Paths from Science Towards God 3: Snapshots of the World 1

After looking at the challenges faced by theology in the face of science and postmodernism, and proposing a new way of doing theology in this scientific age, Arthur Peacocke now turns to surveying the world as it is. What do we know about this universe of ours? What kind of theological questions does our knowledge through science raise?

The world is

Whatever science tells us about the world and its origins, we must contend with the fact that the world exists. Leibniz once asked: Why is there something, rather than nothing? Some eastern mystical religions might argue that it’s all an illusion, but then we may ask why this illusion exists anyway. As Arthur Peacocke strongly affirms: The existence of the world (all-that-is) is not self-explanatory. They are not logical necessities. Stephen Hawking may have caused a stir recently when he announced in his new book that there is no longer a need for a Creator – physics explains everything – the truth of the matter is that we still have to face the question – why do the physical laws that allow for the birth of the universe exist in the first place? Where did they come from? Even the theists are not spared, as we all know the familiar argument: if God created the universe, who created God? Arthur Peacocke argues that all that exists must be grounded in some other reality that is self-existent, the source of all being – he calls this ultimate self-existence – God. But then we could use the same argument to say that the physical laws are the ultimate self-existence too. I agree with Paul Davies that there may never be a self-consistent answer to end the chain of causation, a point of terminus  – and it will forever remain a mystery.

The world is comprehensible

The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility. ~ Albert Einstein

Why is the universe comprehensible? Why are we able to understand its laws? This is also not a given. Our rationality and the ability to grasp abstract laws of the universe go beyond necessity for survival to be merely a product of natural selection – though it could have arisen as a by-product as our brains developed the capacity for language and tool-making. Arthur Peacocke, along with many other theologians, argue that the simplest explanation ‘is that the source of the existence of all being, the Ultimate Reality, must possess something akin to, but far surpassing, human rationality’.

The flow of time

Einstein’s theories of relativity have changed the way we look at time. The physical universe is now described by a ‘block’ model of the universe, where an event is placed within a 4 dimensional space-time block. An entity such as a human being, traces a succession of points in this block, referred to as a world-line, until he/she ceases to exist. Looking at the world from ‘outside’ the block, space and time are inseparable – existing as only different dimensions of the same thing. All of time, future, past and present, exist within that block. This block model is mathemathically useful, and helps resolve all the apparent paradoxes associated with relativity, but is it a true description of reality? Do all future events already exist within this block universe, so that nothing is alterable? Is this how God views the universe, as a block that already has all future events mapped out? Many theists probably hold this view, of a God that transcends time in this ‘geometrical sense’, the term Peacocke uses. What are the implications of such views on the idea of free will?

If God knows in advance what we are to do, can our will be free and is God responsible for human evil (as well as for natural evils)? Do we then live in an absolutely determinate universe? And how does this square with the ontological indeterminacy of the outcome of measurements on quantum mechanical systems? ~ Arthur Peacocke, Paths from Science Towards God

For example, if God already knew that someone was going to be a murderer, why did God still create him? Why did God put the forbidden fruit in the garden if He already knew that Adam and Eve were going to eat it (regardless of whether this event was really historical)?

He then goes on to propose a solution, which I personally find very intriguing:

  • Time is a relation between events and is created with events (as Augustine long ago perceived) so it is coherent to think of God as giving existence, not only to all matter-energy, but also to each segment of time as and when, in our view, it comes into existence.
  • There is therefore no ‘future’ existing at this moment which has a content that could, logically could, be known – for it does not exist in any sense to be known.
  • Since for God to be omniscient God must know all that is logically possible to know, and the future does not have a content to be known, God cannot, logically cannot, know definitively the future with all its content.
  • But God, being omniscient, will be able to predict the probabilities of occurrence of all future events (including those that are certain with probability 1); and so God knows them to that extent.
  • God is the only being who will be present at all future events: God is indeed eternal and omnipresent. God is the ‘God ahead’, being present to all future events, including the outcomes of freely willed human decisions. God can therefore respond to future human decisions and actions.
  • Hence God is not timeless in the sense of having no active relation to time. God relates successively to events.
  • If God has created the world and its time to be of this kind, then it becomes coherent to speak of God’s ‘self-limited’ omniscience. God has made the world in such a way that God does not know definitively, but only probabilistically, the outcomes of human decisions – and indeed only the probabilities of quantum measurement events too, if these do indeed prove to be ontologically indeterminate.

Here, we see the first glimpse of this theology of ‘kenosis’, or God’s self-limiting power, which the likes of Arthur Peacocke and Jurgen Moltmann use to great effect in the science-theology dialogues. Will definitely write more about this some other time.

As for this whole idea of God’s relation to time, I’m still holding onto my horses. It does allow for God to regret certain decisions and change his mind, as we often see in the Scriptures. But it does try to fit God into our understanding of quantum mechanics. What’s wrong in the idea that God transcends time geometrically, knowing the whole show, yet still have room for free will, only that God already knows all the decisions that will ever be made?

… to be continued…


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