Documenting the Coming Singularity

Friday, February 16, 2018

Friday Physics & Philosophy: The Physics of Free Will

Is free will only an illusion? And if so, what does that really mean?

It's time for some Friday deep thoughts, the melding of physics with giant philosophical questions...

By Stephen Skolnick on Physics Central

At the intersection of physics and philosophy, there's a question that's weighed on the minds of great thinkers for centuries: Is there truly such a thing as free will? When we make a choice, are we fundamentally any different than a calculator "choosing" which segments of its display to light up when the = button is pressed?

The question has its roots in the acceptance that humans are, for all our astounding complexity, purely physical systems. Once you drop the notion that we've got an intrinsic, metaphysical soul that sits behind the eyes and pulls the levers, the question of why we make the choices we make becomes urgent…if only philosophically.

Barring the existence of a “ghost in the machine”, the factors that comprise the self and influence our decision-making processes can largely be broken down into two categories: nature and nurture (or genetics and environment, if you prefer). The first one is something that we obviously have no control over—nobody chooses their parents—and while we manipulate our environment, we can only do so to the extent that we are already manipulated by it.

The simplified example I like to give involves a fetus in the womb, just reaching the point where its nerves and muscles are developed enough to give a kick. Here, it has a choice—kick, or don’t. Which one it chooses clearly depends on things entirely beyond its control—the genes that encode its calcium channels, the ion concentrations in its neurons. But it makes that first choice, and—let’s say it chooses to kick—the world responds. Its mother puts her hand on her belly, and perhaps the fetus feels the extra warmth, or hears her cry out in surprise. Now, the child has the beginnings of a personality—it has learned something about what happens when you kick, and its next choice will be determined not just by its genes, but also by what it knows. Here, at the very beginnings of its life, it’s easy to see that—even though the child is making choices, they still depend on factors that it had no control over.

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