This post is probably going to be rather disjointed, as I’m not an educated philosopher by any means, and not really what I would call an “educated theologian” either, though I’ve grown up in confessional churches that have a penchant for teaching the young’uns doctrine once they hit their teen years and then discussing it a lot in adult Sunday School. So I know just enough to be dangerous, heh heh.
In any case, I was musing on the long-running “debate” (more like: both sides attempt to explain their position, and because their axioms are mutually exclusive, end up talking past each other ad nauseum) between sci-fi writer John Wright and a very persistent materialistic commenter of his. There’s quite a lot of good stuff in the archives there, if you’re interested enough to dig through.
In any case, from what I’ve read of the materialist position, the materialist takes on faith that at some point in the future, humanity will achieve a level of technology capable of reading the material state of the universe in sufficient detail so as to inerrantly predict the future. IE, free will does not, in fact, exist – from the moment of the Big Bang onwards, everything that happens is a materialistic consequence of the starting energy/matter state of the universe. Conveniently, no such technology currently exists, so debate on the matter flourishes.
Ironically, if, at some point in the far, far future, this technology were to be developed (and somehow I were there to find out about it, a la the tech in Count to a Trillion)… I wouldn’t have a problem with it, really. You see, I’m a Calvinist. And though both Wright and Vox Day love to lay out some smackdown on Calvinism…. I’m pretty sure the issue there is the same: like the materialist, Calvinists hold some axioms to be true that the esteemed gentlemen refuse to grant. Therefore, impasse.
So here’s my (non-expert, non-authoritative) opinion on the matter, which might be of mild interest to possibly one or two people. The part of Calvinism that everybody loves to hate is the part where God’s Decree determines everything that happens for all eternity. Deterministic universe, just like the materialists, right? Well, not really. If you try to Logic your way through this part of Calvinism, yeah, you’re gonna get stuck, ’cause we happen to put that bit under “Mysteries of God only vaguely apprehended by human reason” – the “deterministic” part of the universe is held to be unfathomable except in hindsight. Okay, that sounds like a cop-out, right? “Whatever happened was God’s Will,” blah blah blah why do anything because in the next second it will be “the past” and therefore “God’s Will.” Which is exactly what happens when you apply Logic and extrapolate “the past is God’s revealed Decree” to the future being immutable whatever you decide to do… the only problem is, I’ve never met a Calvinist who thinks that way. Granted, my experience is pretty limited, and I’m sure people like that are out there – but I’ve never actually met one. Apparently all the Calvinists I know have a pretty big “mysticism” strain in their thinking about that issue.
So, rather than getting into a theological discussion now, let’s go back to materialism. The last “parable” I recall being batted around by the contestants was the parable of Shakespeare – if you could “measure,” in sufficient detail, Shakespeare sitting at his desk about to write a play, could you tell exactly what the play would be before he wrote it? (If I’m getting this wrong, someone please feel free to correct me.) However, I think that’s a bad example. You might well be able to do that if Shakespeare planned everything out in his head before sitting down to write, and your measuring machine just happened to read his mind. Noooo, for materialism to be true, you’d have to be able to measure a sufficiently large area, at any arbitrary point in the past, and from that data, extrapolate Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. In perfect detail. Before Shakespeare was even born. If materialism were true, this would have to be possible.
And not only that, but your measuring machine would have to be so awesomely indistinguishable from magic (or Divine Decree) that it could measure without changing the things it was measuring. Meaning, you predict the future using your awesomesauce materialism machine, and everything you predict comes true. Whether you tell anybody about what you predicted, or not. Here’s where it gets even dicier – as far as we know, there’s no way to tell if it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy or not – that’s part of the axiom and not an actual empiric observation. But since we’re already granting the premise of the materialism measurement prediction machine, let’s go all-in and say that you actually have a way to rewind time itself and run an experiment on the same events, one time telling everybody involved about the prediction, and another time telling nobody about it, to see what happens. Except, of course, if materialistic determination is true, that would be impossible, because whether or not you would tell anybody about your materialistic determination or not would be already “baked in” to the universe’s structure itself. So, actual infallible prediction? Or self-fulfilling prophecy, in which the act of making the prediction causes it to come true? You’ll never know for sure. Even if you could build a machine that looked like it was measuring the universe’s state and infallibly predicting the future no matter what happens, you’ll never be able to tell if that’s what it’s really doing, or if the act of measuring and making a prediction itself causes that particular future to come to pass. Therefore, materialism is an article of faith, independent of empiric evidence – how the heck could you falsify it, even if you built the machine, if your experiment assumes that which it’s trying to test? And let’s not get into divergent time-streams and multiverses as explanations of free will, which are the secular version of handwaving difficulties away and saying “God did it!”
So, what do I, as a Calvinist, think about this? Well, I am a sci-fi fan. If someone managed to create a machine that made perfectly accurate predictions, whether or not anyone read the predictions before they happened or not, I’d chalk it up to proof that Calvinism is right! After all, the hypothetical future scientists just hacked the Matrix and read the Decree of God! (And then life would become altogether too much like those Greek tragedies, where the terrible prophecy comes true
despite because of [??????] everything everyone does to avert it.)
But either way, in our current muddled understanding of reality, neither outlook actually says anything all that useful about day-to-day living. Which is why I’m kinda “meh” whenever somebody starts taking apart the “deterministic” elements of Calvinism, ’cause I just don’t care. That part of the doctrine looks mostly like a fuzzy logic puzzle to me – as if a two-dimesional being were trying to comprehend four-dimensional space. We’re probably way off the mark. Compared to “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved,” and “work out your salvation” (what my brand of Calvinists call sanctification, as opposed to justification, which has to do with the “believe” part) the exact nature of the underlying metastructure of reality is pretty small beans.
We all gotta make choices, and whether or not some other reasoning being (like a psychologist) can come along and take your decision apart and say “You were always going to do [A], because of your [fundamental nature/instinct/past experience/DNA/upbringing] and you only felt like you were making a choice because you were rationalizing after the fact,” it doesn’t change the reality that we perceive ourselves as moral agents, in control of our decisions, and treat other fully functioning human beings as moral agents with free will. Even human beings who hate mornings and haven’t had their coffee yet.
So yeah. I actually kind of believe the universe is fundamentally deterministic… and that free will, as humans experience it, is also real… at the same time. Because the “deterministic” part happens at a level which humans can’t access, or even really understand, and honestly? it’s one interpretation out of many. Theoretically, somebody could convince me that a different interpretation is true; it just hasn’t happened yet. But even if that were the case, I doubt it would have all that great an effect on my life – because all those warnings about striving for your faith? You better believe Calvinists like me and mine take those damn seriously, just like other “non-deterministic” denominations do.* Becoming fatalistic and apathetic as a result of “God has decreed everything from the beginning of time so nothing I do matters” is a category error. The future is uncertain, and God judges intent as much as action, so nobody has any deterministic excuse for being a slacker and committing sin. And if that means that aspect of our belief system looks contradictory from the outside… well. It’s not like we believe you’re gonna be damned to hell if you don’t agree with it. And you’re welcome to try to convince me of your own group’s doctrine on the matter.
*Really bad puns aren’t a sin, right? Right?