Monday, July 16, 2007

Sensitive Dependency on Initial Variables

When I was in publik skrewl, I remember an economics class that we took. Part of the class involved learning about the stock market, and the way we did so was to play a game. Each of us started with $100 of fake money (hence the "publik" part of publik skrewl) that we then "invested" in five to ten stocks of our choosing. We would read the newspaper over the next week or so and see how the stock had changed. If it went up, we made money; if it went down we lost money.

Naturally, when this game started, I had a problem with it. The problem is that in the real stock market, buying or selling stocks impacts the value of the stock. We were pretending to buy and sell stocks, but we weren’t actually doing so; yet we took the results as if we had done so. This, to me, represented a problem.

You see, suppose that I decided to invest $20 of fake money in Pepsi. If this $20 had been real money, the value of the Pepsi stock would have changed, however little, at that point. The difference in the value would mean that the stock would have behaved differently than it did. People who invested before might not have, thinking perhaps the stock was a little closer to going down again; or the converse might have happened where investors saw a little extra there and decided to jump on the wagon too. The results are impossible to predict. All we can know for certain is that if I actually had invested $20 of real money, the stock would have been different than it was after I invested $20 of fake money that had no impact at all.

These little things do add up over time, much as the Butterfly Effect. My fake $100 total, if it had been real, would have had a tangible (although completely impossible to see) effect on the stock market. But we didn’t actually invest at all. Our fake investments did not affect the stock market, and therefore were not realistic. Thus, the game was flawed, which I pointed out to the teacher (but again, this being publik skrewl, instead of allowing me to take a class on the chaos theory’s emphasis on sensitive dependency on initial variables—something I didn’t know about at the time—I was told to just do the game like everyone else and stop causing trouble).

Now the reason I bring this up is not because it’s fun to talk about sensitive dependency on initial variables (although it is). Instead, it’s because I read John Loftus’s opening comments on this post:

God could’ve predicted any number of natural disasters. He could’ve predicted when Mt. St. Helens would erupt, or when the Indonesian tsunami or hurricane Katrina would destroy so much. It would save lives and confirm he is God. Then too, he could’ve predicted the rise of the internet, or the inventions of the incandescent light bulb, Television, or the atomic bomb, and he could do it using non-ambiguous language that would be seen by all as a prophectic fulfillment. God could’ve predicted several things that would take place in each generation in each region of the earth, so that each generation and each region of the earth would have confirmation that he exists through prophecy. God could've told people about the vastness and the complexity of the universe before humans would have been able to confirm it. He could have predicted the discovery of penicillin, which has saved so many lives, and if predicted it would have speeded up its discovery.

Loftus writes this in the context of saying: "If God wants us to believe, why are the so-called prophecies so vague and unclear? We who are skeptics find it easy, and I mean easy, to discount them all." So it is clear that Loftus’s alternatives imply that had God given different prophecies, Loftus would be less likely to be a skeptic.

Now it is easy to refute the suggestions that Loftus gives. After all, none of these prophecies would make sense before the 20th and 21st centuries, so Loftus is in essence saying that God should have been completely incomprehensible to everyone between 33 AD and Loftus’s genesis. However, rather than spending a great deal of time pointing out the Loftusiocentric aspect of the above claims, there is another more important point. Once again, it deals with sensitive dependence upon initial variables.

You see, it is impossible for Loftus to know how he would behave were the Bible different. If the Bible did, in deed, have all the prophecies that Loftus listed above, it would still be impossible to predict (from a non-Calvinist sense) whether Loftus would be a believer or not. We only have access to the way the Bible was written; we don’t know what it would be like if it was different.

Consider another example. Suppose Loftus and I are playing poker (after all, I’m not a Southern Baptist!). Suppose that after shuffling the deck ten times, a deal would result in my having a full house and Loftus having a royal flush. But we shuffle the cards eleven times before we deal, and my three kings beats Loftus’s two sixes. The extra shuffle changed the outcome completely, but none of us will ever know (aside from the arbitrary claim of this example) what the first shuffle would have done. Needless to say, the "alternative futures" of both events is different. This could, in fact, decide who wins the entire match and who does not, and it’s all dependent upon one extra shuffle of the cards.

Now we know when we shuffle the deck of cards, we change the outcome of the future (for the cards we would have gotten are no longer the cards we receive). But we do not know how this has changed. In the same way, speculating about differences in the past is just as fruitless. We do not know how the future (and our present) would be different if the past had changed.

In fact, given the way that Scripture has shaped society in its present form, I can say it is quite like that, were the Bible to have been altered to make the predictions Loftus demands of it our entire culture would be so radically different today as to render the person "John Loftus" irrelevant in that alternate future. The social structures in place affect more than just individuals today; it affects who met and married whom in the past, who went to war and for what reasons, who lives and who dies in a multitude of events.

In fact, given the nature of statistics, it is astronomically more likely that if the Bible were different John Loftus would never have been born than it is that John Loftus would have existed and yet been a believer instead of a doubter. The various aspects of history are so intertwined with the way that Bible actually is that to alter it at that point in the past is to completely alter our current society, and in ways that are impossible to predict.

Now Loftus might argue that society would be better today where these changes in effect in the past; but Loftus cannot know this, and it is equally as possible that where these changes in effect in the past, there would be absolutely no society today at all. We do not know what the changes would have been. It’s a reshuffling of the deck, and none of us have the ability to determine what the outcome would be.

But if Christianity is right, then God does know what the outcome would be. (And if Calvinism is correct, God decreed what that outcome would be.) Even taking foreordination out of the picture, God still could have decided that more people would be saved if the Bible is written the way it currently is than if it was written to suit Loftus’s tastes. Who are we to say that God shouldn’t have tossed Loftus overboard to save more people?

Including foreordination only solidifies the picture. The Bible was written as it was written so that those whom God calls will be justified. Those whom He does not call are not justified.

And finally, the matter of prediction really isn’t the problem Loftus has with the Bible in the first place. After all, the Mayan calendar predicts solar eclipses with great accuracy. I don’t see Loftus becoming a Mayan priest anytime soon...

1 comment:

  1. Predictive prophesy must on the whole have had to make sense or it would've been dismissed. I do know of an example where some hidden meaning appears to have been intentionally placed in one of the narratives for observation by people today.

    In Mark 8:22-26 Jesus healed the man's eyes and he saw people that looked like trees walking around. Then Jesus healed him again to correct this. Since modern medicine has been restoring sight to people who's visual cortex has never been developed, we can see a pattern in patients whose brains need to adapt to processing visual data. At first, for these patients objects seem disjointed and recognition is difficult. After some time, this improves as the brain slowly adapts.

    The question is, did Jesus just forget to heal the brain the first time and have to go back and miraculously heal it in order for the man's eyes to be of immediate use to him or did He intentionally heal him halfway knowing it would be written and included in Mark's account to demonstrate to us today His sovereignty?