Science fiction, science fact: Is there free will?

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Is there such a thing as free will? In the latest online poll of our Science fiction, science fact project you told us that you'd like an answer to this question. So we went to speak to philosopher of physics Jeremy Butterfield, quantum physicist Anton Zeilinger, cosmologist and mathematician George Ellis and mathematician John Conway to find out more. We also bring you an article from FQXi who are our partners on this project. Happy reading!

And don't forget to vote for the next question you'd like to have answered!

Freedom and physics — Most of us think that we have the capacity to act freely. Our sense of morality, our legal system, our whole culture is based on the idea that there is such a thing as free will. It's embarrassing then that classical physics seems to tell a different story. And what does quantum theory have to say about free will?

Free, from top to bottom? — A traditional view of science holds that every system — including ourselves — is no more than the sum of its parts. To understand it, all you have to do is take it apart and see what's happening to the smallest constituents. But the mathematician and cosmologist George Ellis disagrees. He believes that complexity can arise from simple components and physical effects can have non-physical causes, opening a door for our free will to make a difference in a physical world.

John Conway: discovering free will (part I) — On August 19, 2004, John Conway was standing with his friend Simon Kochen at the blackboard in Kochen’s office in Princeton. They had been trying to understand a thought experiment involving quantum physics and relativity. What they discovered, and how they described it, created one of the most controversial theorems of their careers: The Free Will Theorem.

John Conway: discovering free will (part II) — In this, the second part of our interview, John Conway explains how the Kochen-Specker Theorem from 1965 not only seemed to explain the EPR Paradox, it also provided the first hint of Conway and Kochen's Free Will Theorem.

John Conway: discovering free will (part III) — In the third part of our interview John Conway continues to explain the Free Will Theorem and how it has changed his perception of the Universe.

The crystallising Universe — Explaining how time flows as the present "crystallizes" from the past, George Ellis could save the concept that the future is open and free will exists—solving the mystery how photons can time travel along the way. This article is from the FQXi community website.

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Free will is relative to the system which it's being evaluated from. The whole Universe can be seen as deterministic or as a free will entity, depending upon what events and from which perspective your are considering them.


Of course free-will exists, can there be any doubt?

The problem is that if there cannot be any doubt then we are not free to doubt its existence. And of course if there is doubt, it is possible that free-will does not exist at all.

This paradox, is surely due to the way our minds think and are arranged to think. A less logical system for performing these thinking tasks might be able (for instance) to contain two opposing ideas simultaneously. Such a system would not be useful with our present most common kind of thinking logic, but it could possibly work when one replaces exact definitions with double definitions of the same thing in two different ways.

We are close to this in problems in macroeconomics when we have to assume as twin axioms that: Man seeks to satisfy his very many desires, but with the least amount of effort. (Originally from Henry George, 1879, "Progress and Poverty".) This oxymoron situation clearly leads to our having to consider the macroeconomics system of containing a combination of two opposites at every place.

So it seems to me that in trying to prove the existence of free-will, we are asking what is actually an illegitimate question.