Introductory Essay by Sangeetha Menon

Views on divine action were influenced by developments in physics andtheir philosophical interpretation. In the seventeenth century,natural philosophers, such as Robert Boyle and John Wilkins, developeda mechanistic view of the world as governed by orderly and lawlikeprocesses. Laws, understood as immutable and stable, createddifficulties for the concept of special divine action (Pannenberg2002). How could God act in a world that was determined by laws?

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Another theological development that may have facilitated the rise ofscience was the Condemnation of Paris (1277), which forbade teachingand reading natural philosophical views that were consideredheretical, such as Aristotle’s physical treatises. As a result,the Condemnation opened up intellectual space to think beyond ancientGreek natural philosophy. For example, medieval philosophers such asJohn Buridan (fl. 14th c) held the Aristotelian belief thatthere could be no vacuum in nature, but once the idea of a vacuumbecame plausible, natural philosophers such as Evangelista Torricelli(1608–1647) and Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) could experimentwith air pressure and vacua (see Grant 1996, for discussion).

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As further evidence for a formative role of Christianity in thedevelopment of science, some authors point to the Christian beliefs ofprominent natural philosophers of the seventeenth century. Forexample, Clark writes,

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Because “science” and “religion” defydefinition, discussing the relationship between science (in general)and religion (in general) may be meaningless. For example, Kelly Clark(2014) argues that we can only sensibly inquire into the relationshipbetween a widely accepted claim of science (such as quantum mechanicsor findings in neuroscience) and a specific claim of a particularreligion (such as Islamic understandings of divine providence orBuddhist views of the no-self).

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A major impetus for Arabic science was the patronage of the Abbasidcaliphate (758–1258), centered in Baghdad. Early Abbasid rulers,such as Harun al-Rashid (ruled 786–809) and his successorAbū Jaʿfar Abdullāh al-Ma’mūn (ruled813–833), were significant patrons of Arabic science. The formerfounded the Bayt al-Hikma (House of Wisdom), whichcommissioned translations of major works by Aristotle, Galen, and manyPersian and Indian scholars into Arabic. It was cosmopolitan in itsoutlook, employing astronomers, mathematicians, and physicians fromabroad, including Indian mathematicians and Nestorian (Christian)astronomers. Throughout the Arabic world, public libraries attached tomosques provided access to a vast compendium of knowledge, whichspread Islam, Greek philosophy, and Arabic science. The use of acommon language (Arabic), as well as common religious and politicalinstitutions and flourishing trade relations encouraged the spread ofscientific ideas throughout the empire. Some of this transmission wasinformal, e.g., correspondence between like-minded people (see Dhanani2002), some formal, e.g., in hospitals where students learned aboutmedicine in a practical, master-apprentice setting, and inastronomical observatories and academies. The decline and fall of theAbbasid caliphate dealt a blow to Arabic science, but it remainsunclear why it ultimately stagnated, and why it did not experiencesomething analogous to the scientific revolution in WesternEurope.

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Another conclusion that the new laws-based physics suggested was thatthe universe was able to run smoothly without requiring an interveningGod. The increasingly deterministic understanding of the universe,ruled by deterministic causal laws as, for example, outlined byPierre-Simon Laplace (1749–1827), seemed to leave no room forspecial divine action, which is a key element of the traditionalChristian doctrine of creation. Newton resisted interpretations likethese in an addendum to the Principia in 1713: theplanets’ motions could be explained by laws of gravity, but thepositions of their orbits, and the positions of the stars—farenough apart so as not to influence each othergravitationally—required a divine explanation (Schliesser 2012).Alston (1989) argued, contra authors such as Polkinghorne (1998), thatmechanistic, pre-twentieth century physics is compatible with divineaction and divine free will. Assuming a completely deterministic worldand divine omniscience, God could set up initial conditions and thelaws of nature in such a way as to bring God’s plans about. Insuch a mechanistic world, every event is an indirect divine act.