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The "why free will is beyond physics" proposal - Printable Version

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The "why free will is beyond physics" proposal - C C - Jan 12, 2021

EXCERPTS (Philip Ball): . . . But is free will really undermined by the determinism of physical law? I think such arguments are not even wrong; they are simply misconceived. They don’t recognize how cause and effect work, and by attempting to claim too much jurisdiction for fundamental physics they are not really scientific but metaphysical.

[...] If the claim that we never truly make choices is correct, then psychology, sociology and all studies of human behaviour are verging on pseudoscience. Efforts to understand our conduct would be null and void because the real reasons lie in the Big Bang. Neuropsychology would be nothing more than the enumeration of correlations: this action tends to happen at the same time as this pattern of brain activity, but there is no causal relation. Game theory is meaningless as no player is choosing their action because of particular rules, preferences or circumstances of the game. These “sciences” would be no better than studies of the paranormal: wild-goose chases after illusory phenomena. History becomes merely a matter of inventing irrelevant stories about why certain events happened.

[...] Surely, then, we have to choose one or the other? No, we can have both. It’s simply a matter of recognizing distinct domains of knowledge – of accepting that at certain levels of reductionism, some explanatory power vanishes while some is newly acquired. It is not because of the sheer overwhelming complexity of the calculations that we don’t attempt to use quantum chromodynamics to analyse the works of Dickens. It is because this would apply a theory beyond its applicable domain, so the attempt would fail. Greene presents the matter as a hierarchy of “nested stories”, each level supplying the underlying explanation of the next. But that’s the wrong image. To regard every form of human enquiry, from evolutionary theory to literary criticism, as a kind of renormalized physics is as hubristic as it is absurd.

[...] Free will, then, is not a putative physical phenomenon on which microphysics can pronounce – it is a psychological and neurological phenomenon. In truth, “free” is a deeply problematic term, and “will” is scarcely better – so neuroscientists and cognitive scientists often prefer to talk about volitional decision-making. Decisions are things that happen at the level of neural networks and they are made using the coarse-grained information available to sensory receptors and neurons. It makes no sense to regard them as interventions in particle interactions.

If we recognize, as we should, that the origins of volitional decision-making lie in evolutionary biology, we must accept that the entire mode of its operation – the way in which brains imbued with innate tendencies and learned information process low-resolution stimuli – doesn’t share an epistemic language with Newtonian and quantum mechanics. To talk about causation in science at all demands that we seek causes commensurate with the phenomena: that’s simply good science and good epistemology... (MORE - details)