Tuesday, 23 May 2017

A Brief Note on Causal Joints, Active Information, and the God–World Distinction

Sarah Lane Ritchie has recently published a stimulating essay on causal joints: ‘Dancing Around the Causal Joint: Challenging the Theological Turn in Divine Action Theories’, Zygon 52:2 (2017), pp. 361–379. She notes the ‘theological turn’ in divine action and explores the possibility that the existence of a causal joint (a/the place, often located in the quantum realm, where God and the world interact) is no longer necessary. Ritchie looks at Thomism, panentheistic naturalism, and pneumatological naturalism, concluding that while none of these metaphysics is without certain merits, their tendency to ignore the need for a causal joint downplays scientific appraisals of the world and could lead to a conflation between God and the world. If I understand Ritchie correctly, the search for a causal joint is necessary in order (a) to safeguard the God–world distinction and (b) to help explain how an immaterial God affects and/or acts in a very material world.

Personally, I’m not convinced that the search for a causal joint is necessary; not, that is, if we are looking for a particular place where God affects or acts in the world. But it is important, I feel, and relatively uncontroversial, to recognise that the underlying conceptuality of a causal joint is valid—somehow, the immaterial God of Christian confession acts in a world of matter. I had an essay published a few years back where I noted that there had to be some kind of change (for want of a better word) at some point between God speaking and the world coming into existence:

Active information is an insufficiently defined holistic causal principle that is claimed to organize behavioural patterns in physical process. However, it seems theologically appropriate to interpret active information as an instance of divine self-communication. Such an approach has a Christological foundation: the universe is ‘held in being solely by the Logos, the Word and Reason of God, eternally uttered.’ It is the Word of God eternally uttered that is crucial here: the world does not exist until the Word ascribes structure to a formless void already receptive to the immanent presence of God’s Spirit (Genesis 1:2-3). While in a world of energetic causality, sound is a physical phenomenon capable of interpretation as speech, music, explosions, birdsong, and so on; in this instance, the Word uttered is non-energetic but energetically effects. At some point between the Word’s speaking and the world’s hearing, the Spirit is present to communicate the divine life in such a way that non-divine life becomes possible – and not only possible, but able to accommodate the life that births it. Through the action of God’s Word and Spirit, the world welcomes communicative interaction with its triune Creator; and through the incarnating action of the Spirit, the Word is made flesh and acts as a cause among causes in a world of physical process.

‘Is Informational Causality Primary Causality? A Study of an Aspect of John Polkinghorne’s Account of Divine Action’, in Fraser Watts and Christopher C. Knight (eds.), God and the Scientist: Exploring the Work of John Polkinghorne. Ashgate Science and Religion Series (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012), pp. 33–50 (48); quoting John C. Polkinghorne, ‘Creation and the Structure of the Physical World’, Theology Today 44 (1987), pp. 53–68 (55)

I haven’t re-read my own article or given much thought to what I propose—midlife crises and real life have a habit of getting the way of such scholarly endeavours—but it seems to offer an angle for understanding what a causal joint is, or should be.

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