Why Can’t God Intervene?

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

INTRO BY JIM: In part two of Plantinga’s comments on divine action (see yesterday’s part one here), he briefly considers the specific issue of quantum mechanics and divine action (we’ll see more on this next week with the posts by Robert Russell). Then Plantinga considers more generally the objections that theologians sometimes make about God intervening in the natural order. This post is taken from Plantinga’s book, Where the Conflict Really Lies (Oxford University Press, 2011) with permission from both the publisher and the author.

In yesterday’s post I argued that the Newtonian (though not the Laplacian) picture poses little problem for miraculous action by God. Today I’ll argue that quantum mechanics offers even less of a problem for divine special action than classical science, even though the latter doesn’t offer much of a problem.

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.[1] 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?”[2] 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.




Plantinga, Alvin. "Why Can’t God Intervene?"
https://biologos.org/. N.p., 10 May. 2016. Web. 18 January 2019.


Plantinga, A. (2016, May 10). Why Can’t God Intervene?
Retrieved January 18, 2019, from /blogs/jim-stump-faith-and-science-seeking-understanding/why-cant-god-intervene

References & Credits

[1] Wesley Wildman, “The Divine Action Project, 1988-2003” Theology and Science vol. 2 (April 2004), p. 38).

[2] In Nicholas Saunders, Divine Action and Modern Science (Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 48.

About the Author

Alvin Plantinga

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 asGod 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.

More posts by Alvin Plantinga