The idea is that “freedom” of the will is simply the fact that human behavior is unpredictable, and that this unpredictability is a consequence of the random character of “quantum processes” happening in the brain… To be subject to random mental disturbance is not freedom but a kind of slavery or even madness. (Professor of Theoretical Particle Physics at the University of Delaware, Stephen Barr, 178)
Can there be free will on materialism?
The question has been perpetuated throughout the history of modern science. For quite a while, it was thought that all things were deterministic, given materialism. Thus, the view of life was a bit fatalistic. However, with the advent of Quantum Mechanics, some have argued that quantum indeterminacy allows for freedom of the will. Is that the case?
First, it’s important to outline quantum indeterminacy. On the quantum level, events are probabilistic. What that means is that “given complete information about the state of a physical system at one time, its later behavior [cannot] be predited with certainty… [only] the relative probabilities of various future outcomes [can be predicted]” (Barr, 176, cited below).
It becomes immediately apparent how some might see this as salvation for a physicalist perspective on free will. If events are not determined on a quantum level, perhaps our choices are free in some sense as well. But difficulties with this interpretation arise immediately. First, quantum indeterminacy is not a reflection of our choices, but just that: indeterminacy. As quoted above, our supposed choices would (on physicalism) be merely probabilistic. Our actions would be unpredictable, but that is not freedom. Surely, if the actions we take are merely the reflections of probability curves on a quantum level, that is not the same as freedom. Rather, they would be actions taken due to a basically random process. If I have the “choice” between A and B, and the probability is 50/50 on a quantum level, then my “choice” for B instead of A is just the same as if I flipped a coin. The coin doesn’t choose which side to land on, its just probability.
So it seems that right off the bat, quantum indeterminacy cannot explain free will on materialism or physicalism. Rather than being “free will” it would boil down to random events. As Barr wrote, we would be subject to random mental disturbances, and this would entail slavery at best (178).
But can materialists circumvent this problem? One suggestion is that we have control of quantum events themselves, so we therefore would be in control of our choices. But note that this presupposes a kind of extra-quantum center of control from which we can observe and control quantum events. Let’s put it into a thought experiment. Suppose we granted materialism. In that case, our “selves” are our brains. The brain is a physical object, itself governed by quantum events. Now, the purported way out for materialism is that our brain, a physical thing governed by physical processes, itself monitors and controls physical processes such that they effect the brain in the way the brain has chosen. The difficulties with this position should be immediately apparent. The brain, as a physical object, is itself governed by quantum events. These quantum events are not just logically prior but also temporally prior to the brain. Therefore, those things the brain chooses have been determined by previous physical states of affairs. So ultimately, it’s all material, and it’s all probabilistic. The freedom does not enter into the equation.
The problems don’t end there for those who wish to rescue freedom of the will in materialism. Another issue is that of the observer in a quantum event. In order for quantum indeterminacy to be helpful in regards to free will, the observer of a quantum event would have to be outside of the system. “[T]he observer cannot be considered part of the system that is being physically described and remain the observer of it” (Barr, 238). If all there is were the physical world, then the system would include “me.” I could not be the observer who took action in the quantum events, because I would be part of the description of these events. As Barr puts it:
The mathematical descriptions of the physical world given to us by quantum theory presuppose the existence of observers who lie outside those mathematical descriptions (238).
If materialism were true, then quantum indeterminacy could not rescue free will. The agents who were suppoed to be free would be, themselves, part of the system which they were supposed to observe and determine.
So does quantum indeterminacy factor into free will at all? Here’s where things get really interesting. It seems that those who argue for its importance with free will are correct, in a qualified sense. The indeterminacy provides a necessary, but not sufficient, reason for free will. We’ve already seen that it can’t help out in a purely materialistic world–the brain states which supposedly select from various choices are themselves physically determined by prior choices and/or other physical aspects of reality. But what if there were an immaterial mind in the mix? This immaterial mind would not be determined by prior quantum events, and indeed it could take the place of observer for quantum events. Thus, the immaterial mind could serve as the observer of these quantum events.
Quantum indeterminacy, then, acts as a necessary but not sufficient reason for freedom of the will. While the discovery of quantum indeterminacy ushered in an era in which comprehensive physical determinism was tempered by probability, it allowed an opening for free will which can only be utilized by an extra-physical observer. Because our experience of the world includes an intuitive sense of freedom, the previous arguments therefore provide a strong reason to embrace substance dualism. If we experience the world as one in which we are free, and we cannot be free on materialism, then our experience provides us with evidence against materialism.
The world, it seems, is more than merely the physical.
Stephen Barr, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame, 2003).
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