Saturday, September 29, 2007

Notes on Boyd's Satan and the Problem of Evil Chapter 5A

After a brief discussion of some "dynamic theories" of time, I thought I'd return to Boyd and talk about chapter 5 of his book (see here for the previous installment). In this chapter, Boyd really now does confront the issue of how, if there is so much indeterminism and free will going on in the world and God doesn't have EDF (Exhaustive Definite Foreknowledge), God can ensure that certain things happen according to his plan. After all, it sure seems like his creation could just so happen not to cooperate and thus render God's plan ruined. Things could work out, for instance, so that God would not have a people for himself after all since no one ever freely turns to him. Boyd's answer is, roughly, that unpredictability or indeterminism at an individual level is consistent with very good predictability at a larger level. Complex systems with chaotic, indeterministic parts can emerge extremely stable and very predictable. So at a societal level we can almost certainly guarantee that a certain percentage of people will smoke, etc., but we can't do this kind of thing with anything near certainty with a given individual. On the basis of his exhaustive knowledge of his own character and unwillingness to give up and the predictability of human nature in general, God can be certain that a certain percentage of people (or at the very least, some people) will turn to him or would turn to him if there was ever a Fall.

I don't think this response works. Notice that for all the apparent predictability in complex systems, they are still not completely predictable with absolute certainty if they consist of indeterministic pieces and chance at the larger level is not entirely eliminated. But it's not clear how one could have a system for which, at this larger level, there is no chance whatsoever given that it has chancy parts. It would have to be incredibly complex and have extraordinary, perfectly-functioning, indestructible mechanisms existing for the purpose of instantly and completely correcting at the system level sudden aberrant fluctuations of any kind in the behavior of its parts (and of course this would be a problem if the mechanism itself contains indeterministic parts).

Human societies, though, are not like that at all. They are not so insulated and jerry-rigged that they can't deviate from a large scale pattern of change. History depends in large part on the decisions of individuals - individuals which affect other individuals, and so on throughout history. Often, things which weren't inevitable happen, things which change the entire course of history. The actions of Martin Luther are one example - sure, maybe some other person would probably eventually spark a similar kind of religious revolt against Rome but the very specific writings and character of Luther himself had a very specific and very huge impact on Germany and thus on the rest of the world that would have been different if he himself had not been the one to act as he did in all those important moments when he did. Often in history, specific individuals and sometimes even specific actions of particular individuals hold enormous sway over the course of history in a way that simply cannot be predicted if one does not have prior EDF of the way things will turn out.

So in a complex system like human society, there is indeed quite a bit of predictability. The sheer complexity of society does a lot to dampen the effects of chance due to its individual members (this cancelling-out effect is the benefit reaped for larger complex systems - they are much more stable and predictable than smaller, less organized systems). But it does not fully eliminate it. Sure, we can predict fairly well the percentage of people that will smoke. But that's just what most likely will happen. The more complex and organized things are, the less of a chance things will deviate from their predictable path, the more stable a system is, and the less likely a single chance action or event will be able to upset the course of the system. But the system can still be broken out of its path if there is a sufficiently large, widespread breakdown and a huge, coincidental mass of chance fluctuations all around the same time.

It's incredibly improbable - practically impossible even - for my entire body, for instance, to undergo quantum tunneling and suddenly pop out of my current position and appear in, say, China. It's not so improbable with a single one of my particles but for just one of them to do it wouldn't be for me as a whole to do it - that would require a massive coincidental and simultaneous tunneling by most of my particles in the exact right combination, etc. And that's just probably not going to happen. But it's still possible. In the same way, the prediction of the percentage of smokers is what is most likely going to happen but it is still possible for reality to widely deviate from what is most probable - even if it is almost entirely certain. So even though it is massively improbable that no one would ever respond to God's continuous pursuit of us, it is still possible even if the chance of it is vanishingly small. So, contra Boyd, Boyd's view does in fact commit us to the view that God's plans - which are supposed to happen and be assured to happen - may in fact never happen. But since that goes against Scripture, so much the worse for Boyd's view!

Next time...the rest of chapter 5...

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