AND THE CASE FOR FREEDOM IN NATURE
C. Robert Mesle
"Life is a bid for freedom." Whitehead, Process and Reality
Are we really free; free to make real choices? Consider this passage from Stephen Hawking’s and Leonard Mlodinow’s 2010 book, The Grand Design.
According to quantum physics, no matter how much information we obtain or how powerful our computing abilities, the outcomes of physical processes cannot be predicted with certainty because they are not determined with certainty. Instead, given the initial state of a system, nature determines its future state through a process that is fundamentally uncertain. In other words, nature does not dictate the outcome of any process or experiment, even in the simplest of situations. Rather, it allows a number of different eventualities, each with a certain likelihood of being realized. …
Quantum physics might seem to undermine the idea that nature is governed by laws, but that is not the case. Instead it leads us to accept a new form of determinism: Given the state of a system at some time, the laws of nature determine the probabilities of various futures and pasts rather than determining the future and past with certainty. (Hawking, 2010, 72 Emphasis original.)
Hawking and Mlodinow clearly describe a central feature of quantum mechanics, that natural law determines a range of probabilities, but not outcomes. Yet, in chapter two, in which they explained the idea of natural law, they assert about humans that “It is hard to imagine how free will can operate if our behavior is determined by physical law, so it seems that we are no more than biological machines and that free will is just an illusion.” (Hawking 32) I believe this is a prime example of the kind of unnecessary incoherence in modern thought which Whitehead rejected.
Early modern scientists and philosophers assumed that there was no freedom in nature, because nature is just a big machine governed by immutable natural laws. Some thinkers struggled to figure out how human beings might be an exception to these laws, but without much success. Only by yanking humans out of the natural world by making us somehow supernatural or transcendental could this work. The problem lay in their whole view of the world. The world, they believed, was made of tiny atoms, like billiard balls. These atoms, being physical, could have no experience, no relationships other than colliding, and hence no freedom. If God knew where every atom was at a single moment, what its mass and speed were and what direction each one was heading, then God would know exactly where each atom would be at any time in the future. Natural law was thought to mean total determination of the future, and hence no freedom.
These assumptions were shaped partly by the Renaissance return to the ancient Greek philosophers, especially Democritus and Leucippus, who first envisioned this deterministic world of dead atoms. But I’m convinced they were also powerfully shaped by the centuries of Christian theology preaching that an omnipotent God unilaterally created the world and determines all events. Thus for early modern philosophers and scientists, determinism was the starting point from both philosophy and religion.
Hawking and Mlodinow, building on a century of experimental work by quantum physicists, point us toward a radically different view of natural law. Natural law does not determine events. It determines probabilities, not outcomes. This is precisely how process relational thinkers view the world (which is no surprise since Whitehead was shaping his worldview at the same time physicists were working out quantum mechanics). The present arises out of the past. The past both provides and limits a range of possibilities and probabilities for the choices to be make in the present, and present choices set the stage for the future. Given the past, many things are possible. The capacity to choose between those possibilities and to actualize them is freedom.
Freedom exists at the quantum level for like electrons, photons, quarks, and the like. But as billions and billions of low level quantum events are thrown together, averages tend to overshadow individual freedom, and the macro world of physical objects operates in a largely deterministic way. Process thinkers argue that it is possible for nature to structure living organisms so that the freedom of the lower individuals is amplified, not overshadowed. That is what That is what life is all about, increasing the range of possibilities and the power to choose between them. As Whitehead said, “Life is a bid for freedom.” If you just want endurance, talk to a rock. If you want novelty and adventure, look to living organisms.
Among the living organism we know of, some degree of freedom seems present in all. The world, especially the living world, is a vast interplay of creatures with slight but increasingly evolved freedoms, creating our shared world together. Yet, humans have evolved to survive in a wide range of environments by being especially able to act with significant freedom, and to envision creative novelty. While freedom is not unique to us (even electrons have it) freedom explodes in human beings, shaping the world in unprecedented ways.
Please bear in mind that freedom is always limited. We are not as completely free as we often think we are. Heredity, environment, and past experiences shape us in unconscious but powerful ways. We are enmeshed in the world of physical push and pull, constantly interacting with the decisions of others, as truly as we are bursting forth, asserting our own vision and choices. Life is a bid for freedom.