Laplace’s 1814 Demon sums up the mechanistic universe of the Enlightenment well. An all-seeing being, knowing the position and velocity of every atom in the Universe, could infallibly describe any moment in the past and predict every event in the future. The implication is that a half-decent scientist could go at least a fair way along that path to omniscience.
He was wrong, of course. As one major instance, thermodynamics works in one direction only: there is no way to tell the initial state of a cold particle at rest. But the idea lives on in a kind of prospective way, in the assertion that everything that happens now is the direct result of the fundamental laws and conditions of the Big Bang. Hence Peppa Pig’s experience of jumping in muddy puddles is a fallacy – the laws of nature actually determine all her actions and her feelings.
There is a persuasive logic to that account that raises doubts for us all – do I really have free will, when in the end everything comes down to the fundamental laws? Hence our experience of God is an epiphenomenon of our minds. Our minds are an illusion produced by biology. Biology is only chemistry in drag. Chemistry is just physics with attitude. And physics itself arises from the quantum world, where things appear to happen at random anyway. Ergo spiritual experience is mere randomness.
The long-running project of the Centre for Theology and the Natural Sciences operated on this principle, though not in its extreme reductionist form. Its thinkers argued that whilst complexities undoubtedly emerge at the “higher” levels, these are constrained by the lower levels.
For example, physics places constraints on biology: no acceptable biological theory can contradict relativity or quantum theory.R. J. Russell, Cosmology from Alpha to Omega, p7.
So on this view God’s actions in the world, at the top of the universe’s causes (note the “closed universe” assumed in that!), must be constrained by quantum mechanics. In a sense there is clearly some truth in the principle: humans cannot violate the principle of the conservation of mass in their daily lives… though it appears we can convert mass to energy at will with a bit of nuclear technology.
The fundamental fault in this is the assumption that laws dictate the universe, whereas my story of Peppa Pig shows that they only describe it, and then only in its regularities. Furthermore, it is astonishing how much the descriptions of reality differ at each “level” of the chain of being, almost as if each new level constitutes a fresh universe with new “laws.”
The quantum world may underpin the whole of physical reality. But it is one of the fascinating aspects of the cosmos that, rather fortunately given quantum weirdness, quantum effects impinge very little on the macro world of classical physics. On the other hand humans can constrain the collapse of the quantum wave-function by their choice of experiment, or perhaps in the future with quantum computers, and it is also speculated that some organisms exploit the quantum world, for example in bird navigation. But in general, whilst the quantum world is a wonderful playground for great intellects, the world of “things” appears to work on its own terms above the atomic, or perhaps molecular, scale.
As for chemistry arising from physics, I’m told that the properties of water cannot be predicted from those of hydrogen and oxygen. When I discussed this a few years ago here, commenter GD, a research chemist, agreed in general, whilst extolling the crucial role of the nature of hydrogen bonds in terms above my pay grade (“Garvey was the worst thing ever to happen to A-level chemistry,” said my school teacher). But to accept that all the properties of water arise from the physics of elements appears to be a matter of faith, if we cannot account for the one by the other. Perhaps they do follow from laws of physics, and their interactions are so complex as to be simply incalculable, like Newton’s three-body problem in gravitational theory. In which case, we can’t know if the dependency is true.
Perhaps there are totally new “emergent laws” at the level of chemistry, as is suggested by Michael Denton. But I question what that even means, since scientific laws are descriptive, not causative. All one is really saying is that completely new things happen at the level of chemistry, and that may just as well be because God brings new forms into being with newly created properties at the higher level. It’s that old problem of labelling something “natural” without even knowing what “natural” means, let alone how the phenomenon works.
In any case, if someone insists that oxygen and hydrogen do, indeed, constrain the properties of water, one could as truthfully respond that a molecule of water severely constrains how its constituent elements act – water makes hydrogen flow downhill instead of floating up to the sky, and oxygen’s violent chemical power becomes neutralised in a muddy puddle. Prisoners may be the “basic constituents” of a prison, but their behaviour is dictated by a higher authority.
Again “Life is chemistry,” they say. But even “exotic chemistry” doesn’t cover a case that we have no idea how to mimic. The combinatorial and waiting-time problems make the origin of the most basic processes of life less likely than the rarest event in the Universe. We do chemistry by careful experiments in isolated circumstances, removing unwanted products, and often with fruitless results. But even the simplest cell performs hundreds of reactions in a single aqueous medium, and cheats by using purpose-built enzymes whose origin, when push comes to shove, is totally obscure. Even more to the point, the chemistry that happens, whilst it may follow the principles discovered in test-tubes, is entirely controlled by the physiology of the organism, not vice-versa. Life too, is an “emergent” mystery, invoking unknown “laws of form” as a proxy for what may be more simply described as an act of new creation.
We come to the human mind (missing out the steps of evolution or creation that become more obscure the more we know… natural selection doesn’t amount to a proper law, even were it not inadequate as a full explanation on numerous grounds). Even as a machine, the mind’s principles rise as far above the principles of life as life does above chemistry. But it’s worse than that, because the intrinsically subjective nature of consciousness cannot even in principle be explained as a product of material forces. This case of “emergence” is so far removed from the simple laws of materialism as to knock the whole reductionist ideology into a cocked hat. The eliminative materialists call consciousness an illusion – which is a self-defeating nonsense since real consciousness is the only thing that can actively experience either illusion or truth. Nothing in the lower natures relates in any way to consciousness.
So we’ve ascended the scale of discontinuous transitions to consciousness of God, which appears to be an innate feature of children until it is educated out of them. By now we have seen that each step of the ladder introduces new wonders that were completely absent from the lower levels, and each in turn cannot be more than minimally explained by the level below. It’s discontinuities all the way down. And the wonders of every level are incontrovertibly real. There seems no very compelling reason to take our awareness of God as illusory, any more than we can live consistently believing that our mind is an epiphenomenon of particle physics. The better alternative, it seems to me, is to recognise that each new level has its own ways, which as we ascend can decreasingly be reduced to differential equations and which, even if they could, would still do no more than describe approximately what rich reality does in detail without regard to mathematics.
Suppose, as our inborn instincts tell us, that God has made atoms with one, relatively simple, nature, living things with a different nature that entirely transcends the atomic, and human beings with yet another nature, a nature that reaches for God himself. In that case, all that stuff about free-will as an epiphenomenon and consciousness as an illusion are so much hot air, not even worthy of a moment’s concern. With God in the picture, Consciousness and Will may explain quantum mechanics, but never the reverse.
Better pass the news on to Peppa Pig.