Monday 30 March 2015

Does Life have a plan, or is it just random? Neither - Life has a Plot

Secular modernity has it that each human life is random, contingent and meaningless. Obviously; to a religious person that is wrong.

Against this, many religious people say that their life has what they call a Plan - but it seems that this 'plan' is known only in retrospect, and has (what looks to the secular modernists) a self-justifying quality: whatever happens is argued to be 'part of the plan' - no matter how apparently horrible or absurd 'whatever happens' turns-out to be.

'Plan' is the wrong kind of concept for life - to think of life as having a 'Plot' comes much closer to the proper Christian attitude.

Life has a plot, and just like the plot of a play or a novel we only find out the plot at the end - however, any good play or novel is meaningful throughout precisely because we know that (so long as the author is competent) there IS a plot; and we are in IN it all the way.

A plot is not fully-planned-out, and a plot can accommodate all kinds of surprises and even accidents and disruptions without breaking the plot. In other words, a real plot has room for both free-will and contingency.

The plot of the Lord of the Rings requires that Frodo gets to the Cracks of Doom, but cannot fling the One Ring into it. In the actually used plot, Gollum fights Frodo, bites the ring off on its finger, and falls accidentally/ providentially into the lava.

But Gollum nearly repents in the tunnel approaching Shelob's lair, and in his letters Tolkien discusses what might have happened if Gollum had repented. Gollum's repentance would have been 'a good thing' but the plot was under divine providence, so the end result would have been the same - but by other means.

For example, Gollum might have taken the ring from Frodo and deliberately thrown himself into the cracks of doom (because he, like Frodo, would have been unable to throw the ring in). Of, if Gollum had been killed then Sam might have taken Gollum's role; either in some negative way if Sam had killed Gollum from hatred or disgust, or in a noble and self-sacrificing way if Gollum had died by accident or been shot by an orc.


My point is that there is room in the plot of life for free will, and accidents and without violating character.

Human life is governed by providence, there are end points which will happen (God will make them happen) but the timing and precise nature of these end points remains open - and is determined by choices, and also by such random or divinely un-intended factors as exist in the universe outwith God's will.

In your life or my life, bad luck is not 'really' Good luck, evil is not the same as Good - everything that happens is not part of a pre-decided plan. Life is a plot not a plan - some ends are pre-destined, God will ensure that they happen - but not exactly how and when they happen.

This, for example, is how we can know that the end of the world will come, and we can know that these are the end times leading-up-to that end; but we cannot know when that end will come, nor exactly how the prophecies will be fulfilled (and neither does Jesus Christ know this - as explicitly stated in scripture); because 'the end', while certain, can be advanced or delayed and re-shaped by human choice (as well as accidental factors).



Adam G. said...

I like your insight here.

Take genre fiction. You know, picking up a detective novel, that the crime is going to be solved in the end. But you don't know how or with what complications, and you still feel it whenever the detective bumbles a clue.

I like to think our lives are the same way. We know how this story ends, we just don't know how or how long it will take us to get there.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Adam - It came for a conversation with someone who had done research into a Christian group where everybody believed that life had a plan, and that whatever happened was part of the plan - even terrible tragedies; and how silly and self-deceiving this looked to a non-religious outsider. It seemed to me that plan wasn't quite right, but (obviously) neither was the rejection of any element of providence. Reality seems to lie in some kind of middle ground. It surely cannot be a matter of indifference to God into what situation our souls are placed - yet it seems obviously wrong to assume that every detail of our lives (exact nature of parents and siblings and friends and enemies, time and place of birth and childhood, exam results and employment history...etc) was *all* part of some unfolding master-plan. We need to be able to make sense of non-random but not-fully-determined situations.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

I wonder what you make of the incident, recorded in the New Testament, where Christ predicts that Peter will deny him thrice before cockcrow and then Peter, despite his insistence that he would never do such a thing, proceeds to fulfill the prophecy.

How does Peter's free will fit into this story? Could he have not denied Christ -- and if so, what would have become of the prophecy? Would Christ have said, "Well, I guess I was wrong about you. Good job, Peter!" -- or would he somehow have stopped all cocks from crowing for the rest of Peter's life?

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - There are several explanations I can think of, none of which violate Peter's free will. I personally suppose that Christ simply knew Peter better than Peter knew himself, and was better able to understand what would happed after his arrest.

I don't think it makes sense to say what would have happened if... You seem by this to be asking for it to be built into the necessary nature of reality that Peter should deny Christ; but that is the Classical philosophical view which is decisively (and uniquely) rejected by Mormon theology (although not, of course, by all Mormons. The ability to understand the implications of philosophy/ theology is rare.)

Mormonism rejects the idea that God is necessary to reality, that God is necessarily good-by-definition, necessarily omnipotent, omniscient and other such metaphysical traps for Christians (who should strive never to put philosophy above revelation, never fit revelation into philosophical principle); and thereby Mormon theology rejects the decisive seriousness of all these kinds of speculations