Sunday, September 7, 2014

Divine action in a deterministic world

It is often suggested that unless there are gaps in our ability to give a natural explanation for an event, we cannot attribute that event to God’s agency. We see this assumption working in the traditional view of miracles, by which a miracle is understood as a violation of natural law.  The laws of nature say that one cannot walk on water; if someone walks on water, then this must be the doing of God, a supernatural agent.

Notice that belief in miracles, as violations of natural law, requires us to deny determinism.  Determinism is the view that everything that occurs in the natural world is a function of the state of the world in the past, together with the laws of nature.

Some theologians are uncomfortable with this picture of divine agency.  They want to say that God acts in the world, but are reluctant to admit that there are ever any violations of natural law.

Now this does not seem particularly difficult when it comes to God’s general agency, as that is represented by God’s creation and conservation of the universe.   But things get a bit more complicated when it comes to special divine agency.  What is that?  We might say, with Alvin Plantinga [1], that it is any activity on God’s part that is not identified with his general agency.  God’s special agency is represented in things that God does at particular times and for particular purposes, e.g. the parting of the Red Sea so that the Hebrews can escape the Egyptians.  Miracles are an example.

We may notice a certain tension here.  God’s general agency involves God’s conservation of the natural world, which must involve his conserving the laws by which that world operates.  But if God’s special agency requires him to violate these laws, it also implies a failure on God’s part to conserve the order of nature.  We might be forgiven for seeing a kind of contradiction here.

If this concern has any weight, then it would be nice to find some way of making special divine agency compatible with natural law.

To resolve this tension, some philosophers— I will refer to them as “quantum theologians”— have appealed to the principles of quantum mechanics.  Some of the events that occur at the subatomic level are non-deterministic.  For example, atoms sometimes emit light waves, but we can predict this behavior only probabilistically. There is some contemporary argument to the effect that the traditional miracles may not be violations of natural law at all, but may be manifestations of strange goings-on at the subatomic level [2].

Notice that the quantum theologians cling to the idea that special divine agency requires the world to be non-deterministic.  They hope to exploit the possibility that a non-deterministic view of the world is compatible with science.

I think quantum theology is confused for a number of reasons, but space permits me only one objection here.  I wish to deny that special divine agency requires us to suppose that the world is non-deterministic.

Let us suppose that determinism is true, and that everything that occurs in nature is a function of the state of the universe in the past, together with the (non-probabilistic) laws of nature.  Let us then consider the implications of this for human agency.  Many philosophers would say that humans cannot be held morally responsible for what they do in a deterministic world, but few would insist that determinism rules out the possibility of human action entirely.

So for example, if I intentionally light a cigar after dinner one evening, this is an instance of agency on my part.  Furthermore it seems to fall under the category of what we are calling special agency.  I am not capable of the sort of general agency that is attributed by theists to God, so it’s hard to see what else it could be.  The lighting of my cigar is something done by an agent— me— at a particular time and for a particular purpose.

Now consider a purported instance of divine agency. Suppose, for example, a child in a toy motor-car is stuck on a railroad track with a train approaching.  Because of a curve in the track, the engineer will be unable to see the child until it is too late to stop the train.  The child’s mother sees what is about to happen and cries out to God to save her baby.  At that moment, the engineer faints, releasing his grip on the control lever, and the train comes harmlessly to a stop [3]. If determinism is true, then the fainting of the engineer, and subsequent stopping of the train, has been in the cards since the beginning of the universe.  Yet there seems to be nothing standing in the way of describing this as an action on the part of God; the child’s mother may describe what has happened as an answer to her prayer. 

Of course, the stopping of the train is in conformity with natural law.  This might lead us to deny that it is a miracle. But that is not what is at issue here.  Are there any grounds for the claim that, because this event was determined to occur, it cannot be an instance of special divine agency?  I don’t see that there are. 

It is true that this event has a natural explanation.  But, under the deterministic hypothesis, my lighting of my cigar also has a natural explanation.  Yet we still describe this as an action on my part. If human agency is possible in a deterministic world, then special divine agency is, too.

It is possible that the universe is not deterministic, and that subatomic phenomena of the kind that interest the quantum theologians are not determined to occur.  But a commitment to special divine agency does not require either of these claims to be true.

David Corner
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State


[1]  Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism; Chapter 3, Kindle p. 68, loc 1082; Oxford University Press, Oxford

[2] See for example Bradley Monton (2012), “God Acts in the Quantum World,” Chapter 7 in Oxford Studies in the Philosophy of Religion, Volume V; Clarendon Press, Oxford

[3] This example comes from R.F. Holland (1965), "The Miraculous," American Philosophical Quarterly 2:43-51  Holland hoped to argue that the stopping of the train can be described as a miracle.  My argument does not require me to defend this claim.


  1. David,
    I was convinced by your argument.
    On a related note about the train stopping without killing the child, you said, "there seems to be nothing standing in the way of describing this as an action on the part of God." I agree that explaining this as being an action on the part of God is not being inconsistent with what we mean by action, agency, or God. However, there is the issue of whether explaining it this way is the best way. When we make an inference to the best explanation, we want to consider whether introducing God's agency leaves us with a weaker explanation. Giving a supernatural explanation of the train stopping may be the easiest explanation for the mother to understand, and it may be the explanation she was hoping for, but it is interesting to think about whether it is the best explanation for us metaphysicians. Are there any actions or phenomena that need to be described supernaturally, lest they be described incorrectly? Surely the story of the parting of the Red Sea doesn't require an intentional agent in order for it to be described well, does it?

  2. David,

    I am probably missing something, but it seems to me that in your train example, the assumption of determinism implies that the outcome is the result of God's general agency, not special agency. The mother may believe otherwise, but it is not so. It seems to me that if we accept a transcendent view of God, as one who creates but is not bound by the laws of the universe, we are forced to give up any analogy between divine agency and the agency of those whose actions are governed by those laws.

    The idea that divine agency requires gaps is interesting because it points out another disanalogy between human agency and divine agency. With humans, we often point out that inaction is a type of action. I act, e.g., when I decide not to save the boy drowning in a foot of water. So why can't we say that God is always acting specially by choosing not to intervene, since it is always within God's power to do so.

  3. Hi Brad. Thanks for your comment.

    No, of course the story of the parting of the Red Sea does not require any reference to an intentional agent. But then, neither does the story of what is happening in my body when I light my cigar. These bodily movements can be described completely independently of any reference to my agency.

    I would resist the suggestion that giving a theistic description of some event E means offering an explanation for it, unless "explanation" takes on a very broad meaning— something like, making sense of E, or assimilating E to a worldview. When the train stops, the child's mother, in attributing this event to divine agency, assimilates it to a theistic picture of the world, and she may reasonably continue to do so even after hearing about the natural explanation for this event.

    My interest, by the way, is not in defending any sort of supernatural account of what happens in the world, but in exploring whether theism can be made consistent with naturalism. Notice that my interest is the same as that of the quantum theologians- I just think they are not going about it in the right way.

  4. Randy, just a quick reply for now.

    You speak of intervention, but I wonder what your criteria are for divine intervention. I think that God might be said to intervene in the case of the train, even though everything in this case has a natural explanation. I don't want to put words into your mouth but I suspect you would like to tie divine intervention to events that have no natural explanation. This is the mainstream view by the way.

    You suggest that the train case is an instance of God's general agency and not God's special agency. Your assumption seems to be that it can't be both, and that in the case of competing accounts- an account of general agency and an account of special agency- the general account wins. Is this correct? It does seem difficult to deny that the stopping of the train, in a deterministic world, is assimilable in some way to God's general agency, so there is definitely a puzzle here.

    Some theologians speak of God's double agency, e.g. Austin Farrer. If, for example, I perform a good deed of some kind (imagine that!), this can be attributed to my agency, but also to God's. It seems strange, but I wonder if I should allow that there can be such a thing as double agency where only God is involved- God acting generally, and specially too.

    Perhaps all of this requires us to speak of divine intentions, in a teleological sort of way: God intended for the train to stop, the purpose of this being to save the child. Here is a purpose indexed to a particular situation at a particular place and time. The description seems to imply special agency, even though (since the event conforms to natural law) it is also a consequence of God's general agency.

  5. I suppose if I accept Plantinga's description of God's special agency being anything that isn't identified with God's general agency, then I may be forced to acknowledge that nothing can be both. Yet it seems possible to describe the event we are talking about as God's stopping of the train, and this strikes me as a special agency description. Perhaps we should say that an event is special or general *under a description.* Let me think on this. -dc

  6. Thanks for this interesting post David. I’m sorry that this response is not directly about your argument, but I can't help but comment on Special Divine Agency (SPA) itself ("God’s special agency is represented in things that God does at particular times and for particular purposes"). The very idea of this seems strange to me.
    I can imagine that God purposefully set the laws of the universe in a particular way. Now I’m imagining that the mother prays to God to save her baby on the train track. Does God, at that point, weigh up the consequences of intervening (with his SPA) or not? God certainly doesn’t answer all prayers, but let’s assume he answers some with his SPA. Does God decide to use his SPA without any supporting reasons for using it? If so, his decision to use SPA would be arbitrary. I suppose most supporters of the idea of SPA would want to deny this because it does not match their idea of what God is like and how he responds to their prayers. Well then, what other options do we have? God must decide to use his SPA to respond to prayers based on some compelling reasons. We may never be able to fathom the reasons, but I would hope that God uses them consistently (treating relevantly similar cases in the same way). If God does have a set of rules that allows him to consistently decide whether or not to use his SPA to respond to prayers, then he could incorporate that set of rules into the original laws of universe… at which point the agency would lose its special quality (based on the definition that SPA is different from general divine agency).
    We can go further, I think. I just said: “If God does have a set of rules that allows him to consistently decide whether or not to use his SPA to respond to prayers, then he could incorporate that set of rules into the original laws of universe” (emphasis added). Perhaps God could choose not to incorporate those rules into the original laws of universe. God might prefer to micromanage us humans. But, I’m doubtful about this.
    I find it hard to believe that God would be motivated to handle each of these cases individually—that an all knowing and all powerful being would spend his time observing humans, “waiting” by the phone for them to call on him. Surely God would have more interesting things to do? Moreover, as an all-knowing being, God already knows how he will micromanage every single case of possible SPA-in-response-to-prayer… so, unless he is contemplating making some arbitrary/random decisions, it would be very boring and seemingly pointless for God to micromanage SPA-in-response-to-prayer situations. Of course, I am not in the best position to question the motives and likely preferred pass-times of such a being!

  7. Dan, maybe here's an answer to some of both our concerns. By his general agency God creates a system to which he binds himself to respond to all future situations arising within the system (e.g, petitionary prayers with property P) in manner R. Why would God do this rather than simply build the system to provide these results without the necessity of intervention? I don't know. Maybe it's too hard or maybe s/he is lonely and wants to participate, or maybe s/he has Munchausen by proxy syndrome.

    1. I like the idea! I'm not sure how proponents of SPA would take it though :) Also, all of my SPAs should have been SDAs !

  8. Dan, you make some interesting points. As you acknowledge, they are directed to the very idea of SDA; why wouldn't he just build it into the system, as Randy suggests?

    One thing to notice is that, if God sets the world running and then just sits back and watches it, without interacting with it at all, the picture we end up with is the one favored by deism. Theists insist that God remains active in the world. (But then, perhaps we are just working on an argument for the superiority of deism over theism.)

    Keep in mind too that the quantum theologians see God as micro-managing all the way down to the quantum level.

    I would hope that theists would reject the idea that there is a certain set of properties that a prayer might possess that would be necessary and sufficient for God's answering them. It doesn't follow from the lack of any rules for the answering of prayers that God's decision is arbitrary. Rational, non-arbitrary decisions can be made without the benefit of rules. (I would make a move analogous to the moral particularists here.)

  9. Hi David, thanks for indulging me! I suppose instead of "rule" I should have said "reasons". If God doesn't have a reason for whether he should use his SDA to answer a prayer, then it would be arbitrary. If God has reasons that apply to that specific situation and prayer combination, then he can make a rule to treat all identical situations the same way for the same reasons. Not doing this would be arbitrary. And, since God knows everything, he knows what reasons would guide his decision whether to use SDA in every possible situation and prayer combination. So, I'm not sure if the particularist defense works for God--it seems to me that his all-knowingness prevents him from learning anything new (to help himself reach a decision) from being IN the particular situation.

  10. Hey Dan. We've wandered a bit off the original issue but I find the questions we are asking now interesting.

    Everything you say might be true if the world is deterministic, which was the hypothesis of my argument. In particular, it doesn't seem that God can discover anything in such a world, though things might be different in a non-deterministic world, particularly in regard to God's knowing what a free being will do.

    But tell me this. Suppose a state of affairs S in which God has reasons for doing A, but God also has reasons for doing B. God does A. A few aeons later, a state of affairs S', which is exactly like S, comes about. God once again has reasons to do A, and reasons to do B. But this time God does B.

    It seems as though there is no rule to describe what God will do in S-like situations. Yet in both cases, God has reasons for what he does.

    Would you say that God has acted arbitrarily in one or both of these cases, despite the fact that he had reasons in both cases for doing what he did?

    (Perhaps we should postpone for another time the question of God's rationality in a world in which no state of affairs ever repeats itself. To what extent would God's concern to act for reasons entail his following of rules?)

  11. Thanks again David! In your example I do think God is very likely to have acted arbitrarily. In S, God decided one way or another arbitrarily or based on the reasons. If he decided based on the reasons, then he had some reason to find the reasoning on one side more compelling than the reasons for the other side. In S' those reasons should be the same because the situation is the same and God can't have learnt anything new. So, if God chooses differently in S', then he did not choose based on how compelling the reasons are, so the choice was arbitrary. The only possible exception I can think of is if the combined reasons for each side are equally compelling. In that case I suppose that the choices were likely based on reasons and somewhat arbitrary. Although, I suppose someone might argue that it is exactly those cases in which God exercises his SDA... but that doesn't seem to mesh well with scripture.

  12. Dan, it sounds like you favor some kind of second-order rule in such a case- a reason for finding a particular set of first-order reasons compelling. But I wonder now what governs our choice of a second-order rule. If this choice is to be rational, must we appeal to a third-order rule? I fear that an infinite regress looms.

    In any case, it sounds a little strange to say that God has acted arbitrarily when he has reasons for doing what he does, though on the other hand, I understand why one might be inclined to say there is a higher order arbitrariness at work here- an arbitrariness in the selection of reasons.

    It seems to me that we often weigh competing reasons for a particular action before making our decision about what to do. My own view is that our decision is made rational merely by the fact that we are weighing reasons- i.e. our decision results from rational consideration- and not by the fact that we employ a rule in deciding which reasons are compelling. We seem to disagree on this point.


    Thanks Dan- and to everyone else- for your input. It's been fun and my writing on this topic will be much informed by what you have said here.

    1. Hi David, now that you have spelled it out, I see your point. In fact, I might even agree with you! Thanks for a very stimulating post.