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.
But 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.
What 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.
This 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.