View by:







a) Agential Models of God’s Interaction With the World

Agential models deal explicitly with contemporary science and its philosophical implications to explore the concept of God as interacting with, but not intervening in, the world. They, in turn, include three distinct approaches, each of which has been widely developed in the theology and science literature: top-down causality, whole-part constraints, and bottom-up causality. However, most scholars insist that a combination of these approaches will be needed eventually for an adequate account of non-interventionist divine action.

i) Top-down causality. This approach focuses on the possibility of ‘top-down’ causal relations between properties and processes at higher and lower levels of complexity: the term ‘top-down’ means that processes at the higher levels effect those of lower levels. Peacocke explores models involving top-down causality in light of Big Bang cosmology: God acts on the ‘world-as-a-whole’ in order to bring about special events in nature and history, including revelation.Peacocke, Theology for a Scientific Age, 163-65, 177-83; Arthur R. Peacocke, "God's Interaction with the World: The Implications of Deterministic "Chaos" and of Interconnected and Interdependent...Murphy, Clayton, Peacocke and Theo Meyering discuss divine action and the neurosciences in light of the ‘mind/brain’ problem (i.e., is the mind, which emerges from the brain, capable of effecting the brain?), relying on supervenience and holist epistemology.Nancey Murphy, "Supervenience and the Downward Efficacy of the Mental: A Nonreductive Physicalist Account of Human Action," in Neuroscience and the Person: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action,...(See the ‘miniscience’ section below on cosmology and the neurosciences below). The challenge to this approach is to show how God’s action through top-down causality can bring about actual changes in the processes at lower levels if they are governed by classical physics.

Note: “Supervenience” can be thought of as a more technically-detailed form of top-down causality. Its roots lie in philosophical ethics where it describes the multiplicity of relations between moral and nonmoral properties. We will return to this approach below.Typically there are a variety of moral properties which could be associated with, and thus supervene on, the same nonmoral action. Thus killing an animal might be for the purposes of food, or ritual, or...

ii) Whole-part constraints. This approach stays within one level of complexity. ‘Whole-part constraints’ refers to the effects of the system as a whole on its parts (though these effects are transmitted entirely by efficient causes; compare with quantum ‘whole-part causality’ below). A helpful example is the Bérnard phenomenon in fluids where, beyond a critical point, individual molecules move in hexagonal ‘cells’ caused by the fluid being bounded by its container and by the effects of the container being conveyed by inter-molecular collisions throughout the fluid. Whole-part models typically draw on recent developments in non-linear, non-equilibrium thermodynamics as applied to systems open to their surrounding environment. Peacocke has used this approach to point to novelty emerging in the world. Whole-part themes become one way of viewing God as bringing about special events through God’s interaction with the whole of which these events are a part.Peacocke, Creation and the World of Science, 97-111; Peacocke, Theology for a Scientific Age, 115-21 and Ch. 9. The challenge again is that thermodynamics is part of classical physics and thus fully deterministic, making God’s non-interventionist action problematic.

Science minisummary: thermodynamics.P. W. Bridgman, The Nature of Thermodynamics (New York: Harper & Row, 1961); H. C. Van Ness, Understanding Thermodynamics (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1969); A. R. Peacocke, An Introduction...In the 19th century, thermodynamics, the study of heat transformation and exchange, was concerned with closed systems (i.e., systems which do not exchange matter or energy with their environment). In such systems although the total amount of energy E is always conserved (the “first” law, ΔE=0), the amount of available energy inevitably decreases to zero (the “second” law); equivalently, the entropy S of the system, defined as the amount of unusable energy, increases to a maximum: ΔS>=0. During the 20th century, the field was broadened to include open systems (i.e., systems which exchanged matter and/or energy with their environment). These first included non-linear systems in which effects on the system were highly amplified, and then non-linear systems far from equilibrium in which spontaneous fluctuations were even more fully amplified. Such systems demonstrated the surprising phenomena of ‘order out of chaos’, to use Ilya Prigogine’s famous phrase: they could spontaneously move to greater forms of organization, driven always by the internal production and dissipation of entropy (i.e., ‘dissipative systems’), and though, of course, the total entropy of the open system plus its environment obeyed the second law.This result helped to explain why the evolution of life on earth is consistent with thermodynamics: the earth / sun system drives complexity in the biosphere at the expense of the unable energy of the...Two final points: 1) Whether ‘entropy’ applies to the universe as a ‘closed’ system is subject to intense debate, as we will see below. 2) Although most physicists reduce thermodynamics to dynamics, thus explaining (away) time’s (thermodynamic) arrow, Prigogine and others insist it should be the converseSome even propose that time be treated as an operator; see Ilya Prigogine, From Being to Becoming: Time and Complexity in the Physical Sciences (San Francisco: W. H. Freeman and Company, 1980).. In any case, non-linear, non-equilibrium thermodynamics points to at least one form of novelty and apparent openness in nature, although it still comes (pace Prigogine) under the rubric of deterministic classical dynamics, and, like chaos theory (below), rendering its portrait of novelty in terms of epistemic ignorance.

Others have drawn on chaos theory and complexity in discussing divine action.See for example Coyne and Karl Schmitz-Moormann, Origins, time & complexity, Part I; Coyne and Karl Schmitz-Moormann, Origins, time & complexity, Part II.Polkinghorne has been particularly committed to arguing that chaotic phenomena point to the fundamental openness of nature, and that such openness could lead to a non-interventionist understanding of divine action.Polkinghorne, The faith of a physicist, Ch. 1, esp. p. 25, also p. 77; John C. Polkinghorne, "The Metaphysics of Divine Action," in Chaos and Complexity: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action,...These suggestions have been picked up by EdwardsDenis Edwards, "The Discovery of Chaos and the Retrieval of the Trinity," in Chaos and Complexity: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, ed. Robert J. Russell, Nancey C. Murphy and Arthur...and developed in detail by Gregersen,Niels H. Gregersen, "Providence in an Indeterministic World," CTNS Bulletin 14, no. 1 (1994): 16-30; Niels Henrik Gregersen, "The Idea of Creation and the Theory of Autopoietic Processes,"...but the appeal to chaos theory, at least in its present form, is open to severe criticisms similar to those regarding thermodynamics --- namely that it is still a part of classical physics.Peacocke, Theology for a Scientific Age, 154-55. and Peacocke, "God's Interaction with the World," 283-84; Willem B. Drees, "Gaps for God?" in Chaos and Complexity: Scientific Perspectives...

Science minisummary: chaos theory.James P. Crutchfield, J. Doyne Farmer, et al., "Chaos," Scientific American 225(December 1986); James Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science (New York: Penguin Books, 1987); Joseph Ford, "What...Over the past three decades, the study of chaotic systems has dramatically expanded from physics to include all the natural and even social sciences. Chaotic phenomena now include such physical and biological systems as the weather, water dripping from a faucet, bands in the rings of Saturn, oscillations in the populations of organisms, and the fluctuations of populations in complex ecosystems. In physics, though, chaotic systems are ‘classical’ in scale and thus subsumable in principle under classical mechanics with its deterministic laws of motion. Still even for the simplest systems, minute uncertainties in the initial conditions and the effect of countless interactions with other systems in nature, together with unusual characteristics in the underlying mathematics (e.g., ‘strange attractors’) make complete predictability impossible even in principle. Surprisingly, then, chaos breaks the long-standing philosophical link between determinism and predictability. Still since it is describable by deterministic equations, chaos theory supports a strictly deterministic philosophy of nature, although within subtle epistemic limits.Wildman and Russell, "ChaosChaos: A Mathematical Introduction," esp. sections 3, 4.

It is possible, however, as Polkinghorne suggests, that chaotic systems may one day be more accurately described by more complex theories, sometimes referred to as ‘holistic chaos’. The current deterministic laws would then be seen as simple approximations to holistic chaos through what Polkinghorne calls ‘downward emergence.” Finally, the new theories of holistic chaos would, hopefully, suggest an indeterministic interpretation.Polkinghorne, The faith of a physicist, Ch. 1, esp. p. 26; John C. Polkinghorne, "Chaos Theory and Divine Action," in Religion and Science: History, Method, Dialogue, ed. W. Mark Richardson and...It is also possible that a satisfying connection will be found between chaos at the present, classical level, and quantum mechanicsFord, "What is Chaos."; Karl Young, "Deterministic Chaos and Quantum Chaology," in Religion and Science: History, Method, Dialogue, ed. W. Mark Richardson and Wesley J. Wildman (New...(sometimes referred to as ‘quantum chaology’), suggesting that the uncertainty in the initial conditions that, together with coupling to the environment, drive chaotic behavior is at least partially due to quantum indeterminism.The theological importance of chaos and complexity is discussed in Russell, Murphy and Peacocke, Chaos and complexity. My own view is that wagering on chaos is a doubly-removed gamble compared to quantum...

iii). Bottom-up causality. In this approach, God acts at a lower level of complexity to influence the processes and properties at a higher level, either acting as one among other factors or as fully determining them. This approach requires that the lower level be ontologically indeterministic for God to act in that level without intervening in its processes.

A number of scholars have focused on quantum mechanics as indicative of an indeterministic ontology at the subatomic level, and from there have discussed a non-interventionist view of objective, special divine action. A number of important but technical distinctions about divine action in this context (and others) surface in the literature:Robert John Russell, "Special Providence and Genetic Mutation: A New Defense of Theistic Evolution," in Evolutionary and Molecular Biology: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, ed. Robert...i) If specific quantum events occur without a sufficient natural cause, one can think of God as acting to bring them about, either by acting in, through and together with the processes of nature (i.e., ‘mediated’ divine action) or unilaterally (i.e., ‘unmediated’ divine action). ii) God may be thought of as acting directly at the quantum level (i.e., these acts of God are ‘basic’ actsSee the discussion of Grace Jentzen’s views, below, on direct / basic acts of God.), but the ‘objective, special events’ we attribute to God at the macroscopic level are in this interpretation the indirect result of them as they ‘percolate’ up the levels of complexity and ‘size’. iii) This approach to divine action does not imply a ‘God of the gaps‘God of the gaps’ carries two meanings: 1) At any point in time there are gaps in our understanding of natural processes, but these gaps will eventually be filled with the advance of science....nor that God is reduced to a natural cause; moreover, God’s actions, though objective, would be hidden from scientific methods.The premise here is that according to quantum mechanics and its indeterministic interpretation there are no sufficient natural causes to bring about a quantum event. Therefore if God acts with nature to...iv) Finally, one may argue that God acts with nature in every quantum event or only in some.The former accords with the principle of sufficient reason but reduces the sense of this as an approach to special providence, and conversely for the latter. Murphy has explored the former, Tracy the latter,...

These arguments prove particularly fruitful in discussing God’s action in evolution, where genetic mutations are at their core a quantum process (see Part 2, C, 2 below). Those who have explored this approach to non-interventionist special divine action include Karl HeimKarl Heim, The Transformation of the Scientific World (London: SCM Press, 1953).and William PollardWilliam G. Pollard, Chance and Providence: God's Action in a World Governed by Scientific Law (London: Faber and Faber, 1958).in the 1950s, Mary HesseMary Hesse, "On the Alleged Incompatibility Between Christianity and Science," in Man and Nature, ed. Hugh Montefiore (London: Collins, 1975).and Donald MacKayDonald M. MacKay, Chance and Providence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978).in the 1970s, and recently and in detail by Nancey Murphy,Murphy, "Divine Action in the Natural Order."Tom Tracy,Thomas F. Tracy, "Particular Providence and the God of the Gaps," in Chaos and Complexity: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, ed. Robert J. Russell, Nancey C. Murphy and Arthur R. Peacocke,... George Ellis,George F. Ellis, "Ordinary and Extraordinary Divine Action: The Nexus of Interaction," in Chaos and Complexity: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, ed. Robert J. Russell, Nancey C. Murphy... Mark W. Worthing,Worthing, God, Creation, and Contemporary Physics, esp. 130-46.Christopher F. Mooney,S. J. Mooney, Christopher F., Theology and Scientific Knowledge: Changing Models of God's Presence in the World (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996), esp. Ch. 3, p. 108-10.Phil ClaytonClayton, God and Contemporary Science, esp. Ch. 7, 8. Clayton’s compelling book offers a careful analysis of the positions noted here while deploying a panentheistic interpretation of divine action... and me.Russell, "Special Providence and Genetic Mutation.". See also Robert John Russell, "Quantum Physics in Philosophical and Theological Perspective," in Physics, Philosophy, and Theology:...It has been criticized by a number of scholars including Peacocke,Peacocke, "God's Interaction with the World," 279-81. For an interesting recent response to Peacocke in terms of quantum indeterminacy see John J. Davis, "Quantum Indeterminacy and the Omniscience...PolkinghornePolkinghorne, "Metaphysics of Divine Action," esp. 152-53. See also articles in Niels H. Gregersen, Michael W. S. Parsons and Christoph Wassermann, Editors, Studies in Science & Theology1996:..., and Saunders.Nicholas T. Saunders, "'Does God Cheat at Dice? Divine Action and Quantum Possibilities," Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science (to appear) (2000). The challenge here includes the fact that quantum physics can be given a compelling interpretation in terms of ontological determinism (eg., David Bohm), making the case for indeterminism far from settled. In addition, quantum physics raises tremendously complex, and as yet unsettled, philosophical and technical problems including: the measurement problem / collapse of the wave-function (how and when does a quantum event ‘occur’ and lead to macroscopic effects?) and non-locality / non-separability (why do once interacting, now vastly separated, particles continue to act in some ways as though they remained part of a single system?) and the challenge to classical ontology and critical realism (how does one speak of the ontology of quantum processes?). Future research in theology and science should address these questions with rigorous detail if progress is to be achieved in the problem of divine action in light of science.Russell, Philip Clayton, et al., Quantum Mechanics and Quantum Field Theory.

Science minisummary: Quantum mechanics.For introductionory material for science undergraduates, see Paul Davies, Quantum Mechanics (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984). and Trefil and Robert M. Hazen, The Sciences, Chs. 6-12. More technical...The empirical basis for quantum physics lies in such phenomena as blackbody radiation, the photoelectric effect, the specific heats of solids, the stability of the structure and the emission spectrum of atoms, all of which remained unexplainable in terms of classical physics. In 1901, Max Planck solved the blackbody problem by proposing that energy is quantized: it is available in discrete, not continuous, amounts. The quantization of light as ‘photons’ by Einstein in 1905 explained the photoelectric effect as well as the specific heat two years later. In 1913 Niels Bohr predicted the emission spectrum for hydrogen with a simple ‘planetary’ model of the atom in which the angular momentum of the orbiting electron, and thus the size of its orbits, are quantized. In 1924, Louis de Broglie attributed wave-like behavior to particles as the converse of energy quantization. Based on this idea, Erwin Schrödinger developed the wave equation which has proved to be foundational for quantum mechanics, Werner Heisenberg announced the uncertainty principle (and an alternative, but mathematically, equivalent formulation to that of Schrödinger), Wolfgang Pauli discovered the exclusion principle; by the end of the decade (nonrelativistic) quantum mechanics was basically complete.

Conceptual problems: Still, almost a century later, major conceptual problems persist in interpreting quantum mechanics:

---the Schrödinger equation propagates continuously in time but ‘collapses’ discontinuously in a process not described by the Schrödinger equation when a particle interacts with a classical system (often called ‘the measurement problem’);

---the Schrödinger equation describes the propagation of the wave function ψ but this is a complex variable"Complex" here means that it contains both real and imaginary mathematical variables in the generic form x + iy, where i=ö-1.whose squared value ψ2 represents information about the quantum system;

---a composite quantum system displays a holistic character entirely unlike classical composite systems (what can be called ‘whole-part causality’ as distinct from ‘whole-part constraints’): once interacting, now vastly separated, particles continue to act in some ways as though they remained part of a single system, as underscored by the “EPR” paradox in the 1930s and Bell’s theorem in the 1960s and now referred to as ‘non-locality’ and ‘non-separability’;

---’chance’ in quantum mechanics (i.e., quantum statistics) is not only strikingly different from classical chance (as in the familiar ‘bell curve’), it actually gives rise, in a ‘bottom-up’ way, to the basic features of the classical world, including the impenetrability of matter.The statistics employed by quantum mechanics come in two varieties, both strikingly non-classical. (Technically the following results are part of relativistic quantum mechanics.) Particles such as protons...

Philosophical issuesMax Jammer, The Philosophy of Quantum Mechanics: The Interpretations of Quantum Mechanics in Historical Perspective (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1974); Michael Redhead, Incompleteness, Nonlocality,...: Quantum mechanics can be interpreted philosophically in a variety of conflicting ways, and so far we know of no experimental basis for choosing definitively between them. These include ontological indeterminism (Heisenberg), ontological determinism (Einstein, David Bohm --- as stressed recently by Jim Cushing), or many worlds (Everett); as involving consciousness (Von Neumann, Eugene Wigner, Roger Penrose), non-standard logic (Gribb), or consistent histories (Bob Griffiths, Chris Clarke).Jammer, The Philosophy of Quantum Mechanics.It is particularly important to note that Bohm’s approach assumes an underlying, deterministic ontology; the implications of his approach for a philosohy of nature and for theology have received some attention.Robert John Russell, "The Physics of David Bohm and Its Relevance to Philosophy and Theology," Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 20.2(June 1985); Ted Peters, "David Bohm, Postmodernism,...It is also important to recognize that all of these interpretations challenge classical ontology, with its core concepts of waves, particles and locality, as well as a critical realist philosophy of nature. In any case, quantum mechanics, at least compared to the other sciences surveyed here, can plausibly be said to offer the strongest reasons for expecting that the ontology of nature at the lowest levels at least is indeterministic.Heisenberg’s ontological interpretation of quantum physics has a number of current supporters. C. J. Isham writes: "The most common meaning attached to probability in classical physics is an...

Contributed by: Dr. Robert Russell

Topic Sets Available

AAAS Report on Stem-Cells

AstroTheology: Religious Reflections on Extraterrestrial Life Forms

Agency: Human, Robotic and Divine
Becoming Human: Brain, Mind, Emergence
Big Bang Cosmology and Theology (GHC)
Cosmic Questions CD-ROM Preview...
Cosmic Questions Interviews

Cosmos and Creator
Creativity, Spirituality and Computing Technologies
CTNS Content Home
Darwin: A Friend to Religion?
Demystifying Information Technology
Divine Action (GHC)
Dreams and Dreaming: Neuroscientific and Religious Visions'
E. Coli at the No Free Lunchroom
Engaging Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence: An Adventure in Astro-Ethics
Evangelical Atheism: a response to Richard Dawkins
Ecology and Christian Theology
Evolution: What Should We Teach Our Children in Our Schools?
Evolution and Providence
Evolution and Creation Survey
Evolution and Theology (GHC)
Evolution, Creation, and Semiotics

The Expelled Controversy
Faith and Reason: An Introduction
Faith in the Future: Religion, Aging, and Healthcare in the 21st Century

Francisco Ayala on Evolution

From Christian Passions to Scientific Emotions
Genetic Engineering and Food

Genetics and Ethics
Genetic Technologies - the Radical Revision of Human Existence and the Natural World

Genomics, Nanotechnology and Robotics
Getting Mind out of Meat
God and Creation: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on Big Bang Cosmology
God, Humanity and the Cosmos: A Textbook in Science and Religion
God the Spirit - and Natural Science
Historical Examples of the Science and Religion Debate (GHC)
History of Creationism
Intelligent Design Coming Clean

Issues for the Millennium: Cloning and Genetic Technologies
Jean Vanier of L'Arche
Nano-Technology and Nano-ethics
Natural Science and Christian Theology - A Select Bibliography
Neuroscience and the Soul
Outlines of the Science and Religion Debate (GHC)

Perspectives on Evolution

Physics and Theology
Quantum Mechanics and Theology (GHC)
Questions that Shape Our Future
Reductionism (GHC)
Reintroducing Teleology Into Science
Science and Suffering

Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action (CTNS/Vatican Series)

Space Exploration and Positive Stewardship

Stem-Cell Debate: Ethical Questions
Stem-Cell Ethics: A Theological Brief

Stem-Cell Questions
Theistic Evolution: A Christian Alternative to Atheism, Creationism, and Intelligent Design...
Theology and Science: Current Issues and Future Directions
Unscientific America: How science illiteracy threatens our future
Will ET End Religion?

Current Stats: topics: >2600, links: >300,000, video: 200 hours.