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Drees, Willem B. “Gaps for God?”

Willem B. Drees argues that theories of chaotic and complex systems have made it clearer than ever before that a naturalistic explanation of the world is possible, even in light of the lack of predictability of these systems. These theories have effectively closed certain gaps in our understanding of nature. He is therefore critical of John Polkinghorne’s suggestion that the unpredictability of natural processes provides a potential locus for divine action. Polkinghorne suggests that God brings about an input of information into the world without an input of energy. Drees claims that this is inconsistent with quantum physics and thermodynamics. In addition, Polkinghorne seems to interpret the unpredictability of chaotic systems as a sign of intrinsic openness, but this ignores the real meaning of deterministic chaos. Moreover, discarding the theory of deterministic chaos would be inconsistent with the very critical realism that Polkinghorne promotes.

However, denying any such gaps within natural processes need not foreclose all options for a religious view of reality. In fact Drees claims that science raises religious questions about nature as a whole and about the most fundamental structures of reality. To make his case, he distinguishes between two conceptions of explanation in contemporary philosophy of science. Ontic views of explanation consider an event explained if it is understood as a possible consequence of a causal mechanism. Epistemic views of explanation consider phenomena and laws explained if they are seen as part of a wider framework. Hence if one adopts an epistemic view of explanation the framework itself still requires an explanation. Along these lines, Arthur Peacocke and others have argued for divine action on the whole of natural reality: God could cause specific events in nature via “top-down” or “whole-part” causation. Drees, however, rejects the attempt to extrapolate from the context of nature as environment to the concept of God as the world’s environment.

Given the various problems with attempts to envisage God’s action in the world, Drees prefers to understand the world as God’s action. Whatever strength explanations have, there always remain limit questions about reality and about understanding which allow us to develop a religious interpretation of “secular naturalism.”

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