Hey Bill Nye! Do Humans Have Free Will?
Bill Nye answers a question from Thomas: "Is there really an independent ego that is in control of my every thought and action?"
Bill Nye, scientist, engineer, comedian, author, and inventor, is a man with a mission: to help foster a scientifically literate society, to help people everywhere understand and appreciate the science that makes our world work. Making science entertaining and accessible is something Bill has been doing most of his life.
In Seattle Nye began to combine his love of science with his flair for comedy, when he won the Steve Martin look-alike contest and developed dual careers as an engineer by day and a stand-up comic by night. Nye then quit his day engineering day job and made the transition to a night job as a comedy writer and performer on Seattle’s home-grown ensemble comedy show “Almost Live.” This is where “Bill Nye the Science Guy®” was born. The show appeared before Saturday Night Live and later on Comedy Central, originating at KING-TV, Seattle’s NBC affiliate.
While working on the Science Guy show, Nye won seven national Emmy Awards for writing, performing, and producing. The show won 18 Emmys in five years. In between creating the shows, he wrote five children’s books about science, including his latest title, “Bill Nye’s Great Big Book of Tiny Germs.”
Nye is the host of three currently-running television series. “The 100 Greatest Discoveries” airs on the Science Channel. “The Eyes of Nye” airs on PBS stations across the country.
Bill’s latest project is hosting a show on Planet Green called “Stuff Happens.” It’s about environmentally responsible choices that consumers can make as they go about their day and their shopping. Also, you’ll see Nye in his good-natured rivalry with his neighbor Ed Begley. They compete to see who can save the most energy and produce the smallest carbon footprint. Nye has 4,000 watts of solar power and a solar-boosted hot water system. There’s also the low water use garden and underground watering system. It’s fun for him; he’s an engineer with an energy conservation hobby.
Nye is currently the Executive Director of The Planetary Society, the world’s largest space interest organization.
Thomas: Hi Bill. My name is Thomas and I'm from Los Angeles. I would really like to hear your opinion on whether or not we have free will in the conventional meaning. Is there really an independent ego right here that is in control of my every thought and action? I think Einstein is a determinist so he does not believe in free will, but then there's the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, although to my understanding the uncertainty is in our scientific instruments and the inaccuracies of the measurements. Thank you.
Bill Nye: Well, you covered a lot of ground in there, but nobody knows about the nature of consciousness. I think we have free will up to a point, but we are driven by deep, deep things like wanting to get food, making more people — that is to say mating. And then I cannot help but notice how much people from the same family tend to do the same things. Same families tend to do the same things just anecdotally. But clearly I know I have made decisions based on things that happened around me that I wouldn't have made without being informed by history or what I'd noticed. I know I have. Now if that turns out not to be true, I would be very surprised.
Now as far as the uncertainty principle goes, uncertainty principle is roughly there's a quantum, there's an amount of energy below which you can't measure. The old saying is you can know where the electron is or you can know how fast it's going, but you can't know both, not exactly because anything you would use to measure it would inherently move the electron or change its speed. That's the classic uncertainty principle at work. With that said, I am satisfied now, as an engineer and scientist, that our brains are chemical reactions and chemical reactions, at some level, depend on quantum mechanics, on the interaction of subatomic particles based on this extraordinary thing called quantum electrodynamics; you alluded to it.
And so at some level there's randomness in what we think because we're made of chemicals that have randomness. But largely, human behavior is generally predictable. There's whole schools full of psychologists and psychiatrists who study humans and they come across patterns, and those patterns have got to be part of our brains and our free will has got to be part of that. I mean I don't mean to skirt your question, but the nature of consciousness — you are living at a time when the nature of consciousness is not understood, but it may be very soon because we'll build computer models or computers that are as sophisticated or as complicated or as messed up as human brains and they will behave the same way as human brains, as long as they're plugged in, the computers. Carry on.
Bill Nye makes one of the most ardent questions of philosophy more easily understood. While competing visions of natural physical laws — received from Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr — have cast down on whether a satisfactory answer will ever be found to the free will question, Nye urges us to look inside ourselves and around ourselves. We feel as though we make free choice, and we observe similar patterns in the world. As we get closer to understanding consciousness, those observations will be validated or called further into question.
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