As a philosopher who has educated himself on physics, I’d never try to argue physics with a physicist. That is, until such physicist moves from the realm of physics into the realm of philosophy! 😉
Then it’s simply time to correct some huge mistakes, even if that means delving into the philosophy of physics itself . The philosophy of physics is different than the mathematics which, as a philosopher and not a physicist, I don’t make arguments against (e.g. I’ll assume accepted mathematics and experimentation are correct, and just delve into the philosophy of what such implies if so).
In other words, someone who is deemed an expert in their scientific field simply doesn’t mean that they are brilliant at everything they do. When it comes to quantum mechanics there is the physics involved, but there is also the interpretations OF the physics. Such interpretations tend to be seated smack dab in the middle of philosophy rather than physics. And this often makes even some of the most well educated physicists come to some poorly thought out philosophical conclusions.
In this article I’ll be criticizing Michio Kaku, a very popular and respected authority on theoretical physics. He’s been in a number of “Big Think” videos on a number of topics revolved around physics. The below video is 1 minute and 49 seconds long shot many years back (I believe in 2011), and in it Kaku decides to talk about “free will” – of course delving into philosophy and meta-physics from his own philosophical perspective that surrounds his understanding of quantum mechanics. If you haven’t seen it please watch it here:
I do hate to do this to Kaku, because he seems like a swell guy, but I’m going to pick apart this entire video to see all of the problems spattered through a single 1 minute and 49 seconds of talking. Also to keep things in context.
“Newtonian determinism says that the universe is a clock. A gigantic clock that’s wound up in the beginning of time, and it’s been ticking ever since according to newtons laws of motion.”
Here Kaku addresses “Newtonian determinism” and for the rest of the video assumes “Newtonian” when using the word “determinism“. You’ll notice through the rest of his talk he never brings up modern deterministic theory. Only the fact that Newtonian determinism is incorrect. He also later asserts that the reason Newtonian determinism is incorrect is due to the uncertainty principle, which is somewhat of a mistake (rather Bell’s theorem is problematic for Newtonian determinism).
“So, what you’re gonna eat ten years from now on January first has already been fixed. It’s already known using newton’s laws of motion”
It’s important to note that this would also be the case with non-local (modern) deterministic models of quantum mechanics. In other words, it isn’t only Newtonian mechanics that is a deterministic model. Kaku fails to address numerous modern deterministic models in light of the indeterministic model of his preference (in this case appearing to be the Copenhagen interpretation). This is his interpretive bias.
“Einstein believed in that. Einstein was a determinist. Does that mean that a murderer, this horrible mass murderer isn’t really guilty of his works because he was already pre-ordained billions of years ago? Einstein says well yeah, in some sense that’s true. Even mass murderers were predetermined. But he said, they should still be placed in jail.”
It is good that Kaku says “But he said, they should still be placed in jail.” I give him props for that bit of honesty. In fact I have no reason to doubt his honesty of the entire video (that such is what he believes and that he’s not just trying to fool people). But as I said earlier, an expertise on one topic (e.g. theoretical physics) does not make one an expert on another (e.g. philosophy).
“Heisenberg then comes along and proposes the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle…and says nonsense. There’s uncertainty. You don’t know where the electron is. It could be here, here, or many places simultaneously.”
Let’s be perfectly clear here. Uncertainty doesn’t mean such really could be here, here, or many places simultaneously. It just means we don’t know where it will be. What the uncertainty principle means regarding why we don’t know where it will be depends on the quantum interpretation being postulated. For interpretations such as the Copenhagen interpretation there is true indeterminacy (meaning some events really are acausal) and hence uncertainty. For others such as the pilot-wave theory (Bohmian mechanics) its deterministic (albeit nonlocal) and the uncertainty has to do with our inability to see or know such variables. And still others such as the Ensemble interpretation are agnostic toward determinism or indeterminism (they don’t assume one over the other).
“This of course Einstein hated because he said god doesn’t play dice with the universe. Well, hey, get used to it. Einstein was wrong. God does play dice.”
The claim that “Einstein was wrong” on this (noting that “god” is being used in the “universe” sense rather than religious sense) once again assumes an indeterministic interpretation of quantum mechanics. In the end, it must be noted that Einstein supported the Ensemble Interpretation – an interpretation viewed as “minimalist” as well as “agnostic toward determinism / indeterminism”.
What Einstein was seemingly wrong about was his position that the principle of locality was a necessity:
“(…) The following idea characterises the relative independence of objects far apart in space, A and B: external influence on A has no direct influence on B; this is known as the Principle of Local Action, which is used consistently only in field theory. If this axiom were to be completely abolished, the idea of the existence of quasienclosed systems, and thereby the postulation of laws which can be checked empirically in the accepted sense, would become impossible. (…)” – Einstein
Since Bell’s theorem it’s been accepted that no local theory of quantum mechanics can be reproduced. So if Einstein can be authoritatively said to be “wrong” it is with this position (if we accept Bell’s theorem). This, however, has lead some to think he was wrong about determinism in general, rather than local determinism. Yet various interpretations are indeed deterministic. In my book I go through many of the common interpretations of quantum mechanics, where they might be intuitively problematic, and whether they are deterministic, indeterministic, or agnostic in regards to either. The fact of the matter is, in the end, Einstein took a more agnostic approach with aligning with the Ensemble interpretation.
“The attempt to conceive the quantum-theoretical description as the complete description of the individual systems leads to unnatural theoretical interpretations, which become immediately unnecessary if one accepts the interpretation that the description refers to ensembles of systems and not to individual systems.” – Einstein
The ensemble interpretation does not try to justify quantum mechanics from any deterministic standpoint. Saying Einstein was wrong about determinism seems to be a common conflation associated with the type of determinism he once intuitively assessed (local determinism) with “determinism itself”. Einstein’s was a critic of both the Copenhagen interpretation (which was indeterministic) and nonlocal causality, as the EPR paradox he devised with his colleagues Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen suggests. But he hasn’t been shown “wrong” on his criticism of the Copenhagen interpretation, only on his criticisms of nonlocal causality (if Bells theorem is to hold). It could be he was wrong and the universe is indeterministic as well. But right now the claim of such is a whopping assumption made (note: I go into some of the problems with acausal events in the book as well, and they aren’t something that can easily be overlooked).
“Every-time we look at an electron it moves, there’s uncertainty with regards to the position of the electron. So what does that mean for free will? It means in some sense we do have some kind of free will. No one can determine your future events given your past history. There’s always the wildcard. There’s always the possibility of uncertainty in whatever we do.”
And here is Kaku’s largest leap of logic. Even if we assume the quantum interpretation of his preference is correct and the universe is indeterministic (meaning some events aren’t caused), it does not follow that “in some sense we do have some kind of free will”. Such acausal events would absolutely be out of the sites of any type of “willing”. In an entirely causal (deterministic) universe willing causally happens and it’s the free part that’s problematic. In an indeterministic model, any acausal events are entirely non-willed. This makes indeterminism not only as incompatible to free will as determinism, but also more of a detriment to willing if they (acausal events) have any say over our decisions. This is why I prefer the hard incompatibilist position over the hard determinist position – as such needs to be pointed out.
Thinking that since no one can determine your future events means some type of “free will” deeply misunderstands the topic.
“So when I look at myself in the mirror, I say to myself, what I’m looking at is not really me. It looks like me, but it’s not really me at all. It’s not me today, now, it’s me a billionth of a second ago because it takes a billionth of a second for light to go from me to the mirror and back.”
At this point Kaku makes a tangential leap. What does the fact that we don’t really perceive actualities but rather models of actualities that are somewhat time dilated from the actual “object” have to do with the topic of free will? Really not much at all. It matters not if we are looking in the mirror, at our own hand in front of our face, or at fluffy who is chewing on his favorite bone…the time the light hits our eyes is different than the time of the actual object in regards to representation. Why is this brought up? My only guess is that Kaku thinks this is adding something to his defense of free will. It’s not.
So why criticize Kaku on this video? Because this video has been passed around in literally thousands upon thousands of tweets, Facebook posts, message boards, blogs, and numerous other online venues in a way that it is supposed to give pause to those who might have thought about questioning free will just for a moment. This video is many years old but it’s still going strong today as reference material for free-will-ists to point others to. And you know what, it works. This single video has helped solidify many people’s intuitive feelings of free will in a way that they won’t feel the need to look any further on. And though Kaku couldn’t have, of his own accord, done otherwise, and I’m sure he meant well here, this type of poorly thought out analysis from a respected authority figure does more damage than not.
If you’d like to know why free will is impossible in both a deterministic universe as well as an indeterministic universe, and why the belief in free will is harmful, please take a look at Breaking the Free Will Illusion for the Betterment of Humankind.