About this time each year people around the world settle down to think about the year ahead and what they could do better. In China, New Year waits until the New Moon of the first full lunar month – sometime between January 21st and February 21st, while in other countries, the year can turn over as late as autumn.
But, for most of us, New Year is the 1st of January, marked by a holiday to recover from the excesses we promise never to repeat… All this resolving: I will give up alcohol, I will exercise more, I will phone my mother – assumes we choose between what we do and don’t do. What’s the point of making a New Year’s resolution if free will does not exist? You’re going to do what you’re going to do anyway, right?
But, what is the evidence for free will? Does it really exist?
Many modern philosophers tell us free will is an illusion, that when we make a resolution we have the feeling it was freely made. But in truth we were always going to make that resolution, and we were also destined to break it. The laws of physics ensure cause and effect apply. The ‘effect’ of making some choice was really ‘caused’ by some previous event and that event caused by an event before it and so on, right back to the big bang. Our Universe is just one big clockwork mechanism and we are but a cog within it.
Just recently, a new breed of philosophers, actually mathematicians and physicists led by John Conway, have begun piecing together the science of free will. They say our Universe appears to be composed of particles that do not behave in pre-determined ways. Conway and Kochen wrote a paper in 2014 explaining how this comes about, and arguing that because the little particles that we’re made of are free, so are we.
So, as you finish off the last of the leftover chocolates and mince pies and head to the gym, be aware that what you decide might be really important, the future of our Universe depends upon it. We cause the Universe. The Universe does not cause us. If your mind goes to pondering these deep questions at this time of year – free will, creativity, inventing – I’m letting you know that mine does too.
(And now a bit of a plug, sorry.)
Five years ago I resolved to write a book about these things and, amazingly, followed through on it! The book, Are the Androids Dreaming Yet? is available now on Amazon in hardback, paperback and Kindle and on the Apple iBooks store. Signed copies can be obtained by request from my website: http://www.jamestagg.com.
ABOUT THE BOOK:
Many scientists think we have a tenuous hold on the title, “most intelligent being on the planet”. They think it’s just a matter of time before computers become smarter than us, and then what? This book charts a journey through the science of information, from the origins of language and logic, to the frontiers of modern physics. From Lewis Carroll’s logic puzzles, through Alan Turing and his work on Enigma and the imitation game, to John Bell’s inequality, and finally the Conway-Kochen ‘Free Will’ Theorem. How do the laws of physics give us our creativity, our rich experience of communication and, especially, our free will?