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Does God Go Against The Laws of Nature?

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Ernan McMullin, a physicist, philosopher, and Catholic priest in the Department of Philosophy at Notre Dame University, has given careful thought to the relation between religion and modern science. In the introduction to his book Evolution and Creation, he offers some advice he calls “valuable direction for the contemporary Christian”:

When an apparent conflict arises between a strongly supported scientific theory and some item of Christian doctrine, the Christian ought to look very carefully to the credentials of the doctrine. It may well be that when he does so, the scientific understanding will enable the doctrine to be reformulated in a more adequate way.1

McMullin applies this advice to the question of how the Christian doctrine of creation is to be reconciled with the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution. Many Christian creationists have argued that divine creation is a supernatural process that cannot be understood in terms of known physical principles. But McMullin presents an alternative scenario in which creation is seen as a process of evolution proceeding according to natural laws.

He bases this scenario on ideas expressed by the early church father Augustine. Augustine maintained that Genesis in the Bible refers to a process of instantaneous creation in which God implants “seed principles” in formless matter. These seed principles are not final created forms. Rather, they contain the potential to gradually manifest these forms.

McMullin grants that Augustine thought each created form would develop from its own seed principle. The idea that one type of organism would evolve from another was foreign to him. But McMullin points out that Augustine’s idea can be readily adapted to modern evolutionary thinking. The seed principles can be thought of as the laws of nature God imposed on formless matter at the moment of creation (the Big Bang). Since God is omniscient and omnipotent, He can create laws that bring about the gradual manifestation of all created forms in the universe, including human beings.

These gradual evolutionary developments are simply the unfolding of Gods original plan, and they do not require any further “divine interventions” that would violate God’s natural laws. Thus McMullin is able to formulate an idea of evolutionary creation that agrees fully with modern science and “complements Christian belief.”2

Can McMullin’s approach be applied to reconcile the Bhagavad-gita with modern science? Of course, the topic of evolution is touchy and controversial. So we may be wise at first to just consider the idea that nature runs by divinely created natural laws. Let us see if the Bhagavad- gita supports this idea.

In the Bhagavad-gita (9.8) Krishna says, “The whole cosmic order is under Me. Under My will it is automatically manifested again and again, and under My will it is annihilated at the end.” Here Krishna says that material nature (prakriti) is manifested automatically (avasham). Krishna also says (13.30), prakrityaiva ca karmani kriyamanani sarvashah. This means that material activities are in all respects carried out by material nature (prakriti). This also suggests that prakriti runs automatically, an idea given further support by the nearly identical statement (3.27) prakriteh kriyamanani gunaih karmani sarvashah. Krishna also says (13.20) that the transformations of matter and of living beings are both products of material nature.

All in all, then, one might argue that the Bhagavad- gita agrees with the modern scientific conclusion that all material phenomena run according to the laws of nature. These phenomena are divinely directed in the sense that the laws of nature are created and sustained by God.

One might further suggest that God never engages in any kind of “divine intervention,” for then He would break His own laws (and violate the conclusions of science). From McMullin’s observations, one might gather that we’d be wise to understand the Bhagavad-gita in this way. After all, if we think that God sometimes breaks the laws of nature, when does He do that? Certainly He doesn’t seem to do it during the scientific experiments that demonstrate the natural laws. If we think God breaks the laws of nature, He must do it when scientists aren’t looking.

This means we are trying to fit God into the gaps in our scientific knowledge. McMullin warns, “Making God a ‘God of the gaps’ is a risky business. Gap-closing is the business of science. To rest belief in God on the presence of gaps in the explanatory chain is to pit religion against science.”3

If we invoke a “God of the gaps,” then we are asking for embarrassment when science fills the gaps and shows that we are fools. To show the inevitable results of this kind of folly, McMullin cites a remark by Augustine:

If those not bound by the authority of the Scriptures find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him base foolish opinions on the Scriptures, how are they going to believe the Scriptures regarding the resurrection of the dead? [How can they believe the Scriptures] when they think that the pages of Scripture are full of falsehoods regarding facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and light of reason?4

We can rephrase this by asking, “How are people going to believe in the scriptures of Krishna consciousness if devotees tell them that these scriptures are full of statements contrary to modern science?” Augustine has raised a good point, and McMullin responds to it by calling him “the man of good sense.”5

But there might be a problem here. What if your scriptures really do make statements contrary to modern science? How far can you go in scriptural reinterpretation and reformulation? To see what I mean, let’s consider some further statements from the Bhagavad-gita.

First of all, is it valid to interpret prakriti as material nature in the sense that physical scientists understand this term? Krishna says, “Earth, water, fire, air, ether, mind, intelligence and false ego—all together these eight constitute My separated material energies.” (Bg. 7.4) Now modern science certainly accepts earth, water, fire, and air as forms of material energy, and ether might be so accepted if we were to identify it as Einstein’s curved space-time continuum. But modern physics makes no reference to mind, intelligence, and false ego as separate material energies.

Careful study shows that the Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam portray mind, intelligence, and false ego as material energies not made from earth, water, fire, air, and ether. According to these texts, the mind comes up with thoughts, which govern the behavior of the body. This means the physical body is influenced by a type of energy, called mind (manas), unknown to modern science.

So even if the Bhagavad-gita is saying that material phenomena run automatically by the laws of nature, we must recognize that the Gita’s laws of nature are quite different from modern physicists’ laws. If the Bhagavad-gita is right, then thinking is not just a product of brain action. Rather, it involves the action of a kind of energy that science doesn’t know about.

This could be true, because there is an enormous gap in our scientific understanding of the brain. Why should we suppose that if science ever fills this gap it will fill it with the kind of physical theory of brain action that many scientists now favor? Scientists generally believe that the brain controls the mind. But a theory may emerge in which the mind controls the brain.

Another point is that according to the Bhagavad- gita, God does intervene in the course of natural events. The transformations of matter by natural law are only partly automatic, like the workings of a computer interfacing with a human operator.

The Bhagavad-gita (13.23) defines the role of the Supersoul as follows: “In this body there is another, a transcendental enjoyer, who is the Lord, the supreme proprietor, who exists as the overseer and permitter, and who is known as the Supersoul.” The words overseer (upadrashta) and permitter (anumanta) indicate that the Supersoul is in charge of the activities of each person. This means that the Supersoul’s decisions determine the behavior of the person’s physical body.

It follows that the human body does not strictly follow the laws of physics. If it did, the Supersoul’s role as controller would be a mockery, because His decisions would always have to accord with a system of differential equations.

Nor can we say that the Supersoul exerts control by directing the random events of quantum theory. Quantum mechanical randomness must always follow quantum statistics, and this means that it must appear noisy and chaotic, like the clicks made by a Geiger counter near a radioactive substance. Of course, the Supersoul can create random effects if He wants to. But to say that the Supersoul must always act in the chaotic fashion dictated by quantum statistics would be to contradict His position as overseer and permitter.

In the Bhagavad-gita (15.15) Krishna says, “I am seated in everyone’s heart, and from Me come remembrance, knowledge and forgetfulness.” Here one might conceivably argue that Krishna simply set matter in motion at the time of creation in such a way as to provide remembrance, knowledge, and forgetfulness for all the sentient beings who would later develop.

But this interpretation strains hard against Bhagavad- gita 10.10: “To those who are constantly devoted to serving Me with love, I give the understanding by which they can come to Me.” This indicates that Krishna gives personal attention to individuals.

Commenting on this verse, Srila Prabhupada writes that Krishna gives instructions from within so that one “may ultimately come to Him without difficulty.” Of course, when a person receives these instructions, the result is that the person’s behavior changes.

In other words, Krishna specifically reciprocates with each person in an observable way that cannot be accounted for by any impersonal system of physical laws. This conclusion is also supported by Bhagavad-gita 10.11: “To show them special mercy, I, dwelling in their hearts, destroy with the shining lamp of knowledge the darkness born of ignorance.”

McMullin raises the question, “If Nature is complete in its own order, if there are no barriers to the reach of science, does not belief in a Creator drop away as superfluous?”6 Many intelligent people may feel inclined to reply that if Nature truly is complete in its own order, then belief in the Creator as described in Bhagavad- gita ought to drop away.

But why should we think that the order of nature, as envisioned by contemporary scientists, is complete? If science does succeed in filling the many gaps that exist in our current knowledge, a radically new and unexpected picture of reality may emerge. It may be the business of scientists to fill gaps, but scientists are certainly not obliged to fill them with the ideas current at one moment in history.

Just as nineteenth-century physicists had no idea of the quantum mechanical theory of the atom, so present-day scientists can have no idea of the science of mind that may develop in the future. And if science someday makes enormous progress and scientists begin to acquire the scientific knowledge of Brahma, they may then be able to see clearly how God intervenes creatively in the phenomena of nature.

References

  1. McMullin, Ernan, ed., 1985, Evolution and Creation, Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, p. 2.
  2. Ibid., p. 38.
  3. Ibid., p. 35.
  4. Ibid., p. 48.
  5. Ibid., p. 48.
  6. McMullin, Ernan, “The Impact of the Theory of Evolution on Western Religious Thought,” Synthesis of Science and Religion, Critical Essays and Dialogues, T.D. Singh and Ravi Gomatam, eds., San Francisco: Bhaktivedanta Institute, 1987, p. 82.