Quantum Mechanics and Free Will

Physicist Adam Frank, in “Minding Matter” (Aeon, March 13, 2017), visits subjects that I have approached from several angles in various posts. Frank addresses the manifestation of brain activity — more properly, the activity of the central nervous system (CNS) — which is known as consciousness. But there’s a lot more to CNS activity than that. What it all adds up to is generally called “mind”, which has conscious components (things we are aware of, including being aware of being aware) and subconscious components (things that go on in the background that we might or might not become aware of).

In the traditional (non-mystical) view, each person’s mind is separate from the minds of other persons. Mind (or the concepts, perceptions, feelings, memories, etc. that comprise it) therefore defines self. I am my self (i.e., not you) because my mind is a manifestation of my body’s CNS, which isn’t physically linked to yours.

With those definitional matters in hand, Frank’s essay can be summarized and interpreted as follows:

According to materialists, mind is nothing more than a manifestation of CNS activity.

The underlying physical properties of the CNS are unknown because the nature of matter is unknown.

Matter, whatever it is, doesn’t behave in billiard-ball fashion, where cause and effect are tightly linked.

Instead, according to quantum mechanics, matter has probabilistic properties that supposedly rule out strict cause-and-effect relationships. The act of measuring matter resolves the uncertainty, but in an unpredictable way.

Mind is therefore a mysterious manifestation of quantum-mechanical processes. One’s state of mind is affected by how one “samples” those processes, that is, by one’s deliberate, conscious attempt to use one’s CNS in formulating the mind’s output (e.g., thoughts and interpretations of the world around us).

Because of the ability of mind to affect mind (“mind over matter”), it is more than merely a passive manifestation of the physical state of one’s CNS. It is, rather, a meta-state — a physical state that is created by “mental” processes that are themselves physical.

In sum, mind really isn’t immaterial. It’s just a manifestation of poorly understood material processes that can be influenced by the possessor of a mind. It’s the ultimate self-referential system, a system that can monitor and change itself to some degree.

None of this means that human beings lack free will. In fact, the complexity of mind argues for free will. This is from a 12-year-old post of mine:

Suppose I think that I might want to eat some ice cream. I go to the freezer compartment and pull out an unopened half-gallon of vanilla ice cream and an unopened half-gallon of chocolate ice cream. I can’t decide between vanilla, chocolate, some of each, or none. I ask a friend to decide for me by using his random-number generator, according to rules of his creation. He chooses the following rules:

  • If the random number begins in an odd digit and ends in an odd digit, I will eat vanilla.
  • If the random number begins in an even digit and ends in an even digit, I will eat chocolate.
  • If the random number begins in an odd digit and ends in an even digit, I will eat some of each flavor.
  • If the random number begins in an even digit and ends in an odd digit, I will not eat ice cream.

Suppose that the number generated by my friend begins in an even digit and ends in an even digit: the choice is chocolate. I act accordingly.

I didn’t inevitably choose chocolate because of events that led to the present state of my body’s chemistry, which might otherwise have dictated my choice. That is, I broke any link between my past and my choice about a future action.I call that free will.

I suspect that our brains are constructed in such a way as to produce the same kind of result in many situations, though certainly not in all situations. That is, we have within us the equivalent of an impartial friend and an (informed) decision-making routine, which together enable us to exercise something we can call free will.

This rudimentary metaphor is consistent with the quantum nature of the material that underlies mind. But I don’t believe that free will depends on quantum mechanics. I believe that there is a part of mind — a part with a physical location — which makes independent judgments and arrives at decisions based on those judgments.

To extend the ice-cream metaphor, I would say that my brain’s executive function, having become aware of my craving for ice cream, taps my knowledge (memory) of snacks on hand, or directs the part of my brain that controls my movements to look in the cupboard and freezer. My executive function, having determined that my craving isn’t so urgent that I will drive to a grocery store, then compiles the available options and chooses the one that seems best suited to the satisfaction of my craving at that moment. It may be ice cream, or it may be something else. If it is ice cream, it will consult my “taste preferences” and choose between the flavors then available to me.

Given the ways in which people are seen to behave, it seems obvious that the executive function, like consciousness, is on a “different circuit” from other functions (memory, motor control, autonomic responses, etc.), just as the software programs that drive my computer’s operations are functionally separate from the data stored on the hard drive and in memory. The software programs would still be on my computer even if I erased all the data on my hard drive and in memory. So, too, would my executive function (and consciousness) remain even I lost all memory of everything that happened to me before I awoke this morning.

Given this separateness, there should be no question that a person has free will. That is why I can sometimes resist a craving for ice cream. That is why most people are often willing and able to overcome urges, from eating candy to smoking a cigarette to punching a jerk.

Conditioning, which leads to addiction, makes it hard to resist urges — sometimes nigh unto impossible. But the ability of human beings to overcome conditioning, even severe addictions, argues for the separateness of the executive function from other functions. In short, it argues for free will.

Related posts:
Free Will: A Proof by Example?
Free Will, Crime, and Punishment
Mind, Cosmos, and Consciousness
“Feelings, Nothing More than Feelings”
Hayek’s Anticipatory Account of Consciousness
Is Consciousness an Illusion?