Dear Donagh,

…. ‘Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.’ (Luke 24, 6)  This seems to imply that there is no free will: sinners had to crucify Jesus, so they did. It implies that they had no choice. If they had no choice, were they responsible? But if they did have a choice and, let's say they had 'seen the light' and refused to crucify Jesus, then where does that leave us?

For me there is another dimension to this. The most straightforward conclusion of experimental physics is that both past and future are fixed. For this reason physicists think of time as laid out in its entirety -- a timescape, analogous to a landscape -- with all past and future events located there together. If this is so, then there is no free will, and no reason to regret the past, or dread the future. And it means that our lives are ironic, in the sense that we must believe in free will and act as if we are free in order to live a life that feels meaningful. To live as though there is free will when you know that there can be no such thing, is to live ironically. But I don't think that this is the thrust of the Gospels. Any thoughts on this?   Paul

Dear Paul,

Thanks for pitching me a hard one, like Ken last month!  Are there any easy questions out there?   

I think we have to start with the word ‘necessity’.  You could think of many different kinds of necessity: logical, moral, psychological, physical, etc.  Mediaeval philosophers sorted them out with a lot of clarity, adding even ‘metaphysical necessity.’  These different kinds of necessity are not all equally unforgiving; they range across an entire spectrum, most of them coming in different degrees of intensity, like colours.  The resounding Scholastic term ‘necessitas naturae’ became a euphemism for going to the bathroom. 

Great works of art appear to have a kind of necessity about them; they look as if they couldn’t have been any other way.  But of course they could.  When you read a novel you expect the characters to behave in character most of the time; but a skilful novelist knows when and when not to make them swerve from their regular path.  Scaling it right down to daily experience: when you say, for example, “I really have to visit those people,” you are not suggesting that you have no freedom in the matter.  But it is still a kind of necessity, social perhaps. 

When we come to religious matters the atmosphere becomes heavy: it is as if every point has to be driven home with a sledge-hammer.  All necessity becomes absolute necessity.  The feeling is that everything is at stake all the time and one careless or playful slip would bring down the whole structure.  I've met people who long for the old days when, they imagine, everything was certain because it was nailed down with proofs.  I met someone recently who imagined that St Thomas Aquinas had proofs for everything he wrote.  Far from it.  One of the most frequently used words in Aquinas is ‘convenientia’: appropriateness.  In its different grammatical forms he used it about 5000 times.  It is a word you might expect rather from an artist.  And he used the word ‘quodammodo’ (which means, ‘sort of’) 3250 times. 

But when it comes to modern science the world of proof really opens up for us – or does it?  In reply to a question in March I quoted a book by the distinguished scientist Michael Polanyi entitled Personal Knowledge, in which he rejected as a fiction the ideal of ‘scientific detachment’.  “In the exact sciences,” he wrote, “this false ideal is perhaps harmless, for it is in fact disregarded there by scientists.  But… it exercises a destructive influence in biology, psychology, and sociology, and falsifies our whole outlook far beyond the domain of science.”  Far beyond – even into the domain of theology.  Especially in the domain of theology, where there is always a big appetite for certainty and proof. 

What a nightmare it would be if past and future were fixed on an unmoving timescape!  I can't believe that reality is like that.  Almost the only thing we know about time is that it flows.  If someone tries to fix it in amber, that must be because of some methodological need – like a detective getting a still frame from a piece of surveillance film.  Scientists are sort of detectives, I suppose, but I don’t think they will persuade us that reality is a fixed picture. 

I agree that the past appears fixed.  It appears to us to be fixed, but past events were not fixed when they were happening. They didn’t happen in the past; they happened in what was then the present.  It is the same with events recorded in the New Testament.  Certainly the New Testament writers, in trying to make sense of what was happening, looked back and found hints and parallels and premonitions in many passages of the Old Testament.  They then described the new events in the only language they knew, the language of those past events.  This is what we always do when we first try to understand something.  This normal process shouldn’t lead us to think that the new events were not events at all but only fixed elements. 

There was a liking for tableaux in the 19th century.  A group of people would arrange themselves in a fixed pose behind a screen, and a rear light threw their shadows on the screen.  I never saw a tableau, but I think I'd want my money back.  19th-century scientists, operating with Newtonian physics, believed that everything was fixed in a vast deterministic system, not unlike a tableau – or a ‘timescape’ as you called it.  We are much more conscious today of scientific method and its limitations.  Modern physicists will say nothing about human freedom because they know it is not a question that can be approached by the methods of physics.  Perhaps this is a naïve way to put it: if a team of physicists were to describe you to the fullest capacity of their science, they would find no trace of freedom in you – not because you have no freedom, but because physics is unable to describe it. Physicists do not prove uniformity of nature, they assume it for their own purposes.  But they are much more open than their predecessors to the reality of other purposes. 

That's the best I can do at present, Paul. 


This is our Question and Answer desk. 
We respond to one question each month. 
If you would like to ask a question, please send it to