Sunday, May 13, 2012

God's Rube Goldberg Machine

You don't have to dig very deep into Christianity to bump into this age-old controversy regarding God's sovereignty and man's responsibility. One school of thought will object (to varying degrees) to the idea that man has any free choice at all because, so they say, to imagine that man can make genuine free choices is to throw God's sovereignty under the bus. In order to affirm God's sovereignty, we must deny that humans have free will.

I have a way to "test" this notion. I don't aim to prove here that man has free will, though I have very good reasons to think that he does. But I do intend to demonstrate an irony: That denying human free will for the sake of preserving God's sovereignty can be seen to diminish God's sovereignty.

Before we do that, I think it's necessary to consider carefully what it means to say that man was created "in the image of God." In my research I have encountered various ways of expressing this idea, but the Christian Q & A web site ( begins to sum it all up with this:

"Having the “image” or “likeness” of God means, in the simplest terms, that we were made to resemble God."

But, the article goes on to explain that this "resemblance" isn't intended to be visual, but rather relates in some way to God's attributes. And an article at Answers In Genesis echoes this general sentiment:

"God endues man with some of his divine attributes, thereby separating and making him different from the beasts."

I don't anticipate the need to defend God's attributes here… most Christians seem pretty committed to the idea that God has attributes such as perfect righteousness, sovereignty, justice, omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence, immutability and so on. And few Christians would object to the notion that these attributes are unlimited in their capacity and scope. There's an absolute or infinite quality about God's attributes. And I think it's pretty clear to most folks, particularly Christians, that man's attributes, though they might correspond to God's attributes, are far from unlimited.

The conclusion I've reached is this: To be "made in the image of God" means that God chose to give man versions of God's own attributes that are finite or limited in some crucial way.

The article at also had this to say, which lends itself nicely to the analogy we're going to explore related to God's sovereignty and man's choice.

"Anytime someone invents a machine, writes a book, paints a landscape, enjoys a symphony, calculates a sum, or names a pet, he or she is proclaiming the fact that we are made in God’s image."

I'm particularly interested in the "invents a machine" portion of that sentence… you'll see why shortly.

Next, we have to examine and come to an understanding of the word "sovereignty". I've seen the idea of sovereignty expressed in different ways, but I'm going to argue that they all have a common thread having to do with the ability to make decisions which are not determined or influenced by any outside entity. Certainly, sovereignty relates to authority. A person who is in authority has the right to make decisions which affect those whom he has been given authority over. You can see the word "reign" in "sovereignty," and we can easily relate this to the reign of a king, or even the reigns of a horse. As long as the rider of the horse is holding the reigns, it is he who decides where the horse is going to go. He is, in this context, "sovereign" over the horse.

Here are a couple of characterizations of "sovereignty" that I discovered, each of which relate to making decisions independent of any outside influence:

"Supreme and independent power or authority in government as possessed or claimed by a state or community."

"Supreme authority within a territory"

Well, alright… both of these definitions rely on the word "authority." So let's take a second to examine how that word is defined:

"The power to determine, adjudicate, or otherwise settle issues or disputes; jurisdiction; the right to control, command, or determine."

Can you see how words like "determine," "adjudicate," and phrases like "settle issues or disputes" relate to decision making?

But at this point we face a problem, because although we might understand that God's attributes are infinite and ours are finite, we seem to be unable to grasp things like infinity and eternity. As humans, we are locked inside the finite and while we can assent to the idea of the infinite, our minds cannot get control of such an idea. So how can we understand what unlimited or infinite sovereignty looks like? Well, I would suggest that we can't. But we can understand man's sovereignty… we're all too familiar with its limitations. So it seems to me that we could use that knowledge to help us understand God's sovereignty, because if we know what man's sovereignty is, then we know what God's sovereignty is not. God's sovereignty has to be qualitatively superior to ours. If it turned out that our view of God's sovereignty ended up being qualitatively equivalent to man's, then we'd have reason to think we had it wrong. Does that seem fair?

So, I have an illustration regarding God's sovereignty and man's freedom which, I think, helps us to examine and assess our own view of God's sovereignty.

In the mid-1900's there was a cartoonist named Rube Goldberg. He became famous for cartoons that depicted wildly complicated contraptions that performed very simple tasks. Today, engineering students frequently enter Rube Goldberg machine contests or have assignments to build Rube Goldberg machines as an excellent exercise in creativity and a general engineering challenge.

If you want to waste some time over at YouTube, just type "Rube Goldberg machine" into the search field. You will be treated to hundreds of videos of amazing and clever contraptions, painstakingly designed… some occupying multiple rooms in a house. It boggles the mind to think about how much time and effort went into these things. And being Rube Goldberg machines, the end game for each machine is comically easy and should not have required so much effort. One machine I viewed poured a bowl of cereal. Another crushed a grape. There are easier ways to pour a bowl of cereal or crush a grape. But Rube Goldberg machines are really created for everything but efficiency… their creators know there are easier ways; but Rube Goldberg machines are all about being creative and taking the road less traveled.

The creator of a Rube Goldberg machine, having been made in the image of God, is expressing God's attributes, albeit in a finite way, and one of them is sovereignty. That is, he or she makes decisions--and has the proper authority to make these decisions--about what the final objective will be, how the cascade of events will be initiated, how each segment of the machine will accomplish work towards the final objective, how the laws of physics and chemistry will be exploited to accomplish that final objective, etc. The creator of a Rube Goldberg machine is making decision after decision as the machine takes shape. He or she rules over the machine they are creating.

And yet, their sovereignty is limited. Because for one thing, the creator of a Rube Goldberg machine didn't create the laws of physics and chemistry, nor did they create atoms and molecules that make up all of the component parts of the machine. But when it comes to carefully selecting the various component parts for a given machine, isn't it interesting that nobody ever uses any kind of living creature in their machine? I mean, why not use a cat, for example? I have an idea as to why this isn't done: You see, a cat has a mind of its own--a will, and it's highly unlikely that the cat will cooperate with the creator's plan for the machine. On the other hand, inanimate objects like ramps, levers, balls and dominoes are entirely predictable and can be relied upon (once placed in the proper arrangement) to contribute to the function of the machine.

Suppose that I build a Rube Goldberg machine, with all the usual ramps, levers, dominoes, pulleys, counterweights and so on, but in this machine, I choose to employ a cat. You know, maybe there's a surface for the cat to stand on, and maybe a box with a plate of tuna inside. The plate rests on a spring-loaded gizmo and at a crucial point in the chain of events, a door would slide open giving the cat access to the tuna, he would eat the tuna, the reduced weight would unload the spring, the support would rise up and trip a lever that knocks down a row of dominoes and on it goes…

But wait… that's only what I intend to happen. Suppose at that crucial moment as the machine does its thing, the cat decides it needs to visit the litter box. Or cough up a hairball? See, even though I'm the creator of this machine and even though I have a kind of "sovereignty" over the machine, I cannot accommodate the free and unpredictable actions of a cat in the function of the machine. Because of this, as you survey various Rube Goldberg machines posted at YouTube, you aren't likely to find any that use elements such as a cat, elements with anything like free will. Our sovereignty is limited in that way.

Now, Rube Goldberg machines can take various forms… actually the only thing that distinguishes a Rube Goldberg machine from any other is that efficiency and simplicity are not among the objectives for a Rube Goldberg machine. But any machine operates the same way… there is an end-goal, an objective, and there are component parts which contribute to that final objective. In his 1996 book "Darwin's Black Box," Michael Behe devoted a whole chapter to the discussion of a biochemical machine found in mammals known as the blood clotting cascade… except this isn't a "machine" in the usual sense, but rather a complex chain of chemical reactions at the molecular level. The chapter was titled "Rube Goldberg in the Blood."

Well, suppose we look at God's plan for history as a kind of giant Rube Goldberg machine. It has an objective and it has component parts, but in this case, a large number of the component parts in this machine are PEOPLE. God uses these component parts to accomplish His final objective. And with God as the creator of this machine, we know He created everything in the machine… all of the component parts. And as creator of this giant Rube Goldberg machine, we know He has sovereignty over it. But this is where we can, perhaps, learn something about God's sovereignty compared with man's sovereignty. Again, we know our own sovereignty inside and out. We live within its limitations daily. And we know that if our view of God's sovereignty is correct, He will not be subject to those same kinds of limitations. So, since there are a large number of Christians who firmly believe that God's sovereignty and human free will are mutually exclusive, consider this question carefully:

If we think it's impossible for God to be sovereign over a machine made of component parts which have free will, then isn't the sovereignty we're ascribing to God qualitatively equivalent to our own sovereignty?

My view of God's sovereignty is that it is qualitatively superior to man's, and to use our metaphor here, that means that He could choose to make a giant Rube Goldberg machine, give all of the component parts genuine free will, and still expect His objective to be met. But to say that man can't have free will because it would compromise God's sovereignty is to think of God's sovereignty as being no better than man's.

Again, this illustration is not intended to prove that man has free will. It is only intended to demonstrate that affirming genuine free will in man does not translate to a low view of God's sovereignty and actually can be seen as being consistent with a very high view of God's sovereignty. In other words, there doesn't need to be any tension between God's sovereignty and man's choice if we have a high view of God's sovereignty and especially if we also take into account God's other attributes such as omniscience and omnipotence.