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Holmes Rolston III

In his book Genes, Genesis and God: Values and their Origins in Natural and Human HistoryRolston, Genes, Genesis and God: Values and Their Origins in Natural and Human History philosopher Holmes Rolston III develops a nuanced account of providence and biological history. Well versed in the environmental sciences he points to the robustness of life, particularly the ability it has shown to recover from cataclysmic events such as the K-T extinction. This leads him to support a mild account of convergence. Echoing Leigh Van Valen and opposing Gould, he proposes that if we were to run the ‘tape of life’ several times, consistent themes would appear.See Ibid. 20.However, he considers the Darwinian account of biological history to be “modestly incomplete.”Ibid. 429. He describes this deficiency in terms of ‘possibility spaces.’ For Rolston, contemporary knowledge of evolutionary biology enables us to say that some adaptations are in the ‘possibility space’ of the precursors, but this becomes meaningless over longer ranges. For example, we cannot reasonably say that Trilobites are in the ‘possibility space’ of DNA.See Holmes Rolston, "Evolutionary History and Divine Presence," Theology Today (Princeton) 55 (1998) 425. Rolston proposes that in order to get from DNA to Trilobites there is a need for “the creation of new possibility spaces” over time.Rolston, Genes, Genesis and God: Values and Their Origins in Natural and Human History 427. Until we account for this, he says, evolution has “possibilities floating in from nowhere.”Rolston, Genes, Genesis and God: Values and Their Origins in Natural and Human History 359.He sees this as opening the way for accounts of divine providence; it is God who opens up certain possibilities.

Rolston suggests that this change of possibility spaces would be undetectable: “God does not intervene as a causal force in the world, not at least of such kind as science can detect.”Rolston, Genes, Genesis and God: Values and Their Origins in Natural and Human History 368. This is because God’s influence occurs at the level of chance. He explains that “if once a year God loaded the dice, that would be difficult to detect.”Rolston, Genes, Genesis and God: Values and Their Origins in Natural and Human History 368.Rolston’s position is interesting because he presents God’s action as simultaneously undetectable by science and yet evident from an assessment of reasonable possibilities. He also characterises God’s activity in temporal terms; God opens up this possibility at a certain time and a different possibility at another time.

It is at first difficult to see how God’s temporally variable detectable influence can be viewed in terms other than intervention. However, it is important to remember that some statistical results can be highly suggestive without automatically implicating divine intervention. For example, if two fair die were thrown and happened to land on the same face this would not be surprising. However, if they both landed on the same random face on many subsequent throws, this would be highly improbable and suggestive, but would not automatically imply that God intervened since no laws were broken. It is not yet known if biological history includes statistically suggestive events of this type.

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Holmes Rolston III

[1] Does Evolution ‘do the work of a friend’ for the Christian Religion?
Setting the scene - why focus on providence?
[2] Supposed challenges from the evolutionary sciences to theology
Intellectually fulfilled atheists?
A challenge to human uniqueness and status?
A challenge to purpose in creation?
A threat to the veracity of scripture?
Evolution ‘explains away’ theology?
A challenge to Christian morality?
The challenges in wider context - Darwin as a scapegoat?
[3] The current state of the evolutionary sciences
Different ways of conceptualising Darwinian evolution
Evolution as chance and necessity
Evolution as an algorithm
Evolution as movement within a ‘fitness landscape’
Ongoing debates: contingency versus convergence
Ongoing debates: what are the key causal factors in biological history?
Ongoing debates: the environment as the principle cause?
Ongoing debates: convergence as the principle cause?
Ongoing debates: ‘Universal biology’ as the principle cause?
The importance of moving from evolution as abstraction to particular history
Ongoing debates: directionality and progress
Ongoing debates: the origin of life
Different levels and kinds of selection?
[4] Responses from theology
Evolution, probabilities and providence
Responses from contemporary theologians
Keith Ward
John Haught
Arthur Peacocke
An increased role for general providence?
Theology of Creation in the light of evolution: three scenarios
[5] Concluding remarks


Adrian Wyard
Adrian M Wyard MSt

See also:

The Relation of Science & Religion
Purpose and Design
The Argument From Design
The Anthropic Principle
Charles Darwin
DNA Double-Helix