Re: divine action/creaturely action

From: Uko Zylstra (
Date: Tue Jun 12 2001 - 09:56:43 EDT

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    Uko Zylstra, Ph.D.
    Biology Department
    Calvin College
    tel: (616)957-6499

    >>> "Howard J. Van Till" <> 06/11/01 08:36PM >>>
    Uko writes:

    > In response to Howard and George's questions, I have reservations about the
    > terms "coercive" or "persuasive" in reference to divine action. Both terms
    have a connotation that the world exists independent of God as some
    entity (entities).

    Howard responded:
    It need not be radically independent. Chris Kaiser's term, 'relative
    autonomy' would be OK. The key, I believe, is the idea that the universe has
    an authentic being (nature, character....) that is honored (not violated by
    coercion) by its Creator. My concern to explore this issue is, of course,
    rooted in my frequently stated objections to all forms of episodic
    creationism, which presumes a need for occasional episodes of form-imposing
    (coercive) divine intervention to actualize some (or all) specific physical
    or biotic forms.

    But if the creation is nor "radically Independent" in what way is it dependent?
    Are the laws that govern entities immanent within each entity? In this regard, I
    would rephrase the "key idea" that the universe has authentic being through the
    God's laws that govern the universe. In other words, the authentic character of
    created beings is "guaranteed" by the laws that hold for them. Oak trees are oak
    trees due to the laws for "oakness"; humans are humans due to the laws for

    > The challenge for us is to understand the differentiation of laws that thus
    > account for the diversity of the unfolding, development and continued
    > of created structures. This includes, for example, the recognition that
    > are also biotic laws (as distinct from physical/chemical laws) that also
    > for living things. Living things are distinct from non-living, physical
    > in that they are also subject to biotic laws which account for the life
    > functions that they reveal. An example of such a biotic law would be the
    > for cell division". Cell division is a pattern of a life (biotic) function
    > cells. The cell division is a function of the cell, subject to the biotic
    > for cell growth and division. Although this function of cells orchestrates
    > activities of many molecules (physical entities) enclosed within the cell,
    > cell division itself is not a function of those molecules. Our understanding
    > the roles of these molecules and the numerous cell division genes (cdc
    > that are involved with the cell division process has certainly contributed
    > our understanding of regulatory pathways of the cell division process, but
    > cell division itself is not a function of any one of these genes, but rather
    > the cell as a living entity. The process of cell division is thus governed
    > the laws for the cell, including the "law" for cell division.

    Both Van Till and Harvey want to apply the term emergent properties to my
    assertion for the presence of biotic laws.

    Van Till writes:
    Other philosophically inclined biologists might prefer to account for these
    same phenomena in the language of 'emergent properties,' or, better yet,
    'emergent capabilities.' I might be inclined to place more emphasis on the
    Creation employing its formational capabilities to actualize potentialities
    for form, potentialities that are an integral aspect of its being.

    Harvey writes:
    While it probably isn't what you intend, the above sounds a lot like vitalism.

    A more charitable interpretation is that you are referring to what are often
    called "emergent properties," where the properties of the whole have a
    different character than the sum of the properties of the parts. Like liquid
    or solid water have properties (wetness, for example) that are not just the
    sum of properties of individual water molecules. Nobody disputes that such
    emergent properties exist, but where the properties are a result of normal
    physics and chemistry (as in my water example, and as far as we know in your
    example of cell division), there would not seem to be any point in setting
    aside the laws that describe these properties as a completely separate
    category. To do so makes it seem like some mysterious (vital?) force is
    operating in these cases in addition to normal physical law.

    I see "emergent properties" as an attempt to account for biotic phenomena
    within the framework of a reductionist, physicalist ontology. At most, the
    description, emergent property, merely gives a description of a higher level
    function of an entity that can not be accounted by the properties of the parts
    of the entity. To describe these properties as emergent without linking those
    properties to some distinct governing/ordering principles (laws) makes such
    emergent properties another variant of the "God of the gaps" type of explanation
    which I know Howard has little use for. The analysis of part/whole relationships
    and the connection of hierarchy theory is obviously very critical to this
    discussion. For an expanded analysis of my views on this I refer you to my paper
    "Living things as Hierarchically Organized Structures", Synthese 91: 111-133,
    1992. In this article I use H. Dooyeweerd's theory of enkapsis as a more
    effective way to account for the relationship between levels of organization.
    I find it interesting that reference to biotic laws is seen as a possible form
    of vitalism. For me, the recognition of biotic laws is necessary in order to
    escape from what I would consider to be a form of "physicalism" which does not
    accept any non-material existence. The recognition of biotic laws is simply a
    recognition that living things reveal a mode of function which goes beyond
    physical/chemical modes of function. Such modes of function are guaranteed by
    differentiated modal laws for such functions.

    In a response to Terry Gray VanTill also makes the following comment
    concerning "governance" and :sovereignty":
    These terms are drawn from the royal metaphor; God is pictured as being
    something like a king. But a king does not 'control' each action of his
    subjects. No, the king makes known what actions are expected, and the
    subjects are then accountable for acting in accord with those expressed
    wishes. The king does not micro-manage the action of subjects. The king's
    subjects are treated as persons with their own integrity of being and with a
    sufficient measure of the requisite capabilities needed for appropriate
    action. That being the case, it is fitting that they be held accountable for
    their actions. Control is neither desirable (the king wants obedience, not a
    puppet-like coerced response) nor necessary (obedient behavior -- perhaps in
    response to persuasion??? -- is possible).

    I think this particular royal metaphor may be somewhat applicable to "human
    subjects" which are subject to normative laws as well as the structural biotic
    and physical laws. Normative laws differ from structural laws in that humans
    can choose to disobey normative laws which is not so for structural laws. Thus,
    I am not convinced that this metaphor is applicable to non-human living things.

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