Mind Matters News and Analysis on Natural and Artificial Intelligence

Quantum Randomness Gives Nature Free Will

Whether or not quantum randomness explains how our brains work, it may help us create unbreakable encryption codes
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When I was boy, my father explained free will and predestination to me:

I dig a fence post hole.
· Did I create the hole because of my own free will?
· Or was the hole already there and I simply removed the dirt? If true, the hole was predestined.

The question cannot be answered by examining the evidence. In philosophy terms, it is “empirically unanswerable.” That is the sort of stuff that philosophers debate. Religious people might point to scripture to support one conclusion over the other.1

In physics, however, quantum randomness offers a definitive answer to the question of predestination vs. free will—for subatomic particles.

Portrait of man in black with shoulder-length, wavy brown hair, a large sharp nose, and a distracted gaze
Isaac Newton (1642-1727) provided elegant descriptions of gravity, laws of force, and other physics principles.

In the world of classical physics (Isaac Newton’s physics), it can be argued that randomness does not even exist. When I flip a fair coin on the 50-yard line, the chance of getting heads or tails is modeled as 50-50. But the probability theory that tells us so is only a convenient model. It gives us the general idea of what we should expect to happen if the coin is fair and nothing else intervenes. However, the real-life coin flip includes the force of my flipping thumb pushing the coin into the air, the presence or absence of any wind, and the physics of the interface of the coin on the AstroTurf. All of those factors are deterministic, determined by the laws of classical physics. One can argue that all randomness is, on close analysis, actually deterministic.

What about lotteries?

We might think electronic games of chance are random because casinos use random number generators (RNGs) in the one-armed bandit software that declares you a winner or a loser. But the RNGs are better described as pseudorandom number generators, whose sequence of numbers is chaotic but deterministic. That is, one random number determines the next. The only number in the sequence that is close to random is the first one, known as the seed. But that number was also found deterministically, external to the random number generator.

Albert Einstein (1879–1955) did not like the sheer probability associated with quantum mechanics. He was famous for his many remarks to the effect that “God doesn’t play dice with the world.”2 Einstein thought that the quantum collapse of probabilities must be like flipping a coin. Before we flip a coin, we can only think probabilistically about the outcome, heads or tails. After the flip, whose individual outcome was actually determined by the environment, we know the deterministic result. In practice, if we flip a fair coin enough times, we will get about half heads and half tails. That is not because the environment is not deterministic but because the ways in which the environment is determined do not favor either side of a fair coin.

Einstein thought that quantum mechanics must be like that too. There are deeper, unknown things happening in the universe (hidden variables, in his words). But because we don’t know what they are, the best we can do is apply a probabilistic model to explain our observations. And like the post hole problem, his hypothesis seemed to be untestable at first. How can we know for sure if there are hidden things we don’t know about? This seemingly unresolvable position is known as the Einstein–Podolsky–Rosen (EPR) paradox.

So, is nature predestined or does it have free will? When a quantum wave function collapses, is it predestined to collapse for an unknown underlying reason, as Einstein supposed? Or is the collapse independent of any applied influence? If the latter, the implication for nature’s free will is fascinating:

In the case of a collapse of a quantum state with two possible results, a random binary bit of information is being created out of nothing (ex nihilo.)
Unlike the post hole problem, however, there is an answer to the EPR paradox based on a profound insight called Bell’s theorem. The bottom line of Bell’s theorem is that the collapse of the quantum state creates new information. There is no underlying cause of the result. Nature has free will! New fresh bits are continually being introduced to our universe.

Under Bell’s theorem, the mechanics of coin flipping is no longer applicable to quantum mechanics. In the quantum world, I can flip the same coin under the exact same conditions and sometimes heads will result and sometimes tails, without any factor in the universe determining the result.

Sir Roger Penrose believes that human nonalgorithmic (noncomputable) characteristics such as creativity are due to quantum collapse in the brain’s microtubules. If he is correct, truly fresh new information is being created in our brains. But there’s a problem. The bits of information generated by quantum collapse are merely random. That is, they are uselessly random. Randomness alone is incapable of generating the specified complexity evident in creative thinking. A random buzz generated in our neurons will not solve a stubborn math problem or write a great novel. New bits must be formulated or organized for a general purpose. We are still left with the question of how that creativity happens.

Putting true quantum randomness to work

While quantum randomness remains speculative as a way of explaining how our brains work, it promises some interesting current applications for cryptography, which is the way our online financial transactions are rendered secure. For example, pseudorandom number generators can pass randomness tests, in the sense that they generate strings of random numbers as sources for codes. But the RNG codes could be cracked if the underlying deterministic rule for generating those numbers is inverse engineered. Remember, as we noted above, the “random numbers” are generated by a rule based on the previous number generated. If there is any rule at all, the system can, at least potentially, be hacked. Cryptography requires true, unhackable randomness, not just a string of numbers that looks random to us because we don’t know how they are generated. Because the quantum world truly is random, quantum random number generators would bea potential solution.


Determinism vs. free will is at the heart of the long-running Calvinist–Arminian controversy in Christianity.

2 Quantum mechanics pioneer Enrico Fermi is said to have responded “[Einstein]. Don’t tell God what to do with his dice!” but the claim is disputed.

Robert J. Marks II, Ph.D., is Distinguished Professor of Engineering in the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering at Baylor University.  Marks is the founding Director of the Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence and hosts the podcast Mind Matters. He is the Editor-in-Chief of BIO-Complexity and the former Editor-in-Chief of the IEEE Transactions on Neural Networks. He served as the first President of the IEEE Neural Networks Council, now the IEEE Computational Intelligence Society. He is a Fellow of the IEEE and a Fellow of the Optical Society of America. His latest book is Introduction to Evolutionary Informatics coauthored with William Dembski and Winston Ewert. A Christian, Marks served for 17 years as the faculty advisor for CRU at the University of Washington and currently is a faculty advisor at Baylor University for the student groups the American Scientific Affiliation and Oso Logos, a Christian apologetics group.

Also by Robert J. Marks: Human Consciousness May Not Be Computable One model of consciousness would mean that conscious computers are a physical impossibility


AI that can read minds? Deconstructing AI hype

See also: Do quasars provide evidence for free will?