Does the Success of Science Leave God Unemployed?


Does God act in the world? For many Christians, the answer to this question might seem to be an obvious, affirmative, resounding “Yes!” After all, if anything can be said of Christianity, surely it is that the Judeo-Christian God attested to in Scripture, church history, and personal experience is a God who actually does something in Creation. The parting of the Red Sea, Jesus’ healing miracles, the resurrection of Jesus, the countless experiences of answered prayer attested to by individuals and communities throughout church history—these are all constitutive elements of the Christian narrative, and it is difficult to imagine a robust Christian theology devoid of this affirmation that God is present and active in the world.

At the same time, however, the remarkable success of contemporary science has caused many Christians (theologians, philosophers, scientists, and others) to seriously question whether one can still maintain an intellectually credible affirmation of divine action. Indeed, the natural sciences have proved strikingly successful at providing increasingly specific explanations on their own terms for hitherto “unexplainable” phenomena. Given that we live in a world seemingly governed by natural laws, many Christians are thus questioning whether it is still possible to endorse God’s action and governance as well. Unsurprisingly, this dual commitment to theological realities and scientific truths has led to a fair bit of cognitive dissonance for many. There is a lot at stake in this issue; if scientific realities naturally lead to the conclusion that God cannot or does not act in the world, then much of Christian theology is undermined. Prayer itself could no longer be considered efficacious, and the notion of God responding to human needs would become unsustainable. This is exactly why the issues surrounding divine action need to be identified and examined carefully. While the contributors in this divine action series will present their unique methods for affirming divine action in human lives and the natural world, we first need to look at what, exactly, is the problem with divine action in the first place. To that end, I here briefly examine the scientific and theological challenges to traditional conceptions of divine action.

Science

When discussing science and divine action, one might reasonably ask why science should undermine theological affirmations of divine agency in the first place. After all, if God created the world, surely it is within the divine prerogative to act within that creation. This is a fair point, but the issue is a bit more complex than that. Certainly scientists could not use scientific methodologies to disprove the possibility of miracles; proving a negative is notoriously difficult, if not outright impossible. Nevertheless, the scientific endeavour has arguably been the most overwhelmingly successful explanatory project in the history of humankind. History is riddled with examples of scientists producing naturalistic explanations for phenomena previously thought to be inherently shrouded in cloaks of mystery or attributable to divine action alone. Many Christians throughout history have identified the providential hand of God in seemingly unexplainable phenomena, only to be later confronted with detailed accounts of the physical underpinnings of those very phenomena. This approach to divine action has come to be described as “God of the gaps” theology: identifying divine action in those physical or mental events that seem fundamentally unexplainable in scientific terms. As scientist and author Charles Alfred Coulson quipped back in 1955, “There is no ‘God of the gaps’ to take over at those strategic places where science fails; and the reason is that gaps of this sort have the unpreventable habit of shrinking.”[1] The point, then, is that there is a methodological problem with identifying divine action in areas that currently seem to lie outside the scientific purview (quantum mechanics, consciousness, and chaos theory are contemporary examples that come to mind). This is a strategy that has a terrible historical track record.

A related challenge to divine action comes from the practice of science itself. Put simply, the success of science is predicated upon the assumption that every physical event has a physical cause; the explanatory success of the scientific method leads us to expect that this is the case, and it is indeed difficult to imagine how science could work apart from this physicalist assumption. The technical term for this is “the causal closure of the physical,” defined by philosopher Jaegwon Kim as the thesis that “no physical event has a cause outside the physical domain.”[2] Here, of course, one might question the assumption that all events in the world are caused by purely physical factors – and rightly so! The causal closure principle is indeed a philosophical assumption, rather than a scientific fact, and will be addressed in the coming weeks. However, the argument goes that humans have very, very good reason to rely on the causal closure principle; it is precisely this assumption that has allowed science to be so successful at discovering the natural laws underlying so many complex natural events. Thus, the issue is not so much that science can disprove the occurrence of divine action, but rather that scientifically—discovered natural laws seem to be so effective at explaining and predicting physical phenomena. To put this another way, it seems that we simply do not have good reason or evidence to attribute any particular phenomenon to divine causation—even if it seems miraculous at the present time. For any given physical or mental event, we have far more reason to expect a purely natural explanation than a spiritual one (some may recognize this as a long-debated argument of David Hume).[3] Again, while none of this actually disproves the possibility of divine action, it does—for many people—make it far more difficult to affirm God’s agency when the success of science and the efficacy of natural laws seem such powerful arguments against it.

Theology

Perhaps ironically, recent critiques of divine action have just as often come from theological quarters as from the natural sciences. This has everything to do with the overall picture of the natural world springing from the causal closure principle discussed above, as well as the iron-clad characterization of natural laws. That is, once one has accepted a picture of the world as governed by natural laws and scientifically analyzable processes, one might find it necessary to conclude that God can only act in the world by “breaking” natural laws. And this, as it turns out, has found significant resistance in the theological community. As John Polkinghorne writes, “the divine will is always self-consistent, and the last thing that the rational and faithful God can be is a capricious, celestial conjurer.”[4] The argument here is that if the natural world has been intricately orchestrated to operate within the framework of divinely-mandated natural laws, it would be inconsistent, imperfect, and irrational for God to “break” those laws. The fear, it seems, is that contemporary science has painted a picture of the natural world that is so bound up with, and governed by, natural laws that any divine intervention of those laws would undermine God’s integrity.

These conclusions are certainly debatable, and our contributors in the coming weeks will offer various ways around (or through) these issues. They do raise one final area of concern, however, and this involves the philosophical presuppositions that we bring to the table when discussing the possibility of divine action. That is, what sort of model of reality are we working with when we use words like intervention– was philosopher David Hume right to define a miracle as “a violation of the laws of nature”?[5] Do the consistencies and regularities demonstrated by the scientific community necessarily dictate the possibilities for divine interaction with the world? What is the relationship between God and nature, such that Creation is assumed to be self-sustaining and capable of “getting on with it” apart from divine presence and activity? Is contemporary theology working with a God-Creation model that is theologically inadequate? These are the sorts of foundational metaphysical questions raised when discussing the supposed conflict between science and divine action. With these questions in mind, tomorrow we will look at a few of the approaches undertaken in the effort to be faithful to both scientific truths and the theological commitment to divine action.

So far, we explored various challenges to the theological claim that God truly acts in the natural world. While divine action is widely affirmed in Scripture, tradition, and personal experience, modern science’s increasingly specific explication of natural laws and physical processes has made it difficult to find “room” for God to work. Many theologians have also found it difficult to maintain belief in miracles, insofar as the post-Enlightenment notion of natural laws has rendered such divine action to be a violation of sorts – a divine “lawbreaking” that would threaten God’s attributes of integrity and consistency as well as the intelligibility of the created world. This is not the end of the story, however, and affirmation of God’s agency continues even in scholarly circles. Next, we will explore the various ways in which Christians have endeavored to unite their dual commitments to scientific truths and God’s involvement in Creation.

General vs. Special Divine Action and the Deistic Perspective

In academic discussions of divine action, it is common to begin with the supposed distinction between “general” and “special” divine action. General divine action, or providence, is taken to indicate God’s initial act of creation ex nihilo, together with the assumption that God is undergirding and preserving the natural laws that God has set in motion, as it were. This is in marked contrast to “special” divine action, which is depicted as the specific actions God undertakes—either in response to human needs and prayers, or to bring about some divinely intended purpose. Miracles would fall into this category as well. The distinction between general and special divine action has become an important one for theologians, and marks a point of departure for those wishing to affirm God’s ongoing activity in the world. Those affirming God’s initial act of creation, but not any ongoing activity in the temporal, law-governed natural world, describe a “deistic” theology. Many in this camp would be happy to affirm subjective divine action, or the psychological interpretation of natural events as miraculous or providential. This deistic, subjectivist perspective sees God as acting by upholding natural laws and autonomous physical process; events may be experienced as miraculous, but the events themselves are uniform and scientifically explainable. This approach gets around the problems attached to divine intervention, but may result in a rather anemic, “hands-off” theology of divine action.

Non-Interventionist Divine Action

Those dissatisfied with the deistic approach may instead affirm objective, special divine action—the claim that God really does act in the events of the natural world. Because divine action has been so often conceived in interventionist terms (i.e. divine acts imply violation or suspension of natural laws), many have simply chosen to accept interventionism as an unsatisfactory but necessary part of the Christian faith. But for all the reasons discussed in yesterday’s post, many others have endeavored to find ways of affirming objective divine action without conceding to the charge that such agency must be necessarily interventionist. These theologians have pointed out that the scientific worldview is no longer Newtonian or mechanistic; rather, they argue, the post-Einstein world suggests that at least some aspects of nature are “ontologically under-determined.” That is, these theologians have attempted to identify specific spheres within the natural world that are not strictly governed by deterministic laws, and are thus inherently open to God’s action. These points of supposed “openness” or under-determination have been called “causal joints,” in reference to their role in connecting the causal agency of God’s will to the causal mechanisms in the natural world. Robert John Russell has applied the term “non-interventionist objective divine action” (NIODA) to apply to this cluster of approaches. It is worth noting that these non-interventionist approaches are generally not talking about miracles per se, or at least not miracles as defined in the Humean sense as “violations of the laws of nature.” Rather, divine action is to be seen as occurring in and through the natural world, and precisely at the level of inherently under-determined or indeterministic processes.

There are both bottom-up and top-down proposals in this general cluster of theories. Perhaps the most popular (and contentious!) is the bottom-up quantum divine action approach, which locates divine action in the fundamentally indeterministic processes of quantum mechanics. The argument goes that because the outcome of specific quantum events is underdetermined by natural laws, God can appropriately act at this level, thereby effecting large-scale quantum processes resulting in macro-level, observable events that would not have happened if God had not chosen to act. A more top down approach has been exemplified by John Polkinghorne, whose understanding of chaos theory has led him to suggest that because “the world is…so exquisitely sensitive to circumstance that the smallest disturbance will produce large and ever-growing changes in their behavior,” God can act through the input of “pure information” into these systems to bring about specific events.[1] Arthur Peacocke, on the other hand, has worked with the notion of “whole-part” influence to suggest that God constrains the natural world as a whole, in such a way that specific events within the universal system are effected. A final non-interventionist approach involves recent theories of emergentist divine action, such as Philip Clayton’s proposal that the emergent mind might be the only ontologically open area of the natural world in which God can act without intervening in natural laws.

While these non-interventionist scholars have significant key differences (and, indeed, would not all be happy to be grouped together in the same conceptual cluster!), they share in common a dual commitment to both scientific explanation and a commitment to objective divine action in the world. They are persuasive and helpful insofar as they attempt to take both science and theology as seriously as possible, and to show how God might work with, rather than against, God-given natural laws. The main weakness with non-interventionist “causal joint” approaches is that they are entirely dependent on current scientific understanding of specific natural processes. For example, there has been extensive criticism levied against the quantum divine action approach. There is actually great disagreement amongst physicists about the ontology of quantum indeterminism, and also serious questions about whether or not individual quantum events could scale up to observable macro-level events. Similar criticisms attend theological appropriations of chaos theory and the burgeoning field of emergence theories. The general point is that as scientific knowledge progresses and changes, these “ontologically underdetermined” natural processes may well be rendered explainable in scientific terms. Moreover, there are serious theological concerns that non-interventionist approaches limit God to a cause among causes; are non-interventionist approaches capable of handling the robust sort of divine action and interaction attested to in Scripture, tradition, and lived experience?

Reconceiving Metaphysical Models

A final approach to divine action involves questioning the metaphysical assumptions we bring to the theological table in the first place. That is, some have argued that the entire “intervention versus non-intervention” conversation is predicated upon a deistic understanding of the God-world model, in which Creation is depicted as somehow existing autonomously. As Mark Corner points out, the idea of intervention “implies that human beings ordinarily inhabit a self-sufficient universe…If God ‘intervenes’ in the world, that implies that the Deity ordinarily stands apart from it.”[2] The suggestion, then, is that a Trinitarian and biblical conception of the God-nature relationship might involve questioning the terms of the conversation itself. For example, many theologians have suggested a move toward “panentheism”, a model in which Creation exists in God, although God remains transcendent and more than Creation; divine action would then occur in and through natural laws, for the whole natural system would exist within God. Finding this dangerously close to pantheism, others have opted for a renewed emphasis on the proper role of the Holy Spirit in Creation. This view argues that natural laws are approximations of physical regularities that must be contextualized in the “higher laws” of the Holy Spirit. Thus, divine action occurs because the Spirit’s presence and activity are actually necessary for a full account of the natural world. In this view, “phenomena described as ‘miraculous’ are not instances of God breaking into the world, as if God were outside it prior to such events; they are instances of a unique and special mode of participation that always already characterizes creation.”[3] The commonality among these types of approaches is the emphasis on redefining what is “properly natural.”

Some may find these models unconvincing, insofar as they are fundamentally theological, and thus impossible to falsify scientifically. Still, they encourage fresh and healthy re-framing of old questions. In the coming weeks, several contributors will share their diverse perspectives on many of the approaches touched on thus far. While the question of divine action in a scientific world will surely remain open, these contributions promise to ask all the right questions, and perhaps provide theologically compelling and intellectually satisfying perspectives.


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Sarah Lane Ritchie
About the Author

Sarah Lane Ritchie

Sarah Lane Ritchie is Lecturer in Theology and Science at the University of Edinburgh. She has a PhD in Science and Religion from the University of Edinburgh, where her doctoral work focused on the question of divine action in the human mind. A Michigander by birth, Sarah also holds a BA in Philosophy and Religion from Spring Arbor University, an MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary, and an MSc in Science and Religion from the University of Edinburgh. Her published work focuses on questions arising from the intersection of theology, philosophy, and the various brain-related sciences. Sarah’s research interests include divine action, philosophy of mind, naturalism, cognitive science of religion, and the psychology of belief formation.