What is Freedom?
According to Stephen Hawking in The Grand Design it would need a knowledge of the initial state each of the thousand trillion trillion molecules in the human body to predict human behaviour, so, for all practical purposes, we talk about free will. But in principle this means we are no more free than if our decision to have tea and not coffee were determined by five molecules that could easily be counted and clearly seen doing their determining under a microscope. On the other hand, in The Selfish Gene Dawkins tells us that only we can escape the tyranny of the selfish replicators. Dawkins of course is an old romantic, with his love of church bells in Oxford, and Salisbury Cathedral and moral outrage that Broad refused to walk when he clearly knew he was out in the third test at Old Trafford. So does he mean that Broad is not to be blamed because somewhere among those thousand trillion trillion molecules there was at least one that dictated ‘Don’t Walk’, rather like the signal at a traffic crossing in New York, or is there some other principle at work here? My guess is that in his heart of hearts, as opposed to his head of heads, Dawkins thinks there is. Science would seem to be overwhelmingly on the side of the thousand thousand trillion. But I’m not sure it is.
I don’t think the question ‘do we have free will?’ should be posed in the ‘shall I have tea or coffee?’ frame of reference at all. Put like that, I don’t think there can be any question but that we’re determined, even if in so complicated a way we don’t know that we are. I think freedom means something different. I think it means leaping free from the whole circuit of genetic determinism, exactly put by Dawkins as ‘it is only we who can escape the tyranny of the selfish replicators’. I think it means loving beautiful things simply because they’re beautiful, feeling outraged that Broad didn’t walk because the nobility and chivalry that properly belongs to the human spirit has been diminished, leaping into a river to save a child who has no direct genetic connection with you in any way, or giving money to somebody in Africa who you will never know or see. I don’t think that there’s a Darwinian explanation for these things, and Dawkins’ explanation that it’s genes misfiring seems to me lamentably lame. Has anybody ever seen such a misfiring gene? Is this nobility stuff just sentimentality then? Is the only true reality Broad’s ‘we’re professional cricketers, what we do is win’. I think there’s another way of approaching this.
Think of the ur-experiment of quantum physics, the one where electrons are shown to be both particles and waves. In Young’s experiment with light in the nineteenth century he shone a light through a slit onto a screen, and not surprisingly the light fanned out into a beam as it fell on the screen. You would expect that when he shone it through two slits he’d get two fans, but he didn’t. Instead he got black and white stripes. He realized that this is because light is a wave. When two peaks or troughs coincided you got bright light, when they didn’t they cancelled each other out. Rather as a wave of water can go through two harbour entrances, so did the light. In 1927 the same experiment was repeated with electrons. Because an electron is a particle it can only go through one or other slit, just as a boat, unlike a water wave, can only go through one harbour entrance. Not surprisingly each electron left a single random dot on the screen. But when a long sequence of them were fired through one or the other slit the dots too built up into dark and light strips. Electrons too are both particles and waves, as light is both photons and waves. You mean matter can be not just a thing but a wave? Yes. I think this amazing experiment has turned everything we know on its head. I believe it’s not just electrons but every material thing, including us, that is a wave as well as a thing, and I think there are other experiments in science that suggest this might well be the case.
In other words we exist in two dimensions. I don’t think we shall ‘go to heaven’. I think we’ll just wake up to realize that we exist, and always have done, in this other timeless and spaceless dimension of which we were unaware in this life. (I think science is now just beginning to uncover this other dimension which excites me theologically beyond measure). But I believe also that the other dimension ‘peeps through’ as it were in this life. That’s why Dawkins is right when he says ‘only we can escape the tyranny of the selfish replicators’, because it is only in our consciousness that this other dimension peeps through. It is this other dimension that is the realm of truth, beauty, honesty, nobility and selfless generosity. A flower is just trillions of molecules to a bee. It is only we who see the beauty that transcends the molecules. The ability to do this is what freedom is. On one level Broad was right not to walk because somewhere among those thousand trillion trillion molecules there was something telling him ‘in the interests of species survival don’t walk’. But on another level it was a pity he didn’t, for cricket is such a beautiful game it is one of the places in this world where the dimension of freedom is able to peep through. Dawkins was right, though maybe outrage wasn’t the best approach to re-chivalrizing Broad. I love Dawkins because of his courage and his fire and his love of truth and his old fashioned nobility of spirit, even though I disagree with him profoundly about religion. A great, great man. Would he be terribly cross if I say I sometimes wonder whether he somehow got sidetracked onto the wrong path while on the way to church?