Friday, June 19, 2020

Ellis explains downward causality

Physicist George Ellis wrote a very good relativity textbook with S. Hawking, and now writes in Aeon:
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.

That’s a devastating conclusion. We can be grateful it’s not true.
For a biologist with such a disbelief in free will, see Jerry Coyne.

Ellis doesn't deny the Schroedinger equation or any law of physics. What he does deny is that any of those laws give the sort of deterministic predictability that would eliminate free will. I think that he is correct about that.

Not everyone agrees. Einstein was a determinist who denied free will. Sean M. Carroll is a determinist, but he also believes in many-worlds theory.


  1. A very sad point I'd like to make about this 'There is no free will' argument, If you believe in such drivel, you are an NPC (a Non Player Character, a mindless human looking place holder in a video game).

    If you believe there is no free will, You must also believe there is no point in trying to convince anyone of anything, as 1. There is no one actually there to convince (we are all meat puppets), just a list of pre-programmed mechanical processes and responses, and 2. (this is the point they don't consider in their argument) there is also NO observer either, there is no expert, or authority to make such a determination possible.

    You don't get to claim a position of authority appealing to understanding and reason when you don't believe in understanding,reason or authority, since all these abstract concepts are entirely dependent upon an individual exercising free agency for their very consideration.

    To invoke some Cartesian irony,

    If: I don't think,
    Then: who the hell said that?

  2. Yes, that's right.

    Some of the anti-free-will believe that while we are all pre-programmed meat puppets, it is still possible to do good by reforming the schools and other institutions so that the meat puppets will have better programming.

    The argument doesn't make much sense to me.

  3. Roger,

    It's an excellent article. Thanks for bringing it to attention.

    However, I am not sure if I understand what "downward causality" is. I began to take it, as a working idea while progressing through the article, that it means the fact that people have free-will. Yes, free-will can and does act as a cause that produces physical effects---else, it could not even function (mind-body integration). But why this "downward" part? I could not get that part. Wiki says that Prof. Ellis is a Platonist. If so, I think that his Platonism shows only in the selection of that word, but not in anything else in the article (on the very first but fairly attentive read, at least). Nothing else in the article is an exercise in Platonism. ... Excellent. I am sure I am going to re-read after a few days. I might even drop him a line or two. I think the system vs. law distinction I made a while ago is relevant to his case. (But this is a digression here.)

    PS: "*who* the hell" (Perfect). "meat puppets" (LOL!)

    On a more serious note: The word "puppets" is more to the point than "wet robots", really speaking. Robots can be "autonomous," not in the sense of "freedom", but in the sense: two robots can be mechanically separated from each other, as in two different spring-driven toys. Puppets don't even have that much of a separation from their motive cause---which is common to all puppets. ...Anyway, bye for now.