This is the weekly Q & A blog post by our Research Professor in Philosophy, Dr. William Lane Craig.
Hello, Dr. Craig,
Thank you for including this "Question of the Week" feature on your website. It's very helpful to read questions posed to you, as well as your thoughtful replies. I have a question regarding something you said in one of your Defenders Series 3 classes. The excerpt I have quoted below (pulled from your online transcript) is from the class titled, Excursus on Creation of Life and Biological Diversity (Part 28): Is Genesis 1 in Conflict With the Theory of Evolution?, which you taught on Septemeber 11, 2019. Here is what you said:
"According to Ayala, when evolutionary biologists say that the mutations that lead to evolutionary development are random they do not mean occurring by chance; rather they mean irrespective of their usefulness to the organism. They mean that these mutations occur irrespective of their usefulness to the host organism. This is hugely significant. The scientist is not, despite the impression given by partisans on both sides of the divide, making the presumptuous philosophical claim that biological mutations occur by chance and hence the evolutionary process is undirected or purposeless. Rather, he means that the mutations do not occur for the benefit of the host organism. If we take ‘random’ to mean irrespective of their usefulness to the organism then randomness is not incompatible with direction or purpose."
And then, later...
I'm probably just misunderstanding what you're saying, but are you implying that the theory of evolution is not incompatibale with Christian theism because it allows for God to have created completely functional biological systems indirectly? Only by manipulating mutations in other organisms...negatively? If that were even possible, I could see that being an interesting loophole for us Christian theists to exploit in the course of apologetics, but it somehow feels like a small concession; almost as if it were just semantics. I'm sure I'm wrong, though. Take me to task!
"Such a definition of 'random' is wholly compatible with God's willing or even causing mutations to occur with a certain end in view. Let me give an example. Suppose that God in his providence causes a mutation to occur in an organism – not for the benefit of that organism but for some other reason – for example, maybe it will produce easy prey for other organisms that God wants to flourish, or maybe because he knows that it will eventually become a fossil that Jones will someday discover which stimulates Jones' interest in paleontology so that he embarks upon the career which God had in mind for him. In such a case the mutation is both purposeful and random."
Dr. William Lane Craig's Response
I don’t think you’ve correctly understood me, Hunter, and the point is so important that it’s worth clarifying here. As explained, too many people on both sides of the creation/evolution debate think that “random,” when used by evolutionary biologists to characterize mutations, means purposeless or without direction or by chance. But that’s not at all what they mean. Rather they mean that the mutations occur regardless of their benefit to the organism in which they occur. Such an understanding of “random” is not at all contrary to God’s having a purpose for the mutations that occur or even Himself causing the mutations to occur.
So am I implying “that the theory of evolution is not incompatibale with Christian theism because it allows for God to have created completely functional biological systems indirectly?” That’s true but not the implication of what I’m saying. Rather I’m implying that the theory of evolution is not incompatible with Christian theism because it does not assert that the mutations which advance evolutionary change occur by chance or without purpose. Am I implying that God could have created completely functional biological organisms indirectly “only by manipulating mutations in other organisms...negatively?” I don’t even understand the question. What does it mean to manipulate mutations negatively? What I’m implying is that God, while quite able to create fully functional biological organisms de novo, may have instead chosen to create them indirectly by deliberately causing the mutations that drove evolutionary advance. On such a view God is not like the absent clock-maker God of Deism but is intimately involved in the evolutionary process.
Is this “a small concession; almost as if it were just semantics”? A concession by whom? Evolutionary biologists? No, it’s not any sort of concession at all, but just an accurate exposition of what evolutionary theory asserts. Is this a small point, mere semantics? Not at all! This is huge. We come to see that evolutionary theory does not assert that the mutations which lie at the root of evolutionary development and, hence, evolution itself occur purposelessly or by chance, as popularizers and even careless scientists often claim. By properly understanding the meaning of “random” in evolutionary theory, we come to see that evolution is wholly compatible with God’s providentially directing the evolutionary process.
This Q&A and other resources are available on Dr. William Lane Craig's website.