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Murphy, Nancey. “Divine Action in the Natural Order: Buridan’s Ass and Schrödinger’s Cat.”

Nancey Murphy directs our attention away from chaos and complexity to the arena of quantum physics. In her paper, Murphy argues that the problem of divine action will be solved by nothing less than a revised metaphysical theory of the nature of matter and of natural causes. Her proposal is that we view the causal powers of created entities as inherently incomplete. No event occurs without divine participation but, apart from creation ex nihilo, God never acts except by means of cooperation with created agents. Her paper attempts to show how this account can be reconciled with contemporary science, focusing on divine action at the quantum level.

First Murphy proposes criteria, derived from both theology and science, which any satisfactory theory of divine action must meet. She claims that it must allow for objectively special divine acts, yet not undercut our scientific picture of the law-like regularity of many natural processes. Then she surveys changes in metaphysical views of matter and causation from ancient to modern philosophy. The historical survey is intended to put in question current metaphysical assumptions about the nature of matter and of natural causes, as a prelude to considering the consequences of recent developments in science for these metaphysical issues.

Murphy’s proposal is that any adequate account of divine action must include a “bottom-up” approach: if God is to be active in all events, then God must be involved in the most basic of natural events. Current science suggests that this most basic level is quantum phenomena. It is a bonus for theology that we find a measure of indeterminacy at this level, since it allows for an account of divine action wherein God has no need to overrule natural tendencies or processes. This cooperation rather than coercion is in keeping with God’s pattern of respecting the integrity of other higher-level creatures, especially human creatures.

Consequences of this proposal are spelled out regarding the character of natural laws and regarding God’s action at the macroscopic level. One of these consequences is that the “laws of nature” must be descriptive, rather than prescriptive; they represent our human perceptions of the regularity of God’s action. In the end, she replies to some of the objections that have been raised against theories of divine action based on quantum indeterminacy and explains how the essay’s proposal meets the criteria of adequacy set out in the beginning.

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