Quantum Physics and Free Will

Many of today's scientists reject the ontology of mind and free-will. A popular view of the mind is that it is an epiphenomenon of the brain—something like the wake of a boat going through the water. The boat's wake is an effect of the boat moving through the water. So they believe the human mind and free will are solely the effects of material causes. Hence, mental states are just the splashing effects of our determinate bio-physical properties that are governed by the fixed laws of chemistry and physics.

Another view is the "identity" theory which claims that the neuronal activity of our brain tissue is itself mind. The brain and mind are two aspects of one and the same biological organ. The cerebral tissue is the physical structure while the cerebral activity is the functional mental process. The idea may be illustrated by a car tire. Its structure is a circular object made of rubber and steel. Its function is to move in a rotational fashion. No one really believes that the movements of the tire entail some hidden, mysterious mind or inner-self. So they ask, why should the mind be anymore than the material brain. The "identity" theory of brain-mind is a commonly held theory today.

Francis Crick

Dr. Francis Crick, a Nobel Laureate who received his prize for work on DNA, has turned his attention to the subject of self-consciousness. He is a committed materialist; hence, he rejects the ontology of mind and free will. He considers that the source of our "feelings" of free will is located in the anterior cingulate sulcus of the human brain.

The Astonishing Hypothesis is that "You," your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. 1

Free Will is, in many ways, a somewhat old-fashioned subject. Most people take it for granted, since they feel that usually they are free to act as they please. While lawyers and theologians may have to confront it, philosophers, by and large, have ceased to take much interest in the topic. And it is almost never referred to by psychologists and neuroscientists. A few physicists and other scientists who worry about quantum indeterminacy sometimes wonder whether the uncertainty principle lies at the bottom of Free Will.2

... Free Will is located in or near the anterior cingulate sulcus. ... Other areas in the front of the brain may also be involved. What is needed is more experiments on animals, ...3

Paul Davies

Paul Davies, a theoretical physicist, concludes that, since atoms don't make choices, free will must be non-existent. However, a possible alternative for him resides in quantum mechanics where there is the possibility of indeterminacy. This indeterminacy may be grounded in the Heisenberg's Principle of Uncertainty. However, as Davies notes, this indeterminacy raises additional problems.

Left to its own devices, an atom cannot make a choice.4

The problems seem insurmountable. The new physics undoubtedly gives a new slant to the longstanding enigma of free will and determinism, but it does not solve it. The quantum theory undermines determinism, but brings its own crop of difficulties concerning freedom, not least of which is the possibility of multiple realities. The theory of relativity offers us a universe extended in time as well as space, but still leaves the door open for some sort of freedom of action.5

Frank Tipler

Frank J. Tipler, a mathematical physicist at Tulane University, tries to develop free will from quantum gravity uncertainties that, he claims, provide him with a true ontological randomizer. With this type of quantum uncertainty he feels that free will is an ontological possibility. With the conjecture that theoretical physics provides a basis for free will; and, since free will is necessary for religion, he argues that religion must ultimately dependent upon theoretical physics.

The evidence is clear and unequivocal: if scientists have no need for the God hypothesis, neither will anyone else. Were theologicians to succeed in their attempt to strictly separate science and religion, they would kill religion. Theology simply must become a branch of physics if it is to survive.6

This indeterminism is a property of all quantum cosmological theories for which the universal wave function includes in its domain the set of all compact four-dimensional manifolds. Thus, indeterminism holds both in the Hartle-Hawking quantum cosmology and in the quantum Omega Point Theory. However, it may be merely an epistemological, and not an ontological, indeterminism in the Hartle-Hawking cosmology.7

Although it has been shown that the human nervous system can use nonrelativistic quantum mechanical uncertainty to randomize, it does not follow that it can access the quantum gravity regime. As I pointed out above, true ontological free will requires quantum gravity uncertainty, because there is a deterministic equation controlling nonrelativistic "uncertainty." There are two ways in which the human nervous system might be able to access the quantum gravity regime in the randomization process. The first is a mechanism suggested by Penrose, who in effect points out that, if a substantial portion of the brain were to act as if it were in a coherent quantum state, it might be able to amplify a signal from the Planck scale up to the macroscopic level. The known amplification power of the nervous system —amplification of a single photon energy to nerve pulse energies constitutes a magnification of 1020—is insufficient by a factor of 108, so Penrose's proposal is speculative, to say the least. The second possibility is that the randomizer may use vacuum fluctuations inside the brain. A system which is capable of detecting single photons is certainly sensitive enough. One of the most important unsolved problems in particle physics is accounting for the magnitude of the vacuum energy density. If the fluctuations in topology are neglected, the calculated value is too high by a factor of about 1054. The most popular method of resolving this problem is to include the topological fluctuations: some calculations indicate that these can cancel out the factor of 1054. But if this is the cancellation mechanism, then the residual fluctuations in the vacuum energy density would necessarily reflect quantum gravity uncertainties, and thus a randomizer based on the fluctuations would be ontologically indeterministic. A state transition of the human brain in this case would be totally unpredictable. In this situation, we would have ontological free will.8

Along with Roger Penrose, Frank Tipler shows that the traditional Heisenberg's Principle of Uncertainty does not provide a basis for free will, because this type of uncertainty itself is determined by a fixed mathematical equation. Heisenberg's Principle of Uncertainty is expressed as follows.

Δ x Δ p ≥ h / 2p

The variables for the equation of an atomic particle are the position, "x," and its momentum, "p." The constant is Planck's constant, " h," times 1/2p. When the position of the particle becomes more certain, which is equivalent to saying that the Δx becomes smaller, then the uncertainty of the particle's momentum, Δp, becomes larger. Hence, some would argue that, because of the determinate mathematical nature of Heisenberg's Principle of Uncertainty, it would fail to provide the indeterminate freedom necessary for human free will.


However, there is a fundamental problem with these speculations by physicalists. Must we accept the presuppositions of materialists who assume that all reality is ultimately physical matter and its properties? Must we assume that the free choice of the human will is really indeterminate, requiring a physical randomizer? Is the only difference between a morally praise-worthy act and one that is reprehensible just the indeterminate result of a property of an atomic particle?

The underlying assumption is that material causality must account for all human decisions. This may be stated in a syllogistic form,

Only material causality may be used to explain human acts.
Some human acts appear to be non-determined.
Hence, there is an indeterminate material cause which is the cause of these apparent non-determinate human acts.

However, if the initial premise were not granted, then the conclusion would not follow. For example, Mount Rushmore in South Dakota has images of several US presidents on it. Now, if only material causes were allowed to account for these images, then we would be limited to the material causality of wind, rain, sun, and temperature. But, if we don't limited ourselves to material causality, then we can consider the efficient causality of the artisan's free choice to engrave the rock with the images of the various presidents.

From a historical Christian perspective, persons are thought to be real and more than just material constructs. Furthermore persons (or selfs) are thought to determine their own free choices. Consequently, it would be a misguided adventure to search for an indeterminate randomizer to account for free-willed decisions. The reason for this is that free-willed decisions are not indeterminate decisions; they are self-determined decisions.

Free Will and Reason

These theoretical physicists show a profound misunderstanding of what free will is. The human will is not a random action, dependent upon quantum uncertainty or the toss of a player's dice. It is the free choice of the human will, as it is determined by the intellect. It is a not a human will determined by the material causality of an instinctual nature. Rather, it is free (whence the term 'free' will) from material causality, and it finds its efficient causality in intellectual self-determination.

Brute animals have a will but it is not materially free, because they lack an immaterial intellect. On the other hand, man is endowed with an intellect, so man has a rational will. A mentally deranged person has a propensity to act indeterminately and randomly. But, the decisions of an irrational person are not the prototypical examples of the decisions of a person who is considered to be making free-willed decisions.

John of Damascus in his Exposition of the Orthodox Faith gave a standard definition of free will. Stones and bugs do not have an intellect; and, therefore, they do not have a free will. The will of man is not bound by matter nor cut off from reason; it was created in a more noble fashion than the lower creation.

We hold, therefore, that free-will comes on the scene at the same moment as reason .... And if this is so, free-will must necessarily be very closely related to reason. For either man is an irrational being, or, if he is rational, he is master of his acts and endowed with free-will. Hence, also creatures without reason do not enjoy free-will: for nature leads them rather than they nature, and so they do not oppose the natural appetite, but as soon as their appetite longs after anything they rush headlong after it. But man, being rational, leads nature rather than nature him, and so when he desires aught he has the power to curb his appetite or to indulge as he pleases. Hence also creatures devoid of reason are the subjects neither of praise nor blame, while man is the subject of both praise and blame.9

1 Francis Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, NY, 1993, p. 3.

2 Ibid. p. 265.

3 Ibid. p. 268.

4 Paul Davies, God and the New Physics, Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York, NY, 1983, p. 141.

5 Ibid.

6 Frank J. Tipler, The Physics of Immortality: Modern Cosmology, God and the Resurrection of the Dead, Doubleday, New York, NY, 1994, p. 10.

7 Ibid. p. 189.

8 Ibid. p. 197-198.

9 John of Damascus, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, In: A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series, Vol IX, St. Hilary of Poitiers, John of Damascus, W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, Grand Rapids, MI, Reprinted 1989, p. 40.

Ted J McDonald