Quantum Mechanics and Free Will
by Benjamin Studebaker
As regular readers may know, I am a determinist. I believe that individual agents have no power or ability to self-determine their behavior, and that their behavior is caused by forces over which they have no power. It has been pointed out to me, however, that quantum mechanics calls into question the traditional scientific basis for determinism by arguing that the old classical laws of physics are limited in their power of prediction. Laplace’s demon, the imaginary being that uses infinite information and infinite computing capacity to calculate everything that has ever happened or will ever happen using the physical laws, is not considered viable under modern science. Does this mean anything for my determinism? That’s today’s topic.
Metaphysically, yes, quantum mechanics indicates that the universe is not entirely predictable. While we can account for forces as they would exist if the universe were a closed system, we cannot establish that the universe is a closed system and we cannot account for forces external to it, whether those forces are deities or extra-universal physical forces of some kind.
With this in mind, it may well be that the universe is by nature indeterminate, at least from the perspective of any entity existing within the universe.
But does that mean anything for our moral and political philosophy?
Well, no. If quantum mechanics has shown that, at least from the point of view of a being within the universe, there is some level of randomness to everything that happens, it has nonetheless not shown that this randomness has anything to do with human wills.
It nonetheless remains the case that what a being does and can do is determined by its nature and nurture, and the being is itself the author of neither. If you remove my brain, I will lose all functionality. The nature of my brain combined with its nurture, the set of experiences my brain has had, determines what I do. I did not choose my brain’s nature or its nurture. Whether it was always metaphysically inevitable that my brain would be the way it is or there was some degree of quantum randomness involved does not matter. I remain wholly without autonomy, without free will.
Even if we were to become genetic engineers and design future generations, those future generations would still be the product of a process that they did not determine or agree to, and the original decision to genetically engineer future people in any given way would have been made by a brain that was the product merely of nature and nurture. All possible behavior is ultimately natural behavior, and no possible behavior arises from an independent free will, because the decision-making mechanism is not self-constructed.
Quantum mechanics indicates that there is some randomness or extra-universal forces that contribute to outcomes, but there is no indication that we are the cause of the randomness. Given that we are part of the universe, we cannot be extra-universal forces ourselves. Regardless of what the extra-universal forces might be–say our universe was the way it was because of a deity that lives outside the universe–the outcomes would still not be generated by individual agents, but by those extra-universal forces. If there is an intervening god, the intervening god is merely an additional determiner of human behavior; he could not be evidence of free will. If that god acts randomly, the universe may be unpredictable, but it would nonetheless still be a universe in which human beings lacked free will. The same is true if, instead of a god, it is purely physical extra-universal forces that act upon our universe in unpredictable ways.
This leaves intact all the moral and political philosophy that flows from the absence of individual free will, including more or less all of modern leftism, which contends (whether its practitioners realize it or not), that individuals are not responsible for their own actions.
But what about Hume’s Guillotine? If I say that individuals cannot be personally responsible for their actions because they are not the authors of their own minds and consequently of their own decisions, am I not deriving an “ought” from an “is”? Do I not wrongly conflate metaphysics and morality?
Almost, but not quite. Lack of free will is indeed a metaphysical state, but I am not using that state to justify a moral position, I am using it to reduce the set of possible behaviors. If I make the moral claim that everyone should drink water, but no water exists, my moral claim is invalid because it is impossible. The metaphysical question of water’s existence defines what can be done, not what should be done. The only moral argument with respect to metaphysics that I consider to have any validity is the following:
If action X is impossible, no moral agent can be obliged to do action X.
This form of argument does not argue an ought from an is, because it makes no claims about whether or not we should perform action X purely on the basis of its existence. To once again use the water example, if water exists, it becomes possible to argue that everyone should drink it, but the argument that everyone should drink water must be justified elsewhere. It cannot be justified purely on the basis that there is water. Metaphysical possibility is a necessary condition for an action to be a moral obligation, but it does not in itself provide any justification for moral arguments.
An argument that a being should do something that it cannot do is not necessarily a wrong argument, but it is an invalid argument. It makes no sense morally or politically. If I say you have a moral obligation to jump across the Atlantic Ocean, my moral argument is nonsensical due to impossibility.
The argument against free will does not argue that because individual behavior is not self-determined, human beings ought to do X, Y, and Z, it argues that because individual behavior is not self-determined, there is a set of activities thought possible by many moral theorists that are in reality just as impossible as jumping across the Atlantic Ocean under one’s own power is. While it may be easy to conflate the two, there really is a very crucial difference. The metaphysical world sets the parameters for what is possible, but it does not contain within itself reasons for or against the various possible behaviors.
So when I say that people do not have certain obligations because they are determined, I am not saying that the metaphysical nature of the universe makes those obligations mistaken, I’m saying that the metaphysical nature of the universe makes those obligations impossible and ridiculous. The right is mistaken to think that it is possible for people to take responsibility for themselves. The moral claim that they ought to that follows from that belief is not wrong, it just doesn’t make any sense.
In sum, people are never obliged to do what they can’t do, and without free will, the set of things they can’t do is much larger than is generally believed. Quantum mechanics is not indicative of free will, and while it remains a very interesting metaphysical and scientific field of inquiry, its moral and political relevance is nil.
“..If action X is impossible, no moral agent can be obliged to do action X…”
Using a similar logic, if modern materialist science (which is only a few generations old) can’t even explain what consciousness is, but can only measure some of its effects, then the determinist position is also impossible because the data is – at best – glaringly incomplete and inconclusive.
Determinism is based on nothing more than a counter-intuitive, unscientific and misleading assumption that consciousness is no more than a product of electro-chemical reactions occurring in the brain, a brain which we know is composed of thoroughly ordinary (ie not magic) matter.
This is at odds with just about every other observation of the physical world made by materialist science – a physical world of lakes, spiral galaxies, oceans, planets, trees and so on which science insists are NOT able to be conscious.
Perhaps we wait until we fully (or even vaguely) understand consciousness itself before we decide free will is an illusion. Wouldn’t that be the more logical order?
Determinism doesn’t require any given understanding of how the brain works–all it requires is that the way the brain operates results in our behavior, and that we are not the designers of our own brains. We know that much is true because we know that if we remove the brain from a person or damage the brain in some way, it reduces or eliminates functionality. Whether the brain works the way it does because of chemicals or god or whatever it is we take to be the seed of consciousness, we know that seed of consciousness resides in the brain.
“…Determinism doesn’t require any given understanding of how the brain works–all it requires is that the way the brain operates results in our behavior…”
That’s a self contradictory statement, surely?
If we do not even understand how the brain works, how can we say for sure that it determines how we behave?
If we do not understand how cars work we might make the (seemingly logical) assumption that cars determine where the humans sitting inside of them go. After all, if cars break down the people sitting inside of them go nowhere. But once we understand how cars really work we realise it’s impossible for cars to determine where the humans sitting inside of them go.
“..We know that much is true because we know that if we remove the brain from a person or damage the brain in some way, it reduces or eliminates functionality…”
We might also say “If we remove a component from a TV set or damage it in some way the TV show no longer appears on the screen, which proves it must be coming from the TV set itself”. But, as with the car analogy, this is a false assumption due to incomplete data leading to a fundamental misunderstanding of how TV’s actually work. In reality the TV show is actually coming from an external source and being sent as a signal which is being received and decoded by the TV set.
In short, you cannot logically say A causes B when you do not even know what A is or how A works.
There’s a difference between knowing that X is the cause of Y and knowing how X causes Y.
I may know that a car cannot operate without an engine, but that doesn’t mean I know how the engine works. I don’t have to know how the engine works to know that without the engine, the car doesn’t go.
The presence of the driver is an over-extension of the metaphor. In the case of the brain, there is no evidence that an equivalent to the driver exists at all. While drivers can get out of cars without engines and move on their own, or ride bicycles, or board public transit, there’s no evidence that human beings can do anything at all without brains. To assume that there is something else going on would be to make an unfounded leap, and I’m not in the business of making unfounded leaps where possible. The evidence suggests that brains are analogous to biological computers, with perceived differences either being the result of an insufficient scientific understanding or some kind of divine programming that is altogether beyond human comprehension. In the case of the computer, a designing agent, the human being, or nature itself via human beings, determines the way the computer makes decisions. The important thing to note is that no matter who programs the computer, it does not have a free or independent will, and neither do we.
“..I may know that a car cannot operate without an engine, but that doesn’t mean I know how the engine works. ..”
Right. And if determinists were merely claiming consciousness (and free will, being an aspect of that consciousness) requires a brain to operate, or to be expressed in the physical world, then they’d be correct. But they are claiming much more than that. They are claiming to free will is an illusion – which is also to claim to know what consciousness is and how it operates.
For example, if I claim people are not really the ones driving their cars then I need to explain who or what IS driving those cars which appear to be being driven by humans. I can’t just say the car drives itself and the apparent volition of the driver is an illusion…. and just leave it at that.
“.. In the case of the brain, there is no evidence that an equivalent to the driver exists at all…”
Yes there is. Three obvious (and inter-related) pieces of evidence would be the existence of consciousness, self awareness and free will!
The observation of free will is evidence of free will … just as the observation of bear tracks in the woods is evidence of bears. It’s unscientific to say “I don’t believe bears exist in these woods, therefore any bear tracks observed must logically be an illusion and can’t be used as evidence of bears”. That’s circular logic.
We observe both cars AND people ‘going about their business’ as if they had self awareness and volition (ie free will). It’s rational to assume these cars have drivers, and it’s rational to assume these people also have ‘drivers’ in the form of free will. Going back to the TV set analogy, it’s also rational to assume the TV set is receiving information via an external signal, rather than generating all of those TV shows internally. In each case (cars, people, TV sets) the logical conclusion based on basic observations is that some EXTERNAL influence is being brought to bear onto these relatively inert lumps of metal/ flesh (that outside influence being a driver, free will, a TV signal)……. BUT….. if we restrict our measurements to only measuring the car itself, only measuring the brain itself and only measuring the TV set itself we end up with incomplete data. Based on those measurements only we come to the incorrect assumption that there is no driver, there is no free will and there is no TV signal. We never measured one, therefore they can’t exist.
Measuring ONLY the electro-chemical brain activity of the brain is like measuring ONLY the car and never the driver…. or ONLY the TV set and never the airwaves. If we lacked the scientific equipment (or if we never invented the right procedure) to measure the presence of a driver, or to measure the airwaves surrounding the TV set then we might be fooled into thinking we knew all there was to know about these items, and that to ‘imagine’ a driver or some external TV signal is unscientific speculation. But to think *beyond* the limits of our current limited instrumentation is not unscientific at all – it’s how we’ve always advanced in science.
“..To assume that there is something else going on would be to make an unfounded leap, ..”
It’s not an assumption, it’s an observation. Free will, consciousness, self awareness etc are fundamental (and totally consistent) observations which we can all make. To decide OUR observations are illusory just because scientific instruments are limited in THEIR observations is unscientific, to say the least.
Even today we still struggle to explain how some animals migrate or how bees fly but to claim these observations must therefore be illusory would be just as unscientific as claiming free will must be an illusion.
“..The important thing to note is that no matter who programs the computer, it does not have a free or independent will, and neither do we…”
But human beings are not computers. To equate the two is absurd, and indicative of just how muddled up and deranged materialistic science has become. To read all about Napoleon in a history book and then to start imagining you ARE Napoleon is the definition of madness. And to learn all about computers and then image we humans are the same as computers is no less mad.
You’re taking as given the assumption that free will is an aspect of consciousness. The burden is not on the determinist to prove the absence of free will, it is on the proponent of free will to show where it comes into the behavioral process. The fact that human beings do not make decisions without their brains indicates that there is no evidence for a decision-making faculty that is brain-independent, i.e. a free will.
Do cars have free will? They don’t choose their drivers. When a car crashes into a wall, is it the car’s fault? Human beings are not distinct from machines because the thinking apparatus is not self-designed or self-selected. Did you choose to be a human being? Did you choose your personality traits, your various aptitudes? Did you choose not to be a bird, or not to be a genius, or not to be a 7 foot tall pro basketball player? No, all of these decisions were made elsewhere, either by natural selection or a deity or what have you. In order for free will to exist, you must show how human beings choose to be what they are. This cannot be shown because it simply isn’t so. Consciousness provides no evidence for free will, because it is entirely consistent with determinism. The nature of our consciousness is precisely what has been determined for us.
The mere fact that you and I both do not know how our minds work leads us to determinism–if we had free will, we would be the authors of our minds. We would know exactly how they work, because we would have designed them.
By relocating the source of determinism to global rather than local variables, you cannot thereby conclude that local randomness is ultimately determined with by an external factor, because you have no evidence as to whether that external factor also behaves probabilistically in a higher realm. I could equally speculate that (a) there are ever-higher levels of randomness or (b) everything is local and founded on randomness. It is just speculation and does not solve the problem.
A broader philosophical problem is that the notion of ‘free will’ you are attacking contains a contradiction. If an agent can only have free will by being independent of external stimuli and their natural endowments, then it follows that it is impossible for any form of agent to have free will, because agency requires an (arbitrary) mechanism for making decisions and content on which to act. The appropriate question is therefore not whether agents have free will, but what would be required for agents to have free will as we understand it in practice? This requires a different spin on the question.
I agree with you on a metaphysical level–my point is purely that we cannot find evidence for the existence of free will through a methodology that locates randomness but does not identify its cause. Unless there is reason to believe that we are the cause of the randomness we observe, free will remains extraneous, and even then we would only be the cause of randomness, not any specific randomness willed by us from nothing.
I agree with you more broadly as well–I think free will is a self-contradictory concept and logically impossible, invented and sustained by human beings who felt their lives could not otherwise have meaning and so became emotionally attached to upholding the fiction.
What kind of implication does this have for m
What kind of implications does this have on moral responsibility though. Does this mean that a murderer or rapist can escape punishment because he had no control over his own choices and behavior?
This does indeed having interesting implications–it implies that murderers and rapists are not personally responsible for their actions. Of course, murder and rape are still harmful, and we still need to prevent harm. We can still imprison people for murder, but not for the purpose of punishing them, but for three reasons:
1. Rehabilitation–if possible, we should socially reprogram dangerous people so as to make them sociable.
2. Protecting the public from harm by keeping dangerous individuals away from others–if we know a person is by nature dangerous, it is important to prevent that person from coming into contact with the wider population.
3. As a deterrent–if people know that they might be imprisoned for acting in harmful ways, it will contribute to their environmental makeup such that they act harmfully less often.