What does science tell us about our soul? (Eric McClellan)

The study of quantum mechanics is one that stretches the mind beyond its capacity. The famous American physicist, Richard Feynman once said, “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.”1 This is a field that has revolutionized the way that scientists view the world. Through the study of quantum mechanics, physicists have found a fundamental level of uncertainty that exists in our universe.2 If we are to accept quantum mechanics as a viable theory, then we are led to deny the existence of a hard deterministic universe. I find it fascinating that a hard science like physics can bring about such philosophical truths.

Similarly, the study of quantum mechanics has also led John Conway and Simon Kochen to develop what they call the Free Will Theorem.3 Assuming three axioms based on quantum mechanical theory (called SPIN, TWIN, and FIN) The Free Will Theorem is a proof that states, in simple terms, that if human individuals have free will, then individual subatomic particles also have free will. Particles donʼt make conscious decisions, but they exhibit a quantum measure of choice.

What makes this proof even more interesting is that the choice exhibited by subatomic particles is not a function of randomness. Conway and Kochen address this explicitly:

It is true that particles respond in a stochastic way. But this stochasticity of response cannot be explained by putting a stochastic element into any reduction mechanism that determines their behavior, because this behavior is not in fact determined by any information in their past light cones.4

The nature of the choice made by these particles is not a masked randomness but is actually the result of a subatomic free will.

It doesnʼt seem to me that the Free Will Theorem is widely known in Christian circles and I believe that we would all do well by considering it. As we begin to understand the principle established in the theorem, we find two very important theological implications.

Implications for Theological Anthropology

Often we talk about Man as a dichotomous being, existing as body and soul, material and immaterial. Intellect, emotion, and will are often attributed to the soul as immaterial parts of humanity; however, this cannot be the case if we accept the Free Will Theorem. Because of the relationship between human free will and particulate free will, we are left to conclude that our free will, as well as the mind itself, is the product of the summation of particulate free will. Therefore, the aspects of the mind often attributed to the soul is actually an extension of the material body. Mind and body become one while the soul must represent a higher faculty which relates to God and is brought to life in conversion.

This unity of mind and body also deals a heavy blow to the apologetic Argument from Consciousness,5 in which J.P. Moreland argues for the existence of God as necessary for the creation of the human mind. Morelandʼs argument assumes that the mind cannot be reduced to the level of matter6 and this is exactly what we find in the Free Will Theorem. However, this argument is not necessary for a justified belief in God and I believe that we can concede the defeat of this argument without further consequence.

Implications for Godʼs work in nature

As Christians, we believe that God is actively working in the world, but it is important for us to think about what that actually means. Many Christians have built up a false dichotomy between Godʼs actions and nature. Under this presupposition, in order for God to actively will a change in the universe, He must then break the laws of nature. I find this to be very unsatisfying, both scientifically and theologically. When we view God this way, it leads us to conclude that God is absent from our lives when we are not experiencing miracles. If we are to view Godʼs interaction with us as deeply personal as it is reflected in scripture, then God must be active in the everyday occurrences that we consider to be “natural.”

According to physicist Paul Davies, the uncertainty of quantum mechanics leaves room for Godʼs work in natural processes. In an interview, Davies says that “There are interstices having to do with quantum certainty into which, if you want, you could insert the hand of God.”7 The beauty of the Free Will Theorem is that this can be expanded to all natural occurrences. The choice made by individual particles could just as easily be Godʼs choice. God has the freedom to sovereignly rule over the universe without ever breaking the laws of nature.
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To read a response to this article by Peter Kirk, go to Gentle Wisdom.
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1 The Character of Physical Law. Modern Library (1994) p. 123 2 Heisenberg, Werner. “On the physical content of quantum kinematics and Mechanics.” Zeitschrift für
Physic (1927). Published in english in The Discoveries by Alan Lightman (2005) pp. 203-210.
3 Conway, John and Simon Kochen. “The Free Will Theorem.” Foundations of Physics. 36.10 (2006). http://www.springerlink.com/content/24×7719049737074/fulltext.pdf. Conway also walks through each step of the theorem in a series of lectures at Princeton: http://itunes.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/ wa/viewPodcast?id=389601018
4 Ibid.       5 Moreland, JP. Consciousness and the Existence of God: A Theistic Argument. Routledge (2008) 6 Ibid. p. 127
7 Davies, Paul interviewed by Krista Tippett. “Einsteinʼs God.” NPR. Transcript at: http:// being.publicradio.org/programs/einsteinsgod/transcript.shtml

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Eric McClellan, one of several contributing writers to Theology21, specializes in science and its’ intersection with the scripture. Many of his articles deal with the interpretation of scripture and the insights that can be made through the study of the natural world. Eric lives in Los Angeles County with his wife, Heather McClellan and their two dogs, Toby and Max, whom they treat like their kids.

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  • curtislanoue

    There’s a lot of work on countering the dualist nature of mankind before all this physics stuff as well. James Nelson, Christine Gudorf, Margaret Farley. Especially as it relates to Christian sex ethics. You might be interested.

  • http://www.theology21.com jonathan Keck

    While I am no scientist, I do have trouble with the concept that God does not “break” natural laws. What are we to call miracles then? What of Jesus Walking on water? Or the dead being raised to life? Where do such things fit into this paradigm? And what does that look like?

    • http://www.theology21.com Eric McClellan

      I’m not tryin to imply that God never breaks the laws of nature. He has in the past and there is a good chance that He will in the future. What I am saying is that such miracles are not necessary for God to act directly and actively in a very tangible way. God is active in every part of our lives even though we don’t experience miracles in every part of our lives.

      • http://thepangeablog.com Kurt Willems

        @simwaves1:disqus , thats a good distinction.  Certainly God can and does work outside of natural laws that govern the universe… but he, by design, uses such laws on much more a normative basis.  If not, creation itself would be a bit of a joke.  Miracles happen, but its because they are not normative in creation that we call them miraculous.  EXCELLENT ARTICLE brotha!

        • http://www.theology21.com Eric McClellan

          Exactly

      • http://www.theology21.com jonathan Keck

        @kurtwillems:disqus and @simwaves1:disqus , the reality is we have no idea! All of these concepts are defined by God. What is “natural” is only so because they seem to follow the “laws” of the universe that we have observed and believed. For all we know, the thing that holds atoms together at the subatomic level is God himself and not some law created by him! Or better yet, the laws themselves are God’s hand. And the breaking of those laws may have laws in of themselves! In my mind, there is no distinction between the “natural” and the “supernatural” because in the end they are created and sustained by God. We, as a species, just tend to move things from the supernatural category to the natural because we have “explained” it through scientific and natural causes. But there is not real distinction in my mind. He isn’t a god who set some rules and turned some gears and stepped away and once and awhile steps in to tweak a few things. 

        • http://zackallen.me Zack Allen

          I think the three of you are saying the same thing in a different way. I also tend to lean towards the “everything is supernatural” paradigm.

        • http://www.theology21.com Eric McClellan

          I believe that we are saying something very similar. I do believe that it is God’s hand that holds together the atoms. I think it is God’s hand that makes the sun rise and set. I believe that God’s hand is in many things that we consider to be natural because I don’t see God’s action and natural events as mutually exclusive.

          I think St. Augustine said something very similar to what you are saying as well: “We admit that what is contrary to the ordinary course of human experience is commonly spoken of as contrary to nature… but, God the Author and Creator of all natures does nothing contrary to nature; for what is done by Him who appoints all natural order and measure and proportion must be natural in every case” (Reply to Faustus the Manichean).

          I agree with the above statement. I believe that God’s acts are always natural to Him, even when they are supernatural to us.

  • http://www.gentlewisdom.org.uk/ Peter Kirk

    I just wrote a detailed post in response to this, linked to it at the URL where it was posted this morning. I was therefore very unhappy to discover that within minutes of posting it this page was giving a generic 404 error page, with no warning and no explanation after the fact. It is bad practice to publish material and then leave a broken link, and especially bad to do so within 24 hours of publication. If you want to be taken seriously as a blogger, please set up ASAP redirects from your old blog to this one, or at the very least an informative 404 page.

    • http://www.theology21.com jonathan Keck

      Sorry for the inconvenience Peter, but Kurt explains the issue here. There is no need to get upset and question people’s “seriousness” as bloggers. Here is his apology and explanation. http://bit.ly/o4sBbi

      • http://www.gentlewisdom.org.uk/ Peter Kirk

        Thank you, Jonathan. The relative timing of my post and of the Pangea Blog move was unfortunate. I am glad to see that the explanation has now appeared and the required redirect has now been set up. I really think you should have found a way to set this up before deleting the old blog. This would surely be in the interests of Patheos who will not want to lose or alienate readers of the old blog. But then I accept that there will always be teething troubles. In the circumstances I think some kind of advance warning would have been helpful.

        • http://thepangeablog.com Kurt Willems

          Peter, there was not better way to do this unfortunately. It was completely a timing issue and only affected this particular post. I did everything I could to not make the transition harder than it already was. I am a bit disappointed with the tone in which you sought to correct me. Nevertheless, sorry about your comment. I will look in my email archives as it may still be there even though it isn’t here.

  • http://www.theology21.com Eric McClellan

    @jonathan, it’s too bad the comment stream got lost in the move, I was hoping to continue the conversation with you. I believe that we are saying something very similar. I do believe that it is God’s hand that holds together the atoms. I think it is God’s hand that makes the sun rise and set. I believe that God’s hand is in many things that we consider to be natural because I don’t see God’s action and natural events as mutually exclusive.

    I think St. Augustine said something very similar to what you are saying as well: “We admit that what is contrary to the ordinary course of human experience is commonly spoken of as contrary to nature… but, God the Author and Creator of all natures does nothing contrary to nature; for what is done by Him who appoints all natural order and measure and proportion must be natural in every case” (Reply to Faustus the Manichean).

    I agree with the above statement. I believe that God’s acts are always natural to Him, even when they are supernatural to us.

    • Anonymous

      Amen and well said! I am tweeting that last line man!!! WOOOOAAH.

  • http://nailtothedoor.blogspot.com Dan Martin

    This is intriguing, Eric. I do think you draw one conclusion that is not by any means tight when you say:

    “Intellect, emotion, and will are often attributed to the soul as immaterial parts of humanity; however, this cannot be the case if we accept the Free Will Theorem. Because of the relationship between human free will and particulate free will, we are left to conclude that our free will, as well as the mind itself, is the product of the summation of particulate free will.”

    Well, no, not necessarily. Your statement is only true if whatever it is that we experience as consciousness is only the sum of the “decisions” of these subatomic particles and other subcomponents that make up our corporeal being. That, it seems to me, is an assumption no way proven by the physics you cite. The fact that particles exhibit nondeterministic yet nonrandom behavior seems to me neither necessary nor sufficient to explain more complex beings (composed at least in part of such particles) having free will themselves. Consciousness, which *is* necessary to free will of the sort that accompanies self-knowledge or self-examination, does not see (to me at least) linked in the slightest to the Free Will Theorem as its only source or explanation.

    As to the apologetic of consciousness, while I don’t put a lot of weight on it, I hardly see it disproven by this theorem. You’re making an unnecessary leap when you say in effect (my paraphrase here) “if particles have free will, then that must be the complete and only explanation for our mind which, then being material, does not require God for explanation.” In this I hear basically a framework of the “God of the gaps” that just suffered a blow because one more gap got filled in.

    I think, rather, that there remains an essence best explained by Lewis when he suggested that the evolving humanoid, at some point in-breathed by the Breath (Spirit) of God, became a living soul–“Homo divinus” in Lewis’ words–and recognized its Creator. That essence is more than the sum of our particles…

    • http://www.gentlewisdom.org.uk/ Peter Kirk

      Dan, I agree that this can be seen as a “God of the gaps” type explanation. But as I see it a gap has not been filled in, rather one has opened up. Of course the danger with locating God, or human consciousness and free will, in this potentially rather wide gap is that advances in science may fill the gap. But the Free Will Theorem looks like some kind of proof that this gap cannot be filled. Of course that is no proof that God can be found there.

    • http://www.theology21.com Eric McClellan

      Perhaps I did state that a bit stronger than I should have. What the theorem does show us is that the distinction between mind and body is not as sharp as we have considered it to be in the past. There has always been the challenge to the concept of the summation of neurons being sufficient to explain the mind, but when we can reduce the individual unit of choice to the level of the subatomic particle, then the mind can easily be explained as an extension of the body. Just think, if each of the subatomic particles was like a computer bit, then the human brain would have greater power than any supercomputer every engineered. The explanation of more complex beings such as humans only requires the proper organization of such particulate choice.

      So, I guess the rest falls to Occam’s razor. With two competing views of the origin of mind, the free will theorem supplies a system that fully explains the origin of the mind with less assumptions (more specifically, the existence of an immaterial mind separate from the body).

      I would like to make a distinction between the mind as explained by the free will theorem and the “recognition” of the Creator as explained by Lewis. As you probably already know, there are many who argue for a trichotomous view of man, split into body, soul, and spirit. While the soul is represented by the mind, the spirit is of higher existence, which interacts with the spiritual world. In our fallen state, our spirit is dead, until God awakens our spirit. It is at that point when God’s Spirit is breathed into us and we recognize our Creator. In essence, what the free will theorem does is contracts the trichotomous view into a dichotomy. On one side you have the material being (a conglomerate of mind and body), and on the other you have the immaterial being (the spirit).

      I would also like to say that I am opposed to viewing this loss of apologetic as a “God of the gaps” concept. While the mind may not stand independently as demanding the existence of God apart from science, God is no less required from this perspective. God is the ultimate source of all existence. The only difference is that God did not create the mind independently from the material body. Instead, the development of the mind is sovereignly guided by God through the process of evolution.

      We really need to get away from this idea of looking for God in things that are not explained by science. We don’t serve a God of the gaps. If we really want to find God, then we need to learn to start looking for Him in those things that we do understand.