One of the most controversial aspects of theism is the postulate that God acts in the world. This is controversial because over against a view that reality emerges intentionally, there are models that dispute that.
In philosophy, a non-intentional view may have been first introduced by the Carvakan school of thought around the sixth century BCE in what is now known as India. These philosophers were perhaps the first materialists because one of the things they postulated was that all there is, is matter and it has “svabhava” or self-nature. In other words, matter has an intrinsic nature that produces the world we see. Today this self-nature is thought of as properties such as mass, spin, charge, etc. Apparently this line of thinking made its way into early Greek thought probably through the Persian trade routes because about a hundred years later the concept of materialistic atomism appears. In atomism it is claimed that reality is constituted by atomos, small indestructible elements which have intrinsic properties and when combined in various ways produce what we see. This particular characterization of reality caught on in the West and eventually led to be a dominant view in science.
However, this “svabhava” view was not without its detractors. There were those both in the East and West who rejected this view. In the East the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna developed his sunyata concept or “emptiness” saying that nothing has an essential independent nature but only a conditional or relational existence. The term for this is “dependent co-arising” in Buddhist thought. In early Greek thought the rejection of non-intentional atomism was more subtle. Anaxagoras did not reject atomism, per se, but claimed that what animated atoms was not a self-nature but nous or mind.
Perhaps the most forceful attack on the svabhavan atomism came later with the idealism schools of thought in Germany and England. Some maintained that what constituted reality was, in fact, mind or perception. George Berkeley as one of its leading proponents famously said, “To be is to be perceived or to perceive”. Berkeley and his “subjective idealism” fell under considerable criticism for being unable to account for common experience, and later became more of an absolute idealist by attributing our perceptions to God.
Another strain of criticism also came from forms of panpsychism that date back to early Greek thought, Heraclitus for one. Most notable among modern proponents is the philosophy of Alfred Whitehead. Whitehead was a contemporary of Einstein and even developed his own physical theories. Later in his life he forged off into speculative metaphysics and founded process philosophy. Whitehead claimed that reality is constituted by occasions (events) of experience. Like the quote below from Stapp, Whitehead rejected the enduring substance view of reality in favor of an event model of becoming.
There continue to be critics of a svabhavan materialism, but materialistic atomism has maintained its prominence among many thinkers because it has proved a helpful framework within which to do science. It has offered many achievements by utilizing reductionism.
So, for a reasonable, science friendly person who at least entertains a teleological view of reality, how are these opposing views to be adjudicated? Has an intentional constituting element or process (teleology) been definitively refuted? I would say no, but the teleological view has also not been definitively affirmed. To me, the landscape is very muddled. Now I haven’t kept up with all the latest in fundamental science but I’ll offer my perspective. If someone has new information, that would be welcome.
At some level, science has been very successful in making predictions and predictability might be a path to ruling out teleology. But there are and have been limits to this predictability. Under a Newtonian model, the limits of predictability originate from the lack of data. But with the advent of quantum mechanics the limits of predictability are not epistemological but rather ontological. For instance, the collapse of the wave packet can be characterized through probability but exactly when and why the collapse occurs is indeterminate. Events occur within a statistical model but a particular event has an unpredictability to it.
Then there is the issue of consciousness or mind in experiments. Berkeley Physicist, Henry Stapp put it this way:
Another apparent kink in predictability arises with emergence. Nobel laureate physicist Robert Laughlin’s book “A Difference Universe” offers examples where collective behavior seems to create properties that aren’t amenable to reductionist explanations. He even speculates that space/time may be emergent. I haven’t followed emergence research closely but if the collective has a powerful effect on how reality is constituted that would present an enormous challenge for science because the efficacy of the reductionist approach relies on minimizing parameters.
So, if a thoroughgoing predictability is not currently in the offing, where does that leave a discerning, metaphysically seeking individual? Probably back to an informed intuition. Reality certainly appears to have some level of purpose i.e. intentionality. If that intuition is reasonable, and I think it is, then where does intentionality come from? Since we usually approach things from a cascading cause-and-effect perspective, this raises the possibility of an ultimate intentionality as the source. Enter divine action.
Historically there is a wide spectrum of ideas on divine action. In theistic, dualistic systems divine action is often characterized as supernatural interventions. In this view, our reality pretty much runs on its own but from time to time the divine intervenes and overrules the normal order of things to accomplish some end. In milder forms the divine just maintains the order of the world and doesn’t step in at any point to affect some difference. Both of these are predicated on the perception that there is a definite order to the universe and it may not exist by itself or be intransigent without some outside activity. Examples of both of these positions can be found in the Abrahamic traditions like fundamentalist Christianity and theistic evolutionism.
In monistic systems where divine action is postulated, divine action occurs not across some divide but integral to reality. This approach also acknowledges the importance of order but may attribute that order to God. I don’t know if the following represents a dualistic or monistic approach but it states one way to view divine action and the regularity in the universe from a physicist’s perspective.
In Measurements and time reversal in objective quantum theory, Purdue physicist F. J. Belinfante:
The key point, in this view, is that God has made a commitment to the regular habits found in the structure of reality. The result of which would explain predictability, at least in the macroscopic realm. From the “life” perspective of my previous post this means that God respects that order is a necessary requirement for life. And even more than that, as Belinfante claims, the order we see is not svabhavan i.e. intrinsic but rather intentionally created event by event. What this also says is that order is not mechanistic but rather a teleological complex of events that are purposeful, somehow embedded in and represented by both the predictability and unpredictability of events.
Now since there is flow of events in order, this may also mean that stark disruptions in order could have significant, cascading negative effects on life. This suggests that supernaturalism not only discounts the adequacy of God’s creation but also God’s faithfulness to the life giving order that is needed.
So, all this taken together represents another decision point for the theological system. Is divine action a forceful, overriding intervention or an organic process? An aspect monism would opt for the later. If the divine has a life and we are aspects of it, then the divine is not an outside influence but rather within the Life itself that proceeds according to divine purpose. Also if a fundamental feature of life is constraint, then it isn’t unreasonable to view divine action as constrained action as well. And intentionality can operate comfortably within those constraints.