Robert J Russell on Creation’s Freedom

I’m slowly wading through Russell’s Cosmology – From Alpha to Omega, in which, amongst other things, he covers his “quantum indeterminacy” hypothesis for NIODA (non-interventive objective divine action), as advertised in Ted Davis’ blogs at BioLogos. If I have a criticism overall, it’s that he seems to be playing a game that accepts science’s assertions about nature’s being (at the Newtonian level) a closed system. This being assumed, he seems to say, how can we assert God’s activity in the world without his interfering with natural law, which science won’t allow. To me, the obvious first move is to question whether there is adequate evidence for science’s deterministic assertion in the first place.


Be that as it may, the first thing that has struck me as worthy of note here is a discussion, in chapter 5, of the difference between bottom-up and top-down divine causation. God’s determination of naturally-undetermined quantum events is, for obvious reasons, “bottom-up” (since you can’t get much bottomer). He has already pointed out that, at least in some cases, macro-scale events can be determined by individual quantum events, rather than their just averaging out. For example, one photon can register a conscious impression in the human visual cortex, one DNA mutation could change a species and, in Schrödinger’s famous thought-experiment, one decaying atom can kill a cat. And a dead cat could make a butterfly’s wings flap on the other side of the world, maybe – or if it belonged to Ernst Stavros Blofeld of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. trigger a nuclear holocaust.

Top-down causation could be, for example, direct encounter with the human mind (“Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street…”), or the creation of the natural laws (underlying, as Russell assumes, deterministic physics). In describing the latter, he seems to cite, questioningly, the kind of position apparently taken by Darrel Falk and Dennis Venema, to name two, at Biologos. Affirming that the laws show God’s faithfulness and rational intelligibility, he asks whether:

…we can nonetheless adequately understand God’s action within the physical, astrophysical, molecular and evolutionary processes – out of which we arose – as expressing God’s intention in ways that go beyond that of maintaining the existence of these processes and allowing their built-in “potentialities” to work themselves out over time.

So far so BioLogos. But he then asks whether such top-down causation can give an intelligible account of God’s total action in Creation, and concludes it cannot:

Top-down causation is helpful when considering the action of conscious and self-conscious creatures that are genuinely open to God’s action and that have at least some capacity to respond to it. But it is hard to see what constitutes the “top” through which God acts in a top-down way when no conscious, let alone self-conscious, creatures capable of mind/brain interactions have yet evolved.

Until that time, he says, such creatures would be ruled only by the ultimately deterministic laws of classical science. Accordingly, there would be no mechanism for God to act thus in the first 12-15 billion years of cosmic history. In other words, the God who only sustains natural law as it meanders its way in “limited freedom” to what we see today is an incoherent concept. Which is exactly what Thomas Cudworth has been saying at length on Uncommon Descent and what I’ve been saying on BioLogos and here for many months, without the benefit of Russell’s erudition. But then it doesn’t require erudition – merely common sense.

Elsewhere in Russell’s book he describes the various options regarding divine action in relation to current science. The only one that really answers his objection here is Process Theology, because Process Metaphysics posits that there is a mental aspect to every event in the Universe, most limited at the non-living level but increasing, as God interacts with his world, until consciousness brings it to a climax. Russell doesn’t accept Process Theology, and neither do most Christians. Open Theism of the BioLogos type is much less defined in its idea of the Universe’s “freedom” (or openness, but this is a confusing use of words as they mean open to its own direction rather than, as in Russell’s writing, to the input of God). What Russell’s discussion shows is that Open Theism can only work in evolution if it adopts Process Theology. I’ve seen that asserted elsewhere, but to me the argument seems irrefutable on Russell’s analysis, though he doesn’t himself make it.

Last word to Russell:

Unless one returns to the quantum level, where holism and indeterminism are displayed everywhere and at all times since t=0, I see little hope that God’s action within the early stages of physical, astrophysical, and biological pehenomena can be described in non-interventionist ways using either whole-part constraint or top-down causal arguments.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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2 Responses to Robert J Russell on Creation’s Freedom

  1. Gregory says:

    Hi Jon,

    Back after some busy days, which included meeting a nearing-retirement, established process philosopher (who is a theist) and putting questions to him about the differences between process philosophy and process theology. He has criticisms of process theology, but defends process philosophy. Otoh, it seems you do not entertain the possibility of important contributions from process philosophy in the likes of Whitehead or Bergson. Iow, you seem to swipe Process Philosophy into Process Theology.

    “he seems to be playing a game that accepts science’s assertions about nature’s being (at the Newtonian level) a closed system.” – Jon

    I’m not convinced and likewise don’t think of ‘science’ as an agent that makes assertions; people make assertions. In fact, you seem to be playing a ‘closed’ card too, in terms of your theology. I’d appreciate hearing more about what you think makes Russell’s system ‘closed’ while yours is ‘open’ or vice versa.

    Likewise, could you distinguish between Open Theology, Process Theology and Process Philosophy? In this thread you speak of Process Metaphysics positing mental aspects to every event. This doesn’t sound like the Process Philosophy I’ve studied.

    “What Russell’s discussion shows is that Open Theism can only work in evolution if it adopts Process Theology.” – Jon

    Please explain this for us non-theologians. In the Protestant tradition, it is possible to say ‘everyone is a theologian.’ But in the broader realm of Christendom and for the sake of ‘professionalism’ we can accept that is not the case. Indeed, there are apparently haters of anything ‘open’ in regard to theism, yet who would sidestep the claim that they are closed, the logical opposite of open, in their own position. Can ‘evolution’ (in biology) not be both ‘closed’ and ‘open’ and if so, wouldn’t that make you an Evolutionary Creationist (rather than an IDer or TEist) just lke Penman, Jon?

  2. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Gregory

    I’m rather dependent on others’ assessments of Process philosophy and theology. But to quote Russell commenting on Barbour, “Another distinctive feature of process philosophy is the claim that all actual occasions have a mental as well as a physical pole. The complexity of their orgainisation into inanimate and living organisms affects the degree to which they can respond to the mental pole and to God’s lure.” I’ve read similar descriptions elsewhere, which seems to suggest that the freedom of which I speak here makes sense at the philosophical (metaphysical) level and not just the theological. Russell agrees it is a way to justify a view of autonomy in nature, but won’t go with the process.

    I’m not suggesting Russell’s system is closed, but that he takes for granted in his project (having shown, I think, its lack of empirical foundation) the claim of scientists [OK – a poor use of metonymy] that classical science reveals a closed Universe in which God could not act. Russell looks to “appease” (or interact with) that view by finding a means (in this case indeterminate quantum events) by which God could act in the world without interfering. At the same time he also hints at some top-down activity in terms of miracle, and I’m anxious to see if, and how, he justifies that later in the book.

    As I point out, “open” and “closed” here are being used in a somewhat different sense than the discussion of freedom in nature – but perhaps only because Russell spells out the issues clearly rather than in the vaguely democratic terms I’m used to seeing.

    To address your final question, let’s skirt round that “open” and “closed” terminology because of the ambiguous definition. Russell suggests in the passage quoted that talking of “top-down” causation analogous to God’s dealings with people makes no sense in evolution because of the absence of cognition and will below at least the higher animals (and in terms of evolution even that is irrelevant because even higher animals don’t make “mental” decisions about their evolution). That’s given a deterministic set of natural laws, of course. Russell sees in quantum events how evolution might be open to God from the bottom-up – but that leaves no space for creation’s autonomy except, as he has said, in the process theology of Barbour et al.

    He criticises some other writers for suggesting that classical natural law is also open to God’s NIODA because it is not prescriptive, but merely describes the sum of God’s reliable and faithful activity. Oddly, he agrees with that view of law (as opposed to the idea that natural law is some kind of platonic imperative apart from God) but for reasons of which I am not yet clear doesn’t seem to want to accept NIODA in classical science. For myself, I’m not clear why openness to God’s direction should not pervade classical science, chaos theory and quantum mechanics all, but I’m reading Russell partly to see if there are valid objections to that.

    I’m very much on the same page as Penman overall, though his training and interest are theological more than biological. His articles partly arose from discussions we had offline. He’ll no doubt intervene if I misrepresent him, but I think we both like James Shapiro because his ideas give more scope for divine teleology than Neodarwinism, rather than an independent autonomy for evolving organisms to plan their futures.

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