To a book apparently entitled “Chance, Evil, and Modal Skepticism”, Peter van Inwagen contributes a chapter called “The Place of Chance in a World Sustained by God”. (I don’t have the bibliographic information; I only have a PDF that Derek von Barandy emailed me in response to this thread, though the piece is apparently reprinted from this book.)
What follows is my summary and assessment of the chapter.
van Inwagen sketches a picture of the Created universe in which particles, whose continual existence and causal powers are sustained by God, are suspended in the void. On this view, a “miracle” occurs when God temporarily diverges from His typical activity. One who holds a more complex picture of the universe, physics, and divine providence can consider van Inwagen’s suggestions by complicating the model sketched of the universe as needed.
He says something happens by “chance” if it is without purpose or significance, not part of anyone’s plan, and might very well not have been. If someone asks why an event occurred, if it occurred by chance then the correct answer is “There is no reason or explanation; it just happened.” (p. 51). This is not to say that there is no explanation of any kind (eg. necessary antecedent conditions or perhaps even a sufficient cause), but only that it serves no end (I take this to mean something like that it wasn’t a necessary condition for some future good). van Inwagen describes a situation in which a man loses his wife to a car accident and asks “why?”—it would be cruel to explain the car accident to him in depth. He is asking about the purpose, not the cause, of the accident.
Peter van Inwagen says there might not be a specific one.
However, there is most certainly a general explanation. On van Inwagen’s view God is in full control. This means that God created everything and sustains its existence and causal powers. He knows everything in advance and even chooses to deviate from His typical sustaining activities, sometimes endowing particles and structures with different causal powers in order to subvert the course of history for His own purposes. God has a purpose, or purposes, on this view, and such will be accomplished.
He says a little more about God’s “plan”. He defines God’s plan as the sum of His decrees. His decrees are those things He directly causes and the things necessarily entailed by those things He directly causes. Knowledge of an event alone, even if held in advance, does not imply that such an event is part of God’s plan. van Inwagen gives the example of lies. God may have known in advance that people would tell lies, but those lies themselves may not have been part of His plan. There may be decrees that God issues in reaction to events He did not decree (eg. the miraculous healing of a knife wound that itself wasn’t decreed by God). Reactive decrees are not part of God’s “plan” either.
If this language makes you uncomfortable, just supply your own terms for the different modes of decree. For example, call God’s “plan” His “perfect will”, and those things that occur outside of His plan His “permissive will”, and come up with a name for His reactive decrees, etc.
van Inwagen offers three sources of chance: the free will of rational creatures, natural indeterminism, and the initial state of the created world.
Where God decrees (not commands or prescribes, but causes) a human’s behavior, that behavior is not free. However, not all behaviors are decreed by God. There are some created things whom God created with causal powers of a sort that enable them to do things not strictly entailed by God’s decrees (although antecedent conditions necessary for these behaviors are supplied by God, the powers themselves are created by God and given to the creatures, and the results of these choices are known in advance by God). Freely made decisions of this sort are not part of God’s “plan”, as we are defining God’s plan as the sum of His decrees and these decisions are made freely of His decrees. If free decisions of this sort are ever made in a way that they are not a part of any human’s plan either, then they are said to be the result of “chance”, where “chance” is some occurrence that was not designed to serve anybody’s ends.
Next the author considers natural indeterminism. This is the doctrine that God’s decrees concerning particles are not strict—they are loose and do not always sufficiently determine exact outcomes. This is of course, within God’s control as well and if it is the case it must only be by God’s permission. He would be able to determine with maximal specificity the exact behavior of every particle if He so chose. But on this view, He doesn’t. He usually let’s things like, perhaps, quantum events occur with probability (within bounds He determines). According to this picture of providential quantum mechanics, chance events occur where they are not decreed by God or strictly entailed by His decrees.
Finally van Inwagen considers the initial state of things. This functions similarly to natural indeterminism, as the picture of Creation painted is one of indeterminism. God would decree something like “let X or Y be”, and then as a result either X or Y would be where God did not specify which. On this view then, He may have specified a great number of qualities when Creating, but left plenty up to chance.
He also argues that if God had no good reason for choosing between X and Y (say, whether thus and such a nebula were purple as opposed to pink, or whether there were one additional olive tree in the Garden, etc.—use your imagination), and yet God chose, then such would be an arbitrary decision—a decision made without sufficient reason. Rather he prefers to think that God would issue decrees for sufficient reasons and that some would be loose and allow chance to play a part in their outcomes. For example, God would have sufficient reasons for creating the Garden with a numerical range of trees, but not really care about the exact number.
What does van Inwagen get out of this view? For one, it might be the case that God has good reason for permitting evil, but that particular evils occur without specific reason. To be clear, there are probably many specific evils that God, in reaction to the Fall and subsequent events outside His decree although not outside His knowledge and permission, orchestrated in order to accomplish future goods. The trial and crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth comes to mind. Additionally this piece does not deny that God is capable of miraculous “intervention” (remember that on this view the existence and causal powers of every particle are due to God’s activity so it’s not as if He ever needs to “break” a physical law or something like that, only alter His own sustaining and empowering behavior). So God could prevent many evils that occur by chance. And He likely does.
van Inwagen briefly mentions Cain’s murdering of Abel and says that perhaps God had reason to allow Cain the freedom to do evil, and while He knew about the murder in advance and had the power to stop it, did not directly cause it and the fact that it was a murder instead of, say, a betrayal of another sort—a lie or a non-fatal brutality, etc.—was entirely due to chance. This could be because Cain had no specific ends which the murder served, which is not to deny that he had motivations for the murder, only that the murder served no purpose. If you like you can consider details about the murder as occurring by chance, like the fact that it occurred at thus and such a time or was accomplished by strangling instead of stabbing or vice versa, etc. The author also briefly mentions that for some Christians, an early death is itself not necessarily a misfortune.
So God may have good reasons for allowing evil, but not for allowing this or that particular evil.
The piece is obviously much more elaborate than my review of it, and many interesting applications of this view are considered that I do not have room to treat here. The reading through of the author’s considerations and illustrations is an experience that itself seems to do some persuasive work on the reader, and so if you find that you are getting emotionally wound up, I recommend reading it for yourself (leave a comment and I will email you the PDF).
In the meantime, what should I say by way of assessment? First, I like what we get out of the view. Aside from briefly sketching a model of divine providence that preserves free will within the non-negotiables of divine omnipotence and omniscience, van Inwagen carves out room for chance. This in turn frees us from having to speculate as to the possible good that could come out of each and every instance of evil or possible evil, some of which are quite frankly very bizarre, grotesque, and deeply horrifying. This often results in some very twisted, far-out theodicies, both on the scholarly level and in pop theology. Sometimes bad things seem to just happen for no good reason. Calling tragedy “tragedy” brings a certain satisfaction.
And sometimes good things happen without purpose too—or equally good options are given to us by God along with the choice to pick between them. God probably did not pick out your lipstick this morning and He may not care whether my wife and I try to get pregnant this month or next year. This is not to deny that God cares about you and me, is a good listener, or is intimately involved in our lives just as the fact that I do not care whether my son colors with the blue or red marker does not indicate that I do not care about him or his activities or that I won’t be engaged in the decision if he wants me to be.
That said, a number of criticisms arise in response to various aspects of this piece. Let’s start with the less significant and work our way up. The original motivation for reading this piece was to hear van Inwagen’s case for natural indeterminacy. What he does say about it, however, isn’t in its defense. He describes it but does not give any reasons to think it exists. Nor does he treat objections to it. Surely his project can succeed without it, but for what it’s worth, insofar as he treats it in this particular piece, he fails to give any good reasons for affirming it.
To me, any indeterminacy undermines the Principle of Sufficient Reason and results in an incomprehensible metaphysic that destroys the empirical sciences. This would include indeterminacy in the Creative decrees as well. If God decreed something like “let X or Y be” without specifying which and thereby leaving the outcome to chance, then what possible force would determine the outcome? Surely van Inwagen would want to deny that “chance” is any sort of force independent of God, for such would undermine aseity and the contingency of everything on God’s character and decisions. But without a force external to the decree of God, what could possible supply the result of an indefinite decree?
Unlike the author, I would prefer to think of God as having the ability to make arbitrary decisions. This would ground the outcome of a divine decree in the creative will of God every time, regardless of whether He had good reason for it. It strikes me as far and away more plausible that every phenomenon would have a sufficient reason, either in antecedent conditions which sufficiently determine it, or in a free agent. That’s exactly what agency is—the ability to determine.
How can something, other than agency itself, not be determined?
This brings me to free will. At the very least God has free will and is capable of making uncaused decisions. His character sets the bounds of His decisions, but to say that every decision God makes is a necessary and inescapable result of His character makes God Himself a very bizarre piece of metaphysical machinery without any personality or creativity. So, if it is the case that God’s will is free then surely there is room for “chance” in the world, where “chance” describes those particulars that are not absolutely necessary for God’s purposes. I think this salvages the initial state of things as a source of chance after doubting as much due to the rejection of all indeterminacy.
Next, I have come to believe that humans have free will not unlike God, although this is less obvious than the freedom of God’s own will. In which case such would be another potential source of chance. Why did I choose the cinnamon oatmeal packet this morning instead of the strawberry one? I just did.
Why did my friend cheat on her husband? She just did. Theoretically anything you can say by way of explanation—she was lonely because her husband was on a business trip, she had daddy issues, etc. would only give context to the situation. Another woman in the same position could have done otherwise. She could have done otherwise. But she abused her free will; there’s nothing else behind that.
When my friend lost his job because of genuine libel against him and couldn’t find a job despite applying for literally hundreds of them, and he and his wife struggled to acquire food and gas money, I consoled him with the phrase “that sucks”, not “everything happens for a reason”.
Next, while I reject natural indeterminacy, there seems to be the possibility that some natural evils, such as global warming, the evolution of rabies and HIV, the extinction of wild salmon, the contamination of North Idahoan water sources by mercury and other metals, etc. may be the result of the aggregate of human actions, including actions that served nobody’s ends or of unintentional byproducts of actions that served no ends, selfish ends, or even well-intended ends. In this way many natural evils may be by “chance”, although not for the reasons van Inwagen suggests.
Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all. For man does not know his time. Like fish that are taken in an evil net, and like birds that are caught in a snare, so the children of man are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them.
That said, we are simply not in a position to know what God’s ends are and how they may be served by particular evils. While speculating about how this or that evil might serve God’s purposes we are very likely peering beyond our purview of cosmic history. This seems to be equally a problem for van Inwagen as for the person advancing a bizarre, speculative theodicy.
Therefore I am most open to the following as possible loci of chance:
1. The initial state of things, but due to the likelihood of there having been arbitrary decisions made on God’s part and not due to any indefiniteness in His decrees.
2. Freely made decisions (creaturely and divine).
3. Some or perhaps all “natural” evils, but due to the likelihood that they are somehow the result of the free actions of men and angels and not due to any indeterminacy in physics.
However —and this may be the bottom line for me—I do think van Inwagen’s proposal might undermine divine benevolence on the basis of the fact on van Inwagen’s view, some evils occur that serve no purpose, which God could have prevented. So, if God were benevolent and maximally merciful, wouldn’t He want to prevent those evils that occur that do not in some way ultimately serve His ends? Perhaps if we grant that God is maximally good and that there are evils that do not seem to serve His purposes, which He is able to prevent, we could conclude that it is more likely that even such evils, which seem trivial or pointless to us, do in fact have some ultimate cosmic reason for being permitted.
So if this is correct, then there would be room for chance in amoral matters, and perhaps even in the particulars of certain evils, but every instance of evil, as well as its severity, has a purpose, because God would not let any ounce of evil go to waste, and squeezes every bit of glory out of it for Himself, and of goodness for His sheep, that He possibly can.
Maybe, just maybe, everything does happen for a reason.