Chance in Creation

The most recent lesson in the Wilford Woodruff manual contains a quote from a general conference sermon given by Woodruff on April 6, 1872:

The Lord never created this world at random; he has never done any of his work at random. The earth was created for certain purposes; and one of these purposes was its final redemption, and the establishment of his government and kingdom upon it in the latter days, to prepare it for the reign of the lord Jesus Christ, whose right it is to reign. That set time has come, that dispensation is before us, we are living in the midst of it.

Woodruff seems here to posit a deterministic model of reality, a claim that would perhaps have been less philosophically and scientifically jarring in 1872 (just 13 years after the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and substantially before the rise of quantum mechanics) than it is today. Such may have been part of the original intent of the statement, but a careful reading shows that Woodruff draws a contrast between “randomness,” on the one hand, and “purpose,” on the other. In other words, randomness here may perhaps be best interpreted as an antonym of purpose — rather than a formal claim about statistically meaningful patterns in data.

What I’d like to ask in this post is whether there is a role for chance, understood as action without purpose. Rather than reaching back to the creation of the world or of humanity, let’s focus on a set of creative acts that we are rather more familiar with: the creation of our own characters. A standard debate between Mormons and others (and sometimes among Mormons) involves the relative importance of God’s will (“predestination” or, perhaps, “foreordination”) and our own choice (“free agency”) in accounting for the decisions and events that shape our personalities and our inner lives. The implicit assumption is that anything which doesn’t fall in the second of these two categories must necessarily fall in the first, and vice versa.

But what if Woodruff was wrong, and there are events that really happen without purpose? What if some things just happen to us — not as a result of our own choice, nor because of God’s eternal plan? What if there is a role for chance in the creation of our characters?

This isn’t a topic where I can offer compelling evidence in one direction or the other. But I can tell a story that helps explain why I am drawn to the question. At one point when I was in high school, there were two different girls that I was interested in dating. Just exactly because I wasn’t sure which I wanted to date, I didn’t take any action with respect to either of them. But a kind of caring busybody friend of mine decided that she shouldn’t just stand by and watch; she went behind my back and arranged a date for me with one of the two girls. How did she decide which one to pick? Was she simply unaware of my interest in the other? Did she decide that one of them would be better for me? Was her decision a part of God’s plan? Certainly her choice never reflected my own agency; perhaps it really was chance.

In any case, the decision was incredibly influential with respect to the development of my character. The girl and I dated throughout the rest of my time in high school. Much to the dismay of my parents, we fell in love. Of course we used the word “love” at the time, as high school sweethearts will do. But in adult retrospect, I can say that what I felt was full, committed love. Of course, while my emotions may have been of the mature variety, my decision-making was not. I decided to believe what I was told by the adults around me: what I was feeling didn’t really mean that much, and the relationship between the two of us wasn’t important enough to make major life decisions around.

So when the girl asked me to choose to attend the University of Utah so that we could be close to each other the following year, I decided that her request was not important enough to outweigh what I took to be the compelling intellectual advantages of attending Brigham Young University. That mistake of mine cost us our relationship; when the separation arrived, we broke up, an event that left me with a bonanza of emotional pain. I made at least one more hideous error with respect to the relationship, though. One day, a couple of months after we had broken up, we went on one last date. At the end of it, she plaintively asked me, “Why can’t I stop loving you?” Rather than hearing what was being said to me, I answered out of my misery, “You know, you’ve never made this break-up easy for me.”

The lasting hurt from this separation certainly changed my character. I developed the habit of ironic distance — from everything, if I indulge myself. For a long time, I lost faith — not in God (that kind of faith I had lost earlier on and would not recover for several more years), but in people. There have probably only been two other aspects of my life that have exercised as great an influence on who I am: my mission, and my marriage.

But here’s the question that haunts me: why did this all happen? Certainly the mistakes I made were my own. But, when the whole thing started, did I choose it? Partially I did, of course. But I didn’t choose the fact that my friend arranged a date for me with the girl I fell in love with, rather than the other girl. Was that act divinely commanded? Or did my friend make a free choice? If she did, that choice is part of her story, not mine — indeed, that choice is chance for me. Have I (that is, the version of me which exists today), then, been created at random?

54 comments for “Chance in Creation

  1. There will be more sophisticated comments than mine later on. My personal belief is that we are all free to choose how we react to whatever happens. I personally believe that some events, perhaps most, are random. And that some events, perhaps few, are guided by God. But our reactions and choices to these events are our own choice.

  2. Can’t events that in-themselves have no purpose be made purposeful by the use to which they are put? In which case Woodruff’s point remains.

  3. Clark, Woodruff’s statement makes an explicitly teleological claim: “the earth was created for certain purposes” is his counterclaim to the idea of randomness. There is a clear difference, I think, between the statement that “the earth was created for certain purposes” and the alternative (implied in your comment) that “the earth was created and various plans have been adopted as a result of that event.” Woodruff’s statement implies that the purpose exists in the decision to create, and not just in the response to creation.

    In other words, purposive reaction to chance occurrences doesn’t make the occurrences themselves deterministic.

  4. You miss my point. The earth could be created for a purpose but this act of creation is the meaning-giving act. But intrinsically creation is based upon randomness. Thus the telos is giving to chance. We don’t need it as an ontological inherent feature.

  5. Just to add, this point I’m making, while obviously partaking of Nietzsche a fair bit, also has very strong support in what many suggest is the earliest form of Judaism. There especially the creation account is seen as God battling the waters of chaos. Creation is not seen as a one time act but an ongoing mastery of chaos which must be repeated over and over again. For a great book on this check out Jon Levinson’s Creation and the Persistence of Evil. It’s one of the few books I often recommend to Mormons as a must-read. It really has quite a few echos of Mormon doctrine in how they view creation and evil.

  6. I’ve pondered a similar issue: if God already knows how everything we do will turn out and in which kingdom we’ll end, it takes some of the feeling of volition from my actions. Yes, I make my own choices but God already knows what they will be and what will be the eternal results of them.

    Tieing this back to your question, I believe that our loving and omniscient God, knowing us and the effects everything would have, so arranged the world in our best interest to create the opportunities and challenges that develop us into what we best can become. He could have arranged things differently that would have resulted in us becoming less, but He has set everything in the most beneficial-for-us courses.

    In your example, God knew (placed?) the two-girl choice, the intercession with one of those girls by your friend, the growth and mistakes (?) you’d made with her, and what you’ve become — and will become — from those experiences. It’s an established pattern of try something, learn from mistakes, and move on because of God’s grace (2 Ne 2:21).

    I believe this is true, but it is difficult for me to accept that the growth I’ve had through sorrow for the injuries I caused my family is somehow part of a loving God’s plan. Now that my heart feels for others, it is difficult to see the hurt that I caused them as good in any way — it does’nt feel worth the cost to them.

    I had an experience similar to yours at the end of my high school years. I dated a girl that had every worthwhile quality and was quite smitten by her (one of those I-can’t -believe-she-would-care-for-me realtionships). My parents hadn’t met her and learned of her black skin (late ’60s) when she was our valedictorian and my grad marching partner. Their counsel was to not have a relationship that couldn’t, then, result in a sealing. I still pain at the memory of her face when I told her that my parents didn’t want us to see each other — didn’t even own the decision — because of her skin’s color. I regret all the ways I blew that. I’ve learned from it and thought in retrospect of what I would do now in that situation, but, again, my learning doesn’t feel worth the price I made her pay for it.

    I can only hope that the same healing through the atonement that I enjoy lies in the path of my injured family members. Maybe the magnitude of their injuries will give them greater joy and appreciation for the healing that may come. But that feels hollow to me.

    As for that girl from high school, she’s long moved past me; she married well and has had rewarding career teaching.

  7. I went through a similar grind with a girl before I got married. But, over the years it has become evident that, though we were crazy about eachother as youngsters and though she talked positively about us getting married in the future, she would never have married me. (Rich girls don’t marry poor boys–that sort of thing) Even so, for many years I felt that I had taken a wrong turn, that I had turned away from my “destiny,” so to speak

    Here’s the thing–I would have married her at the drop of a hat at a certain point in our relationship. I felt confident before heaven with such feelings. But now that I look back, it’s obvious to me that it would have been a difficult marraige for the both of us–knowing how things have gone for me psychologically over the years. (not to mention the social disparity between us)

    So what happened? Was it the luck of the draw that caused me to be a fool and turn away from what I really wanted in those days? (Even tho she wouldn’t have married me anyway)

  8. I don’t know, Clark. I think the Fall is almost more mysterious than this thing we call “creation.” How is it that, out of what appears to be an arbitrary set of circumstances, the very course of “destiny” seems to emerge as a path beneath our feet?

  9. Clark, I like the idea of the imposition of purpose, rather than the physical act of instantiation, as the real moment of creation. That is, as you mention, the fundamental idea in Nietzsche’s work, although for him meaning can only be created by us since there is no God. A provocative idea, to be sure, and a possible resolution of contradictions between theism and natural science in terms of the extensive evidence of randomness in the physical world. Nonetheless, Woodruff’s statement that “the world was created for certain purposes” fits awkwardly with this understanding. Woodruff’s statement posits purposes as the motive for creation, not as the act of creation itself. If he had instead said that “the world is created by certain purposes,” there would be a closer fit.

    Manaen and Jack, thanks for sharing your stories. Both sound as if they were far more difficult than my own. I should note that I have certainly ended up in a perfectly happy marriage with a partner who is just exactly suited to me.

  10. Heres an interesting question on the subject.- Lucifer became Satan only after the plan was presented. God in his infinite knowledge covered all of the what-ifs in his plan, this of coarse being a what-if situation with Lucifer. The logic of it is, is that God cannot create evil knowingly.
    Now for the question- Is it possible for a God to create a world and send his children down to it to gain an earthly experience without there being a Satan?
    I personally believe it can and probably does happen. The question always asked is that God had to create “opposition” in order for us to be tested So must he have created Satan for that purpose? I believe that “opposition” is merely the abbility to choose between obeying God’s counsel or disobeying God’s counsel- hence the reason Lucifer became Satan- through disobedience, no-one probably tempted him.
    To believe that when God first started planning the earth and it’s role for the future inhabitants, that he “had to” center it around the need for a Satan would seem to make God evil wouldn’t it?
    I believe from thislogic that God possibly cannot know everything and that it isn’t spelled out already, which only leaves the possibility for chance to take place, just that God works out all of the what-if case scenerios just in case things do not go as planned- but even then he still achieves his ultimate goal according to his plan!

  11. J. Nelson-Seawright said, “I should note that I have certainly ended up in a perfectly happy marriage with a partner who is just exactly suited to me.”

    Yeah, you better note that, buster. :)

  12. I’m glad this came up again, I was looking for the previous post on foreknowledge and this seems to be somewhat related. I think there’s plenty of chance and randomness and relatively few events that are “God’s will.” Take, for example, the common “I lost my keys, looked all over, then I prayed and found them in 2 minutes, this made it possible for me to (insert important reason)” story. Most of those are probably chance, they just happened to find the keys. The not-finding-the-keys stories don’t get told (or maybe they get told, but with “the answer to my prayer was not finding the keys because then (insert important reason).”

    Anyway, a question (I apologize if it’s been asked and answered, I couldn’t find it) — What is the official church position, if any, on God’s foreknowledge? I know in the D&C it says that where God lives is a great urim & thummim, and the past, present and future are all known to God. Doesn’t this imply that God knows what choices we will make before we’ve made them. If He doesn’t know, isn’t that a rather serious exception to the all-knowingness of God?

  13. J N-S: 1. Given the god that Nietzsche denies, it shouldn’t be all that difficult to agree with him about that god’s non-existence. However, the idea that creation means the overcoming of chaos, the giving of meaning, rather than creation from nothing is hardly new with Nietzsche. He was just using that ancient idea in a new way.

    2. Why assume that President Woodruff was making metaphysical/philosophical statements that can be parsed with the kind of precision you seem to want in your response to Clark? Aren’t you putting more philosophoical weight on President’s Woodruff’s statements than they can bear?

  14. I should add that the God of Nietzsche who is dead is primarily the philosophical God of the German philosophers. Especially Kant and Hegel. With Mormonism and a God who is one of us and not an ultimate ontological origin, things are quite different. God must impose meaning on what is already pre-existing. As with us, God finds himself already in a world. With traditional Christianity and especially the God of the philosophers God makes the world. i.e. God is prior to the world. That’s a huge difference.

    Now there’s lots one can disagree with in Nietzsche. His following of the privileging of Will that was so characteristic of 19th century German philosophy is one example.

    Regarding Woodruff, the question has to be whether we ought understand it as a one time creation. Even if, perhaps, Woodruff did. Is the phenomena Woodruff was addressing really a one time creation from the perspective of being in that world. That is, we have the plan as conceive of in heaven prior to the creation (organization) of this world. But as any General knows no plan survives contact with the enemy. By that I don’t mean that there wasn’t a plan, a spiritual creation. Rather that the relationship between this plan to impose order and the matter which receives order. There must, if we take the eternity of matter and our belief in a pre-existence, be a more complex relationship than I think some suggest. Which is what brings us to chance and the earlier creation accounts in the Bible.

    Put it an other way. It is the difference between strategy and tactics.

  15. Jim, I know that the idea you label as #1 isn’t new with Nietzsche; however, the version of it that Clark invoked above very nearly is. The kind of God we’re talking about here doesn’t actually organize matter or organisms; rather, He imposes a narrative on them after organization is complete. In the traditional Mormon theological language, this is a God whose role in creation is purely confined to spiritual creation with no participation or even supervision with respect to physical creation. The idea of such a God is so heavily reliant on Cartesian dualism that one is compelled to suspect that it is a post-Enlightenment formulation. It’s also an idea that many Mormons would want to reject — although, as mentioned above, it does resolve a lot of dilemmas with respect to science.

    Hence, with respect to Clark’s comment #13, it seems to me that we’re now in quite different territory than above. If divine purpose, human agency, and chance are in constant conversation, as you suggest, then category must necessarily shape the other two. In this case, then it remains true that chance has a meaningful role in producing outcomes; the world is created partially by chance, and the divine plan is directly shaped by randomness. This approach, which is attractive to me, does seem to contradict the determinism of divine and human will that many want to advocate.

    With respect to Jim’s question #2, perhaps Woodruff was indeed speaking loosely and without attention to detail or accuracy. This would hardly be the first or the last time in world history that such a speech was given. On the other hand, the rhetorical function of his statement in the broader sermon — or even in the context of the rest of the quote as given above — is to provide motivation for the idea that everything is under control and is following God’s plan. The quoted statement best fulfills this rhetorical function if allowed to assume its evident meaning: there is no contingency, no unpredictability, and no chance in the universe. It obviously doesn’t follow that we have to believe this; Woodruff likely didn’t believe in atomic power either, and we just have scientific and technological information that he didn’t have access to. But, whether we ought to believe in the absense of chance or not, a lot of Mormons in practice seem to believe in such a thing. In particular, the category of chance is often conspicuously absent in discussions of free will vs. pre-destination.

    Clark, I’ve always loved Nietzsche’s treatment of will, which is both aesthetically beautiful and comic. That I can decide a lot of things is obvious; that I can simply decide to be someone else is certainly not.

  16. For those pondering this question, Blake Ostler’s excellent Exploring Mormon Thought: The Attributes of God is required reading.

    I’m personally attracted to Ostler’s views on what has come to be known as the “openness” of God — that he exists within time and does not know the future with perfection, but, like a master chess player, can successfully maneuver his pieces to block his opponent and ultimately come out victorious.

  17. J. N-S,

    I couldn’t possibly answer your question, but the way you phrase it by the story you relate reminds me of a book: “The Sparrow” by Mary Doria Russell. It follows a Jesuit priest’s attempt to draw close to God despite tragedy along the way (the story is quite dark and heavy in places). The book does not answer such a grave question, but it helped me with at least a piece of “the answer”. (I would write more of a review, but you could find a better review than I could write by searching amazon.)

  18. How does the idea that there may be limitations to what one can experience in this sphere play into this discussion? Does chance take on a different meaning if its effects are bridled by a set of boundries imposed by God–those boundries being the design and purpose of His creation, perhaps?

  19. J. (#15), to talk about what it means to have a “constant conversation” with chance one must first unpack what chance is. It seems to me that we can discuss chance without necessarily adopting a univocal sense of what chance is ontologically. Someone broached the issue of Blake’s book on the subject which adopts an openess theory. But the alternative view is that God can see possibilities or the universe as a whole and that chance is still chance, but clearly functions differently than it does for Blake. Without bringing up those more primordial issues, I don’t think we can get at the issues in the Woodruff quote you wish to.

    Put quite simply, you suggest that determinism is necessary for control to function the way you suggest. I’m not at all convinced it does.

  20. Just to add, in your parsing of Woodruff’s quote you are taking random in the sense of a quantum randomness. But I don’t think Woodruff is using it in that way. I think he is talking about God’s care of creation. In other words God’s acts are purposeful and thus his creation is. I don’t see how one can take from that paragraph that Woodruff is espousing a Calvinistic determinism. It says only that God’s acts are purposeful. i.e. the random isn’t randomness inherent in creation but in God.

    Perhaps other readings are possible. But I think one must provide clear reasons why other readings are to be preferred.

  21. Hey, guys, can I prevail upon you to be a wee bit more didactic? For one thing, where does this idea of creation as a sort of retroactive attachment of meaning to chaos come up, before Nietzsche? For another, Clark, can you recommend any secondary sources discussing this imposition of purpose as a theme in Nietzsche? I know it is important in Nietzsche’s texts, but don’t know what others have made of it.

    As for the original question, I think I sympathize with Clark here. While there certainly have been statements made by various Mormons that imply a more thoroughgoing determinism, or meticulous providence, Widtsoe’s statement quoted above seems to be commenting on God’s work, but since God did not create everything out of nothing, that doesn’t necessarily imply there is no randomness; only no randomness in God’s work. I am inclined to think this is a crucial difference between Mormon cosmology and traditional Christian cosmology: in the Mormon universe, there can be chance (and hence significant events, life and death events, attributable to chance) without its being God’s responsibility–without implying that God voluntarily plays dice with the universe.

    Rough story, J.! and yet I almost wish it had happened to me. It sounds like a more mature love than I have found yet in dating, and I’ve been out of high school for a very long time.

  22. JNS, you seem to be using “chance” and “randomness” interchangably. They’re not the same thing. “Random” means that all events are equally likely. Chance events can be either random or nonrandom. If I ask you to take a book off the shelf and open it, it is by chance that you opened to page 65. But the outcome was nonrandom. For example, you were probably more likely to open somewhere in the middle than to the first or last few pages.

    It’s randomness that Brother Wilford rejects, not chance. For that matter, I don’t know that chance is incompatible with purpose. You may have a purpose in opening the book, but that doesn’t mean that there was no chance involved in the page you opened.

  23. Re # 10.

    Rob, interesting questions. My belief is that the core essences of who we are, called “intelligences� in the scriptures, always existed. The Church’s website includes this definition “(3) The scriptures also may speak of intelligence as referring to the spirit element that existed before we were begotten as spirit� (See here for full definition).

    …Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be. All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence. Behold, here is the agency of man, and here is the condemnation of man… (D&C 93:29-31)

    God created the spirits in which these intelligences abide. In the premortal life, all these spirit-clad intelligences were independent to act for ourselves in choosing to accept or to reject the plan of salvation. Lucifer always, since before his spiritual creation, had that core intelligence which I believe drove his disobedience. God did not make Lucifer evil; uncreated Lucifer was evil when he was “begotten as spirit� by God.

    God used/uses Lucifer in the controlled environments of our premortal and earthly lives to give us the choice we need between good and evil (2 Ne 2:16-17) while also offering the atonement to let us repent of the evil choices (2 Ne 2:21, 26) we make here in what I call our “playpen.� In this, I agree with your statement, “that ‘opposition’ is merely the abbility to choose between obeying God’s counsel or disobeying God’s counsel- hence the reason Lucifer became Satan- through disobedience� I do not agree, however, that this makes God evil. He just allows us to face the already-existing good and evil to make our choices.

    I also agree that God achieves his ultimate goal according to his plan, but I do not agree that some intermediate events could be unknown by God or go off plan.

    But behold, all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things. (2 Ne 2:24)

  24. Ben, I’ll see if any of my books at home deal with it. I think it is pretty inherently wrapped up in his notion of anti-nihilism and the superman though. I did find this interesting little comment from John Gray.

    ike innumerable, less reflective humanists who came after him, Nietzsche wished to hold on to an essentially Christian view of the human subject while dropping the transcendental beliefs that alone support it. It was this impulse to salvage a religious conception of humankind, I believe, that animated Nietzsche’s attempt to construct a new mythology. The task set by Nietzsche for his imaginary Superman was to confer meaning on history through a redemptive act of will. The sorry history of the species, lacking purpose or sense until a higher form of humanity came on to the scene, would then be redeemed. In truth, Nietzsche’s mythology is no more than the Christian view of history stated in idiosyncratic terms, and a banal version of it underpins nearly all subsequent varieties of secular thought. The militant atheist who charmed the good burghers of Sils-Maria with his innocent sanctity left a contribution to our religious inheritance that remains unacknowledged to this day.

    You can then read this response by Leiter. Leiter’s argument appears to be that this notion isn’t found in the “mature Nietzsche” and never again after Thus Spake Zarathustra. Of course that rejoinder brought its own rejoinder from various more Continental scholars of Nietzsche. I’ll avoid drowning you in the back and forth since the Nietzsche of Brian Leiter and that class of interpreters varies quite a bit from many other readers.

    Which Nietzsche you endorse appears to depend upon ones purposes and presuppositions. I think Leiter makes some compelling arguments of Nietzsche as adherent of scientism – closer to the positivists than the postmodernists. At the same time he seems to have to exclude many important texts (Zarathustra most prominently)

    I’m certainly not going to espouse a say Heideggarian or Derridean reading of Nietzsche since it seems to me their readings are inherently deconstructive – focused on his questions more than his presentations. But at the same time, I think the issue of meaning looms large in Nietzsche.

    I think the most relevant passage on this is of course this famous and oft quoted paragraph from Beyond Good and Evil (page 211).

    But the real philosophers are commanders and lawgivers: they say “That’s how it should be!” They determine first the “Where to?” and the “What for?” for human beings, and, as they do this, they have at their disposal the preliminary work of all philosophical labourers, all those who have overpowered the past—they reach with their creative hands to grasp the future. In that process, everything which is and has been becomes a means for them, an instrument, a hammer. Their “knowing” is creating; their creating is establishing laws; their will to truth is—will to power. Are there such philosophers nowadays? Were there ever such philosophers? Is it not necessary that there be such philosophers? . . . .

  25. Manaen,
    Good coments. I would question though the point at where or when Lucifer turned evil. If he was always evil then why was he so high in good sature? I think he was good but then he kind of fell from God’s grace because of pride or something. Because God can’t destroy our agency he let’s us choose to follow what path we want to including Satan. To think that God knows everything about everybody before it happens would kind of destroy the whole concept of faith on his level wouldn’t it?

    I have always wondered what will become of those who chose to follow Satan. I say this because of a verse- 6 ” And the angels which kept not their first cestate, but left their own habitation, he hath reserved in everlasting chains under darkness unto the judgment of the great day.”

    (New Testament | Jude 1:6)

    Now why would he keep them (those who chose to follow Satan) in everlasting chains under darkness unto the great last day? It almost appears as if he is going to judge them again. What for?

  26. Another view of this chance/random thing:

    God is perfect. God lost 1/3 of his children (so far). God (and company) created this earth and plants and animals, etc.

    Assuming we become perfect (and Gods) can we do any better than our perfect Father? Will we also lose 1/3 of our children? We will also create an Earth (3 from a Sun) with a hemisphere disconnect from the others for a choice land? Will we create different plants or animals? How much randomness/chance can there be between two perfect Beings effects?

  27. J,

    While you may only have told the story to raise the larger philosphical question, the following description was the most striking bit of your post to me tonight:

    “I can say that what I felt was full, committed love. Of course, while my emotions may have been of the mature variety, my decision-making was not. I decided to believe what I was told by the adults around me: what I was feeling didn’t really mean that much, and the relationship between the two of us wasn’t important enough to make major life decisions around”

    Let this story serve as an instructive warning to parents who too quickly dismiss young lovers. Although such high emotional intensity might at times seem silly to you in a pair so naive, such attachments can be profound and life-changing. To this day, the truest love I’ve ever known was my first love. The close friendship and bond we built in high school developed into romantic love our first year of college. We were only 18, but we could never deny the depth and reality of our feelings and experience. Even ten years and two committed relationships later, when I found myself in serious trouble, he was the first person I wanted to call. With the sort of clarity that comes in crisis, I knew he was the one who could help me best because he’d loved me best.

  28. Sorry to come back into the conversation so very late in the game, but I am interested in following up on some things that J N-S said earlier in response to Clark Goble and to me.

    J N-S: If divine purpose, human agency, and chance are in constant conversation, as you suggest, then category must necessarily shape the other two. In this case, then it remains true that chance has a meaningful role in producing outcomes; the world is created partially by chance, and the divine plan is directly shaped by randomness. This approach, which is attractive to me, does seem to contradict the determinism of divine and human will that many want to advocate

    “The category must necessarily shape the other two.” I assume that you meant “each category,” but if not, let me know. In any case, though I think that the language of categories is, here, misleading and even philosophically dangerous, I see the point. However, I don’t think that “chance” is the right way to think about the openness of what-is precisely because, on J N-S’s way of talking about these things, I don’t think there is any way to understand chance that avoids understanding it in terms of randomness, and I think randomness is not only misleading but mistaken. A very quick example of how I understand the difference: to say that I am open to something is not to say that I am indifferent to it; however, to say that my decision about it will be random is to say that I am indifferent to it. I think that not only choice is open. I think that entities and events are also open, in their being. (My view is related to Blake’s but I don’t think it is quite the same.) Each is, as it were, a closed infinite set of possibilities. (I hate using that analogy, but it will do. If you want to see more about why I hate it, I can send you a piece on hope I did last year for the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology. I go into more detail there, though that, too, remains a sketch of an intuition rather than a full-blown argument.)

    So, I would be willing to say that divine purpose (which is a function of divine openness), human agency (a function of the openness of human being), and the openness of things (which in some cases gets translated into science in terms of randomness but is not the same) are in constant conversation.

    However, on the view I’m outlining oh-too-briefly here, what you say later doesn’t follow: The rhetorical function of [Wilford Woodruff’s] statement in the broader sermon — or even in the context of the rest of the quote as given above — is to provide motivation for the idea that everything is under control and is following God’s plan. The quoted statement best fulfills this rhetorical function if allowed to assume its evident meaning: there is no contingency, no unpredictability, and no chance in the universe.

    It doesn’t follow because, though control may be the opposite of contingency (I’m not convinced, but grant it for the argument), control and openness are not opposites. Indeed, control is a mode of openness, one of the ways that a being can show itself in its relations to other beings.

    By the way: A#1 (#12): There is no official Church position on God’s foreknowledge—I don’t think any of us ever answered that question.

  29. Great comments, everyone! I don’t have time this evening for a full response — and some comments here will require a bit of serious consideration.

    Let me quickly make one point, in response to Left Field’s comment #22. I think you may be adopting an unusually narrow definition of “random.” Things need not be equally likely in order to be random. In statistics, a random variable that has all permitted outcomes equally likely is described as having a “uniform distribution.” There are, however, a limitless supply of other kinds of distributions of random variables. Consider, for example, the famous normal or “bell curve” distribution for random variables, in which outcomes near the middle of the distribution are far more likely than outcomes toward the ends. Hence, the typical statistical usage doesn’t require random to mean that all possible outcomes are equally likely.

  30. J, I skipped some of the posts to answer your question, as I see it. I have a quote from CS Lewis, I’ve used it before on the blog. He says something to the effect that we may think these things are chance or the result of our good judgement, but God has a place in all these things. I think that is very true.

    I often think of a guy I dated before I met my husband. We had a deep passionate attraction to each other, but he was someone I would never consider marrying. I think he felt the same way. One of the hardest things I ever did was break off our relationship, and I had to, because he was content with the status quo, even though he didn’t really value me.

    So, based on that experience, I would say there are two factors at work, the wisdom and dare I say, machinations, of God, and our own good/bad judgement.

  31. Ed #26,
    I believe that each situation is different. Our situation might be very different from what normally would take place. I like o look at it as if looking at different families. Some ahve lots of kids, others have few. Some families kids are all good and some families have bad kids even with the same parenting skills in place in each family. I believe that our situation might be drastically different-

    The war in heaven was probably not a common thing to happen, maybe we have got the attention of other God’s because of our unique situation. When Satan fell, he sent shock waves throughout the heavens as if catching people by surprise. But because God had already instituted the plan he could not rescend it, he just proceeded with it. I believe as I have stated earlier that it is possible for a God to create a planet and people it without the need for a Satan, thus drastically reducing the amount lost. Satan just happened to be in position to have a lot of sway power, and I personally think the jeolousy and pride overtook him. I do not think that God planned on Lucifer falling when he was raising him in heaven.

  32. JNS: A standard debate between Mormons and others (and sometimes among Mormons) involves the relative importance of God’s will (�predestination� or, perhaps, “foreordination�) and our own choice (�free agency�) in accounting for the decisions and events that shape our personalities and our inner lives.

    A possibility missing from this formulation—related to one traditional Mormon view, motivated by a particular reading of Abraham 3 and the King Follett discourse, that contemplates backwardly eternal individual intelligences that are ‘uncreated unequal’—is a kind of predestination that is not Calvinist, in that it is not (or more accurately not only) a function of God’s will. Spurred by dialog with others, I’ve written an (unfinished) series of posts on Determinism and Freedom based on this view. The discussion got kind of bogged down in specifics about the nature of causality and speculations about the detailed mechanics of decision-making, but I hope and expect to return to it.

    But here I’ll summarize the larger view on the issues you raise that I would find most appealing from a believing Mormon standpoint—a bottom line that I’m not sure I succeeded in conveying in that series.

    Like most (I think) orthodox physicists I believe there is real indeterminacy in nature arising from quantum mechanics, and that under rare special circumstances it can work its way up into the macroscopic realm; and I also recognize that in the coarse-grained, macroscopic, subjective parsing of reality by which human experience proceeds, there is much that at least seems highly contingent or ‘chancy.’

    But from a believing standpoint my hope would be that on eternal time scales and for eternal ‘character outcomes,’ something like the phenomenon displayed in the movie Sliding Doors prevails above all these vagaries, functioning as a kind of ‘meta-determinism’: regardless of the particular tortuous path, or the particular dents incurred along the way, you end up at essentially the same place—the maximum potential, the fullest possible maturing and flowering of your individual uncreated intelligence. That this would happen would be a function of (1) the inherent uncreated differential limits of eternal individual intelligences (unknown a priori to God, ourselves, and everyone else, by the way); and (2) the power of the atonement and God’s relentless shepherding, through agents and in mortality if possible, and beyond mortality and by himself personally if necessary.

  33. JNS and Melissa, your examples are poignant and quite resonant with some past personal experiences of my own that have sometimes made me wonder a great deal about the relative merits of one’s own intuitions on love versus notions one absorbs from family, Mormon culture, or elsewhere as to what is important—notions that lead one to exercise willpower in turning away from something that seems awfully compelling.

    At the same time, I’m also reminded of a recent comment of Jim F.’s about the dangers and distortions of nostalgia. And also, I wonder what is meant here by “mature love.” I wouldn’t dispute that late teens and young adults experience the same things things that older people do who fall in love and make a reasonable choice to marry. But I wonder if the term “mature love” should refer to something that is alleged to only develop across years and even decades of shared experience in the trenches, so to speak. (I’m thinking for example of the discussion of four stages of any long-term relationships in the middle of this talk, which I found very interesting, but of whose validity I am not sure.)

  34. Christian,

    I’d like read Jim’s comment. Where is it? I agree that nostalgia can be problematic. I know for some, including myself, it can become so intense that it almost smacks of a codependency of sorts wherein we don’t feel like our whole-selves unless we can discern a palpable nostalgic connection with persons, places, or even things from times gone by. That said, I do believe there is a “sweet” kind of nostalgia that can bring delight and even healing to one’s life. But watch out for the other–especially if you struggle with a low self-image. It can become addictive or even compulsive and cause one to lose touch with the beauty of the present.

  35. JNS, my statistics class was a long time ago, and I now use statistics only in a fairly narrow area, so I probably can’t speak very authoritatively. However, as I see it, the bell curve is itself a *result* of events which are equally likely. Suppose I have a large population of marbles in a container, with half blue and half red. If I randomly draw 1000 marbles, and count the reds and blues, I will get a nice bell curve with 480-520 blue and thereabouts being common, and 0 or 1000 blue being almost impossibly rare. However, this distribution is the result of the fact that each marble in the population has an equal probability of being selected. If for any reason, I become more likely to say, select blue marbles, or to select an equal number of red and blue, then I will get some other distribution, and my sample can no longer be called random.

    Of course, I’m not sure any of this really has any application to WW’s comments. You are probably correct that he meant “random” simply as an antonym to purpose. However, I still maintain that chance events can be nonrandom. For example, natural selection works precisely because it is nonrandom (hence the “selection” part), but the actual outcome is still (at least in part) a matter of chance.

  36. You know, I have always been curious as to why we never see natural selection it it’s process of evolution change. The reason why Darwins theory is a “theory” is because as to date there hasn’t been anyone to see these changes as they happen. You would think with billions upon billions of different creatures we would see the type of drastic change happening to some species but we just don’t. Instead we see critters already best suited for the types of environments they are already in.

    I remember reading once in the paper of how cave-men like Homos hundereds of thousands of years agoslowly over the coarse of many thosands of years learned how to develop their leg muscles differently so that they could run and catch their prey easier. The scientists stated that the cave-men discovered that if they were faster they could be better suited for their environment. At that time they said that they could only walk fast. They also went on to say how dinosuars evolved into birds by realizing that if they could fly that they would be better suited for their environment, and so gradually over the coarse of thousands of years they developed feathers and at some point they fell or something and realized that they could finally fly because they had fully developed wings at that point.

    I don’t know about all of that evolution, even if God was in control. It just seems to be so out of place with what we see in our environment. Most animals are so dependant on other animals for their own well being that it is like you can see the signature of God in everything. There are no out of place critters, no species undergoing any change to adapt to their environments. In fact the whole process of natural selection to explain evolution stands or falls on it’s ability to show this process is actually occuring and that the changes coming from the new offspring allow it to be classified as a new species- such as “found baby duck following it’s mother today that had fully developed gills” stuff like that never happen. It is always held under the umbrella of deception.

    Why is it so hard for people to see the creation for what it is worth? Animals arrived on this planet already fully developed and best suited for their individual environments. Adam, the first man could run, write, read, reason, communicate on an extremely high level. And Why? Because He is the offspring of a fully developed being. There were no pre-Adam beings. Satan would have you believe this, but they just don’t exist. Our Father on this earth is Adam just as Adam’s father is God. We cannot have claim that our fathers descended from ape-like animals, that would be pure mockery towards God.

    There is definition in our world and everything that defines our existance denotes that there must be a God. There never can be a planet that developes and has the capacity to bring forth life until a God directs and physically intervenes to first create an environment to bring forth life and then brings life into that environment already fully developed and suited for it’s purpose.

  37. Rob,

    I’m no scientist, but let me just say that while some of the “softer” sciences such as psychology or sociology don’t always marry-up very well with darwinism, there is plenty of evidence in the “harder” life and physical sciences to support an organic evolution of sorts.

  38. Jack,

    I would be interested in those factual findings that would make the theory no longer a theory. I think one could also argue in the opposite that physical science does not support organic evolution of any sorts. It is all in how one looks at things I guess.

    Do you support the idea of pre-adamites? Or that life came to the earth undeveloped or not suited for its environment and had to change?

  39. Christian #34, I am intensely aware of the selectivity and general unreliability of memory. For that reason, I prepared for this post in much the same way that I try to prepare for others; I went back to the primary-source documents. I have some journal entries from high school, some correspondence between me and the girl in question, and also a handful of email exchanges between the two of us as adults. So, as nearly as possible, my discussion here is based on history (i.e., contemporaneous documents) rather than memory.

    With respect to the question of what “mature love” is taken to mean, there is obvious ambiguity here and it’s helpful that you raised the question. I certainly don’t mean to say that I loved my teenage girlfriend in the same way or to the same degree that I currently love my wife; far from it. I was using “mature” to distinguish between the kind of relationship I had and the stereotypical insignificant high school relationship that adults often have in mind when giving advice. What distinguished our relationship from the stereotype, at least from my point of view, was a depth of commitment and a substantial degree of mutually-accomodating personality development, in addition to attraction and the other, more superficial emotional entanglements.

    Mike Parker #16, chess isn’t, perhaps, the most helpful metaphor here. After all, chess is a fully deterministic game. Indeed, by standard proofs in mathematical game theory, there exists a strategy set for chess that produces a guaranteed winner. That strategy set is complex beyond human and (to date) even computerized reasoning, but it does exist. I have no problem positing that God could solve the equilibrium of chess, and thus could devise a strategy that wins regardless of the opponent’s moves. But if anything genuinely random happens, then we’re in a world beyond chess. In this world, God can strategize and react, but He has to deal with distributions, expected values, and expected utilities. The result is that He does not have total control over ultimate outcomes–and neither do we mortals. The extent of that lack of control largely depends on the extent of chance that we’re willing to admit into our conception of reality.

    Christian #33, I find your position attractive. One implication of this would be that it’s difficult indeed to point to any particular mortal event or outcome as reflecting either God’s will or human will. Ultimate outcomes would indeed merit such descriptions, but anything intermediate becomes an irresolvable stew of free agency, divine will, and contingency.

  40. Rob #39, as I understand it, scientists have in fact observed evolution in action with bacteria and other microorganisms. A prominent example is the ability of these organisms to acquire immunity to antibiotics.

  41. Nelson,

    Last time I checked, bacteria adapting to their surroundings is not evolution- they are still bacteria. Now if a bacteria turned into say a flea that would be evolution. And shouldn’t that be the criteria for evolution? I would sure hope so. Under the bacteria changes called evolution is like saying that humans are all evolving differently because some of us are less imune to diseases and maybe look different with white hair verses black hair.

  42. Rob, scientists have observed the coming-into-being of new species in several animals. Is that enough to count? It isn’t a change from lizards to non-lizqards, but it is a change from lizard-of-type-1 to lizard-of-type-2, where type 2 is a different species and not merely a variation of the other species.

  43. Rob,

    All I can say (as a non-scientist) is that there seems to be enough of a consensus among the experts as to the validity of an evolutionary process to warrant its general acceptance. Of course this doesn’t mean that science has given us a crystal clear picture of the developement of life from its beginings on Earth. There are still a lot of unanswered questions. The trick is to not become too dogmatic in our stance for or against evolution as if it were an all or nothing proposition.

  44. Re Post #39: “The reason why Darwins theory is a “theoryâ€? is because….” No! The theory of evolution will always be a theory, always. Even if a bunch of scientists watch 100 species over the next 100,000 years and they yield 500 species, the theory of evolution will still be a theory. Even if some of the species generate animals never before seen–like a dragon that talks and can teleport–the theory of evolution will still be a theory.

    Why? Because the word theory as used by scientists means “Statements that explain a group of facts or phenomena.” That means a theory attempts to explain why something happens. A “law,” as the term is used by scientists, defines “a relationship between phenomena”–or in other words, “what” happens. Theories do not graduate into laws once they have been “proven.” This is a fundamental misunderstanding of scientific method (and you can tell that it irks me that every high school teaches this and no college corrects it!).

    For a more coherent explanation, please see:
    (and here is my attempt to create a link.)

    Anti-evolutionists constantly conjure up this “just a theory” argument as a way of saying, “See, even the scientists don’t believe it.” But the fact is that scientists call it a theory precisely because they believe it.

  45. J. # 16: There may be a deterministic strategy for chess; but no one has ever utilized it and there is no deterministic strategy that predicts the moves your opponent will make. Thus, it seems to me that the chess analogy is apt — God is guaranteed to prevail and to realize his plan (largely because he will bring about his plan and he knows how to do it and that he can do it — and we believe he can because he says so); but who will choose to accept him is up in the air and it is a true risk for us individually. The chess analogy is apt because even the perfect computer cannot know which pieces will be lost in the course of the game due to the moves of the opponent. A guaranteed outcome is not the same as a guaranteed process to arrive at the outcome.

  46. Brian,

    I agree with you on the technical dictionary term for “theory”, what i don’t agree with is that the way you apply it. If a scientist were able to watch and predict and measure the results according to a principle, it would no longer be called a “theory”. For instance- We know that human offspring are generated through a se- x -ual experience and that genes are passed on in that process, this is a fact and not a theory. To say though that a lizard came from a fish through evolutionary process is not fact because you cannot- 1. watch it happen. 2. predict results to some accuracy. 3. measure results according to an established principle. therefore it is merely a theory.

    Theories are based on guessed principles from results that are already seen and known. These guessed up principles are devised to try to figure out how things might work, but once the principles are known and can be measured with success they are no longer called theories but become real principles and laws.

    The problem with the theory of evolution is that there is not one single piece of measured evidence of species change since the theory came about. No animals have been documented to change from one species to another. Another problem with evolution is that scientists can change the rules at any point to try to answer the big question and yet still call it the same theory (gradualism verses punctuated equilibrium)

    If the scientists want to believe in their theory, the more power to them. The world has waited a hundered plus years for their evidence to support the theory and to date nothing has been found. Just because I have four limbs does not mean that my dog and I are related if you go back in history far enough. My dog and it’s offspring will always be dogs just as my offspring will always produce human offspring- And that my folks is not theory but the LAW of God.

  47. Blake,

    In game-theoretic terms, a strategy is a complete plan of action for all possible moves that the opponent might make. A chess strategy can be fully specified in advance, provided that the player in question has unlimited memory and processing resources. Hence, while the perfectly strategic actor may not know in advance which of the specific routes to victory will be followed in a particular instantiation of the game, that actor can specify a priori a complete, non-probabilistic set of moves conditional on the actions of the opponent that all lead to a fixed outcome. The world of chess remains quite deterministic, even though one player is perhaps unpredictable.

    The problem in terms of the questions I’m raising here is that chess allows only for effects of two forces–specifically, the two players. In the analogy, then, attention is given to the agency of God and of a human (or perhaps all humans, if we can be seen as a kind of aggregate chess team). But no role is left for the third category, chance. In the chess metaphor, everything that happens is always already part of the plan, because the other player cannot make a move that steps outside of the completely described strategy for victory. But if there is chance in the universe, as modern science would suggest on various levels, then some of the things that happen are not part of anyone’s plan. This difference is nontrivial; it is the difference between knowing both that things will turn out well in the end and that everything that happens in the meanwhile is a kind of Liebniz/Panglossian best of all possible worlds (conditional on human choice), on the one hand; or simply knowing that things will turn out well in the end, even though some things that happen now are senseless and unintended, on the other.

  48. Rob (post #49),

    Every field has its own lingo, and in order to understand what the people in a field are saying, you have to learn their language and accept that they may use familiar words in very different ways. Can you imagine the argument and confusion you would have with Computer Scientists if you could not accept that the “mouse” they keep talking about is not a real mouse?

    So actually, you do not “agree with [me] on the technical dictionary term for ‘theory’,” because that is not what I shared with you. What I explained is “the way [I and every other scientist] apply it.” But in this regard, you have made my point much clearer than I could:

    You said, “For instance- We know that human offspring are generated through a se- x -ual experience and that genes are passed on in that process, this is a fact and not a theory.”

    The process of reproduction is complex, and some of the terms scientists use to explain those phenomena are: Theory of Mendelian Inheritance, Gene Theory, Chromosome Theory of Inheritance. “Theories,” because they explain why offspring look like parents. Contrast this with Mendel’s Law of Independent Assortment and his Law of Segregation. “Laws,” because they describe what is happening.

    Interestingly, many exceptions have been found to Mendel’s Law of Segregation, but has it been “demoted” to a theory? No, because laws describe what happens and theories describe why. Furthermore, laws are used to predict what will happen (like a lizard coming from a fish, as you propose in #49); theories are used to explain why something has happened (why did that fish turn into a lizard?).

    And if you do not like (or trust) my explanations from the life sciences, you may want to do some research into the Law of Gravity and compare it to the many, many theories of gravity.

    Anyway, I doubt that my comments reflect what J. Nelson-Seawright had in mind for this post, so my apologies to him for thread-jacking.

  49. J.: What you’re missing is that for any given piece, whether it will be lost during the game isn’t determined. That the game can be won without fail, that God might have a response to every move to insure his purposes, is just what I hold. So God can guarantee victory. Yet whether any given piece will make it through the end of the game — whether you or I will be exalted — is a matter of choice (not chance) that cannot be predetermined without controlling what the other player does. In fact, I believe that God has a complete set of “might” conditionals (not the “would” conditionals of middle knowledge). So God cannot predict how we will in fact act, but he can say in advance that if J. does A, then God will do X, and if J. does B, then God will do Y., and if …. My point is that there is room for non-deterministic parts to a whole that can have but one telos. That all roads lead to Rome does not imply there is only one road. You might want to look at Robert Bishop’s article on determinism and indeterminism in the physical sciences here:

  50. Brian,

    I do not think we are thread-jacking here. If one talks about creation, evolution will innevetably come up.

    In trying to describe what “theory” is, the best definition I could find in the dictionary that applies to how it is used in the “theory of evolution” is this-

    6 a : a hypothesis assumed for the sake of argument or investigation b : an unproved assumption : conjecture (Merriam-Webster)

    I would think that any logical person in general will agree that the theory of evolution is an unproved assumption and that scientists largely use conjecture to base their data.

    Anyway, it is all too technical and we would probably never agree anyway with what the definition of “theory” is.

    I do think it is interesting that scientists use things like beak sizes of finches, the different color of wings on like moths and bacteria becoming resistant and then conclude that evolution is true and they use it in the context of macro-evolution. And that is the problem with the theory- we haven’t found or documented the evidence of macro-evolution to any degree at all!

    And why is it so hard for people to believe that life could of come to the planet already fully formed? Probably the same reason why they believe that man has been around for a lot longer than the bible says. It is true that as long as evolution is taught as a truth, there is NO room for God, we have sadly learned this from the judicial system.

  51. J., I think that randomness and chaos both still play a role in our mortal probation. The test of it is how we react to or interact with random events in nature or chaos. Our actions in this respect are the basis of our standing at the final judgment, where we will all be judged according to our works. Additionally, none of this violates Woodruff’s statement. God’s plan remains the same, as does his purpose in creating the world. That doesn’t mean that random chance cannot be the explanation for why one person happens to be poor and another rich, or why your friend chose one of the two girls over another to set you up with.

    Rosalynde’s husband has written an insightful article about a possible role for chaos and random chance in God’s overall plan. The more I have thought about the theory presented here, the more sense it makes to me. See, John Sutton Welch, “Why Bad Things Happen at All: A Search for Clarity among the Problems of Evil,” BYU Studies 42:2:75 (2003).

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