Free Will & Physics

I often feel like I must have missed something, as various issues come to the surface. Only two weeks ago, I found myself discussing free will and physics on Facebook, and only last week the same basic conversation played out over email, when someone asked me about the implications of the double slit experiment.

It’s always time for me to shine when someone starts bringing up Quantum Mechanics because they’ve watched a few Discovery specials, and they usually use these specials (less commonly: books by people like Brian Greene) to explain to others how we’re totally wrong and how we don’t have free will.

I studied physics in college, actually–majoring in GR Theory at what is, strangely enough, one of the best physics programs in the nation (University of Mississippi–yes, seriously. It’s highly regarded, and it’s acoustic physics program is, indisputably, the best in the United States… Go figure). Faced with several more years of grueling uphill fighting [my weakness is in math, since I dropped out of high school and never took trig (thanks to my high ACT score, I was able to jump right into calculus, and it’s borderline impossible for people who haven’t studied trig)], and advised to pursue another direction, I ultimately changed my major to the Management of Information Systems. So I’m no physicist, and I’m not saying that I am. However, I do sit between the layperson and the physicist, and I want to disabuse the incorrect notions that people have adopted in support of their predispositions.

The Double Slit Experiment

Commonly said to have the most far-reaching implications of any experiment ever undertaken, the general idea put forward here is that humans change the nature of reality through intention, a statement that has many variations. Some think our control over results is limited, while others have concluded that thought alone (making us classical gods, for all intents and purposes) can fundamentally alter nature.

One example often cited is the Higgs Boson or, for people who can appreciate the irony, the God Particle. Complex math produced more complex math that produced math of even greater complexity, and Higgs (his first name escapes me right now) built his theory from this math within math within math, predicting that there was a single particle that must be responsible for altering a particle’s movement through spacetime such that it acquired mass. It was way “out there,” but we recently discovered that the boson does, in fact, exist. Many have cited this as an example of mass expectations (no pun intended) producing the expected reality–because enough people expected to find it, we altered the fundamental features of nature so that it existed.

It reeks of Noetic Science, which has been routinely disavowed by the scientific community as being little more than a front for branches of Spirit Science. It’s quite clearly false: if mass expectations could affect the nature of reality, we’d find ourselves on a planet orbited by the sun and overseen by a clearly-present deity who often intervenes visibly in people’s lives.

That aside, it remains a fact that the technician’s intentions when setting up the experiment determine its outcome, but here we’ve made another fallacy–we’ve forgotten that “how the technician sets up the experiment” may actually be predetermined.

Imagine if I told you to select five pennies out of one hundred that I’ve laid out. We would typically conclude that you have free will in selecting the ones you select. However, what if there’s an overarching physical law that has determined not only which pennies you’ll select, but also which of my own five hundred pennies I’ll set down for you to choose from?

And here we run into the biggest free will hurdle: many, many people have confused it with omnipotence.

“You didn’t really have free will,” they’d tell you, “because you couldn’t choose any penny you wanted. You could choose only from the ones she presented. She curtailed your free will, and therefore you didn’t actually make a choice.”

It’s an argument easily discussed with a blank, “Wut.” It’s like saying that people who chose between Hillary and Trump didn’t actually make a choice, because other people had limited their ballot options. The number of choices available, and whether we control what options are possible, is irrelevant to the matter of free will, because free will doesn’t require omnipotence. You can’t fly, either–does that mean you don’t have free will? Obviously not. The argument is stupid, yet people make it.

Returning to the experiment, suppose the technician first tests for particle behavior, then wave behavior, then wave behavior, and finally particle behavior. It would seem, at a glance, that the technician has used free will to determine the parameters of the experiment, and this is why the experiment is remarkable: there has yet to be put forward any good explanation of how the wave-particle knows where it isn’t allowed to land.

Except… We don’t know whether we’re looking in the wrong place. Perhaps we should not be looking for how the particle knows where the interference would occur; instead, we should be asking whether physical laws have determined beforehand how the experiments will play out.

Let me explain. Imagine that we’re self-aware characters in a movie, and that the writer of the movie has written already how the experiment will be performed, and what the results will be. This leaves us flabbergasted upon seeing the experiment’s results, because, as far as we can tell, the wave-particle somehow knows whether the second slit is open or not. So we spend the next century trying to figure out how the wave function knows how it’s supposed to collapse without having any way of gaining information about the status of the second slit, an answer that we can never find, because it didn’t have to know–the status of the second slit was predetermined by something the technician doesn’t actually control.

Any and all implications of the double slit experiment hinge upon the idea that the technician has free will to determine the status of the second slit, rather than the technician’s own “decisions” being the result of physical laws that we don’t understand.

Either case is possible. We simply don’t know.

Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle

Strangely, I’ve seen Quantum Mechanics used as an argument against free will. The argument goes that physical laws dictate the behavior of strings, quarks are composed of strings, atoms are composed of quarks, molecules are composed of atoms, and we’re composed of molecules. Why on Earth should “free will” suddenly enter into the equation? It all suggests that our behavior is determined by physical laws we haven’t discovered, because physical laws determine the behavior of the things that we’re composed of.

Except for the Uncertainty Principle, they’d have a point.

Whether “God plays dice with the universe” has not been ascertained and cannot be determined, even in theory. Suppose we have 50 grams of uranium. A “half-life” is a measurement of how long it takes for half of the atoms to decay, unleashing radiation. This raises so many fascinating questions already. How does the 50g of uranium know that it is 50g? Because over the course of its half-life, 25g will decay. What determines which atoms decay and which don’t? We don’t know the answer to either of these questions (and, at least in regards to the second, we can never know beyond making probability statements). And then, over the next half-life, how does the 25g of uranium know to decay 12.5g of uranium? What determines which 12.5g decay?

In fact, our inability to learn these answers, even in theory, means that there is plenty of room for free will, and that we can never determine whether we do or don’t have free will. There are far too many variables involved for anyone to identify them all, and attempting to figure out the value of some (thanks to Heisenberg) will inadvertently change the value of others. Measuring those will change ones we’ve already measured, making the task impossible in practice and in theory.

Physicists are searching for this M-Theory that would explain everything, from how planets orbit stars to why I came to the tanning salon early to why this atom decayed but that one didn’t. Whether or not this is a fool’s errand depends on whether or not we have free will. Basically, physicists are looking for a physical law that explains why the technician left both slits open (actually, they’re not, as free will seems presumed in that lexicon) and why the technician’s parents fell in love, and why the Earth formed the way it did. It’s called the “Mother Theory” for a reason–it would be the Mother of All Theories, supplanting and subsuming psychology, economics, biology, and everything else.

However, there’s a problem. If the universe is governed by an M-Theory, then why should that M-Theory dictate that we will one day discover it? If everything is governed by a master (and extraordinarily complex) set of laws, then our search for that theory is a result of that theory, and the results we discover are determined by that theory.

This is the sort of thing that Brian Greene and Discovery specials don’t get into. The lines between physics and metaphysics blur at the higher levels, creating a mess of confusing ideas that even the sharpest minds can’t navigate. It’s frequently said that no one understands quantum mechanics.

It reminds me of the quip, “If the brain were simple enough for us to understand it, then we’d be too stupid to understand it.”

Really Odd Argument From Scott Adams

Scott Adams (whose post I can’t link because I’m writing this from my phone in a parking lot, but will add it later) recently wrote that we don’t have free will, but that technology might allow us to one day. Honestly, I have no idea what he’s talking about; he seems to have misunderstood some concepts.

He argued that someone who wants to resist sweets while they’re on a diet giving in and eating the sweets is proof we don’t have free will, because more fundamental biological programming dictates our behavior. So inserting chips into our brains (another technology I’m wholly against) to help resist that biological programming could grant us free will.

Do you see the fallacy?

Inserting the chip is either proof that we have free will, or it’s a result of the same biological programming. If our behavior is dictated by biological programming, thus eliminating our ability to make choices, then this extends to the decision whether to install a chip in one’s brain. If biological programming forces me to eat the sweets and I can’t do anything about it, then biological programming compels me to install the chip, so I still don’t have free will. It’s not the sort of muddled thinking I expect from Scott Adams, to create a fallacy like that.

Notice again, though, that it’s more like he’s confused omnipotence with free will (If you look closely, you’ll find that most people do). The person in question still chose to eat the cake, when they could have resisted. We know this to be true because people have actually died from hunger strikes; they resisted the biological programming to the point of death. What this person lacks isn’t free will; it’s discipline and self-control.

The idea that we can’t resist biological programming is one that I adamantly deny. Futurama did an episode about this. If we can’t control our behavior, because of physics or biology, then we’re not responsible for anything that we do. While I admit that it’s possible that we live in such a reality, such a sweeping statement with such enormous implications must be supported by considerable evidence, and the only evidence it has is “You can’t prove otherwise.”

No, I can’t prove that humans have free will. I’m not even saying that we do. I’m saying that we must act like we have free will, because it certainly seems that we do, and acting like we don’t have free will shatters what little is left of personal responsibility. How can you punish the murderer if he doesn’t have free will? It’s literally not his fault that he’s a murderer if he lacks free will. What of rapists, motivated very much by biological impulses? Scott’s cake metaphor works just as well for the man who rapes a woman because he was overcome with horniness.

My point isn’t to say that we have free will or that we don’t. In fact, I don’t think we can ever know whether we have free will. If we do have free will, it could never be proven, for obvious reasons. If we don’t have free will, then whether or not we ever learn that is at the discretion of whatever universal laws prevent us from having free will. Moreover, because of the Uncertainty Principle, we can never make the determination in the first place, because we can never identify all the variables that go into a “choice” (because it would consist of all variables going back to the Big Bang and would produce an equation the size of the Milky Way Galaxy).

Free Will is, and will always be, a matter of belief, not knowledge. Anyone who claims to know has quite a burden of proof on their shoulders. And since the idea that we don’t have free will carries many major implications (the destruction of right and wrong, and the end of individual responsibility), it’s best that we err on the side of caution: “Yes, she chose to give in and eat the cake. Yes, he chose to give in and rape that woman. Yes, she chose to murder that old man.”

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