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July15, 2009

Vol. 109, No. 16

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Probing free will: A video lecture guide

By Gregg Lange ’70
Posted on July 15, 2009

Simon Kochen, left, and John Conway have devised what they call the “Free Will Theorem.”
Denise Applewhite/Office of Communications
Simon Kochen, left, and John Conway have devised what they call the “Free Will Theorem.”

You may be much closer to the cutting edge of particle physics than you suspect. Just try the following quiz:

  • Do you believe that a justice system designed to impartially establish the facts of the case and punish the guilty is fair?
  • Do you believe in the efficacy of the scientific method (hypothesis, experiment, proof)?
  • Do you agree with Dr. Pangloss (in Voltaire’s Candide) that “all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds”?

If you answered yes, yes, and no to these three questions, then you believe that gluons have free will.

Yes, those tiny elementary particles that make up all molecules along with leptons, photons, neutrinos, and such; actually, if you are free to choose, they all are, too. John Conway and Simon Kochen, professors in Princeton’s math department, proved it three years ago. The way they phrase it is a bit more precise: “If human beings have free will, then elementary particles have free will.” In fact, it even turns out that our free will (if we have it) is most likely a product of our aggregated particles’ free will in the first place. Really.

This spring, Conway presented a series of six lectures in a packed McDonnell Hall to explain this proof to the general public, an unusual habit of his in a field that isn’t big on mass promotion. Conducted in his famed low-key but arresting style, the lectures contain nuggets such as:

  • Why it can’t be proved that free will definitely exists in the first place (a nod to the determinists)
  • How you experimentally establish that a particle has free will: You ask it a question (this has a Dr. Dolittle feel about it)
  • Why the easiest way to conduct the experiment is to send your friend to Mars (blame Einstein)
  • Why free will is different from a random event (in a word, timing)

Videos of the lectures have been posted on the Web, which is fortunate; either the presentations or the mathematical proof are necessary to understand much beyond the simple statement of the theorem. Since the lectures are in six pieces and run more than five hours in total, PAW Online has put together a do-it-yourself guide to enjoying some or all of them, as you freely choose (wink, wink). Here are both a short description of each lecture and some approaches to viewing the material according to your own interests. Enjoy.

The Free Will Theorem – Lecture guide

Lecture 1 – INTRODUCTION. Meet John Conway; hear about Simon Kochen and how the theorem came about. Thoughts on senility. Free will and determinism in science and philosophy over the last two millennia; the implications of Newtonian and quantum mechanics. What Conway and Kochen mean by “free will.” What the theorem does, and doesn’t, imply about behavior. A brief introduction to the three underlying principles of the theorem: SPIN, FIN, and TWIN. The idea of talking to particles, and how it’s like playing 20 questions with your sisters. To view a video of this lecture, click here.

Lecture 2 – THE KOCHEN-SPECKER PARADOX (1967). Measuring a particle’s spin: It tells you. The SPIN axiom, 101 property, and M.C. Escher. Demonstrating the paradox, clarifying Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, disproving Leibniz’s Sufficient Reason. The EPR effect and the TWIN axiom. The FIN axiom and why you need large distances to experimentally test the Free Will Theorem. Why the chair doesn’t spontaneously move.To view a video of this lecture, click here.

Lecture 3 – THE PARADOXES OF RELATIVITY AND ENTANGLEMENT. Review of SPIN and TWIN, which can be operationally demonstrated, and FIN, which can’t. Why the speed of light is independent of the observer. The way time really works. Perceived sequences of events. Experimental ways of implying FIN. Why you can’t go back, kill your own ancestor, and change the time line.To view a video of this lecture, click here.

Lecture 4 – THE PROOF OF THE FREE WILL THEOREM. Frightening people off. The story so far; restating the theorem. Sending your friend and his particle to Mars. The meaning of “free.” Entanglement review: Why twinned particles can’t communicate instantaneously. The proof: disproving the contrary. Strictly locating the free decision: The universe did it!To view a video of this lecture, click here.

Lecture 5 -- SCIENTIFIC CONSEQUENCES. Old news to physicists. Descartes and Leibniz disproved. The Janus universe. Left/right symmetry. Satisfying Curie. Hidden variable theories. Random vs. non-deterministic; backgammon. Random vs. free. Moral responsibility. The state of a particle and collapse. Reduction and the conscious mind. Beyond quantum mechanics. The second time around -- again. To view a video of this lecture, click here.

Lecture 6 – ARGUMENTS FOR FREE WILL. Consistency proofs and truth. Godel and truth. Determinism in philosophy and science departments. Scientific experiments and free will. Surprise and logic. The incompleteness of quantum mechanics. Incomplete theories. The composition of human free will. Ineluctable concepts. Evidence for determinism? Physics, Teddy Roosevelt, time, and free will. Time reversibility.To view a video of this lecture, click here.

The Free Will Theorem – Study strategies

Your exploration of the material will most likely depend on your perceived available time (relative or otherwise), your level of detail fixation, and your willingness to accept de facto Conway and Kochen’s SPIN, TWIN, and FIN axioms. Here are some possible approaches:

Strategy 1 – the Plunger. For the time-constrained Popular Mechanics devotee, watch lecture four and see the proof. Let it motivate you to continue to lectures five and six, or not.

Strategy 2 – the Backgrounder. For the history buff, watch the first 35 minutes of lecture one for a little context, skip to four for the proof, then follow your bliss.

Strategy 3 – the Processor. For one who treasures the journey, watch the first three lectures and see if you can intuit from SPIN, FIN, and TWIN the logic of the theorem as derived from relativity and quantum mechanics. If this satisfies you, feel free to stop.

Strategy 4 – the Bottom Liner. For one at ease with relativity and quantum mechanics and willing to accept the theorem, start on lecture five and continue to the end of six to see Conway’s fascinating take on its implications.

Strategy 5 – the Overachiever. For the compulsive, sharpen lots of No. 2 pencils, watch everything, be sure to rewind every time you drop the descriptive thread, make lots of arrows, prepare a schedule for two complete report drafts before Dean’s Date. Repeat.
Post Comments
13 Responses to Conway Lectures

Mark Kaplowitz '95 Says:

2009-07-21 14:00:24

I'm about to start watching the videos, and chances are that they will leave me with more questions than answers. Does anyone have any suggestions for those who want to read more about Conway and Kochen's theory? Are there any critiques of the theory that we should also keep in mind as we begin to watch the series of lectures?

Donald Tschudy '48 Says:

2009-07-21 14:02:12

Are the Conway lectures available for purchase on DVD? If so, how much for the whole series?

Gregg Lange '70 Says:

2009-07-22 11:20:18

Here's one commentary with some good points, plus attached comments Here's the professors' new writeup of their strengthened theorem (with MIN substituted for FIN) with citations of others' comments

Geoff Canyon Says:

2009-07-28 17:50:52

I haven't watched the lectures yet -- I'm curious to see what Conway's conclusion is. But it seems to me fairly clear that there is no such thing as free will as we perceive it -- just a very very good simulation of it. I wrote about this several months ago:

Jim Newcomer Says:

2009-07-29 04:31:46

What is my problem? It's 1:30 in the morning, and I'm still trying to watch the first lecture. I am getting it in 30-second bites and then waiting while more loads. I get other movies just fine. Is there something I should do? (I downloaded the new Flashplayer for Mac, and it changed nothing - that I could see.)

Dan Says:

2009-08-01 12:16:14

The greatest evidence against determinism is that the more we believe in it the more our lives circle around the drain hole and the less we believe in it the more peculiar we appear for fighting the current.

Jeanette Leuers Says:

2009-10-26 09:30:10

I've watched a couple of the lectures twice, having had no previous 'lecture' experience of this kind, (since circa '60s). I found Conway quaint and funny, and think, maybe, I'll gradually get to understand clearly what he and Kochen are talking about when I've seen all the lectures 3 times each. *Many* thanks to for putting these (and many other) lectures online. Wonderful stuff, guys!

Paul Mason Says:

2009-11-06 05:14:07

I am also getting very broken up play on my Mac. Could you please suggest a fix.

Don Carey '51 Says:

2009-11-09 13:56:40

Are transcripts available?

John Waterman Says:

2010-01-29 08:54:45

These are also available through iTunes U. Just search Conway

David Hawkins Says:

2010-11-15 09:29:04

Conway seems like a really nice guy, but I think he could benefit from hearing a lecture by a 20-year-old philosophy student. I did very much like a few of his analogies at the beginning of the lecture though. His choice of words was often confusing and his ideas seemed ambiguous. I know next to nothing about determinism, but I recently watched a lecture by Daniel Dennett that was far easier to understand. Dennett is a compatiblist. Here is a link if anyone is interested...

Robin Wison Says:

2011-04-04 09:34:08

Conway is a wonderful mathematician, but there's a deep problem to this sort of thing. People somteimes say that Saint Anselm proved that God exists. However, what he really did was prove that IF you set up a language framed in a particular way, THEN within that framework it is meaningless to speak of God as not existing. But that says nothing about God because the question of his existence cannot depend on the rules we choose for langauge. Centuries later, A.J. Ayer came along and made a similarly limited contribution. He showed that he could frame a language so that it was meaningless to speak of God as existing. What Conway and Kochen are doing is showing that IF you frame a language (or a notation, or a calculus) in a particular way THEN even a neutrino must have free will. That is a statement that makes sense WITHIN their chosen framework. But most of us actually LIVE elsewhere. They are mistaking their particular description of the world for the world itself. It may not be true or meaningful in the real world. God probably doesn't care about our choice of language, anymore than a neutrino does.

Leonardo F. Olsnes-Lea Says:

2011-07-14 09:25:08

My opinions on the Free Will Theorem: I think it requires complexity of heavier bodies of matter for free will to obtain. The Wikipedia page has a criticism of them as a part of presenting the Free Will Theorem. The url to it is this: Fx. a stream of photons of visible light can only do that much when speeding away from the Sun. There is no evidence that the stream of photons can change anything in particular, let's say direction, compensating for some gravity. See Einstein's relativity for gravity effects on photons. Also, complexity should be required for the decision for choosing between pleasure and relaxation and exercise and feeding and hunt. Although, these properties are only present with animals and ourselves, the humans. So unless a bigger body is chosen and the choices are somehow explicated, I think "undetermined" is too weak for giving any plausibility to it, or credibility for that matter. I think, though, that the Dr. Dick Bierman experiments of Holland show that "monades" are likely to obtain in a fundamental way, in line with the Free Will Theorem by John Conway and Simon Kochen, rather than an unknown mechanism that may be impossible to find. This is a warning to future experimenters (the physicists). The conclusion must be that a bigger system is effectuating the free will existing everywhere, whether you call it God or some strange unknown super entity of the Universe / Multiverse or whatever. A note may be added for where this significant free will enter the "Earth's System." I think one can evaluate the whole span from organisms (with genes) to organisms with brains and sensing organs like eyes, ears, nose, tongue. In addition, you may cut the brainy sensing organisms in two by the (classic) mirror test. All in all, all these beings can or should be investigated for what degrees they "step out of" a bound chain of events to display free will, in little or greater degrees.
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