God delights in using chance as part of His design
BY C.S. MORRISSEY
Does God work by design, or by chance? The answer is: both. Chance is part of his design.
Even Einstein found this hard to accept. “God does not play dice,” he said. But while Einstein was a great physicist, he was not such a great theologian. Einstein didn’t understand the role that chance plays within God’s design.
From the cosmic big bang, to the evolution of our planetary environment and its life forms, modern science has discovered that chance plays an extraordinarily large role in the dynamic evolution that characterizes the universe.
But this thought seems strange to us. When we compare it to our own experience, we reflect on how we ourselves cannot govern our lives by chance.
That would be like going gambling in Las Vegas and expecting to be able to always win, despite the incredible odds against us. We ourselves can’t expect to master chance.
But that’s only because we, as actors within the universe, operate on the level of what Catholic theology calls “secondary causality.”
If you think of God as a craftsman, who designs things and builds them in a familiar human way, like someone who builds a home, or who does home repairs, then you are confining God to the level of “secondary causality.”
The Greek word for this sort of artisan is “demiurge.” As Pope Francis said recently, when he affirmed modern science’s discovery of the fact of an evolutionary universe, “God is not a demiurge or a magician.”
Magic is ruled out, because God does not govern the universe on the level of secondary causality by deploying a succession of miracles to move things along according to his whims.Instead, he sustains a rational order within the universe knowable by science. Sure, he can always use miracles as acts of special communication with human intelligences. But these miracles occur more like the way that a musician adds slight variations and improvisations into her performance of a musical score.
So, God is not a magician, because the action of his divine causality should not be characterized primarily as governance by miracles. In the same way, the best music is not characterized primarily by improvisation. What then is God’s unique “primary causality” like?
It doesn’t resemble a demiurge. It doesn’t resemble a builder who uses a blueprint to build a complex house. It doesn’t even resemble a musician who plays according to a pre-established musical score.
That’s because these things are all still examples of the action of secondary causality. In one way, God’s action does resemble such actions, in that he does not act irrationally, or from total improvisation, or from arbitrary whims. His actions are in principle intelligible and knowable.
But we must be careful not to confuse action through primary causality with secondary causality. Secondary causality builds homes according to blueprints, or uses musical scores and instruments. Secondary causality is even capable of a little bit of “winging it,” since some adaptive improvisation is usually required to carry out a good plan.
Yet proponents of six-day creationism, or progressive creationism, or intelligent design, all make the same “demiurge” or “magician” mistakes about divine causality. Like Einstein, they are still stuck on a wrongheaded “God does not play dice” argument. They fail to appreciate the unique way that God’s primary causality delights in governing the universe even through chance.
St. Thomas Aquinas explained primary causality in a way that Catholic theology has relied upon. The top-notch Catholic theologians on the International Theological Commission (ITC), who have been given the special task of helping the Pope and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith “in examining doctrinal questions of major importance,” use Aquinas to define the approach of Catholic theology to modern science’s discoveries about the big bang and evolution.
“Catholic tradition affirms that, as universal transcendent cause, God is the cause not only of existence but also the cause of causes. God’s action does not displace or supplant the activity of creaturely causes, but enables them to act according to their natures and, nonetheless, to bring about the ends he intends,” say the Catholic theologians of the ITC (in their document Communion and Stewardship #67).
Unlike secondary causes, God’s primary causality gives existence to things. Secondary causes can’t do this. Secondary causes can only work with matter that already exists: building materials, musical instruments, and so on.
“The current scientific debate about the mechanisms at work in evolution requires theological comment insofar as it sometimes implies a misunderstanding of the nature of divine causality,” say the Catholic theologians (#69).
Evolution makes beautiful theological sense because primary causality can govern even through chance.
Hence the Catholic theologians say: “it is important to note that, according to the Catholic understanding of divine causality, true contingency in the created order is not incompatible with a purposeful divine providence.” (#69)
They quote Aquinas: “The effect of divine providence is not only that things should happen somehow, but that they should happen either by necessity or by contingency. Therefore, whatsoever divine providence ordains to happen infallibly and of necessity happens infallibly and of necessity; and that happens from contingency, which the divine providence conceives to happen from contingency.” (Summa Theologiae, I, 22,4 ad 1)
The bottom line: “Any evolutionary mechanism that is contingent can only be contingent because God made it so.” (#69)
So, yes, God plays dice. After all, He made the dice.
C.S. Morrissey is an associate professor of philosophy at Catholic Pacific College.