Free Will in the Theory of Everything

There’s a very thoughtful and provocative paper on the arXiv by Gerard tHooft, who (jointly) won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1999. It’s well worth reading, even if you decide you don’t agree with him!

From what is known today about the elementary particles of matter, and the forces that control their behavior, it may be observed that still a host of obstacles must be overcome that are standing in the way of further progress of our understanding. Most researchers conclude that drastically new concepts must be investigated, new starting points are needed, older structures and theories, in spite of their successes, will have to be overthrown, and new, superintelligent questions will have to be asked and investigated. In short, they say that we shall need new physics. Here, we argue in a different manner. Today, no prototype, or toy model, of any so-called Theory of Everything exists, because the demands required of such a theory appear to be conflicting. The demands that we propose include locality, special and general relativity, together with a fundamental finiteness not only of the forces and amplitudes, but also of the set of Nature’s dynamical variables. We claim that the two remaining ingredients that we have today, Quantum Field Theory and General Relativity, indeed are coming a long way towards satisfying such elementary requirements. Putting everything together in a Grand Synthesis is like solving a gigantic puzzle. We argue that we need the correct analytical tools to solve this puzzle. Finally, it seems to be obvious that this solution will give room neither for “Divine Intervention”, nor for “Free Will”, an observation that, all by itself, can be used as a clue. We claim that this reflects on our understanding of the deeper logic underlying quantum mechanics.

The full paper can be downloaded here.

29 Responses to “Free Will in the Theory of Everything”

  1. Rewati Raman Dwivedi Says:

    lf God is omnipotent and outside time, he/she would know what was going to happen. But how then could we have any free will?
    There should exist a set of laws that completely determines the evolution of the universe from its initial state.The initial configuration of the universe may have been chosen by God, or it may itself have been determined by the laws of science.

    In either case, it seems that everything in the universe would be determined by a set of law, so it is difficult to see how we can be masters of our fate.
    The people who claim that everything is predestined and that we can do nothing to change it look before they cross the road. Maybe it’s just that those who don’t look don’t survive to tell the tale.

    Interesting exposition by Gerard ’t Hooft !!!

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      What do you think about the notion of human rights? The point of the notion is that we supposedly have them because we are human and for no other reason whatsoever.

      Freedom is often held to be a human right. Prisoners are human. So should they not all be freed immediately?

      Please do not think that I am advocating that people treat each other badly. I just think that the notion of human rights is fundamentally incoherent, and the example given is why.

      There is no such problem with the notion of civil rights: the State gives them and the State may take them away from those who break its laws.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Adroit change of subject. If they think of them as civil rights, why do they call them human rights given that “civil rights” is a well-known phrase?

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Actually, whenever I speak to human rights advocates, they insist vehemently that people have them for no other reason than being human and that they are born with them every bit as much as they are born with human anatomy. Do you disagree with them?

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Without saying so, you have already changed your stance from “they are really civil rights” to “Yes, we have human rights simply by being human” – as the name implies. But now comes the incoherence. If freedom is a human right, it is wrong to jail any human, for anything, ever.

      Conditional human rights? What is a conditional human?

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      What I am claiming is that:

      * The most passionate advocates of human rights say people have them simply by being human.

      * Such rights are problematic because they raise issues such as if freedom is a human right then all prisoners – being human – should immediately be released.

      You haven’t done anything to knock down the internal logic of the second point. I am happy to accept that you differ from the mainstream of human rights advocates in respect of the first point. I just think that you shouldn’t call them human rights in that case, as the term is misleading.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      *I* am making the claim that if (1) human rights attach to all humans, as the name suggests and as most advocates unthinkingly assert, and if (2) freedom is held to be a human right, then (3) all humans currently incarcerated should be released. (3) follows ineluctably from (1) and (2), does it not? So if you find (3) problematic, you should re-examine (1) and (2).

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Would you be so good as to say why?

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      If (1) human rights attach to all humans, as the name suggests and as most advocates unthinkingly assert, and if (2) freedom is held to be a human right, then (3) all humans currently incarcerated should be released.

      You say this is wrong but you are coy about where. I challenge you to find any error in the reasoning from the premisses.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Yes I have. By mutual consent we are discussing human rights, not civil rights or legal rights. Civil rights are granted by the civis. Legal rights are granted by the law. Human rights are held to be had by humans. Simple.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      I am not advocating any exceptions. (I am using reductio ad absurdum against the notion of human rights.) It is you who are advocating exceptions, when you say that in some circumstances they can be suspended even though the person in question remains, presumably, human.

      We can resolve this in another way, if you will accept that you are an exception to the rule I have discovered in a large number of online debates, that human rights advocates are committed to the view that people have human rights simply by dint of being human.

  2. t’Hooft worships determinism rather than God. I suppose its because the idea that some experiments have no definite outcome seems anti-physics to him. But his way out makes his earlier appeal to Occam look misplaced. eg What physics maintains the initial correlations between qso, Alice, Bob in the deterministic case? Does he need inflation to ensure that qso, Alice, Bob can set up their initial correlation causally, although this may be his least worry!

    Anyway his conclusion seems to be that you need QM to guarantee free-will – if so, so be it!

    And I liked his hand-waving derivations of quantisation, time, distance and relativity.

  3. Thank you many times, Peter! This is a very interesting article.

    A Theory of Everything could possibly be encoded on a few pages. Why not? Apparent complexity is probably more due to the fact that there are too many baboons to get a consensus based on reality. There are too many chiefs to be pleased…

    The Universe has always existed and it will always be. Thus, it must be simple. The Universe is everything which is not nothing… Therefore it cannot be born from nothing…

    About Rule#1, Locality: What if everything is within a Planck Length and space is a projection due to desynchronization of the “local” clocks? Desynchronization would produce emergent sub “localities”, entanglement would be across a Planck length and a Planck time (=C).

    About Rule#4, elementary particles: Is an electron truly elementary? You must invoke vacuum energy to explain the annihilation of an electron-positron pair. What is the vacuum energy? Extra imaginary stuff to fill the void of knowledge. There is something for sure but it must have a better description. Moreover, entanglement suggests that all elementary particles are made of at least 2 elements (1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16…).

    It is a waste of time to try to disprove God(s). Not because God is a necessity, but because if God exists, he has no free will and his computer has a lot of memory and this, cannot be disproved. Extra power is useful but not required as time is relative and God could have a progeniture…

    I agree with everything else.

    N.B: No short cut for the purpose of saving memory seems to have been found in any observation yet. The farthest particle of the farthest galaxy has an impact on you (until proven otherwise).

  4. Anton Garrett Says:

    It is a complete mistake to require locality because the results of so-called Bell experiments show unambiguously that it is violated.

    Determinism can never be proved but it is a philosophical assumption, and is the core philosophical assumption behind all of physics: that a predictive theory can be sought. It should never be renounced by a scientist. As to whether it is compatible with “free will”, one must first define that phrase.

    • Anton – To be fair, doesn’t ‘t Hooft try to address Bell in Sect 6 via “superdeterminism”. Problem is that superdeterminism seems somewhat unlikely(!) – but see Bell’s interview comment inf

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        The problem with superdeterminism, and all stuff like that, is as I said above: free will relates to human beings, and the laws of physics do not relate to the notion of human consciousness. Quite simply, nothing has been said.

      • Is `superdeterminism’ a form of determinism that rushed into a telephone box and put on a costume?

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        No Phillip, it isn’t the best way, because it does not even begin to generate a predictive theory – our business as physicists – until human consciousness can be described in terms of the laws of physics. Good luck with that.

        Hidden variables are the way forward…

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        I admire your faith, brother.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        In physics the problem has never been definition. I might take your suggestion seriously if you could define consciousness in physical terms.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Phillip, I guess that you reckon the ultimate ontology of the universe is material. But here is a counterexample: You will believe that the laws of physics are real things, even if we don’t have them in their final form today. Yet the laws of physics are not themselves material things.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        OK, I was only *assuming* that you were a materialist, on the basis of your faith that (in your own words) in principle human consciousness can be described by the laws of physics. I’m glad we agree that the laws of physics are a counterexample. But it is rather strange that you suggest I wish to ascribe to the supernatural everything which we cannot (at this point in time) define in physical terms. I’m the one who is advocating hidden variables rather than human consciousness as the solution to the problems which t’Hooft is tackling. You can’t get more materialist than that. Some people suggest, in contrast, that atoms have ‘consciousness’. Your critique applies to them, not me. It is also an unjustified assumption to suppose that I am appealing to the supernatural for things like love, hate, joy etc that are real but not intrinsically physical; I’m not. (I’d accept that certain neuronal patterns correlate with a person speaking the words “I feel happy”, “I feel sad”, etc, but that still doesn’t say what those things ARE.)

  5. {Today, no prototype, or toy model, of any so-called Theory of Everything exists, because the demands required of such a theory appear to be conflicting.}
    Is this a statement about fact or a statement of logic?
    If it is a logic, its ‘because’ does not lead to its conclusion.
    If it is a statement of fact, he is obviously not checking the facts.

    It is not a meaningful statement at all.
    First, what is the definition of the “so-called Theory of Everything”.
    M-string failed its mission on its own definition (String unification, giving a SM zoo a string description) but someone else might already succeed if we do some Google searches.

    If we define the “so-called Theory of Everything” in a few parts, such as:
    The first part: it must derive the nature constants (such as Alpha, etc.) of THIS universe.
    Second part: it must derive Planck CMB data.
    Third part: it must derive ‘quantum uncertainty principle’.
    Fourth part: …
    If some of these parts are done, then there is a HINT about the “so-called Theory of Everything”.
    Again, a little of Google searches can answer this question (without going into any kind of debate, as some of those parts are just checking NUMBERS).

    Second: {Finally, it seems to be obvious that this solution will give room neither for “Divine Intervention”, nor for “Free Will”, an observation that, all by itself, can be used as a clue.}
    Is this a meaningful statement?
    If ‘A SOLUTION’ does not give room for “Divine Intervention” or “Free Will”, will {Divine Intervention or Free Will} must be wrong or nonexistence?
    This is an issue of epistemology.

    In fact, any kind of epistemology will not make that statement correct.
    Is Mickey Mouse real?
    By all means (with whatever kind of argument), Mickey Mouse is of course real, observable at many places in addition to Disney world.

    Is ‘free will’ real? Without the ‘free will’ argument, the entire legal system collapses.
    So, is the argument that {‘free will’ has no physics base, no math base, no philosophy base, no psychological base, etc.} making ‘free will’ not real? The answer is a big NO.
    If ‘free will’ has no physics base, it only means that physics (as it is) is not correct (incomplete) and nothing more.

    Third, when there are three items on the table, this table is a system of ‘three’. If there is no theory which is able to describe this ‘three’, it is the stupidity of the theory, not the wrongness of the ‘three’.
    So, the correct conclusion will be {Today, no prototype, or toy model, of any so-called Theory of Everything exists, because we are still too stupid to find one.}

  6. We observe that material objects behave differently according to their level of organization as follows:

    (1) Inanimate objects behave passively, responding to physical forces so reliably that it is as if they were following “unbreakable laws of Nature”. These natural laws are described by the physical sciences, like Physics and Chemistry. A ball on a slope will always roll downhill.

    (2) Living organisms are animated by a biological drive to survive, thrive, and reproduce. They behave purposefully according to natural laws described by the life sciences: Biology, Genetics, Physiology, and so on. A squirrel on a slope will either go uphill or downhill depending upon where he expects to find the next acorn.

    (3) Intelligent species have evolved a neurology capable of imagination, evaluation, and choosing. They can behave deliberately, by calculation and by choice, according to natural laws described by the social sciences, like Psychology and Sociology, as well as the social laws that they create for themselves. A child will ask permission of his mother, or his father, depending upon which is more likely to say “Yes”.

    A naïve Physics professor may suggest that, “Physics explains everything”. But it doesn’t. A science discovers its natural laws by observation, and Physics does not observe living organisms, much less intelligent species.

    Physics cannot explain why a car stops at a red traffic light. This is because the laws governing that event are created by society. The red light is physical. The foot pressing the brake pedal is physical. But between these two physical events we find the biological need for survival and the calculation that the best way to survive is to stop at the red light.

    It is impossible to explain this event without addressing the purpose and the reasoning of the living object that is driving the car. This requires nothing that is supernatural. Both purpose and intelligence are processes running on the physical platform of the body’s neurology. But it is the process, not the platform, that causally determines what happens next.

    We must conclude then, that any version of determinism that excludes purpose or reason as causes, would be invalid. There is no way to explain the behavior of intelligent species without taking purpose and reason into account.

    • Michel C. Says:

      No disrespect intended.

      How can a process be without a physical platform? It does not make sense that something exists without any substance involved.

      A car stopping at a red light can be explained by survivability and reproductivity. The brain evolved because its purpose is adaptability. Survivability and reproductivity are not exclusive to intelligence. Some complexe molecules have these properties.

      It has been demonstrated that simple computer program can generate very complex objects with some of them developing long term reproduction processes and survivability. Where does intelligence starts. If you look at researches you will find the line is blurred. I don’t remember the name of those semi living molecules which are simpler than viruses (anyone?).

      The purpose does not have to come first. Any process exhibiting enhancing survivability will naturally take precedence by natural selection. The other flaw in argumentation against determinism is the idea that the universe began at some point. How could possibly the universe have started? The existence of the universe and its most basic laws are the only things which are non causal. There are no explanations for them and there never will be…

      • The process requires the physical platform. You can’t have one without the other. For example, suppose you have a drone helicopter that you program to maintain a specific altitude. Until you turn it on, it is just inanimate matter, subject to the law of gravity. But flick the switch and it rises to the programmed altitude and hovers there. The running process is now in control and is making the decisions.

        And, as you said, “A car stopping at a red light can be explained by survivability and reproductivity.” That is what distinguishes living organisms (objects that contain DNA) from inanimate matter.

        And, as you said, “Survivability and reproductivity are not exclusive to intelligence.” Not all living organisms possess sufficient neurological evolution to support intelligence. Many lifeforms behave instinctively, according to hard-coded survival behaviors. However, the behavior is still purposeful: to survive, thrive, and reproduce, even though the organism has no awareness of this purpose.

        Intelligent species, like us, observe the behavior and deduce the purpose of the behavior. A tree sends roots into the ground and branches with leaves toward the Sun in order to produce the food it needs to survive, thrive, and reproduce. The tree, as far as we know, has no intelligence to think about why it is doing what it is doing, but the Biologist can explain why it does it.

        And, as you said, “The purpose does not have to come first.” In fact, purposeful behavior does not exist in any other place in the universe outside of a living organism.

        My point is simply that Physics does not derive biological laws of nature, but Biology does. That’s why Physics is insufficient to explain what living organisms, much less intelligent species, do and why they do it. In the same fashion, Biology is insufficient to explain the behavior of intelligent species, we require Psychology and Sociology to do that.

        Free will is what we humans call the ability to decide for ourselves what we will do, when free of coercion or other undue influence.

        Everyone understands and correctly applies this definition. It requires nothing supernatural. And it makes no claims of freedom from causation. All you have to do is ask someone why they made their choice and they will happily give you the reasons why it was the best choice.

        And this simple, ordinary free will is sufficient for both legal and moral responsibility.

        Does this free will conflict in any way with determinism? No. It doesn’t. There is reliable causation up to the point where a problem or issue arises to be resolved. The resolution of that issue is reliably determined by the mental process which considers several options and naturally chooses the one that seems best at that time. And there is reliable causation following the choice.

        There is no break in the chain of reliable causation. The only thing that is required is that we apply a magnifying glass to that link which is us, and recognize that the process running within us is in control of the decision.

        It’s similar to the program running on the drone that maintains a fixed altitude. However, the drone has no will of its own, but is in fact carrying out our will. We come with a built-in biological will to survive as well as a brain to calculate how best to accomplish that purpose.

  7. Michel C. Says:

    I must agree that actual Physics cannot describe biological and psychological processes. But one day it will. Chemistry is an extension of Physics. Biology, as any other “sciences”, is not integrated because of our lack of knowledge. There is only one Science. We have different “sciences” because we have only patches of the puzzle. Though actual Physics is certainly the science having the best foundation, for the simple reason that it is at the bottom of the tree, it is quite shaky on many aspects and fails to unify its own pieces of the puzzle.

    “We must conclude then, that any version of determinism that excludes purpose or reason as causes, would be invalid. There is no way to explain the behavior of intelligent species without taking purpose and reason into account.”

    In a “grand theory”, the purpose and reason will emerge, or if you prefer, will arise from the basic laws even they are probably deterministic.

    Determinism doesn’t imply that the future already exists. It implies that the future is entirely determined by the past states of the entire universe. You have limited choices and your brain is limited, therefore freewill is ultimately emergent… It is real but not fundamental, it is like the taste. It is subjective. If you analyse each of your choices, you will find convergence and subjectivity.

  8. Except that Physics is not the bottom. One of the problems with reductionism is that you can never reach the theoretical “smallest part of the smallest part”. If physics were sufficient to explain biology, then quantum mechanics would be sufficient to explain Newtonian physics. And I’ve heard it rumored that physicists cannot explain Newtonian physics via quantum mechanics, nor can a knowledge of qm predict the Newtonian laws.

    As a practical matter, each science deals with its own class of objects, classified by level of organization and function. By observing those objects and their behavior, it deduces laws of reliable behavior. The behavior of subatomic particles organized as photons is different from the behavior of these same particles organized as protons and neutrons. The behavior of atoms is different when alone than it is when linked into molecules with other atoms.

    And when atoms are organized as human beings, you find them doing all kinds of things, like hopping into a car and going to the grocery store, a behavior that could not have been predicted by observing the atoms themselves. What is fundamental to a person is not the same as what is fundamental to an electron.

    A “grand theory” that unifies the “four forces” will be great for understanding the behavior of, what, “sub-quantum” particles? But it will still be unable to predict the behavior of a woman. 🙂

    I believe it would be a mistake to suggest that determinism means that a prior state “causes” or “determines” a future state. While it is accurate to say that every future event is inevitable, we cannot say that any event is causally determined until all of its prior causes have played out. Nothing can be said to be “already caused” until it is fully caused by the most immediate and relevant prior causes that bring it about. Without those final causes, the event would not happen.

    The final responsible cause of a deliberate action is the mental process that chose to perform the act. And this is usually the most meaningful and relevant cause. As you trace back through the prior causes of prior causes, each cause becomes less relevant and more coincidental.

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