Uncertainty, Openness, and the Action of God (RJS)

Part two of the new book God and the Cosmos: Divine Activity in Space, Time and History by Harry Lee Poe and Jimmy H. Davis asks questions about the way God interacts with the world. They begin with a brief discussion of the features of modern cosmology – the physics and chemistry behind the emergence of the earth on which we find ourselves. Chapters 5: Cosmology and the Emergence of Everything, 6: God, Uncertainty, and Openness, and 7: God and Life provide very nice lay-level overviews of key concepts in physics, chemistry, and evolutionary biology. Today I will concentrate on the Chemistry and Physics in Chapters 5 and 6, leaving biology for a future post.

Poe and Davis emphasize two key features in our scientific view of the cosmos. First, there is a direction to time. The universe is not stationary or cyclical, but directional. The big bang, an expanding universe, the second law of thermodynamics (entropy or “disorder” will increase), and the progressive complexity of accessible structures all point to a direction, and potentially to a purpose, in the universe.  The fine-tuning of the universe for life is a remarkable feature that has been commented on by many. This does not prove the existence of God, but is consistent with a personal God involved in his creation, and given a belief in God, it does provide insight into the nature of God.

The second feature emphasized by Poe and Davis is the openness of creation. We do not live in a clockwork universe where given knowledge of the initial conditions and the laws of nature the future, exclusive of miraculous divine intervention, is uniquely determined. Intrinsic quantum uncertainty leaves an ontological openness in God’s creation. Chaos – arising from the exquisite sensitivity of nonlinear systems to initial conditions – also leaves an ontological openness in God’s creation. They pose the following questions:

Is nature hermetically sealed with God on the outside?

Or is nature open to activity by God without having to invoke miracles?

And perhaps we can express this a little differently:

Does God intervene in the world or interact with the world?

Poe and Davis note that it is better to view God as one who interacts with the world rather than as one who intervenes in the world. The view of God as intervening in the world or even as allowing openness and free will “betrays a lingering attachment to the old classical deterministic system.”

An intervening God is one who is outside his creation and has to come back into his creation to achieve his purpose. An intervening God is one who, as an expression of his will, sustains the laws of nature (providence) but has to suspend these to achieve his purposes. An interacting God is part of the process from beginning to end.

When Peacocke speaks of a system taking a route “other than it would have been if left to itself to follow its own natural course, without the involvement of divine action,” he suggests that some specific outcome would have occurred had God not acted. The point of chaotic systems is that the system is open and without a predetermined outcome. God’s action would not “change” the outcome because no law of cause and effect has determined a specific outcome. As for the system being denied its choice of what course to take, these chaotic systems have no brain or self-consciousness. They really don’t care. They have no plans. (p. 200)

Although all analogies are imperfect and we must be wary of carrying even this one too far, the action of God in the world is, perhaps, the action of a mind or will within this intrinsic openness, these causal joints, in creation. The evidence or the action of God in the world is known through the revealed mind and will of God, not through the study of physical and chemical processes in the world.

Within the creation the most complete way that God has made himself heard is by furnishing his creation with beings – us – that can discern his meanings. Since the universe, as God’s creation, expresses God’s purpose, God has created humans with the ability to understand God’s self-communication through creation. God is sending signals to humans through the events of the universe’s history, the history of humans and our own personal history; God is sending these signals through a top-down input of information into the universe. (p. 201)

Now Poe and Davis are not denying direct action of God in his creation, and they certainly are not denying the incarnation and resurrection, or regulating these to odd natural events. But they do seem to be saying that we should not be looking for scientific evidence for the existence of God within creation. God makes himself known through relationship with his creatures, humans created in the image of God.  Hebrews 11:3 states: By faith we understand that the universe was created by God’s command, so that what is seen has been made from things that are not visible. (HCSB) Poe and Davis note that the word “command” implies a top-down information causality and that “by faith” implies that it takes faith to recognize the world as God’s creation.

To find the personal God of Christianity we look not to creation, or to natural theology, but to God’s self-revelation in interaction with his creatures. This is recorded in scripture.

The next chapter of God and the Cosmos looks at the evolution of life and the role that Poe and Davis see for God in this process. The final chapter looks at God and human history. We will move on to these topics in future posts. But for now…

How do you envision God at work in the world?

Does he intervene, violating the laws of physics?

Does the proposal by Poe and Davis, that his interaction is better considered that of a mind or will directing within the intrinsic openness of nature make sense?

If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

"Sorry, Chris, I see that you do agree with me that John's position in opposing ..."

Universalism and “The Devil’s Redemption”
"Meant to say--"may have mattered MORE to them than any particular eschatological theory""

Universalism and “The Devil’s Redemption”
""Does that not undermine the traditional understanding of hell? (the doors of hell are locked ..."

Universalism and “The Devil’s Redemption”

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • DRT

    Nice post. I will try to paint my view of the universe in another response, but I want to comment on a couple things in the post first.

    I like the first feature tremendously. Yes, the arrow of time really seems to be pointing toward something (ha, pun intended) other than a mechanistic model. The only explanation I have for it at this point is the interjection of change in the system.

    The second feature, openess, almost strikes me as a god of the gaps sort of thing though. It is currently open to us because we do not know how to determine what will happen. It looks random or unspecified to us, right now, but we could learn more that will be able to predict, say 99% of the uncertainty we see right now. Does that now change the way we view it?

    I also like the way you said this

    This does not prove the existence of God, but is consistent with a personal God involved in his creation, and given a belief in God, it does provide insight into the nature of God.

    I have a difficult time with people pointing toward the characteristics and noting that those point to god. All I think they point toward is some sort of more or less infinite system where all combinations get tried out. There is no reason to say it is god.

  • DRT

    How do you envision God at work in the world?
    Does he intervene, violating the laws of physics?

    I am currently believing that not only does god interact with creation, but that we interact with creation in ways that we do not realize. I believe the universe is more strange than we can possibly imagine it to be. To illustrate that I will propose a model using things we believe we know.

    There are some very strange things that are going on in the universe that seem to point to the fact that we don’t have a clue as to how it is actually constructed or how it behaves. First, consider that acceleration of the expansion of the universe. With a big bang many thought the universe could be expanding. Einstein even thought it could be expanding, or in equilibrium somehow. But we have found out that the expansion is accelerating. It is expanding more quickly as time goes on. Quite strange.

    So we have come up with the amount of stuff that is out there than can make rational sense of this situation, and now believe that dark matter is 25%, dark energy 70%, and regular matter and energy 5%. In other words, we only know what 5% of the universe is made out of.

    Next, we have a possible explanation in the M theories, that include multiple dimensions that we don’t have access to. We live in 3 spatial dimension, and 1 time, but M theory points toward 11 (or more) dimensions. What are those dimensions?

    The last vector is even more subjective. The longer i am alive the more I see that we influence our worlds. I believe there is a deep interconnectedness out there that we do not have conscious access to. OUr intentionality seems to resonate and play out in the universe we live in, in deeply interconnected ways. What you put out there comes back, what goes around comes around, karma, etc.

    So, one of my thoughts is that the primary interaction of the universe may actually be in ways that we do not understand. Not only does god routinely interact with the universe, but so do we in ways that we do not consciously know. There is much more out there than we think. I believe this is consitent with the message of Jesus.

    Now, having motioned toward multi-dimensionality and dark universe constituents as possible evidence for our cluelessness, another model could simply be that we are not even real in the way that we think of being real. We could simply be a simulation that our future selves are running and we would not know the difference. I think it is quite possilbe that that is the case too. We really would not be able to tell the difference.

    So, I am left with having to choose to believe in god, because that is so much better than believing that I am a simulation projected into space somehow….

    Not only does god constantly interact with our universe, but we do in ways of which we are not conscious.

  • JohnM

    Well, if God is the creator of all that is, at the creation would we say God interacted or God intervened, when there was no world in which to do either? 🙂 My intitial thought is that God intervenes while allowing the world to generally work the way He made it to work, but then maybe the true distinction between intevention and interacting is not that great.

  • The “interacting” v. “intervening” distinction is very helpful.

    Pitching the existence of complex life in our universe–not as proof for a God–but as consistent with a purposeful God is also quite helpful. (We see some of the things we should expect to see if a God is real.) To pick up a past conversation RJS, it seems to me effective apologetics of this sort will focus on minimizing anomalies against one;s own view, and maximizing them for others.

    We see this with the phrase “violating the laws of physics”. This comes from the mind/heart of someone who desires control, who insists on predictability. God would “violate” nature if God performed miracles, and such a “violation” has a moral component. One ought not violate anyone, especially a divine being. The way such arguments are constructed taint the problem at hand. This is why the “interacting” phrase is helpful.

    I don’t object to Star Wars because Yoda can lift a large object with his mind — that’s how that universe works. I don’t object to a comic book when I see a character fly or shoot lasers from their eyes. I don’t object to Tolkien’s or Rowling’s wizards. And in our world–the world that has been actualized–I do not dismiss as impossible or fanciful the reality of miracles. Our universe loves miracles. It in fact cries out for them (Rm 8). Because God is real and is moving his creation forward, God’s activities are simply part of the way reality (as a whole) functions.

    But it comes back to paradigms and our previous conversation. What one objects to is depend on the universe they accept. Miracles are problematic for some–not because they are miracles–but because miracles imply a wholly different conception of reality to the one the objector sees. Miracles are an anomaly requiring embrace or rejection. So much the easier for the naturalist to conclude that miracles are either impossible or immoral.

  • Bev Mitchell

    The resurrected Lord surely represents humankind as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit wish us to be. The Good News is that this type of being is ultimately possible, through the work of Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, according to the will of the Father. It’s all part of the becoming made possible when Father, Son and Spirit decided to say “let there be…..”

    If we could understand how matter and spirit were/are ‘combined’ (if that’s the right word) in the risen Christ, if we knew of what he consists, we would have the answers to most if not all questions related to the relationship between matter and Spirit. (Spirit is capitalized intentionally to distinguish what is meant from all lesser ideas, and manifestations, of spirit loose in our thinking and in the cosmos.)

    As N.T. Wright is so careful to point out, we have no real understanding of the distance between material and spiritual reality, but the two may be closer that we can even imagine. This view is given support by folks like Poe and Davis (assumed from RJS’ notes), Polkinghorne and many other writers of the ‘open theology’ school. It is very appealing to Creed believing scientists. 

    Writers like T.F. Torrance, Greg Boyd, John Polkinghorne, John Sanders, to name only four, make the point that a well constructed and well oiled concept of the Trinity (the pun is a freebie) is a necessary part of this world view. Torrance (not an open theist) is the most explicit on this point, but it’s there in all. One of the many benefits of a strong emphasis on the Trinity is that, with this view, we can’t avoid dealing explicitly with the Holy Spirit. We also can more easily see that there is no untouchable, unmoved god behind Jesus or the Spirit – there really is only one God – in three persons. 

    Now this is starting to sound preachy, so I’ll stop. However, it’s easy to follow this up by reading far more able writers. Since our thoughts on these matters never come only from our own heads, and, especially in this case, I’m really just rearranging what many have already said, I will pass on some references. (As a scientist, I recoil at the idea of writing a discussion on anything without citations.) 🙂

    Elmer M. Colyer (2001) “How to Read T.F. Torrance: Understanding his Trinitarian and Scientific Theology” His Chapter 6 on TFT’s theology of the Holy Spirit is one of the best I’ve ever read.
    John Polkinghorne (2009) “Theology in the Context of Science” A great, up to date summary of his thinking.
    Thomas Jay Oord (2010) “The Polkinghorne Reader: Science, Faith and the Search for Meaning” Start here if you want to go beyond the (2009) book noted above.
    Gregory A. Boyd (2001) “Satan and the Problem of Evil: Constructing a Trinitarian Warfare Theology”  All very good, but the Appendix is exceptional, especially where he addresses criticisms of his position.
    N. T. Wright Lots of places in lots of books!
    John Sanders (2007)  “The God Who Risks: A Theology of Divine Providence” 2nd. Edition A full presentation of the Open Theology position. If you have seen the video of Sanders debating (I can’t recall who), forget it. Sanders is one of the many folk who write exceptionally well and debate, shall we say……..less well.

    P.S. Oh yes. I also wanted to say something about miracles. Strictly speaking, there aren’t any! Any takers?

  • Joe Canner

    I like their interpretation of Hebrews 11:3 and its implication that creation is not inherently evidence for God. I wonder, however, how to reconcile this with Romans 1:20 “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made…” Perhaps Romans 1 is talking just about understanding things *about* God via creation, while Hebrews 11 is talking about the actual creation process?

  • DRT

    Bev Mitchell, I really must object to you using a bibliography in a blog response. Really?

  • John Inglis

    We are partly spiritual beings, and we interact with and intervene in the world all the time. By Physics, a body at rest remains at rest, and a body in motion retains its vector. Yet we have but to think and our arm moves, and then we lift a spoon that was at rest or redirect a moving ball. God is entirely sprit, yet what should prevent a spirit from interacting with the physical? It is merely our conceptual categories and understandings that are inadequate to explain the interaction. We can put our hand into a trickling stream and block the will, a process that starts with the spirit, similarly God can stop up a river–he just does it without the intervening aspect of having a physical body.

    I see our living in this world as a moment by moment miracle just as much as God’s interactions are a miracle. The difference being that a miracle by God is something that we observe to occur without either a human or inanimate cause.

    John i.

  • Bev Mitchell

    John Inglis #8

    Anticipating having to defend my contention re miracles, I just finished writing the following. Then, I discover that you have already done the work. It’s amazing how many ways language can be used to say essentially the same thing.

    There are no miracles because it’s all a miracle. Nature, for example, is made possible and sustained by a loving God, it is miraculous. It is not, ultimately, from itself, it is engendered from outside. Furthermore, there is more to creation than we can even imagine. A part of this ‘more’ is the spiritual, a reality the Scriptures speak of time and time again. Yet, despite our relative ignorance of spiritual reality, it is fully part of creation, part of what has been made possible, and sustained. The Creator has not made possible two things, really, but one. When the apparently separate parts of this whole work together as they should, events that appear to us as miracles, simply happen. This is because at that point, all of creation is acting as God wants, all the possibilities are being actualized as they should act. When such perfect actualization of possibilities occur, we witness events like the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the blind seeing, the lame walking. The work of the Holy Spirit given from the father through Christ to whosoever will receive him is an example of this kind of actualization of all good and necessary possibilities. However, for now, this actualization is carried out in the permitted presence of rebellion against this very process. At the parousia, or perhaps it would be better to say, when the parousia is fully actualized, then the fullness of creation will be known. Things will no longer appear miraculous, they will just be as they are, completely, as they were meant to be.

  • Tim

    I appreciate the difference between something serving as compelling evidence for God, or in a weaker sense serving as a pointer to God, and in any even weaker sense simply meshing consistently with one’s doctrine or worldview of God. I do get that, and I appreciate RJS is recognizing the difficulties in elevating a fine tuning argument to a level of proof that moves beyond what our current scientific state of knowledge concerning ultimate origins and the fundamental nature of our universe can bear.

    However, in even the more humble and more limited sense concerning the value of Fine Tuning in informing a view of God, I think even here we should be cautious. This is fundamentally an argument in the domain of Natural Theology, and Natural Theology has not fared very well over the years. What were once thought of as solid arguments affirming the existence of God, or some specific role he would have performed in Nature are now largely considered failures as natural explanations have filled in the gaps of prior understanding. The consistency with which this has happened should urge caution in even the sense RJS is advocating. Not that I don’t think it is a viable path to pursue mind you. But I think any statements concerning value that can be derived at this present point in time should carry with them a huge caveat as to the very real possibility that present arguments in Natural Theology, such as the Fine Tuning argument, could well be discredited in the future.

  • Luke

    “Does [God] intervene, violating the laws of physics?”

    We shouldn’t get the descriptive “laws” of nature confused with prescriptive laws. It’s not really a matter of violating them. If anyone were to violate a descriptive law we would simply say “oh well, I guess that’s not a law after all. We were wrong. Still works 99% of the time though.” I’ve known some people to get confused about that and it really screws with your theology.

  • John Inglis

    Bev, I liked your line, “for now, this actualization is carried out in the permitted presence of rebellion against this very process.” Quite thought provoking.

    Despite the failures of various theories of evolution, and its non-falsifiable nature in general, I don’t look to fine-tuning, design, miracles, historical evidences for the resurrection, etc. to prove that God exists. I believe that God has intentionally hidden himself in specific ways to enable the existence of faith, and a real relationship built on love, and real discipleship. God has revealed himself in his Word and Christ, but those are revelations to those who believe already and though they are powerful enough to convert, they are not proofs beyond all shadow of doublt.

    I do believe, however, that natural theology, and philosophical reflection on the revelation of God in nature, is important to creating defences of theology and of the existence of God, to to defeating the potential defeaters of theism.

    Yet there is a real sense in which design in nature, and fine tuning of the cosmos, miraculous healings, resurrection, etc. are only evidence for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. That does not, thereby, make them invalid of of little value.

  • EricG

    It seems strange to me to say that chaotic dynamics allows for non-determinism. Although they give the appearance of chaotic behavior, they are defined by very simple functions. So they would tend to show the opposite – appearance of non-determinism from a quite deterministic function.

    Also, to what extent is the non-deterministic interpretation of quantum mechanics accepted? Isn’t there another interpretation that things are determined, we just can’t measure it?

    And even if the non-deterministic interpretation of quantum mechanics is correct, that doesn’t really allow God influence at the level most of us are concerned with – I.e., over non-quantum size objects ( like the cancer in someone’s body).

    Finally, for purposes of theodicy, which is the key question that often comes up with the question of God’s influence, I don’t see a difference the post discusses between influence vs intervention – seems like semantics.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Tim (#10)
    I concur, great caution is advised. A god of the gaps view won’t work and we need to be sceptical of a god of micro or even nano gaps. There clearly is something we don’t understand about the specific relation between the Creator and his works. This lack of understanding, as much as it frustrates us, does not stand between us and the Spirit of God, nor between us and understanding his Scriptural revelation to us. It’s when we elevate our tribe’s particular explanation of the nature of this relationship to a necessary belief that the cold, wet fog rolls in on all fronts (I’m on the north Atlantic coast). To me this unnecessary elevation is at the heart of the long-standing, unpleasant disagreements in all kinds of faith science confrontations.

    Elmer Colyer, in the book I mentioned earlier on this thread, makes a statement in Chapter 6 apropos to this point.

    “….the fact that God is Spirit and the Holy Spirit is God, in utter differentiation from all creaturely reality means that we cannot begin with human questions and creaturely reality, and reason our way to God at all.” pg. 217

    John (#12)

    Not sure what you mean by “the failures of various theories of evolution, and its non-falsifiable nature in general”. There is one generally accepted theory of biological evolution (there are many other kinds of evolutions in progress, including the discussion on this thread 🙂 )As for non-falsifiability, well it is falsifiable, that just hasn’t happened yet, and this doesn’t look likely. This notwithstanding, a pre-Cambrian beetle would completely do the job, and, in the normal working of science, lots of sub-hypotheses based on the theory are regularly disproven,  but the overall general conclusions of biological evolution stand firm.

    I do agree with you that fine-tuning (anthropic principle) won’t get the Holy Spirit inside of a person. To me, it’s most encouraging that God is able to raise up saints who have no clue about the details of modern biological sciences, or modern theology, for that matter!

  • Jon G

    Eric G – “I don’t see a difference the post discusses between influence vs intervention – seems like semantics.”

    I’m not sure what RJS or the authors would say about this, but I’m inclined to say that the difference between influence and intervention is akin to the difference between guiding someone through a forest and picking them up and carrying them without concern for their willingness to go. The first preserves freewill and fosters relationship while the second involves power, control, and total responsibility on the part of the carrier. Also, if God intervenes once, why not everytime? The god who works via influence seems to avoid that problem.

    But someone like Keller would say (loose paraphrase) “what’s the big deal about freewill…if I’m heading towards a great chasm and don’t have the forsight to avoid it, forget my freewill – just save me!”

    Personally, I don’t know on which side I fall…

  • EricG

    JonG —

    The post distinguishes between “interaction” by God through natural processes and “intervention” by God changing natural processes. My last point was that for purposes of analyzing questions of why God allows suffering, it doesn’t seem to matter whether God “interacts” or “intervenes.” The distinction doesn’t appear to add anything to that discussion. Whether God is interacting with natural processos or interfering with them, the same questions remain about why God does or doesn’t take care of certain things.

    Your point about free will doesn’t seem related to that point I am making. God’s “interaction” through natural processes might interfere with free will just as much — or as little — as his “intervention.” Free will seems like an altogether different question.

  • Patrick

    With the exception of metaphors( the mountains will sing) resurrection and direct physical healing like Jesus and the Apostles did, the miraculous ideas I am aware of seem within the natural orbit of things.

    For example, the text detailing the Exodus “woes/judgments” on Egypt literally is an entomologists dream. Each thing flows from the previous one and all are natural events of some sort. I watched a show on this once and it surprised me because it did not seem to be events “violative of the laws of physics”. Each event has a modern antetype even including a blood red lake(Cameroon 1980s).

    According to the NASA database , regulus, saturn and jupiter conjoined near 2 BC and would be easily visible in Jerusalem then. That happens on a scheduled basis, yet, it may be THE Star of Bethlehem( might not be, too). If it is, it is PART of the laws of physics.

  • John Inglis

    The 10 plagues “merely” natural phenomena? meh.

    Of course they used natural phenomena, because each showed Yaweh’s mastery over native Egyptian gods, who were all gods of various natural phenomenal.

    Part of God’s interaction in the physical world was the timing: Moses said it, then it happened. The natural chain of events theory was proposed by Greta Hort in 1957, but IIRC her view has been found to have flaws. Consequently, there is no theory that accounts for all of the plagues occurring in that particular order at that time of the year purely as a result of a chain of cause and effect natural forces. Yes, the events are natural, but it is very unlikely for that specific group of events to have happened in just that order in a short period of time.

    Western science, especially the more empirical sciences, are fundamentally a Christian endeavour, and Christians have been among the first to be looking for the regular and orderly working of God according to secondary causes.

    But in some circumstances, such as the 10 plagues, God specifically says that it is His doing.

  • EricG – You’re correct. Chaotic systems are not “non-deterministic”. They are perfectly deterministic. From a human perspective, they’re hard to predict only because they require unfeasably precise measurements of the initial conditions.

    Then again, they are so sensitive that even disturbances at the quantum level will eventually affect their behavior. So if a God were to to influence or tweak things at the quantum level, that would ultimately affect chaotic systems, too.

    At that point, though, we’re getting into “you can’t prove it isn’t!” territory.

  • RJS


    In a classical world chaotic systems are deterministic, but we don’t live in a classical world. In the quantum regime there is an intrinsic uncertainty in the initial conditions and there is an intrinsic randomness in the occurance of tiny events (point mutations, radioactive decay events…) that can be amplified in nonlinear processes. There is no good melding of quantum and chaos of which I am aware. But the two of these together leave an intrinsic openness in the world.

    The “butter-fly effect” is a typical example of chaos – but what if instead of a butterfly we consider the “fortuitous” decay of a radioactive element, rare reaction pathway, absorption of a photon?

  • RJS


    My point is the same as yours. I’ve been at a meeting and didn’t get to making a response yesterday. But Poe and Davis are not taking this to a “we can’t prove it” level. They are not trying to prove the existence of God or even of his action. They are saying that it does not take a violation of “natural” law to leave a space for the action of God. The intrinsic openness means that we could never tell if there is a “mind” – God – at work in the process of events.

    In a clock-work deterministic world God can only work by starting the process and disrupting the process from “where it would have gone.” But this is not true of the world in which we live.

  • RJS


    Poe and Davis make some comments relating to the way this might impact our view of the role of God in pain, suffering and evil – but not much, and I don’t find it satisfactory at all. Whether God intervenes or interacts makes no difference in this problem as I see it.

  • DRT

    RJS, you seem to come down fairly firmly on the idea that the universe does have this openness, and the science certainly backs you up on that. But isn’t it also possible that we will figure out the actual deterministic structures in the future, therefore we might just be proposing another god of the gaps approach?

  • RJS


    We are not talking about “proof” for God. The point here is how God acts in the world. If there are “deterministic” features rather than intrinsic probabilities in quantum mechanics then we rethink the way God acts in the world. I do think that the uncertainties in QM are intrinsic however.

  • John Inglis

    I can agree that the chaos and unpredictability of our universe mean that we cannot tell if a certain event is the result of initial conditions or some prior, intervening, event. I believe that God is intentionally hidden to a large degree (there has been good theological work on this topic in the last decade). I wouldn’t consider that an act by God would constitute a disruption of the process, just as I would not consider an act of our will–resulting in the moving of a formerly motionless body–a disruption. In order to make atoms move, we need to act firstly on the atoms in our own physical body; God does not. God can directly act on atoms and cause them to move, or stop moving, or change their vector.

    However, just as we cannot predict the weather even when we know a lot about the inital conditions, we cannot know if God (or any other purely spiritual being) is directly present and operative at any point in time as the weather develops or changes. Just as we can never know both the location and motion of a subatomic particle, we can never know enough about initial conditions and about subsequent conditions to be able to state “given initial conditions X and the “laws” Y, we should have had Z occur, but since Z did not occur some spiritual being must have intervened.” Our universe is simple not deterministic and knowable in that way.

    Of course, this also means that we can never point to some event and definitively and conclusively state, “God did that.”

    Hence, how we understand events will always depend on the framework we use to view them. If we believe in a God who has broken into this world with his coming kingdom, then we will point to a healing that corresponds to prayers as an act of God. A materialist on the other hand will state that he does not know what caused the healing, but it wasn’t God. Neither side will ever have the resources to disprove the other. There will always remain room for doubt on both sides, and the need for a faith commitment to a way of understanding the world. Faith cannot ever be eliminated, because we will never fully understand the universe.

    John I.

  • John Inglis

    Laplace’s famous quote conflates determinism and predicatability:

    “We ought to regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its antecedent state and as the cause of the state that is to follow. An intelligence knowing all the forces acting in nature at a given instant, as well as the momentary positions of all things in the universe, would be able to comprehend in one single formula the motions of the largest bodies as well as the lightest atoms in the world, provided that its intellect were sufficiently powerful to subject all data to analysis; to it nothing would be uncertain, the future as well as the past would be present to its eyes. The perfection that the human mind has been able to give to astronomy affords but a feeble outline of such an intelligence.” (Laplace 1820)

    Physicists readily agree that large-scale repeatability is typical because quantum stochasticity is effectively “washed out.” But they would simultaneously agree that this phenomenom does not occur at very small (microscopic, atomic, subatomic) scales. Moreover, they would usually maintain that even some macro events (like coin-flipping, or digital data loss) really are the result of quantum indeterminism, and not the result of an incomplete knowledge of the initial conditions and the operative processes.

    Further complicating this issue is the fact that it is difficult (and thus far it has been impossible) to differentiate in real life between processes that genuinely indeterminate from those that are determinate but chaotic.

    The result is that we are left arguing about determinism / indeterminism using metaphysics. And we can neither definitively exclude nor include God.

  • EricG

    RJS and Ray – thanks for the explanation. I now see how the *combination* of chaotic dynamics and quantum mechanics could potentially lead to that sort of openness.

  • EricG

    On further reflection, if God uses “interaction” through natural processes rather than “intervention,” that could make the problem of suffering worse. One argument people make is that God can’t intervene to resolve all our pain and suffering because to be so obvious would override our choices – we couldn’t easily deny that God exists (like the point John I is making). (I have concerns about the validity of this as a partial theodicy, but people do make the argument). But if God can simply “interact” it wouldn’t be at all obvious – it would not override our free will. So advocates of “interaction” would seem to lose the ability to make this argument.

  • Miguel Mesa

    Perhaps we are assuming a dichotomy in our categories of thought unnecessarily. Is there really any possible violation of a law?

    I am reminded of Albert LaChance’s musings on Logos as the manifest contemplation of God – that is all creation. If it is the case that Logos (Christlogos) is all in all in this respect, an extension of God – but not God as in a ‘ontology’ (read: Trinity) then terms such as interactive and intervene are merely descriptive of our perceptions of an event. Either way his involvement is one.

    Just some thoughts…

  • Why would not being able to “easily deny that God exists” “override our choices”?

    Imagine a world where everyone is as fortunate as Inspector Clouseau of the Pink Panther movies. Even when the villains try to kill him, some wildly improbable bit of luck occurs to save him. Assassins are knocked onto a serving cart and go rolling out a window, bombs miraculously blow him into a river rather than into pieces, etc.

    Imagine if the occupants of a car hit by drunk driver always, miraculously, survived. It doesn’t negate the free will of the drunk driver in the slightest, any more than the villains in a Pink Panther movie lack free will just because they are unable to fulfill their desire to kill Clouseau.
    Failing in what you choose to attempt doesn’t indicate a lack of free will. Just because some things are impossible for you doesn’t mean you lack free will. Or are you an automaton because you cannot choose to levitate?

    Let’s assume that an assassin tries to kill someone, and by sheer good luck the target survives. Does that mean the assassin didn’t commit any sin by trying to kill the victim? Isn’t the choice to do evil the real sin, irrespective of (or at least in addition to) the consequences of the act itself?

  • EricG


    I think I wasn’t clear. I’m not saying that God intervening denies free will in a direct sense. The classic version of the argument I meant to articulate (which, as I noted, I find problems with) is different: It is that if God was repeatedly open and obvious in his interventions, then almost anyone would choose to follow him — there wouldn’t really be much choosing, we’d all effectively fall in line.

    Say, for (an admittedly exaggerated) example, that medical study after medical study showed that anyone who prayed to God was always cured of their cancer and other illnesses, but others were not. People would fall in line behind God pretty quickly. Obviously this is counterfactual, but that isn’t the point. The argument would say that isn’t that effectively what we are demanding when we demand that God intervene to end suffering? Wouldn’t it call into question our ability to choose God out of free will, rather than fear or something that looks like compulsion?

    This is an exaggerated example, and I see problems with the argument generally. My only point is that, whatever it is worth (and I think some form of it might have some limited worth as a partial theodicy), it doesn’t really work as well for a God who could act through “interaction” through openness of natural processes. In that circrumstance, God could simply surreptitiously act to alleviate suffering without any of us being the wiser — without intervening to display his power in such an obvious way that everyone would feel compelled to bow to God, effectively (so they would say) denying our ability to choose. So a God who can “interact,” as RJS suggests in the post, makes theodicy questions harder for the theist, at least for this argument.

    Just out of curiosity (not related to any of these points directly): My understanding is that you are an atheist. Are you one that believes in a form of free will? If not, are your points made for the sake of argument? Just trying to see where you’re coming from.

  • Eric – I see problems with the argument as a theodicy, too. For example, imagine if you ardently courted someone – sending her flowers, offering to carry things for her, making yourself available for whatever she needed – would she be unable to choose whether to fall in love with you? Would your actions compel her? She might well decide, logically, that you would be a good mate – but that wouldn’t mean she’d actually want to marry you.

    And you could take it further the other way. Only the really selfless people would do good for others if it always made them feel bad and they went to Hell. Why does God promise a reward (or, at bare minimum, not punishment) for doing good, if He’s looking for people who aren’t in it for themselves? 🙂

    And yes, I am an atheist, and I beleive in free will… though I’m not at all sure I understand that term the way you might. (Sort of a ‘koan’ about it: In the movie ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, Lawrence says that “a man can do whatever he wants”, but he can’t “want whatever he wants”.)