Statistics and divine action

In another context Gregory linked to an article by Steve Fuller. In this post the argument of the article itself is not important. But part of what it said was to point to the work of the physicist James Clerk Maxwell. Of Maxwell Wikipedia says:

Maxwell is considered by many physicists to be the 19th-century scientist having the greatest influence on 20th-century physics.

The Biographical Dictionary of Scientists says he is generally considered:

…the greatest theoretical physicist of the 1800s, as his forbear Faraday was the greatest experimental physicist.

Incidentally the fact that he was also an Evangelical Presbyterian and subsequently a Church of Scotland elder is another nail in the coffin of the “religion stops science” myth (Faraday was also a church elder). Since he was the kind of religious “ologist” I was talking about in my previous post I can’t resist quoting from a letter to his wife as an object lesson in the difference from the lover of philosophical theology:

Let us begin by taking no thought about worldly cares and setting our minds on the righteousness of God and His kingdom – and then we shall have far clearer views about the worldly cares themselves and we shall be enabled to fight then under Him Who has overcome the world.

This is clearly “religion” rather than “theology”, and here I would disagree with Steve Fuller when he says:

Religion is about faith and ritual, which is fine but not especially relevant to science.

It’s hard to believe that such a faith as Maxwell’s did not affect his science. In fact, the point of this post is to show one area it certainly did, which seems to provide a fruitful approach to divine action in the presence of scientific law and randomness.  Fuller talks about how Maxwell observed that the sociologists of the time – the statisticians of the British National Census – had been able to make such progress in improving social conditions by treating human beings as statistical groups. Maxwell was able to see that statistics could similarly be applied to physics, hitherto dominated by the attempt to understand the motions of individual particles according to the classical atomist theory.

Thus he laid the foundation for understanding the laws of physics in statistical terms, which of course was an insight absolutely indispensible to the twentieth century science of quantum mechanics. What interests me is the terms in which he introduced this idea to his fellow scientists:

Would it not be more profound – and feasible – to determine the general constraints within which the deity must act than to track each event the divine will enacts?

Now you could view that, in scientific terms, as merely a quaint way of speaking, even if Maxwell himself believed it. But as Gregory pointed out to me when he linked to the article, sociology itself drew back from its purely statistical basis as the twentieth century came in, for the very basic reason that humans are quite obviously more than statistical averages. To understand them, you have to understand their individual free choices, which are invariably more complex and interesting than the statistical outcomes in populations. By the time I did social psychology at University, such an individually-based approach was the norm, even though the rediscovery of the fact that behaviour is due to more than “genes + environment” lay in the sociological future (it’s well-established now, though. My frustration and rebellion have been vindicated).

In the light of where sociology has gone now, Maxwell’s words are prophetic of, say, Elliot Sober’s recent paper saying that science cannot exclude divine action in nature. The physical laws, says Maxwell, are true only statistically: that is by no means incompatible with the fact that each event is enacted by the divine will. How much more is that true when the most basic events, at the quantum level, are now believed to be scientifically indeterminate, a truth unknown to Maxwell?

Whatever arguments may be made about the determinacy of human actions, there is no doubt that at the mundane level they are the result of choices made for all kinds of complex reasons. And yet it is possible to draw statistically reliable inferences from the totality of such actions. These inferences, in Maxwell’s terms, “determine the general constraints within which humanity must act.” To use the “laws” of human sciences like sociology or economics to deny that individual humans make free decisions is demonstrably wrong – we have only to study the individuals. My social psychology was populated by books like The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life and The Psychology of Interpersonal Behaviour.

Not only, then, does natural law, or the appearance of normal distributions of individual events, not demonstrate that direct divine action is impossible. By analogy with the very sociological statistical science by which Maxwell made modern physics possible, we would predict that there would be individual decision-nodes within the sweep of statistical physical laws.

Why then is it received wisdom that the universality of scientific law precludes divine action? Maybe one answer is in this sentence from the Wikipedia article on Maxwell:

Ivan Tolstoy, author of one of Maxwell’s biographies, has noted the frequency with which scientists writing short biographies of Maxwell omit the subject of his Christianity.

Once again we see the dead hand of that science-stopper: unbelief.

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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One Response to Statistics and divine action

  1. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Update: I see from Sir Bernard Lovell’s obituary in the Telegraph that he too was a Christian – played his church organ and wouldn’t watch cricket on the sabbath.

    Jodrell Bank – another science stopper!”

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