Friday, April 5, 2013

Quantum Physics and Free Will

Tom Hartsfield has a column at Real Clear Science on how modern physics, particularly quantum mechanics, bears on the free will/determinism debate. He writes:
A determinist point of view says, "If I precisely know the complete workings of a system -- i.e., the position of every particle and how the laws of the universe operate -- I can tell you exactly what it will do in all future situations." For example, by measuring the sun's gravity and the motion of solar system bodies, we can calculate whether an asteroid will hit us or how to position a satellite in a complex orbit above the Earth.

But are you prepared to accept that your mind follows these same rules? That it is a machine which can be completely predicted, like pool balls on a felt table or comets circling a star? That you don't make choices: the choices are already made by the wiring patterns in your brain, and you just carry them out like a colossally complex adding machine? This is the philosophical endgame of classical physics (i.e., Newtonian physics) taken to its logical conclusion.

Those who accept this philosophy simply apply physics to the human brain: If we could know all the molecules and cells and what they were doing, we could predict human thought perfectly. In practice, of course, this is nearly impossible, but it is philosophically possible. And chilling.

Then along came quantum mechanics. When physicists observed that behavior at the atomic level was fundamentally indeterminate, the universal validity of classical physics, as well as philosophical determinism came into question. Physicists recoiled at the idea that their science could no longer claim to predict all things with infinite precision. But, that's what quantum mechanics teaches us. We absolutely cannot know exactly how something will turn out before it happens.

John Bell, in a famous 1964 paper, forced everyone to reconsider, both scientifically and philosophically, their support for determinism. His famous theorem, Bell's inequality, is an incredibly profound statement. This relatively simple mathematical proof, when applied to experimental results, gives us a choice: We must either give up determinism or give up the existence of an objective reality explained by science and measurable by humans with instruments. So if experiments on quantum phenomena are reliable, then Bell concludes that determinism is false. Most physicists agree.

Essentially, quantum mechanics tells us that there are things which we cannot know about the future, things which are not predetermined but happen with some factor of chance or randomness. Although many things in the world may be predicted, everything is not predetermined, and our actions do not unfold mechanically in a manner predetermined since the very moment of the Big Bang. Free will is preserved.
I happen to agree with Hartsfield's conclusion, but I don't think it follows from what he has said about quantum mechanics. What QM shows is that the behavior of subatomic particles is fundamentally unpredictable (or indeterministic), but that doesn't mean that our choices are not determined. To extrapolate from the micro-realm of particles to the relatively macro-realm of neuronic chemistry and electrochemical reactions in the brain would seem to require some sort of nexus that Hartsfield doesn't provide.

At any rate, following the links in his column leads to a discussion which does have some extraordinary consequences for the way we view the world. Put simply, given the confirmed behavior of the quantum world, one of the following three beliefs we commonly hold appears to be false:
1. Our belief that the rules of traditional logic hold always and everywhere.
2. Our belief that there's an objective world independent of our observation.
3. Our belief that no information-bearing signal can travel faster than the speed of light.
If any one of these beliefs is false it turns everything upside down. The world as we experience it is often a strange place, but the world as it really is is much more bizarre than we can imagine.