Tag Archives: Free Will

Laplace’s Demon Meets Quantum Mechanics

In 1814, Pierre-Simon Laplace published A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities. He said that given complete knowledge of the present, one could perfectly predict the future:

LaplaceWe may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough … nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.

Makes sense, right? If atoms are nothing more than tiny billiard balls bouncing around then, in principle, our lives are as predictable and determined as the activity on a pool table.

A century later, along came quantum mechanics, which showed that the activity of the universe at the smallest scales is probabilistic. Laplace’s Demon (as the all-knowing intellect in the quotation above has come to be known) can’t be so sure after all!

What a relief! There is wiggle room for free will after all! By inserting the lever of our wills at this fulcrum of indeterminacy, we can move the world.

Or, as argued in books such as Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, God can influence what happens without violating the laws of physics.

Except that’s not how it works. Both of these views misunderstand what the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics is.

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God Did Not Make Us Robots

You’ve probably heard this as often as I have:

God has not made us as robots, but has given us free will.

I happen to think that robots can have free will, but let’s set that aside for the moment. What does the believer in God mean when she says God has given us free will?

It is surprisingly difficult to define free will, but at a minimum it means the ability to make a choice free of coercion and threat.

When we see a prisoner of ISIS make an anti-Western speech just prior to being beheaded, we all realize that he did not make that speech of his own free will. He had undoubtedly been threatened with tortures worse than beheading if he did not do as he was told.

To the extent one is threatened, one does not have free will.

Supposedly God (I speak now of the God of the Bible because I live in Judeo-Christian America) is not like this. But how is he not like this? Does he make no threats?

On the contrary, consider this litany of threats from Deuteronomy 28, as one example among many. If the people do not obey God, it says, he will send all manner of curses. (Note that the text speaks of God sending curses in most cases; these are not just “natural consequences of bad behavior.”)

  • “The Lord will strike you with wasting disease, fever and inflammation, which will plague you until you perish” (verse 22)
  • “The Lord will turn the rain of your country into dust and powder; it will come down from the skies until you are destroyed.” (verse 24)
  • “The Lord will afflict you with the boils of Egypt and with tumors, festering sores and the itch, from which you cannot be cured.” (verse 27)
  • “You will be pledged to be married to a woman, but another will take her and rape her.” (verse 30)
  • “Your sons and daughters will be given to another nation [as slaves], and you will wear our your eyes watching for them day after day, powerless to lift a hand.” (verse 32)

Verses 47 and 48 conclude, “Because you did not serve the Lord your God joyfully and gladly in the time of prosperity, therefore in hunger and thirst, in nakedness and dire poverty, you will serve the enemies the Lord sends against you. He will put an iron yoke on your neck until he has destroyed you.”

Note again God’s active role in bringing this about: “the enemies the Lord sends…”, “He will put an iron yoke…”. These are not warnings of how things will work themselves out. They are threats.

The believer will respond that such chastisement is evidence of God’s love. He disciplines us because we are his children. We should worry if we were not to experience his discipline because that would mean we were not his children at all (Hebrews 12:4-11).

But when does discipline become child abuse? Would afflicting your child with sores and itches that cannot be cured be discipline or abuse? Would causing your child’s fiancee to be raped be discipline or abuse? (If the passage above doesn’t persuade you that the God of the Bible is capable of that, I dare you to follow this link to 2 Samuel 12:11 and see how God “disciplined” his child, King David. Note once more God’s active role.) Would sending people to enslave them be discipline or abuse?

“Ah, but that’s the Old Testament. Jesus gave us a new kind of relationship with God.”

Not really. Jesus only increased the stakes by introducing the doctrine of hell. As Christopher Hitchens said, “[In the Old Testament] once [God] is done with you, once the earth closed over you, that’s it. There’s no torture of the dead. Not until gentle Jesus, meek and mild, do you get that.”

Would a fiery hell, from which there’s no escape, be discipline or abuse? *

We haven’t even touched on the doctrine of predestination, which could not be taught more clearly and unambiguously than it was in Romans 9:15-21.

Let us now return to our friend the robot. Suppose he is equipped with sensors and software that enable him calculate the action that is most likely to lead to his continued well-being.

Who has free will: the person under threat of disease, rape and enslavement if he does not do what he is told; or the robot, who can take the action he deems optimal, unhindered?


* – A growing minority of even conservative Christians believe that hell is only a place of final annihilation, not eternal, conscious torment. However, this is and always has been the minority view.

Free Will and Fatalism

In my last two posts, I have argued that we don’t have the contra-causal free will that most people vaguely think we have. A good friend read the posts and told me, “Beagle, beagle, beagle: your logic is impeccable, but you’re not going to convince anyone. We feel we have free will and we must act as if we have it.”

Before I respond, let me digress to the amazing world of emergent phenomena. Emergence happens when a system composed of relatively simple things gives rise to something more complex and usually unexpected. For example, thought arises out of the interaction of billions of neurons in our brains. Each neuron has only the most rudimentary awareness of its immediate environment, and no idea what we’re thinking about. Yet, coherent thoughts emerge. Who could predict this would happen?

It’s so mysterious that it’s tempting to call thought an illusion, but it’s not. Not quite. (If an illusion has the power to act on itself, can it really be an illusion? Read I Am a Strange Loop for more fun with this.) In fact, unless you are a biologist or chemist, it is more useful to consider people’s thoughts than to focus on their neurons.

So it is with free will. It’s useful to think of compatibilist free will (the sort of free will I argue we do have) as an emergent property very similar to thought, of which it is a close cousin.

It would be a shame to give up on thinking because thoughts are “nothing more than” the firing of neurons. In one sense that is all they are, but in an important sense thoughts are much more than that. They are specific patterns of firing, which can be analyzed and cultivated much more effectively if we forget about the neurons.

Same for compatibilist free will. Even though it is “nothing more than” an emergent property of cause and effect in our brains, it would be a shame to be as utterly fatalistic as that seems to warrant.

The fact that our free will subject to cause and effect is no reason to give up on life. Cause and effect is good. Who wants to be random?

Contra-Causal Free Will

In my last post, Free Will and the Water Park, I argued that we cannot have the sort of free will that people informally think we have. I emphasized the aspects of rationality and conscious intent and I think I caused some confusion. Let me try again from another angle: causality.

Most people feel that if choices A and B are available, and nobody is forcing them to take one or the other, they can use their free will to pick one in a way that is reasoned and yet somehow floats above causality. This is what I called contra-causal free will in one of my comments to the last post, and this is the sort of free will I contend cannot exist:

The power to make a choice that is both reasoned and free from external causes.

In my last post, I talked about rationality, but we don’t even need to go there. Now I’m using the word reasoned, meaning that if you were to ask the person whether he had a reason for his choice, he would say yes. It does not even have to be a good reason. For the purposes of this discussion it could even be a purely emotional reason. (“I hit him because I was so angry that I couldn’t help myself.”)

As for the second part of the definition, free from external causes, I mean that the choice has somehow broken the sequence of cause and effect. Not only is nobody forcing your choice, but nothing is forcing it.

This type of free will, which most people vaguely think they have, is logically impossible because it is self-contradictory. To exactly the extent that I have reasons for my choice, I am following cause-and-effect. Yet, I’m also claiming that my choice is magically free from cause-and-effect. I can’t have it both ways.

How does having a reason tie me to cause-and-effect? A reason is simply a cause that I have chosen to bring to bear on my decision. Why did I choose to do so? Well, I had my reasons. There were reasons for those reasons for my reasons, and so on. At some point, the chain of reasons will go back to where I had no choice — if only because I had not been born yet. So my reasons, which were supposed to be my tickets to freedom, turn out to chain me firmly to non-freedom (in the sense we’re considering).

In the case of the purely emotional choice, the “I” who chose to bring a reason to bear may be my subconscious. When I hit someone because I was so angry that I “could not help myself,” it was not my cerebral cortex that was running the show, but my lizard brain. That primitive, emotional part of me had its reasons, and the rest of the previous paragraph applies.

But let’s suppose that somewhere along that chain I had a reason that was not the result of anything. It had no determining cause at all. If something is uncaused then it is random. (Think about it.) If I make a choice randomly, I suppose I’m free in one sense, but not in the sense that people mean when they say they have free will.

To summarize, a choice cannot both be reasoned and free from cause and effect, for having a reason means there was a cause.

All of the above applies whether we are talking about our conscious selves or our unconscious selves. It does not matter whether we’re talking about quick, instinctual acts or decisions pondered over months. The logic even holds whether we believe our decisions are made by molecules in our brains or by immaterial souls. You can’t have decisions that are both for-cause and free from the chain of cause and effect.

Compatiblists such as Daniel Dennett rescue the idea of free will by redefining it. “Let’s throw away the useless, self-contradictory definitions of free will,” they say, “and define it as the ability to make a choice unhindered by outsiders.”

In that sense, we clearly do have free will, for we do make choices that people don’t force us to make. And to Kiril’s point, yes, our choices do have efficacy.

On the other hand, the chess-playing computer, Deep Blue, had free will in that sense as well. In fact, it wielded it even better than the reigning world champion, Garry Kasparov.

So does compatibilist free will count? You are free to decide.

Free Will and the Water Park

TL;DR summary: Perfectly rational thinking is deterministic and therefore not free. Random thinking is certainly not free. A muddle of both can’t be free. There is nowhere else to look, so free will is an illusion. BTW, an immaterial soul does not solve the problem. But don’t worry; we can still have fun.

Water Slide

Island Water Park

At a recent Meetup of the philosophically inclined, we discussed destiny and free will. Someone asked, “How much control do we have over our destiny?” I cheerfully answered, “Zero.” In this post, I’d like to outline why zero, and why I was still cheerful about it.

The points I will make in support of “zero,” it turns out, are explicated at length in Sam Harris’ book, Free Will, which I was destined to read during a vacation in California, shortly after the Meetup. Harris throws in a heaping measure of neuroscience to boot, but I think an argument against free stands without that.

First let’s define what we mean by free will. What most people mean, I think, is that given the choice between a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a ham sandwich, they could in theory choose either but in the end, through a conscious act of will, they choose peanut butter and jelly. The important points are

  • both choices are genuinely on offer;
  • their choice could go either way;
  • through a conscious thought process, they choose one.

With that out of the way, let’s think about thinking. We make our decisions based on two types of thinking: the rational and the irrational. 

Rationality, as it pertains to free will, involves the conscious consideration of factors to arrive at a decision. (We can also train our unconscious to be rational, through force of habit, but when most people say they have free will, they are referring to anything but habits.)

The more rational our decisions, the less free they are. A great example is a top-notch computer chess program. It plays as rationally as can be conceived, but it has no free will because at each turn it could only play one move: the one it calculated to be optimal. Perfect rationality means perfect non-freedom.

Most of us, when we play chess, do not have the patience of a computer. We sometimes move impulsively. When we follow the causal chain far enough, we’ll inevitably find some randomness mixed with rationality.

“Why did you make that move so hastily?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I had no ideas and I had to move something.”

“If you had thought for 20 more seconds, maybe an idea would have occurred to you.”

“Maybe, but I just had to move.”

“Why now? Why not 20 seconds from now? Or a minute?”

“I don’t know.”

The player may have made his impulsive move at that time because of factors that are buried in his unconscious. Maybe when he was a child his mother only gave him a count of 10 to take his first bite of peas. Maybe the Knight subconsciously reminded him of the pony he always wanted but never got. Alternatively, there could be something truly random going on. Maybe a quantum fluctuation at one of his synapses gave just the boost he needed to complete his so-called decision. In any case, the non-rational aspect of his decision was not what we call free will.

So where is free will? It is not in the rational, for rationality constrains, not liberates, our decisions. Nor is in the irrational, for unconscious or random processes, while they may be free from the constraints of rationality, are not what we mean by free will. Nor is it in a mixture of both, for a muddle of non-free mixed with non-free must still be non-free.

Some thinkers, such as biologist Ken Miller (here and in Finding Darwin’s God), argue that the randomness of quantum mechanics leaves the door open for free will to emerge. But again, randomness itself cannot be freedom and Miller does not explain why the appearance of free will that I concede does emerge is actual free will, in the face of the common-sense objections I’ve outlined above.

Stephen Barr, in Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, contends that our perceptions are internal to our brain and do not require proof. “There is a certain degree to which we must trust our experiences if we are to do any rational thinking at all, including scientific thinking,” he says on page 189. In light of the extremely counter-intuitive but proven reality of quantum mechanics, I am astonished that a physicist would say such a thing.

And by the way, introducing the notion of an immaterial soul does not help. We face the same conundrum: Does the soul make its decisions rationally or randomly? Either way, it is not free and, again, a mixture of a not-free brain and a not-free soul is even more muddled not-free.

Free will cannot be found in rationality, nor randomness, nor a muddle of both. And there is nowhere else to look. It is an illusion.

In fact, says Sam Harris, the illusion of free will is itself an illusion. If you stop to think deeply about any of your supposedly free decisions, you will realize this. Keep following the causal trail of “Why?” and you will end at “I don’t know.” Even what you thought was a free choice originates in darkness.

Does this mean that we might as well roll over and wait for death? That would be a shame, because life can be fun even if it only appears to be free.

Island Water Park

Island Water Park

I was reminded of this as my wife and I drove from San Francisco to Sequoia National Park. We passed Island Water Park, with several huge slides. Take a look at the people in the swimming pool. They are wandering around freely, but they look bored, don’t they? Other people are on the slides, careening on a fixed path toward a watery end. The fact that they have no choices does not take away from their fun in the least.

Geocentrism and Free Will

The first topic I wrote about in this blog was artificial consciousness. The last post, with its pictures of watches, has me thinking once more about the mechanisms of thought.

Everyone agrees that we think with our brains, but most people believe that there is more to thought than the mechanistic interactions of atoms in our skulls. After all, they argue, we have free will (what could be more obvious?). Nothing that operates solely by the laws of physics could result in free will, so there must be something more — a non-material spirit that superintends our thoughts.

As an aside, I note that some have argued that the randomness of quantum physics gives enough wiggle room in neurochemistry to allow for free will. I don’t buy it. What could be less free than randomness? Randomness might leave room for insanity, but not for the rational free will that most people feel they have.

What most people mean by free will is that they have a free choice in a given situation, and they could truly take one action or the other.

I suggest that there is no evidence for this beyond our strong feeling that it’s true. How could there be any evidence? Once we’ve made one choice, the other is forever unavailable, because that moment in time, with all its conditions, will never exist again. It is beyond the reach of any experiment.

In fact, there is evidence that we do not have a non-material spirit that is able to affect the physical world. I’m thinking of prayer studies, which have failed to demonstrated that prayer has any effect.

We feel that we have free will, but feelings do not constitute reliable evidence. After all, the feeling of knowing is merely a brain state. As I related here, that brain state can be induced by means ranging from drugs to self-delusion. We all know people with strong feelings who are dead wrong.

What makes our feeling of free will so hard to shake is that we are in the middle of it. I am reminded of the geocentrists of old (and today!) who, living on a giant ball hurtling through space at almost 67,000 miles an hour and spinning at 1,000 miles per hour at the equator, were absolutely convinced that the ball was not only stationary, but immovable. (I do not mean to insult anyone who believes in free will. I only mean to say that I see a similarity with belief in geocentrism, which I am about to explain.)

How could geocentrists be so certain? It was because they were on that giant ball, moving with it. Plus, their bodies had evolved to be acclimated to the movement. If survival had depended on evolving sense organs that could detect movement through space, either they would have evolved or we would not be here to know that they hadn’t.

Because they lived on Earth, geocentrists had no clue that it was at the mercy of gravitational forces that were slinging it around faster than anything they had ever conceived of.

I think it’s the same with our perception of will. Because we are glued to our thoughts, we don’t realize that they are at the mercy of the laws of physics. We think we are the center of our will, when in reality we are just part of a much larger, possibly centerless, whole.