Divine Action in the World (i.e. miracles) Alvin Plantinga Lecture, May 12, 2011 at Western Washington University

the Stainned Gless of depicting the Holy Spirit.

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The Heidelberg Catechism: „Providence is the almighty and ever present power of God by which he upholds, as with his hand, heaven and earth and all creatures, and so rules them that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and lean years, food and drink, health and sickness, prosperity and poverty–all things, in fact, come to us not by chance but from his fatherly hand.”

Classical Christian idea here: Regularity, dependability; but also special action. Miracles in scripture: the parting of the Red Sea, Jesus’s walking on water and changing water into wine, miraculous healings, rising from the dead. But not just in Bible times: according to classical Christians, also now responds to prayers; healings; works in the hearts and minds of his children (internal testimony of the Holy Spirit; sanctification). God constantly causes events in the world.

I. What’s the Problem?

Many theologians think there is a science/religion problem here.

Rudolf Bultmann:

The historical method includes the presupposition that history is a unity in the sense of a closed continuum of effects in which individual events are connected by the succession of cause and effect. [This continuum, furthermore,] cannot be rent by the interference of supernatural, transcendent powers. (Existence and Faith)

Jolm Macquarrie agrees:

The way of understanding miracle that appeals to breaks in the natural order and to supernatural interventions belongs to the mythological outlook and cannot commend itself in a post-mythological climate of thought. … The traditional conception of miracle is irreconcilable with our modem understanding of both science and history. Science proceeds on the assumption that whatever events occur in the world can be accounted for in terms of other events that also belong within the world; and if on some occasions we are unable to give a complete account of some happening … the scientific conviction is that further research will bring to light further factors in the situation, but factors that will turn out to be just as immanent and this-worldly as those already known. (Principles of Christian Theology)

So does Langdon Gilkey:

… contemporary theology does not expect, nor does it speak of, wondrous divine events on the surface of natural and historical life. The causal nexus in space and time which the enlightenment science and philosophy introduced into the Western mind … is also assumed by modem theologians and scholars; since they participate in the modem world of science both intellectually and existentially, they can scarcely do anything else. Now this assumption of a causal order among phenomenal events, and therefore of the authority of the scientific interpretation of observable events, makes a great difference to the validity one assigns to biblical narratives and so to the way one understands their meaning. Suddenly a vast panoply of divine deeds and events recorded in scripture are no longer regarded as having actually happened… Whatever the Hebrews believed, we believe that the biblical people lived in the same causal continuum of space and time in 2 which we live, and so one in which no divine wonders transpired and no divine voices were heard. „Cosmology, Ontology and the Travail of Biblical Language”

So what exactly is the problem?

According to the classical Christian and theistic picture of the world, God is a person, one who has knowledge, loves and hates, and aims or ends; he acts on the basis of his knowledge to achieve his ends. Second, God is all-powerful, all-knowing and wholly good. God has these properties essentially, and indeed necessarily: he has them in every possible world in which he exists, and he exists in every possible world. (Thus God is a necessarily existent concrete being, and the only necessarily existent concrete being.) Third, God has created the world. Fourth, as noted above by the Heidelberg Catechism, God conserves, sustains, maintains in being this world he has created. Fifth, at least sometimes God acts in a way going beyond creation and conservation (e.g., miracles, but also providential guiding of history, working in the hearts of people, etc.)

The problem: God’s special action in the world: action beyond conservation and creation (C&C).

Miracle would be an example. ‘Hands-off Theology’ (Bultmann: „interfering”)

Why is this a problem? Their suggestion: Contrary, somehow, to science.

Gilkey: modern theologians and scholars participate in the world of science….Not just theologians: also philosophers.

Philip Clayton:

Science has created a challenge to theology by its remarkable ability to explain and predict natural phenomena. Any theological system that ignores the picture of the world painted by scientific results is certain to be regarded with suspicion.

He goes on:

But science is often identified with determinism. In a purely deterministic universe there would be no room for God to work in the world except through the sort of miraculous intervention that Hume–and many of his readers–found to be so insupportable. Thus many, both inside and outside of theology, have abandoned any doctrine of divine action as incompatible with the natural sciences. (Anti-interventionism)

Also many scientists. Dawkins, Atkins, et. aI, but also, e.g., H. Allen Orr:

It is not that some sects of one religion invoke miracles but that many sects of many religions do. (Moses, after all, parted the waters and Krishna healed the sick.) I agree of course that no sensible scientists can tolerate such exceptionalism with respect to the laws of nature. (New York Review of Books May 13, 2004).

So the real problem here: science promulgates natural laws; if God did miracles or acted specially in the world, he would have to contravene these laws and miraculously intervene; and that’s contrary to science.

3 Bultmann:

someone who avails herself of modern medicine and uses the wireless (not to mention, I suppose, television, computers, and digital cameras) can’t also believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament.

But is all this really true?

II. The Old Picture

Bultmann, et. al. apparently thinking in terms of classical science (Newtonian mechanics, the later physics of electricity and magnetism represented by Maxwell’s Equations). „God said, ‘Let Newton be, …'”

Newtonian World Picture: God has created the world, which is like an enormous machine proceeding according to fixed laws: the laws of classical physics. But this not sufficient for Anti-interventionism or Hands-off Theology; Newton himself (one thinks) accepted the Newtonian World Picture, but didn’t accept hands-off theology. Newton’s laws describe how the world works provided that the world is a closed (isolated) system, subject to no outside causal influence. (The partial derivative with respect to time of the LaGrangian of the system is zero).

The great conservation laws deduced from Newton’s Laws are stated for closed or isolated systems. Sears and Zemanski’s University Physics: „. . . this is the principle of conservation of linear momentum: When no resultant external force acts on a system, the total momentum of the system remains constant in magnitude and direction.” And the principle of conservation of energy states that „the internal energy of an isolated system remains constant. This is the most general statement of the principle of conservation of energy”.

So these principles apply to isolated or closed systems. Nothing, here, to prevent God from changing the velocity or direction of a particle, or from creating ex nihilo a fullgrown horse. Energy is conserved in a closed system; but it is no part of Newtonian mechanics or classical science generally to declare that the material universe is indeed a closed system. (How could a thing like that be experimentally verified?)

To get hands-off theology, we need more than classical science as such; Determinism. Common definition: the natural laws plus state of the universe at any time entails the state of the universe at any other time.

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.

4 The idea: the material universe is a system of particles such that whatever happens at any time, together with the laws, determines whatever happens at any other time; i.e. the state of the U at any time t together with the laws entails the state of the U at any other time t*. Determinism.

This picture is supposed to preclude SDA, and also human freedom.

But this picture is accurate only if the universe is causally closed: only if God doesn’t act specially in the world. If he did, that great mind would not be able to make its calculations.

LaPlacian picture: the Newtonian picture plus closure. This is the picture guiding the thought of Bultmann, Macquarrie, Gilkey, et.a!. (Interesting irony: in the name of being scientific and up to date they urge on us a picture of the world that is scientifically out of date by many decades.)

But classical science doesn’t assert or include closure (or determinism). The laws describe how things go when the universe is causally closed, subject to no outside causal influence.

J.L. Mackie:

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 ways 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 (The Miracle of Theism).

So the natural laws would take the form: (NL) When the universe is causally closed (God is not acting specially in the world), P. This seems a good description of the laws of nature and fits with the Newtonian picture. So thought of, the natural laws offer no threat to divine special action, including miracles.

The LaPlacian picture results only if we add that the universe is in fact a causally closed system and God never acts specially in it.

So there is in classical science no objection to special divine action (or to human free action, dualistically conceived). To get such an objection, we must add that the (material) universe is causally closed. That’s a metaphysical or theological add on, not part of classical science. Classical science perfectly consistent with special divine action including miracles (walking on water, rising from the dead, creating ex nihilo a full grown horse). No religion/science conflict here; only a religion/metaphysics conflict.

So why do those theologians reject miracles? Because they (mistakenly) think miracles are contrary to science.

But they have another objection: this, so they say, would involve God’s intervening in the world, and these theologians have objections to that (e.g., God would be establishing regularities with one hand, but undermining them with the other). But this is a theological objection, not drawn from science. Nothing in classical science conflicts with miracle or SDA.

III. The New Picture

Quantum mechanics: the LaPlacian (and Newtonian) picture is now superseded; in particular, the laws of qm are probabilistic rather than deterministic. Given a qm system, a system of particles, e.g., they don’t say which configuration will in fact result from the initial conditions, but instead assign probabilities to the possible outcomes. Miracles (walking on water, rising from the dead, etc.) clearly not incompatible with these laws. (No doubt very improbable; but we already knew that.)

Further, on collapse interpretations, e.g., the original Copenhagen interpretation and the collapse theories of Ghirardi, Rimini, and Weber, God could be the cause of the collapses, and of the way in which they occur. And on hidden variable interpretations, the laws describe how things go when God isn’t acting specially.

And if higher level laws supervene on (are determined by) lower level laws, nothing compatible with lower level laws will be incompatible with higher level laws. But very many philosophers, theologians and scientists who are wholly aware of the qm revolution still apparently find a problem with miracles and special divine action generally.

For example, „The Divine Action Project” (so-called by Wesley Wildman (Theology and Science 2, p. 31ff.)), a IS-year series of conferences and publications that began in 1988. So far these conferences have resulted in 5 or 6 books of essays involving some 50 or more authors from various fields of science together with philosophers and theologians, including many of the most prominent writers in the field: John Polkinghome, Arthur Peacocke, Nancey Murphy, Philip Clayton, many others. Certainly a serious and most impressive attempt to come to grips with the topic of divine action in the world. Nearly all of these authors believe that a satisfactory account of God’s action in the world would have to be noninterventionistic.

According to Wesley Wildman in his account of the Divine.Action Project: „… The DAP project tried to be sensitive to issues of theological consistency. 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 struck most members as dangerously close to outright contradiction. Most participants certainly felt that God would not create an orderly world in which it was impossible for the creator to act without violating the created structures of order.”

Philip Clayton: the real problem here, apparently, is that it is very difficult to come up with an idea of divine action in the world in which such action would not constitute „breaking natural law” or „breaking physical law.”

Arthur Peacocke comments as follows on a certain proposal for divine action, a proposal according to which God’s special actions would be undetectable: God would have to be conceived of as actually manipulating micro-events (at the atomic, molecular, and according to some, quantum levels) in these initiating fluctuations on the natural world in order to produce the results at the macroscopic level which God wills. But such a conception of God’s action … would then be no different in principle from that of God intervening in the order of nature with all the problems that that evokes for a rationally coherent belief in God as the creator of that order.

But what, exactly, is the problem with intervention? More poignantly, what is intervention?

Can say what it is on the old picture. The form of law: (NL) When the universe is causally closed (when God is not acting specially in the world), P.

So consider the result of deleting the antecedents from the laws and call the conjunction of the P’s ‘L’. There is an intervention when an event E occurs such that there is an earlier state of the universe S such that S&L does not entail E.But nothing like this available on the New Picture. So what would an intervention be?

(1) God does something A that causes a state of affairs that would not have occurred if God had not done A.

But then any act of conservation would be an intervention; and presumably no one’s worried about conservation.

(2) God performs an act A which is neither conservation nor creation that causes a state of affairs that would not have occurred if he had not performed A.

But isn’t this just (substantially) acting specially in the world? The alleged objection to SDA: it involves intervention. What is intervention? SDA. So the problem with SDA is SDA.

(3) God performs an act that is very improbable, given the previous states of the world.

But what’s the problem with that? Why shouldn’t God perform very improbable acts?

(4) There are various lower level generalizations not entailed by qm on which we rely: bread nourishes, people don’t walk on water or rise from the dead, etc. God intervenes when he causes an event contrary to one of those generalizations.

But again, what’s the problem with that? Are we to suppose these lower level regularities are like the laws of the Medes and Persians, so that once God has established one of them, not even he can act contrary to it? In any event this kind of objection is philosophical or theological, not scientific. There is nothing in science, under either the old or the new picture, that conflicts with or even „calls into question” SDA, including miracles.

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