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Math Science

Do Subatomic Particles Have Free Will? 608

Posted by kdawson
from the painting-fences-white-very-quickly dept.
An anonymous reader sends in a Science News article that begins: "Human free will might seem like the squishiest of philosophical subjects, way beyond the realm of mathematical demonstration. But two highly regarded Princeton mathematicians, John Conway and Simon Kochen, claim to have proven that if humans have even the tiniest amount of free will, then atoms themselves must also behave unpredictably." Standard interpretations of quantum mechanics, of course, embrace unpredictability. But many physicists aren't comfortable with that, and are working to develop deterministic interpretations of quantum mechanics. Conway and Kochen's proof argues that these efforts will be fruitless — unless one is willing to give up human free will, in a very strong sense. The article quotes Conway: "We can really prove that there's no algorithm, no way that the particle can give an answer that is unique and can be specified ahead of time. I'm still amazed that we can actually manage to prove that."
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Do Subatomic Particles Have Free Will?

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  • Uh, what? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday August 16, 2008 @02:23PM (#24628185)

    There's already considerable evidence that humans don't have free will, but that free will is (essentially) an illusion created by your brain.

    So, no, particles do not have free will.

    • Re:Uh, what? (Score:5, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward on Saturday August 16, 2008 @02:32PM (#24628263)

      There's already considerable evidence that humans don't have free will, but that free will is (essentially) an illusion created by your brain.

      So, no, particles do not have free will.

      Let A be "Humans have free will." and let B be "Subatomic particles have free will.". Conway and Kochen says A->B. You assume ~A and draw the conclusion ~B. That's not justified. I'm sure there is a Wikipedia entry on this logical fallacy.

      • Re:Uh, what? (Score:5, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward on Saturday August 16, 2008 @02:59PM (#24628489)
        And for those who haven't studied that notation... "A->B" is "A implies B" (if A, then B)... "~A" is "not A". "A->B" is the same as "~A V B" ((not A) or B)
      • Re:Uh, what? (Score:5, Informative)

        by jabithew (1340853) on Saturday August 16, 2008 @04:16PM (#24629129)

        This [wikipedia.org] is the fallacy you refer to.

        Wikipedia is very, very good on mathematics and logic.

        • by moosesocks (264553) on Saturday August 16, 2008 @09:45PM (#24631449) Homepage

          This [wikipedia.org] is the fallacy you refer to.

          Wikipedia is very, very good on mathematics and logic.

          Just hold on a sec......

          There.

          Now it isn't. The mathematics & logic portion of wikipedia is now, however, a very very good authority on Rick Astley's greatest hits.

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by Nazlfrag (1035012)

            Which demonstrates the power of the model. Your edit is just one among many, and among many there seems to be a decent font of knowledge.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by extrasolar (28341)

        You happen to be correct. It is called bulverism:

        Bulverism [wikipedia.org]

      • Re:Uh, what? (Score:5, Insightful)

        by atlep (36041) on Saturday August 16, 2008 @04:51PM (#24629397)

        You assume ~A and draw the conclusion ~B. That's not justified.

        One thing about logic is understanding when to use it.

        You are correct that A->B does not imply ~A->~B.

        When you have ~A you do not know anything about B, and cannot make a conclusion based on the model.

        However, A->B was never ment to be a complete model of the possible relationships between conscious minds and conscious atoms. It describes only one relatinship. If we want to understand what ~A leads to, we need to look beyond A->B and at the world we're trying to model. And doing that, we see that if we have ~A (no free will) then there is no reason to suspect atoms with free will either.

        So there is justification for extending the model and say that ~A->~B

        So asuming atoms have not free will, since we don't, ~A from ~B, is a fair and valid conclusion. It's not a logical proof derived from A->B, but it was never claimed to be either.

        The real error here was to use an incomplete model to say that a justified conclusion that was not part of the model was false.

    • An assertion and a thin one. Using math to 'prove' the real world is the illusion. Cite please.
    • Re:Uh, what? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Mr. Picklesworth (931427) on Saturday August 16, 2008 @02:55PM (#24628455) Homepage

      But what, then, is guiding us to believe we have free will? What part of the brain is seeing the illusion? Your theory still leaves a fairly large and important chunk unanswered, and I think that chunk of our consciousness easily leads back to the same department as free will.

      • Re:Uh, what? (Score:4, Insightful)

        by ceejayoz (567949) <cj@ceejayoz.com> on Saturday August 16, 2008 @03:00PM (#24628507) Homepage Journal

        But what, then, is guiding us to believe we have free will?

        The fact that there are so many variables constantly changing as to construct the illusion of it.

        That, and the desire to have some purpose - any purpose - to our behaviours.

        • Re:Uh, what? (Score:4, Insightful)

          by fastest fascist (1086001) on Saturday August 16, 2008 @04:16PM (#24629131)
          If a desire can guide us, how does that differ from free will? So the mind is basically a combination of brain "modules" of varying function and complexity - how does that nullify the idea of free will? You ARE your brain (and the rest of your body, of course), therefore if your brain is able to moderate it's own actions, you have free will.
        • Re:Uh, what? (Score:5, Insightful)

          by XcepticZP (1331217) on Saturday August 16, 2008 @04:33PM (#24629237)
          Exactly. We, people, want to believe that we are all unique. This dates back to when philosophers starting separating humans from everything else, which they dubbed "mindless automatons". We humans are supposed to have a "soul". Determinism takes all that away from us and simply tells us that we really are not separate from the environment, because we're made of the same things. Free will was spawned by the same thing that spawned religion.
      • Re:Uh, what? (Score:4, Insightful)

        by indifferent children (842621) on Saturday August 16, 2008 @05:33PM (#24629749)
        But what, then, is guiding us to believe we have free will?

        The same over-active "agency detection" apparatus that tricks us into thinking that a moving shadow or a bolt of lightning is a god or spirit. We have a really poor (in the false-positive direction) agency detection apparatus, which I have seen explained (Gould? Sagan?) as: those who assumed that the moving shadow was out to get them, outlived those who assumed that it was just the wind in the trees (because sometimes it was a hungry agent). Until concepts such as tithing were invented, there was little survival penalty to seeing non-obvious agents were there were none.

    • Re:Uh, what? (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Skevin (16048) on Saturday August 16, 2008 @03:01PM (#24628515) Journal

      I already tend to believe humans don't have free will to begin with. We are governed by a set of rules, that while we might think we are free to take a drastically different action, there are further rules upon those rules which determine why we took that action.

      Okay, so as an example... it's close to lunch time, and I haven't eaten all day. I have money, and I'm right outside a burger joint. Is it Free Will that I decide to go inside and buy some food? What if I watched a video on arterial plaque buildup the previous day and decide to try to find a salad instead? Is it Free Will, or was my logic governed by another set of rules that determined I would seek a healthier alternative? We might think our actions are determined by a thought process, but I've been philosophizing heavily as to how those thought processes got into place to begin with.

      Solomon Chang

      • Re:Uh, what? (Score:4, Insightful)

        by BPPG (1181851) <bppg1986@gmail.com> on Saturday August 16, 2008 @04:42PM (#24629313)

        I'd say that feeling if you felt that it was necessary to philosophize about it, then that itself would suggest that you do have free will.

        Logic and free will are definitely not mutually exclusive. I'd go as far to say that curiosity and sentience may require free will, and logic/philosophical discord are a means (or rather, one of the only appropriate means) to satisfying that curiosity. Otherwise, we're all just automatons [wikipedia.org].

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by v1 (525388)

      "free will" is just an expression of the impossibility of predicting the future with any degree of accuracy based on knowing initial conditions. In an ideal world, you could, and it would be clear there is no free will. But we can no easier predict a human's decision than we can figure out exactly where a given atom of oxygen will be in the room 5 seconds from now. So for all practical purposes, there is free will. But the reality will always be that there is none. So although there is no free will, th

      • Re:Uh, what? (Score:5, Interesting)

        by lgw (121541) on Saturday August 16, 2008 @04:38PM (#24629281) Journal

        I believe that we have free will, *and* that the universe is completely deterministic. The two concepts are orthgonal. One cannot have "illusion of free will" any more than one can have "illusion of pain". If I believe that I'm in pain, than I necessarily am in pain, even if the pain comes from e.g. a limb that no longer exists - doesn't matter: if it hurts, it hurts.

        Similarly, if I consciously decide my next actions, then I necessarily have free will, regardless of whether the universe is pre-determined. You might argue that in a deterministic universe all consciousness is an illusion - but that's an unreawrding path to travel.

        In any case, arguing "if I have free will, then the universe is not deterministic" is not logical - the assumption that "determinism is incompatible with free will" has been argued by philosophers for centuries, without conclusion. Feel free to believe that - many do - but don't state it as a fact.

    • Re:Uh, what? (Score:4, Insightful)

      by unity100 (970058) on Saturday August 16, 2008 @03:17PM (#24628649) Homepage Journal
      then fetch that considerable evidence. dont produce arguments out of your butt.
    • Stupid (Score:3, Insightful)

      Particles do not have will at all, free or otherwise, so it's silly to say they have "free will."

      The argument in the article is clever, but it really says nothing about free will. It's an argument about interpretation of quantum mechanics. In fact, it says that quantum measurements can imply a hidden variable theory if humans do not have the freedom to chose axes arbitrarily. This has little or nothing to do with particles having free will.

      Doesn't have much to do with humans having free will, either, s

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by stevelinton (4044)

        It's rather more than that. It's perhaps easier to extract what is, in effect the authors definition of "an application of free will" from the abstract quantity itself. Such an application is a decision which is not entirely the consequence of events that precede it.

        Now if the experiments measuring particle a make an application of free will in deciding their choice of axes, and special relativity is OK, then the universe near particle b must also make an application of free will to decide the result of the

  • !news (Score:5, Informative)

    by fractic (1178341) on Saturday August 16, 2008 @02:27PM (#24628211)
    The article was from 2006. Here's a link to wikipedia [wikipedia.org] for some details.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday August 16, 2008 @02:27PM (#24628221)

    http://arxiv.org/abs/0807.3286

  • Couldn't this conversely be just interactions below our precision of measurement? It seems like a dangerous conclusion to jump to that atoms must have "free will" just as it is to say "god did it". I think free will is an illusion of causal relationships that exist outside our precision of measurement, be it our five senses used as our input for stimuli which causes our responses, or the interactions of subatomic particles. Ideas like the article presents just reek of arrogance of our importance in the gra
    • by Strilanc (1077197)

      Right, because no physicist could have ever though of that. "It's there but we just can't measure it" theories, aka "Hidden Variable Theories" aren't compatible with the predictions of QM, unless you throw in some other weird things like non-locality.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hidden_variable_theory [wikipedia.org]

  • by blind biker (1066130) on Saturday August 16, 2008 @02:31PM (#24628251) Journal

    ...if you are willing (and able) to scientifically analyse what human will (free or otherwise) really is, and what are the boundaries of its freedom. If we hadn't have quantum mechanical phenomena, there would be no room for free will whatsoever, and we'd be all living a predetermined life.

    When I try to discuss this topic with my friends, they are either not scientifically minded enough to follow through, or just can't accept the fact that, as physical beings, we would be absolutely determined in our behaviour and actions. And then, there's the concept of "soul" that, so far, has only helped to muddy the waters of reasoning in this topic. I'd really like to see a way that the concept of "soul" could be included in the discussion of free will in a physical world, I just don't know of any scientifically minded philosopher who had done it.

    • by Adambomb (118938)

      really like to see a way that the concept of "soul" could be included in the discussion of free will in a physical world, I just don't know of any scientifically minded philosopher who had done it.

      Actually, Orson Scott Card covers a fairly good conjecture on that topic in his sequels to Enders Game (where the writing and character development actually gets much better imo). To boil it down, in his setting humans have discovered that the smallest definable division of matter is known as a Philote [wikipedia.org] which only has a location, duration and connection with adjacent philotes in the form of a infinitely long ray. His setting posits that philotes combine to form matter when their rays are twined together lump

      • by Adambomb (118938)

        Re-reading the entry myself, i missed something key. EVERY structure has an organizing philote, even non-living matter in that setting. I forgot that aspect from the books.

        Basically the more complex the organism, the more powerful of a will that needs to "possess" that system. Living creatures are organized by these "stronger" wills.

    • by Austerity Empowers (669817) on Saturday August 16, 2008 @02:56PM (#24628465)

      Are particles unpredictable because they have free will, or are they unpredictable because we don't have the ability to understand what drives them?

      At one point objects fell from the sky because it was God's will.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by OeLeWaPpErKe (412765)

      This is only true if you assume free will to be inconsistent with fundamental unpredictability.

      What exactly is the problem, if you simply require that free will is inconsistent with practical unpredictability ? Then free will would be perfectly consistent with even Newtonian physics.

      To make a prediction 100% certain in Newtonian physics you'd have to make every measurement conceivable in a single instant. Otherwise, no matter how much data you bring into your simulation to predict, there'd always be the pos

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Chrisje (471362)

      I've been doing some reading lately, and if you'd read Lakoff's "Metaphors we live by" you'd be noticing that "Free will" and the "Soul" are linguistic concepts we cannot define or express properly. So at the end of the day these vague notions will be described in metaphors, meaning that we try to describe these notions as concepts derived from things that are more clear to us. The same would apply to the ever-fuzzy notions of love and hate. Now Lakoff would argue that Mathematics and Philosophy are not obj

  • by ericspinder (146776) on Saturday August 16, 2008 @02:31PM (#24628253) Journal
    I've now fulfilled my destiny.
  • by archeopterix (594938) on Saturday August 16, 2008 @02:32PM (#24628257) Journal
    The deterministic/nondeterministic debate can go on forever, no matter how precise the experiments are. Any phenomenon that (temporarily) appears deterministic can have an underlying finer non-deterministic model and vice-versa. Currently the lowest level appears nondeterministic (quantum effects) and some scientists are speculating about an underlying deterministic model.

    If they indeed succeed, some other folks will start to search for underlying nondeterministic model, and so on...

    • by node 3 (115640)

      Just because we have a seemingly deterministic view of the world naturally (our range of senses pretty much avoid relativistic effects and quantum effects, landing smack-dab in the Newtonian clockwork realm), and have discovered an underlying, apparently statistical framework, doesn't mean it's alternating layers all the way down.

      Before one can confidently say that it appears like things are just a series of alternations between determinism and non-determinism, you'd need more than just one or two flips, un

  • by MaxEmerika (701730) on Saturday August 16, 2008 @02:34PM (#24628289)
    Unpredictability has nothing to do with free will. I can be completely predictable and still be acting freely. Conversely, if my actions are random, how can I be said to have any control over them?
    • by nasor (690345) on Saturday August 16, 2008 @02:44PM (#24628349)
      Generally when people talk about "free will" in this sort of sense they mean that if you must choose between A or B, before you make your choice there is some non-zero possibility that you could pick either A or B. If your choice is governed by the mechanisms of a deterministic universe, there is really no possibility that you could pick either one; your choice is predetermined, and an observer with enough information could calculate with certainty what your choice will be before you make it. If you want to say that being free is simply being unconstrained to do what you try to do, then a robot following a program is "free," so long as nothing interferes with it trying to do what it is programmed to do.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Goaway (82658)

        The funny thing is, though - and I didn't see it mentioned explicitly - that not even a deterministic universe is actually predictable.

        As you say, with "enough information" you could calculate any outcome, but that information is actually infinite, and physically impossible to obtain for several different reasons, and even if you had it, it would be impossible to process.

        • by nasor (690345)
          Whether or not it's feasible (or even possible) to actually calculate the outcome of a decision doesn't really have anything to do with whether the decision is deterministic or "free".
          • by Goaway (82658) on Saturday August 16, 2008 @03:06PM (#24628567) Homepage

            That's kind of why I said "not even a deterministic universe is actually predictable", isn't it?

            So here's the question, then: How do you differentiate between actual free will, and unpredictable determinism?

            • by GoofyBoy (44399) on Saturday August 16, 2008 @03:53PM (#24628953) Journal

              I _knew_ you were going to ask that question.

              You are just so predictable.

            • by fastest fascist (1086001) on Saturday August 16, 2008 @04:26PM (#24629203)
              If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck and looks like a duck, it's a duck. That "you" have an "illusion" of free will is a strange claim to make. Who is this "you" the brain is fooling into thinking it's in control? The brain is in control, although in a distributed manner. Sure, if you want to think of yourself as a dictator holding all the strings, getting information from and passing instructions to from the different facilities of your nervous system, you're going to run into all kinds of trouble because, frankly, it just isn't so. There's no differentiating the experience of self, or of free will, or of anything, really, and the brain that does the experiencing, usually experiencing any given event in a multitude of different, even conflicting ways. If you can't tell the difference between having or not having free will, why do you think there is one in the first place?
      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by etymxris (121288)

        And so why isn't the robot free? Anyway, assume that humans have souls that exist in some other metaphysical realm that actually controls what we think and do. Why does that make our actions any more free? Why does it matter if our human bodies are puppets of some immaterial soul or if the means for rational thought is within the bodies (brains) themselves? I can't see any good reason. There's no a priori reason some metaphysical entity couldn't fully study and determine the future actions of one's immateri

      • If you mean "guy on the street who just thought about this five minutes ago", probably, but free will has been a serious topic of philosophical discussion for centuries now. As you might expect, various people have written various things on the subject that you might not think of in a college-dorm philosophy session, which seems to be the extent of philosophical thinking the scientists who are the subject of this article have done.

        In particular, a major position on the subject, held by both philosophers (fr

    • Yes, it does. (Score:4, Informative)

      by node 3 (115640) on Saturday August 16, 2008 @02:59PM (#24628487)

      I can be completely predictable and still be acting freely.

      No, you can't. If I can know right now every action you are going to take, from now until you die (ignoring the edge case where you die instantly), then you are not exercising free will. Why? Because your actions in the future are being completely determined by the state of things right now.

      That's what distinguishes determinism from free will.

      Conversely, if my actions are random, how can I be said to have any control over them?

      Not "random", but "unpredictable". There's a *huge* difference.

  • Algorithmic predictability leads to contradictions without involving QM or philosophy ('free will'). If some computer where capable of prediction it would be possible to create a simple Russel's Paradox. e.g. create a machine that turns on a light when the computer answers 'no' and turns off a light when the computer answers 'yes'. Then ask the computer to predict "will the light be on at time t?".

    It's an argument that involves neither human beings/philosophy or QM theory, we are conflating things by eve

    • by fractic (1178341)

      That doesn't show a prediction algorithm can't exists, it shows either one of the following things

      -the results of the algorithm can't be accessed or interpreted in this world
      -the algorithm can't be limited to only yes-no answers
      -The algorithm only exists on a meta level.
      -There aren't enough particles in the world to implement a computer to compute the algorithm

  • Two things :

    a) Good luck with that
    b) So free will is all about deterministic vs. random? As in, you can't have free will if the process of thinking is deterministic? Or does free will your ability to be random in your thinking?

    Also, if I have no free will and that I'm a deterministic process whose actions are functions of prior events, does it mean I'm not responsible for my actions? (Sorry I'm new to the whole free will debate)

  • by mypalmike (454265)

    Subatomic particles do not have free will.

  • by topham (32406) on Saturday August 16, 2008 @02:47PM (#24628367) Homepage

    Think about a definition of Free Will for a while. Then answer this question:

    If an exact copy of you were made (absolutely exact, right down to the quantum state of every particle); do you believe that given the exact same environment (a twinned universe?) your doppleganger would ever do anything different than yourself?

    If you believe that you would not act, and think exactly the same then you believe Free Will is beyond quantum mechanics; otherwise Free Will is just the synergistic response to a complex organism that has the capability to think of itself.

    • by esmoothie (838226) on Saturday August 16, 2008 @03:33PM (#24628779)

      If you believe that you would not act, and think exactly the same then you believe Free Will is beyond quantum mechanics; otherwise Free Will is just the synergistic response to a complex organism that has the capability to think of itself.

      Actually, no. Ignoring the no cloning theorem [wikipedia.org] for a moment, if two particles are in the exact same quantum state, then they can collapse to two different values. This is precisely the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics.

      • by LeafOnTheWind (1066228) on Saturday August 16, 2008 @05:17PM (#24629611)

        Mod parent up. Finally someone who knows what they are talking about.

        The buzzword "free will" is bringing out the idiots with no science education. This discussion simplifies to one thing - if, given all the requisite variables in a system, one can predict the next infinite states of that system, that system is deterministic. Id est, if, ignoring the cloning theorem and other QM restraints, one knew the exact state of every particle in the human body and one could predict the next infinite states of that system (the body), then that system would be deterministic (have no "free will"). If, on the other hand, the human body (more precisely, the mind) could be proven to have a finite number of predictable states, then the underlying physical systems must therefore also have a finite number of predictable states (be unpredictable).

        Now, QM predicts that subatomic particles are unpredictable. Technically, that would make our minds unpredictable HOWEVER - unpredictable is defined precisely as being unable to predict an infinite number of states in the system. A finite (even large) number may still be possible. This would the generalization of a large number of unpredictable subsystems in the system used to approximate the future states. As we see with Newtonian physics, this method can be fairly accurate.

        The only way that humans could be proven to be completely predictable would be to disprove the tenets of quantum mechanics. Until then, humans have "free will."

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Jesrad (716567)

      "If an exact copy of you were made (absolutely exact, right down to the quantum state of every particle); do you believe that given the exact same environment (a twinned universe?) your doppleganger would ever do anything different than yourself?"

      The copy would act a LOT like the original, but would diverge eventually, because it cannot remain in the same state after being copied: both copies can't be in the same place so they will be affected differently by their environment.

      The whole free-will debate is m

  • If physicists say so, then yes. If priests say so, then no.

  • Quote: "John Conway and Simon Kochen, claim to have proven that if humans have even the tiniest amount of free will, then atoms themselves must also behave unpredictably."

    That is NOT what they claim. Rather, they claim that if subatomic particles (not atoms) behave in ways that are not deterministic (as they think they have shown). Another claim is then (unjustifiably) extrapolated: if they behaved deterministically, then we would not have free will. The claim in the original post is claiming the logica
    • by Strilanc (1077197)

      How is it unjustifiable?

      They showed, given very few assumptions [read the paper], that if humans are unpredictable then particles are unpredictable.
      A pretty basic logical equivalence: A->B === ~B->~A
      Therefore if particles are entirely predictable, humans are entirely predictable

    • by bunratty (545641)
      Huh? I think part of your second sentence is missing. If subatomic particles behave in ways that are not deterministic, then what?
  • I'm not even sure why. I guess I like the idea of living in an approximate, fuzzy universe. So much cozier.
  • Simple answer (Score:3, Insightful)

    by greyhueofdoubt (1159527) on Saturday August 16, 2008 @03:00PM (#24628509) Homepage Journal

    You have basically three choices here:

    -Humans/animals/subatomic particles have free will somehow; as in, they can make arbitrary decisions and cause action that is unpredictable by any model of physics.

    -Humans et al. do not have free will and their actions are dictated by laws of physics; said laws are natural and immutable and will lead to a predictable model of the universe.

    -Humans et al. do not have free will and their actions are dictated by the whims of a god or other conscious entity. This scenario, much like creation theories, really just moves the determination of free will to another actor: If we are merely cogs in god's plan, does god have free will? This scenario, even if true, would not provide us with any useful information.

    As an atheist I cannot fathom option 3. Of the remaining scenarios, the only one I can rationally support is number two (no free will thanks to physics). As it hurts my ego to claim that I have no free will, I believe that the concept of free will ought to be divided into distinct categories: mathematically-derived actions of matter and energy and sentient actions (which would not cover particles unless they were shown to be conscious). I think they ought to be treated as separate fields.

    Or maybe individuals have free will, but the species does not. If you can predict birthrate, accident rate, crime rate, etc with a high degree of accuracy, is free will threatened? If you can predict with great accuracy that 1.2% of RV owners will experience a collision while driving their RV, do RV owners still retain free will?

    I need more caffeine.
    -b

  • First of all, quantum mechanics has absolutely nothing to do with free will. Free will, if understood properly, is a moral property of human agents. And whether someone is responsible for his actions has nothing to do with our final understanding of subatomic physics.

    Secondly, the physics is questionable. There are several assumptions underlying Bell's inequalities. One of which is that incoming (that is, earlier in time) influences are independent. However, the fundamental laws are, for the most part, time

  • by Zobeid (314469) on Saturday August 16, 2008 @03:13PM (#24628613)

    The original poster writes that this hypothesis is a threat to "human free will, in a very strong sense". I'm not sure what he means by a very strong sense, but it becomes clear after doing a little research that none of these people are talking about human free will in the sense that most people perceive it.

    The real argument here is about whether the future is fixed. If the universe is purely mechanistic, then no agency -- human or otherwise -- can change the course of future events. But what does that mean for a human being?

    Not much, it turns out. So you can't change the future, but thanks to the laws of thermodynamics you don't know what the future is going to be like anyhow. There's still nothing to prevent you from shaping (as opposed to changing) the future with your decisions.

    But wait! Aren't those decisions also pre-determined? In a strictly physical sense, yes, they are. But again, what does that mean for us? Not much. A human being is a vastly complex and chaotic system interacting with a vastly complex and chaotic environment. We're driven by chaos theory and the laws of thermodynamics, not by quantum randomness. (Would you really want to be guided by quantum randomness? I mean seriously. . . What kind of "free will" would you get out of that?)

    Any argument against free will -- in the way that most ordinary people regard it -- is easily brushed aside. For thousands of years we've been designing and creating things, making plans and then carrying them out. That's free will. To argue against it is like trying to prove that black is white (and then getting yourself killed at the next zebra crossing).

  • by pcgabe (712924) on Saturday August 16, 2008 @03:47PM (#24628891) Homepage Journal

    All things "quantum" are portrayed as bizarre, but they aren't; they aren't even that difficult to understand, if presented properly. There's just a whole lot of bad "information" out there.

    The most famous alternative is attributed to the physicist David Bohm, who argued in the 1950s that the behavior of subatomic particles is entirely determined by "hidden variables" that cannot be observed.

    Bohm's idea has never been debunked, and is perfectly logical. Remember, the movement of the planets was also once "unpredictable", and then "mostly predictable but with errors" before we understood the hidden variables. Just because something is currently unpredictable, doesn't make it random.

    Anyway.

    There are a number of statements in this article that lead me to believe that either: A) Conway and Kochen are loony, or B) crappy "science" journalism strikes again. Hopefully it's the latter and something was just lost in the translation from actual-science to journalism-ese. However, the fact that the two of them have been hawking this idea for four years tends toward A.

    Repeated throughout the article is the idea that the particle CHOOSES its spin. This is an insane idea. The whole presentation is nuts. Do subatomic particles have free will? What? Does a glass of water have free will? Can you define free will first so that a meaningful discussion can follow?

    This article portrays it as a new choice, either determinism or free will. It has always been one or the other, they're mutually exclusive (for certain values of "free will").

    But anyway.

    Entangle two particles this way, and then send a physicist named Alice with one of them to Mars and leave the other with a physicist named Bob on Earth. That will prevent information from passing between the physicists or the particles, according to relativity theory.

    WTF. Again with the lunacy. You don't have to send Alice to Mars to prevent information passing between them. First of all, information isn't going to pass between them, that's not what entangled particles are about (despite massive popular [but factually wrong] ideas to the contrary). Second of all, putting Alice on the other side of Earth gets her out of Bob's immediate light cone.

    ANYWAY.

    The point of the thought experiment is to "prove" that there's no way to predict the axis of spin of the particle, even with an identically entangled particle, if you "poke" it differently, because no perfect pre-poke state exists.

    This means that the particle cannot have a definite spin in every direction before it's measured, Kochen and Specker concluded. If it did, physicists would be able to occasionally observe it breaking the 1-0-1 rule, which never happens. Instead, it must "decide" which spin to have on the fly.

    Because "poking" it changes its spin. NO SHIT. You change the outcome by measuring it. Oh my science! Alert the media! So their idea is that the spin is not predetermined, and therefore determinism is false and we have "free will". Except it STILL doesn't disprove Bohm's conjecture (see start of rant) that there are unknown rules in play.

    So, their idea basically adds nothing to the debate. It "proves" nothing. It tells us nothing. Why is this on /.?

    This article is dumb. I'm dumber for having read it. I award the author no points, and may science have mercy on his inevitably destined animating force.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by glwtta (532858)
      Can you define free will first so that a meaningful discussion can follow?

      Well, in a word, no.

      That's what makes it one of the Great Questions of the ages that can never be answered: people use several, completely unrelated, definitions of "free will" interchangeably, allowing them to carry on this "debate" for several thousand years now.

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