I read the online version of Oliver Burkeman’s long read that raises the question of whether free will is an illusion, and shortly afterwards read the same article again in print (The clockwork universe, Journal, 27 April). I was surprised when I realised that the brief reference to quantum physics online was missing in the printed version. Was it simply a matter of space, or was it left out because it made the whole argument too complicated? Either way, its omission was unfortunate.
Most physicists would not regard the events in our universe as deterministic, or clockwork if you insist; they are in fact considered probabilistic and would leave Laplace’s demon scratching its head when attempting to make any long-term predictions. Quantum theory is fundamental to our understanding of reality, and those “tiny fluctuations” that the article mentions are an essential part of our reality. They allow the stars to shine, for instance. The argument for determinism implies a first mover, the unmoved mover, as Thomas Aquinas put it. Perhaps the quantum universe injects a multiplicity of unmoved movers, all that is needed to disrupt a predictable, in theory at least, deterministic universe and restore the possibility of free will.
Oliver Burkeman’s common-sense argument against free-will scepticism – “it’s just at odds with too much else that seems obviously true about life” – is persuasive. Every hard determinist I’ve ever met seems to agree in practice. I’ve yet to meet one who didn’t look both ways before crossing the street.
Rev Carl Harding
“The latest resurgence of scepticism [about free will] has been driven by advances in neuroscience,” Oliver Burkeman says. What this shows, however, is that most people still don’t really get the problem. You don’t get it until you see that nothing in science could ever make any difference, for reasons that Burkeman gives. That said, it’s worth listening to Albert Einstein echoing the 17th-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza in his contribution to The Golden Book of Tagore, published in 1931: “If the moon, in the act of completing its eternal way around the earth, were gifted with self-consciousness, it would feel thoroughly convinced that it was travelling its way of its own accord on the strength of a resolution taken once and for all. So would a Being, endowed with higher insight and more perfect intelligence, watching man and his doings, smile about man’s illusion that he was acting according to his own free will.”
Those who suggest free will is an illusion are ignoring the gap in our understanding of consciousness and its relationship to the quantum realm in which randomness (ie indeterminism) has been proven to be real by the National Institute for Science and Technology’s work on a randomness beacon. Causal determinism in the human brain is on a shoogly peg, and it is likely that Laplace’s demon could no more make accurate predictions about the universe than about a football match, or any situation where the outcome is influenced by human consciousness. Given our lack of understanding about consciousness, any argument against free will is at best incomplete and at worst requires a quasi-religious leap of faith around something we do not understand enough to make such bold claims.
The theory that our choices are determined by forces that go back to prehistory is pointless and dangerous. Pointless because any decision taken can be explained by the theory of predetermination or by the common view that people are able to make choices based on their beliefs, ethical standards and experience. Neither explanation can be proved or disproved. It should therefore be rejected as of little use for individuals or society. It is dangerous not only because it rids individuals of the responsibility for their actions but because it can also lead to the same conclusion when nations act irresponsibly towards each other.
This is not just a question for the academic world. There are political “realists” who contend that a rising power like China will inevitably clash with the established world power that is the US. This is where the “clockwork” world can lead us.
Our environment and genes are the main factors that shape who we are, but we know that there are many crossroads in life where the road less travelled was the one that we should have taken. Free will needs to be defended against the determinists.
I bought the Guardian on Tuesday after I saw the front-page trail: “Is free will just an illusion?” I don’t buy the Guardian often, simply because I can’t afford it, but I couldn’t ignore this. Surely according to quantum physics all possibilities exist at every moment in time, so the possibility of the existence of free will exists simultaneously with the possibility of not free will?
The problem with the assertion that free will is an illusion is that it carries inescapable consequences for the ability of our intelligence to arrive at an adequation of the truth. Notwithstanding that education, cultural background and character affect our cognitive reasoning, to have any hope of knowing anything truly, we must be capable of objectivity and therefore, by definition, free in our thought to some degree. If we are always deterministically fated to be led down a wired neural pathway towards a conclusion that we cannot escape, we have no real basis for assuming that it bears any relation to the actual nature of things.
If free will is an illusion, then so is true knowledge. And this would then also apply to our capacity to know the true nature of free will. Is Oliver Burkeman not fatally determined to arrive at the conclusion he has, regardless of whether it is actually true or not? In which case, I’m not sure we can really say his conclusion is true.
I read Oliver Burkeman’s article with increasing frustration. To propose a mechanistic universe in which every effect of a cause is precisely determined ignores modern scientific thinking. Chaos theory tells us of the “butterfly effect”, whereby even a very small variation in initial conditions can lead to an extremely large difference in later results. And quantum theory tells us that, at the subatomic level, we can only say that a given range of effects has a probability (which we might be able to calculate) of resulting from that cause. Schrödinger’s cat has a 50% chance of survival. We do not know, even given the most precise knowledge conceivable of today’s conditions, what will happen tomorrow.
Burkeman is contrasting two extreme theories, of unfettered free will and Laplace’s demon, when the truth lies somewhere in between. Surely the truth is that we have free will, but the options available to us and our likely preferences are influenced to varying degrees by things beyond our control?
The free will debate is surely the most fruitless in all philosophy. Imagine a world with free will. Now imagine a world without. Would there be the slightest difference? And the argument that if there is no free will then there is no responsibility and so punishment is unjustified is spurious. In such a world we would also lack the free will to choose whether to punish. I feel I have no choice but to believe in free will.
The long read reminded me of the test to distinguish between a scientist and an engineer. With the candidate at one end of a long room and a highly desirable prize at the other, the candidate is allowed to travel half of the intervening space on each command to move. The scientist, of course, instantly recognises that it is impossible to reach the goal in a finite time and remains standing, whereas the engineer moves smartly forward to get close enough for all practical purposes as soon as possible. The principle that every event has a cause is sound, but does that translate to every event being inevitable from the origin of time? Sure, we can do a thought experiment tracing every event back through its sequence of preceding causes to whatever origin we choose. If, though, we then allow the system to rerun, the sheer enormity of possible outcomes ensures that the slightest perturbation at any point will result in a radically different outcome. For all practical purposes, I’m an engineer on this one.
Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire
In my 95 years, I have frequently pondered on the subject question about which much can be said, as Oliver Burkeman demonstrates. We find it easy to define determinism, but what do we mean by free will?
Say, for example, that I am a beginner at chess and face a checkmate from just two options. My tutor points out a third, which recovers the situation. Was my free choice the same as theirs?
My hopeless situation induces me to resign from the game. My opponent insists I continue to the end. I comply and unexpectedly achieve a draw. Would I have offered to resign had I known the eventual outcome?
Few choices in life are between an apple and a banana. Almost always, we don’t know all the options, or their outcomes. The real choice is between the outcomes, which requires us to know the future. We have to guess that. My conclusion is that determinism is so complex that for all practical purposes it may be discarded, but that for the same reason we must discard the notion of free will.
As a physicist and engineer, I have my own views on free will and religion. Quantum mechanics was not as issue for the earlier philosophers who considered a Newtonian world of perfect prediction given perfect knowledge. That is no longer considered true. Apart from the obvious quantum truth that nothing can be measured perfectly, any interaction between particles can have only probabilistic outcomes.
For example, in the article two examples are given in which a person acts strangely as a result of cancer. Cancer is generally the result of a chemical or radiation incident, which is totally random and unpredictable. The human body has many mechanisms that may or may not repair the original cancerous cell. This could not be predicted a year in advance, certainly not at birth, and absolutely not as the outcome of generations of procreation, each of which involves one sperm out of millions, chosen at random.
Coming from a different angle, if someone commits a homicidal outrage, which may or may not be the result of free will, surely I and my community should have equal freedom to react with a punishment, which may or may not be the result of a free-will decision. If a person is driven to antisocial action, their actions, whether a result of free will or not, are likely to take into account the likelihood of punishment. If society regards actions as punishable, those actions will be somewhat less likely than if not.
I regard “punishment” as less important than deterrence and prevention; in many cases, there is no real gain but a high cost in imprisonment. In other cases, the important function of imprisonment is isolation from society, thereby avoiding further harm. But I am a scientist and engineer, not a moral philosopher and legislator or judge.