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A CERN Physicist’s View On Free Will

December 31, 2012

Do we have free will?  Many would like to believe so, but considering our brains are made of atoms, the same stuff as everything else in the universe, and atoms follow the laws of physics, does that leave any room for free will?  We could try to invoke the weirdness of quantum mechanics, but to a physicist who actually understands quantum laws, does the idea make any sense?  No, not really.

In the video below, CERN physicist Dr. Russell Stannard asks if we are really free to choose.

When I first studied quantum mechanics, I had this very problem of free will running through my mind. I hoped to find an open door for freedom.  I didn’t find it.  All I found was chance.  It’s like if I wrote a computer algorithm to simulate this reality, I would use a randomize function to determine what happens at very small scales.  It’s a bit disheartening to discover that we’re not in the least bit control over our lives or what happens to us.  Life’s a sort of strange movie.

I tell myself that I might be missing something, but all evidence suggests that free will is not there.  And it’s not something you have to deduce from physics.  If you actually carefully look into people’s brains when they’re making a decision (and you know what you’re looking for), you can tell them what they’re going to do long before they’re even conscious of having made the decision.

But if reality is just this physical process which is happening on its own, the next question is why we’re aware of it at all.  For some strange reason, my brain activity “encodes” my personal subjective consciousness.  So here I am, watching this universe unfold from the front row seat of my body.  Am I the only one who’s conscious?  Not likely.  How about animals?  Insects?  When I squash a bug, did it feel pain and suffer?  Or what if I’m doing some yard work in my garden and accidently cut a worm in half?  Which half is suffering?  There is no significant “brain” in that worm, they’re more a network of nerves.

I find it all rather intriguing and bizarre.  Dr. Stannard made another video on consciousness, and he shares the perspective I think many of us physicists share.

Maybe the questions of consciousness and free will lie at the boundaries of the knowable, as Dr. Stannard suggests?  I’ve been thinking about them for years, and I can’t make any progress either.   All I end up doing is mental gymnastics which leave me in an uncomfortable, contorted state of mind.  And then when I finally figure out my initial errors and bad assumptions, straightening myself back out, I”m right back where I started, having made little to no progress.

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