Yesterday I considered whether anything about God’s general providence can be gleaned apart from revelation, just by the use of natural reason. The more difficult case is His particular providence.
For example: Certain formidable minds have believed that when time and time again, contrary to all reasonable expectation, the things human beings do to keep something from happening not only fail to prevent it but actually help bring it about, then we may reasonable conclude that more than human agency has been at work. Abraham Lincoln makes an argument something like this about the Civil War in his Second Inaugural Address. An even more well-known example is Alexis de Tocqueville’s reasoning about the replacement of aristocracy by “democracy,” by which he means equality of inherited ranks. He writes in the introduction to Democracy in America,
“The various occurrences of national existence have everywhere turned to the advantage of democracy; all men have aided it by their exertions: those who have intentionally labored in its cause, and those who have served it unwittingly; those who have fought for it and those who have declared themselves its opponents, have all been driven along in the same track, have all labored to one end, some ignorantly and some unwillingly; all have been blind instruments in the hands of God .... The gradual development of the equality of conditions is therefore a providential fact, and it possesses all the characteristics of a divine decree: it is universal, it is durable, it constantly eludes all human interference, and all events as well as all men contribute to its progress.”
Notice the similarity between this mode of reasoning about human history, and the reasoning of intelligent design theorists about natural history. If time and time again, events which should have been almost impossibly unlikely by natural processes have happened anyway, then we may reasonably include that more than natural processes have been at work.
Among the various difficulties of such arguments – difficulties conceded even by their sympathizers, like me -- is that in order to be confident that a certain cause couldn’t have brought about a certain effect without assistance, one must have a very thorough knowledge of how that cause works. We do know a great deal about how random variation interacts with natural selection to bring about changes in finch beaks. However, we know far less about how human choices interact with each other to bring about historical events. So it is one thing to infer particular instances of design in biology, and quite another to infer them in history.
Perhaps this is why arguments like Tocqueville’s and Lincoln’s are so seldom attempted in our day. However, I think they merit much more serious examination from philosophers than they receive. In recent decades, the philosophy of religion has resurrected itself and taken a new look at such things as the possibility of miracles; perhaps it is time for the philosophy of history to resurrect itself and take a new look at such things as the possibility of inferences about particular divine providence.