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.