….and square pegs in round holes

I finished my last post by suggesting that any divine action in the natural world would inevitably resemble chance in its deviation from the predictions of lawlike processes. I queried whether a genuinely indeterminate chance might or might not be distinguished from God’s actions, and hence God’s work be considered “detectable.”

But “detectability” is less important in the scheme of things than the actuality, detectable or not, of God’s ongoing creation. The persistence of God’s creative role is, though often neglected, standard Christian doctrine if only because it is affirmed in the Bible, such as at Psalm 139 and Psalm 104. Yet in reality the concept is meaningless in the scenario I cited last time from The Language of God: “Once evolution got under way, no supernatural intervention was required.”

Creation is, if nothing else, work. Though one may talk loosely of unguided evolution as a means of creation, all the creative work would be in setting up the system initially. Conceivably natural law and chance could produce evolution or other change, but not creation, which implies an actual working activity of God. To use an analogy, one could describe the building of a robot as a work of creation. Equally you could so describe any modifications you made to it. But once it was switched on, watching it engaged in its manufacturing role would not be an act of creation. Otherwise one would have to describe all human work as, in fact, God’s creation. Granted. philosophers speak of God as the First Cause of every act, but the distinction between agents needs to be maintained to say anything clearly at all.

OK, let’s turn to our examination of chance. We must distinguish between epistemological randomness and true randomness. The former is where we simply lack the knowledge or intellect to find a cause, though it could be known by the famous Laplace’s Demon. The problem is that, since there is no such demon, God might act in such situations and still be unobserved by us. To borrow an information theory analogy, a message in a rare Nigerian language might carry meaning, but would be indistinguishable to us from a random string of syllables.

Epistemological randomness, then, is unpredictable to us, but presumably not to an omniscient God, unless he deliberately abandons his omniscience as he does in Open Theism (though in some versions he simply wasn’t omniscient anyway). As BioLogos has rather trivially pointed out  in recent posts, this kind of randomness may actually serve the purposes of order, even when that’s not apparent to us, as for example when Brownian Motion brings reactants into juxtaposition in an organism.

But what if God acts through true randomness, or scientific indeterminacy, such as the usual interpretation of quantum theory describes? As I have described elsewhere, R J Russell suggests this as a medium for divine action. The question then arises of whether such randomness in itself is the detectable marker of God’s actions, or whether his actions are only a subset of such random events. In other words, does he hide his occasional activity within the indeterminacy of quantum events, or are quantum events always his ongoing activity?

The Intelligent Design approach, of course, looks to the results, rather than at the events themselves. True randomness cannot produce ordered complexity, so order arising from unpredictable events must indicate design. Continuing the language metaphor, if you can translate your Nigerian dialect, it clearly isn’t a random string.

But disregarding that approach, the question of whether God organises all indeterminate events, or only a few, is a philosophical and theological one – to science, the events themselves will look identical. Robert J Russell, for example, chooses not to commit himself on how frequently God might actually do this. Presumably he might say that it depends on how closely God wishes to control the Universe (of course, that word “control” raises the hackles of those who see God’s activity as “control freakery”, “micro-management”, “coercion”, “interference” etc. Such terms must be seen as ideologically loaded. One might equally say, “It depends on how much God wants to express his love in the Universe”, or “It depends on how much he wants to limit chaos.”)

In the last article I looked at the effects of God’s introduction of randomness into a wholly law-driven Universe. The result was to make any specific outworking of God’s will impossible, and to make our free choices inevitably irrational. In sports, we introduce randomness to make the game harder: it’s more of a challenge to shoot a running rabbit than a still one. But if you’re just after your supper, you try not to frighten the bunny. In the same way, the only reason one can think of for God to introduce real indeterminacy into the Universe is to make the game harder for himself, and for us. True chance is, in fact, the very antithesis of the reliability of God’s natural laws, tending to remove order and spread chaos (or the tohu wabohu which God subdues in Genesis 1 through the act of bara, creation).

If God wants a lawlike Universe in which he can enact his perfect will, and in which we similarly can make successful choices, then the presence of true indeterminacy would require him to intervene a lot more than he otherwise would. Compare how much work a helmsman needs to do in calm conditions compared to keeping the boat steady in a squall. So it would seem a lot more economical for God to be wisely guiding all quantum events towards the desired, ie the best, outcomes, rather than constantly picking up the pieces of chance events. Otherwise, he would seem to be playing dice for the sheer challenge of it. I don’t need to remind you that Christian doctrine has always viewed the Creation as a work of God’s loving wisdom, rather than as his personal sporting challenge.

Finally, I want to add a few words on Open Theism as it relates to the scenarios in these two articles, since the idea of an open, free creation is so often linked to it. Key features of this theology are (a) that God does not know the future, but discovers it in relation to us and, in its TE versions, the cosmos as a whole; and (b) that God is far more personal and interactive than classic theism suggests – he really can have his mind changed by prayer. This is sometimes stated in terms of God’s not knowing everything, but always knowing the best way to react to any circumstances.

Several of the situations I have developed here are problematic for that. The deterministic Universe “needing no supernatural intervention” would actually enable God, like Laplace’s Demon, to know the future exactly – that, in fact, is the way Francis Collins sets the situation out in The Language of God. God would presumably have to block out the information to avoid foreseeing the future and ceasing to be open to creation. This scenario would also, of course, give him no means of answering prayer at all, nor indeed of making any meaningful divine response to the world.

Adding randomness, as I did next in my previous post, changes the situation only in “restoring” to God his ignorance of the future. He is still unable to do anything to respond to what this randomness (?freedom) is doing to his world, nor to answer prayer, since chance and necessity rule all, including God.

Only, in fact, if God is able to act in the Universe in the way Open Theists describe as “coercive interference”, ie in the same way that classical theism sees God’s involvement, is he able to be the responsive, “wooing” God Open Theism requires. If at the same time God is “discouraged” from acting thus within the natural world and limiting its “freedom”, then his ability to answer prayers will also, of course, be strictly limited to actual miracles that leave nature untouched. Traditional views of Providence rely heavily on God’s routine control of nature (in turn relying on God’s foresight to enable him to avert harmful consequences, and so on – impossible for a God without foreknowledge). So in classical theology miracles are rare – in Open Theism they are the only mechanism to answer all our billions of prayers. It’s interesting to speculate on just how God might answer prayer under these restraints, and how, lacking foreknowledge, he might avoid the kind of unforeseen consequences that human legislators so often encounter.

Hey, but if that’s the price of freedom…

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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