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Math Science

If We Have Free Will, Then So Do Electrons 610

snahgle writes "Mathematicians John Conway (inventor of the Game of Life) and Simon Kochen of Princeton University have proven that if human experimenters demonstrate 'free will' in choosing what measurements to take on a particle, then the axioms of quantum mechanics require that the free will property be available to the particles measured, or to the universe as a whole. Conway is giving a series of lectures on the 'Free Will Theorem' and its ramifications over the next month at Princeton. A followup article strengthening the theory (PDF) was published last month in Notices of the AMS." Update: 03/19 14:20 GMT by KD : jamie points out that we discussed this theorem last year, before the paper had been published.
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If We Have Free Will, Then So Do Electrons

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  • I knew it! (Score:5, Funny)

    by SirGarlon ( 845873 ) on Friday March 20, 2009 @08:49AM (#27266943)
    The universe really IS out to get me!
    • Re:I knew it! (Score:4, Insightful)

      by TapeCutter ( 624760 ) * on Friday March 20, 2009 @09:26AM (#27267233) Journal
      Mathematics is said to have an "uncanny" ability to model the universe. My pet theory is what we call our mind is a self referencing MATHEMATICAL MODEL of the universe that emerges from the cellular colonies we refer to as ourselves.
      • by Sponge Bath ( 413667 ) on Friday March 20, 2009 @09:41AM (#27267437)

        ...our mind is a self referencing MATHEMATICAL MODEL of the universe

        Hey! Don't bogart that thing, pass it around.

      • Re:I knew it! (Score:4, Insightful)

        by Jeremiah Cornelius ( 137 ) on Friday March 20, 2009 @11:45AM (#27269173) Homepage Journal

        When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem resembles a nail. The universe seems mathematical if you use mathematics. If you wear blue glasses, the sun itself is blue.

    • There are two much simpler proofs, although I don't know about considering the "universe" as a free-willed entity.
      A1. Start with the notion that free will does not exist.
      A2. The law of cause-and-effect therefore controls all events.
      A3. "All events" is a series that can be traced backward through time.
      A4. What caused the FIRST event?
      A5. If it had a cause, then you haven't arrived at (A4) yet; go back to (A3).
      A6. If it had no cause, then that violates (A2) above, implying some events can occur without b
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        I think the mistake you're making here is that free will is the only alternative to strict cause-and-effect, but much of quantum mechanics runs on probability, which isn't the same as free will.
        • Re:I knew it! (Score:5, Interesting)

          by Oswald ( 235719 ) on Friday March 20, 2009 @09:46AM (#27267491)

          Isn't it? In the paper that the story links to, the authors refine their use of the term "free will" to mean that the universe is "not determined by the entire previous history of the universe." That sounds a whole lot like "random," which (it seems to me) must surely mean "not subject to cause and effect."

          I would welcome pointers to layman-appropriate corrections if I'm wrong.

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by vidarh ( 309115 )
            This is the fundamental problem with any discussion of free will: How do you even define it?

            A random event would be unlikely to be considered evidence of "free will" by most people.

            But an event that follows strictly from cause-effect definitively is not.

            Possibly people consider something "free will" if there is some limited level of randomness in the brain so that the same history of the external universe could lead to different thought processes.

            I just can't see any way of defining "free will" that

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by GMFTatsujin ( 239569 )

            (With apologies to Dr. Feynman.)

            If a layman could understand it, it wouldn't be worth publishing a scholarly paper about it.

            If you want to really understand it, you gotta get into the hard stuff. Because it's hard.

            • Re:I knew it! (Score:5, Insightful)

              by TerranFury ( 726743 ) on Friday March 20, 2009 @11:29AM (#27268879)

              If a layman could understand it, it wouldn't be worth publishing a scholarly paper about it.

              Naturally, the converse -- "If a layman couldn't understand it, then it must be worth publishing" -- isn't true, but it's a reasonably effective way to increase your publication count.


            • Re:I knew it! (Score:5, Insightful)

              by Hatta ( 162192 ) on Friday March 20, 2009 @11:38AM (#27269047) Journal

              If a layman could understand it, it wouldn't be worth publishing a scholarly paper about it.

              If you can't explain it to a layman, you don't really understand it.

              From this it follows that: If it's worth publishing a scholarly paper about it, then you don't really understand it.

  • by Shikaku ( 1129753 ) on Friday March 20, 2009 @08:50AM (#27266947)

    Then that means that they can impose their will on other particles. In short, one will will the will of particles to impose your will to will other particles in your will to your will.

    • That sounds like the perfect setup for a "sup dawg, I herd you like cars" off-topic that I sadly am not talented enough to pen.
      • Sup dawg, I herd u like free will in your free will, so we freed quantum Willy.
        • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

          by tripdizzle ( 1386273 )
          "YO DAWG, I heard you like you some free will, so we put some free will in yo free will so you can choose while you choose."
    • by Brain-Fu ( 1274756 ) on Friday March 20, 2009 @11:55AM (#27269311) Homepage Journal

      "Particles" are just a modeling tool. They are a means of conceptualizing mechanical causes for the behavior of the world as we experience it.

      So far, they have proven to be a very useful means of said modeling. The predictions that particle/force-based models make are quite accurate these days, and have been successfully applied to do a huge variety of useful work (playing world of warcraft being my particular favorite). Accurate predictive power is the final judgment of the scientific process, so from that perspective particles are sure winners.

      But the fact remains that particles are abstract representations of phenomena which we cannot directly perceive (we infer the behavior of subatomic particles through detection devices which were themselves built upon these inferences, for example). The popular visualization of tiny little solid spheres bouncing around was rejected based on evidence gathered way back in the 20's, and rival visualizations that also have predictive power had been proposed since the dawn of recorded history. However, these are technical details which need not confuse non-scientists, so simply saying "particles are where it's at" makes life a lot simpler.

      The issue of free will is not properly within the domain of science. Science doesn't study that sort of thing. Free will is the proper subject matter of philosophers, theologians, and so on. Trying to determine its scientific validity is trying to talk about aviation technology using only the vocabulary of gardening techniques.

      "Do particles have free will" is an absurd question. You may as well ask about the nutritive properties of thrust and lift. That visualization just doesn't fit the subject matter.

      The inclination to think of things in these terms comes from the popular notion that science has the market cornered in "truth," and that the word "truth" has a single and unambiguous meaning within all conceptual domains (which it clearly does not). We think, "science proves or disproves things, right? So lets get the final proof or disproof of free will." But I maintain that we are confusing ourselves by asking the questing incorrectly, and of the wrong people.

  • Yawn. (Score:2, Insightful)

    Well there you have it. A new breakthrough in the area of free will and our lives are...exactly the same.

    • Only because you choose not to change your life.
      • Re:Yawn. (Score:5, Interesting)

        by SatanicPuppy ( 611928 ) * <> on Friday March 20, 2009 @09:03AM (#27267055) Journal

        Even if I did choose to change something about my life, it would have no bearing on free will.

        The problem with free will is whether you have it or whether you don't it makes absolutely zero difference in your life (we're talking philosophical free will here, not material, so no one give me the snarky "I'm in jail you insensitive clod" response).

        Everyone makes decisions with the implicit belief that their decisions matter. Now, if we have free will, then they actually do. If we don't have free will, then they actually don't. Regardless, you make the same damn decision, and it will have the same consequences.

        So why the eternal wanking over whether or not we possess a property that cannot be measured and doesn't effect our lives in any way?

        • Re:Yawn. (Score:5, Insightful)

          by KwKSilver ( 857599 ) on Friday March 20, 2009 @09:21AM (#27267191)
          For myself, there's a psychological effect. When I have wanted to disbelieve free will, I also drifted towards victimhood. If I have free will, my choices matter and I can't be a victim. My life is better. YMMV.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by dogzilla ( 83896 )

          Not true. You're ignoring the potential change in behavior that comes from "proving" we have no free will. If that is shown to be the case then, no matter what you do, even kill your wife and kids, it has been preordained.

          Personally, I don't believe this crap - science is edging pretty far into metaphysical claptrap these days, which feels like a pretty clear sign we're missing some fundamental knowledge and are instead creating a rehashed version of "Gods Bowling In The Sky" to explain things we don't full

        • You're exactly right, and it proves how stupid philosophy has gotten ever since its divorce from science and the law was finalized.

          "Free will" in the philosophical sense does not matter, because the way philosophy defines it, it is some ethereal abstract thing. In practical applications the concept of "free will" can be much more concretely defined as the ability to choose one course of action over another. This is the definition of free will upon which U.S. law is based (because how can you be "guilty" if

      • Re:Yawn. (Score:5, Funny)

        by TapeCutter ( 624760 ) * on Friday March 20, 2009 @09:05AM (#27267079) Journal
        Speaking of Adams, a quote from TFA: "Conway is set on explaining to the University community and the public over six weeks the tenets of their 'Free Will Theorem'." 6 x 7days = 42, spooky huh?
        • I can't believe he's spending 6 weeks on "If we have free will then so do things that we interact with." I wouldn't think that was meat enough for a good paper, more less six weeks of lectures...Though I guess that's snarky, since I've read innumberable goddamn books about free will, even one's with this guy in 'em (Freedom Evolves by Daniel Dennet, had a long bit about the Game o' Life.)

    • Really? The fun of life is in my opinion is that it is never the same. If it is, make it change. E.g. the sun is shining here now, I've got no idea about the exact weather, but I'm going to find out now :)

  • by boshhead ( 1357337 ) on Friday March 20, 2009 @08:51AM (#27266961)
    So what you're saying is that everything I've screwed up on has really been my fault?
  • So, all we need to do is consider this universe to be thought about by a larger more richer universe and then everything can be seen to happen automatically :-)

    One of the lamer cop-outs of the late 20th century :-)

  • by Hungus ( 585181 ) on Friday March 20, 2009 @08:54AM (#27266991) Journal

    I am sorry this proves nothing in the deterministic debate. All it says is If the observers have free will then teh particles must have free will. It does not answer the question: Does the observer have free will?

    • by gr8_phk ( 621180 ) on Friday March 20, 2009 @09:16AM (#27267149)
      I think their definition of free will is rather weak, probably equivalent to non-deterministic.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by inviolet ( 797804 )

        I think their definition of free will is rather weak, probably equivalent to non-deterministic.

        Indeed. Lots of people are under the impression that free will is a function of randomness. Sorry guys, but randomness is insanity. I would prefer that my actions flowed deterministically from my inner mental state. How else could I act according to my convictions?

        Anyway, the question is only relevant in the context of religion. Without a bearded guy giving out passes to heaven, it doesn't matter whether the

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          Indeed. Lots of people are under the impression that free will is a function of randomness. Sorry guys, but randomness is insanity. I would prefer that my actions flowed deterministically from my inner mental state. How else could I act according to my convictions?

          Randomness does not imply equal probability for all possible outcomes. While it may be mathematically possible, it's a safe assumption that the randomness of quantum mechanics will not cause you to jump off the next bridge you come to instead of just crossing it normally.

        • by dogmatixpsych ( 786818 ) on Friday March 20, 2009 @09:58AM (#27267655) Journal
          The question has broad relevance beyond religion. Philosophers debate it endlessly. It has large implications for all science. If basic particles have free will then that is something we can't completely control for in physics or chemistry (free will goes beyond this bit of uncertainty though; randomness is not "insanity" as you said, it's more akin to chaos; under the chaos there is still structure and rules). Granted, the free will of an electron likely doesn't have large effects (assuming it's true) on a macro level but it could have some effects. Now, the mathematicians aren't saying electrons and other basic particles are intelligent, they just have free will.

          In psychology, this the question of free will is important because it can change how a psychologist views abnormal behavior (and even normal behavior). It can change how psychotherapy is conducted. A lot of people don't think about the philosophical theory underlying science but this discussion of free will is not just for religion, it affects all science for you can take a deterministic approach to science or you can take a non-deterministic (e.g., free will) approach.

          One last thing, you show a free will bias (at least non-deterministic bias) in your post: "Our actions ought to progress lawfully and predicatably [sic] from the programming that we've built into our minds" (emphasis added). That's using non-deterministic language to explain determinism. Most people just assume free will while most science assumes determinism. However, even the scientists usually assume free will in their day to day life (there are some who don't but they are rare). That's the funny thing. Science usually assumes determinism but people in general have a strong - innate you could say - bias towards non-determinism and free will.
    • by iangoldby ( 552781 ) on Friday March 20, 2009 @09:35AM (#27267353) Homepage

      Whether the universe is deterministic or not does not really have a great deal to say to the free will debate.

      The usual argument runs something like this: If the universe is deterministic, then we cannot have free will, because our actions are determined.

      The trouble is with this view is that it equates free will with indeterminacy.

      By this argument, to have free will there must be some fundamentally unpredictable element that contributes to your will in order to make it free. (If it were predictable then it would not be free, goes the argument.) But saying that something is fundamentally unpredictable is the same as saying that it has no deterministic cause. If that is the case, then the 'free' part of your will must be something that you - your mind - doesn't determine. But if so, then can it really be called your will?

      On the other hand, in a purely deterministic universe, some kind of free will could be possible. Donald MacKay came up with a logical argument that demonstrates that there is no prediciton of an agent's future behaviour that could be given to that agent that the agent would be logically compelled to believe.

      There's a reasonable explanation by Dennis l Feucht [] that Google has just thrown up for me.

      • Implicit in your argument is the assertion that the Mind is deterministic. We actually don't know enough about our minds or the brain to know if this is the case. We have very strong reasons to believe that our mind follows deterministic natural laws, but we cannot completely eliminate the other possibility.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Phroggy ( 441 )

        Fascinating stuff. I've recently become interested in Calvinism, which holds (among other things) that we do NOT have a choice in the matter of whether or not to become a Christian. God made that choice before the beginning of time, and some of us ("the elect") are predestined to come to accept Christ, while others are predestined not to, and nothing anybody says or does can possibly change that outcome. Romans 8:28-30, 1 Corinthians 1 and 7, Galatians 1:15, Ephesians 1, 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14, and Hebr

  • That's rich. (Score:2, Insightful)

    Now all we have to do is prove that people have free will, something people have been trying to do for a thousand years, and then we'll know that particles have free will and by extension, the whole universe!

    Jesus Christ what a waste of time. Proving free will is like trying to prove the immortal soul, except, if you proved the immortal soul you get all this interesting life-after-death crap, and if you prove free will you get the comfort of knowing that all your stupid decisions are your stupid decisions.

    • Re:That's rich. (Score:5, Insightful)

      by pieterh ( 196118 ) on Friday March 20, 2009 @09:01AM (#27267041) Homepage

      Ah, but if you can prove free will exists, then you can prove evil people will go to hell!

      Seriously, this whole free will debate is pointless. Every manifestation of so-called "free will" can be adequately explained by assuming that our human brains can convincingly imitate free will (to other human brains). And that is a much simpler proposition that looking for free will in the fabric of the cosmos (what religious balderdash!).

      I pretend to have free will, you believe me, and we're both happy.

      • Oh, it's worse than that, though you touched on the actual reasoning.

        Free will is one of those damn pseudoproblems that crept into the discourse when we started arguing about religion. Basically belief in God (omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent) opens the door to the problem of evil, and the only way to get out of the problem of evil without removing one of the big three attributes of God is to give people free will: to explain why people do bad things.

        So even having to pretend like you have free will i

      • by Samrobb ( 12731 ) on Friday March 20, 2009 @09:25AM (#27267227) Homepage Journal

        Seriously, this whole free will debate is pointless.

        Of course, you couldn't help but say that.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        Except the problem with the whole illusion of free will theory (I've read the neuroscience research that argues it) is that it is based on using scientific methods that assume determinism (I won't get into a whole philosophy of science discussion here - it's too involved; so my brevity will have to suffice) to begin with. All of that science investigating free will is problematic because free will lies outside of the underlying assumptions of the scientific methods researchers use to study free will. [Anyon
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by houghi ( 78078 )

      If there is free will, then there also is the free will NOT to have free will. If there is no way NOT to have free will, then free will is not really free will.
      The fact that people will remove their hand and not keep it there is the prove of lack of free will for that specific situation. As NOT having the free will NOT to listen to your free will, it proves that free will does not exist.

      Now my head hurts.

  • by $RANDOMLUSER ( 804576 ) on Friday March 20, 2009 @08:57AM (#27267011)
    It's John Calvin.
  • So basically youre saying it WAS my fault I tried to get a first post here?

  • Disturbing (Score:5, Interesting)

    by gmerideth ( 107286 ) <gmerideth@uclnj.cDEBIANom minus distro> on Friday March 20, 2009 @08:58AM (#27267021) Homepage

    That a particle has free-will using the standard definition is rather disturbing. Particles, capable of making a decision implies an inherent intelligence or at least a built-in "table of actions" at some level.

    • Re:Disturbing (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Shrike82 ( 1471633 ) on Friday March 20, 2009 @09:06AM (#27267081)
      Not sure if the axioms they've defined work both ways, but if we take the reverse case, particles being incapable of free will would seem to imply that we oursleves don't have free will. So how can we determine whether or not particles are incapable of free will? Does free will require intelligence and the ability to think, thus implying that particles simply aren't capable of exercising some degree of free will? I'm not sure, but if this is true then perhaps this could be used to disprove the notion of us having free will.

      Or is that a gross oversimplification resulting from me not being a whizz at maths?
      • Re:Disturbing (Score:5, Informative)

        by The Mathinator ( 873393 ) on Friday March 20, 2009 @09:53AM (#27267587)

        The way Conway and Kochen have defined "free will" is, loosely, any behavior that isn't determined by the past. So, no, there's no reason for a particle to be intelligent to "have free will". Plain old wavefunction collapse in the Copenhagen interpretation is a particle exhibiting free will.

        Honestly, the actual result isn't particularly interesting, if you believe that human thought and behavior can theoretically be explained by traditional physical processes.

        The interesting thing about the theorem is that the proof skips all that, and with a very simple setup, demonstrates that if humans can do something (pick which measurement to make) independently of the past, then elementary particles can too, without making any assumptions on what exactly makes humans act the way they do.

  • To mean, this seems to imply one of two possibilities.

    Either Bucky Fuller had it right in his use of "Universe" as an article-less proper noun...

    Or it means basically nothing more than that God does play dice with the universe.

    Hmm... Bucky right, or Einstein wrong. Tough call...
  • Wave equation? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by usul294 ( 1163169 ) on Friday March 20, 2009 @09:01AM (#27267039)
    I took baby quantum mechanics a year ago (an optional 3rd semester of intro physics), and the whole predestination thing was thrown out the window to me as soon as soon as there was a probability distribution of where the particle was at any given time. My thought philosophically is that the sum of tiny deviations from the mean made it so that I could not just take an inventory of all the particles in the universe, write a program to describe their governing laws, and then the output would be every moment of of the future. I much prefer a universe of surprises.
  • Inevitable (Score:5, Funny)

    by Digitus1337 ( 671442 ) <> on Friday March 20, 2009 @09:01AM (#27267047) Homepage
    Someone was sure to arrive at this conclusion.
  • by Dr. Manhattan ( 29720 ) <sorceror171@g[ ] ['mai' in gap]> on Friday March 20, 2009 @09:02AM (#27267049) Homepage
    If I have free will, I don't need to worry about it. If I don't have free will, there's no point in worrying about it. :->
  • Obligatory (Score:4, Funny)

    by rehtonAesoohC ( 954490 ) on Friday March 20, 2009 @09:03AM (#27267053) Journal
    They changed the outcome by measuring it!
  • unless, of course... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Ralph Spoilsport ( 673134 ) on Friday March 20, 2009 @09:06AM (#27267085) Journal
    free will doesn't exist because it is all completely predetermined in a higher dimensional universe, and free will is just a kind of "optical illusion" because we only experience time in one dimension.

    Crazy? No - read Barbour. []

  • by Dachannien ( 617929 ) on Friday March 20, 2009 @09:14AM (#27267121)

    If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice!

  • The universe is a libertarian, now time for its inhabitants to follow.
  • Obvious absurdity (Score:5, Interesting)

    by brian0918 ( 638904 ) <`brian0918' `at' `'> on Friday March 20, 2009 @09:20AM (#27267181)
    This speaks to the absurdity of standard interpretations of quantum mechanics, and nothing else. The only cure, which physicists strangely resist, is a return to the deBroglie interpetation that was greatly expanded by Bohm [] and Bell []. More information from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy []. It was the wishy-washy "primacy of consciousness" philosophy pushed by the likes of Bohr that got us to this dead end, and only a reality-based philosophy is going to lead to new insight. So long as we interpret the results incorrectly, we are destined to fall into the same trap.
  • Its probably a bad assumption that the human experimenters have free will -- there's no real evidence to support that and a reasonable bit to suggest that free will is nothing but a "fantasy" our brains make up after the fact to justify a decision or action.

    Sort of a dirty secret of cognitive science. If there's free will, there's not much chance its concious free will.

  • by Coppit ( 2441 ) on Friday March 20, 2009 @12:59PM (#27270209) Homepage

    Has anyone looked into the proof enough to assess whether it's a proof in the mathematical sense or a proof in the philosophical sense? As in "I've proven that god exists". I don't know about you, but I've never run across a mathematical proof involving statements about free will and subatomic particles...

Syntactic sugar causes cancer of the semicolon. -- Epigrams in Programming, ACM SIGPLAN Sept. 1982