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Design and Divine Conservation

Do not imagine that dividing divine interference from natural physical processes is an easy affair. For one thing, it is standard theology to say that the cosmos would immediately vanish if God ceased to “conserve” it in existence from moment to moment, the theologians then adding that the laws of physics hold only because this is what God wills. Keeping everything in existence, and keeping it obedient to physical laws, are simply not counted by theologians as “interference” or “miracle”. I see nothing wrong in this, but the point is a controversial one. It becomes particularly difficult to handle when you bear in mind two further points: first, that our universe can seem to obey laws of quantum physics which do not dictate precisely how events develop, and second, that quantum randomness, perhaps together with other types of randomness, may have had major effects on the general structure of the world which we see. It is often theorized that the strengths of various forces such as electromagnetism, gravity, and the nuclear weak and strong forces, and the masses of such particles as the neutron, the proton and the electron, could all have been settled during early instants of the Big Bang by random processes inside an initially very tiny domain which later grew large enough to include everything now visible to our telescopes. Physicists speak, for example, of symmetry breaking by scalar fields whose values could have varied randomly from one very tiny domain to another. Against this background, how would things look to a theologian who believed that God would have to choose at each instant precisely how the cosmos would be at the next instant when he “conserved” it in existence? - when he preserved it, that is to say, but preserved it in a slightly changed form which led humans to speak of the action of physical forces. The laws of physics, as I noted, could fail to dictate exactly what would have to happen in order for them to be obeyed. They could be quantum-physical laws that left this up to God. In which case God might have chosen cunningly that events would in fact develop, at early instants of the Big Bang, in such a way that there would later be the sort of world which permitted the evolution of intelligent life because the strengths of its physical forces and the masses of its particles had been settled appropriately.

Having chosen cunningly how things would happen at early instants, God might also act rather similarly at various crucial later moments, ensuring that events which quantum physics allowed to develop along various different paths, most of them not leading to the evolution of intelligent life, in fact took one or other of the few paths leading to it. We might be unjustified in calling this type of thing “divine interference”, as long as it did not happen on too large a scale. The distinction between designing a world’s laws in a life-encouraging fashion and then leaving them to operate, and actually designing such things as eyes by, say, putting the optic nerves in the right places, is a sufficiently clear distinction - but in between there is a fuzzy area where what one person would call “messy divine interference” or “miracle” would be classified by another person as God just not choosing perversely to make events happen in life-excluding ways when life - encouraging ways were equally present among the possibilities allowed by physical laws, the possibilities among which God had to choose.

Contributed by: Dr. John Leslie

Cosmic Questions

Was the Universe Designed? Topic Index
The Meaning of Design

Design and Divine Conservation

The Argument from Design
Design and Living Beings
Fine Tuning
Fine Tuning and the Laws of Nature
Anthropic Principles
The Best of All Universes
Design and Human Survival
A Platonic Approach
Spinoza's Compromise


John Leslie

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