The God of Chance?

Hello all. So this is the third post in my series “The Anal MBA responds to the Atheist Authors”. I realize now that this series is a bit misnamed. Not because I shouldn’t use the word ‘anal’ when writing about religion (although there’s probably a decent argument to be made in that regard). Rather, because I realize that I am really responding to both sides of this debate – the theologians who have been defending religion as well as those who’ve been attacking it.  A case in point is the theologian John Haught’s God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens, in which Haught continuously points out that God is the “infinite divine mystery”, only to then go on and make a number of quite specific claims about that mysterious entity (God is “Ultimate Truth, Goodness, Beauty”, etc.). Here’s my problem with this way of thinking:

If we embrace the idea that God is mysterious and ultimately unknowable, how can we be so confident that we know exactly what God is like?

With that in mind, let’s continue with the discussion of the atheist arguments for why, purportedly, biological science and specifically evolution has proven that there is no God.

First – I’d like to make an observation about people’s perceptions of God’s role in their personal life.  I have noticed that for many religious people, when they think about God it is mostly about how He plays (or they wished He’d play) an active role in their life. I’ll regularly hear people say things like “the fact that this wonderful thing happened in my life against all the odds…I can’t believe that it just happened by chance. It must have been God at work”.  The classic theist understanding of God is exactly that:  God plays an active role in our individual lives.  Intercessionary prayer (when we ask God to help people who are sick or troubled) is completely based on this understanding of God. I also want to emphasize that the alternative “God-less” explanation of these events is ‘chance’ or ‘luck’.  Random events occur in our lives and we can either explain these events by attributing them to luck…or to God.

Now – let’s switch over to the natural world.   A frequent atheist argument is that with the advent of evolutionary theory (and all the data that has backed up that theory) God has been left with ‘nothing to do’ in terms of the creation of the world’s flora and fauna.   As Woody Allen put it: “The worst you can say about God is that he’s basically an underachiever”.  Intelligent Design proponents try to respond to this argument by pointing out the current gaps in the evolutionary record, including the origin of life, and use this as evidence of God’s work.  However, both atheists (e.g. Richard Dawkins) and scientist believers (Francis Collins) point out that this is ‘worshipping a God of the gaps’ – in other words, a God that becomes tied to temporary gaps in scientific knowledge. As those gaps become filled by new scientific discoveries, there becomes less and less for God to do.  I agree with both Collins and Dawkins that worshipping a God of the gaps is to commit to a God that is doomed to die.

However- what about the fact that embedded in the theory of evolution is the element of chance?  The advantageous (and disadvantageous) mutations that occur in species are random. The reason that certain mutations survive is NOT random – that has a clear rationale behind it –namely, those mutations that are most effective at helping species survive will be those that are retained.  But there could potentially have been more than one mutation that would have been equally advantageous – or, to put it another way, there could be more than one way to solve the survival problem for a given species. For example, if we rewound time, perhaps humans would mutate into having three noses, and it would turn out that that mutation would be an equally advantageous means of surviving (OK, so I’m sure that’s not a good example – but cut me some slack, I am not a scientist).

There have been some fascinating studies that illustrate the role of chance in the evolutionary process.   In a yet- unpublished manuscript by Jeffrey Laurence, (a leading AIDS researcher), he writes about studies conducted by Dr. Richard Lenski of Michigan University. Dr. Lenski put twelve genetically identical groups of E. Coli bacteria in twelve identical clear plastic flasks. After each group reached a certain level of growth (2000 generations) he modified the environment in which the bacteria were growing (changing their environment from a glucose-based broth to a maltose based one). He then observed how well each colony adapted to this environmental change.  Just as we’d expect, some colonies fared better than others, but there were survivors in all 12 flasks. However, as Dr. Laurence puts it: “..the DNAs of bacteria from each of the twelve flasks changed differently, using very different genetic mutations to accomplish the same goal, their survival”.

So – what does this all have to do with God? Chance.  Why did a certain mutation occur in a species? Chance. Or maybe it was God.  If we attribute the random events in our personal lives to God, why is it that we wouldn’t consider that God could be the driving force in the random events in nature as well?  I do NOT see this as proof of God’s existence.  As I wrote in my last post – I think such proofs are a waste of time. But it is an interesting way to think about God – and it certainly would give God plenty to do.

I am sure most folks will strongly dislike this argument – either because you are an atheist who is annoyed at yet another ignorant believer trying to find a role for God in the universe; or, more interestingly, because you are a believer who likes to think about God as being the beneficent designer of the natural order, not the force behind the random events in nature that bring us all sorts of ‘bad’ things (such as hurricanes) as well as ‘good’ things (such as fluffy puppies). I am going to explore this issue of the connection between our perceptions of God and morality in later posts, but for now, I’d just like to bring this back to the point I made at the beginning: if we are going to posit that God is ultimately unknowable (a key and crucial response to any atheist critique) then how can we be so sure we know exactly what God is like? All we can do is the kind of stuff I’m trying to do in this blog: explore different ways of thinking about God, and see which of them seem to make the most sense.

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8 Responses to The God of Chance?

  1. “With that in mind, let’s continue with the discussion of the atheist arguments for why, purportedly, biological science and specifically evolution has proven that there is no God.”

    I’m going to stop you right there and ask you, does anyone actually make that claim? Because I don’t. Perhaps I’m unique?

    Biological science and specifically evolution only shows us that the existence of a god or gods is unnecessary to explain the origin of species and how they have changed over the course of Earth’s history. Maybe a god still exists…but there’s nothing there that suggests we need one, at least in terms of evolution.

    “why is it that we wouldn’t consider that God could be the driving force in the random events in nature as well?”

    If some sort of being was behind random chance, in what way would it be random chance any more?

    • seeingfaith says:

      Hi – thanks so much for your comments. So – a few points in reply:
      1. No, you are NOT unique, however there are indeed people who claim that evolution proves that there is no God. This post you are replying to is the third in a series I have started, and in the first post I explain that this series is in response to the ‘new atheist’ authors: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Victor Stenger – all of whom in one form or another make this claim. In particular, this post and the last have been focused on responding to the chapter in Richard Dawkins’

        The God Delusion

      that is entitled “Why there almost certainly is no God”. Dawkins makes a number of points in this chapter, and, to be fair, he cites both evolution and cosmology in crafting his argument for why God does not exist (I will be tackling the cosmology arguments next). However, if you turn to the end of the chapter he summarizes his points nicely and includes this statement “If the argument of this chapter is accepted, the factual premise of religion – the God Hypothesis – is untenable. God almost certainly does not exist”. (p. 189). So – that seems pretty clear to me that he believes that he has basically proved that God does not exist. What do you think?

      2. Great second question – “If some sort of being was behind random chance, in what way would it be random chance any more?”. So – I know what you are saying, but actually – I think it absolutely still would be random chance – because it is still totally unpredictable. If God exists, I have zero clue what’s going on in God’s mind. In this conception God is an independent will or force that drives the universe in certain directions for reasons only God knows. I guess there’s a risk that this is still a ‘God of the gaps’ argument and at some point we will identify a scientific explanation for what right now is attributed to randomness. However, my understanding is that at this juncture, randomness is built in to evolutionary theory (and at least some experiments seem to support this understanding of evolution).

      Regarding your statement “Maybe a god still exists….but there’s nothing there that suggests we need one, at least in terms of evolution.” So obviously, that’s one of the goals of this post – to explore one way that God still might play a role in evolution, beyond the more common one cited by believers that God is the author of the evolutionary process (the problem with that argument is the one I alluded to in the post – it leaves God with precious little to do on a daily basis – at least in the natural world). I should note that this idea I’m playing with here is not a scientific idea – it is completely irrelevant to the scientific work of evolutionary biology (I am strongly against the Intelligent Design folks’ attempts to get theology taught as science). However, I do think that exploring the questions of God’s role in nature or the universe is important – not because such endeavors will help with science’s goals of understanding, predicting and managing outcomes in the natural world, but in terms of answering questions about the meaning of it all.

      FYI – I like your blog post about water bears – I agree that they are really cute – I might have to substitute them in for fluffy puppies the next time I need an example of a ‘good’ random thing in creation…

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  2. “however there are indeed people who claim that evolution proves that there is no God.”

    Here we must disagree. I think there are plenty who use evolution as a reason a certain type of god doesn’t exist. But that is very different than saying that no god exists. If the particular deity you believe in would be disproved by the existence of evolution, then you could say that people think evolution disproves your god.

    Does that make sense? I think even Dawkins makes that distinction, or at least he has when I’ve heard him speak. It would be more accurate for him to say his reasons are “Why there almost certainly is no god…or if there is, he gives no indication, and we have no reason to think he cares or matters.” I could, of course, be wrong.

    “because it is still totally unpredictable. If God exists, I have zero clue what’s going on in God’s mind.”

    Not knowing if something is going to happen is not the same as that thing being random. You have no way to know the next action I will take. But, unless I am responding to a disease or condition of some kind, I know the next action I will take. Which renders that action non-random, even if you can’t determine what it will be. If any being exists that knows what’s going to happen (not to mention that they may be causing it), it ceases to be random. It may not be predictable to other beings, but that isn’t quite the same thing.

    “but in terms of answering questions about the meaning of it all. ”

    And here, unfortunately, we disagree again. Because I see no reason to think there is any meaning of it all. Beyond the meanings we create for ourselves, of course.

    • seeingfaith says:

      Hi – so I have to disagree that we disagree quite as much as you think we do (try to say that 10 times fast)! Let’s go through your points:
      1. “I think there are plenty who use evolution as a reason a certain type of god doesn’t exist. But that is very different than saying that no god exists”.
      I completely agree with you on that point – that many scientists (and many like myself who embrace established scientific theories) look at evolution as grounds for rejecting only a very specific conception of God (a fundamentalist conception which many religious people including myself also reject on a theological basis because we don’t think the Bible should or was ever intended to be interpreted literally). So – specifically: all we can extrapolate from evolution is that we do not need God to explain the development of complex life on earth. We should reject the idea of God as intelligent engineer literally creating every single plant and animal on the planet (and we can and should reject a literal interpretation of Genesis 1).

      2. “It would be more accurate for him to say his reasons are ‘Why there almost certainly is no god…or if there is, he gives no indication, and we have no reason to think he cares of matters'”. OK – so isn’t this statement pretty different from your previous point? Just because God is not literally involved in creating every single plant and animal, it does not logically follow that ‘he gives no indication (of his existence), and we have no reason to think he cares or matters’. That’s a much bigger statement, and would involve looking at a much more comprehensive understanding of God (one that would include personal experience of the divine, ongoing questions about the mystery of existence, questions about the origin of the universe, etc). If you yourself are saying that evolution can only be used to reject the creationist God of the fundamentalists, how did you get to the point where you claim that God gives NO indication of God’s existence?

      3. “Not knowing if something is going to happen is not the same as that thing being random”. This is an EXCELLENT point – I totally agree. I was thinking about this last night but then was too tired and forgot the point. So I think the key point here is that if we are attributing the cause of a seemingly random phenomenon to some entity that has an independent will, then it is not truly random – there is some underlying meaning to the seeming randomness. And you know what – you’re right. That actually is what I’m saying – and that ties directly in to your last point:

      “..I see no reason to think there is any meaning of it all. Beyond the meanings we create for ourselves, of course”.

      Yes – you are correct – we do disagree with each other here. And I have zero problem with you thinking that there is no meaning to it all – you are totally entitled to your opinion. But I am just as entitled to my opinion that there IS a meaning to it all. The “meaning I create for myself” is that there is some underlying purpose in the universe – even if I am not totally sure what it is a lot of the time. However, it seems just as reasonable for me to look at how much we don’t know, and how much we will never know, and humbly draw the conclusion that there’s a good chance that there is an underlying force and meaning to it. I think you are also reasonable to draw the opposite conclusion – if that works for you. The only issue I have is when either side – the religious or the atheist – tries to PROVE that their position is the only reasonable one. I think that sort of intolerance is, well, unreasonable.

      Looking forward to your next response (I hope you will respond!)

      • “OK – so isn’t this statement pretty different from your previous point?”

        Sorry. The confusion is my fault for going to specific to general without pointing it out. In the specific, there is no scientific evidence that there is a god or anything supernatural involved with evolution. In the general, there is no scientific evidence that there is a god or anything supernatural involved with the universe.

        That doesn’t preclude the existence of a deistic god (one that created the universe with a way to run itself, and then just sits back and observes without interference). But there’s no reason to assume that god’s existence, because it looks just as if no god exists at all. The equivalent of Carl Sagan’s silent, invisible, intangible dragon that lives in his garage. Such a dragon could of course exist…but the evidence for such is the same as the evidence would be if no dragon existed at all.

        “That actually is what I’m saying”

        Then you just need to stop calling it random. If only to avoid confusion. 😉

        “you are totally entitled to your opinion.”

        And you are to your own as well.

        “However, it seems just as reasonable for me to look at how much we don’t know, and how much we will never know, and humbly draw the conclusion that there’s a good chance that there is an underlying force and meaning to it. ”

        I agree that you are entitled to think that, but I don’t agree that it is equally as reasonable. I point back to the invisible dragon example.

        Looking at things like possibility, it is certainly possible for the invisible intangible dragon to exist. But given all we do understand about the world, it isn’t more reasonable to believe the dragon exists than it is to disbelieve in its existence. I’m a firm follower of the burden of proof. Until there is evidence of something, I won’t believe it. I find believing things because of the lack of evidence against them to be irrational and very occasionally dangerous, depending on the specific beliefs and their consequences. (Yours, of course, wouldn’t be dangerous, judging from any of your writing.)

        “The only issue I have is when either side – the religious or the atheist – tries to PROVE that their position is the only reasonable one. I think that sort of intolerance is, well, unreasonable.”

        I don’t understand how this is intolerance.

        If I believed that my position was the more rational one (and I think most people do believe that about their own positions, or else why would they hold them?), and I try to convince you that I’m correct, then that isn’t intolerance.

        If I try to penalize you in some personal or social way for not agreeing with me, then that would be intolerance.

      • seeingfaith says:

        Sorry for the delayed response to your last comment – the kids were off from school yesterday, which made it hard to compose the thoughtful response that your comments deserve – and then I ran into a non-functioning Internet connection (if I believed in the devil, which I don’t, I would hypothesize that he resides in my local cable company). By the way – my first name is Louise – if you are up for giving me your first name that would be lovely since referring to you as ‘Not a Scientist” seems a bit awkward.

        I should note that after this comment I am going to stop commenting on this string because I am touching on a lot of points that I hope to flesh out more fully in separate blog posts. However, feel free to respond to this and more importantly, I really hope you will come back because I value your feedback.

        So – first off – I want to thank you because you have been very helpful in clarifying my thinking about this idea of the “God of Chance”. You are absolutely right – what I should be saying is the following: we should keep an open mind to the possibility that seemingly random phenomena in our lives or in nature could in fact be the intentional work of some divine force. Does that seem like a more accurate way to describe the point I’ve been trying to make (whether or not you agree with it, which I know you don’t)?

        I also want to address your last point about intolerance – that is also an excellent point. In fact, I realize that the dialogue we’ve had here is a great example of what you describe: we both strongly feel that our position is correct, and we are reasonably talking about it. That is a great example of tolerance, actually, because we are respecting each other sufficiently to listen to what the other has to say and responding to it. However, don’t you agree that this kind of civil dialogue between an atheist and a believer is pretty darn rare? I actually had not yet had the guts to post to any of the atheist blogs because frankly, I was scared of the kind of vitriol I’ve seen online from atheist postings. Here’s a good example from a long list of comments in response to a Salon interview in 2007 with the theologian John Haught:

        “Haught is a doddering co-dependent, fingering his worry beads.”

        Wouldn’t you say that statements like that qualify as “penalizing…in a personal way?” I am fully aware that the religious can be just as awful in these discussions – actually probably usually worse (I’ve read some of the hate mail that Dawkins has received and included in his books, and I know that all of these authors get regular death threats which is just unconscionable). However, it seems that the end result is that both sides have often become so polarized that the discussion devolves into personal attacks and total inability to listen to the other. That is what I meant by saying that this sort of behavior is intolerant. Does that make sense?

        OK – now on to the core of your argument: I love the reference to the invisible dragon in the garage – although I’m personally more partial to the flying spaghetti monster with its affiliated ‘pastafarian’ theology (Dawkins references this although I believe it originated with someone else). However, I am not actually arguing for the existence of an invisible dragon, or pastafarianism. What I’m exploring is the question of whether there is some ultimate higher meaning to our existence in the universe, or whether it’s just random chance. As you said in the comment before last “I see no reason to think there is any meaning of it all. Beyond the meanings we create for ourselves, of course.” And in this comment you write “In the general, there is no scientific evidence that there is a god or anything supernatural involved with the universe”.

        Putting these two points together, is it fair to say that your viewpoint is the following:
        “There is no scientific evidence that god exists. Therefore, it is more reasonable to think that god does not exist. Because god most likely does not exist, there is no ‘underlying cause or meaning’ for random phenomena we observe (including the random fact that we exist at all).

        If that understanding of your viewpoint is correct (which it may not be- correct me if I’m wrong) – then we basically can say there are two options we’ve identified here:

        Option 1: There is no evidence that would allow us to reasonably consider that god and ultimate meaning exist

        Option 2: There is evidence that would allow us to reasonably consider that god and ultimate meaning exist

        I’d like to try to show that Option 2 is actually a reasonable position – and I’d like to do it by challenging the claim that ‘there is no evidence that would reasonably allow us to consider that god or ultimate meaning exists’. In particular, I see two forms of evidence that might point the other way:

        1. While there are elements we’ve identified in the universe that behave totally randomly, much of the universe – from the behavior of stars and planets down to the structure of the human genome – follow clear laws. Much of nature is not random – it is well ordered and intelligible – it has meaning (not ultimate meaning, but meaning). This argument is usually used to argue for a Creator God – but what if instead of looking at it that way – we merely say that this order in what we see shows that there is intelligibility in the universe. Given that we have identified so much intelligibility in the universe, isn’t it reasonable to consider that there is some ultimate intelligibility – some ultimate meaning that underlies the order we have already discovered?

        2. Humanity has had a driving desire to search for ultimate meaning – for god – from the earliest periods of our existence as a species. Isn’t it reasonable to consider that we do this searching because there is something there to find? That some of us, at some point in time, get the faintest glimmer that makes us think that this ultimate meaning exists? (BTW – I am aware of the arguments that this sort of drive can be explained via evolutionary psychology and neuroscience – I will write more about this later but the sense I’ve gotten is that these arguments remain mostly unsubstantiated theories – please feel free to refer me to material that would correct me if I’m wrong in that regard).

        So – to summarize: these seem to me to be two forms of ‘evidence’ that would allow us to reasonably consider the possibility that ultimate meaning, that god, exists. I don’t see this as a proof of God’s existence, but rather as data points that could lead someone to reasonably consider the possibility of God. I also think that it is possible that this ‘ultimate meaning’ I’m talking about is part of nature – but I doubt whether we will ever be able to fully grasp it (that’s what I’m going to write about in my next post).

        I am sure I’ve made a million logical errors in this comment – I look forward to you pointing them out (it’s probably not helped by the two glasses of Pinot Noir I had tonight – which may ultimately lead me to recognize the unintelligibility of this response). On that note, good night.

  3. “Sorry for the delayed response to your last comment”

    No worries. And you can call me Chris, if you feel so compelled. I find people generally use other peoples’ names far less than they think they do in conversation.

    “Does that seem like a more accurate way to describe the point I’ve been trying to make (whether or not you agree with it, which I know you don’t)?”

    You are correct on both counts, that is a more accurate (or at least more clear to other people) way to describe your point, and I don’t agree with it. But the world would be less interesting if we all agreed. 😉

    “However, don’t you agree that this kind of civil dialogue between an atheist and a believer is pretty darn rare?”

    No, I don’t think it’s all that rare. It may be rare on the internet. But civil dialogue about anything is often quite rare to find on the internet.

    And there’s also what I think is called the ‘squeaky-wheel fallacy’. (It may not be called that at all, but I forget the actual name.) If you have a four-wheeled cart and one wheel continually squeaks, you’re going to keep giving it attention. So much so that you’ll start to associate all wheels with squeaking. When in reality, three-fourths of the wheels you interact with haven’t given you any trouble at all. But because the squeaky wheel is different, louder, and requires more of your attention you end up giving it a disproportionate amount of prominence when thinking about wheels. Does that make sense?

    “Wouldn’t you say that statements like that qualify as “penalizing…in a personal way?””

    I actually don’t think so. But that may be because I don’t think that offense is harm. Not harm that we should concern ourselves with as a society, any way. I also am of the opinion that sometimes (though not often) the best way to deal with something or someone is ridicule. Ridicule is a tool. Some overuse it, and some refuse to use it at all. But it does have its uses and can be effective. One example would be when people deal with the continually-protesting Westboro Baptist Church. They recently protested Comic-Con in San Diego, and were met with a group of nerd and dorks (and I say that fondly, being one myself) in costume with their own silly and extreme signs. In that case ridicule worked, because now many people take Westboro less seriously.

    That being said, ridiculing or insulting people can be rude and inappropriate. But unless I was actually penalizing you in some way, or attempting to, I don’t view it as intolerant.

    Also, it does depend on what is said. If I called you a ‘doddering old fool’, that’s mean and rude but not intolerant. But if I said that you were a ‘doddering old fool, and you and all those who agree with you should be locked up, just for what you believe and not for anything you’ve done’ then that would be intolerant.

    And on top of that, sometimes being intolerant is the correct response. I’m intolerant of pedophiles, for example, and I imagine you would be too.

    “Much of nature is not random – it is well ordered and intelligible – it has meaning (not ultimate meaning, but meaning).”

    I think you may be mixing up what is meant by ‘meaning’ here. To say something can be intelligible, that we can understand it to a certain degree if not completely, is not the same as saying something or someone must have given it a meaning.

    The laws of the universe are not laws in the way we think of the word. We call something a law because it is how we observe something to behave with virtually no deviation. It is merely a description of an observation to help us understand the universe better. I see no reason to conclude that because certain things act certain ways that there is anything beyond it actively ‘making’ it that way.

    “Isn’t it reasonable to consider that we do this searching because there is something there to find?”

    No. Searching for something, whether it is a conscious decision or some ingrained instinct, in no way implies that the thing searched for actually exists. In fact, it seems to me infinitely more likely that our innate curiosity is the cause for a great deal of this searching. Curiosity is a trait that one group of mammals got in decidedly more barrel-fulls than other mammals, which eventually led to us developing our brains more than other mammals. That curiosity hasn’t gone away. And I see no reason why we wouldn’t use that curiosity for both things that might exist and things that might not.

    “these seem to me to be two forms of ‘evidence’ that would allow us to reasonably consider the possibility that ultimate meaning, that god, exists. ”

    Those are two arguments (we can argue about whether or not they are good arguments), but they aren’t evidence. An argument and evidence are two different types of things.

  4. Elmer says:

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