Why Can’t God Intervene?


Religious belief in general and Christian belief in particular is committed to the belief that God acts in the world; but this belief is somehow incompatible, so some claim, with contemporary science. But why should this be a problem?

According to Christian and theistic views of God, he has created our world. He may have done it in many different ways; he may have employed many different means. However he did it, Christians and other theists believe that he has in fact done it. Furthermore, God conserves the world, sustains it in being, and God governs the world in such a way that it displays regularity and predictability.

According to Christian belief, however, it is also true that God sometimes does things differently; he sometimes deviates from the usual way in which he treats the stuff he has made. Examples would be miracles: the parting of the Red Sea, Jesus’ changing water into wine, and, towering above all, Jesus himself rising from the dead. In short, God regularly causes events in the world. Divine action of this sort is action beyond creation and conservation; we could think of it as special divine action. Many theologians, curiously enough, have thought there is a serious problem in this neighborhood. These theologians don’t object to the idea that God creates and sustains the world. It is special divine action that, from their point of view, is the problem.

But what’s the problem with special divine action? Why should anyone object to it? In a word (or two): incompatibility with modern science. Modern science, they think, shows, or perhaps assumes, or presupposes, that God does not act in that way. They can’t help but think of creation as a closed continuum of cause and effect, closed to intervention or interference on the part of beings outside that continuum, including God himself.  The problem, then, as these people see it, is this. Science discovers and endorses natural laws; if God did miracles or acted specially in the world, he would have to contravene these laws and miraculously intervene; and that is incompatible with science. Religion and science, therefore, are in conflict, which does not bode well for religion.

But is all this really true?

The Old Picture

These skeptics are evidently thinking in terms of classical science: Newtonian mechanics and the later physics of electricity and magnetism. This is the physics of the great conservation laws, especially as developed in the second half of the nineteenth century. And of course Newtonian mechanics and classical science have been enormously influential. But classical science, just by itself, is nowhere nearly sufficient for anti-interventionism or hands-off theology. What’s really at issue, rather, is a sort of world picture suggested by classical science, endorsed by many influential eighteenth- and nineteenth-century figures, and still accepted by many theologians. Or rather, there are least two importantly different pictures here.

A. The Newtonian Picture

First, there is the Newtonian picture properly so-called. This picture represents the world (or at any rate the material universe) as a vast machine evolving or operating according to fixed laws: the laws of classical physics. We consider the universe as a whole—the material universe, anyway—as a collection including material particles and the things made of them, evolving according to the laws of classical mechanics. Theologically, the idea is that the world is a great divine mechanical artifact that runs according to the fixed laws of classical science, the laws prescribed for it by God.

But the Newtonian picture is nowhere nearly sufficient for hands-off theology. According to Newton and classical mechanics, natural laws describe how the world works when, or provided that the world is a closed (isolated) system, subject to no outside causal influence. In classical physics, the great conservation laws deduced from Newton’s laws are stated for closed or isolated systems. These principles, therefore, apply to isolated or closed systems. If so, however, there is nothing in them to prevent God from changing the velocity or direction of a particle. If he did so, obviously, energy would not be conserved in the system in question; but equally obviously, that system would not be closed, in which case the principle of conservation of energy would not apply to it. Indeed, there is nothing here to prevent God from miraculously parting the Red Sea, or bringing someone back to life, or, for that matter, creating ex nihilo a full-grown horse in the middle of Times Square. It is entirely possible for God to create a full-grown horse in the middle of Times Square without violating the principle of conservation of energy. That is because the systems including the horse would not be closed or isolated.

Furthermore, it is no part of Newtonian mechanics or classical science generally to declare that the material universe is a closed system. You won’t find that claim in physics textbooks—naturally enough, because that claim isn’t physics, but a theological or metaphysical add-on. (How could this question of the causal closure of the physical universe be addressed by scientific means?) Classical science, therefore, doesn’t assert or include causal closure.

Moreover, the natural laws offer no threat to special divine action. Miracles are often thought to be problematic, in that God, if he were to perform a miracle, would be involved in “breaking,” going contrary to, abrogating, suspending, a natural law. But if God were to perform a miracle, it wouldn’t at all involve contravening a natural law. That is because, obviously, any occasion on which God performs a miracle is an occasion when the universe is not causally closed; and the laws say nothing about what happens when the universe is not causally closed.

What we’ve seen so far is that classical science doesn’t entail either determinism or that the universe is in fact causally closed. It is therefore entirely consistent with special divine action in the world, including miracles. Hands-off theologians can’t properly point to science—not even to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century classical science—as a reason for their opposition to divine intervention. What actually guides their thought is not classical science as such, but classical science plus a gratuitous metaphysical or theological addition—one that has no scientific credentials and goes contrary to classical Christianity.

B. The Laplacean Picture

The Newtonian picture isn’t sufficient for hands-off theology; so what is it that guides the thought of these hands-off theologians? The Laplacean picture. Here the classic statement, naturally enough, is by Pierre Laplace:

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 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—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 the past, would be present to its eyes.[1]

What, exactly, must be added to the Newtonian picture to get the Laplacean picture? Determinism plus the causal closure of the physical universe. Although this addition is not at all implied by the physics (as I said, it’s a philosophical or theological assumption), it was and is widely accepted, and indeed so widely accepted that it is often completely overlooked in contexts where it is crucial. And it is this Laplacean picture that guides the thought of the hands-off theologians. It is also the Laplacean picture—the laws of classical science plus the causal closure of the physical universe—that leaves no room for divine action in the world. Given the consequents of the laws and the state of the universe at any one time (and given that the laws of nature are complete and deterministic), the state of the universe at any other time is a necessary consequence. And this would leave no room for special divine action.

Laplace’s picture is accurate only if the universe is closed: only if God doesn’t act specially in the world. We could think of the Laplacean picture as the Newtonian picture plus closure. As we have seen, however, classical science doesn’t assert or include Laplacean determinism. The laws don’t tell us how things always go; they tell us how they go when the relevant system is causally closed, subject to no outside causal influence. In classical science, therefore, there is no objection to special divine action. So far, therefore, we haven’t found a religion/science conflict; what we have is only a conflict between religion—Christian belief, for example—and a particular metaphysics according to which the universe is causally closed.

Of course we have been thinking about classical science. What happens if we turn to contemporary science, in particular quantum mechanics? Will we find conflict there?

Quantum Mechanics

How does quantum mechanics (QM) stand with respect to the question of special divine action in the world? QM is characterized by several substantial departures from classical physics; of these, only indeterminism is relevant to our present concerns. Classical mechanics is deterministic in the following sense. Suppose you are given an initial configuration of a material system—that is, a system of particles together with their positions, masses and velocities—at a time t. Now consider any time t* future with respect to t; if the system is causally closed, there is just one outcome consistent with classical mechanics.

Things are very different for QM. The point, here, is that (in contrast with classical mechanics) we don’t get a prediction of a unique configuration for the system at t, but only a distribution of probabilities across many possible outcomes. Given a quantum mechanical system, therefore, QM doesn’t say which configuration will in fact result from the initial conditions; instead, it assigns a spectrum of probabilities to the possible outcomes. QM as such, therefore, does not support the Laplacean picture: many different positions for that particle at t*are consistent with the laws of QM together with its position at t.

We saw earlier that the classical laws of mechanics and conservation of energy come with an implicit proviso: they apply when the relevant system (the universe, for example) is causally closed. The same proviso holds, substantially, in the case of QM: the laws apply to causally closed systems. But even if we ignore this proviso, special divine action, including miracles, is by no means incompatible with QM. That is because (again) QM doesn’t determine a specific outcome for a given set of initial conditions, but instead merely assigns probabilities to the possible outcomes. This means that, even apart from that proviso, QM doesn’t constrain special divine action in anything like the way classical deterministic mechanics does. And if what happens in the physical world at the macroscopic level supervenes on or is determined by what happens at the microlevel—the quantum level—then if miracles are compatible with the laws of quantum mechanics, they will also be compatible with any macroscopic laws.

On the “new picture,” therefore—the picture presented by QM—there is no question that special divine action is consistent with science; and even the most stunning miracles are not clearly inconsistent with the laws promulgated by science. One might therefore expect that the whole concern about special divine action would disappear. If one did, however, one would be sadly disappointed. The fact is many philosophers, theologians and scientists—thinkers who are wholly aware of the QM revolution—still apparently find a problem with miracles and special divine action generally. Many contemporary writers on religion and science reject divine intervention—not, now, by appealing to outmoded science, but for other more obscure reasons.

What is the Problem with “Intervention”?

Many authors believe that a satisfactory account of God’s action in the world would have to be noninterventionistic (and to begin with, let’s suppose we have a good idea as to what intervention is). It would be fair to say, I think, that the main problem for them is to find an account of divine action in the world—action beyond creation and conservation—that doesn’t involve God’s intervening in the world. But why should we expect God to avoid intervention? As we’ve seen, it is extremely hard to “break” quantum mechanical laws—even with the “when the universe is causally closed” proviso deleted. And in any event the whole notion of “breaking” a natural law seems confused. Wesley Wildman proposes a more promising problem for intervention: issues of theological consistency.[2] For example, the idea of God sustaining nature and its law-like regularities with one hand while miraculously intervening, abrogating or ignoring those regularities with the other hand may seem dangerously close to outright contradiction.

So what exactly (or even approximately) is the problem? This objection—what we might call “the divine consistency objection”—is a prevalent one. For example, Arthur Peacocke suggests that God’s intervening in the order of nature creates problems for a rationally coherent belief in God as the creator of that order; and several authors concur in the question “how can God uphold the laws of nature with one hand, whilst simultaneously overriding them by performing miracles with the other?”[3] The picture seems to be that of God’s establishing a world with certain regularities, and then occasionally acting contrary to those regularities. He creates and governs the world in such a way that water ordinarily doesn’t change into wine, people don’t typically walk on water, and dead people usually don’t come back to life. But then, very occasionally, God acts in a way that goes contrary to those regularities: Jesus turns water into wine, walks on water, raises Lazarus from the dead and is himself raised from the dead on the third day. And this is thought to be inconsistent: God doesn’t always act in the relevantly same way: he doesn’t always treat the stuff he has made in the same way.

Here the objection, obviously, is theological. It has nothing to do with science. The idea is that God simply wouldn’t do such a thing; this sort of action is inconsistent with his unfathomable augustness and unsurpassable greatness. Intervening, so the claim goes, would make God fall into inconsistency—not the sort of inconsistency involved in asserting inconsistent propositions, but the kind involved in, for example, sometimes treating one of your spouse’s peccadilloes with patience and good humor and other times under relevantly similar circumstances responding with tight-lipped annoyance. The problem, here, would be something like caprice or arbitrariness; there is something arbitrary and whimsical in “dealing in two different manners” with the cosmic process.

But is this really true? There would be arbitrariness and inconsistency only if God had no special reason for acting contrary to the usual regularities; but of course he might very well have such reasons. This is obvious for the case of raising Jesus from the dead: God intends to mark the special status accruing to Jesus by this mighty act of raising him from the dead.

Why should any of this be in any way incompatible with his unsurpassable greatness? Well, many seem to think of God as like a classical artist, one who prizes economy, restraint, discipline. Perhaps; but also, perhaps God is more like a romantic artist; perhaps he revels in glorious variety, riotous creativity, overflowing fecundity, uproarious activity. Perhaps he is also very much a hands-on God, constantly active in history, leading, guiding, persuading and redeeming his people. None of this so much as begins to compromise his greatness and majesty, his august and unsurpassable character.

Of course questions remain. What happens if current scientific theories are revised? First: if Christian belief is true, the warrant for belief in special divine action doesn’t come from quantum mechanics or current science or indeed any science at all; these beliefs have their own independent source of warrant. That means that in case of conflict between Christian belief and current science, it isn’t automatically current science that has more warrant or positive epistemic status; perhaps the warrant enjoyed by Christian belief is greater than that enjoyed by the conflicting scientific belief. Of course there could be defeaters for these Christian beliefs; but as we’ve seen, current science (at least as far as we’ve explored the matter) provides no such defeaters, and the theological objections proposed seem weak in excelsis.

What we should think of special divine action, therefore, doesn’t depend on current science. The sensible religious believer is not obliged to trim her sails to the current scientific breeze on this topic, revising her belief on the topic every time science changes its mind. But where Christian or theistic belief and current science can fit nicely together, so much the better. Who knows what the future will bring? But we can say at least the following: at this point, given this evidence, this is how things look. And that’s as much as can be said for any scientific theory.

We noted that many theologians, philosophers and scientists object to the thought that God acts specially in the world. At least some of their objections have to do with science: special divine action, they say, goes contrary, somehow, to science. As we’ve seen, however, none of these objections is even remotely cogent; there is nothing in current or classical science inconsistent with special divine action in the world.

Therefore, we have found no conflict between Christian or theistic belief and current science.


Notes & References