In a way, in our contemporary worldview, it’s easy to think that science has come to take the place of God, but some philosophical problems remain as troubling as ever.
Take the problem of free will: this problem’s been around for a long time — since before Aristotle in 350 BC. Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas, these guys all worried about how we can be free if God already knows in advance everything you’re going to do. Nowadays, we know that the world operates according to some fundamental physical laws, and these laws govern the behaviour of every object in the world.
Now, these laws, because they’re so trustworthy, they enable incredible technological achievements. But look at yourself; we’re just physical systems, too, right? We’re just complex arrangements of carbon molecules; we’re mostly water. And our behaviour isn’t going to be an exception to these basic physical laws, so it starts to look like, whether it’s God setting things up in advance and knowing everything you’re going to do, or whether it’s these basic physical laws governing everything, there’s not a lot of room left for freedom.
So now you might be tempted to just ignore the question, ignore the mystery of free will, say, “Oh it’s just a historical anecdote. It’s sophomoric. It’s a question with no answer. Just forget about it!” But the question keeps staring you right in the face.
Think about individuality, for example, who you are: who you are is mostly a matter of the free choices that you make. Or, take responsibility: you can only be held responsible — you can only be held guilty, or you can only be admired or respected — for things you did of your own free will.
So the question keeps coming back, and we don’t really have a solution to it. It starts to look like all your decisions are really just a charade. Think about how it happens: there’s some electrical activity in your brain, your neurons fire, they send a signal down into your nervous system, it passes along down into your muscle fibres, they twitch, you might, say, reach out your arm. It looks like it’s a free action on your part, but every part of that process is actually governed by physical law: chemical laws, electrical laws, and so on.
So now it starts to look like The Big Bang set up the initial conditions, and the whole rest of our history — the whole rest of human history and even before — is really just sort of the playing-out of subatomic particles according to these basic, fundamental physical laws.
We think we’re special; we think we have some kind of special dignity, but that now comes under threat. I mean, that’s really challenged by this picture.
So, you might be saying, “Well, wait a minute. What about quantum mechanics? I know enough contemporary physical theory to know it’s not really like that; it’s really a probabilistic theory; there’s room; it’s loose; it’s not deterministic. And that’s going to enable us to understand free will.” But if you look at the details, it’s not really going to help, because what happens is you have some very small quantum particles, and their behaviour is apparently a bit random — they sort of swerve; their behaviour is absurd in the sense that it’s unpredictable and we can’t understand it based on anything that came before. It just does something out of the blue according to a probabilistic framework.
But is that going to help with our freedom? I mean, should freedom just be a matter of probabilities? Just some random swerving in a chaotic system? That starts to seem like it’s worse! I’d rather be a gear in a big, deterministic, physical machine than just some random swerving.
So, we can’t just ignore the problem; we have to find room in our contemporary worldview for persons, with all that that entails. Not just bodies, but persons. And that means trying to solve the problem of freedom, finding room for choice and responsibility, and trying to understand individuality.