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Different Understandings of Chance

The word ‘chance’The subject of a major study from David Bartholomew, God and Chance (London: SCM Press, 1984).is generally used in one of three ways:

  1. in respect of an event such as the tossing of a coin. As Peacocke says, ‘had we sufficient knowledge of the exact values of all the relevant parameters, the laws of mechanics would in fact enable us to say in any particular toss which way the coin would fall.’Peacocke, A, Creation and the World of Science (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979) p90. Whether we could ever possess such knowledge of a system is highly doubtful.Thus to call such outcomes chance is to confess to the incompleteness of our knowledge of the relevant causative factors, it is not to deny that those factors exist or that they are sufficient to account for the event.

  2. in respect of combinations of events which seem to come from two different causal chains. Peacocke again: ‘Suppose that when you leave the building in which you are reading these pages, as you step on to the pavement you are struck on the head by a hammer dropped by a man repairing the roof... the two trains of events... are each within themselves explicable as causal chains. Yet there is no connection between those causal chains except their point of intersection.’Peacocke, 1979, 90-91

If Laplace were right, and the whole course of the universe theoretically predictable (see determinism, indeterminism and their implications), then of course this hammer-blow would also be predictable. This second meaning of chance would again be an expression of our ignorance.

  1. as a non-technical way of describing the outcomes of events governed by quantum theory. Quantum mechanics, as usually understood, implies that these outcomes are not determinate until they occur - they can only be expressed in terms of probabilities. Not only is our knowledge of systems limited by the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, but there is an inalienable indeterminacy about the events themselves (see Shaking the Foundations: the implications of quantum theory). Polkinghorne has argued that there is indeterminacy also in large-scale chaotic systems.Polkinghorne, 1989, 28-30 - see also Peacocke and Polkinghorne compared.

Meaning ii) has an enormous effect on how the world actually develops - most strikingly in the field of biological evolution. Darwin’s evolutionary schemepostulates that the environment, viewed as an independently changing entity, is at every moment selecting which variants (arising by a largely separate causal chain) will survive and prosper. Contemporary thinking would recognise the situation as much more complex than that: the environment is itself being shaped by the activities of species as they evolve (this is strikingly illustrated by the Gaia HypothesisGod, Humanity and the Cosmos, pp226-29). But the point still has force - most dramatically in respect of the great extinctions. The trajectory of the massive object that collided with the Yucatan Peninsula 60 million years ago clearly belonged to a different causal chain from the one that had given rise to dinosaurs vulnerable to the extreme conditions resulting from the collision. So the course of evolution is highly unpredictable, much influenced by this sort of chance.

But it is meaning iii) of ‘chance’ which offers the ontological indeterminacy, the openness to possible influence from outside the structure of physical law, that has been of such interest to theologians. It seems to offer a possibility other than God banished, before or behindsee God of the gaps.: that is, the possibility of a God who is ‘before’ in the sense of being the initial cause of everything, ‘behind’ in the sense of sustaining the laws and regularities God has established, but also a God working through the openness and indeterminacy of the natural order.

The debate about divine action has to be taken as a whole - any Christian-theological account of God’s activity must include reference to creation and to eschatological redemption - but there is a specific sub-debate, much aired in recent years, on the possibility of God’s particular action in situations in the present. Clayton makes the important point that any such particular action must be congruent with God’s action in universal history as a whole.Clayton, P, God and Contemporary Science [Edinburgh: Edinburgh Academic Press, 1997] p177.We cannot postulate a God faithful in upholding the regularities of the cosmos, but capricious in particular providential action.

Email link | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. Christopher Southgate
Source: God, Humanity and the Cosmos  (T&T Clark, 1999)

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