Thursday, December 22, 2016

Providence and freedom

I wanted to develop a thought from yesterday on providence and free will. But where to start...

Imagine a world governed entirely by God's arbitrary will, that is, with no discernible regularities in it. Everything is an immediate invention of God's mind and need not have any connection with anything before or after. One is tempted to say that we would have no free will in that case, as an immediate corollary. But then, a compatibilist view of free will, in which human agency does not contradict determinism (which latter could be the result of scientific or theological suppositions), might still hold in such a universe. God could give each of us the sensation of having free will, producing in us the experience of making decisions and having some perceptible impact on our environment. If that doesn't sound like genuine free will to you, then I guess you're not a compatibilist. (I'm not either.)

Anyway the real problem isn't whether we might have the sensation of a will of our own. The real problem is that we couldn't possibly learn or understand anything. Learning is always a matter of seeing connections between things. We find causal or logical relationships between events and concepts, we perceive similarities and differences allowing us to categorize things and experiences, and in so doing we build a web of knowledge. Now if God were always there to possibly interrupt all such connections, we would have no choice but to view life as fundamentally absurd. Learning would be not just pointless, but impossible. Scientific knowledge (in the modern sense) would be impossible, since repeated experiments would not necessarily yield the same results. Personal relationships would be just as impossible, since the bond of trust could never exist in a world without predictable patterns.

Only if God's will is bound by definite patterns that are in some sense universal can human beings come to understand the world as such. This fact need not infringe on God's supremacy. Those patterns could have their origin in God's own will or character. The point is not to say what God must be like in any conceivable universe, but rather to say what He must be like given that we exist.

By contrast, a world completely governed by unchanging laws is, ironically, the most fertile ground for free will. In this case the mind can discern order in the universe, because it is actually there. We acquire knowledge through experience and memory. Memory doesn't fail us because the present really is connected to the past, and experience doesn't fail us because there is a true link (causal, rational) between our actions and their consequences. One potential irony is that we ourselves are governed by physical laws, and so arguably we aren't genuinely free; all our decisions are perhaps the inevitable result of evolution given certain initial conditions. Or maybe not. It is entirely conceivable that in a world governed by universal physical laws, there may exist rational beings with the power to choose between several physical possibilities; by what logical principle must a physical law allow at most one outcome for each initial condition? The universe still remains intelligible if possibilities are limited in a consistent way.

What impresses me the most is the analogy that exists between this seemingly abstract consideration and real world politics. In free societies, laws are consistently applied, so that individual members can be assured that if they abide by a certain base line code of conduct, they will be free to pursue their own ends. In tyrannical societies, it is often observed, a general atmosphere of suspicion falls on the entire people. The concept of truth itself becomes degraded. When the actions of the state are totally unpredictable, people resign themselves to a life with no intelligible order. Only might makes right.

Is God a god whose might makes right? In the world we actually live in, certainly not. We live in a universe so well ordered by laws that those who understand them may question the existence of any exceptions whatsoever. In other words, in a world where scientists tend not to believe in miracles, you can be assured that God is not a tyrant. On the contrary, you might criticize Him for being too libertarian. But for the Christian who believes that everything in the universe is under God's control, these universal laws become windows into His character. There is, presumably, a reason why He adheres to these laws in particular. Reflecting on those reasons can be particularly painful when the consequences of said laws seems so devastating. It hardly seems comforting to think that God is in control of tsunamis that wipe out hundreds of thousands of mostly innocent people, or that He is in control of diseases that kill millions of people every year. Why can't He break these laws for our sake, that is, for the sake of justice?

I think part of the resolution of such questions lies in God's ultimate destiny for human beings, and part lies in the inherent goodness of the entire created order (why should the wind and waves stop because we want them to leave us alone?). But another important factor is, I wager, our capacity for freedom. God knows that the only way for rational minds to exist in the created world is for the order of creation to be consistent. We would not be able to discern His character if He erratically imposed His will on us. Instead, He acts toward us according to a coherent set of principles, allowing us to accumulate knowledge of Him and His creation. In so gaining understanding, it's worth restating that we also become more free to pursue our own ends. It would appear that God values our freedom, the kind that comes from learning and growing in wisdom.

I make no attempt to actually address the classical problem of "free will" here. I am more interested in the nature of God's providence as it relates to our freedom. As best I can tell, it matters for our freedom what kind of control God exercises over the world, and it seems to me that the kind of control He in fact does exercise permits the growth of free, rational minds. This says a great deal about the purpose of creation. It says also a great deal about our purpose as rational beings.

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