Divine Action and a Juggler

Sometimes dry philosophical arguments can be hard to understand. That’s why I think metaphors can be helpful even for those who are familiar with metaphysics.  So, here’s another concerning the activity of God (Divine Action) in this world — the juggler.

There is an essay on how reality is constituted here where I argue that science, especially quantum mechanics, has strongly suggested that the way reality is constituted looks more like Mind at work than some sort of physicalist model.  The crucial role of the observer (in the Copenhagen interpretation) says that a conscious mind is inextricably linked to how reality actualizes. And since presumably, the universe existed before minds could observe it, then that suggests that there is a universal mind at work. One of the seminal figures in quantum mechanics, Erwin Schrödinger suggested just that.

If a transcendent mind (God) is constituting reality then that may mean that what we usually call natural laws are really intentional habits of God’s constituting activity.   The habits are so regular that science can discover them and understand, to some accuracy in some systems, how the universe works.  It could also mean the rather than a purposeless universe there is telos, guiding activity so that it unfolds as God wants.

Now an interesting thing about this view is that what is usually called supernaturalism is unnecessary.  There is no need to override intransigent natural law because everything is continuously intentional.  God uses “the habits” to create enough stability so that life can exist and flourish.  But these are just habits and within certain constraints change and novelty can occur without destroying the life-giving regularities that are present.

To illustrate this I’ll use a metaphor, the juggler.  Say a juggler is juggling 6 balls in the air.  The juggler intentionally controls the flights of the balls and their pattern.  There is an orderliness and structure to it that the juggler maintains, probably without much thought.  But the juggler can also make intentional adjustments to create something slightly different, or something new.  I say slightly because if the juggler changes things too much the juggle fails and the balls fall.  There are limits to how much can be changed and still have enough stability.  Now, everything here is intentional.  Both the stability of the juggle and innovative changes occur by intention.  If this rough metaphor illustrates God’s divine action, what it means is that God can add novelty, change and purpose but only such that the whole system can still have an integrity.  God honors the life-giving regularities in reality and guides it within constraints.

What this means for science is that while the regularities found in nature can be discovered and characterized, it also means that there may be subtle teleological “moves” within constraints that may not be evident within the measurement accuracy particularly for complex systems.  A couple of areas that may also play a role are in chaos theory and emergence.  In chaos theory, a very small change in a system can be greatly magnified (the butterfly effect) and change the system dramatically. One possible area where this might occur is in the ion channels of the brain where quantum effects could be possible.  This might be a part of free will.   Another area where reductionist science has great difficulty is in the field of emergence.  In emergence, certain properties and tendencies only arise in the collective, where there are many components.  Nobel Laureate physicist Robert Laughlin wrote a wonderful book on this called “A Different Universe”.  In his book, he gives some examples, one of which is the rigidity of metals.  This property cannot be deduced from the properties of individual metal atoms. Rigidity emerges only when there are enough metal atoms together.

For the believer, the implication is that drastic changes to the orderliness of the universe are probably not realistic.  Drastic changes could wreck the system, just like in the juggle. So for the believer, this means respecting God’s commitment to restrained change and not expect radical departures, “miraculous events”  in the sense of marked disruptions of the life-giving order.  That does not mean, however, that remarkable things don’t happen. To the contrary. Sometimes the small changes that gradually occur within constraint eventually lead to what could be called a kairotic moment, a moment of fulfillment where just one more small change can lead to a remarkable result. That’s why I modify Luther’s famous statement and say, “pray boldly, and trust in the wisdom and benevolence of God all the more boldly”.