I was recently sent by the publisher a copy of the new book by Harry Lee Poe and Jimmy H. Davis God and the Cosmos: Divine Activity in Space, Time and History. Harry Lee Poe (Ph.D., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the Charles Colson Professor of Faith and Culture at Union University in Jackson TN, Jimmy H. Davis (Ph.D. University of Illinois) is University Professor of Chemistry at Union University. This book should prove to be something a bit different from our usual fare of late.
There are a number of different questions at play in the discussion of the interaction between science and the Christian faith. For some people the controversy over creation and evolution is driven by a desire to be faithful to scripture, and explicitly to a favored interpretation of scripture. Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis fall into this category. For others there is an appreciation for the sciences, but also a conviction that if the science is true traces of it will be found in scripture. Hugh Ross and Reasons to Believe fall into this category. But there is another set of question at play, especially within the Intelligent Design movement. Science and scientists are finding a natural explanation for all manner of phenomena formerly attributed to the work of God. This appears to squeeze God into an increasingly small corner of the universe – and many argue it removes God from the picture all together. As Laplace famously replied to Napoleon … we have “no need of that hypothesis.” Poe and Davis are addressing these latter kinds of questions in their book. Can a transcendent and personal God really act in the universe? and Can science help us answer this question? The answers are not what one might expect – and call into question some of the assumptions that motivate the search for Intelligent Design.
The introduction to the book begins with reflections by Davis and Poe. Davis begins by posing the question – where is God in, for example, a chemical reaction? The reaction is the same and the explanation is the same whatever the worldview or presupposition of the person who brings together the reactants and starts the process.
Modern science assumes that all physical events have physical causes. In order to find these causes, modern science breaks down the event into parts and looks for some mechanism (pattern of connections) that give rise to the event being studied. Modern science explains natural phenomena in terms of natural events and does not invoke supernatural invention. (p. 15)
There is an assumption of methodological naturalism inherent in the process. This leads many to a further assumption that the description of the universe or any process in the universe is a zero-sum game. If there is a 100% natural explanation for some process – there is no room divine involvement. There may be a God – but if the explanation of the universe is a zero-sum game we are quickly left with a deist view of God. He got things started, set the laws, and now steps back and lets it go.
Davis suggests that the error in this approach lies in the mechanical view of the cosmos. The models we construct are closed machines. But there is an intrinsic openness in nature – seen in quantum phenomena, chaos, and epigenetics.
This openness is an internal part of nature, not a God-of-the-Gaps ignorance that will one day be removed. We suggest in this monograph that God is there not only in the working of the “machine” but in the underlying software that tells the “machine” how to behave in a particular situation. It is an open universe providing an open vista on which the master Artist can craft what he wills. (p. 23)
Do you think explanations for observed phenomena are a zero-sum game – either there is a natural explanation or there is divine action?
What is the case for Intelligent Design? What should we expect?
Harry Lee Poe provides a theological response to begin to address the question of how God relates to the world.
Answers to the question of how God acts on the universe have tended to be reductionist. As such, they have tended to be unhelpful. More complicated answers seldom gain a hearing because people prefer simple, black-and-white, either-or explanations. Politicians learned this trait of human nature long ago; thus the trait has charm both for fundamentalism and for unbelief. (p. 25)
The black-and-white, either-or explanations are intrinsically unsatisfactory. They simply cannot account for the world we see. Poe relates this to the complexity of the world and to the progression or hierarchies of complexity introduced by Arthur Peacocke. He suggests that different kinds of rules apply at different levels of existence. There is, it seems, a fundamental distinction between the laws that describe the simplicity of the atom and the laws that describe the complexity of a living cell.
Neither reductionist science nor reductionist theology help us understand this universe where one kind of rule applies at the level of human experience and another kind of rule applies at the quantum level of subatomic particles. (p. 26)
Poe sketches briefly in this introduction four theological ideas that may help to move us forward.
Freedom of the triune God. God is not just creator who says and it is, not just incarnate Son, not just Holy Spirit who animates but with no plan or goal. He is not deist, self-limiting, or undirected.
Only a truly trinitarian model of one God can help us move to a clearer understanding of how God might relate to such a complex structure as the universe in appropriate ways for different levels of physical complexity. (p. 28)
Directional universe: Simplicity to complexity. The universe is dynamic with a linear direction from energy to matter to life to consciousness.
Progress: A value-based goal. Here Harry Lee Poe quotes Edgar Allen Poe (an indirect ancestor of his, about whom he has written a biography Evermore: Edgar Allan Poe and the Mystery of the Universe):
In Eureka (1848), Edgar Allen Poe’s original proposal of a big bang theory and the origin of life, Poe described the interaction of the elements and life forms in adaptation in terms of a grand narrative. He said, “The plots of God are perfect. The Universe is a plot of God.” (p. 29)
Open universe. Here Poe returns to the idea introduced by Davis. There is an openness in the universe at each level of complexity. A personal mind – a human mind or the mind of God – can interact with and change the course of nature without violating the laws of nature. “Rather than hiding in the gaps, God is involved in the big observables that science describes.“
The remainder of God and the Cosmos is divided into two parts – first looking at theology and asking what kind of God interacts with the world and then looking at the universe and asking what kind of world allows God to interact. It looks like this will lead to some interesting questions and, I hope, some interesting posts over the next few weeks.
Where would you look for evidence of the action or purpose of God in the universe?
How should Christians respond to the “mechanical” view of the universe that removes God from the picture?
If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.