Thursday, April 16, 2020

John Horton Conway dies

NY Times obituary:
John Horton Conway, the English-born Princeton mathematician whose body of work ranged from the rigorously highbrow to the frivolously fun, earning him prizes and a reputation as a creative, iconoclastic and even magical genius, died on Saturday in New Brunswick, N.J. He was 82.

His wife, Diana Conway, said his death, at a nursing home, was caused by Covid-19. ...

One of Dr. Conway’s favorite accomplishments was the Free Will Theorem, conceptualized casually over the course of a decade with his friend and fellow Princeton mathematician Simon Kochen and first published in 2006 (and later revised).

The theorem, simply put, is this: If physicists have free will while performing experiments, then elementary particles possess free will as well. And this, Dr. Conway and Dr. Kochen reckoned, probably explains why and how humans have free will in the first place.
I think this theorem is an important insight, but others downplay it, such as Scott Aaronson:
Closest to my wheelhouse, Conway together with Simon Kochen waded into the foundations of quantum mechanics in 2006, with their “Free Will Theorem”—a result Conway liked to summarize provocatively as “if human experimenters have free will, then so do the elementary particles they measure.” I confess that I wasn’t a fan at the time—partly because Conway and Kochen’s theorem was really about “freshly-generated randomness,” rather than free will in any sense related to agency, but also partly because I’d already known the conceptual point at issue, but had considered it folklore (see, e.g., my 2002 review of Stephen Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science). Over time, though, the “Free Will Theorem” packaging grew on me. Much like with the No-Cloning Theorem and other simple enormities, sometimes it’s worth making a bit of folklore so memorable and compelling that it will never be folklore again.
Really? Free will is just freshly-generated randomness?

In a sense, that is right. If I make decisions out of my free choice, they appear to be freshly-generated randomness to someone else who cannot predict what I do.

If he can predict what I do, then I don't have free will. So yes, you can say free will is nothing but freshly-generated randomness, but that is just a linguistic trick for devaluing it.

(Off-topic, a comment says about the corona virus, "This is going to be on the order of a standard flu season." Scott compares this to "Holocaust denial". Wow, a lot of smart people have gone mad. It does appear that the COVID-19 death total will be comparable to a bad flu season. Yes, Conway is reported to have died of COVID-19, but he was age 82 and living in a nursing home. Most of those who die of COVID-19 have multiple other health issues contributing to the death.)


  1. RIP, Conway! (Like every one else, I not only enjoyed the game of life but also found the creativity about it simply awesome!)

    As to the free will. A new thought strikes me. (New, to me, that is!)

    Why not to define the free will as ``determination by a conscious individual'', as in contrast to ``determination by physical laws governing the inanimate aspects of everything (including the bodily aspects of the living individuals)''?

    To those who equate free will with randomness, I think we must keep reminding them of the context that there are living, conscious people, that consciousness supplies a dynamically (metaphysically) active (potent) force, and that some aspects of consciousness are not bound by bodily aspects of the individual (or the material laws). They want to deny the metaphysical existence of such a force; some one must keep reminding them of that every time they drop the context (up to a point, that is).

    Well, the thought may not be so new, even for me. ... The thing is, I've always felt, deep down somewhere, that the ability to conform to a prediction had nothing *fundamental* to do with free will.

    On related matter, with all due respects to Turing et alia, I think that they deal with the *effects* of free will, but not with the free will itself. Not a very fundamental way to go about it, to my mind.

    Free will is just an axiom---a self-evident truth. Can't escape it.


  2. Free will has nothing to do with randomness or predictability. It isn't about the HOW. Free will is all about the WHO, it is about who has agency.

    Free will is the individual having the ability and freedom to choose for themselves. That's it.

    Mind you, I said the INDIVIDUAL choosing, not parasitical blowhard government experts, or busybodies who think they know best, or authoritarian group-think political parties who believe 'this time will be different', much less some PhD pinhead who has precious little historical understanding along with a tremendous contempt for humanity and thinks the powers of statistical numerology are next to godliness.

  3. To the individual making choices, free will is not random. But to outsiders observing, free will appears just the same as randomness.

    1. Define randomness. People who makes choices show prominent regularities and not just bell curves.

  4. If an individual does NOT have free will, it is still a pretty hollow claim, since any observer making such an observation is ALSO incapable of making such a determination, as they are just another stupid meat puppet like the rest of us...oh the irony. Inanimate Pot, meet your inanimate damn kettle.

    I would make the counter argument that anyone who believes they are truly without free will should feel free to lead by example and act like the inanimate objects they claim to be... when I tell them to 'Shut the frack up and go clean up their room'. Good little robots should at least try to be useful and do as they are told after all.