Free Will Objectivism Fail: Two Mathematicians Demonstrate that Ayn Rand’s Philosophy is Incoherent

At ScienceNews.org is a troubling piece reporting that two highly acclaimed Princeton mathematicians, John Conway and Simon Kochen, have mathematically demonstrated the following: if humans can actually choose what to observe (or not observe) in a particular sort of physics experiment involving particle spin, then the objects of observation cannot logically exist in advance of the observation. Furthermore, if humans are indeed free to choose to look or not look at the experiment conducted, then physical law cannot logically be determinate. Put another way, it appears that we are either free and the universe dicey in its existence from moment to moment (and really there only when we are observing it), or we are determined from the beginning of time, existing in a real universe of other wholly determined things. There is no splitting the difference between these two mind-boggling and disconcerting positions. Here’s how ScienceNews.org explains Kochen and Specker’s insight. They arrived at it via teasing out the mathematical complexities that adhere to subatomic particle spin:  

Subatomic particles have a property called “spin,” which occurs around any axis. Experiments have shown that a type of subatomic particle called a “spin 1 particle” has a peculiar property: Choose three perpendicular axes, and prod the spin 1 particle to determine whether its spin around each of those axes is 0. Precisely one of those axes will have spin 0 and the other two will have non-zero spin. Conway and Kochen call this the 1-0-1 rule. Spin is one of those properties physicists can’t predict in advance, before prodding. Still, one might imagine that the particle’s spin around any axis was set before anyone ever came along to prod it. That’s certainly what we ordinarily assume in life. We don’t imagine, say, that a fence turned white just because we looked at it — we figure it was white all along. But Kochen and Specker showed that this assumption — that the fence was white all along — can’t hold in the bizarre world of subatomic particles. They used a pure mathematical argument to show that there is no way the particle can choose spins around every imaginable axis in a way that is consistent with the 1-0-1 rule.

So this means we’re stuck, doesn’t it? Either purchase into contra-causal free will, and abandon the objective universe, or accept the objective universe and abandon contra-causal free will. There is simply no middle ground. None.

Conway and Kochen appear to side with the idea that we have free will, but here’s how ScienceNews.org characterizes the determinist’s counterposition: 

Nature could be conspiring to prevent them [the observers of a spin 1 particle] from choosing the axes that will reveal the violation of the rule. Kochen and Conway can’t rule that possibility out entirely, but Kochen says, “A man on the street would say, ‘Don’t be ridiculous.’ A natural feeling is, of course, that what we do, we do of our own free will. Not completely, but certainly to the point of knowing we can choose what button to push in an experiment.”

Uh oh. We know how dumb the “man on the street” is, don’t we? In other words, to join him in his naive intuition—his common sense notion of what free will is—we must believe that consciousness and free will are things that adhere fundamentally or axiomatically to existence; that they are central. If we are unwilling to do this, then we must (if we are consistent) conclude that we are completely deluded in our day-to-day belief that we are making choices. We’re never really making choices; we’re reacting to forces. There is no escape: we must either be free and living in a consciousness-crucial ghost world or we are determined and living in a consciousness-irrelevant objective world. There is no middle ground; no decoupling of these startling pairs from one another. Based on what we know about quantum physics, it appears that we cannot be free and live in an objective world; nor can we be determined and live in a ghost world.

Put another way: you cannot be a coherent follower of Ayn Rand—that is, a free will objectivist. Nor can you be a determinist who also happens to adhere to some form of idealism. If free will is, then the rock to kick is not there until you hold it in perception; if free will is not, then the rock is there, but the rock, as it were, kicks you.

I don’t like these options at all, do you?

But Gerard ‘t Hooft embraces them:

Gerard ‘t Hooft of the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1999, says the pair’s conclusions are legitimate — but he chooses determinism over free will. “As a determined determinist I would say that yes, you bet, an experimenter’s choice what to measure was fixed from the dawn of time, and so were the properties of the thing he decided to call a photon,” ‘t Hooft says. “If you believe in determinism, you have to believe it all the way. No escape possible. Conway and Kochen have shown here in a beautiful way that a half-hearted belief in pseudo-determinism is impossible to sustain.”

There’s a certain ‘drink the Kool-Aid’ quality here, isn’t there? You either take a leap of faith that consciousness and free will are somehow fundamental properties of the universe—and the objective world is illusory—or you embrace determinism and objective philosophical realism, dismissing consciousness and free will as illusory.

Ayn Rand, of course, would have hated all of this. Here she is (from her The Ayn Rand Letter 1971-1976 ) describing what she saw as one of the consequences that ultimately adhere to an embrace of determinism (quoted in The Ayn Rand Lexicon  p. 122):

Dictatorship and determinism are reciprocally reinforcing corollaries: if one seeks to enslave men, one has to destroy their reliance on the validity of their own judgments and choices—if one believes that reason and volition are impotent, one has to accept the rule of force.

Or the rule of forces, as it were.

I feel a compulsion to read T.S. Eliot’s “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” in response to the calamitous science news that these two Princeton mathematicians have dribbled out to the world. Perhaps my compulsion was determined from the beginning:

Do I dare

Disturb the universe?

In a minute there is time

For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse. . . .

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                .

I should have been a pair of ragged claws

Scuttling across the floors of silent seas. . . .

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    .

Would it have been worth while

To have bitten off the matter with a smile,

To have squeezed the universe into a ball

To roll it toward some overwhelming question, . . .

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         .

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?

I shall wear white flannel trowsers, and walk upon the beach.

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  .

I do not think that they will sing to me.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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15 Responses to Free Will Objectivism Fail: Two Mathematicians Demonstrate that Ayn Rand’s Philosophy is Incoherent

  1. andrewclunn says:

    How can I not jump at this? I mean really, it’s like this post is begging for my input. I can’t really comment on the physics of it, but I’ll gladly tackle the philosophical part.

    We live in a deterministic world and free will only exists in the sense that thought and introspection have the power to influence action. I can consciously make a decision and be aware of (part of) the process in my mind that lead me to the conclusion. Further more I identify a particular entity as me and assign identity to myself. That is the whole of free will. Any insistence that free will must exist outside of deterministic laws is wishful thinking, and is born out of a desire to place one’s own existence as somewhere outside of the self (usually out of fear of death, but sometimes out of dissatisfaction with one’s self).

  2. santitafarella says:

    Andrew:

    You wrote: “We live in a deterministic world and free will only exists in the sense that thought and introspection have the power to influence action.”

    But that’s the point of living in a deterministic world: thought and introspection have no power; they cannot influence action. They are reactive; they are products of blind forces upon which you experience the illusion of choice based on seemingly chosen desires. None of these things are, in fact, chosen. None of them.

    Your sentence should have stopped here: “We live in a deterministic world.” Once you concede that, free will is done; choice is done; responsibility for thought is done. The rest, as it were, is the blue pipe smoke that conceals the fact once again. Determinism is akin to playing whack-a-mole: it pops up, we whack it back down.

    But it doesn’t go away. It lurks. It haunts.

    On strictly monistic and materialist terms, I think that free will is probably dead. But notice that dualism has some hope for free will. Maybe it’s time to take another look at dualism. Perhaps we need to make mind somehow fundamental to the universe—not, as it were, an afterthought, an accident late in the game.

    Rand isn’t coherent on free will because Rand is a strict materialist; a monist. But I’m increasingly coming to the conclusion (for myself) that you have to take philosophical idealism seriously before you can really save free will. And you’ve got to question philosophical realism. But maybe such musings come at too high a price. I suppose you could end up under the spell of Deepak Chopra, or something of equivelent ghastliness.

    —Santi

    • andrewclunn says:

      It seems as though you feel that free will must exist as a principle fact of nature, rather than a practically true result of it, in order to regard it as real. I recommend you read ‘Unweaving the Rainbow” by Richard Dawkins.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unweaving_the_Rainbow

      • santitafarella says:

        That’s a fair summary of my evolving view. I’ll check out Dawkins. I’ve read Unweaving the Rainbow, but don’t recall a chapter on free will in the book. I’ll have another look.

        —Santi

    • Harry Binswanger says:

      Rand was NOT a materialist. The whole theme of Atlas Shrugged, in her own terms, is: “the role of the mind in man’s existence.” She accepted both matter and consciousness. Her position on the mind is roughly what is called “property dualism”:

      “You are an indivisible entity of matter and consciousness. Renounce your consciousness and you become a brute. Renounce your body and you become a fake. Renounce the material world and you surrender it to evil.” –aynrandlexicon.com

      On the use of quantum physics to uphold determinism (or subjectivism): this is logically impossible. It uses alleged science to attack the base of science itself. The base of science is 1. that there is an objective physical world to be known, 2. that man can know it. If determinism were true, we could never know anything–including that determinism is true! We’d be forced by whatever determines our minds to believe whatever we have to believe, with no recourse to an unprejudiced considerations of the facts.

      This is “the contradiction of determinism.” It’s simplest application would be social determinism: if what you believe is necessitated by what others “condition” you to believe, then nothing you believe has the slightest logical validity. It’s all Appeal to Authority, with “society” as the authority.

      But it applies to any form of determinism. It all comes down to: “whatever I believe is forced upon me by X.” If that were true, you’d have no way of knowing anything, no way to be objective.

      The scientists are using misinterpreted ideas from quantum physics (which could never be as certain as the kind of points made above). For a better approach to quantum phenomena, see physicist David Bohm’s work.

      Ayn Rand is right: existence exists and man has free will. His free will is his choice to focus his mind and think logically, or not to.

      • santitafarella says:

        Dr. Binswanger:

        It’s an honor to talk with you. [For those who don’t know, Dr. Binswanger is the editor of the Ayn Rand Lexicon.] As for your general critique of determinism, I found it clever. As for Bohm, I’d note that he was a physical determinist. I will look into his ideas about mind. Thanks for the tip.

        As for myself, I’m leaning toward some sort of dualism—perhaps of the Davidson property sort as well (if, for no other reason, I too want to retain free will).

        But if you have an additional moment, could you please share how you think Ayn Rand might have answered these two questions:

        1. If a person is, in Rand’s own words, “an indivisible entity of matter and consciousness,” and physical matter is determinate, then how can consciousness ever really be free? How could it (a) ever disrupt the course of determinate matter; and (b) prevent matter, on which its existence depends, from directing its own course? It seems as if consciousness and free will are like the drainage gargoyles on a cathedral: they make a face and spit out water, and appear to be doing work, but they are really just fancy facades for the underlying work of the rain.

        2. If there was a pencil on a table, and Ayn Rand picked it up, what was the cause of the pencil being picked up? And how did she achieve this feat, given that matter is determinate?

        —Santi

    • xgenx says:

      Did you write that? Or were you just predetermined to say type those words out?

  3. santitafarella says:

    Dr. Binswanger:

    One additional observation: I’m not sure it’s wise of you to position Rand’s philosophy against quantum dynamics, however odd. Here’s why: it may account for why mind can actually influence matter. Here is the key passage in the above article:

    “[O]ne might imagine that the particle’s spin around any axis was set before anyone ever came along to prod it. That’s certainly what we ordinarily assume in life. We don’t imagine, say, that a fence turned white just because we looked at it — we figure it was white all along. But Kochen and Specker showed that this assumption — that the fence was white all along — can’t hold in the bizarre world of subatomic particles. They used a pure mathematical argument to show that there is no way the particle can choose spins around every imaginable axis in a way that is consistent with the 1-0-1 rule.”

    In other words, mind and matter are, as Ayn Rand posited, fully intertwined. It’s true that it makes matter probabilistic in relation to mind, but it also gives room for deliberate minds to interact with matter.

    —Santi

  4. Well, this is just great — man has no free will. WRONG! Such a proposal is what Ayn Rand identified as a *stolen concept*. What is one using in order to deny that he has free will? Free will.

    I will leave it to the reader to use his free will to look up that idea in Dr. Binswanger’s lexicon, which is found at aynrand.org.

    Good grief!

  5. Colin Hutton says:

    Santi

    I am as determined to hold on to a belief in free will as you appear to be.

    You agreed (“That’s a fair summary of my evolving view”) with Andrew’s comment to you (“you feel that free will must exist as a principle fact of nature, rather than a practically true result of it, in order to regard it as real”).

    It seems to me that a preferable article of faith, is to hold that consciousness is an inherent property of energy/matter.

    With that starting point, my take on the position is as follows:

    Energy (and, it follows, every particle) has ‘consciousness’, a property beyond our current capacity to isolate and measure. ‘Organised’ energy, such as any particle, attracts more consciousness (or ‘focuses’ it) and every particle is ‘aware’ of (‘conscious of’) every other particle in the universe. The more organised, the more consciousness (or it becomes more focused). In this sense of the word, every ‘thing’ has consciousness, to a varying degree. A mountain (being more organised) has more consciousness than its constituent rocks, a tree more than a mountain, an earthworm more than a tree, my cat more than the tree, etc. etc. ……me!

    Intelligence and free will are symptoms (or by-products) of consciousness.

    So Kochen and Conway have proved Hutton’s 1st law, which is that the consciousness of experimenters interacts with the consciousness of spin 1 particles. Pretty obvious!

    -Colin

  6. andrewclunn says:

    So I’ve gotten into something of a blog battle surrounding this subject:

    http://omgobama.wordpress.com/2010/11/16/objectivist-ethics-on-trial/

    Just figured it’s post a link here. Hope you don’t mind that I occasionally self-promote here Santi.

  7. DS says:

    “The base of science is 1. that there is an objective physical world to be known, 2. that man can know it.”

    This is not how the scientific method works. Science never makes any absolute claims of ‘knowing’ anything for certain. Any theory or ‘law’ of nature can be disproven if contradictory evidence emerges.

    As far as quantum mechanics is concerned, those who claim to understand it do not really understand it. Bohm was just one of many theoretical physicists and it does not make sense for someone who is not specialized in this field to pick and choose which interpretation of quantum theory is valid and which ones are not. This is a matter for the physicists to decide among themselves.

    Cherry picking information to support an existing dogma is not a very good way to practice science.

    • Delfin I. A. says:

      “Science never makes any absolute claims of ‘knowing’ anything for certain.”

      — That’s a colossal fallacy. Better read and understand the line you quoted again.

  8. Bill says:

    Thats utter rubbish. QM is in fact silent on such things an those two mathematican’s should know better. The reason is a theory cant contradict its premises. You will find the correct premises for QM laid out in the standard text by Ballentine – QM – A Modern Development.

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