The End of the Closed Causal Web?

John Polkinghorne points out that "the predictable systems, studied by Newton and his successors, are exceptional in their simplicity" (1989, 2). "Recent advances in science," he says, "point to an openness and flexibility within physical processes" (13). This is most obvious at the quantum level, but Polkinghorne argues that, because of the nature of complex dynamic systems, "even at those macrocosmic levels where classical physics gives an adequate account, there is an openness to the future which relaxes the unrelenting grip of mechanical determinism" (i30). In the real world, where delicate systems are never truly isolated but often have an infinitesimally balanced sensitivity to events far away in the universe, Newton's laws give "no more than an approximation to a more supple reality." Such an ontological openness allows the operation of further causal principles, active in bringing about the future.

Polkinghorne proposes the concept of "information" or pattern-forming influence as a model for divine action. This is, in effect, an appeal to teleology, a purposeful ordering of nature that leaves mathematical descriptions of nature as complete as they can be, yet still gives an intelligible place to nonphysical causal influences that cannot be brought under and do not compete with the general regularities described by the equations of physics.

It might prove helpful to reformulate talk of "laws of nature," with its implication that such laws actually exist before or outside the physical universe, as talk of mathematical descriptions of behavior. Then, it will be no surprise that the laws of nature deal only with "natural" causes. That is only saying that the variables of our mathematical equations must be filled with precisely measurable and observable values, if the equations are to work. There is no known way of measuring intentions, feelings, or thoughts. So, there are no equations that include them.

That does not mean they do not exist or that they have no influence. It just means, for example, that we cannot formulate a law for the creation of a universe by the intention of God, for there is no general mathematical description of the creation of universes. If there were, that really would be the ultimate equation to explain the universe. But it is highly unlikely to exist.

In the same way, if God changes some physical state, that change will not fall under any mathematical description, for precisely the same reason—God's acts fall under no general law. That is the reason God is not part of science. God just does not fit into our equations. God is not the observable and measurable value of a variable.

Why, then, should some scientists get so upset at the thought of God's changing some physical state? Presumably because then there would be some event that did not fall under a general mathematical description. But there are millions of such events anyway—including the change in quantum states of atoms and the free actions of human persons. Such events are not meaningless or wholly random. In both cases, there is a selection from a limited range of alternatives. In the case of persons, this selection is made for a reason, consciously entertained by the person. In the case of electrons, no consciousness is involved, but there may well be underlying constraints that weight the probabilities in ways not yet obvious to us and not capable of being framed in precise and universal mathematical descriptions. These might include teleological considerations concerning what is required for the successive emergence of stable atoms, replicating molecules, central nervous systems, and a conscious neocortex. No one has devised a mathematical formalism that can measure and correlate the formation and implementation of goals precisely. So such considerations will, as Dirac puts it, lie outside the boundaries of science.

Laws of nature are humanly constructed mathematical descriptions of the behavior of objects with a set of relevant denumerable properties. But what the hidden causes of that behavior are we have no idea, and how far our descriptions mirror their true nature we cannot know. We can only say that our descriptions work well enough—in fact, with supreme accuracy in relatively closed or controlled conditions—but not that there is nothing else to be described, or perhaps even, as Dirac and d'Espagnat suggest, beyond description.

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