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1.30.2005

Grandstanding (or, Why Popular Science Writing Sucks) 

John Conway and Simon Kochen claim to have proved something:


We're not alone in the universe of free will

26.01.05
by Simon Collins

A fascination with children's games has led mathematician John Conway to a mathematical proof of the existence of free will.

Dr Conway, a British-born professor at America's Princeton University, became famous in the maths world in 1970 when he invented a whole new theory of numbers based on simple games.

Six months ago he and a colleague, Simon Kochen, made another breakthrough with a mathematical proof that, if even a single human being can decide freely whether or not to drop a pen on the ground, then every particle in the universe must be able to exercise similar free will.

"This has changed my view of the universe," Dr Conway said yesterday in Auckland, where he will give a public lecture on his new theory tomorrow night.

Touching a desk, he said: "Inside this table are zillions of independent particles. They are taking independent decisions on whether to 'drop the pen'."

(snip)

He and Dr Kochen have taken three basic axioms about the universe, such as the constant speed of light, and concluded mathematically that, if even one person has free will, then all particles must have it too.

In essence, they have proved that there is no possible set of "spins" of the three particles that is consistent with all three axioms, so the only way the universe can exist as we observe it is if the spins of the particles are not predetermined.

On a large scale, the universe is still predictable. A crowd may move in a certain direction, overall. The movements of big objects such as the planets can still be predicted hundreds of years into the future.

"It's only a limited amount of free will these particles have. Nonetheless, that's where my free will comes from. I am made of particles. Somehow, their ability to take these decisions is amplified in my behaviour. So I believe the universe is a wilful place, full of free will."


I think what Conway really means to say is that he's proven that a hidden-variables explanation of quantum mechanics is inconsistent, not that the human mind or "will" or something else can enforce the collapse of quantum mixed states onto pure states. And of course, it's quite a leap to go from the behavior of one quantum particle to the behavior of trillions of particles that must work in concert to decide whether or not to drop the pen. This all assumes that the human nervous system is predicated on quantum-mechanical phenomena, of course.

Conway is completely grandstanding here, but the writer swallows the bait hook, line and sinker.

(HT: Pejman Yousefzadeh)

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