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