The Illusion of Free Will

I heard Janna Levin yesterday on Speaking of Faith on NPR talking about her novel A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines. Ms. Levin is a physicist, and the novel discusses the lives of Alan Turing and Kurt Gödel. It sounds like an interesting book.

Predictably, the host Krista Tippett used Gödel’s incompleteness theorems to support her case for faith — that there is more to the universe than can be understood by poor man’s understanding, but that’s a topic for when I have more time.

Another topic that caught my attention was the discussion of free will. Ms. Levin and Ms. Tippett danced all around the question of whether we have free will or not, and what the ramifications are if we don’t. It seems to me that this is pretty straightforward.

Suppose you have two identical closed boxes and within them set up a number of molecules in exactly the same arrangement: position and velocity. Yes I know this is impossible as far as we know, but this is a thought experiment, anything is possible. Unless there is something mystical going on (which I don’t take as a serious option) there are two possibilities:

  • The two boxes will remain identical as the molecules go about their business.
  • Some randomizing factor — quantum or otherwise — will cause the boxes to fall out of sync.

First, I would argue that in the second case it might be you didn’t do a good enough job of meeting the initial conditions. I find it hard to comprehend something truly random, given enough detail in the initial setup. It may be that there is no way to run such an experiment in real life.

But that’s irrelevant. In either case, there is no free will, even if the “number of molecules” is a human being or two, and one of the “boxes” is the universe. It’s just not there. That said, consider a video game like Mario Kart. The artificial intelligences in the game can give the impression of novel behavior, of “free will.” Depending on the game (I have no experience with Mario Kart) the illusion can be more or less convincing, often depending on the complexity of the algorithms used to generate the artificial intelligence.

Scale that up to human beings and the “simulation” becomes so complex, the illusion of free will so convincing, that to try to find the limits of it is seemingly futile. A human being cannot be predicted.

With today’s technology, anyway.


4 thoughts on “The Illusion of Free Will

  1. Pingback: John Conway Agrees With Me « Geoff Canyon’s Appeal to Authority

  2. Ridahoan

    Yours is the only argument I am aware of for not having free will.

    But it would seem that your two boxes are not just a practical impossibility, but a theoretical one as well, due to that pesky H uncertainty, and although maybe the two boxes could be created identically without knowing their states, wouldn’t measuring their states at the end of the experiment require no H uncertainty? Perhaps you could fudge and just ask the position and not the momentum of each ball and just give a statistical answer : e.g. there is a 0.5e-999 that we don’t have free will, but of course that won’t defeat the god in the gaps.

    Back when I was an adolescent and worried about such things, I figure that even if you could do this experiment with the universe, it wouldn’t matter, because you would have to have a computer process the result, which would have to be within the universe, and you can see we have a problem with infinite recursion. That was more fun to think about than H uncertainty.

    But you know what they say, ignorance is bliss, and that may be better than freedom.

  3. gcanyon Post author

    Agreed that in the real world, at least as I understand it, there is no way to set up two identical boxes. Unless there’s some way in which consciousness/free will exists in quantum randomness in the first place, there’s still no free will inherent in any randomness. I haven’t read the Conway/Kochen paper, but it sounds like that’s what they’re claiming to have proven: that if free will exists, it exists down to the particle level.

  4. Alex

    These kinds of experiments were carried out already and quantum mechanics does lead to do different outcomes. The experiments of John Bell were extremely well tested (apparently) and showed that so-called “hidden variables” don’t apply. Physics hasn’t been deterministic for about 70 years. Sorry Einstein, God does roll dice.


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