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At Scientific American: Does Quantum Mechanics Kill Free Will?

Physicists take sides. Sabine Hossenfelder thinks superdeterminism enables quantum mechanics to kill free will; George Ellis disagrees

One of the most interesting science writers of our era is John Horgan, who has managed to infuriate so many of the right people (to infuriate, that is) while giving the rest of us something to ponder. In a recent column in Scientific American he takes on the question of whether quantum mechanics (quantum physics) rules out free will.

At first glance, that might seem unlikely. Isn’t quantum mechanics (QM) the ultimate in things you can’t determine in advance? Ah, but some physicists think they have found a way around that: superdeterminism. Sabine Hossenfelder explains that, if we knew enough, we would see that everything is determined anyhow:

“The reason we can’t predict the outcome of a quantum measurement,” she explains, “is that we are missing information,” that is, hidden variables. Superdeterminism, she notes, gets rid of the measurement problem and nonlocality as well as randomness. Hidden variables determine in advance how physicists carry out the experiments; physicists might think they are choosing one option over another, but they aren’t. Hossenfelder calls free will “logically incoherent nonsense.”

John Horgan, “Does Quantum Mechanics Rule Out Free Will?” at Scientific American (March 10, 2022)

Albert Einstein, who was a fan of determinism and famously derided QM as “spooky action at a distance” — because it appears to violate determinism — explained away our sense that we have free will as follows: “If the moon, in the act of completing its eternal way around the earth, were gifted with self-consciousness, it would feel thoroughly convinced that it was traveling its way of its own accord.”

Superdeterminism originated with Irish physicist John Bell (1928–1990). He did not particularly like the idea but felt forced to accept it. Here’s an excerpt from an interview with BBC Radio 3:

I was going to ask whether it is still possible to maintain, in the light of experimental experience, the idea of a deterministic universe?

You know, one of the ways of understanding this business is to say that the world is super-deterministic. That not only is inanimate nature deterministic, but we, the experimenters who imagine we can choose to do one experiment rather than another, are also determined. If so, the difficulty which this experimental result creates disappears.

Free will is an illusion – that gets us out of the crisis, does it?

That’s correct. In the analysis it is assumed that free will is genuine, and as a result of that one finds that the intervention of the experimenter at one point has to have consequences at a remote point, in a way that influences restricted by the finite velocity of light would not permit. If the experimenter is not free to make this intervention, if that also is determined in advance, the difficulty disappears.

P.C.W. Davies and J. Brown, The Ghost in the Atom (1993), ch.3, p.47
John Horgan

Horgan, author of The End of Science (1996) and Mind-Body Problems, points out that other physicists disagree:

Other physicists insist that physics provides ample room for free will. George Ellis argues for “downward causation,” which means that physical processes can lead to “emergent” phenomena, notably human desires and intentions, that can in turn exert an influence over our physical selves. Mathematicians John Conway and Simon Kochen go even further in their 2009 paper “The Strong Free Will Theorem.” They present a mathematical argument, which resembles John Bell’s theorem on quantum nonlocality, that we have free will because particles have free will.

John Horgan, “Does Quantum Mechanics Rule Out Free Will?” at Scientific American (March 10, 2022)

Horgan offers an insight that may be long overdue: We know very little about human consciousness, which is essential to any meaningful discussion of the question of free will:

Philosophers speak of an “explanatory gap” between physical theories about consciousness and consciousness itself. First of all, the gap is so vast that you might call it a chasm. Second, the chasm applies not just to consciousness but to the entire realm of human affairs.

Physics, which tracks changes in matter and energy, has nothing to say about love, desire, fear, hatred, justice, beauty, morality, meaning. All these things, viewed in the light of physics, could be described as “logically incoherent nonsense,” as Hossenfelder puts it. But they have consequences; they alter the world.

John Horgan, “Does Quantum Mechanics Rule Out Free Will?” at Scientific American (March 10, 2022)

They certainly do alter the world. And Einstein’s suggestion that the moon “would feel thoroughly convinced that it was traveling its way of its own accord” doesn’t really resolve anything because, unlike us, the moon isn’t thinking anything at all. For that matter, few thinkers consider that it matters whether particles, viruses, or termites have free will.

The problem we humans experience is not with making arguments against free will coincide with life in general but with making them coincide with specifically human experience. The argument that “People just want to believe they have free will” doesn’t really work. Sometimes we want to believe that we have free will. But other times (when we are looking for excuses), we don’t want to believe that at all.

Horgan sides, somewhat tentatively, with free will. He notes that humans are more than just heaps of particles. Higher levels of complexity enable genuinely new qualities. What humans can do is not merely a more complex version of what amoebas can do — in turn supposed to be a more complex version of what electrons can do. Greater complexity can involve genuinely new qualities. A philosopher would say that Horgan is not a reductionist.

But that also means that mental phenomena are a reality. Materialists won’t stay comfortable with that for long. We haven’t heard the last of this debate.

Mind Matters News offers a number of articles on free will by neurosurgeon Dr. Michael Egnor including

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

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At Scientific American: Does Quantum Mechanics Kill Free Will?