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Modern Physics, The Observer, and free-will

  1. Jun 1, 2009 #1

    First off, I would like to say thank you for being of much help as I browsed these forums a little and gained some information.

    Second, I would like to say that at this in point of time my understanding of Physics is limited, so I do not intend to put myself across as somebody who is trying to say anything with any certainty.

    Now to the point,
    I want to know of what many of your beliefs/ opinions are on I suppose what you would call the meta-physics of some Modern Physical theories. I was thinking (and I stress the potential for error here, so If there is a blatant error in my line of reasoning, feel free to correct me). I would like to wonder what you believe about the general concept of free will.
    If space-time is 4-dimensional and contains all events past and present, then of course we mustn't have free will. But what if we play a more integral role in the role, more related to the "observer/participator" ideas of Physics. The universe was created by the big bang, and the universe is constantly expanding and the universe is composed of energy and matter manifesting itself in different ways through different interactions...So, somewhere along the line of course there was a jump from "non-Living" to "living" however small that living thing may be. Eventually genetic mutations occurred and life began "evolving" into many different forms, eventually leading to us and of course we know that we are composed of physical systems which abide by the laws of physics...and consciousness is created by some type of physical interaction (be it in the form of some type of odd Quantum entanglement or by some type of concurrent process of neuronal interaction or whatever other theories) Well, what it comes down to is if the universe has truly always happened we simply don't know it or if considering all things exist at the same "time" our consciousness is an aspect of the physical universe capable of literally changing the structure of space-time and the universe itself... be it through the more obscure Double-slit experiment style or through the more conventional cause and effect. It is apparent and mysterious that simply our observing something changes the physical reality of it as is exemplified through many odd "Quantum effects" so there must be some type of consciousness-physical connection on a basic level and it seems to me that both determinism and free-will are still at this point both feasible. Was I was always destined to write this to you and you were destined to write back by something set in motion billions of years ago and finally manifesting itself? Or through our consciousness is the universe constantly creating and re-creating the fabric of its own reality via we human beings and consciousness?..I don't know, maybe you have a better clue than I

    * I realize I may be being a bit anthropocentric, but it is not because I attribute any special significance to human beings, but simply because I noticed peculiarities about the relationship between consciousness,the prospect of free-will and the physical world* (And on a minor note is there anyway nonlocal particles can interact not just through space, but through different point completely on the space-time continuum.. i.e. different times?) Thank you for your time
    Last edited: Jun 1, 2009
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 2, 2009 #2


    Staff: Mentor

    Why not?

    This is a common misconception. The "observer" in physics is a detector of some sort or an interaction with another particle. It is not limited to conscious beings, and no consciousness-physical connection is implied by QM.
  4. Jun 2, 2009 #3
    Thank you for your help... The first point was meant somewhat sarcastically, but serious at the same time. I don't necessarily believe that, but it is a viewpoint that some hold. For the second point, thank you very much, being a layman currently I don't have a knowledge of the mathematical framework of the various Quantum theories or even a full understanding of it (but from what I gather not many do haha). What do you personally believe regarding free will? The only reason I made the deterministic statement was because if everything done has always been done, then I suppose it implies free-will is absent, but I don't know. Again, thank you for your help
  5. Jun 2, 2009 #4


    Staff: Mentor

    Would you consider a perfect dice or a radioactive particle to have free-will simply because they are non-deterministic? If not, then why focus on determinism in these discussions?

    My personal opinion is that a proper concept of free-will would be deterministic and therefore free-will is perfectly compatible with a deterministic universe.
  6. Jun 2, 2009 #5
    I think the problem with 'freewill' is that it is defined differently by different people.

    In Christianity, freewill is a get of evil free card for God. God didn't create evil, evil is the result of human freewill. There are all sorts of logical problems with this view, but the main thing is the concept is not designed to describe actual decision making, but rather to attribute blame and sin.

    In Philosophy, freewill has tended to be defined as the ability, given the same physical circumstances, to make different decisions. This often relies on dualism, and implies that if something is determined, then it can't be free.

    David Hume, on the other hand stated, via compatibalism, that freewill requires determinism, because if effects are random and not causally related, any decision made would result in a random result, and that negates the idea that we can choose anything.

    Freewill then becomes simple autonomy, defined by internal processes which are distinct from external ones.
  7. Jun 2, 2009 #6


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    Gold Member

    Again, making a systems point, this is not a dualistic but a triadic issue!

    The usual dichotomy is between chance and necessity, random and determined. Quite plainly, what we mean by freewill maps to neither of these extremes but lies "somewhere between".

    So this is where complexity and hierarchy theory come in.

    Random/determined is a model of simplicity. What appears to happen at the local or atomistic scale. Something either has a specific cause, or it lacks a visible cause. The "why" of an action is modelled as having this black and white character.

    Then we have the complex view which takes in the complex causality of systems. Now we can see how a system exerts global constraints that bear down on the system's locations to frame the local actions. A range of things become permitted with reasonable freedom (because a larger range of things are being prevented, degrees of freedom are being suppressed).

    If we take a game of chance like a coin toss for example, we can see how a human creates a binary object with two sides (so two absolutely determined outcomes - no chance of the coin landing on its edge). And then the coin is tossed in a very careful way to make sure the spinning through the air maximises uncertainty about the outcome.

    Throw a ball in the air and the outcome is just vague. Which way up did it land? Well that has neither been determined nor is it random. That spectrum of difference has not been created, so the dichotomised outcome is not an issue with meaning.

    The same applies for QM. It is the classical universe, the framing system, that is making the division into the determined and random aspects of any event.

    And for humans. We are socially constructed creatures. Our psychology is local to the global that is our sociology. We have many degrees of freedom suppressed by our socialisation. And out of that, we (ironically) become more crisply definite about what we do and don't do.

    So knowing it is bad to kill, I don't kill. But now know I could have done otherwise. Or sent to war, a different system framework is now wrapped around my localised choices.

    I am neither random nor determined. Instead I am in a state where I could do anything (if I can imagine it). This is a state that is more than simply "random". It is vague, a state of open potential. Randomness is only about uncaused acts.

    Then that open potential is constrained. Society frames my range of actions (well, there is also the biology, the natural drives and the game of the genes too). I then make active choices. Which mostly is about doing my local best to play the systems' game.

    Anyway, this analysis is getting complicated. But essentially, I am a local component of a complex system - a society (and a biology). I have global prevailing constraints on my actions, the broad rules of my socialisation, that determine what I do. But this is a soft determination rather than hard, as in the simple Newtonian sense.

    And because the global constraint is simply that - constraint rather than compulsion - I also have my local creative freedoms. I can act "randomly" so far as the greater system is concerned. I could do something wrong or silly or a-causal and unproductive. But that would hardly ever happen in practice (I don't drink much) so the local freedoms are mostly used constructively.

    The freewill issue is about imagining ourselves going to either simple extreme. Either being completely determined by society or our own material being, our brain wiring or even the laws of physics. Or alternatively, being so purely random that we are free to go in absolutely any "uncaused" direction. And again, people want to trace this simple freedom to some source. Hence the recourse to QM explanations of mind for example.

    But systems science says we are complex beings and the source of our "freewill" lies in the "largeness" of the system, not the "smallness" of our fundamental atoms. Look upwards in scale for the answers, not down.
  8. Jun 3, 2009 #7
    This entire discussion presupposes that freedom is necessarily acausal, which is a suspicious assumption.
  9. Jun 3, 2009 #8
    With all due respect, this statement is not factual. The actual physical facts cannot be denied -and have never been by objective, well informed scientists. Popular Interpretations sugggest this, but the brute facts untremmeled by personal interpretation - are indisputable.

    See Rosemblum's work "Quantum Enigma" (published by the very conservative, maintstream Oxford University Press no less)which was also reviewed in Physics Today. A PHD from Columbia and former head of UC San Diego's physics department he is
    a mainstream scientist willing to tackle the "skeleton in the closet" that the consciousness issue represents.

    Consider this:
    "With the advent of quantum mechanics, physics found that observation created a physical reality. By freely choosing a different observation, you could have created a physical reality inconsistent with the one you actually chose to create. (And therefore a different history!) Though, because of randomness and the complexity of big things, you can’t bring about just the future you want–as purveyors of pseudo-science imply. Quantum mechanics reveals a mysterious encounter of “free choice,” conscious free will, with the physical world."

    In all fairness, as the author states having trained many a scientist, many institutions when teaching these issues take the FAPP stance, FAPP ala John Bell "For All Practical Purposes" when discussing this issue so it does somewhat make sense that people tend to hold the opinion stated above.

    Having said that, "there is no way to rationally interpret quantum theory without encountering consciousness". By "rational" I mean developing an interpretation based on the physical facts vs. one's preconceived worldview about "what makes sense", "looks more reasonable" or "seems more realistic".

    Again, I am speaking of the evidence actual physical facts and not interpretations...


    As many lay people who have not personally investigated these issues may seek answers on this forum, I think it very important to distinguish between facts and interpretations of facts to maintain the integrity of information.

    If anyone is particularly interested in this issues, I'd recommend reading the works of the following physicists - and not merely interpretations of their work, but rather "from the horse's mouth":

    Werner Heisenberg" - [T]he atoms or elementary particles themselves are not real; they form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things or facts."

    But Heisenberg went on to insist that these philosophical issues raised by quantum mechanics applied to the big as well as the small.

    Albert Einstein - "Whether we electrons, light quanta, benzol molecules, or stones, we shall always come up against these two characteristics, the corpuscular and the undular." (Emphasis added.)

    Pascual Jordan - "Observations not only disturb what is to be measured, they produce it."

    Eugene Wigner - "When the province of physical theory was extended to encompass microscopic phenomena through the creation of quantum mechanics, the concept of consciousness came to the fore again. It was not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to the consciousness."

    Bernard d'Espagnat - "The doctrine that the world is made up of objects whose existence is independent of human consciousness turns out to be in conflict with quantum mechanics and with facts established by experiment."

    John Bell - "Is it not good to know what follows from what, even if it is not necessary FAPP? [FAPP is Bell's disparaging abbreviation of "for all practical purposes."] Suppose for example that quantum mechanics were found to resist precise formulation. Suppose that when formulation beyond FAPP is attempted, we find an unmovable finger obstinately pointing outside the subject, to the mind of the observer, to the Hindu scriptures, to God, or even only Gravitation? Would that not be very, very interesting?"

    Martin Rees - "In the beginning there were only probabilities. The universe could only come into existence if someone observed it. It does not matter that the observers turned up several billion years later. The universe exists because we are aware of it."

    Also see Bohr's personal writings.....

    If you are like me, you'd prefer to read the above quotes in context as well, though in doing so the meaning/implications of their statements don't change much.

    Nullius in Verba..... - Take no one's word for it....

    If you are more right-brained, see a VERY ELEMENTARY example/in class presentation of the double slit experiment done at Stanford by Dr. Robert Plunkett:

    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 25, 2014
  10. Jun 3, 2009 #9


    Staff: Mentor


    Please provide even a single reproducible experimental setup where a consciousness was the direct means of collapsing a wavefunction rather than a detector or particle.
  11. Jun 3, 2009 #10
    Dear swat4life,

    DaleSpam has just replied to a thread you have subscribed to entitled - Modern Physics, The Observer, and free-will - in the Philosophy forum of Physics Forums.

    This thread is located at:

    Here is the message that has just been posted:

    Your quotes do not impress me. Please provide even a single example where a consciousness was the direct means of collapsing a wavefunction rather than a detector or particle.

    I'm not interested in impressing you - quite frankly, I am utterly positive you couldn't afford my hourly rate.

    Now take a long, calm breadth and try to get your left brain to exercise some control over your emotions.

    I presented information. Simply a) google it - one could start with the academic documents available there or b)go to amazon.com and read the works of the scientists presented.

    Or, if you're not interested in investigating these issues yourself, feel free to continue to believe what you choose to and live life as happily as possible.


    You can start with Rosemblum's book which spells is out so easily someone who rides the short bus could understand it. Of course I'm just indulging my wanton flippancy here, but I guess we all have our shortcomings..... ;)
  12. Jun 3, 2009 #11


    Staff: Mentor

    Condescending tone notwithstanding, you have failed to provide a single piece of scientific evidence showing that a consciousness rather than a detector or particle could produce any quantum effect.
  13. Jun 4, 2009 #12
    There was some INCONCLUSIVE experimental work done on this by Dick J. Bierman "Does Consciousness Collapse the Wave Function" Mind and Matter, Vol.1, 45-57 (2003) http://arxiv.org/abs/physics/0312115. He was measuring possible detectable brain function differences for observers looking at new phenomena versus previously observed phenomena.

    I hope someday there is a conclusive experiment to settle this, one way or the other.
    I have always thought of this interpretation of QM as slightly creepy, but not as creepy as MWI.

    Anyway, just thought this might be of interest to readers of this thread.

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