Since I have Dr. Garvey's attention...God, free will, randomness, and evolution

Most Christians believe in both God’s sovereignty over all of creation, and also believe in human free will. That poses a somewhat thorny issue, which I am not about to try and solve. I just want to point out that if there is actually something called randomness, it would seem to pose the same sort of issue. However, given that most Christians somehow muddle along with the former issue, I don’t see a problem with muddling along with the second.

But how does God guarantee there would be a Homo sapiens created in his image, instead of an octopus, if events are truly random? I wouldn’t know. But then I wouldn’t know how God guarantees his will about anything, if there is truly human freedom. Perhaps God has created an infinite number of universes, just to make sure one of them goes the way he wants it to. I’ve heard that there is a theory that if the universe is “flat,” then it would indeed result in an infinite number of island universes. Perhaps that was the way it happened. I wouldn’t know. I suspect that if there is one or a small number of universes,then God has been intervening to bring things about in nature. In that case, God interrupts randomness when it suits his purposes. Of course, that still leaves the problem of how God achieves his purposes with free human agents.

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I don’t believe God circumscribes human volition by shaping his evolution. Technically, I suppose, you can say that by shaping how humans evolved, he has denied us from the fun of full speed brachiation. But this seems to be a frivolous meaning of your idea of Free Will.

If God can use dust, and shape chromosomes out of this debris, then I think he has an awful lot of latitude about how to shape several thousand generations of those chromosomes.

Chromosomes are destiny, … but they are not predetermination.


When you say God shaped chromosomes out of dust, do you mean he used a natural process that depended solely upon quantum events, or do you mean that God overrode natural processes and imposed events of his own choosing upon nature?

It depends on who I am speaking to. And I wasn’t quite sure whether you were a Young Earther or not.

I think at the time I wrote that response, I was thinking you were inclined to be an Old Earther with conventional views on Evolution, and the point I thought I could make to you is that some pro-Evolution Old Earther types don’t set much store in the idea that Evolution is a random hands-off process.

God makes it rain. He makes mutations. He makes Ecological elements form population traits through Natural Selection.

So which side of the discussion do you prefer, @Bilbo

The topic is directed to Jon Garvey, who has long objected to the idea that God could use random quantum events to achieve his will.

OK Bilbo, I’ll pick up the challenge.

Compare like with like, rather than apples with oranges. Human free will, properly regarded, is the experience we have of being able to make choices. Chance, properly considered, is the ignorance we have of the true causes of contingent events.

Make either of those absolute (ontological) rather than relative (considered from our experience) and you simply deny, flat, that God is above them. That is, regarding free will, rather than saying that Herod, Pontius Pilate, the Gentiles and the leaders of the people wickedly conspired together to kill Jesus according to the set purpose and foreknowledge of God, you say that they did it entirely apart from God, and it probably wasn’t what he’d have wanted.

Some Christians want to absolutise free will that way, and the purpose is specifically to avoid making God responsible for evil or for limiting our freedom. If the purpose of free will is to remove choices from God’s overarching sovereignty, then it can’t also be overruled by God’s overarching sovereignty.

Now, likewise, if chance is absolute in the sense of being unpredictable to God as well as man, then you cannot in the same breath say that God can predict or plan its outcomes. And in many cases, for TEs of a certain bent, denying that planning is the very point of invoking ontological chance - much like free will - because Nature has to be autonomous, or spontaneous, or responsible for any bits of creation people dislike, from viruses to wisdom teeth.

Besides, I have yet to hear a proper explanation of where this ontological chance resides in nature - there are those philosophers who say that the laws of nature are approximate or don’t apply all the time, but they’re seldom found in discussions of evolution v creation here. And nobody - in 8 years here - has answered the question for me of how unplanned things happening to creatures randomly is in any way related to God’s wisdom, love or providence.


Oh, you mentioned quantum events, and I forgot to answer that.

If quantum events were truly random, they would not exhibit such statistically exact behaviour overall. Statistics are properties of organised systems - but nothing in nature is thought to organise quantum events, suggesting organisation beyond nature, not lack of organisation.

But more to the point, it’s once more only people on the fringe of consensus science who seriously propose that micro-quantum events ever affect macro-events in the world. The standard story is that we can treat the macro world as Newtonian.

Do you know any physicists who have proposed how quantum uncertainty affects molecular mutations regularly, thus directing the whole course of evolution by dice-throws? And unless people here are prepared to accept chapter and verse on that, it remains unclear to me where the ontological randomness in nature is hiding. Are we saying that God made the laws of nature flexible? Science is scarcely a precise pursuit if that were the case.


Hi Jon,

Did God plan on Pharaoh freely choosing to refuse Moses’ request to free the Israelites? Or did God force Pharaoh to refuse?

I’ve been told that mutations happen at such a small level of reality that quantum events can play a significant role in their occurrence. Am I mistaken?


The problem with the first question is that it doesn’t begin to address the nature of free choice under God’s sovereignty. A strictly correct, but woefully incomplete, reply would be “the first”, ie that Pharaoh freely chose, and that God had planned that he should. That leaves a lot of metaphysical options open, a lot of mystery, and yet agrees with what Scripture implies about human choice in relation to God’s sovereignty, and that’s where I take my lead from. In this particular case, it states that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and yet that Pharaoh was freely accountable for his actions.

A number of the problems are reduced if we don’t buy into the post-Renaissance definition of free-choice as “completely autonomous and completely arbitrary”: character, circumstances and other things all constrain the freedom of the will.

The question of “randomness” in nature, however, is simpler, in that once divorced from mere epistemology, it can only mean that things happen without cause, and therefore without any intelligibility whatsoever to God or man. Constrain chance by a probability curve, and it’s no longer random, but simply of a real but unknown cause - and God knows all things, and sustains all things, and governs all things for good.

So his purpose for randomness beyond his knowledge and sustaining and governance would be what, exactly? Would you rather fly in a plane engineered entirely by expertise, or one in which 5%, or 50% of the decision nodes in the design were generated randomly? But it’s logically impossible to create randomness anyway, because by definition it’s the absence of organisation, and creation is by definition organisation.

I too have heard it said that quantum events play a role at molecular scales for individual mutations. However, I haven’t heard anyone actually present any evidence that it’s so, least of all on the Solid Scientific Consensus platform of Biologos. If it were so, then surely one would expect any directionality to be statistically non-existent over the course of time. I understand from the study of mutations that the same ones tend to occur over and over again, which is why scarcely any useful new strains came out of decades of mutation experiments. In other words, the mutations aren’t actually ontologically random at all - they form patterns.

And if one did manage to show that “random” quantum events were a significant influence on the direction evolution has taken, you’d be back to the truth that their randomness is formally indistinguishable from choice: there is no known cause of individual quantum events within nature, which most logically means the cause is outside nature - R J Russell’s “quantum tweaking” rides again, suggesting that God was directing evolution all along, since nature wasn’t.

But where is the scientific evidence that ontological randomness exists in the universe anyway? If so, where is it, and how is it distinguished from divine or creaturely choice? And where is the theological evidence that God has ever made unintelligibility a creative force?


I will gladly muddle along with you. :wink:

We can ask if God would guide evolution, and it could also be that some type of intelligent species would eventually evolve through the natural mechanisms we know of once the process got started. I have always like this quote from Darwin (who is quoting someone else):

_I see no good reason why the views given in this volume should shock the religious feelings of any one. It is satisfactory, as showing how transient such impressions are, to remember that the greatest discovery ever made by man, namely, the law of the attraction of gravity, was also attacked by Leibnitz, “as subversive of natural, and inferentially of revealed, religion.” A celebrated author and divine has written to me that “he has gradually learnt to see that it is just as noble a conception of the Deity to believe that He created a few original forms capable of self-development into other and needful forms, as to believe that He required a fresh act of creation to supply the voids caused by the action of His laws.”–_Darwin, The Origin of Species

That last bit resonates with me. God should surely be able to create natural laws that are capable of producing an intelligent species like humans without God needing to constantly interfere. Of course, I am not a Christian so I am certainly not proscribing what Christians should believe. I am merely commenting on what I find to be a rational theology.

This whole issue becomes even thornier when we look at the opposite side of human evolution, the issue of genetic diseases. If God is guiding each and every mutation then we can only conclude that God is purposefully giving children horrific genetic diseases that cause them serious pain and can even lead to their death. The “Problem of Evil” is a long running question within Christianity, and I don’t want to drag this topic too far into it, but this certainly poses a problem for those who view God as intervening in natural processes.

Overall, I see nothing wrong with this whole question being one of the mysteries within Christianity that may not have an easy answer. We don’t need answers to everything, and sometimes “I don’t know” can be as exciting as having an answer.


I think you may be missing something here. We could use casinos as an example. The outcome of games like blackjack, craps, and roulette are random, yet casinos are able to consistently make money. How are they able to do this?

Over many trials, a random process is predictable on a larger scale. This is what we would expect from a random process. If you flip a coin 1 million times you would expect a nearly 50:50 ratio of heads and tails, and the ability to predict that ratio does not falsify the claim that a coin flip is random. In fact, if the results are skewed away from what we would expect from a random model then we would suspect that it isn’t random, or that our random model is missing something.

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Full metal jacket Calvinism hits reality. What will happen next? This stuff is always fascinating once an outsider gets involved. Thanks for developing the discussion.

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We would expect random processes to produce a probability curve. They are considered random because each individual event is unpredictable.

Random can also mean that two factors are independent of each other. This is especially true for mutations which are said to be random with respect to fitness. This means that the needs of the organism do not affect which mutations occur. If bacteria find themselves on a petri dish with antibiotic it doesn’t increase the rate at which mutations conferring antibiotic resistance occur, as one specific example. On a craps table, the dice aren’t influenced by where the chips are placed on the table, so the roll is random with respect to the bets. They are independent of one another.[quote=“Jon_Garvey, post:9, topic:37135”]
I too have heard it said that quantum events play a role at molecular scales for individual mutations. However, I haven’t heard anyone actually present any evidence that it’s so, least of all on the Solid Scientific Consensus platform of Biologos.

We could use the example of ionizing radiation which is probably the easiest to understand. We know from multiple experiments that photons will interact with other atoms according to the wave function described by QM, which is a probability of a random event. Therefore, high energy photons (e.g. x-rays) will randomly strike a base in a strand of DNA, and it is all governed by the random properties of QM.

There are also QM interactions at the molecular level between proteins, nucleotides, and so on.[quote=“Jon_Garvey, post:9, topic:37135”]
I understand from the study of mutations that the same ones tend to occur over and over again, which is why scarcely any useful new strains came out of decades of mutation experiments. In other words, the mutations aren’t actually ontologically random at all - they form patterns.

A random process will produce the same outcomes given enough trials.

Why couldn’t randomness be an intrinsic property of the universe? Why do we have to look outside of nature?

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Hi Jon,

Regarding Pharaoh and human freedom, I’ll grant that there are factors that condition our choices, but we still think that ultimately the choice is ours to make. That is why we are held accountable for our choices.

Regarding randomness, if we believe that God knows the future, God would know what the outcome of even ontologically random events would be. The real problem is how does God achieve his will if he allows ontological randomness. I maintain that the problem is no different than the problem of how does God achieve his will if he allows human freedom. And let’s be clear: when we say “ontological randomness,” we mean created randomness, just as we mean created human freedom. God could halt, remove or destroy the one as well as the other.

I think T_aquaticus has adequately replied to your questions regarding randomness, probability and mutations.

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Hi T,

I appreciate your comments. I’m trying not to involve questions of the problem of evil or of why God wouldn’t create a universe that can produce living creatures, even though both of those are very legitimate issues.

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What you’re missing is that a roulette wheel, for example, is not ontologically random, but a system designed with severe constraints to produce calculable probabilities given quite precise, but unknowable inputs (I’m not a gambler, but those are principally the rotation speed of the wheel, the velocity and trajectory of the ball). The system is designed to have enough unknown inputs to make the limited number of possible outputs humanly unpredictable. (Compare the vastly greater number of possible outcomes of throwing a roulette ball off a building - or if you want a closer approach to true ontological randomness, letting chance choose what it will do with what when: roulette ball turns into an early form of life or lands on the number “F”.

Nevertheless the pattern can be used to the house’s advantage. It’s a more complicated version of tossing a coin, whose outcomes can be precisely predicted by using a machine to reproduce the same input parameters each time. It is, in fact, the basic difference between ontological and epistemological randomness.

Maxwell’s demon, knowing all the variables perfectly, would be able to predict the results of a roulette wheel exactly. And if you think it could not, then what is it that renders the outcomes unpredictable from the inputs, if they were known to such an omniscient being? Is it the inexactness of the laws of nature (as opposed, of course, to possible inexactness of the scientific laws describing them)? Does quantum indeterminacy operate on a scale that affects roulette? If not, then where does the randomness enter nature (as opposed to the knowledge of the dealer)?

As Maxwell very well knew when he founded statistical science, probabilities discern the order inherent in systems whose individual componenents are epistemologically random, for which read unknown to limited human abilities.

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Your own confusion is between scientific determinism - which I don’t actually believe in, but which as far as I can tell mainstream science still does, barring quantum indeterminacy at the micro level - and divine sovereignty, which has nothing to do with materialistic science.

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Once again you’ve done a very good job of describing epistemological randomness. But that wasn’t Bilbo’s question - the question he posed is whether the individual events in a probability distribution are unknown to, and ungoverned by, God. And it’s because that was the question that we have to look outside of nature… and also because you’ve not described randomness except as a human limitation, not a feature of the universe.

A random process will produce the same outcomes given enough trials.

That was, of course, my point. If the same results are repeatedly produced in a few decades of mutation research, the results of the same mutations over a few million years of evolution are likely to revert to the mean, rather than reflect bias in quantum events.

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Bilbo - just think of T_aquaticus’s own definition of randomness as “unpredictability”. So I’m a dealer who, although not Maxwell’s demon, knows by foreknowledge the outcome of every throw. So the roulette game is unpredictable to the punter, but not to the dealer. Unfair, but the randomness is gone for the dealer.

Does the knowledge enable the dealer to make a greater profit? Well, here my ignorance of gambling shows, but it’s certainly not a fair game.

[quote=“Bilbo, post:14, topic:37135”]The real problem is how does God achieve his will if he allows ontological randomness.

It seems to me it’s only a problem if he does allow it. Who says he does, and on what evidence?

A little parable, and a nice song about it, here.

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Just one more comment, TA: you give a great account of how quantum events might influence mutations as if it were so, But Jim Al-Khalili, from Surrey University in my home town, is at the very forefront of research on quantum effects in nature. I did a post once on his theory of robin migration (which interested a physicist friend of mine who researches bird migration for the RAF).

But to Al-Khalili, the influence of quantum events on mutations is a long-term goal. Quote:

“The holy grail is to find that quantum effects stimulate biological processes that are relevant to medicine,” says Al-Khalili. “Looking to the long term, if these effects underlie the mechanism of DNA mutations, that could allow for real progress in the treatment of cancer.”

Higher up the article, he says: > “Senior colleagues in physics warned me off this line of research, saying, ‘This isn’t just speculative, it’s wacky,’ ”

So, I’m the guy who’s so off-beam as to believe that God has healed patients of mine, but are you going to stick with the story that quantum effects on macroscopic events are settled science? And what other sources of ontological randomness can you actually suggest in nature?

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