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Freedom versus Law


The text proposed here is constituted by the initial and final parts of a longer essay by A. H. Compton published in The Freedom of Man (1935). A great scientist like Compton reflects on a long-lasting philosophical problem – i.e. the issue of human free will in relation to the determinism of natural laws – without renouncing to consider the role that both scientific progress and the Judaeo-Christian tradition have in dealing with it.   

The fundamental question of morality, a vital problem in religion, and a subject of active investigation in science: Is man a free agent?

If our actions are the necessary outcome of our past history, if the atoms of our bodies follow physical laws as immutable as the motions of the planets, why try? What difference can it make how great the effort if our actions are already determined by mechanical laws of cause and effect? Our purposes cannot then be effective. It becomes unreasonable to hold ourselves responsible for our actions, over which we have no control. What we call "initiative" becomes the work of a complex automatic machine. Morality has become a fiction. Life has lost all human meaning.

We may be led to see operating in the vast machine which we call the universe a supreme Intelligence, which we may call God. Yet men have become his toys, not his children, incapable of doing anything that they have not been made to do. Though men may enjoy the life that has been given them, they can have no part in shaping it. Any religion based upon such a relationship between man and his Creator can be no more than a pale shadow of a religion in which a man can say "my Father worketh hitherto, and I work."

Not only the physical and biological sciences, but to a large extent psychology as well, have made great strides in interpreting nature on the basis of mechanical laws involving cause and effect. The motions of planets, the flight of airplanes, the swing of pendulums, are nicely described in terms of well-established laws of motion. The explosion of gunpowder, the creation of a beautiful dye from black tar are explained by the mutual attraction of atoms. A man becomes insane because the colloids in his brain cells are precipitated by an alkaloid in the blood. Yet is it possible in terms of the motion of atoms to explain how men can invent an electric motor, or design and build a great cathedral? If such achievements represent anything more than the requirements of physical law, it means that science must investigate the additional controlling factors, whatever they may be, in order that the world of nature may be adequately understood. For a science which describes only the motions of inanimate things but fails to include the actions of living organisms cannot claim universality. If man's actions are not determined by physical law, it becomes a vital question for science to find whether his actions are determined, and, if so, by what factors.

Traditionally, the attitude of both religion and philosophy has been divided as to whether man is really responsible for his actions. Science has definitely affirmed the complete physical determination of man's actions, although most scientific men have assumed that they could act as if they were free. Judaism and Christianity have always firmly insisted on man's responsibility to God." As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord," is a typical statement, implying complete freedom to obey or disobey as we may choose. Even here, however, as in the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination, we find an occasional strong tendency toward throwing all responsibility on to a power higher than ourselves, so much so that the problem of accounting for man's moral responsibility in a world in which every event is foreordained by God has long been one of the pet paradoxes of the theological schools. In traditional Mohammedanism the authority of God is made complete, and whatever man may strive to do, the final result is always according to "the will of Allah." This is strictly comparable with the role of fate in Greek tragedy, where, as in the case of Œdipus Rex, the hero all unwittingly commits a heinous crime, not through any fault of his own, but because the fates had so decreed. Nevertheless, even in these cases the doctrine of determinism has never been thoroughgoing, for men are continually reminded of the penalties for evil actions and the rewards for good, implying at least a modicum of freedom.

Both the materialist and the theist in philosophy have been hard pressed to find any rational basis for freedom. On the one hand, to the materialist a man is just one type of matter, and all of his actions should follow the same definite physical laws as other matter, following cause and effect to their inevitable conclusion. To the theist, the world, with man as a part of it, represents an aspect of God's activity, for which God himself must be responsible. From Socrates and Epicurus to Kant and Berkeley the philosophical writings echo with the struggle to wrest a rational freedom from a set of postulates which seem to deny its possibility.

For the most part science has been more outspoken than philosophy. Thus La Place, following the traditions of Newtonian mechanics, though not Newton's own philosophy, wrote in 1812:

We ought to regard the present state of the universe as an effect of its antecedent state, and as the cause of the state which is to follow. An intelligent being who at a given instant knew all the forces animating Nature and the relative positions of the beings within it would, if his intelligence were sufficiently capacious to analyse these data, include in a single formula the movements of the largest bodies of the universe and those of the lightest atom. Nothing would be uncertain for him: the future as well as the past would be present to his eyes.[1]

On this view, whatever man may feel regarding his own freedom, in truth he has no conscious control whatever over his actions. Absurd as this conclusion may sound, it is at present a very generally accepted view among certain groups of scientists, although to the physicists, who were its initial sponsors, during the past few decades such complete physical determinism has become less and less probable.

With the recent development (1927) and general acceptance of the principle of uncertainty, no physicist could now subscribe to La Place's thesis. Thus Professor Heisenberg, co-author of the principle, writes:

The resolution of the paradoxes of atomic physics can be accomplished only by renunciation of old and cherished ideas. Most important of these is the idea that natural phenomena obey exact laws–the principle of causality.[2]

Natural phenomena do not obey exact laws. This statement marks perhaps the most significant revolution in the history of scientific thought. For faith in the reliability of nature is the bedrock upon which the structure of science is built. It has nearly always been assumed that this reliability implied the exactness of nature's laws. Has science, with its continual searching of fundamentals, finally undermined its own foundations? Or is it possible that under the new physics a more adequate picture of the world can be drawn, one in which purpose is effective and life again has human meaning?

As one whose experiments have been partly responsible for this dramatic reversal of the physicist's point of view, have been especially interested in tracing what the significance of this change may be to human life and thought. It makes one pause when he finds evidence that an important school of science was once dealt a death blow by the philosophers because its teachings seemed to remove the basis of morality. An adequate solution of the dilemma of freedom and law is thus as essential to the welfare of science as it is to the growth of religion. Does our present-day science rest upon any firmer foundation than that of the ancient Greeks?


The Western world during the first thousand years of the Christian era was almost completely under the influence of Platonic philosophy. This served as a background not only for Neo-Platonism but also for the Christianity developed by the early fathers. Science was completely displaced by mysticism and credulity that accepted all forms of miracles and magic. But Aristotle's science gradually found its way into Christendom through Arabic channels, and St. Thomas Aquinas set himself the heroic task of fitting this new knowledge into the religious teaching of the day. "Scientia et religio ex uno fonte" was the motto, and with it came renewed interest in knowing the world of nature, for thus one might learn regarding the works of his Creator. Roger Bacon and Leonardo were among those who saw the need for first-hand inquiry into nature's secrets, with the hope that man might thus be gifted with new powers. The early scientific societies, such as the Royal Society, stimulated scientific discussion and experiment. Copernicus revived the heliocentric system of Aristarchus, which was startlingly confirmed by Galileo's new telescope. The culmination of this revival of science came when Isaac Newton established the laws of motion of bodies acted on by forces, and showed how, by introducing the simple concept of gravitation, harmony came into the motion of the planets.

Science had succeeded in explaining things that had puzzled the world for ages, and in this explanation everything obeyed exact laws. The effect of this achievement of Newton's on men's view of their world was tremendous. Burtt describes graphically the attitude which came to be accepted as the "scientific" attitude:

The world that people had thought themselves living in–a world rich with color and sound, redolent with fragrance, filled with gladness, love and beauty, speaking everywhere of purposive harmony and creative ideals– was crowded now into minute corners in the brains of scattered organic beings. The really important world outside was a world hard, cold, colorless, silent and dead; a world of quantity, a world of mathematically computable motions in mechanical regularity.[3]

After two thousand years men had returned to the doctrine of Democritus: "According to convention there is a sweet and a bitter, a hot and a cold, and according to convention there is color; in truth there are atoms and a void."

The history of Greek thought suggests that men must pass through such a stage of mechanism, which reduces human effort to a meaningless concourse of atoms and takes away all basis for morality, in order that they may see that such a philosophy cannot describe the really significant things of life. As when Socrates pilloried the Atomists, so again Leibnitz and Kant and Berkeley reacted against the too easy materialism of Hobbes and La Place and Voltaire. Their analysis of the problem made logically untenable the position that man is a machine; yet it was no longer possible to laugh science out of court, for science had achieved results of undeniable value. Men had too much common sense to abandon again the great truths that it had given. If nature was one unbroken chain of law, they would learn that law to master nature. The philosopher might worry, if he wished, over the fact that the strife for mastery is meaningless to a man who is merely a link in this unbroken chain. For the last two centuries the man of science has thus of necessity blinded himself to the logical inconsistency of his position. He has felt that he must have faith that his world is one of law, else it seemed his search for truth must be futile. He must not pause to consider that if his own actions are "with a cause and by necessity" he cannot in truth "make a search" at all.

Now, Heisenberg tells us, science must abandon its cherished law of causality. His case has been made so convincing that I should consider it more likely that the principle of the conservation of energy or the second law of thermodynamics would be found faulty than that we should return to a system of strict causality. Many physicists, headed by Planck and Einstein, would not agree to this estimate of the fundamental and permanent character of Heisenberg's principle. It is probably safe to say, however, that among those who have been actively engaged in the development of the new quantum mechanics, and who are thus most familiar with its bases and implications, the view I have expressed would be almost unanimous. Thus suddenly the bone of contention between the physicists and the philosophers has disappeared. How has this come about? How do the new findings affect the age old riddle of freedom in a world of law?


[1] Quoted by E.W. Barnes, Scientific theory and religion (The University Press, 1933), p. 578.

[2] W. Heisenberg, The physical principles of the quantum theory (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1930), p. 62

[3] E.A. Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science. A Historical and Critical Essay (London: Kegan Paul, 1925), p. 236.

A. H. Compton, “Freedom versus Law, an Age-Long Conflict”, in The Freedom of Man (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1935), pp. 1-8, 19-24.