Chance and Providence

Next in the Hump series here.

It’s back on the old chestnut of ontological randomness, courtesy of a paper suggesting that the realisation that ontological chance is real forces us to change to traditional concepts of providence.

My response: a lot of people, including the author, have entirely misconstrued what nature was telling them about probability - and providence still stands undiluted.


I totally agree with this.

Yet so many people think that chance is a threat to Providence It is honestly confusing to me. What am I missing? Where did the worng turn happen?

Josh - have a look at the N T Wright lecture 1 linked from the piece. It’s not about chance at all, but it is about how Epicureanism was deliberately revived in many areas during the “Enlightenment” in order to remove God from the picture. As so often, what one wishes to see colours what one does see in nature, and if God is not to be seen as active, but laws of nature fails to explain everything, then one must, necessarily, invoke Epicurean chance.

Darwin’s Grandfather Erasmus was among the pioneers of this form of “evolutionism”, so it’s not surprising that Charles was part of the wider movement as his faith slipped away. The process probably actually began centuries earlier, in Renaissance humanism, as God began to be seen as treading on man’s autonomous toes and needing to be sidelined: better to be ruled by chance than by a God who makes ethical and devotional demands of us.

Well I get that, but am confused why people think that discussion of chance must mean epicurian chance rather than human ignorance.

I suppose that once man is the measure of all things, admissions of ignorance don’t go down well. The biggest mystery is why Christians should buy into it - but then we buy into consumerism, and bought into slavery, when we are/were too accommodating to the spirit of the age.


So what exactly could the debate be here? Where is the substantive exchange? It seems that rather than engaging an alternative there is just a memory lapse that the leap to epicurian chance was one of many options was a leap that silenced other options…

For me, as a mathematician, “random” simply means that it can be adequately modeled by probability theory.

I doubt that there could ever be an empirical way to distinguish between chance and providence.

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@nwrickert, I share your opinion. And it is this distinction that lies at the core of why ID remains controversial.

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I totally agree.


It has been my observation that when these informal arguments from probability are made, it almost always boils down to an argument from incredulity, and a restatement of the prior assumptions. This makes it an intuitive argument, which is OK if that is the intent, but it should not be mistaken for mathematical proof.


Right Neil (and George). But the reason for that inability to distinguish empirically is that, whilst probability is an empirical science, it is only a comparison of propositions in particular circumstances (probably most closely allied to logic).

“Chance”, however (in the sense of ontological randomness I’ve been using here) is a metaphysical assumption used as a theoretical explanation of probability. “Choice” is an alternative metaphysical explanation of the same phenomena.

As is always the case, the metaphical choice you make depends on non-empirical matters - though it might, indirectly, include such things as empirical evidence for God.

A caveat to that is that if we talk about chance in the Thomistic sense of the accidental confluence of lawlike events (eg two planets in eccentric orbits eventually colliding, or happening to meet an old friend in an unexpected location, or the trajectories of particles in a gas), then the “chance” is real, but purely epistemological: in theory , but not always in practice,we can empirically distinguish it from choice, by plotting the orbits of the planets, by interviewing the friends for their reasons for being there, by getting hold of Maxwell’s demon to track molecules, etc.

Nevertheless, this does not exclude providential choices from these areas, because we never know everything accurately enough to account for the whole phenomenon.

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It is vital to realise that what is being discussed here is not “arguments from probability”, but the nature of probability itself. As soon as one says “X could or could not happen by chance” one has taken a non-empirical position on chance as a causal agent, and it is entirely legitimate to express incredulity in the existence of such a thing. There can be, of course, no mathematical proof for the existence of ontological chance, any more than one can prove axioms of logic mathematically.

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It’s a lot of back-and-forth on this topic. The express version is a lot less confusing:

What looks like chance or probability to humans is virtually certitude in the Eyes of God. Full Stop.


I agree - the problem is that an entire way of doing science, and an entire popular worldview, is based on denying this. In particular, the assumption of ontological chance is virtually the only way to do without God in nature.

So the assertion must be augmented with reasons. N T Wright is no fool, and has this year done an entire series of prestigious Bampton Lectures on these reasons.

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I think it was, in practice, a leap to one of only two options on the table: since ancient times, the only two ways of organising a cosmos have been Epicurean chance or the divine mind of Aristotole, Plato - or the Bible.

I think the actual debate consists, or should consist, of debunking the whole idea of chance as a cause - which broadly consists of getting behind the maths of probability theory to the philosophical assumptions.

It is easy to show that events cause probabilities, and not vice-versa (the maths, of course, has no way of distinguishing cause from effect), but my experience, particularly at BioLogos, is that it’s a lot harder to get people to think that it even matters, or to stop them reverting to the usual language of “caused by chance” because that’s what is most often used in both scientific and popular literature.

That’s odd, when you think that what is at stake is God as sole Creator.



In my view, It’s not really a problem. It’s just the nature of Science vs Religion. And the US Constitution is interpreted to defend this distinction.

The Pew Surveys tell us that society is getting more scientific AND less religious. I believe this is why Giberson pulled out of the wagon circles set up by BioLogos.

The only way Science is ever going to relax it’s grip is to help create a new generation of more moderate Evangelicals!


I’m not sure I am more moderate…what does that mean any ways?

Quite so: as Samuel Rutherford said, “Never seek warm fire under cold ice.” It’s putting the fire to good account that matters.

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My issue with the other camps (not applied to everyone) is that they are not sufficiently committed to the way of Jesus and to Scripture. The call to follow Jesus is radical. We are called to lay down coercive power, invite suffering into our lives, and seek peace.

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I don’t agree with that.

We do not need to assume ontological chance. We need only assume that probability theory can adequately model the observations. And empirical evidence supports that.