Quantum Physics, Cognitive Psychology, and Free Will

The video below popped up on my Facebook News Feed on one of my rare times checking it. Even though it isn’t the best explanation of the argument, I found it really interesting.

I first encountered this argument earlier this summer and as an Open Theist I absolutely loved it right away. Then I was reading a book on Open Theism today (review to come soon I hope) and it used the same argument. Then I saw this video in my News Feed about 20 minutes later. Some might even say that is providence right there.  In any case, the actual argument is in the video above. I’m more comfortable with psychology and my own background in cognitive science to frame it in a parallel but slightly different way.

There used to be, and still is in limited number, a thought process in psychology called behaviourism. Behaviourism reduced all actions to a formula of a stimulus leading to a response. If you can learn the right stimulus, you can elicit any response, and behaviour does not just happen – that’s why it is called a response. Over the last 50 years psychologists have mostly set aside behaviourism, or at the very least said that it is far too simplified. They largely accept that there is something in between that process. This is the “tri-level hypothesis” where the three levels are: the hardware where the stimulus is input, the behaviour where the response is output, and some kind of processing in between that we call “mind”. The counter-argument, and these psychologists would still be considered behaviourists, would say that the middle level is still just a part of the hardware, just a really complicated part of the hardware. So they accept that practically speaking you can’t know all the stimuli and therefore we appear to have free will, but if we theoretically somehow could measure every possible input, we would be able to know every exact output response. I fall in the prior category of thinking that we can never even in theory boil down all behaviour to the stimuli. Christian theology has traditionally called this in-between level “soul”, and some theologians including me attribute free will to this soul while others don’t.

It takes me to a more challenging question, though: is the future certain? If it is, most Christians – process theology aside – would say that God knows it. Open Theists like myself say that it isn’t and that therefore God doesn’t know it exhaustively, and that Quantum Physics and Cognitive Psychology are good analogies for this. With physics we can get a pretty good idea of an object’s movement, but we can’t be certain of absolute position of every individual particle. We can know probabilities, and we can know some certainty on a large scale, but we can’t know exhaustive certainties on everything. The classical theist, like the behaviourist and the Newtonian physicist, answer at this point is to say that it is simply because we cannot see and understand all the variables, but God can, including future things. Therefore God still has exhaustive knowledge of the future, either because he pre-ordained it (Calvinist) or because knowing all the variables he knows what we will choose with our pseudo-free-will (Arminian).

The Open Theist lines up with Heisenberg and says that some things are uncertain even to God, and that is the way that God has made it in order to allow us true relational free will. This isn’t a limit on God’s power: you can’t fault God for not knowing some knowledge that doesn’t exist. It’s like the ridiculously pointless question “can God create a rock so big that he can’t lift it?” Ignoring the meaningless physical images for God required for this to even make sense, the answer is simple: there is no such thing as a rock so big that God can’t move it. God can’t create it, because the thing to be created isn’t possible. And you can’t fault God for being unable to create a logical impossibility in the same way we can’t fault God for being incapable of not loving. So it is not limiting God to say that he can’t know something that isn’t actually knowledge. I’ve heard some say, therefore, and I agree, that the view should really be called the “open future” view, not the “open theist” view, because it is a lot more about the nature of the future than it is about the nature of God (although of course God created the future to be that way).

Hopefully those scientific analogies helped you understand it and that I didn’t just add more confusion to the question.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.