28 June 2011

God's deterministic plan for your life

For I know the plans I have for you---plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. -The LORD (Jeremiah 29:11)
My life is played out like a jheri curl, I'm ready to die. -Biggie Smalls
If you're into Biggie and Tupac, you will know that both are seen as being prescient and prophetic in light of their violent deaths. Biggie's 'Ready to Die' and 'Life After Death' are the best examples as Biggie, it seems, knew what  fate had determined for him and accepted it, ready to die on his feet than live on his knees. And he did--they both did. When Biggie raps, 'I'm ready to die', we know he means it. He believes it. It was, as he said, already played out.

Although Biggie and Tupac's deaths might ultimately be deemed agentive (they were, after all, repeatedly putting themselves into situations where they might get shot), they both had a strong notion of an unseen hand making everything play out, but the trouble with fate is like the trouble with god--as I'm not the first to say--especially with a god that has some amount of power to intervene in the world. Theists might reject the notion of 'fate' (agentless determinism) and accept 'god's plan' (agentful determinism), but pragmatically and experientially, there's no difference. Indeed, you can't have a powerful god in the system without having some amount of determinism and you certainly can't have an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent god without having complete determinism (and a shitload of apologetic patches about the problem of evil). You have to have one or the other. I accepted this when I was a Christian by accepting Calvin's worldview: surely if god had a plan for the righteous, if he established and determined their path, he also must, necessarily, have established the path of the wicked. Parts of the Bible say as much and it is, as far as I can tell, the most intellectually honest position, if you need to have a god in your system.

The problem is, however, lots of people have god in their systems, but don't want to accept determinism. Or they want to accept the good bits of determinism, but not the bad bits. God has a great plan for your life, but if you mess it up--well, that's your fault... You've heard these arguments before and I'm fine with people believing paradoxical things--I'm certainly not logical all the time. I can't stand, however, when someone's dumb paradox is applied to me to try to make me think or believe or feel something. God has a plan for your life, Stephen. Great. Thanks for sharing. There is no god. We've both said our piece: can I go now?

I don't believe in determinism. I do believe (or should say know, as we have now trespassed on to empirical grounds) that there are a very limited set of affordances for any individual, but empirical affordances. Most of the time, we can  see what holds us down, what constrains us, what limits our possibilities in any given day and/or year and/or life. That's not to say the system can't change, quite often it radically does, but when it does, you can observe and track the changes from stability to stability. Putting god into the narrative only acts as an anecdote to the feelings of helplessness--don't worry, god has a good plan for you, you aren't helpless--but it doesn't remove the constraints of the system or solve any problems in an empirical sense. Believing in an unseen hand making it all happen is perhaps a necessity for some people. There's just no way of ever knowing if it's actually true and, therefore, pragmatically speaking, of no consequence unless, of course,  you believe it and it makes you feel better.


Yesterday I left the house to get some food for a birthday cookout--walked past the car and realised I had left my mobile at home. I went up the stairs and noticed the child gate was up to keep the kids out from upstairs because the windows were open, but I pushed down the gate (which was surprisingly loose), and grabbed my phone from my bag and started to tighten it against the wall again. As I looked up, I saw Mei, standing on the window sill in her room, in front of the open window looking back at me. I shouted, ran over, and swooped her up into my arms. Had she come up behind me--she couldn't have, the gate was only down for a second and she hadn't been on the stairs. She must have been up there by herself: how long had she been alone?

Holding Mei, coming down the stairs, I screamed out at Yoko: why is Mei up here, what are you doing, what were you thinking? I was so angry: she was about to fall, what were you thinking? My Japanese fell apart, I could only barely explain it, but Yoko took Mei and I went to shut all the windows. Yoko and her mother were patient in the midst of my rage: measured and careful in their response, but I was furious. I noticed that Mei had, on the window sill where she was, already pulled one of the windows shut and was heading, when I saw her, to the next one. I perceived myself as coming right at the perfect time, right at the perfect moment, but that moment had already happened: she had already leaned out to pull the window shut and hadn't slipped or fallen.

Here now, the Christian might be exacerbated, don't you see Stephen? How blind are you to god's plan for your life? At just the right moment, you came upstairs. At just the right moment you looked up.This is god's plan, god's grace in your life. 

I put my phone in my pocket, slammed the door shut without saying goodbye and went to the supermarket, still livid, although growing ashamed that now Yoko's mother had seen me behave at my worst, the secret finally out about how angry I can be. It took me about three hours to finally come down and accept what had happened: children have close calls all the time and sometimes they do fall out of windows and it is sometimes the parents' fault for not being careful enough. Mei, if she had fallen where she had would have been quite lucky actually, she would have fallen onto the roof of the conservatory, which she would have slid off of, landing on the grass. If she had fallen on her head, it would have been a serious problem, but if she had fallen anywhere else, she would have perhaps broken a leg or arm. It's silly to think about: much more important to see how she got up there and make sure she can't do the same thing again. Although we may want to avoid this problem in the future (and we will be able to avoid this specific problem), we can't make Mei's life safe, actually, only control obvious dangers when we can. The rest will depend on the components and factors in any situation she finds herself in for the rest of her life. And when Mei and Naomi and Mia survive, it will be a mix of luck and our care for them. I like to focus on the amount which is our care, but how much is it really? The world is, after all, an incredibly dangerous place.

But god's plan? No, I am only willing to accept propositions that I am willing to accept completely. 27 June, we avoided tragedy and what would have spoiled an otherwise perfect couple of days. For me, the experience did spoil it to some extent: I stopped on the way to Sainsbury's, had an espresso, and thought about how close everything always is to falling apart... Because you can't have god's good plan without the bad plan. You can't have good parking spots and saved children's lives without Biggie Smalls gunned down and freak accidents where children die playing with tree branches or other ridiculous, innocuous things that are suddenly fatal in the right circumstance. Even if my story had been more dramatic, if I had caught Mei as she was falling, the point remains: children fall and die. One instance of it not happening does not and cannot negate the rest. So I prefer the system I can observe over the one I can't, but in both cases, I am small and insignificant, telling myself a story to feel better about the whole thing. Apologies for trying to impose my story on you--please don't try to impose your's on me.
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