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Determinism, Indeterminism and Their Implications

Newtonian mechanics proved an enormously powerful way of describing moving bodies. A century after Newton Pierre Simon de Laplace (1749-1827) showed among other things how the solar system could have arisen without divine intervention.When Napoleon remarked to him the absence of God in his models, legend has it that Laplace said he ‘had no need of that hypothesis.’ The mathematician was nevertheless a practising Catholic.He went on to claim that an ‘intelligence’ possessing complete knowledge of the position and momentum of every body in the universe would be able to predict all future states of that universe. In other words, that the cosmos is deterministic. Laplace’s ‘intelligence’ was a mathematical fiction. But the problem of determinism challenges our instinct that we ourselves as humans are able to make choices about the future, that we are to some extent ‘free’ agents. Indeed determinism raises problems as to how God could either enter into any sort of real relationship with humans, or indeed guide the material world towards divine purposes.

It is enough to note here the conviction of many thinkers in this field that this is not a wholly determined world, but one in which the laws and processes God has created can give rise to novel structures through the operation of chance, and that God can co-operate with those developments, and relate to the conscious beings to which evolution has ultimately given rise. So Keith Ward writes:

there can only be an open future if there is a degree of indeterminism. There can only be the sort of freedom that is morally important if there is an open future, at least sometimes. So indeterminism is a necessary condition of the later development of morally important freedom in rational beings.Ward, K, God, Chance and Necessity (Oxford: Oneworld, 1996) p20

Email link | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. Christopher Southgate
Source: God, Humanity and the Cosmos  (T&T Clark, 1999)

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