Is Science Compatible With Free Will?

Part 1

Quantum Physicist Speaks on Science, Freedom, and Faith

By Ann Schneible

ROME, 03 July 2013 (ZENIT)
Through the use of quantum experiments, the prejudice that exists against the possibility that spiritual principles such as God, angels, and the human soul govern the visible world can be overcome.

This according to Antoine Suarez, a Swiss quantum physicist, philosopher, and bioethicist, and editor of the recently published book: "Is Science Compatible with Free Will? Exploring Free Will and Consciousness in the Light of Quantum Physics and Neuroscience." The book is a compilation of papers that were first presented at a conference of the Social Trends Institute, which took place in Barcelona in October, 2010 and that Suarez was involved in organizing. The authors have updated their contributions, taking account of the conference discussions and the research of the last three years.

In an interview with ZENIT, Suarez, who is director of the Center for Quantum Philosophy in Zürich, and academic leader of the Bioethics program of the Social Trends Institute in Barcelona, New York, spoke about the aim of this book:

ZENIT: What motivated the conference, and the subsequent editing of the book: "Is Science Compatible with Free Will?"

Suarez: The book collects papers by authors coming from different disciplines (Quantum physics, Neuroscience, Economics, and Philosophy). The presented perspectives range from those focusing on the scientific background, to those highlighting rather more a philosophical analysis. However, all chapters share a common characteristic: they take current scientific observations and data as a basis from which to draw philosophical implications. The result is a stimulating interdisciplinary approach combining scientific strength and philosophical profundity.

My motivation to organize this conference and to edit the book was to discuss the idea that science today is compatible with phenomena governed by non-material principles like, for instance, free will and consciousness. This idea is supported by experiments demonstrating the so called quantum nonlocality, in particular two experiments I proposed in the years 1997 and 2010.

These experiments have been realized in the lab of Quantum Optics at the University of Geneva by Nicolas Gisin and his Group, and the results have been published (2002, 2003, and 2012). The experiments confirm that quantum phenomena cannot be explained by invoking only material influences, that is, signals propagating in space-time. And what is more, the basic principles ruling the material world like the conservation of energy require a non-material coordination, otherwise they would not hold.

ZENIT: The title of the book asks whether science and free will are compatible. Could you explain for our readers why the compatibility between science and free will could be called into question? What is the argument that free will and science are not compatible? What argument could you make that they are?

Suarez: There are two main arguments against the compatibility of science and free will:

The first one regards the assumption that the laws of nature are deterministic. Already the philosopher Immanuel Kant remarked in his Critique of Pure Reason that "freedom is opposed to the natural law of cause and effect." My actions are governed by the dynamic of my brain, which is obviously part of nature: If all what happens now in nature could be completely explained by what happened before, then all what I do would be actually predetermined since the Big Bang, and my free will would be an illusion.

Thus, if one keeps to free will, quantum indeterminism seems to be good news. Nonetheless, it is often objected that quantum indeterminism is entirely "random" (without any order or plan), and therefore is itself contrary to purposeful behavior, and hence incompatible with free will. However this is a prejudice and a misconception about the principles of quantum. This point is discussed in several contributions in the book edited by Peter Adams and myself.

The second argument against free will comes from neuroscience and has to do with the interpretation of experiments proposed by Benjamin Libet. In these experiments one measures the electroencephalogram of subjects who are asked to perform at will a wrist flexion. The readiness potential in the brain considered to be responsible for the movement sets on about 300 milliseconds before the time the subject says to have taken the decision to flex. The argument amounts to state that we are not responsible of our actions because when we are first aware of the wish or urge to act our brains have already unconsciously decided to act. This argument is also discussed in detail by different contributors in our book, in particular in light of the discovery of mirror-neurons. According to this fascinating result when I observe you flexing your wrist the neurons firing in my brain are the same that fire when I myself flex my wrist (even if at the moment I observe your movement I myself do not perform any movement). This result shows that activation of premotor and motor cortices cannot be considered a sufficient cause to make an actual movement, even in a case where the subject is supposed to perceive the action in a state of awareness. With even more reason, in the case of Libet’s subjects who are supposed to lack awareness of the action they perform, the readiness potential lasting about 300 milliseconds until the subject is aware of his/her wish to flex should not be considered a sufficient cause for the flexing of the wrist the subjects perform. The readiness potential alone does not cause the flexing, but is only an unconscious causal preparation of the "conscious proximal decision" to flex: One could think that the fact that the flexing happens depends of the subject’s "conscious proximal intention" not to voluntarily inhibit the flexing.

We reach the conclusion that Libet’s experiments refute neither free will nor personal responsibility, but rather demonstrate that human consciousness and purposeful free will are limited.

In summary our book is one of the first books to discuss, at the same time, the implications of quantum physics, Libet’s experiments and the neurophysiological finding of mirror neurons for free will, consciousness, and more in general for the possibility of non-material agency in our world. 

ZENIT: You speak about the non-material character of free will — outside of space and time. How is it possible to study something which is not material through scientific methods and theories?

Suarez: This is really a key question. The very characteristic of the quantum experiments is that they show correlated events that cannot be explained by any material link or signal propagating in space time. One can describe what happens in these experiments by means of a comparison: Suppose that physicist Bob in Geneva throws a fair coin and simultaneously his colleague Alice in New York throws another fair coin, and each of them register the results (head or tail). Bob’s results in Geneva seem to build a pure random sequence: 50% heads, and 50% tails, and also Alice’s results in New York seem to be random distributed. Then Alice and Bob meet together, and after comparing their results they observe the following astonishing fact: when Alice gets head, Bob gets head as well, and conversely, when Alice gets tail, Bob gets tail as well. That is, Alice’s results and Bob’s are perfectly correlated. Now on the one part we can exclude that there is a signal traveling from say Geneva to New York that carries encoded Bob’s result and makes Alice’s coin to produce the same result. The reason is that this would require a signal traveling at a velocity faster than the speed of light, and we know by relativity experiments (like Michelson-Morley, 1887), that all signals propagating in space-time cannot travel faster than light. On the other part we can exclude (by means of a mathematical theorem discovered by the physicist John Bell) that the coins were preprogrammed in advance to produce the same result. Consequently, the correlations cannot be explained neither by a direct link at the moment of throwing the coins nor by a common cause in the past, that is they cannot be explained by any information propagating in space-time.

The very basis of experimental science is that "correlations cry out for explanation" (like the famous physicist John Bell stated). However, the amazing thing is that the observed quantum correlations cannot be explained by any observable causal chain in space-time. Quantum correlations are a paramount example of an experimental result that cannot be explained by material influences. We can conclude that what is seen is not made out of what is visible ("visible from invisible", in accord with Hebrews 11:3). Thus, on the basis of the available observations, for reasons of consistency, we have to admit the existence of a non-material domain which is inaccessible to direct observation.

Actually your question refers to a mental barrier that plays an important part in today’s crisis of Christian faith: the prejudice that it is impossible that spiritual principles like God, angels and the human soul govern the visible world. And as you see quantum experiments can help to overcome such a barrier.

Part Two

Quantum Physicist Speaks on Science, Freedom, and Faith

By Ann Schneible

ROME, 04 July 2013 (ZENIT)

Can the study of free will help to promote dialogue between the "new Atheists" and people of faith? Antoine Suarez, a Swiss quantum physicist, philosopher, and bioethicist, says that it can.

Suarez is the co-editor, along with Peter Adams (founding member of the Thomas More Institute in London), of the recently published book: "Is Science Compatible with Free Will? Exploring Free Will and Consciousness in the Light of Quantum Physics and Neuroscience." He also serves as the director of the Center for Quantum Philosophy in Zürich, and academic leader of the Bioethics program of the Social Trends Institute in Barcelona, New York. His experiments on the foundations of quantum physics have been realized by Nicolas Gisin’s group at the Lab of Quantum Optics of the University of Geneva.

In this second part of his interview with ZENIT, Suarez discussed the role of science in helping to promote dialogue ...:

ZENIT: Many "new Atheists" claim that science and religion are incompatible. Can a discussion on the compatibility of free will and science help to open a dialogue between "new Atheists" and people of faith?

Suarez: Yes it can.

There is a fascinating debate between the Sidney’s Cardinal George Pell and the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins on Religion and Atheism. The Debate was held on April 9, 2012, at the TV channel of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).

On the side of Religion there was an expert in theology and Catholic faith, George Pell, who is also well informed about science. And on the side of Atheism there was an expert in Evolution, Richard Dawkins, who does not have, as he acknowledges, an extended theological back ground, but in my opinion has a very good feeling for crucial and still open theological questions.

A most interesting moment of this debate was when Pell made the statement that "He [Richard Dawkins] continually talks as though God is some sort of upmarket figure within space and time. Now, from 450, 500 BC where, with the Greek philosophers, God is outside space and time."

Dawkins responded, saying: "We are struggling — we are all struggling, scientists are struggling — to explain how we get the fantastic order and complexity of the universe out of very simple and therefore easy to understand, easy to explain, beginnings.[…]  a God, a creative intelligence is not a worthy substrate for an explanation because it is already something very complicated and it is no good invoking Thomas Aquinas and saying that God is defined as outside time and space. That’s just a cop out. That’s just an evasion of the responsibility to explain. That’s just setting out what you want to prove before you have even started."

George Pell speaks of God using the term "outside space and time." Richard Dawkins replies that this term "is just an evasion of the responsibility to explain."

However, neither Pell nor Dawkins make any reference to the recent quantum experiments. If speaking about "outside space and time" is a "cop out," then also quantum physics is a "cop out." I think it would very useful if both theologians and evolutionary biologists become informed about what is going on in the research about quantum nonlocality. This could really help to open a dialogue between "new Atheists" and people of faith. Dawkins acknowledges that evidence for agency from "outside space and time" would prove God, but claims that there is no such evidence and therefore "setting out" agency from "outside space and time" means to beg the question.

Nonetheless who is begging the question is Dawkins, since in quantum physics we have reached a point where "the responsibility to explain" obliges us to accept agency from outside space-time. In other words, Dawkins clearly states that if there is such a thing like agency from “outside space and time”, this would prove God. Now we have experimental evidence that “such a thing” exists. Consequently Dawkins himself provides us with a magnificent proof of the existence of God.

ZENIT: As a Catholic scientist, what role does your faith play in your work, specifically on the topic of free will?

Suarez: I have the deep conviction that the three passions governing my life are compatible with each other: the desire for freedom, my religious faith, and science.  For me, it would be difficult to live were I to realize that in science there is no place for freedom or faith.

I believe that my existence cannot be explained exclusively by material principles; somehow I share in a non-material, spiritual dimension. If I accept this, I consequently have to accept that the movement of my lips, my tongue, my eyes, when I am speaking to you now, cannot be explained exclusively by a chain of temporal causes going back to the Big Bang. This means: one cannot claim to be a free being, or a believer, without intruding on scientific territory. Anyone who believes in God or a spiritual human soul cannot honestly claim that faith and science are two separated realms (two "Non Overlapping Magisteria"). On this point I agree with Richard Dawkins: even rejecting any fundamentalism or creationism, as I do, one cannot help acknowledging that the domain of religion and that of science overlap to some extent. But (by contrast to Dawkins) both faith and science are vital for me. So I conclude that a science excluding freedom and religion is likely not to be the last word in scientific knowledge.

For me working to show the deep harmony between science and Christian faith is the most marvelous adventure of the history of human knowledge. We are at the dawn of a new era where science and religion will go hand in hand to the benefit of each other: the best is still to come.

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
© Innovative Media, Inc.

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