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Alston, W. “Divine Action, Human Freedom, and the Laws of Nature.”

In his paper Bill Alston studies the philosophical aspects of the problem of divine action in relation to both the laws of nature and the meaning of human freedom. To set the stage, he begins by stating two presuppositions which characterize his general approach: first, he takes “seriously and realistically” the idea of God as a personal agent, and second, God’s activity extends beyond creation and conservation to include special acts performed by God in light of knowledge of the world and to achieve a purpose.

By “seriously” Alston means that, at least in some cases, we understand the statement “God acts” literally and not just figuratively. By “realistically” Alston means that religious discourse, along with scientific discourse, aims at “an accurate portrayal of an independently existing reality” with objective characteristics. God’s actions result in outcomes, at least on some occasions, which are different from the outcomes that would have been if only natural factors had been at work. God’s acts include not only revelation but also such “super-spectacular miracles” as the parting of the Sea of Reeds and the resurrection, as well as daily divine-human interaction, in prayer for example. Thus God acts as a personal agent, “possessed of intellect and will.”

With this as background, Alston proceeds to the main burden of the paper, relating his convictions to the topics of natural law and human freedom. He defines “determinism” as the doctrine that “every happening is uniquely determined to be just what it is by natural causes within the universe.” Although determinism has a strong hold on contemporary culture, Alston takes quantum mechanics to provide a “definitive refutation” of it. Hence because of quantum indeterminism, God can act without violating physical law. Moreover, acts such as these which begin on the sub-atomic level can lead to differences in macroscopic states. It is thus possible that God designed the universe in this way to allow for divine action.

Still, Alston’s main point does not depend on the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics. According to Alston, even deterministic laws only provide sufficient conditions for predicting the behavior of closed systems. But we never have reason to believe a system is actually closed, i.e., that we know all the operative forces at work. Any system can be open to outside influences, including the acts of God. Hence, in this more general sense, God’s acts do not violate natural law regardless of whether these laws are probabilistic or deterministic.

Next Alston turns to the problem of human freedom. He takes a libertarian view of free action in which “nothing other than my choice itself uniquely determines me to choose one way rather than another.” Does human freedom pose a problem for conceptualizing God’s action? Alston first argues that, with the exception of acts by free creatures, all events which we attribute to God’s specific acts could in fact be the unfolding of what God designed initially (whether “initially” means temporally first, as in a universe with a first moment, or first in order of priority, as in a universe with an infinite past). But if we assume that humans, at least, have libertarian free choice, the strategy of initial design cannot work - unless God can be said to possess “middle knowledge,” defined as knowledge of what (actual and possible) free agents would choose to do in any situation in which they found themselves. Alston then argues that middle knowledge is impossible: God cannot know what a free agent would decide in situations which the agent never actually encounters. Thus if there is libertarian free agency and if middle knowledge is impossible, we must conclude that those of God’s acts that appear to take place in time in response to the choices of free agents do indeed take place in precisely that way, and not merely by means of God’s initial design.

Alston then turns to physical cosmology and its possible bearing on divine action. The choice between cosmological models such as the Big Bang, the oscillating universe and inflation makes little difference to Alston’s position in general, though the status of time in these models might be significant. To pursue this question, Alston distinguishes between a block universe view of time and the process view of time. Does human freedom require the process view, or is the block view sufficient? Alston argues that, although the latter denies the passage of time, it does not imply that all events exist at all times, but only that they each exist at their own time. Thus the block view does not undercut human freedom, since all that is required for an act to be free is that it not be determined by anything prior to it, and this is possible even on the block view. Similarly God knows each event in its own time.

Finally, what about God’s existence: is it temporal or atemporal? Alston argues that even if God is atemporal, God’s acts can produce temporally ordered consequences in the world. Moreover, relativity theory and quantum cosmology suggest that time should not be viewed as a “metaphysically necessary form of every kind of existence, including the divine existence.” Thus physical cosmology, and with it the status of time, has little bearing on how we should best think of divine action in the world and its relation to the laws of nature and human freedom.

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