What planning dinner parties and studying engineering taught me about deity.
This post was inspired in part by my brother William’s post Incompatible propositions.
There are a variety of concerns that my atheist friends have that have never bothered me. Many of them deal with the notion of agency or freedom and how it interacts with omniscience, omnipotence, and all things conspiring for our good. I hope this post will address why one of those issues does not bother me.
Many years ago my friend Markham and I decided to host dinner parties. We called them “beautifully pink dinner parties” as a reaction to a quasi-synæsthetic observation that many of the parties we attended were “distressingly mauve,” lacking a calm and kind atmosphere. Our goal was a peaceful, entertaining, and enlightening flow of conversation, the sort of event that could build friendships. To achieve this goal we chose many aspects of the parties with care; quiet Vivaldi background music, slightly ornate dishes humbly presented, groups large enough to support multiple conversations but small enough to permit a single one, an atmosphere formal enough to deter uncouth behavior but informal enough not to make anyone uncomfortable, and so on.
The most important aspect in designing the parties, however, was in selecting the participants. We had a large pool of friendly acquaintances and we wanted many to attend one of the parties eventually, but not all combinations of people would result in the kind of atmosphere we hoped to foster. For example, if we invited our friend who vehemently asserted ludicrous tall tales then we needed to make sure we didn’t also invite our friend who took every statement as being in earnest. And so on.
The result was more work than we anticipated; we ended up only hosting three such parties. But they were each a huge success. Almost anyone could be included in a good dinner party provided the rest of the participants were well selected.
One of the other things we found was that some people could have worked with any group, while others had much smaller sets of compatible partners. Not all dinner companions are created equal.
Engineers design systems that work despite constraints. Some of these constraints are hard trade-off laws like Rice’s theorem. Others are constraints caused by designer uncertainty: I don’t know exactly how wind and traffic are going to combine forces on my bridge, so I am constrained to build a bridge that can handle much more than I expect will actually happen.
Nuclear engineering has a particularly interesting version of uncertainty: each and every radioactive particle will eventually chose to decay, but when it will do that is impossible to predict. When it decays it will break into one of several possible sets of smaller particles, but which one is also impossible to predict. Those particles will in turn either stimulate other particles to decay early, or will themselves decay again, or will wander off into the broader world—and again, which one is impossible to predict. But, because we have so many particles making these impossible-to-predict choices we can engineer for the mass. We know that about half of the particles will decay within X years, and that about Y% of them will break in this fashion, and that for every million neutrons thus released around Z will excite another decay, etc.
There is nothing stopping every single atom in a lump of fissile material from just sitting there, not decomposing, for months on end; or from all decomposing at once and causing a huge explosion. With enough atoms, though, we can predict what the crowd will do with precision. Some atom will decide to decompose right away, and some other atom will decide to wait a few millennia first, and because we know about how many are in each group we can design systems that do what we want them to do.
Before I go into this section, a word of context. I assume that God is a lot smarter than me. When I was ten I not only couldn’t do calculus, I couldn’t even understand what calculus is or what it meant. I assume that any model I try to make of what God does is like a child trying to understand calculus; it is, almost by definition, wrong. I assume that I don’t yet have the right mental tools to understand the real answer if it is presented to me.
My goal in this section is thus not to present “here’s how God does it” but rather “here’s a simple example of how agency and divine plan could coexist.” How they actually coexists is, I assume, much more advanced.
So, how can my choices matter, really matter and still have repentance and God protecting others’ souls from my meddling?
Perhaps God knows us well enough to put us with dinner partners who can roll with our faux pas. Everyone would enjoy themselves more and I’d be suitable for more company if I wasn’t sinning as I am, but God makes sure that when I’m the weak link in the chain there’s another link beside me to take up the slack.
This model suggests that I might make the journey more or less enjoyable for others, but that I don’t have the power to actually prevent the end result.
Perhaps the level of sin I commit necessitates God engineering a world that produces happy people more slowly than it would if I were sinless. If I’m the uranium that refuses to decay the reaction isn’t as efficient, but it still happens.
This model suggests that I can impact the number of saved people at any given point in time, but that the impact is one of delay, not constraint.
Perhaps God is optimizing the universe to produce as many exalted people as possible given that it contains people as wicked as they are, and that if I make better choices that optimal number might increase.
This model suggests that I can impact the number of saved people, permanently. Many Christians I know believe you can impact it by 1: yourself.
Again, I doubt that any of the above models are correct, but they all suggest that it is possible to both have God orchestrating things and to have my choices be influential choices in His work.