I know this has been discussed before, but I have read Sam Harris' book Free Will and Michael Shermer's book The Believing Brain, and I must say that I agree with both authors. Studies show that our brains make a decision on an unconscious level three tenths of a second and sometimes more before we even consciously know we're going to act. To take a short quote from Shermer's book: "The neural activity that precedes the intention to act is inaccessible to our conscious mind, so we experience a sense of free will. But it is an illusion, caused by the fact that we cannot identify the cause of the awareness of our intention to act".
One might argue that determinism is also an illusion arising out of limited validity observable under quite limited conditions. Ultimately it traces back to Leibniz's principle of sufficient reason—that for everything that happens there must be a reason why it did not happen otherwise.
Consider the problem of decay of a radionuclide. According to quantum theory it is a random process. Individual atoms, undistinguishable except for position, decay in no predictable order, but at a predictable rate. In the case of a particular atom there can be no sufficient reason for its decay. The process is not deterministic, but stochastic.
How, then can determinism be proclaimed to be universally valid for every phenomenon if it fails in any single instance?
I do not claim to know the implications of such hypothesis in mathematical logic or what quantum mechanics, string theory or M-theory is all about, but as a layman, I've always thought that this is what the Heisenberg Uncertain Principle or Gödel's incompleteness theorems were essentially attempting to convey. That there is some sort of wild card or area in which couldn't be accounted for or some kind of randomness in the system. As Einstein is famously quoted, "God does not play dice." He of course felt that quantum mechanics was incomplete due to the limitation of our instruments.
Einstein, of course, wasn't the only physicist that felt this way, there's many variations of the Hidden variable theory that attempt to argue that quantum mechanics is an incomplete description of nature.
I'm sure everyone's seen that video of "Why Physics Ends the Free Will debate" where Michio Kaku says…
Well hey, get used to it. Einstein was wrong. God does play dice. Every time we look at an electron it moves. There is uncertainty with regards to the position of the electron.
So what does that mean for free will? It means in some sense we do have some kind of free will. No one can determine your future events given your past history. There is always the wildcard. There is always the possibility of uncertainty in whatever we do.
I know I've mentioned this in the other Free Will discussion that Anthony Jordan posted, but Kaku is supposed to be guy appointed to describe how this is so in layman's terms for us, and this is basically all he gives us. It seems as though he himself doesn't know, but I could be wrong.
But it seems as laymen, whenever the topic of free will comes up, we always seem to arrive at a conclusion in which we cannot decide one way or the other due to either our lack of understanding as laymen or perhaps the lack of understanding at the very edge of the minds of our greatest physicists, our most powerful instruments, our most contemporary scientific theories, etc. There is still, in another words, uncertainly, coincidentally enough. So, how can we know?
Perhaps a thought experiment could shed some light. I've always thought meditation interesting relative to the so-called "free will" dilemma, because it is an investigation of consciousness itself. In meditation, there is the complete cessation of volition. There is the cessation of all intellectual activity or thought and voluntary control of breath. After all, who is it that has this "free will"?
We always say it is "I" or the "ego" that is the author of actions or thoughts, but where is the "me"? The "me" is always associated with the body and the body as seen through the microscope is nothing but a play of cells being created and destroyed. Even your skeleton renews itself after several years. So, what is it exactly that we're referring to as the "me"?
If we're a river which energy flows through that never truly holds to anything that we could call "me," then obviously the "I, me, or ego" is merely a psychological construct that we perpetuate by the virtue of the ability we have to remember. So, if the "ego" is a mirage, why assume that there is an "I" that has "free will" in the first place?
Ramesh Balsekar often says, "The thought comes from the source," saying that it comes from "outside." Thought is usually represented by the electrochemical activity in the brain. Michio Kaku says, "Light is a vibration in the 5th dimension."
Does this "light" have anything to do with the micro-electric currents that travel between neurons? If the 5th dimension is something that cannot be measured and resides in a domain outside space and time, is this what's meant by thought derives from an "outside source"? Rob Bryanton of the 10thdim YouTube channel believes that we "grab our free will from the 5th dimension."
If it's the case that the electric currents in our brain are somehow derived from a "higher dimension," could it be that they have a direct correlate in the human brain as they're manifested through our neuronal activity? Are these phenomena intertwined as implied in Bohm's Quantum Mind? Perhaps this is why consciousness is such a conundrum to to neuroscience. It seems the question of determinism, free will, etc. will not be satisfied until we've got a complete understanding of superstring theory or perhaps if one takes it upon themselves to ask this question at the height of a psychedelic experience.
Just a note. I have always thought it misguided to draw philosophical inferences from either Heisenberg Uncertainty or Gödel Incompleteness. Heisenberg Uncertainty is an essential feature of the mathematics of quantum mechanics. Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems show that an axiomatic system robust enough to generate arithmetic is 1) not capable to proving every true theorem of the system; and 2) incapable of proving its own consistency.
Well, I guess my point was how can we truly know Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle is an essential feature? That's why I alluded to Hidden Variable theory. And why does mathematical logic even exist to reveal that any form of axiomatic arithmetic always will contain limitations?
As I said, I'm not mathematician or even a physicist, but perhaps there's some type of underlying cause for both of these instances. It's as though the Hidden Variable theory is the physicist's instinctive skepticism that perhaps Heisenberg's mathematics in somehow incomplete, likewise Gödel's emphasis of these limitations are perhaps due to something that is not accounted for.
Now, I'm not saying any of that is true, it's simply my opinion.
Well, I guess my point was how can we truly know Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle is an essential feature?
The only known formulations of quantum mechanics involve non-commuting observables and uncertainty derives from that in a purely mathematical way.
When quantum mechanics was being developed, physicists were not as mathematically sophisticated as they needed to be for the new theory, but Heisenberg in his original formulation recognized the necessity of using non-commuting observables. The uncertainty principle is a direct result. Max Born recognized Heisenberg's calculations were just matrix algebra, well known in mathematics long before, and thus matrix mechanics was born.
In 1932 the twenty-seven year old John von Neumann wrote a stunning book, Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics, that provided a formulation of quantum mechanics using Hermitian operators in Hilbert Space. It greatly clarified everything and has remained a classic. While his formulation is equivalent to matrix mechanics, it is mathematically far more enlightening. The book caused a revolution in theoretical physics. In this book von Neumann discusses the uncertainty relations and remarks that, while non-intuitive, they do not in fact conflict in any way with classical experience. Our classical intuition is wrong, but not the experimental results.
And why does mathematical logic even exist to reveal that any form of axiomatic arithmetic always will contain limitations?
I cannot understand the meaning of this question at all.
Gödel's results are of a radically different kind. His assumptions are quite modest and his conclusions not the least bit paradoxical. The results have been known and studied now for eighty years with the result that they are no longer surprising. Paul Cohen's result on the continuum hypothesis is fifty years old and is well understood.
You know, in the same vein that Jonathan Chang says in a post above, "Well pardon my insolence, but I think Michio Kaku is demonstrably wrong in this instance," but then humbly adds, "or rather that he is deliberately vague," in a very similar fashion, I express my opinion.
It's a safe bet that Jonathan Chang is probably not a theoretical physicist, and it's likely none of us are, but nevertheless he retains his skepticism over Kaku's comment despite the fact that Michio Kaku is a world-renowned physicist, graduated summa cum laude at Harvard University in 1968 and was first in his physics class.
Well, as laymen and as atheists, etc., we're aware that science is this painstaking process of assimilating nature, it's constantly proving itself wrong, etc. Likewise, the mathematics involved in describing nature doesn't always stand to years of scrutiny. There are physicists that believe that Einstein's "Theory of Relativity" actually breaks down at the center of a black hole. The mathematics ceases to make sense that that point.
Likewise, I've mentioned the Hidden variable theory which is espoused by those physicists who believe that quantum mechanics is unfinished. That a complete model would not include any uncertainty that would lead to indeterminism. It's a skeptical intuition that there may be hidden factors that may be cause for this indeterminism.
Now, I would never even pretend to know the mathematics behind Gödel's incompleteness theorems, and perhaps you've worked 'em out, but if there's "inherent limitations" in all arithmetical axiomatic systems, perhaps it's not a limitation within the system itself, but a limitation inherent within our logic itself or perhaps even the human mind.
Perhaps I'm more lay than yourself, but there is a metaphor in eastern philosophy regarding the notion of Brahman, the "ultimate reality" as described in Hinduism. It's said that Brahman is an unbroken wholeness that is never the object of its own knowledge. They also call this non-duality which is the complete absence of duality. That absence of the separation of "I" and "thou," the "you" as separate from the "universe." Just as a knife cannot cut itself, a fire cannot burn itself, light never illuminates itself, the eye cannot see itself… It's always an endless mystery to itself. Could it be that this principle applies to Heisenberg's concepts as well as Gödel's?
Now, I understand that this may be a false analogy, nevertheless despite the fact that I do not understand in mathematical verbatim Gödel's incompleteness theorems, I only express my opinion in the same vein that Chang challenged Kaku's statement.
Skepticism and challenge to authority are good things when they are based on understanding. Rarely does any major new scientific claim appear without disagreement from others in the field. Such challenges are always more than just opinion. They are specific and draw their validity from knowledge of the field. They may indicate the need for further research and new experiments.
In your suggestion that hidden variables may eliminate Heisenberg uncertainty or that the Gödel incompleteness theorems may be wrong, I do not find evidence, convincing reasoning, or deep understanding of what is involved that would lend credence to your notion.
First you must understand what it is you are challenging and then you need to offer evidence to support your ideas.
Sure, I understand that, and of course, but by definition "hidden variables" alludes to something that, as of yet, we cannot measure or prove. It's often said that of M-theory that we cannot prove M-theory or superstring theory because in cosmology an experiment would be very difficult to perform. You'd have to literally create a baby universe, and as far as contemporary scientific experiments go, that's currently not possible.
So due to lack of experimental data, the theoretical physicist cannot rely on the Scientific Method, and instead has to make huge extrapolations governed, of course, by logic and reason.
However, having said all that, I don't think it takes a theoretical physicist to recognize that a lot of this is unfinished work. I'm not speaking of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle in particular, but I suppose Einstein's "unfinished work." The so-called UFT (unified field theory) or maybe even the ToE or GUT.
I'm not a nihilist, especially not a solipsist, but just as Einstein could not accept that "God plays dice," I've an intuition in myself that cannot accept it, either. Maybe I have different reasons for this intuition than Einstein. Perhaps you're familiar somewhat with my output here at AN, and I've recently wrote an extensive blog on this point-of-view, and I do realize that intuition and the raw data of experience can be misleading, but I'm not referring to subtle feelings or even the type of profound experiences one receives when viewing a grand waterfall, but something quite different. It's espoused at "EgoDeath.com," etc. I'm sure you know what I'm talking about. I do get your point, and it is a very valid point, if you're going to be skeptical, you must have the understanding and evidence in your favor. Is my point-of-view a delusion? Perhaps, but it's still something I cannot deny, and it's also something many people throughout millennia have experienced.
If you're interested, I'll link to my blog below.
In recent years the possibility of entirely explaining quantum mechanics through local hidden variables has been ruled out. Non-local hidden variables are far less intuitive but quantum entanglement requires them.
A scientific theory to be completely satisfying must do at least two things: 1) satisfactorily account for all the things already observed and 2) make predictions that can be tested, at least in theory, through experiment. One thing it need not do is fit human intuition. A very good example is Feynman's path integral formulation of quantum mechanics. It produces the right answers and led to significant further advances, but remains highly non-intuitive.
For most of us intuition has developed out of everyday experience, that is to say, experience localized in space and time at relatively slow speeds within temperature variation that is small. It does not extend to great extents of time and space, speeds at which relativistic effects obtain, or exceedingly high temperatures.
The history of science could well be written as a process of overcoming intuition with reason developed out of careful and unbiased observation.
The psychologist William James had mystical experiences from inhaiing nitrous oxide, experiences which he was convinced were significant. He published a short paper in Mind in 1882 and mentions his experiences in his celebrated book, The Varieties of Religious Experience.
The paper is available online:
In the book James notes that individuals having mystical experiences are affected so strongly that they cannot ever believe that what they have experienced is not real and a portal to ultimate and universal truth. He seems to have felt that way about his own intoxication with nitrous oxide although he does note that the insights are not permanent.