Archive for March, 2009

A Scarcity of Dialogue

Posted in The Facts and Ideas on March 31, 2009 by RWZero

Why Should We Agree to Disagree?

The value of effective dialogue is often underrated, if not wholly neglected. Although my thoughts on the matter run the risk of becoming excessively abstract and unstructured, I am compelled to write upon this. It cuts to the heart of belief, unbelief, faith and skepticism—why do we (really) all believe such different things? How biased are we?

I have always found it disconcerting a hefty proportion of the human race walks around with such widely varying views, each person believing that his or hers are correct. I’ve devoted a fair number of my sleepless nights to wondering why, if there is only one reality, it should be so hard for us to agree about it.

It has crossed my mind that I am right about everything, and everyone else is simply wrong. But that’s probably not true. [1]

The obvious answer is that people are different, and their realities are different than mine. This explanation, however, fails to placate me in the same way that an antibiotic fails to kill resistant strains—some questions still linger, and they multiply until the whole infection is resistant. People are different, but this itself is an observable fact that we should be able to adjust for, if we are thinking straight.

Another explanation is that, since we employ differing foundational assumptions, agreement is impossible. But the foundational assumptions we employ are not necessarily the result of a unique experience; they arise from the very reality that, in a sense, is “static,” and it is available to all of us. Let’s call this the “system.” If this is the correct explanation, it suggests that our access to this common reality has been conditioned by our experience enough to cause us to disagree. How, then, can we elevate one of these conditioning agents above the other, if we have all been thus conditioned?

Science seems to have circumvented this problem. The reason seems obvious—at each step along the way, an appeal is made to the system for confirmation. Theoretically, it might be possible for two completely different ideas to make the same predictions. The complexity of the universe, however, seems always to collapse these predications into a single truth, such that no two self-consistent scientific models are indistinguishable when the system is consulted… if the system is consulted. [2]

We cannot do this with everything else, because science is the only discipline that allows the system to dictate the result. In fact, I think that all cases in which the system can conclusively arbitrate the conclusion end up being classified as hard science! In the remaining cases, we may find ourselves with no authority to appeal to.

Even if there are good explanations for the spectrum of opinions held in the general population, it has puzzled me that honest, rational people have irreconcilable disagreement on so many issues.

It seems that all agreements require a prior agreement, by which an appropriate method for consulting the system is established between the two parties. In order to save space, I’m going to call this the “prior” (at the risk of sounding like I’m going to invoke Bayesian estimation or something). Even science could not function without this, since science has no effect on minds that are unwilling to accept the prior agreement that underlies it.

My inference, then, is that the most frustrating disagreements have something in common with the most honest disagreements—they stem from a disagreement over how we ought to “consult the system.” How are we to agree on this?

It is somewhat of a false dilemma. There are always priors that we share, and we must begin with those in order to modify the interlocking web of asymmetrical views through dialogue. When we have achieved as much symmetry as possible, however, we will still often reach an impasse.

A true, honest disagreement will arise when we find that the asymmetrical priors cannot be influenced by the data available to the conversation, or the mental or experiential limits of the parties involved.

Dialogue is the complete apprehension by both parties of the others’ position, inasmuch as this is possible. It should be conducted with sensitivity, much the way one plays in a musical ensemble by listening to the ensemble.

A full dialogue involves the following understanding:

1. What constitutes the disagreement

2. The non-identical priors that lead to the disagreement

3. What would be necessary to change these priors (though this “falsifiable” criterion is somewhat scientific in itself, and may be criticized)

4. Why this is not possible

This idea has often kept me awake at night, because it seems that there should never be a good answer to the fourth step—provided there is limitless time and information available to a dialogue. That disagreements occur as a result of finite resources is a repulsive idea to me, but perhaps it is true in many cases.

There are exceptions. It can be easily explained why the belief in God may not be agreed upon by two rational individuals sharing the same essential priors that constitute “reason.” Simply put, there is not enough information to force the conclusion (this might have been abbreviated “you can’t prove it either way,” but I’m making a broader point here.) A conclusion about the existence of God must arise from priors that are, in many cases, more likely to vary. [2] At this point I’ve decided it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to invoke Bayesian estimation after all. [3]

I digress. Perhaps dialogue ultimately can lead to complete agreement on even our foundational assumptions. As I’ve said above, the conditions that produced our foundational assumptions do not derive from unique experiences, but truths that we can expose ourselves to. This is not to say that they will change, but that they may.

Never concede a sound point in order to prove that you are capable of conceding a point.

Always concede a poor point, even if your opponent is not clever enough to explode it.

Do not say “we won’t change each other’s minds.” If you want to be entirely honest, say “I am right and you are stubborn.”

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[1] The world is full of people who are overly concerned over “who” is right. Let us be logical for a moment: this is foolish. Arguments are right, not people. I do not defend arguments because I wish to be right about things, I defend arguments because I believe they are sound.

[2] So, the physicists keep talking about this thing called “string theory…”

[3] If you’re inclined, consider the following line of thinking—having selected these priors (which represent what we believe to be the case), we can go through life developing our “posterior” (which represents what we observe to be the case), which will eventually cause us to have a conversion experience if there is enough dissonance. If we discover that the posterior is very much in line with the prior, we will become surer of ourselves. There are buckets of nuances that become obvious here, one of them being: how do we decide what to expect?

This essay was written without careful attention to detail and will need to be revised.

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Supplanting the Theory

Posted in Faith and Science, The Facts and Ideas on March 23, 2009 by RWZero

On the Shape of that Something-Shaped Hole in You

On paper, scientists have queer standards for the conclusions they accept. A conclusion should arise out of the sum of the evidence under consideration, rather than merely test against it. A conclusion should comply with all known results. Finally, a conclusion meeting these criteria should not be overturned unless there is a better conclusion to replace it with. If applied to our day to day comings and goings, such criteria would seem rather harsh and excessive. We may wish to believe that something good is going to happen in the near future, and the long-term benefit of this may outweigh the singular disappointment—that’s called optimism. But what of the philosophy that underlies our daily comings and goings? Does this need to be scientifically rigorous? Perhaps in some sense.

Because it is considered wrong to lightheartedly overturn scientific conclusions without replacing them, it is possible for us to be wrong about something while still doing the “right” thing. Almost all the science we learn in school is, technically, wrong. Furthermore, even the best science we have available to us is known to be wrong or incomplete—but it works. It only stops working if you pull a very select handful of strings, or ask a very select handful of questions.

All this is germane because of the arguments I often hear put forth against my faith. There are powerful destructive arguments on the side of atheism and agnosticism, but they are accompanied by the opinion that poking holes in a position is all that is required. This is not to say that there cannot be a replacement for a worldview based on faith. It is to say that making destructive arguments is of very limited use, and it’s what everyone spends most of their time doing. [2]

Destructive arguments can easily be concocted against any position, no matter how sound. If their limits were acknowledged, the naïveté of many Christians (on certain issues) might also fade away. To evidence this, consider something that almost everyone can comfortably agree on—the earth is round [3] [4]. It is possible to generate a list of simple evidence that the earth is not round, such as “It doesn’t look round to me!” and “Why don’t people fall off the bottom, then?” If you were highly convinced that the earth was flat, the responses to these challenges might sound long-winded and unconvincing, because the bit of thinking they require is seen as manufactured justification. It is only when the flat-earth model is asked to explain satellite photographs, in contrast to the idea of a round earth, that the answer becomes obvious. I’d say that saying “It’s ridiculous to believe in God, since we can’t see him” is similar to saying “The earth looks flat to me”—it demands an unreasonable level of obviousness. [5] Any questions lending themselves to such obviousness will never be asked in the first place, thoroughly explaining their scarcity. This, however, is beside the point.

To illustrate the above, I posit that science will never accept a supernatural explanation for, say, abiogenesis, because the alternative to naturalism—that is, supernatural intervention—does not conform to the tenets of scientific inquiry. In this way, scientists are able to say “we don’t know,” while maintaining that they are making the “right” decision: they are holding the best theory that they have, the idea that “somehow, by the fundamental mechanisms observed to have caused all other known phenomena, this has occurred.” Despite the severe difficulties involved in this line of research, scientists feel quite comfortable excluding the supernatural, provided they are not definitely proven wrong. In the same way, it is reasonable for a Christian to maintain faith in light of certain theological, historical, or scientific difficulties, when no overarching, core replacement is considered feasible. [6]

I am not dismissing the alternatives to faith out of hand, nor am I saying (here) that they are not feasible. I am suggesting primarily that there are serious difficulties with every form of opinion, philosophy, and belief—you will accomplish nothing by pointing out the ones in mine, turning up your nose, and leaving the room.

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[1] Please bear with me as I call these “essays.” I could call them “posts,” but a blog post is something that takes me about this many minutes:

(Number of words) / (My typing speed in words per minute).

I call these essays because they take more time than that, and I wrote essays in university that we were shorter than these.

[2] My point here, that “a negative argument is not equivalent to a positive one,” will be the subject of another essay that will regurgitate much of what I’ve just written. In the words of one of my professors from the structural department:

“People deny global warming. They say ‘well, this iceberg here is getting bigger,’ or ‘it was cold at my cottage this year,’ but that’s not really how it works … it’s not about explaining each and every individual event, it’s about [choosing a theory that makes the best sense of the evidence]”

[3] I have been enthusiastically told by several people—who I imagine would derive a bit of an ego boost from it—that the present-day flat-earth society is not a joke. There are two kinds of gullibility: the willingness to believe ridiculous things, and the willingness to believe that certain people believe certain ridiculous things.

[4] As a side note, the sphericity of the earth was known as early as the third century B.C. The Christian church never made noteworthy objections to a round earth. Columbus did not think he was going to sail off the edge of the world. Were you amused by seeing “the earth is round” with two footnote citations beside it? I find that funny.

[5] Yes, that point needs much more support. I stand by it, but it needs its own essay, which I will get to in good (slow) time.

[6] You might point out that a theory can simply be exploded through a proof by contradiction. You’d be right if you did. But the theory still works in all the cases it was developed to explain and it can probably be modified sufficiently to take the new information into account, which is generally how things have gone in science.

No Free Will, No Free Lunch

Posted in Faith and Science, The Facts and Ideas on March 16, 2009 by RWZero

Answering Unanswerable Questions

The car sped though the night on an Interstate smooth as silk. New Mexico passed by in rain and darkness as I discussed what one might call “the big questions” with my roommate, John Jhee. Gripping the wheel, he shook his head.

“I almost hate to say it,” he said, “but free will is such a college thing.” He expanded on his opinion. So many things were more important than such armchair philosophy, he seemed to be saying; and at the end of college, real life would rearrange these priorities.

When I was in the middle of my undergraduate years, I had a small crisis on the issue. I watched the movements of my hands, I listened to my own words, and I found myself frightened by the idea that they were running on an algorithm. I sunk into the melancholy of the determinists—summed up in an Da-Vinci-esque illustration I once saw of a man running amidst a sea of interlocking gears, helpless to alter his fate. I despaired over the experiments on readiness potential in the brain. All seemed rather dim. In the time that followed, however, I grew more and more inured to the implications of these ideas, until eventually I was altogether indifferent. John was right.

What of the concept itself? Like many of the big questions, I found this one intractable in ways that I had not anticipated. Having clearly understood my lack of understanding on the matter, I feel much more at ease. I believe that the concept of free will, in the highly-treasured form that we know it, is not self-consistent.

For many evangelical Christians, free will is an essential building block in their understanding of faith. I am convinced, however, that many investigate the matter solely from a theological perspective, never once consulting a scientific approach. The former line of thinking results in grand debates over Calvinism and Arminianism. The participants rarely use these terms to indicate knowledge of the theology of Calvin or Arminus [1]; they simply know which word to use depending on their perspective on free will and predestination.

Evangelicals are reluctant to tackle problems with a starting point outside of Scripture. They believe it will lead to either secular conclusions, or a lack of conclusions. I empathize with this predisposition, but in some cases it causes people to overlook the obvious. While I am reluctant to dismiss all those theological discussions (often had late at night over piping hot take-out food) as complete hogwash, I believe that everyone should save some of the time and effort.

The world as we know it operates according to natural law. When a physical event occurs, we ascribe its occurrence to a set of contributing factors. The simple assumption of causality is essential not only to science, but the living of our daily lives. It hinges on our right to ask just one question: why?

free-will

Human thoughts and behaviour are physical events originating in the brain. If we grant that the brain is not an exception to the laws governing the universe, we grant that all such events are caused in a manner deserving explanation. As every child knows, there is an exciting game that can be played by asking the question “why?” until one arrives at the edge of causality. [2] Nonetheless, this does not affect the crux of the matter—long before we reach such a barrier, we may theoretically explain all personal thoughts and decisions as products of wholly external circumstances, all by asking this one-word question.

When confronted with such reasoning, many respond by pointing out that it’s difficult to explain why certain events occur rather than others. They point out that some events “could have gone either way.” These observations are moot, because they do not answer the question: why? Why did it go the way that it did? We are used to imagining events on a macroscopic level, rather than as a particle physics concerto. Most events that “could have gone either way” reflect only a lack of available details: we simply did not know the exact mass of the die, its initial position and momentum, or the angle at which it struck the table. There is nothing new about this idea—it is little more than age-old determinism, in which the world is a playground for LaPlace’s demon.

I challenge believers in free will with simple determinism because they rarely raise the issue of quantum mechanics in their defense. The issue, however, must be raised. As one of my friends said, “You have to consider it, because that’s the way the world really is.” It seems that the universe is governed, at its core, by a cornucopia of unpredictable events. These unpredictable events have probabilities associated with them, and on the macroscopic scale, the outcome becomes nearly certain. One argument suggests that the structures in the brain are too large to be influenced by quantum effects—under this model, your thoughts and behaviour still run like clockwork. Let us discard this hypothesis for the sake of the argument, as I believe it is not necessary to prove the point. What if the brain truly is subject to quantum effects?

First and foremost, I should stress that the concept of true randomness is meaningless to me, but I will not clutter the main point with my digressions [3]. If quantum effects play a role in your brain, you have reduced the explanation of your behaviour to two possibilities: it is either caused, or it is random. Neither caused actions nor random actions are the kind we imagine when idealizing free will—the latter sounds even less free than the former! Many people intuitively reach for a third option, saying that our actions are a result of our free choices. But what does this actually mean?

No understanding of science or theology is necessary to undermine the classic, popular concept of free will. We need only realize that when we try to define such free will, we are unable to do it. How could this be done? If the choices we make are caused, they are caused by external events. We cannot say that we ourselves are the cause of such choices, because we must eventually appeal to external events when our choices are subjected to an infinite regress of the critical question: why? To whatever extent our choices are not externally caused, they can only be said to be random. Not even complete dualism and the existence of a physically active soul can solve the problem. The final decision we make between A and B, right and wrong, black and white, still demands an explanation. [4]

Most evangelical Christians are attached to the concept of ontological free will because it seems necessary for moral responsibility. It is also is seen as an alternative to a frightening universe in which God plays games with programmed robots. At this point, we must recognize that determinism is not true instead of free will. Rather, some mysterious truth exists instead of simple determinism, and the concept of free will that we entertain has no theoretical meaning. I staunchly deny that moral responsibility is negated in the face of such conclusions, and that is my prime reason for thinking about this in the first place. [5] My espousal of this position requires that I forsake the realm of airtight reason, but this is sometimes necessary when entering the realm of purpose and meaning.

At the end of all this is what I call the “good news.” The good news goes unappreciated by innumerable people, many of them vastly more intelligent and thoughtful than I. Why this is, I cannot say, but I believe it is a personal belief that cannot be felled by logic. The good news is that no amount of theorizing can negate the experience of free will that we have as sentient beings. Richard Dawkins has said, “The illusion of free will is so strong that we might as well have it.” Perhaps to him, this means only that we are irreparably deluded. To me, this means that I have everything I could possibly ask for, as I can conceive of nothing more. I accept such a strong illusion as the thing itself, and I believe that this is the purpose for which it exists.

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[1] This statement is somewhat accusatory, but in hindsight, I am no exception.

[2] As unnerving as it is for both atheists and theists alike, something out there has to be uncaused. There’s no sense crying about it.

[3] The idea that two events may occur with equal probability—truly, deeply, equal probability—does not make sense to me, because it leaves the same old key question unanswered. No one has ever explained to me how one event, however likely or unlikely, could occur instead of another, without any explanation as to why. If there is no answer to this question, then both events should have occurred. Even the MWI interpretation of quantum mechanics (depending on which one you pick) still must explain why we find ourselves in this particular universe. I’m not masquerading as someone who understands this subject—I have no idea what I’m talking about. I haven’t even figured out whether anyone out there believes in true randomness, even if they discount hidden variable theories. The bottom line is, I’m likely to subscribe to ideas like this until somebody sets me straight on that one simple piece of dissonance.

[4] I raised this point over a basket of honey garlic wings, and a girl said to me: “Would that mean God doesn’t have free will?” I paused, and said it was a good question. I did not answer. Upon reflection, however, I’d say that he does: God, as an uncaused entity, would still be the prime originator of his actions.

[5] I will write on this separately. I’d have segued into it directly, but in deciding to post these writings on a blog, I’ve also decided to divide them up into smaller pieces.

About What?

Posted in Humour etc. on March 10, 2009 by RWZero

“There’s probably no God, now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

I knew about these ads in Britain; I saw Richard Dawkins posing for a photograph in front of one (with balloons, no less). Today, I finally saw one on the TTC.

I understand why they couldn’t just write “there’s probably no God.” There has to be a bag of treats in it for the reader. So they’re offering me a worry-free life.

But next to public speaking, death is the most common number-one fear. Who’s responsible for that statistic?

———————————–

Besides, atheist bus–it won’t do any good to offer me the self-indulgence that security made me check at the door. I’ve been here a while, and it’s probably gotten quite mouldy and smelly inside that little plastic bag.

Holy Laughter

Posted in Faith Experience on March 8, 2009 by RWZero

The Funny Side of Faith

Most people in a faith tradition similar to mine will share my experience: there are few places other than church (or settings involving churched people) where you can find so many, and such high quality, laughs. Not in all my years of university, the thousands of phallic jokes made by my engineering class, or comedy television, did I derive nearly so much humour as I did from being a part of the church.

I have never encountered another ordinary, everyday circumstance in which people—most of whom would otherwise be strangers to each other—are placed in close contexts for sufficient periods of time to produce such unique humour. Coupled with the unwritten rule that humour “should” remain PG in a Christian setting, a certain tension arises that ramps up the amusement: the titillating possibility of treading on the sensibilities of others.

The facet of this that I wish to examine, however, has absolutely nothing to do with what I just wrote.

I wish to note that the topics we joke about extend beyond the everyday, and into our very faith itself. While we may not make light of our faith directly, we often invoke it as method of creating humour. We make jokes about our own faith, in ways that seem to indicate we do not really believe it.

It takes little effort to invent a few examples:

“Look, I don’t want that in my closet when Jesus comes back.” [1]

“I should watch this now—it’s probably banned in heaven.”

“I don’t see anything wrong with watching this guy’s comedy. He’s the one going to hell, not me.”

“I swear, man, if you hang that in your room it will like… bring forth demons.”

The words to songs are sometimes mistyped on the PowerPoint slides. Angels become angles. The lion of Judah becomes the loin of Judah. This, far from blasphemy, is taken as mild amusement.

The above examples are, in fact, still quite distant from the subject. In many cases, speculation ensues on the finer aspects of belief. It is often accompanied by ad-lib dialogue and the ascription of humourous statements to God.

We imbue most of these jokes with the same tone that we find in the back of our high school yearbooks: “Call me when you make your first million.” The person who wrote that highly doubts you will make a million dollars; it’s just something he or she would like to believe, with only a wisp of truth to it. Is that how I feel about my faith, though I may not acknowledge it? Are my friends and I paying lip service to belief, yet betraying the existence of deeply recessed unbelief through our humour?

Yet the medium is not always humour. I am reminded of a conversation that I’ve had several times with a friend of mine, Will Ivy—we often talked about the excitement and horror we felt upon first playing the PC game Diablo:

“It’s because you’re Christian,” he’d laugh. “That menu popped up with a gigantic demon on it … and you got the feeling that if you played that game, a crack was going to open up underneath your computer leading straight to hell.”

“But you couldn’t deny it—the only thing you wanted to do at that moment was play the game.”

“It was exactly what you wanted.”

It was true. In my early teens, I wanted nothing more than to hack pink-fleshed demons to bits with an axe, freshly sharpened by the town blacksmith. My mom made me return that game the first time I bought it (it was quite violent, and rated 17+). It wasn’t that long, however, before I found myself scouring the labyrinths beneath the town of Tristram. My belief in the possibility that there might be fire-breathing goats in hell (if anything) was reduced. This was, after all, just a computer game. At the end of the day—when I had finished exploring these ideas on the virtual stage—did I think that the spiritual aspects of this game alluded to anything real?

Having considered the matter at length, I do not think we make jokes about our beliefs because we have doubts about them. [2] I think that we joke about our beliefs because we believe that our conceptions of them are not so accurate as to be above mockery.

We have borne witness to things that have engendered faith in us, but of things unseen, we have seen very little. The finer points of doctrine cannot remain in a vacuum, and we are forced to give them shape at times. Nonetheless, it is a small thing for us to tear down these shapes, and build them once again. [3]

Faith, after all, does not demand things of us that would preclude such humour. It does not demand razor-sharp conceptions of the divine; it does not tell us how our sentiments are to be affected by it. Although I have written this before, I repeat myself because I believe it has special explanatory power here.

The particulars of faith, as seen through the mind’s eye, are like a field of straw men that burns without end.

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[1] I was going to use jokes about the rapture as an example, but I’m not a fan of End Times (with capitals) speculation and theology, and thus it would not support my conclusion.

[2] More explicitly: I think that all the sane among us have some doubts about our beliefs, but I do not believe that we make light of them solely on account of it.

[3] One might ask how this explains humour that seems to cut to the core of Christian beliefs, making light of them. I’ve heard such jokes from Christians, and I myself have surely made a few.

It is not a matter of the subjects addressed, but the manner in which it is done. I think that in making these jokes, we are recognizing something that is very true—the phrases we use to describe certain beliefs have either no experiential meaning to us, or lead us to absurdity as they take on a life of their own. Having accepted our limitations in life, we accept this as well.

God as a Household Pet

Posted in The Facts and Ideas on March 2, 2009 by RWZero

Finger-painting on a Canvas Called Divine

We must concede that no conception of God can claim accuracy. We hold that some conceptions of God have equivalence, as well as usefulness. Finally, we must realize that many of our existing conceptions are neither equivalent, nor useful. I have found that one such conception seems quite widespread [1]; it appears to treat God as a block of ice at best, and a household pet at worst. I have written upon the former subject, and I now write upon the latter.

The conception I refer to is simply described. It is the paradigm by which two habits are cultivated—the post hoc rationalizing of all our life’s events as acts of God with known intent, and the expectation that all future events will have this same characteristic, with or without known intent. [2] This is, of course, much clearer in example:

I cannot count the times that I have watched someone reflect on a time of trouble, or even minor confusion, followed by the inevitable epiphany—God surely wanted them to learn a particular lesson, which has now become quite clear. At times this is harmless; at times it is useful, and at times I would not dispute its accuracy. Often, however, I believe it testifies to our skill at fashioning coping mechanisms for even the smallest things that lie beyond our understanding.

We cannot imagine that God deals with human beings in such a way that would lend itself to these ideas. We cannot imagine that the mild discomfort and stress that we experience during a week of chaos was divinely intended to remind you of a spiritual principle that you have recently neglected. We should not imagine that your break-up was a result of your wanting it too much [3]. We should imagine that life is mysterious, and that God’s purposes should not be read into the past, so much as aspired to in the present.

The extent to which I have heard people rationalize their lives as products of a known, intentional, divine refinement process is frightening. While it may sound natural to some, I can only hear one thing:

“Oh, God… there you go again!”

God is not a household pet. The true causes of the events in your life are tangled up with the very causes of the universe itself. Should God elect to work out his purpose, the manner in which it interacts with the minutia that you encounter will generally lie well beyond your understanding.

* * *

For most Christians, it seems intuitive to believe that our lives have purpose. In somewhat of a natural progression, we may divine that this purpose is personal: a purpose that maximizes the meaning in our own lives. It then stands to reason that the events that constitute our lives are also purposeful. If you travel just a little further along this line of thinking, even a botched McDonalds order can become an ad hoc act of God.

This is the second fallacy, of which we must be wary: to imagine that every event is an agent of God’s direct purposes, such that God becomes a function of the conditions we create for him. In order to illustrate this, imagine a hand of blackjack.

There are only two outcomes in a hand of blackjack. You will either win the hand, or you will lose the hand. If, however, we imagine that all events must act towards God’s direct purpose, we also imagine that God wills the losing or the winning of this hand.

cards

The problem becomes obvious at this point—if we consider God acting out his direct purpose in this event, we force a binary interpretation of the event on him. Using this method, we could project a great deal of things on God simply by creating the circumstances. Even if we do not speculate as to what God’s intent is, we presume that there is an unknown intent as to the outcome of this hand, and this in itself is problematic. Most of us would feel comfortable saying that God, inasmuch as it is possible, has nothing to do with this. If we are able to recognize this on such a small scale, we should be able to extend it to at least some of the events in our lives that cause angst, fear, and confusion.

And His disciples asked Him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”

[John 9:2-3, NASB]

If there is one consequence of this thinking that I wish to impugn, it is the idea that God is watching our behaviour carefully, poised to deliver tricks or treats to us. God is neither a household pet, nor an elementary school teacher with slightly more life experience than you, whose disciplinary methods can be discerned in hindsight.

The most we can say about many events (I am not suggesting “all”), is that God intended to create a universe in which all the varying outcomes were possible.

Some may feel that the mere existence of the aforementioned dichotomies is evidence against the existence of God, [4] since the concept appears to break down. It may be similar to asking whether God can make a rock that he can’t move. Despite this, I don’t think we have to ask harder questions about the nature of God on account of this. We just have to stop thinking about him this way.

At the risk of sounding cliché: trusting God isn’t about making sense of the things that happen to you. It’s about making the best of them.

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See comments for clarification on this post.

[1] Especially among evangelicals.

[2] The former of these lends itself to the “household pet” description, the latter is somewhat different, and perhaps deserves a different title.

[3] Of course, this is perfectly capable of destroying a relationship without divine intervention.

[4] With a little bit of Google, I discovered that people do indeed think this, and there’s a name for it: the “omnipotence paradox.”