Friday, March 15, 2013
Probability, Chaos, and Purpose
At this particular moment, the level of online buzz about obscure eighteenth century theological monographs is...um...what you might expect. Still and all, I've been forging my way through Thomas Bayes' complex monograph on the benevolence of God. And it is complex, right down to the syntax.
Eighteenth century sentence structure takes a bit of getting used to. Oh, sure, I use commas by the bucketload, but Bayes strings sentences together that take up entire pages. You need to be a mathematician just to diagram them. I wonder what his sermons would have been like. Lord have mercy on his congregation.
But when you get through all that, how is his thinking? It's fascinating. Enlightenment era rationality shines bright throughout it. Yes, there are references to Scripture and Tradition. But that's not how Bayes buttered his bread. Logic, reflection and reason governed his thinking. This is not surprising, given that Bayes was both a mathematician and a nonconformist Christian.
Saying he was a nonconformist wasn't just a way of saying he did his own thing in his own time. It was a legal category, meaning he was not in compliance with the Act of Uniformity of 1662. Ah, to have been Presbyterian when it was a synonym for being a nonconformist. Good times.
As a pastor and mathematician, Bayes was responsible for Bayes Theorem, the equation used by modern statisticians to determine probability. Driving my curiosity about Bayes is this: Given that the theology of the faithful shapes and forms the direction of their thinking, what in his theology made him explore probability?
What Bayes appears to have been responding to is a Deist pamphlet he'd received. Again, what a different era this was, when it wasn't just Jack Chick who handed out tracts. The Deist was apparently making an argument for God's existence from design, suggesting that the beauty and order we perceive in things was clear evidence for the existence of God.
Bayes seems to resonate with this on some levels. He appreciates beauty in things, but his mind is too rational to stop there. As he puts it, we have no "...reason to think that every being that perceives the same order and proportion in an object must have the same sentiments of its beauty." Order exists, he suggests, but it goes far deeper than the limitations of human subjectivity.
We human beings see design in orders and symmetries and patterns. But there is also, Bayes observes, order in things we perceive as less than lovely. What he suggests, nearly two hundred and fifty years before chaos theory, is that there are patterns and structures in what we perceive as chaotic, ugly, or "imperfect."
Does our perception of the orders and symmetries that comprise beauty mirror Gods'? No, not really. We're limited, and what we see as disorder or ugliness is simply part of a greater pattern we struggle to perceive. "Nothing can appear to Him confused and disorderly," says Bayes. What appears to us to be chaos, Bayes seems to be saying somewhere in the thicket of some crazy-long sentences, is part of the divine creative purpose.
As he resists the classical design argument for God's goodness and power, Bayes starts taking theology in a different direction. He talks of God creating creatures that are "capable" of happiness. He talks of our having the "capacity" for goodness and joy.
He begins heading in this direction towards the end of the monograph, but takes it no further. But where it seems to be leading is to probability, towards a God who gives freedom and options, and who creates the possibility of happiness for any who wish to pursue it.
Which is why I find Bayes so very fascinating. Given the radical implications for human freedom that seem to be arising in my explorations of Many Worlds theory, this is some good stuff.