Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Mark Helprin on Predestination and Free Will

Nothing is random, nor will anything ever be, whether a long string of perfectly blue days that begin and end in golden dimness, the most seemingly chaotic political acts, the rise of a great city, the crystalline structure of a gem that has never seen the light, the distribution of fortune, what time the milkman gets up, the position of an electron, or the occurrence of one astonishingly frigid winter after another. Even electrons, supposedly the paragons of unpredictability, are tame and obsequious little creatures that rush around at the speed of light, going precisely where they are supposed to go. They make faint whistling sounds that when apprehended in varying combinations are as pleasant as the wind flying through a forest, and they do exactly as they are told. Of this, one can be certain.

And yet there is a wonderful anarchy, in that the milkman chooses when to arise, the rat picks the tunnel into which he will dive when the subway comes rushing down the track from Borough Hall, and the snowflake will fall as it will. How can this be? If nothing is random, and everything is predetermined, how can there be free will? The answer is simple. Nothing is predetermined; it is determined, or was determined, or will be determined. No matter, it happened all at once, in less than an instant, and time was invented because we cannot comprehend in one glance the enormous and detailed canvas that we have been given -- so we track it, in linear fashion, piece by piece. Time, however, can be easily overcome; not by chasing the light, but by standing back far enough to see it all at once. The universe is still and complete. Everything that ever was, is; everything that ever will be, is -- and so on, in all possible combinations. Though in perceiving it we imagine that it is in motion, and unfinished, it is quite finished and quite astonishingly beautiful. In the end, or rather, as things really are, any event, no matter how small, is intimately tied to all others. All rivers run full to the sea; those who are apart are brought together; the lost ones are redeemed; the dead come back to life; the perfectly blue days that have begun and ended in golden dimness continue, immobile and accessible; and, when all is perceived in such a way as to obviate time, justice becomes apparent not as something that will be, but as something that is.

“Nothing is Random,” the first chapter in the 3rd section of Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale


I see no contradiction between free will and predestination. Why is this? It is because I believe that time is an illusion, that, given our mortal limitations, it is the artifice by which we struggle to perceive a reality that has no time. In other words, it all happened and is happening, at once. Take, for example, the sequential progress of a movie. It seems to be rooted in linear time. Frame after frame passes in forward motion. And yet, before and after the show, the film is in the can, absolutely still, all in one place and position, immobile. If it is true that time is a function of the speed of light, and if it is also true that a point, as in Euclidean geometry, is illusory, then light on a course from the earth outward, when apprehended from far enough away--from infinite distance, from God's perspective--would not possess the attributes of motion. And therefore there would be no time. In the absence of time, there need not be a contradiction between that which is predestined and that which is chosen. And, by the way, this would also explain the close connection between time and death. Perhaps death is the condition when the illusion if time loses its grip on us. In life, people frequently report not only deja vu but sensations of time slowing, or even stopping. Please do not misinterpret me or draw the wrong conclusions about my seriousness when I remind you that I do not wear a watch.

--from an interview with Mark Helprin published in Image #17


UltraCrepidarian said...

Wow. Mind blowing stuff. Poetic, philosophical, and interesting. Probably, i would at least *think* I understood it better, after several beers!


St. Izzy said...

I think what heʻs expressing is similar to the Evangelical notion of "already" and "not yet." We are stuck and struggle here in the "not yet," and we mistake this for the Real.

I think as close as I got to the idea early in my Christian life was in assenting to the notion that God already saw me a perfect in Christ, despite my constantly meeting that same old sinner at the mirror each morning. I knew I had been justified, and yet I was still in need of sanctification (or, as they call it in the East, deification).

And I grow weary of trying to kill the flesh and put on Christ. I weary of the slowness of the process and long for a home where Iʻm finally who Iʻm supposed to be. This is my experience. Phenomenologically, this is my reality.

But my reality is not Reality. As things really are, I am already who Iʻm supposed to be. I am as God sees me. All wrongs have been righted. The dead walk. I have been cleansed and embraced. I am home.

I just have trouble experiencing it.

BTW, do you know how to recognize a Calvinist? Heʻs the guy who falls down a flight of stairs and says, "whew! Iʻm glad THATʻs over with."


Mattheus Mei said...

poetic genius and a metaphysical masterpiece.