On van Inwagen’s View of Chance

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.

–Eccle­si­asts 9:11–12

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.

6 thoughts on “On van Inwagen’s View of Chance

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  2. gswingrover

    If I may Lou,
    First, what an exag­ger­ated impres­sion your writer van Inwa­gen has of his abil­ity to con­clude God’s sta­tus, intent, and mindset.
    Sec­ond, your con­clu­sion that the infor­ma­tion is not avail­able to us to deter­mine, as you say “what God’s Ends are”.
    Maybe someday.

  3. Derek

    Hello Louis! This is great! A few comments: 

    (1) “What could pos­si­bly sup­ply the result of an indef­i­nite decree?” Touché. I worry about this too. 

    (2) “How can some­thing, other than agency itself, not be determined?”

    What do you make of the fol­low­ing exam­ple?: Sup­pose that a bowl­ing ball is falling towards an incred­i­bly thick glass cof­fee table. Sup­pose that the bowl­ing ball hits the glass at four dis­tinct but equally weak points; we’ll name them 1, 2, 3, and 4. Given the kinetic energy of the ball, one of the four points *must* give (there’s too much energy for one of the points not to give), but sup­pose fur­ther that there’s not enough energy for more than one point to give *at all* and (there­fore) it’s not pos­si­ble for all four points to each give a lit­tle bit. (To say the same thing: Per­haps the energy required to have all four points give at all is greater than the amount of energy for any one point to give, and per­haps the bowl­ing ball’s energy is more than suf­fi­cient to make one point give but less than suf­fi­cient to make all four points give). Given these con­di­tions, it seems that the fol­low­ing propo­si­tions are true:

    (A) The glass *must* crack at either (exclu­sive) point 1, 2, 3, or 4. 

    (B) Noth­ing deter­mines whether the glass cracks at 1 as opposed to 2 or 2 as opposed to 3… etc. 

    Now let’s say that the ball hits the glass and it cracks at point 3. We might ask:

    “Why did the glass break?” Answer: because the bowl­ing ball hit the glass going such and such a veloc­ity and the bonds that hold the glass together had such and such mag­ni­tude of strength. Thus, we have a suf­fi­cient rea­son for the glass breaking. 

    Sup­pose we fur­ther ask: 

    Why did the glass break at point 3 as opposed to 1, 2, or 4” Answer: There is no rea­son. It could have equally broke at 1 or 2 or 4. Thus, there is no suf­fi­cient rea­son for the glass break­ing *there* as opposed to *here*. 

    It seems to me that there’s a pos­si­ble world where the laws of physics are deter­min­is­tic at some level of descrip­tion but not at a more fine-​​grained level of descrip­tion, and in such pos­si­ble worlds the PSR (and there­fore sci­ence) would still work in all the ways we need them or want them to. 

    (3) Absolutely and most impor­tantly, PVI’s “fuller” appli­ca­tion of chance to the prob­lem of evil is in the other arti­cle I sent you, and I think read­ing his com­ments there would, to some degree, assuage a lot of your con­cerns you (right­fully!) raise about his account of chance in rela­tion to God’s benev­o­lence. Please please please read it soon and per­haps add an adden­dum to this post when you do!?

    (4) “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called accord­ing to his purpose.”

    Just because all things *work* together for good (i.e., that God does and will make the best of any sit­u­a­tion), it doesn’t fol­low that some of the events (that God would work into his plan) were intended, deter­mined, or mean­ing­ful *in the first place*. Again, just because God can bring mean­ing out of the mean­ing­less, that doesn’t mean that the mean­ing­less­ness that he brought the mean­ing out of is now no longer mean­ing­less. Again, just because God brings pur­pose to that which has no pur­pose what­ever, it doesn’t fol­low that that which orig­i­nally had no pur­pose is now itself retroac­tively imbued with purpose. 

    You might be ask­ing: “Why am I try­ing so hard to hold onto the pos­si­bil­ity of mean­ing­less­ness and pur­pose­less­ness?” Read the sec­ond arti­cle and then we’ll talk. 

    (5) Over the week­end I posted on your Neces­sity, Chance, or Design post and it hasn’t showed up yet. I put a link in there, so maybe the html messed it up?

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  5. Louis Post author

    Derek, the sce­nario you sketch in (2) is sim­ply a descrip­tion of the type of event whose pos­si­bil­ity is the very thing in dis­pute. In my opin­ion, your story smug­gles inde­ter­mi­nacy in the back door. My posi­tion is that for mate­r­ial inter­ac­tions like this, if one knows the laws of physics and all of the con­di­tions in advance, one can pre­dict the out­come with cer­tainty. This is indis­putably the case for most ordi­nary phe­nom­ena such as bil­liards, satel­lites, com­puter proces­sors, and other such things. Where our knowl­edge is incom­plete, such as in eco­nom­ics, mete­o­rol­ogy, and quan­tum mechan­ics, our pre­dic­tive abil­i­ties are match­ingly incom­plete. (The behav­ioral sci­ences, in my opin­ion, should hold out no hope of being able to make pre­dic­tions beyond prob­a­bil­i­ties, but only because human beings are free agents.)

    I can’t imag­ine the PSR at work at one level but not another. But that may be due to my lack of an imagination.

    I read through the other paper as well. I really liked it, as I did this one, how­ever didn’t find that all of my con­cerns were quite taken care of. It still leaves me think­ing that on PVI’s view, there are addi­tional instances, and fur­ther sever­i­ties, of evil than are nec­es­sary for any of God’s pur­poses. These cases may be func­tional results of liv­ing in a world marred by human sin or else by being a mem­ber of a race dis­con­nected from God. How­ever it strikes me that these evils could be pre­vented by God with­out detri­ment to any of His goals. In which case, it seems obvi­ous to me that a good God would not let them hap­pen. There­fore, when we see a seem­ingly pur­pose­less evil, while chance may have sup­plied its char­ac­ter, it seems plau­si­ble to believe that its exis­tence, dura­tion, and sever­ity were more likely specif­i­cally allowed for some pur­pose by God than oth­er­wise. (This can be described while respect­ing PVI’s def­i­n­i­tion of God’s “plan” I think.)

    Just because all things *work* together for good (i.e., that God does and will make the best of any sit­u­a­tion), it doesn’t fol­low that some of the events (that God would work into his plan) were intended, deter­mined, or mean­ing­ful *in the first place*.

    Right, so I don’t mean to dis­agree with as much. What I mean to assert, that I think runs con­trary to PVI’s view, is that God has spe­cific rea­sons for allow­ing each spe­cific instance of evil, its dura­tion, and its sever­ity. This allows me to agree, grant­ing PVI’s def­i­n­i­tion of God’s “plan”, that no evil is ever a part of God’s plan, that no reac­tive decree is ever a part of God’s plan, and that many char­ac­ter­is­tics of many evils are sup­plied by chance (as defined by PVI—it is now no secret that I reject inde­ter­mi­nacy in particular).

    You might be ask­ing: “Why am I try­ing so hard to hold onto the pos­si­bil­ity of mean­ing­less­ness and pur­pose­less­ness?” Read the sec­ond arti­cle and then we’ll talk.

    I am think­ing that we may be able to pre­serve all that moti­vates PVI’s theod­icy while mak­ing mod­i­fi­ca­tions to it that assuage my concerns.

  6. Derek

    Hello Louis,

    Thanks for indulging me and post­ing your thoughts. I have a lot to say in response, but I’m knee-​​deep in stacks of papers and such to grade. When I get a chance to respond I’m going to respond!

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