Daily Archives: August 3rd, 2007

Friday Science: Fate or Free Will?

It never ceases to amaze me the ability for quantum mechanics to entangle (okay, pun’s intended) itself in every day life. Take the long philisophical argument about fate and free will for example. This topic has been debated for thousands of years, probably since mankind was able to create symbolic images (theory mine), i.e., cave paintings, carvings and tattoos, etc. But Nobel laureate Dutch physicist Gerard ‘t Hooft announced that the weird effects that spring from quantum mechanics arise from a deeper deterministic reality based on classical physics:

“No, we don’t have free will as it is commonly understood, he says – but that’s because the way it is commonly understood is wrong.”

‘t Hooft, of the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, shared a Nobel prize in 1999 for laying the mathematical foundations for the standard model of particle physics. Like Einstein, he was troubled by the indeterminism at the heart of quantum mechanics, according to which particles do not have clearly defined properties before you measure them, and you can never predict with certainty what the outcome of your measurements will be. So ‘t Hooft constructed a deterministic alternative which showed that fundamental states which exist on the smallest scales do start out with clearly defined properties. Information about these states gets blurred over time, until we are no longer able to tell how they initially arose – leading to their apparently probabilistic quantum nature, he says.

The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle says that a quantum particle’s properties can’t be determined until it is “measured” somehow. The very “act” of measurement destroys the particle’s pristine “state”, then it assumes the property one is measuring for. For example if one is measuring the speed of a photon (particle of light), the said particle isn’t a photon until the “act” of measurement says it’s a photon, savvy?

Okay, how that relates to fate or free will is that t’ Hooft can write equations proving that particles aren’t “indeterminable” until the act of measurement says what they are, he claims that particles are what they are from the beginning, but become “blurred” over time, thus making them “seem” indeterminable:

“…’t Hooft constructed a deterministic alternative which showed that fundamental states which exist on the smallest scales do start out with clearly defined properties. Information about these states gets blurred over time, until we are no longer able to tell how they initially arose – leading to their apparently probabilistic quantum nature, he says.” (Link)

Imagine you are holding a cup of coffee. “I can’t change my mind in an instant about whether to drink the coffee or hurl it across the room. My decision must have roots in brain processes that occurred in the past,” he says. “What’s important is that I have freedom to calculate what happens if I throw my coffee cup. Equally, I have the freedom to calculate the effects after I drink from my cup.” What we lack is the freedom to instantaneously switch between which of these initial states we start from.

In other words the very act of measuring a particle or performing a certain act is “predetermined” by fate, not our free will to act upon or measure anything.

I’m ambivelant about the issue myself, I know some historical arguments, but tying them in with quantum mechanics is new to me. But that’s the beauty of quantum mechanics, all things are tied at a very basic level. We just haven’t found that level yet, string theory not withstanding.

Original Article

If you feel brave or smart enough, read the PowerPoint Presentation t’ Hooft wrote. I got through half of it before my head started to hurt. 😛