The third of 4 posts for chapter 6 of Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love
The Interplay of law and chance:
How do we explain random occurrences? What Darwin called ‘variations’ are called genetic mutations today – examples of chance events in the succession of generations.
Peacocke writes, “It is in the interplay of chance and law which is in fact creative within time, for it is the combination of the two which allows new forms to emerge and evolve.” (Peacocke, Theology for a Scientific Age)
• Law refers to the orderly suite of natural forces that govern how the universe works. These principles (arrived at by observing the regularities in the world) hold true in all ordinary circumstances. Certain constants, processes, relationships emerged as the universe developed over time. These ‘laws of nature’ are descriptive rather than prescriptive – descriptions read from regularities in the universe. Einstein: “The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility”.
• Chance refers to the crossing of two independent causal chains that intersect for no known reason that can be figured out in advance. The interruption may be destructive or it may open the possibility that something new might emerge from within these systems. Either way, things do not go on as before.
• Together: Changes in genetic material bring about changes in the structures of organisms, which in turn make possible new behaviors and relationships. These mutations are inherently unpredictable at the molecular level at which they occur, and are random with respect to the needs of the organism (some are beneficial, many are harmful). Uncertainly also awaits in the particular environmental niche where the mutated organism has to interact. Far from creating a confused jumble, however, these random events operate within a milieu which constrains and delimits their possible outcomes. Without such constraints small changes would dissipate in chaos. With such selection in place, random changes are accommodated in ways that allow regular trends to take root and develop.
• If all were law, the natural world would ossify.
• If all were chance, nature would dissolve in chaos.
• But chance operating within a law-like framework introduces novelty within a pattern that contains and directs it. Rather than being an enemy of law, chance is the very means by which nature becomes continuously creative.
Chance challenges us precisely because it is so unpredictable:
There are important philosophers and scientists who are so struck by this uncertainty that they have elevated the play of chance to a metaphysical principle. Consequently, any idea that the universe has an overall direction or purpose must be false, along with the belief that there is a Creator God engaged with the process. (Monod, Dennet, Dawkins…To learn more about these authors and their theories, go to Johnson’s Select Bibliography, which begins in Beasts on p. 306)
In response, other thinkers call attention to the fact that chance is not the only dynamism at work in evolution. Peacocke opens a way ahead with a striking idea: why not see chance as a tool that allows matter to explore the full range of its possibilities? Chance mutations are the way the stuff of the universe gets investigated, its potential unpacked, so that it moves in the direction of living richness and complexity.
• To digress to the human species for a moment, it is a given among philosophers of science that the emergence of human nature is based on the existence of a natural infrastructure of this kind.
• There is a deep compatibility between the creative (though not conscious) ways that physical, chemical, and biological systems operate through the interplay of law and chance on the one hand, and the human experience of consciousness and freedom on the other.
• At the very least, the freedom of natural systems to explore and discover themselves within a context of law-like regularity is one of the natural conditions for the possibility of the emergence of free and conscious human beings as part of the evolving universe.
What sense can theology make of this dynamic?
Propensities given to creation by the Creator in the beginning are gradually actualized by the operation of chance working within law-like regularities over deep time.
• If law stands for the constants of the world, for its steady physical properties and regular processes, then this regularity can be regarded as a feature with which God has endowed the world.
• If chance stands for the unpredictable interruption of this regularity by other natural forces, then this capacity for surprise can also be taken as a God-given feature of the world.
• The interaction of chance and law becomes a creative means, over time, for testing out, tweaking, and finally evolving every new structure and organism of which the physical cosmos is capable. (It is, as Peacocke astutely observes, what one might expect if God created the world to be a participant in developing its own richness.)
• Theology has traditionally allied God with lawful regularity. “This is still a fine idea,” Johnson writes, “the deep regularities of the world in their own finite way reflect the faithfulness of the living God, reliable and solid as a rock. It has been more difficult for chance to find a home in the theological imagination….”
• But the occurrence of chance reflects God’s infinite creativity. Johnson sees God’s infinite creativity as the endless source of fresh possibilities, and concludes, “Divine creativity is much more closely allied to the outbreak of novelty than our older order-oriented theology every imagined. In the emergent evolutionary universe, we should not be surprised to find the Creator Spirit hovering very close to turbulence. (Beasts, p. 173)
The interplay of law and chance over deep time underscores the fact that the history of evolution is amazingly unscripted. A favored imaginative game among scholars is to rewind the tape of life’s evolution back to the beginning, and let it roll again. Would the community of life look as it does now? No. Looking back, an intelligible story of life’s emergence can be constructed, which is what Darwin did. But looking forward, there is no telling what might happen. A better analogy might be a wild ride through time whose outcome defies prediction. The laws of physics and chemistry are reliable, but “nothing in them demands that Earth be created, let alone with elephants”. (Rolston, Three Big Bangs)