Saturday, August 03, 2013

Choice, Causality and Fate: A Sufi Perspective

In a recent discussion, someone posted a quote that, in part, dealt with the issue of fate, and the quote cited seemed to suggest that everything already had been written in the book of life. Someone responded to the quote by wondering how choice fit into the matter.  This latter individual also alluded to the problem of how having to reconcile the idea of choice with the notion that God’s foreknowledge of outcomes would seem to negate the possibility of choice.

There are a number of ways of critically reflecting on the foregoing discussion. First, I remember reading a story about Bobby Fischer, the former world chess champion, who indicated how there was one point in his career when after a given match began, Fischer could see his way to the conclusion of the game, but as Fischer got older, he indicated that he only could see the unfolding of the game up to a couple of moves prior to its endpoint. 

With respect to the earlier part of his career – when he could see the course of a game to its conclusion -- was Fischer saying that his foreknowledge took away the free choices of his opponent? I don’t believe so.

In effect, he was saying that it didn’t matter what his opponent did in the way of this or that move. Fischer understood the tactical lines of the whole game and how that line of play would unfold over time. His opponent was free to choose his or her moves in any way the individual cared to, but those moves would not affect the outcome of the game.

Similarly – but in a much more complicated, richer, and subtle manner – God’s understanding of the game of life is such that Divinity knows the outcome of each of the simultaneous matches (trillions, or more, of them) even as people are free to make whatever choices they like with respect to their journey through life. People’s choices will not alter the overall character of how the game of life unfolds.

Under the foregoing circumstances, choice becomes a matter of trying to understand the tactical and strategic lines of play in the game of life. One can work with those lines of play or one can proceed in opposition to those lines of play, but however one decides to choose, those choices will not alter the nature of the game or its outcome.

If one alters the character of one’s play by the choices one makes, one can affect one’s standing at the end of the game – both for good and ill. – because God is not in competition with us and prefers win-win situations rather than zero-sum games in which there is only one winner. However, irrespective of the choices we make, the overall character of the game won’t change.

There is another way of thinking about how determinate forces and the issue of choice might operate together amicably. More specifically, ‘rizq’ is an Arabic word that some people have translated in terms of the notion of fate.

However, the idea being given expression through ‘rizq’ has more to do with the properties, gifts, events, people, and circumstances which one has been given by God to work with in life. This is somewhat similar to the way in which the pieces on a chessboard -- along with the properties of the board on which the game is played, as well as the features of the place where chess games are played -- are the things with which a chess player has to work.

Rizq is like an attractor basin in chaos theory. On the one hand, the non-linear character of the attractor basin ensures that the overall structure of the formation will be retained across time amidst the various forces of existence (and this accounts for the aspects of one’s life that will not change), while on the other hand, the non-linear dynamics of an attractor basin also permit an array of micro-departures or degrees of freedom to exist in conjunction with the basic properties of the attractor basin that describe one’s life.  

Chaos theory talks about such dual properties in terms of self-similarity rather than self-sameness. Although the overall character of the attractor basin is recognizable despite differences in the way things are manifested from point to point within the attractor basin, the outcome at any given instant is – at least for human beings -- difficult, if not impossible, to predict because of the degrees of freedom which are inherent in an otherwise determinate system.

These degrees of freedom have to do with the choices we make concerning the elements of rizq through which one journeys during the course of one’s lived existence on this plane of existence. One might not be able to alter the general character of one’s existential attractor basin as a function of the choices one makes, but one can have control over how we interact with, or respond to, the forces that form and run through the attractor basin that gives expression to the events of our lives … and this is what one will be held accountable for – the way one responds to the ebb and flow of life.

Or, to take another analogy, life is like those bridge tournaments in which the various contestants who have entered such a tournament play the same preordained hands (i.e., hands that already have been dealt prior to the tournament) at different tables. What matters is not the nature of the hand one draws at any given table, but, rather, what matters is how the hand is played. 

Sufis use the term ‘ayn al-thabita’ to allude to the fixed potential that marks the character of anyone’s rizq and through which the Names and Attributes of God shine to bring forth the manifestations that constitute the prism of one’s life. However, as indicated above, within that fixed potential are the degrees of freedom that give expression to the gift of free choice – but not free will (which is why one requires, and prays for, tawfiq, or enabling assistance, from Allah).

God has an intimate, detailed understanding of the dynamics of any given attractor basin (i.e., person’s life), as well as a detailed understanding of the nature of the dynamics that result from the interplay of billions of such attractor basins (i.e., humanity considered collectively). Divinity can see how the character of our choices amidst the forces inherent in those attractor basins will play out over time, and this sort of understanding does not undermine a person’s freedom to choose how to proceed from moment to moment.

When a parent has an intimate understanding of his or her child, the parent knows what that child is likely to do in any given set of circumstances. That knowledge does not cause a child to choose in this or that way, rather the parent’s knowledge reflects the manner in which the child does, in fact, go about making choices … and so it is with God’s knowledge of the choices we will make in life.  

Does the foregoing mean that, for example, prayer does not work? I don’t believe so since the decision to pray or not to pray is a choice one makes.

Prayer operates within the context of the forces at work in the existential attractor basin that describes our lives. Prayer, itself, is one of those forces, and the decision of whether, or not, to pray is one of the choices a person can make.

Amidst the non-linear properties of a chaotic attractor basin, there are degrees of freedom with respect to the how the flow of events can transpire at any given point within such attractor basin dynamics. Those degrees of freedom will not affect the overall character of how the attractor basin will operate across time, but such degrees of freedom are capable of impacting and altering – within limits -- what takes place at certain points within the generally fixed character of the attractor basin dynamics considered as a whole.

Choosing to pray places one in a position to potentially affect what takes place at a given point within the overall dynamics of attractor basin activity. Whether things will be altered in some way depends on the One Who is in charge of those dynamics, and, since, as indicated previously, there are degrees of freedom within the dynamics of any given attractor basin, then alterations can be introduced into the dynamics without actually changing the fixed features of overall attractor basin dynamics. 

In other words, prayers can be answered even if the answering of those prayers will not alter the fixed features of the general dynamics of life. Reinhold Niebuhr once uttered a prayer that sought assistance from God: to understand the things that can be changed, as well as to learn to accept the things that cannot be changed and, finally, to develop the wisdom needed to appreciate the difference between the two possibilities.


At this point in the discussion, someone voiced some objections to what was being outlined. The individual indicated that it seemed irrational to suppose that there could be uncaused phenomena like choice. This person went on to describe how science is rooted in, and cannot operate, without the assumption that every effect must have a cause, and, therefore, there must be something else which caused choice to occur – whether this ‘something else’ was God or physical/material events.

I responded to the foregoing objections in the following manner. First, I suggested that the notions of rationality and irrationality are often a function of what we believe we understand about the nature of reality. As one’s understanding changes, so too, do one’s ideas about what the terms such as: ‘rational’ or ‘irrational’, give expression to, and this is quite independent of whether such an understanding is actually correct. 

A person’s perspective concerning causality tends to be colored, shaped and oriented by the conceptual framework through which she or he engages the issue of causality. Before 1900, scientists had a very mechanistic notion of causality that formed the heart of classical mechanics. After 1900, beginning with the work of Max Planck, the concept of causality was turned upside down to such an extent that Richard Feynman once advised a young physicists who was trying to understand what was transpiring in the quantum world to not bother with understanding quantum dynamics because no one understands what is going on … just do the calculations. 

Einstein was certain that there were hidden variables in quantum mechanics, but none of his gedanken or ‘thought’ experiments was capable of winning the day and proving the existence of such hidden variables.  Then, along came the phenomenon of quantum entanglement – something that has been experimentally verified in a variety of ways through extremely sophisticated experimental set-ups – and the notion of causality became even more elusive because while quantum entanglement might go some way toward vindicating Einstein’s position on the matter of hidden variable, his ideas also take a hit because the phenomenon of quantum entanglement seems to suggest that something is being communicated in a superluminal manner – that is, faster than the speed of light which is a verboten (forbidden) possibility in modern science – and, consequently, one’s understanding of how reality works as far as cause and effect are concerned become somewhat unstable, blurred and amorphous.

Or, consider the so-called Higgs boson issue (which Leon Lederman misleadingly and problematically dubbed the ‘God particle’). Everyone at CERN in Europe, as well as in many other parts of the world, were excited a number of months ago when the analysis of evidence gathered in 2012 seemed to indicate that the boson had been found. The reason for the excitement is that the Higgs boson has long been considered to be a telltale sign of a field process through which mass was believed to arise.

However, no one has, yet, talked about what properties a particle must have in order for it to be able to interact with the Higgs field – after all, there mass-less particles do exist and, therefore, do not appear to interact with such a field. In short, it takes two to tango, and the presence of a Higgs field is not enough to account for mass since the particle that derives mass through such a field must have certain properties to be receptive to the influences of that kind of field.  

So, what happens to causality under such circumstances? The Higgs field must have certain properties, and a particle must have certain properties in order for mass to arise (at least, this is what the standard model proclaims), so, what actually causes mass when the dynamic interaction of two entities are required to generate mass.?

I had a professor (Morton White) many years ago who talked about the issue of causality. He gave a much simpler example than the Higgs field. He talked about the lighting of a match.

Some might want to point to the force of striking a match as that which causes the match to light. However, if there is not sufficient oxygen, or if the match is not made with the right proportions of sulfur and phosphorus, or if the match is damp, or if the striking surface is not sufficiently irregular, or if the handle of the match is not strong enough, or if there is a stiff wind blowing, or if the person did not use sufficient force, then, the match will not light.

So, where is causality in the foregoing scenario? There is a complex dynamic in which a variety of variables have to work in consort with one another under the right set of circumstances in order for something to happen. 

Choice is also a complex dynamic. When the set of potentials inherent in ayn al-thabita (the fixed potential of a human being) combines with the ‘Fields’ generated by the Divine Names and Attributes that are encountered by our fixed potential on this plane of existence, then like the lighting of a match, the possibility of choice is put into play but not as a function of any simple set of mechanistic notions of cause and effect. To use the words of modern science, choice arises as a field phenomenon that is a function of interacting potentials.  

In fact, one can conjecture that the capacity to choose is inherent in the array of possibilities that constitute the potential of one’s ayn al-thabita. When that potential is activated, we become able to make uncaused choices within certain parameters of possibility which engage the Fields of Being and generate a dynamic within the context of the attractor basins that help give expression to lived life.

From the Sufi/Islamic point of view, God is, of course, the first cause without cause. Rationalists and scientists, naturally, find this sort of idea to be ‘irrational’, but here we all are and, yet, scientists (cosmologists, evolutionists, and neurobiologists) do not have any tenable ideas with respect to how the laws of the universe, or the origins of the universe, or the origins of life, or the origins of consciousness, or the origins of reason, or language, or creativity came into being (and this claim could be backed up but it would take too much space).

It seems irrational to me for so many scientists and rationalists to proclaim that there cannot possibly be an uncaused cause when there is so much that they don’t know about the nature of reality. Moreover, and perhaps more germane to the current discussion, the issue of causality – as indicated earlier -- is not really all that straightforward an issue.

In the Qur’an we are told that God says to a thing “kun” and it becomes.  What is the nature of the ‘thing’ to which God gives the command of ‘kun’?

What the foregoing means or how the dynamics of such causality works or what the structural character of that sort of causality entails is a mystery.  Consequently, whether, or not, choice is a phenomenon that could – within limits – be uncaused remains an open issue.

Certainly, if God is the One Who gave ayn al-thabita its possibilities, then, God caused that potential to be what it is with the characteristics that it has. Nonetheless, there is nothing in all of this indicating that one of the dimensions of such a potential couldn’t be the capacity to choose freely … the capacity might be caused, but the character of what has been caused operates in its own fashion without any further input from Divinity … like a person who is hired by Someone to do work and who is, then, authorized to be his or her own person with respect to subsequent decision-making.

Are we the ‘seeker’ or are we the ‘sought’? Maybe like the issue of causality, it is not a matter of either-or logic … maybe both statements are true. In other words, just as we are simultaneously both caused and free, so too, we are the seekers of Divinity while, simultaneously, God is seeking us as a function of the potentials which have been placed in us and are either are, or are not, realized depending on the nature of the dynamic of seeking and being sought … and the choices we make within that dynamic.

If a quantum entity can be both a wave and a particle, then, why can’t a human being be both caused and free? Given that physicists have not let their ignorance about how wave-particle duality is possible stop their explorations into the mysteries of the physical world, then why should any person let her or his ignorance concerning who and what a human being is stop him or her exploring the mysteries of the spiritual world.

Scientists and rationalists like to refer to spiritual exploration as being quixotic and rife with irrationalities. And, while, undoubtedly, there are many theological discussions which, admittedly, are steeped in such irrationalities, nevertheless, perhaps, scientists and rationalists should take a look in the mirror at their own quixotic meanderings with respect to trying – and utterly failing – to explain the origin of almost anything of importance (e.g., the universe, the physical constants, life, consciousness, intelligence, reason, creativity, language, morality, or the mystical). Theories are plentiful with respect to such issues, but truths are few and far between.

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