Friday, March 1, 2013

Does God Play Dice?

Does God take risks? It is becoming ever more popular to believe that God creates and governs through chance. It is said that God does not control every event, but gives His creation the freedom to develop in novel, unpredictable ways. Chance is said to be necessary for such things as human freedom, quantum effects, biological evolution, and solving the problem of evil.

The existence of chance seems to contradict historic Christian notions of God's sovereignty, providence, and omniscience. Many promoters of chance (e.g., Arthur Peacocke, John Polkinghorne) therefore postulate that God has self-limited His power and knowledge. This leads to Open Theology or, even worse, Process Theology.

Recently, Dr. James Bradley, professor emeritus of mathematics at Calvin College, in an article Randomness and God's Nature, contends that chance is compatible with the historic Christian understanding of God's nature.

Let's see if this is so.

1. Defining Chance
First, what is meant here by "chance" ( or "randomness")? This does not refer to something simply accidental or unplanned, such as by chance a man saw Saul on Mount Gilboa (2 Sam.1:6). Nor does it refer to events, like casting a lot (Prov.16:33), that though fully determined, are unpredictable to humans due to our limited knowledge or calculating ability. This is often called apparent (or epistemic) chance.

Instead, chance is meant to refer to events that are inherently indeterminate and, hence, in principle unpredictable. This is often called genuine (or ontological) chance.

Note that genuine chance is not a causal force. Rather, it denotes the absence of a sufficient cause for an event. For example, quantum events, such as the decay of a radioactive atom, are often alleged to occur by chance. This means that there are multiple possible outcomes ( i.e., at any particular time there is either decay or no decay), which are not fully determined by prior circumstances. To say that atoms decay by chance entails that nothing determines the choice. It just happens.

2. Does chance exist?
As examples of genuine chance, Dr. Bradley refers to quantum events, Poisson processes, and libertarian free will. However, none of these are shown to require genuine chance; they could all be interpreted in terms of merely apparent chance.

Indeed, Bradley grants that it is virtually impossible to prove that our world contains any example of genuine chance. Such a proof would require us to show that the phenomenon in question is not fully determined by the present state of the universe, which is humanly unknowable. Hence, the postulation that our world contains genuine chance events is a philosophical assumption that goes beyond the empirical data.

Suppose one could establish that some events (e.g., quantum events) do lack a fully natural cause. Note, first, that this would contradict naturalism, which assumes that our universe is entirely explicable in terms of natural causes.

Moreover, the absence of a natural cause does not entails the absence of any cause. Such a conclusion is based on a metaphysical assumption that bans supernatural causes. To postulate that events occur without any cause is to give up on rational explanation, and to resort to magic. Any postulated cause, no matter how apparently implausible, is better than no cause at all.  As Sherlock Holmes deduced, "when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth".

Thus, a supernatural cause of an allegedly chance event is rationally preferable to no cause at all. Accordingly, several theistic philosophers have proposed that apparently chance quantum events are all specific, intentional acts of God.

3. Chance and Providence
Dr Bradley contends that God has ordained a system in which chance events occur, but that we should not consider each event as God's particular will. Rather, we should respect the freedom God gives his creation.

According to the Bible, however, God is completely sovereign. He created the world and gave all creatures their forms and properties (Gen.1). Thereafter, the universe is not autonomous but continues to exist from one moment to the next only because God upholds it by His word (Hebr.1:3). Everything that happens is determined by God's all-encompassing plan (Eph.1:11, Acts 2:23, Acts 4: 28, Prov.16:33). This includes even seemingly insignificant details such as sparrows and hairs (Matt. 10:29-30). History unfolds exactly in accordance with God's plan, established before the foundation of the world. Hence, God knows the future perfectly (Is.46:10).

Reformed theology has thus always rejected chance as contrary to the biblical notions of God's sovereignty, providence, and fore-knowledge. For example, the Belgic Confession (Art.13) states that, after God created all things “He did not give them up to chance…but governs them so that nothing happens without His appointment”. Similarly, the Heidelberg Catechism (Answer 27) asserts "all things come to us not by chance but by His fatherly hand."

Although God is the primary cause of each event, He usually works through secondary causes. God generally upholds the universe, from one moment to the next, in accordance with the properties He has assigned to His creatures. But He may at times act differently. Thus, if a quantum event could be shown to have no physical cause, this may merely indicate that God acted through other means, perhaps through an angel, or perhaps more directly.

Further, no action can occur without God's concurrence or cooperation. At each instant, for God to actuate the universe at the next instant, He must have prior knowledge of the intended actions of all His creatures. Then He may decide whether to concur or not. To actuate the universe at each instant God must have full prior knowledge of all its intended details. This, too, rules out the notion of chance.

4. Chance and Divine Foreknowledge
If genuine chance events do exist then the future is uncertain. How, then, can God have certain foreknowledge of the as yet uncertain future? Many advocates of chance solve this dilemma by limiting God's knowledge of the future (e.g., John Polkinghorne).

Dr. Bradley tries to combine chance with divine foreknowledge by appealing to Molinism. Luis Molina (1553-1600) was a Jesuit theologian who held that God has middle-knowledge: God knows what free creatures would do in any hypothetical situation. Thus, for example, if a specific radioactive atom is embedded in the universe in a particular state at a given time, God would know whether it would decay or not.

It is reasonable to suppose that God knows exactly how His creatures would act in any hypothetical situation (cf  I Sam.23:12). Yet, if God knows how, say, an atom will behave in a given hypothetical situation, then this entails that the atom will always behave in exactly the same way in those circumstances. But then the outcome is not chance-like. Rather, it is fully set by the circumstances. In short, although middle-knowledge may refer to "free" creatures, it implicitly presumes determinism.

In sum, the supposed existence of genuine (or ontological) chance is a philosophical assumption that goes beyond the empirical data, which could all be explained in terms of mere apparent (or epistemic) chance. The notion of genuine chance is thus scientifically unnecessary. Moreover, it has various negative theological consequences that undermine the majestic nature of God as revealed to us in the Bible. Any randomness we experience should therefore be attributed to merely apparent chance, reflecting the deficiency of our limited human knowledge.


Henrietta said...

Rabbi Kuschner wrote a book “When bad things happen to good people” on his suffering after the death of his 14-year old son. I read it, together with many many other books after the death of my own 13-year old son and his father/my husband in a light aeroplane crash. There were some interesting thoughts in the Rabbi’s book, but I found very little comfort in most of what he said and what I found especially disturbing was what he had to say on the power of God and His control over the laws of nature.

What I remember most is where he wrote what someone else said in answer to the question whether randomness was increasing or decreasing with time .

“Think of a group of marbles in a jar, carefully arranged by size and color. The more you shake the jar, the more that neat arrangement will give way to random distribution, until it will be only a coincidence to find one marble next to another of the same color.”

I could not bear the thought that my loved ones were ( so to speak) like marbles in a bottle shaken by a Divine Hand.

I remembered and clung to the precious words of Ps 139:16: “Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them.”

They were buried in the same grave, with Psalm 116:15 on the stone : “Vir die Here is die dood van sy troue dienaars geen geringe saak nie.(Afrikaans )”

King James: “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.”

John Byl said...

Hello Henrietta

Thank you for relating these very personal thoughts. The tragic loss of your husband and son must have caused you much grief. When such things happen to us we may wonder why God allows it. We must then take comfort in the fact that nothing happens without God's will, that He has a purpose, even if it may not seem evident to us at the time, and that “for those who love God all things work together for good” so that they may in due time be glorified with Christ (Rom.8).


Henrietta said...

Thank you Dr Byl for those comforting words which I truly believe with all my heart - by the way, I don't see even the faintest trace of randomness in that quotation ;)

Steve Drake said...

What was Einstein's famous quip: "I can't believe God plays dice with the universe", or something like that?

Henrietta said...

I like ABBA's music, but I always turn the radio down when they sing "The winner takes it all" , especially these lines:


It is soooo un-Biblical!

Henrietta said...

One of the best examples in the Bible is the whole life history of Joseph from beginning to end. Joseph had “experiencial knowledge” of God’s Bigger Plan and Provision AND the spiritual insight which made him say at the end of this life journey:

“And his brethren also went and fell down before his face; and they said, Behold, we be thy
servants. And Joseph said unto them, Fear not: for am I in the place of God? But as for you,
ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to
save much people alive.” (Genesis 50: 18-20; KJV )

John Byl said...

Einstein is often quoted as having said "God does not play dice with the universe". To which his opponent, Neils Bohr is said to have responded, "Quit telling God what to do".

Although these quotes sound plausible, given their respective views on quantum mechanics, I have never seen the actual source for either quote.

It should be kept in mind that Einstein did not believe in a personal God. For him, "God" was merely the personification of the mathematical structure of the universe.

Steve Drake said...

Hi John,
Thanks for the clarification. I've always been a bit confused by Einstein's statement. So in lieu of Einstein's statement using the word "God", is he saying that the mathematical structure of the universe (to which he has personified) does not play dice with itself? In other words, he's saying there is no ontological chance occurring anywhere in the universe?

And if so, then he's switched over into some form of irrationalism, hasn't he, for he has no way of grounding his belief that the universe has a mathematical structure to which he has made personable, or personified, with his mind that can even predicate this in the first place?

I apologize, I'm not sure my questions even make sense, but I guess I'm trying to uncover the logical error in Einstein's statement.

John Byl said...

Hi Steve

Einstein's statement reflects his belief in the rationality of the world.

He also said,
“a conviction, akin to religious feeling, of the rationality or intelligibility of the world lies behind all scientific work of a higher order. This firm belief, a belief bound up with deep feeling, in a superior mind that reveals itself in the world of experience, represents my conception of God.”
"It seems to me that the idea of a personal God is an anthropomorphic concept which I cannot take seriously. I feel also not able to imagine some will or goal outside the human sphere. My views are near to those of Spinoza: admiration for the beauty of and belief in the logical simplicity of the order and harmony which we can grasp humbly and only imperfectly."

In short, Einstein meant to say that he believed that the universe was rational, so that each event should be fully caused.

Steve Drake said...

Thanks John,
I see that on page 2 of your 'The Divine Challenge'. Since I've read, reread and highlighted my copy of the book I should have checked there first :-)

As a pure rationalist, or deep conviction of the rationality of the universe, he would fall into that category that Van Til speaks of where the unbeliever is both rational and irrational at the same time under the heading of 'the psychological complexities of unbelief', I suppose, knowing God, yet not 'knowing' Him.

Anonymous said...

Dear; john

Your classic view of foreknowledge while intellectual is not consistent with scripture. As a covenentalist certainly you are aware that God makes covenants that are both conditional and unconditional. For example the Abrahamic covenant was unconditional. Yet the Davidic covenant was conditional on wether or not the desperate of David would serve the Lord. If God foreknew all along that the family of David was to fall away so quickly after David why even make the promise, its some what irrational.
Further more what about the 5th commandment, IF we honour our parents God makes a promise to bless us. If we do this than God promises to do that. The Lord does not jest with us, if all things are predetermined than why promise to give us blessings if we observe his command.
Again what about prayer Moses changed God's mind by faithful prayer. Hezekiah's life was extended 15 yrs even thou God said he would die. Surely God hears our prayer when we ask Him to change our circumstances and while he mostly does what is in His omniscient will, He also hears us and allows relief.
The story of Johnah Ezikiel among others God often says "IF" the people or "Maybe" they will. The example of salvation "whosoever believes", Jesus prayer of "IF" there another way.
The bottom line is that our lives are not completely predetermined, God has designed us to have freewill so that our love relationship with Him will be genuine. The love of an automaton can be a lot of things but it can't be genuine.
The concept of open theism in no way is in contradiction with God's omniscience. The God who spoke and the universe lept into exsistance certainly will NOT be hamstrung by finite man.

Your in Christ; Mike Mans.

John Byl said...

Hello Mike

Thanks for your comments. I see no problem with conditional covenants. Let me stress that I don't view man as an automaton or puppet (i.e, hard-determinism). Rather, I advocate a compatibilist notion of freewill that takes into account our beliefs, desires, etc. (i.e., soft-determinism). We make genuine decisions, for which we are held responsible. But God, who knows us completely, can fully predict our decisions, including our prayers.

I do not advocate fatalism—which says that nothing we do can change our fate. Instead, I holds that all events are fully determined by their causes, which include our thoughts and actions.

As I see it, open theism limits God's sovereignty, making man an autonomous agent acting independently of God. You say that open theism does not contradict God's omniscience. But how can God know the future if He cannot predict human choices or chance events?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your response John, I truly appreciate it. Maybe I've misunderstood, when you quoted different points of H/C and B/C I was under the impression you advocated hard determinism. Which is often the point many who view the classic view hold to. As you show in your response you are more moderate in your classic view. I too would admit I have a problem with those who hold to an extreme view of open theism. I guess every time we try to put God in a box we find He doesn't fit.
To express how I believe God predicts our choices is that He has an intimate knowledge of who we are. For example Christ shows us that we are guilty of sins not only actuality but also sins of our mind. So if we even think of murder we are guilty of murder. If God knows our every thought, word and deed would He not have an excellent most intimate realization of who each and every one of us are, and doesn't it stand to reason that He could very easily predict our reaction to what ever dilemmas or challenges we face. I mean I've been with my wife since high-school and I can pretty much predict how she will react to a given situation how much more could an infinite God know me. Also a God who has that knowledge of not only me but of 6 billion plus citizens of this world, that's the powerful God I read about in scriptures.
Many of the verses you use in your essay refer to the plan of salvation, the predestination of the Christ. God knew that He would send His Son, as that was the plan of redemption from before creation. However I believe that all the Pilate's, Pharasies' all those that were guilty of murdering our savior did so of their own volition. The argument can be made historically ie. that Christ came at a time when crucifixion was the mode of execution etc. etc.
However the plan of salvation and soft determinism, are two different ducks. After awhile in your view, when does God ordain sin, and thus be an agent of sin. The problem with determinism will always be one of two things who is the causal agent of sin and how is man not an automaton if God predetermined his reactions in anyway at all.
In summation I cannot tell you I have it all figured out, however I feel every time I read scripture I'm always desperate to know who God is and pray that His Spirit will guide me in my searching. But I do believe that things are more fluid or elastic than we realize. The foreknowledge of God is a mystery but I believe we must attempt to understand it and God as this can only help one's personal relationship with God.
Thanks Mike

John Byl said...

Hi Mike

It seems as if you—like me--hold to a compatibilist view of freewill (i.e., fully predictable and hence compatible with determinism), unlike the unpredictable, libertarian freewill advocated by most open theists. In that case, I am not sure what your open theism involves.

The Bible teaches both (1) divine sovereignty, which entails determinism and (2) human responsibility for all our thoughts, words and deeds. For example, Judas is held responsible for betraying Jesus, even though this had been pre-determined (Matt.26:24).

I agree that how (1) and (2) are to be reconciled is ultimately a mystery that we cannot fully comprehend.

As to the problem of evil, see my post
There I note that God is to some extent responsible for evil:
1. God is the ultimate cause of everything, including evil
2. God created a world where evil was inevitable, given its initial conditions.
3. God uses evil as a necessary means to proclaim the glory of His righteousness, justice, love and mercy.
4. God allows evils he could easily prevent.
5. God upholds the sinner and gives him the power to sin.

Yet God is not the direct doer of evil; hence he is not its author in that sense. His motivation and purpose differ from the actual doer of evil. Since we are not forced against our will to sin, but act knowingly and willingly, we are fully accountable for the evil we do.

Anonymous said...

Hi john my contentions are these that first sin was not inevitable. Adam and Eve could have obeyed God and still to this day be in a right relationship with Him on earth. God may have forknown that they wouldn't obey but He did not forodeign them to disobey. They were tempted by the devil and of their own free will disobeyed.
Also I love that you want to preserve God's sovereignty, but to suggest that God is in charge of evil is a direct contrast of who God is, and doesn't compliment scriptures. The bible says that satan is the tempter of this world. God can no more be in charge of sin than he can create a rock so big that He can't hold it. If God is in control of evil than one must go all the way back to the rebellion of the angels. Would you suggest that God ordiegn that lucifer would fall from heaven induced by Holly God. Also that makes the devil and man a calamity not an agent of their own sin. God is impeccable and therefore not capable of such things.
If God is in charge of evil than that would be a violation of James3:13-15.
The devil is the tempter and is the agent of evil. (Eph 6:11-12, 1john3:8, Matt4:3, 2Chor4:4 etc).
The devil being in charge of sin refutes your position that there is no such thing as ontalogical luck.
This brings me back to my first point, that another thing God can't do is He can't fail. Meaning even in the face of things out of His control (sin) God's will, will be done. That seems to me to be a more powerful God who manipulates all things to get to a desired end.
John I'm not an open theist per say nor am I a calvanist nor am I an armenianist. I'm a christian and I believe I have to work out my own salavation with fear and trembling. I simply challenge you and your readers to hold all things to scripture, and hope that we may learn from one another.