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Stoeger, William R. “Epistemological and Ontological Issues Arising from Quantum Theory."

As a prelude to the problem of divine action and quantum physics, William R. Stoeger explores the epistemological and ontological implications of quantum physics. Clearly a discussion of divine action in nature requires our confidence that scientific theories actually represent processes and features of the world that are, in some ways, independent of how we know them. Using these theories, we may then be able to constrain our description of divine action in important ways. But to gain confidence in our theories, we must first sift through their interpretations, assessing them in terms of their adequacy and fruitfulness; only those that survive this process will warrant further consideration. What then constitutes a “canon of adequacy” for our assessment?

Stoeger responds first by noting that there are several levels of interpretation involved: i) basic interpretation at the level of the physical theory itself (e.g., the probabilistic interpretation of the square of the wavefunction); ii) consistency and coherence both within the theory, and iii) with other physical theories (e.g., with special relativity); and iv) epistemological and ontological interpretations by which quantum theory may give us knowledge of the underlying reality. Clearly levels (i) - (iii) constrain level (iv) without determining it completely. Using levels (iii) and (iv), Stoeger argues that we can exclude both hidden-variable and other strongly deterministic interpretations of quantum theory. Next, he proposes a “principle of parsimony” in which we minimize our assumptions about what reality is like, allowing the results of quantum physics to “speak for themselves” even if the result is counterintuitive and puzzling. That our interactions with the quantum level are “recalcitrant and resistant” suggests that we are dealing with aspects of the world independent of our measurement of it. We may not have any direct knowledge of the underlying states which produce the phenomena we measure, but our experimental and theoretical knowledge place significant constraints on the properties these underlying entities can have. This assumption is warranted since the models we construct successfully predict and explain other phenomena. Stoeger relies on Ernan McMullin’s emphasis on retroduction to support these points. Still, he acknowledges that there may be many significant features of quantum reality that completely escape our detection. Some of these may never be knowable even in principle, while “reality for us” may have features that are not functions of the actual underlying features of the world. Stoeger’s essential metaphysical presuppositions, then, are the principle of sufficient reason (what we observe in some way points to an underlying cause) and the principle of relationality (the reality with which we interact is a part of a network of relations with processes and objects at other levels of the world).

Stoeger then briefly describes several key features of quantum physics, including nonseparability, quantization, objective uncertainty, complementarity, objective chance, correspondence, entanglement, measurement, and decoherence. Returning to his criteria for choosing an interpretation, Stoeger notes that “the family of Copenhagen-like interpretations” (including the consistent-histories approach) involves most of these features and is “by far the most satisfactory” interpretation, compared with hidden-variable and many-worlds interpretations. Thus our indirect knowledge of reality is “weakly objective”: an independent reality exists and is manifest to us through our interactions with it, but we cannot assess our knowledge of it from these observations. Regarding the question of the epistemic and ontological status of the laws of nature, Stoeger sees these laws as but imperfect and incomplete descriptions of those that obtain in nature. Moreover, these laws are descriptive, not prescriptive.

Several implications for divine action follow from this. God’s universal creative action is realized behind the “veil” of natural laws, and it appears in the form of these laws. Isolated cases may seem to violate these laws, and God’s action may occur at the level of consciousness and personal relationships. Special divine action may involve top-down influences on matter and thus transcend science. Divine action, as acts of love and care, may be taken to be interventions only if we assume that the laws hold absolutely under all circumstances. The key problem, particularly compared with that of human agency, is our lack of understanding of how an immaterial God can act on the material world.

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