Science and the possibility of belief in God and in free will
For centuries, before the ascendancy of physical science, theologians struggled with the question of predestination and free will. If God knows everything that will ever happen, in fact if God causes everything that will ever happen, how can humans be free? If God knows that you are or are not saved, there is nothing you can do about it.
With the development of modern physics from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, physical determinism replaced divine predestination as the cause of all things. Many of those who believed in God saw Him as a cosmic mechanic who set up the laws of the universe, started it running, and then had nothing else to do. In this view, we humans never had anything to do either, since every event, including those in our brain, has a physical cause, and free will is an illusion.
In the twentieth century the development of quantum physics and the uncertainty principle changed the way that many scientists look at the physical universe. Chance events take place at the sub-atomic level so that the physical world is not absolutely determined. These events can affect DNA causing the chance variations that are essential to the notion of biological evolution.
As stated in the previous post, some scientist believe that statistical probability makes determinism at the macro level as firm as the old mechanistic determinism, and so they reject random events and free will. On August 1 and August 8 I posted my take on the ideas two such scientists, Sean Carroll and Kristof Koch. Here, I will look more generally at the implications of indeterminism.
The idea of indeterminacy turns the world of physics as well as the world of theology upside-down, since neither the laws of strict determinism nor the mind of God controls all that has happened or will happen. Indeterminacy neither proves nor disproves the reality of God, but it allows that, if God is real, He can intervene in the events of evolution. Similarly, indeterminacy does not prove or disprove human free will, but it allows that there could be a conscious agency that intervenes in the events of our own brains.
Unlike the closed view of strict mechanistic determinism that prevailed up to the end of the nineteenth century, a contemporary view of uncertainty allows for the possibility of spiritual agency in the physical universe. The thoughts summarized in the preceding two paragraphs are argued cogently by biologist Kenneth R. Miller in Finding Darwin’s God, Chapter Seven,
“ Beyond Materialism.”
Miller states, as did theologian John Haught, that science cannot reveal whether God is real and whether there is purpose in the universe. But Miller contends that much of the atheism and materialism associated with science results from some scientists projecting their personal view on their science and hence on the universe.
Miller sees the universe, as revealed by science, to be perfectly compatible with belief in God, and that there is no need for gaps to be filled by magic and miracles. The world is incomplete in the sense that it is still developing, but it is logically complete in structure, especially as revealed by Darwinian evolution.
Miller interprets the statement in Genesis, that God created humans according to God’s own image and likeness, to mean that our mind is fit to study science and to progress in comprehending the structure of the universe.
While Miller and Haught see contemporary science as liberating us from a mechanistic view of nature, American philosopher William James (1842 – 1910) had struggled with the notion of free will when mechanistic determinism enjoyed supremacy among scientists - before the advent of quantum physics.
The problem took on a further complication in James’s time because most of the thinkers who rejected materialism posited a notion of God as the “Absolute.” This notion included the idea that God is all-knowing and all powerful and therefore controlled everything in the universe, past, present, and future.
James recognized that this notion of reality left no more room for human agency than did the materialistic notion. In an argument that bears on the notion of the Absolute, as well as whole religious argument against evolution, James observed that God, as experienced in religion bears little resemblance to the notion of a designer who controls every aspect of creation and guarantees a neat outcome.
James describes reality as a battle ground on which our salvation is possible but not guaranteed. Facing the evil of the world, we may succumb to the nightmarish view, or even the suicidal view, that our world is evil beyond hope.
But if we take up the challenge and believe in a hopeful outcome, we make the hopeful possibility become a reality. James proposed belief in a God who could take strength from our little efforts. Although the influence of anyone of us is small, together we are integral to any outcome of the world. A world that involves danger and struggle fits our nature better than a world with no hope and even better than a world with no risk. As James sums up his view in his essay “Is Life worth Living?”
If this life be not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of theatricals from which one may withdraw at will. But it feels like a real fight,---as if there were something really wild in the universe which we, with all our idealities and faithfulness, are needed to redeem; but first to redeem our own hearts from atheisms and fears.
For James, the notion of God and humans struggling together to create and redeem a world is more compatible with religion and with human nature than either a hopeless materialism or a smug God who creates effortlessly while we look on as spectators.
Although James’s account of God would not be satisfactory to most classical theologians, it would fit the view of some process theologians. More importantly, whatever value James’s idea has for theology, he does show that a chaotic world, in which suffering, risk, and loss are real, is compatible with historical religion.
The above arguments intend to show that, contrary to naïve theists and atheists, belief in God is compatible with a Darwinian world-view with it slowness and with the intermingling of good and evil. Biblical religion does not portray God as a designer who makes the world easily out of his own substance. Rather, God can be hoped for as a Creator drawing the world out of nothingness, through all-in-division, toward a harmony whose fulfillment is up ahead. Scientists can continue to explore the world and bring it into ever more general laws, whether the scientists believe that all reality is a random arrangement of things in the vastness of time and space, or whether they believe that there is a rational purpose leading the way.
While the former view would seem to call for a philosophy of the absurd, the latter view is more hospitable to the project of science. James contended that theism is a more rational view than any of its opponents. Of course, we cannot assume, without circular argument, that the more rational view is true.
My very first post outlined the opposition between a spiritual worldview in which consciousness precedes nature, and the materialist view in which consciousness is a small and relatively insignificant product of matter.
For the spiritual view, evil presents a major problem. For the materialist view, evil does not constitute a metaphysical problem, but merely consists in our subjective discontent with the way things are. The spiritual view assumes the primacy of what we call ‘the good.” The materialist view sees the good as our subjective approval of some situations. The next post will explore the idea of good in a world shot through with evil.