Alvin Plantinga on Divine Action
Dr. Alvin Plantinga dives into the nature of miracles. Going into scientific detail, Plantinga shows how science looks at God’s action from both a classical viewpoint and a new quantum mechanics viewpoint.
As Tom said, I was a professor I retired from the University of Notre Dame last year, where I had been a professor for some 20 some years. Notre Dame as many of you know, is a Catholic university. Before I taught at Notre Dame though, I taught at Calvin College, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, for many years, and as some of you may know, Calvin College is not a Catholic University. In fact very few colleges named Calvin are Catholic Universities. Well, I taught there at Calvin for years, many years. Some, 15 or 19 years I think it was. Towards the end of this time, you young people, some of you young people won’t know about this kind of thing, but, there’s what’s called a mid-life crisis. I didn’t really have a mid-life crisis, but you sort of get interested, you want to try something else. You’ve done this, what you’ve been doing for quite a long time, you’d like some new challenges, you’d like to learn something new. So, I decided I would go out for pope. Now that’s not as strange as it might seem. There were some reasons for that. As far as I know, there’s never been a Protestant pope. And, I thought it was time for that, you know. And I am, ethnically Dutch. My parents, my father was born in the Netherlands, my parents were born there. And there was a Dutch pope, Pope Adrian, something or other, but he was a complete failure, so I thought maybe we could do something about that.
So I went to Notre Dame, I thought Notre Dame would be a lot better place to set up on a campaign to be pope than at Calvin College. I think you can see why that would be true. I got myself a red robe, a red robe is as we philosophers say, necessary, but not necessarily a sufficient condition of being a pope, becoming a pope. And I moved on to Notre Dame, and I tried for a while and followed this plan. But it’s not as easy as you might think to get to be pope. It’s not totally trivial, it’s hard. And I wasn’t having a lot of success as you can imagine. Well then finally, I found something that was even better. Or at least the locals at Notre Dame thought was even better. So I went out for football coach, that is. [audience laughing] And that didn’t work either.
My talk is entitled Divine Action in the world. You can see it right up there. And I want to talk about a certain kind of objection to Christian belief, that some people raise. They claim that central thoughts of Christians, central doctrines of Christianity are contrary to science. And therefore are suspicious or incredible or such that one can’t sensibly hold them, can’t be rational in accepting them, something like that, alright? There’s several different kinds of arguments people bring along these lines. I wanna talk about just one. So first, if you look on the sheet, which you don’t have. If you see it up there, which you also can’t do, the Heidelberg Catechism which is one of the, oh, there it is, the Heidelberg Catechism, which is one of the forms of unity of the Church I go to, the Christian Reform Church. It says providence is the almighty and ever present power of God, by which He upholds as with His hand, heaven and earth and all creatures. And so rules them, that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and lenurs, food and drink, health and sickness, prosperity and poverty, all things in fact come to us, not by chance but from His fatherly hand. And a part of the way they come to us, not by chance but by His fatherly hand, part of the way things come to us, part of the way God has designed our world, is that there is a great deal of regularity and dependability in our world.
Of course, if it worked for this regularity and dependability, we couldn’t do the things that we actually do. For example, if I just want to walk off the stage here if for example, all of the sudden, those stairs over there, suddenly turn into a ladder going up there, well, that would make it really difficult. If you’re trying to build a house for example, and you’ve got this hammer, but all of the sudden the hammer turns into say, a goose or a pigeon, again, that would make things really difficult. Or if the nail turned into a worm, or if you get in your car and turn the key and your car turns into a camel, things would be really hard, much harder than they are. This regularity and dependability in our world is an essential condition of our being able to live in a world in which we actually do.
If the world were irregular enough, we wouldn’t be able to live in it. But there are also, according to a classical Christianity here the Heidelberg Catechism for example, there are also special divine actions. Sometimes God does things specially, there are miracles in scripture, the parting of the Red Sea for example. Jesus walking on water, Jesus changing water into wine. There are miraculous healings. Jesus rising from the dead, Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead and so on. And according to Christianity according to classical Christians, many of them at least, perhaps maybe most of them, even now, there are special divine actions. God, for example, responds to prayers, he works in the hearts and minds of his children to effect sanctification. There is what Calvin called the internal testimony, or witness of the Holy Spirit and there is what Thomas Aquinas called the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit. So these things are all special action on the part of God. God does constantly causes events in the world. OK, so far and fair enough.
What’s the problem? Well, many theologians seem to think there is a science-religion problem here. I don’t think any of the theologians at Biola think this, I don’t know, but I doubt it. But some, many theologians do. For example, Rudolph Boltmann says this, the historical method, which is of course the method that he thinks we should use includes the presupposition that history is a unity in the sense of a closed continuum of effects in which individual events are connected by the succession of cause and effect. This continuum furthermore cannot be rent by the interference of supernatural transient powers. That’s what he says, all right. There is this continuum that cannot be rent by the interference of supernatural, that would be God, or transient powers.
So it’s a little bit like the laws of the Meads and Persians. You probably remember Daniel, you know. Daniel was a favorite of King Darius. And well the other courtiers became jealous of Daniel, they didn’t like it that the King liked him so well. So they came to the king and they said, oh, king, live forever, that’s the way you have to start off a conversation with a king. Oh, king live forever. We think it would be a great idea if you pass an edict to the effect that you alone can be worshiped, everybody has to worship you and nothing else. Well, the king thought that over for a little bit, and that sounded good to him. He said, yeah, OK, I guess that’s a pretty good idea. And he passed, so he made this edict, he made this declaration, only King Darius is to be worshiped, nobody else, nothing else. Well, these courtiers, they knew that Daniel worshiped God and they probably thought that Daniel would keep right on worshiping God, despite this edict. So they were watching Daniel and he was in fact worshiping God. They came to the king, now the penalty for worshiping something else was to be thrown into the lions den. And they said, oh king, live forever, looks like Daniel has been violating this edict. You’ve gotta throw him in the lions den. Well the king didn’t want to do this, because he liked Daniel. He thought this was a miserable way to proceed. And he didn’t want to do it. But then they said to him, oh king, remember, the law of the Meads and Persians, cannot be abrogated, even by the king himself. So once it’s put in place, not even the king himself can change it, or abrogate it, or go against it.
That’s sort of the suggestion you get here from Boltmann. Boltmann thinks maybe God created the world and set it up a certain way, but once He did that, not even He can interfere in it. He uses that word, interference. Not even He can do anything in it. He’s gotta keep hands off. It’s like the laws of the Meads and Persians. Here’s another theologian who agrees, John McQuery. He says the way of understanding miracle and that would be one kind of special diving action, that appeals to breaks in the natural order and to supernatural intervention, belongs to the mythological outlook and cannot commend itself in a post mythological climate of thought.
The traditional conception of miracle is irreconcilable with our modern understanding of both science and history. Science proceeds on the assumption that whatever events occur in the world can be accounted for in terms of other events that also belong within the world. And if on some occasion we are unable to give an account of some happening, the scientific conviction is that further research will bring to light further factors in the situation. But factors that will turn out to be just as eminent and this-worldly as those already known. OK again, no room there for special action. And a third thinker here, Langdon Gilteis, another theologian, says something similar. But I’ll pass, I’ll not read that one, in the interest of saving a little bit of time.
But these three theologians plus many others want to assert that there is something wrong with God acting in the world. Acting in the world in a way that goes beyond creation and sustaining, or beyond creation and holding things in existence. So they think, OK, God created a world, God sustains it in existence, that’s OK with them, but anything beyond that, God’s performing any miracles, raising Jesus from the dead, or for that matter, working in somebodies heart and mind, in a special way, that, they say, is a real problem. Well, the question is, what is the problem? And the next little bit here.
According to the classical Christian and theistical idea, God is a person, he has knowledge, loves and hates, he has aims and ends. He acts on the basis of knowledge to achieve his ends. He’s all powerful, all knowing and wholly good. I’m gonna skip the next sentence, it introduces unnecessary complications, the next two sentences I’ll skip. OK. God has created the world, thirdly, God has created the world. Fourth is noted above by the Heidelberg Catechism. God conserves and sustains and maintains, and being this world he has created. But fifth, at least sometimes God acts in a way going beyond creation and conservation in miracles but also in his providential guiding of history. His working in the hearts of people, the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit, and so on. And it’s with that fifth category that these people have a problem. It’s God’s special action in the world, action beyond conservation and creation and miracles would be an example. So we might think of these theologians as endorsing in what we could call, hands off theology. God’s gotta keep his hands off. God can create the world, God conserves the world, sustains it in being, but he can’t do anything else, I mean, if he did something else, he can’t do anything else, that’s as far as he can go. It’s hands-off theology. And Bultmann, even in this context talks about interfering, I mean, if God did something in the world, that would be interfering. Which when you think about it is sort of a strange thing to say.
If God created the world, he’s the omnipotent, omnicompetent, wholly-good creator of the world. When you accuse someone of interfering you’re saying they’re doing something they shouldn’t be doing. So Bultmann thinks if God did something in the world, that would be interfering and he should be ashamed of himself. OK. Now, why is this a problem, that’s the problem. But why is it a problem? Their suggestion is that somehow it’s contrary to science. It’s contrary to science, the suggestion that God acts specially in the world. Gilky there, I didn’t read that bit, but Gilky says, he says, he says, he says the causal nexus of space and time which enlightenment science and philosophy introduced into the western mind is also assumed by modern theologians and scholars. Since they participate in the modern world of science both intellectually and existentially, they can scarcely do anything else.
Modern theologians and scholars participate in the world of science and the world of science, or the scientific method, or something about science precludes God’s acting in the world specially. It’s OK that He creates the world, maybe he creates the world and creates it with certain laws. But then after that, if He does anything further in it, that would be interference. And why is that? Well, the idea is, as we’ll see in a minute, the idea is that science proposes certain kind of laws and if God did something special in the world, He would be going contrary to those laws. And that would, that couldn’t happen. Now it’s not just theologians who say this kind of thing. Also philosophers. So for example, Phillip Clayton, he says, science has created a challenge to theology. By its remarkable ability to explain and predict natural phenomenon. Any theological system that ignores the picture of the world painted by scientific results is certain to be regarded with suspicion. OK, fair enough, maybe that’s right. But then he goes on. But science is often identified with determinism.
In a purely deterministic universe, there would be no room for God to work in the world, except for sort of the miraculous intervention that Hume, the philosopher, 18th century philosopher David Hume and his readers found to be insupportable. Thus, many inside and outside of theology have abandoned any doctrine of divine action as incompatible with the natural sciences. That’s the problem. Incompatible with the natural sciences. Special divine action is incompatible with the natural sciences. And it’s not only theologians and philosophers who say this sort of thing. Also many scientist do. For example, many of you are probably aware of Richard Dawkins, and I know he’s got a friend named Peter Atkins. Richard Dawkins is one of the dreaded four-horsemen of atheism, right? There’s the four-horsemen of the apocalypse, there’s the four-horsemen of Notre Dame, and now there are the four-horsemen of atheism.
And Richard Dawkins is the the Chief Horse you’d have to say. Maybe the biggest horse. He’s got this book called the God Delusion. Now he’s written some books that I think are good books, for example, the Blind Watchmaker is a very good book, very much worth reading. But this book, the God Delusion, seems to be the more like an ignorant screed than a real contribution to any particular discussion at all. So scientist like Dawkins and Atkins, I would think of, not to put too fine a point on it, a sort of dancing on the lunatic-fringe. But there are other scientists, very sensible, very respectable ones, like H. Allen Ore, oh yeah, H. Allen Ore, there you see him, H. Allen Ore, he says, well what happened was this. H. Allen Ore reviewed a book of Dawkins, Richard Dawkins, the name of the book was The Devils Chaplin.
And H. Allen Ore said Dawkins didn’t know anything about religion. His review wasn’t very good, because he completely misunderstood religion and he was far too sensorius about it. Far too condemnatory and the like of that. And he wrote, this review was in the New York review of books. Well then another scientist wrote in, and you know, in the next issue in the letters column and said, wrote in and said, well, look, you know, religions in general, many religions posit miracles, and that’s a bad thing. And then H. Allen Ore said, right, he said, this was a response to that letter to the editor, it is not that some sects of one religion invoke miracles, but that many sects of may religions do. Moses after all parted the waters. And Chrishna healed the sick. I agree of course, says H. Allen Ore. That no sensible scientist can tolerate such exceptionalism, with respect to the laws of nature. No sensible scientist can tolerate such exceptionalism with respect to the laws of nature. They can’t tolerate it, of course if God does do miracles, it’s not gonna matter much whether scientist or anybody else tolerate it. It’s not really up to them. You can’t really tell God, well, I won’t tolerate that. You can give it a try, but you’re not gonna be very successful.
It reminds me a little bit of a 19th century woman, transcendentalist philosopher who’s name was Margret Fuller. Margret Fuller once announced, she said, I accept the universe. You know, where upon Mark Twain said, good grief, I didn’t know it had been offered to her. [audience laughing] So I mean, there’s something sort of overweening about accepting the universe or saying you’re not gonna tolerate miracles, one way or the other. It’s not gonna matter that much, one way of the other. So the real problem here is that scientists, science propagates natural laws. The real problem seen by these theologians, philosophers, and scientists, is that science propagates natural laws, but if God did any miracles or acted specially in the world, He would have to contravene these laws, He would have to go against them. He would have to break these laws and that’s contrary to science. OK? So the one famous, kind of, statement along these lines is by Rudolph Bultmann, and he says this, someone who who avails herself, himself, herself of modern medicine and uses the radio, not to mention I supposed television, computers, digital cameras, the kind of phones you can send messages on that Tom was talking about, such a person can’t also believe in the spirit and wonder-world of the New Testament.
OK. Now my question is, is all this really true? And I want to talk first about the old, what I’ll call the old picture. First I want to talk about the old picture. Then I want to talk about the new picture. The old picture, there it is. The old picture. Boltman and his friends are apparently thinking in terms of classical science. That would be Newtonian mechanics. You know, Newton’s Laws of Motion, Newton’s Laws of Gravity. Together, later with the physics of electricity and magnetism, that you find represented by Maxwells equations. So he’s thinking about the kind of classical science the kind that we all learned in high school. He’s thinking about that kind of science. And that kind of science, well, Newtonians physics was, of course, extremely, extremely influential.
Alexander Pope wrote this poem, I don’t remember exactly how it goes, but it’s sort of like this, We were wandering around, in the darkness of night. God said, let Newton be, and all was light. Alright? I mean, the last part is right, the first part I just kind of made up, I don’t know exactly. I don’t know exactly what he said, but it works to that effect. So here’s the Newtonian world picture then, God has created the world, Newton thought God created the world, And the world is like an enormous machine which proceeds according to fixed laws. These are the laws of classical science. The laws, Newton’s Laws of Motion and Maxwell’s Equations, Newton’s Law of Gravity and the like.
But that’s not sufficient, just thinking that, that’s not sufficient for anti-interventionism, or for hands-off theology. Newton himself, you would think accepted the Newtonian picture. I mean, if Newton didn’t accept it, who would? It would kind of be a scandal if he didn’t. Newton himself accepted the Newtonian world picture but he did not accept hands-off theology. Newton’s Law describe how the world works provided that the world is a closed, isolated system, subject to no outside causal influence. So Newton’s Laws described, Newton himself said, Newton himself thought that God had to intervene every now and then, and adjust the orbits of the planets, and if he didn’t do that, their orbits would spiral off into incoherence. So he thought God acted in the world regularly, right?
So he didn’t accept hands-off theology. And what he did accept, what he thought was, his laws described the world, as the world is, provided it’s a closed or isolated system, provided that there isn’t any outside, causal influence. Any influence from outside the world into that system. The great conservation laws that are deduced from Newton’s Laws, about conservation of energy and conservation of momentum and conservation of angular momentum and so on.
These great conservation laws deduce from Newton’s Laws, they’re stated for closed or isolated systems. Here’s you see a bit there, from a widely used, university, physics, kind of textbook called University Physics, Sears and Zamanski University Physics. They say, this is the principle of the conservation of linear momentum. When no resultant external force acts on a system, the total momentum of the system remains constant in magnitude and direction. And then they also say, the principle of the conservation of energy, the other was the conservation of linear momentum, the principle of the conservation of energy states that quote, the internal energy of an isolated system remains constant. This is the most general statement of the principle of the conservation of energy.
So you get the idea that these laws, Newton’s Laws, his law of gravitation, his laws of motion, conservation laws that are deduced from Newton’s Laws, these apply to closed or isolated systems. Systems when there isn’t any causal input from the outside. When there’s nothing outside, that system acting in the system, acting within the system. But then there’s nothing here. If that’s true, there’s nothing here to prevent God from changing the velocity or direction of a particle. Or for that matter, from creating ex nihilo, a full grown horse. I say God could create ex nihilo, a full grown horse, in the middle of Times Square, New York City, without violating any of these laws.
For the following reason, energy is conserved in a closed system. But any system in which God acted in such a way would not be a closed system. So the laws tell us how things go with closed systems. But they don’t say anything about systems that aren’t closed. So if you consider God’s creating full grown horse, ex nihilo, say on the stage here, then any system that included that horse this whole building for example, the whole City of Los Angles, the whole state of California, United States, the whole Earth, any system that included that horse would not be a closed system. There would be input from outside the system into the system. But if that’s the case, then the conservation laws don’t apply to that system. They only tell you what things are like in a closed system. Alright? OK.
So these principles I say apply to isolated or closed systems. But then there’s nothing to prevent God from creating Xneholo, a full grown horse. Energy is conserved in a closed system but not in just any old system, at least the laws don’t say anything about unclosed systems. And it is no part of Newtonian mechanics or classical science generally to declare that the material universe, the whole physical universe is a closed system. That’s not part of physics. Physics tell us that for any two objects, there’s a force they attract each other with, which is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. It tells us that and it tells us lot’s of other things. But it does not go on to say, further more, the whole material or physical universe is a closed system. That would be like more like a theological or philosophical add on. That wouldn’t be part of the science just as such. You won’t find that in any physics textbooks. OK.
So then to get hands-off theology, or anti-interventionist theology, we need more than just classical science as such. Classical science doesn’t give that to us. It’s not the case that classical science as such precludes God acting specially in the world. These theologians and philosophers, and so on, say that but the fact is that’s not true. To get hands-off theology we need more than classical science. We need to add that the physical universe is closed. That’s what we have to add. Or alternatively, we have to add determinism, which will come to the same thing here. For the natural, the common definition of determinism is this, that the natural laws, plus the state of the universe at any one time entails, determines the state of the universe at any other time. You get the idea? Yep, there it is, right?
So, you’ve got the state of the universe, the whole universe at one time, a complete description of it. A description that says where each particle is, and what it’s velocity it and what it’s direction is, what it’s mass is and so on, all these parameters. You’ve got a complete description. That together with the laws of nature will entail the state of the universe at any other time. Will imply the state of the universe at any other time. So that if you were sufficiently smart, I doubt if anybody here is that smart, if you were sufficiently smart, and you knew all, you know exactly what the universe is at that time T, you could just deduce what it is at any other time. In the past, as well as in the future.
And here the paradigm statesman, for this way of thinking, for this deterministic thinking is Pierre Laplace. He says we often regard the present state of the universe as the the effect of it’s previous state and as the cause of the one which is to follow. Given for even one instant, a mind which could comprehend all the forces by which nature is animated and the respective situation of the beings that compose it given a mind like that, a mind sufficiently vast to subject these data to analysis it would embrace in the same formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the lightest atom. For it, nothing would be uncertain. And the future, as well as the past, would be present to it’s eyes. That’s what Pierre Laplace said.
Pierre Laplace alleged to have responded, but Napoleon is alleged to have asked him, well what about God in your system, and Pierre Laplace reputed to, or responded, I have no need of that hypothesis he said, presumably in French. But that’s the thought, his thought is that, his thought is the universe is, has such a sort, that if you know, if you have a detailed knowledge of any bit of it, any one time, the state of the universe at any one time, and you knew all the physical laws, and you were really smart, you could just deduce what it would be at any other time. And that would be what you can think of as determinism.
And of course, if determinism were true, then God would not act specially in the world. If determinism were true, it would follow that God never acts specially in the world. Because if he did act specially in the world, at some time, then that great mind that Laplace talks about would not be able conclude that God is doing that from knowing what the universe was like at some other time. Right? OK. So I think the thing to say here, is that Laplace-ian picture, including determinism, is accurate only if the universe is casually closed, only if the material universe is causally closed. Only if God doesn’t act specially on the world. Because if God did, then that great Laplace-ian mind wouldn’t be able to make these calculations. So we can think of the Laplace-ian picture as the Newtonian picture plus closure.
Plus the idea that the universe is causally closed. And this is the picture that is guiding the thought of Bultmann, Baquari and Gilkey, these theologians. I think it’s an interesting irony, I mean, there are two interesting ironies here about these theologians. I mean, the fact that these theologians say this, bothers me more than the fact that some philosophers and some scientists say this. I shouldn’t have thought a theologian would want to see a thing like that. But I think that there are two interesting ironies in saying this.
The first irony is that is a matter of fact, classical science doesn’t have this implication at all. It doesn’t imply that God doesn’t or couldn’t act specially in the world. It doesn’t imply that at all. Because the classical scientific laws together the conservation laws, are statements about what closed systems are like and any system in which God did something, created a full grown horse, let’s say, would not be a closed system, and thus wouldn’t be one of the systems the law is talking about.
And then the other irony is that in the name of being scientific and up to date, these theologians were urging on us a picture of the world that is scientifically, was scientifically out of date, when they were urging it by a long time. I mean, classical science has been superseded by quantum mechanics and relativity theory, both general relativity and special relativity, so they were urging on us, saying that God can’t act specially on the world. They were urging this on us, first in the name, first by misunderstanding classical science and then secondly, by failing to realize that classical science isn’t the right kind of science anymore. And so, I’m inclined to think that they should be ashamed of themselves.
So we can think of the laws as describing how things go when the universe is causally closed, when it is subject to no outside influence. Here’s a statement from J. L. Mackie. It’ll show up any minute, there it is. J. L. Mackie himself, not no friend of theism, not a Christian or a believer in God at all, but what he says here seems to me to be correct. He says, what we want to do here is to contrast the order of nature with a possible divine or supernatural intervention. The laws of nature, we must say, describe the ways in which the world, including of course, human beings, works when left to itself, were not interfered with. A miracle occurs when the world is not left to itself, when something distinct from the natural order as a whole intrudes into it.
If you think of, if you ask yourself now, what then would the form of the natural laws, what kind of form would they take if Mackie, or something like Mackie were right, then it would go like this, NL, NL, NL for natural law. when the universe is causally closed, that is, when God is not acting specially in the world, than P, where the P would be the way we ordinarily think of the law. So it would go like, when the universe is causally closed, then for any two particles or any two physical objects, they attract each other with a force directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. And the same for the other laws, they would all have a preface. When the universe is causally closed. Right, that seems a quick good description of the laws of nature and it fits well with the Newtonian picture. And, so thought of the natural laws offer no threat to divine special action, including miracles. OK, skip to the next little bit then.
So, I say there is no, there is in classical science as such, no objection to special divine action or to human free action. I mean in the same way as this as this deterministic or Laplace-ian picture precludes divine action, it also precludes human free action in the world, all right? And we could talk about that in the discussion period if you like, but I don’t want to talk about it now because I don’t have that much time. So classical science just as such doesn’t make any objection to special divine action or to human free action. To get such an objection, we must add that the universe is causally closed. That’s a metaphysical or theological add-on, not part of classical science. Classical science as such is perfectly consistent with special divine action, including miracles, walking on water, rising from the dead, creating ex nihilo, a full-grown horse and so on. There’s no science-religion conflict here at all. There’s only a religion, metaphysics conflict. OK, well now I want to talk briefly about the new picture.
That, I said, was the old picture, now the new picture. Well now, classical science is now been superseded. the Laplace-ian and Newtonian world pictures have both been superseded, in particular by quantum mechanics. And the main thing to see here, there’s a lot to be said about quantum mechanics and most of what I don’t know. So, I mean I’m not a quantum mechanic. [audience laughing] But fortunately we don’t need to know a whole lot about it to see the important point here. The important point is this. The laws of quantum mechanics are probabilistic rather than deterministic, all right? So according to Newtonian mechanics, if you’re given a complete description of some system and it’s, there isn’t any outside causal influence on the system, then if you ask, what’s that gonna be like in five minutes, there will be a complete, there will be a particular answer, it will be a completely definite answer. Maybe you aren’t able to get that answer yourself and in fact, there’s a lot of problems with actually working this out in detail. Maybe you aren’t capable of doing that, but the the laws entail a particular and completely definite answer to all the questions, all the physical questions about that system.
All right, but that isn’t how it goes with quantum mechanics. In quantum mechanics, if you’re given a system of particles, then the quantum mechanical laws don’t say which configuration they will be in in five minutes at all, but instead, they assign probabilities to the possible outcomes. So there’ll be a whole continuum of possible outcomes and the quantum mechanical laws will assign probabilities to these. Some of the outcomes, if you think of it as kind of a distribution like that, at these edges, these outcomes will be extremely unlikely, will be assigned extremely low probability, those in the middle much higher probability, and so on. But it won’t tell you just which one will happen, just which one will, in fact, ensue, it only assigns these probabilities, OK?
Well, I mean if that’s the way things stand, then even if you leave out the bit about closed systems, miracles, walking on water, rising from the dead, they’re clearly not incompatible with these laws because these laws are just probabilistic, they say probably things will be this, this, this or this. This way of being has a probability of .13, let’s say this one over here, probability of 000.7, I mean .0007. Miracles of walking on water, rising from the dead, these things aren’t incompatible with these laws. no doubt, with respect to these laws, they are very improbable, but of course, we already knew that. So, the point here is just this. With respect to the new picture, you don’t even have to add the thing about the system’s being closed.
Whether or not the system, even if the system is a closed system, the laws still won’t entail a particular determinant outcome, and hence, they’re not incompatible with these laws, are not incompatible with such miracles as walking on water or somebody rising from the dead. OK, and in that way the new picture is quite different from the old picture and it’s really quite, it’s quite an important difference, it’s very substantial and important difference.
Now the next thing I want to note though is that, very many philosophers, theologians and scientists who are wholly aware of this quantum mechanical revolution still apparently find a problem with miracles and with special divine action generally. All right, so there is the Divine Action Project. There it is. The Divine Action Project so-called by Wesley Wildman, in a paper he wrote. It’s been a 15-year series of conferences and publications that began in 1988. So far these conferences have resulted in five or six books of essays involving some 50 or more authors from various fields of science, together with philosophers and theologians, including many of the most prominent writers in the field. For example John Polkinghorne and Arthur Peacocke, Nancy Murphy Philip Clayton and many others.
This whole Divine Action Project is a very serious and impressive attempt to come to grips with a topic of divine action in the world. Now the interesting thing here is that, nearly all of these authors believe that a satisfactory account of God’s action in the world would have to be non-interventionistic. A satisfactory account of divine action in the world would have to be such that it doesn’t involve God’s intervening in the world. Really doesn’t involve God’s acting specially in the world. So says Wesley Wildman, he says the DAP project tried to be sensitive to issues of theological consistency. For example, the idea of God sustaining nature and its law-like regularities with one hand, while miraculously intervening, abrogating or ignoring these regularities with the other hand, struck most members as dangerously close to outright contradiction. Most participants certainly felt that God would not create an orderly world in which it was impossible for the Creator to act without violating the created structures of order.
Now when you think about that, there’s got to be something wrong with that, the created structures of order. The creative structures of order as we now understand them, are understood from the quantum mechanical point of view. And, you don’t violate them, God wouldn’t be violating these structures, these laws, by causing somebody to rise from the dead, or as far that goes, by creating a full-grown horse because the laws don’t say exactly what’s gonna happen, they only assign these probabilities. Again, no doubt the probability of a full-grown horse emerging right here, very low but not incompatible with the laws. All right.
Well now, there’s one more point I want to make here. So I think that people in this Divine Action Project, I think they’re still sort of hung up on the same sort of thing that people were hung up before. The same sort of thing at those theologians that I mentioned were hung up. They’re really thinking of the same sort of thing. They’re really hung up in the same sort of way. And I want to say two things about that. First of all, even as I say, you set aside the restriction of the laws, even if you set aside the restriction of the laws to causally closed systems, even so, you still won’t get any contradiction with divine special action, that’s one. And the other thing I want to say is that, you really can’t even say what intervention is. I mean what is intervention on the quantum mechanical picture? That’s the next little bit, what would intervention, what would that actually be? Well take a look, I’m running out of time now. There is a way of saying, on the old picture, what a divine intervention would be. but there isn’t anything, as far as I can see, available on the new picture.
So first, we might consider number one on the sheet. There it is. So what would it be? Suppose you ask one of these people, OK, you don’t like intervention, so tell me what would an intervention be, can you tell me what it is? I mean, if you can’t tell me what an intervention would be that it’s sort of peculiar to be so much against them, right? You tend to be against things such that, you know what they are, not against things such that one can’t even say what they are. Well here’s one possibility. You might say God does something, A, that causes the state of affairs that would not have occurred if God had not done A. So, imagine the person that were, our interlocutors saying, well, that’s what an intervention would be, what a divine intervention would be. But that can’t be right because then, an act of conservation would be an intervention. And they’re not worried about conservation, they’re just worried about special divine action.
So that couldn’t be a good suggestion. The second one might be this one. God performs an act, A, which is neither conservation or creation, that causes the state of affairs that would not have happened if he had not performed that action, A. But isn’t that really just acting specially in the world, right? I mean, we’re trying to give an account of acting specially in the world which doesn’t involve intervention. Well, if this is how we understand intervention, intervention and acting specially in in the world would be the same thing, right? And so, from that point of view, I mean, what they’re really trying to do if you really did accept two, you’d be trying to give an idea of, an account of divine action in the world that didn’t involve divine action in the world. And of, course that’s gonna be really hard. Right. Well, I mean, you might try other ones too.
For example, number three. God performs an act that is very improbable given the previous states of the world. But then, you wanna ask, well, what’s the problem with that? If that’s what an intervention is, what would be the problem with it? Why shouldn’t God perform improbable acts? If God wants to perform improbable acts, who’s to prevent them, that’s OK, no problem with that. Or number four, there are various lower level of generalizations not entailed by quantum mechanics, on which we rely. And that’s true, I mean things like bread nourishes, people don’t walk on water or rise from the dead, these are generalizations, we all rely on them and believe them. And you might say, God intervenes when he causes an event contrary to one of those generalizations.
But again what would be the problem with that? Are we to think that these lower level regularities and generalizations are like the laws of the Medes and Persians, so that once God has established one of them, not even he can act contrary to it. In any event, this sort of objection isn’t scientific, it’s philosophical or theological. So I say there’s nothing in science, either under the old or the new picture, that conflicts with or even calls into question special divine action, including miracles. So my general conclusion is, lots of people have raised this problem, they say miracles are incompatible with science. H. Allen Orr said that, as well as the theologians and philosophers I mentioned earlier on. It’s a very common idea that, if you believe in miracles, you’re somehow not accepting science or going contrary to science. My conclusion is that’s not true at all, under either the old or the new picture, there isn’t any conflict between thinking God acts specially in the world and enthusiastically, endorsing all of contemporary physics or whatever science you like. Thank you. [audience applauding]
Host: Can I ever be justified or possess warrant that a miracle occurred on the basis of another person’s testimony alone? Especially since I would possess a number of defeaters for any claim that a miracle occurred, since it is, after all the miracle. And if we can be justified that a miracle occurred on the basis of testimony, what about religious pluralism and their conflicting testimony that different miracles occurred. Does knowledge of religious pluralism undermine my justification for my belief that a miracle occurred?
Well, I mean, I guess one question we have to ask, first of all, is what a miracle is? What are we gonna count as a miracle? Not just anything that’s really extremely unusual counts as a miracle. Suppose, say on the moon, on the other side of the moon, nobody lives there or nothing like that, there are no people there, something really unusual happens, a rabbit suddenly appears and then suddenly disappears, and then, changes into something else and the like. That would not be a miracle. A miracle has to have some kind of religious significance as well. So, the miracles Jesus did, one thinks the point of doing these miracles was to show that His message really was correct, really was from God. These miracles kind of give you this kind of endorsement of his teaching. Raising Lazarus from the dead and so on, and then, of course, Himself rising from the dead. So the first thing about a miracle is that, it has to have some special religious significance. Now the question, can I ever be justified that a miracle occurred on the basis of another person’s testimony alone. I think that’s a hard question. I don’t really know the answer to that question. it seems to me that, when I believe miracles, the miracles I believe in are the miracles that are recited in Scripture, in the Bible, Jesus rising from the dead, Jesus changing water into wine. Moses parting the Red Sea and so on. And well, you might say I’m believing this, I mean I think the Bible as divine discourse, as a message from God Himself to us human beings, and you might say well, then I’m believing these things on God’s testimony when I believe them because I find them in the Bible.
Well, OK, then maybe I am believing them on the basis of God’s testimony, that would be a case of believing on the basis of testimony. But if it comes to other human beings, I would be pretty cherry about believing something just on the authority, believing in a miracle just on the authority of what some person says. At the very least, you’d have to have maybe an interlocking bunch of people, all attesting to the same thing. And then, maybe that would work. We do think, people do think of miracles as occurring nowadays and, I guess, I myself think they do too. But, it’s never, it seems to be, a sort of knock-down, drag-out case, someone gets miraculously healed, as we think, but there will always be some medical expert who will say, that sort of thing sometimes happens, just the natural run of things. It’s hard to be really sure under those conditions that God is acting in some special way, even though, I guess, I myself am inclined to think that, very often, God does.
Host: OK, there was a question back here, yes.
Participant: OK, I’m gonna see if I can get this out well. If I’m understanding the classic Newtonian science objection to everything, it’s that it’s talking about closed systems. Now, off the idea that everything that exists has beginning, has a cause, thus, wouldn’t the Big Bang, the act of creation itself, thus make the universe not a closed system and making their entire point invalid?
Well there will be, I mean you might suppose that God, at the very beginning, started things off, cause things. There’s a big explosion, so to speak, just as they say about the Big Bang. But that it doesn’t follow that no subsequent system would be closed. If you take the state of the universe at some subsequent time, it might be, it might be even though it probably isn’t, but it might be that God wasn’t acting specially in universe at that time, if you see what I mean. So you can think of of systems at a time, you needn’t necessarily think of the whole shooting match.
Host: Let’s take another question on the screen Dr. Planica, it’s coming up. Wouldn’t any world God creates necessarily be deterministic? I would think that, for God to sufficiently act in the universe, it would have to be sufficiently determined.
Well, I mean a deterministic world would be one such that, from the state of the universe at any one time, together with the laws, you can deduce the state of the universe at any other time. The universe wouldn’t have to be like that for God to have created it. In fact, if God does act specially in the world, than the universe is not deterministic in that way. I don’t know who asked that question but whoever did, is that an answer to it?
Participant: Yeah but, I won’t talk much, sorry. If there’s reasons for Him to act, wouldn’t it be deterministic?
Alvin: If there are reasons for God to act, yeah.
Participant: If you were to cause something in the world, wouldn’t…
See, that’s a different kind of question, though. So his question was then, wouldn’t God have a reason to act if he didn’t act in the world? And wouldn’t that be determinism or deterministic? But that would be kind of a misunderstanding. It still wouldn’t follow that, if you looked at the universe a million years ago and knew exactly what it was like and you were really smart you knew the laws, then you could deduce that God would perform that particular kind of action. That wouldn’t follow. So God certainly has reasons for what he does, but that’s not sufficient for the universe as being deterministic in the relevant sense. And presumably, God’s actions themselves aren’t determined. I mean, we Christians think that God created the world freely. He wasn’t obliged to it, wasn’t by virtue of his very nature or something like that, that He created the world, He created it freely. We also think that God was free in setting up the scheme of redemption, by virtue of which we human beings can once more be in God’s favor. Once more be in right relationship with God. Again, we think of God as having done that freely, He wasn’t obliged to do that, but he he did it out of the goodness of his heart, we might say.
Host: OK, there’s a question over here. Aaron, come on over here so that I don’t have to crawl over people.
Aaron: Hello. So I, sorry, I’ll just… If the problem with science is the study of causality, of things that belong in the world, how can we, by conversation with laymen, approach the issue without giving the audience a sense that science is wrong? But that science is not necessary to prove histological accuracy in the gospel. So how can we approach conversations in that science isn’t necessary to prove that God does exist or that he has divine action within the world.
I’m not quite sure I understand the question. Is this the question? Is this the question, do we need science to prove that there is such a person as God?
Aaron: Yes, that’s the first part is that, do we… Actually, no, how do we approach laymen to tell them that science isn’t necessary to prove that God exists?
Or is this the question, how do we approach a layman to explain that science and religion are not incompatible, that it’s possible both that science be true and that science be accurate, correct and that there be such a person as God, who acts specially in the world?
Aaron: Yes and within history in time.
Yeah, well that’s what I’ve just been trying to do. [audience applauding] I’ve been trying to explain that and I assume most people here are laymen of one kind or another. So, I guess the answer is, you just explain it along the lines I was trying to, or maybe you’ve got a better way, but I mean, that’s one way anyway.
Host: All right, let’s take another question on the screen. How can humans being libertarianly free when God sustains and rules everything that occurs in the world via His Providence. For any human act X, God providential allows X to occur. but He could have prevented X from occurring since He is Provident. So how does God avoid responsibility for human evil acts he could have prevented?
Well there, I think, if God gives me a choice and I do the wrong thing, and even if God knew I was gonna do the wrong thing, I don’t see why that means he’s responsible for the evil I did. Suppose Adam and Eve, in the garden, go contrary to God’s will and God enabled them to do this by making them free, he created them free, He wanted there to be free creatures who could, out of their own free will, obey God and live the sort of life that God wants people to live. But they didn’t do it. I don’t see how that makes God responsible for their sin, it’s not that He sinned. Granted, He permitted them to sin but He didn’t sin, and He might have a perfectly good reason for permitting them to sin. My own thought here is something like this, which not nearly everybody agrees with. But you can think about it like this. You imagine God, prior to creating the world, thinking to Himself, what we want is a really good world, we want a really good world, right? So there are all these different possible worlds you might think of. I could do it like this, He says, or like that, like that, like that. Well, if you ask yourself what it is that makes a world a really good world, what are, you might say, good making properties of worlds? There are lots of them, I mean having lots of happy people in them, having people who are not only happy but treat each other well. People who obey the Lord, believe in God and love the Lord. These are all very good things. But there’s one thing, I think, that exceeds them by, I would say, a great deal. So if you think about the whole Christian story, people sometimes say it’s the greatest story ever told. And it is, but I’d go even further, I’d say it’s the greatest story that ever could be told. The greatest in a way, the greatest possible story, you might say. So think just think about the whole Christian story. Here is God the Almighty, omnipotent holy good, omniscient, Creator of the universe. The being in which, it’s not possible that there be a greater. He creates human beings, leaves them free. Creates free human beings, and they turn their back on God, they reject Him. They seek their own good rather than wanting to conform their wills to His. They become selfishly, they turn away from the Lord. Well now, what is God’s reaction according to the Christian story? It’s not like He’s some Eastern potentate who would then have them all boiled in oil or something like that. No, what’s His reaction? He undergoes the great suffering accruing to Him and to His son, the second person of the Trinity, the Word. The great suffering involved in the second person of the Trinity becoming incarnate in our form, in our flesh and being crucified, having to suffer and die, that’s his response. An act of overwhelming, amazing love on a part of the first being of the whole universe, an amazing act of love directed to creatures who have turned their backs on Him. Now a world in which that happens is gonna be a really great world, a really great world. So, if if all the greatest worlds include incarnation and atonement, then of course, our world, well, all the greatest worlds include this but then, any world, really good world, will also include sin, since you can’t have atonement where there’s no sin. And in fact, you’d have to have quite a lot of sin to make it appropriate for something of such magnitude as incarnation and then, Christ suffering and dying and so on. So you might say, so the question was, well, why would God permit people to sin? Well maybe the answer is, all the really great possible worlds contain incarnation and atonement, but then, also contains sin.
Host: Let’s take two more questions, one from the back.
Participant: Hello. So let me phrase this right. As a disclaimer, I’m a non-believer. And one of the problems I have with finding God for myself is the different laws in physics that seem very arbitrary.
Participant: The different laws in physics that seem pretty arbitrary. Universal constants and such. I was wondering how exactly that an omnipotent God doesn’t make His presence more known. Why does He have to act within the box He can finds himself in with physical laws as we know them? It’s great that we do that, we have to, but for Him to do that, not manifest the horse next to you or whatever the case may be, why must He act within them? I think that’s what I’m going for.
Yeah, I mean, I guess the answer He doesn’t always act in the same way, there is special divine action, there are miracles and the lack of that. So He doesn’t always act in the same way, He doesn’t have to always act in the same way. But if you ask, well, why does He sometimes do miracles and other times, not do miracles, or why isn’t His presence overwhelmingly available and obvious to everyone? With respect to the first question, I don’t know, I mean God’s got his reasons and maybe I can’t figure him out. I mean, if God did have a reason for a certain kind of activity in a certain context, I think that you or I would be the first to know what it was. His noetic or epistemic situation is extremely different from ours. I mean, compared to him it’s sort of like say the difference between what an ant knows and what you know, probably even more than that. And I imagine you know a great deal and ants don’t know much, that’s certainly right. but the difference between God’s epistemic situation and ours is enormous. So maybe we can shouldn’t expect to be able to answer questions of that sort. With respect to the other question, why isn’t it that his presence isn’t wholly obvious to everyone? I think one thing that is certainly relevant there is the Christian doctrine of sin. Sin, not necessarily sin on the part of the person to whom God’s presence isn’t obvious, but according to the whole Christian way of thinking about things, sin has darkened our minds in various ways. And the old Princeton theologians used to speak always of the noetic effects of sin. The effects of sin on our minds. And these noetic effects of sin are, they’re more evident with respect to our knowledge of God and with respect to our knowledge and our treatment of each other then perhaps they are with respect to our knowledge of of things like, how far it is from here to Los Angeles and the like of that. One doesn’t think of our beliefs along those lines of somehow having been darkened by sin, but our beliefs about God and about ourselves, about how important we are as opposed to how important other people and the like, those are the sorts of beliefs that have been darkened in that way. By virtue of sin, there can be physical illness, which is kind of a malfunction on the part of our bodies. But by virtue of sin there can also be spiritual malfunction. John Calvin spoke of a sensus divinitatis, a sort of natural tendency on the part of all of us to believe in God or something like God. Well, just as other parts of our whole being, both physical and mental can be disturbed and made such as they don’t work properly, so can the sensus divinitatis. And then, still further, there is the whole social context that we’re in. A social context can also make it such that it’s much harder to be aware of God. That one social context can make that much harder than in some others. So I would say there is several different parts of the answer that you’re asking for, but maybe also, there isn’t a completely satisfactory answer. I mean, I don’t mean to pretend that the answer I gave is completely satisfactory, but I think it’s a start.
Host: Let’s take one last question on the screen. Todd, if you’d bring that up. What are the values of reading The Blind Watchmaker by Dawkins.
What I was thinking of when I said it’s a really good book is that, he gives wonderful descriptions of various kinds of phenomena in the living world, in particular among animals. So he talks, for example about bats and about, he describes them sort of engaging, wonderfully engaging detail the way in which bats, who are blind, we speak of bat being blind as a bat, bats are blind, they can navigate through a cave which is full of obstacles, stalactites and stalagmites, projections of various kinds, at an extremely high rate of speed without so much as brushing any of these. Well, I mean, that’s kind of amazing when you think about it. This book of his is full of descriptions of that sort. That’s what I think is really good about that book. When he, though, goes on and does sort of philosophy and theology, then I think the book completely falls apart. But the other part is very much worth reading. And it is, also, very much worth seeing what somebody like Dawkins, who wants to be a really serious atheist, it is very interesting to see how such a person thinks and that book gives you a good example of that.