Saturday, June 03, 2023

Physics has ruled out free will

 By Mathew Goldstein

There are very smart people who claim we have free will (or who claim there is a need to claim that we have free will). They cite unpredictability of outcomes, emergent properties from large quantities, human psychological dependency on ideological pre-commitments, and the always available option of changing the definition of the concept so that it becomes impervious to criticism. In this ten minutes video, Has Physics Ruled Out Free WillSabine Hossenfelder does a good job of explaining why the conclusion that there is no free will has the most integrity. A modern understanding of how the universe operates rules out life after death, talking serpents and donkeys, an Eve created from the rib of an Adam, a flying winged horse, etc., and free will (contra-causal, libertarian free will because these traits are generally considered central to the free will concept). 

Having said that, I need to back peddle some and concede that it is possible to get free-will within the constraints set by physics via strong emergence. However, most physicists reject strong emergence. Sabine Hossenfelder defines strong emergence as “the hypothetical possibility that a system with many constituents displays novel behavior which cannot be derived from the properties and interactions of the constituents.” She states that although this is logically possible, there is not a single known example for this in the real world. She also states that strong emergence is “incompatible with what we already know about the laws of nature” and that strong emergence is “in conflict with the standard model in particle physics.”

One of the biggest problems humanity has are the myriad problems we ourselves create by our tendency to selectively toss out facts about how the universe works when we consider those facts to be inconvenient. We desire to achieve particular outcomes, or avoid particular outcomes, and there are other people who can interfere with realizing that goal. Our desired goal may be idealistically motivated. For what may be good reasons, including this tendency for people to disregard, or deny, inconvenient facts, we distrust others to share our goal or we are cynical about the willingness or ability of others to adjust their attitudes and behaviors so as to realize the preferred goal. We place ourselves in the role of manipulator, saying and doing whatever we think is most likely to achieve our goals (“motivated reasoning”). Argument is not for the sake of respecting and recognizing what the relevant facts are. Argument is instead for the purpose of convincing others to believe what we want them to believe for the sake of achieving or avoiding some particular outcomes (“confirmation bias”). We are competing to have power, because either power is ours and we win, or it is someone else’s and we lose. We then see how dysfunctional this is and become more cynical and distrustful. This takes us in an authoritarian, ideology over facts, power over truth, downhill spiral. 

The way out of that spiral is for humanity to favor a facts first orientation that is rooted in a competent, empiricist epistemology. To favor a commitment to undertaking the effort needed to suss out, and reject, non-factual ideology. To favor objectivity more than doxastically closed faith, cynical manipulation, or partisan advantage. With this context it becomes more honorable to accept compromise in the face of sincere disagreement whenever the result moves us forward overall, without holding out for nothing less than unachievable victory now. That is a practical way towards an uphill spiral of more mutual understanding, trust, and progress. 

“A lot of people seem to think it is merely a philosophical stance that the behavior of a composite object (for example, you) is determined by the behavior of its constituents—that is, subatomic particles. They call it reductionism or materialism or, sometimes, physicalism, as if giving it a name that ends in-ism will somehow make it disappear. But reductionism—according to which the behavior of an object can be deduced from (“ reduced to,” as the philosophers would say) the properties, behavior, and interactions of the object’s constituents—is not a philosophy. It’s one of the best established facts of nature.”

— Existential Physics: A Scientist's Guide to Life's Biggest Questions by Sabine Hossenfelder