Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb, has recently written an essay in which he considers whether human beings have free will and how long the human race will survive. Loeb is a prolific and often quite thoughtful scientist who has a refreshing propensity to think outside the mainstream. However, his recent essay in Scientific American, titled “How Much Time Does Humanity Have Left?”, is well off the mark. I think he profoundly misunderstands human nature and human destiny.
Loeb opines on the question of human free will:
The Standard Model of physics presumes that we are all made of elementary particles with no additional constituents. As such composite systems, we do not possess freedom at a fundamental level, because all particles and their interactions follow the laws of physics. Given that perspective, what we interpret as “free will” merely encapsulates uncertainties associated with the complex set of circumstances that affect human actions. These uncertainties are substantial on the scale of an individual but average out when dealing with a large sample. Humans and their complex interactions evade a sense of predictability at the personal level, but perhaps the destiny of our civilization as a whole is shaped by our past in an inevitable statistical sense.Avi Loeb, “How Much Time Does Humanity Have Left?” at Scientific American (May 12, 2021)
The Standard Model, of course, in no way presumes that we are made only of elementary particles and it relates in no way whatsoever to human freedom. It is a model of elementary physical forces and particles and, of course, the human mind and human destiny transcend the elementary laws of physics. Very little about human behavior or thought, either on an individual basis or a collective basis, is described in any way by elementary physical laws. For example, Loeb’s argument that we have no free will is a proposition, a statement that can be either true or false. There is no state of matter — brain matter or otherwise — that is propositional, which means that no brain state can be a propositional mind state.
What Loeb is saying is that each of us is an aggregate of molecules and nothing more. If that is true, then our minds (if we have minds) are governed entirely by the laws of physics and not by the laws of logic, reason, and rhetoric. If we are meat, and only meat, then we have mass, temperature, and chemistry but we have no rationality, opinions, propositions or logic.
It follows that, if Loeb is right, there’s no reason to pay attention to what he says, any more than one would pay attention to the noise made by the wind or the sea. Loeb’s metaphysics is self-refuting nonsense. Logic and reason aren’t laws of physics and therefore they transcend physical properties.
The main topic of Loeb’s essay is not free will but the question: Where are we in the lifespan of the human race?:
The most vital societal challenge is to extend the longevity of humanity. At a recent lecture to Harvard alumni I was asked how long I expect our technological civilization to survive. My response was based on the fact that we usually find ourselves around the middle part of our lives, as originally argued by Richard Gott. The chance of being an infant on the first day after birth is tens of thousand times smaller than of being an adult. It is equally unlikely to live merely a century after the beginning of our technological era if this phase is going to last millions of years into the future. In the more likely case that we are currently witnessing the adulthood of our technological lifespan, we are likely to survive a few centuries but not much longer. After stating this statistical verdict publicly, I realized what a horrifying forecast it entails. But is our statistical fate inevitable?Avi Loeb, “How Much Time Does Humanity Have Left?” at Scientific American (May 12, 2021)
I will leave aside Loeb’s disturbing assertion that our most important collective responsibility is longevity, rather than, say, integrity, compassion, or holiness. Are a billion years of depravity preferable to 10,000 years of humble good will? I am perplexed by Loeb’s bizarre assertion that longevity, rather than virtue, is our most pressing societal goal.
Loeb’s twisted values are an inevitable consequence of atheism, which posits no existence beyond this life and implicitly values survival over ethics. Furthermore, Loeb makes a fundamental mistake that is inevitable if one presumes atheism to be true: he assumes that the destiny of mankind is governed only by chance and necessity — by accident and statistical laws of nature. In other words, in Loeb’s view, human destiny is Gaussian and we are more likely than not in the middle of the curve. His implicit assumption in ascribing such randomness to human destiny is that our origins and our destiny are mindless. In the words of Richard Dawkins:
In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.Richard Dawkins, at River Out of Eden New York: Basic Books, 1995, p. 133.
Yet this Gaussian nihilism about human destiny is nonsense. A thoughtful objective examination of the very science of cosmology points clearly to causation by a Mind of immense wisdom and power. The Big Bang, the very laws of physics, the fine-tuning of dozens of physical constants to make possible human existence, the existence of instrumental causal chains in nature that require an Unmoved Mover as the First Cause, the genetic code as the foundation of life, and the astonishing nanotechnology in living cells — and even the simple regularity of natural processes — can only be explained by an Intelligent Designer. Science points to a Creator remarkably like the Creator described and worshiped by the great monotheistic faiths.
The evidence in cosmology, just like the evidence in biology and all the natural sciences, points to creation and to a transcendent plan and purpose in human destiny. Our destiny is set by the Mind that created both the universe and us, and is not determined by random statistical fluctuations. We are children, not of Gauss, but of a Creator. Our destiny is set by the immense Mind that created the cosmos and created the very laws of physics that Loeb has devoted his life to studying.
Our free will plays a role as well — human freedom, purpose, and foresight is a reflection in miniature of the freedom, purpose and foresight evident in the creation of our universe.
It’s regrettable that Loeb – a man of such scientific accomplishment – would be so blind to reality, so blind to his own freedom, and so blind to the real Source of human destiny.
You may also wish to read:
Can physics prove there is no free will? No, but it can make physicists incoherent when they write about free will. It’s hilarious. Sabine Hossenfelder misses the irony that she insists that people “change their minds” by accepting her assertion that they… can’t change their minds.
Does “alien hand syndrome” show that we don’t really have free will? One woman’s left hand seemed to have a mind of its own. Did it? Alien hand syndrome doesn’t mean that free will is not real. In fact, it clarifies exactly what free will is and what it isn’t.
But is determinism true? Does science show that we fated to want whatever we want? Modern science—both theoretical and experimental—strongly supports the reality of free will.
How can mere products of nature have free will? Materialists don’t like the outcome of their philosophy but twisting logic won’t change it
Does brain stimulation research challenge free will? If we can be forced to want something, is the will still free?
Is free will a dangerous myth? The denial of free will is a much more dangerous myth
Also: Do quasars provide evidence for free will? Possibly. They certainly rule out experimenter interference.
Can free will even be an illusion? Michael Egnor reiterates the freeing implications of quantum indeterminacy
Also, by Baylor University’s Robert J. Marks: Quantum randomness gives nature free will Whether or not quantum randomness explains how our brains work, it may help us create unbreakable encryption codes