Arthur Peacocke and ‘God’s Interaction in the World’

Recently in our course on Key Thinkers in Science and Religion we worked through a chapter from Arthur Peacocke’s Theology for a Scientific Age, examining how the author confronts ‘God’s Interaction with the World’: the problematic terrain classically known as divine providence. In his chapter, Peacocke begins by laying out the terms and positions that have shed the most light on the matter, moving quickly past metaphors of the guide of a hiking party and an absentee landlord in order to arrive at the more crucial sticking points of how God actually manifests in a world increasingly demystified by scientific, psychological, and sociological advancement. There is no question, he says, that providence is a central feature of scripture-based faiths (Judaism and Christianity), which have been shaped by narratival patterns of a God that continually appears and acts within the lives of faith communities. What is more questionable, however, is how reliably we are to take the testimonies of such providential workings, since it is that faith community itself—hardly an unbiased jury—that attests to God’s working. The criteria for ‘unbiasing’ instances of divine interaction must be available to even those without faith for certifying—or at least opening the possibility for—such activity. Most attempts in the past, Peacocke avers, have upheld at least one of two key presuppositions: either an understanding of the world in purely mechanistic terms, bound to the physical laws that describe and normalize it, or the dualist assumption à la Descartes that splits the world between mind and body, material and spiritual, whose integration, as in the human agent, borders on the mysterious.    As a result of these two presuppositions, the notion of ‘intervention’ meets with incredible resistance as, on one hand, any interruption in the laws of nature gets snagged upon the snare of a deus ex machina and its numerous philosophical thorns, while on the other, any theology that would cross the mind-body divide must brace itself for the standoff with what he later identifies as the ‘causal joint.’ The latter inevitably gets caught in its attempt to smuggle across the divide a solution founded on a God of the gaps.

With the pitfalls pointed out we circle back to the question of how: how does God act in the world? He summarizes potential answers offered in the works of other dedicated thinkers, who suggest the metaphor of personal action, the quasi-Thomist premise of primary cause, process theology, and variations on the particulars-free idea of uniform action. In the end, though, each of these solutions comes up short at the edge of the ontological gap and fails to make that final link between the epistemologically distinct figures of human and God. Such is the Sisyphean trial of the causal joint, that philosophical disconnect that has yet to synchronize the active agency and intentionality of God with that same agency and intentionality in the human being. The modality that would overlap human and divine action—as it clings to the two presuppositions Peacocke laid out previously—is simply not understood, and is met by a vexing agnosticism among many thinkers. More conceptual resources are needed, Peacocke argues, since the working analogy of God’s relationship with humans as personal continues to run aground on philosophical rocks.

So before moving on to determining what science allows for a view of providence, Peacocke reviews what nature testifies to in our knowledge of God, namely that he is intelligible, rational, creative of and through regular processes, and continuously immanent. In addition, his kenotic gesture through Christ attests to a self-vulnerability that enables nature (namely us) to act in relative freedom. As we examine nature, we find ample space for these divine traits as scientific advances over the twentieth century have outdated the mechanistic view of the universe to reveal a vast degree of openness, flexibility, and unpredictability at both micro- and macroscopic scales. Some thinkers, like Polkinghorne, capitalize on such wiggle room to posit a kind of God of the unpredictable gaps, but this still succumbs to the ‘interventionist’ problems just named, even if God’s direct action would now be ‘hidden’ from us in areas we can never detect. And in contrast to the further issues of omniscience/prescience that this idea raises, P maintains that God possesses self-limiting omniscience, which precludes him from knowing fully every detail or outcome of cosmic activity, such that human freedom is safeguarded. Like Popper, he favors the notion of propensities, in the style of loaded dice (though this carries unavoidably deistic undertones). Peacocke goes on to say that the issues still at large in the causal joint may be more accurately framed within the causative ways and means already at work in the world.

Peacocke proposes that we look much more intently at ‘top-down’ causation, utilizing the notion of systems and the levels of complexity that structure our world that would incorporate everything from the intentions that originate in the brain/mind on down to the nerves/neurones that actually do the work of physical activation. At center of this model is a dialogical approach that relies on systemic communication by the passing of info instead of energy, so that it avoids entropic difficulties. In distinction from panentheism, which seems to repress the personal dimension of an ongoing creation, recent findings that cohere humans as psycho-somatic unities greatly assist the top-down idea. From ‘total brain states’—the correlative web of agency that links mental intention to physical causation—Peacocke extrapolates that in the same way and to the same degree that we act cognitively in our own subjective causality, so too does God operate upon the state of the whole world, at least in those aspects that are cognitively knowable. Just as we exert effects on our own bodies in a top-down manner, God exerts effects analogously on the world-as-a-whole in top-down manner. God’s bearing on the world thus works as a transfer of info that communicates and expresses his intentions much in the way that software informs but doesn’t hijack the inbuilt freedoms and flexibilities of operating hardware in computers. Therefore, as the “supra-personal, unifying, and unitive influence on all-that-is”, God works top-down to enact changes that trickle down to effect general as well as particular circumstances, leaving us to discern the patterns in the whole (the task of science) while participating in God’s intentionality for the world. This view protects God’s freedom as the originator of top-down effects and our own, as free agents within the system. In this way Peacocke believes he avoids all talk of intervention, though in response to the albeit now supra-cosmic question of the causal joint he defers to the mysteries of God in his relation to matter and energy, which, at the end of the day, eludes adequate discernment in our lower level capacities.

Peacocke then seeks to address other theological models presented to estimate God’s actual methods of relation to the world, namely variations on various monarchical and organic models. Each of these proves faulty in some regard, so he turns to models that more amply demonstrate God’s creative posture to the world, which envelops both Jewish and Christian beliefs and revives the ‘personal’ aspect of God’s relation to the world. Making and emanation each are not nearly holistic enough, and though Sayers’ ‘authorial’ model has promise—which equates God, the world, and human agents as various aspects of the writing process and allows for flexibility even amidst the creative process, this model too is a bit too stiff for Peacocke, who wants to grant humans more autonomy than as mere literary figures. He finally lights up over the music model, which casts God as the composer of the great and unfolding symphony of life, in which chords, movements, and artistic intentions compose the world in beauty, intelligibility, rhythm, variety, and even surprise. Even emotional interaction with the listener takes place as humans are able to apprehend and respond to the creative expression of God. Through music, the personal God comes into dynamic—even sacramental—interaction with the created. In the end, Peacocke seeks to suspend models that perpetuate God-as-human-agent and consider that his top-down model rethinks God’s revelation and communication without having to cross a line of intervention. Through his top-down explanation, God dispenses knowledge of himself universally, encoding in the cosmic process his meaning for it all, but its comprehension will be limited to the cognitive perceptibility of consciousness at each level, such that we would grasp more of God’s nature than, say, a fish. Amongst all these different levels, meaning and purpose emerge supplementarily, such that God is never fully graspable (thus bound to system itself), but constantly revelatory, remaining involved in his world and always free to act (though he chooses to self-limit), and whose ways remain ever legible to those with eyes to see.

In conclusion, whether or not Peacocke’s top-down model manages to skirt the causal joint, I think it treads fresher and more agreeable territory than trying to recycle the same old arguments for God’s intervening (classical providence), and I think the idea of recognizing God’s presence and character according to cognitive ability is actually rather elegant. (I can imagine animals being thankful for food, shelter, nice weather even if it’s not what we might call worshipful). I feel like his model still suffers under the image of a kind of puppet master, who insists on pulling the strings just out of sight, coordinating the course of events toward certain teleological ends. Christianity does track with such ends in certain regards, but unless God truly limits himself to allow true (contingent) human freedom, then there will always persist in his model a bit of ‘steering’ toward those teleological ends, which compromises his intervention-free software/hardware solution to the perennial mind-body problem.