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Divine Action in the World, Part 3

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September 3, 2012 Tags: Divine Action & Purpose

Today's entry was written by Alvin Plantinga. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

Note: In part 2 or this series, philosopher Alvin Plantinga began examining classical science based on Newtonian physics. Here in part 3, he continues his discussion that classical science alone is not sufficient to “prohibit” God from acting in the world. One must also add the philosophical concept of determinism or a closed-universe to get a truly hands-off theology. But those concepts are not strictly a part of science itself, but rather unnecessary add-ons that we are not obliged to accept.

In this four-part series, we provide the video of Professor Plantiga’s lecture as well as a written version of his presentation.

So then, to get hands-off theology or anti-interventionist theology, we need more than just classical science as such. Classical science as such does not give that to us. It does not preclude God acting specially in the world. These theologians and philosophers say that, but the fact of the matter is that it’s not true; to get hands-off theology, we need more than classical science.

We need to add that the physical universe is closed. That’s what we have to add, or alternatively, we have to add determinism, which will come to the same thing here where the natural, the common definition of determinism is this: the natural laws plus the state of the universe at any one time entails, determines, the state of the universe at any other time.

You get the idea? So, you have got the state of the universe, the whole universe, at one time—a complete description of it; a description that says where each particle is and what its velocity is and what its direction is and what its mass is and so on (all these parameters); you have got a complete description. That, together with the laws of nature, will entail the state of the universe at any other time, will imply the state of the universe at any other time so that if you were sufficiently smart, (I doubt anybody here is that smart) and you knew exactly what the universe was at that time ‘t’, you could just deduce what it is at any other time, in the past as well as in the future.

Here is a paradigmatic statement for this way of thinking, this deterministic way of thinking. Pierre Laplace said,

We ought then to regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its previous state, and as the cause of the one which is to follow. Given for even for one instant a mind which could comprehend all the forces by which nature is animated and the respective situation of the beings that compose it—given a mind like that, a mind sufficiently vast to subject these data to analysis, it would embrace in the same formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the lightest atom. For it, nothing would be uncertain and the future as well as the past would be present to its eyes.


Napoleon is alleged to have asked Laplace, “But what about God in your system?” and he is reputed to have responded, “I have no need of that hypothesis”. But that’s the thought—his thought is the universe is such a sort that if you have a detailed knowledge of any one bit of it at any one time, that if you knew the state of the universe at any one time, and you knew all the physical laws, and you were really smart, you could just deduce what it would be at any other time.

Right, and that’s what we could think of as determinism, and of course, if determinism were true, then God would not act specially in the world. If determinism were true, it would follow that God never acts specially in the world, because if he did act specially in the world at some time, then that great mind that Laplace talks about would not be able to conclude that God is doing that from knowing what the universe was like at some other time.

I think the thing to say here is that this Laplacian picture including determinism is accurate only if the universe is causally closed, only if the material universe is causally closed. Only if God does not act specially in the world, because if God did, then that great Laplacian mind would not be able to make these calculations. So we could think of the Laplacian picture as the Newtonian picture plus closure, plus the idea that the physical universe is causally closed, and this is the picture that’s guiding the thought of Bultmann, Macquarie, and Gilkey—these theologians.


I think there are two interesting ironies in their saying this. The first irony is that as a matter of fact, classical science doesn’t have this implication at all. It doesn’t imply that God doesn’t or couldn’t act specially in the world. It doesn’t imply that at all because the classical scientific laws together with the conservation laws are statements about what closed systems are like, and any system in which God did something (created a full grown horse let us say) would not be a closed system, and thus would not be one of the systems the law is talking about.

The other irony is that in the name of being scientific enough, these theologians were urging on us a picture of the world that was scientifically out-of-date (by a long time) when they were urging it. Classical science had already been superseded by quantum mechanics and relativity theory—both general relativity and special relativity. So they were urging on us, saying “Well God can’t act specially in the world.” They were urging this on us first by misunderstanding classical science and then secondly, by failing to realize that classical science is not the eminent kind of science anymore. So, I am inclined to think they should be ashamed of themselves.

So, we can think of the laws as describing how things go when the universe is causally closed, when it is subject to no outside influence. Here is a statement from J.L. Mackey. J.L. Mackey is himself no friend of theism, not a Christian or a believer in God at all, but what he says here seems to me to be correct:

What we want to do here is to contrast the order of nature with a possible divine or supernatural intervention. The laws of nature, we must say, describe the way in which the world, including of course human beings, works when left to itself, when not interfered with. A miracle occurs when the world is not left to itself, when something distinct from the natural order as a whole intrudes into it.

If you ask yourself now what then would the form of the natural laws, what kind of form would they take, if Mackey or something like Mackey were right, then it would go like this: NL—for natural laws—when the universe is causally closed, that is when God is not acting specially in the world, then P, where P would be the way we ordinarily think of the law.

It would go like this: When the universe is causally closed: then for any two particles or any two physical objects they attract each other with a force directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them, and the same for the other laws; they would all have a preface "when the universe is causally closed". That seems a quite good description of the laws of nature, and it fits well with the Newtonian picture, and so far the natural laws offer no threat to divine special action, including miracles.

So, I say there is in classical science as such no objection to special divine action or to human free action. In the same way as this deterministic or Laplacian picture precludes divine action, it also precludes human free action in the world (we could talk about that in the discussion period if you like, but I don’t want to talk about it now because I don’t have that much time). Classical science, just as such, does not make any objection to special divine action or to human free action. To get such an objection, we must add that the universe is causally closed—that is a metaphysical or theological add-on, not part of classical science. Classical science as such is perfectly consistent with special divine action including miracles, walking on water, rising from the dead, creating ex-nihilo a full-grown horse, and so on. There is no science-religion conflict here at all; there is only a religion-metaphysics conflict.

From a presentation sponsored by Biola University’s Center for Christian Thought, and delivered February 12, 2012 at EV Free Church, Fullerton, CA. Used by permission.

Alvin Plantinga is the inaugural William Harry Jellema Professor of Christian Philosophy at Calvin College, as well as emeritus John A. O'Brien Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. He received his B.A. from Calvin College and his PhD from Yale. He taught at Calvin College for 19 years prior to his 28 years at Notre Dame. Acclaimed for his work on metaphysics, the problem of evil, and the epistemology of religious belief, he has written books such as God and Other Minds (1967), Does God Have a Nature? (1980), Warranted Christian Belief (2000), and most recently, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. (2011). Dr. Plantinga is best known for his Christian epistemology that justifies belief in God without external evidence, his “free will defense” to the logical problem of evil and his evolutionary argument against naturalism.

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Merv - #72396

September 3rd 2012

It seems like there is one other option to consider for the “great Laplacian mind”.  What if God were that mind?   I’m not really defending that since it sounds like a Deist God whose only point of influence was in the frontloading of it all.  But for staunch Calvinists who may see all history as scripted by God, where would the theological problem be with this?

  Quantum indeterminance seems to shoot all that down, though I’m not convinced that ontological determinism is all that easily disposed of.  God’s point of view could easily include things (such as an exact state of all subatomic wave/particles)  that is forever beyond our reach (i.e. forever indeterminant *to us* even in principle.)   It will do no good to say “but science has shown that a particle doesn’t even have a precise location/velocity to be known—even by God”.  That is what current qm teaches (short of the last part), but this is a lot like the fisherman who declares of all ocean critters that “if my net can’t catch them, then they don’t exist.”  I think the bigger challenges against these Laplacian notions end up being Scripture-based theology; while science simply brings the issue into sharper focus.


HornSpiel - #72402

September 3rd 2012

Merv, can you expand on your statement,

I think the bigger challenges against these Laplacian notions end up being Scripture-based theology.

Do you think Human free action is an indespensible part of a Christian anthoplogy? I do as I consider it part of what makes us in the image of God.

Merv - #72407

September 3rd 2012

I do very much think of freewill as an indispensible part of my world view.  (not sure what word you were typing—- anthropology?)

I also think of it as  ‘image of God’ kind of property of the human condition.

Addressing your earlier question…

I see Laplace’s conjecture as a philosphical / theological one since it isn’t testable.  As Plantinga has pointed out, it is science can make statements about what happens in a closed system.  But science cannot declare the system closed.  That goes beyond science.  So while we can’t know about such a thing in a scientific sense, Christians can still draw on Scriptural revelation for any hints we may glean from that.  While the Bible doesn’t clearly spell out answers to these riddles for us, our conclusions one way or the other do seem to accumulate certain kinds of theological baggage.  Checking that baggage content is what makes me lean the way I do, although a lot of smart and sincere Christians still answer it differently.


Tim - #72397

September 3rd 2012

There is a difference between discussing God or the supernatural abstractly with respect to science and discussing the relationship between a specific religion, such as Christianity, withr respect to science.

Certainly, science is not prepared to investigate or illuminate anything outside the realm of nature.  It is methodologically limited only to the province of the natural, where of course it has enjoyed great success.

But many relious texts do not deal ONLY with the supernatural.  They often make claims as to the natural world as well.  The Biblical text included.  And when they do, science and religion can intersect and make competing claims.

So what we see, for instance, in the Biblical text is a view of cosmology very much consistent with that held by other ancient near eastern civilizations.  Granted, Biblical cosmological descriptions are not meant to be “scientific.”  Science wasn’t invented yet and so that would be anachronistic.  But it does appear to be laying claim to an aspect of nature, and thus tresspasses on the province of science so to speak.

And, of course, historical claims can be subject to investigation via methods that employ scientific tools and methodology (such as archeology).  The conquest narrative would be one such instance.  And my understanding is that the modern methods available to us for critical investigation have undermined the historicity of this event.

Even supernatural claims that are deemed to have effect the natural world can be investigated through the means of science.  Not by virtue so much of mechanism but rather of effect.  Praying for healing of a sick or injured loved one could be one such example.  And while prayer studies thus far may be methodologically flawed, the promise for conducting future research on any purported miraculous effects of prayer remain.  Even if only, say, 10% of prayer’s on average are answered with a “yes” for medical healing, given sufficient sample size you should be able to expirementally detect this.

So, I would be a little more hesitant than Plantinga to make pronouncements of how Science has nothing to say to the claims of religions, including many forms of Christianity.

GJDS - #72416

September 3rd 2012

I will add the following to this discussion;

1)      If two scientists were observing the cosmos, one a believer and the other a non-believer, provided they applied the scientific method correctly, they would come to the same conclusions/information. After this, the believer would state, “I now understand what God created”, and the non-believer would, “I now understand the behaviour of the objects of nature”.

2)      If each of these scientists were to discuss God’s intervention, both believer and non-believer would only do that if they were able to directly observe God as an object in nature, and they could record His actions. The believer would then, and only then, conclude, “God did such and such”, while the non-believer would conclude, “I observed an unusual being/object doing such and such”. Both of their observations however, should be the same.

This illustrates that the notion of a closed or open Universe is not as relevant as it may sound. This notion is given credence because laws of nature are given a similar meaning to laws of a community, in that they are statements that indicate what may of may not occur, and some force or thing is let loose in the Universe to make sure these actions are adhered to. In a community, human beings have a choice in obeying these laws, and if they choose not to, police are authorized to apprehend the offender, who may then be punished. This reasoning cannot be applied to nature. Objects that science has observed are intrinsically so and do not need a policeman checking their activity or properties.

A ‘complete’ description of the Universe is so far from our present capabilities that to discuss such a notion borders on the absurd. An estimate of the observed mass and energy accounts for a small portion of what is guessed to make up the Universe. Also a significant portion of the Universe is given as black holes where the ‘laws of science’ are believed to ‘not apply’, just to give one example.

The notion of determinism applied to the Universe is thus a red-hearing. Since our knowledge of the physical reality is so inadequate, we are hardly in a position to consider everything in any way, be it pre-determined or not. To model/argue the Universe is one in which we can add God, or one that we cannot, is an incoherent model/argument. We are all sure of time and movement, and the dynamics of natural systems, and the best that science can do at present is to classify some systems as regular and thus predictable in time, and others not so. This hardly smacks of a predetermined universe, nor  does it give us a basis for other notions of determinism, or any other similar -isms.

Jon Garvey - #72419

September 4th 2012


God as the Laplace Demon gets several things wrong. Of course, if the Universe were truly deterministic, an omniscient God could certainly do the demon’s work of calculating the positions of everything at all times. But unlike God, the Demon is a mere observer of someone else’s reality.

In God’s case, particle x will occupy position y at time t not because he calculated it from the initial conditions, but because he set up the initial conditions in order to achieve it. It’s like the realisation that prophecy is true not because God sees the future, but because he makes it.

Or to use a different analogy, if God speaks creation into being, he’s fully aware of the words he’s speaking before he even says them.

Or a third - God’s sustaining of creation is not like a radio carrier wave that conveys somebody else’s message, but is his sustaining of his own work and word - he balances the sword on his nose and continues to holds it up.

Secondly, of course, a God who is no more than a calculator is no better than a demon anyway: God’s interaction with the Universe at all levels is part and parcel of his divinity. And as an aside that is what a Calvinist position entails - not that God’s will is the only reality, but that God’s perfect will prevails in interaction with all other wills.

Thirdly, as Plantinga has said, science cannot justly claim it is deterministic simply because nature is seen to have patterns. That Deistic idea doesn’t arise from sound Christian doctrine either, and so using it as a theological assumption would be perverse, pandering in effect to a whimsical Enlightenment conceit. Laplace, in other words, has no authority to describe God (and of course, he had no need of that hypothesis anyway, demons being a sufficient object of faith!)

HornSpiel - #72428

September 4th 2012

GJDS, regarding your two scientists. Is sounds like for both scientists,when doing science they both can say “God? I have no need for that hypothesis.”

Isn’t that essentially what “methodological naturalism” is?

Since God is not an “object of nature,” for science, God does not exist. This is not surprising since for science, it is an open question of whether “You” or “I” actualy exist.

Regarding the question of what they would say if they saw a miracle. Both could simply say there is no scientific explanation for what was observed. Healings are a good example of this. Not infrequently they can’t be explained medically or are the result of amazing “coincidences.” For believers, they are miracles. For non-believers though miracles usually don’t shake their worldview, unless the “I” (the person that does not exist scientifically) is personally affected.

GJDS - #72445

September 4th 2012


I am showing that science and scientists observe, experiment, and make measurement etc. - the theory/speculation/hypothesis is done by scientists. In which case they need to exist so they can think and theorise. By observing and measuring God, they would do the theologically impossible, so the notion of God existing becomes either an impossibility or a heresy (as the alternative is they would need to create a god to suite their purpose).

A scientific explanation of a miracle appears problematic to me, as this would be divine intervention that is known to the participants of the miracle. If scientists were not one of these participants, they cannot explain anthing. I think you may mean that after a miracle has been stated by one of more people, can scientists verify or test their statement(s). This often depends on the circumstances - I have read recently of a cancer sufferer who was cured - doctors who treated her all testify to the cancer and the cure - so here we have added testimony. None as far as I know have explained it scientifically. I think it is wise for scienstists to be silent on such occasions. However if someone says they were starving and would have died but they found food miraculously and once they ate it they lived, then since the food was consumed and the circumstances have become a non-recoverable past, sicnce cannot make any statement on this miracle.

HornSpiel - #72935

September 19th 2012


Thanks for your comments. I agree with your assessment of both scientific measurement of God and of miracles.

I might add regarding the perception of a miracle—be it an unexplainable healing, a fortunate coincidence, or even the wonder of a beautiful sunset—people may use the word loosely, yet the common thread is that they experience a scientifically unverifiable connection with the divine. That perception of the divine I believe is true, but not scientifically true. It is the basis of Paul’s comment in Romans that the divine is obvious in Nature. It is a result, I believe, of how God created people in His image.

So miracles are human “supernatural” perceptions of God at work, or what I like to call, seeing with the eyes of the heart.

Jon Garvey - #72469

September 6th 2012


Since God is not an “object of nature,” for science, God does not exist. This is not surprising since for science, it is an open question of whether “You” or “I” actually exist.

Is that strictly true? It’s true for the philosphers, who are going to start by asking whether their thinking is compatible with personal existence or not. But science per se is naively empirical: is assumes not only the scientist’s existence but his inherent rationality. If that were not so, he’d never get as far as looking at his experimental data because he would be asking anxiously whether he existed to look at them.

So scientists, rightly or wrongly, are working with an assumption of their own existence they don’t allow to God’s. Some philosophers of science would say that prejudice is unwarranted because the existence of God is the only real guarantee not only of the rationality of scientists, but of the rationality of what they study (Plantinga actually deals with this at length in his latest book, and Steve Fuller makes the case from the social epistemological viewpoint elsewhere. Both are important reading.)


HornSpiel - #72934

September 19th 2012


Thanks for your thoughts, and I don’t disagree. I present this view as an apologetic for why methodological naturalism, that is doing science “atheistically,” is not actually anti-god. From a theological point of view I believe God’s reality and our reality, as super-natural freewill agents, are similar. So for example, when science reduces people to natural phenomena that can be described scientifically, the essence of what it means to be human is lost. That is something that will always happen, but it does not mean We are simply material epiphenomena.

Scientific studies of people are helpful for understanding our species. Yes we are natural material beings.  It’s that we’re not just natural material beings. As Christians we need to teach both the benefits and limitations of the scientific view point

I’m wondering if you could point me to a specific reference in Plantinga’s latest book to “God is the only real guarantee not only of the rationality of scientists, but of the rationality of what they study.” Would that be in Where the Conflict Really Lies?

Jon Garvey - #73570

October 11th 2012


I never saw your reply, so didn’t answer - sorry. Yes, “Where the Conflict Really Lies” covers his ideas in a way that avids much of that incomprehensible analytic-philosophy-speak. Well worth reading.

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