MPI Philosophy | Nature

Did Nature Give You Free will?

Is the natural system (and the ultimate system – the universe) only made of physical stuff that can be measured or does it include other qualities? We have just spent a lot of time discussing the analysis of natural systems and the need to make holistic decisions in order to achieve MPI but, has nature given us the ability, the free will, to make such decisions?

Although some of you may find it a little difficult to believe, a significant proportion of theoretical physicists do not believe that we have any free will and support a “materialistic” vision of the world. “Materialism” is derived from the word “matter” (referring to physical stuff) and is the view that everything that exists is either composed of matter or arises from (also known as “emergence”) matter for its existence. Materialism is usually contrasted with idealism, which proposes that ideas are real (and matter is not the only “real” thing) and that ideas are a product of the mind and soul and not a physical thing. Materialists have generally believed that the only things that are real are the things that can be measured and can be explained by scientific law. The materialist view tends to be held by scientists that do not believe in a God (as described by the monotheist religions – Christianity, Islam, Judaism). The idealism view tends to be supported by people that do believe in a God (as described by the monotheist religions). However, I suggest that both of them might be wrong and I will come back to this later in this book.

Democritus, a Greek philosopher that lived in the 4th century B.C was a materialist that the proposed that everything in the world is composed of minute bits of matter (he named them atoms) and that everything that occurred around us could be explained by the interaction of these atoms.

In philosophy, the theory of materialism proposes that all emergent phenomena (including consciousness) are the result of material interactions. This is also known as the “billiard ball” view of the universe. It suggests that everything that is occurring around us including our self-awareness and all forms of consciousness are the result of atoms, molecules, compounds (the billiard balls) bumping into each other (chemical reactions) and producing results that can be predicted with scientific theory. Materialism essentially leads to a “deterministic” view of life. Determinism is the view that, if we do live in a “billiard ball” world, then it follows that all of the events occurring in the universe were set in motion at the time of the Big Bang and that the decisions that we make are nothing more than the inevitable facilitation of our advancement toward our inevitable destiny that cannot be changed. Therefore, you have no free will. As you might expect, there are objections to this view.

Scientific objections

Some modern day scientists (and authors) such as Paul Davies and John Gribbin—have argued that materialism has been disproven by the existence of quantum theory (more on quantum theory below). In 1991, Gribbin and Davies released their book The Matter Myth, the first chapter of which, “The Death of Materialism”, contained the following:

Then came our Quantum theory, which totally transformed our image of matter. The old assumption that the microscopic world of atoms was simply a scaled-down version of the everyday world had to be abandoned. Newton’s deterministic machine was replaced by a shadowy and paradoxical conjunction of waves and particles, governed by the laws of chance, rather than the rigid rules of causality. An extension of the quantum theory goes beyond even this; it paints a picture in which solid matter dissolves away, to be replaced by weird excitations and vibrations of invisible field energy.

Paul Davies and John Gribbin take the view that “Quantum physics undermines materialism because it reveals that matter has far less “substance” than we might believe. But another development goes even further by demolishing Newton’s image of matter as inert lumps. This development is the theory of chaos, which has recently gained widespread attention.”

Davies’ and Gribbin’s objections are shared by proponents of digital physics who view information rather than matter to be fundamental. Their objections were also shared by some founders of quantum theory, such as Max Planck, who wrote:

“As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent Mind. This Mind is the matrix of all matter.”

Quantum Theory

For objects that are approximately the size of an atom or larger famous theories from Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein do a good job of explaining how these objects will behave in relation to each other. These theories essentially support the “billiard ball” universe we described above where particles can bump into each other and bounce off each other and integrate with each other and be attracted to each other according to the rules set by Newton and Einstein (and others) and this essentially reflects most of the obvious rules of physics that you observe in everyday life when physical things interact with other physical things. 

However, there is a critical wrinkle that was discovered all the way back in the early part of the 20th century. Up until this time it was assumed that all particles regardless of the size behaved according to the theories described by Newton and Einstein but famous certain experiments performed on tiny particles indicated that these particles did not obey the laws set by Newton and Eintsein – in fact their behavior was totally mind boggling and the formulas that described this behavior became known as quantum physics.

Quantum physics, also known as quantum mechanics or quantum theory is a theory that explains how sub atomic particles behave. While should you care about how sub atomic particles behave? We establish earlier that you are a system within systems. If we drill down to the smallest system within you we will eventually get to the atoms that make up each molecule in the cells in your body. However, they are, in turn, made up of subatomic particles. Therefore, these are the most basic and fundamental building blocks that nature has used to construct this thing that you know as yourself (at the very least, it is the building block of your physical self. As you will see in other parts of this book it is arguable as to whether they are the building blocks of your conscious self).

The most famous experiment that illustrates quantum theory is known as the double slit experiment where the experimenter fired a photon of light at plate that contain contained two slits. There was a screen behind the slits so the experimenter could see how the light traveled through the slits and ended up on the screen in the background. 

A photon is a light particle (meaning that it is a particle of light). If you break light down into its smallest component you end up with a photon and photons are particles and should behave according to particle theory. This means that a particle should travel through one of the slits and crash into the screen in the background in one place on the screen that reflects the direction in which it was traveling. However, in this experiment, the photon behaved in a very unusual way. As the particle was heading towards the two slits, the experimenters observed the particle travel through both slits at the same time and, instead of crashing into one place on the screen in the background, it creates a dispersed interference pattern instead. 

Upon further investigation, the experimenters noted that the photon did not split into two parts in order to travel through the two slits at the same time. Each photon that travelled through each slit was a complete copy of the other. Therefore, the exact same particle existed in two places at the exact same time. Further, the experimenters analyzed the interference pattern that ended up on the screen and concluded that it was totally consistent with the interference pattern you would expect to see if the two particles had collided after moving through the slits and created a regular wave-like ripple effect. Therefore, the conclusion was that the photon in this experiment behaved like a wave as opposed to a particle. 

If you can believe it, these were not the strangest findings in the experiment. By far, the most mind-boggling discovery of this experiment was that the experimenters repeated the experiment while directly observing the photon as it moved through the double slits and realized that, in this case, the photon did in fact behave as a particle – it just moved through one slit and hit the screen in the background in one predictable spot. This means that the act of observing the photon (and only the act of observing the photon) literally changed the behavior of the photon.

These experiments have been repeated many times and are disputed within the world of physics. However, the implications and conclusions that can be drawn from these experiments is still a matter of hot debate. One obvious conclusion is that subatomic particles absolutely do not behave in the same way that larger particles behave and are not subject to Newton and Einstein’s laws. This means that Einstein’s law is deficient because it does not describe how small objects behave. It only describes how large objects behave. Therefore, at this point in time in our history, physicists are scrambling to discover a so-called “unifying theory”. This is sometimes called a theory of everything. Clearly it would not be a theory of everything, it would just be a unifying theory that explains how quantum theory and Einstein’s theory can coexist in nature.

If ever there was an experiment that confirmed that things are not necessarily as they seem, this is it. If an object can exist in two places at the same time, what does this mean for teleportation of things that are larger than a photon of light? Can larger particles instantaneously transform and behave like waves under certain conditions? Can the act of observation by a human cause a physical thing that is larger than a photon to behave differently? These are all questions that are yet to be answered. 

Quantum mechanics is being used to create new quantum computers that will be many orders of magnitude more powerful than current computers that are based on silicon chips. Quantum mechanics is already being used in circuit boards of most consumer electronics products.

In the meantime, it is easy to see why quantum theory causes a problem for people that have a materialistic view of the world because it suggests that the world is, in fact, not only made up of particles bumping into each other. Further, it suggests that observation by humans, or perhaps the focused consciousness of humans, literally affects how particles behave. This, of course, leads us to an inevitable discussion about consciousness and its relationship with the physical world.

Matter is mostly empty space

Matter, the physical stuff we see around us consists largely of empty space. A rock is mostly empty space. This is because matter is made of atoms and atoms consist of electrons orbiting around a nucleus composed of protons and neutrons. The nucleus contains more than 99.9 percent of the mass of an atom but it has a diameter of only 1/100,000 that of the electron cloud. Although the electrons themselves occupy very little space the size of their orbit defines the size of the atom and it happens to result in 99.99% of empty space. Therefore, the things we perceive to be obviously solid is in fact a large number of electrons moving through empty space at such high speed that we can’t see or feel the emptiness. 

In the event we could generate a force strong enough to compress all of the empty space out of a rock the size of a football stadium, the rock would be squeezed down to the size of a grain of sand – and still weigh million of tons.

Next article in this series: “Consciousness In Nature”

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