Since around the 17th century onward, there has been an intellectual renaissance mediated primarily through the natural sciences.With the astonishing advancements in this discipline produced by the geniuses of some like Newton and Darwin, explanatory spaces where God once roamed freely have allegedly become occupied by the simplicity and brilliance found in scientific theory. Steeped in this milieu of scientific advancement, philosophers and theologians alike have felt compelled to refresh their ideas about God’s activity in the natural world. Surely, God’s role as the creator and sustainer of the universe has yet to be erased, they muse. But, epistemically speaking, how is it rational to maintain anything beyond such divine action in this age of scientific advance? What, moreover, shall be said of the God in the Judeo-Christian religion? For on this conception of deity, God is one of infinite power who, at times, purposively accomplishes special events in the world.
In brief, it depends whom you ask. Despite the spectrum of responses to the issue of divine action, though, in this paper we will fancy ourselves with only two of the perspectives advocated by some leading philosophers and theologians in the science and religion discourse: namely, that of the interventionist model of special divine action as proffered by Alvin Plantinga and the non-interventionist model of special divine action as proffered by Phillip Clayton and Thomas Oord.1 In section one I will explain Plantinga’s interventionist model of divine action; in section two I will explain Clayton and Oord’s non-interventionist model of divine action; in section three I will challenge Oord’s stipulation that Plantinga’s appeals to mystery in the case of God’s inaction violates the epistemic norm of taking an issue seriously; in section four I examine Oord’s claim that omnipresence situates better with his non-interventionism; in section five I examine the Not-Even-Once argument against divine action; in section six I proffer idealism as a rebutting defeater for Clayton’s non-interventionism; and in section seven I offer concluding thoughts on the debate concerning divine action, arguing that Plantinga’s account of divine action is the most persuasive of the two. Thus, endorsing special divine action is still epistemically justified in spite of the progress in the natural sciences.
§ 1: Plantinga’s Interventionist Divine Action
Regularity in the natural world makes meaningful human agency possible. Traditional Christian belief, though, maintains that God does perform things that are irregular: the parting of the Red Sea, the presence of God as manifested in a burning bush and, chiefly, the resurrection of the son of God. Things of the aforementioned nature, whatever that nature might be, adequately constitute what Plantinga calls special divine action.2 It is these acts of God which are up for discussion.In Plantinga’s examination of divine action, he investigates whether or not we can maintain this robust idea of God’s action in the world alongside contemporary science. In order to do so, he contrasts how divine action might be compatible in both the old, Newtonian scientific framework and the new, quantum mechanics scientific framework.
First, though, what are the properties of this God whom Plantinga speaks about? Plantinga conceives God as a personal agent—that is, a being with aims, intentions, and knowledge—who is maximally perfect and thoroughly providential. This divine providence “governs the world in such a way that it displays regularity and predictability.”3 Moreover, it is this regularity which upholds significant human action. But God does, according to Plantinga’s understanding of Christian belief, deviate from these regularities at times (e.g., the resurrection of the son of God). In doing such miraculous deeds, God is going beyond mere creation and conservation—this is what Plantinga calls special divine action.
Some of Plantinga’s detractors, those he calls “hands-off theologians,” think that God cannot intervene in the natural world because science is committed to belief in the causal closure of the universe.4 Plantinga rallies against this position for many reasons: First, this position assumes the outdated classical Newtonian physics (referred to from now as NP). Second, Newton himself was a theist who believed in God’s personal agency, thus we have prima facie reason to think that this is false. Third, and most crucial, the laws of nature conceived under NP merely “describe how the world works when, or provided that the world is a closed (isolated) system, subject to no outside causal influence.”5 Moreover, these natural laws are applicable only to closed systems; open systems, however, with divine agency are not scientifically accounted for. And indeed, whether or not the universe is open or closed cannot be addressed within the domain of the natural sciences; the claim that the material universe is closed is a philosophical theory. Surely, science does presuppose methodological naturalism and operates under the assumption that the universe is closed, but it does not state that that is in fact the case. In Plantinga’s words, natural laws in NP “don’t purport to tell us how things always go; they tell us, instead, how things go when no agency outside the universe acts in it.”6 Thus, on the old NP, traditional Christianity’s claim that miraculous deeds are performed in the natural world by God is left unscathed.
What is to be made of divine action in the new picture, though? To answer this we must ask ourselves as to what precisely is being replaced. Gone is the old, massy picture of Newton wherein particles had absolute location in time and space. Due to the advent in relativity theory and quantum the material world is far more puzzling. Objective indeterminism in the material has now risen to plausibility: no single prediction of a particle’s position or momentum can be given, instead, only a distribution of probabilities of possible outcomes. But where does this leave divine action? Plantinga harkens back to his discussion of the old picture given by NP, by stating that even with reference to QM “the laws apply to causally closed systems.”7 Because of this, QM is no more a threat to divine action then is NP. Nonetheless, Plantinga takes it further by saying that QM plus the causal closure of the universe still leaves significant room for God’s intervention in miraculous ways. As Plantinga writes“even if we ignore the proviso, special divine action, including miracles, is by no means incompatible QM.”8 Thus, on both the old scientific picture given by NP and the new scientific picture given by QM God can still act specially in the world.
§ 2: Clayton/Oord NonInterventionist Divine Action
Clayton and Oord both maintain that intervention is an objective feature of divine activity; however, this intervention is only relegated to the mental world. This is because, according to their reasoning, in order to face the empirical fact of the nonoccurrence of expected divine action one must either maintain that God always acts or God never acts. But, if God always acts, then God would never have created autonomous, morally responsible agents with whom he can, possibly, enter a relationship with. This is the regularity argument against divine action.9 But, one might state, why can’t God intervene in the world only sometimes, such that the regularity in the natural world is sufficient to ensure the moral development of autonomous beings and meaningful scientific discovery and research?According to the process theologians, if God were to act even once he would incur the burden of why he does not intervene at all points in the natural order to help human beings in times of pain and suffering. This argument is called the Not-Even-Once argument against divine action. For these metaphysical and ethical reasons, they argue, the intellectually obsolete traditional framework of God’s intervention must be abandoned.
Concurrent with these authors’ desire to get God off the hook for not intervening, is their desire to have an account of God bringing “about events in the created universe—events that would not have occurred merely as a result of the universe’s own internal processes.”10 Flowing out of this desire for what they call personal theism, Clayton and Oord earmark a sphere of reality in which God is able to bring about said events—namely, the mental world.
This mental intervention is a form of God’s communication with human beings, and might occur, for example, when God “in the form of an experience in which a sense of the divine presence leads to an apprehension of axiological truths, and also fosters, perhaps, the courage to act on them.”11 This type of intervention would thus evade the troublesome metaphysical and ethical commitments which traditional accounts fall prey to, while also advocating that God does bring about events that without his intervention would not occur.12 With these two distinct accounts of special divine action in mind, let us examine their veracity with close attention to the arguments forwarded against the Plantingian interventionist model by our respective representatives of process theology.
1Probably both Plantinga, Clayton and Oord will not be content in how I dichotimize their views—calling Plantinga’s “interventionist” and Clayton and Oord “noninterventionist.” Perhaps Plantinga would demur that such language of “intervention” is emotionally loaded , and brings mental images of a being who is meddling, unwarrantedly, with the natural world. But, of course, this is God’s world and he can do what he pleases. Clayton and Oord would protest that they too believe in intervention, just not in the traditional sense of God intervening in the natural world. God can only intervene in the mental world, they would say; nonetheless, God does intervene. Points taken. Nonetheless, because other possible ways to segment their views won’t work as easily, I have contented myself with the aforementioned dichotomy.
2When divine action is spoken of below, assume the understanding of special divine action unless indicated otherwise.
3Where the Conflict Really Lies, 66.
9This argument was, in my opinion, adequately addressed by Plantinga in his book Where the Conflict Really Lies in the chapter “The New Picture.” Thus, because of space limitations his arguments will not be rehearsed.
10 Divine Action and the Argument from Neglect, 53.
11 Ibid., 61.
12In what sense does God sustain the causal regularities in the universe on the non-interventionist picture? Sure, shirking God’s special divine action can more easily done, but how do process theologians construe God’s creation and sustenance of the universe?