To be free again? How free will is not dead yet.


[NOTE – this is re-post from the original incarnation of this blog.]

The New Scientist website is running an interesting article on a recent experiment that casts further doubt on the non-existence of free will. You can read the original article here.

If the possibility that your decisions are not free comes as a shock to you, it’s worth considering that from a purely scientific point of view, our current understanding of how the universe works at a fundamental level leaves absolutely no room for anybody or anything to be a self-creating causal agent.

Click for source

The reason for this is that the known laws of classical physics are deterministic, and even if you discard these in favour of the more fundamental laws of quantum physics, you find that the only non-deterministic part of the theory, namely the wave function in the Schrödinger equation, only throws a component of complete randomness into the mix, and frankly, complete randomness is no better for free will than complete determinism.

So back in the 70s, when Benjamin Libet studied the brain during free decision making and found correlated activity before the volunteers reported they had made the conscious decision, some interpreted this as good evidence that free will was indeed just an illusion created by the mind.

That’s not to say that huge numbers of scientists necessarily take that view. The majority of scientists are practical people who simply follow the evidence and avoid interpreting their results too much, an approach that some refer to as “shut up and calculate”. Most are content to leave any metaphysical speculation to philosophers and armchair commentators like myself.

But among philosophers themselves, there are probably many of a physicalist persuasion who previously looked to Libet’s results as supporting their view, and that line of evidence looks like it’s beginning to disappear. This includes those of the compatiblist view, which for me is the same as saying there’s no free will at all.

Personally, I believe that the hypothesis that free will is an illusion is an extraordinary one in the face of all our subjective experience to the contrary, and that, to quote Carl Sagan, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.

For me, free will should be assumed to exist, even if that means we need to accept that something major is missing or incorrect in our understanding of fundamental physics. And since consciousness itself is still far from being fully integrated into our understanding, there is still plenty of room.

The whole subject of consciousness, free will, and fundamental physics fascinates me, and there’s a whole host of literature by philosophers who deny it exists and those that would like to preserve it. I see this as philosophy at it’s most useful, probing the edge of our scientific understanding, and suggesting ideas on what logic dictates could be possible against what’s not.

I hope to write a lot more on this subject in more detail when I have time, hence the lack of links in that last paragraph. So hang on to your armchairs! ;)

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