Predestination, Free-Will & Schrödinger’s Cat


A brilliant if somewhat lengthy insight into the age-old debate
(not the chicken and the egg thing; the other one)

It’s theology’s big kahuna. Augustine chewed on it. Calvin bronzed it. Wesley and Whitefield split over it. Edwards gilded it. Finney blasted it. Even the inimitable Apostle Paul himself got feisty about it (Ro 9:20).

Apparently, it was up to me to solve it.

We’re talking about the ancient smackdown between God’s resolute, unchallenged predetermination of all things and, on the other hand, humankind’s unfettered right to choose our own destiny. In one corner stands God’s ultimate prerogative to rule; in the other, man’s primal birthright as a free-agent.

But here, in little more than the time it’d take you to delete the spam in your inbox, you will encounter a mesmerizing synthesis of science and philosophy that will forever change the way you look at the universe.

You’ll also meet a cat.

A Conspicuously Cogent Conspectus

A good place to start is with a brief overview of the basic concepts we’re dealing with. It’s important to point out that we’re not just talking about ideas here, but about the very nature of God and creation itself. This isn’t a frivolous mind-game for egg-heads either. The book of Proverbs exhorts us to get understanding. Our understanding of God and creation affects the way we relate to him and our world.

PREDESTINATION: In the New Testament the concept is applied only to God and expresses the thought of appointing a situation for a person, or a person for a situation, in advance. It means that God has already decided everyone’s “fate” before the creation of the world. Everything’s a done deal, even before it’s done. It’s what we mean when we refer to God as sovereign. In fact, it’s one of the things that makes God God.

FREE-WILL: This refers to the idea that we humans can actually choose our destinies, that the outcome depends upon our actions. It means that our personal futures are open, as yet unmade. Our destinies are shaped by our own decisions. It’s what our experience says is the case and what ultimately distinguishes us from the rest of creation. Genuine freedom is crucial to our understanding of what makes us human.

If the Good Book had weighed in on one side or the other, we’d have no problem. (Well, actually we’d have a whole other set of problems, but that’s not our problem.) Yet the Bible clearly and vigorously advocates both. In a nutshell, the Bible can’t seem to make up its mind.

The seeming problem, of course, is that predestination and free-will can’t both be true at the same time. If God has already decided my future, I’m not free to choose it. And if I’m free to choose, God clearly can’t have locked it in ahead of time. What’s a thinker to do?

To reconcile these contrary ideas, philosophers and theologians have often resorted to fudging definitions. In some discussions, predestination is no longer preemptive determination, but rather God’s simple foreknowledge of all freely chosen outcomes. He knows what we’ll choose, but does not force us to do it. (For example, knowing that my kid will use the bathroom before bedtime does not mean I’m causing him to do it.) The Bible does indeed affirm God’s foreknowledge but clearly distinguishes it from predestination (see Ro 8:29).

In other attempts at reconciliation, free-will is only sort of free. The narrowest interpretation suggests that we may choose, but only what God has already decided we will choose. It’s like a multiple-choice question with only one answer option:

1. Free-will means
a) choosing the inevitable

A slightly looser perspective suggests that our specific choices may be free, but only within predetermined boundaries. Think of riding the bumper cars at the fair: you can steer the little car anyway you want within the electrified arena. In this version, God allows you to choose your path; but, alas, all paths lead to the same place.

There is a third approach to harmonizing these stubborn polarities which avoids cheating. Unfortunately, it also avoids answering. Tersely put, we might as well forget it. Nobody can figure it out. As a Reformed document poetically declares, “Predestination and free agency are the twin pillars of a great temple, and they meet above the clouds where the human gaze cannot penetrate.” Lofty, but somewhat unsatisfying for inquiring minds.

For two thousand years or more this whole discussion has been locked in the realm of the merely philosophical. It was idea versus idea, interpretation versus interpretation, and akin to speculating on the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin.

But now, ladies and gentlemen, [DRUM ROLL] I offer you an amazing feat of doctrinal dexterity, one not only firmly rooted in Biblical orthodoxy, but brilliantly illuminated by hard, experimental science. Welcome to the world of quantum theology where the impossible is indeed possible and where infinite contradictions live together happily ever after.

Tantalizing Tidbits in Tinytown

Quantum physics is the science of the inconceivably small. It deals with events at the sub-atomic level which form the building blocks for everything we experience as the material universe. In the quantum neighborhood we meet a menagerie of odd players with funny names like quarks, leptons, and bosons.

Since the 1920’s, with the advance of technology, physicists have made a number of amazing—and strange—discoveries. Many of them run counter to our sense of how the world actually works. In fact, the more we learn about quantum reality, the more we begin to question assumptions about our own. It turns out that the universe is far stranger than we had thought. We are truly Alice in Wonderland where the wildly unorthodox explains the orthodox.

That Certain Je Ne Sais Qua

One of the best known implications of quantum theory is UNCERTAINTY. In 1927 a man named Heisenberg argued that the key physical quantities position and momentum are linked. As a result, they cannot be accurately measured at the same time. The more precisely one is measured, the less precisely measured is the other.

Take an electron, for example. Because it’s so small, any method for measuring its position would alter its momentum. The energy used to locate it would also change its speed. In the same way, methods for measuring the velocity of the electron result in uncertainty about its precise location. In other words, we can know either of these two things about the electron, but not both at the same time.

Some scientists believed that this was simply a limitation of our measuring techniques. But Heisenberg took a more radical view. He believed that this limitation is a property of nature itself, not the result of imperfect experimentation. We don’t know both because we can’t know both. According to Heisenberg, the mystery is built into the machine. Uncertainty is certain.

You Get What You Order (& then some)

One of the most intriguing experimental observations concerns the nature of light. The question was whether light was made up of distinct particles (“quanta” or “photons”) or behaved in a wave-like manner like sound or radio. In experiments designed to test for wave-like properties, light created interference patterns just like waves do (think of converging ripples in a pond). Particles don’t do that. So, light is a wave-form.

However, when experiments tested for particles, it was found that light was indeed made up of little, well-defined packets of energy. Photons are real and not at all like a wave. The conclusion: light is a particle.

Both conclusions are verified by experiment. Light doesn’t seem to mind that it breaks the rules. We get what we’re looking for.

The next step in this quantum worldview is even stranger. If light waves can act like particles, might there be situations in which sub-atomic particles acted like waves? A French physicist named Prince Louis de Broglie decided to find out. He discovered that if a beam of electrons is passed through a pair of slits, diffraction and interference appear—exactly what we’d expect of waves. If the beam is slowed to a single electron (particle) at a time, the detector on the other side of the slits will still gradually build a trace that looks like an interference or wave pattern.

This is impossible to explain. If each electron goes through either one slit or the other, the pattern would look very different. The appearance of the interference pattern suggests that they don’t simply go through one slit or the other. Does each particle somehow “know” where to line up by studying the paths of previous electrons? More bizarre, the results seem to imply that not only light, but all subatomic citizens have two distinct natures. This observation, known as the Wave-Particle Duality, indicates that two “contradictory” realities can exist as one.

Schrödinger’s Cat

As we’ve discussed, quantum uncertainty means that we can’t know for sure where an electron will end up. All we can determine is the probability of finding one in one location rather than another. (The picture on your television, which is created by an electron gun, is only a probability.) True, a particle may actually end up someplace, but the distribution of all possible outcomes described mathematically looks like a wave. This mathematical description, formulated in 1925 by Erwin Schrödinger, is known as the Schrödinger Wave Equation.

According to Schrödinger’s equation, the final outcome may be determinate (the electron’s ultimate location), but we can only know what that is by measuring. However, as we’ve also noted, the act of measuring affects the outcome we record. As long as we don’t look, the whole spectrum of possibilities remains intact; when we peek, the wave function collapses. The act of observation transforms the world of possibility into one of destiny.

The problem of the relationship between measurement and reality is illustrated by a famous thought-experiment involving a poor cat. (Remember, cat-lover’s, this is just a thought experiment!)

The cat is in a box together with a canister of poisonous gas connected to a radioactive device. If an atom in the device decays, the canister is opened and the cat dies. Suppose that there is a 50-50 chance of this happening. Clearly when we open the box we will observe a cat that is either alive or dead. But is the cat alive or dead prior to the opening of the box?

According to the dominant view (Copenhagen interpretation), the probabilities become determinate only on measurement. This means that the cat is neither alive nor dead until the box is opened. The cat is in an indeterminate state. It merely has some probability of being alive or dead. Until the wave function collapses, there is simply no reality to be described. When we open the box, the wave crashes and the cat is one or the other.

This interpretation raises all sorts of problems. How could both states be true at once? Maybe electrons can cross-dress, but a cat? And at just what level does the wave function actually collapse? Why should we assume that our observation is responsible for the collapse of the wave function? What level of consciousness is needed to determine something? Is the cat conscious enough to fix the outcome of the experiment? Doesn’t it know whether it’s dead or alive?

Perhaps God collapses the wave function: he conceives (“Let there be light!”) and it appears as all other unrealized options evaporate forever. If this is so, wouldn’t his divine foresight be sufficient to predestine?

Somebody get me an aspirin.

You Are Here (Probably)

For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made (Ro 1:20).

So, what do free-will and predestination have to do with Schrödinger’s cat? Just this: the world of quantum physics demonstrates that irreconcilable realities do not necessarily need to be “reconciled.” Contrary to human logic, conflicting ideas or beliefs that cannot be brought into harmony may be equally true.

We do have the power of making free choices that are unconstrained by divine will. God has foreordained all things and is working out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will (Eph 1:11). The particles of our unrestricted capacity for self-determination co-exist with the wave of his absolute and meticulous sovereignty. But they cannot be reconciled.

Quantum theology may help us negotiate other divine incompatibilities too, like love and wrath, grace and judgment, or faith and works, to mention a few. It might even help us entertain the greatest enigma of all: Jesus Christ the God/Man. Moreover, quantum theology might shed light on troubling disparities like unanswered prayer, unfulfilled promises, and the fate of those who never hear the Gospel.

But it would be a mistake to assume that all questions have answers. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle reminds us that the root of existence is mystery, and it’s here that quantum theology joins hands with its classical sibling. There are things we simply cannot know, not because we lack information, but because mystery is the foundation of knowledge itself. It’s woven into the very fabric of being. As the writer of proverbs reminds us, it is deep respect for that mystery that opens the way to true wisdom.

And so, perhaps, ignorance and knowledge can ultimately co-exist too. The Apostle Paul speaks of holding to the mystery of the faith, the mystery now revealed in the form of an even greater mystery: Christ in us, the hope of glory. The mystery can indeed be articulated, even verified, but it cannot be reduced. The Psalmist understood this and sang: Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is too high, I cannot attain to it (139:6). Genius may be recognizing that it is the things we cannot see that give substance to the things we can.

Maybe we should check on the cat?



4 Responses

  1. Fred,

    As a physics guy and someone who cares about theology, I thought this was amazing. Thanks! Lots of work. We will need to discuss sometime.

    Interestingly, we also were reading a Rick Riordon book last night on the way home from Seattle, and his presentation of how the Three Fates were presented. …a bit similar to your bumper car analogy…three options.

    More later. I’d love to discuss it sometime.



  2. This was great, Fred. In an age were we try to reduce everything, there is a great mystery with innumerable levels of sub-mysteries that cannot be reduced. Love your closing sentence – I may just yet attain genius status.

  3. That was the best thing I’ve read on the topic. I agree with your position and have been curious about how to explain it. You have done so marvelously.

  4. John 6 verse 37. Says all the Father gives me will come to me , and The Who comes to me I will by no means cast out. So if you want to be one of God’s elect a saint , Christian, you must come to Christ.. and that’s the invitation I give to unbelievers..

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