Re: [asa] an Archimedean point in theology?

From: George Murphy <>
Date: Mon May 18 2009 - 10:51:32 EDT

I have to be brief here. I agree that it's hard to specify what it would mean to say that God "violates the laws of physics." I don't think it's impossible, but not easy. But while this is an interesting question for philosophers of science, I don't think it's a terribly important theological issue because I don't think there's any strong reason to think that God does "violate the laws of physics" (whatever that means) - at least the true laws, in distinction from our approximations.


  ----- Original Message -----
  From: Schwarzwald
  Sent: Monday, May 18, 2009 6:30 AM
  Subject: Re: [asa] an Archimedean point in theology?


  Thanks for the reply.

  See, I actually agree with Alexander here to a large degree. But there's still some confusion for me.

  You say that there's a difference between the 'true mathematical pattern', and the laws. Meaning (I take it) that the 'laws' are descriptions of what we see, the best we can generalize to and test. And you say there's a pattern - I can get behind that. I tend to think of God's relation to creation as one of (ultimate) programmer to program, even if that vastly oversimplifies things.

  Here's where the difficulty comes in. You're aware of things that "can happen, but are tremendously unlikely" from a statistical point of view. But between those possibilities, the recognition that our understanding of nature is not THE understanding of nature (I would assume because A: Our laws approximate, but do not perfectly accurately describe, the 'pattern' (And it's possible, via Godel, a complete description is unavailable) and B: Leave out God).. doesn't this add up to saying that God, working through nature, really has no limits to speak of?

  Mind you, I realize that this gets into a very dodgy and grey area. I think the modern perspective of what constitutes a 'miracle' is sorely lacking and misunderstood. Again, if horses or brains popping into existence out of 'nothing' / quantum background, or baseballs passing through solid brick walls, is not forbidden by our understanding of nature but merely very unlikely - and that unlikelihood strictly assumes the lack of an intervening agent - then miracles aren't really "unnatural" or even a suspension of the laws of nature. Or at least, they apparently don't have to be in order to be full-blooded miracles.

  On Sun, May 17, 2009 at 7:56 PM, George Murphy <> wrote:

    Schwarzwald -

    Moorad beat me to a major part of the answer, which is that we have to distinguish between the true mathematical pattern of creation, to which our laws of physics approximate, & those laws themselves. We might find phenomena that violate our present laws of physics - e.g., conservation of energy. If a scattering event at CERN started out with a total energy, including all forms we know of, of 1 GeV & ended with 2GeV then it would seem that the law of energy conservation had been violated. But physicists would immediately start looking for some other form of energy that made up the balance. That's happened repeatedly in history. E.g., it took ~ 30 years from the observation of apparent violations of conservation laws in beta decay before the neutrino was discovered - though it was proposed a lot earlier.

    If scientists kept looking for where the extra energy went (or missing energy came from) & didn't find it then we might have to conclude that our energy conservation law was only an approximation. OTOH if there were an anomaly in only one experiment & no error could be found, it might be plausible to say that energy conservation held on all occasions - except that one. In a sense that event would have been a miracle.

    Now in speaking of the "true mathematical pattern of creation" I'm of course meaning that there is such a thing - & I'm enough of a Platonist to do just that. & when I speak of God "violating" the laws of nature I mean doing something that that pattern doesn't allow. As we've discussed here, Goedel's theorem seems to suggest that such a pattern couldn't explain all events - that there are some questions which are "undecideable.". Whether or not we would want to call events that couldn't be explained "violations" is debateable though.

    To be clear, when I said that God doesn't "violate the laws of physics" - in the sense explained here - I meant that they aren't violated in the type of things I discussed there - i.e., God making a choice among several things that quantum &/or chaos theory would allow. I didn't mean that God could never violate the basic math pattern of the world.

    The examples you spoke of - water freezing on a stove or a baseball going through a wall - would be events allowed by, respectively, classical statistical mechanics or quantum theory, but of very low probability. We observe such events on much smaller scales - e.g., an alphaparticle tunneling out of a U-235 nucleus. Even there the probability is very low. An alpha oscillates collides with the potential barrier that confines it about 10^21 times a second & it takes on the average about 10^17 sec for it too escape, so the transmission probability per collision is about 10^(-38).


    ----- Original Message ----- From: "Alexanian, Moorad" <>
    To: "Schwarzwald" <>; <>
    Sent: Sunday, May 17, 2009 7:19 PM
    Subject: RE: [asa] an Archimedean point in theology?

      One must be clear what one means by “the laws of physics.” If what one means are our mental constructs of the workings of Nature, I ask you how can Got violate our mental constructs. God upholds the creation, that which is truly real, and as such is not bound by our models of Nature. It is very difficult for humans to know truly how God interacts with His creation.
      From: [] On Behalf Of Schwarzwald []
      Sent: Sunday, May 17, 2009 5:51 PM
      Subject: Re: [asa] an Archimedean point in theology?

      Heya George,

      I'm enjoying reading this exchange between you and Cameron. One question jumps out to me, however, and I think it's important.

      You say "If the weather person says there's only a 10% chance of rain & it rains that day because God answered someone's prayer for rain, the person of faith may say "God answered prayer" & the atheist may say "You got lucky." God does not "violate the laws of physics.""

      My question is this: How does one "violate the laws of physics"? I ask that question seriously. For instance I remember Roger Penrose giving the explanation for just how unlikely he believes fine tuning to be and using illustrations about horses spontaneously forming and 'popping into existence'. I've seen other explanations of quantum concepts with illustrations about how it's possible to put a pot of water on a stove and the contents freeze, or throwing a baseball at a solid brick wall and it ends up on the other side of the wall. And then there's the idea of Boltzmann brains, self-aware entities that are assembled due to quantum fluctuations, etc.

      My understanding - someone, please correct me if I'm wrong - is that none of these examples 'violate the laws of physics'. Thanks to our knowledge of the quantum world, they are all "physically possible" - they simply are tremendously, unbelievably unlikely. Keep in mind that one unspoken assumption at work in their being unlikely is that there is no agent around who can bring them about. What's more, this problem is compounded by our not having access to a complete physical theory - so there are holes in our understanding of what does or does not "violate the laws of physics".

      Again, maybe I'm missing something here. But it seems like a restriction where God is A) Active in the world, yet B) Works with and does not violate the laws of physics amounts to a God with next to no restrictions. I'm not complaining about that, mind you. I'm just trying to unpack the statement to see what limits, if any, you see God as having.

      On Sun, May 17, 2009 at 5:18 PM, George Murphy <<>> wrote:
      OK, let me be more explicit.

      In traditional language, God cooperates with creatures, First Cause with second causes, analogically, worker with tool. That is true of everything that happens in the world, not just biological evolution, & in that sense God is "omnipotent." In that cooperation God acts (at least in the vast majority of cases) in accord with the natural capacities of creatures - which is to say, in accord with the basic mathematical pattern of the world. (That pattern, itself God's creation, is what we approximate by our laws of physics.) I.e., God acts kenotically.

      Chaos & quantum theories say that there is some looseness in the connection between events, so that even within the constraint of kenosis God is not locked into a single course of action. God therefore has some fredom to act in ways that will bring about desired outcomes in such situations and in fact does make use of that freedom to bring about particular results - e.g., to answer prayer or to direct the course of a particular branch of evolutionary history. It is not possible scientifically to discern divine action in these cases because the outcome that is observed is just as consistent with the laws of physics as some other outcomes. If the weather person says there's only a 10% chance of rain & it rains that day because God answered someone's prayer for rain, the person of faith may say "God answered prayer" & the atheist may say "You got lucky." God does not "violate the laws of physics."

      So yes, I think that God does act to direct evolution in particular ways.

      More precise that that I am not going to be at this point because I think there are some technical difficulties, both scientific and theological. I already referred in another post to ambiguities about the idea that God acts as "the determiner of indeterminancies." In addition, the connection between quantum theory & chaos remains obscure. & it's not clear how much special guidance evolution needs to produce humanity. (But reiterating just to be clear - God is active throughout evolution even if no special guidance is needed - e.g., if the eventual appearance of intelligent bipeds were somehow inherent in the process.)

      If IDers want to shake my hand for saying that, great. But I know that some - & some of the more vocal - won't.

      ----- Original Message -----
      From: "Cameron Wybrow" <<>>
      To: "asa" <<>>
      Sent: Sunday, May 17, 2009 8:26 AM
      Subject: Re: [asa] an Archimedean point in theology?


        Thanks for your comments. Three quick points:

        1. Yes, George has said "God is active throughout the evolutionary process,
        acting with the chemical, environmental &c interactions that are involved."
        The philosopher in me wants to know what "acting with" means. Does it mean,
        for example, that everything we see in evolution is the resultant, so to
        speak, of two different vectors -- the vector of chemical etc. interactions
        PLUS the vector of God's activity? That sounds as if God is steadily
        guiding nature in chosen directions, which would be completely amenable to
        my viewpoint regarding evolution. But it is not clear that this is what
        George means, because he ALSO says: "Moreover, God limits divine action to
        what can be accomplished *through those processes*" [emphasis added]. Does
        "those processes" refer to what I have just called the resultant, i.e., the
        chemical etc. interactions PLUS the activity of God, or just to the chemical
        etc. interactions as they would be WITHOUT the activity of God? George's
        syntax alone does not make this clear. On this point, George has in past
        posts (which I've read in the archives) spoken of the requirement in science
        to "attribute nothing to the gods", and has used the phrase "as if God were
        not given", which could suggest that for scientists the chemical
        interactions etc. should be regarded as quite capable of explaining
        evolutionary activity even if no divine activity were involved -- a
        proposition I would wholeheartedly dispute (and which I think some other TEs
        here might well dispute).

        2. George also writes: "Even with that limitation, the freedom that is
        inherent in natural processes because of quantum & chaos theories provides
        scope for God's "special providence" and divine governance." What does
        "provides scope for" mean? Does it mean that George believes (as Ted Davis
        and Russell apparently believe) that God *does in fact* guide the
        evolutionary process through acts of will which are concealed by the fact of
        quantum indeterminacy? (If he believes that, and will say so directly, many
        ID people might well get up and walk across the room to shake his hand.) Or
        does it mean only that quantum indeterminacy *allows for* such governance,
        but that George has no inclination one way or the other whether God in fact
        exercises such governance in the case of the evolutionary process? In
        short, it is not clear to me *what* George conceives God to be doing (other
        than sustaining the laws of nature) in the everyday microevolutionary
        process, let alone whether he conceives of God as doing anything (beyond
        sustaining the laws of nature) in, say, the origin of life, or the Cambrian
        explosion, or the emergence of man. His language is very scholarly and very
        careful, yet also very unclear, because it leaves so many options open that
        it does not clearly assert anything. When one compares it with the language
        of Darwin, or of Dawkins, or of Behe, all of whom clearly assert something
        about nature, it appears very difficult to assess. Whether this lack of
        direct assertion about how evolution works is inherent in the very nature of
        TE, I cannot say, but I have found analogous theoretical unclarity in other
        TE writers, e.g., Ken Miller. And, given that one of the main criticisms
        that TE people make about ID is that it does not offer a "satisfactory
        theory of divine action", lack of clarity on this question (what exactly God
        *does* in evolution) does not exactly put TE in a strong position to

        3. Finally, I always find it frustrating when people in a discussion group
        refer to their books for an explanation of their views. If it were a case
        of providing more examples or detailed references, I could understand this,
        but I don't see why someone should have to go chasing after a book to get
        the essential argument, including the essential definitions used. For one
        thing, some of us here have neither salaries nor professionals' pensions,
        and cannot just go out and purchase books that are forty or fifty dollars
        apiece, just to get clarification regarding a point in an e-mail discussion.
        If I did that every time someone on the internet recommended a book to me to
        supplement an incomplete or unclear argument, I would be spending thousands
        a year on books. Second, some of us don't live in university towns and
        don't have easy access to university libraries, and the sort of book that
        gets recommended here is not the sort that are generally found in a local,
        small-town library. I therefore greatly prefer it when people define their
        terms precisely afresh and make their argument (in skeletal terms) afresh.
        Once this is done, I don't object to book references, for those with the
        wealth and the time to pursue a subject in greater detail.


        ----- Original Message -----
        From: "Dave Wallace" <<>>
        Cc: "asa" <<>>
        Sent: Sunday, May 17, 2009 1:34 AM
        Subject: Re: [asa] an Archimedean point in theology?

          Cameron wrote:

            .... [I would include you in this group, because you have sometimes said
            similar things, though I am unsure, because you keep talking about God
            acting wholly "within the capacities of creatures" in a way that suggests
            to me that quantum intervention of that sort shouldn't be necessary for
            evolution to take place.] ...

          From a note on the list, preserved in my personal data base:

            apropos your question below, it depends of course on just what you mean
            by "providence" and "TE." My own approach is set out in my book The
            Trademark of God, especially chapters 6 and 8. To use traditional
            language, the overall process of evolution can be understood in terms of
            God's cooperation with natural processes. I.e., God is active throughout
            the evolutionary process, acting with the chemical, environmental &c
            interactions that are involved. Moreover, God limits divine action to
            what can be accomplished through those processes. Even with that
            limitation, the freedom that is inherent in natural processes because of
            quantum & chaos theories provides scope for God's "special providence"
            and divine governance.


          I don't ever recall George taking any other position in our discussions on
          this list.

          I thought I had sent this earlier but I can't find it in either my sent
          folder or on the archive.

          Dave W

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Received on Mon May 18 10:52:03 2009

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