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Polkinghorne, John. “The Metaphysics of Divine Action.”

In “The Metaphysics of Divine Action,” John Polkinghorne notes that any discussion of agency requires the adoption of a metaphysical view of the nature of reality. He claims that there is no “deductive” way of going “from epistemology to ontology,” but the strategy of critical realism is to maximize the connection. This leads most physicists, he claims, to interpret Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle as implying an actual indeterminacy in the physical world, rather than an ignorance of its detailed workings.

Polkinghorne is critical of physical reductionism, which makes unsubstantiated and implausible claims for the explanatory power of the idea of self-organizing systems. Moreover, it focuses strictly on the generation of large-scale structure rather than the temporal openness necessary to accommodate agency. A theological appeal to divine primary causality is too vague to yield an understanding of providential action. We need not be stymied by the problem of the “causal joint” that makes this possible. Top-down causality is a valuable idea, but it is not unproblematic and its plausibility depends upon exhibiting intrinsic gaps in the bottom-up description in order to afford it room for maneuver.

Polkinghorne believes that such gaps might originate from indeterminate quantum events. However, there are problems about amplifying their effects, and the idea also leads to an episodic account of divine agency. Polkinghorne prefers an approach based upon interpreting the unpredictabilities of chaotic dynamics (in accord with the strategy of critical realism) as indicating an ontological openness to the future whereby “active information” becomes a model for human and divine agency. He interprets sensitivity to small triggers as indicators of the vulnerability of chaotic systems to environmental factors, with the consequence that such systems have to be discussed holistically. It is not supposed, however, that such triggers are the local mechanism by which agency is exercised.

The resulting metaphysical conjecture Polkinghorne calls a complementary dual-aspect monism, in which mind and matter are opposite poles or phases of the single stuff of created reality. This scheme is antireductionist, stressing instead a contextualist approach in which the behavior of parts depends on the whole in which they participate. Polkinghorne then discusses some of the consequences of adopting this point of view, including the insight that divine agency has its own special characteristics and that God’s knowledge of the world of becoming will be truly temporal in character.

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