The God of Natural Processes

by Tim Belben

from Signs of the Times, No. 32 - Jan 2009

Is there a fallacy in Paul Smith’s thinking (Revelation, July 2008) that Revelation implies God’s interference with the ‘physical processes’ of thought?  His piece suggests that thought is entirely derived from the neurology involved, and leaves no room for the uncertainty now accepted as a feature of modern physics.  But quantum uncertainty must somehow feed through into the biology of thought – and everything else.  And this, in turn, affects what sort of Creator we believe in.

If we accept that we have freewill (and which liberal thinker doesn’t) then it is logical that  our ‘brain neurons’ are not all moved by ‘the physical processes’ – there must be room for will or intention to give impulse for thinking this rather than that.  If the will is determined entirely by what has physically gone before, as Paul Smith seems to suggest, then it is not free.

The God of our belief may be a Creator in whom we live and move and have our being – infinite and without parts (i.e., the whole God self-existent, I am that I am, present and inclusive). Or, God may be conceived as being at arms’ length from his Creation (somehow external) in which case he is not omnipresent.  But in the latter case he is by definition not infinite, and therefore not a self-existent God, but some sort of gnostic intermediate deity.

The infinite and omnipresent God of the Christian faith must be able to influence – or even, on occasions, command – the thought processes which he has created.  His difficulty is that if he does so, he may defeat his gift of freewill.

There is room, surely, for us to hold the concept of a God who could influence us directly, because our existence is within his: but who usually doesn’t, because his infinite glory would not be augmented unless we chose freely to praise him?  Charles Péguy’s poem about God teaching his children to swim comes to mind: too much support, and they don’t learn; too little, and they swallow an unhealthy amount of water.

One way to hold this paradox is to conceive of our existence being within and of the Creator but less real.  In other words, a probable existence, not actual: potency in act?  In drawing his creation from less to greater probability, surely it is legitimate (or, in other words, does not destroy freewill) for God’s perfect reality to be a magnet to our imperfect, ungrown wills?  Even, in particular instances, for the ‘finger of God’ to touch the ignorance or incomplete reality of man?

Indeed, this seems to be consistent with the way ‘the physical processes’ may be observed to work.  Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle demonstrates that it is impossible to measure both the position and the momentum of any particle.  Probability creeps in at the very foundation of existence.  Nevertheless, what appears to be the random movement of atomic particles resolves, at further remove, to be the ordered structure of chemistry.  At a far higher level, the chaotic movement of people becomes the raw material for the predictable behaviour of crowds.    Once, the disorder and panic of the Disciples became the driving force for the Church.   Who is to say that an infinite God cannot, or will not, influence human thought or behaviour without overwhelming his gift of free will?

Imagine the alternative.  Some anonymous, unknowable Supreme Being delegates creation to a Jehovah who, although maybe not limited by space-time, must shape his creation by prodding and pushing, blessing and punishing – from the outside. He then provides an instruction manual which seems, in places, deliberately misleading.  His creatures are given freewill on condition that it is exercised only in accordance with the instruction manual.  Is this the freedom which glorifies God?  Is this the God we would choose to glorify?

Better, perhaps, to accept that if God is infinite, then our existence is based on uncertainty and probability.  The question of how and why the wave packet of any quantum occurrence is resolved into a particular choice of path for the particle may not in any traceable way affect our freewill choices.  But the apparent irregularity of behaviour which we see at the particle level of existence is an uncertain foundation for any absolute theories of existence at what happens to be our level of perception. 

Is the selection of one particle path rather than another a sort of freewill by an inanimate object?  If the concept of freewill is only applicable at our level of existence, why are we peculiar in creation?  And if we are thus peculiar, is this not evidence that God can and does affect natural processes?  Or is there a hierarchy of freewill, so that the particle’s path is entirely random, the amœba’s very slightly less so, up through cabbages to kings?

It may be so, but we do not need to know.  For instead of an instruction manual which must be correctly read and followed to avoid punishment, we have been offered, have we not, a wonderful insight into the poetry and parable of the divine.  The words of eternal life are blazoned across the horizons of our feeble vision, often hidden in the mists of glory lest we be blinded and overwhelmed as we struggle into the daylight.  The revelation of the word of God: indeed, of the Word of God, gives form to our imperfect existence, and nourishes on the long journey of adoption, rebirth and inheritance through which our probability is made actual in the Body of Christ.

And I, for one, am not confounded or outraged at the idea of being given the occasional nudge into the correct path, whether this be from the Almighty or from other members of the Body.