On Modeling Divine Action

In ‘Where the Conflict Really Lies’, Alvin Plantinga draws up a model for divine action using quantum mechanics. It’s one of the most creative projects in the world of philosophy/theology/philosophy of science world, in my opinion, and I think it merits some serious attention. Some of my questions are: is such a project necessary? Is it genuinely useful? Is it relevant? Does it make sense? Is this trying to assign God a place in the world? Other questions will surface, I’m sure (for the sake of brevity, I’m going to avoid going into huge detail regarding the background information of the topic of quantum mechanics – high-quality  information on this topic is readily available online).

Plantinga’s thesis is made in the context of a discussion on divine action in general – the thesis is basically trying to solve some of the problems posed by thinkers on the topic of divine action. Some folks (Plantinga cites the ‘Divine Action Project’, whose most prominent member is John Polkinghorne) have a problem with typical accounts of such action and have raised important objections – this thesis is an answer to those objections.

Briefly, the objections amount to this: if God acts specially in the world, His actions would be a violations of the laws of nature – God’s acting in a special way entails a suspension of the natural order, which, so the story goes, then entails that the regularity of nature, which allows for inquiry into nature, can’t be counted on. If God makes and upholds the laws of nature, He can’t also go against them or break them. This is a broad stroke, and there are different opinions and distinctions to be made, but the majority of Plantinga’s thesis deals with ‘hands-off theology’ objections. The goal, then, is to answer these objections.

After an account of classical science and contemporary physics, Plantinga goes in-depth with quantum mechanics, setting his sights on various collapse-interpetations. After spending some time expounding the Ghirardi-Rimini-Weber collapse interpretation, Plantinga goes on to apply it to divine action. One reason Plantinga picks up on this interpretation is that it avoids some of the uncertainty of, say, the Copenhagen interpretation:

‘The Copenhagen interpretation is a collapse interpretation; but there are other collapse approaches. For example, there are spontaneous collapse theories, including in particular the Ghirardi-Rimini-Weber (GRW) approach. On these collapse approaches, collapses are not restricted to measurements; they occur spontaneously, and at a regular rate.’ (p. 115)

‘On this approach we could think of the nature of a system as dictating that collapses occur at the regular rate they in fact display. What is presently of significance, however, is that on these approaches there is no cause for a given collapse to go to the particular value (the particular position, for example) or eigenstate to which it in fact goes. That is, there is no physical cause; there is nothing in the previous physical state of the world that causes a given collapse to go to the particular eigenstate to which it does go. But of course this state of affairs might very well have a nonphysical cause. It’s wholly in accord with these theories that, for any collapse and the resulting eigenstate, it is God who causes that state to result. Perhaps, then, all collapse-outcomes (as we might call them) are caused by God. If so, then between collapses, a system evolves according to the Schrodinger equation; but when a collapse occurs, it is divine agency that causes the specific collapse-outcome that ensues.’ (p. 116)

Pretty interesting stuff. My first thought on reading this was ‘is this just god of the gaps?’ I don’t think so. A god-of-the-gaps account would be something along the lines of ‘we don’t know how it works, therefore, god’, whereas Plantinga’s model is an answer, a scientifically grounded answer, to various objections raised against divine action.

‘How can we say that God intervenes in our scientific world?’

‘Well, here’s an account of how, given the scientific data available, we can model divine action such that the objections you raise are answered.’

So, to conclude this first post examining Plantina’s DCC theory: I would say that such a project is genuinely useful and is definitely not a god-of-the-gaps argument.

3 thoughts on “On Modeling Divine Action

  1. Derek Rishmawy December 11, 2012 / 3:31 pm

    Plantinga’s response was good. I would also say that Kevin Vanhoozer’s work in Remythologizing Theology is helpful, as is Michael Horton’s in Covenant and Eschatology.

    Overall, I get why people ask the question, but on the other hand, I have to admit I find the DAP a bit silly. All of this concern about God violating “natural laws” as if they were these immutable things that weren’t his own sovereign creation is just confused. God exists at an entirely different ontological level than creation. His relation to is sui generis.

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    • whitefrozen December 11, 2012 / 7:50 pm

      I would entirely agree – if God created the laws, he isnt bound by them. There are some serious questions that the DAP raises – but as Plantinga points out, its silly to think of natural laws in such a way. Im not really sure how one could come to such conclusions. There must be some big conceptual confusions afoot.

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      • Derek Rishmawy December 11, 2012 / 7:54 pm

        I think one of my favorite sections in Vanhoozer’s work is when he tackles some of these confusions directly and points out that for some reason many theologians tend to confuse physical limitations with metaphysical limitations. It’s bizarre how so many brilliant thinkers these, kinda obvious, blunders.

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