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What Profit Prophecy?

(Written for the November 2011 synchroblog; other posts available here.)

Over the last few days I've been following an exchange of blog posts by my friend Dan and Jerry Coyne, a professor of ecology at the University of Chicago. I call Dan by his first name because he recently finished his dissertation at the same school where I'm currently studying, and I always feel a bit odd using titles for people I know personally. But here I will give him the honorific, because he has earned it and because he's bringing his expertise to bear on an important topic. Drs. Coyne and Fincke (along with other academic bloggers) have been debating the value of a recent postdoc grant that was recently announced, to do with the problem of free will. Specifically, if some timeless being like God knows what you're going to do, are you still free to do it?

The appointee (Patrick Todd of UC-Riverside) will be looking at this in much more detail than I could talk about here, even were I so inclined. But I am familiar with the basic problem since I've taught it (via a textbook) to my freshmen, and it has always interested me. It goes something like this:

1.       God knows everything there is to know.

2.       Whatever God knows, is by definition true.

3.       God is timeless, so whatever God knows must also be timeless.

4.       So if something is true for God, it must always be true.

5.       So if God knows (for example) that I will have chicken for lunch, it must always be true that I will have chicken for lunch – even before I “decide” to order that.

The obvious problem is we tend to think we can choose how we’re going to act. That’s why we blame people for their actions: they could have chosen to do otherwise, they <i>should</i> have, but they didn’t. One common definition of freedom is the ability to have done otherwise, and if that is the definition we are working under, I have a hard time imagining how Ockham or anyone else would get around it. If God knows I will have chicken, then it is true that I’ll go for the broiled chicken at lunch today. On the other hand, if I have free choice, it seems that there’s a possibility that I won’t do this – but then it’s both for sure that I will and possible that I won’t. That makes my head spin a bit, but it’s also pretty clearly a contradiction!

I say all this without having read Ockham, by the way. He may have a thought-provoking approach (knowing Ockham on other topics, I suspect he does!). But the general problem is quite interesting and as it turns out really quite relevant to this month’s synchroblog. We’re supposed to be talking about prophecy, whether we think it still happens or ever happened and what role it plays. And I don’t really buy it. The Star Trek reboot put it quite well:

Spock: We must gather with the rest of Starfleet... to balance the terms of the next engagement.

James T. Kirk: There won't BE a next engagement! By the time we've gathered, it'll be too late! But you say he's from the future and knows what's gonna happen - then the logical thing is to be unpredictable!

Spock: You are assuming that Nero knows how events are predicted to unfold - the contrary. Nero's very presence has altered the flow of history, beginning with the attack on the USS Kelvin, culminating in the events of today, thereby creating an entire new chain of incidents that cannot be anticipated by either party.

Lt. Nyota Uhura: An alternate reality...

Spock: Precisely. Whatever our lives might have been if the time continuum was disrupted - our destinies have changed.

Knowing the future makes it quite likely that the future we knew won’t actually come to pass – we change how we act and react, so things unfold differently. And that may be the point, the proper way to interpret prophecy in the religious tradition. Perhaps rather than a sneak peek at future history, we could see it as a red light warning us to beware of future dangers, to change things, so we affirm free will and moral responsibility rather than deny it.

But the Harold Camping shtick, that the world’s going to end next week or next year and there’s nothing we can do about it? That’s a lot harder to swallow. In the fine tradition of prophecy as warning, I’ll believe it when I see it – and live like this planet has to last forever in the mean time.


This entry was originally posted at http://fidesquaerens.dreamwidth.org/19261.html. Please comment there using OpenID.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 3rd, 2011 02:28 am (UTC)
I've never had as much of a problem with the whole "free will/destiny" thing as I really should.

These days I attribute it to my subcreative experiences--my characters have minds of their own (to the extent that fictional people can), even though I know exactly what happens to them. Making "destiny" in this case is just placing them in the right combinations, with the right "random" factors that I still have control over (weather, illness, sudden book-tipping gusts of wind, and the like) so that, given how the characters would act in these situations, what I want to happen will happen. Point is, I can't just make characters behave OOC, unless I give them a reason to make OOC IC for them (even if it's as simple as their personalities being okay with a little bit of OOCness from time to time). And even though they're my characters, that doesn't stop them from having really bad relationships with me if they don't trust me.

That's almost certainly incredibly arrogant of me, and I wouldn't be surprised at all if the approach has a whole bunch of flaws in it or is outright wrong, but it seems to work for me for now.
Nov. 3rd, 2011 05:29 pm (UTC)
I don't know about "should" here - I don't worry about free will in practical terms (say, when I decide to tell the truth rather than lie, I don't wonder why bother if the world's already set). I don't think anyone does, including many philosophers. It's an interesting philosophical ponderable for me, which is fun but not exactly life-changing.

The reason I brought all this up is that some people do claim that they really believe the future is set (like people who believe in prophecy in the sense that it's a guarantee the future will unroll this way and there's no avoiding it). But those same people still believe in things like praising or blaming others for what they chose to do. So the philosopher in me perks right up and says those beliefs are inconsistent.

I get what you're saying about characterization. If I was so inclined, I might ask whether those character' acting on their own is really free will, or is it just the appearance of free will - somewhere deep down, your mind has already made up the rules of the game, but your consciousness is just not aware of it. But that may not work. It's worth some further thought, so thanks for the comment!
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )



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