God's will

How is it possible that God is in control of all things and their will is always done, assuming that we are free?


First, why are we free in the first place?  Because God wants us to be free, and he always gets what he wants!  (Unless he wants something else more which conflicts with it; then he gets that instead.)

Some theologians distinguish between God's permissive will and his perfect will.  If God wants you to freely choose to love him.  Since he wants you to be free, that means his permissive will involves creating a world in which you are allowed to love other things instead of him, and even to become enslaved by these things and lose your freedom for a time.  So our Father permits people to love e.g. pornography and greed, but his perfect will is that we should turn to him and become pure and holy through his Son Jesus Christ.  God "wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth." (1 Tim 2:4)

So there is one sense in which God's will is always done—nothing happens unless he permits it to happen, according to his wisdom in accomplishing his ultimate goals.  But that does not mean he is equally pleased by everything that happens.  "Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? says the Lord YHWH.  Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their wicked ways and live?" (Ez 18).

Hence we need to pray every day that "your will be done", because our Father has freely chosen (it is his absolute, iron will) that some graces will be given only when we ask for them, and cooperate with the lavish grace which has already been given, before we even knew to ask.

In the end times, after Jesus comes back, God's kingdom will come and so his perfect will is going to extend throughout the entire universe, just as it is now in heaven.  But even then, there will be some rebels who refuse to give up their hatred and pride, who will end up being excluded from the Lord's perfect will, because he permits them to be the kind of person they want to be, instead of the kind of person he wants them to be (Rev 22:15).  So God will not, in fact, get every single thing he wants.

Yet he is clever enough to work everything which happens towards the final blessedness of those who love him, according to his plan from before time began.  "For those whom he foreknew, he also predestined to become conformed to the image of his Son" (Rom. 8:29).

Posted in Theology | 12 Comments

Keeping the faith in college

In the comments section to the previous post, a reader St. Andy asks this question:

To anyone who wants to answer.  This site has quite literally been a Godsend to me.  I've always loved science but until about 5 years ago, I assumed you had put your brain on a shelf to be a christian.  No big bang, no creation, etc.  Since then I've come to understand the bible in a much deeper way.  Believe it or not, it was Obi Wan Kenobi who made it click when he told Luke "you're going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend on your point of view".  I thought, knowing what we know now, how could I explain to a civilization who thinks the earth is flat and a few hundred miles diameter, how everything came to be.  Would I talk about relativity, red shift, inflation theory, DNA, genes, etc, and spend hundreds of volumes explaining the science, or give something they can understand, like genesis.  It's obvious really.  God wanted us to progress in science at our own pace, but wanted us to know that everything had a beginning and He made it all.  No, Noah didn't have a penguin, a kangaroo, or a western diamond back rattlesnake on the ark.  But it's still true that HIS whole world flooded and he had 2 of every animal in the world that he knew.  I now look at science as learning about God, and He becomes more incredible to me every day!

Anyway, my kids are in 6th and 7th grades in a gifted school and in Florida, we have a prepaid college program and they both have 4 years tuition paid for.  How do I avoid sending them to the Dawkins and Krauses in academia.  I'm not saying it needs to be a christian school, but I'd like to avoid the atheist agendas if possible.  I'm accused online of believing in an old man in the sky, flying spaghetti monsters, Santa Claus, etc, and I don't know what I could expect a college student to withstand.  Any suggestions on how to identify these institutions, or suggestions on how to prepare my kids for the "smart people don't believe in silly things like God" mentality?

St. Scott Church already provided an encouraging reply.  My response follows:

First of all, you're already doing a good job being a parent who is interested in science and open to truth in every area!  That will serve your kids well.

Not to panic you, but it's true that a LOT of kids who were raised in the Church fall away when they go off to secular colleges.  (Though many of these people come back to the Church later in life, when they settle down and have kids of their own.)  But I don't think this is usually because they get argued (or more likely mocked) out of it by people like Krauss or Dawkins.  In person, most atheists aren't all that evangelical about it, actually.  Atheists who argue about it on the internet aren't a typical sample!

Anyway, I think freshman college students are more likely to stop going to Church, and slowly drift away.  Or they'll get drunk and have sex with somebody at a party, and then feel like they can't really call themselves a Christian anymore.  Which is sad, because it indicates that they never really understood that salvation is by God's mercy, and not based on them being a good person who never makes serious mistakes!

A lot of Christian parents think they are raising their children with Christian values, but they're only really teaching them to be a "good kid", and then when they become an adult, it isn't real to them anymore.  It's biblical and proper for children to be obedient and responsible, but this is not the same thing as having a personal relationship with Christ.  Obviously you can't do this for them.  You can only show by example what it looks like.

So a lot of parents get into a panic and think they have to send their kids to a Christian college or else they'll stop being Christian.  But that might just be postponing the time when the person has to choose to follow God themselves, without people telling them what to do!  (For all I know, your kids are already like that, and you don't need to worry about it.)

There's nothing wrong with going to a Christian school, if that's what your kids end up wanting to do, but what's even better is if your children could be the kind of people who are secure in their faith and who have lots of nonreligious friends that they lead towards Christ.  Actually that goes for right now as well.

Anyway, I agree with St. Scott that the exposure method is best.  They'll eventually hear it anyway, so talk to them about it now (in limited quantities and in an age appropriate way, of course).  Talk to them about why you believe what you believe, and why other people believe differently.  Show them one of these online comments, and see if you can get them to explain to you why it's a misunderstanding of what we believe.  Teach them the skill of separating out the good from the bad (for example, it often happens that a writer says some nifty things about science but throws in a jibe at religion, so you can ask whether the one thing really follows from the other).

But of course, also give them a lot of good Christian books, for example by Sts. C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, N.T. Wright, Dorothy Sayers, A.W. Tozer, E. Stanley Jones, Augustine, George MacDonald, J.R.R. Tolkien, or, if they like historical fiction, Elizabeth Goudge.  Of course there are many more authors to choose from; it depends on their particular interests.  (Encouraging them to study the Bible goes without saying, of course.  But you could see if your church denomination has a Bible quizzing program or something like that for teenagers.)

Just having encouragement from a parent who is interested in science and open to truth is already a lot!  Teach them to ask questions and don't be afraid of saying "I don't know" instead of giving pat answers.  It's better to teach your kids that you can trust in Christ even when you have a lot of questions, then to give them a long list of answers and make it seem like faith depends on getting every one of them right.

The way a lot of Christians are raised, if they start doubting whether e.g. the Noah story was 100% literal in all of its details, they feel like they may as well be disbelieving in the Resurrection of Jesus!  But one of these two events is at the core of our faith, and the other is at the periphery.

Which college your kids go to should obviously depend on their own choices and interests, and it's a long time before this decision has to be made.  If they are truly seeking God's will, the Holy Spirit may guide them in a direction which neither they nor you expect.

In general, Ivy Leagues and other elite universities tend to have the academic environment which is most hostile to Christian faith.  I would not recommend places like Harvard, Yale, or U. Chicago as places to study theology, for instance.  But they might be fine for the sciences.  In my experience, secular science departments are more accepting of religious people than the humanities departments, actually.  Maybe not in Biology, because of all the conflicts involving Evolution.

A lot of secular schools have strong Christian social groups such as InterVarsity or Cru which can provide support for Christian students.  Really, it depends a lot on the school.  And there will always be some churches in the area where people are willing to pick students up from the college dorms, if one inquires sufficiently.

There are many fine Christian colleges out there, though some are Christian-in-name only, or so fundamentalist as to be embarrassing.  As good examples, I have family members who attended Seattle Pacific and Westmont, which are excellent liberal arts colleges, seriously Christian but not fundamentalist.  But they're over on the West Coast.  I'm not familiar with the situation near Florida, but a good high school counselor would know.  Very few Christian schools are also highly ranked research universities (although there are a few, like Notre Dame or Baylor).  Although this matters more for graduate education than college.

I went to St. John's College, which I would say is a rare example of a school where most students aren't religious, yet theological books (including the Bible) are on the curriculum and taken seriously.  This is a really weird college, not for most people (and rather expensive without financial aid) but for a few people, it's one of the best things that ever happened to them.

There are no wrong choices here.  What matters is where God is leading them as individuals.

It's a little tricky to give advice here, because some parents are over-protective, and some are under-protective, and the advice that is right for one, is wrong for the other.  If you're worrying about college when they're in 7th grade, you probably belong more to the first category. :-)  I'd advise you to relax and trust God, who knows better than any of us do what each of us need.

Posted in Education | 13 Comments

God and Time III: General Relativity

Imagine if somebody said that only one height exists at once—whichever elevation you happen to be in at the moment, only things at that elevation really existThe moles in the ground are can be asserted to be "below", but that just means that they used to exist when you were in your basement.  And the birds in the trees are "above" you, but that just means that they will exist after you indulge your habit of climbing to the attic.

(Unlike the case of time, I can go either up or down, but who cares?  Time may flow like a river, but space flies like a bumblebee, wobbling around in random directions.)

This is clearly uncommonly silly, and there are several retorts one might make to it.  If the ground beneath us doesn't exist, then what on earth is holding us up and supporting us?

Also, there is no such thing as a perfectly flat human being.  Your brain occupies several different planes of elevation at once, and there is no good reason to think that any horizontal slice of your brain would be capable of thinking, independently of all the other slices.

Another possible retort would be to critique the language, and say that there is really no meaning to it.  If I say that the birds will exist after I go into the attic, I am implicitly and illegitimately assuming that my attic exists, and that I can therefore go up to it.  But if I really took my philosophy completely seriously, I would have to believe that the attic doesn't exist either.  To say that up exists upwards is a circular definition, which can hardly console us if things that are up do not exist in the first place.

But if none of these "philosophical" arguments are persuasive, I can always crack out the "Argument from Geophysics".  Our most advanced scientific theories suggest that the world is in fact round.  It turns out that up and down are relative concepts, you see.  In Australia, they fall in a different direction than we do.  What they call down is different from what we call down.  The actual laws of physics are rotationally symmetric.  There is a symmetry which mixes up the up-down axis with the right-left axis and the forwards-backwards axis.  We can call "down" the direction which points to the Earth, but the earth is a contingent object which might not have existed.  Out in space, there is no reason to adopt a geocentric coordinate system.

And certainly, if we start doing theology, it would be presumptuous to think that the God who created the whole universe, all the stars and galaxies, is confined to existing at some particular elevation.  Whatever limitations we may ascribe to created beings, we should not ascribe them to the unlimited Creator, who made them all out of nothing.

(Some ideas, e.g. the idea that God is a really old man with a long white beard who lives in the sky, really do become ridiculous when you consider the size and proportions of the Universe as discovered by modern Science.  But garden variety Internet Atheists are always trying to manufacture this feeling artificially, in situations where it's a non sequitur.  If you can't tell the difference between Classical Theism and belief in a sky-fairy or an invisible garage dragon, that shows your intellectual limitations, not mine.)

This analogy summarizes the previous posts in this series, only I was talking about Time instead of Height:

God and Time I: Metaphysics
God and Time II: Special Relativity

It turns out that there is also a "rotational symmetry" so to speak (called a Lorentz boost) which mixes Space and Time.  It works a little bit differently from a regular rotation, since it involves rotating along hyperbolas instead of circles.  Mathematically, it's just a matter of throwing in a minus sign.  A result of this is that there is a lightcone which is unaffected by the symmetry transformation.  Some pairs of points are timelike separated (one point can affect the other) and others are spacelike separated (neither can affect the other), but there is no such thing any more as simultaneity.  From the perspective of somebody who is stationary, time goes slower for somebody who is moving; this is called "time dilation".

But in General Relativity, things get more wild, since space and time can themselves be affected by the behavior of matter.  Thus the distances and durations become a function of where and when you are.  Time runs slightly slower near the earth than it does in outer space.  (Believe it or not, this is why things fall down.  An object in free-fall always takes the path which maximizes the amount of time to get from point A to point B.  This is a compromise between SR and GR time dilation effects.)

In Special Relativity, space and time are a unity, but they have a fixed geometry.  The distances and the times are the same regardless of what matter does.  They are unaffected, and therefore they might possibly (by a Materialist, not by a Classical Theist) be taken to be a fundamental, necessary, and immutable feature of reality, which limits other entities but is not itself affected by them.

In General Relativity, by contrast, the spacetime metric g_{ab} not only affects matter, it is in turn affected by matter.  This implies that the causal structure  (which tells you which points can affect which other points by signals) is itself causally affected by stuff.  So we learn that the particular geometry of spacetime is a contingent, mutable feature of reality.

From a philosophical point of view, the Absolute Spacetime of Newton (or Special Relativity) was never very satisfying.  Even if it is Absolute, an empty Spacetime can hardly itself be the source of all that is real.  Thus there must also be some other principles besides those of space and time, threatening an unparsimonius proliferation of fixed principles.  It has seemingly arbitrary features, and yet if it is really immutable and necessary it is difficult to explain it in terms of other things, other than just God's will.  Many philosophers such as St. Leibnitz and Mach rejected absolute spacetime, and tried to reduce it to the status of merely relative data relating various material objects.  Newton and his followers, on the other hand, tried to identify Space and Time with the necessary attributes of God, his Immensity and Eternity, but this doesn't work very well theologically.

Einstein was influenced by Mach in the creation of GR, but it doesn't really meet Mach's original aspirations since spacetime is still a reality independent of matter in his theory.  Mach would have said that spacetime has no independent reality; that it is just a way of keeping track of the relationships between material objects.  (He thought that the water would run to the sides of a rotating bucket only because the bucket was rotating compared to the distant stars).  But in GR, it is possible to have a geometry apart from any matter, e.g. empty Minkowski space, or a spacetime with gravitational waves.

There is indeed a sense in which the curved spacetime of GR is relational—there is no absolute fixed coordinate system to measure everything else by.  Thus it is only meaningful to  measure the locations and times and velocities of objects relative to other objects, indeed unlike SR we must even specify a specific path through spacetime between the two objects, in order to meaningfully compare them.  But, even though GR is relational, the spacetime metric g_{ab} is itself one of the entities which may be used to construct relational observables.

Thus I would say that Spacetime in GR is neither absolute in the Newtonian sense (more fundamental than matter), nor relative in the Leibnitz/Machian sense (less fundamental than matter), but rather has the same status as matter.  It is real in the same concrete, tangible way that a rock or a tree is real.  It is one of several different fields in Nature, all with equal status, all capable of affecting and being affected.

As some physicist I can't track down right now (Carlo Rovelli?) once said, if an intense gravity wave passed by and destroyed your house, you would think of it as being just as real as any other kind of matter.

Now, if Spacetime (and therefore Time) is real in the same sense that a rock or a tree are real, that meas that it is also a contingent, created being.  Time is just one of the many things that God has created.  But the Creator, blessed be he, is not dependent on rocks or trees for his existence.  He is not measured or parcelled out by units of space, therefore he is also not measured by time.  Time is just something he created, which need not have existed.  Before they were created, and afterwards, he exists just the same as he ever was.  He is the Absolute, the Fundamental Reality which everything else depends on, but which does not itself depend on anything.  God's divine attributes (his necessity, eternity, and unity) imply that he cannot change with time, nor can he consist of distinct parts at each time.  He is the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End!

But I digress, since I was planning to discuss the Scriptures in the next post.  This one is supposed to be about how GR makes it even harder to say that God is in Time.  I've already talked about the contingency of the spacetime geometry.  Now let's talk about the arbitrariness of selecting what you mean by a single moment of time.

In SR, there is still a preferred notion of "simultaneity" if you pick a particular reference frame.  I drew a picture of that in the previous post:

Here Sue and Martha don't agree on whether p or q came first.  But maybe Sue is objectively right and Martha objectively wrong?  Somebody could still argue that there is a special inertial frame of reference with respect to which God happens to exist.  In other words, God has no position, and yet he has a velocity?  He is not an idol, a piece of wood or stone carved into an anthropomorphic form.  Why should he be limited in this way.

But in GR, spacetime is curved, and there are no inertial coordinate systems defined on the whole spacetime.  You can divide Spacetime into Space and Time in any way you like, using wiggly surfaces (although one might want to restrict to surfaces which are everywhere spacelike).  For example, the relationship between 2 coordinate systems could look like this:


In GR is not always any particular connection between a given coordinate system and a given observer, so I have not drawn Sue and Martha in this picture, but I have still drawn the spacelike separated points p and q which are in an ambiguous time relation.  (Since spacetime is 4 dimensional, the time slices I've drawn actually represent 3 dimensional surfaces.)

Of course, nothing stops you from choosing a funky coordinate system in Newtonian mechanics or SR either.  For example, it is often convenient to choose a rotating frame of reference to follow a rotating body such as the Earth.  Or a coordinate system which tracks an accelerating observer.  (Many pop descriptions of GR give the false impression that you need GR to describe accelerating coordinate systems; this is obviously false since objects can accelerate even in Newtonian mechanics, and nobody can prevent you to choosing coordinates however you like no matter what the correct theory of physics is.)

The difference in GR is that none of the coordinate choices are particularly nice or special.  It looks from the picture above like the gray coordinate system is nicer than the apricot one, but that's just because your computer screen is flat.  On a typical curved spacetime, all time slices are bent in one place or another.  Thus, instead of having a 3 parameter family of "nice" time slices, we have an infinite dimensional family.  (The details depend on which particular curved spacetime we have.)

Do we really want to say that God's experience of time depends on making an arbitrary choice about how to respond to the gravitational field of each and every star?  An choice which, from the perspective of physics, is a completely meaningless choice of coordinate system?  God's perspective on the universe should not be more provincial and limited than the perspective of a mere physicist such as myself.  The Glory of Israel does not change, so why does he need a time coordinate?

Now it is true that on some specially nice spacetimes, there is a naturally nice choice of time coordinate.  For example in an FRW expanding universe, there is a "cosmic time" coordinate which tracks the overall size (the "redshift factor") of the universe.  Some philosophers, such as St. William Lane Craig, have suggested that God's "time" might simply be this "cosmic time".

But this is a misunderstanding of the physics of our universe.  The FRW metric is a just an approximation to reality.  It describes a universe which is completely uniform (the same in everywhere) and isotropic (the same in every direction).  This is a very good approximation on large distance scales (billions of light years), but on shorter distance scales (e.g. the solar system, or the milky way, or your living room) you may have noticed that matter is not distributed uniformly.  It comes in clumps, and each of these clumps has a gravitational field which distorts the spacetime metric, making the FRW metric no longer correct.  On a lumpy spacetime, the notion of "cosmic time" is not well-defined.

With sufficient effort, one might be able to define a different time coordinate which is well defined.  Perhaps the maximum proper time since the Big Bang, or something.  But reformulating GR in a way that makes special reference to such quantities spoils the beauty of Einstein's theory.  It is ugly.  As for a blind and lame theory like that, I hate it in my soul.  Why should our physical theory describing gravitation get uglier when we describe how it relates to God?

The closest thing I know about to an elegant reformulation of GR with a special time coordinate is called "shape dynamics".  (I say know about, since I don't understand it).  Apparently this is equivalent to GR in a coordinate system where you pick your time slices to be CMC ("constant mean curvature") slices.  I won't explain that right now, except to say that the soap films in your bubble bath are also CMC surfaces.  But given a GR spacetime metric, there might be many possible choices of CMC slicings, or none.  So the equivalence to GR is not complete.

It is of course always possible that a new theory of physics (such as Hořava gravity) might reimpose something like absolute time.  But I wouldn't count on it.

I think this is a good illustration of the point I made in Models and Metaphysics:

But it seems to me that the correct view is in the middle, that Physics has some bearing on Metaphysics but it doesn't fully determine it.

There are always going to be ways to force physics into being compatible with an A-theory metaphysics of time, but it doesn't look elegant or pretty.  The B-theory seems to fit much more naturally.  Physics can't usually rule out metaphysical ideas, but it can make them look a lot clunkier.

But in this case, physics isn't telling us anything we couldn't have learned from good philosophical theology.  Or from scriptural exegesis—which will be the subject of my next post in this series.

Posted in Physics, Theology | 30 Comments

Random Santa Fact

Oh, and I meant to include this random piece of information in the previous post but it slipped my mind:

♦  I just got back on Tuesday from a 3 week trip to Europe to go to some physics workshops in Brussels, Belgium and in Benasque, Spain.  While we were in Brussels, Nicole and I saw among many other things the Église St-Nicolas, a strange church near the Grand Place, which actually has privately owned shops built into the walls, completely surrounding the church!  According to our guidebook,

"A market church was built on this site at the end of the 13th century, but, like much of the Lower Town, it was damaged in the 1695 French bombardment.  A cannon ball lodged itself into an interior pillar and in 1714, the bell tower finally collapsed.  Several restoration projects were planned but none came to fruition until 1956, when the west side of the building was given a new Gothic style façade.

Dedicated to St. Nicolas, the patron saint of merchants, this low-lit atmospheric church is known for its choir stalls, dating from 1381, which depict the story of St. Nicolas on medallions..."

So, now you know which side Santa's bread is buttered on!  Explains a lot, doesn't it?

It is now 145 days until Christmas, so you have plenty of time to forget this fact if it is going to ruin your holidays.  Ho ho ho!

Posted in Links | 3 Comments