Does God play dice with the universe? Or: What Theological Determinists and Open Theists have in common

Does God play dice with the universe? Theological Determinists answer “no”—there is no place for chance in a world created and sustained by God. Open Theists answer “yes”—there is indeterminacy with respect to humans, and maybe even with respect to quantum phenomena.Still, these odd bedfellows share at least two things in common.

First, both parties agree that indeterminacy is incompatible with complete providence. They part ways on what to do with “indeterminacy” or “complete providence.” The Theological Determinist upholds complete providence by denying indeterminacy in the world. God’s absolute sovereignty is maintained at the expense of (what many would say is) genuine human freedom: God providentially controls all that happens in the universe because God determines all that happens in the universe. The Open Theist upholds indeterminacy by denying complete providence. Thus, genuine (libertarian, or indeterministic) freedom is upheld at the expense of God’s absolute sovereignty.

But, is the fundamental assumption that leads to these opposite extremes sound? That is, is it possible for God to play dice and still be fully in control of the universe? Or again, is indeterminacy compatible with a theory of complete providence?

I think there is some logical space for an indeterministic world sustained and controlled by God. The Molinist position, which I discussed in a previous post is one possibility. Another, recently defended by Jonathan Kvanvig, is called Philosophical Arminianism. Both views are capable of robust defense and both provide complete theories of providence (in the sense that nothing occurs outside of God’s sovereign control), all the while allowing for genuine (libertarian) freedom (and quantum indeterminacy if there by any). So, I commend them to you for further exploration.

Second, both parties are at a disadvantage (over their Molinist and Philosophical Arminian counterparts) in being committed to the falsity of the doctrine of essential omniscience.

Consider the Theological Determinist. Even if God didn’t play dice with the universe, he could have. And if he could have played dice, then there exists (at least one, undoubtedly many, many more….) indeterministic possible world. But in those indeterministic possible worlds, God does not have omniscience, since the determinist does not have the resources available to her to yield full omniscience in a way that is independent of the truth of falsity of determinism (e.g., in the way the Molinist explanation of God’s omniscience relies on middle knowledge and the Law of Conditional Excluded Middle for counterfactual of creaturely freedom). For more on this, see Kvanvig’s excellent article “Theories of Providence and Creation.” So too, the Open Theist, in denying God’s knowledge of the future in the actual world (and other indeterministic worlds) denies God of essential omniscience.

Who would have thought that Theological Determinists and Open Theists have so much in common? I doubt they’ll be throwing parties together or joining forces anytime soon to beat back those who reject their fundamental assumption or endorse essential omniscience however.

But there is a lesson in all of this (or perhaps, two lessons). First, while there clearly are differences between various theories of providence, it is important to keep in mind that we can always find common ground. This should encourage patience, intellectual modesty, and a healthy dose of gumption to dig past our surface understandings on any particular topic. Second, perhaps it is wise to concentrate on (or ask along the way, as we work on developing our mature theories of providence) what sort of reasons a loving and providential God might have for allowing His creatures to live in a word full of wonder, drama, real intrigue, real violence, real goodness, and mystery.





2 Responses to Does God play dice with the universe? Or: What Theological Determinists and Open Theists have in common

  1. Josh Anderson says:

    Thanks for the food for thought, brother. One thing that I would throw out there is that you seem to be more than begging the question when you assume right out of the gates that libertarian freedom is the only “genuine freedom.” In my judgement this amounts to building the desired conclusion into the premises of your inquiry before you even begin.
    However, I think there is much that can be said against adopting that model of human freedom. I for one have never understood how a hypothetical libertarian choice, an event without a sufficient cause of any kind, is at all distinguishable from an entirely arbitrary event. I don’t follow why placing something like this at the center of our model for human freedom is either sound or desirable. If anything this utterly destroys any kind of meaningful human responsibility. As I’ve wrestled with these matters myself, I think that there are some compatibilist ways of framing freedom that are truer to scripture and more philosophically cogent. Anyway, just my two cents. I’ll link to a couple of articles that summarize what I might say if I had a bit more time and a good deal more coffee!

    By the way, there are some first rate reformed philosophers out there….Keep looking!

    • says:

      Hello Josh–thanks for your comments here–I will look at the articles you mention here. You are right, I am assuming for the post that libertarian freedom is true. I guess I’ve been persuaded by Peter van Inwagen’s book “An Essay on Free will”–but of course, that is not the last word on the topic! Appreciate your thoughts. warmly, Paul

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