Science and the question of Free Will

You might think that issues like determinism, free will, and responsibility for our actions are topics limited to theological debates between Calvinists and Arminans. However these topics are debated by scientists and philosophers as well.

Stephen Hawking, a theoretical physicist (think Sheldon on the Big Bang Theory), writes in his book the Grand Design (p 31-32):

Though we feel that we can chose what we do, our understanding of the molecular basis shows that biological processes are governed by the laws of physics and chemistry and therefore are as determined as the orbits of the planets. … It is hard to imagine how free will can operate if our behaviour is determined by physical law, so it seems that we are no more than biological machines and that free will is just an illusion.

Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist and author of many books including the God Delusion, and Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist and author of many books including A Universe From Nothing (I recommend this NYT review), seem to agree with Hawking. In the video they are asked -is there a scientific basis for the concept of free will in human beings?

Dawkins quips:

the late Christopher Hitchens when asked does he believe in free will replied I have no choice.

He goes on to add:

I have a materialist view of the world,  I think that things are determined in a rational way by antecedent events and so that commits me to the view that when I think I have free will, and I think I am exercising free free choice, I’m deluding myself. My brain states are determined by physical events.

Krauss goes on to add:

I also have to agree, everything I know about the world tells me that there is no such thing as free will.  … But the world behaves as if there is free will and so it doesn’t make much difference. … that is a question for philosophers to worry about but not me.

Michio Kaku, another theoretical physicist and author, is working to find the unified theory of everything (UTE) that will unite the theory of relativity with the theory of quantum mechanics. (An interesting article on the current state of ideas like string theory and the multiverse). Kaku rejects the determinism many other physicists think is required.

Newtonian determinism says that that the universe is a clock, a gigantic clock that’s wound up at the beginning of time and has been ticking ever since … what you’re going to eat 10 years from now on January 1st has already been fixed, is already known using Newton’s laws of motion. …

After noting Einstein was a determinist, Kaku tells us

Hey get used to it. Einstein was wrong. God does play dice. Every time we look at an electron it moves there’s uncertainty with regards to the position of the electron. So what does that mean for free will? It means in some sense we do have some kind of free well. No one can determine your future events given your past history.

And so even in science the debate ensues. I’ll leave this post with the question posed by the physicist Sean Carroll:

A better question is, if we choose to think of human beings as collections of atoms and particles evolving according to the laws of physics, is such a description accurate and complete?

Or is there something about human consciousness — some strong sense of “free will” — that allows us to deviate from the predictions that such a purely mechanistic model would make?

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