On the possibility of freedom

We act daily, make daily decisions, try to control our lives according to our desires and principles. In doing so, we tacitly assume that we have a choice, are free to choose between two or more alternatives.

But does this correspond to reality? Of course, we know that we are subject to certain constraints, that we cannot choose to grow wings or violate physical laws. Likewise, we are aware that we are subject to societal pressures, have been conditioned, and might behave completely differently in the same situation had we grown up in a different culture. But by and large, we assume we are free to do as we please.

But does the ability to do what you want automatically mean freedom? Here is a thought experiment: A laboratory rat is given two different forms of food that look and taste completely identical. However, one food contains a substance that makes aggressive, the other one contains a substance that makes the rat tame. On days when the rat gets its first food, it has “a bad day” from its point of view and if someone wants to pet it, it bites him/her finger. On days with the second food, she feels affectionate and trusting, lets herself be petted, etc. The rat always does what it wants: it bites the finger when it wants to bite the finger, it lets itself be stroked when it wants to be stroked. However, since someone is influencing the will of the rat, it is obviously NOT FREE.

But what does that mean for us? Where does our will come from, which to all appearances is not controlled by hidden additives in our food. In the absence of other models, I will now start by assuming that we humans and the rest of the world are composed only of objects as described by physics, especially quantum physics. In this model, we are very complex, self-regulating systems, biological robots, so to speak. Our brain is an incredibly complex network of neurons, our thoughts and desires electrical patterns in this mesh. Very simplified and metaphorically speaking, whether a current in my brain flows to the right or to the left will determine whether I decide to go to the cinema or to stay at home. In many cases, a person’s behavior can be predicted: we will almost all go to bed tonight and get up and go to work tomorrow. But there are bound to be situations where the decision hangs in the balance. Where does it decide whether the current flows to the right or to the left?

From the results of quantum physics it follows that if the probability of two situations is exactly 50/50, the decision is made at the subatomic, at the quantum level. Here, pure chance rules. Einstein didn’t believe in these results of quantum theory and coined the phrase “God doesn’t play dice.” It was only after Einstein’s death that these results were experimentally confirmed. What does this mean for us?

First of all, it means that we are not determined, that it is not yet certain what will happen to us tomorrow. This result was thus a liberating blow, because determinism followed from Newton’s results two hundred years earlier and the assumption that the world consisted of small spheres, the atoms. According to this model, the world would have been like a perfect billiard table. Once the balls have been set in motion, it is clear what will happen, where the balls will be now, in a second, in a minute, in a year.

So we are not determined. But does non-determination automatically mean freedom? No. As said before, the decision for our will falls on the quantum level, where the laws of chance prevail. So we are not a predictable billiard ball but rather a rolled die. As long as the die is in the air, it can land on the one or the six, but the die can’t decide to do one or the other. We certainly decide to do what we want, but we can’t decide what we want. The rat from the thought experiment would not be freer if, instead of the lab director, a machine randomly gave it food A one day and food B the other. ¹

Therefore, I am not free. The problem is: I feel free. Living on the premise that I am not responsible for my actions / thoughts / desires seems impossible to me. This dilemma can be solved with the following reasoning, loosely based on Pascal².

Non-freedom followed from the assumptions that we are “biological robots” and that quantum physics is an accurate description of reality. There are two possibilities: First, these assumptions and the inferences are true and we are not free. Second, the assumptions and/or inferences are wrong, and we are free despite the conclusive reasoning.

If I come to the decision for myself that I am not free, then again there are two cases. If I am indeed unfree, then I was right, but I couldn’t decide otherwise. If, on the other hand, I am free, then I have made a mistake for which I am responsible.

If I decide to believe in my personal freedom despite the above arguments, then there are again two cases: If I am indeed unfree, then I am wrong with this decision, but I cannot help it, because I could not decide freely. If, on the other hand, I am free, then I have made the right decision.

If I am unfree, then any question is settled: I arrive at the decision that physics dictates to me. If I am free, I can either be wrong in believing I am not free, or I can use my only possibility to do something right, which is to believe in freedom.

So the decision is clear for me. It also necessarily follows that the above argument contains a flaw. I believe that this error lies in the assumption that we are biological robots. So I assume that there is more than the (so far existing) physics describes, that there is a space, another level, where there is room for our freedom, possibly an (immortal?) soul and more.

As of 2003. 1st version of March 1994


¹ There are even quantum physicists who assume that the universe splits with every quantum decision, into a world where possibility 1 happened and a world where possibility 2 happened. This results in an unimaginably large number of universes, all worlds that were able to evolve from the big bang coexist. So there are many worlds where you are reading this text, others where the text does not exist, and many worlds where there are no people at all. Freedom is not possible in such a universe, because for any given variant there is a matching world in which an I exists that thinks it has chosen exactly this variant, without knowing about the other I’s that have chosen differently. back


² The French mathematician and philosopher Pascal (1623 – 1662) said that in life there is only one really decisive question: Do I believe in God or not? For him, a simple, rational consideration provides the answer to this question.

There are two possibilities: God exists or God does not exist.

If I choose not to believe in God, then I can sleep in on Sundays, curse and drink, cheat and lie. If God does not exist, then I had an intense life and after that it is over. If God exists, on the other hand, I’m going to hell, forever and ever.

If, on the other hand, I choose God, then I forego one temptation or another and pray regularly. If God does not exist, then these restrictions were in vain; if, on the other hand, God exists, I go to paradise for the rest of infinity.

Pascal, one of the first probability calculators and game theorists, now compares stakes and winnings in this “game of life”. He concludes that stewing in the eternal fires of hell is a tremendously high price to pay for the gains, the benefits of an immoral life. The price of renouncing some worldly pleasures, on the other hand, is small for attaining infinity in Paradise. Thus, one could gain little and lose much by not believing, but lose little and gain much by believing: Thus, according to Pascal, the choice is clear. back


Addendum 2018 on the concepts of will and free will

In late 2018, I discussed the above thoughts with my acquaintance Raimund R., who is a physicist by training. As the first interlocutor in the more than 20 years since the original version of this text was written, Raimund asked me how I define “will” and “free will”. A really good question that I didn’t have an answer to at first. The following points come from my attempt to answer these questions.

Definition of “will”

Measurable state A in a brain of a living being, which correlates with a temporally following action B of the living being. In general, B causes A to disappear, which, because of the correlation, means that the probability of the creature performing action B again shortly thereafter decreases.

In this context, the phrase “measurable state” is intended to refer to a specific configuration of the brain that results exclusively from the chemical and physical (electronic charge, temperature, if applicable, etc.) state of the cells of the brain or a subset of these cells. It is not required that a corresponding measuring device with the associated analysis possibilities already exists today or is even conceivable today.

In this definition I deliberately avoid any reference to the very complex and hardly definable concept of consciousness. It’s enough for me here that a state correlates to an action. If one takes the term “brain” used above very broadly and extends it to any nervous system, then, for example, a mussel has “the will” to close when its nerve cells detect unusual turbulence – caused, for example, by a diver swimming past.

Free Will Aspect 1

It is not possible – even with theoretical arbitrarily good scientific measuring devices and appropriate analysis capabilities – to find a connection with either brain input, previous brain states, or random but identifiable triggers (e.g., quantum events) that trigger A. “Mystic Source of Will”.

The sheer complexity of the brain, its state and inputs, and the limitations of existing measuring devices and analytical capabilities explicitly do not establish “free will.”

If there is no such mystical source, then the will is subject to the scientific cause-effect relationship. It is then difficult to speak of freedom of the will.

Free Will Aspect 2

If the brain of the living being, is in state A, but state A does not always lead to action B, even if there are no external obstacles, then one could speak of free will to decide for or against something, if no matter how precisely one measures, one cannot see any difference in the state of the brain, from which one can deduce whether the living being will carry out B or not. “Mystical source of freedom to choose”.

If, however, there are such differences, so that, for example, in a state A’ it is recognizable that the living being likes to do B but always refrains from doing it without external compulsion, then A’ expresses the ambivalent will of the living being to want B but also not to want it, whereby the not wanting predominates.

Again, analogous to aspect 1, freedom without a mystical source is hard to call freedom. However, it would be enough if there is one of the two mystical sources.

Free Will Aspect 3

Possibility of the living being to do B when its brain is in state A. In particular, then, the means for B must be available to it, there must be no circumstances (outside its own brain) which prevent it from B. “Freedom to follow its/her/his will”. As important as this may be for the satisfaction or even survival of the living being, it has nothing to do with “free will” per se.

Just as in the above thought experiment with the rat and the two kinds of food, the subjective feeling of not being exposed to any restrictive external constraints is, in my opinion, not a sufficient definition of “free will”.

Differentiation from computers

The above definition of will presupposes a living being with a brain based on nerves. Thus, the question of whether a computer has a will does not arise from the outset. Aspects 1 and 2 of free will, however, when applied analogously, clearly show that the question of a “mystical source” never arises in computers with at least theoretically always comprehensible processes.

If someone wants to go deeper into these considerations, I suggest to look first at a very simple technical device, for example a thermostat. Here, for example, the state “temperature lower than 21° C” would express the “will” to switch on the heating. Who is of the opinion that this cannot be called will, may then explain to me the difference to a considerably more complex example, for instance a computer on which a complicated neuronal network makes decisions.

Note on measurability

The above definition presupposes that there is a scientifically explainable connection between the state of the brain and subsequent behaviour. If there were no such connection, not even to a source accessible to other scientific methods, one could likewise speak of free will. To me, however, this seems so strongly at odds with our knowledge that I have assumed this aspect.

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