God Sustains and Enlivens by Influx
The Consistency Of Physical Law With Divine Immanence
Physics Department, University of Surrey, Guildford GU2 7XH, U.K.
Published in: Science & Christian Belief, 5 (1993) pp.19-36
Abstract:A model is presented to show how the existence of physical law could be a reasonable consequence of Divine Immanence in the world of natural phenomena. Divine Immanence is seen as the continual production of the principal causes or dispositions which enable created things to act and change. It is argued that this model is physically consistent, philosophically coherent, and theologically sound. 1] of whether God may be said to sustain the world, and, if so, how this may be accomplished in a manner consistent with physical observations.
Physicists have traditionally been suspicious of any intimate involvment of God with the natural world, being for example ``deeply suspicious of how [this] could corrupt the process of scientific enquiry. At what point in the investigation of the evolution of the human eye, for example, will investigators feel free to chicken out, ascribing some parts of the process to natural selection and others to God?'' They might be more inclined to the weaker claim of a ``once and for all God, one who drew up the laws of physics and then left us to it, in the Big Bang perhaps'', as they are reluctant to allow a `God of the gaps' who may have intervened from time to time and disrupted the natural order. For they want to determine those causes of natural things from which effects regularly proceed as described by physical laws. I will be attempting to see if divine involvement can be consistent with these kinds of physical laws.
In philosophy there have been similar preferences for a more abstract or `metaphysical' account of the relation between Divinity and nature, and a reluctance to talk of Divine immanence directly. Confining ourselves to those philosophies of process that seek to describe the real properties and activities of things in nature, the closest these philosophies come to immanence is when they consider God to be the `arche', Principle or Ground underlying all natural changes. These philosophies often mention an immanent reason (not so much the immanent power) that provides the necessary ground for contingent natural events. But although they describe reasons essential to the processes themselves, and not merely in the mind of someone looking from outside, a `ground' or `arche' need not be immanent in the sense of being internal to the actual process. The clock-maker, for example, is not immanent in the clock he has produced. For the Divine to be immanent, it must be within in some sense, and not just something on which something else depends, which could be external.
In theology there has long been a tension between the transcendence and the immanence of God, both of which are asserted by classical theism. To avoid a deism which has only transcendence, to avoid pantheism which has only immanence, and thus to see how theism may be a coherent belief, it is necessary to give some rational account of how God may be both transcendent of and immanent in the world. One common account has been to see God as the `Author, Sustainer, and Finisher' of all natural processes. Thus with thinkers ranging from Aquinas to Descartes, ``the action of divine conservation is construed to be an `extension' of the action of divine creation'', or even essentially the same, but the means of this conservation is rarely explained further. Process Theologies, on the other hand, stress the involvement of God in the world, but seem to lose sight of His Transcendence. Another theological account, equally well established, sees the Divine immanence as the indwelling of God's omnipresent Spirit. This view would seem to express certain basic principles, and I will be taking these up in this paper, but the details of the relationship between the Spirit and natural beings should be made clearer. The obscurity is compounded by increasing uncertainties over the nature of any kind of relationship between mental and physical entities.
Both the philosophical and theological accounts leave uncertain the question of exactly how, in an effective as well as in an abstract sense, the Divine is immanent in nature. Thus, for instance, they do not describe the actual relationship between the immanent Divine and the causal powers determined by physical investigation, and therefore find it difficult to formulate possible replies to the physicist's query above.
Divine Dispositional ImmanenceFor these reasons I wish in this paper to restate an old idea, one that has been only occasionally taken up, and expand it using a modern philosophy of dispositions. This idea is a simple scheme for the relation of Divine and natural powers, and suggests how physical laws might be not only compatible with Divine Immanence in nature, but also a consequence of Immanence. The thesis I wish to defend may be called the hypothesis of `Divine Dispositional Immanence' (DDI for short), and is :
DDI: The dispositions of an object are those derivatives of Divine Power that accord with what is actual about that object.Here, `actuality' is defined as that which is not constituted by capacities, potentialities and/or dispositions of any kind. Exactly what is actual about a natural object depends on a detailed physics, and will be different according to Newtonian and quantum mechanics (see ref. ). Which actualities then correspond to which dispositions is a subject for further investigation, as is whether this is a strict one-to-one correspondence.
To explain what the DDI thesis means, consider two analogies. God provides life as the sun shines on the earth. The sun shining on the earth is constant, but the energy received by the earth varies by days and seasons. We know, however, that this variation is according to the earth's distance and orientation: according to something actual about the earth, not because of variations in the sun. A second analogy is that God provides life as we are provided with food. Consider the way animals consume food in order to live. What an animal is capable of doing after eating depends on its digestive system and how it has assimilated the food. Different species will respond quite differently to the same food, according to how they are constituted. (These analogies are discussed further in section 2.5.)
If on first sight the hypothesis seems too far-fetched or implausible, remember that it is designed to reproduce just those kinds of effects we usually see in the world around us. Remember too that I have not specified what in fact is `actual', so strictly speaking the thesis has `materialistic', `dualistic' and `idealistic' versions, depending on whether only matter is actual, or both matter and mind, or mind only. Thus, the DDI thesis defines a general framework in which these theories of nature can be discussed within a theistic context. One consequence of Immanence should be to make all things (mind and/or matter) behave as if they were active from themselves, as that is the way they appear to us. We might rightly be wary of a God with absolute and arbitrary power to act under any pretext whatsoever: the precise content of the DDI thesis is that, on the contrary, God acts in a reasonable and orderly fashion compatible with (some kind of) natural regularities.
This paper may be regarded as an exercise in the Theology of Nature, but of a kind that is hypothetico-deductive, not inductive. That is, we postulate an explanatory hypothesis such as the DDI thesis, and follow its consequences to see how well they agree with what we know already. The hypothesis can only be entertained, however, if expressed coherently, and considered logically possible. To that end, section 2 presents philosophical analyses of four constituent concepts used in the DDI thesis. Only if these ideas are not incoherent can the DDI thesis be reasonably considered. The thesis must also be shown to be consistent with physics, as physics is an existing attempt to relate the actual forms of natural objects to their dispositions and potentialities.
Finally, the DDI thesis will be considered within the framework of a theistic theology that might be considered already well established. Since the DDI thesis is a statement of what God does, and may be a restriction on arbitrary omnipotence, the thesis will have to be shown to be theologically reasonable. We should also see if it is preferable to occasionalism, whereby God is the direct and only cause of natural events, and to concurrentism, whereby God is a general cause which must cooperate with pre-existing natural powers. That is, we must show that the DDI thesis describes what would be done by God as He is understood in the western tradition, and is not opposed by other attributes the tradition believes essential to the Divine. The demonstration will be based on the argument that God, if Life Itself, cannot create natural beings that both are distinct from Him, and live from themselves (i.e. that are their own dispositions to act). What can be done is to provide the life of these beings for them to live as if from themselves. This is what appears to happen, although in this paper I will be discussing only natural dispositions, and not looking at the full range of `life'.10], (2) that it is coherent to talk of `dispositions according to what is actual', (3) that meaning can be given to the term `derivative disposition', and (4) that we have a true immanence if we adopt the DDI thesis. Finally there is the question of the validity of the metaphors of `providing', `receiving' and `retaining' dispositions.
Explanations therefore start with the meaning of the term `disposition', and the observation that dispositional properties can never be reduced to entirely static or formal structural properties. Their explanation must always involve some irreducibly `causal' feature of some kind: some dynamic (rather than static) property.11]. The power of an acid to dissolve a metal, for example, is a dispositional property. It says what would happen if certain circumstances occurred, namely that the acid was put in contact with the metal at a suitable temperature. The electric and gravitational potentials are measures of capacities to exert forces, should a suitable test particle be present. We normally believe the the dissolving powers of acid and the potentials of electric charges are still present even if metals or test particles are not present, and then seek to explain these dispositional properties in terms of some feature of the object (acid or electric charge) that gives rise to them.
We must note, however, that this explanation of dispositional properties only explains or reduces them to other dispositions, and not to entirely static or structural properties. For suppose that the exact shape and size of a pencil were known, along with all the shapes and sizes of all its atomic parts, but no information about the dispositions of these parts. We would still know nothing about how the pencil would change with time or on interactions. In fact, if it and its parts had no dispositional properties, as Hume wants to argue, then we have his conclusion that any actions or changes (apart perhaps from uniform motion) would be entirely inexplicable: there would be nothing about the pencil that could lead to these changes rather than any others. This categorical irreducibility of dispositions was seen clearly by Aristotle and Leibniz, and has been explained at some length recently by Leclerc, Taylor, Mellor, Harre & Madden, and Emmet. According to Shoemaker, the continued identity of objects also depends on their causal properties. There seems no way to avoid the conclusion that something like dispositions are a fundamental part of any physical explanation. Therefore, for the purposes of this paper, I take the reality of dispositional properties to be philosophically plausible, even though their exact features are not deducible a priori, and must be the subject of empirical (scientific) investigations.9].
In order to determine the overall consistency of the DDI thesis with physics, we note that some similar kind of thesis is necessary if physics is to contain not only a phenomenological description of causes, but also a mathematical foundation that determines causes according to actualities. We conclude that the DDI thesis is consistent with Newtonian physics if `according to what is actual' is taken to mean `according to the spatial shape and configuration of the atomic particles'. It can also be consistent with quantum mechanics if `actuality' means `the quantum numbers of the most elementary particles, and also the definite past events that determine the current quantum state'.
A distinction is being made between the `Principal Cause' (that disposition which operates), and the `Instrumental Cause' (that circumstance by means of which dispositions operate). Principal causes operate according to instrumental causes. Both are necessary for any action, for example, when a stone is let fall: the principal cause is the earth's gravitational attraction, and the instrumental cause is our action of letting go. Its hitting the ground is thus caused by our letting go, but only as an instrumental cause. Many common uses of `cause' refer to instrumental causes rather than principal causes, as it is only in the instrumental sense that events can be said to be causes. The distinction between principal and instrumental causes is important, as the DDI thesis can be regarded as the claim that God is the original principal cause of all events. Principal causes cannot operate without suitable conditions and actual circumstances (i.e. without suitable instrumental causes), and the DDI thesis states simply that the selection of which principal causes can operate must depend on which instrumental causes are actually present.
Derivative dispositions arise when the accomplishment of a given disposition requires the operation of successive steps of kinds different from the overall step. The original disposition on its operation therefore generates from itself the `derived dispositions' for the intermediate steps, which are means to the original end. An original `disposition to learn', for example, can generate the derived `disposition to read books', which can generate further `dispositions to search for books'. These dispositions would then generate dispositions to move one's body, which in turn lead ultimately to one's limbs having (physical) dispositions to move. These successively generated dispositions are all derived from the original disposition to learn, according to the specific situations.
That such derivative dispositions can be formed means the original disposition was not a simple disposition, but had considerable complexity in its first appearance. However, the `disposition to search for a book' is not strictly a component of a `disposition to learn', in the sense of being always an actual part of that disposition, as it is only derived in appropriate circumstances. For this reason we talk of `derived' rather than `component' dispositions, as the `disposition to learn' is not simply the mere aggregate of all the dispositions that can be derived from it, just as any disposition or cause is not merely an aggregate of all its possible effects. Rather, the original disposition is more like a `higher order' disposition to generate its derived dispositions according to circumstances. Just as the effects of a disposition are not contained within it, but are generated from it according to circumstances, so derived dispositions are not contained within a higher-order disposition, but are generated from it according to circumstances.
The detailed selection of derived dispositions may be quite complicated in general, as it depends not only on the initial state prior to any of the successive steps, but also on each individual kind of the original disposition. I claim however that (on reflection) we all can be made aware of some of the successive derivations in our dispositions to act, as we select and act out sequences of means to ends.
If we adopt the DDI thesis, the general sequence of derivative dispositions is ultimately a consequence of the complexity of Divine Omnipotence. We should not be surprised by the possibility of such complexity: belief that God is One should not mean that He is always a bare and simple unity, or that He is incapable of responding to complex situations in appropriate ways.19].
Although the relation between God and nature is very close, with God being immanent in the very activity of nature, their exact relation is more like `being adjacent' than `being of one continuous substance'. This is because, strictly speaking, dispositions and events are quite different entities, even though they are spatiotemporally continuous in their operation, and dispositions are within and give rise to all events. If we take nature itself as the collection of what is actual in the world, then it is only by the DDI thesis that this nature is `that which has its source of change within itself'. Sometimes however the dispositions themselves are regarded not only as within nature, but also as essentially natural. Certainly a natural object could not persist without its dispositions, so they are essential in that sense, but that fact does not necessarily mean that they are part of Nature as distinct from the Divine. Given the DDI thesis, a great many dispositions that are often called natural are in fact derivative from God. We may reflect that if God is Immanent in the world, then we would expect Immanence to be for some purpose essential to the operation of nature, and we should not be surprised if the investigations of physics have unwittingly described some of the modes of Divine operation in the world.
Having seen how God can be Immanent within nature, we must now check that this does not impair His Transcendence. This will be further discussed in section 3.4, but we establish some preliminary points here. First, Immanence should not be taken to mean that the Divine is only in natural things, as then God would not also be Transcendent, only that He is at least in nature.
Secondly, we must also see whether the Divine need change Itself essentially to keep track of a changing nature (as Process Theologies seem to imply), given that the Divine Omnipotence is present variously in many different successive changes in the world. It would appear that since objects can have changing dispositions, and since they move around in the world, the Divine would have to continually adjust Itself in response, and we would not have a true Transcendence. The problem is resolved when we note that by the DDI thesis, those changing dispositions must result from changing actualities. Similarly, any moving around in the world must be via a sequence of different actual positions. If we take the Divine Omnipotence Itself to be something like an original capacity to derive dispositions according to what is actual at each time, then this original capacity need not be changed as the world changes. Although the Divine acts differently at successive times, the Divine capacities to act need not change themselves to do so, as all the differences can be attributed to how actualities are different at each successive time. The original Divine Omnipotence, although present in and the first principal cause of every natural change, is thus in an important sense completely Transcendent of the changing nature.
The dispositions derivative from the Divine, however, are subsequent principal causes, and only partially transcendent of natural objects. They are transcendent in the senses that (1) they are the direct result of Divine action, and (2) they are the principal causes (dispositions) rather than instrumental causes (previous effects) of all actual change in the world, and are thus the source of those changes. They are not completely transcendent, however, in that they themselves change as the world changes. But because they are derivative rather than component dispositions, this does not mean that the Divine Itself changes.
The first analogy portrays what could be meant by something having dispositions `according to its actuality', and is an analogy with the reception of heat and light of the sun by parts of the earth. In this process, with days and seasons etc., there is a great variety of reception by all the different geographical regions, but (since Copernicus) this is not to be attributed to variability in the sun itself. Rather, the sun is (or may be) constant, but all the variation is in the earth, its parts themselves, and in their circumstances with respect to the sun. The earth thus receives heat and light `according to its (static) actuality'. If furthermore the name `the sun' can include all the heat and light from it, then there is a sense in which the sun `provides' the earth with energy by being `immanent' in the earth's atmosphere.
Another analogy for the `reception' of life according to actual form is the consumption of food and drink by living organisms. Here, quite clearly, the organisms receive what is necessary for their life, and they only receive it according to how their form allows them to digest the different kinds of foods etc. The same food may be received quite differently by different organisms, according to their actual forms.
One essential part of the DDI thesis is that natural beings have their dispositions provided for them, but, notwithstanding this, that they can act `as if' from themselves in an autonomous manner. Although this makes little difference to the behaviour of atoms and electrons, it is important for living creatures. We do not have an occasionalism then, with the Divine `living through' a person. We do not have, for example, people having no influence on the time of their actions, and thus no control as agents should control their behaviour. For a living being to have its dispositions provided properly, it must be able to `retain' them, so that it can freely use them when it sees fit. Only in this way can we have any autonomy of created beings in the face of the seeming dominance of Divine Immanence. The freedom that creatures can have is the freedom to act as they want, at times that they choose, with their actions appearing both to themselves and to others to be as if from their own nature.
The analogy of food consumption is again relevant here. Consumed food does not act immediately, but is stored against future use. We therefore do not say that the food is `living through us', but that we have our life provided (in some sense) by the food. One could argue that when we act it is really the food operating, and indeed potential energy from the food is the `principal cause' of our action. However, the energy only acts by means of `instrumental causes': our decision to act, for example, and suitable circumstances for that action. The DDI thesis has the Divine as the original Principal Cause of natural processes, and thus, using our analogy, continually `feeding' the world with `energy' and powers, in order to keep it going.
The main point to note in this section is that there is a functional similarity between the processes of `providing', `receiving' and `retaining' dispositions, and the processes of providing, receiving and retaining material things. This correspondence is a rich source of metaphors for describing Divine Immanence, but I hope to have shown in this paper that literal and non-metaphorical descriptions are also available.24].
It is important here to remember also the distinction between `component' and `derived' dispositions as presented in section 2.3. I am not considering the thesis that the Divine Life is composed or consists of natural dispositions, only that, since the Divine may have to use such dispositions in certain circumstances, God should be able to generate these `derived dispositions' where appropriate.
The next step is to see that such a God is logically unable to make distinct beings have life in themselves. For if there were any life itself in created things, this would be Life Itself and hence continuous with God, and that which is continuous with God is God. This is a logical consequence of God being all Life Itself, and thus cannot be regarded as a limitation of Divine Omnipotence.
Of course, this does not mean that it is a priori inconceivable to talk of natural things having life itself as one of their properties, and thus acting from themselves. It is only that if there is a God who is life itself, then anything distinct from him does not in fact have such a life. The validity of this inference was seen by Hume: ``By supposing it [the present material world] to contain the principle of its order within itself, we really assert it to be God''.
God's provision of our life is logically possible, as I have attempted to show in section 2 that there are no incoherencies which render it impossible, and thus could be within the range of His omnipotence. The logical consequence of God being life itself is thus that all our life must be provided by him, and that there is no life, of any kind, apart from him (cf. Christian belief in John 15.5 ``Without me you can do nothing'', and John 3.27 ``A man can receive nothing, except it be given him from heaven''). Note that this means it is an error to think we live entirely from ourselves, from our own life, though perhaps an error easy to make as it certainly appears `as if' that were the case.
The hypothesis of Divine Dispositional Immanence is that God does provide life, and that the variability of the reception is according to some actual feature of the recipient. Some such process as this seems to be implied by the theological doctrine of life according to works (Matthew 16.27: ``He shall reward every man according to his works'', and in many other places). The `reward' here could be `life from God', and this is an instance of the DDI thesis, if this `life' is provided `according to what one actually does'. In fact, it is amusing to note that this is more in agreement with the quantum mechanical version of the DDI thesis, than with the Newtonian version. For in quantum theory too, the dispositional state (the wave function) is given according to past events: the `life' of a quantum object is `rewarded' according to its `works', not according to its spatial shape. Note that in this overall theory, the `according to' relation is used in (at least) two stages: dispositional `life' is first provided according to spatial form and/or past events, then these dispositions act according to circumstances to produce new actual events. It is these definite historical events which are the final effects, and are what is terminal and permanent with respect to Divine Power.
As a preliminary step, I use the `free will' defence: even with the DDI thesis, God is not `acting through' the world, but gives all natural beings (whatever their kind) freedom and life to act as they wish. As Christian belief has in Matthew 5.45, ``he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends his rain on the just and the unjust''. Of course, this does not mean that `the just and the unjust' are treated identically and have the same sets of dispositions and intentions. Rather, as they will perform different acts and have different actual forms, by the DDI principle they will have different dispositions, and then lead the different lives of their choice. Just because He sustains the consequences of many actions does not mean that He wants them to happen that way, only that He seems to prefer continued existence of people concerned, rather than their non-existence.
We may also ask how certain beings have dispositions which tend to act contrary to the Divine intentions, given that all dispositions derive from the Divine, and given that there are no evil or contrary intentions in the Divine Life. We certainly agree that a benevolent God would permit certain contrary intentions, but wonder how these could ever persist in a universe governed by the DDI principle. One may wonder for example how selfish dispositions could be sustained, when there is no selfishness in God. I believe that the answer lies in seeing that certain dispositions, to look after oneself for example, have a good use in certain contexts, and may well be derivable from the Divine Life at certain stages. They only perform good uses, however, when they are coordinated and governed by prior derivative dispositions, such as intentions to be useful to others. This is the way they may be linked in the Divine Life, but it is possible that some persons may be such that they can only `receive' the dispositions to look after oneself, and not the prior dispositions that are supposed to govern them. If these persons are still to live, then they can only be alive with a restricted fragment of the Divine Life, a fragment that in this case will act with regard to one person only. This fragment by itself, and derivatives from it in its `uncoordinated' state, may well be disposed contrary to the original Divine intentions. These subsequent contrary derivatives are only indirectly generated from the Divine Life, via the continued existence of the persons concerned. The Divine benevolence is maintained, provided we do not forget that these contrary dispositions are derived via the (good) disposition to give (some kind of) life to all persons, and that they are not a permanent component of the original Divine.18,22,32]). In any case, since God is `God of heaven and earth', I can see no objection to extremely simple derivatives of His power being the physical dispositions: ``All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth'' (Matthew 28.18). 30]. As discussed in section 2.4, there is no identity between the categories of dispositions and of events, even though dispositions are within and give rise to all events. Nature itself must be taken to be the collection of finite actualities in the world, and it is only by the DDI thesis that this nature is that which has its source of change within itself. As long as we distinguish these sets of events from their received dispositions `within', then there is no difficulty. Problems only arise when dispositions themselves are regarded not only `as if' natural, but also essentially natural. As remarked above, this is a mistake easily made, for, given the DDI thesis, a great deal of what is called natural is in fact continually derivative from God. 31] Why should He not do what He likes with His creation, giving as much life as He pleases to any or all beings, irrespective of their actual form, spatial shape, or past deeds? Apart from the question of whether it is `fair' to treat different beings in such a erratic manner, to raise this objection is to ask the long-standing question of what it is (if anything) that humans in their present condition can do to receive God's `reward'. For if there is nothing they can do, then any reward or reception must in the end be arbitrary. I think it might be generally agreed that faith without works is dead, and this dependence on works could be in accordance with the DDI thesis as suggested above, with `what is actual' being the historical events actually performed by a being. 33] concerning the relation of Divine and natural causations. Aquinas has followed Aristotle in asserting that physical objects have their own powers, and that God, in his sustaining of the world, cooperates with these powers. al-Ghazali and later Malebranche, however, held that all natural powers are really God acting, so that He is the only cause of natural processes. Previous natural events are only the occasion for God acting, hence the name occasionalism.
The DDI thesis lies part way between these two views. According to it, the natural powers of an object do arise on the occasion of its past events. But then these are the powers of the object, which function in an Aristotelean fashion as the nature of that object, and which science can investigate. By having in this manner two (or more) stages between the Divine source and actual events, a initial occasionalism can give rise to physical objects having real natures which can act as true causes.
It should be clear that the manner of Immanence proposed in this paper is distinct from a deism in which God `provides the laws' of natural operation, and then either leaves the world to proceed independently, or occasionally interferes in its operation. It is also more specific than saying that God is the `metaphysical principle' that is presupposed by all natural existences and events, as by the present hypothesis God is being given a `more active role'. This `active role' however is such that it almost always appears as if persons and natural objects freely acted from themselves.
In conclusion, I hope to have shown that no `concession to irrationality' is needed to understand the possibility of Divine Immanence, and of its consistency with physical laws.
Physics Department, University of Surrey, Guildford GU2 5XH, U.K., Oct 1992.