Thursday, January 02, 2014

10 Misconceptions about Free Will

If somebody talks about a “question that science cannot answer” what they really mean is a question they don’t want an answer to. Science can indeed be very disrespectful to people’s beliefs. I accept the wish to believe rather than know, but I get pissed off if somebody wraps their wishful thinking as an actual argument.

“Do humans have free will?” is a question I care deeply about. It lies at the heart of how we understand ourselves and arrange our living together. It also plays a central role for the foundations of quantum mechanics. In my darker moods I am convinced we’re not making any progress in quantum gravity because physicists aren’t able to abandon their belief in free will. And from the foundations of quantum mechanics the roadblock goes all the way up to neuroscience and politics.

Yes, I just blamed the missing rational discussion about free will for most of mankind’s problems, including quantum gravity.

Suggesting the absence of free will is apparently still an upsetter in the 21st century. You’re not supposed say it because allegedly just saying it makes other people immoral. Do you feel it already? How the immorality creeps from my blogpost into your veins? Aren’t you afraid to read on?

There’s no need to worry. This angst stems from a misunderstanding of what it means not to have free will. In this blogpost I address the most common misunderstandings, but before that let me explain why, to our best present knowledge of the laws of nature, you do not have free will. So, first the facts.

    Fact 1: Everything in the universe, including you and your brain, is composed of elementary particles. What these particles do is described by the fundamental laws of physics. Everything else follows from that, in principle.

    It follows in principle, but it is arguably not very practical to describe, say, human anatomy in terms of quarks and electrons. Instead, scientists of other disciplines use larger constituents and try to describe their behavior. This practical usefulness of increasingly larger scales, variables, and constituents, and the approximate accuracy of that procedure, is called “emergence”. All of these properties however derive from the fundamental description – in principle. That’s what is called reductionism.

    The idea that the emergent properties of large systems do not derive from the fundamental description is called “strong emergence”. Some people like to claim that just because a system (eg your brain) consists of many constituents it is somehow exempt from reductionism and something (free will) “strongly emerges”. But fact is, there exists no known example where this happens, and there exists no known theory – not even an untested one – for how strong emergence can work. It is entirely irrelevant if your large system has adjectives like open, chaotic, complex or self-aware. It’s still just a really large number of particles that obey the fundamental laws of nature. Presently, believing in strong emergence is on the same intellectual level as believing in an immortal soul or in ESP.

    Fact 2: All known fundamental laws of nature are either deterministic or random. To our best present knowledge, the universe evolves in a mixture of both, but just exactly how that mixture looks like will not be relevant in the following.

Having said that, I need to explain just exactly what I mean by the absence of free will:
    a) If your future decisions are determined by the past, you do not have free will.

    b) If your future decisions are random, meaning nothing can influence them, you do not have free will.

    c) If your decisions are any mixture of a) and b) you do not have free will either.
In the above, you can read “you” as “any subsystem of the universe”, the details don’t matter. It follows straight from Fact 1 and Fact 2 that according to the definition of the absence of free will in a), b), c) free will is incompatible with what we presently know about nature.

I acknowledge that there are other ways to define free will. Some people for example want to call a choice “free” if nobody else could have predicted it, but for what I am concerned this is just pseudo free will.

Right! I didn’t say anything about neurobiology, the consciousness or the subconsciousness or about people pushing buttons. I don’t have to. For free will to exist it is necessary that free will be allowed by the fundamental laws of physics. It is necessary, but not sufficient: If you could make free will compatible with the laws of physics, it might still be that neurobiology finds your brain can’t make use of that option. Physics cannot tell you that free will exists, but it can tell you that it doesn’t exist. And that’s what I just told you.

Note that I neither claim strong emergence does not exist, nor do I say that a fundamental law has to be a mixture of determinism and randomness. What I am saying is this: If you want to argue that free will exists because strong emergence works, or there is an escape from determinism or randomness, then I want to see an example for how this is supposed to work.

Then let me address the main misconceptions:

  1. If you do not have free will you cannot or do not have to make decisions.

    Regardless of whether you have free will or not, your brain performs evaluations and produces results and that’s what it means to make a decision. You cannot not make decisions. Just because your thought process is deterministic doesn’t mean the process doesn’t have to be executed in real time. The same is true if it has a random component.

    This misconception stems from a split-personality perspective: People picture themselves as trying to make a decision but being hindered by some evil free-will-defying law of nature. That is nonsense of course. You are whatever brain process works with whatever input you receive. If you don’t have free will, you’ve never had free will and so far you’ve lived just fine. You can continue to think the same way you’ve always thought. You’ll do that anyway.

  2. If you do not have free will you have no responsibility for your actions.

    This misconception also comes from the split-personality perspective. You are what makes the decisions (takes in information and processes it) and performs the actions (acts on the results). If your actions are problematic for other people, you are the source of the problem and they’ll take measures to solve that problem. It’s not like they have any choice… If the result of your brain processes makes other people’s lives difficult, it’s you who will be blamed, locked away, sent to psychotherapy or get kicked where it really hurts. It is entirely irrelevant that your faulty information processing was inscribed in the initial conditions of the universe, the relevant question is what your future will bring if others try to get rid of you. The word ‘responsibility’ is just a red herring because it’s both ill-defined and unnecessary.

  3. People should not be told they don’t have free will because that would undermine the rules of morally just societies.

    This misconception goes back to the first two and is based the idea that if people don’t have free will they don’t have any reason to reflect on their actions and to consider other people’s wellbeing. This is wrong of course. Evolution has endowed us with the ability to estimate the future impact of our actions and natural selection preferred those who acted so that others were supportive of their needs, or at least not outright aggressive towards them. If people don’t have free will they still have to make decisions and they still will be blamed for making other peoples’ lives miserable.

    Occasionally somebody refers me to this study which allegedly shows that “Encouraging a Belief in Determinism Increases Cheating.” This study also encourages misconception 2, so the finding is hardly surprising. I would like to see this repeated with the added explanation that the test subjects are of course still making decisions, regardless of whether the outcome was predetermined or not, and of course it matters what that outcome is.

  4. If you do not have free will your actions can be predicted.

    Even if your brain processes were predictable in principle it is highly questionable anybody could do this in practice. Besides, as I explained above, these processes might have a random component that is even in principle not predictable. It is presently not very well understood just exactly how relevant such a random component might be.

  5. If you do not have free will the future is determined by the past.

    Same misconception that underlies 4. Randomness is for all we presently know a component of the fundamental laws. In this case the future is not determined by the past, but neither do you have free will because nothing can influence this randomness.

  6. If we do not have free will we can derive human morals.

    I don’t know why people get so hung up on this. Morals and values are just thought patterns that humans use to make decisions. Their relevance stems from these thought patterns being shared by many in similar versions. If the fundamental laws of the universe are deterministic and if you were really good at computation, then you could in principle compute them. In practice nobody can do it.

    It is also not actually what people mean when they talk about ‘deriving morals’. What they actually mean is whether one can derive what humans “should do”. That however one can only do once a goal is defined – “should do” to achieve what? – and that just moves the question elsewere. Science can’t answer this question because it’s ill-defined. Science can’t tell what anybody should be doing because that’s a meaningless phrase. Science can, in the best case, just tell what they will be doing.

    More to the point is (as I explained in length in this earlier blogpost) that at any time there are questions that science cannot answer because the knowledge we have is insufficient. These are the questions we leave to political decision. All the “should do” questions are of this type.

  7. Free will is impossible.

    Not necessarily. As I explained here (paper here) it is possible to conceive of laws of nature that are neither deterministic nor random and that can plausibly be said to allow for free will. Alas, we do not presently have any evidence whatsoever that this is realized in nature and neither is it known whether this is even compatible with the laws of nature that we know. Send me a big enough paycheck and give me some years and I’ll find out.

  8. You need to be a neuroscientist to talk about free will.

    We associate free will with autonomous systems that make choices, with activation patterns in human brains, which is the realm of neurobiology. However, your brain as much as every other part of the universe obeys the fundamental laws of nature. That these fundamental laws allow for free will is a necessary condition for free will to exist, and these laws fall into the realm of physics.

  9. You need to be a philosopher to be allowed to talk about free will.

    If you want to know how everybody and their dog throughout the history of mankind defined free will, you had better read several thousand years’ worth of discussion on the issue. But I don’t like to waste time on definitions and I don’t see the merit in listing all variants of free will that somebody sometime has come up with. I told you above very clearly what I mean with ‘absence of free will’ and that is the core of the problem in two paragraphs. If you want to name this other than “free will”, I don’t care, it’s still the core of the problem.

  10. If we do not have free will we cannot do science.

    I added this misconception because this comes up every time I talk about superdeterminism in quantum mechanics. The basic reason we can do science is that our universe evolves so that we are able to extract regularities in that evolution. You need to be able to measure what happens to similar systems under similar conditions and find patterns in that. But just how these similar systems came about is entirely irrelevant. It does not matter, for example, whether the laboratory and all the detector settings were predetermined already at the beginning of the universe. All that matters is that there are similar systems, that detections can be done, and the results are processed by you (or some computer) to extract regularities.
Let me be very clear that I didn’t say free will doesn’t exist. I said it doesn’t exist according to our best present knowledge of how nature works. If you want to hang on to free will you better come up with a really good idea how to make that compatible with existing scientific knowledge. I want to see progress, I don’t just want to see smoke screens of “strong emergence” or “qualia” and other fantasies.


  1. Hi Bee,

    Regarding misconception #2 - I am curious how would you put it in context with the administration of justice, where "intention" or "knowledge" of a crime impacts the extent of the punishment.

  2. There is a long tradition of compatibilism amongst philosophers: that is, the idea that free will and determinism are compatible, a statement I myself agree with. You appear to regard free will as incompatible with determinism, more or less by definition. That's OK, but I would contend that what you define as free will is not what actually interests people. So the reason that many people will react against you when you say that we don't have free will is simply a terminological dispute. No we don't have some mysterious ability to influence the laws of physics (whatever mixture of random and deterministic they might happen to be). But the kind of free will that people talk about when they talk about emergence and the like is not that -- it is more like what people are talking about in everyday life when they claim that they made decisions freely.

  3. /* I am convinced we’re not making any progress in quantum gravity because physicists aren’t able to abandon their belief in free will */

    Could you prove/demonstrate it somewhow in logical way? What would change with QM, if physicists would forget about concept of free will? IMO this concept is completely marginal if not orthogonal with respect to understanding of QG subject.

  4. gowers,

    As I wrote, I know that some people like to define 'free will's so that it is compatible with determinism. I also said that I don't care at all exactly what they want to call 'free will'. It's not a terminological dispute. Just do yourself the favor and eat my definition. Use a different word if you like. That renaming doesn't make the conflict go away. To our best present knowledge nothing, including you, can influence your future. Best,


  5. JQ,

    I haven't studied law, but that I think is indeed an issue of terminology. When we talk about "intention" or "responsibility" what we actually want to address is the question what effectively can be done about it. If the origin of the problem is in the way somebody's brain processes information, then we'll be looking for ways to prevent this happen again. If the origin of the problem was an unlikely and unfortunate constellation of initial conditions external to the person, then locking away the person won't have much effect, so why do it. You can rephrase any discussion about justice in terms of results of actions rather than in terms of intention or knowledge. Best,


  6. BTW How the "will" is defined after all? How the "free will" is defined, after then? The discussion about undefined subject can never lead into logical conclusions, defined the less.

  7. /* Just do yourself the favor and eat my definition */

    Of course - this is IMO the only feasible option, as this subject is not intersubjectively defined well. I've no problem with concept of local reality and subjective interpretations - but where we can find your local definition of "will" and "free will"?

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. BTW Isn't the "free will" concept actually an oxymoron or pleonasm? Such a concept would have no meaning to dispute at all.

  10. The traditional notion of a "spirit" would allow for free will. If a spirit is a conscious substance that is not matter, and that is not influenced (much, if at all) by matter, but has some influence on matter, it could affect the brain could cause changes in the body by its choices.

    Of course, other things (drugs, electroshock, etc.) would also affect the brain and cause changes in the body, so the spirit would not be the only thing that affected what we do. And, from an outsider's perspective, it seems unlikely that a test could tell the difference between a spirit's actions and randomness. So the existence of spirits may not be falsifiable, but it seems at least plausible that a traditional dualist conception of people would allow for free will without contradicting what we know of the nature of the universe.

  11. Zephir,

    I do not have to define free will itself to show that the minimal conditions for its existence are not fulfilled. Same argument as saying that you don't have to define what "life" is to show that it can't exist if the cosmological constant was too large, you only have to look at some minimal requirements (eg the formation of structures or such). Best,


  12. Zephir,

    Regarding quantum gravity. You left out the part of the sentence that said it's not not a conclusion. It would probably help your understanding if you'd read the full sentences. Best,


  13. I used to hold the same position, until I started to think about in principle.

    The way I convinced me that strong emergence is possible was, by introducing computational emergence. By this I mean weak emergence, but given limited resources the emergence is not understandable. So from this I gain some kind of complexity parameter. And I would argue that there are rather interesting candidates for thresholds which are so high that they are essentially strong emergence. For example systems that are so complex that a human brain can no longer understand them, or that are so complex that a human civilization can no longer understand them.

  14. Yoshi,

    You're not even addressing the same issue as I, so I don't know why you say you 'used to hold the same position'. As I wrote explicitly, it doesn't matter if you or anybody or anything else can 'understand' my brain or some other complex system. That's predictability in practice, and it's entirely irrelevant to the issue that I discuss in my post. Best,



  15. I think asking about free will is asking the wrong question. I'm not even sure you can define free will coherently. Certainly not without dealing with the physics underlying it.

    The reason we obsess over free will is because we experience our thoughts. Without that experience we would have no reason to talk about free will or the soul or whatever. For me then understanding the nature of that naked ability to experience is where the questions should start.

    Say we torture a dog with a cattle prod. Most of us would agree that the dog feels pain.

    Now say we video tape the torture. Do we recreate the pain when we play back the recording? Most of us would say no.

    But what if our recording was so detailed that it recorded every detail of neural activity? It is still just data right? Playing it back as a projection of that data can't create awareness of pain can it?

    What is the difference between events in a deterministic universe and a mere recording of those events? And how can simple randomness be relevant here?

  16. Bee:Presently, believing in strong emergence is on the same intellectual level as believing in an immortal soul or in ESP.Fact 1

    If one assumes "power of ten" as a spectrum of representative realizations, and there are different phases of expression, each existing, and overlapping in the same moment as to be defined in reality as a result, then how does one know that these different phases do not have parameters that are controlled from, having a freewill? :) Do not our observations define this result?

    It goes to foundation then of course as to choosing a model for examination in context of what may be called emergent?

    Witten:One thing I can tell you, though, is that most string theorist’s suspect that spacetime is a emergent Phenomena in the language of condensed matter physics.


  17. So you have all the reasons why such a model is supporting of the rules of "no freewill," and you have defined this in such a way as to be defined as the parameters that meet your definition. Are you then not locked into what you believe?

    Do you really know? :) I am wondering.:)


  18. What is humankind when uterine gods are displaced by "shut up and calculate (David Mermin)?" If calculated from fundamental rules, the answer always existed. Given answers, "free will" is restricted to choosing. It is progressively not free given feedback. Emergence's greater reach enters another minimum liable to the same stagnation. Grow or die.

    Answers can have huge binding energies. What fraction of humanity can persist without transistors? What fraction of transistors (and applications) can persist absent people so inhuman that no HR would hire them? SETI fails because pipelined free will suffocates in local minima wherein it is exponentially not free to choose. Professional management is the life of the present and the death of the future. Grow or die. Do it the"other" way.

  19. You say that I can't influence my future. But in the normal sense of the word, that is manifestly false. So you are not using the word in its normal sense but in a strange sense -- roughly speaking the sense that is trivially not compatible with determinism. So again it's not exactly that we disagree. We agree about the facts of the world, but I choose to use words like "free" and "influence" in their normal, everyday, useful senses, whereas you, it appears to me, choose to use them in a sense that is uninteresting because it trivially doesn't distinguish between actions in the world as we understand it. And then I feel you cheat, since saying that I cannot influence my future sounds like an interesting statement, but only because of a confusion between your trivial sense of the word "influence" and the sense that one uses in normal life.

  20. To put what I say more briefly, what exactly is the conflict that you say won't go away? It seems to me that there is no conflict between determinism/randomness and our everyday notions of freedom. Such conflict as there is is between determinism and ... er ... nondeterminism (with appropriate modifications to take randomness into account). But a conflict that holds by definition doesn't have anything like the same interest.

  21. If spacetime itself turns out to be emergent, would that be a case of strong emergence?

  22. Hi Bee,

    Not arguing one way or the other, there are some statements in your post that are, well, a tad slippery...

    First, you did not give a definition of free will. You should at least specify what properties free will must have before going on to demonstrate that those properties are not supported by physics. You have only defined what is the absence of free will. That's not enough.

    Second, the lack of a working model of strong emergence does not (and should not) make it less believable. Strong emergence might very well be realized in nature, whether or not we have a theoretical model to describe it. You could also say the same for quantum gravity --- we don't have a working model of QG, so why believe that QG exists? And yet most physicists believe that it does and search for it.

    Regarding 5th misconception, you say "In this case the future is not determined by the past, but neither do you have free will because nothing can influence this randomness." How do you know that nothing can influence it? Randomness is a very tricky thing to establish.

    Regarding 10th misconception --- imagine a fully deterministic world in 5D spacetime, whose inhabitants are "rigged" by initial conditions to never ever "look" into the 5-th dimension, nor ever think of an experiment that gives them any data about it (while such experiments are still conceivable). Any physics they develop will be only a subset of the "real" physics around them. The "doing science" has an assumption that our experiments give insights into *all* possible aspects nature, and cover the entire phase space for each aspect. A deterministic theory typically fails to fulfill this assumption.

    Finally, regarding your closing comment: "Let me be very clear that I didn’t say free will doesn’t exist. I said it doesn’t exist according to our best present knowledge of how nature works." What you are essentially saying is that we don't have a working model for free will. So what? We don't have a working model for quantum gravity either, but that doesn't make its existence any less believable, IMO. You didn't prove that free will, strong emergence, souls, etc. are incompatible with existing knowledge of physics. You just demonstrated that there is no evidence for those one way or the other.

    Best, :-)

  23. Apologies for multiple comments, but I keep thinking of more that I want to say. (This is a question that I've felt quite strongly about for a long time.) I'd like to suggest what I understand by emergence, which I think can't be dismissed anything like as easily as you do.

    Suppose I have two possible routes to work, and it's not clear which is quicker, so on any particular day I have to guess, or just make an arbitrary decision. One day I decide to take route A. There is a sense in which I could not have done otherwise: that is the sense in which my action was caused by some mixture of deterministic and random processes taking place at an atomic level. But there is another sense in which I simply decided, for no particular reason, to take route A. If I wanted to describe that sense, it would be to say that there is no complete macroscopic explanation of why I took route A. (By contrast, if route B was blocked, then there would be a complete macroscopic explanation, which is why we would say that in that situation I had no option but to take route A.)

    What emerges from the microscopic level is macroscopic behaviour that obeys much less rigid laws (from the macroscopic point of view) than what is going on underneath. But it is these nonrigid laws that are of interest to us, of moral significance, etc. etc., and not the laws governing the behaviour of the elementary particles we're made of.

    I think you'll agree that emergence of this kind is a very reasonable hypothesis -- it seems pretty well trivially correct, given what we know about physics and what we can observe about human behaviour. I don't think anyone claims that some kind of magic determinism-conquering phenomenon emerges. It's more like that macroscopic behaviour emerges that is not macroscopically deterministic.(If you want a definition of "macroscopically deterministic" I would say as a first approximation that an event is macroscopically determined by a previous event or events if it would occur whenever events that were macroscopically indistinguishable from the earlier events held. For example, if I am in a securely locked room and don't have a key, then it is determined by that that I will remain in the room until it is unlocked. Minute differences at the atomic level do not affect this, so it is an example of macroscopic determinism.)

  24. “Let me be very clear that I didn’t say free will doesn’t exist. I said it doesn’t exist according to our best present knowledge of how nature works. If you want to hang on to free will you better come up with a really good idea how to make that compatible with existing scientific knowledge.”

    The key to the question of "free will" is the efficacy of consciousness, plain and simple. You take as fact that "everything in the universe, including you and your brain, is composed of elementary particles": what ARE elementary particles; are they information-theoretic as Wheeler suggested? And this leads me to the confounding riddle:

    The standard model of particle physics was created largely from mathematics and theory using certain constraints. Based on the consistency of the theory, civilization was willing to invest billions of dollars to engineer experiments specifically for confirming the veracity of the standard model, to find the bosons and "scalars" predicted by the model. The key point is this: the experiments were informed by the theory!

    So now, William Tiller, a highly esteemed physicist from Stanford who worked largely in condensed matter and solid-state physics, engineered some inexpensive (on the scale of particle colliders) experiments which can easily be replicated and said experiments demonstrated the existence of "emergent" magnetic monopoles. Using gauge theory as an analogy (which is what it is) he demonstrates theoretically that in order for these magnetic monopoles to emerge the gauge symmetry must raise; this requires a gauge boson which Dr. Tiller calls a deltron. This led to his "Dual-Space Model" of nature which posits the existence of our ordinary electro-magnetic distance/time dependent space together with a magneto-electric distance/time independent space. These spaces are generally "uncoupled" but using human generated conscious intent one can greatly increase the density of deltrons leading to a "coupled" state in which the so-called "laws of nature" don't seem to be quite the same. The key here is that Will Tiller's theory is informed by experiment!

    But yet when I discuss this theory with scientists (for example, Phil Gibbs on my FQXi essay forum) I'm told that Will Tiller's "deltron moeity" has no basis. So herein lies the riddle: gauge bosons which are derived theoretically and then confirmed by experiments INFORMED BY the theory are considered, by the community, to be legit; gauge bosons which are THEORETICALLY REQUIRED BY physical experiment are considered, by the community, to be other than legit?

  25. I'm just kidding, of course; I don't really consider this to be much of a riddle at all, or at least I feel I already know the answer. From Sean Carroll's Preposterous blog ( I quote VMarko:

    "Be careful — if the laws of physics predict consciousness as emergent, the very same laws might predict a “god” — an all-encompassing all-knowing consciousness in the universe, by the same mechanism of emergence.

    So the materialists/naturalists/atheists are somewhat afraid to go down the route of “real consciousness emergent from physical laws”. They would rather prefer to treat consciousness as an unreal, delusional effect of our neural activity, rather than something “real”. In a sense, people are just delusionally imagining that they have something called “consciousness”, whereas in reality such a thing doesn’t actually exist. It is called an “epiphenomenon” — like an illusion that the needle of a compass is “driving” the boat that is randomly moving around on the sea.

    If you are a proper atheist, you must never accept that any consciousness (even your own) can really exist. And indeed atheists do exactly that — they claim that the existence of consciousness cannot be objectively measured in an experiment, nor can such a concept even be defined in terms of physics."

    Of course this is not true of all atheists; I'm a practitioner of Middle Way Buddhism which is a complete form of Buddhism (includes both Sutric and Tantric knowledge) and Buddhists are atheists but not materialists. Buddhists reject the notion of a "creator God," instead, they base their philosophy on "emptiness" which hinges on the concept of interdependent co-origination, another phrase for autopoiesis or self-creation (true emergence). It's no accident that Francisco Varela worked closely with His Holiness the Dalai Lama (holiness here is really an improper translation but no proper english word exists); when it comes to the true nature of mind, Buddhists are about 2500 years ahead of modern science . . . in their system free will is called karmic play. Etymologically, karma means "intentional action" which would seem to require free will . . .

  26. /*..In my darker moods I am convinced we’re not making any progress in quantum gravity because physicists aren’t able to abandon their belief in free will.*/

    This is whole sentence of yours to quote. So are you convinced or you have absolutely no argument to support it?

    /*..I do not have to define free will itself to show that the minimal conditions for its existence are not fulfilled..*/

    So, which are the minimal conditions of the "free will" existence? How the free will differs from will? What are we trying to discuss here? You asked us to adopt your definition of "free will" and I've no problem with it - but I can still see none.

  27. As a side remark...

    One of the nice examples of "strong emergence" is depicted in the episode "The Goldberg Variation" of the X-Files series. :-)

    It is about a man who is extremely lucky, to the point of statistical impossibility. Without violating any laws of physics, circumstances around this man always tend to "conspire" into a sequence of highly improbable events that help him survive a fall from the top of a building, three murder attempts by the mafia, winning 100K lottery ticket from the first try, and so on.

    While each particular small-scale event can be explained by existing physics, it is undeniable that there is something more going on than just laws of physics and lucky initial conditions, when one takes into account the large sequences of those small-scale events. There is a new "law of physics" at work, one that manifests itself only around that particular man and in complicated situations. This new "law of physics" is strongly emergent --- it cannot be predicted by existing physics, and yet it exists (in the movie, of course).

    This is also an example of a new "law" that can be added to existing laws of nature in the sense of Goedel's first incompleteness theorem.

    If you don't have access to the above episode, e-mail me privately. :-)

    Best, :-)

  28. @vmarko

    One of the nice examples of "strong emergence" is depicted in the episode "The Goldberg Variation" of the X-Files series. :-)

    It's also an excellent example of a work of fiction. And all physics can in a sense be seen as a fluctuation in probabilities. For example the Higgs particle was detected by observing a statistical fluctuation in events. Each event could be explained individually with known physics but the statistical bump cannot. We call that bump the Higgs. No need to refer to Godel.

  29. Your argument makes a lot of sense. Free will postulates a divide between the decision making mind and the physically determined organism. You are arguing that the physical organism implements the mind that is what is making the decisions. There is no mysterious other which in some ways seems to defy our casual introspection until we get a toothache.

    This seems related to some discussions on how to interpret quantum mechanics. Is the observer part of the system? Can the experiment be isolated from the universe? You may be right that understanding quantum gravity will require dropping the false distinction and recognizing that everything in the solution must be part of the wave function.

    Have you been hanging around with evolutionary biologists? Your argument about free will seems to echo their arguments that humans are merely animals and shaped by the same forces. Similarly, your recent post on the futility fine tuning suggests that you are willing to embrace contingency rather than requiring causes of causes. These are all uncomfortable ideas, but ideas are not sofas.

  30. Bravo. My only possible disagreement would be to have some sympathy for compatiblists who define free will (if I understand them) as: 1) I want to do something (will) and 2) no external force is preventing me (free), e.g., I am not in manacles. Thus the question, "Are you doing this under your own free will?" has a meaningful and perhaps positive answer.

    Where I find myself disagreeing with some posts on free will is that they don't seem to consider randomness, and associate lack of free will with completely deterministic action. That is, that the same historical inputs will always produce the same actions (even though those actions might be impractical to predict). I am a strong advocate of some randomness for reasons I won't bore you with again at this time. Anyway, you did include randomness as an option. So this is the best post on free will that I have read. Not that the ones by Sean Carroll and Jerry Coyne were bad, but I liked this one better. Thank you.

  31. "Fire good, fire bad. " Electricity applied to frog legs that twitch and a great romance and experiments begin.
    Are all electrons but one? What of a single monopole as our light only seen in reflection evolving within our view perhaps a single box of processes and patterns, a quasi finite compromise with walls of mirrors facing mirrors that one photon perchance seen in its zillion fading reflections?
    Through such smoky glass of imaginary walls can there be more shadows than there's light?
    What choice is really there to debate our mystery of being when we return into the night?
    What if the elusive mystery of gravity is so because it is an emergent phenomenon?

  32. A couple of thoughts:

    1. While we believe we have found laws of nature because they are predictive, all we need if we believe something is a law of nature is a non-constructive proof of the existence of a unique solution given unique initial conditions.

    2. Strong emergence need not exist in nature now; it is sufficient that it might exist in the future, e.g., as a computer simulation.

  33. /* I am convinced we’re not making any progress in quantum gravity because physicists aren’t able to abandon their belief in free will */

    I recently came up with what's in effect a competitor in the role of one-sentence proto-explanation of why QG stalls -- although I wouldn't qualify it with "I am convinced".

    I thought I would mention it. The proto-idea is to accuse the standard negative cliché status of "epicycles" for forcing into obfuscation the application of Fourier theory to gravitation (and therefore extensions of it).

    As for the post and discussion, I note how "terminology" seems to stand for "rectifiable (and therefore irrelevant) linguistic issues" - what in turn alludes ever so slightly to a convention almost inherent to physics education, that natural language is alien to the core of solving mysteries. Yet I can't help but desire for elucidating the issues raised in the post, to see matters better cast in terms of properties and forms of legitimate narratives.

    What most triggers this desire is the usage of "randomness": generally speaking I find calls to randomness to involve doubtful overgeneralizations of how symmetry provides a distinguished probability distribution over the sides of fair coins or dice - overgeneralizations not unlike those involved in the instinctive notion of free will - while anteriorly to any probability theory, randomness can be characterized purely in terms of banned narratives; what turns some of the sticking points of the discussion into distracting tautologies.

  34. Boris, language and literature is worth keeping in mind but it is not clear things can be explained this way. Not for now anyway.
    Definitions evolve yet can remain fixed. Artificial languages are harder to learn than any obscure human language.
    What is the difference in Henry or William James save some of us can get Ulysses and some not?
    We could make an algorithm to put anything in pixels on a screen - even actors and plots not written.
    We would still have to explain within a universe of limited connectivities how it is we imagine what choice to view a show or not could influence at a distance choices others make. Or even better where QM looks like mysticism a problem can be solved faster if we turn the computer off awhile. We also sleep on ideas that can awaken with us from our dreams.
    What model can tell us where such meaning or information goes?
    I think it a mistake in Fourier Analysis to separate too strictly the real and imaginary parts for thermodynamics seems richer than that and our language seems subject to some sort of laws of entropy. If gravity is like this could it be a measure of these
    very differences of superdeterminism as physics those stray blips on the screen in the noise when the brightness is off from the big bang? Rather than vague unphysical group theory applied that say a string of it escapes as tautology as gravity into some idea of confused dimensions?

  35. "If we do not have free will we can derive human morals."

    You probably meant: If we do not have free will we cannot derive human morals.

  36. Zephir,

    How difficult can it possibly be to understand this sentence? I wrote: sometimes I'm convinced... This means, sometimes I'm not convinced.

    "So, which are the minimal conditions of the "free will" existence?"

    It would help if you'd read my blogpost. I've even labeled them a), b), c), just for you. Best,


  37. Regarding misconception #2 - I am curious how would you put it in context with the administration of justice, where "intention" or "knowledge" of a crime impacts the extent of the punishment.

    This is probably the biggest misconception. Should there be no criminal justice because there is no free will? No. At least in most civilized countries, revenge plays no role in the criminal-justice system. Rather, punishment serves three purposes: a deterrent, protection of society from known criminals, and rehabilitation. None of these depend on the criminal having free will. This is related to another misconception. If there is no free will, this does not mean that a criminal had "no choice" in committing a crime. It means he had no choice given the circumstances. As society, we should create circumstances which make crime less probable, such as punishment as a deterrent, prevent it (imprisoning known criminals) or converting criminals into non-criminals via rehabilitation (by providing an environment which, in some way, convinces them not to become repeat offenders). Some countries do these things better than others (and I read recently that Sweden is closing some prisons due to lack of prisoners), but none of it depends on whether the criminals have free will.

    Yes, it is sometimes the case that punishment is different if someone literally didn't realize that he was committing a crime (I'm not talking about people who might be insane by some definition but who knew full well the consequences of their crimes.) However, this does not depend on one person being morally responsible and the other not (ultimately, there is no moral responsibility). Rather, the question is whether imprisonment of some completely mentally ill criminal would have an effect. As a deterrent? No, such people can't be deterred. Reform? Maybe, but not in a prison context. Protecting society? Yes, but this is also provided by a closed psychiatric ward.

  38. gowers,

    I don't understand your criticism about my use of the word 'influence'. I used that in the context of randomness that comes in through quantum mechanics. This randomness (collapse of the wavefunction and all) is not influenced by anything or anybody, which means in particular it's not influenced by you. What about that is it that you don't agree with?

    Regarding your elaboration on macroscopic fuzziness, you seem to be putting forward exactly the same proposal as Rovelli, which I commented on here. There is, imho, no 'freedom' in that, there's just refusal to use information that exists. Best,


  39. gowers,

    Sorry for the scattered reply, I read comments one at a time. The conflict that doesn't go away is this: There's no sense in which you can change your future. This is to avoid the word 'influence' which you seem to find misleading. Your future is either determined already now, or it has a random component. In neither case 'you' (regardless of exactly how you define 'you') can do anything about it.

    Note that I didn't even use the word free will. I am simply saying that in that case, I don't think it makes sense to speak of us having free will. Best,


  40. Marko,

    Your comparison with quantum gravity is right on spot. In neither case do we have a working model. The difference is: There are actually people working on quantum gravity! What I am saying is merely I want to see people working on an intellectually satisfactory model for free will.

    Regarding the definition of free will. I do not have to define free will to make this argument. It is sufficient that I define minimal requirements that free will should have and show that they are not fulfilled. That's what I have done. You might find this unsatisfactory, but that's a logically entirely valid argument.

    Regarding 5: Yes, randomness is tricky to establish, but that's an argument in principle, not in practice. If something or somebody can influence the 'randomness' then it's not randomness. Concretely I am talking about the indeterminism in quantum measurement.

    I fail to make sense of your comment regarding #10. It sounds to me like a hidden variables setting. Best,


  41. /* I wrote: sometimes I'm convinced... This means, sometimes I'm not convinced. */

    But which arguments are you using in the moments, when you feel convinced? Or are you getting convinced with absolutely no reason?

  42. Phillip,

    Re #6, this is what I meant. Recall I am listing misconceptions, ie false statements. Best,


  43. Zephir,

    As I have expressed in other blogposts, it seems possible to me that the reason we are not making progress in quantum gravity is not that we don't understand what are the fundamental degrees of freedom of gravity, but that we don't understand quantum theory. And it seems not only possible but plausible to me that the reason we don't understand quantum theory is that we're discarding theoretical options without giving them appropriate considerations. These options are those in which free will does not enter the axioms.

    As I say, sometimes this seems convincing to me, then sometimes I think the solution to the puzzle is entirely elsewhere. It comes and goes. Best,


  44. "There's no sense in which you can change your future."

    That's plain false. I could go and jump out of a window. That would change my future dramatically. So there's a sense in which I can change my future: the ordinary sense that people use when they talk about making decisions.

    I note that you don't deny the possibility of making decisions. In fact, in a sense I agree with pretty well everything you say. I agree that once we have observed that the universe is deterministic, or a mixture of deterministic and random, we can carry on living our lives exactly as before. But that gives us a terminological choice. Shall we abandon all words like "free", "choose", "influence", "could have acted otherwise", or shall we keep using them in their normal non-philosophical senses (the sense in which I am free to go and jump out of the window)? I advocate the latter, since they enable us to make useful distinctions. For example, we can distinguish between somebody staying in a room because it is locked, somebody staying in a room because a gun is held to their head, somebody staying in a room because they have been hypnotized to want to do so, and somebody staying in a room because they feel like it. If we take the purely microscopic view, then we are tempted to say that they stay there because it was determined by the laws of physics that they would stay there, and then a useful distinction is lost.

    If there is any disagreement between us, it is in the level of interest we associate with the different notions of freedom. Let's use the phrase "true freedom" for the ability to have some influence on the elementary particles in our brain and violate the laws of physics, and "illusory freedom" for the kind of everyday freedom that we are talking about when we use words and phrases such as the ones above. I think true freedom is an uninteresting concept. It obviously doesn't exist, but so what? I also think that illusory freedom is an interesting and important concept, that genuinely distinguishes some of our actions from others. My impression is that you find something interesting in the almost tautological statement that true freedom doesn't exist, and are a bit dismissive of illusory freedom. (I am using the word "illusory" because you use it repeatedly, but there is nothing illusory about it.)

  45. /* ..These options are those in which free will does not enter the axioms...*/

    ..Such as? Which of six axioms of quantum mechanics does depend on free will according to You? Could you give us some practical example?

  46. "Re #6, this is what I meant. Recall I am listing misconceptions, ie false statements."

    Right. I guess it depends on what "derive" means. Some would say that if there is no free will, then there are no morals, thus we can't derive them, which I thought you were referring to. You seem to mean that if there were no free will, we could some how calculated what morals should be. OK.

    1. Phil. Given free will in the usual senses we should consider how an individual's free will might limit or determine free will of others, for example. These sorts of laws may ground our morals and judgements just or unjust,
      practically yet blindly.

    2. @vmarko
      without deep enough thinking about it I imagine superdetrrminism a method that diverts a higher interpretation of quantum theory than color from our vague ideas of luck as ESP as a separate new law. I suspect most everyone has had some experience that might seem like ESP but I did experiments with it (hey, I was young enough to imagine professors words like from wise gods. Dr. Rhine for example who had our candle company make some things for him) Now I was extreamly lucky like picking out a card. 14 times until I hit a Pinochle deck.
      Thing is in the end it just did not matter what configuration of luck universe I was in no matter how improbable the coincidence. No proof, no new laws needed. Still it was entertaining to see a coed drop her wine glass when I pulled out the ace of spades. The trick was not to let the audience see this freaked me out as much as them.

  47. Given: a common observation of staggering complexity. It is modeled as originating from a strongly reproducible, well-defined, finite set of components. That set is decreasing in size the more closely it is examined. Initial estimated 2 million components are now reduced to 19,000 - and dropping.

    Wherefrom the staggering complexity? If its trajectory is predetermined, can the number of its components be "impossibly" small for progressively more efficiently merely entering the trajectory's groove?

  48. Sabine - You are really just trying to define "free will" out of existence. That's an old philosophical trick, but it lacks empirical content unless you can define "free will" in some testable way. Unless you can define what you mean by "free will" in some testable way, I doubt that post has any content.

    If, on the other hand, you were to define "free will" in some sort of standard way, like "the ability to make choices that affect the future" you would have a tough time trying to show that it doesn't exist. You might also note that that kind of free will is implicit in the statement many physical laws.

  49. Gowers,

    "I could go and jump out of a window. That would change my future dramatically."

    No it wouldn't. Your future either does or doesn't contain you jumping out the window. There's nothing you can change about that.

  50. Zephir,

    Please read my post about superdeterminism. You can only conclude that hidden variables are ruled out with the free will axiom (choice of detector settings).

  51. Phillip,

    Yes, you understood that correctly. The misconception I am referring to is: If there's no will, there's nothing we have to decide, thus we can derive what our morals are. I'm saying that is wrong. I see now though why it can be misunderstood.

  52. CIP,

    As I have now said several times (please read comments above), I do *not* have to define free will to show that it cannot exist. All I have to do is to show that at least one condition for the existence of free will is not fulfilled by the presently known laws of nature. That's what I have done. To that end, I have to define only under which circumstances there is *no* free will, see my conditions a), b) and c).

    You might find that unsatisfactory, but it's a logically sound procedure.

    Having said that, please answer this question: You want to define free will as "the ability to make choices that affect the future". In which sense do you believe you have free will given fact 1 and fact 2?



  53. I also think that the difference you imagine between your "free will function" and chaotic behavior is illusory. In practice, there is no way to distinguish them. I seem to recall that Feynman wrote something on the subject, somewhere.

  54. CIP,

    The whole argument about the free will function is one 'in principle'. If I'd settle on 'in practice' then I could as well just buy into strong emergence.

  55. You, of course, are free (LOL) to define "free will" or not as you please. I don't see how your a, b, c have any empirical content though.

    A more interesting (to me) question is whether the future has the same character as the past - is one determinate and the other not, or are both indeterminate. Relativity and QM don't appear to give very coherent answers.

  56. Hi Bee:Interesting Article."In my darker moods I am convinced we’re not making any progress in quantum gravity because physicists aren’t able to abandon their belief in free will." If this is not a joke, can you explain what failure to get a theory of quantum gravity has to do with free will?I personally believe, failure to understand consciousness is a big stumbling block for science.But I want to see your opinion.

  57. Well, let us think like You did:
    "The microscopic law of nature may be time reversible - which means that any system cannot measure time" - bu, hey! they are time reversible, and we measure time. So how it can be?

    Your reasoning is invalid form logical point of view, because You do not know what is "true nature of randomness" You mentioned, and "consequences f determinism" You pointed out.
    As You see - there is at least one phenomenon ( thermodynamic time arrow) - which occurs as kind of "emergent" property of the systems consisted of parts which obeys completely opposite "microscopic laws".

    Suppose that "true randomness" of quantum laws, is a emergent phenomenon of non computability of some kind. That is there is no computable relation between things we may observe, and true state of the particle, but perfectly deterministic connection between some kind of much general ( and probably non-local) structures governed by space-time causalities for example?
    This is first objection.

    The second one is: free will is not an objective idea. It is psychological one. How can You say that someone has free will. What has to be done to check if a stone has free will ( but "wants" just sit there, forever). Free will is the way people think about themselves ( and about similar objects).

    Notion You describe is something else, ou argue that everything You decide, say, did, etc has its causes. It is true. But fact like that does not mean it is possible to compute someone decisions just in the same way, like for thermodynamics it may be not possible to decide how certain particle would be excited during phase change. It is not a matter of "precision" - it is property of the system - opalescence - You cannot do that.

  58. Do I understand you correctly that you "believe" in a mix of predestination and random events?

    The concept of predestination is historically an interesting one:

    It means that even highly religious and moral people didn't have much problems with the absence of free will :-)

    See Wikipedia for more information than you probably have time to read:

    But I still agree with CIP that there probably exists no Turing test for the presence or absence of free will.

    And I'm curious ... what are you actually trying to achieve with this post? From inside us, phenomenologically, we cannot get rid of the experience of free will. So what are you actually fighting against? Why is this - highly theoretical - issue so important for you?

  59. /* you can only conclude that hidden variables are ruled out with the free will axiom (choice of detector settings) */

    According to Conway and Kochen the hidden variables aren't distinguishable from "free will" of particles.

    /* unless you can define what you mean by "free will" in some testable way, I doubt that post has any content */

    This was exactly my stance too. You should define at least "minimal conditions for its existence". Without it the above post of yours holds water in similar way, like the various extrapolations of string theory. The projective/extrapolative thinking about fuzzy subject can be nothing but just fuzzy.

  60. /* I am convinced we’re not making any progress in quantum gravity because physicists aren’t able to abandon their belief in free will." If this is not a joke, can you explain what failure to get a theory of quantum gravity has to do with free will?..*/

    This was my question too. I do personally disagree with this stance, because IMO the subject of quantum gravity can be understood with water surface analogy of dense aether model easily: bellow certain distance scale the water surface appear like elastic membrane driven with Schrodinger equation, above certain distance scale it appears like background independent environment of special relativity. It's essentially low-dimensional geometrical model of the random observer of random universe and no thinking about free will and similar undefined subjects is required for it.

    My point regarding subject is, the "free will" is a pleonasms - the object can just have the "will" or it hasn't. The "will" is free by its very definition. But what the "will" is? The "will" can be defined as an observable aspect of behavior of object, which cannot be deduced from conditions of observation. Under such a situation the will exist, because surface of every object hides the underlying motion of its components.

    If we would define the "will" like the aspect of behavior, which cannot be deduced from any deeper knowledge of object itself, then we may indeed recognize, that the will actually doesn't exist, because the level of knowledge depth doesn't exist too.

  61. Kazak,
    What is valid in one logical design may not map to another. We can demonstrate quantum logic with a series of polarized glasses. Some hope that eventually logic can reach a more unified form even incorporating earlier models. Then Godel and all that which at first seemed to undermine mathematics at its foundations. In thinking in four space as a map of valid syllogisms we can deduce a 24th valid one that disobeys all the rules for deriving them.
    The example of the arrow of time does not make clearer what may be valid on the level of discussion here.
    Incomputibility on the quantum level an emergent property? Where then is chaos in QM save it a structural property derived from QM logic itself an observable?
    Moreover, as Juan H. points our concerning space manifolds Hammond is a generalization of Hilbert (I think I got the names right).
    We can imagine a further generalization. This approach of defects as method and inquiry by Sabine suggests to me new technologies more than our directions imagine- and these will be human friendly. But it is still to speculative for me to post anywhere about it. Freedom with its responsibilities or not certainly can be seen mapped to degrees of freedom in say the description of molecules- if nature's analogies as geometry still can be regarded as the only ones valid.

  62. Maybe we don't have free will because we're a computer simulation :-)

    Sorry, couldn't resist:

  63. 3 papers on arxiv on the same day! Impressive.

  64. Jake, perhaps "traditionally " I would point out there was a Body,Spirit, and Soul. In mind vs matter dualism the spirit was a visitor to the absolutes in between them. Can we not say that this aspect of the discussion may be the question of normalization where the search for unity debates what sort of area under the curve is one.
    Even Hume did not address this idea of spirit of what may have been left over in his model implied or not in between.
    Imagine then Maxwell's Demon with properties of spirit in between. His act of observing which molecules to push back or let through can be thought as intelligence adding to disorder (or in other views to order as well.)
    Does Maxwell's Demon have Free Will?
    If there were a universal God Who may be thought to have choice over perfect infinite sets of finite elements that the universe by observation comes at his will or alternative choosing (Perhaps the only entity in all reality, him included with free will)
    Being omniscient in intellect would he not desolve the universe at the instant of its creation?
    Uncle Al's remarks apply as well to what are our views on space toward. The small scales. That and such views toward the large scale, may ask of each extreme the question "What is in between? As well between the extremes.

  65. I came across this: Logical determinism: Quote:

    "Logical determinism builds off the law of excluded middle and holds that propositions about what agents will do in the future already have a truth value. For instance, the proposition “Allison will take the dog for a walk next Thursday” is already true or false. Assume that it is true. Since token propositions cannot change in truth value over time, it was true a million years ago that Allison would walk her dog next Thursday. But the truth of the relevant proposition is sufficient for her actually taking the dog for a walk (after all, if it is true that she will walk the dog, then she will walk the dog). But then it looks like no matter what happens, Allison will in fact take her dog for a walk next Thursday and that this has always been the case. However, it is hard to see how Allison’s deciding to walk the dog can be a free decision since she must (given that the relevant token proposition is true and was true a million years ago) decide to walk him. In response to this problem, some philosophers have attempted to show that free will is compatible with the existence of true propositions about what we will do in the future, and others have denied that propositions about future free actions have a truth value, that is, that the law of excluded middle fails for some propositions. "

  66. Arun, giving up the excluded middle or mathematical induction (deduction actually) has been considered something science may have to face. Why enumerate gray groups if there ate none? Anyway, in QM we seem to have evidence of "abduction " of a still limited beam me up Scotty variety.

    Wes, and all thinking about computer simulations, if the idea of super computers was to test weapons without physical explosions so to find the laws of particle physics how can we program them without knowing those laws? Or what is the point of a chess master with the aid of a supercomputer playing a supercomputer with the aid of several chess masters?

  67. Thanks for the reply. Great article.

    In your piece on emergence and reductionism that you link to, you describe "strong emergence" as emergence where "you'd have no chance of ever 'predicting' that something will 'emerge'", and I think that's the agreed definition for those who believe in such a thing.

    You replied to my question as to whether if spacetime turns out to be emergent this would qualify as strong emergence in the negative.

    To my mind, while I can get a mental grip on how - say - the wetness of water emerges from at first the fundamental properties, and then the ever larger scale of (non-strongly) emergent properties up the scale, at first sight it seems more difficult to do so in the case of spacetime emerging from a non-spaciotemporal base.

    I take this to be either a failure of imagination on my part, or all of ours. What I seem to be doing when contemplating emergence in this way is trying to pin physical realizations or metaphors on objects I can't properly visualize due to their scale.

    My question to you is whether you have a better *physical* imagining of how spacetime might emerge in the non-strong sense, or whether your answer to me is more to do with that you can envision how the *maths* would work.

    In other words, an accepted theory would necessarily entail a good working mathematical models of the non-spaciotemporal scale, the same for the lowest spaciotemporal scale, and the necessary mathematical means to derive the latter from the former, and given our current understanding you find that plausible.

    If that is the case, it would seem that what's required to bring a mythical "strong emergence" down to the real world, is just successful mathematical models of each half of the phenomena and the means to derive one from the other.

    Would you agree with that?

  68. Try to have look at this neutrophile changing direction. If you wouldn't know, that the gradient of chemoatractant did change during this, you could believe, that this cell has a free will and it can change it. The level of "free will" of system observed is therefore an inverse function of our knowledge about system.

  69. Ashish,

    Please read our comment rules. I had to delete your first comment because you advertised your own website, and I deleted also the second one because it made no sense without the first. Your "challenges" to Lubos are also entirely off-topic. I sincerely doubt you have been much of a challenge for him but be that as it may, I'll delete further off-topic comments and I don't tolerate self-ads. Best,


  70. kashyap,

    Please read my above reply to Zephir.

  71. Ashish,
    You've really stumped me this time. My mind is stuck on the question does Lubos have free will or did he somehow emerge from a dysfunctional Harvard where if you show up you get B's. But that can't. be the case for Ms. Franklin was there and couldn't repair instruments herself nor publish without many guys as coauthors. She told me by phone as I was interviewing authors for my stay at home manuscript at the time of the search for the Higgs as one thing the LHC was to be used for.

    Last time I read LM's blog he seemed to be open to some sort of emergent mystical beliefs. A boiled or unboiled
    Spaghetti Monster. But imagine one that could only be seen as linear bundles of vermicelli. Would that view reduce things to clearly understand gravity and the relation to relativity. Such SUSY may as well wish for some sort of hidden theory beyond known scales. But relativity can be demonstrated in our human middle scales, gravity waves as phantom or not. Einstein (well we have already violated Baez crackpot indexes like mentioning that name) played with magnets as a child. What better way to sense the push and pull of them as a force mysteriously independent of gravity?Now if such SUSY as a scaleless dimensionless effect two non permanently magnetic weights surface to surface as if a Casmir effect in wobble circles and a circle thus described in the center, a hole of sorts, we can sense a phantom magnetic equivalence principle but a force at zero that we do not sense as push or pull.
    Lubos must miss me and others in his rants when we do not blog for his posts seemed timed to counter bloggers he coincidently stalks. But just like the KGB contrary to the velvet revolution of that beautiful democracy, the Czech republic in his blog seems to have invented and discovered everything first. Renormalizing history is destiny.

  72. Most of what you've said regarding the nonexistence of free will can also be said about consciousness; yet only the most die-hard eliminativists believe in its nonexistence. After all, our being conscious is the closest thing to a 'brute fact' we have access to. If consciousness is an illusion, who's being fooled?

    But if there's no room for consciousness in our present-day scientific concepts, yet nevertheless, we are convinced of its existence, then it seems we must revisit our conceptions and assumptions. A similar argument might be made regarding free will.

    In a sense, it's not puzzling that science at present has trouble accounting for consciousness: usually, science is considered to be objective; however, that's a bit of a gloss. What science works with, ultimately, are subject-object correlations: experiences, experiments, phenomena; and only by taking the subject as a given is it possible to use them as a means of inference about the object. So the subject is in this sense an unanalyzable primitive, a necessary preconception for modern day scientific inquiry. Asking then science to examine it is like asking the eyeball to look at itself.

    But then, the argument that since there's no room for free will in our present scientific understanding, there is no free will, period (which of course isn't precisely the argument you're making, you're more careful, but still, it's an often-heard one), can't go through. In fact, the lack of room for it in science doesn't presently tell us anything about free will at all; it's a category error to think so, akin to saying that since the eyeball can't see itself, it doesn't exist.

    So, how can we make sense of the subjective without degenerating to woo?

    One possibility that I think deserves investigating is the assumption that the world is, in a sense, a unified whole; that there is one set of concepts universally appropriate to its description. That this picture can't be quite right we already learn in basic quantum physics: the concept of particle isn't appropriate to describe interference phenomena, and the concept of wave can't account for the individual detection events. Both concepts are needed to make sense of the phenomena, even though they are mutually contradictory.

    Bohr wrote a lot about generalizing this concept of complementarity to subjects beyond physics. An interesting remark is that we can't observe the processes of life perfectly in the living object, because the necessary procedure would be so invasive as to kill the organism.

    In a similar sense, perhaps the fact that the mechanistic or physicalistic conception fails to account for the phenomena of consciousness and free will (should they exist) is no more troubling than the fact that the particle conception fails to account for interference phenomena, and it is just the assumption that this level of description is the right basic level that makes us believe that there is no room for subjective phenomena within our scientific description.

    If we were, to the contrary, to harbour an idealistic worldview, in which all phenomena are mental, then we would not have any trouble accounting for consciousness or free will; but, we would face the analogous problem that the Kantian noumena, the things themselves, have moved completely out of reach.

    Thus, both materialistic and idealistic conceptions appear to account for a range of phenomena, but fail for others; and since they are contradictory, they can't be jointly applied. The same is true for wave- and particle-pictures. For them, we have learned that the world can't be shoe-horned into being either one or the other, but rather, that we must use both to account for the phenomena. Maybe we'll have to accept that the world is not the sort of thing that one can tell just one single, consistent, and complete story about in a more general context, as well.

  73. Bee,

    Experiments matter in physics. I keep saying that. That is who determines the winner.

    You just think technical talk wins. Do you have an experiment to support any of your suggestions, that can be done anytime soon? The "Free Will story" is part of this thread, or your DSR theory? (I asked this about your DSR article, some articles ago, and of course you ducked that question!)

    Where is the experiment to test any of your claims? Not intelligent enough to come with a testable claim, are you?

    Between Lubos and you it is hard to decide who is Dumb and Dumber!

  74. Ashish,

    Your provocations are too dumb. If you'd really care about my research, my publication list would answer your questions. So would reading my blog. Don't bother to submit further comments, I'll delete them. Good bye.

  75. Zephir,

    You misread the Conway-Kochen paper. And anyway, I explicitly commented on this in my paper. People stop bothering me with questions that only demonstrate you're not interested in the question. Best,


  76. gowers wrote:
    "You appear to regard free will as incompatible with determinism, more or less by definition. That's OK, but I would contend that what you define as free will is not what actually interests people."

    Sabine wrote:

    "It's not a terminological dispute. Just do yourself the favor and eat my definition. Use a different word if you like. That renaming doesn't make the conflict go away."
    "a) If your future decisions are determined by the past, you do not have free will...."

    It might be good to have a better distinction between the terms "will" and "free".
    For me (see also my comment at (it seems there are no permalinks to individual comments)) a "will" of an individual is something which is based on its brain states. The word "free" is a description of the "will" itself.

    Using the word "free" or "freedom" brings often trouble into discussions because it is rarely that people mean something like an "absolute freedom" but mostly they implicitly mean a "freedom relative to" something. And tons of philosophers (see e.g.,,Freiheit ist immer Freiheit der Andersdenkenden. seem to have rather questioned wether one should at all take absolute freedom as such much into consideration.

    You seem to have rather some kind of "absolute freedom" in mind as being the opposite of (absolute) determinism.

    Sabine wrote:
    "I acknowledge that there are other ways to define free will. Some people for example want to call a choice “free” if nobody else could have predicted it, but for what I am concerned this is just pseudo free will."

    I agree with you that the above definition doesn't sound too convincing for a definition of what "free" could mean in the context of "will." That is monitoring and predicting a will sounds more like a question of privacy, which may of course influence decision making, but a question which arises here is for example: to which extend does it influence?

    Hence if one would want to look for a senseful definition for the term "free will" in this context then in particular I would prefer to take more active components into that definition. That is for me an individuum whose decisions can be completely manipulated from outside (like from other individuals) to the extend that it's decisions can be determined from the outside seems to have no free will. Again here (no) freedom in decision making does not mean that those manipulating individua were also determined by some "universal initial conditions" but it means that this individuum had no freedom relative to the manipulating individua.

    And I think this particular aspect/view of "free will" is also relevant in juridicial considerations, that is it usually does play a role if someone had been brainwashed and/or traumatized before making certain decisions.

  77. Zephir,

    It's not a joke. I already told you what the connection is (no free will -> superdeterminism -> change to the foundations of quantum mechanics -> relevant for quantizing gravity), but you weren't interested in the answer. Best,


  78. uair01,

    "Do I understand you correctly that you "believe" in a mix of predestination and random events?"

    No. I didn't say anything about what I "believe". What I am saying is that I don't want to believe, I want to know, which is why I want a scientific discussion of the question. (Can we make strong emergence work? Is there a time evolution that is neither deterministic nor random? Can we test what is realized in nature?) Best,


  79. Jochen,

    Sorry, I have no clue how you've jumped from free will to consciousness. I see no problem to make consciousness compatible with weak emergence and determinism. If you think so, please explain. Best,


  80. Robert: Two of them aren't research papers - just proceedings & a summary of a two longer papers.

  81. Arun,

    Thanks for the link, which is very on-topic. Alas, the situation gets much more murky with quantum mechanics taken into account.

  82. This morning inside while the near record wind chill week of Arctic cold I caught a Wisconsin TV lecture with the details of plasma experiments trying to explain accretion discs around stars and black holes. Nature herself gives us such a model in the efficiency of turning matter into energy not as efficient as that we imagine from matter with antimatter but far greater than from fusion. Neither our stars or failed almost stars, of collapsed stars of science can be weighed or judged a waste of time. A better and safer world is not out of our reach.
    My last comment where I used two pound weights on a Phantom Magnetic Equivalence Principle seems a little less absurd after viewing that lecture. These were meant for slides on strings to explore microtones but something clicked from way back in a memory of magnets in childhood.
    Let us praise this new star of theory exceptionally tolerent of at least my nonsense as scientists "should" do after rigourous debate who find new solutions if we can see them even in the firmament of shadows.
    You are shineing brightly, Sabine.
    Enough said.

  83. I have have the same opinion about the existence of free will for the same reasons.

    In my darker moods I am convinced we’re not making any progress in quantum gravity because physicists aren’t able to abandon their belief in free will.
    I'm convinced that this idea is just arbitrary without any rationale behind it. If not, I'm curious to know the train of thought that connects these two issues.

    I want to see progress, I don’t just want to see smoke screens of “strong emergence” or “qualia” and other fantasies.
    Qualia isn't magic in the sense that it is unreal. It is more like a magic trick that (is very much real, but) isn't understood.

    @Jake Freivald: And, from an outsider's perspective, it seems unlikely that a test could tell the difference between a spirit's actions and randomness.
    This issue arises only if there is any randomness at all - i.e., if there are any observed quantum effects in the functioning of the human machine. Even if there is any randomness, if all observations can be explaining by the random laws of physics (quantum physics), we can call upon Occam's razor to discard the thetan (spirit) - not that this will render the traditional dualist conception implausible, just unnecessary.

    @Yoshi I don't think the 'simulatablity' referred to in the context of weak vs strong emergence puts bounds on computing power. Can the properties of a system predicted from its fully understood components (at least in principle) or not? Yes - weak, No - strong.

  84. Bee, what I'm talking about is commonly called the 'hard problem of consciousness', the idea that what makes consciousness consciousness-y is left out by a complete specification of the underlying physical basis, or that at least there doesn't seem to be a way how to get the fact that our experience 'feels like' something from the physical basis.

    I can't really introduce the relevant arguments with the necessary care here, but perhaps the two most important ones are Frank Jackson's 'knowledge argument' and the 'zombie argument', championed most effectively by David Chalmers.

    The knowledge argument invites you to imagine yourself in the shoes of Mary, who's a perfect scientist and who, by whatever strange circumstances, lives in entirely colourless surroundings. Nevertheless, she has access to all the neurological and physical science regarding colour vision, and soon is able to form a complete theory of it. The question is now: does she now what the subjective experience of seeing red is like, prior to ever actually having seen red? In other words, when she's let out of her prison, and sees a rose in colour for the first time, will the experience be familiar, or a genuinely new one? Will she, so to speak, learn something upon seeing the rose?

    If she does (or so the argument proclaims), then there's a problem squaring subjective experience with the idea that the world is exhausted by physical processes. Because, since Mary is a perfect scientist possessing a correct theory of colour vision, she was able to perfectly predict, in advance, the whole chain of events from a photon of a certain wavelength impinging on her retina, to certain activities in her brain, etc. If she nevertheless couldn't predict what seeing red was like, then we have an explanatory gap---the physical processes don't account for the subjective experience.

    The zombie argument provides another angle. Everything that you do, every word you say, every action you take, can be reduced to a physical chain of causality. So consider an identical twin, Bee2, created by meticulously reproducing all your causally efficacious parts, meaning that in every given situation, Bee2 will act like and talk like the original, to an extent that it's impossible to physically tell the difference between original and copy.

    The catch is, however, that there's no need for Bee2 to have any conscious experience at all---she could be a simple automaton, indeed, could reproduce all your actions by somehow internally referencing a giant lookup table. This holds true even if she is your exact physical duplicate. In other words, a being is conceivable that is physically identical to you, yet lacks the associated conscious experience. Again, the conclusion is that thus, the physical does not suffice to account for conscious experience.

    Philosophers have come up with many more arguments with similar conclusions; thus, if these arguments hold, then consciousness is in the same boat as free will: unaccounted for, if not downright incompatible, with our current scientific understanding.

  85. @ Bee:
    There is a long way to go from elementary particles to Human beings! As far as we know all elementary particles (with some specific quantum numbers) are identical. All human beings and all human minds are certainly not identical. For particles such as electrons, even though each event is probabilistic, by the time you take million or billion electrons, the final result is completely predictable. On the other hand even if you take example of a million people in stock market or their reaction to some event, it is unpredictable how they would act. The other problem, I have with your theory is that it is depressing. According to you some people are programmed (doomed) to be evil and/or miserable. And some people are programmed to be good. There is no second chance to improve your lot. Even in religion such as Hinduism with philosophy of Karma, your past is sealed and you will have to bear the consequences. But the future Karma is in your hand. You can improve your lot by doing good Karma!!
    @Wes Hansen
    I essentially agree with your remarks. Only thing I would mention is that Hinduism has similar philosophy as Buddhism about Karma. In fact Buddhism came up in India and was an off-shoot of Hinduism. Concept of God is little bit different in the two religions.

  86. Jochen has explained much what I had tried yesterday night to post. The screen called on me to prove I was not a robot. Apparently I failed. Indeed I was predetermined to fail because it is free will that is considered to distinguish me from being a robot. :-)
    In denying that consciousness must be addressed by physics, you can accept that physics explains the consequential effects and mechanics of causes and declines to address the apparent reason of all causes we observe. If I fire a bullet physics and chemistry describes classically everything that happens but fails to tell me about how or even If that thing we ascribe conscious and as alive ceases when the bullet destroys another supposedly sentient creature. I observe an electron spin it fails to tell me how the previously superposed electron selected up or down spin.
    Your view and for that matter the opposing view that LM has also today posted both accept the notion that consciousness is not relevant to free will and is somehow emergent. Yet consciousness remains easily observed and easily tested. It appears to serve a significant purpose, My pet bird routinely outperforms six year olds in doing math. He has a belief system. He even believes there is a god ... I disagree but I do think that until one includes choice and even conscious or thinking as non-deterministic one ends up with a universe but fails to have any occupants.
    But I really did not mean to say that we have free will but think it is important to explain thought if it is not extant.

  87. /* no free will -> superdeterminism -> change to the foundations of quantum mechanics -> relevant for quantizing gravity */

    Actually, this is nothing very new for me. I'm aware that the dense aether model (which brings such an superdeterminism for me) is remarkably similar to religious concept of omnipresent omnipotent God, which can drive and control all our steps on background. And the emergent aether model enables to explain the subject of quantum gravity in much wider context, than just "quantization of gravity", because it does provide a geometric model of emergence. As I already explained to You (and You apparently ignored it in the same way, like you're accusing me of ignorance), the subject of quantum gravity are all hyperdimensional phenomena around us between the dimensional scales of relativity and quantum mechanics, not just minute effects, which are still waiting for its experimental confirmation. The dimensional scales of quantum mechanics and general relativity aren't separated with some mental firewall, which the quantum gravitists aren't allowed to study.

    Apparently, the notion of superdeterminism, aether or whatever else is not crucial for such am understanding, it's just a common sense which is required for it. Note that while the Christianity accepts the concept of omnipotent God, it doesn't require the God for taking care about all our steps - we have own full responsibility for all our decisions. If the God would control all our steps, he couldn't punish us for it with hell, isn't it true? It's probably because that God is so powerful, he is not even required to follow all steps of human worms, drive the less. He's simply not obliged to do so...

    So that even the remarkably abstract divine superdeterminism of Christianity doesn't interfere with concept of free will in practical sense. It's so powerful and universal, it can even leave us alone untouched with it.

  88. IMO the human understanding evolves in cycles (or "rhymes"), because the notion of superdeterminism is actually nothing very new in quantum mechanics. It's started quite soon with de Broglie wave concept (note that Louis de Broglie has been an aetherist). The formal wing of Bohr had taken the lead during great crisis, after the WWW II the pilot wave mechanics got some recognition thanks to Everett/Bohm and it has been replaced with even more indeterministic formalism of Djikstra and Bell. Now the technological advantage has allowed us to see the limits of Bell's theorems again, so that the theorists (like Bee) are starting to think more seriously about superdeterminism again.

    Apparently the more conservative theorists would favor the existence of indeterminism, these liberal ones would favor the superdeterminism. But IMO the actual truth is somewhere inbetween - it simply depends on particular case. We should admit, that despite there is whole range of still hidden superluminal and hyperdimensional physics, which controls the seeming indeterminism of quantum mechanics and real life phenomena, there are objects and events of Universe, which are causally separated from the rest due to their limited lifespan. We cannot expect, that everything is influenced with everything in a given moment, the level of influence is just the driving force of spontaneous symmetry breaking and lost of information during it.

  89. Hi Bee,

    You are advocating

    "no free will -> superdeterminism -> change to the foundations of quantum mechanics -> relevant for quantizing gravity",

    as opposed to the usual

    yes free will -> no superdeterminism -> no change to the foundations of quantum mechanics -> relevant for quantizing gravity.

    In the latter, standard approach, there is only one problem to be solved (to give a model of quantum gravity). In your approach, however, one needs to solve three problems: to give a model of superdeterministic QM, to give a model how SD drives our non-free will to apparently violate Bell inequalities, and to give a model of gravity. I have a feeling that you have substituted one hard problem for three hard(er) problems.

    What is your motivation for this, where is the benefit?

    Best, :-)

  90. And one more comment... :-)

    "Sorry, I have no clue how you've jumped from free will to consciousness."

    Let me jump in on this one.

    Objectively, when you look at another person, a demonstration of their "free will" is described by the impossibility to determine their behavior. From the outside, their behavior is based on the *random* aspect of laws of physics. This is in contrast to your definition (b).

    I believe that your motivation for (b) lies in the fact that you assume that the person makes a "deliberate choice" to act one way or the other (as opposed to a random one). But the act of "making a choice" is not measurable --- all you see from the outside is a complex system behaving unpredictably (i.e. with a random component).

    To make sense of the concept of "making a deliberate choice", one needs to introduce consciousness.

    In other words --- if people do not have consciousness (of if it is merely an epiphenomenon of their brains), their "free will" is actually a consequence of the random component of their brain functions. In that setup you should give up assertions (b) and (c) and allow for this "random free will" to exist.

    OTOH, if people do have consciousness, then you need to describe how it works, and how the process of "making a conscious deliberate choice" is different from both random and deterministic behavior. Only after you do that can you assert that (b) and (c) make operative sense, and exclude that type of free will via the laws of physics.

    That's the missing part of your argument --- describe the process of "exercising free will" which is neither deterministic, nor random, nor a combination of those two. In order to do that you need to say what consciousness is, because otherwise I might just declare that "free will" is the random component in the behavior of a given brain.

    However, describing consciousness involves making a distinction between people and zombies --- something that physics cannot do in any operational sense. So your whole argument that there is no free will gets stuck at that step.

    Science badly needs a serious account of the concept of consciousness. :-)

    HTH, :-)

  91. You might want to read this:

  92. You might want to read this:

  93. Sabine,
    You are saying that some fundamental laws of nature are "random". But what does this actually means?
    The main quantum mechanics law which is "random" is the so called principle of "wavefunction collapse". It's the the most obscure principle of this theory, and it states that when we observe/measure a quantum system, it "collapses", changing its state in a way we cannot exactly predict, but only guess with some probability.
    But this randomness refers only to the measurement process. It does not mean that nature evolves in a "true random" way. Quantum mechanics says nothing about how a system "collapses" and what causes it. There is still an open debate on this question, and there are various intepretations of it.
    So in my opinion it is not so easy to deduct from the "wavefunction collapse" principle that nature itself is random and nothing can influence its evolution.
    Best regards

  94. /* not so easy to deduct from the "wavefunction collapse" principle that nature itself is random and nothing can influence its evolution...*/

    The quantum mechanics itself is ad-hoced theory fitted to experimental observations - it doesn't explain anything about its ontological roots in the same way, like the (general) relativity says nothing about origin of gravity.

    But it's indeterministic nature provides the clue for recognition, that the underlying reality is random. Which is the basis of dense aether model, which models this randomness with nested density fluctuations of Boltzmann gas and the conscious observer represents one of most complex/hyperdimensional fluctuation in it - so-called the Boltzmann brain.

    What the fluctuations of gas are doing at certain dimensional scale is, they're undulate and exchange energy mutually in the act of "observation". During this their undulations are getting synchronized in phase, which is the principle of so-called wave function collapse. When you're undulating in the same way, like the object observed, then you cannot observe any undulations of observed object anymore: it's wave function has collapsed from your local perspective and the observed object becomes as deterministic, as the act of observation itself.

    For me the randomness of observable reality is simply Occam razor requirement of every TOE. Theory of everything must consider the lowest number of postulates possible and the assumption, that the reality is random is simple postulate enough.

  95. /* You might want to read this: */

    I'm pretty sure, that the "Libertarian Compatibilism" is "admittedly fantastic" and mostly consistent with state of art theories of physics and consiousness. But the philosophical theories tend to be tragically interpretative. What would that imply? This is the fundamental question for every falsifiable, i.e. scientific theory. Testable predictions is what I'm missing there.

  96. I think not deterministic and not random defines free will well enough for this discussion. I mentioned that on Facebook's Theoretical Physics group where someone linked to this post (Bee, I also mentioned noticing you joining the group).

    I also mentioned consciousness cause like it or not, most people associate free will with consciousness and I think consciousness should be looked at by physicists too.

    A few do look at consciousness and also have things to say about free will and at least one has something that could fit Bee's free will function (I mentioned this too).

    Quantum mechanics does seem simply random for its probabilities but also has instantaneous actions so things can get unusual if you are trying to explain both things. This is kind of an interpretation thing which is done a lot for quantum mechanics. We have the experiments, but they require interpretations too. (I briefly mentioned the interpretation being important too not just the math).

  97. Hi Bee,

    maybe someone else already post the question: did you read the paper from Scott Aaronson ( ) about free will? If yes did you have any comment?

  98. @Emanuele
    I guess that the "measurement problem" is already solved by decoherence. Also there are active streams of research trying to show that QM is completely unitary (i.e. there is no need for the measurement postulate). If I remember correctly also Sabine has written something on this.

  99. I read your article on free will in the Italian translation on the website of The Science and intrigued I also read the previous function of free will. I would like to point out that living organisms and computers already have a strong emergency with respect to physics because, although their behavior all dictated by the laws of physics as we know, they use the encoded information to communicate within themselves and with each other , think of the DNA . Different from the information studied in physics, certainly the encoded information is supported from energy and matter and its consequent generation follows physical laws , but the same can not be said with regard to its meaning that it only makes sense to those who understand . A computer can generate digits of the function of the free will of his article with an algorithm which operates in physical terms is no different way from any other generation of a sequence of digits more or less random . But the computer does not have free will , the algorithm is not invented from it but it is a program done from a man. The man possesses the ability to use language to communicate with his peers but also to think , you have to wonder if human language is deterministic or random , or something else , understand what is the difference between a mathematical calculation and a poem and a random distribution of letters or words. It seems to me that the linguistic expression is the form of free will more native and simple that man, in equality semantics of possible sentences, lurks the principle that you are looking for.

  100. Hi Sabine
    I think monism can clarify.If you want to give a scientific description of the world there´s one question you have to answer: does the world consist of parts(pluralism) or is it a whole(monism)?
    Pluralism means: free will, separability, locality, nonlocality(maybe),indeterminism, acausality, chance a.s.o.
    Monism means: no free will, no separability, no locality, no nonlocality(no parts remember), determinism, causality, no chance a.s.o.
    Monism goes hand in hand with quantum mechanics, pluralism does not.
    The Copenhagen interpretation is pluralistic though it has free will as axiom, and this is infact the cause of all the confusion!
    Best, Mats.

  101. Excellent article.

    I settled the moral/ethical/philosophical questions for myself a long time ago by saying that, from the perspective of a human being, it really makes no difference.

    Perhaps what I do is entirely determined. But from my own perspective (and indeed, from the perspective of all humans capable of asking the question with their deterministic consciousness), I have free will.

    From a rigorous scientific point of view, of course, the answer is potentially different. Very interesting to me that muddying the waters between the two is causing problems for science.

  102. I hereby formulate a principle: any system that has the ability to predict the behavior of a specific human brain will choose not to do so.

  103. @Mats
    Is it possible that both conditions are true if you consider the parts (pluralism) to simply be topological distinctions (roughly, folds) upon the greater, unbroken whole? So is it a question of establishing at least some partial discontinuity between the dynamics (is that even the right word?) of the “fundamental description” and the dynamics of our world-at-hand experience?

  104. For being the emerging mathematician that am I, without a definition you cannot handle anything (that doesn't have a definition, so actually you cannot mention it in the first place...).

    So if anyone wants to talk abuot "free will", that one need first to know what is "free will".
    And, consequently, the definition of "absence of free will" doesn't make sense at all, without a definition of "free will" or a definition for the opposite of "free will" (for ex; in the "dark" case, a definiton of "light").

    I think that Zephir's posts (all of them very smartly gives you a great cause of reflection) are pointing right in this direction.

    I hope I didn't any logical and grammatical mistake...

    Thanks for the attention.

  105. /*I do not have to define free will itself to show that the minimal conditions for its existence are not fulfilled. Same argument as saying that you don't have to define what "life" is to show that it can't exist if the cosmological constant was too large, you only have to look at some minimal requirements (eg the formation of structures or such).*/

    Of course you have to define what "life" is!
    If I say <> and someone "proves" that a law ora a condition isn't fulfilled, I could simply say that *this thing* doesn't need that law or condition to exist, and nobody could proves that I'm wrong...

  106. the minimal requirements for the existence of *name of "anything" that hasn't a definition* are fulfilled.

    Sorry, trouble with the >< signs...

  107. Sabine, you write:
    "Fact 1: Everything in the universe, including you and your brain, is composed of elementary particles. What these particles do is described by the fundamental laws of physics. Everything else follows from that, in principle."

    I add:

    Fact 1.1: No explicit explanation exists of the human behaviour in terms of foundamntal physical laws. Assuming that this explanation exists "in principle" is an act of faith.

  108. I wonder here if physics has exceeded the mandate of its mathematics and claimed governance of turf it has not fairly won.
    Free will aside, I am concerned at the accuracy of the notion that the complete dynamics of the physical world can be fully conveyed by the “fundamental description” of some existing-in-principle general field equation.

    “The idea that the emergent properties of large systems do not derive from the fundamental description is called “strong emergence”.

    And, if I understand it, the reality of strong emergence would signal a causal discontinuity between the “fundamental description” and the dynamics of the physical whole.

    So, could we take another look at the possibility of strong emergence? I will give an example that I believe qualifies and perhaps you could tell me if it meets the criteria of suitable argument.

    Consider it first in high abstraction. We are given a system consisting of two only properties: movement and stillness. What do you get when you “add” them together? That is, what dynamic can arise that subsumes both antecedent properties; yet exhibit an entirely new property?

    Fleshing out the example, consider a basin with a laminar fluid flow moving across the bottom and an earthly rock placed in its center. We would expect to find various eddies arising in the flow around the rock, portions of the fluid momentum now constrained to a locale.

    So, we find cyclical behavior arising as a new property of the system, but, more significantly in terms of the evolution of the dynamics, there is also the new property of “return”, the counter-current, the flow that can return to affect the nexus of the vortex’s ongoing divergence from the flow.

    While vortex dynamics have been formalized and can be mimicked by a computer, they are but a cartoon version and do not convey the particulars of the dynamics or its full potential to affect the evolution of future states.

    To my mind this qualifies as perhaps a least case example of strong emergence.

  109. Don
    Descartes and his vortex ideas come to mind as a universe model. How does a bumblebee hover and fly so to defy gravity? How can it shift slightly to avoid a pellet from a gun projectory? Did this emerge or just evolve its flight by vorticies but nature's laws?
    Sure, a conceptual question may as strictly science answered may gives us three more questions we do not yet have terms for. I have three answers I gave poetic names exploring the issues under discussion here. But as structures can we show them in the realm of science? It seems possible yet not needed as relevant as practical science so far. But I post this to ask a question. If we bring into the conversation degrees of particle freedom as free will, for the idea of asymtopic freedom then mean?

  110. Me: "I could go and jump out of a window. That would change my future dramatically."

    You: "No it wouldn't. Your future either does or doesn't contain you jumping out the window. There's nothing you can change about that."

    Obviously I can't change the fact that my future either does or doesn't contain me jumping out of the window, just is I can't change the fact that 0=0. However, I can decide which of the two possibilities happens. You yourself admit that decisions are possible. So that's all I'm saying. If I decide to jump out of the window, that changes my life in a dramatic way. So what if the decision itself was determined? It still had an important and life-changing consequence.

    I'm talking here in normal sensible language rather than in some strange philosophical language. Perhaps I can try to clarify my position by saying that I think a definition that does a reasonably good job of capturing our intuitive notion of free will (in many cases at least) is this: if my mental state is normal and I decide to do X, then I was free to do X or not to do X. That is, an act X is free if it is caused by a decision. You don't deny that decisions exist, so you can't deny that this definition makes sense. I also claim that it is useful.

    I define "useful" in a very weak sense: an adjective is useful if it applies to some objects (within its natural scope) and not to others. By that criterion, the definition I propose is useful, and the definition you seem to have in mind is of no use whatever.

    Incidentally, your response above, that my future either does or doesn't contain my jumping out of a window, appears to have nothing to do with science. Isn't your position just the standard fatalist one that what is going to happen is going to happen, regardless of how it is caused?

  111. Bee,

    I would very much like to know the answer here. Setting the subject of free will aside, what about innovation? Where do the new things come from?

    It took proto-humans a million years to learn to improve the edges of their stone tools and yet within my lifetime I can look around and find few things untouched by innovation. Have human minds played a part in that? Are bike makers turned aviators really figuring things out or is that an illusion? Are they just simply following the iron rails of your post’s illustrative photo to a forgone conclusion?

    I was under the impression that scientists were the pathfinders in this wave of innovation, going on foot with wheels to follow. I thought the steady clarity of mind of a physicist was a necessity rather than mere coincidence. Are the Nobel awards simply a form of pageantry?

    Does insight and innovation actually percolate up from below, the message of some moving, minute hand tracing the Braille-like inscription of the general quantum wave function?

    There is a rhetorical slight-of-hand called the “Straw Man” fallacy. You misrepresent your opponent’s argument and then attack that misrepresentation. Have I stumbled into that myself, not through malice, but through misapprehension?

    So, what does quantum determinism have to say about innovation? Where do the new things come from?

  112. Thank you, that’s a great talk by Schrödinger, right on topic and with the flavor of classical argument. Unfortunately it was incomplete, stopped as he was discussing the probabilistic nature of atomic paths, no resolution as to whether we are automatons.
    There is a longer version here:

    Not sure that is complete, but he clearly favors determinism

    One would think that would settle if for me, but unfortunately it is going to occupy my mind for a while longer.

    Ah, here it is, the Physics of Innovation via the Perimeter Institute, a study guide for grades 9 -12:

  113. "I would now like to say a few words about the old discussion of the freedom of the will. This, of
    course, is not related in any way to physics."
    - Niels Bohr -

    Here is the full audio lecture:

  114. In AWT the existence of free will/superdeterminism/hidden variables depends on dimensional scale of objects. At the whole boundary of observable scope the Universe appears random in similar way, like the most subtle objects observable at the water surface (solitons, vortices), which is observed with its own ripples. I.e. the Higgs bosons are pretty random and silly, whereas another more complex particles are affected with extradimensions in larger or smaller extent and they have internal structure inside of them, which brings additional complexity into their behaviour. The free will/superdeterminism of such objects is closely related to the recent AdS/CFT dual problem of black hole firewalls, which correspond the physical surface of dense quark and neutrino stars. If such black holes have firewall inside of them, it just means, their behaviour is sorta superdeterministic (one can never know, what such black hole is prepared to do).

  115. very nice post and interesting argumentation. the conclusion that "to our best present knowledge of the laws of nature, you do not have free will" is however not justified. it is true that to our best knowledge of the laws of nature we do not have any evidence of free will. it is however also true that to the same knowledge we do not have any evidence (or prove or demonstration) of the absence of free will, which instead your conclusion above implies. the only conclusion we can draw from the knowledge of the laws of nature we have today is that we can neither affirm nor exclude the existence of free will. we simply don't know enough to give a definite answer, whatever that be. this is fundamentally different from affirming that there is no free will.

  116. Given initial data on a space-like slice and the laws of physics, the future is determined -- one of the problems in a statement like this is that "space-like slice" is a theoretical, not a practically realizable notion.

    Let's be in the classical, not quantum world.

    Suppose we set about trying to prepare a space-like slice - we have N observers and they have proper time T in which to make their measurements and communicate with each other. How big is the space-like slice they can prepare? It has to be something like cNT.

    It means that the future time evolution of the center of your space-slice can be time evolved only for a period of NT before the unknowns outside the space-like slice start impinging. Of course, the situation at the periphery of the space-like slice is worse.

    Where I'm going with this is that, even given infinitely precise and accurate measurements (and assume it takes a short fixed time interval to transmit an infinite precision value) and the laws of physics, we have incomplete information; and thus there can be two or more futures predicted by the laws of physics **given the theoretically maximum information** available to us.

    Of course, the universe could have some property like analyticity, where complete measurements in a neighborhood, plus analytical continuation are sufficient to specify the whole; i.e., we could discover the whole world through a grain of sand.

  117. “Given initial data on a space-like slice and the laws of physics, the future is determined -- one of the problems in a statement like this is that "space-like slice" is a theoretical, not a practically realizable notion”.

    Even without the measurement problem, I wonder if this is true, if physics is up to the task. I think the meta-level relationships would be missed by such a microscopic description.

    Say for example that the space-like slice included a butterfly. At that frozen moment it is caught moving through a terrain that only it perceives and respond to. It seems to me that with each succeeding frame the butterfly's location is likely to diverge markedly from the path projected by simple physics from its initial frame.

  118. Actually though, your line of thought may be the more interesting one.

  119. "I am convinced we’re not making any progress in quantum gravity because physicists aren’t able to abandon their belief in free will".

    LOL! At this point I decided to stop reading this article.

  120. /*At this point I decided to stop reading this article.*/

    I got the same feeling in this moment. BTW Recent article of Max Tegmark: Consciousness as a State of Matter

    Before some time I described the elementary particles like small living creatures, which are following energy density gradients ("food") of their life environment. Bosons are males, whereas fermions are females. They've a genetic information encoded in helical structure of density gradient inside of their body like other living organisms, they consist of foamy tissue composed of bilayers with different surface tension and superhydrophobic behavior, they're tactile and sensitive to heat and mechanical stimulation like other animals....

    In general, the she-fermions are more communicative particles, usually rather attractive having mass (some fermions can become quite corpulent at times). In general, they're loving company and most of all they prefer to exchange food & energy with bosons.

    Instead of this, bosons are a movable, unstable and volatile particles. They usually bouncing from one she-fermion to another by high speed. Whenever boson obtains a sufficient energy (fitness), it succeeds in mating and it's allowed to exchange its information with fermion. After such collisions a new small particles can emerge, which have structure and property signatures of both parents at the same time...

    Do you still believe, that the world of elementary particles differs so much from the conscious world of living organisms? They're just smaller and little more dumber - that's all.

  121. Here is the Gödel defense against the notion of global determinism. It may need a little work.

    1) A physical, causal network can be represented mathematically.
    2) Within any mathematical framework there will be truth that is not recognized.
    3) By inference therefore, any physical, causal network is bounded and not globally inclusive.

  122. What if time is not exactly linear, and there was some sort of feedback with future and past? Results from your choices could affect your choices - you don't seem to consider this. Or how about multiverse where everyone makes all choices in some universe?

  123. But what is after all "randomness"? It is a mere label, a human concept, with which we declare our ignorance about how phenomena came into being. To use randomness as and argument for or against the existence of free will, final causes, or similar metaphysical discussion, is fallacious. Lots of phenomena escape the understanding of their causal chain, and therefor we defined them as being "random". Equally, the causal chain of events set in motion by free will, could well be interpreted as "random" to an outside observer. I think using the notion of randomness to deny or support metaphysical ideas is misplaced from the outset.

  124. I just wanted to say the same thing that Marco Masi wrote here above. Randomness it's a very misterious concept. In mathematics, there is the need to use the "axion of choice" to make a random choice. Nothing prevent me from imagininig that free will could be the use of this "randomness" from consciousness, that is another mistery for physics. Anyhow, I believe that it is impossible to prove it or to prove the contrary.

  125. Reading other comments, expecially the last by vmarko, I saw that the relation between randomness and consciousness is interesting for may people here

  126. Causality is clearly a fact of life and the cornerstone of our science. That said, here is an unexamined and perhaps spurious notion, which I hope, is at least understandable.

    If there was a universe that consisted of a symbol set, say that of English text, and it produced a signal wherein each new symbol was strictly determined by its successor, then that signal would contain no new information beyond the minimum inherent in its symbol set. It would be completely redundant.

    How does that square with our universe, its “in principal” global determinacy and its amazing richness of evolving structure? Is there a real paradox here or only a manufactured one?

  127. I have a problem with:
    Everything in the universe, including you and your brain, is composed of elementary particles. What these particles do is described by the fundamental laws of physics. Everything else follows from that, in principle.
    There are serious considerations to make about absolute reductionism well expressed by Anderson
    the quoted statement is toos trong, oscar


  128. Marco and Iacopo

    You have to make a distinction between random: irregular, and pure chance: without cause. Which number that comes up with the trow of a dice is random but completely determined by the laws of nature. If the will was free it would be pure chance.

    Best Mats

  129. @Mats: Precisely. And how do you determine that an event comes into being by "pure chace"? There is no general rule to determine such an occurrence, which has only an intuitive content, but is not defined in science. The only counterexample I can think of is quantum mechanics, where we think of it being a nondeterministic theory without hidden variables. That is, something where events could occur without a cause. And indeed, IMHO it could be conceived potentially as the source of free will.

  130. shlomo,

    I know Anderson's essay. I also know that there exists not a single known case in which 'more' really is different. There is the paper by Gu et al, which we discussed here, but it relies on an infinitely large system. Best,


  131. /* But what is after all "randomness"? It is a mere label, a human concept, with which we declare our ignorance about how phenomena came into being...*/

    Yes,indeed. For all animal pets most of human activities are essentially random, they cannot recognize any meaningful patterns in it. They do appear like the low-dimensional projection of regular motion (like the rotating rod in three dimension) to 2D plane. It's shadow will resemble a common particles: it will appear shortened and the regularity of its motion will disappear due to the lost of portion of information during projection.

    This is why the remarks of smart people would appear like the incoherent babbling for layman people so often ("when you're one step ahead, you're genius, when you're two steps ahead, you're a crackpot").


  132. Hi Marco!

    But where did that honest opinion come from? Nowhere? Google " John Dylan Haynes free will" for a great Marcus de Sautoy documentary.

    Best Mats

  133. @Mats: The opinion comes from me, not from nowhere... ;) As to the video, the materialists find in these "experiments a la Libet" the proof of their ideas, but equally lots of mystics would find in it evidence of their claim that who is in charge of our decisions is not the "conscious me" we are accustomed with in our "normal" waking state. Therefore, I don't think this is much conclusive. The metaphysical interpretations of scientific facts depend form our (frequently unconscious too) philosophical and metaphysical assumptions, the cultural background and our belief systems.

  134. Fact 2: "All known fundamental laws of nature are either deterministic or random."

    There's no logical way to derive from this premise the conclusion "so must be all fundamental laws of nature". Without such conclusion, the premises doesn't prove a), b) and c).

    Fact 1: "Everything in the universe, including you and your brain, is composed of elementary particles. What these particles do is described by the fundamental laws of physics. Everything else follows from that, in principle."

    There's not such principle, that is, this principle doesn't follow from premises.

    Both two arguments are not sound.


  135. Marco

    Now you mention a lot of causes! I agree with a lot of what your saying, it´s just "free" i have a problem with. A question I´ve been boring my friends with lately is: can consciounsness affect the brain? I don´t think so.


  136. Quite so. For some it is a fact that it is possible to detach and witness our personality, body, emotions, mind and that little "I" with all its rational and intellectual ruminations as an independent flimsy minuscule superficial appearance inside a much vaster cosmic play. But I'm afraid we are going a bit to far beyond science now... ;)

  137. This comment has been removed by the author.

  138. '“Do humans have free will?” is a question I care deeply about. It lies at the heart of how we understand ourselves and arrange our living together.'

    Given that we don't have free will, what bothers me more is: why bother to do anything when we really are just going through the motions? I know I'm just pretending and I can't help but not like it.

  139. In ordinary fluid systems, any change at one point affects conditions both downstream and upstream.

    By analogy, is it conceivable that the interface of the manifold present moment also creates a “back pressure” that could affect some earlier state of the universe?

    That would be an exciting universe in which to live, something like this one perhaps.

  140. Perhaps the beginning and the end are in some fashion concurrent.

  141. You can't define free will as total randomness, and then in the next sentence say that total randomness isn't free will. I think you're got some misconceptions if your own here. Your concept of free will is a nonsense strawman that no one ever actually used for anything except in misguided arguments against free will.

  142. I think the author could have delved into this notion of free will with a bit more of an encompassing mindset. I mean, to be completely fair if 90% of the adult population was questioned about free will they would most probably not relate it back to such a complex notion that deals with a "bigger picture" relating to the shared make up of all things which in turn forms the basis for "reductionism". Naa, they'd be perceiving this man-made notion of free will by subconsciously linking various areas of human interaction that have been formed through "emergence" and hence perceive the notion through these lenses of human-nature (relating to politics, power, inequality, law; whatever) that are fundamentally born of "reduction" but in the minds of the greater majority are completely independent and unique. The quote "I acknowledge that there are other ways to define free will. Some people for example want to call a choice “free” if nobody else could have predicted it, but for what I am concerned this is just pseudo free will." kinda sums it up, he's just looking at it from one frame. "For what i am concerned" clearly signifies her subjective tendency (which is, of course, unavoidable and quite necessary) towards this notion and it also shows that a huge range of alternative viewings that are equally relevant in the grand scheme of OUR lives as PEOPLE (which are irrelevant when viewed through her lens of perception) are completely dismissed by ironically stating "i acknowledge that there are other ways to define free will", which in fact shows that she has in fact not at all acknowledged any other way to define free will..
    Very good article overall, i just think she should realise that there are differing levels that people will perceive things and perhaps the "biggest picture" isn't always the most relevant, she should try acid

  143. Ben,

    You are jumping to conclusions based on your careless reading of my blogpost. I did nowhere define "free will as total randomness" as you accuse me I did. Best,


  144. I'm going to print and frame this and put it on my wall.

    What gets me is how vehemently philosphers argue against this. When i saw this on reddit, one person said something along the lines that 'atoms colliding with atoms just doesn't explain consciousness'. Apparently they think our consciousness is some 'thing' that is above the laws of physics? Sorry Im not a college educated person, but to me this sounds like just bullshit. They want to imagine that our consciousness is something that could not have been created due to 'science' and then they can argue that science cannot give us the answers to questions like 'what is consciousness'? Apparently, I might be wrong I guess. It just seems that philosophy as a discipline has some issue with science in general. I think they are annoyed that science answers questions they still want to spend time thinking about.

    Anyway, I loved this post. :)

  145. "Your future either does or doesn't contain you jumping out the window. There's nothing you can change about that."

    Severe flaw in this statement. What is "you"? If "you" is the body and brain, then it's clear "you" does influence the future, because they are an actor in the scene, a variable in the equation. It's been stated that the brain makes decisions and that decisions matter, so clearly the brain does influence it's future.

    The only way I see to make that earlier statement make sense is if by "you" one is referring to the spirit or "free will" which you just established didn't exist. Stating that something which doesn't exist has no influence on events is a meaningless statement.

    Clarification is requested.

  146. KLDR,

    You don't get what I am saying. I am not saying that you, whatever you mean with "you" (as I wrote in my post, just take it to mean some subsystem of the universe) are irrelevant to what happens in the future. I am saying there is no way in which "you" (again, regardless of what this means) can *change* anything about it. Because nothing can change anything about it. It's either determined, or it's random. In the first case, there is only one future and it is equivalent to any other moment, it just looks different. In the second case there are different futures, but nothing you can do about picking one. You have to rethink what you mean with "influence" in your above statement.

    Once again, it's all fine by me with saying that you, as some subsystem of the universe, do process information and, based on that, perform some action, and in that sense you do of course "make decisions". You want to interpret this as the ability to "influence" the future. I'm telling you that is meaningless. You're not influencing anything, you're just executing a program that's been written at the beginning of time.



  147. Your definition of Influence seems very strange to me. In fact, you appear to once again be making a meaningless statement that something which doesn't exist (change) can't affect the world. In a pre-determined timeline change (to the timeline) can't exist only things which determine the outcome. To say that deciding the outcome isn't influence because it's not changing anything is defining influence as something that doesn't exist. Why choose such a confusing definition? Especially since even if the future doesn't change, one's current state does.

  148. KLDR:

    The whole point of my argument is to have clean definitions. Without definitions you can't have any argument. This is my great frustration with much of the discussion around free will. I am totally not interested in what you want to call "influence" or "change" and I have no desire to continue this exchange. I have explained what I mean with my terminology, I have explained what I think the problem is and what needs to be addressed. If you want to hack away at some other problem, fine, but please do this elsewhere.

    You are wrong in thinking that I have defined free will away. It is possible that free will exists, according to my definition (which I still think is the only sensible one), it is just not compatible with the presently known laws of nature. That's my whole point.

    You and everybody who has made similar remarks jumps to conclusions that are simply incorrect. The only reason you think I've defined it away is that you know something about the laws of nature which you are already assuming prior to definition, and then you *want* to define free will (choice, influence, whatever) such that it can exist. That's very, well, compatibilistic. I guess I'm just not compatible. Best,


  149. I do not choose my definition of free will based on a desire for it to exist, but based upon how it is used in common discourse and in moral theory. Many people consider Free Will highly important because it is the basis of believing people are responsible for their actions. Thus defining free will as simply meaning that people have a choice, and are responsible for the outcome of their decisions is in my opinion the most useful definition available. Choosing anything else, is basically asking for problems and confusion in any conversation or debate, no matter how carefully you try to define it.

    You still haven't answered the question to why you'd make meaningless statements about non-existant things not being available to people. Just say it doesn't exist, instead of trying to apply a non-existant thing in a claim.

    The reason I consider these semantic arguments important is because language is how ideas are communicated. If you choose wrong, no one will understand the message, which would make me question why you are even making such a statement in the first place if being understood is not a high priority.

    Whether a person speaks truth or falsehood is of little importance if no one understood what was said.

  150. KLDR,

    How often do you want me to repeat that I'm not interested in debating a definition? I think the definition I have given is the only meaningful one and that everybody in their right might must agree on that, but if you want to discuss language issues, please do this elsewhere.

    You seem not to have read my above reply. I have told you that I have not defined free will away. The point of my argument is to enable us to meaningfully ask what laws of nature would be compatible with free will. The current ones aren't. I'll repeat this again because you seem to have a hard time understanding this simple point. ||: This isn't about my definition of free will. It's about the properties of the laws of nature. :||

    "Just say it doesn't exist, instead of trying to apply a non-existant thing in a claim."

    I don't know which 'non-existent thing' you are referring to. Also, that would be entirely useless. Best,


  151. I've explained quite clearly why words matter. You've explained clearly that you don't care (feel free to ignore rest of post, this is more for any readers than for you, since you clearly have no interest in effective communication). The whole reason people keep bringing up semantics and the reason you keep getting frustrated over it, is because of your refusal to change your definitions to ones people understand and care about.

    The reason so many get defensive and scared when free will is brought up, is because much of moral reasoning and criminal law is based on the assumption people have choice, and that those choices are something they are responsible for. Any definition of Free Will that does not include those things, will be quickly dismissed as nonsense (as many have visibly already done in this thread) and they will stop listening. If that is what you want to happen, then keep doing exactly what you've been doing.

    I would implore everyone else to try and make sure that when they make an argument for the whole internet to read, that they try to use definitions people will care about, believe in, and understand. People listen to those they understand, those they think make sense. People of influence online, are not those who are right, but those who are understood, and whom give explanations of the world that fit the reader's common sense (which is apparently different for everyone depending on background). Otherwise... well, you get what's seen here. A very unhappy blogger and a bunch of confused commentators.

  152. KLDR, I've told you now sufficiently often that I'm not interested in your semantic issues. If you want to use the word free will differently than I do, that's fine by me. It doesn't change anything about the problem I have highlighted, just use a different word for what I called "free will" (hamburger? sunlight?) and the problem still exists in exactly the same way. Thanks for dropping in and good bye,


  153. Imagine a world that is perfectly deterministic. Eventually given enough time and computational power one could imagine that all particles are discovered and that given a set of matter made up of whatever and given any initial event, one could perfectly determine what the following events would be. Knowing how all particles are interacting one can determine their state one second or one minute from now. One can essentially tell the future, and you have a machine that can do these calculations. So a subject sits in front of a screen and two buttons. The instructions are "Push the button that the screen tells you that you are not going to push." The screen is set up to calculate all causes and read out the button that the subject will push. So then it shows him/her which button they will push and...

    I have heard this thought experiment in a few places and though I really don't think of myself as much of an intellectual I would really be obliged if someone would tell me what the problems with it are and why it is not a valid criticism of hard determinism. Thanks for taking the time to read it anyway.

  154. "You never knew which split second might be the zigzag bolt dividing all that went before from everything that comes next" --Barbara Kingsolver, Flight Behavior.

    “To our best present knowledge nothing, including you, can influence your future.” Sabine Hossenfelder

    Flight Behavior is a grand book and it would be wonderful if Ms. Kingsolver were also a physicist, someone who could put mathematical rigor to her notion.

    Because… In the month plus since you posted this essay I have been oppressed by the idea that some earlier state of the universe directly and inviolably determines all that is to follow. If we could set aside the notion of free will and consider something less exotic, what concerns me is that this wall-to-wall determinism changes, at a fundamental level, the very nature of the game. It removes entirely the significance of any present moment, any chance of that moment being the actual pivot for future outcome. That prospect is deadening.

    Across the street a toddler stumbles and regains her balance. Many times she has fallen, but this time she does not. Seemingly the most direct influence of whether she walks or falls would lie within her physiology and in the present moment.

    Or consider that within a fraction of a second a human hand can, place a paddle with the precise angle and impetus so as to return a speeding ping-pong ball back across the net to the far corner of the table. Here again it is difficult to conceive of this event as arising inviolably from the state of the universe in some far distant past.

    “You're not influencing anything, you're just executing a program that's been written at the beginning of time.” -- Sabine Hossenfelder

    “ I claim credit for nothing...everything is determined, the beginning as well as the end, by forces over which we have no control. It is determined for insects as well as for the stars. Human beings, vegetables, or cosmic dust, we all dance to a mysterious tune, intoned in the distance by an invisible piper.“ -- Albert Einstein

    This is a thoroughly depressing consensus for anyone attached to the present moment.

    “The point of my argument is to enable us to meaningfully ask what laws of nature would be compatible with free will. The current ones aren't.” -- Sabine Hossenfelder

    Now, this is encouraging. There may be time for Ms. Kingsolver to learn physics and mathematically affirm potency in the present moment. So, what possibilities would be compatible with the vitality of the present moment? Here is a naive and perhaps fanciful list.

    1) None. The crystalline determinism of the fundamental physics is entirely correct and I should just get over it.

    2) The dynamics of the universe is deeply recursive, has a bell-like resonance and the present can influence the past.

    3) Implicit within the fundamental description, but as yet not described, are recursive dynamics that create Kingsolver moments, instances with manifold concurrence that actually take the universe on a new path. It would not take many, perhaps just one such moment in 10^60 would suffice.

    Are there laws of nature that would be compatible with Kingsolver moments?

    Thank you for your diverting essay.

  155. Do you like following reasoning:

    I am (in relation to) my brain and my brain is (in relation to) me. So there is a perfect equivalence (relation) between me and and my brain.

    I am not able to do things that the structure of my brain does not permit. I am not able to factorize big numbers because my brain does not have this function build into it.

    I usually can remain in equilibrium when walking and I have sexual desires because the evolution has build this functions into my brain.

    Potentially I am a killer because my brain can be involved in fight or flight situations where, in extreme cases, maybe the fight reaction will be predominant.

    I am able to do mathematics because my brain has some capabilities in this direction, but only to a limited extent: with quantum mechanics the border is reached.

    AND NOW THE POINT: I can make mistakes because my brain is a physical system in a chaotic universe. Sometimes I will not be able/willing to pay attention.
    Sometimes I may necessarily be tempted to hate and the outcome between fear and anger can be not determined for some moments. This will correlate to the structure and the stimuli involving my brain and the whole universe.

    What happens then when I am not functioning ?

    I would say that the society (the rest of the universe) should educate me in such a way that my limitations are fixed (or attempt to do so).
    Punishment should so be a rehabilitation but for doing so punishment may necessarily be painful to some extent.

    This pain in the punishment should always be something where in the end I will be grateful for a problem having been fixed...
    And the punishment should be compatible with the system of the brain: a punishment with evident lack of rehabilitative effects is a non sense.

    And if I should become a serial killer please prevent me from doing harm but remember that it will be a malfunctioning of my brain, so a malfunctioning of myself that leads to an error, like a pc computing a wrong output...

    Finally have mercy: some errors are unavoidable because the perfect brain does not exist. I am not perfect because my brain is not able to never make any mistake...

  156. Thank you for your interesting article. At the moment I agree with you about free will.What are your thoughts on the MWI of QM giving a possibility of free will.Or is the best we can hope for that all possibilities happen somewhere and we are in one of the better ones?

  157. Hi Sabine,
    thanks for your post, I've fouund it really thought provoking and I've spent a good slice of yesterday reading it and all the 161 comments...
    However, I feel some very fundamental part of your reasoning to be deeply unsatisfying.

    /* Fact 1: Everything in the universe, including you and your brain, is composed of elementary particles. What these particles do is described by the fundamental laws of physics. Everything else follows from that, in principle. */

    This "in principle" is the rock on which your reasoning seems to stand. However, it looks like this "in principle" is actually the problem itself.
    Can we really explain human brain inner working starting from the wave function? In term of computability, this is a tall assumption at best:
    - If we could ever represent such "monstre" wave function, will it be computable in a finite time (let's say in a time shorter that the whole life of the universe)?
    - How much energy would require the turing machine capable of such computation?

    Probably an expert in computation theory can throw lot more caveats to your "in principle".

    Maybe I'm wrong here, but as a last word of warning about "in principle", I can add that 150 years ago, we were pretty convinced that by adding energy to a body, we could accelerate it indefinitely, in principle...


  158. Hi Danilo,

    "it looks like this "in principle" is actually the problem itself. Can we really explain human brain inner working starting from the wave function?"

    What I mean with 'in principle' is that it doesn't matter if "we" can actually do that, it follows on mathematical reasoning. What you mean with 'in principle' I would already call 'in practice'. Ie, I don't really care if you can represent or compute the wavefunction or if there is a machine capable of doing this computation for you. For all we know, the universe is doing exactly this computation and that's what I mean with 'in principle'. Best,


  159. Hi Sabine,
    thanks for your answer. Am I wrong if I see a petitio principii in your line of reasoning?

    If you try to demonstrate that free will is a non-entity, because everything in the universe descend from the physics of elementary particles - in principle, you are actually using a circular argument, IMHO.

    Best regards

  160. DaniLLo,

    Yes, you are wrong in suspecting a petitio principii, but it is good you bring it up because that's what several others tried to say without pinning it down so precisely.

    You think I'm assuming my point because you know how the argument will end and you don't want that conclusion. But note that I'm not assuming anything about the existence of free will (in the way I have defined it) a priori when I say, well let's look at what laws of nature we have found. I am just pointing out there is no place for free will in the laws that we have found. This is not a trivial conclusion if you think about it for a moment. Exactly how reductionism works in connecting large to small scales was not very well known even 50 years ago.

    And I did not actually say anything about particle physics in particular. It doesn't really matter what the fundamental laws are, particles, strings, loops, what have you. The point is there is *no* known law of nature that allows for free will, period.

    In any case, regarding your issues with criminal punishment. You're locked into thinking of it from a personal perspective. Try to get over this and look at it from the perspective of natural selection. Humanity is an adaptive system. I don't like the word "purpose" because I don't understand its meaning, let me just speak about consequences. If you put into place measures of punishment, treatment, or deterrents for criminal behavior, individuals benefit by obeying the laws (or getting treated) and so do others. This means, essentially, certain collective norms, policies, laws and behavior benefit groups more or less. That's basically why we have societies to begin with. Nothing of that requires free will. Best,


  161. This is probably the biggest misconception regarding the lack of free will: if there is no free will, then how can we punish criminals for crimes? Most (all?) civilized countries no longer have punishment/vengeance/wrath/retribution as part of the penal code. Rather, punishment exists a) to protect society from known criminals, b) as a deterrent and c) as an impetus to reform on the part of the criminal. None of these depends on free will.

    "No free will" does not mean "the criminal would have committed the crime under any circumstances", but rather "the criminal had no choice but to commit the crime under these circumstances" and as society we can change "these circumstances".

    But hey, if you think the lack of free will means that criminals shouldn't be punished, then by the same token you can't criticize society for such punishment, since society has just as little free will.

    Some pundit said "We have to believe in free will; we have no choice." :-|

  162. Hi Sabine,
    please let me rephrase/rephormulate your line of reasonibg as such:
    "Even if there is this strong, subjective feeling of having 'free will', science so far do not account in any way for it as having any 'real' meaning".
    Nor can it disprove it "experimentally", I'd like to add.

    On the topic of self organisation:
    /* individuals benefit by obeying the laws (or getting treated) and so do others */

    here we have forcefully a subject who can make choices, deciding what is best for him. Try to explain or rephrase it using only verbs from random interactions and/or predetermined timeline.

    In a "gas" of purely casual, non interacting elements you do not see the emergence of structures. (In the game "Life", for instance, you notice the emergence of structures, but "Life"'s cells do interact the ones with the others).
    However, you can see it in a "predetermined" timeline, such as a Novel or... an act of Creation?

    Thanks for your time

  163. Sorry Sabime, I can't hold that back.
    It is getting quite nonsensical: you are at you PC in US/UK/Germany wherever, converting your mental state/wavefunction in a string of pseudo random symbols with your keyboard. This string is converted in basic informative elements, beamed by electron, translated many times, beamed by solitons, converted again in strings of pseudo random symbols, all of this thanks to the work of innumerable human beings that designed and developed all this technology. Here I'm sitting, thousands of miles away, recreating an imitation of your "wavefunction" (probably you won't like the terms "ideas" or "mental state") and responding to it with another trains of symbols, and according to the current status of fundamental science this is just random/deterministic behavior?

    I mean, if the current science cannot account for conscience/free will, this looks a lot like a problem of current science, not one of free will! Think to the orbit of Mercury, if you like...


  164. Philip: I have comment moderation on for posts older than 14 days because comments on these posts tend to be spam in almost all cases. Your comment will only appear after I approve it. This is not the case for the newer posts. Sorry if that caused a confusion.

  165. just stumbled on this post Bee. in some sense, there is little to distinguish between the hard determinist position that you take and the compatibilist position taken by for example, Daniel Dennett.
    saying that the future is determined by the past is not the same as saying that it is fixed (unless we have the ability to specify or compute this fixed future, there is no point in calling it fixed).
    otherwise, it is tantamount to saying that "whatever will happen, will happen", a statement devoid of any information.
    In principle itself, such a computation is not possible. Or rather, the only entity which can do such a computation (and doing it successfully!) is the universe itself as it evolves from the past into the present moment and the future.

  166. "In my darker moods I am convinced we’re not making any progress in quantum gravity because physicists aren’t able to abandon their belief in free will."

    Good to see you take personal responsibility for your moods and your thinking!

  167. Go back to any time in your life where you made a decision, big or small. Go back there with exactly the same information that you had at that time i.e. without the benefit of hindsight. The choice that you made then will surely be repeated again, leaving no room whatsoever for free will.

  168. Hi Sabine, I wanted just to point out, for your knowledge and just in case, an article written by an Italian physicist of the past, Ettore Majorana (whose disappearing from the 'public' is a mistery), entitled
    "Il valore delle leggi statistiche nella fisica e nelle scienze sociali"
    I'm sorry it is in Italian language, but you could use free services like google translator to read that.
    It has been an aid to me in exploring such questions like free will.
    Thank you so much for the article, that undoubtely furtherly opened my mind :)

    P.S. other unanswered question that I ask myself, like the 'Zen' "what am I" or "who am I", in lack of physical laws and mathematical evidence discovered so far, I currently decided to find analogies with ancient religious/philosopical conception of cosmoteism.

  169. Hi again Sabine. I'm here to update my thoughts about your article topic, being based on a recently discovered theorem in quanthun physics, submitted to the examination of the scientific community in 2012.
    The theorem titles 'On the reality of the quantum state', and if you haven't already done so, you can download it here:
    I'm not a physicist, but it seems to me that the theorem eliminate the probabilistic/statistical Concept from the quantum states, leaving only a deterministic option.
    We cannot still exclude other options from these two, but up to the scientific knowledge as updated so far, only deterministico done seems to remain. Correct me if I'm wrong.
    So, we human beings are machines, and I pose myself new questions:
    Were the previous words, these and the following words, planned in the singularities (I like and suppose reasonable a multiverse/multidimensional cosmos), or must we ask 'what "machine" means'?, or 'what "free will" means'?
    A last reflection I made is that not only any entity could 'autonomously' decide, that already seems impossibile, but if Andy such entity could forecast and decide for the whole; would those entities be the singularities?
    Thank you, bruno

  170. People used to think lightning was the wrath of a god. Then electricity was discovered. Someone like you might have said that merely a bolt of electricity from a cloud wouldn't count as lightning. But neither science, nor philosophy, nor language works that way. If you've discovered that what was called lightning can be explained by electricity, then you've discovered that lightning is electricity. Any less of an inference would be obfuscation.

    The same thing applies here. Every human action attributed to free will can be explained by a human-level intelligence deterministically finding patterns in random input. So that's what free will is.

    P.S.: Bruno, if the waveform actually exists, then its collapse also actually exists. This makes strict determinism almost untenable; it can be saved only with a trick like MWI.

  171. Hi Sabine!

    I have enjoyed your writings on free will immensely. Hopefully you still read comments on old posts.

    From my point of view, I would actually like an explanation from someone on how strong emergence in the brain would rescue free will. Maybe I'm not smart enough, but I can't help to think that our actions would still depend on our brain states at the moments of decision, and that these brain states would still be entirely caused by our genetics and external sensory input.

    In other words, even if we had the ability of top-down causation, how could we create original thoughts that were not caused by prior brain states?


  172. When I retired from experimental physics I decided to think about the "bigger picture" like Newton did, and I see you are doing. My approach was to accept reality and then try to explain it. I felt that this was the most objective approach. The idea of redefining reality to agree with some preexisting theories seemed like bad science to me.

    This approach lead me to believe that materialism does not explain all of reality because it does not address quality and meaning which are primary concerns for the intellect.

    Scientific machines may detect physical reality, but it is up to the intellect to determine the quality of the data. A person may establish a mathematical test for quality, but an intellect is needed to determine the quality of the test.

    I am sure people could argue about this forever, but the point is materialism does not address qualities in a meaningful way.

    I am not not trying to convert anyone. I am merely stating that I cannot accept materialism because it leaves too much out.

    The second issue I have concerns the tool used to extrapolate from electrons to human beings. This tool, simple either-or logic, is not up to the task. I specialized in the detection of elementary particles and I had to deal with the wave-particle duality on several occasions. Things cannot be defined by simple either-or logic. Things can be illogical. Physics says this is possible.

    So, while I agree that one who believes in materialism and has faith that simple logic explains all of reality can conclude that there is no free will, I find these tools wanting and lacking in objectivity.

  173. One final point. When it was discovered that atoms had a positive nucleus and negative electrons, all prior science, conventional wisdom, reason, and logic predicted that the atom was unstable. The electron would spiral into the nucleus in milliseconds. But of course atoms are stable. We were forced to accept reality and invent quantum mechanics to explain this phenomena.

    It is the same with human reality. We should accept it and try to understand it, not declare it an illusion because it doesn't agree with our theory.

    Final post unless you indicate that you want to continue.

  174. Ron,

    There is ample experimental evidence that atoms is stable. There is zero experimental evidence that free will exists. Your "comparison" just supports my point.

  175. It can support either argument. It depends on the interpretation. A materialist would conclude if something cannot be detected by a scientific instrument, then it does not exist. An experimentalist would conclude that this merely demonstrates that the instrumentation has limits.

    Machines cannot detect meaning, honor, love, beauty, and all of the qualities. This merely shows the limits of our technology. When we develop AI and living detectors they will be able to detect these things.

  176. Nice blog! I found it because I read about the distinction between "strong" and "weak" emergence, and I immediately thought, "Strong emergence = denial of material reductionism", and as denial of material reductionism is done by people who want to cling to comforting but ultimately meaningless concepts like "free will" and "meaning/purpose/telos", I googled { "free will" "strong emergence" } to see if anybody had in fact used strong emergence for that. (I got 4610 hits.)

    I can best indicate my position on the subject by attacking your first claim:

    "a) If your future decisions are determined by the past, you do not have free will."

    But if you do have free will, you determine your future decisions--and the past you who made those decisions is part of the past. So this needs to be restated like this:

    "a2) If your future decisions are entirely determined by the past states of not-you, you do not have free will."

    But this is stupid, since no one would suppose that your future decisions aren't impacted by things considered "you", like your memory.

    So merely posing the question of what free will is, requires partitioning causes into the "you" or the "not-you" part of the universe. Since everything that is part of "you" is composed of matter from "not-you", and configured by events impinging from the "not-you", you then need a function describing the "you-ness" of every part of "you" that enters into your decisions.

    If we suppose that a particular configuration of your internal matter is entirely determined by a previous external state (unlikely, but let's go with it), we would assign that configuration a "you-ness" of zero. If it's entirely determined by your own internal state, it would have a "you-ness" of one. As this would be an information-theoretic measure, it would turn out, like probabilities, that it would be impossible for a measurement ever to give a you-ness of zero or of one.

    You then integrate that function over your decisions to arrive at a measure of the "you-ness" or "freeness" of your decision.

    This would give you a numeric measure of the degree of "free will" of your action, rather than a binary free / not free distinction. Binary distinctions in psychology and philosophy are pretty much always stupid, so this could be seen as a step forward.

    But taking that step exposes that all this talk of "free will" is just a semantic game.

    The "you-ness" of any particular decision would just be a measure of how much information you threw away from the external information you assimilated. You therefore have free will to the degree that you destroy information. That's deeply unsatisfying.

    We could try to remedy this by measuring instead not the (0..1) you-ness of a decision, but a measure from 0 to infinity of the sum of information drawn from "you" that went into making that decision. Then creatures which throw away a great deal of information in making particular distinctions (say, by categorizing opinions as "liberal" or "conservative") would still have higher "you-ness" decision scores, because they are using larger ontological hierarchies, and hence each decision involves more distinctions and uses more information.

    But then "freeness" is merely a measure of your information storage and usage in decisions. Again, the question "Am I free?" does not tug on the heartstrings so much after being decoded to "How much information inferred by past-me was used in that decision?"

    It isn't that we "aren't free". We are neither free, nor not free, in the same sense that we are neither sacred nor profane. "Free" is a metaphysical term that has no referent, and makes no real distinction.

  177. Re. your position, in an earlier post you wrote:

    "My paper is much simpler than that. In my paper I just pointed out that there exist time evolutions that are neither deterministic nor probabilistic, certainly not in practice but also not in principle."

    I don't think this is right. The example you use, of a TM that produces digits of pi, is deterministic. Its output can't be determined by the observer who doesn't know what the algorithm is. But that isn't how "deterministic" is defined. An algorithm is deterministic if its output is predicted by its past, regardless of the ignorance of observers. When you later say,

    "But what if you'd make your decisions after a function like the one I described? Then your decisions would not be random, but they wouldn't be determined by the state of the universe at any earlier time either (nor at any later time for that matter)."

    that's flat-out wrong. Your decisions would be determined by the state of the universe at an earlier time. The only way to claim they wouldn't be, would be to claim that the generating function was not part of the universe. If you did that, you might as well go back to Plato's Forms.

  178. The generating function is part of the universe. It's not in space-time.


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