by Brian 31. August 2009 06:20

I watched Knowing with Nicolas Cage the other night and even though there were quite a few "why is he doing that?" moments in the movie, I enjoyed it. The classroom scene caught my attention though. John, an astrophysicist played by Cage, asks his MIT students whether the universe is "determined or random." Based on the way the scene plays out you are basically told the universe is either one of the two. If determined, every effect is the result of a chain of antecedent causes and when contrasted with randomness as depicted in the movie, you get the idea determined events are telic - that is, there is some sort of point or purpose to the chain. On the other hand, John having recently lost his wife believes the universe is random and hence pointless and absurd. "S#@! just happens," as John points out. Fair enough, this is better-than-average Hollywood philosophy - if but only slightly.

If quantum indeterminacy is ontic (that is quantum events are ontologically vague) then the universe at the micro level may in fact be "random" in the sense that future states are not wholly determined by past ones. When combined with the nonlinearity of reality one can conceive of a flexible and open universe. If on the other hand, quantum indeterminacy is merely epistemic (that is, we cannot know the outcome of a quantum event even though it could only have a specific one) then effects are wholly determined by their chains of antecedent causes. In this case then the universe might not be random even if it appears that way to us.  For example, I recently read that a gas molecule after a mere 50 collisions would have a state measurably affected by the presence of an electron at the other end of the universe (an extremely weak force across a vast distance still having an impact.) It's unlikely even the super-intellect of the aliens in the movie could predict the 50-year chain of tragic events based on initial states.

Knowing (the movie) subtly paints a false dilemma. We are told the universe is either determined, without freewill, perhaps heading towards telos (the end of some cosmic goal) - or, the universe is random, flexible, evolving and pointless. But there is an escape between the horns of this dilemma. The universe may be open and flexible AND have a purpose. Christian theology has room for this alternative. John Polkinghorne in Science and Providence puts it this way: We live in "a world of orderliness but not clockwork regularity, of potentiality without predictability, endowed with an assurance of development but with a certain openness to its actual form." This seems to me to be the way the world really is. There is room for the ecbatic "stuff happens" within the telic where "God intends."  

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I am a Christian, husband, father of two daughters, a partner and lead architect of EasyTerritory, armchair apologist and philosopher, writer of hand-crafted electronic music, avid kiteboarder and a kid around anything that flies (rockets, planes, copters, boomerangs)

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