A Multi-layered, yet interconnected World
We live in a world imbued with multi-layered realities. What science has shown us is that everything we see, is made up of constituent parts – our human body is made up of individual cells; these cells are made up of complex molecules, which in turn are made up of atoms, which can be broken down further into quarks and gluons. Yet the world as we know it, is one. We live in one multi-layered and interconnected world – unified by its universal rationality and comprehensibility at all levels.
There are some who insist that all processes at the higher levels of complexity can be fully explained by the workings of its constituent parts. Therefore, all human actions can be reduced to the interaction of quarks, electrons and the fundamental forces, and can be predicted if only we had the computational power to do the necessary calculations.
Arthur Peacocke argues however, that ‘it is often the case (but not always) that the properties, concepts and explanations used to describe the higher-level wholes are not logically reducible to those used to describe their constituent parts. Thus sociological concepts are often not logically reducible to those of individual psychology; psychological concepts are not reducible to those of the neurosciences; biological concepts to those of biochemistry, etc. Such non-reductionist assertions are about the status of a particular kind of knowledge and are usually strongly defended by the practitioners of the science concerning the higher level of complexity.’
This is not to say that new entities are being injected into the constituent parts to add new distinctive properties to it – sort of like the medieval ‘soul’ and the 19th century idea of ‘vitalism’ (where some essence had to be added to inorganic matter to make them living organisms). Science tells us otherwise. What Arthur Peacocke and other scientist-theologians are proposing is that new realities emerge, out of the complexity of the constituent parts. The ‘mind’ and the ‘soul’, therefore are not added to the physical body, but emerges, from the complexity of the human brain, its biochemical properties, and the genetic makeup of the individual. In fact, according to H. Wheeler Robinson, this is the correct biblical understanding – The Hebrew idea of personality is an animated body and not an incarnated soul. And this view of reality should be welcomed by Christian theologians.
Talk of the ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ of human beings as such entities, and especially as naturally immortal ones, no longer represents the best explanation of the emergence of spiritual capacities in the light of what we now know about the kind of complexity that constitutes a human being. Dualism of that kind seems to be incommensurate with any picture of the world consistent with scientific observations. Holistic language becomes more appropriate. This does not, of course, undermine the reality and validity of mental and spiritual activities and capacities. Those Christians who have affirmed not the natural immortality of the soul/spirit but the biblical doctrine of resurrection of the whole person, can welcome this development. ~ Arthur Peacocke, Paths from Science towards God
Isn’t this return to a holistic view of the human person and the bodily resurrection what theologians like N. T. Wright have been calling for in recent years, over and against the dualism of Platonic thinking that still pervades much of Christian thought?
The only dualism now theologically defensible appears to be the distinction between the Being of God and that of everything else (the world = all-that-is, all that is created). Talk of the ‘supernatural’ as a level of being in the world, other than God, therefore becomes superfluous and misleading. ~ Arthur Peacocke, Paths from Science towards God
Does this then mean that no such ‘supernatural realm’ exists where spirits roam? Can all apparently spiritual phenomena i.e. demon-possession, exorcisms, trances be traced back to psychological, biological and physical phenomena? Indeed, many Western theologians have this view on some of these events in the gospels. They may be right… but coming from an Asian culture where such experiences are more pervasive, this is more difficult for me to accept. Again, I’m holding out on this one.
How do the higher levels relate to the lower levels of complexity? Is it a one-way relationship, where the low level processes affect the high-level phenomena, as the reductionists would claim? Is every process nothing but the interaction of quarks and gluons and photons? Or can the whole influence its parts – a top-down causation? How is information transmitted from the whole to its parts? Apparently, there are examples in science that show such characteristics of self-organization of large scale entities despite random motions of its constituent parts. Another example is given by Alaisdair Coles, a neurobiologist – We can look at the human brain as consisting of millions of interconnected neurons that fire electrical signals at each other, thus controlling the human mind and body. But there is another side to it. By choosing to educate ourselves, we reorder the arrangement of the neurons in our brain. Of course, questions about human action and free will enter the picture here…
Hence the exercise of personal agency by individuals transpires to be a paradigm case and supreme exemplar of whole-part influence – in this case exerted by persons on the bodies that constitute them and on their surroundings. There remains an inalienable uniqueness and indeed mystery concerning the nature of the individual person and of the nature of the interaction between two persons. The sense of personhood, of being a person, and awareness of interpersonal relations are unique, irreducible emergents in humanity. ~ Arthur Peacocke, Paths from Science towards God
A law-like, yet indeterministic World
Our world is governed by ‘intricate, often complex, yet beautifully articulated’ physical laws that science continues to uncover. Does God act/intervene in such a world? Not in the sense of classical theism, says Arthur Peacocke.
The transcendance of God, God’s essential otherness and distinct kind of being from everything else, always allow in principle the possibility that God could act to overrule the very regularities to which God has given existence. However, setting aside the immense moral issues about why God does not intervene to prevent rampant evil, this could give rise, more fundamentally, to an incoherence in our understanding of God’s nature. It suggests an arbitrary and magic-making Agent far removed from the concept of the One who created and is creating the world that science reveals. That world now appears convincingly closed to external causal interventions of the kind that classical philosophical theism postulated, e.g. in the idea of a ‘miracle’ as a breaking of the laws of nature. ~ Arthur Peacocke, Paths from Science towards God
Again, this is hard for someone coming from an Asian culture to accept. For us, we find no contradictions whatsoever in a God who creates a law-like world, yet also intervenes on occasions.
Are theists then left with Deism as the only other option? Arthur Peacocke proposes two solutions:
- God acting through the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics – thus God is still acting within the laws of Nature. ‘Kenosis’ comes into play again, in this case in the self-limiting omnipotence of God. For God to create a world that is free to be itself and to make itself – God has to limit his own omnipotence, similar to the self-limiting omniscience of God discussed in the previous post.
The will of created human beings is free so that, in particular, God has let Godself not have coercive power over human actions. So in the Christian understanding, divine omnipotence has always been regarded as limited by the very nature of God. That is, God is omnipotent, but self-limited by God’s nature as Love. ~ Arthur Peacocke, Paths from Science towards God
- Panentheism, the belief that the Being of God includes and penetrates all-that-is, so that every part of it exists in God and (as against pantheism) that God’s Being is more than it and is not exhausted by it – because the world is ‘in God’, God can influence the world in its totality, as a System-of-systems. This is the whole part influence talked about earlier. This idea of panentheism is a huge topic of interest among scientist-theologians today. It’s something that I’m interested to find out more.
The question of divine agency is a hot-topic among theologians today in the context of science. Another question is how human action and divine action are related. If we human beings can act in the world, why not God? Arthur Peacocke devotes an entire chapter to this topic in the latter part of his book. I shall return to it then.