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Whatever you decide is fine by me

The idea of predestination, that individuals have a path through life from which they cannot deviate whatever choices they make, that there are ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ choices, that key events and situations are unavoidable, presupposes an external agency capable of planning and supervising, even physically intervening in, the most tiny minutiae of earthly affairs. Like Santa Claus, such an agency would require vast resources, otherwise it would have to have the capability of acting outside (or of slipping silently between!) the normal dimensions of time and space.

There are many references to this in the New Testament. The quasi-divine person of Jesus preaches frequently on the topic of external agency, remarking for instance that no sparrow falls from the sky without the knowledge of the ‘Heavenly Father’, who counts every hair on our heads and determines when we are born and when (and how) we die. In fact, he goes on, we need ‘take no thought for the morrow’, in the lovely words of the King James bible, because, basically, it’s all taken care of. Whatever you decide, is fine by me!

The idea of predestination has been around a long time, and is a fundamental tenet of most religions. The problem of agency is solved by positing the existence of angels, a force of invisible operatives who carry out the divine plan. There is of course no tangible evidence for the existence and location of this celestial agency, other than the outcomes of the decisions and actions we ourselves ascribe to it. (Often, they find me a parking space on a busy day in town!) Such ascriptions must therefore be the product of predestined thought processes and are entirely self-referential.

That such an agency can only be ‘known’ by its actions and is otherwise completely opaque and undiscoverable suggests a paradox: that here is an entity that has effect, but no cause. They are one and the same.

Of course, the physical laws of the universe state that there can be no effect without cause, and, vice versa, no cause that does not produce an effect. Cause>effect is a linear process described in Newtonian mechanics, that has been understood by thinkers in modern times for over three hundred years; and was not unknown to the ancients. Yet it is still insufficient to persuade those fatalists who live their lives as though they were especially ‘destined’ to take every breath or to shed each hair at a specific moment. This apparently mad belief emerges from religious thought. For such people, decision-making is an agony: a guessing game in which one seeks to cause as little offence as possible to the forces that rule their lives, in which one must merely ‘hope for the best’.

Interestingly, the universe itself may be the one thing we know of that appears to defy its own law: its appearance seemingly out of nothing and nowhere, from a singular mathematical probability to the physical reality of a billion, trillion suns (these in turn may comprise only some three percent of all the matter in the universe), its continuing, seemingly directionless ‘expansion’, the wonderful alchemy of turning energy into matter and back again – the conquest of ‘nothingness’ –  might suggest the existence of a very considerable effect that has no seeming cause.

Decisions may however be taken from the opposite standpoint, that of randomness, or ‘going with the flow’. The fashionable paradigm for the past twenty years has been Chaos Theory, the idea that cause-and-effect is the driver of everything we see evolving around us: that every phenomenon arises from consequential changes to initial conditions – we get where we are going, simply by starting from here. This implies nothing more celestial and requires no further intervention than our own human agency, our response to circumstances. The present is simply the accreted outcomes of billions of decisions, of individual actions moderated by random accidents of nature and interactions with other chains of events. The future is simply a field of potential created by history and the steps and decisions we take now. Time is not a dimension but the accretion of an infinite series of past and present moments unfolding one by one by one, like the petals of the lotus, each containing its own mini-universe of consequence, probability and meaning.

Whatever its cause – and there must have been one – it has been the random perturbations in the evolution of the universe, the accidental series, that have resulted in the present state of being: it, we, everything are self-created as part of a process in which creation feeds on circumstance, in which events are the cause of other events and outcomes can be predicted only to a certain extent, from past experience. And yet, Chaos Theory shows us something different: a seeming order, marvellous patterns underlying everything, the fundamental scalability of a myriad levels of reality – the ‘music of the spheres’.

What spoils the entire beautiful edifice of religious philosophy is that on a very human scale, these concepts that underlie our belief systems have clear political applications benefiting a small number of individuals with hereditary authority and wealth to protect!

Belief in angels, in the agency of ‘the Lord’, unseen powers, are promoted through the salutary precepts of testamentary legend, dogma on which hierarchical structures can rest; the underlying religious ‘memes’ or cultural building-blocks of autocratic societies guarantee conformity to ideas of deference, obedience, ‘polity’, piety, worship of and loyalty to the rulers through the reinforcement of belief in a beneficent, wise but stern external agency, that reflects the ‘how it must be’ in human affairs.* Thus, the spiritual and the material worlds are a mirror-image of one another, each reifying the other’s existence in a way that seems to benefit the rulers, more than the ruled.

The ruler protects and redeems; he gives his own flesh in sacrifice for our common good; yet in reality, it is usually the vassal who is called upon first to give his life in order to protect the ruler. The Christian metaphor of God sending his Only Son to die on our behalf is an incredibly powerful motif, a ‘truth’ on which millions still adamantly insist after two millennia. Yet in my view, it is evidence of a grisly anthropomorphic falsehood: it is in reality our sons who must die to save the Lord, the all-wise,  beneficent leader who holds our fates in His hands.

Surely, religion is the spirit of the hive.

*Interestingly, many people who long ago gave up their devotion to the stern but beneficent and ultimately forgiving paternal ‘sky god’ who looks down on us and numbers our sins as the hairs on our chinny-chin-chins are the very people who welcome the presence of closed-circuit television cameras in our streets and all the other myriad kinds of surveillance apparatus imposed by a supposedly ‘beneficent’, all-wise and all-seeing security state, on the historically dubious grounds that ‘the innocent have nothing to fear’.

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