Science in Christian Perspective


Student Paper
Free Will and Determinism
Stanford University 
Stanford, California 94305


The long standing debate over free will and determinism often seems like a useless intellectual battle. What relevance has it to our lives? This type of thinking is quite understandable, considering the complexity of the problem and diversity of opinion, but the fact remains that the question is of considerable importance. If man, his existence, actions and thoughts, are all determined solely and completely by the motion of atomic particles behaving according to set laws, then how can anyone be said to have responsibility? When there is no genuine choice involved in one's actions, both guilt and praise lose their significance. The criminal is not responsible for his crime, and the compassionate, socially concerned individual cannot he said to be responsible for his good deeds.

For the Christian the problem takes on special significance, for how can God he said to be just in condemning those who do not submit to His will? Also, if our rebellion against God is something beyond our control, then God must he said to be responsible for the human evil in the world. At stake is the question of whether man is a free agent or simply a complex biological machine, and whether God can be said to be just if indeed He does exist.

Attempted Solutions

There have been many attempted solutions to the problem, but as yet there is no clear-cut answer. This paper is not another attempt to arrive at a definite conclusion but rather it endeavors to set forth a basic foundation upon which any solution must be based. Some possible solutions are outlined and discussed, but these are speculations and for that reason must he considered lines of approach to the problem and not final solutions. We also consider the limitations of our reason as they affect any attempt to find a solution. Finally, in light of this, the relevance of Biblical teaching is considered, and a Christian response is set forth.

Any viable solution to the problem of free will and determinism must take into account the facts which are at one's disposal. One must not ignore either the scientific data or the experiences which we possess. The whole question arises as a result of what at times appears to be conflicting evidence.

On the one hand, man possesses something called consciousness by which he is able to reflect upon the nature of himself and to see himself as distinct from "the world outside" which is present in his perceptions. Regarçlless of what he conceives the nature of the world to be, he recognizes himself as a thinking and willing being. It has taken on such philosophical statements as that of Augustine or Descartes: "I doubt, therefore I exist," "I think, therefore I exist." We tend to regard ourselves as subjects, initiating action, having control of our thoughts and actions, being able to choose between various alternatives and then having responsibility for those thoughts and actions.

Arising in apparent opposition to this are the findings of science regarding the nature of man. Evolution indicates that man has developed from lower life forms, and the advances in chemistry and biology indicate that the human body is composed of chemicals operating according to physical laws. More recently this has also been shown true for the operations of the brain. Although this is a new frontier, it is known that emotions, drives, memory, sensations, and thoughts all have bases in physical-chemical activities, which if altered cause changes in our conscious thought.
It is an assumption of many that, at least in theory, all of our thoughts can he described in terms of physical-chemical processes. All physical effects can be seen as arising necessarily from physical causes. This, at least has been the assumption of science and in fact has demonstrated its usefulness.

We therefore have here what seem to be two contradictory ideas. Man perceives himself as autonomous, not being pre-determined in his actions, but nevertheless our thoughts seem to arise from the physical structure of the brain which as far as we can tell follows the causal laws of physics.

Some people have concluded from this that our perception of ourselves as free agents is an illusion, consciousness simply being a characteristic of the particular arrangement of atoms and molecules in the brain. Man, therefore, is seen as being a complex biological machine and nothing more.

Is Man Only a Machine?

This conclusion that man is only a machine and that free will is simply an illusion does not necessarily follow. Some of the various possible alternatives are now considered. They can be placed under three general categories:

    1. The incompleteness of physical description.
    2. The completeness but not exclusiveness of physical description.
    3. The limited validity of physical description.

The first of these takes note of the fact that although we know quite a bit about the functioning of the brain, it is still largely a mystery. We know where in the brain certain functions take place and that they are accompanied by electrical and chemical activity. We also know that people's thoughts are conditioned to a large extent by past behavior patterns and experiences. Nevertheless such basic phenomena as memory storage, perception, learning and consciousness are but very poorly understood. The belief that every thought will eventually have complete description and hence in theory complete predictability is based not so much on the evidence as it is upon the assumption undergirding science that all empirical phenomena are understandable in terms of physical causes.

Those who defend free will by resisting the physical determinist's conclusion may do so by postulating a gap or gaps in the physical description. There are commonly two approaches. The first approach postulates that as physiological psychologists gradually learn more and more about the brain, they will eventually come to observe physical events which have no physical causes. The reason why this is postulated is that the mind (which by this view is held to be spiritual) must in some way be able to affect the physical processes in the brain which give rise to thoughts. If there were a complete physical description, i.e., that every physical event necessarily follows from its causes according to the physical laws, then there would be no room for a spiritual mind to have any effect upon the activity of the brain. People of this view therefore see the human mind as supernatural (outside of Nature), and each physically uncaused thought can properly be called a miracle.

Man perceives himself as autonomous, not being pre-determined in his actions, but nevertheless our thoughts seem to arise from the physical structure of the brain which as far as we can tell follows the causal laws of physics.

The greatest problem with this approach is that it has no support from empirical evidence and must stand in a corner of knowledge (or more properly nonknowledge) which continually gets smaller. It is felt to be justified as an exception to the natural physical order by the fact of the uniqueness of man and his perception of his own personal autonomy. Although this is a possibility, it opens itself to the same possible fate as other "God-of-the-gap" theories.

The second and more popular gap approach rests upon randomness at the atomic level which is at limes hypothesized from the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. The Heisenherg Uncertainty Principle states that it is impossible to know both the position and the direction of velocity of a subatomic particle. It may he that there is indeed randomness at the atomic level, but then again it may be that the present unpredictability of position and velocity is due not to randomness but is instead due to problems of measurement, i.e., in the process of measuring, we affect what we are trying to measure. Still another possibility is that the concepts of position and velocity may simply not have meaning at that level.

This approach has two problems. First it must be assumed that randomness does exist at the atomic level. Secondly, randomness in itself does not lead necessarily to the conclusion that we have responsible choice. Responsibility does not mean lack of predictability, for the action which doesn't utilize past information and follow lines of reasoning is said to be the opposite of responsible. Therefore if this approach is to be valid, it must be assumed that randomness at the atomic level merely opens the door for the spiritual mind to control, on a large scale, the motion of atomic particles and hence effect control of macroscopic events in the brain. If a nonmaterial mind is not hypothesized then the randomness at the atomic level loses any effect on a larger scale due to averaging probabilities, and responsibility is lost. Indeed responsibility is the central issue at stake in the problem of free will and determinism.

Both of the above approaches, which assert the incompleteness of physical description, are possible solutions to the problem, but they are not the only possible solutions. We now consider the type of solution which asserts the possibility of complete physical description but nevertheless claims that physics is only one of many valid and necessary levels of description.

Rejection of Reductionism

This type of solution to the problem is based upon the rejection of reductionism. It, unlike reductionism, asserts that the whole is more than the sum of the parts. With increasing complexity of an interactive whole, new and different levels of description are required, and these are not reducible to the atomic particles of which they are composed. This is not to say that different descriptive levels exist apart from matter and ultimately energy, but rather, it is saying that various configurations of matter viewed as a whole have characteristics which are not contained within the sum of the parts considered separately.

This can perhaps be made clear by considering a very simple example. When two hydrogen atoms are brought together, they form a hydrogen molecule. The two atoms interact and a vibration occurs. This interaction is not something we would call real in the same sense as is the matter involved, but it is not an illusion. Further, although we can think of the interaction being potential in the individual atoms, it is nevertheless not present in them individually. It is lost when we attempt to reduce the description of the hydrogen molecule to its constituent parts. For this same reason geology, biology, psychology, sociology, politics, etc. are not reducible to the level of description of physics. They are ultimately based upon matter, the atomic particles which compose them, but as we consider different and higher levels of interaction, new and unique characteristics arise which are irreducible to lower levels which form their basis.

Instead of postulating the control of a non-material mind through random atomic level activity, one can hypothesize that the control of the direction of one's thoughts arises from the character of man as a whole interacting being.

The point of all this in regard to the question of determinism is that, although a complete description may be possible on the level of physics, this does not mean that other levels of descriptions are invalidated. In brief, one can say that on the physical level of description one is determined, and yet on the level viewing man as an interacting whole, he can be said to possess freedom and responsibility.

It can, by means of this approach, be argued that those characteristics which are unique to man (self-consciousness, personality, developed rational pntentialities, consciousness of God, and consciousness of moral standards) all arise from the structure and interaction of man as a whole person. These can be seen as having their foundation in physical description, but they themselves are unique in man and are more than the physical level from which they arose. This uniqueness of man enables him to rise above the sheer subservience to passion. He is able to evaluate his possible courses of action and their consequences and then act upon them. Therefore instead of postulating the control of a nonmaterial mind through random atomic level activity, one can here hypothesize that the control of the direction of one's thoughts arises from the character of man as a whole interacting being. Everyone therefore can be said to have a basic awareness through his reason of what is right and wrong, and to have the potentiality to turn to what is right.

This formulation, however, does not completely solve the problem. It hypothesizes that, due to its complexity and structure, the brain, although following the laws of nature, does have genuine alternatives. This accords with subjective human experience, but goes against the general assumption of science, that effects can be fully understood in terms of efficient and necessary causes.

Limitations on Understanding

This brings us to the last type of solution to the question. Briefly stated it asserts that the problem lies in our inability to understand reality in anything more than a limited perspective. The fact that we are finite human beings means that our conceptions of determinism and free will are going to possess only limited validity.

The best-known formulation of this is that of Immanuel Kant. Like empiricists, he maintained that all of our thoughts and ideas must be founded on the data of sensation. Nevertheless what we perceive is not reality, things-in-themselves, but rather we perceive only what our mind has synthesized and made to conform to the categories inherent in the structure of the mind. Space, time, causality, and principles of science and math are all categories of the mind.

Therefore anything we perceive, we must of necessity perceive as being causally determined. This does not mean that things-in-themselves are causally determined, but rather that this is a category imposed by the mind. It is therefore, according to Kant, possible for man to be phenomenally determined and yet noumenally free, phenomena being things as we perceive them, and noumena being the things-in-themselves.

Kant may not be right in his radical separation of phenomena from noumena, but the fact remains that our perception of the world is our perception. The very act of perception sifts and orders the content of our perceptions. In addition, we use models as constructs for understanding our perceptions. Such is science. The lesson for us to learn from this is that we must avoid the temptation to equate our constructs with reality itself. This lesson is also coming to us in modern physics.

Newtonian physics had assumed that the world consisted of fundamental, irreducible particles which move and interact with each other according to certain natural laws, which at least in theory would enable a neutral observer to predict any future event, given complete knowledge of the state of affairs at a given moment.

Scripture, in what appears as paradox, is expressing profound truth.

This is the assumption of physical determinism.

Today we know that Newtonian physics has been shown to be sorely inadequate. We are confronted with the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and the relativity of time and space. Because matter seems to be convertible into energy we no longer know what "matter" is. We might say "static energy", but what is energy? We try to explain something like light, and we are forced to use conceptual models, which, if taken strictly, appear to be contradictory to each other i.e., waves and particles. The utility of Newtonian physics in most areas is obvious, but we know today that it is woefully lacking when its constructs and asssumptions are taken for reality-in-itself.

In the light of recent discoveries in science and recognition of the fact that we must view the world from a limited perspective, we ought to be humble before such a complex question as free will and determinism. We are beginning to see that we understand the world much less than we had thought. It may be that there is neither determinism nor free will as we conceive of them, and that both of these ideas have only limited validity.

Teaching of Scripture

With these things in mind the profundity of Biblical teaching is fairly obvious. Throughout church history people have twisted Scripture to try to deny either free will or determinism. The fact is, however, that Scripture clearly teaches both that all things are taking place according to God's sovereign plan, and that we have responsibility for the decisions we make. God does not lead us into temptation, and He does not cause us to fall. From one perspective this appears to be a paradox, but then we have only a limited view of reality. We are making a mistake if we think the world must be exactly as we conceive it.

Scripture recognizes both what we know about determination and free will. We are conditioned by our actions and environment. The command to keep our minds on those things which are pure and of good report is no idle statement. By the things we do, we develop patterns which may either be molding us into the image of Christ or be hardening us to God's will, Each time Pharaoh acted against God, his heart became more hardened. Scripture clearly indicates we are not free from determining influences; it recognizes the phenomena which we today call psychological conditioning. When we fail to appeal to God, we succumb to the power of our passions, losing the ability to become the sort of people that we should be.

In spite of our conditioning, we do in some sense have free will. Scripture clearly teaches that we have responsibility. We may not know exactly how this fits in with the idea of our thoughts being describable in causal terms on the level of physics, but from our experience it makes good sense.

In conclusion we see that Scripture, in what appears as paradox, is expressing profound truth. Its statements are found to be quite accurate in describing reality as we see it. Also as we are coming to recognize our limitations in conceptualization, we are beginning to see the necessity of paradox in our attempt to understand reality. The Christian therefore in his response to the problem of free will and determinism ought to be willing to recognize that he doesn't possess any clear solution, and yet he need not think that the Biblical teaching is in error. On the contrary its insightful statements, its consistency with reality as observable by us, its historical verification in Jesus, and its efficacy in the lives of believers, all give credence to a fait in its reliability as a source of truth.