Are the Laws of Nature Free? (RJS)

I recently received, compliments of the publisher, a copy of a new book by Karl Giberson and Francis Collins The Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers to Genuine Questions. This book has its origins in the avalanche of questions unleashed on Collins following the publication of his earlier book The Language of God. But this new book is not an encyclopedia of frequently asked questions – it is a readable book walking through many of the frequently asked questions and the important issues in a narrative form. It is written for the non-scientist and will make a good resource for those with questions, for discussion groups, and for church leaders.

In chapter four The Language of Science and Faith addresses the question Can Scientific and Scriptural Truth be Reconciled? The chapter covers a number of points and concludes with a discussion of the role for God and the laws of nature. Do the laws of nature eliminate any room for divine action within nature? Are the two choices nature (within the laws) or God actively interfering in supernatural miraculous fashion?

In the wake of Newton’s work, Christians found it increasingly hard to understand how God could take an active role in the universe without upsetting the natural course of events. Furthermore, the natural phenomena explained by Newton seemed to be entirely deterministic, with no flexibility or wiggle room of any sort. The world seemed to be without any inherent freedom, which posed questions about human freedom as well. Freedom could only exist in a world where the laws of nature were somehow open or flexible. (p. 117)

As Laplace famously replied to Napoleon when asked how he could write a book about the universe with out mentioning its creator “I had no need of that hypothesis.”

How does God interact with creation?

Is there an intrinsic openness in creation – a freedom for human and divine action?

The universe is not the deterministic entity imagined by Newton and Laplace. There is, in fact, an inherent uncertainty and openness in nature. This openness is reflected fundamentally at the level of quantum phenomena and is an ontological property of matter. We can describe very accurately the probability that an event will occur, but we can not predict with certainty.

When ultraviolet light impinges on a DNA molecule it will be absorbed with a certain probability. Once the light is absorbed several different things can happen – including reactions that lead to damage and mutation. But we cannot determine in any given molecule at any given time what will happen.

When a radioactive element decays it will do so with a well known and understood half-life. We know that carbon-14 has a half life of 5730 years – but any given atom may decay today or in 15000 years, it is entirely open and unpredictable.

Science has also demonstrated that there are natural phenomena that are exquisitely sensitive to  initial conditions. Such so-called “chaotic” systems include the earth’s weather. There are patterns and constraints. But long term weather forecasting is not going to happen.

Chaos and quantum uncertainty make it impossible to see the world any longer as determined. The future no longer appears to be the simple extrapolation of the present, and complete knowledge of the present would  not be enough to predict the future. The world now seems free in ways that seem similar to how we are free. (p. 118)

There are laws and there is orderliness – but within the orderliness and the laws there is room for openness and freedom, and there is room for agency.  John Polkinghorne makes a similar argument suggesting that science has not demonstrated the causal closure of the world and that there  is room for divine action in nature without violating the laws of nature (among other places see his lecture on Providence and Prayer). God can act providentially in the world through and within the laws of nature. We will not distinguish this from nature without a revelation from or a relationship with God. He chooses to relate to his creation and to human beings.

And this leads us to the idea of agency. If there is room for the agency of God, human agency is not a stretch.  When you decide to raise your arm that decision arises in a fashion we do not understand, and your arm moves, the material world changes. The ideas of human agency and divine agency are related.

God’s interaction with the world is deeply mysterious, of course, and nobody has ever produced any sort of picture for how we might think about this. But we hasten to point out – and this is very significant – we also do not understand human action in the world. … These human intentions emerge from our minds, somehow, via processes we don’t understand. And then we rearrange the world around us to make these intentions a reality; we make things happen that would not otherwise occur, but we do this without “breaking the laws of nature.” (p. 119)

But this idea of agency itself is controversial in part because we do not understand it at all from a scientific point of view.

Free will and human agency. Scot clipped a brief excerpt from a New York Times article yesterday afternoon.  This article addressed the issue of free will, considering the role that belief in a free will plays in human behavior and moral choices. As the article notes idea that free will is a fiction, a useful delusion, is a fairly common and accepted position in some scientific circles.  I posted last May (Is Free Will Anti-science?) on an article  in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (here) where Anthony Cashmore asserts:

A belief in free will is akin to religious beliefs. Indeed I would argue that free will makes “logical sense,” as long as one has the luxury of the “causal magic” of religion. Neither religious belief, nor a belief in free will, comply with the laws of the physical world. (p. 4502).

The reality is, not only do we have no more free will than a fly or a bacterium, in actuality we have no more free will than a bowl of sugar. The laws of nature are uniform throughout, and these laws do not accommodate the concept of free will. (p. 4503)

This is a pretty extreme statement. The laws of nature are uniform throughout. This is a blanket statement but as far as we can tell a true one. There is no evidence for changing laws of nature. Cashmore admits that there is inherent uncertainty in nature but points out that it is quite a leap from openness to agency. Free will is not really randomness within constrained regions of probability. From the point of view of many scientists even your thoughts are mere probabilistic events, with the probability of any given thought determined by the prior course of the universe and your particular history and environment. But still, the idea that these laws require or prove causal closure of the world and eliminate the possibility of free will is an open question. To state that they do is a metaphysical imposition, not a deduction from the data.

The article in the New York Times concludes:

Some scientists like to dismiss the intuitive belief in free will as an exercise in self-delusion — a simple-minded bit of “confabulation,” as Crick put it. But these supposed experts are deluding themselves if they think the question has been resolved. Free will hasn’t been disproved scientifically or philosophically. The more that researchers investigate free will, the more good reasons there are to believe in it.

Concluding thoughts. This post is something of a ramble through a range of ideas – but it leads me to several questions I find worth discussion. I think that there is an inherent openness in nature because God created a universe with this openness and creative potential. He interacts with creation providentially and at times, for a purpose in relationship with his creatures, miraculously. But miracles, steps outside of his natural creation, are only required in the context of relationship.

I’ll go one step further though. The inherent openness of creation is a necessary part of God’s good creation as revealed in scripture. Openness in nature enables human agency and human will, free from coercion, it enables creativity, and it enables relationship. Theological arguments to the contrary are as speculative as scientific arguments to the contrary.

What do you think?

Is there room for openness in our view of the world – from either a scientific or a theological perspective?

How do we think about the agency of God in the world?

Is agency – human free will – a delusion or a reality?

Is there a conflict here between science and Christian faith?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

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  • whoschad

    God is the active sustainer of the universe. When we look around his universe and discover things acting uniformly, we call such phenomena Laws, since they act in a regular and predictable fashion. I thank God that he is gracious enough to order the universe in such a way that it is testable and understandable. But this does not mean that God is somehow required only to act in such ways. When God acts in unrepeatable ways, instead of Laws we call those Miracles. Personally, I’m not to keen on this distinction. I prefer to think of Laws as ongoing, or sustaining Miracles.

    If the fish in my fish tank were scientists, they might conclude that my feeding them each day was a Law of the Universe. Some of these fish scientists might laugh at the other fish who thank me for their food and everything else they have. If I decided to intervene at one point to change something, I could grab the entire fish tank and give it a shake. Specially acting in such a way would not convince the scientist fish of anything. Even though I had changed something, they still wouldn’t have observed anything going against the laws of the fish tank – even though I had acted upon it.

    I think this analogy is something like how God acts in the universe. He is constantly acting and sustaining our universe though his miraculous Laws, and He also acts specially whenever He chooses to, by ‘tapping the Fish Tank’ (as it were). Such special actions, though originating from God, would be appear to us as something out of the ordinary, but whose effects would still be testable.

  • Lyn

    I see in Col 1.17 (“in him all things hold together” – NIV) a theological truth that helps me understand the spiritual/material connection (and thus the tension between determinism and free will). Christ is sovereign over creation and free to act within it, but also “lives within” creation even holding it together while actualizing God’s will via natural laws. Some might see this as a form of panentheism. Although I don’t hold to this view, panentheism nevertheless seems to honor the tension between determinism and freewill. Thoughts?

  • rjs


    I agree that God is the active sustainer of the universe and that the distinction between miraculous and natural interaction is not entirely useful.

    But there is still an interaction in response to a relationship with creation. The response in relationship is distinct from the orderly and providential interaction. So incarnation and resurrection – to take but two examples – are interactions in relationship with creation and creatures. The analogy in your comment would involve you entering the fish tank and speaking to your fish as you fed them.

    All other sorts of interactions do not lead to tests for extra-ordinariness because they are simply part of the data set. Unless you relate with your fish, shaking the tank and tapping is simply part of what is – the empirical observation that defines ordinary (however rare).

  • rjs


    I think we need to consider things like Col. 1:17 here, no question.

  • J.L. Schafer

    Lyn, your example from Col 1:17 is compelling. This is not pantheism but a Christian understanding of the Incarnation. At a moment in time, the Creator became a part of his creation. He made a human being, and the human being he made was himself, fully God and fully man. It boggles the mind. The Cappadocian Fathers knew this, and their understanding became the foundations of modern science. The Incarnation shows that God is using material, human means to work out a great deal of his salvation plan.

  • mike glenn

    I love the quote by John Polkinghorne:

    “God was delighted to create a universe that could go on creating itself.” In Gen. 1, God introduces Himself as creator. The Image of God reveals itself in us through the creativity of humanity. To me, it makes a lot of sense for the universe itself to bear one of the most significant characteristics of its Maker — creativity.

  • John W Frye

    RJS, this may be wide of the mark of this post, but would you address this statement that I’ve heard: “The universe is more like a thought than like a machine.” We all know the machine-like dynamics of Newton’s view of the universe. Is the ‘thought’ metaphor more open to openness?

  • John W Frye

    Hey, Mike Glenn (#6)! This is John, Diane Mayfield’s brother-in-law. I hope you’re feeling better. I made comment #7 to RJS (she put the post up).

  • DougC


    I appreciate the analogy in post #1

    That rings true to me also.

  • Craig V.

    That there are limits to what we can know, even given human minds with infinite resources, is not, to me at least, surprising or controversial. Whether or not God faces those same limits is a more philosophically interesting problem, but also one that I would be at a total loss to solve. To solve it I would have to be God, and the Bible seems to warn against that road. So it seems to me that there is clearly room for openness (limits to what can be known from a human perspective) from either a scientific or theological point of view. I don’t, however, see any connection between those limits and free will.

  • DRT

    I have a difficult time with the type of agency that the post and replies implies.

    rjs said “I agree that God is the active sustainer of the universe and that the distinction between miraculous and natural interaction is not entirely useful.”

    This sustainer language gives me the impression that god is out there pumping the sustain lever all the time to keep the whole thing inflated and having the energy to go around and I just don’t think that is the way it is. My personal view is that god contributed parts of himself to become the physical universe that we operate within and thereby is participating in it, and in a manner supporting it, but my view is far from a view of him actively sustaining it. I think the universe is wholly self sustaining in accordance with the divine contribution if god so chooses.

    In other words, I can imagine that god could choose to be deistic or theistic without any obvious change in our perception of the surrounds.

    I have much to say without time, but in a nutshell I also think that human free will is a both/and proposition considering the degree of knowledge. I am free to kill myself at any given instant, but the fact that I don’t could be considered a preordained fact or an act of free will depending on how you perceive the situation. Of course I won’t do that given my circumstances, but does that mean I lack free will?

  • Justin Topp


    I find panentheism to be very intriguingf. Great connection with that verse and this post.

  • rjs


    I don’t much care for the image of God contributing parts of himself to become the physical universe. I don’t think it gives a satisfactory picture of God or his relationship with his creation.

    We are not part of God.

    The image of God’s action and God’s presence is hard to describe and I won’t pretend to have done so even to my satisfaction.

    But I do think there is true agency in the world. The thought that tells you to lift your arm is not always simply a response to an uncontrollable external impulse. Chosen randomly by a roll of the dice from the available appropriately weighted possibilities.

    You gave a Star Trek example on the post yesterday afternoon. But agency isn’t the freedom to choose our skills and gifts. Agency is more like the ability to use fully or not use fully, to train for a purpose or not to train, to be a better leader or an average leader, to be creative or be a couch potato, to pay attention while driving or cultivate distractions.

    I can choose to study and learn or not to study and learn.
    I can choose to cultivate ambition and competitiveness or I can choose to walk away at times.
    I can choose to pray or not to pray.

    If there is no openness in creation there is no “me”.

  • DRT

    The nuns taught me as a child that god was in everything. I spent countless nights imagining what that relationship would be like. One could say, as you said, that my hypothesis makes us part of god, but I too feel that this is a wrong willed view of the way it really is. We are not part of God, as you said.

    But that is not really what I am saying. The previous posts say that god sustains us. Is it a leap to say that the way god sustains us is to enable us?

    Again, my background from the RCC says that before creation there was, and always was god. God not only always was but was always all there was, or at least was always in addition to whatever was. The strong implication of Genesis is that all that was, was god. Science too is not able to project beyond the moment of creation.

    If all there was was god, then either god enable us (part of him in my words) or created out of nothing. God is love. We are gods children. We are not part of god in the sense that if you take us away from god then he is less, but more so that god was all there was prior, therefore we must be the spawn.

  • DRT

    rjs, I also get what you are saying (I believe) in regards to the degree to which our choices matter. Yes, it may not take a genius to see that I will be a thinker and not a bull rider, but my free will seems to control the degree to which I execute aspects of my thinking lifestyle (btw, I have a rather physical doing lifestyle too, as the muscle rips in my should attest to right now…). But I could convince myself that the law of cause and effect applies to the smaller decisions and not just the big ones. Its tough to know for sure…

  • rjs


    The argument by Cashmore and Wilson and many others is that the laws of cause and effect apply to all decisions and all life. We are exceedingly complex computers, maybe quantum computers, made of meat.

    Even a thought, difficult to measure scientifically, is nothing but cause and effect.

    This isn’t determinism in the sense of Newton and Laplace because there is a probabilistic aspect – but there is no openness and no agency.

    Divine agency suggests that there is something other than material cause and effect. Human agency, if it exists, is also something other than material cause and effect.

  • Ava

    As Ahab asked, while confronting a big fish in a big tank: “Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm?”

  • Edward Vos

    I don’t think there is a conflict between science and faith. Science gives us the tools to read the blue print of life, and faith gives us the knowledge of who created the blue print. As with all blue prints and bills of materials the reader often get confused and unsure of the finished product and may lose faith in the Architect during the confusion. However, that doesn’t mean that the blue print is wrong it could just mean that we don’t have the tools of science to read all of the blue print of life, or the universe.

    We should also take great care that our current understanding of the blue print of life not obscure the Architect’s vision and be replace with our own, such that we forget who the real Architect is and the reason for why the blue print exists.

  • David Hawley

    Any theory has to take into account the facts, which includes miracles like the long day or the winding back of the sundial reported in the OT.
    Personally, I think the Matrix movies point to a better model: our reality is not ultimately real, it is something that exists in the mind of God (or better in complete dependence on Him), and is completely open to Him. But He typically works compatibly with “laws”.
    Our “reality” is significant and can act as a reference for the idea of “truth” because it reflects God’s intention and will.