I need help with language to use in regard to evolution

I am working on a manuscript with others at RTB on answering questions Christians raise about evolution. I am going to start this thread with the sincere desire to help me use precise language to try to avoid unnecessary problems in communicating different interpretive views of scientific data.

I don’t want to wrangle about which interpretations are correct here. Please. Only engage if you can help me with the language (diction) to use to try to facilitate fair representations of the different perspectives and avoid creating “straw men” type situations by failing to use language carefully in discussing interpretive arguments.

I hope I have clearly stated my goal and request.

The first set of language I need help with is the use of words such as: random, chance, unguided, unplanned. These will be the words I’m trying to use well and clearly, and they the topic of the next post in this thread as well as what follows here.

In a neo-Darwinian explanation, and for the sake of this thread I am equating this with the terminology ‘modern synthesis’ and referring to this view as ND/MS. (And, yes, I am aware that this is NO LONGER the prevailing evolutionary position.) In ND/MS, I think all of these are basically interchangeable… mutations occur in a random fashion or by chance (and I think random could be ‘defined’ as ‘no observable correlation’). Mutations are therefore unguided or unplanned. (This is not to say that evolution is not constrained by natural selection, it is.) But from the mutational perspective (almost all) mutations would be chance or random and certainly all would be random in respect to which mutations might provide an adaptive advantage (under natural selection).

I will add one more item here and then in the next post move to the different position of EES (extended evolutionary synthesis) and if need be, I’ll make additional posts to move away from this language to the position of a more basic category free of implied baggage - to one of current evolutionary theory (based in neutral theory, gene flow and common descent).

Now, back to ND/MS, if I want to make a distinction between two worldview commitments, both (for whatever reason) committed to the outdated understanding of ND/MS where one view is committed to a material-only view of reality (call or don’t call it atheistic) and the other a theistic worldview, then I think I cannot use unguided or unplanned for the theistic ND/MS position, but could still use random and chance. For the materialistic ND/MS position I think all are basically conveying the same thing and interchangeable. Yes? No?

What think you all?


I’m confused. Are you asking how to define random, chance, unguided, etc. in the context of evolutionary biology? If so, then to me those aren’t metaphysical statements and I think it needs to be made clear that they aren’t. See here. Elliot Sober for the win:


I think the key indispensible qualifier for all of those terms is “apparently.” Meaning these “appear” e.g. random from a human scientific point of view.

Moreover these terms are not exchangeable.


In an ND/MS scenario from a philosophical position of material-only universe, where is the hang-up? None are interchangeable? How would you distinguish them…

After you distinguish them from one another, I can always add apparent before the word of interest.

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Thanks, TJ. Yes. I am asking this. And I know that in a “apparently philosophically neutral” position of evolutionary biology that they are not metaphysically referential terms.

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Those all mean the same thing to me

Agreed, I need to make this clear and that’s why I’m asking these specific questions here.


Perfect! Thank you, TJ. That answers one set of uses for me. Second question, do they all still mean the same thing to you, if the context is EES or simply current evolutionary contexts? In other words is there ever a place where you would be uncomfortable using unguided or chance, in place of random?

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So when discussing science I don’t like using unguided or unplanned at all because I just think it’s invites confusion and makes people think we are discussing things we really aren’t. I prefer random or chance.

Edit: so I’m always uncomfortable using unguided or unplanned


Helpful, thank you, again.

From whence, this article or book chapter? Citation, please.

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In my discussions with the other Christians about evolutionary biology they always get hung up on the words random, chance, etc. so I think it’s really important to really explain what they mean. I love pointing people to Elliot Sober (an atheist) because he’s really open about the limits of what science can say and what it says.

Evolutionary Theory, Causal Completeness, and Theism: the Case of ‘Guided’ Mutation.” In D. Walsh and P. Thompson (eds.), Evolutionary Biology: Conceptual, Ethical, and Religious Issues , 2014, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 31-44

@AJRoberts here you go


Thank you, I was able to, but I may want to cite it in my manuscript. Now I can.

Plantinga in “Where the Conflict Really Lies” makes the similar point as well

Can’t wait to read what you guys are working on @AJRoberts


The difference is that “randomness” and “chance” can be part of a “plan.” For example, we can “plan” to roll a dice to generate randomness in a game. That dice might not (or might) be guided. Moreover, what appears random, could be planned or guided.

So from that we can differentiate between random/chance and unplanned and unguided. They are all three distinct concepts.


Yes! I give you the chaos game:

Randomness can sure create some beautiful things!

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I like this @AJRoberts

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Yes, another very helpful distinction.

But if in a non-theistic reality (which is a point of distinction that I need to make in the ms)… random and chance and unguided and unplanned remain equivalents.

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