Would we want divine intervention?

One reason I don’t fully trust arguments against God that revolve around the problem of evil is that I don’t have that clear an idea about what a more perfect world would look like. Sure, I can suggest some improvements to the universe. But if I were able to fundamentally mess with the way the world works, I would still have very little hope to calculate what all the unintended consequences would be.

For example, I have no idea whether I would like the opportunity to have supernatural knowledge about certain things.

Say I could pray to an appropriate deity or make a Faustian bargain with a devil to solve some problem in physics. I’d be tempted. I’ve spent half of today—one of many occasional such days—essentially gazing at the wall, getting ever more frustrated with my inability to come up with a foothold that would let me tackle a nasty mathematical problem. I need a solution, to see if some wild idea I have corresponds to any real physics or is merely crazy. If a mathematician were to come by and offer to sell me a solution, I’d immediately be checking what’s in my bank account. (Mind you, I wouldn’t be surprised if some mathematician has already done what I want. But it’s easier to reinvent the wheel sometimes than to try to find something that if it exists might be buried in an obscure mathematical journal. Especially since I’m a physicist, and mathematics is only neighboring territory, not my home ground.)

But somehow, buying that proof from a supernatural source would not be the same, even if the price was reasonable. I like the idea of science and math being a human accomplishment. Somehow it would cheapen the enterprise if when we got stuck, we would have the possibility to perform some ritual or call on some higher power, and there we have our answers.

And maybe something similar goes for other possibilities for divine intervention as well. In many cases, we’d get what we want, but somehow it would be cheapened. Mind you, if I had cancer, and a faith healer could cure me, I wouldn’t be griping about how it would be more satisfying if human medicine would have saved me.

In other words, when speaking of divine intervention improving the world, I find that I am of two minds, confused, ambivalent. I begin to think that when a theologian wants to block the force of the problem of evil, the best move they can make is to point out the limitations of our knowledge. It’s taking refuge in obscurity, to be sure. But in this case, at least some of the fog seems to be real.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    You make a good point.

    If there were a God of the sort imagined by theism (all knowing, all powerful, etc), I'm not sure how much I would want that being to be interfering with our lives.

    I don't want some superhuman person who can read my mind, and predict the events of my day, and predict my responses to those events, constantly messing around with the laws of physics, the events of my day, the operation of my body, and even the feelings and ideas that occur in my mind, for the sake of some overarching divine plan for mankind and the universe.

    The problem of evil needs to be correlated with the problem of heaven, and that is not an easy thing to do.

    Whatever divine utopia we imagine to contrast with actual human life on this planet needs to be one that we would truly bring about greater happiness and well being. Constant divine intervention to "improve" our lives would probably reduce the amount of pain, injury, illness, and suffering in the world, but at what cost?

    On the other hand, if there are no possible significant improvements that could be made to human life, then there is no possibility of heaven or eternal bliss with God.

    So, Christians and other traditional theists who believe in heaven or the opportunity for humans to have eternal life of happiness and close friendship with God, must believe that there is something better than human life as experienced here and now on planet earth.

    If God's constant interference in our lives on earth would make life miserable, frustrating and meaningless, then God's constant intereference in our lives in heaven would do the same thing.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13623017021486427439 Alex

    Not only would a "divine purchase" as a means to change the world be an uncomfortable power to possess, but it would also unsettle all of your other beliefs and perceptions of the world, given the (hypothetically) mutable nature of physics itself. In a sense, then, believing in an intervening God makes it hard to have a firm belief in anything other than the existence of said God.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00787181232127818507 bel te shaz zar

    i think god is actually an unborn fetus at the center of the universe controlling everything, kind of like those depictions of vishnu. all powerful, all knowing, yet unable to come out and look at us in the face because the awesomeness would kill us dead.

    to answer queries: no, i am not a christian, no thank you.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Taner Edis said: “Sure, I can suggest some improvements to the universe.

    Well, my daughter would suggest that a big improvement would be if she could eat all the chocolate ice cream she wants. Clearly, improvements are relative to somebody’s desires and purposes. The question of course is whether the universe is perfect from God’s point of view or not, and in order to answer this question one must ask what God’s purpose in creating the universe was. And we must base this answer on our understanding of what a person, who is perfect in all respects, would want.

    Taner Edis said: “I like the idea of science and math being a human accomplishment."

    For the same reason Irenaean theodicy likes the idea that what is most valuable in us, namely virtue, must be a human accomplishment. It seems we all kind of know that the value of a human state does not only depend on that state, but also on how one got there. If what God wanted was to create persons of maximal value, and if what God most values in persons is virtue, and if virtue must be earned, then God would have created a universe optimized for growing in virtue. And our universe does seem to be optimized in this way. Life in this universe seems to be a continuous exercise of moral challenge.


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