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Peacocke’s View of Divine Action

The best way to compare theories of divine action in detail is to ask - what, for each theory, is ‘the causal joint’ at which God - as a transcendent, immaterial world cause - interacts particularly with causative factors in the material world?

Arthur Peacocke wants to use the analogy of God as mind, world as body, but with a very proper caution - ‘in a human body, the “I” does not transcend the body ontologically in the way that God transcends the world.’Peacocke, A, ‘God’s Interaction with the World: The Implications of Deterministic ‘Chaos’ and of Interconnected and Interdependent Complexity’ in Chaos and Complexity: Scientific...He is also very cautious about explicating the causal joint - such a description of the problem ‘does not do justice to the many levels in which causality operates in a world of complex systems interlocking in many ways at many levels.’Peacocke, 1995, 282 He does not find any theologically-relevant gaps in the causal order, and is temperamentally most reluctant to contemplate anything smacking of divine intervention in the natural order (see the question of miracle).

So Peacocke follows Kaufman and WilesSee a classification of theories of divine postulating that God’s action is on the-world-as-a-whole, but he goes further than either in that:

  1. he offers a metaphor for divine action in terms of the way in which the properties of a whole system, such as a chemical system far from equilibrium, or a biological ecosystem, affect the behaviour of individual parts. The nature of the whole, and its environment, exerts constraints on the behaviour of the parts. This he originally called ‘top-down causation’ but now prefers to call ‘whole-part influence.’Peacocke, A, ‘The Sound of Sheer Silence: How Does God Communicate with Humanity?’ in Neuroscience and the Person: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, ed. by RJ Russell et al (Vatican City...The material world, on this model, has God as its boundary or environment; relationship with God is the highest emergent property of any physical system.

  2.  Peacocke allows the possibility that this general action of God’s on the-world-as-whole might have particular effects - just as a boundary constraint in one of the systems described above might generate a particular, localised pattern.

Peacocke’s God, then, is the environment of the cosmos.A description which tallies with Jurgen Moltmann’s writing of the world as a system open to the creative energies of God (see God, Humanity and the Cosmos, pp218-20). In earlier writing Peacocke used... His God’s interaction with the world, by means of the input of information - is the highest-level emergent property (see the concept of emergence) of the cosmos as system, a system within which God is radically and totally immanent, as well as transcendent.

As Willem B Drees points out,Drees, WB, (1995) ‘Gaps for God?’ in Chaos and Complexity: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, ed. by RJ Russell, Nancey Murphy and Arthur Peacocke (Vatican City: Vatican Observatory, 1995)...speaking of the environment of the whole universe can never be more than a metaphor, but it is the strength of panentheism that it can offer such a telling metaphor. Thomas Tracy also takes Peacocke to task for stretching a concept too far - he points out that the examples of ‘top-down’ causation we know about are all analysable in ‘bottom-up’ terms.And the one system we don’t at all understand is the human brain. Drees has elsewhere criticised thinkers for using top-down causation to explain the relation of the mind and the brain, and the mind-brain...Top-down causation is a purely explanatory procedure, it is a bold strategy to invoke it for ontological purposes, and to suppose that a ‘whole’ can be invoked as an actual cause within a system.Tracy, T, ‘Particular Providence and the God of the Gaps’ in Chaos and Complexity: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, ed. by RJ Russell, Nancey Murphy and Arthur Peacocke (Vatican City:...

To examine these views in detail see Peacocke and Polkinghorne compared.

Email link | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. Christopher Southgate
Source: God, Humanity and the Cosmos  (T&T Clark, 1999)

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