Study Guide: Science and Free Will

Sunday February 10, 2019 | Greg Boyd

Focus Scripture:

Brief Summary:

In this weekend's sermon, Greg continues our "Priest and Physicist" series, in which we examine five arguments against the naturalistic worldview.

Extended Summary:

Greg begins by explaining that the naturalistic worldview is the view that only natural laws and forces operate in the world. It is the belief that every event that happens can be explained by something else in the universe and therefore you never need to appeal to a supernatural explanation. It assumes that everything is determined by natural causes and effects, and can be reduced down to molecules in motion. Within the naturalistic worldview framework, consciousness is described as an epiphenomenal illusion. It would suggest that we even though we think that we have free will, ultimately we are determined beings (simply the result of chemical firings and chain reactions leading like dominoes back to the big bang).

This naturalistic worldview is often called the scientific worldview and gives the impression that science is opposed to faith. It takes the scientific method, which is a wonderful method, and turns it into a worldview. The problem is that the scientific method assumes a closed-system deterministic universe. It is not allowed to appeal to supernatural forces. This method has been very helpful to us because it allows us to harness the systems of our universe that are closed and determined by chains of causes and effects. However, science is not a worldview, it is a method. In fact, the scientific method arose out of the Christian worldview which held the conviction that we are made in the image of a rational God. This conviction led to curiosity concerning the rational structure of nature. While the scientific method cannot be applied to souls, angels, or God, it does not necessarily follow that these things do not exist. To state otherwise is not to make a scientific claim, but to make a metaphysical claim.

Today’s Crash Course Philosophy video proposes that though we think we make free decisions, mental states are brain states, which are biological states, which are physical states, which are determined states. The argument continues that our feeling of free will is the result of hidden deterministic causes such as belief, desire, temperament, and more. Given the flow of the universe, things had to be the way they are. Everyone and everything is simply a victim to the dominoes that fell before them. Even the most atrocious actions couldn’t have been otherwise. The conviction that people should be held responsible would therefore be a complete illusion.


Greg presents five arguments against this deterministic view:

Argument #1: Determinism confuses the scientific method with the scientific worldview.

Though scientific methodology is great for answering natural questions, it becomes very restricting when it is assumed to be reality. This assumption is as arrogant as a dog (who can’t understand or even conceive of trigonometry), assuming that only the things he can understand and conceive of are real. To assume that human scientific inquiry is the only epistemological approach to knowledge ignores the finitude of our brains. What is to humans like trigonometry is to dogs? Though our brains are more evolved than a dog’s, we are still limited. What is that of which we humans cannot conceive? Imagine if a dog got arrogant and said, “I think that the only things are real are the things that dogs can process. Therefore, trigonometry doesn’t exist.” Beauty, love, hope, and faith can’t be subjected to the scientific method.


Argument #2: Jesus refutes determinism.

Luke 13:34 – “Oh Jerusalem, oh Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing!”

Jesus here is assuming that these people could have chosen otherwise.

Luke 7:30 – But by refusing to be baptized by him, the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves.

 They by not being baptized rejected God’s purpose for themselves.


Argument #3: Consciousness refutes determinism.

How does matter become self-aware? On some level we know that we are people who make free decisions. This is a fundamental human experience. To dismiss it and say that it’s just an illusion is insufficient. Our self-awareness is the only reality we know. It is the one fundamental slice of reality of which we have firsthand access. Secondly, to be self-aware is to be aware that we are free will agents. We act and live based on the assumption our decisions are actual decisions. If self-awareness is fundamental, then so is free will. Why would nature produce beings who have to act in a way that is in conflict with reality? We have to act as though we are conscious and free. If the deterministic worldview is correct in that our self-awareness is an epiphenomenal illusion, then we are thoroughly deceived by our own brains. If we cannot trust our own self-awareness, then we should doubt all of our brain’s processes, including our brain’s logical reasoning processes. Determinism forces us to regard that which is fundamental to our experience as deception. If we cannot trust our brain’s own self-awareness, then we have no basis to trust our brains at all.


Argument #4: Determinism undermines reason (which is self-refuting because we have to use reason to get to determinism).

“If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose my beliefs are true… And hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.”

-J. Haldane (an Agnostic)


According to the naturalistic worldview:

  1. Everything is a chemical reaction
  2. Chemical reactions have no truth value
  3. My thinking right now is a chemical reaction

Conclusion: My thinking right now has no truth value

 The falseness of the conclusion is pre-supposed to argue for its truth. This is a self-refuting statement. Which means our thoughts must have truth value and we must be more then chemicals popping.


Argument #5: Chance and purpose.

Greg’s analogy goes like this: Let’s say that upon driving into Minnesota from out of state Kevin and Mary notice a rock formation patterned to spell, “Welcome to Minnesota.” Kevin says, “Oh look we must be entering into Minnesota.” Mary replies, “Kevin, don’t you know that thousands of years ago glaciers receded across this continent and randomly dropped boulders as it left? They aren’t there by design, just random chance. So we don’t know if we are in Minnesota or not.” It makes sense for Kevin to trust the rocks to tell him that they are entering Minnesota because he believes that there is a mind behind those rocks to be in that order. It also makes sense for Mary to appeal to chance, however unlikely that chance might be. What does not make any sense is for Mary to say that the rocks are here by chance and they are trustworthy to communicate the entrance to Minnesota. In the same way we have a bunch of chemical reactions going on in our brain. Either, they are just chemical poppings there by chance or they are the result of a purposeful design. Yet we trust those poppings to tell us the truth. Meaning that we have to believe that our chemical poppings are designed for the purpose of thinking rational thoughts (which is the opposite of being random.) There has to be a mind that designed these poppings to allow us to think rational thought. Otherwise, how could we trust random chance to communicate truth? Unless there is a mind at the beginning, how can there develop a mind in the process?

Mind is more fundamental than matter. How could randomness self-organize? Randomness can’t produce reason. Either reason is at the structure of things or it is not there at all. The scientific method works because reason works. But in the attempt to turn the scientific method into a naturalistic, deterministic worldview, people undermine the very reasoning processes that the scientific method is based on. If there is an intelligent God who created intelligent beings and placed them in a rational world, then all of these issues are explained. Reason itself makes sense.

Reflection Questions: