Thursday, August 9, 2018

What about human free will?

I was recently asked what I think about free will. Does it exist?
What is my perspective as a Christian? as a physicist?

My immediate answer is: I don't know!
These are awfully hard and subtle questions which some very smart people have thought deeply about over the centuries.

From a physics point of view there are the problems associated with Laplace's demon. But that is classical, whereas the world is quantum (which makes it even more mysterious and controversial). Physicists can't even agree whether quantum theory is deterministic or not!
Furthermore, emergence complicates things and gives richer possibilities, particularly when we come to biology.

The mind-body problem encompasses many issues. I would say free will is part of a cognitive package including consciousness, conscience, moral compass, human identity, intuition, emotions, sense of purpose, and a sense of past, present and future. How these functions "emerge" from the physical brain or it what sense they "exist", involves a lot of rich (and controversial) biology and philosophy.

From a Christian point of view, one has to wrestle with the paradox of the relationship between human free will, God's sovereignty, and pre-destination (election). Humans comprise "heart, mind, body, and soul". I take this not as a taxonomy of separate entities but rather a description of our complexity and the many facets to our nature and existence. I really don't know quite how to relate them but want to embrace them all and live with the tension.

However,  in the end, I don't know.
I live by faith: essentially I live as if I do have freedom to make choices, choices for good or for evil, that I am accountable to God and to others for my choices, and that in all my human confusion and fraility, I do want to choose good!


  1. Nice post! I'm a Christian and a year 13 student hoping to study Physics at university and I don't think that we have free will. I've started learning about quantum mechanics through an online course yet I am struggling to come to terms with it. As Einstein said "God does not play dice" and that's what I really struggle to accept. What do you think about probability seemingly being fundamental to the universe?
    I also have my own blog
    and will post about these kind of topics as I learn more about the quantum world so would be grateful if you could give me some feedback!

  2. Alex,

    Thanks for your interest.
    I like your blog. It is good to see your passion about physics and maths.

    Einstein's quote has long been controversial. Quantum physicists and philosophers really cannot agree about how "random" the universe it.

    I don't see probability as fundamental to the universe. But, probability is certainly fundamental to many of our best theories about the universe. In the case of statistical mechanics (e.g. kinetic theory of gases) this just reflects our ignorance, not something fundamental about the universe.