Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Free Will - another post on the edge of physics and philosophy

Hmm.  I guess there is free will after all.  And in a way that could satisfy both determinists and spiritualists. 

I have always been torn because I am both.  I believe in the reductionist view that our minds, consciousness, etc all are emergent properties of our neural circuitry.  I will spare you the biochemical explanations for now.  But what this means is that every decision we make is at its core a function of chemical and electrical reactions.  Because these signals are a function of the reactions that preceded them, every decision we make is basically a function of the physical construction of our brains, bodies, and environments.  There is no mystical piece needed to make this work.

But as a deeply spiritual person, I don't stop here.  Just because no mystical piece is needed to explain how consciousness works and that all decisions emerge from a physical reality doesn't mean that we can't also have free will if we define "free will" as the ability of our physical mind/body to consider multiple options and choose one.  Just because this is done by biological brain cells and chemical neurotransmitters doesn't mean it is not "us" and that it is not "free."  My biochemistry is freely choosing an option by freely implementing the physics and chemistry that defines the world. 

But now it turns out there may be an even more satisfying explanation.  Some new research finds that there are quantum effects that adds a bit of randomness to our brain chemistry.  Peter Tse has found that a particular chemical receptor on the neuron is sensitive to a single atom of magnesium.  And if it is blocked, it can change the flow of electrical activity - and therefore change your thought.  And a single atom is a quantum entity.  So even in a reductionist, deterministic world there is a 50/50 chance your thoughts will go or not go in a particular direction.  It may not be consciously directed free will in the way some spiritualists think of it, but it is also not predetermined by physics.