Materialism, free will, and sin: more musings from Chapter 4 of “Until the End of Time” by Brian Greene

Chapter 5 of Until the End of Time by Brian Greene is a tour-de-force all by itself. In the span of about 45 pages, the author traces the latest understanding of the development of human consciousness from the particles of matter that make up our brains. This includes a discussion of the philosophy of consciousness, the theory of mind, consciousness and quantum physics, and the implications for the existence of free will.

The crux of the point about free will is this:

Your experiences and mine appear to confirm that we influence the unfolding reality through actions that reflect our freely willed thoughts, desires, and decisions. Yet, maintaining our physicalist stance, you and I are nothing but constellations of particles whose behavior is fully governed by physical law. Our choices are the result of our particles coursing one way or another through our brains. Our actions are the result of our particles moving this way or that through our bodies. And all particle motion–whether in a brain, a body, or a baseball–is controlled by physics and so is fully dictated by mathematical decree. The equations determine the state of our particles today based on their state yesterday, with no opportunity for any of us to end-run the mathematics and freely shape, or mold, or change the lawful unfolding. … Our choices seem free because we do not witness nature’s laws acting in their most fundamental guise; our senses do not reveal the operation of nature’s laws in the world of particles. … When our particles do act, it seems to us that their collective behaviors emerge from our autonomous choices (pgs 147, 150).

This perspective is also discussed in many places in recent popular media, including this Atlantic article by Stephen Cave.

I take some comfort in the fact that I am not the first one to struggle with the philosophy of free will, and that the implications of materialism for free will have been considered by people smarter than myself for several centuries.

Nonetheless, if this explanation of (the absence of) free will is ultimately true, what implications does it have for Christian theologies of basic concepts of choice, sin, love, obedience, redemption, etc.?

The Episcopal Book of Common Prayer defines sin in this way:

Q.What is sin?
A.Sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of
God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other
people, and with all creation.
BCP pg 848

If we are not able to choose whether we are seeking our own will or the will of God, are we capable of sin?

Perhaps one way into the question would be to say that sin includes the reality that we’re not able to choose “the will of God,” as the BCP says, but are bound by our particles to “seek our own will.” The definition in the BCP seems to assume that there is a choice involved, but does not explicitly require a free choice to be made. Perhaps, then, we sin because we’re not able to choose and thus in need of a Redeemer (from a theological perspective). In this case, though, what is the point of penance, repentance, forgiveness, etc.?

Is it possible to reconcile the existence of sin with a lack of free will, in the traditionally understood sense? If so, how might the two be reconciled? If not, which concept needs to be adjusted to enable them to be reconciled and how?

I imagine that other smart people have already tackled these questions somewhere. I hope to discover what they have to say!

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