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God’s Providence and Quantum Mechanics

I believe we can construct a new view of special providence which holds both that God acts in the world objectively, and yet that such action is not by intervening in or suspending the laws of nature. I call this idea "non-interventionist objective special divine action". Much of the current discussion in the field of theology and science regarding divine action now turns on this possibility.Sources include:   Arthur Peacocke, Theology for a Scientific Age: Being and Becoming - Natural, Divine, and Human, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993). Arthur R. Peacocke, "Chance and Law in Irreversible... The approach which I will take depends on recent developments in both philosophy and science. I cannot explore the philosophical arguments here, since that would take us considerably afield in this short article.The philosophical argument begins with a move from modernist reductionism to post-modern holism. Christian philosopher and theologian Nancey Murphy draws specifically on Karl Popper, W. V. O. Quine, Imre...I will, however, suggest how quantum mechanics contributes to the approach by changing our views of causality in nature. There are even some very remarkable implications for the ‘creation / evolution’ debate which I will hint at here.

In the mid 1980s, I began to explore the implications of quantum physics, and particularly Bell’s theorem, for the doctrines of creation and providence.See Russell, "Quantum Physics in Philosophical and Theological Perspective", op. cit. "From a theological perspective we can add to the view that God creates the universe through chance and law the claim that the order God is creating is in some sense the order of quantum chaos. Rather than saying the God creates order in place of (i.e., out of) chaos, from a quantum perspective we could say that one way God creates order is through creating the properties of chaos."Russell, "Quantum Physics in Philosophical and Theological Perspective," op. cit., p. 364. This is continuous creation indeed!

Quantum Physics and Non-Interventionist Objective Special Providence

It is precisely this classical world in which God can act (without intervening) in specific events, if we recognize that the classical world is not an irreducible given but a result of the quantum world. Thus the laws which describe the classical world are approximations to the laws of quantum mechanics which describe how the classical world, with its Newtonian regularity, arises directly out of the quantum world, with its two kinds of statistics. If I adopt the interpretation that these quantum statistics reflect ontological indeterminism, then I may argue that God can act together with nature to bring about all events at the quantum level, and that these events give rise to the classical world.

What about a specific event in the classical world, one which would fall under the category of objective non-interventionist divine action? Here the response is that God acts in a particular quantum event which has the potential for a macroscopic effect within the ongoing macroscopic world. God acts in all quantum events, but in some cases the effect `matter’ in the classical world more than others. It turns out that there is a tremendously important case in which this kind of understanding of non-interventionist objective special providence is of critical importance, and it is precisely where the critics of Christianity have been the most vocal: neo-Darwinian evolution!

If the thesis is sustained, it can turn defeat into victory. One of the key reasons for the rejection of Christianity by its highly vocal critics is the charge that genetic variation is `blind’ and thus an anethma to God’s purposes. My argument reinterprets genetic variation as essential for a non-interventionist special divine action in nature; God acts in evolution precisely because of and within genetic variation. Moreover, it undermines the declared reason for scientific creationism, since there is now no reason to seek to replace "atheistic" science by what is in reality religious pseudo-science. Instead we can give a robust Christian interpretation of science, showing that it is not science per se but its atheistic interpretation that is the real challenge for Christians. This move would also enable us theologically to extend the domain of God’s special providence beyond human history to include the biosphere out of whose several billion years of evolution we have emerged.The proposal being studied here draws from several previous sources, including Mary Hesse, ‘On the Alleged Incompatibility between Christianity and Science’, Man and Nature, ed. Hugh Montefiore...

Challenges and Criticisms

A number of important challenges and criticisms arise immediately, and must be met fairly. Here I can only cite them briefly:

  • The proposal is not intended an explanation of how God acts, but a claim that if one believes God acts, quantum physics provides a clue as to one location or domain where that action may have an effect on the course of nature.
  • The proposal is not meant to limit scenarios of divine action to bottom-up, but it also recognizes that in the early stages of biological evolution, God’s action at the quantum level may be the only mode possible (no "tops" available!).
  • For a complete defense of God acting purposefully in biology, I would have to include a discussion of the problem of time and eternity in a Trinitarian theology and its relation to the discussions over temporality vis-a-vis special relativity.
  • Other key topics to consider include: the `double agency’ problem (how does God act while preserving human free will?) and theodicy (if God is good, why is there evil). The latter issue is particularly acute given the enormity of pain and suffering in evolution and the fact that so much disease has its basis in the genes where, I am arguing, God does act. My response is to relocate the discussion to a theology of redemption, in which God suffers with the pain, disease, suffering and death of all creatures through the power of the Cross of Christ, and that by this process God is bringing about the New Creation promised eschatologically in the New Testament. There ideas will require significant development before they can be adequately assessed, and they stand at the frontiers of the discussions about creation, redemption and evolution.

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