A Quantum Statistical Argument for Free Will

By Andy Peisker

The advent of quantum mechanics in the early 20th century and the consequent refutation of determinism as it was hitherto known have spawned renewed interest in the free will debate. Following in the wake of quantum mechanics, philosophers were quick to take advantage of the metaphysical implications of this new theory of physics which condemned the generally accepted deterministic argument against free will to oblivion, and opened the doors to speculation about the possibilities of indeterminism and even libertarianism. Thinkers such as Karl Popper, John Eccles and Erwin Schrodinger were but a few to formulate their own quantum theories of free will, incorporating premises afforded them by developments of their physicist contemporaries. The writer humbly adds his name to the above list with the quantum statistical theory of free will to be detailed in this article. Karl Popper astutely observed a common fallacy committed by opponents of free will during the formulation of his quantum mechanical theory of human decision making. The fallacy was epistemic in nature, namely the false proposition that all actions are either determined or random, and that together these attributes of an action constituted an exhaustive list. Why, Popper asked, should this be the case? Indeed it is a premise that seems to beg the question by assuming the truth of its conclusion, namely that free will is impossible. Popper further asked what real meaning the concept of ‘randomness’ had other than human ignorance of causality, several others including notably Albert Einstein have shared this sentiment. A third possibility could exist, that an action is free, namely it is neither determined nor random. Such an action does not obey any deterministic principle, but is not random as it is under the control of the agent performing it. In other words the agent is able to predict its own actions, however no external agent is able to. The theory I present here will demonstrate that quantum mechanics under the current formulation allows for the existence of free actions as defined above, and furthermore that humans (or any conscious agents) possess the ability to perform free actions, namely they possess libertarian free will. In essence the argument is a reduction ad absurdum of determinism. Under the assumption of determinism within current quantum theory, a contradiction is found which requires its renunciation modus tollens and after furthermore showing that randomness is not an issue, it follows that the action is free. A crucial premise of the argument relies on the quantisation of space, momentum and energy under the laws of quantum mechanics which allow for a finite number of quantum states within a system rather than an uncountably infinite number of states under Newtonian mechanics. The premises of the argument are as follows: 1. The laws of physics are fundamentally deterministic in nature 2. All physical quantities are discretely quantised within a system according to the currently accepted laws of quantum mechanics The first premise may appear peculiar since it implies determinism under quantum mechanics. However it is important to stress that quantum indeterminacy arises purely from Heisenberg’s principle which is a principle concerning measurement error and is not an objective physical property as such; however measurement is not part of the theoretical section of the argument which derives from these premises. In other words, the apparent indeterminacy is due to subjective measurement uncertainty rather than lacking any determinism. Thus we may say that each initial state maps to a (single) final state at a future point in time according to deterministic laws which we know.

For clarity and ease of communication we shall examine the simplest possible 3-dimenstional quantum system, namely a cubic box of side length 𝐿. In this system the quantisation of various physical variables is simplest. According to prevailing theories, space is quantised by virtue of the existence of a shortest possible length known as the Planck Length, given by 𝑙𝑃 = ℎ𝐺 𝑐 3

Space is thus divided into a Planck grid, a three-dimensional uniform lattice with 𝑙𝑃 spacing between lattice points. The energy of the system is determined by the sum total of the energies of individual particles within the system. However these individual energies are quantised according to the wavefunctions of the particles, giving the quantisation condition. Momentum is also quantised according to the relation 𝐸 = Where m is the mass of the particle, or 𝑝 = If the particle is a photon. Since the momenta are quantised this implies the velocities of all massive particles are discretely quantised, according to the wavefunctions of the particles. Let us define 𝑣0 = gcd(𝑣1 , … , 𝑣𝑁𝑣 ) Where 𝑣𝑖 denotes the 𝑖 th smallest velocity in the set of possible velocities of a given particle under quantisation, of which there are 𝑁𝑣 in total1. A quantum state is a particular configuration of all possible permutations of quantities describing the particles within a system. Namely, a quantum state is completely defined by specifying the positions of all particles on the Planck grid, along with their momenta and energies. Because each is discretely quantised, there are a finite number of these quantum states within the system. We would also have sufficient information to determine any future quantum state exactly, since no law of mechanics depends upon derivatives of position higher than the first order. Let us now examine a sub-system of the main system. Again for simplicity’s sake we shall assume the sub-system is cubic with side length 𝑙 < 𝐿. This sub-system can be considered analogous to a human in an evacuated chamber (we would of course provide an oxygen tank within the sub-system!). According to deterministic laws, the sub-system’s future course is specified by its initial state. Thus by knowing all the initial states (which we can, as these are mathematical permutations), we can determine all final states at some specified point in the future. Then by showing that there are more
1 𝑝

2 2𝑚 𝐸


This of course assumes that the 𝑣𝑖 s are rational multiples of each other, else 𝑣0 would not be computible. Fortunately this assumption holds true in simple quantum systems including the one under examination. There is an extension to the argument which considers the possibility of irrational factors between quantised velocities, however it is very involved and will not be detailed here.

possible final states than initial states, there must exist final states which according to quantum mechanics the sub-system cannot enter. However this is clearly a contradiction, since a conscious subsystem (e.g. a human) can enter any final state he chooses to. This argument has a strong correspondence to the consciousness-causes-collapse interpretation of quantum mechanics, which places conscious observers in the universe in a special position and is indeed the basis of many arguments for free which incorporate quantum results. Now let us get into the detail of the argument. Firstly let us shall calculate the number of possible initial states of the sub-system and therefore the system, since the former is the only source of variation within the latter. We shall assume without loss of generality that the sub-system is composed of 𝑁 identical particles of mass 𝑚. Because any particle may within this model be considered an amalgam of a number of smaller particles constituting the same mass, we may consider any real particle to be a combination of an integer number of smaller particles, as long as 𝑚 = gcd(𝑚1 , … , 𝑚𝑘 ), where 𝑚𝑖 denotes the mass of the 𝑖 th particle is the set of all known (massive) particles, of which there are 𝑘. Of course this decomposition is done again for simplicity and ease of illustration however the argument is just as rigorous without it. Thus the possible number of initial states Γ𝑖 is calculated by raising the number of initial states (i.e. positions and velocities) for one particle to the number of particles (this is essentially a quantum partition function). Thus 𝑙 𝑐 Γ𝑖 = 𝑙𝑃 𝑣0


The appearance of the ‘3’ in the exponent arises from the 3 dimensions in which these linear position/velocity spacings can occur. One point of interest is that Γ𝑖 depends not only on the size of the sub-system 𝑙 but also on the main system, since 𝑣0 is implicitly determined by the wavefunctions which depend on 𝐿. We can get a rough dependency according to 𝑣𝑛 = 2𝜋𝑛ℏ 𝑚𝐿 (2)

where 𝑣𝑛 denotes the 𝑛th quantised velocity for a particle in an infinite potential well, which, with small corrections due to particle interactions, is the case here. The important point is the inverse dependence on 𝐿. Taking 𝑣0 to be proportional to the ground state velocity 𝑣1 up to a dimensionless constant 𝛼, we get that 𝐿𝑙 Γ𝑖 = 𝐴𝑃
3𝑁 𝑣

1 = 𝛼𝑣0 Where we define the Peisker area scale as 2𝜋 ℏ3 𝐺 𝑚𝛼 𝑐 5 𝐴𝑃


Now we move to calculating the final state number Γ𝑓 which we see is a trivial matter of replacing the length of the sub-system 𝑙 in the expression for Γ𝑖 with the system length 𝐿. Performing this gives 𝐿

𝑐 Γ𝑓 = 𝑙𝑃 𝑣0 Thus we see that


= 𝐿

2 𝐴𝑃



Γ𝑓 𝐿 𝑟 = = Γ𝑖 𝑙




Which is the desired conclusion. We have thus established at the very least that there are more final quantum states than initial ones, furthermore the ratio of final to initial states looks encouragingly enormous, so at this stage it doesn’t seem futile to plough ahead. I shall here define the final states which do not follow deterministically from initial states as ‘forbidden’ states. The essence of the argument is that if one knows the position/momentum co-ordinates of all final states, then presumably one knows the respective co-ordinates of the forbidden states (since they are complementary within the system), and by entering such a state contradict the assertion that it was deterministically ‘forbidden’, implying modus tollens that either premise 1) or premise 2) is false. However there is a subtle and intricate question which presently needs addressing before we get ahead of ourselves. It concerns the feasibility of how to actually know the whereabouts of these ‘forbidden’ states, indeed if this knowledge is possible at all. It is not sufficient to simply know that there are forbidden states which hypothetically could be entered if we knew where and how. It is metaphysically as good as asserting counterfactually that one could have acted differently in the same situation, which to some seems a sufficient and satisfactory argument for free will, to others epistemic nonsense. For the readers in the latter group it would be grossly inadequate and unfair to cease the discussion here, so we shall tackle the aforementioned issue. If we are to cling to the result in equation (4), then to be certain of entering a forbidden state the subsystem would need to measure the positions of all 𝑁 of its particles and their velocities. The problem associated with this is obvious; for instance taking the sub-system to be a human s/he would need to the positions of all the atoms in his/her body, including those of brain which is performing the measurement. Since a container cannot contain itself (the brain cannot know everything about itself since it would need more substance than it has), we must either rue a paradox or work a bit harder to find a solution. After all, there seems to be a lot of room for compensation given the grotesque proportions of the ratio in (5). A more practical way of determining the entry into a forbidden state is to reduce the amount of information required. What needs to be established is whether the massive number of forbidden states is sufficiently large to compensate for the information lost in reducing the measurement required to know if we have entered one. By reducing measurement, I mean reducing the number of particles whose positions/momenta need to be known, from 𝑁 to a more digestible number, let’s call it 𝑛𝑓 . When 𝑛 is given, the number of final states involving only those 𝑛 particles is given by: 𝐿𝑥 Γ 𝑥, 𝑛 = 𝐴𝑃


This is defined as the number of states function for a given length 𝑥 and number of particles 𝑛, with 𝐴𝑃 defined in (3). Note that the functions Γ𝑖 and Γ𝑓 are mutually identical to Γ and the subscripts are used solely for clarity to distinguish between initial and final states. The number of states function for initial states is defined similarly; the arguments instead being 𝑁 and 𝑙. We are interested in the ratio: 𝑟


Γ(𝑛𝑓 , 𝐿) Γ(𝑁, 𝑙)

In particular to experiment with different values of 𝑛𝑓 , 𝑁, 𝐿 and 𝑙, whilst ensuring 𝑟 > 1, 𝐿 > 𝑙 and 𝑁 > 𝑛𝑓 . If we can get 𝑛𝑓 small enough to be ‘feasible’ whilst maintaining the aforementioned condition then we have succeeded in our task. Explicitly, 𝐿2 𝐴 𝑟 = 𝑃 𝐿𝑙 𝐴𝑃
3𝑛 𝑓 3𝑁 𝐿

3𝑛 𝑓 𝑙 = ∝ 𝐿6𝑛 𝑓 −3𝑁 Γ(𝑁 − 𝑛𝑓 , 𝑙)
1 2

Thus the condition 𝑟 > 1 is met provided 6𝑛𝑓 − 3𝑁 > 0 i.e. 𝑛𝑓 > 𝑁, as 𝐿 can be arbitrarily large. This is a considerable improvement on the previous situation, and is indeed physically feasible, since there is no longer the self-containment paradox. Computability theory will have it that we are now in the clear. The analysis faces a further hurdle however; the theoretical framework avoided the snare of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle however the ‘practicality’ extension cannot as there is measurement involved. In reality the uncertainty principle is simply as unavoidable as death and taxes, but fortunately as it will turn out (unlike the latter two), surmountable. Let us consider an argument from dimensional analysis. The uncertainty principle causes a problem by stipulating the impossibility of knowing simultaneously the position and momentum of a particle to arbitrary precision. Thus a potential issue arises when carrying out the act of measuring a particle’s co-ordinates in position/momentum space to verify its entry into a forbidden state. Dimensionally, as we increase the system size 𝐿, the behaviour of the initial and final state functions is Γ𝑖 𝑁, 𝑙 ∝ 𝐿3 , 𝛤 𝑁, 𝐿 ∝ 𝐿6 𝑓 The 𝐿3 behaviour in Γ𝑖 arises from the linear increase in velocity states in each of 3 dimensions, the extra 𝐿3 contributing to Γ𝑓 ’s functional form come from the added positional states which the subsystem, fixed at size 𝑙, does not inherit. However it need be stated that a more appropriate label for Γ𝑓 is the number of measurable states function, and the 𝐿6 behaviour does not include corrections associated with Heisenberg uncertainty. This adjustment is not necessary for Γ𝑖 since the states described therein are not measured but calculated. HUP indicates that not all 6 degrees of freedom in measurement can be achieved in practice. For instance, we can know the position of a particle to arbitrary precision, but not its momentum. We may, for instance, know the position and two components of the momentum, but the third component would be restricted according to ∆𝑥∆𝑝 > ℏ. Thus we essentially lose one degree of freedom, resulting in a number of final states function with asymptotic behaviour Γ𝑓 ~ 𝐿5 . Thus the states ratio 𝑟 in the asymptotic regime is 𝐿 2𝑛 𝑓 𝑙 𝑟 ~ ∝ 𝐿5𝑛 𝑓 −3𝑁 Γ(𝑁 − 𝑛𝑓 , 𝑙)

meaning we satisfy the condition asymptotically if 𝑛𝑓 > 𝑁 . Once again this is (theoretically) feasible since evidently ∃ 𝑛𝑓 ∶
3 5 5

3 𝑁

< 𝑛𝑓 < 𝑁 , so we can breathe a sigh of relief. Heisenberg may

have given a little more work to do, but it doesn’t change the conclusion. Essentially we are now in a position where we must reject either premise 1) or premise 2), since together they have led to a contradiction, namely the physically deterministic framework they construct breaks down on further analysis, making the system inconsistent. We are left with a choice of rejecting determinism, or rejecting the quantisation property that is the basis of quantum mechanics. Either way we have a strong case for free will, for the determinist argument is either false or needs a radical restructuring in a way which is presently difficult to conceive. For those who accept the argument, there is no need to read further. For those in need of a little more convincing, I offer a concluding argument. I feel that this is necessary because despite being theoretically possible, intuitively it may seem a herculean task computing the co-ordinates of 𝑁
5 3

particles, particularly for a complex system such as a human being, and this intuitive hurdle may understandably prove decisive for some readers. It would be much more intuitively feasible if we only needed to determine the position co-ordinates of, say, just 1 particle. This is a more digestible task, and let us now consider the analysis. Thus far we have only considered a single fixed point in future time by which we defined the final states. Now let us ease this restriction and consider looking at multiple points in the future. We shall find that this considerably decreases our computational load. Firstly let us consider and define a reference object within the sub-system, let us take for argument’s sake a needle. The reason we take a reference object is that is has a distinct structure which differentiates it from the rest of the system, and we can theoretically know everything about the object. Now, since the needle is within the sub-system, and all the initial states of the sub-system are known, it follows that we know all the initial states (i.e. configurations of particles) which include this needle, insofar as the needle is defined as a particular (known) arrangement of particles. Let us now consider this subset of initial states including the reference object. In each of these initial states, we can define a reference point, perhaps most logically the tip of the needle, defined as the particle at the extremum of its spatial extent. We will now trace this reference point along its path through spacetime, measuring its position at multiple points in time. Clearly there are as many possible paths through spacetime for the needle to take as there are initial states involving the needle, and Γ𝑖 𝑁, 𝑙 is an upper bound for this number. Since this number is not a function of time but is fixed, it clearly pales in comparison to the number of geometrically permissible paths, since this grows exponentially with time (given that we have the speed of light as an upper bound, else it would be infinite). Let us now define a ‘forbidden path’ as a series of points which do not simultaneously lie on one of the Γ𝑖 𝑁, 𝑙 predicted paths. The number of final states of the needle tip after the first measurement is Γ𝑓 1, 𝐿 which is less than Γ𝑖 𝑁, 𝑙 , so evidently we cannot stop at this first measurement and be certain to have traversed a ‘forbidden path’. By measuring the tip’s coordinates at multiple points in future time we narrow down the set of possible final states by being increasingly more specific about the path chosen. Eventually we must necessarily take the needle on a path not predicted from the initial states, given there are finitely many predicted ones thus by knowing them all we may deviate from this set. Let us define 𝑡𝑛 as the time of the 𝑛 th measurement, and Γ𝑡 𝑛 𝑁, 𝑙 as the number of final states of the needle predicted at 𝑡𝑛 . Assuming each final state is equally likely (given a long enough time interval) probability theory will give us the result that

Γ𝑡 𝑛 +𝑘 𝑁, 𝑙 =

Γ𝑡 𝑛 𝑁, 𝑙 Γ𝑓 1, 𝐿 k


Since at each step in time we have narrowed down the set of possible final states by a factor Γ𝑓 1, 𝐿 . Note that the assumption of equal probability is only the maximum likelihood estimate and is not strictly true (especially as 𝑛 becomes large), however the result is not actually necessary since all we require is that Γ𝑡 𝑛 𝑁, 𝑙 is a decreasing function of 𝑛, meaning that lim𝑛→∞ Γ𝑡 𝑛 𝑁, 𝑙 = 0, i.e. after sufficient measurements we will have successfully traversed a path which is not within the set of deterministically predicted ones. And clearly it is true that Γ𝑡 𝑛 𝑁, 𝑙 is decreasing in 𝑛, since with each successive measurement we decrease the number of initially predicted paths (of which there are Γ𝑖 𝑁, 𝑙 ) that have intersected exactly with the measured points thus far, by virtue of eliminating those which have strayed elsewhere since the last measurement. A relevant question is just how large 𝑛 must be for the set of possible paths to be eliminated to 0, i.e. how many measurements we need to take to be certain that we have traversed a forbidden path. Mathematically, we require 𝑛 such that Γ𝑡 𝑛 𝑁, 𝑙 < 1 (8)

Taking the maximum likelihood estimate for the stepwise decrease in Γ𝑡 𝑛 𝑁, 𝑙 as expressed in (7) we deduce that for (8) to be true 𝑛 > log Γ𝑖 𝑁, 𝑙 log Γ𝑓 1, 𝐿 ≈ 𝑁 (9)

As would be expected intuitively, the amount of work needed to be done is proportional to the complexity of the system. At last we have arrived at the crucial and, as far as our premises are taken to hold true during the reasoning, rigorous proof that it is possible to knowingly traverse a forbidden path in a quantum system and that modus tollens either free will exists or the arguments against it under the accepted laws of physics need to be drastically revised.

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