Chapter 6: Chance and God

The Cosmic Adventure: Science, Religion and the Quest for Purpose
by John F. Haught

Chapter 6: Chance and God

Surely the question persists in spite of what we have argued in the previous chapter: Where is the evidence that an extraneous factor, a cause other than physical and chemical forces, is involved in the emergence and propagation of life? Could not the random coagulation of atoms have fully accounted for the appearance of the first cell? And could not the chance reshuffling of base pairs in DNA have accounted sufficiently for the wide variety of living beings?

I cannot deny that it is initially tempting to pursue this "chance" hypothesis. It seems to have a number of points in its favor. First, there is the argument that given enough time, the improbable becomes increasingly more probable. Physico-chemically speaking, life appears to be a "negentropic," that is, an improbable occurrence. But given a sufficient amount of time an improbable event may eventually occur without violating statistical physical laws. Our earth has existed for approximately five billion years. Within this span of time the thermodynamically improbable event of the living cell with replicative capacities could perhaps accidentally pop up in the cosmic lottery. Even if the a priori probabilities of its happening the first time are virtually zero, Jacques Monod holds that it still might happen nonetheless.1 Furthermore, it has been demonstrated that the amino and nucleic acids which life requires could already have been made plentifully available by rather "impersonal" natural processes. Perhaps their "chance" congealing into DNA and proteins is not so preposterous after all.

A second argument for the "chance" hypothesis is inspired by the serendipitous shapes of many of the biosphere’s productions. They may easily cause us to wonder whether anything other than chance is involved in the manipulation of acids that gave them their genetic instructions. The weird creatures in the depths of the oceans, the ichthyosaurs, pterosaurs and other extinct species, the enormous varieties of plants, insects, crustaceans, reptiles, fish and mammals -- all of this makes us wonder whether chance might not be as good an "explanation" as any for the morphological richness of life.

Third, the fact that most genetic mutations occur without reference to the welfare of the mutated organism further supports the casualist view and, therefore, challenges the teleologist. Since most mutations are unfavorable and do not aid the organism in its struggle for survival, and since there is so much waste, it is tempting to make chance, aided by natural selection, the controlling factor in evolution.

It is hardly possible, therefore, for us to ignore the view that chance has played a major part in the evolution of species as well as in the origin of life itself. But what is chance? And what exactly is meant by those who say that life appeared by chance and that evolution is a blind process ruled by randomness? Finally, would the fact of chance rule out the religious vision that the cosmos abides within the caring and ultimately meaningful environment of a loving God? To these questions the present chapter will attempt a response.

Chance vs. Design?

Usually discussions of evolution hold out the term "chance" in opposition to "design." Chance is seen as exclusive of design. The evolution of the universe, therefore, is controlled either by chance or by design. In this chapter, however, I shall not attempt to refute the chance hypothesis by arguing on behalf of nature’s design. Although I would agree that a certain kind of teleology is present in the cosmos, I think the term "design" is too narrow and misleading in any discussion with those who emphasize the role of chance in evolution. Further, I see no reason to hold that purpose in nature excludes a very pronounced element of chance as a prominent factor in evolution. But both "chance" and "design" have connotations that prevent a deeper discussion of the issue of teleology.

The notion of design, for example, typically conjures up images of a "Craftsman" or "Mechanic" who, with complete control and foreknowledge of every detail, methodically plots out the entire panoply of cosmic events and their unfolding through time and space. This image of a Pantocrator (one who actively exercises an omnipotence over all things) is still one of the dominant images of God in the West, though it is questionably justifiable. It resonates with the word "Designer," and so it appears to be logically exclusive of the indeterminacy often implied by the notion of chance.

The "Cosmic Designer" has impressed modernity as a notoriously vague, suffocating and even dehumanizing ideal promulgated by a dying religiosity. And yet the same idea has been defended by traditionalists, appealing to Aristotle, Aquinas and classical theology, as a metaphysical necessity. I suspect that those who defend the hypothesis of chance are often, underneath all the elaborate edifice of rational and scientific argumentation, struggling to escape the oppressive weight of a closed-in world governed by the cosmic Craftsman. And those who persist in reaffirming the design argument are expressing their distaste for a world ruled by chaos. The search for freshness, for breathing room, is, in part at least, the drive behind those who protest the "teleological" view. And the equally significant need for order motivates those who strive to retrieve the classical teleological statements of philosophy and religion. And so the argument, chance vs. design, lumbers along on these two levels.

The best way forward, it seems to me, is to ask whether there is a way of presenting the metaphysical argument for a principle of cosmic order in such a way as simultaneously to satisfy our legitimate requirements for novelty and adventure. That there is such an alternative I shall propose a bit later. First, however, we should look briefly at some of the confusion surrounding use of the word "chance."


The word "chance" is used in at least the following five ways:

1. To begin with there is what we might call the epistemological usage of the term. According to thinkers as diverse as Laplace, Einstein and Russell, for example, a chance event is one whose cause is unknown. This usage of the term makes chance into a kind of cover-up for our own ignorance. Chance is a blind spot in our understanding rather than an objective fact resident in nature. And since all events must have causes, according to this classical framework, there really are no such things as chance occurrences. "God does not play at dice with the universe," as Einstein put it. Indeterminacy is an illusion.

Strictly speaking, in this view, chance does not exist. It is merely an expression of the limitedness of our knowing. Both theists and atheists are numbered among those who cling to this notion of chance. For some theists chance is actually, in Alexander Pope’s words, ". . . direction which thou canst not see." In a hidden way God’s omnipotence determines all things. And for the atheist chance is often interpreted as a confused expression cloaking our own ignorance of the iron-clad, impersonal laws of a deterministic universe. In either case chance does not really exist.

2. Another way of understanding "chance" is the mathematical. For example, we ask what are the "chances" that a flipped coin will land tails-up. While mathematics cannot decide the answer in any single case, it can formulate laws of probability according to which we can make fairly accurate predictions regarding the outcome of a large number of coin tossings. In this context "chance" occurrences are deviations from statistical regularities. In themselves they are surds, lacking any systematic intelligibility.2 A common question posed by science today is whether the origin of life and the mutations involved in evolution are such irrational, unplanned and disorderly deviations. It is in this connection especially that the question of purpose in evolution arises. Could life and evolution possibly be the implementation of a divine purposiveness if they are carried along so prominently on a stream of chance happenings?

3. A third context in which the term "chance" is often employed is what I shall call (for lack of a better term) the existential. Here "chance" refers to any occurrence which, without interrupting the known laws of natural causation, shows up as an absurdity disturbing the order of our human existence. Existential chance appears when two independent physically causal series intersect in such a way as to make us ask fervently: "Why did that have to happen to me or to us?" For example pigeon droppings (representing one causal series) invariably make their way earthward because of the deterministic laws of gravitational attraction. If I on my bicycle, following another independent trajectory, just "chance" to pass underneath such a natural occurrence at the relevant moment, perhaps the fervent uttering will take the form of an oath. The point is that we have here two independent causal series, both blindly following the laws of physics. But the fact that a human being is involved gives their intersection a dimension that would otherwise be absent. One can, of course, think of many much more tragic examples of existential chance. And some modern writers, in fact, interpret our very birth and existence on this planet as such an absurd crossing of incongruous paths.

4. A fourth denotation, this one often given to the term "chance" by scientists, is a physical one. A number of modern physicists hold that events at the sub-atomic level are not only indeterminable or unpredictable by scientific observation, but that they are also unpredictable even in principle. Contrary to the determinists, who see all events as the predictable result of antecedent causes, physical indeterminists insist that at the sub-atomic level there are happenings which are "uncaused," arising spontaneously and unpredictably out of a mysterious depth to which our science of causes cannot penetrate. This speculation of recent physics has encountered a great deal of resistance, even from scientists of the stature of Einstein. Their resistance may be motivated by a fear that nature will slip out of the control of our mechanical and mathematical models for understanding physical reality, or it may be occasioned simply by our innate passion for order and intelligibility. In any case, the hypothesis of physical chance posits an indeterminacy at the base of cosmic reality, and this again forces us to ask whether the natural world is influenced by any sort of ordering principle.

There is an important qualification that needs to be made with respect to this hypothesis of physical chance. Physics can allow for indeterminacy in particular microcosmic occurrences without rejecting the predictability that occurs when large numbers of these occurrences coalesce to make up macroscopic entities. The fact that physical reality is composed of patterned arrangements of more basic constituents enormously softens the effect that minute indeterminacies might have. While God may play at dice with the universe at one level, the plain fact remains that nature exhibits an infinite array of ordered arrangements. Our world, therefore, appears to be a composite of indeterminacy and order.

5. Another intriguing way of using the idea of chance is the metaphysical. Here chance is employed as an explanatory concept providing the definitive answer to ultimate questions such as, Why am I here? Why did life appear? Why is there anything at all? Why is there suffering and death, etc.? In this application "Chance" often takes the same place that "God" takes in classical theology. Chance is hypostatized; it is transcendent; it is almighty (though not all-good); it lies beyond the scope of scientific method (since science can deal only with the recurrent, the orderly and the predictable); and finally, Chance comes close to being the object of worship and devotion since it is the metaphysical source of all things. Readers of Jacques Monod’s Chance and Necessity will find there perhaps the best recent example of the metaphysical enthronement of Chance. James Horigan has noted how for Monod chance functions in a manner parallel to the god-of-the-gaps found in certain caricatures of theism. It is an hypothesis brought onto the scene when human ingenuity and resourcefulness are lacking. It is a deus-ex-machina that puts the lid on further inquiry and delivers us from the need to unravel the story of nature with further careful, patient, rational inquiry.

We can see from this cursory listing that "chance" is as loaded a term as is "design." And I would suggest also that there is an imaginative component associated with employment of the term "chance" that explains its psychological attractiveness to its devotees in the spurious chance vs. design debate. The image of the universe that takes shape in the mental background of those who espouse the chance-hypothesis is often one in which human freedom and creativity are fundamental concerns. It is not entirely surprising that Jacques Monod would attempt to make Sartrean atheistic existentialism with its emphasis on freedom the metaphysical backdrop of Chance and Necessity. While it is impossible to reconcile Monod’s materialist mechanism with any coherent doctrine of human freedom, his obeisance to the hypostatized idea of Chance displays an underlying concern for a universe in which human freedom would remain a possibility: "The kingdom above or the darkness below . . . it is for us to choose."4 Even in thinkers not so extreme as Monod there still persists the post-Enlightenment aversion to any metaphysical ultimate that would fix a limit to human growth and potential. The infatuation with chance provides for some an aperture to the requisite breathing-space, whereas the notion of design often seems confining. What we need to do, in response to this legitimate concern for freedom, is to shift the chance vs. design argument to a new plane of discussion, that of order vs. novelty.

Order and Novelty

The chance vs. design debate has long proven to be fruitless. It is a disguise for a more fundamental, perennial controversy, whether the idea of an ultimate principle of order (God) can be reconciled with human freedom and the world’s autonomy and indeterminacy. This book is not the place to debate this question, but I think it is important to point it out as an important dimension latent in the deeper layers of the chance vs. design dispute. Moreover, this may be the place at least to outline an alternative that would be sensitive to the underlying issue.

I shall propose that the idea of a transcendent ordering principle is congruous with a universe in which mathematical, physical and existential chance are realities. But such congruity is possible only if this principle of order is at the same time understood as a constant source of novelty as well.5 For it is in the influx of novelty into our universe that those deviations from order, regularity and tranquillity that we loosely refer to as "chance" occurrences take place. Chance exists because of novelty.

The idea of a "designer" does not lend itself readily to a universe involving chance occurrences. Such an idea too easily leads to the view (the "epistemological" interpretation above) that chance is not a concrete fact of nature, since everything must be methodically planned in advance. However, if the world’s principle of order is also its source of novelty, then our cosmos of mixed order and chance can be interpreted as logically compatible with such a principle.

The idea of God that I am following in this book includes (but is certainly not exhausted by) the attribute of being both source of order and source of novelty. This idea has been elaborated most expressly by Alfred North Whitehead and his theological followers. I have found their ideas to be faithful not only to important religious intuitions of ultimacy but also to the demands of common human experience, logic and, most importantly for our purposes, modern science. The following is a brief sketch of this Whiteheadian notion of God and how such a notion relates to the fact of chance in nature.

God and Chance: A Whiteheadian Interpretation

That the universe exhibits at least some degree of order, as well as a wide variety of ordered arrangements of physical reality, is obvious. Nobody seriously questions this fact. The issue instead concerns the possible source of what order there is. One hypothesis is to locate the source of order in the human mind. This is the "idealist" position, according to which the mind imposes its patterns onto the inherent formlessness of nature. This "solution," however, merely pushes the problem one step further back: Whence arises the order that is intrinsic to mind (which, as I have emphasized, is also a fact of nature)? We are back at our original question: Why is there any order at all? Why not sheer chaos?

This is where a second position offers itself: order arises by chance out of disorder. Given enough time the play of chance, after innumerable attempts at different combinations, becomes locked into regularity, pattern or order. Order arises spontaneously, without purpose, out of the random motion of particles of matter. This is the position of some materialists, for whom "matter" is a kind of ultimate, a quasi-divinity, and chance is the demiurge that shapes the substance of this ultimate into the diverse objects of nature. Our fundamental objections to the materialist position have already been set forth. We should note here in addition, however, that it is inconceivable that the irreducible and ultimate matter of the materialist could itself exist even primordially without already being ordered or patterned in some way or other. Presumably the materialist’s almighty matter has an atomic and subatomic make-up, in which case it would already have an enormously complex order. And if one wishes to speculate that there is some other kind of matter beneath the sub-atomic level, the question would still arise in what sense it could be called material or physical without also being ordered in some way or other.

It appears, then, that we are compelled to accept the view that for something even to be actual at all it must possess at least a minimum of order. Total absence of internal patterning would amount to non-actuality. Sheer indeterminateness is nothingness -- as ancient mythology, Hegel and Sartre (not to mention Whitehead) have all recognized. To be actual is to be something definite, and this implies being ordered.6

So our question still remains: Why any order at all? Why not no-thing? Why not utter indeterminateness? Surely it is not incoherent for us to hypothesize a third alternative to the idealist and the materialist ones. This third position postulates an ultimate principle of order from which emanates the forms of order into which the occasions of experience making up the physical universe are patterned. This principle of order need not be conceived of as imposing order on nature. Rather it may be thought of as a source of possible patternings relevant to the cosmos at each phase of its becoming. Instead of coercing the universe into prefabricated molds it lures or persuades the cosmos toward the actualization of new possibilities.7 Thus the term "Designer" seems inappropriate as the primary image of this metaphysical principle.

The universe is always capable of deviating from the patterns offered by our postulated ordering principle. If it were not capable of putting up a resistance to the proposal of new modes of order, it would not then be a world. Instead it would dissolve into the ordering principle itself. Without some element of recalcitrance the cosmos would be nothing more than an emanation of the ordering principle and have no intrinsic being or autonomy of its own. Indeterminacy of some sort and degree must therefore be an aspect of any universe which is not a mere emanation of its ultimate source of order. This means that the universe is not governed by any rigid teleological scheme. There is room in it for those occurrences that we confusedly refer to as chance. And yet there is the possibility that forms of order may gradually be teased out of the chaos of indeterminacy.

It is in the nature of our hypothesized principle of order that it is non-interfering and unobtrusive. It is Tao-like in its functioning, and yet, as we have seen, it is causal in the deepest sense of the term, not in a mechanical but in a "formal" way. Because of its unobtrusive, formatively causal, rather than mechanically coercive, mode of influencing the universe it is inevitable that there would be deviations from the intelligibility inherent in order. These deviations are what we call chance occurrences. They are real and not just our own epistemological blind-spots. But this is not the whole story. For even these deviations, while unintelligible from the point of view of one frame of order, might not be without intelligibility from within a wider angle of vision. There are dangers in our phrasing here which we shall clarify later on, but it is legitimate to state that at least some things which appear without intelligibility from an earlier perspective may in principle become intelligible within a later and wider perspective.8 If this is the case, then, it may be simply impossible for us ever to have a controlling and objectively comprehensive understanding of what chance really is.

And yet this is not to deny that chance is in some sense real, rather than an epistemological evasion. For the principle of order to which we have alluded is also understood here as the ultimate source of novelty. And whenever novelty invades a situation of order the result is at least momentary deviation from the fixed arrangements of the past. A certain degree of chaos will accompany the emergence of a more complex order. As the past gives way to further intensification of order, the momentary breakdown of harmonious patterning may give rise to occurrences for which the word "chance" is appropriate. When God is understood as principle not only of order but also of novelty, the idea of God is compatible with the fact of chance.9

Chance and Nature’s Hierarchy

The occurrence of chance is also an inevitable facet of a hierarchical universe. When one level of nature’s hierarchy (say the level of life or mind) harnesses a lower level (that of matter) it is not surprising that the lower level will not be in every respect congenial to the imposition of the novel organizational principles of the higher. As the higher level imposes boundary conditions on the lower processes, the latter may continue blindly and independently of the comprehensive net flung by the former. There would be no such thing as chance if the universe were not hierarchically structured. If the universe were merely a one-dimensional causal series of physical occurrences, it is difficult to imagine how "chance" would ever show up. The very fact of our noticing and being bothered about chance occurrences is a clue to the fact of a hierarchical universe in which causal paths involving distinct levels at times cross each other to our dismay or delight. As I pointed out earlier, there is an "existential" undertone in all of our discussions of chance. And this is because we also, as conscious and purposive beings, are part of this hierarchical universe where many levels are constantly intersecting one another.

It is the hierarchical structure of nature that makes it unnecessary for us to imagine that the cosmos is simply a roulette wheel out of which a living cell with replicative capacities accidentally turned up all of a sudden one day long ago. Such an occurrence required the careful, painstaking preparation of an appropriate context. In evolution distinct levels have emerged, each one of them eventually falling into stable, repetitive and predictable routines. And like notches of a ratchet the existence of these stable levels (the sub-atomic, atomic, molecular, biotic, psychological) prevents the wheel of nature from going back to point zero with each turn. It is quite possible that the emergence of the first living cell involved an aspect of randomness. It had to be, by definition, a unique event, an unprecedented occurrence. But the context in which life made its sudden appearance should not be imagined as a kind of chaotic soup of chemicals. Speaking more realistically, the environment into which the biosphere flooded was already a hierarchical assembly of subassemblies, each level of which was endowed with an order and irreversibility that prevented the whole edifice from constantly sinking back into complete chaos.10 In such a hierarchical framework the initial appearance of a new and higher level always has to be a unique event. But we should not confuse its uniqueness with utter randomness (as Jacques Monod has done). If, as I am maintaining, nature is an emergent hierarchy of levels, the initial appearance of each successive new level is going to appear baffling from the point of view of our understanding of the preceding ones. To explain its coming into being only as a result of pure chance, however, is to betray an inability to think hierarchically about nature. The issue of chance and purpose brings us, therefore, to the question of the plausibility of hierarchical thinking. I shall take this question up in the following chapter.


Chance is not incompatible with order. And when "order" involves an emergent hierarchy of levels in which a trend toward novelty is prominent, we must be prepared to admit the fact of chance into our cosmic picture. It is easy enough to do so when we are speaking of the epistemological, physical and mathematical dimensions of chance. The troublesome questions concern the existential and metaphysical usages of the term. Especially when causal series intersect so as to cause us pain do we wonder whether our universe, is ruled ultimately by chance. At this point our discussion of chance converges with what is called the theodicy problem, and this will be the subject of Chapters 9 and 10.


1. Monod, p. 144.

2. Cf. Bernard Lonergan, Insight, 3rd edition (New York: Philosophical Library, 1957), p. 114.

3. James Horigan, Chance or Design (New York: Philosophical Library, 1979), p. 43.

4. Monod, p. 180.

5. Cf. Whitehead, Modes of Thought, pp. 86-104.

6. Alfred North Whitehead, Religion in the Making (New York: Meridian Books, 1960), p. 115. "There is nothing actual which could be actual without some measure of order."

7. Whitehead, Process and Reality, pp. 32, 107, 342-51.

8. This is a central theme in both Lonergan and Whitehead.

9. Cf. Charles Birch, Nature and God (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1965), pp. 50-80.

10. Cf. Arthur Koestler, Janus (New York: Random House, 1978), pp. 43 ff.