Free to choose?

Traces within – © Dr Lizzie Burns 2009

Neuroscientist Bill Newsome is grappling with a question that has perplexed scholars for millennia. Do we have free will? That is certainly something to wonder about. At the Faraday Institute summer course, philosopher Peter van Inwagen refused to speak about ‘the f___ w___ phrase’, for fear of becoming embroiled in debates over definitions, and instead chose to speak (in a lecture at The Faraday Institute) about determinism. But Newsome finds himself in a profession where the question of free will is more immediate, and both his scientific and his spiritual instincts have led him in an interesting direction for answers.

‘What people have the capacity to choose, they have the ability to change.’
Madeleine Albright, 2006 Snowdon lecture

‘We become that which we love.’
Attributed to Saint Bridget, popularised by Jason Mraz

The central dogma of neuroscience is that all of our behaviour and mental life is inextricably linked to the brain. That’s all very well, but most people would believe that much of our behaviour is a choice resulting from our unique beliefs, values, and aspirations. How do the two fit together? Continue reading

How does God interact with the world?

© Luis Tapia, freeimages.com

Last week we had a discussion at The Faraday Institute on how God acts in the world. How can we understand the way in which God sustains the world day-to-day, and his providence? We’re not talking about miracles here (which do happen, and by definition are special signs of God’s grace), but about God’s interaction with the world of matter and energy. Also, what about ‘miracles of timing’? How does God answer my prayers without rearranging the whole cosmos every time? Of course an all-powerful God can rearrange things whenever he chooses, but at times he seems to use the normal workings of the world to carry out his purposes.

For some the question of how God acts is not particularly troubling: God does what he wants. For others, John Polkinghorne included, it would be both intellectually lazy and ungrateful not to give time to the question ‘how exactly does God act?’

In the Bible God reveals himself as an all-powerful all-loving being who creates and controls everything that exists, so bringing about his purposes. God’s ultimate revelation of himself was through his son Jesus, who set us the example of doing a lot of praying. The early theologian Augustine’s interpretation of the Bible was that God upholds creation and established laws that govern everything, though he is not constrained by them. Later in church history, Thomas Aquinas spoke of the unchanging God as the timeless primary cause of all things. All the other processes of the world involve time and therefore change, and he referred to these as the ‘secondary causes’. It is these secondary causes that scientists investigate and seek to understand.

Certain physicists, Laplace included, then proposed that the universe is deterministic. If we were intelligent enough, the theory goes, we could predict every event though the behaviour of its constituent parts. However, we now know that we do not live in a deterministic universe and so quantum uncertainty, chaos theory, emergent phenomena and the complexity of the human brain have all been suggested as the ‘causal joint’ through which God works. Others find the notion of a ‘causal joint’ unsatisfactory because it implies that God is not continually upholding and sustaining everything that exists. Of course during these discussions God continues to act, hopefully amused rather than angered by our philosophical probing.

This week we hosted William E. Carroll from Oxford University, who gave a seminar on Creation and Contemporary Science: The Legacy of Thomas Aquinas. I am grateful that Carroll articulated a theory of God’s action that I had tried (and failed) to express during last week’s discussion on God’s action.

Aquinas’s understanding of how God acts in the world does justice to the Biblical account of the world, and happens to do justice to the scientific account too. God transcends the created world and is neither part of it nor constrained by it. So God acts in the world without being a ‘competing cause’, so to speak. We observe gravity, the speed of light, the fundamental forces within and between particles, and so on. These forces and constants are acting in what could be described as the ‘horizontal dimension’ of our experience. God both sustains the horizontal dimension and acts in the ‘vertical dimension’. Clearly Aquinas view does not completely satisfy the scores of theologians and philosophers who have worked on the question of God’s action in recent decades, but for me it makes sense of what we know of God.

A twin speaks on freewill

brain artificial-intelligence-4550606_1280 Gerd Altmann
Gerd Altmann, pixabay

It’s significant that Peter Clarke, who spoke on ‘Brain, Determinism and Free Will’ at the Faraday Institute this week, is an identical twin. As a twin he will be more acutely aware than most of the factors that are important in defining individuality, personality and choice.  Peter is Associate Professor of Cell Biology and Morphology at the University of Lausanne and, unusually for a biologist, his first degree was in engineering science. His supervisor for his PhD on electrical responses in the brain was the well-known (in science & religion circles) philosopher-neurobiologist Donald MacKay. With this background, his approach to freewill was both unusual and fascinating. Continue reading