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Rob Sheldon offers a physics perspective on free will


Recently, theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder argued that there is no free will but neurosurgeon Michael Egnor responded, saying that there definitely is. Some younger thinkers, we are told, agree that there is free will. Our physics color commentator Rob Sheldon offers some thoughts from a physics perspective:

Tossing my hat into the ring, here’s my take on free will.

The problem that neuroscientists like Benjamin Libet and physicists like Sabine Hossenfelder have with free will is that they are reductionists, and therefore view causation as happening at the smallest significant level–neuron firings or electron trajectories. Even Christian List (interviewed here http://nautil.us/issue/72/quandary/yes-determinists-there-is-free-will) hasn’t really disagreed with them, positing a slightly larger unit of significance that he calls “emergent”. His claim is just the old, ~1890 “gestalt” theory that a machine is not simply the sum of its parts, but possesses something more that gives it function. In ID theory, we would call that design or information, but in Christian’s worldview it “just happens”, so consciousness and free-will “emerges” out of these neural circuits as soon as there’s enough of them. This idea of emergence is pretty old too, with the Sante Fe Institute spending 1984-2010 exploring these ideas with circuits and sandpiles. You can see the old curse of Darwin infecting even these philosophers.

My objection, which I will develop in two streams, is that both reductionism and emergence are just wrong, as is the philosophical denial of free will based on them.

Speaking philosophically, reductionism and atomism are necessary assumptions if one believes in chance and emergence. The idea is that progress cannot be obtained by purpose and vision, or the whole concept of chance is destroyed. Therefore progress has to be obtained by diffusion, by the little steps of a drunk staggering about a lampost–the old standby in physics textbooks. The drunk has no vision, no purpose, yet his tangled wanderings do eventually move him away from the lampost at a speed of meters/square-root(second), which is much slower than the sober man who travels with purpose at meters/second. E.g. in 10 seconds the sober man has traveled as far as the drunk has in 100 seconds. This is why Darwin cannot tolerate purpose or teleology because “directed” evolution will always be so much faster than “random”, it will always win the race. This is the inverse of Behe’s argument that devolution (breaking things) is always faster than evolution (fixing things), because the drunk may reach the 2nd lampost after 100 seconds, but only after spending 50 seconds wandering about in the street where he is far more likely to be run over first.

Back to reductionism. “No vision” translates into the concept of the “little step”, which is essential, because if the drunk could, say, take some really big steps, he could get to the 2nd lampost much faster. Paul Levy showed that in that case, the speed of diffusion was infinite, and “Levy-flight” trajectories look like knots on a string–a short time of stumbling about followed by fast motion to a very different spot. It turns out that when bacteria or ants are searching for food, they follow Levy-flight trajectories. Mathematically, it permits much better success in finding things than random diffusion. That is, it produces “fractals” which we might consider to be a mathematical description of purpose. Fractals do not appear very naturally. For example, if we took a bottle of water and put a drop of dye in it, and then waited a long while, the dye would form a dark knot surrounded by a fuzzy halo, whose density profile would be a bell-shaped “Gaussian” distribution. If the dye were instead a collection of bacteria (with Levy-flight trajectories), the dense knot shrinks down to a pinprick and nearly the whole bottle is now fuzzy, and the density profile looks like a “Cauchy” or “fat-tail” distribution. So in contrast to reductionism and diffusion that produce Gaussians, we are interested in fractals, Levy-flight, and fat-tail distributions that signify purpose, vision, or big steps.

Am I saying that if a system exhibits non-Gaussian tails, it is purposeful or conscious?

Well no, but somewhere along the causation road, it is either non-local or designed, either reductionism or emergence was violated. For example, if we take carbon dioxide at high pressure and cool it, it becomes a liquid (at room pressure it exists either as ice or gas.) But as we increase the pressure and temperature, at one point the liquid and gas become indistinguishable, known as the critical point. Suddenly drops can appear and disappear in the gas making it look like an opal, so it is known as “critical opalescence”. And what is curious, is that the drops can be any size at all, there’s no specific size to anything. Like a fractal, you can magnify or shrink the system, and it looks exactly the same. This is a case where the system is not designed, but it cannot be reduced to a local effect–disturbances affect the entire volume. So if we were looking for a “cause”, we would have to include every atom of CO2 in the chamber, because they are all coupled to each other.

Isn’t this a case of emergence?

No, because emergence says that there is a size dependence–when there are enough neurons, suddenly consciousness arrives and if we take one out, we lose consciousness. In our CO2 example, the number is not important, because all of them are important simultaneously. We cannot pinpoint a cause when everything depends on everything else. This “anti-reductionism” is the curse of physics, because we cannot isolate our system from outside disturbances, we cannot make any predictions about individual atoms. That’s why all of physics is reductionist.

So right off the bat, we can plot bacterial motion on a plate of agar and know that it is not going to be explained by chance. Since we have some hope of simulating a bacterium on a computer, we do not attribute this non-Gaussian behavior to consciousness, but rather to design. That is, something conscious designed the bacterium to behave in a fractal way. Since we are at least as alive as the bacterium, it is almost trivial to claim that we too are designed.

How is that related to free will? Could the conscious designer have made us little machines too?

Well that is now a theological debate, but we’ve cleared the hurdle that observed reductionism necessarily demands the loss of free will. But I have another argument against reductionism applied to causality. The discussion in Christian List’s interview linked free will with causality. He mentioned Korean philosopher Jaegwon Kim, who says that the reductionist ends up with too many causes, but with some clever categorization, List argues that causes in different categories don’t really conflict. So let me argue that Kim is entirely correct. Just like the CO2 example, everything depends on everything, so the reductionist ends up needing the entire universe to cause the effect, which is either absurd or makes the universe conscious.

Here’s how it works. When we get down to the smallest particles of physics, say electrons or protons, we discover that they cannot be regarded as point particles but as wavefunctions. When we plug in the math for wavefunctions, we immediately discover they are not local, but extend over large regions of space. In order to get back classical physics and locality, we have to argue for some mechanism to eliminate this non-locality. Originally there was some sort of rule-of-thumb, such as in mathematics where N<50 is Poisson statistics, whereas N>50 was Gaussian, likewise for QM, N<1000 might be a typical threshold. But in the past few decades, the promise of quantum computing has pushed N toward greater and greater values. A recent paper was able to correlate or find QM effects at N>billion, and we can expect that to increase every year. Therefore we must face the very real possibility that “locality” is a fiction for physics, and therefore “local causation” is a fiction. Every electron in the universe is a wavefunction, and the electrons in our brain are potentially entangled with every one of them. Then everything depends on everything and finding “the cause” for our free-will is hopeless.

Haven’t we fallen off the other side of the horse, now proposing some sort of Eastern pantheism–that we are all part of the one mind?

No, because every experiment involves both local and non-local effects. Most of the time physics can isolate the system, and thereby operate in the classical realm. But once-in-a-while the system stubbornly refuses to decouple from the environment, and then we have to take it into account. Gravity is usually eliminated from our experiments by performing them on a table, which supports everything equally. But sometimes a table doesn’t do it–such as explaining the tides. And sometimes tides aren’t good enough, like the precession of Mercury’s orbit, which required general relativity. And sometimes general relativity gives the wrong answer–such as gravity waves. But you will notice that each experiment takes into account a larger and larger portion of the universe so as to incorporate these “long-range” forces. So just as fractals were the observation that proved Gaussian-reductionism wrong, so also long-range forces are the observation that proves emergent-reductionism wrong.

As an aside, special relativity connected space and time with a speed–light-velocity X time = space. Therefore “long-range” forces are also “long-time” correlations divided by light-speed. If we have “long-range” forces, then we also have “prediction” and “teleology”. If spatial correlation is a characteristic of long-range forces, then temporal correlation is the logical extension. If “irreducible complexity” is a spatial correlation, then “functional design” is the necessary temporal correlation. Accordingly, just as gravity waves are distortions of space-time occurring mega-parsecs away, it may be necessary to explain free will as a teleological product of society and history and the mind of the Designer.

Finally, let me bring the two anti-reductionist threads together. The peculiar thing about QM and electrons is that just when we have got that electron squeezed into a tiny box, the wavefunction gets bigger and bigger and escapes our boundaries. At the very smallest scales, the effects become more global. When we look at the neurons in our brain, we discover that they are distributed like French lace in a fractal pattern. The “reason” is quite simple, they are optimized to collect signals from the entire brain while using the smallest amount of material, which turns out to be a fractal. Likewise, tree trunks are fractal for exactly the same reason, they are optimized to collect the most sunlight with the least amount of wood. This optimization is proof that they are designed rather than diffused by chance.

But when we turn our telescopes to the heavens and map out the galaxies in three dimensions, we find that they are likewise fractally distributed. In fact, when we overlay the neural map of our brain, and the galaxy map of the universe, they are disturbingly alike. Like the electron, the microcosm reflects the macrocosm. Whether we extrapolate to infinity or 1/infinity in time or space, we find fractals, showing that this Gaussian world we idealize for physics lies at the crossroads of design in space-time. Just as Guillermo Gonzalez argued for astronomy, the real question is not whether free-will exists, but why we are uniquely positioned to even question it.


The Long Ascent: Genesis 1â  11 in Science & Myth, Volume 1 by [Sheldon, Robert]

Rob Sheldon is the author of Genesis: The Long Ascent

See also: Younger Thinkers Now Argue That Free Will Is Real The laws of physics do not rule it out, they say.
Assuming this trend among younger thinkers persists, the philosophical discussions around AI are NOT making determinism seem necessary or inevitable. And that, when you think of it, is an odd fate for determinism.

Mind Matters News offers a selection of articles on free will by neurosurgeon Dr. Michael Egnor on free will, 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.


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

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

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"both reductionism and emergence are just wrong" That's better than "not even wrong" though - right?ScuzzaMan
May 20, 2019
11:48 AM

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