Does Anyone Believe in #Predestination Anymore? | Open/Closed Humans


I’ve been reading Richard Sennett’s excellent book The Craftsman – which I highly recommend to anyone interested in ideas of technology, creativity (a word he hates, for good reason) and work. It is not a book about woodwork or William Morris. Rather, he takes a broad look at what it means to work in an engaged way.

One short section that sparked my interest in particular was around the development of machines designed with an open systems approach. Early machines were mechanically ‘closed’ – you pulled Lever A and this pushed Rod B and activated Plunger C. There was a direct hard linkage between these parts. The machine, in other words, was ‘predestined’ to carry out a particular task.

This can longer be said to be true for some of the machines now being built. A computer is not a hard mechanical device. It has no limited set of tasks that it can undertake, and can, in some cases, not only deal with fuzzy logic – inputs coming in different orders – but learn a little about what we are trying to do and adapt to that. Their use is no longer predestined.

Sennett makes the link with human development, and the development of our theology too, and wonders if the technological environment within which Calvin emerged had a big impact on his adoption/expansion of Augustinian ideas about predestination. The world of Calvin (early 1500’s) was pre-industrial, but also hard-mechanical. The machines that did exist were built for one pre-determined purpose, and with the influence of Guilds and family structures, the jobs that children would end up doing were pretty much pre-determined for them too. A goldsmith’s son would almost certainly be a goldsmith.

So as we have moved into a more flexible, open-system world, does anyone actually believe in predestination anymore? Does anyone believe there are those who are simply ‘not chosen’ – and who can therefore be left on the human scrap-pile to rot in hell, which is their hard, pre-determined path?


21 responses to “Does Anyone Believe in #Predestination Anymore? | Open/Closed Humans”

  1. I’m not sure where you got your info from, but computers are deterministic machines. They are, perhaps, the quintessential deterministic machine. Fuzzy logic is also deterministic. So is machine learning.

    I’m also not sure that it is true that in the pre-industrial world, machines were built for one purpose.

    As far as I can tell, our technological environment is just as deterministic as it ever was. If the technological environment had an influence on Calvin’s views of predestination, I would expect our current technological environment to provide more – not less – support for the idea.

  2. You use the word “pre-industrial” here, doesn’t that only make sense in hindsight? I’m curious to see if that’s the kind of perspective Sennett takes.

    Calvin would only have been able to see himself as an end point of technological development up to his time. It’s the same for us, but arguably we spend more time on future forecasting these days.

    So there’s another form of implied predestination or maybe teleology here, in the development of the technology itself. How inevitable is the “progression” to computers and open systems?

    You could say Calvin was possibly unable to see that he was guided by this metaphor – the concept of an individual machine guiding his theology. (It reminds me of the theologian William Paley later, who likened God’s creation to a watch.)

    But on a more abstract level, it’s also possible to view all humans and technology throughout history as a huge open-system machine, Kevin Kelly-style. I guess it’s at least possible for one to believe in predestination but have the humility to realise one is stuck inside the machine.

    So, haven’t actually read the book but would love to now! Thanks.

  3. I think, Eric, that that depends on the zoom level at which you look at them. At the quantum level, perhaps nothing is deterministic. And the micro/code level they are totally deterministic. Agreed. But at the user-interface level they can appear, if not undeterministic, non-mechanical.

    The code in machines now is advanced enough to be able to work out what I may be trying to do – without regard to the order in which I am giving inputs. This is hugely different to the machines of the past which required a definite order to be held to in order to work.

  4. Yes people still believe in predestination. The question really though is what they mean by “predestination”. A few years past Calvin there was fellow who when he talked about “predestination” talked about it wholly differently than Calvin. In fact he described Calvin’s “expansion of Augustian predestination” as “double predestination”. This led to some rather heated correspondence. I’m pretty sure you know the story better than I.

    Your linkage of Calvin’s “predestination” with technological development is at least “thoughtful”. Probably hard to make the direct correlations though. And even if you can what do you do with it after you have determined that indeed there was direct influence either then or now? Is it an argument for rationalization? Since we have the power and desire to make things open and not deterministic that is the way it should be in creation? How very swashbuckling. Pack some lemons for the scurvy.

  5. I’m pretty sure I don’t! But for those who want a primer, there’s a bit on Wesley’s view of Calvinism and predestination here.

    It wasn’t a flippant question. I am genuinely interested in what people’s views are on the subject, as it doesn’t get a great deal of debate in the theological circles I’m involved in. But, with my interest in the connection with the technological background which I think must influence all of us and our thinking, I’d be interested in whether people’s views on it are changing as a result of the new environment we find ourselves in.

    For example, what impact does a theory of parallel universes have on an understanding of predestiny? And given the new discoveries of brain function and links with free choice (studies show that our brains have decided which of a set of objects we will chose some time before we are conscious of the decision and move to make our choice) will our theological thought offer some reflection on them?

  6. KB,

    I see what you are saying regarding the different “zoom levels”, although I’m not sure I really agree. I guess I have 2 responses.

    First, it isn’t clear to me that user interfaces on computers appear non-mechanical. Perhaps that’s because I’m an electrical engineer and I have a little more knowledge than the average person about what’s going on “under the hood” of a computer. But I think most people still see the computer as mechanical – I hit buttons on the keyboard ==> letters appear on the screen; I double click the mouse ==> a new program opens up; etc. People do tend to anthropomorphize computers but I think that has more to do with people viewing humans as machine-like rather than people viewing computers as human-like.

    Second, even if you are right about the computer, I don’t think this applies to the majority of technologies we use today. Toasters, automobiles, bicycles, faucets, dishwashers, etc. At the user interface level, all of these appear mechanical. How we view most machines today are similar to how we view the machines of the past, in this respect.

    Another question I just thought of – was Calvin’s view of predestination somehow more “mechanistic” than Augustine’s? I wouldn’t say so off the top of my head, but I certainly am no expert.

  7. Important point: I’m no expert either. And I sometimes think that people click here and think that I’m spouting off as if I am. I’m not – I’m genuinely curious about this subject and want some experts to help form some views.

    Actually, many of the basic technologies you mention do use more fuzzy logic than you think. Washing machines certainly do. There is no simple lever-connection between the switches you press and the wash cycle that occurs. These machines are weighing the load, adjusting the spin speed, noting the fabric input but comparing that with the temperature we might select… This is different to the machines my mother used.

    With my mobile phone there are more complex systems at work. When I use predictive text the phone learns which permutation of a button combination I tend to use most, and brings that up first. This is not entirely open system (there is an algorithm which is doing this) but it appears to us less predetermined: same inputs do not always give the same outputs.

    There is also an interesting point about the connection between technology and ecclesiology. With the arrival of the printing press – type lined up in neat and ordered rows – our relationship with liturgy, and the way we ordered ourselves in church, changed too.

    It’s this symbiosis between technology and theology that I’m trying to drill down to: how can we become more conscious of what effect the tools we use and immerse ourselves in have on our understanding of God?

  8. James Birkett


    To say that computers are deterministic is patently false, the can and do generate randomness from their environment, the timing of key strokes, network packets, hard disk timings, or in some specialised cases dedicated hardware. This is necessary, there are fundamental computational capabilities, such as strong cryptography, which could not be achieved without good sources of randomness.

    But this is to miss the point, which is I think, that complex, often unpredictable or at least hard to understand behaviour can emerge from following deterministic rules. In Calvin’s time, people quite sensibly assumed that simple rules could only produce simple behaviour because no counter examples were known. The idea was perhaps hinted at in the the 19th century, but not until computers became available in the 1960s was Chaos theory developed as an attempt to explain it.

    These days our exposure to the unpredictability of computers hammers home for most thoughtful people the point that deterministic rules underlying a system can produce complex behaviour, and perhaps the related point that observing the behaviour is often not enough to deduce the rules that cause it. Certainly one could not easily deduce Mandelbrot’s equations from observing the posters that you may have seen adorning the walls of just about any university mathematics department.

    Finally, I don’t think it matters whether the universe is deterministic or stochastic, it is quite evidently hard to predict the future. Whether there is genuine randomness injected moment by moment, perhaps through quantum interactions, is largely irrelevant. Even if it is deterministic, it is not predictable, and I think we now have a good understanding of how those two properties can be consistent.

  9. KB,

    Your last question is an interesting one. I think the best thing we can do is actually think about the technology we use and why we use them. And we should focus less on the end for which we use technology and more on what happens when we use the technology.


    Of course computers can generate randomness from those things! That’s because they are difficult to re-create events. But, if those events could be re-created, then we could get the same output form the computer. That’s what deterministic means – given the same inputs for a given state, we can get only one next state of the system. For a computer to be non-deterministic, we would have to have the situation where for a given state of the computer and given inputs, there is more than one possible next state. Computer scientists have actually studied this for theoretical reasons, but any computer you’ve used is deterministic.

  10. I apologize for being flippant. The question of predestination has come up in my circle. We have been studying Paul’s letter to the Romans and the question of “Predestination” came up. Not a subject that I was excited to address but one that is a historical debate/conversation. In my flippant response, I supposed we were talking about that conversation to which the answer still is a resounding yes. In fact to the question of predestination, particularly, the “reformed church” has been making a bit of a resurgence in my part of the world. I believe much of this resurgence is in response to the “emergent” conversations that have been so popular of late.

    I’m no expert on technology so I probably will not be able to add much to your conversation about Technology and Predestination. What I did try to do is skim over some Calvin biographical information to see if he had any particular penchants for the technology of his day. Just skimming the surface there didn’t appear to be anything that connected him to being influenced by technology.

    On the other hand, what was pretty clear is that John Calvin was from a wealthy, well connected family. At the young age of 12 he assumed a post as a chaplain and began earning his own salary. He spent the rest of his formative years in and around academia. Studying Law, Theology, Language. If I reflect on what a wealthy young person today has in terms of access to current technology and extrapolate that Calvin was at least their equivalent from the perspective of wealth and family connections. And make the assumption that Calvin would have availed himself of current technology in the same manner as people do today. Without the knowledge of what that tech might have been, I would have to agree with your assertion that Calvin’s theology was impacted by the technology of his day. To the degree that Calvin was at all cognitive or concious of technology affecting his theology of predestination I just don’t see him making that connection in his work. And I don’t know enough about technology of his day to presume that it had any influence. Maybe your illustration of the printing press lining things up had a passive impact on his theology of predestination. My sense though, is that technology, is neutral in its impact on theological conversation.

  11. Why does Sennett not like the word “creative?” Does he offer an alternative?

  12. My sense though, is that technology, is neutral in its impact on theological conversation.

    I’d want to strongly disagree with that. In fact, it’s one of the cornerstones of what we are doing with these Apple conversations that our technological context does have an impact on our theology.

    The tools we make – the technologies we use – are an integral part of who we are as people. We are both separate from them, but bound to them too. A proper understanding of the relationship we have with our tools is thus vital to our understanding of the world around us, and thus of God too.

    In a recent post on Heidegger’s understanding of technology I noted that “it creates a prism through which it is too easy to see the world as purely a resource for our consumption.” Mark Twain puts it so much more simply: “to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

    Our technological context does impact our thinking, and therefore must impact our theology. We only need look at Jesus’ parables to see that the metaphors he used embraced technologies of his day. We understand something theological by ‘wineskins’ etc.

    John L – sorry, I’m away til Sat and not brought the book with me, so won’t try to rehash his argument without the original quote!

  13. OKAY, will look for your reply down the road (or e-mail me if you would). I’m studying “creativity” at the moment so this is timely.

    Technology is rarely theologically (more specifically, ecclesiastically) neutral. Technology is created with agenda – commercial, industrial, military, scientific, etc.. Theology / ecclesia is impacted by all of these grand human imaginings -and- the technologies which sustain them.

    What’s most important, I think, is our intentionality towards technology. If we remain “neutral,” we remain blind to its power to amplify, shape, inform, control, gather, change, persuade, inspire…

  14. great conversation thanks.

  15. To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a Windows NT server problem.

  16. John L – as promised:

    An eagle-eyed reader will have noticed that the word creativity appears in this book as little as possible. This is because the word carries too much Romantic baggage – the mystery of inspiration, the claims of genius. I have sought to eliminate some of the mystery by showing how intuitive leaps happen, in the reflections people make on the actions of their own hands or in the use of tools. I have sought to draw art and craft together, because all techniques contain expressive implications. This is true of making a pot; it is also true of raising a child.

    Page 290 of The Craftsman.

    Your studies sound interesting… anything going to be available in due course?

  17. thanks. the literature on creativity is rich and varied. much to consider. Interesting that he equates romantic baggage with the creative process. I think our inherited religious traditions ARE mostly built on passion and romanticism. perhaps the conduit between the dispassion of science and the passion of religion is empathy.

    “anything going to be available in due course?”


  18. Karsten R

    You wrote “Our technological context does impact our thinking, and therefore must impact our theology”.
    Do I understand that correctly, that theology is made up in our thinking? Theology means “what we can say about God” or what we may know or understand about God.
    If it is made up (solely) in our thinking then of course it must constantly change, and no one might foresee the direction, because our thinking and our social environment constantly change too.
    However, as far as understand, that is not what Christianity traditionally says about the process of gaining knowledge about God, instead they insist on knowledge gained through divine revelation where the creator communicated certain statements about the divine nature and about the nature and purpose creation to men. Since the divine nature is said to be timeless or “eternal” it cannot be changed then, only our perception might change, but that´s then not theology but interpretation of it.
    As for the determinism (or non-determinism) in technology, a computer, even a KI machine is totally deterministic when we take the position of its inventor or creator, and maybe (I´m not a theologian therefore I can only guess) the doctrine of predestination is just an attempt to guess how the matter looks like from the position of a being that exists outside the restrictions of time?

  19. Instead they insist on knowledge gained through divine revelation where the creator communicated certain statements about the divine nature and about the nature and purpose creation to men. Since the divine nature is said to be timeless or “eternal” it cannot be changed then, only our perception might change, but that´s then not theology but interpretation of it.

    The problem is that we have nothing but our perception. There is no divine revelation that is outside of the realm of human perception, and therefore all ‘revelation’ is questionable – open to debate and question. It’s all interpretation.

    That doesn’t meant there’s no absolute truth, but it does force us to humbly accept that none of us has full access to that truth. We are constantly engaged in a journey of trying to better perceive that truth, and our context in terms of our technology and society will naturally have an impact on that. For a good example, check out the comment Camus just left on the Theology and the New Physics post – the new work that is being done in physics is throwing light onto theological reality. We are going to have to nuance and adjust our position. And this is a good thing.

  20. Karsten R

    I fear I´m steering to far away from the original topic but I´m a bit confused by your answer, specifically by two statements:
    “There is no divine revelation that is outside of the realm of human perception”
    “That doesn’t meant there’s no absolute truth”

    If “There is no divine revelation that is outside of the realm of human perception…” then all revelation (and their source) is tied to human minds, and that would mean that it is made up in our thought (like german philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach declared) and also that all revelation would cease if no one would perceive it.
    Otherwise, if there is a source external to any human mind, then it can reveal itself independent of human perception, so that maybe only its results may be perceived (and maybe only afterwards). Maybe it would never be perceived but still real and effective in the world. But also it may reveal itself in a way that the perceiving mind knows very well what it is and from where it comes.
    Of course, such revelation may be disputed by other people, so that there will be a division between those who believe a certain “message” or “myth” as “divine revelation” and those who don`t.
    A believer would then not speak about “disputable” at least not when he/she declares his/her own point of view. To those it would be absolute truth, incomplete however as it might be, but fully valid and authoritative in its telling. A skeptic however would maybe use “disputable”, but preferrably would use “speculative” or “superstitious”. To those people the same content is at best “a nice and useful tale” and at worst “the worst and disastrous invention people ever made”.

  21. I’m afraid I think all revelation is tied to human minds. What else do we have? But it is a mind which takes faith seriously…