Friday, April 26, 2013

Human History: God's Rube Goldberg Machine

You don’t have to dig very deep into Christianity to bump into this controversy regarding God’s sovereignty and man’s choice. One school of thought will object (in varying degrees) to the idea that man has any free choice at all because, so they say, to imagine man making genuine free choices is to throw God’s sovereignty under the bus. In order to uphold God’s sovereignty, we must ultimately deny that humans have free will and that our actions are determined in an absolute fashion by God.

Another viewpoint tries to find a middle ground by proposing that free will and determinism are "compatible" in some sense. And this, too, is necessary (they suppose) in order to preserve God's sovereignty.

I have a way to “test” this notion. I don’t aim to prove here that man has genuine freedom of choice, though I have very good reasons to think that he does. But I do intend to demonstrate something very ironic: That denying human freedom of choice for the sake of preserving God’s sovereignty can be seen to actually diminish God’s sovereignty.

But first, I think it’s necessary to consider carefully what it means to say that man was created “in the image of God.”

Setting it up
In my research I have encountered various ways of expressing the idea of being “made in the image of God,” but there does seem to be some commonality. The Christian Q & A web site describes it like this:
    Having the “image” or “likeness” of God means, in the simplest terms, that we were made to resemble God.
But, the article goes on to explain that this “resemblance” isn’t intended to be visual, but rather relates in some way to God’s attributes. And an article at Answers In Genesis echoes this general sentiment:
    “God endues man with some of his divine attributes, thereby separating and making him different from the beasts.”
I suspect I don’t need to defend God’s attributes here… most Christians seem pretty committed to the idea that God has attributes such as perfect righteousness, sovereignty, justice, omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence, immutability and so on. And few Christians would object to the notion that these attributes are unlimited or infinite. And I think it’s pretty clear to most folks, particularly Christians, that man’s attributes, though they might correspond to God’s attributes, are far from unlimited.

The conclusion I’ve reached is this: To be “made in the image of God” means that God chose to give man versions of God’s own attributes that are finite or limited in some crucial way.

The article at had something else to say, which lends itself nicely to the analogy we’re going to explore related to God’s sovereignty and man’s choice. Of particular interest to me is the “inventing a machine” part:
    “Anytime someone invents a machine, writes a book, paints a landscape, enjoys a symphony, calculates a sum, or names a pet, he or she is proclaiming the fact that we are made in God’s image.”
Next, we have to examine and come to an understanding of the word “sovereignty”. I’ve seen the idea of sovereignty expressed in different ways, but they all have a common theme which has to do with making decisions which are not determined or influenced by any outside entity. Sovereignty relates to authority or autonomy. A person who is in authority rightfully makes decisions which affect those whom he has been given authority over, and no outside entity causes those decisions.

What follows are a couple of characterizations of “sovereignty” that I discovered, each of which can be seen to relate to making decisions independent of outside influence:

    “Supreme and independent power or authority in government as possessed or claimed by a state or community.”
    “Supreme authority within a territory”
Well, alright… both of these definitions rely on the word “authority.” So let’s take a second to examine how that word is defined:
    “The power to determine, adjudicate, or otherwise settle issues or disputes; jurisdiction; the right to control, command, or determine.”
Notice how words like “determine,” “adjudicate,” and phrases like “settle issues or disputes” relate to decision making. Conclusion: Sovereignty relates to making decisions.

And sovereignty isn’t always absolute and exhaustive. Notice the definition “Supreme authority within a territory.” In this instance, the authority is supreme, but only within a certain sphere or territory. In a localized sense, the authority is supreme, but in a global sense, the authority is limited and yet this can still be described as “sovereignty.”

Houston, we have a problem…
But at this point we face a problem, because although we might understand that God’s attributes are infinite and ours are finite, we have trouble grasping ideas like infinity and eternity. As humans, we are locked inside the finite and while we can assent to the idea of the infinite, our minds cannot get control of such an idea. So how can we understand what unlimited or infinite sovereignty looks like?

Well, I would suggest that we can’t. Not directly, anyway. But we can understand man’s sovereignty… we’re all too familiar with its limitations. So it seems to me that we could use that knowledge to help us understand God’s sovereignty, because if we know what man’s sovereignty is, then we know what God’s sovereignty cannot be. God’s sovereignty has to be qualitatively superior to man’s. If our view of God’s sovereignty ends up being qualitatively equivalent to man’s, then we’d have reason to think we had it wrong.
Introducing Rube Goldberg

Rube Goldberg was an inventor and a cartoonist during the 1940s and 50s and became famous for his humorous drawings of elaborate machines that were supposed to perform very pedestrian tasks, like this one depicting an alarm clock.

A Simple Alarm Clock, Rube Goldberg-Style. The early bird (A) arrives and catches worm (B), pulling string (C) and shooting off pistol (D). Bullet busts balloon (F), dropping brick (G) on bulb (F) of atomizer (I) and shooting perfume (J) on sponge (K)–As sponge gains in weight, it lowers itself and pulls string (L), raising end of board (M)–Cannon ball (N) drops on nose of sleeping gentleman–String tied to cannon ball releases cork (O) of vacuum bottle (P) and ice water falls on sleeper’s face to assist the cannon ball in its good work.

If you want to waste some time watching YouTube videos, just type “Rube Goldberg machine” into the search field. You will be treated to hundreds of videos of amazing and clever contraptions, painstakingly designed… some occupying multiple rooms in a house. It boggles the mind to think about how much time and effort went into these things. And being Rube Goldberg machines, the end game for each machine is comically easy and should not have required so much effort. One machine I viewed poured a bowl of cereal. Another crushed a grape. There are easier ways to pour a bowl of cereal or crush a grape. But Rube Goldberg machines are not about efficiency… their creators know there are easier ways; they just want to be creative and do it in a way that is unusual.

The creation of such a machine--any machine, really--is an expression of God’s attributes, albeit in a finite way, and one of these attributes is sovereignty. That is, he or she makes decisions--and has the proper authority to make these decisions--about what the machine’s final objective will be, how the cascade of events will be initiated, how each segment of the machine will accomplish work towards the final objective, etc. The creator of a Rube Goldberg machine is making decision after decision as the machine takes shape. He or she rules over the machine they are creating… they have supreme authority in this particular local realm; they are sovereign.

And yet, this sovereignty is limited. Because for one thing, the creator of a Rube Goldberg machine didn’t create the laws of physics and chemistry, nor did they create atoms and molecules that make up all of the component parts of the machine. But when it comes to carefully selecting the various component parts for a given machine, isn’t it interesting that nobody ever uses any kind of living creature in their machine… like a cat, for example? Why is that? Perhaps it’s because a cat has a mind of its own--a will, and because of this, it’s highly unlikely that the cat will cooperate with the creator’s plan for the machine. On the other hand, inanimate objects like ramps, levers, balls and dominos are entirely predictable and can be relied upon (once placed in the proper arrangement) to contribute toward the function of the machine.

Suppose that I build a Rube Goldberg machine, with all the usual ramps, levers, dominos, pulleys, counterweights and so on, but in this machine, I choose to employ a cat. You know, maybe there’s a surface for the cat to stand on, and maybe a box with a plate of tuna inside. The plate rests on a spring-loaded gizmo and at a crucial point in the chain of events, a door would slide open giving the cat access to the tuna, he would eat the tuna, the reduced weight would unload the spring, the support would rise up and trip a lever that knocks down a row of dominos and when the final lever falls, the final objective of, say, sprinkling a bit of fish food in the fish tank is achieved.

But wait… This is only what I intend to happen. Suppose at that crucial moment as the machine does its thing, the cat decides to vacate the machine and visit the litter box. Or what if the cat has to cough up a hairball? Or gets distracted by a housefly? See, even though I’m the creator of this machine and even though I have a kind of “sovereignty” over the machine, I cannot accommodate the free and unpredictable actions of the cat in the function of the machine. Because of this, creators of Rube Goldberg machines tend to incorporate only inanimate objects which lack free will.

Now, Rube Goldberg machines can take various forms… actually the only thing that distinguishes a Rube Goldberg machine from any other is that efficiency and simplicity are not among the objectives. But even machines that are designed to maximize efficiency operate the same way… there is a final objective, and there are component parts which contribute to that objective.

In his 1996 book Darwin’s Black Box, Michael Behe devoted a whole chapter to the discussion of a biochemical machine that all humans benefit from known as the blood clotting cascade… except this isn’t a “machine” in the usual sense, but rather a complex chain of chemical reactions at the molecular level. The chapter was titled “Rube Goldberg in the Blood.”

History as a Rube Goldberg machine
Well, suppose we look at God’s plan for history as a kind of giant Rube Goldberg machine. It has an objective and it has component parts, but in this case, a large number of the component parts in this machine are people. God uses these component parts to accomplish His final objective… I think the vast majority of Christians would agree with that. And with God as the creator of this machine, we know He created everything in the machine… all of the component parts. And as creator of this giant Rube Goldberg machine, we know He has sovereignty over it. But this is where we can, perhaps, learn something about God’s sovereignty compared with man’s sovereignty.

Again, we know the limitations of our own sovereignty. And we know that if our view of God’s sovereignty is correct, He will not be subject to those same kinds of limitations. So, since many Christians firmly believe that a high view of God’s sovereignty requires the denial of human free will, consider the following question carefully:

If we think it’s impossible for God to be sovereign over a machine made of component parts which have free will, then isn’t the sovereignty we’re ascribing to God qualitatively equivalent to our own?

Maybe our view of God’s sovereignty should be higher than that, so that it is qualitatively superior to man’s. What would that look like?

Well, to use the Rube Goldberg metaphor, if God’s sovereignty is qualitatively superior to man’s, then God could make a giant Rube Goldberg machine, give all of the component parts genuine freedom of choice, and still expect His objective to be met. But to say that man cannot have genuine freedom of choice because it would compromise God’s sovereignty is to ascribe a finite sort of sovereignty to God; a kind of sovereignty that is just as limited as man’s. And that doesn’t seem right, does it?

Again, this illustration is not intended to prove that man has genuine freedom of choice even though I am convinced that this is the case. It is only intended to demonstrate that affirming genuine free will in man does not necessarily translate to a low view of God’s sovereignty and actually can be seen as being consistent with a very high view of God’s sovereignty.

In other words, this perceived tension between God’s sovereignty and man’s choice is totally superfluous if we have a sufficiently high view of God’s sovereignty.

1 comment:

  1. Nicely written, Pete. I've written my thoughts on this subject as well, and it appears you and I have come to the same conclusion. What we believe is not proof of man's free will, but evidence that those who believe man does not possess true free will are placing human-scaled limits on God's sovereignty.