Michio Kaku is Demonstrably Wrong about Free Will
by Benjamin Studebaker
The other day, I stumbled upon a YouTube video featuring Michio Kaku, the famous theoretical physicist and public intellectual. I usually appreciate his ability to explain complex scientific concepts in ways that are comprehensible for a lay audience, but in this video (entitled “Why Quantum Physics Ends the Free Will Debate“), Kaku stepped well outside his area of expertise and delivered a breathtakingly facile argument that any person with elementary academic training in philosophy can easily and demonstrably disprove.
Here’s the Kaku video:
Here’s the structure of what Kaku said:
- Einstein (and traditional physicists more generally) believed that the universe operated in accordance with deterministic natural laws.
- If the universe operates in accordance with natural laws, and we are part of the universe, then we operate in accordance with natural laws and consequently there is no free will.
- However, quantum physics subsequently established the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which establishes that there are things about the universe that are indeterminate (i.e. that cannot be known or predicted with laws), specifically we cannot know both the position and momentum of an electron simultaneously.
- Therefore determinism is false.
- Therefore free will is true.
Kaku’s mistake is in treating determinism and free will as though necessarily one or the other must be true. It is quite possible that both are false, depending on how we define the terms. For Kaku, “determinism” seems to be Einstein’s view that the universe operates mechanistically exclusively according to natural laws. Kaku doesn’t explicitly define free will–he seems to assume that free will is simply the converse of Einstein’s view. But this is not at all how philosophers define free will.
Free will does not simply require that determinism is false, it requires that people be self-determining–that the decisions they make are truly their own in some relevant sense. Uncertainty, indeterminacy, randomness–none of these concepts establish self-determination. Indeed, indeterminacy is fundamentally incompatible with self-determination. If no one can determine both where the electron is and what direction it is going, it hardly follows that individuals can self-determine this. That is an additional claim for which quantum physics has provided no evidence whatsoever. Kaku is asserting it without any grounds for doing so. All that quantum physics has done is show that when we explain human decisions, we cannot merely credit them to heredity and environment, but must also allow that randomness may affect the decision.
Now, we can go a step further and show not only that quantum physics has not established free will, but that it cannot do so, at least insofar as we take free will to require true self-determination (not all philosophers do, but this is the way ordinary people typically take it, and conceptions of freedom that do not require it are quite bizarre). Here we can employ Galen Strawson’s argument. In simplest terms, the argument goes something like this:
- When we make conscious decisions to act a certain way, we make these decisions on the basis of reasons, and we find these reasons persuasive because of the way we are (our values, beliefs, desires, principles, physical capacities, etc.).
- So if one is to make decisions in a self-determined way, one must also self-determine the way one is.
- But to self-determine the way one is, one must have made conscious decisions to be a certain way, and made those decisions on the basis of reasons, and found those reasons persuasive because of the way one is.
- So for self-determination to be possible, one would need to be able to self-determine the process by which one self-determines, which would require that one self-determine the process by which one self-determines the process by which one self-determines. This produces an infinite regress.
- Therefore self-determination is logically impossible.
- Therefore, insofar as free will requires self-determination, free will is impossible.
As far as free will goes, it doesn’t matter whether we are the way we are because of natural laws, heredity, environment, randomness, or some combination of these things, what matters is that we cannot be the way we are because we self-determined it, and because we make our decisions based on the way we are, we cannot make our decisions on the basis of self-determination.
This is a pretty straightforward idea, and it’s been around for a while. Strawson first published his opus on this subject in the 1980’s. Bertrand Russell put the point rather simply decades earlier:
We can act as we please, but we cannot please as we please.
You can find the same thought echoed by John Locke centuries ago:
For to ask whether a man be at liberty to will either motion or rest, speaking or silence, which he pleases, is to ask whether a man can will what he wills, or be pleased with what he is pleased with? A question which, I think, needs no answer: and they who can make a question of it must suppose one will to determine the acts of another, and another to determine that, and so on in infinitum.
So it’s not like I just made this up. If Kaku had read any of the philosophical literature concerning the free will question, he would have realized that quantum physics has not and cannot prove free will, certainly not any of the conceptions of free will that Newtonian determinism would reject. The problem is that Kaku, like many scientists nowadays, seems to operate under the assumption that it is not necessary to read or study philosophy. In so doing they are making a serious mistake, because the scientific method is about empirically establishing evidence for or against specific descriptive phenomena. This is excellent, but it has limitations when we are trying to verify claims concerning nebulous abstract human concepts that are subject to a variety of diverse definitions and understandings. Before scientists can claim they can tell us whether or not free will is true, they need to settle on a persuasive and philosophically defensible understanding what we should take free will to be, whether it’s coherant, and if and how it might be proved. Scientific training is good for very many things, but it does not equip scientists with the intellectual tools to answer these questions. As a result, we can have an otherwise very intelligent expert scientist, like Kaku, make a philosophical claim that is spectacularly indefensible. The general public, which consists of people who are, for the most part, neither expert scientists nor expert philosophers, is not equipped to evaluate the claims Kaku makes, so most of those who view the video will just assume that the argumentation is correct, that someone like Kaku would not make a basic error. But that’s precisely what happened, and the public has been rendered still more ignorant than it was before.
> we cannot make our decisions on the basis of self-determination.
In a deterministic universe surely we can’t call them ‘decisions’, just as we would not ever say some chemicals in a test tube ‘decided’ to give off a certain gas or turn a certain colour?
I suppose that would depend on how one chooses to define the term “decision”.
Yes. If decision is defined as a process not involving free will then it should be acceptable to say “The chemicals in the test tube decided to turn green”… or… “the rock decided to break loose and tumble down the mountain:
But it is generally not acceptable to define decision that way. ‘Decisions’ are only made by people. But in a deterministic universe people’s decisions are just the product of chemicals reacting in a test tube anyway (the skull being that test tube).
> ….how one chooses to define…
If one ‘chooses’ then that implies there is indeed a choice available, from which to choose from. In order to ‘choose’ A there must at least be one other possibility available, namely B. You cannot ‘choose’ A if the only option available is A.
If a choice is available then that means the chooser is not bound by strict causality.
So anybody who claims to be able to ‘choose’ or ‘decide’ is not a determinist.
We make choices and decisions all the time, these choices and decisions are just not made freely. We could easily define “choice” and “decision” as the outcome of any conscious process in the brain of a conscious/sentient being. This would not in any way diminish the reality that these choices and decisions would entirely result from heredity, environment, and randomness. We need not presume that free will is a necessary prerequisite. The distinction between the chemical reaction and the conscious being would be that the conscious being responds to reasons (albeit in a non-self-determining way) while the chemical reaction does not. E.g. if I tell Bob that if he touches the hot stove, he will burn his hand, this contributes to Bob’s environment and gives him a reason not to do it (which Bob cannot ignore because Bob is not self-determining), causing Bob to decide not to touch the stove (albeit not in a free/self-determining way). You’re getting hung up on a particular understanding of “decision” and “choice” that I don’t have to subscribe to when I use the terms.
The term “self-determination” is also widely used in political discourse – self-determination of countries/nations. Obviously it is not the same thing as philosophical self-determination of humans (as per ‘free will’). Or maybe there is some similarity?
Since countries/nations are often (metaphorically) viewed as ‘agents’, with some degree of metaphorical free will, this example can be useful for shedding some light on the determination problem (and its apparent circularity). The key concept here is ’emergence’. When a country becomes sovereign, especially after struggle for self-determination, we can clearly see transition between two states – from lack of self-determination to ‘possession’ of self-determination (even though it is typically botched afterwards). Focusing back on the human mind, a psychological approach may point to the emergence of some kind of self-determination from infancy to childhood. Philosophical approaches used to treat free-will as a dichotomous notion, but it seems to me that a notion of gradient is more appropriate. The notion of ‘gradient free-will’ might be an interesting angle on the free-will issue. Could it be related to the quantum level?
I’m not following. You’ll have to walk me through the steps to show me how we get self-determination out of this and escape the infinite regress.
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“I usually appreciate his ability to explain complex scientific concepts in ways that are comprehensible for a lay audience, but in this video (entitled “Why Quantum Physics Ends the Free Will Debate“), Kaku stepped well outside his area of expertise and delivered a breathtakingly facile argument that any person with elementary academic training in philosophy can easily and demonstrably disprove.”
I felt the same way when I first saw this video. Free will is incoherent and blatantly impossible in any universe, deterministic or indeterministic.
>>Free will is incoherent and blatantly impossible in any universe, deterministic or indeterministic.
Yes .. as far as all current physical theories as I understand them, this absolutely true. The question is: might free will be possible in some unknown physical theory that we haven’t yet discovered? E.g. Quantum Gravity or ???. (String Theory is Kaku’s specialty, but I’m not aware of how free will might be explained by that.)
The jury is still out on free will (along with God, Consciousness, Purpose of Life, etc.) But some scientists seem to think there is still hope (google Penrose, for example.)
I’m afraid this is a discussion I’m not all that knowledgeable on, so I hope my question makes sense.
Would this mean that when most people refer to a universe where ‘free will’ exists, it would be more accurate to say that they really mean ‘indeterministic’?
I’ve only ever seen the argument couched in simpler terms, in regards to whether an individual’s decisions were always going to lead to the same outcome (determinism), and whether those decisions could be made with different possible outcomes (argued as free will).
In which case, indeterminism seems to me what people mean when they say ‘free will’, rather than the ability to self-determine how you self-determine.
As I said, this isn’t something I know much about, so feel free to correct me.
There are some people who are compatibilists, who believe that free will and determinism can coincide, but these folks are usually defining free will oddly in a way that most ordinary would not recognize. Indeterminism without self-determination can only yield randomness.
I am not a physicist or anything close to it; however, I have a simple idea to consider. There are about seven billion people on Earth, and I’m will to submit for your consideration that at any given moment there are millions of people contemplating choices that lie outside causal principles, provided we are willing to deny the clockwork universe of Newton. Suffice to say, this being the case that human minds are actually making un-predestined choices, then the immediate future of reality as we know it must hang in suspension awaiting these myriad so-called free choices. Somehow I can’t imagine that being the case, because of course if causality extends from one point to all others regardless of the distances of space, then the entire universe awaits the manifestation of its unfolding based on choices made by human brains. Either that or the notion of free will is merely a localized phenomenon that has no extension beyond an isolated microcosm that does not extend to anything beyond itself. GD
“No one can determine your future events” vs Quantum Physics means “we do have some kind of free will” is a total red herring. Yes, no one can determine because there is statistical uncertainty in quantum physics. But that does NOT mean it is completely nondeterministic … you may not be able to predict the outcome of some individual action, but over many such actions, you CAN predict the overall result.
Take, for example (an actual test that has been performed many times), a device that shoots photons at a half-silvered mirror: there is a 50% chance that a photon will be reflected and 50% chance it will pass thru the mirror. You cannot predict for any single photon which will happen, BUT, over time after shooting enough photons, 1/2 will have been reflected and 1/2 will not.
That’s what quantum physics says. Where is the free will in that? It doesn’t exist!
Kaku, in another video says free will happens because “Brains are leaky.” I have no idea what that means (googling THAT is how I found this blog.) He also says Penrose is wrong, but doesn’t explain why either. But, to horribly paraphrase Penrose, basically that’s what HE IS SAYING ALSO! However, Penrose actually has a (sort of undeveloped) theory to EXPLAIN how this might happen. He might be wrong, he might be right.
But where is Kaku’s theory? He doesn’t seem to have one.
I feel as if I have arrived at an even simpler explanation than Strawson’s infinite regress, but I also suspect there is something wrong with what I am about to say and would appreciate any errors pointed out to me.
1: If a person is to have free will, they must be able to exercise conscious control over their decisions.
2: If a person is to claim conscious control over a decision, they must therefore be able to decide to decide it. The infinite regress is immediately apparent.
What am I missing? Is my assumption that to have control over a decision requires a causal decision inaccurate?