Is free will real? The topic has long been a subject of debate among philosophers and material scientists alike. Yet a growing number of physicists, such as Sabine Hossenfelder, are leaning toward an unnerving possibility: that the concept of free will could be nothing more than an illusion generated in the human brain.
According to Hossenfelder, the question of executive independence comes down to how the Universe behaves at its most fundamental level.
“Free will is often described as the possibility that one could have done otherwise. But this description stopped being useful with quantum mechanics because it’d mean that single particles also have free will,” Hossenfelder explains.
To showcase her argument, Hossenfelder alludes to the counterintuitively fuzzy nature of subatomic reality and then extrapolates its effects on the macro world.
“I think free will is incompatible with determinism. I also think it’s incompatible with indeterminism. And since the real world is governed by a mixture of determinism and indeterminism, I arrive at the conclusion that free will doesn’t exist. It’s sometimes called ‘hard incompatibilism,'” Hossenfelder says.
Because of this, Hossenfelder stresses, “You don’t need to explain what free will is in any detail. You just need to say, ‘Whatever it is, it isn’t compatible with what we know about the laws of nature.”
Hossenfelder believes although “many of us have grown up thinking our brain works in a particular way,” eventually “we learn that this isn’t compatible with science, and we have a hard time readjusting how we think about ourselves. The free will story suggests that the brain works like this. You use your neural circuits to consider different options, for example, what you could eat for lunch. You draw on your memory and the associations you have for each possible option and try to imagine how much you would enjoy it. Then you take this thing called ‘free will’ and use it to pick one. The challenge is now to integrate the knowledge that the thing you call free will is just another part of this algorithm that runs in your neural circuits.”
Hossenfelder emphasized, however, that this does not mean that people do not make real choices.
“You decided to watch this video, didn’t you? Good choice by the way,” Hossenfelder continues. “Did the Big Bang make me do this video? No. That’s because all those structures in the universe, including this planet and life on it, were created by quantum fluctuations in the plasma in the early universe. Their details were not determined at the Big Bang, if there was a Big Bang. It’s also extremely likely that one or the other quantum event played a role for the world becoming just exactly as it is today.”
Nonetheless, Hossenfelder concludes that misinterpretations of how individuals process incoming information have profound impacts on civilization:
Fact is that our brains will process input whether we want that or not. Once it’s in, we can’t get it out. This is why trauma is so hard to cope with. This is why misinformation is so hard to combat. This is why what the FIFA called ‘three victorious hands around a soccer ball’ will forever look like a facepalm once someone told you it does. You can’t ‘unsee’ something. And this is also why I take issue with upbeat climate change activists, who attack realists as ‘doomers’ because they believe we just need the ‘will’ to take action. The idea that ‘will’ is all we need has led to utopian plans for staggering amounts of carbon capture, home insulation and renovation, upgrades of the electric grid, energy storage, and a hydrogen economy, all of which is somehow magically supposed to pop out of nowhere if we just have the ‘will.’ This belief in free will puts the blame on individuals when really the problem is the way that we’ve organized our societies. I’d say it isn’t me who is a problem for action on climate change, it’s people who disregard the limits of human cognitive ability.
Watch the full video here:
Originally posted in Alternet.org