That inimitable and irascible physicist Lubos Motl, who blogs at The Reference Frame, sought to vindicate the existence of free will in a recent post entitled Free Will of Particles and People. To begin, he insisted that he must have free will because he feels like he has it:
The actual reason why I am sure about the existence of free will (and I mean my free will) is that I feel it.
Well, I feel it, too, but human beings have been known to feel any number of things that aren’t true, so I don’t find that argument convincing. Lubos’ second argument is based on the fact that the universe is not deterministic in the classical sense. We live in a quantum universe, and quantum phenomena appear to be random. Since free will, at least as defined by Lubos, exists at the level of atomic and sub-atomic particles, and single particles can change the state of cells, and single cells can change the state of the human brain, then we, too, must have free will. I’m not so sure about that one either. True, the outcome of a measurement at the quantum scale is unpredictable, and therefore appears to be random, but we don’t really know that it is. We can never measure exactly the same thing twice. We can repeat experiments, but we can never measure exactly the same particle at exactly the same time in exactly the same place twice.
Then there’s the problem of what all this stuff we’re measuring really is. We know how matter behaves at the atomic scale in great detail. The fact that the atomic bomb worked demonstrated that convincingly enough. We can use Maxwell’s equations and the Schrödinger Equation to make particles of matter and energy jump through hoops, but that doesn’t alter the fact that we don’t really know what they are at the most fundamental level, or even why they exist at all. In short, I have a problem with making positive claims about things we don’t understand. Positive claims about free will assume a level of knowledge that we just don’t have.
On the other hand, I have no problem at all with assuming that we do have free will. As Lubos says, it certainly feels like we do, and if we actually do, then we are merely assuming something that is true. On the other hand, if we don’t have free will, then assuming that we do couldn’t change things for the worse, for the very good reason that, lacking free will, we would be incapable of changing anything.
Arguments against the existence of free will are absurd, because they imply the assumption of free choice. If there is no free will, then there is no point in arguing about it, because it can’t possibly change anything in a way that wasn’t pre-programmed before the argument started. True, if there is no free will, than the one making the argument couldn’t decide not to make it, but the fundamental absurdity remains. What could possibly be the point of arguing with me about my assumptions regarding free will if I have no choice in the matter? The future will be different depending on whether a robot tightens or loosens a screw. However, if the robot is pre-programmed, and has no choice in the matter, it won’t alter a thing. Nothing will shake the future out of its predestined rut. In spite of that, I suspect that the most insistent deniers of free will don’t really believe their arguments are pointless. And yet their arguments would be completely pointless unless they believed in their heart of hearts, either that they could make a free choice to argue one way or the other, or that the person listening could may such a choice.
If there is no free will, then my assumption that there is won’t change a thing. If, on the other hand, we do have free will, and my assumption that we do despite my lack of any proof to that effect actually represents a free choice, then it seems to me that it’s a choice that is likely to make life a great deal more pleasant. Where’s the fun in being a robot? As far as I’m concerned, the assumption is justified if I can relieve even a single person of the despair and sense of futility that are predictable responses to the opposite assumption.
We can certainly debate the question of free will as stubbornly as we please. However, I would contend that we lack the knowledge necessary to decide the matter one way or the other. Perhaps one day that knowledge will be ours. If it turns out we actually don’t have free will, then it will be illogical to blame me for my assumption that we do. If, on the other hand, we discover that we actually do have free will, then it seems that those who argued furiously that we don’t will look rather foolish. Why take the risk?