Field of Science

Free Will, Randomness, and Determinism

Astronomer, inventor, and old friend of the family/distant relative Bob Doyle has begun a project to address old philosophical problems using information theory.

One such problem, as he explained to me at my aunt's 75th birthday last weekend, is free will versus determinism. Philosophers have been arguing for eternity whether free will exists, and if it does, where it comes from. Disconcertingly, free will seems incompatible with the major theories of physics. In Newtonian physics, all future states of the universe are completely determined by its present state, so no choices can ever be made. In quantum physics, events happen randomly according to precise mathematical rules, so the only "choices" are simply rolls of God's dice. Neither one of these theories seem to allow for any human or animal agency in changing world events.

Bob's idea is that the combination of Newtonian determinism and quantum randomness can explain more than either theory separately. Randomness generates new information and ideas in our brains, giving us novel options to choose from. But our brain is deterministic enough to sort through these ideas and choose the ones that are consistent with our character and past experience. In other words, randomness provides the "free" aspect of free will, and determinism provides the "will."

I don't think this theory is complete, because there's no real explanation of what the choice-making process looks like. But it seems beyond dispute that both random and deterministic forces play a role in what we call "human creativity." Currently, Bob is scouring the history of philosophy for all that's been said on the free will question, and how information theory and physics could connect to this. The blog of his efforts is now a proud memeber of the plektix blogroll.


  1. Oh dear. Free Will just keeps coming up...

  2. Yes it does, and frankly I don't think it will ever be answered.

    Has it been a problem for you lately?

  3. Well, it's not like we have the choice not to be bothered by it.

    Scott Aaronson has a thought-provoking lecture on the subject.

  4. i think that predictability is the key. and that there is know true randomness. even in chaos there is some determinations.


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