Of Providence and Evolution: A Reply to ASA President Randy Isaac

The January 2008 issue of Christianity Today contained a letter from Randy Isaac titled “Providence and Evolution.”

In his critique of Alister McGrath’s The Dawkins Delusion? [“The CT Review,” November], Logan Paul Gage fails to distinguish between scientific randomness and metaphysical randomness. By insisting that these two concepts are inextricably linked, Gage concludes that McGrath (and Francis Collins) maintain a position that precludes divine providence. Evolution is not a purely random process,

Ahem: something I never denied. But I interrupt.

though as with all natural processes, there are underlying random events involved. But even if evolution were completely random, God’s action is not limited by randomness, just as human creative activity may involve random actions.

Issac continues, illustrating his point and posing a question to me:

The Bible records several instances when God’s guiding action was expressed through the casting of lots. Does Gage have a better explanation than McGrath and Collins have provided for how God carries out his sovereignty through means that appear to us as scientifically random?
Randy Isaac
Executive Director, American Scientific Affiliation
Ipswich, Massachusetts

Let’s tease apart the distinction Issac wishes to make between scientific (perhaps physical) and metaphysical randomness. I have claimed not that all forms of evolution are incompatible with theism but rather that neo-Darwinian evolution is incompatible with robust theism. For to involve intelligence in the creative process, either random mutations or natural selection must be manipulated. And once you do that, you are no longer speaking of neo-Darwinism. In fact, you are speaking of some sort of guided evolution–a form of design.
Back to randomness. I think Isaac’s distinction unhelpful. Consider Isaac’s own example: Does he really want to hold that the apostles’ casting of lots was physically random but metaphysically determined? What would that even mean? Would it mean that the physical lot could have physically gone to anyone?
While defending true randomness at first (“even if evolution were completely random, God’s action is not limited by randomness”), later Isaac avoids contradiction by claiming that the random mutations of neo-Darwinian theory are not truly random but rather only appear so from our limited vantage point. But notice that he had to abandon orthodox evolutionary theory to keep intelligent guidance. Thus, he unknowingly accepts my point and abandons his early distinction.
Isaac would better serve his Christian community by being clear that in claiming that mutations only appear random, he denies neo-Darwinism. He is still an evolutionist, but of a very different sort than the neo-Darwinists who dominate our universities.
If Isaac actually thinks an intelligent being can guide randomness, then it is up to HIM to explain how that works–not the other way around. I have claimed that it is impossible. Providence can certainly reign over random events; and Providence can certainly know the outcome of future contingents; but all that is different from saying that Providence can guide truly random events.
“Even if evolution were completely random, God’s action is not limited by randomness,” wrote Isaac. While this may sound like he is coming to God’s defense, this is like saying that God is not limited by square circles. Providence is, of course, not limited by these things because they are contradictions, and hence they do not exist.
As for having a better explanation than Collins and McGrath as to how Providence interacts with randomness, yes, I do. When intelligent beings direct events, the events are not random either physically or metaphysically, and thus the agency is potentially detectable. And events that appear random may or may not actually be random. They cannot be both random and non-random at once.
As far as I know, Collins and McGrath don’t offer ANY such explanation as to how an intelligent being could guide random events. Collins’s The Language of God argues for neo-Darwinism and then slaps God on top without telling us what is left for Him to do. And while I have only read a few of McGrath’s numerous tomes, I have yet to find any detail as to how an event could be truly random and guided at the same time. Because I think such an explanation is impossible, I am not holding my breath.

Logan Paul Gage

Logan Paul Gage is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Dr. Gage received his B.A. in history, philosophy, and American studies from Whitworth College (2004) and his M.A. (2011) and Ph.D. (2014) in philosophy from Baylor University. His dissertation, written under the supervision of Trent Dougherty, was a defense of the phenomenal conception of evidence and conservative principles in epistemology.