philosophy science

purposeful chance

Succinct and razor sharp as always, James Chastek discusses how so-called ‘blind chance’ events can be used for a purpose – giving two excellent illustrations (coin-toss and cement mixing).

This (for me) completely takes the wind out of the Dawkins-like assurance that big, bad ‘chance’ is an enemy of design and/or God ((and it probably makes all of the effort of ‘design theorists’ a bit unnecessary!?)).

32 replies on “purposeful chance”

Chance is the enemy of god? Really? Dawkins and Dawkins-like people actually say that? I’m surprised; chance is a calculation, god is an assertion. I’m not sure one has anything to do with the other except when calculation adversely affects the assertion, in which case the not-subject-to-scientific-inquiry card is usually played.

I find many people really don’t understand probabilities and what they mean. But I often do come across this notion of ‘blind’ chance of evolution mistakenly pitted against some assertion of supernatural design where it is asserted that more faith is required for the former than the latter. Of course, this is usually a false dichotomy. What Dawkins actually promotes is the idea of genetic scaffolding influenced by evolution change, for which there is a rich deposit of excellent biological evidence, but that’s neither here nor there as far the wind in your belief sails are concerned. The evidence for design, meaning some supernatural intention creating and then micro-changing biology, in contrast with what supports Dawkins professional opinion is absent. That makes the notion that ‘chance’ rather than an absence of evidence is the enemy of god rather a silly misrepresentation.

Really, Tildeb? Are you pretending that neither Dawkins nor any of his devotees ever imply explicitly that a designer/creator/God is ruled out by the ‘blind’ process of evolutionary development? Ever heard the God Delusion or the Ultimate 747 argument?
I do note (happily) that you agree that chance should not be pitted against design – good on you. But surely you’re aware that atheists do this very thing all the time?

That you continue to use the notion of ‘blind’ chance as if it somehow relates to evolution and that this is what Dawkins suggests is telling. And yes, I am quite familiar with The God Delusion as well as the Ultimate 747 argument. The former is a nice read and the later has it exactly backwards in relation to evolution (but I would not expect an honest argument from the theocrats).

Pitting ‘blind’ chance against ‘supernatural’ design is, as I wrote, a false dichotomy: it’s like asking about the chances of obtaining a ’13’ on an absent die that apparently has some unknown number of faces. It’s just silly. But when referring to the chance of genetic mutations in each generation of a known species, that a whole different issue. That can be calculated and tested and predicted and falsified and then these results can be reasonably extrapolated back into antiquity. Once this done with several genetically related species, then all kinds of testable predictions can be made about what the common ancestor should be like. When these prediction turn out to be highly accurate, with tangible evidence, then we have a reasonable explanation. That the reasonable explanation works consistently well based in part on an estimated rate of random mutations that can be reasonably calculated is hardly what theists mean when they use the misleading term ‘blind’ chance to describe evolutionary change. Atheists like I am use the term ‘genetic scaffolding’ to understand how successive generations build on (usually) material from the parents. This is what a fertilized human embryo does but I think it is intentionally misleading to suggest that the child produced will be the result of ‘blind’ chance.

WE agree that ‘chance’ (in whatever form) shouldn’t be pitted against a purposeful designer concept. I should have written ‘ultimate 747 gambit’ rather than ‘ultimate 747 argument’.
The point is that in TGD, Dawkins uses natural selection to counter a design argument. He does what you/I seem to agree should not be done. And many a Dawkins-ite follow suit – all the time.

Natural selection is not synonymous with ‘blind’ chance nor is it simply random chance as theists continue to assert without merit. These terms are used by theists to create a false dichotomy. It is the false dichotomy that should not be pursued, not the explanation of origins based on natural selection versus a supernatural designer.

Of course natural selection counters the design argument because the explanatory power of the theory of evolution is concrete, practical, useful, consistent, predictive, with a long pedigree of technological applications that work reliably. From this we can deduce with confidence that there is no reasonable doubt that any other explanation that has no evidence to support it should be considered equally valid an explanation. The creationist story as told by Genesis with a fully formed Adam and a garden of mature plants cannot be literally true because the biological evidence we do have simply does not fit this explanation. Such a literal reading is incompatible with the biological evidence mutually supported by overlapping areas of study when it doesn’t have to be this way if a designer were to be involved. Dawkins is merely stating the obvious that there is no scientific evidence for a supernatural designer while there is a perfectly justifiable explanation for a natural process to explain how life has evolved. Theists take great exception to that audacious fact and it’s a reality that they are are going to have cope with… not by refusing to accept what is true and what reliably works by denigrating the method of inquiry all of use everyday that yields knowledge that works but by altering out of necessity the fundamental theology to match what is true. But when faith is meshed with certainty and that faith contains truth claims that are reasonably false, then it’s perfectly understandable (if immature) that theists need something (and/or someone) one other than their faith (and their creator god) to blame for this fiasco of misplaced belief. Atheists are simply a convenient target much maligned. Hence, there is a need for active, assertive, authoritative voices in defense of reasonable non belief. You calling these fine people who happen to share Dawkins’ non belief for very sound reasons as ‘Dawkin-ites’ as if he were some kind of cult leader is merely an attempt to add without merit to that general character denigration of non believers.

(paragraph divisions help) :)

Natural selection only counters the kind of design arguments that take the form of setting divine action over and against natural action.

Umm, natural selection does not counter only supernatural design over and against it; it successfully replaces any need for supernatural design altogether.

Excuse me, I find this interesting but must be a bit of a light-weight, because I am having trouble following. Wasn’t the issue at stake here teleology and chance? When did design come into it? I certainly have no problem with the idea that natural selection counters the design argument. It seems to me that natural selection is quite capable of producing biological structures which give the appearance of design.

I can also respect the position that natural selection replaces the need for supernatural design.

I also completely agree that we need to dispel the myth that natural selection is merely blind chance. It seems to me that theists sometimes want to erect a straw man evolution to make it appear less palatable and easier to disagree with.

But, why exactly would natural selection not be compatible with some sort of theistic teleology?

I think, Jonathan, the question is why wouldn’t a theistic teleology not be compatible with natural selection, and I think it is possible (if poor) to make such theology. In fact, isn’t this exactly what Collins and Ayala argue?

I think the weakness of that argument is that when you follow it to its conclusion to match the available evidence, there becomes no meaningful difference between a designer that far removed and no designer at all.

Interesting point. However, it seems to be that the best evidence we have across multiple lines of evidence indicates a beginning to the universe. That, and evidence for the fine-tuning and lawful rationality of the universe, indicates that perhaps the universe has a God-intended purpose?

God may move primarily via secondary causes in the universe eg; gravity, natural selection, and therefore seem rather distant, irrelevant and personal. However, it is not to the natural world that I look for closeness, relevance, and communion with God, but in the person of Christ.

Doesn’t fine-tuning and lawful rationality already frame all evidence to be favourable to one and only ‘conclusion’?

When we examine effects and look for a cause, I think we neuter our inquiry when we assume the mechanism that links the two is supernatural and purposed. Are we not better served by finding a consistent yet natural mechanism, one free of this assumed godly purpose? Of what benefit is it to our understanding of nature to frame why things fall as ‘divine heaviness’ imbued with god-intended purpose? Why must a falling thing have such an assumed purpose? It seems to me to be an unnecessary additional burden and one immune to reasonable inquiry to insist that all effects must have some overarching and divine purpose.

If cause and effect by knowable natural mechanisms are to be considered evidence for divine purpose and supernatural agency by design, then this framing allows everything to be such evidence: god did it and god wants it to be so because god has a purpose for all and has designed it to be this way.

What right do we have to interfere with this divine plan by way, for example, of interventionist medicine? Wait, medicine is part of god’s plan, so it’s not really interfering but helping to carry out god’s plan. But when cancer kills a loved one, that too is part of god’s purposeful plan… unless we find a means to cure the disease, in which case that cure is a part of god’s plan, and so on. This kind of framing is not ‘evidence’ because nothing will show it to be false: EVERYTHING becomes evidence FOR a designing and purposeful god.

But is it true? We have been stripped by this framing of having any useful means to find out because no matter what we find out the assumption stands undisturbed: god is, god designs, god imbues purpose.

What are you measuring, James?

In the gravel example, the probability of the location of the particulates is not relevant evidence to design. The ratio of water to particulates and binder material to make cement is, and it is by no means ‘blind’ chance whatsoever: it is a very stable and specific ratio.

In the context of Dawkins and genetic scaffolding with mutation leading to evolution, evidence of design should be of a similar kind of stability. We simply don’t find this kind of genetic stability. That’s a significant if not an overwhelming problem for those who propose design and wish to support it with evidence.

(good to see some commenting while I was away)
I’ll let James reply if he can be bothered or has time, but can we meaningfully measure something that is truly random or unordered anyway? And isn’t the point (again) that even the most seemingly random/unordered/chaotic/’blind’ phenomena (whether measured or not) can be the instrument of a purposeful agent?


1.) It was a yes or no question. Are you saying no?

2.) Is it your claim that there is nothing random whatsoever in mixing in gravel? That every piece is deliberately and intentionally set in exactly the place it ends up?

Hi Tildeb

First let me clarify my position. When we consider cosmology we make the observation that there are a number of cosmological constants, such as gravity, which could be given any number of theoretical values, yet we find in each instance that they are set very precisely to produce a universe capable of sustaining life. That is an observation. One could draw a philosophical inference from that observation that perhaps our universe is no accident. Theoretical posturing regarding multiple universes is valid, but had no observational or experimental support, and is possibly motivated by a desire to avoid the undesirable conclusions that some reach regarding the universe when observing this fine-tuning. Also, I find it remarkable that our universe is understandable and can be mathematically described. There is no reason why the universe should be rational. Further, there is no reason why a universe should be capable of giving rise to creatures, such as ourselves, who are capable of contemplating, observing, and understanding that universe – leading them to ask – what is this all for? Again, one could draw a philosophical inference from the observation that creatures such as ourselves exist to mean that perhaps this is the way it was intended to be?

I think you are basically saying that the idea of a God stifles research and inquiry. In response I think that science will, does, and indeed needs to operate under the assumption that it can only discern natural causation. I would encourage science in such regard. I do not see a place within science for supernatural causal explanations – she is not equipped to ascertain such things. However, I do not think that science is the only way of considering existence, although it is certainly useful in informing our perspective. The statement “there is no purpose’ and the statement “there is purpose” are both non-scientific statements, but may still be valid statements which scientific observations can be used to discern the validity of. Also, while I may think there is some general over-arching teleology to life, the universe, and everything, I do not attempt to place every single minute observation within a teleological perspective – such would be an unnecessary burden.

I think you are also taking objection to instances where people state that whatever happens is God’s plan regardless of what it is that is happening. I have a great deal of sympathy for your objection, many do see things that way. Let me state that I think that God has given a great degree of freedom to creation. I am not therefore sure that it makes sense to speak of medicine as a part of “God’s great plan”. I think God has given us the ability, freedom, and responsibility to use medicine as we see fit. I think that cancer happens because mutations accumulate in our genes with age. But, I personally believe that God is able to mysteriously work in and through whatever happens to achieve His desires. For this I have no evidence, you might call it a superstition.

I would also like to say that the very notion that there is a mind behind the universe is the reason why Western thinkers thought that it was actually worthwhile to study the natural world in the first place – because they expected that since the universe was the result of a rational mind, the natural world should actually capable of being understood. I do not see why a teleological or dysteleological approach to life in general should stifle our curiosity in asking, what is it, how does it work, and how did it all get here anyway?


When we consider cosmology we make the observation that there are a number of cosmological constants, such as gravity, which could be given any number of theoretical values, yet we find in each instance that they are set very precisely to produce a universe capable of sustaining life.

But can the constants that we observe really be anything other than what they are? And what evidence do you have that they have been ‘set’ (as if someone was twiddling a knob and set it to exactly Unless there is a good reason to believe that the constants *can* be fine tuned surely this is the very epitome of a groundless argument?

I’m aware of multiple discussions, so I’ll stay brief, but I thought it worth pointing out that when it comes to the fine-tuning argument, (as I’ve suggested before – without reference to fine-tuning, though) it seems to me that:

a) a nature that ‘could not have been any other way’ (a.k.a. is ‘tuned’ of necessity)
b) a nature that ‘did not have to be this way’ (a.k.a. is ‘tuned’ by ‘chance’/’luck’)

can both equally be the instrument of design – which is of course, the point of James’ post I linked to? And it’s not a little bit ironic that Damian is pointing to hard necessity in countering the ‘design-by-tuning’ argument?

First, any randomness within design means that that the random factors in no way can influence the end result. If it does, then the ‘design’ is whatever the randomness produces. This is hardly a good use of language when what is produced is arbitrary and then called ‘design.’

Secondly, I want to take a moment to explain why the difficulty so many people seem to have regarding what probabilities mean. This is fundamentally a before-and-after issue that directly relates to the notion of the ‘fine-tuning of the universe’ argument we come across again and again in theological arguments for design. Damien touches on it when he asks if there really is some other result for universal constants we find. This is key to understanding why the argument for fine-tuning simply offers us nothing in favour of design.

To get away from the emotional attachment of there being a god for a moment to better grasp the problem of why the probabilities of universal constants do not inform the design argument, consider the ‘evidence for design’ in something unrelated… say, a lottery.

At the ‘before’ end of figuring out the probability of winning let’s say a 6/49 lottery, we can calculate the odds (the figures aren’t important but we multiply 49x48x47…x1 and then because we must have 6 correct numbers we divide this very large number by 6x5x…1. The ‘chances’ of ending up with exactly those numbers needed to win the lottery are almost zero. It is one chance in about 14 million!) This probability is expressed as a ratio P=0.00000007151. Winning the jackpot, as most people know, is almost impossible. At the very least, the chances are so small that surely some other agency must intervene on behalf of guiding or designing a winning ticket.

At the ‘after’ end of figuring out the probability of winning this lottery we have only two results: the tickets that did not win no longer have any chance at all (P=0). The ticket that did win won (P=1). It is what it is, one highly unlikely winner out of millions of probable losers.

We come to know nothing more about this winning lottery ticket (P=1) when we consider just how extraordinarily unlikely it was that such a thing could happen. Nor do we inform the knowledge about winning a lottery any further by examining in minute detail how this specific winning ticket came to be purchased, by whom, under what circumstances, and so on. We have no merit to assert that because the probability that winning the lottery was so unlikely before the draw happened by looking at the probability of any random ticket that therefore the specific ticket that won after the draw must therefore be evidence of some exterior intervening agency. Granted, that this specific ticket won is not evidence that it didn’t have to be this way; all this winning ticket shows us is that that the numbers drawn were the same as the ones on this ticket. That’s why this ticket won and no other agency other than the slimmest of probabilities was responsible. Remember, ALL of the tickets might have had the winning number; because one was going to be a winner, we can do these calculations. Once a ticket or the universal constants is the winner, ALL the others no longer matter in our calculations.

The same principle holds true with universal constants (P=1). That’s the way it is, which is not evidence that just because it could have hypothetically been any different before the universe came into being (P=?, whatever that may mean) in no way informs us of agency other than anything more than the unlikeliest of probabilities after the universe became what it is. Pining about what might have been if these constants were somehow different is a futile exercise of wishful thinking that does not further our knowledge of what is. But asserting that what is requires some agency other than the lowest of probabilities is no argument because we know with our lottery example that that is simply not true. We do NOT require outside agency for a probability to increase to fact, to go from P=0.00000007151 to P=1. As far as an explanation for why these constants are the way they are, randomness suffices in the same way that a lottery ticket goes from being a probable loser to an improbable winner. Damian’s conclusion (although asked in the form of a polite question) stands firm.

I understand where you are going with the issue of probabilities but what I’m really asking is whether we have any basis at all to believe that the constants could be anything other than what they are. If we have reason to believe that the gravitational constant could be different then we can talk of probabilities.

It may well be that there is a good reason to believe that what we observe to be ‘constants’ are, in fact, ‘variable’ and this is why I asked the question (I’ve just not yet heard an explanation). But if we don’t have any good reason then the fine tuning argument (and any discussion on probabilities for that matter) is an exercise in fantasy.

And, Dale, your accusation of my “pointing to hard necessity” isn’t really the explanation I was looking for.

That’s the P=? I mentioned. The point I was addressing was about the argument of fine-tuning that assumes that which it is trying to prove, that some other outcome is possible, and this is done by looking at the ‘odds’ from the ‘before’ end. We can’t do that. We have to look at what is true now, what is real now, what is P=1 nowand then speculate backwards. If we do that, then we quickly realize that we are starting our inquiry with nothing but a question mark for the probabilities. That’s why it is meaningless as any kind of proof for ‘fine-tuning.’ It is unknowable, not merely uncertain or low likelihood as so many who propose the argument would have us think. The only hard data set we have for calculating actual probabilities (as far as universal constants are concerned) is what is, and that probability is P=1.

Jonathan, you write I do not see a place within science for supernatural causal explanations – she is not equipped to ascertain such things. However, I do not think that science is the only way of considering existence, although it is certainly useful in informing our perspective.

I agree with your first part and disagree with your second.

In the first part, the unstated assumption is that something else is better equipped. Can you expand on this and provide justification?

In the second part, what does considering existence mean regarding science? Science doesn’t consider existence in the way I think you mean to contrast it against. The scientific method is used for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge. It is very successful at this, far more so than any other method to date. Perhaps you could clarify what you mean.

Once yet again, the original post/link is merely pointing out that chance is not opposed to intention. As for the lottery example, surely you’re not pretending that lotteries are not designed precisely to be random???

I do think it’s an interesting question whether the ‘constants’ even could have been other than they are – and I’m not faulting you for wanting reasons why they could be (though clearly we’ll never know for sure – could existence itself never have ‘happened’? etc.). But what I was pushing back against was your implicit suggestion that ‘must-be-this-way’ constants was opposed to design or intention? But maybe that’s not what you were meaning to suggest?

When I say considering existence I am being more holistic than merely regarding science, I mean how we view the world, ourselves, and our place in the world. Nothing is better equipped than science to understand the mechanisms and nature of natural phenomenon.

But, I do not see any merit in the ‘if I can’t stick it in a test tube and poke it, then it is meaningless’ outlook concerning life.

Dale, if you want to argue that the universe and everything in it has been designed to look exactly as if chance was at the helm, then I will not stand in your way. But if anyone wishes to argue that just such a design is an argument for a divine presence, then it directly undermines the argument about divine purpose because there is no difference between that purpose and arbitrary chance. And we’re back to gravity being described as a “divine heaviness.” It serves no purpose except to befuddle and obscure what is with a mysterious unknowable insistence on purpose.

Jonathan, are we not part of nature and a natural phenomena? Again, if not science then what? And how is this nebulous ‘what’ better suited?

Well if it’s the appearance of things that we wish to consider, then certainly it’s not controversial that things appear designed – that is, they have a design. There are two questions (at least): 1) How (in terms of mechanism) did things get this design that they have? 2) Does the result of design correspond to an intent for design?

The argument of James’ post I linked to is that even a ‘blind’ or ‘random’ process can be the instrument of an intending agent. ((Whether that agent intends to destroy, design or paint or get a random result is secondary, btw))

When you write that ‘random’ process can be the instrument of an intending agent the sticky point is not the word ‘can’ but the word ‘intending.’ Of course there is a very strong presence of design in what we see in nature because genes replicate and pass on their genetic ‘design’, plus there is constant genetic expression of some level of randomness between each successive generation of life. But the question is where does this design originate?

Well, there is a perfectly good explanation called the theory of evolution. We know that the design we find can adequately be explained as a genetic expression of the parents with (usually) very slight modification during the process of genetic shuffling during replication. On the one hand, we can safely conclude the intention of this process – a consistent result we find at every turn – is nothing more and nothing less than genetic replication. Life begets life. On the other hand, asking what the intention of evolution is an incoherent question. There is no way TO know such an answer. That does not make the evidence we have for evolution to be compatible with overreaching claims about divine purpose (intention) of this process simply to favour a single species, which just so happens to be the exact kind as the one making this claim. If we are going to consider evidence for design other than by natural selection, then what we need is evidence of some special genetic exemption from this natural process to inform the claim. There is no evidence that man as a species is exempt in any way from evolution (but much suggesting we are very much affected by this process just like any other life form), removing a central platform necessary if we wish to suggest that random processes are an instrument of an intending agency… unless we are willing to grant that this intending agency presents identically to one based on its absence.

Evolution has no intentions, so we cannot speak of “the intention of this process”. Whilst we can say (observationally) that “life begets life”, we cannot say that life intends to beget life – or even replicate genes.

And btw, the claim of divine intent does not at all rest on some notion of a anthropocentric motive for all of creation – i.e. ‘all of these non-human things were made just so that we could eventually get to humans’.

It’s really quite simple. 1) We see design. 2) we infer a designing intent. 3) we discover a mechanism for design, which is perfectly harmonious with (does not ‘replace’) designing intent.

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