Re: [asa] special versus general divine action [was: Re: design and the nature of science]

From: David Campbell <>
Date: Thu Jun 18 2009 - 16:03:58 EDT

> It seems to me that you are equivocating on special versus general divine
> activity.  For example, the man falling off the cliff.  You propose the
> notion of a freak wind which sustains the man during the fall.  You speak of
> God "using" the wind to save the man in a way which seems to me to blur the
> distinction between special and general divine activity.  I seek more
> clarity regarding your suggestion.  Here is how I would analyze the event
> that you propose:
> If the apparently freak wind can be shown, by the laws known to atmospheric
> science, to have arisen from previous motions of air in an unbroken causal
> nexus, I would call this wind the result of the "general" activity of God,
> i.e., the activity by which God sustains nature and its processes.
> If the apparently freak wind can be shown to have arisen without appropriate
> causal antecedents, so that the causal nexus is broken, I would call this
> wind the result of a "special" activity of God.
> Another way of putting the above distinction, in somewhat Humean language,
> would be to speak of "natural" vs. "miraculous" causes.  "Natural" causes
> would be entirely within the chain of causes going back (theoretically) to
> the Big Bang, and "miraculous" causes would indicate new departures, the
> start of a new chain of events by God by a breaking of the previous chain.

The point I want to make is that God can use special or general,
natural or miraculous methods, and be equally involved either way. If
He wants to do something naturally, there is almost always a method
that He could do so; the key exception being atonement.

The distinction between special and general or natural and miraculous
is convenient for certain contexts, but it can lead to discounting
God's role in the natural/general. This error certainly appears in
popular ID rhetoric, though it also gets countered in other ID

> When TEs speak of methodological naturalism, they seem to mean that science
> should try, as hard as possible, to explain all phenomena, present and past,
> in terms of God's general activity, i.e., in terms of what we think of as
> "natural" causes, and should eschew any explanations involving God's special
> activity, i.e., any miraculous causes.  (Thus, a cartoon making fun of Behe
> [and misrepresenting his thesis] has a scientist pointing to a blackboard
> with equations, and then the equations break off, and we see the words "and
> then a miracle occurs".)  I am taking it that you are a TE, and that you
> agree with this account of science and with the view that God generally
> works exclusively through natural causes.  If you differ from other TEs on
> these points, you will have to explain your position to me.

The question is whether this is a restriction on science or on
phenomena. I don't know aof a good way for science to get a handle on
special activity; therefore, science is pretty much stuck with looking
at general activity. For example, with a time machine you could get a
bunch of fancy chemistry apparatus to continuously monitor the water
in the containers at Cana, but all you'd get is more data showing an
abrupt and inexplicable change in composition, not anything amenable
to scientific analysis.

Also, a bad explanation invoking general activity is not preferable to
special activity. For example, Elijah did not surreptitiously replace
the water for his altar with lighter fluid. (Lightning is a better
natural explanation, though rather unexpected in light of the
meteorlogical conditions at the time and possibly requiring special
help, nto to mention good aim and timing). Again, a recent paper
noted that springs in the Sea of Galilee can have different salinities
and thus different freezing points than the main water body, raising
the possibility of a small ice patch on an otherwise thawed lake. Try
using a rather small iceberg to walk across a lake and you'll realize
that's not a viable explanation for walking on water.

The "then a miracle occurs" cartoon is older than Behe's prominence
(1977 is the oldest date I quickly spot in an online search, but that
might be a later collection). It does, however, express the way that
intervention-type ID appears, and in fact is close to what is claimed
in regard to an irreducible complexity-type argument. (However, in
the case of ID, the claim is that both sides of the miracle are based
on empirical evidence, whereas equations on the board are likely to be
more adjustible).

I would agree with the statement that God generally uses natural
methods for most of the running of the universe. I say this as a
general pattern, not as an invariable rule. Hume's initial postulate,
that miracles are rare and that therefore an event is likely to be
explicable naturally, is reasonably accurate. The problem with his
conclusions is that they ought to be "any randomly selected event is
more likely to occur naturally than miraculously". That does not mean
that specific non-randomly selected events did not occur miraculously.

>> But I doubt that God does have a special involvement in particular
>> events-rather, He has a special involvement in all events.  He does
>> not appear "on site"- He's always already there.
> I cannot tell what this means.  If God is "always there" in the sense that
> he is always sustaining Kepler's Laws and Boyle's Law and the gravitational
> constant and so on, then you are talking about God's general action, i.e.,
> what in our non-religious moods we call simply "the laws of nature", or
> "nature".  But to call that a "special" involvement is entirely confusing.
> In normal English, a "special" involvement would mean something out of the
> ordinary, specific to a situation, whereas the laws of nature are entirely
> *general*, applying to all situations.  Why would you use the word "special"
> in such a confusing way?

I used "special" to counter the idea that God working in natural,
ordinary means involves any less of a presence and involvement than
His working in miraculous ways.

> Possibly you mean something like this (which may be what Moorad was saying a
> while back):  "Nature" is a fiction; there is no inherent continuity or
> law-abidingness to "nature"; it just seems law-abiding because God usually
> wills things in a consistent way.  Thus, moment by moment, God wills
> everything that happens in the universe, item by item, in the combinations
> that please him.  This doctrine is called "occasionalism", and it was held
> by certain Muslim theologians and, in a certain form, apparently, by
> Malebranche.  Under occasionalism *all* God's actions are special, and there
> is no need to speak of God's general action, because there is no such thing
> as "nature".

My position seems to be a bit closer to this than is the position you
seem to be taking, but not too close. Created things do have distinct
properties, but their existence, behavior, etc. are also entirely
dependent on God. Perhaps a computer running a program is a suitable
metaphor for God's ordinary running of the universe-the continued
existence and functioning of the program is entirely dependent on the
computer, but the program does obey regular laws and can be
meaningfully distinguished from the computer. (Obvious problems with
the metaphor arise with regard to origin of the parts, etc.).

> how can there be "natural" science if there is no "nature" to base it on?  God is mysterious and utterly free, and no one can predict his moment-by-moment will.  There is therefore no reason to think that the human mind can uncover "laws of nature", and thus natural science is an unreasonable, quixotic enterprise.<

While occasionalism runs into this issue, I would assert that God is
free but clearly chooses to work in regular patterns in the universe
most of the time. Also, the task we are given in Genesis 1 as
stewards of creation is impossible unless we can reasonably predict
how the universe acts and how it is likely to behave in response to
our actions. (Lewis discusses the issue some in the beginning of

> Of course, you may have in mind, as some here do, that God acts indetectably
> under quantum indeterminacy, which allows a degree of freedom for special
> activity even though no law of nature is broken.  But (a) you haven't said
> this, and I can't read your mind; and (b) I do not think quantum
> indeterminacy would alllow sufficient freedom to explain most of the
> miracles in the Bible, and I also doubt that it would be sufficient to
> generate a wind capable of breaking a thousand-foot fall.  (If it would be,
> I would like to be shown how -- at least in general terms.)

I would hold that God is acting in quantum events and in everything
else. As weather is mathematically chaotic, with tiny disturbances
potentially causing drastic long-term differences ("butterfly effect",
etc.), it's conceivable that quantum events are enough to bring about
such a difference. I would also hold that the universe is fine-tuned
to the outcome that God intends. I don't know the relative roles of
things that could be determined by advance fine-tuning versus quantum
or other indeterminacies in the natural laws being resolved one way or

> What I am looking for is clear categories of analysis.  I am not the one who
> introduced the division between "God's general activity" and "God's special
> activity".  Others have done this.  I am using those categories because some
> people here seem to understand them or prefer them.  But I would be happy
> with different categories, if they analyze divine activity better.  My
> problem is that I am finding your application of the category of "special"
> actions of God impossible to apply with any rigour.  It seems to cover both
> general and special action in a blurry way, and therefore is of no
> intellectual use.

General and special activity are useful categories in talking about
natural laws, what science can or cannot explain, etc. They are not
as useful with regard to describing God's involvement.

> Perhaps you could step back from the specific question of evolution, and
> give me your general understanding of:  (1) The types of divine action (if
> there is indeed more than one type); (2) "nature"; (3) "natural laws"; (4)
> "miracles"; and (5) any other notions that you find necessary to employ when
> speaking of the God-nature relationship.  This would be especially helpful
> if you would give examples from physics, chemistry, etc.  (Is God doing
> anything when we boil water for cup of tea?  What exactly is he "doing"?) It
> would also be helpful if you gave examples from the Bible.  (Was God doing
> anything when Jesus walked on the water?  If so, what was he doing that he
> *doesn't* do under most conditions, when people sink into the water?)

Categorizing divine action depends on what aspect we look at. I doubt
that there is much difference from God's perpective in how He is
involved in my boiling water for tea versus how He is involved in
making an axe head float on water or letting Peter walk on water.
Technically there is a difference in involvement in Jesus walking on
water in that He is God and so is involved in another way besides in
the running of things. However, from our perspective there is a
significant difference, in that some of these conform to the regular
pattern of things and others do not, thereby attracting attention.

Dr. David Campbell
425 Scientific Collections
University of Alabama
"I think of my happy condition, surrounded by acres of clams"
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Received on Thu Jun 18 16:04:30 2009

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