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Do We Really Have Free Will? Four Things to Know

Free will makes more sense of our world than determinism and science certainly allows for it

Free will is a contentious topic in science these days. Theoretical physicists weigh in sharply on one side or the other. Just this month, based on quantum mechanics, mathematician Tim Andersen says maybe and theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder says no. Based on cosmology, the study of our universe, physicist George Ellis said yes last June.

With free will, as with consciousness, we don’t fully understand what’s involved. All insights from science are partial so we can’t look to science for a definitive answer. But maybe science can offer some hints. Here are four that might be helpful:

1.Has psychology shown that free will does not really exist? Psychological research on free will has supported the concept of free will but we don’t often hear that. Neuroscientist Benjamin Libet (1916–2007) broke new ground by imaging people making decisions. At first, he thought that free will might not be real. Then he looked again and discovered that there is free won’t, which he could not associate with any brain activity, that accompanies an apparent decision not to do something. Libet’s research is often not explained to students in such a way as to make clear what he found, as neurosurgeon Michael Egnor explains:

Misinterpretation is very common and it’s almost routine to read or to hear Libet’s work being described as scientific evidence for the absence of free will. Which is bizarre because Libet himself… points out that his research unequivocally supports the reality of libertarian free will. But his experiments are described very often both in the scientific literature and in the popular press as supportive of materialism—which is something that they don’t support and something that Libet made very clear was not his conclusion.

News, “How Libet’s free will research is misrepresented” at Mind Matters News (March 23, 2020)

Overall, we should be cautious about claims to debunk free will based on oddities. For example, there is “alien hand syndrome,” which sometimes afflicts post-surgical epilepsy sufferers, such that the left hand starts unbuttoning a shirt that the right hand was buttoning up. That doesn’t really mean that the erring hand has a will of its own or that the mind doesn’t have free will. If the brain has suffered injuries, the left hand probably just isn’t in touch with the program.

Brain stimulation research, where people are stimulated to want something, doesn’t disprove free will either. Free will means making a rational decision about an action. For example, if you see a lovely Sundae, you could just eat it without thinking. But you may think, “How will this affect my diet plan?” That’s your reason talking. Free will—whatever you decide— is a function of reason. Animals are not thought to have free will mainly because they don’t appear to reason. A dog does not think of putting himself on a diet so he doesn’t face the type of choice where free will is exercised.

  1. Is free will a logical idea? Free will is a logical idea and denying it often results in errors in logic. For example, theoretical physicist Sean Carroll argues that human beings are “100% governed by the laws of physics.” The problem is, as Michael Egnor points out,

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.

Michael Egnor, “Physicist rejects free will—and thus fails logic” at Mind Matters News

So, in order to be right, Sean Carroll must make no sense. Meat has no opinions. Similarly, Sabine Hossenfelder misses the irony that she insists that people “change their minds” by accepting her assertion that they can’t change their minds.

3.Would a world without free will be a better place? We may sometimes feel that if we all accepted that we don’t have free will, we would have a warm, comfortable, liberating environment, as we did when we were infants. History warns otherwise. Denial of free will is a cornerstone of totalitarian systems. That has profound implications for human rights because it turns society into livestock management for humans. In China, for example, it means total mass surveillance so as to enforce beliefs and lifestyle choices that the government deems correct.

In any event, justice becomes a meaningless concept. When decisions don’t mean anything, guilt and innocence no longer mean anything either. A logical outcome would be precrime, where experts assess us as risks for crime and take action against us, based on what they believe to be risk factors, without our having made any decisions. Without free will, their Minority Report approach would appear to make sense.

4.Are there science concepts that support free will? Free will is not consistent with a world where everything is governed by the laws of physics, as physicist Sean Carroll argues. But is that the world we live in? Actually, no. Information theory can help us understand why not.

First, information is immaterial. If you put a number of files onto a storage disk, does the disk weigh a lot more? It weighs nothing more. It experiences only a change in its electrical state. But those files could contain enough information to launch science revolutions or bring down governments. In short, information has a great deal of influence on the material world but it is not material in itself.

Here’s another way that information is different from matter or energy: It is not reduced by being shared. When a pie is divided into slices, the size of one person’s slice affects the amount that can be shared among the rest of us. And if we all overload an electrical power source, brownouts may result. But because information is immaterial, it can be shared without loss. If doctors discover a COVID-19 vaccine that works, the information can be shared indefinitely with no loss and everyone could benefit.

So how can information theory help us understand free will as a scientific idea?

Entropy is defined as the expected surprisal of an event. Surprisal is measured as the negative log of the event’s probability. Rare events, which are more surprising, have a larger amount of surprisal than common events. This matches our intuition that, if an information source has a lot of information, then it provides us with many messages that are unexpected, i.e. the messages tell us something new and are informative. … Thus, it is possible to work scientifically with entities that do not work according to chance and necessity. It is possible to accept the concept of a mind with free will as a scientifically testable hypothesis.

Eric Holloway, “Can free will really be a scientific idea?” at Mind Matters News

In other words, free will results in surprising but meaningful information patterns—patterns that can be detected—somewhat like the mysterious message involving the irrational number pi in the movie Contact:

The scientists in the film realized that aliens had made a decision to communicate with them because the signal was an apparently meaningful departure from a natural pattern.

As many thinkers argue, free will makes more sense of our world than determinism and science certainly allows for it.

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Do We Really Have Free Will? Four Things to Know