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Divine action in a world of science

The debate surrounding divine action as an influence on the physical processes of the natural world will continue to be a point of contention as long as differing ideological camps compete with one another for ascendancy in the battle for explanatory authority.

The debate surrounding divine action as an influence on the physical processes of the natural world will continue to be a point of contention as long as differing ideological camps compete with one another for ascendancy in the battle for explanatory authority. It's going to be a long ride.

Divine action implies an extra-natural influence on the events and phenomena of our natural existence. This influence was an intuitive assumption for most pre-modern cultures. It only became "a problem" in the modern period. The ever-increasing success of observers of the natural world to explain its processes in strictly empirical terms had the effect of "edging out" God as an influential cause for much of the phenomena of natural processes.

This marginalising effect led some to the notion that divine influence was no longer needed. However, the scientific assumptions that sustained these attitudes would be tragically undermined by new developments.

The acceptance of Copernican astronomy required a different approach to physics to account for new ways of understanding the cosmos. The original physics of Aristotle was too tied to the Ptolemaic conception of the universe. The solution would come in the form of Epicurean atomism, revived in the 17th century by the physicist Pierre Gassendi.

In atomism, all phenomena could be understood as a consequence of motions and combinations of atoms. When scientists of the period brought this theory of atomism together with Newton's laws of motion, it was seen as reasonable to assume that deterministic laws governed all physical properties. All causation, according to this thinking, begins from the bottom up, and all physical processes are deterministic because the atoms obey deterministic laws. The consequence is that complex higher-level entities are not causal players in their own right.

When Newton observed that orbits of heavenly bodies did not adhere precisely to the laws, he hypothesised that God occasionally intervened. Within a hundred years, Pierre-Simon Laplace, with better data and calculations, would state that God was a hypothesis he did not need.

Laplace believed that one day, given knowledge of the location and momentum of all atoms in the universe, all present and future states could be predicted. Early modern science thus claimed an image of the universe as a giant clockwork mechanism.

However, the development of quantum mechanics and its indeterminist picture of the world fundamentally challenged if not completely undermined this dream of a completely predictable world.

Atoms are now understood to be composed of more basic particle-like entities. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle states it is not possible to know a particle's location and momentum precisely at any time, calling into question the original assumptions of the "atomist-reductionist-determinist worldview".

It has been conceived that these new developments in science have paved the way for alternative ways of looking at "causal influence" in natural processes. Especially, in ways that might allow space for an extra-natural "intentional agency" (ie, divine action). Some of these ideas include such theories as "downward causation" and influence through non-linear systems.

These responses to the "new science" delineate just some of the horizons being explored by contemporary theological projects to bring about a synthesis in the traditional dialectic between faith and modern physical science.


Jihad Hashim Brown is a senior research fellow and academic adviser in the UAE. He delivers the Friday sermon at the Maryam bint Sultan Mosque in Abu Dhabi

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