Miracles and Science: A Third Way (Part 2)

| By (guest author) on Faith and Science Seeking Understanding

Detail from Dionysius the Areopagite Converting the Pagan Philosophers by Antoine Caron. Image courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum. Painting depicts the reaction to the solar eclipse of 1571.

INTRO BY JIM: Yesterday, Robert Russell described the conceptual territory of divine action. Today he expands on his description of Non-Interventionist Objective Divine Action (NIODA). He believes this allows us to ascribe actions to God that make a difference in the natural world (they are objective) but do not violate the laws of nature (they are non-interventionist). This could be particularly relevant to evolution if genetic mutations could be ascribed to this kind of divine action. The details of his argument depend on highly technical details; we’ve done our best to shape these for a general audience, but there is no getting around the fact that this one will be tough going if you’ve not encountered these ideas before. Let’s see if we can sort it all out in the comments section.

In yesterday’s post, I described the two traditional categories of divine action: 1) non-miraculous non-interventionist, subjective divine action; and 2) miraculous, interventionist, objective divine action. I affirm the reality of events described by both of these categories, but I believe that there is a need for a new theological category to understand how God acts through natural processes on a regular basis. This combines the best of the preceding two categories while avoiding the problems of each of them. It is more than the subjective interpretation of an ordinary event and it is less than an objective interpretation of a special event requiring divine, miraculous intervention to bring it about. Here I have used the term “objective” to refer specifically to the idea that God acts with nature to bring about an event in the world and one which makes a difference in the future. I also use the term “non-interventionist” to refer to this event happening in a way that does not entail its being miraculous, at least in the Humean sense. My acronym for this concept is NIODA: non-interventionist objective divine action.

NIODA, in turn, requires the possibility that the world of natural processes, at some or many levels of complexity, is causally incomplete: here God may act non-miraculously to produce an event in nature which nature on its own would not have produced. In this way, the principle of sufficient reason (that for every effect there is a sufficient cause) is satisfied in some cases by the direct action of God even though in an overwhelming number of cases it is satisfied by natural causes. Thus NIODA in no way runs into conflict with science since it bases its philosophical interpretation of the processes of nature on the theories of the natural sciences. It asks whether there are one, or several, areas in the natural sciences where science itself leads to a view of nature as including events for which the natural causes that contribute to them are insufficient to bring them about. I use the term “indeterminism” or better yet, “ontological indeterminism,” to refer to a philosophical interpretation of the various areas in the natural sciences in which these sciences allow for such a possibility in nature.

The crucial point here is that the philosophical interpretation of nature as indeterministic creates space for this new option for divine action. I believe this option has tremendous theological promise for understanding God’s ongoing involvement in the natural world without having to resort to the Humean “violation of natural laws” definition of miracles. The challenge is to find one or more areas in contemporary science that permit an indeterministic interpretation of the ontology of nature. When such areas are actually found, and thus when NIODA is possible, I then import this philosophical interpretation into Christian theology, resulting, hopefully, in a more persuasive and compelling account of God’s action in nature which is consistent with science. God is not only nature’s creator ex nihilo and sustainer via creatio continua. God’s action in nature can also give rise to events that are not miraculous but which result in something happening in nature which would not have occurred without God acting in this special way. God does so in ways which do not contradict the predictions of science since these predictions, given the underlying ontological indeterminism, will be statistical / stochastic. I strongly believe that quantum mechanics (QM) provides one such area in the natural sciences where a NIODA version of divine action can be sustained. Thus my primary focus here is on such a “QM-NIODA” account of divine action.

Quantum processes underlie and give rise to the general features of the classical physical world as well as specific macroscopic effects in the classical physical world. These facts may be interpreted theologically as follows:

  1. Divine action at the quantum level results in the general features of the classical world, features which typically fall within the category of general providence.  
  2. Divine action at the quantum level also results in specific features and events in the classical world, features and events, some of which fall within the category of special providence.

From a theological perspective, God’s non-interventionist action at the quantum level gives rise to the creation of these general features of the classical world as well as to their sustenance and physical development in time, or what we would routinely call general providence (or continuous creation). (Note: This theological claim could be sustained even if a deterministic version of QM were correct, such as David Bohm’s non-local hidden variables version. It doesn’t rely specifically on Copenhagen’s ontologically indeterministic version. The reason is that God can be seen as acting “in, with, and through” the regular processes of nature to bring about what we call “general providence”. Such divine action can be what I previously labeled “subjective divine action” in a deterministic world as compared with “objective / miraculous divine action” in a deterministic world.[1])

Quantum processes also underlie and give rise to specific effects in the macroscopic world in several ways. One way is through those phenomena, such as superfluidity and superconductivity, which, though found in the ordinary classical world, are really “bulk” quantum states—what George Ellis calls “essentially quantum effects at the macro level.”

Another, and quite different, way is through specific quantum processes, which, when amplified, result in particular classical effects in the classical world. It is the latter that will be part of what we think theologically in terms of special providence—although as I indicated above, special providence includes many events in nature and history which seem to fall far beyond what the amplification of quantum events can produce. Obvious examples of amplified effects range from such jury-rigged situations as “Schrödinger’s cat” to such routine measurement devices as a Geiger counter. But the amplification of specific effects in the macroscopic level from quantum processes includes a whole range of phenomena such as the animal eye responding to a single photon, mental states resulting from quantum events at neural junctions,[2] or the phenotypic expression of a single genetic mutation in an organism (resulting, for example, in sickle-cell anemia or cancer).

In sum: the results of God’s action at the quantum level can be seen as bringing about, in a non-interventionist mode, both the general features of the world we describe theologically in terms of general providence (or continuous creation) and at least some of those specific events in the world to which a theology of special providence refers.

NIODA and Evolution

Continuing, now, from what I pointed to above, one of the most fruitful applications of a theology of QM-NIODA is in the context of evolutionary biology, namely a theistic interpretation of evolution or “theistic evolution” (TE), which broadly speaking claims that God is the creator of the diversity of species that we find spanning the evolutionary history of life on earth. Although there is a spectrum of voices for TE, all of us seem to agree on one point at least: A very strong theological case can be made that God continuously creates through the processes of biological evolution. It is a case which accepts standard Darwinian science without needing to expand its explanatory methods to include ‘agency’ (contrary to Intelligent Design) and one which claims that evolutionary biology is how God creates the diversity of species on earth (contrary to atheistic evolution). Here, long before the evolution of humankind and our creation of measuring instruments, nature was replete with quantum amplification of a biological form.

We start with God’s action at the quantum level in the context of molecular biology. Quantum processes are essential to the production of genetic variation, and genetic variation can lead to phenotypic variation in the populations of living species. I call the genotype-phenotype relation a “biological amplifier”. Here natural selection is at work, favoring those phenotypes with greater fitness in the competition for finite resources in changing environments. This in turn contributes to both microevolution and, even more importantly, macroevolution. I dub this the “green Schroedinger’s cat”: biological processes of genetic expression and phenotypic competition over long periods of time lead to new speciation in nature due to God’s non-interventionist action at the quantum level of genetic variation.[3]

In this way I believe that the most significant accomplishment of QM-NIODA is in delivering on the “promissory note” of TE by those scholars who support TE but may not be able to fully articulate just how God’s action in evolution can bring about events in nature, such as the appearance of biological design and the diversity of well-adapted species, without challenging the standard methodology of the natural sciences (methodological naturalism) as ID does.





Russell, Robert John. "Miracles and Science: A Third Way (Part 2) "
http://biologos.org/. N.p., 17 May. 2016. Web. 23 September 2017.


Russell, R. (2016, May 17). Miracles and Science: A Third Way (Part 2)
Retrieved September 23, 2017, from http://biologos.org/blogs/jim-stump-faith-and-science-seeking-understanding/miracles-and-science-a-third-way-part-2

References & Credits

[1] I am grateful to Jeffrey Koperski for pointing out this insight to me. (Private correspondence.)

[2] Ellis actually discusses two possibilities: (i) coherent firings in large arrays of neurons leading to a holistic response in a region of the brain (here “amplification” is an almost inappropriate term), and (ii) localized firings in microtubules that are amplified to macroscopic effect, following the suggestions of Roger Penrose; see George F.R. Ellis, “Intimations of Transcendence: Relations of the Mind and God,” in Neuroscience and the Person, 472; and “Ordinary and Extraordinary Divine Action,” in Chaos and Complexity, 369–71.

[3]   See Ellis, “Quantum Theory and the Macroscopic World,” in QM, sec. 2; Barbour, “Five Models of God and Evolution,” in Evolutionary and Molecular Biology, 426. For an extended discussion of quantum mechanics, evolutionary biology, and divine action see Russell, “Special Providence and Genetic Mutation.”

About the Author

Robert John Russell

Robert John Russell is the Founder and Director of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (CTNS), and the Ian G. Barbour Professor of Theology and Science in Residence at the Graduate Theological Union (GTU), Berkeley. He holds a Ph.D. in experimental physics from the University of California, Santa Cruz, an M.Div. and an M. A. in theology and science from the Pacific School of Religion (one of nine seminaries in the GTU consortium), an M. S. in physics from the University of California, Los Angeles, and he triple-majored in physics, religion and music at Stanford University. He is ordained in the United Church of Christ and is a member of the Society of Ordained Scientists. Russell is also the author of Cosmology from Alpha to Omega: Towards the Mutual Creative Interaction of Theology and Science (Fortress Press, 2008). He has co-edited a multi-volume series of books focused on scientific perspectives on divine action through an international research conference program co-sponsored by CTNS and the Vatican Observatory, including such topics as quantum mechanics, chaos theory, evolutionary and molecular biology, the neurosciences, and quantum cosmology.

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