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God and evolution 4: The problem of Purpose B

Last updated on 23 Jun 2018

Providence and plans

The problem for theists is that most theisms assume that God has a plan. This is sometimes called providence: God provides for goals he has, for the benefit of the organisms, and in particular for humans, and for the achievement of his purposes. As soon as Darwin published, this became an issue, especially among evangelicals in America. Charles Hodge, the famous Princeton theologian, published his What is Darwinism in 1874 in which he argued that there were only three alternative views available to Christians: God created everything, God intervenes in physical processes, or atheism, and Darwinism was atheism, because it eliminates design from the universe.

Not all theisms are providential. Some, for example Japanese Shinto, or Buddhism, allow that the universe is a process in which things happen according to their natures, and humans either have to find ways to survive this or find redemption or nirvana themselves. But the major theisms of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are providentialist, and for them, Darwinism seems to present the conundrum that Hodge engaged. He decided that the existence of physical law itself was a providential act, but that was insufficient: God had to have done more than provide “chance and necessity” to create. He had to act personally.

Darwin, on the other hand, argued that giving credit to God undercut the very need for natural selection as a physical process. In the final chapter of the Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication (1868), he took Asa Gray to task for suggesting that God made available to selection the variations it needed to achieve God’s plan:

… if an architect were to rear a noble and commodious edifice, without the use of cut stone, by selecting from the fragments at the base of a precipice wedge-formed stones for his arches, elongated stones for his lintels, and flat stones for his roof, we should admire his skill and regard him as the paramount power. Now, the fragments of stone, though indispensable to the architect, bear to the edifice built by him the same relation which the fluctuating variations of each organic being bear to the varied and admirable structures ultimately acquired by its modified descendants.

Some authors have declared that natural selection explains nothing, unless the precise cause of each slight individual difference be made clear. Now, if it were explained to a savage utterly ignorant of the art of building, how the edifice had been raised stone upon stone, and why wedge-formed fragments were used for the arches, flat stones for the roof, &c.; and if the use of each part and of the whole building were pointed out, it would be unreasonable if he declared that nothing had been made clear to him, because the precise cause of the shape of each fragment could not be given. But this is a nearly parallel case with the objection that selection explains nothing, because we know not the cause of each individual difference in the structure of each being.

The shape of the fragments of stone at the base of our precipice may be called accidental, but this is not strictly correct; for the shape of each depends on a long sequence of events, all obeying natural laws; on the nature of the rock, on the lines of deposition or cleavage, on the form of the mountain which depends on its upheaval and subsequent denudation, and lastly on the storm or earthquake which threw down the fragments. But in regard to the use to which the fragments may be put, their shape may be strictly said to be accidental. And here we are led to face a great difficulty, in alluding to which I am aware that I am travelling beyond my proper province. An omniscient Creator must have foreseen every consequence which results from the laws imposed by Him. But can it be reasonably maintained that the Creator intentionally ordered, if we use the words in any ordinary sense, that certain fragments of rock should assume certain shapes so that the builder might erect his edifice? If the various laws which have determined the shape of each fragment were not predetermined for the builder’s sake, can it with any greater probability be maintained that He specially ordained for the sake of the breeder each of the innumerable variations in our domestic animals and plants;— many of these variations being of no service to man, and not beneficial, far more often injurious, to the creatures themselves? Did He ordain that the crop and tail-feathers of the pigeon should vary in order that the fancier might make his grotesque pouter and fantail breeds? Did He cause the frame and mental qualities of the dog to vary in order that a breed might be formed of indomitable ferocity, with jaws fitted to pin down the bull for man’s brutal sport? But if we give up the principle in one case,—if we do not admit that the variations of the primeval dog were intentionally guided in order that the greyhound, for instance, that perfect image of symmetry and vigour, might be formed,—no shadow of reason can be assigned for the belief that variations, alike in nature and the result of the same general laws, which have been the groundwork through natural selection of the formation of the most perfectly adapted animals in the world, man included, were intentionally and specially guided. However much we may wish it, we can hardly follow Professor Asa Gray in his belief “that variation has been led along certain beneficial lines,” like a stream “along definite and useful lines of irrigation.” If we assume that each particular variation was from the beginning of all time preordained, the plasticity of organisation, which leads to many injurious deviations of structure, as well as that redundant power of reproduction which inevitably leads to a struggle for existence, and, as a consequence, to the natural selection or survival of the fittest, must appear to us superfluous laws of nature. On the other hand, an omnipotent and omniscient Creator ordains everything and foresees everything. Thus we are brought face to face with a difficulty as insoluble as is that of free will and predestination. [volume 2, pages 430-432]

Darwin is claiming that if we grant the theory of natural selection is sufficient to explain adaptation, then we have no need to impose God’s plan, and indeed God would be responsible for every “injurious” variant as well, which seems impious. However, in his last sentence, the final sentence of that work, he leaves open a solution, and it is a solution leapt upon by many theologians.

One such theologian is William Temple, who once said

I prefer a God who once and for all impressed his will upon creation, to one who continually busied about modifying what he had already done.

In his Gifford Lecture, Nature, Mind and God (1934), he wrote

… no Law of Nature as discovered by physical science is ultimate. It is a general statement of that course of conduct in Nature which is sustained by the purposive action of God so long and so far as it will serve His purpose. No doubt it is true that the same cause will always produce the same effect in the same circumstances. Our contention is that an element in every actual cause, and indeed the determinant element, is the active purpose of God fulfilling itself with that perfect constancy which calls for an infinite graduation of adjustments in the process. Where any adjustment is so considerable as to attract notice it is called a miracle; but it is not a specimen of a special class, it is an illustration of the general character of the World-Process. [Lecture X]

For Temple, God’s plan is the choice of a world process that delivers his goals, although he can act upon it differently if he chooses, which is a form of occasionalism. More recently Holmes Rolston III has argued that while the world is able to generate information, and hence purpose, without an “informer”, still

[t]he creation of matter, energy, law, history, stories, of all the information that generates nature, to say nothing of culture, does need an adequate explanation: some sources, source or Source competent for such creativity. … This portrays a loose teleology, a soft concept of creation, one that permits genuine, though not ultimate, integrity and autonomy in the creatures. [Genes, Genesis and God (1999), page 367]

So we are left with several options. We can say God is actively involved in the provision and maintenance of natural law, and may vary it at any time, or that God set up a world which would realise his aims, and if the latter, either he knew ahead of time that it would do so, or he ensures that it does. The choice is between necessity created by God, or chance.

Many evolutionary thinkers, however, have stressed the chance aspect of evolution, to which we will return in the next post. For now we can diagram the sorts of views available to the theist:

Deism: God sets the world going and stands back.
Occasionalism: God creates each finite event at each moment, so that causation is a series of divinely chosen events.
Leibnizianism (after Leibniz, who held that God created the best of all possible worlds): God chooses a world to create (from start to finish, hence referred to as a “block” universe) in which every event that occurs in that universe is part of a larger providential plan (including chance events).

These four possibilities are, I think, exhaustive of the theist options. Given the medieval distinction between God as a primary cause (of things existing as they are) and secondary causes (natural law), only the occasionalist and the Leibnizian views are tenable. Both allow natural things to achieve God’s plan. The deist version involves God in effect waiting to see what happens, and the traditional creationism does not allow for natural processes to change things very much, and is inconsistent with our scientific knowledge of nature. The existence of God’s intervention (miracles) involves some occasionalism but one might adopt a Leibnizian view and still allow God to get involved from time to time, although that then implies that a natural explanation of some events is going to fail.

So in order for a theist to accept design and nature and Darwinian evolution simultaneously, either they have to deny causality (secondary causes) or they have to accept that God chose to create a universe in which his goals were realised by secondary causes. If you accept the latter view, this raises the problem of evil in the world.

Darwin famously thought that the existence of things like ichnumenid wasps, which lay their eggs in the living flesh of caterpillars which are then eaten alive by the grubs, was horrific. He wrote to his friend Joseph Hooker, the botanist, in 1856 before he published the Origin:

What a book a Devil’s Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature.

Natural selection involves waste, pain, and savage competition (which is not all it involves: some competition can be relatively benign) and the world is full of cases like this, as when predators start eating prey that is still alive. If God chose this world to create, then God is responsible for this evil. But the problem of evil is not in the first instance raised by Darwinian evolution – it is an old problem (going back at least to Epicurus), and in any case if God is infinitely wise, good and powerful a single instance of evil is enough to cause the problem to arise. Natural evil just adds a large but finite amount of evil to what would already be a finite amount of evil.

One solution to this might be to say that in order to have a world of process, in which good things intended by God would evolve, one has to be able to have lesser outcomes in order to achieve greater outcomes. If we start with a universe that lacks humans, for example (or Mind, or whatever it is God desires), then at some point we have a suboptimal world. Necessarily, there has to be a lack of goodness in order to achieve goodness, over time. So it is logically required by a process view of nature that there be evil. The goodness lies in the creation of a regular process, not in any part of the process itself until the goal is reached.

This, however, is hard to accept. Voltaire famously tweaked Leibniz’s view that this was the “best of all possible worlds” that God might have chosen to create by cataloguing the sorts of evil that occurred in the world, ranging from earthquakes to auto da fes. Nevertheless, Leibniz’s view is coherent and is a solution to the problem of evil. It just might not match our expectations.

Another solution might be that the evil in the natural world is not a moral evil, although that leaves open the problem of efficiency. Why would God use a wasteful process like natural selection? Perhaps God is constrained by logic, and this is the only logical way to achieve the ends he holds. Or perhaps it’s a mystery, which is the goto solution for unresolveable theological problems.

In any case, natural evil is not a problem raised by Darwinian evolution alone. Any naturalist before or after Darwin knew of the lack of concord and harmony in the natural world. So the problem of evil is not a problem for theists to solve in respect of Darwinian evolution, but in general terms. As a universal issue, it doesn’t much affect belief in Darwinian evolution.

Next, I’ll look at the role and objections to chance, and then at the question whether Darwinian evolution implies atheism.


  1. DiscoveredJoys DiscoveredJoys

    There is a fifth view available to the theist, although not a very reassuring one. The diagram should not be God-and-the-World but God-and-the-Universe. That is: God’s providence is for some beings or some things elsewhere or elsewhen in the universe and humans are just some byproduct or cog in the process of providing that providence.

    It would provide an explanation of evil (we are not the focus of providence so suck it up humans) and explain (!) why only chance is required locally. Of course that does run counter to the ‘revelations’ of many faiths.

    • So, who promotes that view, again?

      Oh, and “world” does mean universe. As in Cosmos.

      • DiscoveredJoys DiscoveredJoys

        The thrust of my comment was that the disinterested god is available as a view – but I have not come across any believer who cares to consider that viewpoint.

        I accept your philosophical non-distinction between ‘world’ and ‘cosmos’, but my argument is that most ordinary believers concept of the ‘cosmos’ is pretty much god, this planet (or even tribe), plus heaven (possible hell too). Mormons have a different view though, as do some other religions and worldviews.

        I guess the point I am struggling to articulate is that your admirable philosophical discussion about purpose is not encompassing the emotionally inspired purpose that believers believe in.

  2. Tillich would be one proponent, also Rahner. The two problems with the essay is that you assume a (fundamentalist) Christian position of theism and use rather old books to back up your position. Although I think you are right in criticizing religious though by the lens of evolution, your definitions of what constitutes religious thought are outdated. For example, you assume that a plan implies an journey from a to b yet this is not applicable to all variables of religious though. One variable for example is that the plan model is only applicable to humans not nature. Another, as mentioned above, is that God’s plans are not biological but universal. However, my main criticism is that there is no plan. God’s existence does not necessitate a plan, nor does God’s non-existence exclude a plan for that matter. By setting up your criticism of theistic though of ‘plan’ you are criticizing a rather specific position, a Christian, reformed, western, 19th century position… or, a fundamentalist/childish position. And that is where your criticism, although a good one, fails.

    • The purpose of this series is to engage popular issues, not abstruse philosophical claims. While Rahner and Tillich are adherents of these philosophical gods, most people aren’t (there’s no church of Tillich, for example). However, you may also have misread my purpose: I am not criticising these views, I am trying to map the landscape so others can come to their own conclusions, as I said in the first post. My concern is how one might reconcile Darwinian evolution with the sorts of theisms that do exist in folk religion.

  3. I have been reading these series with interest and think that philosophically it is becoming more and more muddled. I am not sure what your goals are here.
    Right off the bat you write : “the problem for theists is that most theism assume that God has a plan.” Really, have you done a survey? Do you mean theologians, everyday believers, televangelists or what? And if “they” do believe this is it a problem for them? I think a see a straw dog under construction here.
    In paragraph two you write: “not all theisms are providential”. Then you cite as examples “Shinto or Buddhism”. Most knowledgeable observers are aware that neither of these as theistic religions.
    The dog is starting to bark and frankly I am starting to skip whole sentences in your essay. The diagrams, well why not? I don’t know where you got these term and definitions. “Leibnizianism” (you love those isms) for which you write “for Leibniz, who held that God created the best of all possible worlds”. The best we can say about that is Please at least read the whole Wikipedia entry of a great thinker before you misquote him.
    Sorry to say I stopped reading at that point (i did read the other three parts)
    Good bye and good luck with your writing.

    • You do not need to read this series if you find it muddled. But there are some standard views out there in the literature and they have to be addressed. If you are theist and nonprovidential, then the problem does not arise, so skip this section.

      As to Buddhism and Shinto being theist, I invoke what I have previously called the Greek Pantheon Test. Something is a god if it would be included in the Greek pantheon. That includes Buddhist devas, Shinto kami and Catholic saints. As a corollary, I argue that there is no such thing as a monotheism in folk religion.

      As to Leibniz, I have been reading him for years directly, without the intervention of Wikipedia. I even published a paper in Zygon a little while ago on this very topic.

      I hope you find stuff worth reading if this doesn’t help you. But this is a sketch of a much more detailed work that will become a book in the future. At the moment I am getting my ideas in a row so I know the skeleton of the arguments more clearly. Thanks for your feedback.

  4. Brief note:

    The providence debate in Christianity is primarily between meticulous providence and general providence. Meticulous providence is complete determinism. Some models of meticulous providence are based on A-theory of time while other models are based on B-theory of time. Alternatively, general providence is partial determinism and always based on the A-theory of time.

    Augustine, Aquinas, and John Calvin are examples of proponents of meticulous providence. Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Jacobus Arminius are examples of proponents of general providence.

    • A nice (as in fine) distinction. I should fold that into this discussion. Why is general providence an A-theory? Could it not be a B-theory? [For lurkers, an A-theory is roughly when time unfolds, and a B-theory is a block universe in which all of time and space exist as a tenseless whole. B-theory has a problem with “the present”.]

      • The B-theory-tenseless-whole concept appears to me to preclude any concept of causation. For example, B-theory implies no successive distinction between the time coordinates of the past, present, and future. Everything has always existed while by definition nothing that has always existed has a cause.

        A few years back, I misunderstood B-theory and tried to reconcile it with stochastic events and traditional divine omniscience, a learning curve on my part. But among Christian philosophers, I see no serious reconciliation of B-theory and stochastic events. Unless I missed something in the literature, all Christian philosophers who propose genuine stochastic events in a partially determined universe hold to A-theory.

        By the way, the three main contemporary views of partial determinism / general providence are traditional Arminianism, Molinism, and open theism.

        • Causation in a tenseless universe is patterns of events; to God it would look “like” ripples in sand do to us. To those in the universe it looks like ordinary causation. I don’t see the problem.

        • I was erroneous about defining Molinism as a model of general providence because Molinism is a model of meticulous providence that asserts libertarian free will. General providence is a view held by various ancient church fathers as cited earlier in this thread, Arminians, and open theists.

  5. John, Assuming a tenseless universe, I agree that patterns of events look like ordinary causation to us so-called mortals. However, standard philosophical eternalism or B-theory of time or block time or a tenseless universe… indicates that the appearance of sequential events is an illusion. Given that causation is inseparably tied into sequential events, then a tenseless universe indicates that appearance of sequential events and causation is an illusion. We need to distinguish illusionary causation from real causation.

    • I’d say we need to distinguish internal causation from external causation (isn’t that the same as primary and secondary cause?). What we ordinarily call causation is internal to the universe. God might not see causation as such.

      • All internal causation and external causation involve sequential events that cannot really exist in the case of a tenseless universe. For example, all material force and respective particles involve causation and sequential events in a light cone or cones that cannot really exist in a tenseless universe. The only possibility of a tenseless universe is a universe with no material force and particles, which I conjecture is the original dimensionality. Alternatively, the observable universe contains an indefinite number of light cones relative to each other with no absolute time. The causation and sequential events really exist. Pick any reference point and causal sequences are observable without absolute time. There is no coherent way to call the observable universe a tenseless universe.

  6. John the Plumber John the Plumber

    I have a screen saver of fish swimming. – I know this is a digital process even though it looks analogue. – Might the universe be equally digital.

    As I walk across a carpet, I step forward onto the carpet I see in front of me, and I know the carpet is there beind me.

    As I walk through time though, I take a step onto the time I expect to be in front of me – but tacitly accept that time behind me as vanished.

    What if there is no time – either in front of me – or behind me – only the present millisecond.

    If the universe is digital ‘bits’ switching state – not analogue – then this can be a valid viewpoint.

    If it is digital, we as observers would still see the world unfold as if analogue, because the countless ‘bits’ would switch at random millimoments. – The present though would simply be the state of all ‘bits’ at a hyperthetical cross sectional moment. The next moment would represent the state of all bits at the next moment. – Each moment though would be confused enough to seem analogue because all ‘bits’ would not switch in unison. – If by chance all ‘bits’ did act in unison then an observer would see the universe jump from moment to moment. – Time though would not exactly be – just the switched state of the universe’s collection of ‘bits’ – in what would be each new present – with no past or future.

    It’s easier to argue that God exists and gave us time though, than it is to think on whether my carpet is a reality, waiting for my next future step – or whether my foot eventually meeting the carpet at my next footfall is just the result of successive switching states of the only one millimoment that has ever or will exist.

    If I wished to argue for God I would call on the idea of, as you put it, “God getting involved from time to time, although that implies that a natural explanation of some event is going to fail.”

    All I do is ask you to wait for an event which fails to follow hard won natural law – an apple falling sideways for instance – then obviously God has interfered – there is no better explanation. – That should keep you out of harms way for quite a while, allowing me to get on with my worship. – I could keep your attention on the task by asking you now and again, “Has it happened yet?” This of course is as answerable as, “Have you stopped beating your wife?

    Of course if the carpet, floor, or anything else, fails to be there at my next footfall in the next moment – after all my worship I could expect the hand of God to be there to support my weight.

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