Can God answer prayer in a universe that operates according to the laws of physics?

We believe that the universe operates according to the laws and equations of physics.  And then we ask, “if the behaviour of the universe is predictable according to the laws of physics, then is there any way in which God can ‘do’ anything; how can God answer prayer?”

Perhaps in the same way that we ‘do’ things?  As I type this, I am influencing the material world with my mind, with my will.  Although we all speculate based on different quantities of data, nobody knows how we do it.  We can trace pathways through the brain, down nerves and so on, but we still don’t know how ‘we’ operate with free will or exercise that free will.

Some claim that we don’t, that free will is a delusion.  But they don’t really believe it – we all behave as if we have a degree of free will.  Clearly we don’t decide everything our bodies do, but we still do decide some things.  We exercise our free will daily.  How could it be otherwise?  If free will were a delusion, then if we were truly able to believe that it were an illusion we would realise that there is no point to anything at all and we would give up all our searchings, all our science, all our religion  Yet we would not be able to give it up, because we would not have the free will to be able to!  And if someone claims that free will is a delusion, how have they come to that conclusion?  If they are correct then clearly they cannot have come to the conclusion themselves, but only had the delusion of coming to that conclusion …. So the claim that freewill is a delusion is contrary to all evidence, and by as outlined above completely un-provable.  It is outside of science and outside of reason.  Therefore if pursuit of the truth is to have any meaning then we must conclude that we have free will.

So in the same way that we, with our free will  can operate in the material world, controlled by the laws of physics, God too can operate.  There is thus no scientific reason to suppose that God cannot answer prayer. (If he exists of course!)

About Minimalist Christian

Phil Hemsley is a graduate of the University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in the UK. He works for a multinational company in the power industry, has presented technical papers at international conferences and holds many patents. He has published two books, the most recent is "The Big Picture, an Honest Examination of God Science and Purpose". He has lived on both sides of the faith fence. He is married, with two daughters.
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9 Responses to Can God answer prayer in a universe that operates according to the laws of physics?

  1. Robert Moores says:

    The whole notion of free will is one of the most baffling and frankly infuriating concepts I have ever tried to understand. Without necessarily diving too deeply into that, I do want to say that your comparison of a divine willpower operating on a material universe to the way that an earthly intellect does so is a brilliant proposition, and you’ve given me something to think about!

    I am an atheist at the moment because it makes the most sense to me according to my observations, but I frequently try to conceive of a godlike power, if for no better reason than to understand why people believe in one. I refuse simply to say, “That’s stupid, God isn’t real.” I challenge myself to see both sides of the story. I love nothing more than a well-represented intellectual attempt to fathom God’s divine nature. Thank you for this proposition!

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  2. mygoatybeard says:

    Phil

    Thank you for thinking! I don’t know if I understand you completely here.

    Presumably you believe that computers make choices based on the data they have. But presumably you also think that computers don’t have free will? So if a computer was furnished with all the relevant data and then came to the conclusion that free will doesn’t exist would you argue that it couldn’t have come to that conclusion because it can’t draw conclusions because it hasn’t got free will?

    For the pursuit of truth to be possible I don’t think free will needs to exist. Of course that might not mean that the pursuit of truth has ‘meaning’.

    I don’t see that the deterministic laws of physics have anything to do with God answering prayer. We know that the laws of physics also include aspects which state the universe is unpredictable and without bias (i.e. random). And surely the First Cause would have the ability to bend his own rules (like the Architect in The Matrix) in a universe of which he is master. But more than either of these, surely God can answer our prayers not simply by changing things from one moment to the next, but because he knows the end from the beginning, and he knows our hearts, he knows our choices before we know them ourselves. Our tiny though vital perspective of personal free will is still subject to the sovereignty of an omniscient God. This apparent duality is the bible’s proposition.

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  3. Dear mygoatybeard.

    I think that there is a difference with a computer. They have no choice in the choice that they make. In effect they simply expose a choice. I think much of our brain operates like that, constantly weighing up stimuli from different parts of the body and then when the stimulus to (say) scratch the itch becomes large enough then it sends a signal to scratch that itch. Much of what we do is autopilot. But once we begin to use our consciousness, our self, then I think we have a choice in what choice we make. We are no longer acting like a computer.

    Without free will (having a choice in what we choose) then we are indeed simply computer programs running on data, and our conclusion of truth will simply depend on the program and the data. Therefore the conclusion has no ultimate meaning and cannot be truth as it is incapably of considering the difference between truth and false – it is not considered, it is the result of a clockwork process.

    If we include quantum indeterminacy then I agree that laws of physics say that the universe is unpredictable. But in the Newtonian view (which in practice most people probably hold) then with sufficiently accurate models the universe is predictable – but the only accurate enough model would be the universe itself; no simpler model would predict it. Nevertheless, there can only be one outcome. It sometimes seems a bit of a cop out to say God changes the rules when he wants. Of course, i imagine he can, but it is an un-testable proposal and seems like ‘blind faith’ perhaps? However, I think that our daily applying of free will can credibly happen at the level of quantum indeterminacy and remain fully consistent with the laws of physics; there is a mechanism through which the ‘spiritual’ can daily interact with the material. But what I’m saying above is that even if that isn’t the mechanism, free will demonstrates that there must be some form of mechanism that we use, and so it is equally feasible that God can use the same or similar mechanisms to answer prayer – without having to abandon the laws of physics.

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  4. mygoatybeard says:

    Phil

    Again, I am not sure I understand you but it looks to me like you have developed a circular argument in which you assert that real choice must by definition involve free will, and therefore our ability to make choices shows we have free will!

    “If free will were a delusion, then if we were truly able to believe that it were an illusion we would realise that there is no point to anything at all and we would give up all our searchings, all our science, all our religion.”

    Some atheists (e.g. Andre Comte-Sponville) recognise that there is nothing for them but despair. Just because their conclusions present excrutiating philosophical problems does not in itself mean they are unsafe conclusions (though we both would say they are based on the unsafe proposition that there is no personal God).

    “Yet we would not be able to give it up, because we would not have the free will to be able to!”

    This is where you lose me. If the question at hand is whether free will exists then to suggest that a choice cannot occur because free will does not exist is somewhat unsatisfactory. But maybe I’ve misunderstood you.

    “And if someone claims that free will is a delusion, how have they come to that conclusion? If they are correct then clearly they cannot have come to the conclusion themselves, but only had the delusion of coming to that conclusion”

    Well I agree that they can never know if their conclusion is safe because they cannot know if they have all the data (as your complaint about computers above. Computers are constrained by the limits of their programming and their data). But it doesn’t mean that they must be wrong, and it certainly doesn’t mean free will exists.

    “So the claim that freewill is a delusion is…completely un-provable.”

    Totally agree.

    When it comes to God ‘bending the rules’ I suppose I am thinking that there is a ‘deeper truth’ than mere physical laws that govern the material world. For me ultimate reality is personal and spiritual and it is on this that the laws of physics stand. The personal and the spiritual are eternal, but I’m not sure about the laws of physics. So I am less looking for ‘cop outs’ and more open to the unimaginable.

    By the way, I didn’t intend to be anonymous on here. That’s just the way it came up. I must have history as Mygoatybeard on here. But I quite like it.

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  5. Hi Tim (although your post doesn’t give the game away, the email I got told me who you were :o))

    “the question at hand is whether free will exists then to suggest that a choice cannot occur because free will does not exist is somewhat unsatisfactory”…

    I’m not sure why you say it’s unsatisfactory. Imagine I roll a penny down a ruler. I have no idea where it will come off, (how far down or which side it will fall off), but one could say that the ruler chooses where it will come off based on the balance of a number of factors – the initial direction of the penny, the orientation of the ruler with respect to gravity, the wind direction etc. That is a choice without free will, and I think that we behave like that a lot when on autopilot.
    However, I also think we are able to introduce choice or action independently of all the external parameters – like the ruler choosing to change its orientation to guide the penny down the centre of the ruler. I view that as real choice, and the apparent choice made by the ruler as a false choice.

    I am not saying whether I think there is a ‘deeper truth’ but pointing out that you don’t necessarily have to have a God who breaks the rules that we may have come to have complete faith in… You’ll have to read my book, where I perhaps declare my hand a little more…. (did I send you a draft? If so, I should send another as I’m going through it and finding it needs some clarification).

    ATB
    Phil

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    • mygoatybeard says:

      “I also think we are able to introduce choice or action independently of all the external parameters”

      So do I. But that’s free will. Therefore free will exists.

      I’ve got your book though I don’t know what version it is. I’ve got about 5 books on the go at the mo so I’ve only got to page 9. You’ll have to send me the latest before I get too much further.

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  6. Pingback: Proof of God? | Thoughts from a Minimalist Christian

  7. Pingback: God, miracles and the laws of physics. | Thoughts from a Minimalist Christian

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