Divine action hiding in plain sight?

Leaving the question of a possible metaphysical makeover for science, fielded in my last post, hanging for now, I’ll follow gravity in returning to the matter of divine action. In any case this was the spin George Brooks put on my article in his flagging of the post at BioLogos, and it has also been discussed recently in another thread there.

One attempted put-down of my article on BioLogos was to say that methodological naturalism enables science to be done on an equal footing by those of all faiths and none. Which is fine and dandy, until you consider (as a Christian) that the Bible clearly suggests that creation reveals the glory of God – so why should it look the same to atheists as to believers? Divine hiddenness is a popular theological strand but regarding nature, given that belief in God, or gods, was universal until the Enlightenment, God clearly wasn’t any good at hiding, especially in his Spirit’s scriptural descriptions of the world.

The Heavens DeclareBut the problem is more specific: the universal witness of Scripture is to the God who governs creation, directs human history, and responds to the prayers of his people with “mighty acts” not only in unique miracles like the resurrection, but in “giving us each day our daily bread”. It’s a real (and seldom seriously answered) question why all this alleged divine activity should leave so little trace in the real world that God is, in effect, an optional extra for science. Seeking the “God of the Gaps” may be an inherently wrong approach, but the reality is that there seems to be trouble finding any gaps for him to hide in anyway.

There appear to be only limited possibilities for God to act on nature. As Eddie acknowledges in his recent post, George Brooks’ fairly basic dichotomy between (a) God’s frontloading a naturalistic system so deterministically that it works out as he planned and/or (b) “nudging” nature in real time towards his purposes, is essentially sound. But the first is thoroughly Deistic (who wants the world to be the mere algorithm of an absentee Deity?), and the second falls foul not only of the charge that God would be working against his own laws, but also that nobody seems to be able to detect his work, despite the biblical claims about its ubiquity.

George postulates, for evolution at least, that God directs cosmic rays in real time to cause mutations – rather as R J Russell found a “let out clause” for divine “meddling” by suggesting that God directs quantum events (which arguably have no cause in nature and so are exempt from being “illegally” interfered with by God). Both though, in effect, have God working in invisible corners in the absence of more obvious signs of his work.

And that’s on the face of it odd: experience shows us that the activities of human wills are completely visible against the background of nature. Go to the untamed Amazon or Antarctic, and compare them with any place where man dwells. The marks of mind are everywhere visible in the latter. If you reject a Deist clockwork universe in favour of one in which God is immanent and responsive to his children, you would surely expect such a universe to look different from one in which there is no God at all – no control of nature or history, no special providence, no answered prayer, no divine revelation – how could all these things leave absolutely no evidence in the world?

I write this from the viewpoint of the believer being able to see “the heavens declaring the glory of God”, rather than trying to prove it to an atheist. But surely, in principle, the believing scientist ought to be able to say, “This is where God is at work”, after which the atheists can inevitably find reasons to disagree; rather than nature presenting such an agnostic picture that God can be equally ignored by both atheists and Christians in the same lab without detriment to the outcomes. And make no mistake, science as it is currently practised is, at best, agnostic, as Alister McGrath conceded when he denied the atheist claim that science disproves God. Why should that be? Is God really so shy?

Now in point of fact the dichotomy between “frontloading” and “tweaking” is a artificial one, because in classical theology God actually creates by a simple, complete act in eternity. He creates timelessly what emerges in time, from Alpha to Omega, beginning to end. These deep things are dealt with excellently in Hugh McCann’s excellent book, Creation and the Sovereignty of God. So God’s word of fiat that brings all things, at all times, into being can work out in the created world’s “experience” at the beginning of time, or continuously thereafter, or both.

By analogy, however, we are justified in seeing God’s eternal work in a temporal sense. For all that God is outside of time and his Creation a single act, clearly there was an initial creation of the universe of space-time, and the parameters of that beginning are indeed frontloaded to make our universe possible at all. Likewise, if God answers a prayer and calms a storm, though his act may be in eternity, its results are justly seen as “an act of God” in real time. For this very reason, one cannot simply bypass the question of divine action by invoking “eternal creation” – any frontloaded “causes” must be sufficient to their ends (and God’s ends too – if he intends “man” to emerge through “natural” evolution, then “man” must be specifically written into the algorithm). And “acts of God” breaking into such order must produce visible effects in the world.

I suggest that the apparent invisibility of God’s work to science is not because God is hiding himself to increase faith (which would contradict Scripture’s natural theology of “Look! See! Praise!”) or to give scientists an easier job, or any other reason. Instead, I suggest that divine action is hiding in plain sight.

In a science fiction story (Star Trek, maybe) the space explorers come upon a planet bursting with signs of intelligent life – radio broadcasts, special scan results and so on. But on landing, they find themselves in a virgin natural world of trees and rivers, mountains and prairies. All the instrument readings remain positive – but no rational being is to be found. Thorough surveying shows there is simply nowhere left for these beings to hide. It appears to be an empty world. It’s not until somone realises that the multitudes of natural features around are the intelligent aliens that it all finally makes sense. The Trekkers were simply seeing “nature” in entirely the wrong way.

Now I’m not endorsing panentheism in this analogy, but suggesting that because we have a faulty, non-biblical view of “nature” as a closed, essentially God-free system (and what else can “methodological naturalism” imply?), we fail to see that some of its key features are sure signs of God’s sovereign activity (to the believer, which is what matters here, or in “Evolutionary Creation“).  Here is a sketchy outline.

Take “frontloading”, or what we might think of as the original endowment of Creation. One of the most popular “scientific” arguments for God, supported indeed by BioLogos, is cosmic fine-tuning. But that’s only a small part of a far wider catalogue of God’s work in creating a cosmos rather than a chaos, as Thomas Aquinas saw in his teleological proof of God, the Fifth Way, or the Argument from Design:

  • We see that natural bodies work toward some goal, and do not do so by chance.
  • Most natural things lack knowledge.
  • But as an arrow reaches its target because it is directed by an archer, what lacks intelligence achieves goals by being directed by something intelligent.
  • Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.

People disagree on the strength of this as a proof of God. But as a description of God’s work for believers it is incontrovertible, and not (as one might think) because it points to the wonders of life in the “marvellous design, what else but God could explain it” sense. For in essence it shows that natural laws by their very existence demand a lawgiver. Had God not frontloaded the universe with “laws” (or however else one might express such regularities in the natural order), it would necessarily be totally chaotic. Instead it is ordered, and that is what the believer in God as Creator predicts.

plain sightWhat are we actually seeing in scientific “law”? We can only quantify a law as a fixed or exact rule in artificially restricted experiments, in which all other variables are minimised. In many cases we are seeing the statistical aggregates and probability distributions of irregular and unpredictable individual events. Outside such controlled situations, reality is largely unpredictable: contingency is all around. And so we should not say that laws determine all that happens, but rather that they are the background against which God acts providentially to govern the world, as the stage set is to the play. But where are the signs of such ongoing dramatic activity?

Well, one part of the answer is that divine action is hiding in plain sight in chance events. As I discussed in a recent post the occurrence of letters in a passage of any particular language has a characteristic statistical distribution. The statistical distribution is a sign of a law-like process, and therefore an indication that a mind is involved. But the individual unpredictability of letters within such a distribution (ie the incompressibility of the message) is a sign of choice, as information theory (Kolmogorov complexity) demonstrates.

Of course, if you already know that a human mind produced the text-string for a purpose (as the Christian knows God created the world and all that is in it for his good ends), you can be sure a priori that the apparent randomness of the string has purpose: there is a probability distribution in there somewhere which reveals the language of the text’s creator.

The same is true, surely, in nature if we accept it is God’s creation, and reject those heterodox theologies that allow ontological randomness to hide swathes of the universe even from God himself in the garbled name of “creaturely autonomy”. If true chaos (the diametric antithesis of creation) does not actually exist in God’s cosmos, then the randomness of individual elements within statistical systems – be they quanta, gas molecules, cosmic rays or anything else that is individually unpredictable – are ipse facto the marks of the choices of the Logos (which of course is the Son himself, John 1.3), and chance itself is God’s signature. In chance at least, then, we see one locus of God’s choices.

It’s important to appreciate that God is not “hiding himself” in chance, any more than a writer of English prose is hiding in the fact that written language is only scientifically distinguishable from gobbledegook by its statistical distribution pattern. An English reader could read the text – but our only access to the “language of God” is the intuition of the goodness of Creation itself. So God is not working “under cover” of chance: rather, chance is God’s overt action “in real time” (analogically speaking) “hiding in plain sight”.

As to how God instantiates those choices, we cannot know for one very simple reason: since they are creative acts, in themselves they have no process, any more than we should think of the process by which wine became water at Cana, or the universe appeared from nothing. We needn’t ask how God “caused” a desired mutation, say. The cosmic rays or the quantum events are unnecessary superfluities as far as creation goes. Processes cannot be a means of creation because they are invariably the results of creation. For example, the natural process of generation produces another human being – but it is the creative act of God in the “chance” encounter of a particular egg and a particular sperm by which an individual person is intentionally created (even disregarding any belief in the “special creation” of the soul).

If God creates an event, it will simply be seen to have happened – it will not only seem to be natural, but it will be as natural as anything else ever is – which is only to say that all nature exists through such creative acts, with or without the cooperation of secondary causes. God is therefore not interfering with nature in such determining acts, but is doing nature, just as Scripture describes him to do.

Remember that God’s sustaining of nature in existence is, theologically, not his acting like a carrier wave to an autonomous universe. “Existence” is meaningless without entities and their actual states. Conservation is, in fact, a hair’s breadth from creation – or even what is called creatio continua: to sustain nature is in some sense to create it, in its various activities, moment by moment. Or to pan back to the eternal perspective, God creates from beginning to end in one act of determining will.

Since such creative acts are acts of designing will, although they have “low probabilities” that is to only be expected, in the same way that any piece of useful information has a low probability. To determine is, by definition, to restrict infinite possibilities to one. God’s acts, even in the contingencies of “nature”, are individually as unpredictable as human decisions are – even more so, since God is not human and in that sense, he does remain hidden as regards his “secret counsel”. The early modern scientists were right to exclude final causes when it came to second-guessing God’s grand motives. But science – or at least, a Christian philosophy of science – can recognise them to be God’s choices on first principles; he governs all things, and where that government is not by law (ie regularity), then it is by individual decree.

IGThis does not, of course, prove divine action to those who believe there can be a statistical distribution even in truly (ontologically) random events – it just recognises, in the world around us, what the faith teaches as revealed truth. It does not mean that a Christian will be doing different science from the atheist. But it does mean working within a completely different philosophy of nature, one that sees nature as God’s instrument, rather than as a self-contained system that God might perhaps invisibly (and irrelevantly) influence, like the invisible gardener in the fable – it seems many TEs have not read Anthony Flew. But one can choose to observe the same unpredictable events, yet perceive them in principle to be marks of God’s providential, if often mysterious, care of his cosmos, rather than as “unguided and purposeless” events in an unguided and purposeless evolutionary process as others do.

This, in the matter of divine action, is what would require, and demonstrate, a new and different metaphysical foundation for science. The science may look very much the same (for a while – it will replace “meaningless” with “unknown meaning”, which may provoke all kinds of new opportunities in research), but the world it studies will look completely different, because it is the world in which God is quite explicitly, and visibly, active.

To those with eyes to see.

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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7 Responses to Divine action hiding in plain sight?

  1. Sy Garte Sy Garte says:

    I very much like this.
    “But one can choose to observe the same unpredictable events, yet perceive them in principle to be marks of God’s providential, if often mysterious, care of his cosmos, rather than as “unguided and purposeless” events in an unguided and purposeless evolutionary process as others do”

    And even better you go on to say that this can lead to a new metaphysical foundation for science. Of course, you know full well Jon, that it isnt new at all but in fact its the original metaphysical foundation of natural philosophy, which many considered to be a branch of Christian theology. But thats beside the point. For modern times, yes, it would indeed be a new foundation, and I agree that the actual science would look much the same. To a point.

    The question is where is that point, and what happens after that. As I have said several times (in all of our various discussion venues, of which I can no longer keep track where I said what) I think the answer lies in the question of teleology, in all of its many aspects. To me, that question is the node where science and God meet.

    If there is no purpose to life, the universe and everything, then there is probably no God and science can continue on its merry way making discoveries for the sake of satisfying curiosity, curing diseases and improving computer and communications technology. Yawwwwn.

    If there is purpose, if final cause can be shown in biology, perhaps directly and scientifically, or perhaps strongly pointed to (as already seems to be the case with cosmology and physics) then while God is not proven (Thank God for that) we can begin on the new road to truth that you are implying is the next step on our quest.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Thanks for this Sy. Yes – it is just re-inventing the wheel, but trying to explore a little of what Aquinas might have understood about chance had he done statistics and probabilities at college!

      In the end, a science and a theology that fit together have a number of interrelated benefits simply because of that goal of all knowledge/science: to “save the appearances”, that is to be the best possible fit to reality.

      I guess in the OP my main thrust is to think how it is possible for Christian scientists to be able to do research into nature without having to pretend that God isn’t in it to get anything done. I think there’s evidence that methodological naturalism becomes a habit of thought, like any artifical compartmentalisation. And in my view, we serve God best by being constantly aware that it is his world we’re studying, and just what that means. (A piece on the theology of the “hiddenness” of God to follow, I think, since that’s arisen out of a similar discussion at BL.)

      In that, MN is similar to the way that acting as if science were just a progressive unveiling of the”real” core truth of nature tends to lead to scientism. You just forget that you’d restricted which bit of reality you were letting in in the first place.

      Ignoring teleology was, I suppose, science’s way to avoid getting bogged down in unanswerable questions about God’s own purposes. Quite right. But when that means concluding that obvious teleology (such as what an organ is for, or even the beauty/wisdom of design) is an epiphenomenon, then your methodology has dictated your whole worldview.

      I also hinted in the OP, though, that far from only making science more theologically and philosophically complete, allowing God to be visible in nature again ought in principle to lead to the possibility of practically fruitful science – the curiosity (which ought, for the believer, always to mean “stimulus to worship!) and the useful drugs (revealing and applying the compasssion Christ has built into the universe).

      One doesn’t really need to soothsay what that might mean – when nature was first seen in terms of God’s laws, the implications could not be forseeen. But teleology would be one area. A mature view of divine teleology would, for example, see “Junk DNA” as, by the nature of things, within God’s providence, but unlike the standard ID position, you’d not automatically assume that teleology must pay off in immediate function.

      So you’d explore functions vigorously, look at other purposes (in ecology, in future evolution, or whatever) if function was elusive, and accept that you’ll be left with a residuum of the unexplained, knowing that we are not going to understand what God keeps hidden from us.

      If that makes some sense.

  2. GD GD says:

    Hi Jon,

    I think that the notion of seeing God’s “hand” in the universe should begin with a deeper discussion of the constants onto which science hangs – by this, I mean things such as pi, the speed of light, and a host of other values that must NECESSARILY be the exact values (in fact the more accurate the science and maths, the MORE exact are the values of such constants). At a fundamental level, the necessity shown by such maths and theoretical physics and chemistry, removes notions such as chance and without purpose. It simply defies science to either turn a blind eye to the obvious conclusion – i.e., the creation is absolutely made to be as it is.

    People of faith can then conclude these are sign posts placed by God to help us deal with opposing views, and those without faith may observe such matters as negating a random, “whatever turns up is ok” view. God does not need proof from His own creation (that is truly seeing things backwards). But we can now see that science shows the necessity of a creation – after that each person can come to his/her own conclusions – after all faith is a gift, not an outcome of science.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Quite true GD, and as you know from the OP, I’m not in any way trying to prove God to doubters. Rather I aim to give Christians a suggestion on how provident divine action (as opposed to the constants of creation) might not be as invisible, or as hard to account for, as is assumed nowadays.

      The fine-tuning of the constants I rather glossed over in favour of a brief look at lawlikeness, but then volumes have already been written on the former, whereas the concept of chance as a statistically lawlike indicator of free choice, as opposed to ontological indeterminacy, hasn’t been aired so much.

      David Wilcox provocatively describes chance as “God’s signature” from a Reformed perspective (I wish he were cited more in TE discussions). And Bill Dembski, from his probabalist mathematical background, has done some serious work on randomness as “a probability distribution we haven’t quantified yet.” He’s the one to whom I owe the example of letter distributions in a language as an instance of a statistical law arising from intelligent choices.

      He’s valuable in showing how facile the idea, so often fielded, of “God building randomness into the universe” is. Even human random number generators have to work to algorithms (generating numbers “with the appearance of randomness” though they are designed!). But God is not trying to produce the appearance of anything – he’s just being what he is as Creator.

      • GD GD says:

        Yes the variability and diversity in the Creation is a fascinating topic, and I am inclined to view this as an inexhaustible matrix of possibilities (to human intellect) – again testifying to the unique aspects of the created order. This aspect however, can be both interesting and controversial, and this is especially so when we argue notions such as random in ToE.

        I think discussions on theology in the current atmosphere of rampant liberal- “everyone is a theologian” often cause confusion and angst. when diversity and “randomness” are used to propose loose theology.

      • GD GD says:

        I have not read a great deal of David Wilcox, but the little that I have is very interesting.

        • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:


          David Wilcox: I came across his small book on theistic evolution, which was very much in the genre of “scientist with no problems accepting evolution”, but which was refreshing in its straightforward orthodoxy. Not for him the creation creating itself, original sin being cast in doubt by genetics etc (he’s actually a population geneticist).

          He presented his “chance is God’s signature” into the conversation in a way that suggested it was so obvious as not to be worth arguing. Which I think is true, within a traditional doctrinal scheme.

          Less clear is why as an active ASA member who’s contributed to symposia as well as editing a book on views about the historical Adam, I’ve never seen him appear at BioLogos.

          You gave to wonder if he’s just too orthodox!

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