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.