UPDATE: Reader Coel pointed out in the comments—this had escaped my notice—that the author of this piece, George Ellis, won the Templeton prize in 2004 for efforts in harmonizing science and religion. This may be relevant to the article below.
Part of his citation says this:
Beyond ethics, Ellis contends that there are many areas that cannot be accounted for by physics. “Even hard-headed physicists have to acknowledge a number of different kinds of existence” beyond the basics of atoms, molecules and chemicals, he said in his prepared remarks. Directly challenging the notion that the powers of science are limitless, Ellis noted the inability of even the most advanced physics to fully explain factors that shape the physical world, including human thoughts, emotions and social constructions such as the laws of chess.
A lot of people sent me this link to an article in Aeon by physicist George Ellis, with some of them telling me that his piece deals the death blow to determinism and pumps life into the idea of free will. It doesn’t—not by a long shot. And anyone who has such a take doesn’t understand either determinism or Ellis’s arguments. For once you understand them, you see that they’re invalidated by a big fallacy.
First, here’s Ellis’s bona fides from the site (his Wikipedia bio is here):
George Ellis is the Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Complex Systems in the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. He co-authored The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time (1973) with Stephen Hawking.
First, let us be clear that although Ellis doesn’t define what he means by “free will”, it’s clear that he’s talking about libertarian, contracausal, “you-could-have-chosen-otherwise” free will”, not the compatiblist free will that accepts physical determinism. No, Ellis thinks that determinism is simply wrong.
And by “determinism”, I don’t mean that “with perfect knowledge of the present, or of the moment after the Big Bang, we could predict what would happen with 100% accuracy”. I don’t believe that, as there are some fundamentally non-deterministic processes—to our best knowledge at present, quantum mechanics comprises some of these fundamental unpredictabilities—that could, at a given time, act to create different futures. (Evolution might be one of these if the fuel for the process—mutation—is affected by quantum unpredictability. In that case, “rerunning the tape of life” from a given point could yield different outcomes.)
By “determinism”, I mean that the future is determined only by the laws of physics, not by some nonphysical “will” or “agency” that we can exercise. (Throughout his piece, Ellis conflates physical determinism with predictability, an odd stance for a physicist.)
The article, at six printed pages in Word in 9-point type, is very long, and larded with descriptions of the Schrödinger equation, ion channels, gene regulation, and biochemistry, all fancy science that could bamboozle the reader into thinking that Ellis’s view is backed by science. But it isn’t. In fact, his argument can be stated very simply, and I’ll try to paraphrase it:
Free will acts by human psychology changing the constraints that act on our brain molecules. Although physical processes are constrained by physical laws, psychology can override and change these constraints. Therefore, our minds, or our psychology, can somehow “reach down” to affect the molecular processes occurring in our brains and bodies. And these psychological processes, which are apparently themselves physically unconstrained, constitute free will.
Now that is my paraphrase, but I’ll support it with quotes from Ellis (any bolding is mine):
In the case of the biomolecules that underlie the existence of life, it’s the shape of the molecule that acts as a constraint on what happens. These molecules are quite flexible, bending around joints rather like hinges. The distances between the atomic nuclei in the molecules determine what bending is possible. Any particular such molecular ‘conformation’ (a specific state of folding) constrains the motions of ions and electrons at the underlying physical level. This can happen in a time-dependent fashion, according to biological needs. In this way, biology can reach down to shape physical outcomes. It changes constraints in the applicable Schrödinger equation.
. . . So what determines which messages are conveyed to your synapses by signalling molecules? They are signals determined by thinking processes that can’t be described at any lower level because they involve concepts, cognition and emotions in an essential way. Psychological experiences drive what happens. Your thoughts and feelings reach ‘down’ to shape lower-level processes in the brain by altering the constraints on ion and electron flows in a way that changes with time.
The phrase that our thinking “reaches down” to affect our molecules recurs often in this essay, implying a psychological “invisible hand”—”thinking processes”—that is the crux of Ellis’s argument. But wait! There’s more!
How does any of this happen? As the Austrian-American doctor Eric Kandel explained in his Nobel Prize Lecture from 2000, the process of learning at the mental level leads to changed patterns of gene expression, and so specific proteins being produced, which alter the strengths of neural connections at synapses. This changes the strength of connections between neurons, thereby storing memories.
Such learning is a psychological happening. You might remember your pleasure on eating a delicious meal, the details of a Yo-Yo Ma rendition of a Bach sonata, or the painful memory of the car crash. Once again, these are irreducible psychological events: they can’t be described at any lower level. They reach down to alter neuronal connections over time. These changes can’t be predicted on the basis of the initial state of the neural connections (your neurons did not know that the car crash was about to happen) – but, afterwards, they constrain electron flows differently, because connections have changed. Learning changes structure at the macro scale (we have a ‘plastic brain’), which reaches down to alter micro connections and the details of electron flows at the bottom.
(Note the allusion to classical music; people love to show off in this way. They never talk about the moving saxophone solo of Lester Young or the poignancy of a Frank Sinatra song; it’s always Bach or Beethoven, isn’t it?)
If it’s not too early in the morning, you’ve already spotted the flaw in Ellis’s argument. First, he’s conflating predictability with physical determinism, and he’s also arguing, falsely, that a “change in constraint” means “libertarian free will”. Most important, he’s pretending that psychological phenomena are not physical.
I’ll cite just two more bits:
What these instances show is that psychological understandings reach down to shape the motions of ions and electrons by altering constraints at the physics-level over time. That is, mental states change the shape of proteins because the brain has real logical powers. This downward causation trumps the power of initial conditions. Logical implications determine the outcomes at the macro level in our thoughts, and at the micro level in terms of flows of electrons and ions.
. . . Genuine mental functioning and the ability to make decisions in a rational way is a far more persuasive explanation of how books get written. That this is possible is due to the extraordinary hierarchical structure of our brain and its functioning. And that functioning is enabled by downward causation from the psychological to the physical levels, with outcomes at the physics level determined by constraints that change over time. No violation of physical laws need occur.
That should be enough to show that Ellis’s argument is bogus. Why? Because it argues that the “psychological level” (“mental thoughts”) is somehow different from the “physical level”: that our experiences, our cogitation, and our interactions with others and with external events, are different from physical processes that shape our actions. After all, they are “top down” phenomena.
But they’re not. We can be influenced by internal and external events to so that our behaviors and actions would differ from how they’d be if those events were different. The example I often use is kicking a dog, though I would never do that. If a dog is friendly, but you repeatedly kick it when it approaches you, it’s not going to be nearly as friendly as it would have been had you petted it instead. Your actions have rewired the dog’s brain in such a way that it regards you as an object of fear rather than affection. It’s as simple as that. And in a similar way, our experiences reprogram our brains—our onboard meat computers—in a physical way that affects our behavior, but that we don’t yet understand. There is no psychology independent of physics that can “reach down” to affect our molecules, because, in the end, our psychology is based on molecules, even if we can’t yet (or ever) predict our future behavior with a deep knowledge of our brains.
Ellis’s Big Flaw: to claim that there is an Invisible NonPhysical Psychological Hand that “reaches down” and “changes our constraints”. Rather, there are external stimuli and inputs into our brains that alter their workings. We don’t need the palaver about “constraints” and “reaching down”, which is simply literary prestidigitation that is obscurantist.
Remember, Ellisis not talking about compatibilist free will here. He’s talking about contracausal free will. Ellis rests his case on a human psychology that is independent of physics. And that is pure dualism.
In the end, perhaps his mask slips a little, for in his ending he appears to find determinism distasteful because it absolves us of the ability to make “genuine choices” or to be “accountable for our behavior”. (I’ve argued that we are still responsible for our behavior in the sense that we are the entities who behave, but that we are not “morally responsible” because we could not have acted otherwise. But this is irrelevant to his argument.)
Physics has made huge strides since the days of Laplace; indeed, it would be completely unrecognisable to him. Yet there are still physicists today who confidently proclaim that we can’t have free will because physics determines everything, including brain functioning – entirely ignoring the complex context and the power of constraints.
If you seriously believe that fundamental forces leave no space for free will, then it’s impossible for us to genuinely make choices as moral beings. We wouldn’t be accountable in any meaningful way for our reactions to global climate change, child trafficking or viral pandemics. The underlying physics would in reality be governing our behaviour, and responsibility wouldn’t enter into the picture.
Well, he’s wrong about “responsibility” if you conceive of it as I do—in a way that still allows for and, indeed, asks for approbation and disapprobation, punishment and reward. After all, those are external stimuli that can alter our brains.
But one gets the sense here that Ellis’s misguided screed in favor of free will is motivated in part by his distaste for determinism and his need for all of us to be “responsible”. But, as a scientist, Ellis should realize that wanting something to be true has no effect on whether it is true.