Feb 23, 2014 | By

Time and Free Will – Science and Religion are Quite Similar

There is a remarkable similarity in the cosmological arguments about the nature of time that have arisen in both the theological and scientific community.   The religious concept of Divine Omniscience is structurally identical to the physics of causal determinism in space-time – and both have raised debates about the nature of human free will.

The deep and wonderful theories of physics that explain the operations of fields and particles have a common feature – they work equally well backwards and forwards in time.  Which means, in essence, they are unable to explain time.  While entropy (see:  The Puzzle of Entropy in Physics and Intelligence) seems to characterize the directionality of time, physicists do not have a coherent consensus about what time is and how or why it works.

However, there is a commonly described picture of space-time that developed from Einstein’s theory of special relativity.   Time is now understood to be a phenomenon that is relative to the position and speed of different observers. As a consequence, an event that appears to be in the present for one observer could appear to be in the past for another and the future for a third.  In addition, the order of two events could appear to be reversed – one observer could see that event A follows event B, but a different observer might see event A preceding event B.   This relativistic picture of time is referred to as “Minkowski Space” and is sometimes described as a four dimensional space-time “loaf” containing all of the past, present and future events in space and time.  How one slices the loaf (reflecting different possible observers) reveals alternative timelines.  Thus, there is no objective past, present or future – all exist “simultaneously”, as it were.

This relativistic understanding of space-time is often contrasted with the “illusion” of our common-sense view of time as a flow.    For an interesting discussion on this contrast, see Max Tegmark’s recent Nautilus article, Life is a Braid in Space-time, with its extended commentary.   The language used in the discussions also implies that all events in space-time already exist, since, to some observer, any given event will appear in the past.  This leads to a deterministic conclusion – that all events are pre-set and cannot be changed.  Determinism is also a natural conclusion from the Newtonian mechanics that preceded Einstein’s theories by 200 years – if all objects in the universe interact according to precise laws of motion, then knowledge of the initial conditions will enable precise predictions of all future conditions.  However, the post-Einsteinian approach takes the additional step of providing the physicist with a viewpoint that is outside of both space and time – in short, omniscient.  Moreover, if the world is deterministic and time an illusion, then so to is our notion of free will.  Our actions and choices, even our thoughts and feelings, are pre-destined.

Just as the scientific community does not have a consensus on the nature of time, there is no consensus on whether determinism is true.   For an excellent, if somewhat technical, discussion of the status of determinism in physics today, see Causal Determinism in Plato, the Stanford online Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

While physics stumbled on the issue of determinism in the 20th century, theology has been dealing with it for centuries.  Among the leading theoreticians are Saint Augustine in the 5th century and Saint Anselm in the 12th century.  Both believed in the omniscience of God, and defended the compatibility of divine foreknowledge with human freedom, arguing that the exercise of free will may be foreknown to God but that does not excuse us for responsibility for our actions.  There have also been strong deterministic theologies, notably those along Calvinist lines, which accentuate the complete depravity of the human will and consequent lack of free will – one can be saved by Divine grace alone, and that is predestined.  Others (e.g. Boethius, 6th century) have argued that God is outside of space and time and is able to see everything that ever happens all at once and therefore does not, strictly speaking, know things ahead of time.  These arguments have continued into the 20th and 21st centuries, as noted in the Plato entry on Omniscience.

So science and religion are in complete agreement – the nature of creation, and particularly the issues of time and free will, have not yet been fully determined, at least in the minds of humans.

On these metaphysical issues, it seems we are faced with a paradox.  Ancient concepts of Divine Omniscience, and modern concepts of space-time, suggest that the course of creation has already been determined.  And yet we live our lives, and navigate our experience in this creation, with an ineffable knowledge of our own free will.  As noted in the ISAS article Resolving a Self-Contradiction in Neuroscience: “our brains are built with a foundational premise that free will exists.  The immense human capabilities for perceiving, planning, assessing and deciding are all built as if it is possible to change outcomes and consequences. Decisions matter – and can lead to outcomes that are better or worse.  This implies that a human agent is afforded with at least some measure of ability to change what would otherwise result.”

This is another example of the kind of paradox discussed in the ISAS article Are Miracles Real.   Moreover, as noted in that post, there is a theological answer to the riddle, found in the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg.  Yes, God is omniscient, but his knowledge is not a compulsion.  We live our lives with the ability to make our own choices in freedom, but necessarily in ignorance of the workings of divine providence. (see Divine Providence)

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