Last month I wrote a post arguing against the neo-scholastic belief (often shared with less than clear understanding by Evolutionary Creationists) that God’s activity cannot on first principles be observed in the world, lest he be regarded as just another cause within the causal system of the cosmos. I argued that though the principle of God’s radical separateness from his Creation is sound, the conclusion that the Creation must be causally complete within itself is not. I argued from the Genesis creation account that established secondary causes are not, theologically, necessarily sufficient to explain all we see around us.
One argument brought against actions of God beyond the “laws of nature” is that they would make the world unintelligible: things would look as if they ought to be explicable by science, but this would in fact be an illusion. I showed in my article that, although this might be true, and therefore a minor hindrance to our scientific guild if they desire omnicompetence in understanding the world, it was never seen as a theological problem by the generations of theologians who took the Genesis 1 account historically, before geology suggested a much older and gradually formed earth.
It’s worth remembering, as I’ve been discovering in greater depth from Francesa Rochberg’s book on Babylonian science, that the idea of a fully interconnected, and therefore potentially fully intelligible realm, of “Nature” is a human construct (invented by the Greeks) with no necessary correspondence to reality – the cuneiform scientists did well without it. The idea that divine action should be excluded from such a cosmos, so that purely material causes form a complete system, is even more recent and entirely culturally conditioned.
This is demonstrated in a passage to which Rochberg directed me in Augustine. Augustine is an author who is often invoked to support this idea of a causally complete universe, but this is at best a gross oversimplification of his thinking. Chapter 8 of City of God, Book XXI, is actually about eternal punishment, and the claim that everlasting burning is “against nature” and therefore impossible. Augustine replies that there is nothing to prevent God altering the natures of anything we are accustomed to seeing, merely by his will. He takes as an example “extraordinary portents”, which are uncommon but not unheard of.
For we say that all portents are contrary to nature; but they are not so. For how is that contrary to nature which happens by the will of God, since the will of so mighty a Creator is certainly the nature of each created thing? A portent, therefore, happens not contrary to nature, but contrary to what we know as nature.
Note that this is to assert that the “laws of nature” may well not explain some phenomena, because God has, for those events at least, given nature new laws. He goes on to describe how there are no more certain laws than those governing the movements of the heavens: “What is there established by laws so sure and inflexible?” And yet God can alter (and in Augustine’s view has on occasions altered) those laws to create signs of warning in the heavens.
Interestingly, Babylonian science was all about the meaning of omens, especially in the heavens, and their intellectual tradition over two millennia had no sense whatsoever of a background of “natural causes”, but merely saw omens as the language with which the gods expressed their will and brought about the future.
Nevertheless, from a modern scientific perspective it seems (rightly) that Augustine is diminishing the intelligibility of the world, for such portents as he describes have no cause within familiar nature, but only in the will of God. I’m not sure how scholastics like Herbert McCabe would regard Augustine on this, but I’m sure they would discount the idea if anyone else suggested it! For in their view, if there is even a single event in the created world which cannot be linked to causes within nature and must therefore be visibly God’s work, then God would seem to be “just another cause”, rather than “the Cause of all causes”. And so such people dismiss Intelligent Design’s project to demonstrate God’s design from the insufficiency of secondary causes as doomed from the start scientifically, and heterodox theologically.
Nowadays, the tendency would be to dismiss all Augustine’s extensive literary sources for portents outside the course of (accustomed) nature as poppycock, or at least as primitive misinterpretation of purely “natural” (in the newer sense, whatever that is) phenomena. Miracles are a bigger problem for modern soft-scientistic Christians, but the usual recourse seems to be to put a few, like the Resurrection, in a box marked “exceptions, not up for discussion”, and to treat the rest, whether biblical or modern, as in the same “doubtful” category as omens. After all, we seldom see miracles, and can convince ourselves there were other causes when we do.
But hold on a minute. The most fundamental class of occurrence in nature, from which ultimately all the rest is built, is the quantum event. As I argued in my piece about the fallacy of treating statistical chance as a material efficient cause, they are the one class of events that, from the point of view of theoretical science, are genuinely indeterminate rather than merely humanly unknowable. I think most of us would agree that they have been proven by Bell’s theorem not to be caused by local variables, that is by any material cause within nature. And so their cause is not only unknown, but it lies outside the realm we accept as nature, that is, outside the interconnected cosmos of material causes.
Individual quantum events, then, are every bit as anomalous and unintelligible as any of Augustine’s portents. Only by arbitrarily stretching our definition of “nature” to include events with no intelligible material cause can we dare to call them “natural”, in which case we have no rational justification for not allowing in the omens too – as well as the possibility of God’s direct action in other areas, such as creating innovations in the biological sphere.
Notice that I’m not arguing here, as Robert J Russell does in Cosmology – from Alpha to Omega, that quantum events are a back door by which God can influence nature without “cheating” by interfering with secondary causes. Rather, the fact that we can see events that are caused by God (if God is the First Cause of all events) but not by any secondary cause within nature is empirical evidence that the whole philosophical argument that God can only act through scientific secondary causes is flawed. The most basic of physical events, quantum events, lack secondary causes to the extent that atheist Epicureans even say they are “uncaused”. But they have a statistical distribution, showing they are indeed ordered, not uncaused. And the only good alternative to Epicurean chance is God. Either McCabe’s theology is disproved by quantum theory, or his theology disproves quantum theory.
Or maybe the problem is the old one of the limitation of “the God of the Philosophers”. Augustine was no advocate for the univocity of God, but he was grounded enough in the Scriptures to privilege the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the Lord Jesus Christ, with all the apparent contradictions, over the God reason prefers.
Intelligibility is not, after all, an absolute.