Reflections on the interplay of divine will, natural chance and human freedom
Johnm55 raised an interesting point in response to my recent superstition post. His point was that there is such a thing as luck, in the sense of random chance (or at least what appears to be chance). Circumstances can turn out for good or ill for us according to chance, and outside of our control, and to this extent there is good and bad luck. I agree, though I’m not sure whether I believe in total chance – that ‘God plays dice’ to mangle Einstein’s famous phrase.
Which reminded me that I’d written on this very subject on my old blog, so here, dusted off and updated, is the post in question…
Is everything that happens, everything we do, everything that exists completely fixed and determined; or is it utterly random and chaotic; or is it all up to us, a matter of will and decision? Do we live in a universe organised by divine command, blind chance or creaturely choice? Do we follow a set path to an inevitable destiny, or a random meandering to who knows where – or do we choose our own path and destination?
As usual, my irritatingly indecisive answer is ‘a bit of all three’. I can’t sign up either to total determinism, utter randomness or supreme creaturely free will, but rather to a complex interplay of all three elements.
Creator, cosmos and creatures
The three elements stand for the role of God, the universe or nature, and humans:
1. God is arguably eternal and perfect and, in his own essence (though not necessarily in his relationship with his creation), unchanging.
2. The universe (nature) seems at its most essential level to be random. The sub-atomic quantum world appears to be deeply and fundamentally chaotic, and randomness or chance – or else a pattern so complex it defies our deciphering – seems best to describe the behaviour of weather systems, radioactive decay, gene shuffling in sexual reproduction, and so many other natural phenomena.
However, there is another side to this equation; everything in nature also obeys the natural laws and set processes of physics, chemistry and biology. So law and randomness walk hand in hand, randomness forever giving law something fresh to act on, and law forever shaping randomness to its parameters. So we have complex patterns in nature that are a combination of mathematical law and randomness – for example, fractals in cloud shapes, ice crystals, ocean waves, blood systems and trees.
3. Humans (and to an extent other creatures) seem to have at least a degree of genuine freedom and ability to make real and meaningful choices with significant consequences for themselves, other creatures and the world. Some say that every choice we make is completely predetermined by our genes, our nurture and our present circumstances, but I believe that there is always an element – however small – of free and uncoerced choice available to us. We may not always be able to choose where we live or what happens to us, but we can always choose to some degree how we face our circumstances, whether we respond in a closed or open way, in fear or in welcome.
God’s sovereign rule is one of freedom not coercion
I find it fascinating that God, in his sovereignty and unchanging perfection, does not impose a set order on nature or on human life but gives the freedom of chance (randomness) to the one and the freedom of choice to the other. This suggests to me that God’s sovereign rule is a rule of freedom not coercion. God is in control but not controlling; he is not an autocratic control freak but the architect of meaningful freedom.
It also suggest that God’s unchanging perfection is simultaneously and paradoxically a dynamic diversity. This perhaps ties in with Aquinas’s comment on divine simplicity, that God’s infinite simplicity would necessarily appear to finite minds as infinite complexity.
Of course, randomness – ‘chance’ – does not necessarily equate to meaninglessness. A roll of the die can produce six different outcomes but each of those outcomes may have a valid meaning or significance. Similarly, complexity need not necessarily equate to chaos; even the most apparently chaotic arrangement can form a meaningful pattern to the infinite mind of God.
So it’s possible that at least some events that appear entirely random may actually have both a meaning and a purpose. It’s also possible that God – or other forces beyond our ken – may be acting through some of these events according to his (or their) purposes. It’s almost impossible in any given example to say for certain what the meaning and purpose might be, or who might be acting through it for good or ill. Events that seem bad to us can ultimately turn out for good, and vice versa; and something which may be an inconvenience to us may benefit someone else (‘it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good’). We live in an almost infinitely complex world of cause and effect, of agents and subjects, and as Gandalf or Galadriel or someone like that remarks, ‘even the wisest cannot see all ends’.
The impossible real
Everything that happens is both mathematically impossible and inevitable
Looked at from one end of the telescope, everything that happens is mathematically impossible. The odds, viewed from the beginning of time, of my sitting here at this moment writing this or you sitting there reading it are incalculably infinitesimal – zero, in effect. The odds of your or my being here at all are infinitesimal. By any odds, we shouldn’t exist. But we do; and viewed at this present moment from the other end of the telescope our being here and doing this is definite, actual, even (in a sense) inevitable – it simply is what is happening; its probability at this point is 1 (i.e. 100%).
As an interesting (relevant) aside, have a look at this visualisation posted on Will Cookson’s blog, representing graphically the immense odds against your (or my) existing – 1 in 400 quadrillion according to this estimate. The illustration concludes with the line ‘Now go forth and feel and act like the miracle you are’, but of course an equally valid conclusion would be ‘Now go forth and act like the random accident that you are’. Which again shows that how we interpret the data depends on our prior beliefs…
Of course we don’t know how wide the parameters of freedom are set – how many alternative pathways chance and choice have been allowed to get from the moment dot to this present moment; how many alternative endings and outcomes there could have been and could yet be; whether indeed the final, ultimate outcomes and destinies are all set and it’s only the paths to them that are free.
Nonetheless I do believe very deeply in real and meaningful freedom to act and to choose within the framework of God’s sovereignty and the universe’s serendipity. Perhaps our choice, or our ability to choose, forms the bridge between the fixedness of God and the fluidity of nature; the command of God and the chaos of the cosmos. Or perhaps the randomness of nature is what allows us the freedom to choose within the sovereignty of God.
Or perhaps I’m just talking about things that are far too big and complex for me to have a clue about…