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Culture & Religion

Harvard Astrophysicist Offers a Defense of Free Will

Using a two-stage approach that builds on the work of William James, Harvard astrophysicist Robert Doyle says freedom is compatible with even highly determined physical systems. 

What’s the Latest Development?

Harvard theoretical astrophysicist Robert Doyle has offered a two-stage approach to solving the classic philosophical problem of free will, which asks how humans are able to freely make decisions given the restrictions of cause and effect. Doyle affirms that humans have free will, building on the work of William James, who found evidence for free will in the idea that humans can choose to entertain a particular thought instead of entertaining another. “Free will isn’t one monolithic thing,” Doyle says. “It’s a combination of the free element with selection.”

What’s the Big Idea?

Philosophy, in so far as it accepts the methods of scientific investigation, is forced to grapple with the continual advances made by the physical sciences. The rise of quantum physics, which states by way of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle that randomness is built into physical systems at the quantum level, may be seen to support Doyle’s two-stage approach. “Quantum physics makes predictions to 14 decimal places,” Doyle says. “It’s the most accurate of all mathematical physical theories.” Thus, randomness and free will may be compatible with the highly precise determinations required by our knowledge of cause and effect.

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