Monthly Archives: March 2014

The Captain-of-the-Gaps

Imagine a sailboat traveled from Oslo to Antarctica. One might infer from this that there was a pilot of the sailboat, who guided the process by which the boat arrived where it did, leveraging the natural processes when he could and the mechanical processes of the boat. Furthermore, one might infer that he intended to arrive there when he set out. So, you have coordination combined with intentionality.

A response to these inferences might be that we can explain the movement of the sailboat by reference to the tides, currents, wind, and the direction of the rudder on the boat and propulsion of the propeller – all natural or mechanistic causal explanations – without a captain or pilot. The destination was arrived at in a way by chance – the boat just happened to arrive where it did, propelled by these natural or mechanistic causes.

Yet, there might be parts of the journey where it seems unlikely the boat would be able to navigate simply based on these causal processes – perhaps there is a narrows, or any area with reefs, or pack ice, or perhaps the trajectory of the boat seems to require tacking. It might seem unlikely that the causal processes outlined above are sufficient to explain the traveling of the sailboat.

To this, one could say a ‘captain-of-the-gaps’ (or perhaps ‘captain-of-the-narrows’ is more apt) is being postulated, to help the boat get across terrain it seems unlikely to have been able to have traversed with the given repertoire of causal processes (current, wind, and so on). Yet, perhaps in the future we will discover circumstances that make it seem more likely that the repertoire is sufficient – perhaps the reefs weren’t as numerous as thought, and so on.

In this case, however, what I have in mind is not an imaginary one but rather an historical one, where the Norwegian expedition to the Antarctic, led by Roald Amundsen, traveled from Oslo to the Ross Ice Shelf. In this case, we know that the sailboat (the Fram) was guided by a captain, various steersmen, and so on, and that the natural forces of tide, wind, current and so on were important – necessary – parts of the story, but the entire story would be incomprehensible if left at that.

When developing a theory of how the boat got from one place to another, we might get progress by postulating currents, prevailing winds, and so on. We might therefore conclude that these will be sufficient to explain it. This is not a good argument. Rather, we have warrant for saying we have a part of the picture.

Process Omnipotence

‘Process omnipotence’ refers to the idea that, regardless of theoretical conceptions of what God’s omnipotence is or how best to understand it, how it acts tends to be a process. I.e., through time and beings. For example, God might communicate to you through someone else or some other artifact that already exists, or He might prepare you for an event with another event.

The pattern is seen in both experience and Biblical stories. It suggests that, effectively, construing God’s omnipotence as a ‘magic wand’ is an incorrect conception, whatever the reasons for that might be.

Towards a better conception of omnipotence

In an article titled “Why was the cross necessary?“, Fr. Robert Barron says

“Through Jesus, the divine light journeys into our worst darkness. His aim is to divinize us, to allow us to “share his divine nature” in St. Peter’s words, even in those dark places and conditions. Sin is a turning away from the divine life, and death is a fearful place that seems alien to God. But Jesus invades all those places, and thereby illumines them. He offers us new life even when we’ve wandered as far as we possibly can from God.

In that sense, the Cross was necessary for our salvation since it allowed the Hound of Heaven to hunt us down, even in the darkest places.”

If the Cross was necessary for our salvation, then it means God is limited in some sense in terms of his actions. That is, he can’t wave a ‘magic wand’ and allow the “Hound of Heaven to hunt us down.” Rather, He does something like sending his Son to do specific things, that lead to that state. These sorts of considerations suggest that God is not omnipotent in the classical philosophical Christian sense. That is, he can “offer new life even when someone has wandered as far as possible,” but the way in which that can be achieved isn’t by waving a magic wand.

Similarly, consider the parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matthew 13:24-30). When the servants (angels) ask the farmer (God) if they should remove the weeds from the wheat, the farmer says to not do so, as some of the weeds’ roots will be tangled up with some of the wheat’s roots. Therefore, they should wait until the harvest and then separate the two. Again, the insinuation is that, yes, God can separate the wheat and the weeds at any time (is omnipotent in this sense), but there is a way in which he can do so, involving (in this case) damaging the wheat by removing the weeds.

So, God can do ‘anything He chooses’ in a sense – similar to how we say a person can do anything they want ‘if they set their mind to it’. This implies a potency working through things, not a magic wand. This pattern is repeated again and again in the Biblical stories.

The standard response is to assert that God is omnipotent in the classical philosophical sense, but to emphasize that this includes being limited by basic logic. Once he decides to create creatures with free will, he must then respect their choices (or they won’t any longer have free will in a real sense, so the argument goes). Hence, he appears to act like a God who is omnipotent in a non-classical sense, but he’s actually a classically omnipotent God who has chosen to constrain His actions in certain ways because He is also omnibenevolent (and free will is part and parcel of one of the highest goods, so the argument goes).

This brings the classical theory into accordance with the observed pattern more closely, and perhaps in details can be hashed out (although I think it raises more problems). Yet, this leads to the question – why believe in the classical conception of omnipotence vis a vis God in the first place? It seems like a theological add-on to Christianity, coming from absolutist, Platonic philosophy, is not strongly attested to in Christian canonical scriptures, and seems tangential to the experiences Christians actually have (in these last two, God seems to have amazing power beyond any other entity, but these instances don’t necessarily go to a classical philosophical sense of omnipotence).

This is a relevant question because the ‘problem of evil’ is one of the key intellectual arguments against a Christian God. The problem of evil gets its bite by conceiving of God as omnipotent in the classical philosophical sense (God can snap his fingers, so to speak, at any time and bring any result about He wants to).

Empirical Christianity

“Yet, wedded as many of them seem to be to the logical machinery and technical apparatus of absolutism, I cannot but believe that fidelity to the religious ideal in general is deeper still. Especially do I find it hard to believe that the more clerical adherents of the school would hold so fast to its particular machinery if only they could be made to think that religion could be secured in some other way. Let empiricism once become associated with religion, as hitherto, through some strange misunderstanding, it has been associated with irreligion, and I believe that a new era of religion as well as of philosophy will be ready to begin. […] As the authority of past tradition tends more and more to crumble, men naturally turn a wistful ear to the authority of reason or to the evidence of present fact. They will assuredly not be disappointed if they open their minds to what the thicker and more radical empiricism has to say. I fully believe that such an empiricism is a more natural ally than dialectics ever were, or can be, of the religious life.” (William James, A Pluralistic Universe, Lecture VIII, Conclusions, 1908)

┬áJames’ advice has largely been ignored by theologians, who tend to think of God more as a logical necessity (and so conceived as true no matter what the empirical evidence says) than as an empirical induction. Is it time to go back, and take this alternate route?

The reason why theologians tend to be stuck in this role seems clear – by making God an absolutist type – a logical deduction – they make themselves impervious (so they think) to empirical research. Once arrived at such a position, there is only something to lose by going down the empirical road, so the thought goes. Yet, we have seen what has happened – lacking a robustly empirical articulation and conception of God, peoples’ belief in God in the West has tended to erode. It is in those congregations with the largest emphasis on experience that we tend to see the opposite.

Is a significant part of the decline in Christianity in the West an aversion at the highest levels – theologians, philosophers, and so on – to plunge into the muddy world of empirical fact, and start to build an articulation of God from that (which is, in reality, how most everyday people primarily build their understanding of God)?