Rational Scientific Theories from Theism

1 This issue is to be distinguished from the 'historical questions' of if, when, or how the universe originally was formed. 
2 John Maddox, review of The Probability of God by Hugh Montefiore, in Nature, 315 (23 May 1985), p 353. 
3 Ivor Leclerc in The Nature of Physical Existence, Muirhead Library of Philosophy, (Allen & Unwin, London, 1972) looks particularly at the systems of Aristotle, Liebniz, and Whitehead. 
4 J.H. Newman, Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (1870) published by University of Notre Dame Press (Notre Dame, London), 1979, p95. 
5 as summarised in Robert A. Oakes, ''A New Argument For the Existence of God'', New Scholasticism, 54 (1980) pp 213 - 223. 
6 See for example J.K.Kvanvig & H.J. McCann ''Divine Conservation and the Persistence of the World'', pp. 13 - 49 in T.V. Morris (ed.) Divine and Human Action, Cornell U.P., 1988. 
7 Hugh Montefiore The Probability of God, SCM Press (London), 1985, ch. 9. 
8 A similar view is outlined in P. van Inwagen ''The Place of Chance in a World Sustained by God'', pp. 211 - 235 in T.V. Morris (ed.) Divine and Human Action, Cornell U.P., 1988. 
9 Ian Thompson ''Real Dispositions in the Physical World'', British Jnl. for the Phil. Science 39 (1988) pp 67 - 79.
10 Leclerc, see n. [3], p 106. See also Aristotle's ''Metaphyics'' 1015a 13-15. 

Divine Immanence and Transcendence

This web page and the next clarify the previously given article 
The Consistency Of Physical Law With Divine Immanence
in the light of the principles of Theistic Science. 
Changed sentences are in red.

What is Immanence?

We know from theistic principles that things in the world do not proceed by themselves, but are dependent for their continued existence and operation on the Divine Source. Beings in the universe do seem to act and interact autonomously, and modern physics has been increasingly successful in showing the self-sufficient and law-like behaviour of natural objects, but  theism  includes the idea that God, as well as creating the world, also sustains the continued existence of the created entities. This paper will discuss the principle of  God sustaining the world [1], and how this may be accomplished in a manner consistent with physical observations. 

Physicists have traditionally been suspicious of any intimate involvment of God with the natural world, being for example[2] ''deeply suspicious of how [this] could corrupt the process of scientific enquiry. At what point in the investigation of the evolution of the human eye, for example, will investigators feel free to chicken out, ascribing some parts of the process to natural selection and others to God?'' They might be more inclined to the weaker claim of a ''once and for all God, one who drew up the laws of physics and then left us to it, in the Big Bang perhaps'', as they are reluctant to allow a 'God of the gaps' who may have intervened from time to time and disrupted the natural order. For they want to determine those causes of natural things from which effects regularly proceed as described by physical laws. I will attempt to show how divine involvement can be consistent with these kinds of physical laws.

In philosophy there have been similar preferences for a more abstract or 'metaphysical' account of the relation between Divinity and nature, and a reluctance to talk of Divine immanence directly. Wanting to build on those philosophies of process[3] that seek to describe the real properties and activities of things in nature, the closest these philosophies come to immanence is when they consider God to be the 'arche', Principle or Ground underlying all natural changes. These philosophies often mention an immanent reason (not so much the immanent power) that provides the necessary ground for contingent natural events. But although they describe reasons essential to the processes themselves, and not merely in the mind of someone looking from outside, a 'ground' or 'arche' need not be immanent in the sense of being internal to the actual process. The clock-maker, for example, is not immanent in the clock he has produced. For the Divine to be immanent, it must be within in some sense, and not just something on which something else depends, which could be external. 

In theology there has long been a tension between the transcendence and the immanence of God, both of which are asserted by classical theism. To avoid a deism which has only transcendence, to avoid pantheism which has only immanence, and thus to see how theism may be a coherent belief, it is necessary to give some rational account of how God may be both transcendent of and immanent in the world. One common account[4] has been to see God as the 'Author, Sustainer, and Finisher' of all natural processes. Thus with thinkers ranging from Aquinas to Descartes, ''the action of divine conservation is construed to be an 'extension' of the action of divine creation''[5], or even essentially the same[6], but the means of this conservation is rarely explained further. Process Theologies, on the other hand, stress the involvement of God in the world, but seem to lose sight of His Transcendence. Another theological account, equally well established[7], sees the Divine immanence as the indwelling of God's omnipresent Spirit. This view would seem to express certain basic principles, and I will be taking these up in this paper, but the details of the relationship between the Spirit and natural beings should be made clearer. The obscurity is compounded by increasing uncertainties over the nature of any kind of relationship between mental and physical entities. 

Both the philosophical and theological accounts leave uncertain the question of exactly how, in an effective as well as in an abstract sense, the Divine is immanent in nature. Thus, for instance, they do not describe the actual relationship between the immanent Divine and the causal powers determined by physical investigation, and therefore find it difficult to formulate possible replies to the physicist's query above. 

Divine Dispositional Immanence

For these reasons I wish in this paper to restate an old idea, one that has been only occasionally taken up[8], and expand it using a modern philosophy of dispositions. The current scheme is one of a number of emanationist theories that have been presented. The clearest presentation, I find, is from Emanuel Swedenborg in the 18th century. From him, we have a simple scheme for the relation of Divine and natural powers which suggests how physical laws might be not only compatible with Divine Immanence in nature, but also a consequence of Immanence. The thesis we wish to defend may be called that of 'Divine Influx', or 'Conditional Divine Influx', or 'Conditional Forward Production', or more precisely 'Divine Dispositional Immanence' (DDI for short), and is : 
DDI: The dispositions of an object are those derivatives of Divine Power that accord with what is actual about that object.
We should here distinguish 'final actuality', which  is defined as that which is not constituted by capacities, potentialities and/or dispositions of any kind, as well as  'intermediate effects' and forms which are the results of actions in intermediate discrete degrees. Thus exactly what is actual about a natural or spiritual object depends on a detailed analysis, and will be different according to the discrete degree. Which actualities then correspond to which dispositions is a subject for further investigation, as is whether this is a strict one-to-one correspondence. 

The DDI thesis refers to 'dispositions', but this term should be taken as a generic description for all kinds of dynamic bases: from propensities in quantum mechanics, to energies and virtual fields, to affections and motivations in the external mind, to loves and desires in the spiritual mind. The DDI thesis states that the loves retained in a creature (to give it being) from Divine Love are those in accord with the form of its wisdom. Swedenborg would emphasize that love can only be received by wisdom as a receptacle.

To see more clearly what the DDI thesis means, consider two analogies. God provides life as the sun shines on the earth. The sun shining on the earth is constant, but the energy received by the earth varies by days and seasons. We know, however, that this variation is according to the earth's distance and orientation: according to something actual about the earth, not because of variations in the sun. A second analogy is that God provides life as we are provided with food. Consider the way animals consume food in order to live. What an animal is capable of doing after eating depends on its digestive system and how it has assimilated the food. Different species will respond quite differently to the same food, according to how they are constituted.

If on first sight the thesis seems too far-fetched or implausible, remember that it is designed to reproduce just those kinds of effects we usually see in the world around us. (Remember too that I have not specified what in fact is 'actual', so strictly speaking the thesis has 'materialistic', 'dualistic' and 'idealistic' versions, depending on whether only matter is actual, or both matter and mind, or mind only) Thus, the DDI thesis defines a general framework in which these theories of nature can be discussed within a theistic context. One consequence of Immanence should be to make all things (mind and/or matter) behave as if they were active from themselves, as that is the way they appear to us. We might rightly be wary of a God with absolute and arbitrary power to act under any pretext whatsoever: the precise content of the DDI thesis is that, on the contrary, God acts in a reasonable and orderly fashion compatible with (some kind of) natural regularities. 

This may be regarded as an exercise in  Theology of Nature, but of a kind Theistic Science that is hypothetico-deductive, not inductive . That is, we derive from theistic postulates an explanatory hypothesis such as the DDI thesis, and follow its consequences to see how well they agree with what we know already. The hypothesis can only be entertained, however, if expressed coherently, and considered logically possible. Only if these ideas are not incoherent can the DDI thesis be reasonably considered. The thesis must also be shown to be consistent with physics, as physics is an existing attempt to relate the actual forms of natural objects to their dispositions and potentialities.

The DDI thesis is being considered within the framework of a theistic theology that is considered already well established. Since the DDI thesis is a statement of what God does, and may be a restriction on arbitrary omnipotence, the thesis will have to be shown to be theologically reasonable. We should also see if it is preferable to occasionalism, whereby God is the direct and only cause of natural events, and to concurrentism, whereby God is a general cause which must cooperate with pre-existing natural powers. That is, we must show that the DDI thesis describes what would be done by God as He is understood in the western tradition, as explained in detail by Swedenborg, and is not opposed by other attributes the tradition believes essential to the Divine. The demonstration is in the next webpage, and will be based on the argument from the theistic postulates that God, if Life Itself, cannot create natural beings that both are distinct from Him, and live from themselves (i.e. that are their own dispositions to act). What can be done is to provide the life of these beings for them to live as if from themselves. This is what appears to happen. although in this paper I will be discussing only natural dispositions, and not looking at the full range of 'life'.

Derivative Dispositions

Natural dispositions, according to the DDI thesis, are 'derivative' from the Divine, in some sense of 'derivation' to be explained. Previously, I showed by examples what is meant by a 'derivative disposition', and then examine how such dispositions differ from 'component dispositions'. I want them to be not part of the Divine, but generated by Divine action when necessary. Having derivative dispositions means that natural dispositions may be the principal causes of physical events, and also that the (original) principal cause of these natural dispositions can be the Divine Itself. Thus, there can be successive or derivative stages in the way the Divine Power leads to natural events. 

The detailed selection of derived dispositions may be quite complicated in general, as it depends not only on the initial state prior to any of the successive steps, but also on each individual kind of the original disposition. (I claim however that (on reflection) we all can be made aware of some of the successive derivations in our own dispositions to act, as we select and act out sequences of means to ends.) Since not all derived dispositions are strictly physical, moreover, we begin to see how discrete degrees of minds play an intermediate role between the Divine Source and the operation of selected parts of the physical world. 

In Theistic Science, the general sequence of derivative dispositions is ultimately a consequence of the complexity of Divine Omnipotence. We should not be surprised by the possibility of such complexity: belief that God is One should not mean that He is always a bare and simple unity, or that He is incapable of responding to complex situations in appropriate ways. We know that God is infinite, for example.

 Immanence and Transcendence?

Since the dispositions of an object are essential to its nature, and are thus 'within' the object, on the DDI thesis the Divine is within all objects without being identical to any of them. God is within objects because He does not act on them merely externally, as then they would need a distinct capacity to respond: one that did not come from God. This is contrary to the DDI thesis, which is that all capacities and dispositions derive from the Divine, including dispositions to respond to external influences. On this basis I believe that we have a true Immanence with the DDI thesis, whereby we have a God who gives beings all their capacities and liabilities: all their capacities to act and react. 

We could adopt the principle that 'one is at least where one acts', and then the Divine would be at least present in natural things, but we must always be very careful in ascribing places to the Divine.It is almost certainly true that the Divine can act in space without necessary being spatial, just as, for example, the wave function in quantum mechanics seems to behave. The Divine may well use an of order events in the spiritual world according to their functions, purposes or uses, and then 'be present' with them according to this order, which would not be essentially a spatial order. 

Although the relation between God and nature is very close, with God being immanent in the very activity of nature, their exact relation is more like 'being adjacent' than 'being of one continuous substance'. This is because, strictly speaking, dispositions and events are quite different entities, even though they are spatiotemporally continuous in their operation, and dispositions are within and give rise to all events. If we take nature itself as the collection of what is actual in the world, then it is only by the DDI thesis that this nature is 'that which has its source of change within itself'[10]. Sometimes however the dispositions themselves are regarded not only as within nature, but also as essentially natural. Certainly a natural object could not persist without its dispositions, so they are essential in that sense, but that fact does not necessarily mean that they are part of Nature as distinct from the Divine. Given the DDI thesis, a great many dispositions that are often called natural are in fact derivative from God. We may reflect that if God is Immanent in the world, then we would expect Immanence to be for some purpose essential to the operation of nature, and we should not be surprised if the investigations of physics have unwittingly described some of the modes of Divine operation in the world. 

Having seen how God can be Immanent within nature, we must now check that this does not impair His Transcendence. This will be further discussed, but we establish some preliminary points here. First, Immanence should not be taken to mean that the Divine is only in natural things, as then God would not also be Transcendent, only that He is at least in nature. 

Secondly, we must also see whether the Divine need change Itself essentially to keep track of a changing nature (as Process Theologies seem to imply), given that the Divine Omnipotence is present variously in many different successive changes in the world. It would appear that since objects can have changing dispositions, and since they move around in the world, the Divine would have to continually adjust Itself in response, and we would not have a true Transcendence. The problem is resolved when we note that by the DDI thesis, those changing dispositions must result from changing actualities. Similarly, any moving around in the world must be via a sequence of different actual positions. If we take the Divine Omnipotence Itself to be something like an original capacity to derive dispositions according to what is actual at each time, then this original capacity is not be changed as the world changes. Although the Divine acts differently at successive times, the Divine capacities to act do not change themselves to do so, as all the differences can be attributed to how actualities are different at each successive time. The original Divine Omnipotence, although present in and the first principal cause of every natural change, is thus in an important sense completely Transcendent of the changing nature. 

The dispositions derivative from the Divine, however, are subsequent principal causes, and only partially transcendent of natural objects. These are the successive discrete degrees. The derivative degrees are transcendent in the senses that (1) they are the direct result of Divine action, and (2) they are the principal causes (dispositions) rather than instrumental causes (previous effects) of all actual change in the world, and are thus the source of those changes. They are not completely transcendent, however, in that they themselves change as the world changes. But because they are derivative rather than component dispositions, this does not mean that the Divine Itself changes[21]. 

If, however, we were to group all derivative dispositions together, then  they may be called the 'Consequent' or 'Proceeding' Divine, and this Proceeding Divine would be variable in time as envisaged in Process Theologies. The derivative dispositions from this Proceeding Divine are present continually as all natural objects, as they constitute all natural dispositions to act and react. 

Analogies for 'providing', 'receiving' and 'retaining' dispositions

Swedenborg gives various analogies to illustrate the meaning of some of the processes described in the DDI thesis. These analogies are designed to show similar processes occurring in well known situations, and thus to show that their descriptions are not incoherent. The analogies are NOT to be taken as their literal meaning in the DDI thesis, even though they may have a long history of being used to portray that meaning. 

The first analogy portrays what could be meant by something having dispositions 'according to its actuality', and is an analogy with the reception of heat and light of the sun by parts of the earth. In this process, with days and seasons etc., there is a great variety of reception by all the different geographical regions, but (since Copernicus) this is not to be attributed to variability in the sun itself. Rather, the sun is (or may be) constant, but all the variation is in the earth, its parts themselves, and in their circumstances with respect to the sun. The earth thus receives heat and light 'according to its (static) actuality'. If furthermore the name 'the sun' can include all the heat and light from it, then there is a sense in which the sun 'provides' the earth with energy by being 'immanent' in the earth's atmosphere. (DLW 108) 

Another analogy for the 'reception' of life according to actual form is the consumption of food and drink by living organisms. Here, quite clearly, the organisms receive what is necessary for their life, and they only receive it according to how their form allows them to digest the different kinds of foods etc. The same food may be received quite differently by different organisms, according to their actual forms. 

One essential part of the DDI thesis is that natural beings have their dispositions provided for them, but, notwithstanding this, that they can act 'as if' from themselves in an autonomous manner. Although this makes little difference to the behaviour of atoms and electrons, it is important for living creatures. We do not have an occasionalism then, with the Divine 'living through' a person. We do not have, for example, people having no influence on the time of their actions, and thus no control as agents should control their behaviour. For a living being to have its dispositions provided properly, it must be able to 'retain' them, so that it can freely use them when it sees fit. Only in this way can we have any autonomy of created beings in the face of the seeming dominance of Divine Immanence. The freedom that creatures can have is the freedom to act as they want, at times that they choose, with their actions appearing both to themselves and to others to be as if from their own nature. A full understanding of this freedom depends on elucidating the operation of psychological dispositions within the intermediate non-materialist discrete degrees. 

The analogy of food consumption is again relevant here. Consumed food does not act immediately, but is stored against future use. We therefore do not say that the food is 'living through us', but that we have our life provided (in some sense) by the food. One could argue that when we act it is really the food operating, and indeed potential energy from the food is the 'principal cause' of our action. However, the energy only acts by means of 'instrumental causes': our decision to act, for example, and suitable circumstances for that action. The DDI thesis has the Divine as the original Principal Cause of natural processes, and thus, using our analogy, continually 'feeding' the world with 'energy' and powers, in order to keep it going. 

It may be objected that these analogies use ''thing'' talk of dispositions and life, as if they were something which could be provided, received and retained, just as we can provide, receive and retain material things. If dispositions were in fact 'things' which could be 'handed over', then the DDI thesis would not give the true Immanence of God in nature that was discussed above. The best reply to this objection is to analyse what we mean by a 'material thing', as in ref. [9] and in our 'physics approach' web pages, and to see that 'things' themselves are best identified as structures of 'real dispositions' in the physical world. Rather than reducing talk of dispositions to talk of physical objects, the reverse is more accurate: we can analyse the nature of material objects in terms of dispositions that happen to be spatio-temporal distributions of propensities. Then, if dispositions do not have a determinate time of acting, they may be called 'retained dispositions' in analogy to 'retained things' because they would be effective over a finite time duration, and thus appear as enduring and 'retained' entities. 

The main point to note in this section is that there is a functional similarity between the processes of 'providing', 'receiving' and 'retaining' dispositions, and the processes of providing, receiving and retaining material things. This correspondence is a rich source of metaphors for describing Divine Immanence, but we see from theistic science that literal and non-metaphorical descriptions are also available. 


One of the aims of this website is to present and explain the concept of 'dispositions according to actuality', and to show that it has explanatory power both in physics and theology. With the help of this concept a principle of 'Divine Dispositional Immanence' was proposed, and it was shown that if God were immanent in the world in this way, then He would be present in all changes without being essentially changed Himself. Furthermore, He would not be immanent arbitrarily, but according to a well defined order. Then, because this order is 'according to' the forms and/or actions of natural objects, immanence gives rise to physical and spiritual laws which typically relate actual forms and capabilities in a regular manner. The imagined role of God in the natural processes of the world has tended to diminish over the last few centuries, as scientists have tried to explain the causal properties of objects in terms of physical laws, and not by the direct intervention of external powers. I suggest that this is arguing from appearances: assuming (erroneously) that because natural objects appear to act from themselves, then in fact they have (or are) their own principle of activity and organisation. As shown in the theology discussion, this cannot be the case if there is a God who is Life Itself. 

It should be clear that the manner of Immanence proposed in Theistic Science is distinct from a deism in which God 'provides the laws' of natural operation, and then either leaves the world to proceed independently, or occasionally interferes in its operation. It is also more specific than saying that God is the 'metaphysical principle' that is presupposed by all natural existences and events, as by the present theistic principles God is being given a 'more active role'. This 'active role' however is such that it almost always appears as if persons and natural objects freely acted from themselves. 

In conclusion, I hope to have shown that no 'concession to irrationality'[2] is needed to understand the logic of Divine Immanence, and of its consistency with physical laws. 

Theological part of the discussion continued on the next page.

www.TheisticScience.org Author: Ian J. Thompson, Email: IanT at TheisticScience.org