Sunday, March 13, 2022

Horgan Prefers Free Will over Superdeterminism

SciAm columnist John Horgan has a column on superdeterminism and free will:
Physics, which tracks changes in matter and energy, has nothing to say about love, desire, fear, hatred, justice, beauty, morality, meaning. All these things, viewed in the light of physics, could be described as “logically incoherent nonsense,” as Hossenfelder puts it. But they have consequences; they alter the world.

Physics as a whole, not just quantum mechanics, is obviously incomplete. As philosopher Christian List told me recently, humans are “not just heaps of interacting particles.” We are “intentional agents, with psychological features and mental states” and the capacity to make choices. Physicists have acknowledged the limits of their discipline. Philip Anderson, a Nobel laureate, contends in his 1972 essay “More Is Different” that as phenomena become more complicated, they require new modes of explanation; not even chemistry is reducible to physics, let alone psychology.

Bell, the inventor of superdeterminism, apparently didn’t like it. He seems to have viewed superdeterminism as a reductio ad absurdum proposition, which highlights the strangeness of quantum mechanics. He wasn’t crazy about any interpretations of quantum mechanics, once describing them as “like literary fiction.”

Why does the debate over free will and superdeterminism matter? Because ideas matter. At this time in human history, many of us already feel helpless, at the mercy of forces beyond our control. The last thing we need is a theory that reinforces our fatalism.

He gets some pushback on his Facebook page. In particular, Scott Aaronson says that he understates how bad superdeterminism is, and Sabine, Hossenfelder claims that her superdeterminism views have been distorted.

To me, free will is real simple. If you are a normal conscious human being, then you directly experience free will. You make free choices. It should take a pretty strong argument to convince you that your personal experience is false.

Science could prove our intuitions wrong, but the arguments against free will are not scientific at all. They are based on a belief that the past determines the future, or a belief that science would never explain consciousness so we must be unconscious automatons.

Superdeterminism goes further, and says that not only are we pregrammed robots, but even when we do controlled experiments, the setup parameters are forced on us in a way to make the results fool us.

There is no proposed superdeterminism theory that makes any sense, and it has few backers. Dr. Bee pushes it as the logical consequence of rejecting quantum mechanics, nonlocality, and free will.

While Aaronson rightly rejects superdeterminism as madness, he accepts many-worlds theory that has most of the same problems. It does not let us do any controlled experiments either. It also cannot say that setup X predicts outcome Y with probability P. It says that everything happens, and what you see is just a reflection of what world you ended up in.

Horgan is the journalist who says the emperor has no clothes. He is saying the obvious, while prominent scientist profess crazy ideas.


  1. Roger,


    A while ago (may be a year or two years ago), I had recommended Horgan (via Twitter, of all places!) that he work his way through the first part of McQuarrie's Quantum Chemistry; in particular, at least until the hydrogen atom or so. (I don't remember if I had also advised him to cover the Helium atom too, or not.)

    Apparently, he came to take the Facebook medium closer to his heart than my good-hearted recommendation.

    I should be posting my thoughts on free will, and on the Lagrangian and Hamiltonian mechanics, at my own blog in a short while. [I don't know when. May be tomorrow. Or the day after.]

    BTW, I recall that Dr. Hossenfelder has said something to the effect that Superdeterminism does not deny free will. But I am in no mood to dig up. I had mentioned this bit from her writing when I was discussing the matter at Professor Doctor Scott Aaronson's own blog.



  2. Replies
    1. Thanks for reminding. Yes, in that case, she *is* the maker of her own misery. [Free Will is an axiom of epistemology, and hence, directly or indirectly a basis of all knowledge.]

      PS: Just posted a bit at my blog concerning Lagrangian and Hamiltonian mechanics. Will post a few thoughts concerning Free Will after a couple of days or so.

  3. Well,
    We obviously should listen to the physicists,
    after all, they have never been wrong about anything of import or significance before have they?

    Their historical record of never being terribly wrong is pretty good right?

    Read some non rah-rah-science propaganda books about science history and inquiry. It's neither pretty, neat, or very logical. Foolish passion often rules. Often, good ideas were discarded, or bad ideas were promoted merely because of popular peer consensus, the constant pursuit of patrons and money, not data.

    Science in practice (not theory) is the perpetual art of claiming you are right with really pretty graphs and numbers...even when you keep changing your answers to agree with new observations du jour that just proved you wrong.

    Hubris is a concept the scientific community has never quite figured out. You can't unravel the secrets of the universe if you revel in fooling yourself.

    “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

    ― Max Planck