Free Will or Determinism?

Does physical law entail that humans are no more in charge of themselves than machines? Are we self-deceived if we imagine that our choices make a difference?

On this past Friday and Sabbath, May 19-20, fourteen scientists, theologians and philosophers gathered at Loma Linda University to consider the most challenging of all science-and-religion questions. Adventists have been preoccupied with how to read Genesis after geology and Darwinism, but no threat to human significance matches the growing sense among biologists that human mental states may have only apparent influence. All of the causal power, it is thought, may lie beneath the surface of experience, at the level of “selfish” genes and, ultimately, of sub-atomic particles. But if human beings are wholly determined, despite what they think, by micro-forces entirely outside of their control, how can it make sense to speak of the spiritual life, or even of morality itself?

The conference theme was “What’s with Free Will? Ethics and Religion after Neuroscience.” James Walters, of Loma Linda University, along with Philip Clayton, a philosopher-theologian from the nearby Claremont School of Theology, had long dreamed of the event, and worked together in the planning. Participants came with papers stemming not only from neuroscience but also from such domains as social science, psychiatry and theology. All presenters addressed the issues from the standpoint of Christian conviction that humans do have freedom to choose and make a difference, at least to some degree. None of them, however, disputed the deepening conviction that contemporary science casts doubt upon, and in any case narrows the scope of, the freedom available to human agents. The question was how, in light of the scientific evidence, to uphold (some degree of) free will as a genuine reality.

A striking feature of the conference was the honesty, fast pace and inclusivity of the conversation. No one tried to resolve the problem by dismissing the relevance of science. As chief facilitator, Clayton enforced the ground rules with a firm hand — and much appreciated twinkling eye: this was serious business and it would also be enjoyable. Presenters summarized their claims in 15 minutes; fellow presenters, seated around a table, asked their questions and made their comments for the next 15 to 20 minutes; then, from chairs arranged in a circle around the table, audience members (anyone could attend) had 10 minutes or so to chime in. With no pressure toward uniformity in play, and an overall atmosphere of geniality, opinion ranged across a wide band of conviction. The conference did not, however, evoke comment you could call fundamentalist. The debate concerning science and “free will” seems not yet to have achieved such resonance within traditional Adventism as to draw in the Church’s most conservative wing.

Two guests, both astonishingly prolific scholars, gave “plenary” addresses held in a large amphitheater, the first on Friday evening and next on Sabbath afternoon. Clayton was one of these, and he spoke on “Science, Ethics and Free Will: Why Neuroscience Doesn’t Ground Freedom, and What We Might Choose to Do about It.” He argued that if you attend to “emergent” mental complexity in nature, and not just to the micro-forces at work in brain activity, you can see that physical reality itself has brought into being a real human capacity to makes choices that effect the world. The experience of this capacity is not a complete illusion. Still, he insisted, freedom in its fullest sense requires a (chosen) connection with the ground of all of being, namely, God.

The other guest was Thomas Oord, a much-published professor at Northwest Nazarene University in Idaho. In his address on Sabbath afternoon, Oord argued for “Genuine (but Limited) Freedom for Creatures and for a God of Love.” He appealed to common sense, or what he called “experiential non-negotiables” such as the assumptions we make in raising children, as a basis for believing in limited free will for human beings. He also explored implications of limited free will for Christian understanding of a God defined by love. Such a God gives freedom but cannot withdraw it. Divine power cannot, for that reason, be absolute, nor can divine knowledge about the future be entirely exhaustive. By turning attention to these matters, Oord linked the Christian conviction of (limited) free will to the movement, often called “open theism,” with which Adventist theologian Richard Rice is also linked. God is a divine persuader, not a divine enforcer; God’s way with the world and its creatures sustains, not overrides, (limited) human freedom.

Oord’s address was the last at the conference, and afterwards the other presenters were pulled into a down-front row. Then Clayton stepped forward, again with the twinkle, and now also with a smart-phone timer. What followed was not quite a panel “discussion,” but the fast pace of conversation did here reach its amiable peak. Every responder had two minutes. Clayton expected down-to-the-second compliance, and voiced delighted appreciation when a speaker’s last syllable landed on the last available second. Reservations about Oord’s remarks came to the fore, and so did wide agreement with them. It was clear, as the conference ended, that there was overall consensus on the importance and direction of the entire conversation.

The planners will produce an edited volume with revised drafts of all papers. Aside from the two guests, presenters, in order of their appearance, were: Charles Scriven, Calvin Thomsen, Kendal Boyd, David Larson, David Wilbur (by way of a reader who assisted in his absence), Mark Ard, Marlene Ferreras, Zane Yi, Rick Rice, Fritz Guy, Gerald Winslow and Jim Walters.

Charles Scriven is Board Chair of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum.

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I love the title: “Science, Ethics and Free Will: Why Neuroscience Doesn’t Ground Freedom, and What We Might CHOOSE to Do about It." My emphasis! For a conference on Free Will and Determinism, this title, if not, coyly intended, true Freudian slippage :slight_smile:


So, Do we have free will or not, or are we just robots, bond to fulfill our own self desires ? It is here that the inclusion of God is important . At the thought of free will , it above all else is what God would want to protect , because free will best reflects Him. To do other wise , is to say, as creator , He is unable to evoke love from His creation , without the removal of free will. Once He made that decision , He- God accepted all the consequences that went with it . That alone , makes Him God. And when His creation , made a decision against His law of love, He showed love, by first offering up Himself .Free will in action.

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Various theologies and philosophies have adopted opinions about exactly how free anyone is to make choices. Even Christianity has a vocabulary like, “the elect” - “pre-ordained” - “the chosen” - that speaks to a lack of choice, and characterizes God as knowing the “end from the beginning”.

Besides the theological assumptions, (which, if true, makes “…Why Neuroscience Doesn’t Ground Freedom, and What We Might Choose to Do about it”, an oxymoron - or was that title a joke…), there are some logistics that make “free will” difficult to believe. Even in this age of instant communication, people live insulated lives. Much in our environments sets our predilections - place of birth being the most influential, which sets our cultures. In addition, education, as well as our personalities, help to “determine” our “choices”.


I think Paul answered that question almost two thousand years ago.


This Conference is a great initiative by the ADVENTIST CHURCH. Many members are seeking “greater light” and this is the beginning of such explorations, I am hoping. Our scientists and theological scholars are waking up and debating the findings of “secular scholars” as it were rather than treating these with lofty know-it-all ,almost laughable , disdain.Firstly, I lay out the geological version regarding the records of Genesis as regards time spans and Darwinism. It seems that in this version the Elohim discovered not created the earth. Space age religion (eg Raelism)claims that elohim were in need of an empty planet on which to carry out gentic experiments after their scientists created dangerous animals which even killed some elohim. They were ordered to stop these experiments , OR find somewhere else to carry on. They settled on earth and carried out a" technologically miraculous " creationism as follows:First three “days” the Hadean era (4,500-3,800 billion years ago). At that time span the sun was casting off molten debris to form palnetisimals . Only prokaryotes cold survive and so on.The second “day” was the Archean era (3,800-2,500 b.y.a.) The third “day’ was the proterozoic (2,500 bya-542 mya) events here correspond to the third day events described in Genesis chapter one. Next the 4th, 5th, and 6th days, with events corresponding to the genesis acclount. This is how they relate geology time spans to the Biblical genesis. Regarding Darwinism, I believe the Biblical account. Darwin himself seemed not to believe in evolution. This is his comment:Why, if a species have descended by insensibly fine gradations do we not everywhere see innumerable transitional forms? Why is not all nature in confusion instead of species being, as we see them, well-defined? I can give no satisfactory answer”. As regards “free will”, I believe we struggle with this concept due to the fact that our brain is partly animal-like whereas our neo-cortex has the power to reason and choose best alternatives. For example, The oldest part of the human brasin was once called the REPTILIAN complex, because the structures were seen to correspond to those of reptiles (lizards, crocodiles, komodo dragons.This consists of the medulla,the pons, the reticular formation, basal ganglia etcand then higher up we have as humans the midbrain , cerebellum,as well as cranial nerves , and related nuclei.The focus of thes structures is on survival pure and simple by whatever means.Their motor programs are hardwired and so enable heart functions, moving about, chewing sucking sleepind, dreaming and waking. these instincts can promote what we know an savagery BUT our Neocortex is what makes us truly human and what God appeals to via religion as morality teachments . To be worthy of being “saved” we must think our behaviours and apply both the ten commands and the “do unto others…” rule as able.

Hello from Victoria Canada.

I guess my only comment has to do with the word “assumption”.

From here the most basic assumption from a theological standpoint is that there is A God that is separate from “us”. That there’s God and “me”.


probably the biggest determinant we all need to learn to accept is what from earliest chistian times has been known as the doctrine of original sin, which teaches that being descendants of the fallen adam and eve means we’re born with evil in our genes, and that before we’re old enough to knowingly sin, we’re guilty and lost as far as god is concerned…that is, we’re born sinners, both because we’ve inherited the propensity to sin and because we share in adam’s guilt, even though we didn’t choose to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil ourselves…this, of course, is the clear teaching of Rom 5:12-19, as well as numerous egw passages, most notably:

“Adam sinned, and the children of Adam share his guilt and its consequences.” FW:88

“As related to the first Adam, men receive from him nothing but guilt and the sentence of death.” 9MR:236

“These dear children received from Adam an inheritance of disobedience, of guilt and death.” 13MR:14

of significance is the fact that important segments of our church (usually conservatives and ultra-conservatives) are in direct opposition to this teaching, and as a result are mired in one form of legalism or another…an important spin-off teaching of the doctrine of original sin is justification-only salvation (the answer to legalism), which contemplates the fact that we cannot achieve perfection in this life, Phil 3: 13-15; TMK:361 (Phil 3:21), which in turn means we can only be saved through the imputed righteousness of christ forensically applied, RH:Sept 3, 1901; Col 1:14; 1Jn 5:11-12…a secondary spin-off is the fact that the inherited fallen human nature of christ, unlike ours, was sinless, just like his character was, Lk 1:35; Rom 8:3; ST: May 29, 1901; 2T:202; 1SM:256…of course the purpose for christ’s sinless nature, in addition to his sinless character, was so that he could be our sinless and perfect sacrifice…but many have very serious misgivings of this teaching, to the point where they don’t believe christ can be our example unless he had our inherited sinful fallen human nature (he had to have had a genetic weakness for drinking, sexual sin, lying, cheating, anger, and murder, etc., like the full spectrum of fallen humanity does)…

hopefully efforts like the one outlined in this article can start to turn the tide with respect to this grievous and persistent complex of misunderstanding in our church…


There are segments of Christianity who DO NOT believe in the Original Sin Doctrine, Teachings, or whatever one wants to call it.
They call it Original Good, Original Blessing.

They see it as God did not “create” sin. When God created Lucifer, Lucifer was “perfect”.
When God created the Earth, and on the morning of the 6th day, God said it was “Good”.
When God finished playing in the mud and had breathed into both Adam and Eve, God said, "Very Good."
In the language of Genesis, there was nothing ‘Perfect’ on the Earth, in the beginning. It was only ‘Good’, or ‘Very Good’. NOT being ‘Perfect’, is apparently OK with God. And God enjoys “the Good”.

Do SDAs believe in Immaculate Conception?
As Jeremy seemed to be describing.

Dave M., Darrel, Joe E., Pierre –
Your conversations are ACTUALLY discussed in a book I just finished reading.
What We Talk About When We Talk About God, by Rob Bell. [There are 2 editions. The one with the plain blue on the cover [Oprah Book Club edition] is a much easier read than the one with the multicolor cover.]
Read the section Rob titles – OPEN.

The SDA church – – on line Sabbaths 12 noon SF, CA time, is currently doing a book study during church time. Reading Rob’s book and commenting.


I find it interesting that quantum physics asserts that a change in a particle’s state in one location simultaneously can affect the state of another one far away (i.e., faster than information transfer which is limited to the speed of light), interactions create correlation, and we cannot assign particles unique independent states. In essence, everything is continually affecting everything else. This is not a reality we can sense, so at the heart of it there is something metaphysical or super-natural or, perhaps, if one considers the spiritual realm, possibly that all of creation is interconnected by/in God. I think this is why Paul could say ‘in Him we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28) and ‘But to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him;’ (1Cor 8:6) and speaking of Christ, ‘He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.’ (Col 1:17).

I usually cringe when I read that someone says God can’t do something. In the article Thomas Oord said God gives freedom and cannot withdraw it, and so divine power cannot be absolute nor God’s knowledge of the future exhaustive.
After witnessing the 10 plagues, the Egyptian deaths at Passover, the parting of the Red Sea, Moses on the mountain, daily manna from heaven, and water from the rock (among other miracles), how could the Israelites possibly have a lack of faith which caused them to grumble at every difficulty and wander in the desert for 38 years?
'And Moses summoned all Israel and said to them, ‘You have seen all that the Lord did before your eyes in the land of Egypt to Pharaoh and all his servants and all his land; the great trials which your eyes have seen, those great signs and wonders. Yet to this day the Lord has not given you a heart to know, nor eyes to see, nor ears to hear.’ (Deut 29:2-4).

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Dave: “I find it interesting that quantum physics asserts that a change in a particle’s state in one location simultaneously can affect the state of another one far away (i.e., faster than information transfer which is limited to the speed of light)”

Maybe, the two particles are NOT really separate.
Maybe the “two” are actually one but have split interdimenionally but remain connect “cross-dimensionally.”


Good stuff! For me it is mind-bending to consider that if “Determinism” is true, then some people are “pre-destined” to believe in Free Will; and that forces independent of free will cause these people (or rather, collections of atoms) to organise this conference; and the stimuli of reading this article caused neurons to fire which cause me (or rather the collection of atoms known as “me”) to write out this article.


I find it “mind-bending” that we can at once conceive of God as beyond our understanding, and then assert that God has qualities such as omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence, that we can then argue about in very specific detail–as if we could read God’s Mind and know God’s plans and intentions and purposes.

Of course, understanding and KNOWING are not the same as imagining. We have great powers of imagination. As I attempt to understand free will and determinism, I imagine that we have neither one. We are able to make choices, I think, within available arrays of alternative options–with the options varying in attractiveness or repulsiveness in accordance with our biological and psychological structure, function, and experience. Indifference and inaction are among the options when we face situations where there are no attractive options.

Sometimes we have relatively unobstructed opportunities to choose. Sometimes we don’t.

I suspect that the creation of beings with “free will,” who would be flexible, creative, and always choose wisely, would be a pretty challenging enterprise for any Creator. One might imagine the need to employ a lengthy series of empirical tests as an important part of the process.


In reference to “mental states,” it’s unfortunate that the bible does not convey the mental states of it’s writers when they wrote their corresponding books. It’s routinely done in psychiatric evaluations and gives more credence to the report. Just imagine what if the author of Genesis were joking when he wrote the creation story or the story was meant to convey an abstract idea to his prepubertal children?

Because even geneticists now believe that “human beings” are not even close to being wholly determined. Remember the genotype-phenotype distinction? Not valid anymore. There are forces within our control now known to silence and/or activate the expression of genes as evidenced by the findings from the emerging field of epigenetics. If the panel had included psychiatrists as mentioned, I’m surprise this was not brought to the panel’s attention.

Would the editors be kind to publish a teaser article discussed by the panel to whet our appetite?

Thank you.

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This is an artificial distinction —the “either/or” fallacy, as well as setting up a rhetorical “straw man.” Also, even now, outside of the movies, AI has not been able to replicate desires. You believe in choice (or “will”) as a theological position. Good. Try not to limit how we think about choices as you take that stand.

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Is there really free will? In science when running projects that require volunteers to be subjects there is sometimes a monetary incentive given to a volunteer. Without the monetary incentive few to no one would volunteer. in very poor countries the money is a huge incentive and the question is- did this very poor person voulunteer or was he seduced to participate because of the incentive? If he volunteered because of the incentive then was it really free will? When applied to christianity if you have an incentive hanging over your head such as heaven or hadies, fire or eternal life is it really free will when the incentive is avoid the fires of hadies or gain eternal life. I get that Love for Christ comples the christian but that still does not take away that an incentive is offered and given based on choice. For the voulunteer to be a volunteer and participate of his own free will his choice must be free of an incentive. When non christians first look at christianity they have no idea of the love of christ all they see are the incentives of heaven and Hadies their initial response arises from the incentive, so did they really choose freely independent of the incentives?
This is a question brought up by a non adventist and our standard SDA answers( have faith, love Christ, etc…, do not meet this type of need. SDA’s need to be able to explain how we really have free will when we choose to follow God. Look forward to follow up stories.
Here is a series of TV episodes on free will. Some from a theologian’s point of view. Many form a neurosciences point of view. (there is a difference) I have see every thing from “closer to truth”. Most of the episodes, he has many different points of view and compares what experts say. On the theology episodes he studies religion in a scientific way, comparing each major religion with out predigests.