Chapter 3: Sovereignty in a Time of Spanners


(S. Joshua Swamidass) #1

Faith Across the Multiverse by @AndyWalsh, 2018 by Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Massachusetts. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

There But for the Strange Attractor of God

What would this strange attractor phenomenon look like in a familiar physical system? In our ball-throwing example, no matter how hard we throw the ball, it will always wind up in our friend’s hands, even if sometimes it bounces off the roof of the house five doors down along the way. Or if you throw a basketball in the general vicinity of the rim, it will eventually make its way through the hoop.

Alas, basketball hoops in reality are far less forgiving and thus we marvel at the few who can guide a ball through them consistently. The same strict requirements attend many physical activities; all the conditions must be just right to get a positive outcome. Our intuition for the more abstract trajectory of our lives is often similarly constrained. We have to go to the right college, so we can get the right job. We have to marry the one partner who completes us. Life becomes a series of make-or-break choices.

So what would a strange attractor look like as part of the trajectory of our lives? And if we desire God to be involved in that trajectory, what would a strange attractor look like as part of his will? When we thought everything behaved like parabolas, then it seemed as if either God had a plan and everything was following it, in which case there was little room for free will and little need for grace and mercy, or we as humans have free will, in which case we can sin and be in need of grace and mercy, but then God’s plan seems to need so many contingencies and adjustments that it becomes hard to see it as a plan at all. Obviously lots of people have come up with different ways to reconcile these various ideas, but the one that makes the most sense to me is to think of God’s plan as being something like a strange attractor.

Consider what happens when we think of God’s will in strange attractor terms. On the one hand, it is absolutely a well-defined, prespecified plan. The behavior that led to strange attractors was completely defined by our equations; we didn’t have to make adjustments as we went. And yet on the other hand, there is room for free choice in the system as well. We can get off the pattern, and eventually events will come back to that pattern. There are still consequences to that choice, in that the exact spots within the pattern that get visited will change, but overall the system stays in the attractor.

Now perhaps a system that returns to an attractor still doesn’t seem like freedom to you, if it is not possible to stay outside the pattern. I can understand that, and so I think it’s probably most helpful to apply the strange attractor analogy to the state of the entire world. You can

make individual choices for your own life, including whether you want to choose axioms for your life that allow for the God of the Bible or not. Those choices have real consequences for how future events play out. But the world itself will continue on in the same overall contours it was always following.

Let’s see if this perspective helps us to understand the story in Exodus any better. We saw God asserting his sovereignty over the world and claiming responsibility for how events play out; our model is consistent with this idea. We saw Moses choose to decline the commission to speak to Pharaoh on his own; our model affirms that this is genuinely a choice on Moses’ part and allows for such choices. That makes it easier to understand God’s anger at Moses’ choice, since it is something Moses has genuinely chosen without God having always intended for Moses to act thusly; our model indicates that Moses’ choice will have real consequences, which may be suboptimal for Moses and/or other people in Moses’ sphere of influence, and thus represent a true sin which would displease God. One of those consequences is that Aaron will accompany Moses to lead the Israelites out of exile, and it is Aaron who will later facilitate the worship of the golden calf in place of God while Moses communes with God on his own. If Aaron hadn’t been Moses’ spokesperson, perhaps he would not have later been seen as having the authority to condone the forging of the calf. Finally, we know that the nation of Israel was freed from its exile in Egypt; our model proposes that outcomes such as this will be resilient to individual choices.


(S. Joshua Swamidass) #2

(Guy Coe) #3

A strangely attractive metaphor!


(S. Joshua Swamidass) #4

@AndyWalsh, this is a thoughtful review of Moreland’s book. Can you tell us more about it here?

https://blog.emergingscholars.org/2018/10/science-book-review-scientism-and-secularism/

In particular, what would Moreland say about A Secular-Confessional Society. Having read his book “Scaling a Secular City”, I imagine he would say secularism is negative, not positive. Am I right there?


(Andy Walsh) #5

Thanks.

So, the subtitle of the book is “Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology.” So yes, I think it’s fair to say Moreland takes a negative view of secularism. I don’t think I’d agree with him on that front, but as i noted he had very little to say explicitly about secularism so I can’t really engage with specifics. (Secularism does not appear in the glossary or index; I’m not sure Moreland would have included it in the title if he had final say on it.)

Of relevance here, he also takes a negative view of evolutionary biology. It actually doesn’t come across that strongly in the chapter specifically on that topic, but comments elsewhere in the book make it clear where he lands on that topic.


(S. Joshua Swamidass) #6

He was one of the authors of the TE Crossway book, so that isn’t too surprising.


(Andy Walsh) #7

Reminder that I’ll be holding office hours on Facebook Live tonight starting at 7:30pm EDT. All are welcome to come with questions or comments about Chapters 0-4, or anything else on your mind.


(Andy Walsh) #8

Archived video:

Edit: This version skips the first N minutes of me not realizing my microphone was muted.


(S. Joshua Swamidass) #9

(Daniel Ang) #10

@AndyWalsh and everyone else, sorry for coming into this late, as I have been very busy these last two weeks. But I just read this chapter and found it to be surprisingly touching. Your idea that God’s will, human free will, and uncertainty in nature can be reconciled through the metaphor of a strange attractor, something with unpredictable yet constrained behavior, really resonated with me.

In fact, I think there is potential to see if it is possible to develop this into more than just an illustration or metaphor, but into an actual theory of how divine action might be reconciled with science. I wonder whether you were thinking at all when writing this chapter about some ideas to reconcile divine action with science via chaos theory, as John Polkinghorne has proposed? What’s interesting about chaos theory is that most people don’t think it’s not deterministic - rather, it has a predictability problem. This brings into mind the interesting discussions we had in, e.g. Predictability Problems in Physics. But surely God can transcend beyond the relatively crude equations we try to box nature into. So, I take it that even if chaos theory plays a role in understanding how God’s sovereignty works, ultimately God is still knowledgeable and in control every step in the way, only that it doesn’t seem so from a human viewpoint. This is a way to reconcile sovereignty with free will.

So my question is, how far would you take this metaphor? Do you believe that God still knows the outcomes of chaotic systems at every point? Does God, for example, govern every random event that happens?


(Andy Walsh) #11

No worries, I’m happy to chat at whatever pace is comfortable for folks, even if that’s different paces for different folks. And as it happened I’m traveling this week so I needed a little time to get to this myself.

I’m so glad to hear that. This is one of my favorite chapters. I’ve been trying to live more graciously because of it.

Great questions. First, I’m not sure that, at least in this life, our understanding of God and divine action can ever go beyond metaphor. So, I would not personally go beyond claiming my idea as more than a metaphor, but mostly because I think a metaphor is as good as we can do.

Second, whether God knows the present state of chaotic systems perfectly at all times and thus can accurately predict them raises several other questions. Do we need the infinite precision of real numbers to specify those states, or is the universe fundamentally discrete such that rational numbers are sufficient? Do those systems depend on phenomena subject to quantum indeterminacy? Depending on the answers to those questions, we can get into some interesting conversations about how the infinite and transcendent nature of God interacts with the infinite nature of real numbers, not unlike the conversation about God and Turing Oracles. Having said all that, I think it’s possible that God can perfectly predict chaotic systems, but it may also fall under the category of logically impossible rather than just practically impossible.

Third, I am inclined to think that God does not govern every random event. I think God created the world with freedom as a fundamental feature, not just something available to agents at a certain higher level of organization.

That said, I’m definitely curious to hear how others address the same topics. I’m not at all certain I’m right and see plenty of open questions.


(S. Joshua Swamidass) #12

What do you mean by “govern” here? How would you justify this? I’m wondering if you really mean “specify,” or even “intend to specify.”

@jongarvey


(Andy Walsh) #13

Thanks for this clarifying question; perhaps I should have asked the same of @dga471 before responding.

I had in mind something like this definition of govern (#3 from Merriam-Webster):

to control, direct, or strongly influence the actions and conduct of

And yes, I agree “specify” is close to that sense and may have been clearer.

If we’re talking something closer to the first definition from Merriam-Webster:

to exercise continuous sovereign authority over

then yes, God is sovereign over all processes. But I suppose I took that as a given and immediately went to a sense of ‘govern’ by which random processes might be distinguishable and warrant specific comment.


(Daniel Ang) #14

What does it mean if God is still sovereign over natural processes, yet does not control or direct them? Is it simply the fact that He could do so, but chooses not to? Then how is such a view different from deism, at least on a microscopic level?

(I guess you could argue that a God who only controls events on a larger scale, like the strange attractor, is sufficiently involved in creation so as not to be justifiably called a deist God.)


(Andy Walsh) #15

A king or queen is sovereign over their subjects, but does not tell each one what to eat or wear.

I think God is always actively calling his creation at all levels towards his will and intentions. I think he has also given his creation the freedom to respond contrary to that call. Thus God is never inactive or disengaged, yet his intentions are not always manifest by his creation.


(S. Joshua Swamidass) #16

This parable an example of Jesus endorsing deism? Is the master governing the servants actions?

The Parable of the Talents

14 “For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants[a] and entrusted to them his property. 15 To one he gave five talents,[b] to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. 17 So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. 18 But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them.
https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+25%3A14-30&version=ESV


(Jon Garvey) #17

Seems to me there is no rational reason to differentiate the sphere in which God governs by general providence, and that he governs by speical providence (to use the standard therological terms).

Which means all we need to do is find those areas that are too small or insignifficant to be covered by God’s laws of nature, which are his general providence, to find those he doesn’t govern contingently.


(S. Joshua Swamidass) #18

My point exactly. Governance can apply in both cases.


(Jon Garvey) #19

But the particular king in question is also King over his redeemed people, who are indwelt by his Spirit specifically to guide them into the works “prepared in advance for them to do.”

More generally to the analogy, the reason that earthly kings do not direct all the actions of their subjects is because all those subjects are humanly free agents, who have appointed a king to safeguard their political interests. The dictator in a Maoist state achieves uniform dress and diet by slavery.

But the farmer who puts the same blue collar on each cow and gives them the same feed is acting according to the nature of farming and cows.

Clearly the parable deals with a limited human analogy to the physical departure, and eventual physical return, of Jesus - or arguably (cf N T Wright), the departure of Christ and the day of visitation in the Fall of Jerusalem. Either way it’s a call to commitment and stewardship.

Now, Matthew ends his gospel “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” And Acts shows how that plays out in the matter of stewardship, one notable (negative) direct example being the stewardship of money of Ananias and Sapphira and its immediate result, which seems like a case of keeping short accounts. But more generally, Acts shows miracles, speaking by the Holy Spirit, guidance by visions and dreams and prophecies, and the revealing of the Lord’s global strategy for evangelism in real time, as head of his Church. Acts also shows Christ’s genuine kingship over political affairs (such as the judgement on King Herod) and over nature (such as the “micromanagement” of Paul’s storm and shipwreck in accordance with Paul’s prophecy).

Needless to say, the same “hands on” Christ is seen in the epistles. Nevertheless, even the parable, taken at face value, is about the government (in this case) of rational people, not inanimate matter. It is invalid to compare the “civil liberty” of a man to carry out instructions responsibly (and reap reward or punishment) with the government of the irrational creation.


(Andy Walsh) #20

True, but the question was about how God could be sovereign without specifying every outcome of random processes. I was simply giving an example of sovereignty that does not require full specification of every outcome.

Also, in the case of God’s relationship to the redeemed, there was a decision (or perhaps a series of ongoing decisions) to be guided by that Spirit.