Essay 11 08/12/04: Philosophy, Physics, Probability Theory
At times you may ask yourself, “when, and how do I exercise my free will.” The question is
a difficult one, and the more you analyze free will in scientific terms, the more complex its
many facets seem to be.
One might contest, “I freely make choices every minute of the day.” Let us examine this
statement first by considering the nature of human activities. At the most basic level social
expectations strictly determine our daily lives. If one must go to work to earn a living, or
must go to school to learn, are they really making their own choices? Our society puts so
many restrictions on us, and has so many expectations of us that it is quite hard to do
exactly what we want. What is more, our physical reality determines the number of
activities that we may engage in. Imagine the plight of an insect, or even of a bacterium.
Both entities are confined to a very limited number of activities. It would be very boring for
most humans to assume the properties and thus the processes of a simple bacterium.
Our own will is similarly encumbered upon by the very finite amount of activities available
for us to engage in.
Another concept, originally developed by Pierre-Simon Laplace, extrapolates upon the
formulas that Newton derived and concludes that it is impossible to exercise free will in a
physical world. Newton showed us that one event causes another, this is called causality.
His many formulas enabled us to see that matter and energy adhere to very strict rules,
which we can express mathematically. He also showed us that if we could assess the
exact dynamics at play in a system, that we could “do the math”, and correctly determine
the outcome of any system at any point in the future. In other words, if we could freeze
time a split second after an individual released their bowling ball, and if we could assess
the dynamics at play with infinite precision, we could determine exactly which pins will be
knocked down, and exactly how they will fall. Realizing this Laplace concluded that the
only reason that we cannot tell how the future will unfold is because we are not smart
enough to apply our mathematical formulas to the events and systems that we perceive on
a daily basis.
This concept of causality requires that all events are precipitated by previous events in a
non-random manner. Such a postulate also requires that our mind, which is made of
energy and particles, must obey the same physical laws that govern everything else in our
universe. This means that in a given situation, we should be able to tell how a person will
act, or react if we can know the physical structure of matter and energy inside of their brain
from second to second. This also allows us to conclude that if we could rewind a
conversation between two people back for a few minutes, that once we stopped and
restarted, that the conversation would resume and mimic the earlier conversation exactly-
as long as we refrained from changing any of the variables in the “system.”
Many scientists and philosophers agree that causality precludes freewill, but in the last
century, along with the development of quantum physics, we have seen the rise of a
concept called acausality. A new kind of physics, quantum mechanics, arose in the early
1900s and it showed us that many of the activities displayed by subatomic particles don’t
adhere to classical, Newtonian rules. In fact many of their activities seem to be
characterized by randomness- and this is not a quality that can coexist with determinism.
Take for example an atom of an unstable isotope. We can assess the properties of such
an atom to infinite precision, and still never know when it will begin to decay. The atom will
give no sign or warning before it begins to take the steps to a more stable formation, there
is no way to foretell when it will act. If quantum mechanics has shown us anything, it has
shown us that on very small scales energy and matter behave in a way that is often
impossible to make predictions about.
For years quantum physicists and neuroscientists believed that these random
occurrences could not affect the deterministic, causal way that we think. They decided
that the functional, processing unit of our brain, the neuron, is not affected by quantum
randomness because it operates on a macroscopic, classical level. More current
research questions this and has provided evidence that shows that the way energy travels
within our brains might very well be affected by quantum randomness and, if true, this
would mean that our behavior and our thoughts are somewhat acausal.
This may seem like good news to many, but others, such as Einstein who promulgated
that “god does not play dice with the universe” are very happy with a stable, deterministic
universe. Future advancements in quantum physics, the neurosciences, and cognitive
psychology should be able produce arguments for fate, determinism and free will that are
more convincing than the ones that we belabor today.
“An intelligence which at a given instant comprehends all the relations of the entities of
the universe could state their positions, motions and general affects at any time in the
past or future. So it is that we owe to the weakness of the human mind the science of
chance and probability.”
-Pierre Simon de Laplace
“Quantum mechanics is very impressive. But an inner voice tells me that it is not yet the
real thing. The theory yields a lot, but it hardly brings us any closer to the secret of the
Old One. In any case I am convinced that He doesn't play dice.”
The relationship between or principle of cause and effect
The doctrine that all events are predetermined and unalterable
Quantum Mechanics: noun
The theory of the structure and behavior of light, atoms, molecules and other forms of
energy on very small scales.
|Organization for the Advancement of