Chaos, complexity and freedom

I went to an interesting lecture last night at Durham Uni. The talk was by David Wilkinson, another ex-physicist / reverend minister / academic. The talk was one of a series about the intersection of physics (especially quantum physics) and theology. This talk was about insights from theology, philosophy and science into the question of the soul.

At the outset, Wilkinson stated his position that the language of the soul is neither necessary (from a theological perspective) nor useful (from a scientific perspective). There was a lot in the lecture to think about.

At the end I had chance to ask a question: Biological explanations of identity etc. tend towards being quite deterministic and often run the risk of being over-determined. (There was a recent article in the New Scientist (Jones, 2011) which pursued this argument.) However there are case studies which undermine this biological determinism. (See, for example, the interview with Prof. James Fallon, in All in the Mind, on 26 April, 2011.) So, are there any scientifically reasonable or defensible arguments for bringing indeterminism back into the discussion, whether through quantum mechanics, chaos theory or some idea of systems complexity? (Wilkinson had mentioned Polkinghorne and I think that my observations from my earlier entry on ‘The Elusive Self’ were probably lurking at the back of my head.)

In reply, Wilkinson realised that I was really trying to find an argument for human freedom of will. He said that there were possible avenues to explore: One route was through indeterminacy at the quantum but he felt that this approach wouldn’t work well, not least because the problem of seeing whether indeterminacy at the quantum level has any consequences higher up the length scales. He felt that a more fruitful route would be to think about chaos theory and complexity. At this point he mentioned Polkinghorne’s work. Polkinhorne uses chaos/complexity to argue both for the possibility of divine action in the universe and for the possibility of free will. But there are 2 problems:

1. The first problem is (apparently) that Polkinghorne makes a leap from the epistemological to the ontological. That is, he says that there is indeterminacy in our mathematical description of the world therefore there must be indeterminacy in the natural processes that make up the world in itself.

2. The second problem is (apparently) that Polkinghorne, in endeavouring to argue for free will, moves by analogy. So, he shows how there is complexity in large scale systems (e.g. meteorology) and says that there must/should be similarly complex systems at the small scale (e.g. the brain) but he never works out the actual physical mechanisms for that.

So extrapolating a little I can start to think about whether indeterminacy of biological systems, perhaps at the level of the complexity of neural interactions and neural functioning could possibly be at the heart of our experience of free will and human efficacy. Cool!


Jones, D. (2011) ‘The Free Will Delusion’, New Scientist, 16 April 2011, 32-35

About Bruce Davenport

Research associate at Newcastle University. Previously a museum educator and researcher.
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