I’m returning, like a dog to its vomit, to the old questions revolving around “freedom” in creation, and the “detectability” of God’s work. That’s partly because it keeps coming up (eg on the new Alvin Plantinga thread on BioLogos), partly because certain people keep challenging me about it even if I’m dealing with something different, and partly because I haven’t finished thinking about it yet.
I’m looking here at the implications of global hypotheses about God’s involvement in the Universe. What I’m not much concerned with today are what, or why, particular people might hold these views. As usual I’m dealing mostly with the non-human creation, but I’ll be drawing conclusions about what the issues mean for human agency as well.
So let’s start with a premise that God works entirely through natural processes in the world. Having looked at Francis Collins’ Language of God in my last post I’ll use as an example his point #4 of a typical version of theistic evolution: “Once evolution got under way, no supernatural intervention was required.” This is equivalent to the naturalist’s assumption that nature is a closed nexus of cause and effect.
Now, with that assumption, can God produce a specific outcome – I mean any specific outcome at all, at any time in history? For example, what about Collins’ apparent endorsement, which I mentioned in my previous piece, of God’s ability to produce humanity through evolution, and even to ensure that individuals would be reading his book? Now I’ve suggested before that science as we understand it is actually incapable of such precision, given chaos theory, quantum indeterminacy etc. But what would it take for God to make it capable?
The answer, of course, is total scientific determinacy. The initial conditions and fine tuning of the laws must be absolutely rigorous, quantum events determined by hidden variables and so on. The Universe must run like clockwork as in the most Deistic or Materialist Newtonian models. Furthermore, if we bring human history into view, for God to foresee my reading of Francis Collins’ book that too must be the deterministic outcome of every event since the Big Bang itself. Such a view, then, robs God of any freedom of choice, and also robs people of all their choices. That must be true even if God only wished to determine just one event in the whole history of creation. Everything depends on those laws and initial conditions playing out faultlessly.
One might argue that God does not in fact will to determine outcomes to that degree of precision: that the fine tuning of the Universe to favour intelligent life is sufficient to fulfil his will, even though deterministic laws are much less than clockwork in their precision. But even this relaxation does nothing to affirm the free choice of either God or man. God must watch the Universe unfold deterministically but not exactly according to any outcome he might, personally, prefer. And man’s decisions too would be determined by law, not genuine choice, yet with the disturbing complication that none of his faculties of reason, emotion and so on could be relied on to match reality exactly. Any perception that we have rational free choice would then be the delusion of a madman actually ruled by deterministic, though imprecise, laws.
Things are no better if elements of randomness (ie randoness with respect to God) are introduced into the picture. Suppose things like quantum events (Russell), or perhaps chaotic events (Polkinghorne), are genuinely indeterminate and influence the world at the macro scale? Then the outcomes, too, are indeterminate to the extent that these events are truly random. They are determined by God’s dice-throw, not by God’s choice and wisdom. As important to us, they are never determined by our choices either, for the factors operating in the Universe are only chance and necessity. If God is not free to act in the Universe, it is very hard to see how we might be, for what binds God is what binds us.
The only alternative to the un-free scenarios above (unless you can come up with any others) is that we abandon the dictum that “no supernatural intervention was required.” Or rather, that we abandon a generalised form of that dictum, for “supernatural” here really means any action of God other than setting and sustaining natural laws with or without the existence of undetermined chance. We must conclude that, if God wishes to bring about any specific outcome at any time in the course of history, at some stage “supernatural intervention” will indeed be “required”. For that purpose, it doesn’t matter if his action is truly “supernatural”, ie breaking or bypassing natural law, or whether it involves something more scientifically “legitimate” like the determination of quantum events. In either case for God to be free to make even one effective decision within his Universe, he must be free to use means other than natural law.
The truly unexpected corollary is that it is only God’s right to intervene that raises any possibility of our being free to make real decisions. We can only be free to make choices if God is also free to make choices, because the reason invoked for excluding God’s “interference” in nature is equally applicable to us: the inviolability of natural law. And incidentally the word “interference” is equally inappropriate in God’s case and ours, for God owns the world by right of creation and we co-own it by right of God’s covenant.
Paradoxically, any definition of “will” absolutely requires the ability to determine, ie constrain, the possible outcomes of events. Whoever makes a choice, be it God, man or angel, that choice inevitably closes down all other possibilities. That’s why free will is such a powerful marker of personhood. Freedom of action is the direct converse of indeterminacy.
Now a brief word on “detectability”. If we admit that God sometimes acts apart from the deterministic outworking of natural law, then events turn out differently than they would have done otherwise. Inevitably, then, they will be characterised by scientific unpredictability, and therefore “detectable” by virtue of that unexpectedness. But we know that chance is another element producing unpredictability. God’s actions, therefore, are going to resemble chance to a greater or lesser degree. But I think that’s the subject for a separate post.