Tuesday, February 21, 2012

On "Where the Conflict Really Lies" (Pt. 6)

[Series explanation and index here.]

Chapter Three

"No Miracles" Zone

Shifting away from the discussion of evolution, Plantinga next addresses claims that modern people can't go around thinking it's possible for a supernatural God to act in the natural world (how quaint!). I wasn't satisfied with Plantinga's example, so I went and found this gem from Michael Martin:
"Consider science. It presupposes the uniformity of nature: that natural laws govern the world and that there are no violations of such laws. However, Christianity presupposes that there are miracles in which natural laws are violated. Since to make sense of science one must assume that there are no miracles, one must further assume that Christianity is false. To put this in a different way: Miracles by definition are violations of laws of nature that can only be explained by God's intervention. Yet science assumes that insofar as an event as an explanation at all, it has a scientific explanation--one that does not presuppose God. Thus, doing, science assumes that the Christian world view is false."1
Put another way, there's something wrong with a person who helps herself to scientific explanations and still wants to appeal to miracles at times. Notice how this goes beyond the more typical claim that scientific explanations must be natural explanations; you can't commit adultery by entertaining supernatural explanations on the side and expect science to let you back in the house.

Plantinga responds by characterizing scientific laws as descriptions of "how things go when the universe is causally closed, subject to no outside causal influence. They 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."2 We can imagine a little footnote anytime a scientifically discovered regularity is mentioned:
 * Valid when God isn't messing with nature.
I'm not quite happy with this philosophy of science, but I have to admit it's a pretty standard way of handling the problem.

Everything... All the Time

On Plantinga's view of classical theism, God does a lot more than occasionally intervene. God continually and actively sustains the natural world.
"[A]part from that sustaining, supporting activity, the world would simply fail to exist. Some, including Thomas Aquinas, go even further: every causal transaction that takes place is such that God performs a special act of concurring with it; without that divine concurrence, no causal transaction could take place." 3
This changes the footnote for scientific discoveries from "valid when God isn't messing with nature" to "valid when God is messing with nature in his more usual ways." Continual divine activity is what makes the natural world function at all.

Whatever the metaphysical situation may be, I view scientific laws as descriptions of how things go, as revealed by scientific method. Laws don't mention God's sustaining power or God's special interventions because these are "pluralities" scientists have not needed in order to describe the phenomena open to public view. If you want to believe God is behind Newton's law of gravitation, that's fine with me. But let's not put a metaphysical footnote on it.

Chapter Four

Masters of the Universe

Before the twentieth century, it was common to picture the universe as a whole behaving like it does at roughly human scales and human speeds. If, like Laplace's demon, you could know the current state of the clockwork universe, then — in theory — you could calculate future events perfectly. Or you could calculate backwards to reveal all the details of the past. Relativity and quantum physics made things more complicated, or at any rate more interesting.

For people of certain philosophical temperaments, the problem of divine action in the world remains a concern. Plantinga points out the Divine Action Project as a recent example.
"It would be fair to say, I think, that the main problem for the project is to find an account of divine action in the world—action beyond creation and conservation—that doesn’t involve God’s intervening in the world."4
Plantinga himself has no issue with the idea of God sometimes taking special action that disrupts the usual operation of the world, but he offers "a way around this problem" for those who do consider it a problem. On the Ghirardi–Rimini–Weber view of quantum physics, wave function collapses can happen spontaneously. As far as nature is concerned, something is going to happen...but what exactly will happen is left open. Plantinga offers a divine collapse-causation (DCC) model where God is deciding how things turn out when wave functions collapse.
"Furthermore, if, as one assumes, the macroscopic physical world supervenes on the microscopic, God could thus control what happens at the macroscopic level by causing the right microscopic collapse-outcomes. In this way God can exercise providential guidance over cosmic history; he might in this way guide the course of evolutionary history by causing the right mutations to arise at the right time and preserving the forms of life that lead to the results he intends. In this way he might also guide human history. He could do this without in any way 'violating' the created natures of the things he has created."5
He goes on to suggest at least some of the Bible's miracles could be chalked up to extremely unlikely outcomes of quantum physics. Even more exciting: maybe human beings possess this same special ability as part of our "image of God"! Our non-physical minds might be communicating our free choices to our brains. "Here we see a pleasing unity of divine and human free action, as well as a more specific suggestion as to what mechanism these actions actually involve."6

Before Christians get too carried away by this theological breakthrough, Plantinga has some words of caution:
"The sensible religious believer is not obliged to trim her sails to the current scientific breeze on this topic, revising her belief on the topic every time science changes its mind; if the most satisfactory Christian (or theistic) theology endorses the idea that the universe did indeed have a beginning, the believer has a perfect right to accept that thought. Something similar goes for the Christian believer and special divine action.
But where Christian or theistic belief and current science can fit nicely together, as with DCC, so much the better; and if one of the current versions of QM fits better with such belief than the others, that’s a perfectly proper reason to accept that version."7
Isn't accepting DCC a case of being significantly more flighty than keeping up with mainstream science? This seems like picking through oddball versions of periphery scientific suggestions for a way to make peace with a fairly obscure theology of not-intervening-when-intervening.

1. From Michael Martin's paper "The Transcendental Argument for the Nonexistence of God" which sparked a lively debate with John M. Frame. This paper is a kind of parody, so I'm not sure Martin would assert the same ideas in another context.
2. Plantinga, A. (2011). Where the conflict really lies: Science, religion, and naturalism [Kindle Edition]. New York, New York: Oxford University Press. p. 79
3. ibid. p. 67
4. ibid. p. 97 
5. ibid. p. 116
6. ibid. p. 120 
7. ibid. p. 121

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