A billion years from now will anything I might do today matter in the slightest? A lot depends on how we answer this question. It's not all that different than Paul Johnson's query in hisQuest For God. (A book I heartily recommend) "If God does exist, and if in consequence we are called to another life when this one ends, a momentous set of consquences follows, which should affect every day, every moment almost, of our earthly existence." That's largely what I am saying when I suggest that what we believe shapes our societies in many ways, sometimes predictably, sometimes surprisingly. But what does it mean in the scale of the life of the universe?
In Chapter Nine of his City of God, entitled Concerning the Foreknowledge of God and the Free Will of Man, in Opposition to the Definition of Cicero, St. Augustine went to some pains to deal with the problem of free will. He quotes Cicero:
"...for the knowledge of future things being granted, there follows a chain of consequences which ends in this, that there can be nothing depending on our own free wills. And further, if there is anything depending on our wills, we must go backwards by the same steps of reasoning till we arrive at the conclusion that there is no foreknowledge of future things.
Like Augustine, Cicero believed the world was the creation of an all-powerful, all knowing God. But if he is all powerful and all knowing, doesn't that mean that every event is foreordained? And if that's true, then human beings cannot really be evil- or good, for that matter. We are merely automatons carrying out the will of God. Either we have free will or God has foreknowledge. It's one or the other, and Cicero chose the first scenario. Such a conclusion was unacceptable to Augustine. Both had to be true. God must be omniscient, and man must have free will. Without free will the entire moral structure of Christianity collapses. But neither can Christian belief stand without the omniscience of God. How did Augustine get out of this impasse? He proposed that free will was among the attributes God gave Man at the Creation. Men were free to control their own actions, and could therefore choose to do good or evil. At the same time God, being all-knowing, knows what actions men will choose. Thus men have free will and God has foreknowledge, too. This is a little too tricky for me. It also seems a little unfair- if we are good it is only due to God's influence, but if we are bad it's our fault. Scientific materialists also have a stake in the game. If you think that everything is determined according to physical components, then free will has to be a myth. On the other hand, without a belief in an orderly, logical cosmos, there can be no science. A scientist may not be able to believe in a personal deity of the sort Augustine espoused, but he has to believe that there is an ultimate truth, and that at least some of that truth may be discernible by the human mind.
But I don't think either Cicero or Augustine noticed a deeper problem in their conception of God. In Chapter 25 Augustine made a statement he must have thought was entirely uncontroversial. This statement must be as true for a scientific atheist as for Augustine, although the scientist might frame it differently.
"If they wish to know what the Almighty cannot do, I shall tell them. He cannot lie."
Why is this a problem? Because it implies that there is a power that precedes God, that there is such a thing as truth, and such a thing as falseness, and not even God can overturn this pre-primordial order. He cannot make a lie into the truth, and he cannot make a truth into a lie. I'm not well versed in theological questions, but isn't this issue at the root of the famous Regensburg Lecture Pope Benedict gave a few years ago?
Intended as a defence of reason in the face of postmodern relativism and the Koranic literalism of Islam, a long ago conversation between a Byzantine emperor and an educated Persian was used by the pope as an illustration. In his article on the lecture in First Things, Father Francis Schall summed up the gist of this ancient argument.
We should understand the significance of this issue. Can God change his "reason," that is, can he make what was evil to be good or reasonable? Is what is good or evil dependent on a kind of whim of God so that worship of God means following whatever God is said to say even if it is contradictory to what He said previously. Does the Koran negate the Old and New Testaments? Does it negate reason? In other words, is God's revelation stable? Can we rely on its truth to be true everywhere and always?
The Islamic clerics were very quick to spot an insult to their doctrines. To prove how reasonable Islam was they called for violent riots to take place all over the Islamic world against the Pope. This is probably the passage from the lecture that aroused so much indignation. Say what you will about the imams, they at least understood the meaning of the Pope's words. It completely escaped the popular media.
The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature. The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality. Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazm went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God's will, we would even have to practise idolatry.
Clearly, Ibn Hazm's concept of God was in direct opposition to Augustine's. For Ibn Hazm, God is all-powerful, full stop, unfettered by concepts of good and evil. The essence of God is power. Good and evil have nothing to do with it. So therefore the mission of all good little Muslims is to spread God's power over all the earth. Since good and evil are irrelevant any means of accomplishing that purpose can be justified. In the last decade Westerners have become familiar again with Islam. Thought to be moribund, it now seems to be on the upswing again, and often with the collaboration of elements of Western thought that would seem inimical to its own beliefs. Some of those elements of modern thought are concerned with "liberation" themes, mostly anti-capitalist, black, gay, and feminist, all of which portray traditional Western mores as oppressive, and so apply that mythology to Muslims. The truth is that history is replete with examples of terribly repressive and murderous regimes. but it is only Islam that condones them. If they think Western society has been oppressive, they are in for a rude shock if they find themselves in the clutches of Shariah law. To any rational observer modern progressives and ardent jihadists would appear to have nothing in common, but this very theme of the universe as a capricious force is at the root of both ideologies. In both ideologies it morphs into fatalism. For a Muslim, since God's moods and actions are entirely arbitrary, it does no good whatsoever to seek laws and principles that would help men to make the world a better place. Whatever Allah wills will be. The best a man can do is get what he can out of his mortal condition, and the best way to do that is to seek power over others, or to attach oneself to whatever power has the means to improve his material welfare, thereby carving out his own sphere of influence. Since Allah is capricious and unbound by any laws, neither is the Muslim.
This end result, which has played itself out in the Islamic world over and over for 1400 years, turns out to be remarkably similar to the social ideologies that have evolved in the West since the advent of scientific materialism. They aren't entirely the same. Scientific materialists have had a historic allegiance to the idea that they are working towards the welfare of mankind, but in recent years things have changed. The notion that mankind is a sort of cancer destroying the pristine beauty of nature has become uncontroversial on the campus. The whole thing is remarkably confused. Man is nothing but a minuscule and inconsequential part of the universe, but he is consequential enough to be a menace. Scientists, it seems, are no more immune to confusion than the rest of us. Politically, nihilism is the logical conclusion if you believe human beings are nothing but transient sparks of nothingness. Thus we have seen political movements like Bolshevism and Fascism which are little more than thinly veiled justifications for murder. Power is all that matters. No tomorrow, no yesterday, now is all that matters. Socially, it only seems obvious that if morality and free will are naive fictions, then what duty do we have except to our own pleasure? And where does that lead? Straight back to nihilism... in the personhood of goths, grunges and rappers.
Problems like this also intrude on scientific theory, especially its language- mathematics. An ongoing debate questions whether mathematics is "real." Another question is if other universes exist with laws entirely different from our own, and another is when the laws came into being. Are they an artifact of creation- the so-called Big Bang- or were they the same as now, and will they always be so? After all, why should the universe obey laws at all? How does a galaxy at one end of the cosmos 'know' how to behave? Why should the elements in that distant galaxy be the same as ours? How do they 'know'? And in that context how can there be such a thing as free will. What is there that we could possibly do or think that would have the least effect on the vastness of creation? Not only is there a vastness of space, there is a vastness of time. The lifetime of the earth is measured in billions of years, compared to which our four score and ten amount to nothing. The earth was formed about six billion years ago, and the sun is halfway through its career. What does the ten thousand year history of man since the retreat of the glaciers amount to in comparison?
The theme of this blog as originally conceived was that the history of human thought is like a great conversation across time carried out through literature, religion, science, and art. This conversation, implicit in the arts, has become overt in the Western philosophical tradition. Religious movements reify the thoughts of philosophers and the insights of poets by choosing among them, codifying them and putting those choices into prescriptions for social behaviour. Societies become defined by the belief sets they adopt, and the subsequent evolution of the society is to a large extent determined by what it believes. In recent Western history this has amounted to a dialog between scientific atheism and Christian idealism, and this was my focus, but here I am a few years later holding the end of the thread in my hand with no clear idea of what thread to pick up next.
Maybe the difficulty comes from thinking in terms of either/or. Going back to my thoughts on the everyday implications of the Heisenberg Principle, perhaps one's perception of truth does depend on what one chooses to examine... Augustine's predicament, for instance. If you choose to conceptualize a Being capable of creating everything we know or can know, from our very thoughts and desires to the structure of the universe, then it must follow that He is all-knowing and all-powerful, that time and space is not his reality but his invention. Then how can anything that happens within that spatial/temporal structure be unknowable by him? And yet, how does that square with the concept of sin, which is meaningless without assigning responsibility to the sinner who must needs have a will of his own by which it follows that the willful actions of an individual human can affect the course of events in the universe? Like Cicero, logic compels me to say it's one or the other.
The essence of the Heisenberg Principle is that one can know with certainty either the wave nature of a quantum event or its particle nature. Following the logic indicates the reality of the event depends on the choice of the observer. Does this mean that the observer causes the event by the mere act of observing? That's a question that's still up for debate- or maybe deafening silence.
Science's problem is not unlike Augustine's quandary when you think about it. At the everyday level of our common experience we obviously have a lot of choices. If I go to the beach on a hot day and shed most of my clothes I will surely get a bad sunburn. Whether I do such a thing is entirely a matter of my will. Choose one course of action and I will have one outcome. If I choose the other I will have another outcome. Equally obviously, my range of choices are limited. I may want to levitate but I can't. I may not want to work but if I don't work I will go hungry. One of the characteristics of human existence is our constant quest to overcome our limitations. In fact you could say that about all living organisms. They actively seek conditions that will be to their benefit. They actively adapt whenever they can. The means may change from species to species. Regardless of what you may think of evolution, the entire kaleidoscopic range of living forms are achieved through variations on a few very complex carbon based molecules. In humans the most outstanding physical variation is a huge increase in the size of the cortex of the brain.
I can say on my own account that the drive to make sense of it all is never ending, and I can say from observation that it is the essence of being human- maybe of life itself- to probe the universe, not to dominate it, but in order to understand it. I recently saw a rather fatuous Imax. Publicized as a chronicle of the Tour de France bicycle race, I was hoping to see vistas of the Alps, Pyrenees, and other features of the French landscape. It turned out to be more like an animated junior high school film on how the human brain recovers from an injury than a travelogue. Nevertheless, it made the point that the neurons and axons rebuild themselves. But it requires an act of will on the part of the injured individual. He must actively strive to recover, and as he works, the network grows and reconnects.
So it seems that when you look at things at the human scale we obviously have will. Looked at from the cosmic scale, whether or not your cosmic scale includes God or not, it seems absurd. Certainly, the prevailing opinion among average men and women and among the shapers of opinion, is that man is utterly insignificant, that nothing we do matters in the slightest in the grand scheme of things. I may not be able to prove it with absolute certainty, but I think prevailing opinion is wrong.