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Tracy, Thomas F. “Creation, Providence, and Quantum Chance."

Uncertainty regarding the meaning of “the acts of God” pervades modern theology, according to Thomas Tracy. Critical historical and literary techniques have deepened the problem of interpreting biblical texts and the connection they make between story and history, while the natural sciences have changed the intellectual context of interpretation by offering an account of nature without appeal to transcendent causes. On the one hand, scientific methods do not rule out divine action, and scientific findings are not inconsistent with it. Ironically, theologians from deists to liberals such as Schleiermacher, Bultmann, and Kaufman, have worked with a closed causal picture of the world that they feel is authorized by science. They have taken this to be incompatible with divine action in the world, leaving either a God who only sets the world’s initial conditions or whose actions violate the laws of nature. But contemporary natural science does not necessarily lead to a deterministic metaphysics. Tracy cites two possible responses. First, a theologically sufficient account of God’s particular actions in history might actually be developed that still limits God to being the creator of history as a whole. Second, God can be said to act in particular cases without intervention in history if one can defend an indeter ministic interpretation of natural causes. It is here that quantum physics might be relevant.

Though Tracy’s focus is on the second response, he starts with an extended treatment of the first one since he does not want to underestimate its resources and since he explicitly assumes it as background for the second response. Here God’s fundamental action is the free intentional act of creating the world, which continuously gives being to the created world in its entirety but which cannot be understood by analogy with human agency. Moreover, God gives to created things active and passive causal powers, so that God’s action is direct in causing their existence, but indirect in acting through them and their powers to produce results in the world. Thus even though God acts uniformly in all events, we can affirm God’s objectively special action in two ways: particular events may reveal God’s overall purposes, and they may play a special causal role in shaping history. It is interesting to note that, in identifying this second way, Tracy is making an important addition to the typology developed in previous CTNS/VO publications and republished above, where only the first way, called “subjectively special action,” was discussed.

If, however, the structures of nature are on some level(s) indeterministic, God can act to determine the outcomes of natural processes without disrupting their intrinsic causal properties. Here God could be thought of as acting in all such chance events or in just some of them, though the latter generates conceptual puzzles. Moreover, the extent of ontological chance in nature will influence the extent of God’s action in nature. Indeterminism also plays a role in “incompatibilist” accounts of free human action. Here again God could be thought of as acting in all human acts, as John Calvin and Aquinas seemed to imply, or as empowering people to make their own choices. Both options raise further issues, including the problem of evil and the ultimate redemption of the world. Indeed, faith in God’s redemptive action in history provides “a compelling theological reason” to argue for a noninterventionist account of divine action and thus an indeterministic interpretation of nature.

A number of challenges, however, face any attempt to use quantum physics for such an account. First, quantum physics can be interpreted in a variety of different ways including the Copenhagen interpretation, Bohmian nonlocal hidden-variable determinism, many-worlds determinism, and so on. While it is legitimate, even unavoidable, to prefer one of these on theological grounds, we should stress that others are available and their theological use in each case is tentative and provisional. A second challenge is the measurement problem found in some of these interpretations. Does this overly limit the occasions of divine action, or is “measurement” more universal in nature than some interpreters suggest? And how do the worlds of quantum processes and observable objects relate? A third challenge is to show that indeterministic transitions associated with measurement can produce a difference in the course of the everyday world. Laboratory equipment, of course, involves precisely this sort of “amplification,” but so do natural processes, such as vision and genetic mutation. In conclusion, Tracy stresses the primary importance of God’s creating and sustaining the world, and within this, God’s indirect action through created causes and, possibly, God’s direct noninterventionist action at points of underdetermination in natural processes.

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