For a while I have been considering the relationship between man’s consciousness, free will, and his physical nature. This naturally brought me to questions regarding our free will. Namely, is there an intrinsic sense of randomness to our free will, an irrepeatable nature? Given the same circumstances repeatedly, would we make different choices or the same choices each time?  Consider the following thought experiment of sorts. Imagine if today were “rewound” backward and started over again. Would the day turn out the exact same as the first time, given that there are the same starting circumstances? This is a question I have presented and asked several people, and thus far all I have spoken to have said that the day would turn out the exact same as before. Since the same causes were there, you would make the same choices, they reason. I too thought this reasonable and agreed with them.

However, after giving this more thought, I do not think this can be the case. If our free will is repeatable, then in essence determinism still wins. While we are still making the decisions, only one outcome is possible. It is my belief that the future is not fixed, that there are multiple paths it could take. I believe this too is the idea of the Bible; the future lies in uncertainty because the future is determined by us. But if our free will is not random, then we are to some degree just dragged along, making decisions with one inevitable outcome. If there is only one possible choice we can make, I do not think it is still free will. A lot of this comes down to the definition of free will, something I haven’t given too much thought yet.

What are your thoughts?


Your question is really more a matter of philosophy and perhaps of science than it is a question of theology, but there certainly are elements of theology here as well.   I have thought about these questions myself quite a bit and think I have a pretty good answer, but we may need to leave a certain level of mystery to such things and not think we have “the answer.”

Scientists will tell you that “randomness” is built into the very fabric of the universe.  With the discovery by Planck, Einstein, Heisenberg and others of quantum mechanics, we learned that the universe itself is governed by random quantum events which obey laws of probability but cannot fit into a fully deterministic description of the universe.  Determinism cannot fully explain the physical universe.  I may be really pushing it here, but I think of this as a kind of physical equivalent to our own moral free will.  I believe that the quantum uncertainty is not a mere accident but reflects the nature of reality, including our reality as human beings.  I believe that if we rewind the clock, as you say, we will not achieve the same result.  The French mathematical physicist LePlace claimed a fully deterministic universe in the early nineteenth century, but he has since been repudiated and classical mechanics has been replaced by quantum mechanics.

I cannot prove that my analogy between physical non-determinism and our moral free will as humans to be a valid one, but I personally find it interesting, if not compelling.  Your friends who say the day would turn out exactly the same are almost certainly wrong.  They can certainly be forgiven for not knowing the science of quantum mechanics, but, even without this, I believe that they may be making a theological mistake as well.  Calvinism/determinism is not good theology.  We have choice.  God foreknows, but he does not predetermine.  If we change our mind, then this changes the future.  God may know what will happen, but he does not decide it.  We are not “dragged along” by Calvinistic/Augustinian predestination.  What we will do on one day will not match what we will do on another.  That is contained in my own personal definition of free will.  Whether we can prove such a thing biblically is another story and, like I said, we may have to leave some of this to mystery.  What I can say is that God’s actions are free and his “mind” can be changed, as, for example, by Abraham. We are in the image of God, part of which is found in our self-awareness and in our freedom of action.  I believe that there is a true “randomness” within which our freedom lies.

John Oakes

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