Tuesday, October 11, 2005

A vastly complex web of contingency

I was intending to walk away from Darwin for a while but given that I've got readers who are very interested, I'll be happy to go there again. Here is a quote from Catholic Culture on the relationship between randomness and Providence. People have made this suggestion to me before, and I to them, and it always seemed nobody was understood. I think Dr. Jeff Mirus has done a nice job of explanation here:
Because of the importance (if not the certainty) of neo-Darwinian theory, it is vital that Christians understand that “chance” in the scientific sense does not in the least undermine the Christian understanding of Providence. In this discussion, I am indebted to Stephen M. Barr’s article “The Design of Evolution” in First Things (October 2005). Barr rightly points out that the notion of “chance” in science is precisely “statistical randomness”. Statistical randomness is based on nothing more than a lack of correlation among things or events which can still be helpful in understanding reality through the use of probability theory. We have statistical randomness in our world because, as Barr puts it, events “do not march in lockstep” but “are part of a vastly complex web of contingency.” Now contingency is such an important part of the Catholic intellectual tradition that it is necessary to quote Communion and Stewardship at length to better realize how Catholic thought fits in with the scientific notion of randomness: Many neo-Darwinian scientists, as well as some of their critics, have concluded that if evolution is a radically contingent materialistic process driven by natural selection and random genetic variation, then there can be no place in it for divine providential causality. But it is important to note that, according to the Catholic understanding of divine causality, true contingency in the created order is not incompatible with a purposeful divine providence. Divine causality and created causality radically differ in kind and not only in degree. Thus, even the outcome of a purely contingent natural process can nonetheless fall within God’s providential plan. Communion and Stewardship goes on to quote Thomas Aquinas to emphasize how integral this understanding of contingency is to a coherent Catholic worldview. Some 700 years ago Thomas stated: “The effect of divine providence is not only that things should happen somehow, but that they should happen either by necessity or by contingency. Therefore, whatsoever divine providence ordains to happen infallibly and of necessity, happens infallibly and of necessity; and that happens from contingency which the divine providence conceives to happen from contingency.” For this reason, the International Theological Commission points out that “neo-Darwinians who adduce random genetic variation and natural selection as evidence that the process of evolution is absolutely unguided are straying beyond what can be demonstrated by science.” Needless to say, Christians who are concerned that such randomness must be denied to preserve their Faith are guilty of the same misconception on the other side.
Any comments out there? I think this is cleared up some worries I had about the issue of randomness.

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