Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Intricate Web

Over the past few weeks, there have been several events in my life that seem to be unified under a central theme. Of course, I say “seem to” because it could just as easily be my predilection for pattern recognition at work. Either way, I think it worth noting.

First, I had a conversation with someone who had said that Libertarian Free Will enabled us to make promises and keep them, because we are the ones who determine whether or not we will keep our promises. In response, I said (slightly edited):
Except that you're not the one who determines that. Even on your own terms, you are only part of what determines that. For instance, if you promise to meet someone at 5, you might be delayed by traffic. The car might break down. You might run out of gas. You might have a heart attack en route. As James says:
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil (James 4:13-16, ESV).
Since I know you believe the Bible, and since I know you think the Bible teaches LFW, then clearly you should agree that even under LFW, you are still not the one who determines whether or not you keep your promises.
The response that I received back was that there were two different types of promises, and some of them could be kept completely under our control. The example given was that a person could decide to forgive or not to forgive someone. Ultimately, the claim was, you could make a promise when it “only includes your own actions and efforts” because those do not need “Lord willing” with it.

I responded by pointing out that everyone is connected in an intricate web, and even the decision to forgive or not to forgive another person can have drastic consequences. Take a married couple. If a husband chooses to forgive his spouse for a sin she has done, their relationship can blossom and grow; if he chooses not to forgive her, then the relationship can become bitter and lead to divorce. This one choice to forgive or not to forgive obviously includes more than one person’s actions and efforts, because everyone is connected. Indeed, it is easy to imagine a scenario where the difference between forgiving and not forgiving a spouse could be the difference between a future child existing and a future child not existing. In the case of a divorce, then presumably both spouses will have other relationships too. Supposing both remarry, the person they remarry are now married to people they otherwise would not have been married to. The ripple effect can be enormous. What if the child the couple would have had would have cured cancer? Now millions of people die who otherwise would not have died.

Because of the intricate, delicate web of connectivity between all human beings, it is impossible for us to say that any choice we do is made in isolation. Which brings me to the second aspect.

No Man is an Island

John Donne wrote the meditation now commonly called No Man is an Island in 1624. Yesterday, I read a blog post where someone had quoted a portion of it. It is perhaps most well-known because Ernest Hemingway used a portion of the end as the title to a novel. Often, the meditation is put into poem form:
No man is an island,
entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent,
a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less,
as well as if a promontory were,
as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were;
any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind;
and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee.
This idea of how intertwined everyone is was common, and can also be seen in the proverb, “For Want of a Nail.”
For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
This proverb is also old, being quoted at least as far back as Benjamin Franklin, who had a variant of it in The Poor Richard’s Almanac of 1758. Wikipedia speculates that it could have originally come from the death of Richard III in 1485 (this is the same Richard who’s body was unearthed in 2012 under what had become a parking lot in Leicester). Regardless, the last line sums up how small events can have massive influences.

In science, particularly in Chaos Theory, this is known as “Sensitivity to Initial Conditions.” A good modern analogy of it can be seen in The Price is Right’s game Plinko. In Plinko, there’s a board with lots of pegs in it. A disk is dropped from the top, and it bounces down the board off the various pegs, eventually landing at the bottom. The basket it lands at determines the prize someone receives. Even if you start relatively close to the same location, it is difficult to get the same outcome twice, because the initial conditions get magnified. Adding one degree on the initial angle can send the disk to a completely different side of the board, but adding twenty degrees and the disk may end up in the same basket. The result is completely unpredictable because of the sensitivity of the initial conditions.

Other examples where it becomes relevant can include a deck of cards. The common riffle shuffle is based on the fact that as your hands release the two stacks of cards toward one another, minor unpredictable elements will affect the order of which side falls first, as well as how many cards fall at one particular time from an individual hand, and ultimately determine what hand you will be dealt. Whether you win or lose at poker is determined (in a fair game, anyway) by the sensitivity to initial conditions in the hand of the dealer as he shuffles the deck.

Of course, this wouldn’t be an issue except for the fact that those small variations can be magnified by the results of the card game. The difference between a full house and a fold might literally come down to whether or not the dealer’s hands were 0.003% sweatier than normal. The game could be won or lost on something that miniscule.

Now we can easily add the fact of the sensitivity of initial conditions to the fact that no man is an island to conclude that there are literally trillions of factors involved in our everyday life that affect what our future will be in ways that are impossible for us to measure or know. It’s therefore easy to come up with examples of life-altering events. Of course, we can’t know in advance how they’ll turn out, but in retrospect they are obvious. If we hadn’t missed the bus that one night, we wouldn’t have met the woman who became our wife. If we hadn’t stopped for milk, we would have been in the World Trade Center when the planes hit. Things of that nature.

But we don’t have to leave it at that level. We can look at day to day things too. And that brings me to the next aspect.

For the Love of a Princess

When I was in high school, my biggest dream in life was to be a soundtrack composer in Hollywood. I love music and played trumpet in band. I was even able to write an arrangement of themes from several movies that our band played at my graduation—and the band director surprised me by having me guest conduct.

One of the songs I did the arrangement for was called For the Love of a Princess. It was off the Braveheart soundtrack, composed by James Horner. Horner was my favorite composer at the time, and still is in my top three (there with Hans Zimmer and Jerry Goldsmith). While he had been nominated for several Oscars, Horner’s only victories came for the Titanic soundtrack. Personally, I think his best work was in Braveheart and Legends of the Fall.

Yesterday, James Horner was killed in a plane crash.

The investigation is still pending as to what happened. It could have been anything from pilot error to engine failure. Regardless, of the specific cause of the crash, we know that at some point Horner decided to become a pilot. He loved to fly and had worked on a film about aviation along with Harrison Ford (who also recently crashed a plane, but thankfully Ford survived his crash). Because we don’t know what the future holds, it was perfectly reasonable for Horner to want to become a pilot and to fly. The odds are much higher that you will die in a car accident than in a plane crash, after all.

But in a very real way, we can now trace Horner’s decision to be a pilot to his death. And because no man is an island, that decision has impacted lots of people. In fact, his death is the reason you’re reading this post now. The ripple effect that came from Horner deciding to learn to fly includes what you are thinking and feeling right now as you read this post.

Think about that for a moment. Let that percolate in your mind. The decision to get a pilot’s license doesn’t seem like a big deal. Yet the fact that someone got his license decades ago has changed what you are currently reading and, therefore, that “minor” and “insignificant” decision is affecting you right now, as you read this. And any time you recall it.

Think on that. Your future is different from what it would have been simply because James Horner decided to get a pilot's license and fly on a sunny summer morning.

This is what is true of every single one of our choices. And from our perspective in the present, most choices we make will have completely unpredictable consequences--even if they are not immediate consequences. I don’t know who this blog post will affect, for example. But just as we know that shuffling a deck of cards changes the outcome, even though we don’t know how it does, so too we know that every decision we make, no matter how small, alters the future from what it would have been.

And just as an extra shuffle can turn a straight flush into a garbage hand, or vice versa, we don’t know all that our actions today will do to the future.

Perhaps our theology on this wouldn’t matter if God hadn’t made certain promises to us. But because God promised things about His return, and because those promises require certain events in human history to be real, and finally because no man is an island and the outcome of history has sensitivity to initial conditions, if we are to trust God’s promises it can only be because He is sovereign. If there is anything we do outside of His sovereignty, then the future will change--not just "can" change, but it must change.

Not only is no man an island, no choice is an island. No choice affects just one person and no one else. And because of that, Libertarian Free Will must be inconsistent with any view of God that includes Him making certain promises about our future.


  1. In other words "the butterfly effect", but the outcomes are all controlled by the Sovereign Creator.

    1. The Butterfly Effect is certainly a part of it. But in terms of the control aspect, I liken it a bit to a game of poker (on a much grander scale). It's like God had promised that you will get a royal flush. The only way He can make that promise is if He's stacked the deck. But in this case, the deck is shuffled in a manner that looks completely fair to all involved. The way in which God stacks the deck is via the tiny imperfections in the skin of the dealer's fingers, the sides of the cards, etc. Everyone looks at the deck and acknowledges it's been "randomized" correctly and there's no trickery with the deck. Yet the end result is determined and cannot be otherwise.

      Of course, there are only 52 cards in a deck. There are trillions of subatomic particles in each millimeter of Earth, any of which could cause a cascading effect that would nullify God's promises about His creation. So He has to be even more in control than if He was simply stacking a deck.

  2. Our deceitful hearts love to cling to the illusion of control. But without the Grace of our Creator we would not take another breath.