Musings on Openness Theology, Part 4: Forecasting, Laplace's Demon, and Omniscience

Okay, the next few posts are going to get really technical. Sorry. I'm adding a lot of links so you can explore.

We've overviewed the basic tenets of openness theology. Specifically, right now God does not know the future. Either because the future doesn't exist (presentism) or because God doesn't know which timeline we humans will pick out of the infinity of timelines God holds in his mind (like Robert Frost's two roads in a wood only much, much more ramified).

Now the mechanism for these positions is human free will. That is, God, desiring true love and relationship, gave humans free will. By making us "free" God cannot predict what our choices will be. In some way God is epistemologically bounded by free will. In presentism (i.e., the future doesn't exist) free will limits God's ability to calculate the next moves of the universe (i.e., the future might not exist but given what is happening now God should be able to act like a weather forecaster with perfect knowledge). In the ramified timeline view, God has already calculated out all possible futures but cannot predict, due to free will, which branch in the road humans will choose.

This seems to be a great theological move. By positing free will we reap the following theological riches:

1. God's passability (God has emotions) and relationality

2. A theodic attenuation where human (and, for Gregory Boyd, demonic) freedom becomes much more implicated in evil/pain thus attenuating the theodic burden on God.

However, how tenable is free will? Should an entire theological position--something on which faith rests--be built atop one of the most controversial and notorious philosophical constructions in the history of human thought?

Doesn't seem like a wise idea to me.

I don't want to get into all the objections about free will but let me make a few psychological comments about its problems.

The main issue I'd like to talk about has to do with prediction and selfhood. First, you can't build a coherent self across time with free will. My choices today have to coherently flow out of who I am at this moment in time. If my next choice is radically free, so free that an omniscient God is 100% clueless about what I'll do next--then my personally disintegrates into a schizophrenic nightmare. I'm not just going to stand up, at random, and shoot my family. It's just not in the cards. My will isn't free. If anything, my will is tightly constrained, flowing through narrow channels. Channels we call "identity" and "selfhood."

A bit of personal observation makes this point. Even I, a lowly human, can predict my wife's reactions into the future. And she can, hopefully, predict mine. If we had free will we would wake up each morning facing a stranger. We'd be starting over each day. Free will is like a chalkboard that keeps getting erased. No history, no memory, no constraint. Rather, this moment of choice is radically open. Terrifyingly, horrifyingly, incoherently, and incomprehensibly open.

In short, the choices are not free. The future self flows out of the past self in a coherent fashion. The world isn't a causal kaleidoscope.

Thus, as I see it, when we speak about the "openness of the future" what we are really discussing are issues of prediction and forecasting. That is, even with presentism God should be able--because the future flows out of the past--to "weather forecast" (but for human relations; Asimov fans can think of Hari Seldon's psychohistory in the Foundation series).

Humans can forecast. We do it for the weather and we do it when we predict how friends, co-workers, and family members will react to things we say or do. And we pull this off quite well most of the time.

But human forecasts are not perfect. The future is open for us in that our forecasts can err. Further, our forecasts tend to get less accurate the farther we extend them into the future. And this goes for both meteorological and psychological forecasts. I can predict with almost 100% certainty that I will love my wife tomorrow. But what about in 50 years? Given divorce rates, people have been wrong about these forecasts. (Jana, baby, you know we'll still be in love 50 years from now! I'm in that academic mode you hate. Forgive me!)

The reason human forecasts err and fail to extend far into the future is largely due to measurement issues. We cannot measure with infinite precision all the meteorological variables needed to make perfect predictions. Rather than measuring the exact features of all the mico-variables (e.g., the location and speed of each and every water molecule) we deal with macro-level features: Barometric pressure, cold fronts, temperature, humidity. The same ideas apply to psychological prediction. I don't measure the exact features of my wife's mico-level variables (e.g., neurotransmitters, synaptic configurations and strength). Rather, I deal with macro-level features: Personality traits, likes, needs, habits, etc. Focusing on these macro-level features--meteorological or psychological--involves a lot of "rounding" (e.g., when measuring a board you don't measure with infinite precision, we round off) which makes the system potentially chaotic. That is, in physical systems with sensitive dependence upon initial conditions, small rounding/measurement errors cause the system to evolve in ways that diverge from short-term predictions (in fact, the Lorenz attractor, the first big breakthrough in chaos theory was a model of the weather).

The point is, prediction is related to information/measurement. Chaos theory tells us that in certain systems our epistemic limitations will limit our prediction. We will never we able to predict the weather (or people) because we'll never be able to measure the system with perfect precision; we'll always be "rounding."

But God is omniscient and should be able to measure with infinite precision. If so, God should be able to predict/forecast the future with infinite precision.

This ability to forecast the future was described by envisioned by Pierre-Simon Laplace in 1814. Specifically, Laplace speculated that if an intelligence COULD know all the relevant information in the world this intelligence would be able to predict/know the future:

"We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes."

This intelligent being is known as Laplace's demon. For Christians it simply looks like omniscience.

So here is the dilemma. Free will seems to be a non-starter. I offered some psychological critiques but there are others. But on the other end of the spectrum we have Laplace's demon and omniscience. Neither seems like good options.

Is there any way to move ahead?


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18 thoughts on “Musings on Openness Theology, Part 4: Forecasting, Laplace's Demon, and Omniscience”

  1. "If we had free will we would wake up each morning facing a stranger. We'd be starting over each day. Free will is like a chalkboard that keeps getting erased. No history, no memory, no constraint."

    This is an extremely strict definition of free will. Of course our choices are bound by our past, and of course those who know us best should be able to predict our future actions with some level of certainty. Of course G-d can predict with a higher level of certainty, but can G-d predict every possible future with complete certainty?

    Does the fact that I'm bound by my past mean there is no free will? Could I possibly break with that past? It's possible that you or I could wake up tomorrow, get in our cars and drive away without ever telling anyone where we're going. I wouldn't do that, but I could if I wanted, and no one would have predicted that. (Okay, G-d might, since he would know I was thinking about it before I actually took action, but would he have known I was going to contemplate it before I contemplated it?)

    If you want to stick to the strict definition then free-will is a non-starter, but if you loosen it up even a little it seems to be a good starter, at least in my opinion.

  2. Hi Steve,
    What would be a "looser" or better definition of free will? Again, it's going to have to be a definition that makes human action wholly unpredictable to an omniscience God. That is, I believe I'm working with the only model of free will that makes openness theology work.

    Regarding "breaking with the past." I'd argue that that is an impossibility. People do change, often radically and suddenly, but it is always in response to something "in the past." To change radically and suddenly NOT in response to something in the past is exactly what I'm describing in the post.

  3. I think that our past dictates a set of choices in front of us, not a set path. Example: I've just walked into an icecream store that has three choice on the menu, Chocolate, Strawberry, and Vanilla. No other sizes or options in order to make this simpler. I have 4 possible options, choose one of the 3 flavors or walk back out the door.

    My will is obviously not completely free, because there are only 4 choices I can make. However, within the realm of those 4 choices I am completely free to do what I want. Someone who knew me well would know that I am most likely to order vanillla, however I could decide to walk back out the door and their prediction would be wrong. G-d, on the other hand, having somewhat more insight into the thoughts going on in my head would realize that I am weighing the options. But I'm not sure if G-d would know positively what I would do before I myself knew. I think G-d would know at exactly the moment I make my decision. Obviously though, G-d would know about my decision before anyone else except for me.

    This is just my idea for a somewhat looser construct of free will. We're free to do what we want within the confines of our situation. As always I acknowledge that I could be wrong and I reserve the right to change my mind at a later date as necessary. :)

  4. Hi Steven,
    What you are describing is what psychologists call "voluntary" behavior. That is, from a phenomenological stance, you choice of ice cream feels unconstrained or "voluntary." Harry Frankfurt calls this "volitional unanimity": When my choice and desires line up I experience this "free" or "voluntary" sensation.

    But that "voluntary" experience/feeling is a far cry from saying you are causally unconstrained, that your will is free. Feelings are not definitions.

    I realize that what I'm saying is very disorienting. I've written a lot about all these issues. See the posts under "Preparing for the Cartesian Storm" on the sidebar. You'll find there my take on free will, causality, and theology.

  5. Hi Steven,
    One more thing.

    Regardless about if I'm right or if you are right, this is the main point from the post: Free will is too controversial a topic to build any theological structure upon.

    I'd like for that to be the take home point.

  6. Is there any way to move ahead?

    I guess one thing you could do is deny that any being with the capabilities Laplace's demon could not exist ... in other words, you solve the conundrum in the same way you solve the "can God create a rock he couldn't lift" conundrum. You argue that the existence of such a being would be self-contradictory. Information theory and quantum physics both provide good reasons to think that this is the case.

    Another thing to consider would be theories of multiple universes. I don't know much about this, but it would throw a pretty big wrench in the works if all possible universes are actually being realized. O_o

  7. hi all

    I have to disagree that your past dictates the choices presented to you. We live in a "infinetly" variable universe-taking your example of the icecream how does my alway choosing chocolate affect the choices that the store chooses to present to me. Nor do i believe that my pattern equates to a loss of choice at that moment. The past is the past-you can predict but that doesn't mean there was no choice-otherwise we aren't responsible for our actions. The rapist will always rape when presented with a certain set of variables-or to take the other point his being a rapist will create situations in which those variables are present thus thrusting him into repeating his past-no will at all!

    Just my two cents

  8. Hi Matthew,
    In my next post I start taking up quantum formulations.

    Hi Tadd,
    A couple of responses.

    First, we should not conflate external choice presentation with causality. It is true that I can present you with an infinity of "choices" (or just 101 ice cream flavors) but that is no argument about causality and one's ability to transcend it. Having 101 ice cream flavors in front of you isn't an argument for or against free will. It's just a fact about a physical configuration.

    Regarding moral responsibility. I don't think, based on my reading, that philosophers (ethical and legal) believe basing moral responsibility upon Cartesian notions is a viable project anymore. But there are plenty of other ways of conceiving of moral responsibility without recourse to free will. For example, let's take your rapist. Let's say the rapist protests "I have no free will! We live in a deterministic universe!" Let's further say we agree with him. Does that mean we let him go on raping? Of course not, we just define moral responsibility in social contract terms. We don't care if the world is free or determined, you'll not be allowed to rape and if you do we'll have consequences at the ready. As far as preventing rape, issues of education and social justice come to the fore: How do we train up citizens so that they love their neighbor?

    In short, you don't need free will to have moral responsibility.

    But again, the BIG POINT I want to make is that, even if I'm wrong about all this, free will is too controversial and debatable to base ANY theology upon it. It's philosophical quicksand.

  9. "free will is too controversial and debatable to base ANY theology upon it"

    I agree with you on this, Richard. However, I think the implications of this statement reach much further than whether God knows the future or not. Free will is the bedrock of Christianity, at least as I know it. What's left when you remove free will from my notions of Christian religion? Not much. How is it that you can be a determinist and not be an atheist or a deist (watered down atheist)? What changes do you make to your Christian beliefs to make determinism harmonize? I haven't been able to do this without the whole house of cards coming down.

  10. "Does that mean we let him go on raping? Of course not, we just define moral responsibility in social contract terms."

    Of course the defining of moral responsibility in social contract terms would be out of our will to right? We just do it. In fact wouldn't the argument against free will (or for) not really be an argument but just how things have come about?

  11. Connor and Pecs (because I think this goes to both your comments, albeit in different ways),

    Connor, yes, of course, you are correct, we don't get to take credit for creating the social contract. It was "in the cards", so to speak. But here's the fascinating thing that keeps me up at night:

    Why would this universe care about social contracts? What kinds of "physical laws" have social contracts as potentialities? Why would a universe be outraged at rape? Why would the universe experience violations at all?

    (Pecs, this is a part of what I root my faith in. The universe seems to care about violations. True, it allows violations. But there is also something very strong in the universe that seeks to end them. And its hard to see where that comes from if we just look at Newton's Laws or E = mc squared.)

  12. Surely, there must be a deterministic (evolutionary) explanation for the human response to violations like this. It seems that you are saying there is no reason for this behavior, other than it pointing to God.

  13. Hi Pecs,
    Yes, of course evolution is involved in creating the structures that experience consciousness. The issue I'm speaking to is one step back from that. Matter need not be conscious. The universe could have been different, rendering evolution powerless. But experience and sensation, the raw material that evolution can go to work on, do exist. And, to my eye, the pinnacle achievement of that shaping of experience is sacrificial love.

    Does that mean God exists? I don't know. But I find the existence of love--a force that appears to fight against entropy and dissolution--in a universe presumably made up of elementary particles and forces to be a very curious thing.

    But of course, that is a subjective judgment on my part and people do see it differently. I understand that. I'm just speaking for myself.

  14. So you are trying to straddle the fence on determinism? Do you find this hard to do? Just curious...

  15. Pecs,
    I straddle in this public space to not overly alarm people. :-)

    I think judgments do make sense, but I reframe them.

    Here's how I see it. Choices are moments of discovery. They tell you who you are. You and I are complex unfolding pieces of creation. And "choices" are the cutting edge expression of that unfolding. When I "choose" I'm actually discovering who I am in this moment. What I find may please me or horrify me, but there it is. This is who I am.

    Well, what if you don't like who you are? Well, that dislike is also a part of who you are and it can, if it is strong enough, unfold into a changing you.

    But what if this goes south and I find myself drunk and living in a van down by the river? This is where my views about universalism come in. God set this unfolding Cosmos on its journey and I'm a part of that. But as a creature that is both finite (my ability to change my destiny is negligible or nonexistent) and one that can suffer, God, in his love, will bring my life to a good end, in this world or the next. That is, goodness in this world (salvation) needs assistance. Free will is either too anemic or nonexistent to do the job. Grace is the only answer. In this, I'm fusing Reformed ideas with the position of Universal Salvation.

  16. I think I get it. Just wanted to dig deeper. I've often held that people don't 'choose' to believe something. But of course my belief that we don't choose to believe wasn't chosen either. Keeps me running in circles.

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