Theology of nature: the building site levelled

In the last four posts on The Hump I’ve attempted to clear the ground of notions that are not, in my view, tenable in any attempt to produce a theology of nature for our times (our times, I suppose, meaning “no longer compatible with the theology of nature that was new-minted by the ‘mechanical philosophers’ like Francis Bacon and Renée Descartes in times very different from ours, but which in secularised form constitutes the mainstream worldview today.”)

In these four essays I show:

  1.  That “semi-deism,” in which God governs the world entirely through the laws of nature, whose existence he merely sustains, is not only untenably deterministic, but would remove the possibility of free will and creaturely choices of animals. It is also out of the revealed character of the Logos, the Eternal Son of the Trinitarian God, immanently involved in his own world from creation to new creation, to the point of becoming human and dying for its sake.

If we do allow some scientific indeterminacy in creation, there seems little or no evidence that the evolutionary trajectory of the world to mankind could be stable enough to dampen out contingencies. Molinism does nothing to ameliorate these problems.

ERGO: Contra Francis Collins, some supernatural action was undoubtedly necessary after the Big Bang, once one grants that God had specific purposes for evolution (man being the obvious case)

2.   The contention that God cannot act in the world because he would be “just another cause” is contradicted by numerous examples of his direct efficient causation in the Bible, and is defused by the consideration that God acts in a unique way only analogically equivalent to other causes. Additionally, the Eternal Son is described in terms that show him to be, in his very nature, the mediator between the ineffable Father and the Creation made through, by and for Christ. Even if the contention had weight, God could still work through angelic agencies, which would allow supernatural causation in the world. Additionally, philosophers like Plantinga have shown that there are no good grounds for regarding the physical universe as a closed causal system.

ERGO: Not only is it necessary for God to act as an efficient cause outside the “regular processes of nature” in order to achieve his specific ends in the world, but there is no good theological, philosophical or scientific reason why he should not.

3.   The piece on Heisenberg showed that any full explanation of the world must go well beyond the methodological limitations of science. He gives the tantalizing suggestion that the primary level of physical reality is the “classical” world of experience and even of human language, rather than either the “probabilistic” world of quantum theory that he was instrumental in developing, or the specialised language of science, especially in its mathematical form, both of the latter describing only abstractions and generalisations, not reality in all its rich contingency.

ERGO: The primary reality to be accounted for in a theology of nature is the world of everyday experience, and the deep realities of modern physics are subordinate to that, not determinative of it.

4.  Lastly in this set of preamble posts, I revisited the question of ontological (Epicurean) chance by reviewing an article defending it and so redefining the doctrine of providence. I showed that the argument from probability to ontological chance, though prevalent, is logically false, and that theologically there is no place for ontological chance in a Christian theological framework. Rather, Epicureanism and Theism are polar alternative explanations of the universe – and specifically, mutually exclusive explanations of “chance” phenomena within it. This is a crucial understanding.

ERGO: Our theology of nature will have no category of ontological randomness.

Some implications of this foundation need to be spelled out. If the regular laws of nature (which we may call, after Monod’s scientific rather than metaphysical usage, “necessity”) are insufficient to explain the world of nature, and if ontological randomness (Monod’s usage of “chance”) is simply a fiction, then God’s special action must be the sole explanation of many of the contingencies within nature: that is, his work must be empirically observable, at least in principle. Or in other words, some of God’s active work is quite visible, but currently not attributed to him because it is attributed to other, false, causes – and particularly to ontological chance.

This does not tell us how much of his work in efficient causation may be seen, because our ignorance of nature remains high within the area of contingency. We do not, to cite an obvious example, know the individual causes of the movements of molecules in gases, though we assume quite successfully that they follow the classical laws of motion as augmented by quantum theory. We also assume that chaotic systems like the weather are lawlike, but that is an assumption based on our inability to model such fluid systems in detail. Thus in many cases, God might be acting at a level below the resolution of our observations. But it does not follow that this hiddenness is always necessarily the case, and neither does it prevent our doing theological work on how God might act in general terms. This I will aim to do in subsequent posts.

Meanwhile, it would be worth ending by listing the various classes of causation within the universe, for they are remarkably few on all reckonings. Monod, for example, said that all must be due either to chance or necessity.

This reminds me of my training in social psychology when we were told that all human behaviour must be due to nature or nurture since there is nothing else: choice was assumed to be an epiphenomenon. Nowadays, sociology at least has moved back to more sensible ground to allow for the reality of human choices as causes, and of course any Christian theological account must allow for that. Human choice, then, is a real and fundamental cause in the world. It is consistent with laws of nature, but not reducible to it – that is, it fills epistemological gaps left by the laws.

But I suggest we will also allow for a couple of other categories, whilst removing Monod’s ontological chance altogether from the picture. And so the efficient causes within our “theology of nature”, stated in the broadest terms, are:

(a) The lawlike or regular behaviour studied by science, which we may attribute to God’s faithful provision (though we will need to discuss how direct or indirect it is his work). This regularity, and not how God is involved in detail, will constitute our use of the word “natural”. Hence “natural events” describe a class of empirically knowable effect – the lawlike – which is every bit as theologically grounded as any other divine activity, and do not describe a metaphysical cause, though theologically the ultimate cause is understood to be the Logos. “Natural,” then, is opposed to “contingent,” and not to “supernatural” or “divine.”

Some lawlike (natural) activity is always unknowable to us, forming the basis of the statistical laws, and so is one major category of what we call “chance” (our definition of chance being “of causes unknown and unpredictable to us.”) This should always be understood as “epistemological chance,” for it is unarguably (because definitionally) determined by the laws of nature, and so by God who made the laws.

We shall need to ask whether God ever overrules these laws, and that may depend on how we understand them philosophically.

(b) The actions of living agents within the world. Human free will is the most theologically significant of these, but if we abandon Descartes’ insistence that living things are mere passive automata driven by laws of nature, we may allow that God gives genuine choice to the many creatures that appear to have it. Such behaviour is often unpredictable to us (and so chance-like), though actually fully determined by the volition of the agent. And it may involve failure to fulfil a creature’s inbuilt nature fully (like the recent instance of my swallows’ nest falling down through inadequate construction) – thus involving “chance” from the creature’s own viewpoint. For example, a predator’s failure to make a kill is “chance” to it, but is determined by the prey’s volition to escape.

We will need to discuss how God might be able to influence such actions without denying the natures he himself has created.

(c) The direct actions of God himself (under which we may subsume any actions by his non-physical agents such as angels). I shall be starting the discussion of these in another post by invoking the existing time-honoured theological categories of divine action, and how they might each play a role in nature.

I don’t think anyone has come up with any other categories of causation than these, in a Christian context, and it really appears quite a simple and economical set to work with. Unless you can think of any other causes we might consider?

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 Theology of nature: the building site levelled

  1. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    A bit of minor good news related to this post: the swallows in the fallen nest I propped up on a shelf have successfully fledged. Only one casualty (at the time of the fall, I think), and at least two or three hatchlings learning the flying and feeding ropes over the meadow before heading off to South Africa in a week or two. Ain’t nature wonderful?

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