Wednesday, October 30, 2013

God and chance

Is chance compatible with predestination? Depends in part on how we define our terms. 

Take a deck of cards. The order of the cards is random in the sense that the sequence is internally uncaused. The succeeding card isn't the effect of the preceding card. The cards are causally independent of each other. 

And that's what makes the outcome unpredictable. You can't know from last card dealt what the next card will be. For one is not the result of the other. 

But that doesn't mean the sequence is uncaused. Rather, it's caused by the dealer. Shuffling the deck causes the cards to occur in a particular sequence. Order is imposed from an outside force. 

By the same token, there's a sense in which the sequence of a stacked deck is random. For even though the card sequence is intentional, it's still the case that each card is causally independent of every other card. It's not like the domino effect. The cards are blind, but the cardsharp is not. 

Likewise, God can prearrange independent causal chains to converge at a particular point down the line. Two chains of events aren't directly linked. In that respect, their concurrence is a matter of "chance."But both can be dependent on a common, overarching factor. They reflect divine planning. 

That's the sense in which "random" events like 1 Kgs 22:34 and Lk 1:9 are predestined. 

Some freewill theists take the position that due to quantum indeterminacy, even God can't know the future. Because quantum events are inherently indeterminate, they are inherently unpredictable. 

How should a Calvinist respond? In at least three different ways:

i) There are deterministic as well as indeterminstic models of quantum mechanics. The many-worlds interpretation is deterministic. 

ii) To say quantum events are physically uncaused or physically indeterminate (even if that's true) doesn't mean God can't cause or determine them, for primary causation isn't physical. On one model of fiat creation, God doesn't make history through a series of incremental installments. It's not a series of discrete, creative fiats, one after another. Rather, God instantiates the entire timeline by a single creative fiat. 

iii) We could also say that if quantum indeterminacy is incompatible with predestination, and predestination is true, then predestination falsifies indeterministic models of quantum mechanics.  


  1. Depends in part on how we define our terms.

    I totally agree. The word "chance" is used in many ways to refer to different things. We may speak of chance from only a creaturely perspective, or God's perspective or both God's and man's. Here are some examples of the uses of the word "chance":

    1. To refer to mathematical probability. It may be said that the "chances" (i.e. odds) of a flipped coin ending up heads or tails is 50/50.

    2. To refer to randomness. It may be said that the the sequence of a deck of cards is ordered by "chance". Meaning, that no one has purposefully ordered the sequence.

    3. To refer to our own ignorance of the conditions of a situation and all the relevant factors. It may be said that whether a coin ends up heads or tails is due to "chance." Meaning, we're ignorant of the exact amount of spin was given to the coin, the current air pressure, air currents, temperature, make up and balance of the coin, the effect of the moon's gravity on the coin et cetera. Which, if we knew, it would theoretically be possible to predict the outcome.

    4. To refer to coincidences. For example, two friends may end up buying a new pair of jogging shoes at the same time and at the same store such that they met at the store "by chance." Or a husband and wife may have the same birthdate "by chance."

    5. To refer to a power or force (usually impersonal) that can determine things or the outcome of events which people often term "chance", or "luck", or "fate", or "fortune." Other times it refers to (or is personified in) a supernatural entity or deity who can affect outcomes (e.g. the goddess Fortuna). The Old Testament referred such gods in Isa. 65:11.

    6. To refer to metaphysically contingent events which are not caused by God, man or previous conditions. Some have spoken of this kind of chance whereby things can pop into existence causelessly "by chance" (e.g. unicorns).

    Christians can use the word "chance" using the first four definitions because of their creatureliness and finitude. However, the last two definitions are inconsistent with the Christian worldview because they would deny God's combined attributes (for example God's aseity and omnipotence coupled with His sovereignty).

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    2. If God's exhaustive providence and omniscience are true (as in Calvinism, Catholicism, historic Arminianism et al.), then:

      When it comes to #2 there's no "chance" or randomness from God's perspective.

      When it comes to #3 there's no "chance" or ignorance on God's part since God knows all things.

      Like #2, when it comes to #4 there are no "chance" coincidences since God is sovereign over that. Though, I suppose an Arminian who believes in libertarian free will could say there are fortuitous or unfortuitous coincidences which God knew and pre-ordained, but which were logically determined by unplanned choices of libertarianly free creatures. For example, the conception of children would be dependent on the free will choices of the parents to engage in coitus at a certain time. Which in turn will affect to a large degree when a child is born (give or take a few days). Therefore, a husband and wife having the same birthdate may be specially coincidental in a way under historic Arminianism than under Calvinism even though both affirm God's exhaustive providence.

      When it comes to #1 I suppose God can speak in terms of mathematical probabilities when communicating with creatures. However, it seems probabilities have some connection to contingent events and facts (i.e. in creation). But such events and facts are themselves providentially controlled and guided by God (especially given Calvinism). And so, their probabilities are themselves in God's control. In God's natural/necessary knowledge, He knows all possible worlds which He can create. Also, by His providence, God can work with, without, above and against means. So, God may not *think* in terms of mathematical probabilities, even if He can *speak* in those terms with His finite creatures.

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    4. When it comes to my example of a husband and wife having the same birthdate "by chance", I suppose it's likely that they knew each other's birthdate before they got married and therefore the knowledge of the coincidence of having the same birthdate may have had a psychological effect on them. It may have contributed to their being a couple or to their courtship being that much more strengthened since in such a situation people may have a superstitious sense that that coincidence was in order to confirm to them that they were destined to be a couple and get married. Therefore, a better example would be a coincidence known only after their marriage. For example, the two of them having the same piano teacher or pediatrician or going to the same concert without either of them knowing so until years after they were married.