Saturday, July 18, 2009

Free Will or Not?

I've been reading Brian Greene's "The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality". It's quite readable, particularly since he likes to use the Simpsons in his explanatory metaphors. Some chapter names:

The Universe and the Bucket: Is Space a Human Abstraction or a Physical Entity?
The Frozen River: Does Time Flow?
Teleporters and Time Machines: Traveling Through Space and Time.

In this last one, Greene explores the concept of free will. If one accepts the tenets of classical physics then free will is an illusion. Bear with me while I try to explain.

In the beginning we had the Big Bang. All of the particles that make up the universe exploded outward in a specific way, their movement governed by the laws of physics. Therefore, if you knew the exact state of all of the particles in the universe at any given moment you could predict exactly where they would be at any other given moment. Therefore, you could predict the future. Everything that is happening is happening because it must. To quote Greene:

" You are made of a collection of particles, so if the laws of classical physics could determine everything about your particles at any moment -where they'd be, how they'd be moving and so on- your willful ability to determine your own actions would appear to be fully compromised."

Are you with me? This idea is simultaneously horrifying and incredibly comforting. On the one hand, you have no real choice. All of the good intentions and good will cannot avert disaster if that disaster is predetermined by what happened billions of years ago. If we are able to affect an event or to change something about ourselves it is only because that is how it must be. On the other hand, we can completely eliminate the dreaded what ifs. We agonize over decisions and when they do not turn out they way we want we think, what if? What if I had made another choice? Well, if you accept the deterministic view, then you made the only choice possible, there is no what if, not in this universe. This doesn't mean that we don't go on living each day, making choices, taking action; it just means that we make the only choices possible.

This is a very intriguing idea for someone like me. As has been noted, I have control issues. I have a lot of trouble just accepting things and spend a lot of time going over past events trying to find a way in which those events would have turned out differently. Faith that a higher power has things in hand is not an option; I just don't believe it. But this, this is science, logic, and reason. I understand it and I could accept that it is true, in spite of my need to control every last thing that happens. And if I can accept it and really believe it then it might release me from some of the endless rehashing of the past and worrying about the future (cue Doris Day singing Que Sera, Sera).

However, we do not live in a classical universe. Quantum theory changes things. It may be that even in a quantum universe particles behave in a predictable way, that if you could observe the quantum wavefunction for a particular particle you could use quantum mechanics (in this case an equation written by Schroedinger) to determine the wavefunction at any other given moment. But there is the problem of observation. Does the act of observing change the object being observed? Are we missing something, some part of the quantum reality? If that is so, it is quite possible that free will might play a part in physical laws.

Have I thoroughly confused you? Not to worry, as Greene points out, physicists exist in a state of confusion. And that is okay. We do not need to know everything but we do need to explore and to theorize and to dream of what is possible.

Saturday, July 11, 2009


Hi, my name is Plaid Sheep and I am a control freak. It has been less than 24 hours since I last felt entirely responsible for a nasty event while simultaneously imagining the worst possible outcome.

What has prompted this? I'll tell you. (WARNING: Some soul searching ahead.) I joined an online group (a private group, entry must be approved) that had formed to deal with a problem created by a part of the state government. The members of the group were discussing how to deal with the problem and they were getting a little heated. I wanted to inject a bit of practical thinking. I spent about an hour crafting a message that would offend as few people as possible in the group while simultaneously getting my point across. Then I spent more time debating whether I should post it. I am in fact always very careful when writing anything online. Once it's there it's there, for anyone to see. What I did not anticipate is this message being forwarded to a reporter of a major newspaper who was doing a story on the said government problem. My words got hacked up, mis-quoted, and taken completely out of context. The upshot being that I am made to sound like a snarky bitch. And not only is my name there but I am listed as representing my place of employment. After reading it yesterday I spent the whole afternoon wanting to vomit.
Do you know someone who is always laying the blame elsewhere? Their parents didn't love them, their co-worker is out to get them, they never get given a chance? Well, I am the exact opposite. I invariably blame myself. I should have known better. I should have foreseen every possible outcome. I made the mistake. Intellectually, I know that this is not so. We cannot plan for every possible eventuality, we cannot live our lives forever anticipating the worst and trying to correct for it. We cannot, in other words, live in fear.
I have spent the morning thinking about this, about why I feel like my heart is being squeezed. It is quite clear that I am taking on all the responsibility. It's a bit like someone who gets mugged and then blames herself for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sure, it may be inadvisable to walk around in a sketchy neighborhood at night but the mugger is actually to blame. So why do I need to control everything? Perhaps it makes me feel safer. After all, if I can't control it then heaven knows what might happen. It's at moments like these that I feel the lack of a faith. How comforting would it be to say, "it is God's will and all is for the best"? I am also wary of taking this too seriously. There must be countless people who have been in this situation and there will be countless more after me. It is hardly the end of the world and if I have to deal with negative consequences then I will do that. Repeat to self: do not suffer future pain that may never come.