Wednesday, October 8, 2014

THE BILLIARD BALL UNIVERSE


Just as you walk into a pool hall, you notice that the player on the first table has just taken the opening break shot and sixteen balls are careening around the table. Let’s put our story on pause and look at the balls on the table. Each ball has an individual trajectory, spin, and speed. If you were smart enough (I’m certainly not) and you knew all the pertinent information about the balls, you could devise a mathematical formula which would predict with almost 100% certainty where the balls would go, how many cushions they would bounce off of, how many other balls each ball would bump into, and where every ball would ultimately end up when they quit rolling. Not only that, your formula could “retrodict” how tightly the balls were racked, and the trajectory, spin, and speed of the cue ball when it struck them. All that mathematical information is probably going to be useless for saying anything certain about what was happening just before the balls collided. For instance, I don’t think that this information could tell you could tell which of the gentlemen standing around the table actually shot the break, nor could it tell you if he used a cue stick or a croquet mallet.

As I understand the latest theories in astrophysics, the Universe is a mammoth billiard table which is at least 90 billion light years in diameter. This billiard table is filled with moving billiard balls, and I’m not talking about stars and planets. Every atom is a separate billiard ball which is moving along as a result of the break shot which astrophysicists call the Big Bang. Let’s put our story on pause again. If you knew all the pertinent information about every billiard ball careening about the Universe, you could plug that information into a mathematical formula and predict when and how the Universe will come to an end. You could also retrodict what has happened to each and every atom since the Big Bang. You’ll probably need a supercomputer to do the calculation, and even then it might take some time to finally work everything out.

This has been interpreted to mean that everything that happens, has happened, or ever will happen was predetermined by the way the Big Bang banged. Upon being told this, a Calvinist might say “That’s Predestination.” An Arminian on the other hand would probably say “That’s awful.” The Calvinist would be wrong. The reason I say the Calvinist is wrong has nothing to do with a belief in Free Will and everything to do with Theism. Predestination presupposes that the break shot was taken by God. Determinism doesn’t really know how the rack was broken, but a lot of Determinists are certain that God had nothing to do with it. I tend to agree with the Arminian viewpoint, but once again it has nothing to do with Theism.

I can accept Determinism, but I don’t like Predestination at all. I don’t even like the watered down version which posits limited Free Will with just the fact of salvation being predetermined. I understand that John Calvin believed Predestination to be an act of kindness on God’s part, but I doubt if anyone predestined for Hell would agree with him. So that makes me a fan of Free Will.

How can I reconcile Determinism with Free Will? All those billiard balls careening about the pool table are completely brainless, as are the atoms careening about the Universe. If nobody is driving the car, it’s going to continue to roll until it hits something. Somewhere along the line, however, some clusters of atoms acquired drivers. The Earth is teaming with such clusters of atoms—they’re called people. We’re too few and too insignificant to alter the course of a Universe as big as the one we inhabit, but we can alter the course of our own and others’ lives. As the poem Invictus says “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.” It might be wise to turn the captaincy over to someone else, but I believe that (absent coercion) we have the ability to choose our masters.

Now where does God fit into all this? Whether you are a Theist, a Deist, or an Atheist predetermines (notice I didn’t say predestines) your answer to that question. I think I have said before that I believe Deism has more prior probability than either Theism or Atheism, but prior probability doesn’t predetermine posterior probability. Last week in college football the prior probability was that both Alabama and Texas A&M would beat Mississippi and Mississippi State. The posterior probabilities were somewhat different.

You might say I’m a fan of Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover theory, but I’ve heard that called a “tired old argument.” I didn’t know that arguments got tired. I think that the biggest objection to the “tired old” Unmoved Mover theory is the fact that it is believed to be an argument for the existence of God. It really isn’t. If you’re arguing for an Unmoved Mover, you’re simply saying that somebody or something took the break shot. Maybe the Demiurge of Gnostic theology.  

Here’s something that I agree with Calvin about. He’s one of the few early theologians who didn’t advance arguments for the existence of God. His reason? He felt it was a waste of time to argue for the existence of God, you either believed or you didn’t. I think Deism can come about as an act of logical reasoning, but belief in God comes more as an act of faith than of logic. Logic can carry you to the threshold, but only faith is going to get you through the door. I think the same can be said of Atheism. It takes a great deal of faith to deny the existence of some sort of god. If Atheists were being completely logical, they would be Deists, or at least “Demiurgists.”