Determinism, Free Will and Quantum Spin

Science News has a fascinating — if brain splitting — look at research by Princeton mathematicians John Conway and Simon Kochen who are trying to defend free will in what looks like a completely deterministic universe,

Conway and Kochen say this search [for variables that would determine the outcome of quantum-level events] is hopeless, and they claim to have proven that indeterminacy is inherent in the world itself, rather than just in quantum theory. And to Bohmians and other like-minded physicists, the pair says: Give up determinism, or give up free will. Even the tiniest bit of free will.

. . .

Kochen and Conway say the best way out of this paradox is to accept that the particle’s spin doesn’t exist until it’s measured. But there’s one way to escape their noose: Suppose for a moment that Alice and Bob’s choice of axis to measure is not a free choice. Then Nature could be conspiring to prevent them from choosing the axes that will reveal the violation of the rule. Kochen and Conway can’t rule that possibility out entirely, but Kochen says, “A man on the street would say, ‘Don’t be ridiculous.’ A natural feeling is, of course, that what we do, we do of our own free will. Not completely, but certainly to the point of knowing we can choose what button to push in an experiment.”

Nobel Prize winning physicist Gerard ’t Hooft retorts to this that Kochen and Conway are correct, but that they’ve simply come down on the wrong side of the argument — there simply isn’t even a tiny bit of free will in the universe.

“As a determined determinist I would say that yes, you bet, an experimenter’s choice what to measure was fixed from the dawn of time, and so were the properties of the thing he decided to call a photon,” ’t Hooft says. “If you believe in determinism, you have to believe it all the way. No escape possible. Conway and Kochen have shown here in a beautiful way that a half-hearted belief in pseudo-determinism is impossible to sustain.”

It is telling that Kochen ultimately has to appeal to the phenomenology of consciousness and talk about “natural feelings” to attempt to convince us — and perhaps himself — that we really do have free will in deciding whether or not to push that button. That’s not exactly a convincing theoretical framework to base free will on.

One of these days I’m going to write a longer review, but I’d recommend Daniel Dennett’s Freedom Evolves which makes a fairly lucid (though still brain straining) case for a compatibilist approach between determinism and free will and does an especially good job of highlighting how much of the debate over free will vs. determinism is predicated on hidden assumptions in the way we talk about freedom and deciding.

The New Atheism — Sounds A Lot Like the Old Atheism

Wired’s long story on Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and others, Battle of the New Atheism, certainly garnered a lot of coverage and commentary, but pardon me if the “new atheism” looks a lot like warmed over “old atheism” (and that’s not a compliment).

For an extraordinarily long time, atheism in the United States was identified in the popular imagination with one person — Madalyn Murray O’Hair. For O’Hair and her organization, American Atheists, it was not enough to simply make the philosophical and historical case for atheism while defending the rights of atheists. No, O’Hair had to take the next step and argue that religious belief itself was an unmitigated evil and that pretty much everything wrong with the world was due to religion.

This was an absurd position that caricatured both religion and atheism. On the one hand, it ignored the many contributions that religious systems and thinkers played in the evolution of secular, liberal and humanist thought. This was a view that lumped both the Inquisition and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference together on the same side of an irrational belief in the supernatural.

On the other hand, it ignored the very obvious fact that some of the world’s worst mass murders — those in China, the Soviet Union, and Cambodia — were carried out by avowed atheists. Typically, something like the Inquisition was said to be quintessentially Catholic while the Bolshevik murder of priests had nothing at all to do with their atheism.

The media attention on the American Atheists had already waned in the mid-1980s, and the group pretty much dropped off the radar screen after O’Hair’s tragic murder. Here was an opportunity for a different face on atheism.

Instead, what we get are people like Dawkins. In what I assume was a compliment, Boing! Boing! hit the nail on the head by referring to Dawkins’ “evangelical atheism.” With all due respect, though, the last thing we need is an atheist counterpart to Ted Haggard, especially when some of Dawkins views are so extreme that the only analogy I can think of among the fundamentalist Christian movement are the Westboro Baptist Church nutcases.

For example, Dawkins doesn’t just think that there is no god and that believers are, thus, deluded. He argues that parents who teach their children to believe in god are guilty of child abuse. Here’s what Dawkins wrote in a 1997 article in The Humanist,

Which brings me to my point about mental child abuse. In a 1995 issue of the Independent, one of London’s leading newspapers, there was a photograph of a rather sweet and touching scene. It was Christmas time, and the picture showed three children dressed up as the three wise men for a nativity play. The accompanying story described one child as a Muslim, one as a Hindu, and one as a Christian. The supposedly sweet and touching point of the story was that they were all taking part in this Nativity play.

What is not sweet and touching is that these children were all four years old. How can you possibly describe a child of four as a Muslim or a Christian or a Hindu or a Jew? Would you talk about a four-year-old economic monetarist? Would you talk about a four-year-old neo-isolationist or a four-year-old liberal Republican? There are opinions about the cosmos and the world that children, once grown, will presumably be in a position to evaluate for themselves. Religion is the one field in our culture about which it is absolutely accepted, without question — without even noticing how bizarre it is — that parents have a total and absolute say in what their children are going to be, how their children are going to be raised, what opinions their children are going to have about the cosmos, about life, about existence. Do you see what I mean about mental child abuse?

As an atheist with two children, the only thing bizarre here is Dawkin’s deranged view of how, apparently, the state and/or other actors should interfere with family matters.

In a flawed but still helpful review in Prospect, Andrew Brown points out how this sort of extremist nonsense leads Dawkins to nonsensical conclusions. For example, in The God Delusion, Dawkins blames religious schools for suicide bombings, saying “It children were taught to question and think through their beliefs, instead of being taught the superior value of faith without question, it is a good bet there would be no suicide bombers.

Brown cites a study of terrorism which rightly notes that secular Marxist movements have also resorted to suicide bombings, and certainly secular movements from the anarchists to the suffragettes resorted to terrorist tactics to try to advance their political causes.

Brown also nicely demolishes Dawkins’ apologia for the crimes of atheist China and the USSR,

Dawkins is inexhaustibly outraged by the fact that religious opinions lead people to terrible crimes. But what, if there is no God, is so peculiarly shocking about these opinions being specifically religious? The answer he supplies is simple: that when religious people do evil things, they are acting on the promptings of their faith but when atheists do so, it’s nothing to do with their atheism. He devotes pages to a discussion of whether Hitler was a Catholic, concluding that “Stalin was an atheist and Hitler probably wasn’t, but even if he was… the bottom line is very simple. Individual atheists may do evil things but they don’t do evil things in the name of atheism.”

Yet under Stalin almost the entire Orthodox priesthood was exterminated simply for being priests, as were the clergy of other religions and hundreds of thousands of Baptists. The claim that Stalin’s atheism had nothing to do with his actions may be the most disingenuous in the book, but it has competition from a later question, “Why would anyone go to war for the sake of an absence of belief [atheism]?”—as if the armies of the French revolution had marched under icons of the Virgin, or as if a common justification offered for China’s invasion of Tibet had not been the awful priest-ridden backwardness of the Dalai Lama’s regime.

One might argue that a professor of the public understanding of science has no need to concern himself with trivialities outside his field like the French revolution, the Spanish civil war or Stalin’s purges when he knows that history is on his side. “With notable exceptions, such as the Afghan Taliban and the American Christian equivalent, most people play lip service to the same broad liberal consensus of ethical principles.” Really? “The majority of us don’t cause needless suffering; we believe in free speech and protect it even if we disagree with what is being said.” Do the Chinese believe in free speech? Does Dawkins think that pious Catholics or Muslims are allowed to? Does he believe in it himself? He quotes later in the book approvingly and at length a speech by his friend Nicholas Humphrey which argued that, “We should no more allow parents to teach their children to believe, for example, in the literal truth of the Bible or that planets rule their lives, than we should allow parents to knock their children’s teeth out.” But of course, it’s not interfering with free speech when atheists do it.

As I’ve said before, if this is the best atheism has to offer, I’ll take my chances with the Christians.

Rethinking Daniel Dennett

Over the past couple years I’ve had some unflattering things to say about the ideas of Daniel Dennett — especially his views on free will. But this interview in Reason with Dennett has me rethinking his ideas.

I’m impressed with his distinction between a deterministic and a fatalist world view,

Reason: Would a deterministic world mean that, say, the assassination of John F. Kennedy was going to happen ever since the Big Bang?

Dennett: “Going to happen” is a very misleading phrase. Say somebody throws a baseball at your head and you see it. That baseball was “going to” hit you until you saw it and ducked, and then it didn’t hit you, even though it was “going to.”

In that sense of “going to,” Kennedy’s assassination was by no means going to happen. There were no trajectories which guaranteed that it was going to happen independently of what people might have done about it. If he had overslept or if somebody else had done this or that, then it wouldn’t have happened the way
it did.

People confuse determinism with fatalism. They’re two completely different notions.

Reason: Would you unpack that a little bit?

Dennett: Fatalism is the idea that something’s going to happen no matter what you do. Determinism is the idea that what you do depends. What happens depends on what you do, what you do depends on what you know, what you know depends on what you’re caused to know, and so forth — but still, what you do matters. There’s a big difference between that and fatalism. Fatalism is determinism with you left out.

If I accomplish one thing in this book, I want to break the bad habit of putting determinism and inevitability together. Inevitability means unavoidability, and if you think about what avoiding means, then you realize that in a deterministic world there’s lots of avoidance. The capacity to avoid has been evolving for billions of years. There are very good avoiders now. There’s no conflict between being an avoider and living in a deterministic world. There’s been a veritable explosion of evitability on this planet, and it’s all independent of determinism.

Dennet goes on to posit that humans are essentially “choice machines” and uses evolutionary psychology to really tie together a neat solution to some vexing moral questions, including the problem of where values initially come from.

I guess now I’m going to have to go out and buy his book, Freedom Evolves.

I Couldn’t Help It — I Had to Post This

Philosophy professor Tibor Machan wrote a nice, succinct broadside against the sort of determinism advocated by philosopher Daniel Dennett. Dennett’s argument is complex, but he essentially believes that there is no such thing as free will and that the behaviors we perceive in our minds as being behavioral choices are in fact as deterministic as the functioning of our bodies.

Machan points out some of the immediate absurdities of this view, though he ignores Dennett’s objections to those absurdities. For example, Machan notes that it does not seem to make such sense to hold people accountable for their actions if they truly have no behavioral choice. Dennett’s response to this is that it is irrelevant — we often hold people accountable for actions even when individuals do not appear to have a behavioral choice (we might do it more humanely than in the past, but society still locks up mentally ill people who commit crimes, for example).

What I have always found bizarre about arguments like Dennett’s is that in order for it to be correct, very deep, basic intuitions that human beings have must be denied. As even Dennett concedes, regardless of whether or not people genuinely possess free will, almost everyone perceives that they have the ability to make choices. Dennett ends up asserting that this is basically an illusion — you might think you can make behavioral choices, but you are wrong.

But once that position is accepted, everything seems to fall apart. If something that is so second nature and obvious is, in fact, a lie, then how can people possibly trust any of their other intuitions? I firmly believe, for example, that ~ (A and ~A), but if I am wrong about free will, how can I ever be certain that this is correct? Since everything I believe must at some point fall back on internal intuitions I have about the nature of reality, if my perception of free will is a lie, the result would seem to be nihilism. There’s simply nothing else meaningful to say, because I can no longer trust anything I believe to be true about the world.


Does self-control exist. Tibor R. Machan, Laissez-Faire City Times, Dec. 31, 2001.