Could Atomic Science Explain Free Will?

Question: How do physicists understand time in ways that laypeople don’t?

Freeman Dyson:  I don’t think there is any difference.  I mean the time that physicists deal with is essentially the same as ordinary time, except that physicists think of microseconds or picoseconds instead of just seconds.  That means millionths of a second or trillionths of a second, so they can… physicists can think of very short intervals of time, but that doesn’t really make much difference to ordinary life.  I think much…  I mean much more big changes in our thinking are coming along with biology rather than with physics.  When biology advances then we think differently about ourselves and that really does make a difference.  For example, at the moment the most rapid movement in biology is neurology.  We’re learning how to study our brains and to take moving pictures of brains with magnetic fields, so you can actually see things going on in our own head when we’re thinking and that’s going to change the way we think about ourselves I think in a much more fundamental way.

Question: Could quantum mechanics lend a scientific basis to the idea of free will?

Freeman Dyson:  Well I can’t say I’ll talk about it in depth, but it’s true that quantum mechanics makes atoms unpredictable.  I mean that was the big surprise, that when you understand atoms it turns out you absolutely cannot predict what they’re going to do.  The laws are… just don’t allow exact predictions.  It… there is a certain kind of freedom that atoms have to jump around, and they seem to choose entirely on their own without any input from the outside, so in a certain sense atoms have free will, so that’s, to my mind at least, it’s probably connected with the fact that we have free will.  We have at least a strong feeling when we decide to move a hand up and down that we’re free to do it or not and so it could be that we are actually using the freedom that quantum mechanics allows, though the brain is a kind of an amplifier, which takes the freedom of movement of atoms and translates it into freedom of movement of our whole body.  That’s at least my feeling about it, and we don’t understand it in detail, but it looks as though there is a connection.

Question: What would give the human mind this capacity?

Freeman Dyson:  Well the human mind is just a sort of a clever device for using this freedom in order to achieve some kind of a purpose, and of course animals in general do that and humans have reached the point of being aware of what they’re doing.

Recorded March 5th, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen

The sheer unpredictability of atoms exempts them from ordinary rules of causality. The brain may be a "clever device" that turns that freedom into freedom of action.

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