Exploring the Illusion of Free Will 14
This is the fourteenth 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 14. Why Both Causality and Randomness Make Free Will Impossible
Our belief in free will forms the premise for why we do things, and how we decide. It is the basis for our entire civilization, for our entire society, and for our personal lives. In order to create a more understanding and intelligent world that is in line with the way things are, and isn’t based on a misconception, we’ve got to explore this matter. We’ve got to overcome this illusion of free will. It may take several decades, but the purpose of this show is to help create a better world for everyone by helping us overcome this illusion.
What do we mean when we say free will? Basically, we mean that our decisions are completely up to us, and that nothing that is not in our control is influencing, or compelling, us to make a decision. But, we understand that we all have an unconscious, and that our unconscious is where we store all of our data, memories, and thought processes. Every decision we make is based on words, concepts, memories and processes stored in this unconscious. The unconscious is not in our control. It’s completely unconscious. That’s why we call it the unconscious. If that part of our brain is actually making these decisions for us, we can’t correctly claim we have a free will. Something that we’re not in control of is making these decisions. Obviously, what we have is a causal will, meaning that it is caused. Everything has a cause. Nothing happens without a cause. Causality is the fundamental universal process.
In order to have a free will, we would have to somehow circumvent causality, but we can’t do that. Any decision we make has to have a cause, because we are making it for a reason. The problem is that if we have a decision that has a cause, and that cause has a cause, and that cause has a cause, and you’re going back in time in a causal regression that ultimately leads to before our birth, before the Planet was created, and to the time of the Big Bang, free will must be impossible.
In the late 1600s, Sir Isaac Newton created what we now refer to as Newtonian, or classical, physics. This theory is completely causal. We can measure the position and momentum – meaning direction and velocity – of objects, whether they are planets or objects here on Earth, and with that information, we can calculate their future. We can predict exactly where they would be moments, our years, later.
When we track a comet through the sky, or track the other planets, we know exactly where they are going to be at any moment thousands of years into the future because these objects obey strict causal law. The obvious conclusion from this classical, Newtonian, physics is that free will is impossible because, again, everything has to have a cause.
It was during the early 20th century that Warner Heisenberg, Neils Bohr, and a few other physicists developed what is known as quantum mechanics. Heisenberg published a paper in 1927 that described what we now refer to as the uncertainty principle. At the macro level, let’s say we’re measuring a basketball. We can fire photons at it, and, with enough precision for prediction, measure its position and momentum. Light particles do not substantially affect the movement of the basketball because the basketball is so large relative to the photon.
But, when we get to the quantum level of sub-atomic particles, this is not the case. When we fire one particle at another to obtain that measurement of position and momentum, the measuring particle knocks into the target particle, and thereby moves it into a different trajectory. The crux of the uncertainty principle is that we can’t simultaneously measure the position and momentum of a particle. To the extent that we get the position more precisely, we lose information about its momentum. To the extent that we get its momentum more precisely, we lose information about its position. That’s pretty clear. We can’t any longer use classical mechanics to make predictions at the quantum level because of the uncertainty principle, so we rely on probabilities.
We understand the behavior of groups of particles, and then develop probabilities for them. At the quantum level, measurement changes from being a completely physical, direct, and clearly causal process to a statistical process, derived from probabilities for individual particles based on their causal behavior within groups.
The problem for the proper understanding of human will came when those physicists then interpreted what it meant that you couldn’t simultaneously measure the position and momentum of a particle. Bohr, Heisenberg, and a few others, came up with what came to be known as the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics. What they claimed – and we can see the absurdity of it from the onset – is that since we can’t simultaneously measure the position and momentum of a particle, particles don’t simultaneously have a position and momentum.
They also claimed that because we can’t see what is happening after a measurement, (once we measure the target particle, its position and momentum have changed because of the impact of the measuring particle) the particle’s behavior was somehow uncaused. They claimed that particle behavior at the sub-atomic level had no cause. I’ve read some of work of Heisenberg and Bohr, and of some of the other physicists who championed this interpretation, and learned that these guys were quite into philosophy. My hunch is that what they were trying to do with the Copenhagen Interpretation was to revive the idea that humans have a free will.
They made these claims, but the best they could do with them was to assert that particle behavior at the quantum level is uncaused, or random. They claimed that these things at the quantum level happened for no reason at all – for no cause. The problem for the human will question is that if something is happening for absolutely no cause at all, it can’t be caused by a human will, free or otherwise. If it’s happening arbitrarily, or at random, obviously we are not causing it.
For some phenomena, like this simultaneous particle position and momentum measurement, we don’t know everything that’s going on. With radio-active decay, for example, we can know the half-life, or rate at which a group of particles will decay, but for any given particle, we can’t precisely predict when that radio-active isotope will decay, or transform, into something else. Because of that example, and because of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, physicists and philosophers began to absurdly claim that this radioactive decay must be uncaused.
We’ve gone over how causality makes free will impossible. Let’s go through it again, and then we’ll go through why randomness also makes free will impossible in a bit more detail, so that we more clearly understand.
We make a decision. Let’s say our decision has a cause, and is not random in the absurd sense of uncaused. There is a reason for why we make a decision, for why we chose what we chose. Remember that everything has a cause. Nothing happens that is not caused. There was a religious argument about this many centuries ago about the Latin phrase “causa sui,” meaning the cause of itself. They would ask themselves “if God created the universe – the world – then who created God?” Their answer was that God created Her/Himself.
Let’s say we accept that God, or the universe – the logic-transcending very beginning – caused itself. After that first cause, everything has a cause. The best way to understand this, as I’ve explained before, is to consider the entire universe at the state of the Big Bang, 13.7 billion years ago. The state of the universe at the very next moment in time was the exact and complete result of that first moment. What we have is particles moving sequentially through space in time. By bringing that state-by-state evolution of the universe causally up to the present, we can understand that everything that is happening now is a direct and complete result of the state-of-the-universe evolution.
We can also understand this in terms of decisions. We make a decision. There is a reason for it. That reason is a cause. And there is a cause for that cause, and a cause for that cause, and a cause for that cause, each cause spanning further and further back in time. We see causality regressing into the past. Everything has to have a cause, and a cause must precede its effect.
By definition, a cause cannot come after its effect. The cause is happening a moment before its effect, and the cause of that cause is happening the moment before that. If we follow that chain of moment-by-moment causes and effects, we can understand that whatever we’re doing right now is the direct result of a causal chain that spans back to before planet Earth was created. There is obviously no room for a free will to emerge from within this causal chain.
Now let’s address randomness. Randomness sometimes gets confused because it’s given various different meanings. Here’s one that makes sense. I have a deck of cards, and ask you to pick one out at random. What we understand that to mean is that you’re going to pick one out without giving it any thought. You’re not going to count from the beginning of the deck to the one you want, or use any other system or plan for your choice. It will be arbitrary. That’s the conventional, colloquial sense of randomness that we tend to use.
In physics, however, there is a more precise technical meaning of randomness. Some physicists define randomness as something that is unpredictable. That’s a mistake. Sure, randomness is unpredictable, but so is causality, to a completely accurate degree. Some physicists will say that unpredictable means unpredictable in theory, but not in practice. But, as human beings, with our subjective perspective on whatever it is we’re trying to predict, we can’t know all of the information necessary. We’d have to know the exact position and momentum of every particle in the universe to make a completely accurate prediction of whatever. Secondly, because of the uncertainty principle, we can’t directly make those predictions.
What is interesting is that our quantum probabilities would not work if the particle behavior being measured was not inherently causal. A single particle acting randomly, in the sense of unpredictably, and uncaused, cannot suddenly become causal when it joins other particles within a group.
Some physicists say that randomness means unpredictability, but when we ask them “what does unpredictable mean?” they say that the particle’s behavior is not being caused. Again, such an assertion is completely absurd, and based on neither logic, nor scientific method, nor empirical observation. There is no such thing as true randomness. There are random events generators that will generate “random” numbers, but they are not completely random because computations are completely causal processes.
When some scientists claim that something is random, it seems they don’t understand exactly what they are claiming. They are claiming that some things that happen do not have a cause – that they happen uncaused. Unfortunately, in physics, this is not something they like to explore very much. Most college-level introductory physics textbooks will not even have an entry on causality or randomness. They might have one on the uncertainty principle. They consider the matter theoretical, whereas most of physics today focuses on practical applications. But, the theoretical understanding of what is happening at both the macro and quantum level is very important as it relates to this question of human will.
There is no such thing as randomness in the sense of uncaused. Everything must have a cause. There has to be a reason why something has happened. Again, the best way to understand this is to consider that if anything is happening at this moment in time, it is completely dependent on, or caused by, the state of the universe, as the most complete description, at the previous moment.
Let’s say there was such a thing as randomness in the sense of uncaused. The notion of free will involves accountability. With a moral decision, a free will believer will say “we decided something because of some moral principle or principles. ” But, once we make that decision, and describe it as a moral decision, that’s our cause. In other words, we made the decision because of some moral principle or precept. Or, we made the decision because you “wanted to.” But, that want is a desire, and that desire is a cause.
In physics, the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics is actually what you will find in most high school and college textbooks, because most standard physics textbooks are written by physicists who have never delved much into this matter of causality vs. randomness. Most leading physicists understand that physics is completely causal, and that quantum behavior is completely causal, but this understanding has curiously not made its way through to many other physicists. This embarrassment to the field likely has something to do with the question of free will.
Some physicists clearly believe in free will. To acknowledge that nothing can be uncaused would be to admit that we have no free will. Since the Copenhagen Interpretation in the mid 1920s, philosophers have been saying that particle behavior at the sub-atomic level is indeterminate. It’s random, so that leaves an opening for free will. It’s a completely irrational conclusion, but that is what they conclude in order to preserve their belief in free will.
Heisenberg, and Bohr especially, pushed the idea of randomness and acausality on physicists when quantum mechanics was entirely new, and nobody really understood it. Actually, nobody really understands it today. Admittedly, there is amazingly counter-intuitive stuff that is going on at that level. Many physicists back then, with little or no investigation of the question, simply concluded that if Heisenberg and Bohr said that quantum behavior is uncaused, it must be uncaused.
Einstein and several other physicists attempted to clarify the matter, but they went about it in a misguided way. They didn’t focus on the causality of the matter; they focused on particle measurement. Einstein and his colleagues wanted to demonstrate that although you can’t simultaneously measure the position and momentum of a particle directly, such measurement could be accomplished by proxy. That effort led to a lot of experimentation, and it turned out that a proxy measurement will not work as a proof for causality.
They didn’t take the right approach on this back then, but since the 1980s, physicists have, more and more, come to reject the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics. They understand that everything has a cause. This Copenhagen interpretation has actually been replaced to a great extent by an interpretation of reality that to my mind doesn’t make much sense, but at least it’s deterministic. It’s called the Many Worlds Interpretation, and it says that any time we make a decision, there are an infinite number of possibilities that can arise from that decision. Each of those possibilities supposedly takes place in a different universe. There is no credible evidence, of course, for that conclusion.
The main thing here is that various other interpretations are now more in vogue, and more accepted than, Copenhagen. There have actually been several polls conducted on this. In one, the Many Worlds Interpretation had over fifty percent of respondents agreeing that it was the dominant theory of nature. In physics, the field-wide transition from indeterministic to deterministic interpretations of quantum mechanics is already happening.
The fact that we human beings do not have a free will challenges the very foundation of our understanding of who we are. We’re living an amazing delusion. The irony here is that nature herself – the causal past, or God – has compelled us to have this illusion. It’s like when we see what we think is water on the horizon while driving down a long straight road in the sun. It’s an illusion. Hopefully within a couple of decades or sooner we’ll all generally understand that our wills are completely causal, that there is no such thing as true randomness, and that if there were, that would also leave no room for a free will.
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