Apr 25, 2006

transcending infinite loops: theodical musings

William Dembski, in the latest of a long line of theodicies, appeals to Newcomb's Paradox [pdf] to "justify the ways of God to men."
For beings like us embedded in the causal nexus of nature, the logic of cause and effect is inviolable. In contrast, God, as an omnipotent and omniscient being, transcends the physical world and therefore is not bound by this causal-temporal logic. This is not to say that in acting in the world God violates this logic. To violate it, he would need to be under its jurisdiction. But as the creator of nature’s causal nexus and therefore as the originator of its causal-temporal logic, God perforce acts in ways that this logic cannot circumscribe. Indeed, if this logic did circumscribe divine action, then God would be part of nature and creation would be other than ex nihilo.
Dembski is fond of (mis)using the "NFL theorems" to whack at evolution. But "transcendence," like "emergence," is its own form of ontological free lunch, raising far more questions than answers. How does a being "transcend?" If God so neatly avoids the pitfalls of causal-temporal logic by transcending the physical world, how can we refer to this sort of God as "good?" Why limit God's transcendence to only one domain--the causal? Why does not God "transcend" morality as well, eradicating the need for theodicy?

Dembski's explanation of the "infinite dialectic" (BS-ometer spiking) doesn't fare much better.
Think of the infinite dialectic in this way: Suppose God acts to anticipate certain events. So long as divine action is not a hollow concept, God’s actions make a difference in the world and therefore must induce novel events (all change in the physical world being mediated through events). But this requires that God act preemptively to anticipate the novel events induced by God’s prior actions (priority here being conceived not temporally or causally [chronos] but in terms of the teleological-semantic logic [kairos] by which God orders the creation). And yet, such actions by God now induce still further novel events. And so on. This up and back between divine action and creaturely causation proceeds indefinitely. It constitutes an infinite dialectic. Because of the fragility of the world’s causal nexus, the infinite dialectic is ever in danger of spinning out of control, degenerating into a positive feedback loop in which divine preemption needs to rectify difficulties raised by prior acts of divine preemption.
And the way out of the infinite loop?
Consequently, only an infinitely powerful and infinitely wise God can pull off the infinite dialectic. The infinite dialectic renders divine action at once real-time and eternal. It bridges the immanent with the transcendent. In the infinite dialectic, God acts on the whole of creation at all times and in all places, acting not as a cause among other causes (God does not moonlight as a physical cause) but as a cause of causes (God causes physical causes to fulfill his purposes). As a cause of causes, God’s action in the infinite dialectic is not merely ontological, in the sense of giving being to the world (cf. Paul Tillich’s “ground of being”). Nor is it merely providential in some general sense, as might be subsumed under the regularities of nature (cf. God maintaining seasonal weather patterns).
Again, more questions: how is a cause of a cause efficacious? Can causes cross ontological "levels?" Can a non-physical entity cause physical actions? Is Dembski backing away from his "expanded ontology," and subscribing to a more standard form of dualism?

Dembski closes with two poor analogies.
In the infinite dialectic, God acts providentially to guide the world in its particulars, taking an active interest in the details of this world and making a difference at all levels of the created order. This is not to say that God is a micromanager. Good managers know the precise details of the system they are managing but intervene sparingly, giving the system as much autonomy as it needs to flourish. God is a good manager. In particular, he has not created a world that is his prosthesis or puppet.
Ah, but the very question is a matter of degree: just how much "micromanagement" is enough? Let's analogize right back at Dembski. The floor is littered with wrappers and french fries. The toilet is backed up and the toilet paper nowhere to be found. A fire rages in the kitchen. Meanwhile, the staff are too busy fighting with ketchup packets to notice. The manager hasn't been seen or heard from in hours. Now what?
At the same time, even though God has granted the world a measure of autonomy, the world’s autonomy is not absolute. Just as an orchestra cannot make do without the conductor’s continual guidance, so too does the world require God’s continual guidance. That guidance is neither oppressive nor coercive. It is real and powerful, and it takes the form of an infinite dialectic. Because of the infinite dialectic, Jesus can say that God knows our name, numbers the hairs on our head, and monitors the sparrow that falls to the ground.
Minor quibble: perhaps Dembski has never heard of the "conductorless orchestra," the kind that used to dazzle Soviet audiences back in the heyday of early Communism. But the weakness of argument from analogy becomes apparent here. If the universe isn't an orchestra, but is more like a machine... or an organism... then all the talk of continuous guidance is rigmarole.

Any potential problem can be solved by omnipotence when omnipotence is defined as infinite power. Yet other Christian thinkers are a little uncomfortable purporting the existence of "actual infinities."

But then, they're not mathematicians.


Franklin Mason said...

In my post at The Philosophical Midwife on Dembski, I had decided to simply bypass the issue you bring up.

Your complaint is one that may be made against all varieties of theism on which God is transcendent but active in the physical world. I know of no good account of how that activity occurs. Dembski speaks of 'causes of causes' and by this means something other than physical events antecendent in time that bring those causes about. Rather he means the Divine causality. But if so, we then seem to have overcausation of events. Is the physical cause of an event sufficient to bring it about? Apparently. But what then does the Divine causality do? If causes already have (physical) causes, why in the world would they need an additional (supernatural) cause as well?

Perhaps Dembski should adopt the model of world-creation given to us by Leibniz. Here God does not meddle in a world He already created. Rather 'before' creation (not a temporal 'before' but an explanatory 'before') he surveyed all the possible worlds. He chose that which would serve His purposes best, and in a single act of creation brought that world into existence. Once in existence, causes within the world are themselves sufficient to bring about their effects. There's no need for God to step in and act as a cause of causes.

Jim said...

Is there any room for free will in such a world Leibniz describes? Or, even if there is, is such foreknowledge possible, even to an omniscient being?