Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Quantum saves free will - again?

New Age-ish books on quantum physics in the 70's and 80's, as well as the quantum mind theory of Penrose and Hameroff,* seemed to provide grounds to argue that, in one way or another, quantum effects could be key to consciousness, and even free will.

This likeable use of quantum theory (well, for those of us who think the concept of free will is important) has  become unpopular with modern physicists and hard nosed, atheistic, philosophers, with the likes of Sean Carroll, Sabine Hossenfelder, Sam Harris and a host of others arguing that, basically, you're a doofus who doesn't understand science properly if you think there could possibly be true free will, or "downwards causation" by the mind.

[And, by the way - I have my doubts that they are being consistent - or honest - when they argue that the lack of true free will does not mean you have to give up on notions of morality and socially important things like punishment for crime.  But that should be a matter for another post.]

Anyhow, this is all preamble to a link to a paper on arXiv which, as papers at that site go, is understandable for quite large sections, and argues that, properly understood, quantum mechanics does indeed mean there are emergent new properties, and "downward causation".

Now, I have read it through once, and do not understand every point.  Or perhaps even the key point, properly.

But it doesn't sound nutty - much of what they cover I have read enough to know is not nonsense - and it seems that the authors promise another paper specifically on free will.

I have to say this paper appeals strongly to me because of the frequent reaction I have to the anti free will physicists:  it's very odd that they are perfectly willing to ask me to swallow logs of intuitive nonsense (such as it being quite possible that there are continually created versions of me wandering off into non accessible multiple universes of the Many Worlds Theory) while at the same time calling me an idiot for believing the speck that is most naturally intuitive thing in the world - that I am free to choose whether to write this post, or not.   And yes, although it sounds paradoxical at first, but the wildly non intuitive results of quantum theory does seem to be the "natural" place where one might find something that feels intuitive, but on paper isn't supposed to be there.

Am I making sense?   (I wondered the other day, incidentally, whether the idea of the entire universe "downward causing" itself in a giant time loop that future intelligence creates - I am still fond of Tipler's Omega Point ideas - might have some implication for believing in more localised downward causation.)

Who knows:  this might be an important paper for the rehabilitation of free will amongst physicists, and those who doubt their own experience of life.

Here's the abstract:
We show that several interpretations of quantum mechanics admit an ontology of objects and events. This ontology reduces the breach between mind and matter. When humans act, their actions do not appear explainable in mechanical terms but through mental activity: motives, desires or needs that propel them to action. These are examples of what in the last few decades have come to be called "downward causation". Basically, downward causation is present when the disposition of the whole to behave in a certain way cannot be predicted from the dispositions of the parts. The event ontology of quantum mechanics allow us to show that systems in entangled states present emergent new properties and downward causation.
Now, I should re-read it to see if more sinks in... 

* Their microtubules and quantum effects theory is not, by the way, entirely dead yet.  See this report from 2014.


Jason Soon said...

whatever the merits of this new theory, on my superficial understanding of Penrose's theory, it's rubbish because everything, even inorganic matter is subject to quantum effects at the subatomic level.

also does this mean the most basic quantum computer we design is going to have free will?

all this putting aside the fact that randomness isn't freedom.

Steve said...

I didn't think (but I was just going by memory) that Penrose had ever got all that specific about how quantum effects made consciousness what it is, just that he thought that it very likely has a key role.

But then when I Googled the topic, I got this link to a 2012 paper by Hameroff, which seems to put up some very specific ideas. Not sure if it has been addressed in detail by the likes of Carroll, or not.

Here's the link: