Squaring circles

I’m returning, like a dog to its vomit, to the old questions revolving around “freedom” in creation, and the “detectability” of God’s work. That’s partly because it keeps coming up (eg on the new Alvin Plantinga thread on BioLogos), partly because certain people keep challenging me about it even if I’m dealing with something different, and partly because I haven’t finished thinking about it yet.

I’m looking here at the implications of global hypotheses about God’s involvement in the Universe. What I’m not much concerned with today are what, or why,  particular people might hold these views. As usual I’m dealing mostly with the non-human creation, but I’ll be drawing conclusions about what the issues mean for human agency as well.

So let’s start with a premise that God works entirely through natural processes in the world. Having looked at Francis Collins’ Language of God  in my last post I’ll use as an example his point #4 of a typical version of theistic evolution: “Once evolution got under way, no supernatural intervention was required.” This is equivalent to the naturalist’s assumption that nature is a closed nexus of cause and effect.

Now, with that assumption, can God produce a specific outcome – I mean any specific outcome at all, at any time in history? For example, what about Collins’ apparent endorsement, which I mentioned in my previous piece, of God’s ability to produce humanity through evolution, and even to ensure that individuals would be reading his book? Now I’ve suggested before that science as we understand it is actually incapable of such precision, given chaos theory, quantum indeterminacy etc. But what would it take for God to make it capable?

The answer, of course, is total scientific determinacy. The initial conditions and fine tuning of the laws must be absolutely rigorous, quantum events determined by hidden variables and so on. The Universe must run like clockwork as in the most Deistic or Materialist Newtonian models. Furthermore, if we bring human history into view, for God to foresee my reading of Francis Collins’ book that too must be the deterministic outcome of every event since the Big Bang itself. Such a view, then, robs God of any freedom of choice, and also robs people of all their choices. That must be true even if God only wished to determine just one event in the whole history of creation. Everything depends on those laws and initial conditions playing out faultlessly.

One might argue that God does not in fact will to determine outcomes to that degree of precision: that the fine tuning of the Universe to favour intelligent life is sufficient to fulfil his will, even though deterministic laws are much less than clockwork in their precision. But even this relaxation does nothing to affirm the free choice of either God or man. God must watch the Universe unfold deterministically but not exactly according to any outcome he might, personally, prefer. And man’s decisions too would be determined by law, not genuine choice, yet with the disturbing complication that none of his faculties of reason, emotion and so on could be relied on to match reality exactly. Any perception that we have rational free choice would then be the delusion of a madman actually ruled by deterministic, though imprecise, laws.

Things are no better if elements of randomness (ie randoness with respect to God) are introduced into the picture. Suppose things like quantum events (Russell), or perhaps chaotic events (Polkinghorne), are genuinely indeterminate and influence the world at the macro scale? Then the outcomes, too, are indeterminate to the extent that these events are truly random. They are determined by God’s dice-throw, not by God’s choice and wisdom. As important to us, they are never determined by our choices either, for the factors operating in the Universe are only chance and necessity. If God is not free to act in the Universe, it is very hard to see how we might be, for what binds God is what binds us.

The only alternative to the un-free scenarios above (unless you can come up with any others) is that we abandon the dictum that “no supernatural intervention was required.” Or rather, that we abandon a generalised form of that dictum, for “supernatural” here really means any action of God other than setting and sustaining natural laws with or without the existence of undetermined chance. We must conclude that, if God wishes to bring about any specific outcome at any time in the course of history, at some stage “supernatural intervention” will indeed be “required”. For that purpose, it doesn’t matter if his action is truly “supernatural”, ie breaking or bypassing natural law, or whether it involves something more scientifically “legitimate” like the determination of quantum events. In either case for God to be free to make even one effective decision within his Universe, he must be free to use means other than natural law.

The truly unexpected corollary is that it is only God’s right to intervene that raises any possibility of our being free to make real decisions. We can only be free to make choices if God is also free to make choices, because the reason invoked for excluding God’s “interference” in nature is equally applicable to us: the inviolability of natural law. And incidentally the word “interference” is equally inappropriate in God’s case and ours, for God owns the world by right of creation and we co-own it by right of God’s covenant.

Paradoxically, any definition of “will” absolutely requires the ability to determine, ie constrain, the possible outcomes of events. Whoever makes a choice, be it God, man or angel, that choice inevitably closes down all other possibilities. That’s why free will is such a powerful marker of personhood. Freedom of action is the direct converse of indeterminacy.

Now a brief word on “detectability”. If we admit that God sometimes acts apart from the deterministic outworking of natural law, then events turn out differently than they would have done otherwise. Inevitably, then, they will be characterised by scientific unpredictability, and therefore “detectable” by virtue of that unexpectedness. But we know that chance is another element producing unpredictability. God’s actions, therefore, are going to resemble chance to a greater or lesser degree. But I think that’s the subject for a separate post.

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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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11 Responses to Squaring circles

  1. Bilbo says:

    I could be mistaken, but I don’t think Francis Collins would say that God can’t or isn’t allowed to intervene in natural history. I think Collins would say that God wasn’t required to intervene in natural history in order to bring us into existence. And I think we can envisage scenarios where this claim is true, even though scientific determinism is false. It could be that God knew that His roll of the indeterministic dice would result in us. We could argue that such an outcome was much too improbable to happen without God’s intervention. And perhaps it was. Or perhaps it wasn’t. Much would depend upon how specific God’s desires were and how big this universe is. Bradley Monton and others think the evidence indicates that we live in an infinite universe. If so, then God created an infinite universe, where the dice keep rolling until the His desired result eventually comes up.

    The second question would be whether such a scenario prevents us from having free will. Now Collins seems to allow for God’s intervention when it comes to endowing us with whatever makes us especially human, including free will. But let’s suppose that Collins thought it wasn’t necessary for God to intervene at this point in history, either. Could we consistently maintain that we have free will? I think we can. It seems possible that one of the conditions that God put into the initial creation event was that when human-like beings arise, a special property of mind and free will emerges with them, having “top-down” causal efficacy.

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Bilbo

    I referred to Francis Collins here only for an example (see me last post for a fuller treatment of what he says). It’s a little difficult to synthesise all that he says into a clear picture (a bit like BioLogos, there): one has to integrate (a) ND evolution is sufficient (b) God foresees its exact effects (c) God can manage chance events.

    One sees philosophical arguments that truly indeterministic events cannot be foreseen in principle, but assuming God’s omipotence one then has to ask how his foreknowledge of an event is compatible with its being undetermined (chance being more or less defined as “unpredictable”). One also has to reach beyond the “it could conceivably work this way in an infinite universe or multiverse” to the “Why on earth would God do it that way and yet describe it quite differentlky in Scripture?”

    If I know every outcome of my future dice throws, where’s the fun in playing dice? Let’s say a divine artist knows that after he throws paint at a canvas 10^656 times, he’ll end up with the Mona Lisa he’s after. Under what circumstances is that process wiser than using a brush first time?

  3. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    “It seems possible that one of the conditions that God put into the initial creation event was that when human-like beings arise, a special property of mind and free will emerges with them, having “top-down” causal efficacy.”

    Yeah – emergence theories, of course, could cover everything – they come under my category of deterministic law being so fine tuned as to guarantee every outcome. If free-will were an emergent property of the universe, why not my reading Francis Collins’ book too? The more specific the outcome, the more deterministic the process – not necessarily a bad thing, of course, if you want a result.

    The problem is that such theories go well beyond actual science. There is no hint that physics does, in fact, lead to the emergence of any of these things, so in fact it’s turning the “Once evolution got under way, no supernatural intervention was required” postulate from an affirmation of the sufficiency of known processes to a faith-statement about hypothetical magical properties of nature.

    I omit here the philosophical problems of the possibility of free will as a materialistic construct, as it must be in emergence theories. You’re basically saying “although there is no known explanation of how law and chance can produce choice, if we wave the emergence wand there it is before our eyes!”

  4. Bilbo says:

    There are philosophical objections to foreknowledge and human free will, also. I reject those. I might as well reject objections to foreknowledge and indeterminacy, also. Why would God choose to be Jackson Pollack, instead of Da Vinci? Personally, I don’t think He would. But TEs (ECs? BLs?) think there is evidence that God chose the former. Why doesn’t Scripture say God did it this way? Why doesn’t Scripture say He created the world in 13.7 billion years instead of 7 days?

    As to emergence theory, the idea is that God has endowed the universe with emergent properties that arise under the right conditions. Whether one arrives at those conditions via a long road of the interplay of law and chance or a a road that also includes God’s active intervention would be beside the point.

  5. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Well Bilbo, you do make it sound possible, but you don’t make it sound parsimonious, still less necessary!

    Nevertheless you’re the only apologist for the idea I’ve actually come across – the TEs who espouse it run a mile rather than engage with the implications.

  6. Bilbo says:

    And remember: I’m an apologist for a position that I myself do not accept. I think the Biblical picture we are presented with is of a God who interacts with His creation before and after human beings come on the scene. However, I think it’s important to make room for other Christians on issues that are not tangential to the core doctrines of our faith. And I don’t think this issue is.

  7. James says:


    I agree with you that Christians need to be tolerant of other Christians whose theological opinions are different from their own. I also agree with you that being in possession of a coherent theory of divine action in evolution is not a requirement of Christian faith. God does not measure the loyalty of his followers by their theoretical achievements.

    However, if a Christian, uninvited and voluntarily, enters the intellectual arena, and proclaims a certain view of divine action in evolution, seeking intellectual approval for that view, but then, when asked to defend or even to clarify his view, refuses to meet challenges head-on by answering articulate criticisms with equally articulate responses, and answers vaguely or ambiguously, and eventually, when pressed, simply leaves the public stage without either offering a real explanation or conceding defeat, that Christian acts wrongly — from a scholarly, intellectual, and social point of view.

    Collins is such a man. Even before his appointment to the NIH prevented him from speaking freely in public as about theology, he, having disparaged ID, utterly refused to share a stage with ID people or debate with them, and because his theoretical differences with ID have a lot to do with the deeper metaphysical underpinnings of his position, he never had to articulate a science/theology position that had any sophistication to it.

    Some of the other columnists at his organization, BioLogos, have shown similar behavior. One of them, Darrel Falk, having spearheaded a series of attack articles against Stephen Meyer’s book on BioLogos, and, later having promised to debate Meyer at a Christian conference, backed out of the debate at the last minute, on the grounds that a partisan of Meyer at the Discovery Institute had made the debate sound too confrontational and not syrupy-Christian enough. (As if there was anything Christian about the Darwinian witch-hunt against Meyer on BioLogos, in which one commenter repeatedly called Meyer a liar and a deceiver and the management, having seen the comments, looked the other way, neither expunging them from the site nor banning their author.)

    On other occasions, Falk and Venema and Applegate and others have just terminated discussion when commenters asked theological questions of them that were too theoretically penetrating. And in one instance — which I know all too well — Falk terminated the commenting rights of a theological critic who — even in the view of other commenters who did not share his position — had stayed within the bound of politeness, but was pressing theoretical questions that BioLogos did not want to answer.

    I freely acknowledge that TE/EC people have the right to believe in and champion any view on evolution and divine action that they wish. I don’t say they are unfaithful Christians for having opinions that disagree with mine. I disrespect them, however, when they won’t go the whole 15 rounds in the metaphysical ring, when they themselves were the ones who requested the title match. They have all along bad-mouthed ID the way that Muhammad Ali would bad-mouth his opponents before a fight. The difference is that Ali always stayed in for the whole fight, never pleading a headache in the third round and asking for the bout to be deferred indefinitely. If one is going to make public claims about providence, randomness, evolution, creation, natural law, secondary causes, design, and so on, and to say publically that those who hold the ID account on those subjects are not only incompetent scientists but also bad theologians, one should be willing to give a full public account of one’s own position.

  8. Alan Fox says:

    As to emergence theory, the idea is that God has endowed the universe with emergent properties that arise under the right conditions. Whether one arrives at those conditions via a long road of the interplay of law and chance or a a road that also includes God’s active intervention would be beside the point.

    Hi Bilbo, hope you are keeping well and the internet addiction is under control!

    As an outsider, it puzzles me why the idea that God could have brought about the universe and everything in it via the regularities and properties of particles and energy is not more popular. It seems that facts should outweigh dogma. For example, the genesis versions of creation don’t need to be read as factual accounts and make no difference to the core teachings of Jesus.

  9. Bilbo says:

    Hi James,

    I’m an apologist for a brand of theistic evolution (or whatever name we wish to call it) that says that God’s intervention wasn’t necessary to bring us about, even in an indeterminate universe. I am not an apologist for BioLogos.

    Hi Alan,

    The addiction is only partly under control, I’m afraid. I would say that we should let facts help us understand our dogma.

  10. Bilbo says:

    Perhaps I should say a word or two in defense of BioLogos. I accept the people there as brothers and sisters in the Lord. They aren’t perfect, but then neither am I. And it looks like they are at least somewhat willing to change, as should we all.

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