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Saturday, July 10, 2010

God and quantum indeterminacy

In a previous post, I briefly discussed, in relation to a book by Kitty Ferguson, what modern physics says about the unpredictability of sub-atomic particles. This fundamental uncertainty may be a way for God to act without being detected:

Let's say that God wants to alter my consciousness in a certain way (so as to communicate a message to me) or to alter the course of a disease. If we assume determinism, then either God couldn't do it, or God would have to, at least temporarily, suspend natural causal determinism in order to do it. This alternative depends on whether we think of determinism as true independently of God or as an order established by God, and hence subject to cancellation at God's pleasure. But on quantum theory there is no such problem. The relevant physical laws only provide for a large probability or one outcome rather than another in a given situation. And the highly improbable can sometimes happen without violating probability laws. Hence God can, consistent with quantum theory, do something to bring about a physically improbable outcome in one or more instances without any violation of physical law. And even if these interventions are all on the sub-atomic level, they can, if properly chosen (and presumably God would be in a position to do so), snowball so as to make a difference to macroscopic states of affairs. Hence, divine activity that makes specific differences at particular times and places is quite consistent with a quantum theory of physical causality. Perhaps God designed the universe to operate in accordance with probabilistic laws so as to give room for God to enter the process as an agent. William P. Alston, "Divine Action, Human Freedom, and the Laws of Nature," pp. 185-206 in Quantum Cosmology and the Laws of Nature: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, 2nd edition, ed. by Robert John Russell, Nancey Murphy and C. J. Isham. (Vatican City State: Vatican Observatory, 1996) Quote is from pp. 188-9.

Note that I said "may." As a matter of fact, Alston, the author, says that he does not believe that it is necessary to invoke quantum indeterminacy to explain God's action. He believes that God's occasional action is compatible with physics at not only the micro level, but at the macro level. I, too, suppose that God is quite capable of acting on quarks and neutrinos, but also on mountains and planets. Believing that God operates only on things we don't understand is a dangerous type of theology known as "God of the gaps." If God is God, He is God not only of things we can't explain or predict, but of things that we can. As a friend of mine once said, "God is not just the God of eternity. He is also the God of 2 + 2." The danger of such a belief is that, as we think we understand more and more, we push God more and more into irrelevancy, in our own minds. Just because we think we understand, say, the orbits of the planets, does not mean that God had nothing to do with them, anymore than understanding how, say, a kitchen range works doesn't mean that someone (or a lot of someones) didn't originally invent them.

I expect to continue the series with more direct musings on Ferguson's book in the near future. Thanks for reading.

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