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Why Free Will Is Philosophically and Scientifically Sound

As Michael Egnor points out in a recent podcast, it has been nearly a century since determinism was toppled in physics

In “Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor: Humans Have Free Will” a recent podcast at ID the Future, geoscientist Casey Luskin discussed science-based arguments against free will with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor (13:05 min). Are these arguments a serious challenge or are they just wishful thinking on the part of materialists? Here’s a partial transcript:

Casey Luskin: Now I want to continue our conversation, Dr. Egnor, from the previous podcast, where we were talking about your debates on evolution news and views, responding to Dr. Jerry Coyne, the well known evolutionary biologist from the University of Chicago. Coyne is what you might call an honest atheist in that he’s willing to admit the implications that atheism and Darwinian materialism have for concepts like free will and determinism.

In simple terms, what are determinism and free will?

Michael Egnor: Determinism is the belief that human actions are determined entirely by physical processes, like our brain chemistry, our environment, our history, what’s going on around us. There’s no component of free agency associated with our actions.

Michael Egnor

Indeterminism, or denial of determinism, is the viewpoint that some aspects of what we do are freely chosen. It certainly doesn’t mean that everything is freely chosen, but some aspects are.

And free will means that there are aspects of what we do that we really have a choice about — and that we could have chosen otherwise.

Determinism can be defined in a very simple, revealing way. Besides being the viewpoint that everything you do is determined by physics, chemistry, and history, determinism is the viewpoint that, at any moment in time, the future could not be any different from the way it is.

For example, this moment right now, imagine what I’ll be doing 10 seconds from now. If determinism is true, whatever happens 10 seconds from now, had to happen. There was no other option that could happen. And if determinism is true and free will is false, it leads to all kinds of ridiculous, almost crazy viewpoints.

Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. We do not have the freedom we think we have. – Sam Harris, Free Will (2012)

Why determinism makes no intuitive sense

First, virtually all people intuitively know that free will is true, to some extent. That is if one denies free will, you’re denying the lived experience of all people on earth, basically. Perhaps all people on earth are wrong, but the denial of free will is an extraordinarily radical assertion that requires some pretty substantial evidence to support it.

The other problem with the denial of free will is that if there is no such thing as free will, and if everything we do is determined, then there is no such thing as morality.

Jerry Coyne

If everything we do is determined by chemistry, chemistry doesn’t entail good or bad. There’s no morally good chemical reaction or morally evil chemical reaction. So everything that people do — the Nazis in the Holocaust, Mother Teresa feeding starving people — all of that is without moral meaning. A serial killer is just as moral (which is not moral at all) as a person who saves the lives of many people. So if you really believe in determinism and you really deny free will, you deny the possibility of moral, good or evil.

But the reality is that we all know that some things are morally good and we all know that some things are morally wrong. Even Jerry Coyne would agree that torturing kittens is morally wrong. Even though if you really take determinism and the lack of free will seriously, it’s a pretty hard statement to justify that doing anything is morally wrong.

Why determinism makes no logical sense either

In addition, denial of free will and affirmation of determinism is self-refuting. So many of the materialist claims are self-refuting, but this one is particularly self- refuting. If your beliefs and statements are determined by chemistry, and you have no free choice as to what you believe or say, then the statement that free will is false [comes about by a] by chemical reaction.

Well, chemical reactions are not propositions. Chemical reactions are not capable of being true or false. They’re just things that happen. So that if you’re claiming that free will does not exist, you’re at the same time denying that your assertion that free will does not exist has any truth value at all. So it’s self refuting nonsense.

Some who dismiss free will opt for willing self-deception: My message to you is this: pretend that you have free will. It’s essential that you behave as if your decisions matter, even though you know they don’t. The reality isn’t important: what’s important is your belief, and believing the lie is the only way to avoid a waking coma. Civilization now depends on self-deception. Perhaps it always has. – Ted Chiang, Stories of Your Life and Others

Is there a consensus view in science on free will?

Michael Egnor: In addition, Coyne has argued repeatedly that determinism has been proven by physics, that the scientific consensus that everything that happens is determined. But Coyne is using 1920s physics. Since the rise of quantum mechanics, determinism has been very decisively rejected in physics. And virtually no physicists today defends determinism in physics. And it’s been actually experimentally shown to be untenable…

Note: Albert Einstein (1879–1955) was not at all a fan of quantum mechanics and lack of determinism in physics in general. He called “spooky action at a distance” (not a compliment) and made many efforts to refute it. But the experimental evidence kept supporting it.

Michael Egnor: Einstein proposed a thought experiment: If you take two subatomic particles that are produced by a process, for example, by a radioactive decay, the subatomic particles would have what’s called quantum entanglement, which means that the properties of the particles are related to one another. And if one particle has one property, the other particle must have a certain other property, according to the laws of quantum mechanics.

Let’s imagine that these particles are emitted and they fly off in different directions and one particle ends up light years away. The other particle heads towards your detector and you measure that other particle. According to quantum mechanics, neither particle has any determined value for certain parameters until you measure it and then the particle has that value.

You measure a value in one of the particles and then all of a sudden, that particle has that value. The other particle, which is on the other side of the universe now, must then have the corresponding value because these particles are always entangled.

John Stewart Bell Image from the CERN report in 1973
John Stewart Bell/CERN, Wiki Commons

Einstein said, that’s crazy. How could one particle on the other side of the universe know, say an hour after the particles split, what the other particle had when you measure it? The whole idea of indeterminism is crazy. It can’t be true. So for many years, people debated this.

In the early 1960s, a physicist named John Bell (1928–1990) pointed out that the question that Einstein raised could be answered experimentally… And he proposed an experiment. The experiment wasn’t technically feasible in the 1960s but by the late Seventies it became feasible and a number of people did the experiment.

And the experiment now has been repeated many times. And it has demonstrated to just about everyone’s satisfaction, that Einstein was wrong. When particles split and they don’t have determined properties at the moment of the split, that when one particle is measured, the other particle — only at that time — acquires the property that it would need to have according to quantum mechanics …

So determinism, as a theory in physics, is dead. And it really has been dead in quantum mechanics for most of the 20th century. And since the 1980s, it has been experimentally shown to be dead. Yet Coyne in his blog repeatedly says that physics shows that determinism is true. Coyne’s physics is as contemporary as Coyne’s biology, which is 19th century.

While there are many reasons to believe that a person’s will is not completely free of influence, there is not a scientific consensus against free will. – “Does science disprove free will?” Psychology Today

Casey Luskin: Dr. Egnor, a lot of folks have suggested that maybe our minds, maybe the brain uses quantum mechanical processes. We just recently had a podcast with David Snoke, a physicist at the University of Pittsburgh who studies quantum mechanics and we talked about the fact that some folks have suggested that the brain might use quantum mechanical processes… Would you agree?

Michael Egnor: How that relates to the mind… there have been some fascinating theories about that and the theories, I think, are worth a very close look. But even irrespective of the theories, it’s a fact, and I should point out not merely a theoretical construct, but an experimental fact that determinism in physics is not true. And a materialist like Coyne, who bases his rather bizarre rejection of free will on an assertion that physics has proved determinism to be true, when in fact since the 1930s, it’s been very clear according to quantum mechanics, that determinism is not true and since the 1980s, it’s been proven experimentally, really makes you wonder how well Coyne understands the science. I mean, his metaphysics is off the wall, but his science is about a century behind.

Casey Luskin: Coyne is, of course, a diehard defender of Neo-Darwinism, which many scientists are now beginning to reject. Even mainstream evolutionary scientists are becoming very critical of Neo-Darwinism and of course, Coyne has had his own debates with some of those folks. He’s dead set on defending the modern version of Darwin’s 19th-century theory.

The sciences have grown steadily bolder in their claim that all human behavior can be explained through the clockwork laws of cause and effect. This shift in perception is the continuation of an intellectual revolution that began about 150 years ago, when Charles Darwin first published On the Origin of Species. – Stephen Cave, There’s no such thing as free will,” Richard Dawkins.net

(to be continued)


Here’s the first episode: When a neurosurgeon and a biologist keep on arguing… we suspect some pretty basic science issues are involved. Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor mixes it up with evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne about the questions science can — and can’t — answer.

You may also wish to read: Is consciousness the sort of thing that could have evolved? Researchers Simona Ginsberg and Eva Jablonka have written a book attempting to trace the evolution of consciousness. Material processes cannot, for example, account for the power to grasp infinity or perfection — which are not material ideas. (Michael Egnor)


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Why Free Will Is Philosophically and Scientifically Sound