I keep putting off this post until I “have enough time to do it justice,” but that apparently will never happen. I have written about this before, but there are a lot of newcomers, and also when it comes to economics posts, I’m certainly not afraid to repeat myself…
The view of God as portrayed in the Christian Bible is that He knows everything that will ever happen in time, before He even created the universe. That isn’t too controversial, though some people do doubt it.
What’s a little more surprising, and only something that I personally have come to realize in the last 5 years or so, is that in an important sense God wills everything that happens, including evil actions.
To justify that last claim, consider that in the Bible, it doesn’t merely say, “God anticipated that Pharaoh would refuse to let Moses and his people go.” No, it says that the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Exodus 9:12 captures both at the same time; the New Living Translation does exactly what I need for the point here, but the other translations work too:
“But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and just as the LORD had predicted to Moses, Pharaoh refused to listen.”
So the way I now view things, it doesn’t even make sense to try to distinguish God’s predictions of what Pharaoh would do, from God’s control over Pharaoh’s actions at the time in question. In other words, I don’t think that Exodus 9:12 is some anomaly; I think that’s what happens every nanosecond of existence. Yes, we can use science to explain why it rains, in terms of the water cycle etc. etc., but it is a true statement to say, “It is raining right now because God willed it to do so.”
(I realize it is pointless for me to try to avoid misunderstanding on this point, but let me engage in futility just on principle: I am NOT saying that scientists should stop what they’re doing, because we can just say, “Hey, your eye is shaped like that because that’s how God designed it. Thanks Jesus, I love my vision, the end.” I am NOT saying that. What I’m saying is that if an omniscient Creator of the universe exists, then I think the “laws of nature” are simply economical ways we’ve discovered to describe His will as it pertains to material objects. And the reason He chooses to act in this fashion, is to make our home comprehensible, so we don’t go nuts.)
OK, what about our consciousness? Well, in addition to creating the material universe, God also created distinct beings, with our own wills or egos. We experience the material universe but are distinct from it. We are not simply a collection of atoms. As C.S. Lewis put it, you don’t have a soul–you are a soul, and you have a body.
From our perspective, it appears that we can influence the material world. For example, I can use my “mind powers” to control my right hand. We take it for granted because we can all do it, but if I could move a rock the way I can move my hand, it would be astonishing. Yes, we can trace the cause-and-effect from the muscles in my hand up to my brain, but nonetheless it sure seems like I am “freely choosing” to open and close my hand. It really looks like I control a small part of the events in the universe, and the only way a strict materialist can really deny that, is to ultimately deny that the term “I” means anything. (That’s why going down the path of materialism, leads to nihilism and drunken Facebook sessions.)
Now the tricky part: I think what happens is that God anticipated what everybody would subjectively want to do, and then designed the laws of the material universe such that it sure looks like we are controlling atoms with our thoughts, when “really” we are just watching a movie unfold before our eyes.
Here’s an analogy: Suppose that a filmmaker could perfectly anticipate where every moviegoer’s eyes would look on the screen. Then he put up each of our names on the screen, and they started moving around. In other words, when the movie started, I would see “Bob Murphy” moving around the screen at the theater, no matter where I looked on the screen. But the guy to my right would see his name up there too, and no matter where he looked on the screen, the letters of his name would perfectly track his line of sight.
If we watched this movie for 10 minutes, and there was never a hitch, we would all be absolutely convinced that we were controlling the movement of the letters. We would think the movie theater had employed some new technology, and that there were sensors in the theater that took our muscle movements as input, and then translated that into commands for the projector, so it would “know” where to shoot the letters for us to see. This, we would convince ourselves, was the only explanation for our apparent control over the letters.
But no, suppose it really were a regular movie, put onto the film months previously. The way it works is that the filmmaker somehow knew exactly who would be watching the film that day, where we’d be sitting, and exactly where we’d be looking, down to the 10th of a second, for the whole film.
OK I’ll stop here. Where I personally am still stuck, is the precise nature of our free will. As the Pharaoh example shows, I think there is a sense in which God even controls what we will, let alone the physical manifestations of our decisions.
For more on God’s control of even evil as players on a chessboard, check out G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday.