Theism – The Only Viable Option

In this post, I want to argue that the only viable option from a psychological perspective is theism. The argument is based on causation. Without an intentional cause fundamental to reality, the psychological impact is devastating and cannot lead to a healthy personal psychology and rather leads to denial or irrationality.

First a bit of background on causation. Now, this may be a bit lengthy but hopefully it will set things up for my argument.  Also, this won’t be an extensive treatment of these topics and I’ll leave it to the reader to explore further if they are interested.

There is a long history in thought about the idea of causality.  Causation basically means that events (effects) are preceded by causes.   Causes produce effects. This has been a cornerstone for many fields of thought, especially science.  Science requires causes to produce effects because without it there could be no predictions.

Renowned mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827) claimed that all causes and effects were deterministic.  If one knew enough then anything would be predictable. When asked by Napoleon why there was no mention in his work about God, he famously said: “I have no need of that hypothesis”.  His view was taken as fact for many years.  However, the advent of quantum mechanics cast doubt on his predictive claim.

The Copenhagen interpretation (standard model) of quantum mechanics claimed that quantum events could not be predicted absolutely and that only probabilities could be calculated.    Erwin Schrödinger (1887-1961) developed the famous Schrödinger wavefunction equation that described the evolving quantum states of a system.  That equation was deterministic but only represented the potential outcomes (probabilities) of how a particular quantum event would actualize.  The realized state of a quantum system represented what was called the collapse of the wavefunction.  The potentialities collapse into an actual state. Now, unlike Laplace’s assertion, the unpredictability of the actual state wasn’t an epistemological issue (not knowing enough) but rather an ontological issue (just the way things are).  The standard model of quantum mechanics has been shown correct through many, many experiments. It is perhaps the most well established theory in science. However, its accuracy is about the probabilities over many, many events.  Any individual event is uncertain.  The fact is that science doesn’t know why the wavefunction collapses when it does. Thus its uncertainty.

One very interesting thing that cropped up in the Copenhagen interpretation was intention.  It was the act of measurement that collapsed the wavefunction.  It was the intention of the experimenter in what they were measuring that determined the outcome.  If they looked for a wave, that’s what they got.  If they were looking for particles, that’s what they got. This falls under the wave/particle duality in quantum mechanics.  The observer became an intrinsically crucial cause in how reality came about.

Now there were, of course, other quantum interpretations proposed, perhaps because indeterminism was abhorrent to some including Einstein.  Those alternate theories like Bohm’s pilot wave and Everett’s many-worlds theory rejected indeterminism but there is some skepticism concerning those interpretations because they require hidden variables or are probably not verifiable.

So enough background.  Now, even with quantum theory raising profound issues, the dominant view in science is that events occur either out of chance or necessity.  Necessity is pretty straight forward.  In popular parlance, this means intransigent natural law.   These are laws like those of Newton and Laplace. They just are and they are unwavering.  Chance is a bit trickier.  Chance could mean without a cause and that is usually rejected.  It could just mean contingency which would mean something is caused but not with any plan/purpose.  Things just happen at certain times that have powerful effects.  This is the claim of folks like scientist Jacques Monod on evolution.  However, just for shorthand I’ll use the term chance and necessity as common descriptions for the origin of causes.

Now to the meat of the argument.  To put it succinctly, if everything occurs strictly out of chance and necessity (without any fundamental intentional cause) then everything is just an automaton, just doing what it does and can’t do otherwise.  There would be no categorical difference between a human and a thermostat. Both make “decisions” and the only difference is the complexity of those decisions. I put “decisions” in quotes because in reality a decision requires a live choice. With an automaton there is really no live choice. It just does what it does, and couldn’t do otherwise.

Let’s take a look at this.  In a chance and necessity alone universe the thermostat makes its decisions because of a chain of chance and necessity events that eventually leads to tripping a circuit to turn the heat on or off.  It would go something like this: the temperature changes in the ambient, the bimetal spring expands or contracts, eventually it changes enough that the contacts of the circuit close or open.  A simple enough decision.

So what would be different with a human decision?  In a chance and necessity alone universe, the difference is only the number of causal events that caused the decision.  Let’s say someone feels cold.  What that meant was that sensory systems detected a change, they signal the brain and limbic systems, neurotransmitters activate, neurons fire, etc, etc. So a decision is made to turn up the heater which activates more chance and necessity motor systems.  Chance and necessity all around.   Two autonomic systems each making “decisions” but essentially the same except for complexity.

I think the implications of this are enormous, especially psychologically.  It means that a person is just an automaton (like a thermostat), just doing what they do and can’t do otherwise.  No agency.  No free will.  Just machines doing what they do and have no freedom to do otherwise.

How can that be a psychologically viable view?  It can’t. And it isn’t.  Now some people may give it a nod rationally or play with semantics to obfuscate (a form of denial) , but invariably they don’t embrace its brute implications in their own psychology. Think about it.  What if for every thought, every action, every decision there was a background belief that “I couldn’t have done otherwise”.  And even that thought couldn’t have been otherwise. Just not psychologically possible. So what happens is repression or denial.  In my discussions, I’ve seen this over and over. People just can’t go there.  They will use all sorts of psychological or obfuscating gymnastics to avoid what I think is the obvious conclusion.

So what is the solution?  Enter theism. Intention requires agency.  Theism posits that God is the ultimate agent and ultimately free. To have a fundamental intentional cause, in reality, requires a source. God can provide that source. But not just any theism will do. I’ll get to that in a minute. Metaphysical systems that have no immanent intentional cause are bankrupt psychologically. This includes atheism, deism, most pantheisms, naturalistic theism and possibly non-theistic systems like Buddhism.  If there is no fundamental intentional cause in the universe then we’re back to automatons.

The only solution is one where intentionality is a fundamental cause for events.  In fact, in my view, intentionality causes all events.  Now that intentionality may create stability or change. From my theological position, there is no such thing as chance and necessity because that creates an interventionist system that means there is an ontological separation between God and this world.  I talk about why I reject this in other essays.  To avoid the automaton scenario the source of ultimate intentionality must also be available (albeit within constraint) throughout reality.  God has ultimate unconstrained intentionality and freedom.  In an aspect monism of the Divine Life Communion theology, everything is an aspect of God’s life and because it is a part of God it participates in some of the attributes of God within the constraints of its life.  Those constraints vary according to the form of life.  What this means is that the agency and freedom that God has, can also be found in the aspects of the Divine Life to a limited degree. Humans have more complicated intentionality than primates, reptiles, rocks, etc. But intentionality pervades all events, even if that intentionality is basically a stabilizing force (regularities in nature) that provide for the possibility of life.

Now the skeptic can reasonably ask if there is any evidence for this.  Right.  Enter quantum mechanics again.  If the observer is a crucial factor in how reality is constituted, then the question arises what does that mean before observers were present? Was there a universe? When Schrödinger was asked about this he suggested a universal observer.  Schrödinger was also a fan of Vedantic thought where there is a universal mind.

So, just think about it.  If the idea of being an automaton is not appealing, perhaps there is another way to think about reality that is more psychologically tenable but is also still reasonable.

2 thoughts on “Theism – The Only Viable Option

  1. Great post. Your Divine Life Communion Theology really articulates most of my personal views. This post, in tandem with your other post “Atheism – A Grim Position” clarifies your stance on this issue.
    My response will be messy, but I hope to clarify that theology as the only way might be missing out that it is a crucial ‘piece’ to the psychological issue but not the final answer to it. One can potentially accept the idea of theism as a possibility, but not accept it as the only viable option. Denial or repression is not necessary. There is a song by Iris DeMent titled “Let The Mystery Be”…the lyrics are fitting for this point of view.

    Everybody’s wonderin’ what and where they they all came from
    Everybody’s worryin’ ’bout where they’re gonna go
    When the whole thing’s done
    But no one knows for certain
    And so it’s all the same to me
    I think I’ll just let the mystery be

    Some of us cannot let the mystery be, thus, for us, theology is probably the answer.

    I think the implications of this are enormous, especially psychologically. It means that a person is just an automaton (like a thermostat), just doing what they do and can’t do otherwise. No agency. No free will. Just machines doing what they do and have no freedom to do otherwise.

    How can that be a psychologically viable view? It can’t. And it isn’t.

    I see the process we experience as some sort of psychological cycle: we go from nihilism or an acceptance of our meaninglessness via realization of the automaton we are (but who can live this way?), then into the Divine presence that fills us up with ultimate meaning (but who can live this way?), then attempt to bridge the two or seek a middle path, as some Buddhist may seek, going beyond this negative into a process of correcting ourselves to reach out towards a lighter side or the good side, but also going beyond this idea of the good when our human ideas become too loaded with meaning…leading us towards some ultimate meaning as the only way.

    Personally, I have gone through this experience of nihilism towards a theology (if it can be termed as such), from ultimate meaninglessness to the ultimate meaningful experience. I do not know if I agree that theology is the only way out of a psychological conundrum. Maybe. But how does this affect us psychologically? Does this deep understanding of an ultimate agent, a source or ground for all of our own actions, really give us a peace of mind? Maybe…but how do we accept that your theology and the path out of the psychological issue with meaninglessness might not be able to go beyond the fact that this ultimate is still but only a creation of the automaton? Wouldn’t we have to repress or deny this fact, as you say, on the opposite side of the matter (the automaton thought as well as the Ultimate causation thought are but thoughts of the automaton)? Wouldn’t we inevitably be in some cycle that, unless we neglect some of the psychological fluff that arises, would lead us to one high or low no matter our stance?

    My path has led me there again and again over this past year. My current stance, that our daily life goes through a cycle, allows some moments to focus on the theological side…it is something that I tune out of…this relationship with God, but once I am in tune again, I can go on with finding the ultimate meaning in life. (note: to reach this depth of understanding, “God in all things,” maybe some revelatory experience is necessary, as you noted in One Moment of Beauty post). John Gray (author of Straw Dogs and The Soul of the Marionette>) reaches the conclusion that other animals do not need purpose in life. “Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?” He advocates acceptance. He might state that any theology would just be another human attempt to bring about some meaning.

    From a review by Pumpjack on The Soul of the Marionette:

    The title (of the book) is based on a short story that brings to life the crux of the issue. Which is truly free, the marionettes (who have no control over their actions and are free to simply allow external forces to work upon them) or the person at the end of the strings (who, ostensibly, must constantly impose — and question the veracity and quality — of their plan). In the case of humans, our sense of self (the part of us that thinks we are unique) can be thought of as the puppet master while our physical bodies are the puppets. We look to our puppet master’s concept of existence (that we exert meaningful agency upon our actions, our selves and our world) when in fact we are enslaved by the unlimited freedom facing us because, as Gray puts it, “human life is spent anxiously deciding how to live.” In fact, the gulf between thought and action is what drives us to distraction and depression because as humans, “what they long for is freedom from choice.”

    Through this filter, he takes apart our proclivity for celebrating as progress the questionable achievements humanity, noting that “humanity is only a name for a ragtag animal with no capacity to take charge of anything.” Rather than exceptional, or even particularly cunning, “…what seems to be singularly human is not consciousness or free will but inner conflict.”

    Some might find this bleak view of our species and our place in apathetic world disconcerting; I find it inspiring, giving us a roadmap for a true form of freedom. “If you have this negative capability, you will not want a higher form of consciousness; your ordinary mind will give you all you need. Rather than trying to impose sense on your life, you will be consent (sic) to let meaning come and go.”

    Some days I will side with Gray and accept this as a brute fact, this automaton that I am will be creating meaningless output from the moment it arises in the morning until it sleeps…and even in deep dreamless sleep.
    Some days I can be an algorithm or a machine, something that is programmable, and attempt to bring about tweaks to my code so as to remove anger, physical pain and other forms of suffering. This is the Buddhist path of an automaton. On most other days, I strive to live in the vastness that is this God, some Divine Spirit, something that provides the experience of the overmastering of the Divine power, and allow this depth to guide my day.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very nice post! I think what you and John Gray describe encapsulates very well the struggles of being. It’s tough with a lot doubt and ambiguity. Sometimes freedom can really suck. Paul Tillich wrote a popular book “The Courage to Be”. I really like the title because I think it speaks to what God chose to do. If we think of the God above the God of theism (Tillich) as being beyond the temporal, contingent, and ambiguous then to decide to live with all its limitations, struggles and doubt was, in my view, an act of courage for God. Each “role” that God takes on in the aspects of the divine life have their own unique challenges and with them both the horrors and beauties of being alive. Sometimes it can be an act of great courage to just get out of bed. But would we have it any other way?

    There’s an episode in the Star Trek series that I really like. In it Spock’s half brother appears and has the ability to take away someone’s pain. He does it for McCoy and Spock. They seem to really like the peace it gave them. Then Spock’s brother says he will do the same for Captain Kirk. But Kirk replies with great intensity, “No! I need my pain!” If we think about it, living even with its challenges and pain is so much more appealing than the alternative. What would that alternative be? Perfection? Eternal bliss? Sounds pretty boring to me. Even with the struggles there are moments of great joy, peace, and fulfillment. They may be fleeting and be replaced with the mundane or worse but they also give life meaning. They propel us to continually seek out love, beauty, and meaning. In my view, there is no perfection that anyone would really want if they got it. Stagnation! The Divine Life is an eternal journey to discover and create love, beauty, and meaning. That journey constantly evolves within us and the universe but is never ending. Who knows what wonders lie ahead in the distant future. Surely there will be many pitfalls and struggles but also wondrous experiences and discoveries.

    So when I have those painful down times, I just try to remember that “I need my pain”.


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