Monday, March 8, 2010

For Want of a Nail…

For a long time, my personal understanding of miracles and God’s role in the world was that God was a subtle manipulator of events, effecting small, unnoticeable changes that had big consequences. I’m a history buff, and I was often fascinated by how the smallest things could change the course of history. As the nursery rhyme goes, for want of a nail the kingdom was lost…

For example, it can be argued that the allies won WWII in part because a couple of Luftwaffe pilots got lost and bombed London. Early in the war, the Luftwaffe had been hitting RAF airfields and installations as part of the preparations for the invasion of Britain. The Germans knew they had to disable the Royal Air Force if the invasion was to succeed, and their plan was working. German bombers were destroying British airfields and planes faster than they could be repaired.

Then one fateful night, a pair of German pilots on a bombing raid got separated from their group and accidentally bombed London. The British retaliated by hitting Berlin. Hitler, who had promised that bombs would never fall on the German capital, was furious. He countermanded earlier orders that had prohibited the bombing of civilian targets and ordered the Luftwaffe to hit London and other British cities. London suffered the Blitz, but the change of targets took the pressure off the RAF and gave them time to build up their fighter bases. Without this needed reprieve, it is likely the Luftwaffe, not the RAF, would have won the Battle of Britain, and Operation Sea Lion, the German invasion of Britain, would have been carried out. At the time, the British were the only nation actively fighting the Nazis. Had Britain fallen, there is a good chance Germany would have consolidated its hold over Europe.

History changed because a tired young German driving a plane got lost over England. Who’s to say that God didn’t subtly manipulate events by making the pilot a little more tired than he might have otherwise been, or causing him to be distracted at the crucial moment when he got separated from the rest of his group?

This is hardly an isolated case. During WWI, a young corporal in the Bavarian army named Adolf Hitler often volunteered for the most dangerous missions. How might history have played out had he been standing just a bit to the left and had stopped a French bullet? Was it God who made sure that didn’t happen?

Had a German u-boat captain not mistaken the Lusitania for an auxiliary warship, the United States may not have entered WWI.

Had a Union scout not discovered a cigar box containing the order of battle for Confederate army, the US Civil War would have played out differently.

Had someone thought to load solid shot aboard the ironclad CSS Virginia the day she met the USS Monitor at Newport News, she would have punched holes through the Monitor and continued to devastate the Union’s fleet of wooden warships.

Had Captain Nolan gotten along with Lord Cardigan, the British Light Brigade wouldn’t have tried to charge the Russian guns.

And so on.

History hinges on the smallest things…

Such a conception of God bypasses the obvious fact that we don’t see nature-changing miracles, and meshes with the idea that Hashem works through nature. He gives a nudge here to a seemingly random event, a tweak there when no one is looking, and things work out as He planned. Easy enough for an omnipotent omniscient Being, right? Sometimes I would marvel at the awesomeness of a Being who could keep track of all these minute details and Who was able to so subtly yet magnificently effect the world.

Together with the evidence-for-God-ruining-free-will argument I discussed in the last post, the conception of God-as-manipulator explains both why we don’t see obvious evidence for God and how He is in control of the world despite the lack of obvious signs of His interference.

Unfortunately, as attractive an idea as it is, it relies on the a priori acceptance of God’s existence. It is also pure speculation. Even if we were sure God exists, there is no reason to say that God affects the world through subtle manipulation other than it being an attractive idea to someone trying to build a rationalist version of religion.


  1. I think you are really talking about serendipity.

    Serendipity can easily be explained as a function of probability.

    I certain number of coincidences have to happen, in the infinitely large set of possible occurences. Yet emotionally we see coincidences as extraordinary, and embue them with meaning. Think of the time you last ran into a friend when you went shopping. It seems unexpected, but in fact it is probable that you will run into somebody familiar when you go out enough.

  2. Also, I don't really see the difference between this version of God's working and the world running naturally.

  3. DrJ, I don’t mean, “Look at these amazing coincidences, it must have been God!” but rather, “This is a plausible way for God to subtly run the world without us being aware that He’s doing so.”

    JG, that’s the whole point. A world where God tweaks the little unnoticeable things and a world with no God would be indistinguishable to us.

  4. That concept violates the literal meaning of "Neis". Neis mean flag. The miracle is a "flag" that God intervened and made a statement, not a subtle nudge.

  5. G*3, I think that you miss the force of JG's comment ("I don't really see the difference between this version of God's working and the world running naturally"). Your hypothesis seems to be that God "tweaks" things in such a way that we can't detect his interventions into the course of nature. In other words, according to the idea that you are entertaining, he sticks his finger into the works and contravenes the laws of nature at will, but in so subtle a fashion as to escape detection by us. If this is what you have in mind, then your "version of God's working" is different from "the world's running naturally": it just happens that the difference escapes us, because God is very clever about where and how he pushes things around, and cleans up after himself so that we never find a trace of his tampering.

    Obviously, I am pushing your idea in the direction of silliness; and I do so because I think that it is fundamentally a silly idea. If we eliminate the element of silliness, what we have to say is this: nature follows its course, period. The reason why we fail to detect divine interventions is not that God cunningly conceals them from us but that there are none. God has nothing more to do with the accidental German bombing of London than he has to do with any other event in the Second World War or in the rest of human history. If anything is God's work, everything is.

    It certainly seems to be the case that some tiny events have disproportionately great effects on the course of history. (I don't think we can be certain in any specific instance, because history is not an experiment that can be replicated. E.g., if the Luftwaffe bombers had not gone astray, other events might have led to the same consequences.) Can one attribute such disproportionately consequential events to divine intervention? Certainly one can -- that is, it is not incoherent or demonstrably false to do so. But it is just as groundless and implausible as the belief that God intervenes in gross and miraculous ways -- parting seas, speaking from burning bushes or from the sky, reviving dead people, and so on. The difference is just that we don't see it going on.

  6. MKR, you really think it’s a silly idea? I thought it was kind of clever. Like I said, it’s a plausible way for God to run the world without obviously violating the laws of nature. No one else seems to like it, though. Oh well. I’m not really that attached to the idea anyway.

    Your right, it’s simpler to say things don’t look like God interferes because God doesn’t interfere, and I pointed that out in the post. And while it is groundless, I don’t think it’s as implausible as nature-breaking miracles – when’s the last time you heard Him speak from a burning bush? Now, when’s the last time some little thing had a disproportionate impact on your life?

    I think my problem is that I have the wrong audience for speculative rationalist religious apologetics. I’m not trying to push the truth of this idea, just record an idea I once thought plausible.

  7. There was a Futurama episode where Bender goes warring off into space. He becomes God to a civilization that grew on his body and started worshipping him. He tries his hand at playing God and screws up each time until the people on his body kill each other.

    Failing he eventually bumps into God (the real deal!) and then God explains to Bender why he failed with his people. When you do too much for mankind, they start becoming dependent on the Divine to do all there work. But when you do nothing, people lose faith in you. So for God to do his job right, he has to only interfere with a slight nudge each.

    As God says in the end of the episode, "when you do things right (referring to himself) people will never know you did anything at all"!

    And when Bender returns to earth he learns his lesson. Rather than relying on God he tells his friends they should learn to take care of themselves, proving God right in the end!