Physics and Free Will


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.

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    1. For a neurophysiological critique of free will see Sam Harris, Free Will.
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7 thoughts on “Physics and Free Will

  1. Perhaps some consolation can be found in the recognition that human behavior, while deterministic, is “complexly deterministic”. That is, the decisions we make are determined by literally millions of different forces and are therefore beyond the reach of logical analysis. Instead of a single line of dominos, think of a vast plane populated by millions of dominos placed in complex patterns, such that the fall of one domino is the consequence of the falling of millions of other dominos.

    The stock market provides another angle on this issue. It’s not random, but neither is it strictly predictable. Does the stock market have free will?

  2. A lack of expertise restricts my field of vision. I can’t resolve the quantum aspect of physics with what we view as choice in the action(s) of human beings and even in those of primary conscious animals (see: Edelman) . This feels like trying to mix oil and water. Do particles or fields or any other aspects of the quantum world exercise choices in the same sense as lifeforms do? In other words, is the quantum conscious? I’m just unable to put a wrap on that. Other experts can easily argue free will/choice is no more than a
    pre-determination of the cosmos, the map has always already been drawn. Sorry—no, not sorry—that is a lot too mystical for me.

  3. of course the reply would be that the stock market—like everything else in reality—is “predictable in principle.” That is if we had enough information we could predict everything and the fact that we can’t predict just shows that we lack complete information.

  4. Read something else today that I will think over. It is a new term:—for my eyes and mind, anyway: technical, or was it technological incapacitation. Incapacitation may also be called disability, or, handicap. The word salad is not well dressed. The insinuation, not well cushioned, implies if one is not up to technological speed in the twenty-first century, one is a useless cripple, any other insights, ideas, contributions, or discoveries, notwithstanding. Might as well euthanize those dregs and make fertilizer of them.

    The insinuation, cushioned or not, bothers me. Coming from an intellectual, highly educated, it bothers me more. It smells bad, insofar as it emphasizes and supports AI, ChatBotGPT, LLM, and, ultimately, transhumanist (cyborg?)notions, infesting modern scientific thought and action. OK. I am technologically incapacitated. There are millions of us and we are neither ashamed or proud of our *disability* That was never the point.
    Moreover, we have done a few things—more of which have bolstered society, not incapacitated it. I will think about this more. Sure. I still can…

    Let’s see, was Einstein technologically incapacitated? Maybe. Does not matter.

  5. We either are responsively conscious, or, we are not. It appears to me that the braver, newer world discourages responsive consciousness. The notion that creativity is beyond our reach, as humans—extending to AI…something we have created…seems ludicrous: the dog, chasing his tail; the worm, devouring itself. Question, then: how many ways do we think it can be? ????

  6. I liked Faille’s post today on the Iowa caucuses. Commented there. It is about debate, generally, and, political debate, specifically. Going to make some soup…more productive than debate…
    Thanks, Doc.

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