|Premier Christianity Magazine screws up for once.|
In the first part of this series we found that it is possible to throw some light on the meaning of "determinism" from a mathematical point of view and that this meaning revolves around the degree to which behavioural patterns are mathematically predictable. But as we saw in that part the concept of mathematical "predictability" isn't a simple a binary "yes" or "no" choice: For not only does predictability come in degrees it is also relative to human knowledge and computational resources. Even so, it is not clear that the kind of mathematical determinism which facilitates predictability has got anything to do with Brierley's dichotomy. After all, in one sense God's behaviour is very predictable: Viz: We know in advance that God's behaviour will always fall on the side of Love, Justice and Truth. Does this predictability mean that God has no "free will" and that God's responses are "predetermined"? I think that Brierley and many others who cliche surf this subject are probably confounded by theological word games that seem meaningful to them but turn out to unintelligible when scrutinised closely. This would not be a new development in the annals of theology, a subject which all too easily degenerates into casuistry
Below I follow my usual practice of quoting the writer and interleaving my own comments:
But then what meaningful content can we give to the phrase "God knows in advance" when it may well be that "time" as we know it is as much part of creation as is space and matter - in fact it is difficult to give meaning to space, time and matter in isolation from one another; e.g try defining matter without reference to time and space! Created time may be very different to divine time. So it seems quite possible that in Romans 8:29 Paul is using connotational content rather than notational content to express the absolute sovereignty of God in a way which resonates with our limited comprehension of the divine perspective and should therefore not be taken too literally.
And while we are here, a theological point: I was always under the impression that God's freely offered grace may nevertheless be rejected or accepted on the human side and consequently entails human action if only of a very minimal kind, a kind akin to saying "thank you" to someone offering a gift and then gratefully receiving that gift. Therefore I can make no sense of Brierley's claim that: If God's grace alone is sufficient for salvation, then we must have played no part at all. Of course, if we have accepted the gift of grace then, like everything else, it will be subject to the absolute sovereignty of divine permission. But that apart I would question whether we as human beings are able to talk about the divine perspective with sufficient clarity for us to be able to construct an unequivocally clear dichotomy referred to as "free will vs predestination".
Brierley goes on to characterise the Calvinistic school of thought as follows:
So, with or without those annoying Calvinists, there seems to be a mathematical sense in which "predetermination", so called, is difficult to avoid! But Brierley goes over the top; he's quite sure he can draw the conclusion that any hint of determinism implies we are puppets on strings; in spite of the fact that Brierley is working at the limits of intelligibility he confidently proffers such a conclusion. But what has emerged from platonic space is hardly comparable to a puppet. For a start no one really knows what it feels like to be a puppet, if indeed puppets have any feelings! In contrast the world which has emerged from platonic space is not a world of puppets but a world of conscious beings with very complex patterns of behaviour driven from within. If these beings are following any script at all it is the script of complex adaptive systems whose decisions are a function of an internal complexity as it reacts to its environment. The puppet metaphor is wholly inappropriate to this kind of system. Puppets are neither conscious nor capable of an adaptive response.
Think of it like this: The skill of the snooker player is in predicting as accurately as possible how the balls will ricochet off each other in order to find the pockets on the table. But theoretically, if a snooker player lined up their very first shot with perfect precision and perfect force, they could clear the table in one shot. The universe is like that, but on a much bigger scale.
MY COMMENT: I am surprised that Brierley is working to such a passe concept of physics; he fails to take cognizance of the roles of chaos and quantum randomness in today's "mechanical" paradigm. Thus Brierley's characterization of "atheist determinism" using "billiard ball" mechanics looks like a straw-man. Although there may well be many naive atheists out there who share Brierley's characterization it is not at all clear that sophisticated atheists would swallow this view and this has implications for Brieley's freewill vs determinism dichotomy. For a start, as we have seen in the first part of this series "determinism" in the mathematical sense is a graded and relative phenomenon and even when determinism is present in its strongest form such as we see in a computer system, it is still colloquially meaningful to talk about such a system "making choices" within its behavioural envelope. For sophisticated atheists like the philosopher John Searle and physicist Roger Penrose, both of whom undoubtedly understand the way the world works better than Brierley, it would be very unfair to foist this naive account of reality upon them. Moreover, Searle and Penrose are very clear in their identification of the conscious component of human cognition: As Searle may well tell us, "human machines" are a composite of a first person perspective and a third person perspective. This leads to the question as to what is the true nature of reality. In the quote above Brierley has, in all likelihood, defaulted to the dualist paradigm that contrasts the world of hard "billiard ball matter" against the ethereal and ghostly mind. It is a small step from this dualist outlook to the belief that "billiard ball matter" is the primary reality and that the conscious sentience of mind is at best secondary and at worst an illusion to be disposed of. My own view (developed elsewhere) is that conscious qualia are needed to turn the formalities of mathematical configurations into real and meaningful qualities.
It may well be that the world of quantum envelopes has a complete registration with the world of conscious thinking in as much as those envelopes contain a full complement of information about conscious activity. In this descriptive sense the behaviour of quantum envelopes would then provide a complete "explanation" of consciousness - Christians should not necessarily be in the business of denying this possibility. But even if this is actually the case and if the quantum world is humanly predictable (which in fact it appears not to be!), quantum mechanics nevertheless remains a third person theoretical account which ultimately traces back to a first person making observations and constructing a rational theory, a theory which joins the dots of conscious experience into a rational whole. The upshot is that it is impossible to eliminate the sentient mind from the world of theoretical mechanics as it is organically joined to it via perception. All this is a far cry from Brierley's billiard ball mechanics.
BRIERLEY: Every single physical event, from the movement of electrons to the orbits of planets., follows predictable laws of cause and effect. Therefore, the way the universe is now is a direct result of the way it was when it first began. If you rewind the clock by 13 billion years to the exact same physical state of affairs things would roll out in exactly the same way they already have.
But in such a universe, the idea that we have any measure of free will evaporates. Every aspect of our existence was predestined by a cosmos blindly following the laws of cause and effect.
MY COMMENT: Here we go again with Brierley's naive physics of a highly predictable world! Moreover, he's very emphatic here that the predictable patterning of so called "cause and effect" (sic) is inconsistent with "freewill". If we are to take Brierley's position to its logical conclusion it would mean that for human beings to qualify as having freewill, their patterns of behavior would have to be absolutely random! This is absurd as clearly humans often (but not always) make rational decisions in reaction to their environment and this necessarily entails a degree of predictability. Moreover, as I have pointed out in part I human behaviour is in many cases highly predictable and it seems wrong to then draw the conclusion that this implies the absence of "freewill". As we have also seen, God's behavior is also very predictable at a high level (if not at the detailed level) and it doesn't then follow that God therefore has no "freewill"! (what ever that "freewill" is supposed to mean).
Given the physical laws as we currently understand them it is certainly not clear that rewinding the universe back to the year dot and restarting it would mean that exactly the same history would repeat. In fact as many evolutionists would affirm it is not at all clear that, given the contingent nature of evolution, a rewind and restart would ultimately lead to the human species. So much for Brierley's account of "determinism"! The irony is that the very contingent and random nature of physical processes is often used as a counter to theism! (Theism as a concept, it seems, struggles at both the extremes of high order and low order)
Following the above quote Brierley does a brief section on "compatibilism"; that is, the belief that one's actions can be both free and determined at the same time. Trouble is, because Brierley is engaged in some heavy duty hand waving rather than giving us clear understandings of "predestination" and "freewill" it is impossible to come to any firm conclusion about their logical relationship and whether one category necessarily excludes the other. We therefore have no idea what is being claimed to be compatible with what, or vice versa what is incompatible with what.
The rest of Brierley's article suffers from the same woolly thinking. All we have to go on is some indication that Brierley closely identifies determinism with predictable patterns, but as we have seen predictability is both graded and relative, so how predictable has something got to be before it classifies as determinism? Brierley's line of thinking appears to lead to the absurd conclusion that only absolutely random behavior can be considered "free". As the matter stands, then, it is impossible to come to any intelligible conclusions as to whether freewill and determinism are mutually incompatible.
BRIERLEY: Our freewill is not truly free if determinism is still the bottom line
MY COMMENT: This statement is too incoherent to agree or disagree with.
BRIERLEY: Love is only truly love when it is freely given and freely received.
MY COMMENT: If we are to take on board the implicit logic behind Brierley's close identification of predictability with determinism we might conclude that because behavior must be random and unpredictable to be classified as "free" then a person who loves me today, may not love me tomorrow because the patterns of behaviour of "free agents" are unpredictable. I'm sure Brierley wouldn't agree with this nonsense! At least I hope not!
BRIERLEY: We are all familiar. with the fairy tale of the enchantress who puts the prince under a spell to make him 'love' her. But we know its not really love - its a delusion. Being manipulated in such a way is the opposite of love. By the same token, if God has pre-contrived our every desire. so that we have no option but to love our wife, love our children and to love him, then we are acting as little more than robots.
MY COMMENT: The "spell" here reminds me of the scenario I referred to in part I where a computer executing software is infected with a virus; it's no longer the software making the decisions but the virus that has been introduced. God could no doubt completely and miraculously disrupt our neural make up in order to make us love him, but since our identity is very much bound up with the uniqueness of our character traits, memories and history the identity of "us" would no longer be "us". Our "I" would effectively have been hi-jacked by a different "I". God, I suspect. is looking for our personal status quo to eventually turn to him and love him. It is revealing that some Christians actually see Christian conversion as a kind personality transplant which almost wipes out the previous personality; This conversion paradigm is, I believe, pathological theology and based on a literal reading of connotational texts.
As I have already said, in one sense God hasn't pre-contrived our desires; they were already contrived in platonic space. However, it is God who chooses and permits what emerges from platonic space into our reified world of contingency. Hence God is not responsible for the forms that "pre-exist" in platonic space, although he is responsible for reifying the possibilities. Obviously there remains the big mystery of why God has reified some configurations but not others, but in this life we can no more comprehensively solve that mystery than we can the many mysteries of why JRR Tolkein wrote the particular book that he did.
In the next part I hope to look more closely at Brierleys' subliminal dualism, a dualism probably conceived as billiard ball "cause and effect" materialism vs. the mysterious ghost in the machine.