Excerpt from “God and the Laws of Physics”


   The rise of classical mechanics marked the culmination of a major shift in Western thinking from Aristotle’s idea of the world as an organism to the conception of the world as a clocklike mechanism operating according to mechanistic laws.The distinguishing feature of classical mechanics is determinism—the idea that the history of events for all time is rigidly determined by the precise material conditions existing at one time.
   Determinism has many profound philosophical implications. For example, if nature is indeed strictly governed by deterministic laws, then sentient beings must be pure machines, and the possibility of a nonmaterial mind that interacts with matter is ruled out. Thus a recent book on the relation between minds and machines begins with the premise that, “the price of mind/body interaction is violation of the laws of physics—a price that few philosophers (or scientists) are willing to pay.”1

    In the twentieth century, classical physics has been supplanted by quantum mechanics, with the result that physics ceased to be strictly deterministic. This development led to a number of attempts by prominent physicists to reintroduce the idea of conscious volition into our physical world view.2–5 However, the advent of quantum mechanics did more than simply add an element of indeterminism. In its standard formulation, quantum mechanics requires us to renounce the idea of forming a coherent theoretical picture of objective reality. This tends to discourage attempts to harmonize physics with any worldview that presents God, the material world, and the conscious living beings as real entities standing in some kind of mutual relationship. Thus, attempts to relate quantum mechanics to metaphysical ideas have often centered on the drawing of parallels6 and the use of physical theories to provide metaphors illustrating transcendental philosophies.7
   In this chapter I will discuss a reformulation of quantum mechanics and classical mechanics which presents both as nondeterministic theories of an objectively real material energy. Such a formulation can be of interest in the domain of physics since it suggests new ways of carrying out calculations, and it may even suggest new avenues of experimental investigation. But here my main purpose is to explore the relation between modern physical theories and broader metaphysical and theological ideas. My thesis is that both classical and quantum physics are compatible with the idea that a transcendental superconscious being directs the course of events within a flexible framework of non-deterministic laws. I should stress that this exercise in philosophical speculation can at best suggest tentative possibilities. However, it is only by considering possibilities that we can decide which way to go in the search for truth. . . .

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1. Gould, Stephen Jay, 1992, “Impeaching a Self-Appointed Judge,” Scientific American, July 1992, p. 119.
2. Jastrow, Robert, 1978, God and the Astronomer, New York: Warner Books, Inc., p. 138.
3. Jastrow, Ibid., pp. 141–142.
4. Hawking, Stephen, 1988, A Brief History of Time, New York: Bantam Books, p. 116.
5. Gingerich, Owen, 1982, “Let There Be Light: Modern Cosmogony and Biblical Creation,” an abridgement of the Dwight Lecture given at the University of Penna. in 1982, pp. 9–10.
6. Dyson, Freeman, 1979, Disturbing the Universe, New York: Harper & Row, pp. 251–52.
7. Dyson, Ibid., p. 249.

Copyright © 2004 by Richard L. Thompson