Provichance

provichance (noun) - The Calvinist doctrine of providence refracted through the lens of quantum physics. Simply put, provichance suggests that a benevolent Creator upholds the universe by means of law and chance processes inherent since its creation.

The Christian concept of Providence is in one sense as old as human thinking about God. As people began to focus their religious impulses on one omnipotent yet caring God, they acknowledged God's personal care for the created world. A poetic expression of the idea can be found in Psalm 104, in which God is first described as controlling light, air, clouds, wind, fire, the earth, the seas, the moon and sun and so forth. The psalm goes on to depict God providing water for animals, birds, and plants; grass and plants for beasts and man, even wine, oil, and bread---ostensibly products of human effort, but here seen as dependent on God's providential care for the earth which enables the grapes, olives, and wheat to grow in the first place. After marveling at the variety of creatures on land and in the water, the psalm climaxes with these lines:
    When you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things.
    When you hide your face, they are terrified;
    When you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust.
    When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth.

One classic definition of the Christian idea of Providence can be found in the Calvinist tradition. In the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563, a systematic formulation of the basic ideas of Christianity, Question 27 asks:
    What do you understand by the providence of God?
The answer reads:
    Providence is the almighty and ever present power of God by which he upholds, as with his hand, heaven and earth and all creatures, and so rules them that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and lean years, food and drink, health and sickness, prosperity and poverty---all things, in fact, come to us not by chance but from his fatherly hand.

The catechism continues with the following question:
    How does the knowledge of God's creation and providence help us?
The answer given is:
    We can be patient when things go against us, thankful when things go well, and for the future we can have good confidence in our faithful God and Father that nothing will separate us from his love. All creatures are so completely in his hand that without his will they can neither move nor be moved.

Modern physics tells us that the physical world at its very root is governed by pure chance. For example, the time it takes for a radioactive nucleus to decay remains unknown, unpredictable, and undetermined by any hidden variable. The process is perfectly random---predictable only in the statistics of large numbers.

The interplay of chance, determinism and free will has always been the province of religion and philosophy. Yet the more we learn about these in science, the more they seem indistinguishable. The physical world turns chance on the smallest scales into determinism on a larger scale. For example, a gas of randomly interacting molecules yields deterministically precise temperatures and pressures. Physicists accurately simulate chance processes using a deterministic computer program akin to picking the digits of pi=3.14159265358979323... as if they were random numbers. Each digit is precisely determined, yet there is no pattern to the sequence. Providence seems to leave no room for either chance or free will, but taken with the rest of Christian doctrine it provides the context in which free and responsible humans act in an often unpredictable world.

Christians claim a reality beyond the physical. At the very least, there is God's free will to create, uphold and interact with the universe. In addition, there is our own free will. But thousands of choices, borne out of the consciousness of free agents, are indistinguishable from random processes. There is no way to tell whether a sequence of 1s and 0s came from a set of coin flips, a decaying nucleus, a pseudo-random number generator, or a thousand people asked for their preference for chicken or pasta, unless one gets very lucky and knows some information beyond the statistics. Any scientist, philosopher or theologian who says that the matter of chance, free will and determinism is settled, is misrepresenting the case. Provichance is Providence in this context.

The religious person's answer to Steven Hawking's question "Who breathes fire into the equations (of physics) to give them a universe to describe?" is "God." Without God's continued presence, the universe would disappear. Without God's faithful promise, the laws of physics would not be universal and would stop working. Anything that we call chance does not come without God's conscious will to let it be so, but neither do we go wrong in physics when we view the atom as governed by pure chance. Chance in the religious context of providence is synonymous with meaninglessness, which Christians rightfully reject. Provichance embraces all of this.

So Provichance is a word used to express belief in the ancient idea of God's benevolent and personal care for the universe and its creatures, while also acknowledging that God is not a cosmic control freak meddling and intervening at every turn. Rather, the fundamental chance processes unleashed from the moment of creation continue, at every moment, to fashion, shape and change the universe and to provide for the needs of its inhabitants. Provichance is the affirmation of the need for all three elements in this trio: chance, free will and determinism.

The word 'provichance' was first coined around 1980 by Keith and Ruth van Baak Griffioen.


Created on 30 September 2007