Sabine Hossenfelder on why we don’t have free will, but why many still insist on it

May 3, 2019 • 10:15 am

Sabine Hossenfelder is a theoretical physicist at Frankfurt’s Institute for Advanced Studies, and a popular writer with a long-time website (see below) as well as a new book, Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics AstrayReader Nat called my attention to her new post on BackReAction (her website) about free will. It’s short, but I was pleased to see that she agrees with me in 1). noting that her conception of free will is that of most people: contracausal (“you could have done otherwise”) free will, 2.) we don’t have the kind of free will because the laws of physics rule it out, and 3.) compatibilism is merely a semantic game which obviates the real question of agency. (I would add that compatibilism obviates the hard but socially important questions that come with accepting determinism—not because compatibilists aren’t determinists, but because they seem more concerned with semantics than with changing society in view of what we know about the universe.)

But read for yourself (see also her related post from 2016, “Free will is dead, let’s bury it.


A few quotes:

Physics deals with the most fundamental laws of nature, those from which everything else derives. These laws are, to our best current knowledge, differential equations. Given those equations and the configuration of a system at one particular time, you can calculate what happens at all other times.

That is for what the universe without quantum mechanics is concerned. Add quantum mechanics, and you introduce a random element into some events. Importantly, this randomness in quantum mechanics is irreducible. It is not due to lack of information. In quantum mechanics, some things that happen are just not determined, and nothing you or I or anyone can do will determine them.

Taken together, this means that the part of your future which is not already determined is due to random chance. It therefore makes no sense to say that humans have free will.

I think I here spell out only the obvious, and use a notion of free will that most people would agree on. You have free will if your decisions select one of several possible futures. But there is no place for such a selection in the laws of nature that we know, laws that we have confirmed to high accuracy. Instead, whatever is about to happen was already determined at the big bang – up to those random flukes that come from quantum mechanics.

And like me, she has no time for compatibilism:

Now, some people try to wiggle out of this conclusion by defining free will differently, for example by noting that no one can in practice predict your future behavior (at least not currently). One can do such redefinitions, of course, but this is merely verbal gymnastics. The future is still fixed up to occasional chance events.

Others try to interpret quantum randomness as a sign of free will, but this is in conflict with evidence. Quantum processes are not influenced by conscious thought. Chaos is deterministic, so it doesn’t help. Goedel’s incompleteness theorem, remarkable as it is, has no relevance for natural laws.

Finally, I agree with her conclusion that “a large fraction of people are cognitively unable to question the existence of free will, and there is no argument that can change their mind.” It’s not that people don’t understand what people like Hossenfelder and I are saying, it’s just that they don’t want to accept it because the illusion of agency is so powerful and they can’t bear to think of themselves as meat robots guided by the laws of physics.

In that sense, and in many others, belief in libertarian free will is like a religion: it goes against the scientific facts and yet people refuse to give it up whatever the evidence against it.  Further, philosophers like Dan Dennett, who oppose the “Little People” argument when it comes to religion (i.e., “we need faith to hold society together”), will nevertheless make the same argument when it comes to free will. (See other Little People-ists at the bottom of this post.)

Hossenfelder offers four perspectives that might help denialists accept determinism, but I’ll let you read her article.

She is quite active answering questions and objections in her comment section, and I’ll put up her response to a “criticism” that I often hear, one that has been made on this site. “How can you prove that there is no contracausal free will?” (To me that’s like asking “How can you prove that stars beyond our ability to observe obey the laws of physics?”). “Pete’s” claim that the feeling of having libertarian free will constitutes some evidence for it is in fact no evidence at all, particularly in the face of the physics.

One more quote from her 2016 piece:

This conclusion that free will doesn’t exist is so obvious that I can’t help but wonder why it isn’t widely accepted. The reason, I am afraid, is not scientific but political. Denying free will is considered politically incorrect because of a wide-spread myth that free will skepticism erodes the foundation of human civilization.

For example, a 2014 article in Scientific American addressed the question “What Happens To A Society That Does not Believe in Free Will?” The piece is written by Azim F. Shariff, a Professor for Psychology, and Kathleen D. Vohs, a Professor of Excellence in Marketing (whatever that might mean).

In their essay, the authors argue that free will skepticism is dangerous: “[W]e see signs that a lack of belief in free will may end up tearing social organization apart,” they write. “[S]kepticism about free will erodes ethical behavior,” and “diminished belief in free will also seems to release urges to harm others.” And if that wasn’t scary enough already, they conclude that only the “belief in free will restrains people from engaging in the kind of wrongdoing that could unravel an ordered society.”

To begin with I find it highly problematic to suggest that the answers to some scientific questions should be taboo because they might be upsetting. They don’t explicitly say this, but the message the article send is pretty clear: If you do as much as suggest that free will doesn’t exist you are encouraging people to harm others. So please read on before you grab the axe.

In fact, as I’ve written before (see here), there is no evidence whatsoever—earlier “evidence” from lab studies hasn’t been replicated—that denying free will has any bad effects on either your psyche or society.

99 thoughts on “Sabine Hossenfelder on why we don’t have free will, but why many still insist on it

  1. Determinism: no free will.

    Randomness: no free will.

    But there is still a meaningful distinction between voluntary and involuntary behaviors- willful acts vs reflexes, or giving money away ‘freely’ (e.g. to charity) as opposed to at the point of a gun (e.g., to a mugger). I believe this is the distinction that compatibilists are trying to emphasize.

      1. I would make the physicists rename their version of “free will”. How about just “determinism”? I think they do not understand everyday free will. That’s why they think their “no free will” argument is obvious while most normal people go on with their lives thinking they have free will.

    1. If that is what compatibilists are trying to emphasize, it is kind of a truism.

      Translated to simple English: “There are different kinds of influences on behavior”. No shit.

    2. While “not at the point of a gun” is certainly a significant issue with free will, I don’t see it as anywhere close to a defining characteristic that differentiates physics free will from everyday free will A decision made at the point of a gun is still everyday free will as it involves human interaction and decision making. The real differentiator between the two kinds of free will is that they involve two completely different levels of description. See Carroll’s “Free Will Is as Real as Baseball”.

    3. I don’t see any important distinction between giving for charity and giving at the point of a gun in the context of talking about free will. Your brain (which is you) evaluates the likely consequences of giving and not giving in both cases and decides which has the outcome you prefer. What you prefer is determined by the structure of your brain which is deterministic as is your method of predicting the outcomes. It feels like you are making a decision – and you are, it’s just a deterministic process.

      The reflex thing is different at one level because, as I understand it, reflexes are hard wired at a lower level and the response to the stimulus does not involve a pathway through the brain, but I guess it’s still neurones processing stimuli and emitting responses.

      1. From a legal standpoint there is a world of difference between actions done voluntarily vs those done under pressure from another agent. ‘Did you sign the contract freely or did they force you to do it?’ We use this kind of language all the time in daily life, and there is nothing particularly controversial or spooky about it. It is completely compatible with the idea that our decisions and behaviors, embodied in brains, are made in accordance with the laws of physics.

        1. Agreed. It is a matter of how far back one wants to go in finding causes for a particular action or decision. The first cause is usually “Because I wanted to.” Next comes “Because someone held a gun to my head.” Then there is “certain electrons in my head moved, triggering a particular neuron to fire.” Finally, “Because the universe evolved to make it so.” I’m sure there can be intermediate causes too. Which one we take to trigger other decisions (register a guilty verdict, incorporate in a cognitive psychology paper, etc.) is a societal choice.

  2. There’s one question that’s always puzzled me about this: why, from a deterministic perspective, do people believe they have free will? Why would they evolve this belief* given that:

    a. it’s incorrect, and

    b. it doesn’t seem to give us any kind of adaptive advantage?

    After all, people who believe in free will aren’t freer to choose their futures than people who don’t believe – we’re both equally constrained by determinism. We don’t seem to gain any advantage from believing in free-will. So where does this belief in it come from?

    *I’m assuming belief in free-will is a consequence of evolution rather than a cultural inheritance…mainly because it’s such a ubiquitous and powerfully innate belief. Which suggests it’s hard-wired by evolution.

    1. Who says it hasn’t been adaptive in the past?Evolution has produced many features that were once adaptive but no longer are.

      1. But why would it have been adaptive at any point?

        There must be some kind of explanation for why we hold a false belief – and while I can see the adaptive reasons for believing in gods(or rather the adaptations that would give rise to a belief in gods as side-effect) I can’t see any adaptive reasons for believing in free-will.

        1. Free will is just the sense of agency we have. It is selected by evolution because, without it, we would sit around like lumps. One has to believe that one has choices to make.

          I’m willing to stipulate that everything is determined at the physics level but that our mental lives operate at a different level.

          1. I said “from a deterministic perspective”. If you, Paul Topping, believe that free-will is a real phenomenon then of course you would also argue that belief in free-will is necessary.

            But I’m asking why belief in free-will evolved _from a deterministic standpoint._ Ie., assuming that determinism is true and free-will is a chimera then why do humans nevertheless believe in it?

            1. I don’t really understand what you mean by “from a deterministic perspective”. Determinism is a fairly abstract (ie, not part of everyday life) physics concept.

              1. What I mean is what I said: “assuming that determinism is true and free-will is a chimera then why do humans nevertheless believe in it?”

                I understand that you don’t personally think that free-will is a chimera, but I’m asking the question as someone who IS a determinist and who DOES believe it’s a chimera. Now – from that perspective – why would humans evolve the belief that free-will exists? What advantage would it give us to believe in it given that it doesn’t exist?

                Your original answer assumed that free-will does exist and moved from there. You said that we would sit around doing nothing if we didn’t believe in free will. But of course that’s only true if free-will is real.
                If it isn’t real then whether we believe in it or not shouldn’t make the blindest bit of difference to our day-to-day motivation to, as you say, get up off our arses.

        2. I have a couple of evolutionary explanations that might explain why we evolved a sense of agency but, like Fermat, I can’t go into them in this limited space. They’re all speculative anyway. We don’t know that our sense of agency IS evolved versus being a spandrel, and if it is evolved the selective pressures are lost in the unrecoverable past.

          1. I was going to suggest “spandrel” upstream but was afraid I’d tumble into a “Gould got spandrels wrong” rabbit hold. 😉

    2. Our evolutionary attraction to free will is no different than an attraction towards music or gardening. Some cannot find meaning in life without music. Even fewer, judging from a common American yard, find meaning in gardening. And still fewer are attracted to ontological or epistemological quandaries like free will.

      If belief or interest in free will made not appear to have an adaptive advantage, it’s almost certainly tied to a set of behaviors that do benefit our species.

      Why on earth will there still be sociopathic killers in our evolved society next year? The qualities of a sociopath, when not fully expressed as a compulsive serial murderer, can be extraordinarily beneficial to brain surgeons or generals or even some teachers.

      1. I don’t think I’m explaining myself very well here:

        I’m not talking about an attraction to the subject of free-will, similar to people being interested in gardening.

        Rather I’m talking about, very specifically, the _universal belief in free-will._ Everyone on earth(pretty much) believes in free-will. Even hard determinists like myself find it difficult to shake it off at a fundamental level because it’s so hard-wired.

        So, assuming that free-will doesn’t exist(which is my position and Jerry’s position and Sabine’s position), why do we nevertheless seem to have evolved a very, very strong belief in it?

        1. Because that evolved belief that we all share is not the same as the physics kind of free will that doesn’t exist due to determinism.

          I hate the Compatibilist label because it pretends that there’s only one definition of free will.

          1. Okay, I know you think the deterministic definition of free-will doesn’t hold, I get that. But I was asking you to look at the question I asked from the perspective of someone who thinks it DOES hold. That was the whole point.

          2. As a more rabid Compatibilist than you (I guess), I would point out that the incompatibilist definitions of free will are derivative from (A) the evolved belief that we all share plus (B) mistaken physics when it comes to understanding causality.

        2. If asked, yes they do believe in free will, however, like a belief in God, most people spend 99.9% of their lives never concerning themselves with free will or religion. They’ve got other things to do.

          Strong belief might be there, but it’s hardly thought about by anyone.

        3. Maybe try asking the inverse question: what is the selective disadvantage of thinking you don’t have free will?

          Lack of motivation perhaps, in one way or another. It is pretty easy to think what you do doesn’t matter if everything is determined anyway. Why vote, or feed the ducks, or read books, or make any effort to improve your life or lives around you?

          My personal take is that free will has always been poorly defined, because it is so dependent on having a meaningful self that is reliable and consistent in the first place. If your self wasn’t deterministic, you wouldn’t always be you!

          Once you decide that you are glad that your self is reasonably consistent, and that waking up tomorrow as the same person you are today is a good thing, it is easier to accept that determinism is a good thing.

    3. I don’t know – but I think it is related to the problem of observing oneself – of standing back from oneself, and observing what oneself does. If that sounds confusing, perhaps that is part of the problem.

      I also think it is because from birth, we become conditioned to our experience as if we act with free will. I reach for an analogy here – the couch in the living room. If the couch is moved 3 mm, we notice it like a stone in our shoe (ok, two analogies). We are so accustomed to the couch, it becomes the room – and any deviation is unsettling.

      so to summarize my two points, [1] the depth to which we are used to our own self-experience on a moment-to-moment basis is substantial to the point of ignoring it completely, and [2] observation of our experience can lead to an unsettling view – perhaps a glimpse that there is no free will, which we have, by [1], become very deeply accustomed to. Unless one is ready to be unsettled, they won’t be inclined to look down the rabbit hole.

        1. Gee, thanks!

          I acknowledge that it was only half addressing your comment, but half just stimulated by your comment.

          1. My brain is hurting with all of this to be honest, and your comment sent me down a proper rabbit hole for about ten minutes(not that I’m blaming you). I started to lose consciousness and then I saw the Mandelbrot set and the Joker laughing and a big swirly spiral shape…and something that looked like a page from a Magic Eye book. I need to stop now I think.

    4. b. it doesn’t seem to give us any kind of adaptive advantage?

      My theory – which is mine – is that our “consciousness” and feelings of free will are involved in how we understand the behavior of other people based on their mental states – the “theory of mind”:

      “Theory of mind is the ability to attribute mental states — beliefs, intents, desires, emotions, knowledge, etc. — to oneself, and to others, and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from [or similar to!] one’s own.

      Theory of mind is crucial for everyday human social interactions and is used when analyzing, judging, and inferring others’ behaviors.”

      1. = Our feelings of free (and consciousness) are schematics for how other people are likely to behave in a given situation.

    5. I’ll see your question and raise you another question: Why did people evolve a predisposition to incompatibilism? Why do they find it so easy to believe that causality precludes free will?

      Here’s my answer: because of our hyperactive agency-detectors, we find it all to easy to treat all causality as some kind of agency or control. So we think that if there are causal relationships stretching from our actions back into the past, that means the past is *making* us do something.

      Which is anthropomorphic nonsense, of course. And it’s a shame that a philosopher of physics like Hossenfelder would fall for it.

      1. Yep. The whole sense of agency, cause and effect, how consciousness feels, are artifacts of the human condition. They are useful hacks invented by evolution over billions of years. It should be no surprise that even people as smart as Hossenfelder find it hard to think outside them.

  3. People believe they have free will because it feels like we have free will. If I decide to go get a glass of water it appears from my perspective that I make the choice myself. Regardless of what laws of physics may indicate otherwise.
    I can’t shake the thought that it was my decision that I made to go get the glass of water. Now I believe I have freely changed my mind. I will get another cup of coffee instead.

    Hard to fisvrlievevthungs you feel or see with your own eyes. No matter what logic, reason and rational thought tells you.

    Now for the coffee. Or was it water.

  4. I find her dismissiveness quite irritating. She’s a physicist who is leaning hard on authority to make her point. She’s also not entirely honest in choosing some Scientific American article as an example of her opposition. I didn’t read the SciAm article but it sounds like it simply a “little people” argument which doesn’t deserve much attention.

    She completely dismisses those (me included) that believe that the kind of free will that matters is not the free will she’s talking about. In her mind, people who want to argue about the definition of “free will” are just playing around with semantics. Since “semantics” is about meaning, it never ceases to amaze me when intelligent people present the “nothing but semantics” argument. Sometimes it applies when people truly are confusing their terms but not here. Instead it is just a false mode of argument.

    I would love to see Hossenfelder and Sean Carroll debate free will. I’d definitely pay to see that! See

    Free Will Is as Real as Baseball

    1. She’s pretty…brusque. That’s a nice way of putting it I think. She can be pretty rude when she thinks people are wasting her time, and utterly, contemptuously dismissive of vast swathes of academic thought.

      Her comment sections are alternately terrifying for the abstract complexity of the discussions and comical for the total lack of patience she displays towards people who she thinks have asked a stupid question.

      I’ve visited the site a few times, never commented though. It doesn’t seem to be the warmest of places but it’s extremely rigorous and very forthright.

      1. IMHO, Bee has the best non-specialist physics blog around. I’ve read it for years. To say she doesn’t tolerate fools gladly is an understatement. She is an iconoclast, and I like that.

          1. Uh, yeah. I didn’t mention them for a reason. But I like the guts it takes to post them.

    2. I think she understands the ‘semantic’ crowd of free will enthusiasts. If you delve into this statement:

      “Free will is a consequence of our inability to predict our own actions with certainty.”

      you may find she can box any number of persons who would rather not commit to a definition of free will.

      And I think Sean and Sabine would probably agree a lot more than disagree…but wouldn’t that be an outstanding discussion!

      1. “she can box any number of persons who would rather not commit to a definition of free will”

        Those unwilling to commit to a definition of free will are not worth arguing with. Hossenfelder does not gain my respect by dismissing them. Her whole post seems an argument from authority and ridiculing her weakest opponents. I doubt she would do so well in a proper debate against live, skilled opponents.

        Her whole post seems to be her expressing exasperation with those who don’t agree with her rather than making any new points or polishing of old ones. Her motives in writing this are not honest or productive, IMHO.

  5. The problem with the Hard Determinist position is that it has no logical basis for your efforts at presenting arguments and trying to convince me that you are correct. By your position, the real problem with my inability to agree with you was determined in the initial arrangement of the universe.

    To say that Compatibilists are “just” hung up in “semantics” is true in the sense that there has to be more ‘Meaning’ in our world than that conveyed by those “differential equations” that describe the universe. But, it is COOL that that initial configuration is (apparently) Compatible with the ‘higher levels’ of organization that do allow creatures as complex as us to use language and have a social organization that does have a key Role for meanings including an important meaning for “Free Will.”

    I will read inserts, now. Just pointing out this incoherence that haunts your efforts.

    1. “…there has to be more ‘Meaning’ in our world than…”

      Why exactly? How do you know this is true?

      1. Because, as I explained, the equations don’t explain the meaning of words, they refer to very different kinds of “objects.” That is what they are about. Its a category mistake.

        1. You didn’t exactly answer there. You’re asserting that this magic extra sauce has to exist. I don’t see why your assertion is sufficient to make it true. How do you know that some equations don’t explain words?

          (I don’t know if such equations might ever exist, but I can’t assert that they can’t with any confidence.)

    2. By your position, the real problem with my inability to agree with you was determined in the initial arrangement of the universe.

      And if you’ve read any of the previous posts, you’d understand that the initial arrangement of the universe includes its evolution into people presenting evidence and others changing their minds.

      To dismiss it because the initial state of the universe determines that you will dismiss it implies that you think determinism is incompatible with changing your mind, which, evidently, is false.


      1. previous discussion on evol is about why the bad idea of free will was ever a survival advantage. My point is that for this current discussion on free will to make sense, somehow creatures who could reason and use evidence and convince each other, have to be real.
        Though maybe all this “argument” is just smoke up the ass and what is really happening is that Natural Selection will eventually choose between Free Willers and Billiard Ballers according to the number of Off Spring They Leave Behind!

  6. “…it’s just that they don’t want to accept it [not having libertarian free will] because the illusion of agency is so powerful and they can’t bear to think of themselves as meat robots guided by the laws of physics.”

    I don’t think it’s an illusion that we are causally effective agents, so reassuring people on that point can help them accept determinism. We don’t need to be uncaused in any respect for us to have our own effects on the world. Likewise the “meat robot controlled by the laws of physics” meme leaves out of the picture all our internal behavior control capacities. We not only obey the laws of physics, we’re often rational, foresightful, self-controlled and autonomous. Determinism doesn’t obviate any of that, so it’s important not to leave the impression of our being passive puppets if we want to get people on our side of the free will debate.

    Note that all this is *not* a plug for compatibilism, but only to help avoid demoralization by determinism.

    1. I’m sorry, Tom, but yes, you are plugging compatibilism, and frankly I’m tired of you saying that you’re not doing it while you really are. “Causally effective agents” means nothing except that people do things as a result of the workings of their brain. And you’re playing right into the compatibilist camp by saying that we have capacities like being rational, self-controlled, and so on, that are something different from the laws of physics. Those things also instantiate the laws of physics.

      It’s clear that you think determinism is demoralizing. I don’t happen to agree with you. And what you’re doing, in my view, is simply compatibilist obfuscation to obviate the fact of determinism, mentioning things that are simply aspects of our being meat robots. Self-controlled? Really? That sure sounds like some non-physical agency. So does “causally effective agents”, which is a deepity.

      1. I’m with Tom. I don’t particularly care how we define free will but I call myself a compatibilist for the simple fact that I don’t think we have to pretend that we have any powers we don’t. (Libertarian) free will is not a necessary illusion. It’s absolutely real that we think, analyze, make decisions and are in control of our bodies. We certainly are causally effective agents. No one here is claiming that we are not bound by the laws of physics or that our behaviours can not be described in physics terms at more fundamental levels.

        1. Kosmos, I don’t consider myself a compatibilist since compatibilists usually don’t think much needs to change when we take determinism on board, for instance in terms of attitudes and social policies (e.g., criminal justice, social inequality). I’m definitely with Jerry in thinking much *should* change when we give up the myth of contra-causal free will. But I’m with you in agreeing that “it’s absolutely real that we think, analyze, make decisions and are in control of our bodies. We certainly are causally effective agents.”

  7. One thing continues to puzzle me regarding the no-free-will position. If a criminal could not have done otherwise, doesn’t the same apply to all decisions made by all people? If criminals are no longer morally responsible for their actions, then is anyone morally responsible for their actions? It has been pointed out many times by many people that “couldn’t have done otherwise” should apply to any kind of received honor. Why should we laud Watson and Crick if they couldn’t have done otherwise? While this question gets asked a lot, I’ve yet to see a good answer.

    I think the answer is that it does affect all decisions. Actually, regardless of whether one believes in determinism or indeterminism, there is no magic essence that absolves us of couldn’t-do-otherwise. We’re stuck with it.

    However, it doesn’t really matter as we still have to play the cards we’re dealt by existence. That everything operates at a lower level by physical laws just doesn’t matter to everyday life and the human condition. Sure, physicists care about it and it is a curiosity to the rest of us but we can’t use the knowledge to understand what decisions we’re going to make. Much as we regard a table as solid, even though we know that it is mostly empty space, we should also regard our agency as if there are decisions to be made and that it does matter how we make them.

    1. Paul

      I don’t do the extended free will discussions on this site anymore but I’d just sort of echoe you on this. I can’t help noticing similar inconsistencies.

      It’s lke when a church burns down killing many people and a single child survives, Christians declare “miracle! God saved that child!”

      This is profound and obviously true for the Christian, but it makes the atheist mind blow fuses. Our reasoning immediatly goes to all the inconsistencies and absurdities that spring from that claim, which don’t even seem to concern the Christian.

      My brain blows similar fuses when I read hard incompatibilists declaring we can not do otherwise, that choice is an illusion etc.
      My thoughts just immediately follow the implications out to the apparent inconsistency. Right after these declarations the incompatibilist will, like everyone else, go right back to the language of “choice” and “options” and “could do otherwise” as if those concepts hadn’t been irrevocably damaged by their arguments.

      I remain open to the incompatibilist view, but I find it thus far impossible to get on board when I can’t help noticing these problems.

      1. Vaal, just so we understand each other, I do believe that the evolution of the universe is deterministic. I do believe that our sense of agency is an illusion but it just doesn’t have the impact that incompatibilists think it does. The universe is complex, has an unfathomable number of moving parts, all of which are changing all the time according to the laws of physics. Our sense of agency is an illusion as we have no ability to change how the universe will unfold.

        The real problem is that something in us that can change how the universe unfolds is just another case of dualism. We are 100% part of the universe so what is it that is changing the universe? It’s a completely goofy way to think about a decision as something outside the universe changing how the universe unfolds. Anyone that thinks that is suffering under an illusion.

        Instead, we live within the unfolding universe. Our decision making is merely a small part of the universe unfolding. That doesn’t (or shouldn’t) diminish its importance. After all, it is how the whole universe unfolds.

        I think the “couldn’t of done otherwise” problem is kind of the hard problem of free will in just the same way that our experience of perception is the hard problem of consciousness. We are thinking about both from a vantage point that is inside the processes being examined. It is very hard to do. Once we know how the brain works in detail, or have constructed an artificial intelligence that works well enough that we grant it the same kind of agency we think we have, then the mystery will largely go away. We will see how perception, consciousness, and decision making work in someone other than ourselves. It will dissolve the illusion to some degree.

        1. I like your comments, Paul. A few of mine in response.

          The evol of univ is determined, but as it has evolved it has ‘changed its terms.’ Yes, nothing happens that changes the course of all those atoms or waves as laid out initially, But somehow, ‘on top of that physics world’, Organisms ‘appeared’ that seem to operate in really different terms than physics uses. “For Darwin’s sake,” Isn’t biology real? Are living things just as illusory (more B.S.) as Free Will? From the Point of View of physics, both are just stuff to be ‘truly’ described as little chunks and waves (or other blah, blah, blah). This is the issue Compatibilist have with hard det, and rightly. They are “Greedy Reductionists”, Dan Dennett and Sean Carroll say.

          Your final comment on “Vantage Point”, is getting warm. All this Hard Determinism is a Very Artificial way to think reality is. They act like they have ‘risen above the world’ (kinda like Jesus on Easter) and can now ‘see’, know it (the universe) from outside it. They believe, “In Principle”, physics explains all; but is doesn’t. For us humble human who are stuck Inside the Universe, we have a limited perspective that necessitates that we think of some things as ‘options’, ‘probable’, ‘up to me’, ‘worth blogging my opinion about’, ‘wondering what others will think’ and other such ‘illusory’ stuff.

          But then I’m not as smart as ‘those who soar above’ and in possession of those golden differential equations that foretell all. Happily, my feet are on the ground and I possess a much more limited perspective.. (oh, golly, am I sounding condescending now? don’t mean to, just having some fun, sorry)

          1. Yes, I see where you are going here and agree. Someone smart pointed out that even if we had complete understanding of the fundamental laws of physics (ie, a true Theory of Everything), it would not eliminate chemistry, biology, politics, education, etc. While they might all be derivable from physics laws in principle, they are not at all derivable in practice except in isolated laboratory experiments at a tiny level. Greedy reductionists indeed!

  8. For ‘God’s sake’ Jerry (to use a mythical expression), don’t you see what you just said? You need an argument, and a long detailed one, to explain how “rationality and s-control… instantiate the laws of physics”! In fact, that is what Compatibilists like Dennett are trying to do. I don’t want to get into an argument about the meaning of “instantiate” but in no clear sense does the behavior of sub-atomic particles refer to “rationality” and many other ideas that we, including you, live by. Your argument is that physics does not support “wooey” stuff; that rationality and s-control ARE different from the laws of physics and therefore MYTHICAL.

    Also, computers control themselves to significant degrees by having higher level, “meta” structures. Just like organisms do! The more complex organisms, like socialized humans, have many levels of meta considerations before action occurs. It seems like you are running through a few of them now, in this discussion; reviewing the prospects of what you MIGHT say. This is not “non-physical”; it is just additionally complex cycles of consideration, i.e. behavior.
    Love these discussions on your site, Kudos.

  9. She quotes the SciAm authors; “[W]e see signs that a lack of belief in free will may end up tearing social organization apart,” they write. “[S]kepticism about free will erodes ethical behavior,” and “diminished belief in free will also seems to release urges to harm others.”

    If they weren’t taken out of context, doesn’t this seems like the same argument for societies needing religion so they can have a moral compass? For without religion, there would be no morality.

  10. While I like Professor Hossenfelder’s argument that determinism precludes free will and her rejection of compatibilism I do have a few differences.

    1) Her dismissal of quantum mechanics for just adding a degree of randomness is maybe premature. If QM only added randomness then for example Shore’s algorithm would not work. Violations of Bell’s inequality would not happen. There would be no quantum measurement problem. Simple randomness would not even allow superconductivity to happen. Reality and our very concept of causality break down at the quantum level. Quantum mechanics add a richer set of phenomena that we have yet to fully explore. Until quantum computers are developed we probably cannot fully explore it.

    Now I can imagine no argument for how quantum mechanics could create consciousness. But in the end, this is just an argument to a failure of imagination. This feels like a strong argument but it, in fact, is much weaker than the classical argument that strict determinism precludes free will.

    2) She never addresses the fact of experience. We do not just have thoughts, we experience them. I can imagine a universe where this is not true. I cannot imagine how such a universe would be any different than our universe in any objectively observable way… except for one. An Einstein in such a universe could develop the theory of relativity just like here. But why would that Einstein or anyone else have discussions on the experiences of their thought processes that they do not have?

    This is also just an argument to a failure of imagination and so may not be as strong as it feels. But I do think it needs to be addressed.

  11. “we don’t free will because the laws of physics rule it out,”

    Every time this issue comes up I feel like Alice going down the rabbit hole. I think I’m a fairly sophisticated thinker, but I can’t for the life of me see how the laws of physics rule out free will. I can certainly see that they limit free will—i.e., I can’t jump of a building and choose not to fall; that would violate the law of gravity. But I don’t see how my choosing to jump or not jump violates any law of physics. Apparently, I’m in the minority in failing to grasp this concept, but could someone explain it in simple terms once and for all?

    1. Why don’t you read Sean Carroll’s bit on free will in The Big Picture? There he says that we know all of the physics of everyday life, including human behavior, and can rule out “spooky” contracausal free will. (He is a compatibilist, though.)

      Doing the reader will save us the “emotional labor” of having to explain this.

      1. I’m sure you will think this “Spooky,” but here goes anyway.
        I’ve Got the Real Distinction Between “Greedy Reductionists” and Comlpatibilists——–

        Compats insist a huge difference between Being Caused By Information and being Just Plain Caused. Hard Dererminists think it’s all just causes.

        Being caused by information is being caused in accordance with Your Structure. Your Structure or your Design is something Mother Nature and human culture have worked on for a long time. It’s being well designed. It’s good.
        Just plain being caused is like getting cancer, or hit by lightening or falling down a shaft. It’s beyond your structure’s designed capabilities, outside your adaptations.

        So, what Compats and Hard D’ers differ on is the signif of Information. It’s just another “cause” to hard determinism.

        The basis for believing “Information is not just a cause” is Structure or Design. Compats believe in Structure and think it is Logically and Ontologically important.
        To believe in structure is to believe it is a Counter-Force to Plain Causation. “What goes in”a structure is “not the same thing as what comes out.” There are “Emergent Properties in this universe, including something like Agency.

        Why? Because a design is self-enclosed, to a significant degree. Like an Organism: heart, lings, brain, stomach, intestine…, all defined, exist, and function in relation to each other. Structures do a lot of important processing of the input and can Function.

        In this processing are many “meta” processes. Processes that even review the work of previous processes. It gets to be like looking down a hall of mirrors, the “meat computer” begins to Reflect On Itself. That is the start of s-controlling.

        Anyway, that is enough for now. Sorry so long.

    2. You are in good company, David Deutsch for one. Checkout his book “The Beginning of Infinity”. This “no free will argument” is just warmed over reductionism.

    3. I don’t see how my choosing to jump or not jump violates any law of physics. Apparently, I’m in the minority in failing to grasp this concept, but could someone explain it in simple terms once and for all?

      I can explain it, but I can’t justify it. You’re right to doubt it.

      The explanation is that if you choose to jump, the past has to be one way. If you choose not to jump, the past has to be another way. That’s how deterministic physics works. Now, some people see a problem there. After all, the past already happened some particular way. Therefore, they say (and here comes the mistaken inference) the past has the events it does regardless of what you choose. And therefore, your present action is also not up to you.

      All clear now?

      1. Thanks for the attempt, Paul, but “spooky” is looking more attractive by the minute. Up to your last sentence, I would have predicted that it would read: “Therefore you can’t affect what’s already happened, but your present action is up to you.” In Wonderland it can apparently go either way.

        Determinism seems to me to have been devised solely for the purpose of defending an a priori commitment to strict materialism. I certainly can’t see that it would ever have arisen from open-minded observation. That said, I resist putting down a position that I don’t understand and therefore must continue to suspend judgment on this one.

        1. It’s unfair to say that those of us who are determinists have an a priori commitment to materialism. (I use “naturalism”.) The facts are that naturalism seems to explain all aspects of the cosmos, including, as Sean Carroll says, “The physics of everyday life.

          So I deny and decry your implication that determinists are close-minded, and in fact you are putting down that position. If you’re suspending judgement, say that, and don’t criticize determinists for being a priori committed or close minded.

          1. I was trying to express the degree to which determinism baffles me, but my tone may have seemed unintentionally dismissive. If so, my apologies. I hope I can continue to be a contributing member of this stimulating site. Gary

        2. Let me try a different angle altogether. Suppose you’re right that your choice to jump or not to jump doesn’t violate any laws of physics. (I was just trying to explain the incompatibilist argument, not endorsing it.)

          Why then would you need the spooky?

          1. “Why then would you need the spooky?”

            It’s the determinists, not me, who consider that free will necessitates “the spooky.” I would have no problem accepting non-material consciousness (or what they would call “woo”) as simply part of the “natural.” But this is perhaps a debate better saved for another day.

            1. This is why in the graduate course on the subject I did years ago, my colleague Lisa Fuller suggested that we had to do the mind-body problem first. I think she (and you) are correct on this.

              However, for a convinced materialist like me, this part of the M-B is solved. This is what Sean Carroll’s stuff will tell you – there’s “no room” for the non-material – it would be detectable, effectively.

              1. “there’s ‘no room’ for the non-material”

                Trust me–the non-material takes up very little room!

                Seriously, though, I’ve just downloaded The Big Picture to my Kindle and will see what I can make of it. Maybe next time around I’ll be, if not wiser, at least more informed. Thanks to all who tried to explain.

            2. Indeed, non-material consciousness causing changes in material systems is not “woo” it is part of two of our most important theories of reality, namely the theory of computation (also called the Turing Principal) and Karl Popper’s theory of knowledge.

              When a computer beats you at chess, it’s not the computer that beat you, it’s the program that beat you. The computer hardware can be replaced and the program will still beat you but not vice versa. A computer program is an abstract, non-material but real entity that, when suitably instantiated, causes the material computer to beat you. Similarly, a mind is an abstract, non-material but real entity, a kind of program, that causes the material brain to generate behavior. There is no woo here, this is just the Turing principle of computation.

              More generally, to paraphrase David Deutsch, knowledge is a kind of information (non-material and abstract but real) that has the property that once suitably instantiated will cause itself to remain so.

              Free will is simply the part of your mind’s program that causes your brain to act on solutions to problems computed by other parts of your mind’s program. No woo or violations of laws of physics are required.

              1. This sounds right except for the distinction between material and non-material. A computer and the program that runs on it are all real stuff: patterns of matter and energy. When I hear that consciousness is non-material, I immediately conclude the person is talking about some kind of woo but I’m getting the feeling that you mean something else by “non-material”. Please define. Does David Deutsch use this term?

              2. “When a computer beats you at chess, it’s not the computer that beat you, it’s the program that beat you.”

                And if I suggested to you that someone must have created the program with a purpose in mind, would you consider that “woo”?

    1. @ Dino Rosati
      “In the reductionist world-view, the laws governing subatomic particle interactions are of paramount importance, as they are the base of the hierarchy of all knowledge.” Fundamental physics is the base of all reality, irrespective of human knowledge of reality.

      “ But in the real structure of scientific knowledge, and in the structure of
      our knowledge generally, such laws have a much more humble role.”
      The term “humble role” is vague.

      All that occurs does so because of interactions at the most fundamental level of physics, unless you wish to write “then a miracle occurs” as in the classic S Harris cartoon.

      We don’t even have an established theory for fundamental physics, but even starting with the standard model it is clearly beyond human abilities to analytically build up in complete detail to, say, brain function.

      Nevertheless there is no good reason to suppose brain function does not reduce to the standard model and below, as it were.

      1. “Nevertheless there is no good reason to suppose brain function does not reduce to the standard model and below, as it were.”

        This is a common misconception. There is every reason to believe that. Explanations at different levels of emergence must be consistent with each other but can be independent, doesn’t reduce to lower levels.

        For example the entropy law must be consistent with quantum mechanics but has never been derived from it and there is no reason to expect it can be, it doesn’t reduce to QM.

        1. I expect there’s an argument to be had behind the definition of “reduce” used here. While I agree that there are different levels of description that are each valid and useful, they are only independent in the sense that we lack the knowledge to connect them (and it may always be so). The levels are effectively independent but not actually independent. In other words, everything at every level still obeys the laws of physics, whatever they turn out to be. To think otherwise is to imagine magical influences.

          1. The theory of evolution must “obey” the laws of physics only in the sense that they don’t contradict each other. Their is no requirement that one is more fundamental than the other or that one be deduced or derived from the other. To insist on that is rank reductionism and inconsistent with Poppers Theory of Knowledge, our best theory of epistemology.

            1. Clearly the laws of physics are more fundamental than the laws of evolution, whatever they happen to be. How can that fail to be true? It would only make sense to derive evolution from physics and not the other way around. How do you substantiate your claim that the two are independent?

              Here’s a Q&A that I agree with:

              “While a system may appear to exhibit behavior not expected from the interaction of its parts, that appearance is a failure of comprehension, not magical properties of the system. A reductionist approach to emergence attempts to excise that human failure by examining the interaction of a system’s components.”

              In other words, it would be “rank reductionism” if someone claimed to be able to derive evolution from fundamental physics. Evolution is still derived from physics in nature itself but we do not know the derivation in much detail.

              1. This is a classically bad explanation for reductionism. You can always claim one theory is more fundamental than another by invoking human stupidity. I can claim the theory of evolution is more fundamental than quantum mechanics but humans are just too dumb to ever do the derivation. Explanations like that are worthless. They are the equivalent of “There is a reason for everything according to God’s plan but humans can’t understand it”.

                As Karl Popper pointed out, our theories of reality do not form a strict hierarchy with higher level theories being justified by lower level ones. Theories are conjectures, they cannot be justified. But we can detect errors in them when they contradict each other (hence the requirement of consistency) and thus make progress in the growth of knowledge.

  12. I don’t read Hossenfelder much – the new book is an example why, she lets philosophy influence her science – but of course she can be essentially right. However, an accusation of semantics should be put in front of “free will” and “compatibilism” claims. What physicists can note is that due to quantum fluctuations and deterministic chaos we cannot predict the future very far. Whether that is “compatible” with the part of “free will” notions that implies we cannot always know what will happen is rather moot, they are different questions.

    “Free will” is a fold physics/religious idea, is it not? In any case it is wrong.

    Whether or not “compatibilism” is partly wrong – it tries to elaborate on an erroneous idea – or partly correct – no predictability is what physics tell us – is uninteresting to most of us.

  13. Thanks very much for the heads up on Sabine Hossenfelder’s latest post. She’s a brilliant thinker. I usually read her blog, at least the entries I understand, but hadn’t seen this one. Her free will posts, I don’t have the brains or the background to comment on the physics, have all been clear and compelling.

    After reading through all the comments here I have to say that the ones from those who argue with her either haven’t been carefully considered, are irrelevant or lack understanding. If those who disagree with her think they have some strong arguments on the opposing side, they should go to her blog and challenge her directly. It’s a good idea though to carefully read her original post as well as her responses to those who think differently. She doesn’t suffer inattention or sloppy thinking gently.

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