Paths from Science towards God 7: Divine Action

The topic of divine action appears to be one of the most controversial and oft-discussed issues in the interface between science and religion.

According to Peacocke: the intellectual pressure of the scientific account of the world makes it increasingly incredible, even to theists, that God would actually intervene in the causal nexus of the world that God’s own self creates.

Classical monotheism has always affirmed that God created the world out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo), and that God continues to sustain the world. In addition to these modes of interaction, there is another category that includes miracles and God’s other specific divine actions that go against the order of Nature, that would not have occured if nature had been left to itself, i.e. the parting of the Red Sea, divine healing etc. It is this third category which Arthur Peacocke feels is problematic.

The presumption of naturalism has tightened into the realisation that the causal nexus of the world is increasingly perceived as closed. There would seem to be no way for God to affect events other than by direct intervention in causal chains or providing new environing structural causes. Meanwhile, popular Christianity continues to affirm the miraculous nature not only of certain events recorded in the Bible, but even some events in everyday life. It does so without recognising the incoherence and insupportability of such beliefs in a cultural milieu more critically informedof the nature of the world than in the previous generation. ~ Arthur Peacocke, Paths from Science Towards God

I think this problem is largely a product of Western rational thought – I think Asians would have no problem holding both these views side by side, dealing with both the natural and the mystical.

Of course, this perceived problem is based on the assumption that all events in the world have a causal relationship that is predictable. What we have learned through chaos theory and quantum mechanics is that this is not always the case. It is at these blurred boundaries where the question of divine action inevitably finds itself lodged into, leading to various heated arguments among the theologians and scientists from different schools of thought. Arthur Peacocke provides a survey of the landscape of theological reflection in this area.

God Acting Within Chaotic Systems

What we have learned, even before the advent of quantum mechanics, is that our world can be very unpredictable, as pointed out by the mathematician Henri Poincare, due to our limited knowledge of the initial conditions of a system. Add to that the fact that we can never isolate a system completely from everything else in the universe (unlike our high school textbook problems where everything happens in a vacuum and there is no such thing as friction). In chaotic systems, small differences in these initial conditions can be amplified and result in huge differences in the final outcomes. The question is, does God act within these small scale differences in initial conditions?

Peacocke thinks that this way of thinking is no different from classical thinking about a God who intervenes against the order of nature. This carries with it the weight of the moral dillema of suffering and why God does not intervene to remove all suffering. The only difference is that God’s actions will always be hidden from us.

God Acting Within Quantum Uncertainty

Many other scientist theologians (I think John Polkinghorne and Kennth Miller would be among them) see God as acting through the inherent inderterminacy of quantum mechanics. To them, God affects the outcomes of particular events on the subatomic level, which are then amplified by chaotic processes not unlike the previous option. Some see God as being active in all events, while others believe God acts only in some.

Arthur Peacocke sees a problem with this view as well:

The assumption that God acts to alter the probability , or the actual outcome, of wave-function collapses would still be a hands-on intervention by God in the very processesto which God has given existence. This would still be so even if we could never, in practice or in principle, detect this divine action. It would still imply that these processes without such intervention were inadequate to effect God’s creative intentions if they continued to operate in the, usually probabilistic, way God originally made them and continues to sustain them in existence. Furthermore, if God were to alter one such event in a particular way, then, for the overall probabilistic relationships that govern the quantum events to be obeyed, many others would also have to be changed. Only thus would we, the observers, detect no distortion of the overall statistics, as the hypothesis assumes.

God Acting through Whole Part Influence

The third option, which Peacocke himself espouses, makes use of panentheism and the concept of top-down causality discussed in a previous post, to postulate that God, being the system of all systems, affects the world that is within Godself. He makes it clear that He in no way is saying that the world is God’s body, but rather that ‘the world is in God‘, yet ‘God’s being in distinct from all created beings in a way that we are not distinct from our bodies.

If God interacts with the world-system as a totality, then God, by affecting its overall state, could be envisaged as being able to exercise influence upon events in the myriad sublevels of existence of which it is made without abrogating the laws and regularities that specifically apply to them. Moreover, God would be doing this without intervening within the supposed gaps provided by the in-principle, inherent unpredictabilities noted. Particular events could occur in the world and be what they are because God intends them to be so, without any contravention of the laws of physics, biology, psychology, or whatever is the pertinent science for the level in question – as in the exercise of whole-part influence within the many constituent systems of the world. ~ Arthur Peacocke, Paths from Science Towards God

This includes, of course, human brains and the human body, as will be important in the discussion of God’s communication with humanity through acts of worship, revelation, prayer etc.

If God can influence patterns of events in the world to be other than they would have been but for the divine initiative – and still consistent with scientific descriptions at the appropriate level – then it must be possible for God to influence those patterns of events in the human brains which constitute human thoughts, including thoughts of God and a sense of personal interaction with God. ~ Arthur Peacocke, Paths from Science Towards God

There are no dualistic, no vitalistic, no supernatural levels through which God might be supposed to exercising special divine activity. In this model, the proposed kind of interactions of God with the world-system would not, according to panentheism, be from ‘outside’ but from ‘inside’ it. The world-system is regarded as being ‘in God’. This seems to be a fruitful way of combining God’s ultimate otherness with God’s ability to interface holistically with the world-system. ~ Arthur Peacocke, Paths from Science Towards God

Now does this new mode of thinking really solve all the problems faced by the previous proposals?

While it’s really interesting to read about how scientist-theologians like Arthur Peacocke are coming to grips with all these issues, I maintain my stand that this is entirely a problem for Western Christianity. I am content to let it remain a mystery, and leave such ponderings to the theologians, for now at least.


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