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.