Monday, July 26, 2010

God & Physics Conference

A few days ago I returned from England, where I attended the “God and Physics” conference at Oxford. The conference was a worthwhile experience. There were about 100 people in attendance, including John Polkinghorne, Ian Barbour, Keith ward, John Brooke, Robert Russell and many other well-known names in the science/religion field. I had many interesting conversations.

My paper on “God, Chance and Evil” went well and generated a fair bit of discussion. As I noted in my previous post, I argued that in a Christian worldview there can be no such thing as genuine chance (or “ontological chance”) where even God cannot predict the outcome of an event. Rather, there can be only “epistemic chance”, which is just a limit on human predictions. I contended that most arguments for ontological chance were actually only arguments for epistemic chance.

Among other works, I critiqued a paper by Paul Ewart, an Oxford physicist. Ewart argued for the necessity of ontological chance and, hence, for a limitation on God’s knowledge of future events. I contended that his arguments showed the necessity only of epistemic chance, rather than ontological chance. Hence they proved only the limited nature of human predictability. As it happened, Paul Ewart was in the audience. He did, however, concede that he had proven the necessity only of epistemic chance.

Most of the papers dealt with various aspects of Polkinghorne’s works. Almost all seem to believe that God does not know the future. It is contended that God knows all that can be known, but the future does not yet exist, so it cannot yet be known. The main argument is that human freewill requires an autonomy that makes it impossible for God to know the future.

Kenotic theology played a huge role. This is derived from Phil.2:5-8 (“Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant”). It is claimed that God, too, voluntarily limited his powers in order to make room for human autonomy. They cite other passages, where God is said to repent or change his mind, to support God’s allegedly limited knowledge of the future.

One of the most useful presentations was that of Ian Barbour, who is 87 years old and a pioneer in science/religion issues. Barbour compared the writings of Ian Barbour, John Polkinghorne and Arthur Peacocke. All three were scientists who later became theologians (Polkinghorne and Peacocke both became Anglican priests). All three accepted a fully evolutionary view of origins: non believed in an historical paradise from which Adam fell. Death is not a punishment of sin but a necessity for evolution. They all re-interpreted "original sin" as the inheritance of unjust social structures into which we are born. Polkinghorne and Peacocke believed in kenotic theology, where God voluntarily limits himself, whereas Barbour adhered to process theology, where God necessarily limits himself. As to Christ, Polkinghorne believed Christ to be the Incarnate Son, the second person of the trinity, born to the virgin Mary without a human father, and bodily resurrected after his death; Peacocke and Barbour both believed Christ to be only a man--albeit a new stage in evolution--who was not born to a virgin nor bodily resurrected.

On the last day, at lunch, I was one of the first to enter the dining hall. I sat at an empty table and was soon joined by John Brooke, and then by John Polkinghorne and Ian Barbour. I asked them whether they believed in an afterlife. Polkinghorne most definitely did but Barbour was less certain—he thought it might be a possibility. I asked what Arthur Peacocke (who died in 2006) believed. Peacocke, whom I met at my last Oxford conference, in 2000, had then seemed doubtful. However, John Brooke related that just before Peacocke died he had sent a letter to his closest friends expressing his hope to meet them in the hereafter.

Regarding eschatology, it is interesting that Polkinghorne notes that here there is a definite contradiction between secular science, which predicts that all life in the universe will eventually die, and Christianity, which predicts the second coming of Christ. Polkinghorne postulates that God will then miraculously change the laws of nature to usher in the new heaven and earth. This, of course, raises the question: if secular science is not be believed regarding its eschatology, why should we believe it regarding origins?


  1. Thanks Dr Bijl for sharing this with us. If almost all of the people you spoke to seem to believe that God does not know the future, what do they believe about prophesy and dreams that come true? Did the people who prophesied and dreamt dreams that became true know more about the future than God?

  2. Hello Henrietta

    Polkingorne discusses prophecy in his 2004 book “Science and the Trinity”. There he writes, "God does not yet know the unformed future, simply because it is not yet there to be known" (54). Polkinghorne's kenosis theology insists that God has "chosen to possess only a current omniscience, temporally indexed" (108). World history is continuously unfolding, not a "fixed score" (67-68). God is therefore mutable (107), continuously adjusting his plans in light of developments in the world.

    Biblical prophecy thus reflects "a consonance of understanding, rather than confirmation of prediction" (53), such that later events are correlated retrospectively with previous writings. ""God promises but does not prophesy", meaning that God does not use the prophets to provide a detailed preview of what must inevitably come to pass. Rather, God proclaims the divine attitude of covenantal love within which future events will happen" (54).

    Polkinghorne argues that Old Testament prophesies referred to as fulfilled in the New Testament were simply given that interpretation, after the fact, via a "flexible hermeneutic" (58). Had the NT events been different, different OT passages would have been interpreted as being fulfilled.

    Polkinghorne would argue that nobody knows the future in any detail. Presumably, people who prophesy, or dream, true future events are either lucky or erroneously claim to have done so after the fact.

  3. I fear this is an awefully small view of God. In what way does this distinguish God from His creatures? He seems to have no transcendent charatcter in Polkinghorne's view.

  4. Not knowing much about you, this blog, those men in their later years of life who you interacted with at Oxford recently and your representations of their views, it seems to me there isn't any room to conclude that God doesn't now know the future in light of these Scriptural writings of the past:

    Luk 1:18 And Zechariah said to the angel, "How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years."
    Luk 1:19 And the angel answered him, "I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.
    Luk 1:20 And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time."

    back even farther historically, to these also:

    Ecc 7:13 Consider the work of God: who can make straight what he has made crooked?
    Ecc 7:14 In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him.

    Both are held in tension with each other and since true tested Science confirms certain absolutes, it is easy to reason why one would argue and then be convinced otherwise:

    Ewart argued for the necessity of ontological chance and, hence, for a limitation on God’s knowledge of future events. I contended that his arguments showed the necessity only of epistemic chance, rather than ontological chance. Hence they proved only the limited nature of human predictability. As it happened, Paul Ewart was in the audience. He did, however, concede that he had proven the necessity only of epistemic chance.

    With regard to the man, Polkinghorne and what you write about him: Polkinghorne postulates that God will then miraculously change the laws of nature to usher in the new heaven and earth., one can see Truth coming from his inner man along the lines of this Truth:

    Ecc 3:11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.
    Ecc 3:12 I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live;
    Ecc 3:13 also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil--this is God's gift to man.

  5. Dr. Byl - will your paper be available online?

  6. I have added the powerpoint presentation of "God, Chance and Evil" under the post "Books & Articles..."

  7. Great commentary on the lack of consistency by many scientific minds who have two non-overlapping magesterium (religion & science, faith & physics, etc.).

    I was in a lecture given by University of Alberta's Dennis Lamoreaux in 2005 and noticed the same inconsistency. I asked him to explain the physical mechanism of 1 Corinthians 15:51-52 and how that fits into a uniformiatrian understanding of physical processes in the unniverse. He pleaded that "some things are a mystery" and gave a 5 minute rant on how we can't know everything.

    I laughed out loud.

  8. Hi Dr. Byl,

    I don't know if you'll get this note since the post is an older one, but I was wondering if you had an idea of the split between scientists/philosophers on whether the "evidence" for quantum indeterminacy shows either epistemic or ontological indeterminacy? That is, what's the spread? Is it, say, something like 85% for ontological and 15% for epistemic (to pick arbitrary percentages), or whatever?

  9. Its hard to say.

    Many quantum specialists opt for the "Many Worlds Interpretation", where each observation results in multiple deterministic universes.

    See, for example,
    "Many-worlds"-like interpretations are now considered fairly mainstream within the quantum physics community. For example, a poll of 72 leading physicists conducted by the American researcher David Raub in 1995 and published in the French periodical Sciences et Avenir in January 1998 recorded that nearly 60% thought that the many-worlds interpretation was "true". Max Tegmark also reports the result of a poll taken at a 1997 quantum mechanics workshop.[67] According to Tegmark, "The many worlds interpretation (MWI) scored second, comfortably ahead of the consistent histories and Bohm interpretations."

    I would guess that most philosophers will grant that the evidence supports epistemic indeterminacy and that arguing further to ontological indeterminacy requires further philosophical or theological assumptions. For example,Francis Collins and Ken Miller believe in an ontological indeterminacy so that God can intervene in nature, undetected, at the quantum level. Other theists opt for ontological uncertainty to leave room for their version of human freewill or to absolve God from evil.

  10. Dr. Byl,

    Thank you very much.

    If I may ask a follow up? Do you think the Bible, or the Reformed summary of, necessarily precludes ontological indeterminacy? I suppose the Reformers had no idea of quantum particles when they wrote the Confession. Since many philosophers have said that quantum indeterminism doesn't affect a determinism at the macro level, then such indeterminism doesn't "make a difference." And, of course, many libertarians admit that mere quantum indetermiacy is not enough to allow for libertarian free will. So, what if one were to say that God "ordains whatsoever comes to pass," means something like "whatsoever matters." So determinism at the macro level would still obstain, and Reformed doctrines of predestination, election, etc., still stand, and LFW is still false. Is this position open (consistent) for someone to take if that someone wishes to remained Reformed? Or is afirmation of ontological indeterminism logically incompatible with a Reformed view of providence?

    I sure hope that made sense! And again, thanks for your time.

  11. First, quantum indeterminism, if it existed, could be amplified (e.g., via a chaotic deterministic mechanism) to produce macro indeterminism.

    Second, the Reformed confessions specify that after God created all things “He did not give them up to chance…but governs them so that nothing happens without His appointment” (Belgic Conf.13, Heidelberg Cat.Q&A 27).

    God upholds the universe by His word (Hebr.1:3) so that without His continuous sustenance the universe would cease to exist. Hence there can be no autonomous creature or creaturely force.

    The notion that something (e.g., a quantum event) can occur without any cause--or have an outcome not predictably by God (cf Is.42:9)--is certainly contrary to the Biblical notion of divine providence.

  12. Dr. Byl,

    Thanks. Those are my suspicions as well. Thanks for the Belgic and Heidelberg quotes). I forgot to apply the foreknowledge argument to the question. Even apart from God's determining all things, if he knows all things, this rules out indeterminism (though we'd say he knows by consulting his decree).

    Also, could you expand on your first comment? Perhaps there is a paper on the subject you could point me to. I'd be appreciative.

  13. A good article on this topic is:
    John C. Beckman, “Quantum Mechanics, Chaos Physics and the Open View of God,” Philosophia Christi 4 #1: 2002, 203-213.

    For example, one could construct a device where a geiger counter, if it detects a beta decay within, say, 10 seconds of noon, triggers a nuclear bomb which starts World War III. Whether the desired beta decay occurs depends on the outcome of a particular quantum event.


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