How Could God Interact With the World?

From Robert Lawrence Kuhn, host and creator of Closer to Truth:

Most people believe that God exists and intervenes actively in the world—answering prayers, making miracles, even ordaining history. But if God does exist, this intervening-kind of God, how does this God intervene? What possibly could be God’s mechanism for making things happen? Fiddle with each and every atomic particle? Adjust each and every nuclear force? Command all particles and forces en masse? The physical universe seems closed and complete, so how could something not part of it—God by definition is nonphysical—affect it? How could God interact with the world?
Robert John Russell, founder of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, states that there are at least four ways in which God interacts with the world: (i) creating and sustaining the world (“T [time] equals 0”); (ii) through natural processes (“The regular laws of physics and biology are God’s action… one can call this ‘general providence.’”); (iii) special events of significance (“where God acts to make a difference but which scientists see as part of the flow of nature,” which can be “special providence”); (iv) miracles (“where God’s action goes beyond the ordinary routines of nature”).
Russell, who is an ordained minister with a doctorate in physics, likes to explore the third way and tease out meaning. In the past, he says, the dichotomy “between objective and subjective divine action was forced because we thought we lived in a world which was governed by deterministic laws, a lock-step, billiard-ball, clockwork world.” Quantum mechanics, Russell suggests, “at least re-opens the question of whether or not we’re forced to continue with that split in our theological choices. … And that’s a genuine research question.”
How to progress? Russell states, “The first step is to say God is acting through all the laws of nature. So whatever happens, God is involved in it. Now because there is no sufficient natural cause [when choices are made in quantum mechanics], so God’s action could be thought of as special because God is acting on those events in special ways; that is, God is determining, because nature doesn’t, whether a photon bounces off the surface of water or goes through it.”
Would that not be God’s active intervention? No, Russell argues, “It’s an act. It’s not ‘intervention,’” because he uses the term “intervention” in a technical sense to mean “God violates the laws of nature.” And thus he stresses that “God was clever enough to create a universe which is quantum mechanical, which allows God to be acting all the time.” Following the consequences of this line of thinking, Russell observes that “the distinction between general providence, category two, and special providence, category three, kind of breaks down because God is truly acting all the time at the level of quantum mechanics.“ In this way, Russell claims to eliminate the “artificial distinction” between God’s overall purposes going on continuously and God’s special purposes, which are occasional events. God is acting all the time.
This strange land is home for John Polkinghorne, who was a quantum physicist at Cambridge University, when, in the middle of his scientific career, he decided to study for the priesthood. Today, he is recognized worldwide as a thought leader in science and religion. He too speaks about “the intrinsic unpredictabilities present in physical process … discovered first through quantum theory and then later on through chaos theory.”
But in contemplating God’s action in the world, Polkinghorne begins from a different perspective. He references something familiar, perhaps so very much familiar that we miss its deep significance—what he calls “the fundamental human experience of agency.”
“I, as a whole person, decide to raise my arm,” he says. “I believe that we interact with the world in this sort of top-down way.”
Polkinghorne then draws his analogy. “Now if we interact with the world in a top-down way, it seems to be entirely credible that the world’s Creator also can interact with the world and bring about events in a similar top-down way. So I have a picture in which God interacts with unfolding process, allowing creatures to explore the range of possibilities, but also preserving some providential room so that he as Creator can maneuver in bringing about the future.”
Polkinghorne admits that “it’s a complicated picture,” and “we can’t disentangle it because if things are unpredictable, you can’t parallel park and say: Nature did this, humans will did that, God did those other things—but nevertheless all these influences are at work in the world. That’s a perfectly coherent and believable picture and it’s the one I hold.”
Ernan McMullin, a well-known philosopher of science (a Catholic priest trained in physics and former chair of philosophy at Notre Dame), believes in the same Judeo-Christian God as do Russell and Polkinghorne, but as for explaining how God interacts with the world, he differs sharply. “I don’t see quantum theory as answering it, chaos theory even less so,” McMullin asserts. “Of the available menu of theories we have at the present, I don’t see any of them as very promising for giving us a way in which God inserts special action in the world. It’s as though God is moving behind the scenes and has to find a way of influencing what is his very creation.”
To McMullin the answer is stunningly simple: “God affects the universe by making it be! If one accepts the postulate of creation, then in fact the universe is the product of a single act of creation—and that’s how God influences the universe. My goodness, what a powerful influence that is! The point here is not a matter of asking how could God sort of work within this universe and not, so to speak, upset the laws of physics. The point is that God has in fact produced the universe and that simple act of creation is the most powerful influence you could have.”
Thus McMullin says he has “no difficulty with miracles at all because if in fact we have a universe which is the product of God, and in which the mere continuance of the law of gravity is God’s choice, the fact that at some point the law of gravity could be suspended, well, of course a creator can do that!” According to McMullin, a sophisticated thinker, “It’s simple! The way by which God works in the world is by being the creator of that world in the first place. It’s not a matter of intervening. It’s a matter of making that kind of world to begin with, a universe within which at a certain point this or that would happen.” (McMullin takes pains to emphasize that “what I do find difficult is to discern when and where miracles actually did occur—that’s the tough one.”)
Russell, Polkinghorne, and McMullin are traditionally and proudly Christian, which no doubt affects their views. Not so cosmologist Paul Davies, who has iconoclastic ideas about “purpose” in the universe (in his view, “the universe is ‘about’ something”). Davies accomplishes the neat trick of opposing both theists and materialists.
“I’ve always had a problem about a God who’s a miracle-working super-being, a cosmic magician,” Davies states. “I often say that there are no miracles except the miracle of nature itself. And so if I use the word ‘God’—which I’m always very careful about because it carries so many different meanings—it is in terms of the meaningfulness of the whole package, not in terms of a being who is sort of meddling from time to time.”
Speaking as a scientist, Davies says, “the idea of a God who intervenes actively in history—through prayer, working occasional miracles—is really pretty horrible and I wouldn’t want that.”
Davies has a better idea, he says, a “challenge” for “God,” as it were. “Come up with some deep mathematical principles, something of that sort, and then let it go. Let the universe generate its own life, its own self-awareness, so that the whole thing self-organizes and self-complexifies. No meddling, tinkering, making things happen by fiat. That’s much, much harder.”
To Davies, the universe as a self-generating, self-observing, self-organizing and self-complexifying thing “looks really deeply ingenious, really clever.” On the other hand, “a cosmic magician looks like just a conjurer,” he emphasizes, “so I can’t have much respect for such a being.”
But the traditional personal God who knows and cares for us is appealing.
Can that kind of God be saved?
Alvin Plantinga, one of the world’s leading Christian philosophers, is not at all embarrassed by God’s interventions. “People argue that special divine action can’t happen because it conflicts with the laws of conservation of energy [and mass],” Plantinga says. “If God, say, were to create a full-blown horse in the middle of the Notre Dame campus, this would violate all these conservation laws. But this is not in fact correct. The conservation laws are stated for closed systems, where there is no energy input from outside the system. But, of course, if God were to create a horse right here, then no system that includes that horse would be a closed system because such a system would, by definition, have this influx of energy from the outside, which is God creating the horse.”
But isn’t the universe in totality a closed system? “The material universe as a whole is a closed system,” Plantinga responds, “but if God acts in it, then it’s no longer a closed system. And it’s not part of physics to assert that God doesn’t act in it. That’s not a physics truth or a physics claim. That’s a theological truth or claim.”
Plantinga’s argument may sound simplistic or circular, but it strikes me as possibly profound. If God intervenes in the universe, then that very act causes the universe not to be a closed system, thus voiding any violation of the laws of conservation of energy and mass.
Where then with God’s interaction? For the sake of the argument, I’ll assume God exists. So I then ask, in what way could a nonphysical being intervene in the physical world? Because if there is no way that such intervention can make coherent sense, then I must question the initial assumption that God exists.
One view is that God just suspends his own laws. I guess that’s possible. But then wouldn’t God be distorting the natural functioning of God’s own world?
What about the contemporary idea that God’s place of action lies in the scientific “gaps” of unalterable uncertainty—quantum mechanics and chaos theory—where clockwork determinism does not hold?
I pause and wonder … but quantum uncertainties seem truly random and chaos theory seems more a lack of knowledge, so neither seems ideal as that super-special place for God to work his wonders.
For me, for now, I can come to only one conclusion: If a nonphysical supreme being, “God,” does exist, and if God does intervene in the world, I’d be surprised if we could ever figure out how.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn speaks with Nancey Murphy, John Polkinghorne, Robert Russell, William Dembski, Paul Davies, Alvin Plantinga, and Ernan McMullin in How Could God Interact With the World?” the 30th episode in the Closer to Truth: Cosmos, Consciousness, God TV series. The series airs on PBS World (often Thursdays, twice) and many other PBS and noncommercial stations. Every Friday, participants discuss a recent episode.

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