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Does Superdeterminism Resolve Dilemmas Around Free Will?

Michael Egnor
Photo credit: Vladislav Babienko via Unsplash.

The conventional view of nature held by materialists, who deny free will, is that all acts of nature, including our human acts and beliefs, are wholly determined by the laws of nature, understood as the laws of physics. We cannot be free, they assert, because all aspects of human nature are matter, and the behavior of matter is wholly determined by physical laws. There is no “room” for free will

It’s noteworthy that physicists who have studied determinism in nature (specifically, in quantum mechanics) have for the most part rejected this deterministic view of free will and implicitly (if not explicitly) endorsed the reality of free will. There are two reasons for this.

Why Physicists Reject Determinism

First, experiments that have followed from the research done by Irish physicist John Bell (1928–1990) in the 1970s have shown that determinism on a local level is not true. The theory and the experiments are subtle, but suffice to say, detailed and quite rigorous experiments have shown that the outcomes of quantum processes are not determined locally. That is, there’s nothing “baked in” inanimate matter that determines the outcome of the quantum measurement. Nature is not locally deterministic.

The second reason that physicists have rejected determinism relates to the theory of Superdeterminism. Superdeterminism posits that, while inanimate matter is not locally determined, the entire universe — including the thoughts and actions of the experimenters who are investigating nature — is determined as a whole. The experiments based on Bell’s theorem have disproven local determinism but they do not disprove Superdeterminism.

The problem with Superdeterminism from the perspective of most physicists is that it seems to invalidate the process of science itself. That is, if the scientists’ own thoughts, ideas, and judgments are just as determined as the behavior of inanimate matter, then science itself has no claim to seek or find the truth. In other words, the laws of physics are not propositions and they have no truth value. If all of nature is an enormous robot, then it makes no sense to claim that tiny parts of the robot are seeking or have found the truth. Because Superdeterminism seems to obviate the very scientific method used to investigate it, physicists have generally rejected Superdeterminism.

Recently, however, several physicists have suggested that Superdeterminism is a quite plausible way of solving the measurement problem in quantum physics so it seems to be having a bit of a resurgence. Physicist Sabine Hossenfelder offers an interesting video on the topic:

A detailed discussion of her views is beyond this post, but I note a few things:

1) I think Hossenfelder is right that Superdeterminism has been inappropriately dismissed by the physics community. It offers a rigorous and elegant way of understanding quantum mechanics and of beginning a path toward uniting quantum theory with general relativity.

2) Hossenfelder is wrong to deny the reality of free will. I think her critique of physicists who deny Superdeterminism because it denies free will has salience, but the denial of free will is self-refuting regardless of the issues in theoretical physics. Free will is a precondition for all science, all reasoning, and all claims to know the truth. As noted above, if free will is not real and all of our actions, including our investigations of reality, are determined by the laws of nature which in themselves are not propositions and have no truth value. Thus, if free will is not real, human thought has no access to truth. To deny free will is to assert it, and any denial of free will on any basis whatsoever is nonsensical. If we lack free will, we have no justification whatsoever to believe that we lack free will.

3) I do believe, however, that Superdeterminism is a viable and even attractive way of understanding nature, and that genuine free will is true and is quite compatible with Superdeterminism.

The Augustinian Understanding of Nature

How so? Superdeterminism is the view that the outcomes of all possibilities — both inanimate nature and the human mind — are “baked in” to nature itself. There are two ways of understanding what that means. The first way is to see nature as a mindless machine running like clockwork without free will. As I’ve said, such a view is incompatible with human reason.

However there is another way to understand how the outcomes of all possibilities in nature are baked into nature itself. This involves the concept of a “block” universe and the Augustinian understanding of nature as a thought in God’s mind.

Read the rest at Mind Matters News, published by Discovery Institute’s Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.



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