Sabine Hossenfelder on Free Will

Sabine Hossenfelder today explained why we have no free will and why we shouldn’t worry about it.

She’s right but she missed an important piece of the story.

A quick summary of her essay is that our brain is a computer made of particles governed by the laws of physics that inputs our current state and calculates a decision for what we will do next. Because we don’t know the result of the calculation before it completes, we interpret this as free will, when in fact a computer has no free will.

What’s the main app in our computer? Hossenfelder says it’s to “optimize our well-being”.

Most students of human overshoot would refine Hossenfelder’s description of our main app as the Maximum Power Principle (MPP), which creates our dominant behaviors like status seeking and desiring sex/children.

Varki’s MORT theory adds an important real-time interrupt handler which terminates any calculation that produces an unpleasant result, especially those results that conflict with what the MPP app wants to do.

How else can you explain that elections never even whisper about the elephants in the room like overshoot, resource depletion, ecosystem collapse, debt bubbles, etc.

Not even a whisper. It’s amazing.

These deterministic laws of nature apply to you and your brain because you are made of particles, and what happens with you is a consequence of what happens with those particles. A lot of people seem to think this is a philosophical position. They call it “materialism” or “reductionism” and think that giving it a name that ends on –ism is an excuse to not believe it. Well, of course you can insist to just not believe reductionism is correct. But this is denying scientific evidence. We do not guess, we know that brains are made of particles. And we do not guess, we know, that we can derive from the laws for the constituents what the whole object does. If you make a claim to the contrary, you are contradicting well-established science. I can’t prevent you from denying scientific evidence, but I can tell you that this way you will never understand how the universe really works.

The reason this idea of free will turns out to be incompatible with the laws of nature is that it never made sense in the first place. You see, that thing you call “free will” should in some sense allow you to choose what you want. But then it’s either determined by what you want, in which case it’s not free, or it’s not determined, in which case it’s not a will.

Now, some have tried to define free will by the “ability to have done otherwise”. But that’s just empty words. If you did one thing, there is no evidence you could have done something else because, well, you didn’t. Really there is always only your fantasy of having done otherwise.

If it causes you cognitive dissonance to acknowledge you believe in something that doesn’t exist, I suggest that you think of your life as a story which has not yet been told. You are equipped with a thinking apparatus that you use to collect information and act on what you have learned from this. The result of that thinking is determined, but you still have to do the thinking. That’s your task. That’s why you are here. I am curious to see what will come out of your thinking, and you should be curious about it too.

Why am I telling you this? Because I think that people who do not understand that free will is an illusion underestimate how much their decisions are influenced by the information they are exposed to. After watching this video, I hope, some of you will realize that to make the best of your thinking apparatus, you need to understand how it works, and pay more attention to cognitive biases and logical fallacies.

184 thoughts on “Sabine Hossenfelder on Free Will”

  1. This video by financial advisors discussing how to profit from policies to hold climate change at 2 degrees is fascinating. Each is fully confident in their views. Not one is correct nor has a clue what is going on. These people run our world.

    Denial is amazing!


    1. Probably a part-time university professor (beard) putting together new curriculum for next semester’s class “Introduction to Life”.


  2. You know you’re in trouble when….

    One group of “experts” is warning of a debt crisis, while another group is warning of a crisis if we don’t create more debt, and a third group who can’t even spell “Bretton Woods” thinks gold is money and debt is lies.

    h/t Robert Firth


  3. Hossenfelder hammers her fellow physicists again…

    I like her because what she’s really doing is unmasking reality denial.

    What ticked me off this time was a comment published in Nature Physics, by CERN Director-General Fabiola Gianotti and Gian Giudice, who is Head of CERN’s Theory Department. It’s called a comment, but what it really is is an advertisement. It’s a sales pitch for their next larger collider for which they need, well, a few dozen billion Euro. We don’t know exactly because they are not telling us how expensive it would be to actually run the thing. When it comes to the question what the new mega collider could do for science, they explain:

    “A good example of a guaranteed result is dark matter. A proton collider operating at energies around 100 TeV [that’s the energy of the planned larger collider] will conclusively probe the existence of weakly interacting dark-matter particles of thermal origin. This will lead either to a sensational discovery or to an experimental exclusion that will profoundly influence both particle physics and astrophysics.”

    Let me unwrap this for you. The claim that dark matter is a guaranteed result, followed by weasel words about weakly interacting and thermal origin, is the physics equivalent of claiming “We will develop a new drug with the guaranteed result of curing cancer” followed by weasel words to explain, well, actually it will cure a type of cancer that exists only theoretically and has never been observed in reality. That’s how “guaranteed” this supposed dark matter result is. They guarantee to rule out some very specific hypotheses for dark matter that we have no reason to think are correct in the first place.

    But look, they refuse to learn from evidence. And someone has to point it out: The evidence clearly says their methods are not working. Their methods have led to thousands of wrong predictions. Scientists should learn from failure. Particle physicists refuse to learn.

    Particle physicists, of course, are entirely ignoring my criticism and instead call me “anti-science”. Let that sink in for a moment. They call me “anti-science” because I say we should think about where to best invest science funding, and if you do a risk-benefit assessment it is clear that building a bigger collider is not currently a good investment. It is both high risk and low benefit. We would be better off if we’d instead invest in the foundations of quantum mechanics and astroparticle physics. They call me “anti-science” because I ask scientists to think. You can’t make up this shit.

    Frankly, the way that particle physicists behave makes me feel embarrassed I ever had anything to do with their field.


    1. A new scientific truth does not generally triumph by persuading its opponents and getting them to admit their errors, but rather by its opponents gradually dying out and giving way to a new generation that is raised on it. –Max Planck

      New science blooms after star researchers die

      “Now a new study co-authored by MIT economist Pierre Azoulay, an expert on the dynamics of scientific research, concludes that Planck was right. In many areas of the life sciences, at least, the deaths of prominent researchers are often followed by a surge in highly cited research by newcomers to those fields.

      Indeed, when star scientists die, their subfields see a subsequent 8.6 percent increase, on average, of articles by researchers who have not previously collaborated with those star scientists. Moreover, those papers published by the newcomers to these fields are much more likely to be influential and highly cited than other pieces of research.

      “The conclusion of this paper is not that stars are bad,” says Azoulay, who has co-authored a new paper detailing the study’s findings. “It’s just that, once safely ensconsed at the top of their fields, maybe they tend to overstay their welcome.”

      Priests and pharisees


  4. Turbulent era sparked leap in human behavior, adaptability 320,000 years ago

    “The first analysis of a new sedimentary drill core representing 1 million years of environmental history in the East African Rift Valley shows that at the same time early humans were abandoning old tools in favor of more sophisticated technology and broadening their trade networks, their landscape was experiencing frequent fluctuations in vegetation and water supply that made resources less reliably available. The findings suggest that instability in their surrounding climate, land and ecosystem was a key driver in the development of new traits and behaviors underpinning human adaptability.”

    “We come from a family tree that’s diverse, but all of those other ways of being human are now extinct. There’s only one of us left, and we may well be the most adaptable species that may have ever existed on the face of the Earth.”

    Most adaptable? I think not. Horeshoe crabs -540 million years, Nautiluses & Jelly fish – 500 million years . They have survived the previous 6 mass extinctions (yes 6) & all the lesser ones. They may yet survive the Megacancer mass extinction (7th). I doubt the humans will.

    A New Mass Extinction Event Has Been Discovered, And It Triggered The Rise of Dinosaurs

    “Huge volcanic eruptions 233 million years ago pumped carbon dioxide, methane, and water vapour into the atmosphere. This series of violent explosions, on what we now know as the west coast of Canada, led to massive global warming.

    Our new research has revealed that this was a planet-changing mass extinction event that killed off many of the dominant tetrapods and heralded the dawn of the dinosaurs.”

    Hothouse extinctions, mass & lesser, appear to be the norm on planet meat grinder. Volcanism or a rapacious, carbon digging & burning ape – the physics & chemistry are the same.


    1. The first paragraph is consistent with what you and others keep telling me whenever I talk about trying to break through our tendency to deny reality: we only change when forced.

      Unfortunately this time when we’re forced to change it’s going to be really severe. If we’d wake the fuck up and stop denying reality there’s some useful things we could be doing with the energy we have left. Like saving some of it for the future. Energy is everything and we take it for granted. Idiots in denial, all of us.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank goodness it’s not too late. We’ve got at least a couple years to re-freeze the Arctic.

      I remember 1o years ago climate scientists I respected saying that if we lose the Arctic it’s game over. Don’t hear that as often these days, or maybe I’ve become numb.


  5. Hey Rob check this interview of Richard manning and see what he says at 51:35.
    He says we are not denying climate change, we are denying death and I am not sure he has read Varki’s book. He probably came to this conclusion on his own which further gives credence to the theory. What are your thoughts?


    1. It’s true that most people deny death, but I don’t think climate change denial is the same thing for most people.

      I suspect there are 2 main groups of people:

      One group is the 95% of the population that doesn’t really understand the science or the severity of the problem. They see bad things happening with the weather, but they also hear on the news that countries have signed an agreement to prevent the temperature from rising more than 2 degrees, and they see neighbors buying solar panels and electric cars, which they’re told by experts are solutions to climate change, so their optimism bias that comes from genetic reality denial leads them to conclude that the climate problem is being addressed, and they put it out of mind.

      The other group is the 5% that does understand the science and the severity of climate change. These people have enough intelligence and education to conclude that we are already screwed regardless of what we do, and that any effective mitigation effort must involve a rapid decrease in population and/or per capita consumption. It is within this group that genetic denial of unpleasant realities is operating in full force. Most of these experts genuinely believe that climate change can be safely constrained, and economic growth can continue, by replacing fossil energy with solar/wind energy and by using machines to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. These beliefs are so absurd, and so contrary to basic high school level science, that there can be no other explanation than genetic realty denial. In this group, maybe it is death that is the main thing being denied.


      1. I agree with you and I suspect that Manning’s last comment is meant for the latter 5% because the other 95% won’t even make it till there.

        That raises another important issue which has to do with whether it is right to pull someone from blissful ignorance and bring them into the doomer group, especially if they are in their 20s. This could push them into depression as they realize that everything they have been told about the world is essentially just a cultural construct detached from reality of physics and thermodynamics. It would cause them to lose a sense of purpose. It seems almost cruel to inflict this on someone. For someone who is in their 60s or 70s it would be a little easier.


        1. How does that work? How do you pull someone from blissful ignorance and bring them into the doomer group?

          If a doomer truly has the power to push 20 somethings into depression, make them believe that everything they have been told about the world is essentially just a cultural construct detached from reality of physics and thermodynamics & cause them to lose a sense of purpose & they used their Jedi doomer powers on the ignorant for the sole purpose of inflicting pain, then I would agree – that would be cruel. Only no such powers exist.

          I’ve heard this red herring before by the anti Guy McPherson/NTHE gang (Mike Mann, Scott Johnson at Ars Technica, C-realm, et al) after doomer Mike Rupert ate his gun. I challenged them all by pointing out that Mike Rupert had suffered from depression & bouts of suicidal ideation for a long time. Rupert made no secret of it publicly (blog & podcast) & a number of his real world friends mentioned it after his death. Moreover Rupert was a former cop in LA, so he saw the worst of humans (eg:tortured & murdered babies) which is why police have higher suicide rates. Cops & ex-cops almost always suicide by gun. None of these ass holes responded back after I pointed these factors out, because none of them gave a fuck about Rupert or the truth. They were just using him for their anti-doomer campaign, which is about their own fears, hang ups, progressive politics & worldview. I was not a big Rupert fan, but I can spot when the living & their agendas are pissing on the dead.

          Progressives love to play the concern (for others) card when it’s just another status-power booster. Same as the religious, only they claim it’s to save your soul instead. Either way if you don’t believe as they believe, bad things will happen.

          Remember kids, stay safe – NEVER TALK TO DOOMERS OR GET IN THEIR CARS

          Doom away Kira. If any 20 somethings off themselves because you shared a link with them to, it ain’t on you (Rob’s fault;). Being born & raised in 21st century America (most toxic culture in history) accounts for most suicide.


          1. “How do you pull someone from blissful ignorance and bring them into the doomer group?”

            Instead of trying to force people to take a more realistic view of the real world, which is likely to be counterproductive at best, we can present them a simple choice, just as Morpheus did for Neo in the film version of the Matrix. They can choose to be shown the greater reality, or if they don’t have the right stuff, they can choose to remain forever in the delusion.

            The Matrix that now enslaves the majority of the population is powered by consumerism, and the relentless propaganda it uses to dumb the people down, to make them politically docile, and to make them unwittingly serve the system of real power, which they do by excessive consumption of its goods and services – even if they don’t need them and won’t actually benefit from consuming them, indeed most doing terrible harm to themselves and their society – as well as carrying as much debt as they can possibly manage – even if it means lifelong insecurity and stress.

            The process of consumerisation of the people is driven by exploitation of vanity, and the more that people are immersed in consumerist propaganda, the more ignorant and docile they become, and the more that empty headed vanity drives all of their decisions and behaviours. They become nothing but consumerist drones.

            So, the option to present to them is whether or not they are willing to see how and why consumerism controls them. If they decide they can handle it, then all they need to do is spend a few hours watching the brilliant BBC documentary series “The Century of the Self” on YouTube.

            There are transcripts of the first two videos here if people prefer to speed read:

            Consumerism is a subtle form of fascism designed to control the behaviour of the so called the masses, the non-elites whose only function is to serve the system of power, consume its goods and services, carry its debts, fight its wars, and look the other way when it commits atrocities against people and the planet.

            Consumer-fascism even has the same roots as the nationalist fascism that arose in Germany and Italy and elsewhere, as people with the right stuff will find out when they watch the videos.

            Just because people can free themselves from the Consumerist Matrix by understanding how the propaganda misleads and controls them, as well as knowing why this was done to them in the first place, doesn’t mean they will necessarily become so called doomers.

            There are solutions to the complex web of crises bearing down on industrialised human civilisation and the natural world that makes it possible, so there are many who will instead become constructive collaborators on all sorts of sustainability groups and projects around the world.

            Just because you are free from one delusion doesn’t mean you have to fall into another one. A pragmatic view of the real world and an understanding of the empirical systems solutions available are enough to maintain psychological equilibrium, so no pessimism or optimism is necessary.


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