More than Machines

Physics & Free Will

“What is man, that thou art mindful of him? And the son of man, that thou visitest him?” So asked the psalmist three thousand years ago. The question is still with us and as urgent as ever: What are we? The scriptural answer is that we are made in the image of God, but that answer is not as plausible to many people today as it once was. Reductive theories abound that claim human beings are nothing more than the product of biological and social evolution, of genes and the environment, of instincts and social conditioning, of the wiring of the brain and the chemistry of hormones and neurotransmitters. What gets lost in all this is free will.

Explaining how man is made in the image of God, the second-century theologian St. Irenaeus of Lyons wrote that “man is rational and therefore like God; he is created with free will and is master over his acts.” This freedom is what makes us persons, and it is what allows us to share in the divine life. To share in that life, says St. John the Evangelist, is to abide in love and in truth; and that is only possible for us to do because we are endowed with freedom. If we were entirely controlled by factors of a lower order, by mere material forces, as animals are, we could not be open to realities of a higher order, to goodness, truth, and beauty. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in “his...

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About the Author

Stephen M. Barr is professor of physics at the University of Delaware and author of Modern Physics and Ancient Faith (University of Notre Dame Press).