Posted by: dacalu | 2 May 2013

God and the Programmer (on Miracles)

I’ve been reading Alvin Plantinga’s book Where the Conflict Really Lies.  I’ve really enjoyed some of the thoughtful analysis, but I’m also confused about why people find miracles and divine intervention so complicated.  Perhaps we’ve gone too far down the enlightenment rabbit hole.  Perhaps I’m missing something – it’s always possible.  Here’s a short thought experiment on God’s action in the world.


Let us construct a metaphor.  It’s going to be imperfect, but all metaphors are.  For good and ill, the clockwork metaphor of Newton and Descartes is no longer familiar, so start with something you know:  video games.

Let us say that God is video game developer.  She codes for a massive multiplayer environment that we will call the World.  Two caveats are in order.

1)      Who are the players?  That’s indeed a difficult question, but I want to focus on miracles for the moment, so for now let us presume that there are players.

2)      Development does not equal Creation.  Granted.  Christian doctrine suggests that our developer created the hardware out of nothingness (something even sys admins have trouble with), created the players, assembled the hardware, wrote the language, and the compiler.  For now, though, let’s just look at her function as developer and coder.


With that beginning, we can talk about the modes of interaction our developer has with the program.

A)     She wrote the program: Creation.  Pretty straightforward.

B)      She maintains the program, not only by keeping the server running, but by patching, allocating memory, and making upgrades.  Christians call this “sustaining” or continual creation.

C)      She might act as a player, taking on an avatar and playing by the rules everyone else plays by.  This would be a perfectly legitimate way to interact with the environment she created, which in no way involves “supernatural”, “metaphysical”, or “transcendental” interference  – at least not any more than that of any other player taking on an avatar.  Indeed, this is quite close to what most Christians believe of Jesus Christ.  It’s not quite the same because we usually say Christ performed miracles and rose from the dead.  Some tweaking may be in order.

D)     She might act as a player, maintaining full knowledge of the environment she created.  It may be that every player is capable of extraordinary feats within the environment if they only knew the rules.  Still nothing funny going on, and it seems perfectly consistent and reasonable to suppose that the developer would have a comprehensive knowledge of the environment.  When I speak of Jesus’ authority, it comes awfully close to this sense.  Of course the author knows what’s been written better than anyone else.  Thus “miracles” would be good evidence of Jesus’ authority without in any way being supernatural.  Jesus’ apparent ability to pass on his miraculous abilities supports this “cheat code” theory of miracles.

E)      She might enter the game as a special kind of player.  To mix metaphors, we could imagine Jesus as a super-user.  There is nothing in scripture or science that suggests all humans interact with the environment in the same way.  We do not all have identical abilities, nor anywhere close.  For a trivial example consider the range of sight from blind to test-pilot.  The concept of extraordinary abilities in no way suggests that the rules of the system are being broken.  Any computer game runs on code and the world runs on laws.  Unexpected or extraordinary events in no way suggest that the code or laws have been broken.  Only that they are more complicated than they first appeared.

Most Christians want more from their deity, however.  They want direct interaction – often called intervention – by God, from outside the world.  This after all has something to do with the idea of a personal God who has a loving relationship with individual creatures, who acts in their lives.  Let’s take a look at that kind of interaction.

F)      She might run a help line.  Let’s call this prayer.  Players have an avenue for communication which may be inside or parallel to the environment of play.  The developer responds directly by words or by adjusting the environment.  There is no reason this avenue needs to be empirically available or detectable, even if the inputs and outputs are.

But how does she “adjust the environment”?  I suspect this is where the real problem lies, but wanted to get all the other stuff out of the way, because people insist on bringing it up.  Can the programmer change the rules of the game?  Yes.  Why not?

G)     She might update the game, such that there are new features, either unique or universal.  She would have to do this, under our metaphor, by writing new code.  No laws would be broken within the game, even though the laws had changed.  [This, by the way, is how I read Leibniz when he says we live in the best of all worlds.  God has “rewritten” the code countless times in response to our input, but does all of this from a standpoint outside of time so that all users enter the fully optimized game.]  The key thing to note is that the laws regulate time within the virtual environment as well as space within the environment.  The new code proactively and retroactively changes.  If we only exist in the game we could not (even in principle) be aware of previous versions.  If we have a memory outside the game, that’s going to beg all sorts of other questions.

H)     She might change one of the variables in the game, without changing the code.  For example, we might find ourselves of more, or less, health points, wealth, or energy.  Note she has not changed the code.  The rules have not been broken, our sense of cause and effect has.  What’s at stake is a question of whether the system is closed; it has nothing to do with consistency inside the system.

I)        She might write a whole different code, inserting a virus so that you are – for all intents and purposes – playing a different game for a few seconds, before returning to the standard game.  I have to say that, as a programmer, this strikes me as a hideously inefficient and inelegant way to get the job done.  You’re going to have to add H or G to have lasting effects anyway, so I can’t imagine what possible utility this option has.  Nonetheless, most people I talk to – both pro- and anti-Christian seem fixated on defending Option I.  Really?


I see no reason miracles cannot be out of the ordinary and display Divine action and intent without ever appealing to something which breaks the laws of nature.

Sadly, I think what both sides want is an excuse to stop thinking.  The anti-miracle-ists want to insist that these things couldn’t have happened.  “The universe doesn’t work that way.”  When did they achieve perfect knowledge of the universe?  They’re unwilling to wade into the dangerous and complex ground of how we justify induction (reasoning from specific knows about general unknowns).  I have had great discussions with people about whether specific events occurred.  Whether those events cannot categorically occur is beyond my scope.  We can only say that we don’t know how they could occur and, yes, base our actions on a low confidence in their occurring.  Christians have been straightforward about admitting we expect low probability events on the basis of a personal promise.  Anti-theists should be just as straightforward about arguing against trust in that source.  Stop hiding behind analytic philosophy, empiricism, and probability.

On the other hand, there is an even larger camp of pro-miracle-ists who insist that God’s breaking of the rules is proof that something beyond the game exists.  If it were a simple statement of humility, I would be delighted.  “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”  Unfortunately, they go on to add: “And let me tell you exactly what they are.”  Absence of evidence is just that – absence of evidence.  There’s no point in asking if a theory is perfect – be it Keynesian economics, evolution, gravity, or general relativity.  Breaking one theory does not ever entail another theory.  (On a rare occasion it will strongly justify a null hypothesis, but even then one must be very careful in constructing the null hypothesis.)  Atheists have been straightforward in asking “What’s Christianity good for?”  Christians should be just as straightforward in answering that question.  Stop hiding behind ignorance, scriptural literalism, and heartfelt anecdotes about personal experience.  (The latter can be helpful for personal conversion, but don’t take the place of rational arguments.)

Everyone tries to make sense of the sum of experience they have, in light of the sum of reports they hear from others.  Theists and non-theists begin with different assumptions about the types of rules the universe might operate under.  I hope both sides will be mindful of doing so systematically, thoughtfully, and kindly.



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  2. Interesting metaphor God as She?
    “God the Father and God the Son”?
    “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father”? another metaphor?

    • Dear Rex,
      In this post, the developer/programmer was a she and also a metaphor for God (compare Mt 23:37), not quite the same as saying God is a she.
      In general I think God is bigger than any image we can have of God so, if referring to GOD, I lean toward gender neutral language. I’m comfortable with my imperfect metaphors for God being male or female. In particular, I favor the the common Bible metaphors of Father (male), Son (male), Spirit or Breath (female in the Greek), and Wisdom (female in the Greek). Because Jesus is such a strong male image, I tend to follow the Greek and speak of the Holy Spirit as female, but I’m not particularly attached.

      God is with you.

      • Thank you dear friend , I knew you couldn’t resist answering…..soon you’ll be to busy you won’t have time for us Tuxons, but we’ll not soon forget you and all you’ve done to advance ECM at UA.

  3. […] Mix – GTU alum, university chaplain, and astrobiologist – has a new post over at his weblog that is worth a read if you have ever wondered about miracles. I’ll just give a quote and let […]

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