

Hi Hornspiel:
I really like your second suggestion .. the first I'm not sure would work. Per Kyle's point that there are different definitions for randomness (even in scientific disciplines!), I think your first clause can be contested (ie. randomness can be MORE than just a limitation in scientific description).

re: an Evangelical Statement on Science, yes that is probably a good idea ... but in the interests of getting this done in my lifetime :-) let's keep the scope crisp.

Anonymous said...

Steve, I like all of your addendum, with the possible exception of the last part on scientific concordism. I don't believe in scientific concordism, but I'm impressed by the efforts of people like Hugh Ross or Gerald Schroeder. I don't think they succeed, but I speak as a layperson, and I could be mistaken. Do we want to commit ourselves against scientific concordism, even if it might turn out to be true? How about a more neutral stance? Something like, "There are perfectly legitimate interpretations of Scripture do not require scientific concordism." -- Bilbo

geocreationist said...

About the statement against scientific concordism, I agree that Moses didn't intend it. However, I have found it does concord quite well.

Generally, concordance doctrines do not overlay without putting events out of sequence. My approach does not move events out of sequence... it's a true concordance. (My blog documents my scientific and biblical analysis in quite a bit of detail)

As pertains to the ESE: As worded, I agree with the paragraph on Genesis as it is literally worded, as long as it does not rule out the possibility that God Himself divinely breathed a concordance of His own into the resulting scripture that Moses did not have to be aware of.

BTW, I do agree that Genesis is a poor documentation of what scientifically happened, but it is also a strong confirmation of it.

geocreationist said...

Looks like I commented already... You can delete if you want!

Martin LaBar said...

Under A2, perhaps 1 Kings 22:34 and Proverbs 18:18 are also relevant to God working His purposes through "chance" events.

Chiefley said...

I just happened upon this blog and I am very impressed with the work going on here.

I just wanted to say that I think there is too much concentration on randomness. It underplays the role of the extremely strong guiding force of natural selection, which is anything but random.

There is so much work to do here, I don't think you need to expend much effort trying to reconcile randomness and God's actions.

Good luck and Christ's Peace

geocreationist said...


For me, the issue is not how to address whether or not evolution is random, justifying it if it is, or explaining its direction if it is not. To me, the issue is how to address people who find the randomness argument a stumbling block to accepting the science. To them, natural selection is not a force, becuase it is not divine selection, but natural... suggesting God is unnecessary for the process. Personally, I think they have a point, but that they are also misguided in how they have framed the issue... and it is partially the fault of the scientific community, and partially the fault of the religious. The challenge then is how to bridge the division in a manner that does not require defending "randomness" (which is as you point is a false start anyway), but opens ones mind to discarding their prejudices, and opening their mind to consider that somehow that science and scripture are true, and that you can believe in an old earth without being a heretic.

As you can see, I did not respond with my own theory here, because bridging the divide is the key to opening their mind. Though YECs are saved, it is similar to witnessing to the unsaved: arguments and logic will not win them over, but the Holy Spirit who wants to heal His Church.

Chiefley said...

Thanks for that thoughtful response. I understand what you are saying here, and I understand that the topic is how to establish a dialog.

I think that the term random is being used here as a proxy for anything that is not said to be intelligently guided.

Words have the power to strongly resonate existing cognitive frames that people harbor. Randomness is a particular one that has strong connotations of something being "highly unlikely".

I wonder if the discussion is already lost if framed around randomness?

This is just a suggestion, though. I am not looking for a debate. I will hang back and study this blog and its comments some more before I hold forth on my opinion.

Thanks to everyone here for this valuable work.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Chiefley,
Welcome. Thanks for your excellent comments.

The topic of randomness does indeed have the potential for causing confusion. There has been much discussion elsewhere & I don't want to belabor the point here. For the purposes of the ESE, I think something like the short statements above by myself and others with suffice.

For some past discussions you may want to check out the ebooks on the top-right of the home page. These are simply collections of various series that have been published on this blog.