The Butterfly Effect and Where Open Theism Fails

Many are aware of the Butterfly Effect: a tornado (exact time of formation, exact path taken) being influenced by minor perturbations such as the flapping of the wings of a distant butterfly several weeks earlier.

First formulated (or at least named) when searching weather patterns by Edward Lorenz, it shows causal determinism to be true. To clarify: a single flap of a wing producing this specific amount of pressure on surrounding air under those specific conditions will always provide the same impetus with the same results. The identical result from identical situations. It’s physics. This causal chain extends indefinitely, a long way beyond the reported final result. Yes, a tornado forms (or not) but the chain continues – the house roof that’s blown off was inevitably blown off given the strength of it’s fixings and the uplift forces placed upon it under that specific set of circumstances, and so on.

All forecasting is based upon a study of cause and effect. However, where forecasting is inaccurate it is always due to working with an incomplete set of data, i.e. not knowing every variable and its trajectory at the time required. This will include all future variables to cover the time between the forecast and the event actually taking place.

So, what are the religious implications? We believe in a first, or uncaused cause, whom we call God. And God (it is believed in orthodox Christianity) knows future events. The question is, how? For the answer, we must look to our own views of time:

We experience time as a linear sequence of events, the past being dead and gone, the present being that which we currently experience, and the future yet to come. This is the “A” Theory of Time. It’s rival, the “B” Theory of Time concludes that time, past, present and future, co-exist simultaneously. “B” Theorists hold that God can see all of time simultaneously, so predicting isn’t really a problem. Open Theists subscribe to “A” Theory; God knows the future as a series of possibilities, probabilities, and his own determined will. If God says he will do something in the future it is a promise, not him exercising his foreknowledge. His view of future events lies in his ability to calculate the possibilities, perhaps reducing some to probabilities, but never pronouncing a certainty about anything other than his own future actions.

But knowing that all events are caused, and having full command of the complete data sets, God should be able to calculate with certainty, any future event. Using infallible omniscience God can eliminate any probability or possibility by using the whole causal date set to track the paths of converging events, and physics will do the rest. He doesn’t have our limitations and therefore doesn’t have our failures in forecasting. Open theism doesn’t need to say that God doesn’t know the future with certainty. He can.

“Ah, but what about free will?” calls the crowd. Well, the question is, is free will determined by external factors plus experience? Or is a decision the result of a purely arbitrary process? Knowing our past and its influences in infinite detail must allow God to know how we would decide in any given situation. Particularly if our series of options is finite and in fact, limited. Example: I am accosted in the street by a young male who demands my wallet at knifepoint. Three thoughts spring to mind: 1). I’ll fight him; 2). I’ll give him my wallet and remain unharmed; 3). I’ll draw out a gun and shoot him. I have to will one of these options in order for it to take place. I opt for option 3. Unfortunately, I don’t carry a gun, so despite me willing option 3 I have to choose between options 1 and 2. I am a lifetime coward, so I go with option 2. Not just predictable, but a certainty bearing in mind my cowardice, upbringing and a multitude of other influencing factors, all known by God. So, I can will something that is impossible, like drawing a non-existent gun, or levitating at speed to safety, but ultimately, whatever I will, my actions are limited by circumstances and by my nature.

The Christian world seems divided between those who favour a deterministic God, and those who prefer a God who gives Mankind dominion over the Earth (though, even those admit that God enters human history from time to time). Any arguments are often couched in the term “Free Will vs Determinism”, though these terms aren’t mutually exclusive. My will is determined by who I am, and who I am is determined by numerous factors. Those factors are, in turn, influenced by past factors, all ultimately regressing to the single act of creation in a vast chain, criss-crossing, interlacing, and all subject to the Laws of Physics given to us by our creator.

We seem to be getting to a point where we understand time better than before, and I suspect that the “A” vs “B” Theory arguments may become settled.  However, I hold that under each theory God can both determine and know future events. The mechanics of how are currently unknown to us. Whether it is or not makes little difference as we always work with what we have at the time. God is in charge of history and we’re here for the ride.

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