Nov 30, 2018 I Brett Tingley

Free Will, the Future, and Flickers of Light from the Edges of the Universe

Throughout recorded history, philosophers of all types have pondered the question of whether or not human beings actually have any free will. Nearly every religion and philosophical tradition has explored how much agency, if any, human beings have to determine the courses of our own actions. Are we independent beings capable of making our own choices, or are we just singing, dancing balls of matter living out predetermined parts of a complex chemical reaction set in place 13.8 billion years ago?

porque no los dos
Why not both?

Over the last century, advances in quantum physics have only muddied the discussion of the free will question. Cause and effect are no longer linked in a neat one-after-the-other relationship, and the concept of quantum entanglement implies that perhaps our actions are influenced or caused by unseen particles or forces spread out throughout the universe. It’s pretty trippy stuff, and for some, implies that free will is an illusion after all.

A recent study published in Physical Review Letters seems to further squash any hope that we may be able to change our destinies after all. The experiment, titled “Cosmic Bell Test Using Random Measurement Settings from High-Redshift Quasars,” used fluctuations in the light coming from two distant quasars to determine which random (hopefully) measurements would be made on pairs of entangled photons; in theory, these measurements could determine how entangled those photons might be on a quantum level without any shred of humans having influenced the outcome.

quantum snowfall jason padgett
Are we living in a clockwork universe, or a chaos universe?

One quasar was 7.8 billion light years away, the other 12.2 billion years; thus, if some unseen force had already determined the course of the universe and tainted this experiment, that force would have had to have been put in place before those quasars started emitting light billions and billions of years ago. In essence, the experiment sought to determine just how random a set of variables could be by attempting to exclude all contamination from human factors. 

It turns out that the researchers found quantum correlations among more than 30,000 random pairs of variables in the photons, implying that perhaps quantum entanglement is real - or at least very, very old - and that everything may not already be predetermined after all. According to MIT physicist and History of Science professor David Kaiser, the experiment seems to suggest that human beings may actually have agency in the universe:

The Earth is about 4.5 billion years old, so any alternative mechanism -- different from quantum mechanics -- that might have produced our results by exploiting this loophole would've had to be in place long before even there was a planet Earth, let alone an MIT. So we've pushed any alternative explanations back to very early in cosmic history.

If this experiment implies all that the researchers suggest it does, it would mean randomness is still indeed possible in the universe and that all is not predetermined. However, it could also easily be claimed that all this experiment proved is that whatever determined the fate of all matter in the universe is just really, really old. Like Cthulu old.

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These MIT nerds can reassure themselves all they want to that this experiment somehow proves free will, but all I can feel is sheer terror that the fate of every particle in the universe, from those the most distant stars are made of to the ones your farts are made of, might have been set on their courses dozens of billions of years ago. Somehow that terror is reassuring at the same time, though: the universe has it all under control, right?


Brett Tingley

Brett Tingley is a writer and musician living in the ancient Appalachian mountains.

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