Many divine hands make… more work
In ancient times, every flood or drought was a divine mood swing. The gods were like temperamental celebrities, with human assistants just trying not to get on their bad side. The Epic of Gilgamesh, for instance, has a flood narrative where the gods, seemingly on a whim, decide to drown everyone. The Pharaohs of Egypt weren’t just political leaders but considered emissaries of the gods. So, when a Pharaoh built a massive pyramid, it wasn’t just a grand construction project but also a divine intervention in real estate development. Greek gods and goddesses frequently meddled in human affairs, often to pursue personal vendettas or romantic interests, as if pretending to be reality TV stars in the latest season of Real Housewives of Olympia.
Things took a more somber turn during the rise of monotheism. In the Book of Genesis, God is portrayed as the ultimate creator and master planner, orchestrating the universe’s inception with a series of divine commands. This character sets the stage for all of existence, crafting everything from the vast cosmos to the minute details of earthly life. From shaping the first humans from dust to choreographing the great deluge that reshapes the world, His actions are both grandiose and intimate, paving the way for a narrative rich in symbolism and moral lessons.
Transitioning to the New Testament, we encounter Jesus, whose party tricks arguably took divine intervention to a whole new level. From turning water into wine at a wedding in Cana, showcasing not only miraculous power but also an impeccable sense of timing, to walking on water, which could be seen as the ultimate showstopper in defiance of natural laws. Jesus’s miracles served as both demonstrations of divine power and parables in action, blending the extraordinary with spiritual teachings.
In many ancient mythologies, gods physically appeared to humans, engaged in battles, and directly intervened in human affairs. These gods were characters in the stories with physical forms and distinct personalities interacting with humans as tangible entities. Miracles and divine acts were often epic displays of power that were witnessed by many.
In the medieval period, particularly with the rise of Christianity, divine intervention was often seen through more spiritual or symbolic means. Miracles and acts of God were interpreted as signs or messages rather than direct physical interventions. Personal revelations or visions were considered divine communication. The Roman Emperor Constantine famously converted to Christianity in 312 after he had a vision of the cross and the words, “In this sign, you will conquer,” but in Latin, obviously. His subsequent victory was seen as divine intervention guiding the fate of empires.
Joan of Arc claimed to have experienced visions from God, instructing her to support Charles VII and help rid France of English domination during the Hundred Years’ War circa 1400. Specific military victories were said to be directed by the voice of God, like a NASCAR crew chief claiming responsibility for a victory after radioing to the driver to turn left. With the rise of written records, we find more personal tales of miracles, but God still seemed to have time for monumental punishments. When the Black Death hit, it was seen as a divine retribution for humanity’s sins. This was a time when people believed that sneezing could be a sign of impending death requiring a divine call for help — bless you, indeed.
As the Renaissance dawned, the concept of divine intervention underwent another dramatic transformation. The Protestant Reformation, led by figures like Martin Luther, was like a divine intervention in itself — only this time, it was in the church’s business model. This era marked a shift from a church-centric mediation of God’s will to a more personal and direct relationship with the divine. This newfound personal relationship with the divine has persisted into the modern era, albeit in forms that Luther probably never anticipated. In today’s world, divine intervention is often perceived through the lens of personal experience and cultural practices rather than strict theological doctrine.
Consider the spectacle of athletes pointing skyward after a touchdown or musicians thanking the big guy during their Grammy acceptance speech, as if divine intervention took a break from running the universe to choreograph their dance moves. It’s a fascinating display of the human tendency to attribute personal victories to a celestial coach, even though the losers in these scenarios might question where their divine support was hiding, which is probably the same place where those lottery-winning prayers got lost.
A dose of rationality
Paralleling pop culture miracles are the ongoing (and probably neverending) philosophical and theological discussions that trace their roots back to thinkers like Thomas Aquinas writing in the 13th century. In this academic realm, divine intervention is not just a matter of personal belief or cultural expression but a subject of rigorous intellectual inquiry. Aquinas argued that God, being omnipotent, laid down the natural laws governing the universe as the foundational act of creation. However, this same all-powerful deity also had the authority to override these established laws when deemed necessary. In this view, miracles are exceptional events where God momentarily bends or suspends the natural order, a capability that aligns with his supreme power over creation, not unlike Windows 11, which claims to follow a set of rules that it constantly updates every morning.
As the Renaissance unfolded and gave way to the Scientific Revolution in the 16th century, a new understanding of the natural world began to emerge. This era, marked by figures like Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton, ushered in a profound transformation in how natural phenomena were understood. Science began to unravel the mysteries of the universe, explaining what was once attributed to the direct hand of God through observable, measurable natural laws. In this new framework, divine intervention began to be perceived more as a “gap filler” — a convenient explanation for phenomena not yet understood by science.
The role of the divine, in the eyes of many, transitioned from that of a micromanager, directly involved in the minutiae of the world, to a more detached, mysterious overseer whose influence was seen in the grand design rather than in the day-to-day operations. This shift reflected a broader move towards a deistic view of God, particularly evident during the Enlightenment, where God was seen as the creator who set the universe in motion but then allowed it to run according to its own natural laws, with no room for pesky software updates — I like him already.
Moving into the 20th century, the concept of divine intervention evolved into what is known as “non-interventionist” divine action. This term refers to the idea that God doesn’t directly interfere with the established laws of the universe. Instead, the divine is perceived to work within these laws, guiding or influencing the world in subtle, often imperceptible ways. It’s a move away from the idea of a God who actively alters natural events to a more sophisticated understanding where divine action harmonizes with scientific principles and natural laws. If software existed that perpetually ran smoothly, I used that analogy…alas.
In any case, this non-interventionist approach suggests that God’s influence is not evident in overt miracles or blatant suspensions of natural laws but rather in the inherent potentialities and processes of the universe. In this framework, divine action is seen as compatible with scientific understanding, coexisting with the laws of nature rather than superseding them. But which laws could mediate such action? Enter quantum physics.
The quantum puppeteer
The intersection of quantum physics and divine intervention is a niche area that blends the boundaries of science, philosophy, and theology. Several notable figures, including physicists like John Polkinghorne and theologians such as Ian Barbour, have delved into this complex territory. The general idea can be summarized as follows:
Quantum physics, with its intrinsic unpredictability and foundational role in the fabric of reality, offers a unique playground for divine action. In this realm, particles exist in states of probability until observed, a concept that seems almost tailor-made for a subtle form of divine influence. According to this perspective, God could potentially guide or influence events at the quantum level in a way that respects the integrity of scientific laws yet allows for a form of divine interaction. This is not the heavy-handed intervention of parting seas or raining manna from heaven, but a more elegant, almost poetic form of influence, where the divine touch is woven into the very quantum threads of reality.
This idea is modern for the obvious reason that quantum physics is only about 100 years old. The genesis of the quantum occurred in 1900 when Max Planck introduced the “quantum hypothesis,” the idea that energy is made up of countless small chunks that can’t further be subdivided. This wasn’t on a whim — he was trying to solve a specific technical problem known to all physicists at the time. With Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr following suit, quantum “corrections” to conventional physics became ever-popular. Though, at some point, it was clear that these weren’t merely corrections but an entirely new type of physics. If you take this physics to be the rules by which the engine of the universe runs, it has some pretty weird consequences.
Rolling the cosmic dice
Werner Heisenberg introduced his infamous Uncertainty Principle in 1927. This principle turned the deterministic view of classical physics on its head, introducing a level of fundamental randomness into the framework of quantum physics. Heisenberg showed that the act of measuring one property of a particle, like its position, inherently limits the precision with which we can know another property, such as its momentum. Importantly, this is not a limitation of our measuring instruments but an intrinsic feature of nature, assuming quantum physics is correct.
The inherent uncertainty in quantum physics signals a departure from the classical view where the future state of a system could be predicted with certainty, provided we had enough information. Instead, quantum physics suggests a universe imbued with probabilistic behavior and inherent randomness. It’s as if the universe operates on a set of dice, eternally rolled within the quantum realm, with outcomes that are fundamentally unpredictable. Einstein didn’t like it and famously said, “God does not play dice.” Well, perhaps he plays with loaded dice.
If the universe at its most fundamental level is imbued with randomness, then divine action might be subtly interwoven with this inherent uncertainty. The divine influence could operate within the quantum probabilities, guiding events in ways that align with the universe’s natural laws rather than overtly violating them. Even the smallest probabilities — say, those associated with miracles — are not zero probabilities. Thus quantum physics seems to allow events typically associated with the miraculous.
Given the inherent unpredictability of quantum events to human observers, as prescribed by the Uncertainty Principle, any divine influence at this level would necessarily be hidden. In other words, distinguishing a “natural” quantum event from a divinely influenced one would be impossible. This approach preserves the integrity of scientific observations and theories, as divine action does not introduce observable anomalies or disruptions in what seems to be the natural order.
This perspective can be seen as contrasting with a deistic view (the “set and forget” approach), requiring instead a continuous, subtle form of divine interaction. In the quantum view, God is not a distant architect but an active participant, continually influencing the unfolding of the universe through quantum events. This implies a dynamic, ever-present notion of divinity, suggesting God is more of a Stombolli than a Geppetto.
At the intersection of quantum physics and theology, it’s noticeable that the discourse tends to be predominantly Christian in its theological references. This focus often reflects the cultural and historical context of the scholars engaged in these discussions. However, the intriguing aspects of quantum physics at play — its inherent randomness and the potential for divine action within it — do not exclusively point to the capital “G” God of Christian theology.
The arguments about divine action in quantum physics, and indeed the principles of quantum physics themselves, are not inherently tied to any specific religious doctrine. The uncertainties and probabilities inherent in quantum mechanics could just as easily be attributed to any number of deities or cosmic forces — from the Flying Spaghetti Monster to a pantheon of gods…or even to no divine being at all.
This opens the door to a more inclusive and expansive view of divine action, one that transcends specific religious dogmas. In fact, the very nature of quantum physics suggests a more democratized form of creation. John Wheelers’ “participatory universe,” where the observer influences the observed, envisions a universe where the lines between observer, observed, and creator are blurred, leading to fascinating philosophical implications. Could it be that every observer, in some small way, is participating in the creation and shaping of reality? This notion turns the traditional concept of a singular, external deity on its head, proposing instead a universe where every conscious being has a stake in the cosmic game.
In this view, the universe is not a static creation of a distant architect but a dynamic, participatory canvas where every act of observation and measurement is a subtle act of creation. The implications are both humbling and profound: in observing and studying the universe, we are not merely passive spectators but active participants in its ongoing unfolding.
A dose of humility
While the participatory universe model of quantum physics suggests an alluring dance between human observation and cosmic reality, it’s crucial to temper this with a dose of existential and naturalistic sobriety. The existentialist viewpoint, championed by thinkers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, reminds us that the universe is fundamentally indifferent and devoid of inherent meaning. This philosophy emphasizes the individual’s responsibility to forge personal meaning and values in a universe that doesn’t cater to human desires or perceptions.
Complementing this existential perspective is the stance of philosophical naturalism, which posits that the universe and all its phenomena can be explained through natural processes and empirical understanding. Naturalism challenges the necessity of supernatural explanations, often associated with religious narratives, and views them as human constructs developed for comfort and control. It argues that in a world increasingly illuminated by scientific discovery, the explanatory power of religion diminishes, rendering it more a cultural artifact than a vessel of objective truth.
Both existentialism and naturalism confront us with a universe that is vast, ancient, and indifferent to human existence. Where existentialism emphasizes the creation of subjective meaning amidst this cosmic indifference, naturalism advocates for a worldview grounded in empirical evidence and scientific inquiry. Together, they present a philosophical framework where the grandeur and mystery of the universe are acknowledged but without the need for divine orchestration or purpose.
In this light, the quantum-level interactions and the larger cosmic narrative are seen not as reflections of divine action but as manifestations of the natural order, operating independently of human wishes or divine will. This perspective encourages a humble appreciation of our place in the cosmos, advocating for a pursuit of knowledge and meaning that is rooted in our human capacities rather than in a search for external divine intervention.
So, does quantum physics leave a backdoor open for divine intervention? Not quite. While quantum randomness and contextuality introduce a level of unpredictability and dependence on observation, they don’t imply a divine hand. These phenomena are inherent to the fabric of the quantum world, governed by natural laws, not supernatural whims. In the dance of atoms and void, quantum physics has choreographed a universe more bizarre and wonderful than any ancient myth.
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Dr. Chris Ferrie