Among the greatest mysteries of the universe — dark matter and God, singularities and the beginning of time — there is the question of free will. It is an essential aspect of the human experience, this needing to have control over one’s own destiny and this feeling that all our decisions do matter. Free will contributes to the idea that the future is as yet unwritten and there is still room to create whatever world we want for ourselves. There have been philosophical debates and there have been neurological debates over whether or not we can make conscious decisions.
Perhaps the most famous neurological experiment was that of Benjamin Libet: participants were asked to press a button and, using a timer, make note of when they first made the conscious decision to move. Electrodes attached to their heads would meanwhile monitor the participant’s brain activity. Results showed that unconscious brain activity made the decision to press the button about half a second before the conscious decision was made, meaning that our brains make choices which we later tell ourselves were conscious and deliberate. Though the experiment is controversial, it is also widely-cited and often used as evidence against free will.
However, there is something even more fundamental than biology. There is something even more fundamental than our philosophical debates. It is nature itself, and the laws which govern it. We could not have philosophy without first biology, and we could not have either without the particular physics of our universe. Do the laws of our world even allow for something like free will to exist?
There are just two answers given to us by physics. Neither will be easy to accept.
There are two answers because there are two main pillars of physics: relativity and quantum mechanics. The ultimate goal is, of course, to reconcile the two but nonetheless both theories have been highly successful and reliable for understanding our world. So what does Einstein’s relativity teach us about the universe? It teaches us that it is…