Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Free Universe

So I was reading the February issue of Notices of the American Mathematical Society when I came upon a surprising article entitled, "The Strong Free Will Theorem." The meaning of the theorem is that if humans have free will, then so do the particles that make up matter.

"More precisely, if the experimenter can freely choose the directions in which to orient his apparatus in a certain measurement, then the particle's response... is not determined by the entire previous history of the universe."

The Strong Free Will Theorem is the result of some basic assumptions of quantum mechanics and relativity, which virtually all physicists would agree on. The article is quite technical, but I found the philosophical implications fascinating. Essentially, it's bye bye determinism.

"Although... determinism may formally be shown to be consistent, there is no longer any evidence that supports it, in view of the fact that classical physics has been superseded by quantum mechanics, a non-deterministic theory."

So, what does this mean? Is the universe random, rather than determined?

"Although the FWT [Free Will Theorem] suggest to us that determinism is not a viable option, it nevertheless enables us to agree with Einstein that 'God does not play dice with the Universe.' In the present state of knowledge, it is certainly beyond our capabilities to understand the connection between the free decisions of particles and humans, but the free will of neither of these is accounted for by mere randomness."

The short answer is no, randomness has nothing to do with it.

To elaborate a little more with some of my own amazing mathematical knowledge, what these guys Conway and Kochen have proven is that there is no function relating the initial parameters of an experiment to what the elementary particles in that experiment do.

In probability theory, however, there can and must be a function relating initial assumptions with future events. The idea of probability is that you can define a measure on events, given a set of outcomes. For instance, if I have a fair coin with sides heads and tails, the probability that I flip a head has a measure of one half.

The (Strong) Free Will Theorem shows that in an experiment involving elementary particles, there is simply no such function, allowing particles to do... what they want?

I can't help but contemplate the theological implications, as well as the questions. If the universe makes decisions, then... what are its reasons?

Human free will is the freedom to act based on reasons and not as the inevitable result of past events. So when I ask you how you chose what your career would be, you can say something like, "I've always had a passion for [insert pastime here]," or, "Because I wanted to make money," and not, "Because the sequence of physical events of the past 15 billion years have led inevitably up to this point in history, in which I would choose to be a [insert career here]."

Does the universe have any such reasons? Is there any reason why a particle should make one choice over another? These are basically theological questions, aren't they?

It seems appropriate in this instance to end my post with a question, rather than an answer. Have fun pondering. :)


  1. I'm sorry dear, I just had to laugh. You were reading Notices of the American Mathematical Society....

    Anyway, I think I'm just a bit confused about what the Universe actually you mean everything physical? all the planets and space? Or do you mean God and all that is heavenly?

  2. Of course I was reading Notices of the AMS. I get a free subscription as a math grad student!

    Your confusion is natural, because really the results can be interpreted either way. One might say the particles themselves have free will, or one might say God is controlling them, or something. All that is really known is that even in principle one can't predict the precise outcome of an experiment on elementary particles. It is natural to ask the theological questions, like, "Does this prove that God is in control?" But unfortunately, there's not really a mathematical way to answer that question!

  3. I think that God has ordered the universe- being the non-human things- to move a certain way, particles to behave in certain manners, etc. But He can also suddenly be like, "oh hey rock, jump up in the air" and the rock would do it. The rock, as a non-human, doesnt have a capacity to sin, therefore it does not even cross the rock's mind (what?!?) to say "no". What do you think about that? So then, the big question is, what is the difference between the rock, which was created by God, and a person, that was also created by God? How can the rock not say "no", but humans can?

  4. Well, the ability to say "no" seems to come from how complex humans are, specifically our brains. Ultimately, all things--whether humans or rocks--are made of the same tiny little things (elementary particles). But humans are created in such a way that we are capable of thought, reflection, and decision-making. How it all works is very difficult to understand, and none of us really do. The science of the brain is telling us more and more, but there's always some mystery to it.

  5. How about animals? Are they like the rock or the human?

  6. Well, it appears they're in between! They're certainly more like the human than the rock.

  7. Mostly, is this an argument we can use regarding PETA?

    "People who support animal rights believe that animals are not ours to use for food, clothing, entertainment, experimentation, or any other purpose and that animals deserve consideration of their best interests regardless of whether they are cute, useful to humans, or endangered and regardless of whether any human cares about them at all (just as a mentally challenged human has rights even if he or she is not cute or useful and even if everyone dislikes him or her)."

    Also, I found this hilarious, but sooo sad!:

    Question: “How can you justify spending your time helping animals when there are so many people who need help?”

    PETAs response: "There are very serious problems in the world that deserve our attention, and cruelty to animals is one of them. We should try to alleviate suffering wherever we can. Helping animals is not any more or less important than helping human beings—they are both important. Animal suffering and human suffering are interconnected."

    WHAT?!?!?! Helping animals is not more or less important than helping humans?!?!? Do we have our priorities mixed up these days?


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