Sabine Hossenfelder attempts to find real free will in the laws of physics

July 11, 2018 • 10:15 am

The two main positions about free will by those who already accept physical determinism are these:

a. They are incompatible: determinism completely effaces the possibility of free will;
b. They are compatible: although determinism may be true, and our actions controlled by the laws of physics, we can construe a definition of free will that is compatibile with this (“compatibilism”).

I’ve discussed the varieties of compatibilism before (which themselves are incompatible with each other), and don’t intend to do so here. Rather, I am trying to understand a new hypothesis that is said to give us some room for “true” free will.

Most philosophers who are determinists agree with b., but, as I’ve repeatedly made clear, I think the definition of “free will” as a species of action compatible with us being puppets to physical laws is just a semantic trick. The fact is that most people are dualists, conceiving of free will as a form of agency that allows us to choose any of several paths at a given point, and this is a rejection of determinism. (Those people fit in neither a nor b; they accept that determinism precludes free will only if determinism is all there is.)

To redefine “free will” as something other than how most people construe it is akin to redefining God as “love” or “the universe”: a similar semantic trick used by Sophisticated Theologians™ to allow people to accept that there’s a God in the absence of evidence for a deity. (Most believers, however, accept a theistic God—one who is personal and interacts with the Universe.) Both compatibilism and Sophisticated Theology™ have as part of their brief an attempt to reassure the less sophisticated Little People that there really is something that can give them comfort: either God or personal agency.

In a new post at BackReAction called “Limits of Reductionism,” Sabine Hossenfelder, a theoretical physicist and a fellow at at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies, tries to save free will in a weird and unconvincing way—indeed, even she doesn’t appear convinced by her lucubrations. (The post is a précis of a longer, prize-winning essay she wrote called “The case for strong emergence.“)

In short, Hossenfelder’s thesis is this: she is a physical determinist, which appears to buttress the incompatibilism of (a), but nevertheless maintains that there just could be a singularity in the nature of physical law, so that although humans are made of molecules that obey the laws of physics, one simply can’t extrapolate those laws up to human behavior because there is a “singularity” that precludes such extrapolationism. In other words, at some point physical law resets itself, and that point occurs below the complexity of the human brain.

Most people, including Hossenfelder, accept that while we may not be able to predict higher-order phenomena like human choice from the laws of physics, it must be consistent with the laws of physics. It is this consistency that Hossenfelder says might not obtain. And if that’s not true, then poof!—we could have free will. Or so she suggests.

Now Hossenfelder is neither a compatibilist nor a dualist, as she makes clear in her BackReAction essay; rather, she appears to be a physical determinist who believes that there are at least two sets of physical laws, one of which somehow gives us real free will. Some quotes:

Her rejection of compatibilism, with which I agree:

Now, there are a lot of people who want you to accept watered-down versions of free will, eg that you have free will because no one can in practice predict your behavior, or because no one can tell what’s going on in your brain, and so on. But I think this is just verbal gymnastics. If you accept that the current theories of particle physics are correct, free will doesn’t exist in a meaningful way.

The dependence of hard determinism on physical reductionism (my emphasis):

That is as long as you believe – as almost all physicists do – that the laws that dictate the behavior of large objects follow from the laws that dictate the behavior of the object’s constituents. That’s what reductionism tells us, and let me emphasize that reductionism is not a philosophy, it’s an empirically well-established fact. It describes what we observe. There are no known exceptions to it.

And we have methods to derive the laws of large objects from the laws for small objects. In this case, then, we know that predictive laws for human behavior exist, it’s just that in practice we can’t compute them. It is the formalism of effective field theories that tells us just what is the relation between the behavior of large objects and their interactions to the behavior of smaller objects and their interactions.

But Hossenfelder, as she says above accepts as a “fact” pure reductionism since we have no counterexamples:

There are a few examples in the literature where people have tried to find systems for which the behavior on large scales cannot be computed from the behavior at small scales. But these examples use unrealistic systems with an infinite number of constituents and I don’t find them convincing cases against reductionism.

Nevertheless (and I admit that what she’s pondering may be above my pay grade), Hossenfelder finds a way to posit the possibility of “free will” by imagining a singularity in the extrapolation of small-scale physical forces, so one not only can’t predict large-scale phenomena from small-scale ones, but also conclude that large-scale phenomena need not be consistent with the laws of physics governing small entities like particles:

It occurred to me some years ago, however, that there is a much simpler example for how reductionism can fail. It can fail simply because the extrapolation from the theory at short distances to the one at long distances is not possible without inputting further information. This can happen if the scale-dependence of a constant has a singularity, and that’s something which we cannot presently exclude.

With singularity I here do not mean a divergence, ie that something becomes infinitely large. Such situations are unphysical and not cases I would consider plausible for realistic systems. But functions can have singularities without anything becoming infinite: A singularity is merely a point beyond which a function cannot be continued.

I do not currently know of any example for which this actually happens. But I also don’t know a way to exclude it.

Well, she’s positing a singularity for which there is no evidence. Why should we take it seriously? It is as if we posit that every four billion years the laws of physics that govern the motion of the planets are suspended for one second—a singularity in time. We have no evidence for that, either, so why take it seriously? Since we cannot “exclude” her supposition, or mine, why should we take them seriously? We cannot absolutely exclude the singularity in planetary motion that I just mentioned, just as we can’t exclude the existence of an invisible tooth fairy. But why do we even need to think about them? Note again that Hossenfelder admits that there is no evidence for her singularity.

Indeed, I’d maintain that we have evidence against it. After all, the behavior of macro objects in space, like rockets or the ageing of humans within them, shows no such singularity: such motion can be predicted by the same laws that govern small molecules. Further, even “macro” behavior of humans, in terms of the firing of neurons, our physiology and biochemistry, and so on, can be reduced to the laws of chemistry, which themselves are consistent with the laws of physics. So if the behavior of our neurons and our innards show no such singularities, why does Hossenfeld imagine that a singularity would apply to human behavior, which, as far as we can see, can be reduced to the material structure of our brain?

At the end Hossenfelder pulls her free-will rabbit out of a hat for which we have no evidence. Note her last sentence, in which she implies that people WANT to believe in nonreductionist free will, which is sort of a form of dualism. Hossenfelder’s dualism is not the invocation of supernatural forces or numinous “will” alongside physical law, but a dualism of the laws of physics themselves (my emphasis):

Now consider you want to derive the theory for the large objects (think humans) from the theory for the small objects (think elementary particles) but in your derivation you find that one of the functions has a singularity at some scale in between. This means you need new initial values past the singularity. It’s a clean example for a failure of reductionism, and it implies that the laws for large objects indeed might not follow from the laws for small objects.

It will take more than this to convince me that free will isn’t an illusion, but this example for the failure of reductionism gives you an excuse to continue believing in free will.

Just like redefining “God” as “the Universe” or “love” gives us an excuse to continue believing in God!

Further, as far as I can see (and again I confess my failure to grasp how this “singularity” works), a new set of physical laws that begins somewhere above the agglomeration of molecules into organisms is still physical law. So how does that give us agency or freedom in the sense that most people construe free will: as a dualistic form of overriding physical law with our brains? A physical law gives us no agency or freedom, no matter on which scale it obtains.

Readers are welcome to enlighten me, and to attempt to show others in simple language how Hossenfelder’s speculation allows us TRUE free will (the could-have-done-otherwise kind). I don’t get it myself.

By the way, since Hossenfelder doesn’t accept compatibilism, please don’t argue for compatibilism in the comments. We’re concerned here with her own hypothesis, which is explicitly non-compatibilistic.

h/t: John

84 thoughts on “Sabine Hossenfelder attempts to find real free will in the laws of physics

  1. That is as long as you believe – as almost all physicists do – that the laws that dictate the behavior of large objects follow from the laws that dictate the behavior of the object’s constituents.

    I think this is sneaking agency or teleology into the debate.

    I’d argue that there are no ‘Laws of Physics’ determining behaviour of objects, but rather Observations of Regularity which foreshadow the probable observations of future events (sometimes very strongly). Since Laws of Nature are not causes but effects, some ‘singularity’ within the description is a possible failure of description not crack through which agency can creep.

    1. I half agree: the laws of nature aren’t separate from the objects described, but are simple observations of regularity. But then, if the object described is a typical adult human being, there’s no need to sneak agency in through a crack. To address agency, look for foresight, intelligence, rationality, and willfulness – none of which are contradicted by any laws of nature.

  2. Even more than the empirical evidence against free will, eg. the Libet experiments and their offspring, my overriding problem with free-will is that it doesn’t make conceptual sense.

    What would it even mean to have free-will? To choose between two options? What would be doing the choosing…and how would it be doing the choosing?
    How does it make sense to talk about choice when it’s impossible to falsify the contention that we were only ever going to do one thing in the end anyway?

    I remember being eleven or twelve and sensing there was something wrong with the idea, and I could never sort out in my head why. I still can’t explain fully why it doesn’t make sense, but it’s one of a family of intuitive human concepts that begin to unravel completely when you start pulling at their threads. If you look at ‘causality’ closely enough it ceases to exist. If you think about ‘the flow of time’ closely enough it ceases to make sense. The same with ‘objective meaning’ and ‘objective morality’.

    These ideas are all deeply ingrained in us, we barely need to be told about them yet we instinctively know what they refer to. And yet time after time we turn out to be relying on concepts that fall apart as soon as we look closely enough. It’s both scary and breathtaking at the same time.

    1. …and I’d add ‘creation’ to the list of concepts that doesn’t make sense if you think about them closely. By creation I think people really mean ‘discovery’, as in we discover ideas that are out there in abstract form.

      Instinctively people think of creation as the birth of something ex nihilo, that is completely novel and unique to that person. But really you’ve just discovered something in the library of Babel.

    2. This is how I feel about it too.

      The operative word is self. It seems obvious to me that a non-deterministic self would be useless. In order to consistently be somebody, you need determinism, so you don’t wake up tomorrow thinking like Oprah or Deepak, instead of like you.

      A deterministic self is free to be itself, in the absence of external constraints. It is not free to not be itself, but that is a minor short-coming, since your self does not want that.

      Fortunately we are not cast in stone on the first day of our lives. We learn and change and grow every day, because that process is also deterministically built into our brains.
      We can change if we want to; we just can’t want to change if we don’t.

      1. Interesting. I’d never though about determinism being necessary in keeping the self together. I’m also impressed as not many ex-footballers have such incisive thoughts on the human condition 🙂

    3. ” I still can’t explain fully why it doesn’t make sense, but it’s one of a family of intuitive human concepts that begin to unravel completely when you start pulling at their threads. ”

      This kind of intuitive understanding that something like free will cannot be possible can also be found in this statement by Albert Einstein:

      “I honestly don’t know what people mean when they talk about the freedom of human will. For example, I feel like I want something, but I don’t understand what that has to do with freedom. I feel that I want to light my pipe and I do; but how can I connect that with the idea of freedom? What lies behind the act of will that I want to light my pipe? Another act of will? Schopenhauer once said:’Man can do what he wants, but he cannot want what he wants.”

  3. I believe the point is that the calculations used to determine a particle’s behavior could be altered by a singularity. I don’t know what a specific example would be.

    ‘”If you know the state of the universe at one time, you can use the laws to calculate the state of the universe at all other times. This implies that what you do tomorrow is already encoded in the state of the universe today. There is, hence, nothing free about your behavior.’”
    “’A singularity is merely a point beyond which a function cannot be continued.’”
    “’Now consider you want to derive the theory for the large objects (think humans) from the theory for the small objects (think elementary particles) but in your derivation you find that one of the functions has a singularity at some scale in between. This means you need new initial values past the singularity.’”

    I’m still having trouble understanding why the dynamical collapse model of quantum mechanics doesn’t offer an indeterministic, compatible model that would support free will. According to Sabine Hossenfelder’s post, the randomness and probability of quantum mechanics don’t allow for free will. I still wonder if that also applies to the dynamical collapse model. I’m a determinist and don’t believe there is free will. It’s worth exploring, though. It feels like we do have free will. I would also be interested in a specific example of how the singularity might work here.

    1. I’m still having trouble understanding why the dynamical collapse model of quantum mechanics doesn’t offer an indeterministic, compatible model that would support free will.

      It gets you the free but not the will. Unless you can show that some aspect of thought (or other measure of ‘will’) decides which QM result attains, quantum mechanical indeterminism is analogous to someone rolling (ideal) dice to decide what they do. Sure the action that results is not deterministic. But it’s also not the person’s choice.

  4. I find her thesis to be unconvincing. Until someone can locate the singularity, there’s simply nothing to talk about.

    I still like Sean Carroll’s version of compatibilism but shall not say more here as per our host’s request.

    1. ALL of this subject is beyond my pay grade, but i do understand this one inconvenient fact about singularities: There is no such thing as a true, physical singularity.
      So that’s that.

    2. I think Sean Carroll’s compatibilism came up in The Big Picture, and remember being rather disappointed by that book. He had a bit of an odd, ‘compatibilist’ notion of truth too, that something can be ‘true’ in more ways than one – I just remember finding it a bit of a bodge job, an attempt to please both sides – reductionists and anti-reductionists. All throughout in fact.

      It’s a shame because I loved From Eternity To Here so much, it’s one of my favourite science books ever, and in debate he’s utterly pellucid.

  5. Free will doesn’t even make sense from a purely philosophical perspective. Either a decision can be traced back to earlier events (determinism) or it’s truly random. In both cases there’s no room for free will. Referring to other dimensions or souls results in infinite regress. Thus introducing a hypothetical ingularity solves nothing. Even if new information is required, this new information is again by definition either random or deterministic in nature. No room for free will. It’s frustrating that smart people waste time on this dead end.

    1. Right, since everything, especially on human scale is affected by causality, “free” is meaningless. There are, therefore no free markets, and no free democracies etc. either. The term can be scratched from the books entirely.

      Since free will is an illusion, and everthing is determined, there is also no choice, preference, wanting, wishing, decision, even volition is a cheap trick. There is no force, no pressure, no coercion, no consent, and so on. There is also no ought. Stuff just happens.

      This is, of course, where incompatibilsts commence to tremendously swing on the imaginary flying rings and flip from their preferred vantage point of “outside the box” where one can rewind tapes, to a sudden “inside the box” model where we ought to do something because it informs future actions. Which is incoherent (still).

      1. Sorry if I’m interpreting you wrong, but you seem to imply that all normative arguments are to be dismissed because there’s ultimately no such thing as free will. I think this is a fascinating topic. If there is no such thing as free will, then we can all just stop trying to achieve whatever it is we want to achieve. It’s all predetermined or random any way. Like you said, stuff (good or bad) just happens. So, why then are we even having all these discussions about morality and ethics? The answer is of course that we don’t have a choice. We are evolved biological machines running on mushy software that dictates our complex social behaviour. The illusion of free will is deeply embedded in our brains. Just like you can’t shut off optical illusions, I think it’s impossible to completely get rid of the illusion of free will. I think the experience of living can be seen through the eyes of a main character in a movie. It seems like the main character is making all the choices, but in fact there is director behind the camera that I can’t see. The director sometimes listens to me and adjusts the storyline accordingly, but not in direct way I can understand. So, even if stuff (good and bad) just happens we are powerful machines constantly trying to improve the chance of our genes surviving. That’s the process we are experiencing as free will.

      1. I’m not denigrating those who disagree with me. I’m talking about arguments. Yes, I think the whole concept of free will is corrupt. I have not come across a single argument that actually addresses the fundamental problems with free will. Instead of playing the victim card, I ask you kindly to present your arguments for the existence of free will.

    2. Either a decision can be traced back to earlier events (determinism) or it’s truly random.

      Keep in mind that random /== even. You could have a nondeterministic, probabilistic system in which a person has a 95% chance to pick the ‘rational’ choice, a 4% chance to pick the ‘irrational’ choice, and a 1% chance of doing some non-sequitur action. That would still be ‘random,’ but it would probably look like rational-behavior-with-occasional-mistakes to most people.

      1. This is off topic, but does not the term random mean that alk outcomes are as likely? If a probability is skewed, does that not imply an underlying variable affecting the results in some direction? If I throw a dice a hundred times and I get a number six 60 times, I would suspect that there is something wrong with the dice. To be honest, I have a hard time understanding randomness in first place. As a purely mathematical concept, I get it. As a practical way of describing very chaotic or otherwise unpredictable systems, I see the utility. That said, it seems to me that randomness is often a way of saying that something is too complex or difficult to understand.

        1. I can’t help thinking that ‘random’ is a misleading word. Quantum states ‘collapse’ into an observed state but that doesn’t necessarily mean that that observed state is random… it could be both determined and unpredictable. Quite how you could tell I don’t know.

          In the human sized world I might decide what flavour of ice cream I want at ‘random’ but that probably means ‘determined by prior events but not open to conscious introspection’. I did try a Gingerbread flavour ice cream today… but why? (It was tasty.)

          1. Random selection of an ice cream flavor would involve rolling dice. Choosing one without thinking too much about it is never truly random.

            By the way, gingerbread ice cream sounds really good. I am often dismayed by the unimaginative flavors of supermarket ice cream. Even when they are unusual flavors, they don’t sound appealing to me. I would love a line of ice creams based on famous pastries and cakes. Sacher Torte Ripple sounds really good.

        2. No, random does not mean that all outcomes are equally likely. It means that possible outcomes are only predictable with probabilities. A skewed distribution is still considered random.

          1. “A skewed distribution is still considered random.”

            But, does it not imply there’s an underlying variable skewing the process. Like I said, if a dice would generate a skewed result we would suspect it’s loaded.

            1. For the dice, yes. For other things, no.

              Many events are well described by the normal distribution, for instance. This is clustered around an average, with values much lower or much higher occurring only rarely.

              Radioactive decay rates of a sample will do this: average say 100 counts per second, but sometimes it’s 99, sometimes it’s 101, and occasionally it’s 96 or 104. It is still considered random, in that the rare events can occur at any time.

            2. As I said below, rolling two or more dice will give a skewed distribution without being loaded.

              This is actually an important principle in science (statistical mechanics, among other places). Roll 1 fair die, and the odds of getting close to the average (let’s say 3-4) is 33%. Roll 2 fair dice, and the odds of getting close to the average (let’s say, 6-8) are 44%. Roll 1,000,000 fair dice, and the odds of getting a result close to the average will be much higher. This trend continues; Have 10E23 molecules exchange energy randomly through collisions, and you’ll get a very predictable and consistent temperature and pressure throughout the chamber. This predictable temperature does not mean every molecule has the same energy – they don’t. It means that as the number of random events increases, the probability of getting close to the average result overall increases.

              In math terms, the probability distribution gets narrower as you add more dice/random interactions. With one dice, it’s a flat table top. With a few dice, it’s a peak. With many dice, it’s a spike.

        3. does not the term random mean that all outcomes are as likely?

          When someone plays craps (rolling 2 6-sided dice), the casino counts on the roll not being rigged to win money. They count on it being random. But it is certainly not the case that all outcomes are equally likely. Yes?

          The same thing is true for many games, even blackjack. The basic strategy was worked out in the ’50s. It assumes a random shuffle but clearly and obviously also assumes that face cards come up 3x more often than any given number.

  6. Is there any reason to favor only a dualism of physical laws, based on this type of reasoning? Why not three or more sets of physical laws?

  7. Fascinating argument. Of course, arguments are just that and, really, nothing can be proved by an argument.

    I think there are several things that need to be addressed before we can answer the question. (I am claiming all conclusions about free will are premature.)

    One of those is noise. In determinism, we say “tell me the initial state of a system and I will tell you the final state of the system based upon physical laws.” This works admirably and is the basis for the reductionism discussed. But the examples in which it works are all quite simple. What happens when things get complex? Could this state of our universe be predicted from an exact description of the Big Bang for example? In considering more complex situations we run into problems. One being computing power (or processing power of brains), the ability to actually consider all of the causes, effects, bodies in motion, energies, etc. and the other is noise. We just discovered, for example, gravitational lensing which distorts the patterns light makes in its travels from far away systems to ours. Throw in interstellar dust, the expansion of space itself, etc. etc. and the fact that each interaction is not really and “ideal interaction,” and what you get as a large amount of background noise from which we can pick no causes.

    Collisions which are elastic prove relatively easy for students of physics to master. But when the collisions become inelastic, even completely inelastic, things get, well, hairy.

    Another is establishment of causes. You are offered a choice for dessert: vanilla or chocolate ice cream. You favor neither, and there are no examples to provide stimulating odors, just the words of the server. Do you have a choice? If you say, no, what is the cause of the choice? A memory? A 0.0001% preference of which you were unaware?

    You are playing Blackjack and you want to win. You are asked if you want to hit or stay. You have lost track of which cards are out of play. What is the cause of your decision? What is the cause of a guess or a hunch?

    Interesting stuff.

    1. Is “caused by” the same as “determined by”?
      I think it is not. In a fully deterministic world the notion of causality even vanishes completely.

  8. There is no proof in here:

    “A singularity is merely a point beyond which a function cannot be continued.

    I do not currently know of any example for which this actually happens. But I also don’t know a way to exclude it.”

    Then further on….”failure of reductionism”
    might prove something…

    I find this attempt to justify free will unconvincing. Most physicists attempt to prescribe the possibility of free will through complexity, or incapacity to accurately predict outcomes or quantum uncertainty. Those are more tangible arguments that what Sabine has put forward. Granted I am not sure that Sabine is convinced by her own argument. She’s just trying it out.

  9. Readers are welcome to enlighten me, and to attempt to show others in simple language how Hossenfelder’s speculation allows us TRUE free will

    Well she doesn’t really even attempt that, the “free will” bit is just a hook for the article, which is mostly about reductionism and a possible failure of reductionism.

    Reductionism here is defined as the doctrine that if one exactly replicated all of the low-level properties of a system, then the high-level behaviour would be entailed.

    Sabine is pointing out that if the behaviour involves a mathematical singularity, then that might not be fully true.

    However, it wouldn’t be true to then: “… conclude that large-scale phenomena need not be *consistent* with the laws of physics governing small entities …”.

    They would indeed be *consistent*, it’s just that the low-level properties would then be *insufficient* to replicate the high-level behaviour, one would also need additional “boundary conditions” operating above the singularity.

    This might be in-principle possible, but, as she accepts, it’s not as though we’ve observed anything such so it’s probably not how our world is.

    PS, saying “since Hossenfelder doesn’t accept compatibilism, please don’t argue for compatibilism in the comments” is unfair, since the OP does some compatibilist bashing! 🙂

    1. Agreed on all counts. Bottom line: strong emergence of any sort can’t be utterly ruled out, but it goes against Ockham’s Razor, so it gets a correspondingly tiny probability assignment.

      Speaking of fairness, I recently stumbled across the following fragment of ancient Greek dialogue.

      Herodotos: The youth today have no respect for tradition. Why just today I visited the shrine to Eros, and mine was the only offering. Where is the gratitude for the boons the gods give us?

      Eudokia: That’s because Eros isn’t real, and some people are beginning to notice! We need to cast aside myths like Erotic love and focus on real things, like friendship, or sex.

      Alexander: Now hang on a minute. I don’t believe in Eros either, but that doesn’t mean erotic love isn’t a real phenomenon. A little casual observation will show you that some people have a special bond – whether a winged god shot them with an invisible arrow or not, that’s beside the point.

      Herodotus and Eudokia, in unison: Verbal gymnastics! Semantic trickery!

      Herodotus: Real Erotic love requires Eros! It’s in the name.

      Eudokia: Surveys show that the vast majority of people believe in Eros. Therefore, the concept of a distinctive kind of love is inextricably tied to the myth, and must die without it.

      Alexander: Doesn’t follow. As for Eros being in the name, that’s why when I write “erotic love” I start with a small e rather than capital E. And I predict that centuries from now, people will still do the same, though no one will believe in the winged god with the arrows. And everyone will know what they are talking about.

      Herodotus (morosely): Nonsense! Without Eros, there is only sex.

      Eudokia (triumphantly): Without Eros, there is only sex!

      And there the fragment ends.

  10. … a new set of physical laws that begins somewhere above the agglomeration of molecules into organisms is still physical law. So how does that give us agency or freedom in the sense that most people construe free will: as a dualistic form of overriding physical law with our brains?

    It would appear to follow only if the singularity were accompanied by a gap between the two systems of physical law. And it seems to me anyone making this free-will-of-the-gap argument still has all of their work in front of them: to show what actually occurs during this gap — presumably in the absence of any physical law — and how this comports with some conception of “free will.”

  11. Like you said, it’s still physical law even after severing the two levels. Free will as a concept just seems to be completely incompatible with materialism, and I think materialism is the best approximation to truth for now. I don’t know much about Buddhism but I like their critique of the self as a convention, which seems to apply to free will as well. This Buddhist philosophy seems radically materialist with regards the self.

    1. Of course the concept of supernatural free will is completely incompatible with materialism, and also with the more encompassing notion of naturalism. But why not consider a natural free will, in the sense of agency? To deny agency to living organisms is to me a bizarre, even ridiculous stance. To deny agency to oneself is even more bizarre.

      1. Yes, I agree. If the choices we make aren’t free, then why do we even bother pursuing our lives? I think the problem is due to a confusion between two separate concepts. The free will that incompatibilists refer to has nothing to do with agency.

        1. I am – according to the definitions given – an incompatibilist too. If radical determinism is reigning (and determinism does merit its name only when it’s 100%) then of course not even agency is possible, not to mention any sort of absolute free will. Not even contra-causal free will, as causality would loose its meaning. Would one say that one piece of a jigsaw puzzle does c a u s e the next piece?
          Could anything at all happen without some sort of “wiggle room”? How would any innovation be possible without wiggle room?
          Thinking? Forget it.

          And then – if the world we experience is really a fully determined one – so what? How would we know the difference between a fully determined one and an undetermined one?

          I find it much much more interesting to find good explanations for how agency could arise in this physical world in the first place than to argue for the complete absence of agency.

          I do actually think that radical determinism is a bad explanation for how we experience the world and ourselves in it. It produces so much more problems than it solves.

          1. I don’t think agency is limited to sentient creatures and it lies along a spectrum from the smallest bits of matter to conscious being like ourselves. The seeming gulf is only a matter of complexity. It has a kind of descriptive power and this is important in understanding the world. I suspect we’re working off different conceptions of agency here. I’m flattening it and in this way, I’m probably denying agency exists at all, which may indeed be bizarre.

            1. I do agree – and basically I meant exactly this: agency must certainly be rooted in physics and there must be a continuous spectrum for it.
              Very much like for consciousness.

            2. It is not bizarre to deny that agency exists at all; just as it is not bizarre to deny that God exists, even though it may have been a strange idea for many people in the beginning.
              It is about getting closer to the truth, to scientific knowledge and to this end familiar habits of thought must be abandoned.

              1. You put God and agency on the same level of undeniable subjective experience? That’s sounds ridiculous to me.

              2. Seems an unfair argument to mix an argument about agency with belief or non-belief in God. Sounds like you are trying to imply that if we don’t believe in God then we shouldn’t believe in agency. There’s no connection.

              3. No you draw a false conlusion here from what I said: The comparison simply refers to the fact that people find it difficult to free themselves from beloved assumptions, the idea of a God was a widespread unchallenged acceptance and the acceptance of its non-existence did not come overnight; and the same applies to the departure from the idea of a free will.

              4. Ok but it still seems an unreasonable line of attack to say that your opponents in the argument are just hanging on to their outdated beliefs because they give comfort. Unless of course the opponents claim that also.

          2. It seems you are a little confused about what incompatibilism or compatibility actually means:
            A 100 percent deterministic attitude stands for advocating incompatibilism.

            1. … or equally compatibilism, which is also compatible with 100% determinism. (That being the reason for the term “compatibilism”.)

              1. I know there are those who claim the possibility that a full deterministic view could allow compatibilism but I can’t take them seriously. That is the same as one would state, religion/god would be compatible with scientific knowledge, as Jerry pointed out correctly:
                “To redefine „free will“ as something other than how most people construe it is akin to redefining God as „love“ or „the universe“: a similar semantic trick used by Sophisticated Theologians™ to allow people to accept that there’s a God in the absence of evidence for a deity”

              2. “I know there are those who claim the possibility that a full deterministic view could allow compatibilism …”

                If it’s not compatible with 100% determinism then, by definition, it’s not compatibilism.

                “To redefine „free will“ as something other than how most people construe it …”

                Ok but how do people construe it? See this link.

              3. How do people construe it?
                That is said quickly: Free will is the assumption of the possibility of doing otherwise.
                Any accusation of guilt, whether from the state in criminal trials or in social or personal relations, implies the idea that the accused could have acted otherwise if only he had wanted to. That’s the essence.
                All those new definitions of free will by physicists that use the unpredictability of behavior or events as an element of affirmation of free will are a real nuisance, because they torpedo the important discussion, with absolutely irrelevant side-stages, which prevent or complicate a deepening of knowledge in the population about the illusion of free will.
                Unpredictable is also the decision of each animal, so according to this definition of the physicists then also animals have a free will.
                And indeed, there are experiments with fruit flies in which the unpredictability of their behavior in relation to flight reflexes was actually described as the “free will” of fruit flies. This nonsense comes out when one reinterprets terms “creatively”….. .

              4. “Free will is the assumption of the possibility of doing otherwise.”

                Agreed, but what counts as “could do otherwise”?

                The compatibilist says it means “you could do otherwise if you wanted to do otherwise” (which is compatible with 100% determinism).

                The incompatibilist says it has to mean that you could do otherwise regardless of the prior state, and thus regardless of whether you wanted to or not — which is a rather incoherent concept.

                Thus, a prisoner who is given no choice over a meal is eating chicken because it’s that or nothing.

                The person in the restaurant could have ordered steak or salmon if they had wanted to (that bit is crucial), and thus is eating chicken of their own free will.

                And yes, I do know that this is not how *you* conceive of “free will”, but the article I linked to suggests that people in everyday parlance do *not* generally require contra-causal woo in their definition of “free will”.

              5. I agree. Incompatibilists insist that free will by their definition is the one determined by the rules of physics applied from the big bang onwards. We don’t have that kind of free will.

                However, as agents we do have a thing we call free will also that allows us to make choices. This is at a different level of description from the physics one.

      2. Although “supernatural free will” has the same fundamental problems. Events are either predetetmined by earlier events or random. Regardless of which one, there is no room for free will. It does not help to press a “reset button” either, since that will just constitute a new beginning. Still no room for free will. This has nothing to do with materialism, but fundamental logic. If you remove logic, then you also remove the basic definition for actions or decisions which render the whole concept of free will meaningless. You can’t remove or modify time since there has to be a causal relationship between the decision maker and the decision. If there is no time or time is fragmented, then it’s impossible to establish such a relationship and free will again becomes a meaningless concept.

        1. Paul Churchland years ago pointed out that the people who think that the Chalmers-Jackson style arguments against materialism go through as much if your consciousness is mediated by “ectoplasm”. The same applies to antimaterialist arguments around free will.

          One has to introduce additional, ad hoc, premises to get anywhere.

          (This is also parallel to those who claim god is simple.)

  12. Pointless and tedious play of words.

    I usually expect this from theologians and (most) philosophers, rather than physicists.

    Then again, that community has always been a little soft on determinism, hence the surprising (at least for this computer scientist) of (what they call) superdeterminism (which should just be called “determinism”, really….).

    1. Superdeterminism is something different. Normal determinism says something like: the present is fully determined by the past, and the future fully determined by the present. Superdeterminism, on the other hand, says that the past, present, and future are all fully determined, PERIOD. The critical distinction is that under normal determinism, you can ask hypothetical questions about how a small change in the past would’ve changed the present and future. Under superdeterminism, this is like asking what would happen if 2+2 were 5 instead of 4.

      This is important for making sense of quantum mechanics, because Bell’s theorem depends on asking questions like “what if we’d measured X instead of Y”. These questions make sense under normal determinism (though it may be complicated to figure out what other effects the relevant change in the past would have), but under superdeterminism these are nonsense questions.

      BTW, I don’t know of anyone who actually believes in superdeterminism; it’s more of an annoying loophole in Bell’s reasoning (that we’d like to eliminate but can’t) than a serious position.

      1. Well yes. If I run a deterministic system, the initial configuration fully determines the state of the system at all times. That’s (a direct consequence of, by induction) what it means to be deterministic.

        If my system happens to be a universe simulation in which live curious experimenters, then the questions they ask and the answers they get are indeed “predetermined”.

        They can well ask “what would happen if I did X” when in fact they’ll do Y (not that they can know they will) and it *is* a counterfactual question. Which is not the same thing as a nonsense question.

        If they have a good idea as to what the rules of the machine are, they can reasonably approximate what would happen if the current configuration (in which they are) were modified (simulate a different run within the current run). How useful that is in practice depends on how chaotic the system is.

        1. …and that’s why it’s important to distinguish between normal determinism (what you’re describing) and superdeterminism (which you appear to reject entirely).

          1. No. I am a bit surprised that this is your takeaway from what I wrote, given that I attempted (apparently very unsuccessfully) to explain that

            1° your definitions of “normal det” and “superdet” are *equivalent* given fixed initial conditions (eg. big bang). (Your def of normal det is the inductive step of a mathematical induction… s(n) => s(n+1). If you accept s(0) as well then \forall n: s(n), which is your def of superdeterminism. The other direction is immediate.)

            2° (super)determinism does not automatically turn *every* counterfactual question into nonsense questions. (Although in very chaotic systems, that can be the case; our universe is not all that chaotic, though).

            That point is actually not trivial at all and I should develop an example with a Turing machine or rewriting system to properly explain it. But that would be actual work and I’m too lazy.

            In a nutshell, I certainly do not reject superdeterminism, as I hold it to be simply “determinism”, when you don’t shy away from its (trivial; again, it’s a basic induction) logical consequence, which many physicists do; take Bell himself for instance:

            “Suppose the world is super-deterministic, with not just inanimate nature running on behind-the-scenes clockwork, but with our behavior, including our belief that we are free to choose to do one experiment rather than another, absolutely predetermined, including the ‘decision’ by the experimenter to carry out one set of measurements rather than another[…]” (Bell, 85).

            The (unwarranted) opposition between “inanimate nature” and “our behavior” is very telling, to my mind, about the type of ideological presuppositions at work (soul, free will, etc).

            Though there are probabilistic arguments for Bell’s theorem that might yet convince me, it seems to me that the weak (though not inexistant) support for “super”determinism in the physics community is more based on a presupposition of a (non-deterministic) free will for the experimenter than anything else. Certainly most times I’ve read physicists vulgarise this issue, they framed that, at least implicitly, mostly as a free will issue (pretty much as implicit in Bell’s own speech), which I find very unconvincing.

            (There are also interpretation issues, eg Many worlds; I’m not competent to have an opinion on that worth writing.)

            I hope this clarifies my position. If not, too bad, because I’ve expended as much time and energy as I’m willing to on that question and on this impractical medium. 🙂

  13. A singularity is merely a point beyond which a function cannot be continued.

    She’s just confusing mathematical models of reality with reality. It’s already established that we can’t predict infinitely outwards from any prior conditions, because they can’t be known with sufficient precision (small variations multiplying in significance as time goes on). Alas, for our egos, our inability to predict does not restrict reality’s ability to continue a chain of causation. Reality is just one damn thing after another. Our level of success at discerning patterns and calculating the future has no bearing on that future’s arrival with the de facto correct answers in tow.

    In other words, we’re not Laplace’s demon, and we almost certainly never can be.

    Even if she were right, of course, she has all her work ahead of her to justify calling the resulting unpredictability “free will”. Rather like the Christian theologian who’s work would just be beginning upon proving the need for a prime mover.

  14. I think the important thing is the last paragraph. Hossenfelder mentions a theoretical possibility (which you may or may not find convincing), but ends by saying:

    “It will take more than this to convince me that free will isn’t an illusion, but this example for the failure of reductionism gives you an excuse to continue believing in free will.”

    Maybe my irony-meter needs recalibration, but I take this to mean that it’s all rather tongue-in-cheek.

  15. It seems to me that to explain human free will, the singularity must occur at distances comparable to the distances between neurons. Surely this would show up in the operation of, for instance, computers, many of which are comparable in size to a human brain?

  16. I think she’s trying to be honest about closing the door on free will. There is no evidence for life beyond earth, and it may not exist but we cannot say that it certainly does not exist.

    1. Yes but at least the concept of life beyond earth makes sense. It’s a variant of what already exists: us. Maybe a bit knobblier or gloopier or more vaporous, but perfectly conceivable. Free will isn’t like that.

      And if that wasn’t bad enough, it’s both unfalsifiable in principle and _contradicted_ by a lot of direct evidence. Extra-terrestrial life isn’t either of those things.

  17. The mind is software running on hardware. That’s not to say it is code but it’s analgous to a piece of software or Operating system that, while it depends on the hardware (or wetware) to run it can be conceptually abstracted from it. A software engineer doesn’t need to know about the not, and or “or” gates.

    And those gates don’t follow the laws of physics. Sure the electrons have to flow in a certain way consistent with physics, but no physical law tells you what the next state of the those gates will be. Their next state depends on the software running not on underlying universal law.

    Which isn’t to say the software we could write would have free will, but possibly the software written by evolution has. If the mind drives the brain the the brain is controlled top down, not bottom up – a few nervous system instincts aside.

  18. If intelligent beings exist somewhere in the universe, can they possess free will or the laws of physics preclude free will?

    1. I think if there is a universe with physical regularities, ie. if that universe is not just ‘tricked out with capricious, ad hoc magic’, then free-will won’t exist in it.

      Free will makes no sense unless we allow for magic/woo to paper over its conceptual cracks. The only way it’d be a possibility is if we lived in a universe where things were allowed not to make sense, and I don’t think we do.

      IMO it’s not just a question of whether there’s evidence for free will, it’s a question of whether the very idea of it is even coherent.

      1. Then it’s possible than in a few decades — if people like Sam Harris are right about AI — there will be a “superintelligence” that will possess… what? A super-illusion of free will?

        1. Well that’s a really interesting avenue that not many people discuss – why we evolved to believe in free-will in the first place. I assume there was a good adaptive reason, and maybe some superintelligence will also be programmed/program itself to believe in it simply because it’s evolutionarily useful.

          For the life of me I can’t see the reason why we evolved to believe in free-will, but on the principle that ‘evolution is smarter than you’ I assume that there must be one.

          1. Evolution is both smarter than you (because it iterates many tests over a number of generations of a population) and dumber than a brick because it is blind to the outcomes of its processes.

            Evolutionary processes don’t have to produce a logically correct outcome, they sieve out outcomes that are less fit than others. So if holding the idea of ‘free will’ helps sieve out less fit outcomes than that idea will prosper whether it is logically correct or not. Just like Peacock’s tails or Irish Elk’s antlers.

          2. A superintelligence should be able to program itself to be unimaginably free (it would have an unimaginable capacity to anticipate consequences and act to avoid undesirable ones) and, at the same time, should know that even a god couldn’t create beings that have free will.

            What am I talking about?

  19. Here’s another take on the issue of free will but from a philosophical point of view: “Free Will Is Still Alive,” Philosophy Now,Issue 124, Feb/Mar, 2018, p. 22. You can read it for free by going to the mag’s website, clicking on that issue, then on the article.

  20. We’ve been through this before, with people like Björn Brembs attempting to show that quantum physics is a source of free will … because of the ‘indeterminacy’ etc.

    This is all balony. Physics is way below the level at which ‘willed’ actions occur.

    Quantum events are a fundamental part of electronics, but you can bet that most proponents of free-will very specifically do not attribute consciousness and free-will to electronic systems – basic electronic components, or computers.

  21. The arguments in favor of free will are beginning to remind me of the debates between Calvinism and Arminianism in in the Fundamentalist churches I attended in my youth…

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