The conventional view of nature held by materialists, who deny free will, is that all acts of nature, including our human acts and beliefs, are wholly determined by the laws of nature, understood as the laws of physics. We cannot be free, they assert, because all aspects of human nature are matter, and the behavior of matter is wholly determined by physical laws. There is no “room” for free will.
It’s noteworthy that physicists who have studied determinism in nature (specifically, in quantum mechanics) have for the most part rejected this deterministic view of free will and implicitly (if not explicitly) endorsed the reality of free will. There are two reasons for this.
First, experiments that have followed from the research done by Irish physicist John Bell (1928–1990) in the 1970s have shown that determinism on a local level is not true. The theory and the experiments are subtle, but suffice to say, detailed and quite rigorous experiments have shown that the outcomes of quantum processes are not determined locally. That is, there’s nothing “baked in” inanimate matter that determines the outcome of the quantum measurement. Nature is not locally deterministic.
The second reason that physicists have rejected determinism relates to the theory of Superdeterminism. Superdeterminism posits that, while inanimate matter is not locally determined, the entire universe — including the thoughts and actions of the experimenters who are investigating nature — is determined as a whole. The experiments based on Bell’s theorem have disproven local determinism but they do not disprove Superdeterminism.
The problem with Superdeterminism from the perspective of most physicists is that it seems to invalidate the process of science itself. That is, if the scientists’ own thoughts, ideas, and judgments are just as determined as the behavior of inanimate matter, then science itself has no claim to seek or find the truth. In other words, the laws of physics are not propositions and they have no truth value. If all of nature is an enormous robot, then it makes no sense to claim that tiny parts of the robot are seeking or have found the truth. Because Superdeterminism seems to obviate the very scientific method used to investigate it, physicists have generally rejected Superdeterminism.
Recently, however, several physicists have suggested that Superdeterminism is a quite plausible way of solving the measurement problem in quantum physics so it seems to be having a bit of a resurgence. Physicist Sabine Hossenfelder offers an interesting video on the topic:
A detailed discussion of her views is beyond this post, but I note a few things:
1) I think Hossenfelder is right that Superdeterminism has been inappropriately dismissed by the physics community. It offers a rigorous and elegant way of understanding quantum mechanics and of beginning a path toward uniting quantum theory with general relativity.
2) Hossenfelder is wrong to deny the reality of free will. I think her critique of physicists who deny Superdeterminism because it denies free will has salience, but the denial of free will is self-refuting regardless of the issues in theoretical physics. Free will is a precondition for all science, all reasoning, and all claims to know the truth. As noted above, if free will is not real and all of our actions, including our investigations of reality, are determined by the laws of nature which in themselves are not propositions and have no truth value. Thus, if free will is not real, human thought has no access to truth. To deny free will is to assert it, and any denial of free will on any basis whatsoever is nonsensical. If we lack free will, we have no justification whatsoever to believe that we lack free will.
3) I do believe, however, that Superdeterminism is a viable and even attractive way of understanding nature, and that genuine free will is true and is quite compatible with Superdeterminism.
How so? Superdeterminism is the view that the outcomes of all possibilities — both inanimate nature and the human mind — are “baked in” to nature itself. There are two ways of understanding what that means. The first way is to see nature as a mindless machine running like clockwork without free will. As I’ve said, such a view is incompatible with human reason.
However there is another way to understand how the outcomes of all possibilities in nature are baked into nature itself. This involves the concept of a “block” universe and the Augustinian understanding of nature as a thought in God’s mind.
In general relativity, the universe is understood as a four-dimensional space-time manifold consisting of three dimensions of space and one dimension of time. From this perspective, the passage of time can be understood as a movement through the four space-time dimensions along what physicists call a world-line. The universe itself from its beginning to end can be understood as a four-dimensional block that includes time but is not in time itself. It is in this timeless block that Superdeterminism can be true without denying free will and without viewing the universe as a mindless machine.
In this four-dimensional block of time and space, all of history – past, present, and future – exist simultaneously, and thus ,in that sense, all of history is Superdetermined. History is Superdetermined not because nature is a machine but because time and space are a single block in eternity through which nature changes and through which we live our lives. The future exists simultaneously with the past and present — but that does not mean that the future determines the past and present in the sense of abrogating free will. In a provident omniscient Mind that knows all events at once, everything that happens is “baked in” even with human freedom to choose.
What then, or should I say where then, is this block universe, and how can a block universe permit free will? St. Augustine famously said that the universe — with us included — are thoughts in God’s mind. And St. Thomas pointed out that human free will is compatible with divine providence because we are created according to the nature assigned us by God. Our freedom is part of our nature — we would not be human without free will. We — who are thoughts in God’s mind — can thus be free but at the same time all of our actions and all of our decisions – past, present, and future – can be known simultaneously to God who is in eternity and is outside of time. In God’s mind — which is where and what the universe is — all events past, present, and future are simultaneous. So to a physicist studying quantum events, they appear Superdetermined because they are a single block of time and space. Yet within that space-time block, we freely choose. God knows all our free choices in the same moment, which is Superdeterminism with free will.
A universe existing in a Divine Mind outside of time would have all of the characteristics of Superdeterminism that Hossenfelder rightly endorses, and yet this Divine thought still permits genuine human freedom. There is no contradiction between Superdeterminism and free will when all of nature is understood as a thought in God’s Mind.
It is noteworthy that physicists Nicholas Gisin, Antoine Suarez and John Bell himself noted that something “outside space and time” was a solution to the problem of nonlocality in Bell’s theorem and the experiments that followed on it. We again see that an inference to our Creator helps us to solve problems in science and gain much deeper insight into the truth about our created universe. There is more to be said on Superdeterminism and the Thomistic understanding of free will but that goes a bit beyond the scope of this post. Suffice to say that I think Hossenfelder is on the right track in endorsing Superdeterminism as a fruitful theory in physics, but her denial of free will is self-refuting.
Superdeterminism is Divine Providence and God Who is outside time knows (but does not force) our free choices. These two truths are completely compatible and provide an excellent solution to one of the most difficult problems in physics.
Can physics prove there is no free will? No, but it can make physicists incoherent when they write about free will. It’s hilarious. Sabine Hossenfelder misses the irony that she insists that people “change their minds” by accepting her assertion that they… can’t change their minds.
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? Alien hand syndrome doesn’t mean that free will is not real. In fact, it clarifies exactly what free will is and what it isn’t.
But is determinism true? Does science show that we fated to want whatever we want? Modern science—both theoretical and experimental—strongly supports the reality of free will.
How can mere products of nature have free will? Materialists don’t like the outcome of their philosophy but twisting logic won’t change it
Does brain stimulation research challenge free will? If we can be forced to want something, is the will still free?
Is free will a dangerous myth? The denial of free will is a much more dangerous myth
Also: Do quasars provide evidence for free will? Possibly. They certainly rule out experimenter interference.
Can free will even be an illusion? Michael Egnor reiterates the freeing implications of quantum indeterminacy
Also, by Baylor University’s Robert J. Marks: Quantum randomness gives nature free will Whether or not quantum randomness explains how our brains work, it may help us create unbreakable encryption codes