Mind Matters Where Natural and Artificial Intelligence Meet

Can free will even be an illusion?

Michael Egnor reiterates the freeing implications of quantum indeterminacy
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Alfredo Metere

Many say so. For example, at Cosmos, senior artificial intelligence research scientist Alfredo Metere explains,

… there is a causal relationship between the Big Bang and us. In other words, free will is not allowed, and all of our actions are just a mere consequence of that first event. Such a view is known as “determinism”, or “super-determinism” (if one finds it productive to reinvent the wheel).

He asserts that today we know the universe to be chaotic.

Because the cosmos is clearly chaotic, we can observe time-reversibility only locally, rather than globally. This in turn means that free will is an inevitable illusion for us humans, due to our subjective perception of the universe, rather than its innermost nature. More.

His is a widespread, conventional view and some are not upset about its implications: For example, Big Data researcher Michal Kosinski, who created a furore by claiming to use facial recognition technology to determine if people were straight or gay (gaydar), told Paul Lewis at the Guardian,

“I don’t believe in guilt, because I don’t believe in free will,” Kosinski tells me, explaining that a person’s thoughts and behaviour “are fully biological, because they originate in the biological computer that you have in your head”. On another occasion he tells me, “If you basically accept that we’re just computers, then computers are not guilty of crime. Computers can malfunction. But then you shouldn’t blame them for it.” The professor adds: “Very much like: you don’t, generally, blame dogs for misbehaving.” More.

Michael Egnor

Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor does not agree and takes exception to the science assertions behind Metere’s claim:

Succinctly, researchers using Bell’s theoretical insight into quantum entanglement have shown that there are no deterministic local hidden variables. This means that the final state of entangled quantum particles is not determined by any variables in the initial state. Nature at its most fundamental level is indeterminate. The states of bound particles are not determined by any local variable at the moment of separation.

Bell’s inequality and the experimental work that has followed on it conclusively demonstrate that quantum entanglement, and thus nature, is not determinate, at least locally. There remains the remote possibility of non-local determinism, but that view is considered fringe and is rejected by nearly all physicists working in the field. It is a scientific fact that determinism in nature as commonly understood is simply not true.

He asks further,

Why would a scientist of the stature of Metere make such a demonstrably false claim? Is he unaware of Bell’s theorem and the experimental work that followed on it? (Bell’s inequality theorem is taught in undergraduate physics courses.) More.

Dr. Egnor raises an interesting question. When a scientist has decided that there is no free will, he tends to lean on whatever science finding would support his view. Metere has decided that the universe is “clearly chaotic” and gleaned from that assumption the idea that there is no free will, even though quantum indeterminacy, a normal science observation, leaves the question open.

Incidentally, Dr. Egnor promises more on this subject later.

Hat tip: Ken Francis for the Guardian piece.

See also: Neurosurgeon outlines why machines can’t think: The hallmark of human thought is meaning, and the hallmark of computation is indifference to meaning.


How can we believe in naturalism if we have no choice?