Exploring the Illusion of Free Will 10
This is the tenth of a series of posts where I will be sharing the transcripts of George Ortega’s show which he has so generously made available on his website.
I will share both the link and copy the text as well. This is convenient for those who subscribe to my blog by email. You can read without visiting the site, but I highly encourage you to visit the link and see what else George has on his website.
Episode 10. Why Change as the Basic Universal Process Makes Free Will Impossible
Our civilization, and mindset, and personal lives are all founded on this notion that we human beings can freely choose whatever we want – that we have a free will. The problem is that we don’t, and apart from our seeing reality completely contrary to the way it is, our belief in free will causes problems both in our personal lives and societally. Hopefully by our understanding that our wills are causal, and not free, we can create a world that is more compassionate toward each other and ourselves.
Before I get into our topic, I just want to go a bit more into what we mean when we say we have a free will. Basically we mean that our thoughts are completely up to us – there is nothing compelling us to decide what we do. We mean that what we do, what we eat, what we say, what kind of work we do – everything – is completely up to us.
Naturally, we have an unconscious that is always active, and makes free will impossible. But, the more basic reason why we don’t have a free will is the process of cause and effect. This show will be about the fact that everything that happens in the world, including our decisions, has a cause. If everything has a cause, then whatever causes us to make a decision will have a cause. And there will be a cause of that cause, and a cause of that cause, etc.
Note that a cause will always precede its effect. A cause can never come after its effect. When we consider this chain of cause and effect that leads back further and further into the past, we can see how the causes that ultimately led up to any kind of decision we might make were made long before we were born, and long before the planet was created.
The idea that we don’t have a free will leads us some of us to believe that we’re “robots,” or “puppets,” and in a certain sense, we are. But we don’t have to see ourselves that way. We can hold the understanding that God, or nature, is in control of everything. God created the world. God is omnipotent, and omniscient, and omnipresent, and so we can see ourselves as instruments of God. We’re expressing, in a physical way, what God is and what God does. That self-identity is a lot more palatable to many of us than to think of ourselves as robots.
Some of us will say that because we have a free will, we’re zombies. I didn’t know what a zombie was until about three weeks ago. Apparently, a zombie is someone who arises from the dead and walks the Earth doing stuff. That’s a completely different idea than being an instrument of God. We’re like computers that have been programmed to behave in certain pre-described ways. Or, we’re actors.
Let’s get to the topic. The first fact of existence — and this is undeniable, a priori, and axiomatic – is that the universe exists. Everything exists; we are here. The second a priori fact is that the basic process of the universe is change. Think about that. If the universe didn’t change, everything would be completely frozen. I wouldn’t be doing this show. You wouldn’t be reading this book. Planets like our Earth would not be rotating around their axis, and revolving around stars like our Sun. If there were no change, nothing would move. There would not be a world, as we know it.
Again, we have a priori knowledge that the universe exists, and a priori knowledge that the fundamental process of the universe is change. What is change? Change is something moving from one state to another. Change is a particle being at one point at one moment, and then at another point the next moment. That is what change is. It is matter moving through space in time. At one moment, you’ll have a particle or something at a certain point, and then at the next moment, because of change, it will be at a different point. That’s change.
Again, two axiomatic facts – reality exists, and reality changes. What pulls this all together, and what makes free will impossible, is the idea that in order for change to take place, there has to be causality. In fact, causality is the process that allows for change. No change could ever happen without causality. There is a statement to the effect that “nothing can be causa sui,” meaning that nothing can be the cause of itself (unless we want to perhaps consider that God, as the first cause, is the cause of Her/Himself. But after that, every other cause has to have a prior cause). It’s not necessary to know the first cause, if it exists, to understand the process of causality that operates thereafter.
If you have causality – cause and effect – as the process that is required for any change to take place in the universe, you can understand how causality is as axiomatic as the fact that there is a universe, and the fact that the universe changes. I say this to clarify a confusion that has arisen in physics since 1927 when Werner Heisenberg published his Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. I’m not going to get into this too much now because I’m going to do a separate show on it, but basically it’s a mathematical equation that demonstrates that you can’t at the same time measure the position and the momentum of a quantum particle with the precision required for successful prediction using classical mechanics. If you measure the particle’s position, then it’s momentum becomes less clear. If you measure the particle’s momentum, then it’s position becomes less clear.
That’s the basic Uncertainty Principle, and it applies to other conjugate variables like particle spin, particle charge and particle phase. For some reason that doesn’t really make sense, this discovery led some physicists – led by Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, who formed what came to be known as the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics, to conclude that since we can’t measure simultaneously position and momentum, (or two of other conjugate variables, somehow these processes are uncaused.
It is important to see that if the universe exists as an axiomatic fact, and change is axiomatic, causality must also be axiomatic. Again, otherwise everything would be frozen. If causality is necessary, and describes change, obviously causality is as fundamental a fact of nature. In other words, this explanation of causality is at a much more fundamental level than interpreting the results of the Heisenberg and stronger, more recent, uncertainty relations. There is more to it. It has never been shown in any way that something could be uncaused. Think about it. Change requires causality. This can be demonstrated through certain laws of physics. For example, there is a Law of Conservation of Mass-Energy. This law has never been violated. When one particle interacts with another particle, there is an exchange of mass-energy. One particle will gain mass-energy, and the other will lose mass-energy. Again, that conservation law has never been violated. If one particle gains mass-energy, then the cause of that gain has to be the interaction with the other particle. It’s clear as day.
A problem with that conservation law may arise when you consider matter in terms of either mass or energy. Mass-Energy is what Einstein explained the universe as in his theory of Special Relativity. It’s the idea that mass and energy are actually one. E=mc² where E means energy, m means mass and c² means the speed of light squared. That gets a little confusing because apparently there have been some seeming violations of conservation of mass, and some seeming violations of conservation of energy that make this law appear less ironclad.
But, there is another conservation law in physics, which came out of Newton’s Laws of Motion. This is the Law of Conservation of Momentum. When a particle is moving through space, it has momentum. Momentum means velocity and direction. So, when a particle is at one point, its momentum at that point will determine its position at the second point. You can never lose momentum. If one particle interacts with another, momentum is always conserved. That we have this law of conservation of momentum that requires causality is another proof at the most fundamental level of physics that causality is the process for change – is the basic process by which how things happen.
Another law of physics that I think is obvious to us all is that matter moves through space in time. Time is what allows for change. If there was no time, there could be no change. So, you have a particle at one point at a certain moment in time, and since everything is moving, it will be at another point the next moment in time. This movement applies to every particle on Earth. The universe is expanding. So, our whole solar system and Milky Way galaxy are expanding outward. The Galaxy is expanding toward a region of the universe called
The Great Attractor Anomaly. And, our solar system is moving in time as it revolves around the Milky Way Galaxy. There are various kinds of motions that are always happening, that include every particle, and every part of the Earth. This motion all requires time. Time is what allows change. It’s what allows causality to happen.
Another axiom in physics is that there is an arrow of time, in the sense that time will always go from past to present to future. It will never go from future to present to past. The reason I say that’s axiomatic is because there has never been a known violation, and because it is so obvious. In physics, there are certain kinds of theories and equations that are deemed symmetrical, in the sense that they allow, mathematically, for time to travel backward. But, when you think of these kinds of equations and theories, you have to remember that mathematics is a measuring tool. It is not a descriptor of the nature of reality. It helps physicists come up with measurements of reality to then reach their conclusions. With mathematics, you can subtract two from one and get a negative one, but that doesn’t mean that you can subtract two apples from one apple and get as a physical entity a “negative apple.” Negative apples do not exist in reality. That is why I say that although there are equations that allow for time to go backwards, it’s just the math. It has never been demonstrated, and is clearly impossible.
One of the claims for free will is that our mind is not physical, and so our thoughts are not physical. Some say that if our thoughts are not physical, then that means that maybe they are not caused, and maybe they are the result of a free will. The problem with that assertion is the existence of time. Let’s say we make a decision, and we call it “spiritual.” We say it doesn’t have a physical presence, however that decision would have to take place within a moment in time. It has a precise position in this timeline that goes from past, to present, to future. Naturally, if it has a precise moment in our timeline, it is completely subject to the causality that governs everything else in the universe.
Let’s say we make a decision. We define it as spiritual, but it happens in the present moment. We should realize that the present moment – anything that happens in the present moment – is the complete result of the state of the universe at the previous moment. Naturally, if we have a spiritual decision taking place at a set point in time, and then being caused by the state of the universe at the prior moment, and that state of the universe is caused by the state of the universe before that, you now have a causal regression that leads back presumably to the Big Bang, and who knows what happened before that. Defining decisions as not being physical does not allow for a free will because any decision we make, and any thought we have, occupies a specific point in time, and time is causal.
I want to now consider randomness, or indeterminism, defined as acausality. It’s greatly perplexing how otherwise brilliant people have proposed this hypothesis. My guess is that physicists like Bohr and Heisenberg were more than “shut up and calculate” researchers; they were also interested in the fundamental nature of reality. It’s likely they had an interest in the question of whether our human will is free or not. My guess is that it was this philosophical interest, which to some physicists meant finding a way to preserve the notion of a free will, which led them to reach incoherent, internally inconsistent, conclusions, like the idea of acausality, that basically make no sense.
Sometimes we understand randomness in the sense of having a deck of cards, and picking one “at random.” This is more accurately described as “apparent randomness.” What some physicists mean, however — and what’s actually taught in many college level physics courses — is the Copenhagen
Interpretation of quantum mechanics that considers elementary particle behavior as random in the strong sense of not having been caused. Think about the concept of randomness in that sense of something happening that is not caused. It doesn’t make sense. There is a cause to everything. Things do not just happen for no reason, and without cause.
Let’s say something was to “just happen.” Let’s say a particle could just come into existence out of nowhere. A particle is somewhere, when a moment earlier it was nowhere. That too would be a causal process, and you cannot rationally consider the coming into existence of the particle as random. Sometimes physicists will say to themselves, “I know everything that is happening in this system.” For example, with radioactive decay, for isotopes that have a half-life, meaning they will decay at a certain rate and within a specific window of time – physicists cannot predict exactly when a single isotope will undergo this decay. So, for many years some have claimed that since we can’t predict its behavior, it can’t have a cause, and that it must be random in the strong sense meaning acausal. I trust you understand the illogic of that conclusion.
There is no true randomness, in the sense of things happening without a cause. Everything has to be caused. Another reason some physicists, philosophers, and psychologists became confused regarding this matter involves a statement by Pierre-Simon Laplace, who was a famous French mathematician and physicist. He penned what came to be understood as the classic statement describing determinism, or causality. He essentially said that if we knew the position of every particle in the universe, and every force acting upon every particle, and if we could compute that data, we could know both the past and the future. Nothing would be hidden from us. In his own words:
We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.
What confused some is that because we can’t simultaneously measure the position and momentum of a particle, and therefore can’t know the position and force acting upon every particle, (and more generally, because we can’t know everything in the universe) we can’t make such predictions using either classical or quantum mechanics. Somehow, that realization led some physicists to believe there was such a thing as indeterminism, defined as randomness, or acausality. Whichever term you want to use, these physicists are claiming that some things are simply uncaused. Sometimes physicists will define randomness as unpredictability, but that is a slight-of-hand assertion because when they are asked what they mean by unpredictable, they ultimately equate it with acausality.
Bringing all of this back to the question of human will, if the universe exists axiomatically, and if change is the fundamental process of the universe, without which nothing can happen, and if causality is necessary to all change, then causality is the fundamental process in nature. If everything has a cause, that means that every one of our decisions has a cause, and that cause has a cause, and that cause has a cause. That is a very good way to understand why free will is impossible.
I hope you now understand that everything has a cause, and that causality is fundamental to nature. We cannot escape this truth, and that’s why we don’t have a free will.
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