Philosophy & Physics

Owned by Mother Nature: The Search for Free Will


Ownership is about control; you control what you own.  Governments like to think they own their subjects, who are literally subject to the commands from authority.  My goal in writing this blog is to help people shake off the shackles of enslavement and to seek freedom from manipulation by big government, controlling spouses, intimidating bullies, and guilt-inducing parents.  But perhaps there is one parent – Mother Nature – from whom the bonds of servitude cannot be broken.  Perhaps she is the puppeteer and we are eternally at her command.

Determinism is the philosophical principle that the future can be determined from the past.  A weak version of it comes into play in the “nature versus nurture” argument; for example, the likelihood of a child doing well in school seems to be determined in part by his intelligence (which is largely, though not entirely, determined by genes) and part by his work ethic (which is determined largely by his upbringing).  If we know something about his intelligence, his family, and his community, we can make a very good prediction as to the kinds of grades he’ll get in high school.

But this is weak.  There is an exception to every rule.  Predicting the future, according to this type of determinism, is really about grey ranges of probability.  A much stronger assertion of determinism is the one made by physicists, namely that if you know everything about an object now, including all the forces acting on it, then you can predict – with certainty – everything about it in the future.

Physicists claim that only a force can change the world, and there are only four of them: gravity (which causes apples to fall on Isaac Newton’s head), the electromagnetic force (which causes magnetic attraction/repulsion as well as the flow of electricity), and the weak and strong nuclear forces (which cause, for example, the reactions that make the sun burn).  Since the size of each force acting on a given particle could in principle be calculated, then the motion of the particle should be exactly determinable over the short run, the same way that an expert pool player can predict the path of the cue ball.

Further, since all matter is just a collection of individual particles, each having its own motion and reacting to the push of just four forces, the evolution of all matter over time should – again, in principle – be exactly determinable.

That includes you.  You are a smattering of matter, each one of your atoms being jerked around involuntarily by forces caused by interaction with all the other atoms in your body (and the universe).  In other words, if I knew everything about you – not about you as a sentient creature, which physicists claim is irrelevant to their predictions, but about you as a collection of atoms – and if I knew all the forces acting on you, and I also had a gigantic computer that could process massive quantities of data, then I could accurately predict where you would be in a minute, an hour, a day, a month, a year … indefinitely.  And not just where you would be, but I could predict everything you would do, too.  Scary.  Weird.

But it’s more than that.  Determinism is fundamentally at odds with our notion of free will.  Even if we could never build a computer large enough to make perfect predictions about a person’s future, the mere assertion that Mother Nature already has a predetermined path for each of us to take suggests that we are her slaves.  Every step you take, every word you speak, every thought you have – it was all predestined.  How can one possibly be free if one has no choice but to take a predetermined path?

This is not a trivial question.  For example, some philosophers claim that free will is perfectly compatible with determinism.  Consider a mother who tells her daughter that she can have any flavor of ice cream she wants.  “Mint chocolate chip!” exclaims the little girl, who then finds that exact flavor already in the freezer, bought earlier in the day by a mother who already knew what her daughter’s choice would be.  In other words, if we are always “choosing” what was going to happen anyway, then we’re not really enslaved by the forces of nature.  Or, we are, but then why should we care?

My astute readers will note another problem I’ve failed to mention.  Quantum mechanics – which has the unique distinction among scientific disciplines as being more incomprehensible to those who understand it than to those who don’t – throws a wrench into the whole picture.  Turns out one of Albert Einstein’s most important blunders was his assertion that “God does not play dice with the universe.”  He does.  Unpredictably random shit – unpredictable to God, Mother Nature, whatever – happens all the time.  Determinism, at least in the long run, is necessarily false because the random decay of a radioactive particle could affect the flapping of a butterfly’s wings – and we all know how that can change history (especially Ashton Kutcher’s) over the long run.

Ultimately, if we indeed have free will, it means that we can effect change in the physical world.  But the only way to effect change is to change the motion of matter – even if that just means moving your body to speak – and the only way to change the motion of matter is to apply a force.  In other words, having free will requires being a fifth force in the universe.  Is conscious human will the fifth force, or is free will just an illusion?


One thought on “Owned by Mother Nature: The Search for Free Will

  1. Pingback: Freedom from the Illusion of Reality | Drew Frederick

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