This article is the fifth in a series by Paul Arnold on the relationship between Science and Christianity. Paul received his Masters of Science in Physiology before recently completing his Masters of Christian Studies at Regent College where he focused on Christianity & Culture. Paul’s final comprehensive paper was on modern science and divine providence, which forms the basis for this series. He is currently living with his wife, Krista, in rural Uganda where they are working with a community development organization. Paul also works as a writer and editor for Converge Magazine.
Modern science works under the assumption that the natural laws of creation remain constant—what was true of creation yesterday will remain true today and continue to be true tomorrow. In this way, modern science assumes that creation is built on rational laws that allow us to predict natural phenomena. We see this most clearly in medical science: our ability to treat or manage a disease depends on our ability to predict the course of that disease. Any prediction, therefore, is based on the assumption that the natural laws of creation, including those which govern the course of a disease, will remain constant. This assumption has proven very fruitful across many areas. But it has also led to a further problematic assumption that natural laws are immutable and are thus unable to be revoked or altered. A natural consequence of immutable natural laws is that creation becomes closed to anything that may lie beyond those laws—like God. Furthermore, if God did want to act in creation, he would be required to break or violate the immutable laws of nature in order to do so.
Unfortunately, Christians have too often relied on this understanding to explain how divinely ordained miracles operate in the natural world. It is, however, an explanation we must be sympathetic towards even if we don’t agree. Understanding how God might willfully act in creation when the empirical data of science lends itself to the belief that the natural laws of creation are immutable is often complicated and confusing. And so, how are we to affirm the truths of science while at the same time affirming the idea that God can (and does) act in the world?
Quantum Physics and the Limits of Scientific Knowledge
The discovery of quantum physics in the 20th century has helped to clarify the true character of nature’s laws and open the possibility of God acting in creation without “breaking” the laws of nature. In Part 2, we learned that scientific knowledge is limited because all human knowledge is inescapably personal. In this article—with the help of quantum physics—we will learn that scientific knowledge is limited because of an inability to find the immutable laws of nature. In other words, quantum physics helps to expose the limits of the scientific method within scientific terms.
It must be noted from the outset that quantum physics is dependent upon the interpretation of observable data and, as a result, there are many varying proposals for how to best understand the phenomena of quantum subatomic particle motion. However, as I have argued in Part 2, the need for interpretation is present in all aspects of knowing because there is no objective framework that excludes the need for interpretation. Therefore, quantum physics is not unique in a broad scientific sense; it is only unique in a narrow scientific sense because the observable quantum data simply does not allow for a “best” explanation. The reason for this is that our observations of quantum data are limited to such an extent that it is not possible to make interpretations based solely on naturalistic explanations. Quantum physics does not give science any predictive power concerning things in the natural world. Instead, the best we can do is to provide probabilities, not outcomes. As a result, any proposed interpretation of quantum physics must go beyond the limits of science.
Indeterminacy in the Natural World
To make sense of all this, I will employ the critical realist Copenhagen interpretation, in concert with John Polkinghorne, Alvin Plantinga, and Jürgen Moltmann, to name a few, as the authoritative interpretation of quantum data.
The Copenhagen interpretation is a “collapse interpretation” which recognizes that we can only observe the collapsed or reduced form of a wave-function (e.g., an electron), not the actual wave-function itself. The interpretation asserts that an electron functions more like a wave than a particle in that it cannot be measured with any sort of reproducible accuracy. If it is true that we can do no better than to assign a spectrum of probabilities to subatomic particle motion then, according to the Copenhagen interpretation, there is an imbedded indeterminacy within the natural world.
This idea of indeterminacy in the natural world has had important implications for how scientists and theologians understand the nature of reality and God’s relationship to this reality. Polkinghorne, for example, treats the epistemological (knowing) indeterminacy of quantum physics as a sign of an underlying ontological (being) indeterminacy in the natural world. He describes the natural world as having an openly flexible order that could allow the possibility of divine action in the natural world without violating the natural laws of science. Similarly, Plantinga describes divine action in quantum physics as a “divine collapse-causation” where God is responsible for the wave-function collapses that occur spontaneously in nature, thus making God’s special action in nature always present and free from violation of the physical laws of nature.
Some scholars, however, raise concerns about over-confident statements regarding divine action in the world given that these statements are dependent on the limits of empirical observation within quantum physics. Thomas F. Tracy, for instance, points out that the Copenhagen interpretation assumes that:
...quantum theory is complete; there are no hidden variables that, if we knew them, would allow us to assign fully determinate properties to the entity at every moment and therefore explain the measured result as having been causally determined by antecedent conditions.
Tracy then argues for a sort of quantum pluralism so that we do not allow future developments in physics to “significantly undercut our theological constructions.”
But does epistemological uncertainty negate any theological implications that the Copenhagen interpretation might offer? I do not believe that it does. Polkinghorne himself notes that affirmation of ontological indeterminacy is “not a logically forced move” because there remains the difficulty of assigning ontological significance to epistemological indeterminacies. Furthermore:
There is a large and inescapable epistemological deficit in our knowledge of the behaviour of physical process. The meta-scientific question is what ontological significance, if any, is to be assigned to the fact.
Consequently, instead of pointing to an interpretive position of objective certainty, the epistemological indeterminacy of quantum physics simply points to the possibility of ontological indeterminacy in the natural world. As a result, the possibility of an ontologically indeterminate world means that divine action in the world can be perfectly compatible with a scientific account of the world. And, as Tracy himself points out:
Given the current state of knowledge, it remains a viable possibility to hold that God might act at points of indeterministic transition in quantum systems, and thereby 1) bring about particular effects in the world which were not built into history from the beginning, and 2) do so without ‘intervening,’ if by this we mean that God interrupts the ordinary lawful operations of the natural order.
Therefore, based on the empirical data of quantum physics, it appears perfectly reasonable to accept an ontologically indeterminate reality through which God can work in the world without breaking or violating the laws of nature. And as a result, we are able to affirm the possibility of divine action in the world without giving up a robust scientific understanding of the world.
- Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation: A New Theology of Creation and the Spirit of God (Minneapolis, MN: First Fortress Press, 1993); Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011); John Polkinghorne, Science and Providence: God's Interaction with the World (Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1989).
- Plantinga, 115.
- Polkinghorne, 13.
- Plantinga, 116.
- Thomas F. Tracy, "Creation, Providence and Quantum Chance," in Philosophy, Science and Divine Action, ed. F. Leron Shults, Nancey Murphy, and Robert John Russell (Leiden, NL: Brill, 2009), 252.
- Ibid., 254. McGrath also notes the potential problem of casting a particular theological lot based on quantum interpretations: “if Bohmian determinism were to prove more convincing than Heisenbergian indeterminism, non-interventionist approaches to divine action at the quantum level would be called into question.” Alister E. McGrath, Darwinism and the Divine: Evolutionary Thought and Natural Theology (Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 237.
- John Polkinghorne, "Kenotic Creation and Divine Action," in The Work of Love: Creation as Kenosis, ed. John Polkinghorne (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001), 99.
- John Polkinghorne, "Natural Science, Temporality, and Divine Action," Theology Today 55, no. 3 (1998), 339.
- Tracy, 259.
- McGrath, Alister E. Darwinism and the Divine: Evolutionary Thought and Natural Theology. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011
- Moltmann, Jürgen. God in Creation: A New Theology of Creation and the Spirit of God. Minneapolis, MN: First Fortress Press, 1993
- Plantinga, Alvin. Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011
- Polkinghorne, John. Science and Providence: God's Interaction with the World. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1989
- ________. "Natural Science, Temporality, and Divine Action."Theology Today 55, no. 3 (1998): 329-343
- ________. "Kenotic Creation and Divine Action." In The Work of Love: Creation as Kenosis, ed. John Polkinghorne. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001
- Torrance, Thomas F. Divine and Contingent Order. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1981
- Tracy, Thomas F. "Creation, Providence and Quantum Chance." In Philosophy, Science and Divine Action, ed. F. LeronShults, Nancey Murphy and Robert John Russell. Leiden, NL: Brill, 2009
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