Compatibilism and Wireless Technology, Part 2: The Wireless Transmitter Analogy

, posted by Gene Brode, Jr.

In this post I hope to show by way of analogy the incompatibility of soft determinism with human freedom. I will first lay out the technological terms and give a brief explanation of how they work. I will remind you again, all analogies eventually break down. This one has its limitations, but I think it proves a good point.

If what I have labored to show in part 1 made sense to you, then you may be able to see why some have used the puppet analogy. If I cannot but do what God has decreed from all eternity that I do, then I am receiving the primary cause (not just influence, but cause) directly from God himself. While there are “no strings attached,” I am eerily close to being a human puppet, perhaps something out of a Twilight Zone episode.

THE ANALOGY OF WIRELESS TRANSMITTERS

In Calvinism, to go back to Curt Daniel’s explanation of predestination being like programming, God is the manufacturer of alarm equipment. We’ll call the manufacturer “Heaven, Inc.” Heaven, Inc. makes alarm panels that can communicate with wireless sensors. The sensors transmit a radio signal to report their status. When the alarm panel receives the event, it then acts in preprogrammed ways. For example, if the panel receives data that tells it one of the sensors has gone missing, it will send a supervisory signal to a central station where an operator will be able to take the appropriate action. If an on-board reed switch changes state to show an “open,” the transmitter will send a signal to the main panel. If the panel is armed, it will interpret this as an alarm and communicate to a central station. A variety of signals can report to the alarm panel, and through programming the panel will perform certain responses.

Heaven, Inc. makes top of the line security systems and is known for their superior craftsmanship and lifetime warranties. It is a rare thing to have a defective component as all devices are scrutinized seven times before they ever leave the assembly line. Each transmitter is preprogrammed to send specific alarm signals, and the alarm panels themselves come with a default program that can be adjusted to suit the customer’s needs.

The First Memorial Church of Charles Spurgeon (FMCCS) has hired Spirit Alarm to install a Heaven, Inc. system. The representative from Spirit Alarm is very confident and excited to have won the account at such a prestigious church, and will be starting work soon. Since FMCCS has a large building and has such a rich heritage, they want to protect every window and door on site. They place an order for fifty door and window sensors and five sirens to be positioned throughout the building. Spirit Alarm installs the system and there is yet another satisfied customer. Because of Heaven, Inc.’s reputation, no one suspects there will be any problems with the system.

For a while the system works beautifully. All transmitters are operating at full capacity and checking in with the panel every five minutes. The system is happy and there are no troubles at all. A week later, the system detects a burglar coming in through a window that someone forgot to lock. When the crook opens the window, the transmitter sends a signal to the panel which then alerts the central station. Police are dispatched and arrive in record time. The crook is arrested and taken to jail. The police warn FMCCS to lock their windows otherwise they may incur fines in the future for triggering false alarms. The staff obliges and things continue smoothly.

The system is working just as it was programmed to do. FMCCS recommends Heaven, Inc. to all its members, and Spirit Alarm gets more business. But it seems that one of the new customers (the Sinners) has had a bad experience. The system they had installed begins malfunctioning at once. False alarms report in the middle of the night and police are dispatched every night for a week. Spirit Alarm arrives to look into the problem and is unable to figure out why the panel is having trouble. They blame the Sinners for their inability to operate the system and the rep sells them a refresher course. The Sinners reluctantly pay the fee, on top of all the city fines they’ve incurred. Confident that the problem has been resolved, Spirit Alarm continues with business as usual. Heaven, Inc. is not suspected as being to blame.

Another week passes and false alarms continue at the Sinners’ house. Police are sending out notices and fines and have been told not to go to the Sinners’ house if an alarm occurs. Spirit Alarm pays a return visit and this time suspects that something may be going on with some of the sensors. Every night at midnight the sensors report an open to the panel. The technician notices that it is a problem with all of the Sinners’ transmitters. He concludes that there must be a defect in the equipment and Spirit Alarm replaces all of the Sinners’ transmitters in an attempt to fix the problem for good.

Spirit Alarm returns the transmitters to Heaven, Inc. and the technical staff at Heaven discover that there is a programming error within the circuit boards. This is causing the transmitters to send an open signal to the alarm panel. Heaven, Inc. issues a recall and then disposes of all its defective transmitters since it is cheaper to throw them out than it is to repair them. Wrongs are righted and customers remain happy. Heaven’s reputation stands firm and its customer base grows on praise alone.

LET’S BREAK IT DOWN

Heaven manufactured devices to work a certain way. Unless there is a defect (intentional or not), the transmitters all act as they are programmed to act: they send out data packets when something on their circuit boards shows abnormal. If the panel is functioning properly, it will receive the signal and act accordingly. There can be two types of problems — ones created by the manufacturer (primary causes) or ones created by the installer, technician, customer, thieves, radio interference, etc. (secondary causes).

When everything and everyone is doing what they ought to be doing and getting positive results, the Sinners will praise Heaven. But when the parts are shipped out with defects in their programming, everyone gets upset and points the finger at everyone else. The Sinners blame Spirit Alarm and vice versa. The police blame the alarm company if multiple customers experience the same issue. No one is happy. Some get good products, others get defective ones.

If all is well, the praise can be attributed to all parties freely and honestly: Heaven made a good product; Spirit Alarm installed the system properly; the Sinners are using their system responsibly. If Heaven programs devices wrong, the devices are considered junk. It may damage Heaven’s reputation, but in the real world what that will mean is that customers, sales staff, technicians and anyone else familiar with the faulty product will despise working with it. Technicians will loathe the repair work because they won’t have faith in the replacement products (been there, done that in real life). The company who makes the product receives the blame.

In Calvinism, God programs two types of people: those destined for heaven (good transmitters) and those destined for wrath (the bad transmitters). He issues all transmitters and tells them all to act the way the good transmitters ought to act, which in our analogy is an impossibility: A device cannot reprogram itself. It was made to work one way, not the other, straight from the factory. He programs them to talk when they have a status to report, and the alarm panel will act accordingly. If they are the bad type, the alarm panel will only report false signals — whatever it hears.

In compatibilism, all people (transmitters) are said to be programmed by God and given free choice to act as good transmitters. No transmitter is able to change its nature, but the good ones are praised and given eternal life (Matt 25:21) and the bad ones are cursed and cast into hell (Matt. 25:26-30). They are cursed for not doing something they were never programmed to do — exercise faith and repentance in the Lord Jesus, bearing fruit unto eternal life, etc. In compatibilism, people are touched by a primary cause before they are even born. They cannot help but act the way God ordained them to act before they were born. God irresistibly saves them and receives praise for this. Remember the Westminster Confession of Faith: all things were unchangeably ordained. Yet reprobate sinners receive the blame and guilt for something they could never do.

The reason? They chose not to obey the gospel. So you be the judge. If Calvinism does not make puppets out of people, then perhaps it makes preprogrammed technological devices which cannot do anything other than what they were programmed to do. The manufacturer is called sovereign and has planned all things out: they cannot change and there is no greater power than God. When good things happen for what God has done, more emphasis is given to God. When bad things happen, more emphasis is given to man. Convenient? Yes. Accurate? Hardly.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Why is it that Arminians have disagreed with Calvinism going on 400 years? I think there are many reasons, but one of the primary ones in my opinion is that Calvinists begin with an overbearing and inaccurate idea of what it means for God to be sovereign. I agree with Wayne Grudem about human responsibility and decisions: we make real choices every day and we are not puppets. But the starting point for Calvinism is the sovereignty and pre-determination of God instead of his love or even his Fatherhood. So, the reason I disagree mainly with the Westminster Confession and these other Calvinists begins with their idea of sovereignty, which I feel is completely wrong.

I used to agree wholeheartedly that God’s sovereignty must be the starting point for sound theology. Now that my ideas of sovereignty are different it has allowed me to lean more heavily into the love and Fatherhood of God. He is indeed the Sovereign King of Israel, but he is also Jesus’ Abba. The Jews looked for a king to take back what was theirs by force; Jesus pointed them to a loving, forgiving Father in heaven who provided for his children and patiently longed for them to return to him. In fact, it seems to me that Jesus told more parables that show God as Father than as King or Sovereign Lord.

I once suggested to a pastor friend that God could determine certain things (e.g. the death of Jesus in Acts 2:23) while leaving the rest of history up to the will of man. I was not embracing Open Theism. I was instead offering a contrast to divine determinism with the idea that not every detail has to be set in stone. My friend’s objection was that there were simply too many contingencies that could change the course of history if God had not predetermined everything. In my opinion, that is a very low view of God’s ability and sovereignty. God can certainly cause things to happen in conjunction with his foreknowledge.

While people within the body of Christ will probably disagree with one another about this until the Lord returns, we can and should respond to one another in as much love and gentleness as possible. As followers of Jesus, our aim should be to please the Lord and walk in unity together. This should be among our top priorities as followers of Jesus (Matt 5:9). With that said, I have to say that I feel Arminianism offers a clearer explanation of how God operates in the world to save and sanctify his people. I’ll call it A Better Compatibilism.

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