A student reflection on Dr. Schroeder’s “Free Will” Seminar

by Austin Rhodes, April 2006

On Wednesday, April 5, Dr. Gerald Schroeder of Jerusalem, Israel presented a speech entitled “The Physics of Free Will: If Our Creator Knows the Future, How Do We Have Free Will – A Biblical and Scientific Explanation”. Dr. Schroeder’s perspective on the subject was fresh for EMU’s campus, not only because he holds roles as a physicist, author, and professor, but also because he adheres to a Jewish worldview. Outlining his speech, Dr. Schroeder had three topics that he wished to explore as they related to the concept of free will, namely: whether we live in a deterministic world, biological control, and the incorporation of theology.

According to Schroeder, many physicists today believe that we do not live in a deterministic world, contrary to historical thought. The 1900s introduced the concept of quantum uncertainty and a supposed element of slack within the universe. In layman’s terms, this slack accounts for a general randomness in the basic natural world, something translated into everyday life. While the manifestation of slack is variable, the underlying mechanisms remain the same.

Why, one may ask, would slack exist if there is a God? To answer this and provide a scriptural basis, Schroeder turned to Isaiah 45:7. In this passage, God speaks of forming light and creating darkness, of making peace and creating disaster (or evil, according to Schroeder). In essence, God has allowed a certain element of uncertainty to be present within the world we live. God’s own interaction with the world can be described with many metaphors, including light, peace, and harmony. As humans, life and death are before us. We should choose life.

Another unique and pertinent element of Schroeder’s speech, as it relates to free will, was his view on creation. It was within the first day of creation, when the heavens and earth were created, that God established the laws of nature, including quantum mechanics and physics. During this time, God allowed some distance between himself and the world, thus introducing slack. Creation from that point onwards was metaphysical, not physical.

Schroeder argued that there were two more creations after the initial creation of the physical heavens and earth. The second creation was the conception of an animal soul or Nephesh. The third creation introduced the uniquely human soul or Neshama. The Nephesh allows animals to have a level of slack or free will, free will that is largely concerned with pleasure and propagation. Humans also have a Nephesh, but their Neshama or human free will keeps this in check. This is illustrated when humans react in manners contrary to their basic, rudimentary instincts. The Neshama is what allows us to have a relationship with God, if we so choose.

There are many other examples and illustrations of free will found within the Bible. Ultimately it is God’s presence that makes all the difference in life. In Genesis, Cain had the free will to kill his brother, Abel. When he was banished from the Garden of Eden, he taught the world that exile from God is worse than death, stating that his punishment was more than he could bear. Free will is best used to live a life in relationship with God.

Biological relevance to the issue of free will was only discussed briefly. Essentially Biology does account for a certain level of pre-determination. This can be described as a window of choice, a type of semi-programming. Biology is not the final answer, however.

In his final response, Dr. Schroeder went back to his analysis of creation and what it means to be human. It was at this point that his Jewish worldview came through most clearly, with the idea of a divine spark present within all of creation. Free will boils down to the sovereignty of God and the process by which he created something out of nothing. Schroeder’s conclusion deferred to God’s ultimate wisdom and hand in the universe today.

My initial response to Dr. Schroeder’s discourse on free will was affirmative. As a Christian living in a modern society, it is easy for me to gloss over the Hebrew Scriptures and sever their relevance to important universal questions. In this sense, I was appreciative of Schroeder’s deferral to God’s ultimate hand within the concept of free will. The Old Testament scriptures offer an array of beautiful language and metaphors as they begin to address creation and God’s role as the creator. Schroeder gave me a chance to reconsider the meaning of several biblical passages and appreciate their intricacies like never before.

The grounds on which I disagree with Schroeder are mostly theological in nature. For one, I find the divine spark philosophy problematic in the sense that it has a tendency to deify the creation. Comprehensively, the scriptures are clear on the separation between the Creator and creation, a distinction Schroeder tended to blur. Secondly, I don’t fully agree with how Schroeder approached the concept of evil. At one point during his speech, he essentially personified nature, giving an example of when nature sinned against God. This disagreement can be largely attributed to differences in world view. My Christian beliefs give me a more comprehensive approach to sin, relating to man’s position within the world and the role Jesus plays in redemption.

Overall, I was grateful for the opportunity to hear Dr. Gerald Schroeder’s perspective. His speech provided a bounty of food for thought and served as an interesting introduction to a rarely discussed issue. It is my utmost hope that this dialogue will cause intellectual stimulation on EMU’s campus, ultimately strengthening our commitment to Christ and his teachings.

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