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At Mind Matters News: Leading astronomer gets it all wrong about free will and destiny

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Avi Loeb

In response to Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb denying free will and all that, neurosurgeon Michael Egnor points out, “Logic and reason aren’t laws of physics and therefore they transcend physical properties”:

Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb, has recently written an essay in which he considers whether human beings have free will and how long the human race will survive. Loeb is a prolific and often quite thoughtful scientist who has a refreshing propensity to think outside the mainstream. However, his recent essay in Scientific American, titled “How Much Time Does Humanity Have Left?”, is well off the mark. I think he profoundly misunderstands human nature and human destiny.

Michael Egnor, “Leading astronomer gets it all wrong about free will and destiny” at Mind Matters News

Loeb opines on the question of human free will:

The Standard Modelof physics presumes that we are all made of elementary particles with no additional constituents. As such composite systems, we do not possess freedom at a fundamental level, because all particles and their interactions follow the laws of physics. Given that perspective, what we interpret as “free will” merely encapsulates uncertainties associated with the complex set of circumstances that affect human actions. These uncertainties are substantial on the scale of an individual but average out when dealing with a large sample. Humans and their complex interactions evade a sense of predictability at the personal level, but perhaps the destiny of our civilization as a whole is shaped by our past in an inevitable statistical sense.

Avi Loeb, “How Much Time Does Humanity Have Left?” at Scientific American (May 12, 2021)

The Standard Model, of course, in no way presumes that we are made only of elementary particles and it relates in no way whatsoever to human freedom. It is a model of elementary physical forces and particles, and of course the human mind and human destiny transcend the elementary laws of physics. Very little about human behavior or thought, either on an individual basis or a collective basis, is described in any way by elementary physical laws. For example, Loeb’s argument that we have no free will is a proposition, a statement that can be either true or false. There is no state of matter — brain matter or otherwise — that is propositional, which means that no brain state can be a propositional mind state.

What Loeb is saying is that each of us is an aggregate of molecules and nothing more. If that is true, then our minds (if we have minds) are governed entirely by the laws of physics and not by the laws of logic, reason, and rhetoric. If we are meat, and only meat, then we have mass, temperature, and chemistry but we have no rationality, opinions, propositions or logic.

It follows that, if Loeb is right, there’s no reason to pay attention to what he says, any more than one would pay attention to the noise made by the wind or the sea. Loeb’s metaphysics is self-refuting nonsense. Logic and reason aren’t laws of physics and therefore they transcend physical properties.


Takehome: Our human freedom, purpose, and foresight is a reflection in miniature of the freedom, purpose and foresight evident in the creation of our universe.


You may also wish to read:

Mind Matters News offers a number of articles on free will by neurosurgeon Michael Egnor including

Can physics prove there is no free will? No, but it can make physicists incoherent when they write about free will. It’s hilarious. Sabine Hossenfelder misses the irony that she insists that people “change their minds” by accepting her assertion that they… can’t change their minds.

Does “alien hand syndrome” show that we don’t really have free will? One woman’s left hand seemed to have a mind of its own. Did it? Alien hand syndrome doesn’t mean that free will is not real. In fact, it clarifies exactly what free will is and what it isn’t.

But is determinism true? Does science show that we fated to want whatever we want? Modern science—both theoretical and experimental—strongly supports the reality of free will.

How can mere products of nature have free will? Materialists don’t like the outcome of their philosophy but twisting logic won’t change it

Does brain stimulation research challenge free will? If we can be forced to want something, is the will still free?

Is free will a dangerous myth? The denial of free will is a much more dangerous myth

Also: Do quasars provide evidence for free will? Possibly. They certainly rule out experimenter interference.

and

Can free will even be an illusion? Michael Egnor reiterates the freeing implications of quantum indeterminacy

Also, by Baylor University’s Robert J. Marks: Quantum randomness gives nature free will Whether or not quantum randomness explains how our brains work, it may help us create unbreakable encryption codes

25 Replies to “At Mind Matters News: Leading astronomer gets it all wrong about free will and destiny

  1. 1
    Origenes on vacation says:

    Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb has no control over his actions & thoughts.

    Avi Loeb is made of “elementary particles with no additional constituents”, and all these “particles and their interactions follow the laws of physics.”

    (1.) Avi Loeb’s actions & thoughts are the consequence of laws of physics and events before he was born.
    (2.) Avi Loeb neither controls the laws of physics nor events before he was born.

    from (1.) and (2.)

    (3.) Avi Loeb has no control over his actions & thoughts.

  2. 2
    Seversky says:

    Origenes On Vacation/1

    Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb has no control over his actions & thoughts.

    Avi Loeb is made of “elementary particles with no additional constituents”, and all these “particles and their interactions follow the laws of physics.”

    (1.) Avi Loeb’s actions & thoughts are the consequence of laws of physics and events before he was born.
    (2.) Avi Loeb neither controls the laws of physics nor events before he was born.

    from (1.) and (2.)

    (3.) Avi Loeb has no control over his actions & thoughts.

    Your omniscient God knew you were going to say that.

  3. 3
    ET says:

    seversky:

    Your omniscient God knew you were going to say that.

    An omniscient God knew all possible responses.

  4. 4
    Origenes on vacation says:

    Seversky, are you by any chance arguing that the existence of an omniscient God implies that I am not a free person?

  5. 5
    Seversky says:

    If an omniscient God tells you something will happen in your future then, assuming He’s not lying, it will happen and you won’t be able to do a thing about it. If your God is also omnipresent, it means He’s there in the future watching that event unfold. That’s how He knows.

    When Jesus warned Peter he would deny knowing Jesus three times, he didn’t say “Well, it’s quite possible you will deny knowing me..” or “There’s a 65% probability you will deny knowing me…”.

    He said “You will…”

    And he did.

    So what price free will?

  6. 6
    Origenes on vacation says:

    Seversky, suppose a world with free responsible persons freely making their decisions. Now also suppose a God, unbound by time, who observes those persons and their free decisions. ‘Unbound by time’, meaning that this God can observe their free choices in past, present and future.
    How does the existence of such a God make the observed persons not free?

    – – – – – – –
    Jesus observed Peter freely denying him 3 times ….

  7. 7
    kairosfocus says:

    Sev, has it not seemed clear that oftentimes not knowing is a condition of one’s freedom to act? As for Peter, he was being WARNED; there is every reason that if he took strength he could have done otherwise, but his broken character at that point played true to type. There was lack of ideal freedom, but it was that of being in the trap of one’s bad ways — I’m sure your wife or sister can say somewhat to you on the subject, as could my now sainted Mom and wife. And that lesson was key to his amending his ways. Pain teaches, not the cheapest lesson fees but effective. KF

  8. 8
    Hanks says:

    If an omniscient God tells you something will happen in your future then, assuming He’s not lying, it will happen and you won’t be able to do a thing about it.

    Not necessarily . Goals of God are not the same as the atheists goals . Atheists beg for attention and appreciation and try to appear smarter than others because they feel incomplete with their worldview choice but is their free choice. God on the other side wants a maximum number of people to be brought to salvation and use all the tools He have. We have the example of Elijah and Jonah where God “changed” His mind because His goal was to make people to repent. They changed their hearts so God “changed” his mind. God is love.

  9. 9
    chuckdarwin says:

    Judas Iscariot is the paradigm case against the notion of free will in Christianity.
    Since Judas was the proximate cause of the crucifixion and the crucifixion is fundamental to Christianity, Judas had to betray Jesus. Not only did he have no choice, his conduct was pre-destined from the moment of the Fall of Adam and Eve (who were likewise fated to “sin” ab initio).

    The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born. Matt. 26:24

  10. 10
    Hanks says:

    Judas Iscariot is the paradigm case against the notion of free will in Christianity.

    :))) Well now you have no choice than to prove that Judas had no choice .

  11. 11
    kairosfocus says:

    CD, Judas is Peter to the nth degree. KF

  12. 12
    chuckdarwin says:

    Run the counterfactual, i.e. Judas “choses” not to betray Jesus. Then what? God’s Plan B?

  13. 13
    zweston says:

    Maybe the divergent sides should define free will so they can actually make sure they are debating the same point.

  14. 14
    ET says:

    Earth to seversky- God is not beholden to our definitions.

  15. 15
    Querius says:

    Let’s say that God creates space-time. Thus, God is not bound by space or time. So, God can easily move between the past, present, and future. Thus, God can see our free will choices in the future by actually going there. The fact that God can travel to the future and back doesn’t alter our free will choices.

    Personally, I’m tempted to speculate that God can choose what events to observe and confirm in our future (collapsing tons of wave functions), leaving the possibilities of who specifically will fulfill those events completely open. Why would I speculate this?

    Here’s what Jesus said in Luke 22:22 about his betrayal:

    New American Standard Bible
    “For indeed, the Son of Man is going as it has been determined; but woe to that man by whom He is betrayed!”

    Good News Translation (paraphrase)
    “The Son of Man will die as God has decided, but how terrible for that man who betrays him!”

    In the book of Daniel, which was written hundreds of years before Christ, there’s a description of the Messiah in chapter 9 along with a time frame. It’s written that a certain number of “weeks” (literally “sevens” in Hebrew) of years after which Jerusalem and the temple would be rebuilt after the Babylonian destruction. Almost five centuries later, the Messiah would appear and be “cut off” (killed). This occurred about 30 A.D.

    Then, after he is killed, Jerusalem and the Temple would be destroyed a second time. The second destruction of Jerusalem and the temple occurred in 70 A.D. by the Romans under Titus, about 40 years later.

    What Jesus seems to be saying is that it’s already been determined that he would be killed, but who would be the one to betray him was not predetermined. For example, it could have been Peter, who denied knowing Jesus three times, or any of the other Apostles.

    Again, this is pure speculation and it’s fairly likely that my speculation is flawed or simply wrong. Why? Because the manner that the timeless, multi-dimensional, powerful, incredibly creative, and loving God operates is likely beyond my comprehension.

    -Q

  16. 16
    kairosfocus says:

    CD, it is obvious. Jesus had arrived in Jerusalem at the head of a crowd, was confronted by leaders seeking to discredit and repeatedly put them to flight rhetorically. Judas was a convenience for the schemers not a necessity. If you doubt, see how the same corrupt elites treated Stephen and the apostles. But all of this is secondary, your primary problem is that your apparent worldview cannot rise above a GIGO-constrained computational substrate, and radically undermines rational, responsible freedom, we are just hearing your purposeless programming issuing outputs. You have no leg to stand on to claim that a serious discussion is more than clashing genetic and psycho-social programming, with might and manipulation deciding ‘truth,’ ‘right,’ ‘rights,’ ‘knowledge,’ ‘justice’ etc. So, you are relieving cognitive dissonance by projecting to the targetted other. Instead, you need to acknowledge that to be freely, responsibly rational, we are morally governed through inescapable first duties of reason: to truth, to right reason, to warrant and wider prudence, to sound conscience, to neighbour, to fairness and justice etc. So, on pain of utter absurdity we live in a world where the reality root is capable of grounding such moral government. There is but one serious candidate [if you doubt, put up an alternative that does not immediately end in absurdities _____], the inherently good and utterly wise creator God, a necessary and maximally great being. One, worthy of loyalty and of the rational, responsible, freely given service of doing the good that accords with our evident nature. But freedom implies freedom to abuse and abuse can become a habitual character deficit. Peter was a blowhard who tried to back Maccabees style then collapsed and panicked. Judas was a schemer and thief who when things didn’t work out went for the silver. Neither of these is incompatible with fundamental freedom and responsibility, nor with predictability, nor with the omniscience of God who sees and knows all. KF

  17. 17
    Origenes on vacation says:

    KF when we reflect on the concept of free responsibly rational beings who are “morally governed” by God, one could ask the question “what undergirds God’s moral right to force his morality on free responsibly rational beings? IOWs why is it morally ok for God to treat them as not free.”
    How would you answer that question?

  18. 18
    kairosfocus says:

    O,

    the forcing language is the key to seeing what goes wrong with such thinking, it misconceives moral government starting with the inescapable force of self evident first duties of reason. Which BTW the objector you paraphrase is appealing to even as he seeks to subvert. It is that incoherence that leads to the clouded thinking that opens up subversion.

    Pardon my starting there:

    We can readily identify at least seven inescapable . . .

    first duties of reason:

    “Inescapable,” as they are so antecedent to reasoning that even the objector implicitly appeals to their legitimate authority; inescapable, so first truths of reason, i.e. they are self-evidently true and binding. Namely, Ciceronian first duties,

    1st – to truth,
    2nd – to right reason,
    3rd – to prudence [including warrant],
    4th – to sound conscience,
    5th – to neighbour; so also,
    6th – to fairness and
    7th – to justice
    [ . . .]
    xth – etc
    .

    Likewise, we observe again, that objectors to such duties cannot but appeal to them to give their objections rhetorical traction (i.e. s/he must imply or acknowledge what we are, morally governed, duty-bound creatures to gain any persuasive effect). While also those who try to prove such cannot but appeal to the said principles too. So, these principles are a branch on which we all must sit, including objectors and those who imagine they are to be proved and try. That is, these are manifestly first principles of rational, responsible, honest, conscience guided liberty and so too a built-in framework of law; yes, core natural law of human nature. Reason, inescapably, is morally governed.

    Of course, there is a linked but not equivalent pattern: bounded, error-prone rationality often tied to ill will and stubbornness or even closed mindedness; that’s why the study of right reason has a sub-study on fallacies and errors. That we sometimes seek to evade duties or may make inadvertent errors does not overthrow such first duties of reason, which instead help us to detect and correct errors, as well as to expose our follies.

    Perhaps, a negative form will help to clarify, for cause we find to be at best hopelessly error-riddled, those who are habitually untruthful, fallacious and/or irrational, imprudent, fail to soundly warrant claims, show a benumbed or dead conscience [i.e. sociopathy and/or highly machiavellian tendencies], dehumanise and abuse others, are unfair and unjust. At worst, such are utterly dangerous, destructive,or even ruthlessly, demonically lawless.

    Such built-in . . . thus, universal . . . law, then, is not invented by parliaments, kings or courts, nor can these principles and duties be abolished by such; they are recognised, often implicitly as an indelible part of our evident nature. Hence, “natural law,” coeval with our humanity, famously phrased in terms of “self-evident . . . rights . . . endowed by our Creator” in the US Declaration of Independence, 1776. (Cf. Cicero in De Legibus, c. 50 BC.) Indeed, it is on this framework that we can set out to soundly understand and duly balance rights, freedoms and duties; which is justice, the pivot of law. The legitimate main task of government, then, is to uphold and defend the civil peace of justice through sound community order reflecting the built in, intelligible law of our nature.

    Where, as my right implies your duty a true right is a binding moral claim to be respected in life, liberty, honestly aquired property, innocent reputation etc. To so justly claim a right, one must therefore demonstrably be in the right.

    Likewise, Aristotle long since anticipated Pilate’s cynical “what is truth?”: truth says of what is, that it is; and of what is not, that it is not. [Metaphysics, 1011b, C4 BC.] Simple in concept, but hard to establish on the ground; hence — in key part — the duties to right reason, prudence, fairness etc.

    Thus, too, we may compose sound civil law informed by that built-in law of our responsibly, rationally free morally governed nature; from such, we may identify what is unsound or false thus to be reformed or replaced even though enacted under the colour and solemn ceremonies of law.

    The first duties, also, are a framework for understanding and articulating the corpus of built-in law of our morally governed nature, antecedent to civil laws and manifest our roots in the Supreme Law-giver, the inherently good, utterly wise and just creator-God, the necessary (so, eternal), maximally great being at the root of reality.

    Notice, I have pointed to rational intelligibility and inescapability rather than appealing to authoritative imposition. Self-evident inescapable first principles that the objector himself cannot but appeal to. So, why is he trying to saw off the branch on which we all must sit? Why the language of suspicion and inference that God is inherently oppressive to expect us to live by such principles of soundness, wisdom, prudence, fairness, mutuality, justice?

    Don’t we see something is deeply wrong here with that attitude?

    Going further, the point is, first duties are in key part intelligible and show a first principles character of inescapaboility. But that is not their root, it is just highlighting that they make good sense and govern our intelligent, rational, responsible behaviour, we flout at peril.

    So, we turn to the Euthyphro issues. Which BTW were originally targetted at Greek superhuman gods, who were not the deep root of reality. A clue that the modern resort is strawmannish.

    No, good is not autonomous, it is part of reality springing from its root. It is not arbitrary, it is in key part as we see highly intelligible. Nor is it mere volitional imposition, it reflects the core character of Le Bon Dieu as my Haitian brothers and sisters habitually say. That is, the root of reality is the wellspring of moral government, which makes good sense when we are not obsessed with parasiting off others by making self-serving exceptions, e.g. not lying, cheating or stealing. Were such the norm society would collapse and our thriving with it.

    That intelligible, in key parts self-evident moral government bridges the is-ought gap in the sole place it is possible, on pain of ungrounded ought. The root of reality, the necessary entity that frames all worlds. So, we see why ethical theism identifies the root as the inherently good, utterly wise creator God, a necessary [worlds framework] and maximally great being [holding all good attributes to maximum compossible degree]. One, worthy of loyalty, and of the reasonable, freely given service of doing the good that accords with our evident nature. Which is morally governed.

    So, no there is no forced, arbitrary, oppressive, enslaving imposition. Instead, there is that government of freedom to the good that enables excellence and thriving towards our proper ends as those made in the image of God, capable of love.

    The mischaracterisation of God fails, as it did in Eden.

    KF

  19. 19
    Origenes on vacation says:

    KF, I am not clear about what you mean with “morally governed”. I assumed that imposing moral rules was implied, but you clearly reject that.
    Yet many will be send to hell by God.

    Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13–14).

    If not ‘imposing moral laws’, how would you call it when one day God passes judgement on me and sends me, against my free will, to a place where I will be tortured forever?

  20. 20
    chuckdarwin says:

    #16: Kairofocus

    Judas was a convenience for the schemers not a necessity.

    That is the point of my counterfactual. It reduces Judas’ story to a perverse side show and makes Judas the most tragic character in the Bible: He not only had no choice in how to act (my original point), his actions were completely superfluous. How this illustrates the actions of an “inherently good and utterly wise creator God” escapes me.

  21. 21
    kairosfocus says:

    O, the rules are built in but are nonarbitrary. We are free but guided. KF

  22. 22
    kairosfocus says:

    CD, more distractors. Judas played the fool with big sharks in Jerusalem . . . it’s a clue you are out of your league . . . and got burned. He had every opportunity to turn back and refused to take it, right down to the morsel of favour. That makes him a fool not a tragic hero destroyed by his faults. Meanwhile you are still projecting from having no basis for moral government. KF

  23. 23
    chuckdarwin says:

    Both Calvin and Luther would dispute your claim that Judas could “turn back:”

    “[Judas’] will was the work of God; God by His almighty power moved his will as He does all that is in this world” [De servo Arbitrio (On the Bondage of the Will), a treatise against man’s free will]. Martin Luther, 1525

    I guess they were out of their league too…

  24. 24
    Querius says:

    In my opinion, Calvin and others got tripped up by logical extremes. For example, “if God is ALL POWERFUL, then no one can have free will.” But, “if God is ALL POWERFUL, then can’t He also create people who have true free will?”

    Similarly, if God is TOTALLY OMNIPRESENT, then can the universe exist?

    The problem with these and other superlatives is that they’re not stated as such in God’s revelation to us in the scriptures. And we’re even warned by the scriptures as follows:

    “For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
    Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord.
    “For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    So are My ways higher than your ways
    And My thoughts than your thoughts. – Isaiah 55:8, 9 (NASB)

    And why the need for scriptural revelation? It’s because we don’t have any way to scientifically or logically investigate God, especially if He doesn’t want to be found in this way.

    If a dog wouldn’t have much success in understanding a human’s thoughts and actions, how much less a human understanding God’s thoughts and actions. But a dog can have a loving relationship with a human as we can have with God, our loving creator.

    -Q

  25. 25
    kairosfocus says:

    CD, there was a point of no return, something the scriptures warn against in no uncertain terms. And for us, there is one at death and for some before that, for utterly willful iniquity. Meanwhile the projections continue, en as you need to address the basis for rational, responsible, morally governed mind. KF

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