Pursuant to my last post I would like to further explore the relevance of contemporary physics for the question of free will. The key idea made by physicists like Sabine Hossenfelder and others1 is that “The currently established laws of nature are deterministic with a random element from quantum mechanics. This means the future is fixed except for occasional quantum events that we cannot influence.” In other words, what we do today follows from the state of the universe yesterday and so on all the way back to the Big Bang. Still, we believe we have free will because we don’t know the results of our thinking before we have done it.
One of the only ways out of this reductionism of the macroscopic to the microscopic is through strong emergence. However many physicists argue that strong emergence isn’t possible. They claim that higher-level properties of a system derive exclusively and completely from lower levels (particle physics) and that there is no evidence that strong emergence is real.
Yes, we may feel we have free will but just as we understand that the “now” is an illusion in relativity theory, physics helps us see that free will is also an illusion. Again the salient point is that the future is fixed except for occasional quantum events that we cannot influence. And whether this eliminates free will depends on how you define free will.
This is a powerful argument and I don’t possess the expertise to resolve the issue. Perhaps none of us possess the intellectual wherewithal to resolve complex questions. Or perhaps our deepest questions—how did the universe begin; are we free; does life have meaning—are irresolvable in principle.
At this point, I can appeal to my intuition and say “but it seems to me …” However, intuition misleads us all the time. After all the earth is not flat and stationary, nor is the sun as small as it appears to my eye—Science constantly corrects our intuitions. From the perspective of physics free will, as we usually define it, seems almost impossible.
Nonetheless from the perspective of biology free will might make sense if complex systems take on properties that their constitutive elements do not. Again I don’t know the answer to this question nor to other big questions. So in the end, I don’t know if we are free or not.
As I’ve written before, we live and die in a world we don’t fully understand. This situation may not be ideal, but I’ve come to terms with it.
- For a neurophysiological critique of free will see Sam Harris, Free Will.