Monday, November 15, 2021

Free Will can look Random to Others

A argument is commonly made that everything in the world is either deterministic or random, and this leaves no room for free will. I am surprised that otherwise intelligent men make this silly argument.

The argument essentially says that nothing good can come out of quantum randomness. But if that were true, then nothing good could come out of quantum computers.

While I have argued that quantum computers are useless, I do not make that silly argument. Of cuorse quantum indeterminacy can be part of a useful process.

From a free will essay:

A second criticism of the indeterminacy argument is that it does not allow for the type of human choices that free will advocates need. The indeterminacy of electrons is a random thing, but genuinely free choices cannot be random: they are thoughtful and meaningful actions. If I am deciding between buying chocolate ice cream and vanilla and I randomly flip a coin to decide, that is an arbitrary action, not a free action. If in fact all of our actions were indeterminate in the way that electrons are, we would have nonstop spasms and convulsions, not meaningfully chosen actions. Rather than selecting either the chocolate ice cream or vanilla, I would start quivering like I am having a seizure. Thus, subatomic indeterminacy is no real help to the free will advocate. ...

Second, regarding the contention that indeterminacy will only produce random actions, this is not necessarily the case. Quantum computers do not result in arbitrary events, like memory chips catching on fire, or printers printing out gibberish. Rather, quantum phenomena are carefully introduced into precise spots within the computer’s hardware, the result being that it can perform tasks with enormously greater efficiency than any other existing computer. So too with quantum biology: the results are biological processes that perform highly complex tasks with great efficiency, such as global detection, vision, and photosynthesis. If evolution has in fact tied brain activity to quantum phenomena, it is reasonable to assume that it would similarly facilitate an important biological process with great efficiency. None of this proves the existence of free will through indeterminacy, but it at least offers a scientifically-respectable theory for how nature might have implanted within our brains the ability to have done otherwise.

Yes, I think it is possible that a reductionist microscopic analysis of free will would show some quantum indeterminacy.

The essence of free will is the ability to make a decision that others cannot predict. So your decision will look random to them. So saying that there is randomness in fundamental physics is an argument for free will, not against it.

Here is philosopher Massimo Pigliucci making an argument that free will is incoherent:

The next popular argument for a truly free will invokes quantum mechanics (the last refuge of those who prefer to keep things as mysterious as possible). Quantum events, it is argued, may have some effects that “bubble up” to the semi-macroscopic level of chemical interactions and electrical pulses in the brain. Since quantum mechanics is the only realm within which it does appear to make sense to talk about truly uncaused events, voilĂ !, we have (quantistic) free will. But even assuming that quantum events do “bubble up” in that way (it is far from a certain thing), what we gain under that scenario is random will, which seems to be an oxymoron (after all, “willing” something means to wish or direct events in a particular — most certainly not random — way). So that’s out as well.

It now begins to look like our prospects for a coherent sense of free will are dim indeed.

Pigliucci is wrong on many levels. We invoke quantum mechanics because it is our best physical theory, and hence makes the world less mysterious, not more mysterious.

Quantum mechanics is no more about "truly uncaused events" than any other theory. It makes predictions based on causality from past info and events. And an action from free wiil is not an uncaused event.

He says "random will" is an oxymoron, but a free choice does indeed appear random to someone who cannot predict that choice.

While this does not prove free will, it does refute certain arguments against free will.


  1. I make it a point never to take the advice of robots lacking any volition. This saves a tremendous amount of time and allows one to appreciate one's ability to just say 'no' to 'experts' who have not yet found something useful to do with what remains of their limited time.

    Random is an incredibly relative term. Something can be random from an observers point of view, but that does not mean it is actually random. Just because a person makes a predictable decision has nothing to do with free will whatsoever, as in many situations there are few or less good options in a given situation. If a freeway exit is coming up, and you have a decision to make, it will most likely go one of two ways, you leave the freeway on the exit or continue on. Precious few would consider hitting the guard rail a third option, this does not mean however that one does not have free will, only that productive choices are often limited.

    Corralling people into a bad choice of a false dichotomy is the work of someone who means to control you or do you harm. Think thrice before listening to someone who would convince you to give up your ability to choose for yourself in the name of unquestionable 'science'.

  2. Dear Roger,

    A few comments:

    1. Prof. Fieser says:

    >> "If evolution has in fact tied brain activity to quantum phenomena, it is reasonable to assume that it would similarly facilitate an important biological process with great efficiency."

    Good passage, but a comment is necessary.

    Think in terms of multi-scaling. QM is at the "bottom" (micro level); measurable brain activity is at the "higher" (macro) level. The macro-level phenomena emerge from the micro-level ones.

    Now, if someone interprets the above passage to mean that there was some stage during evolution when the tie between the micro- and the macro was not present, then it would be a wrong interpretation. Just noting.

    For the same reason (viewing the issues via multi-scaling), QM would assuredly lie at the "bottom" of *all* biological processes, not just those which are especially correlated with the functioning of an individual's free will. Nothing surprising about it.

    But the author also notes "efficiency" here.

    To be efficient, I submit, the micro-scale processes would have to be nonlinear in nature. A nonlinear process could provide for an *efficient* up-scaling of even minutest changes from the micro-scale to the macro-scale.

    Unfortunately, the mainstream QM is linear. So, even if Prof. Fieser's assumption *looks* reasonable, logically speaking, it is *not* tenable.

    In contrast, my fledgling new approach to QM is, essentially, non-linear in nature.

    Another point: Even if a successful description of the up-scaling could be given, it would still apply, and remain limited in scope, only to the *material* correlates, only to the bodily aspects of the functioning of consciousness (including free-will). The mind really is unlike the body, even if both are *integrated* --- in *living* beings.

    [contd in the next comment]

  3. [contd from my previous comment]

    2. Prof. Pigluicci says:

    >> "Since quantum mechanics is the only realm within which it does appear to make sense to talk about truly uncaused events, voilĂ !"

    In repsonse, in your comment, you say:

    >> "Quantum mechanics is no more about "truly uncaused events" than any other theory."

    My comment:

    To establish causality, first, you have to identify a proper ontology --- what kind of objects there are, what kind of actions they take, etc.

    No one has so far given a fully satisfactory ontology for QM. Indeed, they haven't even settled the issue as to whether \Psi is ontic or epistemic.

    The professor takes this scene, and interprets the absence of a causal *explanation* as if it provides for a positive evidence for *uncaused* events. Which, IMO, is wrong.

    You are correct, but only in some special sense. In what sense? This:

    If you take ensembles of identically prepared systems as initial conditions and measure these systems (for some variable, say position) over a series of successively longer time intervals, then you can compile those results, and then, interpret those *experimental* results using the *idea* of the probability current. On this basis, you can also establish a kind of a "causality" in time, which would apply for the Schrodinger evolution.

    Granted, it could be seen as a form of causality. But it still would be a *probablistic* causality. The adjective "probablistic" couldn't possibly be dropped. Further, unlike in Stat Mech, no statement has thereby been made about the ontological/epistemic status of the *primary* unknown of the theory, namely, \Psi. Finally, this "causality" remains applicable only to the Schrodinger evolution, not to the measurement process. Causality of the measurement process still remains an open issue in this approach.

    In contrast, the professor was amply clear --- even if his position was outright wrong. He was talking of the "true" causality. And he was careful enough to drop in words like "appears" here and there too!

    3. You say:

    >> "And an action from free wiil is not an uncaused event."

    Absolutely excellent an observation! Kudos!

    Thanks, and best,

    1. Addendum:

      Looks like I didn't fully read through Prof. Pigliucci's position. I regret this absence of a careful reading

      (Aside: Frankly, I was in a hurry to finish writing these comments, and then having lunch and picking up on writing my next update at my blog. The comment had to be split at the 11th hour. And, philosophers anyway are known to write too much nonsense when it comes to QM and all, as a rule.)

      Prof. Pigliucci, I now understand, doesn't accept that quoted position (the one which ends with the "viola!"). In my hurried reading, it looked like he does. So, I wrote like what I wrote. Which I now regret.

      But anyway, he still says:

      >> "Anyway, back to the “free” part of free will. The obvious question is: free from what? That’s where coherence quickly becomes a problem."


      ... Oh well... I am not going to pursue his positions and his quoted article a lot... It's just a magazine article, and that too from a *psychology* magazine!... And I anyway have better things to do --- right now. But anyway, I would say "sorry" to him --- if saying so is due.