By the Waters of Naturalism, Part 1/4

By the Waters of Naturalism, Part 1/4

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Excerpts from the book By the Waters of Naturalism: Theology Perplexed Among the Sciences (Eugene, Oregon, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2001: ISBN 1-57910-770-2).



In popular culture science seems to be the central challenge to biblical religion and its theology today, and discussions about science and theology inevitably come to the issue of theological naturalism. This perception is not wrong, but seeing how it is right takes some digging. In theologians’ experience, the central challenges came not from science but from history, and only a little of that story can be told here. Yet the popular perception is onto something: naturalistic thinking is the major alternative to biblical religion. And people instinctively approach most questions with naturalistic assumptions, even when they think about biblical religion. Unraveling some of those assumptions and looking for alternatives is what this book is about.

Naturalism in theology is the attempt to describe everything that really matters in terms of ideas taken from the natural sciences. But naturalism would be an odd theological method for a historical religion, and biblical religion in all its original forms is supposedly a historical religion. Indeed, one might well ask of science-and-religion conversations, science and which religion? If the religion in question is a historical religion, then it might help to look at how historical concepts work.

The idea of action, whether human or divine, seems to be the crossroads through which all these explorations must pass. It is the place to begin. We often think we can see actions (human and divine alike) in the terms of the sciences, physics notable among them. Recent versions of this approach are variants on the god-of-the-gaps theologies, but the older versions, relianton “miracles,” are classic and work in much the same way. Naturalistic ideas about divine action get into trouble fast when you look at them carefully. If historical thinking is instead taken as the guide, religion begins to make sense.

So after we see how naturalistic ideas really don’t work well to make senseof biblical religion (chapters 1 and 2), then we can begin to findalternatives (chapters 3 and 4).

The problem of history brings chills and anxieties and uncertainty forbiblical religion. Can we know enough? And can we be responsible? Yes, in a word; but that takes some showing (chapter 5).

It will help to have a brief retelling of how it all got started (chapter 6). Without the story of the Exodus, historical religion won’t make muchsense.

Mircea Eliade once characterized life in history as terror, and so we need to look at how something as precarious as history could ever end in Easter joy (chapter 7). The language we use to speak about these things is analogical (chapter 8), and that’s not as strange as it might look. In the end, you have a responsible liberty of interpretation in how you want to conduct a covenant in history (chapter 9), if that doesn’t cause too much anxiety.

Chapter 1: Finding God in Physics

1.1 Dilemma

It appears we have to choose between science and religion today—and theonly kind of “religion” is Christianity (or Judaism, but Judaism is not much different), and science is not a religion at all. Or that is how things appear. To believe in God means to believe in some kind of a supernatural. Whether or not there is a supernatural today, “religion” says there was one at some times in the past. And if you are religious, you have to give up at least some scientific ideas, because science and religion conflict; science does not allow belief in any kind of supernatural. If you believe in science, then the natural world is all there is, there “is no God”, and so making sense of human life must proceed with reference to nature alone. The basic shape of the difficulty is clear: the choice is between “science” and “religion,” and biblical religion is having a hard time articulating its own faith in an age of science.

There are a lot of hidden confusions here, and it will take some work to sort them out.

Perhaps the basic idea that lies behind all this is the notion that if God is to act in the world, he has to push things around, just like I do when I step on the gas in my car or turn the steering wheel. Thus God takes his place alongside other actors in the world, and becomes one more like all the rest, even if his “pushing” is of a slightly different kind. Maybe his pushing on things can’t be inspected the way the law of gravity can be, but it still has to be a “pushing” of some sort. Thus an action not only has to have an intention, it also has to take effect in the real world by means of physical causes. This is the second assumption behind our dilemma.

This is where the collision with science happens. For science understands the notion of a physical cause in ways that make it very difficult to make sense of divine actions.

It is as if for God to act in the world, something in the world has to move over to make room for God to act. There has to be a hole cut in the world to make space for God to act. For God to act, he has to push on something, and for that to happen, ordinary forces have to stop pushing on that something, or he has to add his own force on top of whatever natural forces are also pushing on the thing that he has to move in order to act. Over and over again we will see this simple assumption, that the world has to make room for God to act, or else God can’t act at all. It is a natural mistake, but a mistake nonetheless. It assumes that for God to act he has to come “into” the world and act the same way that other actors act in the world.

Even human actions are hard to make sense of from the point of view of physics. The foot moves, the car goes, the wheel turns, and the car turns, but all that is just physical motions, forces and levers. It is not a human action, it is just the motions of the body-parts in a human action. (You can call the body-parts the “material substrate,” because that’s what the person is composed of, but the person is more than just his material substrate, fond of it as he may nevertheless be.) We describe human actions in another language, a language of intentions, not the language of forces and motions.The language of physics is mathematics, but the language of action is narrative.

Nevertheless, in human actions as we commonly think of them, there is a material substrate, and the substrate moves. Physics can understand the material substrate and its motions even if it cannot understand or talk about the action itself. If divine actions are like human actions, they should work the same way.

Some questions arise at this point. Is such a “pushing” on the world a supernatural phenomenon? And if it were, what would “supernatural” mean? Does the language of action, divine or human, really work the way it appears to here?

To spill the beans, I don’t think so. The concept of action and the language we use to speak of actions do not work the way our original dilemma assumes they do. Action is a concept from history, not from physics, and once the differences between thinking in historical terms and thinking in physical terms are seen, all these problems will go away. The rest of the book is an exploration of this sort of thinking. We begin with the problem in its original form, when people looked for God in physics, and show that even in terms of physics, it doesn’t really make sense. Then, turning to history, things will begin to clear up.

Most of the book will be spent on history because thinking in history is still strange and unintuitive. It is not enough just to say that God doesn’t make sense as a scientific explanation. After that, you have to see how thinking about a God of history works, or else the idea of God will come back seeking refuge in nature and the sciences.

1.2 Cause Laundering

If the problem for Christianity seems to come from science, some theologians have tried to defend religion in an age of science with ideas taken from recent physics. It is well known that at microscopic scales, the motion of sub-atomic particles is not deterministic. For these theologians, indeterminism opens up a realm of causation where God can act, giving God the tip of a long lever by which he could influence the motion of bodies at macroscopic scales. Physical causes are presumably traceable from the macroscopic domain to some microscopic scale after which they cannot be traced any further, and there God can act. When divine action has been conceived as “just like human action,” and a very particular model of human action at that, this is the most natural way to ask whether divine action”really” happens in the world. In the end, I would prefer other ways to understand both divine and human action, and another sense of “really,” but this one is close to the heart instincts of contemporary culture. Any discussion of acts of God today must at least implicitly take notice of it. Before looking for other ways to explain what is going on in acts of God, let’s see how this one works.

What, then, is an “act of God,” as it has appeared to those who want to find the acts of God in the microscopic interstices of physics? The tacit assumption is that acts of God make sense only if there are realms of physics where the behavior of bodies is not determined by physical law: then and only then is there room for objective acts of God. (This is how to cut ahole in the web of physical causation to make room for God to act.) Attributions of an event to an act of God and to deterministic explanation by physical law are taken to be mutually exclusive. The motions of physical bodies in regions where there are no physical causes can be ascribed to God. Presumably there is enough leeway so that God can influence the course of events and act in providential ways. (I have never seen actual calculations to show that there is enough leeway for God to act, but let that pass. It may not be a hard problem.)

One early example of this approach was William G. Pollard’s Chance and Providence (1958), in which he argued that quantum uncertainty supplies just the indeterminacy that is needed to give God room to act. Pollard was a good physicist and a good theologian, but when he was doing philosophy of religion, he tended to switch back and forth from reasoning in physics to reasoning in theology without realizing what he was doing. Since then, many others have tried his same strategy, often more carefully, but not with any better results. I am dubious about whether the strategy itself will do what is demanded of it.

Usually, people assume that with quantum mechanics, the gaps in physical causation are essential and permanent and cannot be removed by any advancesin knowledge of physics. If the gaps are irremovable, and if their indeterminacy allows enough room for God to act effectively, then they presumably would provide theology with breathing room and a secure realm that science cannot penetrate. It is this strategy and its tacit assumptions that I would like to contest, and I shall do it by stages. It is an assumption about the way to articulate biblical religion today, in thecontext of a scientific culture. At the beginning, it will be enough to see what is going on in the theological arguments about physics.

Opponents have called this approach “the God of the gaps,” a derisive dismissal of it on the grounds that the gaps are not large enough to make a difference, or are evanescent and will evaporate with the course of progress in science. The phrase “God of the gaps” expresses the pathetic straits to which attempts to exhibit God within the language of physics had been reduced. But there is a deeper and more instinctive rejection of attempts to introduce God into nature in this way, because it is an intrusion into the integrity of nature. The grounds for rejecting providence by intrusions are at least as strong from the point of view of history as from that of physics, and we shall come to that in later chapters.

The “God of the gaps” was to act in regions of physics that we don’t knownow, gaps in present knowledge of how nature works. Theologians rejected such a strategy because those gaps in physical theory get filled with time and the progress of science. Any theological claims located in those gaps would be cut down like fresh grass before the lawn-mower of advancing scientific research.

The accusation of peddling a “God of the gaps” has been hurled at theologians by “atheists” for some time. But so far as I am aware, the notion of a “God of the gaps” was used first not by atheists but by a theologian. After reading in Weizsacker’s book, The World-View of Physics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a letter to Eberhard Bethge remarked on “how wrong itis to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge… . We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know. God wants us to realize his presence, not in unsolved problems but in those that are solved” (Bonhoeffer, 1971, p. 311). We are not to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of what we know, but what is currently being proposed i snot a stop-gap until future knowledge, but instead a program licensed by a permanent ignorance, one that is guaranteed ontologically. (How a program dependent on permanent ignorance (or even on what cannot be known) can be based on what we know rather than what we don’t know baffles me.)

This way to make sense of divine action takes advantage of a simple feature of modern physics. For in physics, some things are determined by their causes, and other things, other motions, are random and in-determinate. This is true in many areas of physics, not just quantum mechanics, and in some places, the randomness is essential, where in other places it is just a convenient approximation for the physicist. It seemed impossible to make divine actions effective through determinate causes in physics, and so a refuge was sought in the indeterminate causes of physics.

If theologians are not careful, we shall be accused of cause laundering: In money laundering, drug lords put their money in bank accounts where it (orits sources) cannot be traced, and then it can be withdrawn and invested in “legitimate” businesses. Cause laundering is like money laundering. If causes can be traced to places where they cannot be traced any further, then a theologian is free to use them for his own purposes, such as ascribing them to “acts of God.” Now classical chaos could be called classical cause laundering, because there are real causes that go into the laundry, and are untraceable when they come out. But quantum cause laundering is the druglord’s dream machine! There are no causes that go in, and yet effects come out, and they are guaranteed to be untraceable forever. If only drug money worked that way!

There are many problems with this approach. For only one, it is not clear what it would mean to say that physical causation can be traced back so far and no further—but agent causation can be traced back further than that limit. I think acts, especially divine acts, work differently from what has been tacitly assumed here, and we shall come to that soon enough. But first, there is more to be learned from examining the implications from physical theory for such a conception of divine acts.