By Tim D. Smith
My brother and I had plans to go fishing that Sunday. It was a spring day off from working around our family farm. Carrying our fishing poles, tackle, and lunches, we crossed the covered bridge over Camp Creek. As we passed opposite the community church, a sleek black car pulled up alongside us. The passenger side window slid silently down, and I heard my Sunday School teacher’s familiar voice, “Are you coming to my Sunday School class today, Tim, or going fishing again?” I blushed and mumbled something unintelligible. Frustrated, she continued, “God already knows what you will choose.”
Her question had not surprised me, but the idea that God already knew what I would choose did. This incident set me on a quest to find out if all human decisions are determined or if we have free will. Did science have any say on the matter?
I loved Robert Heinlein’s science fiction stories in grade school and was later fascinated by his claim that “I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do.”1 I did not like the idea of a god that did not trust me with moral responsibility.
Einstein and Determinism
In high school, I found that Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity also implied that we do not have free will. I had worked through Einstein’s equations in math class, but had not yet understood what they meant. My science teacher explained that Einstein’s theory means that the past and present and future could all be calculated from the present state of the universe, given precise enough measurements. That is, there is no possibility of free will. I did not like Einstein’s theory.
I found myself pursuing a career in science anyway and continued to attend church even though both activities seemed to disagree with my belief that I have free will. In late May 1998, everything changed. One evening, I saw in my mind’s eye a picture of a hand offering a contract and I heard a question: “Yes or no?” I chose “Yes.” All my fears about not having free will vanished. I had just chosen God, and I have subsequently seen that my choice made all the difference in my life. Others describing such experiences had previously left me asking, “Really?” But now I could relate because I saw God in this experience and that was life-changing. Later, I wrote a book trying to explain what had happened.2
With this change, I felt the need to better understand religion and God’s creation. Although I didn’t really believe it, my science training had left me with a deterministic worldview. I had not had any serious religious or philosophical training and I realized that I had a lot to catch up on.
The first thing I needed to reassess was my Sunday School teacher’s belief about not having freedom of choice. That idea, I learned, was called theological fatalism: if God knows I will do something in the future, then I cannot do otherwise. I also learned that most Christian churches do not believe this today. Eventually, I found a clear statement to the contrary in the Bible. In Matthew 23:37, Jesus bemoans Jerusalem’s stubborn disobedience: “How often I have desired to gather your children together . . . and you were not willing!” Our successful unwillingness implies that we have choices.
The second thing to attend to was Einstein’s claim that everything in the past, present, and future can be computed from the present, given sufficient knowledge. That is, the universe is determined, and further “the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”3 Thus time is not real.
This was hard for me to understand because we all seem to have an intuitive sense of time passing.4 My memories of that long-ago fishing trip, the now-replaced bridge, and the since-remodeled church are vivid. Further, I recall the precise moment when my teacher claimed that God already knew what I would do.
Time Was Created
Eventually, I learned that centuries earlier St. Augustine of Hippo had expressed my feelings well: time was part of the created order, and he described his personal experience of apprehending time through remembering the past, recognizing the present, and expecting the future.5 His words resonated with me. I immediately saw that if Einstein’s theory is really true, and most people think it is, then something was wrong with my high school teacher’s (and Einstein’s) interpretation. Scientific theories should be consistent with what we can sense as well as measure, and Einstein’s interpretation is not consistent with our commonsense (or intuitive) experience of time passing. That is, under his interpretation the general theory of relativity appears to fail this test.
When I began to question Einstein’s interpretation of his own theory I was ill-equipped to do it on my own. That stopped me for some time, but then I chanced on a paper by the quantum physicist Nicolas Gisin,6 where he suggested reexamining the mathematical basis of Einstein’s theory to evaluate his interpretation. Gisin’s arguments from Platonic number theory to randomness and time drew me in deeper and deeper, too deep I am sure. But he illustrated the argument in a simple metaphor. Einstein’s conclusion is that God played “all the dice at once before the Big Bang and encoded all results in the infinitely precise numbers defining the Universe’s initial condition.”7 In contrast, Gisin’s conclusion is of “God playing dice every time a random outcome happens.”8 Those dice throws are like time passing. I liked Gisin’s interpretation because it allows for freewill. He concluded:
I believe that the notion of a deterministic and timeless world does not arise from the huge empirical success of physics, but from considering Platonic mathematics as the only language for physics.9
That is, Einstein’s determinism is not a prediction of his theory, but merely an assumption that comes with his use of Platonic number theory. Using other number theories makes the opposite assumption of nondeterminism. Thus, we are left without a clear basis in science for choosing between free will or determinism. So, where to go from here?
Gisin suggests that science can’t answer the question of free will and we must rely on metaphysics.10 Nevertheless, other questioners recently began a multiyear collaboration among 11 neuroscientists and 9 philosophers from 18 universities to answer two questions: “What does it take to have free will? And whatever that is, do we have it?”11 Maybe we will get some answers from both disciplines working together.
In the meantime, I think it’s fair to say that Einstein’s general theory of relativity does not necessarily abolish free will. Humans do make free choices.