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Free Will In a Clockwork Universe

Ever since Newton laid out the laws of physics in his work, and probably long before then, there’s been a debate about free will and how it relates to the world we live in. The problem that was identified is that there is no room for a free will in a clockwork universe where everything is either input data in the forms of forces and energy or calculation in the forms of action and change. If everything is merely a consequence of what happened earlier, then free will is but an illusion. We believe we are free to act, merely because the future is unknowable, not because we’re truly free.

One way of looking at this is to imagine the universe as an enormous calculating machine where the future is continuously calculated based on the past. At every moment in time, the calculation is complete for that instance, only to become the basis for the calculation of the next moment. The past can only be recorded selectively by us, and the future can only be estimated. Reality unfolds at a truly astronomic scale, and cannot be calculated ahead of time because the universe itself is the biggest and ultimately the only calculating device there is for this calculation.

Some have suggested that quantum mechanics solves this problem by introducing inherent uncertainty into calculations. However, this is of no help. Uncertainty in itself doesn’t make us free. It makes the future somewhat less knowable, but nothing that we can call free will is added as a consequence. The problem remains. If everything is the result of inputs and calculations, there’s no free will, only the appearance of free will due to our unknowable future.

This can be illustrated with examples from the world of artificial intelligence. We can construct machines with the ability to think and learn, and the things that these machines think of and discover cannot be known ahead of time. Artificial intelligence produces all sorts of discoveries when applied to statistical data, imagery and the like. However, this doesn’t constitute free will. Free will is not merely the ability to produce results that cannot be known ahead of time. Free will is the ability to act, at least to some extent, contrary to input and algorithm. This requires a layer of being that is beyond the realm of physics.

This is not a new insight. Newton himself was very uncomfortable with the nihilistic conclusions that could be drawn from his clockwork universe. Newton was for this reason convinced that God had to play a part in things. When faced with the fact that planetary orbits are more stable than what would be generally concluded from his physics, he embraced the idea that the stability might be due to God’s hand coming in and stabilizing things every now and again. Many of his contemporaries found this eccentric and na├»ve to the point of being funny, and delighted in the fact that even a genius like Newton will at times entertain and take serious shockingly silly ideas.

However, the problem remains. Either, we’re mere automata with no true free will, or we are endowed with a will that can change outcomes to be different from what input and calculation would make on their own. Intuitively, we tend to believe that free will is real, and this is reflected in the Bible as well as the works of philosophers like Kant and Schopenhauer. These free will arguments add an extra layer to existence. The world is not merely what we see, there is also a will. Kant made the distinction between “Ding an sich” and “Ding an mich”. Schopenhauer speaks of “representation” and “will”. The Bible talks of God as something separate from His creation.

These views are in the end all the same, so we might as well use the Bible as the illustrating example, where God is the universal will of the world. Not only does He create the entire universe from nothing, He reserves the right to swoop in from time to time to fix things. However, He leaves things mostly to run on their own. There’s little to no direct intervention. Instead, there’s indirect intervention. He creates humans in His image. He gives us a bit of His will to use as our own, and it is this tiny bit of the overall will of the universe that is our free will. Kant and Schopenhauer say pretty much the same, but with different words.

From this, it follows that pantheism is not in the end a religious belief, but an atheist world view. Pantheism makes no distinction between God and His creation. Hence, the problem of free will is unresolved. Those inclined towards pantheism or atheism are therefore faced with a problem that Christians don’t have to grapple with. Free will is fully explained in the Bible. This is not the case for atheists. Their challenge, if they want to avoid the nihilistic conclusion that we’re nothing but automata, is to find a mechanism that would explain free will as something more than mere appearance due to our unknowable future.

Michelangelo - Creation of Adam (cropped).jpg
Creation of Adam
By Michelangelo – See below., Public Domain, Link

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