Quantum mechanics and free will

Physicists believe in cause and effect, meaning that every event (effect) has a cause (or series of causes) immediately preceding it. Mathematics can be used to explain and predict these causes and effects, with direct observation being used to test and confirm the math. For atomic or subatomic events observation takes the form of banging atomic particles into other atomic particles and watching the spray of subatomic particles that results, in machines such as the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. The excitement comes when those subatomic “sprays” appear exactly as the math predicted they would, as in the case a few years ago of the discovery of the Higgs boson particle, which had been predicted by physicists but never actually seen.

Anyhow, this leads up to physicists generally being hard determinists, because for every (EVERY) event, they have the mathematics that predicts it. Create the circumstances (causes) the same way, and the outcome (effect) will be the same, without exception. And in practice the mathematics is able to predict with astonishing precision the outcome in physics. If it becomes clear that the results are different than expected, either you don’t have enough information or your math is wrong and it’s back to the drawing board to refine the predictive mathematics. There’s no such thing as an event simply “happening” with no prior cause. And this makes intuitive sense to us non-physicists; if my garage catches fire I go looking for the cause in bad wiring, solvent-soaked rags, etc. rather than thinking it just “happened.”

Switch fields to philosophy and human interactions. I made a decision to sit down and type this blog. It wasn’t inevitable that I do so (at least I don’t think it was); I made a conscious decision to write it, organized my thoughts, checked some facts and started typing away. We call this “free will” in action, and believe it applies to virtually everything we do. The idea that my writing this was totally pre-ordained by events leading up to it, and that I actually could not have done otherwise, is counter-intuitive to us as thinking beings. When it comes to our actions, free will is intuitively the only explanation. Of course, prior events may influence our decisions, but those decisions still arise within us; we could have done otherwise if we had so desired.

Of course, you see the conflict now. Physics creates hard determinists, who intuitively “know” that every effect has a cause, and they have the mathematics to prove it. When it comes to our actions, we believe in free will, and have a very strong intuitive sense and personal experience to prove that.

To bolster the sense that everything was not predetermined, in the last century physicists such as Heisenberg and Schroedinger in their important work showed that at the level of quantum mechanics, not everything could be predicted exactly; in fact randomness seemed to be at the heart of physics at that level. (I remind you that Heisenberg is best known for his “Heisenberg uncertainty principle,” and Schroedinger’s cat theory illustrates that, in quantum mechanics at least, the location of an electron at any given instant in time is only probable, and that it is the observation of that particle that “fixes” it into a specific location.) Einstein was aware of some inconsistencies in his famous theory but felt it was caused by incomplete knowledge, calling it “spooky action at a distance” in an area of quantum mechanics now known as “entanglement,” but it quickly gets very weird and is well beyond my ability to explain.

Anyhow, it looked like the “free will” position had support at the level of quantum mechanics: not everything was predetermined or predictable. Enter Superdeterminism. This is a theory proposed as far back as the 60’s that some believe has brought physics back to the strict cause and effect position; the mathematics seem to explain Heisenberg, Schroedinger, entanglement and others. Essentially Superdeterminism states that everything in the entire universe is tied together (kind of like Schroedinger on steroids), and when an experiment is developed to test a hypothesis, the act of selecting an experiment is tied to the outcome in a way that makes that outcome inevitable. I’m obviously using non-physicist’s terms to explain this, so an expert may take issue with what I’ve written it’s as close as I can explain it with my limited understanding.

In any case, Superderteminism has been used to bring the “cause and effect” rule back to physics, and negate what we think of as free will. While Superdeterminism has not yet been established nor observed experimentally, it does have a number of proponents among the elite quantum physics crowd, notably a German physicist name Sabine Hossenfelder, the subject of an opinion piece in the most recent Scientific American and the reason for this particular blog entry. She is referred to by the author of the opinion piece, science writer John Horgan, with links to interviews with her and more scholarly papers that do a deeper dive into the math. In his article entitled “Does Quantum Mechanics Rule Out Free Will?” Horgan states that he has spent a year educating himself in the math of quantum physics in order to understand it (to understand that challenge, quantum physicist Richard Feynman famously stated “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics”), but he (Horgan) remains unconvinced that Superdeterminism adequately explains away free will. In his article he says that he and Hossenfelder (for whom he has great respect and obvious friendship) seemed to be “talking past one another,” with Hossenfelder reminding him that “Everything is physics. You’re made of particles.” Einstein himself doubted whether free will exists, writing “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.”

At the end of the day, the question to me remains unresolved. I do understand (and feel it intuitively correct) that every effect has a preceding cause or causes, yet I also feel in my bones that I made the decision to write this blog today and could have decided otherwise.

There’s another article in a recent Scientific American which may throw a bit of light onto this question, on the topic of emergence, but that’s for another blog. Teaser: everything we know and see may be a function of emergence, in the same way that a brick wall only exists as a specific arrangement of enough bricks in the right way to be perceived as a wall.

It may only be an illusion we create to allow us to sleep at night, but I cling to the belief that it was a function of my free will to sit down and write this.

About BigBill

Stats: Married male boomer. Hobbies: Hiking, woodworking, reading, philosophy, good conversation.
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