At first glance, it appears that both positions can’t possibly be true. Wouldn’t our free will diminish the sovereignty of God, and wouldn’t God’s sovereignty overrule our free will? Are our lives predestined? Is free will just a cruel illusion?
Like many others, I’ve wrestled with this question. It would appear that we either have the free will to do what we want, or we don’t. If we don’t, then everything is being predetermined for us according to some outside plan over which we have no control. How can we be held responsible for anything? This topic also is integral to the Arminianism versus Predestination argument, which has separated churches for centuries. Does man choose to follow God, or does God make him? If the latter, how can man be held accountable for anything? If the former, then how can God be sovereign?
As a scientist, I’ve found that I can learn difficult spiritual lessons by studying how the physical world operates. I’ve seen this process work for other challenging questions, so maybe there is something we can borrow from the physical world to understand this paradoxical question.
I think in answering this particular question, the distinction between classical physics and quantum physics can help us to understand how the these two theological camps can unite. This description may help us to understand the paradox of how God’s sovereignty and man’s free will can co-exist harmoniously. This may be a bit lengthy, but stick with me. No worries, I will keep the science conceptual and easy. At the end, hopefully you will see how the paradox of free will vs sovereignty is embedded into the very laws that govern time, space, matter, and energy.
On a large scale, everything around us is deterministic – meaning that we have identified precise and predictive mathematical laws that govern the motion and behavior of everyday objects, forces, and energy fields around us. This is a field of physics known as classical physics, or some may call it “Newtonian” physics. These laws are followed to many decimal places. For example, if Ball A collides with Ball B, and if we know the initial velocity and starting condition of each, we can precisely predict the trajectories of the ball after the collision at all points in the future. As another example, if I run an alternating current through a loop of wire of a certain radius, I can predict the strength and direction of the resulting magnetic field at all points in space and time. Another way of saying this is: for macroscopic objects, if we have enough information about their past state, we can predict their state at all points in the future. Essentially, on a large scale, this world we live in is deterministic.
Now, at the turn of the century scientists began focusing in on smaller and smaller units of matter. Instead of observing the macroscopic, they looked at the microscopic. The development of new tools and technologies allowed scientists to measure things at a smaller and smaller scale. At the outset, they expected to find the same type of world operating at this small scale. They expected that atoms, electrons, protons, neutrons, and other small subatomic particles, (including light particles known as photons), would operate in a deterministic way. That would stand to reason, right? If a billiard ball is deterministic, and is made up of a sum of smaller things, then those smaller things ought to be perfectly deterministic. The idea is that the sum of smaller deterministic things working in unison should sum up to a big thing that functions deterministically.
But…..to everyone’s surprise, especially Einstein’s, that’s not what the quantum world revealed. Scientists discovered that the smallest things that make up matter behave in the most random and bizarre ways. The only way they could begin to model these small particles was to talk about probabilities, not specifics. To do this, they had to invent a new type of math, which defined a new branch of physics known as quantum physics.
Intrinsic in this math is the fact that nothing, on the small scale, is perfectly and precisely deterministic. Even if you have perfect knowledge about the particle’s past state and its surroundings, it was impossible to predict its exact future state. It seemed that the particle had a choice to make, and all of our physics and math couldn’t do one iota to pin it down.
This is much different, fundamentally, than the process of flipping a coin. The flipping of a coin obeys the laws of statistics and probability – however, it is completely deterministic. If someone had all of the information available to them, including the speed and direction of rotation of the coin when it left the person’s hand, the laws of gravity, the mass and rotational inertia of the coin, the hardness of the desk, etc, one could theoretically use all of the laws of classical (Newtonian) mechanics to predict, with 100% accuracy, the final state of the coin. It only has the illusion of being non-deterministic, simply because we don’t have access to that level of information, or the computing power to determine the final outcome in real time as we are flipping the coin.
However, the quantum world doesn’t operate this way. Each particle seems to be the summation of all possible states that could potentially arise (e.g., a quantum “coin” would exist in a state of both heads and tails, simultaneously—which is a paradox), and then some kind of “choice” is made when the particle is measured/observed. And regardless of how much information we are privy to about the particle and its surroundings, there is no way to predict the final outcome. It appears to be acting completely independently with a certain degree of what we would call “free will.”
Yet, when many of these small particles get together and form a larger object, they behave in a completely deterministic way. How does this happen? The trajectory of the Earth going around the Sun is perfectly predictable, and if some other large body entered our solar system, we could predict the perturbation exactly. Yet, the earth is made up of gazillions of unpredictable, randomly fluctuating, non-deterministic particles that inherently know nothing of determinism.
This is certainly one of the most surprising paradoxes about how our world works. At one scale- determinism. At a smaller scale – randomness. At one point, Einstein rejected the implications of quantum mechanics and exclaimed “God does not play dice with the universe.”
The question arises, “How does a collection of smaller particles that are governed by random influences coordinate their behaviors such that a completely deterministic law like F=ma results? On the large scale, we see the process of cause and effect playing out perfectly. On the small scale, we see something quite different – it’s as if the law of cause and effect vanishes. Yet, the macroscopic world is comprised of the microscopic.
To highlight this difference even further, if we were to film an apple under the presence of gravity, we would see it fall if we played the movie forward, and we would see it rise up if we played the movie backward. From this, we could determine the arrow of time — for if we saw the apple falling up, we would know that the movie was being played backward in time. However, if we film a process at the subatomic scale, the scale at which quarks and leptons live, we could devise no experiment to determine the direction of time. The processes being played out and recorded would appear to be equivalent when played forward or in reverse. The laws of physics seem to be symmetric with time, and the arrow of time disappears. The movie looks the same being played forward as it does in reverse. At the small scale, the direction of time seems to be “irrelevant.”
Now, we know the law of cause and effect is predicated on time flowing in one direction. We have a cause, and *then* we have an effect that immediately follows. This is how things work at the scale in which we live. However, if the arrow of time is indistinguishable at the small scale, can we rightly label which event is the cause and which event is the effect? We are left with the notion that we can’t label one over the other with any sort of priority. Both events are causes, and both events are effects. The law of cause and effect breaks down at the quantum scale.
Notice that this is in line with the idea that reality seems to be operating in a non-deterministic, random, “free will” sense at the small scale, which implies prior causes cannot be identified. If prior causes could be identified, then we could predict the exact behavior of a particle. But, as already mentioned, we have no way of predicting the future state that a quantum particle will choose to take. (For the more advanced reader, this idea of time’s irrelevance is also seen in the quantum realm with things like non-locality, quantum entanglement, Bell’s inequality theorem, and Wheeler’s delayed choice experiment.)
All of this points to causality going out the window at the small scale, but when small things aggregate together into larger objects and coordinate their activities, somehow a perfectly predictable behavior manifests itself according to a prescribed trajectory that we can both influence and predict with 100% accuracy. Also, at this large scale, cause and effect operate with precision.
Before quantum physics came along, human free will was off the table. Classical physics has no room for free will, because classical physics states that every effect is the direct result of some prior cause, and this effect can be precisely determined by a mathematical equation. Therefore, every electron in our brain is simply reacting the way it ought to according to the laws of classical physics. Where is there room for free will?
When we learned that cause and effect simply don’t exist in the quantum realm, it became very easy to see how free will could operate in the human brain. This is not a large jump to make, because our mind is made up of electromagnetic interactions and connections occurring at the molecular and quantum level.
I’m sure by now you’ve already started piecing together how this is a perfect physical illustration of how God can be sovereign at the same time billions of “free will” agents (“humans”) populate the universe. In this parallel, if you liken humans to a subatomic particle, their individual behaviors are non-deterministic, unpredictable, and dictated by the ability to make choices in accordance with free will. In our analogy, determinism (i.e., cause and effect) breaks down at the human level, just like determinism breaks down at the quantum scale.
Now, when you aggregate the behaviors of this system, which includes all humans and interactions between them, at the macroscopic level, you end up with the perfectly predictable, predetermined, sovereign will of God playing out. In this analogy, God’s will being played out would be like the ball behaving exactly according to the law of gravity and F=ma as it is thrown into the air. The ball’s trajectory (i.e., “God’s will”) is perfectly defined, perfectly predictable, and immovable.
But only God is the initial cause of this trajectory, and only God knows this trajectory. The individual quanta (us) that add up together to make up this trajectory are clueless to the path, just like a small quark inside the nucleus of an atom inside the ball has no idea which direction the ball is moving.
When I saw the contradicting contrast between the quantum realm and the classical realm, it at least provided a picture for me that said: “Yes, God’s sovereign nature can coexist with man’s free will, because we see that same paradox working in our physical reality. If it can work in the physical world, then it can work in the spiritual dimension as well, because the spiritual the physical are intimately connected. This same paradox between determinism and non-determinism is embedded in the very fabric of the universe itself.”
Does that mean that we understand how these things are so? Not in the least. Physicists really have no understanding of how these two paradoxical worlds seem to co-exist. These are strange concepts to wrestle with, but as we study the physical world around us, we find that it is stranger than we had originally imagined. If the physical world (something we should have a pretty good handle on) is strange, how much stranger should we find the spiritual world to be?
I think allowing for the idea that God can be perfectly sovereign at the same time man is a “free-will agent” is a worthwhile approach understanding that this paradox shouldn’t separate our theologies into two separate camps. Notice, the paradox hasn’t disappeared. It’s still there. But we can all admit that the two worlds co-exist, and therefore, so should we. We shouldn’t segregate our beliefs because both are true with equal force. This resolution comes from what we know about the physical world and translating that into the spiritual.
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