From Chaos to Free Will
Ellis (George F.R.), Etc
Source: Aeon, 09 June, 2020
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  1. The French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827) believed that the Universe was a piece of machinery, and that physics determines everything. Napoleon, who had read up on Laplace’s work, confronted him about the conspicuous absence of a creator in his theory. ‘I had no need of that hypothesis,’ came the reply. Laplace might have said the same thing about free will, which his mechanistic universe rendered superfluous.
  2. Since Laplace’s day, scientists, philosophers and even neuroscientists have followed his lead in denying the possibility of free will. This reflects a widespread belief among theoretical physicists that if you know the initial values of the variables that characterise a physical system, together with the equations that explain how these variables change over time, then you can calculate the state of the system at all later times. For example, if you know the positions and velocities of all the particles that make up a gas in a container, you can determine the positions and velocities of all those particles at all later times. This means that there should be no freedom for any deviation from this physically determined trajectory.
  3. Consider, then, that everything we see around us – rocks and planets, frogs and trees, your body and brain – is made up of nothing but protons, electrons and neutrons put together in very complex ways. In the case of your body, they make many kinds of cells; in turn, these cells make tissues, such as muscle and skin; these tissues make systems, such as the heart, lungs and brain; and these systems make the body as a whole. It might seem that everything that’s happening at the higher, ‘emergent’ levels should be uniquely determined by the physics operating beneath them. This would mean that the thoughts you’re having at this very moment were predetermined at the start of the Universe, based on the values of the particle physics variables at that time.
  4. Now you might be forgiven for doubting whether William Shakespeare’s sonnets, Winston Churchill’s speeches and the words in Stephen Hawking’s book A Brief History of Time (1988) really came into being in this way. And you would be right to doubt: there are many problems with the skeptics’ position.
  5. At very small scales, quantum theory underlies what’s happening in the world. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle introduces an unavoidable fuzziness and an irreducible uncertainty in quantum outcomes. You might know the value of one variable, such as a particle’s momentum, but that means you can’t accurately detect another, such as its position. This seems to fundamentally undermine the allegedly iron-clad link between initial data and physical results. However, this is controversial, so I’ll set it aside for now, as important as it is. Instead, I’ll focus on key aspects of causation that occur in the molecular biology of neurons in the brain.
  6. One of the most astounding discoveries of the previous century was that biological activity at the micro level is literally grounded in the physical shape of biological molecules, particularly DNA, RNA and proteins. This discovery became possible only when X-ray crystallography had progressed to the point of allowing us to determine the extraordinarily complex detailed structure and foldings of these molecules.
  7. The structure of these molecules is truly the secret of life, as Francis Crick and James Watson exclaimed when they discovered the double helix structure of DNA, helped by the work of Rosalind Franklin. This deservedly led to huge public excitement about how DNA molecules encode our genetic inheritance. However, it is the structure of other molecules – proteins and associated messenger molecules – that in fact makes things happen at the cellular level. DNA is important only because it codes for the proteins that do the real biological work. For example, haemoglobin in blood cells transports oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. Rhodopsin in the eye absorbs light and turns it into electrical signals. Kinesin and dynein are motor proteins that transport materials from one place to another in a cell. Enzymes speed up chemical reactions by such huge amounts that they essentially turn them on and off. Voltage-gated ion channels serve as biological versions of transistors, while ligand-gated ion channels allow messenger molecules (‘ligands’) such as neurotransmitters to convey information from one cell to another in the brain. And so it goes. And all this functioning follows from the details of the complex shapes of these proteins.
  8. This means that, to link physics and biology, we need to look at the theory that underlies molecular shape. And that theory is quantum chemistry, based in the fundamental equation of quantum physics: the Schrödinger equation. In quantum theory, the state of a system is described by what’s known as its wave function, which determines the probabilities of different outcomes when events take place. The Schrödinger equation governs how the wave function changes with time. For example, it governs the process of quantum tunnelling, which in turn underlies important physical effects such as how the Sun generates energy via nuclear fusion, photosynthesis in plants, and flash memories you use to store data in computer USB flash drives.
  9. I will take for granted the validity of the Schrödinger equation, which is one of the best-tested equations in physics. To link this to the functioning of life, we need to apply the Schrödinger equation to the wave function of the relevant molecules – in this case, proteins – so as to determine how their shape will change with time. So the actual question is: does the Schrödinger equation, together with the initial state of the wave function describing everything that existed in the early Universe, determine everything I think today because it determines the states of all the biomolecules in my body?
  10. The confounding thing for free-will skeptics is that all outcomes don’t depend only on the equations and the initial data. They also depend on constraints. An example is an apple under the influence of gravity, such as the one that Isaac Newton watched fall to the ground from a tree at Woolsthorpe Manor. That was its unconstrained motion.
  11. Now suppose Newton had suspended the apple from a branch of the tree by a string attached to its stalk. It would thereby have been turned into a pendulum, because the string constrained its motion. Instead of dropping to the ground, it would have swung back and forth in a circular arc under the branch, with its state of motion determined uniquely by its initial position and velocity. Consequently, the motions of all the billions of atoms that make up the apple would then also be determined by the string. It would make each of them also move in a circular arc under the support. This is how constraints shape outcomes.
  12. Now let’s examine variation of the constraint over time. While the apple was swinging peacefully back and forth, imagine that Newton cut the string. The apple would then have fallen to the ground. The initial state (its speed in a circular arc when it started) no longer determined the outcome. It was the unexpected cutting of the string that determined what happened, because it removed the previous constraint. The moral of the story is that, when constraints vary, outcomes are not determined by initial conditions; they depend on the way that the constraints change with time.
  13. In the case of the biomolecules that underlie the existence of life, it’s the shape of the molecule that acts as a constraint on what happens. These molecules are quite flexible, bending around joints rather like hinges. The distances between the atomic nuclei in the molecules determine what bending is possible. Any particular such molecular ‘conformation’ (a specific state of folding) constrains the motions of ions and electrons at the underlying physical level. This can happen in a time-dependent fashion, according to biological needs. In this way, biology can reach down to shape physical outcomes. It changes constraints in the applicable Schrödinger equation.
  14. It’s a biochemical version of a door that opens only if the key is the right shape for the specific lock
  15. A key case are the ion channels in cell walls that separate the interior of a cell from its exterior. Ions are atoms that have become electrically charged because they have lost or gained an electron. Sodium and potassium atoms are positively charged because they have lost an electron, while chlorine ions are negatively charged because they have gained an electron. Ion channels are proteins imbedded in the cell wall, controlling the flow of ions in and out of the cell. They can be open or closed, depending on the position of their hinged parts. They thereby either allow movement of ions into or out of the cell (depending on their type), or prevent it.
  16. This gating plays a crucial role in brain functioning. For example, neurons are linked to each other by fibres called axons. Voltage-gated ion channels in the axon wall open or close based on the difference in electrical voltage between the inside and the outside of the cell. The ions moving in and out of axons through these ion channels cause an electrical signal to move along the neuron fibres, thus creating the electric nerve impulses by which we think (called ‘spike chains’, because they consist of a series of little voltage surges or ‘spikes’). These ion channels are a biological analogue of transistors in computers, which allow currents to flow or not, based in the voltage difference between two parts of the circuit.
  17. Another type of ion channel is a ligand-gated one, which occurs in the synapses that connect neurons to each other. The process is a complex biochemical version of opening a door with a key: it will open only if the key is the right shape for the specific lock. A ligand, in this case a neurotransmitter, is a messenger molecule that binds to a receptor on the ion channel, and so opens it by changing its shape.
  18. Figure 1: Ligand-gated ion channel function. This is how messenger molecules control physical outcomes inside the cell. From Membrane Receptors
  19. This allows ions to flow into a neuron, changing a chemical to an electrical signal. The ion channel allows ions to enter a cell only when a ligand is bound to a receptor and changes the shape of the ion channel so that it opens. If no ligand is present, the channel is closed and no ions can enter. The binding that causes this opening and closing is a consequence of the particular shape of the ligand: it can bind if and only if it has precisely the right shape for that specific receptor. The gating function, then, is a consequence of the detailed shape of the ion channel.
  20. Figure 2: Ligand-gated ion channel. It is such detailed molecular structures that are the secret of life. Courtesy Wikipedia
  21. This is how signalling molecules alter constraints on the flow of ions through ion channels in cell walls. The constraints are different before and after the binding of a messenger molecule. This time-dependent nature of binding controls ion flows at the synapses where one neuron joins to another one. It is these changes of molecular shape, rather than initial conditions, that determine which specific solutions of the molecular Schrödinger equation will occur in your brain when you’re thinking. They underlie the possibility of thought.
  22. So what determines which messages are conveyed to your synapses by signalling molecules? They are signals determined by thinking processes that can’t be described at any lower level because they involve concepts, cognition and emotions in an essential way. Psychological experiences drive what happens. Your thoughts and feelings reach ‘down’ to shape lower-level processes in the brain by altering the constraints on ion and electron flows in a way that changes with time.
  23. For example, suppose you’re walking down the street, and just in front of you a terrible accident happens – smashed-up cars, people injured, blood everywhere. You react with horror: sympathy for those who’ve been hurt, fear that they will die, a guilty sense of relief that it didn’t happen to you. These are all mental events that take place because of the way your brain functions at the psychological level, based on some combination of past experience and innate responses. None of those qualities – sympathy, fear, guilt – occur at the ion or synapse level. These high-level mental operations act down to alter the shape of ion channels, and so change the motions of billions of ions and electrons in your brain. In an intricate causal dance between levels in your brain, those thoughts are able to occur because of the underlying spike chains, but it’s their essentially psychological nature – what it means to recognise an accident, which thoughts flow through your mind as you decide what to do, what it feels like to experience the shock of seeing the event – that causes what happens. Physics enabled what took place in your head and body, but didn’t determine it; your mental interpretation of the event did.
  24. Learning and memory offer another example of how downward causal effect shapes the underlying physics. Memory is controlled by genes switching on and off, known as ‘gene regulation’. Genes, made of DNA molecules, contain the information needed for cells to manufacture specific proteins at the right place and time. Now there’s a problem here: nearly every cell in our body has the same genes, and codes for all the proteins that occur in the rest of the body. But each cell needs specific proteins to be produced, depending on context. So identical DNA strands produce different proteins in different cells at various times. How does this happen? It occurs by gene regulation: genes being switched on and off, and so being expressed or not. Gene regulation is controlled by proteins called transcription factors. These are regulatory proteins that bind to specific sites on a DNA molecule that recognise their shape, and so determine which proteins will be produced when the DNA is read.
  25. This process of gene regulation strengthens or weakens neural connections in our brain. The cortex has columns of densely packed neurons, connected to each other by an immensely complex network of connections. The broad structure of that network is the same for everyone, but the details are not. It’s the detailed structure in each brain that embodies the differences between us, and specifically our long-term memories. The details of which neuron is connected to which, and the strength of each connection, have been shaped by our own history and memories.
  26. Learning changes structure at the macro scale, which reaches down to alter micro connections
  27. How does any of this happen? As the Austrian-American doctor Eric Kandel explained in his Nobel Prize Lecture from 2000, the process of learning at the mental level leads to changed patterns of gene expression, and so specific proteins being produced, which alter the strengths of neural connections at synapses. This changes the strength of connections between neurons, thereby storing memories.
  28. Such learning is a psychological happening. You might remember your pleasure on eating a delicious meal, the details of a Yo-Yo Ma rendition of a Bach sonata, or the painful memory of the car crash. Once again, these are irreducible psychological events: they can’t be described at any lower level. They reach down to alter neuronal connections over time. These changes can’t be predicted on the basis of the initial state of the neural connections (your neurons did not know that the car crash was about to happen) – but, afterwards, they constrain electron flows differently, because connections have changed. Learning changes structure at the macro scale (we have a ‘plastic brain’), which reaches down to alter micro connections and the details of electron flows at the bottom.
  29. Another case in point is rational thought. In about 500 BCE, the Pythagoreans discovered something startling: that the square root of two is irrational. That is, if 2 is the product of a number N with itself (N times N is 2), then N can’t be expressed as a ratio of whole numbers, for example N cannot be 3/2. This was so shocking that the discovery was treated as an official secret. It wasn’t something they wished to be true, and it was dangerous to know it.
  30. This scandalous conclusion was reached by rational argument according to mathematical rules – rules that shaped the processes that took place in the brain of Hippasus of Metapontum. Abstract logic was driving those brain operations at all levels from the psychological (‘What ratio of integral numbers gives me the square root of 2?’) to electrical impulses flying along nerve fibres, to the ions moving in and out of those fibres through ion channels, to the interactions between electrons and protons that enabled the whole thing to happen.
  31. We don’t know the details of how thoughts are encoded by spike chains, but we do know this coding must occur. The spike trains must somehow reflect the structure of the logical argument that the square root of 2 is irrational. If we memorise this proof, the mathematical argument reaches down to reshape neuronal connections via gene regulation as the memory is stored. The logical argument is then literally embodied in details of brain connections.
  32. What these instances show is that psychological understandings reach down to shape the motions of ions and electrons by altering constraints at the physics-level over time. That is, mental states change the shape of proteins because the brain has real logical powers. This downward causation1 trumps the power of initial conditions. Logical implications determine the outcomes at the macro level in our thoughts, and at the micro level in terms of flows of electrons and ions.
  33. These examples are of course contentious because they involve the human brain and thought, and implicitly the issue of free will. However, the analogous issue also arises in the case of computer algorithms. An algorithm working out answers to specific questions – What pages will Google display to you? How much can you withdraw with this credit card? Can I book the 8:45am train tomorrow? – is again based in abstract logic. This logic is explicitly coded in a computer program written in a high-level programming language such as FORTRAN, Java or Python.
  34. The equations at the foundations of physics have no direct relation to such algorithms. But computer programs are clearly causally effective: they alter outcomes in the world. Programs determine what happens according to the logic of the algorithm acting on the relevant data. This is what computer science students study. That logic cascades down to the digital level, where it determines what happens to electron flows by altering applied voltages that change the structure of electron conduction channels in transistors. Before the program is loaded into the computer, the relevant algorithm is not represented in its innards; after the program is loaded, it is. Constraints at the macro level have been changed by loading the program. The physics dances2 to the tune of the algorithm, as voltages at the micro level change microsecond by microsecond during the program execution.
  35. Free-will skeptics ignore the kind of time-dependent constraints that I discuss here, which enable downwards causation in biology in general and brain function in particular. Of course, nothing about molecular biology contradicts the physics that underlies all material existence. Rather, it provides an extraordinarily complex context where things work out according to that context. Even though our brains are indeed made up of fundamental particles, high-level function emerges through the interaction3 of upward and downward causal processes.
  36. There’s a major element of randomness in what happens in cosmology and in molecular biology
  37. But still a nagging thought occurs: if the initial data were known for the entire Universe, then why can’t it determine all these lower-level dynamics in a mechanistic way? After all, aren’t they just small-scale details in this larger picture, where one can claim that no constraints occur? The Universe is by definition all that there is, so it can’t be constrained by effects from a larger environment. Might physics not be deterministic in that case, and my argument fall apart?
  38. The response is twofold. First, there’s a major element of randomness in what happens both in cosmology at large scales and in molecular biology at small scales. At the large scales, in cosmology we have difficulty in getting the details of what happens right, even at galactic scales; we work only with statistical likelihoods. There are significant unsolved problems, such as how dark matter clumps around galaxies at scales hugely greater than that of the solar system. We can’t realistically determine from studies based in the initial conditions in cosmology what happens at smaller scales such as that of the Sun or Earth. There’s no hope whatsoever of predicting details down to the scale of the human body.
  39. However, skeptics still say that it’s just a matter of lacking enough data and computing power. In principle, it could work. But actually, it won’t, because of what happens at the microscale. At molecular scales, the processes at work forget initial data due to billions on billions of collisions between molecules every second. Biology thrives on that disorder – a ‘molecular storm’, as Peter Hoffman calls it in his book Life’s Ratchet (2012). Molecular machines do work, such as kinesin moving cargos from one place to another in the cell, extracting order out of the chaos. Far from physics having the determinate nature envisaged by Laplace, all the molecules’ argy-bargy every microsecond means that the details of their initial state of motion are irretrievably lost. It’s this molecular-level chaotic motion that prevents micro-determinism in practice.
  40. But how can order emerge out of this chaos? As explained by Denis Noble and Raymond Noble in their paper for the journal Chaos4 in 2018, molecular randomness gives cellular mechanisms the option of choosing the outcomes they want, and discarding those they don’t. This power of choice enables physiological systems such as the heart and brain to function in a way that isn’t enslaved by the lower-level interactions, but rather choosing the outcomes of the preferred interactions from a multitude of options. In this way, a layer of order can emerge from the disorder – and micro data – at the lower level. This isn’t conclusive proof that free will exists, but at least it opens up a way for it to exist.
  41. For the sake of argument, let’s suppose I’m wrong. Let’s ignore all these issues and take the deterministic view seriously. It implies that the words of every book ever written – the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Das Kapital, the Harry Potter series – were encoded into the initial state of the Universe, whatever that was. No logical thinking by a human played a causal role in the specific words of these books: they were determined by physics alone.
  42. It’s unclear how any words could have been encoded into the Universe, which led to apparently random fluctuations at the time when matter and radiation decoupled from each other. How would they have been represented in those fluctuations? It’s virtually impossible that they could have affected the detailed brain-state of the authors when they wrote their books. The issue of quantum uncertainty adds another layer of implausibility to these claims. But let’s set all these major issues aside for now. Let’s suppose it is indeed possible that present-day brain-states are determined by initial conditions in the Universe, because causally deterministic physics underlies all.
  43. The problem then is, how did all those words get there? Was there a demiurge who coded all that stuff into the detailed initial state of the Universe? It’s certainly not there in the Schrödinger equation per se, or in a randomly determined set of fluctuations in the early Universe as is normally envisaged in cosmological studies5. By definition, they don’t encode either any detailed information or any logical argumentation.
  44. So how could that data have got there? Not just for one book, but for all the books ever written? Is that really a believable story, or some kind of creationist myth?
  45. Genuine mental functioning and the ability to make decisions in a rational way is a far more persuasive explanation of how books get written. That this is possible is due to the extraordinary hierarchical structure of our brain and its functioning. And that functioning is enabled by downward causation from the psychological to the physical levels, with outcomes at the physics level determined by constraints that change over time. No violation of physical laws need occur.
  46. Physics has made huge strides since the days of Laplace; indeed, it would be completely unrecognisable to him. Yet there are still physicists today who confidently proclaim that we can’t have free will because physics determines everything, including brain functioning – entirely ignoring the complex context and the power of constraints.
  47. If you seriously believe that fundamental forces leave no space for free will, then it’s impossible for us to genuinely make choices as moral beings. We wouldn’t be accountable in any meaningful way for our reactions to global climate change, child trafficking or viral pandemics. The underlying physics would in reality be governing our behaviour, and responsibility wouldn’t enter into the picture.
  48. That’s a devastating conclusion. We can be grateful it’s not true.
On-Line Comments6
  1. Ugo Corda, 9 June 2020
    • The article is based on a couple of basic ideas: downward causation, non-predictability, non-determinism.
    • The possibility of downward causation has been debated for a very long time (starting with Descartes) and it is far from being solved in the way the author of the article would like (see for example the so called Causal Exclusion Problem). In my view, downward causation is just a confusion of different description levels, where causal reasoning at one level is mixed with the one at a different level. In particular, if a process is deterministic at the level of physics, higher levels of description will not change that, no matter how it looks at that higher level.
    • Regarding predictability, evidently that has nothing to do with determinism (and that is exactly why Laplace used the concept of a daemon). Not being able to predict the outcome of a process does not make it non-deterministic.
    • Regarding non-determinism, even if that is true at the physical level (unclear right now: some interpretations of quantum mechanics are deterministic, like the De Broglie-Bohm interpretation), if our decisions are dictated by random events (like the case of radioactive decay) it would be pretty hard to say that therefore they show free-will.
  2. George Ellis, 10 June 2020
  3. Stan Dorst, 9 June 2020
    • Determinism in the Laplacian sense is clearly not true - quantum mechanics eliminates that possibility. However, randomness is not the same thing as free will. When an atom of uranium decays is random at a fundamental level. Does that mean that the atom decides when to decay?
    • We have a conscious experience of making decisions. How consciousness arises from complex arrangements of unconscious matter is a mystery. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen.
    • We have a conscious experience of seeing a green leaf. It makes no sense to say that we freely decide to interpret the pattern of excitations of the neurons in our sensory cortex as being a leaf. Similarly, we experience some patterns of excitation of neurons in our brain as being desires, thoughts, and decisions. That doesn’t mean that they “are” such things - that is simply how we experience them.
  4. George Ellis, 10 June 2020
    • Agreed about Laplacian determinism. What is surprising is that quiet a few physicists write as if there was determinism when they write about the issue of free will. And yes you are referring to the reality of qualia in the brain. We have no idea how that happens.
  5. Jan Sand, 9 June 2020
    • I am always puzzled by the advocates of free will on the assumption that the recognition of randomness pervading all natural processes donates the ability of whatever decision mechanism exists within human mental capability the extraordinary ability of freedom to decide beforehand the outcome of a decision. If chaos cannot be overcome by the assumption that one can presume regularity of cause and effect, how is it overcome by acknowledging that any decision we make is easily defeated by the unpredictability of any known process? There seems to me a profound lack of rationality in that claim.
  6. George Ellis, 10 June 2020
  7. Ted Cloak, 9 June 2020
    • I think Prof. Ellis ignores the distinction, long ago made by philosophers, between Fatalism and Determinism. LaPlace per Ellis’s description is a fatalist. Determinism says only that events are enabled by prior events plus scientific laws; i.e., causal forces/principles.
    • I also think his reasoning is analogous to creationists’ “God in the gaps” reasoning: If I don’t know what determined my thinking or my behavior, I must have free will, whatever the hell that is.
    • I’m saving this article for Ellis’s excellent descriptions of the relation of physics to biology.
  8. George Ellis, 10 June 2020
  9. Ed Rybicki, 5 days ago
    • Hi George: just picked up on this article; VERY nice! We molecular biology types have known for years that the kinds of emergent properties that come out of an assemblage of macromolecules are completely unpredictable above a certain level of complexity - given that the number of possibilities when there are sufficient molecules gathered together in one place, are so much larger than the number of fundamental particles in the known universe, as to boggle all chances of any understanding or prediction.
    • For example, the number of different sequences - defined by having one or more differences - that are possible for the E coli genome (4 million bases) alone, is 4 to the power of 4 million. If you consider a single 200 amino acid protein, the number of possible sequences is 20 to the power of 200. Given that E coli can make 1000-odd proteins, the number of ways they can interact with each other just in a pairwise way is (1000 exp 2) - 1000 / 2. Most interact with many more partners than that, and different sets at different times. What it boils down to, as my science fiction friends like to point out, is that you would need a computer vastly bigger than the known universe, working for an unimaginably long time, just to try and predict the state of all the molecules in ONE human, at a point in time.
    • So even if things are predetermined, there is no way that we or anything that is the size of the multiverse to actually predict anything reliably
  10. George Ellis, 4 days ago
    • Thanks very much for that. That is indeed a very real consideration in the real universe. Andreas Wagner’s great book Arrival of the Fittest talks about this huge number of proteins in a very enlightening way.
  11. Peter Elvidge, 5 days ago
    • Nice article, I enjoyed reading.
    • Arguments between physicists apart, isn’t the notion of free will invalid on purely conceptual grounds, as succinctly put by Arthur Schopenhauer when he wrote “Man can do what he wants, but he cannot will what he wills? In other words, we act on our desires but we cannot choose which desires to have, so wherein lies the freedom in that? To choose our desires would imply an infinite regress of desires, a problem that not even some measure of downward causation in neurobiology could fix. How could volition exerted at a psychological level via downward causation bring about a change in the operation of our limbic brain except for without the fact that we wanted to bring about a change in what we want in the first place? it seems mired in circularity to me.
  12. George Ellis, 4 days ago
    • That is a really good comment. Yes there are layers on layers of motivation. However in my view there is a highest level which is the level of values and meaning, which is determined by a combination of social influences and individual choice. There are indeed many subterranean forces at work, as we have known since the time of Freud. But that does not preclude having a stance of meaning and purpose that guides our lives.
  13. Discovered Joys, 9 June 2020
    • “Let’s ignore all these issues and take the deterministic view seriously. It implies that the words of every book ever written – the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Das Kapital, the Harry Potter series – were encoded into the initial state of the Universe, whatever that was.”
    • No, they were not encoded in the initial state of the Universe (assuming that there was an initial state). The nature of the universe and its unfolding determined that such books were a possibility 14 plus billion years later. The existence of those books *now* results from deterministic causes and effects all the way back, but the outcome *back then* was not predictable.
  14. George Ellis, 10 June 2020
    • The nature of the universe determined that they were possible, yes. I don’t follow the last sentence. If the existence of those books *now* results from deterministic causes and effects all the way back, then they must have been encoded in the initial state of the universe, unless your concept of “deterministic” is different than mine. In my view the correct view is that life emerged with a hierarchical structure in which there is genuine autonomy at the psychological (mental) level, and that that is the only way to account for the existence of all these rationally thought out artefacts. For a technical justification14=11 see Ellis - The Causal Closure of Physics in Real World Contexts
  15. Christian Potter, 9 June 2020
    • [Part of this comment has been removed because it contravened the Aeon community guidelines.] This argument is essentially just a strawman which claims that the argument for lack of free will depends on a physical system that is totally deterministic, but it doesn’t.
    • Free will as a concept implies that there was an “agent” who can make a decision to do one thing or another. i.e. you are a “bad person” if you do something that was bad when you could have done something good. Even if we lived in a world that was completely unpredictable, that doesn’t leave any room for free will.
  16. George Ellis, 10 June 2020
    • I am actually responding to a number of physicists, Brian Greene being a prominent example, who make exactly the argument you say is a straw man.
    • I don’t get the logical connection between the two sentences in the second paragraph. Are you saying the first sentence by itself denies free will? For a proper analysis of the issue, please see Murphy and Brown15=3 (a philosopher and a neuroscientist) who develop it in depth. Oxford Scholarship: Murphy & Brown - Did My Neurons Make Me Do It?
  17. Henning Strandin, 9 June 2020
    • This looks question-begging to me. Consider the scenario where Newton cuts the thread to the apple swinging from the branch. Supposedly this means that the terminal state of the apple system is no longer determined by its initial state. That’s true, but irrelevant. Newton interfered with that system, so the question is whether the terminal state of the Newton-apple system is determined by the initial state of that system. If Newton’s actions are predetermined, then it is, and claiming that Newton’s action here was not predetermined would clearly be to put the cart before the horse. As for the rest of the story, it doesn’t change the fact that libertarian free will is ruled out by our scientific understanding of the world. Neither a physically deterministic world (which is not our world) nor a physical world with truly random events (which we think is our world) accommodates libertarian free will. Free actions aren’t random. A free action in the true libertarian sense must be a will-directed injection of causal influence into the physical world from outside it. “Every voluntary action is a small miracle” (Roderick Chisholm, paraphrased). No talk about the intricacies of the microscopic world of enzymes and proteins can make that compatible with our scientific view of the world–or explain how it could be so. (And no talk of events occurring at the level of concepts and intensions will help.)
  18. George Ellis, 10 June 2020
  19. Luis Puelles, 5 days ago
    • I assume that quantal probabilistic models of subatomic phenomena apply at all suprajacent dimensions of the real world, including minds, since our brains need to regulate brain temperature strictly within given limits in order to be able to think, or to will anything. I see this pervasive and multiform effect as parametric with regard to systems which are more complex than atoms. Due to emergent properties, I disagree with physicists that defend that this subatomic level of analysis explains any interesting properties of life on earth, be it at the organic molecular, cellular, tissular, or organ levels of living beings.
    • By the way, emergent properties do not arise out of nothing. They may be considered as pre-existent properties whose probability of instantiation below a given level of complexity of the phenomena is not appreciable, that is, is virtually zero (e.g. an atom or any of its particles are not alive, do not possess this property). These impossible properties may gradually become more possible, and eventually may apply immediately once the required level of complexity arises. That invisible structure of what is possible or not relates to the universal laws, and this may be also an element of determinism (the invisible map of theoretical possibilities of matter and energy depending on the complexity of systemic design). This means in the present context of Ellis’s interesting essay that minds and their free wills in a silent way may have existed as initially impossible properties of initially impossible brains within initially impossible living beings at the big bang. It is obviously nonsensical to discuss whether Shakespeare’s plays were also mapped with very, very low probability at this stage of universal history. Maybe given historic levels (e.g., emergence of humanity, or of the British people, or the culture of Shakespeare’s time) were needed before such more precise maps of the impossible future could start to arise unbeknownst to everybody, and intermediate events could make them increasingly possible (other theatral authors of the period), until the needed unique complexity of Shakespeare’s mind made it suddenly possible and really instantiated. The beginning of life on earth was a momentous emergence-prone event that, among other things, produced our minds over several thousand million years of evolution of biological complexity (largely related to increased complexities of genomes, morphogenesis, cell type diversity, and adult functioning brains, always in adaptive response to all sorts of variations in the physical world).
    • I do not understand very well the argument of constraints, at least in the example of Newton’s string-hanging apple, because Newton realistically should have been able to calculate and predict the pendular result of the modified gravitational falling, a development which seems deterministic to me, given the precedent human agency and the apple’s mass in context with the Earth’s gravitational field and Kepler’s/Newton’s laws.
    • As a neurobiologist, the gist of what I really want to say is that minds, as evolved natural biological (and physical/chemical) phenomena of highest level of complexity (we do not know of any other more complex item in the universe so far) apparently have invented the capacity to convert sense data joined to corresponding variable animal emotional reactions into memorizable categories, thus achieving conceptualization of the world. Whereas universal history stops at the present instant, and no atom or molecule, stone or star, has an inkling of its theoretically uncomputable future, sufficiently complex minds use the emergent personal concept of the world (even if imperfect) to create a virtual map of the future regularities predicted in the world. Remarkably, its short, medium and even long range predictions often are correct, even though mathematicians and physicists would not expect this to happen. As a consequence, complex human minds, at least, further develop various motivations (not necessarily all of them; there are also ‘determined’ instinctual ones) and intentions which are based in large measure on this hypothetic image of the future (obviously, it grows with time). If it is mathematically impossible to calculate the future position at the next second of all the atoms on earth (not to speak of the universe), it is even more impossible to predict what sort of future world image (often projected to a range of many years and even generations) is being used by each individual human being when he/she decides what to do. To pretend that quantal phenomena or any other random phenomena are involved in these intentional decisions is risible. We are speaking of a personal mental model of the future world, with various degrees of uncertainty and of course areas of ignorance built in. What sort of complex category of things is that, given the millions of living humans at any historic moment? Note I conceive ideas themselves as a subtle and ethereal form of material happening in minded material brains.
    • I thus conclude that, consistently with Ellis’s discourse, downwards causation results from mental use of the materially created ideal future in the form of ideas, applied to the theoretically deterministic joined antecedents of the physical world, personal experiences and memories, and apparent external constraints by rules and laws to decide or choose behaviour. This unique property of the world of ideas allows us to exert what we call free will, which really implies choosing what sort of future we want to have among the possibilities contemplated (of course, the real world can always surprise us by doing something unexpected). This material act of emerged will includes visualizing in a possible neurally represented future and thereafter willing to create for it totally novel constructions such as works of art (e.g., Shakespeare’s). This cannot be done without first being able to conceive (correctly or wrongly, that doesn’t matter) the good and bad possibilities that may be expected if we do not act or choose. That is the reason why we are responsible for our actions, namely because we cannot say to a judge or a jury that we did not foresee given reasonable outcomes of the situation we were in. Obviously, some mentally defective individuals may fail at this task, thus turning out to be unresponsible. Atoms and molecules, and even cells, young infants, and primitive types of animals where the free will property (future visualizing) has not yet emerged are likewise unresponsible of what they do. I find in the arguments I read in much literature on this topic that they lack attention to the role of the future. The latter is theoretically incalculable in a mathematically precise form, but clearly can be predicted to a significant approximation by any potent human mind. Free will is the biological emergent property of sufficiently complex brains to build a personal future map of happenings, and use it to counteract within given limits allowed by quantic indeterminacy the rule of future-blind determinism. Philosophers of mind should also attend to the future, if only because minds do so. We become free the moment we start to visualize an organized future (sometime during late infancy or adolescence, correlative with legal experience? end of myelinization of the brain’s white matter?), and we notice that we can tweak it with our behaviour to our personal preferences. Social aspects enter into the picture as well, of course (personal vision of our collective future). It’s all a probabilistic result of the increase of complexity in the universe as it gets older, and it is further consistent with the validity of universal laws which obviously favor local increments of complexity (otherwise complexity would not exist).
  20. George Ellis, 4 days ago
    • Many thanks for that extended discourse. It nicely summarises much of what I think. What we are given by the cosmos, and in particular physics is possibility spaces within which we can act. We choose what we do within what is allowed by those possibilities.
  21. Sidd Boketto, 9 June 2020
    • I’m not sure I follow the reasoning ‘If Newton chose to cut it, this would be changing the outcome.’ Isn’t the argument that Newton’s decision is determined to cut it? Countless initial values are changed by each other all the time? I ain’t no determinist but this feels flawed.
  22. George Ellis, 10 June 2020
  23. Michael Smith, 9 June 2020
    • Randomness doesn’t provide free will worth having, and determinism doesn’t take it away. Arguably, responsibility only requires a capacity for reasonable forethought.
    • Downward causation is a mismatch between abstraction layers. It’s always possible to account for the cause at the layer of the effect. The higher level description can be convenient story for us, such as saying the traffic made me late, but the immediate causes of my car’s delays were the other cars immediately in its path.
    • Finally, it’s worth noting that there are deterministic interpretations of quantum mechanics.
  24. George Ellis, 10 June 2020
    • “Responsibility only requires a capacity for reasonable forethought”: yes it requires that, but then it requires the capacity to choose to act on the basis of that forethought. Please see Murphy and Brown20=3 for a detailed analysis Oxford Scholarship: Murphy & Brown - Did My Neurons Make Me Do It?
    • I am not sure what you mean by a mismatch between layers. Yes its always possible to account for the cause at the layer of the effect, we agree. This is the statement that effective laws emerge at every level without any contradiction, see Ellis - The Causal Closure of Physics in Real World Contexts for a technical analysis21=11 as to why this is so. What you then refer to is effectively Aristotle’s different kinds of causation - all being equally valid.
    • Yes there are deterministic interpretations of quantum mechanics. They have no cash value - they do not enable you to give the specific outcome of specific initial data at a specific time and place.
  25. Herb Van Fleet, 9 June 2020
    • As Parmenides declared 2,500 years ago, “Ex nihilo nihil fit” (Out of nothing comes nothing.) Inspired by Parmenides, I wrote an essay a few years ago called “You Can Only Get Something From Nothing If Nothing Is Something.” The shortened version of that tome is that there is no such thing as uncaused cause – no ex nihilo events, no good luck or bad luck, no randomness.
    • In terms of the world of nature cause and effect are like a chain reaction with many past events causing more events, that cause even more events; all moving along the arrow of time, which, in combination, are the continuing, collective and increasing sum of all histories. And that holds true in this particular universe.
    • The difficulty in accepting the idea of an uncaused cause is to admit of an infinite regression of causes. But this is no different, it seems to me, than considering the future as unending, eternal, forever – an infinite progression of causes and effects.
    • But physicist Lawrence M. Krauss comes along with his 2012 book. “A Universe From Nothing – Why is There Something Rather Than Nothing” and tries to defeat my notion of uncaused causes. Krauss drills down into the depths of quantum mechanics and talks about things like virtual particles and vacuum states, and quantum entanglement, and other obscure theories that give us lay folks a bad case of cognitive dissonance. But those examples have been questioned by other physicists and possible causes have been proposed, none of which involve “something from nothing.”
    • If we can understand the causes of causes, then surely we can predict the effects. That leads to the concept of determinism. But determinism only works in a linear setting – a closed system. We know the speed of light and we can compute distances, so we can determine how long it takes light to reach the moon and bounce back. We know the force of gravity, so we can predict how fast you will be going when you hit the ground after falling off a 30 story building. That is to say determinism is a function of science, math, and biology.
    • But what about free will? The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy says free will, “is a philosophical term of art for a particular sort of capacity of rational agents to choose a course of action from among various alternatives.” As a term of art, then, free will is merely an intellectual construct or device as distinct from an empirical phenomenon.
    • When we are born we know that our mind is not a Tabula rasa. It’s already filled with genetic history. As we mature from infants to children to adults to old age, our exposure to, and our perception and processing of the external environment, adds to that history. And all of that influences our decision making. As Sam Harris wrote in his book, Free Will, “A belief in Free Will touches nearly everything that human beings value. It is difficult to think about law, politics, religion, public policy, intimate relationships, morality—as well as feelings of remorse or personal achievement—without first imagining that every person is the true source of his or her thoughts and actions. And yet the facts tell us that free will is an illusion.”
    • And Harris also says, “You can do what you decide to do — but you cannot decide what you will decide to do.” I agree.
  26. George Ellis, 10 June 2020
    • Wow so many things here.
    • → Uncaused causes: yes except when it comes to the Universe itself it is not clear what it means. Kraus’s book is a cheat in this regard. His “nothing” is not nothing.
    • → Determinism only works in linear settings - indeed. In the real universe, multilevel interlevel causation takes place.
    • → As for free will: Harris’ book is highly contentious. For someone on the neuroscience side who denies free will, I’d rather choose Francis Crick. But in any case form my viewpoint the Murphy and Brown22=3 book is deeper both philosophically and in neuroscience terms, see Oxford Scholarship: Murphy & Brown - Did My Neurons Make Me Do It?
  27. Brian Corbett, 5 days ago
    • Social anthropologists would argue that so called ‘free will’ is a reflection of our greatest triumph as a species. As a social animal our brains evolved ever more sophisticated ways, as your description of down causality eludes, to detect the intent of others. As we became more self-aware we devised ways to communicate and more importantly for our imagination to assign blame and responsibility to the actions and behaviours of others. The notion of free will arises from these imaginative assignments. For example we deplore the actions of a murderer because WE BELIEVE they could have chosen otherwise.
    • The issue is not whether free will exists,…it is our collective fear that it does not, as you mentioned in your final paragraphs. In other words, fear or uncertainty is the crack in the door of denial the very state of mind that allows us to survive with the knowledge of our own mortality or as the thinking on this subject goes. The very anthesis to survival. We want to believe in the notion of free will because the idea of its ‘non-existence’ is too horrible to contemplate. A downward spiral into nihilism and destruction.
    • Not to worry,…the endless stream of causality that is our particular expanding and accelerating universe is unfolding in the only manner it can. What we believe (dare I say what we choose to believe) is of no matter. No imaginative contrivances can change that so we yearn for the proof that will (so to speak) save us from ourselves
    • Laplace’s Demon was an imaginative explanation based on the extent of classical mechanics in the day. Our current state of knowledge including quantum wave theory suggests the future is a function of probabilities not a classical notion of free will determinism.
    • In the final analysis nothing changes we continue to act and behave in whatever manner we observe (after the fact) in the hope that outcomes (the future) will be favorable to ourselves (survival) and those we care about the most.
  28. George Ellis, 4 days ago
    • Interesting comment. The belief in free will is necessary for social life to exist. Indeed. Even those who proclaim it does not exist in their academic writings behave as if it does, in daily life, for otherwise they could not survive and interact with their family meaningfully. They lead schizophrenic lives.
  29. Josh Mitteldorf, 5 days ago
    • Any discussion of this topic is incomplete without acknowledgment that we don’t have agreement on the measurement problem in QM. If it is consciousness that collapses the wave function, there’s your free will right there.
    • Experiments by Robert Jahn and Brenda Dunne over 30 years suggest that the mind has direct influence over what is usually considered “quantum random” events. More recently, results from a very different experimental paradigm by Dean Radin points in the same direction. If we believe these results are not a mistake, then they offer a direct path for free will to enter physical processes.
  30. George Ellis, 4 days ago
    • This is a line that various have proposed over the years. It is an interesting but controversial view. I’d like to see the details worked out in depth.
  31. Steve Stewart, 3 days ago
  32. George Ellis, 3 days ago
    • Hello well it’s a typical Jerry A. Coyne response. I do not plan to do a reply. I rest by the science that supports emergence of higher levels with genuine causal powers, as I have laid out in detail particularly in this paper24=11 Ellis - The Causal Closure of Physics in Real World Contexts, and the existence of downward causation in both physics and biology, which he denies, despite for example evolutionary processes being impossible without downward causation, as pointed out by Donald Campbell a long time ago.
    • I just comment on the core issue: “Ellis’s argument is bogus. Why? Because it argues that the “psychological level” (“mental thoughts”) is somehow different from the “physical level”: that our experiences, our cogitation, and our interactions with others and with external events, are different from physical processes that shape our actions. After all, they are “top down” phenomena.”
    • Well thoughts are not the same as electrons interacting with each other. His thoughts in writing his response were presumably intended to impart a rational argument, and lie at the psychological level. It is a category mistake to say that this is the same as electrons interacting. Those levels are indeed essentially different. The true statement is that electrons interacting allow and enable the thoughts to take place at the psychological level. To claim they are identical is simply wrong (inter alia because of multiple realisation of higher level phenomena at lower levels). Neuroscience texts are rather different than physics texts.
    • As I state above, consider the case of a digital computer and the way algorithms are enabled by electron flows, to get a less contentious case where you can see how it works. Downward causation enables algorithms to control electron flows.
  33. massimo negrotti, 3 days ago
    • I wish to observe that the constraints to which Prof. Ellis refers in his interesting paper could be themselves be understood as effects of precise causes. The difficulty of Schrödinger’s equation in the face of the sudden mutation of events - which make knowledge of the ‘initial conditions’ and the development model described by the equation no longer useful - does not in itself imply the inconsistency of determinism but only our inability to dominate the interplay of the multiple and heterogeneous ‘regions’ of reality. Rather, the difficulty of reductionist determinism is not essentially practical or linked to ignorance, but is due to the role of the pervasive intrinsic randomness of reality.
    • Aristotle, to illustrate randomness, proposes the scene of two people, one of whom owes a sum of money to the other. Both go to the market for their own business and, meeting, settle their financial question without their having previously decided. It is clear that, as a consequence, each of them will find themselves in a different situation from that planned and developed when they had made the decision to go to the market.
    • I think that when two systems governed by their own initial conditions and independent development models converge, at the time of the meeting they will give rise to a new system that will have its own initial conditions and its own development model. It is clear that if one knew the two sets of initial conditions then he would also be able to calculate the ‘trajectory’ of the two systems by predicting, the moment of the meeting in which a new set of initial conditions of a new system will be formed. Nevertheless, all this will happen according to probabilistic models.
    • It is very likely that the action of chance also applies to what happens in the brain, triggering bottom-up cognitive processes. The reductionist deterministic model and randomness are here compatible in the sense that the former can pro tempore deterministically act on the conditions put in place probabilistically by the latter. In my opinion, this gives more persuasively account of events such as thought and emotions than the model which presupposes an unobservable ‘mental level’ which, nevertheless, according to Prof. Ellis, would be able to induce changes to the underlying physical levels.
    • The ancient question of free will can be overcome by accepting the idea that will is always free (excluding external constraints that may oppose the action, of course). In fact, it consists in the paradox of self-determination, that is, in a sort of ‘intrinsic acceptance’ by the subject of the preferences generated by his own brain. In other words, the will coincides with its causes, rather than being their effect, and, in the eyes of the subject, takes the form of consciousness.
    • Ultimately, the very concept of ‘mind’ is arbitrary and inessential and can easily be replaced in any context by the term ‘brain’ without anything changing in our communication and analysis. In fact, the ‘mind’ is nothing more than the name we give to the behavior of the brain. It is not a reality in itself, which, by the way, recalls the same controversial anthropological idea of the ‘superorganic’ put forward by Alfred Kroeber at the beginning of the last century to define human culture.
    • Finally, the analogy with a computer program does not hold up for various reasons. Among the many, it is sufficient to note that a program would be able to “run” on any physical structure (not only transistors but also relays or other) while the “mind” has a strict need for the physical structure of the brain as it is. In fact, the brain does not act on the basis of bits and bytes activated by a sequence of symbols which enable electrical signals, and what it gives rise to, for example an intuition, can be formalized in informational terms only with expedients subsequent to their brain generation.
  34. Ceslav Rehak, 9 June 2020
    • [Part of this comment has been removed because it contravened the Aeon community guidelines.]
    • While I am not going to argue whether we do or do not have a ‘free will’ (however you choose to define it), I will point out that the author’s conclusions that the absence of free will would free us from the consequences of our actions is simply wrong. Even if we were predetermined to our thoughts and actions by the big bang itself, it doesn’t follow that we are free to kill people or destroy our environment without consequences.
    • The moral or ethical aspect is untouched by the notion of pure determinism. A person who shoots his neighbour to death will get arrested and he cannot blame the murder on determinism. Or rather, he can, but then the judge and the jury will be predetermined to send him to prison for murder regardless. If a crime is predetermined, so is the punishment. If a cause is predetermined, so is the consequence.
    • Just like an actress who cites an already written line, the character she plays is still fully accountable to all her actions. The characters still “feel” like they’re making the choice, they still have to deal with all the consequences of their actions, which, to them, are very real. Even though the script was written long before the play started.
  35. George Ellis, 10 June 2020


For further Comments see "Ellis (George F.R.), Etc - From Chaos to Free Will: Further Comments & Responses".


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