Science and free will

On one hand, since I believe in the scientific approach, I don’t accept free will. Instead, I believe that human behavior is determined by the laws of nature, and where those laws are non-deterministic, our behavior is truly random.

However, I find I must assume free will or my world will be overturned. For example, without free will, ethics loses its significance. Of course, people will still behave ethically most of the time because of law enforcement, selfish genes and upbringing, but in the phrase “thou shalt not steal” the word shalt becomes meaningless.

Political freedom, too, becomes pointless. In the absence of free will freedom turns into recognized necessity. What difference does it make then if the state makes its citizens recognize a different necessity?

But science itself, paradoxically, needs free will, too. In experiments, independent variables are used to test causality. But how can a variable be independent in the absence of free will?

All of this is not to say that free will exists; rather, it’s a simplified model we have to contend ourselves with until we have a better one, in the same way that physics freshmen are implicitly taught that Consciousness causes collapse because we don’t yet have an established “correct” interpretation of quantum physics.


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13 Responses to “Science and free will”

  1. Assaf Says:

    It does not follow that without free will, Ethics is meaningless.

    Although one might argue Ethics is meaningless regardless of free will, you can never the less have a system of Ethics that sits well with the fact that all participants are deterministic.

    e.g. a robot society may have robot ethics.

    Naturally it all hangs on how you choose to define the word. You can always define it in such a way to make the free will argument trivially (analytically) true… but that’s not a big intellectual victory 🙂

  2. Squark Says:

    I think the free will problem is relevant for ethics and I have a proposal for solving the problem. More on that in my blog in a while.

    However, I don’t think “consciousness causes collapse” is something that should be taught to anyone. At no point of time could an idea be considered a serious scientific hypothesis. I heard von Neumann believed it though I count that on human subjectivity which even the greatest minds cannot avoid.

    It is possible to discuss quantum mechanics without reverting to “mystic” concepts such as “consciousness causes collapse”. That said, I think our understanding of quantum mechanics is not yet satisfactory.

  3. Lev Says:

    I’ve thought over the ethics / free will problem for some time, since reading “The Selfish Gene”. Dawkins called on his readers to educate their children to behave ethically even when that’s evolutionarily disadvantageous, and some scientists criticized him for believing in free will. I don’t see any contradiction between Dawkins’ call and determinism.

    I haven’t been able to satisfactorily formulate the ethics / free will problem as a paradox. It seems that the problem is really my own, that I like to think of ethics as some sort of religious commandments, but I don’t believe in God.

    One could say that the question of “recognized necessity” is my own problem, too, because I believe that freedom has value 😉 . However, I’m disappointed that Assaf hasn’t given a better solution.

    One solution to the question of experiments is to say that the experimenter is not part of the system experimented on (though in quantum physics it’s not quite true).

    Nobody really taught me that “consciousness causes collapse”. They didn’t teach us what measurement is at all. (There is no established answer, but different interpretations give different answers. We were not taught about interpretations at all.) Now I don’t know if it’s only me, but somehow I got a general notion that a measurement occurs when the experimenter looks at a measuring device. Maybe I got it from the Schrödinger’s cat parable. So it followed that humans are special in that they cause collapse. Probably Greg Egan thinks so, too 🙂

  4. Andrey T. Says:

    I think it is much more simple. Free will exists in life beings, and so the ethics exists.
    The life contradicts to the physical laws created for inanimated objects in many ways. The entropy is not increasing in living things; the life use statistically improbable “sharp (non-continuous) mutations” during the Evolution of species; it makes us think that we “think”, which is very unusual for a system based on electro-chymical reactions.
    Accept existence of a spiritual universe in addition to the material universe, and it will resolve the seeming contradiction between physics, ethics and free will.
    Let us consider it also by using the information theory. Do you really believe that the informational complexity of two cells (man’s and woman’s) is of any match to informational complexity of a child, capable of acts of bravery and treason, love and hatred, consciousness and creativity? The missing “delta” here, as I believe, is a soul. Of course the soul is deeply integrated in the biological computer called “the body”, but it is not a subset of it.

  5. Lev Says:

    Using evolution to support the existence of a soul? That’s interesting!

  6. Squark Says:

    There is no contradiction between life and the laws of physics. Have you ever heard of biophysics? Genetics, molecular biology, cell biology, neurology, all of them are based on the laws of physics. None of the above requires postulating the existence of the soul “which is not a subset of the body”.
    The second law of thermodynamics (entropy has to increase) only applies to _closed_ systems, which living things are not. If you consider the living thing together with its environment, the total entropy definitely increases.
    I’m not sure what is the relation between information theory, bravery and treason. Consider the process by which minerals found in mines are gradually transformed into computers. The “informational complexity” of the later is also probably greater (although I’m not sure how you define it). Does it mean computer have souls?

  7. Andrey T. Says:

    First of all, it seems there *is* some sort of contradiction in the pure physical explainating of the universe. Otherwise the original question of Lev would not have ever arisen.
    At least let us agree on it. Otherwise it looks like I am a weird person trying to break the theory that has no flaws at all, and this is stupid.

    Now we certainly have a set of phenomena that have no easy explaination by pure laws of physics. I am not saying they are completely impossible to explain, but it is obvious that the physical explainations of these phenomena are too vague.

    Take into account that 99% of physical experiments are done only to inanimate objects. And when they are done with living things, they are still limited to biochemical reactions and electrical measurements – which means that these experiments solely relate to the “body” and not to the “soul”, whether it is existing or not.
    So your decision to extrapolate these laws to human mental activity is only your assumption.

    Now let me address your objections.
    It is clear that a system that has a high complexity CAN produce another system of a similar complexity. Which means that a computer may produce another computer, and a married (well, it is not strictly neccessary) couple may produce a child. The question is how a system of low complexity produces a system of high complexity.
    We can explain it by unpredictable chaotic mutation, of course, and it has some logic. But it looks like the living things utilize this probabilistic trick way too often.

    In addition to what I have said, please note that also parents do not *produce* the child. Instead the child is produced by himself. Of course, one can say that the DNA has the child in the “compressed” format, but it stills leave me some question. Because the complexity of the DNA to my opinion is way too small (only ~4Gbytes if I remember correctly) to keep all the complexity of human mental “software”, if you like to consider human behavior in this way.

    Another difference that I observe between us and computers, is that I hardly believe that the computers think something about themselves. Even if they appear to be thinking, something inside of me tells that they are not really thinking. There is no *inner self* in them, and it will never be (well, at least until bio-cyborgs are be invented).

    Now finally let me address the entropy. Your objection about closed sysyems is popular, but I am not sure it is very much correct. For example, our Earth is a quite closed system (well, not completely, of course, but I don’t think it is important for this discussion). And as you can see, the mankind is reducing its entropy quite successfully.

  8. Andrey T. Says:

    Let me, perhaps, tell what I think in a positive way. I think that ther is a sort of spiritual activity (and we don’t yet know all the properties of it), and this activity – we can call it spiritual force – is a part of our universe.

    Like any other force, it doesn’t demonstrate itself equally visible in all objects. (Before last 100-200 years electricity can be seen only in thunderbirds and wool+glass stick). But it is strong in living objects, and it is much more strong in humans than in animals, or in plants.

    This force, however, is not like a physical force 🙂 It is not deterministics, and one call tell it comes from God. It has free will, creativity, passion as its own properties. And, by interacting with material objects, it slowly changes the Earth.

    Would you, please, tell me if you see anything non-logical in this scheme?

  9. Andrey T. Says:

    And, please, excuse mistakes in my English. I am not used to make this sort of discussions in English. And unfortunately wordpress doesn’t allow changing the text after it is published.

  10. Andrey T. Says:

    It is interesting, that when somebody says a table exists because we can feel it and this feeling is consistent (yesterday we felt it, and also in any other day) we believe the table exists. We don’t say the table doesn’t really exist, but it is our sensors are wrong. Instead, we analyze this feeling and build a theory on it (called the physics).

    However, when we talk about the feeling of free will, and this feeling in consistent in us (yesterday we felt it, and also in any other day) you tell that this is not a real feeling, and it only looks like it exsits while it is not actually true. You don’t even try building a theory, and only because it contradicts to another theory?

    Why? In such cases I remember many *impossible* theories in the past, like for example of Copernics (which was considered completely wrong, because it contradicted to what was *obvious* that time).

  11. Lev Says:

    Do you see the contradiction in your last comment? On one hand, you imply that if we perceive something consistently, then it exists. On the other hand, we do see the sun moving in the sky.

    More positively, to understand why, you first have to understand why Copernicus’ theory is considered true.

  12. Squark Says:

    1. There is no contradiction in physics. Lev’s question did not point out any such contradiction.

    2. No phenomena of the kind you are alluding to cannot be explained by the laws of physics. Any particular physical model has a limited domain of application. For instance, currently physics doesn’t know precisely what happens when particles collide with energies > 1 TeV or so (that’s why the LHC was built). But it has nothing to do with animate vs. inanimate.

    3. Physical experiments are done both to animate and inanimate objects.

    4. I don’t understand. Does the computer have a soul or doesn’t? Is soul = complexity or is it something distinct?

    5. Your opinion about the complexity of human DNA is irrelevant since it’s not based on solid arguments.

    6. Earth is not a closed system. Earth’s ecosystem receives its energy from this, which is very much important.

    7. I’ll explain you what’s not logical in your “scheme”. You have formulated neither the problem you wish to address nor its solution. Once you’ve done both, you still have to formulate and conduct an experiment testing this solution.

  13. Squark Says:

    Sorry, I meant “Earth’s ecosystem receives its energy from the Sun”.

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