Chance, choice and God

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.

Paradoxical sovereignty

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…


About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Calvinism, Theology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Chance, choice and God

  1. Rosie Edser says:

    You can take this in so many directions!
    For me it has the most practical theological outworking at the bus stop en route to school with small children wanting explanations. We’re later to the bus stop than we mean to be. We see the tail lights of the 410 disapearing round the corner. The 157 won’t let us on (even tho we don’t have a buggy and some people got off!!). The kids suggest praying that another will come quickly. Sometimes it does, in which case we sometimes thank God, but presumably that means when it doesn’t, we blame God?
    What does it *mean* when no bus comes in time and we get the dreaded “Late mark” in the register?…maybe it was not our turn for God’s favour today in the web of his eternal tweaking (can’t go with that dice-roll analogy) and the bus we could have done with catching NOW has been delayed waiting for an old lady shuffling along at top speed waving her brolley and begging the driver to wait back in South Norwood somewhere. Maybe it’s God using that chance to teach me to work on my character – self discipline and setting the alarm clock earlier. Maybe it’s pure circumstances and the buses are just doing that bunching up thing they have been proven to do as a result of traffic flow and the numbers of people alighting at each stop…. hmm


    • Thanks for commenting 🙂 I think we start to enter the realm of the imponderable here – the interplay between divine action, human choice and random chance becomes so incredibly complex that it’s impossible to second-guess the causes of events like missing the bus, let alone try to work out their possible purpose!

      So with the bus example, you could say that there was an element of human choice (or just fallibility) in being later to the bus stop than you intended, and also the bus driver’s choice in not letting you on. Then there’s all the random or apparently random factors that may have played a part – the weather, the traffic, the number of people needing to catch the bus today. And finally there may or may not be a spiritual component – was the devil having a pop at you? Was God using the circumstances for some purpose? Did someone else have a greater need to get the bus for some emergency, and their prayer overrode yours in this case? Was there some other reason God didn’t want you to get that bus? Or did it just have no particular meaning, and it’s just one of those darned things? (Sorry, I realise you were raising almost exactly the same questions in your comment but I just got carried away with my rhetoric!)

      So basically, I don’t have a clue! If pushed, I think God’s involved or at least present in all these things, but perhaps not in the ways we usually imagine.

      Sorry to hear about the bus though… 😦


  2. dsholland says:

    So, I really liked the combination of these thoughts:

    “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 is in control but not controlling; he is not an autocratic control freak but the architect of meaningful freedom.”

    Within the realm of will, before an action in time and space we have the freedom to choose (though John 15:16 argues not everything), meaningful freedom. Once we commit to time and space our will is insufficient to ensure the outcome, and though His is, He apparently honors (to a large degree) our choices.

    As for the bus, I suspect the dreaded “Late mark” is not so dreaded as to require planning to be early enough to always wait (we miss planes far less often than we miss buses).


    • Thanks David – glad you liked those thoughts! Interesting point about the difference between the realm of will (or mind) and the realm of time and space.

      Not sure it’s really possible to draw a meaningful comparison between catching buses and catching planes though! 🙂


  3. Eric says:

    The entire conversation here hinges on a meaningful idea of what the slippery idea of free will is. Is it uncoerced will? Undetermined will? Will that costs nothing at the store?

    When someone describes making a free choice what they actually describe is not a lack of determination but a lack of coercion. Nothing, except their own desire, prevented them from choosing another option. But do they control their own desire?

    I’m not entirely sure that one can explain what an undetermined free will would be in a way that doesn’t amount to randomness. However, most people also believe that they make the best decision given the data. If we re-run the universe 67 times and in 64 you reject the awful credit card offer and in 3 you accept it why? The information available didn’t change, your base knowledge didn’t change, you didn’t get brighter or dumber. Instead, the answer would seem to have to be that some random factor is added to your decision. But that’s not what most of us believe. Instead, we believe that we evaluated the credit card offer and decided on its merits, not its merits plus the roll of a die.

    Now, I actually think there are some equally deep issues with determinism, including the fact that if everything is determined then I type this explanation because forces beyond my control have acted together to make me believe that this is the right answer and to make me want to share it. Obviously, I’d rather believe that I haven’t been inevitably funneled into this answer and that some meaningful element of choice has allowed me to judge what is correct against what isn’t.


    • Hi Eric, thanks – you raise some very interesting points. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say that the entire conversation hinges on the meaning of free will, but it’s certainly a pretty important part of the mix.

      I’ll lay my cards on the table and say that I do very much believe in undetermined free will – I don’t really see how we can have any kind of meaningful life without this. That’s not to say that our free will isn’t constrained by limiting parameters and subject to a whole range of influences which may tend to push it in particular directions. It’s also not to say that God can’t or doesn’t at times override our free will. But I find it impossible to believe that my thoughts, choices and actions are not in some sense and to some degree self-determined. Whether or not I always choose wisely or well is another matter…


      • Eric says:

        The issue this brings up is that you say both undetermined and self-determined. What is an undetermined free will? It can neither be deterministic nor do you really intend for it to be random.

        Take a simple example. We re-run the universe 567 times. In 561 of them Bob never kills anyone. In 6 instances, though, he shoots Joe in a fit of rage. Prior to Bob shooting Joe everything in these universes is identical (we have discarded all others from the sample). Now, this is non-deterministic. It’s a classic example of what undetermined free will is actually supposed to look like. But it’s also random. Why did Bob shoot Joe? There’s no reason for it. Somewhere in his head there appears to be a truly random coin-flipper that occasionally comes up “shoot Joe”. So this is also not what people mean when they say “undetermined free will”. The problem is that the phrase appears to mean two things that are contradictory: not determined and not random. I would readily believe in the thing if I could find a definition that made logical sense.


  4. dsholland says:


    Clearly free will is not (to use the Open Source concept) like free beer. Following in the writing analogy it is very much like free speech. I don’t see how undetermined will makes sense (undetermined speech?). Will implies choice or determination. Action or inaction as a matter of will. There is a level of consciousness required and a direction in time (stones do not choose to lay there).

    Lack of “coercion” from past events is impossible (I am the sum of my choices to a large degree). Each of the choices is made within its parameters of freedom, but that choice limits or broaden subsequent choices. Like the individual die rolls I still make the choice at that moment. This is another way of saying that the architect of meaningful freedom provides us with the ability to set the direction of our choices (our present tense response), “fear” or “welcome”.

    Its interesting that Paul is translated in Romans “to will is present with me”. The relationship of will, sin and righteousness is, I think an important piece of the puzzle.


    • Eric says:

      “Lack of “coercion” from past events is impossible (I am the sum of my choices to a large degree).”
      Generally speaking, coercion requires intent by an agent. I wouldn’t say that, for instance, the fact that I cannot fly coerces me into using a ladder to clean the gutters. If someone (an agent with intent) used threats of force I would count this as coercion. It is this lack of coercion that seems to be what people experience as freedom.


  5. dsholland says:

    @Eric – I quoted coercion but should have made my intent to imply compulsion more clear. The fact you cannot fly compels you to use a ladder. Yet you are free to choose not to get your ladder and watch the game instead. That choice may result in another’s compulsion to coerce you. Perhaps we can argue that God has given us “Free Will” if we find ourselves in such a situation, but I doubt the argument would be compelling 😉


    • Eric says:

      I’m unsure whether we disagree.


      • Interesting discussion. The re-running the universe experiment doesn’t quite work for me, not least because it can’t be done and we can never know how it would turn out. We can only speculate that Bob would kill Joe in some re-runs and not in others – it seems to me more likely that he would behave exactly the same way each time. So it seems to me you’re assuming a coin-flip in his head where there may not be one.

        Also, you say ‘there’s no reason for it’ (Bob shooting Joe), on the basis of the coin-flip randomness. I think it would be truer here to acknowledge the limits of our ability to understand all causes and reasons, rather than to assume a lack of reason. As humans we operate according to an incredibly complex balance of factors that we’re barely aware of – instinct, habits, learnt responses, fluctuating emotions, intellect, religious beliefs, social influences etc. Sometimes we act one way ‘in the heat of the moment’ when on another occasion we might have acted differently, perhaps more influenced by reason than emotion. I think we have to accept that we can’t fully understand all the reasons why we or others may have made particular decisions, but that’s not the same as randomness.

        The bottom line for me is that God is self-determining; he is entirely free to choose and act as he wills without determinism or coercion. As beings made in his image, it seems to me unthinkable that we would not have some measure of this same freedom; indeed it seems a fundamental part of the definition of what it means to be human. It may be difficult to find a logical definition of undetermined action that is distinct from randomness, but if we can accept it as a possibility for God then surely it must at least be a possibility for us.


        • Just a further thought on this – I think the nub of this issue is not just free will but whether there is any sense in which we are meaningful entities, selves or persons; whether ‘I’ really means anything. Does my sense of ‘me’-ness, of being myself, have any reality or meaning, or is it just a kind of brain-produced fiction, a shifting collage of my sense impressions and internal chemical reactions, and a product of all that ‘I’ have experienced?

          It’s no surprise that neither surgeons nor neurosurgeons can find anything in our bodies or brains that corresponds to a ‘soul’ or a centre of personal identity, any more than they can find God. From a strictly scientific point of view, ‘I’ cannot really be said to exist at all. Yet my moment-to-moment experience convinces me that there is a real meaning to ‘I/me’; that I am a genuinely meaningful entity or being with thoughts, feelings, beliefs and a will.

          For me, a partially self-determined free will seems foundational to this sense of self; the two are almost inextricably entwined. If I’m not in some sense free to will – independent of reason, emotion, peer pressure, genetics or any other influences – then I’m not a person. Conversely, if I am a person in any sense, I must have some degree of freedom to determine and decide for myself. I can’t of course logically demonstrate this any more than I can prove that God exists.


  6. Eric says:

    “We can only speculate that Bob would kill Joe in some re-runs and not in others – it seems to me more likely that he would behave exactly the same way each time.”

    This is my point. If he does this he’s determined. If he doesn’t he’s random. The normal idea of a non-random undetermined free will makes no sense.

    Now, self-determination makes a lot more sense. Even if I act in the same way every time the universe is re-run if I am acting that way because of who I am then where’s the problem? Apparently in what I am if I am sufficiently described by the sum of my inputs……


  7. dsholland says:

    To clarify a bit (because I too am unsure we agree) self-determination is the ability to choose our response to input (“whether we respond in a closed or open way, in fear or in welcome”), but “If he doesn’t [respond in the same way each time] he’s random. The normal idea of a non-random undetermined free will makes no sense.”
    So I believe you [Eric] are saying that each run of the universe, repeats. “Even if I act in the same way every time the universe is re-run if I am acting that way because of who I am then where’s the problem?”

    If that is the case I think we disagree. The reason is that natural systems do not typically display that kind of determinism. My understanding is that natural system have a characteristic sometimes described as “sensitive dependence on initial conditions”, where apparently identical inputs produce non-repeating results (they are chaotic). I have discussed elsewhere why I believe this reveals the nature of God in the universe (not that He is chaotic in the Dungeons&Dragons sense).

    I believe this is reflected in choice and Free Will in a similar way. Consider my assertion “Like the individual die rolls I still make the choice at that moment.” I think free will works very much like that. The probability of any individual roll of the dice is fixed regardless of the rolls before it. So while the probability I will roll snake eyes N times in a row is reduced proportionally with N (or exponentially I am not concerned with the math per se). Nevertheless the probability that I will roll snake eyes on the Nth roll is exactly the same as the probability I will roll snake eyes on the first roll. At that moment (and not before) “the die is cast”, as it were. Coming back to Bob, he has made many choices in his life leading up to the moment just before he shoots (or doesn’t shoot) Joe.

    If Bob, in similar circumstances, has repeatedly chosen “shoot Joe” type of responses then this may be looked at as the Nth roll of the die (a habit) and Joe will hope his insurance is up to date. But at that moment Bob will make a conscious decision, his muscles will respond to the stimulus directed by his brain. Bob will choose to shoot or not shoot Joe. The “decision” may not be repeatable or deterministic but it is also not random. Bob must choose at that moment. There may be many factors influencing that choice but he still makes it. In this way Paul writes “to will is present with us”.

    Can God “interfere” with any individual choice? Can He tip the scale of compulsion? I believe He can. I also believe He can do that without negating the sum of our choices which invariably leave us condemned by sin.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s