Science in Christian Perspective


Scientific Contributions to 
Meaning and Purpose in the Universe

Gordon College
Wenham, Massachusetts

Box N7776, Lyford Cay
Nassau, Bahamas

From: PSCF 39 (June 1987): 77-86.

Scientific developments over the past 75 years in physics and cosmology have brought staggering changes and, for many, placed man at the end of an enormous sweep of cosmological and evolutionary history. The Newtonian view of a mechanistic universe based upon cause and effect was first modified by Einstein's theory of special relativity which equated energy and matter and united space and time as an inseparable parameter, space-time. The latter's theory of general relativity replaced Newton's concept of gravitation with a mathematical expression which involved a distortion of space-time. Finally, quantum theory, with its new view of the atom and of the behavior of elementary particles, brought inherent uncertainty into all microcosmic events, and spelled the end of causation in physics.

The quantum world is seen to provide tremendous opportunity for the operation of transcendent Reality. In the area of evolution, the interaction Of more deterministic mechanisms, with only the apparently random processes of mutation and selection, provides the means to realize the full potentialities which the Creator has designed for His cosmos.

A Common Current Scientific World View

The past few decades have witnessed scientific developments which far exceed anything our imaginations could contrive. Progress in particle physics, in cosmology, brain physiology and molecular biology have combined to give us a view of a universe of staggering size and intricacy. Physicist John Polkinghorne, in his recent book The Way the World Is, sums up with marvelous succinctness, a common current understanding of cosmology:

In the beginning was the big bang. The earliest moment in the history of the world that science can conceive is when the universe was concentrated into a single point. As matter expanded from this initial singularity it cooled and successive regimes decoupled from thermal equilibrium. Thus after about three minutes the temperature had dropped to a thousand million degrees. That was cool enough for deuterium to form. The arrival on the scene of this stable composite of a proton and a neutron helped to fix the global balance of hydrogen and helium in the universe for the rest of its evolution. The ratio of three to one then established is what we still observe today. After that, nothing of great significance happened for several hundred thousand years. By then the temperature had fallen sufficiently for atoms to be able to form, and this had the consequence of decoupling radiation from thermal equilibrium with the rest of the universe. That same radiation, in a form cooled by further expansion, is observable today as the universal 30K background radiation discovered by Penzias and Wilson in 1965, a re-echoing whisper from those fa-off times some fifteen thousand million years or so ago.

The universe continued to expand. Gravity took over and condensed matter into galaxies and the stars that compose them. In the nuclear cookery within those stars new heavy elements formed, such as carbon and iron, which had not occurred before. Dying stars, in supernova explosions, scattered these new elements into the environment. When second generation stars were formed by recondensation, their planets could be made of materials which permitted the next big development in the universe's evolution.

On at least one planet, and perhaps on millions, conditions of temperature, chemical environment, radiation, and the chance congregation of simple atoms, permitted the coming into being of quite elaborate molecules with the power of replicating themselves in that environment. In a remarkable interplay of contingent chance (to get things going) and lawful necessity (to keep them going) there had begun a process by which systems of ever-increasing complexity would evolve. On our planet this eventually led to you and me1

Even though we have painted our origin with a very broad brush, recall that the cosmological parameters within which these vast transitions occur appear to be necessarily of very precise magnitude. Physicist Paul Davies in his recent book, Superforce,' reminds us that the existence of complex stuctures in the universe seems to depend very sensitively on the numerical values of such fundamental constants as the speed of light, the masses of the various subatomic particles, and the forces acting between these particles. These numerical values determine many of the gross features of the world: the size of atoms, nuclei, planets, stars, and even living things.

Many of the complex structures in the universe are the result of a competition or balance between competing forces. Stars, for example, are a complexity of interplay between gravity, electromagnetic repulsion and nuclear forces. Gravity tries to crush the stars. Electromagnetic energy resists compression by providing an internal pressure. The energy involved is released from nuclear interactions precisely as legislated by the weak and strong forces characteristic of those particles. The nature of stellar complexity therefore delicately depends on the strengths of the forces, or the numerical values of the fundamental constants.

Calculations show that changes in the strength of either gravity or electromagnetism by only one part in 1040 would spell catastrophe for stars like the sun.

When we come to the question of life's origin, the constraints would appear to be very great for life of an,. kind to have originated. Davies comments on this aspect:

It is sometimes objected that if the laws of physics were different, that would only mean that the structure would be different, and that while life as we know it might be impossible. some other form of life could well emerge. However, no attempt has been made to demonstrate that complex structures in general are an inevitable, or even probable, product of physical laws, and all the evidence so far indicates that many complex structures depend most delicately on the existing form of these laws. It is tempting to believe, therefore, that a complex universe will emerge only if the laws of physics are very close to what they are.3

Perhaps the most complex structure to emerge in the universe is man himself, Whether or not we can afforc" to think of human beings as this unique, we must at least recognize that the level of complexity of the human brain is incredible. Recall anatomist Gar&. Jones' estimate that the cerebral cortex contains 1010-1014 nerve cells, and that each cell contacts more that 5,000 other nerve cells in quite precise arrangement.4 The number of connections within one human brain. rivals the number of stars in the universe!

indeed, with the understanding that we may be the end-product of this vast cosmological process, comes a keen desire to not only understand the details of the physical universe's evolution but also to understand the nature of ourselves as persons. What is the meaning of a universe in which the primeval assembly of  fundamental particles eventually manifests the potential for organization into complex forms which are conscious and self-conscious, and which thereby transcend that matter from which they were derived? Science thus, paradoxically seems to lead us, in our search for intelligibility and meaning, beyond the realm of discourse of science alone.

Robert L. Herrmann is Executive Director of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) and Adjunct Professor of Chemistry at Gordon College. He served on the faculty of Boston University School of Medicine for 17 years, and later as Chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Associate Dean at Oral Roberts University School of Medicine. His research has focused upon the nucleic acids. Dr. Herrmann is a member of the American Society of Biological Chemists and a Fellow of the AAAS, the Gerontological Society and ASA. He currently serves on the Christian Medical Society's Medical Ethics Commission. Dr. Herrmann is the author of 83 articles and chapters.

Modern Physics Reveals an External Transcendent Reality.

One of the most fascinating things about the cosmos, as we know it, is its comprehensibility. It is susceptible to mathematical description in a way which seems to exclude the possibility of that description being simply a product of our own imagination. Polkinghorne also speaks of this scientific intelligibility of the world as follows:

Again and again in physical science we find that it is the abstract structures of pure mathematics which provide the clue to understanding the world. It is a recognized technique in fundamental physics to seek theories which have an elegant and economical (you can say beautiful) mathematical form, in the expectation that they will prove the ones realized in nature. General relativity, the modern theory of gravitation, was invented by Einstein in just the same way. Now mathematics is the free creation of the human mind, and it is surely a surprising and significant thing that a discipline apparently so unearthed should provide the key with which to turn the lock of the world.

It is this fact of intelligibility which convinces one that science is investigating the way things are. Its insights are certainly open to correction. As access is gained to new regimes, profound modifications can be called for. Thirty years ago, when I was a young research student, no one had dreamed of quarks and gluons. Who can feel confident that thirty years hence they will still be seen as the ultimate constituents of matter? Nevertheless the coherence of the inquiry into the structure of matter, the beautiful way in which the properties of previously "elementary" objects like protons and neutrons find a natural explanation in terms of their new constituents, makes one feel that it is a tale of a tightening grip on an actual reality.5

This reality has undergone tremendous changes in the past century. From the time of Newton and even Galileo, there had been a growing conviction among scientists that reality consisted of the description of phenomena in mechanistic terms. Isaac Newton's explanation of gravitation enabled the precise calculation of the motions of the planets; the kinetic theory of gases demonstrated that atoms, too, behaved like tiny billiard balls whose pressure-volume relationships were precisely accounted for by the methods of statistical mechanics. By the end of the 19th century, scientists were so bold as to state that all the important basic discoveries in physics had been made. Yet within the space of just a few years there occurred the discoveries of radioactivity, X-rays, the photoelectric effect, and the publication of two momentous new theories-

Whether or not we can afford to think of human beings as unique, we must at least recognize that the level of complexity of the human brain is incredible.

quantum theory and special relativity. Less than two decades later, the wave nature of the electron was demonstrated. All of physical science's major concepts were brought into question, especially those which depended upon the principle of causality. (This principle stated that if one knows the precise mechanical relationships between components before an event takes place, the outcome of that event can then be predicted with absolute certainty.)

William Pollard tells us in his recent paper "Rumors of Transcendence in Physics," that the first major confrontation of so-called natural causation was made by Ludwig Boltzmann, who applied the mathematics of games of chance developed for casinos to natural physical systems. Pollard explains:

When probability is introduced anywhere in science, it means that two or more alternative responses to one and the same natural cause can be made by the system under study. Which alternative will be chosen by the system in any given instance is beyond the scope of science to specify. The most it can do is assign probabilities to the various alternatives. As between the alternatives, science has specifically renounced natural causation. When first introduced into science by Boltzmann, this idea

John M. Templeton, an investment counsellor living in the Bahamas, is former President of the Board of Princeton Theological Seminary. He is a trustee of the Center for Theological Inquiry at Princeton and of Buena Vista College, and a member of the International Academy of Religious Sciences and the Board of Managers of the American Bible Society. He holds degrees in economics from Yale and in law from Oxford University, as a Rhodes Scholar, as well as various honorary degrees. He is the founder of the Templeton Foundation Program of Prizes for Progress in Religion.

was anathema to the great majority of physicists of his day and was vigorously contested. During the following three decades, however, its applications in the kinetic theory of gases, thermodynamics, and statistical mechanics convinced physicists of its validity, and Born's interpretation of quantum mechanics in terms of probability have made it a pillar of physics.6

Another massive shift in physical thinking was elicited by the brilliant work of Albert Einstein. Einstein's theory of special relativity was introduced as one of three papers he had published in an extraordinary three month period in the year 1905. Jaki' tells us that any one of the three would have established Einstein's fame: the first concerned light as consisting of quanta of energy, the second implicated particles of atomic size in Brownian motion, and the third, on the electrodynamics of moving bodies, later became known as the Special Theory of Relativity.

Perhaps the simplest way to summarize these various effects is to say that they blur the distinction between space and time such that they may no longer be regarded as separate entities but rather as a single whole -space-time.

What special relativity proposed was that matter and energy were equivalent, related by the expression E = mc2 where E is energy, m is the quality of inertia associated with matter, and c is the speed of light in a vacuum. Its starting point was the observed fact that the speed of light (in a vacuum) is the same for all observers no matter how they may be moving. The implications of this, in addition to the equating of mass and energy, are that nothing can be accelerated to a speed greater than that of light, and that the mass of anything increases as it approaches the velocity of light. The most startling discovery is that two events which occur at the same instant for one observer may not be simultaneous for another observer, if the two are moving rapidly relative to each other. Perhaps the simplest way to summarize these various effects is to say that they blur the distinction between space and time in such a way that they may no longer be regarded as separate entities, but rather as a single whole-space-time.

It is most striking that Einstein was a humble man who was fascinated with the universe and its Maker. In this sense be was deeply religious-profoundly moved by the mysteries of the universe which even his great mind could scarcely comprehend. Lincoln Barnet, in his The Universe and Dr. Einstein, quotes Einstein:

"The most beautiful and most profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms-tbis knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness. "

And on another occasion he declared, "The cosmic religious experience is the strongest and noblest mainspring of scientific research.8

Einstein also had a deep sense of the rationality of nature which was also strongly coupled to a belief in the freedom of thought and conceptualization. As Ian Paul describes it in Science, Theology and Einstein:

According to Einstein, scientific theories have something in common with the images of the poet. Both stimulate the intuition of the individual as resources for the apprehension of reality. Basically, any scientific theory embodies aspects of reality that are not explainable in terms of that theory. Scientific theories are not comprehensive instruction manuals. They survey empirical knowledge but necessarily with limited logic and precision. Scientific research is always returning from abroad with intimations of new continents, their differing phenomena, and the novelty of their diverse life-forms. Einstein's notion of a concept presupposes the rationality of the universe, without which it would have no vital future. On this presupposition rests the fundamental faith from which all scientific hope springs.9

Einstein, in the succeeding decade, postulated (in his theory of General Relativity) that the notion of gravitation in the Newtonian sense could be replaced by a mathematical representation which involved a distortion of space-time. The existence of "curved spacetime" opens up the possibility for a finite yet boundless universe shaped like a ball. Its surface would have no boundary, but because of the nature of curved space it would also have no center. This concept has subsequently opened up the entire field of cosmology and bad led to our present understanding of the origin of the universe in the "big bang."

Quantum Mechanics Ends Determinism in Physics

Polkingborne, in The Quantum World," tells us that there were two great discoveries in physics in the twentieth century-special relativity and quantum mechanics. Of the two, the more revolutionary was quantum mechanics, for it signaled the end of classical physics. Max Planck laid the foundation for quantum theory, when he showed that the emission and absorption of radiant energy takes place in a discontinuous manner involving discrete packets, which he called "quanta." The energy associated with each quantum was related to the frequency of oscillation of the particular electromagnetic radiation by the expression E = hv where h is the celebrated Planck's constant.

"Scientific theories are not comprehensive instruction manuals. They survey empirical knowledge but necessarily with limited logic and precision."

It was a study of Einstein's that provided one of the next important evidences of the "quantized" nature of radiation at the level of subatomic particles. Using Planck's quantum of action, he demonstrated that the photoelectric effect, the phenomenon in which electrons were ejected from certain metals by an incident beam of light, was dependent on a critical frequency. The light was behaving like a stream of electrons, bombarding the metal surface, but it was not the intensity of the electron beam per se, but rather its frequency of oscillation which determined the release of electrons. It was as though the electrons in the metal surface were like buoys anchored in a harbor. The force of the waves was somehow not the critical question in determining the breaking of the mooring lines, but rather the frequency of the waves. Below a certain frequency, no lines were cut regardless of the force of the waves. The concept of light energy as made up of individual particles, or "photons," colliding with electrons in the metal surface, was an entirely new idea. Thus, light was seen as having both wave and particle character, so physicists had to be content with the conclusion that the two models were complementary, each signifying some aspects of the real description of light energy.

But there were more difficult problems for physics. It was known from the work of J. J. Thomson that there were negatively charged particles called "electrons" in atoms, and it was supposed that the compensating positive charge was spread out, as Polkingborne described it, "like the cakey part of a plum pudding, with the electrons embedded in it like currants."11 However, in 1911, Lord Rutherford demonstrated that the positive charge of the atom was instead concentrated in a point-like object at the center of the atom-the nucleus. It was a great discovery, but it was entirely baffling for classical physics. The problem was that a planetary system of electrons rotating around a central nucleus would be unstable, since no known source could replace the loss of energy during rotation.

The beginning of a solution was provided by the Danish physicist Niels Bohr, who postulated that there were only certain orbits which allowed for planetary electron occupation, and that these were defined by Planck's constant h. It was noted that h was measured in the same units as those of angular momentum, a dynamic quantity which measures the amount of rotatory motion in a system, If angular momentum was quantized," or restricted to specific quantum states, then the calculations of the energy associated with each orbit fit the equations of electromagnetic radiation perfectly.

However, subsequent developments placed stringent restrictions on the Bohr model, owing to the existence of what German physicist Werner Heisenberg called the "uncertainty principle." Here again Planck's constant came into the picture. Heisenberg showed that there was a quantitative relationship between the position and momentum of particles of atomic dimensions, such that the product of the uncertainties in the values of these two quantities was at least of the order of magnitude of Planck's constant. This meant that Bohr's electron orbits could at best be visualized only as clouds, designating a range of possible paths, and never as discrete paths in which position and momentum would have to be simultaneously known.

Here was the end of classical physics and rigid determinism, for it was no longer possible to precisely specify the initial and final states of any process at the level of elementary particles. The philosophical significance of this situation was devastating to many scientists but especially to Einstein. In Polkinghorne's words:

But the man who reacted most violently, and was never fully reconciled to this aspect of the theory, was one of its intellectual grandfathers, the great Albert Einstein, whose explanation of the photoelectric effect had been a key step in establishing the existence of the photon. In 1924 Einstein had said that if the ideas, then in the air, of renouncing strict causality proved to be correct he would "rather be a cobbler, or even an employee in a gambling house, than a physicist." Later, in a letter to Max Born, he delivered himself of his celebrated remark that he did not believe that God (whom he customarily referred to in comradely terms as "the Old One") played at dice.12

The specific rebuttals to quantum mechanical uncertainty have taken several forms. One group claims that the flaw is in the observer's knowledge of an event. The danger here is that if we give up the reality of objective truth, originating outside ourselves, we give up science. A second group, including the Copenhagen school, suggests that the unpredictability is eliminated at the level of the classical measuring instruments of a physicist, and we therefore arrive at true knowledge. The concern for this possible solution is that the world of the quantum is then falsely separated from the world of the measuring instrument, yet they are depended upon to interact in some meaningful way which should be susceptible to our explanation. The third effort at explanation of uncertainty revolves around the idea that conscious observers, rather than their measuring machines, have a special effect upon what is perceived at the microscopic level. This is different from the proposal of the first group, who simply disqualify objective knowledge. Here, the external world is taken quite seriously, as the origin of the chain of related events. But consciousness, as the essential factor in the transition from microscopic uncertainty to macroscopic order, is so highly anthropocentric that it raises problems of understanding physical processes prior to the advent of conscious observers. Recall the old limerick:

There once was a man who said "God 
Must think it exceedingly odd 
if he finds that this tree 
Continues to be 
When there's no one about in the Quad."

There is one more approach to resolving quantum mechanical uncertainty, and this is the "many-worlds interpretation" proposed by Hugh Everett in 1957. His proposal was that where various choices are involved in the experiment, each possibility is realized but each occurs in a separate world, only one of which is that of the present observer. However, each world would presumably have a clone of the objects and observers, each entirely unaware of the others. The biggest problem with this approach to explanation is that it multiplies entities to profusion, in violation of the principle of simplest interpretation, which we owe to William of Occam.

The world of quantum mechanics has opened up vast new vistas-scientifically, philosophically, theologically. Science, as a tightly closed, self-sufficient system is gone. The possibilities for question and explanation are almost limitless.

Processes Depend Upon the Interplay of Chance and Necessity

The vast sweep of processes leading to intelligent life which were briefly described at the beginning of this article-the fine structure of their interactions, the explanation for their direction and their remarkable result-seem best understood in terms of some very special type of interplay between chance and necessity. As Polkinghorne expresses it:

The processes of the world seem to depend for their fruitfulness upon an interplay between chance and necessity. A random event (an aggregation of atoms, a genetic mutation) produces a new possibility which is then given a perpetuating stability by the regularity of the laws of nature. Without contingent chance, new things would not happen. Without lawful necessity to preserve them in an environment whose reliability permits competitive selection, they would vanish away as soon as they were made. The universe is full of the clatter of monkeys playing with typewriters, but once they have hit on the first line of Hamlet it seems that they are marvellously constrained to continue to the end of at least some sort of play.

"In 1924 Einstein had said that if the ideas, then in the air, of renouncing strict causality proved to be correct he would 'rather be a cobbler, or even an employee in a gambling house, than a physicist.' "

To many, this apparent role of chance is a sign of the emptiness and pointlessness of the world. In his book Chance and Necessity Jacques Monod wrote, "pure chance, absolutely free but blind, [is] at the very root of the stupendous edifice of evolution," and he concluded his book by writing: "the ancient covenant is in pieces; man at last knows that he is alone in the unfeeling vastness of the universe, out of which he emerged by chance. Neither his destiny not his duty have been written down. "

When I read Monod's book I was greatly excited by the scientific picture it presented of how life came to be. As a particle physicist, I found the biochemical details pretty difficult to follow but, assuming them to be correct, they implied that Schrodinger's equation and Maxwell's equations (the fundamental dynamical equations of quantum theory and electromagnetism respectively, which I could literally write down on the back of an envelope) bad this astonishing consequence of the emergence of replicating molecules and eventually life. The economy and profundity of that is breathtaking. For me, the beauty that it revealed in the structure of the world was like a rehabilitation of the argument from design-not as a knockdown argument for the existence of God (there are DO such arguments; nor are there for his non-existence) but as an insight into the way the world is.13

There have been many other rebuttals to Monod's atheistic conclusions. Arthur Peacocke responds as follows:

I see no reason why this randomness of molecular event in relation to biological consequence, that Monod rightly emphasizes, has to be raised to the level of a metaphysical principle interpreting the universe.... In the behavior of matter on a larger scale many regularities, which have been raised to the level of being describable as "laws," arise from the combined effect of random microscopic events which constitute the macroscopic. So the involvement of chance at the level of mutations does not, of itself, preclude these events manifesting a law-like behavior at the level of populations of organisms and indeed of populations of bio-systems that may be presumed to exist on the many planets throughout the universe which might support life. Instead of being daunted by the role of chance in genetic mutations as being the manifestation of irrationality in the universe, it would be more consistent with the observations to assert that the full gamut of the potentialities of living matter could be explored only through the agency of the rapid and frequent randomization which is possible at the molecular level of the DNA. In other words, the designation "chance" in this context refers to the multiple effects whereby the (very large) number of mutations are elicited that constitute the "noise" which, via an independent causal chain, the environment then selects for viability. This role of chance is what one would expect if the universe were so constituted as to be able to explore all the potential forms of organizations of matter (both living and non-living) which it contains. Moreover, even if the present biological world is only one out of an already large number of possibilities, it must be the case that the potentiality of forming such a world is present in the fundamental constitution of matter as it exists in our universe. The original primeval cloud of fundamental particles must have had the potentiality of being able to develop into the complex molecular forms we call modern biological life.... I see no reason why God should not allow the potentialities of his universe to be developed in all their ramifications through the operation of random events; indeed, in principle, this is the only way in which all potentialities might eventually, given enough time and space, be actualized.14

Science, as a tightly closed, self-sufficient system is gone. The possibilities for question and explanation are almost limitless.

But there is here a certain detachment of God from His creation, which somehow seems inconsistent with the biblical notions of providence and chance. William Pollard, in his Chance and Providence,"15 seeks to retain an immanent Creator in the seemingly random processes themselves. To Einstein's famous question, "Does God throw dice?" he says the Judeo-Christian answer is not, as many have wrongly supposed, a denial, but a very positive affirmative. For Pollard, God is working intimately in the complexity of relationships which he describes as a maze, a fabric of turning points, open at every step to new choices and new direction. Here, God is not altering the natural probabilities, but rather selecting from all the alternatives at each turning point.

Evolution as Interplay of Chance and Necessity

Of the many and varied ancient ideas of the world, all had certain things in common: their typical constricted dimensions, mechanistic structure and static character. Even in the Ptolemaic picture of things, which continued in vogue for more than a thousand years, the earth was seen as a globe encompassed by huge crystalline spheres representing the rest of the universe. Ancient men had no idea of the universe's gigantic proportions. The ancient world was also seen as a combination of heterogeneous elements that were in some way "put together" extraneously and had only a mechanical link with one another. A view of this sort made no proper allowance for the reciprocal cohesion of all entities. just as a machine is made up from a number of previously prepared components, so men imagined the world to be a huge mechanism in which a variety of preconstituted and mutally independent entities had been artificially conjoined.

The earth, the vault of heaven, the plants, animals and man were thus envisaged as so many diverse 11 creatures," subsisting independently of each other, as it were, and only made up into a whole rather like, for example, the pieces of furniture in a living room. In a modern world picture there is a complete reversal of these conditions. Science has gradually made it more and more clear that all entities are continuously and intrinsically interconnected, so that we may now see the world as a mighty, organic whole in which everything is related to everything else. The world in which we live may be seen, not as a machine, artificially contrived, but perhaps even as an organism being built up from within-an organism in which all entities have appeared through something like a stage-by-stage process of growth.

Finally, the old world-picture stood for the firm belief that the universe is to be conceived of as a fundamentally changeless and static whole. Of course, men were not blind to the mutations and motions occurring in the world; but as they saw it, these changes were always on the surface of things and did not affect their essential nature. From its moment of origin, everything assumed a form and aspect that was definitive and unchanging, and these forms were constant and unalterable. The machine worked, it was activated, but the machine itself never altered. Along with the mechanistic view of the world, our conception of it as static has also disintegrated; for nowadays we see the universe as an enormous historical process, an evolutive happening which has been going on for thousands of millions of years and is moving on into an incalculable future.

The concept of chance, of a probabilistic way of looking at events and processes, came on the scientific scene at about the same time as Charles Darwin's theory of organic evolution. It entered the static, mechanistic world of Isaac Newton, a world of cause and effect, and brought about a profound change scientifically, philosophically, theologically-in the way we perceive the world. C.H. Waddington in his The Nature of Life" tells us that the idea of evolution was not entirely new, having been anticipated by the ancient Greeks, and appreciated even by St. Augustine and by St. Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages. But what Darwin brought with his theory of organic evolution was the novel idea of the production of new genotypes, of recombination and fertilization, as essentially random, chance events. The subsequent impact of Darwin's theory, and especially the notion of chance, on theological thinking is described by Waddington:

This emphasis on the importance of chance has been one of the most profound and far-reaching of Darwin's influences on human thought. It spread into fields far removed from those which Darwin discussed. As we all know, during this century there has been a strong tendency to frame the laws of physics in terms of probability or chance events, rather than in terms of the type of simple causation which had been relied on by Newton.

Within the field of evolution the rival type of hypothesis, which the reliance on chance superseded, was one which depended on the operations of an intelligent designer. Darwin himself, to some extent at least, shared the feelings of many of his contemporaries, that the substitution of chance for design as an explanatory principle tended to undermine one of the major intellectual reasons for a belief in God. "I may say," he wrote in one of his letters, "that the impossibility of conceiving that this grand and wonderous [sic.) universe, with our conscious selves, arose through chance, seems to me the chief argument for the existence of God; but whether this is an argument of real value, I have never been able to decide.... The safest conclusion seems to be that the whole subject is beyond the scope of man's intellect. . . "

Many of his readers, particularly those who were not scientists, could not bring themselves to adopt such a neutral attitude, and felt deeply shocked. As Irvine has put it, "Darwin's explanation of evolution is mechanistic without the favourable implications of mechanical design. Natural selection represents not a harmony but a conflict, and is effected not by the precise, mathematical idealism of invisible force, but apparently by a crude, random sorting out of variations by the environment.... Many who were willing to believe in an evolving Deity could not believe in one who dealt in random variations. They could accept an evolving universe but not a universe shaken out of a dice box."17

We have already addressed the way in which random chance events may be perceived as the Creator's activity, but we should also consider the fact that there is another meaning for the word "chance" which lends further insight into the way we may see God's hand in the interplay of chance and necessity. Donald MacKay, in Clockwork Image,18 distinguishes two kinds of chance. In the scientific sense, chance is often used as a technical term indicating the absence of the knowledge of causal connections between events. However, in popular usage, chance signified this metaphysical notion which Darwin saw as an alternative to God.

MacKay points out that during nineteenth century debates on the role of "chance" in biology, the two uses of the word became confused. Science seemed to be making unjustifiable metaphysical assertions, while the Bible got the reputation of denying the validity of the purely technical, and theologically neutral, scientific notion of chance. As usual, the Bible itself has clues that ought to have warned us against this. Chance is mentioned in the sense of chaos in Genesis 1:2, where the earth is described as "without form and void," but here it is only as something banished from the world by God's creative word. Chance in the neutral scientific sense however, is mentioned as a part of God's plan. "The lot is cast into the lap," says the book of Proverbs (16:33), "but the decision is wholly from the Lord." Here is a clear indication that God is the Lord of events which in this sense "happen by chance," just as much as of those that seem orderly to us. It may be easier for us to see God's hand in the obviously orderly pattern, but the Bible seems to exclude the idea that He must always work in this way. The "either-or" (either God or chance) is simply not the way the Bible relates the two, if we take "chance" in the first, technical, sense.

Science has gradually made it more and more clear that all entities are continuously and intrinsically interconnected, so that we may now see the world as a mighty, organic whole in which everything is related to everything else.

Clearly, from what has gone before, there is also the occasional use of the term "chance" in its "random" sense, as though it were a scientific term. But even here, there have been concerns expressed that the random component is over-emphasized, since there appear to be ordering and structuring forces involved in the evolutionary mechanism in close proximity to the initiating events in mutation.

For example, Gordon Taylor, in The Great Evolution Mystery,19 discusses the possibility of an inherent self-stabilization of the genome as an important selective factor in evolution. He mentions L. L. Whyte's proposal, in Internal Factors in Evolution, that the genome is self -stabilizing; it will only accept mutations which increase or at least are neutral with respect to its stability. In other words, only those mutations which satisfied certain stringent physical, chemical and functional conditions would survive the complex chromosomal, nuclear and cellular activities involved in the processes of cell division, growth and function. The number of possible variations is seen as limited. Perhaps the genome can modify nearly acceptable mutations.

It may be easier for us to see God's hand in the obviously orderly pattern; but the Bible seems to exclude the idea that he must always work in this way.

Probably it can handle groups of mutations, each of which alone might be unacceptable, if the overall effect is stabilizing. Taylor points out that if Whyte is right, no mutation is entirely due to chance: only those which meet the internal demands of the genome can be utilized in evolutionary processes.

Equally intriguing is the existence of so-called "dissipative structures," a class of steady-state systems which occur in certain far-from-equilibrium situations, which are implicated by Nobel laureate Ilya Prigogine in the ordering process in evolution. It may be granted that the increase in order and complexity in the evolution of living things is explainable thermodynamically occurring at the expense of the free energy of compounds, which are broken down for energy, and by the return of heat to the environment. But there remain serious questions as to the large changes which have occurred in the course of evolution, not only in the origin of the first cell-like structures, but also in numerous large jumps or "emergences" within the subsequent evolutionary sequence. Non-equilibrium thermodynamics seems to be a likely agency in these bold transitions. Arthur Peacocke addresses this development as follows:

We know that, in systems near to equilibrium, any fluctuation away from that state will be damped down and the system will tend to revert to its equilibrium state. What Prigogine and his colleagues have been able to show is that there exists a class of steady-state systems, "dissipative structures," which by taking in matter and energy can maintain themselves in an ordered, steady state far from equilibrium. In such states there can occur, under the right conditions, fluctuations which are no longer damped and which are amplified so that the system changes its whole structure to a new ordered state in which it can again become steady and imbibe energy and matter from the outside and maintain its new structured form. This instability of dissipative structures has been studied by these workers who have set out more precisely the thermodynamic conditions for a dissipative structure to move from one state to a new state which is more ordered than previously. It turns out that these conditions are not so restrictive that no systems can ever possibly obey them. Indeed a very large number of systems, such as those of the first living forms of matter which must have involved complex networks of chemical reactions, are very likely to do so, since they are non-linear in the relationship between the forces and fluxes involved (which is one of the necessary conditions for these fluctuations to be amplified.)20

Manfred Eigen and his co-workers" have also addressed the problem of the origin of living systems, building on a now widely accepted hypothesis that the replicating macromolecules of the simple, pre-cellular systems underwent an evolution-like process. Synthesis occurred by interaction of smaller components to yield macromolecular structures by the ordinary physicochemical laws of molecular interaction. However, once a group or family of these macromolecules had formed, a random selection process would search out from all the various structures that small number which had utility for the developing system-catalytic activity, stabilization, or whatever-and thereby generate a kind of "dominant species." The key to the success of the process is in the balance of deterministic and random events, the first insuring that useful macromolecular species will survive, the last providing the capacity for creative experimentation within existing structures. Here again the "random" component appears to be anything but blind. Instead, it appears peculiarly well situated to achieve a very purposeful end. The work of Prigogine, Eigen and their collaborators demonstrates the subtlety of the interplay of apparent randomness and determinism in the processes which appear to have led to the emergence of living things.

What seems increasingly evident is that our enormous universe is 
nevertheless finite, intelligible, and purposeful.

What seems increasingly evident is that our enormous universe is nevertheless finite, intelligible, and purposeful. At each successive level of its complexity, new potentialities are realized and new concepts and methods are applicable. To the extent that we can talk of random or chance events in the evolution of our cosmos, they seem remarkably constrained to yield some useful and often astonishing products.

All of this is perfectly consistent with the existence of a transcendent God of infinite wisdom who evidences intimate concern for His creatures, yet encourages the operation of free will in His creation. These are the conclusions, too, of an increasing body of scientists in our day. Physicist Paul Davies, at the conclusion of his most recent book, Superforce, asks:

Should we conclude that the universe is a product of design? The new physics and the new cosmology hold out a tantalizing promise: that we might be able to explain how all the physical structures in the universe have come to exist, automatically, as a result of natural processes. We should then no longer have need for a Creator in the traditional sense. Nevertheless, though science may explain the world, we still have to explain science. The laws which enable the universe to come into being spontaneously seem themselves to be the product of exceedingly ingenious design. If physics is the product of design, the universe must have a purpose, and the evidence of modern physics suggests strongly to me that the purpose includes us.22


1Polkinghorne, The Way the World Is, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983) p. 7.
2Davies, Paul, Superforce (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984), p. 242. 
3ibid. 243
Jones, Gareth, Our Fragile Brains (Downer's Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1980), pp. 38-39.
5Polkinghorne, The Way the World Is, p. 9.
6Pollard, William, "Rumors of Transcendence in Physics," American journal of Physics 52, (1984), pp. 877-881.
7Jaki, Stanley L., The Road of Science and the Ways to God (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1978), p. 181.
8Barnet, Lincoln, The Universe and Dr. Einstein (New York: Signet Books,  1948), p. 118.
9Paul, Ian, Science, Theology and Einstein (New York: Oxford University  Press, 1982), pp. 35-36.
10Polkinghorne, John, The Quantum World (London; Longman, 1984), p. ix.
11Ibid., p. 9.
12Ibid., pp. 53-54.
13ibid., pp. 11-12.
14Peacocke, A.R., Creation and the World of Science (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), pp. 94-95.
15Pollard, W.G., Chance and Providence (London: Faber and Faber, 1958), p.  97.
16Waddington, C.H., The Nature of Life (New York: Atheneum, 1962), pp. 73-77.
17Ibid., pp. 85-86.
18MacKay, D.M., The Clockwork Image (Downer's Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1974), p. 49.
19Taylor, Gordon R., The Great Evolution Mystery (New York: Harper and Row, 1983), pp. 239-240.
20 op.cit., pp. 98-99.
21Eigen, M., Naturwissenschauften 58 (1971), p. 465.
Davies, op.cit., p. 243.