Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Book Review: Chance and the Sovereignty of God

Vern Poythress sets out to instruct (mostly) Christians in the coherence and randomness God has given us in this world. I say ‘mostly Christians’ because he allows room for unbelievers to read and follow his arguments, but his book is quite explicitly theistic; and while Poythress offers sound mathematics and logic, this book is only an Apologetic, not an Evangelistic—and although I was convinced of the Theo-centricity of his arguments concerning chance, probability, coherence, and harmony, I am also in his same camp and cannot properly evaluate how ‘an outsider’ would respond to his depictions.

Book thesis: We need to look at the nature of chance not only to address personal questions that we have about the meaning of everyday events in human life, but to address the issue of what confidence we should have in the sciences and their claims. (15)

Poythress includes several common reasons people are interested in the idea of chance and the sovereignty of God as a stimulant: “Why did my family escape the mountain highway accident? Why did another person suffer from a ‘chance accident?” “Is God in charge of these ‘accidental’ events or not?” Of course, these are excellent questions, and fortunately I believe Poythress well answers them—at least to the extent of which our human knowledge is capable, a point Poythress is astute to frequently return to. In fact, there are several ideas Poythress often elucidates that could be said form the core of his presentation:

  • God is infinitely knowledgeable and wise.
  • Man is finitely knowledgeable and wise—patterned after God’s own.
  • There is harmony between the world and our thoughts because God created it, and we think his thoughts after him.
  • God has created laws of chance and probability which he controls.
  • We cannot expect God to alter outcomes for personal benefit/detriment, though he can.
  • If God does not control chance, then another god must—whom materialists call Chance.

Of course, with nearly 350 pages, Poythress fills in all the gaps, supports, and draws further conclusions such as the probability that God exits—a mathematical question; the futility of gambling—though many of us want to doubt his veracity; classic math problems like the game show and the same birthday questions; and the ‘just so happens’ serendipity that influences so much of our life.

I’m aware that some reviewers have claimed that the mathematical portions are too full of calculations and not for the average reader. While it’s true that the math will not make sense to all, I believe Poythress made the math as accessible as possible. In other words: if you failed your college math class and aren’t willing to spend time trying to understand, the math sections will be disappointing; and since the math sections are what give support to Poythress’ claims, you will be left slightly unconvinced.

Poythress is thorough. In fact, that’s the only thing I would have had changed. Poythress offers equation after equation after equation and chapter after chapter after chapter elaborating on the major principles time and again. By the end, no one will have said he left anything out; but some will never get to the end for that very reason. I’m aware that in mathematics, it’s necessary to prove everything in ways that logic might mistakenly call “circular,” but it may be too much for the non-mathematician to handle with perpetual excitement. That being said, I believe the book is excellent in all categories, and it certainly deserves some time: perhaps just not all that it requires.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in mathematical philosophy, as well as any apologist in a collegiate setting. And perhaps the pastor in a college-city.

10/10 in Theology, in Math, in Accessibility, in answering Thesis

Comparable to no books of which I’m aware, though it’s closely related to a series by Poythress on the sciences: “Redeeming…”

I hope that you walk away with deeper assurance in the loving hand of our sovereign God and delight in the mastery of his creation.

[[This review is crosslisted on Goodreads and Amazon]]
[[[This book was received through Crossway's Beyond the Page program]]]