Thursday, May 02, 2019

How to live without free will

Lego sculpture.
By Nathan Sawaya.
[Image Source]
It’s not easy, getting a PhD in physics. Not only must you learn a lot, but some of what you learn will shake your sense of self.

Physics deals with the most fundamental laws of nature, those from which everything else derives. These laws are, to our best current knowledge, differential equations. Given those equations and the configuration of a system at one particular time, you can calculate what happens at all other times.

That is for what the universe without quantum mechanics is concerned. Add quantum mechanics, and you introduce a random element into some events. Importantly, this randomness in quantum mechanics is irreducible. It is not due to lack of information. In quantum mechanics, some things that happen are just not determined, and nothing you or I or anyone can do will determine them.

Taken together, this means that the part of your future which is not already determined is due to random chance. It therefore makes no sense to say that humans have free will.

I think I here spell out only the obvious, and use a notion of free will that most people would agree on. You have free will if your decisions select one of several possible futures. But there is no place for such a selection in the laws of nature that we know, laws that we have confirmed to high accuracy. Instead, whatever is about to happen was already determined at the big bang – up to those random flukes that come from quantum mechanics.

Now, some people try to wiggle out of this conclusion by defining free will differently, for example by noting that no one can in practice predict your future behavior (at least not currently). One can do such redefinitions, of course, but this is merely verbal gymnastics. The future is still fixed up to occasional chance events.

Others try to interpret quantum randomness as a sign of free will, but this is in conflict with evidence. Quantum processes are not influenced by conscious thought. Chaos is deterministic, so it doesn’t help. Goedel’s incompleteness theorem, remarkable as it is, has no relevance for natural laws.

The most common form of denial that I encounter is to insist that reductionism must be wrong. But we have countless experiments that document humans are made of particles, and that these particles obey our equations. This means that also humans, as collections of those particles, obey these equations. If you try to make room for free will by claiming humans obey other equations (or maybe no equation at all), you are implicitly claiming that particle physics is wrong. And in this case, sorry, I cannot take you seriously.

These are the typical objections that I hear, and none of them makes much sense.

I have had this discussion many times. Many people find it hard to comprehend that I do not believe in free will. And any such debate will, inevitably, be accompanied by the joke that the outcome of the argument was determined already, haha, aren’t you so original.

I have come to the conclusion that a large fraction of people are cognitively unable to question the existence of free will, and there is no argument that can change their mind. Therefore, the purpose of this blogpost is not to convince those who are resistant to rational arguments. The purpose is to help those who understand the situation but have trouble making sense of it. Like I have had trouble. The following shifts in perspective may help you without the need to resort to denial:

1. You never had free will.

It’s not like your free will suddenly evaporated when you learned the Euler-Lagrange equations. Your brain still functions the same way as before. So keep on doing what you have been doing. To first approximation that will work fine: Free will is a stubbornly persistent illusion, just use it and don’t worry about it being an illusion.

2. Your story hasn’t yet been told.

Free will or not, you have a place in history. Whether yours will be a happy story or a sad story, whether your research will ignite technological progress or remain a side-note in obscure journals, whether you will be remembered or forgotten – we don’t yet know. Instead of thinking of yourself as selecting a possible future, try to understand your role, and remain curious about what’s to come.

3. Input matters.

You are here to gather information, process it, and come to decisions that may, or may not result in actions. Your actions, and the information you share, will then affect the decisions and actions of others. These decisions are determined by the structure of your brain and the information you obtain. Rather than despairing over the impossibility of changing either, decide to be more careful which information you seek out, analyze, and pass on. Instead of thinking about influencing the future, ask yourself what you have learned, eg, from reading this. You may not have free will, but you still make decisions. You cannot not make decisions. You may as well be smart about it.

4. Understand yourself.

No one presently knows exactly what consciousness is or what it is good for, but we know that parts of it are self-monitoring, attentional focus, and planning ahead. A lot of the processes in your brain are not conscious, presumably because that would be computationally inefficient. Unconscious processes, however, can affect your conscious decisions. If you want to make good decisions, you must understand not only the relevance of input, but also how your own brain works. Instead of thinking that your efforts are futile, identify your goals and the strategies you have for working towards them. You are monitoring the monitor, if you wish.


  1. Sabine,

    "Add quantum mechanics, and you introduce a random element into some events. Importantly, this randomness in quantum mechanics is irreducible. It is not due to lack of information. In quantum mechanics, some things that happen are just not determined, and nothing you or I or anyone can do will determine them."

    It seems to me that the existence of Bohm's interpretation is a counterexample to this claim. It might be the case that quantum randomness is just like classical randomness, a lack of information regarding the system.

    Otherwise, I fully agree that the notion of free-will has no basis in physics, either classical or quantum.

    1. Andrei,

      Yes, this is right. I didn't want to go through the various interpretations of quantum mechanics because it doesn't contribute to the main point.

    2. You suggest that I " decide to be more careful which information you seek out, analyze, and pass on." The word "decide" assumes multiple possible decisions..the ability to will. I think you are correct in your intuitive assumption that I can choose to be more careful...because even though the level of carefulness I choose is deterministic, that doesn't mean I lacked agency to do the choosing.

    3. No, the word "decide" does not assume multiple possible outcomes of the decision (unless you merely mean to say that they are "possible" in the sense that you did not know them.) I do not know why you think so. A decision is a calculation. It's processing of input. This doesn't mean that there was any doubt about what the outcome would be. You either understand or don't understand what I am telling you.

    4. Sabine, great article. However, if everything is deterministic, then noone can "choose" to gather information nor "choose" to pass it on. It either will happen on it's own accord or it will not. If what you say is true, than noone can decide to be more curios or decide to anaylize information because the notion of predetermism would already have made them that way.

    5. Abdul,

      Of course you can decide, and you did decide.

  2. "Physics deals with the most fundamental laws of nature, those from which everything else derives." -This is utterly untrue, as well as the statement that differential equations are THE laws of nature. This is most clear in biology. In biology, nothing of importance (nothing general to ALL biological systems) can be derived from physics, or described with any set of differential equations, however complicated they are. Classical mechanics deals with context-independent "particles" obeying some "law" in a defined "boundary" (and initial conditions), whereas all in biology is context-dependent and has no defined boundary condition. This is what Schrodinger, Einstein, von Bertalanffy, Rashevsky, Rosen, Maturana, Kauffman, and many other serious scientists have been pointing out for a while now (that contemporary physics cannot deal with biology). It seems, however, that some physicists are still searching for some differential equation or law "down there" that entails every other phenomenon "up there". We need some Godel in physics to point out how limited are all current formal systems to describe biological systems (including consciousness, let alone free will). When you say that "Goedel’s incompleteness theorem, remarkable as it is, has no relevance for natural laws.", you are avoiding really what the problem is about: impredicatives. Not only that, you ignore what has been discussed about the topic. At the Santa Fe Institute, for instance, many have discussed seriously the implications of Godel outside of mathematics, including biology. And all conclusions point out at the fundamental limits of physics to describe or explain any relevant features of biological systems, let alone "derive" them from the properties of elemental particles. Bill Wimsatt and George Ellis have some work on this topic: upward and downward causation. Others call it "reciprocal" causation: not everything can be "derived" from fundamental elements, since causality also flows "downwards". And this, I think, is what is really at stake: what is the flow of causality in physical systems like human beings? The fact that you ignore all these contributions, and the implications of Godel for natural systems, is quite the illustration of someone "resistant to rational arguments", or misinformed.

    1. HomoLudens,

      Whether anyone can derive it is entirely irrelevant.

    2. PS:

      I am well aware of the idea of top-down causation. It's just wrong. I have written about this eg here. Generally, I suggest you do not make claims about what I supposedly not know just because you do not understand what I am saying.

    3. Boundary and initial conditions are in a sense artificial. We the analysists and experimentalists impose them. For most biological systems the level of complexity is of a nature that this can at best be done only very approximately. Suppose one had a tomographic system of some sort that could determine the state of all atoms and molecultes of an organism and its environment. Further suppose this environment could be sufficiently isolated from "the outside" by various means. Then with this tomographic data one might be able to predicts what the state of the organism will be in some time in the future and benchmark that wiih a final tomographic measurement.

      I doubt such a thing would utterly violate any causal-deterministic understanding. Within tolerances of chaos, many body issues etc I suspect this would be approximately deterministic.

      I second Sabine's comment that there is no evidence of a large scale system imposing causal rules on smaller scale aspects of that system.

    4. Homoludens is exactly right. I'd add to his list the theoretical biologist Robert Rosen, who made a very strong case that the non-entailment of biology from current physical laws is a good indication that the current understanding of physics woefully incomplete. He put it this way: mechanistic physics is a special case; biology is more ontologically generic than physics.

    5. Matthew,

      As I said it's the most common objection. It's still wrong, of course. It is entirely irrelevant whether you (or anyone) can derive biology from the underlying laws. The point is that these laws are either contained in physics, or they are in conflict with physics, in which case we should have observed it, which we did not.

      Why don't you go and look up the causal exclusion argument, as you clearly have no idea what you are even talking about?

  3. I enjoyed reading this discussion of free will. It left me puzzled, however. I have had the same difficulty when members of my church wrote about free will. (I grew up Catholic, by the way.)

    What is free will? I can't find in scriptures. Church sources affirm it, but do not explain clearly what it is. I have concluded that the consequences of good or bad actions are unavoidable, and that it is better to choose the good.

    As an answer, I think, this is not completely satisfactory.

  4. Sabine, thanks for this post. I'll put some ideas down with great trepidation, being neither a philosopher nor a physicist. I'm also one of the "large fraction of people [who] are cognitively unable to question the existence of free will".

    You conclude there is no free will on the basis that the universe follows differential equations and quantum mechanics, so as I understand it its determinism plus randomness, which cannot add up to free will. Fair enough.

    Presumably, we developed a system of differential equations to explain our observations of the universe, and then later developed a theory of quantum mechanics to explain other observations that could not be explained by the former. So an extra system was developed to address observations not covered by the previous system. On the correct basis that free will cannot be explained by these two systems, you reject it. However, what of the alternative possibility that there is yet another system that we have not yet considered that does allow for free will? Quantam mechanics was developed to explain observations that were unexplainable by determinism; we didn't just say that those observations were clearly wrong or somehow explained in a hitherto unknown way by the previous determinism-only paradigm.

    Presumably, one could not even theoretically design an experiment that could demonstrate the presence or absence of free-will, as it would require us to observe two forking realities that diverged at someone's point of "decision". So the only evidence of free will that we have is the deep feeling that we have that it is real because we all act as if we and everyone else are responsible for their decisions, and structure the whole of society on that assumption. That does not preclude the possibility that we are wrong, of course.

    It seems that your argument against free will boils down to "it just can't be" - and again fair enough, given your starting assumption that determinism plus randomness explain everything. But our sense of free will is a valid observation that deserves an explanation; either by developing a system that allows for it, or by explaining how this illusion arises from a system that precludes it. I'm not suggesting that the latter would every be a practical proposition, but nevertheless it should perhaps lead to a little less certainty on the part of those who deny free will.


    1. Pete,

      I wish to respectfully disagree that "it just can't be" sums up my position. I am pointing out it is in conflict with theories that are built on a huge amount of evidence.

      Sure, free will deserves an explanation, but it's not difficult to explain. Free will is a consequence of our inability to predict our own actions with certainty. Ie, your brain arrives at decisions by evaluating the benefits of certain courses of action. You take the one that seems to suit your goals best. But since you are not able to predict what you will do before you actually do it (that being the purpose of the evaluation), you think the decision was "free".

      I learned that this is an old idea. Unfortunately I don't know who it comes from originally. Let me therefore just add that I certainly wasn't the first to come up with that.

  5. I'm sure you are correct about free will, but then what is the point of writing imperative sentences which suggest we have free will?:
    " try to understand your role"
    "remain curious"
    "decide to be more about which information you seek out"
    ". If you want to make good decisions, you must understand not only the relevance of input,"

    Is it just determined that you will write these sentences as if there is free will, even though you are telling us there is no free will?

    Also, go back to the earliest point in the universe that physics can describe. Re-run the universe from that state. Will human beings appear? From what you have written it seems the answer would depend on how much quantum randomness would influence the outcome. I'm guessing that quantum randomness would be fairly influential in the soup of quarks in the early universe, so humans would definitely not appear if you re-ran the universe?? You would end up with a universe essentially the same in nature but not in some details??

    1. Steven,

      I am afraid you missed the point. I am providing information to my readers. This may or may not change the way they think about themselves. You do not need to have free will to draw conclusions from my writing.

      As to quantum randomness. It's an open question how sensitive the initial state of the universe was to quantum fluctuations. I'm not sure it's a question we will ever answer. I tend to think it's not in the realm of science as it does not describe any observation.

    2. I see about quantum fluctuations. Cheers.
      Is your writing of this blog post and how readers use it all pre-determined (assuming no interference of quantum randomness)?

  6. Dr. Hossenfelder,

    Please forgive the presumption of a survivor of eighty nine years, but sometimes we think too much.

  7. Sabine,


    When I hold someone responsible for the choice he has made, I am quite comfortable with holding him responsible because that choice was an ineluctable consequence of who he is -- his character, his habits, etc.

    Indeed, it is precisely when it is most clear that his choice was determined by who he is that I am most confident in declaring that he chose to do it.

    It seems to me that, in practice, most people think the same way: it's just that many people have been confused by sophomoric philosophy.

    As to whether all human actions are metaphysically determined (or the result of quantum randomness)... well, as you say, "No one presently knows exactly what consciousness is or what it is good for..."

    Quite so, which is why I am content to declare myself an agnostic on all of those grand questions of metaphysics -- the nature of the soul, the existence of God(s), and all the rest.

    I'm having enough trouble trying to understand the black hold firewall (or lack thereof). We must crawl before we can walk.

    And, kudos for sticking your neck out on an inevitably controversial subject: you seem to be making a habit of that, lately!

    All the best,


    1. "the nature of the soul, the existence of God(s)"
      Can't help you with black hole firewalls, but humans don't have souls and "God" is a fictional character in a story book.

    2. That's interesting Steven. Could you enlighten me as to how you know this?

    3. Sure, Ian.
      The soul and God are made up, like Harry Potter.

      You're welcome:)

    4. Michael Gogins: No, consciousness does not have to be recursive.

      The brain is reasonably described as a network of predictive models; from the bottom up. Although the model of the neuron used in computer "neural nets" does not capture near everything that biological neurons do; the neurons being modeled are taking inputs, matching them to a pattern, and firing when they match (or when they don't; i.e. a violation of "expectations" like something activating a skin pressure receptor).

      We build these little comparators up into little models, and those into bigger models, and because models can contain links to other models (my model of a "car" links to hundreds of models, of everything from engines to tire valve caps), the combinatorial explosion results in an effectively unlimited number of predictive models. (Of course we have a finite number of neurons and synapses to work with; so it is not truly infinite).

      We naturally (for survival and reproduction) build predictive models of other people, how they think and behave. These are basically simulators.

      Self-awareness is easily explained as having the same kind of predictive model of ourselves. This doesn't have to be recursive in any way, it is just a predictor of what we will like and not like, what we can do and not do, our skills, our emotions, our moral compass of what we consider right or wrong.

      These simulators do not have to be perfect. Reasonable accuracy increases our success rate in getting what we want (including if what we want is happiness for our friends, or thwarting our enemies).

      I'd distinguish self-awareness from consciousness. The models in the brain are not an acyclic graph, and are highly interwoven. No matter where we begin thinking on a topic, we can wander through connections forever (barring interruptions like sleep or death), one model triggering another ad infinitum. We could call that looping "consciousness", whether it is thinking directed by a goal or just thinking while waiting for the light to change. (Or in my case, sometimes waiting for the stop sign to turn green!)

      Consciousness may be just wandering the network, one thought (output of a model) triggers associated models, those in turn trigger more.

      There doesn't have to be anything special about either consciousness or self-awareness; I believe they both exist in numerous animals, and we are starting to build rudimentary self-awareness (self-models) into self-driving cars. Not consciousness just yet, but if and when our machines are sufficiently complex to process a dynamic network of billions of nested models with a trillion interconnects (synapses), what I describe above as "consciousness" and "self-awareness" could be engineered.

    5. You completely missed my point. I explained why consciousness CANNOT be recursive and used that to continue my argument.

  8. At what point was the death by assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand baked into the universe and beyond change of outcome due to quantum randomness? When Gabril Princip pulled the trigger? 3 years earlier? When hydrogen was formed in the early universe?

    Could one introduce quantum randomness into one's decision-making in life, and therefore avoid a determined fate? Obviously, it is already determined whether one will introduce this kind of decision-making, but once you've introduced it, anything could happen.

    1. In the many worlds setting all possible occurrences happen. Every time an atom emits or absorbs a photon and loses entanglement phase to many other states or decoherence the world splits. There would be within the cosmic horizon distance about 10^{100), give or take multipliers of a trillon or so :)), decoherent events and splitting of the world on the Hubble frame.

      So in this setting there are worlds where the assassin who took down Archduke Franz Ferdinand missed. In fact if the driver had not decided to double back the Archduke would not have encountered the assassin. In the MWI a vast number of world histories exist where that happened. There are other sets where Germany and Japan win WWII, others where Napoleon won, or the Confederates won the American Civil War, or the black death never ravaged the western world and so forth.

      Curiously in this setting things are completely deterministic. Quantum probabilities do not help much in securing free will.

    2. Lawrence: Just nitpicking, but all possible occurrences happen, but I don't think that means anything can happen. I mean, there is no alternate universe in which I instantly acquire the power to control gravity with my mind and shoot lightning bolts from my fingertips.

      So I don't think we can be sure there are worlds where Booth was prevented from assassinating Lincoln, or Einstein got killed in a fire as a student, or The Beagle went down in a storm at sea and drowned Darwin at the age of 22.

    3. By saying everything possible I do mean anything that can happen in accordance with physical principles. I do not intend to include magical ideas. This excludes Santa Claus, fairy godmothers and popular ideas of Jesus coming back.

    4. @Lawrence Crowell
      I thought the MWI was simply compatible with observation but not falsifiable and therefore there is no reason to think it is physics..

      What about in the one world we are in evolving based on a mixture of determinism and randomness? I'm thinking now that it is an unscientific question based on Dr H's answers, because the determinism and the randomness can't be separated out.

      Presumably you could amplify the randomness part into a life or death matter in a simplified situation like with Schrodinger's Cat. But the real world is too complicated to separate out the factors...?

    5. If you read my other posts here on this thread or in other threads you will notice that I do not regard MWI to be quantum physics. It is a quantum interpretation. It is a sort auxiliary postulate, and one can do quantum mechanics well enough without it.

      The randomness of quantum mechanics is not due to quantum mechanics, but with measurement. The randomness comes from the uncertainty relationship and the Planck unit of action ħ = 1.054×10^{-34}j-sec. Time multiplied by ħ is similar to temperature in statistical mechanics in that Euclidean time t/ħ =1/T, where as the time goes to infinity this effective temperature goes to zero. This is a basis for quantum critical points. What happens is temperature decreases and by corollary thermal fluctuatons so decreases below quantum fluctuations. Quantum fluctuations are fixed by the uncertainty relationship.

    6. I think Trump as Prez is strong evidence for MWI. How else can it be explained?

  9. Bert,

    Depends on what you think you are personally responsible for...

  10. "You have free will if your decisions select one of several possible futures. But there is no place for such a selection in the laws of nature that we know, laws that we have confirmed to high accuracy."

    There is no contradiction here. Our decisions select one of several possible futures, but which decision we take is also dictated by the laws of nature.

  11. Galen Strawson (on free will):

    "[T]he best way to try to achieve a comprehensive understanding of the free will debate, and of the reason why it is interminable, is to study the thing that keeps it going — our experience of freedom. Because this experience is something real, complex, and important, even if free will itself is not real. Because it may be that the experience of freedom is really all there is, so far as free will is concerned.* [footnote] It may then be said that free will is real after all, because the reality of free will resides precisely in the reality of the experience of being free."

    (on consciousness):
    Consciousness Never Left

    "... So there is no mystery of consciousness. What we do not understand, what we find a mystery [(that is, matter)], is how conscious experience can be simply a matter of goings-on in the brain. But this is not because we do not know what consciousness is. It is because we do not know how to relate the things we know about the brain, when we use the language of physics and neurophysiology, to the things we know about the brain simply in having conscious experience – whose nature we know simply in having it."

    1. "because the reality of free will resides precisely in the reality of the experience of being free."

      i.e. it's an illusion!

      "Galen Strawson"
      This guy got referenced in the panpsychism post comments, didn't he? Is he wrong about everything?

  12. One of the problems with free will is we have no real definition of it. It is related to consciousness, and often free will is thought of according to an inner subjective awareness of choices not constrained by limiting forces. It is a sort of corollary concept related to consciousness. We have no clear definition of consciousness.

    Your statement about Gödel's theorem with respect to physics is the standard idea. Most physicists regard Gödel's theorem as a curiosity about mathematics, and even most mathematicians tend to dismiss it as being very important. Attempting to show otherwise, or even just suggesting this, is a good way of damaging one's career. On the other hand if one has no academic career to risk, such as myself, then WTF --- why not?

    I think it is possible that quantum measurement is a manifestation of Gödel's theorem, where a large set of quantum states encode information about some set of quantum states. This assumes that quantum states have some physical meaning, instead of being just bookkeeping epistemic entries, and quantum information theory dances around this. The ψ-epistemologists would say there is no physical meaning to quantum states, but quantum information theory has resulted in a rise of ψ-ontology and many who advance the many world interpretation. I think there is a sort of duality between states and observables, and so I can't completely cotton to the ψ-epistemic perspective, but on the other hand there are problems I think with the ψ-ontic side as well. Can we ever prove which of these reflects QM, or better determine which interpretation is correct to the exclusion of all others as false? I don't think so, and I can't help but think this is some aspect of the quantum measurement issue as a form of self-reference, similar to Gödel's set up of representing a formal system within itself.

    I have not really pursued this in any way, but maybe someday I will. There is the paper that demonstrates the imcomputability of mass-gaps. This is based on Gödel's theorem. So this may be creeping into physics already.

    There are also hyper-Turing computations. This is a bit odd, but it is a case of Zeno's paradox, where if a switch is flipped on and off 1 second then ½ second and so forth in principle there should be an outcome. The problem of course is the asymptotic increase in the frequency of the switch means ultimately there is a limit where the energy becomes sufficient to turn it into a black hole. Then we can consider a black hole, where for the eternal black hole the inner horizon r_- is continuous with I^{+∞} and an observer crossing this Cauchy horizon will encounter an infinite stream of quantum information from outside. So in principle an observer inside a black hole can determine if any Turing machine halts or not. This hyper-Turing computation upends the Turing limitations, or so it appears. There are obvious physical problems, such as Hawking radiation limits the lifetime of a black hole so r_- is not continuous with I^{+∞}. Also if a black hole were to take in an infinite stream of information it would grow to infinite mass, or with Hawking radiation process an infinite amount of energy from inward and outward radiation. This then seems to limit any physical possibility of hypercomputation. Then there is this paper by Aaronson which demonstrates closed timelike curves make P = NP, which by way of contrast by Mulmuley et all with serious algebraic geometric proofs show P ≠ NP. Things to ponder and consider and they might have some impact on quantum gravitation.

    Gödel's theorem is sometimes thought to have bearing on consciousness. Maybe it does, and Hofstadter wrote an entertaining book on this. The plausible take away was that if there is free will it may not be Turing computable and deterministic. I am agnostic on this prospect.

  13. The "free will" terminology is confusing. But what you call randomness could also be called "freedom", without any reference to a "who" that is driving it. Because any such "driving who" leads to other contradictions, as you point out.

    I think there *is* an analogy to be made with Godel incompleteness. If formal proof is mathematical causation, then Godel's theorem says there is mathematics that is not caused, or "free" or indeed, random. Godel's theorem says we can add extra axioms freely, or randomly, analogously to making observations in quantum physics.

    If you go looking for it, you find that physics, mathematics (computer science, statistics, economics,...) is strewn with such analogous "incompleteness" results. And it varies as to what extent the practitioners of the field get over it, or otherwise struggle endlessly to get around it.

  14. Apologies for butting in, but I am failing to understand this.
    If the state of the universe evolves purely according to deterministic physical laws and quantum randomness then any person's thoughts or actions are not choices. No? Whether or not we decide that we are personally responsible for our words or actions is itself just a state reached in the deterministic plus random evolution of the universe?

  15. Hi Sabine , I agree with you that as human agents we have no free will.It is a very clear essay you wrote . My take on free will:

    Scalar-Having only magnitude not direction

    Vector-Quantity having direction

    Scalar - (minus) entropy/degree of disorder= Vector, OR, Scalar=Vector + Entropy

    I will equate scalar to all the possibilities of occurrence, which when loses its disorder starts manifesting directionality and hence vector properties.

    Under the above "free will" is like a scalar, possessing the property of infinite possibilities and "determinism" is like a vector showing directionality.

    Since there is an arrow of time in the classical world, cause and effect coming from this arrow of time, the universe is deterministic. Even in the quantum realm -the measurements are probability outcomes, in a range of possibilities.But are these possibilities infinite ?

    To me the absolute are the infinite fields of existence which have a range of possibilities of manifestation. The unmanifest is infinite, scalar, at equilibrium (possessing no directionality) and is what can be called free. Once a perturbation/disturbance occurs in this field, waves/particles arise which have defined properties (directionality). Freedom is lost.

    The will is bound because the concept of a will implies trying to do something with intention. Intentionality has direction.

  16. Sabine,

    Can you draw a distinction between the input-output behavior of a person with "true free will" and one who operates under the illusion that they have "true free will". I can't.

    This bit of verbal gymnastics is something I came up with in college; and after I found (created?) it I was no longer interested in the question. It essentially pointed me to the conclusion that the problem here is not determinism VS chaos. The problem here is the colloquial term "free will". The term simply doesn't map to reality in any rigorous way. When people use it what they mean is:

    when people are presented with the same situation (sense date if you will) some act one way some another (ya duh boring I know). As far as anyone knows the data enters the brain and then impulses come out of the brain and the bodies of the people act differently. The part that the difference seems to originate from is the brain so we say that part is special somehow. It has some deciding quality that we can't quite parse by taking it apart (one slice of grey matter looks pretty much like another till you get up to connectome mapping which we can't do yet) But we can name the concept. hence "free will" but the reason these sorts of discussions trend towards nonsense is the term which was once a place holder (like "dark energy" is just a place holder till someone explains it better) no longer has a place in the rigorous what really happens world of physics. We've reduced the problematic part of the issue way down to something involving neurons and networks and hey have you seen deep leaning in the last couple of years...

    Talking about free will and particles in the same breath is like talking about the ether and length contraction at speeds close to C in the same breath. It's silly cause the first concept is out of date.

    If people have better cognitive pumps then mine or have a good way to pick it apart, please do I'm sure I've glossed over something.

  17. But living things can anticipate the future and alter their trajectory. A bird flying towards a tree does not continue inevitably towards a collision, it alters its path.

  18. Sabine: I think your philosophy-mixed-with-semantics is wrong. You say that the notion that indeterminism simply IS free will is misguided. It can't be what "free will" really means, so it is an evasion. I think that view itself is wrong.

    What people generally mean when they affirm free will is in essence that a certain result COULD HAVE BEEN otherwise. Why is this important? Because it makes sense of the sentiment of regret, and it is difficult to imagine a moral life at all without accepting regret.

    All we need for the truth of the statement "it could have been otherwise" is indeterminism as to human actions, and thus indeterminism as to some neural interactions. We don't need anything fancy or metaphysical. We don't even need a "will," so the term "free will" is something of a misnomer, because of the second word in the formula, not the first. So let us just say freedom, or choice.

    We have freedom or choice in the philosophically critical sense, and it is perfectly compatible with contemporary physics.

    And, whether determinedly or not, I will end here.

    1. Christopher,

      I have spelled out clearly what I am referring to. This is neither semantics nor philosophy. You can make the statement using equations if you wish.

      I think you are simply wrong in thinking that when people speak of free will they mean it "could have been otherwise." This makes no sense. An atom may decay right now. Or it could have been otherwise. But no one in their right mind would say the atom has free will because of that. When people speak of free will they think that they had a way of influencing what comes to be reality. This is what is not compatible with the theories we know to describe our observations to excellent accuracy.

      Having said this, I do not really care all that much what you think other people think. I am addressing people who understand free will the same way as I do, it's as simple as that.

    2. I respect your wrestling with your own understanding of free will and its absence. I leave you to it -- I simply feel no such struggle, because my notion of freedom is what I have outlined above, and obviously it is not yours.

      Does my view "make no sense"? because the atom may decay? I submit that is a false inference. As I indicated above, beings who feel regret want to know whether it is rational and coherent to feel regret.

      Atoms don't feel regret. Unless you are a panpsychic of a rare consistency, you aren't imagining an atom that is saying, "I'm decaying, dang! I must have done something wrong. It could have been otherwise!"

      It makes perfect sense to think that beings who can feel regret are free to the extent that their sense of regret is well founded, because they reside in a universe with a margin of indeterminism.

      Whether it is a question that gives your mind solicitude is another matter, and I am perfectly content that the answer to that question, from you, is a decided "no."

      Have a nice day.

  19. You may be right, Dr. H., but I don't like it.

    To me, free will is about having a true choice in what I do. If that choice is only an illusion, then my killing my mother-in-law gives me a legally supportable alibi. A tired old argument, to be sure, but it still makes sense to me.

    I agree that there would be no free will in a completely deterministic, Newtonian clockwork universe. But to add that non-deterministic random events also eliminate free will is to say that free will is impossible under any circumstances.

    1. Bill,

      Basically, yes, unless you find a way in which change is neither deterministic nor non-deterministic.

    2. What does "deterministic" mean? That all change in the world is compelled? Compelled by what? Physical laws? The forces that such laws describe? I wonder if there are any compelling reasons to suppose such laws amount to anything more than a mere description?

      Change can occur due to the will of a conscious entity. No idea whether you would label that "determined" or not.

    3. "o me, free will is about having a true choice in what I do. If that choice is only an illusion, then my killing my mother-in-law gives me a legally supportable alibi. A tired old argument, to be sure, but it still makes sense to me."

      Of course you had no choice in some sense. But, and this is what many people miss, this has no consequences at all for the justice system. Why put someone in jail? To protect others from people known to be dangerous, to provide a deterrent, and to encourage reform (works in Norway, doesn't in the USA; depends on the prison system). All of these are still valid even if there is absolutely no free will. On a similar note, lack of free will doesn't mean that the criminal will commit the crime in any case, but rather that, given certain circumstances, he will. Society can change those circumstances (e.g. provide a deterrent).

    4. " Society can change those circumstances"

      Society will change those circumstances depending on the evolution of the state of the universe according to determinism and randomness. If the solutions to some equations plus some rolls of the dice = society changing those circumstances, then it will happen, otherwise it won't.

      That's what's being said, is it not?

  20. Well now... this is an easy topic without any controversial historical, philosophical, or religious antecedents, yes? :)

    I liked your last sentence best: "You are monitoring the monitor, if you wish."

    I've watched old-style Presbyterians freeze themselves into a fascinatingly paradoxical form of intellectual immobility on this topic, because, you know, they kind of decided they must choose not to have the ability to choose, since it was all predetermined for them anyway... so why bother? I rather doubt the physics form of predeterminism (or superdeterminism) is all that different, psychologically speaking.

    Cognition is a curious phenomenon, one that ties together in new and speedy ways the many threads of information creation and processing that have been going on since fermions created information, since RNA/DNA created solution storage, and since sex and transfer viruses created limited combinatorics for mixing up old solutions in new ways. Cognition explosively breaks the old DNA model of slow species-limited combinatorics, enabling a new model where for example the DNA of species separated by eons can now in a geological instant be applied together like tools of a single and increasingly integrated toolbox. As integral parts of such a recent, remarkable, and dramatic transition phase in how the universe handles information, it's a pretty good idea not to underestimate the power of self-observation. This is especially true when self-observation is combined with increasingly powerful sensors, analytical methods, and automated assistance. All of these enable us to gain a better understanding of the most likely future paths that will be put into play through our actions now, which in turn amplifies dramatically the power of cognition to encourage specific desirable clusters of possible futures.

    In contrast, focusing instead on who or what determined what and when is a path only to immobility and the discarding of our own potential. So instead, why not focus instead on our unique ability to monitor the monitors, with the goal of finding ways to increase our future positive impact on ourselves and (hopefully!) others?

    Such self-assessment may focus on nothing more profound than looking for a better way to help a child or granddaughter understand and apply her own potential better. Or, it may be something as grand and impactful as trying to reshape the future of major funding in one of the sciences. But whatever it is, we should never discard casually the remarkable ability we each possess as self-monitoring sentient beings to take real action to change a future that no one has yet seen, whether that future is predetermined or not.

  21. It seems to me you're mostly just describing the environment in which "free will" occurs. Whether it was baked in from the beginning or not, it matters that I exert my will over my actions, even if that exertion (along with its antecedents and consequences) can be described by some differential operator on my physical state. Your capacity to describe my decision making processes doesn't mean they're not actually decision making processes.

  22. "That is for what the universe without quantum mechanics is concerned."

    Not quite sure what you're trying to say here, Bee.

  23. Free will as conscious choice depends to the ability to perceive alternatives. Conscious choice is in turn dependent on some neurological phenomena which, for the purposes of this discussion, may be described as balance of states. The question then is whether or not the out come is dependent on factors external to matter being decided.
    Experiment has demonstrated that at the physical level humans often begin to activate neural pathways before they are able to articulate a choice.
    Many activities we perform every day, like the drive to work, are accomplished on "automatic".
    It is in the objective pursuit of Physics that conscious choice may best be observed. Except perhaps when we are enamored with mathematical beauty that biases or decision.

  24. Sabine, I too had a physics education and reached similar conclusions to those you describe so clearly. When it comes to persuading other people that they have no free will, I think the key is in your sentence "You may not have free will, but you still make decisions." This is difficult to grasp for someone who sees a distinction between mind and body. But if you can persuade your partner in conversation that their self is everything within their body and nothing more, then their self is clearly making decisions and having an influence on the future. This is why they have the illusion of free will and it is not entirely an illusion. Those decisions can be the result of randomness (quantum or classical chaos, it makes no difference) or they can be the result of more or less rational processing of data from outside. The rational processing is of course deterministic, or unfree, but it can still be rational. So it makes sense to me to 'own' the deterministic decisions and prefer them to the random decisions made on a whim.

    1. It's difficult to grasp because it's meaningless. If my consciousness is causally efficacious, what more is required to have "free will"? Materialists are fond of envisaging free will in such a manner than it cannot exist by definition.

      And the notion that the self is material (in the sense that physics exhausts the material)conflicts with reality.

    2. "And the notion that the self is material (in the sense that physics exhausts the material)conflicts with reality."

      Interesting. Care to tell us how you know that, Ian?

    3. I gave a link to a blog post by myself that hasn't appeared. Google "Why the existence of consciousness rules modern materialism out". No idea why I can't jus' simply link. I don't have any adverts on my blog. All adverts on the net and TV should be banned.

    4. So you are claiming neuroscience, which has not yet completely analysed the brain, will fail to explain consciousness. But you provide no explanation of consciousness yourself. And you provide no evidence of anything other than the brain contributing to consciousness. It's not wholly convincing, is it?

      Have a read of these:

  25. My question is whether there would be something called science in a universe without free will?


    Imagine that you perform an experiment - even a very simple one, such as measuring the current flowing through a resistor as a function of applied voltage.

    The problem is that when you write the results up and try to persuade others that Ohm's law is obeyed, they have to assume that you had free will to decide the voltages at which you measured the current or at least that they possess free will to repeat the experiment at different values of V. If you didn't have free will, then the algorithm running inside you and your coleague could have selected the values of V which concealed a sinusoidal variation - e.g. by picking integers when the true relationship contained a sin(2pi x) term.

    An algorithmic scientist thus seems to be an impossibility!

  26. Einstein once said that God does not throw dice. I am glad Einstein agrees with you.

  27. Sabine said... But we have countless experiments that document humans are made of particles…

    Can most of these particles be directly observed, or is their existence inferred due to the accuracy of predicted outcomes? In other words, can you say with certainty humans are made of particles, instead of saying that humans can be represented mathematically as being made of particles?

    There are some reasons to believe physicists put too much “faith” that predictive math also accurately mimics the underlying, unobservable reality of nature. I am certain math is the best communication tool we have for physics; I am not so sure we’ve exactly duplicated the underpinnings of nature with those accurate predictions; likely causing many of the problems physics faces today. Yes, those equations are the best explanations of nature we have. However, now that they are embedded, human nature tends to summarily dismiss alternate possibilities in lieu of forcing inconsistencies into the existing framework. It’s not good science but until scientists acknowledge/realize just how much their work is influenced by normal human behavior, and diligently work to minimize it, progress will continue to be slower than it otherwise could be. I know you see that behavioral influence when you argue with other physicists about not needing a larger collider, yet it is extraordinarily rare to see just how much one’s self is influenced by human nature.

    As for free will, I’m ok not having free will as long as I have the illusion of it, and the illusion is present in the overwhelming majority of my daily life.

  28. My stance on free will is agnostic.

    Empirically speaking, it seems clear to me from observations that people make choices that change their lives.

    Logically speaking, I don't think the science of physics can rule out free will, because I don't think that science is complete enough to answer all the questions we have about the phenomena we observe. Just like I don't have to propose a mechanism for the observations of what we call Dark Matter or Dark Energy to believe they are real, I don't have to propose a mechanism for the observations of what see as Free Will to believe it is real. And like those, my belief in Free Will is not a belief in the supernatural, it is a belief in the not-yet-explained. Until we have an infallible theory of everything and a complete understanding of self-aware brains, I don't rule out free will. As a scientist, I am comfortable saying "I don't know, And I don't think you can know either."

    Operationally speaking, I still have to make decisions and think about them and take action on them, so I am incapable of operating without effective free will, so deciding whether it truly exists or not is a moot point. I must behave as if I have free will, and it does me no good to question whether I have it.

  29. Sabine,
    I do admire how you are not afraid to question and ruffle feathers in the physics community, that said, Your very narrow field of expertise does not have the ability to even precisely predict the weather ten days in advance, much less the climate in '12 years', even far less in determining whether or not I have free will.

    There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
    Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
    - Hamlet (1.5.167-8), Hamlet to Horatio

  30. Sabine,

    There must be something to this premonition business. In this morning’s half-dreaming mental ramble, I thought about your past affection for this subject and was comforted that perhaps you had moved on. You may be right, but I don’t see that the determinism you suggest will produce the world we see. I worry for a physics that is so narrowly drawn as to deny the possibility of some determinative influence beyond its realm of legitimate explanation. I believe that HomoLudens’ comments regarding biological systems are a case in point.

    Let’s set the notion of free will aside. It is an exotic flower at the tip of the branch. Compared to the complexity of the biological systems in which it arises, our conscious thought is most often like the renderings of a crayon held in the fat fingers of a four-year-old. (But still, isn’t there is a reality to our Eureka moments when all the disparate puzzle pieces fit together and a new picture emerges. Be sad to lose that to some impersonal mechanism.)

    Rather, let’s consider determinism of the work-a-day sort, in particular that as it occurs within complex systems. Metaphorically, physics gives us the conserved set of characters and rules of their combination. It does not, in itself, convey all the possible messages that can be constructed with that character set or the causal correlation of one message with another. That is, at any determinative nexus within complex systems, what happens next may depend on a multiplicity of causal influences from long range correlated systems that have their own causal standing waves that are influenced by yet other far ranging systems. I don’t know that differential equations are up to this task of description.

    There are no doubt good examples of this, but for the moment consider you are planting a seed. There may be a bouquet conscious influence upon your decision, but the seed in hand has its own history. It may have received drought resistance through the kind attention of a distant laboratory that selected genes from an archive of ancient genomes sourced worldwide. Was your seed too long upon the shelf, allowed to get too damp? Once it is in the ground at proper depth, what happens next? What about the distant butterflies of the weather system or, closer to home, cows out of pasture, rabbits, leaf hoppers, tassel moths, etc., etc.

    There may be an equation for all of this. Surely the particles of distant past have entwined their way into each and every present path, but did their long-ago state of being strictly determine these each and every path? It does not feel like a viable explanation. The paths of particles are lineal while the paths of complexity are cursive. The infinity of curves is greater than the infinity of lines. How’s that for a mathematical argument?

    1. Don,

      There is no such thing as "top down causation." You can of course have long range influences, you can have properties on various distance scales, and so on. All of this is entirely irrelevant. The only thing that is relevant is that you can describe the system on short scales, and you know how these equations look like.

      No, there are no good examples of "top down causation". There aren't any. It does not exist, other than as a confusion about what causes what.

      We do not know why reductionism works, but we do know that it works.

      I wrote more about this here.

      "How’s that for a mathematical argument?"

      Poor. As I said, chaos is still deterministic.

  31. Just playing devil‘s advocate, since to me the question whether there is free will or not is quite irrelevant to our lives.

    „Quantum processes are not influenced by conscious thought.“

    This sentence is quite troublesome to me, because: do we have such a good understanding of consciousness to make such a statement?

    If we think of certain concepts and relationships to each other to be emergent from a set of underlying rules, and if consciousness is one of those emerging concepts, and then if free will is a similarly emergent concept on a par with consciousness, is it not fair to think of having free will equally valid to having a consciousness?

  32. In classical mechanics the future is determined by the past, but the fact that ergodicity is real means it appears random.

    In quantum mechanics at least, and probably in field theory as well, the future really IS determined by the past, by unitary evolution. Its true that little pieces of wave function "collapse" but that is determined by the unitary evolution of the complicated apparatus for the creation and measurement of wave functions that LOOK simple. (The actual collapse of parts of the wavefunction goes beyond Bohmism). BUT ... the attached world is so complicated that collapse "appears" random. (I use quotes because it really is just as ergodic as classical mechanics.)

    The past thus always determines the future, so free will boils down to arguments about how randomness causes, prevents, or has nothing to do with free will. The last post above mine is Steve Snow, and he states it well. In college long ago, of course,
    we did too ... almost everybody said "philospohy is BS".

  33. I'll start worrying about whether humans have free will when someone can explain to me what observable difference one would expect to see between a universe in which humans have free will versus one in which they do not. Until then, I'm not convinced that this is even a meaningful question.

  34. Sabine, can you give a brief definition of "free will" that you argue does not exist?

    Do you insist that "free" means entirely devoid of external influence? Do you require that "will" is something entirely non-physical, non-biological?

    I'm sure that you, I, and most readers here believe that we are made up of atoms, physical laws, neurobiology, etc. Perhaps the word "will" is a little slippery, but if one defines it in any sensible way, then it is a physical thing that is understandable (in principle) within the domains of neurobiology and phychology.

    Then we could quibble about the degree of autonomy that this system called "self" has. What level of autonomy is required to say it is "free"? In legal terms, I think one is said to be acting "of one's own free will" if one is not under physical compulsion or insane. I.e., "free" is a limited form of autonomy where one's action's aren't compelled by certain kinds of external factors or internal pathologies.

    I don't think this is verbal gymnastics. If one defines "free will" in a sensible way that doesn't require mind-body dualism, then it is something that exists.

    1. Charlie,

      I do not need to define free will to show it doesn't exist. I merely need to define some necessary ingredient and show that those do not exist. I have done that, explicitly, in my blogpost: "You have free will if your decisions select one of several possible futures."

    2. So if some experimenter removed my "decision" from the universe -- "decision" being some real physical thing -- then you insist that the universe is unchanged? This is plainly wrong.

  35. Consciousness *necessarily* is causally efficacious, at least to a degree. Moreover, even if reductive materialism were intelligible (and it isn't, see my blog post, it is consciousness *per se* that is causally efficacious, not the correlated neuronal activity.

    Why? We need to bear in mind here that one can surely be completely certain of one’s own consciousness. Indeed, it is quite *literally* the most certain thing we can know. But, in order for our certainty here to be justified, then consciousness *must do something*. Otherwise, I could not be certain of the existence of my own consciousness, or indeed have any reason to believe in it whatsoever! At the very least consciousness affects the direction of my flow of thoughts when I think, “I am directly cognisant in the most direct manner of my own consciousness right now”. And if the presence of my consciousness affects the direction of my thoughts, then it also affects the physical processes in my brain.

    It might be retorted that my objection is rendered irrelevant should materialism be true since conscious experiences, such as our reasoning processes, are literally identical to physical processes in the brain. If a train of thought is literally identical to some physical processes, and these physical processes have causal powers, then it necessarily follows that the train of thought itself has causal powers too.

    I beg to differ. Let's suppose that in the brain we have a physical causal chain:

    i) A → B → C → D → E

    And we have a mental chain representing a chain of reasoning:

    ii) a → b → c → d → e

    The materialist claims that “A” is identical to “a”, “B” is identical to “b” etc. But nevertheless, we have 2 different accounts of how A/a progresses to E/e. In "i" we have the interactions of molecules as mathematically described by the laws of physics. In "ii" we have a train of reasoning which, when we attain an understanding of something, will have involved rational connections between thoughts.

    If materialism is true, then everything has the ability to be explained in terms of the physical as exemplified in account "i". Account "ii" is simply not required since physical laws, which describe physical processes, make no reference to reasoning, nor indeed do they make any reference to intentions, desires, plans, or any other aspect of consciousness. Indeed, reasoning only comes into the picture for a vanishingly small part of the world; namely brain processes, and furthermore a minority of brain processes at that. And it is held by materialists that physical laws provide a sufficient explanation for these minority of brain processes just as much as they provide a sufficient explanation for the rest of the Universe.

    If this is all correct it then follows that reasoning something through is causally irrelevant. Hence, identifying reasoning and the rest of our mental life with physical processes doesn't allow us to escape from the conclusion that our consciousness is causally redundant. But, as I’ve already explained, this is surely rendered false if we are not to undermine the complete certainty in our own consciousness.

    It is irrelevant that such a causally efficacious consciousness contravenes the laws of nature that we know. Unless one is a reductive materialist (which is an untenable position, see link above), then current laws wholly leave out consciousness in their description of reality. Hence, necessarily a causally efficacious consciousness contravenes such laws. If some interpretation of QM doesn't allow for a causally efficacious consciousness, then necessarily there must be a deeper more encompassing theory that does. 1/2

    1. But after all that huffing and puffing you can't tell us a single thing about the natural world that the physicists don't know and that can be checked. This is a perfect example of why much of philosophy is a waste of time.

    2. Huffing and puffing? Not sure if that constitutes an adequate refutation.

      Much of philosophy is indeed a waste of time. People string together words that really mean very little, if anything. Trying to appear to be clever.

    3. " Not sure if that constitutes an adequate refutation."

      This bit does though: you can't tell us a single thing about the natural world that the physicists don't know and that can be checked.

      " People string together words that really mean very little, if anything. "
      Agreed. So why are you doing it? Most philosophy, like all religion, is a fraud. The people flogging it for cash should be investigated by CID.

    4. Physics merely describes reality, it doesn't tell us what its ultimate nature is. And I'd be leery of assuming that theories in physics depict a literal state of affairs.

      One charge that can't be levelled at me is that I just string words together. I try to be as clear as possible. I'm afraid that asserting that consciousness doesn't do anything, that it's always just the neural correlates, is simply not tenable.

    5. You cannot provide *a single fact* about the universe beyond physics. You are simply pointing out that science does not currently have an explanation for consciousness, like religious loonies point out science hasn't determined the origin of the universe. And? Do you have anything to add to knowledge or are you just pointing out there are 2 things science doesn't know yet?

      The current score is:

      Science United Everything known v Religion&Philosophy City 0

  36. Incidentally, saying that the future is "fixed" is misleading. We have no reason to suppose either physical laws themselves, or the alleged forces they describe, actually *compel* reality to behave as it does. The future may, in an appropriate sense, exist. But only because we inevitably will behave in a certain manner given a certain psychological state. 2/2

  37. Much of the free will debate is people talking past each other with different definitions of "free". And no one's particular definition is the one true one.

    That said, I'm convinced we don't have contra-causal free will, but that social responsibility remains a coherent and useful concept.

    1. SelfAware,
      Agreed. And given the situation we have that responsibility remains a coherent and useful concept in an ultimately non-free world, apparently we humans need some sort of reduction from which to assess ourselves in this regard. I’d like to propose such a reduction.

      The key idea here is “perspective”. From a perfect perspective everything occurs based upon causality and thus there is no freewill. Blame and praise for one’s actions make no sense from such a “God’s eye view”. But we humans obviously have extremely limited perspectives. From here it can be quite coherent to judge a given person as “good” or “evil”. A rational person however might realize that as his/her perspective grows about the circumstances which produced that person, apparent “good and evil” progressively transform into mere “good and bad”.

  38. Some problems appear to be:
    - universal, pop(ular) culture myths about the causes of behavior embedded in everyday, and professional, language. How do we even write/talk about behavior sans "choice?" Well, same as other animals and like "g*d" is no longer referenced.
    - For professional problem solving, a whole reset of implicit and explicit assumptions of the human brain/actions/perceptions/etc....very hard work and yet, necessary. It will also be hated. But the real independent variables on the dependent variables of behavior are needed - right away!

  39. Sabine,

    Quantum events seem to be like a structure-preserving, very limited, freedom in the system. “Structure -preserving” because potentially, one variable at a time might change for a thing like a particle, not every variable at once. To use an extreme analogy, a human being could not transmogrify into a bird and fly away; but a human being could move e.g. change the position variable for one leg; i.e. the structure is mostly preserved.

    You might claim that there is no cause of quantum events, but that would be just an assumption. You don’t know what causes the number jumps in quantum events. You don’t know if a thing characterizable as “randomness” causes the number jumps, or a thing characterizable as “freedom” or “creativity” causes the number jumps in the variables that apply to particles.

  40. Thanks Sabine. Your articles always inform. I still remember the period in undergraduate physics when learning special relativity and the “block universe”. We were under the impression that even with quantum fluctuations, the past, present and future came into existence at the Big Bang thus rendering any free will nonexistent. Were we understanding that correctly?

  41. Sabine, most of what you are saying it obvious and non-contentious to someone with physics education, but then you state that

    > Rather than despairing over the impossibility of changing either, decide to be more careful which information you seek out, analyze, and pass on.

    How can you "decide" if you have no control over your decisions? Whatever you feel that you decide is an illusion of free will, isn't it?

    1. Sergei,

      It is an illusion that there are different possible outcomes of your decision. It is not, of course, an illusion that you do make decisions. You make decisions all the time. Even your phone makes decisions. You don't need free will to make decisions. You will decide to either take my advice, or not.

    2. Yes, I will decide whether to take your advice or not, absolutely. And telling me to take your advice can affect whether I do or not. Both of those are determined by the physical/chemical processes, since we are both protein-based automatons. So, just like you have no free will in deciding to urge me to take your advice, I have none in deciding whether to take it or not.

  42. Reductionists have always struck as people who walk around staring at their shoes and sticking fingers in their ears. They never look up to see the whole world or listen to the music around them.

    "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
    Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

    William Shakespeare (1564–1616). The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Act I Scene V Lines 185-186

    1. " ... Matter is much
      Odder than we thought."
      -- W.H. Auden

  43. "....Quantum processes are not influenced by conscious thought...."
    How can this be? If quantum processes are not influenced by conscious thought, how can I move my hand at free will?

    1. Hubert,

      What I mean is that your conscious thought does not make a selection among the outcomes that are possible according to quantum mechanics. They are random. Say, you have a particle that will be detected with spin up or down, each 50% chance, then it doesn't matter how hard you want it to be "up" it will not affect the chances.

  44. I hope that this "we don't have a free will" does not represent the official state of science. Otherwise the world of legal authorities would get a severe problem.
    As "law and order" is based on a conscious guilt nor no-guilt principle. If an individual doesn´t have a free will, than this would mean that there is
    no guilt or innocence principle or as all violations of laws would be a consequence of an unchangeable law of nature.

    1. Hubert,

      This is just wrong. If you cause other people problems, those people will take steps to prevent that from happening again. You can talk about law and order entirely without ever referring to free will.

  45. If the state of the universe evolves according to a mixture of determinism and randomness, how is anyone responsible for anything? I am failing to see this.

    1. Steven,

      Depends, of course, what you mean by "responsible". Look, you are a subsystem of the universe. If you perform actions that harm others, those others will take measures to prevent that from happening again. I would say they make you "responsible" for it.

      What they do to prevent it from happening again depends on whether they conclude it was primarily the input you received that caused the outcome or whether it was primarily the function of your brain per se.

      Maybe you don't want to call that responsibility, but really I don't see what it matters how you call it. Saying "but it was in the initial condition of the CMB" will not get you out of prison, because that's totally irrelevant when it comes to the consequences.

    2. I see. But even the input and the functioning of the individual's brain is all down to a mixture of determinism and randomness playing out, is it not? It's not predetermined from the initial conditions because there is randomness there, but nor are actions and beliefs controlled by the individual and so individuals are not responsible in the usual sense of the word. (though they may be held responsible)
      What you say means it makes no sense from a physics point of view to punish, blame or praise individuals for any beliefs, words or deeds.
      Does it not?

    3. Steven,

      I don't understand why you think it makes a difference. Punishment makes as much sense without free will as it does with free will, for all the usual reasons: Prevention of further harm, deterrence, revenge. This is vocabulary we have developed to describe rather elaborate emergent behavior, but it exists just the same way as it always has.

    4. Hi Steven,
      Though I’m in full agreement with Sabine here, I also have something else that you (or she) might find helpful. (I mentioned this above to my good friend SelfAwarePatterns, though he might be busy with his own blog.)

      From a perfect perspective (sometimes called “God’s eye”), causality mandates that we have no freedom. Thus as you began, none of us should be any more “responsible” for what we do, for example than characters in a completed movie can be for whatever’s portrayed. Watch it as many times as you like, though from this level of abstraction they simply won’t end up doing different things. Without any such freedom it becomes senseless to praise or blame a given character for what’s done, and by extension us humans and all else given perfect causality.

      But do any of us know everything about everything? Of course not! Instead we function through tiny perspectives. Thus it makes tremendous sense for us “idiots” to hold people accountable for what they do. So from the human perspective we effectively have “freewill” to the magnitude of our ignorance, wand there’s plenty of that. As greater understandings are gained about a given situation however, such façades should progressively evaporate. Learning more about the life of an “evil killer”, or even experiencing such existence, should illustrate that ultimately we’re all just products of our circumstances.

    5. But, as Dr H writes, even knowing there is no free will, a society is still probably going to lock up a killer as a means of deterrence and protection. And it doesn't mean all murder is manslaughter, of course, as a killer who has the intention to kill or plans it is still a murderer. They are just not responsible for having that intention or plan, though criminal law doesn't delve that far. I don't think ignorance leads to free will - we have no free will - just different inputs possibly lead to different outputs, and all of it is beyond our control. After this post, I will now not blame people for believing in fine-tuning or God, but I'm sure it will continue to get on my t*ts that they do.

  46. giving advice on how to cope with lack of free will, isn't kind of pointless?

    1. As I mentioned elsewhere, this is a fundamental misunderstanding. Lack of free will does not mean that you will do x regardless of anything, but rather that you will do x given certain inputs, and y given other inputs. Of course, you might refuse to see the truth whatever the inputs, but that is not true of everyone.

    2. " Of course, you might refuse to see the truth whatever the inputs,"

      Like you with fine-tuning? However much it is explained to you that there is no physical evidence you still contend that the universe is fine-tuned...

  47. “You may not have free will, but you still make decisions.”
    “You have free will if your decisions select one of several possible futures.”

    You make decisions. The laws of physics select one of the futures. Decisions are part of the selected future. Free will is making decisions not selecting a future. Selecting a future requires controlling your external environment. That’s beyond free will. A sailboat does not control the wind. It just flows with the wind. To avoid confusion, replace “free will” with “decision”

    1. Premise: free will = decision
      How does free will work?
      Hypothesis: Sensory inputs go to the brain. There is a neural program that says for example: when you see red color, fire an electric signal, ignore all other colors. There are multitudes of these simple programs in the brain that select different kinds of sensory inputs and act in different ways to the inputs. The collective actions of these neural networks are what we perceive as “free will.” Nobody consciously made these programs. They are just genetically programmed during brain development in the womb and infancy. Childhood and adult learning are neurons writing new programs.

      Claude Shannon was asked, can a machine think? Shannon answered: Sure. I can think, can’t I?
      Sabine asked, do you have free will? Sure. The auto-pilot can fly the airplane, can’t it?

  48. Modesty, please. You don't know how it works. Just admit it.

  49. I wouldn't advise anyone on anything; I'm kind of a jerk, but not my fault, subatomic particles made me so.
    yet, I insist, if one really believes 'free will' does not exist, and volition is just another deterministic illusion, why advising on how to cope?

    1. rms: why advising on how to cope?

      There is no why; her advice was pre-determined by her pre-determined feelings on the matter, something caused her to feel compelled to write and post it.

      And it may also be pre-determined that people having heard her advice will follow it, for good or ill, thus forming a part of the (pre-determined) chaotic development of the future.

      As to whether being a jerk is "your fault", of course it is, in the same sense that a crack in drinking glass is a fault in the drinking glass. You may not have chosen to be a jerk, but that doesn't mean you aren't flawed in the eyes of other humans, that due to their own pre-determined paths have been exposed to social cues that developed their expectations for how a 'normal' human being will behave. Not like a jerk.

      And it may be your destiny that as you are exposed to environmental influences (including education and the thoughts of other people) they effect a change in your thinking that changes your personality to not-jerk.

      That might, from your POV, seem like a choice or decision to stop being a jerk, to make a literal change of your mind, but it would be a deterministic change, even if the exact event or feeling triggering such a decision was indiscernible to you.

      Just like the exact stimulus that prompted Dr. Hossenfelder to write this "How To" post may or may not be discernible to her. I can only guess something made her feel compelled to reiterate her point of view and faith in the rightness of physics.

  50. For those who think that they have Will :-) Shakespeare on their side in this debate, the following words by the Bard might be more appropriate: "Life's...a [t]ale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, [s]ignifying nothing."

    This is part of a longer passage which, alongside Joyce's novella "The Dead", is probably one of the best pieces of literature ever:

    — To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
    Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
    To the last syllable of recorded time;
    And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
    The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
    Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
    That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
    And then is heard no more. It is a tale
    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
    Signifying nothing.

    — Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5, lines 17-28)

  51. "Rather than despairing over the impossibility of changing either, decide to be more careful which information you seek out, analyze, and pass on." Gee. I would if I could.

  52. "...decide to be more careful which information you seek out, analyze, and pass on." Gee. I would if I could.

  53. Dear Sabine,

    This is the second time you’ve addressed free will in the past year. On both occasions, there were inconsistencies in some of your arguments. I have no problem with your definition of free will. Your issue with free will seems to be that the random determinism of the universe doesn’t allow for it. You say: “Add quantum mechanics [to the determined configuration], and you introduce a random element into some events.” Actually, QM introduces random elements into all events since the randomness in quantum events influences any system of which those events are a part; this includes all systems. Your description that “this means that the part of your future which is not already determined is due to random chance” implies that random chance is not a key determinant of the outcomes of future events. This is false. The uncertainty in the simplest, smallest events establishes the possibility for multiple event outcomes within a random distribution of those possibilities. The principles and operating framework for events may be strictly determined but all event outcomes contain some degree of uncertainty that translates to randomness. The universe is deterministic in how it operates but that determined operation is probabilistic.

    You also state that chaos is deterministic. This is true but fails to account for how chaotic systems are unpredictably sensitive to changes in conditions. Even the tiniest possible uncertainties from quantum events will create unpredictable outcomes in chaotic systems of those events. It seems that our universe is deterministic only within a range of possible outcomes; there is innate flexibility in event outcomes due to randomness. This flexibility leaves room for the deliberate manipulation (use of free will) of events within the random natural distribution imposed by nature. The flexibility in our system – quantum uncertainty, general and special relativity, unpredictable chaotic sensitivity – implies that, although the universe will only have a single system outcome, that specific outcome is undeterminable and subject to manipulation (free will) within the system’s operating boundaries. If you look at our inventive record, you can only conclude we are doing just that.

    Dave Paist

    1. Dave,

      You write

      "Actually, QM introduces random elements into all events..."

      No, this is wrong. A detector eigenstate will remain a detector eigenstate. Generally, I recommend that before you accuse me of being inconsistent, you try to understand what I am saying.

      "You also state that chaos is deterministic. This is true but.."

      Of course it's true, and the rest of what you say is irrelevant.

    2. You seemed to miss the point of my criticism so, I'll try again. The fact of multiple possible outcomes for the simplest events introduces randomness to a system. That randomness is bounded by the predicted and widely experimentally verified -- at least for simple physics -- distribution of those event outcome possibilities. As quantum events build matter into atoms then molecules then living beings, that uncertainty at the simplest level influences the larger more complex events and the systems they build. Chaotic systems -- all lives are potentially chaotic systems -- are unpredictably sensitive to changes in their operating conditions (not just changes to changes in initial conditions) and system outcomes can deviate considerably even for the smallest change. This is commonly referred to as the Butterfly Effect. As systems get more complicated, every system will begin behaving chaotically at some point; that point varies by system.

      The product of the uncertainty introduced at the quantum level and the unpredictable sensitivity of chaotic systems means that there are many more possible system outcome possibilities than if the universe was strictly deterministic in both framework and outcomes. Our operating frameworks are deterministic but only within the uncertain outcome distribution imposed by nature. This probabilistic flexibility means that the system has the potential to be manipulated for desired outcomes within the random natural system potential. The exercise of free will is just such a system manipulation. Better?



  54. I think the main flaw in your argument is the idea that if reductionism is wrong, then particle physics is also wrong. I don't think that follows. Everything we know about particle physics could be 100 percent correct and also be an incomplete description of reality. It's possible that mind is a separate layer of reality that interacts with matter and is even effected by matter but is not merely a byproduct of matter. Your apparent belief that mind is produced by matter is a philosophical preference, not something proved by science.

    1. Just because you do not understand why it follows does not mean that what I say is wrong. Look up the causal exclusion principle or read this essay in which I explain the issue in great detail. Generally I recommend that before you conclude that what I write is wrong you try to understand what I say, thanks.

  55. As someone said: "Impossibility proofs only ever prove our lack of imagination".

  56. Sabine Hossenfelder,

    First this: Stipulated for my comments, dualistic explanations are void.

    Three truth claims you just made:
    "You never had free will."
    "No one presently knows exactly what consciousness is or what it is good for."
    "You may not have free will, but you still make decisions."

    I am counter-claiming that in your effort to refute dualistic free will, you ignore the tangle of contradiction represented by these assertions.

    Instead of concluding this:

    "... the part of your future which is not already determined is due to random chance. It therefore makes no sense to say that humans have free will."

    Isn't this the honorable investigation?

    In addition to thoughts and actions we choose to not examine at a given moment (allowed to execute on automatic), humans will their consciousness into focus and action every waking moment. They make conscious decisions, take action, and enrich their agency in reality by non-fatalistic methods. It therefore makes absolute sense to say that humans have volitional free will."

    Therefore, what is the non-dualistic explanation of decision?

  57. “Given those equations and the configuration of a system at one particular time, you can calculate what happens at all other times.”


    Thank you for the considered reply. It is unlikely we will be of one mind on the matter of determinism and that fact is in itself relevant to this discussion. In any argument where one can quote Hamlet or Einstein, are we ever speaking with one mind or is it like some neurological rugby scrum with a cast of a thousand voices from which the next word or thought pops out? It seems you are saying that there is a calculation that will exactly mirror and predict that process. Forgive me if I am skeptical. I believe you overreach, are making a faith-based argument. (touché!)

    1)You dismiss Gödel as irrelevant in the matter of natural law. I don’t follow that. You claim to have a mathematical system that exactingly maps a rather extensive physical system (the universe) as well as an imponderable number of its subsystems (example of your choosing here). Gödel argues that all mathematical systems have their bounds, that no logical system will invariably recognize the truth of other logical systems. (Yes?) How do you know your mathematics is complete?

    2)You characterize my example of the complex influences upon the future of a planted seed as an instance of arguing a hierarchical, top/down causation. I disagree. It is an example of heterarchical, side by side, relationship and its influence on the course of events. The consequence of this shoulder to shoulder interaction will not be revealed by your mathematics. Differential equations do well in dynamics but fail in history. (I will just say that and hope it’s true – sounds good.) Complex physical systems endure in time through the integrity of their causal eddies tween input and output. They are causal loops, literally stitches in time. Past and present are iteratively correlated. If there is a weakness in the efficacy of your mathematics, perhaps it is here.

    3)You are speaking for a physics that is rumored to be incomplete, perhaps foundationally flawed. Notions such as the block universe may undergo the effects of rational warming. Notions of a distinction between local and nonlocal may someday seem a quaint diversion from proper thinking. Questioning your physics may be a cheap shot, but you could be presumptive and premature in your epitaph for free will.

    4)You are not alone. Apparently, a lot of well-educated people agree with you. Does that make me question my beliefs? Well, maybe a little, but I recover. I think perhaps they know more about physics than they know about nature. Ho, ho!


    1. Don,

      I think you misunderstand the view of top-down (or "heterarchical, side by side") causation taken by Sabine, me, and, I think, most physicists.

      We all know, as a practical matter, that you cannot just apply Schrödinger's equation to a seed and thereby predict the plant's development. Calculationally, it is of course, horrendously intractable, and, furthermore, you would need to feed in all the relevant information about the environment -- soil, water, sunshine, and the rest.

      But, most physicists and, as far as I can tell, most biologists do believe that nothing is really going on except for Schrödinger's equation -- i.e., in principle the calculation could be done, even though we know it will never be done in practice.

      And that is a falsifiable prediction. If it's not all just Schrödinger's equation, there must be some point at which Schrödinger's equation does not work. Just show us where that is, and we will recant.

      All the work in biology during the last eighty years gives little hope that you will succeed: reductionism, not "heterarchical, side by side, relationship" is what has actually worked, and stunningly so, for the biologists. (My wife is a Ph.D. biologist, so I actually do know what they have been up to!)

      As for Gödel... well, he was talking about a rigorously defined system of logical inference. We are talking about a world that is, in effect, an analog computer that solves Schrödinger's equation on the fly. I myself have made your Gödelian argument in the past, but I think in fact that it is hard to make the transfer from an axiomatic system to the real-world-as-analog-computer.

      Maybe you are more clever than I and can make that argument work, but it will take some real effort.

      Finally, on the incompleteness of physics, I, and I suspect, Sabine certainly agree. Sabine's argument is "as we best understand the natural world today..." On the other hand, no one has yet suggested an even semi-plausible alternative way of viewing nature that would lead to a different conclusion.

      I do remain agnostic myself, but it is hard to argue convincingly that Sabine's argument is wrong.

      All the best,


    2. Dave,

      > But, most physicists and, as far as I can tell, most biologists do believe that nothing is really going on except for Schrödinger's equation -- i.e., in principle the calculation could be done, even though we know it will never be done in practice.

      That is not quite what Quantum Mechanics states. The Schrodinger equation alone is not enough, you also need the Born rule to break unitarity and pick a single outcome of any measurable interaction. Otherwise you end up with macroscopic many words, which is another way to say "everything possible happens", not a very helpful statement.

      > And that is a falsifiable prediction. If it's not all just Schrödinger's equation, there must be some point at which Schrödinger's equation does not work. Just show us where that is, and we will recant.

      If this is a falsifiable prediction, then it has been falsified already: we do not observe unitary evolution at macroscopic scales, in contradiction with the Schrodinger equation.

      The connection between quantum and classical is an active research area. We do know that the Schrodinger equation alone is not enough. In addition to the Born rule there is also the gravitational interactions to contend with. We have no idea what happens when gravity becomes important, somewhere in between 10^4- and 10^20-state systems. So it is not all as cut and dry as your simplified description suggests.

    3. Sergei,
      "If this is a falsifiable prediction, then it has been falsified already: we do not observe unitary evolution at macroscopic scales, in contradiction with the Schrodinger equation."

      Not clear to me what you mean here.
      1) we do not observe unitary evolution at macroscopic scales -- or
      2)we do not observe unitary evolutions at macroscopic scales that are in contradiction with the Schrodinger equation

    4. Sergei,

      I take your point: I have actually done some (unpublished) research on the foundations of quantum mechanics myself.

      I am basically in agreement with the views Steve Weinberg expressed in Sabine's book: it bothers me that the standard textbook approach (which we do all use in practice when we are doing physics) seems to give a privileged place to human beings (the collapse of the wave function when we make a measurement).

      On the other hand, none of the usual alternatives -- the many-worlds interpretation, Bohmian hidden-variables, even my own little model -- strikes me as very plausible.

      So, I'm left scratching my head.

      I do not think, though, that all this touches on Don's points arguing against reductionism.

      So... is it possible that consciousness and free will have something to do with the foundations of quantum mechanics?

      I'm skeptical, but then I admit that I do not understand either consciousness or the foundations of QM.

      All the best,


    5. Don,

      The former: we do not observe pure unitary evolution according to the Schrodinger equation in any interaction with a macroscopic system, we only see the measurement outcomes, which require an extra rule that breaks unitarity.

    6. Dave,

      The standard approach talks about measurements, without referring to humans in any way. A more modern way to state it is "an interaction between a quantum and a classical system" or something along those lines.

      > So... is it possible that consciousness and free will have something to do with the foundations of quantum mechanics?

      I side with Scott Aaronson here, whose point is that just because two different phenomena are mysterious/ill understood, doesn't mean they are related in any way. As Sabine and others pointed out, a much more promising direction is working on experimental observations of gravitational effects of superposition. Look up "cat state and gravity", there is a fair bit of research on the topic. The exciting part is that, despite it not being any kind of exotic limit, there are no firm predictions what ought to be observed. Plus the experiments are probably feasible within the next few years without breaking the bank.

    7. Sergei,

      You said, "A more modern way to state it is "an interaction between a quantum and a classical system" or something along those lines." But the problem is that QM should explain everything! At a fundamental level, there should not be any "classical" systems. And, yes, I know how to "shut up and calculate": I took QM from Feynman at Caltech. Still, something funny is going on.

      You also said, "I side with Scott Aaronson here, whose point is that just because two different phenomena are mysterious/ill understood, doesn't mean they are related in any way." Quite so, which is why I am skeptical.

      But sometimes unexplained things are connected: the stability of atoms, the photoelectric effect, the black-body radiation problem, etc.

      Time will tell.


  58. Free will exists from introspection.

    When I have a desire conflicting with a reasonable belief there are times when the desire wins out and times when the reasonable belief wins out.

    There is no pattern to why this occurs

    So there must be a self determining factor involved which one calls the "will"

    1. Introspection does seem a personal tool for making reasoned decisions. Whatever a scientific evaluation of "free will," yours seems good enough in practice.

  59. I think it is presumptuous to think we understand well enough about how the universe works to state unequivocally that there is no free will. Having said that, it has been apparent to me since I was 15 that a deterministic world is certainly a real possibility.

    I never had too much problem with it. If the world is deterministic then there is no meaning to living life one way vs another - we are just close observers to watching our stories unfold. So I live my life as if there is free will because to do otherwise would be ludicrous.

    1. Doug,

      As I said very clearly, this is the status for all we currently know. Whatever we are about to discover in the future, though, it will have to fit together with what we already know.

    2. Doug is right though

      Peter Van Inwagen made a point similar which I think shows how useless human life is...we are just matter in motion that doesn't even make decisions.

      "If determinism is true, then our acts are the consequence of laws of nature and events in the remote past. But it's not up to us what went on before we were born, and neither is it up to us what the laws of nature are. Therefore, the consequences of these things (including our present acts) are not up to us"

  60. The premise of this article refutes the content. If people can follow advice (or not), then their fate and thoughts are not predetermined. For that matter, there is no meaning to anything or any action. Killing somebody is something that just happens, fated billions of years ago. Cruelty? The same. Moral distinctions? Same.

    The idea that free will is an illusion (and consciousness as well) is absurd on its face. What is experiencing the illusion? A clockwork?

    It is true that physics doesn't explain free will or consciousness, but that doesn't negate the fact that they exist. What it does is reveal a lacunae in physics. That should be exciting to any scientist, as it reveals that more is to be discovered and understood.

    Nobody behaves as if consciousness and free will don't exist. Unless you are utterly indifferent to outcomes or behavior ("hey, that serial killer was just doing what the big bang made him do"), you don't believe it either. If you make moral judgments, care about anything, you have implicitly rejected this hypothesis.

    1. David,

      "If people can follow advice (or not), then their fate and thoughts are not predetermined."

      You are mistaken in thinking that I implied there was any doubt about whether you would follow my advice.

      Yes, you are a clockwork, basically. Welcome to reality.

  61. Dr. Hossenfelder,

    I wonder if it would be possible to devise some sort of “Bell test” which could support or contradict the notion of “free will” just as experiments inspired by Bell’s theorem give support to the notion of entanglement.

  62. "You have free will if your decisions select [definitively] one of several possible futures..."

    It is not I that changes the definition of free will, but you. This definition would mean that we are omnipotent, which has never been a definition that humans could use for themselves.

  63. You should not underestimate the importance to free-will beliefs of the so-called "sense of agency" (the psychological sense that "I did it," that "I'm in control of my body"). The sense of agency appears to have a solid neurophysiological basis and the underlying neural activity informs the brain whether perceived changes in sensory inputs (i.e., in the environment) were caused by the brain's own motor-impulse outputs or by something else.

    The sense of agency can, however, be misinterpreted. It tells a person only that the person "chose" to make a certain thing happen ("chose" in the sense that a thermostat "chooses" to turn the heating system on and off, as determined by to its inputs). It does not actually tell the person that the choice was made by her "free will" rather than, say, her neurophysiology.

    But perhaps the biggest reason people resist letting go of free-will beliefs is that they feel powerful emotions of blame when they see people do harmful things, emotions that need to be placated by means of retributive acts. If wrongdoers lack free will, retribution begins to look like pure aggression.

  64. Physics is in the business of building and testing models of natural processes. These models always presuppose a mind capable of empirically observing data and theoretically reflecting upon possible explanations. In other words, by dismissing free will and by proxy consciousness you are forgetting about the transcendental conditions that make physical science and knowledge of nature possible in the first place.

    1. Matthew,

      You are wrong about claiming that I am "dismissing consciousness". This makes no sense whatsoever. Stop fabricating things I have not said.

  65. If you've learned this much QM, then you also know that Time is an illusion. Therefore, it is nonsense to say I don't have free will because my actions have already been determined by the happenstance of the Big Bang and subsequent consequences of same. The Big Bang doesn't limit my free will, rather my free will shapes the Big Bang (ever so slightly) so that my physical actions conform to my intentions.

    1. MDrabik,

      Well, guessing by your comment I almost certainly know more about quantum mechanics than you do. And I am afraid I have to inform you that time is not an illusion, it's as real as anything can be.

      And your free will had nothing to do with the big bang, to begin with because you don't have free will.

  66. Sabine, I do take issue with one of your initial statements. You said: "Gödel's incompleteness theorem, remarkable as it is, has no relevance for natural laws."
    But the fundamental fact is that there are no “natural” laws. This term is an artifice of popular science writing. What we have is a set of agreed upon axioms of the physical world that are justified by observation and a significant number of head nods from the scientific community.
    I am not just nit picking here, this is critical for any argument that attempts to assign a philosophical property to the universe.
    Therefore, if our basis of physical understanding is a set of axioms and a language (mathematics), then Gödel is absolutely appropriate.
    In addition, you have not set down rational criteria for a proof or disproof of your statement that free will doesn’t exist.
    Since historical philosophy has considered the state of free will for millennia and never reached a definitive conclusion, it seems apparent that free will falls into the same category as the Axiom of Choice or the Parallel Line Postulate. It is independent of our natural universe and we can neither prove nor disprove the statement.

    1. Eric,

      That's right, we have a set of agreed upon axioms that are justified by observations, etc. And as you certainly know if you have an undecidable statement so that your theory's predictions are ambiguous, you can add an axiom to resolve the problem. Not that this has ever actually been necessary. That's why I am saying Goedel's theorem plays no role in practice.

      Oh, of course you can disprove my statement that free will does not exist. You could show for example that biology is indeed in conflict with the standard model of particle physics, and hence reductionism is wrong. There are countless ways you could try to show that reductionism is wrong, pick one and good luck.

  67. Seems like it suffers from the most common physicist myopia, which is to believe that once you have understood the laws of physics all else is taking derivatives and not requiring of the same level of precision and care. What you have *not* done here is ponder a definition of "free will" that is as rigorous and precise as the definition of the commutator of x and p. Only when you do that can you even usefully ponder the question of its compatibility with assorted laws of motion.

    Mind you, I'm quite sure you *have* a definition in your mind, unspoken, and which you assume (which is an error) that everyone else shares, because it's just what "everybody knows" or something, much like Newton didn't trouble himself to define what an interval of time was, since everyone knew what it was instinctively. But it's the neglect of taking this definition out as Step 1 of your process, and examining it and if necessary refining with the same critical eye you would give to the assumptions inherent in a paper on GR which vitiates the rest of the analysis.

    1. Carl,

      As I have explained several times already, I do not need to define free will to demonstrate that it does not exist. I merely need to define one ingredient of free will and demonstrate that this does not exist, and this is what I have done.

      No, I have made no assumption of the type "everybody knows", I have been exceedingly clear about what I am speaking about. If you want even more details than this blogpost, you can read this.

  68. You're confused. If quantum processes participate in decision-making, then it is not true that the results are fore-ordained. What you are arguing is that the subjective experience of decision-making is an illusion. But to know that -- even to suspect that -- you would need a model of experience.

  69. Well Dr. H you are committing yourself, at bottom, to being an automaton.. But your view also assumes that physics is all there is in the universe. Yes it's all you can DETECT of course (our instruments are physical) but there is no warrant to assume there is nothing more and in fact mind (and free will) are the evidence that there is

    1. Matthew,

      No, of course I do not assume that physics is all there is in the universe. This makes no sense. Arguably we have disciplines like biology and chemistry and psychology.

      "mind (and free will) are the evidence that there is"

      You should be more careful about spelling out what "evidence" you have. What evidence do you have that there is anything not describable by the laws of physics? Let me help you out: None. You have no evidence. And you will never have any.

      What you are insisting on, therefore, is pure belief. It's a religion. You can of course belief in free will even though there is no evidence for it, but please do not pretend it is anything but a belief, as meaningful as belief in an omniscient god.

  70. Thanks for your thoughts. However, I think irreducible randomness in Nature is quite compatible with free will.

    I am conscious that I am conscious, and I believe that you, also, are conscious that you are conscious. If you don't agree, the rest of my remarks will make little sense.

    If we're conscious that we're conscious, then our consciousness (as subject) is the same as our consciousness (as object). As a number of philosophers have pointed out, consciousness is nothing like a person (the conscious subject) watching a TV (the contents of consciousness). If that were the case, then the subject, in order to be conscious of being conscious, would contain another subject watching a TV showing the original subject being conscious... in an infinite regress that could never terminate in any actual consciousness.

    Assuming that consciousness is a natural phenomenon, then the unity of subject and object in self-consciousness implies the unity of subject and Nature. Which of course you assume anyway.

    If nature is completely deterministic in a classical or Bohmian sense, then there is a unity of subject and Nature, in which all of my choices are predetermined. I do not argue with this logic, nor dispute that it negates our ordinary understanding of freedom and moral responsibility.

    If Nature features irreducible randomness, as quantum mechanics without superdeterminism implies, then there is still a unity of subject and Nature in consciousness, but not all of my choices are necessarily predetermined. But, and this is my point, it is not the case that this randomness implies I have no free choice. Rather, randomness and free choice are two sides of the same reality. That is, the reality of self-consciousness of a free choice is physically identical with some irreducibly random event.

    In other words, I think that your objection that random events cannot be FREE choices holds only if a free choice does not involve self-consciousness that unites subject and object. Or, in yet other words, for random events to be incompatible with free choice, the random events have to be separate from, and opposed to, the will of the subject.

    If you like, I am proposing another sort of compatibilism, but in my case, it is free will that is compatible with the irreducibly random aspect of nature, instead of free will that is compatible with any sort of classical or Bohmian determinacy. The advantage of my sort of compatibilism is that it preserves the notion that my free choices cannot be predicted in advance, without denying the reality that I actually freely make my choices for my own good reasons.

    1. What you seem to be saying is that randomness is a kind of freedom ("the same reality"). O-o-okay. But it is not the kind of the freedom that would provide a satisfying kind of "free" will, is it? How, for example, could we justify praising or blaming a person for conduct if that conduct is truly random?

    2. Randomness is not "the kind of freedom," to at least some extent it "is the freedom." Please consider this part of my argument carefully: irreducible randomness and free choice are two sides of the same reality. One is seen by physics, the other is seen by the subject, but the two sides are the same reality. This particular manifestation of randomness does not stand over against the subject, which would indeed negate freedom, but rather is part of what constitutes the subject.

  71. The question of free will bothers people. They experience free will, but bad philosophy and bad physics tells them free will doesn’t exist. Philosophy and physics tells people not to trust themselves.

    “You have free will if your decisions select one of several possible futures. But there is no place for such a selection in the laws of nature” (Sabine H.) :
    This is correct: You can’t use law of nature equations, or any sort of equations, to represent the selection of one possibility out of several possibilities.

    Instead you need to use an algorithmic statement to represent the selection. Selection depends on “higher-level” information: subjective “environmental conditions” information and/or information about “the disposition of the selector”. This higher-level, executive-level information has clearly been derived from, but is not a strict logical consequence of, “lower-level” information. So a (possibly one-off) algorithm that represents the selection event would take the form: “IF particular executive-level information is TRUE, THEN lawfully implement a specific outcome”. Free will only makes sense in the context of higher-level information, and “higher-level” outcomes which are implemented via “lower-level” outcomes; laws of nature handle the relationship between lower-level information and lower-level outcomes.

    Do algorithms exist in the same sense that law of nature relationships exist? The delta symbol in physics’ law of nature equations represents change of number information that can only be acquired via algorithmic steps.

  72. Sabine,

    Your body and brain are a subsystem in the universe, correct? That body and brain IS "YOU". "YOU", as a subsystem (the "self" subsystem), seek homeostasis, have feelings, emotions, thoughts, and consciousness...all presumably based on the laws of physics.

    Yet, I can see no reason to conclude that "YOU", the physical subsystem, cannot decide to do one thing, rather than some other thing, as regards its interactions with the rest of the universe, which can be called the "other" subsystem.

  73. "I have come to the conclusion that a large fraction of people are cognitively unable to question the existence of ---------, and there is no argument that can change their mind."
    Fill in the blank and take the argument wherever you want it to go.
    Life is not a debate, it is what it is. You are a physical body that exists and is subject to the laws governing such.
    But the is more to man than the physical.
    This is an ancient question and has been argued for eons by the greatest mind on either side of the issue.
    You can't simply point to your favorite equation and smugly declare;
    "There, I've proved it, now shut up."
    There is the Metaphysical as well as the physical.
    But perhaps you are cognitively unable to accept that.

    1. I am simply telling you what follows from the evidence. You have a hard time accepting that? Too bad, that won't change the facts.

  74. "You may not have free will, but you still make decisions. "

    Now who's in denial and making up semantic word games? The most fundamental defining characteristic of free will is that it is the description of any system with the macro ability to make decisions. If you are not a system, then even your brain is just a passenger strapped into the universe's roller coaster ride of thoughts. Reason itself evaporates.

    Go listen to Sean Caroll and other compatibalists. You cannot mix language of the micro (Laplace's demon) with the macro. Electrons themselves do not have temperature or pressure, but this does not mean "temperature is an illusion." Macro state descriptions of phenomena, including Free Will, are true and useful.

    1. Vern,

      Your phone also makes decisions. If you want to make that a "defining characteristic of free will", I will not stop you from it, but I do think it's a pretty nonsensical definition.

      I get along with Sean just fine, thank you, and before you try to tell me what emergent phenomena are, please consider that I know more about the topic than you do.

  75. Sabine,
    I think you downplay too much the role of quantum mechanics. Indeed you view could have been that of Laplace over two centuries ago. QM is not only "random flukes": it can trigger events whose consequence can be amplified to the macroscopic realm, as on e reader pointed out. A single decaying atom can can induce a mutation that eventually gives me cancer, which in turn has obvious chemical, biological, psychological outcomes.
    At any rate, we know that the universe is quantum mechanical, so future event are not determined, and there is at least a theoretical possibility that free will may arise out of this indeterminacy. How? I do not know, and neither do you: but this only proves our lack of imagination, as I posted above...
    By the way, your sentence "whatever is about to happen was already determined at the big bang – up to those random flukes that come from quantum mechanics" is very very overconfident. If we reran the film of the universe from the BB, it is likely that the present moment would be very different, precisely because of the randomness of QM.
    But then, if the future is open (and it is) your ground for rejecting free will is much shakier.

  76. Sabine,
    this would be a fine argument if it were based on a complete, final theory of physics. However, since we have two incompatible fundamental theories of physics, drawing any firm conclusions from these theories to fundamental ontological questions (such as free will) is a fool's errand. Keeping an open mind and admitting that we cannot yet understand the fundamental, true nature of the universe is the more honest and brave stand to take.
    When I was doing science full time, my brain, just like yours, was captured by the dogma of determinism and scientism that is so overwhelmingly prevalent and influential in the scientific community that hardly any scientist escapes it. However, I found free-will-denial ultimately depressing and managed to break free from it. For anyone who wants to, this liberation can be achieved through reading books by wise and well-informed authors who do not subscribe to the established dogma, such as Sheldrake's "The Science Delusion/Science Set Free". There is also a lot of empirical evidence for the existence of mental effects on random quantum events, which you have chosen to ignore - if you want to remedy that, Dean Radin's writings are a good place to start.

    1. H.P., there is also the purely logical appeal of idealism. For me it all comes down to the realization that the word 'physical' simply has no meaning - no non-trivial, non-circular definition. Basically what Berkeley said: it adds nothing to the description.

  77. Given the huge volume of responses here, and the nature of most of them,.I feel compelled to write a second one myself.

    I want to get the issue of Gödel's theorem out of the way first. I wrote above a longer comment on this that goes into greater detail. Gödel's theorem with respect to quantum mechanics, if such is applicable, would not likely tell us anything about the dynamics of quantum states or observables. It would be more limited to some result on the incompleteness of the postulates of quantum physics in telling us about anything dynamical about quantum measurement. The plethora of quantum interpretations might then be analogous to the set of non-Euclidean geometries possible when one removes the fifth axiom of classical geometry of Euclid. So one could just take the Mermen advice of “shut up and calculate,” which half or more the time I lean towards, or one can for one reason or the other put on the hat of any of the q-interpretations out there in this growing marketplace of them. See my comment above for more possibilities I outline.

    There is the result of Conway and Kochen which illustrates how free will runs into contradictions with no-signalling and contextuality in quantum mechanics. This demonstrates how the observer or observing system can't in some way have processes that are unconstrained from the processes of quantum mechanics.

    There are a set of experiments that bring into question the whole idea of free will. The Libet experiments and later more advanced measurements with fMRI illustrate clearly how the brain engages neural processes along pathways to initiate an action before the action occurs or before a human subject is aware of this decision. The Wikipedia page:

    gives an overview of these developments. This suggests that consciousness is not synonymous with free will, but is rather a sort of epiphenomenology that occurs in some subjective sphere. Daniel Dennett proposed a sort of heterophenomenology of competing neural processors that emerges with a final outcome that forms an awareness. While Freud went clearly off the rails with his psychoanalysis his idea of the subconsciousness had elements of this sort. So this suggests our conscious perception of the world is not a primary driver of our actions, but is a secondary derivative. This means free will is not equivalent to consciousness or is not a necessary condition for consciousness.

    Are there possible escape routes in physics that might allow for free will. There might be, but I would not put a heavy bet on them. Physics has quantum mechanics that is an L^2 system, with norm determined by the square of amplitudes that determine probabilities. Non-quantum mechanical stochastic systems are L^1 systems. Here I am thinking of macroscopic systems that have pure stochastic measures. For convex systems or hull with an L^p measure there is a dual L^q system such that 1/p + 1/q = 1. For quantum physics there is a dual system, it is general relativity with its pseudo-Euclidean distance. For my purely stochastic system the dual system is an L^∞ system, which is classical mechanics of Newton, Lagrange and Hamilton. There is a fair amount of mathematics behind this, which I will avoid now. However, I see no trouble with the duality between quantum physics and spacetime physics. What about between purely stochastic and classical mechanics? If these truly exist then is there an escape hatch from the tyranny of QM and GR?

    1. If you see "no trouble with the duality between quantum physics and spacetime physics," why is there a general goal of unification?

    2. I suppose I am not sure of your question. However, I see things differently from what might be called quantization. The standard idea has been to quantized gravitation, much as we do with gauge theories. In fact there is some reason to think this. A conformal transformation can depend on a scalar field, and inflation is really such a dynamics, and it is not hard to see there is a mixing of spacetime and these scalar variables. So why would the scalars be quantized and gravitation not? However, does this mean gravitation is quantized in a standard setting, or is something quantum mechanical being transformed into something more associated with spacetime? Maybe spacetime is quantized through something like these scalars.

  78. continuation because of space limitations:

    This may depend upon quantum interpretations. Bohr said the world is dichotomous with quantum and classical realities. Decoherence also says the loss of quantum phase for superpositions and entanglements of a quantum system reduce it to a pure classical probability problem. These stances would be a ψ-epistemic perspective. However, a ψ-ontic perspective would say otherwise. The many worlds interpretation would say these are illusions based upon the perceived splitting of the world into this branching cosmic Yggdrasil of possible quantum outcomes. In this setting things are completely constrained by quantum amplitudes and our apparent classicality of stochastic outcomes is a sort of illusion. So which is right? I don't think there is an axiomatic procedure to tell us such, which gets back to the matter of .Gödel's theorem and how quantum measurement is a way that quantum mechanics represents quantum mechanics in itself. Free will may then be completely lost in this uncertainty.

  79. We need free will to blame other people, and to justify feelings of shame and guilt. From a neutral point of view it makes no sense. It's an useful illusion to motivate and manipulate human beings.

    The basic problem is that humans have no direct access to reality; some input signals are mixed with internal signals and creates some magic in our brains. Unfortunately we have not found yet a causal explanation of what happens in our brain. In the meantime we use intentional explanations to fill in the gaps and justify our actions.

    Ironically when we hear a sound people tend to call the non-physical-part of the sound (the perception we have of the sound) the real part. Also it is fascinating that humans can share non-physical-illusions with other collections of matter (f.i. other humans but also chess computers).

    Some of these non-physical-illusions we share (f.i. E=mC^2) seem to correspond to what happens in reality. But most of these non-physical-illusions have nothing to do with physical reality (Freewill, God's, borders, the game of chess, the value of money, ....).

    1. I always liked this little song by Alan Parsons

      "Like a mirror held before me
      large as the sky is wide.
      And the image is reflected
      back to the other side."

      Consciousness has this mirror-like property to it. Of course after this lyric comes some "issues" that come with discussions of free will and consciousness.

      The belief in free will has some comforting aspects to it. However, we have framed a lot of social behavior around this. In particular with respect to guilt and with controlling people and society. This happens on an earthly as well as a theological or eschatological level.

      We have this desire to punish the guilty, which often is not that different from some sort of revenge. In fact the idea of legal systems is to avoid vengance by individuals and put this on the shoulders of the courts. Yet the whole point of penal systems though is to either rehabilitate people by some means or to remove recalcitrant offenders from society so they can't attack other potential victims. The point of tormenting people, no matter how guilty or heinous the crime is pointless. This is particularly the case if we consider what thin ice the ideology of free will skates upon.

      It will be some time I suppose before a defense of an accused is "my brain made me do it," and this succeeds. However, at least the death penalty and angry ideas of torture can be abolished this if free will is not considered. The idea a person committed a crime out of pure free will and choice may be blunted.

    2. "we have not found yet a causal explanation of what happens in our brain"

      Oh, but we have. Neuroscientists know exactly what causes synapses to "fire" (release neurotransmitters), electrical charges to move along neurons, and everything else that "happens" in the brain. It's true that neuroscience still has only partially mapped out the "wiring diagram" that permits the system to "compute" as it does. But it is clear from literally millions of neuroscience experiments that nothing ever happens within the brain's "wiring" (neural networks) that is not caused and determined by other physical events in the system or, in the case of sensory neurons, energy from the outside, such as light and sound, impinging on them. There is no place in the brain for anything non-physical (like "will," intentions or other mental states) to intervene in the brain's chains of physical causation.

    3. "we have not found yet a causal explanation of what happens in our brain"

      Oh, but we have. Neuroscientists know exactly what causes synapses to "fire" (release neurotransmitters), electrical charges to move along neurons, and everything else that "happens" in the brain. It's true that neuroscience still has only partially mapped out the "wiring diagram" that permits the system to "compute" as it does. But it is clear from literally millions of neuroscience experiments that nothing ever happens within the brain's "wiring" (neural networks) that is not caused and determined by other physical events in the system or, in the case of sensory neurons, energy from the outside, such as light and sound, impinging on them. There is no place in the brain for anything non-physical (like "will," intentions or other mental states) to intervene in the brain's chains of physical causation.

    4. Lawrence Crowell: The social issues can be traced to the fundamental notion of logic. If we believe we have a choice in our future which is exercised by us taking actions to change the present; then it is logical to punish others for choosing to cause us pain, in order to influence *their* future choices (and therefore change the future to one of less net pain).

      Punishment creates consequences for causing pain, and we believe in the logic of consequences influencing people's choices so they will cause less pain.

      The justice system is based upon logic which fundamentally rests upon the assumption that people make choices to act, that people can be responsible for the future they act to bring about.

      Whether free will exists or not, it is our belief that people have free will that makes such logic possible at all.

      The point of revenge, or tormenting people, or executing them, is not without logic; it is creating a consequence to deter others from making the same choices as the guilty. Again, the belief in deterrence relies completely on believing that people have the free will to choose their path.

      The "my brain made me do it" is already a defense in law, the insanity defense. There is currently no "destiny" defense; but if somebody tried to claim it was their destiny to rape children, I would claim it is also their destiny to be incarcerated for life, or killed, so we can be certain no more children will be raped by them.

      Controlling people is a good thing; society breaks down (as it is already doing) when we can't trust people to make their choices within the bounds of what we collectively deem permissible.

      It is not our own free will we need to believe in; it is the free will of others we must believe in. Without the belief that others can choose whether they obey the laws or break them, society falls apart, and with it the benefits of collective action and mutual protection and the creation of shared resources afforded by society, from the tribal level to the national level.

  80. Reaching free will from the brain ignores the fact that the brain is alive. Consciousness is alive. Before there can be free choice there is choice. Choice begins with life's choice to live, that is, continue.

    Unless you believe in the Creationist Theory of Consciousness, you believe that consciousness evolved. Living awareness began when life freed itself from matter. Living awareness is forming matter.

  81. Lawrence Crowell: I think the Libet experiments are wildly mis-interpreted; the conscious mind can easily act as a clearing house for subconscious processing; which we have proved is constantly occurring and is the majority of brain activity (also fMRI, and also experimentally in the field of "priming").

    In that sense, when I receive the instruction from Libet to press the button whenever I feel like it; my conscious mind likely delegates that decision to some subordinate module that is itself aware of any physical limitations. The subordinate makes the decision to push the button and begins the action, and reports that back up the chain to the conscious mind; thus the milliseconds of delay.

    No different than if the CEO tells a subordinate to make a prioritized list of building repairs with cost estimates, and a week later receives that list. The subordinate did the planning, assignments, and coordination, not the CEO. So yes, the CEO is unaware of the specific decisions being made, but is still in control and responsible for requesting them.

    Using that same notion of delegation, something we can often detect in ourselves is that at least some of our inner dialogue occurs in the wake of non-verbal thinking; the models we use to solve problems are interacting without language, and we can "see" a solution that we then may struggle for a moment to put into words.

    But when the words are formed, they can function as re-prompting of other models because those words are linked to those models, and that can allow new interactions with the other models already active.

    To me the Libet experiments only expose some structural latencies, they don't show that consciousness is unnecessary at all. With a 100 billion neurons and a network of millions of interconnected models, we have to make singular decisions somehow, and that likely demands an hierarchy and selection process. That is what I think consciousness is; and we can see evidence of it even in mice.

    1. The Libet experiments do not prove free will does not exist. In fact I wonder if such is impossible. These and related experiments, where I am sure there are more recent experiments that are more complete or rigorous, do suggest that prior to making some intentional action the neuro-physical process behind it has already happened. The subject's brain does appear to have actuated the calculation, so to speak, before it happens and before the subject is aware of this decision.

      That is about all I can really comment on. I am not fully versed in this science. I started reading Sabine's book Lost in Math a few days ago and got yesterday where she interviews Ellis. I applauded Ellis' attack against physicists who said theories were too good to not be true and did not need testing. It is curious that this attitude has found its way into things such as panpsychism, which proposes some conscious quantity. Is that a quantum with a quantum number? If so then maybe it is like these particles that are too weakly interacting to ever be detected. If there is free will then there would have to be some way that consciousness is able to override physical determinism. I see no escape from this conclusion.

  82. I gave up on Sabine last year. She can’t understand that acts must be caused in order to be rational, and must be rational in order to be free. She thinks that the concept of freedom used by philosophers is wrong or uninteresting, and will only consider her definition in terms of determinism. But freedom and determinism are compatible. I hope some in the audience will consider this; I know Sabine will not.

  83. A system can be both deterministic and non-deterministic simultaneously. This is the first key to wisdom.

  84. Yes, within the scientific language, one can say out loud the formula in the title.
    That is why we use hermeneutics of texts. Each language has its own hypothesis and its own world. Thank you for the awareness.

  85. Everything I have done was predetermined; whatever I am going to do is also predetermined.And so, there is no freewill..
    This sounds more like a too-greedy algorithm that wants to take in all and whatever the data but come to only one conclusion always.. isn't it? There is no wiggle room here as anything I do .. out of my decision or compelled by happenstance..would be considered predetermined because 'lt says so..'..some kind d of self fulfilling prophecy..just wondering. I did not think of this comment but it was so predetermined by the author, and the big bang.

  86. Sabine,
    I really can't understand your position, though it's common. It seems to me to come from a superderministic assumption of how reality is, which isn't by any means proven.

    My "self" subsystem has feelings, emotions, and thoughts. If they're all emergent properties that come from the particles and their spacio-temporal relationships that make me up, and that obey the laws of what?

    The subsystem, "me" can still act according to those feelings, emotions, and thoughts.

    It is if you have defined "free will" as something that must necessarily violate the laws of physics in order to exist. Of course that can't happen, but thoughts certainly influence our decisions. Feelings, emotions, and thoughts are all real things (even if they're based on particle physics), and they are all things that can cause our subsystem (the "self") to take some action, as opposed to some other action.

  87. Lawrence,

    Do we need algorithms to describe/represent the nature of reality, as well as equations? Physics’ equations already, in effect, say yes: the delta symbol represents “higher-level” information.

    And despite one hundred years of trying to find equations/relationships that will solve the problem, it is clear that there is information in the system that couldn’t have been acquired via the relationships that equations represent; and there are outcomes in the system that couldn’t have been mandated by the relationships that equations represent.

  88. Hi Sabine, !
    Wow !
    You've (apparently) opened
    a can of worms. ha
    You said once, you studied
    philosophy and religion.
    ... finding no answers,
    You focused on science

    I could drop a number of
    published scientific papers
    (numbers,etc) detailing the
    biological mechanisms of conscious thought leading to
    'conscious' action.
    Say, ' I see a cup of coffee
    on the table, and I would like to drink it').
    - I then bring it to my lips and drink it. (simple,eh)
    The scientific evidence is
    that there are parts of the
    brain removed from sensory
    input, visiual etc. (frontal lobe, primarily)

    -That 'fire' first.

    Before we formulate a
    conscious thought.

    Science, gotta love it.

    so, a pre-determination
    of thought (and action)
    is already scientifically
    (by 'unkown' means,it makes it a conjecture ).

    Don't want to critique or get
    too 'technical'.
    Perhaps the laws of the Universe will allow us to have a cup of coffee sometime.
    - Love Your Work,

  89. So we have ability to make decisions. These decisions appear to us to be made by our own choice, or at least to contain some contribution from our own willpower. That appearance of freedom seems especially true when decisions appear to be difficult choices to make. But physicists say our decisions were crystallized at the Big Bang. This is a 'Gone With the Wind' scenario where we are actors on a stage merely playing out our roles like automatons, or wooden actors.

    So a film 'Groundhog day 2' made using a physicist advisor would have every day repeating exactly the same. A very boring film sequel which would have required some difficult choices in how to bring it to an end.

    A crystalline spacetime structure (block universe?) seems to play an important role in disallowing free will. But what of cyclic universes, of any kind eg CCC. Is free will disallowed during the entire sequence of cycles or do the universal creation and annihilation events/nodes act as barriers to the continuation of the crystalline structure (despite conformal continuity across nodes?). In an analogy with turtles, is it turtles with no free will all the way down, and across all time, across all cycles?
    And does that really matter if no one has free will during any cycle of the universe, but may possibly have free will switched on only at a node when life is presumably extinct/not yet developed.

    In a similar vein, if universes were to be contained in the interiors of Black Holes, is the structure within a BH within our BB universe determined at the BB creation event? And in a many worlds scenario, does no one in any of these worlds have free will?

    Another aspect is that to the extent that events are determined by laws of physics, we have no personal control. To the extent that events are at random, again we have no personal control. I suspect that randomness is the weaker control of the two. Is randomness understood well enough for the purpose of removing free will?

    Yet another aspect, for me, is the nature of antiparticles. Does an antiparticle genuinely travel backwards in my time? Or alternatively, does everyone see x as an antiparticle or do some see x as a particle? And hence does the sign of the its electric charge, if applicable, depend on the observer? The more which is in the universe that is genuinely travelling backwards in my time, the more I am forced towards the block universe viewpoint. [In my own pet theory, the situation is even more extremely loaded towards a block universe as I have every Standard Model particle made of components of which some are anti-components.]

  90. I think that theories function at different emergent levels. For example concepts of behavioural and social sciences function largely on different conceptual level than biology, and the latter also uses quite different concepts from particle physics.

    All living systems at different levels of consciousness tend to choose behaviours that are advantageous to their survival and wellbeing, dependent from the information systems have. Thinking of humans, there is a complicated historical chain of biological and social evolution that produces framework for current behaviours.

    I think it is irrelevant for free will if individual decisions are in principle reducible to particle physics, or whether there is strict causality on particle level, because our knowledge of individual behaviour uses quite different concepts from particle physics. The concept of free will belongs to the sciences of human behaviour. Such theories you do not and probably ever cannot construct from quarks.

    Furthermore, you cannot successfully argue against sanctions for crimes because of possible determinism, because you could as well logically argue that the same sanctions are inevitable. In the end we can only descript how living systems behave. You can argue if certain sanctions are socially instrumental or not, but there is no other way from “is” to “ought”.

    1. Any set of events or observed regularities in nature can have different explanations (or "theories"), some of which are more general and others more granular. The level of explanation (or theory") that is most useful in a given situation will vary according to the purpose for which the explanation is given. To take a simple example, it is adequate for a driving instructor to explain to her student that "the car is caused to stop by pressing the brake pedal" while a mechanic trying to fix defective brakes needs to consider a different, underlying level of causal explanation. At any rate, it is a mistake to assume that explanations that are adequate for some purposes are a fortiori adequate for other purposes--particularly for purposes that implicate greater levels of granularity.

      When we want to explain a person's conduct, it is normally adequate to refer to the person's intentions, beliefs or other mental states ("his intention to raise his arm caused him move it upwards"). But if the question is whether the person's bodily movements and conduct are "free" or not, it is not adequate to consider only the more general psychology (mental) level of explanation. There must be an investigation into what causes the person's intentions and other mental states (the neuroscience answer: neuronal activity) and into whether the physiological processes that produce the neuronal activity involve or leave room for any sort of "freedom." For this purpose, psychology-level explanations are insufficiently granular and can lead to mistaken inferences, unsupported by (or contrary to) evidence.

  91. "The facts" are that our world is essentially quantum, that quantum mechanics is essentially random, and that even small bits of randomness can be amplified so as to induce macroscopic (chemical, biological, psychological) effects.
    Given these facts, your conclusion that everything is determined hence there is no free will, is completely unwarranted.
    OF course this does not prove that free will exists (it may not) nor does it explain how, if it exists, it emerges. But it does largely kill your argument.

    1. Opamanfred,

      "your conclusion that everything is determined hence "

      I did not conclude that "everything is determined." Maybe read again what I wrote, this time somewhat more carefully.

  92. In addition to what I said before, I wish people would stop talking about determinism to me, I don't really understand what it means. I guess it means either the forces that physical laws describe actually *compel* reality to behave as it does, leading to a unique future (or at least it would be unique if it weren't for the innate randomness that quantum mechanics introduces). Or it means the physical laws themselves compel (again, the caveat about QM).

    (As an aside we can think of the difference here by asking whether objects fall due to gravitational force (or warping of space-time or whatever). Or do objects fall due to the *law* of gravitation?

    But, whichever of those applies, it doesn't really make much difference. The point being that reality is *compelled* to change in a unique manner (ignoring QM)).

    So I understand determinism if this is true. And we couldn't have free will if such determinism pertains since, ultimately, it is never *me* choosing, but the forces that physical laws describe (or physical laws themselves).

    The trouble is, I reject that reality is compelled to behave either by such innate forces or physical laws. Physical laws merely describe. Forces do not compel anything since I reckon they don't exist, they are something that physicists make up to understand why reality behaves as it does.

    Notwithstanding this, it might be the case that there is only one unique future, even when we consider our own voluntary behaviour. For, given a certain state of the Universe, one will inevitably make the same choices. If I find a fat wad of £20 notes on the pavement, I will stoop down, pick them up, and put them in my pocket.

    Everyone, apart from compatibilists, constantly imply this means we don't have free will. What the heck?? How the hell are they defining "free will"??

    That might suggest I too am a compatibilist. But compatibilists appear to believe either physical laws, or the forces they describe, *compel*. In which case, it's not really our consciousness that causes voluntary behaviour, it's the physical laws or forces that make me behave as I do (indeed compatibilists seem to always be reductive materialists).

    So I guess I have a unique position on the free will debate. Indeed, I do not regard free will as problematic at all (unlike the rest of the human race).

  93. Sabine,

    I think defending the principle of free will should be the work of paid professionals. Perhaps we need an institute. And, Congress should hold hearings when they have a little free time. Because, if you take the ‘free’ out of ‘freedom,’ what do you have? Think about it.

    In any case, the variety of determinism you insist upon would not produce the world we observe. True that the present is a product of the past; not true is the notion that the present is the unique product of the past. The complexity we observe in living systems requires a distributed determinism, decisive points of challenge and response between integral subsystems, interim contests between possible futures.

    Here is an attempt to argue that proposition:

    Example One: A male Bird of Paradise on the Island of New Guinea exhibits an elaborate mating behavior. It will expend considerable energy in clearing debris from its dance site and then yet more energy in the performance of an elaborate dance exhibition.

    Question: If the yes or no mating decision of the female is solely determined by some past state, then, as a system governed by physics, the energy expended by the male violates the principle of least action. Natural systems are not prodigal. If there is no determinative efficacy to the bird’s behavior, no actual choice of futures to be made, then all that effort is an ineffectual exercise. Why would this behavior endure?

    Example Two: Curiosity is a pervasive cognitive behavior in physicists, lesser humans and animals. Its rudiments are observable even in the worm C. elegans whose nervous system contains 302 neurons. As a behavior it may require a notable percentage of an organism’s caloric intake.

    Question: Why curiosity? Unless it has some real determinative efficacy with regard to caloric intake or genomic perpetuation, why does life bother with it?

    Example Three: The toddler walks down the sidewalk. She stumbles and almost falls, but recovers and toddles on. Many times she has fallen, this time she does not. Physiologically it went something like this – inputs from several sensory organs were corelated through dozens of specific brain sites and sent to the motor cortex that in turn sent out neural impulses to some of the body’s 650 skeletal muscles causing the contraction of some millions of muscle cells that were coordinated into a unique combination of vectors that countered her descent. All this occured within a fraction of a second.

    Question: Is it useful or accurate to say this elegant response to momentary circumstance was uniquely determined by the state of the universe at, for example, the time of galaxy formation?

    Example 4: Adaptation enables the intricate process of fitting biota to their habitat. Mutability, learning and acclimatization are necessary traits of complex systems and can occur at the intracellular level. For example, within a continually growing and changing medium, the electron transfer molecules of a chlorophyll antenna dynamically self-adjust their spacing to maximize electron transfer.

    Question: How do these observable processes fit within a medium of lockstep determinism?

    I find it necessary that there be something vital in the present moment, some small possibility of mutable outcome. Perhaps only one chance in 10^60 would satisfy.


    1. The rationale for this 10^60 guesstimate is that significant interactions between complex systems, those of the contested futures sort, would be only a very, very small percentage of physical interactions overall. It is just a large number token.

  94. Stipulated: no dualism or magic.
    Observed: seven billion humans swimming in a sea of their choices, intentional actions, and agency.
    Requested: provide a scientific explanation of decision.

  95. I like free will and yet do not think it is measurable by science. Free will is therefore a subjective opinion, not an objective matrix element of some density matrix. Science keeps bringing up the issue of free will in yet another vain attempt to define consciousness as due to a determinate machine of the brain. If there was a measurement for free will or for consciousness, then it would make sense for science to make claims about free will. Since there are no measurements of free will or consciousness, it makes no sense for any science claims about free will.

    Any feelings about free will are subjective opinions, not subject to the objective measurements of science. If you believe in free will as I do, you act as if your decisions matter. If you do not believe in free will as you do, you also act as if your decisions matter. Otherwise your life has no meaning or purpose and subject to the all-consuming despair of nihilism.

  96. I guess it culturally determined that a German would say there is no such thing as free-will. It sort of gets them off the hook off the 20th Century. They were just the victims of circumstance.

    1. Fat Man,

      Are you accusing me of drawing conclusions from physics to excuse the role of Germany in WWII. Seriously? I don't think I have ever seen are more disgusting ad-homimen attack on me than yours.

      As I have pointed out many times, absence of free will does not relieve anyone of responsibility for their actions.

      Alas, some of us learn from our mistakes. Others, not so much. Which group do you belong to? We will see.

    2. If you are so offended, why did you publish the comment?

      As for learning from our mistakes. The US made two at the end of WWII, the first one was not using our monopoly of nuclear weapons to herd the Russians back into their own territory. The second was not implementing the Morgenthau Plan.

    3. I publish your comment to document the amazing amount of nonsense I have to cope with on a daily basis.

      As to lessons you have not learned. Americans did a pretty good job fixing Germany. As a result, Germans today have a better education about democracy and, indeed, a better democratic system than the US themselves. Americans just seem to have forgotten to apply the same procedures to their home country.

  97. If free will is about randomness and unpredictability, our neural decision making processes involve lots of quantum randomness. If you've ever watched a movie of a myosin molecule hauling something e.g. a neurotransmitter around in a cell, you'd see a little molecule staggering back and forth in a chemical storm. Getting its burden delivered or itself in place for a pickup is all about chance and randomness and, like a lot of things at that scale, it is all about quantum randomness. Biological systems are about biasing that randomness so that life happens. Life as we know it does a moderately good job of this, but it has had billions of years to refine the chemistry. As an artifact of its scale and construction, the chemistry of life amplifies quantum randomness.

    If chemistry weren't subject to quantum effects, it would be completely possible to predict human behavior, at least in principle. For better or worse, this isn't the case.

    Free will as a religious or moral entity is another matter. If I remember correctly, many western religions believe in God's plan for mankind. All history, past and future, was part of this plan. The problem with this is what we would now call moral hazard. If God already had a plan for you and knew if you were going to behave morally or not, why go out of your way to behave morally. Why fight God by being good? I gather the idea of free will was introduced to resolve this conflict while still encouraging people to behave morally. If you had free will within some range of parameters, then your moral decisions mattered.

  98. To the people complaining that their comments do not appear:



  99. "Curiously enough, the only thing that went through the mind of the bowl of petunias as it fell was 'Oh no, not again.'"

  100. Well OK, you said "whatever is about to happen was already determined at the big bang – up to those random flukes that come from quantum mechanics."
    Those "random flukes" can change everything, and that was the point of my comment, which you should also read more carefully before responding highly selectively.
    To state it again: QM is intrinsically random and even small bits of randomness can be amplified so as to induce macroscopic (chemical, biological, psychological) effects.
    Hence the future is open, even on a human scale, and this fact invalidates your type of argument against free will.
    And I am not the only one here to draw similar conclusions, others have commented along similar lines.


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