Deus Ex Machina

"This is the generation of the great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently of that mortal god, to which we own under the immortal God, our peace and defense." -Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan

On the Compatibility of Open Theism, Indeterminism, and Unconditional Election

Or has the potter no right over the clay, to make from the same lump one piece of pottery for honor and another for dishonor?

– Romans 9:21

Distinguishing the Theological Issue from the Metaphysical Issue

In philosophical and theological discussions it is often tempting to associate the tenets of Predestination as simply a deduction or inference from broader systematic considerations from causal determinism theses or the like. However this fundamentally misunderstands the strictly theological motivations and premises behind the doctrine of predestination which is largely logically independent of such philosophical considerations.

First we would need a definition of determinism. In philosophy determinism has a very strict technical meaning. Determinism refers to the thesis that given one set of antecedent conditions only one future will follow. It has a scientific version called “Laplace’s Demon” which postulates the idea that if you had a demon who knew all the laws of physics and all the initial positions, mass, forces and velocities of the all particles in the universe he can predict perfectly their positions at any future time. The fundamental point is one set of antecedent is (metaphysically) compatible with only one future outcome.

Indeterminism is the contrary of determinism. It refers to the idea that for a set of antecedent conditions multiple different futures are possible. While only one future will of course be realised but which future will be realised is not “determined” by the antecedent conditions. The future which is realised is just what happens to happen.

Now whether God sets up the universe in such a way that the initial state of the universe at creation determines exactly one future is neither here nor there. It may or may not be true, but predestination strictly is logically independent of it and is compatible with both determinism and indeterminism. The doctrine of predestination ultimately has nothing to do with metaphysical speculations of the causal relation between the future state of the universe and its previous states.

Rather, if one looks at the text of Aquinas and the key Reformed theologians, predestination is concerned primarily with a simple theological issue: Why is anyone saved? Predestination is the answer that anyone is saved because God willed to love and save that particular person. If the question was further raised as to why did God will to love and save that person, the answer of “unconditional” election is that God does not need a reason to love anyone; love itself is the reason, the ultimate and sufficient reason; love is the fundamental reason why God does anything and the divine decision to love cannot be further “reduced” or derived from any other consideration, principle, or reason. God does not need to justify his will to love, it is that will to love which justifies all.

Of course one can ask the question as to why did God choose not to will the salvation of someone. However it is not necessary for God to justify inaction, as if God were positively obligated to do something. There is naturally the simple answer that God did not choose to will the goods of salvation to a particular person on account of that person’s sin whereby that person deserves damnation. This answer of course assumes the doctrine of the universality of sin and that tout court everyone is sinful and does deserve damnation.

Such an answer however would preclude what is known in theology as “positive reprobation” as opposed to “negative reprobation”. Positive reprobation is the thesis that God choose positively to condemn someone from eternity and created someone for the expressed purpose for damning that person. Negative reprobation is simply the proposition that God choose merely not to save someone and that person is condemned on account of his own sin. The difference is the ultimate explanation for the damnation of someone. Positive reprobation explains it in terms of a positive divine will to condemn, negative reprobation explains it in terms of that person’s sin and merely a divine decision after the fact not to save that person.

The Compatibility of Predestination with Indeterminism

The above discussion as to the shape and structure of predestination all has nothing to do with philosophical theses of determinism or indeterminism. The tenets of predestination are strictly compatible with both. Thus, even assuming an indeterministic universe where one set of antecedent condition is (metaphysically) compatible with a plurality of mutually exclusive futures, predestination merely states that God choose to will the goods of salvation, from eternity, to a select group of people, the elect, and those whom God choose to save, God will ensure that it happens.

The favourite image used to illustrate this point is that of a game of chess and a chess master. Imagine a chess master who can compute all possible moves and every possible scenario given the positions and pieces on the board. The chess master has many different winning strategies which he can employ regardless of what moves his opponent makes. The chess master’s victory isn’t contingent upon his opponent making one specific kind of move or employing a specific strategy. Because the chess master is so brilliant, he can guarantee victory regardless of what his opponent does. Thus likewise God, having from eternity chosen to save some people, doesn’t need to “determine” or plan all the events in the universe beforehand in detail. He has “multiple winning strategies” to ensure that all his elect will be saved regardless of which possible future is realised.

To summarise the argument: (1) We assume that everyone is a sinner and as such deserves damnation. (2) God is not obligated to save anyone. (3) God, for no other reason than that he decides to love, choose from eternity to provide the means of salvation to all, on the condition that they believe, and the gift of faith to some whom he has willed to save. (4) those whom God chose to save, he will make it happen in time.

The above theological considerations as such are logically independent of causal determinism theses and is fundamentally about the ultimate reason why anyone is saved: Because God willed to love and save them. And predestination is simply the assertion that that will to love is fundamental, ultimate, and sufficient reason which doesn’t require any other explanation or justification. In the end, Love is the Reason, and it doesn’t itself require a reason.

 How Indeterminism and Chance might Work with Predestination

Peter Van Inwagen has a pretty interesting paper (readily available online) discussing the sources of chance in a world sustained by God. (The biblical text which justifies this idea is from Ecclesiastes 9:11, “I again saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift and the battle is not to the warriors, and neither is bread to the wise nor wealth to the discerning nor favor to men of ability; for time and chance overtake them all.”)

Peter Van Inwagen holds to the notion of libertarian free will, which is roughly the idea that for a person to be free it is sufficient that, in some sense, it is “possible” for a person to have chosen otherwise. If we recall the above discussions on what constitutes indeterminism, indeterminism is simply the thesis that given one set of antecedent conditions there must be at least more than one possible outcomes. Thus, presumably, as far as libertarian freewill is concerned, someone has libertarian free will over an act if and only if given an antecedent set of conditions it is possible for him to choose different options.

Peter Van Inwagen as such identifies three sources of “indeterminism”. (1) The freewill of man, (2) “Natural” indeterminism, (3) Indeterminism of the initial conditions.

(1) has already been explained, the idea behind (2) is supposed to be analogous to the Greek atomist idea that atoms can “swerve” in their motion. As such, contra the Newtonian image, antecedent physical conditions do not determine exactly the position and motion of particles.

But what is of theological interest to us is (3), the indeterminism of the initial conditions. Now this may seem like a pretty strange sort of indeterminism. After all, doesn’t God set down the initial conditions of the universe at creation? How can there be indeterminism here? Inwagen however suggests the following intriguing idea, which I shall crudely summarise. Suppose God merely wanted intelligent beings and a universe which is capable of supporting such intelligent beings and give them the means to make them happy. In his primodial dreamscape (we discussed this before), God sees a vast multitude of possible worlds which satisfies these conditions. However, God being too lazy to engage in micromanagement, compiles all these possible worlds, each with its own file, into a neat infinitely large folder and says: “Okay, I am just going to shuffle these files and pick one at the top.” So he shuffles this infinitely large stack of files and picks a file off the top, and lo and behold, it is the file with homo sapiens and earth. (In Inwagen’s actual essay God “decrees” the following proposition: Let there be either X or Y or Z… and then after speaking one possibility just happens.)

The idea behind this little story is that God can desire something *general* while rolling a dice to decide what specifically happens. Contra Leibniz, not everything requires a reason. It could just be that way. This image however suggests several intriguing possibility as to how God could have went about planning providence. Now suppose he opens the homo sapien file with earth to see all the possible lines of development such a world could take. This file would not contain every possibility, but given both libertarian freewill and natural indeterminism, the file itself will be infinitely large and contain infinitely many possible lines of development. However now that God just has one file, God now is a lot more interested in micromanagement of this world, although maybe still not truly arsed to plan the path of every single subatomic particle.

Now, for reasons probably only known to God alone, he chooses a world where, if he did not do anything special, most people will just live their life on earth, experience whatever momentarily fleeting pleasure or happiness here, and just perish (as in annihilated, not burn in hell for eternity) after that due to original sin or total depravity or whatever. Man as such is not self-sustaining in such a world. After having made his selection there are still infinitely many lines of development for a world with this specific condition. Then out of his sheer grace and mercy, he decides to select a specific group of people to be part of his eternal kingdom and to fellowship with him forever. Thus some will “receive their reward in this life”, the rest will receive their eternal reward in the life to come.

So after picking out the elect’s personnel file and tagging it, he selects all the worlds where these personnel will definitely make it to his kingdom. However there are still infinitely many possible worlds compatible with his elect making it to his kingdom. Now God can continue specifying more and more detail, like he could become incarnate, call a nation to bear his Gospel, etc, etc. The point however is that God doesn’t have to plan everything in detail, not even the lives of his elect. He could leave it to the freewill of the elect to decide whether they want to make good use of their life in this world, or ruin it for the most part and only become repent at the end.

In fact, as a gesture towards open theism, God doesn’t even need to know in detail what is going to happen. He knows that the elect will be saved of course, because he has determined to make their damnation impossible. However, whether a volcano erupts or not, is hypothetical because everything is ultimately contingent upon what God decides to do. Thus, unless God’s own decisions are really pre-determined, as it were, beforehand, God could just shrug and say, “Well, I will decide when we get there, but for this event, let’s KIV for now.” Then as events unfold a few hundred years God may say, “This nation sucks, that’s it, I am going to cover them in lava.” and then ensure that it happens say in fifty years time. Or, if the nation under the volcano repents and prays to him, he could say, “Well, fine, since you’re so obedient, I’ll spare you.” and ensures that the volcano doesn’t erupt the next year. Or alternatively, he could just leave the volcano alone, and let nature take it’s course. Similarly, he could say, “Egypt, your pagan gods sucks, that’s it, I’m going to get some crazy dude with a staff to kick your ass and I am going to harden the heart of your king to make it happen.”

My point in this little speculation however is that, if God himself is to have libertarian freewill, then his decisions cannot be “pre-determined”, as it were. God should always have the option or choice to decide what happens, and he could always choose what happens in “real time” as it were, making up his mind as he goes along.

Personally I am a Calvinist in the sense that I believe in the points of predestination. But as an Anglican, I am not really obliged to hold to the rest of the Westminster system about detailed providence, etc. I think this little thought experiment however shows how, in a strange way, strong libertarian freewill and substantial freedom in this world, can be compatible with unconditional election.

Strong Divine Sovereignty and Open Theism

One of the stranger beliefs of the Church Fathers, in my opinion, is the idea that God doesn’t really have freewill. (I believe that Athanasius explicitly denied that God has freewill.) It seems odd to me that while freewill has been exhorted as one of the crowning glories of mankind that God himself should lack it. (My philosophical history is quite poor on this point, might have something to do with the “metaphysical” approach to divinity which “fixes” a specific divine “nature” thereby constraining God’s liberty.)

In any case, since I have been speculating about divine election and its relationship to libertarian freewill and indeterminism, I thought it might be interesting to argue for a highly paradoxical thesis that strong divine sovereignty might entail an open future. This is paradoxical because normally open theism is associated with propositions to do with limiting divine determination and knowledge of the future. But since I like to screw up systems into detachable modular pieces, I will make an argument for how a very strong version of divine sovereignty entails open theism.

(1) If God possesses Strong Divine Sovereignty, that means that God has absolute unrestrained libertarian freewill over all events.

(2) If God has libertarian freewill over all events that means that God always retain the power to determine alternative events or outcomes.

(3) The only constrains upon the divine choice are “pactum” constraints, that is, any constrain on the divine will or sovereignty are self-imposed via expressed promises or covenants, moral constrains and not metaphysical. (Pactum is a deliberate echo of Ockham’s pactum or covenant theology whereby God acts in time according to his own declared covenants.)

(4) As such, outside of such pactum restrictions, God always retain the power to determine alternative outcomes.

(5) If God retain the power to determine alternative outcomes, then the occurrence of any future event is ultimately contingent on what God determines.

(6) However, unless God has decided upon a particular future outcome, then there is simply no fact as to what will happen, that is, there are simply no future facts. There are only multiple possible outcomes from which God can choose, but no “actual” outcome until God has chosen. Remember, on Strong Divine Sovereignty, God must always have the freedom to choose between different outcomes.

(7) Since God has libertarian freewill, that means there is also no fact as to what God will decide either. There cannot be, as it were, a force which determined what God will decide with regards the future.

(8) Now while it is possible that God has determined beforehand what will happen in exhaustive detail, it is also just as possible that God has decided to make no decisions about the future, or merely make decisions of a very delimited kind (like the eventual salvation of certain elect, or the incarnation, etc), without deciding in detail anything else.

Ergo, assuming that God has not decided everything about the future, the future remains essentially “open”, there are no future facts, only future possibilities which God has yet to decide upon.

Now I think it is worth clarifying what this argument means via an analogy. I am *not* arguing that God doesn’t know certain future facts, I am arguing that there are no future facts for God to know in the first place since those future facts are ultimately dependent on what God decides. Here’s an analogy:

(A) The number of descendents of Socrates.

(B) The number of children Elizabeth Bennett has.

Now, as to (A), there is an objective fact “out there” in the world today, the answer of which is epistemically inaccessible to all (except God himself). Now this is very different from (B) which is that there is no fact as to how many children Elizabeth Bennett has. She is a fictional character. It would be absurd to say that there is out there (where?) an objective fact as to the number of children she had with Mr Darcy. There will only be a fact if Jane Austen continued the story and wrote it down somewhere.

What I am saying basically is that the future is more like (B) then (A), there is simply no facts about the future “out there” until God has decided on what is to happen. And there is no fact either as to what God will decide upon. As such, this isn’t limiting “omniscience”, God does know everything, but there is merely no future fact for God to know, anymore than there is a fact as to the number of children Elizabeth Bennett has for God to know.

Thus when Christ said that “With God all things are possible”, perhaps he meant the future as well. With God in control, no future is “fixed”, there remains always an infinite variety of possibilities for God to decide upon, all under his Sovereign Power.

Free Particular Decisions but Unfree Outcomes?

In my discussions on the compatibility of indeterminism, libertarian freewill, and even open theism, with unconditional election, I have so far always stipulated that with regards ultimate salvation at least the elect are not free because they simply do not have the option of rejecting God. I stipulated that God may leave it to the freewill of the elect when they want to believe and be saved, and even what they will do with their redeemed life, but generally they simply do not have the option of finally perishing because God will intervene and/or coordinate events such that they will inevitably believe in the end and be saved. I argued that if necessary or needed God can simply override that person’s libertarian freewill to cause him to choose to believe in the Gospel.

On further reflection however, one might wonder whether there would be any situation where such an override maybe necessary. The salvation of anyone is but the sum of discrete acts and events on that person’s life. Even if that person has more than one option for each act, the range of his options are not unlimited nor are they all equally probable. God can always coordinate events and material forces such that an elect choosing the Gospel, and remaining in the faith, is a moral and practical certainty although not metaphysical necessity. Thus a Cromwellian possibility for someone to reject the Gospel always exist even for the elect, but practically speaking God has arranged events such that it is a moral certainty they he won’t.

Another way of looking at this is to see that the accumulative probability of the elect for believing and remaining in the faith increases everytime he chooses the good and grow in sanctification. And with careful providential coordination, the probability of that person finally rejecting the faith approaches near zero, although not zero as libertarian freewill means that that possibility always exist.

Thus we have here also a theory for how negative reprobation works. Given the corrupt constitution of mankind due to original sin, and the deception, distraction, and allurement of the world, the practical probability that anyone will believe starts low and approaches zero as time progresses, a reduction compounded by every sin, pride, and rejection o the Gospel. Of course such a person will always have a nonzero infinistemal chance of believing due to libertarian freewill, and God can always flip that probability to the other side with a surgical intervention or event. But normally if God leaves man as they are, the probability that they will perish is a moral certainty and inevitability.

The former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams once used getting lost for an analogy of original sin. If, say, while traveling, you took a wrong turn, and then another wrong turn, and another and another… You will be so lost that your chance of finding your way back is near impossible unless someone comes along with a map and guides you out of the mess. It is the same thing with original sin which is the cumulative product of wrong choices from those who came before us and which we will continue on. The only way out is if God appeared to guide us out of the maze of sin. But if God simply leave us alone, we will simply inevitable be lost and perish. Sin, in this framework, is a matter of history rather than ontology or metaphysics.

Under this scheme as such, we can always posit that metaphysically we have freewill all the way but historically and practically, because of the divine election, the elect will inevitably find their way to God via carefully coordinated and calibrated Providence while the reprobate, having been abandoned by God, will lose themselves in the maze of sin and perish.

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This entry was posted on January 12, 2019 by in Uncategorized.

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