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How philosophy blends physics with the idea of free will
How does philosophy try to balance having free will with living in a deterministic universe?
- People feel like they have free will but often have trouble understanding how they can have it in a deterministic universe.
- Several models of free will exist which try to incorporate physics into our understanding of our experience.
- Even if physics could rule out free will, there would still be philosophical questions.
Most people with a scientific worldview agree with the idea of causal determinism, the notion that everything is subject to the laws of physics, and anything that happens is the result of these laws acting on how things exist in the world or existed in a prior moment. However, it can be challenging to figure out how this idea meshes with the notion of free will.
After all, if everything else is subject to causal determinism, how can we not be? How can our decisions be somehow exempt? Many people argue that we obviously are also part of a clockwork universe and that physics kills off free will.
But is this saying too much? Can we really treat free will as the subject of physics alone? Today, we'll consider some stances on free will and how they relate to physics alongside some philosophers' ideas on if we can outsource our views on the human experience to science.
Some philosophers have taken the argument of casual determinism mentioned above and used it to say that there is no room for free will at all. This stance, called "hard determinism," maintains that all of our actions are causally necessary and dictated by physics in the same way as a billiard ball's movement.
The Baron d'Holbach, a French philosopher, explained the stance:
"In short, the actions of man are never free; they are always the necessary consequence of his temperament, of the received ideas and of the notions, either true or false, which he has formed to himself of happiness; of his opinions, strengthened by example, by education, and by daily experience."
While physics and philosophy have both advanced since the enlightenment era, hard determinism still has supporters.
As some of you are probably thinking right now, quantum physics, with its uncertainties, probabilities, and general strangeness, might offer a way out of the determinism of classical physics. This idea, sometimes called "indeterminism," occurred to more than a few philosophers too, and variations of it date back to ancient Greece.
This stance holds that not every event has an apparent cause. Some events might be random, for example. Proponents of the perspective suggest that some of our brain functions might have random elements, perhaps caused by the fluctuations seen in quantum mechanics, that cause our choices to not be fully predetermined. Others suggest that only part of our decision-making process is subject to causality, with a portion of it under what amounts to the control of the individual.
There are issues with this stance being used to counter determinism. One of them is that having choices made randomly rather than by strict causation doesn't seem to be the kind of free will people think about. From a physical standpoint, brain activity may involve some quantum mechanics, but not all of it. Many thinkers incorporate indeterminism into parts of their models of free will, but don't fully rely on the idea.
Also called "compatibilism," this view agrees with causal determinism but also holds that this is compatible with some kind of free will. This can take on many forms and sometimes operates by varying how "free" that will actually is.
John Stuart Mill argued that causality did mean that people will act in certain ways based on circumstance, character, and desires, but that we have some control over these things. Therefore, we have some capacity to change what we would do in a future situation, even if we are determined to act in a certain way in response to a particular stimulus.
Daniel Dennett goes in another direction, suggesting a two-stage model of decision-making involving some indeterminism. In the first stage of making a decision, the brain produces a series of considerations, not all of which are necessarily subject to determinism, to take into account. What considerations are created and not immediately rejected is subject to some level of indeterminism and agent control, though it could be unconscious. In the second step, these considerations are used to help make a decision based on a more deterministic reasoning process.
In these stances, your decisions are still affected by prior events like the metaphorical billiard balls moving on a table, but you have some control over how the table is laid out. This means you could, given enough time and understanding, have a fair amount of control over how the balls end up moving.
Critics of stances like this often argue that the free will the agent is left with by these decision-making models is hardly any different from what they'd have under a hard deterministic one.
This is the stance with the premium free will people tend to talk about—the idea that you are in full control of your decisions all the time and that casual determinism doesn't apply to your decision-making process. It is "incompatibilist" in that it maintains that free will is not compatible with a deterministic universe.
People holding this view often take either an "agent-casual" or "event-causal" position. In an agent-casual stance, decision-makers, known as "agents," can make decisions that are not caused by a previous action in the same way that physical events are. They are essentially the "prime movers" of event chains that start with their decisions rather than any external cause.
Event-casual stances maintain that some elements of the decision-making process are physically indeterminate and that at least some of the factors that go into the final choice are shaped by the agent. The most famous living proponent of such a stance is Robert Kane and his "effort of will" model.
In brief, his model supposes an agent can be thought responsible for an action if they helped create the causes that led to it. He argues that people occasionally take "self-forming action" (SFA) that helps shape their character and grant them this responsibility. SFAs happen when the decisions we make would be subject to indeterminism, perhaps a case when two choices are both highly likely- with one being what we want and one being what we think is right, and willpower is needed to cause a choice to be taken.
At that point, unable to quickly choose, we apply willpower to make a decision that influences our overall character. Not only was that decision freely chosen, but any later, potentially more causally-determined actions, we take rely at least somewhat on a character trait that we created through that previous choice. Therefore, we at least partially influenced them.
Critics of this stance include Daniel Dennett, who points out that SFAs could be so rare as to leave some people without any real free will at all.
Can’t we just outsource free will to physics?
No, the question of free will is much larger than if cause and effect exist and apply to our decisions. Even if that one were fully answered, other questions immediately pop up.
Is the agency left to us, if any, after we learn how much of our decision-making is determined by outside factors enough for us to say that we are free? How much moral responsibility do people have under each proposed understanding of free will? Is free will just the ability to choose otherwise, or do we just have to be responsible for the actions we make, even if we are limited to one choice?
Physics can inform the debate over these questions but cannot end it unless it comes up with an equation for what freedom is.
Modern debates outside of philosophy departments tend to ignore the differences in the above stances in a way that tends to reduce everything to determinism. This was highlighted by neuroscientist Bobby Azarian in a recent Twitter thread, where he notes there is often a tendency to conflate hard determinism with naturalism—the idea that natural laws, as opposed to supernatural ones, can explain everything in the universe. .
Lastly, we might wonder if physics is the right department to hand it over to. Daniel Dennett awards evolutionary biology the responsibility for generating consciousness and free will.
He points out that while physics has always been the same for life on Earth, both consciousness and free will seem to have evolved recently and could be an evolutionary advantage of sorts—not being bound to deterministic decision making could be an excellent tool for staying alive. He considers them to be emergent properties we have and considers efforts to reduce us to our parts, which do function deterministically, to be unsound.
How to balance our understanding of causal determinism and our subjective experience of seeming to have free will is a problem philosophers and scientists have been discussing for the better part of two thousand years. It is one they'll likely keep going over for a while. While it isn't time to outsource free will to physics, it is possible to incorporate the findings of modern science into our philosophy.
Of course, we might only do that because we're determined to do so, but that's another problem.
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"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," said lead paleontologist David Schmidt.
- The triceratops skull was first discovered in 2019, but was excavated over the summer of 2020.
- It was discovered in the South Dakota Badlands, an area where the Triceratops roamed some 66 million years ago.
- Studying dinosaurs helps scientists better understand the evolution of all life on Earth.
David Schmidt, a geology professor at Westminster College, had just arrived in the South Dakota Badlands in summer 2019 with a group of students for a fossil dig when he received a call from the National Forest Service. A nearby rancher had discovered a strange object poking out of the ground. They wanted Schmidt to take a look.
"One of the very first bones that we saw in the rock was this long cylindrical bone," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "The first thing that came out of our mouths was, 'That kind of looks like the horn of a triceratops.'"
After authorities gave the go-ahead, Schmidt and a small group of students returned this summer and spent nearly every day of June and July excavating the skull.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College
"We had to be really careful," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "We couldn't disturb anything at all, because at that point, it was under law enforcement investigation. They were telling us, 'Don't even make footprints,' and I was thinking, 'How are we supposed to do that?'"
Another difficulty was the mammoth size of the skull: about 7 feet long and more than 3,000 pounds. (For context, the largest triceratops skull ever unearthed was about 8.2 feet long.) The skull of Schmidt's dinosaur was likely a Triceratops prorsus, one of two species of triceratops that roamed what's now North America about 66 million years ago.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College
The triceratops was an herbivore, but it was also a favorite meal of the Tyrannosaurus rex. That probably explains why the Dakotas contain many scattered triceratops bone fragments, and, less commonly, complete bones and skulls. In summer 2019, for example, a separate team on a dig in North Dakota made headlines after unearthing a complete triceratops skull that measured five feet in length.
Michael Kjelland, a biology professor who participated in that excavation, said digging up the dinosaur was like completing a "multi-piece, 3-D jigsaw puzzle" that required "engineering that rivaled SpaceX," he jokingly told the New York Times.
Morrison Formation in Colorado
James St. John via Flickr
The Badlands aren't the only spot in North America where paleontologists have found dinosaurs. In the 1870s, Colorado and Wyoming became the first sites of dinosaur discoveries in the U.S., ushering in an era of public fascination with the prehistoric creatures — and a competitive rush to unearth them.
Since, dinosaur bones have been found in 35 states. One of the most fruitful locations for paleontologists has been the Morrison formation, a sequence of Upper Jurassic sedimentary rock that stretches under the Western part of the country. Discovered here were species like Camarasaurus, Diplodocus, Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus, and Allosaurus, to name a few.
|Credit: Nobu Tamura/Wikimedia Commons|
As for "Shady" (the nickname of the South Dakota triceratops), Schmidt and his team have safely transported it to the Westminster campus. They hope to raise funds for restoration, and to return to South Dakota in search of more bones that once belonged to the triceratops.
Studying dinosaurs helps scientists gain a more complete understanding of our evolution, illuminating a through-line that extends from "deep time" to present day. For scientists like Schmidt, there's also the simple joy of coming to face-to-face with a lost world.
"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "You don't ever think that these things will ever happen."
How the British obsession with tea triggered wars, led to bizarre espionage, and changed the world — many times.
- Today, tea is the single most popular drink worldwide, with a global market that outstrips all the nearest rivals combined.
- The British Empire went to war over tea, ultimately losing its American colonies and twice beating the Chinese in the "Opium Wars."
- The British desire to secure homegrown tea resulted in their sending botanist Robert Fortune on a Hollywood-worthy mission to secure Chinese tea plants and steal horticultural secrets.
After water, tea is the most common drink in the world. It is more popular than coffee, soft drinks, and alcohol combined. 84 percent of Brits enjoy a daily "cuppa," but this is a mere bagatelle against the Turks, who drink on average three to four cups every day. The tea industry is worth $200 billion worldwide and is set to grow by half by 2025.
Tea is such a huge part of many cultures, that it even has origin myths. For instance, one involves the Buddha waking up after falling asleep during his meditation. Disgusted at his lack of self-discipline, he cut off his eyelids and threw them to the ground. These lids then grew into tea plants to help future meditators stay awake.
Tea really matters to a lot of people. And, it mattered so much to the British and their empire that it directed their entire foreign policy. It also inspired one of the most incredible and ridiculous tales of 19th century espionage.
A spot of tea
When the European powers of the 16th century first traded with, then militarily colonized, various East Asian nations, it was impossible not to come across tea. Since the 9th century, the Tang Dynasty of China had already popularized tea across the region. Tea was already firmly entrenched when the Portuguese became the first Europeans to sample it (in 1557), followed by the Dutch, who first shipped a batch back to mainland Europe.
Britain was relatively late to the tea party, not arriving until well into the 17th century. In fact, in Samuel Pepys' 1660 diaries, he makes reference to "a cup of tee (a China drink) of which I had never drunk before." It was only after King Charles II's Portuguese wife popularized it at court that tea became a fashionable societal drink.
After the Brits got going, there was no stopping them. Tea became a huge business. However, since tea was monopolized by the East India Company and the government imposed a whopping 120 percent tax on it, an army of smuggler gangs opened back channels to get tea to the poorer masses. Eventually, in 1784, Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger got wise to the popular cry for tea. To stamp out the black market, he slashed the tax on the leaf to just 12.5 percent. From then on, tea became the everyman's drink — marketed as medicinal, invigorating, and tasty.
A cup, a cup, my kingdom for a cup!
Tea became so important to the British that it even sparked wars across the empire.
Most famously, when the British imposed a three pennies per pound tax on all tea the East India Company exported to America, it led to the outraged destruction of an entire ship's tea cargo. The "Boston Tea Party" was the first major defiant act of the American colonies and led ultimately to ham-fisted and insensitive countermeasures from the London government. These, in turn, sparked the U.S. War of Independence.
Less well known is how Britain went to war with China over tea. Twice.
Credit: Ingo Doerrie via Unsplash
Back then, tea was only being grown and exported from China to British India and then around the empire. As such, it led to a massive trade imbalance, where the largely self-sufficient China only wanted British silver in return for their famous and delicious homegrown tea leaves. This sort of economic policy, known as mercantilism, made Britain really mad.
In retaliation, Britain grew opium and flooded China with the drug. When China (quite understandably) objected to this, Britain sent in the gunboats. The subsequent "Opium Wars" were only ever going to go one way, and when China sued for peace, they were lumped with $20 million worth of reparations — and had to cede Hong Kong to Britain (which only returned in 1997).
The tea spy: on her majesty's secret service
But even these wars did not resolve the trade deficit with China. The attempts to make tea in British India resulted in insipid rubbish, and the British needed the good stuff. So, they turned to a Scottish botanist named Robert Fortune, whose mission was simple: cross the border into China, integrate himself amongst Chinese tea farmers, and smuggle out both their expertise and preferably their tea plants.
Fortune accepted the mission, even though he could not speak a word of Chinese and had barely left his native Britain. (A forefather of 007 he was not.) But not one to let these details get in the way, he shaved his hair, plaited a pigtail that resembled those worn by the Chinese, and then set off on his adventure.
And what an adventure it was. He came under attack by bandits and brigands, his ship was bombarded by pirates, and he had to endure fever, tropical storms, and typhoons. In spite of all this, Fortune not only managed to learn Chinese and travel around the forbidden City of Suzhou and its surrounding tea-farming land, but he also integrated himself into secluded peasant communities. When the skeptical tea farmers challenged Fortune on why he was so tall, he fooled them by claiming that he was a very important state official — all of whom were tall, apparently.
An Indian speciali-tea
Amazingly, Fortune had good fortune and got away with it. Over the course of his three-year mission, he secreted out several shipments of new tea plants to Britain as well as the art of bonsai (previously, a closely held secret). Most of the smuggled tea leaves died from mold and moisture in transit, but Fortune persisted, and eventually the British began to cultivate their own tea plants using Chinese tea farming techniques in their colonial Indian soils.
It was not long until an Indian variant, almost indistinguishable from the stolen Chinese one, began to dominate the market, not least for Britain's huge and growing empire. Within 20 years of Fortune's remarkable mission, the East India Company had more than fifty contractors pumping out tea worldwide.
Today, things have reverted back. China now produces not only substantially more than India (in second place) but more than the top ten countries combined. In total, 40 percent of the world's tea comes from China. But it was British tea — and Robert Fortune's incredible and unlikely mission — which catalyzed the huge global market. Without this overly confident Scottish plant-lover, the world's love of tea might look very different.
Before it fueled Woodstock and the Summer of Love, LSD was brought to America to make spying easier.
- The CIA's Project MK-Ultra was designed to investigate the potential of drugs for intelligence operations.
- LSD was thought to be a truth serum and was used on unwitting citizens.
- The full extent of the CIA's unethical human experiments may never be known.
LSD has a long, storied history in America. It is most famously associated with the counterculture of the 1960s, but modern medical science has brought it (and other psychedelics like DMT and psilocybin) into the mainstream as possible therapeutic agents for the treatment of mental illness and addiction.
A slightly less well-known story is when the CIA tried to employ LSD as a tool in spycraft and tested its applications on unwitting Americans and Canadians.
The specter of international communism made America paranoid during the 1950s. Communist infiltration was thought to be lurking behind every corner, and the USSR was considered capable of just about anything in its goal of achieving worldwide dominance. It is within this milieu that one can understand why, when faced with instances of soldiers in the Korean War defecting to the North or denouncing war crimes that didn't happen, the U.S. government suddenly became convinced that the commies had developed some form of mind control.
The CIA thought it imperative that similar capacities be achieved by the U.S. If the Reds did not actually have that ability, all the better. So a project dubbed MK-Ultra was started in 1953 with the goal of finding a drug that could be used as a truth serum and a tool of mind control. Many drugs were tested, not just LSD, often on people without their knowledge or consent.
The head of the program, Sidney Gottlieb, thought LSD may be the wonder-drug he was looking for. So, he had the U.S. buy the entire global supply of LSD, at the time only produced by the Swiss company Sandoz, for a cool $240,000. The massive stockpile was immediately put to use.
The CIA set up front organizations to finance research of the drug at a number of universities, including Stanford and MIT, to see how typical test subjects would react to the drug in a clinical setting without making the CIA's interest in the drug known.
Less ethically and less voluntarily, some prisoners in the American penal system were given the drug daily for months on end. The CIA even drugged its own employees, hoping to learn what would happen if an intelligence asset was slipped a drug they knew nothing about. This resulted in at least one death.
And it only got stranger, less voluntary, and more illegal after that.
Operation Midnight Climax (yes, it was really called that)
In one of the more bizarre "experiments" during the project, the CIA had prostitutes in New York and San Francisco bring their clients back to a safehouse where they would be slipped LSD. After the conclusion of business, the prostitutes would ask questions of their clients, who would be tripping, in an attempt to determine how much LSD was required to get men talking. All of this was observed through a one-way glass by CIA operatives with no scientific backgrounds who drank martinis by the pitcher.
The use of the drug in interrogations also was investigated at safehouses in Europe and East Asia. Suspected foreign intelligence assets were given massive doses of LSD before interrogation to cause emotional trauma "at levels that can only be called torture," according to Raffi Khatchadourian. Some subjects were told that their bad trips would never end if they did not talk. Related tests were done to see if an LSD trip would make lies show up more clearly on a polygraph test. The results were inconclusive.
A similar program was going on inside the U.S. Army as well. The Edgewood Arsenal human experiments examined the use of several drugs, including LSD, in warfare and information gathering. As with the CIA, army officers drugged random soldiers to observe their reactions. While plans were drawn up to use the drug on captured Vietcong to aid in interrogations (which would have been a war crime), they were not enacted for reasons unknown.
Other ideas on how to use the powerful psychedelic included drugging foreign leaders the U.S. did not like before they had to give a speech or chair an important meeting. The hope was that the drug would cause erratic behavior, which would then lead to a decline in their popularity or to poor decision-making. Gottlieb even devised a plan to spray a radio station from which Fidel Castro was scheduled to give an address with aerosolized LSD in the hope of achieving similar ends. The plan was never carried out.
The spy who drugged me
In what may be one of the great understatements of the 20th century, the CIA concluded that LSD was too "unpredictable" in its results to be the single super-drug they sought. However, the CIA still thought LSD had its place in spycraft.
For his part, Gottlieb considered the project a failure and concluded that no possible combination of drugs or psychiatric interventions could accomplish the program's goals. He went on to work on other CIA projects and retired in 1973 after he destroyed most of the already spotty records of the program. In retirement, he helped lepers in India, raised goats, and constructed one of the first solar powered homes in the state of Virginia.
However, that was hardly the end of things. Gottlieb forgot to burn the financial records, and in the mid-1970s, the Church Committee of the U.S. Senate investigated the program, though the lack of data meant that very few of the people who were drugged without their consent were ever compensated, and a great deal about the program (and others like it) remain unknown.
Notable recorded and voluntary test subjects of MK-Ultra who were given LSD included the poet Alan Ginsburg, writer Ken Kesey (author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), and Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. All three would later tout the benefits of psychedelics and the broader drug culture in the years that followed their involvement with the program.
Their activities, as well as those of other LSD advocates in the 1960s, would undermine the very vision of American society that the CIA was trying to protect in the first place — using a tool the CIA itself provided. The irony of this was not lost on Beatle John Lennon, who mused, "We must always remember to thank the CIA and the Army for LSD. That's what people forget… They invented LSD to control people and what they did was give us freedom."
While the level of "freedom" LSD provides is debatable, the story of how the counterculture first got a taste of the stuff demonstrates even that freedom comes at a price.