As I mentioned at the outset of the last post, Victor Stenger’s second goal in his book Quantum Gods is to critically examine “quantum theology”. This refers to attempts to rework traditional notions of God’s role as creator and/or intervening agent given modern physics. My review of this part of the book is below.
The Demise of Classical Deism
Trying to accommodate belief in God with a scientific worldview is not a new endeavor of course, and Stenger includes a discussion of “enlightenment deism” in the book. Newtonian physics provided a good foundation for the view that God created and planned the universe, but doesn’t further intervene (the clockwork universe). The theory of natural selection strengthened the case for deism vs. theism by weakening the perceived need for special divine action in the biological world. Quantum mechanics, however, made enlightenment deism untenable by introducing irreducible indeterminism; it appears God could not have ensured his planned outcomes in an essentially chancy world.
What About Emergence?
Stenger has a good discussion of the topics of complexity, chaos and emergent phenomena. Some have argued that emergence introduces “something more” into the makeup of the world beyond the basic physical entities. Some theologians think emergence may leave an opening for God to act in the world. Reviewing a few examples of emergent behavior (e.g. thermodynamics and fluid mechanics), Stenger argues all are cases of what he labels “material reductive” emergence. His main point is this: he says the fact that macro-principles cannot be deduced from microphysics is true and notable, but they nevertheless follow from, and thus are implicit in, the microphysics. The demonstration of this comes with the increasing power of computers to simulate emergent phenomena from the micro-facts: nothing “extra” is needed to do this. There is not a reasonable basis for “top-down” causality between levels of nature based on the phenomenon of emergence. Thus no opening is left here for theology to improvise a story about divine action.
I have found this topic to be difficult in the past, but I think Stenger’s position is well defended. My opinion is that the only really persuasive instance of ontological emergence is the crystallization of actual outcomes from the set of possibilities represented in a quantum state. (But while I don’t see a good case for further levels of ontological emergence or top-down causality once we’re dealing with larger (decohered) macroscopic systems, it is still highly suggestive that so many remarkable phenomena manage to be implicit in the micro-realm.)
Special Divine Action via QM?
In his Chapter 14 (“Where Can God Act”), Stenger reviews attempts to locate divine action in the world of modern physics. He briefly summarizes a number of articles from a Vatican/Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (CTNS) multi-volume book series which address this and related issues.
Some authors think quantum indeterminism allows scope for subtle interventions, which, when combined with chaotic amplification, might lead to undetectable yet significant effects. Stenger first notes a common observation about such interventions: it seems that this kind of action is “God acting against God,” since the advocates of this idea also view God as the creator of the universe and its physical laws. Also, given the attribute of omnipotence, why should God restrict himself in this way? And it’s not clear this would work anyway. Stenger points out the time lag involved with chaotic amplification: given continued micro-chanciness, how can God be sure he’ll get the macroscopic effect he wants? If he acts to guarantee the outcome, then we’re back to wondering why he doesn’t just use his power to orchestrate all micro-processes to being with? Then, of course, we wouldn’t have indeterminism after all. (And this causes the additional problem of undermining the case for indeterminism-based free will, which is also advocated by some theologians).
I’m obviously oversimplifying the discussion in this summary, but I’ve read a number of these accounts over the years (many from my subscription to CTNS’ Theology and Science) and I agree with Stenger that attempts to implement special divine action with modern scientific tools seem fraught with difficulties.
In Chapter 15 (“The God Who Plays Dice”), Stenger notes that the problems with models of divine action do not rule out the possibility of a deist creator God. Perhaps God endowed the universe with indeterministic law as part of this creative plan. Of course, then, there was no guarantee humans would arise – so we couldn’t have been a part of a special plan, could we?
Stephen Jay Gould used to argue that evolution lacks any necessary directedness toward complexity or sophistication: if we “replayed the tape”, we might get a completely different outcome with no guarantees of intelligent life. Stenger notes that Simon Conway Morris is a recent advocate of a contrary view, however. Conway Morris argues, based on observed cases of convergent evolution, that humankind (or something very close) was inevitable. Is he right?
Stenger quotes Elliott Sober’s critique of Conway Morris, which centers on the fact that one can’t show the probability of evolutionary events: we only know the numerator, not the denominator (we unfortunately cannot run additional trials). Stenger adds that since out of the millions of species on earth, most are microbial, “intelligence would not seem to be very high at all on the universe’s agenda.”
Still, we could have a deist God if we accept that God created a cosmos with lots of chancy potential, and was willing to let the chips fall where they may. Such a God, of course, isn’t very attractive to those who yearn for a more traditional deity.
Is there an adequate basis for believing in the existence of (at least) this new kind of deistic God? Stenger doesn’t think so. He spends his last chapter (“Nothingism”) exploring his favorite ideas for a naturalistic account of the universe’s origin. I’m going to skip over these speculative ideas in this review. I think in the coming years work in cosmology and quantum gravity research will be offering new scenarios for how the observable universe arose from a pre-existing context (see for instance here). The point for Stenger is that if a naturalistic account of the universe’s origin is available, then we don’t need a deist God either. And he would answer the question: “who created the laws” by responding that laws are human inventions to describe regularities we observe. This is also a very defensible position.
What about the Multiverse?
Stenger doesn’t devote significant space to the idea of the multiverse apart from his brief section on the Many-Worlds Interpretation. But in addition to interpretations of QM, an increasing number of physical and cosmological theories motivate the possibility of a multiverse. There are also independent philosophical reasons for postulating that our universe is a subset of a larger reality.
I agree with most of Stenger’s criticisms of the various conceptions of God. However, the multiverse is the one conceptual place where I see the potential for a naturalistic worldview to make contact with a notion of God (albeit one which is non-traditional and impersonal): a transcendent and creative entity of which we are but a small part.