Sometimes there is a nexus of events that seem random or perhaps purposeful – usually hard to discern the difference. Many years ago when leading a Bible study on the Book of Revelation, one of the participants told me that every evening when driving home from the session (it was summer), he saw a black crow sitting on a fence. He asked if it was a sign. Could be…. or since it was farm country and the fence was bordering a corn field, it might have just been a crow. I have to admit there is a part of me that operates out of the old maxim: if you hear hoofbeats don’t assume zebra, it’s probably a horse. At least it’s a good maxim for the United States.
At the moment I am re-reading Isaac Asimov’s The Foundation Trilogy. I was probably inspired by Disney+ advertising a movie/series of the trilogy. I can’t say that “Hollywood” has always been kind to its portrayal of classic science fiction novels, for example: the 1984 film version of Frank Herbert’s Dune. The film was a box-office bomb, grossing $30.9 million from a $40 million budget, and was negatively reviewed by critics, who heavily criticized the screenwriting, lack of faithfulness to the source material, pacing, direction, and editing. The Dune mini-series in 2000 was an improvement. It was nominated for 9 prime-time Emmys and won two. But I digress. Since I don’t subscribe to Disney+ I will not see how they convert the Foundation books into film. I am quite satisfied with my one imaginings.
But I bring up the topic of The Foundation Trilogy because of the impact of randomness. [Spoiler Alert warning – skip to next paragraph if necessary]. The core concept of the book is that an advanced mathematician, Hari Seldon, has developed a model that predicts galactic behavior of empires: psychohistory. Seldon predicts that the current Galactic Empire will devolve into 30,000 years of the galactic version of the dark ages. Seldon’s plan is to place a foundation dedicated to the collection of all knowledge at the edge of the known galaxy to make it immune from devolution, save knowledge, and help shorten the inevitable dark ages to a mere 1,000 year. His work is very purposeful and, as it turns out, spot on. He has pre-recorded messages to holographically appear at key points in history (they end up called Seldon Crisis) and, sure enough, his psychohistorical projections are near perfect. Until…. One individual, an unknown outsider called the Mule has begun taking over planets at a rapid pace. The Foundation comes to realize, too late, that the Mule is unforeseen in Seldon’s plan, and that the plan cannot have predicted any certainty of defeating him. Such is the impactful event Seldon so random, one wonders.
Why it is of religious interest is that the people of the Foundation and the outer worlds, by the time of the Mule, have “deified” Seldon to some extent. In many instances people speak of the hidden hand of Hari Seldon moving history along at a galactic scale.
It is a familiar question in Christianity. Is the invisible hand of God active in the universe? How active? Puppet master active? Divine spectator active? What is the role of purpose and randomness? You’d be surprised how often people ask me that in one way or the other. It is often bound in questions – “what is God’s plan for me?” What if I fall off a ladder – was that God’s plan or just the junction of clumsy/accident and gravity? What should we think about that?
We remember events from the past and anticipate/predict what will happen in the future. When we see a pattern fulfilled, we think “inevitable.” Did I choose it or did God have me choose it? Or did God make it the only choice? Free will, predestination, agency…and it is like wondering about the effects of time travel in science fiction movies. Is going into the past really just part of our particular future? Where is a course in temporal mechanics when you need one.
The classical Christian tradition, however, says God is an eternal being who transcends time, meaning God can see the past, present, and future all at once – which is the meaning of eternity (as opposed to infinity…and beyond.) The roll of the dice in Vegas, for example, could be both a result of random processes and providential choice because God knew before creating the world what the outcome would be.
With respect to evolutionary theory, perhaps God surveyed the 14,000,605 possibilities available before creating our particular world, the one where creatures evolved. Chance in natural selection would be real because the outcome was not determined by its preceding causes, but God nevertheless has chosen its result. From this perspective, chance in evolution and God’s providential care for the world can both be true; it depends on whether you are considering the event from a human or divine point-of-view.
The second option for reconciling chance and providence argues that chance events in nature are governed by God’s general providence. God’s general providence means the actions of God which apply to creation universally. God’s special providence refers to God’s actions in specific cases. Back to our ladder example. If the accident happened only because God set up the law of gravity, it would result from God’s general providence. God does not actively will the accident but permits it by not intervening to break the laws of nature. Perhaps God will exercise special providence and override local gravity. God’s general providence was rooted in the same age when galactic Newtonian laws were observable. It is in this period that the Church began to emphasize natural law concepts.
In our day, chance and predictability are often intertwined at the quantum level. In quantum mechanics, poor ol’ Schrödinger’s cat illustrates a paradox of quantum superposition in which the cat may be considered simultaneously both alive and dead as a result of its fate being linked to a random subatomic event that may or may not occur. God might have created the world through probabilistic general laws, which would allow God to foresee the result, even without fully determining the details. In this mode of thought God has a general plan for the universe, while still permitting freedom for individual events – a quantum flux of a human variety.
This last model can make people uncomfortable as they conclude God created the world but does not fully govern it. But that says that God only works through general providence, but Christians should feel no mandate to accept that. The Bible records many events where God intervenes in specific situations, such as Jesus’ resurrection. Moreover, at each event in the universe, God must decide whether to change the normal course of nature. From a theological perspective, we might refer to this as God’s permissive will: things happen in the world that God permits by not intervening or by intervening. That raises even more questions, but those for another time.
There are other models that can offer some insights about randomness and purpose in our life. But that is enough for this post. Perhaps there are some guidelines that could be garnered. Stay off ladders, don’t go to Vegas, and stay clear of any cat named Schrödinger – it’s a start, but you can’t control these Galactic ebbs and flows. Some things are inevitable: the 1984 Dune movie was not randomly bad, it was galactically bad. Consider it divine providence if you never saw it.
But perhaps it is better to operate with purpose rooted in a question each morning – “how will I follow Christ as best I can this day?” And act with a Christ-centered purpose-driven life. Random will happen, Misdirected not-so-good purpose will cross your path – and throw you on a different path, but you can choose to journey with the same question and the resulting purpose driven life.