Nicholas Turner on the lack of proof of free will and the competition between reason and faith

In April’s ND, I considered the parallels between the intellectual battles over the existence of God and the existence within us of free will. In a letter last month, Fr Simon Heans took me to task for not only confessing to ‘the temptation to atheism’ but seeming to be happy to live with that temptation. From the days when we were both on New DiRections’ editorial board, I remember many vigorous discussions between us; and it would be fair to say that we do indeed view the issue differently.

Rational uncertainty

For all that I am much attracted by the Ordinariate, and may well seek to join in the coming years, I doubt I shall ever share Fr Simon’s approval of Pope John Paul II’s statement, ‘There is thus no reason for competition of any kind between reason and faith.’ Worse: I have grown fond of a certain quality of rational uncertainty, that I value as part of the Anglican patrimony.

Let me explain what I mean in terms of the original theme. I believe we have free will, but I would express this conviction not in terms of a certainty, ‘We have free will,’ but the much more hesitant (but more productive) ‘There is no proof of free will.’ It is not something I proclaim explicitly, but it is something I reflect upon a great deal, and it is always there in the background, when someone is struggling with problems about whether there is a God, whether there is any point to this life, whether there can be an after-life, why there is so much suffering, what is the point of prayer, and so on.


There is no proof of free will. More than that: there are plenty of scientific reasons for denying it completely. Indeed, in scientific terms – neurobiology, for example – free will plays no part in any of its explanations or hypotheses. Yes, but you still believe you have free will, or you wouldn’t be asking the question. Free will (as its deniers too readily forget) is involved in far more than mere choices. Every assessment, opinion and judgement involves free will, to a greater or lesser degree, including (of course) the judgement that there is no such thing as free will.

Don’t get me wrong. It is quite possible, and intellectually respectable, to deny that we have free will, but such conviction only goes so far. In all our daily life and interactions we conduct ourselves as though we have it. We make choices, we express judgements, we praise or condemn others for their actions. We do not need a proof of free will; we live as though our will is free. More importantly, we continue

to live in the same manner, even when provided with impeccable proof that there is no such thing, or when scientists continually show us that our choices were less free than we supposed.

Too much?

Faith, assurance, certainty, they are a strange mix of gift and commitment. But too much is too much. Too much faith, too much assurance, too much certainty; none of them rings true to the troubled and confusing world we live in.

Without doubt, an excess of certainty undermines faith, and repels rather than attracts. For there is, JPII notwithstanding, every reason to be caught up in the competition between reason and faith. It is the world that causes the problems: it is constantly challenging my convictions. We all (and here I begin to sound like a liberal) have to struggle with the expression of our faith.

Certainty is of little use. Complete, perfect, immutable. It is simply there, and there is nothing I can do with it. Touch it, rework it, take it into myself, and it immediately deteriorates. All I can do is spoil it. So I learn to avoid it.

Opening the gate to God

‘There is no proof of free will.’ Initially unpromising and unproductive, this statement challenges any assumption. If I take the certainties of science, then how do I account for my other life as a free agent? If I trust in my God-given freedom, then I must work on this trust in a world of denial. And it is this struggle that opens the heart and mind to the deeper possibilities of faith. Free will opens the gate to God.

It was over three hundred years ago that Malebranche and Collins first explained why the existence of free will within ourselves is one of the surest proofs for the existence of God. In a scientific world, only God is free, and those with whom he shares this gift. ND