Science in Christian Perspective



Penetrating the Word Maze

Richard H. Bube

Stanford University
Stanford, California 94305

From: PSCF 41 (March 1989): 37-38.

Taking a look at words we often use-and misuse. Please let us know whether these attempts at clarification are helpful to you.

Today's words are: "determinism/chance/free will."

The Dictionary definitions: determinism: "a theory or doctrine that acts of the will, occurrences in nature, or social or psychological phenomena are causally determined by preceding events or natural laws." chance: "something that happens unpredictably without discernable human intention or observable cause." free will: "voluntary choice or decision; freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention." [Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, MerriamWebster, Springfield, MA (1987)].


Some scientific terms invite being extrapolated into general philosophical perspectives. Few terms are more susceptible to this kind of misuse than "determinism" and "chance."

They are a peculiar pair, for they seem to be a prime example of a philosophical Catch 22. Both kinds of scientific descriptions are essential to describe a whole human being able to act responsibly, while at the same time the use of either kind of description by itself makes it impossible to make such a description. 

The dilemma sharpens with the realization that any scientific description must be either "deterministic" or "chance." If a process can be described in terms of exact mathematical relations, so that the future can be accurately predicted from a knowledge of the present, then you have a deterministic description. If a process cannot be so described, but must instead be described in terms only of the probability of various future outcomes resulting from present conditions, then you have a chance description. There isn't any other kind of scientific description. If you make a scientific description, it has to be of one type or the other.

Consider the following curious paradox. What kind of scientific description of a human being is indicative of the ability of the person to act responsibly with some measure of "free will"? A deterministic scientific description appears to contradict such free will-for how can what is determined be free? But at the same time, a deterministic scientific description is needed. How can a responsible choice exist without being describable in a cause and effect framework?

By contrast, a chance scientific description appears to make room for free will by removing the constraints of determinism; but how can a situation be considered to involve a responsible human choice if it corresponds to chance, a random and unpredictable action?

The situation is made worse when deterministic scientific descriptions are accepted as the basis for a world view of Determinism (note the capital "D") in which human beings are little more than genetic or environmental robots, or when chance scientific descriptions are believed to be the basis for a world view of Chance (note the capital "C") in which existence is intrinsically meaningless. If both Determinism and Chance do violence to the biblical view of the human being, and if only deterministic or chance descriptions are possible for science, how can we get out of this dilemma?

This is such an ancient philosophical conundrum that it would totally threaten my credibility if I claimed to be able to provide a neat and simple response to that question. But I think that the realization of the nature of the problem may well be the first step to avoiding the pitfalls of extreme positions.

An analogous paradox lies at the center of the biblical teaching on God's sovereignty and human responsibility. Is a person's coming to saving faith the inevitable consequence of God's determining election, or is a person's coming to faith an act of free human choice among equally possible alternatives? How do we respond to this paradox? Usually we realize that we must hold both perspectives in tension. We recognize that they address different questions in different contexts, and that it would be presumptuous to suppose that we could accurately express in our human concepts the profound realities of God and His creation. Perhaps this provides a clue as to how to respond to the scientific determinism/chance dilemma.

A resolution of this type is strengthened by two other realizations: (1) determinism and free will are not concepts that we can use in an absolute sense, and (2) we often find a complex interaction between deterministically describable processes in the same phenomena.

Although strict determinism may be postulated as a theoretical concept, the actual experience of such strict determinism is practically impossible in experimental science. In even the most completely deterministic, simple, physical system, we must constantly deal with statistical fluctuations beyond our control. On the other hand, it is equally true that no will is ever completely free, but is conditioned, shaped, and bounded by a variety of genetic and environmental influences.

In most major complex systems, there is an interaction between deterministic and chance effects. An individual event, like the decay of a radioactive atom, may be totally describable as a chance event; but the time for half of a large number of radioactive atoms to decay can be predicted deterministically. The position and velocity of atomic particles can be described only within a probabilistic (chance) framework, but the probability itself can be described deterministically. A scientific description may be totally deterministic in form, but its outcome is largely determined by particular "boundary conditions" that may well be the result of chance. A deterministically describable process can be the instrument of design (as in the specific configuration of hydrogen and oxygen atoms in the water molecule), but so can a process describable as chance (as in the creativity expressed in the multiplicity of human beings described scientifically through the chance assignment of DNA configurations).

So we come to the conclusion that questions dealing with determinism and chance must abandon the question for a general answer. Instead we must ask: To what extent am I influenced by deterministic processes, to what extent am I influenced by chance processes, and at the same time to what extent am I free to make responsible human choices?

What we know as scientific chance does not have any direct bearing on what we mean by free will. Nor does discovery of chance events in the world have any basis for being interpreted as meaningless. We must challenge any contention that deterministic and chance scientific descriptions lead directly to Deterministic and Chance world views.

Feel free to let the Editor or Author know whether you determined to read this column, or whether it was just a lucky chance.