The Free Will Theorem: room for God to work in nature

Eric McLellan asks, in a guest post at Kurt Willems’ Pangea Blog, What does science tell us about our soul? He writes:

the study of quantum mechanics has … led John Conway and Simon Kochen to develop what they call the Free Will Theorem. Assuming three axioms … 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. … The nature of the choice made by these particles is not a masked randomness but is actually the result of a subatomic free will.

This has some profound implications, according to McLellan.

Soul and BodyThe first set of implications, for “theological anthropology”, is that the soul, the part of the person which exercises free will, cannot be separated from the material body:

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.

A second set of implications is for God’s work in nature. The Free Will Theorem undermines the presupposition that

in order for God to actively will a change in the universe, He must then break the laws of nature.

The theorem implies that

the uncertainty of quantum mechanics leaves room for Godʼs work in natural processes. … 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.

This ties up well with what I was hinting at at the end of my previous post today, Can “creation science” prove evolution?, when I suggested that evolution “was designed by God to carry out his purposes”. According to “intelligent design”, which I reject, God has intervened repeatedly over billions of years, breaking the laws of nature, to create new species. But according to the better versions of “theistic evolution”, which I accept, God has caused new species to come into being while “sovereignly rul[ing] over the universe without ever breaking the laws of nature”.

Now I would have serious reservations about allowing a scientific result like the Free Will Theorem to control my theology. There are also some debatable axioms or presuppositions behind the theorem. But I find the theological implications here to be attractive. This is certainly a refreshing change from the arguments of atheists and materialists claiming that science has proved that nothing is real but the material world – arguments which have largely been invalidated by the last century of physical science. The Free Will Theorem deserves serious further consideration by Christian scholars.

7 thoughts on “The Free Will Theorem: room for God to work in nature

  1. Pingback: Unseen Realities: forget Bultmann and the 19th century - Gentle Wisdom

  2. Hmm. My difficulty with this is that assigning words like ‘choice’ and ‘free will’ to sub atomic particles seems to me to suppose they are sentient to some degree. I have worked with atoms and particles at CERN and have even written a book about them but I have not observed at any time, particles displaying any kind of sentience.

  3. Iconoclast, I share your difficulty. But I think you and I need to look more carefully at what the theorem implies about the meaning of free will. Philosophically this is a slippery concept.

  4. I’m thankful for this post. I’m reading and rereading the sources. Perplexed and attracted. I like the proposition that the soul cannot be separated from the physical body. That proposition alone makes me want to make this theorem work. Though it opens up a bunch of hoary questions – like why not dispense with language about the soul completely?

    Isn’t the easy part to see this as another way to resolve Descartes’ error? But are the authors hedging on conscious choice at the quantum level to steer clear of Bohm? – and hedging on quanta bursts of feeling-choice to steer clear of panentheism or panpsychism (e.g., Hartshorne)?

    Not that those questions matter.

    The weirdest part for me is why I’m bugged about the notion that mechanics below the Planck length don’t need interpretation (knowing this is debated) because the unitary equations work without interpretation? – why do I intuitively feel this same argument against interpretation applies up here too at the level of the free will theorem? I know I’m confusing levels of generality. But if this crazy rumination is a rabbit trail, then in the same way that we cannot know all the possible theorems of geometry, can we know all the possible of theorems free will? – the temptation to start interpreting free will in the way that some attempt to interpret quantum mechanics, makes me have an intuitive feeling that the possible interpretations of free will (no matter what else is true below the Planck length), will result in infinite interpretations, just like the infinite results obtained in quantum physics before renormalizing the maths (before the unitary equations). How to renormalize free will if infinite interpretations obtain? – go out and kick the curbstone with the good Dr. Johnson? – why can’t I shake this weird and convoluted way of thinking? Why not just stick with Minsky’s prosaic definition of free will as unconstrained choice – a world in which I would not want to live anyway?

    I’m thankful for this article prompting my confusions. I don’t know how to generalize my intuitive hunches about free will obtaining infinite results or infinite interpretations. Makes me keep reading and rereading this proposal. So I’m thankful for notice of this article. And a bit tormented. I think I’ll go out and kick a curbstone just to reassure myself that I’m alright.

    No need to respond. I’m obviously rambling.



  5. Jim, thanks for your thoughts. I think you have looked into this all more deeply than I have had time to yet. I’m sure there are true things we cannot prove in physics, just as Godel’s theorem shows that there are in mathematics.

  6. Pingback: What does science tell us about our soul? (Eric McClellan) | The Pangea Blog

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