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God and Chance

As Paul Ewart points out in an interesting recent Guardian article ‘Why God Needs Chance’ — — chance events which result in certain individuals’ suffering undeservedly raise a version of the traditional ‘problem of evil’ for theists. If God, who is meant to be all-good and omnipotent, were to exist, how could he allow such chance events to occur?

Ewart goes on to argue that, if God is indeed to be omnipotent, chance may in fact be required. Here’s how I understand his argument. If the outcomes of our actions were entirely predictable, and we had free will, we could, in theory, force God to act to prevent some bad outcome. ‘So’, Ewart says, ‘God would no longer be in control – his actions would be determined by ours.’ But, because of chance, we can’t in fact predict the outcomes of our actions for sure, so we’re unable to distinguish what would be an act of God from a random event. So God remains omnipotent, because we can’t force him to act.

This is not the old argument that God has introduced randomness into the Universe to make room for free will. That faces the equally old objection that randomness – something’s just happening for no reason – is not sufficient for free will, where things are meant to happen because we have (freely) chosen them.

Rather, Ewart is assuming from the start that, as many people think, we do have free will. The difficulty is that we might then use that free will to bring about outcomes so bad that God is ‘forced’ to step in to prevent them.

Note first that the kind of ‘force’ here is not like physical coercion. What we do is create a situation of such awfulness that God has an overriding reason to intervene. But whether God acts or not in this situation is still ‘up to him’ as much as in any other situation in which he acts. God is free not to act, just as he is free to sin, even though he never will.

Indeed, perhaps in these awful situations, God will not act. Human beings have brought about and continue to bring about the most appalling outcomes, and yet God appears to allow them. How is that consistent with his being all-good? One possibility is that it is those who bring about those outcomes who are to blame for them, not God. God allows them to happen only in the sense that he provides us with the opportunity to act freely.

But let’s allow that in the non-random world we could force God to act through collaborating on some project many times more terrible even than all the horrors humanity has committed put together, and so threaten his power. It’s not clear to me why we could not do the same in the random world. Ewart’s argument is that, because of chance, we could not tell whether some intervention was a mere coincidence or random event rather than an act of God. So, presumably, God’s tracks would be covered.

This raises the same sort of possibility discussed by Anders Sandberg in a recent blog on this site concerning the hadron collider — . If the collider fails over and over again, the hypothesis that it is being interfered with from the future will begin to look ever more plausible. The same will be true of our collaborating on our terrible project. After a while, the chances of our failing without God’s being responsible will begin to look very slim. So the game would be up for God.

Even if God were able to cover his tracks in the world of chance, however, it would still be the case that we had ‘forced’ him to act just as much as in the non-random world. The only difference is that in the random world we couldn’t be sure that our failure was down to God and not to some random event. But God is, surely, primarily interested in being omnipotent, not merely in our believing him to be so when he isn’t.

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