Is Free Will Scientifically Dead?

November 2013 040

Brian Greene, an American theoretical physicist at Colombia University and possibly the most well-known string theorist, was recently quoted by LiveScience, “I think free will bit the dust long before multiverse theory.” He said scientific equations can describe the particles that make up all matter, including humans, because everything has a “fundamental microphysical underpinning.” Determinism is not a new idea for physicists.

Of course, Christian apologists do not accept this conclusion about free will or determinism. Free will is a spiritual power endowed to humans by God. It seems a contradiction of the wildest sort for a scientist to conclude that free will is deader than multiverse theory. Science cannot prove or disprove spiritual truths. (Multiverse theory is another story.*)

However—and I understand having been a non-religious scientist myself once—Brian Greene is saying exactly what a non-believing physicist would logically conclude. The reasoning begins with an axiomatic disbelief in God, and follows. If there is no faith in God, there is no faith that anything spiritual exists. If there is nothing spiritual, free will only lives if it is explainable in physical terms.

A physical scientist must hold another axiomatic belief about the world. He must expect the world to be ordered and symmetrical, otherwise there is no basis to expect the predictive power of experiments or the correspondence of mathematics to the real world. To put the two axioms together, Greene’s conclusion is logical. If only matter exists and if matter obeys laws of physics, then humans are objects obeying determined laws of physics. Free will is akin to a sensation, real only because we feel it.

The problem is—and I knew this before I admitted it—those two axioms fail to explain why the world is ordered. I found the answer “it just is” unsatisfying, and that flatness aided my assent to supernatural faith. It was a most reasonable assent of the will, an assent beyond science.

I say that to highlight where, I think, the argument for free will ought to remain for apologists and physicists alike. It should remain in the a priori axiomatic reasoning before anyone gets to physics. Greene is doing that. Is free will scientifically dead as far as science can say? Well, yes. Free will was never scientifically alive.

For Catholics, one of the axioms is different and they both fit beautifully together. The Christian worldview expects to find order in the world too because it is created by God, the origin of rationality. It is de fide dogma that humans have a rational soul with the powers of intellect and free will. The soul is the form of the material body. As St. Anthony of Padua said, “The life of the body is the soul; the life of the soul is God.”

God grants free will to the human person just as He grants predictability to physical laws. Free will does not need a scientific space. To begin to understand free will you have to be open to faith, “the substance of things to be hoped for, the evidence of things that appear not.” Physics points to faith, but physics can’t explain what lives beyond physics.

 

References and Further Reading

  • Like I said before, I recommend Live Science. The writers do not reflect Catholic teaching (that’s not their purpose), but they provide good journalistic coverage of the latest science news.
  • I love this 2005 TED talk given by physicist Brian Greene. With engaging enthusiasm, he explains superstring theory, the idea that miniscule strands of energy vibrating in 11 dimensions create every particle and force in the universe.
  • The de fide dogma that man consists of two essential parts, a material body and a spiritual soul, were taught by the 4th Lateran Council and the Vatican Council. See Denzinger 428 and 1783. The de fide dogma that the rational soul is per se the essential form of the body was taught by the Council of Vienne. See Denzinger 481. The de fide dogma that every human being possesses an individual soul was taught by the Fifth General Lateran Council. See Denzinger 738.
  • These are summarized in Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, Chapter 2, The Doctrine of the Revelation regarding Man or “Christian Anthropology,” I. The Nature of Man, § 14. The Essential Constituent Parts of Human Nature, Sections 1-3.
  • St. Thomas Aquinas on “faith,” Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 4, art. 1.

*I am not opposed to physicists studying multiverse theory, for a number of reasons, the main one being I am not a theoretical physicist and I think they should be the ones to decide. Secondarily, I realize strange sounding theories decorate the history of physics and such mathematical exploration was necessary. Would love to hear your thoughts, perhaps for a future essay. Email me.


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9 Comments

  1. This reminds me of a quote from Robert Heinlein — an idea he expressed in his 11 Feb 1955 letter to a struggling author named Theodore Sturgeon: “Until we know how consciousness hooks onto matter and why and where it comes from, we don’t know anything.”

  2. Great article. I think we need to find ways to inspire more orthodox Catholics to be scientists. The more I learn, the more it becomes obvious to me that many scientists are making extra-scientific claims and passing them off as standard science. Unfortunately this is leading a great number of souls astray, because there are so few Catholics with credentials prepared to expose these lies.
    Often, even if a Catholic does a wonderful job of exposing them, the secularist public ignores them because they don’t have a scientific credential.
    We need men and women who are trained in philosophy and theology, but can also produce scientific credentials so that they’ll be listened to (and obviously so they’ll know exactly what they’re talking about).

    1. I agree 100%. I am passionate about that. I no longer work as a scientist, but I begin work as an educator in a few weeks after taking a decade off to raise kids. I will be teaching chemistry for Kolbe Academy (high school, homeschool, online) and for Holy Apostles (college level, also online). Both are faithful Catholic institutions. In October I’ve been invited to speak to Carnegie Mellon/University of Pittsburgh students to encourage them to pursue science and give my testimony. This is a first for me (I’m a bit overwhelmed). Please remember me in your prayers. I think there is a LOT to what you wrote in your comment. You are so right.

  3. I wonder: If there is no free will, why is Mr. Greene wasting his breath telling anyone about it? Surely he can’t be interested in trying to convince others to change their minds–that would be inconsistent with his determinism!

    As I see it, he gives us yet another example of a scientist who cannot live in accordance with the philosophy he espouses… His very act of espousing it ensnares him in a “performative contradiction” (which arises when the propositional content of a statement contradicts the presuppositions of asserting it).

  4. If it were true that free will is a dead concept, we would not need any laws and courts because anything that happens happens within the parameters of natural laws. Responsibility becomes a meaningless word. We don’t go charge a cat with murder if catches a bird and doesn’t it eat it.

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