Sunday, July 3, 2011

Clairvoyant science and the Deep Blue God

Can computational physics inform us of the foreknowledge of God?
An Answer I call "Deep Blue Theism."

On July 1, my wife and I drove to Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tenn., to pick our daughter up from her completion of the Governor's School for Computational Physics. There are 12 Governor's Schools every summer in Tennessee at various state university campuses (see here). They are for "for gifted and talented high school students" who have just completed either their sophomore or junior years.

During the closing ceremony, Dr. Jaime Taylor, dean of the College of Science and Mathematics and professor of physics, explained briefly that a growing field in computational science is what he called "clairvoyant science."

"Clairvoyant science" is a term so new that Googling it in quotes yields only four results and none of them are relevant to what Dr. Taylor meant. Even so, almost certainly you are already familiar with clairvoyant science and encounter it frequently.

Dr. Taylor's example was Netflix. When he logs on to Netflix, he said, the site always recommends unviewed movies for him based on what he has already watched. This is a crude form of clairvoyant science.

My Netflix account does that, too, of course, but I would say that Amazon is much better at it because it encompasses many different products or services than Netflix and seems for me to do a better job at the clairvoyance part.

But Dr. Taylor's department carries clairvoyant science a step further. They have developed the computational skills to offer students a refined curriculum of classes based not only on what courses they have already taken, but on the grades they received. Furthermore, their educational clairvoyant science can predict, plus or minus one letter, what grade the student will earn in those courses.

Now, I would say that plus or minus a letter grade is a huge variance. I could achieve the almost the same accuracy just by predicting everyone will receive a B. But the point is that the computational methodology will only become evermore refined and accurate. One day it will be able to predict a student's grade not to within a letter, but within a point or two. And yet the computer model itself has no effect whatsoever on the determining the student's grade, of course, even though it "knows" what the grade will be.

This kind of technology helps us understand how God can know the future without predestining it. Being able coherently to invalidate the proposition that God's knowledge of the future necessarily predetermines the future is critical if we are to understand what does it mean to say, "God knows everything."

When most Christians say, "God knows everything," they are imagining "everything" too narrowly. "Everything" in fact encompasses much more than they think it does.

Now put on hold hold for a moment the predictive ability of the implications of these computational methods and let's turn our attention to the game of chess.

Super-computing and predictive ability

In 1997, IBM's Deep Blue supercomputer became the first computer ever to defeat a world chess champion by beating Garry Kasparov, who held the title at the time.
On February 10, 1996, Deep Blue became the first machine to win a chess game against a reigning world champion (Garry Kasparov) under regular time controls. However, Kasparov won three and drew two of the following five games, beating Deep Blue by a score of 4–2 (wins count 1 point, draws count ½ point). The match concluded on February 17, 1996.

Deep Blue was then heavily upgraded (unofficially nicknamed "Deeper Blue") and played Kasparov again in May 1997, winning the six-game rematch 3½–2½, ending on May 11. Deep Blue won the deciding game six after Kasparov made a mistake in the opening, becoming the first computer system to defeat a reigning world champion in a match under standard chess tournament time controls.
Whether the tournament was actually a fair one is still disputed (just as IBM's Watson computer victory in Jeopardy last February was not really fair, either). Deep Blue was designed and programmed only for chess. It's strengths were its brute computing power and programming customized for nothing but playing chess.
It was capable of evaluating 200 million positions per second, twice as fast as the 1996 version. ... The Deep Blue chess computer which defeated Kasparov in 1997 would typically search to a depth of between six and eight moves to a maximum of twenty or even more moves in some situations.
Deep Blue could not predict what move Kasparov would make next with certainty, but it could calculate the hierarchy of possible moves in likelihood order because its database included the complete move sequences of 700,000 grandmaster games. Deep Blue simply outcalculated Kasparov. The wonder, perhaps, is not that Kasparov lost but that he lost so closely.

What if clairvoyant science computational methods had been built into Deep Blue? Not only would the computer have been able to draw upon the record of 700K games to assess Kasparov's possible moves, it would have been specifically able to refine the likelihood of moves based upon Kasparov's actual play so far in that very tournament, not just the Russian's games among the database. Deep Blue would have learned as the games progressed, knowing more in, say, the third game, than its vast database initially contained before the first game. Had that been the case, surely Kasparov's defeat would have been more pronounced.

However, even a computationally clairvoyant Deep Blue could not have exercised deterministic control over Kasparov's moves, even though as the game progressed and he steadily lost, his possible moves certainly did decrease in number.

Which simply means that the flow of the game would be free, bounded only by the rules of the game, but the outcome would be certain. Deep Blue would win without question but Kasparov's moves would be his to decide. No move would be directly predetermined by Deep Blue. Even at a game's end, when Kasparov might have been down to only his king, Deep Blue could not have predetermined whether Kasparov would move his king one more time or simply tip it over and concede, though Deep Blue might have been able to offer very profitable advice to onlookers on which way to wager.

I am wondering whether a combination of clairvoyant science and Deep Blue analysis of enormous numbers of potentialities can provide new insights to understand what it means to say, "God knows everything."

My thesis is that God indeed does know everything, but that "everything" in God's knowledge is infinitely greater than theology has classically conceived and Christians have conventionally thought.

God's knowledge, human will and future events: the classical position

Classical theism is probably the dominant theology among most Western church people. In classical theism, God “is believed to have created the entire universe, to rule over it, and to intend to bring it to its fulfillment or realization, to ‘save it,’” wrote Langdon Gilkey in Christian Theology, an Introduction to Its Traditions and Tasks. However, classical theism is based on Greek philosophy at least as much as Scripture and perhaps even more. Most church people do not realize that classical theism's main claims about God - God's changelessness, power, knowledge and goodness - are derived from Plato and Aristotle as much (or more) than from Genesis through Revelation. The historical reasons for this are not relevant to this post; perhaps another time.

Long before the Protestant Reformation, Catholic Scholasticism developed Aristotelian formulations of God as absolute, changeless, eternal being or actuality. Tthe dominant theology of the RCC was that of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), who had taught at the University of Paris. His theology of God derived heavily from Aristotle's development of the Unmoved Mover.

The idea of God's impassive immutability remained in the Reformation, though the Reformers, especially Martin Luther, revived Plato's philosophy to buttress their arguments, mediated via the writings of St. Augustine (354-430), who had been trained extensively in the Platonic school. The Reformers emphasized God’s sovereignty as unchallenged, his power as absolute, his knowledge as unbounded and God's character as wholly righteous and gracious. (This last point was of course affirmed by all sides.) Hence, the Protestant Reformation was almost as much a continuation of the centuries-old squabble between Aristotelians and Platonists as between Christian apologists.

God, the Reformers insisted, has absolute priority and sole decisiveness in events of the created order. Always known as powerful in the Jewish and Christian traditions, God was now understood as absolutely omnipotent, able to do anything God chose. This, of course, required that God's knowledge be unlimited, for the exercise of divine power necessitates that the deity be unrestrained in knowing just what he is exercising power about.

This connection inevitably led both Martin Luther and John Calvin to reject entirely the notion of human freedom. They both insisted (independently, they were not theological collaborators) that God's power cannot be divorced from God's will and that God's will cannot be divorced from God's knowledge. Hence, God's power = God's will = God's knowledge.

According to John Calvin in his book, Institutes of the Christian Religion,
All events whatsoever are governed by the secret counsel of God [who] so overrules all things that nothing happens without his counsel. Events are so regulated by God, and all events so proceed from his determinate counsel, that nothing happens fortuitously.
In Calvin's theology, human beings are inherently unable to make free choices. The world proceeds along a path preselected by God and has no role to play except to follow a divine script that is unchangeable down to the tiniest detail. In this view, human beings are puppets on God's strings. We are "free" only to do what God has already ordained to be our nature.

Though not a systematic theologian like Calvin, Martin Luther came to the same conclusion. Luther wrote in Bondage of the Will,
God knows nothing contingently, but that he foresees, purposes, and does all things according to his immutable, eternal and infallible will. This bombshell knocks ‘free-will’ flat, and utterly shatters it.
Classical theism, then, views the past, present and future as equally concretized in God’s knowledge. Thus, God’s omniscience equals his omnipotence, since unless God determines every detail of the world, something might happen that was not immutably known to God in advance. But a God who can be surprised, classical theism insists, is no God at all.

But this is a very narrow understanding of what it means for God to know something.

A closer look at God's omniscience

When the claim is made, "God knows everything," a faithful Christian or Jew would be hard pressed to say otherwise. There are ample Scriptural references of the knowledge of God. Psalm 139 is perhaps the most complete single reference, in which the Psalmist observes with wonder,
O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.
Yet to say, "God knows everything" begs, What is "everything?" This is the question that tripped up Luther. Having adopted the Platonic view that there is no difference between the past, present and future to God (a view that I don't think is very Scripturally supportable), which means that there is only an "eternal now" to God, Luther equated the "eternal now" with everything.

But that means necessarily that the eternal now can consist only of what is real. Consider the question, "Does God know Santa Claus?" Well, God knows our Santa Claus story and all its lies we tell our children every December. God knows the man who dresses up in a red suit and sits in the mall the day after Thanksgiving. But how can God know Santa Claus? There is no Santa Claus for God to know!

So: That which is not, is not knowable.

What then does it mean to say, "God knows everything?" It can mean nothing except that God knows everything that is knowable. This is possible only for God, of course, but the fact remains that the knowable is what is, not what is not. God knows the Santa Claus actor in the mall as a thing in itself because the actor is real in himself. God does not know Santa Claus as a thing in itself because Santa Claus is not real as a thing in itself.

Please note a distinction I am making. I might say with equal validity that God does not know my grandchildren because I do not (only yet, I hope) have any grandchildren. But my grandchildren, though they do not exist, do not exist in a critically different way than the way that Santa Claus does not exist.

I can envision a future in which I have grandchildren. I can also envision a future in which I do not. I do not know either future absolutely, but I know them both potentially (or as Luther would put it, "contingently."). And if I can know them potentially, so can God. Luther is thus so simply proved wrong: if I can know something contingently, then necessarily God does, too, else we are left with the stunning proposition that I can know something God cannot know.

Therefore: God knows contingencies (potentialities) as fully as actualities.

Though God does not know absolutely my grandchildren, because they do not exist, hence are not actualities, God does know the nearly unlimited permutations of possibilities of a future in which my grandchildren are born (or not). Since clairvoyant science helps us understand how God can foresee a future event - say, my grandson's first home run - without predetermining it, it is self evident that God can also know every possible alternative to that event, such as a groundout instead of a home run, or a walk, a ground-rule double, game called because of rain, whatever.

All of these things God knows contingently, to use Luther's word, contingently because none of them have yet occurred. Because God knows every possible alternative as the future unfolds means that it is not necessary for us to postulate that whatever God knows must come to pass as the Reformers thought. Their concept of God's knowledge was far too narrow. God knows in advance not only the potentialities that will become actualities, God knows every possible alternative to each actuality. God conceives of what might not happen as fully as he conceives of what does happen.

God therefore cannot be "taken by surprise." No matter what happens, God has already fully foreseen it and is just as prepared for it as if he had directly caused it.

Back to Santa Claus. My grandchildren are potentially real as things in themselves while Santa Claus is not. Thus, my grandchildren are potentialities that may become actualities, while Santa Claus is not. God can envision and prepare for a future in which I have grandchildren. But this cannot be said of Santa Claus.

The Reality of Time

"Time flies like an arrow," goes an old joke, "while fruit flies like a banana." Because classical theism holds that God lives in an eternal now while human beings and indeed the entire created order exist within the arrow's flight of time, in which there is a definite past, present and future, then some thoughts about time are in order.

Both modern science and the Bible agree that the universe had a definite beginning in time. The universe is expanding. The predominant view among scientists is that the universe will continue to expand without ever stopping and then falling back together. That is, we have had the Big Bang but the universe won't have a "Big Crunch." Time is unidirectional, it has no "reverse." Time moves only forward.

It is within that structure of time that human being live, move and have our being. Classical theism holds that God is outside time. Yet if God is to interact with his creation then God must be able to operate within time's arrow; God must be able to enter into time's arrow as well as be apart from it.

That God interacts with humanity within time's arrow is well attested by the Scriptures. The movements of God within human history in the books of the Jewish Scriptures attest to it. Peter's sermon in Acts on the day of Pentecost also makes no sense unless God is accomplishing his will within human frameworks of time and understanding.

There are ample biblical passages that can reasonably be read to indicate that God either admits or implies that he does not know something because the arrow of time has not reached that point yet. That is, of all the potentialities God is preparing for, none have actualized as concrete events, hence are not knowable absolutely, only potentially. Here are examples, all using the NIV:

Gen. 2.19
Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.
The implication is that God did not know what names Adam would give the creatures.

Gen. 6:5-6
The LORD saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The LORD regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled.
Other translations say that the Lord "repented" that he had created human beings. The implication is that God did not know in advance how rotten people turned out to be, else why would he regret or repent of creating us? Why would he be troubled if classical theism is right - that everything always turns out exactly as God plans it?

There are many other places in the Bible where God repents of what he has done, for example, 1 Samuel 15, where the Lord repents that he had made Saul king of Israel. Again, if God exercises the meticulous control over creation that classical theism insists he does, then God must be repenting over things that he knew in advance would happen.

Deut. 8:2
Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands.
This verse says that God sent the children of Israel into the wilderness to discover whether they would be capable of being God's people. Of course, the 40 years in the wilderness had another purpose, to teach the people humility before God. But is there not clearly the implication that at the end of the 40 years God would know something he did not know at their beginning? If the verse does not mean that, what does it mean?

Isaiah 5:2-4, in which Israel and Judah are the vineyard of the Lord (see v. 7)
He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. ... Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit. 3 “Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. 4 What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it? When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad?
Clearly, God expected his chosen people to produce good fruit, but they did not. In this passage, God wonders what else he could have done for them and expresses puzzlement at why they turned out bad.

Can we take these and the many other passages like them into account and still maintain that God is in control of human and cosmic destiny?

Can we postulate that God does not know everything, past-present-future, absolutely and yet is still absolutely going to accomplish his cosmic purposes?

I think we can, and I think we can in a way that honors both the Scriptural teaching of human free will and still affirms that "God's power = God's will = God's knowledge."

The Clairvoyant, Deep Blue God

Having asked earlier how much more lopsided Kasparov's match would have been with Deep Blue had Deep Blue's programming included computational clairvoyance as well as database analysis, I am prepared to try to answer how we can affirm the (at least apparent) biblical teaching that God does not absolutely know absolutely everything in advance. So permit me to explain my premises.

Premise 1
"But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day" (2 Peter 3.8).

However within time's arrow God operates when dealing with his creation, God's understanding of time is nonetheless radically different from ours. God's "now" cannot compare to what now means to us mortals. As the Psalmist wrote, "Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain."

So we must be mindful of the fact that our own knowledge will always be woefully incomplete and our language inadequate to the task. But we must do the best we can, always in humility.

Premise 2
God knows everything that can be known and knows it absolutely. Everything that can be known includes all actualities and all potentialities. God's knowledge of what happened during the Exodus is just as certain as what happened on your last birthday. And God's knowledge of what is happening with the remotest hydrogen atom in the most distant galaxy is just as complete as what is happening in your mind while you read these words. But God does not know Santa Claus because Santa Claus is neither actual nor potential.

Premise 3
Because God's knowledge of the future includes all its potentialities, human beings really do have freedom to choose among multiple potential courses. The possible choices are neither unlimited nor unbounded. That is, our freedom is finite in potential and limited in actuality. Kasparov did have freedom to choose how to move his pieces, but only within the rules of the game.

"Choose this day whom you will serve," Joshua admonished the people before they crossed into the Promised Land. The choice is real, and so is the choosing.

Premise 4
Every event, no matter how minute, is influenced in passing from "potential" to "real" by three things:

A. Its antecedents in time, the past events that created the finity of possibilities. But the past cannot be the only influence because then there would be no novelty in the world.

B. The nature of the thing in question. This nature both opens and closes potentialities: things must be and become what they are but cannot be or become what they are not. There is freedom in the becoming, though. "Birds gotta sing and fish gotta swim," but they do not all sing or swim the same, even within the same species.

C. The will of God for each potentiality. In every event, no matter how minute, God is willing the event to its finest possible fulfillment. As the Isaiah passage above indicates, God's will does not always come to pass, at least not wholly or perhaps not yet.

Because God foresees every possibility, God's will is always active and always present. Not everything that happens is God's will, but God's will is present (hence, can be sought) no matter what happens.

This is a key point: Just as the more stuff you buy from Amazon, the more accurate Amazon predicts your next purchases, God learns as time passes, as the verses cited above indicate (and there are others). That is, God's "certainty" range of knowledge of future events is increasing while the "potential" range of his knowledge of future events is decreasing, enabling God to be more effective in shaping events as they transition from potential to actual.

Premise 5
God adjusts to circumstances as they become, which are not always as he intended. Example, Matthew 19, in which Jesus says to some men who had questioned him about divorce, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning."

The Law of Moses was a gift of God and explained God's will. Here Jesus says that God did not intend "in the beginning" that husbands and wives should divorce but permits it because of the intractability of human sinfulness.

God makes temporal adjustments to his will to account for the facts of creation. God's ends do not change, but his means for accomplishing them do, based on how creation's freedom plays out within the parameters God has set for it.

Shakespeare must have figured this out: "There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, Rough-hew them how we will—" (Hamlet, Act 5).

Premise 6
If there is anything that God does not know absolutely, as the Scriptures seem to indicate, God's knowledge of the future is infinitely greater than human knowledge of the present. Which is to say that even God's uncertainty of future events is indescribably superior to our certainty of past or present. Paul would seem to affirm this in 1 Cor. 1.25: "For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength."

No matter which possibilities of billions or more turn out to become reality, the "clairvoyant science, Deep Blue" God has already entirely foreseen them in all their permutations. Gregory Boyd put it this way in Satan and the Problem of Evil:
God perfectly knows from all time what will be, what would be, and what may be. And he sovereignly sets the parameters for all three categories. Moreover, because God possesses infinite intelligence, his knowledge of what might be leaves him no less prepared for the future than his knowledge of determinate aspects of creation. ...

Because he is infinitely intelligent, he does not need to “thin out” his attention over numerous possibilities as we do. He is able to attend to each one of a trillion billion possibilities, whether they be logical possibilities, what would be, or what might be, as though it was the only possibility he had to consider. He is infinitely attentive to each and every one. Hence, whatever possibility ends up coming to pass, we may say that from all eternity God was preparing for just this possibility, as though it were the only possibility that could ever possibly occur. Even when possibilities occur that are objectively improbable – and to this extent surprise or disappoint God – it is not at all the case that he is caught off guard. He is as perfectly prepared for the improbable as he is for the probable. [Italics added]
God has a will for the universe and everything within it. Yet everything within creation has a will, too, even if only a mechanistic one. Freedom is real but always exists and is exercised within the boundaries inherent in the created order. God, having created this order to begin with, is greater than it is. Nothing can happen in the universe that God cannot foresee, but to foresee is not to know absolutely in the sense that classical theism conceives of it.

Even so, from our human perspective perhaps it is a distinction without a difference except for a very critical one: we are not predestined at birth either to heaven or hell as the Reformers believed. Of all the freedoms we have to choose or not, there is only one that matters eternally. It is simply whether we will say yes to God. It is God's will that no one should perish (2 Peter 3:9) but we do have the ability to reject God's grace.

Just as Kasparov's choices of potential moves was diminished by the loss of every piece, eventually the universe's potentialities are narrowed until the only possibility that is left is the final fulfillment of God's will. Then it truly will be that "the old order of things has passed away" (Rev. 21).

The problems

Classical theism protects the unbridled sovereignty of God at the expense of human freedom and morality. While one might like to assert, "God is in his heavens and all is well in the world," the world is manifestly not well. The book of Job strikes directly to heart of the problem: if God is as classical theism describes him, why do the innocent suffer? Whence come war, disease, massively-destructive natural disasters and all the other evils of life?

In God at War, Gregory Boyd posits,
Assuming (rightly) that God is perfectly loving and good, and assuming (wrongly, I hold) that divine omnipotence entails meticulous control, the problem of evil ... becomes simply unsolvable.
Resolving the problem of evil is far beyond the scope of this post, but classical theism is unable to answer its basic conundrum: if God is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good, then Job is right - God has some 'splaining to do. The usual approach, as Rabbi Kushner explained in his bestselling Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People, is to adjust one's concept either of God's power or knowledge in order to protect at all costs God's goodness. For if God is not purely and absolutely good, then we are lost. We would have no basis to trust God and while we should fear him there would be no reason to worship or love him.

My concept, rough as it is, of "Deep Blue Theism" avoids this conundrum, though certainly difficult questions remain. Chief among them is that Deep Blue theology must allow for God's direct intervention in human affairs and into individual human actions, of which there are many examples in Scripture (notably, for example, God's convincing Joseph not to send Mary away but to take her as his wife). If I allow for these and other Scriptural examples, why not allow for it all around?

Another problem: I have expressed that there are natural constraints on human freedom built into how we are created. In what sense, then, are we meaningfully free before God since God has already limited our freedom by the way he created us?

Finally, I wrote that "God's 'certainty' range of knowledge of future events is increasing while the 'potential' range of his knowledge of future events is decreasing, enabling God's will to be more effective in shaping events." If that is so, then we would expect the world to be conforming evermore to godliness. But that seems be a hard claim to support empirically.

All this is to say, however, that human freedom in relation to God is difficult to understand. Classical theism does not even try and this is, I think, its fatal failing. Classical theism is all about God and not much about God's creation. But self-evidently, God is not about himself but about his creation - in the giving of the covenant at Sinai, for example, in John 3:16 and in Matthew 20.28, "the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." God is deeply and personally involved in the world in the most intimate ways possible to the extent that he is willing to accept that his will can be thwarted in order to preserve our ability to love him back (understanding that God's will can only be thwarted temporarily).

But a question lingers: Could God choose to exercise the meticulous, micromanaging control over every instant that classical theism says he does but that Deep Blue Theism says he does not? The obvious answer is yes, God could do that if God wanted, but an even deeper question is thereby provoked: would it be loving of God to do so? "Yes" is far from an obvious answer to that. Love is inherently relational. A puppeteer may love his puppets but most assuredly they do not love him back. Love desires willing responses, not robotic role playing. So no wonder that God advised his people, "You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart" (Jer. 29.13).

1 John 4.8 says, "God is love." 2 Timothy 2.13 says that even if we are unfaithful to God (hence unloving), God remains faithful (hence loving) to us "for he cannot deny himself."

God is love. God cannot be not-God. Hence God cannot be unloving of his creation. And so, wanting each of us to seek him all our hearts, God does not close the future, but opens it to permit us to shape it along with him and all the attendant uncertainties that go along with that - and he cannot be or do otherwise, "for he cannot deny himself.

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