Can you be merely "influenced" by God?

Discussion of yesterday’s mega-review of the ending of Battlestar Galactica included much focus on my negative view of the rule of a god as an intervening character in fiction. Many readers feel that the God of Galactica (Gog) did not so much control events as influence them. This suggests the following sidebar on religion:

Many religions struggle with the concept of a god that is so omniscient, it knows the future. This sometimes is described as being eternal, existing outside of time. The problem is the conflict between this, and free will. I find the two to be contradictory, especially when it comes to the concept found in many Christian sects that free will is most important with respect to your choice about whether to believe in god or not, or whether to be good or evil. The religions say you were created by god, who knew what choices you would make before creating you, but you are also punished for those choices. Even though, if asked, “can I choose another future than the one god knows I will choose, making him wrong?” they will say no.

However, the religious often do not see the same contradiction. We will not resolve this conflict here. I want to address the more direct question of a god who talks to people, and intervenes directly in the mortal world, as Gog does.

Gog appears in the minds of Baltar and many other characters. Gog also directly affects physical events, doing things like returning Starbuck in a new Viper.

Gog also appears to know the future. Gog gives many characters the “Opera House” vision, describing a scene that will take place in the CIC just before the climax of the battle with Cavil. Gog offers a number of other prophecies and is presumably the source of knowledge in the sacred scrolls. Gog arranges for a big confrontation over the “Temple of Five” at the exact time of a supernova. Gog in particular implants a song, whose opening notes, if turned into numbers, are the jump coordinates for a jump from the Colony battle scene to above our Moon. (It should be noted that jump coordinates, as used in the show are rapidly changing numbers which must be precisely calculated in real time based on the motion of ships, stars and planets. There are no fixed coordinates that take you to a specific place.)

One could speculate that Gog fakes all this. For example, perhaps Gog jumped the ship and the coordinates from the song were not relevant. This makes the plot surrounding the song a bit hard to understand. One could also speculate that Gog pushed characters to follow the Opera House script, making the prediction, and many others come true. This is not out of the question but is, one must agree, rather bizarre and perhaps even harder to understand.

Either way, however, this is a being of extreme power and intelligence. To Gog, humans are insignificant.

Whether we have free will or all is determined, I will contend that to any being of such intelligence, and in particular any being with knowledge of the future, there is no such thing as “influence.” Such a being would understand us so well as to know how we would react to any particular phrase or stimulus. Gog would not be surprised at what we do when it has an angel whisper a phrase into our heads.

Gog does not have Angel Six say things to Baltar to persuade him of things, or to see what he will do if those things are said. It’s hard to believe Gog doesn’t know Baltar (or the future itself) so well as to know exactly what Baltar will do in response to statements and visions. To suggest that Gog would be playing it to chance, having no idea what Baltar will choose seems ridiculous for a being that can write coordinates into a song 2,000 years in advance. Indeed, we have to suspect that Gog selected Baltar in advance knowing just how it would use him, and what the result would be. Gog presumably felt that the colonies’ top scientist would make the right tool for manipulating the fleet, and converting others to new philosophies. Similarly Gog did not choose Roslin, Sharon, Caprica and Starbuck by accident or without precise knowledge of what they would do when appropriately triggered.

As such there can be no influencing for Gog. Beings that an omniscient god speaks to can only be instruments who will do exactly what the god knows in advance they will do in response to the stimulus. The biblical notion from the book of Job that God would allow the Satan to “test” Job and his faith is a strange one. (Ditto the test of Abraham.) Of course God knows the result of his game with that Satan, and you would think the Satan would know that God knows. (That’s why this is a story, and not a history.)

We might consider this, roughly, with how you might manipulate your pet or your young child. You can always tell when a young child is lying, as though you can read their simple mind. For a while, you can trick them into doing things when you need to, though they learn quickly. Pets are easier. You can trick your pet into coming inside for a trip to the vet by pretending to call it for food. That trick will work frequently if not abused, though even the animals can learn.

Even better would be to consider the relationship between a programmer and a computer program. Like a god, you know the workings of the computer program completely. It is a deterministic machine to you. To other users it might seem to be unpredictable, but you will know inputs you can give it that will give specific responses. You can even create another copy of the program and test sample inputs to find out what they do, then use those inputs with confidence. While imperfect (we don’t yet recognize free will or consciousness in computer programs) this is the closest analogy to the relationship between an omnsicient god and its human creation.

So when Gog says a few choice words in Baltar’s ear, or has Angel-Six preach about its plan to Baltar, this is not some preacher trying to convert Baltar to the true religion. Gog knows just how Baltar will respond, and knows exactly when he will convert. Gog even knows where Baltar will stand holding Hera on the day the Opera House vision is realized. Baltar (as Gog knows) is too much of a scientist. He only truly converts when he learns that Caprica-Six can see his internal Angel too. Finally given objective evidence, he converts and negotiates the short peace with Cavil.

Of course, Gog knows that the peace with Cavil will be short. Gog has already planned jump coordinates, thousands of years ago, to be used after the peace goes south.

If you are going to have an interventionist god with omniscience or knowledge of the future, there can be no influencing or manipulation. The people manipulated by the god become instruments, not beings of free will. This is one of the reasons that having such a god as a character eliminates meaning from the actions of other characters.

Here We Are

Job is an old story and has roots in other religions, and there are interpretations of the old testement which suggest that God and the devil are one and the same. Perhaps, the easiest to digest comment on this comes from the Hindu religion. While it's mostly mythical I'm impressed by the reasoning which competes as well as anything with which modern science has to offer.

On a more mundane level one could theorise that Job's struggle is merely the battle between Jobs belief in abstract truths and the world. One may maintain a faith while suffering the human condition. The Buddhist tradition teaches that resolving this struggle is just a step towards enlightenment whereby the mind and universe get into lockstep and everything is as it should be.

There are limits to human knowledge of events and time. Our perspective is tiny. We are quite the dot. Our thoughts and feelings are unreliable and get in the way of thoughts and feelings, so even if THE TRUTH was under our noses we'd probably miss it. Until we don't. I have no better idea than anyone else. Perhaps, not even "God" does if he's merely another super-evolved conciousness swimming in the eternal.

What can one say? Here we are. :-/

Job

It’s true that Job is not the perfect example, as there God knows that Job will pass the test, and allows the horrible treatment more as an example for the Satan and others. What is odd is that the Satan does not know of God’s omniscience in this legend. It is the Satan that tortures Job, with God’s permission.

My point remains that with gods of such knowledge, they can no more “influence” us than we can “influence” a calculator. We punch in 2 x 2, and we know we’ll get 4 every time, because we built the calculator. As complex as we are, we aren’t nearly as random as we think. Already there are millions of situations for which you, yourself can predict what you would do, and a fair subset for which those who know you well could predict what you would do. But just as your wife can reliably predict you will be sad if house burns down, and you don’t consider this a sign of your lack of free will, a god can predict what you’ll do if the right words are said to you.

I agree, Job isn't a perfect

I agree, Job isn't a perfect example but it's good enough. I really wanted to touch on Job to highlight the issues with the quality and history of the story of Job. A lot of Christian theology is badly taught and insular which can give arise to misunderstandings and hostilities.

The logic of free will versus omniscience is an old one. I've seen plenty of religious people ignore that one or throw a fit. But it's also a problem for science. As much as the worst of religion can promote irrationality and hysteria science can also undermine people's sense of awe and self.

All of these questions exist with or without BSG. Leadership and marketing depend on it. In spite of Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations" and bluster modern economics boils down to the crudity of Job and we haven't progressed an inch beyond it. One might as well watch Laurel and Hardy.

Free will and science

Actually, science doesn’t demand free will at all, or even speak to it much. Science does show us that the universe is not deterministic, but has no concept of “will.”

Religion makes a big deal about free will, because it is the root of the choice one makes about religious and moral issues, and punishment is meted out or reward given based on those choices.

Well of course there are faiths that don’t do that, like the Calvinists and many others outside of the monotheists.

As people, we cherish the concept of free will of course, even though we’re not really quite sure what it is. Are we free to act other than the way our neurons make us act? Anyway, these are ancient questions. With respect to this blog, my point remains that once you are in a discussion with a being that knows the future, free will goes out the window. The being knows just what you will do, and just what to say to make you do anything you can be made to do.

There can be stuff you won’t do, of course, such as Job won’t blame God for his troubles no matter what. It is interesting though, if one must argue for the existence of free will in the face of God by saying, “there are some choices even God can’t convince me to make!”

Makes you sound like a pretty pre-determined being.

I've seen people leap on

I've seen people leap on Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle as proof of "free will" but I've never been convinced of that. Also, like Einsten, I'm not persuaded that Quantum Physics is 'it'. Just because we can't penetrate hidden layers doesn't mean that one should derive a truth from that. Guessing would be more reliable.

Anglo-Saxon law and its derivitives make a big deal of responsibility. While one could argue the universe only came into existence five minutes ago or it was negligent potty training that did it that doesn't wash with courts of law. These defences have been tried but law informed in part by science has dismissed them.

Personally, I wouldn't want to lean too much one way or the other. Religion, science, and law are merely ideas. They have a certain direct and indirect usefullness but beyond that become absurd. Indeed, people can misunderstand religion, science, and law as things unto themselves or mess it up before we get very deep into it.

If one could peek into time there's probably a caveman sitting somewhere wishing he'd never started this God troll thing around the campfire. But people do say stupid things and bang on the most about things they know nothing about so, I suppose, the outcome was inevitable. Better luck next time around, eh?

A Way Out?

If you are going to have an interventionist god with omniscience or knowledge of the future, there can be no influencing or manipulation. The people manipulated by the god become instruments, not beings of free will. This is one of the reasons that having such a god as a character eliminates meaning from the actions of other characters.

I agree with this, but there is an "out" for somebody writing fiction with omniscient characters. I actually had to come up with something like this for a piece of fiction that I was trying to troubleshoot for the author, and which involved the unquestioned (in-universe) existence of the Judeo-Christian God. The out (or cheat) was this: an omniscient God recognizes that its omniscience destroys free will; so an *omnipotent* one can, if it cares to, choose to simply not know - to willfully blind itself. Maybe it wants human to have free will; maybe He just wants to be surprised; maybe the former is a means to the latter.

One could argue that an omniscient being not using its omniscience is not...well, omniscient. This point is strictly true, but not very sporting - or, in other words, an audience willing to read a story that presupposes God will probably give the author enough leeway to accept an explanation like this. BSG, unfortunately, proffered no explanation at all, and (as Brad points out elsewhere) does not unequivocally ESTABLISH the existence of God...er, Gog...in the world, so that when His Heavy Hand descends on every damn plot thread resolution in the finale, it is rightly regarded as cheating.

This is a delicate argument

This is a delicate argument but there is some merit in "willfull blindness". One has to tease away gently at the nature of good versus evil, insight and balance, and so forth but there is some theological foundation for this in Christianity and other religions like Islam and Bhuddhism. The idea that knowing "God" is to know madness, and that the damned are forever cast from Gods eye have some salience here.

In part this is why I mentioned Adam Smith's 'Wealth of Nations'. The "invisible hand" is as much a part of stone cold no God required economics as it is religion. If myths of God and self-delusions are cast aside there's an underlying mechanism that "directs" and "influences" the "outcomes" we experience. On this the most celebtrated scholar and humble peasant are one. Nobody knows more than anyone else.

* For the purpose of discussion "God", god, or God are interchangeable. One may talk about a totally mechanical reality or conciously driven one. To all intents and purposes they're the same.

Wilful blindness

You could write the divine this way, though of course it is not the Christian’s god. It might actually be Yaweh, who seemed less omniscient, and was always asking questions and testing people.

However, my point is about an intervening god, who is talking to people. To make your approach work, the god would have to turn off his powers and then try to talk to people to influence them, risking failure in making them do his will. I suppose you could write a god that likes that risk, or demands it in order to not have slaves. But gods that need people to do their bidding always seemed strange to me.

Proof by Demonstration

Um, Brad. You need to look again at the Christian God, and check to see if you understand what wilfull blindness is.

Unless this is your way of proving the point to yourself...

You are definitely right in

You are definitely right in that Yahweh was a less omniscient god; in the OT Yahweh is often like Greek gods in that he seems to need to have humans do his will, and goes around doing things like, well, wrestling with people, physically. But I disagree that my postulated god is not the Christians' god. Even many fundamentalist Christians effectively acknowledge that he is *not* omnipotent in their belief that he is limited by his own nature...that, for example, he cannot lie.

As for "demand[ing] it in order to not have slaves", that's exactly the point. God already has angels to do his will and sing his praises - humans must be meant for something else, and so there must be a possibility of failure.

This in no way takes away from your points that it's an awful lot of divine intervention for very little purpose, or that divine intervention is device indicating total narrative (and cognitive, IMHO) surrender. All I'm saying is that given a (literary or dramatic) god who can be omniscient and omnipotent and who actually cares about his creations, it is not impossible to imagine why he'd choose to move humans around the chessboard rather than either leave them to their own devices entirely (we've seen where that goes in the BSG universe) or simply bamf the world into his preferred configuration. The idea, I imagine, is that this way humans and Cylons would learn their lesson, though other narrative flaws in the story (as you have pointed out) actually demonstrate that this is not so.

Free will isn't determined by knowledge!

"Many religions struggle with the concept of a god that is so omniscient, it knows the future. This sometimes is described as being eternal, existing outside of time. The problem is the conflict between this, and free will. I find the two to be contradictory"

How come? Imagine a camera that, at any moment can go to any point in time (past or future point alike, doesn't matter) and go back to it's owner. Whatever happened or will happen is no secret to camera owner. However - where's his influence in the actions taken?

Knowledge doesn't influence anything (not in that way, at least). I know 2 times 2 gives 4, but in no way I determine what the outcome on that calculator will be. That's determined by something else entirely.

Ineffable

I find it remarkable that the thinkers behind the Tao grasped so many things. They understood that the substance of reality ran through everything, and that words were mere symbols wrapped around this unknowable reality. Plato had some insight into this as did more recent philosophers.

Some might consider any statement on these issues to be arrogant. Whether it's a priest or a scientist making proclomations based on less than certain understanding is a little hasty and almost always wrong. At best it's no more than a guess in the hope you get lucky.

One thing is sure: nobody knows anything. ;-)

Not to be resolved here

This debate won’t get resolved here. As for the “how come?” — the basic answer is that that people ask how, if god already knows that you will turn left at the end of the street, can you choose to turn right? Or is your future predetermined? Some see this as a conflict with their concept of free will, and some don’t. However, that’s not the subject of this article, which is “If god whispers to you something that it omnisciently knows will make you turn right, are you an instrument or merely being influenced?”

Grace

There is a comment in many religions that we are "saved by grace". Technically, ego gets in the way between the self and reality. There is little the broken clock can do to fix itself but by letting go, dropping all ego driven preconceptions and clinging, ones "Buddha nature" might emerge. This is being "saved by grace". God is not necessarily required and this principle can be tested in everyday situations so should keep atheists and scientists happy as well. I see no reason why this can't operate in the reverse direction with free will and omniscience.

"Understanding" and "solving" are merely perspectives. There is nothing to understand or solve. This is counter-intuitive to the ego which finds letting go of preconceptions and clinging very difficult. It wants to understand or more properly impose understanding, or solve or more properly bend the world to its liking. However, once one grasps this and stops being such an egotistical putz things get a little easier. Again, this is why Buddhism among other religions comment that the short cut is the long path. The reasoning is poetic but quite sound.

I'm acknowledging that in

I'm acknowledging that in leaving my two cents, I obviously want to seem smart and curious. And my following response, though dismissive, is honestly asked. God is generally acknowledged to be omniscient and omnipotent. I would think that if God was just one of those things, it would be pretty easy to be the other. Thus the question: "If god whispers to you something that it omnisciently knows will make you turn right, are you an instrument or merely being influenced?”

really reduces to "Can a being that can do anything do the impossible ie two mutually exclusive things simultaneously like influencing and directing?"

Can someone who knows everything solve a paradox? Well if he knows everything, he should have the answer to any problem...but a paradox is a problem without a logical solution...but in knowing everything he would know how to circumvent causal relationships...but...

It's fun for a while, but it's been done before. How much time can we devote to (pardon the paradox) know the unknowable?

The knowledge per se isn't the problematic thing.

Consider the logic like this: for any being to have omniscient knowledge of the future, the future must be knowable. If future events are knowable, that means they are predetermined. And if future events are predetermined, then how can I possibly have any choice about what my future actions will be?

Thus it's not omniscience per se that precludes free will... it's the very possibility of omniscience, at least as something that transcends time. (And this is why the "God who chooses not to know" concept isn't an effective loophole, BTW.)

Thanks a lot!

Brad, thanks very much for the great reading and commentary on BSG over the past few years. It's been challenging, thought provoking and a lot of fun! I count myself as one who was also very dissappointed with the conclusion; but I wouldn't have missed it for the world.

Cheers!

Of Mice and Gog

I don't want to get into a point by point defense of BSG's use of Gog (spoiler: I just reread this, and I kind of did). It was a great show that stumbled towards the end, and my problems with it came out all throughout the fourth season (which was wildly uneven, and even flat out bad sometimes), but I actually liked much of the ending, for the most part, and have a viewpoint that accepts Gog without denying free will. My view may be hogwash, but here it is for better or for worse. And don't anyone bitch about pronouns please. If I use "He" when I mean Gog, so be it. I don't really look at Gog, or God, as having gender, should He or She even exist, thank you very much. I just use a pronoun for simplicity's sake.

Think of a buggy computer program, and there you have Man. Yes, Gog can see the myriad possibilities that make up the future, but that does not mean he knows which path the future will take, because he introduced into the equation this pain in ass program he called Man. Gog designed Man, and if he wanted to design us so that we could confound him from time to time, what is so hard to believe about that? This is Gog we are talking about. Gog can do whatever the hell he wants. The idea that a Supreme Being HAS to know what every response to every action will be denies the fact that the being is supreme. Gog could make Man any way Gog sees fit, so that means that Gog could set up Man so that Gog could be surprised every once in a while.

After all, sometimes it has got to be boring being Gog, don't you think?

So, Gog knows us inside and out, and he obviously has the upper hand in pushing us in any direction He pleases, but that supposes that he even wants to push in exactly one direction. Perhaps Gog doesn't mind aiding man from time to time, but in the end let's say that Gog wants Man to stand or fall on his own, because that was why Gog gave Man the ability to confound Gog in the first place. Gog wanted to see what this new type of being he nurtured from the much and the ooze could accomplish.

So, how do you do that? Well, mostly you would think that you would stay out of the way, letting Man rise and fall on our own merits. But let's say that billions of years later Man has gotten himself into such a pickle that all of the great work that Gog did---a trillion years worth, perhaps---is about to be flushed down the galactic toilet when Man renders himself extinct. Maybe making Man in the first place was a real bitch, even for Gog, and Gog doesn't want to see all that work go to waste. Who the hell knows? This is Gog, so how could we know?

Maybe Gog just made a bet with a different God--say, the God of Lost, who we will call Gol--that Man would make it long term, and so Gog is cheating a little bit to make certain He beats Gol (who we will say is a She) out of the fifty billion galaxies they have riding on the bet.

So, for whatever reason, Gog decides Man is worth saving but only if Man is willing to meet Gog halfway. We can assume that Gog knows all the myriad outcomes of his various possible interventions, so he can easily set up markers and guides to help us along our way. But because Man is at least somewhat unpredictable to Gog (because Gog gave Man that power), maybe Gog sets up millions and millions of these markers, knowing that only a handful will be used depending on the path that Man ends up choosing to take. But since He's Gog, that is not a problem. Gog can set up an infinite amount of markers and guides should He choose to do so. He can use people, places, things, memories, dreams, visions, planets, stars, star clusters, galaxies, whatever-the-frak-he-pleases.

Starbuck the Angel-in-Training? Who is to say there weren't a hundred million potential Starbucks out there? Or a billion? Who is to say that Roslyn was the only candidate to be the dying leader? Perhaps there were many of those as well? This is Gog we are talking about. Just because the idea of how to do all of this baffles us, what does that matter? I'm just trying to set up a plausible reality where there is a Gog that can influence but still allow for free will while doing so.

Ok, don't worry, I'm getting somewhere.

So, yeah, Head Six could say exactly what Gog knows will cause Baltar to act exactly how Gog wants him to act, and there goes free will right out the air lock. But who says that is what Head Six did? Perhaps Gog had HS saying exactly what Gog knew would cause Baltar to merely walk the razor between the right action that saves humanity and the wrong one that dooms us? If Gog knows exactly what to say in order to get us to do exactly what he wants, thus negating free will, then obviously Gog knows exactly what to say to force us to make our own decision, thus ensuring free will shines through. Sure, Gog is lending a hand, but who is to say that hand was one that we had to accept? Gog may have been giving us that hand we needed while still allowing us to reject it if we choose to.

In other words, if Gog can force us to do what Gog wants, then Gog can obviously allow us to choose for ourselves if that is what Gog wants.

BSG never conclusively said that Gog made everything happen; it only conclusively said that Gog was involved and helping. Some people chose to believe that any divine intervention negates man's existence. Others believe that without diving intervention man is nothing. I tend to walk the middle, thinking that a little diving intervention is not necessarily a bad thing, and that little bit of it can go a long way and isn't necessarily cheating (unless you have a bet with Gol going on, in which case She is going to be mighty pissed if She finds out).

The song? The opera house? These weren't the most well thought out over-story points by the writers, but let's not blame Gog for the failures of Ronald D. Moore. And who is to say that these were not all things that Gog set up because he knew that IF we accepted his help, then we would eventually reach the moments where they would come in handy? And maybe there were many other songs and visions at the ready just in case one of the other (millions? billions?) of possible angels-in-training/leaders ended up surviving to the end. Who knows how many other people had lives and back stories that fit perfectly into any number of Gog scenarios but didn't survive the Fall or were never needed? Gog could have loaded the deck (again, where was Gol, and how come she wasn't watching that deck more closely??) long before the first person on Kobol discovered fire.

Anyway, just because Gog was whispering in Baltar's ear doesn't mean that what Gog was whispering was designed to force it all to Gog's preordained conclusion. It was Gog opening the door, while still leaving to us the decision as to whether or not we walk on through. Obviously, if we proved ourselves worthy along the way, Gog may decide to step up His involvement, deciding that being so close to the end merited a little extra help (thus Baltar gets his "proof" right at the end), but I still don't see how that negates free will.

Look, it's all retconning. I know that. And personally, I'm not that invested in it all, because BSG let me down that last year by not being as compelling and entertaining as the show I had loved up to that point. The show just wasn't that good all season long, but it didn't let me down because of the Gog business, and I think it is because I can wrap my head around the idea that Gog's desires and our free will can coexist if Gog decides to let them coexist. Gog may have been ready to cut bait at any time, letting humaninty go down the tubes of extinction and starting over from scratch, but that's a lot of work to let slip away without at least trying to help out a little bit wherever and whenever Gog felt it was appropriate.

Basically, there are a lot of reasons why BSG disappointed me in the final year, but that "God did it" wasn't one of them, because I do not believe Gog did do it, or at least not all of it. The existence of a God does not have to mean that Man is a puppet on a string. A puppet maybe, but I think the strings were probably cut long ago. Gog, or God (or even Gol--she who is most beautiful of all), can choose to get involved directly, indirectly, or anything in between. And it is not beyond the realm of possibility to believe that Gog also created a creature whose actions Gog could predict but not know for certain. Sort of like Man trying to predict where electrons will end up during a double slit experiment. We can chart the probability, but we can't know for certain.

Omniscience is a silly concept even for a God. But even if we accept that idea of God, that doesn't mean that every God in every piece of fiction has to be completely omniscient. And it also doesn't mean that there cannot be graded levels of knowledge that appear to be omniscience but are not. Sure, knowing something that MIGHT happen a million years in the future sure seems omniscient if it comes to pass, but we don't know that Gog hadn't planned for any number of other outcomes other than the one that played out on BSG. And just because this particular Gog could see what was probably coming down the road thousands or millions of years in the future also doesn't mean that Gog had covered every base forever and ever into infinity.

Look--I really don't think BSG's failures all boil down to the fact that God was involved (except to those people who cannot emotionally accept even the possibility of a God existing at all---Atheism is new Fundamentalism, people), but that the show itself just wasn't very good in the final season. I don't get involved with shows for mythology and over-story, but, rather, for characters and entertainment. BSG was wildly entertaining for three years, then not so much once it had to start attending to the mythology that the (occasionally) psychotic fans demanded be attended to. Just like Lost, BSG stopped being a show about a group of characters and their story (and stories), but instead became about putting all the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle together, which is almost always a dramatically inert exercise.

Sure, it could have been better. Much better. Sure, it suffered a lot, and they cut some corners, and some things turned out to be dead ends. But the idea that you can write an essay "proving" that God couldn't have done it, or that if God did do it then God had to do it this one certain way, which then negates all free will and character, is just silly. You don't know God anymore than I do. You have a concept based on the idea that an all powerful, all knowing God couldn't intervene without forcing everyone to do exactly what It wanted, but that just doesn't make any sense. An all powerful, all knowing God could do anything he or she wanted. They could force, or they could nudge, or they could abstain. Or they could do all three, depending on what God's mood was on that particular day, or whether or not God was out of coffee and in a cranky mood.

I don't believe, but I don't disbelieve. As Heinlein said, we'll all find out soon enough, so what's the rush to come to a decision? Denying without proof is no less ridiculous than believing without proof. And trashing a television show because you believe you know exactly how a God's actions would or would not affect man is no less ridiculous than either of those other alternatives.

It wasn't entertaining, fair enough. It wasn't entertaining to me for much of the final season, either (although a good part of the finale was very moving and far better than the handful of episodes that preceded it), but don't pretend that one story point about Gog was the only reason you are not happy with the show, because that just sounds childish and petulant.

And only Gods are allowed to be petulant children.

I would like it to be this way

But the problem is so much of the plot hinged on that damn song, the song that contained in it a series of jump coordinates. Problem is we are told throughout the series how fickle jump coordinates are. Get them wrong and end up very far away. And they depend both on where you are and where you are going, they are not just a coordinate for a target.

So the numbers Starbuck punches in from the song only work if the ship is in exactly the place it is when she punches them in. Not something Gog can predict if Gog is granting humans true free will — being unpredictable even to Gog.

This is the worst one, but the others are also bad. The opera house vision seems hard to accept if the humans did not need to follow a specific path. Had the vision been of some grand and general thing, it would have been fine, but in fact it was of something trivial — the arrangement of people in a room when certain people enter carrying a certain child they have been chasing.

So while I would love a Gog that is not all-knowing, that’s not what we were given here.

A simpler solution

I can't believe I am trying to help the religious solve the problems with their stupid and fragile theories, but I guess there is some intellectual entertainment is this exercise... Anyway, I think there is a simpler solution to the problem of the omniscient god and free will: the omniscient god doesn't just know "the" future, he knows all futures.

In other words the universe is non-deterministic, hence there is free will. We can choose, and our choices can change the course of history. However, the omniscient god knows all of the possible infinite parallel futures, regardless of which exact path is realized.

Silly, but solves the problem. However it does raise another interesting question: is this really an all-knowing god? Is knowing all possible outcomes of an unpredictable event, without knowing which one will take place - equal to knowing the future?

Great blog BTW.

The God, Angels, and Characters in Battlestar Galactica

My THEORY on the whole God and angels issue is a bit simpler than all of your delving into the various archetypes of religious deities. 1- angels are future selves of people. 2- gog is the head writer. One somewhat leads into the other.

First, the angels- I think that the angel versions of Gaius and Six are simply the future angel versions of Gaius and Six. They died in the future on earth after the series was done. They have already lived the future. They KNOW what will happen. They know there is a God because they spoke to his angels and were resurrected by him. They lived with each other for a long time, so they know each other and what the other needs, they love each other. Thus, they are the perfect people for god to send back and craft their past counterparts into the people they will need to be. I mean Kara was resurrected as an angel and god gave her a spaceship, its not too far fetched to believe god could send Gaius and Six as his angel representatives back in time to affect their past selves. Thus, the reason why Six makes love to Gaius all the time in his head, is not JUST because she is a whorish angel, but also because she actually loves him. Also, she/he knows when and what their past selves will need to do, because she/he saw it happen before and saw who they will become. (Example: this is kind of like in Bill and Ted's excellent adventure when the future Bill & Ted help their past selves get out of jail by leaving a stereo of themselves singing. They knew what would happen if they did it, because they lived it.) Also, this would explain why 150,000 years in the future the two angels are still in Gaius and Six's bodies, even though there is noone around who would recognize them. They are in those bodies because they are their bodies.

Second- Theory on who is Gog? To me the ending of the series kind of gives away what and who gog is. When angel Gaius tells Six that gog doesnt like to be called "god", then he says "oh silly of me" (or whatever). Basically, this is a thickly veiled attempt by the actual head writer of Battlestar Galactica to insert himself into the series. He is the god of the Battlestar Galactica series. He has a real name, (though i dont know the name of the actual writer) and generally doesn't like to be called god by his friends most likely. But Gaius realizes in his head after telling Six not to call him god, that the writer of Battlestar Galactica also wrote the line where six called him god. So it is silly of him to try and correct her, when technically the god himself made her do it. Thus, everything is absolutely controlled by god, and he is quite cruel to his creations, and does have a sick sense of humor, but he also has a plan, and he has been watching all of his creations closely. Basically, the show breached the 4th wall without saying it out-loud, and tried to give us other more alluring "outs" which we could try to reason out (like many of the other people on this post have). (Example: in the graphic novel "Animal Man" when Grant Morrison literally wrote himself into the book and had a conversation with his novel's hero Animal Man. Or how Deadpole in Marvel comics knows that he is a comic book character). Also, in 150,000 years the Angels still look exactly like Gaius and Six. There is no-one left alive who would recognize them in that form, so why do they still look like that? (regardless of whether they are simply angels and not future versions of their past selves. Wouldnt they switch forms somewhat in 150,000 years? Get a little tired of the same suit?)They look like this simply because WE the Audience would recognize them, it is not a god acting within the realms of the universe, it is the writer self imposing himself into the story, so that we the viewers might recognize him as the god.(I mean this is obvious in some ways but tricky in others)

Overall, gog is the main writer of Battlestar Galactica, so you as the character are not merely influenced by gog, he writes exactly what you do. However, in that world, you might think you did have free will. Thus, Gog may or may not know what you are going to end up doing later, but when it comes, he will write it so that it looks like he knew all along. Booyah!(The real 5th cylon is YOU!) (again, just a theory)

Not just Gog, but everything...

This is a great blog. I have spent, in the past three days, quite a bit of time reading about a show that hasn't been on for over two years. A show that during its initial run -- at least until the escape from New Caprica -- I believed to be the best show broadcast on American television.

And I found that you really nailed one of many cruxes of the shows ultimate failure. While logically, I agree that the idea that A Wizard... er... God Did It should invalidate the struggles of the characters, this wasn't the final dagger in the heart for me. I've enjoyed reading the debate on whether this Gog knows ALL futures, THE future, chooses to ignore the future while simultaneously planting specific visions and coordinates in the past that will come into play in the future. But the biggest failing in the final episode, to me, was the stupid flashbacks.

I want to say more about the Gog stuff, but I have to bring up this flashback business. Here are character's we've followed for four seasons and a miniseries. Until the final season, they mostly behaved as we'd come to expect, and their relationships and sense of self were clearly defined. The drama of these characters came largely from the "our civilization just got toasted and we're stuck in space without a home" set up of the show, though back story like "My actions led to the death of my lover/your son/your brother," and "I've never been a leader, but here I am... also, I have cancer," provided for more personal drama within the "OMG, we're out of water and fuel and we're getting attacked by our own creations again and again and again," plots.

During the last two episodes, we are given all these looks into the characters before the start of the series, in moments that one is meant to assume are important to who those characters are today, where they are, the choices (assuming they have a choice) that they've made. But they waited until literally the last two episodes of the show to give us this back story. That means, for four seasons we've been working under different assumptions about who these characters are. That means for four seasons we've had an idea of how these relationships should resolve and why they're important, but suddenly, well past the 11th hour, we're given new information to consider, that is meant to hold weight, that is meant to make the conclusion emotionally satisfying on a character level. If these flashbacks AREN'T important to the resolution of the story, then why are we seeing them? And why are we seeing them at the last possible moment? The revelation of Laura Roslin losing her sisters and mother in a car accident doesn't ACTUALLY mean anything to me in the context of the series. Does knowing that make her motivations or character more meaningful? No. It feels like sloppily inserted extra drama that holds no baring on the impending confrontation and last huzzah of the Galactica. It can only be there, in my opinion, to try to add some sort of emotional resonance to a season that just couldn't get it together.

Then we have ol' Bill Adama considering taking a private sector job. What on... Earth(??) is this sequence for? When the show begins, Adama's already got enough going on. He's commanding an old bucket of bolts that's about to be decommissioned, he has an estranged relationship with his family, and a dead son. During the course of the show, this good old soldier assumes command of a fleet, struggles with his role as commander of a single ship and as protector of the human race, butts heads with civilian leadership and military leadership about philosophy and command and theology, makes up with fights with and makes up with again and fights with his son and his "adoptive daughter," lets go of his ex-wife and struggles with feelings for the president, moves from hating those THINGS to making one of those things an officer and a trusted confident... this guy has no shortage of drama and choices to make. Why give us this irrelevant scene about some career quandary? It doesn't make the man more complex, it's just a waste of time. Was this really just to remind us about Caprica so we might tune into that train wreck of a show? Frankly, I was far more interested in how Bill Adama was feeling knowing that his ship was just about at the end of the road, getting ready to go into one last battle, assuming it was a suicide mission. He had finally accepted love from Roslin. His best and oldest friend is not only a toaster, but is an ancient cyborg/alien/thingy from a mythical 13th colony planet (which was destroyed by war in the distant past). And that trouble-making, unconventional, hell of a pilot he bonded with after the death of his son? Yeah, she's back from the dead. Inexplicably. And they decided to spend time showing me a guy who wasn't sure whether or not to leave the military, YEARS AGO!? WHAT?

And then of course there's the Lee/Kara scene. This scene suggests there's been something between the two all along. That's not impossible. They obviously have chemistry, which we see in the miniseries, the moment Lee visits Kara in the brig. And they have a complex back story. But this scene... I can't help but feel like they're setting up the idea that "these two just never seem to connect" so that the eventual resolution of that relationship -- which I might add is Kara "Starbuck" Star of the Show Thrace simply disappearing after a cut -- might fit into the larger pattern. I'll be honest, if Kara is going to be an angel and disappear at the end of the series, fine (not really, but, okay), but resolving that relationship with basically a cut-away shot? That's it? I followed these two characters for four years for that? You couldn't even hold on the shot of her looking at him before the cut away, give some effing gravity to the moment? Anyway, I feel like the flashbacks of this scene are designed specifically to get you ready for that scene, and/or to give you SOME kind of moment of Apollo and Starbuck on-screen together... which, incidentally, happened about four times during the entire season. Lame. If you want my theory, it's that the staff was feeling abused by all the complaining and hating on the "marital issues" arc during season 3, and in an attempt to get away from that, they eschewed all relations between Kara and Lee for the final season. Despite the fact that the first two seasons of the show were built heavily on the web of relations between Kara and Lee and Roslin and Adama (and of course Gaius and Six). Heck, in general it seems like they couldn't figure out how to use Starbuck during this season, and my understanding is even Katee Sackoff didn't know what they were doing with her character. It's a bad sign when your actress comes to you and says she doesn't know what's going on with her character.

I'd say that about 50% of my disappointment with the season finale came from the above mentioned stupid flashbacks.

Now, let's get back to Gog...

The Opera House. That's IT? That's what the vision was referring to? That's so... disappointingly... pedestrian. It's not even metaphoric, it's just like a straight simile or something. A literal translation. A synonym. Something. That's the vision they've all been having? It's sooooo meaningless. It's just, "oh, you guys will get that baby, and then you'll all be standing around in the same place." Wow. Way to take the wind out of the mystical sails. It completely reeks of "crap, we put this thing in there, we didn't really know what it was going to mean, and now we're forced to write something that it could be about."

The people who have had the visions. Initially Baltar had the visions. Okay, the guy was touched in the head. Either he was literally being visited by a sexy-angel, he had contracted some sort of nano-insanity-virus, or he was just a mad scientist. He's allowed to have visions. And we're allowed to never really know what those were about (frankly, if Baltar had eventually converted to belief outside of science based solely on his imaginary friend, his ego, and his interpretation of extraordinary events, I would have liked that better). Then, Roslin starts having the SAME dream. Whoa... freaky. She's on crazy drugs, and becomes an ardent believer in the prophecies. She also gets a cylon blood transfusion. I don't want to be the guy that brings up the cylon STD theory again, but, up until that point, everybody having the dream has had exposure to cylon bodily fluids. Sharon also has the dream. The dream is still open to interpretation at that point and could either be a vision or the result of some sort of programming. Which is nice. I liked that the show was doing the "this could be science, this could be god" thing. It was also leaving its own prophecies open to interpretation. Were the "serpents, two and ten" the snakes Roslin saw, or the Viper squadron Baltar guided to the tyllium refinery? Was the dying leader Roslin? Or were Baltar's psychotic episodes symptomatic of a brain tumor? Dementia? Was he to be the leader? Was the Galactica itself? Everything was open-ended. The way that mysticism should be handled in a sci-fi show that's meant to parallel our own existence. If there is DEFINITELY beyond the shadow of a doubt a Gog, then I find that the link between their world and mine is a bit more tenuous.

The Song. Oh man. I can't blame season 4 for this. I have to blame Season 3. During the season finale, there's some excitement afoot, and suddenly they start playing Bear McCreary's version of All Along The Watchtower. I give him credit for designing a version that is neither the Dylan nor the Hendrix version. But, every BSG fan in the world at that moment knew something had fundamentally shifted in the BSG world. There was earth music. What could it mean? As you pointed out, this made the idea that the series took place in the future almost a certainty, which surprised me, as I assumed they were going to do the "in the past" angle. More importantly, it introduced a MYSTERY (tm) that they would then have to resolve. WHY did all the cylons hear that song? Why THAT song? It was a mystery the writers did not seem to be up for. Perhaps this was part of Moore's famous "we're making it up as we go" style (as this season seems to be where they strayed from the series bible). But it was a huge mistake. It became one of the biggest contrivances of the show. Brad has already fully explained how coincidental and/or indicative of a predetermined fate this song is. The jump coordinates. In a song. That was played by Sam Anders (the biggest RetCon character since Jengo Fett/Boba Fett). Thousands of years ago. That against all odds, when punched into a Colonial nav computer will take the ship to Earth. Seriously. That's some hand of Gog ish right there. Or it's the biggest coincidence ever. But given the bizarre fixation on the song, it seems unlikely to have been set up as a coincidence. Given that the woman who punches in the coordinates is back from the dead, and has remembered her father playing the same song from thousands of years ago on a distant planet, that could only be located by way of finding a resurrected Viper and its pilot floating out in space.

Ugh.

Yeah. Unlike some fans, I was fine with the show including some mystical and paradoxical elements. Humans are constantly dealing with the need to balance what we observe with what we believe. And with the fact that so much is unknowable. A show that portrays a set of events that can be read from a variety of perspectives is a show that is doing well to acknowledge that. As it did with political and social issues, where often the area was gray, and major characters would come down on both sides of a debate, one would hope the show could be equally interpreted when it came to issues of belief. I would have loved it if one viewer could say, "there is no god nor are there gods in the Galactica universe" while another could say, "Of course there is." And they could have a lengthy debate on how the different elements could be interpreted in support of one thing or another.

But the show began to take sides. It brought Kara back from the dead, but insisted she wasn't a cylon. It even for a moment suggested that maybe she was HALF Cylon, but then axed that. Indeed, having Starbuck as a Cylon would have been a predictable, but workable revelation. If she dies. And resurrects having been to Earth, it might stand to reason that there is some sort of resurrection facility on Earth. The Final Five are then somehow linked to Earth. This was initially my theory, though I hadn't expected them to be ancient cylons, but rather cylons from part of the 12 that just split off on their own. Though, to be fair, in order to be more in keeping with the "All of this has happened before..." line, it should have been one, 13th model that was the one they never spoke about, and that split off.

As far as I'm concerned, the show ended after Unfinished Business.

Word.

woops

That was me. I didn't mean to be anonymous.

What must the nature of Gog's omniscience be?

Hello, I realize this is pretty late now and I don't know if anyone is reading, but I figured I'd throw this out there.

I recently finished watching BSG, and while I was disappointed in the ending for most of the reasons you are (and some I don't believe I've seen you mention) I haven't been that opposed to the major supernatural reveal, and certainly don't hold it as the single largest criticism against the series as you would appear to.

I think that this idea that an agent acting on the basis of prescience/precognition must have absolute knowledge is not exactly conclusive. Traveling back in time, for instance, is a staple of many less hard SF stories, and is as typically presented equivalent to predicting the future. I'm not aware of any stories where the time traveler delivering information about the future is implied to have been responsible for these future outcomes, nor even having any kind of special universal knowledge. Despite having specific information regarding an event or events set arbitrarily into the future the time traveler does not an understanding (much less instantaneous) of the progression from the destination past to these future events. I would however consider time travel to be a supernatural occurrence since it violates our understanding of the laws of physics. I would consider it fairly analogous to the presence of any kind of supernatural force or entity.

Now this is rather mundane as far as philosophical thought experiments go, but please bear with me and consider the following scenario:

The universe as we know it is a computer simulation within another universe. Consider it an experiment with the outcome of intelligent life being a major interest. Within the confines of the universe itself it appears non-deterministic, but the source of that non-determinism is in fact both deterministic and repeatable within the universe of the simulators. Therefore it is possible to capture the universe's state and resume the simulation from an earlier point.

Let's say that on observing the universe - of course only at a very high level, rather than with an express knowledge of its entire state - the curators of the simulation witness that their most interesting life forms have killed themselves. Unhappy with the result, the simulation is restarted at some point of previously captured state, and this time information is inserted into that universe in an attempt to save these life forms. But manually changing the universe outside of its physical laws is expensive and may yield unintended consequences, so the curators largely carry out their intervention via intelligent beings that exist within the physical laws and have some understanding of how to minimize negative impact, ie the head-beings.

In this scenario the supernatural party, while indeed having access to arbitrarily profound modification of the universe, would still not necessarily have within their capacity unlimited knowledge of the universe, and not merely out of a "willing" forfeiture of such. Consider that the simulated universe can only be executed in some ratio of "real time" to simulation time, and that the curators have human-like life spans. This would limit their ability to understand the simulation and limit the ability of any individual to modify it. Let's also say that turning back time (restoring to an earlier image) is very expensive and undesirable, or can only happen at certain intervals. This would discourage repeatedly retrying until you got things right, although some of this may be inevitable.

You could say that the simulation itself has an omniscience, but this isn't necessarily any more meaningful than attributing such a knowledge to our universe itself.

I don't see any fundamental logical contradiction with a scenario like this, although I'd be happy to be made aware of such a thing. It may seem elaborate and contrived, but I think what we have to consider is intention on the writer's part. Because I didn't receive a clear impression that the writers intended for such an all controlling supernatural intelligence. And without a foregone conclusion that the predictions present in the show must be indicative of knowing all of the events that led to them I see the enumeration of such events to be almost as contrived.

Time travel

Yes, but Moore said he would not give us time travel; it screws up so many otherwise good stories.

The God of Galactica does interfere in a variety of places — start with everything Head Six says to Baltar, and also the Temple of Five with the Supernova — hardly minor. So it’s not just a time traveler with knowledge of a predetermined future.

Well that was pretty flatly dismissive..

Moore said he wouldn't give us time-traveling characters and used it in the same sentence as his claim that he wouldn't give us characters with "god-like powers." You can hardly dismiss the former and allow for the latter. When you get down to it, I think Moore didn't mean what people think he did with this comment, or to put it a different way, Gog doesn't fall under his "characters" roster. I agree that time travel screws up a lot of stories, but most of it is the flavor where the time traveler alters his or her own history and damages causality. The "separate branching timeline" approach doesn't have this problem, and you'll note that the simulation scenario I described is consistent with this (in the simulating universe, the previous "run" of the simulation occurred chronologically prior to one later)

Prophetic fulfillment starts happening pretty early in the series, so you're going to need some explanation for it. I know you've tended towards the vision-giver being the vision-causer, but that's more or less the line of thinking that led you towards concluding that Gog must know all outcomes.

No, Gog can't be JUST a time traveler (that is, someone with no additional powers), but dismissing what I said with that alone is really missing the point, which is that it doesn't have to be directly responsible for every last event determined to be significant in the chain of these outcomes. Much less does it need to be cognizant of every last reaction that will happen which is the absolute crux of your argument, that it cannot merely "influence" events in this universe towards some goal.

Not trying to dismiss

But like the original Moore, I agree that the use of beings with god-like powers and time travel can ruin a story’s value. So it doesn’t placate me to suggest that while this might be more of a time traveler than a god! I don’t allow for either. I still maintain that in the best stories, the characters have responsibility for their own destinies, and what they do affects those destinies, and that’s why we identify with them, root for them or hate them.

What I call Calvinist time travel, where the course of time is fixed, and all time travel does is send knowledge back — this has led to some cute and fun stories. But it’s a well worn path now, and it’s harder to look past the issue of all the information that never originated but just came in a loop, which these stories often amount to.

Still not really the point

I really only brought up the time travel example in order to illustrate an example where prophetic knowledge is utilized outside of directly predicting/knowing/controlling everything. The second scenario I gave (universe simulation) isn't really describing time travel per se. And that too is just an example, not really an attempt at offering "the" explanation. And I can't say I'm looking to placate you. I understand your disappointment and I don't see much in the way of mitigating that.

I apologize if I'm sounding repetitive, but the real point I'm trying to make is that I think that it's plausible to merely be "influenced" by God. That even in this story there is some room for the characters influencing their destinies, even within the context of the major supernatural interference involved. And it doesn't necessarily have to come as a result of God putting a blindfold on. I think this is worth exploring because this seems to be more in line with the author's intent. Or at least it's worth exploring if you're going to make an argument against supernatural intervention in any story.

(for what it's worth, I don't generally like time travel stories either and am especially bothered by predestination paradoxes, although that doesn't really seem to be either here nor there.. and information time travel isn't really any more "fixed" if that information's contents/history is still subject to alteration)

To be influenced by god

Oh, I will agree — if the god is portrayed as a much more limited being, the runner of a digital universe being an example I have used for years of this — then naturally you can be influenced by them. I’ve often written and talked about that.

But that’s not the case here, not even remotely. This is a more typical god that is a supermind, and probably all-seeing and all-knowing. A god who can orchestrate it so that a song put into the heads of people thousands of years ago turns out to be the right jump coordinates to take a ship from a specific area (a singularity where a giant base was recently moved) to a planet that’s been groomed for millions of years to match the DNA of those people — that’s no casually observing and limited god. That’s not the sort of god who, if they say something, doesn’t know exactly what will happen if they say it.

(Note that in the case of the calvinist time traveler, they also know what will happen, though not by being a supermind. Everything is just unfolding as it always did, and the TT is part of it, and part of the loop, and happens to know important parts of the course of it.)

Generally when I write about more limited beings who nonetheless create universes, digital or otherwise, the reaction of most people is that they aren’t gods, but it’s an interesting question.

I must not be seeing it

How does the digital universe simulation supervisor with limited capabilities really not work for BSG? This being, having seen "the future" end up with a dead end at original earth and the Cylon colony loads a few thousand year old backup and inserts some direction for the humans (and Earth Cylons) involved to get to (our) Earth at a convenient time. Maybe it didn't happen so directly, but I don't have a hard time imagining this being the result of a relatively small number of historic revisions, with enough care given to try to minimize ill effects, including some additional direction nudging them towards the "right" path to recreate the same circumstances. It doesn't have to come as the result of the god directly reflecting upon everything that happens in the universe, and the supernatural interventionist himself need not have absolute predictive capabilities.

The humans on separate planets thing has been discussed to death (including by yourself) as being permissible through some relatively minor abduction plan, which even seems reasonable in the context of a science experiment (they did well so far on this planet, let's drop some on another). No, nothing in the narrative suggests this, but neither does anything suggest that Gog babysat the humans on both planets to guide their evolution so precisely toward the same goal. It's left open ended and I don't see how one is a more natural assumption than the other.

People seem to have a lot of preconceived notions on the concept of "god." But the concept of "supernatural" is a lot more clear cut, while also allowing for pretty much anything. There could be (in a story) supernatural phenomena that are limited to effects that are of no consequence whatsoever to any of us.

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