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Physicist Rejects Free Will — and Thus Fails Logic

If we accepted his argument for materialism, we would have to stop believing in it—a curious, self-refuting result

Free will is a devilish problem — for materialists. Dualists have no similar difficulty; they assume that some aspects of the mind, such as intellect and will, are immaterial and thus not determined by matter. This belief in libertarian free will is common across cultures and is correct.

But for materialists, free will is the Great White Whale that has, metaphorically, bitten off their legs at the knee — and, like Captain Ahab, they are incessantly stalking it for revenge. After all, we all (even materialists) have an almost undeniable sense that we make real choices. If our intuition is correct, then the materialist superstition that we are machines made of meat falls apart. If we can genuinely make choices — if we genuinely have free will — then we are more than collections of atoms. But materialists cannot accept the immateriality of the human soul. They propose to hunt and harpoon it, once and for all.

The materialist denial of free will is generally based on physical determinism. Physical determinism is the belief that the laws of physics fully account for all that we do. We are mere bodies governed by physics and if the laws of physics are deterministic, then we cannot have free will in any meaningful sense.

Darwinian biologist Jerry Coyne, who fanatically denies free will, quotes physicist Sean Carroll in an interview on the subject. Carroll is highly respected among his fellow believers as an atheist and a materialist because he has a scientific pedigree uncommon in his Darwinist brethren. In reply to the question “Let’s talk about free will. Do we have it?” Carroll replies:

It’s complicated, and I apologize for that, but it’s worth getting right. The very first question we have to ask is: Are we human beings 100 percent governed by the laws of physics? Or do we, as conscious creatures, have some wiggle room that allows us to act in ways that are outside of the laws of physics? Almost all scientists will tell you that of course it’s the former.

Reggie Ugwu, “‘Westworld’ and ‘Devs’ Asked Big Questions. A Physicist Responds.” at New York Times

Is it really true that almost all scientists believe that human beings are “100% governed by the laws of physics”? Carroll needs to get out more. Many scientists have doubted — and doubt today — a strictly materialist understanding of man. Certainly, among the great scientists of the modern era, beginning with Galileo and Newton, and including Leibnitz, Faraday, Maxwell, Rutherford, Sherrington, Planck, Einstein, Schrödinger, Heisenberg, Eccles, and Collins among countless others, belief in God and rejection of crude materialist reductionism was and is ubiquitous.

Even a cursory list of scientists living today who reject a strictly materialist view of man is massive. Atheist materialism is no doubt fashionable in Carroll’s academic coffee klatsch but it is hardly the consensus view of science in any era, including ours. In fact, historian Rodney Stark has observed that the great scientists of the scientific revolution were generally much more fervent believers in God and immaterial reality than the average person of their time.

Sean Carroll

Carroll goes on to argue (amazingly) that gravity proves that free will is an illusion:

If you jump out of a window, the laws of physics say that you are going to hit the ground. You can use all of the free will you want, but it’s not going to stop you from hitting the ground. So why would you think that it works any differently when you go to decide what shirt you’re going to wear in the morning? It’s the same laws of physics. It’s just that one case is a more crude prediction and the other case is a more detailed prediction.

Reggie Ugwu, “‘Westworld’ and ‘Devs’ Asked Big Questions. A Physicist Responds.” at New York Times

What a bizarre argument. Carroll presupposes his conclusion and then uses his presupposition to reach his conclusion. No defender of libertarian free will believes that men can fly at will — no defender of free will denies that we have material bodies that are subject to physical laws. Defenders of libertarian free will argue that men are ensouled creatures — that we are composites of matter and spirit, and that we have powers pertaining to both that take effect in their specific realms. We have physical bodies subject to gravity and we have rational souls and are capable of free will.

This dualism is obvious even in science. Physical laws themselves are not determined by physics. That is, laws of physics — the laws of electromagnetism or the equations of general relativity etc. — are not themselves physical things or physical processes. The laws are mathematical constructs — that is, immaterial constructs — that describe physical processes. The mathematics by which physical laws are expressed is itself not a deterministic physical process. Thus dualism is embedded in nature, and it is not irrational to apply the dualist nature of reality to man himself.

In fact, it is necessary to apply a dualist understanding of nature to man in order to discuss man’s nature at all. Let me explain:

In order to make the argument that man is determined by physics and lacks free will, Carroll must use logic. All propositions in the form of arguments are predicated on logic, deductive or inductive. Logic entails many different rules, analogous to (but not identical with) the mathematical laws that describe physical processes. Consider modus ponens:

P implies Q
P is true
Therefore, Q is true.

Logic is, of course, a massive discipline in itself and it has one striking characteristic: Logic shares no commonality with physics. That is, the Venn diagram of logic and the Venn diagram of physics don’t overlap in any way. Mathematical logic is entirely separate from mathematical physics. You can’t derive modus ponens: from Newton’s law of gravitation, and you can’t derive Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem from the equations of general relativity. If Carroll is right that man is governed entirely by the laws of physics, without remainder, then where do the laws of logic come from?

A materialist might argue (vaguely) that the laws of logic are just epiphenomenal vapor from our physical brains. But that can’t account for logic. If a brain state represents logic, then logic must exist in some way independently of the brain state because representation presupposes that which it represents. A map presupposes that which is mapped. And if logic is not represented by a brain state, but is merely another kind of brain state, then logic can’t exist if brain states are entirely governed by physical laws — which in themselves contain no logic.

Carroll falls prey to the materialists’ Achilles’ heel: if the materialist argument is taken seriously, it is merely a physical event, not a proposition based on logic. If materialists are right, they cannot rationally claim to be right. If we are just meat, we can’t argue that we are just meat because meat isn’t the kind of thing that can make actual arguments.

So here is the surprising result: Materialists implicitly demand that, at least when they argue, we suspend belief in materialism.

Carroll’s argument that man is wholly governed by physics is self-refuting. Because physics and logic share no commonality, materialists like Carroll implicitly assert that their own arguments lack logic. One might say that the only thing materialists get right is that their ideas are nonsense. If man is all physics, he can have no logic.

More by neurosurgeon Michael Egnor on free will:

How Libet’s free will research is misrepresented: Sometimes, says Michael Egnor, misrepresentation may be deliberate because Libet’s work doesn’t support a materialist perspective.

Does “alien hand syndrome” show that we don’t really have free will? One woman’s left hand seemed to have a mind of its own. Did it?


Does brain stimulation research challenge free will? If we can be forced to want something, is the will still free?

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.

Physicist Rejects Free Will — and Thus Fails Logic