In my two previous posts, I reported on a lecture series given at Taylor University by world-renowned philosopher Dr. Alvin C. Plantinga. In this post, I want to discuss his final lecture, which was, by far, the most interesting of the three.
As was the case with his other two lectures, Dr. Plantinga began with a couple of funny stories. He then jumped into the topic at hand, which is how science should deal with divine action in the world. Not surprisingly, there are many who think that any consideration of God taking action in this world is an assault on science. For example, he quoted Dr. H. Allen Orr, a professor of Biology at my alma mater (The University of Rochester), as saying:
It’s not that some sects of one religion invoke miracles, but that many sects of many religions do…I agree of course that no sensible scientist can tolerate such exceptionalism with respect to the laws of nature.
Surprisingly, enough, however, there are many theologians who have the same view. Dr. Plantinga noted that Rudolf Karl Bultmann (a Lutheran theologian), John Macquarrie (an Anglican theologian), and Langdon Brown Gilkey (an American Protestant theologian) all agree that modern science forbids God to do any miraculous works. As Dr. Plantinga noted, these theologians believe that since God put the natural laws in place, even He cannot break them.
To counter such ideas, Dr. Plantinga first noted that many of the scientists who developed our understanding of the natural laws had no problem with the idea that God intervenes in nature from time to time. Newton, for example, thought that God had to constantly intervene in order to correct irregularities that would crop up every now and again. This didn’t seem to affect Newton’s ability to produce enormously good science, which indicates that the notion of God acting in the natural world is not an impediment to science.
There are also many modern scientists who have no problem doing science in a world in which they think God takes action from time to time. Dr. Plantinga didn’t mention this, but Dr. Henry Schaefer III, was the 6th most cited chemist in the world from 1981 to 1997! He believes that God acts supernaturally in the world from time to time, and it doesn’t seem to have negatively affected the way he does science.
Next, Dr. Plantinga stressed that there are two ways scientists have looked at the natural laws: the “old” way and the “new” way. The old way was dominated by Newtonian thinking, which was essentially deterministic. Newton thought that if you knew everything about the starting conditions of a system, and if you knew all the natural laws at work, you could predict exactly what that system would do as time went on.
This approach seemed to be mostly true until the late 1800s and early 1900s, when some odd experimental results kept cropping up. Those odd experimental results led to the development of quantum mechanics, which says you cannot determine exactly what a system will do, no matter how much you know about the system. Instead, you can only talk about probabilities. You can say that there is an X percent chance that the system will do this, and a Y percent chance that it will do something else, but that’s the best you can do.
Dr. Plantinga then went on to show that regardless of which view you take (the “old” Newtonian view or the “new” quantum view), there is no problem with the concept of God supernaturally acting in the world. If the Newtonian view is correct, all you have to realize is that the laws of nature assume no outside interference. For example, he quoted several physics textbooks as stating that laws like the conservation of momentum, the conservation of energy, etc., require a closed system. Momentum is not conserved if an outside force is acting on the collision, and energy is not conserved in a system if energy can be imported into the system or exported out of the system.
Thus, he proposed that the natural laws really should really start out with the statement, “When the universe is causally closed…” That way, it is clear that if God intervenes, there is no break in the natural laws, because during that time, the natural laws don’t apply. Since Christianity clearly shows that God’s divine intervention in the world is a fairly rare act, then the scientist just has to realize that the natural laws he or she discovers are good general descriptions of how the world works, but every once in a while, they simply will not apply.
While I listened to Dr. Plantinga’s argument, it struck me that such thinking is very scientific. Indeed, scientists regularly ignore outliers in their data. If a scientist collects 100 data points, and 99 of them show a distinct pattern but 1 is far off that pattern, it is generally considered an outlier. Often, a scientist will ignore the outlier in trying to understand what the bulk of the data mean. Using this reasoning, then, God intervening in nature is the outlier. It doesn’t happen very often, and when it happens, it should be very clear. As a result, it is easily ignored when coming to scientific conclusions.
In the Quantum view, God’s intervention in the natural world is even easier to understand, according to Plantinga. Indeed, since the best that we can do scientifically is to give probabilities as to what a system will do, God can act by “forcing” a particular event to come true, regardless of how improbable. For example, I have often noted in my lectures that quantum mechanics says that it is possible for me to run into a wall and pass through it without any harm coming to me or the wall. It sounds odd for this to be true, but I can actually demonstrate it in the lab on an atomic level.
On the much larger level of me and the wall, it becomes ridiculously improbable, but not impossible. If God saw me careening into a brick wall, then, he could just “fix” the situation and allow a ridiculously improbable event to occur so that I passed right through the wall. It would look like a miracle, but it wouldn’t even be a violation of any physical law. It would just be a case of God making sure the one possible event that fit His desires is the one that actually occurred.
The other thing Dr. Plantinga noted is the quantum concept of superposition. In this view, which is supported by experiment, a particle can be in several states at once. Observation then causes a resolution, which makes all but one of those states go away. Whatever is left is the state in which the particle is observed. For example, if you observe an electron one way, it seems to behave as a particle. If you observe it another way, it seems to behave as a wave. The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics (which is the leading one) states that before the measurement, the electron is both a particle and a wave. Then, observation forces it to become one or the other. Dr. Plantinga noted that since God is an observer, it could be possible that He works in the universe simply by observing in a particular way, which causes the desired state to emerge.
I really didn’t like Plantinga’s view of how God might work through quantum mechanics. It was quite interesting, but to me it seemed to limit God quite a bit. In the question/answer session, I noted that there are many states for which quantum mechanics says the probability is exactly zero. For example, if I am watching a Californium-252 nucleus fission, there are all sorts of different ways it could end up splitting, and I can state the probability for each of those ways. However, there are also many outcomes that are simply impossible. For example, the probability that the fission products of Californium-252 will have a total of 253 nucleons is exactly zero. Thus, this would limit how God could work. Dr. Plantinga agreed with that, noting that if God wanted a zero probability event to occur, we would be back to the original idea, that such a probability assumes a “causally closed” system.
In the end, I think Dr. Plantinga’s first idea is the best one. Natural laws assume that the universe is causally closed. If there are times where it is not, the natural laws don’t necessarily apply, at least not to certain specific systems. Such events, however, are rare, and can simply be seen as outliers in the overall trend of how the universe works.
I think Dr. Plantinga summed it up best during the question/answer session:
If you are a medical researcher and believe that God can miraculously cure cancer, that won’t stop you from finding a cure for cancer that works according to the natural laws.