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Freebits: An Interesting Argument From the Big Bang for Free Will

There are two types of uncertainty, we learn, only one of which could create free will

Caleb Scharf (pictured), author of The Ascent of Information (2021), offers an excerpt at Nautilus that introduces two new terms, the “dataome” and “freebits.”

The dataome is all the ways human beings create information, from cave paintings to cloud servers. He asks, “Was all of this really inevitable? Did we ever have a choice in creating a dataome or doing any of the things we do, and does any self-aware entity in the universe have a choice either?”

Relying on theoretical computer scientist Scott Aaronson’s 2013 essay, “The Ghost in the Quantum Turing Machine,” he asks us to consider that there are two types of uncertainty, only one of which could create choice.

Typical “randomness” actually follows statistical laws, a point often made here at Mind Matters News by Gary Smith. For example, large datasets may show phantom patterns (“women who get breast cancer are more likely to have two dogs”). With so many possible patterns in a dataset of 50,000 cancer patients, a few “phantoms” are bound to appear. Such patterns generally get erased in a fresh set of 50,000. But in the meantime, someone may publish a research paper that sets off a scare about cancer and dogs. See: “Cancer maps: An expensive source of phantom patterns?” So statistical randomness does not mean freedom; it just means that the patterns we think we see are often not there.

There is, Scharf says, another type of randomness, Knightian uncertainty, named after an early 20th century economist, Frank Knight:

An airline might forecast that the risk of an accident involving one of its planes is exactly one per 20 million takeoffs. But the economic outlook for airlines 30 years from now involves so many unknown factors as to be incalculable.

Peter Dizikes, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “Explained: Knightian uncertainty” at Phys.org

For all we know, there may not be any airlines 30 years from now. So what’s to calculate? As Scharf puts it, “There is no neat and tidy probabilistic solution. It will never be known why the chicken crossed the road.” If we had the computing power to calculate everything in the universe, we would run into quantum mechanics, which gives nature free will. And that’s where the freebits come in:

Aaronson argues that if the very earliest (quantum) state of the universe has Knightian uncertainty then things are more interesting. The precise state of the new universe need not be determined by the statistical rules of randomness. It could be just as weirdly unpredictable as the previous example of someone perversely guessing the code-crashing number. In this case the information that describes that state—and subsequently all states that the universe will take on, including all of its atoms, us, and any aliens—can be considered (in Aaronson’s terminology) as being made of “freebits.” And freebits are kind of like the last word in cosmic choice.

These freebits also have to be quantum in nature. That means they are also “qubits”—the version of plain old 1 and 0 bits that applies to objects and systems exhibiting quantum behavior. They are fuzzy, undetermined things until called upon and snapped into focus. That’s a complication that I’m going to avoid really dealing with, because it will really make our heads hurt. Luckily, to get a sense of where freebits lead us doesn’t require knowing all of those details

Caleb A. Scharf, “Is the Universe Open-Ended?” at Nautilus (June 16, 2021)

Scharf suggests that these freebits stick around the cosmos as part of the estimated 10122 bits herein, gradually getting used up over time. They are possibly a factor in human consciousness:

That could, perhaps, also apply to structures like the human brain and its thoughts. If we could disentangle the untold quadrillions of molecular and atomic interactions and chained events in a brain, and the ever-so-subtle nudges of quantum uncertainty here and there, we might find that it all leads back to the original freebits, thereby restoring some kind of free will to ourselves. I’m not suggesting any sort of daft mystical quantum-brain connection; this is all just physics (well, all physics-at-the-boundary-with-philosophy). But it could well be that your spontaneous decision to place an unsuspecting chicken at the roadside is truly Knightian, with a lineage going all the way back to the Big Bang.

Caleb A. Scharf, “Is the Universe Open-Ended?” at Nautilus (June 16, 2021)

It’s an imaginative idea but Scharf ends with a practical conclusion: “The essential point to all of this is that information shows itself to be more than one might expect. It isn’t just a way to probe the fundamentals of nature; it may be part of the fundamentals.”

Indeed. But generally speaking, information is created and recognized by minds. Or perhaps, in the case of the universe, a Mind. Scharf doesn’t sound as if he intends to go that far. But if a Mind created the universe and wanted free will to be possible, perhaps Aaronson’s freebits would be a way to do it.

You may also wish to read:

At Scientific American: The aliens could be extremely boring. Well, we can’t be sure, can we? It’s literally a whole other world. Caleb Scarf asks us to imagine that they are out but are just not very exciting—like a dull crowd in the neighborhood.


Quantum randomness gives nature free will. Whether or not quantum randomness explains how our brains work, it may help us create unbreakable encryption codes. 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. (Robert J. Marks)

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Freebits: An Interesting Argument From the Big Bang for Free Will