Home > philosophy, physics > Free Will and the Fallibility of Science

Free Will and the Fallibility of Science

Mills Baker

One of the most significant intellectual errors educated persons make is in underestimating the fallibility of science. The very best scientific theories containing our soundest, most reliable knowledge are certain to be superseded, recategorized from “right” to “wrong”; they are, as physicist David Deutsch says, misconceptions:
I have often thought that the nature of science would be better understood if we called theories “misconceptions” from the outset, instead of only after we have discovered their successors. Thus we could say that Einstein’s Misconception of Gravity was an improvement on Newton’s Misconception, which was an improvement on Kepler’s. The neo-Darwinian Misconception of Evolution is an improvement on Darwin’s Misconception, and his on Lamarck’s… Science claims neither infallibility nor finality.

This fact comes as a surprise to many; we tend to think of science —at the point of conclusion, when it becomes knowledge— as being more or less infallible and certainly final. Science, indeed, is the sole area of human investigation whose reports we take seriously to the point of crypto-objectivism. Even people who very much deny the possibility of objective knowledge step onto airplanes and ingest medicines. And most importantly: where science contradicts what we believe or know through cultural or even personal means, we accept science and discard those truths, often enough wisely.

An obvious example: the philosophical problem of free will. When Newton’s misconceptions were still considered the exemplar of truth par excellence, the very model of knowledge, many philosophers felt obliged to accept a kind of determinism with radical implications. Give the initial-state of the universe, it appeared, we should be able to follow all particle trajectories through the present, account for all phenomena through purely physical means. In other words: the chain of causation from the Big Bang on left no room for your volition:


Determinism in the West is often associated with Newtonian physics, which depicts the physical matter of the universe as operating according to a set of fixed, knowable laws. The “billiard ball” hypothesis, a product of Newtonian physics, argues that once the initial conditions of the universe have been established, the rest of the history of the universe follows inevitably. If it were actually possible to have complete knowledge of physical matter and all of the laws governing that matter at any one time, then it would be theoretically possible to compute the time and place of every event that will ever occur (Laplace’s demon). In this sense, the basic particles of the universe operate in the same fashion as the rolling balls on a billiard table, moving and striking each other in predictable ways to produce predictable results.

Thus: the movement of the atoms of your body, and the emergent phenomena that such movement entails, can all be physically accounted for as part of a chain of merely physical, causal steps. You do not “decide” things; your “feelings” aren’t governing anything; there is no meaning to your sense of agency or rationality. From this essentially unavoidable philosophical position, we are logically-compelled to derive many political, moral, and cultural conclusions. For example: if free will is a phenomenological illusion, we must deprecate phenomenology in our philosophies; it is the closely-clutched delusion of a faulty animal; people, as predictable and materially reducible as commodities, can be reckoned by governments and institutions as though they are numbers. Freedom is a myth; you are the result of a process you didn’t control, and your choices aren’t choices at all but the results of laws we can discover, understand, and base our morality upon.

I should note now that (1) many people, even people far from epistemology, accept this idea, conveyed via the diffusion of science and philosophy through politics, art, and culture, that most of who you are is determined apart from your will; and (2) the development of quantum physics has not in itself upended the theory that free will is an illusion, as the sorts of indeterminacy we see among particles does not provide sufficient room, as it were, for free will.

Of course, few of us can behave for even a moment as though free will is a myth; there should be no reason for personal engagement with ourselves, no justification for “trying” or “striving”; one would be, at best, a robot-like automaton incapable of self-control but capable of self-observation. One would account for one’s behaviors not with reasons but with causes; one would be profoundly divested from outcomes which one cannot affect anyway. And one would come to hold that, in its basic conception of time and will, the human consciousness was totally deluded.

As it happens, determinism is a false conception of reality. Physicists like David Deutsch and Ilya Prigogine have, in my opinion, defended free will amply on scientific grounds; and the philosopher Karl Popper described how free will is compatible in principle with a physicalist conception of the universe; he is quoted by both scientists, and Prigogine begins his book The End of Certainty, which proposes that determinism is no longer compatible with science, by alluding to Popper:

Earlier this century in The Open Universe: An Argument for Indeterminism, Karl Popper wrote,” Common sense inclines, on the one hand, to assert that every event is caused by some preceding events, so that every event can be explained or predicted… On the other hand, … common sense attributes to mature and sane human persons… the ability to choose freely between alternative possibilities of acting.” This “dilemma of determinism,” as William James called it, is closely related to the meaning of time. Is the future given, or is it under perpetual construction?

Prigogine goes on to demonstrate that there is, in fact, an “arrow of time,” that time is not symmetrical, and that the future is very much open, very much compatible with the idea of free will. Thus: in our lifetimes we have seen science —or parts of the scientific community, with the rest to follow in tow— reclassify free will from “illusion” to “likely reality”; the question of your own role in your future, of humanity’s role in the future of civilization, has been answered differently just within the past few decades.

No more profound question can be imagined for human endeavor, yet we have an inescapable conclusion: our phenomenologically obvious sense that we choose, decide, change, perpetually construct the future was for centuries contradicted falsely by “true” science. Prigogine’s work and that of his peers —which he calls a “probabilizing revolution” because of its emphasis on understanding unstable systems and the potentialities they entail— introduces concepts that restore the commonsensical conceptions of possibility, futurity, and free will to defensibility.

If one has read the tortured thinking of twentieth-century intellectuals attempting to unify determinism and the plain facts of human experience, one knows how submissive we now are to the claims of science. As Prigogine notes, we were prepared to believe that we, “as imperfect human observers, [were] responsible for the difference between past and future through the approximations we introduce into our description of nature.” Indeed, one has the sense that the more counterintuitive the scientific claim, the eagerer we are to deny our own experience in order to demonstrate our rationality.

This is only degrees removed from ordinary orthodoxies. The point is merely that the very best scientific theories remain misconceptions, and that where science contradicts human truths of whatever form, it is rational to at least contemplate the possibility that science has not advanced enough yet to account for them; we must be pragmatic in managing our knowledge, aware of the possibility that some truths we intuit we cannot yet explain, while other intuitions we can now abandon.

It is vital to consider how something can be both true and not in order to understand science and its limitations, and even more the limitations of second-order sciences (like social sciences). Newton’s laws were incredible achievements of rationality, verified by all technologies and analyses for hundreds of years, before their unpredicted exposure as deeply flawed ideas applied to a limited domain which in total provide incorrect predictions and erroneous metaphorical structures for understanding the universe.

I never tire of quoting Karl Popper’s dictum:

Whenever a theory appears to you as the only possible one, take this as a sign that you have neither understood the theory nor the problem which it was intended to solve.

It is hard but necessary to have this relationship with science, whose theories seem like the only possible answers and whose obsolescence we cannot imagine. A rational person in the nineteenth century would have laughed at the suggestion that Newton was in error; he could not have known about the sub-atomic world or the forces and entities at play in the world of general relativity; and he especially could not have imagined how a theory that seemed utterly, universally true and whose predictive and explanatory powers were immense could still be an incomplete understanding, revealed by later progress to be completely mistaken about nearly all of its claims.

Can you imagine such a thing? It will happen to nearly everything you know. Consider what “ignorance” and “knowledge” really are for a human, what you can truly know, how you should judge others given this overwhelming epistemological instability!

That’s a great article, IMO. He hits a lot of points dead on that I have tried many times to make in many different debates.

The only point of contention I might have is the idea of scientific paradigms being misconceptions rather than conceptions. It makes sense as far as it provides a good provocation for an audience, but if we were really being absolutely scientific about it, I would say that misconception has too much of a dismissive connotation. If it turns out that the Earth is actually a four dimensional shadow of a 19 dimensional interplanetary being, that doesn’t make our perceptions of the Sol-centric orbiting orb or the Jerusalem-centric flat garden misconceptions…but it does make the latter model a misconception *in comparison to the former*.

But yes, for the purposes of the waking up the average humdrum mind, the point is well made that we would all be well advised to keep in mind that odds are that everything we know is wrong, on some level or in some sense. That seems to be more important now than it usually does. Some moments in history appear to be more polarizing than others.

“the chain of causation from the Big Bang on left no room for your volition”

This is still the overwhelmingly popular assumption, in my experience.

“Of course, few of us can behave for even a moment as though free will is a myth; there should  be no reason for personal engagement with ourselves, no justification  for “trying” or “striving”; one would be, at best, a robot-like  automaton incapable of self-control but capable of self-observation. One  would account for one’s behaviors not with reasons but with causes; one  would be profoundly divested from outcomes which one cannot affect  anyway. And one would come to hold that, in its basic conception of time  and will, the human consciousness was totally deluded.”

I have tried many times to communicate this exactly. Great way of pulling it together. I think that the fact that what he is saying is true gives us the vantage point from which to see that “trying” or “striving” is an aesthetic quality of intention which is actually perpendicular or orthomodular physical principle to the axis of the unintentional. As the privacy of physics is a spectrum of effort, courage, tenacity, boldness, surrender, release, etc, the public side of physics is monotonous: anesthetic, automatic qualities which describe a continuum between determinism and ‘accident’ (/error/random/mutation). Of course, it is only because we can alter our own degree of intentionality that we can discern between determinism and accident; were the universe plotted only on that single unintentional axis, that chain of causation, then there could be no conceivable difference between accident and non-accident. It is ironically our own distance from automatism which gives us the impression that automatism is rich enough to exist as a monopole.

“It is vital to consider how something can be both true and not in order to understand science and its limitations,”

Stealing that.

I’m generally in full agreement with everything here. He might be a bit more optimistic than I am about the current state of what is accepted by scientists and science buffs at this point. I feel that the mechanistic worldview is not going to die that easily. If this revolution does get off the ground, it could very well be another brief renaissance before being subsumed into the next revival of anesthetic totalism.

  1. April 14, 2013 at 4:28 pm

    Nice post which it is only because we can alter our own degree of intentionality that we can discern between determinism and accident; were the universe plotted only on that single unintentional axis, that chain of causation, then there could be no conceivable difference between accident and non-accident. It is ironically our own distance from automatism which gives us the impression that automatism is rich enough to exist as a monopole. Thanks a lot for posting this article.

  2. May 9, 2013 at 7:16 pm

    Tononi had the most brilliant analysis of Free Will hidden in a footnote in a recent paper on the IIT. I include it in full because I think you’d enjoy it. (It helps if you know a little of IIT’s jargon.) At last, a scientist defending free will! Here it is:

    Seeing conscious deliberations as maximally irreducible has some relevance for the issue of free will. Consider for example the requirement for autonomy: to be free, one must certainly be independent from constraints outside one’s deliberating consciousness. These include both environmental constraints, such as limitations that force us to a particular choice or that impede our own choice, and unconscious, ‘alien’ constraints that, while generated somewhere within our brain, affect our actions largely outside the control of the conscious self. Given the definition of a complex, a conscious choice is necessarily autonomous, as it is made intrinsically.
    The requirement for understanding implies that, to be free, a choice must be based on a concept of what is at stake – for example, one can freely choose between right and wrong only if one has a notion of which actions are right and which are wrong under some circumstances. According to IIT, a complex can be held responsible for a certain choice only if it has a mechanism implementing the corresponding causal concept, in this case the backward component of the concept. For example, I must have a concept corresponding to the distinction between right and wrong (IF certain sets of past states occur, THEN certain sets of future actions/omissions are right/wrong) to be responsible for that choice – that concept is a maximally irreducible cause for my action. Similar considerations apply to the requirements for self-control, since the forward component of concepts within a quale ensures control.
    The requirement for irreducibility implies that a choice can only be free if it cannot be ascribed to anything less than myself – I am the only entity that can be said to be responsible for my choice. That is, when asking who is responsible for the choice, the answer should be ‘me’, meaning all the circuits underlying my present conscious experience, and nothing less than that. IIT indicates that each experience is a maximally integrated conceptual structure generated by a complex, and therefore what it will choose given a particular present state cannot be ascribed to anything less than the full structure, with all its concepts (recall the light-blink example of a previous note). This structure is supremely causal to account for the choice in that it is maximally irreducible – anything less won’t do, anything more won’t matter. Furthermore, the choice happens at the macro-level at which ΦMIP is maximized, meaning that our conscious choices are not an illusion supervening upon micro-level events that are the true causes, as is often assumed. Indeed, the macro-level exists only if it has more causal power than the micro-level, which it then supersedes. Thus, each choice is a choice of the whole complex, not reducible to a number of choices made within nearly independent modules, each in a limited context, or to choices made by micro-elements. Therefore a choice is the freer, the more it is conscious: more consciousness, more freedom. Moreover, a bit paradoxically, a choice is the freer, the more it is determined (intrinsically). This is one fundamental sense in which the key notion of alternative possibilities – the feeling that one could have acted otherwise, which is essential to the feeling if being responsible for one’s action, is captured by a large integrated conceptual structure: such a structure implies a very large number of counterfactuals (alternative possibilities) that are under the control of the agent (they are part of his consciousness). In other words, a conscious choice is one in which a large number of highly informative concepts that make up my perceptions, thoughts, beliefs, desires, feelings, memories, and character, all concur in determining a choice in the integrated ‘tribunal’ of consciousness. Note however that, even though every conscious choice involves a large number of counterfactuals, it is still useful to distinguish between ‘deep’ and ‘shallow’ conscious decisions, based on how many concepts are directly involved in determining the choice here and now. At one extreme, the decision to request a divorce or not is likely to involve simultaneously many different concepts within the complex, so it is deep. At the other extreme, the decision to flex one’s finger or not during an experiment on free will depends on just a small number of concepts (do I feel the urge or not), so it is shallow. This is because the previous conscious decision to participate in an experiment on free will has had the consequence of fixing most variables within the main complex, so the only variable that is left free to vary is the ‘urge’ to act.
    In this view, freedom requires first and foremost irreducibility, meaning that a choice cannot be ascribed to anything external, or anything less, than the agent. However, indeterminism also plays a role, though not the usual role of reducing responsibility by substituting it with chance. Recall that if a complex generates maximal integrated information at a macro-scale in space or time (say neurons instead of subatomic particles, and over hundreds of milliseconds), this means that: i) the system is most determined, in an informational/causal sense, at that macro-scale than at any micro-scale; but ii) it is also necessarily under-determined, because the macro-level can be more informative/causal than the micro-level only if there is some indeterminacy. Given that our own consciousness appears to flow at a macro spatio-temporal level, some degree of indeterminism is a given (in line with both physical sources of indeterminacy and the simple fact that the environment is unpredictable). But IIT does not consider indeterminism as a drop of randomness that instills some arbitrariness into a preordained cascade of mechanisms, thus decreasing their causative powers. Rather, in this view indeterminism provides a backdrop of ultimate unpredictability against which macro-level, integrated mechanisms fight to increase understanding and control – a fight for increasing the causative powers of consciousness, and the more these increase, the more freedom increases. But since this is a battle against a backdrop of indeterminism, its results are never completely predictable. In other words, freedom of will is a fight in which order (integrated information) tries to minimize disorder (lack of constraints) by taking into account as many constraints (knowledge) as possible. A bit like building a society or a civilization out of relative chaos, or a bit like evolution creating macro-order out of micro-level disorder, thus increasing complexity. But as with societies, civilizations, and evolution, what will actually occur can never be predicted exactly before it happens, and micro-fluctuations – a queen and a squire falling in love, two lizards separated from the mainland after a flood – may initiate an extraordinary turn of events that nobody could predict, not even the universe itself.

    • May 9, 2013 at 8:27 pm

      That’s great. I have noticed the same kind of thing regarding the directly proportional relation between what I call sense and motive, and what he calls causal concept (IF) and mechanism (THEN). I guess one of the main differences is that I see sense as much broader than the kind of Doxastic cognitive logic that is assumed by all information theories. In my view, the IF of sense is a fugue of aesthetic feeling rather than a complex of knowledge, so that free will is more like a voluntary convulsion, a gesture, than a programmatic argument which happens to arise at the most macro level.

      What nobody seems to see is the possibility of the macro level not merely being irreducible, but that the relation between macro and micro is bi-directional. The micro states are as much contributors to the macro as they are a distribution of the macro’s unity into multiplicity. That’s were the Multisense, or in this case Multi-leveled sense comes in. The macro brain is the public extension of the lifetime of the macro self. The micro levels of the brain are public extensions of micro lifetimes, not just fragments of a whole. In this way, the micro and macro lifetimes interact in a completely different way than the micro and macro brain levels – instead of mechanistic IF THENs, the subjective lifetime is a fugue or fisheye bulge pulling a focused HERE/THERE-NOW/THEN from its context of FOREVER-HERE.

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