What role does the soul play? [Spin-off Old Earth or EC? A new book...]

Perhaps it is just me, but I grow weary of you stating your opinions as if they were demonstrable facts. Maybe I just received different training, but I try my best to differentiate between my opinion and “fact” where a working definition of fact includes “scientific consensus.”

Not at all. I do not see how it has any role at all. No matter how you inject QM into the question, you cannot, in my opinion, arrive at moral culpability, which is a consequence of one thing and only one thing: a free will. And without moral culpability the whole Christian story is rendered meaningless. In understanding free will, I do not see QM as necessary but not sufficient. I see it as a distraction.

That is not well known. It is (in the Copenhagen view) as random as a coin toss. You can compute expectation values with high accuracy, but to any given event you can only assign a probability.

I think it does, and furthermore I think it is necessary for moral culpability. Whether it is just the universe time-stepping through its differential equation–or that plus a bit of quantum determinacy through which some unknown mechanism arrives at a macroscopic coherency–we are, absent a supernatural component, slaves to physical laws and therefore have no moral culpability. Moral culpability implies, to me, that we can make choices that supernaturally alter the current conditions and change the path of the universe’s diffy Q. I base that as a Christian on the believe that we are judged by a just God as free moral agents.

EDIT: typos


Good point. At some point there has to be responsibility. By the way, I was reading through your blog, ( http://helives.blogspot.com/ ) and found it thought provoking and entertaining. After reading the entire article on science being the trophy wife of religion, I found the analogy convincing.

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Well if you want to make the discussion personal like this, then I will say it is hilarious how you object with such bluster and then say the same thing in different words. But I am an advocate of keeping these personal comments out of the discussion and sticking to the issue itself.

LOL yeah… LOL like I said QM is not sufficient to explain free will. LOL

LOL yeah… LOL like I said , QM is only random within a distribution. LOL

And yet you don’t even address the logical problems I referred to. Maybe you should have asked, “what logical problems?” The logical problem put in simplest terms is this: if choices are not determined by anything then how are they an exercise of will but if they are determined then how are they free? Moving the cause somewhere else does absolutely nothing to address this problem. And moving it to some supernatural entity created by God and inserted into people certainly doesn’t do anything for moral culpability.

I suspect that what is really going on here is some woo woo hand waving which amounts to “supernatural” = magically making all your claims coherent because supernatural like God can do anything you say in whatever way you care to dictate.

Nope. Slavery to physical laws would mean that physical laws determine the outcome and it is demonstrable that because of QM they do not. And throwing in a supernatural variable, with your magical woo woo hand-waving aside, only changes it to non-physical determinism which is no more free will than the physical determinism.

Well like all incompatibilists I certainly believe that we can make choices which alter the course of physical events and this is possible because at the bottom QM shows that events are not determined by any hidden variables within the premises of the scientific worldview. But while I think the involvement of something non-physical makes sense, I am quite sure that it cannot be established by this alone as either necessary or sufficient for free will.

And my conclusions come from my belief as a Christian constrained by my knowledge as a physicist and informed by my graduate studies of the philosophical and theological issues. And my belief is that while we are only correctly judged by God, that this judicial imagery of God is metaphor only and that God doesn’t really do things that way. Instead I think our moral culpability plays out in the natural logical consequences of our actions without any divine judicial interference other than the mercy of grace when we open ourselves to that with faith.

Thank you, but don’t go back too far. To first order I either disagree with or am embarrassed by (or both) anything I wrote that is older than about two months.


Reminds me of this:
“I have opinions of my own, strong opinions, but I don’t always agree with them.” George H. W. Bush


Yes! It is a good blog. Interesting passage here, by the way…


I just listened to a Skye Jethani podcast which illustrated the plethora of opinions we can get–a German was saying “In Germany, we are either Catholic or Protestant; but I moved to the Netherlands, where I learned there are lots of Protestant churches–so many that if you meet 2 Dutchmen, you could be finding 3 churches!” I think I’m a bit of a Dutchman.

I do find that quandary about the possibilities of free choice confusing. When I was in high school (homeschooled through the public University of Nebraska, which taught missionary and ambassador kids), the book remarked that the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle could be a basis for the concept of free will. In some ways, it seems that having God keep us morally responsible for choices we make increases the concept of free will–which in turn, is a very adaptive concept (I’m not sure if animals have that concept of responsibility or not). Yet, there are so many influences I realize that shaped my decision making that I 'm not sure what exactly the concept “I” constitutes, sometimes. Richard Mouw said that the concept of responsibility, especially to God and His law, is what lends us identity; so does responsibility form our identity?
Sorry–this is kind of a tangent.

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I agree. To look to QM to ‘power’ free will is to look at life and especially consciousness in far too mechanistic a manner for my taste.

But then I don’t think we have a radically free will. It may be highly conditional but at least on occasion we find an option amongst those that occur to us which appeals. Could be worse.


Dear @mattconnally and @Realspiritik,
The pre-existence of the soul was declared anathema by a most questionable authority, the emperor of Rome. It is a fact recognized by the founders of science and philosophy, but denied by the pagan rulers. It is valid to question this judgement and examine it in the light of the day. The term ‘old soul’ is part of many cultures and it implies pre-existence.

For me, a good God would allow all His children to have access to the same teachings. If you can only get to heaven through Jesus, then it would only make sense that Jewish, Moslem, Hindu and Buddhist peoples would one day get the chance to be raised in Christian environment.

I don’t think Stapp suggests that QM “powers” free will. He just shows where an immaterial free will enters into the equations. As I understand it (which isn’t saying much!) he shows that it’s not mind over matter (how does something nonphysical “push” something physical?) but rather mind before matter. The scientific establishment won’t tolerate such interpretations because they cannot tolerate the possibility of any immaterial phenomena existing. So they will relentlessly restate such interpretations in a materialistic view–turning them straw men.

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I was responding to a suggestion originally made by Mr Mitchell and disputed by Mr Heddle. I’m not sure who Stapp is or how he figures into this, but I didn’t come in at the very beginning of this discussion.

And yet I am saying even less than Stapp. Free will doesn’t logically require a spiritual or supernatural agent nor is it implied by such a thing, but if there is such a component to free will and it seems reasonable for Christians to believe this, then QM is certainly required for such a possibility - showing where it would “enter into the equation.” Regardless without the QM disproof of physical determinism, incompatibilist free will isn’t even viable. Which is frankly why compatabilism became so popular before QM when physical determinism was largely taken for granted.

But let me restate the philosophical problem with free will: if choices are not determined then how are they an exercise of will, but if they are determined then how are they free. This problem is another large reason why the idea of incompatibilist free will has been abandoned by so many.

I think there is a solution in non-standard causality rejecting the restriction to the time-ordered version. This suggests that instead of our past self being the sole cause of our choices, we become the cause of our choice by becoming the kind of person who does such things – cause and effect originating simultaneously in the same event. We are responsible because that is who we have chosen to become. This rejects the idea that we are just a product of circumstance and everything we do is caused by the conditions in which we were in. And the evidence does not really support this, for not everyone in the same circumstances makes the same choices. To be sure not everything we become is a matter of choice and our choices may be limited to some degree. But there are choices and we are responsible for those choices, because that is who we have chosen to become. And all the radically different circumstances people are in simply means is that we are wise to refrain from judgment and leave that to God alone.

But how would such non-standand causality appear in the scientific worldview based on premises which include local causality (which is a relativistic version of time-ordered causality). The answer is that there would be events which are not determined by any hidden variables exactly as QM shows there to be.

“Free will doesn’t logically require a spiritual or supernatural agent nor is it implied by such a thing”
If free will is immaterial, how is that not rooted in the spiritual/supernatural? What category does the immaterial fit in if it’s not supernatural?
“if choices are not determined then how are they an exercise of will, but if they are determined then how are they free”
As to the philosophical issues, I would prefer to identify those as semantic issues–not to minimize them in any way, but just to clarify them: we cannot even define freedom unless we also define slavery, and in similar fashion we cannot define free will unless we also define determinism, just like we can’t learn the meaning of the word blue unless you also learn the meaning of words like red and yellow. Such terms depend upon one another. (I’d actually compare it to the previous discussion of how the 3 dimensions cannot exist independently and only exist as a whole.) The fact that the later three combine to make white light poses a mystery that we cannot fully understand, but its one in which we can still walk. In similar fashion, free will and determinism go hand-in-hand, just like quantum mechanics and special relativity go hand-in-hand. (After all, do the laws of gravity enslave us or do they free us?)

p.s. I mean for a couple of those to be Mitchell’s quotes and don’t know why it didn’t work! I made it work before…I’m pretty new with this blogging business.

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Not sure why you are asking this. I would say that spiritual/supernatural is the more precise term, since by immaterial I presume is meant not composed of physical material. But my comment has nothing to do with any difference between immaterial and spiritual/supernatural. It has to do with there being no logical connection between the idea of free will and there being an “immaterial” spiritual supernatural cause. There may be such a cause and I even think this likely in the context of Christianity, but this doesn’t change the fact that there is no logical link. One can believe there is a free will and not believe there is any such supernatural causal agent. And one can believe there is a supernatural causal agent but no free will.

That is called compatibilism. I am an incompatibilist because I don’t think they go hand in hand but are incompatible.

Gravity is a natural law. It means that once you step off the roof of a skyscraper out into the surrounding air then down you go and there is no more choice and freedom but to meet pavement down below. So the question is whether everything that happens is determined in this way by natural law alone? That was the supposition of Laplace before the discovery of quantum physics, that a demon knowing everything that is, could calculate from this, everything that is going to happen. And thus that all our choices are just the result of mathematical equations of natural law and nothing else. But quantum physics changed this, by finding out that even if you did know everything that is, you would not be able to calculate everything that is going to happen.

I appreciate your desire not to chalk it up to God’s magic. If I believed there was such a being as God I too would prefer to think there was some skill and knowledge involved in what He does. But honestly, so long as you have anything in the profoundly undefined supernatural category, does it really matter?

But how can you be so sure? In my experience, reality does not wait for humans to explain how it is possible. Do you really take the free will puzzle seriously? I don’t and for a number of reasons. For one we aren’t radically free, only conditionally so. So much of our decision making is based on the apprehension of factors which are selected for us pre-consciously. More likely any legitimate claim to free will we may have is a newly emerged capacity to consciously choose between the several options which claim our attention. But many animals are able to learn and adapt behavior. That is essentially what our free will consists of except that we can conceptualize the change and share it widely with others of our kind. But in each new moment we must recognize how all that learning applies and what currently attainable ends matter to us. Most of that is indeed determined based on our nature and on who we’ve become, but why should we expect to be free of that? We’re not. But you seem to agree with me here at least:

You call this non-standard causality and go on to ask how it could have appeared. At one level the answer seems to be it was there in our genome in potential. But as an emergent property its appearance is a little surprising. Not every effect can be predicted, leastwise not by us. I don’t pretend to understand quantum mechanics any more than I do the supernatural. But both seem to serve the same black box function of giving the appearance of explaining what resists being explained. Such explanations leave the emperor unclothed, they do not satisfy.

It is not profoundly undefined to me at all. I have defined it quite clearly. The spiritual, supernatural, non-physical simply refers to forms of pre-energy (potentiality of being itself) which are not a part of the mathematical space-time structure of the physical universe.

The point of my comment had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with any avoidance of God, or to cater to the premise of metaphysical naturalism, but only about what logic requires in the case of free will. Throwing in a soul into the mix isn’t all it takes to make sense of free will. The same philosophical problem applies. And it is quite possible to believe in free will without believing in the spiritual or supernatural.

To be sure there is no objective evidence for the existence of anything outside the physical universe, nor could there be. Then why believe in such a thing? I have addressed that here. And these reasons show why this lack of objective evidence is kind of the whole point of believing it in the first place.

What you quoted follows from simple logic alone. But maybe that isn’t what you were asking how I was so sure? If so you have to be more specific.

Yes! Indeed! Which is why we have to put our faith in a choice of premises in order to live. Life doesn’t wait for proof. Certainty is impossible. We have to place our bets and run with them.

Absolutely! I base my premises on the totality of my experience of existence. And free will is my most basic experience. For that reason, I consider philosophies which deny this experience to be utterly meaningless to me. But hey, people have different experiences and maybe some people don’t take free will seriously because they don’t have that experience. And so I will grant that it is entirely possible that they do not have any free will to speak of. How should I know?

Indeed. It is easy to observe that there is nothing universal or inviolable about free will. There are quite a number of things which can take this away from us. It most certainly depends on awareness – how can we make choices when we are not aware of any alternatives? And I am sure beliefs have a significant impact – such as believing that you do not have any free will.

Yes… I certainly agree that a lot of it is going on under the hood. However what I don’t agree with, at least in my own case, is that these things are not me. Taking ownership of these things is part of what responsibility means.

We cannot expect that. We are creatures of habit, but to some degree or other we are self-programming in that respect. So while our free will is not absolute and every second, this does not change the fact that we do make choices and some lead to a greater range of choices (more free will) and others lead to a lesser range of choices (less free will).

This comment seems to be according to a presumption that free will applies only to human beings which I do not believe at all.

I did not cover the question of how free will came about but I can do that now. For one thing it did not evolve qualitatively in the proper sense because free will and life are the same thing. However since life is highly quantitative then so is the free will which goes along with it. Thus the basics of how free will works is the same as defining the process of life itself which I explained at length in this thread.

Now to ask how this nonstandard causality came about is to ask how the physical universe came into existence because that with QM is part of the very structure and nature of the physical universe. As a Christian, I obviously believe that the physical universe is a creation of God and it has the structure it does by God’s design according to the purpose for which He created it. And this is another link back to that list of reasons why I believe.

I am a theoretical physicist and I would hardly describe quantum physics as a black box. It is the most successful and precise theory in science. It does cause some cognitive dissonance among physicists who prefer to presume that everything must have a physical cause which they can discover. But that would be a problem with their presumption. It is also difficult to visualize and attach the usual sort of metaphysical significance to it because it frankly describes an aspect of our world rather far from the environment to which our minds and perceptual processes are adapted. But that would be a problem with insisting on visualizing it or the metaphysics we are trying to fit it with.

In the case of quantum physics, seeing the clothes of this particular emperor requires a little more than a “seeing is believing” mentality.

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I’m often pleasantly surprised to find new points of agreement with you and this post is full of them. I think we agree on far more than we don’t where free will is concerned. I haven’t given it a lot of thought since mostly it strikes me as much ado about very little. Of course there are usually some points of disagreement as well to keep things interesting.

I’m willing to take your word for it that the QM emperor is suitably attired but I continue to have my doubts about the other one. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to attach any sense to things existing which are other than natural. Dark nature perhaps? To me the world all around us is already abundantly filled with wonder. Who could ask for more?

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I was watching a discussion between Richard Dawkins and Stephen Fry, where Stephen Fry made this argument quite eloquently. Fascinating character with a lovable personality and very interesting things to say. The only problem is that much of the world could complain that this is the typical self-satisfaction of a well-fed well-loved well-to-do consumer of far more than his share of the worlds resources. Other people have EXCELLENT reasons to think… “There has got more than this!”

Of course that would be more persuasive if I truly expected the world to conform to my druthers. I guess you could object that if it didn’t already that I might have different expectations. But not everything about the world does expressly suit me. Doesn’t stop me from appreciating the way it is put together.

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