Sunday, November 15, 2009

Free Will and Quantum Mechanics

On the level of the brain, neurons are firing constantly and there is a lot going on. Imagine that you had the universes most sophisticated computer. If you could simulate every particle exactly in a system surrounding a single person, you would in theory be able to predict what would happen to that person and what 'decisions' that person would make. If you believe this is true, you are a determinist. This is what people mean (I think) when they say that free will is an illusion: Everything is determined based on molecular interactions that are part of a long chain of events set in motion since the big bang over which we have no control.

This is incorrect, however, because of quantum mechanics. On the quantum level, things are not predetermined. In fact, until they are observed or measured in some way, they aren't determined at all. It is because of this that I think the whole 'free will is an illusion' argument is bullshit.

Consider the following as a metaphor for something on the quantum level.

Let's say there is an event with two possible outcomes, like a coin toss. You throw the coin in the air and it lands in a bucket. Without looking at the coin, is it heads or tails?

The Schrödinger's cat thought experiment is saying that it is both (again, its a metaphor. It isn't actually both, but something on the quantum level would be). It is both heads and tails until someone looks into the bucket. The very act of observing the coin has the effect of making it either heads or tails. This is because when we measure things on the quantum level we affect them directly.

Some people think that as soon as you look into the metaphorical bucket, there is a branch and two universes are formed. In one universe the coin is heads, and in another, the coin is tails. This theory says that everything that can happen, does happen in some universe.

Please let me know if I got something wrong here or if you have any more questions.

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