The Physics of Free Will

bluePillRedPillThe French mathematician and physicist Pierre-Simon Laplace famously boasted that if he knew the exact position and velocity of every particle in the universe at a given instant in time, he could predict with perfect precision the state of the universe at any time in the future (and, presumably, the past as well). Such was his faith in the universality, immutability, and sovereignty of the classical laws of motion, that he believed no particle, out to the very farthest reaches of space and back to the earliest moment in time, could escape the path predetermined for it by all of the interactions it was destined to have with the rest of the universe since creation. It is a nice-sounding boast, as it paints a picture of an unshakable, perfectly ordered world; and yet, it is terribly disturbing, as it utterly disallows any concept of free will whatsoever.

In Laplace’s world, the innermost workings of the human mind, down to our apparent ability to make decisions and move according to our will, are in fact governed by the laws of motion as they apply to the tiny particles that make up our brains and the physical processes that constitute thoughts — enormously complex to be sure, but entirely predictable with the right amount of knowledge. If true, Laplace’s boast would seem to be an end not just to free will, but to much of the meaning we find in life. After all, what significance is there in a work of art if the artist’s hands were merely being moved by the inevitable firings of neurons determined by the laws of physics since the beginning of time? Creativity would be only an illusion. There would be no spontaneity of thought or expression, no hope of controlling one’s own fate.

The performance of a symphony, with the musicians playing in harmony under the direction of a conductor and to the enjoyment of their audience, would in fact be nothing more than a fully predetermined combination of motions. The composition itself could no longer be truly ascribed to the composer, as he was predetermined from the beginning of time to write down precisely the notes of the piece being performed; and the husband who falls asleep in the audience could not be faulted for his inattentiveness, because that’s just how things had to play out. Even the guy whose cell phone rings during the adagio would be blameless.

But twentieth century physics has shown Laplace’s view to be wrong. We now know that pure chance plays a fundamental role in the outcome of any process. Quantum mechanics has shown irrefutably that particles actually don’t even have precise locations — it’s not just that we can’t measure them precisely enough to know where they are exactly, but rather there is no exact value to be measured. Nor do they have precise velocities. The highly celebrated but oft-misinterpreted uncertainty principle of Heisenberg describes not just limitations in our knowledge about the position and momentum of a particle, but the fuzziness of the particle’s actual being.

This is a huge leap in thinking that most physics students have trouble making, but it is at the heart of quantum mechanics. And not only are every particle’s actual position and momentum fuzzy in a fundamental way, but there is a very real element of pure chance involved in the particle’s behavior. An electron can disappear from one region of space and reappear in another region without crossing the space in between; and just where it reappears is a matter of chance that even the particle itself cannot know ahead of time. Einstein hated these revelations of quantum mechanics, but he recognized their truth. And so now we know on the basis of science alone — even if our bodies and souls are nothing more than extremely complex physical systems — that our fates are not entirely predetermined by the laws of physics. Certain outcomes are highly likely, to be sure, but never certain beyond all doubt (unless, of course, the “many worlds interpretation” of quantum mechanics is correct, in which case every possibility will, with certainty, come to pass in some universe).

So what does this new understanding of our world imply? Does it restore the free will and meaning that Laplace would have robbed from us? At first, it would seem that the answer must be no. The random events described by quantum mechanics cannot directly result in free will, for if they did, there must be a means for an agent of will to tell electrons (for example) where they should appear and interact with other particles (which is essentially the main physical process in our brains that is relevant to thought); but if this were the case, then the electrons would no longer be obeying the laws of chance that they have, in fact, been shown to obey. So it seems that random processes alone cannot account for free will.

However, our universe is governed not by chance alone, but by a most intriguing combination of deterministic rules and random processes — a continuum that fades from pure randomness at the infinitesimally small scale to pure determinism at the infinitely large scale. Could it be that the combination of these two components allows for the construction of something that amounts to more than the sum of its parts? In plane geometry, a straightedge limits its user to the construction of line segments, and a compass limits its user to the construction of arcs; but when the two tools are used in tandem, a whole new level of complexity becomes possible, allowing the geometer to draw impressive figures. Perhaps the classical, deterministic laws of motion and the more recently discovered quantum mechanical laws of chance are, respectively, the straightedge and compass that, when used together, allow for the construction of high-level phenomena such as consciousness and free will, which would otherwise be inaccessible under classical laws or the laws of chance alone.

If so, we would expect such phenomena to emerge in systems that exist at the boundary between the macroscopic scale, where deterministic laws prevail, and the microscopic scale, where quantum mechanics prevails. And it so happens that the human brain (and any mammalian brain, for that matter) is just such a system. The brain as a whole is a macroscopic system composed of networks that are just at the boundary between macroscopic and microscopic, which are further composed of individual neurons that belong to the microscopic realm. Could there be a more suitable system for emergent phenomena such as consciousness and free will to develop? (Some might suggest that the answer to this question is yes: a computer.)

The point of these speculations is not to demean humanity by reducing the soul to a mere physical construct — the above meanderings certainly prove nothing of the kind, nor are they intended to do so — but to suggest that there might be hidden potential in the physical substance of our universe. Matter, space, and time, together with the rules that govern their interaction, may contain some life and magic that we haven’t yet imagined. In Genesis 1:24, God says, “Let the land produce living creatures” [emphasis mine]. Is it possible that the land itself — the material substance of the universe — has, buried deep within it, the very components not only of life and consciousness, but free will as well?

6 thoughts on “The Physics of Free Will

  1. Steven Colborne

    Thanks for this article on one of my favourite subjects 🙂 There is another possibility. Imagine if there is a God, and that God is alive right now and in control of all that happens in the cosmos, including the movement of bodies (small and large), and the beating of our hearts? There is no free will, but no ‘determinism’ either, there is only God’s will. This is the way I believe things really are.

  2. keithnoback

    Talk of emergence often amounts to hand-waving. Are you asking for a ghost in the machine, or proposing an active property? If the latter, how does it act in a way which is not explained by the activities of its base elements?
    I’m really fascinated with the issue of free will. People dearly want it, but not as stated, it seems. Nobody wants to think that their decisions are undetermined or even undetermined by facts in the world – even people with psychosis believe they are responding to facts in the world, they’ve just got it wrong about what those are. In fact, its hard to see how an undetermined, perfectly free choice makes any sense at all! But I don’t think that’s what people mean when they claim free will. What they want is something more like responsible agency. That would mean determination mostly by factors within an identifiable system and traceable to identifying elements of that system. We get at the thing we want when we say things like, “My car decided not to start this morning.”
    The analogy is to the cause of the failure lying somewhere in the mechanism of the car primarily, even if temperature, naughty rodents, moisture or random fluctuations of electrical current played a precipitating role. The difference we see between the car and ourselves is in responsibility rather than causal agency. The car is not changed by its choices, only the consequences of its history. We become squeamish at this point, and the arguments begin. We don’t particularly like the idea that who we are changes as we make our way in the world. But the difference there is the difference between the car, an instrument, and us, responsible agents. It’s why we say we learn from experience and the car simply wears out.
    But we aren’t entirely comfortable with the idea of responsible agency, either. We want our immutable identity as well. Therefore, we have a sneaky tendency to instrumentalize learning. Our choices, ideas and knowledge are seen laid out on a cloth for use by some really real kernel of us – some soul or vital essence – which remains unaltered over time, and this precious kernel is what people really seem to be fighting for when they fight over free will.
    This is what I find so interesting, and tragic, about this whole topic. I think we would finally be alright with being our selves retrospectively. We already are willing to admit, on occasion, in some regard, that we aren’t the people we were at some point in the past. Attachment to the freely dangling self seems childish and fearful, as well as inconsistent. That sort of freedom is impossible. Responsible agency, however, would appear to be a fairly easy thing to have, regardless of the physics, and shouldn’t be so controversial for grown-ups.

    1. Olen Rambow

      I agree that talk of emergence often amounts to hand-waving. Several times I’ve expressed an interest in understanding the physical basis of consciousness, if there truly is one, and I’ve been told, “Consciousness emerges from complexity!” as if that constitutes a complete explanation. (It may be true that consciousness emerges from complexity, but merely saying so doesn’t help us understand HOW it emerges. It’s the “how” that I’m interested in.) Here, however, I’m not claiming to explain, much less prove, anything. In fact, I freely admit that what I’ve written is nothing more than hand-waving speculation. My aim is only to toss out an idea that I find fascinating and suggest that not every stone has been turned over (partly in response to some modern scientists’ suggestion that free will is physically impossible). At the same time, I acknowledge that it may well be that “free will” as it is popularly understood does not truly exist. We may never know.

  3. Jesus

    Extremely enjoyable read!! 🙂

    Yes; life, consciousness and free will could indeed be inherent to the land *itself* (matter/energy).

    Whether we will ever come to explain these mysteries (how and why the phenomena of them emerges), who knows…

    All this reminds me of the trilogy “His Dark Materials” by Phillip Pullman (you might want to check it out if you haven’t read it; not sure whether fantasy novels appeal to you though).

    For the spiritually inclined, so much Metaphysics has been written… (I’ll refrain from making recommendations though).

    On the other hand, for the more “scientifically” inclined, Ervin László seems to regard himself as some kind of authority on the matter (perhaps a bit less ‘commercial’ or ‘pop’ than Deepak Chopra; not sure though. Both have published myriads of books, very few of which I’ve read).

    There might be fundamental facts to the universe that require/have/admit no explanation.
    They just *are*.

    For example, electrons exhibit ‘negative charge’.
    “Why” and “how”?

    So far, we haven’t discovered any subatomic particles that make up electrons (as they are leptons and therefore elementary particles themselves) or a mechanism that explains why and how is it that they present negative charge in the precise amount that they do (notice that “negative” is just a label).
    This is just a “fact”. Regardless of the cause (go ask God for the underlying *reasons*… if they exist).

    Of course, one could go on asking an infinite chain of whys and hows regarding any given phenomena. In the end, the real question that matters is whether there’s an end to it.

    1) Some people, who believe that there are limits to the causes (that is, the chain of whys and hows isn’t infinite), regard God precisely as The Ultimate Answer. The Ultimate Cause. The Source of everything and anything. But this makes little sense because God Himself would of course then be subject to the same questions of why and how.
    The other options are that

    2) there is no limit to the infinite chain of questions (there will always be something bigger and something smaller to observe, discover and explain), or
    3) the chain is cyclical and therefore at some point an answer down the ladder will lead to ask a question that was already asked and answered upstream, ages ago.

    Option 2) Is a hopeless and eternal task (perhaps the most exciting and existentially appeasing one actually; why SHOULD there be any limits? Why shouldn’t we be able to eventually explain what makes up an electron and why it’s charged like it is? And then find explanations to the explanation…).

    On the other hand, 1) and 3) both lead to a point in which THERE IS NO ANSWER (“just because” or “because God…”; which are basically the same) and we must accept that certain things “just are”, as inherent properties of the universe, and there is a limit to what we can observe and to the knowledge we can acquire.

    For example, there could be no cause, no mechanistic or probabilistic explanation accessible (or inaccessible) to us, to why and how electrons are negatively charged.

    Perhaps this inherent property just is, always has been, and always will be.
    Sure, electrons can be created and destroyed (rather, energy can transform into electrons, and electrons can transform into energy [gamma rays, when they annihilate with positrons]), and while this explains the potential origin of any particular electron, it still doesn’t explain the existence of electrons as possible phenomena altogether, or the hows or whys of their behavior.

    (Changing topics).

    BTW, Steven Colborne, God could be The Land *itself* (and therefore, WE would be g(G)od(s) as well. Isn’t that actually claimed in the Bible anyway? Both that we are made in the image of God, and that we are gods).

    God (whatever it is, if it *is*; it really just seems like a problem of nomenclature) doesn’t have to be a *personal* and person-like being that we can conceive in its entirety with our limited and finite human minds, and who imposes its will on us.

    In fact, it would seem unreasonable for God to be a person-like personal God that we can clearly conceive. This also suggests that ascribing human-like-and-whimsical-will to him is a simplification/complication/partial-understanding, at best, of what god-like will could be.

    It would actually be demeaning of God to think that us, with our limited knowledge and finite understanding, can comprehend the Absolute, the Infinite, the Everything, the Ultimate Source/Cause/Answer.
    It’s paradoxical, non-sensical, absurd.
    We probably could, however, in our finiteness, have glimpses and a partial understanding of It.

    Regarding free will, if God is (conscious) matter itself, and it posses free will (of some sort), then we’d be like ‘nodules’ of God (gods; because we ourselves are made of the same matter. Aren’t we made in the image of God after all?), and we might therefore as well posses free will.

    In knowing Its Will (to whatever extent we can grasp it), we could, having free will ourselves, either choose to go with God’s will or against it.
    God’s will could just be the collective will of all the matter in the entire universe.
    Picture the cells in your body.
    They *are* you (or a part of you).
    You are (at least in part) the collective of your cells.
    Yet they “eat”, excrete, reproduce, and do a whole bunch of stuff seemingly by “themselves” (individually and independently from the conscious will of your brain).
    Some might even argue that cells themselves make *intelligent* decisions (to some extent, in some sense; depending on your definition of intelligence) and that they posses some level of consciousness.

    Our individual intelligence, consciousness and free will could be a simplified version of what God’s intelligence, consciousness and free will is.

    Picture a society.
    Any given individual is part of one (except for hermits I guess :p).
    In spite of our individual will (or the illusion thereof), there is, in a sense, a *collective will*.

    All this means that what makes most sense (to me at least) is that both God and us have free will, and these two notions aren’t contradictory, but rather sensible on the contrary.
    Because we’re the same thing. Just at a different scale.

    If God isn’t matter/energy/spirit/space/vacuum (all the same; The Land itself), we could hypothesize that there’s something else, something *beyond*: The Ultimate Source/Cause/Answer.
    However, it actually makes little sense to ascribe such Cause to something other than matter itself.

    What need is there for Something Else?
    What else is there to be that isn’t matter/energy/spirit/space/vacuum?
    What room is there for something that isn’t included in the set of *everything* or that is beyond it?
    There can’t be. Unless what we regard and define as *everything* isn’t really everything (because it would exclude God or the “Something Else Beyond Matter/Energy”).

    On the other hand, if God *IS* everything, then he *IS* matter/energy.
    If he’s “matter AND something else”,… again,… what need is there for that “something else” at all?
    How many “something elses beyond matter/energy” could we fantasize with and ascribe them all to God??

    There’s no conceptual advantage (there’s no philosophical furthering) in thinking of “something” esoteric that controls matter with its will, over thinking that matter itself is simply more esoteric than we know/accept, and that it controls itself (and therefore everything, because It *is* everything).

    In fact, if God is some unfathomable “Else” that we are not, then the Bible would lie in saying that we’re made in God’s image.
    [I’m not saying that the Bible ain’t full of lies…; but, if anything, we are matter/energy/(spirit); and if the Bible is truthful at least in saying that we are made in the image of God, then *IT* is made of our same substance. It follows that there is no esoteric “Else” beyond].

    Notice that when I speak of matter, I mean matter/energy/spirit/vacuum.
    They’re all just different states of the same “substance” (which we might as well call God).

    Oh my. I’ve blabbered too much. But it was fun [for me]. 🙂


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