Ask a science blogger?

Apparently Seed has a feature called “ask a science blogger” and there is a question of the week. This weeks is “If you could shake the public and make them understand one scientific idea, what would it be?”. If anyone can tell me where to find this, though, I’d be grateful. I found it via Kevin V, and here is his answer.

I don’t have a burning answer, but following on from some discussion down the pub this week I shall go with “as far as physics is concerned, we have no free will”. People have been bashing their heads against this one for ages, because the obvious answer is obviously unpopular, but ever since physics based itself on “the future is determined by the past” free will went out of the window. In fact its worse than that, because as soon as the world is described by a 4-d space-time (or you can go stringy and have 11-d if you want) then the entire structure is there and all we have for free will is the illusion of moving through it. And I don’t think QM helps you.

Comments

  1. #1 MtMan900
    2006/05/20

    The notion of a lack of free will hit me when I was just getting into college, but therein I have another question. If there is randomness in the universe then, while none of us have a free will, the outcomes of all of our decisions can never be known due to free variables introduced in quantum mechanics or so.

    The burning question in my heart is whether or not scientists believe there is actual randomness, not just experimental error. So far I am aware of only a few things taken to be random (nuclear emission, location of an atom in a well) but are these truly probabilistic in nature, totally unpredictable even with perfect knowledge?

  2. #2 Thomas Palm
    2006/05/20

    As far as current physics is concerned, the randomness in quantum mechanics is fundamental. Any thery involving some hidden, deterministic variables has to be really strange to match observations. Look up Bell’s theorem:
    “No physical theory of local hidden variables can ever reproduce all of the predictions of quantum mechanics.”

    For that matter, the thoery of relativity is enough to dispel the idea that you can perfectly predict the future. The Earth is all the time bombarded with photons that it would be impossible to detect before they hit, unless you can travel faster than light, which relativity prohibits.

    [I didn’t say predict the future. I said “future determined by the past” which is true in relativity. And QM randomness only occurs on measurement -W]

  3. #3 Mengü Gülmen
    2006/05/20

    When you get to read Carl Zimmer’s blog (http://loom.corante.com ) and specifically his posts about parasites (especially http://loom.corante.com/archives/2006/01/17/the_return_of_the_puppet_masters.php ) the last traces of “free will” flees from your brain.

    about “predictability”, i think that, if we knew the exact locations, directions and speeds of every particle in the whole universe, constructing the past and the future would only be a simulation problem.

  4. #4 MtMan900
    2006/05/20

    “No physical theory of local hidden variables can ever reproduce all of the predictions of quantum mechanics.”

    I can buy that. It’s just kinda hard to get past the notion of causality not meaning all too much on a quantum level.

    Oh, and Mengü, I would imagine that to be the case… but, as it seems, unlikely.

    On another note, I’d like to point out that those of religious inclination wouldn’t believe this because of the supernatural notion of souls. Because science doesn’t take these things into account, any prediction based on this flawed system can’t work. Silly from an atheist standpoint, but that is how they’d react.

  5. #5 Q
    2006/05/20

    Strange that an Atheist should presume to understand the thinking of a Theist. The Theist by definition is trying to understand the Mind of God – and find words with which to describe the Creation. Of course, that does not mean a Theist cannot be wrong, anymore or less than an atheist.

  6. #6 MtMan900
    2006/05/20

    I don’t presume to know anyone’s mind save for what they have told me during discussions, and I have had debates with many theists of the Christian persuasion. Each of them have told me that a soul isn’t able to be described by science and can exercise free will despite the limitations of the physical brain.

    Saying that an atheist would find that notion silly just flows from the original argument.

  7. #7 Q
    2006/05/20

    I don’t think that because a Theist believes in the existence of Souls or Spirits (or immaterial beings which cannot be ‘seen/heard’ touched or measured in the physical plane)

    actually has anything to do with the ‘manifest’ physical world or reality, and the laws of Physics that Science is dealing with – unless you would presume to open a Stargate like door into the immaterial (or Spirit) world.

    Though I guess in the Matrix films (and flatliners, the film) they do wonder in and out of the 4dimensional world Science & Physics is limited to, at present.

    Of course they are only films, they don’t “exist”. Well the film does, (people go and ‘watch’ the films) but they (the characters) cannot walk of the screen. Well, the ‘actors’ do, they go to Cannes, and move on to the next film. And get on with their ‘real’ life.

    But hold on ‘acting’ is the real world for an actor.

  8. #8 coby
    2006/05/20

    My knowledge of QM is admittedly rather superficial, but I have always thought that there is a back door for free will in its probabilistic nature. That is to say that the mind can somehow influence the probabilities involved and through this, exercise control.

    [How does “the mind” (whatever that is) influence these things…? Why is an universe with some element of chance any better for free will? People seem to seize on the QM inderminacy as some sort of salvation, but I don’t accept that. Also, the indeterminacy only comes in under “measurement”, which essentially presupposed free will anyway -W]

    But let’s not forget that as useful as it is, science only offers us sucessful models of reality and it is dangerous to force fit one vastly different level of reality (how I turn my desire for coffee into one) into a model designed for another (photons and gluons etc).

    Re Thomas Palm and relativity, I think you are mixing a practical constraint (knowing what photons are already on their way) with a fundamental one (Heisenberg).

  9. #9 Thomas Palm
    2006/05/20

    Coby, if you claim that the mind can affect quantum states you are into the paranormal and then all bets are off. According to physics there is no special rules for our mind, it is just a consequence of complex interactions between a whole lot of atoms. Only if you assume a ‘soul’ outside the laws of nature does your comment make sense. And then you could just as well postulate that this soul could affect an otherwise deterministic universe as well. For that matter, what is ‘free will’ anyway?

    A practical contraint would be one which we can in principle solve even if it may be very difficult. Relativity says it is not only difficult to know about incoming photons but impossible. This is no less fundamental than Heissenberg.

  10. #10 llewelly
    2006/05/20

    Arguing with those of us who believe in free will is useless. Our belief in free will is an inescapable result of the laws of physics. Therefore, we cannot be held responsible for our obstinance and irrationality on this topic.

  11. #11 Janne Sinkkonen
    2006/05/20

    The answer depends on what you mean by free will. It is a fundamentally fuzzy concept.

    I try to take the deterministic materialistic view and an objective approach. Take a human and think him or her as a computer, which he or she in some sense necessarily is in this context. The computer has an internal state, and output from external sensors, and based on these it makes observations, modifies its internal state, and performs actions. The internal state is hugely complex, and the computer can not reflect all of its internal state, so necessarily it is not aware all of the details going on in its “head”.

    Now what would free will mean for this computer? It would mean that it does not see artificial limitations for its actions, that it is not able to observe any fundamental determinism in its actions as a function of the environment and its internally observed state. I think that for a complex enough computer the (self-)observation of free will would then be self-evident. That is, the computer would _feel_ like having a free will. Indeed, for it observing a non-free will would mean some kind of hard-wired malfunction – something going on out of control. Evolution has had no reason to favor such, and therefore in everyday circumstances most humans feel like being able to act freely.

    Someone would probably say that such a free will is not really free. What would be then? Randomness due to QM for example would (1) either not affect the functions of the computer and therefore be irrelevant, or (2) would affect the functions (updating of the internal state and actions). In the second case randomness would _disturb_ the functions, and the computer would notice that some of its actions are not based on its internal cognitions but instead somehow just appear, out of thin air. They would feel more like obsessions than expressions of freedom.

    In summary, I would say that in the materialistic context free will is observed by any complex enough, healthy, intelligent self-reflective system, and that as a non-observational concept free will is meaningless.

    BTW, what comes to QM, I personally believe in microscopically non-local but macroscopically statistically local, discrete space-time with deterministic evolution. I guess this is about what Lee Smoling thinks. This is just not related to free will.

    What worries me a bit is the experience of being. I cannot understand what gives the reference point that makes me experience the physical process inside my head, not a physical process in some other head, or in a stone. The typical answer is “well you are the process”, and I tend to agree. Then just all physical processes are somehow potentially aware. It feels strange.

    (William, thanks for the post. I used to speculate a lot about free will about 20 years ago with my friends and some beer. This was a nice deja vu. :) Nowadays GW and our kid are more interesting.)

    [Thanks for the thoughtful comment. It seems not much has changed in 20 years… -W]

  12. #12 Q
    2006/05/20

    One last thought on this one:

    We have the free will to do an experiment or not.
    We have the free will to ‘doctor’ the results or not.
    But we do not have the free will to ‘change’ the laws of physics. If you do not use the right design you will not achieve ‘stable’ flight. Just because you can increase power does not guarantee ‘safe’, or stable flight.

    Though of course there is more than one type of aircraft that can fly (stable flight) they are each limited (determined), according to ‘laws’ and design (or purpose).

  13. #13 llewelly
    2006/05/20

    My mind can make my finger wiggle. The signal that carries the instructions to wiggle is electro-chemical. Charges on ions are altered. The charge on an ion is a quantum state. The notion that the mind can affect quantum states is an inescapable result of using QM to explain electricity. I suggest you’re experiencing a conditioned reaction – exposure to newage gobbledygook that is liberally spiced with terms from QM has conditioned you to associate mind-QM connections with the paranormal nonsense.
    However I disagree with coby that QM implies that we have free will. I have only three largely forgotten college classes on QM, but to my memory, it is every bit as stiff and rigorous as Newtonian mechanics. (However some of its predictions have been verified with a lot more precision.) If the rigor of Newtonian mechanics implies no free will, than so does QM.

  14. #14 llewelly
    2006/05/20

    My previous comment was intended to contain this quote, at the begining:

    Coby, if you claim that the mind can affect quantum states you are into the paranormal and then all bets are off.

  15. #15 Thomas Palm
    2006/05/20

    llewelly, nerve impulses are on a scale large enough that decoherence means that quantum states are pretty much irrelevant. There have been discussion back and forth about whether it is possible that the brain to some extent works as a quantum computer, but the last I saw was negative, there is too much noise. In any case, this would not be what Coby implied, some external mind directly affecting quantum states in violation of the randomness inherent in the theory. Your accusations that I’m influenced by new age just shows that you didn’t understand the discussion.

  16. #16 Q
    2006/05/20

    “…then the entire structure is there and all we have for free will is the illusion of moving through it.”

    That is a truism of sorts. No child asked to be born.

    No one hit by a runaway car (or drunk driver) had the free will. He may have had the illusion (or thought) that he had the free will to go to the night club or late night party, but I presume he didn’t have the free will to be in the wrong place at the wrong time – and get hit by a car.

  17. #17 Q
    2006/05/20

    Maybe he should have known not to be there. After all there is little risk of getting a glass shoved in your face in a pub brawl – if you don’t go down the pub.

    Little risk of your parachute not opening, and plunging to your death, if you don’t jump out of the plane.

    Incidentally according to the Parachute Association there is a One in A Million chance of surviving if you hit the ground, when your parachute fails to open on a jump from xxxxx thousand feet. Odds decreasing apparently the higher up you jump from.

  18. #18 llewelly
    2006/05/20

    lewelly, nerve impulses are on a scale large enough that decoherence means that quantum states are pretty much irrelevant.

    Funny, I didn’t mention effects that rely on coherence at all, specifically because I didn’t think they relevant.

  19. #19 Eli Rabett
    2006/05/20

    My favorite QM quote is “QM is not only stranger than you think, it is stranger than you can think”.

    However, to the point. I am in the peculiar position that I know what I would want the public to understand, but am having an impossible time putting it down on paper. Something along the lines of appreciating the way in which science looks at problems, that there are nests of models, each appropriate to a particular level of a problem, none complete, more detailed ones being more complex, but that often simple models are both powerful and useful without being complete.

    [Its a good thought, I know what you mean, even if you can’t write it down. BTW, what have you been doing to annoy RP Jr so much? -W]

  20. #20 coby
    2006/05/21

    I wish I’d paid more attention to this today!

    [How does “the mind” (whatever that is) influence these things…? Why is an universe with some element of chance any better for free will? People seem to seize on the QM inderminacy as some sort of salvation, but I don’t accept that. Also, the indeterminacy only comes in under “measurement”, which essentially presupposed free will anyway -W]

    Some good questions there…

    How? I don’t know, but that’s a known unknown, isn’t it? Do some people really believe “que sera, sera”? I know it’s fun to argue that position, but does anyone truly believe that in their heart of hearts? If so, then they must believe they have no control over anything, no choices, no responsibility or purpose in life.

    Why? Without indeterminacy, the future of the universe down to the smallest detail is a forgone conclusion.

    [For myself, I would say that there is no point believing in no-free-will (and indeed, it doesn’t even really make sense to say it). You may as well believe in free will. That doesn’t get rid of the problem that it appears to be incompatible with physics. And of course, you need rather more than indeterminacy: a universe that blindly wobbles is no better than a universe blindly determined -W]

    What is the mind? Again I don’t know a scientific answer to that one. But I don’t personally hold out any hope of a scientific answer to that question ever being found, that or what is the essential difference between alive and dead. Some types of models are simply inappropriate tools for some types of problems.

    [“Mind” bis perhaps hard to talk about. What-is-inside-out-skulls is easier. If you want to believe it to be anything other than a collection of atoms… well, that starts to get mystical -W]

  21. #21 Thomas Palm
    2006/05/21

    Yes Coby, some of us do believe that physics is working towards a desciprion of reality that is fundamentally correct, and that, in principle, includes everything that makes our mind tick. I think Janne Sinkkonen put it pretty well. Objectively speaking free will may be an illusion, but as long as “I” have no way of knowing what I’ll be doing it’ll still appear as free will. Depressing in some way, but nevertheless true.

    “Without indeterminacy, the future of the universe down to the smallest detail is a forgone conclusion.” And with indeterminacy the future is just down to blind chance, and this isn’t free will either. What you need for “free will” is some mystical third that is neither deterministic or random, and what that would be I can’t for the life of me imagine. Can you even define what you mean by free will?

    [Ah, you prefigure my replies to Coby -W]

    The essential difference between alive and dead is just chemical organization. Start with a bacterium and we by now understand most of the details about what makes it tick, and so far we haven’t found a single trace of any mysterious life force. It seems to me that you are just uncomfortable with the idea of life as a phenomenon fully possible to explain by science and thus hope that there will be some part that will forever be beyond study. In a way I’d hope that too, I just don’t think it is true.

  22. #22 Q
    2006/05/21

    “The essential difference between alive and dead is just chemical organization. Start with a bacterium and we by now understand most of the details about what makes it tick, and so far we haven’t found a single trace of any mysterious life force.”

    Hmm I beg to differ — A frog when it is alive has life, and as llewelly would say wiggle its little finger “My mind can make my finger wiggle. The signal that carries the instructions to wiggle is electro-chemical. Charges on ions are altered.”

    Equally a ‘dead’ frog dissected, can have electrical impulses put through it (by those who like to spend their time doing such things) which can make its finger wiggle.

    Ergo what is missing between live & dead, is the very lifeforce, which generates the electrical impulses which wiggle your finger.

    PS – William, your e-mail at BAS not working. I was gonna offer to do a better Spanish version/translation for “Real Climate” than automated google, or whoever is doing.

    But I may exercise my ‘fre will’ to remove said offer.

    [Everyone should be using wmconnolley (at) gmail (dot) com as my email address, not my bas one… -W]

  23. #23 Q
    2006/05/21

    Bizarre argument by anyone (Scientist or not) that when you see a ‘dead’ person, there is nothing missing because you cannot see, or measure any change.

    Are you ‘blind’ to the obvious. What is missing from a dead body is life, lifeforce (or the person/being). What you are looking at is the carcass or shell, just because it has the same mass (as when it was alive) does not mean there is nothing missing

    In the 19th C you could not see or measure ‘radioactivity’ that did not mean it did not exist. You just could not see it or measure it. Now you can.

  24. #24 Q
    2006/05/21

    A Computer which functions has the same mass as a computer which doesn’t (or is dead). We do not say there is nothing missing from the dead computer

    A car which functions, can have the same mass as a car which doesn’t. We do not say there is nothing missing from the dead car

    A body which functions has the same mass as a body which does not (or is dead). It would be illogical to say there is nought missing, just because you cannot see or measure & weigh (which is another measure) what is missing.

  25. #25 Thomas Palm
    2006/05/21

    Q, while mass is easy to measure it isn’t the only thing that can be measured. The difference between a computer that is turned on and one that isn’t is that there is current flowing through the former not that they differ in mass and not any mysterious life force.

    What is missing in a dead person is metabolism, caused by some defect somewhere that can itself be described in scientific terms. This is just a flow of chemicals and energy and again no sign of any mysterious life force.

    Once upon a time people believed there was some unknown difference between organic and inorganic compounds and that the former could be created only by living orgniasms. This vitalism died in the 19th century with the synthesis of urea from inorganic compounds.

  26. #26 Q
    2006/05/21

    Thomas, I was merely using mass as one of the measures, that were used to prove nothing (was missing) had left the body. Measure what you will. Flow of chemicals and energy. Apart from in more obvious cases, when you can determine this or that malfunction. The only thing that differentiates an otherwise healthy dead body, and a living one, is that one does in fact have the lifeforce to ‘produce’ the flow of chemicals and energy, and get up from the slab.

    Whereas the carcass or shell, has “given up the ghost”. I prefer the words lifeforce: Spirit or Soul myself.
    I sometimes barely have the energy (spirit) or ‘will’ to get up myself. Whereas other times I leap out of bed.

    Incidentally what do you think of those micro-organisms found in salts, allegedly some 600 million years old is it.
    They would have been defined as dead in their crypto state, (and have been so for however many years). Yet there is talk of re-animating (or is it resuscitating) them. Same with some seeds. They are dead to all intents and purposes. But put them in the ground, and under certain conditions they come back to life.

    The difference of course, is that ‘human’ bodies start to decompose or decay (much faster than in life). I don’t hold much hope for those held in cryogenic states – not even if they were frozen whilst still alive.

    To all intents and purpose you ‘freeze’ or stop the cellular & molecular decay. But when they are defrosted, like steak out of the fridge, they’ll soon start to rot. Unless you + Science can ‘breathe’ life back into them.

  27. #27 coby
    2006/05/21

    William,

    “You may as well believe in free will.”

    LOL! How utilitarian! Don’t you think that reality is what it is, regardless of your beliefs?

    [Of course not. There are, as I see it, 2 possibilities: we have free will, or not. If we don’t, then it doesn’t matter what we believe (and indeed the question becomes meaningless). If we do, then it *does* matter whether we believe it or not, and its fairly clear that (in terms of your personal behaviour) its better to err on the side of belief in free will. If I was 100% convinced by the physics argument, I might say otherwise, but of course I’m not, because obviously physics is not a finished theory.

    Incidentally, this is quite different to Pascals wager on believing in God. In that case, there are consequences on both sides -W]

    “That doesn’t get rid of the problem that it appears to be incompatible with physics. And of course, you need rather more than indeterminacy: a universe that blindly wobbles is no better than a universe blindly determined”

    You’re right that we need more than just indeterminacy. What we need is a universe where the future is not yet determined, which indeterminacy gives us by definition, and also some mechanism by which to influence the outcome. I don’t think it has to be incompatible with physics. It may well be outside of its scope though.

    Thomas,

    Free will means that the future is not a forgone conclusion and my own choices will influence it. Is it harder to define than that?

    Re: illusion as good as reality – I am not a believer in the idea that not knowing about something is the same as it not existing. I think the truth is out there. Given your faith in physics I would have thought you did too.

    People keep implying I am talking about “mystical” things, which is fine, but I can’t tell if this is dismissive or not. Surely there is nothing more mystical about some illusive “life force” influencing the physical world by interacting with quantum mechanical events than there is about the universe coming into existence in an instantaneous explosion 18 billion years ago. Or gravity.

    [Unfortunately, once your “life force” is capable of interacting with the real world (and hence, presumably, vice versa) there is no obvious reason for it to be outside the realm of physics -W]

    The essential difference between alive and dead is just chemical organization.

    No.

    It seems to me that you are just uncomfortable with the idea of life as a phenomenon fully possible to explain by science and thus hope that there will be some part that will forever be beyond study.

    That strikes me as a bit of a jump. I’m not, I don’t know why you get that impression. Perhaps you are uncomfortable, uncomfortable with the idea that science might not be able to explain everything? I think that is the case, but I don’t think that is knocking science, it has been incredibly successful. So successful that perhaps it has discovered its very own limits. A world view all about measuring and seperating observer from observation has discovered that some things are not measurable and the very act of observing in essence creates the observation. Beautiful! Mind blowing!

    Mystical :)

  28. #28 Thomas Palm
    2006/05/21

    Coby, defining free will only become difficult once you start considering how the “I” reaches its decisions. As long as you are willing to consider the mind, or brain, as a black box there is no problem. You say that “you” make your choices, but what is that “you” and how does it choose? Even if it is outside physics it ought to obey the rules of logic, and that still doesn’t leave anything between chance and determinism.

    The mind can’t be totally outside of physics. If it affects the world those effects can be studied. Even if it somehow does this by changing probabilities for quantum events this can in principle be determined by statistical analysis. Does a bacterium have a mind that work this way? A spider? A rat? Where in the line of evolution did this strange leap take place, and how? When a child is conceived, when does it get a soul? How would *you* define death? Doctors have had to change their definition as medical science progress and we can wake up people that before would have been considered dead.

    You may think science has reached some kind of limit, I just don’t see any sign of it. There is nothing we can observe that doesn’t seem explainable by physics, even if some feel uncomfortable by the idea that their mind is nothing more than electical and chemical impulses in the brain.

    The creation of the universe is something we don’t understand, but that has a lot to do with the fact that it happened long ago and under conditions that we can’t get even close to create in a laboratory. It would not be surprising if we won’t ever be able to solve that problem, although we do learn more and more. However, life is something we can study in detail. If there were something that didn’t match known physics we would find it. I gave the example of how people once thought organic chemicals required some life force to create, but this was wrong. As we learn more and more other similar ideas have had to be discarded. At this point I think Occham’s razor strongly favors that there is no such life force at all.

    Consider if we were to analyse a human into the tiniest detail and build a replica perfect in every atom. How do you think that replica would act? Would it be dead from the start, and in that case why? Would it act like a normal human, and in that case, how did it get a “soul”?

  29. #29 Q
    2006/05/21

    Thomas, you’ve hit the nail on the head, and not noticed. Some 3,000 people die on average everyday in the uk. Most are irrepairably or irretrievably dead (ie: the body cannot sustain life) however some though ‘clinically’ dead can be kept ‘artificially’ alive, and some do wake up from comas. I guess you would need to ask them (and not me) where they were, when they were in their coma.

    In previous days, you would have given them three days grace, pronounced them dead, medically or chemically dead, and buried (or incinerated) them.

    So in those cases you would have (quite rightly) declared they were dead, and therefore no longer existed. But if science today can keep them ‘artificially’ alive, and what is more they come back to life and awake from a coma, it is Science that is contradicting itself. Though of course the act (or demand) to keep them on a respirator by relatives may have been driven by their relatives, and their religious beliefs or faith, or other motives.

    There are many contradictions in life. I for one believing I am more than just the body, are no more attached to it, than I am to my ferrari. I can live without either. It is strange to me that even churches who believe in souls & afterlife, (and the medical profession) are almost hellbent in keeping some people alive in some states that can only be comparable to purgatory.

    I much prefer the old native american way (and some hindus too) who when they feel the time is right used to go to their burial ground and join their ancestors. They had no fear of death, they even ‘communed’ with the Spirit world in life. But they were not so attached to their body or to life as to fear death. Now you can dismiss this as myth (perpetuated by some of the earlier westerns & hollywood. But I have met people to who it was very real.

    On this one, I would have to say that even if the rest of the ‘world’ thought there was no soul or afterlife, and even if they could produce incontroversial pseudo-scientific proof that it was so, I would still hold on to my belief. Since I cannot convince you otherwise scientifically or not, and you equally cannot convince me otherwise (scientifically or otherwise), we would have to agree to disagree on that point.

    Incidentally that does not make me a better, wiser or more enlightened person than you. That is what makes me Me, and clearly you You. And I have no burning desire to convince you or others. It suffices me to reassure those who believe, that their faith, belief or hope is not unfounded.

    Paradoxically, not all who believe are saved, since there is a reckoning (or kharmic account if you are into re-incarnation), and not all those who do not believe are condemned, since when the body dies – they will find themselves shocked to be awake (or alive) but without a body, as in incorporeal or immaterial, Spirit State. And they will have to give an account of their deeds (or life) just the same.

    I often used to joke:”Well when you are physically dead, if someone calls you, and you do not recognise the voice, you may refuse to awaken” but that is for another day.

  30. #30 llewelly
    2006/05/22

    Free will means that the future is not a forgone conclusion and my own choices will influence it. Is it harder to define than that

    Try describing a thought experiment that could falsify the notion that your choices (or someone else’s) could influence the future.

  31. #31 Q
    2006/05/22

    We could spend an eternity on this one, well I for one could. And I have the free will to ‘choose’ to do so. Though it is not life consuming, after all no one thing should absorb our time (obsession) to the exclusion of all else.

    We have the ‘free’ will to love our children, but that does not mean we will love them the same when they become teenagers, or them love us back.

    As some of our parents may or may not have discovered.

    We have the free will to desire children, though our wish or desire may not always be granted.
    We have the free will not to want children. This one I think is easier to achieve, even without the need for Science, or use of (products) methods produced by Science.

    And again we have the freewill to love (or desire) someone, but that does not mean they need love us back (not in the same way anyway).

    And finally (for now) I have the free will to wish/desire to win the lottery. But because I wish it (or will it), does not mean it will happen. Of course I would have more chance if I bought a lottery ticket. But I exercise my free will not to. I furthermore exercise my free will not to desire to win, mainly to avoid disappointment. Though of course if someone gave me the winning numbers for the next draw, I’d be sorely tempted to spend a penny. Sorry a pound.

    The contradiction of course is, that after a few pints, you really don’t have a choice whether to pee or not. “When you gotta go, you gotta go” – and there is a limit to how long you can hold it, just as there is a limit to how long you can hold your breath underwater.

  32. #32 James B. Shearer
    2006/05/24

    You say “the future is determined by the past” but as I understand quantum mechanics this is not true. Furthermore you can’t say anything scientific about free will until you define “free will” rigorously which you have not done.

  33. #33 Q
    2006/05/25

    Hi James B. Shearer, I (and I’m sure everyone else) would be interested in your understanding of “cause & effect”

    and your definition of “free will”

  34. #34 James B. Shearer
    2006/05/25

    I don’t have a satisfactory definition of “free will” and I doubt Connolley does either. The best I can come up with is unpredictability. However I suspect people are not willing to grant “free will” to any unpredictable entity. I don’t have a satisfactorily definition of “self aware” either. I don’t think science really understands how the human mind works and hence it is silly to make sweeping pronouncements along the lines of “free will has been proven to be an illusion”.

    As for “cause and effect” I am not sure how that relates to my previous post. However isn’t the point of the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics that many futures are possible.

  35. #35 coby
    2006/05/26

    Hi Ilewelly

    “Try describing a thought experiment that could falsify the notion that your choices (or someone else’s) could influence the future.”

    A cursory consideration leaves me inclinded to believe such an experiment is not possible. What does that imply?

  36. #36 Q
    2006/05/26

    Since James B Shearer is not inclined to give us his definition or a definition of ‘free will’

    I’m incline to say that man has many ‘choices’ except when, where & to who to be born to, and by ‘enlarge’ when & where and how to die.

    You can choose to litter & pollute, and the Council has NO choice but to clean up.

    PS – Having said that, there are some people that would claim you do indeed have a choice of whether to be born, and I’m not inclined to argue with them today.

    However you do have the ‘free will’ to do things you perhaps shouldn’t. We would to invite criminals on to this one. And among the criminals I would have to include certain ‘dirty’ industries, who choose to play dirty, and don’t want to pay for the clean up.

  37. #37 Q
    2006/05/26

    Incidentally TV again showed The Bonfire of the Vanities, where Tom Hanks takes a wrong turn in his car, and his life takes a turn for the worst, getting accused of running over a young black man, though he was not actually the driver.

    Needless to say that is only a film, and he exercised his choice (free will?) to play a new role in The Da Vinci Code

  38. #38 Eli Rabett
    2006/05/26

    I’m with Shearer on this one. The lesson of the Reformation was that this sort of issue was not good for the health.

  39. #39 Q
    2006/05/26

    Hi Eli & James, we are back to defining what is ‘free will’

    Yes, we know there are ‘many world possibilities’ but only one actuality. Tomorrow you can catch a plane to China, South Africa, Mexico or Sweden. But just because you can (or rather may) does not mean you will (nor shall).

    You can only be on one plane. And the whole process will have been pre-determined by which airport you went to (go to) and which side of the bed you got out of.

    Incidentally if you got out of the ‘wrong side of the bed’ (or you feel like you have) you might wanna get back into bed and get out the other side, before you leave for the airport. Supposing of course your bed has indeed got 2 sides you can get out of, and one side is not against the wall. Incidentally ‘most’ beds have the headboard to the wall, but that could leave you one final option, getting out of bed -via- the foot of the bed. babble babble …

  40. #40 Eli Rabett
    2006/05/28

    Q, in a many worlds interpretation, one of you wrote the post and in another world…..(PS of all the variations, I like the Gell-Mann one best, at least in this alternative history:)

  41. #41 llewelly
    2006/05/29

    “Try describing a thought experiment that could falsify the notion that your choices (or someone else’s) could influence the future.”

    A cursory consideration leaves me inclinded to believe such an experiment is not possible. What does that imply?

    It implies an important method of science cannot (yet) be applied to the problem. For example, one cornerstone of the case that ID is not science was that ID is not falsifiable. (There are other ways to do science. I admit I haven’t adequately considered applying them to the topic of free will.)

  42. #42 coby
    2006/05/30

    So if science can ot answer a question, does that mean it is unanswerable? Or that there is no answer? (there is a subtle distinction)

    I think there are fundamental questions that science is inappropriate for addressing. But I also think that’s ok.

  43. #43 quasar9
    2006/05/30

    Coby, maybe one is asking the question wrong, if not the wrong question. Laters … Q

  44. #44 llewelly
    2006/05/30

    So if science can [n]ot answer a question, does that mean it is unanswerable? Or that there is no answer? (there is a subtle distinction)

    It’s one thing to observe that none of us knows of an experiment that could falsify the notion we have free will. It’s another to prove that no such experiment can be devised. It may be that testable theories of free will will someday be devised.

    (Note – I changed ‘ot’ to ‘not’ when I quoted coby – that’s what the ‘[n]’ is there for.)

  45. #45 coby
    2006/05/30

    Hmm…I chose to type “not” and yet out came “ot”. Have we done it? Proven there is no free will? :-)

    To bad that experiment can ot be replicated…

  46. #46 Thomas Palm
    2006/05/31

    A hypothetical way of testing for free will is to make an exact model of a human, run it at faster than normal speed and see if the real human acts in the same way as the model. If he does then free will is nothing more than the consequence of the laws of nature, if it doesn’t we have evidence for some kind of soul.

    This is is an extremely difficult experiment to do, and if someone is able to come up with a less vague definition of what free will is it may be simpler to test for it. However, coby choose to ignore my questions about whether simpler organisms have free will as well.

  47. #47 QUASAR9
    2006/05/31

    Thomas whilst coby exercises his semi-choice of whether to come back to you (or not), and time permitting when:
    Flowers by ‘enlarge’ turn to the Sun. That is what they do. Simpler organisms respond to ‘triggers’ depending on the trigger whether light or other. They ‘do’ this or that, a complex computer is really little more than a simple organism.

    Most animals & the human animal above all have developed the ability to choose to respond to certain triggers or not. Ants on the other hand just ‘do’ what they ‘do’. And some questionable ‘humans’ have tried to, and are still trying to, structure human society in the image of ant or bee colonies & hives. With Queen Ants/Bees, fertile or reproductive ants/bees, warrior ants/bees, ‘neutered’ worker (and/or slave) ants/bees. Whereas ‘few’ animals have farmed humans. Unless you count becoming “food for worms” as something manipulated on the Grand Scheme of things by worms.

  48. #48 coby
    2006/05/31

    It would be very simple to falsify the Free Will hypothesis. Simply put your subject in a chair, put two dots in front of them and tell them to point at whichever one they chose. If you can find a way to reliably predict their choice, then you’ve done it!

    Thomas, sorry, did not mean to ignore your interesting question, and I do find it interesting. I tend to think of free will as something exercised by more developed creatures, not plants, certainly dogs (at least mine ;), we would have to haggle about everything in between. But perhaps free will is indeed behind the turning of a sunflower. Maybe subatomic particles actually make choices rather than rolling super small dice!

    Now, I did just toss off that last one, but given that we havn’t yet identified a mechanism or defined FW very precisely, I am starting to like that notion!

    Now someone, shred it for me…

  49. #49 quasar9
    2006/05/31

    I think we are reaching parity Coby, for even a dog can choose whether to chase after the ball one throws. Depends how playful he feels, or whether a bitch just went past and he caught a whiff in the air.

    PS – by ‘developed’ I meant every baby ‘learns’ to respond to lights, the reach of his arms etc.
    And every chick is fed by the mother (and father) and thus learns what to eat or not. Laters … Q

  50. #50 James B. Shearer
    2006/05/31

    Thomas Palm, you are equating “free will” with unpredictability. I don’t think this is sufficient to capture what is generally meant by “free will” which involves a self-aware entity which is able to choose different paths. A uranium atom may decay unpredictably but I don’t think most people would say it had “free will”.

    I don’t know how to effectively define “self-aware” but this does not mean I am convinced that there is no meaningful distinction between self-aware entities and non-self-aware entities.

  51. #51 Thomas Palm
    2006/06/01

    James, you are right in that in my thought experiment I kind of ignored the fundamental randomness of nature, hoping it would be too small to matter. Go back to my post May 21, 2006 11:55 and you’ll see that I don’t equal randomness with free will.

    Coby went even further along the same line in his thought experment. As far as I can tell his definition amounts to just “as long as it is too complex to predict it is free”, making it not too different from the “God in the gaps” approach to religion.

    To me “free will” is well defined only in the sense that no one is forcing my will upon me. In a more philosophical sense it is just a consequence of deterministic laws of nature combined with a bit of thermal and quantum randomness. It’s not a scientific mystery, it’s just that science tells us something that doesn’t fit with how we want to imagine ourselves.

    “Self-aware” is a simpler concept to define. It simply means that an entity when trying to predict what will happen in the future is including itself in the model, predicting its own future actions along with everyone elses. Detecting it may be hard, however, since we don’t have access to the thoughts of other beings.

  52. #52 coby
    2006/06/01

    With respect, I think my experiment means that predictability means no free will, but does not imply that unpredictability equals free will.

    I’m not sure I agree that self awareness is part of this picture at all, but given it is similarily hard to define, does that make the free will problem any easier?

    Then again, my “predict the choice” experiment may not work on a simple enough entity, one that is not self aware yet still has free will (allowing that possibility). I think there are creatures and situations where I would argue free will is involved, but things are simple enough that the choice will always be the same.

  53. #53 William Connolley
    2006/06/01

    Hello all. Just a gentle reminder… I don’t really have a comment policy but (mentionning no names, and taking a purely random example) using does-george-bush-have-free-will to get in an attack on the Iraq war will get your comment deleted.

    Happy commenting…

  54. #54 Q
    2006/06/02

    I think you may have just exercised ‘free will’
    unless editorial capacity is not considered ‘free will’ because it is motivated by other ‘constraints’ – lol!

  55. #55 LORA
    2006/06/03

    WOT RUNS FASTER- A STOAT OR A RAT??
    COZ WE WERE CHASED BY SOME STOATS AND MY FRIENDS THINK THAT RATS RUN FASTER BUT I DISAGREE.

    LOVE LAURA XXX

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