This is the first of a series of posts inspired by ideas from William Dembski’s Being as Communion – a Metaphysics of Information, though I have in fact already mentioned some of those ideas on free will, on the weakness of materialist metaphysics, on inherent teleology and on “chance” as a quantifiable instantiation of choice .
In Chapter 2, on Free Will, he references Benjamin Libet’s neuroscientific work, which I mentioned back in January here. Libet, as I said there, believes his work affirms the reality of free will, and Dembski draws attention in Libet’s work to the fact that our power of deliberation lies mainly in the power of vetoing impulses to actions, rather than in untrammeled liberty of action. This has been called “free won’t”.
Dembski relates this to his understanding of information, founded in information theory from Shannon onwards; that information is fundamentally definable as the reduction of uncertainty, that is, the narrowing of possibilities. The more precise the information, the less the uncertainty. So “choice” and “information” are conceptually very close. This reminds me of an anecdote about Syd Barrett, the original guitarist of Pink Floyd, who tragically lapsed into schizophrenia. His film biography described long periods of his illness spent lying on his bed looking at the ceiling, which a friend who was interviewed saw (rather naively) as the ultimate expression of freedom – by doing nothing, he was keeping every possibility open.
But true freedom is the exact opposite: it means to choose, and in essence that means forming a purpose (teleology) and closing off all possibilities except those needed to realize it. The purposes we form, and what possibilities we close off, will be influenced by how we were created – and by what we have made of ourselves. This correlates well with the Bible’s concept of freedom, exemplified most in Jesus, which I wrote about a year or so ago here. The Bible doesn’t view freedom as autonomy – the ability to do anything and everything – but as the freedom to be what God designed us to be – the freedom to close off our choices to match the will of God. All choices inconsistent with that are really slavery, which is why sin is described as bondage, though it is untrammeled self-will.
These ideas also relate to my recent exploration of the “Great Chain of Being” and the old philosophical idea that, for God to be perfectly rational, he must as an obligation to reason create all possible forms – the principle of plenitude. Unless we, as moderns, buy into that principle as the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum theory , the concept of creation instead entails God’s closing off of all possibilities except those he actualizes – in Dembski’s terms, creation is all the information God puts into the universe (which is one reason he argues that information is primary over matter. Another reason is that we only ever perceive matter through the information it gives to our senses).
I shouldn’t need to point out that God’s creation is expressed as speech, the “word of power”, in both Old and New Testaments (“Let there be…”), and these speech acts are personified in Christ as the Logos of God, that Greek word having both deliberation and information at its root. God’s free will, then, is expressed in his narrowing down of possibilities to those which will fulfill his purpose: that is the very essence of Creation. It’s not that he could not do otherwise (necessity) or that he acts arbitrarily (contingency), but that he proposes a purpose and, through Christ, establishes the means (the “formal causes”) which will achieve it – to create is literally to “inform.”
The recent Scottish Independence referendum (in which I have no personal stake as far back as I can trace my ancestry) reminds me of a humourous old saying over here: ” A Gentleman is someone who knows how to play the bagpipes – but doesn’t.” In creation terms, God is a gentleman.
Finally let me relate all this to the “freedom of creation” concept again. Creation, remember, is an act of God’s free will, and free will is nothing but the creation of information by the reduction of uncertainty, or the closing off of possibilities. So any possibilities God leaves open are instances of non-creation, or of non-information.
Perhaps, though, he leaves those possibilities open for his creatures to close off, thus giving them freedom too? Well, in a restricted sense that may be so, inasmuch as any of those creatures are capable of making intelligent choices themselves (see my previous post). But remember, freedom in biblical terms means liberty to do God’s will (as Jesus did), whether by nature, as the irrational creation must or else be in bondage to an ultimate irrationality called “chance”; or by rational deliberation, (as we ourselves do). For that to be possible, God must have revealed the “information” of his will to those creatures.
Or as Paul puts it, “we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” That’s no less true of the created order than it is of the saints.