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.