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Fine-Tuning, Free Will — Now We’ve Got Two Challenges for Physicist Sabine Hossenfelder

Photo credit: Alexis Fauvet via Unsplash.

Last week at Evolution News, Discovery Institute physicist Brian Miller and philosopher of science Stephen Meyer addressed a critique from physicist Sabine Hossenfelder about arguments for fine-tuning. She was commenting on the recent article in the Journal of Theoretical Biology, explicitly supportive of intelligent design. Hossenfelder remarked, “Yep, fine-tuning in physics is as scientific as intelligent design.” She meant, of course, not scientific at all. I’ve looked to her website, Backreaction, for a response but have not found one.

Distinct Philosophical Meanings of Will

Now here’s another challenge from the intelligent design community. Hossenfelder was echoed by fellow atheist Jerry Coyne on free will, which they both thoroughly deny. Our neuroscientist colleague Michael Egnor makes a careful distinction between different philosophical meanings of will — one is indeed physically determined, the other is not. He challenges Coyne at the end to respond but frankly, I’d be more interested to hear from Dr. Hossenfelder. She says in a video:

Last week, I explained what differential equations are, and that all laws of nature which we currently know work with those differential equations. These laws have the common property that if you have an initial condition at one moment in time, for example the exact details of the particles in your brain and all your brain’s inputs, then you can calculate what happens at any other moment in time from those initial conditions. This means in a nutshell that the whole story of the universe in every single detail was determined already at the big bang. We are just watching it play out.

You can watch the whole video, only 11 minutes long and very interesting and lucid, here:

She acknowledges that she is speaking from outside one relevant field:

I want to say ahead that there is much discussion about free will in neurology, where the question is whether we subconsciously make decisions before we become consciously aware of having made one. I am not a neurologist, so this is not what I am concerned with here.

“Billions of Data Points”

Dr. Egnor is concerned, though, about “literally…billions of data points” from his field that contradict the free-will deniers. He cites the research of Wilder Penfield:

He also noted a remarkable fact: there are no intellectual seizures, and by implication, no seizures that invoke free will. There are no calculus seizures, no logic seizures, no seizures that make the patients think abstractly or will (apparently) freely. There are no seizures that make you choose to be a Republican or a Democrat, no seizures that make you Christian or Jewish, no seizures that make you apply certain kinds of logic to a problem rather than another kind of logic. This is remarkable: if the will is merely the product of brain activity, at least some seizures should evoke will. They never do. Many seizures do feature complex manifestations (they’re called complex partial seizures), but these complex seizures always involve concrete thoughts and actions — perceptions, emotions, and stereotypic movements. There are no seizures that invoke abstract thought or abstract decisions — there are no free will seizures.

This remains true to this day. There are no reports in the medical literature — despite literally billons of seizures suffered by patients in the modern era — of any seizure that replicates free will. This remarkable fact — literally based on billions of data points — clearly shows that the will is not determined by the material state of the brain. If the will were determined by neural activity, the will — abstract choice based on reason — would at least occasionally be replicated by seizures. It never is.

Coyne, Hossenfelder and other free will deniers are ignorant of the mountain of neuroscience evidence confirming free will. They are also ignorant of the philosophical reasoning supporting free will and of the evidence in physics that refutes determinism (but these are both subjects for another post).

Can you really use physics to deny free will while ignoring neuroscience? Egnor winds up to a challenge to Coyne: “If free will is determined by brain states, show us the medical or neuroscience evidence that free will is ever evoked by seizure or by neurosurgical stimulation of the brain.” But as I said, I’d be just as or more fascinated to hear from Hossenfelder. So I am “elevating” the challenge to her.

She can read the rest of Egnor’s comments here, from the Mind Matters site. She feels confident enough about ID to dismiss it with a tweet. Is she as confident about the relevant neuroscience here? I am going to tweet this to her and she if she’ll respond.