Dembski on freedom

This is the first of a series of posts inspired by ideas from William Dembski’s Being as Communion – a Metaphysics of Information, though I have in fact already mentioned some of those ideas on free will, on the weakness of materialist metaphysics, on inherent teleology  and on “chance” as a quantifiable instantiation of choice .

In Chapter 2, on Free Will, he references Benjamin Libet’s neuroscientific work, which I mentioned back in January here. Libet, as I said there, believes his work affirms the reality of free will, and Dembski draws attention in Libet’s work to the fact that our power of deliberation lies mainly in the power of vetoing impulses to actions, rather than in untrammeled liberty of action. This has been called “free won’t”.

Dembski relates this to his understanding of information, founded in information theory from Shannon onwards; that information is fundamentally definable as the reduction of uncertainty, that is, the narrowing of possibilities. The more precise the information, the less the uncertainty. So “choice” and “information” are conceptually very close. This reminds me of an anecdote about Syd Barrett, the original guitarist of Pink Floyd, who tragically lapsed into schizophrenia. His film biography described long periods of his illness spent lying on his bed looking at the ceiling, which a friend who was interviewed saw (rather naively) as the ultimate expression of freedom – by doing nothing, he was keeping every possibility open.

But true freedom is the exact opposite: it means to choose, and in essence that means forming a purpose (teleology) and closing off all possibilities except those needed to realize it. The purposes we form, and what possibilities we close off, will be influenced by how we were created – and by what we have made of ourselves. This correlates well with the Bible’s concept of freedom, exemplified most in Jesus, which I wrote about a year or so ago here. The Bible doesn’t view freedom as autonomy – the ability to do anything and everything – but as the freedom to be what God designed us to be – the freedom to close off our choices to match the will of God. All choices inconsistent with that are really slavery, which is why sin is described as bondage, though it is untrammeled self-will.

These ideas also relate to my recent exploration of the “Great Chain of Being” and the old philosophical idea that, for God to be perfectly rational, he must as an obligation to reason create all possible forms – the principle of plenitude. Unless we, as moderns, buy into that principle as the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum theory , the concept of creation instead entails God’s closing off of all possibilities except those he actualizes – in Dembski’s terms, creation is all the information God puts into the universe (which is one reason he argues that information is primary over matter. Another reason is that we only ever perceive matter through the information it gives to our senses).

I shouldn’t need to point out that God’s creation is expressed as speech, the “word of power”, in both Old and New Testaments (“Let there be…”), and these speech acts are personified in Christ as the Logos of God, that Greek word having both deliberation and information at its root. God’s free will, then, is expressed in his narrowing down of possibilities to those which will fulfill his purpose: that is the very essence of Creation. It’s not that he could not do otherwise (necessity) or that he acts arbitrarily (contingency), but that he proposes a purpose and, through Christ, establishes the means (the “formal causes”) which will achieve it – to create is literally to “inform.”

The recent Scottish Independence referendum (in which I have no personal stake as far back as I can trace my ancestry) reminds me of a humourous old saying over here: ” A Gentleman is someone who knows how to play the bagpipes – but doesn’t.” In creation terms, God is a gentleman.

Finally let me relate all this to the “freedom of creation” concept again. Creation, remember, is an act of God’s free will, and free will is nothing but the creation of information by the reduction of uncertainty, or the closing off of possibilities. So any possibilities God leaves open are instances of non-creation, or of non-information.

Perhaps, though, he leaves those possibilities open for his creatures to close off, thus giving them freedom too? Well, in a restricted sense that may be so, inasmuch as any of those creatures are capable of making intelligent choices themselves (see my previous post). But remember, freedom in biblical terms means liberty to do God’s will (as Jesus did), whether by nature, as the irrational creation must or else be in bondage to an ultimate irrationality called “chance”; or by rational deliberation, (as we ourselves do). For that to be possible, God must have revealed the “information” of his will to those creatures.

Or as Paul puts it, “we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” That’s no less true of the created order than it is of the saints.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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5 Responses to Dembski on freedom

  1. Ian Thompson says:

    I have been reading the past few posts with interesting, waiting to see where are you a going with this. I like ‘information’, but just don’t forget that for Aristotle it is always embodied in some form. (Christians, I suppose, have also spiritual embodiment?)

    I like this view of freedom. It means, I should think, that God has the most freedom. And that as we come down the Chain of Being (used descriptively) then there is progressively less and less freedom since the scope of choice has been limited by choices ‘above’ in the chain.

    Finally, quantum objects have a miniscule ‘choice’ to make, within the range of Planck’s constant. Not a real choice there, since there is no awareness, but still the final step in the long chain of progressive selections.

    Am I understanding you properly?

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      Glad you’re interested so far – there are certainly some interesting ideas to play with. The way this series seems to be panning out is more integrating some of Dembski’s ideas with stuff I’ve done already – not hard, as there are a lot of correlations with his own influences. So I hope not to disappoint you by losing the logical direction of the book (you may have to read it to gain that).

      On embodiment, D’s conscious espousal (referencing Aristotle) of the idea of a univocal information-based reality was what raised my eyebrows most of all, mainly because I couldn’t see how one could distinguish, for example, possible worlds in the mind of God from the actualized one. “Information all the way down” was his phrase.

      But he’s more playing with the concept that asserting it vehemently, saying later on that he is deliberately provoking us to think about whether “uninformed matter” is an idea with any real content. In brief, our entire access to matter is through the sense-information it gives us, and its source, ultimately, is the information God speaks into it in creation. So what, he asks, is the requirement for matter as such?

      At the same time, he’s keen to point out that matter is a convenient concept to have, and that he has no wish to suggest it is not real and solid rather than illusory: just that it may be informationally derived in itself. Incidentally I’ve previously read snatches of A-T thinkers questioning the existence of primal matter too. Still, in the end it might turn out that an information-only reality won’t work – I don’t think that would trouble Dembski, because his main thesis is that information is primary, contra materialism.

      OK, you’ll have to forgive my incompetence to discuss quantum events. As a general principle, you have nailed my understanding of D’s view of freedom – though he links it to “intelligence” seen as “goal-setting”, so how far down the “chain” that extends I’m not sure – personally I’d restrict it to living things on the usual Aristotelian-type distinction of animation as a distinct kind of being. The application in my piece to “free-process” thinking was mine, not D’s.

      But here’s my take on quantum events: they have a statistical pattern, yes? I suppose that bespeaks, in D’s view, teleology (if I’m not reading too much Aristotle into him), and the next question would be whether that teleology is (a) inherent “intelligent” goal setting, which would seem to require panpsychism if particles do it, so I doubt he’d be any keener than I am (b) the teleology of natural law (set by God, of course) – which seems to be outlawed on scientific grounds unless one believes in hidden variables or (c) a probability distribution that reflects God’s pattern of ordering quantum events (did you pick up the bit I cited on the probability distributions of particular linguistic habits like English? I liked that concept of “chance” a lot, since as in my replies to GD I’m not sure what “randomness” means otherwise, and neither is D., whose original mathematical interest is probability).

      To help you decide if I’m distorting his thinking, he’s keen to be non-sectarian in presenting his metaphysics. He declares his own Christianity, but thinks that what he proposes would be useful to non-theistic teleological thinkers like Thomas Nagel.

      Does all that help answer your question?

  2. ArthurJones says:


    I’m intrigued by your account of Dembski’s thinking on Free Will. As I have got older I’ve been giving a lot of thought to all the classic experiments on (or against free will). The spur has been my own experience of free will as being primarily ‘free won’t’ . I am amazed at the way in which our bodies incorporate the information of our daily experience, especially all the regular experience of life and work. I find I can, seemingly infallibly, do more and more by auto-pilot. Until last year I was working at the Church Army centre in Sheffield where I was running the Evangelist Training Course (a degree course). The journey (from Mottram, outside Manchester) included various combinations of bus, train and walking. I found, to my initial horror, that I could do the whole journey without any conscious involvement. I could leave home deep in thought about a current topic in the teaching programme and still be deep in thought nearly 2 hours later when I arrived at the Centre. I had not been consciously aware of anything in the journey at all. I had done it all on auto-pilot, leaving me free for two hours to ponder teaching content and the best strategies to employ in helping my students to be missionally formed (missio Dei!). At first, as I said, I was horrified at all I had to navigate on that journey unawares, but then actually amazed at what our bodies can learn to do so very well. I know, from other occasions, that I could emerge from auto-pilot and alter the ‘programme’ at will (!). Seen from this perspective all the evidence that brain activity is detectable before conscious decision-making doesn’t concern me at all. It is just what I would (now) expect. But I would like to see the research done on a wide range of people to see, particularly, how the results vary according to the ages and relevant life-experience of those being investigated. (Though of course we don’t know how much needs to be inbuilt (designed in) for the human organism to work at all)

    Any comments?

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Two comments, Arthur.

      For many years I used to do my own medical on-call, which involved having to do visits at unearthly hours after having been deeply asleep. There were times when it was hard to be sure I’d driven several miles whilst awake or asleep. Certainly conscious decisions were low on the list of priorities.

      The second thing I (for one) think is more interesting from the free-will point of view. After all one expects most learning, like a route, to become unconscious, or we’d be forever spelling out the letters for each word we write, whereas by our age even whole paragraphs “write themselves” to express the thought we have.

      But I notice how, if there’s some small decision to be made, like “Shall I get up out of my nice warm bed?” on a cold winter’s morning, I will prevaricate for a bit, and suddenly notice I’ve done it without any conscious decision.

      That would seem to fit better with a model of “free won’t” – perhaps I have to think more about the lazy decision to lie in than the routine action of getting up.

      That seems consistent with the traditional Christian concept that will is deeply associated with character: one assumes that if I were a true Spartan who leaps out of bed for a welcome cold shower every dawn, I wouldn’t prevaricate. Conversely, if I frequently indulged in lying in, I’d be more likely when my attention lapsed to fall asleep and be late for something rather than finding myself in the bathroom.

      Linking to Dembski’s informational view, by habitually closing off possibilities – such as staying in bed or crossing red lights or filed to get to work – goals become more hard-wired than actively subject to will.

  3. ArthurJones says:

    Thanks, Jon,

    Nothing more to add at present, but it all makes good sense to me. I shall doubtless often come back to mulling it over as new variants of regular (conscious and seemingly unconscious) experience prompt further thought.

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