Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Quantum Mechanics does not give us free will

UPDATE: I should have looked at the You Tube comments after the video, as Derek deals with what I say here, you can follow the link to his comment, or see them reproduced at the end of this post.

I love Veritasium (in fact, I plugged the lovely Derek Muller's channel before), but I have to take issue with the end of his latest video on randomness in which he says:

I have to flat out say that this is wrong.

To explain why, I need to firstly define free will, and I tend to side with Jerry Coyne's definition:

In that same article Jerry also explains why I don't believe we have free will. Our brains are not exempt from the physical laws of the universe. Jerry briefly mentions quantum mechanics there too: 

"(It's possible, though improbable, that the indeterminacy of quantum physics may tweak behavior a bit, but such random effects can't be part of free will.) "

I would like to elaborate on that.

In what sense does quantum mechanics give us free will? OK, so it appears that quantum mechanics appears truly random, entirely probabilistic. Given that randomness and unpredictability, maybe that could mean that if we reran the tape of your life and you could end up acting in a different way. But in what sense have you chosen to do this? How were you a free agent? If we are relying on utterly random and unpredictable events to let us chose a different course of action if the tape of our life was rewound, in what sense are we free to choose? 

If it turns out that quantum events have a significant influence on the firing of our neurons, then they may indeed affect how we think and behave, but that does not make us masters of our fate and captains of our soul. We are still slave to the machinations of the universe, whatever they may be.

The idea that we don't have free will is counter intuitive, as it very much feels that we do.Thinking about it does make my brain hurt (I can't help it); but the facts speak for themselves. I've mentioned optical illusions before a few times at they are a great example of why our experiences are not as reliable as we would like to think they are. And so it is with free will, it seems like we experience it, but we don't. There seems no logical reason to think that we do.

UPDATE: As mentioned above: ""To be clear, by "free will" I mean that your decisions could not be predicted with certainty, even if someone knew everything about all the particles that make up your body. I am not suggesting you have conscious control over your decisions as even current research shows we become conscious of choices after we make them.

I've given my view on the quantum measurement problem but it's called a problem for a reason. No one has it fully worked out quite yet (or maybe this is as fully as it can be worked out). I am not saying that determinism is certainly false, but our scientific theories and observations as they stand today imply that new information is being generated in the universe and this makes it impossible to predict the future with certainty. Some day this view may be overturned.

To me, for now, time looks like a zipper. Far in the future the possibilities are wide open, but with every passing second time zips up what might be into what actually happened."

1 comment:

  1. I can't agree with Coyne's definition. Every moment of your life is stunningly, remarkably, unequivocally - Brand New -that is its essence : this split-second has never been before, will never be again. To do so (even hypothetically) would require the manipulation of all the minute particles of matter that were aligned in that particular moment - and many (or most) of those particles got where they were, through mostly random means....... By that same token - not only can you not IN PRINCIPLE re-enact a 'moment-of-choice' - and neither can you ever truly predict with exactitude, the NEXT moment to come. The past is gone, and the future is unknown.
    If I am offered what appears to be a choice - say, I'm driving, and I come to a crossroads. I can either explain my choice by claiming I have a "Reason", or that it just doesn't matter.....Now afterwards, you can claim that my choice to head towards home was "determined" - and it was -- determined by my desire to get home. Or, you could say that my choice was random - that is, for no Reason, I just decided to turn away from home and try a new road. To me, though, my choice is not "determined", it is merely "logical".
    The natural world is mostly "indetermined" stochastic, quantum at its foundation, and thoroughly probabilistic in action. Of course that doesn't legitimize libertarian 'free-will' either. We are severely constrained by historical antecedents and powerful subconscious control. Still - at the same time, we are always constantly lending our Desires to that subconscious beast beneath us. In truth, we go through the day just like a pre-programmed robot - BUT.... that robot is being programmed BY US!


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